Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Ogre Zombie’s Tomb

This encounter is intended for five characters of 2nd level

It dawned on me that I had perhaps been getting too elaborate with many of my encounters. Mind you I didn’t want to just spit out a lot of “10 square by 10 square with 5 skirmishers of player’s level” snooze fests – but at the same time I might be getting a tad over dramatic with the set-piece encounters. Not everything needs to be a big, epic, hours long brawl, I know. So I’m going to attempt to offer some quicker and more easily planted encounters interspersed with the over-the-top cinematic fights I happen to love so much. My goal with this blog was to provide content that could easily be slapped into any night’s session. Set-pieces have a way of forcing you to work around their schedule.

I’ve also been neglecting the dungeon! Madness! To alleviate that I intend to produce more “drag and drop” dungeon chamber encounters. The place where most games can afford to have an on-the-fly addition is in the dungeon – so it stands to reason that you’ll likely get the most mileage out of some pre-generated dungeon encounters.

Set Up and Backstory
This encounter can be a series of rooms in any old dungeon of your choosing. Its presumed that some other creatures – kobolds or goblins or what have you – occupy the dungeon (to serve as a food source). This particular niche was carved by desperate townsfolk long ago; who buried an ogre that had been destroying crops, caravans, and people for years. They feared him so much that it was rumored even death would not slow the brute down, and so a few bold souls interred his corpse in the dungeon, and filled a pit with holy water to make certain he didn’t come lumbering out.

A few were superstitious enough to bury the monster with some valuables in the hopes that would appease it in the afterlife. Sadly, it wasn’t enough, and the rotting ogre’s corpse has been stomping impatiently in front of the holy water moat for a very long time.

Some of the dungeon’s denizens have been making forays into this area to try and recover the treasure from the ogre zombie’s side of the moat – but found themselves food for the cave fisher lurking nearby. The beetles are picking clean what the fisher doesn’t want.


Map Features
Rooms: Are roughly hewn stonework. Relatively smooth walls and floor, save for cracks and the occasional debris. The ceiling is in disrepair. The obvious light sources are the fire beetles (emanate light at half the distance of a normal torch) and some distant rays of sunshine beating down through the cracks in the ceiling of the zombie ogre’s chamber (bright enough to treat the room as normally lit).

The cave fisher is hidden in a shadowy corner of the antechamber where it has adjourned to digest its last meal. It gains a +5 bonus to it’s stealth check while concealed here. If need be it will creep forward along the ceiling to get in range of prey, keeping a +2 bonus from the relative camouflage of the broken and uneven ceiling.

Sitting at the foot of the pool are the remains of some unfortunate dungeon denizen is now a meal for the fire beetles – thus continuing the dungeon circle of life.

Pool: this stone moat dips drops to a depth of about four and a half feet and is filled with sanctified water. If submerged or splashed onto an evil creature it deals Ongoing 5 radiant damage. The zombified ogre is unwilling to step foot in or even chance crossing the pool due to his instinctive repulsion by consecrated places.

Loose Ceiling: The ceilings in these chambers are worn and buckled with age. Already stones and pieces of rubble are strewn about the dungeon floor and more sections seem at risk of collapsing. The ceiling height is 4 squares (20 feet) or in more practical terms, a 2d10 fall.

A section of ceiling directly above the pool is especially loose. If the players come within sight of the hulking zombie it very well might smash the walls in frustration, causing a section of rubble to fall into the pool. This would give the zombie stepping stones to cross over – escaping its prison and entering the fray. Allow this to happen when the players are finally gaining the advantage in the fight. If you are utilizing dungeon tiles, use a 2 by 2 square rubble tile to indicate the pathway across the holy water pool

x1 Hulking Zombie (Monster Vault pg. 294)
x1 Cave Fisher Angler – Marked “C” (Monster Manual 3 pg. 28)
x3 Fire Beetles (Monster Manual pg. 30)

Map Tiles
Making good on a previous intention – the map for this encounter was composed with individual tiles from the “Dungeon Tiles” master set “The Dungeon.”


