A lot of the Air Force courses I’ve attended include lessons about the importance of setting goals in order to succeed.
Today, we’ll talk about setting goals in your tabletop game. But we’re not talking about incorporating player goals into your campaign (that will probably be another post). We’re talking about giving goals to your monsters!
Everyone needs a goal in life, even your fangorious gelatinous monster. (Okay, maybe not everyone.)
In a tabletop game, your players’ characters are probably going to spend a lot of time fighting against a host of sentient creatures. They may be not be the brightest creatures, they may be evil through and through, they may be tools of some higher villain. But they will have objectives and goals they are trying to achieve.
Make your combat about those goals instead of about the monsters themselves.
Let’s face it, the “kill everything burn everything and die trying” monster makes very little sense. Villains have their own interests, their own purposes. Usually, they have some decent or even good motive that has been twisted around or blown out of proportion into a terrible evil.
“Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet… and it’s remarkable how like an egg is the human skull.”
This guy is going to have a different set of goals and plans than these two.
Your villains’ minions need not line up like a Revolutionary War battle and march to their deaths in the hopes of defeating the heroes. Setting up a fight with no goal means setting up a long, drawn-out slugfest where the two sides try to bring their enemies to zero hit points. Yawn.
Give the monster team a reason to fight. You can speed up combat and you can make the combat matter to the story. Double win!
Perhaps they simply have to delay the heroes from an objective. They can capture or kill particular innocents or valuable NPCs. They can hold a position or activate some magic artifact or complete a ritual. They can make off with a critical object, or damage a strategic location.
“Good job, heroes… you slew fifty goblins but failed to stop the saboteur who destroyed the bridge. Now our army is stuck on this side of the river while the city is under attack.”
When you do this, mindless evil can have a place in such a setting. It stands out precisely because it has no plan, no motive, no ‘higher’ purpose than carnage and destruction. It can be the enemy that simply has to be brought to zero health, something that has to be put down. And then that combat goal tells a story different from all the others, instead of every combat feeling exactly the same.
So, what does the big bad evil guy (or girl, or gelatinous monster) want? Give your villains some goals. Your heroes will thank you for it.
One of the key phrases in my D&D games is, “Roll for initiative!”
For the unfamiliar, that’s a sign that combat is about to start. Initiative is the way the players and storyteller figure out who is going first.
Depending on the game system you use and the way you run your table, combat can really slow things down. You wouldn’t think so… everything is supposed to be fast-paced like a Hong Kong movie fight scene (with slow-motion doves flying in the background).
But oftentimes, the slow motion is around the table.
“Uh… where’d that one guy go? I was going to shoot him with an arrow.”“Dude, the fighter pushed him out the window on his turn.”
“Oh, ok, who’s the closest enemy to me?”
“Look at the map.”
“Cool, (looks over character sheet for a minute, humming and stroking chin) I guess I’ll just use the same power I always use.”
“Ok, your attack hits, the orc is bloodied. Next up, the cleric.”
“Oh right. Um… let me see here… does anyone need healing? Anyone? …Guess not? So… uh… I’m going to… let me think.”
How do you solve this?
Ideally, let’s wave our hands and make all DMs/Storytellers able to craft the most compelling and exciting encounters that absolutely rivet the players’ attentions to the table.
Ok, that didn’t work. Maybe you’re lucky and you have one of those exceptional DMs. (Thank him or her if you do.)
But the rest of us don’t. So what next?
1. Try a timer.
Get an hourglass timer that runs for 30 seconds or one minute. Set a digital timer. Use something that will make it clear when the player has run out of time to make a decision. If you as the player cannot figure out even one thing for your character to do, then call it “effective role-playing” and your character gets to stand there in confusion. Again, it depends on the system you play, but in my current D&D games, a turn is supposed to be six seconds.
I can imagine standing and wondering what to do, stunned by the chaos of combat, for six seconds. The explanation is believable, and the suck factor of skipping your turn will force a bit more forethought and attention on what’s happening in game.
2. Try default actions.
One argument is that your characters are battle-hardened heroes, capable of daring feats and snap decisions. They wouldn’t freeze in fear. Your player, on the other hand, might be a tired mom, or a guy who just got off a long day of work, or (bad news) slightly severely hung over from a night of partying, or (worse news) showing up already under the influence. So treat the characters different than you treat the frazzled player.
Set up default actions for combat. Characters probably have some basic attack for fighting up close or at range. If the ranger player gets flustered, his character shoots an arrow at the nearest enemy. Done. If the fighter isn’t sure what move he wants to use, he attacks the closest enemy. The magician shoots off a basic spell. Unless healing is limited, the healer restores some health to the character with the lowest hit points. Or the healer clobbers an enemy with a mace.
The same goes for role-playing. If you’re sitting there for a minute while your player tries to figure out how to use a favorite but irrelevant skill (“Can I use Diplomacy to jump across the chasm?”) or if they just can’t figure out what to use, then they support the next player in the turn order. They can roll and on a 15 or higher they earn a bonus for the next player’s use of a skill. If this becomes a problem, you take away the bonus and their default action becomes twiddling thumbs.
3. Training practice.
Maybe your players are unfamiliar with their characters and how things should work. The rulebook and the mechanics of combat (or even role-playing) can be a maze to the new player. Perhaps you can take some one-on-one time with the players who need some additional explanation. You can show them some examples of how their powers work, or what might be useful in which situations. Talk them through a basic encounter. Help them understand some of the player basics like focusing fire on one target until it’s down, or whatever special features might be unique to their character’s class.
Don’t just complain about players. Make better players.
4. Visual aids.
Some products like the initiative tracking board might help players keep up with what’s going on. If people know when their turn is coming up, the hope is that they will get away from the distraction and get back to the game. A turn tracker like the picture gives everyone a clear idea of who’s up next. Ideally, the player can then have a plan in mind and go into their turn ready to move the combat along.5. Ban distractions.
Cell phones and computers can be fun tools for gaming. There are dice apps, and soft copy character sheets with databases and equations that automatically update. Wizards of the Coast has the D&D Character Builder that lets you manage your character online (with a subscription fee). There are ways to use computers to play virtual tabletops (check out Roll20 for example), and some DMs like me find that a laptop screen is the best DM screen ever.
The trouble is that electronics can also be a powerful monster in their own right. Make a Will save to not click alt-Tab and check Facebook or browse YouTube for hilarious videos.
Rocks fall. You lose Wi-Fi access.
6. Give monsters short-term goals.
Often combat becomes a numbers fest where each side fights to bring the other side to zero health. How realistic is that? Do our militaries engage each other in fights intended simply to bring the other side to complete destruction? Generally, both sides in the conflict have an objective to work toward. I’m going to do more with this point in another post, so I’ll stop here. But I hope you can see that a fast objective might keep attention on what’s happening and how to stop the bad guys. It’s certainly better than rolling single-digit attacks for five turns while the big boss monster flails about with a handful of hit points left, waiting for the inevitable deathblow.
