January 28, 2011

Quotes at the Table

We all have some line that cracks us up at the gaming table. I've been collecting a few over the past few weeks (from both my 4E games and my wife's 3rd edition Gamma World game). Here are some of them. Hopefully, not all of the quotes are of the "you had to be there" kind. Feel free to let us know some of your better quotes.

"I am not comfortable leaving live enemies behind us. The world is round and eventually they will be in front of us."

"Bodily fluids are no longer on the inside."

"Look, a perfectly preserved pirate...minus a head."

"An undead were-giraffe, this could be trouble."

"I didn't realize we had standards."

-"We should try doing some thinking instead of being brutal."
-"Well, I'm out."

"Evil is tasty."

"Don't look him in the eye."

"Save yourself! Throw the cleric in front."

Before the undead attacked-"Mummy!"
After the undead attacked-"Mommy!"

January 25, 2011

Letter from a Player

I received an email from one of my players the other day. To set the stage I have known him for about 12 years; since before that time he has been a RPG player. He has been in my 4E game now for about 6 months. He also works as a computer programmer, some of which involves writing web-based applications. Here is the email…

“I believe the D&D book that would be most useful for me to have is the player handbook v4, correct? I went to wizards of the coast's DND site and it’s really hard to find books because they have so many. I tried clicking on "Getting Started" and "DND Basics" both of which are trying to sell me the old keep of the borderlands original box set, which apparently they are bringing back. What book would be most useful for me to have for your game?”

January 21, 2011

Use the Internet IC

One thing I like to do when running a game set in modern time is to allow the players to use the internet to figure stuff out; notice I said the players. In our real-life modern day lives we tend to use the internet a lot, especially the type of people drawn to role-playing games. For us it is a way of life, the same as driving a car to the grocery store to get our food…or more accurately using the phone to call in a delivery order so someone else has to drive a car to get us our food. In this regard, I allow real life to be reflected in the modern day games I run and instead of asking for a die roll when a knowledge question comes up in game, I simply tell the players to look it up online.

Recently, I ran a game wherein an important clue was hidden by a chemist who enjoyed reading books on ancient alchemy. To get the clue the players needed, they had to answer the question, ‘what is the fourth body of alchemy?’. I could have asked for a skill roll of something like History but instead I asked the players to go onto one of the nearby computers (my wife and I each have one near the gaming table and another person had internet access through his cell phone). A quick search later and they had the answer they wanted.

Another time, the players were tracking a serial killer who kept leaving cryptic notes on his victims that were clues as to who the next victim might be. Doing some real time research on the internet they quickly determined the notes were from some published works by Aleister Crowley. Later they managed to get a security camera picture of the killer and it turned out to be Aleister Crowley, who they recognized from the pictures they had seen while doing the earlier research. I had fictionalized the real person of Aleister Crowley and by allowing him to use “his magical powers” the character was in our modern times. In addition, the security camera photo was one I took from the internet while do researching on the adventure, so it was one I knew they would easily come across themselves.

One thing you may want to try is to create an internet newspaper. Basically create a blog that mimics a news service. Players can go to the site and read about what is ongoing in your modern campaign as well as any other possible adventures that can be had. It is also a way to introduce clues the characters can use. An example of this can be found here (http://layonrealms.blogspot.com/).

Forcing players to do the actual research instead of defaulting to a die roll helps the players get immersed in a game. It brings a tactile sensation to the game. It also increases the sense of accomplishment. Try it sometime; in your next modern day game, put out some information that can be found online and let the players look for it themselves.

January 18, 2011

4E Starting Power Scale

1st level 4E characters start out being more powerful than previous editions and this is a good thing, but not for the obvious reasons such as survivability. Instead, for me, I like the fact it gives the game some wiggle room at the beginning. If everyone starts at 1 hp and does 1 damage at level 1 you can not do a lot to customize a character without upsetting balance. By having a broader range at level 1 it allows for more options without breaking anything.

One of the “problems” with earlier editions was the desire to play alternate races, drow being one of my favorite examples of this problem. People wanted to play drow, but it was problematic to create a playable race. Drow have all these neat abilities, abilities that are part of the core of a drow and also were way overpowered compared to a character of a standard race of the same level. Previous editions tried to compensate by adding in such things as more xp required to level or extra levels needed to reach “1st level”. It all felt clunky.

