Tuesday, July 3, 2012, 6:26 AM
This weekend saw our second playtest session of the D&D Next rule set. If you missed the first report, you can find it here. It may be worthwhile to read that report if you have not yet since I will try not to repeat much of what I have already reported.
By and large this was the same group as last time. The only difference was that one of the more experienced players was unable to make the session so we only had 6 players this time. The player who missed the session had played the dwarven cleric last time so this time one of the fighters switched to the dwarf cleric, in part for the healing and in part for a change since he was the player that was not particularly impressed with the fighter after the first session. The group still ran with two rogues and one of each of the other characters.
Rad Longhammer Returns!
Having used the Noble Heir hook already and having to an extent finished that story by having Rad Longhammer rescued, I decided to drop the Eye of Gruumsh hook. Since the priest of Pelor had taken a liking to Rad Longhammer, I had Rad deliver the juicy hook to the party, telling of how he overheard some of his kobold captors talking about the mysterious and powerful shard that was believed to be hidden in one of th nearby caves. Like any good group of adventurers, the party was very intrigued by the idea of locating a powerful artifact, so they readily agreed to set off in search of the shard.
Back to the Caves
The party ventured back to the caves and scouted around the valley a bit before finally deciding on the Shunned Cavern. One of the rogues scouted out the mouth of the cavern and reported an overwhelming rotting stench coming from the cave. He urged the party to press on to a different cave, but was eventually out voted, so the party decided to enter en masse.
Upon entering, they heard the shrill screeching of a large number of rats and they soon saw a mass of them headed toward the mouth of the cave. The fighter, who was in front, attempted to get a visual on exactly how many rats there were, and on what it was that seemed to be scaring them into running toward the party. Unfortunately for the fighter, she was not able to get a particularly good look and all she could tell was that there were a lot of rats headed her way. Apparently, her inability to count them, or to see what was scaring them, was due in no small part to her apparent phobia of all things rat like, for as the rats came at her, she immediately set to climbing the wall of the cave.
The rogue who disliked the stench of the cave followed the fighter's lead and also began to climb the wall. The wizard would simply shake his head at the frightened fighter and walked up to the front to cast burning hands on the mass of rats -- killing most of them. It should be noted that for the first part of this fight, I chose not to mark the location of the rats with minis or anything, instead simply describing them and letting the party just attack them. This actually worked out very well and helped speed things along.
The rats were reeling at this point, but a few remained and were able to get a couple of bites in to literally nibble away at the party's hit points. It soon became obvious though that the rats were not the real threat here. A rogue was able to spot that which had spooked the rats, namely a gray ooze that was slowly sliding toward the party. The ooze would soon show its true threat value as the fighter and dwarven priest would bear the brunt of its corrosive abilities. The fighter was hit once by the ooze and the dwarven priest hit the ooze twice. Unfortunately for them, saving throws were not their strong suit, and their armor and weapon respectively began to corrode. This would become even more worrisome for the duo when they realized that the items would not automatically get better, or even get a saving throw, etc. to try to improve.
The ooze, while having powerful attacks and being very dangerous to the party in terms of its corrosive properties, was very easy to hit, and would soon be destroyed. Even the wall climbing rogue, who asked to use a sling while hanging onto the wall and was allowed to do so with disadvantage, had little trouble hitting. Given that the party was only second level (I had let them level up after last session) I think this was okay, but it is something that would soon be worth noting.
After destroying the ooze, the party pressed further into the cavern and was soon face to face with an owlbear. The owlbear was another critter that was full of hit points and packed a powerful punch, but was easy to hit. I decided during this encounter though to dial it up a notch. At the end of the second round, I had the other two oozes in this cavern approach the party from behind. I was really trying to see just how much I could push the party and to test the survivability of the party. This definitely got the party's attention and soon there were grumblings of a tpk. It didn't help when the bugbear finally connected with both claw attacks on the dwarven priest, thus triggering its hug, which combined would reduce the priest to negative hit points. Lucky for the priest though, the hug attack roll was minimum damage.
Sensing the danger the party was in, I allowed one of the rogues (who was deepest into the cavern at this point) to notice a strange formation of rocks on one of the walls, unfortunately though, her rolls were only good enough to notice it, and not to realize that it concealed a secret door. The plan at this point was to make this an alternate exit so that the party could run since they were mostly otherwise trapped in the cavern. The party kept a wary eye on the spot, though nobody else tried to get a good look at the formation. It would not matter though for the party's fortunes soon turned around thanks in large part to Frost Bolt and the lack of opportunity attacks. The oozes and owlbear would take turns becoming sitting ducks for the party, and as they were real easy to hit, the party was soon able to down them. Interestingly enough, the PCs with metal on their weapons or armor would retreat to the back lines of the party so the oozes' most powerful ability (the corrosion) would not come into play in this encounter.
As the party was able to get through that fight and there was still some time left in the night, I decided to change the secret exit into another room that contained several zombies. This was as much a mop up fight somewhat designed to reward the party for getting past the big fight as anything. However, I also hid a Staff of Curing in this room as well since even with two healers, it was becoming apparent that healing was at a premium. In any event, the fight proved easy, the party recovered a magic item (though not what they were looking for) and decided that they had taken enough licks for one day and so headed home to the Keep.
Once again combat proved to be fast. We covered three actual fights in about 2.5 hours though one of those fights was actually two encounters combined into one. I would note that running the first part of the first encounter without mapping the location of the rats proved easy as well. The party would occasionally ask where the rats were but that was easy enough to explain. The other advantage was that it let me make that an easier fight (by stating that the wizard caught most of the rats in his cone) than it would have been with minis. Given the way I had presented the encounter, I think this was pretty good. It certainly showed the ability to be flexible with encounters and that if you just want a story-based combat encounter, you can do it.
The death rules (i.e. you die when your hit points reach the negative value of your constitution + level) also proved good for this session. There was some tension as the dwarven priest was rolling his death saves. He made two but also failed one, resulting in another point of damage (yes, as the priest hit negative hit points between the owlbear's hug and a failed death save I rolled three consecutive 1s on d6 damage rolls). The interesting thing to note here is that if those three d6 rolls had simply been average, the priest would have been right on death's door.
I also found that I was able to quickly put together an impromptu encounter at the end of the night. The quick fights make it a lot easier to fill in that gap in time, particularly when you are in an area that is not exactly conducive to diplomatic relations and such. Sure, if I knew for sure that this would be an ongoing campaign, I would have simply let the party retreat to the Keep and engage in some roleplay there, but for purposes of playtesting, the ability to quickly whip up another encounter was nice.
The other thing I liked was the relatively uniform DC charts. This made it easy to adjudicate some of the improvised actions taken by the party. One example was the fighter who wanted to swing from her perch on the wall to vault over the rats and attack the ooze directly. Unfortunately for her, her strength check was a 4, so instead of vaulting forward, she swung backward and landed on the priest of Pelor. I gave the priest a dex saving throw which he made to allow him to slide backward and avoid the brunt of the "lunar eclipse".
Not too much to post here that wasn't already said in part one. The player who complained about lack of options still had the same complaints, even with the dwarven priest. He didn't like his at will, etc. To be honest, I think a lot of this just has to do with him liking all the options offered by powers in 4ed and even feats in 3.x. Even being able to swing with his hammer effectively didn't appease him much as he felt that this was a bit of a "cop out" for a cleric. In other words, if he were to ever play a cleric he would likely prefer the Pelor type cleric that is much more focused on spells. To be fair though, this is simply a matter of play style and the current playtest packet simply doesn't have that which he is looking for. It does sound as though the next packet will, so hopefully he'll start to like it better.
I would also note that in my mind, the monsters seemed a bit too easy to hit. To an extent this was fine in that it balanced out their offensive power when set against 2nd level characters, but I don't think these critters will have much staying power when they go up against higher level PCs. Its possible that upping the number of critters in the fight might help, but I am not certain since that might almost create too many hit poitns to get through. Will certainly be worth looking at through future sessions though.
Finally, the combination of Frost Bolt and the ability to move both before and after the attack proved to be a bit overpowered. As long as the wizard was able to hit, the party was able to take turns walking up to the frozen critter, smacking it, then retreating to a safe distance. Obviously this was much more powerful against these foes that were melee only, but it was note worthy. OA's are almost mandatory here in my opinion as the ability to move in and out would soon render the battle a trivial exercise in die rolling. Even the wizard who enjoyed using a clever tactic (he's also a bit of a tactical player) agreed that it was overpowered in the context of the encounters presented. Certainly as a DM I would be hesitant to have too many encounters where the monsters did not have ranged attacks when there is a wizard in the party.
Once again I tracked the success rate with Advantage and Disadvantage. This time the numbers on Advantage were more in line with what I expected. On the evening, there were 9 hits compared to three misses when attacking with advantage. Over the course of two sessions, that now puts it at 19 hits and 18 misses though most of those misses obviously came in the first session where the DM dice were frigid at best.
Disadvantage would prove a bit wonky this session. On the night, there were 5 hits versus 2 misses when attacking with disadvantage. Most of these attacks came from the fighter rapid firing her crossbow and still being able to hit. Over the two sessions, the tally is now 5 hits versus 7 misses. For the most part, I do think that the idea of Advantage/Disadvantage is working, there have just been some odd die rolls in there combined with low ACs in the last session for the monsters.
