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A Suite Alternative
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.



WEDNESDAY NIGHT. The heroes have declared war on the Magocracy of Vhalt, a secret kingdom of Vecna worshipers who haunt the skies of Iomandra in flying citadels guarded by warforged soldiers. One of these citadels has just attacked a ship in the party's fleet, and the heroes have no choice but to launch a counter-assault. It looks like they're in for one hell of a fight, too. Then, out of the blue, three renegade warforged arrive to lend the party a hand and deal a crushing blow to their evil Vhaltese masters. These warforged are played by special guest stars Jeff Alvarez (VP, Paizo Publishing), Brian R. James (of Forgotten Realms fame), and Richard Whitters (Magic: The Gathering senior concept illustrator). The following week, when Richard is unable to resume in his guest-starring role due to a last-minute scheduling conflict, he's replaced by Tom LaPille, one of our D&D and Magic game developers. Half way into the session, the Vhaltese lord of the citadel completes a ritual that subjugates two of the three warforged renegades, forcing them to turn on the party. Time for my special guest stars to go to town!

E ven the most hardcore D&D player can feel daunted by the suite of options available to high-level characters. It's not so bad if you've been playing the same character for twenty-odd levels, because at least there's an element of familiarity that comes with advancing a character. But jumping into the campaign with a new character can be intimidating, particularly for players who don't have the time or wherewithal to digest every rules element and nuance of the game system.

As I've mentioned before in a previous article, I like to invite "special guest stars" to my gaming table from time to time—players who aren't part of the regular group. Sometimes they play villains, but usually they play supporting characters that provide the party with extra resources and firepower. Sometimes they're hardcore D&D players, and sometimes they're casual players at best. (Personality, not rules knowledge, wins me over every time.) They rarely have time to create full-blown characters, and they have even less time to optimize them or to memorize complicated suites of powers and feats.

I try to ease my players' burdens by offering them alternatives to the standard character sheet, namely a tall glass of what I like to call "Character Lite." One way to create a simplified character is to avoid choosing complicated powers and feats, or to simply ignore them once chosen. However, the 4th Edition system offers a tempting alternative in the form of companion characters.

The rules for creating companion characters are nestled in the Dungeon Master's Guide 2 (pages 27-33). You can create a companion character in a matter of minutes, and if you follow the rules to the letter, the end result is a simplified character with fewer options and poorer statistics than a standard character of the same level—an all-around weaker option. This is deliberate, since companion characters are meant to be used as NPC henchmen and followers to bolster smaller-than-average adventuring parties. They forgo the plethora of options for a handful of powers, and as a consequence they might seem underwhelming, but it sure makes them easy to run. And if that's not enough of an incentive, let me add that it doesn't take much effort to "pump up" a companion character if you really want to.

Switch to Monday night: After suffering through the experience of playing a fairly complicated 27th-level dragonborn rogue, Stan! shuddered at the notion of creating a brand-new epic-level character from scratch when poor Baharoosh bit the dust. Once he settled on a character concept that fit the party gestalt, I set about to create a companion character for him. Since Stan!'s not a power gamer, the prospect of playing a simple, straightforward character was very attractive to him. However, I didn't want Stan!'s new character to be feeble, either, so I compared his defenses and damage numbers to other characters and made some ad-hoc adjustments to guarantee that his dwarf paladin wouldn't get laughed out of the party. I also broke one of the rules of companion character design by applying magic item bonuses to his statistics.

At the end of the companion character-building process, what you get is something that looks like a monster stat block, which, once you get used to it, is a fairly intuitive and easy way to present character information. Key statistics such as hit points, initiative modifier, and defenses are presented at the top, and all of the character's powers are organized by action type—standard actions first, triggered actions last. All I can say is after two weeks of practical use, Stan! isn't looking forward to going back to a standard character sheet any time soon.

My Wednesday night guest stars were handed stat blocks for their warforged characters at the start of the session. Before the game got underway, I took them aside and walked them through the stat block format, which proved fairly intuitive and easy to reference. Thankfully, I only needed to create one companion character to represent all three of them, since the three warforged were statistically identical. (What differentiated them were their personalities.) However, to make them a genuine threat when the time came for them to betray the party (as special guest stars often do!), they needed some statistical boosts. I gave them hit points and damage numbers commensurate with elite monsters of their level, which made them much more powerful and resilient than normal companion characters. The hit points were easy to calculate, the damage numbers less so. Fortunately, I have a spreadsheet that tells me how much damage a monster should deal on its turn based on its level and role (brutes have a higher damage scale than other monsters). Here's the spreadsheet I use:

If you're a DM, you'll find this damage spreadsheet helpful if you like to create monsters on the fly. (In fact, I suggest you keep copies of this spreadsheet tucked away between the folds of your DM screen, in your campaign binder, or some other easy-to-reference location.)

