Bring the Magic Back to Magic Items

One of the biggest complaints I have with 4th Edition is that it doesn’t really feel as magical anymore. And I don’t mean the power system (I really like that), I mean magic items. Since magic items are pretty much a requirement to stay on-par (with a player replacing their complete set of weapon/implement, armor, and amulet 6 levels), they seem to have lost some of the awesome they used to have. In previous editions, magic items were expected in a way, but they weren’t necessarily required to be effective (save for getting around damage reduction). This means that magic items were special and highly valued, regardless of their level. I’ve been trying to think about how to handle this, and I’ve managed to come up with a few ideas that might help out other DMs who remember fondly the excitement of getting that +1 Longsword rather than taking it for granted that they’d get it.

The first is to start using the optional rules for Inherent Bonuses. If you’re using the D&D Character Generator, there’s an option you can choose to turn this on automatically, or you can find the full rules on p138 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2. Basically, all you’re doing is removing the “new magic item every 6 levels” requirement by giving the players the bonus automatically. At 2nd and every sixth level thereafter, the PCs get a +1 untyped bonus to both attacks and damage, while at 4th level and every sixth level thereafter, they get a +1 untyped bonus to all defenses. You can change this up or break it up as you see fit for your campaign. It keeps the players on par with what’s expected of their characters by the design of the game while removing magic items from the equation.

If you go this route, you’ll need to also start reducing the amount of treasure you give out. As players as no longer expected to replace or buy new weapon/armor/amulet sets every sixth level, they no longer need as many magic items or as much gold to keep up. This does remove many of the special options from magic items, such as additional abilities and powers and the bonus critical hit damage. However, you can get around this easily by giving out items which add those bonuses, moving those bonuses to other items (the bonuses from a Holy Avenger, for example, could become bonuses granted by a holy amulet or a special helm). You can also continue to give out some magic weapons/implements/armor/amulets at a reduced frequency, but this will end up with players getting higher attack bonuses (which can be either a good or a bad thing depending on the style of game you run).

Another way to approach this problem is to allow magic items to level up with their wielders. As the player character levels up, their magic items get periodic bonuses to their basic stats. These can be based on the amount of time the character has used the item or having the item’s level equal the PC’s level (so that a player who goes from 5th to 6th level with a +1 Longsword has their sword upgrade itself to a +2 Longsword as the item itself goes from 5th to 6th level). This also allows for magic items to gain new properties as the player levels, letting a +1 Longsword the player got at 1st level to eventually become a +1 Frost Longsword when the character reaches level 3 (and then a +2 Frost Longsword at level 8 and so on). This works best if you encourage your players to be creative with their magic items, making them a part of their character backstory and ongoing development as they name their weapon and attune themselves to it in order to unlock its abilities.

If you really want this change to be transparent to the players, you can reduce all monster attacks and defenses by 1 for every 6 levels and reduce their HP by using the formula (Monster Level) * (Average Party Level / 6) (note: I’m not entirely sure that the math works for the HP, someone with a better grasp of the math behind the game please feel free to correct me in the comments and I’ll update this post). This shifts the math from the player’s end to your end, so that a PC with a mundane longsword has the same chance to hit the monster with reduced stats as they would have if they’d had a +1 Longsword and an unmodified monster. It’s effectively the same as the inherent bonus, so you’ll need to reduce treasure just as if you’d gone that route. It also puts a lot more work on you as you then have to do all the math and adjustments yourself rather than allowing your players to just add a number to their character sheets.

These are simply ideas I’ve had or modified for a problem that may or may not even exist in your games. While I miss the treasure trove of magic items from previous editions with all their strange and odd effects, it can be overwhelming and adds more work to running the game. Make sure that you give thought to how making any of these changes to your game will affect game balance and be sure that your players are still being challenged without losing their edge. Remember, the goal is to have fun and if doing extra work doesn’t seem fun to you, it’s probably not going to be fun for your players either.

Published in: on December 26, 2011 at 12:01 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Gridless Miniature Combat for D&D 4e

There is some awesome terrain out there for miniature wargaming.  Of course, it costs an arm and a leg, but it looks amazing.  You can even make your own using foamcore and model railroading supplies for fairly cheap but a lot of time investment.  Say you also play Warhammer, BattleTech, or something like that and want to re-use your awesome, expensive terrain in your D&D game?  Sucks to be you!  Or does it…  The rules for combat in 4e are based around 1″ = 5′.  That’s the key thing you need to keep in mind.  The actual investment you need?  Pipe cleaners, yarn/string, and a tailor’s tape measure.  That’s it.

