Design Diary: Bulldogs!

Posted on : 08-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : Bulldogs!, Design Diaries, FATE, Freelance, Indie Games, Links

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I’ve been doing some freelance writing lately for Brennan Taylor of Galileo Games. I did some freelance work for him a while back, during the 3rd Edition/d20 era. He had published an RPG called Bulldogs! using the d20 system, and I wrote a psionics supplement for it. Bulldogs! is a sci-fi space opera game. The flavor of the setting is very cool, something a little different from Star Wars. I feel that the d20 system was at odds with the flavor of the setting, though, and Brennan did, too. To that end, he decided to make a 2nd Edition of the game, using FATE as the system for it. He put out a call to freelancers to help him out and, to make a long story short, I’m co-writing the core rulebook with him.

Overall, I feel that FATE is a much better fit for the setting than d20 ever was. While writing the chapter on alien species, it was much easier to capture the flavor of each species using aspects and stunts than it ever was using d20 mechanics, and it’s simpler to boot. Check out the entry for the Ryjyllians from the 1st Edition rules of the game:

Racial Traits
Ability Scores: +2 Strength, -2 Wisdom. Ryjyllians are physically powerful, but they tend to be hotheaded and rash, acting before they think things through.
Special Characteristics:

  • Rage: Ryjyllians are able to enter a combat rage. They gain great strength and durability, but lose control of themselves and are less able to defend against attacks. A Ryjyllian in a rage temporarily gains +4 to Strength, +4 to Constitution, and a +2 morale bonus on Will saves, but suffers a -2 penalty to Armor Class. The increase in Constitution raises the Ryjyllian’s hit points by 2 points per level, but these hit points go away at the end of the rage when the Ryjyllian’s Constitution drops back to normal. (These hit points are not lost the way temporary hit points are.) While raging, the Ryjyllian cannot use skills or abilities that require concentration, such as moving silently. He can use any feat he might have except for Expertise, item creation feats, and Skill Focus (if it’s tied to a skill that requires patience or concentration). A fit of rage lasts for a number of rounds equal to 3+ the character’s (newly improved) Constitution modifier. The Ryjyllian may prematurely end the rage voluntarily. At the end of the rage, the Ryjyllian is fatigued (-2 to Strength, -2 to Dexterity, can’t charge or run) for the duration of that encounter. The Ryjyllian can only fly into a rage once per encounter and only a certain number of times per day (his level divided by four). Entering a rage takes no time itself, but the Ryjyllian can only do it during his action, not in response to somebody else’s action. A Ryjyllian can’t, for example, fly into a rage when struck by a blaster in order to get the extra hit points from the increased Constitution, although the extra hit points would be a benefit if he had gone into a rage earlier in the round, before the blaster hit.
  • Low-light Vision: Ryjyllians can see twice as far as an Arsubaran in starlight, moonlight, dim light, and similar conditions of poor illumination. They retain the ability to distinguish color and detail under these conditions.
  • Claws: All Ryjyllians have retractable claws at the tips of their fingers and toes. In combat, these can be used as weapons, and Ryjyllians are automatically considered to be proficient in their use. The claws deliver 1d4/x2/slashing damage.
  • +2 racial bonus to all Climb, Jump, and Move Silently checks. Ryjyllians are cat-like and able to perform athletic feats with little difficulty.
  • The Ryjyllian Code of Conduct: Ryjyllians adhere to a strict warrior’s code. They refuse to flee combat, although if ordered to withdraw, the code requires them to observe the command. They must never show fear in the face of danger, but instead challenge it boldly. If challenged to a fight, a Ryjyllian may never refuse. Ryjyllians never use what they consider dirty tricks or deception to win in combat; the fight must be fair to be honorable. The code also requires a Ryjyllian to follow the orders of a superior without question or hesitation, although if ordered to do something that violates the code, the Ryjyllian is likely to commit suicide after he has carried out the order. If a Ryjyllian is ever humiliated in combat, or violates the code by accident, suicide is generally the response. They must make a Will save vs. 20 to break the code.
    Size: Medium. As medium-sized creatures, Ryjyllians have no special bonuses or penalties due to size.
    Speed: Base speed for Ryjyllians is 30 feet.
  • Languages: Ryjyllians all begin with the ability to speak both Galactic and Ryjyllac.
  • Favored Class: Fighter. A multiclass Ryjyllian’s fighter class does not count when determining whether she suffers an XP penalty for multiclassing. Fighting is the Ryjyllian raison d’etre, and they naturally fall into this profession.

