HP as Community

June 2nd, 2006

Kudos to Judd for a great idea. I think that’s just swell. What do you think?

Wizards in Medieval Society

June 2nd, 2006

Just thought I’d take Martin’s lead and post a link to a truly interesting piece.  I have to admit, the man makes some good points.  Don’t you think?

Conch Play

May 4th, 2006

From The Forge:

Everyone can talk. One person has the rubber-stamp, possibly a conductor’s baton, and if they want to use it, the gavel. They do not have a conch, which inflicts silence and deference upon everyone else as soon as one person has it. Major principle: conch play is no fun.

Conchs may seem reassuring if the person has been trained in play or…has a background of being ignored or silenced. But that reassuring quality is an illusion, a sweet notion that disappears as soon as you hold it for a bit and play turns into a series of struggling monologues delivered in voids, and people dread their turn to speak, not out of shyness, but because it’s dull.

What’s the point of this?  The point is that, even though it may be a given player’s “turn,” and even though other players’ characters may not even be in the same room, we should all feel free to throw suggestions out to the group if we think we can make the game more fun.  Each player still “owns” his character, and has the final say in what that character does or says.  This is just extra communication: saying “I think it would be cool if your character did this — what do you think?”  If the “spotlight player” knows what he wants to do, and just wants everyone else to shut up, he can say so.  But nobody knows what awesome ideas might come from this kind of free speech.

Metagaming be damned.

-Will

How to Create Awesome

May 2nd, 2006

From http://forum.rpg.net/showpost.php?p=5673179&postcount=21, on the subject of reliably creating “awesome” moments in role-playing:

Figure out the palpable features of “awesome” to you. Example: To me, one mode of awesome is when a player is willing to take a moral stand without having demonized all other view-points … when they’re willing to say something that someone could reasonably disagree with, and stand by it.

Make a game that objectively rewards that palpable action. Dogs in the Vineyard creates a situation where any moral judgment is going to be questionable … and then massively rewards players who are willing to make a moral judgment even so.

Play that game often enough that your group understands the value of the reward, and starts thinking about how to get it. First-time Dogs players often try to “solve” the town. I did my first time. When they finally understand that the town isn’t meant to provide them with easy answers, and they aren’t meant to seek them, then the awesome begins.

Sit back and enjoy the awesome.

Do you wonder why some people are serious (even fanatical) evangelists for their favorite Indie Games? To my mind, the reliable results of the sequence above provides the explanation.

If you play Dogs in the Vineyard you will get awesome-cool moments of players making real, human, moral judgments … every single time. If you play PTA you will get awesome-cool moments of players riffing off each other’s ideas and making something greater than the sum of its parts … every single time. And so on, and so on. That’s the kind of mojo that people want to share, even (especially!) with folks who don’t believe in such mojo.

And my response, here:

Corollary: for games like D&D, Iron Heroes, and the like, awesome is the seeking out and completion of kewl, fun encounters. Agree/disagree?

Further: what are good ways for players of such games to seek out (or, in other words, collaboratively create) such encounters during play?

What do you guys think? I’m looking forward to seeing what ideas come from this…

-Will

The Upside of Metagaming

May 2nd, 2006

From http://forum.rpg.net/showpost.php?p=5670923&postcount=10:

Never weigh cause and effect without metgaming: The GM and I took active steps to be on the same page as each other. This is one of the really great things about being able to influence your PC’s environment as a player: if there’s no IC reason to do something interesting to move the plot, all you have to do is say that something happens to give yourself a reason, and any GM worth his salt would be able to roll with it, albeit given some time to think up a good response.

I agree with this 100%. I suspect that some of my fellow players might be appalled at the very thought, but I think it’s great. Normally, many of us strive to remain faithful to in-character motivations, and choose actions for our characters based on those motivations; in the above, we would choose actions based on our motivations, as players, and from there we would create in-character motivations to justify those actions.

We need to remember that metagaming, in a sense, is good, because when it comes right down to it, our fun, as players, is the most important thing in the game. And fun is a meta-game consideration.

