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!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Dragon of Crab Key

The first James Bond film - Dr. No - features a Dragon. The Dragon of Crab Key. It's a legendary creature protecting the remote island known as Crab Key, making visits very dangerous. In the movie, Mr. Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the death of a fellow agent. During his investigations, Bond manages to uncover a secret organization (SPECTRE) lead by an evil mastermind, foiling the organization's plans in Crab Key.

(Source: Wikipedia)
During the movie, the character of James Bond is portrayed as a man of many skills. The stylish secret agent is an excellent marksman with great unarmed combat skills - as expected from a field agent who sleeps with danger (literally) - but he is also a very keen observer, capable of getting to the bottom of things without bloodshed.

I'll bet the action scenes kept the 1962 audience at the edge of their seats (watching the movie more than 50 years later, the movie still has an edge), but even the non-combat scenes had an edge. In the secret-agent genre, even going to bed alone after a hard day can be dangerous - the scene in which a Tarantula was placed in Bond's bed to take care of the 'pesky' agent was very well done. And if Mr. Bond takes a lady to bed, chances are that he was better off with the Tarantula...

In D&D, the characters have many abilities they can use during combat and non-combat encounters. During combat, things get more codified, with specific actions yielding specific results. While smart players can think out of the box and do cool stuff during combat (take any swordplay scene from the Pirates of the Caribbean's movies) it mostly comes down to attacks and hits, even if they are very descriptive and engaging.

During non-combat scenes (or encounters), players rely more on roleplaying and class / character features that are less codified. For example, let's say that the players are planning to sneak into a noble's mansion as part of their mission to find evidence of the noble's foul dealings with orcs.

Knowing my players, one will suggest to sit in a street corner and watch the mansion for a while, to see how many guards are there and what is their schedule. Another might offer to hit the local bars for rumors concerning that noble. A third player might offer to go to the local masons guild, to see if the plans for the mansion still exist. Or maybe the'll just go straight to the door and knock, winging it as the situation evolves.

In any case, they have way more options than in combat. Any of the above options (setting a lookout, hit the bars for rumors, locating the building's plans and knocking on the door) can be resolved using a little roleplaying, by just describing what the characters do. But we want to make things interesting. Crab Key wasn't interesting because the villain's lair was supposedly located there. It was interesting because a "dragon" was known to live there. There was an edge. Something to make an already exotic place more so.

Sneaking into a noble's mansion is interesting as it is - as the DM, I want the players to be able to do it and get the information they need (it might be even crucial to the adventure) - but I don't want to throw a red carpet under their feet on their way in. I want them excited about what they are about to do, getting them to the "edge of their seat" as they plan their way in, making the actual sneaking-in a climax on its own.

In one line - I want to make a non-combat encounter as exciting as a combat encounter, or at least get very close to it.

How? Read on.

Right now, I am using Chris Perkins's Three Act Structure to outline the entire session, detailing scenes in several sentences. I found that running session out of pages packed with information is counter productive - I prefer to look at the players than at my laptop screen (or notes) - so I settled for a few sentences per scene.

For a combat encounter (scene), all I need is a bunch of bad-guys and a location. The system usually provides the details. Monster stat block give almost everything a DM needs, and in systems such as 4e, even the surrounding can have hazards and dynamic elements that have stat blocks of themselves, while not being "creatures" per se. I have lots of details off my notes, and the "win or lose" situation is built into the encounter. Five sentences to describe the scene are usually more than enough. For example:

Event 4 - An Unholy Man: The heroes come face to face with Lord Seylas, who is frothing over the destruction of his ship. If the heroes did not accept Abector Levatra’s protection, he summons some monsters to fight them and leaves. If they do enjoy her protection, he leaves, telling the heroes to watch their backs.

In the above scene, the location can be whatever I want it to be (depending on where the adventurers are), and the bad guys are probably whatever monsters Lord Seylas summons. The heroes "win" by defeating the monsters (and maybe saving innocent bystanders, if the encounter takes place in a public location such as an inn). So the excitement comes from the action and the question: "will our hereos survive?"

