September 29, 2010

Is 4E More “Fair”?

Recently there was some drama over on another blog, wherein the issue of fairness was a factor. One player felt the GM was not running a fair game and that the other players were suffering for it. Basically, one player was given perks, abilities and advanced gear over the other players. Reading all this, it got me to thinking…is it harder to be unfair with the 4E system?

4E has very rigid rules for character generation, treasure allocation and how powers are gained. Everything is balanced against a core baseline that causes everything to be balanced with each other (with maybe the odd minor bump here and there). The system even includes for a way to alter a player’s decisions about their character’s abilities (with the ability to swap out powers and feats when a character reaches a new level); essentially providing a means to “break” and modify the system. By having this system in place there is an unspoken restriction to arbitrary character changes; it comes across as “we the game designers and the rule set have provided you with a way to ignore and break the rules, stay within those boundaries and you’ll be fine, otherwise you are doing it wrong”.
In addition, the use of the Character Builder changes the playing field. While it is not required to play it is extremely helpful and useful when running a campaign. After awhile, it starts to act as a crutch, making things so easy that without it things become difficult. However, the Character Builder does not allow for custom additions. If a DM adds or allows for something outside the bounds of the Builder it either puts up a message stating the character is “not legal” or outright doesn’t allow for the addition. In this way, this is another method by which the game is kept “fair”.
The only way to have an “unfair” advantage is to go outside the bounds of the rules.

Earlier editions were a lot more open, or at least it seems that way to me. Treasure was random and a bunch of lucky die rolls could see a low level character running around with an artifact (when artifacts were these super-powerful things meant for high end games) far beyond their level. I remember that DMs tended to do as they wished when it came to giving out gear and abilities; it was easy and almost expected for a DM to go outside the bounds of the rules. Some would even say there were no real bounds to the rules.
In addition, as a game’s life cycle lengthened there would be more added to the system that caused balance issues. Races, classes and treasure would be added that were clearly unbalanced. I remember once being in a group where one was a vampire and the other a githyanki with all of that race’s abilities. Needless to say, my normal human druid, with horrible stat rolls, was clearly and constantly outmatched by them.

Is this perception of rigidity of the rules only a perception thing? Do we, for some unknown reason, simply expect people to adhere to the rule system of 4E? Is going outside the rules in earlier editions accepted and expected? Is 4E more of a “fair” game system by virtue of this perceived rigidity of the rules?

Or does “fairness” always fall back to the GM of the game? Does a GM’s ability to ignore rules and inject his own biases mean there is no system that can be “fair” all the time?

September 27, 2010

Quick Tip- Cheap Miniatures

Here's a way I've stretched my miniature dollars while still getting some cool looking figures. In most toy sections they have bags of critters. These tend to be rather cheap, even cheaper if you can find a good set in the Dollar Stores. They have a variety of different animal sets.
Here is a picture of one of the packages which cost me about $4. This one was of creepy crawlers and has 16 pieces. It has a wide assortment of critters in it, which could be used as large spiders, stirges, giant beetles, giant scorpions, ankhegs, giant centipedes, giant worms and other types of insects. For scale, I have included another picture on a D&D battlemap with a miniature of a minotaur for size comparison (you can click the picture for a bigger and better view).

September 24, 2010

Iconic Races

There are races that are closely defined with certain settings. When a person sees them on the cover of a RPG book they immediately think of the setting or system. This is a good thing for the publisher since it makes the potential consumer think of the setting and the memories inherent with them. There is a familiar comfortability with this. It can be a selling point all on its own.

There has been a lot of talk about integrating races into other settings. For all that, I still think certain races will forever remain tied to certain settings. For me the following races bring to mind a specific settings when I see them on a book…

Warforged- Eberron
Troll with cyberwear- Shadowrun
Drow- Forgotten Realms
Mul- Dark Sun
Vampire- Ravenloft

Are iconic races needed to help bolster a game setting? I don’t think a new race is needed to push a setting but I think it certainly helps. Would Birthright (a setting I absolutely love) or Al-Qadim have been bigger if they had their own iconic races? Will the Shadar-Kai become an iconic race (a race I believe deserves it)?

What races did I miss that immediately remind you of a setting or system?

September 21, 2010

Gamma World and the Serious

With all the talk lately about the new Gamma World rule set there was some discussion on the topic over at We were discussing the game in general and I had mentioned how my wife was running two campaigns recently in Gamma World (using the old 3rd Edition rules-not d20). He then asked me “How did you run a serious game?  I am totally intrigued by post apocalyptic settings in novels and movies but this system just seems to cater to mutations and the “silly”. What was your wife’s campaign arc?”

Well, here it is. This is fairly long, but includes an overview of the campaign (which some people might like to steal some ideas from) and then a brief discussion on how and why it is possible to run a “serious” Gamma World game.


September 17, 2010

The Real-Time Campaign

Imagine, if you will, a RPG campaign world set in our time, in our world. The adventure tonight is one based off of something that happened within the past week, in fact, since the last time the group met to play…something that happened in the real world.

