Monday, 15 October 2007
Yes my brain has been a bit full of other games lately - notably Star Wars SAGA (new group) and a selection of digital offerings - but I'll be back to shake the foundations of d20 gaming very soon.
Wednesday, 12 September 2007
Which is to say I use random encounter tables for everything except what they're intended for: the actual rolling of actual random encounters.
Random encounters suck. One of the reasons is their unpredictable effect on the party's resources and the knock-on unpredictability in the campaign (which I've discussed below); another one is that they tend to be a bit bland, simply because they're designed to be dropped in at a moment's notice; yet another is that they're essentially, well, random, and have very little to do with the party's constituent classes, location, goals, etc. From the player's point of view, dying from a random encounter seems like a very bad deal, and not very heroic at all.
A good DM will be able to take a random encounter and drop it seamlessly into the game as if it had been there all the time; someone who aspires to be that DM will cheat, by using random encounter tables as seeds for planned encounters that he can set up beforehand.
I'm that guy.
When I expect to have to give the party something to do while they're exploring a dungeon or traversing the wilderness, I'll check the random encounter tables and expand one or two of the best ones into full-blown tactical or roleplaying challenges. A good example that my players probably won't enjoy telling you about is where they were ambushed by several megaraptors in a field of lush, tall grass... and yes, I was inspired by Lost World. The random encounter table simply said 'Megaraptor pack (1d4+2)'. Okay, good starting point. I knew they were in grasslands and that scene from Lost World almost immediately popped into my head... what could I do to recreate that? Was an ambush feasible? What would the sorcerer see when she inevitably flew up above the grasses to get a better look? What would visibility be like? How would the minotaur's scent ability play a part?
A good DM would have been flash-inspired with all of these facts in a blaze of prodigious DM-osity simply by rolling '05-15' on the encounter table. Not being that DM, I had to put an extra twenty minutes of thought into it... but the result was a fun, dangerous encounter, the first few rounds of which caused the party no small amount of controlled panic.
Friday, 7 September 2007
I'm not sure exactly what I want to say here, so I'll just dive in.
D&D experience points are primarily a challenge-based system. Players are rewarded based on the challenges they overcome, regardless of what that challenge actually represented in the campaign. For example, if they are trekking across the wilderness trying to find an abandoned ruin, they might get lucky and find it within a day; or they might get unlucky and take a week to find it. Assuming that the DM uses random encounters (or like me, ‘planned random encounters’, which I might talk about another day) to occupy the PC’s during the adventure, these two extremes represent very different levels of XP gain. At the limit, the group may be a completely different level when they hit the ruin than the DM expected, forcing him to adjust the encounter to present the ‘correct’ level of difficulty, where ‘correct’ depends on how challenging (or critical) the discovery of that ruin is to the campaign. This is despite the fact that the same goal has been reached in both examples: Find the ruins.
Over the years, this has become ever-more increasingly broken to me, because it makes adventure planning very difficult and can exponentially increase the DM’s workload, especially with published adventures which have ingrained assumptions about party level which are sometimes very difficult to adjust. XP is the primary reward mechanism for D&D characters, and defeating monsters is the primary way of awarding XP; therefore the question, “What constitutes ‘defeating’ a foe?” is perennially important. I always need to know when -- and how much -- XP to award the party every single time a foe is killed… or escapes… or is circumvented entirely. Often I have to make the exact same judgement calls discussed in the comments to the Didn’t We Beat You Already? post below.
More and more I find myself eliminating these problems by switching the reward mechanism to a goal- rather than a challenge- based system. In the current challenge-based system, the journey is more important than the destination. Traps, for example, have a CR associated with them, and it doesn’t matter whether the Rogue bypasses the problem with a single die-roll, or whether the unfortunate party whose Rogue is unconscious meticulously solves the conundrum with cute and lateral thinking… the XP award is the same. You'll even get parties who bypass the trap altogether, walking blithely around it via the secret door they uncovered five minutes earlier. In that case, the trap might never as well have existed for all the good it did in challenging them, or for all the role it played in their advancement.
Similar reasoning applies to NPC’s or enemies; when is their Challenge Rating actually relevant? Only when the PC's face them in a direct confrontation and when the combat abilities of the villain can come into play. No-one ever said a villain's CR should be increased because he has a good brain on his shoulders, or because he's adept at sending his minions to do his dirty-work... if for no other reason than that such esoteric measures are difficult or impossible to quantify in a cogent fashion. Imagine a physically weak but villainous mastermind with a network of implacable servitors, infiltrating the upper echelons of society and gradually gaining control of the multiverse. This is a worthy enemy for any group of adventurers, but as an actual foe he is worthless unless he has a set of in-combat abilities which can challenge the PC's at the climax of the adventure. Unless the DM makes him a potent wizard or psion (or whatever), then actually facing him down is irrelevent... it's the defeat of his plans that's the important thing.
