Friday, August 28, 2009

More On Resistances

I've been thinking a bit about resistances lately, and I think I figured out a solution that I like. I'm sure someone else has come up with this before, so apologies if I'm stealing ideas here. Anyway, here's my idea:

Energy Mastery Feats
Energy mastery feats represent a character's specific training with, affinity for, or close bond with a specific type of energy. They offer two benefits. First, they give a damage bonus when you use your chosen damage type.

Second, if a creature resists or is immune to that energy type, you gain an added bonus against it. It's basically the reverse of the idea of giving a monster a boost when you blast it with its favored energy type. So, here's an example:

Dark Soul Devourer
You get a +2 bonus to damage rolls when you inflict necrotic damage.
If you hit a creature and its necrotic resistance or immunity reduces your attack's damage, that creature is dazed until the end of your next turn.

That's not necessarily the exact mechanic I'd use, but it gets to what I'm talking about. My initial idea for this specific feat was to describe someone whose soul was tainted with necrotic energy, and in harming undead (or whatever) they draw the undead creature's life force (such as it is) into their own. But, it's Friday, I'm about to head home, and it's been a long day. You're getting what you paid for!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I Went to GenCon

For the first time since 1999, I went to GenCon as a plain old gamer. No press pass, no looking for freelance work, no manning a booth for me. I played a bunch of games and just did what I wanted to do.

Of course, I picked up a sinus infection before the con, so I had to take it easy on myself. I'm not sure I made it to more than one of the events I originally signed up for, but it was easy enough to cash in my tickets for generics and system credit. I guess that means I have to go again next year, since I have $8 worth of event ticket credit!

Thursday: I ended up cruising the dealer's hall in the morning and ate lunch with the indomitable Rob Schwalb. That afternoon I played a game of Chainmail, the pre-D&D miniatures game. The game was a blast, and it's pretty nifty that I can now say I've played it.

That night, I ran a D&D game for a bunch of friends. They tracked down a necromancer who had stolen a sacred relic, battled orcs and bandits, and managed to survive despite at one point having 7 hit points between 4 characters. Good times!

Friday: More gaming, starting with a miniatures game. Song of Drums and Shakos is a Napoleonics skirmish game. In 2 hours, I learned the rules from scratch and got in two games. Highly recommended, along with the fantasy version Song of Blades and Heroes.

Once the game wrapped up, I launched an ultimately fruitless quest to find 15mm Napoleonic and fantasy minis in the exhibitor's hall. After lunch with Paul Tevis, I got in a session of the BattleTech grinder. I had an UrbanMech shot out from under me and lost a Hunchback to a back shot from a Cicada that nailed the 'back's ammo bin. After that, I took to the field in one of my all-time favorite 'mechs, the Axman (not the lame LRM-15 variant, but the original AC/20 configuration) and made up for lost ground. I cored a Warhammer, ripped a Raven in half, and killed an Enforcer with a single AC shot to its ammo bin.

That evening was dinner at Buca with friends and wandering the con and chatting for the rest of the night.

Saturday: This was my D&D day, with an RPGA game from 8 AM to 4 PM. We had an all-changeling party, which was fun, and my barbarian was perfect for a city inexplicable built around a giant pillar of fire. His basic hook is that's he's dumb but overly thoughtful and rages when stuff doesn't make sense to him. With an 8 Int, that's fairly often.

After the game was a late lunch, another circuit of the dealer's hall, and dinner and drinks with a number of game industry folks. We swapped stories about pets and weird fans. Good times!

Sunday: The final day of GenCon always has a bit of a melancholy tinge to it, at least for me. I played some more BattleTech with a friend, took care of a little last minute shopping and trades, and then headed to the airport. Between ice cream at the terminal and a nifty, final conversation about gaming with a few folks, it was a good end to the con.

Loot: Of course, half of the fun of GenCon is browsing what's essentially a giant, gamer's mall.

I bought/traded for:

1. A few of the Pathfinder metal minis and one of the few flip-mats I don't already own from Paizo. Can't wait to see the Reaper Pathfinder line!

2. A bunch of Reaper minis. I love browsing their booth at the show.

3. A pile of Shadowrun and BattleTech books. The SR Seattle book is pretty nifty.

4. Eclipse Phase! I can't wait to dig into this game. It looks really interesting, and what I've read so far has me wanting to play it.

5. A Dragon Dice starter set. I've wanted to check out this game since it first came out, and the starter was less than $20, so why not?

6. Who Would Win? from Gorilla Games. I picked this up based on a recommendation from Monte Cook. It looks like a great party game.

7. Action Castle! My major failure at the con was my inability to convince anyone to play this.

Honorable Mention: Gaming Paper. I didn't actually buy a roll, since I didn't think it would fit in my luggage, but I was really impressed by it. It's more than just simple paper. It has a parchment/scroll-like texture to it, giving it a pretty nifty feel. I'm going to order some once my gaming budget regenerates.