It was another fun session and the added hit die per character made for some better healing options for the party. The fighter liked the fighter surge mechanic and it certainly helped to distinguish the fighter from the rest of the party. I think this was the only example of a character really feeling different at level 2 compared to level 1 though. The other characters really didn't seem to offer much new. For me, this is a bit of an issue as I personally have always liked the idea of a level up providing some sort of "tangible" reward, be it a feat, a new ability, etc. That's just me of course and it still remains to be seen what the options over all the levels will offer. I continue to maintain my belief that this iteration currently feels the most like 2nd edition to me, but that of course is basing it off just one very compact set of rules. I am certainly looking forward to seeing some of the other rules modules as they are released to see if D&D Next will offer a feel of other editions.
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Monday, June 18, 2012, 5:35 AM
This weekend, my group finally had a go at the D&D Next playtest material. We were interested in seeing what the new edition had to offer and hopefully, in providing some input into the next iteration. Overall I think it was a positive experience though there were perhaps some issues that came up.
Before starting, I think a little perspective is in order. The group consisted of 7 players and myself as DM. Obviously, the playtest only had 5 characters, which meant that we doubled up on the rogue and fighter. The larger party size will obviously skew things a bit, but I actually thought it was important to see how things could play out with a larger group. Some of this meant me estimating the necessary challenge level (which worked better in some instances than others). Also, some of it served to see how well the rules and goals would hold up with a larger group.
Of the 8 people at the table, all of us are currently, or have recently, played an extensive amount of 4ed. 6 of us also had a fair amount of experience with earlier editions of D&D (particularly 3.x). The other two were pretty new to D&D with 4ed and so only had that experience to draw on.
Inadvertantly, I was also able to test another aspect of D&D Next: The ease of use for the DM. Over the last year, work has really heated up, which has cut into my free time quite a bit, which is the primary reason my blog had gone silent. Unfortunately, this also meant that while I had enough time to read through the rules packet, and to scan the character sheets, I had only a vague scan of the adventure and hadn't really looked at the monster stat blocks. So, as the group was selecting their characters, I quickly scanned the adventure and settled on the "Missing Heir" hook which I translated into a noble's son who had gone missing. This would lead to the most amusing moment of the night as the cleric of Pelor instantly developed a background and personality (that of a surfing loving frat brother -- complete with coconut flavored healing potions). :p
With that, it was off to the ravine in search of the missing son. The party was shown the overhead map of the ravine, including the dozen or so cave openings and told that they didn't have a very good idea as to which cave might be responsible. In hindsight, I should have given them a little more to go on, and would have if I had been bettered prepared. Without any clues to work with, the party predictably went into the first cave. Note though that this is an issue with my lack of preparation than with the ruleset. As it turned out though, this was still a fortuitous choice as this was home to a tribe of kobolds, one of the monsters I knew the most about from reading assorted forums, and a monster that was well suited to testing the mechanic I was most interested in (Advantage). Sadly, this latter part wouldn't work out so well (see below).
Into the Caves
One of the rogues decided to scout ahead into the cave to see what was up. I won't go into the issue with the rogue character sheet and having an 8 Wis as I think that has been well documented already. Fortunately though, it did not matter as the rogue rolled well enough, spotted the trap and heard the goblins in the next area. He decided to back out and tell the others what he observed. Armed with this information, the party entered in force and soon came upon a sizable band of kobolds. I upped the number of kobolds in the first encounter given the larger party size. Unfortunately for the kobolds, their initiative was horrible and most were picked off early. The party played it fairly well and used pretty good tactics. By the second round, the fight was over and the party had broken a bit of a sweat but was still in very good shape.
They pressed on and encountered a squad of elite kobold warriors, which were sadly ill-prepared and very outnumbered (I realized belatedly that I needed to up their numbers). I did at least realize the problem early enough that I was able to have them call for help and have the Chieftian arrive with his entourage. The Chief played out well and definitely gave the party room to pause as he failed to go down quickly like the other kobolds (even the elites were going down in 1 or 2 hits). This time though, the kobolds did at least give some fight back and after the fight, a couple of characters needed the assistance of a healer's kit before pressing on.
There were still other doors to check, and a missing noble son to locate, so the party pressed on. As they scouted further into the caves, they came across a large cavern full of an entire tribe of kobolds. The adventure suggested as many as 40 kobolds could be here and I decided to put the party to the test since they had a pretty easy go of it so far. I scattered over 30 kobolds in the cavern and placed a cage with the missing heir in the back of the cavern. As I did this comments started flying along the lines of "This is the cool thing about a playtest, we get to do things we'd never do if we were playing 'regular' characters, but since its a one shot . . . CHARGE!"
At this point, the wizard calmly walked forward and cast . . . sleep. Uh oh. In the context of this encounter, this was absolutely the perfect move, and made the spell seem overpowered. With a radius of 20 feet, he was able to catch a large portion of the kobolds in his area of effect, and all of them were subject to the unconscious effect should the fail the throw . . . which most of them did (poor DM rolls were another feature of the night). Sleep made this a somewhat exhausting battle, but a very manageable one for the party. At one point, the cleric of Moradin went unconscious, and even failed his first death save, before being healed by the other cleric and then using his healing word on himself. After that, it was pretty much a cake walk for the party, the son was saved, and huzzahs and "Dudes!" were rained upon all. In keeping with the theme of the cleric of Pelor being a beach bum frat brother, it turned out that the missing son was none other than Rad Longhammer! (thanks Chris Perkins).
As mentioned earlier, this was the one mechanic I was most looking forward to testing. Unfortunately it did not work out quite as well as I would have liked. On the night, the cleric of Moradin was able to cause disadvantage 4 times, and I gave disadvantage one other time. The result was 5 misses. Amusingly enough, each time the cleric of Moradin gave it, one of my dice came up with a natural 1. To be fair though, I think the other die on the roll would have been a hit maybe once (and even then I can't be sure).
Advantage was even more bonkers due to the horribly cold DM dice. On the night there were 25 rolls with Advantage. Of those, a whopping 10 resulted in a hit. Most of the advantage rolls were the kobolds who simply could not hit the broad side of a barn given my terrible rolls. It didn't help though that the basic kobold needed to roll really well to hit most of the front line guys, but even so, it was usually two rolls under 10. That being said though, we did come to the conclusion that in general, if you only need a moderate roll to succeed (say between 8 and 14 or so), then Advantage will be huge. If, on the other hand, you need a really high roll, then it will obviously be helpful, just not as huge.
As has been noted by many, combat was pretty fast. We got through 3 fights, including one that had roughly 40 combatants, in about 2 - 2.5 hours. There was plenty of time in between for roleplay and general carousing (we have a very beer and pretzels type group). It was also easy to see how you could ditch the mat if you desired to (I did not because my group was used to the mat). For the most part, the monsters seemed able to challenge the party, but not in such a way as to encourage a 5 minute work day. The last fight in particular I think would have been deadly if not for the use of Sleep. That being said though, the kobolds definitely needed large numbers on their side to prove a challenge. Additionally, you'll never entirely get away from the 5 - 15 minute work day as long as you have limited daily resources in my opinion.
The group also really liked the healing kit mechanic. It seemed more natural and flavorful than Second Wind and definitely seemed to fit better than simply using healing surges during a rest. It just made sense. Now, I'm not one to get too hung up on things being logical or realistic in a game that features dragons, elves, and lightning bolt spells, but it is nice to be able to easily explain why something does what it does. As one player phrased second wind, its kind of like "Ouch! You stabbed me in the stomach with your sword. Hold on, give me a second . . . huff . . . ok, I'm good."
The secondary effect on this was that it, in my opinion, did a good job of making things a bit tense as you pressed further on since you only had the one hit die at level 1. Gone are the days of the 8 healing surges at level 1 (or whatever).
Additionally, the at wills for the cleric and wizard seemed to work well. It gave them something to do each round that seemed like it fit their character, without being too overpowered. Now, obviously, Magic Missile works very well in the context of 2 HP kobolds, but when compared to the fighter that deals damage on a miss, it made sense and seemed balanced (for now anyway). It did show though, that if I wanted to use these same kobolds at later levels (as is a stated goal), that I would definitely need lots of them.
The biggest complaint from the group revolved around the fighter. Mainly that there just wasn't much for the fighter to do. It was "I swing". One of the fighter players in particular, loves the tactical style of play, so I think he was particularly disappointed as a result. To be fair though, I would note that two of the players really enjoyed the simpler characters. They felt that it made it easier not having all those different powers to choose from. In the end, this Bad can likely still be turned into a Good with future modules.
The other big complaint was the lack of Opportunity Attacks. It seemed to make things a bit "too easy". Being able to just run around and not worry definitely took players aback a little. Of course, since 3.0 came out, we've been playing with OA's so this was a big change. We did note at the end of the night; however, that for those groups that want to play without a mat, you almost have to ditch OA's as its likely to just lead to arguments "Well I wouldn't have done that Mr. DM if I knew it would provoke!", etc. So again, even in this context, it made sense. What I got out of it is that its likely my group will want to use the more tactical modules (at least some of them anyway) to get a better sense of tension and realism.
We also felt that the elven keen senses was a bit too much. As one player put it "All scouts will want to be elves." This of course assumes a min/max approach, but I agree that I am a bit concerned when "for flavor reasons" becomes the explanation for not choosing a particular character option. Of course, we don't know what else is out there yet, so this may change as more elements are revealed in the future.