This is where goal-based thinking improves on challenge-based thinking. Divide the adventure into story- or character-goals, even give them Challenge Ratings if you want. The fictional campaign against the asthmatic mastermind I mentioned above could easily be divided into a series of sequential goals: discover who paid for the hit on the mayor; bring the perpetrator to justice; uncover the double-agent in the Grand Council; break the villain's hold on the Pit Fiend; engage the demon's help to assail the villain's stronghold; destroy the mcguffin before the world's children become his slaves! In theory, every one of the goals could be accomplished without the need for any Challenge Ratings at all (even though in practice many parties get bored if they're stuck out of combat for too long). Inequities which may come into play between different groups' solutions to these problems become essentially irrelevant (to the DM at least), because they're just different ways to the same goal. XP awards are no longer invested in foes which the PC's may defeat -- or, critically, foes which they may bypass altogether -- but in the adventure itself.
A simple expression of this idea is to decide that this week's module will reward 1000 XP to each of the PC's. Each goal may be an equal part of that total award, or the goals may be weighted according to their difficulty or importance to the adventure. The how's and wherefore's of the party's approach to those goals is irrelevant, and as long as they have effective visibility of their current and future goals, they should never 'lose out' on XP awards simply by missing the secret door in the first floor privvy or stone-shaping through the wrong partition wall.
Like any XP system, this idea has its ups and downs. On the downside, a party which grinds a path the hard way all the way through the mastermind's minions might feel justifiably short-changed that their sweat and blood hasn't yielded any more reward than the party with the bard who charmed his maid into letting them in the back door (I exagerrate, but you get my point). Secondary to the goal vs. challenge issue, there also isn't a whole lot of room for circumstantial or individual excellence in this system, because that adds back in exactly the kind of unpredictability I want to avoid; so, the low-Charisma character whose player executes a masterful piece of in-character persuasion after the bard gets drunk probably won't get rewarded for pulling the party's ass out of the fire. On the other hand, apart from the dual advantages of predictability and not worrying about whether a villain has been defeated or not, a goal-based system encourages lateral and imaginative thinking if the party knows that the path of least-resistance won't get them any less XP, and encourages the use of all of a character's abilities at the table.
There's nothing new here, I'm sure there are many RPG's that use this method of player reward, but D&D isn't currently one of them (although some of the whispers about 4th Edition suggest things may be changing). One of the richest and most unique qualities of an RPG is its open-endedness, in that the players are free to think up any number of ways of getting from A to B. The XP system should encourage this kind of thinking, not strait-jacket the players into a series of combat encounters (no matter how fun) just because the most important reward in the game is invested in the means, not the end.
Tuesday, 4 September 2007
Our new survey is a trickier one: at what point do you consider your PC's to have defeated an enemy... to the point that they have earned XP? I know this is a question I wrestle with all the time. Myself, I like most opponents to choose the better part of valor and peg it rather than throw their lives away for the sake of whittling away two of the Sorcerer's magic missiles before the fourth encounter of the day... but I know for a fact that it can be irritating to never actually get to kill the guy who's been Sneak Attacking you for the last four rounds. Players, in my experience, can tend to feel a little cheated of victory if a villain escapes the field of combat while his less interesting minions cover the retreat.
For climactic encounters, it's an exceptionally bad idea in my opinion to deny the PC's the pleasure of looting a powerful, Evilly-aligned corpse. Recurring villains can be great fun, but if they are to recur, they shouldn't become the major obstacle or opponent in a fight until such time as you, the DM, are prepared for the possibility that they will be killed. And eventually, of course, you should plan for them to be killed. A bad guy who forever escapes justice at the sharp end of the party's weapons will become an annoyance, not a nemesis, so don't tease your players with the possibility of crossing swords with him until his death is an appropriate and realistic possibility. In the meantime, he should have plenty of challenge-level-appropriate subordinates to punt into the fray until such time as the PC's are worth dealing with personally. (Gamers among you, Shodan from the System Shock games is the model of such a villain.)
But I digress. The question is, what constitutes 'overcoming' a monster? Use the comments if you choose the 'Other' option.
