Archive for April, 2009

Three Tips for Keep on the Shadowfell

April 27, 2009

Update: Wizards recently released Keep on the Shadowfell and the 4e Quick Start Rules for free on their website. The tips below can help make this excellent free adventure even more fun.

Though nearly a year old now, Keep on the Shadowfell (KotS) remains the most-discussed adventure for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. Today we will discuss three tips for running and improving this 4e starter adventure. Though these tips focus on the Keep on the Shadowfell, the philosophy behind these tips also apply to other published adventures.

Warning: This post contains spoilers. If you plan to play through this module, you may want to stop reading now.

And now, the tips.

Tip 1: Who Is Kalarel?

kalarelKalarel, the main boss of KotS, is an excellent villain without much backstory. All we get from the adventure is that he’s a priest of Orcus attempting to spread the plague of undeath to the mortal world. Kalarel can be much more than the boss of the final encounter. How did he come to the Keep? How did he get an army of kobolds, goblins, and hobgoblins to do his bidding? Where did he come from and where does he want to go? Why does he believe what he is doing is right? What pushed him to become a priest of Orcus?

Answer these questions and you’ll have a much more believable villain. Give tidbits of this information to your players through background stories, lost journal entries, discussions, or interrogations with Kalarel’s minions. Make Kalarel a villain known to the PCs from the first day.

In my own run of KotC, Kalarel was a Ted-Bundy-like serial killer and the party tracked him down through his grizzly crime scenes. Kalarel also left wells behind, cauldrons of vile necrotic substances used to create his undead minions. These showed the party his growth as a priest of Orcus as they came closer to the portal at the end of the adventure.

Tip 2: Forshadow the Long War

Keep on the Shadowfell’s story can be the driving force for an entire campaign against Orcus himself. Kalarel’s fate at the end of the adventure leaves room for a return later on. “Death’s Reach” would be a great adventure to re-introduce this villain. The central seed of your campaign against Orcus can be defined by the events in Keep on the Shadowfell. Also, introducing NPCs from later adventures in these first days can build relationships between the PCs and these NPCs further down the road. The prince’s seed from King of the Trollhaunt Warrens can be much more powerful if the PCs met him early on.

Tip 3: Enrich the Winterhaven NPCs

As you introduce NPCs from further adventures, also fill out and define the NPCs from KotS that will re-occur in later adventures. In particular, the mage Valthroon and the lord of Winterhaven, Lord Padriac can be campaign-long friends and allies of the party well beyond this adventure. Likewise, Winterhaven itself makes a fine recurring city for the party, though the Seven-Pillared Hall in the Thunderspire Labyrinth module makes a somewhat better home town.

Keep the number of fully-rich NPCs small. A group of players might not be able to keep track of a dozen different NPCs, but three or four good friends or arch enemies can really add to the story of a campaign. Keep it simple but keep it deep as well.

While the above three tips focus on expanding Keep on the Shadowfell, expanding the right NPCs can improve any module or series of modules you are running. Our “Three Tips” column will focus next on Thunderspire Labyrinth. Keep watch!


Slyflourish Tweets, 15-22 April

April 23, 2009

Below are the tweets for the seven days between 15 and 22 April 2009.

Un-cursing a possessed Treant during combat made for a fun skill challenge when the treant was bloodied. Good for earthday! #dnd

Having a lot of trouble with the Paladin “Healing Boon” paragon ability. It totally negates elites, solos, and area attackers. Help! #dnd

@DMingNicholas I found the Manual of the Planes too fluffy. I wanted crunch like Draconomicon and Open Grave. Planes Below looks good. #dnd

Every good villain thinks they’re a hero. What drives your villains to do what they do? The best villains have good reasons for evil. #dnd

@Dragonshaos For a named boss, standard actions can be converted to minors they can use once a turn. Gives them a variety of actions. #dnd

@AsmodeusLore Groups of five are ideal. I mostly run groups of six but its a three-ring circus of constant “You’re up!” shouting. #dnd

For major elite or solo villains convert standard actions to once-per-turn minor actions. Recharges still apply. #dnd

