Sunday, April 14, 2013

Forgotten Sagas of the 13th Age, An Actual Play Experience playlist

This is my 13th Age campaign. As you can see, it's an online game. I run it using and Google Hangouts. It's played (on average) about every other Wednesday. It is livestreamed as we play, which can be fun as people comment on the action. It's actually kind of weird. I've gotten a surprising amount of attention for this campaign. The campaign is listed as an Actual Play resource on the official 13th Age website. The wiki for the campaign (which you can see here) is the Obsidian Portal campaign of the month for March 2013. I'm quoted on the official website as well. It's pretty cool, but also weird.

Long time no see

So. Haven't written here for a while. Haven't had a lot of reason to, honestly. Between twitter, G+, and the other blogs I've had lots of opportunity to write about things I wanted to when I wanted to. It might be nice to come back to here though. I can use this as a more public place to post RPG stuff that I intend to link around as well as post things that are too... opinionated or rant-y to go up elsewhere. It also hasn't helped that a lot of the focus on this blog was 4e D&D and Wizards of the Coast utterly threw 4e under the bus in an attempt to appease players of older additions, so I haven't posted about D&D in general in a while.

But hey, no time like now to get back to writing here. I've been doing a lot of work with 13th Age. Running a campaign using the system and setting, working on what will hopefully be my first ever published RPG product (albeit an ebook) for the system, and a few other things with it. I intend to do a free adventuring site revolving around The Three (and their history when the other two great dragons were alive and/or free), a free pdf involving ally and antagonist factions for the setting, and another paid PDF which will be magical items and alternative magical advancements. Right now, the monstrous codex is the big project though and it's making decent progress.  At some point, I will need playtesting. I'll likely do some of it myself, but will also probably farm some of it out to others.

Aside from that, not doing a lot of gaming or gaming related things. Just running my game, writing for the monstrous codex, and doing the Across A Table Madly podcast. I would like to be playing in another game, but so far nobody is running a game on a day that I can play or playing a system that I want to play.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

An update of sorts.

I know. I haven't updated this blog in a while. A long while. I've moved at least some of it over to and that's where most of it will remain. I think I'm going to keep this one going too, but for more... I dunno if I can call them personal posts, but stuff that might not be of interest to the wider public or things that are more controversial. Almost wish I'd posted my "Play at your own pace" article here, but what's done is done.

But the thing I most want to post here is my campaign logs, along with links, maps, and the sort. So you can steal the encounters or maps for your own or just watch a campaign unfold in more detail or see my thinking behind encounter, map, or story design. Some of the encounters and areas will be the same as in my earlier posts, but some will not. If you're one of my players? Please don't go read those old ones. :P You'll enjoy it more in the long run to be surprised.

Which brings me finally to the point. I rebooted my campaign this week. Rebooted and relocated. I had been running this campaign locally, this was my modified Rescue at Rivenroar thing. But the group fell apart. And what's more, the campaign was just not going well. Some of that is on my head. Rivenroar itself is too much of a grind. It's a very long dungeon without a lot of unique or interesting fights and there were far too many combats even if they all were interesting. I did what I could on that count, cutting some combats and changing many more. But ultimately, it was too long and too much of the same thing. I was not at my best at all. The players also shared some of the blame, some of them uninterested in the story, others hating the system, and none of them at all seeming all that engaged in the campaign. They were more than happy to let the NPCs they rescued fade into the background and be ignored and I couldn't make anybody care about what was going on. And that utter lack of enthusiasm sapped and eventually killed my own. I didn't want to run a game anymore for the group. And almost 4 months later, I still don't, outside of one-shots or similarly short adventures/stories. But that's not important right now.

So what did I do? I decided to take my game online. I would find a group of players that I thought would be more enthusiastic and interested in what I was doing. I would take the lessons I'd learned in my first try at running the campaign and make things better for this go. I would put in more effort and try and coax that same level of effort out of my PCs, using Obsidian Portal. I would try and do interesting and unique things to make it different from other campaigns the players might have been in, for example doing a video trailer for the campaign like you'd see for a movie.

I don't want this campaign to fail and I'm going to work hard at it not doing so. I've assembled a really good group of players and I think there's some good chemistry brewing even in just the first two sessions (only one of which was a play session).