A final note is worth mentioning as well. The ability to break up your move both before and after your action was interesting. I don't have enough experience with it yet to know if I completely like it or not, but I definitely like the idea (though the implementation may need some work). I guess what I like about it is the idea of the cinematic flair it brings. The ability to run by your opponent and slash them in the process (think Selene in Underworld) or Drizz't, etc. The idea of having to stop in order to make an attack and then wait til the next round to move just seems a bit off.
All in all, we really enjoyed the playtest. There were some things that could be better and certainly, some of my players will be looking for more tactical rules in the future. As for feel, to me it felt most like 2nd edition given the lack of feats and the minimal skill training with its emphasis on ability checks. I certainly think fans of earlier editions will find plenty to love about D&D Next based on what I have seen so far. Fans of 4ed on the other hand, may not be as enthused. Assuming though that the online tools remain for 4ed after Next is released though, this actually makes a certain amount of sense for WotC. 4ed will be the easiest group to "alienate" since they still would have access to all their material in handy online form. Pleasing everyone will always been a difficult task at best, but I have to say that the play test definitely has me interested in seeing what else Next has cooking.
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Tuesday, August 9, 2011, 5:57 AM
In my last post I discussed ways in which to run a sandbox style campaign while still protecting your story. I provided a very broad overview for how to apply the sandbox concept to your campaign while maintaining the integrity of your story. Now I want to take the sandbox concept and apply it to the adventure level, and hopefully provide some tools and ideas for making your adventures all the more enjoyable for both you and your players. First though, since I neglected to do it last time, I think its important to define what I think the "sandbox" really means.
I'll start off by saying that as with most things in life, the sandbox is in the eye of the beholder (no, not that beholder). In other words, what one person considers to be sandboxy might not seem sandboxy to the next person. That being said, here is the description I use. A sandbox campaign allows, in general, the PCs to choose their adventures more or less as they wish, and to go about completing them in a multitude of ways. It is not; however, akin to simply saying "Okay, you guys are in the market in Tyr. What do you want to do now?" Sure, that is certainly a sandbox environment, but I feel that a DM can be a little more forceful than that. What I would rather do in that situation, is provide the players with a few different quest hooks (possibly even for different quests if you've had sufficient time to prepare) with the catch that all of the quests ultimately tie into the story framework that you are crafting.
So to put it another way, at the start of your campaign you give the party the following hooks: a) rescue the mayor's daughter who has gone missing, b) investigate the goblin tribe that has been raiding the farms outside of town, and c) protect the merchant caravan that is traveling to the next town given the recent upswing in bandit attacks. On the face of it, each of these quests are unique and not necessarily related. More to the point, they may very well take the party to completely different locations. However, there's nothing to say that your BBEG can't be behind all three of these quests. Perhaps he a) kidnapped the daughter because he wants to extort the mayor, b) is encouraging the goblin tribe to increase its raids so as to distract the local officials such that they don't notice what he is up to and c) is hiring bandits to raid caravans in order to gain some additional income (conquering the world isn't cheap after all). In each of those three adventures, you would lay clues as to the BBEG and ideally, the party might eventually choose to do all three and suddenly they start to see a pattern emerging. Some may still think this is railroading, but I personally disagree. It's much different than simply presenting them with a single quest and/or hook.
Now that I have that out of the way, lets turn our attention to the adventures themselves. Often times, DMs will tell the players that they can go wherever they want, but then once they trigger the adventure, or enter the dungeon, the rails start to be laid before the party. The campaign as a whole may be sandboxy in nature, but the adventures themselves are not. The classic example (and an overly exaggeratted one) would be the party enters a dungeon that consists of a series of room connected in a straight line, with only one possible path through the rooms. The party has basically two choices here a) go through the dungeon in the exact order laid out by the DM or b) leave the dungeon. The biggest offender in this regard is, not surprisingly, the classic dungeon crawl.
Don't get me wrong. I love a good ole fashioned dungeon crawl now and then. There's actually a lot to be said (in my opinion) for simply going into the dungeon and slaughtering its denizens. Doing this for thirty levels though? Eh, not so much. So for me, the first step is often to think outside the dungeon.
Towns and Wilderness Settings Are Your Friends
Adventures that take place in a town or wilderness setting are great foundations for a sandbox adventure. The scenario works something like this. The party arrives in Bordertown only to realize that things are not so great. Something has befallen the citizens of Bordertown. Maybe its a plague. Perhaps its a curse. Or maybe, the town is simply a giant pot that is about to boil over from all the competing tensions that have been building over the last few years. In any event, the PCs are being called on to save the day.
The great thing about these types of adventures is that since they take place in town, you inherently have a bunch of different places for the PCs to go. Each building in town is its own location, as is each district if its a larger town. Say for example, Jack the Ripper is loose in town and the PCs are called on to solve the crime that the local constables can't. Naturally, there are a number of places the PCs might go to first. Any of the crime scenes (lets say there's four). The local constable office. The homes or workplaces of witnesses. The homes of the victims. In other words, you've opened up the entire town to your players and they are free to start exploring (as a side benefit, this also gives you a chance to showcase all the elements in the town that you've designed, from the spice market, to the massive bridge, to the grandiose city hall, etc.). The bottom line is that the players will almost certainly feel as though they are driving the action since they are choosing where to go. It's not "You need to go to building Q now." Rather its "Well, you could check out building Q, or go talk to Bob at building C, or got to Ted's house in District Zed", etc.
This same principle also applies to wilderness adventures. Perhaps something has been killing the beasts in the Great Forrest and the elves are looking for assistance in determining the nature of the threat. Again, there might be several different locations for the PCs to investigate. The wilderness by its very nature, is a sandbox.
One Problem, Multiple Solutions
Simply placing the adventure in a town or wilderness is not, in and of itself, enough though (at least in my opinion). If there is only one method by which the party can solve the problem, then you are still, at the very least, pushing the edges of the rails. So the key here is to try, whenever possible, to provide multiple paths to success to the party, and to remain flexible during your sessions.
Pulling from my current campaign for an example, the party is currently stuck in a Domain of Dread. The town has become cursed and the party is now also cursed having spent a night in the town. The party can leave the town if they manage to break the curse that has gripped the town for close to a century. Breaking the curse involves the party traveling to three different locations in town (in no particular order) and accomplishing tasks while at those locations. If the break the curse, the party will be able to simply walk out of town.
However, breaking the curse is not their only option. When the curse was enacted on the town, it was done so in part, by greatly insulting the Raven Queen (the party has encountered a number of undead ravens). This in fact, is one of the main reasons that nobody can leave town because part of the curse is that people in town cannot die -- or at least stay dead. They are either resurrected or turn into undead themselves. The Raven Queen has sent her forces to quarantine the town to ensure that the taint does not spread. Obviously, the Raven Queen would like to see the curse broken, but she is also particularly angry with the creator of the curse and would be most interested in seeing the responsible party brought to justice. As such, should they wish it, the party can enter into a contract with the Raven Queen to be allowed to leave town. Now naturally, the terms of said contract are likely to benefit the Raven Queen as much, or likely more, than the party but it is an option.
The other catch is that as I mentioned last time, the party already has a number of "active quests" that they are to complete before the Next Big Event. Completing or not completing those events will of course have their consequences at that event. The dilemma for the party here will be that contracting with the Raven Queen will likely slow them down some, meaning they might not have as many of the quests completed by the time of the Next Big Event as they would otherwise. The key here, as always, is that the party's choices will matter in the end. Contracting with the Raven Queen will make things easier now (particularly since they've lost the MacGuffin), but might make things more difficult down the road. Having the choices made by the players matter in the overall scheme of things is really the heart of the sandbox to me. The worst cases of railroading are where it does not matter what the party does because the same result will happen regardless.
Finally, I mentioned that the DM needs to remain flexible during the actual sessions, even when running a pretty sandboxy adventure. The reason for this is that its always important to listen to your players. No matter how carefully you plan your adventure, your players are likely to either a) miss the clues you throw at them or b) still surprise you and go off the beaten path. A flexible DM can make this work for her though. If the party is investigating a series of murders, you may have what you think is a logical set of locations, and clues, for the party to investigate. However, the party is likely made up of anywhere from 4 to 6 minds to your one and may very well come up with something you did not think of. Rather than say "No." try to see how you can say yes. Maybe you intended the warehouse where one of the bodies was found to simply be the murder scene and absent the obvious clues on and near the body, there wasn't much to be found. However the avenger decides she wants to check out the office in the warehouse. Certainly you could simply say "You don't find anything.", but do you need to? Is there some reason that you can't drop one of your other clues in the manager's desk? Maybe there is a reason (you don't always have to say yes), but if you don't have a great reason to exclude the office, toss the players a bone. After all, players are human too and they love it when they feel clever. Now this doesn't mean you put a note that says "Frank did it!" in the desk, but maybe the clue you intended to leave in the baker's home is now found in the warehouse office.
In what may well prove to be a foolhardy endeavor, next time I intend to tackle the issue of turning the dungeon crawl into a sandbox.
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Thursday, July 28, 2011, 6:00 AM
One of the great things, in my personal opinion, about RPGs is that they are constantly evolving. Even within the same RPG, the game evolves. I don't even mean simply from one edition to the next (though that certainly counts) but just the game in general evolves over time. A lot of this has to do with the inherent human element of RPGs. Sure there are set rules (which can choose to follow or not) but at the end, the game is about a creative experience shared by the GM and the players. A game like Monopoly for instance is pretty much the same as it was when it was first released. While some families may have minor house rules, a player could easily walk in on any game of monopoly and immediately follow it assuming they are family with the rules.
