Tuesday, January 12, 2010, 11:11 AM
While I realize that the planes have a long tradition in both fantasy and D&D, I don't particularly like them. The idea of going to another world is interesting and all, but why bother setting all that interesting stuff somewhere else? Why not just cram it all into the world?
For instance, the Abyss is a scary place. It's filled with demons and extends far below the normal planar realms to who knows where. The thing is, though, by placing it into this planar structure you rob it of some of its value. Clear out part of your setting, punch a huge hole in your world, and voila, there's the Abyss.
That may seem like a bad idea. After all, what stops the demons from overrunning the world? When you think about it, though, you face all the same questions if you anchor the Abyss in the planes. The frame of reference shifts, sure, but the basic concept is the same.
Instead, the Abyss is a yawning pit one hundred miles wide. It drops deep into the earth, far deeper than anyone has delved. It cuts into the Underdark, and demons emerge both there and at the surface to kill and maraud. A number of ancient fortresses watch over it, but few of those are still manned by the orders of paladins that built them. Today, many are now occupied by renegade wizards, necromancers, and demonologists.
As one travels down the narrow ledges that circle the Abyss's outer rim, one can see great spires of black rock that rise through the Abyss's central void. Here, demon lords battle for territory along narrow, stone bridges and within the chambers and caverns that honeycomb the spires. Here and there, gates along the Abyss's wall lead to massive caverns warped and changed by the Abyss's influence. These layers are shaped by the demon lords that claim them and range from howling, frozen wastes to verdant jungles. Miniature suns hang in their skies, creating proto-worlds within the stone of the earth.
Luckily, the mightiest demons need the aid of mortal spellcasters to leave the Abyss for any period of time. It is a place infused with great magic, and without it they would die like a fish removed from the water. Still, legends tell of a time when a great, red comet will split the sky and herald the rise of demonkind. According to the legends, this comet is the Queen of Chaos, the mother of all demons banished in eons past by the gods to the outer realms of the sky. When she returns, she will lead her children on an endless war of conquest across the world.
The lands near the Abyss's rim are demon-haunted and mostly abandoned. Cultists, wanderers, and madmen make their homes there, as do many gnoll packs that can reach the size of armies. The gnolls will forever remain a thorn in the side of the realm, as even the most ardent paladin would think twice before leading an army into the Abyssal lands to slay them.
The Underdark is so dangerous because, by whatever strange laws govern the Abyss's power, the mightiest demons can enter it through the Abyss's lowest precincts. This makes travel there perilous at best, and it also provides the drow with easy access to demonic aid.
Placing the Abyss in the world opens up a lot of potential for adventure. What if the Abyss's influence starts to grow? What secrets are in the fortresses that once watched over it? Low level characters can venture into the twisted lands around it and maybe even its uppermost layers, while a journey into the Underdark can turn into an excursion to the Abyss with one wrong turn.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009, 3:19 PM
I've managed to open four death giant miniatures. Since the PCs in my campaign aren't high enough level to deal with such a creature quite yet, I went ahead and whipped up a simple ghoul to fit the miniature.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009, 10:03 AM
Here's a little bit of D&D trivia that just popped into my mind, so I thought I'd share it.
The concept of combat advantage came up somewhat early in the 4e design process. The idea was to collapse a ton of fiddly modifiers in the core game into one mechanic. That mechanic would also serve as a flag for things like sneak attack. I don't think that's a huge leap that requires a story. The story lies in the term combat advantage.
The term combat advantage derives from Magic: the Gathering. Back around 2002 or so, I played tons of Magic with my friends Jared and Dave. We'd stay up until 2 AM at Jared's place playing the game.
As tends to happen when gamers congregate at 2 AM, we had a lot of random, weird inside jokes. One of them involved card advantage, an important concept in Magic. Whenever anyone did something to gain it, I'd say, in a the sort of voice that a robotic version of Zeus would use, "CARD ADVANTAGE!"
(My other charming habit was using creature kill or counter spells as sort of fly swatters. I couldn't just play the card. I had to smack the card I was taking out with it. Maybe there's a reason we eventually stopped playing Magic so much...)
Later, that goofy bit of idiocy evolved into a much more elaborate set-up that never moved beyond the 2 AM planning stages. We envisioned a game table with a giant, red button. When one achieved card advantage, one hit the button to activate an alarm klaxon and flashing lights throughout Jared's house. An air raid siren atop the house would sound, and a fireworks show would commence to let everyone in southern New Hampshire know that, yes, indeed, someone in Jared's gaming room had achieved card advantage.
Anyway, that term had stuck in my head for years. Combat advantage was an obvious next step from that.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009, 4:56 PM
This illustration, taken from the first interior page of the 1981 D&D Basic Set, is the quintessential D&D image to me.
It has everything you expect from D&D. There's a dwarf, an elf, a wizard, and an archer. They are likely in a dungeon, fighting a dragon.