-Will

Player Knowledge vs. Character Knowledge

March 28th, 2006

You know, I used to think that “good roleplayers” should always “firewall” during play, but I find these three articles, as well as the comments that follow them, to be intriguing, and, in a way, brilliant.

Anyway, one easy-peasy way to solve this “problem” is to create new monsters by simply changing old monsters’ appearance.   I remember reading about a guy who took a D&D displacer beast, gave it shaggy white fur, and put it in an arctic climate, and his players had no idea that it was just a bog-standard displacer beast in new clothing, even after the encounter was over…

What do you think?

Taking the Death Out of D&D Combat

March 25th, 2006

Stream-of-consciousness thought:

Dogs in the Vineyard, which I totally have to play with you guys sometime, uses conflict resolution with stakes-setting to, well, resolve conflicts. Each party involved in the conflict states what happens if they win, and once that’s agreed upon, they roll dice to see who wins. It’s neat.

What about D&D? D&D’s strongest mechanic for determining who wins or loses a conflict is its combat system. In most D&D games, combat ends up being the focus of play, since it’s so much freaking fun. Since D&D combat can be deadly — one (un-)lucky crit, and someone can be pushing up the daisies before they know what hit them — we usually set up encounters so that they can safely be “to the death.” DMs expect their monsters and bad-guy NPCs to be killed in a fight; players fear for their characters’ lives in a fight, and expect to kill their opponents if they win.

To summarize: In D&D, combat is king, so we center conflicts on combat, so our conflicts usually end in one or more characters — player or otherwise — shuffling off this mortal coil.

What if we turned it around? Combat will always be king, so we shouldn’t fight that; we should embrace it as D&D’s conflict resolution mechanic — whether the stakes we set are for death or not. Here’s the process that I’m imagining:

Conflict of interest -> Set stakes -> Begin combat -> Winner of combat wins stakes

Example: Mialee thinks Regdar is a spy working for one of her enemies, and wants to drive him away; Regdar knows Mialee has been tricked into thinking this, and wants her to believe him. He tried Diplomacy, but that didn’t work; Mialee attacks!

Set the stakes: If Mialee wins, Regdar has to go away; if Regdar wins, Mialee realizes that he’s telling the truth, and stops trying to scorch him with her rays. The two begin mixing it up, with lethal force; normal D&D rules apply. Except…

Winner of combat wins stakes: …when one or the other of them hits -10 hp, they don’t die, they just lose. Mialee smacks Regdar with a lightning bolt, dropping him to -10 hp; “And don’t come back!” she yells as Regdar, outmatched, flees. Or Regdar slices Mialee up a treat with his longsword, dropping her to -2 hp; she falls to the ground, helpless (new rule: but not unconscious), and he “coups” her by gripping her by her cloak, pulling her close to him, and hissing, “I could have killed you just now, but that isn’t what I want. Now will you please believe that I’m not a spy?” And she does, because he won.

Obviously, this would take some getting used to, but I kind of dig the feel of it. What do you think?

On Boredom, Improvisation, and Collaborative Play

February 22nd, 2006

Whilst browsing teh Intarweb during my lunch hour today, I stumbled upon a few interesting blogs and discussion forums on the subject of roleplaying. A number of the articles, while focused on a style of gaming generally not associated with D&D, were very thought provoking. What struck me most was the way the authors thought very critically about their gaming – something I think we don’t do enough. I’d like to write about things that happen in our games – both good and bad – and get everyone thinking about them. What’s good about our games? Why are they good? What’s bad about our games, why are they bad, and what can we do to fix them?

Boring Games are Boring

One problem I’ve often been faced with, both as a player and as a DM, is boredom. And as different as the jobs and duties of the players and the DM are, I think the root causes of boredom during games are pretty much the same. What’s more, there are plenty of things both players and DMs can do to make sessions more interesting for everyone.

What Can Players Do?

One thing we can all do as players is to have goals for our characters. Too often – and we are all guilty of this – we slap a name, race, class, and alignment on a sheet of paper and call it a character. It’s easy, and maybe we don’t have a good idea of how we want to play that character yet. While I’m generally okay with the develop-in-play style of gaming, I think it does bring a number of problems along with it.

