Friday, May 3, 2013, 7:40 AM
Where to Begin
(AOA1-1 The Worth of a Slave)
Good news! Wizards of the Coast has allowed the campaign admins to share the Ashes of Athas campaign adventures (20 adventures organized into 7 chapters). To order the adventures, just send me a PM with your e-mail address. We can't begin to describe how glad we are to be able to share the campaign with you!
Now, back to the purpose of this blog series. I wanted to review each adventure from a design perspective, sharing some insight into how the adventure was created, highlighting areas where we tried new things, and sharing what we learned in going from concept to draft to actual play.
In the Beginning
Note: As with all parts of this blog series, there are spoilers within!
I've shared how the campaign started up both on YouTube with Sly Flourish
and on the Misdirected Mark Podcast
, as well as way back when with the Going Last podcast. (Obviously, I dig talking about this!
Chad Brown, Chris Sims, Matt James, and I were the original admin team. Along with Baldman Games chief Dave Christ, we began to work on the campaign's identity. An early breakthrough came as we discussed the potential that players would see this campaign as 'every player for her or himself' and seek opportunities for disruptive play (player vs player, "I'm a templar and will turn you in", etc.). We even considered factions for a while. But, we knew this campaign was designed as a small focused story-rich experience in amongst other organized play options. We wanted the players to stay focused on the story and their role in it as a team.
That's when Chris Sims suggested the Veiled Alliance
. While I like the VA as a campaign option
, it isn't my favorite. The VA's secrecy and cell structure can result in the adventures being a series of disjointed missions. The PCs are in the dark, but not in a fun way. Still, having the PCs work for the 'arguably good guys' had a nice team feel to it.
Start With a Bang!
We wrote adventures as Chapters. Each chapter would have a strong thematic feel and constitute a major part of the plot of the overall campaign. As we worked together on the outline for the chapter we hit upon the idea of the PCs starting by having their world turned upside down. If the Tyrian VA was taken down, the story would really focus on the PCs. The PCs would be up against great odds but with the potential to establish the future of the VA. This really helped convince me that having PCs be part of the VA was a great idea.
I think I proposed the first outline for the events of the three adventures, based off of the many ideas everyone had contributed. In my outline the PCs met with a VA contact on a street corner, revealing that the VA was being subjected to a series of attacks by an unknown group. The PCs would slowly realize how big a threat this was.
Chris Sims again stepped forth. He pointed out that we had an opportunity to really rock the players' expectations. Instead of some street corner, the PCs were in the VA's most important secret lair. The attack would take place there, in their home. Everything they had taken for granted would be gone, including their favorite teachers.
That idea really started the campaign off on a great foot. Ideas coalesced as Chad took control, writing in an encounter with a foe that the PCs could not overcome (later revealed as the leader of the True, Obadias). It included the PCs' cell leader, Sartaj, being imprisoned and hauled away on a slave caravan. The PCs, some of whom might be former slaves, probably had to become slaves to have a chance to free her. In most cases, the PCs would be stripped of all their gear and perhaps be beaten up by caravan guards in an impromptu arena.
Destitute, at the end of the adventure they arrive at the town of Altaruk, hoping they have escaped trouble.
In retrospect, it was a great start. A big part of that was a breakthrough idea one of us had, reinforced by a strong hand by the author and the contributions of all of us. That way of working would be a big key throughout the campaign.
Options - Attack on the VA
The very first encounter also showed our emphasis on creating options for players and DMs. After the PCs fight their way out of their room they find themselves in the maze of corridors that is the VA safehouse. Attackers are all over the place. We encouraged DMs to decide exactly how the PCs escape. They might face waves of attackers, might encounter a variant skill challenge made up of scenes (some ideas were provided), etc. From the very beginning we wanted to step away from the highly scripted and prescribed nature of most 4E adventures. We saw the results immediately at conventions - tables tended to do entirely different things here and the DMs came up with all kinds of interesting scenes.
What Works vs What Doesn't - Getting on a Slave Caravan
The typical writing process was:
- group conceptual outline for the chapter and 1-2 paragraph summary for each adventure
- assign an admin to oversee each adventure
- author creates an outline, admins offer feedback
- author creates the first draft, more feedback
- author incorporates feedback and writes final draft
- admins review, make any critical changes and send it to hand-picked teams for playtesting
- usually authors are exhausted and the admin finishes the work.
- premieres at a convention
For the first Chapter we did the authoring ourselves. In AOA1-1 we wanted players to be faced with getting onto a slave caravan - something very much against their nature. I think early drafts had this as a skill challenge, but eventually it became role-playing. The DM would provide some information on how Sartaj was on this slave caravan that would soon leave Tyr, and how it was best not to attack it now but rather somehow get onto it. The PCs would find a way onto it.
Our first draft, and even our first version at DDXP 2011, presented the DM with various things that didn't work and a few that might. That proved to really not work. A player would think of obvious things, such as "I want to sneak on board", and the DM would look at the list of obvious things that didn't work, and would respond with "You can't." Good DMs might embellish, but it could easily be frustrating and long. It felt like a trick - 'can you guess what the admins randomly thought would work?'
