Wednesday, August 10, 2011, 4:12 PM
Gen Con Report
Part 1: New D&D Products
Gen Con 2011 was fantastic. I want to write about a number of aspects of the convention, including Ashes of Athas and my personal experience. I ended up spending a bit of time collecting information on new Wizards product offerings, so I'll start here first.
The Tome Show recorded all of the Gen Con Wizards of the Coast seminars. These are very good seminars worth your time.
Online DM transcribed the New Product Seminar, which makes for a nice companion while listening.
Critical Hits pulled together an overview of the New Product Seminar, including some great pictures of the slides (and of the new dragon set).
The New Stuff!
It would be easy to expect very little in the way of releases, as Wizards has cut back on player content. However, their new product and DDI seminars reveal a lot of new products that will appeal to players and DMs alike. As a guy with a beholder icon (a playtester), I may know a few things but I'm sticking to information that is available from other sources. Where possible I try to add bits that most sites may not have mentioned.
Kara-Tur in DDI: I was involved on the Dungeon side... I'm hopeful everyone enjoys the adventure!
Drizzt Board Game: continues the well-received adventure system series of Castle Ravenloft and Ashardalon, adding new PCs, play innovations, etc. It had good reviews from players trying it out in Sagamore and will be at PAX.
Dungeon of Dread: Canceled board game. Was scheduled for December, no longer on schedule based on playtests. I tend to think cancellations are a good sign of quality standards.
Lords of Waterdeep: It bears underscoring that this is a board game unlike Castle Ravenloft/Ashardalon/Drizzt. It is more of a Euro style board game and I only hear/see positive things. It is a competitive game where you are one of the masked lords and can hire adventurers and choose from different tasks to gain victory over the other lords. Trivia: It started at the very beginning as being based on Dark Sun, but I agree it works best as being based on Waterdeep.
Gardmore Abbey: Has a book on story, quests, patrons, villains, etc. Open-ended large adventure with cool ways the NPCs change in various ways to reflect PC choice. Has the Deck of Many things (which plays a strong role throughout the adventure) and other cool unique aspects. Deliberate attempt to be non-linear. Two battlemaps, deck of Many Things, several books. There is a preview adventure at PAX.
Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium: Book includes magic items with rarity, some rewrites, plus non-magical equipment, hirelings, and other fun aspects. Had extensive playtesting.
Encounters: New season starts this week (on August 10). Preview gameday ran nationwide and at Gen Con. PAX will run the first three sessions. Close integration between published material (Neverwinter, Feywild, Elemental) and the season's adventure.
Lair Assault: Really cool-looking materials, so judges may be really looking forward to running these! The events page has info, but it is a high-challenge series of adventures released every couple of months and you play at game stores whenever you schedule them with the store. Super-hard, with the idea being that players may need to try several times before they win.
Neverwinter Campaign Setting: Completely and utterly awesome. Everyone is raving about the quality of this book and desiring to see it used in LFR. It is also ideal for home campaigns. It is on sale now and a judge reward. (By the way, we need more Gen Con judges ).
Feywild: There is a book with many player options (including a flying race - the pixie, as well as hamadryad and satyr, plus support for fey races), also Encounters season (based on the old UK1 Crystal Cave adventure) that works off of it. WotC staff actually playtested some of the races and classes at D&DXP Ashes of Athas tables (and we hope they tuned the power level down... those were strong!).
Tiles: Shadowghast Manor (haunted house) and Cathedral Chaos (cool strange passageways) are two new themed tiles sets. Idea is that the Essentials tiles free them up to make interesting themed sets that add variety to the core sets of tiles.
Map Packs: 3 double-sided poster maps (one from previous adventures), same price as tiles ($11.95).
Book of Vile Darkness: Evil campaigns. Includes player and DM content so you can have a balanced, interesting, and non-destructive campaign. Double-sided poster map. Linked to the movie.
Player Options: Power of the Plane Below (Elemental Powers): This has the Ashes of Athas team salivating! New monk build, sorcerer elemental Essentials version. Sha'ir from Al Quadim as genie-powered wizard build. May do Al Quadim next year in DDI as with Kara-Tur. Tied to Encounters season based on Elder Elemental Eye (Tharizdun, now part of the core cosmology for 4E and links to Chained God/Abyssal plague novels)... the Encounters season is written by a certain someone on the LFR global admin team...
Undermountain: Cool adventure supporting dungeon crawl or story-based. Written by a certain former LFR global admin. Comes with cool maps.
Digital offerings: Some discussion around offering material digitally. By mistake James Wyatt shared that they will offer one fee ($10?) for one year of digital access to 10 Eberron sourcebooks. May be an experiment designed to assess how best to release other material. The number of WotC staff saying they are close to offering things digitally is increasing.
Gamma World: WotC seems happy with what is already released, though I see them watching this for interest levels to do more. Stay tuned and let WotC know if you want more (and would buy more).
Minis sets: The Dragon set will be similar to the beholder set, where you get several dragons in one collector-style box. 5 chromatic dragons, including new ones, out in October. Limited edition collector set. A skirmish minis game is being designed and there may be an open playtest very soon for it. There will be other non-random sets, seems like based around encounter or theme ideas. This is all made especially interesting in light of Paizo announcing roughly a week ago that they will offer a random distribution minis set priced a bit higher than most D&D mini collectible sets (40 minis for the December set at $274 for a case! 60-figure set in June 2012). The reaction by Paizo subscribers seems uncommonly negative (maybe 50% negative, which is really high for them). I am not particularly impressed by the pictures I've seen (the pain job looked simple and flat), though the actual Paizo player minis (a set of four) looked good in person.
