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SotC plus D&D

October 24th, 2009

I’ve been reading Spirit of the Century recently in preparation for a freelance project that I’m about to start working on, and it’s giving me ideas. Specifically, I’ve been coming up with ways to incorporate some of the ideas and mechanics in Spirit into my regular D&D game. I’ll try to explain this in such a way that people who aren’t familiar with Spirit can still understand what I’m talking about.

Aspects: This is the big one, the obvious one. In Spirit, each character starts with ten aspects; these are words or short phrases that collectively give an overall impression of who the character is. They may be physical characteristics, personality traits, notable quotes, goals, important NPCs, or other, similar things. In addition, players get fate points that they can use to invoke their aspects. Whenever a player makes a roll, he or she can spend a fate point and invoke a relevant aspect in order to get a bonus to the roll after the fact, or re-roll the roll altogether (though the second roll sticks, unless another aspect is invoked and another fate point is spent). You can also tag other peoples’ aspects, which is functionally the same as invoking an aspect except that you’re doing it to someone else’s aspect for your benefit. Finally, the GM can compel an aspect, offering the player a fate point in return for the player acting in accordance with the aspect in question; this typically restricts behavior in some way, and often complicates things for the players.
In D&D: I plan on starting each PC with one aspect from the outset, as well as two aspects that they can choose at a later time, whenever it seems dramatically appropriate. When a player invokes or tags an aspect, it can grant one of three effects. First, it can allow the player to reroll the d20 roll, taking the second result. Second, it can grant a +5 bonus to the roll, after the roll is made but before success or failure is determined. Third, and this is really a very D&D combat-specific use of an aspect, if an d20 roll comes up 18 or higher on the die, an aspect can be invoked to treat it as a natural 20. Compels work in much the same way as described above; there’s really no need to convert.

Declarations: Spirit has a number of skills that can be used for gaining information, such as Academics, Mysteries, Art, or even Burglary. Gaining information is one thing, but players can actually make skill rolls in order to declare facts about a situation. For example, let’s say the players walk into an ancient temple full of traps. A player could say, “According to my extensive knowledge of the history of this temple, I know for a fact that there are numerous secret passages that we can use to our advantage.” The GM then calls for a roll, maybe Academics, and if it’s high enough, the statement is true. In Spirit, this usually means placing an aspect on the scene, one that can be tagged later for the players’ benefit.
In D&D: The knowledge skills (Arcana, Dungeoneering, History, Nature, and Religion) can all be used to make declarations as above. I’d also allow skills like Insight, Perception, or Streetwise to be used to make declarations given sufficient justification or under the right circumstances. Declaration can cause a narrative effect, can place an aspect on the scene or on a person that can be tagged, just like in Spirit, or might create a terrain feature or power that can be used during an encounter. Now, to limit how often this happens, I’d probably cap declaration usage at once per scene per player, a scene being roughly equivalent to an encounter.

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Left 4 Dead, 4 Realz

October 24th, 2009

Check it out. Pretty good special effects for a YouTube video.

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Some thoughts on encounters

October 1st, 2009

The most recent session report is up. The encounters in this session got me thinking about ways that you can use encounters.

The first encounter of the session was just a fairly straightforward fight against some gnolls. It was fun, but nothing too out of the ordinary. The second encounter was where things got interesting. I’ll set it up for you.

The players were tasked by some druids to go and investigate a clearing that was imbued with an otherworldly presence. They got to the clearing, which contained a circle of standing stones, and saw that there was a large glyph on the ground in the center of the stone circle. Shortly afterward, some floating balls of light descended and attacked.

Ok, so the glyph was a prophecy mark, an idea that I lifted from Eberron. The balls of light were custom creatures called ‘prophecy motes’, and they didn’t so much attack as try to make you understand the prophecy, forcibly. The motes, themselves, were minions, and they had a ranged attack that did some psychic damage and dazed the target. The trick was that, if you killed a prophecy mote, two more appeared on their next turn. I had set this combat up so that a straightforward fight would not win the day; there was simply no way to beat it through strength of arms alone. In a way, the encounter was kind of a puzzle, and the players figured this out very quickly.