It was also a problematic design approach. We had written the encounter as a sort of 'unlock' of the right thing, rather than encouraging DMs and players to create a story together. Keep in mind that all of this is volunteer work. It won't shock organized play veterans to hear that adventures are often finished at 2 AM three days after we wanted them to reach the hands of convention DMs! Timelines are tough when family, work, and other demands spring up (they always do).
Hearing these issues encouraged us to became the first organized play campaign to edit each adventure a second time after the first convention. Each chapter ran at two conventions, so this let us deliver higher quality for the next convention. It also faced us to own our prior mistakes rather than forget them. It was an extra amount of work, but we really liked the benefits.
What we did for this encounter was to flip it around from what won't work
to a list of what PCs would likely try and how it could eventually work
. We also offered guidance on the approach in general, to encourage DMs to handle out-of-the-box thinking positively/creatively. Sneaking onto the slave caravan is hard, but it counts as legwork and provides clues that lead them towards other options. If they try hard enough, they can still sneak. This transformed the experience! Now the DM knew they should work with the PCs in response to their actions. Together they created their own story of how they ended up on the slave caravan. The best part of this is that it uniquely altered the next encounter, where the PCs worked to rescue Sartaj and themselves from the caravan. Players ended up owning their story and the DM was facilitating it.
D&D experiences are usually best when PCs have a common heartfelt goal. Nothing cements that like a common adversity - right from the start of the adventure. For Ashes of Athas, a big exciting start helped create a compelling story players wanted to keep on playing.
In writing for organized play, a group approach can really pay off. It takes good people and checking the majority of our egos at the door. Keys to working together include being open to ideas and having in mind the overall goal (we all want an awesome campaign and for being an admin to be fun). Throughout the campaign we had situations were ideas came out of left field and transformed the adventures or even the campaign.
4E is great for open imaginative play. It starts with the story and selecting the mechanics and writing style that will help DM and players create the right play outcome. At times it was hard to do this, so we tried to learn from our failures. Choosing to edit our adventures helped us learn from our mistakes. One of the early lessons was to write about how the players could do what they wanted, rather than state things that would not work.
Next time we look at an adventure that would throw us off our goals for an entire chapter!
Dark Sun Blog Index
Monday, April 29, 2013, 2:21 PM
D&D Next: A Touch of Class
Class, subclass, build, kit, theme... just what goes into defining a character's class? What do we gain, and how best can we reflect commonalities and differences between the different varieties of classes in the game? What should D&D Next do? What is behind Legend & Lore's article on subclasses?
Legend & Lore states that the definition of a subclass can vary: "Each class will have a different take on what a subclass actually represents to it." The cleric subclasses are based on deities. The wizard on tradition. The fighter subclasses would include "warlord, knight, samurai, gladiator, or scout". The rogue would have "assassin, the thief, and the vagabond".
Taxonomy is Not the Goal
An important first point is that this isn't (or shouldn't be) about taxonomy. We can easily argue that a ranger could be a type of fighter. We could argue that a 'pirate' could be a type of thief or that it is actually a type of fighter. That should not be our goal, because taxonomy doesn't bring anything to the game. We don't choose to play something due to its hierarchy - we choose to play something because the concept speaks to us. Whether a Pirate is its own class, a fighter (or rogue) subclass, a theme, a kit, a package of feats.. that answer isn't really the goal either. The goal is for the game to help players easily find the iconic concepts they want, while having the flexibility to stretch beyond that.
Historical Models and Treadeoffs
Every possible system will involve different tradeoffs. In AD&D the term subclass was used, but the term was really just taxonomical. The ranger was a subclass of the fighter, but it functioned as its own separate class.
In 2E, you could optionally select one kit. Kits ushered in an additional granularity to classes, including packages of weapons and the beginning of various stacking effects (later seen in Skills & Powers and in 3E). Campaigns using kits (or S&P) could feel very different than those not using them. Whether that was positive or negative was a hot topic for many groups (and online). Kits often varied in quality, lacking a common foundation to ensure balance. As a result, players usually chose for power/benefits rather than concept.
3E largely achieved differentiation through feats ("I want to be a chain-fighter, so I take these feats that reflect and allow that") and Prestige Classes ("I want to be an arcane archer, allowing me to place a spell on my arrow"). A tremendous amount of customization was possible. A cleric might not cure at all, fighting in melee with as many attacks as a ranger and hitting harder than some fighters! A fighter could be very different - the fighter class almost lost meaning, being defined almost entirely by feats.
In 4E, each class had Builds. Builds were often a set of choices around class features, but they tended to be new insights or play styles rather than iconic concepts. A warlock's choice of pact had fundamental differences (such as the preferred attribute). A swordmage used very different means of enforcing its mark. A warlord provided very different benefits on an Action Point and might have differences in equipment (i.e. all ranged). All builds had access to class powers, but in some cases the build caused a focus on certain powers (a bard using an implement would not generally take weapon-based bard powers). 4E offered a tremendous array of classes. Each one had a very iconic feel. Builds didn't really take away from that, though it could be confusing from a team perspective - "wait, what happens when I Action Point again?"
4E also provided themes. Themes at times resembled kits (but on a more balanced foundation), and at times simply felt like great backstory with a few benefits. Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies often felt like Prestige Classes. Other times they resembled builds, greatly coloring how a class would operate.
