Friday, October 16, 2009

Player Motivations and Our Heroes

The Dungeon Master's Guide describes several player motivations (see page 8), in the form of archetypal player types. If you have players in your group that display any of these motivations, which of the pregenerated heroes of DL1 are most suitable for them?

Actors: Actor players enjoy thoroughly roleplaying their characters. Since the heroes of DL1 each have well-established personalities and motivations, any of them would be well-suited to serve as the PC of an actor player. For players unfamiliar with the novels, any of the heroes have enough built-in story hooks for an actor player to really make the character their own. On the other hand, for players who enjoy "playing the novels", Raistlin, Tasslehoff, Flint, and Sturm have particularly recognizable charcter traits that might lend themselves well to being taken on by an actor player.

Explorers: Explorer players want to experience new places, things, characters, and situations within the game world. Tasslehoff, with his insatiable curiosity and wanderlust, would be an ideal PC for an explorer player. Similarly, Riverwind, as a far-ranging wanderer, might also be a good option.

Instigators: Instigator players like to "make things happen" and may enjoy antagonizing NPCs, taking risks, or making deliberately bad decisions. Tasslehoff's impetuousness makes him a suitable PC for such a player, and Raistlin, with his contempt for authority figures and willingness to play devil's advocate, can also make a fine PC for an instigator player. Because she wields the Blue Crystal Staff -- the impetus for the action in "Dragons of Despair" -- Goldmoon can be a great PC choice for an instigator as well.

Power Gamers: Power gamer players enjoy the mechanical, rules-aspect parts of the game. As such, any of the heroes can be a good PC choice for a power gamer, but several of the heroes are closer to what might be considered "optimized" than others. Caramon, Flint, Raistlin, and Sturm might be the PCs most easily appreciated by a power gamer player. Conversely, Tanis is probably a poor choice for a power gamer player.

Slayers: Slayer players enjoy combat, particularly being effective at kicking monster-ass in combat. Caramon, Flint, Sturm, and Riverwind would all make good PC choices for a slayer player. For slayers particularly interested in the tactical aspects of combat, Tanis and Raistlin may be excellent choices.

Storytellers: Storyteller players most enjoy the narrative aspects of the game. Like actor players, storytellers can probably find something appealing in all of the heroes, but the heroes with the more complex motivations -- Tanis with his self-doubt and divided heart and blood, and Raistlin, with his complex fraternal relationship and precarious perch on the fence of morality -- will probably be of especial interest to storytellers.

Thinkers: Thinker players like to make plans and carefully consider decisions. Tanis, Raistlin, and Goldmoon, as the most cerebral and thoughtful of the heroes, are likely the best PC choices for thinker players. Tasslehoff and Caramon are probably poor choices for these players.

Watchers: Watcher players like being a part of the social event of the game, but prefer to limit their direct participation in the game's proceedings. Flint, with his grandfatherly, "along to mind the youngsters/one last adventure" mindset, Riverwind, with his reserved personality, and Raistlin, with his aloof bearing, may be good PC choices for watcher players. Tanis, as the de facto leader of the heroes, and Goldmoon, who bears the Blue Crystal Staff at the center of the plot of "Dragons of Despair", may be poor choices for watchers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

All Aboard the DL Train

The original DL modules are frequently charged with rampant and egregious railroading -- defined by the RPG Theory Review as the imposition of a predefined set of resolutions onto the choices and conflicts that occur in play by a storyteller or game master. For many of the DL modules, I believe this is an absolutely true observation.

There has been a lot of discussion over the years regarding the evils of railroading. At its worst, railroading breaks player immersion, forcing them to see that their decisions are meaningless, and their characters are simply bit actors in the DM's story.

On the other hand, there has also been some suggestion in discussions about railroading that it might not always be the fun-sapping problem it's often made out to be. I think in any prewritten adventure, except for the most sandbox-y of sandboxes, at least some element of railroading is inevitable -- no author can account for every choice the players may make. I might go so far to say that for some groups and playstyles, a certain amount of railroading is in fact desireable. Some players and groups will prefer to have a clearly presented objective and a clearly presented means of achieving it. This is a social contract between the players of groups with this kind of playstyle -- a desire for the adventure to "take us right to the fun", which, it can be argued, really is the purpose of a prewritten adventure.

I think railroading is at its least intrusive when the rails are made invisible, or at least as transparant as possible, and (to run with the railroad metaphor) a number of switches and junctions are built into the adventure, so that the action is funnelled, but not rigidly forced.

"Dragons of Despair" as originally written by Hickman was, I think, a good example of this. In my mind, the adventure consists of two parts. The first part is the more sandbox-style part: after leaving Solace, the PCs are pretty much allowed to go where they want and do as they wish until they figure out that they're supposed to take the Blue Crystal Staff to Xak Tsaroth. Certain constraints are added by using impassible geography and hostile soldiers to confine the players to the overall region of Abansina. Sure, the DM could improvise adventures for the PCs if they break those faux barriers, but at that point, the PCs aren't really playing "Dragons of Despair" anymore. Once the PCs reach the swamp around Xak Tsaroth, they have begun the second part of the adventure, the "dungeon" portion. Even the outdoor area of the swamp is presented structurally as a dungeon, with encounters keyed to locations on the map, and therefore this second part runs like any other keyed-map adventure. The players still have meaningful choices to make (do they descend via the lift or sneak down the sewer pipe?), but they are ultimately constrained by the "walls of the dungeon".

