Sunday, May 20, 2012, 10:51 PM
I just wrapped up three milestones in our Couples' Night D&D game (well, four if you count the "milestone: -- as in, the D&D game term -- the heros passed tonight) and am feeling awesome about it. In this last session:
#1 - The group got through 2 fights in a single night. Now, for some groups, this is nothing to brag about; many groups knock that out no problem. For us, though, with only one player (my lovely wife and party wizard) having 4e experience and 2 players being fresh off the newb boat, getting the seven of us (six players, one DM) through 2 combat encounters in a single session of play can be tough. Some of our veterans are the "weigh every possible option" sort and can sometimes drag down a game as much as indecisive newbies. Tonight, though, things went great and the only reason we stopped when we did is that (a) the "new friends" couple (our party's warlock and cleric) needed to leave early and (b) my wife was working on 4 hours of sleep (she's normally a night owl who would usually be awake right now and irritated with me that I was blogging rather than spending time with her post-game).
#2 - Most everyone in the group hit level 2. My brother's rogue didn't quite make it, but that's because he started later (after 2 sessions had already passed which, given our earlier pace, means he only missed two fights). Now folks get the opportunity to see how leveling up works in 4e (or in rpgs in general for the newbs) and will get shiny new character sheets before the next session. Yes, it took them a month and a half to get to level 2, not because I'm a harsh DM, but because our time together is really quite limited and there's only so much we can get through at a time. The group does seem to be exceptionally well designed for dungeon crawling, though, but I suppose that makes sense since I helped them design their characters and have designed the (only so far) dungeon.
#3 - They chewed up every encounter I threw at them and spit it back out at me. The group, I feel, now gets that I'm not about to make this whole adventuring thing easy on them and that they're going to take some hits along the way. Instead of whining when they get bloodied or even drop, they're now focusing on how to get back into the game and working with the rest of the group to make it happen. A rag-tag bunch of very different characters might have gone into that dungeon, but a well-oiled killing machine is coming out of it. When they tore through the night's second encounter like* fat kids through cake, it was by reacting in an effective, strategic manner to an evolving series of threats which, quite frankly, was even more awesome to watch than I had thought it would be. The first encounter was supposed to be a "tank & spank" with a twist that would have done some serious damage if it wasn't for the fact that they came up with a tactic that seriously out-played me and left me grasping for opportunities for to make the fight challegning. Simply put, these folks out-thought me and for that, I am immensely grateful.
So folks, I'd like to close with a closer look at that last milestone. Yes, I have six players, which should make many encounters easier, but what I really have are six GREAT players who are ALWAYS THINKING and doing a great job of tackling challenges that I throw at them and now enjoy when an encounter challenges and even taxes them. Every single time, they have risen to the challenge and, quite frankly, made the challenges their collective bitch. I really do enjoy that a series of novice players -- novice but GREAT players -- have taken me to task because, if nothing else, it means that next time, I get to take THEM to task in turn.
*While I was searching for a simile here, I got distracted by Bill Cavalier again. Sorry, folks, I just love that guy. How did it take me so long to come up with "fat kids through cake?" Seriously!
Saturday, May 19, 2012, 2:50 PM
I love the Warforged. Really, I do. Of all of the great innovations in Eberron, the Warforged are my favorite. In fact, back during the competition that Eberron won, becoming an official D&D campaign setting, my entry into that same competition had a race similar to the Warforged (but much goofier), so I warmed right up to the living constructs.
Another thing I love is philosophy. Not "philosophies" -- touchy-feely ramblings on divinity or theosophy or other drivel -- but real philosophy, the logical examination of the world around us and its consequences. One part of philosophy that I absolutely adore is the Theory of Mind (I think it's funny that a discipline that's so great at coming up with names for subcategories -- epistemology, anyone? -- can't come up with something better than "Theroy of Mind;" "mindology" does sound like crap, though), particular modern monistic systems like emergence theory. Right, that sounded like the same sort of stuff I just called drivel, didn't it? Allow me to explain.
The theory of mind is largely concerned with what a mind is and what it does, how it does what it does and what it doesn't at all do (but might appear to do). Man, I am not making this any clearer, am I? Really, though, what are we talking about when we talk about minds? Thoughts? Ideas? (These last two we call "mental events" to distinguish them from "physical events;" your mind interacts with the mental event of seeing something which is really just an idea that is caused by the physical event of your body being exposed to light just so, but all that is actually up for debate.) Do physical events create mental events and are mental events capable of creating physical events? If every mental phenomenon is merely the result physical processes, isn't every possible reaction a person may have and action they may take just predetermined by biology? I don't want to talk about any of those here, just want to make a point of what we're talking about.
Emergence theory might be difficult to explain, but that hasn't stopped me so far, and I might as well go where I'm headed anyway. Emergence theory is the theory that the mind -- whether capable of agency or not (whether it's free from predetermination or bound to it) -- emerges from a physical system due to the holisitic correlation of elements. Effectively, the idea is that a biological system, once it becomes sufficiently complex, can cause a mental system to emerge from it, according to certain patterns. While most Emergentists tend to be Materialists (and think that the whole predetermination thing is right), the theory could, with a little tweaking, easily accomodate free will and other fun stuff that we tend to think of as important.
Oh, and I really, really think that the idea of that "a wizard did it" is highly insulting to everyone who's ever heard it, thought it, read it or wrote it. I need better explanations. I DESERVE better explanations.
So, what's all this got to do with the Warforged?
I don't DM Eberron right now, not because I don't like it, but because I feel that my own campaign world (a Points of Light-style game drawing upon the published Nentir Vale stuff and vastly expanded upon) is a little easier to hit the ground running in for new players, which I always seem to have a few of (the Couples' Night game has two totally novice players). The explanation of Warforged in the Points of Light implied setting, in my mind, leaves a bit to be desired. Effectively, they seem to boil down to "a wizard did it."