Either way, minis purchasers have options and this should be an interesting comparison of approaches. The success or failure of Paizo's random minis and of WotC's smaller non-random sets will likely be closely watched by both companies as well as other minis manufacturers (if you haven't been following sources like the Going Last podcast, minis manufacturers have been raising prices, changing materials (metal to resin, etc.) and experimenting with different strategies to fight costs).
Paizo/Pathfinder: They also saw big increases in attendance. That's great, because it is nice to see gamers of all kinds grow the hobby. It does, of course, also mean there is no end to edition wars. In related news, Pathfinder Society let Hyrum Savage go in late July, but it is unclear what a change at the top of campaign management means. Overall, Pathfinder continues to be strong. ICV2 (always suspect) just claimed today that Pathfinder has outsold WotC in Q2 2011. While the figures are suspect and ICV2 is accused by many of fabricating news, reports from various gaming stores suggest this is plausible. Paizo's subscription model is incredible. Then again, the wording "we estimate that Paizo's Pathfinder won the quarter, behind more and stronger releases than Dungeons & Dragons." suggests this continues to be a close race.
For other systems, I saw some moderate growth for other settings like Eclipse Phase, Crafty Games rpgs, and Catalyst/Shadowrun.
Oh, for fun, check out this picture Paizo CEO Lisa Stevens posted of her at the first Gen Con WotC booth!
Ennies: Paizo continued its dominance over WotC, though of course the Ennies are not science and reflect how fans tend to vote (often unfairly).
Best humor moment: Mike Mearls says that the person writing on the forums that he should be fired is probably his wife. Classic. I keep randomly running into him on my way to the airport. He's a terrific guy. If you listen to just one part of the Tome podcast, make it the Q&A where Mearls just talks for a while. D&D is in good hands.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011, 1:14 PM
Adventure Hacking in Dark Sun
Home Campaign Example: Session 10
The Hall of Mirrors, as drawn by my kids!
Warning: Spoilers for aspects of Thunderspire Labyrinth below!
I spent the last three blog posts discussing Breaking Patterns in 4E. In the first blog I talked about starting with story and letting that drive the encounter design. In the second installment I provided an example of how I work from a bare set of ideas and adapt adventures to PC choices and flesh out my ideas as the PCs respond. In the third installment I shared how I handle travel and an abstract mini-less combat in 4E.
I really appreciate the feedback I received. It kills me not to be able to blog more often, but since that time I have been hard at work with my other fellow Ashes of Athas admins on Chapter 2 of the organized play campaign. (By the way, we updated our campaign guide and you can now order Chapter One adventures for home play!) I can't begin to describe how much work it is, even with talented admins and authors. In just a few hours players will begin to play these new adventures!
In other news, I will have adventures this year in Dragon and in Dungeon. It isn't possible to capture in words how pleased I am about this. I am honored. As with crafting adventures, it is interesting how hard you can work and yet at the end realize you can't achieve perfection. The good news is that, just as with home campaign design, you don't need perfection to add value.
With that, let's return to the subject at hand. Specifically, I want to talk about my method for hacking existing adventures for use in Dark Sun.
Session 10: The PCs are relieved to learn the halflings won't eat them. Instead, they are told about a strange temple that draws halflings to it. Any who enter never return. The PCs deduce that this must be the same temple they seek - the one that holds the second part to the Crown of Sorrow, a lost artifact of Yaramuke and a central component to the campaign (and the fate of their home village).
Design for Session 10:
1) I want a strong psionic feel for this encounter, reflecting the nature of the artifact within. I go through a number of story ideas, but I find myself sidetracked by my usual tendency to borrow from Indiana Jones. I go with my gut, quickly developing an ending: If the PCs emerge victorious they will find themselves surrounded by hired foes, with their hated rival demanding that they hand over what they have found. Right out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and should work well for this group. I further decide to have some psionic feel throughout the session, and to have some confusion over what is real or imagined. Finally, I decide that at the end they will realize the entire battle took place in their minds. This shows the power of the artifact and carries the theme.
2) I now need to get some details down for what is in the temple. I start with just a ruined room that seems to be all there is. Then I add a bricked-up archway that the some see as an open misty passageway. This captures the mind effect. They all try to see the passageway and succeed, opening their minds.
I had been looking over published adventures for some other reason. I don't use pre-published adventures that often, though I love reading them for ideas. Rich Baker and Mike Mearls do a really good job with Thunderspire Labyrinth and in thumbing through it I found myself really liking three encounters. I whittled that down to two, as with RP I would not be able to handle more than that.
The first is the Hall of Enforced Introspection. I lifted the key concept, that the room has several pillars with mirrors. As PCs move closer to them they will see something reflected, triggering an effect. I customized the pillars by adding a vision each PC would have if "trapped". The visions were tied to their backstory and often requiring them to confront some aspect of their past (or even future). Instead of fighting a monster, they needed to confront the scene and perhaps make a skill check. I let them out when I was satisfied that the confrontation had been successful, with some adjustment for dice.