Because of all this, then, I didn't feel the need to make any large changes to the basic structure of the adventure, leaving it almost exactly as it was in the orginal module. The main change I did make was to alter the location of the beginning of the module. The original module opens in a time-honored and much-beloved fashion -- with combat! I agree that this is a great way to start a D&D adventure, but there was a problem here. Since Goldmoon and Riverwind do not start the adventure with the PCs, I wanted to make their introductions before any tactical encounters took place. Therefore, I moved the beginning of the adventure from the road east of Solace into the Inn of the Last Home itself, and the first encounter is that of Goldmoon and Riverwind meeting the rest of the PCs -- the old "so you meet in an inn" beginning, another classic trope. The concept of the Blue Crystal Staff is then introduced by interactions with the inn patrons and by use of the Streetwise skill, and then expanded on in the first tactical encounter with Toede and his troops. Moving the opening of the adventure to the inn also eliminates the too-opague railroading of "...and after killing the hobgoblins, you all go the Inn of the Last Home."

Beyond that, in my conversion, as in the original module, the PCs are allowed to go where they like within the confines of Abanasinia until they determine that the Staff must go to Xak Tsaroth. I provided a quest ("Appeal to the Seekers") to provide some initial direction and to provide a plausible reason for Goldmoon and Riverwind to wish to join forces with the rest of the heroes. Eventually, the PCs' choices will funnel them to the Forestmaster, who in turn directs them to Xak Tsaroth. This is railroading, but hopefully it is mostly transparant railroading -- after all, the players should be trying to meet the objectives presented in the adventure, trying to succeed in the challenges laid down by the adventure.

The topic for today's post came to me because I have been working on my conversion of DL2, "Dragons of Flame", and it's an entirely different ballgame. DL2 is probably the single most railroad-y of all the original DL modules. I've been working hard to try to get the module "off the rails" as it were (or at least onto more transparent rails) while still hitting all the exposition and character introductions that take place in that adventure (and there's a lot). I think I've found some neat ways to do this, and I'll talk more about DL2 in the future, but in the meantime, I hope this sheds light on why I made some of the (minor) plot alterations that I did in DL1.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

DL1 Quest Cards

I really like the idea of quest cards (see page 103 of the Dungeon Master's Guide). I like that they give players something tangible to hold onto and look at each game session to remind them what their ongoing adventure objectives are.

In my conversion of DL1, there are only two adventure-related quests ("Find Evidence of the True Gods" and "Appeal to the Seekers") but I also included some minor quests that serve as nudges to encourage light roleplaying ("Recite The Canticle" and "Introducing the Heroes"). For players that might not be inclined towards roleplaying, completing these quests lets them dabble a bit in some story-based player narrative and earn some quest XP as an incentive.

I've made a package of quest cards to print out and hand out to my players, and if anyone else is interested in using them too, please feel free to download them. They are formatted to be printed on Avery index cards (05388).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

DL1 Character Builder Files

Reader Bill saved my bacon with some good advice about getting the Character Builder files up and available for anyone who's interested in them.

The links below are to the actual .dnd4e files for each character, so you should just be able to right-click the links, save them to the characters file of your builder, and go from there.


  • Tanis Half-elven

  • Sturm Brightblade

  • Caramon Majere

  • Raistlin Majere

  • Flint Fireforge

  • Tasslehoff Burrfoot

  • Goldmoon

  • Riverwind
  • Monday, October 5, 2009

    Wherefore Art Thou 7th-level?

    Today I thought I'd talk about why I designed the pregenerated characters the way I did. Since statting the heroes was largely an interpretive exercise, I expect there could be some disagreement with the conclusions I came to, but one could always use the D&D Character Builder to whip up their own versions of the heroes in just a few minutes.

    First, to get some perspective on where we're coming from, let's recall how the heroes were first presented. In the original module, DL1 Dragons of Despair, the pregenerated heroes were:

  • Tanis: 5th-level half-elf fighter

  • Sturm: 6th-level human fighter

  • Caramon: 6th-level human fighter

  • Raistlin: 3rd-level human magic-user

  • Flint: 4th-level dwarf fighter

  • Tasslehoff: 4th-level kender (halfling) thief

  • Goldmoon: 5th-level human cleric

  • Riverwind: 5th-level human ranger

  • One immediately notices that the heroes are not all the same level. One might initially ascribe this to the fact that in AD&D, each class required different amounts of XP to reach each level. However, this cannot be the reason for our heroes' varying levels, since if the heroes had all had the same total XP, Tas should be the higest-level character, because thieves needed the least amount of XP to level. Instead, I believe they assigned the characters different levels simply to show their varying levels of skill and expertise; Caramon and Sturm were the most skilled fighters, whereas Raistlin was just beginning gain mastery over his magic.