With the new 4E jacked up starting scale, it is easier to integrate new races. With all the races having an ability, a designer can simply replace it with a different ability for a different race. By giving races all bonuses to two of their stats (instead of trying to balance stat gains by adding in stat minuses), it allows for greater options when it comes to stat bonuses. If you think a particular race should be strong and tough, such as the goliath, you can do that now. No longer are races pigeonholed into one stat.

The same applies for feats, items and other things characters have access to at the beginning. Again a greater variety of new abilities can be added through feats, etc without upsetting balance. Whereas before allowing a few extra hit points at first level could double starting hit points, now it only gives an incremental increase. Also some new abilities you would not have even entertained adding at first level can be done without fear of unbalancing the system. For example, in earlier editions choosing a background was a fluff piece (in 2E) or only allowed access to a skill not normally part of your class set (in 3E). In 4E, backgrounds provide tangible benefits. They can get away with this due to the broader starting spread.

I see the larger starting scale for beginning characters in 4E as a means to provide more options without creating burdensome balance issues, and this is a good thing.

January 17, 2011

Nerd Humor

I'm going to break my own rules about link posting and articles. Normally I hate it when a blog post is nothing but links, but these were too funny to not pass on.

Foxtrot. It has long been a comic strip where geekness slips through fairly often, especially for a mainstream comic strip. References to D&D and World of Warcraft, along with other things such as Star Trek, are all done with a sense of respect. It is less about poking fun at us and more about showing the fun we have. Yesterday's Sunday strip 1/16/11 was a good D&D one.
Here it is.

Next up is some old-school humor. This is not even pretending to be mainstream. Basically they take a humorous look at some old D&D books. This link is about S3 "Expedition to the Barrier Peaks". If you take some time looking through the site, there are a lot of other great and funny articles about some of the other older books.
Here it is.

4E Slow Combat

At-Will wrote a good piece on the speed of 4E combat. Since I had an upcoming piece on the same topic I figured I’d put it up now rather than later.

One of the problems with 4E combat speed is also one of its greatest strengths in a game system. 4E is one of the best systems for allowing the combat field to change as it progresses. A lot can change since the last time you had your turn. This is a good thing. It provides for dynamic and engaging fights.

If a fight is predicable and a slug fest as the two sides trade blows, that can quickly become mind numbing. Not only for that encounter but over the life (however, short it may be) of the campaign. In the previous editions, and other game systems, the new and exciting parts come from such things as magic items or unique monsters. And this was less about how the monsters affected the combat field, but rather the unexpected actions they could take. Once you knew the “secret attack” it went back to the old slug fest of exchanging hit points.

In earlier editions, if it wasn’t your turn there was no reason to pay attention. In 4E there are a lot of reasons to pay attention when it is not your turn. The playing field is constantly changing and so are a player’s reactions to them. Right up until it is your turn to act, things will be changing. It keeps things engaging and stimulating.

This is also part of the problem. You can not plan out your moves ahead of time. If a player were able to plan ahead it would speed up combat, but its not possible if things keep changing. That plan you had in mind, the follow-up to your last attack, it has all changed in the intervening turns. A player has to decide at the time of his turn what he is doing that turn. This slows things down. As At-Will pointed out, all the options available to a player can bog things down, especially if you don’t know what you need to accomplish (hit point damage, control, defensive actions, etc) until the exact time it is your turn to act. If a player were able to plan ahead it would speed up combats.

However, I like this. It keeps things exciting throughout a fight, as opposed to just on your turn. Sure, we could remove or reduce some of the options the players have. We could remove a player’s and monster’s ability to move things around, to change the playing field. But, I don’t want to go that route. I like the fact things are ever-changing, and I’m willing to suffer slowed down combat to get that level of dynamic combat.

January 14, 2011

How Brick & Mortars Stores are Letting Themselves Down

Various rpg companies have been making concerted efforts to support the brick & mortar (B&M) store. WotC has their encounters series which are only being run in B&M and have their own rewards. Several companies are offering additional products, usually a pdf copy of a paper book, if it is bought in a B&M. A lot of publishers still only use B&M stores to sell their products.

However, some stores are missing sales simply because they do not stock product on the shelf. I have seen a trend wherein they only stock the “sure thing”, the 4E WotC books. I do not see 4E 3rd party books on the shelf nor books for alternate games.

I understand there was a considerable backlash after the bloat of 3E and the advent of 3.5 and 4E. A lot of stores ended up with lame-duck products on their shelves that no longer moved. Fear of the same thing happening has reduced their initiative to stock a wide range of rpg products. However, I believe they are missing out.