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Canoe Ambush

This encounter is intended for five players of 4th level


Not dissimilar to sitting ducks

Every D&D nerd does it. Be it in film, video games or literature. You see something cool and say “What are the stats for it.” I distinctly remember watching Legolas fire arrows in quick succession on screen during Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” saying to myself – “Clearly, someone spent that 3rd level feat on ‘Rapid Shot!'” But it goes further than just trying to fit game rules into everything (The traditional “Stat Me” thread you see in every gamer forum). I find a lot of inspiration in the scenarios heroic book/film/video game characters run into. Those plot twists and moral dilemmas are ripe to be stolen and planted right into your game.

After all that’s the beauty of the tabletop RPG – all those times you sat helpless screaming into your book/screen “Don’t trust Lord Murderhavoc! Listen to his name, he’s clearly the villain, just stab him now!”- when that situation comes up in-game you have control over how the character acts. A courtroom trial, a hostage situation, the classic “save your partner or save the mayor, choose one,” all these classic scenarios that could be solved a hundred different ways, now get solved your way.

It’s an awesome experience and no other medium really manages to capture this level of choice.

I wanted to tie together a few travel and ambush encounters (The carriage attack was meant to be one) but largely abandoned that plan. However one of those ideas gnawed at me. One inspired by the film version of Fellowship of the Ring. I was smitten with the scene where the fellowship was under attack by Uruk-hai as they were paddling their way down river towards Mordor (One does not simply walk in, I know. But paddling is a whole other story).

I tend to feel that travel related challenges get overlooked in contemporary editions of D&D and other roleplaying games. In part that’s because travel issues often break down into boring bookkeeping (Did everyone mark off their rations for the day?) But it also means a lot of scenes like the river bank attack from Fellowship get overlooked. Of COURSE they were paddling along in boats – that’s a quick way to travel in ye dayes ofe fantasye. Why does that kind of scene never get played out at the tabletop!? I felt it was a missed opportunity.

In writing this encounter I answered my question – chase scenes or any combat with relative movement is hard to orchestrate while keeping the frenetic energy the encounter needs to fit the scenario. Too many rules and you bog things down, not enough rules and the encounter seems unrealistic or silly. Way too many rules and it seems too arbitrary. After approaching this is encounter in several terrible and overly complicated ways in my head, I abandoned the usual tactical micromanaging that is 4th Edition’s forte for something much more abstract and fast. This is a very different way to run encounters than what I usually present and it isn’t for everyone. Consider it an experiment.

This encounter combines a skill challenge with combat to give the players a feeling of being divided between two complimentary goals – fighting off their attackers and getting out of range of attacks entirely. The PCs will be struggling to get their boat downriver fast while enduring the spears and arrows of a vicious tribe of goblins.

A battlemap of sorts won’t hurt here merely to let the players get their bearings and keep a count of their opponents – but any complicated movement and tactics won’t be necessary.

Abstracted Combat
This chase scene plays out differently from the “Stagecoach Ambush” in that the time frame is much longer and the precise maneuvering unnecessary. A critical assumption here is that the normal round lasts much longer than in regular combats – the precise time is whatever you need it to be, but roughly 1 minute per round in general. Somewhere between the fast pace of combat and the montage pace of a skill challenge.

This messing with the time frame causes some logical problems. Assume that rather than attacking only once a minute, the characters are taking potshots back and forth. Consider having ammo dependent characters expend 2d4 ammunition per attack to represent this. Their attack roll represents that one “clear shot” they get to make a decisive attack. In this case, scoring an attack is more about taking the time to line up a shot, or waiting for that goblin to come running out of the underbrush and give a clear line of fire. Let the extra seconds account for the messiness of fighting on the run. As for encounter or daily attack powers, presume the rest of the minute is filled with unsuccessful ranged basic attacks. This time frame works a bit bizarrely with the 4th Edition mechanics but it’s one-time adoption will make the scenario make a bit more sense, and will hopefully provide your players with some fun narrative leeway in describing their actions.

Since the players are relying on their vehicles for movement, and even in an expanded time frame it would be impractical to keep switching between oars and weapons, they’ll need to make a choice between spending their action paddling or attacking. For melee combatants who are put out of range, that choice might end up being pretty easy (and not a punishment – seeing as how these characters usually have the primary skills needed to contribute to the associated skill challenge).