    In 4E, this approach doesn't work. Adventures work best when the PCs are all the same level, and all the game's math is based on a party of like-leveled PCs. Therefore, I knew that I'd be starting all the heroes at the same level. But which level?

    A couple of different strategies suggested themselves. For one, I could start the heroes all at 1st level. Since I knew I wanted to run the converted module for newbie players, this would have been a natural place to start. Another possibility was to follow the example set in the 3E conversion of DL1 (published by Margaret Weis Productions) and start the heroes at 5th level, which is very close to the average level of the heroes in the original DL1.

    Ultimately, I decided to go with neither of these options, and started the heroes at 7th level. I did this primarily because I knew that I wanted the PCs to gain one level with each adventure in the series. Therefore, at the climax of DL4, the end of the first story arc of the Dragonlance saga, the heroes would enter the paragon tier. This seemed pretty fitting. In 4E, the focus of the heroic tier is adventuring on a regional basis, righting wrongs in the characters' own little corner of the world. And in DL1 to DL4, that's just what the heroes have done in the lands of Abanasinia. The paragon tier is all about moving the campaign's action onto the world stage, which is exactly what happens in the final two story arcs of Dragonlance.

    With level decided and set at 7th, I set out to build the heroes. I'll talk about the more interesting points for each of them. As a general note, I didn't build the heroes with an eye to optimization. I was trying evoke their personalities in their builds, and therefore some of the heroes ended up being more (or less) optimized than others.


    Initially I wanted to stat Tanis as a warlord with a ranger multiclass. I figured that way he'd use his two multiclass power-swap feats in the heroic tier to pick up ranger powers. However, this proved to be problematic for a couple of reasons. The first was that since the PCs were starting at 7th level, Tanis would only have one multiclass power-swap feat to work with (the one at 4th level). Another problem was that as a warlord, Tanis would need to spend a feat to pick up longbow profiency.

    Based on these two issues, I decided to go with hybrid warlord|ranger for Tanis, since I felt that bow use is pretty iconic to Tanis's character. To differentiate Tanis from Riverwind, I gave Tanis the Quick Draw feat so that he could spread his powers equally between warlord melee powers and ranger ranged powers. Tanis's schtick effectively became switching rapidly and effortlessly between melee and ranged attacks. Ultimately, this implementation of Tanis proved to be evocative but a bit problematic. Warlord and ranger do not synergize that well under the hybrid rules, and required a wide spread of ability scores for Tanis. All this means that Tanis as presented is probably the most suboptimal of the heroes, but I think the final arrangement of his stats allows the character to be reasonably effective (and I went through several iterations). The bottom line is: had there been a ranged build for warlords, I would have gone with that. Maybe with the upcoming Martial Power 2 we'll see such a build.

    For Tanis's half-elf dilettante power selection, I went with jinx shot, a ranged bard power, since it is a power from a class with the leader role, and since Tanis has a decent Charisma (though this is not Tanis's most reliable attack). Although this is technically an arcane power, I thought that in Tanis's case, a little imaginative handwaving could be done to envision this as a martial ability for Tanis.

    From a non-mechanical perspective, some may noticed that I have listed Tanis as being unaligned, whereas in the original module, his alignment was given as neutral good. I think that this fits with Tanis's character as presented in the novels. This is one of a minority of cases where I chose to emphasize the novels over the modules. A major theme in Dragonlance is the balance between good and evil, and in the novels, particularly Spring Dawning, Tanis is depicted as being torn between selfishness and selflessness, between doing what's most expedient and doing what's right. In Spring Dawning the balance is served when two unaligned characters make a decision about their own moral positions: Tanis chooses good, and Raistlin chooses evil. Their individual choices later intersect to bring about the defeat of Takhisis and thus the restoration of the balance. I wanted sense that this is possible in my conversion, too, and therefore, Tanis is unaligned rather than neutral good.


    I might have made Sturm a paladin. It certainly would have been a nod to the codes of the Knights of Solamnia, and all the smiting and challenging powers of the paladin would have been very thematic. However, I instead went with fighter given that the plot of DL1 hinges on the restoration of divine power -- I didn't want to jump through hoops to explain why Sturm as a paladin could use his powers, when Goldmoon, a cleric, could not use hers without the Blue Crystal Staff. Worse, I didn't want to steal the thunder of the Staff or dilute the plot by concocting a MacGuffin to serve the same purpose for Sturm. Also, Sturm as a fighter will allow him some contrast later with Derek, a paladin.

    Sturm is usually depicted in art as carrying a shield, but the modules always portrayed him as using a two-handed sword. I knew I wanted to my version of Sturm to be a great-weapon fighter as well. In terms of optimization of the group as a whole, Caramon (as the hero with the highest strength) "should" have been the great-weapon fighter, so to help carve out Sturm's niche, and to show contrast between Sturm's studied skill with Caramon's raw power, I gave Sturm the Weapon Expertise feat and powers like sure strike that play up accuracy while downplaying pure strength. I also gave him a strong focus on defensive stances and powers that facilitate marking -- like come and get it. For Sturm, I see this power as being less about bravado, and more about his chivalrous challenges and bravery in the face of superior numbers.


