Archive for August, 2012

A short little post while I chew on bigger problems.
Unofficial Games has a post up about using a stealth system to help determine the occurrence of Wandering Monster events.  It’s a neat idea and something that I already do in a loose way: ie, if the PCs do something noisy I have the world around them react, and in certain environments that reaction can be guards showing up to see what’s going on.  Zzarchov seems to imply that there’s a more-formal system he’s using that tracks “suspicion” points, and he doesn’t go into details of how the system works (except generally that noisy things generate suspicion and at some point that suspicion becomes an encounter).  It’s not clear if there’s a threshold, or if it works like old Mage: The Ascension Paradox in that the GM can choose to slowly “burn off” suspicion in smaller encounters or let it build up into something Big and Bad.

I think it would be interesting (and it’s again something I implement informally) to use a similar system to track whether the PCs become aware of wandering monsters, whether it’s a sneaking goblin raiding party or a lumbering ogre looking for a meal.  Not sure exactly how you could translate that to this “suspicion points” system — either you’re telling players “he’s gained enough points, you’re suspicious that there’s something just a couple passages away,” or you’re dropping hints each time the creature gains points and waiting for the players to decide they’re suspicious enough to check it out (“an innocuous sound?  The GM said it, it must be important!”).

Dungeons & Dragons Documentary

Posted: 23 August 2012 in The Hobby
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As a general rule I don’t intend to plug various Kickstarter (or IndieGoGo, or whatever) projects on my blog; that’s not what the Toolbox is about.  But I wanted to mention this one because, whether you love it or hate it, I feel like D&D is a piece of our cultural heritage as Role-Players.  If you can support the project, I encourage you to do so.

(Except When It Does)

So a little bit ago I listed a few topics I was planning on addressing when life gave me a break.  Instead of giving me a break I got a nasty head cold which has killed my productivity.  I’ve taken that as a sign from The Universe that “this ain’t going to get easy anytime soon,” so I’ll just have to press on.

At the end of that list (which wasn’t written in any particular order) was a statement about how more and more I’m of the opinion that, in role-playing, the system doesn’t matter.  I waffled on that a little bit — after all, if system doesn’t matter then why do we have D&D and GURPS and Savage Worlds and World of Darkness and RIFTS and ad nausiem — but I think I’ve come back around and decided that System Doesn’t Matter (Except When It Does).  Let me see if I can explain myself in a meaningful way. (more…)

D&D Next Packet v0.2

Posted: 21 August 2012 in The Hobby
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So while I was away the world changed, and we suddenly have a new D&D Next Playtest Packet.  I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, but lots of other people have: once I’ve worked my way through it I’ll add my thoughts to the conversation and probably try to run another playtest (I’m particularly interested to see if my players take to the character creation system or not).  Apparently, this process is expected to continue for 2 years.

In the mean time, there’s a summary of changes included in the packet and I thought I’d share my initial impressions on that.

Changes

Hit Points: everyone, both players and monsters, have lower hit points.  I’d have to look at what exactly this means, but I think it may be a good thing.  (Though, I’d have to finish my investigation of What Hit Points Mean before I can really say.)

Surprise: rather than changing your initiative (-20 to your roll), Surprise now just prevents you from acting at the beginning of combat (essentially just like always).  This is probably a net-positive, but I really liked the penalty-to-roll mechanic.

Opportunity Attacks: exist again, but only trigger if you leave a character’s reach.  I think this gives characters more maneuverability around Giants than around Orcs, but I’d have to check. They also added a disengage action, so you can run away without provoking an attack.

Ranged Attack in Melee: rule only applies to ranged weapons, not spells.  I’d have to refresh myself on what the rule was to be sure of what this means, but again I think it’s probably good.

Short Rest: can be taken even if you have fewer than 1 HP left.  Not sure if that really changes the dynamic or not; apparently it lets a henchman use a healing kit on you, which seems reasonable.

Long Rest Variants: They say they haven’t changed the rule, but they’ve added variants to try out.  I’m tentatively intrigued.

Conditions: Some conditions were altered; I don’t remember having a problem with any conditions before.

Armor and Weapons: the tables have apparently been heavily revised, which is good because they needed it.  Medium Armor no longer penalizes Move Silently.  Don’t know what I think of that one.

