Let's Play

I am writing this while on a bus to New York City to meet up with a friend I made while at Gen Con. While I'm excited about this trip for many reasons, one of the things I'm most looking forward to is the ability to just play. You see, my friend has a puppy. I've already warned him that I'm going to lose all sense of decorum for a moment while I play with the dog. It's not really my fault either; I get so few moments of pure child-like joy, that I need to take them where I can get them. I always feel refreshed and re-energized afterward.

So what does this have to do with gaming? Sometimes I'm afraid we are a bit too serious about our games. We box ourselves into viewing the game in one particular manner. Take for instance the number of people who refuse to view D&D as anything other than a Western-European, medieval fantasy game. Or the people who limit themselves only to the powers and skill manifestations listed on their character sheet or the player's handbook.

So to everyone out there, I say take a night off from the very serious campaign and have a night of pure play. Whether that takes the form of improvised weapons or something completely different, go out and just have fun. You might be surprised at what you discover.

The Start of Trouble in Nibenay

Qajari relief in Tang-e Savashi: Photo contributed to Wikipedia by Zereshk.Qajari relief in Tang-e Savashi: Photo contributed to Wikipedia by Zereshk.Maybe it was Chris Sims's game at Gen Con. Or perhaps the fact the campaign setting has the right mix of lore to mystery for me. Then again it could be the fact my players asked when they could revisit Dark Sun (I ran Chris Tulach's Free RPG Day adventure for them). Regardless of the reason, I'm sold and am preparing a Dark Sun mini-campaign for when Newhamshire ends.

I have to admit I'm a little intimidated. True, I'm not a complete newbie at this. I created my own campaign world last year, or at least a rather loose framework of a world with lots of borrowed material to fill it in. It was so easy then as I really didn't know any better. My introduction to DMing was a lot like unceremoniously dumping me in the middle of the lake and telling me to swim to shore. I cared a lot less about proper form and stroke and a lot more about keeping my head above water and moving forward.

But now I know so much more. I won't start this adventure in a tavern and I won't make my players go through hoops to get their first quest. Oh, and I should probably add more quests instead of taking the lazy way out and giving them just one at a time.

My plan is to get them involved early, filling in the loose framework given in the Dark Sun book with the types of characters and stories they want to explore. I want to facilitate them telling the stories, with me doing the hard work of tying it all together, filling in the adversary stats, etc.

To help with this, I'm working on a series of vignettes. I'd really prefer to set the campaign in the city of Nibenay, a city ruled by a reclusive sorcerer-king and his Templar-wives and a decadent noble class who owns the water. So far I have three vague ideas for the city, each highlighting a different aspect of what I imagine life must be like there.

  • A newly captured slave who won't submit to her new "masters" after being sold in the slave market. Such a situation presents a bit of an issue for a city whose populace "expect[s] decorum in all things." For the lower classes, this means knowing one's place and for those in the higher classes it means remaining cool and indifferent.

    Someone who refuses to accept this, particularly in public, brings these issues to the forefront. How does this play out? Are the buyers there or did they send agents to perform the sale? Is she made to submit in public or do they drug her to create less of a scene? What do the PCs do when they see this? How do they feel about their actions or inactions?

  • The official government, in the form of the Templars, is run by women. The sorcerer-king Nibenay is a recluse, although Kalak's assassination concerns him a bit. The Nibenese nobility, the descendants of the once powerful warlord caste, are very wealthy and decadent. From the little information available in the book, it feels like the noble families are run by men. It's also likely that the fortunes do not get divided equally amongst all children, or else the wealth would be too wide spread.

    If we go by these assumptions, what of the younger male children of the nobles? The inheritance goes to their older brothers and only their sisters have the chance of becoming Templars. Yet they probably have some wealth and prestige along with a burning desire to stay in the upper echelon of society.

  • The tension between the nobles and Templars is obvious, but I wonder about the other people of the city. They live in a very wealthy city, one where the tales of the past surround them, carved into the walls of the buildings instead of squirreled away in books. Some are bound to be tired of seeing their friends and relatives used as playthings of the rich nobles while the Templar-wives, the keepers of order, do little more than watch or perhaps avert their eyes.

    One way to change this reality is to start secret schools hidden among the winding, narrow streets. Teach the children the evils of excess and give them basic skills to improve their situation. Find the children who have natural talents, whether psionic or arcane, and help them grow and learn or point them in the direction where they can get that assistance. Perhaps there is a Templar or two who is willing to sneak them some books from the royal compound. The schools could be part of the Veiled Alliance or not. They could work passively through education or decide to take a more active role bringing down the nobility.

Hopefully this start will encourage my players to think about what sorts of characters they want to play and help them build a connection to the city. I can't wait to start exploring.

Running Red Box for the Crew: Part One

Last week I got a real treat, the chance to run the new D&D Red Box game for my table. As you can imagine, the Essentials announcement had a few of the group members on edge. They are veterans of the older edition wars and sometimes express their bitterness over the 3/3.5 changes. While I could come back from Gen Con and tell them about how Essentials really wasn't 4.5, I knew the only way they would understand it was if they actually got to play it. So when I suggested that we run Red Box instead of our normal campaign, they were all in.

