DDXP Games

For those who don't know, I'm attending DDXP in January. I'll write more about it later but the big news is that I'm writing 2 adventures for the con. The first one is for the DM Challenge. I have no idea what I'm doing for that one yet, but the challenge itself is to write a Gamma World adventure.

For the other one, I'm writing an adventure using Essentials and whatever I can cook up in that wacky brain of mine. Here is the description I sent the organizer Dave:

Dream a little dream...of death

What was supposed to be a time for rest and reflection has turned into a nightmare. Fear grips the small lakeside town of Tranquility. People are dying in their sleep. Those who wake the next morning recall strange and terrifying dreams. The lack of sleep has everyone on edge and eager to point fingers or exchange blows. Can you put an end to the madness before it goes too far?

The adventure will be level 4. If you are going and want to play, remember to sign up. I believe event pre-registration starts on Sunday. The events page has the time slots when I'll be running it.

Heads Down

Some of you may have noticed my writing output shrunk a bit over the past month. While part of that is me struggling to come up with topics especially since my normal group is on hiatus, mostly it's due to a project I'm working on. After Gen Con, I signed on as a senior patron of Lost City, an Open Design project done by the fine folks at Kobold Quarterly. My hope was to learn about how the design process works so I could start on my plans for world domination improve myself.

So, when it came time to submit pitches for an adventure section, I did so. My main hope was that I would get some feedback and see where I could improve, but then my pitch came in second in the poll and was accepted. Of course that was a nice ego boost but panic set in immediately. What the heck do I do now? :)

I've spent the last month and a half learning just that. I'm responsible for 3 tactical encounters, the history of a section of the city and creating lots of monsters who would love nothing more than a nice PC as a snack. And since we're nearing the deadline for the play test version, I'm even more heads down than normal. My experience has been great so far and I'm learning lots of new skills and growing a slightly thicker skin. After the 22nd I'll write more about my experience and the things I've learned.

The Dragon Die

One piece of advice I’ve received from multiple people I trust is that I should learn about games beyond D&D. Not only will they help me learn how to become a better GM but this knowledge is essential if I ever want to become a game designer/developer. That advice along with my general love of learning pushes me to expand my RPG knowledge. With that in mind the other night, I picked up the Game Master Guide that came in my Dragon Age RPG boxed set. This book is full of great GM advice, useful in other games as well. I'll discuss many of them in a later blog post but for now I want to discuss the Dragon Die mechanic in the game.

Unlike D&D, where skill checks are made using a d20, Dragon Age uses 3d6 for the roll. This change has some mathematical arguments in favor of it, many of which Chris Sims discussed in his article, Dice Heresy, on [1]. This change to multiple dice does more than change the mathematics of the roll. For example it opens the possibility of adding a rich dice mechanic [2]. Dragon Age RPG does this through the introduction of the dragon die. I may be oversimplifying this, but skill checks are called tests in Dragon Age. Some tests are binary in nature, all that matters is whether the character succeeds or fails. For a success, the overall roll has to cross a particular threshold. Other times, however, we care about a degree of success. For instance, when convincing a merchant to lower his price, we care not only about whether or not he lowers the price, but the degree to which he does so.

In the Dragon Age RPG, one of the 3 dice will be a different color and is called the dragon die. This die determines the degree of success for non-binary tests. So, in the bargaining example, the character attempts to negotiate the price, either against a fixed threshold or against an opposed roll. If he succeeds in his test, the GM would determine the degree of success by looking at the result on the dragon die. Perhaps the discount is a multiple of the value on the die or the merchant's feelings about the character change. The GM only has to worry about 6 possible values and can group these values as she sees fit.

Now some examples of degrees of success exist in D&D 4e but they are often tied to the overall result. Monster knowledge checks result in different amounts of information depending on the result of the die roll. The horizontal distance jumped is calculated by dividing the die roll by 10 (5 with a running start). Many areas where we have degrees are used to tell us how badly we fail rather than how well we succeed. For instance, failing a swim check means you stop movement. If you fail by 4 or less means you are able to tread water whereas a failure by 5 or more means you sink a square.

Introducing degrees of success to D&D 4e also brings with it a number of complexities. For some checks, we might not have the granularity we want for a particular die roll. For more difficult challenges, we have fewer likely outcomes above the threshold, at least for some players. Yet these tests are the ones where we are most likely to want to provide different degrees of success.

We also have the difficulty of determining what intervals to tie these results to. The range of outcomes for a particular skill varies greatly between players. If we tie a particular degree of success to a higher threshold, it’s possible for that success to just not be possible for some of the players at the table. Now, for some narrative elements this makes sense. Perhaps a player shouldn’t be able to jump across a chasm without falling prone unless they can beat a hard DC + 5.

Finally, a nice part of the dragon die is that they allow us to randomize what a success means, allowing us to add interesting complications. Instead of dealing solely with degrees of success, we can use the result of the dragon die to pick randomly between 6 outcomes of equal value. Each of them could add a different complication to the result with none of them being harder or easier than the others. In the heat of the game, I’m often terrible at this, not wanting to screw my players even though I know at the end of the day the game will be better if they have interesting choices to make.

Of course, this points to a potential downside of this mechanic. If I roll 6s on my other two dice and have decent bonuses to the roll, I may be a bit perturbed when I find out I still only barely clear the chasm and am left hanging off the edge because my dragon die has a 1. Especially when the same result with a 6 on the dragon die instead would have left me sitting pretty. Howeer, I think this “unfairness” would have bothered me more as a newer player and as someone who has never GMed than it does now.

Besides helping in a basic test such as the one we've been discussing, the dragon die helps in Dragon Age's version of skill challenges. Called "advanced tests," these are a succession of basic tests. The dragon dice are tallied for each basic test and the test is completed when the sum surpasses the threshold for the test. Contrast this with the often arbitrary nature of 4e skill challenges which tend to fit the formula of x success before y failures.