First thing you have to do to remove the grid from D&D is realize that it’s going to change a few things in the game.  Thanks to the far less complicated but less realistic “diagonals are the same as anything else” rules in 4e, range is going to be reduced.  Areas of effect are going to be reduced.  Zones are going to be reduced.  Why?  Because a circle isn’t a square.  On the plus side for you old school gamers, cones are back!  Let’s go into detail.

For determining range and movement, you now count inches instead of squares.  Use your tape measure and something that’s Ranged 10 is now 10″.  You can make things easier on yourself by cutting a piece of string in the number of squares your character can move (4″ for heavy armored dwarves, 5″ for light armor dwarves or heavily armored anyone else, 6″ for light armored anyone else and heavy armored elves, and 7″ for elves).  You want to move from where you are, you put one end of the string on the edge of your mini base, lay the string out, then move the mini to the other end.  This also works for things like getting around corners and avoiding obstacles.

Zones and bursts are now spheres (not circles, more on that in a moment) based on diameter, with just a little fiddling.  Take the burst number, double it, and add 1.  That is the diameter of the sphere.  Burst 1: 3″ diameter.  Burst 2: 5″ Diameter.  Burst 3: 7″ diameter.  This can be made easier by using pre-measured pipe cleaners and dropping them on the board.

Blasts become cones once again.  Whatever the blast size is, it’s now a cone with a 90 degree angle that ends on the originating character’s base.  Okay, that sounds a bit complicated, so let’s break it down once again using pipe cleaners.  I’m going to talk about a Dragonborn’s breath weapon because it’s the most common close blast most players will come across (and it’s the only one I remember off the top of my head).  That attack is a Close Blast: 3.  In order to convert this, you take two 3″ sections of pipe cleaner and connect them at a 90 degree angle (like two sides of a square).  Take a third piece and make a curve, connecting that to each of the open ends on the angle you made.  Voila.  You now have a cone.  Place the point of the pipe cleaners against the base of the originating mini and that’s it.

All measurements should be made from the edge of the mini’s base.  Make sure your players know this in advance so they use circular bases rather than square ones for their minis.  If any portion of a mini is included in a blast, burst, or zone; that creature is considered “in” the blast, burst, or zone.

All ranged burst/blast/zone measurements are to the center of the effect.  Don’t nitpick this too much though or you’ll be getting out microscopes when your Rules Lawyer complains about being in the dragon’s breath attack.

Here’s where things get fun.  These rules work in 3D too.  Fall off a cliff, measure it.  1d10 falling damage for every 2″ high the cliff is (round down).  You’re shooting at something flying, 1″ = 5′.  Area of effect gets a little hazier, but just remember that a cone is a cone and a circle is a sphere.  Whatever it is, turn it sideways.  Sure, the vertical ranges will be off a little (as the typical idea of a Fireball, for example, is a hemisphere), but if it bothers you more than a diagonal being the same length as a side on a square, make a second batch of pipe cleaners in half sizes for vertical measurement.

I haven’t put these rules into full effect anywhere and probably won’t.  I did use a smaller version when I had a fight with the PCs climbing the side of a cliffs and it worked okay then.  Most of this is just stuff that’s been on my mind for a few months, wondering how hard it would be.  I’m not an expert at writing rules by any stretch and I’d like to think that someone else could fix this up into something very usable.  Hell, someone may have done it already.  But I think it would add an extra dimension of reality to the game if you tried getting rid of those little lines on everything.

Published in: on March 7, 2011 at 7:45 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Edition Wars

I’m starting this off by saying there is not one edition of D&D which is inherently better than any other.  Anyone who says so is taking the political pundit method of thinking “This is what I think therefore it’s the only right answer.”  Each edition has its strengths and its weaknesses, and yes, some of those are pure nostalgia.  So I’m going to run down what I miss from older editions of D&D (3rd edition and before, since I never played 3.5) compared to the new 4th Edition (but not as much Essentials as I haven’t messed around with the Essentials classes much aside from the Mage, which isn’t all that different in style).

