Take Ten: Balance
From David Newland
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0304
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Take Ten: Balance
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
A Brief Word From Johnn
Take Ten: Balance
Another mid-week issue due to a minor wrench I threw in.
Though this article focuses on a D&D skill, I think there should be some value for GMs of other systems as well. David gives us some interesting things to ponder, and I think it’s good to try to squeeze the most out of the tools we have at our disposal, including the game rules. If you have any feedback or requests, don’t hesitate to hit the reply button.
For this tip, I neglected to put in source credits to Vincent Baker, “Dogs in the Vineyard,” and Luke Crane, “Burning Wheel.” My apologies.
Get some gaming in this weekend!
Take Ten: Balance
A character with skills is a character with options. Often overlooked and underused, skills can change the game with a single die roll. Skills add meat to the ability score bones of a character, developing their persona and creating heroes that are memorable and playable. Presented here are ten takes on one of the most overlooked D20 skills of all, balance.
Balance is more reactive than proactive. Rather than gaining an advantage, balance is usually used to sidestep a disadvantage. Since balance checks can come up frequently, prepare to use them to your advantage.
Slick cavern tunnels, crumbling stone bridges, flooding caves, loose cobblestones, and slippery sewer entrances make traveling underground a dangerous proposition. Add monsters to the mix and difficult terrain becomes hostile. While clever parties can position rogues in front of traps and fighters in front of monsters, everyone is at risk from poor footing. A failed roll can mean falling prone, or worse, falling down, down, down till you hit the ground.
Naturally occurring cave systems aren’t flat and level. They twist and turn, slope up and down, get clogged with rubble and coated with slime. Uneven or sloping surfaces create interesting bottlenecks and unusual features that make adventuring memorable.
- A winding narrow tunnel is slick with an alien-looking slime. Try to wriggle up the tunnel is the first challenge. The slime’s source is the second.
- House-sized mushrooms grow by an underground steam vent. As the PCs spring across the mushroom tops, they are attacked by assassin vines and giant centipedes.
- A tremor from a purple worm makes the ground buckle, heave, and split open. PCs must make a balance check to stay on their feet.
Exploring The Wilderness
Dangerous footing isn’t limited to dungeons and caves. There are mountains to be climbed, ice sheets to cross, and sand dunes to traverse. The great outdoors can be an annoying obstacle (stumbling up rocky hills, slipping in murky swamps) or a lethal one (avalanches, sandstorms). Clever use of balance might help you avoid these dangers.
- Creeping along the edge of a dune avoids sand traps or helps you ambush predators lurking below.
- Chopping down a tree makes an impromptu bridge across a fast moving stream.
- Careful distribution of weight avoids the avalanche.
The absence of square rooms, doors, and corridors can make wilderness adventures hard to run. Without obstacles PCs can go in any direction, but adding a few outdoor challenges compels the PCs to make choices, giving the wilderness dungeon-like qualities.
- A peat bog blocks the PCs’ path. Do they take the long way around or risk the shortcut through the bog?
- During a mountain trek, a powerful snowstorm hits the area. Pressed for time, the PCs have a tough decision: wait until the skies clear and lose precious time, or chance the icy climb and risk a deadly fall.
- Race across lily pads the size of coliseums.
- Evade a sudden mudslide.
Ships, trains, wagons, chariots, and horses are great for lessening travel time, but have the unfortunate risk of being possible deathtraps. Ships are tossed around in storms, trains get derailed, wagon wheels fly off, and horses turn ornery. What about pirates, robbers, highwaymen, and horse thieves? Balance will help keep a PC upright and ready to throw their foes over the side, or allows a character to leap cinematically from one moving vehicle to another without tumbling over the edge.
Why wait till the dungeon to start the action? There’s enough adventure to be had on the road.
- Heroes fight atop crow’s nests and ship rigging, making Balance checks between sword swipes.
- The Black Throne, a royal chair carved from a single block of onyx, is knocked loose from its moorings during a storm and skids back and forth across the ship’s deck while the
PCs try to stop it from sailing overboard.