RPGs though have evolved, and hopefully will continue to evolve, over time based on a variety of factors. Human input, literature, movies, video games, etc. Its this last one that has arguably as big an impact today as any. Grand Theft Auto brought an entirely new genre to video games, the Sandbox. Don't get me wrong, veteran RPG players would hardly call this new. After all, in many respects RPGs are inherently sandbox games -- the cardinal sin of DM'ing often being railroading. In many respects though the freedom to roam in games like GTA and Saints Row and the like carried over even to RPGs and empowered many players to feel as though they should be able to do whatever they want, and go wherever they want. Many DMs were aghast at this thought, for this idea seemed to strike a deadly blow at their beautifully crafted, and deeply intriguing story that they had prepared. All their plans were now to be laid to waste. How can we craft any kind of story if the players are going to simply go wherever they want?
The good news is, that really, there's very little you need to do to overcome this problem. The idea that stories are linear and not sandboxy is misplaced in my opinion. Lets take a look at one of my favorite works of fiction, the Lord of the Rings. In some respects, you could argue that this is a railroaded adventure. Frodo gets the ring, goes to Rivendell, then heads off for Mordor, etc. The thing is, Frodo didn't have to leave the Shire. He didn't have to volunteer to take the ring to Mordor. He didn't have to decided to head off on his own after Boromir tried to take the ring. These were all choices presented to him in his sandbox. Sure, some choices may have seemed distinctly better, but they were still choices after all. At the end of the day, Frodo could have simply tried to hide out in another town or region and let those more capable take care of the ring.
But How Does This Relate to Your Campaign
Okay, admittedly this doesn't exactly get around the sandbox campaign problem. Telling the players that they could simply hole up in town and come back next week to see if the next adventure hook entices them isn't exactly an option, nor does it feel particularly sandboxy. The DM has to get a little more creative, and a be a little more flexible, in order to bring his or her story into the sandbox. The first thing to do of course, is to come up with the main conflict in your story. For simplicity sake, lets just say its "defeat the bad guy". The next step is to figure out what the PCs will need to do in order to achieve the goal of "defeat the bad guy". Here's where you start to build the sandbox around your story.
Start off by presenting multiple mini-goals that will help the party achieve their ultimate goal. Maybe they are a) recruit the dwarven nation to help defend the kingdom's borders, b) find the MacGuffin, and c) complete the ritual to cleanse the Temple of Ickyness. Doing all three of these things will then put a serious dent in the bad guy's plans and make him easier to kill. Now the kicker: there's no set order in which these quests need to be completed. This, ultimately, is how most, if not all, sandbox video games are set up. There's a general ultimate goal with a series of sub-goals that need to be completed in order to achieve the main goal. Saint's Row required you to defeat three rival gangs on your way to victory. Defeating each gang required a series of even smaller quests which again could be done in any order. So in my paragon game for example, the party was presented with about five different tasks that would/could/should be completed in order to achieve their ultimate goal, but these are all tasks that are "active" at the same time, meaning they have their choice as to where to go and when.
The potential trouble spot here is obvious. If the party can complete these tasks in any order, how do we plan our sessions and adventures when we don't know a) where they are going or b) what level they will be when they get to each adventure? This is why I said the DM needs to remain flexible. The fact of the matter is that you will have to adjust your plans for in my experience, no matter how well you think you know your players, they will still find ways to surprise you.
This is one of the nice things about 4ed though. Its incredibly easy to adjust monsters and encounters on the fly. Monster powers, as described by the DM, are no longer necessarily instantly recognizable since every monster has powers. Put another way, if you think the party is going to take Quest A next session, and instead they take Quest B, as long as you have the basic idea of what they are supposed to be doing on Quest B, you can usually use the encounters you had prepared for Quest A. So you thought the party was going to go after the hill giants and instead they went to the town in the Shadowfell? Well, the giant shaman becomes a cleric, the rock hurlers are now archers, etc. and you don't even necessarily need to adjust the powers all that much if at all. Heck, even the large size giants can be used in the shadowfell town. Maybe the giants become large beasts domesticated by the town. Or maybe they are actually giants that have been enslaved. The point is, you simply reskin the monsters you had prepared for Quest A for that session and then you can go back and readjust your preparations for the next session.
An alternative solution here if you are not comfortable reskinning is to be prepared to start any of the remaining quests as soon as one quest is completed. If the party is about to finish a quest (or better yet, just finished one at the end of the last session) and they have three remaining "active" quests, then prepare enough of each quest or adventure to get you through the next session. If your sessions are like mine and of a consistent length (i.e. same time every week) then you should pretty quickly get a good idea for how many encounters your party will get through in a given session. For me, I usually like to have 3 - 4 combat encounters prepared for a given 4.5 hour session. That almost always gives me at least one encounter to spare. So if the party is about to start a new adventure, I will prepare the first 2 - 3 encounters of each of the remaining adventures in their "active list" (they get fewer encounters done at the start of an adventure due to planning, shopping, roleplay, etc.). This way, there's no reskinning that needs to be done, I simply grab the encounters for the adventure they choose.
The bigger problem will come in not knowing what level your party will be when they get to a particular quest. This is actually why I would ordinarily advocate only having a few sessions worth of material prepared ahead of time. Writing the 16th level adventure when your party hits 11th level is certainly planning ahead, but it won't help you near as much if they wait until 22nd level to take that quest. As your party works their way through the assorted quests, you will get a better idea as to what level they will be for each of the upcoming quests.
Putting it All Together
In this post I talked about making their choices matter, and specifically mentioned that quests don't exist in a vacuum. In other words, if they do not complete a quest "on time" then they suffer the consequences. Here's the real kicker to the sandbox style campaign and how it really can promote roleplay in your group. There's nothing that says you have to make it so that they can complete every quest you've thrown their way before the Next Big Event. In my game, they currently have a number of quests that, if completed, will help them during the next big event (probably at the end of paragon tier). The thing is though, they almost certainly won't be able to complete all of them before that event happens. Some quests will take longer than others but may have a bigger impact. It becomes a balancing act for them and they will have to decide what is more important along the way. Those quests that are not completed will have their consequences just as the completed ones will. So again, they are free to choose their path, but they will have to live with the consequences of their choice.
I had intended to discuss applying the sandbox concept to individual adventures but for the sake of time and space, I think I will hold off until the next entry.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome as are any ideas for future entries in this series.
In other news, I am slowly modernizing myself and have gone onto Twitter @Gargs454 for those interested. I will confess I do not tweet often for a variety of reasons, but will try to do so more often.
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Saturday, July 9, 2011, 10:36 AM
Last time I touched on how to eke more roleplay out of your game with a few relatively simple steps. After some thought though, I think there are some additional tips that can help you out -- again without requiring too much work on your part as the DM.
Use their toys
Stephen Radney-MacFarland advocates using special treasures in his last Save My Game article, which can be found here. This is excellent advice in my opinion, particularly the section on snowflake treasures. As he notes, the treasure parcel system is both handy and seen as a bit of a cludge. Parcels make it easy for the DM to determine how much treasure should be given to the party, but the nature of magic items in 4ed often makes them a bit less special. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, magic items were greatly toned down in power in 4ed when compared to earlier editions. Personally, I think this was a good decision on WotC's part as it puts the emphasis back on the character and her abilities, and not so much on the items carried by her. The problem with this though is that they simply are not nearly as special as they used to be. The other problem with the parcels is more of a general design philosophy, and not the parcel system itself. The 6 tiers (i.e. +1 to +6) of items also has a tendency to make them less special to players. Ideally, every five levels or so a player should be upgrading his or her armor, neck slot, and weapliment. The problem here is that this doesn't provide much time for players to get to "know" their items. They are almost constantly looking to upgrade them, but even the upgrades feel underwhelming.
They don't have to though. This is where "snowflake" treasures come into play. The first thing to do is to take a little bit of time and give an item some history. Ideally, this history will also be particularly appealing to one of your PCs. Cater this item's history to mesh with some aspect of one of the PC's background and now suddenly this item looks a lot more appealing to the character. That flaming long sword +2 your swordmage was looking at? Well, now its Witchburner, the legendary sword of Kromwright -- a genesai swordmage who dedicated his life to rooting out hag covens and seeing the hags destroyed. Its still a flaming longsword +2 but its no longer just a flaming longsword +2. More to the point, the item, in and of itself, is no more powerful than a regular item of its level either.
Now you may be thinking "Great, my swordmage has this neat sword, but what happens in five levels?" Should the swordmage anticipate parting ways with Witchburner? Did Drizzt part ways with Twinkle after a couple of adventures? Of course, the fear here is that the swordmage will soon become underpowered, unable to hit monsters, and thus, unable to fulfill her role well. Thing is though, there's absolutely nothing in the rules that says that you cannot have Witchburner level up in five levels and become a +3 flaming longsword. For added impact, have it happen after (or during even) a particularly important battle -- one that has significant story impact. Make it even more special by making the "level up" visible. "Witchburner flares to life, its flame brighter than ever as it slices through the troll's neck. Go ahead and roll an extra d6 for that crit since its +3 now." Doing this gives your players more reason to become attached to their items. Their weapliments become trusty sidekicks almost. As an added benefit, finding magic items to give your players in the future becomes that much easier. Rather than looking for new items, you simply level up some of the ones they have.