Things I Miss From Previous Editions:

  • Attrition.  Two goblins used to be a valid encounter.  Sure, it was still a complete curb stomp battle, but it meant that the Cleric had to spend one of his healing powers or healing potions had to be used.  As a DM, you could nickel and dime your PCs into danger solely by having a bunch of short, quick combat encounters.
  • Traps being dangerous out of combat.  The old school trapped room just doesn’t work in this edition since you can spend healing surges as much as you want between encounters.  If a trap isn’t part of a larger encounter (multiple traps, a trap in the middle of combat, etc.), it feels more out of place in 4e than it did in previous editions.
  • Magic Whatevers of Whatever.  Since wizards, sorcerers, clerics, psionics, etc. all had a limited pool of things they could do in a day due to spell slots, a Magic Wand of Acid Arrow and a Staff of Cure Light Wounds with a bunch of charges on them were highly sought after magic items.  They let the magic user be useful in battle without having to switch over to the crossbow after the first few fights and all his/her spells were used up, and it let the cleric do a lot more healing without having to “burn” their more prepared spells for more healing.
  • Interesting tactics.  This is more a function of how many players tend to play 4e than a problem with the system, but a lot of players are exclusionary rather than inclusive when it comes to looking at their powers/skills.  In other words, they think that if it’s not on one of the cards in front of them, it’s not something they can do in combat.  This means you rarely get people trying anything interesting or cool with their characters in combat.  It gets even worse when you get the same sort of thing out of combat, where the players don’t try anything that’s not specifically allowed on the skill list.
  • More magic in magic.  If you have a copy of one of the older editions of the game, look through the spell list.  Most of them are what we would now call Utility Powers.  Spells like Armor, Fog, and Haste were almost as if not more common than spells like Magic Missile and Fireball.  I’ve had a lot of thoroughly planned encounters gone astray by a cleverly used Alter Self or Web spell.  Since these non-combat spells have been relegated to Utility Powers or worse Rituals, they’re just not as fun as they used to be.
  • Magic was strictly magic.  Want to cast a ritual?  Multiclass to Wizard.  None of this taking a single feat to be just as good at it as a wizard no matter what your class.  If you wanted to use a scroll, you needed someone of that class (Wizard for arcane scrolls, Cleric for divine, etc.) or else you needed ranks in the Use Magic Item skill.  In my current game, even though they have a Wizard, the Barbarian (with multiclass Ranger) is the one carrying the scrolls they’ve found so far because why the hell not?
  • Magic items adding bonuses to attributes.  You could get a crown that would add to your intelligence, bracers that added to your strength, boots that added to your dexterity, etc.  Because of the way the game’s set up now, you just can’t do that anymore without breaking balance.  It also means that the only way to increase an attribute is at 4th, 8th, 11th, etc. levels, and only by 1.
  • Casting times.  You see the Big Bad is about to cast a Fireball at your group.  You’re able to see this because there was a casting time in rounds for casting a spell (some just took 1 initiative step but others took multiple rounds).  While the spell was being cast but not finished, you could run up and try to hit him.  If you did, he would have to make a concentration check in order to get the spell off.  Fail it, the spell’s lost.
  • Components.  Wizards used to have to carry all kinds of random crap on them (in some cases literally as one of the components of Fireball was guano) in order to cast spells.  They weren’t usually expensive unless they were for a big ritual or powerful spell, but they added flavor to casting a spell.

Things I Don’t Miss At ALL from Previous Editions

  • THAC0.  If you’re too young to know what that means, it was a nightmare of bookkeeping.  AC started at 10 and went down for every piece of armor you wore, so leather armor meant your AC was 8.  Adding a small shield lowered it to 7.  If you had full platemail and a tower shield, your AC was -1.  Yeah, not kidding, negative numbers.  You had something called a THAC0 which stood for “To Hit Armor Class 0”.  So when you attacked, you rolled and added your bonuses (if you had any…I’ll get to that shortly).  You then compared the AC of the enemy to the roll you made on a chart.  If your roll was higher than the number on the chart, you hit.  If not, you miss.  People reminisce about combat being so much faster forget about that damn chart.  Combat was fast because, after playing a weekly game in marathons over the weekend staying up until 4 or 5 in the morning fueled by Mountain Dew, you memorized the friggin’ thing.
  • Save or DIE!  There were a lot of spells and monster attacks starting about 5th level or so and escalating from there where you rolled a saving throw.  And not a better-than-50/50 saving throw like 4e, but a specific check with a target number.  You roll badly, you die.  That’s it.  Raise Dead or roll a new character.  For DMs and players who saw the game as a challenge, this was good.  For others who wanted to actually roleplay and tell a story, it was horrible.  I had my kid gloves on all the time with my players when I ran my 3rd Edition game because I didn’t want the PCs or the important NPCs to die on just one bad roll of a d20.
  • Skill proficiencies.  This is the only time I can think of in a game where two core functions – attacks and skills – used completely different methods.  Attacks: Roll d20 hoping to roll high, add modifier, compare to THAC0 chart, see if you hit.  Skills: Roll percentile dice hoping to roll low, compare to your proficiency score, see if you succeeded.  It was clunky and frankly more than a little nuts.
  • Varying experience for class.  Depending on your class, you leveled when you reached different XP totals.  Fighters leveled at 2000XP, Thieves at 1750XP, Wizards at 2250XP.  No, it made no sense at all to me then or now.  Then there were the little things that affected your experience.  A thief got bonus XP for treasure they stole.  Fighters lucky enough to roll a 16 or higher Strength got a 10% bonus to XP.  Meanwhile, Wizards (who had the longest to go between levels) had to spend XP to cast certain spells or rituals!
  • Level eating attacks.  Creatures like vampires used to “eat” levels from characters when they nit.  In old editions, this meant you actually went down a level.  In 3rd, it was changed to a “negative level” whatever that means.  It was a nightmare in bookkeeping and just not any fun.  I want my characters to get more powerful, not less!  Even as a DM, the more powerful my players’ characters are, the more fun stuff I can throw at them without having to wear the kid gloves.

