Thursday, November 5, 2009, 9:50 PM
A year ago this week I moved into âmy own placeâ after 15 years of marriage.Â The actual separation had occurred a couple of months prior, but â unwilling to face the unthinkable â I had made temporary arrangements, hoping that things might turn around.Â I concluded in November 2008 that they werenât, and finally made the move.Â Having zero desire to divide up knives and spoons and pictures, and loath to have my three daughters watch the process in any event, I took only my clothes and my computer (later, my books), and suddenly found myself starting out at the mountains of Tucson with a bare living room at my back.
At the time of the initial separation, I was many months into running my 4th Edition D&D Campaign (The Bannerlands), and although my gaming group understood something was up, I never actually spelled out what I was going through.Â I stoically kept up our weekly sessions, but as it became more and more difficult to prepare the quality of games I believed in, I turned over the DMing reins to a couple of the other players for some mini-adventures and side-treks; thus, I could just play, and not have to create.Â It was the first time since the release of 4th Edition that I actually got to run a PC (a Drow Dark Pact Warlock), and it was a welcome diversion.Â But as the weeks went on, we ended up losing a couple of players to permanent moves, and this, coupled with my own waning enthusiasm for, well â anything - meant we needed a hiatus.Â By early December, I had put the campaign on indefinite hold, and everyone went their separate ways.
Now, there have been times in my life where I have not been able to play RPGs (when I first moved to Los Angeles, my two year stint in Haiti), but up until my divorce, there was never a time I didnât want to play.Â As anyone who has been through the divorce process can tell you, however, you pretty much lose focus on, and interest in, anything you took pleasure in before.Â And that included my hobby of 30 years: gaming.Â I had no desire to create anything: to make worlds, to carve out dungeons in my mind, flesh out villains or dream up esoteric challenges.Â And as long as I could remember, I had always had a new game, a new adventure, a new PC that I had wanted to try.Â There never had been enough hours in the day to exhaust that creative outlet, but suddenly there was nothing.Â A long empty event horizonâŠthe well was completely dry, and I worried if I would ever like or enjoy anything â particularly my lifelong hobby - ever again.
And although our divorce situation was absolutely as amicable as that sort of thing can be, I was struggling with the loss of 15 (actually 18) years of shared history, any aspirations I had for my future and my family, and the upheaval in my daughtersâ lives.Â Plus, I found myself alone for the first time in a long time, as my ex-wife and I worked out the custody and living arrangements, and my daughters were not a daily presence in my life.Â For someone who had started every day with his three daughters for more than a dozen years, facing the silence of empty bedrooms and Saturday mornings was almost too much to bear.
So it was early on one of those Saturday mornings in January that I found myself watching gray rain descend on Tucson (a feat even in that time of year in the desert).Â I was listening to my iPod (something maudlin, Iâm sure), when I started to leaf through the 4th Edition Manual of the Planes.Â Even though I wasnât playing D&D, and had no interest to, I was still picking up the books.Â Perhaps it was rote habit, or just the comforting diversion of spending some money, but I had bought the book earlier and it had sat around, ignored and unopened.Â But that morning I grabbed a beer (yes, it was early), and sat back on the bed and just read for the next hour or so.Â Curiously enough, despite my long history of gaming, the Planes had never interested me much as either a DM or Player, but as I sat there and read, I began to connect ideas and themes, began to see the outlines of some adventures, maybe a new Campaign arc.
And by the time I was done reading, I felt energized.Â I wanted to jot down some notes, look through a few other D&D books, send some emails out to my former players to see if they were interested in playing after the New Year.Â I felt creative, and I felt good.Â As good as I maybe had in months.
And I knew then, that I was going to be okay.Â That I could draw some color back into my monochrome life, and that I didnât have to worry that I would never enjoy anything again.
Now, donât get me wrong, gaming and D&D didnât save my life or make it perfect.Â My divorce went through and was finalized, and Iâve spent the last year adjusting to a whole new life and the vagaries of being a single parent, with all that entails.
But in March, I also did start up that Campaign that I thought about that morning: it became Arc 2 of The Bannerlands - 27 plus sessions and counting (all written up here on the Wizardâs Community Site); a game session almost every Sunday night so far this year from 4 to 8 PM.Â The overarching âthemeâ for this arc has been Planar in nature, and the PCs are on the cusp of finding the Helm for a Planar Vessel â just as I sketched out a year ago.Â The Campaign as a whole has been some of the best DMing Iâve ever done, and Iâve enjoyed every minute of it.Â It just so happens that my girls are with me on the Sundays that we play; they know that means pizza and movies for them, and dice and maps for me.Â But they like to come and see whatâs going in the living room, and look at my miniatures and glance through the books.
And my youngest, while traveling with my ex-wife this summer, saw some dragonflies and called them âDungeons & Dragonflies, just like Dad playsâ.Â My ex- made sure to call me the minute it happened, and we both laughedâŠ
So itâs a year later, and Iâm turning the reins over again to one of the players to run a couple of scenarios.Â But Iâm not doing it because I canât concentrate or focus or create, Iâm doing it because Iâve had this great idea for a Sorcerer/Bard with the Celestial Scholar Paragon path (in keeping with the Campaign theme), and I really, really want to play a PC in the world my gaming group and I have created over the last year.
And I guess in December a new book will be coming out, about the Elemental Chaos, and I can already see myself one quiet Saturday morning, with the house to myself and a Coke Zero in hand, leafing excitedly through the pages for Campaign ideas for next yearâŠ
Tuesday, October 6, 2009, 12:31 PM
We had a PC die during the game this week, and maybe for the first time in my gaming career as a DM, every Player in one of my Campaigns has had their character die (in Arc 1 of The Bannerlands campaign, we nearly had a TPK at 5th Level - only Torment the Warlock survived).Â I find this pretty amazing, given the general durability of PCs in 4th Edition and the panoply of Healing available.Â I'm generally not a DM who racks up PC deaths, and particularly in those instances whereÂ Players have really invested in their PCs, I hate to see it happen (which, however,Â dovetails into an old axiom of mine: If you don't care about your character, why should I?).Â Anyway, here are few observations regarding the deaths that have occurred in our Campaign:
- ALONE IN THE DARK: In almost every incidence of PC death, it seems to have been caused by a PC getting segregated out from the Party and then "ganged up on" by several monsters.Â Generally, a PC vs. One Monster fight (even a really tough Monster) favors the PC.Â PCs appear to only truly be in danger when alone and surrounded.
- DON'T PLAY "GRAB ASS":Â Being Grabbed is a harbinger of trouble.Â Â I think most Players don't worry about being Grabbed, because they can still fight back.Â They're willing to stay Grabbed since it seems harmless as a Status effect, particularly if you WANT to stay adjacent to the Monster in order to keep fighting.Â It's clear however, that most Monsters "Grab" because they're setting up a much more lethal attack (kind of like a Combo attack in Street Fighter).Â Escaping a Grab is a Move action, which a PC can do two of any given turn.Â It's probably wiser to use both of those if necessary to escape the Grab, and forego the Standard action to attack.
- SPEED KILLS: Or actually, the lack thereof.Â Mobility is a huge part of 4th Edition D&D, and if you can't move and maneuver, you're most likely dead (see the two observations above, both of which fundamentally come down to the inability of the PC to maneuver).Â I think the reason Torment the Warlock in the earlier parts of our Campaign survived for so long (as a relatively "squishier" class) is because the PC had tons of Teleport effects - she was a "Feylock" and almost impossible to pin down (ala ALONE IN THE DARK).
