How I survived on (almost) only Skill Challenges…

2010 November 10

Tonight was the first of my two sessions of the DM Revolution at Total Escape Games.  I was pretty nervous since this was my first time filling the role of Dungeon Master for a new group since I moved out here to Colorado.  I arrived at the game shop early, just as the current session of D&D Encounters was finishing.  Most of my players arrived promptly, so we were quickly underway.

What I Planned

The progenitor of DM Revolution, Justin (of Wombat Cast) encouraged us to be creative and go outside the box to try new concepts.  I decided that I wanted to try to run a roleplaying heavy set of sessions that included primarily Skill Challenges in lieu of combat.  I primarily used the notion of branching skill challenges to set up my plotline for these short sessions.  For tonight’s game, I had a three sets of branching skill challenges that would allow the players to pursue different avenues and two nested skill challenges.  (You can find excellent examples of how to structure branching skill challenges and nested skill challenges can be found at At-Will.)

I have never run a session with a goal of using all Skill Challenges, nor did I know if the group would be receptive to this type of game.

The Way It Went Down

The group followed only two of the “hooks” to these skill challenges directly, however they ended up at two others in a roundabout fashion.  Most of these Skill Challenges were designed to disseminate information, and one of our characters even came up with a creative “off-script” skill to use that resulted in success.  The group readily dove into roleplay, and much of the session was them interacting with both my planned NPC characters and some impromptu NPCs that they chose to interact with.

That was the best part of this experience… the players helped to write the story.  It happened that I used the revised Skill Challenge chart to allow the group to make their own encounters as they interacted with people of their choosing.  In fact, they even went into a few encounters expecting to have to fight based on the information they received during partial successes.  Thanks to not going in guns-blazing, they were able to roleplay their way to most of the rest of the available information.

The session ended up with an opportunity for a Skill Challenge that I suspected would turn to combat and it did (bandits running away from a smash/grab job are too tempting to chase).  Just as the game shop was closing, the group defeated most of the bandits (leaving one alive for questioning).  This led them to an unexpected ending for this session, but it sets up nicely for what I have planned next week.

In Conclusion

Skill Challenges are great for encouraging roleplay.  Using branching and nested skill challenges helps to outline a plot nicely, but still allows the players for enough deviation as not to feel extremely “on rails.”  I suspect some of the players tired a little of all the roleplaying, which is why I strongly recommend having some Skill Challenges that can devolve into combat if the group wants that.

I feel like we had a session that was wildly successful with mostly Skill Challenges.  The roleplaying was fun, people were laughing and creatively using their abilities and the players helped me to write the story.  A man can’t ask for much more than that!  I will be continuing down this avenue for next week’s session, but I plan to up the ante.

DM Revolution… help me prepare!

2010 November 5
by Dante

I’m participating in a very interesting experiment at our local gaming shop.  A quick straw-poll of the regulars revealed that the majority of us were nonplussed with the latest D&D Encounters chapter, so we opted to do an Encounters-style series all of our own.  It’s called the DM Revolution, and the rules are simple and go a little like this:

  • Our characters began at level 11 with a small treasure parcel of gear.
  • Each DM gets to run two weeks of encounters, each 1.5 hours in length.
  • Creativity is encouraged in encounter design.
  • It’s open to everyone, players can circulate in and out as their schedules permit.

The Campaign So Far

The campaign started out with an escape from a prison, which was later revealed to be a floating fortress guarded by a young dragon.  After exiting the compound, we traded with some roving merchants that had docked a floating boat near the edge of the cloud fortress but before we could negotiate safe passage we were attacked by young giantlike creatures.

The merchants escaped largely unscathed, but didn’t stop to take our group with them.  After wandering around the desolate floating fortresses region and nearly starving, we came across another docked floating airship inhabited by savage traders that attempted to poison and then kill us.

We got the upper hand, and succeeded in boarding and then crashing the airship into a barn outside of Waterdeep.  Last week’s encounter thwarted the owner of the barn, which was breeding demon horses for a reason not fully known. (I missed this session, so the details are unclear).

Now it’s my turn…

Starting next Wednesday, it’s my turn to pick up this strange storyline and put my own twist on it.  Our group tends to be fairly combat heavy and I have heard some complaints that there is not enough roleplaying, so I think that I want to do something more roleplay centered and skill challenge based.  The group is a very funny, raucous group of people and I feel like they’d react well to a chance to really be in character and not have to just kill things to pass the sessions.