7. Cut some useless rolling.
If your group is comfortable with it, cut down on the useless rolls. Does the burly fighter REALLY need to roll a check to smash through the door, or can we say he does it with a wave of the hand? Is that cheating? If you think he absolutely must roll and add bonuses and check against the difficulty of the door… and we must discuss or think about whether it is hardwood reinforced with steel or simply a shoddy construct of wood beams… and if you are fine with the idea that based on the roll of a die, the spindly wizard can walk up and kick the door down with a roll of 18 while the big fighter might batter himself against it uselessly if he rolls badly. Sure, then it’s cheating. But we can save time by simply moving on to the rolls and the actions that advance the story.
So there you have it.
Seven options you can adapt to what suits your group, in order to make the slow parts of the game pick up some speed. Take some initiative and give these a shot, then let me know if they work for you.
For those of you who regularly play, what am I forgetting? What works for your group?
“I want to leapfrog over the rogue and flip through the air to land next to the goblin and smash his face with my hammer.”
“I want to grab hold of this powerful conduit of magical energy while casting a spell at the incoming ranks of undead, in the hopes that maybe it will, like, amp up my powers… or something?”
What do you do when your players come up with unique plans and crazy ideas?
Just say “Yes!”
Tabletop Role-Playing is all about collaborative storytelling. It’s all about the characters, the heroes of the story. “Actions speak louder than words,” so when the players come up with unexpected methods to deal with conflict and trouble, that’s an important part of defining those characters for the story you’re all telling.
Sometimes this takes a little bit of stretching, a little imagination to figure out “How do we make this work?” It can be challenging to come up with a solution on the spot, but that gives the DM more practice being flexible.
Someone wants to jump on an enemy and bite at them, Mike Tyson style? Say yes.
Someone suggests setting the whole outpost on fire in order to gain a short-term advantage? Go for it.
Someone decides to activate a mysterious magic device in an attempt to stop a powerful foe? Why not!
Psst, to all the rules lawyers, you and I both know this is completely unacceptable. Stick with me for a bit. If nothing else, they just handed you a golden ticket as the DM.
Perhaps, “Oops, now the whole building is burning down, and you must race to rescue the innocent captives / recover the precious artifacts before it collapses on your heads.”
Or several sessions later, “Remember when you activated that device in order to destroy that elite monster? Yeah, you also set off a beacon that attracted the attention of an incomprehensible alien race that is now making their way to your realm. Better get ready!”
Or, “Hey, that sounds cool. Sure, you gnaw the guy’s face.” And everyone in that region now knows what this hero is willing to do in order to win.
I recall a story from a game designer recounting a session with his son. At the end of the fight, his son says, “My character goes to the statue near the altar and discovers a hidden treasure. He tries to open it, but it has a trap.” The kid starts alternate-DMing for a moment. And the game designer father had the good sense in the moment to just go with it.
The party ends up with a little extra gold, the kid’s character gets poisoned and needs to heal more than he did before, and everyone moves on with the rest of the session. But that moment told the child, “This is your game too. This is your world. Let’s explore it together.”
Just say “yes.” Your games will be better for it.
Okay… rules lawyers, it’s time for a very important caveat.
Are there limits to this suggestion? …Yes. (See what I did there?)
“Is there a way that I can use diplomacy to leap across the chasm and then maybe do an endurance check in order to disarm the trap?”
No. No, there’s absolutely not a way.
Every DM has probably had a player who gets one exceptional skill, and then tries to use it every round. “Can I use my Dungeoneering to fight the goblin? Can I use my Dungeoneering to forage for food in the sky temple? Can I use my Dungeoneering to understand complex magic and recall a historic religious ritual that will help us spot the hidden treasure? I do have a really high Dungeoneering score…”
But your players never want to hear “No.” So what do you do?
You want your default inclination to be “Yes” so long as it makes sense.
Take advantage of that collaborative aspect of the tabletop game. Make them explain how exactly their favorite go-to skill is going to help in this particular situation. You give them the impression you’re willing to go along as long as they can come up with a convincing answer. You show them you’re willing to bend a bit for the sake of story without completely breaking the game or common sense. You put the ball back in their court and ask how it’s supposed to go from there.
Your average tabletop player is probably going to be reasonable and admit that their idea is beyond the scope of reason. If not, then once again go collaborative. Have a majority vote from your players or invite suggestions on how to make it work. And of course, as the DM you have the ultimate power to conclude that there’s no reasonable way to agree to the crazy plan. So, sometimes say, “No.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about tabletop role-playing, but it’s the first Tabletop Tuesday post. I hope to funnel all the related topics into this weekly category: reviews of various products, ideas for how to add to your game on the cheap, thoughts about how to run a group, or accounts of silly thing my players have done in game.
Yet for many, the idea of tabletop role-playing is quite a mystery. Some of us have probably heard a lot about the evils of games like Dungeons and Dragons, and perhaps we’ve seen groups of young (or not so young) people dressing up and playing live action games in local parks. Even my wife was worried before her first time playing a tabletop RPG.
“I don’t have to wear a cape, do I?”
The extent of role-playing is defined by the group. No one has to quote Harry Potter terms or wave a stick around yelling “You shall not pass!” If the players are open to that, more power to them. But that’s not what the games are about.
Tabletop games are all about a group of people telling a story together.
It’s not much different from the lure of major sports. We watch men and women perform challenging but ultimately useless feats of athletic skill, and we get drawn into all the rivalries and back-story of our favorite teams and superstars. No one really cares if a guy can put a ball into a hoop suspended up in the air, or if someone can hit a little white ball with a stick.
No, we get into the stories.
Will so-and-so ever lead his team to victory? Maybe this is his year to shine. Can that player overcome his public indiscretions, or will his performance on the field suffer? Will Team A triumph over Team B this year, since Team B crushed them in the finals last season?
We even go so far as to imagine “what if” with sports. What if this great player from this team and that great player from that team were actually on the same team? What if I took these five players I really like, and put them on the same team? How would they compare against other people’s choices? And thus we have Fantasy sports, so-called D&D for Jocks.
We are drawn to the characters, the conflicts, the victories and the failures. That’s ultimately what tabletop RPGs are about. You’re not merely reading a book or watching a movie, waiting for the next twist, wondering when the mystery will be explained or the hidden villain revealed. You’re not trying to comprehend and relate to whatever main character you’ve been given.
You’re helping write the plotline for a character of your choosing.
Beyond that, tabletop gaming is a social activity with friends gathering (usually) in the same place. It’s a creative activity, allowing players the chance to think outside their daily norm and even act a part. It’s a strategic activity, with rules and tactics that players can use to their advantage, like a chess game with dice. When it works out, tabletop gaming can be a great diversion, just like any hobby.
