Friday, June 25, 2010

Lazy Weekend One-Shot: The Legend of Zelda in 4e

Ever find yourself bored and wanting to run a throwaway game for some reason? Maybe you want to just get some people together to drink and grill and play a game while doing it. That made me think. Any old fantasy Nintendo game is great for this purpose. Why? They simply didn't have the storage space to make the games long and complex. So let's start with my personal favorite, the game my mother made me go outside in order to allow her to finish.
So how does a single player hack and slash style rpg translate to tabletop? Well, poorly. Fret not, I have ideas. It's pretty simple, the maps are already there for you. You can either print out the maps, the squares are already there even!, or you can just draw out the overworld map and leave it be and use a second map for the dungeons. Either one works.

The biggest thing to overcome is the combat. That's actually really easy to do, again, Zelda already does this for you! Everything is either a minion or a boss. Now there are different colors of minions, and different brackets, but they remain minions. This isn't as complicated as it sounds. The colors are easy, everything, with the exception of bats, slimes, lasagnas, mummies, hands, gargoyles, ghosts, golems, snakes, weird flower bugs, rabbit dudes, mermen and skeletons , is broken down into either red or blue. Red is weaker than blue. The exceptions are easy as well.

The creatures take one, two, four or eight hits to die. Again, everything is a minion, so you just count the number of hits and that's it. They are different than normal minions in this way, but still really easy to keep track of anyway. By the end of the session, everything will be back to dying in either one or two hits anyway.

List of One Hit Kills:
Red Octorock
Red Spiders
Blue Spiders
Little Slimes
Red Moblins
Rabbit Dudes (ranged only)

List of Two Hit Kills:
Blue Octorocks
Blue Moblins
Weird Flower Bugs (must not be moving)
Red Sandworms
Big Slimes
Red Centaurs

List of Four Hit Kills:
Red Knight
Blue Centaurs
Ghosts (when not moving)
Red Wizards

List of Eight Hit Kills:
Blue Knights
Blue Wizards

Now, items, health and leveling. Keep the original stores and item prices around the world. Just roll to determine the treasure from a random monster.
1. Nothing
2. One Rupee
3. Five Rupee
4. Ten Rupee
5. Twenty Rupee
6. Heart
7. Faerie
8. Nothing

You can multiply the Rupee rewards by the number of players in the game if you want them all to have the items bought. If not, then don't. Now, there will be Heart Containers around the world still. You can either keep them in their spots or move them around however you see fit. Skill checks made in place of bombing or rafts or the old man are reasonable substitutions. You can do a lot with player ingenuity and creative here to make the game fun and not just make it collect quest. For example, one of the walls could be an illusionary wall and the players could find it and then have to solve a puzzle to make the illusion disappear. You get the gist.

Now, Heart Containers are how you level and your health. Everyone starts with twenty-four hit points, and your surge value scales accordingly. Your number of surges is still based on your class, but surges and health are replenished by either a potion or a trip to the faerie spring. A potion or a faerie spring resets dailies and daily magic items as well. Finding a heart allows you to spend a surge and regain eight +surge hp or you just gain eight hp if you are out of surges. Finding a faerie gives you twenty-four + surge hp or just twenty-four hp. Potions do not spend a surge, obviously.

Leveling, Hit Points, and Healing. Finding a Heart Container raises your max hp by eight and your surge value by two. Once you have accrued four heart containers, you ascend to fourth level after finding your magical weapons. Once you have accrued nine heart containers, you ascend to ninth level after finding your legacy weapons. Once you have accrued thirteen heart containers, you ascend to eleventh level and select a paragon path as well. So, everyone will need to pre-generate four sheets total. Easy enough to keep track of again. Healing can still occur from player sources as normal. However, with the above healing methods, having a leader is not required to play this way.

Taking Damage. Damage is again easy. Everything deals either 4, 8, or 16 damage. Once your party acquires the blue rings, you gain Resist Half Damage. Once your party acquired the red rings, you gain Resist Three Quarters Damage. The way you determine the damage done is to look at the above monsters. One and Two Hit kills deal four damage, Four Hit Kills deal eight damage, and Eight Hit Kills deal sixteen damage. Traps deal eight damage. Bosses deal either eight or sixteen damage.

Dealing Damage. You start off dealing one hit worth of damage. No matter what class you are. The area and control abilities still function as per normal. Ongoing damage will count as a second hit when they take damage from it. Once you get your magical weapons, you deal two hits worth of damage. Once you get your legacy weapons, you deal four hits worth of damage. In addition, every weapon has the Project Weapon power.

Items. Items are just like they are in the game. Blue Candles can only be used once per combat and deal one hit worth of damage but the flame persists for two rounds. Red Candles can be used unlimited times per combat and deal once hit worth of damage, with the flame persisting for two rounds. The candle flames start in a square adjacent to you and move three squares before stopping and persisting in the third square until the end of the next round. Anything in those three squares takes damage. Arrows deal one hit, Silver Arrows deal four hits worth of damage. Arrows are not stopped in enemies and work as a ray attack in a one square line all the way across the drawn map. The Strength Bracelet lets you move Overworld objects that may be moved. Everything else functions just as you imagine it would. The object that are required to be used to kill bosses would still be required. The flute would still teleport them around the map. The boomerang can be used to collect items as a standard action or target an enemy as a ranged basic attack. If successful the enemy is stunned until the end of their next turn. The wooden boomerang has a range of five. The blue boomerang has a range of one room or area. The shortcuts work the same etc. Players are encouraged to talk about items they would like at the appropriate levels prior to playing so that leveling means you gain the items as well.

Combat. At the start of the game, everyone rolls initiative. That's the initiative for the whole game until the party levels. Once the party levels, initiative is rerolled. The party always gets a surprise round every combat. Combat should be fast paced and near constant in this game. Players can choose to skip combat unless they are locked in a room. They just spend movement to go to the next area and the entire party is transported there. Boss combats are normal solo encounters and you are encouraged to make the boss fights fun and unique. There are lots of dragons and things that could be abominations, also dinosaurs and plant monsters!