    As mentioned above, from an optimization point of view, Caramon "should" have been the great-weapon fighter. However, Caramon is iconically a sword-and-board fighter. I played up Caramon's brawn-over-brains fighting style (and contrasted his style against Sturm's) by choosing powers like brute strike, feats like Power Attack and Weapon Focus (as opposed to Sturm's Weapon Expertise). I also decided that Caramon's schtick would be charging, and selected powers like knockdown attack and rhino strike, as well as magic items, like his vanguard longsword, that synergize with charge attacks.


    There has been a lot of discussion about how Raistlin could (or should) be statted. Those coming from a 3E perspective might naturally expect Raistlin to have some sort of mechanical nod to his having passed the Test and joined the ranks of the Wizards of High Sorcery. I discussed why I specifically avoided this in a previous post.

    Given Raistlin's well-known story involvement with the spirit of Fistandantilus, which I think fits brilliantly with the vestige warlock pact, I was faced with a decision to make for Raistlin's class: wizard, wizard with warlock multiclass, or hybrid wizard|warlock. I would have really liked to go with wizard multiclassed to warlock (vestige pact), but in the end I felt that would have required a bit of design work to more thematically represent the vestige pact. Since I knew I wasn't going to design fiddly rules bits, however, I ultimately chose to go straight wizard and leave the Fistandantilus stuff purely to story -- if Raistlin's player wanted to explore it.

    It seemed intuitive to give Raistlin the staff of defense form of implement mastery, given his iconic possession of the Staff of Magius, but since that build benefits from a higher Constitution, it was mechanically undesireable. Fortunately, the rules provided a good workaround for this. Raistlin's spellbooks are also an iconic part of his character, so I gave him the tome of readiness implement mastery and the Dual Implement Spellcaster feat so that he can wield both his tome and his staff to cast his spells.


    Traditionally, Flint has a high Constitution score. It was a pretty straightforward decision to build him as a battlerager fighter wielding a greataxe. His selection of invigorating powers play up both his somewhat unchivalrous fighting style and his staying power in a fight.


    Tas was another straightforward conversion, and an artful dodger rogue was a no-brainer. I decided that his hoopak would be easily represented by giving him a sling and a dagger -- weapons that already work with rogue powers. Since these are, in story terms, part of the same weapon, Tas doesn't need the Quick Draw feat to effectively use them both, and therefore all of his selected powers function with both melee and ranged weapons. Add in the Distant Advantage feat, and Tas has tons of opportunities to get his sneak attack damage each round.


    I initially thought about making Goldmoon an invoker to show her special relationship to the goddess Mishakal, but decided against it for several reasons, both having to do with Elistan. I felt that although Goldmoon was the one who was initially chosen by the Gods of Light to be the first cleric in their service since the Cataclysm to wield divine power, their real purpose in choosing her was so that she could then deliver the knowledge of the gods to Elistan, who would be their true prophet. Therefore, from a story perspective, I felt that Elistan made more sense as an invoker, as the voice of the gods. Furthermore, from a mechanical point of view, the heroes in the "Winter" story arc needed a controller, and that sealed the deal. Goldmoon would be the cleric, and Elistan would be the invoker.

    My first iteration of Goldmoon's stats had her combining melee cleric powers and ranged cleric powers, but this required her to have a high Strength score to be effective, which didn't feel appropriate. Therefore, I changed her to using strictly ranged and buffing powers -- a devoted cleric. I didn't go so far as to build her as a full-on shielding cleric, but it certainly could have been a valid choice.


    At first, I wanted Riverwind to use a mixture of melee and ranged attacks, but soon realized that this is an ineffective build unless the ranger is a dual-wielder (which I wanted to avoid for Riverwind). I also realized that would step on the toes of Tanis as I presented him. Therefore, I built Riverwind as an archer ranger, but with a few melee powers and the Quick Draw feat should he need to enter close combat. I also replaced his traditional sword with a spear to help further differentiate him from Tanis, but ultimately I felt that Riverwind should be primarily a ranged attacker.

    And that's why I designed the heroes the way I did.

    As an aside, I planned to include with this post links to pages containing the D&D Character Builder summary info so that anyone interested could import the characters to their copy of the Builder. I tried pasting the summaries on both wiki pages and in email, but unfortunately both methods were not importing correctly into my Builder. Does anyone have any experience with this? Suggestions?

    Friday, October 2, 2009

    Dragonlance for Newbies

    As I've mentioned, I don't have a gaming group at the moment. I have vague designs to run my conversion of DL1 for a group of new players at some point in the future -- unsuspecting friends who may be interested in checking out D&D. And by "new players" I mean new to D&D, new to roleplaying, the whole shebang.