Things I Love About 4e:

  • Every class is as easy to learn as every other.  No more pulling rank over who plays the Fighter because he’s boring and just stands there swinging his sword.  Every single class now acts like every other one while still keeping that unique feel to each one.  Again, the Essentials line messes with this a little since most classes don’t get a ton of powers like they used to, but even the fighter still has options beside “I swing, roll a 17 to hit, do 7 damage.”
  • Simple rules, many exceptions.  I can teach you how to play D&D in two sentence.  You tell the DM what you want your character to do, then you roll a d20 die.  Add modifiers to the number on the die, and your DM will tell you how well or poorly you do what you attempted.  Seriously, that is it as far as actual rules to D&D 4e are.  The other 300 pages of the Rules Compendium are simply going into detail what that modifier you add to the die roll is or things you don’t even have to do that for.  I’ve seen completely green players go in one encounter from having to ask which die is the d20 to asking if they get combat advantage by shifting to a specific square if the PC on the other side has a condition.  There has never been an edition of D&D that was so simple to just pick up and play.
  • The character builder.  Online or offline, this is a very powerful tool that Wizards of the Coast has given us.  I can create a character faster in the Character Builder than I ever could in previous editions, even with the greatly reduced number of options.  What takes time is fiddling with the various options like feats, powers, skills, etc. for optimization.  When you’re done, the new character sheets and power cards are perfectly laid out so you can immediately figure out what you need to figure out.  Also – and this is the important part – it does all the math for you!  It’s as far removed from that damn THAC0 chart as you can get!
  • Reskinning.  You can redescribe anything you want in terms of how almost anything in the game works.  You want to run a steampunky game with more tech?  There’s no mechanical difference between a longbow and a Colt 1911 unless you want there to be.  Can’t find a kobold that does exactly what you want it to do?  Take that goblin in Monster Manual 3 and call it a kobold.  I wrote an entire post about reskinning before I even knew that was the name for it.  It’s both a roleplayer and a DM’s best friend.
  • Improv.  4e was built for this more than any other edition.  As long as you have some version of the Monster Manual, the Monster Vault, or even just a print-out from the online Compendium or Adventure Tools of monsters; you can completely run an adventure with just a few moment’s notice if you’re capable of improv DMing.  Since all the math’s done for you in many cases, you don’t need to take as much prep time if you’re good at off-the-cuff DMing.  Sure, it helps to be prepared, but if you have to scrap your game for some reason (you built it around a PC whose player had car trouble or family problems pop up just before the game was to start), you can make a new adventure in just a matter of moments to fill in the gap.

Whatever edition you decide to play, it’s completely up to you.  These are my personal feelings based on my experiences with other editions.  It’s very possible the groups I played with when I played 1st and 2nd Edition AD&D either used the rules wrong or just taught me wrong.  Play whatever edition you and your players enjoy playing and don’t let anyone else tell you that you’re wrong for doing it as long as you’re having fun.  And if you think that your opinions of the various editions are right and everyone else is wrong?  Just remember Wheaton’s Law before you post.

Published in: on March 1, 2011 at 4:38 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Ain’t No Party Like an Infighting Party

One of my fears happened last night…I only had three players for a game that was designed for 5-6 players.  They even screwed up and let the kobold watch get away which warned all the kobolds inside their lair know they were under attack.  This made the two easy Level 2 encounters combine into a hard Level 4 encounter as they were in one room instead of two and in defensive positions.  But they managed it even though they were horribly outnumbered and outmatched.

Unfortunately, it took so long since there were only three of them that it was too late to do the last encounter.  And they were beat.  Thankfully, they were able to find the potion hidden in Siwos’s private room that granted them the benefits of an extended rest (seriously, I didn’t make that part up just to help them.  It was in the adventure I wrote).  So we’re going to get together today to finish up before we move the game to a friend’s house that is cat-free so we can fill out the party.