- Elven barbarians leap from trees onto the heroes’ wagon train along a steep mountain road. A poor balance check might cause a long fall.
With five ranks in balance, a PC is no longer flatfooted while balancing. So what’s the fuss? Say goodbye to your dexterity bonus and hello to sneak attack vulnerability. On the other foot, hazardous ground is an opportunity for PC rogues to attack flatfooted foes. With a simple change of terrain, rogues become the heavy hitters, while armored opponents are in for a hard landing (remember: if you take damage while balancing, you have to make another balance check to keep your footing, made all the more difficult once those hefty armor check penalties are added).
Rogues become more than a pick-pocketing nuisance to PCs when Balance checks are required. A Thieves Guild, rogue nemesis, or rogue-employing humanoid tribe has a variety of balance-dependent defenses and ambushes available to them.
- Entrances to the Thieves Guild are along narrow beams connecting rooftops, with sliding boards between levels. An acrobatic guild member guards each entrance.
- Thieves flee a crime scene through a large sewer pipe, where they mount an ambush against any pursuers along the ledges lining a tunnel intersection.
- Pint-sized humanoids such as kobolds and goblins even the odds against larger enemies with hit-and run raids in a warren of oil-slicked surfaces. PCs either become tiptoeing pin cushions or charge forward and risk attack by hiding rogues waiting to strike fallen foes.
The Chase Is On
More often than they’d like, heroes must run for their lives. Taking the race to uneven ground can dramatically alter the outcome in their favor, if they can balance better. With a DC of 10, a pursuing enemy has a 50-50 chance of stumbling over rough terrain. Add in debris, mud, or heavy armor and the odds get worse. Failing the check by five or more means tumbling to the ground and spending the next move action getting up; failing by four or less holds fast an enemy for the round; even a successful roll only allows movement at half speed.
Meanwhile, our balance-proficient heroes can choose to take a -5 penalty to their roll to move at full speed, leaving their opponents in the rubble. If a horde of monsters is chasing the PCs and enough stumble after a failed balance check, the PCs can turn a frightening retreat into a fighting retreat, and pick off pursuers a few at a time.
Chase sequences are exciting on the silver screen, but hard to adjudicate in a role-playing game. One way to make refereeing easier is with the balance skill.
- A chase on slick ground forces both PCs and NPCs to strategize: do they tread carefully and fall behind, or gamble moving at full speed?
- With people falling, stumbling, slowing down, and speeding up, the advantage switches back and forth between the two sides, keeping the tension level high.
- GMs who want to scare their PCs without killing them can have immensely powerful but supremely clumsy monsters chase them, knowing the monster will eventually fail its Balance check, letting the PCs escape with their lives and good thrill.
Front doors, castle gates, secret hatches: all bad news. There are too many kinds of spells, traps, and guardians waiting for someone to turn the latch. If there’s a chance of going above or below, a scout with good balance and climb skills can sneak around the main entrance, open it from within, and save the team spells, resources, and hit points.
In cities, scouts can use tightropes to enter buildings through roof entrances. In forests, they can leap across tree branches and sneak past guards. Even underground, there are large caverns with ledges to creep around. Excellent opportunities for the nimble to shine.
A wide-open, two-dimensional battleground usually favors the PCs. Why do them favors? People in general don’t work well in three dimensions. With a little change of scenery, they’ll be kept on their toes making balance or climb checks.
- An ettercap lurks out of reach high up in a tree, casting webs down on the PCs. To engage it in melee, a PC will have to crawl out along the tree branch and make a balance check.
- An ankheg jumps from a slanting mine shaft and drags a PC down with it. The PC has to make balance checks while sliding down the shaft and fighting.
- A hidden key lies at the top of a crumbling stone column. As a PC climbs to retrieve it, the shadow of a dire bat passes overhead.
Many adventures feature information that must be found by hook or by crook. Hooks and crooks are helpful, but so is being in the right place at the right time. Usually people only let down their guard when they’re safe from eavesdropping-the exact kind of places that require a balance check to find With it, heroes are able to eavesdrop from ledges, scramble up hilltops to follow suspects, or spy on evildoers from atop factory catwalks.