One problem is that it can be difficult to overcome the inertia of procrastination. “I’ve already got a character statted up, and I’ve already been playing him for a few sessions. I still don’t know what to do with him personality-wise; I’ve mostly been playing myself in a hobbit suit. But who cares? I can still play, and I’ve been really busy lately…I’ll just worry about it later.” In other words, it’s easy to decide to go with the develop-in-play style, and then never get around to developing in play.

Another problem is that it leaves all the work in the hands of the DM. You haven’t provided any adventure hooks, and you haven’t provided a way for the DM to get your character interested in the game. You’re letting him do the driving, and you’re just a passenger. You pretty much have to hope that the DM can come up with something that entertains you. If he doesn’t, you’re bored.

If, on the other hand, you whip up a quick background and a few goals and motivations for your character, you’re golden. I’m not talking about a ten-page essay on your character’s history (although that’s fine if you want to do it). Just a couple of words here and there will do it. Some games call them “flags” – brief descriptions of things that are important to a character.

If this sounds like work to you, think of it this way: it’s your opportunity, as a player, to tell the DM in no uncertain terms where you want the game to go. Your brother was slain by a goblin warlord. You became a wizard because you’re terrified of dying, and want the power to extend your life indefinitely. You’ve stolen a bauble from a merchant during what was supposed to be a routine burglary – but it turns out the merchant is a powerful noble, and now you’re on the lam! If your character has goals and motivations, then the DM will pick up on them and produce interesting situations that can challenge and excite your character – and you.


What Can the DM Do?

We must always remember that the DM is a player, too, and thus shoulders some of the responsibility of keeping the game interesting. It’s unfortunate that he’s usually saddled with too much of this responsibility, but there are still lots of things he can do to alleviate the problem.

One thing you can do as DM is to keep a close eye on the pacing of the game. Watch your players. Know when they’re bored, and do something, anything, to move things along at that point. Make something interesting happen. Don’t be reactive about it if things are slowing down. Be proactive. If the players’ eyes are glossing over, take control and make the game exciting. If the PCs are in the city with nothing to do, bring the adventure to them. A cadre of ogres charges the town, laying waste to its buildings and its citizens! A cutpurse filches your magic dagger and runs off through the crowd!

I think it’s clear that if there’s one thing we all hate doing as DM, it’s railroading – and with good reason. However, I think sometimes we go too far in the other direction. It’s okay to make things happen to the PCs. I recall that Tony’s campaign essentially opened with a dying dwarf stumbling into a tavern, laying his hands on my half-orc PC’s arm, and transferring a series of magic runes onto the brute’s arm as the dwarf died. For all that it’s cliched, it’s also effective. How do I get these things off my arm? They give me nightmares, and I can’t sleep. As if that weren’t bad enough, now I have a gang of cultists trying to kill me because of them. It’s interesting, it immediately involves my character, and now I’m drawn into the game.

It can be tough to come up with a lot of this stuff on the fly, though, which is often when it needs to happen the most. There is one big thing that we can do to make this easier, and it’s something that the more traditional DMs among us are going to have a hard time accepting.


What Can We Do Together?

A great many roleplaying game systems out there focus on what’s known as “collaborative play.” In essence, such games do away with the distinction between GM and player; everyone’s a player, and every player has a little GM-ness to him. I think we, as D&D players, have a lot we can learn from collaborative games.

Let’s work under the assumption that, as DM, we don’t want to relinquish all of our control over the game’s direction to the players. If this isn’t a safe assumption, then no worries; all of this can be applied in much broader strokes. With that out of the way, what can we do to make our games more collaborative?