The goblins will stay within 10 squares of the players at all times in order to make ranged attacks without penalty (consider them to be 15 squares away if they begin falling behind in their pursuit). The goblins are spread out, but their positioning will vary – in order to represent this, any player making an area (or similar burst) attack may target 1d4 goblins + 1 per square beyond Burst 1.

The goblin hex hurler will function a bit differently in this encounter. “Vexing Cloud” will instead hamper all PCs in one canoe with a -2 to skill rolls for one round (unless they are capsized, in which case the penalty persists until they succeed a check to move forward the skill challenge). For the purpose of “Stinging Hex” PCs are considered to be moving if someone in their boat succeeds at a skill check for the round.

Skill Challenge
Complexity: Special – 1 Success per canoe each round minimum / 10 Successes total to end the challenge – OR defeat all enemies

In this challenge the PC’s are attempting to evade their goblin pursuers while navigating the perils of the river. Skills will be used to keep the canoes moving at a steady pace, find shortcuts to travel faster, and to avoid any hazards that might be up ahead on the water. This skill challenge is a bit odd in that it has a primary goal to reach, and also incremental goals by round (similar to how many overland travel challenges treat group Endurance checks).

  • At least one character in each canoe must succeed with at least one of the skills associated with this challenge. If this is not accomplished, no successes count towards the overall goal during this round – the faster canoe must wait for the others to catch up or risk splitting the party! (Unless – that’s their plan! If so, roll with it! Count the successes but make the slower canoe the target of all attacks until they can succeed on 2 skill checks – thus “catching up” with their disloyal companions)
  • After 10 total successes, the goblins break off their attack – the players have traveled into terrain too rough to follow and the angry little creatures are exhausted from their pursuit anyway.
  • In short – The players need 10 successes, and must have at least 1 successes per round per canoe.

Likewise, the goblins will need to be making rolls to keep pace with canoes. The players might be able to defeat them by speed alone! (Though certainly filling them with a few arrows will slow them down considerably). The primary skills that contribute to this challenge are listed below. As always, a good player suggestion for an unusual skill is immediately applicable to this challenge as well.

  • AthleticsModerate DC – You row hard and fast, jetting the canoe along
  • AcrobaticsModerate DC – Your impeccable hand-eye coordination help you keep a steady and smooth pace, making it much easier to steer the vessel
  • Endurance Moderate DC – It’s hard work being the man-power for a vehicle but you hang in there and do not tire, stroke after stroke
  • Nature – Moderate DC – Traveling the wild lands means taking to the water at times, and your experience in rowing makes piloting this canoe old hat
  • Secondary SkillsHard DC – As always in a skill challenge, allow inventive and feasible uses of unrelated skills (For instance, an Intimidate roll to keep the goblins at bay or a Perception check to find a quick tributary concealed by underbrush). Should this come up, allow only 1 success towards completing the overall skill challenge from this particular use of the skill.

Goblins Keep Pace
Your goblins will have skill rolls of their own to make in order to keep pace with the boats! It’s assumed they are jogging alongside, taking pot-shots when they can.

For each round that both canoes make successful skill checks, make an endurance check for the goblins (See the chart below for DCs). If a goblin fails its first skill check, it is falling behind and takes a -2 to all of its attacks during the next turn. If it fails this roll two times in a row, it loses the party, and gives up its pursuit to catch its breath. This goblin is considered defeated.

  • Players fail their skill challenge during the round: Easy DC
  • Players succeed their skill challenge during the round: Moderate DC
  • Any canoe had three PC’s using their actions to row: Hard DC
  • The goblin took a wound during this round: -2 to skill roll
  • The goblin was knocked prone, slowed, immobilized, restrained, or otherwise had its movement hampered: -4 to skill roll
  • The goblins bloody or drop a PC to 0 HP: +2 to skill roll

Gently Down the Stream
Each canoe can hold 3 humanoid passengers, a reasonable amount of equipment, and a few pounds of cargo. Each is assumed to have three oars on hand, though they don’t necessarily all need to be in use for the canoe to move. Remember that the players are traveling downstream, and in the best of circumstances need only to steer as the current will keep moving them towards their destination at regular pace.