Project Weapon Power Heritage Power
At-Will * Arcane, Weapon, Implement
Requirement: Must be full health
Target: One Creature
Range One Room/Area
Attack: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma +2 (+3 at 4th level, +4 at 9th level and +5 at 11th level) vs AC
Hit: One hit (two hits at level 4, four hits at level 9)

Defenses. Defenses scale with the monsters. Build them as you see fit type-wise. Level wise, one and two hit monsters should be level one. Four hit monsters should be level four. Eight hit monsters should be level nine. Bosses are either level four, eight, nine, ten or fifteen.

Dungeon difficulties. Pretty much just go by the difficulty in the game. Dungeons one through three are scaled for level one. Dungeons four, six and seven are scaled for level four. Dungeons five and eight are scaled for level nine. Dungeon nine is scaled for level eleven, regardless of if they have attained it.

Boss stats. Wing it really, but keep it cool and fun and go with the general boss feelings of the game.

So that's pretty much it. You can change up the plot however you would like, though I recommend keeping the original plot as it's as straight forward as it gets and just making the NPCs more robust and real to explain their presence, who they are, and give Hyrule more lore and history. Make the weapons cool, heroic and epic through the NPCs. You can also give out treasure in loot hoards in the tri-force rooms instead of just awarding it when they level as well.

There's not a lot too it, really. I think it would be a pretty fun way to kill a long weekend, and a way different method of checking out 4e.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sometimes the DM makes bad decisions

Such was the case last night, when faced with some monsters on an adventure that we had never seen before, collectively. The first encounter of the night went well, and the group had a difficult time but won and got to look cool doing it. Everyone had a moment to shine in the fight, which was good.

However, I was apparently trying to murder people all night as I rolled a collective 14 20's on the evening. It was absurd. For such instances of ridiculousness I have given all players the following power.

Oh Crit
Immediate Reaction Personal
Trigger: You are hit with a critical hit or take your bloodied value in damage in a single hit
Effect: You are able to make a skill check to describe how you are increasing your defenses. Some examples include making an insight check to get a bead on how they are attacking, using bluff or intimidate to show you have thrown off the effects of a mighty blow, stealth to use their own attacks as cover now that you know them, arcana to weave a quick cantrip that is easily diffused, but protects you, etc. The possibilities are up to the player and it is considered a success by meeting or exceeding DC 10 + CL. If successful, you gain a +2 skill bonus to all defenses until the end of your opponent's next turn.

No one decided to use it, maybe because they think it might be a crutch I am giving them. Really though, all this does is let you add some mid-fight roleplay and improv to temporarily give yourself a hand after a bad round. I think it's cool.

The second fight of the night was the bad decision fight on my part. I saw two things that might possible need to be changed. To my credit, I feel, I did say that they might possibly need to be changed and we'd see how this went. The thing I changed was the phase spiders having the attack "first failed save: stunned, save ends". At third level. Third level! Ridiculous! The thing I did not change, but in hindsight should have changed, as it frustrated everyone it seems, was the spiders had an ability that allowed them to teleport people away if they moved near as an immediate interrupt. There were 13 phase spiders in the fight, 10 minions, 3 regular, and a higher level controller that caused some havoc and damage but they dispatched of him pretty easily.

One of the melee decided to be the combat medic for the fight because he couldn't get near the monsters really, not going for the controller because he assumed the controller was even more horrible. This was pretty awesome and he saved a lot of people, but he was still frustrated. This is entirely my fault. Always running the chance of not being able to attack the monster you are trying to attack is not that fun. Even though I said we might need to drop it, I didn't for the fight, and I should have. Especially since the spiders could teleport as movement, never provoking opportunity attacks.

The water was a big obstacle for the group as well, and the water dealt 2d6 damage and slowed you if you were a non-aberrant and started your turn there. The spiders kept trying to web and drop the people in the water. Even though this, I believe, is what they spiders would want to do, it was frustrating to the party. Again, I understand why.

Though it was tough, the party did eventually win and were rewarded nicely for it. The first combat was a ton of fun for everyone involved, and the second one was cool at times and frustrating at others. The set up was awesome and it felt nice to really utilize the entire map. It was a good change.

So what did I learn?

1) Interrupt teleports should not be on every creature.
2) Trust my gut when I see something like that in the future.
3) Swapping stunned save ends for ongoing damage is the right call at this level.
4) Monsters behaving as monsters is a good thing.
5) Soldiers are still mostly bullshit.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A quick mirror's edge tutorial

I recently bought Mirror's Edge on Steam (thanks $5 weekends!), and I wanted to share my experience of the game briefly. Mostly, when you have to fight, you fight police officers. There are two types of police officers. You quickly learn which of the two police officers you are supposed to fight.

This is an example of a police officer that it is ok to fight.
He's just a dude. He's got a uniform. He's got a gun, he will try and shoot you with it. Beat this dude's ass. Take his gun and shoot him with it if you are feeling like being a dick. I never shoot anyone if I can help it, it slows down my running from police officer type 2.
They have machine guns and body armor. They are not ok.

Now you know everything you need to know about Mirror's Edge combat!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Soldiers, the Hard USA Superweapons General of 4e

Command and Conquer: Generals is one of my favorite RTS games. It combines tongue-in-cheek stereotypes and very solid game play. It is also great because I can use it to illustrate a point today. Generals had three difficulty settings for skirmish play. Easy, Medium, and Hard. However, there were hidden difficulties that once you started playing the game you realized. Prior to the release of Zero Hour, the expansion, there were three groups you could play. USA, GLA and China. Hard USA was significantly harder than any others. Making this the fourth difficulty. Zero Hour introduced generals with specializations. So generic Hard USA was still more difficult than any of the others, except for Hard USA Superweapon. Hard USA Superweapon was perhaps the most god awful devastating AI I have seen in a game. USA Superweapon gave everything lasers. Everything. Turrets, tanks, random dudes. I think even their missiles had lasers.
The point is, this was the fifth, extremely hidden and not announced difficulty. You just had to experience it and know about it to truly know what you were getting into should you then select it.