The fighter is preventing a blast of dragon fire from roasting her companions. The wizard has put two warriors between him and danger, while the archer (maybe a ranger in elven chain?) fires from behind the safety of the fighter's shield.
OK, so the dwarf could be doing something more useful. I like to think that he's a cleric who stepped out of the dragon's way while casting a touch spell on the wyrm. Or, if you don't like dwarves, you can pretend he's clinging to the dragon, begging forgiveness.
Do you have a quintessentially D&D image of your own?
Wednesday, November 4, 2009, 4:27 PM
I had a very fun moment in my Temple of Elemental Evil campaign on Tuesday.
The characters are 8th level and exploring the temple itself. They managed to infiltrate the earth temple by posing as mercenaries for hire and, perhaps unwisely, launched an attack while surrounded by bad guys. They managed to slay the priest, but they had an ogre, many gnolls, and a troll to contend with.
In fact, while the heroes held their own for a few rounds, soon they were on the brink of defeat. A few lucky spear attacks from a pair of gnolls left the warden unconscious. Meanwhile, the nasty troll had retreated, healed all of its wounds, and returned to dish out some more punishment.
The party was on the verge of a TPK. Things were grim.
Now, at this point every DM has felt the urge to fudge a die roll. The campaign has been a lot of fun, the PCs have good personalities and back stories, and it's the kind of game that has taken on a life of its own. It's been satisfying. Why let that end because of a few die rolls?
IMO, there's a very good reason to respect the dice: What does victory mean if I, as DM, just handed it to the players? Many of the most exciting parts of D&D come down to pulling off a victory against long odds, or a series of die rolls that turn certain doom into success.
It's a tough call, but it's one I didn't have to worry about in this campaign. Through a combination of dumb luck and maybe clever thinking, I did something that I think worked out well for this campaign: I built in fudge insurance.
One of the characters, a cleric of Boccob named Cornelius, owns a book that's possessed by... something. It's a spirit, probably evil, maybe demonic. When he found the book, it unleashed a horde of demons, one of which dragged him to the lands of Iuz where he was tortured and imprisoned. When he was later rescued, he made sure to grab the book.
Later, the PCs found out that the book is connected to the temple. On top of that, they found a similar book in the library of a long-abandoned wizard's enclave. That copy combined with Cornelius's book, seemingly awakening an intellect within it.
Sometimes, that fell mind whispers to Cornelius. It offers him great power. In particular, whenever the PCs are in trouble it reminds him that it is there, ready to lend him aid.
So far, Cornelius has resisted. Last session, though, with the warden face down in a pool of his own blood and a freshly regenerated troll bearing down on the group, he gave in. With a gesture, he conjured a blast of flames that turned the troll into ash and bones.
The party survived the near TPK, but now Cornelius owes the book something. On top of that, the rest of the party isn't exactly happy that for a brief moment, Cornelius growled like a demon and summoned the fires of the Abyss to blast an uninjured troll to ash.
While the party avoided a TPK, they may have stumbled upon something much, much worse. In essence, I put the decision to fudge the encounter into the characters' hands, and tied their decision to a very important part of the campaign. We'll see in the future if the Cornelius and his friends are happy that they avoided certain defeat...
Thursday, September 10, 2009, 11:00 AM
Player choice is, rightfully, a big deal in a D&D campaign. IME, it's also a hard thing to add to a campaign. Choice is good, but prepping for all that choice is annoying.
Here's an essay I read this weekend that helped me with this concept:
The big thing, to me, lies in giving the players options and making this options distinct.
On Tuesday, I applied that idea to my Temple of Elemental Evil campaign. The PCs are level 8 and ready to finally enter the temple. I decided to set up three ways to enter the temple, based on a basic read on how people like to play D&D:
The Diplomatic Path: Convince the recruiter in Nulb that you're mercenaries looking to work for one of the factions in the temple.
The Sneaky Method: Use a gate you found in an earlier dungeon to teleport directly into the water temple.
The Direct Method: Walk into the dungeon and start bashing stuff!
To me, this approach really highlights why the Temple is an awesome dungeon: it's full of factions and NPCs, allowing you to run in any manner you want. You can treat it as a huge dungeon bash, or you can set up the factions and allow for lots of roleplay. I'm using the same maps and encounters, but the PCs' approach has a huge effect on how the game plays out.
I also didn't simply put the three options in front of the PCs. I allowed them to ask me questions about the dungeon, do some research, and talk to NPCs who had dealt with the temple's minions in the past. That led them to the three basic approachs. Half the fun was watching the players come up with plans.
In the end, the PCs opted for the diplomacy path. They are now set to serve the earth temple, and in our session today they receive their first assignment: Slay Kelno, high priest of evil elemental air!
Anyway, I thought it might be some handy advice. It definitely worked out well for my campaign.