Some of the best parts of tabletop role-playing are the creative ways players solve or avoid (or outright ignore) the problems and troubles the DM/GM/Storyteller sends their way.
One of the other best parts is coming up with those surprises to stump your players.
This afternoon, I sat down with the wife and kids to continue our D&D campaign. They’ve been steered (mostly by their characters’ needs and not by railroad tracks) toward tracking down a manipulative vampire clan. Members of the clan operate behind the scenes all over the realm, and it’s the heroes’ job to root these villains out.
They’re starting to travel all around the region, which gives me the chance to use a variety of settings.
I was going to use my copy of Dungeon Delve, with its pre-made adventures. But that would require getting tiles together, and I was looking for something with less prep required.
Good thing I had an unopened pack of GameMastery map tiles: Mines.
It’s 18 tiles that are made to mix and match, so that you can create a variety of tunnels to explore.
Events in the game led the wife’s and kids’ characters to a nearby mine overrun by goblins somehow connected to the clan. There are surviving miners… probably. Rescue is the main goal… as far as they know.
The intrepid heroes are ready to move in, and since it’s a dark mine, I lay out one Mines map tile at a time as they advance through the mine. I fanned out the tiles, blank backs up, and let the kids and Jami pick which one would be next. Then I came up with a brief answer for why that section of tunnel mattered. Sometimes it was tracks in the dungeon. Sometimes it was signs of battle to hint at what they might soon face. Once it was a vein of gleaming ore.
But even before all of that, right off the bat, their creative juices are flowing. I start off with a Dungeoneering check, as Beastly Tiger notices something amiss in the entrance of the tunnel. The goblins have prepared a rock-fall trap for unwanted guests. The kids discuss how best to deal with this, when I tell them their characters hear goblins chatting ahead in the tunnel.
The children gave me a pleasant surprise by remembering the idea of “holding action.” Basically, that means a character is ready to do a certain action if something specific happens. “I hold my axe up, ready to chop at the first goblin that walks through the door,” for example.
Deborah decides Beastly Tiger would make some noise to get the goblins’ attention, then she prepares to chuck a rock at the cords that will trigger the trap. Justin likes this plan, and declares that Clayface has his crossbow ready to shoot the cords at the other side of the tunnel, once the goblins are in position. Jonathan finishes up by “holding” a magic missile to hit any of the goblins who survive the rock-fall trap.
Needless to say, the battle went poorly for the goblins. It also went poorly for Jami’s new monk character, Lily-Ann, a halfling who is unfortunately about goblin sized. That explains why Beastly Tiger may have accidentally swung his hammer to smash Lily-Ann in the side of the head:
Deborah rolled a 1. We picked a fumble card, and it said “You attack your ally instead. This attack is a critical threat.” So Deborah rolled for her attack against Lily-Ann, and the die went off the table. She tried again, and rolled a 20. Murphy’s Law, I guess.
Even so, the heroes had little difficulty dealing with the goblins and some creepy-crawlies in the tunnels.
I needed a good hook to end with, and as we took a quick break, it came to me.
I’d been removing the old map tiles behind their characters in the mine, partly to save space, but more importantly, to set up the surprise.
They hit an intersection, determined a direction, and quickly came to a dead end with the section that has ore. They fought more beasties, then turned around to back-track…
And eventually they found themselves right back at the ore, even though they’d gone the opposite direction.
Deborah and Jonathan look at me funny. Jami asks, “Wait, what?” And then it starts to dawn on their faces…
Time and space are being shifted around in the mine. The path they took is now completely different. There is a monstrous creature in the cavern whose powerful twisted magic creates this effect, and they must find it and slay it in order to find their way out.
Jonathan’s eyes go wide, and he declares, “I like where this is going.”
Removing the tiles saved space and created a fun challenge.
The kids took off to play outside, since there was only a couple hours before sunset. But they made sure to ask, “Can we keep playing once we come back inside?”
Real life has been hectic and complicated, forcing me to adjust priorities and pay time and attention to some important things…
…Like family game night!
(Not really, but we did make time Monday night to get our game on for a bit.)
A couple weeks ago, my wife and I discussed her character. Jami likes the idea of Bethrynivere the military leader, but the character bores her. Likewise, Deborah loves Beastly Tiger, the dim-witted wall of muscle. But she doesn’t care so much about the panther companion that comes with a beastmaster ranger.
We looked into some other options while leveling up the kids’ characters.
Deborah selected a marauder ranger, which basically means combining various actions in order to capture a sense of “You’re the fastest character out there, rushing around the battlefield, charging into your enemies.” She plays to Beastly Tiger’s strengths (namely, his Strength stat) by chucking throwing hammers and then running up to smash faces with her larger war hammer.
We finished the character, and I couldn’t help but hear, “Stop! Hammer time!”
Meanwhile, Jami is trying to choose a class and race for a new character. She doesn’t want to duplicate any of the roles in the party, so a magic user is out. A rogue is out. A burly up-close fighter is out, because that’s basically what Beastly Tiger is no matter what the class says. On top of that, the party has no healer. Jami is convinced she should make a healer just because they need one, but that’s not what she wants to do.
I assure her not to worry about healing. I have a plan for an NPC of sorts, an angelic being that grants healing to the characters (in a limited fashion) when they get their butts handed to them in combat.
I don’t know how exactly I’d explain its presence yet, but I’m sure I’ll think of something! I just don’t want Jami feeling forced to play something she’s not interested in. So she ignores the healing classes and looks at a few options.
And maybe it was excitement about the upcoming Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria… or maybe it was inspiration from Gollum’s total rage assault on Frodo at the end of Return of the King… or maybe none of the above. But Jami settled on the idea of a Monk, and she decided her monk had to be a Halfling.
Yeah. You heard of Frodo, now meet his cousin Judo.
I kid, I kid. The monk’s name is Lily-Ann. The heroes met her in a session a while back where they fought that Dire Bear.
Once the bear was vanquished, the team gathered all available clues and figured that the thieving merchant they needed to find was probably holed up in the abandoned cathedral near the town. They set off to chase him down, and encountered an assassin who also sought him for reasons known only to her.
There was a brief tense moment–Beastly Tiger threatened to eat the assassin for dinner, and she responded coolly, “I think you’ll find my meat too tough for your tastes.” (I was proud of my off-the-cuff cheesy retort!)
Then the heroes realized the assassin shared the same short-term goal–stop the merchant, recover the gem–so they agreed to work together. They stepped into the cathedral and found the merchant holding the gemstone, protected by a large bubble of energy. Goblins surrounded the bubble, clawing and scraping to no effect. The merchant raised the gem, revealed his true demonic form, and exerted control over the goblins, turning them against the heroes.