Received “Death’s Reach” epic tier module. Very epic. WOTC finally started using Dungeon Tiles directly as adventure maps. #dnd

@exedore6 That’s always a good idea in theory. Show a monster that can eat another party and your party will be more afraid. #dnd

Higher level solos aren’t harder, just harder to kill. Keep BBEG solos equal level to the party and add some strikers or brutes. #dnd

Simple Caesar ciphers make for fun secret messages for players to decode. Make it crackable and don’t make it vital. #dnd

Excellent article on shaking up Minions for your players by Sterling on Dungeon Mastering:

Great tips for integrating new players, from

Have your boss villain wielding that fancy weapon you want the players to have. Let them feel it before they own it. #dnd

Gaiman’s description of Ghoulheim in “Graveyard Book” makes for a great description of the Abyss, Hell, or the Shadowfell. Page 82. #dnd

For a twist, build a large elite creature with a built-in skill challenge to defeat or redirect his wrath.

and so begins the great Crashing of the Gencon Registration Servers! Yeehaa!

Make the Feywild really fantastic. Ten thousand year old trees. Cyclopean ruins. Mile high waterfalls. Mountanous fallen statues. #dnd

Write out your own flavor text before your next game. It’s easier to read your own prose than it is to describe the Feywild ad-lib. #dnd

Three Cheap 4e Game Aids

April 20, 2009

We all know the primary needs for a good D&D game. Books, dice, pencils, miniatures, a battle mat, these are all either required or very helpful in playing D&D 4th Edition. There are, however, a few gaming supplies that will greatly improve your game, speed up battles, or make it easier and more fun for your players to play. Today we’ll talk about three of these cheap and useful game aids. Please note, I am not the original source of these ideas, many came from Enworld’s forums, but I felt they deserved a deeper discussion in a dedicated article. Let us begin.

The 3×5 Note Card

A lot of DMs have used 3×5 cards to run most of their games. A 3×5 card is just big enough to pack in the important details of a monster, write out a quick skill challenge, outline the five main scenes of an adventure, or pass them as secret notes to your players.


These cards also work very well as initiative trackers. Take about five 3×5 cards, cut them in half vertically, fold them in half, and write the name of your characters on the bottom edge of both sides of the card. Have your players yell their initiative, and drop the cards from high to low over the edge of your DM Screen. Make one card an arrow card, ” ->”, to show the direction of initiative. With the names on both sides of the screen, both you and your players can see who is up and who is up next. Write more cards labeled “monster 1” to “monster 5” to mark monsters in initiative order. This is a nearly free way to track initiative and is the best method I’ve seen so far.

The Soda Bottle Ring
The soda bottle ring has quickly become a popular way of marking miniatures with quarries, curses, challenges, and marks. When pried off of the bottle, these colored rings can represent every possible mark from a Warlock’s curse (black) to a ranger’s quarry (green). They are easily draped over a miniature without having to lift the miniature off of the mat. The only disadvantage is the crooked eye of your co-workers as you raid the recycle bin and run off with a pile of soda rings yelling “YES!” when you find one of the elusive purple rings.

The Poker Chip

There are a couple of uses for physical tokens in D&D 4th Edition outside of miniatures or marks. Using tokens for action points makes them easier to track and more fun for players who can throw them in right before rolling a 20. Poker chips work very well for this. They’re cheap to acquire, at about a buck for a box, and come in a range of colors. DMs can use white chips labeled “+1” with a Sharpie as a reward for playing a turn quickly. This “momentum” bonus helps speed the game along when your more tactical players might spend valuable minutes worrying about the right positioning.

Not every D&D accessory need cost a lot of money. With these three aids your game will run faster and smoother without breaking the bank. Please share any other cheap game aids have you found over the years so we can all make our games that much better.

Slyflourish Twitter Archive 3/28/09 – 4/18/09

April 18, 2009

While Sly Flourish the web blog will focus on bringing you an article a week focused on making your D&D 4th Edition game better, that’s not the only place we’ll provide tips. Subscribe to for two D&D 4th Edition DM Tips a day. Below is an archive of these tweets from the beginning of the twitter feed until tonight.