4e DnD actually works this way. You don't realize how awful things are until you really experience them. The snake fight is a good example of this, so is any fight with stun (save ends). However, the secret difficulty setting is really simple, adding soldiers. Do you want your fight to be a lot more difficult with little or no change in level and xp reward? Add soldiers! High defenses, high hit bonuses, good damage and usually awful conditions! Woo, welcome to soldiers! Equal level soliders are a pretty good challenge, elite or not. They are difficult and if there are a lot of them, yikes. Lower level soldiers are still a good challenge, did I mention the high everything? In your xp budget, you can actually use more of these lower guys too, making things both harder and easier at the same time. Higher level soldiers? Ugh. Just ugh. Even if you have good feats and good equipment, it's going to be a really tough time hitting these guys.

Now, do you necessarily need to do something about this? Not really. That's just how the game is set up. Just try and be cognizant of it when you are budgeting your fights. Soldiers are worth more than their counterparts, almost every time.

Are there things you can do? Sure, in a game I ran, I chose to give the players a way to lower defenses and increase damage taken on the showcased soldier NPC. It worked out alright. If I had to do it again, I would probably have it decrease defenses a little less, but it made the showcased items a commodity that was carefully used throughout the fight. That being said, do you need to do that if you are actually staying within xp budget (hint: I did these things because I specifically was NOT)? No, not at all. It's just something to keep in mind when setting up fights.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I did run session four of Planescape this past weekend, to at least my satisfaction as I won't speak for the players, but I am not ready to talk about the mechanics of it yet. I spent so long on that session that I need some time to decompress from it. Anyway, here is a quick picture to illustrate the first, in a hopefully series, or climactic battles, in which at least the Gnome made a lifelong enemy. The Dragonborn made an enemy in just getting into the mission, I think.

Anyway, I had this idea for a fight the other day. It might or might not be super cool, but it would need some special rules. Here's the pitch. The players are either hired to work escorting a barge of supplies from one city to another in a large kingdom, or they are hired to stop the transport of the goods. Here's the twist. The "barge" is a ship that has been tied to the bodies of dragons in order to keep them afloat. Three in the front and three in the back and one on each side have been assigned to keep the barge going. The players either must fight on the barge or the dragons, or attempt to pilot their dragons in such a way as to then be able to board or fight on the barge or dragons.

It's not really that complicated. First, you have the general set up. No matter which side the players are on, the rules are the same. The barge requires two people, one at the front and one at the back to keep a handle on the dragons. Keeping the dragons under control and their speed constant is a minor action. To boost or slow their speed is a move action. To cause them to attack is your standard action. Only one dragon can attack at a time.
Here, the barge is brown and the barge dragons are green.

The exception to this is to allow a nature check to let a dragon act on their own. If they have taken no damage, the challenge is DC 10 + 1/2 CL. If they have taken any damage, the challenge is DC 15 + 1/2 CL. If the dragon is bloodied or worse, the challenge is DC 20 + 1/2 CL. Once you fail a nature check, the dragon acts on it's own from that point forward until their opponent is killed.

Now, you have enemy dragons, either the players or just plain enemies, incoming. They are blue. Piloting a dragon is the same as controlling a dragon on the barge. As you can see, the dragons on the barge are tethered at the start. You may leap from barge to the dragon and from dragon to dragon using the following skills:
Arcana - using a quick cantrip or manipulation of raw magic to direct the wind around you and buoy yourself (DC 14 + 1/2 level)
Athletics - you climb and jump across (DC 14 + 1/2 level)
Acrobatics - You tumble, leap and otherwise flip across (DC 17 + 1/2 level)
Nature - You speak with the dragon to extend a wing a bit and allow you across. (DC 17 + 1/2 level)

These skills may be used to aid others climbing across as well. While on a dragon, you must success a DC 10 Endurance check or be knocked prone, if you are attempting to cross or fight on one.

Now here, you can see the two parties start to meet. The blue team is opening themselves up to lots of attacks, but they are trying to enrage the dragons and free them from their tethers to make the boat more unstable and bring it down. The barge team is staying put and focusing fire on the dragons, hoping their riders will lose control.

Riding a dragon, you must succeed in an Arcana, Diplomacy, Intimidate or Nature check in order to keep control of the dragon once it enters combat. This follows the same rules as the barge riders letting the dragon act on their own. The difference is that you, as a rider, controls the actions of the dragon fully as if you were the dragon. Once you leave the dragon, the rules are exactly the same.
Now you can see the chaos start to unfold. One of the blue dragons has been downed, one of the green dragons has been downed, and three green dragons are off their ties. The ship, while not crashing, will slowly descend. The green dragons and blue dragons are going to be battling it out, so you better hope that the riders are safely on that barge, or are going to make their way there soon.

This is a high risk, high fun-potential battle that lets players control dragons to a limited degree as vehicles, before eventually becoming shipboard combat. It's not a perfect system or skill challenge, but it definitely has a lot of potential to be awesome.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

That snake hit you so hard that the you in a parallel universe just lost a healing surge

Last night was the first session of a hopefully regular game set in Chessenta, a nation in the Conan the Barbarian Forgotten Realms setting. As promised, there were snakes. Two of them actually, with foulspawn riding them. Before the players for to that though, they murdered the shit out of some goblins and hobgoblins. The half-orc rogue braved a potential bath and even tackled the one who was running for it's life. The poor hobbo almost made it to the river too.

The black crown on purple is the sign of the Nothing-King. The strange and enigmatic figure ruling over the Chasm of the Nothing-King, where the Adder Hills used to be. The Adder Hills, of course, are now floating over head, being the problem to shit that can fly. The goblin fight was not without perils though, as deadly, deadly, bees swarmed all over two of the players and made an official Bad Time for them.

Eventually the group gets to their launching point, the town of Maerchlin, where they discover that the item they need to recover is an axe that was, at one point supposedly, wielded by the Red Dragon God-King in the execution of those that had personally betrayed him. The town, though it has numerous other problems, citizens being kidnapped, the town being attacked by strange shadow creatures, and the occasional murder by beings made out of the night sky, was saddened by the loss of this object, which was apparently perpetrated by two large crystalline spiders.

This task was decided upon from 6-8 possible avenues for adventure the group could have chosen. They decided they wanted to kill some goblins to start off with and chose the area in which they knew they could find goblins. To be fair, that is the first thing they did. So, mission accomplished!