Depending on your party’s size, the players will likely need 2 canoes. Adjust the numbers dependent on the number of players you have (Or consider giving them a longer canoe to accommodate a party of only 4 players).

The biggest threat to the PC’s progress is their canoe tipping. If you’ve ever actually been canoeing you know it isn’t that difficult to get one to spill it’s contents – especially if said canoe is getting arrows fired at it.

Capsized PCs are in the water and next to their canoe. They must succeed at a group skill check Hard DC (any skill used in the overall skill challenge is applicable as a primary skill and can be used as an aid another, even if it is not the same skill – for example, an Athletics check with a Nature check to aid another) to turn their boat over, get back in safely, and recover their oars. Failing this roll indicates the PC are stuck in the water for this round. During a round in which at least one boat is capsized, no progress can be made toward ending the overall skill challenge. An non-capsized boat assisting grants a +2 per occupant helping (using oars to push over the capsized boat, holding up drowning PCs, etc).

While capsized, PCs grant combat advantage.

I always advocate upping the ante in any encounter – and providing some natural river travel hazards in addition to the goblin artillery will let tour heroes truly feel heroic and under the gun. Or whine about things being too hard. Or both.

Assign a hazard to appear up ahead at the top of the initiative stack on round 3 and round 5. In most cases be upfront about what the players see ahead and perhaps even read the descriptive text as box text (the exception is the “hidden obstacle” which will be subject to perception – most likely passive – checks). You can roll randomly for these hazards or simply assign the ones you think fit the scene best. If the PCs are having trouble already, consider only using one hazard (ideally at round 3 or 4).
Roll 1d8

Rapids: DCs for navigating the river become Hard during this round.

  1. Rapids: DCs for navigating the river become Hard during this round
  2. Tight Curve: If at least one PC takes damage this round, those in the boat must make a group skill check (any skill used in this skill challenge is applicable and can be used as an aid another, even if it is not the same skill). If the roll fails, the boat capsizes
  3. Hidden Obstacle: Passive perception checks (Hard DC) reveal that sharp rocks are up ahead. Succeed at a second skill challenge roll or the boat capsizes (Succeeding at the passive perception check grants a +4)
  4. Low Branch: Attacks against each PC in a canoe +3 vs. Ref Target is knocked out of the canoe. An ally must make an easy Athletics check to rescue them. Failing that roll capsizes the canoe.
  5. River Monster: Attacks against all capsized PCs this round +7 vs. AC 2d4+4 damage
  6. Thick Brush: Goblins gain concealment for this round
  7. Dense Forest: Goblins gain cover for this round
  8. High Bluff: Goblins gain combat advantage this round


  • x3 Goblin Sharpshooter (Monster Manual Pg. 137)
  • x8 Goblin Snipers (Monster Vault Pg. 152)
  • x1 Goblin Hex Hurler (Monster Vault Pg. 155)

Round-By-Round Breakdown

  • Round 1: Goblins are waiting in ambush for the PCs and do not need to make endurance checks
  • Round 2: No Change
  • Round 3: First Hazard
  • Round 4: No Change
  • Round 5: Second Hazard
  • Round 6+: No Change

Special Considerations
Using the Canoe as Cover: It might dawn on your players that they are much safer by getting underneath an overturned canoe and paddling past the ambush underneath their vehicle. That’s not a terrible plan but runs into a few problems: for one, any gear not on a character will fall into the river and possibly be lost. Secondly, the PCs will have limited air in the breathable bubble their canoe forms. If your players opt for this plan, give them 3 free successes towards the completion of the skill challenge, before it becomes apparent that their air is running low, and they’ll have to risk the goblins fire. Alternately, you can get them out of shimmying their way past the fun by having the blindly-guided canoe smash into an obstacle. They’ll need to come out from underneath to flee the vessel, and that means enduring the goblins projectiles once again.

The trick here is to reward the players for clever thinking, but to let them know that no plan is foolproof, and they’ll need to adjust their tactics. Clever ideas should always grant an advantage (maybe even a significant one!), but not serve as an “I Win” button.