One easy and popular thing we can do is to have our players flesh out details of the setting for us. Even with established campaign settings like The Forgotten Realms, there’s plenty of creation to be done. Have players detail their home towns, their families, friends, and enemies. Have them create NPCs, sites, and items that interest them. Let them have an impact on the game world right off the bat. If Bob’s playing a ranger with favored enemy (undead), let him weave that into the setting. Maybe his character is part of a professional undead-slaying team; Bob can stat up the other members, and help you figure out how the team fits into the world. Or maybe his character’s home town was wiped out – destroyed utterly – by ghouls when he was just a child, and he’s devoted his life to hunting down these abominations of life as a result; Bob can provide details concerning the town – and even some details about the undead themselves. Players of druids and clerics can do writeups of the orders to which they belong, players of rogues can detail their thieves’ guilds, and so on.

Another, less common – and more interesting – thing we can do is to open up the floor to the whole group when things start to drag. Heck, we can even do this when things aren’t dragging! Remember what I wrote above, about how the DM should make something interesting happen? The players can do that, too. A player can be the one to suggest that the city be attacked by ogres, or that a thief try to snatch someone’s magic dagger. It’s okay if nobody knows anything past that one event – if we’re not sure why those ogres are attacking, or who the thief is. Maybe the event triggers some great ideas in the DM’s mind, and he can take it from there. Or, if not, the players can lend a hand again. I know you bastards in my group have great ideas of where my games might go; I can hear you laugh about the possibilities. Why not take the opportunity to make those possibilities a reality?


We are So Doing This

I am going to volunteer to guinea pig these ideas. Nik, Ed, and/or Tony may all DM games before it’s my turn in the Captain’s Chair again, and if you want to give this a whirl yourselves, well, I encourage it whole-heartedly. But if not, just wait till I’m behind the screen again, and we’ll try it then.

One of the blog postings I read talks about each campaign having a focus – something the game is ultimately about, and will revolve around. The players, having been told the focus by the DM (or having come to an agreement regarding the focus ahead of time; no reason this can’t be collaborative, too!), create their characters with the focus in mind – characters hand-crafted to play well with that focus, and with each other.

I dig this. Here’s an example of how my game will go if you guys leave it up to me to provide the focus.

The War with Iuz

The focus of the campaign will be the war with the evil demigod Iuz. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working for the King of Furyondy or you’re a ragtag band of mercenaries; the campaign will revolve around the conflict between Iuz and the rest of the world.

Knowing this, you’ll tie your characters to this focus. I will offer you a great deal of leeway in your endeavors to do this. Most of you haven’t provided me with a detailed history or anything, so revising your characters to fit this focus shouldn’t be a problem, but if it is, you’re free to create new characters that fit it better. Basically, you’ll each give your character a connection to the war with Iuz. Your character has been affected by the war in some way; he’s got a stake in its outcome, and a reason to see the war ended, with your character on the winning side. I don’t even care which side that is, as long as all the player characters share the same side (i.e., I don’t want half the party on Iuz’s side and the other half against it). Note that the characters do not have to share the same motivations for being on the same side. Maybe it’s a matter of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”; that’s fine. However you want to do it.

Also, your characters will fit with each other. Some conflict is okay, but I want them to have a reason to travel together, and to stick together. Adventuring is dangerous. Do you really want someone you don’t trust being (at least in part) responsible for your safety? I didn’t think so. So give me a reason why your character trusts the others in the party.

Furthermore, each character should have a brief list of “flags” – things he thinks is important. Something past his connection with the war with Iuz. Flags are simple things, like “wants to be honorable” or “detests oppression.”

Each character will also have goals. What does your character want to do when there’s nothing pressing being inflicted upon him? He’s back from a long week of dungeon-looting, he’s sold all his booty, and now there’s nothing but peace and quiet. What now? Your stated goal (or goals) will answer this question.

All this – deciding on the focus, and creating/revising characters to fit it and each other – will take up one gaming session. I know, you don’t want to waste time on this stuff during our normal gaming time. I don’t care. We’re going to do it anyway. I have faith that it will pay off in the end.

After that first session, I’ll have some great tools at my disposal for adventure crafting. I’ll look at your flags and goals, and I’ll create NPCs that play off them. I’ll create allies and foes that appeal to and challenge your flags and goals. I’ll also do my best to prep some standard-issue adventures, for when the game gets to dungeon-crawlin’.

