Deconstructing Powers

One of the things I do love about the Esssentials martial builds, especially the rogue and the fighter, is that the new powers are mostly deconstructed versions of previous ones. What I mean by that is that the heart of most rogue powers was their ability to do damage. How accurate the attack was or how much damage it did was really a function of what additives the particular "power" gave the character. The more awesome stuff a power did, it became less accurate, less damaging or harder to do by limiting it to encounters or dailies. To support this, I offer that in my quick comparisons, "Sly Flourish" matches pretty well with the thief's basic attack.

However, we still need to give the thief something interesting to do. The designers of this class build decided that the thief needed to be the master of mobility. By removing the move actions from powers and making them at-will move tricks, we no longer need to worry about those penalties when doing our attack since we are sacrificing our move action. Thus the thief could still do his damage and have some fun movement options without unbalancing the game. The final item was to provide a class feature that made their melee basic key off of dexterity instead of strength, something that probably should have been in the original version too.

A nice by-product of the simplified power structure is that only so many different powers can be produced. By combining moves, attacks and other benefits within one action type, we introduce infinite variation, each combination needing its own "power." By pulling them out, we allow the players to build their own combinations without cluttering up the character builder with 1000s of powers.

The issue I have with this change is that the build is a bit too simple. When I read through the list, they all seem a bit fiddly to me. They don't have enough differentiation to make me really interested in choosing between them. In addition, I really miss having that cool cinematic moment in the game where I worked for a few turns to set up a situation I wanted. Perhaps I used my rogue's forced movement powers to move the bad guy towards the edge of the cliff so I could have that cool 300 moment where I kicked him off. Or I just really wanted the opportunity to pull out 6d6 at once. Regardless of the setup, some of the excitement is just gone for me. One easy solution would be to add more trick options. Perhaps we could add a trick that uses a minor or move to allow the character to push their target on a hit.

Now it isn't all bad. Maybe seeing their players get bored or feel too restricted with the pre-made options for their characters will open DMs up to the wonder of page 42 (from the original DMG). That's the page with the damage by level charts and information on how to adjudicate rules on the fly. As a DM, when your player wants to do something not covered by the normal rules, that's the first place you should look for guidance on how to adjudicate their requests. For instance, if one of your players wants his character to swing from a chandelier into the bad guy, you can find damage expressions here.

Another option that I have floating around in my head is an expansion of the power points system. I really don't like how they get used in PHB3. Each power has some additional options that can be purchased through power points. The problem is that you might like parts of two different powers but neither one completely. Imagine if instead, you could build your own powers on the fly. Adding an additional two shifts or pushing a character one space costs one point. Adding another melee basic attack costs two points. I'm not sure of the details but I think it would satisfy what I find missing from the build and even make me like power points.

Well that's how I feel anyway. I know a number of you really love the thief and fighter and I'm so glad to hear that. At the end of the day, I just want us all to have fun. And if you are interested, here is the auto-build thief from character builder. Yeah, some issues with the build exist and I notified Wizards of the Coast customer service about them.

Contest: The Winding Story

Thanks to everyone who entered the "Failure is an Option" Contest. We chose QuackTape as the winner with his great story of his character being run over by a motorcycle and having the tread marks to prove it.

Critical failures are one way to alter the story. However, the randomness of the events can cause anxiety and one failure often doesn't radically change the story line. What if you and your friends came together and decide on the turn you want the story to take? That's the thought behind Paizo's Plot Twist Cards. I haven't had a chance to incorporate this into my game yet, but I really want to.

So how about you? Have you done something like this in your games? How did it go?If you follow @wexogo on twitter and leave your story in the comments below or post it to twitter using the #rpgtwist hashtag, you will be entered in our contest. The kind folks at We Xogo will give away a prize. We will pick our favorite entry and send the author one of Paizo's Plot Twist decks. The contest ends at 12:01 am, Saturday, December 18th. Winners will be chosen by me and the folks at We Xogo and can be disqualified for any reason at our sole discretion. You must live in the US to be eligible for the prize.

Contest: Swing and A Miss

When I started playing D&D, failures scared the hell out of me. I come from a computer RPG background where failure, particularly in combat, meant death. Since D&D doesn't have such things, it's understandable that I thought failure was never an option. Every missed attack, every 1 I rolled felt like it was a direct reflection on my ability to create a character. "Sorry guys" was a common refrain.

As I gained more confidence and learned that not every DM was adversarial, many of these feelings went away. That is until I played a game with some strangers at my local gaming store. That DM pulled out a critical miss deck. I saw it and my stomach started churning. He could tell that a few of us were a little nervous and he offered the let us look at the cards. After we had a chance to look through them, he asked us how we felt. My big concern had to do with weapon breakage. We were starting off at level 2 which meant my swordmage had a nice magic sword that I really didn't want to lose. He responded by removing those cards from the deck and we started play.