Monday, 3 September 2007
We were just there for a day so didn't get up to much, but we did manage to try out the upcoming PS3 CCG/video-game hybrid Eye of Judgment, which uses a fixed camera to monitor the action on the board and play CGI animations on-screen to reflect the action (very impressed, but not enough to entice me into buying a PS3). Other highlights included a demo of the Order of the Stick board game (absolutely mega, and none left in the Trade Hall for us to pick up :( ), and the Wizards 4e 'Announcement' which was enjoyable for the simple fact of being there, if not for the ridiculously hostile crowd. Kudos to Bruce Cordell for coming all the way only to have questions like, "When will 5th Edition be out?" thrown at him. Oh, and it was from that event that we got our only free swag - a 4ed t-shirt - although I did manage to pick up the Gargantuan Blue Dragon for barely seven quid after a discount token, over and above the protests of my wife and best mate (both of whom play in my campaigns, heheh).
Overall it was a great day. It felt refreshingly weird to sit in a cafe and discuss D&D just two tables down from a guy staggering under the weight of the Colossal Red Dragon, two tables across from a guy reading a tired-looking copy of Song and Silence, while catching wafts of passing conversation along the lines of, "No, the mage gets that spell at ninth level."
Next year I'll almost certainly look into attending the whole Con and maybe even running a game or two. Of those I met, some of them were inept, a few of them smelled (but not many), some couldn't take a hint to be quiet and play the game dammit, and a couple more were just plain odd... but they were my people, man.
Tuesday, 21 August 2007
"Every rogue I have ever played has been built, a la Garrett. Sneaking past or knocking out the guards and generally robbing the bad guy blind before he even knows my character has been there. Who wants to kill people when you can just totally piss of the bad guys? Even better when they dont know you did it!"
This is the classic infiltrator, the guy who uses his noodle to sneak past challenges, take out villains, and make off with the loot before the bad guys even know what hit them. How would you play this guy in practice?
For a start, coshing someone into unconsciousness or otherwise killing them in one hit in d20 is very hard... against anything except low-level mooks, anyway. For a Rogue it's all about maximizing Sneak Attack damage, whether lethal or not... but actually getting up to someone without them noticing you in the first place is extremely hard. Without cover or concealment, a Rogue takes -5 to his Hide check for every 5 feet he crosses in the open; even the lamest guards can therefore probably expect to impose 5 or 10 points of penalty onto your Hide check. If you make it, and the victim remains unaware of you, you can at least forget his Dexterity bonus (whoopidy-do for most armoured guards, but every little helps I suppose) and expect, if you hit, to apply an extra few dice of damage.
Aside from Sneak Attack dice, there's no real bonus to taking someone unaware like this; you'll do no more damage than if you were flanking, or more tellingly, if he actually Spotted you on the way in but you still won Initiative... which for a Rogue is likely to be odds-on. Given the probable difficulty of making that first strike (magic notwithstanding, and one of my players is now a Rogue/Wizard with invisbility and true strike high on his list of spells), it seems to me, unless I'm missing something, that there really isn't that much to be gained from taking someone on like this.
On the contrary, it's likely to be a very bad idea for the Rogue to extend himself from the party and strike at a bad guy without everyone else to back him up (like the party Fighter, who will be hanging back out of range in order to avoid giving the game away). I can understand the balance implications, but it seems to me that a bonus to the Rogue's critical threat range might not be out of order if he manages to get the a strike in while his opponent is unaware (which is of course different than simply being flat-footed). Yes, you don't double the Sneak Attack dice, but it's something... a payoff for taking that additional risk.
With a sap, you can deal non-lethal instead of lethal damage... but there's no inherent rule which makes it easier to render someone unconscious if they're unaware of you. Honestly I would be nervous of any such rule, but its absence renders the cinematic image of the infiltrator quite impossible to play in practice. The Assassin's Death Attack probably comes closest, but it's no coincidence that you have to be at least 5th level, and evil, to use it.
Thursday, 16 August 2007
Later: too many thoughts. The official announcement has arrived (see the GenCon link to the right) and all I'm doing at the moment is sucking up whatever information I can lay my hands on. Unfortunately Wizards' new DnDInsider.com web-site is still defunct so I can't check that out.
While I don't really want this blog to turn into a 4ed news thing, it makes sense to track what's going on so that anyone visiting can get a handle on the changes, so I've opened a new links section over there --->
Tuesday, 14 August 2007
His blog is always a provocative read and the most recent entries, along with an ongoing discussion on ENWorld which I took part in, are worth mentioning here. RD talks about the future of tabletop roleplaying and muses on how it is ever going to survive alongside easier, more instantly gratifying, and half the time, simply more fun past-times such as MMO's like World of Warcraft.