Running an espionage scene is tough. If spies following the heroes are too well hidden, PCs are unfairly left in the dark. If the spies are too obvious, PCs usually make short work of them. Neither makes for a great gaming session. One solution is to place the spies in areas where they are easily seen but not easily reached, alerting the PCs to the nature of the threat without necessarily being able to confront it.
- During a meeting with a fence, the PCs are watched by Thieves Guild members from nearby balconies and subterranean ramparts.
- Enemies lurk behind train car doors, rushing away atop the cars to make their escape, forcing PCs to make balance checks to pursue.
- Spies scramble from rooftop to rooftop with grappling hooks and tightropes, keeping tabs on the PCs’ every move.
In a pinch, balance can take place of athletic skills, like skiing, ice skating, surfing, or gymnastics. A hero won’t win an Olympic medal, but they’ll be able to stay on their feet when they feel the urge to slide down a mountain or use a piece of wood to ride out a tidal wave.
For the GM:
A test of skills makes a refreshing change of pace from the usual combat and reconnaissance.
- To prove their worthiness to a recently encountered tribe, the PCs must pass a fitness test, which includes balancing on rolling logs floating down a river.
- A race across a frozen sea to an ancient pirate ship marooned in the ice.
- After the animated giant snowman squishes the only fighter in the party, it smashes some spruce trees into kindling, inspiring creative PCs to build snowboards. Don’t biff the shack booter, dude!
The slightest misstep can spell doom: a hidden spiked pit opens; a bridge shakes in the wind; a rug is literally pulled out from underneath. As the GM calls for a reflex save, try weaseling out of the situation, and suggest, “How about a balance check instead?”
If PCs, through no real fault of their own, are in a position where a failed reflex save means they fall to their death, you can weasel a little by letting the PCs make a balance check (even going to such lengths as allowing them to take 10 or take 20) rather than the reflex save. Sometimes it’s the GM’s responsibility to give the players a break.
Role-playing games are supposed to be about action. Heroic, over-the-top, action. So go for it. Knock boards loose and use them as miniature catapults. Balance on chandeliers and strike at your foes. Challenge your rival to a sack race. Avoid the pincers of a giant crab by balancing on its back. We play role-playing games to do the extraordinary. A good balance skill can make it happen.
PCs can easily fall into a ten-foot-pole mentality and snail along through the adventure, using the same tactics they’ve used for every other session. If you want a little more creativity in your game, you may have to show your PCs some ways to be cinematic and survive.
- Design exciting combat situations that require tactical challenges, like fights atop giant clockwork machinery and by the edges of lava lakes, or just plain bizarre places, like a street covered in sentient marbles, or a bridge that trembles in fear from the troll lurking underneath.
- Demonstrate the power of high-level NPCs with their cinematic actions, giving the PCs a hint of what their future allies or adversaries may be like. * Award extra XP for successfully taking risks-for climbing dangerous mountains, creeping across a clothesline, or sprinting across a muddy battlefield to save the princess. It’s all in a day’s work for an adventurer.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
How To End A Session
From Paul Mercurio
I like to end sessions with the main conflict resolved, but with loose ends left loose. Mainly. I end the games with the PCs heading back into the city after an adventure, which is good for a number of reasons:
- I can start off the next game by handing out treasure and XP as the PCs return.
- The PCs can get right into the action at the start of the next session as well.
- NPCs react to them upon their return.
- I can sow the seeds for that evening’s session as well.
However, this technique creates some rigidity. For example, next session only half my group can make the game. Do I run the party’s return for only half the PCs? Do I skip ahead in time? Do I skip back?
How do other people end their gaming sessions?
What tricks do other GMs use to immerse the players at the start of the next game?
Speed Up Combat With Pre-Rolled Initiative
From Laura Thurston
This tip lets you and your players jump into combat encounters without bringing the game to a halt to figure out initiative.
