November 30, 2010

Dark Sun: The Ivory Triangle

Recently WotC rereleased the Dark Sun setting for 4E. This article is part of a series that examines a release from 2E Dark Sun and sees how and if it can be integrated with the new 4E version of the world setting.

The accessory we’re looking at today is The Ivory Triangle, published in 1993. It is a boxed set that includes 3 softcover books; two run for 32 pages and one runs 96 pages. Included are two foldout maps and 6 reference sheets. In addition, there is a short story booklet running 16 pages.
As expected it covers the Ivory Triangle region of Dark Sun. The large book is entitled The Ivory Triangle and covers the same region as in the 4E version of the rules. The first of the smaller books is The City-State of Gulg and the second is The City-State of Nibenay and they each cover their respective cities.


November 29, 2010

Dark Sun: City-State of Tyr

Recently WotC rereleased the Dark Sun setting for 4E. This article is part of a series that examines a release from 2E Dark Sun and sees how and if it can be integrated with the new 4E version of the world setting.

The sourcebook we’re looking at today is the City-State of Tyr (DSS1), published in 1993. It is softcover and runs 96 pages. Included is a foldout map. As well as the Introduction there are 8 chapters and an appendix of maps.


November 26, 2010

4E and Party Unity

Does 4E promote party unity more so than other systems? Is party harmony baked into the rule set? 4E makes a strong case for party unity. This starts right at the beginning of the rule book where it notes that the characters are heroes. It describes the actions of the characters as being heroic, helping those in need. However, other rule sets have done this as well. What does 4E do differently that could warrant a claim that the game system promotes unity more than other games?

A couple of minor points are in their more blatant attempts to highlight the heroic. Look at the newest character building books offered for the Essentials line. Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, soon to be followed by Heroes of Sword and Spell and Heroes of Shadow. These are character building books with the term Hero unashamedly on the cover. They are not being called Lone Wolf of Sword and Spell.

Under Alignment, they clearly state that Good and Lawful Good are the choices for a character and that the other alignments are discouraged. This is further reinforced when we get to the Gods section. All the good and neutral gods are given extensive write-ups, but the evil gods are given only the barest line on a list. Better descriptions of the evil gods are given in the GM’s books, but that is the purview of the GM and outside what the players should be choosing. It's almost like saying evil characters are the domain of the GM.

The above are some of the obvious means of trying to get players to create classes that will work together, but what are some of the more subtle means? The roles and party creation highly recommends forming a party as a group. There are specific functions within a group that need to be covered if a group is going to do well. You need a leader and defender and strikers. You can do without one of those but the game encounters become all that much harder to accomplish. By spreading out the roles required it means a party needs to work together more.

One of the chief contributors to party disharmony is the lone wolf mentality. This is when a player builds a character that can do everything themselves, or at least is built so strongly that they can overpower any obstacle. Such characters don’t need the other PCs and thus it is easy to break away from the party. It either marginalizes the other characters, bringing out bad feelings, or to properly “test” the character’s effectiveness the lone wolf will find opportunities to bring conflict into the party dynamics.

4E and its powers are built to complement the other party members. Abilities either make other party members more effective or allow your character to become stronger. Either by giving or taking advantage of these extra perks provided by the other party members, a party becomes co-dependent on each other. There is incentive to work together.

4E has managed to design a system where a character can do damage (a key cornerstone of feeling effective) and still provide perks for the rest of the party at the same time. It is no longer about making a choice between helping yourself or helping the party, you can now do both. The way powers are set up and used, it diminishes the mentality of the lone wolf and promotes party unity.

When players use their characters to help each other, even if it’s only to better themselves, it brings a group together. A form of bonding takes place. Knowing your daily only hit because you gained a +1 to hit from the other player almost makes you feel in their debt. But with 4E this feeling of aid and debt is spread completely around the party. Even if you don’t want to work with the other members of the party you have to.

One final push for party unity comes in the power descriptions themselves. If a character were to step outside the party and feels the need to attack a member of the party (usually because of the ubiquitous ‘respect’ issue) the powers almost force the character and player over a line they do not want to cross. Most powers are explicit in what they can target; they specifically mention whether it will affect an ally or enemy. If a character were to use a power against a party member he would have to declare that member as an enemy in order for the attack to work. While it is true a good DM will allow such attacks to be used without such a formal announcement, there is an unconscious line of enemy/ally that would be crossed if such a power were to be used on a party member, a line most players do not want to cross. Most inter-party attacks are usually one hits meant to show power or how dangerous they are, but with the addition of the enemy descriptor it alters the approach of such an attack and its fallout.

What do you think? Is the 4E system designed to promote party unity beyond normal systems?

November 19, 2010


We’ve all been at a table where someone else, or ourselves, runs into the worst run of bad luck. We roll and roll and never seem to make the needed number to get a success. This can quickly turn a good night into a crappy night of frustration.