That’s where we left off about two weeks ago.
While plotting the big fight, I thought about incorporating vampires into the plot line. I liked the idea of this merchant-devil guy gaining power from the blood that is drawn on the pre-made map. (Eevil Paizo, including little hooks and plot ideas in your simple map drawing!) But then he’d have to be a merchant-devil-vampire guy.
Devil vampires? Yessss…
Come to think of it, I had a campaign that was headed toward an arc about toppling a vampire clan. We had to stop due to various military deployments and such, and we never got to realize that portion of the story. Maybe these devil vampires could be a similar arc for family game night.
And the need to stop their evil would certainly explain the angelic being’s presence and interest in the heroes. Bonus!
So, with all this in mind, I set up the fight. I throw in a heap of goblin minions. In game terms, they’re the cannon fodder, the scrawny little losers that die as soon as they take damage. Minions give the players a sense that their characters are really powerful heroes, crushing all opposition.
They serve my purpose as well; the devil vampire has a healing buff that grows with the blood of each goblin slain.
On top of that, Lily-Ann and the assassin NPC both take bleed damage early in the fight. Bleeding sounds like something else that might give the devil vampire strength, so I describe the power he gains. Now they really want him to die.
Of course, with all the bleeding, they need a healer. So I tell them there is a flash of radiance at the back of the sanctuary, and an angelic being appears, hovering above the ground. She starts shooting beams of warm light at the heroes, and their wounds are healed. They want to know what her deal is, why she’s there, but they’re content to let that wait until after the fight.
The heroes smash their way through many goblins, while the assassin tries to distract the devilish merchant. The kids and Jami focus exclusively on the goblins, but the devil vampire remains completely protected behind a powerful shield. I set about 13 black token stones in an arc inside the cathedral, marking the boundary of the shield.
Deborah describes the various ways she wants Beastly Tiger to attack goblins… usually something like playing Leap Frog over a friend and then landing a crushing shot with the hammer. At some point, Jonathan decides that his not-sneaky-at-all Dragonborn Wizard is going to try to slip around the goblins by creeping through the shadows behind the pillars of the cathedral sanctuary. I can’t believe he wants to do this, but that’s the beauty of the game.
They can do whatever they want, or at least try.
As the kids and Jami beat up the goblins, Justin misses his attack by a very narrow margin. I describe how his crossbow bolt flies through a goblin wizard’s robe instead of hitting the goblin. And I think, “Well, if it flies through his robe, it’ll hit whatever is behind it… namely the shield.”
I describe the impact on the shield, and I replace a black token with a red one. This piques Jonathan’s interest.
On his next turn, he abandons his sneaking plan and decides to start attacking the shield directly. I end up replacing another token or two with red, and I explain how the shield flickers or wavers with each hit.
Suddenly no one cares about the goblins.
Like, not at all.
All of them are focused on the shield, to the extent that they’re ignoring the attacks of little goblins standing right next to them.
Justin has Clayface firing one crossbow bolt after another into the shield, trying to bring it down. The heroes are close to breaking through. One of the little pesky goblins runs up to harass or attack Clayface, and rolls a 1. I pick a card from the Critical Fumble deck.
The goblin ends up with something like, “Return to Sender.” It means the attack failed so bad that the opponent grabs and keeps the weapon the attacker just used. The goblin essentially runs up and hands Clayface his knife in the middle of the fight, while Clayface remains focused on the shield.
The goblins didn’t last long. And once the shield was brought down, the heroes were quick to pile on the devil vampire. Jami’s monk has a powerful move she can do once per fight, called Open the Gates of Battle. It does extra damage when you attack a target that has full health. Throughout the fight, we were discussing when she could or should use “Open the Gates.” She really really wanted to use it on the big devil vampire, and the moment finally arrived.
She says, “I wanna OPEN THE GATES!” Deborah and Jonathan cheer with her, “Yeah! Open the Gates! Open the Gates!”
Justin yells, “AND THEN CLOSE IT ON HIM!”
The heroes surround the devil vampire and beat on him with everything they’ve got. My assassin NPC manages to snatch the gemstone from the monster’s hands, and jumps away. (I’ve been trying to get her to grab it the whole time, but unfortunately I’ve been rolling a string of 3s and 4s.)
He responds by spraying acid and bile all around him a la Exorcist, pushing the heroes back. Then he rushes at the assassin and tries to get the gemstone back.
With everyone unloading their best attacks, the devil vampire is in a bad way. I get my turn, and he takes the gemstone back, raising it up into the air triumphantly, calling on its power to aid him and cackling in a mustache-twirling villain sort of way.
Justin declares, “I want to shoot him IN THE FACE!” and attacks with a crossbow shot that I know will kill the vampire. And it’s really late at this point, and we need to finish.
Always finish with a hook, if you can get away with it.
The devil vampire’s grin turns to open-mouthed confusion and he looks from the gem to the assassin at his feet. Something has gone wrong. “NOOOOO!” He screams at her. “WHAT HAVE YOU DO–”
I tell Jami and the kids, “The crossbow bolt flies into the creature’s mouth, killing him and triggering the explosive power of Clayface’s weapon. The devil vampire explodes, sending the assassin sliding across the ground. The goblins under the vampire’s control fall dead. Aaaaaand… we’re done. Time to get ready for bed.”
Deborah and Jonathan shout, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
And the next day, Jonathan is already asking, “Can we play more tonight?”
They can’t wait to see what happens. Thinking of the silliness they come up with, I can’t wait to see what happens either.
It’s almost weekly game night with my wife and kids. Maybe I better post last week’s silliness.
Last week my wife and kids had their heroes continue a desperate attack against the goblins who took over their town. They had just finished clearing out the Town Hall when the last living goblin cried out, “Wait! I’ll tell you everything!”
So we began with that conversation.
The fearful goblin explains the mysterious jewel the goblins are seeking: it’s a magical artifact that can exert control over the goblins in some way. The band of goblins are part of a larger organization led by the enigmatic Kal, who no one has ever seen and lived to describe. Kal has allowed the goblins to keep the jewel as a sign of trust in their relationship, and the goblins have pledged their support to Kal’s unknown goals.
Further details are all well above the head of the pathetic goblin captive, so the party stops questioning him.
However, if his story is true, the goblins aren’t motivated to ransack or destroy. The heroes begin wondering if it’s possible for them to help the goblins find the jewel and thus end the invasion on the town.
They bring the goblin captive into the next underground tunnel and head for the smithy to attempt diplomacy.
The goblin is sent up the stairs with the offer of coordinated effort.
His corpse is dropped down the stairs a moment later, followed by a fireball.
