Ideas from The Dark Knight Rises

I finished my rewatch of the Nolen trilogy this week and so I may as well finish off this series of “things you can take from Batman and put them in your game”.

AI generated image: “photograph of a dark alleyway”, the kind which Batman might find himself.

Premise: The adventuring hub is in constant danger

Batman largely sticks to Gotham because The League of Shadows have threatened it specifically. They’ve decided that it’s the heart of human evil and wiping it out will start a human healing process (until the next pit of evil appears). Buffy has to hang around Sunnydale because that’s where the hellmouth is. In Rime of the Frostmaiden, the heros are forced to stay in the Dales because that’s all there is for miles around, but still it’s a good reason for them to protect it.

In many other D&D games, I’ve ended up all over the place, chasing bad guys over a long arc. But there’s definitely a game in the idea of the characters having some attachment to a particular place, and that place being underthreat. Each arc could be two or three sessions long, and then next week comes another bad guy with a slightly different motive and way of acheiving it. (This might be the premise of Monster of the Week.)

  • The PC’s are guardians of the last temple of Ra, and if that falls so does all Order.
  • The PC’s work for the Merchant City of Vilenau, a walled city of business that it always has an enemy after it.
  • A galary of art collected from thousands of different realities and planes, some more valuable than the PC’s realise.

Hire from within

When, sadly, our PC is lost in battle, we tend to reach for a brand new character no one has ever heard of. That leaves a lot of buy in for the remaining members of the group. “Sure, person we literally just met, join us and share the items of our dead friend.”

How about, like Robin was inspired by Batman as a child, your next PC comes from one of the pool of characters that you already know about? I’m guessing that the DM will be more than excited to hand over the reigns of one of their NPCs. Or better yet, in your session zero when you’re creating contacts (you’re creating contacts, right?), create a character specifically in mind as your next character.

That way, the group gets to hang out with them and see scenes with PC 1 and PC 2 together. You’re not a total stranger joining and it’s not weird that Batman left his cave of things to Just Some Guy.

By the way, The One Ring has a whole ruleset for this stuff. Definitely check that out.

Spell: Bomb

Like turning a useful fusion energy source into a time-ticking doomsday device.

Level 3 Evocation spell. Ritual. Casting time: 1 minute.
Place the target item within the 1ft radius ritual circle. Part of the verbal components of the spell require announcing the duration, which can range from instant to 10 days. The duration begins once the casting is complete. When the spell expires, the target item explodes dealing 5d6 fire damage to all creatures within 20 ft.
Fire spreads and the blast goes around corners.
The damage can be increased by 1d6 for each additional level spent above 3.

FYI: DM’s should absolutely cast this on loot left behind as a trap by the bad guys. “I cast Detect Magic.” Well, that spoon sure looks magical.

Specifically items are specified, because targetted people with it is too gross for my table.

Three things from The Dark Knight

Continuing from last time, here’s some ideas I had for tabletop games based around The Dark Knight.

Plot Obstacle: Already on the run

One of the frustrating plot points for characters, especially in their early levels is often “why isn’t the army dealing with the goblins? why us?” and “why can’t I just go to the town guard to deal with this?”

This obstacle takes those options right off the table.

Maybe their goal is technically on the wrong side of the law. Maybe they’ve been framed for something they need to clear up. Or maybe the town guard are all corrupt and working for the bad guys.

Whatever the reason, the adventurers have to contend with the establishment coming after them whilst they try to get on with the story. Town guard are hostile on sight. Bakers will subtly try to alert them whilst the character’s are picking out their rations. Tavern keepers charge them double for the night for the risk they’re taking.

Downtime activity: Foil crimes

The vast majority of adventurers I’ve interacted with have lacked families or day jobs and so many of the potential downtime activities don’t apply to them. But they do tend to towards good and like to take matters into their own hands.

This may not even fall under “vigilantism”; many towns have a bounty board and often adventurers are asked to deal with various problems around town, like kicking out the Redbrands.

