Changing 4E Monster Hit Points

Our house roles are the kinds of things that pop up organically. We don’t sit down at the beginning of the campaign and say “rolling a 20 on your critical confirmation roll has a chance to kill an enemy outright, because I want that to be a thing and the game doesn’t do it by default”. Instead we see something happen, decide it would be neat if the rules reacted to it, and over time reinforce that expectation. Most of the time these fall into two categories: rewarding the players for doing something neat (my players know rolling all sevens on something is a big deal, and we’ve used the charge rules in several ways that were clearly not intended) or adding something to fill a perceived gap (like our secondary skills). Very rarely do we create a house rule to take something away. Normally we prefer to resolve that by talking with the players, instead of outright banning something overpowered, or reskinning, instead of banning something that violates the feel of the campaign.

So it’s interesting that we’ve been removing something essential from our monsters in 4E: hit points. Starting in the One Piece campaign our group has cut three hit points plus three per level from every standard (non-elite, non-solo) monster. That is:

Standard Modified
Skirmisher 8 + Con + (level x 8) 5 + Con + (level x 5)
Brute 10 + Con + (level x 10) 7 + Con + (level x 7)
Soldier 8 + Con + (level x 8) 5 + Con + (level x 5)
Lurker 6 + Con + (level x 6) 3 + Con + (level x 3)
Controller 8 + Con + (level x 8) 5 + Con + (level x 5)
Artillery 6 + Con + (level x 6) 3 + Con + (level x 3)

There are several reasons for this, applicable both to our specific meta and to the meta of 4E in general. The biggest reason is how it changes the pacing of a day. Major arcs in the One Piece campaign involved several fights without long rests in a single location, usually punctuated by one or more boss fights. 4E has a pretty hard limit on how much punishment a party can take in a day: all other expendable resources aside, when a party is out of healing surges they largely can’t fight any more. Encounters are expected to consume slightly less than one-fifth of a party’s resources, so a party can fight five times a day but probably not six. That meant we could have three standard encounters, a miniboss, and a boss. It’s fine for a normal dungeon, but not for an arc-ending, four-session-long climax.

The books don’t really cover how to deal with long days because they rarely discuss and barely acknowledge a world outside the game’s design and testing scope. By extrapolating from their advice on long fights, we can say they expect long days to work via intermediate rests, longer than short but shorter than long. Maybe the party can hole up in a storage closet, catch their breath for an hour or two, and gain back two healing surges and one daily power but no more. That’s fine, but it encourages the player to take several of these rests, engineering them whenever possible, instead of splitting them up narratively. It also only works for certain situations. The Zelda campaign’s long days were in the middle of dungeons where “sit and wait for a while” wasn’t an acceptable solution.

We went about it the other way; instead of making the players’ resources deeper, we made encounters easier. The simplest way to do this is by lowering monster hit points. We could have lowered attack, damage, or defenses, but that leads to DM frustration and makes individual creatures feel less dangerous. A lower hit point value makes the monster just as scary, but for less time. The players can kill it quickly so it doesn’t spend eight rounds assaulting them, then move on. It also let us keep the same number of monsters in an encounter so our fight design wasn’t limited by an artificial head count, and it let us be more clever with those monsters because we knew the players could focus-fire truly perilous creatures more effectively.

Consider the end of this campaign, when the players and most monsters were L19-20. That meant each creature had about 60 fewer hit points than typical monsters. That’s two hits from the party’s blackguard, or three to four from the swordmage, and anywhere in that range from the ranger with multiple attacks, assuming all attacks hit. That’s two fewer rounds the blackguard had to spend in pitched solo combat against the enemy brute, which is two fewer rounds of attacks she had to take, which is two fewer rounds of healing she needs after the battle, and two more rounds crossing the battlefield and assisting with other monsters. In making the fights faster and easier we accidentally made them more dynamic; like players, monsters spent more time using their big guns and less on at-wills, and the battlefield changed more often as they disappeared.