In Eberron, the Warforged were not simply wizard work. House Cannith, the greatest arcane manufacturers in the world, had to build creation forges -- vast engines of artifice -- just to build the first crude warforged which, over generations, were refined into the Warforged we know today. In PoL? Yeah, it just happened. BAM! Warforged. A wizard did it.
In PoL, I want creation forges. I want the creation of the Warforged to have been a herculian undertaking. I want the process of creating a race, a species, from scratch and without any biological basis, to actually be difficult. Really difficult. To make a mind out of nothing should not be a walk in a park that any passing wizard can accomplish. The story deserves better. The minds of the Warforged deserve better. The players and DMs deserve better.
And so, my game has creation forges, and that's where the Warforged come from. Creation forges -- and the complex magical artifice and technology necessary to create them -- are an essential first step in the genesis of the Warforged. The forges themselves are herculian creations in and of themselves, even before they are applied to the creation of Warforged. The development of the Warforged mind in a creation forge involves harnessing remarkably complex arcane patterns, and the complexity and potency of these patterns ultimately lead conscious living constructs.
I suppose that by now, there's not much to differentiate these emergentist Warforged from more traditional PoL ones. More or less, the difference seems to be between "a wizard did it" and "some really, really complex magic that took a lot of people a long time to do it." To me, though, this opens the door to some very, very different interpretations of the Warforged and the creation forges themselves -- which draw heavily on my "fantasy needs more sci-fi in it" leanings -- that I use in my campaign. Here's a series of what-ifs for you.
What if creation forges must be built over sites of intense power where the energies of the Elemental Chaos bleed through into the World and make intense works of magic possible?
What if the Weavers -- who had previously had an advanced arcane-technological society -- first tapped into these Elemental energies and built the first creation forges? (This could happen at any time, meaning that the creation forges themselves could be impossibly ancient. Under this interpretation, the Warforged do not necessitate the development of the forge, but rather that they are the consequence of the forges -- one among many possible implementation of creation forge technology.)
What if the Weavers' creation forges create not by merely funnelling arcane energies from the Elemental Chaos, but by creating a complex emergent system? (If you've read Planetary, think "snowflake." If not, stick with me, I'm bound to talk about it sooner or later.)
What if this same sort of emergent system is what attracted Far Realm's denizens to the Weavers' home world in the first place?
This post has gone on long enough, so I'm going to cut it here. My overall idea of the Warforged is that they are, indeed, the result of ages of technological and arcane advancement and that they are, after a fashion, the heirs of the Weavers. The "emergent system" that the creation forges use, I'm currently calling a Probability Matrix, and I'd like to explain it more in the future, particularly since it relates directly to my overall campaign conceptand what's really going on in my PoL world. Thanks for tuning in.
Monday, May 7, 2012, 8:46 AM
Last night was our fifth (I think) couples' night gaming session. Because things have been progressing pretty slowly (remember that two of my players are completely new to the rules and one of my players is adjusting to 4e from 3e rather poorly [he just can't seem to get flanking, which, him being the rogue, is pretty bad]). So, last night, after an RP session that started great but then started to drag toward the end (but involved some awesome insights from different players), we finally got into the campaign's first dungeon crawl. Here's the scenario and how things went down:
The party needs to get into a port city for a couple of reasons, but the city has been locked down by an invading force from another city that is not letting anyone in or out. Not being able to wait for a way in, the heroes stopped at a nearby village to find out if there was another way in. After pumping the villagers and two other groups who aren't being let into town for information, the heroes found out about an ancient sewer that leads into the city and how to locate it. After the party located it, the rogue was working out how to release a door mechanism when the warlock decided that it was better to blast the door open (none of the other players here took the warlock seriously until he stepped up and rolled a nat 20, alerting all of the monsters in the next room to their presence). Well, the murkbat swarm attacked first, followed by the dire rats. The fight was -- even for our "how does that rule work again?" fights -- long. The fight was brutal. The tank went down near the end of the fight, which I always enjoy. The players started off using some great tactics, but by the time that the dire rats got to them (the warlock did some great controlling tactics to keep them at bay), fighting in the sewer pipe, while creating the bottleneck that kept the heroes from getting surrounded and created a perfect setup for the wizards blast powers, the heroes ended up with their tactical options severely limited. The rogue couldn't move into flank, for instance. This made the whole fight take a lot longer than it should have, but it was a fun fight for folks who rarely get to flex their in-game muscles (like the wizard).
Stuff I Learned #1: Turn a Futile Effort into an Opportunity
At one point, the group's barbarian asked: "Why don't we just the guards at the gates what they're doing here?" To be honest, my mind was blown. How had the rest of us -- 6 including me, the DM -- not even considered that? Well, I knew that I hadn't planned on the heroes being able to get any details out of them, but why I hadn't I considered what they COULD get out of them? I told the barbarian "Sure, that's great, but it's going to take a while for you to get to the gate since you're in a nearby village, remember?" buying me time to work out exactly what she could figure out. I let her try to address the guards, but it was eventually obvious that she wasn't sure how to do this. Instead, I truncated the scene and explained that her questions were largely stonewalled, that she'd get "canned answers" and that those answers would come from different members of the six-guard team. After spending some time with the guards, the barbarian figured out that these guys are very well disciplined and organized and that whatever their cause might be, they're fanatically devoted to it. All of these were facts that they didn't have before. Rather than allowing the barbarian to waste her time (and the group's), it made more sense to me to give her something for her efforts.