While I was still nervous about it, the game sold me on tricks like this. Fortunately, the only ones to roll a 1 were the monsters, but it was fun to think of what my character might do in response to some of the miss cards. For instance, one card stated that the creature loses her grip on the weapon and it goes flying some number of squares. I just painted a scene in my mind of fighting with a large ogre and trying to get past it to grab my weapon while it swung at me. At the end of this game, I was willing to give anything a try, including failing.

So how about you? What is your favorite failure story? The kind folks at We Xogo will give away a prize. If you follow @wexogo on twitter and leave your story in the comments below or post it to twitter using the #rolling1s hashtag, you will be entered in our "Failure is an Option" contest. We will pick our favorite entry and send the author one of Paizo's Critical Fumble decks. The contest ends at 12:01 am, Monday, December 13th. Winners will be chosen by me and the folks at We Xogo and can be disqualified for any reason at our sole discretion. You must live in the US to be eligible for the prize.

As an added bonus, from now through Sunday, December 12, you can use the code "darkmagic" to get 10% off anything in the store.

DDXP DM Challenge: One if by Land (Part 1)

The DM Challenge at DDXP is to create an adventure in Gamma World. I’m a bit intimidated by it because Gamma World is really new to me and I’m not sure I have quite the reservoir of stories to pull from that most of the other DMs will. However, I don’t back down from a challenge so I’m going for it anyway. Besides I didn’t know anything about the Underdark and had never run a game in public when I started the PAX East DM Challenge and I did ok there.

Since this is a convention game with time limits, I need to railroad the players a bit more than I would in my home game. In some ways, it’s important that I do so. They don’t know me well enough to recognize my cues and slowing down game play so people can explore their character for half an hour is likely to upset others at the table. I can’t give them spotlight time next game to make up for it. I also can’t guarantee how comfortable the people at my table will be with improvising, especially at 8 am in the morning, so it’s better if I plan more and ignore it rather than not plan and scramble during the game.

This means I need to come up with a few adventure ideas and tie them together in a way that is likely to make sense to the players. Before I started planning, I had a request from Randall (@deadorcs) to include giant chickens, so that needs to be there. Next up is thinking about some iconic bits of Boston. The first thing that comes to mind is the Revolutionary War, specifically Paul Revere. It might be cool to have players spread the word of a coming invasion. They could even ride giant chickens. The first part of my game’s title came into focus, “One if by Land.”

But who would invade? My first thought was the Beatles, mainly because I wanted the players to sing some songs at the table. Yet I wasn’t satisfied with that idea. I don’t really think of the Beatles when I think about Boston. After thinking a bit more and specifically after thinking about the Santa robot from Futurama, I hit on an idea. The Yankees, or more specifically Yankees robots. Bostonians hate the Yankees making them the perfect invaders for my story. Thus, the second part of my title “The Yankee(bot)s are coming.”

Great, but where are the characters when the invasion starts? I think the best answer for that is the Boston Common. I’m not quite sure where in the Common they should start, but I think it would be interesting it became the area for “livestock” again. When they run into the small force of Yankeebots, they can grab some of the chickens to ride so they can warn others.

Where should they go after the Common? Why Fenway Park of course. Maybe the bots are just itching for a baseball game or they will offer to withdraw if someone beats them. Whatever the reason, they need to make their way there and interact with the ballpark. Maybe the Green Monster is a real monster and can be controlled by sitting in Ted William’s seat. As for traveling there, I’ll probably give them the choice of two routes, one through the shorter but more dangerous “Big Dig” and the other through the labyrinthine streets of Boston.

I think this is a good start. I'll fiddle the names a bit as I go along too, keeping them recognizable while allowing time to play a game of telephone with them. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be hammering this into an actual adventure. I can’t wait to see where it goes and I hope the players enjoy it.

Coming Back to Life

So the good news. I met my playtest deadline for the Lost City project on November 24th and I rewarded myself by taking a bit of a break from writing. Well, I say reward myself, but the truth is my brain refused to write anything worth "publishing." I have a new project at my day job that, while incredibly fun and interesting, leaves me bereft of creative energy at the end of the day. Combine that with the change of seasons and the lack of a home game at the moment and I really needed the break. However, I plan on being more active again, especially as I have things that I can talk about publicly.

So, the first item, what is it like to work on an Open Design project like Lost City? I'm always interested in how things work and, through this project, I'm definitely learning a ton about the process of game design. Between Logan, Wolfgang, my fellow writers and the rest of the patrons, I'm getting a lot of my questions about game design answered without bugging my friends too much with newbie questions. In addition, the insight from the other patrons is wonderful, both in terms of exploring a design idea and just general learning how to work collaboratively with others. I really recommend becoming a patron of an Open Design project if you want to learn more about game design. I'd also recommend reading the Kobold Guides to Game Design first.