Deflecting Arrows: Frustrated melee combatants might get it in their heads to attempt to deflect incoming projectiles with their oars. While there isn’t much in the way of existing rules for this – it is also AWESOME. I would allow a player attempting this to make a melee basic attack roll (weapon proficiency bonus +1). Since these rounds encompass roughly a minute, that’s plenty of opportunity to deflect arrows – Any incoming arrows with an attack roll lower than the deflecting PC’s attack roll fail to find a mark. This only applies for the canoe in which the deflecting PC is a passenger.

Again this is a very on-the-fly ruling and certainly not appropriate for an across the board rules modification. If this doesn’t sound right to you, use your best DM judgement. Its very likely your players might not even think of trying this!

Canoe Stats: You’ll be unlikely to need strict vehicle stats for the canoe’s in this encounter, but should it come up, some fan-made stats for canoes in “Gamma World” would certainly be compatible.


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Defiled Graveyard


The Deathknight really wants you to know who he marked

This encounter is intended for five PCs of 7th level

The inspiration for this one came from a handful of sources. Firstly, I feel like I’ve been doing a bit too much monster design and not focusing on encounter circumstances and environment nearly enough. So…I split the difference a bit on this one – taking the monster cues from existing monsters and tacking on two of my favorite templates – The Necromancer and Death-knight, rather than concocting something from scratch. Secondly I was noticing a lot of battlemats and maptiles making the rounds that depicted graveyards – but infrequently have I ever played in an adventure that wound our way into one. And third of course is my not-so-secret love for undead themed bad guys (they are right up there vying hard with orcs for “favorite villain horde” in my heart). So pull out that graveyard map you got when you picked up “Keep on the Shadowfell” – you’ll finally get some more use out of it!

This combat has the PC’s facing down a pair of complimentary elites (a Deathknight and Death Master) with a scattering of minions (zombies, of course). To up the tension, the Death Master has the option of creating MORE minions – some as a product of her template, and others as an environmental function. Graves on the map can be used by her to spring forth additional zombie minions. But this encounter also gives a little love to player necromancers – letting them even the odds by summoning their own minions out of the unquiet grave dirt!

This one would work well as the first step in a crypt dungeon. Odd to have a “mini-boss fight” at the beginning of the dungeon – but a tough first encounter might give otherwise bold PCs a moment of pause. Otherwise it could be the culmination of a side-quest related to necromancy and mysterious undead related goings on.


Lin-Wen has found non-combat uses for her undead horde as well

Plot Text

The evidence my not be present yet, but your guy tells you that the rumors about mounting numbers of undead stalking about the graveyard have to be true. There was no sign of activity during the day, which means, – naturally – you’ll have to investigate at night. Fortunately or not, the moon is full and you can see clearly as you approach the gates. Inside the graveyard, shadows cling like a mantle off every object and seem to teem with malevolence. A churning and chill mist roils around your feet. Two figures step out of one of the mausoleums to meet you. One is tall, nearly six and a half feet, clad in platemail. His, or maybe “its” eyes glow, as does the axe it wields. The woman accompanying him laughs. “So you finally found our lair? A good thing. I was hoping for some more capable corpses to join our ranks. Kill them!” At her command, four reanimated bodies pry themselves up from the ground, hidden by the mist that clings thick around the headstones. Their rotting skin reeks of the grave, and their moans fill the heavy night air.
Just as well. You weren’t expecting a negotiation anyway.

Nothing good ever happened in a graveyard

Map And Features

In the interest of letting you flex out the muscles of any graveyard maps you have already lying around (and to buy me time to work on a more complicated map for a coming post!) I decided not to provide one for this encounter. Use your best judgement in positioning the enemies in this encounter. The Deathknight and zombies should be firmly between the Death Master and the PCs, with plenty of graves littered about to be exploited. Mausoleums, pillars, and large gravestones make a great addition to provide some cover from ranged attacks. That said, a nice view of the map I used can be found here.

Arcane Glyph: (NOTE this feature appears on the example map I use but is not necessary for this encounter – though it adds a nice twist) Living creatures that begin their turn in these squares take 5 necrotic damage. Undead creatures that start their turn in these squares gain 5 HP.

Fence: The fence around the graveyard can be climbed with a Moderate Athletics roll as a move action.

-Gravestones: Squares containing gravestones can be used as partial cover.