Shortly there after, the party found itself in a strange chasm, filled with giant mushrooms, strange faintly glowing fungi, twisted and blackened trees, being overlooked far in the distance by an exceedingly large and strange guard tower. The group made some stealth checks and nature rolls to remain hidden. They tracked their strange quarry to a spring which had been redirected to make a small lake. They found some boats and began to cross the lake, about half way across, the horror struck.


So, this was the first time in any 4e game in which water combat was a concern. It was an eye opener for all of us. The combat, which consisted of two large serpents, two foulspawn, and one water dervish, was eventually won by the PCs, but it was ugly. The foulspawn did not have cowboy hats. I wanted them to, though.

There are several lessons I learned from this combat as a DM, and that the players learned as players.

1) If you have water creatures that never leave the water, advantage water creature. The players and I both learned this lesson simultaneously.

2) When you have a water creature that only deals damage in water, and it's a flat out, that creature can be devastating if not immediately handled in some fashion.

3) Clumping is still bad, even in water.

4) 2d8 is a lot of damage at 3rd-4th. Those snakes were awful. Their bite did 2d8 damage and then had a chance of 2d4 and 5 ongoing after that. They had a tail swipe that did 2d8, only once but wow. Now, they were easy to hit, and their hit ratings weren't great, but damn. That's a lot of damage at 3rd-4th.

5) Consider giving players a way to increase their defenses after a particularly devastating round of combat with a skill check of some sort. This is something I was thinking about after the session. Yes there is total defense, but that's your action. Encouraging situation appropriate RP and tactics should give some sort of bonus. If you got snake slapped, attempting to use the snakes own tail as cover the next round isn't a bad thing to allow. Using athletics or acrobatics to latch on to the snake as it flails to increase your defenses would be cool. Allowing a bluff or intimidate check after being critically hit to shake the morale of the enemy would be cool. I am pretty sure I am going to incorporate this, I just need to fully think of how.

6) Snake Rape might replace Drake Rape as the most common reptilian sex crime.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Kratos says, "IT HAS BEGUN!"

By now, everyone has seen this. In discussing this yesterday, and reading through comments, someone referenced this article. I have several issues with the article and disagree with a lot of the generalizations made.
I don't really have any issue with a dating site that caters to gamers. The equivalent of gamer phone sex either, honestly. People pay money to watch a morbidly obese woman walk to her car, it's certainly not any stranger than that. It's like saying that J-Date is a horrible thing because it caters to Jewish people looking to date other Jewish people. It's ridiculous when you think of it like that. People want to date people they share interests with, it's not a new concept.
Two words, Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero changed the way video games were perceived. It's now ok to play video games. The audience has expanded. It's a thing. Businesses are holding meetings in Second Life. Not, you know, normal businesses, but still. It's always been ok to play a sports game. Sorry, I just don't buy the gamer stigma any more. It's a huge industry now.
The second point made is that the industry thinks we are all seventeen year old douchebags. He cites, of all things, God of War 3 as the first game to single out. Is there some sex and nudity in it? Sure, but it's done with a point, and it's not at all, pardon the pun, the thrust of the series or the game. The storytelling in God of War 3 was amazing. It brought the series to a satisfying conclusion and kept Kratos a horrible and compelling character. Few games have awesome endings, this is one of them.

He expounds on this with Bayonetta. His argument is that the creators took a long time making her realistically gorgeous looking, and then made her seductive. Sorry bud, that's like asking why James Bond has Bond Girls. It's not a video game specific phenomenon. It's not some secret double standard.
Now, I do agree that video game storytelling has been traditionally poor. He makes a point regarding the Wizard of Oz and other traditional movies. However, for every movie that's a classic you have a Manos, Hand of Fate. There is a dearth of shitty movies. It's a fact. However, video games are often based on movie tropes we have seen, and this is why the tend to make poor movies. Castlevania is a Dracula story. Resident Evil is a Night of the Living Dead. Prince of Persia? Alladin. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a great game, is basically Scarface. Now, there are rare exceptions. I point you to Planescape: Torment. A game so great people still borrow it and play it ten years later. Portals will undoubtedly be another type of game like this. Half-Life and Half-Life 2 are both solid stories. God of War is really phenomenal in all honesty, very satisfying. Fallout is a great series too, awesome story telling. Eternal Dark, most Bioware games, the list goes on. It's not exactly common yet, but strides are being made. Alan Wake and Heavy Rain are two solid examples of this.

Shiny gadgets? Sorry, that's society. It's Apple's fucking business model. Moving the fuck on now...

Last, we come to his climactic point, sense of entitlement. This is really a OMG PEOPLE ARE STEALING GAMES IT KILLS THE INDUSTRY! point. I have some very simple counterpoints to his argument. When talking about the indie game bundle, he said the average was around $9 per donation. Guess what? I hold out for huge deals on Steam for the same price. I guess that makes me terrible. If you are taking a gamble on something, you don't want to pay full price. It might be awful. I wait on a lot of my console games to come down in price too. If I don't care about the newness, I can save a lot of money and have a good experience. Also, the people stealing the games? Yeah, they wouldn't be paying for the games anyway. People who steal shit are never the target demographic. That's like saying I am a dick for watching a movie on broadcast TV instead of at the movie theater. I didn't pay for it, yet I am still experiencing it. There is no way I would have paid for that movie if I didn't care enough to see it in theaters. The same applies here. Often, as people grow up and get jobs, they stop that and can afford to pay for the games.

People can bitch about DRM and which came first, but it's not a sense of entitlement. It's a justification for not wanting to pay. It's the gaming equivalent of "I'll wait until it's on TV", or on Netflix or Hulu as the case may be. These are not people that would be supporting your franchise or game anyway. It's all just a justification.
As to why console gaming is winning over PC gaming? Again, it's not hard. PCs are way more complicated. It's more do it yourself, most stuff you have to keep up with, and you have to upgrade it in order to keep up. Consoles require no upgrades for the life of the console. As long as the PS3 is the latest PS you know it's good. Eventually, you will buy a PS4. That's it. You insert the game, you play it, you're done. Xbox 360 is the same, but even easier. It's all DirectX and .NET framework. It's awesomely easy to keep programming for just that. Now, the majority of those often dual release on PC. I guess we shouldn't talk about that for his argument though.