Resources required. It starts with a simple petty theif that you’re tracking down, but that quickly spins into a whole network of bad actors, pulling threads in all directions, and you stumble upon a much larger plot. It takes a full workweek to conclude your investigation, infiltration, and dissolution of the network. This work costs you 25gp in bribes and equipment.

Resolution. There are a number of checks to be made to determine the outcome of your week.

How did your initial investigation go? Your investigation certainly lead you to the crime you’re hoping to foil, but how much of an advantage did it give you? Make a DC 15 Charisma- or Intelligence-based check of your choice. On success, you have advantage on the next check.

How did you track down their hideout? You’ve found their hideout, but did you draw a lot of attention to yourself whilst you did it? Do you have any time to come up with a good plan, and set the stage to your advantage? Make a DC 15 Wisdom- or Dexterity-based check of your choice. On success, you have advantage on the next check.

How did apprehending them go? No guarentees here. They may still get away unhindered. They’re slippery like that. Make a DC 15 Strength-, Dexterity-, or Constitution-based check of your choice. On a success, you managed to stop the crime! The bad guys are thrown in irons and locked away. On failure, the crime networks lives on. Maybe there’s a puppetmaster who eluded you. Maybe they were able to flee the scene and vanish into the shadows. Either way, the thread is hanging, and you’ve made yourself known to this underground organisation.

If you succeeded in foiling the crime, a bounty or jesture of good will is paid to you to the value of 100gp.

If you succeeded in any Charisma based checks, you now have a new contact to call on in times of need who will (most likely) help out.

If you succeeded in any Intelligence based checks, you also learn something new about the world that your adventuring group did not already know. This may help your main adventure.

If you succeeded in any Wisdom based checks, you manage to turn the crime to your advantage somehow. This may come in the form of an additional 2d20 gold pieces (or items to that value).

If you succeeded in any Dexterity based checks, you come across the gang’s gold stash whilst sticking to the shadows. Gain 2d20 gold pieces (or items to that value).

If you succeeded in any Strength based checks, news of your heroism has spread. Choose a feature (or one similar to): Faceless Persona (BG), Rustic Hospitality, Bad Reputation. This feature is limited to your current town.

If you succeeded in any Constitution based checks, what didn’t kill you, made your stronger. The blows you took only increased your stamina and confidence. For the next seven days, a long rest also grants you 1d4 temporary hitpoints per your level.

Complications. These are almost unavoidable in this line of work. Likely, someone knows it was you that meddled with their dastardly plans. Your name is almost definitely on someone’s hit list now.

Skill: Grit

One of the reasons there aren’t any Constitution based checks on the default list is because almost always it’s Con is needed when something is being done to you which makes it a Con save, rather than a skill. I’d argue that there are some times when a Constitution based skill would be useful though.

Con and hit points are linked very closely. We also know that hit points aren’t just how healthy you are. You can be psychically beaten down, without taking a lick of pain, or have your Con dropped when you’re exhausted. Someone on 0 HP makes Con saves not only to see if their body can take it, but to see if they have the sheer will to bring themselves back to 1 HP.

Enter, Grit (Con). This can be used in situations where you want to steel yourself for an upcoming blow of some kind. Briefly overcoming your exhaustion and the pain in your battered body to do something heroic. On a successful grit check, you may temporarily overcome a disadvantage or snap out of your fearful stupor. Or just use it for cool roleplay things, and make decisions on how brave your character is.

“Council” and Social Encounters

Dwight enters The Central Station and has to put considerable effort into closing the door behind him; a combination of the weather desperate to get in and the ancient, rusted hinges seem hellbent on staying open for as long as they can.

The disturbance grabs the attention of almost everyone in the bar. Everyone except for a fellow gnome sitting at a back table, almost hidden behind a stack of books. Dwight walks purposefully over to Shaddleborne and coughs to get his attention, but the gnome continues writing, clutching a quill in a clawed hand.

