Design & Development09/01/2006

Roll Initiative

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

We start off this time with Andrew Finch, WotC’s New Business Director (not to mention contributor of some of the most fiendish additions to the Monster Manual III). His take on the best way to start up a game? Jump straight into the breach… every time. No, really—he means it!

Roll Initiative

Are there any two words in the vocabulary that are sweeter? When your DM utters the phrase, your heart races with anticipation. What will this fight bring? Treasure? Experience? Death?

A famous baseball radio announcer once claimed that anyone who tuned into his show hated him and every word he said until he gave them the score. I think it’s a little like that in a way for D&D players. Each game session, players can seemingly resent every plot and subplot, they hate every NPC, until finally the sweet release of combat comes heralded in by those two wonderful words: Roll Initiative.

Jesse Decker and I were having a conversation about this very topic the other day. Bemoaning how hard it was to keep our players focused on the storyline. How players seemed to wander into the game late, unprepared and more than a little distracted. Then we hit on it. I seem to remember that it was Jesse’s suggestion; he claims it was mine. In either case it was pure genius—it was perfect, and players were going to love it. We were going be famous! Well, maybe it was not as great as curing cancer, but I sure felt smart at the time. Now, just to get word out…

The idea was simple: start every game session with those magical words, “Roll Initiative”. Yes, that’s it. No matter what happened last week, last month (or however long ago it was) you start the new session with a fight.

Here are the advantages as I see them:

1. Focus: This will get your players in on time and ready to go. If they know they’ll be in a fight from the get-go, they’ll be much more likely to remember where they put their character sheet and if they brought their dice in from the car.

2. Love: Most players have built their characters for this moment, the start of the fight. If your players know that you’re going to guarantee them combat every session, they’ll love you for it.

3. Preparation: This also encourages you to be ready for the game session as well. If you’re anything like me, you always intend on being prepared, working up encounters and storylines beforehand, but somehow the week always seems to slip away. If you know that you’re going to have to be ready to have a fight as soon as your game session starts, you’ll to have to be prepared.

4. Broadening: Creating a storyline reason for this arbitrary opening encounter will challenge even the best storytellers. Don’t look at this as a challenge, though, but an opportunity for both non-sequitur as well as parallel plot line encounters—such as when you reveal to your players that seemingly random fight they had with those wererats four sessions ago was actually connected to an entirely new storyline.

So go ahead, take a chance, make a statement and tell your players that this session, and all future sessions, will start with those magical words. Trust me, they’ll love you, and you’ll thank me…. at least, that’s the hope!

Next Monster Makeover

Mike Mearls is currently working on his latest Monster Makeover article (Editor’s Note: I’ve promised to unchain him from his desk just as soon as he’s finished… until then, keep writing!)—next covering everyone’s favorite floating, multi-eyed aberration: the beholder.

In the meantime, we wanted to look back at his initial makeover for the rust monster. The article generated a substantial amount of feedback; while the majority felt like these revisions made the rust monster more playable, a few voiced their preference for the original (“let the PCs sweat!”), and many had suggestions of their own regarding the monster’s revised Rust ability:

“Nice changes, though you should make the rust penalties permanent until repaired (via the appropriate Craft skill, or the spells repair, make whole, or mend). It just doesn't make sense for armor and weapons to naturally "heal" over time—as anyone whose waited too long to fix a scratch in their car's paint can tell you, rust is forever. Plus, it's fun to give crafty characters a way to fix stuff.”

The original Rust ability (as written in the Monster Manual) presented something of a save-or-die affect for PCs (either make the save or lose your item… forever). As mentioned in Elite Opponents: Variant Medusas, Andrew Finch looked to correct the same problem in their petrifying gaze, changing it to a stunning attack. Other players wrote in about these save-or-die affects as their own "Proud Nails” and “Nuclear Weapons”:

“I think that this is a constant problem, something we faced previously for example with the spell disintegrate. One (un)lucky roll, and the consequences are irreversible. While I think that such things should not be eliminated from gameplay (the possibility of a sudden, unexpected danger makes the PCs more cautious), it can ruin a good session. A DM may be discouraged from using certain rules or monsters (magic items, etc.), because (s)he does not want to ruin the fun.