So let’s collaborate together!  If you’ve got an interesting plot idea based on the synopsis above or some recommendations for creating short and satisfying roleplaying encounters for a group of around 6 players chime in!  I’d love to get some creative input or some advice.

Deadlands: Marshal’s Handbook…

2010 October 11
by Dante

I was lucky enough to run into one of my buddies at the game shop on Saturday, he had just picked up the Deadlands Marshal’s Handbook.  We’re playing in a Deadlands campaign together, and we have agreed to rotate the duties of Marshal so that anyone who wants to have a turn at it can.  This meant that it was fairly inevitable that I pick up the Marshal’s Handbook when it hit store shelves, but I was going to wait until next month.  Then my buddy let me leaf through his copy for a few minutes, and I couldn’t resist picking one up for myself.

For starters, I find the Weird West setting one of the more interesting settings I have come across in current roleplaying games.  It mixes fantasy with some anachronism and references to real historical figures, and this adds up to me always wanting to read more of the mythology.  It seems that in the old edition of Deadlands (which I played only briefly in college) there were several expansion books that gave the system a very rich history that evolved over time, and my hope is that they continue to do this with the new edition.

Curiosity got the best of me in this case, and I have to say I was excited (and terrified) to find that the Prairie Tick is included in the Marshal’s Handbook.  These critters provided one of the most insane total party kills that I have ever been witness to… a small group of ticks ambushed my college adventuring party and killed EVERYONE in fairly short order.  Reading through their description, not much has changed with the new edition… unfortunately it would be metagaming like mad if my current character just toted around a quart of castor oil!

This likely won’t be the last time I write about this book or our Deadlands campaign.  So far getting into Savage Worlds has been interesting, with any luck my skills at D&D Dungeon Mastering will translate well to this new setting and system.

Living Forgotten Realms…

2010 October 9
by Dante

Today I participated in my fifth session of Living Forgotten Realms at Total Escape Games.  My fighter, Maxwell Edison, took to the mean streets of Baldur’s Gate for Silent Streets and Vanished Souls and it was a pretty interesting experience.  I was the only defender in the group, therefore my role was to soak massive amounts of damage while the striker and controller types did their things.  Our group did a fairly decent job of using strategy to our advantage in the combat encounters, which was fairly impressive since two of our players were first-timers to D&D 4e.  There was even the opportunity for some roleplaying during the skill challenges, which always pleases me.

Our DM was a little unfamiliar with the adventure so there was a bit of delay as he got comfortable with the information he was to disseminate during the skill challenges but it didn’t detract much from the game itself.  The combat encounters were very intense, at one point my character and one other were unconscious and bleeding and thanks to some valiant attacks and strategic use of Action Points we were able to win the day.

I enjoy the dynamic of being in a new area of Forgotten Realms with each small adventure, so far the plot of the adventures have been interesting enough to keep me coming back for more.  It’s also good to be able to game with groups of different players.  This table was primarily a mix of new people, but luckily the DM from our last encounters session was at my table so I knew there was at least one person that I enjoyed gaming with present.  That still didn’t prevent the inevitable awkward social situations that occur at the gaming table sometimes, but I’ll leave that topic for another article.

Living Forgotten Realms continues to be interesting, so I’ll be keeping my eye out for the next session and hopefully I can get Maxwell up to Level 4!  More soon!

Deadlands Reloaded…

2010 September 30
by Dante

Tonight was game night with some of my friends from Total Escape Games.  We opted for my first foray into Savage Worlds, specifically Deadlands Reloaded.  I had originally played Deadlands back in college with my dormmates and I am pleased to report that it is very much the same game with slightly simpler mechanics.  We were beginning to get the gist of combat and gameplay after just a few short hours, and I was already beginning to identify ways I would make my own character differently to maximize my enjoyment (we used pre-generated characters for this introductory game).