January 12, 2011

How to Make the Superhero Genre More Popular

This is the third of three stream-of-thought articles on the nature of the superhero genre of rpgs.

One of the biggest strengths and failure of a superhero system is its setting. This is where the players buy into the game. Having super powers and being cool is all well and good but without a good setting there is no where to use all your nifty powers. And this is where all the super hero games have failed so far.

Every super hero game system thus far has put out superbly written and fascinating settings that completely miss the mark of what people really want. Writers of superhero settings try real hard to capture the setting themes of comic books. M&M and Freedom City is the prime example for this. Freedom City is highly evocative of a comic book. But is that what a superhero setting really needs?

If you want to make the superhero genre more popular you need to steer clear of the tropes of the traditional superhero setting. Take the game away from spandex. Take the game away from over the top villains. Take the game away from monologues.

Ground the setting in reality. First ask yourself, what would I do if I had the superpower of being invulnerable (or flight or invisibility)? Is your first inclination to put on a special suit? I don’t believe so. So the question is, how would a real person react to finding out they had an ability not normal? Base a setting off the answers to that question.

One of the reasons why the X-Men franchise was able to do as well as it did was because the first movie was about people with powers, not about powers used by people. It humanized the genre and by extension made it cool. For the same exact reasons the Ironman movies are still going strong; they are about the man in the suit, not about the suit. The epitome of this concept can be found in the Heroes TV series (too bad the series ended after one season). It was all about ordinary people with unordinary abilities.

And this is something the standard superhero rpg tends to forget. They are all about the powers and the setting is defined by the powers to be found within the setting.

I know for some playing in an over the top superhero setting is exactly what they want. However, this type of superhero game will always be a niche of a niche. If the goal is to bring the superhero genre to the forefront of our rpg niche, make it mainstream in our rpg community, we need to actually downplay the powers (while still including them) and up-play the human interactions. Keep the setting real. We need to actually divorce the genre from its source material, the comic book.

January 11, 2011

Superheroes are Fantasy

This is the second of three stream-of-thought articles on the nature of the superhero genre of rpgs.

The superhero genre is a niche market in the rpg community. Despite a setting that allows for play in a modern day setting, it has never been at the forefront of the rpg markets. There are probably a number of factors for this; not the least being that spandex and four color role-play is not considered “cool” enough for the majority of role-players.

I think one of the more subtle reasons for its exclusion from the more popular genres, fantasy and science-fiction, is that it falls into both styles at the same time. Superhero games are usually set in a modern setting and are thus, by default, science fiction. Most super hero settings are one step ahead of our own time frame as far as technology is concerned, with such items as high tech gadgets (web shooters/rocket packs) and weaponry (lasers).

However, at the same time the superhero genre is filled with the fantastical. There are living islands as adversaries. People run around with abilities outside the purview of science fiction. Shooting fire from your hands because you fell into a vat of cooling iron is not based on science, is pure fantasy. Can the villain control the weather with his WDU (Weather Dispersal Unit)? Sounds to me like a weather control spell.

Comic books and superhero rpgs are essentially fantasy games set in the near future.

Now the question is, how does having the knowledge that the superhero genre is actually based on fantasy help us with our superhero games? It allows us to completely open up the type of adventures we run and our sources for adventure ideas.

Have a fantasy module kicking around where the heroes need to fight a necromancer and the zombies he raised in the graveyard? You can twist this into a superhero adventure where the villain is a deranged scientist who can surgically alter the minds of people and create the Lobotomized Legion to do his bidding.

Orcs attacking the village? In the superhero game we have Molemen digging up from beneath the surface in their special machines and raiding gem stores. Why? To build a bigger machine that will penetrate the core of the planet in a misguided belief that their god lives there…only doing so will destabilize the planet enough to destroy Earth!

Xenophobic elves attack all travelers passing through their enchanted woods? Create a new race on the dark side of the moon, underground or in a lost valley hidden in the jungle.

So, embrace the fantasy aspect of the superhero genre and it will open up another world of game design.

January 10, 2011

All RPGs are Superhero Games

This is the first of three stream-of-thought articles on the nature of the superhero genre of rpgs.

I have long had this theory that all rpg games are in fact nothing but dressed up superhero games. I would first ask, what is a superhero game? My first definition is one wherein the characters have powers and abilities beyond the “normal” person; something that sets them apart.