    I think Dragonlance is a great setting for new players for several reasons. It's a fairly standard fantasy setting with light medieval shading and a general tone of modernity as far as attitudes and social mores go, so there's nothing too strange or foreign for newcomers to grasp. The setting deliberately divorces itself from some elements commonly used in fantasy that are straight out of Tolkien, namely hobbits and orcs. This can help keep the setting distinct in the minds of new players.

    Because DL1 is designed for level 7 characters, there is a bit of a hurdle to overcome in the form of the learning curve involved with new players. At 1st level, characters have a small suite of options available, but at 7th level, their options have already greatly increased. However, I think a patient DM with a willingness to explain how things work and take it a bit easy on the PCs while they figure things out can ease this problem somewhat. Some of the earlier tactical encounters in DL1 were designed with this in mind as "training encounters". It's only in some of the later encounters that some extra twists are added.

    So how do new players, who know nothing about D&D or Dragonlance, come up with characters? This is obviously where pregenerated heroes earn their pagecount. On the other hand, you can't throw down a gigantic wad of eight character sheets and expect new players to make heads or tails of them.

    To help my (hypothetical) group with this, I created a short document, Dragonlance Character Options, that could be sent to the players in advance of the first game session. It gives a brief overview of each hero using next to no game terms. Each hero's personality, combat style, and role in the group is described using plain descriptive language. The blurbs are short enough to not overwhelm new players, and, of course, the fantastic Larry Elmore pen and ink portraits of the heroes (originally published in DL5 Dragons of Mystery) are included (because, let's face it, people are going to judge a book by it's cover -- or in the case, judge a hero by their getup).

    In my last post, I wrote about some groups wanting to "play the novels" and some groups wanting to just "play the modules". With new players who know nothing about Dragonlance, you get what is (in my opinion) the best of both worlds: the players can react to situations in the adventure with absolutely no preconceived notion of what "should" happen, and you can also let them use the pregenerated heroes with all the various plot hooks and dramatic setups that come with them. Furthermore, fresh players have no idea how each character's story arc played out in the novels. As each subsequent adventure is played, the players will come up with their own stories and goals for these characters and feel no constraints based on what happened in the novels. No "Well, I don't want to play Sturm, he dies in DL8..."

    And that's why I think Dragonlance is great for newbies.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009

    BYOH (Bring Your Own Heroes)

    In my conversion of "Dragons of Despair" I wrote that players are "encouraged" to use the pregenerated PCs. I made that assertion based partly on the fact that I do believe the backstories of those heroes add depth the established overarching plot of the adventure arc, and partly out of tradition: that's what the Dragonlance modules have always advised.

    In addition, suggesting that players use the pregenned PCs justifies dedicating wordcount to dramatic moments or plot points that feature the backstories of those characters—for example, Kitiara's letter in DL1. The real purpose of Kitiara's letter in the adventure is threefold: 1) to foreshadow her later involvement as a villain, 2) to establish her relationship to some of the heroes, namely Tanis, Raistlin, and Caramon; and 3) to urge the PCs to move out of Solace quickly. Items 1 and becomes meaningless if the pregenned PCs aren't being used; and item 3 isn't critical in the grand scheme of things.

    The truth is I think the Dragonlance modules run just fine with any original group of heroes the players come up with. In what amounts to a contradiction to my "bottom-up" approach to the adventure, I did include a short appendix in DL1 that makes suggestions regarding setting-appropriate race and class selections for PCs. I included these suggestions out of respect for the setting’s traditions, but I also think many groups would not be concerned about what would or would not be appropriate in the Dragonlance setting—they just want to have fun playing the game. In such a group you could easily have a warforged fighter, an eladrin druid, a dwarf invoker, a shifter ranger, a half-orc rogue, a deva avenger, a dragonborn paladin, and a goliath warden. Instead of a staff of blue crystal, maybe the paladin has come into possession of the Blue Crystal Sword. It would make absolutely no sense in the context of Dragonlance, but the adventure would still be great fun, and the players are playing the heroes they want to play.

    The 3E adaptation of the Dragonlance modules published by Margaret Weis Productions addressed these issues by using a really clever device that they called character archetypes. These identified the archetypal roles played in the adventure by each of the pregenerated heroes. For example, Tanis is the Leader, Goldmoon is the Prophet, and Raistlin is the Sage. The idea is that a group can map its own PCs to those same roles, and then dramatic story-based moments in the adventure that originally applied to the classic heroes can be easily transferred to the player's own heroes.

    I thought about doing something similar in my conversion but ultimately decided not to, simply because I felt that if the players used the pregenerated heroes, there would be built-in roleplaying hooks in the adventure for them; and if they used their own characters, they could provide their own hooks and sources of drama. I thought that any plot points "requiring" a certain type of character could be subtly reworked so that the archetype isn't truly necessary in the end.