Each system has tradeoffs. So far, D&D Next has seemed to fight over these concepts. The druid has two choices, primarily around better spells or more wild shape forms. The result is a fairly significant difference in approach, similar to a 4E build. Few would argue that anything is significantly lost - both feel like a druid. The monk is the same way - it resembles the 4E choice of builds in many ways.
Legend & Lore has mentioned other possibilities.
Treating Classes as Subclasses
The D&D Next Druid largely takes builds and makes them subclasses. They still function as builds. What happens when we take a class and turn it into a subclass?
Let's play with the paladin. Taxonomically we can argue it is either a subclass of the fighter (a warrior empowered by divine calling) or the cleric (a priest that embraces war to serve the deity). Let's go with fighter and give that decision teeth.
If we take a look at the 4th level D&D Next paladin, we see several class features (Channel Divinity, Divine Grace, Divine Sense, Oath, Spellcasting, Aura of Protection, Aura of Courage). These features help define the paladin, giving it the iconic feel it needs to feel complete.
The fighter instead has different features (Martial Feat x2, Expertise (2d6), Death Dealer, Superior Defense, Unerring Attacker).
The two classes also have other potentially different underpinnings (Ability adjustments, armor/weapons, hit dice, attack bonuses, etc.).
It is one thing to say taxonomically that the Paladin is a type of fighter. When we try to make the paladin a subclass, we need to start making tradeoffs. Which features should the Paladin keep? And how do we do that? Do we take the fighter's Martial Feat and allow a fighter to pick instead 1-2 of the Paladin's features? If the features are Channel Divinity, Divine Grace, Death Dealer, Superior Defense, Aura of Protection, Unerring Attacker... do we have a paladin? Or do we have a bit of both? If you loved playing a Paladin, will you be disappointed?
And, we chose to make the paladin a fighter. Presumably, we want to make that useful, by knowing that all fighters share common features... but which ones? What is an iconic fighter, and how do we retain enough of the fighter without losing what defines a paladin?
The warlord is just as tricky. We can look at the 3E Marshal, but that class wasn't particularly well regarded. 4E's warlord was pretty iconic, and is often held up as an example of 4E at its finest - all despite having several different builds. A warlord's features include providing a strong benefit to each other PC roughly every other battle (when the PC uses an action point), providing an initiative or other start of combat benefit, and healing in a manner similar to a cleric's class feature. In addition, warlord powers had a very clear feel, either providing a bonus based on a melee attack (I hit it, now when you hit it you get a bonus) or trading an action (instead of moving, all of you move; instead of me attacking, you attack). A player would select the class features and powers to create their vision, but all of them felt like a warlord. Feats rounded out the experience.
If we make a D&D Next warlord a subclass of the fighter, what do we keep from each class? We quickly hit the same issues as we did with the paladin. We might drop the two Martial Feats, but that also means we can't easily have an archer warlord (which was a type of 4E build). We can drop and trade features, but we are giving things up within the limited space of class design. Because Next doesn't have powers, a lot of the 4E definition could be lost. A level 4 Warlord that provides an initiative bonus, provides a bonus to attack every other combat, heals, has some ability to move allies and grant attacks... we rapidly end up with a new class rather than a fighter. If we drop some of those abilities the experience becomes less iconic.
The same would be true if we were dealing with other 4E Classes. A Warlock was a very defined experience in 4E. It wasn't a type of wizard, any more than a warlord player felt like they played a fighter (very few felt that way). Most of the classes present in 4E don't easily become builds/subclasses.
And there is another potential problem...
Mixing and Matching and the Watered Down Experience
A substantial problem occurs if we try to mix and match features. Let's say the fighter gets to make a few choices. At level 1 we can select to give up Death Dealer and get Inspiring Word. I can also drop the Martial Feat and get a granted attack option once per round. At level 4 I might choose between Unerring Attacker and granting an initiative bonus. On the surface, that might look as if it starts to let me build a warlord. In practice, however, it dilutes the iconic experience. As some players select Death Dealer and others Inspiring Word, the definition of 'Warlord' becomes watered down. We might see a fighter that in most cases is a fighter, except it can heal. Another is only taking the initiative bonus. Inevitably, those of us that like to optimize have a field day picking and choosing - but not because we are creating an iconic vision of a subclass.
Another way we can dilute the experience is to try to provide a variant of every class. We can try to create a duelist version of every class, especially rogue and fighter. We can try to create a healing/leader version of every class. I don't favor that. We would again water down the experience by taking away from iconic elements. Instead, we can use something like themes or Paragon Paths / Prestige Classes to capture those elements. A theme can make any class a duelist, a gladiator, or alchemist, but without diluting its own class or taking away from other classes.
When a subclass is a build, we don't experience issues. A beast druid works well as a type of D&D Next druid.
When a subclass is trying to replace a class, we encounter issues. The more design flexibility we provide (selecting either fighter or warlord subclass features, for example), the more we end up diluting the class. The more we try to represent the parent class (creating an iconic fighter within every fighter subclass), the more we limit how the subclass can accurately attain its holistic vision. The more the subclass is a complete replacement of a class (if we try to capture the warlord as it was), the more we lose the original class vision and the subclass could have just been a different class.
A Model for Subclasses
I want a model that reflects my original goal (providing iconic classes with which we can identify). The best way to do that is to not create a system where the subclass and class are at odds with each other.
