Saturday, December 27, 2014

D&D 5e Impressions - The Monster Manual

I didn't know what to expect from the new Monster Manual. I mean - the new Player's Handbook was an interesting read, and I really enjoyed the new presentation (story and background before game statistics and rules) and the way the new rules mixed the best of D&D from all editions - but the Monster Manual is just that, right? A book about D&D Monsters...


Well, I am happy to say that Wizards did the impossible and created a Monster Manual that (again) puts story and background before game statistics.

It's the first creature centric book I had the pleasure of picking up for the sake of inspiration, as part of my adventure creation process. With previous Monster Manual editions, I skimmed through the monster books to find critters to challenge my players with. I mostly looked at the statistics, checking whether this particular creature will be a good or bad challenge for my group.

Not anymore.

Now - before plunging into the details of the next session, I take the new Monster Manual from the shelf and just flip through the pages, reading the various bits and bites of story and background provided with each monster description. Some of the little 'notes' dotting the pages here and there are especially inspiring - in a tongue-in-the-cheek kind of way.


All of the usual suspects are represented - goblins, giants, dragons, demons, devils and many other 'classic' D&D critters - along with some new creations. The stat blocks (when I actually get to read them), are clear and convey all the needed information in a glance. All the information is present where you need it - no need to flip pages or open another book to understand how a specific monster works (expect spell-casting monsters - you still need the Player's Handbook for the spell descriptions). It's a real blessing, as I hardly have the mental capacity for minute details or hard-to-remember tactics and traits.

I have to say that the new Monster Manual feels superior to previous editions - from mechanics, story oriented material, presentation and art. Dungeon Masters can actually build entire adventures out of the inspiring story surrounding a critter, and it feels like the non-mechanical material was designed with that goal in mind. I totally appreciate any attempt to ease things for the Dungeon Master. I personally don't have a lot of free time, and I prefer to 'copy-paste' bits of information to create encounters and scenarios. Since this book is full of worthy content, 'copy-paste' actually works in this case - allowing me to focus on the story and back away from the statistics until I really need it.

The Player's Handbook was a great kickoff for this new edition. It seems to me that the Monster Manual release managed to top that. The package containing the Dungeon Master Guide is already underway - and I can't wait to get my hands on it...

Saturday, September 27, 2014

D&D 5e Impressions

One of the things I like most about this new D&D version is the way rules get out of the way.

It started with The Sundering modules. The modules described the story, the characters involved and the setting, and provided a lot of information for the Dungeon Master. The rules of the game were pushed into downloadable PDFs that made the module compatible with D&D Next, D&D 4th Edition and D&D 3.5 Edition at once.

The idea that a module can consist solely of story elements and still fill 30+ pages (or triple that number - see Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure module) means that rules take the backstage and the characters, the players and their actions through the evolving story is what's matters the most.

That said - a simple ruleset often means more work for the Dungeon Master, as players try to do things not covered by the rules, requiring the DM to make judgement calls all over the scenario. In addition, simple rules sometimes mean simple characters, with players unhappy with the few options the rules provide for character development.

So I looked at Fighter class and compared the Basic D&D version of it to the 5th Edition version of it, reasoning that the Fighter class had always been a 'simple' choice, and the default one for new players joining an existing party.

Basic D&D described the Fighter in a single page, summarizing the class by saying that "Fighters need no special abilities to survive and prosper. Their great strength, hit points, strong armor and many weapons make them a powerful character class."

In Basic D&D, playing a Fighter was easy rules-wise. Tell the DM what you want to hit, roll a die, and hope for the best. That's it. The first 3 levels didn't include any special feature or maneuver - these came after level 4, but summed up to some fighting abilities using lances and spears. The Fighter was designed to be durable, that's it. Players often steered off of the Fighter class, and only exceptional players could bring a Fighter character into life.

In 5th Edition, the Fighter's description is spread over 4 pages, with each level adding some feature or ability the player can use. The Fighter is still designed for durability, but it now had some interesting options the player could use to gain the upper hand in battle. The Fighter main functionality remained the same: pick a target, roll a die - but now the player could put things like Action Surge, Fighting Style and Martial Archetype features into good use.

In addition - 5th Edition now include a whole chapter dedicated to Personality & Background, which helps novice players (and let's admit it - even seasoned ones) to paint a unique picture given a race and class combination. So your "Level 1 Human Fighter" can become Theodar, an Acolyte of the Masked Hive Queen or Sinadi, the half-crazed Hermit living in the Fog Mountains, kickstarting an ocean of possibilities for role-play and social interactions.

