Event-Based Skill Challenges

Warning: If you’re a player in my game, don’t read this.

I generally steer away from using skill challenges. I don’t find that the framework contributes much to the way I run games. It usually leaves players trying to figure out what’s going on. I use a fairly free-flowing narrative in my games, which isn’t particularly aided by the structured skill challenge format.. To that effect, I’ve tried to create an alternate format for skill challenges that provides a series of events that help a Dungeon Master frame the narrative.

I’m not sure the stat-block format is really necessary here. This skill challenge could probably just be presented as part of the normal adventure text. Still, it helps break out the challenge from the rest of the body text, and when you’re dealing with a document that is 40-pages long, it helps.


Dragon Age Returns

Dragon Age returns next month, gracing consoles with its blood splattered faces, sexually pliable characters, and most importantly, a host of improvements in its user interface. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The last few years in the video game industry have been rife with sequels and knock-offs. With a few exceptions (Red Dead Redemption and Heavy Rain), the blockbusters of 2010 were all based on prior source material. This year isn’t much better. So far we have Dead Space 2, Kill Zone 3, Little Big Planet 2, and Dragon Age 2. It seems that 2011 might shape up to be year of the sequel—part 2.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not against sequels. I’m in the gaming industry. I understand that a studio has to make a buck. What I object to is sequels at the expense of innovation. A sequel that copies but does not innovate is undeserving of the property to which it owes its name. Also, gamers are savvy consumers. They know when they’re being copied to, and they won’t suffer it.

This all brings me back to Dragon Age 2. I was not among the teeming throngs that hailed Dragon Age as the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. I played the game, I enjoyed it (except those damn dwarven caves!), but it was by no means my platonic ideal of an RPG video game. I was coming off a Mass Effect high, and Dragon Age lacked many of the qualities that had endeared the Mass Effect series to me: meaningful dialogue and story choices, a main character I was attached to, a quick and intuitive advancement system. All this made me a little skeptical of Dragon Age 2.

I admire Bioware, though. The company could have sat on the Dragon Age property, relying on the success of the first game to carry it into four or five more iterations (Tomb Raider, ahem). Instead, the studio learned from the lessons of Mass Effect. It revisited the game, preserving the story while allowing clunky mechanics to slough away. The result is a game that I can get behind.

At its core, Dragon Age 2 seems to provide the same basic experience. A single player has a party of adventurers who interact with the world through their abilities and back stories. Sound familiar? It’s a pretty good analog to D&D, only it’s a solo experience. What’s markedly different in Dragon Age 2 is that the choices you’re given are more meaningful. The story engaged me from the start by giving my character dialog choices that forced me to make tough choices about who my character was. Having a voiced main character (another departure from Dragon Age 1) makes a big difference in this respect. I’m given choices that make me want to play the main character. In the first Dragon Age, I always wished I could swap out my character for one of the secondary characters.

I mentioned the user interface. Bioware’s developers seem to have endeavored to clean up the system, making it more intuitive through helpful information and better organization. The advancement system explains more clearly what attributes and abilities do, and spells are formatted in a tree-like progression system that makes it easier to visualize. The interface has lots of visual cues, like colors and symbols, that make it easier to navigate. I was particularly fond of the symbols next to the dialogue options, which give hints about what a dialogue option means. (During Dragon Age 1 , more than once I picked a dialogue option, thinking it meant something and finding out it was exactly the opposite of my intent).

Dragon Age 2 has a similar graphic style as the previous one, and the soundtrack is amazing (great D&D music!). I can’t say much more to laud the game. I suppose my only lingering reservation is that the advancement system for a class is so open that I don’t identify a particular character with his or her abilities. That is, in Dragon Age 1, even though Morrigan was a shapechanger, you could ignore those abilities and advance her down an entirely different path. Dragon Age 2 maintains that tradition, making character seemingly unincentivized to follow a particular area of study. Some people might enjoy having the platitude of options. I prefer a character to have a story that speaks to the mechanics, even at the expense of options.