Stuff I Learned #2: Two Swarms Should Equal Two Controllers
Swarms. I've always wanted to effectively use swarms in D&D (and you'll remember that one of my design goals is "Do something I've never done before"). I had a few work correctly in 3e, but none really did the trick for me in 4e before. Then, came last night. The players faced off against two murkbat swarms which were attracted to the sound of Ny, the warlock, blowing in a portcullis. If we all think back to our MM, we know that swarms take half damage from attacks that aren't area (zone, burst or blast) attacks, so it makes sense for the group to use as many area attacks as possible. Here's the problem: only one of the strikers has ANY area attacks, and he was holding back on using his encounter power because the group new a wave of dire rats was on its way. The only player with reliable, re-usable area attacks is the wizard, who's been trying to get into position to use her Thunderwave on more than one or two enemies for session after session with no success. What the group needed in order to deal with two swarms effectively was another controller so that the AOE potential of the group was sufficient to burn down two enemies rather than allowing the strikers to plink away at each swarm for half damage. Maybe I can convince one of the strikers to multiclass into a controller class if this ends up becoming a trend.
Stuff I Learned #3: Auras Don't Tie The Players' Hands Tactically
In the previous session's fight against the bullywug menace, I completely forgot about the bullywugs' aura power. The more I read that aura, the more I worried about using it, too. In the end, I decided that forgetting to use it was perfectly fine since it would have tied the hands of my PCs when trying to make tactical decisions and prevented them from fighting the way they wanted to. So, when the murkbat swarms came out yesterday, I was ready. I was GOING to use their aura powers, damn it! The aura makes anyone in it take a -2 penalty to attack rolls and if a character ends his or her turn in the aura, he or she takes 3 damage. Once the heroes discovered this, they made great use of shifts to move in and out of the aura expertly, and once the wizard got in place to lay down Thunderwave turn after turn, it became a careful game of watching initiative order -- the Thunderwave came at just the right time every turn that it kept people's turns from ending inside the aura. The auras made the fight tougher, but for me, that made it more fun and for the players, it meant that they had to make harder decisions and a fight that could have been "easy mode tank & spank" ended up requiring excellent positioning and timing, which the players pulled off very well under the paladin's guidance.
Right, well, it's about time for me to get moving. Thanks for tuning in. Before I do go, I'd like to send out a huge thanks to you all in the Wizards community for taking note of what I've been doing over here. I hope you enjoy these posts and others to come.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 9:54 AM
(Note: Originally, I wrote a very long version of what you're about to read. It contained a lot of invective and venting that I did not feel was very becoming of a community member, so I decided to sleep on it before posting anything. This morning, I had the idea that what that post had been should instead be about 3 or 4 posts on the subject, but knowing full well that those never work out the way you want them to, just now I decided that I'm going to keep this conversation to the very few main points of my arguments and that's all. Thanks.)
As far as I can figure, D&D Next is being created because of two events in the marketsphere of fantasy rpgs: (1) the Old School Renaissance (OSR) and (2) the polarizing, poorly-planned introduction of 4e. The OSR is even influencing many design decisions in D&DN, with many developers having said at this point that you should be able to use old game supplements with D&DN with few to no problems. Many people flocked to the OSR (or Pathfinder, but that's another story) when 4e launched because, let's face it, 4e launched too soon and with too little market testing; we as a market weren't yet tired of 3.5e (which had a damn good system). Furthermore, I contend that more 4e players and DMs have gotten into the OSR precisely because of a few features of 4e that are reminiscent of old school gaming (I could talk about this one for a long time, but as I see it, it all boils down to one point: fewer guidelines on when and where to implement things into your campaign and more emphasis on how it's done). So, WotC brought out a new edition of the world's favorite rpg too soon, without consulting its market, in a climate conducive to the OSR movement and including details in the game that remind people (well, me at least) of awesomeness that the OSR is all about. So, obviously, the next version of D&D needs to answer this problem and bring all of those OSR players back into the fold of mainstream D&D by being compatible with the old school material, right?
It's a noble goal, I've gotta say, but I'm not sure it's a useful one. (I'm not going to say that it's not doable, just not useful.)
As I see it, there are a few reasons why D&DN should not keep the future the hostage of the past.
First, OSR is a niche market. It's a large niche, but it's still a niche. I think it's fair to say that D&D enjoyed its widest play during 3-3.5e and that the 4e launch fracturing (also called the "edition wars") managed to single-handedly create 4e's greatest competitor: Pathfinder. OSR is not a competitor -- it fills a completely different role in the market than 4e or Pathfinder. Pathfinder is a competitor -- it is a differentiated rpg model from 4e that fills the same place in the market. Essentially, making the D&DN model fit the OSR is stating that WotC wants D&DN to recapture a segment of its market that has gone removed itself from the main marketplace and taken up residence in a niche market while not worrying terribly much about the other main competitor in the same market. I really wish I had a good analogy for this, but I'm coming up short.
(I realise that D&DN, being a direct market competitor for Pathfinder may be addressing Pathfinder similarly to the way it's addressing the OSR. After all, the stated design goal of "compatability with all editions" includes the 3rd edition, too.)
Second, OSR already has a lot of support. Do you remember the first two editions of AD&D and the BECMI boxes? Yeah, they can use all of that. Oh, and thanks to the OSL, they have access to all sorts of D&D-like terms and ideas to produce their own games with, games like Labyrinth Lord. So, someone's already producing for a niche market, so why does WotC need to do it, to? Should WotC tie up valuable resources that could be coming out with progressive products coming up with products that fit in with material that are decades out of date and ideas that time and tide have proven faulty?