Beginning next week, I will post a new Sly Flourish Twitter Archive each Thursday morning.

Let the tweets begin…

Describe a character’s final blow in gory detail. Get the flavor of the power to make it more authentic. #dnd

Build an NPC 3×5 card with DCs for Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, Perception, Insight, History. Make NPCs a small skill challenge. #dnd

*Trollhaunt spoiler* Give Skalmad a range sight burst 3 version of his burning eye to watch your players scramble. He needs the boost. #dnd

When battling a Invoker, don’t let those summoned angels sit too close to your BBEG – three minor action attacks can hurt! Kill them!

Use colored pipe cleaners to show zones on a battle board. #dnd

Use +1 tokens as rewards for players who finish turns quickly. They’re usable only on the next round. Call it a “momentum bonus”. #dnd

From Robin’s Laws: Can you describe your adventure or campaign story seed in a sentence? If not, simplify it. Let the players grow it. #dnd

Want a richer villain? Visualize yourself seeing through his eyes. What does he want? Where is he going? What will he do? What is his POV?

Asmor’s Math Cruncher is a great way to build fast NPC stats. Keep it handy! I’d sure love a paper chart version. #dnd

New article on Sly Flourish: Build your 4e Adventure Checklist

Start with a bang. Write out your nightly adventure intro and read it with flair. It marks the beginning of a great game.

In a panic trying to figure out what events I should go to at Gencon. Are there any blogger events going on? What games are you looking at?

Use modified house rules on specific monsters just to try it out. For Berserker Troglodytes, double damage and half HP. #dnd

@newbiedm I’m not sure anyone is having a perfect time with Skill Challenges – they’re hard to do right. Shorter is better, usually.

Success or failure conditions for #dnd Skill Challenges aren’t enough. Make players AWARE of the impact so they have something to work for.

Tough minion house rules: minions deal 1 damage per level, can save vs auto damage kills, and have damage resist = level – discuss.

Our DM today showed a scene from Aladin as a vision of the opening of a tomb. A D&D; game really can be a multimedia experience!

The Last of the Mohican’s soundtrack makes for great inspirational in-game or preparation music. Itunes link:

@NukeHavoc I avoid calling out minions or skill challenges in my game. I prefer to describe the scene rather than describing the mechanics.

One option for marking miniatures so you know which orc is orc 4 is a silver paint marker. A less destructive one might be a twist-tie flag.

@BerinKinsman it may be time for some 4e hacks – more dangerous solos and faster combat being two.

Get some excellent miniature terrain at your local pet or aquarium store.

For a change of pace, run an encounter with no map and no minis. Describe the situation and do the battle in your heads, old school.

Have a large group of players? Have two players roll dice at a time. Occasionally the first move negates the second but its rare.

A good way to challenge a party is to put the BBEG at the end of a five-encounter stretch without an extended rest.

@gamefiend as a DM, dual classing makes it harder and harder to keep up with the powergamers. Especially with such gimpy solos.

@gamefiend Three top BBEG criteria: threatening (meaning not just a solo but solo + friends), hated, has clear motivation (hero in his mind)

When running modules, read a few modules ahead to insert story seeds into earlier adventures. Introduce the Trollhaunt prince seed in KotS.

Hit the Party Store after Halloween for some great cheap D&D; physical props. I found a great gray skull with hair for Vyrellis in PoS

What element can you add to your next game to really draw in one of your players? Big tactical battle? Good RP encounter? A devious puzzle?

For Illuminatus fans, I posted two of my father’s (Robert J. Shea’s) books: The Saracen 1 & 2:

@BerinKinsman One line 4e NPC: Name, init, speed, hp AC Fort Ref Will +attack. Pull damage from DMG page 42 or DM Screen.

Don’t be afraid to physically re-enact some monster’s attack at the table. Physical comedy leads to spontaneous roleplaying.

The Wizards art gallery is a great place to find and print pictures of NPCs to show to your players. Helps them remember.