-Graves: Any creature adjacent to or in a grave square (A square containing a gravestone or grave dirt) that possesses at least one encounter or daily power with the “necrotic” keyword (or is trained in the necromancy specialty school) may use the following environmental power:

“Arise, and Do My Bidding!”                                          Environmental
At-Will * Arcane, Necromancy
Move Action
An adjacent grave
The caster manipulates the defiling necrotic energies of the graveyard to reanimate the corpse in this grave. At the end of the caster’s turn, an Zombie Shambler appears in a square of the grave (or adjacent to it). The Shambler acts on the caster’s initiative and moves to attack the caster’s nearest enemy. It can be directed to attack a particular target with a minor action but is incapable of doing anything more complex than moving and attacking.
Restriction: This power only functions once per grave. (Consider marking off any graves whose contents are now empty)

New Monsters

Monster List
I was a little torn here, when it came to which minion to choose for this encounter. The Shamblers were perfect with their “chance to survive” special ability – but they were a bit lower level than I would have liked. On the other hand, the Skeletal Legionaries were much closer to level and I could see their marking capabilities as wreaking havoc on a lot of parties – but all those marked conditions makes for a much more difficult encounter to manage. In the end I decided to present both options. Consider the version of this encounter with the skeletons to be “Nightmare Mode.”

x1 Deathknight [Thaedric]
x1 Death Master [Lin-Wen] (Modified from the “Tiefling Occultist”, Pg. 263 Monster Vault)
x4+ Zombie Shambler (Pg. 295 Monster Vault) OR x4+ Skeletal Legionary (Pg. 257 Monster Vault)

Special Considerations
Circle of Buffs: Keep in mind the following buffs that opponents on the field share with one another. Many of these go away when one of the elites drops:

  • Undead within 10 of the Death Knight gain a +2 to hit
  • Unholy Flames adds a temporary weapon buff to allies in burst 2
  • Undead within 5 of the Death Master do not have radiant damage vulnerabilities

Living Dead Girl: While our necromancer is, strictly speaking, still alive; her cavorting with dark powers has cursed her as a being of unspeakable darkness and evil, and she counts as undead for the purpose of powers and effects

Bonus DLC!:
So, you Diablo II fans might find this all very familiar: a battle in a graveyard against a boss who continually raises zombie minions? Sounds a lot like a particularly vexing first boss, right? It wasn’t a conscious choice, but when I made the connection, I decided I’d ignore my admonishment about being too eager to create new monsters…just this once:

Blood Raven would be a good stand-in for one of the other elites mentioned above. If you want to use her on her own, consider adding some undead muscle that can slow, grab, or immobilize, to compliment her evasive tactics. And don’t forget to take advantage of the cover provided by spaces featuring gravestones.


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5th Edition – Save vs. The Future

A new edition: precious loot or DEADLY TRAP??!!!?!

So as many of you already know, the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons will be publicly play-tested by the fans. That play-test is beginning near the end of this very month. That means that like it or not, 4th Editions days are numbered (even if that number won’t be up for a while) So what does that mean for my plans regarding this blog?

I’ll start by admitting that I often can’t help but drink the Kool-Aid of the next new thing. I have a deep love for some out of print games – but the grognard’s road is a hard one, and dependent on a dedicated community. It’s always refreshing to regularly play a game that is getting contemporary and constant support both from the publisher and the main body of the gaming community. It’s a bit of a fallacy that a new edition of a game necessarily means a better edition – even if that’s theoretically true. But it’s a notion I often assume and take for granted. Why?

Everybody is looking for something different in their tabletop RPGs: a lot of folks just want to hack-and-slash some monsters for a few hours, some prefer to tweak their characters like a well oiled sports car of destruction, some come for the storytelling and would be happy barely touching a die, a few want to have an erotically charged high fantasy sexventure, while others simply roll the dice because it’s what their friends like to do – and it’s an excuse to hang out. I’ve always seen myself sitting nearly square in the middle of all the different impetuses for gaming (except maybe that sex fantasy part). I like a bit of everything in my games, both the roll and the role playing. I want to tweak my character, compose a deep background for him, mesh in complex ways with the party, have him represented by a cool miniature, explore randomly generated dungeons, fight in well orchestrated set-piece battles, and have tense negotiations with opponents where high skill scores and player creativity provide the edge. I want a little of everything.