Anyway, that's enough soap box from me. Tomorrow I'll talk about a DnD game with snakes.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

When Angels Attack! (next on Fox)

I had this idea after reading The Plane Above and then playing in a game last week in which we, the players, controlled a summon angel to fight some stuff. It's simple.

Angels, as described in The Plane Above, are beholden to no god, but all gods. Angels are the servants of the deities, and the deities they serve change from hour to hour or day to day.

That got me thinking. What if there was a battle where one, maybe more, of the creatures on the field were angels, and you were facing off against the divine agent of an opposing god? You would be on a holy task yourself, and, importantly, you'd be in another domain or even plane than the two primary deities listed.

The fight setup might be something like this:

Kord has tasked you, through an intermediary, with the destruction of a temple dedicated to the Primordials, housing a cult that uses a brand created by Erathis to control abominations. Through this, they are hoping to break into portions of Carceri and control and free the abominations locked within. Kord has given you a gauntlet laced with his divine power to shatter the brand on contact. Bane has decided that a brand would be useful to him, and has dispatched his own group of mercenaries and devotees to instead capture the brand.

The site itself is actually a temple to a forgotten god and many angels fill the halls above the temple itself, still trying to enforce the edicts that were imposed centuries ago. Each group sees the other at roughly the same time and the two groups start to go at it, in the Hall of Forgotten Angels.

Here's how the combat would work. First, the general set up of the combat.
The blue squares are players, the green squares represent unaligned angels and the red squares are the troops of bane.

1) Any worshiper of Kord, or the person carrying the artifact could make a religion, intimidate, history, diplomacy or arcana check (the person carrying the artifact gets a functional +5 bonus to all skill rolls to do this). Bane has sent two holy men on his side, so each of them would get to make the same check on their turn.

2) Non-worshipers may roll bluff, diplomacy, history or intimidate at -5 to attempt to persuade the angels.

3) The base DC to persuade an angel is DC 15 + 1/2 level if the angel is currently unaligned and DC 20 + 1/2 level if the angel is aligned (this goes for the PC level in this case so the challenge can scale in any direction)

4) You may spend a minor action to try and persuade one angel. A standard action can be used to persuade two angels.

5) Any failed attempt at persuasion ends your attempts for that round, regardless of the action type you spend.

6) Angels act immediately once they are persuaded.

7) Once angels are aligned, they stay aligned to that god and act on that initiative until such time as they become differently aligned.

8) Angels become unaligned once they are bloodied for the first time.

The PCs act win the initiative and act first. The first round looks like this for them.

As you can see, the PCs have persuaded several angels and now they are using them to move forward. The PCs have four additional angels ready to wreck some opposing god face. Now the Banesworn get their turn.
It's not looking so good for the players now. The Banesworn have four of their own angels now, two of which were previously angels working for the players. Two of the angels remained unaligned and are thus out of the fight for the moment due to the Banesworn option to try and turn the tides against the players earlier rather than playing it safe.

The tides of battle could shift dramatically, with the angels playing the roll of terrain obstacle (you must move around them), trap (you must try not to catch them in area abilities in order to not aggravate them), ally, and enemy. The players might opt to kill the angels off completely, just to get them out of the combat and send them back to the Astral Sea in order to serve a purpose once again. Should the players align all of the angels, the banesworn might withdraw in order to try and live another day, surmounting those odds seems unlikely!

As for the angels? Well, they end up straight out of China Town.
Sure, they are confused and having an identity crisis, but they are just vessels after all, unless they are archangels or have names. In which case, they don't really qualify for this situation. This seems like it would be a pretty awesome way to incorporate some mythos, some skill challenges and some interesting combat tactics into a fight.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Condition! Save ends

4e has a lot of bullshit. It's not harm-signature spell bullshit. It's not maximized poison bullshit. It's not mystic theurge bullshit, but it's bullshit nonetheless. Here's what happens.

The DM wants to tell a story. The DM write the story first, for his near or just paragon tier party (lower levels there are instances of this, but it's not so bad). The story might go something like this.

The players are going to fight some devils sent by Asmodeus. They are looking for an artifact from the Dawn War that allows a being of sufficient power to siphon off the prayers of deities in order to strengthen their own magic. Devout followers can be sacrificed in order to gain power. This was something the primordials used in order to ramp up their power and weaken a god's power at the same time. For someone like Asmodeus, who loves to sacrifice people, this is a great object of desire.

Obviously, the players aren't going to stand for this and they will fight his minions at every turn before eventually fighting some sort of lieutenant that's in charge of the whole thing in a big, climactic battle.

Easy enough right? That's where the problem starts. The party is 4-6 people and anywhere from 8-11th level. You are getting to the meat of the game, so to speak. You start going over the monster manuals in order to desire some encounters revolving around devils, maybe some undead, maybe some aberrants or something, and you are a little daunted by what you see.

You see an array of monsters that your party might hate you for, if they are at all used. You start seeing condition modifiers all over the place. Most of the time they lead to other condition modifiers or spikes in damage...or both. You start seeing immobilized, save ends (not a big deal. That leads to, if target is immobilized, take a bunch of extra damage and maybe also be dazed or stunned, or even dominated. These start to be damn everywhere you look. Sometimes, it's even worse. Sometimes, you get penalized just for hanging out near the guys. You start off weakened, or you have lowered defenses, encouraging the conditional violating even further.

Here's a typical level 11ish encounter group for a party of 5:
2 Chain Devils (level 11 skirmisher) - at-will, restrained! save ends.
1 Gorechain Devil (level 12 Elite brute) - encounter, refreshes on 5 or 6, dominated, save ends (passive aura that keeps people within 3 squares of him, I might add)
1 Modified Gibbering mother (level 10 controller) - difficult terrain aura, free action 1/turn, burst 5 - dazed until end of next turn, at-will
2 Damned Choir (level 11 soldier) - swarm, immobilizes as a minor, passive damage aura and lowers will by 4

Yes, conditions are a big part of fourth edition. Yes, you should really prepare yourself to make a lot of saving throws. Yes, the party can inflict a lot of conditions on monsters as well.

Yeah, but...

