Thursday, July 30, 2009

Expeditions of Amazing Adventure: The Bustling Bazaar of Kashgor

The nomadic people of Kashgor are known for their fine horsemanship, hunting skills, and exotic foods. Their home is the rolling plains ripe with game and wild spices. Monthly various tribes converge to sell their wares, tell tales, and resolve any tribal issues. A temporary city arises of tents and long rows of wood-framed stalls. Throngs of people move about clamoring to sell goods typically through barter. In no more than a week the people scatter, leaving nothing behind, and the following month they congregate again in a different location.

Kashgor nomads also collect many exotic spices and dried flowers which are prized for their medicinal and arcane properties. As such many merchants from 'civilized' regions will seek to purchase what they can, and sell what little manufactured goods the Kashgorians desire. Deals are struck through a word and clasping of hands, but negotiations can be difficult. Kashgor nomads are proud people, quick to take offense, and demand respect of their culture and ways.

- Kashgorians will honor deals made with outsiders, but travel through their region can be dangerous. Adventurers are typically sought to offer protection to, and from, the bazaar.

- The bazaar also becomes a center for judicial matters and political bickering among tribes. It is not uncommon for outsiders to become embroiled in Kashgor affairs, typically causing some slight to a tribal leader. On rarer occasions the tribes may seek a group of outsiders to be arbitrators in a dispute (with some parties willing to secretly offer monetary 'incentives' to obtain a favorable ruling).

- It is rumored that some dishonorable Kashgor tribes engage in slavery. Hostages are commonly obtained in raids against rival tribes. Typically these hostages are used to negotiate for political favors against other tribes, being returned once a deal is struck. However, some whisper that a few tribes willingly sell slaves to merchants of the other lands, however unsavory most Kashgorians would find such a practice.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Out for a bit.

I'll be running around out of the country for a while. Likely my internet connectivity will be spotty at best. So I'll be holding off posting for a few weeks.

Why not check out newbiedm or Roleplaying pro for a few interesting things on 4ed D&D? I'll be sure to have more mutterings of things geek when I return.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Fiddling with Skill Challenges: Part 2

To continue on with my tweaks to skill challenges, I’ll add a few more points on aiding others and detail the effects of critical failures and successes.

Each skill challenge I write up has a set of primary skills and secondary skills. I try to list off skills that would provide a direct solution to a challenge as the primary skills. Skills that might have an application I consider secondary skills. If players use skills from either of these sets, they gain a +1 bonus to their checks. The main difference between primary and secondary skills is that players can only assist characters making checks with primary skills.

I further tweak cooperation checks also. If players fail their roll to assist another character, they actually give the target character a -2 penalty to the current check. So players assisting another can either hinder, or help, their party members. This keeps them involved and helping towards the group passing the challenge if they don’t want to risk earning failures, but adds a small element of risk to it.

Keep in mind with everyone assisting 1-2 players, you will likely get a partial success before a complete success. Yes, this makes it easier for players to pass the challenge but typically they just barely fulfill the conditions for doing so (and get half the XP).

I use elements of critical failures and successes for rolls of a natural 1 and 20. A natural 1 automatically grants a -4 penalty to the current check, and for the next roll on the following turn. So if the current total including all modifiers (including the -4 penalty) beats the target DC, a natural 1 one can still be a success. On a natural 20, the check is automatically a success and the following turn the player can add a +4 bonus to their roll.

A quick summary for how I run my skill challenges:

• Each challenge has 3 possible results: complete success, partial success, or failure. A partial success is typically 2 less the passed checks needed for a complete success. For a trivial challenge, a partial success is 1 less (4 for a complete success, 3 for a partial success, all before getting 2 failures). A partial success is worth ½ the XP a complete success would grant.

• Challenges have 1-2 skills assigned as either primary or secondary skills. If players use these skills, they gain a +1 bonus to their check. Only players making checks with the primary skills can be assisted by other players.

• If players successfully assist a player, they grant a +2 bonus to the current check. If they fail, they grant a -2 penalty to the current check.