Subclasses are builds. In almost all cases, subclasses should resemble 4E builds. They should be simple variations in how we play, but the subclass should undeniably provide the class experience. A warlord has not and should not be the same as a fighter. They have taxonomic resemblance, and they can both be martial, but they provide different experiences and should have independent features.
Provide something optional similar to Themes. Themes worked well as an additional level of character definition beyond the class. Broad concepts such as swashbuckler, drow renegade, and vagabond work best through themes. These could perhaps combine the concept of a Prestige Class or Paragon Path, extending (or replacing) the experience over time. One of the Legend & Lore columns had discussed the possibility of a theme/specialty evolving over time. I rather like that as an option.
Preserve popular iconic classes. Warlock, Warlord, Swordmage, and many others were not played as subclasses. They had their own iconic feel and deserve to still provide players that experience.
Monday, April 22, 2013, 9:36 AM
D&D Next: A Model for Skills
This week’s Legends & Lore presents feats and skills as optional systems. While feats don’t at all seem to resemble the potential model I favored last week, skills seem a bit closer to the goals I have for skill use:
- Start with story-driven guidance: The first thing I want from a skill system is a clear indication that the DM should start with the story. The DM should understand how to describe an open evocative scene, so the players naturally are compelled to respond with what their PC will do.
- Foster imagination: The ideal skill system is imaginative, with PCs describing what they want to do, the DM responding within that imaginative framework, and only once the potential has been explored are dice rolled.
- Reactive rather than prescriptive: The system should encourage imagination, so it should react to what a PC does rather than prescribe what will work.
- Separate failure from assistance: Players should not be punished for trying something, especially when it isn’t their competence area. The ideal system knows when a skill check was an attempt to help, rather than a roll deciding total success or failure.
- Failure is story: Failures should be according to the scene, and have story-building repercussions based on that scene.
The Current Playtest Model
The current playtest packet on one hand tries to revolve around ability checks. On the other hand, it introduces a list of skills tied to backgrounds. Additionally, under each ability the packet lists relevant skills. The result is conflicted. We want to use abilities to drive open action (a Wisdom check) but we have this list of skills (Spot). The result is that the player and DM can approach the game very differently. Even different players might approach the game inconsistently.
The Legend & Lore Model
It seems that under the new model the core is driven by ability checks. Each background provides Areas of Knowledge
(bonuses to Int checks to recall lore), Proficiencies
(broad set of expertise, such as dealing with watercraft), and Benefits
(advantages a noble might have in dealing with the nobility).
Lists of skills, as found in 3E and 4E, would be part of an advanced module.
A Suggested Model for Skills
Going back to the goals I listed earlier, the Legend & Lore model could work well with a few changes.
Teach DMs and players how to create compelling imaginative scenes; provide examples
3E and 4E led by its skill list. Skills like Diplomacy or Intimidation drove player action. Skill Challenges in 4E provided a success-failure system ultimately encouraging PCs to act only with their most highly trained skill or otherwise stay silent.
D&D Next should work to undo this, bringing us back to early open and imaginative play. A scene like one of the entrances to the Tomb of Horrors should result in experimentation and wonder, not shouting out the biggest skill you have and rolling the die. We need great guidance to encourage the right kind of play. We also need play examples (similar to those in AD&D core books) that showcase the benefits of the suggested play style.
In play: The DM should understand how to create an imaginative scene. The players should think considering their own approach and that of their PC, then discuss courses of action with the party. When a noble accuses the party of breaking an important city law, the first response shouldn’t be just for the PC with the highest Charisma score to roll the dice. It should be for the party to consider things, discussing both amongst themselves and with the noble, fluidly, while possibly trying several approaches to deal with the situation in a fashion that will ultimately be memorable and lead to more adventure.
Critical component: The information should not be just in the DMG. Players need to understand the system, see examples, and be encouraged to apply it correctly.
Worth considering: It is worth asking whether D&D should have some teeth here to drive this. Various indie RPGs provide incentive for this kind of play, or have mechanics encouraging it. The idea of failing forward or calling aspects, are both ways to promote PC action outside of the highest bonus. D&D could experiment with a system based on backgrounds, perhaps activating them in some way or rewarding their use. XP could be granted in various ways (when failing, when participating, when presenting new options, for a team that worked creatively, etc.).
2. The Core: Ability Checks and Background
Simple system based on abilities, background add open guidance
The character sheet becomes a lot simpler when we remove skill lists. The abilities, an iconic part of D&D, are front and center. Backgrounds provide the player with story-centric ideas on expertise.
The first playtest packet used at D&D Next / Winter Fantasy in 2012 used a similar system.
In play: The DM presents a situation (a noble accuses them of breaking the law). The players can simply react and describe what they want to do. They might also draw upon their background. The PC with the nobility background will know common lore about the laws and how the nobility thinks, and could perhaps call on favors to help with the situation. A PC with a relevant proficiency (such as forgery) could find an alternate approach.
Critical component: The Backgrounds stimulate play, rather than confine it.
3. Goals and Outcomes – Evolving the Skill Challenge Framework DMs should envision various outcomes for a scene, allowing for additional options to develop during play. Story should drive play, with PC actions being critical to how events unfold. Failure is story; a skill is not an on-off switch but a gateway to results to which the DM and story react.
We need both teaching and mechanics (or a system) to help take DMs design compelling scenes where PCs will use skills imaginatively.