Will Dragon Age 2 sell me on the franchise? I’ll have to wait and see the rest of the game. For now, all signs point to yes.

Superbowl Commercial Geekcap

This year, I watched the super bowl over at Rodney Thompson’s (@wotc_rodney) place. Or rather, I should say I watched the commercials at his place, and the Super Bowl happened to be on. I was shocked—shocked I say!—to see the amount of geeky commercials in an event usually fraught with beer and truck commercials. Granted, there was the usual fair. And although we still don’t have Ford trucks and Bud Lite commercials filled with dragons and Darth Vader, we do get pretty close with a Volkswagon commercial and a Coca-Cola commercial.



And of course we had the usual line-up of movie trailers, but this year, it was especially geeked up, with trailers for two comic book movies (Thor and Captain America), the Transformers movie (plus a Chevy commercial with Bumblebee), Pirates of the Caribbean, Cowboys and Aliens, Battle LA, and Super 8. Now, I know a lot of these movies are also “mainstream” movies, but that doesn’t make them any less geeky. Pirates of the Caribbean? Just apply Matt Sernett’s (@Sernett) rule for fantasy movies: Swords, Magic, and Dragons. Two out of three? It’s fantasy. At least, I think that’s the rule. I’m sure Matt will let me know if I got it wrong.



Several other commercials had a sci-fi and fantasy edge to them as well. The Kia commercial, for example. All this confirms what I’ve been saying for a while. “Hey culture—you can’t stop the geek train.” It’s heading your way, and there’s aliens and dragons and robots on it. Just try and stop them. They can shoot lasers and breathe fire. What can your V8 truck do?

Anyway, what I’m really trying to say is: 2011 is going to be an amazing year to be a geek.

Tesla in Gamma World

Io9 has posted some fantastic photos by photographer Dmitry Mordolff.

“These [are] astounding shots of a snow-covered electromagnetic field testing station, or “Tesla’s bench,” in Istra outside of Moscow. All it takes is a dab of blizzard to transform electrical equipment into a hyper-futuristic snow fortress.”

I’m thinking these photos make for some great Gamma World inspiration. Also, if you missed them the other days, these pictures of Detroit—sad as they are—do provide some excellent “setting” pieces for a GW campaign.

I Am Become Meme

A couple of weeks ago, Mike Robles (@michaelrobles), the community manager at Wizards of the Coast, commanded the power of the Internets to do a terrible thing.

Maybe “command” isn’t the word. Still, his innocent tweet set in motion a series of tweets…

@SarahDarkmagic: @michaelrobles Didn’t you hear? @gregbilsland was cast as the new Peter Pan.

@SarahDarkmagic @michaelrobles Having spent way too much money on those things as a teen, I’ll confirm it’s true. @theweem probably could “prove” it.

@MichaelRobles: @DnDPrincessAria @DMSamuel @SarahDarkmagic I think @theweem NEEDS to do it.

…eventually culminating in this.

That might have been the end, except fortunately Trevor Kidd conspired with the Weem (progenitor of the Tiger Beat cover) to exact revenge on Mr. Robles. It might have ended there, but Robles memed it up with this gem: #gregbilslandrumors, leading to a whole slue of Chuck-Norris-like claims about me. Unfortunately, a lot of the good ones are no longer showing up on a twitter search. Here’s a few I managed to dig up. Thanks to everyone who contributed—sorry, I didn’t have everyone’s twitter names, so I wasn’t able to give credit where it was deserved. 🙂