Yeah, but let's talk about what that really means for a second. Monsters fill the field, and you can't really give them a condition, other than marked, every use of an ability. Elites and solos might as well not even worry, as they get bonuses to their saving throws. There are many ways to boost saving throws as well, that's true. Feats are certainly one way, but taking saving throw feats is a mixed bag at best. You give up so much in terms of power and utility in order to, essentially, be able to continue playing your character. Items are another way. That is tricky too, unless you make your own items or try and purchase the specific conditional save items that you want (fear, stun, immobilize, daze etc). Not to mention, if you have a party, that money is going to get split and it's going to take a while for everyone, or even one person to have that specific item.

So how do you handle this? There are a couple of methods I think would work well in this scenario.

1) Give out conditional save items as party treasure, once.
This gives the party a taste of what could be out there, and if nothing else, one person, probably a defender or leader, is going to be very happy. Once the rest of the party sees this in action, watch them all want one.

2) Give them information relating to a powerful named object that is really just a normal conditional save object.
This whets their appetite. They will want to, hopefully, learn about this item and what it can do. After they do, and fight things along the way to maybe find materials to make the item or even find the item that do horrible things to them, they will definitely look into having several.

3) Just have a talk with the party once they hit 9th or 10th, explaining to them how the game is going to work from that point forward. It gets a lot more serious a lot quicker than previous levels to that point, for the most part.

4) Destroy the party first, talk with them second.
I don't normally follow this route, but it depends on the party. They might have to see the awfulness in order to really understand.

5) Look for other monsters.
They are out there, but it's hard to write a good story around picking certain bad guys only. It certainly feels like pulling punches also. Not that there aren't other awful things out there, because there are. Oh yes.

6) As per comment discussion - consumable conditional save items.
Here's the pitch. They give you a temporary bonus to something like, daze, immobilize and restrained. The bonus starts at +4. When you decide to use this bonus, you spend a healing surge and reduce the bonus from +4 to +2. When you use it again, you spend a healing surge and the bonus is entirely consumed. The effect on you is a daily, consumable magic item, so it can't be used more than once a day, even if you make or have a bunch. This assumes responsible governing of the items, but if you want to run a tougher encounter or a one-off with a lot of effects, it's a good option to have.

Regardless, it's something you start having to account for as a DM. I believe that as a DM it's up to you to find a good way to introduce a way for this to appropriately fit the style of your party. The party will probably listen, and you should know them by now.

The big point is that the party should not be surprised about the conditions. The party should be surprised by the monsters and the story, but not the conditions. If they know what they are going to fight, letting them know what to expect isn't out of the question for the first time either. Afterwards, look into one of the points above. It will make for a happier party.

I have been lucky enough as a player to have DMs that mostly understand the big points, and a few of the players do. The rest could use a helping hand to get to the same level. That's player and DM responsibility.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Minions, not just for minioning any more

Minions are awesome. I love minions. There is nothing better than slaughtering a handful of minions at a time and not even sweating it. Don't get me wrong, minions are a threat. They provide combat advantage, they aid in attacks. They serve a valuable purpose. However, how would you run a level appropriate fight with all minions? Here's a story of how I did it, entitled, Sewers are Bullshit.

The fight took place in the sewers of Sigil. The room was filled with armor, scraps of metal, weapons, torn papers, bits of cloth, coins, you name it. Essentially it was a vent room for the storm drain pipes of the city. This particular room had four large bore pipes that came into it, and two sets of four valves on either side of the room corresponding, you guessed it, to the pipes overhead.

The encounter started with the players entering on one side of the room and them seeing a lone, lowly imp spin all four of the valves and then turn invisible. As the room was filled with sludge and magical gunk from up above, the armor on the ground became animated with an unholy presence. The room was suddenly filled with Infernal Armor Animus (animated armor powered by devil souls)!

Here's the breakdown of the mechanics.
1) Each player has an option to stand in the same square or adjacent to a valve. They may spend a minor action to turn one or two valves either preemptively or as a held minor action that occurs simultaneously with the imp.
2) A standard action let them spin up to four valves. They were allowed to turn, move, turn if they spent their standard action to turn valves.
3) The imp did nothing but turn invisible and then turn valves while moving. The imp only required a minor action to turn all four valves. Turning invisible is a standard action.
4) For every valve turned by the imp, 1d6-1 minions spawned.
5) Anyone, including the minions, caught in the dumping sewage took one of the following random effects determined by a d6.
a) 1d8 points of poison-fire damage. (the magically imbue sludge is noxious and burning)
b) Bolstered! +1 to attack and damage rolls (the magical aura speeds your arm and mind) (until the end of the encounter or hit by Hinder)
c) Hindered! -1 to attack and damage rolls (the magical aura slows your arm and mind) (until the end of the encounter or hit by Bolster)
d) Vulnerable 5 fire (save ends) (the residue clinging to you smokes slightly and appears ready to burn at the slighting spark)
e) Vulnerable 5 poison (save ends) (a gooey film covers you, acting as a catalytic enhancer for poisons)
f) Resist 5 fire and poison (end of the encounter or until hit by a vulnerability)
6) Perception and Insight checks (DC against his stealth with invisibility penalties (each round accumulates a +1 to the next check until a success occurs by the players)) revealed the imp's position and gave the players a chance to counteract the pipes.
7) Each valve and series of valves turned different pipes. You can make this as easy or as complicated as you want. I made it middling difficulty, so the players had to watch a few rounds and learn what pipes did what.
8) The far door was magically sealed with a puzzle. Two players had the necessary text objects to solve the puzzle themselves, or aid the other party members. They got this information during the course of the game through text props and bad guy notes they intercepted.
9) If the players blocked a pipe, a cloud of the above random effects lingered in the area under the pipes as defined by the circle. No saves are required, just entering or leaving the area was enough to gain or lose the effects.

So that was the challenge. The players in question defeated 27 minions, several players were knocked unconscious, one player was knocked unconscious several times, and they eventually killed the imp. The look on their face when they realized the armors healed the imp when they died was priceless.

As one player said, "maybe we should have tried arcana or religion to learn more about those guys!". So true, skills are knowledge, and knowledge is power. Especially in a world of integrated fights and skill challenges.