Character Generation

Their first request was that they create their own characters, using paper and pencil. They wanted to go through the solo adventure and build their character that way. While it led to a slow night of gaming, they had a lot of fun with it. This way of building a character was a little different for them but they enjoyed it.

If I could make one suggestion, it would be to include a short cut version, even if it's only available online. I had the pre-gens from Gen Con we could use, but they all wanted to create their own. Each character took about half an hour to create. One of them wanted an old-school experience and rolled for his scores, 4d6 drop the lowest, in order. While doing this is likely something someone brand new is unlikely to try, it would be nice to support it since part of the appeal of Red Box is the nostalgia factor.

New Character Sheets

One of the first things they commented on was the new character sheet. When I handed a sheet to each player, one of them asked where the rest of it was. That's right, the sheets are now 1 page. In fact, the solo adventure references just writing the information down on a scrap piece of paper if desired. My husband has been complaining about this for years now so I'm glad to see it addressed. If you want to see an image of the new sheet, Games HQ has one as part of their unboxing.

But there is more to the change that just the number of pages. Skills are now listed beneath the corresponding ability score. All those funny little boxes are streamlined to just two, your misc modifiers and the overall check modifier that you would use. If I had this sheet when I started out, it would have made so much more sense.

In addition the page is divided into three vertical sections, abilities and scores, combat statistics and character info like class, race, languages, and notes. The top portion of each column lists the info you are most likely to need during the game.

In addition to character sheets, the box provides cards for each class's abilities and powers and the magic items found in the adventure. This keeps the character sheet nice and clean and means no messing around with a printer and scissors. The only downside to these cards is that they are a bit flimsy and I ripped a few as I tore them out of the stock.

Given how long character generation took, we didn't get much in the way of gaming that night. It was nice that they already knew the basics of the story and so I didn't have to point them in a particular direction or anything. The first encounter, which was devastating at Gen Con, was pretty easy for my group, but they know how to work well together. On my side of the screen, running the adventure didn't change at all.

Different Skill Challenge Organization

The other thing I want to mention about Red Box is something they haven't gone through yet but I noticed during Gen Con. The skill challenge format is much changed and, in my opinion, much improved. I'll admit I was wary of the change when I first saw it. But then again I had fewer than 12 hours before I had to run it and some of that time had to be spent sleeping. When I pointed out the difference to Chuck Arnett[1], he said something along the lines of "Interesting, isn't it?"

Once I got over that though, I fell in love with it. First, there is a whole section on how to roleplay the NPC with usable information about how the NPC would act and react. In addition, it details ways to deal with each failure, giving the players clues that the accumulated failures are making the NPC unhappy.

It recommends that the DM "[t]ry to keep the skill challenge flowing like normal conversation." To aid this, it suggests the DM encourage the players to get into character, describing what the character does as it interacts with the NPC. It describes three ways the PCs might try to interact with the NPC and how different skills might help the PCs achieve their goals. In addition, it explains why the DCs are different for different checks and also states that different characters may want to use a different strategy during the challenge. Great advice for all DMs, regardless of their experience level and something I was pleased to see.

I'll discuss more about the Red Box as we play through the adventure, but the character sheets and change to skill challenge layout were things I just had to mention straight away. I can't wait to see what other goodies await in the Essentials series. So far the judgment of my players is that this is no 4.5.

1 - Ha, a footnote! I have to show my appreciation to Chuck ( @wotc_chuck ). I saw him the Wednesday night of Gen Con when I was, well, freaking out about having to run Red Box the next morning. I looked like I was cramming for a really hard exam and he noticed. He was very patient with me and suggested that I streamline the adventure a bit to make it easier for me to run. I would have been so afraid to make a decision like that on my own and I think he really saved a large portion of my Gen Con experience from potential ruin. Thanks again!

Hope you can take the heat. It's Dark Sun, baby!

Saturday was the Dark Sun World Wide Game Day. I have to be honest and say I almost didn't go in for it. Between Gen Con, con crud, writing a ton, my podcasts, not to mention my real life, I was a bit worn down. But my friend Jason ( @neldar ) told me they could use players and so I signed up for the noon slot and I'm so glad I did.

I knew it was the right choice as soon as Jason placed the pre-gens down on the table. Expecting the normal 1 or 2 female characters, I had decided to let the other woman at the table pick her character first. However, when I saw that there were 3 female characters (out of 6) and that one of them was a goliath barbarian gladiator, I had to claim that one. Fortunately the rest of the table was ok with the grab and I spent the next 5 minutes determining who she was.

It was obvious right away that she was strong, both in body (20 strength) and internal fortitude (16 constitution). She was trained in athletics, endurance and the ability to intimidate. My guess is that she makes quite the opponent in the arena.

Not only did she have the skills to survive in the arena, she was a bit of a showman (14 charisma) which translated to her scoffing at her enemies when they missed and her declaring herself king of the mountain after she caused the perched bowman to flee.