  • What caused the Mourning? Greg Bilsand rolled on the potion miscibility table.#dnd #GregBilslandRumors #Eberron#oldschool
  • Every time @gregbilsland blinks, it’s counted as an extended rest. #GregBilslandRumors #dnd
  • Greg (@gregbilsland) is so dreamy, that Edward from Twilight dreams about him. #gregbilslandrumors
  • Greg (@gregbilsland) once dated Natalie Portman. But he dumped her when she said she didn’t like Essentials. #gregbislandrumors
  • I heard that the #dnd Ravenloft setting was canceled so that the WotC staff could spend more time with @GregBilsland. #GregBilslandRumors
  • I heard that it was because @GregBilsland had blown away all the dark mists and beat up Strahd. #GregBilslandRumors
  • @gregbilsland has a Deck of Many Things- it contains only the Sun and Moon cards. #gregbilslandrumors
  • @gregbilsland’s Dark Sun campaign is so deadly, new characters start at their bloodied value and taking ongoing damage. #gregbilslandrumors
  • @gregbilsland has a Deck of Many Things- it contains only the Sun and Moon cards. #gregbilslandrumors
  • Fun Fact: @gregbilsland is related to no less than 31 WotC employees. They too are @gregbilsland. #GregBilslandRumors
  • WotC R&D has been working on a die based on @gregbilsland called the b20 but they can’t get it to roll anything but 20s. #GregBilslandRumors
  • Greg Blisland can only be found at the end of a double rainbow. #gregbilslandrumors
  • I heard that @GregBilsland’s wallet says “Greg MFing Bilsland” on it and is always filled with crisp $20 bills. #GregBilslandRumors
  • Greg Bilsland can edit the RPG content you are writing before you even think about it: precognitive mind control. #gregbilslandrumors
  • @gregbilsland doesn’t put his pants on one leg at a time. He teleports them onto his body psionically. #gregbilslandrumors

Why post all this on my blog? Well, if you can’t laugh at yourself, then what’s the point?

House Rules

This isn’t a new post. I’m just moving my house rules to a blog post instead of putting them on their own page.

1. Characters always get inherent bonuses (see Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 or check the box in the character builder).

2. Characters get Weapon Expertise and Implement Expertise feats for free.

3. Players get their choice of defense bonus feats for free. At paragon level, either Iron Will, Lightning Reflexes, Great Fortitude, or Paragon Defenses. At epic level, either Epic Will, Epic Reflexes, Epic Fortitude, or Robust Defenses.

4. Every character has a character theme song on the battle music playlist. Whenever that song comes up, there character gains an action point that he or she must spend during his or her next turn.

5. When first joining the game, come up with a list of three things you want out of the campaign (such as “fight a dragon,” “receive an artifact,” or “be wrongfully imprisoned.”)

6. I don’t give out experience. Instead, I have players level each session or every other session (often, whenever it makes the most sense in the story).

7. Every player can collect fun points. Fun points are acquired in the following ways. When a player reaches 10 points, he or she gets a roll on the fun list and gets a benefit that can be used at any time.

One Time

Write up a character background. – 10 points

Buy a Player’s Handbook and read the Combat chapter and the Equipment Chapter – 10 points

Answer number 4 (see above).


Arrive on time to a D&D session and come prepared with character sheet, pencils, paper, books dice, power cards, etc. – 1 point

Note-taking (anyone who takes thorough notes) – 2 points

Spend $5 on D&D/RPG products – 1 point

Bring Snack Food/Drinks – 2 points (3 for really good food)

Bringing props for your character – clothing items, weapons, trinkets, etc. – 1 point/session

In addition, each player can also give out up to 2 points per session. These can be given out for good role-playing, problem solving, tactics, creativity, and for humor and fun.