Burak, the half-orc sorceror I control, takes a crit and gets knocked 15 feet down the tunnel. I’m fine with this. As I’ve said before, I like finding ways to get him out of the way. That way, we can focus on my wife’s character and especially my kids’ characters as heroes.
Justin’s rogue, Clayface, is the first up the stairs. The party already knows there are four goblins near the stairs. But I whisper to Justin, informing him that there are four more goblins at the far end of the room. One of them is the purple goblin the heroes have been looking for.
I don’t put down any pieces because I don’t want the rest of the party to know yet. They’re downstairs. They can’t see these extra goblins.
But I do tell Justin, “Would Clayface want to tell his friends anything about what’s up here?”
Justin thinks a moment, and ‘Clayface’ informs his allies, “Guys, there are goblins up here.”
Deborah looks at me with eyes and a smirk that say, “Duh… we knew that.”
Jonathan calls out, “Uh… okay! Thanks…” in a sing-song response.
Jami’s character is next up the stairs and finds out about the added goblins. She laughs about Justin’s well-meaning attempt at a warning.
Soon everyone is upstairs from the underground tunnel into the smithy (well, everyone but Burak). The fight is pretty intense, and almost all the heroes are bloodied, D&D 4th Edition’s term for “half-dead.”
On his turn, Jonathan decides that Killbot is mad about this.
He starts asking about rules for biting.
“I want to walk up and bite the goblin on the nose.”
I try not to laugh. “Your character is pretty big and these guys are small. Look at that picture of your character. If you bite a goblin, you’re probably biting on his whole head.”
“Okay, even better.”
We roll for grappling, as Killbot tries to catch and hang onto a goblin. Then we roll an attack for the bite itself. It hits but doesn’t do too much damage. Jonathan doesn’t care. He just wants the goblins to know that the Dragonborn wizard is MAD.
Then it’s Justin’s turn.
He has a habit of getting excited that it’s his turn and immediately rolling dice to see “how well I do.” He knows most things in D&D require the roll of a 20-sided die.
He rolls a 20, a critical hit or automatic success.
As usual, I have to ask him, “But what are you trying to do?”
“Shoot my crossbow at something that’s not dead that’s not one of my friends in the game.”
Killbot continues his toothy rampage. He grabs and bites the purple goblin on the head.
But the goblins score a lot of hits. Jonathan looks around and says, “I’m the only one in the party not bloodied yet.”
He says this as I calculate damage for an arrow that hits him and bloodies him.
The purple goblin and another goblin die in a scorching burst cast by Jonathan’s wizard.
The three remaining goblins get mad and start chanting, “Bursh nakh!”
Two of the three fall dead from Clayface’s crossbow bolts.
But then the wall shakes, splinters fly, and the last goblin rejoices.
Killbot grabs hold of the third goblin, and bites him. The goblin tries to break free but is held fast.
Then Justin decides he wants to shoot at it.
“Justin, your friend is holding the goblin… the goblin who is about to die.”
“You remember, your magic crossbow causes explosions when it kills enemies.”
“You might hit Killbot with your crossbow, or you might hit the goblin and make it explode. Are you sure about this?”
I try to throw him some rope.
“Let’s talk about delaying actions or holding actions. You can choose something you want to do, and say ‘if this or that happens, I will do this.’ So, maybe Beastly Tiger could stand next to a door and declare, ‘If an enemy comes through, I’m going to smash it in the face with my hammer and call it a hobo.’ Your character picks an action and waits for the right moment to do it. Does that make sense?”
“And you guys are in the same room. So you can talk about this. You can tell Killbot, ‘Throw that goblin toward me.’ Then when he does, you can shoot it and make it explode.”
“So… do you want to do that?”
“I want to shoot it.”
“Right now?” “Yup.”
I give Killbot a break and allow him a saving throw to see if he can react in time. You roll a d20, and on 10 or better, you succeed… so you have just over a 50-50 shot at whatever it is. He saves, and throws the goblin away just as the crossbow bolt hits it.
With the goblins defeated, the heroes have a moment to catch their breath.
Then they learn what “Bursh nakh” means, as the Dire Bear the goblins summoned bursts into the room like the Kool-Aid man.
There’s a merchant who has a magical gem he took from goblins. There are goblins who have taken over the town in order to find him and get it back. There are townsfolk in need of heroes to free their homes from the goblin invaders. And in the last session, there are a bunch of dead goblins in the street after the initial assault breaches the gate and gets the heroes into the town.
The kids’ characters have done some research, and they know about secret tunnels between buildings. They hope to use these to surprise the goblins. I remind them which buildings have tunnels and where they lead. Jonathan declares, “I have a plan!”
So they plan to bust into the nearest buildings (a collection of small stores), take out the goblins, move through the tunnel to Town Hall, wipe out the goblins, and then move to the Blacksmith’s forge to find and eliminate a purple goblin for a reward from the dead blacksmith’s mourning apprentice.
They figure if they do this, they will benefit and they will break the goblin invasion.
Deborah also suggests listening in on the goblins’ conversations to see what they can learn.
But first, they have to get into the building. And at this point, I remind them that they’re all standing outside a tailor’s shop, right next to the window where the goblins inside can surely see them.
Roll for initiative!
Beastly Tiger (Deborah’s hunter with a newly acquired magic hammer) launches himself through the window, executing a tuck-and-roll across the table on the other side to land with a crushing blow on the first goblin. The total damage of the hit is more than half of the goblin’s life, and we follow the suggested house rule that such a hit is an instant-kill on a monster. So this goblin gets pulped.
I place a little red glass marker and remove the goblin. “It’s a blood bubble!” Deborah cheers. Queasy Mom is not enthused. Blood bubbles are super gross.
Jami’s character Bethrynivere is up next. We’re playing a lot more by ear than by rules, so we both remember a different version of Bethrynivere had an ability that “commands” another player to make an attack — hence the “leader” role of the warlord. Bethrynivere does this (because we forget that this version doesn’t have that power), commanding Beastly Tiger to “Strike left!”
Deborah rolls a 20. The critical hit card we draw says “crushed knee” and gives a rough idea of how this affects the monster. But once again, the damage is enough to instant-kill the goblin. We decide that Beastly Tiger’s hit smashes the knee, spinning the goblin into the air, and it lands upon its head, incapacitated.
Another blood bubble is placed.
My goblins are up next. One of them, having seen two of his allies exploded in brutal fashion, dives out the other window of the store and finds the rest of the heroes. He takes a shot at Bethrynivere but misses.
A goblin sapper sets a bomb in the building, hoping to eliminate Beastly Tiger. Then he makes a break for it. Now there’s only one other goblin in the room with Deborah’s character.
Deborah declares she wants to grab the goblin, throw him toward the bomb, and then dive out the window to escape the explosion. We discuss ways to make this happen, and Jami finds one of her warlord’s powers is to draw attention to herself, essentially allowing her to move a monster toward her.
