Thursday, December 9, 2010

Gardens of the Moon: Literature in Fantasy Roleplaying

Dungeons and Dragons is in its 4th edition and as far as I'm concerned that game is better than ever. I love the rules, and the wealth of material available. I love the adventure modules and the minis and the computer programs for creating characters. But if I were to air one gripe about the contemporary game, it be the focus on "new-fangled fantasy", the aesthetics of comic books, manga and video games. While these are all well and good, I miss seeing the old literary sources applied to the modern rules.

Archaic Art Forms
The myth and literature that the fantasy genre was built upon is often mentioned but rarely mined for material these days. Back in the old days(!) Dragon Magazine used to run quite a few articles translating various historical and mythical characters and settings into game terms, complete with bibliographies. I don't see much of that in today's D&D blogosphere. One of the great things about D&D is that it provides an excuse for indulging in anachronistic art forms and subject matter. One of my favorites is the epic poem.

As a DM, I am always devising excuses to drop yet another poem by Yeats or Clark Ashton Smith on my unsuspecting players. I love to write introductions to scenes and locations that imitate the purple prose of my favorite fantasy authors, like Smith, Robert E. Howard, and R.R. Eddison. Perhaps a fragment can be used as a riddle, or to illuminate a character, or at least, to fill out a library in far more detail than necessary.

To me, this mixing of storytelling genres is one of the great strengths of the hobby. Adding different types of prose and verse to our improvisational dialogues and descriptions can only add to the depth and atmosphere of a game. Quotations and old literary forms can be a great way to establish a tone of high adventure at the gaming table, and also to recommend further reading to your players!

Sketches from the Old Masters
I propose to follow this post with a series wherein I attempt to rectify the situation. I will publish a series of articles that directly uses source material to inspire adventures, locations, and encounters for D&D games. My sources reflect my own prejudices of course. They will include poems by Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard, and scenes from both authors fiction as well as that of R.R. Eddison's "The Worm Ouroboros". All of these are veterans of the old Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. The reader may wonder at the absence of Lovecraft on my short list, but I think that of all source literature, Lovecraft is perhaps the most fashionable at the moment, and least in need of reintroduction.

Stay tuned for the "Castle of Dreams".

More Than a Game: An RPG Manifesto

When I dig through my files and piles of old gaming material the things that tickle me and bring a smile to my face are the hand-made maps and character drawings, painted mini figs, verbose letters from one villain to another, distressed and singed to be more "scroll-like".

Avid players of roleplaying games understand much of the appeal of the game is that it is wondrous and creative on many levels. The tactile joys of rolling dice and pushing miniatures around, the theater of stories both epic and ignoble (which never turn out quite the way the DM envisioned!), and the friendships we develop all contribute to the tabletop experience. There are books of new rules, plastic miniatures, dungeon tiles, and computer programs (all great stuff!), begging to stimulate our minds, but it is when I think of the objects players produce I am inspired by the RPGs I have played and run. Here's to the arts and crafts of D&D!

The best thing about tabletop gaming, which it shares with war-gaming, but most emphatically does not share with video games, is the spontaneous outpouring of creativity that goes along with every session of a game. At the very least we have the clumsy theater of role playing our characters and trying to make sense an imaginary world, but those golden the evenings end with someone having drawn a map, another promising to write out the glib limerick that struck the villain dumb, and a third convinced to paint his own mini fig for next week. These are not great works of art, often barely competent, but that is not the point, and no one cares about quality. We are not creating in order to be judged, but for the purest of reasons, spontaneous expression of joy and fascination, a gesture toward the collective fantasia.

The Arts and Crafts of tabletop are anachronistic, but they are inevitable in the process of playing, and they are what makes the hobby more than a game. There are dozens of products out there, pdfs, pre-painted minis, adventure modules that might be a higher quality than what we do ourselves, but we are roleplaying express our own imaginations and so there's still nothing quite so charming as our own imperfect products of our collective imaginations.

To those who may read this: What are some of your favorite ephemera from playing rpgs?
Here's one of mine:

Friday, October 22, 2010

Fields of Battle: Fight Challenges

The Skirmish rules could also be used for mass battles, either with heroes fighting against overwhelming numbers or with players controlling small units attempting to capture a large field of battle. I call these Fight Challenges.

