Tuesday, 25 December 2012

The best game I never ran

I run a D&D 4e campaign, although I tend to borrow elements from anything that crosses my path, so that isn't much of an issue. It started with 5 players, then another joined, 2 dropped out, 1 started to slack off, 1 D&D newbie joined for the last session.

There were 5 players at the table, slacker included. I didn't plan for him to arrive, and his presence put a significant dent in whatever I wanted the party to do. Or this time it wasn't even me, it was another player who had an elaborate plan that kinda didn't count with a ghoul gnome wizard keeping watch. My first task thus became to make sure the game ran according to one player's plan the others weren't supposed to know about.

Wait, what? Players writing their own stories? Oh, right, I kinda make them do that. I have this "don't ask, do tell" policy. Whenever the players attempt something I don't want to bother with, I tell them to describe the results and how and why it happened the way they say. Sometimes I stick in something of my own and either tell them or keep it for later.

This time was, however, extreme. At the end of her solo adventure, I wanted to hand the PC some secret bit of info. But guess who failed their Stealth check! Cue angry primordial-worshipping dryads and a colossal earth elemental! Ever since then, all I did was describe locations. The party kept themselves busy - and amused - all by itself.

I finally got to do DM-ish stuff after several hours, throwing a zombie gold dragon at the party, having a little fun shredding them to bits and then ironing all out and ending with a cliffhanger ... again!

Is this the D&D ideal? The players having all the fun in the word with the DM moving a finger every 15 minutes or so to tell the party what they see? ... I don't think so. While it was amusing to watch the players squabble and attempt silly stuff, I could had watched the Gamers movie, and it'd cost me a lot less effort. A DM might feel successful when his sessions turn out like that, because hey, everyone had fun, right? But it's also a tad frustrating, because you, the host and - well heck - god, didn't get a single chance to shine. I know I was. A little. But no matter how much, a frustrated DM is a bad thing.

So how to avoid being left out of your own game? Always put something the players can interact with and that lets your will influence the game. Always have something you know you'll feel good about. It can even backstab the PCs if you feel like they're having too much fun at your expense.

Don't think you're any less deserving to have fun than the players are. Heck, YOU are MORE deserving than they are, 'cause you do all the work while they sit around winning the day all - or most of - the time.

Try making a fun check with this in mind!

Friday, 12 October 2012

Heroes of Dungeons & Dragons

Just now (1 AM) it occured to me, that to me, D&D's been a lot like the game Geroes of Might and Magic. I started with 3 and enjoyed it immensely. 3.5 was even better (think Armageddon's Blade and Shadows of Death).

HoMaM 4 came with a new kind of awesome - visuals, mostly - and a new system. Which was also awesome in its own way, but became too un-Heroes a short while after.

I borrowed HoMaM 5 from a friend. It crashed at some point during the tutorial.

I hope D&DN will disprove this analogy.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

How to Play - or not

I can't help but wonder: is the Contest mechanic in 4E? Oh, right, the infamous Opposed check. So it is a part of D&D's history. One I never used. ... So anyway, hello. This is me meeting D&DNext. Not the most harmonic of encounters, as they just put a new name on my ancient mechanical arch-nemesis. Really. I hate nothing more than comparing two rolls.

The Contest

Every last damn thing has a DC (even AC is a DC, I do love this bit). D&D 4E had gone as far as having two of the skills in "passive mode." True, it annoyed me at some point, that the players could find stuff they weren't actively looking for, or saw through a bluff with little or no effort (well... they saw me rolling while I was talking, so they always tried Insight just in case that was a Bluff check). But you know what? I came to embrace it. Now I can have them uncover just what I want. I mean, it's the DM who sets the DC. If it's one point above the best passive check in the party? Y~eah, stuff happens.

The one thing I hate the most about the Contest mechanic is the "nobody wins" scenario. Especially the one with the ring as an example. It's just so silly, and absolutely un-dramatic. If I want a status quo situation to arise, I want it done through my power as the narrator, and not through dice.

In my games, whenever an opposed check is called for by the rules, I use my DM powers of awesomeness to take 10. The check becomes a DC. Problem solved, moving on.