- THE SPECIALIST: I think one of the "traps" of 4th Edition is that it's easy for a Player to inadvertently pigeonhole his PC.Â If you're playing a Barbarian who wields a great sword, and all of your At-wills, Encounters, and Dailies trigger off Melee attacks with a sword, you never think to imagine, or prepare for, what happens if you CAN'T Melee attack with that sword.Â I've seen it a couple of times: PCs who don't have a range of weapons (smaller blades when there isn't room to manuever a large one, no ranged weapons, etc.)Â beyond the one "calculated" into their Powers.Â Â And this doesn't surprise me, because I think it's easy not to think about it given how the Powers are designed.Â Nevertheless, one good use of all the gold a Party finds is making sure everyone has a couple of different Melee and at least one good Ranged weapon - preferably with a minimal magic enchantment.Â Even the Wizard can hold a +2 Dagger in his hand for those moments when Opportunity attacks occur...
- A STITCH IN TIME SAVES NINE: It's important for Players to know their PC's Powers - well.Â As a DM I don't want to watch a Player hem and haw and calculate and recalculate damage, etc., in the middle of combat, but it's vital that as a Player you DO take advantage of every point of damage, every Status effect, every Buff, every "whatever" that you have available.Â Know what the Powers do, and have an efficient way of keeping track of it at the table.
- Â A PRAYER FOR THE DYING: I think also due to the availability of Healing, the mechanics of three Death saves, etc., that Players kind of "walk the razor" when a companion goes down.Â They put themselves on an internal "clock",Â and try to wait to the last possible moment to Heal or rescue their downed friend, while they squeeze in a last few points of damage to a Monster.Â Do this enough, however, and the "clock" is going to run out.Â My general rule is that if a PC is down, out, or being dragged off (shudder), that PC is the first priority...
Anyway, just my observations from my side of the screen....
Tuesday, October 6, 2009, 11:56 AM
I was looking around the D&D Community forums, and came across a thread involving Random Encounters.Â This got me thinking about how I run my games generally.Â One of the things I always wanted to achieve as a DM was for the Players to feel as if there is some real variability and unpredictability in their world; and more particularly, to have a sense that the world was truly three dimensional, and not merely a Railorad or a Potemkin Village.Â I thought that the mark of a "real" DM was that no matter what "window" the Players looked out of, there was always something there I had created to see.
Of course, this takes a lot of work, and requires the DM to exercise a lot of control over the game world - a game world that, in the best of circumstances, you are sharing with the Players, and one hopefully they can invest in as well.
So, as I've been running through our 4th Edition Bannerlands campaign, one of the things I've tried to do is "loosen" the reins a bit, and really let the Players have a say in how this world we're both interested in develops.Â As I described in an earlier Blog post, most recently I let the Players choose the next "main villain" for our Campaign.Â We already had plenty of story seeds from our earlier adventures, and we were at a natural plataeu,Â so I gave the Players the option which "seed" to "grow" next (i.e., the one that most interested them) and then went one step further and said - "Alright, so you want to travel into the Underdark to recover the helm of the planar ship you've uncovered?Â Since you know that the ship's crew returned from the Far Realms or Astral Sea with some sort of creature in tow, and that then abandoned their ship and took the helm, as well as the creature(s) they brought back with them, into the Underdark, what creature do you want that to be?"
And then I sat back and watched the Players debate and decide.Â As DM, I had already outlined the basic story of the adventurer Connor Reyar, his planar ship The Blade of Al'Veydra, and the mystery surrounding his return from his planar travels; more specifically, the missing ship's helm, and - in a nod to every good deep space monster movie - the mysterious "creatures" that had followed him (or been brought back by him) through the planar Veil into the known world.Â I also knew that Reyar had abandoned his ship (now used as an inn) and had taken his crew, it's helm, and the "creatures" down below into the Underdark.Â But I had never decided on what those creatures might have been or why they all went below.
So when I let the Players choose this next adventure, I also let them choose the adventure's antagonist as well - and they chose a Lich (written about in the Skull of Stars forum postings on The Bannerlands campaign page).Â With their input, I've been busily crafting the adventure "ahead" of them as they travel.Â Is it the monster I had in mind when I created the "Connor Reyar" adventure seed?Â No, not really.Â But I know the Players have chosen this adventure and this antagonist - they are invested, and that's exciting for me.Â Is some of the mystery and "shock value" lost because they already know the BBEG is a Lich?Â Maybe, but that is made up for by their excitement in facing a villain they chose and then helped create, and there is still a lot that I can surprise them with in and around that choice.
In keeping with the theme of ceding control to the Players, and letting them feel that this control includes meaningful choices and outcomes, I've tried to really "up the ante" in handling supposedly "Random Encounters", particularly in terms of overland or subterranean travel.Â As a Player, how interesting is it to know that no matter which direction you go, or which choices you make, that you are going to face the same three set encounters that the DM has prepared for the night?
So as the PCs are making their extended foray into the Underdark, hunting the Lich Dal-morvrey, the basics of their travel (set to "frame" the days they are mapping and making their way through the caverns and tunnels) are handled by a Skill Challenge; however, a certain number of failures during the course of this extended Challenge net them a "random" monster encounter.Â I have a list of 10 such "Underdark appropriate" encounters (actually, a "Who's Who" of Underdark monsters like Umber Hulks, Ropers, etc.), and let the Players roll to see which comes up.Â To even add more variety (and fun), I have a couple of tables that the Players also roll on to determine the nature of the caverns or tunnels that the fight takes place in - terrain features, traps, etc.Â One roll even nets a "Players' Choice" - and they can choose any terrain feature or trap to include in the battle (the harder they choose, the more XP they earn).Â
And during our last play session when the Players faced just such a "random encounter", after they made their rolls, I simply gave them the markers and let them draw out the encounter area themselves, placing the terrain that they had rolled wherever they wanted on the map (not knowing of course, which corner of the map their PCs were going to be coming in from).Â When that was done, I randomly placed monsters, randomly gave them their starting point, and said "roll for initiative..."
The fun of this also was that the Players knew I hadn't carefully crafted this encounter - I didn't have any better knowledge of the encounter map than they did, and WE all had to make tactical and combat decisions on the fly.
In the end, this process - while requiring some energy, effort, and flexibility on my part - has made this foray into the Underdark exciting, variable, and continues the theme of Player control and investment in the process (both in terms of the Skill Challenge itself, and the consequences of failure in the encounters that result).
This doesn't undermine the ongoing Story Arc of Dal-morvrey the Lich - they'll have plenty of set encounters when they get to their destination - but it has made the trip there a little more interesting...
Wednesday, September 30, 2009, 8:35 AM
I like all sorts of RPGs and games in general, but I always come back to D&D and Magic: The Gathering.Â In terms of the latter, I am a consummate deck builder â as of last count, I have over 75 decks âready to playâ; not all of them good, but most of them competitive, and all of them fun to build.Â I love tribal themes, wonky âtrickâ and die-hard control decks, and discardÂ To the extent I play tourney Magic, I loiter around Standard, but I like pre-releases (or at least the older, âbig-styleâ pre-releases) and enjoy 2 hour Multi-player games.Â Iâve got a lot of the âgreatâ cards, thousands of âgoodâ cards, and pretty much everything in between.