This definition of normal person is relative to the system.
In the typical superhero campaign this is fairly obvious. The characters can shoot laser beams from their eyes whereas the “normal” person can not.

In a fantasy setting this is also obvious with the ability to cast spells. However, it also applies to the basic fighter classes as well. Even in the early editions of fantasy based games the fighter would eventually be able to swing his weapon more often. He has access to better gear than the “normal” person. Not to mention, magic items that are roughly the equivalent of gadgets from the superhero genre.

If the setting is in the modern world, with no superpowers, then the characters become “super” by virtue of the fact they can do things the “normal” person can not. This is usually based on a skill or attribute. Maybe they can shoot a gun faster or more accurately than a “normal” person. Maybe they are more athletic. Maybe they have access to items and weaponry that the “normal” person does not, such as a pen that shoots bullets. This is again similar to the gadgets of a superhero.

The thought first popped into my head back when the original Vampire game came out. Within the book there was a list of powers each character had access to. It was a list of powers very similar to a list of powers to be found in a superhero book. However, the powers were masked by bloodlines and vampire angst. Vampire the game provided a “rational” explanation of where these powers came from whereas superhero games have a wide variety of explanations and by virtue of that they seem less “real”. Also the comparison is masked because vampires do run around in spandex (hmmm, a new Malkavian NPC just popped into mind).

An argument can be made that there are certain games where the characters could be considered “normal”, something like Traveller or Call of Cthulu. At first glance they appear to embrace the concept of ordinary people caught up in situations beyond the normal. However, most of these systems allow for characters to have extraordinary abilities (such as psionics) or access to unnormal information (ancient tomes). However, even stripping away these extra “abilities” there is a second component to a super hero game that they still fall into.

The second half of this concept rests in the fact that the characters engage in activities beyond “the normal”. Even if you made a case that a character is something like a “normal” people, the simple fact that they engage in extraordinary situations sets them apart from a “normal” person. Normal people do not kill werewolves; they do not stop an alien invasion by boarding the mothership.

Take away the spandex suits and all rpg characters are superheroes and all rpg games are superhero games, just dressed up differently. Instead of spandex the game wears vampire angst or laser guns.

January 6, 2011

Combo Attacks

Dump Stat asked if there was a way to introduce a weapon combo system into 4E, something similar to attack combos a person can see in video games. A bunch of ideas on the topic leapt into my head. Since I enjoy game design I immediately began to think about how his criteria could be met. His criteria? It has to be a chain of attacks that build on each other and have to be done in one turn. A few methods of dealing with this came to mind.

Here is the “easy” solution. Simply start with a simple attack and then allow secondary and tertiary attacks with the caveat that the previous attack hits. As Dump Stat mentioned, spread the damage out between the three attacks. Here are a couple of examples (note that the actual damage numbers would have to be tweeked for better balance:

January 4, 2011

Changing Dark Sun

The 4E Dark Sun setting book did very little to change the setting from its 2E counterpart. The 4E setting is more about integrating the new rule set and less about changing the setting itself. Much of the setting is exactly the same as its predecessor. This is both good and bad. Good in that a lot of the older material is still relevant, at least the non-rule parts. Bad in that if you and your players have played the 2E version they already know the world.

What is a DM to do if he and his players have already played Dark Sun back in the 2E days? What can he do to keep it fresh and interesting? My suggestion is to change up the setting from what both 2E and 4E relate in their respective sourcebooks. There is no reason why some simple changes can’t be done that can keep your players guessing while still keeping the essential parts of the world setting.

Here are a few suggestions. Using one of these, or maybe a couple of them, can keep things fresh and keep the players guessing.

-Replace a sorcerer-king with a conspiracy of templars. The sorcerer-king died years ago and the templars have maintained a facade that he is still alive. It adds all sorts of new intrigues and the “reveal” when the players find out this big secret would be priceless.

-The Veiled Alliance was started by the Dragon. He long ago set up an organization of potential adversaries and then created a way to keep an eye on them. Every faction of the Veiled Alliance has their own way on inducting new members, but the Dragon set up each of these as a means to “tag” those that participate. This allows him to look in on any member of the Veiled Alliance at any time. While he can not control its members, he always has a means to find out if they are becoming a danger.
This would lead to a string of adventures where the Alliance is being betrayed from the inside, but it will take some doing to find out how. Eventually the Alliance would have to be rebuilt without the interference of the Dragon.

