Friday, June 27, 2008

What is this Game Supposed to be About: the 4e Version

The Chatty DM has posted his review of D&D's 4th edition Players Handbook. Among other insights, he makes this observation:

I’m actually impressed that so many things can be done with this Core game. When you buy a Core set of other exception based design games, you don’t get as much stuff… (but then again, with an average 80$ entry price, it’s to be expected).

In fact, I will go against the current opinion on the subject and say that D&D 4e was probably not designed to get the Video game/MMORPG crowd to adopt Tabletop RPGs. I actually believe that Wizards of the Coast are trying to eat market shares of the very large and lucrative collectible/non-collectible card/miniatures gamer pool.

Now that's a very interesting thought. Positioning 4e as a bridge between collectible card games, collectible minis games, and RPGs gives WotC a lot of flexibility for the future of the franchise. The overlap of interests among the three sorts of hobbies is far stronger than between pen-and-paper RPGs and computer RPGs of all sorts, even MMORPGs. I'm not certain that there was anything like a conscious decision on anyone's part to do this, but that doesn't mean WotC won't leap if they find the game opening unexpected opportunities. And this is exactly the sort of strategic-level thinking one should expect from a company in WotC's dominating position.

Sean K. Reynolds Joins Paizo

Via Geek Related comes word that Paizo is continuing their conquest of the gaming universe by adding Sean K. Reynolds to their stable:

I'm very enthused. Great people at Paizo, working on great books, and it's my favorite version of D&D. :)

My history with certain Paizo people goes WAY back.
Erik Mona was one of my TSR Online volunteers way back in the AOL days.
Lisa Stevens picked me for Team Greyhawk, my first full-time designer gig.
James Jacobs and F. Wesley Schneider have been my editors and sounding boards for various Dragon, Dungeon, and Pathfinder projects.
Mike McArtor, whose vacancy I'm filling* was one of my TSRO guys, too, and when he applied at Paizo I told him to list me as a reference (hopefully it helped!). And like James and Wes, he's been great to work with.

But it's not like the industry is incestuous or anything. ;) Seriously, sounds like another great move on Paizo's part, and another reason to expect great things from them.

And after you've done reading up on Mr. Reynolds, check out this very cool Czech miniatures company he linked to.

Now You're Speakin' My Language!

Another great article over at ars ludi, this time about the possibilities to communicate through treasure:

Which leads us to the secret weapon most GMs overlook: players pay attention when you describe treasure. Treasure is (if you’ll pardon the phrase) a golden opportunity to reveal information.

There are lots of times during a game when players are half-listening, or thinking about other things, or maybe just wandering into the kitchen to get a soda. But in the magical post-combat pre-treasure window, everyone’s attention is high, their curiosity is piqued, and they are clamoring to hear what you will say next.

You want to show the players something? Put it in the form of treasure. Want to tell them about the history of the elves? Tell it through treasure. Want to tell them about the cult in the area? Tell it through treasure. Want them to give them a clue about the dangers that are three doors down? Tell it through treasure.

I can speak from personal experience, this is a great technique, and it creates really good feedback loops, where the more the players can get through treasure, the more they ask about it. It gets to the point where they simply will not accept another "silver and gemstone necklace worth 120 gp" and must know who made it, what stones are used in it, how they were cut and how they're arranged.

And this, to my mind, is all to the good.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Gauntlet Taken Up: Media Influences

The noble, but apparently also darkly sinister, James Edward Raggi IV has tossed down a gauntlet to the RPG blogging community:

So... I challenge the role-playing blogosphere (and I know you are reading... :P) to name the primary influences in your personal game, so we get a flavor not of what set of rules you decide to use, but what kind of game people can expect to play with you! Minimum five. No maximum. Plus include what people might assume influences you that you actually reject. Bonus points for detail and explanation!

I could hardly say no to that, right? So, here we are, with the strongest influences on my fantasy gaming. (I’m limiting myself to fantasy for now in order to keep this at a reasonable length. I’ll probably still fail, but at least I tried, right?)

Sir Toby Jingle’s Beastly Journey
Say what?!? This is a children’s book, written and illustrated by Wallace Tripp. An elderly knight rides out one last time to confront the enemies he has spent a lifetime confounding. The look and feel has a hint of whimsy, but stays rooted in the realistic enough that I can still totally believe that the Goblin Well is out there, somewhere, if I just look in the right forest. The book introduced me to the griffon, and because of this book, gryphons (my much cooler spellink from old) in my campaigns are sentient. The story is a duel of wits, with lots of examples of lateral thinking. I’ve loved this book since I was three or four years old, and it’s had a profound influence on what I think when I talk about “fantasy”.

Harryhausen Flicks
When I was a wee lad, one of the joys of visiting relatives in New Jersey was getting to watch channel 11 out of New York (PIX, I think). They were always showing old movies, especially of the action/adventure genre. If I was really lucky, I might catch an old Zoro movie, or a pirate flick. But my favorites were the ones with monsters and magic in them.

As I got older, my parents took my brother and me out to the drive-in movie theater twice. The first time, we saw “Jason and the Argonauts”. The second time was to see “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger”.

The thing I love about Harryhausen monsters is that they always fit into their environment. Sometimes, they’re conjured by the powers of sorcery to thwart or aid the heroes. Sometimes, they’re part of the local ecology, with their own lives and goals before those pesky heroes show up. But they’re never just sitting around in a cave, inert until someone shows up to interact with them.

Choose Your Own Adventure Books
I started reading these in first grade, and was quickly hooked. I also loved TSR’s Endless Quest books as well. Yeah, I read the Fighting Fantasy and Wizards, Warriors, and You books as well, but I didn’t like those as much. The use of dice and coin-flipping to adjudicate conflict felt like a cop-out to me. I much preferred using my wits to figure out how to overcome adversity. That said, I also loved the Sorcery! quartet, and certain aspects of mood and setting have leaked from those (especially KharĂ©: Cityport of Traps) into my campaigns.

The Old Testament
Ok, forget for a moment that it’s a religious text. It’s actually easier to do than you might think. There’s a reason Cecil B. Demille went back to that well again and again for his movies. There’s action, romance, the clashings of great armies, the rise and fall of powerful dynasties and civilizations, the more personal tales of promises not kept, of dreams chased and painful betrayal. Sure, I could mention C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, Glen Cook’s Black Company books, the Arthurian myths and ancient history, but they are all seen through the prism of the stories I grew up with in the Old Testament. Like most Episcopalians, I know the Bible better than I think I do, and it’s not unusual for me to look back at a plot element or character and think, “Oh yeah, that’s just like what happened in Judges…”

When my games dip into multi-generational plots and politics, when slavegirls use their wiles and influence to topple kingdoms, when armies set to march with all the pomp and panoply of war, when the fates of thousands are decided by the chance decisions of ordinary folk, I’m almost certainly, whether I know it or not, dipping into the Old Testament.

Norse Mythology
I wish I could remember the name or author of the book on Norse myth that I read in elementary school. I loved those stories, and when your PCs find themselves facing challenges in the hall of frost giant king, or getting dragged into a blood feud between warring clans, or when you realize that the old man you chatted with last night might have been, no, must have been a god, then you can thank the Norse and their myths. Because of these stories, the gods in my campaigns are not omnipotent, nor omniscient. They get drunk, they screw up, and they fall in love and they sometimes fail at their aims. But they’re still far more powerful than your puny, mortal PC. Which, I think, makes them a lot scarier.

Anne McCaffery
My mother love Ms. McCaffery’s Pern stories, and I was intrigued by the Whelan covers. People have derisively suggested that three-quarters of any McCaffery story is people sitting around in kitchens, chugging bottomless mugs of coffee-substitute, and talking. While my games aren’t quite that bad, if you’re not into talking your way out of problems, or hashing out deals and plans with NPCs, then there’s a good chance you’ll find my campaigns frustrating.