Beyond that, the rest of the ability scores told me she was decent at dodging and moving (12 Dex) but wasn't great at matters of wisdom and intellect (8 and 10). I did decide that she must have some knowledge of tactics given that she lived long enough to see level 4.

The adventure itself was very challenging, just the way a Dark Sun adventure should be. Luck played a big role in our survival as did our tactics. My poor barbarian went unconscious once and was brought back to life by a very tasty piece of fruit. And the tembo didn't have much of a chance when I rolled a crit on my Avalanche Strike power (6d6+11 damage which came after a decent use of my daily for a total of 66 points of damage in one round). When we finally killed the beast, my barbarian claimed the hide for her own.

In the end, everyone at my table survived and our poor DM looked a little sad that we had brutalized his monsters. I had so much fun playing that when I came home, I announced to my husband that I had won at D&D. This amused him greatly. But the truth is, I did feel as though I had won, at least against Athas.

Some of my tweets from the game:

  • Yes I provoked a marked target just to watch him die. :)
  • This archer is pissing me off. Time to climb the rocks and make him cry. At least it would have been if I didn't roll 2 twice :)
  • Archer thought he was clever and tried to launch into an awesome jump attack. I am king of the mountain now!
  • Ok dice, I hope the 1s and 2s are out of your system now. Time to kick some ass!
  • Looks like an arena to me. then again everything looks like one to me
  • Stupid hobbler pinned me to the ground with his javelin. Pulled it out and returned it. Missed but damn did that feel good
  • Barbarian just ravaged the tembo for 66 points of damage. AP & Crit on avalanche strike 6d6+11. But I've let my guard down a bit as a result
  • OH: Player: oh I'm no longer bloodied DM: yeah hold that thought
  • Got ravaged by that tembo in return. But the leather will make a nice addition to my wardrobe.
  • OMG is the barbarian really going to try to be the diplomat?
  • Well my hammer says me own this now! Take it if you dare!
  • Ha your weak attacks are meaningless against me. Taste my hammer and then eat earth! (hammer fall)
  • Our ardent gave me a free melee basic. Killed that challenger and charged the Templar. Hammer struck a ringing blow (21 dmg)
  • Harried the templar (go with the flow) and made him spend his action point to shift again. That sucker is mine!

Why I judge for the RPGA (and why you should too)

Starting at 8 am on Thursday, I had just 76 hours to give to GenCon. Due to scheduling constraints, my husband and I had to leave Indianapolis by noon on Sunday. In this time, I had to sleep, eat, play games, hang with friends, and network. As it was, I had so little time to do everything I wanted to do, and yet I gave 10 of those precious hours to the RPGA. Some of my friends have asked me why and I'd like to answer their questions here.

Giving Back

I've received numerous kindnesses from members of the D&D community, especially from RPGA members. I met Mark ( @AsmodeusLore ) at PAX East and he encouraged me to ask Wil Wheaton and Scott Kurtz for their autographs and shared in my excitement when they signed my DMG. He also encouraged me to run some games that weekend, particularly the DM Challenge. And he was kind enough to put my husband and I up for a night during our great GenCon road trip.

Marcel ( @Mudbunny74 ) and Dustin ( @WolfStar76 ) are both my go-to community guys whenever I have a question about online D&D resources. Both have encouraged me to become more active in the community and in the RPGA. Dustin is the person who threw me to the delves when my learn to play group finished early, giving me the confidence I needed to give it a shot.

These are just three of the people who've nudged me to give public play a try. And I know that by participating and running games, I'm paying forward that kindness to others. I'm reminded each time I run that not everyone has a home group, at least not one that will play 4th edition. During PAX East, I heard a number of people waiting in line express that this was their only chance to play for the foreseeable future. Giving a little over 10% of my time to make that happen doesn't seem like that much of a sacrifice to me.

Leveling My Game

War often changes the cultures of those involved in interesting ways. Back when travel was difficult and information scarce, war provided one of the few opportunities for large-scale cultural exchanges. The crusaders brought back technologies and spices from the Middle East just as G.I.s returned with a love of tiki drinks and pizza.

Fortunately, war is not the only mechanism for such exchanges. While many of us play with just one or two home groups at a time, the running and playing games with the RPGA gives us the opportunity to play with many different people in a short time span. Only after experiencing a number of different players, from different backgrounds, is it possible to grok what the different play styles mean and how they influence game play.

Besides, I love analyzing how other people play or run games and see what ideas I can steal from them. And I love it when someone tells me that they are going to steal an idea from me. While the Internet is a great forum for information exchange, nothing can replace seeing it in person, being able to interact with it and have a conversation right there about it.

Additional Benefits

The RPGA is a real community and they are very welcoming of those willing to spread the love of the game. In addition to these highly personal perks, tangible rewards are often given as well, everything from books to passes to hotel rooms.

So, that's why I give time to the RPGA even during my first GenCon. I hope you'll consider volunteering as well.

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

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