Saturday, 22 August 2009

Handling a Major Battle in 4e Part 1

I recently ran a session of 4e which focused on the actions of a party of 3rd level PCs during a large battle. It was handled as a normal D&D session rather than a wargame and I think it was really enjoyed by everyone and thought it would perfect for my first multi part post. Part 1 looks at some GM and player activity before the battle, part 2 will look at the skill challenges involved whilst part 3 will detail the battle session I ran.

In order to run any major battle a number of things need to be in place. The DM needs to know what is likely to happen. The players should be involved in helping prepare the army for battle and should be key to determining the strategy and tactics for the fight. The DM and players should be familiar with the troops involved and how to most effectively use them. Finally the DM should prepare a series of skill challenges and combat encounters designed to stretch the PCs leadership and fighting abilities. Get it right and there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to fight a battle worthy of comparison with Helm's Deep or the Pelennor Fields in your own campaign.

DM Preparation - Controlling the Battle

It's very important for the DM to be able to control the battle. This doesn't mean dictate every move but it does mean that there should be a good element of predictability to events in the battle. By understanding what is likely to happen the DM can build good, varied and challenging encounters rather than always reacting on the fly. There are a number of ways of doing this.

  • As DM you will almost certainly be undertaking the role of the enemy commander. Not only do you get to determine the make up of this force, you also control of half the forces on the battlefield. If you are attacking the PC's forces it allows you to define the opening skirmishes, as well as counter attacks. This allows you to build the opening skill challenges.
  • Carefully define the terrain on which the battle is fought. Pay particular attention to placement of major features, such as rivers, bridges, woods, fortifications, roads, ridges or hills. These can be used as objectives for attacks or defence or in the case of larger features used to secure flanks or channel the battle.
  • Particularly with low level PCs they may well not be the general in charge of their army. This can be tricky because it is important that the session focuses on the actions of the PCs and not the general. However it does allow the DM greater control over the events that shape the battle.

Once you know what you expect to happen in the battle you can plan for the encounters during it and the encounters and skill challenges before it.

Preparation for Battle

War rarely happens unexpectedly. Even if the location and timing of an attack is a surprise, wars have a build up. This provides an opportunity for the PCs to have a major role before the battle starts.

  • Uncovering intelligence on the enemy - size and make up of enemy forces, monstrous foes, battle plans, route of advance etc some of which could be entire adventures in their own right.
  • Rooting out traitors or enemy agents, sowing disinformation or commando raids to disrupt the enemies plans.
  • Strengthening defences, recruiting allies, bolstering morale, obtaining supplies or improving training.
  • Persuading sceptical citizen's they are under threat and must take up arms urgently

This can take the form of a couple of short skill challenges or involve the PCs undertaking several adventures and major skill challenges, particularly if allies need to be persuaded to join the fight.

Troop type and Tactics

Just as every monster is different, each force in a battle can be different, with varied abilities and strengths and weaknesses. If all units do is manoeuvre slowly and charge each other the battle session can quickly bog down into a boring dice rolling contest.

  • Each unit in the battle should be clearly categorised into one of 4 - 6 types per army, heavy infantry, archers, light cavalry etc.
  • Each unit type should then be reviewed and its strengths and weaknesses identified.

I'll cover this in more detail in part 2. Once this is done for both armies create a crib sheet for the PCs. Include the enemy forces as long as the PCs are aware of them. This enables the PCs to use the forces at their disposal more effectively as well as providing a more interesting battle experience.

Planning the Battle

The PCs should be involved at the heart of the planning for battle, regardless of their level or experience. Even if they are not the most experienced there are plenty of reasons for them to be present at the council of war - as scouts they have seen the enemy, as local heroes they may be expected to lead units or even act as commandos. Once the debate about the battle strategy starts everybody has a role to play.

  • As DM you can offer advice through the mouths of other PCs, correcting errors or highlighting important aspects of the forthcoming battle.
  • Just because everybody is on the same side doesn't mean they all agree - keeping all the allies on board and committed is a role for talky characters.
  • Offering commentary on strategy or the battlefield is a role for those who know their history or nature
  • Spotting traitors or those not fully committed, as well as pre-empting enemy tactics is for insightful and wise characters.

Effective plans require the players to assess the battlefield, key objectives and the type and quality of troops available. It can take time so allow for that when scheduling the session and where possible make it the last thing you do before the session ends - that way you can plan the next encounters knowing what both sides plan to do.