I played “Shady” Doug Liveaux, a New Orleans huckster.  The huckster class is very interesting and still retained my favorite gameplay mechanic of the old Deadlands game: casting spells by drawing a poker hand and assessing the result.  I don’t know if they included these mechanics in the old system and we just didn’t know it, but as the game progressed we realized that you could counteract wounds with Vigor rolls.  This significantly reduced the high mortality rate that I experienced in previous incarnations of Deadlands, and you could always use Fate Chips to shake off wounds as well.  I was pleased that despite some difficult run-ins with manitou’s during spellcasting, “Shady” made it out of the night largely intact.

I enjoy the tactile experience of this game, being able to shuffle a deck of cards and play with poker chips really increased the immersion for me.  The one-sheet campaign that our DM ran us through was interesting and helped us learn the mechanics with just the right amount of storyline to follow.  Next week we’re going to generate our own characters that will carry on into an ongoing Deadlands campaign, where we will trade off the Marshalling (i.e. Dungeon Mastering) duties.

The Savage Worlds game mechanics take a bit of getting used to if you’re as used to D&D as I am, however I found it equally easy to get ramped up and learn the basics within one session as I could in D&D 4e.  I’m enjoying the change of pace, so expect to see the occasional Savage Worlds related post (perhaps some compare and contrast) as the weeks march by.

Skill Challenges from the Tomb of Horrors…

2010 September 21
by Dante

We’re down to playing once every couple of weeks in our group, but the Tomb of Horrors is so darned satisfying I hardly even notice.  To be frank, I have shied away from skill challenges in my game up to this point because I haven’t felt too inspired to create them on my own.

Luckily, there were a few great ones available in the first section of the Tomb of Horrors to try.  Despite my group’s penchant toward not getting started early, I found that the addition of the skill challenges really helped to make them feel accomplished.

My only complaint is one of my own creation… if I would have read up on the challenges ahead of time I would have been able to come up with some additional flavor text so it wasn’t so repetitious and didn’t devolve into blatent statements of success or failure.  Despite the repetition, I found them fun to run and the players found the challenges at the very least interesting.

Maybe a bit of additional preparation next time will make them even better!

D&D Starter Red Box: The Solo Adventure and more…

2010 September 7
by Dante

Over the weekend, Stupid Ranger and I secreted ourselves in a mountain cabin outside of Colorado Springs and we brought along with us the D&D Red Box.  We were accompanied by another couple who had never played D&D before.  This was a recipe for distilled awesome, so on Sunday we introduced D&D to two new people.

The Solo Adventure and Character Creation

Stupid Ranger took them through the solo adventure, to help with character creation.  She reports that the character creation was very well done for beginners, but there were aspects of it that she was missing as a more advanced character.  I did notice that a few times that one of our new players (Paul) was asking a lot of questions about things that were physically next to each other on the character sheet and the solo adventure did a fair amount of “jumping around” that was somewhat confusing.

I liked that the solo adventure helped to set up the rest of the adventure, and the way it presented the decisions that controlled class and alignment were exciting for brand-new players.  Paul was already fairly “in-character” by the time the solo adventure was complete, embracing his elven rogue on a deeper level than I would have expected from more standard character generation.

The Adventure Begins

While Stupid Ranger was helping with character creation, I was busy reading the Dungeon Master’s Book in preparation for the adventure.  It was very easy to pick up, the layout of the book made a lot of sense.  In my best attempt to follow the rules, I started the group with the first encounter at the crossroads.  Combat mechanics were explained very clearly, and before the end of the first encounter Paul was already using “flanking” and “that combat thingie” (advantage) as part of his lexicon.  It was interesting to see positive reinforcement at work… the first time he got to roll extra Sneak Attack damage he was trying to invent ways to use it all the time.

Paul was quick to ask about whether or not he could use any of his skills to help out in the early part of the dungeon and aside from an active perception check and the discovery of a trap there really wasn’t much to use the skills on.  The group unfortunately traversed the dungeon in such a fashion to avoid the major skill challenge (the one thing I wanted them to do, rats!) but they had a lot of fun.  Since we only had one night, we stopped short of completing the entire adventure but it was enough to give the two new players a sense of what D&D is all about.

Running the game was very easy.  Some convenience things that I enjoyed: the Dungeon Master’s Book had nice full pages dedicated to each of the creatures in the adventure.  This made it very easy to show new players what a goblin or a drake looked like, by simply folding the page back and letting them see the artwork.  As previously predicted, the tokens were great in lieu of miniatures and I still hope they figure prominently in future D&D modules.