Monsters: New stat block format, new abilities, and an XP-based encounter-building system.

Spells: Changed spell disruption rules (now not just Wizard-specific), clarified what you need to cast (your voice and a free hand), and added and revised spells.

Classes: Changed Cleric’s Turn undead and Channel Divinity.  Added combat superiority and fighting style for Fighters.  Changed Rogue’s Sneak Attack and Skill Mastery.  Too vague to really comment on at this level.

Misc: added a skill list (yay), associated skills with attributes (boo), changed the word “Theme” to “Specialty” (huh), and changed some feats.

Oh, by the way…

Did I mention that none of this matters any more?  OK, that might be a little bit of an exageration (for some of you), but WotC also announced that they’ll be releasing their “whole back catalog” of D&D products in electronic format.  I’m not sure what that means, either in terms of what exactly will be available and in exactly what form, but if it means I can hand them a reasonable amount of money and get all those 2nd Ed. treasures I apparently missed out on, color me excited.

On Cheating

Posted: 20 August 2012 in The Hobby
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There are a few people around who have recently made posts about cheating in RPGs — so I’m going to reference a post from three years ago on the same subject.  I think the old post addresses the topic better, and the same ideas can be applied to the newer posts.

Anyways, the post attempts to break down who cheats, how they cheat, and why they cheat.  To save you from reading a years-dead post and comment thread, here’s the gist of it:

  • GMs cheat because it saves players from failure, or makes things more cinematic, or lets the story continue as it ought. This is both right and just, and GMs should feel free to do just so. Players can’t do anything about it and just have to trust that the GM is making the game better.
  • Players sometimes ‘cheat’ because they make honest mistakes, or they’re bad at math.  These are harmless and probably don’t mean much in the long run.
  • Bad players sometimes intentionally cheat, lying about die rolls, re-using expended powers, and intentionally applying bad math. If caught, they probably won’t do it again.
  • Very bad players go so far as to doctor their dice or have variant ‘builds’ of their character available so they can address niche situations better. These guys cheat maliciously and will probably keep cheating until there’s an uncomfortable confrontation.
  • The best solution to cheating is to not directly punish the offender, but passively punish them by rewarding everyone else.

I have a number of problems with this post.

GMs Cheat and That’s OK

I’m going to go ahead and say that it is in fact not OK for the GM to cheat.

Think of it this way: you’re at a football game, and the visitor team is up by 6 points.  The home team gets the ball and carries it down the field, eventually getting a touchdown.  The refs throw a flag and call the ball dead at the 2 yard line, not because the ball was dead, but because it makes for a more exciting game if that happened.  Then the team plays again and gets a touchdown; they go for the kick but it hits the upright and bounces away.  Now the refs call it and say that hitting the upright was ‘good enough’ for the extra point and the home team wins by 1 point.  What an exciting victory!

Except that it’s not; it’s not exciting and it’s not a victory, because it didn’t really happen.  Sure it’s a cool story, but it’s just a story that the refs are telling and it has nothing to do with the team’s actual effort or performance.  And it’s not really a victory because the team didn’t really overcome any obstacles (the refs just declared that they’d done so) and it had nothing to do with their play anyways: the refs knew what they wanted the outcome to be and orchestrated things so that’s how it happened.  In a way, the teams were irrelevant.

This is what it’s like when a DM cheats.  He can do it easier than any other player in the game because his role is to portray the entire world, and he can justify it by saying “this makes a better story” or “this makes it more fun.”  But the cheating player can make the same justifications for why his cheats are OK, too, and now we’re back in 3rd grade yelling “bang, I shot you!” and “no, you missed!”  Lawlessness and chaos.

A GM, like a referee, should be impartial to either the success of or methods used by the payers to engage the situations he’s presented them with.  If he’s not, if he’s always there to pull their fat from the proverbial fire, eventually they’re going to recognize that what they actually do is irrelevant — the story will progress essentially the way the GM decides it will.  And depending on how egregious the GM is about cheating in the name of “fun,” the player’s whole character might well be irrelevant — he’ll catch the ledge or not, hit the target or not, persuade the duke or not based on what the GM has decided, and nothing more. In large doses this is absurd, but it’s frustrating even in small doses.