It's a big question, because a hobby that is ultimately surviving on nothing except the unwillingness of its oldest players to let it go (which arguably D&D became near the end of the TSR era) is not really a hobby at all. It's vital that D&D - and tabletop roleplaying in general, including CCG's like Magic and Pokemon - all remain a viable business so that their publishers keep material flowing into the channel, and hopefully, enticing new blood into the game.
Fans of tabletop roleplaying could do worse than to check out both the comments on the blog and the thread at ENW.
"I scout ahead, keeping to the shadows as best I can in case anything is watching."
In this instance the Rogue is potentially unaware of any observers and must use cover and concealment/shadows as best she can. Ironically, the best route through a large room might well be straight through the middle, out of range of the torch sconces on the wall. In the interests of speedy play, it might be tempting to assume that the Rogue will have the expertise to minimize her chances of being spotted even if the player does not... but the player in question will have to trust the DM when it comes to potentially falling foul of concealed ambushes or traps, because it'll be the DM that ultimately decides what route she took in this instance.
You could describe the room and have her plot a simple route ("I stay towards the center, moving through the overturned pews..."), or get a routine from the Rogue beforehand ("In general I will stay as close to the left of the room as possible, but out of bright light..."), or you may be prepared to plot a battlemat for every room with light-source overlays (not as daunting as it sounds, especially in compact dungeons where every room is designed as a challenge). All of these will slow down play to some extent but the potential result is to get the Rogue thinking strategically about her movement, ideally without bogging the game down too much. You may suddenly find you're encouraging real tactical thinking from those gamers who've played Thief or Splinter Cell ("My wizard friend uses mage hand on this flask of water to extinguish the torches on the eastern wall...").
Things would be easy if the Rogue could point at a villain and say "I'm hiding from him..." but in this case she's moving stealthily to avoid being seen by someone she doesn't know but assumes might be there. When the time comes for something to actually Spot her, decisions will need to be made both on how many Spot checks the observer receives, and the relative location of the Rogue each time. Now you could use Spot's '-1 per 10 feet' rule to calculate Spot distances I suppose, but the simplest solution is just to get the Rogue to roll a Hide check for each 'round' that she needs to spend to get across the gap (even though, out of combat, rounds don't technically exist). If you wanted things even simpler, you could just ask for one roll to cover it all, but then the Rogue is no more likely to be seen crossing 100 feet as she is crossing 20 feet, and that's just not cricket.
"You need cover or concealment in order to attempt a Hide check. Total cover or total concealment usually (but not always; see Special, below) obviates the need for a Hide check, since nothing can see you anyway."
Cover is easy, it's just an adjudication on the environment between the Hider and the Spotter. And once in cover, it would be fair to say that a Hider no longer needs to make Hide checks as long as he stays in cover relative to the Spotter (Move Silently and Listen are different things altogether of course).
Concealment is tougher. Obvious effects like fog, heavy rain, smoke etc., as well as more dramatic effects like invisibility can provide anything from partial to total concealment, but the quality of the light is also a significant factor. Light quality ranges from Bright (no concealment) through Shadowy (partial concealment, or just 'concealment') to Darkness (total concealment). In either of the latter two cases a character can make a Hide check.
Suddenly, the adjudication of light sources in a dungeon can become extremely important, although the SRD has a table making things relatively easy for the DM. (And how wonderful would it be for the maps in software like Fantasy Grounds to show degrees of illumination around torches and other light sources?).
Edit: As one of my players has been quick to point out, the rules also state that:
"If people are observing you, even casually, you can’t hide. You can run around a corner or behind cover so that you’re out of sight and then hide, but the others then know at least where you went."
I have problems with this ruling because both 'observed' and 'casually' are ill-defined. I don't see any particular reason, for example, why a Rogue can't slip into the shadows of a darkened room even if he's being watched... however, that's probably what a distraction is for:
"You can use Bluff to help you hide. A successful Bluff check can give you the momentary diversion you need to attempt a Hide check while people are aware of you."
Again, adjudicating a distraction is difficult with such a wide-open canvas, but let's put the pressure back on the player a little. If she wants to distract someone - or more likely, multiple someone's - then let her make a suggestion on how she would do it. Ultimately, you may decide that there's no need for a Bluff check at all, if the circumstances are sufficiently diversionary, or you may decide that someone else in the party needs to make the check (for example the Bard may attempt to flatter a sentry into dropping his guard).
The only real conclusion to draw from this is that hiding is probably more difficult, and for certain much more situationally dependent, than we've been playing it up until now. Would strict adherence to these rules have had much of an impact on my campaign to this point? Probably not, but I can't help but feel that opportunities for cranking up the tension may have been missed.
More to come.