Something interesting I didn’t anticipate happened though.  My roommate is playing a Drow Assassin.  S is playing an Elf Barbarian (laugh if you want, she has INSANE mobility).  They spent the entire encounter bickering between one another.  It was hilarious, and it managed to bring back some of that previous edition feel.  At least for me.  It’s possible that it just may have been my group I played with when I was younger, but there was a lot of party infighting in the old days.  Lots of passed notes and secret rolls so that not all the players knew what was going on.  Sure, when the monsters came around, we stopped fighting each other and focused on whatever was attacking us, but we still worked alone as much as we did as a team.  My last campaign, I never bothered with secret notes because anytime I did, they reported it to the others.  They got along famously and there were no problems between characters.  And frankly, it was boring.

Buddy cop movies are fun because the two cops never get along properly.  Ensemble casts on TV series are the same way.  Each character has their own motivations and they act accordingly.  They never get along 100% of the time, and that interplay between them is what makes you want to watch the show.  Would you want to watch a movie or TV series about a group of people who get along all the time and always agree with each other?  Hell no!  You’d be bored senseless.  Jayne doesn’t get along with Simon.  Everyone distrusts River.  Shawn and Gus are horrible to each other.  Spike spent five seasons trying to get all of Buffy’s Scooby Gang killed.  Are Veronica Mars and Weevil working together this week or at each other’s figurative throats?  Are Spike and Angel working together this week or at each other’s literal throats?  You’d need a flowchart to understand all the interpersonal relationships on Galactica, and can you name one companion of The Doctor who ever, ever stayed put when she was told to?

So what’s the difference between this sort of interaction and a party falling to in-fighting and PvP combat?  When the chips are down, they have each other’s backs.  Even if their motives are less than pure (Spike only wanted to stop the world from ending because it was like an unlimited buffet of fun torturing people), they were still able to work together and overcome the bigger threat to everyone.  That’s the difference.  I’m fairly certain that, at some point, the Elf Barbarian and Drow Assassin are going to come to blows.  But I do know that it’s not going to happen when they’re in the middle of fighting the big bad black dragon I’ve got waiting for them under the kobold’s lair.

Also, here’s a little freebie for you.  In case you were wondering what that monster is on the side, let me explain.  The party of three consisted of the two aforementioned strikers and a controller – a Human Mage with a very blaster-strong build.  I knew they were going to get hurt badly without a leader, so I gave them a little friend.  With the help of a few people on the Wizards of the Coast D&D Forums, I was able to get this to its current form and I can say it works pretty well.  It kept everyone on their feet, but didn’t unbalance the game in the PC’s favor.  Feel free to use it in your games as well.

Published in: on February 21, 2011 at 7:50 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Back in the Saddle Again

I’m writing this the night before, but when this goes live, I’ll be in the middle of DMing my first real session of D&D since October 2009.  I wonder how hard it’s going to be to get back in the swing of things.  I’ve been working on my adventure for about two months now, and I’ve even playtested the major encounters twice to make sure they’re challenging without being overwhelming.  I’ve got my minis already in a little plastic bag under my spot at the table so I can set them up behind the screen.  The adventure’s printed out and I’ve double-checked it to make sure everything printed out properly.  But I’m still worried…

What if I’ve lost my touch?  I prepped a lot for this session, but I’m not usually big on the advance prep.  I like having a vague idea about where the story needs to go, the NPCs/monsters for the encounters, a map, and that’s it.  The more I plan, the more I feel locked into those plans so I can’t adapt on the fly nearly as well (and I’ve got at least two players who are really going to make me think on my feet it seems).  I mean it’s pretty straight-forward for one of my adventures, and it was designed that way.  I’ve got too many new players to have too much fun with terrain.

What if no one shows up?  I’ve only got a couple of people I know are going to be here.  My roommate obviously will.  But what about L and her husband?  I might’ve said something to piss her off when we talked tonight, and I said they couldn’t bring their dog (I have two cats who’ve never been close to a dog larger than chihuahua sized).  And M and R haven’t said a word to me, but my roommate says they’re both playing (which is odd because I thought R was very allergic to cats).  M and R are also married and have had a tendency to get into fights over M hanging out with me and my roommate – not like that, but it’s a very long story that’s frankly none of your business.  I’m making braised pork for everyone, but I don’t know if anyone’s even going to show.

And no one’s playing a Leader.  Sure, M, R, and D haven’t made their characters yet.  But my roommate and S are both playing Strikers, while L is playing a controller.  Knowing M’s personality, she’s probably going to go for a Striker too.  R could go either way.  And D’s really green when it comes to D&D.  If no one plays a Leader, what am I going to do?  I don’t want to run the game with the kid gloves on, but at the same time I don’t want a TPK.  I’ve got a couple of solutions up my sleeve that might help, but it just won’t be the same without a Leader to keep everyone on their feet.