So, soon I'll post things like links to the Actual Play podcast sessions we're doing, links to the relevant adventure logs from players on Obsidian Portal, as well as PDFs with maps and monsters for each encounter. I hope you will enjoy them.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Little of Everything: Deciding Between Random Treasure, Wishlists, and Inherent Bonuses

The question of how to distribute equipment, specifically magic items, has always been kind of a problem with D&D. How much do you give out? How powerful? How often should they get it? What should be given out? But they aren't easy questions to really answer. So while there have been many answers, none of them have really been ideal. With D&D4e comes the infamous parcel system (which I will not be getting into here) and wishlists (which I obviously will be). The wishlist system (if you can really call it that) has taken a great deal of flak. Mainly from people who dislike 4th Edition, but also from more than a few who do. It's been something argued over a great deal since 4e came out, by both players and DMs. I've got my own opinions on the subject, but first I think it's worth getting into what's good and bad about wishlists as well as the good and bad about some of the alternatives.

So what's good about wishlists? They're easy. On both DMs and players. The player looks up exactly what they want and need, gives it to he DM, and at some point the DM gives it out as treasure. Not a lot of effort involved beyond the small investment of time to create and then update the list and the DM's only effort is to make sure the item fits in with what he wants his campaign to be. It also keeps the players happy. They get exactly what they can use for their characters. At no point will a player get really excited to get a new magic item only to find out that it's really crappy for their character. That's a feeling that's arguably worse than not having gotten anything at all.

So, wishlists have some upsides, but why do people hate them so much? They're immersion/realism breakers for some people. I know, it's a game about elves, dragons, and wizards and I've said as much on Twitter. But I can see where people might find the contrived coincidence of finding an exact item that fits a character perfectly worthy of an eye roll. Especially when you're talking exotic items or strange locales. Further, the game math needs players to get upgrades fairly often to keep up with monster defenses and attacks, so it feels even more artificial. This isn't a problem limited to wishlists, but the wishlists tended to feed into a constant turnover of magic items because as soon as a player got one item off their list they would likely update it and add something else.

Alright, what are alternatives? Random magic items. The option of choice for older editions. What's good about random items? It encourages player creativity and open-mindedness , for one thing. If they often have to make due with what they have, players might find new and interesting ways to use them. It also may allow them to see something as being good even if it didn't fit exactly what they'd had in mind for their character. It also keeps players from getting too complacent and cynical about magic items since they're never sure what they're going to find. Lastly, it might encourage more roleplaying or questing from players as they try to take what they do have and use it to find what they actually want or need. Whether it be haggling with a merchant for a trade, asking an enclave of scholars where a particular magic item may be found, or having to steal something from a sinister baron, players and DMs might be surprised to find what happens in the search for magical gear.

You know there are going to be drawbacks to random items too, right? Although random items might encourage creativity, open-mindedness, roleplaying, and/or questing, at some point players might get upset if they don't find stuff they want. Not just "can use", but "want". The party Paladin may be able to use that +3 Songblade short sword, but chances are he or she won't be all that excited about it. Players might get bored or frustrated having to take the stuff they get and turn it into stuff they want, whether it's because it's tedious, unnecessary, or just taking away from the main story or goal of the campaign. It's difficult to argue that sometimes the time spent on getting or finding "good" magic items might be better spent doing something else.

What about another alternative? Okay, the DM's choice. It's an uncommon method and for a good reason. This involves the DM picking items that he thinks will be good for the party. This is what I initially did for my game. I stopped after a fairly short time when I realised the reason that very few others did it: it's a lot of time and effort for the DM and may not make the party happy anyway. Having to guess what 3-6 players are planning for their characters or what works with their build (and what doesn't) is too much to ask of a DM who already has to do a lot for a campaign.

Then there are more radical alternatives, first of which is the inherent bonuses first mentioned in the DMG2 and again in the Dark Sun campaign book. It's a good sort of simplification and it fits some campaigns well. It's a very predictable progression and doesn't rely on what the DM does or does not give out. On the other hand, some campaigns or groups might not like missing out on magical items. It might lead to a lesser sense of tangible mechanical progression. In magic rich settings it might not feel quite right either. I can't imagine using inherent bonuses for a Forgotten Realms campaign, for example. Divine boons and martial trainings are other alternatives first mentioned in the DMG2 and while I really like them and think that they are a very natural or PC driven reward respectively, Wizards really hasn't followed up very well with them and the selection of either is very poor. This leads to a lot of DM and/or player heavy lifting to create more and not everybody either wants to or has the spare time for that sort of design work. But the concept for both of them is good and a group or DM willing to put the work in might find it worth it.