Probably too early to say, but is there going to be an RPG blogger meet up at Gencon this year?

Interesting article on D&D; solitare. More philosophy than technique:

Need ways to play D&D; quick with just two people. DDM: 4e lite: Blades and Heroes:

@milambus Storing minis in Container Store plastic shoe-boxes works well. Shallow boxes help you find the right mini.

Strip down your campaign thread to whatever your players can possibly remember. That detailed intricate plot is meaningless if unremembered.

Insider tip for making solos more deadly: It’s not the solo, its the five guys who attack the party AFTER the solo. The solo burns dailies.

solution to Hospitaler’s Boon seems to be piling up on additional creatures with your solo. In short, 4e “solos” shouldn’t really be solo.

According to Wizards, the dragon errors are in the D&D; Compendium and the Monster manual is correct.

Discovered that dragons aren’t up to date in the Monster Manual and are not officially Errata’d. Check that DDI Compendium before play!

large 1 gal or 2 gal zip lock bags work very well for storing D&D; Dungeon Tiles. Keep each set separate so you can sort pieces quickly.

New pics from tonight’s game. Cut up 3×5 cards draped on the DM screen work really well for initiative. See the pics. #DND

Only three players tonight. Thanks to the “quick build” in the DDI Character Builder and Dungeon Delve, I can still have a game! #dnd

Tip: use ziploc bags to store pencils, mark rings, and each encounter worth of minis. I like the ones with the zipper on them.

had a good talk about skill challenges. The success of good skill challenges comes with specificity. Give them clear options. Thoughts?

Getting some excellent results from the Robin Laws quiz: Turns out most of the group are tacticians. Advice?

built a Robin Laws player matrix last night for my current game. Here’s a handy quiz to help figure your players out:

Just when you think you have enough Dwarven Forge pieces, you see this: I do have a birthday coming up.

Cut up some old black t-shirts to act as fog of war for my Dwarven Forge setup. Thank you twice, Eddie Bauer!

Setting up Dwarven Forge caverns for next Trollhaunt game. Do realistic tiles help or hurt immersion? Discuss.

#dnd Just posted my first Sly Flourish article, “Building a Campaign Box”: “Creative Habit” is a great book for DMs.

considering nerfing “Hospitaler Blessing”. As written, it removes nearly all solo creature damage. Change to: once per turn.

re-reading to shorten 4e combat. My untested thought: 50% hps, +2 attack, + 2x damage on some monsters.

Writing up Stone Cauldron lore for King of the Trollhaunt Warrens. Use copper-colored fine parchment resume paper to make notes look old.

Cheap tip for initiative. Cut 3×5 cards in half, write char names on both sides, drape over DM Screen. Use arrow card for init direction.

4e Adventure Checklist

April 13, 2009

It can be hard to remember all the elements that make up a good 4e game. There are a lot of them to remember, and if you’re running a game every week, it’s easy to miss some of the components that make a game great.

Today we outline a list of components that make a game great. Some of these are necessary. Others are nice little additions. The intent is to help remind you what you might need and what you might want to make your game that much better. Let us begin.

4E Adventure Checklist

  • Adventure outline: Write out the five main sections of your adventure in brief points you can use at the table.
  • Story Seeds: Write out one-line story seeds that will draw your players through and across your adventures.
  • Encounter outlines: What are the basics of each encounter you plan to run?
  • Interesting environments: What can you do to make locales more interesting? What will make your encounter environment fantastic?
  • Scene flavor text: Each scene should have some flavor text. Unless you’re exceptionally good at ad-lib, you might want to write out full readable descriptions of each scene. Read them out loud BEFORE you try to do so at the table to avoid embarrassing errors.
  • Notable NPCs: Write out the name, brief description, background, motivation, and conversational DCs for major NPCs. Don’t introduce too many of them – NPCs can be hard for your players to remember in high numbers.
  • Loot: Spend some time to taylor the loot your party will get. What sorts of things get them excited? What odd things can you put in there to excite them?
  • Maps, terrain, or dungeon tiles: Prepare your maps, dungeon tiles, or encounter terrain.
  • Miniatures or monster tokens: Put each encounter’s worth of minis or tokens into zip-loc bags.
  • Puzzles: Always keep an eye out for interesting puzzles that go beyond a difficulty check.
  • Skill challenges: Spend a good amount of time preparing your skill challenges. Make sure they have enough detail to give players an idea what they’re supposed to do.
  • Physical props: Physical props can really add to a good story. Check out dollar stores and after-season halloween stores for great selections of cheap props.
  • Suitable music or background sound effects: Find some suitable instrumental music or background sound effects to play. Hour long recordings of storms or waves hitting a beach can add a little bit more to a game.
  • Player archetype note cards: Keep a 3×5 card for each player describing what that player wants out of your game and how you’re going to give it to them. Consult your 4e DMG or your Robin’s Laws For Good Game Mastering for details.

