Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Change the RP engine oil

Combat, exploration and role playing – the trifecta of any table top game. I was recently at a local hobby store and over heard something that made me chuckle. Player A was arguing with player B that 4E DnD was so combat heavy it left no room for role playing. Now I will agree that 4E has a very robust combat system which if not controlled will slow a game session to a halt. The combat round woes are exacerbated by the number of players seated around the table as well. But in truth the former is generally a challenge no matter what rule set is being utilized.

RP does not require a game mechanic
The argument that role playing is a game mechanic is absolutely ridiculous to me. Maybe I’m just old school – but the art of role playing has nothing to do with rules or dice. Rather it’s the portrayal of a character and interaction with other PCs, NPCs and the environment created by the DM. I have run sessions where role playing was the main focus of the game. I think the lack of free form in 4E is the lurking problem. In older editions of the game when there was less rules players described their actions through role playing. Players were very encouraged to attempt cinematic tasks which there were no rules for.

Set the rules aside once in a while!
Most old school DM’s would make the story unfold without cracking open a rule book. Sounds cool, eh? In my campaigns I try to adhere to the rules for combat and prefer to then shoot from the hip with all other actions and requests. Sure I may throw out a random DC for a player to roll – after all DnD is a game and players like to use their dice. But overall I remain totally against being bogged down with rules minutia when it will negatively affect the flow of the game or worse the story. Role playing and exploring should not be impeded by the fickle fate of dice or the hamstring of rules. Everything in moderation should be the mantra for veteran and fledgling DM’s alike.

So the next time someone complains that ANY game system is lacking in the role play department please join me in the chuckle. Role playing is not a game mechanic – no rules are required to do it. However game mechanics can be used creatively to help a player achieve their role playing goals.  The late Gary Gygax once said, “A DM only rolls the dice because of the noise they make”. Take that to heart fellow DM’s and help your players drive high octane game sessions. Depending on the make and model of your group mileage may vary!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Tactile Treasures

I love using props to spice up a game session. Although the D&D game (regardless of edition) has a foundation in imagination the tactile is still important. For example the feel of the dice alone and that ever so familiar clack as they strike the table cannot be replaced. I have seen a few players turn to app dice rollers and character sheets on their touch device only to return to the real deal. People love tactile mixed with a good dose of visual communication. Players perk up and you have their attention as soon as a prop hits the table.

I have used everything from coffee stained and baked parchment maps to candle lit game sessions with a fog machine. Players LOVE to have the actual items right there in front of them to pass around and look at. Just this past weekend my family and I went to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire which is loaded with prop ideas. Everything from leather bound tomes, unique glass bottles, globes, gnarled wooden staffs, dungeon keys, weapons, armor, wizardly rings, hour glasses, and scrolls.

I encourage any gamer to make the trek to their local Renaissance Faire for inspiration. Not only in props but watching the acting troops and how they portray their characters. One thing I paid close attention to on my recent visit was the commoners, e.g. the peasants. I thought the actors and actresses did a wonderful job of role playing all the “locals” of this imaginary medieval town. In terms of providing flavor for players in any urban setting I walked away with some great ideas.
Even a chest of plastic gems makes a great prop

I imagine props and gaming are early foundation blocks for Live Action Role Play. Although I have never participated in a LARP (beyond my backyard as a kid) I can understand the interest it generates. Recently I have begun investigating various websites which sell LARP gear. They are a fantastic resource for table top gaming props.  A simple Google search will return such wonderful resources as the LRP Store  - a treasure trove of potential prop ideas.
In closing I would suggest just taking a look around your own house. You will be shocked with what you may find in some old Halloween decoration box. Another good source of cheap props if you are creative is your local Arts & Crafts store. My wife and I frequent them often to find fun crafty stuff for our kids to do. And without fail we always leave with at least one item to be potentially used for a table top game. Even if your group is primarily what I would categorize as imagination only give a few props a try – I bet you will be surprised by the result!