At the start of a session, ask your players to roll initiative several times to set up several initiative lists. The players can give you their numbers in any order. When combat begins, ask someone to roll a die to determine which list to use (I usually have four lists set up).
You only have to roll a new initiative for the villains, which can be slotted into the order when the encounters come up.
This is a handy trick when you know that you have a series of short encounters, and you might consider pre-rolling the lists and adding them to your session notes.
When you want to add suspense, like when the party is unaware of attackers and you want a surprise attack, you can decide which initiative list to use on your own.
Ask Players To Craft Your NPCs
From Zitchas The Wanderer
If you have access to one or more players who enjoy creating things, put them to work. Most players are more than capable of making NPCs suitable for a DM’s world. A good NPC with full statistics and a short description of their appearance, combat/magic styles, equipment, and lastly (and very important), a list of plot hooks, should only take an hour or so.
Providing progression tendencies for said NPC is a good benefit too in case the DM needs to bump their levels up a bit for some reason. For players, this is a fun hour, since we can do whatever we want. More importantly, this is an hour our DMs don’t have to spend on NPC creation, yet still gives them access to a fully fleshed-out NPC.
Pay special attention to NPC level. My DM has requested that my NPCs be fairly high level, but not extremely so. Every DM is going to have his own preferred range, so you should speak with yours before rolling those D6s.
A note on plot hooks. The more, the better. As a minimum, try for one opposing one, one allied one, and a couple that fall in the middle. Opposing hooks could result in conflict with the PCs, and allied ones could mean cooperation. The middle hooks might provide missions or services for the PCs, or might set up a useful recurring character to the campaign.
NPCs are a basic case, since most DMs need many of them. But this could also be done with other groups of all sorts. Raider bands, pirates, mercenary guilds, trading coalitions, cities, or even states. For the truly ambitious, new races could be created.
Tasty Gummi Corpses
From Laura Heilman
It was a typical Saturday night with all the players trickling in after work and dinner. The sodas were chilled and the munchies laid out on one end of the gaming table. I was ready to explore my newly gained mass combat skills and the players knew they were going to face a bigger challenge than ever before. I personified a cliche, rubbing my hands together in glee at the thought of four forth level PCs against a swarm of over a hundred skeletons and my recently studied battle tactics!
I had bought the Gummi Bears for snacks that night, but when the PCs started swinging and lobbing spells, the combat mat got very crowded. The more skeletons the PCs killed, the more difficult it became to tell which figure was which and where movement was possible. I still don’t remember who came up with the idea, but one of the players replaced the dead miniatures with Gummi Bears.
Turns out there were as many PCs as there were colors in the bag. So, we paused while the players removed and replaced their kills with their chosen Gummi Bear color. Movement was much easier and so was determining bragging rights when the PCs had a chance to tell their tale to friends when they got back to town.
There was one other unforeseen bit of gruesome fun attached. Each player got to eat their own kills!
NPC Stat Block Bank
From Liz Courts
NPC Stat Block Bank
My own creation of a user-contributed NPC repository for everybody to use. Searching or browsing is easy and upgrades are constant to make this a useful time saver for harried DMs everywhere. You also have the option to print out the stats in a 3×5 index card (doesn’t work as well for larger stat blocks, though) or into an XML format for inclusion into a Fantasy Grounds campaign.
Thank you very much for the work you put into these columns. I’m glad I can be a contributor for once. I have been DMing a D&D campaign with OpenRPG for the last four months now with no single player in my own timezone -one player is even from Europe.
Playing online is very similar to playing pencil and paper – everything that makes a good DM there, makes a good DM here. However, there are a few differences. The most important is probably that playing via the Internet takes about twice as long as playing pencil and paper for the same amount of action, mostly because all the non-verbal communication doesn’t happen via a chat interface. This has the advantage that, as a DM, you usually have plenty of time to look stuff up without delaying the game, and you have much more time to come up with good improvisations.