This weekend will bring the release of a new set, Zendikar, and Iâve been pretty impressed with what Iâve seen so far.Â I think some of the cards will have âlegsâ (a term Iâve used before in this blog â and Iâm looking at you, Lotus Cobra), and it got me thinking about some of the Magic cards that are iconic to me.Â Much as with my list of iconic D&D monsters, these cards are the ones that have defined and informed my Magic play experience.Â Iâm not saying they are the best â or at least not the obvious choices - just the ones Iâve been drawn toâŠ
Hymn to Tourach: âHymn you for twoâ â How many times have I uttered that throughout my Magic playing days?Â Simple, brutal, and sometimes back-breaking, the Hymn was maybe the standout card from Fallen EmpiresâŠ.Hmmm, maybe the only worthwhile card in FEâŠ.Â One canât mention the Hymn without the King of all Discard cards: Mind Twist.Â Iâm not sure Iâve ever lost a game where I successfully stuck an early or 3+ count Mind TwistâŠ
Whispers of the Muse (and Capsize): âAt the end of your turn, I [Whispers or Capsize] with Buyback...â - Another heavy-rotation phrase in my Magic lexicon, Buyback was a pretty good mechanic that was elegantly executed on Whispers of the Muse and Capsize.Â Whispers seems both expensive and marginal, but itâs insidious â and probably has netted me more cards than any other draw mechanism in MagicâŠexcept for Ophidian.
Beacon of Destruction: A 5 mana Red Instant (might be a Sorcery, don't have it in front of me) that does 5 damage, and then is shuffled back into your library.Â I liked all of the Beacons, but have been fond of working the BoD into about any Red deck that will support it.Â Just knowing that its lurking in my deck, ready to be drawn again, makes me smile.Â Iâve slotted it into a couple of Cascade-based multiplayer decks, and itâs like hitting the jackpot every time you Cascade into itâŠagainâŠand againâŠ
Eternal Witness: Pretty much any base-Green deck can use the Witness.Â I love it particularly in Red/Green decks, where I can fire through my direct damage at will and without delay and then retrieve âem to close out a game.
Smokestack + Armageddon + Rancor: This is one of those crazy combos that my friends wonât allow me to play anymore, but that Iâve gotten a lot of mileage out of.Â âGeddon their land, and then slowly but surely smoke âem out as you recurse Rancor.Â The real star here is Rancor, which should go into every Green creature deck ever made, and is the one card that actually made creature Enchantments viable and undermined the âcard advantageâ argument that has been levied at them since the gameâs inception.
Troll Ascetic: Iâve lost a thousand games to the troll, and won just as many with it as well.Â Equip a troll with a Jitte or one of the Swords (or Rancor), and youâve put your opponent on an atomic clock.Â One of the best creatures everâŠunless you lean toward Birds of Paradise.
Sengir Troll: I dunno, there is nothing game-breaking about it, I just always liked this card, and it was one of the earliest cards to require, and get better because of, a multi-color deck.
Hypnotic Spectre: This card doesnât seem to have as much favor nowadays; its mechanics have been stuck on a variety of other similar âspectersâ without much success.Â Maybe without the Dark Ritual+Hippy opening play, it doesnât have much luster.Â Still, I used to hate seeing this thing hit the table.
Nekrataal/Man OâWar/Flametongue Kavu: One destroys, one bounces, one damages, but theyâre all card advantage.Â I have never, ever, regretted casting one of theseâŠ
Loxodon Warhammer: An encyclopediaâs worth of Keywords and buffsâŠ
Wrath of God: My first year of playing Magic I didnât âgetâ WoG (âYou mean, I destroy all my own creatures as well?â).Â And then, I did get it.
Mindâs Desire: I really like the deck built around this card.Â No fun to play against (and really appeals to one of the least fun aspects of Magic, the âplay by yourselfâ combo deck), I did enjoy proving to myself how the combo worked, hammering a few of my friends with it for sheer evil delight, and then retiring it.
Icy Manipulator:Â In its day, it was a pain in the ass.
Meloku: And in itâs day, perhaps, an even bigger pain in the ass.
Fallen Angel: Sheâs probably been done better, cheaper (Nantuko Husk), but Iâve closed out a lot of games with an unblocked, suddenly pumped angel.Â Plus, I always liked the original artwork.
Impulse: One of the most cost-efficient ways ever to dig through your deck.
So, that's just some thoughts...now I'm on my way to build my new Vampire deck...
Monday, September 21, 2009, 5:12 PM
In our last 4th Edition session, I gave the Players a set of "quests" from which they could choose their next adventure (we've just broached Paragon tier and had reached a natural story "pause"), all of which derived from earlier encounters and legends, and many of which allowed them to choose not only their own rewards, but even their own nemesis/villains (I like letting the Players invest in the Campaign and help shape the world).Â They decided to go on a search for a "helm" for an Astral vehicle they had discovered early in the Campaign, and needed to conduct a foray into the Underdark for it (trust me, makes sense within the current history of the Campaign).Â They also decided they wanted a Lich to be their major protagonist, as none of the Players had ever encountered one.Â With their notes and comments, I started to work up some background stuff that will come into play as they explore and research, and used some great information presented in Dragon 364 and Open Grave as well.Â In my Campaign Tieflings are known as Shadrim, hence the references to such.
I'm out of town for the next few days, but thought I would blog this material.Â It refers to the ancient background of Dal-morvrey, who later became known as the Skull of Stars, and it gives an example of how you can take existing material and weave it into the fabric of your own Homebrew campaign...
He watches Vor Kragalâs slave pens, adjacent to the Vein Maze of House Kahlir, from a scabbed window of the Charspire - the citadel of blackened bone and scorched sinew that is the home of House Barikdral.Â Two years ago he crawled amongst the maggots and rotting corpses in those pens himself, fighting to stay alive â why, one might ask, when the best fate that might await a Human slave is to be sacrificed to the infernal patrons of Bael Turathâs noble Shadrim houses?
He takes a sip of sour wine from a goblet made from a serpentâs skull steeped in gold and onyx, each finger of the hand holding the goblet circled in crystal and precious metal.Â Why indeed?
He can remember it as if it were yesterday, when Mabberaj the Black Tongue, Master Necromancer and Scion of House Barikdral, came to the pens to buy their monthly allotment of Human flesh for sacrifice and experiments.Â He had pushed to the fore, within sight of the ruby-eyed Mabberaj; had washed his face clean with the blood and spit of the dead.Â Although thin...dirty...he knew he was still beautiful.Â He knew he would stand out amongst the other living fodder; his bright green eyes would be remembered, and noticed.Â He had learned of Mabberajâs appetites from the guards, information he had bought with the guardsâ rough appetites as well.Â And in the end Mabberaj the Black Tongue had noticed him, and had brought him from the pits with a careless wave of a clawed hand.
Brought him out of those hell-holes to be branded by House Barikdral for later torture and sacrifice, but nevertheless, brought him out alive.
And every day after that had been as desperate as any barters made in Sigilâs Gatehouse Night Market, as he sought to trade or purchase from his masters in House Barikdral one more minute of breath.Â There was no lie he would not tell, no other slave he would not betray, no debased feat or act he would not perform, to stay alive.Â He became Mabberajâs plaything and apprentice, and with those bartered breaths began to learn the House's necromantic arts with an aptitude he carefully downplayed.Â His beauty and depravity came even to the notice of Jorhara, the Grand Matron of House Barikdral, who rode above Vor Kragal in a chariot formed from a giantâs charred skull.Â So she took him, over Mabberajâs cries and complaints, for three days, to her private chambers deep within the Charspire to taste and test him.Â The scars of which he still carries â striated wounds of dead flesh that weep blood-filled maggots â from those places on his skin where Jorhara ran her undead fingers.