But five sentences are rarely enough for non-combat encounters. There are so many courses of action and so many things the players can try, its nearly impossible summarize everything that might happen, and its even harder to quantify everything into DCs and if-else statements. For example:

Event 3. A Holy Woman: Abector Levatra greets the heroes. They immediately see that she is blind. She explains that her order is waging war against the abominations lurking behind the Veil and the Dragovar Empire - the two main threats to the Lhazaar. Together with Ryger’s forces, her order works to undermine the Dragovar and learn whatever can be learned about the Veil. The PARANTAA are creatures of the Veil, spreading disease if touched by humans. They only learned of the ship’s cargo when it was too late, and so she gave the order to sink it. Using scrying, she saw the whole assault. She was impressed with the heroes deeds during the assault, but so was Lord Seylas - a powerful sorcerer and the Wavecrusher owner. She offers to protect the heroes from the sorcerer’s wrath if they will help her uncover the mystery of the PARANTAA.

(Yes, the Dragovar is a total ripoff from Iomandra. I know.)

Much more than five sentences, and I probably could have written a dozen more. But note that there are no numbers involved. No DCs (if a PC tries to use a skill) or descriptions of spells she have active. No writeup of the surrounding (they met her in her temple), rooms, traps, NPCs etc. No if-else sequences (if a player does X, she says Y). If the players try something that requires actual mechanics, I'm improvising.

It makes a nice roleplaying scene, but where's the excitement? They enter a room, meet an NPC, talk to her, maybe accept her offer. What's new?

Well, I'm thinking of a way to turn this five sentence scene writeup into something more interesting. Here are my thoughts:

  • Some non-combat encounters should be as exciting as combat encounters.
  • Things get exciting when there's a chance of winning and a chance of losing.
  • When you ask a player to roll a dice in a non-combat encounter, you actually say: "lets see if you can pull this off", making "winning" and "losing" very visible.
  • "Losing" should still be fun.

With the above in mind, here a writeup of the above scene. What do you think?

Event 3. A Holy Woman: Abector Levatra greets the heroes. They immediately see that she is blind. She tries to persuade them to accept her protection from Lord Seylas in return for embarking on a mission to uncover the mystery of the PARANTAA (the creatures of the veil).

Blindness [Spot] - Her condition was self inflicted. Disturbing visions were somehow involved. A medallion (silver eye) on her neck allows her to see using magical means. Fail: she asks the player if her medallion interests him. Some tried to take it from her - none survived.

Lord Seylas [Recall Lore, Persuade] - The lord and the abector were once lovers. He will not act openly against her, as he still loves her. Fail: she coldly says that her personal affairs are to remain that way. She warns them to keep their distance from the lord even if they don't accept her offer.

The PARANTAA [Sense Motive, Persuade] - It seems the abector knows more about these creatures than she reveals. Maybe she already have most of the answers. Fail: one of the temple guards snaps at the heroes, hand on hilt, telling them that their questions show disrespect. The abector coldly states she told them all that she knows.

By moving the NPC goals out of the scene description (and into a section dedicated to NPCs not shown here), I made some room to specific "win/lose" situations utilizing skills. I specified what the players learn when applying their skills, and what happens when they "fail", with "failure" meaning a minor change in the NPC attitude, a subtle threat or a tense moment.

So instead of a bulk of text describing boring goals, details and descriptions, I have a short scene description and a focused list of win/lose moments requiring dice rolls from the players, with obvious results (more valuable info when "winning", or some tense moments when "losing"). As I said - interesting, exciting, with hooks everywhere. Maybe even better than combat, don't you think?

Dr. No had one scene that caught my attention. Four sentences that are full of cloak-and-dagger feel, danger  and uncertainty, all in a simple conversation between two would-be allies.

Bond: Your name Quarrel?
Quarrel: Maybe.
Bond: I am a friend of Commander Strangways.
Quarrel: I like people who are friends of people.

I'll try this new approach in my next couple of sessions, and will update on the results.