Players Cheat and Should Be Punished In-Game

Sometimes players cheat.  I would hope that it’s always accidental but sometimes it’s not and we need to know how to deal with that.  Here’s my solution: don’t play with cheaters.

You don’t always know up-front that they’re a cheater and you should probably give them the benefit of the doubt — take them aside after the game and confront them directly about their cheating and how it’s unacceptable.  If that fixes things, great; it never needs to be brought up again.  If it doesn’t fix things, politely ask them to leave; and by “politely ask them to leave” I mean “tell them in clear terms that they are no longer welcome to play in your game.”  Done.

What you shouldn’t do is punish them in-game for cheating.  That’s passive-aggressive and kind of a dick move, especially if you haven’t explained to them what you’re doing and why.  It might ‘fix’ the problem, but it’s childish and demonstrates that you aren’t an unbiased GM.  If you punish cheaters in-game, now they’re going to wonder if you punish them in-game for other out-of-game reasons, like favoring the wrong sports team, having excessive body odor, or eating the last piece of pizza.  Even if none of that’s true you’ve eroded their trust in you, and that’s not going to be good for the game in the long run.

Why Are We Cheating Anyways?

I have no idea why cheating is even a factor.  If you’re sitting around a table with your friends pretending to be dwarves and wizards, what exactly are you gaining by cheating?

Sarah Darkmagic has an interesting post up about why random rolling for gender is a good thing for the hobby.  She makes some interesting points which (I hope I don’t butcher this) basically boil down to: most gamers are men, most gamers aren’t into gender-bending, random-rolling for gender would produce more female characters and force us, as a community, to consider female-oriented stories as much as male-oriented stories.

She’s commenting on a tweet from @PelgranePress that said “RPG idea: define your character. Last thing – roll for character’s gender.”  For my part, I think Pelgrade’s idea is kind of great, but Sarah’s strikes me as more than a little abrasive.  Let me explain:

Pelgrade’s idea is essentially to build an entire character and then determine randomly whether your character is male or female.  I think that this is a pretty great idea because I regularly hear gamers saying, “I don’t know how to play a female character” (or, less commonly, the opposite).  And my thought is that, for the most part, if you’re trying to think of “what would a girl do in this situation” rather than “what would a person do in this situation,” you’re already coming at it from the wrong angle.  Yes, there are practical considerations to take in terms of the upbringing and personality that men and women might have in the setting of your game.  And it’s probably that women are going to feel threatened in situations where a man might not, and so on.  But in general, I think that once the personality and upbringing of your character is determined, whether they’re male of female has a rather small impact in playing them.  Pelgrade’s idea, from my perspective, ensures that you build your character as a full person rather than focusing on one (obvious) piece of the whole.

Sarah’s point though strikes me as abrasive for (I imagine) the exact reason that she thinks it’s a good idea: it would force people to play as women.  This bothers me for the same reason I don’t want a random roll to determine my character’s race, class, or attributes: maybe I don’t want to play a dunce wizard.  Maybe I don’t want to play a brawny dwarf.  And maybe I don’t want to play as a woman.  Not because there’s anything wrong with any of those, and it doesn’t mean I’ll never play one, but simply because I want to choose the I want to portray.  I don’t want to pick a role out of a hat.  One of Sarah’s basic premises is that most gamers are men and most aren’t comfortable with gender-bending — so the solution is to force them to gender-bend?  That sounds like a wonderful way to turn off a large segment of the community.

I have no problem with women gamers, and I have no problem with female characters.  I regularly gender-bend, and some of my favorite characters etc., etc.  But it’s because I chose to play a female character because there was something compelling that I latched on to.  It may be one thing to encourage game designers and module authors to consider female-oriented stories when they put pen to paper, but forcing players into roles they don’t want or aren’t comfortable with sounds like a bad idea.  Sarah’s comments are a great thing for The Industry to take note of and improve the overall availability of and support for female-oriented play, but it shouldn’t be forced on any given gaming group.

I’ve got a few different irons in the fire right now, maybe a half-dozen half-started posts.  Real Life — the stuff I do between thinking about and playing RPGs — has been more intense than usual lately, and that’s put a real drain on my energy.  So we end up with half-posts like this.