And, worst of all, what if I completely bomb?  I suck at doing accents and voices.  I don’t know if they’ll want to interact with the NPCs much, but I just can’t think of anything interesting I can do with the one NPC they’ll be able to interact with.  I know M plays a lot of Storyteller/World of Darkness games, which are a lot more talky than D&D is.  How is that going to work out when I can’t even hold a British accent for more than a few sentences?  What if I can’t get the new players to understand the rules?  What if everyone hates the adventure?  Or me as DM?

Of course, this is just nerves.  Once I sit down behind the screen, I’ll be fine.  This happens every single time I’m about to start a session, from the moment one ends until the moment I say “Okay, so you’re…” and start everything off.  Once I get going, I’m never worried or nervous or stressed.  And once it’s done, I never worry about how well I did.  I already know exactly how well or poorly I did the second we’re done.  It’s always the next session I’m worried about.  But once it’s started, all I see is the game world, the map, and the PCs.  And honestly, that’s how it should be.

Out with the Old…

I started thumbing through the classic modules from editions past.  Thanks to my old Friendly Local Gaming Store owner selling many classic books and my impulse buying, I’ve got a good chunk of the old modules.  Plus Wizards of the Coast nicely placed many of the adventures online to download for free (link goes to a Wikipedia article, but the ones listed under “Notes” as having an Official Download can be grabbed for free, even without a DDI account).  I decided to skim through them to see what I could rip off for my own campaign and came across a realization: You can’t.

My game is a 4e game.  I prefer the system to all the previous editions.  However, adventures for 4e just aren’t structured the same way as they were in previous editions.  Healing surges saw to that.  In old modules, a series of halls or tunnels lead from chamber to chamber, and were usually trapped.  But a trap in the middle of a hall doesn’t mean much anymore.  “Oops, I triggered this falling rock trap that did 2d6 damage to me.  Guess I’ll have to spend a healing surge.”  Sure, it’s resource attrition, but it’s just not the same.  A trap just isn’t going to kill anyone in a party that has a Leader in it, not even the Leader.  Most of them even have Encounter abilities that can heal without costing Surges.  Sure, it might not heal much, but every little bit counts.  But you can’t just dump Healing Surges from the game.  It’s one of the main abilities that prevents characters from dying constantly.  All of healing in 4e is based on the premise of the Healing Surge.

So how can we recreate that old edition feel into our games aside from asking our players bring three characters each and play them in turn as the last one dies?  I wish I had the answer.  The move to a mini-based game makes drawing such maze-like maps impractical.  Is it just nostalgia that even makes me want to try to run one of these old modules?  Or was there something to the threat of imminent death around every corner?  Is it worth the effort to try to convert say White Plume Mountain or the original Castle Ravenloft?  I’m not sure.  I may try it.  Or I may just keep thumbing through these old books just in case there’s something in here I can use for my own games.

Published in: on February 20, 2011 at 1:42 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Pining for the Fjords – Player Character Edition

The rogue shifted himself too far back and got caught in the wizard’s blast.  The fighter just couldn’t save against the stunned effect and the monster front line made a beeline for the wizard.  The cleric just couldn’t get to them in time to heal them.  However it happened, someone’s dead.  And not “I’m at 0 HP and I’m making my saving throws” dead, but dead dead.  Negative bloodied value dead, failed three death saving throws dead, the spirit is no longer in residence in the body dead.  Now you have a problem.

Thankfully, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition makes it much harder for a PC to actually die.  You start the game with more hit points than you did in any other edition, you can go far deeper into negative hit points than you could before, and if you drop, you have a better than 50/50 chance to make it until the end of combat (assuming your party doesn’t also fall).  There are feats and racial traits that can even keep you on your feet at negative hit points, making it damn hard to actually die in a game.  At least one race, the Eberron campaign setting Warforged, literally cannot die unless you as DM actively attack him or her after the character is down.  But even with all these safeguards in place so that the PCs can lose a battle without dying (which in my opinion is a good thing as a character will stick around longer, causing the player to become more attached and able to add more depth to the character), characters can still die.  It’s been a challenge of the story-oriented DM since the dawn of gaming, and there’s a few ways of handling it.