MIA Award: 15 mm Napoleonics and fantasy figures. I didn't find any at the show! Of course, I didn't exactly spend hours searching (I had games to play!) but I figured there had to be some somewhere.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

GenCon 2009

I'm heading to GenCon as a gamer this year, rather than as a pro, so I'm playing lots of games and goofing off the entire show. Good times!

Here's my current gaming schedule:

9 AM to 1 PM: BattleTech - Chaos Style
2 PM to 6 PM: Battlestations - Pirates of Trundlia
9 PM to 1 AM: Horror Hero

10 AM to 12 PM: Song of Drums and Shako - Eggs for the Major
2 PM to 6 PM: Shadowrun - Mr. Johnson's Table
7 PM to 9 PM: Dragon Dice - Novice Event

8 AM to 4 PM: D&D - Stirring the Embers

I have tickets for a few other events, but I think I'm going to cash them out. Also, this schedule is by no means final. I signed up for stuff, but if other things come up I'll switch stuff around. I figured I'd fill my schedule and try new games as a default in case nothing else comes up.

I'm also planning on bringing a few games and stuff to run if the chance comes up. My plan is to bring a 4e conversion of the first d20 adventure, Three Days to Kill, plus another adventure or two. I might bring a copy of the 1st level of Monte's Dungeon-A-Day dungeon and run a 4e version on the fly. I'll have characters, minis, and everything I need on hand in my handy little haversack.

Other Games: Jungle Speed, Shab-al-hiri Roach, a few decks of TCGs (L5R, Magic), and maybe a few card games.

So, are you going to GenCon? What are you looking forward to?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ascending vs. Descending AC

One of the things that struck me as a big improvement in 3e compared to prior editions is its ascending AC system. Back in the day, a lower AC was a better AC. You rolled a die, and either looked up the result on a chart or used THAC0 to figure out what AC you hit.

3e used an ascending system, where a higher AC is better. You rolled, added modifiers, and the result was the AC you hit. It seems patently better, but like a lot of things that changed over the course of D&D's history, it's better only within the larger context of the 3e rules, rather than in the context of D&D as a whole.

In 3e and 4e, there are lots of modifiers that go on top of that die roll. Not only do you have modifiers that apply to every roll, like ability score mods and magic items, but spells, conditions, flanking, and so on. There's a decent chance that 25% or so of the attack rolls you make during a session require some additional modifier beyond ability score and a magic weapon's plus.

In that situation, descending AC is a terrible idea. The table lookup or THAC0 math is just an extra step of work. Why not just use the final result?

However, strip away the fluctuating modifiers and the descending AC system comes into its own. At that point, all you need to do is record your to-hit numbers vs. AC on your character sheet. The process of roll and look up is, IMO, much faster when the players work up their own little attack matrices, faster than dealing with any math on the fly.

From the DM's side of things, you can do the same by tracking monsters on index cards. Just write down each critter's line of attack results, and you're done. The real drag with the system, IME, is using the table, but that's easily fixed.

As a side effect, I think this explains why the notorious weapon vs. armor type table in AD&D received so much flack. James Wyatt is the only person I've personally met who used it. It exacerbated the system's shortcomings and pushed it away from its strength.

The question then becomes, do you like lots of potential modifiers or not? And that, IMO, is a matter of taste.

There are a lot of little transitions like that between 2e and 3e, most notably the sudden explosion in power of spellcasters, that I think have a really big effect on D&D's direction in the past 10 years. In a lot of cases, the changes came about because of shifts in mechanics that have subtle effects on distant portions of the system. For instance, IMO the change in initiative made casters into unstoppable beasts, but that's another post for another time.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

An OSRIC House Rule

Here's a house rule you can use in any version of D&D where you roll stats and roll hit points. It works best with stat generation methods that are restricted to rolling six times, whether its 3d6 or 4d6 drop the lowest. It's better in the latter, but you're probably aiming for "better" characters anyway.

Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good. Your arrow finds the crack in the orc's armor, the ogre's club catches on the stalactite just as he's about to brain you. Luck gives you a small pool of points that you can use to assuage the cruel vagaries of fate.

When rolling up a character, you receive a luck point for each 1 you roll. If you use the 4d6 method, you get the point even if you drop the die with the 1 on it.

When you're done rolling up your character, record your total number of luck points. That's your luck score.

Whenever you roll a d20 to attack, you can chose to spend a luck point to re-roll the attack. You can also spend a point to force an enemy to re-roll an attack against you. Spend the point after you learn if the attack hit or missed.

You can spend a point of luck to re-roll a thief/assassin skill check.

When you gain a level and roll hit points, you gain 2 luck points if you roll low enough.

d12 or d10: Gain 2 luck if you roll 3 or less.
d8 or d6: Gain 2 luck if you roll a 1 or 2.
d4: Gain 2 luck if you roll a 1.

I came up with this idea while rolling up a series of OSRIC characters for fun. I was tracking the number of 1s I rolled (it's a talent of mine when rolling characters) and tried to think of some way to make that interesting. I kind of like the idea of a gimpy adventurer surviving because of dumb luck.