You might have other elements to your game that make it something special. Put together your own check list and run through it a few days before you’re planning your next adventure. While you might not check off all of it, you might find an element your game has been missing.

D&D Dungeon Tile Tips

April 5, 2009

With the recent release of Dungeon Delve and the strong push to table top combat in D&D 4th Edition, D&D Dungeon Tiles are becoming more and more important in people’s games. While the truly insane gamers use the excellent (and expensive) Dwarven Forge 3D terrain, Dungeon Tiles are far more affordable. How do you use these tricky things? Just laying them out on a table doesn’t always work, and how do you store the stupid things when you’re done? This week we look at three tips to making the most from your D&D Dungeon Tiles.

1. Use Blue Poster Tack & Black poster board

A big problem with the Dungeon Tiles is that they don’t stay together very well when you’ve built a room. You can try just laying them out but any jostle of the table will send them flying. The best way I’ve found to keep your rooms together is to use blue sticky tack, the sticky putty used to tack posters to walls without thumb tacks, to fasten the pieces to black sheets of poster board.

There are a lot of advantages to this. First, you can build out all your rooms well before you need to use them at the game. They also store well when stuck together so you can carry them around pretty easily. Second, they won’t move around when you’re actually playing. The rooms are all very solid. Third, the black poster board doesn’t distract the eye away from the dungeon room itself.

One additional tip: don’t leave your tiles stuck to the board for very long. If they stick together too long, you may tear the tile when you tear it away from the board.

The poster tack runs about $5 a pack, but that pack should last you a long long time. It’s well worth the investment.

The black sheets of poster board can get expensive. I recommend the 11 x 17 sheets for about $4 a sheet. A larger sheet can build out an entire dungeon floor for those huge Gygaxian old-school dungeons. You’ll need a lot of tiles for these, however.

2. Store Dungeon Tiles in Large Zip-Loc Bags

The best way I’ve found to store Dungeon Tiles is in large one-gallon or two-gallon zip lock bags. Store each set of Dungeon Tiles in its own bag to make it easy to find the piece you need. I prefer the bags with the actual plastic zippers on them – they’re far easier to close. In a large transparent zip-loc bag, you can quickly look for a particular piece without opening the bag. Once you have a good collection of Dungeon Tiles, stick all of your zip-loc bags into one of your Twyla Tharp Banker Boxes.

3. Buy two copies of each set.

One of the big complaints with the Dungeon Delve was the heavy use of the Hall of the Giant Kings tile set which was out of print before the book’s release. I was lucky enough to find two sets of the tiles for $6 a piece on Ebay, but many others weren’t so lucky and the price is now as high as $50 a set.

The lesson we can learn from this is to buy two copies of each set when they’re still in print. At $10 a set, they’re affordable and we can’t be sure which sets we’ll need for future sourcebooks. The nice thing about Dungeon Tiles is that every set improves the value of your overall collection. You can build bigger and richer dungeons with every set you add.

So there’s your Sly Flourish Tip of the Week. When using D&D Dungeon Tiles, use sticky tack, black poster boards, and zip-loc bags to make the most of your collection and buy two copies of every set to ensure you always have what you need.