If anyone knows about the wrecksite of the Wodenbirth, it’s Shaddleborne, the last of its crew. That also makes him the least likely person to want to talk about what happened on board.

The social pillar of a D&D adventure isn’t given much of a ruleset compared to other parts of the system. This makes contests during conversation often boil down to making a Persausion check.

Social encounters in 5e

The Players Handbook doesn’t give much guidance above the obvious. The DMG does a bit better though, and lays out some ways the DM can offer some structure:

  • Determine a starting attitude of the PC; friendly, indifferent, or hostile.
  • Have a conversation; at the end (or multiple times if particularly difficult) a social check is made. Successful social checks may move them from hostile to indiffernt, etc.
  • The DC is based on the starting attitude. The check is made easier or harder based on how much the NPC cares about what the PC is saying.

Very light touch for rules, when you compare the dozens of pages focused on combat, equipment to improve combat, skills which only affect combat, and spells which deal damage.

That last point is the key one though: if the PC’s manage to catch the interest of the NPC, convincing them to help should be much easier. The way they catch that interest is by making the conversation about the NPC. Knowing about the NPC requires investigation work beforehand. If Dwight promises Shaddleborne half the riches from the Wodenbirth, the DC to convince him remains at 25. But, if Dwight had done a bit of research on the maritine scholar, he’d know that Shaddleborne lost a family heirloom down on that ship. Mentioning that might drop the DC to 15, or even 5 in the right circumstance.

Makeaskillcheck talks in more depth about 5e social encounters.

One kind of social encouragement. The Bab Ballads.

Social encounters in The One Ring

A brief summary of the rules shows how much more of a system negotiation has in The One Ring. First of all, it has a name: Council. (TOR, p104.)

  1. Determine difficulty.
    • The players decide ahead of time what proposition they have for their target NPC. There are some key questions they need to answer before they approach them: What do they need from the target? What do they have to offer in exchange? What does an ideal outcome look like?
    • Armed with that rough guide for the conversation, the DM considers how that aligns with the motivations of the target. It might be a ‘reasonable’ request (Resistance 3), a ‘bold’ request (Resistance 6), or an ‘outrageous’ request (Resistance 9).
    • Judging by how closely motivations align intrinsically takes into account the relationship between the PCs and NPCs.
  2. Opening conversation.
    • A single spokesperson makes a skill check with the intent of making a good first impression.
    • On a successful check, the time limit (or number of arguments they are allowed to make) matches the Resistance, plus 1 for every Gandalf symbol that shows up.
    • On a failure, the number of arguments is still the same as the Resistance value, however if they fail to make their argument in time it ends in Disaster.
  3. Arguments.
    • Any player can now chime in, giving a reason why the NPC should comply. They make a related skill check. A success reduces the Resistance by 1, and Gandalf symbols reduce it by an additional 1.
    • If the arguments relate to a personal motivation of the target, the skill check can be made with an additional die.
    • By default, the target is ‘open’ to conversation. Otherwise, they can be ‘reluctant’ (minus 1d to checks) or ‘friendly’ (plus 1d). This state can change whilst the conversation goes on.
    • Once Resistance falls to 0, the expected outcome (or as close to the expected out come as the DM is willing) occurs.
    • If Resistance does not fall to 0 within the time limit (or argument count limit, really), they fail. The NPC may still help, but not to the extent they could have. They might still offer the desired help, but at a price.
    • If they fail, and the encounter ends in disaster, the target has likely taken offence. There should be some cost to this, in addition to missing out on help. Shaddleborne warns his friends of Dwight, and they begin encounters as reluctant.

This feels a lot more like an encounter. The characters, instead of baring arms and spellslots, have to prepare themselves with arguments that will earn them as many extra dice as possible. That might mean multiple sessions of private detective work to understand their target a bit better.

They can even take turns. Whilst it’s not required in the rulebook, the argument-based nature of how these encounters work mean you can go around the table to include players who are ordinarily quiet during social parts.