And thus he has lived from one horrific day after the next, to now stand in private chambers of his own; a Human slave given a name in the Shadrim tongue (but not a Shadrim name, he thinks bitterly), Dal-morvrey, meaning âa book of pages made from living skinâ; a pure Human who has risen higher than any other within a Shadrim noble house.
Alive, yet a slave still.
He puts down the goblet and retreats into his chambers, opulence formed of skin and bone and bloodstone marble, curtained by gauze made of webs and feathers, lit by the glowing orbs of fell blood; thick with the smoke of ash and crushed bone incense.Â All of this is his, but repurchased each day with Mabberajâs fumblings, Jorharaâs torments, trading of his own flesh (a âbookâ to be perused by his betters, after all), and depravities too many too catalog.Â But unlike the other Shadrim Houses of Vor Kragal, the line of Barikdral has always focused on necromancy - on the undead - and has drawn their patronage not from the standard panoply of Infernals but from the undead machinations of Orcus, Demon Lord of Undeath, himself.Â Thus, the halls of the Charspire have swelled with creatures that stink of graves they will never lie in, and it has been by watching them closely that he has finally seen his path, and understood.
Given his scheme now, it makes Dal-morvrey laugh to think of all the horrors he committed, of what decency and soul he abandoned, to simply stay alive.
He goes to his hiding place behind the decanter Jorhara gifted him, a gothic vessel of iron and glass and gems and spikes.Â He draws forth the Calas Coil, a ritual tome little known to most necromancers; its title picked out with laquered human teeth on sheets of some strange metal.Â He long ago abandoned any thought of petitioning Orcus, for the Demon Lord's bloody fingers are sunk too deep within House Barikdral.Â But there has been another he has met of while studying with Mabberaj; a being (for whatever it is, it is clearly not fully human), known to some as The Whispered One or Lord of the Rotted Tower (due to his links to the Charspire), but to most it is simply Autarch Vecna. Vecna and his disciple/minion Kas roam Vor Kragal freely, a necromantic master who has spent equal time within the Charspire as well with Sharvast, "master" of the Tower of the Mirror King (and, who some whisper, is the bastard child of Jorhara Barikdral).Â With Vecna's aide (or at his instigation), Sharvast supposedly experiments with transdimensional rituals of sanity-shredding magic, creating mirrors that lookinto far-off realms. And although Dal-morvrey does not know the truth of that, he has been present when Vecna and Mabberaj have spoken of the necropolis Hopelorn in the realm of Tytherion in the Astral Sea, where the Lich-King Melif holds court over his cabal of undead mages.Â Vecna, in a voice that sounded like spiders crawling, spoke of of the undead moving through endless nights lit only by the feeble glow of corpse stars, of the floating bodies of deceased gods and butchered primordials hanging silent in an orbit of their own blood in dark voids, and seemed on more than occasion to look right through Dal-morvrey - right to the spot where his secrets, and hatreds and schemes had always lurked.
Dal-morvrey turns the Calas Coil over in his hands.Â It was Vecna himself who gifted the tome to him, and explained to him how it might be used.Â Given the other things he has done to keep himself alive, Vecna's price, whispered in Dal-morvrey's ear, seemed insignificant, and he would gladly pay it twice.
All of that effort to stay alive, only to decide to die.
He hides the tome behind the decanter and cinches his robe with hands that bear House Barikdralâs mark.Â He must visit the slave pits, to purchase slaves of his own...for his coming sacrifices...as etched in the book of metal and teeth Vecna gave him... Â Â Â
Thursday, September 17, 2009, 10:32 PM
Note the following:
- By "you", I mean "we"...more or less; and
- This blog was actually prepared by my doppleganger, kind of like the whole Mario/Wario thingâŠ)
Letâs be honest, most people really donât participate in quality RPG campaigns.Â They scour the internet and imagine what it might be like to have such an active, dedicated game group to plan a campaign with, they talk/post endlessly about the cool campaigns they hope to run, and they buy hand-over-fist splat books for the awesome games they are eager to run those campaigns in; but very few gamers actually participate in a once-a-week, âmust be there and nothing else mattersâ RPG campaign of any sort.
The reason, most of those games are pretty average, because most DMs really arenât that good, and most Players are even worse.
Before you hurl knives, take a deep breath and honestly think about this:Â As I was reading through the new DMG II, there was an article about gaming hooks, and the suggestion was made that D&D by its very nature has lots of great âhooksâ to grab player interest and hold it.Â I think this is true.Â From a narrative standpoint, a claustrophobic hole in the ground full of unknown treasure and guarded by unholy monsters and traps is an âeasyâ story/trope to imagine, narrate and manage.Â It practically sells itself, and speaks to most peopleâs simple interest in finding out whatâs behind the next door (and, will it kill me?). Â And from a game mechanics standpoint, the leveling aspect of D&D (often decried as silly and simplistic) gives Players a very real reason to keep coming back for more: when they âlevel upâ, they get more stuff and their characters unlock more powers and abilities.
Take away this unique combination of trope and mechanic, however, and the Players have to rely on a DM or Gamemasterâs ability to create and tell a truly compelling narrative to keep them engaged, and the DM has to rely on the Players to well, really, role-play characters that are pretty much fully-formed (from a game mechanics view).Â And in most cases, I donât think either do very well.
(And as an aside â I think both things are hard to do well.Â For whatever itâs worth, I think 4th Edition D&D has gone to the greatest lengths of any edition to make the DMâs mechanical work as smooth as possible, and with some of the articles on the DDI and the DMG II, has gone as far as any role-playing game I know to help with the narrative side).
Hereâs an example wrapped in a gentle broadside at the WoD games and their ilk (and it has been some time since I've played the most recent version of these games, so take the arc of this argument rather than the specifics).Â Pretty much every Vampire game Iâve tried goes something like this: eager GM is super-excited for his new campaign (set, naturally, in New Orleans, or maybe New York).Â GM insists this going to be a ârole-playingâ and not a âroll-playingâ game, so I really need to complete a worthwhile character for him to build off of, so I create a rich, inventive back-story for this character.Â And, at the first session, the bulk of the game involves the other Players and I âshowing offâ our new characters in kind of a self-congratulatory character "fashion show" â which, come to think of it, maybe is the whole reason for these WoD games anyway- perhaps capped off by an obligatory battle with the first minions of our unseen yet omniscient antagonist.Â Thereâs no real treasure to be gained/stolen/looted, killing things (conflict - the real heart of an RPG game) doesnât really advance my character either mechanically or narratively, and in any event, there arenât real any new powers or abilities to unlock since I donât really âlevelâ (Iâve built my character on a skills system that only marginally improves over time; hence the earlier statement that my character is pretty much "fully-formed') - THUS, Iâm really relying on the GM to create a world deep enough that I can let my character inhabit it, and a story interesting enough that I want to see how my character fares in it the end.Â But that is an incredibly difficult balancing act for most GMs, and it requires me (as a player) to really work with the GM to help him make it happen â to give him feedback, to engage his world, to take notes and make plans and really create synergy out of the shared world experience (which, since most gamers are more "casual" than "dedicated", rarely happens).Â 9 times out of 10 neither of us is successful, and then another fledgling campaign dies within a couple of sessions.