The first, and probably the least desirable from a story-standpoint, is the hand-wave.  There’s a lot of ways this is done in many cases.  Beldar the Dwarf Fighter dies, but his brother Delbar the Dwarf Fighter (who happens to have the same attributes, skills, powers, feats, and gear) is ready to go in the next room.  While this may satisfy some, I’ve always found it to be the least imaginative and clunky story-wise way of bringing a fallen character back into the game.  The good news is that the player can carry on as if nothing happened.  The bad news is that the player can carry on as if nothing happened.  It greatly reduces the threat of death and the dramatic tension if players know that anytime their character happens to die, they can just pick right back up like they found that 1-Up mushroom on Level 1-1.  If there’s no chance of death, there’s no tension in any given combat.  And without that dramatic tension, there’s no fun.  Ever played DOOM with iddqd turned on?  Sure, it was fun, but it just wasn’t the same as the tension and panic when you rounded a corner only to be confronted by a massive demon with a chaingun for an arm.  Taking that bastard down by the skin of your teeth was a massive rush, but without that tension of death, you lose a lot of that triumph.

If you want the player ready to go, you can always have them create a new character.  Depending on the player’s experience, this may only take a few minutes or it could take the rest of the session.  Sometimes, this is the best way to go.  The player may be out for a bit longer and they’ll have to switch to a new character, but sometimes, you want a character to go out in a blaze of glory.  If the death was dramatically satisfying enough, let them have their moment and start anew.  If the death was just a matter of bad rolls, though, then that character’s story shouldn’t be over quite yet.  This isn’t a decision you should make on your own, though, as this is not something you want to force on an unwilling player.  Talk to the player and find out if they want to go in a different direction or if they want to stay with their same character a bit longer.   They may be tired of playing that race/class or they may have read something else they find more interesting, or maybe they’ve done all they feel like they can do with the character story-wise and are ready for a change.  Or maybe they feel there’s still a lot going on for the character that hasn’t been resolved.  They haven’t slain their evil twin brother or restored their father’s honor or whatever other character motivations the player created.  If that’s the case, then switching characters wouldn’t be the best option.

So your player’s made his or her choice and either wants a new character or wants to stick it through with this one.  Depending on how high level the party is, it may take them some time to make that new character, possibly longer than is left in the session.  Or there may not be any logical place for a new character to come in.  If they’ve decided to stay with the character, the other PCs still have to get that Raise Dead ritual completed to bring them back.  So you’re left with a player staring into space, chatting, and otherwise sitting around not able to be part of the game.  You can always try the tips I’ve provided in more detail before for spectators at your game, such as letting them run an allied NPC, play assistant during combat by moving minis and tracking initiative, or be the snack and drink provider.  You could also make a “quick version” of the new character by simply assigning attributes and picking powers as they play through the game with the option to change them, or play a “ghost” of the deceased character by applying a template to the character.

No matter how you decide to deal with player character death, it should be a rare thing in your games.  The threat of death should be there, but actual character death should be rare.  You should think about your style of game and your players in order to determine what you will do, and you should think about it long in advance so that it doesn’t blindside you.  But whatever choice you make, be sure to keep your players in mind.

Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Skill Challenges Are NOT Pure Evil

Skill challenges throw even experienced DMs for a loop. They involve mechanics that aren’t used in any other aspect of the game, and they aren’t used very often. It’s a shame, because a lot of depth can be added to a game by making good use of skill challenges. The problem is a lot of DMs don’t approach them with the right mindset, and putting a skill challenge at the wrong spot in an adventure can grind the game to a halt. Some people even see skill challenges as replacing role playing as skills like Diplomacy, Bluff, and Intimidate replace what should be normal interactions between PCs and NPCs, reducing them to a simple skill roll.

If players have to complete a skill challenge to advance to the next area of the adventure, something’s wrong in the design. This happens a lot when adventure designers (be it a published adventure, something you found online, or an adventure you wrote yourself) use a skill challenge when a series of skill checks is more appropriate. What’s the difference? Skill challenges have a specified ending point. If the characters have to scale a 100 foot cliff, this should be handled as a series of Athletics checks to climb rather than a skill challenge because, if they fail, they just fall and can try to climb again (if they survive the falling damage). If there’s a definite end, it’s a skill challenge. If they can keep trying indefinitely, it’s a series of skill checks. But keep in mind that things that might not seem like they have an ending, they still do. For example, you can’t keep using Streetwise over and over as eventually, you’ll use up all your resources and contacts (there’s only so many bars you can buy rounds at to get info).