That's the basic set up of the encounter I ran. All minions and one little imp lurker. They players had a great time, and loved the integrated skill challenge as part of the fight. Now, I have to think of more interesting fight scenarios.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Investigations? In MY 4th Edition?

I've played 4th edition starting the week it was released through current times, in which I play two or three separate campaigns. There was a brief gap there where I didn't play 4e, but that was because a few games dissolved and we waited for them to start back up again. That said, I probably played 4th for almost a year before running into my first skill challenge. This experience, though it was a strange skill challenge and used some strange DCs, operated a little oddly, and was very obviously the group's first attempt at something like this, it opened my eyes to the possibilities that could exist in a system that was built in order to support a concept like this one.

Maybe I should back up a little. I had an idea for a story that revolved around a modern fantasy setting where magic was common place and so was the variety of races. Their technology was lacking in some areas and superior in other areas as their magical prowess made necessary. The problem was, this was going to be a detective story. So, how do you track down killers and solve crimes in a fantasy setting where magic is common, people can turn invisible, alter memories and do innumerable horrible things? I didn't know until that first skill challenge. After that first skill challenge it was clear, scrap the story idea and run this as the central idea behind a campaign.

Without getting too much into it right now, I decided to revive the planescape setting, converting a lot of non-existent stuff to 4e and then reworking or adding a lot of the current planar setting to make the game make sense in the 4e cosmos. The players were to be the Custodians, a group of people taken from each of the factions and put together under the command of the city in order to investigate and solve crimes that demand special attention. One of the twists was that everyone picked their own faction. Players got missions for each major arc that they tried to successfully complete. At the end of the major arcs, players got a chance to guess one other player's mission.

This seems like it would create conflict, and perhaps it would have, if not for additional rules. First, the Custodians are supposed to be outside of the faction wars. So, if the Custodians are caught, player discovered in this case, performing a task for their faction, the faction isn't allowed to act on the mission results. To do so would be to invite punishment by the Lady of Pain. Successfully completing missions would never effect players either, as Custodians are protected by the Lady of Pain. To harm them would be to invite wrath upon your faction. Obviously, factionless groups, monsters, etc. have no issues hindering the players physically, and factions and mess with their minds just find. What does this mean for the players practically? Well, completing a mission grants bonus xp to the whole party. Discovering a mission grants bonus xp to the whole party. This creates an environment that is supposed to foster fun competition without it getting down and dirty like say, Paranoia.

So far it's been pretty good. People tend to forget their tasks, even with me giving them copies of their mission every session. No one has gotten upset or frustrated though, so it's not a total failure!

Back on topic here, I decided to set up an investigative system built around the skill challenges. I believe that skill challenges should be somewhat open ended and as long as you can describe what you are trying to do given the use of an appropriate skill, it should be allowed. This means a lot of work on my end. I spend a lot of time before each session coming up with ways that players might use skills, or at least how THOSE skills might be related to OTHER skills. If the skills are related I just up the DC on one of the skills and would give out the same information they would have got given a different skill use.

Skill challenges can ruin the flow of the game at times, especially if you have to state each time you are in a skill challenge and then dole out which skills are appropriate to use. What I do is use two differently colored poker chips. After describing the scene for the players, the first player to act becomes the first of each round. Once the player has acted there are three possible outcomes.

1) A yellow chip is added to the table, indicating success and that they are in a skill challenge.
2) A blue chip is added to the table, indicating failure and that they are in a skill challenge.
3) The player decided to aid a friend, in which case 1 and 2 are just delayed.

The biggest problem is creating the right conditions for failure and making sure that failure means something. I've opted for a pretty basic rules set for failure, following the idea that all information is valuable and there need to be many ways to get it. An investigation game is only as good as the information presented and getting stumped because they failed one challenged and missed crucial information just plain isn't fun. This means that there has to be penalties without stopping the actual game story. This list is what I have used so far.

1) Each scene has two failure limits. The first failure limit indicates that the difficulty of the encounter has decreased, lowering the party's overall XP reward. The second indicates that the scene ends and the group has to move on elsewhere for information.

2) The party receives incomplete information as the scene ends. This has almost always lead to a fight scene as the party was lead into the mastermind's devious trap. Usually the fight reward is the rest of the information or at least additional information that might lead to another skill challenge.

3) Punishment as it is recommended in the DMG. This actually isn't bad. Players lose healing surges, they become distracted lowering their initiative for the next fight, etc. These are all acceptable actions that show the consequences of failure without really stopping the investigation.

4) Missed information results in a harder encounter down the line as a result of the missed information, prior to the climax of the arc. This is always coupled with enough information during the encounter itself to reveal what was missed and how that might have been avoided.

5) Tangible rewards. A lot of scenes have specific items and treasure hidden about as rewards for doing well enough to spend actions just searching the premise. In this case, the punishment is not getting that stash of gold or potions, or even magic ritual or item. This is an easy one to use, and the players might never have a clue.

The key is that information is never the reward of the scene, just the speed at which it is gathered. This might mean adding extra encounters as the game story progresses, but that's just part of the fun an excitement running this type of game.

Give an investigation encounter a shot in a game. Who knows? The players might love it, and so might you, the person running the game.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fire solves everything

As the name of the blog implies, I am a fan of fire. I am not a pyromaniac, mind you. I don't want to actually light anything on fire on a regular basis, save for my work from time to time (and pretty much anything I could light on fire provided I had an arson ray). So what is it about fire? As long as you don't worry about finese, fire is awesome in games, video and tabletop alike.

Fire is used as a hazard in games all the time. Most games throw monsters that shoot fire, are made of fire, or use fire as a weapon fairly early in the game's life span. You can almost guarantee that if it's a fantasy game, you will fight a dragon that breathes fire at some point. You can bet that someone is going to shoot a fireball in fighting games. You will fight in a ring of fire or while the stage burns in most platformers. There's lava everywhere. The majority of encounters in MMOs boil down to "DON'T STAND IN FIRE" where fire actually is anything bad that you shouldn't stand in. Gussy it up all you want, it could be an electric unicorn that radiates deadly bees, but players will still call it fire.
It's used in tabletop settings to show things are from some place evil. It's used to show that people must hurry to save someone. It's used to show that some place has been horribly burned to the grounds. It's a display of wizardly might. It's a show of draconic power. It's also the symbol of purity and holiness. Holy fire and flame of purification are both pretty common motifs. No matter where you look, there fire is, ready to burn it's way into your heart and soul with flames of love.