My criticisms: the adventure is combat heavy and a small group of three first level player characters got exhausted quickly.  The baddies do a considerable amount of damage for a group of that size and it was difficult progress.  The power cards, while attractive, are a little more flimsy than I expected them to be at first and I almost tore a few of them while punching them out.  Also, our new players wanted power cards for all of their skills, and certain class skills (like Sneak Attack) didn’t have an associated card.

As I mentioned before, running the game was pretty easy.  I was tripped up at one point by the Dire Rats, which had “Hit: 1d10 +5 damage, and the target is exposed to filth fever.”  Some quick looking around did not yield any information on what Filth Fever was or how to progress it, so I skipped it.  I accidentally found the information I needed later while leafing through the monsters section looking for a photo of another bad guy, separated 27 pages from where I needed it with no annotation to indicate that it was even there.  Frustrating.

Final Thoughts

The Red Box provides a solid starter set that is attainable to new players.  Character creation is straightforward, dare I say even interesting when presented via the Solo Adventure.  The DM’s Book does a decent job of presenting the tools that a new DM needs, providing a great primer on how to run a game.  The included adventure is easy to run for a veteran Dungeon Master and provides a significant challenge, even though more could have been done with skills.  A bit of additional roleplaying would’ve been nice as well, but that might have been more prevalent in the skill challenge that our group skipped.

Paul did a great job on his first adventure, playing a skillful and witty elven rogue.  His wife, Kara, wasn’t as “into” the D&D game and opted to bow out after a few encounters but it wasn’t from a lack of understanding how the game was played.  Stupid Ranger and I had a good time introducing the game to new players, and I had a good time finally exploring the contents of a D&D Box Set.

Inspired by Facebook (and Shelly Mazzanoble)…

2010 September 2
by Dante

In this lovely informal Facebook poll, our good buddy Shelly Mazzanoble asked her friends to identify themselves into one of three categories: “DM”, “Player”, or “Both”.  I, of course, selected “Both”.  Shelly went on to ask those of us that replied in this way whether or not we had trouble transitioning, and whether or not we were more critical or supportive of other DMs.

You can read the poll to see my official reply, but I did realize something as a result of these questions.  Yes, I am more critical of other DMs because I perform that role myself.  I utterly detest railroading and can see it a mile away, even though I have been known to do so from time to time.  I fancy myself supportive but constructively critical of my fellow DMs.  I have been asked for some constructive criticism over the years by a few guys, however I quickly realized that most times even if you provide your honest opinion it rarely affects the behavior of the DM requesting this feedback.  I have found that I quickly become unsupportive of someone that asks my opinion and then fails to use any of it.

I have decided that this is because of a mutated form of Powdered Butt Syndrome.  For those unfamiliar with the term, Powdered Butt Syndrome is the inability of your parents to listen to you entirely because you are their children.  Nobody wants your opinion about anything if they’ve powdered your butt.  The same thing goes for DMing, only on rare occasion do any of your direct Dungeon Masters want your opinion as a player on how they are running the game.  Most times even if they do ask for it, any corrective actions they take are short lived.  Many times it isn’t a function of the person being unwilling to change, often the inertia of the game in progress can prevent any actual corrections from being permanent.  During the GM’s Jam at GenCon this year, I heard several stories that ended with the “I’ll never do that again, but I had to run out the rest of that campaign with the decisions that had already been made.”

That’s part of the reason I turned to providing my opinion on such matters right here at StupidRanger.com, I have found that providing your opinion in a public forum is just about the only way that people will openly seek and use new ideas without some sort of ulterior motive in doing so (at least, based on the feedback we’ve received from readers and commenters!)

Anyway, that was quite an inspiring discussion over on Facebook.  Thanks Shelly and all the other poll participants that got the creative juices a-flowin’.

Roleplaying Therapy for the Severely Disturbed: The Video!

2010 August 31
by Dante

WARNING: The linked video contains bad language, bad behavior, and is generally NSFW.

At long last, our 2010 edition of Roleplaying Therapy for the Severely Disturbed (formerly Out of the Box Roleplaying) is available for your online viewing pleasure.