Although I still have a cool character concept out of it.
Thatâs why I think many conceptually impressive RPGs and their attendant campaigns are still-born.Â The âfluffâ in these games may paint a world ripe for role-playing stories, but since most people creating the campaigns in those games either donât have the time or arenât great story-tellers to begin with (although they want to be),Â they have to lean on the given game mechanics/rules to provke Player interest, involvement and investment (hey, if I can keep this character alive to X point, he gains Y widget).Â In the end, itâs why I believe many RPGs are actually better guidebooks for fiction stories than they are games (how many times have you heard someone say- âOh, I loved reading it, but I could never play itâ, or "We enjoyed making characters, we just didn't really know what to do next").
Again, the greater point here is that this stuff is hard - and I would like to think it's one of the reasons many of us are drawn to RPGs.Â We're trying to master a game and a craft that can be entertaining and engaging but is also elusive; and constructing a vibrant, consistent, ongoing campaign - rather than one-shots and delves - is the most elusive thing of all - the Holy Grail of role-playing gaming.Â My additional argument here is that some potentially fascinating RPGs make that really complicated process harder, but keep your eye on the various D&D Campaign blogs here on the Wizards Community.Â See how many are really updated and if they are, see how many are actually engaged in by the Players.Â Just watch their lifespan, and if you are in one of those Hoily Grail campaigns, thank your DM and the other Players, because I think it's a rare thing indeed...
Wednesday, September 16, 2009, 6:46 PM
I've been toying around with Skill Challenges, and here's one I'm preparing for my D&D group this weekend.Â This might not make complete sense for those not following the campaign blog, but it shows some general applications of Skill Challenges...
THE âCONQUERINGâ OF ALâVEYDRA SKILL CHALLENGE
Fresh off Fellbaneâs disastrous foray into the Feywild, youâve returned to AlâVeydra â the town you liberated from the Twin (Troll) Kings, Vendull and Skalmad â in order to make this frontier town and its attendant keep your new home.Â In the absence of Vendull, and a true, recognized heir of House Reyar, AlâVeydra is in disarray and in desperate need of leadership.Â Riven by factions and swept by suspicion and recrimination, the town is in no position to even reward you or your fellow members of Fellbane for your early battles on its behalf.
The following are some of the significant people in AlâVeydra:
TAVISH: The proprietor of the Galleon, and one of the more well-known and respected men in AlâVeydra.
MARCO VALNA: Marco is a scion of the town, and lays claim to significant holdings in the lands surrounding AlâVeydra.Â Although not particularly well-liked, in the absence of a recognized heir for House Reyar, the Valna family had ruled AlâVeydra with a velvet glove and had been the townâs âde factoâ nobility (although Marco Valna did not occupy Shard Keep), until challenged by Tigon Quell and his sons.Â With his grip on AlâVeydra slipping, it was Marco Valna (more specifically, his deceased son Irvin) that âhiredâ Vendullâs mercenaries to turn the tide of the struggle with Tigon Quell over Shard Keep â a struggle that led to Vendullâs ascension.Â He is long-widowed and has no surviving sons and one daughter, Jaale (age 19).
LADY ELSBETH QUELL: Lady Elsbeth is the (now widowed) wife of Tigon Quell, the other half of the feud over AlâVeydraâs âthroneâ.Â She has three remaining sons from the feud (two were killed by Vendull): Carlson (age 21), Tyle (age 19), and Ress (age 12).
MASEN: A Half-Elf cleric of Erathis, and the only recognized and organized âchurchâ in Alâveydra.Â Masen had tentatively sided with the Quell family during the feud, and advocated appeasement when Vendull took control of AlâVeydra.
CURRAN JEP: A Gnome trader and merchant.Â Curran is generally loathed by the citizens of AlâVeydra, but has long been a necessary evil.Â He owns the âWagonâs Wheelâ â a trade and mercantile store, and other buildings as well (won, some say, through a mixture of gambling and guile).Â It is widely believed that he spied for Vendull during the occupation.
Historically, a town such as AlâVeydra would owe fealty to a noble Nerathi family (a House), but be managed on a day-to-day basis by two traditional offices chosen and supported by the House: the Sword (responsible for the peace and security of the town), and the Staff (responsible for management, collection of tribute, resolution of disputes, etc. â akin to a mayor).Â The Sword and the Staff answered to the House, but generally had free reign to conduct town affairs as they saw fit.Â Even in the absence of a clear line of ascension, AlâVeydra adhered to this blueprint, voting for these offices and looking to the Valna family for tacit affirmation. Tamor Morn had been the Staff (and had actually been hand-picked by Marco Valna many years ago), and Feril Quell (Tigon Quellâs oldest son) had been the Sword.
âTakingâ AlâVeydra is a Complexity 3 Skill Challenge (8 Successes before 4 Failures), that can be accomplished in one of three ways.Â In two of the options (âWeâre Here To Helpâ and âKiss the Ringâ), however, you are already starting off at -2 to the Primary skill check: this reflects the loss/disappearance of Tamor Morn.Â The town watched him ride out with you, but only you returnedâŠ
Note: Wynn receives a one-time bonus of +2 to any Primary or Secondary skill check to reflect the work he did preparing the town for possible retaliation by Vendull when you rode out for the Troll warrens.
Weâre Here to Help
You come in peace, and try to persuade AlâVeydra that you are worthy patrons and protectors!
The Primary skill check is Diplomacy (DC: 25). At least 3 different PCs need to succeed at a Primary Diplomacy check.
Secondary skills are: Heal (DC: 17; you help the wounded and injured from Vendullâs predations.Â Limited to 1x), History (DC: 17; you demonstrate to the townspeople knowledge of the area and AlâVeydraâs unique backstory. Limited to 1x), and Streetwise (DC: 17; you gather information about the town and move amongst the townspeople. Limited to 2x, and must be performed by separate PCs). A successful Heal or History secondary check adds +1 to the Primary check and has no negative consequence.Â A successful Streetwise check adds +2 to the Primary check, while a failure garners a -1 penalty to the check and adds 1 to the AlâVeydra Complication score.
Additional skills and actions: There are other ways to affect the Primary Diplomacy checks.
- Invest in the town: Every 100 gp invested in the town (rebuilding, etc.) adds +1 to the Primary check (Limited to 2x, and to a limit of 500 gp per Primary check).
- Support the Valna family: A successful Diplomacy check (DC: 10) with the Valna family adds +1 to the Primary check, adds 2 to the Quell Family Complication score, adds 1 to the AlâVeydra Complication score, and adds 1 to the Masen Complication score.
- Support the Quell family: A successful Diplomacy check (DC: 18) with the Quell family adds +2 to the Primary check, and adds 2 to the Valna Family Complication score.
- Seek Masenâs support: Supporting the Church of Erathis adds +2 to Primary check, and adds 1 to the AlâVeydra Complication score. A direct 100 GP âbribeâ to Masen (limited to 1x) adds +3 to the Primary check and adds 2 to the AlâVeydra Complication score.
- Prove Curran Jepâs complicity with Vendull: This is a one time Complexity 2 subchallenge (6 successes before 3 failures) and the two Primary checks (3x each) are Insight (DC: 17) and Diplomacy (DC: 15).Â Secondary skills (each adding +1 to the Primary check) can be suggested by the PCs.Â If this subchallenge is successful, add +7 to the Primary skill check for one roll and +3 for a second roll, and add 3 each time to the Quell Family Complication score. A failure garners aÂ Â -1 penalty to the Primary check and adds 4 to the Quell Family Complication score.