“I’m the one you want! Face me!”
The goblin moves forward a few squares, ready to hurl a spear at the warlord. Then Beastly Tiger grabs him.
Beastly is an athletic and acrobatic nightmare for monsters, and this is no different. I require a few rolls–one attack roll to grab the goblin, one for the acrobatic feat of flipping the goblin behind Beastly, one for the acrobatic attempt to dive through the window. I give the goblin a chance to avoid falling flat on his face (he fails).
A moment later, half the building (and the goblin) disappears in the blast.
The goblins outside have been eliminated, except for one: the sapper who set the bomb. He is hurt, but he’s running. Killbot, Jonathan’s dragonborn wizard, decides to wait until the sapper gets to the Town Hall. Jonathan asks what his character can see of the Town Hall: are there windows? There’s a window right by the double-door where the goblin is standing. The goblin pounds on the door, calling for his friends to let him in. That’s when Killbot strikes, with a magic missile blast of force followed by a bolt of lightning.
“The goblins inside can’t miss the flash of lightning and the thunder that follows, and they certainly realize that they no longer hear their friend’s cries for help. They’re going to come out and look for who did this.”
So Jonathan suggests that the heroes rush into the secret tunnel in the now-destroyed merchant shops, and sneak into the Town Hall while the goblins are outside, in order to set an ambush for them when they return.
Deborah still wants to eavesdrop on goblin conversations.
In the end, a compromise is reached. The heroes sneak into the basement of the Town Hall, and creep to the stairs that lead up to the main floor. From there, they can listen to the goblins.
Justin’s character, Clayface, is the consummate rogue–or “sneaky guy” as he would say. I have him roll a Perception check, and he rolls high. So I tell him that Clayface does some kind of Hawkeye-Avengers stuff where he listens closely with his ridiculously-high-for-level-1 Perception skill, and maps out roughly where all the goblins are by the sounds of their voices. He’s very satisfied with this.
Jonathan’s wizard is smart enough that he possibly knows some of the goblin language, so he interprets for the others. The goblins are concerned because this gem has a secret power that will allow whoever holds it to control the goblins somehow. They aren’t really out to attack the town. They’re running scared, trying to find and stop the merchant who has the gem before he figures this out. I tell Jonathan that there are some other complicated and unfamiliar words about “undead” in there, for foreshadowing.
I also tell them that the conversation dies down. They know a fight should start soon, with goblin guards at the top of the stairs. Deborah loves playing Beastly Tiger as a dimwit, so she has him say, “I can’t hear you. Keep talking!” Jonathan laughs and “rolls” for Beastly Tiger’s bluff attempt.
Appropriately, he rolls a 1. Deborah accepts this.
One guard gets smashed instantly by Beastly Tiger; the other escapes a near death when the string of Clayface’s crossbow breaks. (Justin also rolls a 1 when trying to attack the fleeing guard.)
Now the goblins know there are intruders, and they take up hidden positions. The heroes creep up the stairs and try to figure out where the goblins could be. I ask Justin to try another Perception check. He rolls a 19, and adds his high skill.
“You can hear their panicked breathing.”
The kids love it. I point out a couple of goblin positions, lurking under tables or around corners. But clearly there are fewer known locations now than there were before.
Beastly Tiger still has initiative (because I’d rather not reroll all of that), so he rushes in, with another acrobatic leap onto a table followed by a smashing attack with the hammer. I keep letting Deborah do this because 1) that’s how she pictures her character, and 2) since she ends up rolling twice for every attack, sooner or later, one of those maneuvers will end in spectacular failure. Last session, she tried to leap onto a rooftop and rolled a 1. I told her Beastly Tiger smashed his face into the overhanging beam as he tried to pull himself up. It was delightful.
Another goblin gets insta-smashed.
Another blood bubble is placed on the map.
Meanwhile, Jonathan puts out a treasure chest in a back room. He’s the one that wants to be a DM. He convinces Jami to send Bethrynivere that way, and she finds the chest along with a goblin mage. Those two trade shots, and then Killbot comes to Bethrynivere’s aid, blasting the mage with lightning.
Along comes Clayface, sneaking into a hidden position to strike with his Dragonfire Crossbow.
Early in the session, Justin remembered very clearly that sometimes the magic crossbow he got from the townsfolk will make a target explode. I remind him that it only happens when a monster gets killed by the crossbow. Sure enough, the goblin mage is almost dead, when Clayface hits it with a sneak attack that does bonus damage. I roll attacks against Bethrynivere, and it’s not enough to hit. She raises her shield just in time to avoid being hurt by the shower of fire, bone, and meat.
Another blood bubble is placed on the map.
Jonathan rushes his character to the chest, attempting to fling it wide open. I take advantage of his greed and attack him with a trap. I roll pretty high, and now his wizard is bloodied–half dead. And poisoned.
He expresses shock. “Killbot has never been bloodied before!”
That’s what you get for going after the treasure while enemies are still around!
Beastly Tiger picks up one of the two goblins left, and tries to slam it into the other. The attack fails, but my goblin also fails his attempt to keep his footing, and he lands on his face. Bethrynivere starts healing Killbot and Beastly Tiger, who has taken a few hits and is also bloodied.
The goblin on the ground crawls under a table and hides, and the other goblin takes another crossbow bolt from Clayface. Once again, the damage is more than half the monster’s total life, so this goblin explodes as the Dragonfire Crossbow’s magic kicks in.
Another blood bubble is placed on the map.
Jonathan has Killbot open the chest and claim treasure. I take out the deck of Wonderous Items or whatever it is (another Paizo is Eevil topic in the works), and I tell him to draw three cards. He gets a card of coins, a messenger ring (with a secret compartment to place a note), and a “helm pendant.”
I promise to tell him what each of these do, but I don’t get to it in time. (More suspense for the next session, perhaps!)
At this point, Jami has been quietly talking to a friend who tells us that this year’s last showing of Shakespeare on the Green – Julius Caesar – is tonight at 8 PM. We need to go very soon if we’re going to get there on time. I glance down at the map, looking for a quick end with a hook for the next session.
“As you approach the cowering goblin under the table, he cries out in Common, ‘WAIT!! I’ll tell you everything!’ “
1. noun. (archaic) an acronym for Non-Player Character, commonly used in Role-Playing Games. This character is one with whom the Player Characters (PCs) can interact in order to gain information, accept goals or objectives, or conduct business.
2. noun. (modern) A target or prop upon which the PCs attempt to unleash all manner of pain, suffering, and torture, without expecting any consequences.
The session in which the children accidentally all the NPCs.
(Grammar Nazi disclaimer: it’s a meme. The mistake is intentional.)