Third and finally, nostalgia can't answer our problems. However much I might miss rolling a d6 to determine if my dwarf can detect a sloping passage, that's a dumb effing rule. Later editions of D&D have given us more elegant and useful solutions (3e's skills, anyone?) that are then refined upon in still later editions (4e's skills and skill challenges, anyone?). The reason to look backward is not for answers to our current dilemmas, but to see how we got here in the first place. The old saying that "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes" might point out that if we ignore the successes of past editions, we're going to make huge mistakes. I say we can't ignore those successes, because they're the foundation of each successive edition. What most folks ignore, I feel, is the journey that got us from point A to point B and what it means for future development. Rather than looking to the past for explicit answers to our problems, shouldn't we be looking for what we can learn from the way the past handled similar problems and how we can implement a real, practical, modern solution that reflects the current nature of our problem? After all, if a previous edition had gotten something right in the first place, why'd it get changed?
(That last part, I know, is a contentious statement. There are loads of folks who believe that rules that got changed had previously "worked." This is obviously not the case or they wouldn't have been changed; you as a gamer had just never reached the point where those now-disregarded rules had broken down and become unfeasible.)
So, I've got to say, I'm glad that we've got some time before D&DN hits the shelves. It's exciting when a new edition comes out, and I'm hoping that the amount of time and community involvement with this edition will prevent any future "edition wars" (I'm much more worried about another edition war than bringing the OSR guys back into the fold). I'm not very hopeful, however, that the design goal of bringing all players of earlier editions under one umbrella edition is going to be a useful thing; folks are going to play what they want to play regardless of weather WotC wants them to or not. Why waste resources trying to corral everyone under one big tent when WotC could use the same resources to develop a forward-leaning product that satisfies the competitive part of the market?
Monday, April 16, 2012, 8:34 PM
As I've been working on not only my Weavers' Loom campaign, but also writing about the design process in general, I've found a couple of other things I'd like to write about, but don't really have the time to. Oh, and I've been reading lots and lots of DMing advice in between working on Marketing research projects, most notably Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips and Tobiah Panshin's The Game Master. Look at the title of this post. Guess which one of those two books this post is about.
First off, The Game Master is cheap. So cheap its free. Yep, free book. Well, free eBook. My only problem with the format was that it was eBook rather than, say, .mobi, so I had to download a different (non-Kindle) reader to read this on my Evo (phone).
Other than that one small detail (oh, and its unimaginitive name), The Game Master is an amazing tool for DMs/GMs of all stripes and experience levels. Primarily focused on getting a campaign off the ground and functioning smoothly in a manner that ends up satisfying for players & DMs alike, every DM will find something new and useful in The Game Master. This book deals with a lot of the more theoretical issues that modern DMs tangle with (NO MOAR RAILROADZ!), all from the point of view that the game, as it is a game, needs to be fun first and foremost.
So. The book is free. Go download it. If you like it, donate to the site/author. I recommend the "how much was the information I just learned worth to me?" model. Check it all out at:
Monday, April 16, 2012, 8:50 AM
Part II - Goals As Guides for Campaign Design
Last time, I discussed the three guiding goals that I set for my Weavers’ Loom campaign. I set three goals which are both things that I want to accomplish with the campaign, but also benchmarks of priority by which I’ll measure the appropriateness of any given element that I consider adding to it. Here are the three goals again for those who missed them last time:
#1 - Design a fun campaign
#2 - Tell a good story driven by the players’ decisions and their characters
#3 - Do something in the campaign I’ve never done before.
Originally, I intended for this post to cover all three design goals but, as I started going in-depth with them, realized that I was going to take up a lot more space with each than I had planned. As such, this post is going to concern itself with our first design goal which, of course, is the most important.
Design Goal #1: Design a Fun Campaign
Being my #1 goal makes this one also my #1 priority. Breaking this goal down with my criteria for “what makes a goal” from my last post on this topic, I have an end result that I want to accomplish (the fun campaign), specificity (this campaign has to be fun for me and my players) and a measurability (are we having fun?). Now, let’s look at what I can do to make sure I accomplish this goal, remembering that every time I think about adding something to the campaign, it first has to pass the “will it be fun” test.
As it stands right now, I’m considering three different dimensions of “fun.”
* Design Fun Encounters
* Make Sure Everyone Has A Part To Play
* Engage All The Players
Let’s look at these in detail.
Design Fun Encounters
Of course we all want every encounter to be fun, but how do you ensure that an encounter WILL be fun? Without any doubt, there are a few things that mean an encounter will not be any fun at all. Fighting the same monsters for the billionth time. A long, drawn-out slog of a fight. Traps that don’t give you a chance to survive. Fights that the heroes can just breeze through without thinking twice. Fights that are so ridiculously hard that no one could survive. None of these things are fun. So, how do we keep encounters fun?
Break up the types of monsters being used, even if it doesn’t “fit the story” (it’s your story, after all and you can always write in a story reason for there suddenly being a different sort of enemy as your PCs cut their way through the bandit camp). Include “outs” in encounters so that not every encounter is about defeating the enemies, but rather about accomplishing goals. If a fight is taking longer or is harder than you had intended, introduce a new element to the encounter that pushes it along faster (such as a zone of damage that hurts both heroes and villains alike). Similarly, if the heroes are having too easy of a time with a fight, have some units in reserve, ready to be put into action at a moment’s notice or have a template ready to go to make your enemies more powerful once they’re bloodied (the “overdrive when bloodied” ploy has been one of my favorites). PC-killer death traps should be changed to massive damage traps that a series of player decisions can avoid. Vary your encounter environment so that not every fight is happening in the same room with the same terrain; invent new and exciting places for the heroes to fight the baddies with lots of terrain effects for them to put into effect.