I know that a good DM can turn bad die rolls into a fun and exciting adventure. I know that die rolls eventually even out and the player will start to roll better. I know that sometimes what is perceived as a bad night of die rolling is nothing but perception and not the reality of it. I know that some people need to lighten up and not take a game so seriously.

However, I also know that games are meant to bring people up out a bad mood and not put them there. Its not so much that rolling poorly is bad for the character and group, but rather, sometimes it feels like the world (real and fantasy) is out to get you.

For this, I’ve created the Unfailure Rule. In effect, this allows a person who is genuinely having a bad night of die rolling get at least one success that evening. Here’s how it works:

-Put a bunch of markers (poker chips, glass beads, marbles, pennies) on the table.
-Whenever, a player fails his second roll in a row he takes one of the markers.
-From then on, if he fails a roll he takes another marker. If he succeeds on a roll he puts all the markers back.
-If a player has 3 markers, he can turn in all his markers to automatically succeed on the next roll he makes. The success is minimal, the player gets the exact result he needs to succeed.

I think you’ll be surprised by how rarely a person gets the free success. In addition, so will your players. One side benefit of this system is that there is a way to show exactly how bad a person is rolling. Often a player will roll badly twice in a row (usually on what they perceive to be an important roll) and to them the whole night is one of bad die rolls. With this system they can realize that maybe they are not rolling as bad as they initially thought.
It’s also funny watching players hope they fail again so they can then use their free success on some high-powered ability.

Is this overpowered? Does it give too much of an advantage to the players? Think about it. In order for a player to get the free success he would have had to first fail 4 times in a row. That’s 4 actions that did nothing to help the party or the character and did nothing to hurt your NPCs.

However, I would not use this system if the rule set already includes a way to get automatic successes on die rolls. Some systems have their own set of markers included that allow for a die roll to be bumped up to a success. Just bear in mind that rerolling a die roll does not in fact accomplish what this system does; rerolling a die does not guarantee success, it only provides another avenue for failing a roll.

November 16, 2010

HP Totals

One thing that comes up during our 4E fights is, how damaged is the other party member? The way I handle it is a two-prong answer. A character is allowed to freely know abstracts. By taking a quick glance at a person (no die roll required) they can tell if that person is unwounded (is at full hp), wounded (has lost some hp but is not bloodied), bloodied or down (at 0 or less hp). If a player wants to know more specifically how many hit points a person has left, I allow them to spend a standard action to make a Healing roll and if they make the roll (usually an easy TN) they know exactly the hit point total the other character is at.

I realize hit points are an abstraction themselves, but to allow for a more precise determination of the relative health of a character (without resorting to hp numbers) would require me to set up multitudes of descriptors; lightly wounded, heavy wounds, kirk-scratch, grazed, etc. I find it much simpler to allow hit point totals to show the relative health of a character. This can be translated as such; the character is down 10hp which is 15% of his hp, so I could describe this in character as “I am feeling about 15% of normal” but to keep it easy I just allow the characters to say “I am down 10hp”.

Note that I use this quick determination of relative health during combat when things are moving fast and furious. Outside of combat they can freely state their hit point totals.

How do you handle the question of characters/players knowing the hp total of another character?

November 12, 2010

Foreword of Awesome

This foreword from 1992, found in the Dragon Kings supplement, is full of awesome. Normal forewords are fairly bland, giving a brief description of what the book is about and some thank yous. This one is full of wonderful insights into how a book is produced and gaming styles in general. I’ve seen blog articles with less than a quarter of the gaming insight this foreword has.

I’m gonna quote it in its entirety and add some of my own comments as we go along. Keep in mind it is the foreword to Dragon Kings, a Dark Sun supplement put out less than a year after the Dark Sun was released. It was the 6th rpg book for the Dark Sun line. It was also written for the 2E rule set. In addition, the author, Timothy B Brown, was one of the principle designers on the Dark Sun setting so he had some inner knowledge of the Dark Sun setting and its development.


November 5, 2010

PCs as Companions

The concept of Companions for 4E is something that was presented in the DMG2. This is when a party has an additional character in their party, one that is not run fulltime by a player. In effect, this is an NPC run by the players. The core concept is, “DM built, Player run”. There are a number of reasons to include a companion in a party:
  • Supplement a party if they are missing a key class (such as no leader type for healing).
  • Cool factor (A recent Dungeon adventure allowed for a wyrmling to become a pet).
  • Allow an NPC to be something other than be a lump (for when in-story an NPC joins the party for a short period of time).
There is one more way in include a companion and that is as a companion version of a PC. This can be used on a night where the player can not make it and you still want the character to participate that night (perhaps because that character fills a specific need within the party). Using a companion version of a PC allows another player to run that PC in a much easier and smoother manner than if he tries to run the character off a standard character sheet.