Ed Greenwood
Issue #74 was the first Dragon I ever read, and it rocked my world. In these days, the Forgotten Realms were only Mr. Greenwood’s personal home campaign. But the little peek we got to see from his article titled simply “Seven Swords” fascinated me. Every sword had a detailed history, rife with heroes and wars and politics and treachery. It utterly transformed the way I played the game, launching me from generic dungeon crawls where players might find a simple sword +1 to multi-generational epic campaigns where even simple coins might have a story to tell. I never bought any of the FR box sets or books, because what I really wanted were those tiny crumbs of inspiration Mr. Greenwood scattered about. They were perfect nucleation points for my imagination.

Ultima IV and V
Yep, the computer games by Richard “Lord British” Garriott. I loved the way he wove philosophy into his worldbuilding on these games. I loved the way you could approach many of the puzzles from different directions. I loved the way, especially in V, the world felt alive and real, and that things happened even when the PCs were not in the area. As much as my campaigns take place in living, breathing worlds, Mr. Garriott provided much of the inspiration.

D3 – Vault of the Drow
You cannot fight your way through this adventure. Don’t even try it. You’ll be slaughtered. And I will laugh at you. Seriously, this isn’t a dungeon to be hacked through. It’s a culture to be encountered and explored. If you must swing swords and shed blood at least once per hour, or, heck, even at least once per gaming session, my campaigns are not for you. If you enjoy authors like Martha Wells, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Ursula K. Le Guin, Jacqueline Carey, Carla Speed McNeil, Desmond Morris, Joel Rosenberg, and Neil Gaimon, if, in other words, you think you might enjoy a genre laughingly described as “anthropology porn”, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy my campaigns.

Vlad Taltos
Not so much the assassin character as the way Stephen Brust creates a world that works on D&D-like principles and makes it feel real. Your characters will almost certainly get dragged into the fights of obscenely more powerful beings, and they will be too busy defending themselves to watch out for you. Trying to live through the experience will be a bitch, but if you do, someone with a lot of clout or raw power will owe you a favor. Spend it wisely.

Camille Paglia
Especially Sexual Personae. Her descriptions of how art arises from a conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian influences a lot of how cultures and societies work in my games. It provides the groundwork for how Law and Chaos work as well, and when I use those terms, I’m thinking about Paglia even more than Moorcock. When I dip into the works of Poe, Coleridge, Tennyson, the Brownings, One Thousand and One Nights, Shakespeare, Byron, etcetera, Ms. Paglia is always on my shoulder, whispering in my ear.

Also, my games usually swerve into R-rated territory. When they do, it’s usually with a bit of Paglia’s influence. Unless I got there by way of…

Dark Crusade
My favorite work by Karl Edward Wagner. This book unabashedly wallows in the brutal horrors of a world untouched by the gentler philosophies of such cults as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, etcetera. No other story I’ve read better conveys the sensual and savage brutality of a world in which the strong unapologetically rend what they will from the weak. Where Howard’s Conan stories draw a curtain, or Moorcock’s Elric turns away in brooding boredom, and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” flees in horror, Wagner lingers. There’s a touch of Lovecraft here as well, but the horror of incomprehensible, alien gods pales beside the all too understandably human evil that saturates this book. My games can get dark, because there are evil people in my worlds, and the do horrible things. Some of that evil is so common in these worlds that most people hardly feel it worthwhile to comment on. Whether or not the PCs join in, struggle against it, or fall victim to it, I leave largely up to the players.

Goddess Mythology
I suppose being a fan of both ancient myth and Paglia, I’d run into this eventually, though it was actually by way of Joseph Campbell that I discovered Goddess myth. There is usually some faction whose philosophy encompasses the embrace of opposites, who celebrate life and see all things as divine and good, no matter how unpleasant, and who venerate the generative principles in my campaigns. They don’t always make pleasant neighbors. This is about as close to dealing with real world religions as I usually tread in a fantasy game, but I’m also not above blatantly using, say, the Roman Catholic Church in Shadowrun or Hinduism in my space opera. If this sort of thing disturbs you, best stay away.

Yikes! I was supposed to list at least five. That’s thirteen. So what might folks be surprised isn’t a profound influence on my gaming? That’s actually a much harder question to answer. I’ll tentatively say…

I love anime. I have in the past written reviews for American audiences and own a few complete series and individual movies. That said, there’s little in anime I bring to my fantasy gaming. The arcade-like blasts of Technicolor power, the giantly oversized weaponry, the blatant anachronisms all turn me off when I get to the gaming table, as much as I enjoy them on the screen. “Record of Lodoss War” is about as close to my gaming as anime tends to come, but as that’s blatantly influenced by D&D, the similarities have more to do with diverging from a common source than anything else. (Sci-fi, however, is another matter entirely…)

Tom Moldvay
Yeah, ok, so he wrote the rulebook that got me started in gaming, and so he’s certainly had an influence there. But I cannot stand most of his adventures. Castle Amber feels like a madhouse of random elements just sort of shoved in, willy-nilly, unless you’re familiar with the stories, and even then, you have to wonder how all of this is supposed to hang together when the PCs are not around. I appreciate the ideas in The Lost City, but I can’t run it without seriously reworking a lot of the premises and many of the encounters. I can handle a bit of anachronism, even mix some sci-fi with my fantasy. But I love my verisimilitude, and Moldvay generally can’t be bothered with anything so pedestrian.

On New "Old School" Art

What do I think art that paid homage to the Old School greatness of Willingham, Dee, and Trampier, but didn't slavishly attempt to reproduce their style, might look like?

How about this?

The Grand OGL Wiki Breaks Ground

From The Gamer Dome we learn that The Grand OGL Wiki, spurred on by the generosity of Mongoose Publishing, is beginning to take shape.

Amagi Goodness

The Gamebits of Amagi Games continues to fill up with all sorts of gamey goodness. Mr. Kornelsen has two new additions. Strain is a mechanic for handling character transformation. It's less about leveling-up and the like, and more about lateral moves:

The swordmaster, hand hacked off, apprentices himself to a Magus. The princess, having shunned the court, takes up archery, and begins to lose her polished manner in exchange for lethal skill.

I can see some use for this sort of thing in my Moldvay/Cook/LL hack, but I'd rather just let these sorts of things arise organically out of play.

However, I adore games with lots of complex scheming and machinations going on in the background. Keeping all those plots running requires levels of organization that I'm rarely up to. So Long Knives is great for me. Not only has Mr. Kornelsen detailed a quick and easy way to record and access information on the political maneuverings within a campaign, he's also included a fillable, saveable PDF form to help out! I haven't had a chance to really play with it yet, but it looks perfect for my needs.

Old School and New: the Aesthetics of Layout

Gallons of digital ink are being spilled all over the grognardy intrawebs today about “old school” art and the place of such aesthetics in new products. It started with James Maliszewski’s review of Matthew Finch’s The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom. That led Noisms to wax a touch ranty on the knee-jerk reactions against innovation he sees as a toxin that limits the appeal and growth of old-school gaming. Matthew Finch responded in the comments of this response by Mr. Maliszewski with a wonderful exegesis on the art of the original publications of Dungeons & Dragons. I especially appreciate Mr. Finch’s insight into “the moment of decision” versus “the moment of action”.

Tastes, of course, can differ (just see Mr. Maliszewski’s comment about Elmore’s art being “soulless” in that last link, an opinion that will receive no support in this blog). One man’s art is another man’s birdcage lining. And I certainly will not advance the notion that the succession of RPG rules, from the early ‘70s to now, intrinsically follow any sort evolution or natural progression from worse to better. Reactions to a set of RPG rules are as subjective as reactions to a style of illustration, just as they are as much influenced by what the observer is looking for as by what is actually there.

