Ray Winninger

Many of the rules changes introduced in the new edition ripple outward from a new approach to character creation. As I noted last month, the real heart of the new edition's philosophy is a move toward providing concrete rules for a greater number of actions and situations. Where previous editions of the game forced the DM to guess or make an arbitrary ruling whenever the players attempted an unusual action, this new version provides an open-ended set of specific rules that can be used to resolve almost any situation. Want to trick a guard into releasing your friend the thief? Make a Bluff check. Trying to hunt for enough game to feed your party? Make a Wilderness Lore check. In short, the new rules handle many more situations by giving each character a wider range of abilities to check.

One byproduct of this new philosophy is that character creation can be a lengthier process than it was during previous editions of the game, though the final results are considerably more detailed and interesting. Properly selecting and collating all those new abilities certainly takes time. The designers have provided detailed, pregenerated character templates you can ask your players to select in order to save time, but I recommend that you use them only if your players are rather inexperienced. While the "starting packages" certainly save you a little time, they'll also make it more difficult for your players to truly personalize their characters and grow attached to them.

In fact, character generation has been beefed up so much that I think it's appropriate to reconsider some advice I provided in an earlier column. I now believe it is good idea to hold a separate session for the sole purpose of creating characters. I used to recommend against this practice because my experience shows that campaigns that begin in this fashion tend to have a fifty-fifty chance of never getting off the ground at all. Generally, the play maintains the interest of your fellow gamers, and any session during which you don't actually play is just another chance for one or more players to lose interest. Under the new rules, though, it's difficult to conduct an effective session long enough to allow all the players to create their characters with enough time left over to get a good start on the first adventure. Players who are experienced with the new rules might pull off such a feat without a problem, but there aren't too many people out there who are all that experienced with a set of rules that's a few months old.

One way to avoid this dilemma altogether is to ask your players to show up at the first session with their characters already created. While this works well for some people, I generally don't favor it for a number of reasons. Having all the players in a single location while they create their characters definitely results in a more effective and well-balanced party. The D&D rules and most D&D adventures assume that the adventuring party will be made up of a variety of character classes. If the players don't cooperate as they create their characters, it's far too easy to end up with a weak or unwieldy party. In fact, this risk is somewhat compounded under the new rules -- it's now important that your players select not only a variety of character classes, but a variety of skills as well. A party without a single character who possesses the Bluff or Spot skills, for instance, might run into trouble. Another reason why it's often not a good idea to ask the players to create their characters on their own is the fact that players can easily make mistakes during the process. If you and the other players aren't around to notice some of these discrepancies, you run the risk of not spotting an error until it's already had an unfortunate impact on your game. During a recent session of my own game, for example, I discovered that one of my players accidentally spent too many skill points at first level, making him much more effective in my first few adventures than he should have been.

If you do decide to run a special session for character creation, there are a couple of strategies you might use to get your players' juices flowing despite the fact that the game isn't actually starting yet. If your players are particularly creative and oriented toward good roleplaying, you might ask each of them to create a brief "life story" for his or her character and relate it to the whole group. In order to keep things interesting, you can ask the players to judge the tales after all the stories have been told. Pass out score cards that instruct each player to secretly rate each story on a scale of one to ten. After you collect and tally the scores, you can bestow a special prize upon the winner ranging from a few additional skill points all the way up to the privilege of beginning play at 2nd level. This scheme has the added benefit of not only making that first session a bit more interesting for the players but also going a long way toward establishing their characters as well.

Another ploy you might try is the old "cliffhanger trick." Start playing during the character creation session, but don't attempt to undertake an actual adventure. Instead, run the players through a quick teaser designed to get them hooked and interested in the things to come. A quick combat encounter that gives the players a chance to test out their new abilities is usually in order here, along with some brief exposure to your campaign environment. Most importantly, though, you should try to end the teaser with some sort of shock or twist. Get the players hooked by confronting them with a compelling mystery or puzzle that won't be resolved until the next session. For example, your teaser might end with a hooded assassin murdering an important townsman right in front of the party. The adventurers give chase, but fail to catch the fiend. Just before he makes good his escape, though, the assassin's hood is torn off and the PCs are shocked and horrified by what they see. You don't reveal exactly what that is until the next session. Note that if you decide to go this route, it's important that you actually deliver on the mystery you created during the teaser. If you capture the player's imagination but then fail to invent a revelation that lives up to the dramatic buildup you've given the situation, you'll only do more harm than good. Returning to my example, for instance, it's probably not enough to simply reveal that what the players found so shocking was an ugly face or a bad scar. Instead, you might reveal that the assassin is inexplicably an exact duplicate of a player character, or that the assassin is an old friend whom the PCs believed to be dead. This sort of solution provides you with a great springboard for adventures that allow the players to uncover further revelations and delve even deeper into the mystery.