The foes are undead, but I wanted something elemental, themed to Earth. I used a Dust Devil (described as wind-blown shards of rock and dirt) and Tarek Raiders and a Tarek Shaman (described as beings of earth and stone). I know these creatures well from Encounters and Dark Sun Arenas, so I had a good feel for how they would perform. To tie them to the psionic concept I gave the Dust Devil the Blind the Mind's Eye power. I gave the Raiders the Psionic Augmentation to deal ongoing psychic on top of a regular attack. Both powers are part of the monster themes in the DSCC. I role-played the effects so the concept would carry.
The combat played well. The mix of the interesting pillars, the way some PCs were teleported around (disrupting normal tactics) and the strong opponents all added up to a lot of fun.
Oh, and my kids decorated the floor tiles on the battlemap, which added some nice decor and a bit of worry for the PCs as they wondered if stepping on the decorations would have any effect!
In the end PCs found the room held a metal sword broken into several pieces. The moment they picked up all the pieces the room before them faded and they were somewhere else.
3) I wanted the next encounter to be a huge challenge. This artifact is shielded, but it still has to be protected by something fierce. My story was that the artifact's protector is growing ancient. As the ages pass he becomes the temple, creating one last challenge. The Proving Grounds encounter in Thunderspire was perfect for this, and not just because it also has something inspired by Raiders!
I began the encounter by allowing them to slowly explore the map (a poster map is provided with the adventure). I had covered the map and slowly revealed it so as to create suspense... but they found no threats. They noticed all sorts of possible threats, but nothing attacked. There was a huge pit, a strange scraped area around the central area, many altars, some etched symbols, skeletons in metal chains, blood, and finally a door beyond the skeletons that could not be opened. In the door were the rough shapes of the four parts of the sword. Because it was rough, the sword pieces could not actually fit.
The players thought this over, eventually finding what they needed to do. Each had to take one piece of the sword and place it on an etched symbol. This meant the party was spread out. Here is the scene:
The Temple of the Mind's Eye
The blue circles are the etched runes. When the four pieces were placed, the fun started.
I wanted a strong Alien (the movie) feel. The lights immediately became dim and the corridors and rooms filled with concealing smoke. The pieces of the sword disappeared and could be heard clattering to the ground somewhere... sound was clearly distorted now! The PC in front of the door could see that the four impressions were distinct... all they had to do was bring the pieces to the door and it would likely open! And then? And then they heard a horrible hissing sound and the scrape of claws upon stone from some horrid creature. The additional sound of something massively large moving and grinding stone added to the frightening situation.
Initiative was rolled. I used the traps from the encounter, but lowered the level and made their effects obvious. The doom sphere was something I tracked myself, not placing it on the map if it could not be seen. And then there was the monster.
4) The adventure uses a young green dragon. That would not do. I wanted the feel of Alien, where PCs are exploring individually, suddenly coming eye to eye with something horrid that wants to pick them off one-by-one. That is actually hard to pull off in any edition. Here's what I knew up front:
- Monster needs to be accurate but with low damage. It can't devastate PCs in one blow.
- Monster needs to strike and retreat... lurker style... so it can harry the PCs
- Monster needs to be hard to kill and pin down... and I have a brawler fighter in the party that will grapple me
- Monster needs to feel horrid and terrible
Flipping through the DSCC I came upon the Id Fiend (level 1 solo controller). It made an appearance in Dark Sun Arenas and was brutal. What would it be like at level 5? And how could it achieve my goals?
The first thing I did was use the classic Monster Builder to make the level 1 version of the monster. I always make the normal version first if the MB doesn't have it, should I need it in the future. Then I advanced it to 5th level. If you aren't familiar with leveling creatures, Chris Perkins summarized the easy way to do it here. MB does it automagically, but checking the math is recommended. Sly Flourish has had some good coverage, including this article on Calculating Monster Damage.
To make it a lurker and mobile I gave it two key capabilities. First, a trait: At the start of combat, the id fiend makes two initiative checks. On the second initiative count the id fiend may only take 2 move and 1 minor action. This allows the creature to act often, but not to be overly deadly. It can take two move actions on the second turn, letting it escape grabs and still move away, move a lot, and even use the minor for the Fearful Torment power (which immobilizes). The second bit was a get-away power, an altered version of a theme power: Psionic Flight. Move action. Recharge 5 6. Effect: The id fiend pushes each enemy adjacent to it 1 square and then flies its speed. If it has concealment, the id fiend may make a stealth check to hide. This is what will let it hide often, since the rooms are filled with concealing smoke.
With just those two changes my solo controller is a solo-controller-lurker and can strike and get away to go strike again. These powers work perfectly with Quick Slash and Snapping Jaws, which allow the creature to move about while attacking. I can do both through the Double Attack. The triggered Whipping Tail further protects me and sets up more movement possibilities. The ability to use my minor on two initiative counts helps make Manifest Fear even stronger and further lets me lurk. This is a terror! It should be a fun terror because it isn't ridiculously damaging and will be moving from PC to PC.
I'm not done, of course. I give myself the Psionic Augmentation psionic theme power that lets me choose to daze with a basic. This is a stopgap measure. I like having a power that I can use if I am not threatening the PCs enough. I can now lay waste with Double Attack and daze and do my minor for a strong damage spike... but only if I need it. (I never did).