Sunday, September 6, 2009, 11:43 PM
Here's a quiz I took:
You Scored as Storyteller
You're more inclined toward the role playing side of the equation and less interested in numbers or experience points. You're quick to compromise if you can help move the story forward, and get bored when the game slows down for a long planning session. You want to play out a story that moves like it's orchestrated by a skilled novelist or film director.
Saturday, September 5, 2009, 9:12 PM
Here's a little something I put together today while helping to tend to my wife after her surgery this week. (Don't worry, she's fine. It wasn't anything life threatening. She had a chronic sinus infection and needed a procedure to drain and repair them. She's slowly but surely healing.)
Here's what I put together: A new group with a wiki meant to be an excercise in communal dungeon design. Basically, you can add to the wiki to add stuff to the dungeon. I've uploaded a map and the first three encounter areas. Ironically, none of them are combat based!
Anyway, if you are so inclined, join the group, pick out a few rooms, and add some stuff! I hope this turns into something fun.
Here's the group:
Friday, September 4, 2009, 4:54 PM
It's funny. I've worked as a game designer in table top RPGs for 10 years now, but I have yet to design a serious, from scratch game system. I created a game called Hand Axe many moons ago, but that was a D&D parody so it doesn't count. I also worked on a paper thin gaming system called PERP that was cute, but not very robust.
I worked on Iron Heroes, but that was a d20 game.
I worked on 4e, but the core system design wasn't me. I worked on the monster stuff, a fair amount of DM stuff (treasure parcels, encounter building), and content (specific powers). Since then, most of my work has been powers, monsters, and classes.
However, should I ever get the chance to design a game from scratch, I think this is a rule I'd follow:
An RPG's rules should appear when needed, and remain silent when not.
This is a fancy way of expressing the following situation: You're running a game, something happens in play, and you expect a rule to cover it. So, you look it up or try to remember what it is. If there's no rule there, the game feels like it's letting you down. If there is a rule there, it should speak its mind and then shut up. Brevity is the soul of a good rule.
Swimming is a great example. It'd be weird if a PC fell into a pool of water and he could just move around as if he was walking on the ground. You expect a rule to kick in, and its absence would be jarring.
Nailing down those situations is important to build a believable, sensible simulation of the RPG game world. A game needs enough simulation to fill in all those gaps that a player expects it to fill. Otherwise, there's a disconect in the player's mind and the game feels artificial.
Of course, there's a vast range in detail. The challenge a designer faces is finding the right level of detail for his audience and for his game.
To go back to my swimming rules, in the basic concept of them I like that:
- You write down your swim speed and then use it. You're not always doing math to see how far you can swim.
- The rules try to step in and cover stuff you expect. You can't float in heavy armor without some effort.
- Otherwise, terrain just works at it always dose. The mechanics for the powerful current end up looking the same as the mechanic for a blast of wind that could carry a PC away.
They're not perfect, and I think several comments nailed areas where they could simplified and made easier, but that's my general goal.
RPGs easily have the biggest issues with it, because people are interacting with a fictional world using their real world experience. If I hold a torch to an oil-soaked tapestry, I expect it to start burning. Should an RPG therefore have rules for that? That question, and a thousand others like it, are all part of figuring out where to sit your design on the simulation spectrum.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009, 4:06 PM
Here's something else that I don't like: Athletics checks to swim. The rules are fiddly, because they're trying to push three different things into one rule:
2. Moving around underwater.
3. Moving through difficult water.
The check can be kind of fun. I ran a 3.5 adventure that took place underwater, and the uncertainty of how far the PCs could move while their sahuagin enemies zoomed around the sunken cave was fun. However, I think that's more of an exception. I like that as an option but not the standard for aquatic adventuring.
Here's my proposal:
Swimming: A character's base swim speed is half his land speed. Your swim speed is -1 if you wear light armor, -2 if you wear heavy armor. If you want to swim, you need at least one hand free. Your swim speed is always a minimum of 1.
If your character can't swim, then your swim speed is 1 and you suffer a -5 penalty on Athletics checks to maneuver in the water. We assume everyone knows how to swim, but in case your character can't that's how it works.
If you don't try to swim and are underwater, you sink 1d4 squares, +1 if you're in light armor, +2 if you're in heavy armor, at the end of your turn. You can spend a move action to move 0 squares to avoid sinking (you tread water, but remember that you need one hand free to swim, even if it's one square).
Obstacles and Terrain: Strong currents and other underwater obstacles might require an Athletics check to navigate. If you miss the check, you might sink or be carried off by the current. Otherwise, there's difficult terrain and so forth underwater to represent choppy seas or whatever else the DM cooks up.
Other Stuff: Otherwise, I'm pretty happy with the rules for aquatic combat in the DMG. The penalty for weapons other than spears and crossbows is a bit harsh, but I like that it gives you a reason to mix up your weapons. You could drop them, and the +2 attack bonus aquatic creatures get underwater, without messing up the game.