Monday, May 4, 2009

More Gaming Photos

Have I mentioned that I love using my Dwarven Forge? Here are a few snapshots from tonight's game:

From Gaming Photos

The PCs had to make their way through the sewers beneath the city of Greyhawk.

From Gaming Photos

Umber hulk attack!

From Gaming Photos

Xalor, cleric of Iuz, and servitors.

From Gaming Photos

The characters prepare their assault.

From Gaming Photos

Xalor's view of the chamber. A mob of dread warriors emerged from the central chamber when the PCs approached it, while an animated statue rushed around the other side of the chamber to attack from behind.

In the end, the PCs were victorious. On to 16th level!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tweet, Tweet, Tweet

I am now on Twitter. I'm vaguely addicted to it, especially since it gives me an excuse to pop off random observations or thoughts during the day. Also, each Thursday I toss up a question about 4e, just to see what people are doing with the game.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Origins Awards

The nominees for the Origins Awards have been announced. has the list.

For many years, the Origins Awards were mired in in-fighting, plagued by favoritism that stuffed categories with embarrassing nominees, and largely use as a battleground for gaming industry factions to wage their wars.

It's refreshing to watch as, over the past three years, the awards have reformed themselves. Are the lists perfect? I'm sure there are categories where you could argue the merit of overlooked games, but I don't see any gaping holes.

At the end of the day, though, I think the Origins Awards are where they need to be to serve a useful purpose for the industry. I see large and small press games, games that cover a wide range of play styles and tastes.

Nice job, GAMA!

Notes from Monday's Game

A few random observations from my Monday night game:

1. It's always funny when the wrong monster becomes the star. The session led off with a battle, after a flashback to establish a bit of background for the villain. Here's what the PCs faced:

* A cleric of Iuz
* A necromancer
* A devil the two summoned
* A demon the necromancer summoned on round 1

The devil and the demon, despite being lower level than the two casters, were the stars of the show. I think I rolled below a 15 for the devil once. The cleric's big trick was using an illusion to escape with his life (and a map writ on burning dragon hide). The necromancer managed to die horribly in 2 rounds, thanks to the avenger.

2. The best part of the early sessions of a campaign lies in watching one particular die roll or trick shunt the campaign along a path. Such as:

* The aforementioned cleric's successful escape, thanks to some blown Perception checks
* The avenger's laying a spell on the cleric that lets him track him basically forever (thrown on the cleric without any idea he could escape so easily)
* The PCs' seeing through the captured elf diplomat's lies, tracking him to a clandestine meeting with the thieves' guild, confronting him, and watching him die when the demonic heart forcibly implanted in his chest tears his innards to shreds

All those sequences came down to die rolls or player tactics, and they've had a big effect on how things have (and will) play out. I think a good campaign has that throughout, but early on it's more obvious.

3. I started the campaign with a short dungeon crawl, then shifted to a lot more story and investigation. I think that worked well. It gave the players a chance to learn their PCs and work out their basic tactics, plus it set some stuff up early on (the escaped cleric, the rescued diplomat, tensions within the church of Corellon) that paid off in last night's session.

I liked the tempo switch of starting with a small dungeon that had lots of fights spiked with story bits in between, a flashback to establish the villain, a big fight with that villain, and then an extended roleplay/investigative session.

Last night's session ended with the PCs caught in a trap sprung by a treacherous wererat who was supposed to lead them through the sewers to the villain. Running one hour sessions at work has trained me to design just enough concrete stuff to keep things at a brisk pace.

In essence, I try to end each session with a clear line to the next scene. I can spend a lot of time on that scene, knowing it'll take 1/4 to 1/3 of the next session (figure fight/confrontation, plus immediate scene afterward), then line up the possibilities for the game to go from there.

Anyway, that's what's up with my Monday campaign. I should post a bit about my lunch time campaign, too.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Gaming Pics

One of the fun things about running a game at home, as opposed to running at the office, is that I get to bust out the Dwarven Forge. Here are a few photos of tonight's set up.

Here's an overview of the strange temple complex the characters uncovered:

From Gaming Photos

What's the best way to convince a captive duergar wizard to translate the Abyssal runes scrawled on to the lid of a tomb? Tie him to a table, then prop the table (with the duergar hanging upside down) over the lid. In the party's defense, when they asked if he would translate the runes, he answered, "Of course, but you'll need to untie me to bring me to the burial chamber, right?"

From Gaming Photos

The session ended just after the PCs made contact with the spirits of four ancient priests of Corellon Larethien, learned the nature of this place, and were flooded with the priests' memories, a process that left the characters with two distinct lifetimes worth of thoughts jangling in their heads. They also learned how to open the door of water to enter the evil shrine that this place was built to keep sealed shut. Unfortunately, an evil wizard and a cleric of Iuz had already entered the place. The wizard conjured a devil, and the fight is on. At least, it will be next week, as the session ended just as the devil showed up.