Finally, I lifted a fun weakness from the fine folk at SaveVersusDeath. He had a dracolisk that when crit was weakened and blinded. I thought that was cool, and changed it to being slowed and weakened. This did come up and was a lot of fun when it did.
The mini for the Greater Basilisk was perfect!
As is the art from the 3E Monster Manual!
Want to see the finished version? To encourage some cross-over fun, the fine folk at Going Last are hosting it for me.
Id Fiend Mindhorror Psionic Adept, level 5 solo controller-lurker!
So, how did it play? It was fantastic. The PCs began attacked by the traps, confused, separated, and having no clear idea on where the pieces were located. A few of the PCs had good perception checks and headed off in the right direction... all of them hearing the sounds of the loud grinding (the massive sphere) and the clawing/hissing (the Id Fiend). The psion was the lucky one to first see this massive lizard peering around the corner of a room, its body upside down and grabbing onto the low ceiling (ok, I borrowed from Aliens 3 as well!). The seeker suffered from the fear trap and went running into the hallway, narrowly missing the grinder. The half-giant warlock was escaping the whirlpool... good times. The Id Fiend performed admirably, attacking and moving away to create confusion. The PCs worked pretty well as a team to find the pieces. It was a close affair. The Id Fiend was only just bloodied and three PCs were down when the last two made it to the door and pressed the pieces of the sword into it. And then everything stopped and they were on top of mountains, looking down upon the Crescent Forest and the glittering waters of the green age!
5) To hammer home the psionic aspect they met the artifact's keeper. He provided warnings, cryptic information on the artifact and how it could be used, and indicated the location where they could find the next piece of the artifact - an island in the deadly and vast Sea of Silt. He gifted them with the Mind's Eye, a malachite orb that is the second part of the Crown of Sorrow. The psion greedily took it.
6) They also found two round disks. Each was engraved with pictograms, but each pointed to different locations. He then ended the visions. They once again found themselves in the ruined temple, the archway clearly bricked up and impassable. It had all taken place in their minds (though their wounds were real!).
When they came out the PCs found their nemesis asking for what they had found. My players always keep me on their toes. Here I thought they would mull over what to give to the templar. Instead, they decided to run despite overwhelming odds. Ah, players.
7) And so, as the session ended I began to think of a run through the forest. Perhaps a massive dangerous Athasian treant... based on a roper...
Hopefully this example of how I hack existing adventures and monsters for Dark Sun has been useful.
Dark Sun Blog Index
The If Fiend from the original Dark Sun Monstrous Compendium
Thursday, March 10, 2011, 2:39 PM
Combat Speed and 3PP
I found myself wanting to play Devil's Advocate yesterday. I gave it a day, and I still have that itch. Discussion on combat speed and on non-WotC third-party-publishers (3PP) just won't leave my brain. Here goes...
Tips on reducing the time it takes to have a combat in 4E have been going around for ages, but there has been a recent upsurge. I really liked what Robert J Schwalb wrote on the 60-Second Turn. It is only the latest of many blogs to deal with the issue, but this comes from someone (immensely talented) very close to the game of 4E. I liked the piece, while disagreeing with much of it.
The basic premise
I get that it is great to know your PC and come prepared. No one enjoys watching a player flip through power cards several times and hem and haw. I get that. Outside of that, the basic premise seems to be that combats should be brief, there is some perfect time that a combat should last, and that steps must be taken to ensure this time. RJS sets it at an hour, and others have said similar things.
Hogwash. Utter and complete.
A combat should last as long as it should last. How long is that? It depends entirely on what is taking place. A defend-the-castle fight could last several gaming sessions, going from one end of the castle to the other with some special mechanic to grant rests in between waves. A highly tactical combat could span three hours. A snatch-and-grab-the-important-thing-fight could last twenty minutes. There should never be a hard target for the duration of combat.
What should be our focus is making combats awesome. The duration of a combat will affect how awesome it is, based on the design of the encounter. For example, a thirty-minute defend-the-castle combat is likely to fall just as flat as a three-hour snatch-and-grab mission.
I would love to see the conversation redirect toward "duration as an element of combat design" or "be efficient" rather than just a blanket "combat speed" discussion. Sure, use table tents for initiative. Sure, use a custom character sheet so you can make speedy decisions and a method to track conditions, but no, we should not prevent long combats. Long combats can be fantastic.
Last night I ran a combat with a single solo monster, several rooms, four items they had to grab and bring to a particular spot, and a variety of traps. We spent most of our 4-hour game in that one combat. And it was perfectly appropriate. Despite a lot of turns being non-combat actions (running away, picking up the pieces they needed, maneuvering around traps, etc.), the action was fluid, interesting, and rich in story. The players were as engaged as in any short combat.
Here are some tests:
- Are the players engaged?
- Are players role-playing?
- Do PC actions matter each round?
- Are at least some aspects of the result of combat still being determined?
- Is this fun?
If the answers continue to be yes, you can have a combat last into eternity.
If you aren't reading XKCD, you should be!
I want to further explore two brief statements.
Not helping other players
One of the coolest things about 4E combat is that your presence matters even when it isn't your turn. A warlord is a perfect example ("you took an action point? Ah, I grant you..."), but just about any class has a tactical reason to care about the combat when it isn't their turn. I recall playing 3E Living Greyhawk where at conventions we would often finish our turn and go the restroom or wander and look at other tables. You had nothing to do and no reason to be there. The vast majority of classes just hit stuff with weapons and the spellcasters usually didn't need advice. The monsters just hit you and made you bleed. You came back and someone said "Hey, you took 20 dmg." Great, my turn yet?