Page layout, however, has undeniably advanced in real and important ways in the nearly forty years RPGs have been with us. This is due in part to technology, which gives just about anyone reading this blog tools for layout and composition that would have been the envy of the folks who put together the original little brown books of D&D. In addition, the science of ergonomics, which deals with how people read and learn as much as it does adjusting your chair to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, has given the graphic designer additional tools for arranging text to make it easier to read and use. If there’s one place where aping the styles of the past is foolish, it’s in layout and design. Gygax, Moldvay, and the rest did the best they could, but their tools were not up to the standards of even the most casual weekend-publisher today. So, inspired by the comments on old-school aesthetics and the impending Worldwide Adventure Writing Month, here are some simple layout and design techniques to help people get more out of the adventures you write.

Taste the Rainbow
One thing those old modules lacked was color. The interiors were entirely black-and-white. On one hand, this is can be a strength. Printing these old modules from PDFs and the like doesn’t eat through an entire color cartridge. Also, too many designers just go crazy with color. While I appreciated the aged notebook feel of the 3e core books, they were also horribly busy. All that clutter exhausts the eye and makes it harder to find what you’re looking for. If you’re going to use color, remember that less is often more.

What is color good for? Transitions, for one. I’m loathe to use my own blog as an example, only because it badly needs a facelift, but this is one area where the pre-packaged layout works fairly well. Notice how each blog entry’s title is green? As you scroll down through my most recent posts, these titles are easy to find, because nothing else looks like them. You can scroll so quickly your eye doesn’t have time to actually read the words, but you’ll still know when you’ve reached the end of a post and the beginning of another by the flash of green.

You can also use color to draw the eye to important text that’s buried in the middle of a paragraph. You probably already have experience doing this. Most of us in school used highlighters to mark up our textbooks and class notes. The bright colors of the highlighter draw the eye immediately to those sections of particular note, so you don’t have to scan up and down the page, hunting for what you’re looking for. Keeping that experience in mind, have you ever found yourself hunting through the vast, grey tracks inside a module, holding up the game while you search for information? I have, and the usual culprit is stat blocks. I love the tiny stat blocks of old school games, but they very easily blend in to the rest of the paragraph they usually inhabit. Adjusting the color only slightly, adding a bit red for instance, can make them pop out more, so you don’t hold up the game while you try to find the hell hound’s THAC0.

Find Yourself in a Drop Box
The folks doing RPG design these days love drop boxes. They’re a wonderful way to include a little bit of extra info that doesn’t really fit into the main flow of the text. They can be used for parenthetical comments, to remind the GM of special cases or situations, or as a way of offering additional options or details. There are a couple of things to keep in mind when using a drop box. First, they should be short. If you’re writing more than a handful of sentences, or more than a single paragraph in your drop box, this information probably needs to find a way into the main body of your text. Second, you really want to make sure they stand out from the rest of the document. The folks at Paizo (who are some of the best in the business right now in terms of layout) make their drop boxes stand out by use of both colors (background and text within the box) and changing the font they use inside the box. The first thing in the drop box should be its title, which ought to remind the harried GM what’s in the box. “Oh, that’s right, these goblins might ally with the PCs against the ogres in area 3. I’ll just scan this drop box real quick to remind myself of the details, just in case…”

Drop boxes are also a great way for you, the designer, to speak directly to the GMs running your adventure. You can explain why your adventure is designed the way it is, suggest ways the adventure can be adjusted in response to what the PCs do, and share amusing anecdotes of what happened when you play-tested the module. Imagine how differently the history of RPGs might have gone if Gygax had been able to use a drop box to explain that the inhabitants of the keep on the borderlands didn’t have names in the module so that each individual DM could better tailor them to fit into the preferred genre or milieu.

Wisdom of the Ancients
There are some things that I loved in those old modules I don’t see much in the new ones. I loved the handouts, for instance. These were rare, but worked really well when they were used. For instance, the infamous Tomb of Horrors and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks both included numerous black-and-white illustrations of places and things the PCs might encounter. Some second-edition AD&D adventures took things even further, giving the DM maps and letters to hand to the players as these things were discovered by the PCs. Ptolus did this as well, with all sorts of handouts like official writs and menus from different restaurants.

If you’re a weekend-publisher, any art you include is likely to represent your greatest expense in publishing. That being the case, get the most bang for your buck by making that art directly useful to the GMs running your modules. I love the way Paizo gives us portraits of important PCs in their adventures, but since those portraits are often buried in the middle of the adventure, it’s difficult to share them with the players. Make it easy for GMs to show their players a sketch of the villain’s throne room, or the rickety bridge over the bottomless gorge. And please, ditch the traditional illustration of a group of heroes facing off against a monster on the cover. Not only does that picture serve little purpose in the middle of the game, but it might even spoil details best discovered during play. If you must include cover art, make it useful. Displaying the entrance to the dungeon, for instance, would be a great use of cover art.

There’s a lot more that could be said on this topic, such as the interactions between serif and sans serif fonts, the placement of elements to break up blocks of text and encourage the flow of reading, and the arrangement of tables for easy use. But right now I’ve got to go whack Mr. Maliszewski upside the head with a clue-by-four. Soulless indeed…

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Stupid Random Encounter Table Tricks

Ktrey of d4 Caltrops has decided to prove that there are inspirations for cool houserules lurking on every page of the Rules Cyclopedia. Honestly, I know I don't need or want that many houserules, but that doesn't mean it isn't fun to look.

In the first of what promises to be a running series, Ktrey starts with the City Encounters subtable on page 98.

Here's a fun house-rule he offers up that would work great in urban or investigation-heavy campaigns of the sort I prefer to run:

Characters start the game with d4+Charaisma Bonus Contacts. Either randomly roll (my personal favorite) or choose some “contacts” from Subtable: 11. City Encounters. These “contacts” are people that your character knows and who are automatically considered “friendly” for the purposes of NPC Reactions. Remember that Armorsmith in the sample adventure from the Mentzer Basic Player’s Handbook who let your character trade his chain for plate? These NPCs are people have known your character long enough to do you the odd favor or two, and likewise if they needed help from you, you’d be hard pressed to refuse.

I'm not sure I'll use it in my Moldvay/Cook/LL hack (I'm tempted to allow players to invent such contacts as needed based upon their backgrounds), but it's the sort of thing that would fit very well into most of my D&D campaigns.

DungeonPunk as Setting

WyzardWhately has an intriguing idea for a fantasy RPG setting:

1. A World in the Grip of Monsters
Nearly ten thousand years ago, the last of the human empires fell. They could not stand against the dark forces and magic of the Deep Kings. Whole armies of conscripts were slaughtered or enslaved in the final battles, and fortresses were left without a single stone standing upon another. Now, the good races of the earth are forced into feudalistic serfdom for their inhuman masters. The Dragons, Beholders, Illithids, Liches, Devils, Titans, and other titanic forces of the world rule. Their kingdoms are administrated by their foul spawn, the goblinoids, humanoids, giants, and innumerable lesser monsters. They slay, kidnap, and steal as they will under color of "taxation." The true rulers do not care for the suffering of the people, so long as the production numbers stay high. Towns are walled, but the walls are to keep people in, not out.

2. The Deep Kings
A couple things are required to become a Deep King. One, you must have a large amount of personal force. This is generally represented by being at least a tenth level solo monster, higher than tenth if you're an elite. Normal Monster Deep Kings are practically unheard of (since any normal monster of that height and significance should probably have a template applied.)

The second requirement is that they have to go down, deep. Power radiates from out from the center of the earth. Stone tunnels collect and concentrate it. It disperses swiftly toward the surface. Getting closer to it, and living there, down under miles of rock...that's how you become truly powerful. So, you dig.