Friday, August 3, 2012

D30 Redux

When I first started playing D&D years ago dice collecting was something I did avidly. Any chance I had to walk to the hobby store in Philadelphia and spend a couple bucks I was adding to my collection. In fact among my pre-teen gamer circle your dice were a huge status symbol. I liken it to marble collecting in the early 1900s. One such die I collected many of is the much maligned D30. Still to this day they sit in a huge wayward container of dice I never use. They have rested like an ancient treasure waiting to be unearthed by none other than my 5 year old son.

I just started building small dungeon maps and teaching my young children a very watered down version of the game. We roll dice, compare numbers and decide who takes damage. Well the dice fascination immediately has caught on with my kids and so has their curiosity about the D30. So as I was sitting on the train on the way to work this morning I had one of those light bulb moments. I needed to find a way to incorporate the D30 into my current campaign and get players excited about dice again.

Already in my campaign I have a reward system that involves bonus pluses. Basically I took some cheap poker chips and wrote +1, +2 and +3 on them with a sharpie. I give them away for a plethora of reasons – mostly for good role playing and epic session moments. They are a small reward that can stack to allow a player to avoid the fickle fate of the D20 once in a while. That said I realized I needed something even cooler than the +3 which up until now has been the gold standard for awarding session badassery. Enter the D30! So below is my sample accolade award chart. Feel free to modify for you own campaigns – mileage will vary.

Accolade Awards

Bring snacks/drinks to game
+1 chip
Critical skill roll
+1 chip
Critical hit on the BBEG
+1 chip
Hit two Milestones
+1 chip
Kill five minions with one attack
+1 chip
Deal/take 50 dam from one attack
+1 chip
Multiple critical rolls in one session
+2 chip
Big Ideas
+2 chip
Selfless act in character
+2 chip
Save a dying ally
+2 chip
Epic role playing
+2 chip
Epic note taking
+2 chip
DM discretion
+ 3 chip or a D30

This is just an example of potential things a player could do to earn a chip. Up until now I never even had a chart and have just shot from the hip – which is my preference when giving these awards. The chips can stack to create a greater bonus and act as an immediate interrupt only for the player cashing them in. So where does the D30 come into all of this you ask? Well as an addendum to the accolade awards players will now be able to cash in chips totaling +3 in value for a D30. Or if the DM is feeling generous he or she may just award a player with a D30 roll. 

Rules as follows:

The D30 is permitted to be used whenever a D20 could be rolled during a game session, e.g. for an attack roll, skill roll, etc. A natural 20 or 30 are considered a critical hit. A player may only use a D30 once per game session regardless of how many they may have purchased with accolade chips.

Seems a little beefy? That’s OK the players are supposed to be heroes! And honestly anything which speeds up combat is always a good thing. And remember there is nothing stopping all you DMs out there from giving the BBEG a D30 along with their action points. Players beware… Oh and get a D30!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Edition Wars

One thing I have noticed about the Grognard movement and OSR gaming is the faces are mostly the same. For the uninitiated OSR stands for Old School Renaissance which takes us back to the original versions of D&D. Older players have eschewed the newer iterations of the D&D game for their trusty old editions. I personally cut my teeth on Basic to Advanced and have a huge affinity for the old school. There is just something charming about simplicity – hex crawling – and making stuff up on the fly.

So I can see why WoTC is making such a big push with 5E or DnD Next as it is known. And while I like the idea of an open source and modular system I will be surprised if it’s successful. The current generation of gamer does not use paper, dice and their imagination. Rather they generate a character with pixels on a screen using someone else’s imagination. Their attacks are a function of personal dexterity and brilliantly shown with cutting edge graphics. They visit lavish environments which do not require a lengthy read in by the DM – it’s all there in front of them visually. No my wayward Dungeon Masters, today’s young gamers are a different breed.

This is why I believe that table top gaming will never appeal to the new generation of gamer. The minority will be children who grow up in a household (like mine) where the parents play and teach RPGs.  As technology advances so will online gaming and tactile social gaming will continue to vanish. Does WoTC really think that young gamers who have so many choices will want a watered down version of DnD? While some may hate 4E it was indeed geared toward MMORPG players and even that did not pull them away from their ten hour WOW raids.