It was night and day playing 4E Living Forgotten Realms at Gen Con. You couldn't go to the bathroom! The moment you though about it, some player asked if they should attack the foe you cursed, or if that effect was up, or if they should slide you, or, or, or. It was so engaging!
Sure, I get that endless comments/backseat-driving of another PC's turn can be a problem, but that isn't true if we are reasonable and if the action is exciting. Take a look at the earlier bullet items. If those are true, then the players are excited and will have fun working together. Every player is an island is not as much fun in most cases.
The sense of urgency
Similarly, the sense that each player must speed to finish their turn is a fallacy. Yeah, you want to be efficient. Don't waste time in unproductive ways. But, if you focus too much on speed you squeeze out the good stuff. Players should take time to involve other players in decisions. "We need to take this guy down, right? We might be able to race past the trap if this monster is slid here... you game for the risk?" Players should also take the time to RP. While we don't need a novel, "AC 40 for 80 damage" is far too brief and sucks the fun out of the game. One of the guys in my game is a brawling fighter. He is always vividly explaining his moves. "AC 23 hit? Cool. So I step on the lizard's tail and with my one hand I grab its snout. My other shoots across to grab his chest and I fall back, flipping him over and then rolling until he is under me. I end up here. I hit him for just 9, but my blow dazes and slows him."
Why have a sense of urgency? Why cut out the good stuff? Combat is not some 'fast-forward to my turn' affair, nor should it be 'can we hurry up and get our loot?' syndrome. It should encourage efficiency but above all be fun and engaging.
Discussion of the relationship between WotC and third party publishers (3PP, companies providing 4E content under license) has been a bit quiet since the initial announcement that the Open Gaming License that ushered so many 3PPs into the 3.5 era would end. Discussion roared back with the writing of this open letter to WotC by DEM.
I get that many see it as whining. Sure. I get that many say "You know what? As a gamer I just want to buy WotC stuff." Ok, but...
Stop and consider the very high quality of so many blogs these days. Take a look a the monsters, adventures, and gaming tips being provided by so many. Is the quality so vastly inferior to WotC? While there is plenty of low-quality content, there are many examples of incredible WotC-level quality out there. At the very least, there are many examples of content that an editor could turn into gold.
Major games (including D&D) often come from designers, developers, and authors that cut their teeth creating 3PP or small-scale (often free) offerings. Does the free monster Robert Schwalb offers on his site somehow immediately become of lesser value than the one he is paid to include in an official 4E book? Does the work a freelancer provides to Kobold Quarterly or on RPGNow somehow pale in comparison to the work she or he creates that same month for Dragon magazine? No.
The quality of material created externally to WotC is only going to increase. The Internet as it relates to gaming has just hit its stride and it will not be slowing down. Fan-based and 3PP levels of quality will be increasingly finding audiences.
The question is really what WotC wants to do with it. Anyone thinking they can put the genie back in the bottle is probably buying CDs at their neighborhood mom-and-pop CD store... admirable, but not representative of the current landscape. WotC can fight it, they can try to constrain it, or they can embrace it and make money off of it.
WotC must protect their brand, keep a clear understanding in the consumer's mind of the value behind WotC product (it bears the highest profit and steers company direction, after all), and must be able to control the evolution of the product. This can be done while making a great deal of cash off of 3PPs and amateurs.
Fortunately, WotC is full of real gamers. They go to cons. They play other games. They constantly meet with the big names in other RPGs and even in blogs. They do expose themselves to what is out there and thus have an idea of the quality level they must maintain to be the best. (And they are, by far, the best single entity writing 4E content.)
We live in an era of iTunes. We live in an era of open content. Gamers are at the forefront, as a demographic, on these types of content provision. It is only a matter of time before WotC fully embraces this, because they must.
Until then, we all do ourselves a disservice in treating 3PPs as whiners. Sure, tone matters for communications. But the transition to a healthier model of content distribution and of harnessing the power of 3PPs and talented freelancers (including fans and bloggers) is in the interest of everyone. You, me, and WotC.
Thanks for bearing with me as I delve into being a devil's advocate. A weight has been lifted, all while recognizing I am far from right on anything I wrote above. My hope is always that you will see through the errors and be better for it. Peace.
I identify with this picture far too often.
The 'someone' is, sadly, often me.
Monday, February 28, 2011, 11:39 PM
Breaking Patterns in Encounter Design
Home Campaign Example: Session 9
Wasteland, by Steven James
As you may recall from the original blog, we are talking about breaking established patterns in encounter design. I talked a bit about my approach and shared the process I used for session 8. Session 9 is a good one to share because we broke established patterns to have a strong story-rich wilderness travel skill challenge feel and two abstract combats.
At a broad level, I started with the following from my campaign story arc notes:
Session 9: The PCs are traveling south from the lower end of Dragon's Bowl to the Crescent Forest, seeking a hidden temple.The temple is found near Losthome (see Ivory Triangle, it is settled by halflings that escaped Gulg).
Design for Session 9:
1) Travel. One of the big questions around any campaign is how to treat travel. You don't want the voyage to be dull and taken for granted, especially in dangerous Athas.