Mess with their toys
In his article Joy and Sorrow, which can be found here Chris Perkins discusses the idea of putting a player's toys in danger -- or even outright taking them away. Now, a word of caution is warranted here. This approach can give rise to an absolutely incredible and entertaining arc in your campaign. It can also completely blow up in your face. Personally, I recommend treading very carefully here unless you know your players have a lot of trust in you. Chris Perkins is able to get away with it because, well, he's Chris Perkins! His players know that even when he throws the worst at them, he will give them an incredible play experience. If you don't have that trust yet though, your players may feel as though you are just arbitrarily punishing them
However, there are decent ways to approach this without it completely destroying your campaign. First, its one thing to stack the odds against the PCs, thus creating a likely result. Its another thing though to simply say "Your ship sank last night." To be fair to Chris, we don't really know all the details behind the sinking of the ship in his game. Most players though would be very upset if the toy they had worked long and hard to obtain, and had spent lots of money improving, were to suddenly be taken away without a chance of saving it. On the other hand, if the PCs sail into battle aboard their ship and it soon becomes evident that their opponents have vastly superior numbers, then it won't necessarily feel as arbitrary. Even if the odds are really long, the PCs at least have options on the table. One, they could get lucky in battle and actually win. Two, they could try to make a run for it, thus getting out with both their lives and their ship. Sure, it may be unlikely, but as long as it was possible, it makes it better.
Finally, keep in mind that if you do take this route, that you need to also provide an avenue to reclaim the item (or an even more powerful one). Just as important though, is that you keep an open mind as to how this be accomplished. In other words, take cues from the player(s) affected. Chris Perkins knew that Youngs would want the ship back. He didn't necessarily realize that Youngs would be willing to make a literal deal with the devil to get it though. The fact that this story line came from the player though will only rope the players into the story that much more. No longer are they being lead by the nose by the DM. Instead, they are seeing that they get to decide how the story unfolds. The key here is to always remember that although the DM often creates the world (hopefully with help from the players) and although the DM provides the basic framework for the story of the campaign, the story being told is ultimately the players' story, not the DM's. To put it another way, if the players simply wanted to hear a story, rather than help make one, they's listen to a book on tape, watch or tv show, or read a book, etc. Its the ability to direct the story that attracts so many people to RPGs.
Putting it in Action
So, taking these ideas in mind, I'll share an example from my own game. Like many DMs I had started to struggle with finding new items for my players, even with their wishlists (which most did not provide me) it was difficult to come up with interesting items. Then, as we were heading into Paragon tier, the avenger's player told me he was planning to switch from an Executioner's axe to a falchion as part of his character's story arc. I realized that this was the perfect time to put some of this advice to use.
He had told me he was looking for a Jagged Falchion as it could mesh well with his abilities (darn strikers). I decided to create a legendary falchion that had been passed to numerous members of the Church of Erathis (the avenger's deity) over the years. The story of the item though included in part that it was only ever given out when the need was especially great. It took part in some of the most notable wars in the world's history. It also has a tragic side to it as almost all of its bearers die while wielding it in combat -- though usually only after accomplishing great deeds with it. For a final touch, when the falchion was bestowed upon the avenger, the PC heard the blade speak telepathically to him, hinting at having known the avenger previously. Mechanically, its still just a Jagged Falchion +3, but from a roleplay perspective, the avenger now protects the blade with his life. It has become his most prized possession and he won't part with it for anything. I haven't told him this, but it should come as no surprise now that when the time comes, the blade will improve to a +4, etc. There may eventually be additional properties that are unlocked, and it certainly seems to have a story to tell to the avenger, so we'll see where that goes.
As a side note, the player's reaction to the blade has definitely reaffirmed my belief as to how useful this approach can be. As a result, I plan to do something similar with the other players now. It won''t always be a weapliment of course, but I'll definitely try to find items that can become part of each PC's identity.
Now, I haven't messed with any of their toys just yet, but certainly the immediate attachment the avenger felt for the falchion makes that a potentially great story arc (provided I'm fair about it of course). Frankly, I'm still not positive that I'm willing to go that far, but if the right opportunity presents itself it could lead to a really interesting adventure.
The best part about the falchion is that I was able to come up with the story in just a few minutes. I don't need to provide full details at this point, just a paragraph or two was enough to make the player latch onto it. A couple of minutes has helped to define one of the PCs, a few more will develop the others. All in all, a win win for the group.
As always, I welcome any thoughts you may have as well as any suggestions for future topics.
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Wednesday, June 15, 2011, 8:03 PM
DM's, both new and experienced, are almost always seeking advice in one fashion or another. As with most things, this is a matter of two (or a hundred) heads are better than one. That being said though, there is one question that far and away gets asked more than any other. That question goes something like this: "How do I get my players to role play more rather than just roll play?" I can't begin to estimate the number of times I've seen a question along these lines, and there are many reasons for this. While I don't think any of the following ideas are revolutionary, hopefully they will help out some in your game.
First though, I want to take a moment to say what this post is not. This post is not a commentary on 4th Ed vs. 3.x or earlier editions, nor is this a post about whether or not you can roleplay in 4th Ed. Rather, this is merely an attempt to offer up some advice that is useable in any editionand frankly, any system.
First Step: Identify Your Players
RPGs come in many shapes and sizes. So too, metaphorically speaking, do RPG players. The fact of the matter is that there are almost as many ways to play RPGs as there are players. Put simply, every player has his or her own particular style, and particular goals, when playing. For some, this means getting as deep into character as possible, turning the game into something close to a Broadway play that occasionally features the rolling of dice. For others, this means approaching the game as a tactical situation featuring combat between two sides with the ultimate goal being to defeat as many foes as possible, with almost no time needed for anything other than combat. Most players of course, fall somewhere in between.
The key here is that some players simply do not want to roleplay per se, or are just not comfortable doing so. This doesn't mean they are doing it wrong of course, just that they have different goals than others. If you have one or more of these players, odds are you are going to have a very difficult time getting them to roleplay a lot no matter what you do. Assuming though that you have players who do want to engage in some roleplay, or that you just are not sure if they do or not, there are some things you can do to increase the likelihood that they'll roleplay more.
Second Step: Lead By Example
If your players don't seem comfortable roleplaying, then you need to seize the initiative. The easiest thing you can do is to make sure that you are roleplaying the NPCs as much as possible as this will more actively engage your players. Lets look at two potential examples of the same situation, wherein the party has entered a town and are asking a guard if there's any work in town.
Player: I ask him if there's any work in town available.
DM: He says that Ted the smith is looking for someone to help find his son.
Player: I ask him if there's any work in town available.
DM: The guard looks at you, his head cocked to one side, seemingly measuring you. "Eh, you look like you've seen a few scrapes in yer day. Ye might be wantin' to head on over to the Smithy. Ole Ted's son went missin' a few days ago and Ted's been fretting ever since, muttering somethin about hobgoblins. I'm sure he'd be interested in anybody who can hold their own in a scrape."
Now both of these scenarios present essentially the same situation and provide the same hook to the players. Thing is though, its a lot more likely that the second scenario is going to engage your players and get them to respond in character. In terms of gameplay and mechanics, there really isn't any difference between these two scenarios but I've seen it time and time again: the players are going to take their cue from the DM. Speak to them in character and they are likely to reply in character.
Third Step: Give Them Options
Once you've started speaking to them in character, the next step is to present them with differing options for how to proceed, with the different options presenting them with moral dilemmas. Maybe the PCs have been hired to recover a stolen artifact. As they uncover clues to its location, they also learn that some children have been kidnapped, but the children are not in the same location as the artifact. Now the party has a dilemma. They can rescue the children, or they can recover the artifact. The real issue here is you are learning how the players see their characters. If they break off the search for the artifact to rescue the children, then you know they view their characters as more than just mercenaries. On the other hand, the group that goes after the artifact is clearly in it for the money.
Fourth Step: Make Those Options Matter
Computer and video game rpgs are notorious for presenting a variety of quests that you are able to complete no matter how long you wait to get around to completing them. The villain always waits at the end for the player to catch up. Heck, many games even let you go back after completing the main quest and finish all those side quests you skipped. Thing is, if you allow your players to take this approach, the only thing they'll learn is that their actions don't have a lot of consequences. Go back to the previous example. Lets say the PCs go after the artifact instead of the children. Perhaps the children die. Or maybe they are turned into devils, etc. In other words, you make certain that the price the PCs pay for retrieving the artifact is that the children are harmed. More to the point, the NPCs the PCs encounter there on out know this too. Nothing will make the players consider their actions more than knowing that those actions have consequences.
Fifth Step: Reward Them
Some players are simply more concerned with gaining XP, treasure, and the like. For these players, perhaps the best thing you can do to get them to roleplay is to make it worth their while. Maybe you give them some bonus XP when they do something cool in character. Or at the end of each session maybe you give a bonus to the player that did the best job playing in character. Yet another option, is to incorporate something like Hollow Earth's style point system. In Hollow Earth, the GM is encouraged to hand out style points every time a player does something "cool". Style points can then be used to buy automatic successes or roll extra dice, etc. Perhaps in D&D you can translate these into rerolls or allow them to add 1d6 to a given roll, etc. Whatever you choose, the idea is to show the players that there's a tangible benefit to playing in character and encourage them to try it out. After all, they won't know if they like it until they try it.