Battle Skill Challenges

The main aspects of the battle are assumed to be covered using skill challenges. The PCs may be able to take out a large number of minions in a fight but that doesn't matter if they are facing 200 of them. Skill challenges let the PCs take control of units of troops and resolving that phase of battle. I'll write more about how to handle the skill challenges in a battle in part 2 of this series but to cover a full battle you should look to have the PCs undertake between 3 and 6 skill challenges.

  • Initial contact encounter as the first units of the two armies come into contact. Can the PCs strike the first blow?
  • Hold the line - the enemy is attacking the PCs unit must stand firm no matter what. The battle depends on it.
  • Take the hill - the key to defeating the enemy is taking a tough objective. The PCs are the only people the general trusts to do it.
  • Rally those troops - A key unit breaks. It must be rallied and returned to the line of battle quickly.
  • Race to the objective - a key piece of terrain is unoccupied. Both sides want it. Who'll get there first?
  • Defend the walls - the enemy surrounds the castle. Where will the attack fall? Can reinforcements get there in time?
  • Rearguard - can you buy time for the rest of your forces to escape safely?
  • Pursuit - the enemy has broken and is fleeing. You give chase with orders that none shall be spared.

Mixing Skill Challenges and Combat Encounters

Whilst most of the battle will be fought using skill challenges that doesn't mean that that the entire battle needs to be fought that way. Combat encounters can be easily mixed in with the battle skill challenges.

  • The PCs need to hold a bridge, gateway or clear a path of enemies.
  • Enemy scouts or flankers have slipped behind the lines and are attacking supply units or a key point in the defences.
  • An enemy champion stands forward and issues a challenge.
  • A monstrous foe of great power attacks and only heroes can stand against it
  • The enemy battle standard must fall before they will retreat - the PCs must capture it.

Mixing up the skill challenges and combat encounters keeps the session moving and fresh and allows those players that prefer action to get their fix. It also puts the PCs at the forefront of the action and means that they will be remembered as battle winning heroes.

After the Battle

There's still plenty to do once the battle is over. Were the PCs victorious? Defeated? How big a margin was there between the defeated and the victors? Friends and allies may be among the casualties, a long established base under enemy control.

  • Terrible defeat - the PCs must escape the battlefield and evade pursuing enemy forces. Can they find and recruit new allies or will they start a guerilla resistance band?
  • Defeat -the PCs escape along with other units. Perhaps they are now the most senior officers left. Can they regroup and reform the shattered army and return to battle?
  • Technical draw - the army must regroup and quickly, battle will shortly be rejoined. The army that recovers the fastest will have the advantage.
  • Victory - the PCs are heroes, their actions the stuff of legend. But the leaders of the enemy forces are still at large, roving bands of defeated troops are fleeing the area causing terrible damage as they go.

Next time ...

I'll cover the ins and outs of the battle skill challenges in part 2 and in part 3 illustrate them in action by detailing the session I built and ran.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Nuanced Skill Checks in Skill Challenges

I saw this post earlier this week at Geek Ken and it got me thinking. I don't necessarily agree that WotC are reworking skill challenges although I do think they need to provide more guidance on how to use them. Mike Mearls' articles are good but more is still required. However it got me back to thinking about how I used skill checks in a challenge and the variety of ways I use them. So in no particular order here they are.

1. Simple checks: Roll against the DC. Results in 1 success or failure. The bread and butter of skill challenges.

2. Lead character and Aid Another: One character makes the roll, but other characters in the party can use Aid Another against either a DC of 10 of the Dc of the challenge to add +2 to the roll. Sometimes I limit this to one or two characters, in the case of Diplomacy checks, other times I let the entire party assist, in the case of an Athletics check to close a castle gate against a regiment of hobgoblins. In many cases if the Aiding player fails to assist I'll impose a -2 penalty to the main check. This discourages shouts of I'll assist from the players and makes the check more realistic. Results in 1 success or failure.

3. Specialist Knowledge: generally made against a hard DC this uncovers a key piece of information that helps the rest of the encounter. For example, an Insight check to uncover a key protagonists motivation adds +2 to all future diplomacy checks. A Nature check to identify a mysterious creature as an ancient spirit of water thereby adding +2 to all History, Insight, Diplomacy and Religion checks due to a better understanding of the creature.

4. Automatic Failure: Limited occasional use of this type of check and where it should be obvious or logical. Don't try and Intimidate the Duke unless you really are powerful and mighty, don't try Diplomacy on rabid cultists. Important to let the party know the immediate result of such use.

5. Remove one failure: Always against hard DC's - a success here removes one failure. I allowed a use of Heal in a siege to enable the PC's to patch up some wounded defenders and get them back on the walls.