The idea is to use the mechanics of Skill Challenge to achieve tactical/story victory, causing a route or capturing a prize. Slaying foes would of course yield success, but the Fight Challenge opens up skill use as well.

Failure may come simply from players dying or taking enough damage to flee the scene, or, for a larger battle when a certain fraction of their forces have been defeated.

Alternately, a round limit to the battle could be imposed. For example, if they are not pushed back, hacked, blasted and intimidated in 10 rounds, the Rats of Nim overwhelm the castle walls.

Nuts and Bolts
  • Skirmish rules for gridless combat, simplified initiative, and damage (At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers do 1, 2, and 3 Hits respectively.
  • Hits per Success: This may vary with larger battles, but let's begin with 5 Hits per success. This encourages use of Dailies and Healing Surges to finish the battle quickly.
  • Skill Checks for Success: Using story appropriate skills contribute success. Skill Checks are a minor action in the Fight Challenge to encourage their use and speed resolution.
  • Opponents use standard Minion stats, damaging PCs normally.

Siege at the Red Dragon Inn
Perhaps the players are holed up in an in with a thieves guild up going to war against them, attempting to set the inn on fire. They rush the front door, they come in through the roof and from the basement. The Siege at the Red Dragon Inn could be played as a Complexity 5 Fight Challenge, needing 12 successes to win the encounter before the inn catches on fire and is over run, in 5 rounds.

First, using the Skirmish rules presented in the previous post, the Thugs will be 1 Hit minions, and Lieutenants have 3 Hits.

Every 5 thugs defeated equals a success. Defeating a lieutenant is one success. A successful skill check garners a success as well. However, characters may not use the same skill two rounds in a row.

Players are encouraged to embellish their turns with Skill Checks as Minor Actions, in fact they will need to do so in order to complete the challenge in time.
  • Intimidate and Bluff to encourage defections in the ranks and hurt morale. Moderate DC
  • Stealth to get the drop on someone, to get away or wait it out. Easy DC
  • Acrobatics swing for chandeliers to get to a lieutenant. Hard DC (Defeating a lieutenant is a success in itself.)
  • Streetwise for dirty tactics such as knocking down chandeliers & throwing bottles of liquor. Easy DC
  • Athletics to battle through the crowd or flip tables. Moderate DC
  • Arcana and Nature to put out fires. Hard DC
Failure would of course occur if the heroes decide to retreat, or, if they are not victorious in 5 rounds the Inn is burning, so destroyed that it is not worth saving, and they are more or less taken prisoner.

Here we have a dynamic way to run a very nebulous and complicated encounter with real consequences for the players and the story, a tasteful melange of abstract roleplaying and tactical combat.

Have fun storming the castle!

Fields of Battle: Quick Skirmish Rules

The rowdy dwarf picks a fight in a bar! The thief gets caught pick pocketing the town guard! The party fails to be stealthy and rouses the entire goblin camp! Diplomatic parlay breaks down! A wandering monster!

How many times do these situations come up in D&D? All the time! There are times during a session when a fight makes sense for a story, but the Dungeon Master knows that it will not be terribly challenging. It may seriously cramp the pace session. You were hoping to get to the crypt this session and here your players are getting side tracked! How to resolve this quickly?

One option is to just rush through a normal combat. But, I would like to offer the skirmish, a set of variant rules for playing fast-paced, abstract battles in D&D 4e. High fives to Mike Shea and the other participants of the "30 Minute Skirmish" thread over on Enworld.

Classic D&D fights are tend to be big set pieces, and those take time. They also work best when well prepared. I see the skirmish idea as a chance to switch up the style of play to a loose, free-form style that is resolved quickly. This could be great for ad-hoc low level encounters and also fights against overwhelming combatants. These rules are intended for multiple, usually lower level opponents. A wandering dragon should always be played straight!

Principles of the Skirmish: Be Quick, Be Creative

Be Creative: Player buy in is essential. The Dungeon Master needs to announce the skirmish rules in advance and the players need to be enthusiastic about a different style of play. They should be allowed a full range of tactical options, but encouraged by the skirmish rules to play in a more fast and loose style.

Be Quick: The the length of combat in D&D comes from a number of sources, difficult tactical decisions, loads of monster hit points, battle mat set up, fiddling with the mini figs, and rolling lots of dice. All these things are lots of fun, but the goal of the skirmish is to eliminate some extraneous parts and play through the story. DMs and players should try to keep the pace lively and move through their turns quickly.