The only marketing solution I can even conceive of which will make DnD Next enticing is free rules. Yes I said FREE. Just as many MMORPGs have moved away from subscription base and gone free to play so should DnD. Let everyone have a 5E Players Hand Book for FREE (digital download PDF). A new gamer is not doing to shell out 30-40 bucks on yet ANOTHER edition of a pen and paper game. Hell, many old time gamers will be reluctant as well – myself included.

Something which may help to make DnD Next more appealing would be a serious push to include robust online tools. REAL online tools so players all over the world have the same convenience afforded by MMORPGS: Accessibility, voice chat and visual aids. The biggest argument for MMORPGs is you get right into the action and can play anywhere you have an internet connection. Table top on the other hand requires scheduling, a place to gather, and travel.

I like all the open play testing WoTC is doing with DnD Next – it’s a clever marketing plan. I just fear the only people planning on purchasing/playing the game are those 30+ something’s that are looking for some nostalgia. Which to be honest could be found just by cracking open some old 1E books and playing the game. In the end I hope my predictions are wrong and remember regardless of the edition the play’s the thing!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Minions Ameliorated

Minion: a servile dependent, follower, or underling

One of my favorite aspects of 4E is the minion. Heroic and cinematic combat is always something I have tried to capture in my campaigns over the years. One thing that has always been a problem regardless of edition is the slowness of combat. Add in a table full of players at mid to high level and paint may dry faster than your average combat round. 

It was minions in fact that actually got me to FINALLY try 4E after avoiding it for so long. Sure the game mechanic is easily transferable but using it with the edition it was born from made the most sense. Now a year later I can honestly say I LOVE minions. I have read plenty of bloggers who complain minions add too much of a Meta game element once players realize what they are dealing with. I tend to disagree because after all our stalwart heroes should be able to identify threat levels. Especially after a few rounds of combat when they have had time to size up the situation.

In using hordes of minions I realized I wanted to beef them up a tad as the players leveled. I reconnoitered various gaming forums and saw different DMs were using their own form of a two hit minions. I loved the concept and decided to implement the idea in my own home brew. These minions have valuable experience which sets them apart from their lesser colleagues. This mechanic has been great in my mid to high level games. It has effectively created good opponents which do not have both a super high AC and sponge of hit points. 

Instead these minions have characteristics which make them deadly – but manageable by our heroes. And most importantly they make the clock manageable which in my mind is the most important thing. Our group plays on Saturday nights with only 4-6 hours to spare – being bogged down in mind numbing combat is not a road I want to go down.

So below I present to you an easy mechanic for both 2 and 3 hit minions:

These rules are simple and effective. I included the damage/critical clause because my initial multi-hit minions were a huge nerf to strikers. This way damage is still rolled and a big hit just gets the job done. I also have allowed Daily powers to instantly kill minions of any type on a DM discretionary basis. If it helps move combat along and make for an epic encounter then I am all for it.

The moral of the story is use minions liberally and make your combat much more fun!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tesseract Arena

I thought I would start off the first post of this blog with a bang. Since 1983 I have gamed with dozens of different players using Dungeons & Dragons. Nearly three decades later I still gather one or two Saturday’s a month for a few hours to continue new campaigns in Ultanya which is my home brew. With everyone approaching their 40s, kids, jobs or just the curveballs of life it gets increasingly harder to find time for table top.

So this summer I proposed we start a CON just for our circle of gamers. This interestingly enough all told amounts to over twenty people. The response was overwhelmingly a success with 11 gamers able to make the CON day. So we rented a conference suite in a local hotel and started to plan a game for what I consider a large group. I recruited the aid of another veteran DM in our circle and we went to work brainstorming and pumping out the big ideas.

We used the 4E game system which was a challenge unto itself. The completed game was 50 pages long and took over 40 hours to complete. In another blog post I will show some of the tools we used to get 11 players through the slow combat system of 4E with efficiency. In short we initially split the groups for the first leg of the day and then they doubled up during the second half.