Here's how the spreadsheet works: Imagine you're creating a level 5 skirmisher and want to know how much damage its basic attack should deal. Let's look at a snippet of the spreadsheet to find out:

Click to enlarge


The average damage for a level 5 non-brute monster is 13 points. That's the amount of damage it should be dealing on its turn with an at-will (standard) attack. The spreadsheet provides several different damage expressions that yield the same average damage result: 2d4 + 8, 3d4 + 6, 1d6 + 10, 2d6 + 6, and so on. Simply choose whichever damage expression you prefer or makes the most sense. If you want the monster to attack multiple times on its turn, reduce the damage for each attack proportionately. For example, a level 5 skirmisher might deal 2d8 + 4 damage with a single longsword attack, or it could make two claw attacks for 1d8 + 2 damage each. Either way, it's doing the right amount of damage for its level on its turn (average 13 points).

The spreadsheet doesn't provide damage expressions for elite or solo monsters. Elite monsters basically deal damage equal to two monsters of their level, and this damage is usually spread over two or more standard attacks. A solo monster is basically four standard monsters rolled into one.

Because my Wednesday night game includes several highly optimized characters, I inflated the warforged damage numbers even more than my spreadsheet allows, just to make them scary. It just goes to prove that all the rules, formulas, and spreadsheets in the world sometimes can't give you exactly what you need. That's where a little DM intuition and guesswork comes in handy.

Lessons Learned

Do you have a player who finds the sheer number of character options overwhelming? If so, I urge you to experiment with the companion character rules in the DMG2. As with many tasks that fall upon the Dungeon Master, it's more than a simple mathematical exercise. There's a certain amount of art involved. I don't recommend lightweight characters for everyone, but if you have a player who's willing to trade a space shuttle for a hang glider, the companion character rules are a pretty good alternative to the multi-page character sheet.

What a companion character offers is well worth the effort it takes to create one, namely:

  • A streamlined character with fewer options
  • A quick, ready-to-play experience

However, here are two things to keep in mind when building a companion character using the rules in the DMG2:

  • Companion characters are, by design, weaker than regular characters.
  • A few additional DM tweaks might be required to ensure player happiness.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Who's your favorite hero in Marvel's The Avengers movie?
Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) 808 37.5%
The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) 572 26.6%
Captain America (Chris Evans) 247 11.5%
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) 209 9.7%
Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) 168 7.8%
Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) 92 4.3%
• Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) 57 2.6%
Total 2153 100.0%

Which of the following Whedon characters is the biggest dork? (Apologies to Dollhouse enthusiasts, but I haven't watched a single episode of that show . . . hence the omission.)
Dr. Horrible, from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (Neil Patrick Harris) 465 23.1%
Xander Harris, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Nicholas Brendan) 420 20.9%
Hoban 'Wash' Washburne, from Firefly and Serenity (Alan Tudyk) 373 18.5%
Willow Rosenberg, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Alyson Hannigan) 175 8.7%
Wesley Wyndam-Price, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (Alexis Denisof) 122 6.1%
Winifred 'Fred' Burkle, from Angel (Amy Acker) 105 5.2%
Simon Tam, from Firefly and Serenity (Sean Maher) 91 4.5%
Jayne Cobb, from Firefly and Serenity (Adam Baldwin) 84 4.2%
Malcolm 'Mal' Reynolds, from Firefly and Serenity (Nathan Fillion) 59 2.9%
Harmony Kendall, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (Mercedes McNab) 30 1.5%
Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (James Marsters) 29 1.4%
Angel, from Angel (David Boreanaz) 27 1.3%
Buffy Summers, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar) 23 1.1%
Doyle, from Angel (Glenn Quinn) 11 0.5%
Total 2014 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #72A

 What do you think of the companion character rules in the DMG2?  
What are these "rules" you speak of?
Honestly, I haven't given the rules much thought or put them to much use.
I tried using the rules, but they didn't win me over for one reason or another.
I've used companion characters to good effect, but they aren't that big a deal.
I love the rules and look for ways to introduce companion characters as my game allows.

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #72B

 In a perfect world, character level aside, how long should it take an average player to create a new D&D character?  
Less than 5 minutes
5-10 minutes
15-30 minutes
30-45 minutes
45 minutes or more

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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