• A natural 1 incurs a -4 penalty to the current check, and to any rolls made the next turn. A roll of 1 may still result in a success.

• A natural 20 is an automatic success and gives a +4 bonus to a roll for the following turn.

• All the players describe their actions. The DM and players determine the likely skill used. Players then all make rolls and check their results against the target DC (modifiers from players assisting other characters are also applied). Results are tallied and then used to determine if the challenge is passed. This is repeated until a complete success, partial success, or failure is reached. Remember that all players are contributing every turn (either by assisting or making skill check attempts).

I like having layers of results for skill challenges. A key point to this is making sure that partial successes mean the players ‘just squeeze by’ claiming a victory. Typically I’d be willing not only to give an advantage for earning a complete success, but also be willing to incur some penalty for obtaining a partial success. Earning action points and taking away (or granting) healing surges work great for discriminating between a complete and partial success.

I hope a few try this out, and more importantly, give a little feedback. Later I’ll likely offer up a few key examples of this skill challenge variant in action.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fiddling with Skill Challenges: Part 1

I like skill challenges. I like the idea they can serve as a structured framework for outlining milestones during a RP session, and more importantly, offer a set way for awarding experience. I love the idea that RPing an encounter can be rewarded with XP, similarly to cutting through a swath of kobolds. Skill challenges are a neat addition to 4ED.

Running skill challenges however is a bit clunky. I’m expecting the Dungeon Master’s Guide II having a larger section on skill challenges, including a lot of rule variations. Combined with the cooperation rule (PHB pg. 179), players can easily take a challenge that is supposed to be engaging roleplay to new heights of drudgery, rolling dice simply to give that one character with skill training the ability to trivialize any skill challenge the DM throws their way. I felt skill challenges could be tweaked a little.

There are a lot of alternate rules out there for running skill challenges. One alternate set of rules I found particularly interesting was the Obsidian system for skill challenges. But I did not want to wander too far away from the 4ED rules. I liked the ones laid out in the DM manual, but I just wanted to tweak them a little. So I took one concept from the Obsidian system and put another result in skill challenges, a Partial Success.

A partial success is a result 1-2 less from the total needed to complete a normal skill challenge. So complexity 3 skill challenges would require 8 success results for a complete success, 6-7 successful results for a partial success, and either must occur before the players tallied 4 failures (failing the challenge entirely). The exception for this would be a trivial challenge, where a partial success is simply 1 less from the total needed for a complete success (4 for a complete success, 3 for a partial success, all before getting 2 failures).

So what does a partial success mean? At its core, the players complete the challenge. They successfully negotiate a price, obtain a ritual, or make it across the desert. A complete success rewards the same thing, but they have some advantage by winning the challenge, such as getting an even better negotiated price, obtain the ritual along with components to cast it, or make it across the desert without losing any healing surges. Using a two-tiered success results allows me to give varying rewards instead of a ‘pass/fail’ result. As for experience with a partial success, I reward ½ the XP players would normally get from completing a normal skill challenge.

There is a trick to running these though. Everyone states what they are doing. The DM and players wrangle over what skills would be appropriate. Then each player rolls a D20 and checks against the challenge DC. All players roll during each round, and every roll is tallied during each turn. A success always trumps a failure after the totals are summed each turn (something that could happen with large groups even with simple challenges). I allow players to aid another player also, but I’ll put a few more details on that in the second part.

Overall, it does make skill challenges a little easier for the players. But if they really want an advantage and serious rewards, they have to push their luck making active skill checks. With a partial victory the skill challenge is a success, however they just barely fulfill the conditions for doing so (and get half the XP).