It D&D 5th Edition perfect? Probably not. I (as a Dungeon Master) still find Basic D&D simplicity a bless. But I have to admit - creating a character in 5th Edition is interesting, especially if you let in some randomness using the information presented at the Personality and Background chapter. So the system is not Basic D&D simple, but it's definitely not 3.5e complex - I was able to use a random 5th Edition monster stats without taking 15 minutes to read it before session, and I was able to run several 5th Edition sessions without memorizing the Player's Handbook.

Moreover - I find the module design (I currently own all the Sundering modules and Hoard of the Dragon Queen) very DM friendly and story oriented. Again, not perfect - I still cringe when 'high-level' NPCs send the player characters to do their dirty work for them, but any module containing a list of 20 non story central NPCs your players might interact with during a caravan trip on the Trade Way to Waterdeep is worth owning, reading and using...

I'll wait for the Dungeon Master Guide (and the Monster Manual) for completing my overview of the system - but so far it looks very promising.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

My DM's Notes

Sometimes, a player will approach me asking to see my "DM Notes".

Maybe he's running a campaign of his own and he want to have a look at another DM's work.
Maybe he's just curious about the difference between what I planned and what really happened during the session. Maybe he wants to get ideas, or maybe he just want to know "how stuff works" behind the curtain.

I love these questions, but I don't usually answer them - at least not right away. I love these questions, because they mean that someone is at least interested enough to ask them.

I don't usually answer them because answering them might say too much about my way of thinking, breaking the player's suspension of disbelief and possibly taking away some of the magic taking place around the gaming table.

But here are some role-playing "secrets" from behind the DM's screen I am willing to share with the world (and all my players):

Having the right players is key to the success of the campaign
You know these guys. They'll do whatever they can to keep the game going. They'll show up to your sessions and will do anything they can to help you and the other players have a great time. They'll come up with ideas for cool things to do, they'll interact with your NPCs (even if you suck in portraying them), they'll bite into your half-baked hooks with a wink and they'll pop a good-hearted joke when you fumble with some plot element. In short - the game just gets better when they're around. They're worth their weight in gold. If you find such players - do whatever you can to keep them around!

Prep, prep, prep, improvisation!
Coming up with a good story to drive the campaign isn't hard. Coming up with an good, original story is. This is why my stories are never original. I steal what I can from movies, TV shows, books, comics, and other DMs. I just make sure to coat everything with my own, special flavored sugar to make it somehow distinct. I do lots of prep (just ask my wife), trying to make sure 99% of what's going on around the table is (at the very least) thought of. But - every now and then things get "out of control", when the players do something unexpected. Suddenly, all my precious DM notes are irrelevant. You know what - it's even more interesting that way. As long as you've got those "right players" in your group, everything will be all-right. The campaign doesn't break because someone does something unexpected, and the more experience you have,  the more you become proficient in handling these situations. Let the players tell their own stories - it's your game their playing, but it's not your show.

One common goal, many stories to tell
I learnt that the running the game is easier when the group share a common goal they thought of together without the DM forcing it down their throats. It's not that hard to pull off - it just means that the DM cannot build a complete campaign before the group meets (is that a real issue?). Have the players talk about what they want to do in the game, have them think of a way to form a group around that idea, and you have a bunch of gamers ready to start their first adventure with a specific goal in mind. It's like getting into a car that's already started. Each character should still be distinct, with its own story to tell, but having a common goal really helps to get things going. Then, as the players pursue their common goals, their individual stories can surface every now and then, and so they have a way to "side-step" and refresh themselves when the main goal becomes a bit of a grind.

Listen to feedback, but make your own choices
Every now and then a player will come out and ask for something. Maybe he wants more political intrigue in the game. Maybe he wants a chance to research a magical item. Or maybe he wants things to move faster, as he's bored with all that "talking" taking place in recent adventures.
Now - feedback is always welcome. A player that takes the time to talk to you after the game about something that bugs him is a good thing. You can learn a lot about how your gaming sessions look from the other side of the screen. But make sure to understand that all you get is that player's perspective. If one players asks to have more fights with undead, then OK, you might want to introduce an encounter to satisfy his whims. But if 5 players ask for the more fights with undead - you are onto something BIG. Maybe your players have an itch to scratch, and the story so far don't even come close? Maybe they had some expectations that weren't met? Talking to your players can give you a lot  work with. And even if a player says "I'm not happy, you should fix this and that", don't fret. Fixing "this" or "that" might earn you a happier player, and if fixing it doesn't make other players unhappy, then its a win-win situation. Just make sure this is the case before making drastic changes to your campaign.