That’s a lot of mechanics to remember. It tells you something about the Ryjyllians as a people, but a lot of that real estate above is devoted to matters of physiology, and relatively little is devoted to things that provide character hooks. Now, compare this to the stats for Ryjyllians in 2nd Edition Bulldogs!. (DISCLAIMER: The following mechanics are not final, and are subject to change.)

Typical Ryjyllian Aspects:
The Ryjyllian Code of Honor
Warrior from a Warrior Race
Loyal to My Clan
Last to Retreat
Cat-Like Reflexes
Short Temper

Typical Ryjyllian Stunts:
Ryjyllian Combat Focus
Some Ryjyllians train in special combat techniques that allow them to enter into a sort of battle trance that inures them to pain and makes them more deadly combatants. Once per session, the Ryjyllian can spend a fate point to enter into this state. While in this state, the Ryjyllian automatically generates one extra shift on any attack roll made to deal stress. In addition, the Ryjyllian gains an additional physical stress box, which can be filled as normal. However, if the extra stress box is filled, when this state ends the Ryjyllian takes an immediate consequence that is one step more severe than it would otherwise be. The Ryjyllian can exit this state at any time; otherwise it lasts until the end of the scene.

There’s a lot less real estate devoted to mechanically explaining what a Ryjyllian is, and almost all of that real estate provides character hooks. Each aspect gives you an idea of what kind of species they are, and even the stunt provides more info than the Rage ability did in 1st Edition.

Furthermore, all of the above is optional when you’re playing a Ryjyllian. In 1st Edition, everything listed was mandatory for your character. This meant that, if you wanted to play a Ryjyllian, you had to deal with all of that complexity, and your Ryjyllian would look a lot like all the other Ryjyllians out there; there was little room for variance outside of class choice. In 2nd Edition, we provide recommended aspects and stunts, but you’re perfectly free to ignore them and come up with your own stuff. We provide a baseline that you can use to start from, but your Ryjyllian is, first and foremost, an individual, and you can build that individual however you want to.

Encouraging Terrain Powers

Posted on : 30-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, DM's Journal, Downloads, GMing Methodology, House Rules, Links, Tips

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The DMG 2 introduced the concept of terrain powers. These are pretty much what they sound like: they’re effectively environmental effects structured as powers, to make them easier and clearer to use. I like the system quite a bit, and actually utilized some props to encourage their use in my last session. To encourage the players to use these powers, I printed out power cards for them. This allowed them to see just what a terrain power could do before they used it, and allowed them to weigh cost versus reward. I tended to err on the potent side for terrain powers (since they can be used by either side), but I also tended to make them limited in their ability to be used; that is, most were single-use, while others had a limited-use mechanic.

Overall, it worked fairly well; the players used the terrain powers, and they used them to very good effect. There was one thing missing, though: my monsters never really used the terrain powers, because I forgot to. While the players had a handy visual reminder of what they could do with the terrain, I had neglected to give myself one; as the DM, I had a lot of powers to keep track of, and without something to remind me that they were there, I tended to focus on what my monsters could do by themselves. There is, I realized, a very simple solution to this problem: put the terrain powers right in the monster stat blocks.

Thanks to the Monster Builder, it’s easy enough to modify monster stat blocks and to copy terrain powers from one monster to another. Having terrain powers in the monster stat blocks acts as a handy reminder of what tactics are available to your monsters, as well as a good reference for how powerful those powers are in relation to their own. You can also use this technique to remind yourself of specific tactical tendencies of monsters. If you’re running a combat with a lot of different terrain powers, it’s easy enough to only put the powers in a given stat block that that monster is likely to use. Is there a mounted ballista that does less damage than your artillery monster’s own weapon? It doesn’t need that power. The skirmisher or brute might, though, until the PCs close the distance. Zombies aren’t likely to utilize the environment a lot, but orcs and goblins probably will, and you can bet your bottom dollar that kobolds will.

Here is a very simple example, an encounter from my last session that I modified after the fact. I encourage you to experiment with this technique, and I also encourage you to share your results and modifications here on this blog.

Conditions in 4E

Posted on : 19-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, GMing Methodology, Links, Musings, Tips

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I just came across this monster optimization article in my blogroll. In general, I like these articles a lot, primarily because I’m always looking for ways to really challenge my PCs. Most of my fights wind up being significantly easier on them than I expect them to be, and some of the ones that are “difficult” are really only long and probably somewhat annoying. In theory, I like the idea of the grell/quickling combination presented in the article above. That one-two punch of blinding or dazing combined with a combat advantage damage spike can be a nasty surprise for PCs who think they’re untouchable. It does bring up a problem that I find myself dancing with frequently, though.