Nuts and Bolts
  • No map or minis. The play must be described orally.
  • No damage rolls. Monsters do set damage and have 1, 2, or 3 Hits. Players may make tactical choices as to how much damage they will do. See Modifiers below.
  • Round-Robin Initiative: The highest initiative roll goes first and play continues around the table.
  • An At-Will or Basic Attack deals 1 Hit
  • Encounter attacks deal 2 Hits.
  • Daily attacks deal 3 Hits.
  • Area Affect powers hit multiple targets (Burst 1: 1d6 targets, Burst 2: 2d6 targets etc) depending on the narrative.

  • A roll of 20 doubles Hits.
  • Striker features like Sneak Attack and Hunters Quarry add 1 Hit.
  • Sacrifice of a Healing Surge adds 1 Hit. This would be a Minor Action, but may be applied after the hit roll.
  • Bluff and Acrobatics Skill Checks may be made as a Minor Action to achieve Combat Advantage.
As an incentive to speed play, offer 10xp per character level each time a player finishes his turn in under 60 seconds. This can really add up!

The purpose is to encourage fast moving and entertaining resolution to an encounter, perhaps with a bit of flair that can be lacking from grid-based roleplaying. Encourage players to think out of the box and let the 20s fly!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

DMing on the Borderlands, Experiments in Public Gaming

These last three weeks have been my first experiences DMing at a local game store, the amazing Guardian Games. I joined up to meet people in a new town and to finally become a member of the RPGA, completing my D&D gestation.

I have been DMing Dungeons and Dragons Encounters, Season 3: Keep on the Borderlands. The adventure is provided by Wizards of the Coast as a promo and organized by the store. Each week players all over the world roll through the same fight in an ongoing scenario that plays out over the course of 20 weeks. Its only two hours a week so its great for a quick D&D fix.

Session 1

It was my first time DMing in public and I had a great time! My voice was a little raw after an hour of shouting, but I'm looking forward to next week! The DM pep talk before the game was great and I hope that becomes a tradition.

I had five players. One was completely new to rpgs, a friend of mine I conned into showing up, and the other for had more Encounters experience than me. This led to a few corrections here and there as I sussed out some of the ruling conventions of the Encounters format (does everyone really get to add the cleric's d6 die to their healing surges during short rests? I always ruled that you can use them if you didn't during the fight). I kept threatening to pull out my fumble charts from my home game...

It was interesting to play as sort of a public administrator. I felt somewhat less than the all powerful deity of the table, but that is probably for the best. I brought minis and some random tokens. I'll bring a few extra tiles next time. And I need pipe cleaners!

Everyone played the pre-gens and seemed happy with them. One experienced Encounterer said he prefers to play pre-gens. My friend who rolled his first d20s was happy that he ended up with the dwarf slayer because of how simple it was to play. And he got the killing blow on the drake.
I like the adventure. It is a classical fantasy adventure (reminds me of old Conan stories and WFRP), and I pretty much just started by reading the boxed text. The players talked with Benwick a bit but got down to it quickly. I tried to shoehorn in as much of the background stuff as I could into the conversation, establishing the distrust between the folk of the keep and Sir Drysdale (who I kept calling Clydsdale).

The fight itself was lots of fun. The thief snuck in early and the plan was to lure the monsters out of the cave. Unfortunately a low roll on a second sneak check had them rolling initiative. The thief did tons of damage. The mage zapped the minions. The knight intimidated the dragonborn into surrendering, and the cleric ended up down in the pit holding the lizardman trapper off of the prisoner (and nearly dying in the process). The mercenary was allowed to leave with his life, but no sword or money.
All in all a fun couple of hours.

Session 2

This week I only had three players, and that made for a short fight! I removed one bandit and had the minions arrive in waves and the knight, thief and cleric plowed through them. Perhaps I pulled too many punches? I did bloody the knight and thief in the first couple rounds.
It was a little bit of a let down to be done so soon. We wanted to go on to the next encounter! I wish I would have played up the tavern scenes a lot more, but I think just having less players makes a much speedier game.
It was nice to play in the back room where it wasn't quite so loud.

The best part was the Encounters After Hours at the bar. Tic Tac Toe on a hamburger and much geekery over microbrews!