However, the somewhat slower pace and the absence of elements like you speaking in a hushed voice or having the proper music in the background can make it more difficult for the players to get into the right mood – you can’t even be sure that they don’t watch Star Wars on the side, or that they aren’t dozing off (both happened). You will have to find a good balance between advancing the storyline to keep everyone alert and cutting off those who wanted to say something but thought some other character would be making a contribution first.
A feature of playing via the Internet is the whisper ability. You can feed characters their lines or their specific knowledge without anyone noticing (in case a player is giving out information that only you know, it is quickest to just narrate what that character would tell everyone – discuss that with the player first, though). But, be aware that they might share information between them, too, without your knowledge, and that they’ll probably whisper to you all at once asking about DCs and other rules questions that they don’t want to ask openly.
With chat-based systems, you can easily change your name. Use that feature so that people know who is talking. Another advantage of Internet gaming is that you can save the chat log. Save it, edit it if necessary, and post or e-mail it so everyone can look up what happened.
Even more than with pencil and paper games, being on time is important, because players who are already logged on will do something else, and once the missing player(s) arrive, the ones who should be around are no longer to be found. Therefore, get everyone’s phone number. If you’re playing with people overseas like I do, Skype is your friend.
Some OpenRPG specific comments: * Download and use the hidden dice plugin. There are good reasons for rolling behind the DM’s screen, and these reasons remain good even if playing online.
- OpenRPG can lag at times when the server is very busy or when your players have slow connections. Try playing on a server that doesn’t see much traffic, and switch the server if it keeps getting you headaches.
- OpenRPG and PCGen talk very nicely to each other. At least in some versions, however, the attack bonus somehow disappears when you load your character in OpenRPG, and you have to correct it manually.
- Sometimes people will show up to look at the game. Let them do so, as long as they keep quiet.
Rebooting Campaigns Revisited
From Dave McKay
The Campaign Rebooting tips were fantastic. I think that any GM who has been running a campaign for any time has run into the problems you outline in the introductory paragraph. I remember a campaign that I was running years ago set in a post-modern apocalyptic war where things got so bad for me that I killed off the PCs in a final encounter (they were captured by the enemy occupation force and I had them executed). Very sad when I think back on that. Not even a glorious death for the freedom fighters.
Your tips are actually some great “best practices” for keeping a campaign organized, running well, and fun.
What I do is keep a GM campaign log for myself. On the right page I keep the actual log and on the facing left page I keep my technical and bullets. This is great for reminders to myself for experience awards, onset of poison or disease effects, etc.
I think Tip #2 Get Player Feedback is huge. If the players are frustrated, they will disengage and become “toxic” to you and the group. I encourage my players to keep their own adventure logs and this serves great for their player memories. And if I’ve not recorded something in my log I do refer to what they have written. I also like to review their logs as it is a fantastic insight into the characters’ emotions and perceptions of my world. I also learn what the player takes in from my descriptions.
My group regularly hold bull sessions, mainly at the end of a gaming session. We also talk on the phone and use email between sessions. My players are not afraid to vocalize issues that bother them. Asking for specific feedback is very important. It helps you gauge player interest and character ambition and can often be a barometer on implementing ideas that you have. Pay attention to the signals. PC reaction to certain key NPCs can also serve as indicators that you may need to look at a reboot.
Finally, I’d like to add that one method I use to avoid the problems that require an actual reboot is switching the GM role. We have done this a variety of ways. If you are comfortable with the other GM you can switch within the campaign and within the party.
Another switch is within the campaign but with a different party. And then there is simply switching to a different campaign and party. For example, though I am not facing burnout, we are switching GMs in our next session as the opening adventure in my latest campaign is concluding and will wrap up early in our next session. This gives me the opportunity to simply play and my GM work for the next phase will not be rushed. I also get to learn from the other GM. Not every group would be able to do this sort of thing, but I think every GM was once just a player and you may have aspiring GMs in your group. Let them go for it. Just remember that if you do this do not GM whilst a player, unless the sitting GM asks for your advice, etc. Thanks again for a fantastic article. This one deserves many readings and re-readings.