The Saving Throws

The saves are checks in disguise. The only difference is that players make checks and the DM calls for saves. Simplicity itself. I think I will miss Fort, Ref and Will at some point, but not anytime soon.

The Dis/Advantage

This is precisely the place where I fell in love with D&DN. The Advantage mechanic is just awesome. The probability that a great scene gets bogged because of a bad roll drops dramatically (as well as the sort of scene where a prone little girl kills a good, healthy zombie with one kick because she landed a critical; true story).

I thought it would be bad for the monsters, especially if therre were many of them, but after rolling it for 8 Kobolds in a row, I don't think it's that lame. It's just a slight D&DAS tweak to combat I've grown rather fond of. More on that later.

Movement

Jumping and climbing no longer handled through checks? Mwe~ll I guess that's sort of good, too. I like the idea of having a distance to jump or surface to climb checkless, although I probably will complain once this checklessness will save a PC's butt somewhere. Still, I can make the pits wider. Because I can.

Stealth

Bloody contests everywhere... It requires a special ruling to resolve a tie! Why not just set WIS + 10 as the DC to spot a hidden creature? WHY?!

Perception

As I said before, Passive Perception used to drive me up the wall before I found out that it sucks so much more if the players failed to find things than if they succeeded. If you're playing a mystery (or the Tomb of Horrors), then sure, naming the right place to look is important, but at other points, does the DM really have to bugger the PCs for half an hour just to get theme where he wants? That's unfairness if I ever saw some.

COMBAT!

The action economy slimmed down considerably since 4E, and it's all the more sexy for that. You get to do up to three things on one turn - action, move, reaction. Reaction includes the much-feared Opportunity attack (I just noticed it's with advantage! Awesomesauce), and to fight that, the game gained a Disengage action instead of the Shift/5-foot-step.

Now I haven't seen much combat in Next - not with more players cooperating on a TOTM basis. The rules feel great in theory, although the road to perfect combat will be a long one - especially until the math settles in. I'll probe deeper at the first opportunity and then talk about the results to no end. Just you wait and see.

Oh, right, but there's this one thing I did try and found weird. Coup de Grace against a sleeping Ogre. Alright I had a bastard sword, so it wasn't all that weird, but imagine a Wizard delivering a Coup-de-Grace with his bare, feeble hands. Against a sleeping dragon, to push it. Dropping such a beast like this is just silly. I hope we'll get back to plain old autocrit.

Initiative

There was a time I had a player run initiative. Then I bought a whiteboard and a heap of magnets. Then I read the rules for Castle Ravenloft. And ever since then, it's "Hero Phase" and "Villain Phase." It's overwhelmingly simple to just let the players do whatever they want (in whichever order) and then go mad with the monsters. This system is already proving to kick assets in my 4E campaign, and I will surely talk about it more thoroughly in a future article.

Resistance & Vulnerability

Go, Pokémon, go!

Healing

So far, I'm a fan of the Hit Dice mechanic and everything it does. I might be a bit more lenient with the "requires healing kit" issue, but otherwise I'm satisfied, especially with the variant rules around.

Surprised that's all I have to say? See, I'm a DM. I'd cancel healing entirely. Killing PCs would become so much easier if it weren't around...

Conditions

I'm sure all everyone really wanted was the "intoxicated" condition. Now the DM doesn't have to think up what drinking that barrel labeled C2H5OH did to the fighter.

...

That's kinda boring, isn't it? I'm all for defining what some of the states do in the game, but each state written down here take off one option where the DM can unleash his destructive creativity.

SUMMARY

I like where the rules are headed, but they're still a mile from where I'd like to have them. I already love the Advantage mechanic (this cannot be overstated) and Hit Dice as well (except for the fact that they, um, heal people), but there is the Contest and some bits and pieces all over the place that displease me.

Next (pun not intended) up is Magic: the Frying. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Who's Next?

Hello, today I would like to introduce my newest best friend, D&D Next. ... Okay, that's a bit of an overstatement here, for there are certainly things I can think of to improve this particular friend of mine. BUT!!! so far, it's been great.