    In DL1, this is best illustrated with the example of Goldmoon. At first glance the adventure needs a cleric—someone to wield the Blue Crystal Staff and to become the first post-Cataclysmic cleric of Mishakal. But really, in 4E, any divine character would do. To take it even further, you don't need a divine character at all—the PCs really just need to get the Staff to Xak Tsaroth to hear the message of the goddess, and then they can use it to help them defeat Khisanth. If there's no PC to become a cleric (or invoker, or avenger, or whatever) at the end of the adventure, that's fine. They're going to take the knowledge of the True Gods to the NPC Elistan in the next adventure anyway.

    Handling it this way gives the story perhaps less dramatic heft than it would have if the classic heroes were in use—but a group preferring to use its own original heroes will provide plenty of their own dramatic moments and introduce their own themes if they’re dedicated roleplayers. Some groups will want to “play the novels” and other groups will want to “play the modules.” Both groups will have fun, and I wanted the converted module to be accessible to both playstyles.

    And that’s why I dedicated a lot of space to the character sheets for the classic heroes, and interspersed the adventure with references to their dramatic stories, but also included the appendix about original characters. I think for Dragonlance, it’s just fine if you bring your own heroes.

    Tuesday, September 29, 2009

    An Adventure Path, Not a Campaign Setting

    When I began to plan how I wanted to convert "Dragons of Despair" from the AD&D rules to the 4E rules, I thought about whether I should take a top-down or bottom-up approach in detailing the setting of the adventure.

    As world-builders know, a top-down approach to designing a milieu involves starting large and considering the big picture. Which PC races exist in your world, and how to do the various classes fit in? Are there new races or classes that need special rules? How about organizations that would work as paragon paths? What are the populations and dispositions of the cities, towns, villages, and nations of the world? Who are the rulers, movers, and shakers?

    A bottom-up approach, on the other hand, involves starting small and working on only what you need. Are the PCs going to visit Town X? If not, then you don't need to spend much time thinking about what Town X is like, who lives there, and what the current situation is there.

    Ultimately I decided that I was going to treat my conversion like an adventure path and not a campaign setting: I was going to use a bottom-up approach. In truth, the result is probably more like a hybrid of top-down and bottom-up because the Dragonlance setting has existed for many years; all the conceptualization has been done already. So although I didn't spend any word count on detailing the town of New Ports, for example (since the PCs won't visit it in DL1), the information about this location is out there somewhere.

    I think one of the benefits to treating Dragonlance like an adventure path rather than a campaign setting is that it allows me dispense with designing fiddly rules bits for "Dragonlance-isms". I was content to let the existing architecture of 4E fit where it needed to fit. For example, I might have designed a new PC race: the kender. They'd probably have a racial power called "Taunt"; maybe this power would mark one or more foes or have some other effects, like pulling them a few squares. It'd be neat. This approach would be expected if Dragonlance were given a full treatment as a campaign setting, but for an adventure path, is it really necessary? Why not just use halflings straight out of the Player's Handbook? Likewise, why bother with rules that attempt to give mechanics to exactly what it means to be a Wizard of High Sorcery? In the context of an adventure path, who cares?

    I think that the original Dragonlance modules took this approach too. There were a few corner cases (if I remember, they added some special rules for kender) but for the most part, sure there were Knights of Solamnia and Wizards of High Sorcery and Silvanesti elves and dark dwarves and whatever else -- but these were just names that fleshed out the milieu in the imaginations of the players. They were story elements. There was no mechanical difference between a Silvanesti elf and a Qualinesti elf or between a White Robe wizard and a Red Robe wizard.

    Conversely, because I'm treating the conversion project like an adventure path and not a campaign setting, I don't need to bother explaining 4E-isms that don't seem to fit easily into the established milieu -- like dragonborn, tieflings, or eladrin. Are there tieflings out there somewhere in the wider world of Krynn as it's depicted in my version of DL1? I don't know -- maybe. But since there are no tieflings in DL1 I didn't feel compelled to explain their presence or absence.

    It wasn't until the Dragonlance Adventures hardback was published for AD&D that Dragonlance began to be treated as a discrete campaign setting. That book introduced rules mechanics to address the differences between Knights of the Rose and Knights of the Crown, gully dwarves and hill dwarves, and many other Dragonlance-isms. There was even a chart that showed the mechanical influence of the phases of the moons on the spellcasting ability of wizards.

    3E really ran with the idea that in-game distinctions should also have mechanical ramifications for characters, as is particularly well illustrated with the abundance of prestige classes that were developed. Dragonlance received a 3E campaign setting treatment that introduced races, feats, prestige classes, and even some base classes specific to the world of Krynn.

    I think with 4E, we're seeing a return to the concept of keeping story elements and rules constructs largely separate. That is to say, in 4E, rules elements have stories attached, but story elements need not have rules attached. Flint was a metalsmith and a woodworker? In AD&D, it said that on his character sheet, whereas in 3E, he had levels in the expert class and spent skill points in Craft (Metalsmithing) and Craft (Woodworking). In 4E it says "Flint is a metalsmith and a woodworker" on his character sheet. Is one way better than the other? I think the answer to that question is no, neither method has more intrinsic value than the other. One is a more simulationist approah, and one is a more narrativist approach. They are both equally valid.