The problem is, some conditions in 4E can be really annoying to players when they’re overused. The dazed condition is one of them, the blind condition is another. Slowing and immobilizing can make your extremely mobile characters have to vary their tactics, but they can also be really irritating to players whose tactics rely on mobility if they’re being shut down for an entire fight. Stunning and dominating are probably the ones you want to use the most sparingly, though a monster that dominates can be a lot of fun if you allow the PC to continue to play the dominated character.

As a related aside, I’ve been playing a lot of Final Fantasy Tactics A2 on my DS lately. It’s a lot of fun and, like 4E, utilizes a myriad of conditions that do various things. Some of these conditions are extremely fun and satisfying when you get to use them on monsters. Immobilization works like it does in D&D; disabling prevents a monster from taking actions other than movement. I rely on these two conditions quite a lot in my fights, and it makes the game more fun. But here’s the thing: there are a lot of conditions, both in FFT and in D&D, that are lots of fun for players to use, but can make the game really un-fun when they’re used on the players with similar frequency.

The above article makes me a little wary. In theory, I like fight that allow the monsters to gain combat advantage frequently, especially when that grants them extra damage, too. It makes the fight more dangerous for the PCs, which makes the fight more exciting and memorable. If you can drop a PC in a fight, that’s a fight that’ll be remembered in the future. However, I know from experience that relying on the dazed condition too much makes for a long, drawn-out fight that isn’t all that exciting, or that feels unfair to the PCs. There’s a fine line between difficult and cheap, and it can be difficult to walk in D&D.

What are your thoughts? What experiences have you had with conditions such as dazed, stunned, dominated, and so forth? Do you have tips for how to utilize them effectively?

D&D Race Glut

Posted on : 08-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, DM's Journal, GMing Methodology, Musings

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I went to play D&D Encounters last night, which was a blast. I played a human monk with a heavy emphasis on control, and I think it worked out pretty well. I started strong, had a nova round in which I inflicted almost 50 damage spread amongst three enemies (first level character, by the way), and then proceeded to miss for the rest of the fight. It was fun anyway.

At any rate, after the game I got into a lively conversation with the DM about the huge number of races available in D&D. He was of the opinion that, with all these fantastical races available (he pointed to the tiefling and the dragonborn in particular, but I think there are others to which the label applies), it somehow dilutes the fantasy of the whole experience, making everything else a little less fantastical by comparison. After all, he said, if you can walk down the streets of Waterdeep and see a dragon-man walking with a drow, then why is it exciting when you meet dragon-men or drow out in a dungeon somewhere? They’re just regular people, after all.

I can definitely see where he’s coming from, and I think it’s a perfectly valid point of view. He likes his fantasy a little more traditional, even going so far as to say, “If it wasn’t in the Fellowship, you can’t play it in my game” (though he bends the rules a little for races that are at least passingly similar to Fellowship races, like gnomes and half-elves). I respect his stance and, were I to play in one of his games, I’d respect it with the character I chose to play.

I do not, however, agree with his opinion. I take more of a shotgun approach with race selection. I tell my players that every race is available, and I see what sticks. I find that, once everyone’s made a selection, I’m left with a number of characters for which rich backstory can be crafted, and for whom race can become an important story consideration.

I should mention at this point that, in the game I’m DMing, there’s not one human in the group. Elf, half-elf, dragonborn, tiefling, and warforged; that’s my party. And I like it that way; I’ll tell you why.

For the elf and the half-elf, race is not really that much of a factor, their races being fairly common. The dragonborn is big and intimating, and I like to imagine that a large part of that is because he’s a guy who looks a lot like a dragon and, in my setting, those guys aren’t that common in most civilized areas. So he turns some heads.

Tieflings are a little more common, having been in control of the Demesne’s territory a hundred years or so before it was founded, and they are not well-loved (though not hated, either). My tiefling player plays a proud, ambitious scion of an ancient noble house, and he’s determined to see his family and, by extension, the entire tiefling race returned to their place of power in the world.

The warforged thought he was, until recently, the only one of his kind in existence. He was created by an old hermit to act as a son and legacy in the world, and when the hermit died, he went out to find his place in the world. When he ran into another warforged who called him “brother”, that caused him to take notice. When he fought a mind flayer with warforged thralls, he noticed even more.