Fans dislike new editions often times because the design team chooses to emphasize elements of the game that they aren’t interested in – but as a renaissance gamer I can’t go wrong in that equation. I won’t mind if the developers swing their game in one way or the other, because to some extent I like those elements. Too much miniatures stuff for you? I love it. Not enough miniatures stuff for you? I think it’s fine, the game runs quicker now!

So while I acknowledge that part of my willingness to pre-invest in a game I barely know anything about is because I have a bad habit of towing the company line – I also think that comes from a level of brand confidence. I’ve really liked previous iterations of D&D, as well as many of Wizards of the Coast’s other products. They aren’t flawless but their designers come from a good place, and I think they manage to strike a balance between what the game needs, and what the suits at mother company demand (“We don’t care that Dragonborn aren’t ‘iconic’ enough for a Player’s Handbook – man-dragon is a 12 year old boys power fantasy waiting to happen. Put it in the book!”) I drink the Kool-Aid because I know it tastes good, I had it before!

I’ve entered my e-mail into the ol’ subscriber list to get into the play-test for D&D 5th Edition (or…”D&D Next” if you insist – though that sounds like a 90’s beverage tie-in). I like a good deal of what I’ve heard about the design ethos thus far, I like the designers (I know Monte Cook is no longer on the project but he put down a lot of the roots, and I’ve enjoyed a great deal of his game content and way of approaching things) and I’m optimistic.

Will I ignore the new game and stick with 4th Edition if I wind up not liking it? Certainly/ I know what I like and what works for me, and a “dead” game has the distinct advantage of being a complete game (a little contrast to my complaint about having no new content in discontinued games – it’s a blessing and a curse). That said, given Wizard’s track record and the notes that the designers have been sharing with the community, I think this new edition will address a lot of my gripes with 4th Edition and come out to be a game that suits my desires better. But I’ll reserve ultimate judgement until I have those books in my hands.

Given what scant information is out at the moment about the play-test, nobody will be overhauling their long term campaigns yet – it seems the early stages will feature limited selections of content, and even partial character creation won’t be out for review for a while (instead, you’ll be playing a handful of pre-generated characters to get a feel for the rudimentary elements of each class/race). As such it’s hard to design encounters (and indeed we don’t even know yet if the “encounter” is going to be the rhetorical unit of measure in 5th Ed adventures) for a system you only have faint glimpses of. On the other hand – writing adventures and encounters – even with only parts of the system in your hands – helps to explore the game’s strong and weak areas, which will make comments on the play-test more valuable. And if we’re all going to end up liking this edition the most (as the impossible pipe-dream goes), we’ll only get there because of fan contribution (which is a great thing!) This public play-test model worked great for Paizo’s “Pathfinder,” and Wizards of the Coast was wise to adopt it.

It’s going to be a long time before N5xt Edition is released. That said, if I get some good ideas, and have enough of the fledgling edition on hand – you can bet I’ll write some 5th Edition content. But for the near future it will be a footnote to my normal 4th Edition offerings.

The long and short of it – I’ll write for both editions until I decide which I like the best. Or at least that’s the plan.

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Posted by on May 10, 2012 in Announcements


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Lair of the Cavern Hydra

This encounter is intended for five PCs of 6th level

I like 4th Edition a whole lot (As if that weren’t clear) – but I will be the first to admit it has its problems. And like most obsessive nerds, I get really worked up over minor gripes about the obscure things that I love (activate NERD RAYGE!!!!1111)

For one – I never liked how the first Monster Manual resolved the mechanics of fighting a hydra. Now I get it – monster stats should be simple to read and the monster itself easy to run. But a hydra isn’t some random orc or a member of a pack of sneaky shadow hounds. It’s a big monster that should be a big fight (and they are, indeed, solo monsters). But given that in 4th edition encounter balance, a solo monster fills in for around five other monsters – I’m willing to accept an enhanced degree of complication on the part of my solos. Especially in favor of keeping such an iconic monster in tune with the expectations of the players. I mean, even people who have never heard of D&D can probably tell you how they’d go about slaying a hydra – and it doesn’t stack up with the monster as written.