Rules are important, but not to the point of going to court
I personally believe that a rule-system gives a certain feel to the game, and I prefer running by the books than house-ruling my own flavor of one system or another. I also feel that players operate better when the rules are on the table - things are less arbitrary. You should use a rule-system that you are comfortable with, one that helps you getting through that sense of the campaign setting to the players. But that's it. The rules should help you create and run your game - but it is your game. Don't let the rules (or rules-savvy players) dictate how things work around your table. Be consistent, be clear, and be fair. If you have those "right players" around, you can count on them to help you run it (especially if they know the rules better than you), but they'll never take your position as the final arbitrator, or question you just for the sake of making a point.

Finally, tell an interesting story
It's not hard if you remember that the story is about the player characters, not your NPCs. The story will be interesting if it's about the characters your player run. If a player hands you a background full of details about his character - then you have to use it as a basis for the campaign. Otherwise, you're telling your own story, and it will suck, because the players don't come to your table to participate in your show. They come to put up their own show while playing your game.
It's very hard to trust players to the point of letting them run the show - I know. It doesn't mean you do everything they ask. It means you take into account their stories, likes and dislikes when planning the adventure - even before starting the campaign. You challenge them, making their quests interesting and unexpected, helping them to tell their characters story in your world. Now, for obvious reasons, most players are not invested in the campaign as the DM is.  But if you try and have them tell their stories instead of yours, you might be able to create something that is really unique and even beautiful - a unique experience of shared storytelling done around a table with a bunch of friends.

It gets even better with Pizza.


Saturday, August 31, 2013

Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil

Yes, this is precisely what I feel.

(Source: Wikipedia)
The D&D Next play-test is over, and I feel that I had enough with rules changing every other week. I want a system that is stable, flexible and...well...D&D at its core.

Now, don't get me wrong - D&D 3.5e is definitely stable, flexible and recognizable as D&D, but it's also very difficult to run if you go by the books. Broken builds are everywhere, and some of its mechanics are simply notorious (Grapple anyone?).

So I decided to do something I usually don't do. Run a 3.5e campaign using only the core books (PHB, DMG, MM) and throwing out all of the unneeded complexity. If I managed to run a D&D Next campaign that lasted 12 months by using a single die roll for Grappling, I don't see a reason to use 3.5e's interpretation of Grappling at the table.

Players are now free to use the flexibility and matureness of 3.5e to reconstruct their current characters, which is a good thing. D&D Next was simple to run (for both players and DMs), but that meant characters were not as complex as some players wanted. You couldn't make your character fit the picture you had in your mind, unless that character fell neatly into one of D&D Next's molds. 3.5e doesn't suffer from that.

The problem with 3.5e (IMHO) is that it's complex to run from the DM perspective, and it has some truly broken character builds.

I'll try to solve the broken build issue by limiting my players to the Core PHB book, but the complexity of 3.5e still remains. I mean, Attacks of Opportunity rules, Grappling, Sundering, Sneak Attack rules, Stacking rules, and basically everything Wizards wrote about in the Rules of the Game column years ago.

So what can I do? Here's what I think:

  1. Think story-wise, and not rules-wise. If a player tries a "complex" action (Sundering, Tripping, Grappling), there should be a roll involved, but that's it. The story (description, coolness factor of the action) is more important that the consequences of the action itself. And an adventure shouldn't end of the PCs manages to break the Vorpal Sword of their Vampire opponent.
  2. That said, the rules should not be ignored. I need to follow the "spirit" of the rules, even if I don't follow them to the letter. For example, the Mounted Combat rules are full of nuances (see here), but does the game break if I allow a PC riding a horse to just ride and attack giving a +1 to the attack? That said, the rules do specify some Skill checks and penalties to be taken into account when the PC is trying to perform some actions on horseback (ranged attack, spell casting), so I should not ignore them completely.
  3. Stay away from constructing NPC stat blocks that are detailed to the last spell/item. If possible, use Monster stat blocks, and stat blocks provided in books such as Enemies and Allies. Taking an hour to build a Mage NPC that will be killed in 3 rounds is a complete waste of time.
  4. And most important of all - keep the game running smoothly. Rules can be checked after the game ends, but they should be checked and explained, especially if a player tries to abuse them. It was hard to "abuse" something in D&D Next, as it had lots of blurred edges and the DM had a lot of say. But in 3.5e, a lot of rules are very detailed, making it hard for the DM to reject them or say "it doesn't work like that" without getting the players flipping the pages of the PHB. So rules should be applied, but in a way that is fair, helping the players (and the DM) create a fun and rewarding game experience.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Constructively Evil

Evil characters often spell the end of the campaign before it even started.