But how to plan for all this stuff? I’m going to use my own design process as a starting point here. When I’m designing encounters, rarely am I designing them one at a time. Normally, I come up with a string of encounters that I design as a group and I’ll bet you do, too. I try to make sure that each encounter has something -- or several somethings -- different from the other encounters around it. If you’re designing a dungeon, you don’t want to stock the same two or three types of orcs in each room; you’ll want to add an ogre here, a forgotten shrine to Gruumsh over there (with a fantastic terrain property), a gelatinous cube down the way, etc. When I designed my first few encounters of my current campaign, while they all involved goblins in one way, I added elements beyond just “fight some goblins” to make each encounter feel different. In the first encounter, goblins attacked a tavern, so the heroes had to defend the townsfolk in the tavern (and the kegs) while driving off the goblins. In the second encounter, the goblins attacked the bar, so the heroes had to keep them from running off with kegs of ale (which the goblins also used as mobile cover). In the third -- and final -- encounter of this group, the PCs tracked the goblins to a hilltop base camp, where the goblin commanders had a tactical advantage (high ground) and a few nifty terrain effects (pushing PCs off cliffs, into fires, etc.). Once the PCs realized that pushing goblins off cliffs and into fires was an effective way of controlling the little buggers, the fight went from “just plain tough” to “pretty damn memorable.” While I was planning this group of encounters, I kept an eye on what was going on in each, and how the others in the group could be similar and different.
You may be designing a group of encounters, like I just discussed, as a chain of events. Or, you may be designing them in the old fashioned, classic dungeon environment. In either case, grouping encounters offers you a great opportunity: you can design extra elements common to all of them (and making sense for all of them) that you can drop into any of them at a moment’s notice. Oh, is this fight going too easily? Well, here’s that unit of reserves we talked about above (and you only need to design it once for the entire group of encounters). Need to beef up a baddie really quickly? Add this “overdrive template” that we’ve planned for use somewhere in this group. Fight taking too long? Well, we can add this terrain element anywhere in the group that suddenly does 10 damage to everyone starting their turn within it. Stuff like that. You might not have to design extra features like these for every encounter, but having a plan for them while you’re designing a group of encounters is a great idea.
The long and the short of this idea is: plan for everything to be fun and plan for how to deal with an encounter that isn’t fun. Remember that “kill ten orcs” doesn’t usually make for a fun encounter; “save the townsfolk from the ravening tribe of demon-worshipping orcs in the middle of the lava field before they sacrifice the townies to their dark master” does.
Make Sure Everyone Has A Part To Play
Or, “give the fighter a job.” Or wizard. Or whatever. Players sitting around not doing anything while they wait for their turn is a recipe for disaster; on that I think we can all agree. What’s even worse is when a player sits out an entire encounter because there’s nothing cool for his hero to do. It’s important to design encounters around what your heroes do and do well.
Martial characters tend to be more physical. Running, jumping, climbing trees. For rogues and rangers, this usually includes sneaking around, too. And, of course, rogues always have the option of traps or skill challenges that let them show off their nearly-exclusive skill, Thievery.
Divine characters have a more diverse set of skills and capabilities. You can count on nearly every (if not every) Divine-powered character to be trained in Religion, so there’s always room for some of that. Divine characters tend to have access to skills like Insight and other social skills, so adding social aspects to challenges can be useful as well.
Arcane characters are the ultimate knowers. Wizards have access to every lore skill in the book and many of those use Intelligence as their basis. Warlocks, artificers and sorcerers aren’t far behind, so adding long lost lore to an encounter works out well.
Primal characters often combine the athleticism of martial characters with a love of the natural world (and the Nature skill). In order to play up their connection to the natural world, remember to add nature spirits, monstrous beasts and threats to the natural world to campaigns including Primal characters. Aberrations make great anti-nature threats, especially if the heroes get a chance to see how much damage aberrations can do to nature.
Psionic characters are sort of a cross between Divine and Arcane characters with a dash of Martial thrown in for good measure. Lots of thinkery with a dash of action mark Psionic characters; well, some of them. The thing is, Psionic characters are a mixed lot and it seems like it makes sense to suss out traits of your Psionic characters themselves rather than try to force a “one size fits all” sort of label on to all of them.
All in all, it should be fairly easy for you to analyze what sort of abilities each hero has and design encounters that emphasize them. In addition, it’s a very good idea to come up with ways for characters to use what they’re good at in situations that don’t directly involve those things. For example, the barbarian in my campaign isn’t much good during a tense negotiation, until you notice that she is trained in Nature and Perception and might be able to notice stuff that the other heroes miss. Similarly, the group’s paladin might seem out of place in a lore-based skill challenge (especially since his Religion is far lower than the group’s cleric’s), until you add in an element that allows him to act as a martyr and take damage or lose healing surges on behalf of the group. When you’re designing an adventure element, it’s a good idea to run through your list of heroes to make sure that each of them will have something to contribute and that no one’s standing around waiting for their turn.
While we’re on the subject, it’s likely that you’ll have a player or two or three who’s more experienced with D&D than the others. Sometimes, these players just sit around getting bored while the other players take ages to decide what to do. My wife is one of these. Our last session, she ended up getting terribly bored and I found her playing some game on her cellphone while waiting for someone to take their turn. We’ve since had a conversation about why she was bored and it turns out that she had never considered trying to help another player puzzle through what he should do on his turn. Now, she’s partnered up with another player and they’ll be discussing tactics while the spotlight is off either of them. This is more of an in-game sort of call to make, but if you can plan to have your experienced players ready to help out an inexperienced player from moment one, you’ll be in great shape.
Engage All The Players
This design sub-goal dovetails nicely with making sure everyone has a part to play, especially the information about what sorts of threats each type of character reacts well to. This goes beyond simply making sure each player has something interesting to do each round of an encounter and spills over into the game at large. Make sure that there are design elements throughout your campaign that directly relate to each character. Here are some quick suggestions.
Martial characters might get involved with a local militia, army or other legitimate military body (mercenary companies can be legitimate, right?). Rogues might want to be involved with a Thieves’ Guild. Rangers might be loners, but could get involved in these sorts of organizations and structures just as easily (or be motivated similarly to Primal characters, below). Tying organizations like these into your campaign will give Martial characters a key point of reference and an understanding of the role that characters like them might play in the story.