“I have this feeling every time I think about sunder. There are monsters that just scream: “Hey, look at me, I’m sunder incarnate!” One such example is the ogre barbarian from the Monster Manual, but there are countless other examples. You can just see the face of the paladin as an ogre barbarian charges him and bashes his shield into a million pieces with a simple blow. (For another example, it is perfectly logical for a demon to want to destroy the holy longsword of the fighter.)

“And still, most DMs will not do it, especially if it is a magical shield. Why? Because if they destroy the shield of the PC, the PC will fall back and become useless for the rest of the encounter, or perhaps for the whole adventure. On the other hand, it would be perfectly well suited as a tactic: the ogre destroys the defenses of the PCs, so the fellow orcs can finish them off. One could say that, well, the ogre could use a disarm instead of sunder, but this is not an option: if you get hurt during the attempt (AoO), your disarm is ruined, but your sunder is not (and hitting an ogre barbarian is not a difficult task).”

And, of course, mere mention of the rust monster evoked stories of memorable encounters with them. The first being almost haiku-esque:

“I once had a fighter fall into a pit trap that was occupied by rust monsters.
At least he managed to climb out as they were satiated with his gear.
Then the dragons attacked...”

A slightly longer version told of meeting, and overcoming, rust monsters in a perfectly played out scenario:

“My brother and I had to fight a pair of rust monsters (1st Edition) in a gladiatorial/Circus Maximus… Behind each gate were monsters such as trolls, rust monsters, ettins, and even a blue dragon (our characters were 12th level and “loaded for bear”; my brother had the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords). Having taken down the blue dragon in short order, we weren't worried so much about the trolls and such, but it was the rust monsters that caused us to pause.

“We knew there was no way that we could handle both the trolls and the rust monsters at the same time, so we had to keep them separate. We each had henchmen that were different classes than our characters, so I had mine cast a web spell to trap the rust monsters while my brother and I fought the trolls (we had plenty of torches; even with magic and magic items, it's always best to be prepared). When we dealt with the rust monsters, we had to think of a quick way of dispatching them before the next set of monsters came out.

“I doused the rust monsters with oil, and then lit them with the torches. The fire burned away the webbing, but it also damaged the rust monsters. But the fire wasn’t enough, so I had to go in with a torch as a club (I had magic leather armor, being a fighter/thief, so had protection, but I left the rest of my gear with my brother) to finish them off.”
--Knight Hawk

What’s Next?

After the beholder, we wanted to ask which creature you would like to see undergo a monster makeover. Many of you wrote with suggestions, which we’d like to put to a vote. Some folks wrote in with whole categories of creatures (dragons, elementals, orcs) but we went with specific creatures to offer as initial candidates.

Which monster gets the next makeover?
athach (Monster Manual, pg 21)
bodak (MM, pg. 28)
carrion crawler (MM, pg. 30)
centaur (MM, pg. 32)
delver (MM, pg. 39)
doppelganger (MM, pg. 67)
drider (MM, pg 89)
gelatinous cube (MM, pg, 201)
ghaele (MM, pg. 94)
girallon (MM, pg. 126)
grick (MM, pg. 139)
hydra (MM, pg. 155)
klurichir (Fiend Folio, pg. 48)
mind flayer (MM, pg. 186)
purple worm (MM, pg. 211)
rakshasa (MM, pg. 211)
titan (MM, pg. 242)
will-o’-wisp (MM, pg. 255)
wyvern (MM, pg. 259)

You Craft the Creature Final

Plus, in case you missed it, last week we asked for your final vote in You Craft the Creature. Be sure to take a look at the concept art proposed for Codename: Baker, and let us know your favorite!

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