- Bait and Switch (Nix only): Nix the Changeling can attempt to influence the townâs opinion by assuming the role of various NPCs (Masen, Lady Elsbeth, etc.).Â This requires a DC 25 Bluff check and adds +4 to the Primary check (limited to 2x). A failure by 4 or less garners -2 penalty to the Primary check and adds 2 to the AlâVeydra Complication score.Â A failure by 5 or more results in an immediate failure for that Primary check and adds 5 to the AlâVeydra Complication score.
Success: Every two successful Primary skill checks adds a +1 cumulative bonus to the skill challenge.Â Every failed Primary skill check garners a -1 cumulative penalty to the skill challenge.Â If youâre successful at the âWeâre Here to Helpâ version of the challenge, you are considered patrons and protectors of AlâVeydra (with all the rights and responsibilities attached), are granted control of Shard Keep, and have input over the townâs future direction.Â If you succeed with only 2 failures, you can directly name the townâs Sword (including a member of Fellbane).Â If you succeed with only 1 failure, you can also directly name the townâs Staff (again, including a member of Fellbane).
Failure: If you fail this version of the challenge, you still gain a 1000 XP bonus but do not engender AlâVeydraâs complete trust, and the ultimate consequences vary depending on where the Complication scores sit.Â You are free to take rooms at the Galleon and see how the politics plays out.
On Your Knees (Additional +1000 XP)
You decide that the best way to make AlâVeydra your home is to subjugate itâŠ
The Primary skill check is Intimidate (DC: 20). At least 3 different PCs need to succeed at a Primary Intimidate check.Â
Secondary skills are: Bluff (DC: 17; you threaten, cajole, and otherwise throw your weight around), and Streetwise (DC: 15; you gather information about the town and move amongst the townspeople, sowing discord and stoking suspicions). A successful Bluff or Streetwise secondary check adds +2 to the Primary check and adds 1 to the AlâVeydra Complication score.
Additional skills and actions: There are other ways to affect the Primary Intimidate checks.
- Bribe the town: Every 100 gp paid to informants and quislings adds +1 to the Primary check (Limited to 2x, and to a limit of 500 gp per Primary check).
- Support the Valna family and crush their enemies: A successful Diplomacy check (DC: 10) with the Valna family adds +1 to the Primary check, adds 4 to the Quell Family Complication score, adds 1 to the Masen Complication score, and adds 2 to the AlâVeydra Complication score.
- Support the Quell family and crush their enemies: A successful Diplomacy check (DC: 10) with the Quell family adds +1 to the Primary check, adds 4 to the Valna Family Complication score, and adds 2 to the AlâVeydra Complication score.
- Crush the Church: Imprisoning Masen and shuttering the Church of Erathis adds +3 to the Primary check, adds 1 to the Quell Family Complication score, and adds 1 to the AlâVeydra Complication score (limited to 1x).
- Employ Curran Jep as an informant: Plying the Gnome with gold and convincing him to point out those who âarenât with the programâ (limited to 1x) adds +5 to the Primary skill check for one roll and +2 for a second Primary check, and deducts 2 for each roll from the Quell Family Complication score (if any). It also adds 2 for each roll to the AlâVeydra Complication score.
- Bait and Switch (Nix only): Nix the Changeling can attempt to subvert the townâs opinion by assuming the role of various NPCs (Masen, Lady Elsbeth, etc.).Â This requires a DC 25 Bluff check and adds +4 to the Primary check (limited to 2x). A failure by 4 or less garners -2 penalty to the Primary check and adds 2 to the AlâVeydra Complication score.Â A failure by 5 or more results in an immediate failure for that Primary check and adds 5 to the AlâVeydra Complication score.
- Kill someone important: Killing a ânamedâ NPC to enforce obedience adds +5 to the Primary check, and adds 2 to the Alâveydra Complication score.Â If you do it in a particularly gruesome and public way, add an additional +1 to the Primary check.
- Kill someone not so important:Â Killing other people âjust to make a pointâ adds +2 to the Primary check, and adds 1 to the AlâVeydra Complication score.
Success: Every two successful Primary skill checks adds a +1 cumulative bonus to the skill challenge.Â Every failed Primary skill check garners a -2 cumulative penalty to the skill challenge.Â If youâre successful at the âOn Your Kneesâ version of the challenge, you rule AlâVeydra with an iron hand, accumulate 1000 GP, and gain one Level 14 magic itemâŠ
Failure: If you fail this version of the challenge, you suffer a -200 XP penalty (per PC) as the citizens of AlâVeydra succeed in thwarting your plans and run you out of town at sword point...
Kiss the Ring (Subtract -1000 XP)
You decide that the best way to make AlâVeydra your home is to fool the townsfolk into believing that a member of Fellbane is a true heir of House ReyarâŠ
The Primary skill checks are History (DC: 20, 1x), Bluff (DC: 25, 3x), and Diplomacy (DC:20, 4x) At least 3 different PCs need to succeed at one of the three Primary skill checks, and the Bluff checks need to be made by the PC you are claiming is the heir to House Reyar.
Secondary skills are: Streetwise (DC: 15; you gather information about the town and move amongst the townspeople). A successful Streetwise secondary check adds +2 to the Primary check.
Additional skills and actions: There are other ways to affect the Primary checks.
- Bribe the town: Every 100 gp paid to people to âsupportâ your claim to the Shard Keepâs throne adds +1 to the Primary check (Limited to 2x, and to a limit of 500 gp per Primary check).
- Have the Church of Erathis legitimize your claim: Convincing Masen (Diplomacy check, DC: 17) that you are an heir to House Reyar adds +2 to the Primary check (limited to 3x).
- Bait and Switch (Nix only): Nix the Changeling can attempt to influence the townâs opinion of your claim by assuming the role of various NPCs (Masen, Lady Elsbeth, etc.).Â This requires a DC 25 Bluff check and adds +4 to the Primary check (limited to 2x). A failure by 4 or less garners -2 penalty to the Primary check.Â A failure by 5 or more results in an immediate failure for that Primary check.
Success: Every two successful Primary skill checks adds a +1 cumulative bonus to the skill challenge.Â Every failed Primary skill check garners a -2 cumulative penalty to the skill challenge.Â If youâre successful at the âKiss the Ringâ version of the challenge, you are granted the titles, heraldry, and standing of House Reyar.Â You have full control of Shard Keep, âownâ the Galleon (after all, it was Connor Reyarâs), unlock two âsecretsâ of Shard Keep, can draw tribute and taxes from your subjects, select the Sword and Staff, and pretty much exercise control as you see fit.
Failure: If you fail this version of the challenge, you suffer a -200 XP penalty (per PC), forfeit three level 10 or higher magic items (chosen by the group), suffer a negative reputation for Fellbane, and forever lose access to AlâVeydraâŠ
WHAT ARE THESE COMPLICATION SCORES?
As you continue to interact with AlâVeydra and its inhabitants, the Complication scores are â at a minimum â used as raw penalties to these interactions (Bluff, Diplomacy, etc.).Â Additionally, they are used on a chart for later events and circumstances that can plague you as you attempt make this frontier your home.Â Obviously, the higher the Complication score, the more difficulties (and adventures?) you will faceâŠ!Â
This is an example of a Skill Challenge in my campaign; I may tweak the numbers before this weekend, but we'll see how it plays...!