3E often created a few common scenes (convince an NPC with diplomacy, disarm a trap, use lore to solve a puzzle, use brawn to help overcome an obstacle). In each of the scenes one PC would do the majority of the work. The result was often determined by a single roll, and the PC was almost always the most skilled. Failure was usually when an extremely low number was rolled. This created jarring situations where a player role-played a perfect diplomatic negotiation, then rolled a 1.
4E added the Skill Challenge system. By using a list of skills, it created reasons for more PCs to participate. The diplomatic scenario might involve other skills, such as History, Streetwise, or the all-too-common “use Endurance or Athletics to prove how mighty you are.” An x successes before 3 failures system meant that there was some pressure and excitement. However, the failures were often meaningless – since the PCs had to cross the desert, failure stripped them of a few healing surges rather than change the story significantly.
In both cases, the outcome was predetermined. Exact tactics (“I show them the emblem of the noble we work for” ) didn’t impact things outside of minor bonuses (+2 to the roll) and didn’t shape the outcome. The result was a mechanical feel, similar to a board game. Roll, move to the next encounter!
It would be great to see D&D Next create a different story-first framework revolving around the scene’s goals and possible outcomes. The goal might be to extricate the party from legal troubles with the noble, but the outcomes should be really story-heavy.
In play: The DM describes and role-plays a situation (a noble accuses them of breaking the law). The obvious goal is for the party to prove their innocence. However, the outcomes can be far more interesting:
- - The party flees rather than face justice, and is wanted. However, this earns them the support of a faction in town, who help them lay low and traverse the back ways of the town. Future actions could restore their standing or brand them permanently as outlaws.
- - The party is sentenced, and could be jailed or found innocent depending on previous actions and further events while awaiting trial in jail. Perhaps the jail holds another sentenced individual, but this one has useful information furthering the story.
- - The party is jailed, leading to adventure within the jail. There might be a revolt, or someone might spring them from jail (revolutionaries, or perhaps another noble or the king, based on a great need).
- - The party avoids jail, but the noble is convinced they are guilty. The noble has become an enemy.
- - The party avoids jail, and the means by which they did so creates an ally within the city.
- - The party avoids jail, gaining notoriety for their calm demeanor. They are invited to a party by the nobility, gaining them information towards their current quest.
These are presented as suggested outcomes. Events during play can create new outcomes, perhaps using the ones above as guidance. When writing published adventures, the above might all lead to very short scenes, but could then lead back to a common place (the next step in the quest).
Critical component: The framework encourages open play by helping DMs envision different outcomes, all which can impact the story. This helps DMs tremendously with the creation of rich exciting adventures and helps players feel like their ideas and actions matter (they do!).
Lots of room for more: There is a lot of room here for additional design. A simple core system of goals and outcomes could be fleshed out within the advanced skill module to incorporate more of the ideas from indie games (fail forward, for example) and to provide ways skill lists can be fresh (fostering ideas) rather than stale (reducing decisions down to shouting out a skill).
4. Advanced Module for Skills, Compatible with Core System
Allows players to customize their characters, defining narrow bands of expertise associated with core areas.
The system in 3E was particularly helpful for defining a player character. A PC could be a master tracker, achieving skill results no other PC could possibly achieve. Skill ranks forced choices during character advancement, as precious ranks were allocated to create specific strengths rewarded during play. 4E smartly reduced the number of skills, but also flattened the possible math to keep PCs relatively close in talent.
Ideally, D&D Next learns from these systems, providing the right granularity to create interesting choice and definition while avoiding excessive sub-categories of the same thing. Spot and Listen, Open Locks and Disarm Traps… those should be examined to see whether the differentiation is beneficial. Potentially, the advanced module could suggest a core list and provide options for home campaign use, though that makes it less likely players will experience a common game experience when they play in different campaigns.
One way to deal with that is to tie all individual skills back to the Core System’s Proficiencies or Areas of Knowledge. At the very least, this might allow DMs and players to understand both systems. It could possibly even allow players to choose either system and play at the same table.
In Play: The Advanced Module provides a list of skills that is the right granularity. Each skill is tied to either a Proficiency or an Area of Knowledge. A PC might have an Area of Knowledge around the Sword Coast, while another PC has assigned ranks to Lore: Baldur’s Gate, Lore: Candlekeep, and Lore: Misty Forest. The first PC has their ability in all associated checks, plus a flat bonus. The second PC has a higher bonus, but only in the specific areas (and perhaps a lower bonus in related checks).
Critical component: The advanced module should not be so granular that PC choice becomes frustrating (as it was for a 3E rogue). In addition, the module should not be so different that it confuses the players who move from the core system to a campaign using the module. Neither system should be obviously superior.
D&D once was a very open experience. The scene was described and players reacted, driving story. The story was often weak, but has been fleshed out nicely by many other RPGs. D&D has progressed the mechanics in various ways, developing skills into systems for character definition. However, this was often at the expense of story. Those two advances can and should be brought together to help us realize the goals of skills, but also the goals of D&D: imaginative story-telling, communal play, creativity, and the like.
Monday, April 15, 2013, 11:38 AM
D&D Next: A Model for Feats and Other Build Options
Legends & Lore discussed new options for acquiring Feats today
. Neither those options nor the current D&D Next packet meet the goals I have for character generation
- Personality: Character generation should help me create a PC that feels like an individual. At the conclusion of the process, I should have a feel for who they are.
