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.