So, what am I doing for my game? A little of everything. I’ve asked all of my players for a wishlist. One armor, one neck piece, 1 weapon, and 1 misc item (could be a shield, holy symbol, whatever). I’ve told the players outright that they have to choose carefully because these are the core pieces of equipment they will have for the entire game. Won’t that put them behind the math curve for attacks and defenses? It would, if I left them at +1 items. Instead, the items themselves will increase in power, not unlike the inherent bonus option. Outside of those core items, however, I’ve told players that everything will be completely random. Level appropriate, but I won’t be paying attention to whether the items are going to be great for the group or not.

So what does this get the group? Well, the players get at least some of what they want. I’ve thrown them a bone up front. They can’t complain that they don’t have something that is perfectly suited for their characters. They get the exact bonus powers, properties, and abilities that they want for 4 pieces of equipment. They also get to be surprised by the random items that will show up and get to use items that they might not have considered using before since they’re not optimal. They also don’t have to be behind the math curve at any point due to the fact that their gear is growing in power as they are.

As for me, I get a much simplified prep. I have to give out a lot less treasure so I can focus more on things like the story, encounters, or NPCs. I also get to incorporate what equipment they ~do~ have into the campaign and ongoing story. For example, I think the Paladin in my game is going to pick a Sun Blade for his weapon. As he goes up in level and fame, the players will start to hear stories of Allayad, Champion of Bahamut with his glowing silver blade that has struck down many foes of the Platinum Dragon. I can also incorporate quests related to their equipment, like sending them to search for a way to enchant their weapons to defeat a certain foe or to power up their gear (like maybe turning the Sun Blade into a Holy Avenger or something).

Is my suggestion a really radical one? No. Sarah Darkmagic further pointed out that there was no reason that characters with inherent bonuses couldn't use magic items. You get the higher of the two bonuses and you get all the properties and powers of the item being used. So that works too, right? It does. I think my idea is more straightforward and easier to keep track of, but that’s not to say that doing it the other way is bad.

So what should you do for your game? Whatever works best for you, your group, and your story. If you’ve got a game like Dark Sun or you want to have a campaign that’s more Conan the Barbarian than Tolkien, inherent bonuses with the occasional low level magic item are definitely the way to go, for instance. If your group loves the thrill of getting magic items, whether they can use them or not, throw out random treasure as you need to. If everybody is happy with wishlists and surprisingly appropriate items in the most random of places, by all means start picking your stuff to give to your DM. If you want to mix it up, try my suggestion from above. Not every available option is going to make everybody happy, but if you’ve got a good group with mature players, you can find something that will let everybody forget the nitty gritty of things like how you get your items and get back to things that are more fun for everybody.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Phantasmal Harmony - Homebrew ritual

This was an idea that I came up with in conjunction with a couple of other players (people playing a Wizard and Bard, natch) sometime last year. The ideas are a combination from all three of us, but the mechanics are nearly all mine. I have admittedly never used this ritual. It's not gotten any kind of playtesting. I'm not even sure it will be interesting for the majority of people who play D&D4e, but I thought it would be fun to (re)post anyway. First up is the ritual, then I'll post commentary on it after the mechanics and description.

Phantasmal Harmony
Level: 6
Type: Deception
Casting Time: 10 minutes
Duration: Special (see description)
Component Cost: 500gp
Market Price: 2500gp
Key Skill: Arcana (special)

Description: When activated, Phantasmal Harmony brings into being a full illusionary band of up to 5 people as well as appropriate lighting, sound, and and entertaining light show/fireworks display. The exact song and nature of the display is decided by the bard at the time of activation. This show provides morale bonuses for all allies within a close burst 5 radius with a duration determined by the Arcana check made at the time of casting. The exact nature of the bonuses is also determined at the time of casting. Although the bonuses last for a limited duration, the illusionary aspect lasts for up to 10 minutes or can be ended as a free action by the activating bard.

Casting the ritual for Phantasmal Harmony requires two people, a wizard and a bard. The average of their Arcana checks determines the duration of the morale bonuses as determined by the following chart:

19 or lower = 1 turn
20 to 29 = 2 turns
30 to 39 = 3 turns
40 or more = 4 turns.

On a natural 20 on the Arcana check by either the wizard or bard involved with the casting, the two rolls are instead added together to determine the result. At the time of casting, the nature of the morale bonuses is also decided. The bard may pick from any two of the following: +1 to all defenses, +1 to attack rolls, or +1 to saves.

Once the ritual has been cast, it is not activated immediately. Instead the ritual generates a small, tear-drop shaped piece of solid magic that, when thrown to the ground by the bard or wizard who participated in the ritual, will begin the effects. This item has no selling value and disappears if handled by someone other than the participating wizard or bard.