From Gaming Photos

A Basic Goal of DMing

The best thing a DM can do (thinking specifically of D&D here), is to do his best to push the party to absolute, utter defeat*, and then watch them try to wiggle their way out, with the party's victory determined solely by their choices and abilities.


(Of course, given how good I am at judging response rates, this is the post that no one will comment on.)

*With defeat defined by the campaign and the group's play style. It could be death at the hands of a growling demon in the lowest level of a dungeon, or the evil archduke's successful ascension to the empire's throne.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

And Another Legend Passes...

(I originally posted this yesterday, but pulled it when the news of Dave's passing turned out to be premature. Sadly, it appears that was but a temporary reprieve.)

I just read over at Grognardia that Dave Arneson has passed away.

I met Dave back in 2007, when the guys at The Source Comics and Games in Minnesota flew me out as part of World Wide D&D Game Day. I had dinner with him, and had a chance to chat with him a bit. My only regret is that I forgot to bring anything for him to sign.

To be blunt, history has largely cast Dave as Gary's second banana, but it's clear from any study of D&D's roots that while Gary tended the flame in those early years, Dave struck the spark. In a perfect world, things would've played out differently. The two elders of our hobby would've guided the game for years, a Fafhrd and Grey Mouser of the tabletop.

Alas, we don't live in a perfect world, but an infinitely human one. That which should be, and that which can be, all too often never come into alignment.

Gygax, Arneson, Moldvay, Bledsaw, these men were more than the pillars of our hobby. They are the pillars of an entire new way of thinking about games, about how we interact with *stuff*.

User generated content? The fundamental concepts of the multi-billion dollar gaming industry? These guys invented it. Maybe the world will forget their names, Hell, maybe it already has, but it'll never forget what they made. These guys taught us that what's in the book doesn't have to be what's played at the table, that the best stories are the ones we make ourselves, that what's on the shelf doesn't compare to what's in our minds.

Rest in peace, Dave, and thanks for blazing that trail.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Skill Resolution

I've had a though inspired by Rob Kuntz over at Lord of the Green Dragons and the indomitable James Maliszewski at Grognardia.

One of the benefits of a well run old school game is that it requires more active effort on the players' part to interact with the game environment. For instance, if the characters come across a pool of water in a dungeon room, modern and old school D&D take two different approaches:

Modern D&D: The characters make Perception checks. On a success, they notice the skeleton deep in the pool, half-buried in the mud.

Classic D&D: The characters haul out a 10 foot pool, poke around at the base of the pool, and dislodge the skeleton.

In the first case, the players apply the game system to the environment.

In the second case, the players use their experience/skill, along with an assessment of the environment, to come up with a plan of action.

On the face of it, the second case is more immersive and engaging, but I think the first approach does have its benefits. It's faster, and it establishes a protocol of sorts between the players and the DMs.

When a player says, "I make a Perception check to inspect the pool" the intended outcome is clear. If there's anything weird in the pool, the player wants to know. The old school approach has the potential to short circuit that. Perhaps the DM expects a specific action (dredging the pool's bottom, as opposed to poking at it with a 10 foot pole) to uncover something of interest.

IME, that disconnect can undermine an entire game session, with the players stuck Zorking an object or NPC until they hit the specific action the DM is looking for. The skill system helps avoid that by creating an abstract level between intent and action.

I think a middle ground approach nets you the benefits of both new and old school gaming, but it takes a little work for a DM. Here's what I propose: the players make a Perception check, but success only points them to their next action, an action that requires them to approach the situation in a more immersive, engaged manner.

Here's an example:

The players enter a room with shelves of books along its walls. The players make Perception checks to search the room. One of the players hits the DC. What happens next?

Modern D&D: The characters find a secret cache of gems.
Hybrid D&D: The characters notice that four of the books on the far right shelf are clean, while the rest of the books are covered in dust. It's still up to the players to figure out what that means (there's a secret compartment in the wall behind the books).

If the characters poke at the books in greater detail, you can continue to make skill checks but only in response to the PCs' actions. For instance, one of the characters removes the books and flips through them, looking for clues. A History check reveals they are relatively new volumes on herbalism. Another PC pokes at the bookshelf, and a Perception check reveals the hollow space. Finally, a Thievery check allows a character to inspect the wall and points to how to open the space.

The overriding idea is that the PCs' skill checks give them information in proportion to the resolution level, as in screen resolution, of that check. Broad checks give broad information, while specific checks give specific data or overcome obstacles.

Now, like a lot of techniques this one has drawbacks. A bad DM can use it to hen peck the players with endless skill checks, and it can lead to some drawn out scenes. However, used correctly I think it preserves the strengths of a skill system while allowing for more immersion and more direct, concrete interaction between the players and the game world.

The important thing, though, is that this method forces the DM to insert detail into the space between "I make a skill check" and "This is the end result".

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Carefully Prepared Improvisation

I've messed around with a few things in my latest round of encounter design for my Greyhawk game. I've also drawn on 4e's ease of mathematical use to help implement these things. Here's an example:

In my Greyhawk game today, the characters fought against a priest of elemental evil in a chapel. A shell of elemental energy surrounded the priest and a statue in the center of the room. The shell was composed of cold and earth magic, spawned by two glowing orbs of energy that were on opposite ends of the room.