The Fun List

1 – Secret Stash Scroll: You just happen to have the ritual scroll you need! (Your level or lower)
2 – Secret Stash Potion: You just happen to have the potion you need! (Your level or lower)
3 – Secret Stash Adventuring Gear: You just happen to have the piece of gear you need! (Any piece from table on 222)
4 – Secret Stash Alchemy: You just happen to have the alchemical item you need! (Your level or lower)
5 – Secret Stash Weapon: You just happen to have the weapon you need! (Any piece from pages 218-219)
6 – Lucky Find Ritual: Lucky you! You find a ritual book of your level or lower.
7 – Lucky Find Magic Weapon: Lucky you! You find a magic weapon of your level + 1d4 (or lower).
8 – Lucky Find Magic Armor: Lucky you, you find a magic armor of your level + 1d4 (or lower).
9 – Lucky Find Magic Implement: Lucky you! You find a magic implement of your level + 1d4 (or lower).
10 – Lucky Find Magic Arm Item: Lucky you! You find a magic item for arm slot of your level + 1d4 (or lower).
11 – Lucky Find Magic Feet Item: Lucky you! You find a magic item for feet slot of your level + 1d4 (or lower).
12 – Lucky Find Magic Hand Item: Lucky you! You find a magic item for hand slot of your level + 1d4 (or lower).
13 – Lucky Find Magic Head Item: Lucky you! You find a magic item for head slot of your level + 1d4 (or lower).
14 – Lucky Find Magic Neck Item: Lucky you! You find a magic item for neck slot of your level + 1d4 (or lower).
15 – Lucky Find Magic Ring Item: Lucky you! You find a magic item for ring slot of your level + 1d4 (or lower). Must be level 10 to use.
16 – Lucky Find Magic Waist Item: Lucky you! You find a magic item for waist slot of your level + 1d4 (or lower).
17 – Lucky Find Treasure: Double the amount of non-magic treasure you just found.
18 – Lucky Find Upgrade a magic item you just received to 1 level higher. Pick a new item.
19 – A Smattering of Words You can speak and read one language for the next day.
20 – Like the Monkey Add +10 to an Acrobatics roll you just made.
21 – Amateur Arcanist Add +10 to an Arcana roll you just made.
22 – What Can You Bench? Add +10 to an Athletics roll you just made.
23 – Me? Lie? Add +10 to an Bluff roll you just made.
24 – Half-Elf’s Tongue Add +10 to an Diplomacy roll you just made.
25 – I Once Went to the Underdark Add +10 to an Dungeoneering roll you just made.
26 – I Can Do This All Day Add +10 to an Endurance roll you just made.
27 – Have You Heard of the Athalas Plant? Add +10 to an Heal roll you just made.
28 – Once Upon a Time Add +10 to an History roll you just made.
29 – Human Lie Detector Add +10 to an Insight roll you just made.
30 – You Lookin’ At Me? Add +10 to an Intimidate roll you just made.
31 – Tree Hugger Add +10 to an Nature roll you just made.
32 – How Did You Even See That? Add +10 to an Perception roll you just made.
33 – You Haven’t Heard of that God? Add +10 to an Religion roll you just made.
34 – Shhhhh! Add +10 to an Stealth roll you just made.
35 – I Know a Shortcut Add +10 to an Steetwise roll you just made.
36 – Oh, Was That Locked for a Reason? Add +10 to an Thievery roll you just made.
37 – Fortuitous Failure Suppress a zone or conjuration for 1d6 + 1 rounds.
38 – Wise Beyond Your Years Acquire one feat for 1 day, regardless of level or pre-reqs (DM’s discretion).
39 – I Remember How to Do That Add +5 to one skill check you just made.
40 – Extra Batteries Recharge a power in a magic item.
41 – Bull’s Eye Ignore penalties to attack until the end of the encounter.
42 – Third Wind Spend a healing surge as a free action.
43 – Second Line of Defenses Ignore penalties to defenses until the end of the encounter.
44 – I Wear Two Suits of Armor Gain a +2 bonus to AC until the end of the encounter.
45 – I’m Glad I Took My Vitamins Gain a +2 bonus to Fortitude until the end of the encounter.
46 – I’m Smarter Than I Look Gain a +2 bonus to Will until the end of the encounter.
47 – I Totally Dodged That Lightning Bolt Gain a +2 bonus to Reflex until the end of the encounter.
48 – I Sharpened My Weapon This Morning Gain a +2 bonus to attack and damage until the end of the encounter.