This isn’t the complete set of rules I use for skill challenges. I have a little more on primary and secondary skills needed for a challenge, plus critical failures and successes on those 20s and 1s, but I’ve outlined the framework here. Adding another tier to the challenge allows me to tinker with the rewards and outcomes. Much better than the simple ‘pass/fail’ results of the typical 4ED challenge. I hope some folks are willing to give this a spin and give their feedback.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Expeditions of Amazing Adventure: The Secluded Sanctum

As something of a fun series of posts, I'll try to periodically throw out some (hopefully) adventure inspiring locales. Lately between wandering the Korean countryside and enjoying the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (sigh... my geekness never ends...yes, I enjoy comics too), I've been motivated to try this creative exercise. So every two weeks or so, I hope to produce some interesting fantasy location, ripe with a few ideas for adventure.

The main temple lies in the shadow of a large mountain face. A small path precariously winds upwards towards its summit. Nestled in a slight recess is an image of an unknown god of old. Many of the commoners revere this idol, despite the wishes of the religious leaders in the temple.

Small depressions are scattered around the idol. These hollows in the mountain face are used to hold offerings. Copper coins are commonly placed there. But it is not uncommon for some to leave something of greater value if a strong blessing is particularly desired.

It is rumored that coins are taken up by the old god, a belief reinforced by the continual presence of a few empty holes. Do some villagers secretly pilfer the offerings made by others?

The continual reverence, and more importantly the offer of coin, chafes the religious leaders of the temple. They have avoided any decree towards the villagers stopping their practice. Quite possibly a group of adventurers could covertly deface the idol (and get a suitable reward from the temple)?

What does the idol represent? Is it a primordial god worshiped primarily by animal humanoids? Is this really a revered god found by a nomadic tribe of shifters? Such the presence of a temple below the idol would likely be an affront to their god. The shifter tribe may seek to remove such a temple by force if necessary.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Working with Extended Rests

Like just about everyone running a D&D game, I like to tweak the rules a little. I think the 4ED rest and recovery rules work. It keeps players in the action and taking an extended rest effectively replenishes all their resources including HP. But I wanted to put a brake on players using all their healing surges, drop severely low on HP, and just take an extended rest to do the same thing next day. I just feel continually taking extended rests could easily be abused.

To get around this I modified the extended rest rules a little having the player recover healing surges differently, and it being largely dependent on their condition before they hit the sack for 6 hours. I feel that daily powers and HP have to be replenished to their full amount, no matter what condition the player was in before the extended rest. Dragging out HP recovery over days just seemed to hurt the player. Besides, if you buy that HP are more about endurance and will power, rather than just tick marks for vitality, it doesn’t make sense hampering HP recovery.

So after an extended rest, the player regains their maximum HP and regains all their daily powers. However, recovery of healing surges depends on the following conditions before they take an extended rest:

Is the player at less than full HP? - If the player has less than full HP before they rest, they gain their full healing surges (HS) -3. If the player is bloodied, they gain full HS -4 (4 less healing surges from their maximum).

If the player is at full HP, how many HS have been currently used? - If the player used 4 or more healing surges, they regain full HS -2. If they used 3 or less, they are at full healing surges after an extended rest.

Players should be encouraged to burn through their healing surges, and possibly use them in combination with encounter powers, to be at maximum HP before they rest. The player recovers less healing surges if they have any damage at all (even being one point under their maximum). So it is worth using up all those surges to get back to max HP before resting.

In addition, if players take a comfortable rest they gain back one more healing surge (a bloodied player resting in an inn would be at full HS -3 after an extended rest, not full HS -4). A comfortable rest means the players are in a sheltered location (not exposed to the elements), eating a prepared meal that is not trail rations, and are in a relatively secure location (not taking guard shifts).

This encourages players to seek out civilization and crash at an inn, rather than being cheap gold misers sleeping in the woods all the time. Granted some players might feel their character is more at home in the wild, but taking the time to get a campsite together, rustle up some food and water, and sleep hoping nothing stumbles on them in the night, will likely make the player not be at 100% the next day.

I’ve been a little lenient applying the comfortable rest bonus to characters using specific rituals. Create campsite ritual (PHB2) is a great example. Using traveler’s feast combined with eye of alarm (or magic mouth at an entrance to a small cave) would also work, especially if the players packed a few tents. I think rituals seemed to be glossed over in 4ED and with a little tweaking, they can add a lot to the game.