Session 3
Using the pennies for flaming sections of floor worked great. The encounter was neat. The skill challenge during the fight worked out nicely. It did require that the wizard player initiate messing with the sigil, but then even the new guy had his character go and knock over the brazier! The players were a bit confused by the mysterious escape of Ronnick, theorizing that if he could summon these elementals then why couldn't he turn invisible or do a number of things to escape? Others wondered why he would burn his own home to cover his tracks. They took the evidence to Benwick who was very pleased. He urged them to hurry to the Well Hideout and promised to beseech Drysdale for a reward on their behalf.

I have to thank Max (our DM coordinator) for some GREAT handouts: partially burned documents incriminating Ronnick marked with the sigil of Tiamat, and a map showing the "Well Hideout"! That was a great touch. I even rearranged the geography of the plot (in my head!) to accommodate.

The fight was on the easy side again. It helped that the wizard froze the water elemental and pushed him back two rounds in a row. The fire elementals had low defenses and low hit points so they went poof in two or three hits. I ended up keeping the Water elemental alive for an extra round or two until the skill challenge had been completed, which I think helped the drama.

I was thinking it would help a bit if the fire guys created a burning area when they died as well. Something to force the characters to move through burning terrain...

All in all, a good session. I had a full table and the players seemed well engaged. A new player made up an Essentials wizard in under 10 minutes at the table!

Session 4

A fight in a ruined watchtower, this encounter was forgettable. I forgot to account for the midnight darkness when placing artillery, and the heroes easily took care of the situation. We had three new players this week, although apparently they were from another table who's DM showed up late.

This evening didn't quite scratch the itch for me, just fed the monkey and left him wanting more, to mix some addiction metaphors.

Session 5

I discovered some of the drama of public DMing, but "Into the Dragontooth" was the best encounter yet for my table!

The Heroes followed the Kobolds of Tiamat into a waterfall carved cavern at he base of a low chalk promontory. Perhaps it was because I rolled a critical hit on a slime surprise attack, but the this one seemed to have more drama and player creativity than previous session. I think it was the rope swings.

The encounter began with the two(!) halfling thieves scouting forward into the cavern. One made his perception check and the other did not. He that did not was attacked and then attacked again as I one initiative. He was down before he even had a chance! As the party
sloshed through the waters, or swung like Tarzan as one knight did! to battle the nauseous slimes the kobold sniper was revealed, Halfling Number One was healed and shimmied up a rope but was followed so he swung across the cavern, over the battle, caught a second rope and used that to swing right over the patch of mushrooms! There were many huzzahs! So much so that Halfling Number Two did the same trick from his position.

In all it was an epic fight. The terrain offered fun and games, and the Squelching Slimes both had hit points to keep them going a few rounds and nice Push mechanic which kept the defenders shuffling around as well. I wouldn't mind putting one of the slimes on the
ceiling if I was going to run the game again.

We had six players at the table but the battle was still finished in 1.5 hrs. I don't know about the players but I'm liking the Essentials classes. They're faster I think. Less of an "I play this card" vibe than sometimes happens in 4e.

I had the same three new players from last week this time. This fills out my table as I've had three regulars each week. Last week I had six while another DM ended up not running a table and afterwards I commented to a friend that if only the new guys had mentioned that their regular DM was late we could have spread the players around. I attributed this to gamers lacking communication skills, but it turns out I was wrong, they were defectors!

I don't know what the issue was with the other DM, but for some reason these three players were done with that table and had decided to stick with me. As a public DM I was caught in the middle. I wasn't going to turn anyone away, but it might suck to be the other guy. On the other hand I do like a smaller group.

The upside is that one of these new players is a young kid, maybe 13 or 14, who is a joy to watch. He doesn't care much for all the tactics and gaming strategies and instead plays his thief as the greedy self centered character he is, happy to attack when the risk is not too great. Its like a breath of fresh air.

At these public games I often mention how I'd do it at my home table (crits and fumbles!) but I feel like I don't want to rock the boat too much, even if I would prefer players not to interrupt another's turn with unsolicited tactical advice. Lot's of fun, but I'm looking forward to playing privately again.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Obsidian Portal: Campaigns

Here are links to my two campaigns posted on Obsidian Portal. They are called War of Fire and Ice and Legacy of Brutality. Both take place in the imaginary world of Neradia.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What is Neradia

Neradia is my first name spelled backward, with -ia added for sense of place. As such, this blog will be about my imaginary worlds, and playing Dungeons and Dragons.