This had a pronounced effect on table feel. Fights went so fast we frequently had two per session and occasionally three on top of our typical talking, exploration, and puzzles. Players used encounter powers more often, so they got more value out of those frequent, signature attacks and spent less time in the “nothing left but at-wills” state. They used daily powers less, often only once in three or four sessions, which made them feel more significant without changing a thing about them and let the players have bigger spikes by changing the average around them. And since we left elites and solos alone, they felt even more significant than before, closer to the climactic battles we wanted.

One reason this worked is because we already have a healthy disrespect for D&D as written. I haven’t awarded a point of experience in almost eight years. Instead we usually award level gains at the ends of arcs (or, in this campaign, whenever the party beat a boss or collected four Heart Pieces). Because of this we don’t know or care how our changes affected the XP budget. It’s why there’s no XP amount in a monster’s header in my Monster Manual.

In the Zelda campaign I also often gave the party fewer enemies in a combat, which made them faster still and gave them that feeling of “always fighting” you can in the games but can’t manage in D&D. Like in a video game the monsters’ job wasn’t to be a serious, life-or-death struggle in every room. They were there to give the feel of a Zelda game, to explain the theme of the dungeon, and to whittle away at party resources so the players didn’t notice they were running low until the boss music started. Further, it meant I could have monsters as simple as their source material warranted. Players notice when a monster has spent six rounds using just one attack. They’re a lot more forgiving of a monster with only two powers when that monster isn’t around for very long, especially if those powers are both instantly recognizable.

All told this change has been great for our sessions, our DMing, and our story pacing. It is, however, a 4E-specific change. In order to make things a little easier on myself in my next campaign, I’m going to have to approach monster design in a different way, which I’ll talk about soon.

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Campaign Report – Monsters

The monsters for this campaign were weird. When I started in 4E, I wanted to make as many creatures as possible on my own. I didn’t trust the official monsters to be able to do all the things I needed, and I wanted to take advantage of how free-form monster design was in the new system. But as the campaign went on, I found myself with less time to build monsters and less enthusiasm for working in a space that was at once numerically restrictive and narratively overly permissible. Instead I got into reskinning, using published monsters in ways their designers clearly did not intend.

I expected to do much the same thing for the Zelda campaign, because monsters in video games are all about taking narrow sets of actions (move in four directions, damage the player on collision, sometimes shoot a laser) and applying them in several ways. But this time I found published monsters didn’t work at all because they didn’t accurately mimic the originals. Instead of looking for monsters based on their function, I was looking for them based on their feel and how closely they matched an existing target. I could reskin basically nothing, and I had to design almost every monster in the campaign from scratch.

So now that I’m basically sitting on a fifty-page custom Monster Manual, I figure I might as well make it available to anybody who wants it. Everything in here is a Zelda creature except for the dungeon bosses, but I don’t have pictures for obvious copyright reasons. You may need to take a trip to the Zelda Wiki, which has basically been my home page for two years, to find out what the more esoteric monsters are.

In going through this, I found that I actually lost the entire stat block for one creature, the boss of the Skytree Tower. It’s not even in the backup file I made one month after the fight. Still, if I designed 152 monsters and I have notes for 151 of them, that’s a pretty good record.

If I were to do this again, I would have put more weaknesses on monsters corresponding to the item in each dungeon. I did this a few times early, but not often enough as the campaign went on. I spent most of that energy making sure each item was required for the boss battle and the dungeon puzzles. I also should have done more in the way of slashing, piercing, and bludgeoning damage, something we carried over from 3E. Zelda games have several monsters resistant or vulnerable to swords, bows, or blunt objects like shields and pots. I think I fell out of it around the time we got a character whose primary damage type was “chicken” without further clarification; once things got that wacky, inventing ways to leverage it wasn’t rewarding any more.

But the biggest reason was completely cosmetic: new powers and resistances would have taken up more lines on the page, and I really wanted to squeeze in as many monsters as possible without flipping back and forth through the document during combat. That may not come through because converting the file from OpenOffice to a Word document ruined my margins and section breaks, but in the original file it makes total sense.

The mathematically observant will notice that monster hit points are usually wrong. That’s intentional, and I’ll talk about it next time.