Since we had a room full of 30 and 40 something’s who are all professionals we needed an ecology free adventure. We wanted suspension of disbelief to permeate throughout the day – just like it did when you were 10 years old. Who cares if just across from the fire elemental room lives a frost giant! The backstory of the adventure was Baba Yaga’s hut.
We decided Baba Yaga has a century of insufferable boredom. So she returns to the prime material plane of Ultanya to set a deadly trap.  As a long-lived and wise collector of lore and knowledge she knows exactly what bait to use.  Baba Yaga creates an elaborate illusion of the entrance to a lost level dwarven mine. She has placed the illusion in a remote location so treasure hunters and adventurers would come in waves.  

Baba Yaga does not want to eat the heroes – just yet. She has collected for centuries pieces of various lore and fantastical locations. The gauntlet inside the hut is a veritable menagerie of forgotten relics, ruins, monsters, oddities from different planes of existence and pure curiosities.  Baba Yaga is doing this entire exercise purely for her own amusement. If the players make their way through the gauntlet they will eventually be tested in the Tesseract Arena. Victory will mean they will be released and rewarded. Failure means they will join the skull garden outside of the hut.

With that background in mind we had a large task ahead of us to create the Tesseract Arena. The names derives from the fact that Baba Yaga's hut is a tesseract (a four-dimensional analog of a cube). My co-DM is a carpenter by trade so this task fell primarily on his shoulders. So while I was busy plugging away writing game mechanics he was getting his jig saw +5 ready to eventually create what you see below.

The arena is a massive nerd toy (the first of many) which is crafted from MDF and covered in printed sticker paper. The arena measures 60”x44”x10” with the bridge being 12.5” in height. The unit is sectional and weighs nearly 50lbs fully assembled.

In the center of the arena was a very Cthulhu looking Aboleth which was held in place through the use of magitech locks. I had to borrow one of my son’s octopus toys (not depicted) since I did not have a mini big enough! The creature’s powers were syphoned to eight switches throughout the arena which afforded various banes and boons. The players needed to control these switches to help win the match.

Also in the arena were stacks of strange black cubes. These devices had two handles which when turned made the cubes weightless. They could then be thrown as many squares as a player had STR as a standard action. When touching the ground (or another cube) they would magnetize until properly removed again. These cubes would then allow a team in the arena to build stairs, barriers, etc. Our players were very creative and at one point the warlock in the group stood on one of the cubes while the Dragonborn fighter tossed him 20 squares up.

Finally on each of the corner towers there was harpoon ballista (not depicted) which could be used to fire zip lines around the arena or used as a piece of artillery against the enemy team. Below I list some of the basic game mechanics used during the adventure:


View of the interior
The only way to win is to have the entire enemy team in their penalty box.

Penalty box

On each side of the arena there is a penalty box (one red, one blue). If a PC dies in the arena they are sent to their respective penalty box. After 1 round they are fully healed and all powers (encounter & daily) are returned to them. A team mate must then flip the switch to let them out of the penalty box.


Ethereal onlookers cheer wildly when a combatant forces an opponent into the penalty box, granting the attacker a +1 bonus to speed and all defenses until the end of its next turn.

Magitech Switches

There are eight switches which all correspond to one of the Aboleth demon’s boon/bane tentacles as detailed below:

1.      Sharpened Edge – controlling team will critical on 18-20
2.      Titan’s Hide  – controlling team receives DR5 all
3.      Ghostly Carapace– controlling team receives 10 temporary hit points each
4.      Withering Weapon– controlling team adds 5 necrotic damage to all attacks
5.      Chill of Death – enemy team is Slowed
6.      Weakened Soul – enemy team grants combat advantage constantly
7.      Crushed Resolve – enemy dead stays in the penalty box 1 extra round.
8.      Touch of Evil – enemy team has a 50% chance to target an ally with any attack.

I will note that contention over switch # 5 was the nastiest. In our game that switch proved to be overpowering and I would probably modify it for future arena matches. The players faced what appeared to be copies of their PCs but were actually shape shifting 3-hit minions which are detailed below. After two hours the players won the day and dethroned the NPC team. 

Below are additional images of the Tesseract Arena.

The bridge of doom!
We used colored pins to denote which team had control over a switch

Those strange black cubes!
Packed up until the next match

The players also found the Necronomicon!
I hope this post inspires you! Comments and questions are welcome and I will make every attempt to answer when time is on my side.