What you don't often see is fire used as part of a party's game plan. Sure, the wizard might fireball something from time to time in a totally cinematic fashion. You might burn the odd giant spider web from time to time. Heck, you might even burn some bodies to stop them from rising as the undead. I'm here to tell you though, fire is always an option for you and your party. There is nary a situation that can't be solved with fire. Much like the above situations though, these solutions all lack finese, but they get the job done.

You are trapped in an inn? Burn the inn down, forcing you and your enemies to flee or fight in a Ridley Scott inspired fight scene with tons of burning shit flying the air. Either way, problem solved. You are searching for the Lost Ruins of Yekalis in the Forest of Urdwin. Solution? Burn that forest down! You will see the stone ruins before too long, plus, things will die in that fire, making your job easier. You are in an enemy town, sent to spy out the plans for the impending war. Light the surrounding buildings on fire and hang out near the entrance, when the people come out, jump them. You are in a swamp. Burn that shit down. Fuck swamps. You want to intimidate someone. Light someone else on fire and be casual about it. Nothing says bad ass like keeping your cool when someone burns while screaming around like a crazy person. You are in a situation where you need a disguise or need to bluff your way through. Considering lighting yourself on fire for scars or to diffuse a tense situation. You need to convince someone you are on their side? Set up a trap that lights them on fire then save their life.

There is nothing that can't be done with a little thought and incendiary devices.

In related news, the pyromancer build for 4e Wizards was released today. The different roleplaying and character options for them are pretty good reading, and the abilities and feats are cool too. If you want to be a controller that does it as a side job, with your primary fire being a total fire-wielding bad ass, it's a great build. If you want to be comic relief, it's also a great build. Wizards are pretty cool already...this makes them...(queue The Who and sunglasses)

Wait, it's not actually like that?

Second edition AD&D was the first D&D that I had experience with. I think I was twelve or thirteen at the time. A friend of my sister ran a bizarre game that made no sense to me at the time. It involved some sort of dark elves killing a lot of weird guys who wanted to suck out your brains and had tentacles on their face. Little did I know at the time the guy running the game was essentially writing his own Drizzt fan fiction. It's not surprising to me now. After all, the kid was 14, R.A. Salvatore's prime demo range.

The game was filled with exactly what you would expect. The DM had his own character that he was using as an NPC, and his character was always the best. The hordes of monsters were there to be slain by him and to make us look awful. There was no such thing as treasure, there was no experience to be had, and the story line seemed to consist of the Dark Elf trilogy. At the end of the session all he said was, "Ok, you level up".

That's how I thought D&D was supposed to be run. I didn't know any better. Dice seemed like a strange thing that you didn't really need to use. You just told the DM what you wanted to do and he decided, arbitrarily what it is you actually did. The DM was supposed to make up a super hero to save everyone and you had paper in front of you to keep track of your hit points. You had weird stats that seemed to make little or no sense as the DM had a screen and would roll some die and say "Ok, you take X much damage" where X was inevitably enough for you to fall unconscious and be saved after some Dance of Death inspired battle shenanigans. After the death and destruction, you went up a level. Experience didn't seem to matter, after all, you just went up a level every time you played. I was told to be a half-elf, because they were always the best. However, you should be half-dark elf. It made sense enough to me.

Somewhere in the mix was a firbolg. Why a firbolg? I really have no idea what a firbolg was doing in the Underdark. I've read edition after edition of Underdark flavor texts and backgrounds. Mushrooms that scream, mindflayers, cavefishers, goblins, duergar, demons, you name it. No firbolgs though. Maybe he was hanging out in some hitherto unknown mushroom forest. Maybe he was half-dark elf. I still have no clue.

My second experience wasn't much better. I played with another group of my sister's friends, all still a few years older than me. It was based in Dragonlance, another setting in which I had no frame of reference. Someone in the party was a mage with silver skin and diamond pupils, really. I was a warrior with dragonscale armor and a shield that protected me from dragonbreath. Also really. I was maybe 13 at the time. The adventures were pretty much exactly ripped from what I later learned to be the Dragonlance Chronicles. Again, no big shocker.

So the question really is, why did I stick with it? I loved the books. I loved reading the books and looking at the art work and learning the rules. I learned that the people I played with had no idea what they were doing. They weren't really playing D&D, they were playing some homebrew rules set vaguely based on D&D properties. I still had a great time, and homebrew rules are a great edition to the game, but it was an early teen game after all. When I started running my own game when I was 15, I began to use the actual rules. I had two or three people I played with, and it was a great way to waste some time. The characters were a little more unique and a lot less stolen. The game took place in established worlds, but didn't borrow any literary characters. The ideas, while not wholly original, were at least not blatant rips offs. I started playing in games run by others my age that were the same way. I played in the forgotten and cast off Red Steel setting and loved it. What the fuck is cinnabar?

So that happened until I went to college, met people who played D&D as well, some of whom had played it for years and learned how fully awesome the game could be. Somewhere around my sophomore year, 3rd edition came out. I loved it immediately. It was much faster and simpler than 2nd. It was much easier to understand and the stories seemed to be easier to be told. The only problem? Most of the settings went away! New settings were introduced and more were updated, but some of my favorites missed the cut. Chief among them, Planescape got the axe. I understand why it did now, but it still hurts. Mostly because Planescape had the best art and it had Torment. No other setting comes close to my love for this one.

The upshot was that by the time I had almost graduated I was playing in several games, all of which had their own worlds and settings. All of the stories were robust and rich, though many were dark and putrid in their own right. The game that I was playing now was nothing like the game I was playing then. It was still great fun, and it's continued to be fun in the years since. I've made the transition to 4th now, and I love it. I consider 4th to be a great basis to build a story around, and boy do I love the skill checks and skill challenges that have arisen. I find them fascinating.

I still remember playing in a game for the first time with people who had written and published gaming supplements for their own for various companies and remembering those first games I played. The only thing I remember thinking was, "Wait, it's not actually like that?" and being filled with excitement as I realized what tabletop roleplaying could actually be.