Lessons From Behind the Screen – Exploding Effect…Exploding Effect…Exploding Effect

Lessons From Behind the Screen – Exploding Effect…Exploding Effect…Exploding Effect

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The Story

My epic tier heroes area trying to gather up all the bits of old magic in my Forgotten Realms campaign in hopes of using it to bring back the goddess of magic who died 100 years ago. They found an old temple that was destroyed in the magic-exploding event called the Spellplague.

The temple got stuck between two worlds in a time loop when the Spellplague happened…and an aspect of Mystra happened to be there at the time. The PCs are heading into the temple and working to get access to the inner chamber where the aspect of Mystra is located.

The time loop makes this a bit more difficult because at the end of it the Spellplague “happens”, the aspect of Mystra explodes, and the entire temple resets, including all of the conversations that the PCs had. To make matters worse, the time loop is getting shorter and shorter due to a little surprise.

What I’m looking to do with this is to have an environmental effect that starts in a role-playing situation and then has meaningful effects in the combat that follows.

The Design

So I have a fragment of the dead goddess of magic blowing up every couple of minutes and having a random effect. Some of these effects will seem mundane to the players during part of the session, but once they get into combat I’ll stop just describing the fluff “you’re knocked off your feet” to the mechanical addition of “you’re knocked off your feet, push yourself back 5 squares and go prone”.

The first thing that happens is there’s an explosion, that’s an attack and it’s not something to be avoided, but it could be resisted. As such, I have a weak attack likely to miss a decent number of PCs because this could theoretically happen a dozen times or more depending on how much time the PCs take going through the temple. They’re 23rd level, let’s go +25 vs Fort. That will work out to hitting about half of the time.

The explosion will do 2d20+20 fire damage. I like going d20s here (where usually it’s to be avoided) because it’s wild, untapped, chaotic magic. Having a massive swing of possible damage makes sense. The extra +20 will also help make sure that it’s still a threat…even to all those PCs with fire resistance (which is most of them).

Next, a random effect because it wouldn’t really be the Spellplague if it just did damage, it’s gotta be scarier than that…it’s gotta mess folks up. Effect one is being frozen in time until the next time loop starts. This makes sense thematically.

Effect two gives the PC a vision of their own death. It’s disturbing. Out of combat that’s it…in combat it’s granting combat advantage (save ends).

Effect three grants Vulnerability 10 to all damage (save ends). You’re messed up and weak for it.

The fourth effect is pushing the target 5 squares and knocking them prone. Simple enough and fits well.

The fifth effect is my crowning jewel of the whole thing. The first time it hits you you lose one encounter, daily, or magic item use power. I’ll even let the player pick. What I won’t tell them is that if this effect comes up again the power is permanently changed into another power, DM-choice. I may even go crazy and give them something from the wrong class…I don’t know, but it’ll be a blast to find out.

The last effect deals with spellscaring the target. Most of my guys are already spellscared or something I invented called “Weave-scarred” so this is actually pretty mundane for my game, but I’ve added in some additional boosts for this one.

Now it occurs to me that the players might want to be a bit more active in this situation, they might have the audacity to want to do something to protect themselves. What’s more some of the effects (effect five especially) are a pretty big deal. As such I’m giving the players a chance to protect themselves from these changes. The random effect can be avoided by either sheer endurance (DC 30) or manipulating the forces of magic (Arcana DC 35). This doesn’t avoid the damage but it does avoid the random effect.

Honestly, I’m a little worried I’m being too nice and giving too many chances to avoid the bad/cool stuff in the situation. But we’ll see how it plays out in the context of my players and my campaign.

The Experience

It turns out, I probably over designed this effect, or it felt that way. I had 6 possible effects and the party saw the immediate threat and jumped into things quickly, feeling like the rush was on.

As such this only happened three times, total and the random effects that came up were, by in large, the most mundane ones of the bunch. I was really looking forward to using effect five, even described it to my players after the session was over and had several of them mention that that would have been cool.

Why did they rush through it all so fast? The damage was too high. It’s hard to do too much damage in epic tier, but when you’re doing it to the entire party on an attack it adds up quick and those that have the hit points/resistances to handle it are also the ones that have the defenses to avoid it to begin with.

If I had it to do over again I think I would change two things: damage output, and “randomness”.

In the midst of the encounter I actually reduced the damage to 2d20+10 instead of +20 or else I would have dropped several PCs before the fight happened. Instead I think I should have made the damage a lot more minor, especially before the fight happened. Maybe increase it when they actually got into the room where the explosion started. 1d10+10 would have sufficed outside the room, 2d10+10 inside the room.

That would have given them some more breathing room to take their time in the role-playing and then more of the random effects could have happened.

The second thing I would have changed is the “randomness”. There are two ways I would consider changing this. One, don’t make it truly random. I could have made a list of what happens on explosions in what order. Then I could have made sure that the coolest stuff happened first, and the players would probably have still assumed it was random. Especially if a throw a random die behind the screen.

But that doesn’t ring true to my style, I usually have the players choose their own fate with random effects, letting them roll the dice. So my second option would be to have the players all have a different random effect. So each time Mystra explodes each player rolls a d6 and then I tell them what happens.

This means that there are enough rolls happening that chances are all of them will come up at least once. The down-side…it takes more time. That said, during the role-playing encounter this is happening on a scale of every 10-15 minutes real time. In combat I was going with every 4 or 5 rounds and reducing it between each explosion. So it’s not happening so often that I think it would risk grinding the action to a halt.

All in all, however, I think this was pretty successful. The effect grabbed exactly the feel I was looking for. It appropriately threatened a powerful group of PCs. The only disappointment was more that I felt less satisfied as a DM/designer not in the experience of the players, nor in the cool factor or storytelling of the mechanic.

 

Have you ever made a crazy environmental effect? How did it go? How do you handle “randomness” in your games?

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About the Author

Jeff Greiner has hacked his way through 2nd edition in his youth. Became a paragon of virtue in 3e. Found a home in 3.5 and is permanently vacationing in 4e. He produces the longest running unofficial D&D podcast, The Tome Show, and recently decided save the day for the D&D player by forming together a team of superheroes, Justice League style, to form Temporary Hit Points.