But not just straight down. A simple well-shaft isn't enough. You need it to be complicated, with lots of zig-zags, splits, chambers, and mazes. That keeps the power in. So, you build a dungeon on your way down. And you need a way to keep in touch with the surface. So, you get a lot of less powerful monsters to boss around. And they'll come easy, once the Power starts to gather inside you. It lets you lead them, lets you bend them to your will.

I'm not crazy about his gold -> magic -> residuum cycle, but it certainly makes the magic item economy in 4e D&D make a bit more sense. I do think adding a corruption mechanic would be fun. As you push deeper to face the Deep Kings, the corrupting power at the depths of the world begins to infect the PCs, slowly transforming them into the monsters they fight.

- Brian

GSL?!? We don't Need no Stinking GSL!

Here's something intriguing.

First, here's a bit from the 4e D&D GSL:

Notwithstanding the foregoing, except as otherwise provided in this License no Licensed Product (as defined below) will have a first on-sale date prior to October 1, 2008.

The added emphasis is mine.

Now, go here and scroll down to where it says "GenCon Releases (In Stores Early September)".

Yeah, interesting, huh?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Winning Friends and Influencing People... with Use Rope!

Yeah, I'll just let you ponder that for a while, huh?

Mr. Kornelson continues to impress with his Amagi Games project. His latest is on using usually non-social skills in social situations. I find this paragraph especially intriguing:

The somewhat more intense version of this idea is to dispense with standard social skills altogether, and use everything else as social skills. This isn’t as odd as it sounds. For groups that prefer to roleplay out social interactions, only resorting to the dice when there’s a factor that’s hard to play through involved, many of those skills are secondary appendages, a cruft that can be done without; the value is in acting it out, and the ‘normal’ die rolls are a factor that doesn’t actually deserve to be weighed into the equation. By restacking the social elements that are actually useful to this style into other skills, the excess can be done away with.

This is actually the way I've been running social challenges in my D&D games for years. I'll probably use similar ideas in my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack.

Ignorant Wizards and Brilliant Fighters

Odyssey is our canary in the 4e mine these days:

It's also got me thinking that the wizard may now actually be the least complicated class to run. Everyone has the same power scheme, and if the wizard has a good team backing her up she has a lot less to juggle than the rest of the group. Which is weird, historically, but I may start recommending that the new players play wizards and ask the veterans to play defenders. Crazy edition.

I found that interesting when I read it last night, but today, I ran across this post over at

Group and I played through the first two KotS encounters last night and our "Tank" couldn't "hold aggro." What's up with that? As far as I could tell, the Pally did everything "by the book." He charged into the fray, he marked and marked and marked again.

But the freaking Kobolds just didn't care! They were all "-2 to hit? Whatever." And then they went ahead and killed the rest of the party!

I could gripe that maybe his mere +1 Charisma mod wasn't threat enough to make the damage from ignoring him worthwhile but, really, the point of the Defender isn't to actually "hold aggro", right? The point is to make it not worth the enemy's while to attack someone else. But the -2 to hit still left the rest of hte party as squishy enough targets that the Kobolds attacked us anyway.

And this was after the author, playing a wizard, had whacked most of the die-on-any-hit mooks.

The strikers have a fairly easy job, in that they just have to get into position to maximize their damage. This might mean maneuvering behind a foe, or flanking them. The "leader" classes (probably better called "support") just need to be in a position to bolster those who need it the most, which will probably keep them running between the strikers and the defenders. But the defenders are the ones who really need to exercise their tactical acumen. They need to both shield the softer members of the party (especially the wizards and warlocks) while also supporting the strikers. Granted, the battles in Keep on the Shadowfell are a defender's nightmare: completely open terrain with lots of highly mobile kobolds. The primary job of the defender is to fix the enemy, pin them in place so they can't go where the PCs don't want them to go, and making them vulnerable to the strikers' attacks. 4e kobolds just refuse to be pinned.

All the wizard has to do is stay away from enemies while bringing down the pain whenever they bunch up too much. It's a far easier task than the one faced by fighters and paladins. It might be more challenging than the warlock's job, or the archer version of the ranger, who both seem to be snipers now.

Vegetables at War!

Jennifer Shoonover's series, "The Vegetative State of Your Campaign" is currently in the middle of a series about plants in warfare. The latest article deals specifically with plants used in warfare during the Middle Ages. The primary focus is on Europe, but we get a few Asian touches as well. I love this sort of stuff:

Ash was the traditional wood for spear shafts—being light and very springy—so as to absorb the bending force applied when the spear point engaged the target armor without failing.

Axes, other handled weaponry
The favored Early Medieval wood for shafts was in Old English called 'corntreow' or 'gatetreow', this translates as cornel cherry. As this is from an english text and the cornel cherry is thought to have been a 16th C. introduction the dogwood seems more likely.

Hickory was for axe handles, a very tough wood that absorbed the shock impact forces generated in use.

She also talks about plants as aids to healing, as wards against sorcery, and their use in heraldry. She finishes with a list of ideas for incorporating some of the ideas in your campaign. I love to use this sort of stuff for color and character, such as when I describe what happens when a character uses non-magical or herb-based healing skills, or discussing the weapons and equipment of soldiers and enemies.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The One-sentence NPC Contest

The Chatty DM loves him some contests. He's teamed up with Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips, for his latest contest:

How do you enter? Quite simple!

You need to write a One Sentence NPC, generally based on the tips provided in Johnn’s latest edition of the e-zine: Use 3 traits, include a contradiction, Make it generic but interesting.

Every NPC you submit is another chance to win, so you can play early and often with this one. And the prizes are quite sweet, including Hero Lab software, adventures, and a Senior Patron Open Design account for one of Wolfgang Baur's adventure design projects.

The contest looks like fun, but even if you decide to not enter, you should swing by anyway to check out the NPC design tip it's based on.

Sham's Take on Stats

Sham's spent a bit of time considering what the stat scores in D&D actually mean, and has come to some surprising conclusions:

Consider the odds of rolling an 18 using 3d6. It’s 1 in 216. Like me, you probably say “Wow!” when a natch 18 is rolled with 3d6 (and an equally emphatic “Ugh!” when a natch 3 is rolled). It’s almost as if the mindset in D&D is that an 18 in any ability is somehow superhuman in nature, but when we look at the chance of rolling an 18, we realize that this is hardly the case. Think of it this way; take a large body of people you have observed in real life…High School or College, or even an arena filled with fans for a concert or sporting event. Now, think of the way you might envision a D&D character with an 18 Strength, and realize that in High School, the chances are that 10 classmates had an 18 STR, in College 140 had 18 STR, and at an arena 350 fans had an 18 STR. Not so superhuman now.

He also considers save-vs-stat rolls and other such houseruling goodness. I think the idea that the stats are actually vague isn't a new one, but we don't consider all the possibilities. The classic example is Charisma. A lot of ink, digital and otherwise, has been spilled over Charisma not being a measure of physical beauty. But there's no reason why a high or low Charisma score can't be impacted by a character's physical appearance. Is your character's low Dexterity score due to being clumsy, or being nearsighted? Since Dex covers hand-eye coordination as well as balance, a low score could be due to deficiencies in either. Or both. Or even something else all together.

Anyway, it's interesting stuff to think about, especially in terms of character generation.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

RedBrick Signs on the Dotted Line

RedBrick has posted a press release, claiming to be the first folks to complete the GSL authorization process:

RedBrick Limited are pleased to announce they have successfully concluded the signing and acceptance of the first Game System License for Wizards of the Coast’s DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® 4th Edition Roleplaying Game.