You also don’t want the entire adventure to grind to a halt. If finding the orc camp requires multiple Nature and/or Dungeoneering checks, the failure at a skill challenge with a failure set at “They don’t find it” means that the party is stuck with nothing to do but wander in circles until the players happen across it (typically when the DM gets bored of rolling for random encounters). The easiest way to fix this problem is to look at skill challenges as combat that doesn’t involve sword or spell. In combat, a three or four bad rolls in a row don’t usually mean the players fail immediately. They just get hurt. A skill challenge should have a definite reward if successful and penalty if failed, but it should never stonewall the game. Failing to convince the captain of the guards that the evil necromancer is actually an evil necromancer simply means that the guards won’t take sides in a fight. Success would mean that the guards will arrest him or possibly help out the players in combat if a fight breaks out in the streets. Success on tracking the orc camp mentioned above may allow them to find the camp faster than failure, or let them find it before bumbling in, giving them a chance for a surprise attack.

The worst thing you can do with skill challenges, though, is let them replace role playing. Letting the characters simply make skill checks instead of talking to NPCs is one of the things people talk about when they say “role playing vs roll playing”. This doesn’t have to be the case, though, as you should still require your players act out social encounters. Giving a bonus for good role playing of +2 for good performances and +5 for amazing ones will encourage your players to stay in character during the encounters. Sometimes this can give you a disconnect from reality if the player gives a Shakespearian-quality speech, but botches the roll. There’s a logical explanation for this situation though. Just like in combat, what your player says is what he means for the character to do. The roll determines how well that idea goes through. Just as the player would say “I scramble up the wall after him and grab his ankles” when in fact, there are two rolls involved to determine how the action plays out (the Athletics check for the climb and the Basic Attack for the grab), the player’s sweepingly epic speech for the Diplomacy check or thoroughly convincing story for the Bluff check are what he’s attempting to say, while a botched roll means that he in some way stumbled – using the wrong form of address or speaking an incorrect language for the Diplomacy check or some tell or inconsistency giving the lie away in the Bluff check.

My favorite trick to use in skill challenges isn’t really using the rules as written, so it’s technically a house rule even though it’s not since the rules aren’t changed in any way. It’s adapted from another role playing game that I personally love called Shadowrun, where skill checks are used for combat as well as non-combat. In Shadowrun, you a number of dice equal to your skill rating, and each die is compared to the target number. One success means you’ve accomplished your goal, but more successes mean you’ve done better. So rolling the equivalent of a Bluff check and getting one success means the NPC is willing to go along with the lie but isn’t quite sure if you’re telling the truth or not, but five success means he’s a complete convert to the lie willing to shave his head and start handing out pamphlets to spread the word to others.

The skill check system in D&D 4e isn’t really set up for this sort of sliding scale of success, but modifying the skill challenge very slightly can let you pull this little trick. Instead of the normal skill challenge set-up of “Get X successes before you get Y failures” (which can take as few rolls as the number of failures if the players roll badly right off the bat), you have the players make a set number of skill checks and the more successes they get, the better the results. This requires a little more work from you in designing the skill challenge, but it’s worth the effort to prevent skill challenges from becoming tedious.

Let’s create one of my scaling skill challenges. The players have learned that a wizard has plans to perform a ritual which the players want to stop. The wizard is in a tower outside a city which the players have only recently arrived at. They want to get information about the wizard and his tower so they know what to expect. They’re performing a 5 roll scaling skill challenge. Their choice of skills are Streetwise (getting the word on the street), Arcana (studying where the tower is and what sorts of energies are coming from the place), and Diplomacy (getting access to the city’s official records on the wizard and his tower). If they get no successes out of the five, the information they get is “There’s this wizard…and he has a tower…it’s outside the city though.” However, the amount of information they get depends on the number of successes they’ve achieved:

1 success: The wizard paid a good price for five different farms in order to build his tower, and he didn’t even use all the farmland. It’s as if he needed that specific spot for some reason.
2 successes: Normally, the tower is very quiet. But the past few weeks, messengers have been coming and going regularly, and there have been strange noises in the middle of the night.
3 successes: The wizard’s master was known in his prime for developing new uses for arcane fire, and the wizard himself was in trouble regularly for arson when he was younger.
4+ successes: A red dragon was spotted flying to the tower, and sometimes his cries can be heard in the night.

How does this affect the encounter when the players go to the tower? Not at all really. All the same monsters and traps will be there waiting for them just the same. But if they did well on the challenge, they may have learned some important information. The first piece of information tells them the location of the tower is important to the ritual, the second that whatever is happening is happening soon due to the increased activity, the third lets them know to expect a lot of fire-based attacks and traps, and the last tells them there’s a dragon waiting for them. This will help their wizard prep the correct daily spells and let them do a bit of shopping for items that give them fire resistance before storming the tower. Failure means they’re unprepared for the challenges ahead of them, while success gives them a better chance at prevailing.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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