The PCs had all sorts of fun pushing the wights and ghouls that guarded the chapel into the energy shell. It froze and battered the undead. That is, until a ghoul died in the energy shell. Then the shell grew dramatically, catching the PCs in it. Their safe position at the room's edge wasn't so safe anymore.

In addition, a successful Arcana check told them that if 2 more creatures died in the shell, or if the priest died within it, the energy spheres would unleash a pulse of elemental energy. That was a bad thing, though it wasn't exactly clear how it was bad.

So, the fight turned into an attempt to kill the undead while keeping them out of the shell. The high priest started provoking opportunity attacks and fighting recklessly. It had 2 hp when its next turn came around, so it leaped into the shell and died.

There's nothing special about all that stuff (well, aside from proving an enjoyable fight to run), but something that I found neat happened behind the screen.

I didn't script any of that stuff out. I had some general notes that the energy field would do wacky stuff, like grow and move, but I made a point of not writing down exactly how that would happen. Instead, during the session I found a dramatically appropriate moment and found a reason for the energy field to expand.

DMs who are any good at their hobby know that improvisation is a big key to keeping the game interesting. The players do unexpected stuff, but so should the DM. I've had a lot of fun the past month or two stopping two steps short of fleshing out an area, instead noting the general *stuff* that makes the place interesting and leaving detail to the PCs. I figure if they can spring stuff on me to ruin the PCs' plans, I can spring stuff on them to ruin theirs.

The key to why this has been fun, as opposed to arbitrary, is that I've never gone back on something I've already said or used in my description. I think that lets the players make informed decisions.

This advice is, I'm sure, no news to anyone who has run a lot of OD&D or AD&D. The OD&D sessions I ran last year were an extended exercise in that method. What I like about 4e, and one of the things that I'm most happy with the design, is that the game has transparent, easily understood math that makes this stuff easier than ever. I have a ton of room to improvise as a DM, while the players get lots of crunchy bits to play with.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Lego Box Campaign

I've seen a few people mention that they'd like to see a sand box book from WotC. Goodman Games has published Robert Conley's and Dwayne Gillingham's Points of Light, so that's an option if you want a Wilderlands-style experience.

You can also build what I think of as a Lego sandbox using pieces from the WotC books. I term it a "Lego" sandbox because you have to piece it together from a number of sources, and it isn't as expansive as the typical sandbox, but I think it could be fun.

Start with the Nentir Vale from the DMG.

Next, add in H1, H2, and H3. For H1, place Winterhaven on the map and place the encounters outside the keep as appropriate. However, you can set up Kalreal as the leader of the monsters in Shadowfell Keep. Rather than an imminent threat, he's rallying creatures and gathering power, but still some time away from summoning the thing in the gate.

For H2, use the Seven Pillared Hall as described, but treat each leg of the dungeon as a separate section of the Labyrinth, placing them on the map and letting the PCs stumble into them as they wish.

For H3, simply add an entrance to the dungeon as you see fit and let the players come and go as they please. The monsters can be trapped inside, or you can space out their lairs and turn it into a big dungeon, with each thematically linked area a different region.

Each of those adventures already has a location on the Nentir Vale map. Really, all you're doing is pulling the plot out of them and treating them as location based adventures.

Next up, pull out your copies of Dungeon Delve, Draconomicon, and Open Grave. All of them have lots of micro adventures that you can place on the map. The delves are all generally location based (or you can spring them on the players as events) and the mini-adventures in the other two books are lairs that you can place as appropriate.

All you need now are some random encounter tables and you're good to go. You probably still want to flesh out some areas of the Nentir Vale, but you have a half-decent start on stocking the entire area.

As I said at the start, this isn't a comprehensive, true sandbox, but it is a pretty good start. It'll at least get you from levels 1 to 10 using almost entirely pre-published stuff.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Curse of the Missing Player!

Here's another whacky idea I had.

Ever have a session where 2 or 3 players couldn't make it, forcing you to cancel? That happened with my Greyhawk game two weeks ago, and it's always a bummer.

I've been thinking about ways to keep playing with only a couple players that doesn't penalize that absent PCs. On the other hand, I also don't want to risk hosing the players who made it to the session by killing off their PCs because Ralph the cleric didn't show up.

Here's my idea. I'm going to couch it in terms of 4e, but I think it applies to any version of D&D.

If you're using the DDI character builder, have the players archive versions of their PCs for each level they have gained.

Plan ahead for your campaign a bit, keeping in mind at least the outline of NPCs, treasures, or whatever that's going to show up in the next adventure/dungeon level/whatever, basically whatever comes after the current stretch.

If you're short a few players, run a flash back. The present players bring their lower level PCs. Ideally, find a break in the campaign's past that would allow for some action away from the main events.

The flashback can do a few things:
1. You can incorporate hints and pointers to future events. Maybe a couple PCs out for a night of drinking have a run in with the wandering slayer that they'll face in the near future.