James Flowers, RedBrick’s Managing Director, said "This is an exciting opportunity for us. We have been looking forward to working with Wizards of the Coast for some time. Now that Wizards have accepted RedBrick’s application for a Game System License, we can move forward with our plans for publishing DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® 4th Edition compatible products. Once details of our forthcoming product releases have been finalized, we will make a separate announcement."

This is a surprise, honestly. RedBrick are best known as the caretakers of other peoples' IP. They currently keep in print and publish supplements for FASA's Earthdawn, Holistic's amazing Fading Suns, and Biohazard's Blue Planet. Could they be talking about a 4e version of one of those games? Possibly, but it seems more likely they're thinking about completely unrelated projects. Blue Planet is a through-and-through sci-fi game. The sci might be a bit soft, but it would certainly be better served working under the as-yet-promised GSL for non-fantasy projects. Ditto for Fading Suns, though it does have some fantasy elements. So the most likely target in their current stable would be Earthdawn, and I'm not certain there's a market for a 4e version of that game. The 3e version, as I recall, didn't do all that well.

So I'm guessing that RedBrick is hoping to start a new line of products to support 4e. They're well positioned to do this, already having the resources in place to create and distribute professional-quality dead-tree and electronic books. They also already have access to some professional-level writers and designers. A new 4e line of sourcebooks and adventures would be an additional revenue stream for the company. In addition, without any OGL products in their catalog, the "poison pill" provisions of the GSL are not an issue for them.

So that gives us RedBrick as a confirmed GSL publisher, and Necromancer Games as an all-but official GSL publisher. I'll be surprised if Goodman Games doesn't also announce that they're signing on to the GSL as well.

Friday, June 20, 2008

"I only do one-die-four..."

"...that's why I'm always the first to die."

(Via d4 Caltrops.)

Amagi Games Has Gone Live

... and I had no idea something like this was happening.

What is Amagi Games? It appears to be the new online home of game-explorer ('cause that's what he really is, a guy who is exploring and expireminting and just having a grand old time with games) Levi Kornelsen. Mr. Kornelsen and I have this tradition of not understanding one another at times, and talking in circles around each other. This, I think, stems from the fact that we both think faster than we talk/type. That said, I have a lot of respect for him, and the sort of things he does for gaming. And that went up a few notches as I poked around Amagi Games.

What's so special about the site?

What does that mean? It means that everyone has the right to use the material in any way they like. Period. No credits are required, you don’t need to ask, you don’t need to follow a license. These things belong to everyone. You could mirror almost everything on the site (there are pieces of not-public art here and there), share it, publish it for free or for money, splice it into a game you’re working on, whatever you like (and so can Amagi). You could make a brand-new plug-in with the Amagi name on it, and release it as if it came from here. It’s free, all the way. Free as in air.

Is Mr. Kornelsen crazy? Maybe. Or maybe, crazy like a fox:

For quite some time, webcomics have been giving away the products of their imaginations. There are no (or, at least, very few) concerns with people sharing the material; you never hear about people “stealing a subscription” or “committing webcomic piracy”, because those ideas don’t make any sense.

Their business model is already totally in tune with online environment; they sell advertising, printed books, and the like, instead of the easily-shared digital information. So, why couldn’t a tabletop roleplaying game designer, tinkerer, article-writer, do that?

A few have, but don’t think of themselves as game companies. Why not? And, if the ideas are being given away… Why not really give them away? Not just the ideas, but all of it; let people use the text however they like, let go of copyright anywhere that it’s possible to do it. Free and full gifting of ideas means that others can take something written, and show you something entirely new that it’s good for.

Now, it may not be a solid route. It may be an insane, stupid, implosive idea; certainly, it’s not the right way to go for everyone, or for every project. But, even so, it’s awesome. And someone should totally give it a try, and find out if it could work…

Honestly, to me, this could be the single most exciting thing to happen in the RPG blogosphere this year. I'll certainly be keeping an eye on it. And you should check out some of the stuff that's already up there. Temptation Dice, for instance, looks like a very cool mechanic, and one I may be adding to my games.

And special thanks to the Gnome Rodeo for pointing this page out.

"WHAT... is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?"

Via Robert Fisher comes a link to "Making Better Puzzles", an article by Stephen Granade on, erm, well, better-puzzle making. Brass Lantern is primarily aimed at computer games, but a lot of the principles carry over to pen-and-paper RPGs.

Up to Our Eyeballs in Elves

There's been a bit of musing on elves in the past few days. Noisms isn't a big fan of the pointy-eared buggers:

But! I've been doing some thinking. It seems unfair to dismiss the race if I'm not prepared to do my bit to make them interesting. I like Elves in Birthright and Dark Sun, after all; maybe all I need is a fresh perspective.

Reading his comments over at, I was tempted to track down the "101 Days of Rules Cyclopedia" thread that included a new, more "elfy" list of spells for elves. However, David did one better by reproducing the entire list over at The RPG Corner. Following that, he gives us spell lists for his Rules Cyclopedia conversions of some Uresian classes.

Free RPG Day Eve

Tomorrow, June 21st, is Free RPG Day. In anticipation, Massawyrm of Ain't It Cool News has posted quick reviews of six of the offerings.

Myself, I'm most interested in Green Ronin's A Song of Ice & Fire Quickplay.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mongoose OGC to go Wiki?

Mongoose has chosen to share their open gaming content, not to bury it:

We produced a great deal of OGC under D20. Most of these books are now out of print, with just PDF copies available - by the end of the year these will disappear too, as it is not realistic for us to remove D20 licensing off every product we produced over the years. Just too many!

However, it seems a shame to have all this material simply disappear, so. . .

If there is any interest, we would be prepared to make the vast majority of our D20-based content available freely. In the past, there has been talk about an OGC Wiki of sorts, and I think we can kick such a project off in a sizeable way.

If a volunteer (or volunteers - you might have to be some sort of maniac to go through all this material solo!) were to come forward and create a suitable web site, we would happily supply electronic versions of our D20 lines for translation of OGC to such a web site. We would be very free with the material permissable, allowing you to effectively cut and paste large chunks of 'fluff' text alongside the OGC.

This would include all the Quintessentials, Slayer's Guides, Encyclopaedias, Ultimates - potentially, even some Babylon 5 material, if someone is prepared to remove all the licensed text (no Conan though, as that is still current!)

All we ask is that the project is taken seriously and that there is maybe a link or two to us from the site

If other publishers are interested in such a project, we would gladly welcome work alongside them - this could end up being a seriously large site!

So, any interest? If someone wanted to build the Mother of All OGC sites, we can give you a serious head start. Might even be able to provide you with web space and some rather large bandwidth.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Random Background Checks

Alexis is a grognard. An angry one. Ok, maybe just slightly cranky. He's also got some neat ideas at his blog, The Tao of D&D. Recently, Alexis has posted how he tackled the use of skills in 1e AD&D. Like me, he's used a variation on the life path. However, instead of letting his player's choose, he has it determined randomly. In addition, many of the possible backgrounds supply special bonuses and dictate how much money your character starts the game with.

He's got some other interesting posts as well, like this one about pro-active players.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

We Have GSL!

At long last, WotC has published the GSL for D&D 4e. As advertised, the SRD does not contain the information you need to play the game, so, unlike the SRDs of 3.0 and 3.5, you cannot use the 4e's SRD as a PHB-lite.

A brief overview of the documents can be found at Dragon Avenue.

UPDATE: Phil Reed, of Ronin Arts and SJ Games has made his opinion clear:

After reading the license five times my reaction is: Hell, no.

I cannot see myself ever using this license. This license is very, very bad for anyone except WotC.

UPDATE 2: Wolfgang Baur is also not impressed:

And at first glance, the GSL is absolutely terrible for Kobold Quarterly. I'm not sure it will matter much for Open Design, as the Wrath of the River King will be in a separate product line.