Commentary: So where do I begin to head off the criticism that I would expect? First, yes, it's a ritual that directly impacts combat. I don't remember seeing any of those in official sources (though I may be wrong) and I do realise that rituals generally are supposed to be more utilitarian magic. Combat magic is largely the domain of powers, not rituals. This is operating off pure Rule of Cool and not really the expected design parameters. The image in my mind is the bard or wizard activating this ritual, epic music ringing out with brilliant lights to inspire the PCs (or maybe demoralize the NPCs, depending on how you want to look at it. +1 to attack rolls can also be read as -1 to enemy defenses after all) for a few short, but important, rounds.

I expect that some people feel that there are too many bonuses and they're too large. At level 6 when the ritual can first be learned and cast, they are indeed hefty. But I deliberately avoided providing rules for scaling it up (it wouldn't be hard. At level 16, bonuses are +2, at level 26, bonuses are +3) so that as the characters advance in level, the ritual becomes less of a "must have" and more of a "nice to have" without ever completely being rendered useless. The save bonus becomes the best part of the ritual as a campaign progresses since it doesn't need to scale and that was again a deliberate design choice.

I feel the radius for the effect is solid. it's a wide radius, but not so big that allies couldn't find themselves out of it by chance, choice, or enemy actions. I also feel the duration is good. One of the balancing factors at lower levels is that, barring a crit, it would take an excellent roll from 2 characters to go more than 2 turns. Higher level characters will have an easier time getting more turns, but they're also getting less mechanical benefit per turn out of it except for the save bonus.

So there you go, Phantasmal Harmony. It's not a ritual for every game. Very serious games might find it inappropriate to the tone and setting. For the game that this ritual was developed for, there was a difference in opinion even from everybody involved. The DM pictured it as a more period/fantasy appropriate performance, while all the players who worked on it envisioned it more as a fantasy rock band event.

But it's ~fun~. That's why it was developed, that's why people should use it. I'm just picturing a bard's player saying "Okay, I'm using Phantasmal Memory" at the start of a fight and someonewith a mp3 player or laptop cueing up "Princes of the Universe" from Queen. Would that be awesome? I certainly think so.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Neither Straightjacket nor Sandbox – Role and Class

This stems from yet another big conversation that originated on Twitter. Feeling that my thoughts on the subject were far too expansive for 140 characters at a time, I put off discussing it for the most part until I could write a blog post about it. The focus of the conversation was about classes, class roles, how to play your character, and how you should be able to play your character. The thinking seemed to boil down to two sides. The first felt that your class role should completely define your character. If you’re playing a Defender, you are expected to defend. You’ll mark, you’ll take hits from enemies, you’ll keep the rest of the party safe. If you do anything else, it’s a bonus, but you’d better make sure you can fulfill that main role as best you can. The other school of thought was that you should be able to take any role with any class. If you wanted to play your Rogue as a Defender, there should be options for that. If your Wizard wants to be a Striker, she should be able to.

My thinking is that both of these lines of thinking are right. Which, of course, makes them both just as wrong. I think that classes and roles are guidelines, a path to lead you to your character. But they’re guidelines that have some reasonable flexibility in how you get there or even what your exact destination character will be. Your character can be the same role and class as what someone else has without being very similar in mechanics or in flavor.

The problem with the narrow interpretation is that it ignores that almost every class dabbles in some other role other than their primary. Many individual builds or powers dabble in secondary roles. It’s possible to build a Defender that has a lot of Striker feel to it and still be a reasonably effective Defender. Your Leader may have a lot of ways to venture into Controller territory and still be perfectly good at being a Leader. Some people will point out that a Defender who takes Striker-esque powers or a Leader who takes Controller powers won’t be as effective as a pure Defender or Leader, but I will disagree. It’s all about how you look at it. A Defender who can pump out a fair bit of damage gives monsters more reason to target them over other PCs. A Leader who can move people around the battlefield or buff/debuff can help PCs avoid taking damage in the first place (either through helping kill enemies faster or avoid attacks). It’s performing the same role in a different way.

So how do you deal with the situation where people expect you to go with a “pure” build? Talk with your group. Let them know that you’re going outside the narrowest view of the class or role. Explain what your goal with the character is and what you want out of it. Let them know what you ~can~ do so you can give them the chance to adjust their characters so that the party melds together well. For example, in one of my online Skype-based games, I’m playing a Dragonborn Swordmage with the Aegis of Assault. This is a character which is oriented more towards Striker than Defender. But within the group, another person is playing a Warden, so the group is okay with me being only a secondary Defender. It’s just as important to let your DM know as well so encounters and adventures can be tweaked to take into it account. For example, as a DM I might consider giving the party just a few extra Healing Potions if someone playing a Leader was also taking a few pages out of the Defender or Controller playbook. As with a lot in D&D or RPGs in general, the key is communication.