That's it for now. Another example of using healing surges instead of HP to hamper, or reward, the players. What other tweaks have folks used for extended rests in their D&D campaign?

Friday, July 10, 2009

It's not the game. It's you.

There has been some pretty juicy discussion on troublesome players over at the Chatty DM and Dungeon Mastering. Something I felt about handling such players, is that it can be very tricky if the jerk player in question is your friend, or a friend to one of the players. If the person is simply an acquaintance that you happen to run the game with, then I'd have no problem throwing down the ultimatum of 'shape up or get out'. Yet, this point really got me thinking about fun with games, and more importantly, our fond memories of past sessions and campaigns.

I'm convinced that with RPGs, people derive fun less from the game design and mechanics, and more with the people around the table. It is the social interaction that drives these games. I really think what clouds our fond memories of playing past games, is not the actual love for a system or rule set, but really with the people you were playing with at the time.

I've heard something which I'll paraphrase here, 'You can't relive that past experience of your high school D&D game." I believe it. And I truly think these memories of good times are mainly derived from remembering the time you spent with your friends, sharing an experience playing a game.

That is the key point with RPGs (that make them stand apart from other games), social interaction with other players is so integral to having fun. If you have a jerk player, that social interaction is troublesome and stressful, making the fun factor an all time low. If people are backstabbing each other and doing spiteful things, that might just be fine in some groups but a death knell with others. And I think the key difference is that in one group, people are solid friends and their relationships recognize such antagonistic behavior as non-threatening. In other groups, although they may be good friends, such behavior is seen in a poor light, making the experience unpleasant.

I think fondly back to my college days playing Illuminati. It's a goofy board game, where players actively seek to grasp power by making under-the-table deals that can be broken on a whim. Tons of backstabbing and trash talk were abound in those games. When I look back at it, I really think it had practically nothing to do with the game (I wouldn't consider it a great board game). I think all my real fun had to do with socializing with my friends around the game table.

So is that really the big issue a troublesome player? It's that our socializing is hampered, not the actual game, which leads to us not having fun? Something to ponder over I guess.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Preview: the Psion Class

Content for the new Dragon magazine is now up detailing the Psion class. Personally I was never a fan of the psionics character, but in some campaigns I could see them working. I just never quite liked the fluff of having players manipulate things with their minds. I guess I am just an old-timer with my magic and spells ('You dagnabbit psionic kids. Get off my lawn!')

Still it looks like an interesting class. What I particularly like is how the implementation of power abilities are slightly tweaked. Players slowly expand primarily with their at will powers and get daily and utility powers as normal. They gain no encounter powers. Rather they obtain power points (starting with 2) that they spend to augment their at will powers. Most at will powers can be augmented twice, effectively having 3 'levels' of effects. After a short rest, they regain those points back. They'll end up with the same number encounter powers as other players, just some differences in the game mechanics for using them.

I foresee this becoming popular in a lot of knock off systems (and likely has already been implemented elsewhere). You have a few key signature powers or moves, with a pool of points to tap additional effects to them. You end up having a few options, deciding how much to buff up a certain attack. I like it, and it screams for being used in certain genres (pulp-action or superheroes).

As for 4ED though, I can see more bookkeeping for the player. It's a neat idea, and I expect for many veterans they will like the free-wheeling power use of this character class. I'd be hesitant dumping it on a new player. Yet, the play style of being able to selectively bump up abilities, rather than picking from a predefined set is intriguing. An alternate magic system in the works maybe?

What do folks think of the new power point source, and the psion class in general?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Putting the Story on Rails

I sometimes stumble over this when running a game. I’ve sketched out the events for a session. I have the plans laid out with specific decision points. I have consequences and issues that come up based on which path the players choose. Then I run the game and the players just go all over the place. It’s fine and that is one of the joys of playing D&D. Players should be keeping the DM on his (or her) toes.