Some things I’ve been thinking about:

  • Initiative, and the flow of combat in general, is kind of wonky in most games.  I want a system that rewards a character for a high Initiative bonus as well as rewarding characters for a high Initiative score.  Some games do one or the other, but I’m not sure anyone does both. (Dr. Gentleman has a series of posts about combat that may cover some similar ground, or not; I haven’t read them yet.)
  • I want to get back to thinking about Hit Points in D&D 3.X; my first post was really just a preliminary introduction, and I haven’t gotten around to the real meat of hit points.
  • I don’t like the way Magic is split in D&D, or the way Class Spell Lists are broken up; but I haven’t thought hard enough about it yet to be sure that changing it won’t make ever caster just a Wizard with a funny(er) hat.
  • I’m intrigued by what I’m hearing about running RPGs through Google+ — my first gaming group (my brothers) is spread out over several states now, and the potential for running a game with them again is very attractive.  I may finally get a chance to play RIFTS.
  • More and more (and more) I get the feeling that system doesn’t matter, because the core of role-playing is making choices, and mechanics are just ways to arbitrate consequences.  A system is necessary, but does it really matter what system?  It seems lots of people answer that with an emphatic “yes!” and I need to do more research on that. Minutes after writing this I already feel the lie in it; I have to confess that system does matter, but I haven’t unpacked that concept enough to say how, when, or why it matters — that’s what I want to do research to understand.

Once life lets up on me a bit, I plan to address some or all of those thoughts.

Divine Magic

Posted: 6 August 2012 in House Rules
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Although he takes it in a different direction than I would, Seth over at Kobold Enterprises touched on an idea I’ve been mulling over a little bit when he posted about recasting Divine Domains as “schools” of magic, the way arcanists have transmutation or divination.  He wants to set up pre-made spell lists and boils the domains down to a core of 8, which isn’t really the sort of thing I’m interested in.

Rather, what struck me about divine magic was this: Clerics (and Paldins, etc.) are tied to a given god (or allegedly a pantheon or idea, though I’ve never seen a good explanation on how that should be implemented).  They must be within one step of their diety’s alignment (a LG god can have LG, LN, and NG clerics, etc).  Depending on alignment (on the Good/Evil axis), they can Channel either positive or negative energy, and spontaneously cast either Cure or Inflict spells.  What this means is that a Priest of Zeus, a Priest of Hades, a Priest of Poseidon, and a Priest of Kronos all look exactly alike, with the possibility of a small variation based on good/evil.  It doesn’t matter that Zeus commands weather, Hades death, Poseidon the seas, and Kronos time — each cleric has access to the same spells (Bless, Compel Hostility, Cause Fear, Detect Undead, Enthrall, Raise Dead, etc).

I would like to recast (or maybe ‘fracture’) the Cleric Spell List so that Clerics only gain access to spells that are relevant to their deity’s domains.  Divine Spells are already marked with arcanist-style schools, and that might be a good place to start, but gods deal in domains, not schools, and a God of Love and a God of Deceit may both have Enchantment spells but probably shouldn’t have the same spells.

I think there may be some common core, spells that are iconic for the class (Cleric vs Paladin vs etc.) but I’m not entirely sure of that (it’s easier to concieve of spells that match all paladins than ones that match all clerics, I think).

Each month the folks from the RPG Blogger Network organize an RPG Blogger Carnival, where a bunch of bloggers all tackle the same question or topic.  This month Game Knight Review is hosting, and the question is “what’s in your backpack?”  The Gassy Gnoll kept the question pretty open — your real world backpack, you’re in-game backpack, whatever — so since this blog is supposed to be about GM tools and game structures I thought I might whip something up about what’s in my “backpack” for running a campaign.

I strongly feel like the most important piece of gear is a hex-map; this may be less true if you’re running a game that takes place entirely inside a megadungeon, or if overland travel is specifically unimportant and hand-waved (as might be the case in any reasonably-civilized setting), but hex maps seem to have been a key component of the game originally and it’s the biggest “missing piece” in modern games if you ask me.  Lots of people have lots of ideas about what makes a good hex map, but I’m going to go ahead and say that it should consist of 6-mile hexes (this makes some of the math a bit easier) and have a moderate-to-high amount of keyed locations (something between 80% and 100% coverage).  These keyed locations can be used to mark settlements, monster lairs, dungeons, etc and can be used to inform “random encounters.” (The Alexandrian has a long-running series discussing his complete hex-crawl system.)