Arcane characters often feel a need for some place to study. A library, a college or other sort of repository of knowledge can suit your arcanist’s needs well. Organizations of arcanists can also provide either support or excellent foes for Arcane characters. Remember that many Arcane characters will be Ritual Casters (or Alchemists) and need training in new rituals (or alchemical formulas) and if you’ve provided an in-game source for those, learning them will feel more natural.
What is a Divine character without a deity to champion or a temple to defend? Think carefully about the role of your Divine characters’ deities in-game and have at least some basic ideas about the temple(s) they’re associated with. In my own campaign, I knew that I was going to have a follower of Sehanine (our cleric) and a follower of Ioun (our paladin), so I made sure that the temple in town represented both deities. These player choices not only affect some basic elements of the campaign world, but also give you the opportunity to establish threats to the deities as threats to the party (such as the conflict of Vecna vs. Ioun in the case of my campaign).
Primal characters are in some ways the most and least demanding when it comes to designing campaign elements to interact with. Least because usually, you won’t have to design complex societal structures or rigid codes of conduct, but most because the sorts of things that drive Primal characters can be more nebulous and less intuitive (at least for many modern gamers) than the other power sources. For example, many Primal characters interact regularly with the primal spirits of the world. Sure, you could easily design a “tiger spirit” or a “boar spirit,” but it’s much cooler and more memorable if you invent “Usket, the Rage that Stalks” or “Tuskmother Yushka of the Squealing Wallow;” while nature spirits seem simple, it’s important to remember that they, just like any other NPC, will have motivations and personalities that go beyond “protect the natural world.”
Psionic characters often need some sort of like-minded group to be a part of, such as a monastery (for monks) or a secret society of similarly-powered individuals. Since psionic magic tends to be more subtle than other forms, intrigue often suits Psionic characters well. I’ve found that players of Psionic characters tend to focus on more mental activities and conflicts, so including
Other considerations exist as well. Race, origin and social background will always come into play here. If a character comes from a noble house, it’s important to tie that noble house not only into the campaign’s background, but also give it a role to play in the campaign’s future. Does a player design her hero to have an implicit mystery? Make sure you find a spot in the campaign for her to discover its meaning or recover her lost memories. If a character has a strong elemental connection (such as being Genasi or having taken one of the themes from Heroes of the Elemental Chaos), make sure that this important character choice is reflected in the campaign somewhere. Fey characters, such as elves, eladrin or wilden, should have some sort of tie to the Feywild, even if that connection is set off a ways. The decisions that your players make about who their characters are can give you a lot of fodder adding new and exciting plot elements into your campaign.
Next time, we’ll look at my other design goals and see what sort of stuff I’m having to bear in mind when determining the “best fit” of future campaign elements.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012, 9:04 AM
So, I'm taking a little longer with my next post on campaign design goals than I had originally planned. In the mean time, I thought I'd provide an update on how the tutorial quests I mentioned in my first blog post here a few weeks back are shaping up.
In the session when I introduced the tutorial quest (the same session I introduced the concepts of quests in the first place), I had two players finish off their tutorial quests. The group's warlock managed to have two stacks of the Fate of the Void buff at the same time (his quest) and really saw how it paid off when he traded them in for +2 to hit on his next turn. The group's cleric healed 50 points of damage quickly and easily. The next session (which happened this past Sunday), the group's paladin marked his sixth enemy, completing his quest, as well.
Since completing their quests, the players have gone on to continue to do the things that their tutorial quests taught them to do. The warlock likes to spread his curses around so that the deaths of mooks help him take down the bosses. The paladin has learned to effectively use his dailies to "turn on" his Divine Sanction class feature, marking lots of enemies. And, of course, the cleric has continued to heal.
What's Not Working
Okay, give me a minute, this is the part where I need a cup of coffee before I move any further forward.
The group's shifter barbarian is a Thunderborn Wrath build. As a shifter themed toward were-tigerishness, she liked the idea of growling really loudly and having that do damage. Okay, cool. We can work with this. Her Thunderborn Wrath feature activates when she bloodies an enemy, causing Con mod Thunder damage to every enemy adjacent to her. So, what is the quest I come up with? Damage ten enemies with Thunder damage. Sounds simple, but it's not working out to be.
Furthermore, my lovely wife, the group's wizard, is having some problems completing her quest. Her quest was to force movement of enemies ten times. That sounds pretty straightforward for a wizard, right? Well, the problem with this one is that, at level one, her accuracy isn't fantastic. Maybe it's her dice rolling (that's what she believes), or maybe it's that she's at +4 vs. (whichever defense) for all her attacks, but it's hard to see exactly why this one's not filling up as quickly.
What I've Learned
I think I made the cleric's quest far too easy. I'm not sure how to do this (I need to do a bit of research here), but I'd like to reward her for helping the group save vs. conditions or something of that nature. The paladin's quest felt exactly right in terms of difficulty and length of time it took; so, doing something to six different enemies seems to be a good benchmark for Level 1. The warlock's quest felt pretty much right, but I think, were I to write it again, I'd change it to "have two stacks of Fate of the Void on two separate occasions;" he set up the dominoes for the first two stacks pretty easily so I'm sure he could have done it twice.
Our barbarian's quest was a mistake. I focused on the wrong thing. The player is brand new to tabletop games and is still learning a lot. By tying her quest to doing Thunder damage to her enemies, I tied her quest to a consequence of something that she's trying to do. She's trying to do damage to her enemies and if she does enough, she bloodies them. If she bloodies them, she does Thunder damage. The planning for earning credit on this quest is several steps deep and requires a lot of tactical thought, which I can't really expect from a new player. The quest I should have given her would read: "Bloody six different enemies." Then, she'd be focusing on doing lots of damage and she'd be seeing her extra damage happen just as a consequence of doing what she should be doing.