    But because 4E significantly downplays a simulationist approach in favor of a gamist approach (with some narrativism), I decided to go for a bottom-up, gamist/narrativist approach for my conversion project. I think it works.

    And that's why you won't see any races, classes, or paragon paths in "Dragons of Despair" or any of the other Dragonlance modules I convert.

    Monday, September 28, 2009

    DL1 Dragons of Despair

    I've done a rough playtesting pass through the adventure, and have tweaked a number of things along the way; so without further ado, I wanted to share my conversion of "Dragons of Despair" for critique (constructive I hope) and enjoyment (also, I hope!).

    As I mentioned earlier, I believe I've learned a lot about 4E encounter design and skill challenge design and while a couple of the counters in "Despair" are still perhaps a little rough, I'm looking forward to putting my newfound knowledge to use when I work on "Dragons of Flame".

    In future posts I'll talk about my thought process in converting the adventure to 4th Edition and why I made some of the choices I made. I hope that anyone who finds these posts interesting will stick around and share any insight they might have. I certainly welcome constructive criticism and I'll see if I can incorporate any great advice received into the final version.

    Before getting to the link to the adventure, I do need to make a bit of a disclaimer:

    This conversion of "Dragons of Despair" is intended for personal home use and is not intended in any way to generate profit. It is contains material copyrighted by Wizards of the Coast which is reproduced without permission. I believe this not-for-profit, personal use of the copyrighted material constitutes a fair use of the material (as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law).

    The art on page 1 is by Clyde Caldwell and has been used without permission. The art on pages 52, 53, and 54 is by Larry Elmore and has been used without permission.

    The maps in this adventure were created with the
    MapTool software, using assets developed by various individuals.

    And here's the link: DL1 Dragons of Despair. Enjoy!

    Monday, August 31, 2009

    Playtesting Underway!

    I've started playtesting my conversion of DL1, Dragons of Despair. Since I don't currently have a gaming group, what I really mean by this is that I've started running the pregenerated PCs through the tactical encounters to ensure that I have struck the right balance and not made anything too hard or too easy.

    To help me do this, I've been using a number of excellent tools. One of these is Dungeons & Dragons Insider (DDI), which is of course WotC's subscription service (and which I find to be an invaluable investment, but that's outside the scope of this post). By having the Compendium open, I can search for clarifications to any rules questions that come up. The other two apps I've been using are also excellent resources for running combat and I highly recommend them: MapTool and Virtual Combat Cards.

    MapTool probably needs no introduction. It's a part of the fantastic RPTools suite of apps meant to help facilitate roleplaying games. MapTool is an "online, multiuser, networked, graphical, interactive, programmable virtual tabletop", and I have in fact used it to create all the maps in DL1 (which I think turned out very nicely, even if I do say so myself!).

    Virtual Combat Cards (VCC) is a really great resource for the harried DM. It's a 4E combat tracker that you can use to monitor initiative, hit points, marks, conditions, ongoing damage, and all the fiddly little bits of 4E combat.

    Even using these great time-saving tools I have been finding that each of these tactical encounters takes a very long time to resolve. Too long, in fact. There are a couple of reasons for this that I've identified so far. Probably the most significant reason is that with eight PCs and a correspondingly higher amount of monsters, there are a lot of combatants to keep track of! I knew this would be an issue when I set out converting DL1 and I pondered how to handle it.

    Traditionally there are eight PCs in DL1 -- Tanis, Sturm, Caramon, Raistlin, Flint, Tasslehoff, Goldmoon, and Riverwind. (There is some mention of Riverwind being an NPC in the original module, but my overall impression was that he was intended to be a PC, and the original DL5 seems to support this). I thought about designing the module for five PCs -- the standard assumed party size in 4E, with the idea that the players could select the five PCs they wanted to be active for the adventure, and the other three characters would accompany them as NPCs who participate in the action "off-screen". I ultimately decided I wanted to design the module assuming an eight-person party, but I still think that initial thought could be a valid alternative. All this said, how many gaming groups have eight players? Probably not the majority, so I have included in the module some instruction for scaling the adventure. Fortunately, this is easy to do in 4E -- in the case of DL1, simply remove a number of threats from an encounter equal to n*x, where n is the number of PCs less than eight, and x is the XP value of a standard monster of the encounter's level.

    With a full complement of all eight pregen PCs and the monsters to match them, the playtest combats are running long. A lot longer than I want them. That said, excessive combat length in 4E is a well-known issue and I've seen a number of insightful discussions about it lately (in particular, check out relevant posts at the great blogs Musings of the Chatty DM, Greywulf's Lair, and Stupid Ranger). I'm toying with the idea of reducing all monster hp to 75% or even 50% to help speed things up a bit. I also want to tinker with some of the composition of several encounters where I feel like I may have used a few too many soldiers.