As soon as they saw additional prophecy motes appear, they decided to investigate the prophecy mark. I hadn’t anticipated how closely they would investigate it (they tried to read it), but I had enough prepared that I was able to easily improvise. And this really highlights one of the most useful rules of DMing that I’ve learned: whenever possible, say ‘yes’.

‘Can I read the prophecy mark?’ Sure. Here’s what you manage to decipher. And that allowed me to drop clues as to the nature of the mark. The players soon figured out that they were supposed to enter the mark, which they did, thus succeeding the encounter. It was a lot of fun.

The third and final encounter was actually two planned encounters that wound up happening concurrently because of the way the players planned out their ambush. They were trying to catch an assassin in the act of killing the Lord Warden of Fallcrest, and they all hid around the manor and laid in wait. It was a tough encounter–three elites and a solo, all of them higher level than the PCs–but I never really intended for it to continue until one side was dead. In this encounter, both sides had very specific goals. The PCs wanted to catch the assassin and save the Lord Warden, while the bad guys wanted to assassinate their target and escape. It became a very tense affair, with the fighter holding off the three elites downstairs (fade assassins, custom creatures modeled after the myrdraal of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series) and everyone else focusing on the assassin and his target.

In the end, the assassin succeeded and escaped, and this highlights something else: recurring villains. I love recurring villains, mainly because I feel that players will get attached to their dislike of those villains. You don’t want every villain to be a recurring villain; that makes the players feel like they can’t seem to stop anyone for good. But if you do want a recurring villain, you can do a lot worse than use a solo and have him escape when he’s bloodied. If you’re going to do that, make sure he’s got an escape contingency. My assassin (Judgement, a warforged former avenger of the Raven Queen) had a long-range teleport ability that would take him 20 squares, provided he ended in an area of darkness or dim light. Because it was dark outside, he was able to teleport out the window and escape precisely when I needed him to. The reaction I got from my players was priceless; I can tell they really have a vested interest in stopping Judgement now, or at least confronting him again.

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After

September 30th, 2009

tattoo

Yes, I now have a tattoo. Yes, it’s a very geeky one.

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Before

September 29th, 2009

Before

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On Scribblenauts

September 20th, 2009

I recently got Scribblenauts for the Nintendo DS, and I like it. I feel that it’s a deeply flawed game, but I like it despite its flaws.

So that I might end on a high note, I’ll cover the bad stuff first. The single biggest gripe I have with the game is probably one you’ve heard before, if you’ve read anything resembling a review for this game before now: the controls. Everything except for the camera and the ability to rotate objects is controlled using the stylus, and while this works well enough for positioning and manipulating objects, Maxwell (your character) is just as dumb as dirt. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve tried to move a particularly fiddly object, only to see Maxwell jump merrily to his death in a pit of lava or shark-infested waters. Even when I’m trying to control Maxwell, he often fouls things up through no apparent doing of mine. Controlling Maxwell is a very approximate and imprecise, and often you’ll want him to, say, dig through ice with a pick-axe, and he’ll instead jump in place like a spastic mental patient. Which sort of brings me to the next flaw.

Everything is controlled by a physics system; the problem is, the system doesn’t model relative weight all that well, if at all. Why is it that I can set a car down next to a ledge, but as soon as I attach a rope to it, it gets pulled right off the cliff? Why can’t my helicopter lift a penguin? Similarly inscrutable, at least occasionally, is the game’s internal Gaming Nation logic. Why, when I try to break a starite out of a block of ice with a sledge hammer, do I break the starite, too, but when I shoot the same block with a machine gun, the starite survives? Why will my vampire attack just about everyone except for a pesky pair of redcaps?

The camera, too, needs some work. Controlling the camera is mapped to the d-pad, and works just fine; the problem is that it snaps back to Maxwell after about a second and a half of inactivity, which is simply inconvenient in a game in which you’ll often want to be creating things and placing them in areas where Maxwell isn’t (presumably so he doesn’t accidentally jump off a cliff or something).

All that said, I find I simply can’t stop playing the game. I frequently curse it, and it frequently frustrates me, but I can’t stop playing it. It’s simply too original a concept, and the basic concept is simply too well-realized, for me to pass up. And for that reason, if you’ve been at least a little bit interested in this game, or if you like puzzle games, you should go out and buy it. And if my earlier negativity has dissuaded you, you should still buy it. Why? Because every copy that gets bought makes it more likely that a sequel will be released, a sequel with better controls, better physics, a better camera, and better internal logic. And because it’s crazy fun, when it works right.