The second bit of gear should be a random encounter mechanism, and you should have one whether the party is in a dungeon, in the wilderness, or even in a city (though that last might be a bit of a stretch). Random encounters give your world a sense of being “alive” and functioning even when the PCs aren’t around.  There are lots of ways to do this; I haven’t had time to use them to great extent, but my favorites are probably the one-page encounters method or more standard, region-based tables.  I think it’s important to note that these don’t all have to be combat encounters (I’d argue they shouldn’t all be combat) but one of the tings that random encounters ward against is the 15-minute work day (because going nova on an early encounter leaves you vulnerable to a random encounter later, and being vulnerable could mean death).

The last piece that I think is essential (and Gygax agrees with me, apparently) is a solid notion of time. Modern games still keep time during combat, and in general people keep track of days (at least in vague terms of night and day), but without the right granularity of time it becomes difficult to keep track of what might be going on “off-screen” and how long it takes your players to accomplish certain tasks — it’s possible that you can get by without a solid notion of time, just as characters can probably get by without flint and tinder, but I think you’re making it harder on yourself.  For me, I use the following:

1 Combat Round = 6 Seconds
10 Combat Rounds = 1 minute
1 simple non-combat action = 1 minute
10 minutes = 1 turn
6 turns = 1 hour
4 hours = 1 watch
6 watches = 1 day
7 days = 1 week
4 weeks = 1 month
13 months = 1 year

Most other tools I’ve found to be essential so far tend to come standard with modern games: things like a combat system, a notion of healing and damage, systems for skill-based action resolution.  A mechanism for adding or tracking weather in your world can add flavor, too; Gnome Stew has a system based on a Dragon article that’s “good enough for fantasy.” I’d recommend finding a system for NPC morale, but I haven’t gotten around to finding a good one yet. And I think there’s a lot to be said in favor of published modules, especially encapsulated ones that can be plopped into any campaign, either for filling out your hex key or presenting to your players when you’ve had a bad week for prep.

What do you think?  Anything I’m still missing from my pack?

So right off, no, I don’t hate 4th Edition; the title’s a cheap trick to grab your attention.

I do have some major problems with 4th Edition, though; that’s why I’ve effectively left it behind in favor of 3.X and Pathfinder (and if my books ever ship from Amazon, I’ll see about this 1E thing).  But when I left 4E I didn’t really have the concepts to describe why I was dissatisfied by the game, and I haven’t taken time to really consider it since my vocabulary expanded.  I’d like to try to address that now.  This is mostly just me talking through some thoughts.

I think the biggest turn-off for me is the notion that 4E has a very “game first” mentality.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a rules system to be, but it’s the difference between “I want to cast a fireball” and “I want to do d8 damage over 9 spaces.”  4E seems to focus almost exclusively on tactical combat which I feel makes it come across more as a tactical miniatures game than a Role Playing Game — you can role play around a minis game, but you can also role play around a game of chess; that doesn’t make it a Role Playing Game.

My biggest complaint, I think, is that the Powers system feels flatly detrimental to my notion of role playing.  The limitations and choices that I’m presented as a player in 4E often times don’t make sense as limitations or choices for my character, and that makes it difficult to  get into my character’s head.  The Essentials line came out after I left, but I do get the impression that they’d be less offensive to me (they seem to generally ignore the Power system and function more like 3.X characters); it would probably be worth my time to look in to them.

My second biggest complaint is about Healing, or more to the point the fact that there’s little sense of lasting repercussions from battle.  This makes sense if the game is meant to be just a string of combat encounters (if you can no longer fight, the game’s over), but I don’t want my game to be (essentially) all about combat, and the lack of consequences offends my goals for role playing (make choices, experience consequences).  I’m OK with the “HP = Morale” notion that 4E seems to run with, I just want something more than “you’re out a couple Healing Surges for the day” if the players get in a fight they can’t handle.  I think part of this come from my desire to not have combat be the “first and best” option in every situation; maybe 4E works better if I try playing a more combat-toned game; I don’t know, and I’m not sure how much I care to fit my desires to the needs of the game (rather than fitting the game to my desires).