But sometimes I still push the story on a rail. I construct a situation that nudges (sometimes seemingly like a linebacker pounding a tackle dummy) the players in a direction that I want them to go. It’s bad DMing and it bums me out when I do it.

Typically it is because I’m thrown for a loop with some of the decisions that players make. Where I envision outcome A or B from a RP encounter, the players come up with something that needs an outcome C (or even sometimes outcomes D, E, and F). At times I just run dry on improvised ideas.

I’m a huge fan of the ‘say Yes’ DMing style. If players are thinking of creative ideas to tackle a problem, I want to reward them. I want to encourage unusual solutions if the players are thinking. While it may not work, or be incredibly difficult to pull off, I like giving them a chance to try. But sometimes I just say, “No, that isn’t going to fly”, and then I push the players along the story rail.

As a quick example, the players are on an errand. They don’t really know their employer much, but are taking the job because it pays well. They get the item of unknown function. Returning to their employer, they are intercepted by a NPC group that wants the item. No way in Hades are they going to let the players take it back to the employer, and are ready to take it by force if needed.

So the players have a choice. Hand over the item or fight them. The guys that intercepted them definitely seem shady, but they really don’t know the motivation of their employer either. It is a simple dilemma and I’ve thought out story lines for either decision they make. Then the players come up with a plan C.

They are willing to have a representative of the party go with the NPC group, speak with head boss of the NPCs, and they won’t hand over the item to their employer just yet till they hear more on their offer. I hem and haw a little and say the offer is not acceptable. The players want to negotiate this deal a bit more. Finally, I tell them to roll initiative as the NPC group has done enough talking and ready to take the item by force from the players.

I hated doing it. Given a little time I could have gotten a side adventure together. The players read the NPCs right. They are bad guys. I could have had one player out of the action, being held hostage. Had the rest of the party try and do a bold rescue and escape. In short, try to run a grand adventure, but the reality of completely winging it settled in.

It was early in the session and the story was way off what direction I expected it to go. I needed more time to fill out some details and think about how the events could unfold. I simply was not up to par with running the game enough to pull off that much improvisation. It’s a shame too as 4ED really has a lot of tools and rules to cover those weird actions that players come up with. Making encounters really is a breeze. I’m going to have to work at designing more monsters and especially NPCs. Plus I need to give the ‘Additional Rules’ section in the DM another few reads to familiarize myself with it. I need to improve how I DM a game.

Putting the story on rails isn’t fun for the players. If folks have some tips to keep from that happening, feel free to add something.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Review: Dungeon Delve

I'll likely limit my WOTC product reviews. Typically I'll be getting much of the new release stuff a month or more after most people have had a chance to wander down to their local game store (damn snail-paced international mail). But the recent 'save my game' article from this month's Dungeon got me thinking a little about the Dungeon Delve book.

The Good - It is a slew of adventures that can be easily run in a night. As the Dungeon article pointed out, it's a great resource if you have to plan out a quick adventure. I'm more partial to using it as a quick encounter resource. Tag a few encounters in the book and use them if you need to make something up on the fly.

There is a lot of material here that could be applicable to every level campaign (or portions that could be regularly pilfered). I think this product is a good investment if just starting a low level campaign. Plus if you wanted to just make a quick one shot adventure for a nightly game (or a run to introduce new players), this would fit the bill nicely.

Additionally, this could be a good way to give players, and you as a DM, a snapshot of the paragon or epic tier. Just as a break from the regular campaign, tell players to roll up a lvl 25 character, sprinkle in a few magic items as equipment, pull out an appropriate delve, and have a run at it. This experience might help them rethink what feats and powers they'll pick up as they advance. Maybe after playing a certain paragon class for an encounter or two, they realize it doesn't quite fit their play style, and rethink the direction they'll focus on for future levels.

The Bad - Some of the encounters seem a little uninspired. There is a definite repetitive theme of a 3 encounter dungeon crawl. They do give some ideas for expanding delves. Straight out of the book however, I'd be more inclined to add a few more rooms and an encounter or two. Overall, I think many of the delves would need to be fleshed out a bit more before running them in a regular game.