I considered skipping this and starting the session when they near the Crescent Forest. It didn't feel right, so I began exploring how to combine elements and allow for story to come forth during the travel so it furthers the session.
To introduce danger, the first element was to have their poor village offer them only a very short supply of survival days (despite the PCs having brought them supplies!). The intention is to drive home the message that the village still needs help and to set them up for a tough trip.
Athas has many types of terrain. Sandy Wastes was new, so I stressed its characteristics during their voyage. Having non-encounters is a good way to provide color and keep things from being predictable. Here I had a PC chance upon some ruins of an old keep and strange long areas of stone (docks). I credit my awesome players in that they never used the word "boat" despite eventually figuring out what the half-buried and petrified thing that looked like a rib cage was. My notes were just: Event: random PC hits something hard as they walk. Find sunken tower. Following wall/rampart, travel down dunes to reach dock area, fossilized skeleton/boat. That was enough for some fun RP/exploration.
They ran out of water and food on the third day into the trip. Thus began a loose sort of skill challenge. Each day one PC could use Nature against a hard DC. This established whether the party was doing well with regards to general survival. (This was as much a way to reward the strength of the Wasteland Nomad Seeker as anything else.) Success/failure drove whether the group check was against a hard or medium DC (I didn't tell them this, keeping mechanics away and just RPing results). Each PC then had to choose from Perception or History to help chart the course through the wastes. This was a group check. Further, when a PC was out of survival days, they were attacked by either Sun Sickness or had to make Endurance or lose a surge from the cold (which they could not recover until done with the trip).
The reason for the light format was to keep it from being "fake RP". The typical wilderness SC pretends to be story-rich but ends up being about dice. This brings up their capabilities at set skills and accomplishes it quickly. This is hard, see how you do, done.
On the 6th day a sandstorm approached. This is the entirety of my notes: Perception hard. Sand Storm approaches. Each PC chooses how to prepare as group check. (I can get away with that because I know 4E well enough and my group is great.) I had some perception checks against a hard DC and the Seeker actually failed. They make a second round of checks and now spot the storm - with very little time to spare. Here I wanted a bit more story to the challenge. They immediately start coming up with ideas and questions. This leads to fun (the half-giant wants to dig a massive hole for everyone, the nature and perceptive people are asking about the storm and where to hide, etc.). I make sure everyone can try one thing (I think a PC actually chose not to do anything other than panic) and that is the group check. The skills they used shaped the story. They manage to see which way it is heading and run the other way, finding the right type of dunes where digging in can protect them. There are some funny failures, which we decide are because the mul that is on top of everyone is taking the brunt of the storm. Some lose surges.
On day 7 they reach the pass that leads to the Nibenese road. I describe the dry mountain flora and fauna on behalf of the Seeker, who is from Nibenay. Everything described is new, making the area seem different... and we haven't even reached the forest.
2) An Army - friend or foe? With travel down, my second thought was around how to cover Nibenay. I didn't want them to skip it entirely. And, I like reminding PCs that there are a lot of big forces out there that can destroy adventurers. Sorcerer-Kings are big threats and you don't just waltz through their territory. My concept was to have a meeting with Nibenay's forces but provide a lot of leeway in how that happened.
I had the Sand Drake from session 8 show up in the distance behind them as the sun began to rise on the horizon. Before them is the pass, which the Seeker knows is a frequent ambush spot for raiders. The PCs of course flee the drake, but should they run into the pass or into the mountains?
Had they gone into the mountains, the dragon would have harassed them and they would have used skills to evade... and then the army would find them in a weakened state.
Instead, (for once doing as I expected) heading over a crest in the road they come upon a large group of soldiers: 55 or so slaves, several well-trained soldiers, an assistant, and the templar (all Nibenese templars are female and considered to be brides to the Sorcerer-King). The Sand Drake sees the large force and flies off.
The idea I had was for parley and the Templar to decide how to conscript them based on successes: as slaves, in exchange for supplies, or as hirelings (earning a payment in addition to food). However, our fighter decided to punch the Templar in the face...
Winging a social encounter turned abstract fight with an army unit!
I had some basic minion soldier stats for later use, but when the PCs decided to fight I ran upstairs and printed out some regular units. I had actually chosen them before, decided the PCs would never be "smart" enough to fight them, and didn't print them. Ha!
I didn't want to plunk down 60 minis. It seemed too heavy. We would have spent a lot of time on the maneuvering of it. Instead, we ran it without any minis. Many people would say you can't have 4E combat without miniatures, but you really can.
My two guiding principles on abstract combat:
- It has to be done so it is heavy on story. There needs to be a reason you aren't on the map. Being really descriptive can take you away from "powers" and "dice" and into really imagining what is taking place.
- Don't nerf PCs or monsters. Allow map-related powers to work but in quick imaginative ways. For example, the half-giant warlock used a zone power. I just estimated the number of foes in the area and most died in a descriptive manner. If a power had forced movement, it provided tactical benefits that I took into account, such as giving the next PC a bonus to hit the shocked and out-of-position foe.
In brief, I jotted down the number of minions and crossed them off as they died. I made rough notes about where they were (5 North on mul, etc.), keeping them in large groups employing common tactics. I ran the non-minions as teams as well, RPing how they chose their targets based on the threat presented. Because slavery and defeating the PCs was a fine option, I concentrated fire to my grand enjoyment. The fighter PC that started the fight? He amused us by rolling low on every attack (including action point) and my templar and her allies beat the PC without mercy. I then slowly took down the rest of the party, with the exception of the Raamite PC. Being a clever negotiator, he never attacked.