    After running through a few of the tactical encounters, I also went back to rejigger a couple of the PCs' builds. In particular, Tanis and Goldmoon as I had originally built them were not performing as effectively as I would have liked, but I believe I have now fixed this.

    In any event, this has been my long-winded way of saying that playtesting has begun on the module and I feel like I have gotten the basic balance of difficulty right -- though I still have a number of encounters to test. There are a few refinements I'd like to make thanks to some things I've learned along the way about encounter design, but I'll be able to put these more fully to use in DL2. In the meantime, I'll keep playtesting, but I think I'll also get word of this blog out there and get the module posted as well so you can have a look and hopefully offer some constructive criticism!

    Thursday, August 27, 2009


    In the online gaming community, a lot has been written about the latest, fourth, edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game. Inevitably change brings with it debate, and the debate about 4E, especially in the early days of the new edition, has often been quite heated.

    I had been on a bit of a hiatus from D&D in the latter days of 3E (3.5, I suppose I should say). Whether you love it or hate it (and for the record, I love it) a new system like 4E represents an opportunity to reimagine all our favorite stories and characters, and soon after the D&D Character Builder was released I hit on the idea of seeing how I could represent the Heroes of Lance and the Heroes of Legend -- the characters from the Dragonlance adventures -- under the new rules.

    In 1988, as a kid in Grade 6 (or "the sixth grade", or "Year Six", depending on which English-speaking country you live in), the Dragonlance Chronicles novels became my introduction to D&D. I read them, loved them, and when I got to the end of Dragons of Autumn Twilight I saw an advertisment for D&D. My reaction was more or less, "Holy shit, there's a game?!"

    My friends and I became avid gamers, adventuring in the world of Krynn. As the early 90s went on, we moved on to the Forgotten Realms and other worlds, and Dragonlance, with its seemingly endless novels of dubious quality and bizarre continuity (or lack thereof) became almost an embarrassment, a setting "we used to play". (Many years later, in 2008, I reread the Chronicles and found that the writing doesn't hold up well to the eyes of an adult. Nonetheless, that sense of fun was still there, and the old familiar characters were still enjoyable.)

    In spite of all this, some of the fondest gaming memories I have are of running my players through the original Dragonlance modules, DL1 to DL14 (published from 1984 to 1988). I suppose today we'd call that kind of thing an "adventure path". The first of those modules, Dragons of Despair, is in my opinion a very well-done adventure (rated 25th in the "30 Greatest Adventures of All Time" as published by Paizo in Dungeon #116), and those that followed may have been of varying quality, but they had a lot of unique features and bright ideas as well.

    Getting back to the D&D Character Builder, I think one of the great things about those Dragonlance modules (and novels) were their beloved heroes. Tinkering with the Character Builder, I started building various versions of the heroes, selecting feats and powers that I thought fit with their personalities. Eventually, I started thinking about how these characters would fit together as a group of player characters if one were to run an adventure for them. That in turn led to me thinking about what it would be like to update the Dragonlance modules to 4th Edition.

    And so here we are. I've embarked on a project to update the classic DL modules to 4E. I've been thinking a lot about what such a conversion requires and in reviewing the classic modules I see that there are going to be a lot of hurdles on the way. I've also taken a good look at the 3rd Edition conversion of the modules published by Margaret Weis Productions to see how they handled some of the issues I perceived with the modules.

    I decided to start this blog to write some notes and thoughts about the process, and hopefully gain some feedback from anyone who might be interested. I've been hard at work on DL1, "Dragons of Despair", and soon I'll have a first draft to share for critique.

    I hope you'll find my notes interesting and I hope that readers will share their insight. Although I've been a DM for many years, I'm definitely learning a lot about the fine art of both module writing and module converting, and learning (I think) a lot about some of the theory behind the 4th Edition ruleset as well. It's an ongoing process.

    I'll leave you with a rundown of the builds for the heroes of the Dragonlance saga as I eventually setted on them. I'll discuss my reasoning behind some of these choices in a future entry. Here they are:
    • Tanis Half-elven, half-elf hybrid warlord | ranger (resourceful presence)
    • Sturm Brightblade, human fighter (great weapon fighter/two-handed weapon talent)
    • Caramon Majere, human fighter (guardian fighter/one-handed weapon talent)
    • Raistlin Majere, human wizard (war wizard/tome of readiness implement mastery)
    • Flint Fireforge, dwarf fighter (battlerager fighter)
    • Tasslehoff Burrfoot, halfling rogue (trickster rogue/artful dodger)
    • Goldmoon, human cleric (devoted cleric)
    • Riverwind, human ranger (archer ranger)
    • Tika Waylan, human hybrid fighter | rogue (ruthless ruffian)
    • Gilthanas, elf swordmage (ensaring swordmage)
    • Laurana, elf warlord (inspiring warlord)
    • Elistan, human invoker (preserving invoker)
    • Derek Crownguard, human paladin (avenging paladin)
    • Aaron Tallbow, human ranger (beastmaster ranger)
    • Serinda, elf bard (valorous bard)
    • Kronn Thistleknot, halfling fighter (tempest fighter)