- Foster Imagination: The choices I make should foster imaginative play at the table.
- Fast: A new player should be able to create a level 5 PC in 10-15 minutes.
- Robust: An experienced player should find enough robust options to spend hours on character creation, if they so desire.
- Balanced: Options should be balanced, such that new DMs do not have to struggle with overly powerful or overly weak PCs.
An Essentials Model, Applied to Feats
The Hunter is one of the Essentials classes that really pleases both new and experienced players. The way it does this is by providing strong basic options, such as an accurate shot, along with options of varying complexity (often depending on the player). A new player can hit a bunch of targets close together and feel like a champ. A tactical player can apply one of several conditions (knock prone, push, daze, etc.) based on their tactical assessment. Both cases can be effective and richly imaginative - the class very much feels like a wilderness sniper regardless of approach.
D&D Next could similarly present several options of varying complexity for Feats:1. One Default OptionIconic, simple, and effective
This option is used for fast character generation or for a new player that doesn't need to or want to read through every option. The feat is simple and easy to grasp. A new player can easily know what it does, when to use it, and gets that this is an iconic part of what they want to play.
Iconic is important because we want to realize a new player's vision of what the class does. It doesn't do away with class features (because those are necessary in all builds to capture the essence of the class), but could build upon them or add an additional iconic element. Charge
is a good example from the current packet of a possible iconic low-level feat for a fighter. It is something fighters are expected to do in battle, simple in concept, and fairly simple in execution. It isn't an 'in the background' feat, such as a static bonus, because new players can't sense or derive pleasure from those. A new player will see other players doing exciting things and feel that their character is lackluster. A feat like charge
gives a simple but cool iconic option. 2. Several Simple OptionsRelatively simple, extend iconic experience
These feats are additional simple options. They can also help to extend the depth of an iconic build or to enable other iconic variants seen in history, fiction, or previous editions. The combat cleric is an example. Improved Initiative
is an example of a simple feat. Interposing Shield
is an example of adding an iconic variant - that of a melee guardian, to an existing class (or classes). 3. Many Complex OptionsComplex, may feed off of other elements, can play against type or create new vision
These feats usually require some expertise to use well. Often they are taken with another build option, so as to realize a very specific type of character.
A two-weapon fighter or a pole-arm fighter are both made possible through feats with some complexity that often interact. A feat like Covert Strike
is best for an experienced player, helping them realize a specific strategy or vision.
Potentially, all feats could be available as options, but ideally the system would identify the default very clearly and then present some suggested simple and complex options. There is the danger of drowning in options if players can choose from all options.
Feats and Specialties/Themes
In the current packet, feats are gained through Specialties (previously named Themes, a term first used in Fourth Edition). The L&L article suggests feats are part of class levels, but doesn't mention what happens to Specialties.
Discussion should include Specialties/Themes, because they are an important attempt to help define Personality and Foster Imagination (two of the goals). Various RPGs have done this in very different ways (Dresden Files, Spycraft, and Legend of the Five Rings are some of my favorites).
For D&D, the sweet spot for me was Themes in Dark Sun. In the campaign book, each theme is a very iconic element of the society: gladiators, merchants, templars, Veiled Alliance members, etc. The selection isn't a time-intensive endeavor, and there is no wrong answer. The choice, however, drives all kinds of interactions in a Dark Sun campaign. A player learns something about the setting and about their PC, but also is now poised for rich interactions with the DM.
Since that time, 4E Themes and their derivatives in D&D Next have felt lackluster. They don't tell me much about my PC. I'm an 'Ambusher'... there isn't much there I can use to guide my gaming.
Additionally, by packaging feats into Specialties, we put mechanics and RP at odds. I might like the concept behind a specialty, but the feats might not match my class. They might duplicate class features or simply be at odds with my other choices. This can be very frustrating for casual players, who want to realize a concept without endless work and customization.
To that end, I would like Specialties to go back to being Themes, and I want them to be campaign-specific. I want them to be the really rich vehicle by which any PC cements their relationship with the setting.
We can have default Themes, but they should be modeled on what really works in specific settings. For example, we could have the default for Bards be that they are Sponsored by a Noble Family, with ideas on how DMs can integrate this into their campaigns. The system of Default, Simple, and Complex can be used here if there are mechanical benefits.
The Current Approach
While I started with an emphasis on solutions, and that is the important part, I want to underscore some of the problems with L&L before closing.Don't give new PCs the boring/transparent option:
A +1 to an ability is a very boring benefit. It exists in the background, and a new or casual player probably won't notice it. I decide to play a tomb-raiding rogue because I want to be like Indiana Jones. I notice Indy's capabilities, but I really don't think about his dex score. The same is true of my PC. I want cool stuff to do and simple ways to interact with the game, not transparency. +x is boring, and it will seemingly be overshadowed by the 'crazy' stuff other players will be doing. Don't let the game become dominated by tons of feats:
Even with the online character builder, building a 4E PC is really tough when it comes to feats. There is never a good way to present all the possible feats such that I can figure out what I want. If we let the game be dominated by feats, the game will drown. It drowned in both the editions with feats (3E and 4). Feats are fine, but don't make them the spotlight. Make them the flourish, and keep the number down as long as possible.