When it was all said and done, the Raamite was having food and water while the other PCs were being tied up. They were now slaves to Nibenay. We had some RP, with the Nibenese (portrayed as roughly Cambodian in culture). The one PC that was seen as an ally was commanded to oversee the rest of the PCs and ensure they did not cause trouble. The RP was great, as the PCs resented that a great deal and the lead PC gave no indication that this was a ruse (strong bluff = RP win!). To drive home the effects of travel and being slaves, there is no short rest for the PCs without food and water, though they can spend surges to be conscious. The night passes without an extended rest. Athas is brutal...
3) Unclear allies. I knew I wanted the Crescent Forest to feel different and for the halflings to attack everyone, creating confusion. This would create mystery around the halflings, explain how they are dangerous and manage to survive, and set up interesting interactions with the PCs. I though the Nibenese could be on patrol because the city had been losing troops. Not knowing why, they believed the spirit was full of ghosts.
The ghost stories told by the Nibenese troops ("the forest spirits punish us for logging," "a forest ghost killed my brother") created some mystery. I also described the strange forest, the bizarre presence of grass, the humidity that made their noses and skin feel strange, the many sounds of the forest, etc. Hostile and alien territory!
The army unit moves through the jungle and suddenly the vines come alive, entangling everyone. The trees themselves join the fight, spitting thorns at the column. PCs and Nibenese are all attacked and I ask the PCs what they want to do.
Skills are used, eventually seeing that the vines are magic and the thorns are coming from camouflaged halflings in the leafy trees. Some PCs just hide, some want to help the halflings, others want to calm the panicked soldiers.
My notes were:
- Skill challenge format:
- Each round, ask what they do. At end, a PC is attacked by either Thorn Dart or Spirit Creepers (roll to determine).
- Can try to organize Nibenese (diplo or intimidate, work against Halflings)
- Can try to fight Halflings (see stat blocks)
- Can try to kill Nibenese (See printout. Templar and consort are busy and do not fight PCs unless sought out.)
- Can try to hide or escape (med Stealth, can use other skills)
- Once four successes, achieve that goal.
So, after a round of confusion they start helping the halflings. One group really wanted to find the soldier with their food. Another wanted to engage the Templar, even though she was off in the distance (so, I obliged). Others wanted to do whatever worked best for the halflings. Some used powers, some used skills.
Again, no battlemap was used. The battle was abstract, with descriptive results to paint a vivid picture of the battle in and around trees and dangerous plants. It was a lot of fun, especially when PCs took actions against particular captors I had detailed during the RP.
In the end, the Nibenese were largely destroyed, with just the Templar and a few of her men escaping. There were a lot of options for what could have happened, ranging from both sides retreating to big impacts on future encounters. I can't share what will happen, but let's say the halflings are a lot stronger than they could have been.
4) End on the invitation to Losthome. Losthome is briefly mentioned in the 4E DSCS book but more fully detailed in the Ivory Triangle boxed set. The PCs were busy eating their rations when the halflings surrounded them with spears and blowguns. After some discussion, the halflings seemed pleased and escorted them toward Losthome. To drive home how nothing is safe, the session ended with "We are very pleased you aided us. We invite you be a part of a grand feast!" There wasn't a player in the room without the question "are we dinner?" in their minds!
It was a lot of fun to listen to two of the players in my group, Ian and Justin, talk about the session on their Going Last podcast. (Check it out, it is really funny!).
They felt that the whole thing was like a skill challenge. That's really great, because not one part of it was a traditional success/failure challenge. Instead, there were discrete bits that had some teeth and RP, without conventional ways of tracking progress or XP.
They also liked how the two combats were abstract, without minis. The funny thing is that I actually had minis and tile maps for the second fight, but the first improvised fight was so good in an abstract form that I just kept that for the second fight.
It was interesting to note some PC frustration at machinations as well. One thing that is hard is finding enough time for each PC to shine. I try to bring to light some backstory aspect for 1-2 PCs each session.
I am curious how these blogs are received. Too long and rambling? More examples? Focus more on certain types of encounter pattern breaking? Enough with this concept and back to discussing the setting? More about Ashes of Athas? Help me make this more useful, please!
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Friday, February 18, 2011, 5:27 PM
Breaking Patterns in Encounter Design
Home Campaign Example: Session 8
As you may recall from the previous blog, we are talking about breaking established patterns in encounter design. Last time I talked a bit about my approach and now will share the process I used for one of my Dark Sun home campaign sessions. At a broad level, I had the following:
Session 8: One PC meets with Abalach-Re, becoming her templar. The PCs leave Raam toward their home village near the south of Dragon's Bowl. They want to stop to see the druid that lives near the village, seeking information. I want to hint at a new foe, have some wilderness fun, and have a fight with traditional beasts of the wastes.
Design for Session 8:
1) I want some spotlight time for the PC meeting Abalach-Re. This is a solo story time, but will be humorous enough (and the player is fantastic) so everyone will enjoy it. There will be good tension and questions raised that everyone will enjoy. This isn't an encounter but just pure RP. I jot down bullets as to what will happen and ideas for how to react to the PC. This went really well in actual play. I also used it as an opportunity to provide an alternate reward. I don't hand out treasure in normal ways. Here, the half-giant developed a Wild Talent after his dalliance with her.