November 2, 2010

The Evil Campaign

More than Dice had an article dealing with how and when to run an evil campaign. He made some good points and in the end he recommended making sure your group is ready and mature enough to play with evil characters. I myself have long had in mind running an evil campaign, specifically one wherein the characters are drow trying to get ahead in drow society. To this end I have spent a fair amount of time thinking of ways to allow for an evil campaign without it degenerating into party backstabbing and general jerkness.
Here are a few ideas.

Give Them a Common Goal 
A common goal can bring a group together and give them incentive to work together instead of working at cross-purposes. You want to make sure they have to work together to accomplish the goal. By, in effect, forcing them to work together they will come together and bond on the in-character level. Players bring their own goals into a campaign during their character generation, but by providing one for them it gives them another reason to stay together. You want to replace their own selfish goals with one that requires a group to accomplish.

One of the biggest downfalls of an evil campaign is the selfishness that can develop. A shared goal will eliminate some of this. Even a selfish player can find reasons to work with the other members of the group if they feel it will bring them closer to their goal, or in this case, the goal you provided for them.

In order to make this work the goal is one that the group can share in. If “there can only be one” to accomplish the goal you are in fact providing reasons for the party to backstab each other. Perhaps the end result requires a certain number of participants.

Example: The recovery and use of the ancient artifacts, the Five Dark Stars. These artifacts require each to be wielded by one individual and those five individuals must use them in concert. By themselves they are useless, but together they provide immense power.
Example: The party’s goal is to take over the drow city. In order to make this work, they will need to each take a certain area of expertise. One to deal with things on the diplomatic front, one to run a spy network, one to deal with magical threats, one to subvert the religious factions and one to run the military.

Avoid Splitting the Party
It’s an old adage to never split the party, but it is perhaps even more relevant in an evil campaign. I am not talking about having the characters split up between different physical locations, but rather in their goals. If you, as the GM, insert individual goals into the campaign, especially ones that cause the party to work against each other then you only have yourself to blame when the campaign ends due to backstabbing. Keep the party working together and all toward the same goals.

Likewise, do not insert adventures “that test the party’s loyalty to each other”. They will fail, or at the very least one will fail the test and that can be enough to end a campaign. This means, do not have a shadowy figure offer great rewards to betray the party.

Provide a Common Enemy
Players who participate in an evil campaign will want to have their characters do bad things. That is the major draw to such a campaign. If you do not provide NPCs for them to do bad things to, they will find someone and that someone is usually someone in the party. Give the players someone to be evil to; focus their badness into an area you want it to go and away from the party.

Give Them a Common Background
During character generation give do not let the players make their own backgrounds. Give them one that ties the group together. They could all be from the same family or organization. They could have had a mentor that brought them together. In fact, their mentor or organization could be a radical thinker who believes in a unified front and has ingrained these thoughts into the characters as they were growing up. The point is to make them already part of an organization that values group unity.

Make it Awesome
By this I mean, make the concept of working together appear like it’s the cool thing to do. Make working in a group a unique and unusual thing. Make it seem like it’s an advantage that the world does not prescribe to. Show how being a unified group gives the players an edge over their enemy or simply the world around them. For my drow campaign, I would highlight that the other drow are loners who never work with others unless they are only using them for a limited time. I would mention, and show, that the drow can never gain the upper hand completely because of the fact they always act alone.

Resolve Disputes
Provide a way to resolve conflicts in game. If the party is part of a larger organization, make a system wherein they can take out their aggressions against each other in a non-lethal manner. Perhaps the organization has a formalized system of non-lethal combat if there is a dispute between its members. Players tend to run evil characters that will brook no stain on their honor or reputation. With a full group all doing this it will inevitably lead to conflict. Providing a non-lethal and readily understood method of resolving these conflicts will allow all the characters to “save face”.

Involve the Players
Ask the players for reasons why their party will be able to work together. This does two things. One is it will each player a rational why they don’t go solo or backstab the other arty members at the fist opportunity. Second, it brings them into the big picture. By letting them decide how and why their character is able to work within the group they are more invested in making sure that is the outcome. If a player is having problems coming up with some ideas, I have a few below. If each PC takes one you can create a web of ties between them.

  • His life was once saved by one of the characters.
  • Working with one of the characters pays off a debt he owes someone else.
  • The character has a mystical bond with another of the characters (perhaps the same birthmark or he feels non-debilitating pain when the other is injured).
  • Sibling (though this only really works if the setting provides strong ties between family members).
  • A prophecy/omen/fortune-telling/godly voice has told the character that one day the other character will save his life. The reverse of this is that the voice told him that if the other character dies he will die soon thereafter.
  • An item/ability that the other character has and is only usable by him gives you more power.

Using some or all of these ideas can help keep an evil campaign going strong. Do you have any other ideas that can instill party loyalty in an evil campaign?