March 7, 2009

Catching on Fire - and other improvised rules

Has an improvised rule ever stopped your game table cold?

Sometimes players and DM's alike can be easily frustrated when the rules-as-written don't include specific rulings on some unexpected condition, effect, or situation in the game. At times like these, you have to improvise a ruling - but often the answer is right under your nose.

My wife is currently the DM for our weekly 4th Edition Dungeon & Dragons game, and on Friday she improvised (quite well, I might add) a set of 4E rules for when your players catch on fire. It made me think: are there really no 4E guidelines for burning things? like PCs? What did previous editions of the game recommend?

In fact, the Player's Handbook only includes rules for breaking things - no burning. The Dungeon Master's Guide includes rules for damaging objects, in general, but nothing specific for flaming shirts and pants.

But if you look closer they do.

The trick is to tap into the vast number of existing powers, items, and abilities. In terms of "what happens when I catch on fire?", Flame Strike would be a good place to start. You'll note that (obviously) when you are on fire you take ongoing fire damage.

Our situation, however, was a bit different from the exploding power of Flame Strike -- we had decided to light a pair huge thick curtains on fire as a means to prevent the goblins from entering the room. The improvisation of some rules came into effect when the goblins (and later the PCs) wanted to dive through the flaming curtain to reach the other side. How should that be played out?

Look no further than Wall of Fire. Adjacent to the flaming curtain? You take damage (1d6+3). Pass through it? You take more damage. Also, since the curtain was a physical barrier as well, so making it challenging terrain was appropriate - thus requiring an Athletics or Acrobatics check to successfully pass through it. Checking p.42 of the DMG again -- the DC's were considered Moderate, so Athletics or Acrobatics were against a DC 15. Success means you avoided the flaming parts of the curtains. Failure means you got caught up in the curtain... causing "Limited Damage Expression" damage (3d6+3).
 What about catching on fire? Is there a risk of that? We ruled -- yes. The wall "attacks" you like a trap if you pass through it or next to it; its bonus vs. your Reflex defense, success means your on fire (save ends) like Flame Strike. Now, the PCs in our game are still a bunch of light weight lowbies. So, the bonuses, DCs, and damage levels needed be adjusted somewhat. Plus, there's a big difference between a flaming curtain and a Wall of Fire. This is where the DM's tool box came in handy again -- page 42 of the DMG. In end, she rightly decided the attack would be +5 vs. Reflex and a hit would be 1d6+3 ongoing fire damage (save ends). If you spent your next standard action rolling around on the ground, you would get a +2 bonuses to your save. This happens to be right inline with d20 SRD as well. There, now we have some quick "rules" for flaming curtains and catching on fire for 4E. Easy.

Of course, this was not intended to be a walk-through of something as simple as catching on fire. What then is my point?

The main thing here is that, when you are sitting at the table and don't want to slow down the game, improvising a ruling is required. Also, jump right to p.42 of the DMG and think about some similar effects in the game that you might use as a guideline: in this case Flame Strike and Wall of Fire. Stick to these rules and won't get burned...


  1. I love your post title.

    I like that you've put a fair amount of thought into the idea of burning PC's, this brings a smile to my face. What DM does not want to light at least one PC on fire.

  2. My preferred solution is to never look at a book during table because the rules are simple enough for there to be no reason to do so. Also, rules such that it is easy to generate more rulings on the fly about how a specific thing works.

  3. The above should read "during play".

  4. This specific situation hasn't come up yet at my gaming table, but I'm sure it will. I like how you handled it. We've run in to similar issues and come up with some guidelines on Adjudicating and House Rules. Although you and I seem to be on the same page, there may be a few pointers in there that will help the next time you run into problems.

  5. Hey all! thanks for stopping in!

    @Ameron - welcome! and thank you for the link! I'll no doubt end up adding you to my feedreader...

    @thanuir - I have the same "no books at the table" when I'm a DM as well; but my wife is somewhat new to the DM thing and... well... since the books were just sitting there we couldn't resist.

    @Jack Crow - welcome back!


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