Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Hide in Practice II

Farting in the general direction of 4ed for the moment, I'm going to carry on analyzing the way that the d20 rules support some of the more common cinematic and 'gamey' images of the rogue and thief. From one of my players in a previous comment:

"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

3.5ed + ?ed = 4ed

Looks like its time for another half of an edition. :) No official announcement yet, but it seems to be only a matter of time. ENWorld also has some tidbits, and I may have some thoughts on this later.

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

Loving The Tabletop

Second to the actual designers of 3rd Edition D&D (Monte Cook et al), Ryan Dancey is basically the man responsible for the D&D landscape - and by extension the tabletop roleplaying landscape - as it stands today. He masterminded the d20 and Open Gaming Licenses and opened the barn door on massive third-party support for the new edition of D&D when it was released at the turn of the millenium. The open letter which he published to the D&D mailing list did a lot, I'm sure, to persuade many grognards that Wizards of the Coast's acquisition of TSR might actually be a very good thing for the hobby.

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.

Hide In Practice I

"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.

Observations on Hide

Hide is possibly the most used skill at our table, but until now I hadn't realised how shockingly poor our interpretation of the rules has actually been. Instead of pointing out our hopeless errors, here's what I've gleaned after applying some brain to the problem. Here's what the SRD has to say about Hide:

"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

"What are we searching for again?"

My Dragonlance 5th Age campaign meets face-to-face on average about once every six weeks. It's my longest running group, with bona-fide school friends who I've been gaming with since the AD&D days, and is the best and only way we all keep in touch since leaving school. When we get together, much hilarity and fun ensues. And maybe even a bit of roleplaying.

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.

Virtual Imaginary Games

So I presented to my gaming group up the idea of running our Dragonlance Fifth Age campaign simultaneously online using Fantasy Grounds, as well as face-to-face in our kind of 1 to 2-monthly sessions. If we play on-line once a fortnight, it will pretty much double the rate we're moving through the campaign, and bring the end about 2 years closer at our current rate (and I'll be posting on that subject in a minute). The response was favourable so we'll be experimenting with that very soon, and I'll keep a journal of our experiences here so the millions of people who visit this blog every day can get a feel for gaming over a virtual desktop.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Obvious in Hindsight II

Don't be afraid to do the maximum possible damage to PC's in the first round or two of combat, especially if you've got the drop on them and you're attacking them while they're flat-footed. It may be tempting to throttle back a little as you bring DPS'ers and casters down to single-digit hit-points, but believe me, as soon as they get their Dexterity back and start buffing eachother, you'll be back to needing 20's to hit them before you can say Haste.

Obvious in Hindsight I

If a monster has a reach of over 5 feet, move into point-blank range anyway. Assuming it can attack anywhere within its reach, even PC's who use a Withdraw action won't be able to escape an Attack of Opportunity.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

There are two types of D&D Movie

I finally got around to watching the second D&D movie last night. Advance word of mouth meant I had set my expectations somewhere in the 'good for a TV movie' kind of range, which as it turns out was about right. It was a decent little movie, with good performances (mostly) and a real sense of deference to the game. I could just imagine the geek-asms firing off across the gamerscape as the main characters mentioned the Barrier Peaks and Inverness. All-in-all a credible little slice of fantasy, but not much to write home about.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

"There is a 50% chance this is relevant"

Adventures are very strange sometimes. In the adventure I'm currently prepping for my 5th-Age Dragonlance campaign, an important NPC resides inside a magical clocktower (5 points for guessing the adventure). The text reads:

"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.