Monday, 13 August 2007
But in hindsight, a long campaign arc (we're doing the huge Key of Destiny campaign) is simply not the right game to run when you're only meeting once every few weeks. Plot details are lost, character development is wasted, and roleplaying slowly transforms from a game-enriching chocolate sauce into the peas you leave because you ran out of spuds. Where 'peas' are roleplaying and 'spuds' are time. Or something.
Key of Destiny isn't a sandbox campaign by any means, in fact it's as railroady as an epic plot usually gets, but it does have its subtleties and the general plot does take some thinking about. On top of that I've layered individual plotlines for each PC, so that's some added complication. The journals are okay (when I remember to do them - bad DM!) but I can't make them encyclopedic without the players seeing hints that aren't really there, and I have to be careful about drawing attention to certain clues that I think they missed because the adventure will suffer. It's a tricky balancing act.
At the current rate of play, we will finish the third and final chapter of Key of Destiny (and therefore the campaign) sometime in 2011. That's just never going to work for me. I'll be bored of it loooong before then, and it's the reason why I've looked into and recommended Fantasy Grounds as a virtual D&D substitute, so we can rein that target in by a couple of years. The next campaign I run for them will be homebrew D&D-dialled-to-11 (thanks Monte), where there are few if any long-running metaplots and I can just pull stuff from third-parties as I see fit. If nothing else it'll give me a chance to actually use some of the books on my roleplaying shelf.
Sunday, 12 August 2007
Tuesday, 7 August 2007
Thursday, 2 August 2007
"There is a 50% chance that [the NPC] is here; otherwise he is on the next level up."
What? What possible use is that randomness, other than to give the DM the illusion that the encounter is somehow more organic than it is? The players -- the people who actually matter -- are never going to know. All they will know is that the NPC in question appears somewhere inside the clocktower. They will neither know nor care that he could have appeared somewhere completely different, in a fashion that will have no impact whatsoever on the game.
Lose the randomness. No-one cares. What the adventure *should* have done, is provide several locations where the NPC could appear, and then leave it to the DM to decide. He's the guy running the encounter, he'll know the most appropriate, or most dramatic, or simply the coolest moment to introduce the NPC... and y'know, despite the fact that the adventure wants to let the dice decide, I'll bet 9 out of every 10 DM's would just choose for themselves anyway.
Tuesday, 31 July 2007
While I can't do anything about the latter (although you could make it harder for an ambush to be sniffed out using magical wind or other extraordinary effects), the answer to the former is spectacularly obvious and something that I forget about on a regular basis: Take 20.
There's nothing in the SRD's Hide entry that says you can't Take 20, but there are a few complications, most notably that the Hide skill is in effect an opposed roll (versus your opponent's Spot check)... therefore how would one be able to repeatedly retry when the outcome of any one try is unresolved until your opponent wanders into shot? One possible answer is that you can only Take 20 on a Hide check if you have someone available to help... which then has other benefits, namely the use of Aid Another to get a further +2 bonus (or bonuses, from multiple allies) to help you with your effort.
However all of those factors are ignoring the obvious, in-game logic which is that given enough time and opportunities for cover or concealment, a skilled exponent can scout out a decent place to hide, secrete himself within it, cover his tracks, and use whatever detritus is available at hand to cover himself up. If he couldn't, then a villain who dove behind a bush with the PC's a few seconds behind him would have exactly as much chance of concealing himself as a ninja in active camouflage who took a day to dig a foxhole and cover the entrance with dried twigs.
Conclusion: characters, NPC's, and monsters can Take 20 on a Hide check as long as they have 2 minutes in which to do so. This makes ambushes suddenly very viable, as creatures with even average Hide checks (say, +8 to +10) are now setting Spot DC's in the high 20's/low 30's; meanwhile villains with exceptional Hide abilities will be practically impossible for all but the most experienced adventurers to spot, setting DC's in the 40's or 50's quite easily.
And that all sounds just fine to me.
Thursday, 26 July 2007
This is a blog about roleplaying in general and -- as of 2014 -- 5E in particular, my system of choice at the moment.
Who is the mysterious DM I'm chasing? Me, I hope. Or at least, future me.
Somewhere out there is the DM I want to be.
The guy who constructs peerlessly complex and rewarding campaigns for his players, who has endless inspiration about where the game should go next, how he's going to do it, and how the players can play the biggest role in that change.
The guy who smoothly and authoritatively adjudicates rules at the table, who imposes himself when required, but is little more than a shadowy facilitator the rest of the time.
The DM that all boy DM's want to be, and all girl DM's want to be with.
He's out there somewhere. I know it. He's the guy I'm chasing. I don't even think I've caught sight of his coat-tails, but I could've sworn he dropped a bunch of d6's one time...