Thursday, September 10, 2009, 10:39 PM
As has been noted in other posts, Iâve been at this gaming thing a long time.Â RPGs in general, and D&D in particular, for about 30 years.Â I have tried a lot of RPGs, but have found only a few that I return to again and again (see previous post).Â D&D happens to be one of those, and within the context of that particular game, there are monsters that I often return to as well.Â They are the âiconicsâ for me, and (perhaps only nostalgically), are the very definition of âdungeon delvingâ hazards for D&D.
Also, all of them probably make the Top Ten âMost Wanted Listâ for Player Character deathsâŠ
TROLLS: As a DM, Iâve had a Troll kill at least one PC in every edition of D&D since I was 11 years old; most recently, in our 4th Edition campaign, I decapitated and then devoured an 11th Warlock with a âhomebrewâ Cudgel Troll (the name was lifted from M:TG), stitched together in the DDI Monster Builder.Â Hard to put down, and even harder to keep there, Trolls are the consummate predatory adversary.Â âKing of the Trollhaunt Warrensâ is an excellent âTroll-centricâ module (Iâm currently running a heavily modified version of it), and I was thrilled in a recent battle when the groupâs Barbarian was able to keep a dying troll down by utilizing one of his Daily exploits that did acid damage (cutting off the beastâs regeneration).Â Not all my Trolls have been adversaries, however.Â In a 2nd Edition campaign, I created a Troll NPC known as âStaggerbonesâ, who (natch) lived beneath a bridge.Â His skin was pockmarked with arcane, ever burning candles, and he was both intelligent and literate.Â The PCs in that campaign often used him as a resource, as he was something of a sage and a historian.Â He was easy to deal with, as long as you kept him fedâŠ
BEHOLDERS:Â Another creature that has racked up an impressive number of PC deaths, Beholders come in about every style imaginable â although in the end they are all just really variations on a theme: arcane Gatling guns firing off a myriad of eyebeams at desperately dodging PCs, each one trying to guess what was just aimed at them (was that the Death Ray, or the Petrification Ray?).Â Some people prefer the highly intelligent Beholder â the master manipulator who floats in his lair, moving his minions like chess pieces (I think such a beast was in the Undermountain boxed set).Â I prefer mind crafty but crazy, so that when you look in that central eye, you see nothing but unknowable alien madness.
MIND FLAYERS: And speaking of alien madness, nothing captures it better than the Mind Flayer.Â And is anything more disheartening as a Player than watching your favorite PC have his brain eaten?Â Mind Flayers (or Illithids) have been a significant presence in a couple of my campaigns, serving a similar role both.Â In a Third Edition game, they were the absent progenitors of my Greyhawk world â they had come from the stars and Humankind represented the descendants of their thralls and slaves.Â My campaign world was still littered with their empty ziggurats, defunct breeding pits/flesh-shaping vats (which had given rise to things such as Nagas, Yuan Ti, etc.Â As an aside, the players released one of these original Nagas from stasis, and she described watching the Illithids returning to the stars in their ships all those millennia agoâŠ.just before she tried to eat the whole party), and their hidden caches of arcanotech items.Â This campaign cross-fertilized with a later Dragonstar game I ran, and it was a lot of fun.Â In my current 4th Edition game, Humankind (and Halflings) also represent the bloodlines of former Illithid slaves, although these tentacled horrors are from the Far Realm (not so much âspaceâ).Â The PCs have already met one such creature during the course of a heavily-modified âMadnessâ series of Dragon modules we completed a couple of months back.Â They took a beating but the Mind Flayer escaped into the ShadowfellâŠwhere (per script), he plots his revenge.
LICHES: âTomb of Horrorsâ â enough said!Â Generally, however, in my campaigns Liches have most often been off-stage; itâs hard for me to recall an actual PC vs. Lich confrontation, although the latter have still caused a lot of trouble.Â An edition or two ago I was particularly enamored with the âelvish lichâ, and kept looking for ways to wrap an adventure around that concept.Â The mere mention of the presence of a Lich will often cause Players to decide that the current adventure âjust isnât really worth itâŠâ In the end, Liches may be more âbark than biteâ, victims of their own bad reputations, who have had more deaths laid at their feet than can really be proved.
DRAGONS: They are in the gameâs name, after all â the ultimate TPK, and probably one of the hardest monsters to DM, in terms of accurately and creatively conveying their size, speed, intelligence, and overall impressiveness.Â They are D&Dâs Heavy Metal creature, and their appearance should be accompanied by an impressive display of âfireworksâ.Â I try to manage my Dragons as creatures of infinite cunning, who have survived by predicting every possible outcome of any conceivable choice.Â They hear heartbeats, smell blood in veins, and can taste a characterâs fear.Â I liked how Dragons were treated in the Privateer Press âIron Kingdomsâ campaign setting (3rd Edition), and believe that t4th Edition Dragons are mechanically (and mercifully) easier to deploy yet just as ferocious.Â In our campaign (The Bannerlands) the PCs recently observed a âhuntingâ dragon.Â It blotted out stars as it circled their encampment, and its presence was heralded by fleeing creatures: deer, rabbits, etc.Â It landed some distance from where the PCs huddled (requisite rocks and dirt rattling upward even at the campâs distance), and sat crouched in the far darkness, just watching.Â The PCs could smell the metallic weight of it and could feel its huge heartbeat in their own chests.Â When it took to the air again, it swept boulders and trees skyward with the downbeat of its wings.Â The players have no idea why it didnât attack them, and theyâve debated â half-heartedly- about searching for its lairâŠ
These are my five iconics, but a list wouldnât be complete without a couple of extras that probably also deserve mention:
DROW: As villains (and good-aligned âanti-heroesâ) they are almost far too cliched now, but âVault of the Drowâ is still a module that resonates with me.Â As a young DM it seemed far too big and almost far too complex to actually run well (Good Lord, this is a whole city!), and from a Playerâs perspective, it seemed far too difficult to actually attempt (Okay, you want us to do what?!).Â Nevertheless, the scope of their dark underground cities, their struggles with their own capricious Goddess Lolth, the poisonous machinations of their own noble Houses, and â of course, Driders â made Drow a perfect foil in early D&D.Â They gave those early DMs an epic and intelligent âholistic threatâ, and not just the random monster in the random cave.Â I tried to run âQueen of the Demonweb Pitsâ several times, and all I ended up with were dead PCs â although everyone wanted that big mechanical spider/palace!Â I own the âDemon Queen's Enclaveâ (which has one of the best coverâs of any D&D module, ever), but havenât really read it closely. For whatever itâs worth, when I had the opportunity to play some 4th Edition (rather than DM it), I couldnât resist creating a Drow Dark Pact Warlock.