Some four years ago, I would had introduced my newest best friend D&D 4E. I watched the game evolve and stuffed elements of it into my 3.5E game, adjusting the rules each time a new bit of info popped up. I might not have to say the game didn't go well and my players hated me. A lot.

When 4E did hit the shelves, I bought the books, read them until my brain started bleeding into my eyes, gathered a group and played with unmatched enthusiasm. I didn't listen to my teacher friend telling me she doesn't like the books because they remind her too much of English textbooks. And yes, I'd been foolish. Too late did I saw how the clear structure pulled me in. I became too lazy to improvize! Look at this reasoning:

In 4E, each level, you made a power or feat choice. You only got to pick ONE, and suddenly you found yourself needing the other. I'd bet most people never tried to mimick the power they should had chosen using skills or whatnot. They started poring over their other powers to see if another could do the trick. As a mathematician, I am very fond of structure, but Hells below! This is a GAME not a MATH LESSON!

... Moving on.

So, my love of the time: D&D Next. As I write this, the second playtest is out, expanding our previous options with rules for character building, a few levels and a new adventure. I'll be all over the specifics in later articles. In general, I'd just like to point out why my affection changed, except Next being all new and shiny.

D&DN is a distinct nod to the "ye olde D&D." Kind of a paradox, I'd say, to call a look back "Next," but hey, I like it better than 5E (it has to do with my campaign's most abominable primordial-god owning the number 5, making it the "forbidden number.") So anyway, most of all, I appreciate the freedom she gives me - or is expected to give me, although the rules do fail to deliver on that at this precise time (why do Elves favor martial instead of expertise weapons? WHY?!) There is also a return to lethality I so dearly missed at the point a bard started thoroughly abusing my love of solo monsters. Still, Next picks up some key successful elements of the modern 4E, such as elite and solo monsters and death saves.

I am looking forward a great deal to see how she evolves and to do my best to help shape her, although my bloody internet connection won't let me complete a single dam survey.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Single player mode

It's become increasingly hard for me to gather my group - any one of the FOUR (well... FIVE) - to play. Even with as little as four people, there are still cancellations and I either have to whip up some quick prep or dissolve the session entirely. So what do I do to get my roleplaying fix? Play videogames, sure, but there are only so many hours a Gothic-up-to-Risen2 marathon can cover.

So I play with myself.

If you think playing D&D with oneself is pure madness, I won't argue, but I shall henceforth call it randomness, because that's what this blog is mostly about. I played two campaigns, one using 4E and the other with the newest Next playtest rules. I might not have to add that the two experiences were fundamentally different, as while 4E is all for balanced combat, Next is more oldschool (read: you're all gonna die!)

Single player in general

To play D&D with only yourself as the DM and player, you're best off with a published adventure you haven't read before. That way, there are still elements of surprise and it's more difficult (if not impossible) to cheat. The book becomes your DM for the story, and as for the rules - well, nobody's going to argue with you about any rulings. How neat is that?

Single player in 4th edition D&D

I've had a great time playing 4E with just myself. I re-ran the very first encounter I did for the group (a game of Skull-Skull known from the Kobold Hall adventure in the DMG, except I actually had rules for a friendly match) to give myself a level's advantage and then plunged right into the Dark Legacy of Evard Encounters module. With that single extra level, my assassin (Essentials) had surprisingly little trouble defeating the encounters as written for five PCs, although I had to devise cunning plans to divert the monsters' attention and drive them apart. I made heavy use of Athletics, Acrobatics and, of course, Stealth to hang werewolves from trees, drown burning skeletons and ambush Nathaire on the second floor of his library with all his hellish troops still downstairs (and, um, flee afterwards. I hate rolling o1s on ambush attacks!)

With a dash of luck, I picked up Nathaire as a companion NPC (scaling his NPC stats with my level) and became even more brazen in my choice of adventures, picking on paragon-level drow at lv7, and, ultimately, having a go at the Tomb of Horrors, as re-written for the DM rewards program.