Personally, I like the idea of style points, and I would even go so far as to turn them into a group pool. The idea here is that you are not going to single out the player who simply wants to improve his character, kill monsters, and gather loot. The player who may not be all that into playing in character can still benefit from the style points this way. The players who do play in character more, and thus earn more points, can now use those points to help out the other players -- after all, it is a cooperative game. Handing out bonus XP on the other hand can run the risk of singling out certain players. The player who doesn't roleplay a lot is going to feel left out, as if he is being punished for simply having a different style.
These are just a few suggestions and there are many more out there. However, I do think that these are some of the easier suggestions to implement. They require relatively little work on the part of the DM and can often lead to huge rewards. The thing to remember though is that every group is different and different methods will work for different groups. In the end, hopefully you can make your games a little more lively.
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Wednesday, May 11, 2011, 5:52 AM
This entry comes at the request of I_Smile_alot who suggested covering using traps to help promote the story. In my typically timely fashion, he mentioned this in a comment about three months ago and I am just now getting around to addressing it. In truth, it took me a fair amount of time to think about this because I think that traps are often one game element that we, as DMs, often take for granted and fail to fully capitalize on. That being said, I do have some thoughts on how to make traps a more central part of your game and the PCs story.
In analyzing traps, I think its important to first address why its so difficult at times to weave them into the story. First off, is the obvious -- traps are not creatures (generally). Most of the time, the trap won't talk back to the PCs. It won't mock them and it certainly won't trade witty banter back and forth. Instead, it tends to just sit there and do its thing until its either destroyed or deactivated. Heck, most traps are not even mobile. A pit trap isn't going to do much other than just be there. All of this leads to a tendency to treat traps as little more than window dressing and perhaps a bit of XP. We might want to spice up an encounter and throw in a blaster trap, but at the end of the day its still an immovable object that simply hampers the PCs a bit. This view, by the way, tends to be shared by both the PCs and the DM in my experience. Why interrogate a trap? Once its deactivated, its essentially dead.
In earlier editions it was often worse. Traps, rather than being part of an encounter, were instead an obstacle to overcome in order to get into the encounter. Take the trapped dungeon door for instance. This has long been a staple of D&D, but for the most part, all it did was show that the bad guys were at least a bit paranoid. Worse still, everyone tended to stand back while the rogue did her thing, meaning most of the party didn't even try to interact with it. Traps thus became a way to help make the rogue shine during the session rather than a means by which to advance the story. Granted, its always been the case that a trap can be part of a combat encounter, but in earlier days it was much more common (in my experience) to use traps as obstacles to getting into the encounter. Traps simply became (often times) akin to the lock on the door. In the same way that its difficult to make a lock a part of the story, a trap proved difficult too. It still revolved around one person interacting with it. Having only one player interact with something does not make for good story advancement. Think of it this way, if you were to throw a quest out there that was specifically geared for one PC's background, odds are you would do one of two things 1) Make the quest such that it was interesting for everyone, just a bit more interesting for the one PC in question or 2) pull that PC aside and maybe run that quest in its own mini session with just that player. Doing differently is simply going to bore the rest of the group.
I'm sure people have run into other problems with traps, but I think those are the main ones. From these, there are number of solutions to overcoming the story problem with traps.
First, look for consistency in the dungeon or adventure. Its one thing to throw a bunch of traps into your goblin-infested dungeon. But if there's nothing connecting them (either to each other or to the goblins) then they will continue to be treated as little more than dungeon dressing. Instead, take a look at your dungeon denizens and ask yourself "What can these guys really do?" If there are no arcanists or shamans among the goblins, then its unlikely that they are creating magic-based traps. On the other hand, goblins can be quite crafty with relatively simple tools and materials so things like trip wires and the like make a lot of sense. Here's the thing though, this doesn't mean that your goblin warren can't have magic traps. What it means is that you need to explain it to the PCs. Maybe the warren use to be the secret hideout of a semi-powerful mage. Maybe the goblins have struck a pact with a Bigger Badder Eviler Guy who in return has provided them with some protection. When your players say that it doesn't make sense that goblins would have such sophisticated traps you respond with "That is weird isn't it?" Then later you leave the clue to the BBEG. Maybe its a letter to the goblin chieftian. Perhaps its an identifying mark on one of the traps.
Speaking of marks on traps, that's another great means of adding story. In the Scales of War forum, there's much talk about how to tie the early adventures together. One of the suggestions is to put a symbol of a black arrow on the weapons found on the bad guys in the early adventures to thus tie them to the Black Arrow Mercenaries, one of the major players early on in the campaign. You can do the same with traps. You often hear on tv about bomb makers or the like using a signature, well, why can't a trap maker? Perhaps your BBEG is supplying some of the goblinoid and orcish tribes with traps to further his plans, but his ego is too big to not leave his mark on the traps. Suddenly when the PCs start seeing the same mark in the second dungeon as was in the first, they'll see that there's a connection. The orcs may not be working with the goblins, but somebody is obviously supplying them both.
Next, have the enemies interact with the traps. This goes beyond merely activating them. Maybe they've come to rely on them. The goblins are in awe of the BBEG's traps and will seek to use them at every opportunity. Or maybe a trap helps to power up an enemy somehow (more on that below). The key here is to make the trap more than just a source of XP. Its more than just an object, its an object being actively used by the bad guys.
Finally, you can make the trap really big. Make the trap, or traps, the focus of the adventure. The original Tomb of Horrors for instance is among the most well known, well loved, and "hated" adventures out there. Sure Acererak makes for an awesome villain, but what makes him awesome was that he littered the tomb with deadly trap after deadly trap. Running into a creature is almost a relief in this situation. Alternatively, think of the "Doomsday Device" trope. A doomsday device is really little more than a really big trap. Sure, its going to affect a lot more than just the PCs, but at the end of the day, it functions just like a trap on a much larger scale. Finally, a trap can be used to shape the direction of the adventure or campaign. When the BBEG flees and activates the trap on his way out, perhaps it collapses the tunnel through which he just left if the PCs hit the pressure plate. When this happens, it doesn't derail the adventure, but it does make it harder to catch the villain. Maybe the villain sets a trap that will kill innocents if the PCs don't take the time to deactivate it, thereby giving the villain time to escape. In this case, the PCs now have a tough choice to make. You've now killed three birds with one stone 1) You've shown your villain to be truly evil and worthy of dismemberment, thus making him more memorable, 2) You've integrated the trap into your story -- either the PCs save the innocents or they try to stop the villain, and 3) you've provided your players with a very meaningful choice (see 2 above).
I often feel that its best to show rather than tell whenever possible, so let me give you a couple of examples from my own game which I actually used in the same encounter. For the final encounter of the heroic tier, I wanted something really memorable, something big, and something that hopefully really caught the attention of the party. The first thing I did was finally give them a chance to confront the BBEG that they had been chasing almost since day 1. The second thing I did, was make it so he didn't fight fair (this was "trap" #1). Finally, I added a second trap that proved to be a game changer for the campaign.
The BBEG in question (or at least the person claiming to be the BBEG -- the party hasn't confirmed it yet) is a vampire and has committed many evil acts throughout the heroic tier. For the final encounter, the party confronted him in a long abandoned temple to Pelor, but one that also pay homage to 5 other gods. Each of the 6 gods had an altar in the temple and the BBEG had managed to corrupt those altars such that they were channelling energy into the BBEG, making him both harder to hit and more resistant to damage. While these were perhaps not traps in the strictest sense (they didn't attack the party per se), they definitely were a hindrance to the group. The key was that they had to cleanse the altars during the fight in order to "depower" the BBEG. As each altar was cleansed, the BBEG became easier to hit and less resistant to damage. The goal here was to show that the BBEG had access to quite a bit of power. After all, its one thing to corrupt an altar to Pelor or Bahamut, but to corrupt it to the point that the altars of these good gods were now powering up an evil vampire? Yikes. It took a little while for this to sink in with the party and it may have been a result of poor execution on my part. But afterward, they were asking why these gods were helping him. When I told them they weren't but that he managed to so fully corrupt the altars anyway, it finally dawned on them. The party had cleansed corrupted altars before, but they had never been able to so fully do so as to grant themselves additional power. They realized then that the BBEG had a lot power -- and were less than thrilled when they learned that he had a blood cauldron (ala the Vampire Muse I believe) that enabled him to regenerate if it wasn't destroyed.
The second trap, the game changer, was more of a traditional trap. When the party entered the final encounter, the BBEG was fiddling with a large mechanical device. During the course of the battle that device started to malfunction and toss waves of energy at everyone in the immediate area. The energy caused creatures to either gain or lose move actions, then later did the same for standard actions, and finally started dealing damage in addition to the rest. As you may have guessed by now, it was actually a time machine. During the fight, the party decided that they would deal with the trap later, not realizing what it actually was. Although they realized the device was clearly malfunctioning, and clearly breaking down, they did not realize what would happen. As a result, when it finally broke down completely, it shoved everyone still standing (including a couple of the bad guys) ten years into the future. The party would soon learn that things had not gone very well over the last ten years (while the party was absent from the world) and that in short, the world is pretty crummy at the moment as an army of aberrants from the Far Realm has invaded.