The wizard's quest to force movement ten times should be working, and I thought at first that maybe the wife just needed some coaching on how to make it work. Turns out, she's working really hard at making it work, but her problem is accuracy. A +4 attack bonus vs. non-AC defenses at Level 1 really isn't that bad (it could be better, but it's not that bad), especially when you consider that she's often targeting multiple enemies. And yes, forcing movement is one of the hallmarks of the wizard. So, how could we have written a quest that would work better? A wizard's accuracy is lower than, say, pretty much any striker. Why? The wizard is going to be making more attack rolls against more foes due to the fact that she targets primarily close or area effect spells. Why not reward targetting based on fitting as many enemies in a blast or burst as possible before the attack rolls are made? Something like, "target 10 creatures with close or area effect powers." Here, 10 might be too low since success is not required.
If you're considering adding tutorial quests, I suggest you consider both the strengths and weaknesses of your heroes before getting too far along in the quest design process. Be sure that the quests focus on the strengths of each hero and don't end up displaying a weakness. Furthermore, keep every quest on the "surface level" of mechanics, at least at first; things such as "bloodied" or "marked." If you involve more complex class mechanics, make sure they are ones easily trackable and with a direct (and again, easily trackable) effect like the warlock's Pact Boon (oh, that happened then this happens... once).
My next round of quests will start up next session, where the heroes will get their first round of group tutorial quests so everyone can contribute and help "build combos" to accomplish them. Since our next session is in just over a week, you'll probably get to see these quests before the players do.
In a final final word (because I realize I have more time to write than I had originally thought), I'd like to let you know a few of the other D&D related projects I'm working on:
#1: Skill challenge cards - In order to make building Skill Challenges less challenging, I came up with a system using cards to allow me to "deal out" a skill challenge to help with prepping my game. I plan on showing these off as soon as I bother to take pictures of them.
#2: More Training Wheels ideas for my new players.
#3: More information about the Weaver's Loom and how I'm (slowly) inventing it and making sure it fits with my campaign design goals.
Saturday, April 7, 2012, 7:49 AM
Yesterday morning, I wrote a long and hilarious post about the lengths my brother went through to get a seat in the Couples’ Night D&D game. I got within a few sentences of finishing it off when *BAM* the real fault of the WotC community pages exploded in my face: there is no ability to save pages before you publish them (and there is consequently no auto-save feature). After thinking long and hard about how to replace that fantastically well-written and immeasurably funny article -- and you’ll have to just take my word for it at this point -- I decided that the best way to compensate you for your terrible loss was to write something completely different. And so, on to how I set goals for campaign design.
Have you ever noticed how every DM likes to relate a part of their own professional experience to the art of DMing? You’ll hear programmers use programmer-talk about DMing and DMs who love the theater will talk about themes and … other theater-y stuff. Bartoneus over on critical-hits.com, being an architect, even writes regular articles that relate concepts of architecture to DMing (unless I’ve horribly misread him). So, you can expect me to bring my own professional experience to bear on the topics of DMing. Me? What do I do? Well, I’m a business guy; specifically, a marketing guy. Don’t be afraid, this will all make sense shortly.
Goals and Goalsetting
Before I go any further, I want to talk about goals. When you think about goals, you may be thinking about something different than what I am, so let me get the air clear. Goals are how we know we’re succeeding at whatever we’re trying to do. A goal, for lack of a better definition, is a specific measurable result. Specific in that it is explicit in what it’s trying to accomplish. Measurable in that you can figure out a way to measure whether it’s being accomplished (often within a particular time frame). Result in that it is the desired end of a particular process. A DMing goal could be “build a character-driven plot with input from my players” -- it tells you what we’re going to accomplish, includes benchmarks for success (degree of character and player involvement) and implies an end-result status (that the goal is the end result of a process). A goal would not be “be a good DM” -- it is not explicit in what “good DMing” means, it’s probably not too measurable (ask your players if you’re a good DM and they’ll either suck up to you or tear into you) and there is no real result; you’re just being something, not accomplishing something.
As I work on designing a campaign, I try to establish three goals for myself for the story. These goals help me determine my priorities when building the campaign itself (in Marketing terminology, they function as relevant criteria). What are three things that I want to accomplish in the campaign? When I get a crazy idea about something to include, how do I determine if it’s a good fit for the campaign? What are three commitments I can make to myself and my players to prioritize before all others, in order to guarantee a game that we’ll all enjoy? (Side note: I’m a grammar nazi, but I always spell “guarantee” wrong. I spell it like that Cajun chef pronounces it: “gar-AUN-tee. ” )
Campaign Design Goals: The Weavers’ Loom
So, before I had a name for my campaign, I decided that I needed goals for it. Sure, I had some bits of narrative floating around in my noggin, but I wasn’t sure where it would all go. Nor should I have been; I didn’t have a solid idea yet of what would be important in the campaign. As I moved along with spitballing ideas at myself, I realized that there were certain thoughts that kept coming back to be. These thoughts ended up becoming the core assumptions of what I wanted to see in the game and helped me establish clear goals. “Will my players think this is fun?” “I’ve got a lot of new players, what monsters and enemies can I throw at them that’re quintessential D&D?” Stuff like that. I needed a way to distinguish between a good idea and an okay idea, and idea that fit the campaign and one that didn’t. After writing down every possible criterion I could think of for the campaign, I ranked them in order of importance and fleshed the top three out a bit further.
Here are the goals I’ve set for myself for my Couples’ Night campaign, the Weavers’ Loom:
Design a fun campaign
Tell a good story driven by the players’ decisions and their characters
Do something in the campaign I’ve never done before.