So, in session 2, the intrepid heroes created and controlled by my wife and children have successfully defeated a two-prong attack by goblins and a host of icky natural critters. As is always my fear and always the custom of seemingly all D&D players everywhere, regardless of what they face, the heroes attempt to capture the last surviving enemy in order to interrogate it.
One goblin remains and is questioned. He reveals that hordes of goblins are en route to the nearby town, bent on recapturing a jewel that was stolen from them. The heroes take their prisoner along in the hopes of using him as a bargaining chip.
Inwardly I laugh at the thought of goblins caring about one of their number held as a prisoner.
But that’s a surprise for a later session.
The plan for session 3 is mostly role-playing and interacting with NPCs.
This is one of the most fun parts of the game for me, because you never know what a player is going to decide to do to your NPCs. It’s usually good.
Session 3 begins with a recap, and then I describe the scene as the heroes return to their town (the supposed target of the goblin hordes). The townsfolk are camped out in makeshift tents like refugees, cast out from their own walls. The goblins have already struck.
I pick out one of the official-looking faces from the Urban NPCs deck, and now he’s the guard captain who meets the heroes and briefs them on the situation. He’s gathering together all able-bodied townsfolk for a counter-attack in the morning, and he needs the heroes to assist in the raid.
However, the rest of the people are giving the party the stink-eye.
And so I take a moment to describe skill challenges to my kids. “Now’s your chance to use some of these skills your characters are good at in order to figure out what’s going on, why the town is mad at you, and maybe get some info that will help you beat the goblins the next day.”
I also had a stack of those face cards ready for them to randomly choose, with a rough idea of who each NPC might be. They rolled initiative, but I had my half-orc barely-functional comic-relief character go first to show how an interaction with an NPC might go. He talks like Hulk, if Hulk was stupid. Or more stupid than whatever version of Hulk you might be familiar with.
I lucked out and got the crazy-looking guy. The conversation was devoid of anything useful, other than serving as an example of picking a skill to use to interact with an NPC, rolling a check, and seeing what happens.
Justin’s character, Clayface the rogue, was up next, and he got the innkeeper. Since the innkeeper was fairly friendly, all went well, and Justin used Streetwise to get some gossip about what took place.
Then my wife’s warlord, Bethrynivere interacted with a politician from the big city. The NPC was a total witch–no, not a magic-using witch, the other kind–and blamed the incompetent “countryside buffoons” for the failed defense of the town. But Bethrynivere was able to use History (her character’s primary hobby) to point out the unique and abnormal nature of the goblin attack in order to persuade the politician to help the party rather than hinder them.
She makes the guards bring out some of the salvaged supplies that have been gathered for the assault. I just let the players pick a total of five random cards from a Dragon Trove deck (or whatever it’s properly called… I’ll probably write a “Paizo is Eevil” post about it and offer a picture and link).
The warlord ended up with a special suit of armor. The rogue got a new crossbow. The hunter picked a heavy hammer. The wizard got a mysterious magic potion. And my “special” half-orc got a chainmail shirt he intends to sell for some extra gold.
So far, all has gone pretty well.
Jonathan’s wizard, Killbot encountered another wizard, a supermodel-perfect blonde-haired fellow who boasted proudly of all his awesomeness and ridiculed the so-called heroes for letting this calamity happen while they were out camping in the woods. I really tried to push Jonathan’s buttons by being as annoying as possible, but he calmly made a Diplomacy check to defuse the situation. Then the two wizards discussed the magic energy in the area, and Jonathan’s Arcana check helped confirm what this wizard suspected. The jewel the goblins were after was a powerful artifact that was changing the flow of magic around the town.
I was pleasantly surprised thus far. The kids were taking this pretty seriously, and kind of thinking about what their characters might do instead of how they personally would like to respond.
Then it was Deborah’s turn.
Actually, I’m pretty sure.
Deborah is smart, and she has a concept of what Beastly Tiger is like and how he interacts with people.
For one, he calls everyone a hobo. Sometimes he politely asks them if they are a hobo.
Because apparently old people are hobos, as a general rule.
Turns out Beastly Tiger is also a hobo.
Oh, now we’re getting some backstory here.
So Beastly Tiger encounters a monk, a servant of the Divine Aspect of Strength. And this fellow suggests that he is willing to offer a supernatural blessing to people of proven strength so that they might better defeat the goblins who have taken over the town.
“Show me your strength,” the monk says in my best Ian McKellen Gandalf impression, “and I will bless you.”
Deborah looks at the card for the hammer her character received, and grins.
“I could make you fly,” she threatens.
At this point, we have a conversation about consequences in-game, and how the townspeople might react to an attack on their number.
We also revisit the definition of Diplomacy.
Beastly Tiger re-thinks his plan, and the suggestion is that he can show off some martial skill with throwing knives.
Deb rolls low, and I describe the monk’s eyebrow raise in a question as Tiger’s knife nicks the side of a tree.
I almost went with the Miyagi line, “Wood not hit back.”
The monk is not satisfied and demands that Beastly Tiger try again.
So then Tiger decides perhaps a good demonstration would be to throw the monk into the tree.
Poor NPCs, objects of wrath and torment.
We discuss again the wisdom of such a decision.
Tiger finally decides to pound the tree with his hammer, sending splinters flying in all directions with the force of his mighty strike.
And that finally works.
Thank goodness, because I thought I’d hear the fateful words, “I attack the monk,” any minute now.
One “round” of NPC interactions has finished, and so I ask the kids if they want to do another round.
They’re loving it. “Yes!” they cry.
Again, my orc-sorc goes first. But DM PCs are notoriously horrible for stealing the spotlight, and I have eleven characters to play in this session already. So I want this out of the way quick.
I pick a random card and get a poor waif’s face.
I can picture her begging, “Please, sire, just a crust of bread to get me through the week…”
But Burak the sorceror is… sorely lacking in the People Skills department. It goes a little something like this:
My shout of “NO” is so loud and unexpected that my wife practically jumps and the kids’ eyes go wide. But then they start cackling, because once again it is proven that Burak is a moron.
“Surely no hero really acts that way,” you may think.
Yes, but players do it all the time.
I had a player show up impaired, we’ll say.
The session turned out to be quite odd, but never more so than when the heroes saved a villager from ruffians on his farm.
The Halfling comes running out the door of his farmhouse crying for help. The ruffians chase him, clearly intent on bodily harm if not bloodshed.
The heroes intervene and defeat the ruffians.
Then the player immediately says, “I INTERROGATE THE HALFLING!”
“Interrogate” is a word with connotations. It’s not just “ask how he’s doing” or “try to find out why the ruffians were after him.”
I questioned his chosen course of action at least three times, explaining, “That’s the Halfling you just rescued. You really want to interrogate him?”
“Shhh…” he whispered with a dismissive hand-wave. “It happened. It happened.”