2) I provide some story closure for leaving Raam. I make sure to have 2-3 bits for different PCs, slightly advancing their story. One of them ate something strange, and they have a sleepless night wracked by stomach pain. Another has city contacts and comes up with information. This was pure story, but very fast.
3) I want the PCs to get to the druid pretty quickly, because we have other important bits to cover. However, I have an idea for introducing a new foe... a Sand Drake summoned by a powerful foe they don't even yet know they have! I also want a bit of a scene involving creatures or terrain to add color. I don't like a Dark Sun wilderness trip without something like that. Based on that, I don't use Hexploration this time (as I did last time they visited the druid, itself a break in the usual mode for adventures).
My original plan was that they would go to the village first, then come back. This would let me have a long trip where they would play cat-and-mouse with the sand drake. I deliberately let the players make choices that can throw things off. Here they did so, visiting the druid first. I pushed the Sand Drake back and went with the wilderness danger scene first.
This time I look to lessen the reliance on rules and present them with a skill scenario. Like a skill challenge, but I don't track success or failure explicitly. I do have danger elements, damage, and they can use attack powers. During design I think through several options. I finally settle on rock bees. These made up critters are basically giant bees that live in dug-out tubes in the rock, have huge carapaces, and their stingers can impale you and leave a hole large enough you will never recover. This is a free-form scene with loose rules (like an attack roll and damage but no actual stat block). It has enough structure that I could write it up for a campaign like Ashes of Athas, but I don't bother since I am the only person running this.
How it played was pretty fun. The PCs come upon this small valley in the mountains. They use skills to spot and recognize the holes. They also have heard that rock bee honey is very nutritious and has healing powers. Wizards are said to use it, it has value! And the bee grubs are also nutritious (did I mention they were low on survival days?). They learned that fire draws them as they hate smoke and fire. I then expected them to find a way to create a fire (they did that) and draw one rock bee out (they didn't, they drew them all out with a huge noise)! Fun ensued and much damage was given while one intrepid PC grabbed grubs and honey. I added things on the fly for fun, like the lip around each tube hole is hard-packed mud and breaks, so they might fall or not get out. Good times.
4) I knew the meeting with the druid would be pure RP. My druid gags and wheezes and sprays phlegm all over them, provides cryptic "answers", and gives them a nudge in a certain direction. I did give them, mostly, the information they wanted.
5) The way things were going, I didn't want to drop the Drake in yet. But, there is this spire they have climbed before. With a bit of a challenge, one PC got the other to climb it. From there I gave them the beautiful view of Dragon's Bowl... and the drake off in the distance. They then did a bit of hiding and moving about carefully, learning some things about it as they observed it. Sand Drakes only operate in the day. This was a nice set-up for the future, giving depth to later encounters.
6) They reached the village. This was an RP catch-up scene. We interacted with NPCs, caught up on what the village has been doing, and saw the fruits of their labors. There is a lot of fun in taking breaks from fun NPCs (like the half giant that changes personality to match the person speaking to them) and in seeing the results of prior actions. Here, the approach they took to prior encounters was in full swing as released foes now worked for the village, repairing it and having beaten back raiders in the PCs' absence.
7) Baazrag! They began the trip south, following the main plot. I dropped the Baazrag fight I had planned, which was a pretty typical fight with some nice terrain and fun monsters that are iconic Dark Sun beasts. Except I rolled terribly, players rolled well and were smart, and my at-level encounter was a cakewalk. This is fine (players like easy fights from time to time), but it gave me an opportunity. "I'll be right back," I say, and I come back with my Sand Drake.
I then commence to give them a serious beat-down. My thought was it would flee when bloodied. It is a level 6 solo (PCs are level 5), but a very tough one with several solid powers. I deliberately used the non-standard mini size (roughly 2x3 squares at the base) to represent that it was often moving up and over rocks. Half of it might be on top of the rocky terrain and the other half might be down on the sand. I played it fast and loose and allowed PCs to do fun things to affect the combat with their skills, such as distracting it, drawing it towards them, etc. The result was a very cool fight including some mul heroics, some PCs running for their lives, and a lot of close calls. The drake retreated and the heroes prevailed.
Update, October 2011 for everyone other than the players in my home campaign: You can download a pdf of the Sand Drake (a modified purple dragon, if memory serves) here. You can also download the .monster file for import (which you should check carefully after importing and adjust manually as needed if anything is off.
That was the session, running 5 hours. Very little was conventional. And yet, I'm pretty sure we could package it for organized play with some work so DMs know what latitude they have in the scenes.
It was a ton of fun for me creatively, was full of story and RP, resulted in fantastic interaction with my friends/players, and had very few of the patterns we constantly see in published adventures and organize play. Next week I will share the design approach and pattern breaking applied to the most recent session.
I do want to opine on one more thing, and that is the concept of Fourthcore (hardcore fourth edition). I think part of the draw is around making things harder, but harder is a slippery beast... you can only lose PCs so many times before the game isn't fun. I think the greatest appeal is around old school ideas around encounter design, unpredictable dungeons, and monsters that aren't bound by typical 4E rules. It is this breaking of patterns that most speaks to many of us when we look at Fourthcore. To that end, I highly suggest looking at those concepts. I mean, just look at this map!
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