49 – Monster Repellant Gain resistance to one damage type until the end of the encounter.
50 – Can’t Keep a Brotha’ Down Gain a +2 bonus to saving throws until the end of the encounter.
51 – These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For Target creature is dominated by you until the end of its next turn.
52 – Way of the Ninja Teleport 5 squares.
53 – Way of the Blender Keep using at-will attack powers until you miss.
54 – Use the Force Reroll an attack roll.
55 – Energy Strike Deal 1d6 extra damage of an energy type of your choice.
56 – Fortunate Turn of Events Gain +2 to a roll you just made.
57 – Let Me Try That Again Reroll any number of damage dice you just rolled.
58 – Quicker Than You! Initiative: Move to the beginning of the initiative list.
59 – Dilettante Skills: +1 to all skills for 1 day.
60 – Good Thing I Wore My Displacement Cloak Make an enemy reroll an attack.
61 – Longer Legs Gain a +1 bonus to speed until the end of the encounter.
62 – I Like the Look of You One non-hostile NPC becomes a trusted friend and ally.
63 – You Lucky Devil Lucky: Reroll one die.
64 – My Arms Are Longer Than They Look You have reach 2 and threatening reach until the end of the encounter.
65 – Tis a Flesh Wound Take half damage from weapon attacks until the end of the encounter.
66 – Limbo Expert You do not elicit opportunity attacks until the end of the encounter.
67 – Big Feet, Big Hands You gain a +5 bonus to bull rush and grab attacks until the end of the encounter.
68 – Oh, I Totally Saw That Coming Your group is not surprised when it normally would be.
69 – Prophetic Insight You know the answer to one question that can be answered with yes or no (DM’s discretion)
70 – Word on the Street Find out where something or someone is. (DM’s discretion)
71 – I’m Tougher Than I Look Gain 2 healing surges.
72 – Damn Elves You ignore difficult terrain until the end of the encounter.
73 – Finding Nemo You do not have to make swim checks for 1 day.
74 – Drow Eyes You gain darkvision for 1 day.
75 – Its All in the Wrist You gain +2 to your critical range.
76 – My Name is Enigo Montoya You can keep fighting even while at negative hit points. You still make death saving throws.
77 – I Spent Years Building Up a Resistance to Iocain You are immune to poison effects until the end of the encounter.
78 – Dread Pirate Roberts Push any enemy adjacent to you 1 square at the start of your turn.
79 – Only Slightly Less Known… Know all facts about enemy.
80 – I Am Not Left Handed Either You can make one basic melee attack as a minor action each round until the end of the encounter.
81 – Copy Cat Select and copy fun card from other PCs.
82 – Double the Fun Roll twice on the Fun List
83 – Immunization Shots You are immune to disease until the end of the encounter.
84 – Keep a Clear Head You are immune to daze until the end of the encounter.
85 – Third Eye You are immune to blind until the end of the encounter.
86 – Eyes in the Back of Your Head You cannot be flanked until the end of the encounter.
87 – I Am Wolverine! You have regeneration 5 until the end of the encounter. (10 at paragon, 15 at epic)
88 – Just Try Stopping Me You are immune to immobilize until the end of the encounter.
89 – I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again Stand up from prone as a free action until the end of the encounter.
90 – I Shall Not Suffer Frailty You are immune to weaken until the end of the encounter.
91 – I’m Too Fast For You You are immune to slow until the end of the encounter.
92 – Focus, Just Focus You are immune to stun until the end of the encounter.
93 – Hulk Out You are immune to restrain until the end of the encounter.
94 – Your Cheap Tricks Won’t Work on Me You are immune to dominate until the end of the encounter.
95 – I’m Not Done Yet Recharge an encounter attack power.
96 – Take That—Again! Recharge a daily attack power.
97 – I’m Full of Useful Tricks Recharge a utility power.
98 – Look What a Good Night’s Rest Can Do Gain extra hit points for the day equal to your healing surge value.
99 – Undaunted You ignore fear effects until the end of the encounter.
100 – You Win D&D Succeed at anything (DM’s discretion)