I think the thing that I like the most about all these available races is the same thing that I like about any instance in which player choice is expanded. The more choice a player has when making his character, the better he’s able to express the idea in his head in mechanical and story terms. If that means I have to find a place for a race that I hadn’t thought of before, I’m more than willing to do that; after all, it’s not my world. It’s ours.

Healing Effects

Posted on : 07-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, GMing Methodology, Links, Video Games

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So I’ve been playing Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift for the DS lately. It’s a good game with a lot of cool mechanics at work, but I just turned off my DS in the middle of a fight, without saving, in disgust. Why? Healing effects.

Healing effects are great when the PCs have them. They help keep the PCs in the fight, and increase the chances that the PCs will see more of the game, whether you’re talking about a video game or an RPG. But when monsters have access to healing effects, watch out. There’s a very good reason why there aren’t that many monsters in D&D who have access to things like regeneration, or powers that heal themselves and other monsters.

See, in this fight, one of the bad guys was a bishop. Apparently, as a bishop, this guy can cast Cura (a fairly potent healing spell) with alarming regularity. This means that, every couple of rounds, he completely undoes any progress I’ve made toward finishing the fight. When this makes the fight harder in a fun way, that’s fine. The problem is, the only thing it’s succeeding in doing is frustrating me.

If you’re DMing a game of D&D, or any other game that has a similar structure, bear this in mind. It’s okay to give the occasional monster regeneration. It’s even okay to give the occasional monster the ability to heal his allies. These things should be limited, though. If a monster has regeneration, you should make sure that the PCs have some way to counter it. If a monster can heal its allies, you should make sure that it can only do so once or twice in the encounter. If you’re healing your monsters willy-nilly, you’re increasing the length of the fight while simultaneously making it more frustrating and, as a result, less fun.

Mass Effect 2, Encounter Design

Posted on : 04-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, GMing Methodology, Tips, Video Games

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I’ve been playing a lot of Mass Effect 2 lately, which I absolutely love. The role-playing elements (and by this, I mean things like characterization and choices that impact the game, not stat progression) are all very well implemented, and the combat is fantastic. In fact, there are a number of things about ME2 combat that, I think, are applicable in games like D&D. One thing, in particular, occurs to me now.

Waves: Many of the fights in ME2 take place in waves. You run into a room and fight five or six guys, firing from behind cover and trying to get the tactical upper hand. Just when it looks like you’ve got them mopped up, five or six more guys come in, these ones a little bit tougher. When they’re almost taken care of, something big and tough will sometimes come in, like a combat mech or a heavily armored and shielded commander of some sort.

In a D&D game, introducing enemies in waves can be a great way to have a really huge fight with a lot of peaks and valleys in the tension without making it overwhelmingly difficult for your players to get through it. When you introduce waves, it can also add verisimilitude to the game, making it seem like reinforcements from nearby rooms in the dungeon are bursting in, reacting to the noise of the fight. Setting up an encounter this way also allows for players to feel really clever if they manage to take out a group without alerting the others.

By way of example, you could have the encounter start fairly simply; a room full of minions with a few non-minion enemies, maybe brutes or skirmishers. The fight starts, the party wipes out most of the minions, and one of the non-minions sounds an alarm of some sort. A round or two later, a leader enemy, maybe an elite, bursts through the door with some other tough hombres–brutes or soldiers–and maybe a controller or an artillery or two. If you really want to add drama and tension, once those guys are on the ropes, introduce a solo. Let’s say you’ve got a room full of demon-worshiping gnolls. These guys are easy enough, and eat up few of the party’s resources. The next wave, though, has some gnoll soldiers a couple of archers, as well as a demonic scourge. Try to reserve the demonic scourge’s death for later in the fight, when a lot of the others are dead. Make it clear that the demonic scourge is possessed, and killing him might release a demon. When he does drop, a solo demon bursts out of his body and attacks; if the party tries to incapacitate him instead, the demonic scourge kills himself to release the beast.

Encounter Roles

Posted on : 10-03-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, DM's Journal, GMing Methodology, Links

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I agree with nearly everything in this post, save one point: that every encounter in your adventure has to further the plot of the adventure.

I’ll clarify my position by saying that every encounter should have a specific purpose, but I don’t think that that purpose must be attached to the current plot. After all, if every encounter has something to do with what’s currently on the to-do list, you run the risk of making it seem like the entire world revolves around the PCs (which it does, but it shouldn’t seem like it). Sometimes it’s good to pepper your adventures with seemingly random encounters in order to add verisimilitude to your game world; sometimes, in a dangerous fantasy world, the owlbear is just hungry.