As an example, a few days ago (in the real-world) there was a massive and destructive explosion and fire in California that destroyed over 50 homes. Soon thereafter officials came out and explained how it was a gas main that caused the explosion. Other news reports picked it up and propagated the report while adding their own articles, such as how dangerous gas mains are around the country.
This real-life incident would make an excellent adventure background. Perhaps the explosion was not a gas main, but instead the result of a new type of explosive, one with incredible destructive force in the size of a pen. The device may have been set off prematurely or to cover-up the laboratory where it was designed. The players may have heard of the new explosive and have been assigned to investigate the explosion. They would need to find out who built the new explosive, secure a sample of it and then find out who is conducting the cover-up.

A campaign could be designed based off of this concept of utilizing real-world incidents and weaved into an ongoing set of adventures. Each week’s adventure would be based off of something that happened since the last game session. This would make for a dynamic and ever-changing campaign, with a feel of the “now”. There would be a unique sense of high energy. No longer would a player feel like they are in a mythical world (though in fact they still are), but rather interacting with the real world but in a fantastic milieu.

The players would need some sort of catalyst for having them investigate weekly incidents. Perhaps they work for a branch of the government, such as specialized branch of the FBI or some other secret organization. Perhaps there is a diabolical organization bent on taking over the world and most, but not all, such incidents are related to them and their plans. A GM could take it even further and rule that the incident was the work of Fey creatures who are secretly trying to disrupt our world so they can return to claim it as their own.
Adventures would have to be fairly short so they could be completed in one night of game-play. Carrying over a recent incident for several weeks will diminish the feeling of immediacy. Starting fresh would also allow for the “new” each session.

A couple of problems present themselves to me as I write this.
The first and foremost is prep. This style of new weekly adventures requires the GM to do a lot of prep work and do it frequently. Each week she would have to scour news articles and incidents to see how it can best fit into her campaign design. After that she would have to write the actual adventure. All this would require a fair amount of time, time with a definite deadline. I believe it would be more pressure filled than normal adventure prep.
Another issue is the overall concept of mixing real-world with a make-believe world. Is the integration of RPG fantasy and the real-world an uneven fit? Going back to my example about the explosion in California. At least 3 people died from the explosion. Is including their deaths trivializing their lives and deaths? Should real life tragedy and a game mix? Is it best to leave the real world out of our make-believe worlds?

If a GM and gaming group can get over these hurdles, such a campaign style would make for a dynamic and engaging game. You can’t get much more “real” than including stuff from the real world as its happening. Allowing the player characters to interact with the current news adds something extra to a game.

September 15, 2010

4E Disadvantages

Disadvantages have been a staple of RPGs for a bunch of years now. They are used to add a little extra history to the character. They are used to give something for the character to overcome; after all, adversity is the stuff of which heroes are made of. They are also used to min/max a character to make him more powerful in one aspect; often to the chagrin of the DM.

Thus far 4E D&D has not incorporated Disadvantages into their game system. However, it would be easy to do so. 4E already has a system of Advantages (the opposite of Disadvantages) and these are Feats. Feats are used to add a slight and unique advantage to a character. I am making a broad and general statement, but Feats are about on par with Advantages in other systems. They are not character or class defining, and the power gained, while something more than simple flavor, are not disruptive to the balance of the game.

Disadvantages are normally chosen at character generation. Taking a Disadvantage allows the character to take another Heroic Feat. I would recommend only allowing 1 Disadvantage for each character. Individual GMs can play with allowing more if that is to their liking.

Here are a few ideas, but doubtless there are a lot more.

Bad Luck: Bad luck follows the character around. A 1 or 2 on a die roll is an automatic failure.

Dependent: The character has someone that relies upon them. This could be a relative (child/sibling/parent), loved one or anyone that the character has a responsibility toward. This dependant person does not have to require a significant amount of time on the character’s part (after all the character is an adventurer and not a baby-sitter), but if the dependant is ever in danger the character should respond. Once the dependant is in danger, if the character is not actively working toward resolving the danger, he suffers a -2 to all his die rolls.

Easily Winded: You suffer from shortness of breath. You need 15 minutes for a complete Short Rest instead of 5 minutes.

Enemy: The character has gained a recurring enemy. This enemy is actively trying to harm the character. At certain points (as deemed appropriate by the GM) the character will be attacked by the enemy or his henchmen.

Frail: You are not as tough as others. Lose 2 from your Healing Surge value.

Hard Knocks: The character has a hard time catching a break. He requires 1 more milestone before receiving an Action Point.

Illiterate: The character can never read or write any languages.

Inept: The character is really bad at something he should be good at. The character suffers -5 to one of the skills available to him from his class choices.

Poverty: The character is incapable of keeping money on him. This could be from a gambling habit, a large debt he is paying off or the need to send his money to support someone else. After money has been divided amongst the party, the character loses half of his share.

