Use downtime to level up your hero’s D&D combat skills

In the introduction to classic first edition Dungeons & Dragons module Against the Giants, author Gary Gygax cautions would-be players that the module wasn’t just designed for high-level characters; it was also designed for highly experienced players. The author explained that novice players who simply rolled up powerful characters wouldn’t have the tactical expertise necessary for those characters to survive the module. Gygax pointed to a widely ignored gaming truth: there is no instant replacement for months or years of player tactical cooperation.

It does indeed take a great deal of time for an adventuring party to learn all the nuances of working together. When a party actually does so – when a group of players actually obtains equipment, develops tactics, and chooses skills, feats and spells based on how they will contribute to group success – enjoyment of the game is exponentially higher.

In games that focus on the tactical elements of combat, the group can, if the players and dungeon master agree, use down time for players to practice directing their characters cooperatively in mock combat. Such an activity may be an option when one or more players cannot attend, and other campaign-related gaming activities aren’t as appealing. Of course, these fights never take place from a campaign or narrative standpoint; rather, they’re more of a metagaming experience where players test their heroes against monsters of the DM’s choosing.

There are several advantages in spending this time at practice:

  • Someone at the table can run characters for absent players without fear of anything happening to those characters;
  • Players can attempt combinations of field position, equipment, weapons, feats, powers, opportunity attacks, magic items and timing (through delaying actions and such) without fear of their characters dying in-game; as a result, players can and often do try outrageous  and/or convoluted plans. After all, there are no campaign consequences for success or failure. Particularly effective combinations should be documented for future reference, as described in the list-making section of this post;
  • The DM may choose to use monsters that he or she may have always wanted to use, but never had the opportunity;
  • These practice combats are a great way for the DM to practice skills for the other side of the screen, including seldom-used rules for weaponless, aerial or underwater combat;
  • There is very little preparation time required on the part of the DM or players for this activity; and
  • The players can also have a bit of good-natured metagaming fun by trying to see who can do the most damage to a single target, who can slay the most enemies, or how many ongoing conditions or effects the party can place on a single target.
  • Players may even want to take this opportunity to fight each other, just to see the result.

While using downtime for practice effectively turns D&D into a rather complicated skirmish game, the practice can be a useful exercise, especially for novice players or DMs.


Using the Aboriginal Dreamtime as inspiration for Primal 4e characters

This Australian Aboriginal rock art depicts what could be a creation ancestor. This sort of art, and the creation story that inspired it, is a useful source of inspiration for DMs designing adventures for primal heroes in D&D. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Virtually every culture, whether real or created for a fantasy role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, has a story about how the world was created. While the fourth edition (4e) Player’s Handbook gives some hints about how some of the standard D&D races view the creation of their milieu, the official rules provide insufficient detail about the D&D world’s creation story for the primal character classes presented in Player’s Handbook 2 – characters like the druid, shaman and warden, who have intimate ties to and draw their unique abilities from nature. These characters need to have a clear understanding about how creation works in their game world, as their powers are derived from that creation.

Some may suggest that, from a game mechanics point of view, such details don’t matter. From a game mechanics point of view, they are correct. A druid character doesn’t technically need to know how a river came to be in order to use her daily powers. This writer submits, however, that if the character knew that the channel of the river was carved by the passing of the flame wyrm at the dawn of time, that detail would provide a richer play experience for both the players and Dungeon Master (DM). It is for that reason that this post was drafted.

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Flesh out your hero with an anecdote or two

Many Dungeons & Dragons players define idiosyncracies for their heroes – quirks that usually have no mechanical impact on the game, but  make characters unique and memorable. But it is the rare player who takes that initiative a step further and actually invents a story, or anecdote, describing how those personal mannerisms came to be. Doing so can lead to a better role-playing experience for everyone around the table, since these character quirks help to enmesh player characters (PCs) with the game setting.

The utility of this practice is directly related to the emphasis on role-playing in a given game. In combat-heavy D&D campaigns with little role-playing, telling everyone that your PC rogue is afraid of the dark or your warlord hates walking east may earn you an annoyed stares, especially if the dungeon master (DM) decides that your self-inflicted quirk has an impact on your PC’s combat ability. In games that are role-playing intensive, though, the anecdotes behind the quirks can add anything from drama to levity to a D&D session. Continue reading

Basic Character Knowledge Sheets help players connect with D&D settings

Innumerable Dungeons & Dragons campaigns take place in settings that amount to little more than versions of Medieval Europe, stretched across multiple continents. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this condition – “default” settings such as that wouldn’t be so common if they didn’t work – the result is often one campaign setting appearing much the same as the next.

Thus, the challenge before dungeon masters is to create believable settings to which all the players can relate, but which retains enough of their own respective identities that each can still be unique. One tool at the dungeon master’s disposal to accomplish that goal is  to draft “Common Character Knowledge Sheets,” brief listings of facts relevant to specific character classes or races that characters in your game world would probably know. By disributing a list of these sheets to players before a campagin begins, the group will simultaneously have access to common information that enables them to connect with your unique setting, in addition to having character-specific information that makes a character unique to her peers in that setting. Continue reading

Need some inspiration for a unique 4e character?

A frequent criticism of the fourth edition (4e) Dungeons & Dragons game is a perceived lack of variety within character classes. A player suggesting that all 4e fighters are basically the same is, from a mechanics standpoint, partly right – especially if he is accustomed to playing the game’s third edition (3e), which included extensive, official supplemental material and an ocean of third-party material, containing coutless feats and prestige classes that could make fighters very different, indeed.

One way to break those perceived limitations is to suggest that, while the game mechanics between 4e fighters can be largely unchanged, creating a character from a concept or archetype can create a very different role-playing experience with minimal rule alteration. Continue reading

Get into the action quicker: use interconnected character histories

A recent post on this Web log involved social responsibility between players; as jatori over at tenletter suggested, some of the subtopics briefly described in that post should be better developed. One of those subtopics involved having players develop interconnected character backgrounds as part of character generation, as a way of avoiding poorly-conceived or intentionally disruptive player character concepts creating problems in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Having interconnecting character backgrounds also opens new options for the dungeon master, who must often default to beginning a campaign with the hackneyed phrase, “you begin in a smoke-filled tavern,” because the player characters haven’t yet met. Playing through the subsequent “forced introductions” is time-consuming and, for people not directly involved in current interaction, boring. In one campaign, I jokingly explained that, in the town where the game was to begin,  all inns and taverns were round and magically lit to noontime brightness, since all of the players wanted to sit at shadowy corner tables and not be the first to interact with another character. Continue reading