But, as I said, every encounter should have a purpose. The lion’s share should be tied to the current plot, and should be furthering it in some way. A few, though–probably no more that two or three in an adventure with 15 encounters–should not. They can be there to add color to the world, to introduce an enemy faction that you plan to use later, or they could be a form of the spaghetti method: throw a few different encounters at the PCs and see which one “sticks”; that is, which one do they latch on to the most? That’s a plot hook for future use.

I’ll clarify one further point: when I use the term ‘encounter’, I don’t mean ‘fight’. In D&D, there’s a tendency, I think, to treat every encounter as a fight, but it’s often more satisfying to vary things somewhat. Social encounters are encounters, too, as are periods of investigation or even research, and even long-distance travel through dangerous terrain, like a desert or mountain range, can be handled as an encounter in 4E. Also, if all 15 of those encounters are fights, it’s going to take you a long time to get through your adventure. Social encounters, travel encounters, and other non-combat encounters tend to be quicker to run, and can be used to build tension and world color just as effectively–if not, in some cases, more so–than combat encounters.

4th Power

Posted on : 19-09-2009 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, Gamecrafting, House Rules, Links

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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.

Nipping at your nose

Posted on : 21-12-2008 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, Downloads, Gamecrafting, House Rules, Humor, Links

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Here’s some holiday fun for all you 4th Edition fans out there. This was made using Asmor’s Monster Maker, which is a cool little program. Enjoy.

DM’s Journal: Creating an Encounter in 4th Edition

Posted on : 05-07-2008 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, DM's Journal, Gamecrafting, News, Reviews

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I just created my first encounters in 4th Edition D&D today. I actually created a series of connected encounters: two social encounters and a combat encounter that can be avoided entirely if the social encounters go well.

The social encounters were a breeze to create, and were a lot of fun, too. The skill challenge system allows for a lot of customization, such that these two encounters, both of which are basically negotiations, have different uses for the same, and different, skills. There are a couple of things that I really like about the tools given to craft non-combat encounters. First and foremost, I love the fact that I get to reward the PCs for their choice of skills, and encourage them to pick up more skills. If you read the Player’s Handbook, it’s not immediately apparent that skills have become more important in 4th Edition. Sure, the rogue has a lot of powers that key off of skills, and some of the other classes have utility powers that improve skill use, but it almost seems like an afterthought. Until you read the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and it all clicks into place. Between skill challenges and terrain effects, there are lots of ways for a DM who is so inclined to reward skill use in 4th Edition. When crafting these encounters, I made sure to include at least one skill that each PC had, so that everyone could feel useful, but I also included some other skills that nobody has, to nudge the PCs into picking up the Skill Training feat a couple of times in the future. I love that I have a tool to do that with.

The other thing that I like about the skill challenge system is that it gives me a way to take something like a negotiation and create an actual mechanical encounter out of it, with plenty of role-playing as well as plenty of die-rolling, and an XP reward at the end. Suddenly, non-combat encounters have become just as important as combat encounters.

The combat encounter that I created took a little bit more time, but it was still pretty easy, and it really served to highlight for me the things that I like about 4th Edition encounter and monster design.

Monster design in 4th Edition is great. Monsters are tactically and thematically interesting, with mechanics that both inform and are informed by the flavor of the monster. I also really like the idea behind minions, as well as the other end of the spectrum: elites and solos. I put a bunch of minions in this encounter, a couple of standard monsters, and an elite. The fight, itself, will be big, but I don’t think it will be difficult for me to manage.

Another thing that I like about monsters in 4th Edition is that they’re really easy to customize. Only one of the monsters that I used in the fight is straight out of the monster manual. The others have all be tweaked in some way. For the elite, I took a different elite, changed out some powers and characteristics, and reduced its level to be more in line with a 1st-level party. There are four different monster types in the fight, three of which have been customized, and it took me maybe 20 to 30 minutes to do the customization work for all three. Not too bad, really, when you compare it to 3rd Edition.

Something that I really like about encounter design in general is that terrain is a lot more important than it used to be. There are some really fantastic rules for creating terrain in the DM’s guide, and the DCs and Damage by Level chart on page 42 is absolutely invaluable for scattering all kinds of improvised attacks around the encounter for the PCs to make use of.

All in all, I’m very happy with encounter design in 4th Edition. There’s some work involved, but it feels like you get a lot of bang for your buck. And, truth to be told, I find the work to be a lot of fun in and of itself.