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!