-One of the sorcerer-kings has turned “good”. He has given up defiler magic and is no longer trying to become another Dragon, instead pursuing the Avangion Epic Destiny. However, he can not reveal this to the world at large because he fears the other sorcerer-kings will see him as weak and pounce. Therefore the sorcerer-king has to maintain a face of evil while still trying to do the right thing for the majority of this people. The players may find themselves starting as his enemy and then slowly working with the sorcerer-king in an attempt to make Athas a better world.

-Someone has become a new Dragon and it wasn’t one of the sorcerer-kings. The players could stumble upon this information when they are the ones to discover the ruins of a formerly large village (like Altaruk) that was the scene of this new Dragon finishing his transformation. This new Dragon would not be from the earlier Ages, but rather has only been around for 100 years or so, a true wild card.
Adventures could start with gaining knowledge on its existence and then dealing with the damage from its rampage, including some sorcerer-kings futilely trying to kill it despite innocent bystanders. Thereafter, once it has regained its senses, the players may be caught between two Dragons.

January 3, 2011

2E - 4E Dark Sun

And so ends my look at the 2E Dark Sun books and seeing if and how they can be integrated into the new 4E setting. I have had a lot of fun writing this series of articles as it allowed me to dig out my old Dark Sun books and take another look at them. I have always loved the setting and just reading about the setting is fun for me. Part of the fun was to randomly grab a book off the shelf and start reading it; this is why the articles were in no particular order.

I did not cover all the material that had come out for 2E Dark Sun. I do not own Terrors Beyond Tyr(Dark Sun Monstrous Compendium II), Beyond the Prism Pentad, and Windriders of the Jagged Cliffs, so they could not get covered; in fact I ended up getting Mind Lords of the Last Sea and The Will and the Way off of EBay, just so I could read them for this series. I also did not cover the DSQ/DSE series of adventures (Road to Urik, Arcane Shadows, Asticlian Gambit, Dragon's Crown) because in the end the same problems kept creeping up (2E stats making the books of limited worth) and the final analysis became one more of personal opinion than a discussion of 2E-4E integration. Suffice it to say, the modules can be a lot of fun if run correctly.

I have, however, covered a lot of different sourcebooks from the 2E era of Dark Sun. Some can be easily and readily (with minimum or no work required) integrated into a 4E campaign. There was a lot of “fluff” in the books as they were attempting to describe a whole new concept in role-playing. The setting was a sharp break from the traditional fantasy setting, post-apocalyptic and harsher, and as such needed a lot more fluff to fill in the spots that previously had been assumptions in a fantasy setting. Every difference had to be explained and given a reason why the change was made (usually in an in-game manner) so there was a lot of fluff, especially in the earlier sourcebooks. The earlier books were more about adding new setting material and less about adding character options.

One issue to be aware of is information overload. There was a lot of material released for Dark Sun in previous editions. This can lead to a sense of too much information. In this regard I recommend when prepping for a Dark Sun campaign, select one area you want to highlight. Use the appropriate book and for now ignore the rest. You can always take a look at a different sourcebook if you move the focus of your campaign, or after you have a good handle on the previous material.

With so much available information I would recommend using all that falls within your chosen area. All too often a GM will “save” named characters, locations and encounters for a special occasion. With so much unique information, using all the “special” notes will not deplete your store of background information. For example, if you need a slave tribe, use one that is written up; need a templar as a protagonist, use a named one from a sourcebook. Let the player characters interact with the “famous” people and places.

One thing I have noticed while doing my reading and comparisons is that the 4E setting includes a lot of information from the earlier releases. It may only be a single line where the earlier book gave over a paragraph or more, but the core concept is still there.

In addition, the 4E setting didn’t change much. When the Forgotten Realms setting came out a lot of fundamental stuff was changed. That is not the case here. It is the 2E setting brought up to 4E rules. That is something I liked. I can play in the Dark Sun setting I am familiar with, just with the 4E rule set.

For those interested, I started writing this series back in August, writing up a sourcebook every couple of days and taking weeks breaks in between. I did not in fact write one up each day and post it the next day. I am no where remotely that good. I will likely have an article or two about Dark Sun still upcoming, but will be different from this series.

I hope people enjoyed taking a look back at the older Dark Sun stuff as much as I did. For me, those days are filled with nostalgia and a sort of role-playing innocence. Now go on and run a Dark Sun game or two, even if it’s a short campaign. The world is rich with history and detail and is something just different enough from the typical fantasy setting, while still remaining pure fantasy to be a memorable experience.