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Campaign Report – King Thistle

Dungeons and items are important to a Zelda campaign, but they aren’t enough. A D&D game with dungeons is just a typical D&D game, and even one with a Hookshot is a typical D&D game with an allusion. But if that dungeon is filled with moblins, with a giant octorok guarding the Hookshot and a gleeok at the end, now it feels right. Monsters, especially bosses, are the pacing spikes that make a dungeon exciting. I could talk about every boss fight in the campaign to explain what made them fun and Zelda-esque, but that’s probably fairly boring and I absolutely do not have the rights to post the art I used for them. Instead I want to talk about the one fight where I can post pictures.

We started the campaign with five players, but that dropped to four almost immediately. One player’s night suddenly became unavailable, so we had to write out his spinning (reskinned wild shaping) Deku (plant-person) merchant prince during our second session. He valiantly sacrificed himself in the midst of a battle I balanced terribly, saving the party ranger from the first of many incredibly dire situations. He transferred his life energy to the ranger, somehow, and disappeared forever.

Some time later the player came back, his schedule again free, and joined as a new character. This lasted for several months, during which I made a change to the campaign meta. I’d originally intended to give the players access to the energies from Ocarina of Time: light, forest, fire, water, spirit, and shadow. I think I intended for the campaign villain to get whichever one the players didn’t pick, but I changed my mind regarding who the villain was and what his motivations were. I expanded the list to include all of the things people could be Sages of, adding time, wind, and earth. The villain didn’t need or want any of these energies, and he gained three followers who wanted them instead.

This left me with a conundrum, in that I had five players and three villains but nine energies to distribute. The one nobody wanted was water, so I had to come up with a water-based villain…and then I remembered Prince Thistle, a plant creature who blew bubbles and loved money (that is, he wanted liquid funds. Liquid? Water? I’ll see myself out.)

So Prince King Thistle joined the bad guys as a powerful but mostly mindless pesudo-zombie antagonist, and I added him to the list of final dungeon mini-bosses. But since he was an unusual character with an unusual history who joined the bad guys in an unusual way, I wanted to do something different with him. It also helped that the last time we saw him fight he was an L3 druid, and that’s hard to translate to an L20 solo boss. I talked it over with his former player, and we agreed Thistle really merited some sort of skill challenge instead of a battle proper, not only to get over how strange he was in the context of the campaign but also to break things up a bit in the midst of some heavy fighting. He needed to be a complete departure from the rest of the dungeon.

I’m not sure how I made the cognitive leap that followed. Maybe I reasoned that the thing most different from a game is something outside the game, maybe I wanted a way to represent the massive scale of the fight, or maybe I just saw a few Zelda videos online and got inspired. But over a few weeks, I put together the King Thistle boss fight in Minecraft.

 
 
 
 

I set up a local Minecraft server and tweaked the game to let a person with no account join it, so we could have all five of us in the level. Players jumped around, destroyed blocks, solved puzzles, traded items by throwing them at each other, and generally worked separately but simultaneously in a pretty nonstandard boss fight. It helped that of my four players (Thistle’s player left again, under different circumstances), three play Minecraft regularly. I disabled enemies to lower the stress level, told the players that their rough goal was to collect diamonds and put them at the top of the room, and mostly just sat back. The rest of the session was basically letting the players explore, watching them subvert the intended puzzles as much as possible, and teleporting them when they had an excuse to get to a particular place faster than walking.

After they completed the dungeon and defeated King Thistle, I gave them what any player would want in such circumstances: fifteen minutes to explore and destroy the tree in Creative mode. Which, I suppose, is technically what I’m doing by posting the map online. You can get it here.

Several parts of the map won’t work as intended for you because they require manual intervention. I put the pressure plates to enable the teleporting “launch flowers”, but I can’t automatically make the fire arrows destroy leaves, make the Mirror Shield reflect sunlight to grow the tree saplings, or have a Cane of Somaria that actually creates and removes blocks. That’s all either beyond my skill as a map creator or beyond the time I had to create them. If I was to really get into this I’d have command blocks that test for the presence of an item and react accordingly, like a teleport that would only work if you had the Deku Leaf equipped so you could glide to another branch. But hiding those command blocks requires some finagling with the structure of the tree and its puzzles, and I wasn’t willing to put in that much effort to have the map do something automatically when I knew I’d be there to do it myself. If I got it in my head to make a Zelda-themed adventure map, I’d set up things like that to run a lot more smoothly.