I was hoping for better. Bah.

UPDATE 3 (expect a lot of these, and thanks to the Chatty DM for the link): Eric Mona (scroll down) of Paizo doesn't seem too thrilled either:

DudeMonkey wrote:

WotC is basically saying that they can yank the rug out from under you any time they want with this license. Is that how it reads to everyone else?

Yes, that's my take.

DudeMonkey wrote:

I don't think I would publish under this license if I was in this industry, professionally speaking.

That's my take, too.

UPDATE 4: Chatty is all over this like white on rice. In the comments of his post, he's linked to where Clark Peterson of Necromancer Games has been discussing this issue over at ENWorld:

Still digesting.

It seems far less clear than I hoped, thats for sure. It also doesnt have that "safe harbor" feel. It has that "there are lots of ways for you to screw up and then we terminate you" feel.

My initial reaction: Not as clear or friendly as I wanted. In fact, it feels like "we want you to support 4E but we dont really want you doing anything interesting or being too successful." Which smacks more of corporate fear than it does of vision.

More later.


This is also interesting:

Clearly, as I understand that existing license, there wont be a "Tome of Horrors" for 4E. I'm not losing the right to make an OGL version. Period. In fact, I am pretty sure that I will be announcing a full color Pathfinder version of the Tome of Horrors shortly. That said, I am still considering a monster book for 4E.

We'll see....

Sounds to me like they had some good headway made on a product, and then this license may torpedo it. So they'll just repurpose the assets and release under another license, once certainly to be more amicable to their needs.

UPDATE 5: James Mishler of Adventure Games Publishing also isn't getting any warm fuzzies from the GSL:

Well, after reviewing the 4E GSL, I can say pretty unequivocably that Adventure Games Publishing will *not* publish any 4E Dungeons & Dragons products. At least, not under the existing GSL, nor under any GSL that even remotely resembles the existing contract. By the terms of that contract, you essentially turn your company into a Wizards of the Coast subsidiary. Not gonna happen with AGP.

AN UPDATE OF UPDATES: The RPG Blog II has a bit list of the latest reactions to the GLS announcement, including a further update from Necromancer Games and Chris Pramas detailing a product Green Ronin won't be making.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Playing with Death and Dismemberment

Hit points are supposed to be an abstraction that model a character's defensive combat prowess, physical stamina, and will to persevere. Traditionally, however, most folks play them like they measured a character's biological structural integrity. Every roll of the d20 was a swing to hit. Every roll for damage came from a successful to-hit roll, so it represented how much physical trauma the strike caused to the body.

I want to get away from that and back to the idea that hit points are an abstraction of, yes, physical trauma, but more than that, of being worn down by your foes and mental and physical exhaustion. One of the neatest tools I've seen for doing this is the Classic D&D Injury Table over at Robert Fisher's web page.

The idea behind the table is simple: any character reduced to zero hit points, or hit after being dropped to zero, must suffer the results of a roll on the table. A character reduced to zero hit points is not necessarily out of the fight. Rolling a 2 results in no effect, while any result below 6 has the character still conscious, and able to potentially return to the fight. This makes it quite clear that the "hits" your character has taken up to this point have been mostly flesh wounds and minor strikes. But once your hit points are at zero, you're no longer able to effectively defend yourself. Every attack is potentially lethal now.

I like Mr. Fisher's table, but I'm an inveterate tweaker and just had to make one of my own. Keep in mind as you read it that only the PCs and possibly very important NPCs get to use this table. If you bring your average orc or troll to zero hit points, they simply die.

(My apologies for the difficulties with this table. For some reason HTML does wacky things when filtered through Blogger. This is my third attempt to make it easy to read. Clearly, the only workable solution is to replace the table with a picture of a proper, legible table. Grrrrr...)



2 or lower

instant death (decapitated or other grevious wound).


fatal wound (gutted, stabbed through lung, broken back, etc.) die in 1d6 turns.


severed limb (DM's choice or roll randomly) will die in 3d6 rounds unless tourniquet applied, wound cauterized with fire, or Cure Serious Wounds cast (CSW used for this will not restore lost hp).


broken bone (DM's choice), 2d4+9 weeks to heal.


knocked out for 2d6 rounds, unless wearing a helm. With helm, only stunned for 1 round.


stunned for 1 round, unless wearing helm. With helm, only knocked down.


knocked down.


no effect.


a surge of adrenaline returns 1d4 hit points per every other level (1d4 at 1st and 2nd, 2d4 at 3rd and 4th, etc.) At the end of the combat, the adrenaline drains away, hit points are reduced to zero, and the PC faints for 2d6 rounds.

As you can see, a lot of this table is swiped wholesale from Mr. Fisher's table. However, I've also given some love to the lowly helmet, and I've included a "rally at the last minute" option as well. It might seem a bit too Buffy, but it fits the genre, whether you're talking Conan or King Arthur.

UPDATE: Norman Harman reports success with the Table of Death & Dismemberment, but finds it too wussy. Behold his table of Deadlier Death & Dismemberment!

Playing with Fancy Combat Maneuvers

After discussing the possibility of divorcing fancy combat powers and exploits from their character classes in 4e, I’ve been toying with similar things in my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack. Moldvay is completely devoid of fancy combat moves. Cook adds the “fighting withdrawal” (backing away from a foe at half your normal movement) and “retreat” (moving at full speed away from your foe, but offering them all sorts of bonuses to hit you).

This lack of complexity is, of course, one of the appeals of Moldvay/Cook D&D. However, I know my players will, eventually, want to pull some fancy maneuvers, and it would be best if I’m ready for that sort of thing. Restraint here is important, since I don’t want to just recreate all the complexity of later versions of the game. I’ve already got copies of 2e; if I wanted to play that, I could start tomorrow and not waste a lot of time reinventing that wheel.

The temptation to build a standardized mechanic is strong, of course. That’s the solution modern game design theory crowns as the best. However, I’ve also already got True20 if I want to play a modern game. There are very real benefits to standardized mechanics. However, this exercise is not based on maximizing those. This game already embraces a legacy of lots of tiny different mechanics for different jobs. I see no reason to swerve from that path now.

People love spilling ink about grappling rules, and they tend to be the most complex monsters out there. A good set of grappling rules need to do two things: first, they need to model what grappling does, which is allow one or more combatants to immobilize and wrestle a foe to the ground. However, the ability to take an opponent out of the fight, regardless of how many hit points that foe has, is extremely powerful. If you make the grappling rules too powerful or flexible, fighters will just leave their swords at home and grapple everything they meet.

Here’s how I’m tackling grappling:

If you want to grapple someone, roll to-hit as normal, do damage as bare-handed. If you do more damage in that round than your foe, they are grappled and may not move or attack anyone else until they break free. Grappled foes do damage as bare-handed. They break free on the round they do more damage than you.

Because of the way my initiative rules work, a bare-handed grappler goes after almost any weapon-wielder. You have to get past that sharp-and-pointy before you can start to wrestle your foe to the ground. And if you don’t, you’re repelled. You can try again next round, but you didn’t manage to get a good grip on your foe this round. Once a foe is grappled, their movement is so limited they can only strike at someone who is grappling them, they don’t get the full benefit of their weapon, and they can’t move until they escape the grappler’s hold.

Also notice that multiple attacks seriously increase the chance of a successful grapple. The first grappler has to do more damage than the target. The second grappler, however, only has to hit the target; assuming the target can only hit one foe per round, the target will be doing zero damage to the second grappler. This means three or more grapplers are almost certain to get a good hold on a foe. That feels right to me, though it may put the PCs at a disadvantage. I can imagine swarms of kobolds wrestling the PCs to the ground. Or a few PCs wrestling a giant down. Ok, that seems like it might be a bit much, so here’s an addendum to our wrastlin’ rules:

If the combined heights of all grapplers is less than 3/4th's the height of the grappled, then the grappled can't move but can still fight with a weapon as normal. If the combined heights of the grapplers is less than 1/4th the height of the grappled, the grappled breaks free automatically.