6. Group check: All players roll against a DC. If the majority of the players in the party succeed then they gain 1 success, if an equal number or majority fail it counts as a failure. This was used effectively in a wilderness escape challenge where the PC's were being chased by a horde of humanoids. The party had to make Stealth or Athletics checks to determine their progress.

7. Uncover an option: Success in the challenge opens up a new line of attack - particularly useful with Insight. I used this to enable the party to use Intimidate against a Priestess who was being obstructive. They needed to engage with her first, but with appropriate questioning and by listening carefully they were able to identify her fear of being blamed for failing to uncover cultists. A suitably pitched Intimidate check then followed.

8. Lose a healing surge: I generally use this with Endurance checks - following a shipwreck and after time spent out in the wilderness. It doesn't usually count towards the success of the challenge but it does reflect that what the PC's are doing may be physically dangerous. It was also used to good effect in a series of battle encounters where PC's leading units into battle were injured if that round of the fight went against them.

9. Higher DC for a benefit: The PCs were running away and hadn't had time to spend a short rest having used all their encounter powers and were low on hit points. They had the option of increasing the DC of group checks to grant one PC a short rest. It increased the risk of failing the challenge and being caught by their pursuers but they would be able to fight much better if 2 or 3 of them had their powers back. It also added a tactical element as the players discussed which character should rest first.

10. Succeed or face the consequences: Used with some amusement in a boarding an enemy ship skill challenge. Each PC had to make a check to leap up from a rowing boat over the side of a longship. Those that failed were stuck holding a rope balanced precariously between two swaying boats. Those that failed by 5 or more ended up in the sea with further swimming checks etc required before they could join the fight.

There are, I am sure, loads more options but it gives a flavour of what can be done and how varied skill challenge checks can be. If you have any favourites or good uses for checks let me know.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Struggling with GM Motivation

I think most of us have been there. You know that you have a game in 4 days and that you need to prepare ... and yet somehow you can't find the motivation to sit down and just write. I've just gone through it before my last session - the 5th in a line of about 15 I have mapped out for my 4e campaign. It wasn't even that I didn't know what was going to happen - it was just I couldn't find the drive to sit down and put it down on paper.

Finally with about 36 hours to go I managed to sit down and start to write. What did I learn from the experience?

1. An imminent deadline is a good motivator - the closer I got to the session the greater my motivation. If you're stuck then plan ahead and make sure your diary is free the day before the session. There's nothing like the fear of having nothing to say to drive you to write. You'll keep putting it off until the last moment so just plan for that from the start.

2. Plan the session in your head - I spent a lot of time thinking about the encounters I was planning to run, playing them out in my mind. I think part of the reason I couldn't write the session was that I wasn't happy with the content of some of the encounters - particularly some of the skill challenges. However as I played them out in my mind, during coffee breaks, bus rides, the soap the Mrs insists we watch together, driving to work and so on I was able to work out how I wanted them to play out. Just the odd few minutes thinking about it was often enough.

3. Get something down on paper - even if it's just an outline, a concept or some keywords it helps and doesn't take much time or effort. When you actually come to write this is a great reference point to come back to and it gives the idea a certain permanancy. Its much easier to develop an idea once you have something written down - even if you end up changing it completely.

4. Short bursts are better than long slogs - don't write for more than a couple of hours at one go. Its much easier to face the task if you know its short, you're likely to produce better quality work and it's easier to fit into your busy schedule.

5. Go freestyle and wing it - get back to the seat of your pants roleplaying you used to do years ago. Have some vague idea of direction, compile a list or names for NPCs and have a trait table on hand to make them more memorable, think of a couple of twists and you'll have a great few hours gaming for 30 mins prep.

6. Borrow or steal encounters - buy an adventure, use one from Dungeon or surf the net and use one written by another amateur DM. Just make sure you read it thoroughly first. I grabbed some encounter groups from the Monster Manual and Dungeon Delve.

7. Remember what it is about the game you love - play to your strengths, the more you enjoy it the more you will convey that to your players and the happier the gaming experience will be.

8. It doesn't have to be perfect - you are not Tolkein, George Lucas or Steven Spielberg so don't expect your adventures to have the epic depth or heartthumping drama you read in books or see at the movies. Take the pressure off yourself. Your group enjoy gaming with you and still will even after they figure out you aren't the greatest storyteller in the world. Just get on and tell your story - it's that story the players want to hear.

I'm sure there are other great ideas out there. Post a comment and let me know what you do when lack of motivation grabs hold of you.