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4th Power

September 19th, 2009

Critical Hits is working on something that I’d really like to see happen, and would really like to be a part of. Go check it out.

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Solos, pilfering content, and a session report

September 13th, 2009

The first session report of the new adventure (the first adventure for 4th Edition written entirely by me, and not adapted from a published adventure) is up. Also, there are some new NPCs and locations on the main page of the campaign wiki.

The recent session got me thinking about some stuff. One fight in particular, the one where the PCs were attacked by undead creatures, gave me some insight as far as what is and isn’t fun for solo monsters. I used a solo monster in that fight, a zombie abomination from an RPGA adventure (I got it from the Compendium). I used the monster as written, and I ran into some issues. First, it’s probably important to use a solo that is the same level as the party. This solo was a level behind, and its attack bonuses just weren’t up to par. Actually, I’m not sure why its attack bonuses were so low. It had trouble landing any hits on the part, and at one point it was marked by Chance, but in order to hit him it literally had to roll a natural 20. The abomination wound up being a big sack of hit points, but not really much of a credible threat.

Another issue with the abomination is its Rise Again power; basically, when the abomination is killed, it gets back up on the following round with half its max hit points. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this power; the zombie hulk from the monster manual has the same power. In the case of the zombie hulk, I think it’s okay. The hulk is a standard monster, with 88 hit points, meaning it’ll rise again with 44; a group with two strikers (like mine) should be able to take that out in a round or two, so you get some dramatic tension when it gets back up, but it doesn’t drag the combat out too much. With the abomination, though, has 232 hit points, so it gets back up with 116; that’s a lot of extra hit points. What I found is that the power made the combat drag on a little too long, after the party’s victory was already a foregone conclusion. In general, I think it’s a bad idea to give solos, and maybe even elites, abilities that make them harder to hit or give them too many hit points. You want them to last for a while, but you don’t want them to overstay their welcome or make the combat drag. Solos should also have pretty good attack bonuses, so that they actually feel like a big threat. As it was, I think the forsaken shell did more damage than the zombie abomination did.

I’ve also been reading the new Eberron Campaign Guide, and I’m definitely going to be stealing some ideas from it for my campaign. You may already have seen some of that in the newest session report, in my mention of a druidic sect known as the Wardens of the Wood. In that case, it’s basically just a name I liked, but there are other, more significant things that I’ll be borrowing and adapting for the campaign. Just wait and see.

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The Shadow Rift

September 4th, 2009

As, I’m sure, many of you who have run, or are currently running, Keep on the Shadowfell, I modified the adventure as written. I added in a bunch of stuff at the beginning in order to get the PCs to Winterhaven, and I made numerous minor modifications to various encounters throughout the adventure. Mostly it was a monster here and a monster there being replaced with something that I found more interesting, either mechanically or thematically (or both), but nothing too drastic. Even the replacement of a deathjump spider with a more powerful monster, a cave troll, is something I consider a relatively minor modification; it altered the feel of the battle a little bit, but didn’t have implications that were all that far-reaching.

The single greatest modification that I made to the published adventure was in the final battle of the adventure, against Kalarel. In the published adventure, Kalarel is accompanied by some skeletons and a wight, and there’s a trap in the form of the Thing in the Portal, which grabs and draws nearer adventurers who draw too near in the first place. When I first read the adventure, I thought it was a cool encounter, but that was before I had experienced more of the breadth of what 4th Edition had to offer. I do think that, for those who are still undecided about the new edition, taking D&D for a test drive with the adventure as written is perfectly viable, and probably lots of fun. But I wanted to do something different.

So, I completely rejiggered the final encounter. For starters, I created the corpse mound that I talked about before. Then I added a couple of hazards; one represented the darkness emanating from the portal, the other the subtle and seductive call of said darkness. Then I reduced Kalarel’s level a bit and modified some of his abilities so that the encounter’s level was a little more in-line with my party’s level.