So, lone gnomes will not be wrestling storm giants to the ground in my game. And one or two kobolds are probably not a serious threat to a human fighter. But enough of them can pull even a big man to the ground.

I don’t plan on using these rules very often against the PCs. I’m a little worried that they might be too useful in high-level combat, when the PCs and NPCs might have dozens of hit points. I might just have to play with the rules and see.

Legends of the Long Campaign

A while back, Odyssey expressed envy for those who had run long-term campaigns. This weekend, we learned sirlarkins is just such a person:

The campaign's tone, and its future, tangibly shifted with the advent of two events about a month into the game. First, Des very kindly purchased The Great Pendragon Campaign for me. Ah, the advantages of having your girlfriend as one of your players! Needless to say, the purchase of the GPC allowed me to really delve into the source material and have a structure upon which to hang the action.

LESSON ONE: Using the GPC has really showed me the importance of having a strong narrative outline in any sort of long-term campaign. This isn't an outline of plot, mind you, just an outline of what's going on in the world year to year. That way, you can have the events of the world occur and allow your characters to interact with that as they will.

There's a lot of good advice, enough of a taste of the arc to be entertaining without devolving into the dreaded boring character history, and a short paean to the joys of randomness:

Jim over at LotFP wrote in a recent post about how the current iterations of D&D have betrayed the game's sometimes random and deadly roots. I couldn't agree more. Knowing that your character could easily die from a bad roll simply adds drama and tension to the game. A recent example: Neilyn, a knight still at the top of his abilities, was ambushed by raiders while riding pursuit after a recent battle. He took a great spear to the armpit and nearly died. Just like that.

Alex, who was playing a Jewish mystic at the time, was able to heal Neilyn and bring him back from death's door--yet even that came down to dice rolling. Had the dice not cooperated, Neilyn might well have died. The drama and tension during that whole scene were palpable.

It's a long post, but it's certainly worth your time for the advice, insight, and inspiration.

Jeff Reviews In Harm's Way: Aces and Spades

Jeff Rients, after a bit of a Barbie-induced sabbatical from blogging, has posted a review of Clash Bowley's RPG of WWI flying aces. In spite of (or, more likely, I suspect, because of) a degree in history, I tend to avoid straight-up historical games myself, but this one seems to have a number of interesting flourishes that appeal to the designer in me:

Which brings us to one of my favorite parts of Aces in Spades. The players all work together to fight enemy squadrons, but they're also in earnest competition with each other for kills, general recognition, medals, mention in dispatches, and promotions. I like games with that kind of dual competitive/cooperative nature. Truth be told, when I'm a player I tend to approach any campaign that way, but that's another post for another day.

Also be sure to check out how points can be moved between attack rolls. It's a nifty and elegant system that gives players a bit more control of the random elements of combat.

Wrestling with Skill Challenges

D&D's new skill challenges are getting a lot of scrutiny right now. Amidst accusations that they are mathematically broken and attempts to fix the issue, Keith Baker discusses how he has been using them:

In any case, in looking purely at the math of +9-11 vs DC 20, you're missing a lot of the options and depth that go into a skill challenge. First you have the potential modifiers to the math. Then you have the fact that a good skill challenge should always provide interesting options; it should be more than just a few flat rolls. And finally there's the fact that failing a skill challenge shouldn't be the end of the world. In many cases I assume that the PCs WON'T succeed at a skill challenge (remember as DM, I KNOW what their skills are when I'm designing the challenge); the issue is that the closer they get, the better.

What I find interesting is how skill challenges seem to confound the assumptions many brought to 4e. The skill challenge system does not banish DM fiat from social conflict; rather it seems to return DM fiat to a system that was a simple, boring, one-roll skill check. Once again, your best chance at success comes from entertaining the DM:

In running a challenge, I'm not looking for the PC to say "I'm using Diplomacy." I want him to roleplay the scene. How's he making his case? Is he drawing on anything specifically relevant to his target? While I like this for color, it's called out as something that SHOULD be rewarded. In providing advice to the DM, page 74 of the DMG specifically notes that you can choose to reward creative action (or penalize the opposite) by applying a -2 to +2 modifier to the check. In some cases, I've specifically set up encounters where the player can get an even higher bonus if he brings up the right thing...

I honestly don't consider this a bad thing, though I wonder at the utility of a dice rolls. I suppose the system does provide the new DM with a rigorous skeleton to hang new skill challenges from. And D&D just loves getting you to roll dice.

In any event, this is one topic that's clearly stirring the natives to restlessness:

As far as I can tell, skill challenges are a game in almost the same way that snakes & ladders is a game. Player choice doesn't matter -- it's all dice rolls, no strategy. The inclusion of skills that count as automatic failures would seem to mitigate this somewhat, but tactical play requires knowledge choice between meaningful options, and the book seems to suggest you can only find out which skills autofail by using them and suffering an autofail.

For a game that prides itself on a lot of interesting tactical choice, this is bad design at the foundational level. Adjusting DCs won't make them work -- the system needs total replacement. There is nothing "X successes before Y failures" does that "one success on X skill" doesn't do, except obfuscate your chances of success.

UPDATE: Mike Mearls gives us the word from the Coast:

We had a meeting about skill challenges on (cue creepy music) Friday the 13th. We came to a few conclusions on what happened, what our intent is, and what we're going to do about it.

The system went through several permutations as we worked on it, and I think there are some disconnects between the final text, our intentions, and how playtesters and internal designers use skill challenges.

So, we've been listening and reading threads and figuring out some stuff on our end.

Playing Outside the Lines

Greywulf is having fun learning 4e, and he has an intriguing insight:

One of the many things that 4e does right is fix that. Move one square in any direction, and it costs 1 square. Just adjust for terrain (difficult costs 2 per square), and you’re done.

So here’s the thing.

You don't need a grid any more!

Read that again, and let it sink in.

Just grab a ruler to measure the inches, and your minis can move anywhere, however the heck they want. No grid needed. Count each full inch of difficult terrain as 2 inches, and move front-of-base to front of base. Go ‘round corners by following the path, and allow free movement of 1” for the shift - the old 3e 5-foot step, reborn.

Getting rid of the grid means getting rid of the battlemat and boardgame mentality. It means that grey tablecloth (the one you washed with your socks by accident. Yes, that one) is your dungeon floor, with books marking dungeon walls. You’re out of Boardgame-land where you’re counting the movement and firmly into Wargame-land with all that entails. Freedom of movement, tactical use of terrain and pure, unadulterated old-school D&D goes back to it’s Chainmail roots fun.

He's got a number of intriguing options that this makes available, including a neat idea for miniatures. I'm not sure they're all worth trading in the ease of counting squares for wrangling of rulers, but I have to admit, I like not feeling trapped in a grid.

4e, Computer Games, and Playing with Exploits

Via The Velvet Dicebag, there’s this seven page article by Tom Smith on what computer game designers might be able to borrow, steal, or learn from D&D’s 4th edition. Mr. Smith is a Creative Manager at THQ, so this isn’t just some Monday-morning quarterbacking by a guy who thinks computer games are kinda cool.

It’s a neat article, and if you’re interested at all in how computer games are designed or in the sorts of issues that game design of all kinds must deal with, it’s worth your time. It was this bit on the last page, however, that caught my eye:

The Dungeon Master's Guide has a section on "Actions the Rules Don't Cover". One example there is a player who wants to swing from a chandelier to push an ogre into a fire. It's a fitting and interesting idea, perfect for the cinematic action style of most D&D games. But there are no core rules for it.