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Campaign Report – Feelies

Zelda games are about items, second only to dungeons. Without a vast inventory contained inside improbably spacious pants, a Zelda game is more like Mario, where you use a limited, static set of options to deal with ever-expanding problems. So additional to the campaign maps, I also created a few other things for the players to handle in the real world.

Item Cards

The most important thing was giving players physical objects to represent the items they collected. You can usually tell a player “it’s a +1 flaming greataxe” without further clarification, but when you say “they’re gloves that give you a bonus to Strength checks, but not Strength-based skill checks, but they also have a power that gives a higher bonus to both Strength checks and Strength-based skill checks”, everybody could use a written reminder. My players really enjoyed trading the cards to indicate who had what item at what time, and I enjoyed not needing to remember what item did what either. Near the end of the campaign I happened upon Zelda Yahtzee, and by happenstance the chest was just about the perfect size to hold an item card, so that became our preferred method of revealing a new item, particularly when accompanied by the “opening a chest” music from Ocarina of Time.

Ball Toss Minigame

Most Zelda games have mini games, and several of them require some sort of player ability like planning, accuracy, or the patience of a saint. The items above aren’t intended to help with these; a hookshot is great but it won’t help in the archery challenge, where the player has to quickly aim and shoot at moving targets. In keeping with the theme I wanted some games to challenge my players’ manual dexterity. Enter the Hastily Duck-Taped Tic-Tac-Toe Box. Players had to stand some distance away and toss balls into the box, trying to get three in a row. In a perfect world I would have had some sort of backing to let near misses roll into one of the wells, but I couldn’t get one that could stand up to a flying ball in the time and with the resources I had available.

Disk Shooting Minigame

I did eventually find projectile launchers I could tolerate: guns that launched foam discs. With them in hand I made another carnival game, this time asking players to shoot at the board and land discs in wells for points. The challenge here was more that the guns had a remarkable tendency to shoot in a random direction within a forward arc, and there quickly emerged a pitched battle between the kneeling, two-handed, meticulous aiming strategy and the “slamming the trigger to shotgun out as many discs as possible in two seconds” strategy. The latter won.

Fishing Minigame

I spent the longest time trying to figure out how to do a fishing game. My first and longest-lasting idea was to make cards, attach magnets to them, give the players a magnetic fishing hook, and have them cast their lure into a pile of cards to see what stuck. The only reason I didn’t do that was the logistics of having a pile of magnets in the middle of a table with several computers, keeping them from sticking to each other but making sure they did stick to a different magnet swung around the room. It seemed unlikely it would work as planned. We ended up with a game of memory, where players made skill checks to determine how many times a fish bit on the line, and each bite let them flip over two cards. If they made a match, they caught that fish.

Block of Somaria

It’s just a one-inch wooden block. We have a surprisingly heavy box of them for terrain building (I call it the blox bocks). This one mattered because it’s the block that went down whenever a player used the Cane of Somaria, which places a physical block on the battlefield. Since the characters can push, throw, climb and otherwise manipulate the block, it needed a prop. The one on the left is how it looked for much of the campaign. The one on the right it how it looked when I stopped being lazy and made it look more like the original.

Foam Block Puzzles

Remember this guy? In the final dungeon the players finally got to them, collecting key pieces from guard captains and assembling them into Skyward Sword-esque keys to access the dungeon minibosses. The only difficulty I had was that the picture of the assembled key clearly shows the seams between pieces, which was a bigger hint to the solution than I really wanted. Still, it was nice to use them in a game after carrying them around for so long.

Shot Glasses

These weren’t part of the campaign. These were a gift I gave to my players after the campaign ended to thank them for putting up with me for eighty-six sessions, but they’re physical items so I’m counting them here. Each player got a glass with the symbol corresponding to the energy they channeled: the blackguard got shadow, the ranger got forest, and so on. I got them from CustomShot on Etsy, if you’d like some for yourself.