Other people will point out that you’re still limited and restricted. This is the second point of view, that you should be able to do anything you want with any class. Rules as written, you will have a really difficult time making a Fighter who is even a secondary Leader. A Fighter might not have enough power options to make a very consistent secondary Controller either. This is true. But it begs the question, if you really want to play a character who has Leader or Controller as a secondary role, why are you playing a Fighter? The restrictions help define what a class is. The limitations tell you as the player and the group you’re playing with a general idea of what they can expect when you sit down at the table and tell them “I’m playing a Fighter”. Which is important. D&D, as well as other RPGs, are about having fun as a group and if you play just any random thing or your character doesn’t perform like the group expects, you may be having fun but your group may not. So I think that classes and roles are a good starting baseline to let everybody know a general idea what to expect, if not a specific one.

So the question becomes, what do you do when you want to play one thing and the rules tell you that you can’t? What if you want to make that Fighter who can be a Leader as well? What if that Wizard who can dish out serious damage is your thing? There are options. The first is that if the class you’ve chosen doesn’t fill the role you want, look at the other classes. The second is that if the role you want doesn’t fit the class you’ve taken, look at the other classes. The third is that if the fluff you like doesn’t fit the role or class you’ve chosen, look at the other classes. You’re sensing a theme here at this point, I hope. There are a lot of classes out there and it’s entirely possible you can find something more suitable to what you want if you just look for it. That Fighter who wants to be a Leader? Hi, my name is the Warlord and I would like to have a chat. Oh Wizard who wants to deal out damage? My friend the Sorcerer would like you to have a look at her.

Okay, so what if you’re attached to the fluff or some other feature of a class that makes you reluctant to change classes? There are still options available to increase the range of things your character can do. In all the talk on Twitter on this subject, I was astounded to see that nobody ever brought up multi-classing. Though debatably not as flexible as previous editions of D&D, multiclassing can still add new dimensions to a PC. Even just the baseline multi-class feat can be quite useful or add flavor by way of a skill training or extra (albeit limited) ability, let alone getting into the feats that let you swap one classes powers for the others. If that’s not sufficient, there’s always the option of using a hybrid, which was also not brought up to my knowledge in the Twitter conversations. Hybrids are more complicated to build in some ways than a standard or even multi-classed character and the character might initially suffer from the jack-of-all-trades problem at low levels, but the flip side is that you can also make a character that’s closer to what you’d like if none of the other options are what you’re interested in.

I think no matter what side of the fence you fall on, what your thoughts on class or role, the important thing is to talk to your group. See what everybody wants and expects. If your group is happy with unusual builds and playing-against-type, that’s great. If your group likes people to play what their class or role indicates they should be, that’s great too. If some of your group is one camp and some is in the other, that’s okay too. So long as everybody agrees to do it that way and everybody knows what’s coming.

The whole point to D&D is to have a good time with your friends and what exactly that means can only be determined by you and your group. If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. Whether you’re playing a Rogue/Fighter Hybrid with a cutlass, an eyepatch, and a parrot or you’re playing the most optimal healing build Cleric that can be pulled out of the Character Builder.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pregens: Dragon's Rest

I, for some reason, end up making a lot of pregen characters. Maybe it's because I like making characters. Maybe because I like to be helpful and offer to make them for people who need them. Maybe it's because I like being ready in case I need to run a one-shot game or mini campaign. Either way, it's been recommended to me that I share my bounty of pregens for those of you out there. Use them for NPCs, use them for a delve night, make one of them your NPC, or whatever you need them for.

First up on the pregen slate are 6 that I created for my own home game for a story interlude which will affect the main party in (hopefully) big ways. They are all standard builds out of the Character Builder and I've included both a PDF copy as well as the character builder files so you can make adjustments. I've uploaded each character individually, as well as a zip file with all six.

The background for this group of characters is that they're all at a mountain fortress-monastery of Bahamut known locally as Dragon's Rest (which I'm working on writing up for the blog as well). They've all got different and diverse reasons for being there and equally diverse personalities and motivations. You obviously don't have to use Dragon's Rest in your game, it's just there as a unifying factor if you so choose.

Corrin, Halfling Druid (Download)
Riya, Deva Avenger (Download)
Garel-Kai, Genasi Swordmage (Download)
Keira, Human Cleric (Download)
Perra, Dragonborn Sorceress (Download)
Naram, Shardmind Invoker (Download)

Click here to download all six pregens.

Feedback and comments are, as always, welcome and encouraged.