The book encourages the DM to improvise, giving a skill check (Acrobatics against the standard Easy Difficulty Check, provided in a chart) for grabbing on and swinging, and an attack (Strength versus Fortitude) to knock him back.

Now this is very interesting to me. Pushing enemies around the battlemat is, I thought, a specialty of the rogue class. Some of those powers, I’m sure, are per-encounter and per-day. But if I want to just knock that ogre back a few squares, I can do it without spending any of my special powers? Doesn’t that kinda suck some of the wind out of the rogue’s sails? Can I get something like the magic-user’s ability to smack multiple foes at once if I toss a bench at them? If I do something to inspire my allies, can I give them extra attacks, or movement, or healing surges like a cleric or warlord?

You can see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. If I can invoke special moves like that without having the requisite abilities, why bother with those classes? The 4e warlord is suddenly in the same boat as the OD&D thief; instead of making the game more interesting, he’s stealing the chance for the players to be creative. A chance to interact with the world, NPCs, or even your fellow players has been reduced to a single roll of the dice.

I’m not quite ready to bring healing surges to my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack (though I haven’t completely counted them out yet, either). However, using the terrain for fancy maneuvers or inspiring henchmen to give them temporary bonuses to the moral certainly are not beyond the realms of the reasonable. And we already have lots of rules we can use to adjudicate such things. We could treat them like skill checks, for instance, roll under a stat or the tried-and-true 1-plus-bonuses or less on a d6. If it’s a fancy combat maneuver, you could just tie it in to the to-hit roll. After all, there’s no reason why the to-hit must be about damage. That’s what you’re normally trying to achieve in combat, but if you instead are more interested in maneuvering your opponent, or disarming them, or forcing a moral check, I see no reason why those can’t be invoked from a to-hit roll modified to reflect how much easier or more difficult the desired effect is than simply wounding and wearing down your foe.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Goodies and Tools for 4e

Via the At Will blog comes word of a nice collection of useful tools for 4e, gathered by the Propagandroid of The Gamer Dome:

I’ve run across some really great accessories and play aids for during my internet journeys and I figured, “I’ve got a blog, why not share them with my readers?” Revolutionary thinking, I know. I’ve already used some of these in games, and I especially enjoyed the crib sheet, which really helps new players (all of us!) figure out what they can do on their turn.

Sample power cardPower Cards - Complete Set: These things are swwww-eet. They’re pretty, and functional, and cover every PC power in the 4e PHB! Megaprops to Ander00 over at EN World for these. EN World post

Kiznit’s 4e Character Sheet: It’s pretty good now, but I’d keep checking back as he’s going to add a third page with blank power cards. Of course, you won’t need those if you keep reading. Direct Link (several pdf version links in the post)

And that's just the first two. There's more gold in them thar hills, including other versions of character sheets, initiative and effects trackers, and other helpful aids.

These are the sorts of things I would think WotC's D&D page should be highlighting. Still, it's good to see the community really charging ahead with these sorts of tools.

Can't Keep the '70s Down

And yet more simulacrum gaming goodness is looking for critique:

The second public draft of the rules and spell list for Microlite 74 is available on the message board. A few minor rules changes have been made to give the system more of that 1974 first Fantasy RPG flavor and feel and I've started to make the spell effects more closely resemble those of that era. Sleep is as powerful as it used to be, for example.

Microlite74 is based on Microlite20. Randall's also including info on Judge's Guild products over at the RetroRoleplaying site:

I've added a number of Judges Guild products (mainly adventures) to the Original Dungeons & Dragons section of this website. Although there are more to come (like the Wilderlands of High Fantasy), I think this is a good start.

"Final" Draft Version of Swords & Wizardry Available

Mythmere has posted what he's calling the "final" draft version of Swords & Wizardry:

What this means is that I’m still asking for and integrating comments from everyone, but I’m hoping that the next thing we see is the actual final version. The file is hosted at, and it is a .doc file. I won’t try to play with layout at this juncture.

Keep in mind: this is the GH-style version that will provide compatibility across many systems - it is not the White Box version that I’m working on with Finarvyn. That will likely come later: the monsters in that one still need to be brought down to the White Box damage/HD scale, and Fin may have other changes he wants to make.

Frankly, I'm very happy to see that there's now to be a split between the Rosetta Stone version and the White Box version.

The Consequences of 3d6 In Order

There’s been a lot of talk about ye olde 3d6 in order. Beyond the simple “brass cojones” aspect of living with what you roll, it meshes very well with Odyssey’s comments about 1e being more about the ongoing, shared world than the individual characters. Rolling randomly gave you a chance to explore, interact with, and help build this shared world from many different perspectives. It’s easier to care more about, and be more invested in, the setting’s pantheon if your previous character was, or your next character might be, a cleric.

There are other interesting results from straight 3d6 in order. If you assume that every player adopts the character class most favored by the resulting stats, you should have a fairly even mix of starting characters from all available classes. That is, if you’re rolling up six OD&D characters where the only character options are fighting-men, clerics, and magic-users, it’s perfectly reasonable to arrive at a team that includes two fighting-men, two clerics, and two magic-users.

At least, that’s what you’d think, but it doesn’t really work out that way. Because the magic-user is the most likely to have the cash available, after buying starting equipment, to hire henchmen, a character whose highest stat is Charisma is likely to also be a magic-user, even if that character doesn’t have a high enough intelligence to qualify for the XP bonus.

I suspect this is an example of unintended consequences. Still, if you’re using a club or West Marches model for your campaign, you should also expect the number of magic-users to be weeded out fairly quickly. The lack of armour and low hit points is a deadly combination. The only class with a higher mortality rate would probably be the thief, if allowed, since the thief probably faces more save-or-die checks than any other class.

Which means that when you’re looking at 5th level PCs in the same group, you’re probably going to see lots of clerics and fighters, and only a smattering of magic-users who have managed to stay alive that long. That would make each magic-user of that level a very precious resource, and give the players with those characters a bit more clout in the group. “Yeah, well, if you guys really want to take on the trolls of the Greenskull Hills, you can do it without Frebble the Mysterious. Unless, maybe, you want to offer me a greater share of the treasure?”

And that, frankly, fits very well with the source material James Maliszewski’s been citing for the earliest editions of D&D. Wizards might be cranky, grasping, and difficult to work with, but they’re also too powerful to safely ignore. Throw in some mechanics that earn the magic-user XP for building magic items and you could end up with PC magic-users who rarely adventure, but are eager to hire other PCs to go on quests for the necessary ingredients to craft the potions, scrolls, and enchanted swords they sell to adventuring parties preparing to head out into the wilderness. I’d consider a class of PCs who were helping to create new adventures for the group like this a benefit to the game, and I’d probably say that they earn XP on a per-GP basis for any magical item they craft and sell to another PC.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Other Brian Murphy Reviews Moldvay's Basic D&D

The Basic D&D box set with the Erol Otus cover, containing both B2 - Keep on the Borderlands and the Moldvay rulebook got me started in roleplaying. It's part of the basis for my next campaign, and the skeleton I'm hacking onto.

Mr. Murphy over at The Silver Key has a review of Moldvay's rulebook:

I still own the same careworn copy of Moldvay basic that I bought back in 1981-82 or so. As I look at it now it remains a marvel of utility, organization, inspiration, and playability.

To begin with, Moldvay basic comprises a total of 64 pages. Take away the title page, foreward, and glossary, and you have a total of 60 pages. Heck, there are longer modules than this. By way of comparison, a single issue of Dungeon and Dragon magazine exceeded 100 pages towards the end of their run!

When combined with Cook's Expert D&D rulebook, you get a complete game for 128 pages. It's amazing how much goodness is compressed into so few pages, especially when you consider how frequently art and tables are included.