New 4e item: The Looking Glass of the Ixenos

While reviewing some old campaign files, I happened across the following description of a magic item I invented for a 4e campaign a few years ago. The item has more of an old-school feel; it doesn’t really qualify as a 4e trap or hazard, but isn’t a magic item or relic a character can take or use, either, so I’m calling it a “4e item,” for lack of a better term.

The Looking Glass of the Ixenos

Although its original name has been lost to history, the enchanted item now known as The Looking Glass of the Ixenos carries its name from having caused the downfall of the Ixenos family, a human clan of Nurite descent that came to live in Varos, serving the empire as regional exarchs in an outlying province. The family dabbled in the study of and pacts with infernal entities and, influenced by the visions and powers granted by the looking glass, eventually became tieflings. When the family’s infernal nature was discovered, the local church of Pelor led the peasantry and local military in revolt; most family members were slain outright and burned on consecrated ground, but a handful fled to the family’s mausoleum at the edge of their villa, where they were entombed alive with the Looking Glass. The villa and adjacent settlement were considered cursed, and were abandoned to ruin even before the Rising of the Scourge.

The relic is essentially a hemisphere, carved from a reddish crystal of indeterminate origin. The hemisphere is situated with the flat surface facing upward, and set upon a plain onyx pedestal some three feet in height. Abyssal runes are carved along the edges of the flat surface; a DC 15 arcana or religion check allows them to be read as, “The blood makes one more himself than he already is.” The only other disturbance in the mirror-smooth top of the relic is a peculiar depression, perhaps an inch deep and a handspan across, with a needle-sharp spire of the reddish crystal, about three inches high, protruding from its center. A narrow channel has been carved into the spire, starting at the point and spiraling downward into the depression.

When any sentient creatures, excepting tieflings, approach, the Looking Glass sends a telepathic message in the creatures’ native tongues. Common messages include, “Come to me, and you will realize your untapped power,” “Touch the spire and see your true self,” and, “You do not know the power in your own heart; touch the spire and you will see.”

Anyone hearing the message and touching the spire releases a drop of blood, that glows softly as it flows through the channel into the depression. The glow then spreads across the smooth surface of the Looking Glass, shimmering and expanding into a mirror-like surface. The Looking Glass is anything but an ordinary mirror, however; it reflects only the evil present in the viewer. Thus, any imperfect, prime material being will be greeted with a twisted, infernal visage embodying all that is evil and sinful in their hearts, which they instinctively know is absolutely true.

Being suddenly confronted with the unmitigated image of one’s dark side can be overwhelming. In game terms, this mental shock is treated as an attack at +10 upon the viewer’s Will Defense.If the attack misses, the viewer can tear his eyes away without permanent consequence, although experiencing recurring nightmares during the next several weeks is probable. If the attack hits, the viewer has effectively sealed a pact in his own blood with an infernal entity: the benefits of this pact are immediately apparent, but the consequences are not.

The power gained is the permanent ability to re-use an expended encounter power once per day. Unfortunately, every time this ability is used, it causes a change to the viewer’s appearance, in the following sequence:

First instance: the character’s tongue becomes forked. This change is easily concealed, apart from the character having a slight, serpentine lisp for a few days as he grows accustomed to his new anatomy.

Second instance: the character’s canine teeth – both upper and lower – elongate in much the same way as a vampire’s or wolf’s. Again, this can be concealed, although the character may look a bit fuller in the face.

Third instance: the character’s fingernails itch for a few days; after an extended rest, the character awakens to find that his fingernails have transformed into discolored claws. Only gloves or gauntlets can cover this deformity.

Fourth instance: the character’s ears become enlarged, and slope to a point. A hood or helmet must be worn to conceal this change.

Fifth instance: sharp horns, about an inch high, emerge from the character’s head.

Sixth instance: a sulphurous smell wafts about the character at all times, and no amount of bathing can remove it.

Seventh instance: The character’s eyes develop a reddish glow; while he can still see normally, he instinctively knows that further changes will radically alter his physical form, and that he may lose control of his own mind, as well.

Eighth instance: the character’s feet become cloven hooves.

Ninth instance: the character sprouts a slender, pointed tail, measuring about four feet in length.

Tenth instance: the character’s skin is replaced with reddish scales, and the character is surrendered to the Dungeon Master, to be used as a non-player character henceforth.


1e to 4e: Bringing wandering monsters back into D&D

Random monster encounters played an important role in character advancement in early editions of D&D and in many video RPGs, as this assortment of random monsters for Nintendo’s Dragon Warrior game illustrates. Image copyright

While perusing some old .pdfs of legacy edition Dungeons & Dragons modules, I was struck by how common random monster encounter tables were in the old adventures, and was reminded of the prominence of random encounters in the rules themselves. The first edition (1e) Dungeon Master’s Guide had an entire appendix devoted to such encounters, and the 1e Monster Manual II included an index that grouped creatures from three monster volumes by terrain and encounter frequency, to make generating one’s own encounter tables easier.

I was also struck by how such tables are absent in every fourth edition (4e) product I’ve thus far seen.