Yes. Players do interesting and horrible things to NPCs.
So back to the game…
Now it’s Clayface’s turn, and he gets some beggarly-looking fellow with obvious fright on his face. I figure this is a contact of Clayface’s, someone with minor ties to criminal elements, someone who knows what happens in the back alleys of town. And Clayface wants to know what this guy knows, so Justin goes with Intimidation checks.
Last time, Justin’s character was represented by a “Human Bandit” miniature, with a big sack like Santa Claus slung over one shoulder. Thus, when it came time to question the goblin they captured, Justin’s plan was “I hit him with my sack.”
No questions, no demands. Just start beating the goblin until answers fall out, I guess.
This time, I gave him a miniature that looked a little more roguish. It’s an assassin with a flowing black cloak, jumping back as if parrying an attack with his shortsword.
Now Clayface’s intimidating plan is, “I whap him with my cape.”
Roll for a Humiliation check, maybe.
Naturally, he rolls a 20. (Pun intended.)
Capes can be pretty scary, I guess.
Soon, they’ve finished another round of chats with the friendly folk of the town.
They’ve learned about secret tunnels they can use to get the drop on the goblins.
They’ve learned about the jewel the goblins are after–that it’s probably an artifact of some magic power, that it’s affecting the area around the town in a bad way, and that it was seen in the hands of the merchant they rescued in the first session long ago.
They’ve gained some material and supernatural aid to help them own some goblins.
And they’ve been offered a few side quests from concerned citizens with interests in town.
It seems a good place to stop, and I’m left hoping that the players learned a little more about how the game works.
But I suspect that we’re going to have to talk about not beating on the NPCs again soon.
And I’ll be okay with that as long as I don’t hear “Shhhh… it happened.”
Giving up some of the structure of the game you’re playing can sometimes make for more interest in the story you’re telling.
So we finally got a gaming table set up in our living room (a sweet hexagon table we picked up for cheap… reminds me of BattleTech), and the entertainment center next to the table is filled with all things D&D.
Time to put it all to use!
For my birthday, among other things, we decided to finally sit down as a family and play some D&D for the first time since our move. I had some new Eevil Paizo products, and I wanted to try them out! I whipped up some generic notes to form a very rough (and thus flexible) plotline, got character sheets and minis and map packs ready, and laid out sets of dice.
We got started, but we’re not the traditional table-top RPG group. I’m dealing with a 12-year-old and an 11-year-old, who both pretty much “get it.” My wife is also playing, but our 1-year-old is requiring attention RIGHT NOW. And then I’ve got a 6-year-old who wants to play but also starts thinking about Angry Birds any time there’s a second of silence in the game. So… how to cater to the needs of this group?
It has been a while since we played. I mention terms like “Perception” and then have to explain where on the character sheet to find the skill. We talk about powers and attacks, but they’re not remembering what all they can do. We go over generic descriptions of the characters they’ve chosen, and what sort of decisions they might make.
I figure, start with action rather than with non-combat role-playing, or else the 6-year-old is done. Sure enough, he’s pretty well into the combat, even if he needs coaching on how his character can participate. “You can shoot your crossbow at that rat, or you can run over, pull out your sword, and slash at it.” His first attack goes well, but the second misses. He seems kind of overwhelmed, and his character gets stung by a scorpion. I try to put it in terms he understands. “Remember when you were crying today because your sister hit you SO hard? That’s what this felt like for Clayface. He got stung in the shoulder just like you got hit. He could take maybe another three or four hits like that before he gets knocked out.”
So he’s mad at that scorpion, and still kind of unsure about what to do. Then my wife uses her warlord to give my son a free attack. Basically, the warlord opens up, vulnerable to attack, drawing the attention of some enemy… then one of the warlord’s allies gets to use that distraction to his or her advantage, making a free attack. Justin rolls his attack…
…and gets a 20.
I use the GameMastery Crit Hits deck (and the Crit Fumble deck) for additional description and excitement. I have seen exactly zero players complain about the fun of finding out what specifically their crits accomplished, and sometimes the random cards fit the story in ways far better than I could come up with on my own. So my son’s rogue, Clayface slashes at the scorpion, doing only modest damage, but permanently blinding the poor creature. Now he’s completely excited.
Still, this fight is taking a long time, and the kids are barely familiar with their characters and the rules. They get the idea that “you say what you want to do, you roll a d20, add some number off the sheet, and then figure out if that’s enough to succeed.” It hits me… do we all really care that the AC for a Giant Centipede is 16? Does it really matter that they have a Mandible attack that is +6 to the roll, with a chance for 1d8+4 damage on hit? No, none of that matters. What matters is, do they get the feeling they can contribute in a meaningful way?
Very quickly, we’re doing guesstimated math. If a number is readily available, I’ll use it. (My wife’s warlord’s AC is 17, for example). If not, I have a good guess in my head. Maybe I’m not doing the monsters justice, or maybe they’re slightly more powerful than they should be.
So what! We’re playing this for the kids, not just for me. They’re completely satisfied with this system.
We finish the fight and it has gone longer than I planned (1 year old distractions!). For whatever reason, in my haste, I never bothered to think of the party capturing the last evil creature for questioning. They ask a bunch of generic questions, and decide to use the goblin as a bargaining chip for when they meet the rest of the goblins that might be attacking the town the heroes came from. (Little do they know that the goblins have no loyalty at all and won’t care… but that will be for next time.)
By now, it’s 9 PM, and it’s time for bed for the kidlets. But I learned something important in this short gaming session: as long as your group is fine with it, you can speed things up significantly by reducing the strictness of the rules. I didn’t have exact breakouts for every monster’s stats or make the kids do all the math required to play by the rules. We just got the story and the fight going, and kept it moving fast enough to keep them interested.
You roll a 5 when you make your attack? You miss. You roll a 16? You hit. Figure somewhere about 11-12 as the cutoff and then just go with it. Is it a tough monster with thicker armor or swifter reflexes? Maybe 13 or 14 is the cutoff for that one.
The attack does 9 damage? Ok, then this level 1 or level 2 monster is probably bloodied now. Do you really need to make sure that Dire Rat #2 gets its full 12 HP worth of actions before getting bloodied? No, not really, not for this particular group.
Your group dynamics are going to tell you very quickly if you can get away with this sort of thing. I’ve often had at least one player in the group who wants the specific numbers. “Wait a minute, I rolled a 13 last time with a +6 to attack, and I hit… she rolled a 14 with a +3 to attack and missed… so this thing’s AC must be about 18…”
That player is probably not going to be satisfied with this option. I’d suggest being honest and up-front with your players about it. Ask if it will bother them if you try to speed combat and skill challenges along in this manner. It may take some of the pain and concentration away from strict dice math, and focus the concentration of your players on the story developing in the game.