I’ve listed these goals in order of importance (relevance); fitting the “fun campaign” goal is more important than the “good story” goal which, in turn, is more important than “do something I’ve never done.” These goals and priorities guided my initial formulation of the campaign that would come to be the Weavers’ Loom and, in my next post on the topic, I’ll show you how.
Friday, April 6, 2012, 9:08 AM
So, I just almost finished a very long, very funny post about how my brother finagled his way into my D&D game. Then the screen reloaded and I lost it all. I am now furious.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012, 12:05 PM
The continuing stOOOooory of a quack who's gone to the ... wait, no, that's "Veteranarian's Hospital." This is the one about the group of three couples who decided to play D&D together. Right.
The first time we met, the group worked on the players' heroes until ... well, until it was bedtime for our more "grownup" members of the group (read, gainfully employed), so Session 1 was going to be the group's first chance to actually play the game. But first, we needed to print the character sheets & power cards off of the Character Builder; this process held up the game for no less than an hour (and possibly more, I lost track of time), and here's why: for some reason (and this may just be a flaw of the Builder's programming), I was completely unable to print the power cards pages separately from the first three character sheet pages. I tried and I tried, but I could NOT get these pages to print the way I wanted them to.
Short aside, but the reason that I wanted the power cards printed separately is because (a) I wanted to save on ink, printing the first three pages in BnW and (b) I like to print power cards on card stock, making them actually FEEL like CARDS. I usually laminate them after printing, using those adhesive laminating sheets, but I think lamination may be over for me: the character builder's "automath" printing on the power cards means that either we'll have to physically change the card each time the math changes or we'll have to print new ones each time the numbers change. Laminating cards will get super costly with either process. Thus, I'm working on a new solution (that I'll talk about in another post).
The one encounter we got through went well, even with the delays. The heroes were able to control the goblins I threw at them. I started to see the beginnings of in-game strategy forming in the minds of the players (all of whom were out of water in one way or another: two players being totally new to tabletop and only one player having played 4e before but as a different role).
What I Learned
The character builder, while being a super-useful tool, does not do EXACTLY what I want it to, so I shouldn't waste game time by trying to make it be what I want it to be. Print sheets and powers a few days before game time, even though I had hoped for a more "print on demand" sort of logic.
Looks like we might be having a pacing problem, but I'll talk more about that later.
The first session's big time waster was character sheet and power card printing. Session 2's big time waster was pizza. A group ruling was made that we wouldn't try to start playing until after (a) the pizza got here and (b) we ate it. This slowed things down a lot; if I'd have realized that we were going to have this problem beforehand, I would have made arrangements before we got to the table.
This was the first session that I tried out my "tutorial minor quest" cards for (see this post) in order to guide the players on how their heroes' abilities worked. Session 2 saw one encounter only, but two of the heroes completed their quests: the warlock spread around curses to have two stacks of Fate of the Void at the same time and the cleric shot holy healing light all over the place, quests got completed. Some progress was made on the other quests as well, and the heroes are likely to complete them next session.
Again, we only got through one encounter but it was a pretty long one and the players had a bunch of time on either side of the encounter. If we'd had a lot of time after that first encounter, I might have tried to push the story along, but there wasn't really enough to complete another encounter, so instead I introduced some important NPC and more story got woven in. Some fun intra-party RP was had (the wizard caught the warlock "underrepresenting" the amount of gold on the goblin corpses and contfronted him) as well.
What I Learned
The players are getting a strong sense of how their characters work and the game is moving along well, but I'd really like to get some more encounters in each session. But really, do we need to? My initial sense is that we're moving too slowly, but after thinking about things, I'm not sure we are. We have two players completely new to D&D who likely need the time to get acclimated. My wife has payed D&D 4e before, but none of the other players have, so they've got to get used to this edition, which is going to take some time, as well. Finally, Katie, while she's played 4e, has never played a controller, so she's learning how to move stuff around the battlefield. So, everyone has some learning to do and I can't really expect too much in a night. I would like to keep non-game stuff from interfering with game stuff. So, if we're ordering a pizza, I'm making sure it's ordered before people start coming over.
Oh, and the tutorial quests were a hit. Folks were doing what they needed to to accomplish their quests, sometimes without explicit thought to accomplish the quest.
This last Sunday, we had our first non-D&D Game Night. Katie had to work, so it was everyone but her. We ended up playing 7Wonders & Dominion.
7Wonders: very neat Euro-style resource management and building game that reminded me of the CIVILIZATION franchise. You start as one of the classical-era city states and work toward out-awesoming your competition by buiding a wonder, advancing your civilazation or military conquest. One of the neatest conceits of this game is how it handles geography and proximity: to represent that some city-states would be closer to or further away from others, the effects that you put in play (including building your army) can only target the player to your right or left. This limitation provides a real sense of the finity of the classical world in a way that most similar games leave out.
Dominion: Dominion is awesome. This deck-building game approximates the building of a kingly domain and involves lots and lots of strategy. I'll admit that I have yet to win a game of this, which reflects the fact that every time I sit down to play it, I have a flawed strategy in mind. By the second hand, I've usually corrected for this flaw, but so has everyone else. I really enjoy this game as a standalone or with its expansions and look forward to playing a lot of it in the future.
So far, I haven't introduced the group to any new games, but I think that for our next "just games" night, I'm going to try to introduce folks to BANG! or Three-Dragon Ante. I'm sure Katie will want to play Apples to Apples or Scribblish, as well. After reading all of the great reviews for Lords of Waterdeep, I'm thinking about trying to find a copy of this on the cheap.
That's all for today. Next time, I get to share with you the single greatest moment of Couples' Night so far: a tale of lies, deceit and sheer awesomeness.