It’s a level 7 encounter, all said, but with a lot of potential to be very, very difficult. There are some nasty threats in there, and all of them had at least a couple of levels on the party. So I staggered things a little bit. Initially, Kalarel is involved in completing the ritual, so the party only has to contend with the corpse mound. After a couple of rounds, Kalarel completes the ritual, joining the fray. The following round, the two hazards activate, and every round thereafter the darkness expands, filling more of the room.

Now, I had a way for the PCs to reverse the effects of the ritual built into the encounter, but I’m a firm believer that a big failure should not be a show-stopper, but should rather make things more interesting. Thus, I created a skill challenge that would trigger if the darkness expanded too much. This had the effect of also putting a time limit on the encounter, which prevented it from turning into too much of a slog.

At any rate, here is my writeup of the encounter. The experience per party member assumes a party of 5 characters, and there’s no treasure included in that writeup (I had that in a separate document for some reason). The encounter does use the standard battle map that the original encounter used; Kalarel starts in front of the altar, while the corpse mound appears as a mere pile of corpses in the pool of blood in the center of the room. The darkness, as you’d expect, emanates from the portal once Kalarel has completed the ritual. Enjoy.

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Too Much Luck

August 30th, 2009

Last night some friends came over and we played some games. First we played Are You The Traitor?, which was a lot of fun. The game is all about table-talk and trying to read people so that you can accuse someone before everyone else does. I recommend it if you’re looking for an easy-to-learn, quick-playing, fun game.

The other game we played did not leave quite so good an impression on me. We played Catan: Cities and Knights; it’s probably the third time I’ve played a Catan game, and it really drove home for me some problems that I had with the game initially. I’m going to say something that might be a little controversial: I think that Catan is a poorly designed game. That might be a little strong; I think there are some poor design choices within the game that can cause the game to be completely un-fun for one or more players.

There are a couple of factors that contribute to this opinion. First is that the game is decidedly not beginner-friendly. As I’ve said, I’ve only played Catan games about three times now, and that’s over the course of two or three years, so I’d still consider myself a beginner. Every time I’ve played the game, I’ve felt like I didn’t know what I was doing initially, and that I was at an enormous disadvantage because of it. The strategies in Catan are not always immediately apparent to a beginner, and this can make for a bad first impression of the game. The first two times I played, I had enough fun that I was willing to play again.

Sadly, I don’t think it gets another chance from me, and this is largely due to the high degree of luck within the game. Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with luck-driven games. Fluxx is highly luck-driven, but it’s short and you always have decisions to make and things to do, regardless of the cards you get. Last Night on Earth is considerably longer and also has a high degree of luck. In this case, however, I think that the randomness supports the theme well, and bad luck still never robs you of your ability to make decisions. And that’s really the crux of the matter here. A game is only fun when you can affect the outcome of the game. As soon as you feel like nothing you do matters, it stops being fun. And that’s exactly what happened last night.

As I’ve said, I consider myself a beginner when it comes to Catan games, and this means I don’t always know the optimal strategies or the optimal places to put my starting settlements. I placed my settlements last night in spots that I thought were advantageous; I had access to a port that allowed me a 2:1 trade on wheat, and in theory I had access to a lot of wheat. In theory. The problem was, because of the luck of the dice, I almost never got resources. There were entire half-hour stretches of time where I was the only one not getting any resources at all. In Catan, resources are everything. Without resources, you can’t really take any actions, and you can’t really make any decisions. Because of this, I spend most of the game reading the Adventurer’s Vault. I felt completely impotent throughout the entire game, starting around turn 2, and there was really no mechanic to allow me to affect the outcome of the game without resources. Because your access to resources is based largely on your initial placement and (mostly) on the luck of the dice, I literally had absolutely no control over what happened in the game once the initial placement was over. This made for a two-hour game (we ended prematurely; the game could have gone on for another hour at least) that was not the least bit fun for me, and it strikes me as exceedingly poor game design.

I think that, if you’re going to design a game to rely a lot on luck, you need to put mechanics in the game that allow players to continue to make decisions regardless of how luck treats them. I’m not saying that someone who’s extremely unlucky in the game should have the same chance to win as someone who’s extremely lucky; I just think that they should be able to do something meaningful with their turns. On most of my turns, I rolled the dice, saw that I couldn’t do anything, and passed the dice to the next player. Fun, huh? I don’t think I’ll ever play a Catan game again.

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