When a player comes with an idea for an evil character, I always try to understand what he's after. Is it the Coolness Factor that often comes with a villain? Is it because he's tired of playing that goodie-dooer that bites the hooks the DM hands out? (Oh look! the dragon fled with the princess!)

Or maybe he just want a "legal" way to wreck havoc in my campaign?

Luckily, my players are way above such destructive tendencies. Or are they? Here's what one of my players (Ben Haker) have to say about running an Evil Character....

What does Good & Evil mean? 

To me it is clear that the concepts of Good & Evil are based on too many variables to be absolute. Different time periods (e.g. 21st century vs. 14th century), different social classes (e.g. noble vs. peasant) and different religions have all different concepts of Good and Evil.

It is important to be aware of these differences because it means that we should not be using our 21st century liberal democratic views when judging medieval like fantasy settings (e.g. D&D). This is also one of the reasons I never liked the alignment mechanism provided with the D&D rules.

When running my characters, I add another layer of complexity that foils the alignment mechanism: Evil is not always malevolence and Good is not always benevolence.

What does that mean? 

I can think of many scenarios where the actions of a Chaotic Good character would wreak havoc on a peaceful village while the actions of a Lawful Evil character would sustain the village and ensure the peaceful survival of the inhabitants.
In modern western life we feel that living under a despotic rule is the worst that can happen, for a simple peasant in Medieval that is not always the case. There are worse things than losing your freedom. Paying a tribute to a dragon overlord may not be as bad for the wilderness town like trying to take him down and suffering the dire consequences of failing.

I do not want to turn this into a moral discussion, I only wanted to prepare the ground for my next argument, Evil characters have a place in the campaign and not only as the characters’ nemesis but as a valid part of the group.

Evil does not always mean mindless uncivilized destruction, it could also mean a subtle political play. An Evil character does not have to be treacherous, he / she could be a stout friend. No reason to think that Evil does not make friends or cannot work in a team.

Two examples (taken from actual game play):

One - A fighter got mixed in a political rivalry. He is in a banquet where the son of his political rival is also present. He sees the son get mixed in a duel that he cannot win and gets killed. He just sits there, not trying to prevent the duel. Let even assume that he helped instigate the duel knowing that it would be the end of the rival’s son. 

Is he Evil? Maybe. Was that Bad? Not so sure. no one from the city got hurt (other than the son). Most importantly, did it prevent him being a dedicated and able part of an adventuring group? I do not think so.

Two - A Blackguard (Anti-Paladin) is in a city that is rife with civil strife and external threats. While in the city he founds out that one of the individuals living in the city is a mighty magic-user vampire. The Blackguard is actually on a mission by the lord of a rival city. 

The lord is looking for a way to increase the influence of his city (city B) in order to deal with the external threats. Our Blackguard strikes a deal with the vampire, unifying their power they are able to instigate a coup against the local Senate and replace it with a Senate that is loyal to the vampire and the rival city lord. 

In a single blow he was able to unite two cities into a stronger force that will be able to deal with the external threats, pacify the internal strife, advance himself in the eyes of his lord and have a powerful vampire ally. 

You probably say that the city got the worse of the deal. Are you sure? The city is now part of a more powerful alliance and should be able to fend of the external threats, internally it is now ruled by a Senate loyal to a vampire so you can count on having a strong hand at the wheels. Sure, some will pay but most ordinary citizens just got a chance at a better and more peaceful life. So was the act of being Evil (handing a city to the control of a vampire) so Bad?

To summarize - It is true that if a player plays a mindless evil character that cannot be part of a group, or is just annoying, it could be a problem. But if the player is being sophisticated and sensitive I do not find a reason why an evil character cannot thrive in a regular group and even do some Good!

I would use the word “disruptive” instead of the word “evil” in order to measure a character’s ability to be part of an adventuring group and a campaign. “Disruptive” is not alignment centric but measures many traits of the character and role play that affect the compatibility of a character to the rest of the group and the campaign as a whole.

Here you go. I do believe that the word "Disruptive" is the key here. If a players pulls off an evil character without being disruptive (to the game, campaign, adventure, whatever), some cool roleplaying moments awaits him.

In addition, the DM, knowing that the player is working with him instead of against him, can be sure that the campaign as a whole will not break - but it might go in unexpected directions, which is a good thing. Nobody wants to play in a scripted campaign. We meet to play an RPG because we get to do whatever we want, portray our characters the way we envision them, tell our own stories, and walk our own path.

Be it good or evil...

Enjoy, and thanks Ben for his take on things!