My final complaint is on how poorly executed skills in 4E seem to be.  The whole Skill Challenge mechanic seems like a good idea at first, but the way it’s described and the guidelines given for building a Skill Challenge feel railroad-y and forced.  The rules seem to imply that the Barbarian has to participate in political negotiations (if it’s a Skill Challenge) even though he has no interest or ability in that sort of thing.  And I’m supposed to design challenges so that there are X primary skills and Y secondary skills, and it’s all mechanics-first and the actions of the characters aren’t important so much as which attribute is being rolled.  Add in the terrible math that 4E shipped with and the repeated revisions after the fact, and I lose all confidence in the mechanic. (I also feel like they collapsed too many skills together, the one’s they’re left with are too broad, and not enough ‘regular activity’ is covered in the skill system, but those are relatively minor points, all things considered).

My wife likes 4E, though (now we all understand my true motivation here); she thought it was a lot more approachable than the other games I have on my shelf, and to be fair it is.  My wife grew up on Monopoly and Sorry!, and didn’t experience anything like the games I play before we met.  4E is a lot more like a board game.  I don’t think that’s a shining recommendation for it, but if my wife wants to play 4E, it’s in my interest (as a wise husband) to find a way that I can play 4E with her. I started thinking about a fix for the Powers system a while back, but after I started looking at it in more detail it occurred to me that there’s the potential for abuse because the game doesn’t expect powers to be interchangeable.  I haven’t really thought about it much since then, so I’m really still in the same spot.

There’s a post up at the Transitive Property of Gaming blog about how the author had a really great idea for a homebrew zombie apocalypse game, and how it didn’t go at all how he planned.  I want to reiterate how awesome this homebrew idea sounds: he has a whole apartment complex and neighborhood that he was personally familiar with, he made up maps of the floor plans, rules for improvised barricades, a flowchart for zombie behaviors, a timeline for how bad the infestation is from one block to the next, systems to encourage foraging outside the fortress — some really cool ideas.

The problem is that from session one the players decided that staying put was a bad idea, and so made it their goal to escape the city.  They knew, as we all do, that most “successful” zombie movies are the ones where the characters escape the populated areas, and movies where characters whole up end with the social unit collapsing and people turning on each other.  But that situation, the one where the characters have to deal with the break down of social bonds, is obviously the game the author wanted to play.  Instead, he had to toss out a bunch of his prep and resorted to believable roadblocks like a military quarantine and making the easiest path be the one that lead back to the fortress — but the players just interpreted this as the requisite obstacles that needed to be overcome.  They thought *that* was the game, rather than the GM’s attempt to get them back to the game.

I wasn’t at this particular game, so I can’t say how well things were communicated or not, but I can say that I’ve seen this happen over and over and over again, in games I’ve played in and games I’ve run.  There seems to be this unspoken rule that GMs aren’t allowed to tell their players what kind of game they (the GM) want to play, which is kind of silly when you consider the amount of effort those same GMs end up putting in to guide/railroad the players back to where they “should” be, back to The Plot.  Back to the Game.

It should be a pretty simple fix: just tell your players before you start before Character creation or anything) what kind of game you want to play.  The GM is as much a player as anyone else at the table, and you deserve to have your fun as much as the next guy.  For most of us, this is a hobby and we shouldn’t treat it like a job.  You aren’t their to entertain an audience, you’re there to play a game with your friends.

“I want to play a game where your characters barricade their apartment building against the zombie hordes and have to deal with each other in the resulting stressful environment.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are professional adventurers who delve into ruins and make a living selling ancient treasures they find.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are small-town folk who are thrust into adventuring when your town is destroyed.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are non-combatants who travel cross-country to reclaim their fallen kingdom from an ancient dragon.”

I’d say that adding “and if you fail you will likely die” to any of those is probably healthy, too, but your mileage may vary.

My only observation is that as GMs we feel like we need to cajole our players into the game, that what they want is more important than what we want, because without players there is no game.  Or because we want to play a game with *those* friends, specifically.  Or some other situation where compromising our fun seems to be the best or only way.  Maybe this post says more about my experiences than any wider phenomenon in the hobby, I don’t know. And while I don’t think the GM should give away all his secrets and twists, I think we’d all be better off if we stopped playing “guess the plot.”