There’s no need to engage in active roleplay (as the DMG calls it); conversation can be turned into something more like a riddle where prior investigation makes the rolls easier. I feel like this fixes the problem of a high-charisma-PC played by a low-charisma-player. It’s frustrating sometimes that my 18 Charisma character is capped by my own 14 Charisma. But we can all be good note takers, and use those notes to gain an advantage in social checks when using this system.

As a final note, I hope it’s fairly obvious but this system doesn’t always have to be used. An Awe skill can be still be used quickly to win over a shop keeper and get a discount or convice a guard to let you into a party.

Cut throats, inescapable explosions, and other misadventures

A while ago, I found myself in Peliad in a caper which we hoped would seriously disrupt the environmentally disasterous growing of exquisit silk, known as dekaffle. (What on Earth would one be doing in Peliad concerning ourselves with dekaffle, you might be thinking – surely I mean Kaffle, many miles away? But no!) We’d lured the leader of the farming group into a backroom at a pub where there was moderate privacy. We hypnotised the leader and our rogue made their way, unknown, behind them.

I was expecting that she would simply one-hit kill the oblivious, incapacited human. Hit points, I was assuming, wouldn’t need to come into it. There was a grumble around the table when the wise and well learned DM said, “roll to hit”. Dude can’t move – how’s he going to survive getting his neck sliced?

Mike’s response brought me around immediately: hit points aren’t about how much health someone has but rather their will to continue winning, which includes the amount of luck they have.

My aim with this blog post was to suggest an “assassination” house rule where appropriate situations can call for such one-shot attacks. However, after doing some more research, I’m even more brought into the idea that the current system is just fine.

  • Even paralysed, something might help the the victim survive; there are literal gods in these worlds, who may have a vested interest in keeping this person alive. In fact, we see these gods give characters hit points all the time.
  • People survive really weird things. Have you seen Hostel? Eyeballlady should be dead. But they’re still happily getting trains across Eastern Europe.
  • Players would fudging hate it if an NPC killed them in their sleep, or have to live in a constant state of fear.
  • Removing hit points is a represenation of how many blows a person has left before they pass out/die. It’s obviously rules as written, but also makes role playing your character with 1HP remaining. You don’t need to boringly play a half-dead character.

So anyway, I’m totally on board with not being able to just ignore HP. It’s a much better mechanic than I gave it credit for.

RAW, Surprise

Every time I’ve seen a surprise round happen, the rule has been different with every DM. The entire rule, including fluff, is around 150 words. Maybe I can try and explain the RAW rule in a few bullet points.

  • Surprise happens when the at least one member of the fight is being sneaky.
  • Foreach person being sneaky, compare their Stealth with the Passive Perception of each opponent.
  • Any opponent which fails the contest at least once is surprised.
  • Surprised means you can’t move, take an action (including bonus actions), or use a reaction.
  • They do still have a turn; any “at the start of your turn” and similar triggers still happen.

(Hey, only 72 words!)

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it played like that.

If I recall properly, in the game I play in most weeks, if we have surprise, we basically get a free round. This works in my head just fine: we all get to do something really quickly before they even notice what’s hit them. I believe we also typically get advantage on attacks, which may come from being Hidden.

Ultimately, I think most ways I’ve seen fulfil the purpose of what Surprise was intended to do: reward players for being smart in combat. Whilst running head first, swords blazing, is always an option, it leads to combat becoming stale. So long as there’s a reward for changing up combat somehow, I’m down for it!

Hiding isn’t the only way to kick start a fight in your advantage though. The rule ignores scenarios where the characters burst into combat mid-conversation. In this case, my group’s house rule makes a lot more sense.

Alternatively, maybe just swapping out the Passive Perception check for a Dexterity save or contested Sleight of Hand. (The downside here is that now the DM has to roll for all the NPC’s they’re running. Could Passive Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) be a thing?)