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Campaign Report – Zelda Maps 2

The Zelda campaign ended during August. Normally I’d do a postmortem of sorts to explain what the campaign was, what went right, what went wrong, and where we go from here. But I don’t think I can compress the lessons from this campaign into a single post, and there’s a lot to talk about besides what worked and what didn’t. Instead I’m splitting the normal postmortem into a few posts, each of which covers one of the things that made this campaign “Zelda-y”.

No matter how much Nintendo tries to break things up with world maps, quests, NPCs, and unskippable cutscenes, Zelda is a game of dungeons. The whole series is based on a structure of explore -> learn -> find dungeon -> get item -> fight boss -> acquire jewelry/girl/plot coupon. It’s only right that we start by talking about the dungeons in the campaign. A while has passed since I posted the first round of maps. Here’s the rest:


  
  


Some of those fonts were hard to draw.

Recall that the first half of the campaign was cave -> open-air forest -> maze of rotating rooms, all alike -> town -> giant pool of poison -> jail. The second half was grid of catacombs -> abandoned mineshaft -> beanstalk -> an ordinary house, nothing to see here, move along -> looping ice caverns -> legit palace. I didn’t escalate every time, but I did get the upward trend in complexity I wanted.

Dungeon eight has two maps because I wanted to subvert Zelda’s “the map is always right” trope. The players got the first map early in the dungeon, and they were so happy getting it because it meant they wouldn’t get lost in the twisty passageways. They immediately set out to explore the whole place, figuring out where the boss was and such. Only after a few dead ends did they conclude that the map represented an outdated layout of the mine, and the real map expanded the dungeon and explained what those purple veins of ore actually were.

By this point in the campaign, each dungeon was one overarching puzzle that often leveraged the dungeon item. The catacombs had a single beam of light the players needed to reflect through lenses to focus it until it could destroy walls of necrotic energy. The mineshaft’s history and current status slowly become clear over time. The beanstalks had leaves that could rise and lower based on proper gardening care. The manor only allowed travel through one color of door at a time. The ice maze forced the players to spell out the names of NPCs before they could get anywhere. The palace had a hard 24-hour time limit and patrolling guards so the players had to balance speed, stealth, exploration, puzzles, combat, and rest. Interestingly the difficulty of each puzzle was inversely proportionate to how complex the zone around the dungeon was. I’m going to pretend that was intentional.

I do think I didn’t design these quite as well as I could have, and I don’t know how much of that I can blame on the tabletop setting. I erred on the side of giving the players freedom to explore, so I lost some control over my pacing. I wanted the players to discover an unsolvable problem, leave it to explore elsewhere, discover a solution to that problem, then go back and solve it. For example, Link might see a cliff too high to scale, find the hookshot, then go back and grapple to the top of the cliff. But in D&D players have a half-dozen other ways to get up a twenty-foot wall, and there’s more than one player. The Deku Leaf is a great way to let Link glide from one place to another, but only after the players got it did I realize only one character could use it at a time. They ended up hanging from each other’s knees while the strongest character (who was also the worst at flying) took control. If I did the campaign over, I’d either scrap any items that don’t work for a group or take the Four Swords route and distribute identical, less-powerful items to each character. But I didn’t, so the process of exploring a dungeon was less satisfying that it could have been.

I did like how each monster and boss (and most of the puzzles) made sense narratively within a dungeon’s story. There wasn’t much in the way of “this conveyor-belt moth is the boss of an underground dungeon made of skulls where you got the fire rod, because shut up”. It was more “this lightning elemental is the boss of this beanstalk because you’re very high up and the campaign boss who controls weather has it in for you”. My players were willing to accept any hand-waving I did when I let a fun combat override a sensible world history, but I like to think I did pretty well.

I don’t know how much more level design like this I’m going to do. These days we don’t do many campaigns where we have proper dungeon explorations, so it’s a muscle I don’t flex as much as I did here. I think if I was to get deeper into this I’d break out software and try to give the maps a sleeker look with more character. Maybe I’ll do some rough dungeons with blank keys and post them here for readers to steal at will. Most of what I find online are black and white maps with an old-school, hand-drawn aesthetic. That’s great, but sometimes I want something that doesn’t look like its heyday was twenty years ago.

…the Zelda campaign itself notwithstanding.

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