GIANTS: For us âolderâ D&D players, any discussion of the Drow dove-tails with Giants, based on our experiences with the G1-G3 series of modules (spoilers avoided).Â And is there anything better than rolling to see whatâs in a Giantâs sack? As a DM Iâve never really used the more exotic Giant types, but have always found a place in my games for some Hill, Stone, and Fire Giants, although not often as âprimary villainsâ.Â In my last 3rd Edition campaign, the party ran across a Hill Giant in a sparsely wooded area (while it was busily crucifying some Fey).Â What started as a simple âside trekâ encounter, escalated into a savage, running battle through the pine barrens.Â Two PCs died, but the party â those that survived, anyway - had a great time. Iâm curious to see what 4th Editionâs âRevenge of the Giantsâ is like, although I am disappointed that it isnât a boxed set, and that it doesnât come with any giant tokens/counters.Â After all, I have approximately one Giant miniatureâŠ
Tuesday, September 8, 2009, 8:32 PM
I had a few days away over the Labor Day weekend, and I enjoyed the sights of Sedona, Arizona.Â And being the geek gamer that I am, even when faced with the almost ethereal beauty of the landscape, it was hard not to imagine those sights in gaming terms; how it might be to explore those cliffs and caves by torchlight, with a trusty blade at your sideâŠ
Upon my return I dove back into the forums both here and at ENWorld, just to check and see what the latest outrage might be.Â And of course, itâs the usual â such and such edition sucks, such and such company screwed up my game, such and such change ruined my life.Â We gaming types are nothing if not entitled, and it amazes me the amount of angst some people feel over their hobby, even when that hobby is clearly a business for someone else.Â Although some people love to attribute sinister or stupid motives to decisions made regarding their game of choice, it seems to me that the motives are really very simple â someone has to sell a gaming book, and they have to sell a lot of them. And they have to keep selling them, day in and day out, to the largest group of people of possible.
And, I know this is controversial, but that âlargest group of peopleâ, might not really be reflective of you and your three friends down in your basement or hanging out in your living room once a week.
Whatâs more amazing is that RPGs, more than other things, really do have a tremendously long âshelf-lifeâ.Â With D&D for instance, people still play all the earlier versions.Â Yes, I know â those versions arenât really âsupportedâ, but given the modern resources on the internet, and a bit of player creativity and effort, thatâs a complaint thatâs more style than substance.Â And for a game so specifically designed to encourage creativity, Iâm amazed at how people feel so easily handicapped or thwarted when faced with a creative change they donât like.Â There are no special skills or training or schooling that serves as a pre-requisite for modifying or home-ruling your game.Â And itâs even a simpler fix if the âversionâ or âiterationâ of your favorite game is completely replaced (because remember, your hobby is someone elseâs business, and trust me, that business is good for everyone): keep playing your game, since the changes in no way undermine your ability to keep doing what you're doing.Â Your books and notes havenât been burned, your imagination hasnât been lobotomized, your world (real or imagined) hasnât come to an endâŠafter all, a classic trope of these games we love to play is the celebration of the past; of the recovered tomeâŠof the ancient scroll found in a treasure chest.Â These older things have tremendous value in our games, so why canât the older games/versions themselves still be valued and enjoyed in the same way?
Yet, people still get incensed when the game around them changes.Â I think itâs because a lot of people want some sort of implicit and official âstamp of approvalâ for their game(s), and they donât feel they have that âstampâ unless their game, played their way, is actively supported or encouraged by the most current, official version of the rules.Â But again, for a game founded on and powered by rules that necessarily express creativity and imagination, eventually youâre bound to be disappointed â and apparently some people can be greatly and vehemently disappointed - with someone elseâs creative decisions.
Easy example.Â I donât like the racial name âTieflingâ â never have, and never will.Â Itâs nothing I can easily articulate, I just donât like it.Â So in my current 4th Edition campaign, Tieflings are called âShadrimâ instead.Â Is it better or worse than the âofficialâ name?Â I donât know and care even less, but itâs a creative decision Iâve made and my players concur with, so weâre set.Â Is it worth angry threads denouncing the name and the game, or threatening to boycott all further purchases?Â Is it worth decrying other people who really like the name?Â Of course not; my preference isnât shared by everyone, and I would be a fool to expect it to be.Â And although I happen to enjoy D&D 4th, I recognize that in some ways itâs a significant departure from earlier editions; thus, I have no problem tweaking it here and there to fit my â30 years worthâ of previous play-style, preferences, creative concepts, and yes - even prejudices.Â But even if I really, really loathed it, and didnât feel up to the challenge of changing it, I certainly wouldnât feel betrayed or damaged or persecuted...
...I would just dust off those âoldâ tomes and scrolls, and keep playing what I do like, how I like it, without fanfare or complaint.Â
Thursday, September 3, 2009, 11:03 PM
Much has been made of 4th Edition D&D drawing inspiration from, or âcopyingâ mechanical aspects of, MMOs; more particularly, WoW.Â The comparison I tend to make, however, is to another wildly successful game âarchetypeâ: the CCG - Magic: The Gathering.Â And I donât consider that a bad thing at all.
Now, as long as Iâve played RPGs (previously mentioned, 30+ years), Iâve generally never considered myself a numbers guy or a âgame theoristâ.Â I always thought of myself - to use the clichĂ©d jargon â as a ârole playerâ, not a âroll playerâ, and I didnât give a lot of thought to how the games I played actually worked â after all, my gaming was about telling a story, not crafting opening Chess gambits.Â And even though Iâve spent the bulk of my gaming career as the âDMâ, which you might think, would almost force me to care more about the rules I was adjudicating, I just never really did.Â I figured there were already plenty of bright guys who were paid good money to make sure that the games I played worked as advertised.Â After all, Iâve never needed to get under the hood in order to drive my car.
But when Magic:The Gathering was released in the early 90s, even I recognized the elegant, versatile, and powerful game mechanics driving the game; mechanics that have since been further refined through years of âsystem stressâ, and have proven capable of supporting robust, complex, and nearly infinite game play.Â And now, I think, those Collectible Card Game mechanics and design principles (all of which have been tested, modified, and tested again) have been put to good use in the most recent Role Playing Game version of Dungeons & Dragons.Â One can see this in the overall âexception-basedâ design philosophy, and in such game areas as resource management, the defined order of the playerâs turn, and even in the almost âdeck basedâ paradigm of building a character (deck) from a suite of powers/spells/feats (and the visual/tactile reference of available power cards isnât lost on me either).Â Some people have decried this "gaming" of a venerated role playing system (see below), but Iâve been thrilled.Â Simply put, Iâve played D&D since the beginning - and in my opinion, D&D has never been a better designed game, and has therefore never been easier to play and adjudicate.
I find it curious that many long-time gamers praise other, often obscure RPGs, for innovative or modern rules and elements, and yet take 4th Edition D&D to task for being similarly progressive.Â Is it because of D&Dâs history and status, or simple nostalgia?Â Itâs tough to say.Â And a corollary complaint is that because the latest iteration of D&D wears its (in my mind) improved game mechanics so clearly on its sleeve, it is that much more diminished as an RPG.Â That, in effect, the Game has overtaken the Role Playing.Â I find this argument superficial on its face, and not really very rigorous when tested.Â One has to get down into the weeds on what is or is not role playing, and then really be prepared to ask such questions as: Is rolling a Craft Puppet check really more role playing than simply saying I craft it?Â Is the existence of a Diplomacy or Bluff check even role playing? And does calling a combat maneuver a âPhoenix Strikeâ actually constrain me from role playing it as something else? And if it does, what does that say about the "quality" of my role playing?Â
Such debates can fill forum threads - and often do.Â But here is what I do know â if you read the narrative Session Blog from The Bannerlands campaign (and many others here), it is for all intents and purposes "game mechanics neutral".Â It would be difficult to tell how the game is being played, managed, or adjudicated from the write-ups, but it is clearly a role playing game at workÂ There is a complex, rich narrative (notice, I didn't necessarily say a good one) comprised of challenges and choices, presented to a group of protagonists who work together to overcome those challenges.
That's role playing.Â And that's 4th Edition D&D.