The party now is faced with the option of trying to repair the time machine and trying to restore the time stream. They don't have to do this if they don't want to, its merely one option on the table. What they decide to do with it though will shape the adventures and campaign as well as the lives of some of the NPCs. Some of their favored NPCs have done well over the last ten years while others have not. Would the same hold true if they go back in time to "fix" things? By the way, one of the keys to the time machine trap was that it was absolutely possible for the party to stabilize the machine and thus prevent it from shoving them into the future. My personal opinion is that if you are going to make a trap this big, you should give the PCs an opportunity to avoid its consequences.
Traps can be a tricky thing when it comes to trying to tie them into the overall story. However, with a little bit of thought and planning, they can become an integral piece to the story, perhaps even being the main driving force of the story. Its important to keep in mind though that just like a goblin can be just a goblin, so too can a trap be just a trap. You do not need to try to make every trap advance the story. Goblins may simply choose to throw a rug over a pit in the hope that one of their enemies will fall in. However, when you can tie a trap into your story, it can make it that much more memorable.
As always, I am open to any thoughts you have on the matter as well as anything you'd like to see me address in future posts.
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Sunday, April 10, 2011, 6:10 PM
Unfortunately the real world often gets in the way of our free time. The last month has been particularly busy for me, leaving me with little in the way of free time outside of the little time I spend on my campaigns. The little time I have had has largely been devoted to getting a campaign wiki up and running for my homebrew game. Although 4ed makes preparing for a game, and DM'ing in general, fairly easy, when time gets short, we often forget to do one of the most important aspects of running a campaign. That is, evaluating the state of our game. Its this evaluation that I want to discuss today.
As DMs we tend to spend a lot of time in creating a story, designing a campaign world, crafting adventures that tie into that overall story, building entertaining encounters, etc. All of this is apart from running the actual game and can often tie up most of our extra free time. However, its important to take some time out every so often to turn a critical eye toward the campaign as its played out so far in order to ensure that we build the best campaign possible. The key here is to be honest with yourself when you look at each aspect of your campaign and to think about how you can improve those areas that need improving.
Providing meaningful choices can often be a difficult thing to do. Often, even when we think we are providing meaningful choices, we really aren't. In my homebrew campaign for instance, I was trying to run a fairly open-ended campaign throughout heroic tier. Upon looking back though I realized that there really were only one or two instances where I provided my players with a true choice in terms of where the campaign would head next. I don't think the game was on rails per se, but looking back at the plot hooks I fed the players, it was pretty obvious what choices the players would take. To combat this, now that the party has entered paragon tier, I'm taking a much more open approach to my campaign. I've fed about four or five major plot lines to the party, the resolution (or lack thereof) of which will definitely impact the campaign world going forward. More importantly, like Dave Chalker recommends in his excellent article on the 5x5 method, I am filtering those plot lines through several common locations. This will let the players really take control of the campaign and follow the paths they prefer, rather than just the path that I lay out for them. The key here is that I need to be flexible with those plot lines so that they can be run at any stage during the paragon tier. This may mean that I have to change the level of the monsters in the adventure, or even choose new monsters.
Tie the Game to the Player Characters:
Nothing makes a campaign as interesting (in my opinion) as tying it into the different backgrounds of your PCs. Now obviously, this can be tricky as there is always the risk of providing one player too great a share of the spot light when you target his or her background. If you are good about spreading the love around though your players will no doubt love it (provided they care about story and character development, which not every player does). Every so often, its a good idea to take a look at your campaign arc and see how you can tie it into the backgrounds of your PCs. Frequently this will be easy. Perhaps one of your PCs has a particular dislike for mages. In a case like this, its fairly easy to turn one of your BBEGs in an adventure into a mage and to drop hints as to that NPC's arcane leanings. This will definitely make this particular adventure of particular interest to that PC and will do so without causing him to hog the spotlight. More to the point though, it is usually fairly easy to craft story elements that do not necessarily dictate an entire adventure per se, but definitely give a particular character a chance to shine. Got a PC from a remote island populated by particularly reclusive gnomes? Then why not craft your campaign in such a way that the party must travel to this island at some point. If the PC's departure from the island was particularly scandalous, then so much the better.
Keep the Game Fun:
This is perhaps one of the more difficult elements to examine. The problem here is that fun is definitely in the eye of the beholder. More to the point, it can be fairly easy to miss the body language of your players while you are busy running monsters, adjudicating results, reading boxed text, etc. Additionally, your players will often be hesitant to tell you when they are not having fun out of fear of offending you. The easiest way to guage this element is to just keep an eye on your players' body language. Are they busy playing with their phones? Building dice towers? Making random die rolls or talking to their neighbor when its not their turn? These are all classic signs that your group is getting bored. It can be hard to pinpoint what it is about a particular session that is leading to the boredom. Perhaps they are not invested in the current adventure. Maybe they are more interested in combat than in roleplay.
If you see these signs, the best thing you can do is to talk to your players about it. Hopefully your players will be glad you asked and will clue you in on what is bothering them. The other key here is that in most cases, if your players keep coming back to your games, then in the main they are likely having fun.
There's no formula as to how often you should engage in this evaluation, but ideally, you'd do this after every session. What went well? What didn't. Certain aspects of your campaign will naturally take you longer to evaluate. Its hard to evaluate the reception your overall campaign arc is having on the players after each session for instance, but in general, if you take a few minutes after each session to take a look at your campaign, odds are that you will be able to create a much more engaging campaign for your players.
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Friday, March 4, 2011, 4:51 AM
As my homebrew campaign just completed the Heroic Tier at the end of the last session, I thought now would be a good time to discuss the transition from Heroic to Paragon in a little more detail. One of the really nice aspects of 4th Ed., in my opinion, is that the tier system really lends itself well to integrating three smaller subplots into one overarching campaign plot should you desire your campaign to go from 1 to 30. This of course doesn't mean that these plots should be unrelated, but rather that they each contain a story in their own right, and that each represent a different act in the grand play that is your campaign. With a bit of preparation, you can not only accomplish this, but also make it seem rather seamless.
Building up to it.
Paragon tier really does see the PCs reach a whole new level of power in the world. Its more than just their actual powers, abilities, feats, etc. though. This power is also represented in their status. A first level PC for instance may be seen as little more than a mercenary for hire. Certainly the King won't likely have time for them, and even the duke and the mayor are likely to look down upon the lowly PCs. Heck, even if your PCs have noble ties in their background, they may be seen as the black sheep of the "noble family".
More than that though, the threats they are taking on are also much smaller in scale than they will be in the paragon tier. The PCs do not defeat Orcus at 1st level, but they might root out an Orcus cult at that level. Meanwhile, in Paragon tier, those same PCs might start taking on the army of demons that Orcus has sent to the mortal plane, before heading for Orcus' home in the Epic tier. To put it another way, in heroic tier the PCs save the region, or even the country. In paragon tier they save the world. Finally in the epic tier, they save all of creation. This is oversimplifying it a bit, but you get the idea. The stakes go up greatly and as a result, whether they like it or not, the powers that be must respect the PCs more.
So what this all means is that as the PCs progress through heroic tier, they should start to see that respect grow. After all, a 10th level fighter is far more impressive than a 1st level fighter. Maybe the mayor is taking the PCs into his confidence. Maybe he shows them respect rather than disdain. Or maybe its just a matter of the people of the region starting to hail the PCs as the heroes they truly are. Either way, it shouldn't be a sudden and jarring shock that the PCs are now being respected.
Wrap it Up
As I said earlier, I'm a big fan of the three subplots within the main plot method of constructing a campaign. This of course is not the only way to do it, but it is a very productive method. If you've been harassing the PCs with a BBEG that they haven't had a chance to meet yet, its time they got their chance. For one thing, you don't want the PCs thinking they'll have to wait til level 30 to finally get a shot at their nemesis. For another, it gives the players a chance to get a little revenge in. Wrapping up that first subplot with the final encounter of heroic tier also is a great way to signal the transition to paragon status. One of my favorite lines from the Lord of the Rings movies is at the end of the Two Towers when Gandalf says "The Battle of Helm's Deep is won, but the Battle for Middle Earth has just begun." The heroes get some time to celebrate their good fortune, but they know its momentary at best.
Which leads us to . . .
While you are wrapping up the plot of the heroic tier though, you should also be foreshadowing the plot of the Paragon tier. At the end of the Two Towers for instance, everyone knows to an extent what's coming next. We all knew (even on the first read through) that Sauron would have to be confronted. That Mordor would not stand still, and that most importantly, the Ring still needed to be destroyed. So if Paragon tier in your campaign is going to feature a new enemy, you want to start planting those seeds in the heroic tier. Maybe a few drow patrols show up on the surface. Perhaps a githyanki hit squad makes an appearance, etc. It need not be enough to derail your main heroic plot (and in fact, it probably shouldn't), but you want the players to have some idea of what's coming next. There are two primary reasons for this: one, it helps make the transition smoother and two, let's face it, we all like that moment where we can say "Aha! I knew it!" Your players will be the same way. You don't need to spell out the exact details of what's coming (and again, I'd say you shouldn't), but there should be clues. The PCs should be realizing that the problem is definitely bigger than they realized.
Go Big or Go Home
So you've shown the PCs growing in stature, you've previewed the next big threat, and you are ready for the PCs to wrap up the heroic story line with a final encounter. For the love of Gygax, do your best to make this fight one to remember! Who among those who've seen the Lord of the Rings movies doesn't remember Boromir's last stand or the Battle of Helm's Deep? Those are among the most memorable scenes in the movies and for good reason. So now is the time to pull out all your tricks and give your players a fight to remember.