It isn't easy to do this, but it can be easier if feats aren't meant to solve problems or make PCs effective, but rather to extend what they already do and provide fun options. Don't try to create separate game levels for different players:
I'll reserve judgment on the concept of a 'apprentice' levels, outside of one comment. The game isn't played by new and casual people at one table and experienced hard-core gamers at another. It is played at one table by people of all gaming stripes. D&D should be designed to appeal to every kind of gamer at all levels of play. Apprentice should be awesome for my friend's significant other, for the hardcore gamers that have 30 campaigns under their belt, and for the old school gamer that has a baby and can't play that often.
When it comes to feats or any other build option, the system should provide awesome default options that are simple enough for anyone to pick up. These default options should still be effective. They shouldn't be dumbed-down versions or exist 'in the background', because new and casual players want cool characters.
Options should be imaginative, helping create iconic experiences. Going through character creation should help us visualize who this PC is, helping to create a personality that can further develop during play. The seeds planted by the process should grow during play, creating imaginative experiences.
Robust options should exist. Experienced players want a deep experience and to feel rewarded for system mastery. Layered and chained options can help these players create really interesting characters - all without damaging game balance. However, feats should not be the central experience. We want feats to be flourishes, not pages and pages of options players must comb through to create an effective character.Tavern fights on a ship? Should feel cinematic for any player, regardless of experience level!
Tuesday, March 19, 2013, 12:06 AM
Interlude: Running a Dragon-Themed Kids Birthday Party!
(Or, how to run a LARP for Kids)
Which kid-decorated castle would you rather lay siege to, chocolate or vanilla?
Let's start with a warning. My wife and I go overboard on birthday parties. We often take an unconventional approach to the parties, trying to create experiences that show the kids something new. At times we've gone a bit far (cutting out edible fruit arrangements for my daughter's party was gorgeous but insane work, for example). I share the following in hopes it inspires, but please adjust to your level of sanity. Also, I've blurred the kids' faces so as to protect their identities. We don't actually have doppelgangers as friends. I think.
Our kids have chosen some cool themes in the past: race cars, faeries, art, horses. For his 7th birthday party my son chose Dragons! I could not be happier. My wife and I started planning about a month in advance. Our general approach is to have a few artistic activities to let kids find something that interests them, then a central activity that is the main event, and then cake. We focus on creative opportunities and always ditch anything electronic or overly toy based. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to have a LARP (Live Action Role-Playing) styled event where kids really used their imagination.
Here is how the party came together:
Decor and Snacks
This was easy! We placed on our coffee table our various dragon and monster books (our kids dig A Practical Guide to Dragons
, Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons
, How to Trap a Zombie, Track a Vampire, and Other Hands-On Activities for Monster Hunters: A Young Wizards Handbook
, and Encyclopedia Mythologica: Dragons and Monsters Pop-Up
. Two of them are published by Wizards). I brought down my colossal, gargantuan, and huge dragon DDM minis and placed them on the mantlepiece and other locations high up (so kids would see them but not grab them).
We placed healthy snacks in various locations. We used organic green veggie juice for kids and labeled it as Dragon's Blood
. Amazing how kids loved it with the different name! For adults we had two beverages, one similar to a mimosa and another a sangria. We labeled both with creative names. We had some cheeses and other adult snacks as well, all to encourage adults to stay and participate instead of leaving. We had about a third of the parents stay and enjoy the party, which is fun for us and usually for their kids.
One of the simple artistic activities we came up with was for each kid to select their 'knight name' and then put together a necklace name tag. The name tag was a kit
we bought for a very reasonable price. It has some beads, a place to write your name, a shield look, and a cord.
For the names, here I put on my adventure design hat. If each kid adopted a fantasy name, that might help with immersion. I visited various character name generator sites and ultimately settled on just a list of words such as "wolf, bold, hammer, dodger" and so forth. Then the instructions said to pick two and put them together. We had cool names like Sir FireHammer and Sir WolfTamer!
Make Your Own Shield!
My wife came across this cool blog where a couple made wooden shields and the kids painted them
. I enlisted my Dad, and we went to work (and shopping at the local hardware store). We largely followed the ideas on the site. We started with a cardboard template and then marked off the shield area on the wood.
My Dad is pretty awesome, and even when I had a business trip he kept at it. We had 12 shields for our 10 guests, just in case a mishap took place. There's no crying in dragon hunting! Along those same lines, I shared the surprise with my son the day of the birthday right before people arrived, so he could take his time and make his shield without any pressure. Then he could help others during the party.
During the party kids took various printouts we had made with line-art fantasy drawings and taped them over a sheet of carbon paper onto the wood. They traced with a wooden chopstick, then pulled off the sheets to reveal the outline on the wood.
The kids then used wood markers to color the outlines in. Kids had a blast with this and loved that they got to keep a cool wooden shield after the party!
Pin the Fire on the Dragon
Our last activity was a twist on "pin the tail on the donkey". Here my Mom went nuts and painted this beautiful dragon (which my son now has in his bedroom!). She also cut out foam fireballs and painted them. During the event kids took turns putting on a blindfold and trying to pin their fire on the dragon's mouth. We put each kid's name on the back, then tape over it. That was a key, as it kept kids from feeling bad or wanting to call for a do-over. No one really knew who won until the end. The winner received a 'dragon orb', a rubber ball decorated with the image of a dragon. I think it came from the Dollar Store.