2. You can drop hints to treasures or enemies that might help the PCs in the current adventure. The PCs in the flashback find a weird stone covered with runes. When the normal campaign starts next week, they enter a chamber where the stone proves useful in finding a secret door that the party might otherwise have overlooked.

3. You can give out bonus XP. The PCs who showed up get a little bonus, but not so much that they shoot ahead of the rest of the party. Since the XP is for lower level encounters, it doesn't create a big gap.

You have a few restrictions that you might want to follow: it's hard to kill a PC (he's alive in the future!) and handing out big treasures is a little weird (I forgot about that +7 holy avenger I had in my backpack!). You might want to focus on skill challenges or lower level encounters (2 3rd-level PCs might face some level 3 minions, or a pair of level 2 monsters).

This framework provides an easy excuse for an adventure aimed at only 2 PCs without messing up the current adventure. However, the flashback still advances the game. The players get to the play the campaign without messing with the campaign's pacing or plot.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

No Minis, No Problem

This is a little bit of a weird idea, but bear with me.

If you want to try playing 4e without minis, try this. For each of the PCs' powers, give the players the flavor text for the powers and nothing else. Same for magic items (you'll have to handle flavor text for magic item powers).

Let players track everything else about their characters - hit points, stats, and so on. They can still roll attacks, and maybe the shortened powers still have attack bonuses and damage expressions, but the other details are behind the screen.

You (the DM) track the mechanics for their powers.

Now, when a player uses a power, in most cases you can just apply its effects as per the power card. However, if a power uses forced movement, you can describe an appropriate effect that fits the situation. It might be something simple ("the orcs stumble away") to more extreme ("the troll pitches back and down into the pit.")

Basically, if you don't want to use minis the DM is taking narrative control over setting the scene. In that case, just go ahead and give all that control to the DM.

It's more bookkeeping for the DM, but it avoids the disconnect that can set in when the DM has full control over the scene, and likely isn't tracking things with exacting precision, and the players are throwing effects into the game that rely on precision. Rather than fight that, tuck that precision into the DM's pocket and let him play with it as it best fits the scene he's building.

I've always been fascinated by the idea of an RPG where the players' resources had no mechanics, only descriptive elements, and the DM's rulebook had all the actual mechanics. I think it goes back to AD&D, when the combat rules were in the DMG, not the PHB.

Anyway, just a crazy, random thought that bubble into my mind.

Friday, March 6, 2009

In Search of the Unknown

In my last post, both Lizard and and Irda Ranger (sorry, but your EN World handle is how I think of you!) brought up some points I've wanted to talk about for a while now.

The 4e DMG is not a book about world building. It was never intended to be one, and it consciously avoids the topic.

The reasoning behind this move is quite simple. The DMG is meant to be the first step for a 4e DM, and in particular a *new* DM. One of the big advantages D&D has over other games, particularly computer games, is that someone gets to be the DM. A lot of games nowadays allow you to be a dwarf fighter, bashing orcs over the head and looting dungeons, but D&D (and by extension all RPGs) is the only game that lets you control the orcs, place loot in the dungeon, and draw the dungeon map.

We avoided focusing on world building because we wanted to avoid giving DMs the impression that they had to do lots and lots of work to run a game. Now, you can put a lot of effort into your game, and IME more effort means a better game, but we didn't want to daunt a beginner. A new DM can run a perfectly fine game by stringing together some encounters and focusing on the tactical, rather than strategic, end of the game.

As an aside, that's also why there's a sample starting area and a rather simple beginning scenario. Now, it's tricky, because the DMG has to serve both existing D&D fans coming in from earlier editions, and new players, but the idea is that established DMs already have info on worldbuilding from other DMGs and other resources.

Now, on to the second topic and the inspiration for this post's title: exploration. There is woefully little exploration in many of the current crop of 4e adventures. I don't think it's by a design that sees exploration, or the stuff between encounters, as bad. The seed of that design mode has good intentions - give DMs as much for their buck as possible, with bang equating with encounters (usually fights) rather than descriptions and background info.

I can see how those two trends dovetail to generate some of the criticism of 4e. The two are separate, but both do have reasons (though you can debate the legitimacy of those reasons) behind them.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Curse of the Absent Host

So, basically, whenever I'm on deadline I suddenly get the idea to post in my blog. I finished up PH 3 last week, and between that deadline and my last post I've had zero time to even look at this blog. Of course, that's when I get 28 responses to something I write.

So, let's tackle some of the things that came up in the comments:

Noism: I agree that painting WFRP as heroic is crazy, but that's how we played it. With a lot of RPGs (most notably Shadowrun) my high school group houseruled the hell out of them on the fly. In a lot of ways, we ran all our games (even AD&D) almost entirely by fiat. I vividly remember ignoring AD&D's combat rules left and right. I'd pick a number that a player had to roll to hit, and if that's what they got, that was enough. We did the same thing with almost every game we played.