The thing to remember here though, is that while a really difficult fight can certainly be cool, a fight need not be really difficult in order to be cool. Personally, I'm a fan of a big, hard, fight to wrap up the tier, but even the big, hard fight should have cool features beyond just being hard. A fight with a dragon on a barren plain is frankly, not all that cool. Sure its a dragon, but you've missed out on so much more. Now is the time to pull out interesting terrain features. Here is where you try out that interesting new trap. Got an idea for a fight that requires the PCs to think outside the box, or act outside their comfort zone? What better time than now?! In other words, with luck, the final fight of the heroic tier won't feel anything like any of your other encounters to date. This is particularly important when you consider that following the official XP guidelines, you'll probably end up with about 8 combat encounters per level. Multiply that by 30 levels and you are looking at 240 combats. How dull if they were all essentially the same?
So what can we do?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I do want to give you some ideas on things you can try. Not all of these are my ideas (remember, its okay to steal ideas as long as you are not trying to publish them) and I'm sure there are plenty of other ideas out there, but these should get you started.
The list no doubt goes on and on from there, but you get the idea. The only real problem with this is with all these features (and you should probably only pick a few) you will no doubt have to do more planning ahead of time to make sure you are prepared. Cool fights often contain complicated elements which need to be implemented just right in order to get the full effect, so make sure you understand what each element is and how it works. In the end though, if you provide a cool encounter for your players, they will absolutely love it and will remember it til the end of the campaign -- and likely for years to come.
What have you done as you transitioned? As always I love hearing other ideas and certainly a bunch of heads are much better than one.
Next time, I'll show you what I did for my homebrew game and discuss how well it fared.
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Wednesday, February 16, 2011, 5:44 AM
From time to time, the boards will light up with this particular question. Should the DM fudge dice rolls during the course of the game? Rule 0 certainly allows for that possibility, as does a DM screen. There are some who will swear by fudging while others will adamantly declare that they always roll in the open. So, should the DM fudge dice rolls, or should the DM simply let the dice fall as they may? Not surprisingly, my answer to the question is "Yes".
In my view, every game and every gaming group is different. More to the point, even within the same game and/or group, every encounter is different. My goal here is not to provide you with the definitive answer to the question, but rather, to lay out the pros and cons of fudging the dice from time to time. I think its important for DMs to understand these pros and cons before deciding whether to fudge or not. I'm sure I will miss some arguments on both sides of the debate, but I will try to lay out the major arguments for you.
Arguments in Favor of Fudging
PC death is disruptive to the flow of the game. This, in my experience, is one of the more common arguments in favor of fudging die rolls. The theory here is that generally speaking, the DM in question will from time to time fudge a die roll so as to avoid a PC death or worse, a tpk. Its certainly true that a PC death, and especially a tpk, can be really disruptive to the flow of the narrative. This is even more true if your campaign is the equivalent of an adventure path with each adventure building off of the previous one. If the party is in the middle of a dungeon when a PC dies, they either need to back out of said dungeon to get the new PC, or the DM has to finagle some means of placing a new PC into the dungeon. The first absolutely breaks up the flow (though not necessarily disastrously so) while the second can result in a loss of realism ("Oh, wow, an 8th level wizard fully equipped just happened to be wandering around by himself in this dungeon.") In the case of a tpk, the disruption becomes even more pronounced as now you, as the DM, have to find a way to get an entirely new party involved in the plot that may have been unfolding for over year in real world time. You also may have the awkwardness of trying to dump all of the campaign information onto the new PCs (since only their players know the info, not the characters), etc. In sum, there are plenty of DMs who would rather just fudge a die roll here and there to turn a crit into a regular hit, or a hit into a miss and thus, let the party live to fight another day.
But they killed my recurring villain before he could make his escape! This is another oft cited argument for fudging the results (though in this case, its likely fudging the health of the monster as opposed to fudging a die roll). Most DMs love to have a good recurring villain but if you are not careful, you run the risk of a few lucky die rolls by the PCs turning your villain into jelly. The argument then follows that if the players get lucky, before your villain has positioned himself to make his escape, then you should simply fudge the numbers a bit to allow him to make that escape.
Sometimes the DM makes a mistake. This argument crops up when the DM inadvertantly makes an encounter that is far more difficult than he realized. Perhaps she mistallied the XP in the budget. Perhaps he didn't realize how much the insubstantial + weakening effect of 5 wraiths would have on the encounter. Or maybe he or she simply didn't foresee how much impact a certain ability would have on the encounter or that the party would not notice the seemingly obvious solution to the problem. Whatever the cause, sometimes DMs make mistakes. Sometimes what we throw at the party is simply more than they can handle and we don't realize it until too late. The argument in this situation is that since the likely PC deaths are really the fault of a mistake by the DM, its unfair to punish the players by killing their characters, so the DM can and/or should fudge a few rolls here and there to allow the party to escape.
The Flip Side
While those are the main arguments I've seen in support of fudging, each has its own counterpoint.
PC death is not always a bad thing. Sure, it sucks when your character dies. I'm not disputing that, nor should anyone else. The thing of it is though, the risk of failure is what makes the game fun and exciting. If the outcome is predetermined (as suggested by those who would fudge), then what's the point? If the DM is going to bail the party out if the doo doo hits the fan, then why bother with tactics? Who cares if it seems like a bad idea, there's no risk of dying. More to the point, if PCs never die, then there's nothing special about those PCs that live to be really high level, after all, it was a foregone conclusion. The fact that the PCs were on the brink of annihilation makes their victory that much sweeter. In other words, if the PCs can't die, or at the very least, can't die unless they do something really stupid, then they might as well just be listening to the DM tell a story. Sure, they are be given choices in terms of what powers to use, and which hook to follow, but do those choices really have any meaning?
Not every combat needs to be exciting. Sure, we all want our boss fights to be exciting, but not every fight needs to be a nail biter. In fact, one of the more common complaints you see on the boards from DMs is that the players are trying to have a "5 minute workday". That is, they want to take an extended rest after every encounter. In my experience, this is usually the result of a DM preparing fights that are simply too challenging to allow the party to only take short rests. A standard level encounter should not really drain all that many resources from the party. This also means that occasionally, the party will steamroll through an encounter. The problem of course comes up with boss fights, which in general, should be exciting. If; however, the dice desert the DM in the boss fight, you run the risk of the fight turning into a laugher. In my experience though, this can largely be avoided by implementing the theory of "more monsters, not higher level monsters". If you want a level 13 encounter for your level 9 party, you could simply throw 5 standard level 13 monsters at the party. Of course if you do, you are running the risk of creating a real grind of a combat -- particularly if the monsters roll poorly. If; on the other hand, you throw a bunch of level 9 and 10 monsters at the party, you are creating a dynamic battlefield, while also giving yourself a lot more rolls of the dice per round, meaning that it will be that much easier to avoid the cold dice syndrome.
Prepare your villain better. As I mentioned in my earlier post about recurring villains, one of the keys to keeping them alive is to give them an out. You also need to make this out easily accessible so that they can take it early if need be. There will of course always be the potential that your BBEG will go last in initiative, and the party will all spend an action point in the first round and hit him with 2 dailies. Frankly, there's not a lot you can do if your villain is hit with 10 dailies before he can act. Even if you fudge his HPs, odds are the players will get suspiscious. The better plan is to prepare the adventure so that its likely the party will have used up some of their dailies before getting to the villain. Maybe there's a tough encounter right before it too, maybe there are three more or less standard encounters before it. Either way, odds are in those situations, the party won't be able to throw 10 dailies out before the BBEG gets to act.
You can always call in the cavalry. This is to counter act the situation wherein you, as the DM, make the encounter harder than intended. The theory here is that you can always bring reinforcements to the party to help bail them out. Personally, I think this really is more or less the same as fudging die rolls, but depending on the situation, it may seem more natural. Certainly, if you are fighting in the middle of a major city, its not unreasonable for the city guard to show up.
I want to close with my own personal experiences. When I first started DM'ing, I was much more inclined to try to bail the party out with a few fudged rolls here and there. The problem was, whether they knew I was fudging or not, it seemed as though the players didn't really fear death. Part of it could have been that we were all pretty new to the game, but it still seemed as though they were kind of assuming that they would simply survive. It seemed at times, that much of that tension was gone. When a character did finally drop though, the players seemed to be much more careful afterward.
That being said, I am still a bit personally concerned about making an encounter too difficult. In my view, if I have clearly made the encounter too difficult, and the PCs are at risk of getting wiped out through no real fault of the players, I would be more inclined to fudge a roll here or there, or to call in the cavalry if that's a viable option. The key here though is to remember that retreat, if available, is always an option. Players hate to retreat from a combat, but I still believe that part of that hate comes from the belief that the DM will only throw "manageable" encounters at the party. More to the point though, depending on what monsters you are using, they don't necessarily have to kill the PCs. Some monsters might be perfectly content to capture the PCs and sell them as slaves, pump them for intel, or just save them for a later meal.
The one thing that I will say though, is that if you are going to fudge rolls (which depending on your group and your situation may well be a good decision), you should do everything in your power to make sure that the players do not know you are fudging. If they realize that you are in fact fudging rolls, it will almost certainly affect their decisions in the future. After all, if the DM is going to bail us out, why not attack the dragon who is offering to let us pass peacefully?
I've gone on long enough, so that's all for today. Next time I hope to talk about transitioning from Heroic tier to Paragon tier.
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