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Reverse engineering: using 4e adventure design techniques to create a 1e scenario

Author’s note: this is not an edition wars post. Trolls seeking to espouse one edition over another are invited to excrete their comments elsewhere, as they will be summarily deleted here.

While working on a future post, I had occasion to reference the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. The book had been undisturbed on the shelf for a very long time.

As it turned out, I spent far longer perusing the book than necessary. I stopped at most of the tables, at virtually every line art drawing, and at frequently referenced passages and monster statistics that, even after not touching 1e for the better part of 10 years, I could still recite from memory.

While I still play 4e when those rare playing opportunities arise – and 4e remains my system of choice, as it appeals to my inner wargamer while, in my own personal estimation, being a mechanically simpler game than any of its predecessors – reviewing the 1e DMG caused me to reflect on what 1e was that 4e isn’t – and the other way around. I found that I missed certain aspects of 1e, such as the variety of spells, magic items that are more than powered-up versions of their first-level selves and how successfully finding a secret door only told players that it was there, not how to open it. It was enough to make me want to run a 1e game to experience that sort of play again, and led to my decision to take up finishing an old 1e writing project that has patiently waited in a file folder these 10 years, now that my schooling is temporarily ended and work has calmed down somewhat.

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Use an experience point ‘slush fund’ to encourage role-playing

While there are several different connotations for the term, one definition for “slush fund” is an account in the general ledger of a company that uses the double-entry system of bookkeeping. Essentially, the slush fund is used to record transactions involving funds commingled from other accounts, and as the default place to record transactions and expenses that shouldn’t properly be recorded elsewhere in the ledger. Strangely, the concept of a slush fund has applications for a Dungeons & Dragons game, which can inspire superior role-playing. 

The fourth edition of the D&D game (4e) is especially suited for this function, due to the formulaic nature of encounter design and character advancement. The Gentle Reader will remember that the 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide recommends that each experience level be divided into a number of combat, skill challenge and quest encounters, the total XP award of which is enough to bring the heroes to the next level. This post suggests that while the 4e experience point (XP) system allows for the dungeon master (DM) to reward heroes for victory in combat, success at skill challenges, and broad completion of campaign quests, a formal mechanic for rewarding superior role-playing – like the individual XP awards presented in legacy editions of the D&D game – is absent. Continue reading

Product Review: D&D Fourth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide 2


The 4e Dungeon Master's Guide 2 offers a wealth of DMing advice, especially for role-playing intensive campaigns.

The 4e Dungeon Master's Guide 2 offers a wealth of DMing advice, especially for role-playing intensive campaigns.

The D&D Fourth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, scheduled for formal release tomorrow, provides Dungeon Masters (DMs) with a mix of philosophical game mastering advice and ready-to-use traps, magic items, monsters, and other plug-and-play game features. Although the original Fourth Edition (4e) Dungeon Master’s Guide arguably outperformed its counterparts from prior editions regarding balancing the nuts and bolts of game mechanics with describing the artistic and dramatic aspects of being a DM, the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 brings discussion of the inexact “science” of DMing to an entirely new level, and the book’s exhaustive use of ready-to-play examples adds clarity as well as usable material for an ongoing campaign.

Of course, the volume cannot be everything to every DM, and this book’s appeal will vary depending on your personal DMing style. Speaking in general terms, the text is a Godsend for DMs and play groups who emphasize character background and development, sophisticated plots riddled with intrigue, and similar role-playing intensive game elements. Dungeon Masters and groups placing greater emphasis on straightforward action, combat tactics, “hack ‘n’ slash” play style or power-gaming would probably have a more lukewarm response, finding value in elements that can be easily imported into an existing game, such as new monster templates and traps.

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Product Review: Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition for Dummies


New copies of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition for Dummies book sell for less than a typical D&D hard cover, and it is a surprisingly useful resource for regular players.

New copies of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition for Dummies book sell for less than a typical D&D hard cover, and it is a surprisingly useful resource for regular players.

During a recent trip to the public library, this writer observed a copy of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition for Dummies by Bill Slavicsek and Richard Baker, sitting unnoticed on a shelf in the sports and gaming section. The text was initially borrowed for amusement purposes; after all, most books in the “for Dummies” series are so basic and generic in nature that they are often useless to anyone even remotely acquainted with the topic at hand.

The book is composed of five parts: a D&D Crash Course, Building a D&D Character, Playing your Best Game, the Art of Dungeon Mastering, and the Part of Tens.

The first two parts contain very basic information most D&D fourth Edition (4e) players would know from simply reading the rules – the book is for “dummies,” after all.  But the subsequent parts include a surprisingly large amount of material that sheds light upon what the game designers had in mind when creating 4e game mechanics, and how those mechanics differ from prior editions of the game.  Continue reading

How players can help streamline the D&D play experience

A particularly astute observation made in the fourth edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide is the mandate to “get to the fun” as quickly as possible. It is not surprising to find the mandate in that volume, as most of the time-wasting in a typical Dungeons & Dragons session is linked to insufficient preparation on the part of the dungeon master.

It is a pity, though, that the mandate to get to the fun doesn’t also appear in the Player’s Handbook, since there are numerous things players can do to streamline play and help everyone else to enjoy the game.  Continue reading