Another big negative for me is the reliance on Dungeon Tiles. Yes, I get that WOTC is a business and they need to promote their products. But as the number of tile sets are so limited, overall I think many of the layouts are constrained. I'm certain this will be a trend that continues for other books. I'm hoping they release another 3-4 sets before coming out with another Dungeon Delve book. I'd warrant even completely remapping your own dungeon layout, and just drop the encounters into rooms of your own creation. As long as some of the major terrain features are there, I think it'll be just fine to plug and play encounters from the book.

The Verdict - Is this an indispensable D&D book to add to your collection? No. Could this serve as a useful tool for running your games? Sure. If your group is the meat and potatoes, dungeon crawling crowd, they'll likely love it. However, I think most of the delves will need some retrofitting to work with your typical group. If you have the cash, I'd consider it a reasonable buy to add to your library.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Playing with Miniatures

I’m a fan of miniature war games. I love painting and collecting minis. I did the whole GW Warhammer Fantasy/40K in the past. As minis go nowadays, I’m deep into WWII 15 mm stuff and more small unit skirmish games (more on that later). Long ago I used miniatures in my D&D game also. So with 4ED, I latched onto that aspect pretty easily.

Quite honestly, it is pretty difficult to run 4ED combat without some type of miniature system. I’ve heard people that do it. They rely more on the descriptive text of powers, and fudge with the 1 square = 5 foot scale to do a lot of hand-waving during combats. Yet, I think folks are really missing out on the tactical element of the game if they do not use minis.

I can see some trepidation folks have playing D&D with miniatures. One big factor is cost. Another is space (storage and during play). At least pre-painted minis are available on the market, so you can get away from painting the things if needed. There is one sticking point I have with miniatures though, I think you get stuck having to either buy a ton of miniatures, or play with a lot of proxies that look like a Pokemon explosion on the table. It sounds silly when you use miniatures, but it's easy for players to get into the WYSIWYG* mentality. So much so that they’ll have a hard time remembering those 3 additional orcs on the table are really goblins. * What You See Is What You Get

So while I am a huge fan of miniatures, and I’m a fan of using 1” scale maps for rooms and such. I’m not a big fan of using actual miniatures while playing. I like using tokens and paper minis. posted a great tutorial on making your own custom counters. I especially like the dual sided tokens he uses. As for me, I really like using paper miniatures and there are quite a few that are commercially available (I like the line disposable heroes line).

I like using PDFs of paper minis for the following reasons:

Cost – You can get a lot on the cheap, as it is simply a matter of printing out what you need. I place the printed minis between two self-adhesive laminar sheets to add some life to their use, and it gives them some sturdiness.

Flexible – If you really need to make multiple copies of a figure, it’s a simple matter of cutting, pasting, and duplicating with another program. Also, you can scale up (or down) figures. Need a few giants for your game? Not a problem. This works great with an A-frame style for mounting the figures, as the base can be made to take up a few squares. I also work using the base into monster types, where bases of certain colors match with the monster role (minions, lurkers, etc.). If using paper clip binders, you can usually pick up a bunch from office supply stores of various colors.

Replaceable – Anyone that has every played 40K knows what I am talking about. Eventually you get that accident resulting in a broken/chipped figure. Paper miniatures can be whipped up in a flash. No need to retouch any paint jobs. I think the pre-painted figures available from WOTC are a little more durable, but I’m not sure how well it will hold up if your pet takes to making it a chew toy.

So I like miniatures in 4ED, but I’m less of a fan using actual figures. I think paper miniatures and tokens are a great way to go. They offer enough to allow players to envision the action, but at the same time allow enough imagination to make proxies work. Figures look great, but almost too good. I think WYSIWYG tends to creep into their use, so when you are forced to use proxy figs it’s a bit clunky.

So what are other folks using as figures in 4ED, or do people even bother?