Newfangled Fighting
Like character creation, the new combat rules are home to many of the new edition's innovations. In general, combat is more stringently codified and the various actions the combatants can select are more rigidly defined. It's still possible to run a battle entirely within the imaginations of the participants, but doing so definitely makes it harder to effectively wield all the interesting new maneuvers that the new rules have to offer. Now more than ever, I recommend employing some sort of counters or visual aids to track the positions of characters in battle. Detailed miniatures and scenery are obviously the ideal tools for this purpose, but not everybody has the time or money to invest in building an appropriate collection. In an earlier column, I suggested using a large whiteboard in lieu of miniatures to map out your battles. The idea is that you can quickly draw up battle maps on the board using dry erase markers, and plot the players' positions using makeshift tokens like coins or dice. The board also gives you a convenient way to record the positions and effects of spells and obstacles. Should a wizard cast wall of ice, for instance, you can quickly sketch the ice wall right on the battle map and even record a helpful note right next to it ("36 hp/10 ft., Break DC 27").

While the new rules make the whiteboard approach more useful than ever, they also add an additional wrinkle that you should consider. Many of the new combat rules become much easier to administer if a grid is overlaid atop the battlefield to designate 5-foot by 5-foot squares. Such a grid will make it much easier to keep track of the "threatened areas" that provoke attacks of opportunity (Player's Handbook, page 122) and easier to adjudicate various movements and special maneuvers. In fact, the new Dungeon Master's Guide provides some detailed guidelines on how to employ a grid on pages 67-69. Unfortunately, redrawing a grid on your whiteboard at the beginning of each battle isn't very practical. I've skirted this problem by using a box cutter to lightly scratch a 1-inch square grid directly into the surface of my whiteboard, allowing me to draw on the board and erase to my heart's content without ever removing the grid. You can also add a permanent grid to your battle board with very thin black or gray tape (available at office supply stores).

Beyond the more rigidly defined actions, the most important changes in the combat rules are the various measures taken to clean up some of the awkward mathematics that sometimes plagued earlier editions. In addition to fixing the obvious problems that frequently befuddled newcomers ("Now, let me get this straight . . . a -1 shield actually adds one to my Armor Class?"), the new rules also eliminate some of their predecessor's cumbersome charts and formulae. While the old game forced you to repeatedly look up what a 3-Hit-Die creature needs to hit Armor Class 5, for example, the new system makes such calculations irrelevant. Of course, some of the trimmed complexity has been reintroduced in the form of new modifiers and options, but it's generally easy for the players to keep track of their own bonuses and modifiers, allowing you to concentrate solely on the monsters and NPCs. It's also easier than ever to conceal the Armor Classes of your monsters. Now, just ask each player for a total attack roll. If the roll equals or exceeds the monster's Armor Class, the attack is a hit. The players need never know what they're shooting for.

Equally worthy of attention is the new initiative system. Before, all the combatants on one side of the battle took a turn, then all the combatants on the other side took their turns. A single simple die roll decided which side went first. Now each character rolls his own personal initiative score. Although this system produces more interesting battles, it's sometimes hard to calculate the exact sequence in which all the combatants act, particularly when you're resolving a large battle with a wide variety of participants. To minimize your difficulties, you should closely follow the advice that appears in the Dungeon Master's Guide and scribble down a quick sequence at the start of each combat round. I'm experimenting with my own system that is even faster, though it certainly requires some advance preparation. I've created an "initiative board" on a small (8 1/2 inch by 11 inch) piece of corkboard. With a marker, I've divided the board into two rows of twenty columns and numbered the resulting squares from one to forty. I've also labeled a set of pushpins with the initials of my PCs and reserved a few extra pushpins of different colors to represent monsters. At the start of the round, when everyone rolls initiative, I can simply place the pushpins in the appropriate squares to quickly log the combat sequence, sparing me from the sometimes difficult task of scrawling down notes while eight players are simultaneously shouting their initiative scores. Later, I can place additional pushpins on the board to represent the timing of spells and other effects.

Beyond these simple mechanical matters, the one thing about the new combat rules that every DM should note is that they can be much more brutal than their predecessors, particularly at low character levels. An orc with a battleaxe can now inflict a maximum of 30 points of damage in a single attack (orcs have a Strength of 15, and a battleaxe inflicts triple damage on a critical hit) -- more than enough to kill all 1st- and most 2nd-level characters outright. Under the old edition, the same beastie could never inflict more than 8 points of damage -- not enough to kill any PC in a single blow (if you used the optional "death's door" rule). While the circumstances that produce such extreme combat results are certainly quite rare, it's important to remember just how many battles the average PC will engage in across the course of his career and how many opportunities the monsters get to make such a devastating attack.

The upshot of all this is that you should follow the advice in the Dungeon Master's Guide very carefully when it comes to balancing your fights. Until you've gained experience with the new rules, you should mistrust any "conventional wisdom" you acquired playing the old game, particularly while your players' characters are at low levels.

That wraps up another installment. Drop back in thirty days to watch me raise the curtain on a whole new phase of Dungeoncraft.