2e's Goofiness: Perhaps it's the Greyhawk DM in me, but I direct you to Child's Play (the crappy module, not the charity), Gargoyles, and Terrible Trouble at Tragidor. Case closed! Or not, since one man's goofy is another man's form of government. I'm willing to accept that if you were an FR fan in 1989 (or passed on GH), that goofiness passed you buy.

And now, the meat of this post: I am calling complete bullshit on everyone who wants to try to tell me that 4e obsesses about combat to the detriment of everything else. Does it have comprehensive rules for running fights and building encounters? Sure. Just like every version of D&D that's ever existed.

Are characters built to excel at combat? Obviously, yes, just like how the skill system is built to allow any character at least a shot at making any skill check. 4e seeks to make sure that nobody is ever 100% helpless or useless due to player decisions made outside of a game session.

The truth of the matter is, though, that if you read the DMG, it talks a lot about working with your players, building plots, and roleplaying. I think the perception that 4e is an endless series of fights could come from the preview articles, which focused on the mechanics of encounter building because those are areas where 4e features a lot of improvements. I could easily see that happening if you read the articles and only skimmed the DMG. I admit that's what I'd do, because I've been playing D&D long enough that I rarely read D&D books cover to cover. I tend to skip around and read the bits that I need to run the game.

However, I find the idea that the DMG pushes a combat-combat-combat agenda an untenable position. It goes out of its way to talk about props, roleplay, puzzles, and catering to a diverse array of play styles.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

AD&D 2nd Edition: 20 Years Later

Back in 1989, AD&D 2nd edition hit store shelves. Greywulf mentioned that Zeb Cook's intro was dated January, 1989. So, 2e is nearly old enough to drink.

I'll always remember 2nd edition as a missed opportunity. I have no idea what sort of restrictions or goals the designers worked under. Was backward compatibility deemed the most important element? What did TSR's designers see as the game's goal?

As a 14 year old when the game came out, my reactions were mixed at best. I liked some things (THAC0, expanded spell lists, a more flavorful ranger class, the bard as a class, the color art, the layout, the clearer rules, non-weapon proficiencies, rogue skills) but hated others (no demons or devils, a really annoying binder format for monsters, goofy art, plentiful attack spells for clerics).

The worst sin in my eyes, though, was the tone. The PHB, and many of the books after it, made it clear that there was a right way to play AD&D and a wrong way.

The right way centered on talking in funny voices, spending hours shopping for gear or chatting with J. Random NPC, and generally carrying on like a bunch of spastic Ren Faire rejects. If you liked goofy puns, pop culture references, and joke monsters, this was the game for you.

The bad way involved combat, dungeons, loot, kicking in doors, and kick ass characters. If you like, I don't know, dungeons, and perhaps dragons in those dungeons, get lost. Beat it. This is not your game.

To me, the RPG world had been turned upside down. I loved AD&D. Yet, it was pretty obvious looking at my gaming shelf that things were due for a change. Here was AD&D 2e, babbling on about story and bad puns. Over there was Warhammer FRP. It had an orange mohawked dwarf on on the cover, splitting an orc in half with a battle axe.

Hmmmm. Which game should I play?

Really, it was only the 1e books I already owned, and the quality adventures in Dungeon, that kept me interested in AD&D. By the end of high school, though, I was pretty much out of gaming as my active hobby.

Looking back, in my eyes 2e was a missed opportunity. Cut out the condescending attitude and the love of all things goofy, and the game was a reasonable update of AD&D. The mechanics were easier to use in many places, but the stench of one true wayism and a commitment to the worst aspects of gamer humor undercut the game.

As the line matured, a lot of good stuff emerged like Dark Sun and Planescape, but I can't help but believe that 2e did some deep damage to the D&D hobby, damage that wouldn't be truly repaired until the launch of 3e.

So, happy 20th birthday, AD&D 2nd edition.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I Hate Resistances

During the development of 4e, I argued against including resistances against energy types. My argument was pretty simple:

Resistances create a disparity in value between energy types, but only if the DM uses a particular mix of monsters. Fire attacks blow in the campaign that has lots of red dragon and azers, while cold attacks such in an arctic campaign.

Story-wise, resistances mess up intuitive themes. Take my second example from above. If you were playing in an Arctic themed campaign, you might think it's a cool idea to play an ice wizard. Well, if you're fighting lots of ice creatures, that's actually a terrible choice. The folk of the frozen north should study and use fire magic. The desert nomads use ice magic. Sure, you can explain around that, but it's a jarring inconsistency. I'd rather have the flexibility to do it how I want.

Now, there are some story reasons for resistances. The fire elemental can walk through magma without harm, but you can easily get around that by placing all the mechanics in the right place. For instance, the elemental might have the "magma born" ability, which lets it ignore fire damage from terrain.

In place of resistances, I prefer two mechanics.

First, I think it's OK if a monster has limited access to damage denial. Maybe once or twice a combat it can reduce the damage from an appropriately themed attack.