The premise is that the characters are all adventurers with various mental disorders or strange personality flaws and that they arrive at an institution for help from Dr. Dante (me).  The panel did not disappoint, they dutifully ignored my plot (so badly that I clumsily had to wrap things up at the end of the session) and hijinks ensued.  I enjoy getting the opportunity to bring this particular brand of crazy to GenCon each year.

Our intrepid panel this year consisted of: Dave The Game, Bartoneus, Chris Sims, and Phil The Chatty DM from Critical Hits, Graham from Critical Ankle Bites, Micah from Obsidian Portal, e from Geek’s Dream Girl, and everybody’s favorite switch-hitter Vanir from StupidRanger / Critical Hits.

Everyone was throwing the heat this year… there was an amnesiac that swore she was married to someone on the panel, severe multiple personality disorder, a minotaur supremacist, a patient dead set against authority, a shardmind that went to pieces collecting different phobias, a puppetmaster, and a maniac that needed to be in the spotlight and climb the walls.  Literally.  Vanir rounded out our motley crew by reprising his role as Black Rainbow, a dangerously insane overweight druid that hates plants.  He ended up anger-humping melons.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I think we’re going to go with less character sheets and less plot and more semi-structured craziness, that seems to be where it ends up anyway!

Thanks to the panel, and thanks to the great crowd for putting up with our filthy brand of insanity.  Also thanks to Carson from Role-Playing Discussions, who annually presents the Carson F. Ball Worst Pun of the Year award.  He’s a force of nature when it comes to terrible puns, so he knows his stuff.

Anyway, the event was great fun and we’re looking forward to it next year!!

First Impressions: The D&D Starter Red Box…

2010 August 29
by Dante

It has been a big week here at Stupid Ranger, and it even got capped off in epic fashion.  I was taking my traditional nap before karate, and as I headed downstairs I spied something on the living room table.  Some benevolent force (Santa Claus, perhaps) had deposited a D&D Red Box in my house!

Now you may be wondering why I am excited about such a thing as this, being a starter set and I am clearly not a D&D beginner.  You see, when I was growing up the box sets were available but I lacked friends that were interested in such things so I never got one.  When I saw that they were using the same box art by Larry Elmore as they did Way Back In The Day, they critted me.  Right in the face.

Let me say it again: the box is beautiful.  As I write this, I am shaking it in my hands hearing the contents rattle happily within.  My inner 8-year-old wants to adventure badly.

The Contents

Of course, there’s a Dungeon Master’s Book that contains the basic rule set for first and second level characters.  Along with that you get maps, character sheets, player and monster tokens, power cards, and yes, you get a set of dice.  They’re very pedestrian black dice with white numbers, which immediately made me wonder why they didn’t just partner with Chessex and get some decent dice for these sets.  Anyway, we’ll save that particular rant for later.

There’s also a Player’s Book that contains player generation rules.  You can pick from Fighter, Wizard, Rogue, or Cleric, and the races include Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling.  The most interesting part for me is that they include a solo adventure, which is something I’ve not experienced from D&D in the past.  Having never owned any of the other D&D box sets, I am going to now pretend that there were not any solo adventures in them for fear of a wasted youth.

Power Cards and Tokens

I’m not sure who designed the new power cards for this box set, but they deserve some sort of an award for concise, cool presentation compared to the other official power cards.  They still maintain the same information as the standard issue power cards, but the layout of the card itself is less overwhelming.  Clearly, they were striving for easy attainability with this box set and at first glance it appears they have succeeded.

This doesn’t stop with the tokens, either.  Stupid Ranger exclaimed “Wow, look at all those bad guys!” upon first laying her eyes on the token cards.  She is correct, without perusing the books I can easily detect orcs, goblins, kobolds, and even a few dragons (naturally!)  And what D&D adventure would be complete without a gelatinous cube?  These tokens appear to be very well executed and I’d love to see them included in additional D&D modules.  It sure beats using dice or unmatched, inaccurate miniatures to indicate the baddies.

The Adventure Continues This Week

Stupid Ranger and I are going to further review the Red Box this week.  I intend on taking the solo adventure for a whirl in the next couple of days, and schedule permitting we are going to attempt the 1st – 2nd level adventure that they include in the Dungeon Master’s Book, so expect to see more soon!

If you can’t wait that long, be sure to check out The New D&D Starter Red Box review that was put together by our good friend The Chatty DM and his son Nico over at Critical Hits.