Slow: This could be from a birth defect or an old injury, but the character loses 1 from his Speed.

Slow Learner: You’ve practiced it and practiced it but it’s still really hard for you to do. Choose an Encounter power and it is now considered a Daily ability. You can change which Encounter power is affected when you gain a level and choose to relearn.

Susceptible: You have an Achilles heel, a weakness enemies could exploit if they knew about it. Choose one of the following conditions: Blinded, Dazed, Unconscious, Slowed, or Restrained. You suffer a -5 penalty when attempting a save vs. the chosen condition. 

Unskilled: The character is just bad at something. The character suffers a -10 to one selected skill. The reasons behind this could be widely varied depending on the skill selected; for example, a penalty in Diplomacy could be from something like bad breath.

Weakness: The character suffers a -2 to Fortitude, Willpower or Reflex Defense. The cause of this penalty is dependent on the Defense chosen. A loss of Fortitude could be from a physical ailment, such as asthma; Willpower could be a brain injury; Reflex could be from an old injury or just simple clumsiness.

September 9, 2010

The Holy Table

Similar to a holy temple, where certain actions are not tolerated, what “holy tenets” are prescribed for your gaming table? What will you not allow at your table? I don’t mean the simple things like food or texting, but rather the major things as they pertain to etiquette and social interaction. This includes things that might cause problems outside the gaming table, but that you ignore or disallow at the table.

Recently, one of my players has been having some problems with his homelife. Even though he is the only one of the two who plays at my table (she bailed to go back to night school) I am friends with both of them. Various rumors and stories began to trickle out about their situation. At the same time he ran into car problems and missed a few weeks of gaming. Then I suddenly hear that he wasn’t sure if he would be welcome to play again at the table due to his homelife problems.

This problem can occur in any type of relationship; girlfriend/boyfriend or husband/wife. Do you allow their problems outside the table to come into the game? I have a rule that what happens outside the table stays outside the table. If it doesn’t affect the game then I don’t care. In fact, I don’t want to hear about it during a game. You can choose sides outside of the table but at the table it is to be forgotten and ignored. In addition, I do not want it to affect the game at all; i.e. if you bring something outside the game into the game, such as hard feelings for another person at the table, it is against my “holy tenets”.

I have always felt that my gaming table is “holy ground” wherein I don’t care what happens outside of the table. My campaign and game is outside the bounds of other situations and problems.

Another example is World of Warcraft. I and a lot of my friends play in the same guild, for which I am the guild leader. My D&D players, except for one, also play WoW. I have a rule that WoW issues are not brought up at the game table. Two of my players are horrible WoW players. They put in the time, but lack the skills to push content. It irks me and many of the WoW guild members. However, I would never bring up their WoW shortcomings at the role-playing table. It again breaks my “holy table” rule.

How sacrosanct is your game table? What things will you not allow to be brought up at the table?

September 1, 2010

The Practice Fight

One thing I’ve done and seen done is the practice fight. This is an in-character fight that is meant to showcase the combat rules of a game system without the threat of death for the characters. Every game system does something a little different with their combat system and simply explaining them is not enough to truly understand how they work. The best idea is to provide the players with a sample fight. However, the best version of a sample fight is one that can be done in-character by the player’s characters. Within the last month I’ve had two instances of a “practice” fight.

The first was in my 4E sandbox game. 3 of the 5 players have not played 4E yet. They each had a set of rule books but I decided to include a practice fight session. The player characters all belong to the same adventuring party that has been tasked to explore a new land. On the way over they met another adventuring party with much the same task. One of the first things they did after landing on the new continent was to hold a mock battle between the two parties.
[I ruled all damage was a form of subdual damage that would go away after an extended rest, except critical hits. Critical hits did real damage.]

It was an excellent opportunity to let the players do a combat without their characters being in any real danger. The players were able to try out their encounter and daily powers and get used to the way movement worked. It helped set the groundwork for later combats. This way the next “real” combat would be more about utilizing their powers and abilities to the best advantage and less about simply knowing what they are.

The second instance was in the Gamma World game my wife is running. She has moved the campaign into space (since we already saved the world) and was introducing a subset of space combat rules. After spending in-character time learning our space combat assignments (each of us has a specific task on the ship during ship to ship combat) we were tasked to complete a combat simulation before we could “graduate”. We ran a mock combat utilizing ship movement and gunnery. It helped us to understand these new rules; rules she had completely house ruled, so there is not way we could have read up on them ahead of time. Now when we encounter a “real” space combat we won’t be wondering what we are capable of doing.

I highly recommend practice fights when you are using a new game system. You don’t want the players to lose their first “real” fight because they didn’t know the rules. Sometimes a practice fight could be nothing more than a combat wherein the characters out match their opponents. Yes, the fight would not be a challenge, but in this case, it’s more about learning the system rules than challenging the player characters. You can always bring the next fight up to the “normal” level of challenge.

Have you ever run a practice fight? What methods did you use to set it up on an in-character level?