I retired Aurelius the assassin at level 10, as the powers and feats, the greatest burden of 4E, became too numerous to juggle along with Nathaire and DMing. Now he is an NPC in my campaign, statless, as he is unlikely to clash with the party or ally with them.

If I ever picked up again, I'd probably give Aurelius monster-like stats, with a handful of his trademark powers and a dash of imagination. It worked so well in the Heroic tier, so I bet it'd be all the same, just with different numbers.

Single player in D&D Next

As for D&DN, I lost contact with my playtest group throughout the summer holidays and couldn't wait to test the new material, so I recreated my only current player character as Zadar, the human sorcerer.

My first mistake was to run the Caves of Chaos adventure, with the unbalanced stats and all. Advantage is something BRUTAL. Even if the kobolds have an attack bonus of +0 and my AC is 18 (chainmail + Shield spell), they got 8 - 16 attack rolls per round. Just my luck, two of those were 20s in their surprise round.

So they resurrected and tried again (look up "Bitchbark heroes explore the Tomb of Horrors" on Google.)

I soon determined brute force is NOT the way to go in D&DN, especially for a single PC. The Intimidate skill soon became my best friend, along with Cause Fear and Charm Person at lv2. I still decided I needed a "Nathaire" - a cleric, to be more exact - to keep me up and running.

And that's where things got tedious. Ever tried running two full-fledged oldschool spellcasters at once? It's the stuff of nightmare! I had to stop playing at lv3, as I was no longer able to track the spells used, willpower, and so on.

Nevertheless, I think I got a lot out of the playtest and will share it all in a future random article.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The art of stalling

The party arrived to the city of Silverglow and was immediately introduced to the usurper and self-proclaimed king. He, much to their astonishment, hailed the party as heroes of the realm and told them (in all, Insight-checked honesty) he was holding a dinner to their honor. They were taken to a residence (a spa building) to rest up and prepare for the event. The gnome zombie wizard headed immediately for the spa, which meant..... His player was once again missing.
So there's this cornerstone of my campaign: a big dinner-ball-event the new king is staging to welcome the heroes home, award them lands and titles, and such. I've got the map, the seating order - hell, I might had prepared some music as well. But all of the sudden, one player cancels. I don't want him to miss the big event, so I have to stall the game for the entire session! How does one go about that?

I am known to push the game forward, mostly at dramatic costs. One of my DMing creeds is "if nothing's happening, flip the world topsy turvy." I do that on almost any occasion, sometimes quietly, behind the party's back, sometimes as brutally as rolling all the dice I own for damage against a single PC (blowing up the Pyramid of Shadows. Yeah.) All of the sudden, I'm required to fill several hours of in-game time instead of just brushing past them.