And it will. I think so far, my campaign has been primarily about dungeon-crawling. But it can be so much more. How much cooler will it be when you have a reason to be spelunking – not because your characters were hired for the job, but because they have something personally at stake?

A lot cooler, that’s how much.

Then, once the game is underway, I’ll not only do my typical DM stuff, but I’ll encourage you to do it, too. If things drag, and I’m stuck for ideas, I’ll make you come up with them. Come up with something. Anything. Don’t worry about how it will fit. As long as it’s not completely off the wall, we can work together to rationalize it and flesh it out later. It’ll be great!

Sorry. I’m excited. I love this idea. And I think you’ll have fun with it too.

-Will

Why Defensive Casting Isn’t Overpowered

February 14th, 2006

First, let’s look at a few “average” cases.

First level spellcaster with Con 14. With max ranks in Concentration (4), this character will have a +6 bonus to his Concentration roll, meaning he must roll a 10 or higher to defensively cast a 1st level spell. Is this overpowered? Clearly not; it’s a 45% failure rate. That’s 5% higher than if he were a wizard wearing half-plate and casting normally. It’s abysmal.

Seventh level spellcaster. Max ranks in Concentration (10) means a +12 bonus to his Concentration check, which, in turn, means that he must roll a 7 or higher to cast a 4th level spell. Better than at 1st level, but still a 30% failure rate. You don’t see wizards wearing chainmail for a reason — a 30% spell failure rate sucks.

Let’s leap forward. Twentieth level. 23 ranks in Concentration leads to a +25 bonus. The DC to defensively cast a ninth-level spell is 24. Aha! Finally, he doesn’t even need to roll. Then again, he’s a near-epic-level spellcaster who has poured precious skill points into Concentration since his career began. Clearly, casting defensively is something he wants to be good at, at the expense of other things; I say, let him.

Aside from all that, he could beef his Concentration bonus up even further. The Combat Casting and Skill Focus (Concentration) feats could net him another +7 to his roll. Before you get too excited, though, remember that he’s burning two feats to do this. Feats are powerful, and every feat you spend to get a special ability is a feat you can’t spend on something else that might be even better.

Still not convinced? Consider that defensive casting does not equate to spellcasterly invulnerability in battle. A caster who is in melee range (and thus able to provoke attacks of opportunity) is still getting smacked around by large men wielding larger swords. Defensive casting does nothing to prevent normal melee attacks, nor does it help against readied attacks, which is the real pisser. That fighter who has readied to stab you if you start casting a spell will always get to try to stick you if you cast, defensive casting or no; furthermore, the Concentration DC the caster will face if he gets hit will be brutal if his opponent is any kind of threat.

On the other hand, I recognize that the current defensive casting rule means that defensive casting checks are unaffected by the caster’s opponent’s combat prowess, and that this might be undesirable. As such, I’m open to ideas on how to incorporate this factor into defensive casting. It might be pretty tricky to do so, however, without swinging things too far in the other direction; you don’t want wizards getting p0wned by fighters. They’re supposed to be balanced.

Concerning the Nature of Heroic Fantasy, or The Suitability of Infant Elves as Adventuring Adversaries

February 6th, 2006

Last weekend, as I prepared my living room for my group’s weekly game of D&D, I received that most feared of phone calls: the DM cancellation. Christian, who was going to DM that session, couldn’t make it. It was too late to call the other two players I was expecting and tell them not to come – and besides, I wanted to play. I’m a rotten DM when it comes to full-on improvisation, but I figured we could have a game anyway, even if it’s a crappy one.

Anyway, I lucked out. When Tony and Nik showed up, Tony volunteered to DM for the session. Nik and I rolled up characters – a couple of bad-ass first-level half-orcs, his a sorcerer, mine a barbarian – and then we were off. It was great fun, especially when Nik’s character, Zugnuk, traded a ruby he didn’t know was worth nearly 2,000 gp for two slightly irregular potions of cure light wounds, a 60 gp value. Zugnuk sad.