One small but powerful skill I learned doing this project is how to create monster stat blocks in Word. Until now, I had used Monster Builder and while I still like that program, I found the process of creating monsters a bit too long and tedious for what I needed. I tried exporting them as rich text and pasting them into my word document, but the tables were difficult to work with and it did funky things to the layout. I learned from some of the other authors how to use tab stops instead and created some monster templates for me to use. I have them in a template document. I wouldn't necessarily use these in things I send to Wizards of the Coast or Kobold Quarterly, but they work well for quickly sketching up a monster or for self-publication. I'll work on adding a power font later so the power icons automatically appear. If you have any other improvements, let me know in the comments.

Another thing this project has reinforced for me is just how complicated 4E has become. As the design of monsters and classes spiraled outward, they've added new mechanics. While in some ways these are awesome, it gives the designers something interesting to work on and scratches the itch of players, it becomes increasingly difficult to design things for general consumption. For instance, a trend in triggered actions was to trigger off of melee basic attack. Since Essentials fighters and rogues use their melee basic most of the time, this trigger becomes a bit more problematic. We saw a similar situation when the crit range expanded. No easy answers exist other than making people aware of them and letting DMs decide whether or not to limit certain powers/feats/magic items as a result or just not implementing something in their game.

Finally, I have to say, as awesome as it is to get a chance to work on something like Lost City, I'm really digging writing for my blog again. Here, I get to be me without all the pressure. So thanks for sticking with me and for all the encouragement!

Guest Post: Forging New Legends from Old

Artifacts are awesome and there are artifacts great and classic provided for you to use straight out of various published products. But if you’re a storytelling focused DM like I am then what are the odds that your story and the story of any of those artifacts are going to be a perfect fit? Pretty slim unless you designed your story with a specific artifact in mind.

There is a lot of advice in various products on designing things like monsters, but very little on items and even less on artifacts, so here’s a chance to glimpse into the process I’ve used to create a few artifacts.

This article is inspired by a conversation I had on Twitter where I ended up making an artifact for someone called Timbala, the Orucs Slayer, a sword that once slayed the Prince of Undeath himself (he got over it, as he’s apt to do). So I’ll use Timbala as an example.

Step one, beg, borrow, and steal. Like I mentioned before. There are already a bunch of really good artifacts out there. So find one that has some key components similar to the one you want to make. For Timbala I knew I was making a sword that wanted to kill a specific sort of creature and I knew I wanted it to be a Paragon tier artifact.

So after digging around through the D&D Compendium I found something sort of close and used that as my template. Did I copy it and then just tweak? No, I went well beyond that (although if you find something close enough, do it that way, seriously, it’s super-simple).

So as you look at your template it gives you an idea of about how many powers and properties an artifact of that sort and tier should have and you can imitate that in order to create your item, but with a connection to your story and tailored to your needs.

In the case of Timbala I started to develop some story after talking to the DM of the campaign that was going to use it. I decided that Timbala was a long ago hero who defeated Orcus before the gods were well known in the world. He needed to be exotic and interesting to capture some of the long ago feel. So I avoided a greatsword or longsword, and went with the less commonplace scimitar.

I imitated some properties of my template artifact and gave boosts to initiative and specific, story-focused skills. I also figured that Timbala, the warrior-before-he-became-a-sword was a leader amongst his people and I wanted to capture that by adding some Leader-like abilities. So it has an encounter power to grant temporary hit points and give buffs for attacking its favored enemies, demons.

When I looked at powers that could be added as the artifact grows I continued to use the template for balance, but continued to focus on the story as well. Sometimes it’s just taking what you have and growing it to a higher bonus and sometimes it was a matter of sticking with the theme...make it better at killing demons or allow it to have Leader-like abilities.

When it came time to deciding the Concordance track it was a matter of looking to the story and figuring out just how important that aspect was going to be to the item. Killing demons, defending law and order, these are things that Timbala will like. Creating chaos, killing lawful good creatures, this is going to make Timbala mad. The one bit that seems a bit odd is that you get a bonus in Concordance for being trained in Arcana...but when you consider that Arcana is the skill needed to make monster knowledge checks against elemental creatures, like Demons, it starts to come together.

As I worked on the mechanics of this artifact I also ended up developing the story at the same time. The connection between the hero Timbala and the artifact-sword, it’s personality, how it behaves along the Concordance track and when it moves on. These are all natural extensions of the story implied by the mechanics.

I can’t tell you what came first, the fluff or the crunch when it comes to the details of the item, they all started flowing together for me at the same time. I didn’t add any mechanics without it making story sense and I didn’t add any story without mechanics to add gravitas to that aspect of the item.

Have you ever created an artifact before or even used one straight from the books? How do you integrate artifacts into your story? Leave a comment and let me know.

Click here to download the PDF of Timbala, the Orcus Slayer and check out Sly Flourish where I have an article focused on how to integrate artifacts into your game as a DM and Temporary Hit Points to see how players can use artifacts to guide character growth.

Jeff Greiner is the publisher of TemporaryHitPoints.com and producer of TheTomeShow.com and a big geek who loves D&D and hates Orcus. He can be found on twitter as @Squach.

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 Loremaster.org [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.

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

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