The main event was the LARP-style adventure. On a couple of evenings I sat down to draft and refine the adventure, which would play out in the woods behind our house. Once I liked it I had the various relatives review it and we tweaked a bit. Luckily, they loved the idea of the adventure. They even wore costumes!
Call to Arms
We began by my putting on a very simple robe I had from a Halloween long ago, plus a beard (used for role-playing dwarves... I have three colors, of course). I added a cane I found during my travels in Africa. I came down to where the kids were and introduced myself as the King's Storyteller and told them all knights were being called together, as the Queen had an important message.
We gathered everyone inside a tent, which we had set up downstairs. The tent's purpose was to change things up visually and focus their attention. The Queen (one of the grandmothers) told the knights a dragon had come, and might destroy the castle. It had also sent an army of goblins our way. She asked whether the knights would help, and they all said yes. (One asked me to make sure it wasn't too scary and I promised it would not be). As the Storyteller I traveled with them, helping the story along as needed. I also provided three copies of a map I created using various images from the ProFantasy
example map, adding labels for each of the areas we would visit.
Stop the Goblins
The first call to action was to stop the goblins. I decided this could be a good way to show that this was about imagination rather than realism.
We provided Nerf bows and arrows. I had taped outlines of two goblins and printed out black-and-white goblin heads. The kids had a blast, each getting a turn. As they fired I narrated the result of their volley. "The goblin ducks, but he's afraid and runs away!"
When the last kid fired, the rest of the goblins turned tail and ran. Victory!
Check on the Village
I communicated reports that the dragon had been seen near a nearby village. We had to check on it and see if it was okay. Using the map, we searched for the village. Walking we found where there was an old ruined treehouse (belonging to another family many years ago). I described it as the ruins of the village, ravaged by dragon fire. "See here the building bearing claw marks..."
The kids weren't quite ready for immersion yet (one would periodically remind me that I was actually my son's dad), but they were getting there. I told them that legends spoke of a wise crone that knew about dragons. This was about the third time a kid said "what does that mean," so we defined crone and various other terms. Free vocab lesson! Wait untill you read Temple of Elemental Evil, kid!
The Wise Crone
My mom played the crone, and was in a stick hut I had built for my kids last year. She's a former English teacher and loves a good play, so she had her face painted up and spoke in evocative ways. The crone knew of something that could help, but first asked each knight to speak of what made them worth of this secret. What followed was hillarious. Answers included "I can stab the dragon" and, very strangely, "slavery". Kids. The crone let them know these were not worthy things. Then one kid spoke up, "I like to give people love and take care of people." The crone said, "this is worthy," to which the kid added, "oh, that was easy!" Gotta love kids.
Slowly but surely the other knights found something worthy and the crone shared the secret of the fire seeds. Growing on the mountain, their magic could protect a knight from fire!
Misty Mountain Hop
We have a steep hill nearby, so off we went (the kids consulting their map in response to my questions of where we might look). Upon the slope we found bright Easter eggs, each containing a single Red Hot candy to eat. The cinnamon helped communicate the message of this being a magic protection against fire. Back down we came, running into the King, a Ranger. The King asked the knights what they had learned, and it was great seeing how they were now well immersed in the story. They were really proud of all they had discovered and done!
The King told us he had learned of a ruined tower where swords that offered protection against dragons could be found. The tower had a ghost guardian, and she would only allow knights to enter if they could solve three riddles.
My daughter had wanted a role, so she had broken away from the group a bit earlier and donned a shawl and stood by the tower (a treehouse). There she read three simple riddles suitable for kids and themed for the event. When they solved the third my son climbed up the treehouse and found a set of balloon swords! (Grandpa took up magic and ballooning two years ago and was glad to make these). My son lowered the swords down for everyone to take one.
Armed with dragon-bane swords and protected from fire, it was time to face the dragon!
My Dad donned a Halloween mask and made roaring sounds. He stood on the other side of a fallen tree, so as to have a barrier from the kids. This made it easier to imagine he was a dragon and harder for them to decide they should charge him and beat him up (kids can be fearless!).
I narrated that he breathed fire, and as I said that I hurled red glitter onto the knights. That was pretty fun (some asked for seconds). They were immune! Now was the time to brandish the swords and roar back, so as to scare it away!
The kids did, and the dragon left! I congratulated the knights and talked to them a bit about this so as to give my Dad time to escape. Then I asked them if they knew what a dragon kept in its lair. One of them guessed it: treasure! They searched and found a cardboard box we had decorated like a chest. My son and daughter tore it open and inside were bags of gold (gold-foil chocolate coins) and a miniature dragon (later a kid was walking around with his, comparing it to my DDM minis so as to figure out which one was its daddy).
The adventure was a great success. Kids were beaming ear-to-ear as we returned for the feast in their honor (pizza and cake).
Kids are awesome. Planning a LARP style event as part of a birthday for kids actually can be a ton of fun, and kids today really will act out fantasy roles and suspend disbelief! Also, my family is insane. Yay!
Have you ever taken on a fantasy-themed birthday? I would love to hear about it in the comments. After all, my daughter will turn nine soon...