One thing led, as it so often does, to another, and Zugnuk the Sorcerer and Karash the Barbarian found themselves riding their noble steeds down a dirt road. Up ahead, Zugnuk spotted a couple of thick bushes flanking the road. Tony mentioned that it looked like the perfect spot for an ambush, and that Zugnuk spied what looked like something metal glinting in the sunlight in one of the bushes.

Quietly, we tethered our horses and examined the bush more intently. Suspecting an ambush, Karash drew his bow and let fly an arrow.

Tony (paraphrased): “You hear your arrow hit something, and then a metallic creaking sound…then nothing.”

Karash, no longer patient enough to be cautious, drew his axe and ran toward the bush. Goblin bandits? Kobold marauders? Let them come! I am not afraid.

But it was much worse than goblins or kobolds. It was a single elven baby, lying still in its metal cradle, an arrow firmly lodged in its neck.

Nik and I looked at each other in horror and kind of laughed nervously. “Seriously?” I asked. Tony nodded. “Is it my arrow?” I asked, already knowing – and fearing – the answer. The DM confirmed it.

Now that I’ve wasted eight paragraphs describing the events leading up to this, I’ll get to the point of this article. I’ll preface it by saying that Tony did a very good job running the game that night. Neither Nik nor I were prepared enough to run anything, and, as I said, I know I’m not good enough to improv a game at the drop of a hat. Tony stepped up to the plate and gave us a very entertaining – if somewhat disturbing – game. Even with the elf baby, it was a really fun session, and I look forward to the Continuing (Mis-)Adventures of Zugnuk and Karash.

The thought that came to my mind, however, at this point during the game is this: do dead elven babies belong in heroic fantasy? My instinct is that they don’t, but I’m not sure that such tragedies don’t have a place in D&D. Certainly, Faromir, Aragorn, and the boys never commited accidental infanticide, but this game certainly isn’t restricted to Tolkienesque high fantasy. So, it’s an interesting question.

One thing to consider is that I may be overreacting. A week or two ago, I watched Trainspotting for the first time on cable with my girlfriend. It’s a good movie, and very funny at times, but there’s one scene in particular where the infant child of one of the heroin junkie characters is found dead from neglect in its crib. That image haunts me to this day. They did a very good job on that fake dead baby. I almost wish I hadn’t seen the movie at all. So, that probably has had some impact on my reaction to the deceased elfling.

And, certainly, there’s the fact that I’m a normal, (mostly) mentally-healthy human being, and thus feel a certain expected amount of shock and revulsion at the thought of killing – even vicariously, even in a game of make-believe – a baby. But is that all there is to it? Heroic fantasy also sets certain expectations, I think. D&D is a game about medieval super-heroes. It’s a game in which mighty barbarians and powerful wizards delve into Dungeons and slay Dragons. Last weekend’s incident was as unexpected as anything could be in such a game. We expect swords, sorcery, Killing Things and Taking Their Stuff, and we get dead babies.

And there were certainly ways the DM could have handled things differently. The arrow strikes the cradle instead, bouncing harmlessly off its steel surface. A Listen check reveals the loud crying of a disturbed and frightened infant before Karash even has the chance to draw his bow. The arrow could have even struck the critter that Tony later told us was in the bush with the child, about to attack the baby itself. While I’m not saying that Tony made the wrong decision, that there were other ways he could have gone means that it was a deliberate choice to go the dead-baby route.

On the other hand, the incident is certainly memorable. The stark contrast between such dark reality and the otherwise light-hearted tone of the game is compelling. Two not-too-bright half-orcs bumbling their way to fortune and glory, and then…dead baby. The more I think about it, the more it really is like Trainspotting. Anyway, it’s most definitely one of those Moments in Gaming that I’ll never forget.

I admit, I’m worried that Tony will be offended by this. Tony, I hope you’re not. I’m not impugning your DMing skills at all, and I actually want to thank you for running that game on such short notice, and for giving us such an interesting game – and an interesting topic to kick off this here blog! Anyway, it was fun, and I hope you’ll continue that campaign at some point – and I think that’s the greatest compliment a DM can receive.

So, everyone…what do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

-Will