During skill challenges, players often get upset when multiple exceptionally high rolls don’t get them any closer to overall success than the rolls that barely succeed. They may have rolled high enough 3 times in a roll to convince the king to give over his first born son, but they still have some number of successes to rack up before he’ll give them the support they need. Now the conventional wisdom is that the DM should consider ending the skill challenge early since it doesn't make sense in the narrative to continue the negotiation. However, this decision is rather arbitrary and/or subjective and may make some players uneasy. By using the dragon die result instead, players are better rewarded for high die rolls in a way they understand and predict.

So what are your thoughts of the dragon die mechanic, degrees of success or anything else I discussed here?

1. While the original article currently is unavailable due to some changes on the site, you can find a cached version through Google.

2. Now I am by no means the first person to talk about this, it's just that I'm only now at the point of learning about these other mechanics. For instance, Rob Donoghue has at least two great articles about this, Rich Dice: Force, Finesse and Fortune and Rich Dice Extravaganza.

I Dream of Dragons

The dreams start in many ways. Sometimes they begin in my old college fraternity. Other times, I'm a hired sword of some sort and we are clearly in a castle or keep. Occasionally I am in the basement of some library and find a hidden passage. Regardless of how it starts, my mind tells me that I'm heading into some familiar territory for tonight I will be fighting a dragon.

But first, I must wind my way down a series of chilly, narrow corridors. Inevitably I face a ghost or three, a witch and anything else my brain decides to throw my way (Damn, she's a mean DM). Finally I arrive at my destination, a rather large, mostly destroyed cavern. Without seeing or hearing it, I know that a dragon lives here.

Sizing up the situation, it being me, my sword and, well, a f*ing dragon, I decide stealth might be my best option. Inevitably the dragon sniffs me out and we engage in a series of short battles which consist of me hitting the dragon with my sword and then scrambling to find cover. You see, my sword isn't your garden variety model. It is magical and quite powerful. When used properly, it will shoot forth a blinding and quite lethal white light, but then it needs to recharge. Until I can weaken the dragon enough to where I can go in for the final kill, that power is my lifeline and I need to give it time to reactivate. I need to keep moving.

Inevitably, I end up in some niche waiting from the sword to recharge and unsure where the dragon waits. Slowly his head comes into view and I know I'm dead. While I remembered my trusty sword, I have no shield. I wake up, usually shaken by the experience.

So what does this have to do with D&D? Well, I was reminded of these dreams by Chris Sims's article on magic items. This dream illustrates a weapon I would love to have in the game but one that is ill-suited for 4e's magic weapon philosophy. Is it a bit overpowered, especially for my level of expertise? Hell yeah. But it's also fun and it's the only magic item I have. No suit of armor that resists fire, heck, not even a shield to protect me from the dragon's breath.

4e D&D needs to get back some of that wonder. Everyone needs a magic item that fills them with awe, that they wish they could steal from the game and bring to real life. Something they care about and would hate to lose. It should call to them in their dreams just like my unnamed sword. I'm not sure yet what the solution is, but I guarantee it will involve story and plot and, well, pure concentrated awesome.

Encouraging Ritual Use

In yesterday's post about rituals, I hinted that another set of reasons exist which reduce their use in 4e games. While the cost of rituals is a significant barrier to use, I think the problem goes much deeper. The way many groups play 4th edition, whether by preference or as a subconscious reaction to the rules set, de-emphasizes story. Since rituals exist primarily in the realm of story, their importance and use gets reduced as well.

To counter this, groups can do a number of things. I think lowering the cost of rituals helps, especially if it's reduced through an alternative currency such as healing surges. However, I see three more steps groups should take.

The DM needs to set up situations for ritual use
Rituals take time to prepare and perform. If the PCs are constantly running from one encounter to the next with little downtime between them, rituals use is a hard sell. If PCs are always being reactive instead of proactive, rituals are near impossible to use. If nothing is hunting the PCs in the woods, they don't need to use any of the protection rituals on their campsite. The DM needs to set up situations where the PCs could use rituals and where ritual use might benefit them. Otherwise, what's the point?

In my game, we ran a Rumpelstiltskin story line where the wife of a local nobleman had promised her firstborn in return for an ability that would allow her to impress her future in-laws. I wanted to give the group a few ways to solve this problem. To encourage ritual use, I created a secrets tree where locals would go when they needed to share a secret they shouldn't tell anyone else. I then put clues elsewhere that pointed to the tree as one solution to the problem. When the players uncovered this, the speak with nature ritual became an obvious solution to their problem and away they went.

Players need to know which rituals exist
Once the DM gets into the habit of providing opportunities for rituals and, hopefully, hints at those opportunities in advance, players need to do some research. If you know you'll be traveling a long distance through enemy territory, create a list of useful rituals before the game and see if you can buy some of them. Keep a list with all the rituals you know and how to perform them right with your character sheet and look for situations where you can use them. A DM has a lot to do at the table and he might not be able to keep track of these things for you. If you have a campaign wiki on a site like Obsidian Portal, keep a page with lists of known and potentially useful rituals for easy reference.

Make them awesome
When players decide to use a ritual in game, make it shine. If the group is into it, play it out a bit. For instance, if they cast create campsite, have them describe the little nature spirits and what they do. Also, even if the ritual completely devastates your plans, DMs please don't punish creative use. Add a complication, but if they set a ward to trap goblins and your notes said they had to be surprised by a goblin attack, don't suddenly give your goblins some power that lets them slip through the ward. They may ask themselves at the end of the encounter if rituals are even worth it then.

Those are my three tips for encouraging ritual use in games. I'd love to hear yours.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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