What I'd prefer, though, are special abilities and bonuses that trigger when you use the "wrong" energy type. Blasting the red dragon with fire hurts it, but it also lets the dragon use its breath weapon again. Using a cold attack on the frost knight gives him +5 AC for a round. Blasting a ghoul with necrotic energy gives it an action point.

I like those sort of drawbacks because they make battles more interesting. You can try to finish the dragon off with your fire attack, but you risk giving it a powerful counter-attack. You can more easily dial the power of such abilities up or down, whereas resistance in even its weakest form (resist 5) is powerful at low levels and still quite useful at epic.

So, that's my stance on resistance.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Powers as Roleplaying Tool

I've started to stat up a few major villains for my Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, the guys that the PCs will face when they reach the finale of the heroic tier portion of the campaign. While thinking things over, I had a flash of insight.

Back in the day, I read a novel called A Gathering of Heroes written by Marion Zimmer Bradley's brother, Edwin. While I'm sure most of you have never read or even heard of it, the book had a big influence on my attitude toward D&D. Namely, I loved how EZB depicted his villains. I can still vividly remember how each of the main, evil guys fought and frustrated the heroes.

My favorite bad guy from the novel is Svaran the Black, a warrior of middling skill who also happens to fit perfectly into an impenetrable suit of armor that the bad guys steal from the dwarves (it's a very typical fantasy setting, though overlaid with elements of Celtic myth that I find appealing). Svaran's armor allows him to fight recklessly and relentlessly.

When the protagonist, Istvan, finally defeats Svaran, our villain suffers a moment of pathetic recognition when he understands Istvan's gambit and realizes that he's about to die. The mighty Svaran, slayer of heroes, general of the armies of evil, squeals like a baby and begs for mercy. IIRC, he even pleads, "I'm not supposed to die. I'm invincible," or something to that effect.

EZB was a good enough writer that he pulls off the scene, using the main villain's only line of dialog to evoke both a sense of pity and sweet revenge. Sure, Svaran killed several heroes during the novel, but in the end he's just a coward hiding in a suit of impenetrable armor. Istvan notes several times during his battles against him that Svaran is a middling warrior who would've been an anonymous toady to evil if he hadn't been the only guy who could fit into the armor.

As a reader, Svaran's death both illustrates some interesting depth for the character while also providing a satisfying victory.

I've been thinking of doing something similar for my NPCs in 4e. Sure, they'll have the typical spells and tricks to make them daunting enemies, but I'd also like to insert a few powers that are a mechanical expression of the NPC's personality and role in the campaign, built along with quotes or other material to go along with the attack.

To use Svaran as an example:

* Svaran can make a basic melee attack as an opportunity action, but he must allow the target to make a basic melee attack against him as a free action. He fights recklessly, relying on his armor to deflect blows. Each time he does this, I roleplay him a bit, describing his arrogance and overwhelming confidence, how he completely ignores attacks as they clang against his armor.

* When he's bloodied, that ability goes away, but instead he now gets a new attack he can use to strike anyone who hit him in melee the round before. He fights with increasing desperation, growing more cautious but desperately attempting to make each attack count.

* When he's down to his last few hit points, he misses his next turn and utters the line above.

The idea is that as the PCs tangle with him, his personality and role in the story inform how he fights in a direct, obvious way. A few other ideas:

* The PCs face a vampire and his succubus lover. If a PC harms the succubus, the vampire gets a huge attack and damage bonus against him on his next turn.

* A psychopathic dwarf assassin fights with a disturbing lack of emotion. If he hits a PC, that PC suffers penalties on attacks against him. When the dwarf is bloodied, he snaps into a psychotic fury. He can attack only the PC who bloodied him, and gains some temporary hit points to let him shrug off the inevitable opportunity attacks as he rushes at his victim.

* Two NPCs are hated rivals. If they can catch each other in area attacks, along with at least two PCs, they do so.

I like the idea of these "scripts" because they make a fight different. Sometimes, the tactically smart play for an NPC is boring and flavorless. If every NPC fights as well as the DM can run them, you lose a lot of what makes an NPC unique. Ideally, the players think of the fight in terms of the NPC's personality ("That dwarf was crazy! He ran across a pool of acid to get to Baldar.") rather than in terms of powers ("That dwarf had a nasty sneak attack abililty.")

Friday, January 16, 2009

Otherworld Miniatures

Hey all, I don't normally plug products in this space, but I wanted to pass the word along. Richard Scott at Otherworld Miniatures has run into some health problems. If you've ever considered ordering any figures from his award winning, high quality line, why not drop a few bucks on them and help the guy out? I can personally recommend Otherworld on every level, from sculpting and casting quality to customer service. Whether you're an old school gamer or just like cool minis, check out his stuff. Thanks!

(Crossposted from my LJ.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Monday Gaming

Hey look, photos of a gaming session. We're playing right now, and things look grim for our heroes!

EDIT: With a little luck and a vicious series of attacks against the floating brain in the jar that was harassing us, we pulled through!

From Gaming Photos

From Gaming Photos

From Gaming Photos

From Gaming Photos

From Gaming Photos