Monster Design Thoughts
Monster Manual II posits a few new variants on the hydra and these hit much closer to the mark – but were still unsatisfying to me. The chosen mechanic in that case was to give the creature an additional bite attack at incremental levels of hit point damage (to represent the players lopping off a head, and having two grow from the stump). That’s much closer – but by abstracting the iconic decapitation elemental inherent in hydra slaying, it takes away from the player’s ability to make a choice and to act on their specific monster knowledge. Not to mention the fact that there’s no provision to prevent the head from growing back/multiplying, which is the whole gimmick with fighting a hydra anyway!

{pant! pant!} Ok, better now. Now I hate to make a lot of new mechanics and design choices (that’s a lie, I love to doit, but I know it isn’t always the best choice for the game) but I think some other monster design elements have inspired me to whip together a more fitting version of the hydra.

The inspiration for this little monster design experiment (and the credit for this great mechanical resolution to my gripe) comes from Dark Sun Creature Catalog (Take a look at the Silt Horror) and similarly to the kraken featured in the D&D Encounters adventure Lost Crown of Neverwinter by Eric Scott de Bie. Both depict a big monster with multiple dangerous appendages, and that’s really how I picture a hydra fight being executed. Think of any film, video game, or book with a similar fight and that’s how it goes – the heroes being grabbed by tentacles or penned in by snapping heads, attacking those primarily and the body after the immediate danger is gone (or negating the danger by attacking those appendages exclusively). That makes for an exciting, lengthy, and epic combat where the heroes can feel heroic. Ideally.

So though there’s many difference between a kraken and a hydra, I think those rules offer a good answer to the game elements of slaying this particular mythological menace. Treating the heads like tentacles – and stating them up as separate minions grants flexibility. Not to mention the fact that I rather like solo fights where a handful of minions help take some of the pressure off the boss itself (case in point).

This one is pretty drag-and-drop. The Cavern Hydra lives in a cave. That cave has some treasure in it. The hydra likes eating adventurers. Couldn’t be simpler.

I’d considered whipping up something elaborate but it isn’t really necessary. The Cavern Hydra would lair in a fairly open space in a cave – likely with a sprinkling of stalagmites or pits. Murky water or muck would be a nice plus. So long as it has room to maneuver the battle should go as intended.

New Monster

x1 Cavern Hydra
x5 Cavern Hydra Heads

The hydra is pretty straightforward, wading into melee quickly to get in as many attacks as it can as soon as possible. Ideally it should be constantly shifting away to force PCs to provoke opportunity attacks from the Threatening Reach that the main head possesses. Don’t be afraid to use those action points immediately – especially if it has combat advantage.

The hydra’s treasure can be whatever you need to suit your campaign, though given that it’s a solo creature, 2 parcels seems a fitting reward.

Handing out experience for this monster fairly might be a little unusual. The hydra’s body is not designed like normal solos because it’s expected to be used in concert with the head minions. As such, only hand out the EXP for the hydra proper. If the combat seemed particularly challenging (ie: if the players had no fire on hand) feel free to grant them an EXP bonus.

This resolves the OTHER problem of “clever” (ie: munchkin) characters attempting to “farm heads” with the expectation of getting more experience for slaying more head minions. Instead all they get is ‘nomed by MORE HEADS! That will teach them for trying to ruin a story-based mechanic with their exploitative math!

Special Considerations
Parties not anticipating a hydra might have a difficult time with this encounter if they lack abilities with the Fire or Acid keywords. You might elect to have them use a torch to ignite a stump. Require an attack roll against Reflex to see if it hits, and if so consider the stump sealed.

The biggest threat to this monster is close burst and blast attacks. The hydra might be highly motivated to go after caster types first.

It should go without saying that while presented as two separate monsters statistically – they are in fact, one creature. They will not function the same if put into a combat devoid of each other (not to mention how weird it is to have a dungeon full of snapping, angry, disembodied snake-beast heads. Actually….hrmmm….)


A hydra inspired by a kraken…Or how about a kraken that is ALSO A HYDRA! They didn’t see THAT one coming!


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