So first of all, I looked at the player material I was left with. Fortunately, all of them had relatives in the city, while the remaining one had not, so I figured I might fill the time with a couple family reunions. Um, don't ever do that. It's boring! The only worse option would be a battle, I guess. What got me out of the mess I made in the first place was quick thinking and a seemingly disconnected pre-prepped puzzle. Yes, sometimes one player was active and the others bored, but I did my best to at least have those outside the spotlight ponder their next move. Let's see what I did and how it came out:
3PM: The artificer and paladin storm the spa pool (the wizard was already there, apparently, he can't resist these things). The paladin's "fiancé" (a dark, rather violent demigod who displays his nature quite often) slinks off, followed by the rogue.
 ... Failure. The girls were having fun in the bubbles for only a few minutes, while the rogue was apparently up a much more interesting alley, one conveyed by means of paper, no less.
4PM: The rogue is still after the demigod, who seems to be having a heated argument with the new king (the two go way back). Some of it is overheard and noted. The artificer finds a strange piece of paper among her things, which she concludes is the letter L, and later one that says A. After some pondering, they tear them to pieces, only to discover one that says 'S. They tear that up as well (nearly causing the DM seizure) and go off, only to be caught by a mercenary and led to meet... the paladin's mother!
Good grief. I thought my players liked puzzles... well... more than that. I had to reorder my plans while juggling two groups of players, with the artificer now clearly bored (she was the on that desiced to rip the papers apart and shoved the props back to me). I had to think quick. She wanted to see her brother, who was - reportedly - held captive for his own safety. Time to let her have what she wanted.
6PM: The rogue returns, reporting that the demigod flew off back to where the Pyramid was, without a single goodbye. Soon after, one of the party's guides arrives to take them to see the prison, a dimension all on its own to contain enemies of the new realm, as well as a few refugees. Unfortunately, these can't be approached without a ton of paperwork...
Damn, damn, damn!!! I always do this kind of thing. I don't want the players to always get their way by simply doing stuff (which is petty of me, I know) so I put impossible obstacles in their way.... and mine.
6PM: It starts to rain. The guide takes the PCs to a pub, but the rogue slips outside to try and summon yet another deity the PCs had picked up in the Pyramid of Shadows. There is no response. Shortly after, the king arrives and agrees to let the party see whomever in the prison without all that paperwork.
I realized what a dick I'd been and set things right the most plausible way. All the while I kept the artificer supplied with even more puzzle letters and finally hooked her attention (partly thanks to the paladin, who was keeping record of the letters as well). Things got moving again, yay..?
7PM: The party can see the prisoners. The artificer meets her brother (and we agree to sort that out by email), and so does the rogue, although he wants to keep his relation to the other, heavily guarded prisoner a secret. Finally, everyone did what they wanted to, or got as close to it as possible!
Gah, there's still an hour of game time left! *faints*
7PM: Outside the prison, a strange couple awaits the party. They indicate they wish to speak to the rogue. The rest of the party is being escorted back to their quarters. They reveal themselves to belong to an order founded by the god (from another world) the rogue tried to summon earlier. They tell him of their mission, and that he too is now a part of it, whether he wants it or not.
OMGIDIDN'TPREPFORTHIS! *brain runs around in circles*

I needed to make a memorable point at the end of the session for everyone in the party. But they were so far apart! How could I possibly..... Ah.
8PM: The paladin discovers a body in her room. The rogue's god (you guessed it) is almost dead, his mortal body bloated by some pretty horrible disease. The artificers starts to investigate (before the DM can say his "to be continued") and is soon joined by the rogue and the strange pair. They claim that if their god is to be saved, their quest must be fulfilled - something the rogue isn't really looking forward to. To be continued!
There I go, death through sudden impulse. Well, near-death, but that's dead in my book, 'cause by the time the party decides on a course of action...

Hopefully there is something to be gleaned by the insightful DM from this article. Stalling is a tricky business, especially when it's supposed to feel like "real" gameplay. Go easy on the weakened party, do some side-treks and use the time to plant player-specific hooks, as now you might have more space to dedicate to single players. And, when in doubt, do roll for a random encounter!

Friday, 31 August 2012

What a fine day for gaming

Ah, finally, after a month or so of not getting any games at all, at least some people from my most stable campaign will be gathering to... what, exactly?

I have my ups and downs. Downs, mostly, as many of my campaigns crashed and burned. Not this one. This one survived 10 levels and is a little step short of the paragon tier. There are no signs of collapse, as the disruptive players' goodbyes were actually a good thing.

YES it was good to boot some players. Now the rest of us, although somewhat saddened, as the no-longer-players are otherwise good friends, can enjoy the game in peace. And you know what? It might had made me a little bit less of a nuisance.

My experience in DMing is, in my opinion, vast. Not as vast as many a DMs, but I have been through a lot and dedicated countless hours to browsing through books and the internet on relevant topics. I've created - and destroyed - a bunch of worlds, introduced new players to the game and alienated old ones. Most of my campaigns were short-lived, so it's quite a surprise that what seemed to be "yet another one" sailed through the storm of Heroic tier mostly unscathed. Why is that?

...

I will most likely poke about that in other articles. Besides that, I also want to probe the rules of D&D4, D&DNext, and maybe some other systems I pillage for homebrew rules. I'm an organizer for Wizards Play Network, so I might say something about that occasionally. Most articles, though, will be as random as this one.

'til later!