Eowyn and the Nazgul

If you are at all interested in the art of D&D and all of the hard work behind it, you should read Jon Schindehette's blog, The ArtOrder. I had the honor of interviewing Jon for The Tome Show and he's a really nice guy who knows his stuff and loves to teaches others about art. Currently, his site is running a challenge in which artists are asked to depict the famous scene of Eowyn and the Nazgul from Lord of the Rings.

What's awesome about this challenge is how difficult it is. The scene involves a woman disguised as a man. Not only is the disguise so good that acquaintances don't recognize her but the Nazgul himself, one of Sauron's most powerful servants, doesn't seem to notice. Yet the viewer of the painting needs to know who she is. Such subtlety is often difficult to accomplish and I think it's one of the reasons so much of fantasy art exaggerates the feminine form. However, the difficulty, at least in my mind goes beyond that. The Nazgul is invisible. His body outline is defined by the clothing and armor that he wears. Also, do you hint at the locale? Do you include her uncle? Merry? Which part of the scene do you depict? How do you depict the strength of the Nazgul, his aura of despair? So many interesting questions.

Since the challenge started, a number of artists have shared and discussed their work on the ArtOrder ning site in the work in progress forum. In addition to seeing lots of awesome drawings and paintings, the comments and critiques are teaching me a lot about the artist's craft. I hope having a basic understanding of the constraints artists work under will help me write better art orders in the future, especially by giving me an understanding of what might be too much to handle in one scene.

As if the comments in the forums weren't enough, the Muddy Colors crew, who are also serving as judges, wrote critiques of some of the WIP submissions on their website. The first critique post explains a bit about the challenge an what the judges are looking for in an entry. While this challenge is for fun (and some prizes), it is still an art order, there is a specific story being told. They also remind the artists that fans of Lord of the Rings and the scene will look for certain touchstones in the piece. Also, this isn't necessarily about being cool or clever; it's about representing a well-known scene and, hopefully, some of the emotions that comprise it. While writers have words for these things, I envy the artist's ability to use color, lines, even the paint strokes themselves to convey emotion.

After this introduction, they dive into the critiques. Seeing their words next to the artist's work helps a ton. It gives me insight into how they judge the work and I can use the picture to understand what they are trying to say. It also helped me feel better about my own thoughts about the pieces. For instance, I was really annoyed by the submission that had Eowyn fighting in a dress. The artist wanted to make this a story about the feminine Eowyn fighting against the masculine Nazgul. While I respect any artist's desire to interpret as they wish, I don't think the story has the same impact then. The story, in my mind, is not about femininity and making it about her being a woman takes away from her story. Let's not forget, she kills a ring wraith, a creature whose mere presence caused men to lose hope and wish only for death.

The Nazgûl came again . . . like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men's flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death. — The Return of the King, p.97

The Muddy Colors crew also did a second round of critiques. I can't wait to see all the finished pieces and which one the judges pick as the winner. If you want to see more renditions of this scene, check out the original post on the Muddy Color's website.

Pathfinder Adventure Path: Serpent's Skull - Souls for Smuggler's Shiv

When I visited my parents for Easter weekend, I stopped by the friendly local gaming store (FLGS) in the area, Dragon's Den. My husband wanted to pick up a video game for my dad and I wanted to check out the RPG books section to see what they had. My main goal was to find a Pathfinder adventure I could read and see if anything else caught my eye.

So I have to be honest. When it comes to spending money, I'm very picky about which adventures I buy. I'm pretty sure the only 4e adventure I've bought is Logan Bonner's The Slaying Stone and that was after I heard a lot of good reviews from people I trust. The truth is my gaming group isn't a big fan of published adventures and I'm pretty good at creating adventures that we all enjoy.

That said, I had heard some really good stuff about Paizo's adventures in general and about the Pathfinder Adventure Paths in particular. So I decided to take a look at them while I was at the store. The only one I saw was Serpent's Skull - Souls for Smuggler's Shiv. I flipped through it at the store and saw enough to make me buy it.

It's just pure luck (in my opinion) that I ended up with the first chapter of a multiple chapter adventure path. It was displayed front-facing, so when I picked it, I never saw the information on the spine and as someone new to the series, I had no idea I should look there. That said, I'm glad it worked out so well because I really enjoyed reading the adventure. It matched up to everything I had heard about Paizo products.

The Adventure

A deadly storm shipwrecks the passengers and crew of the Jenivere upon infamous Smuggler's Shiv, an island off the coast of the jungle realm of Sargava. If they're to have any hope of escaping the notorious pirates' graveyard, the survivors will need to band together and outwit the isle's strange beasts and legendary menaces. - Back Cover

Ok, it might be a bit unfair but I immediately thought of it as a bad-ass Survivor: Smuggler's Shiv. Players can find a lot of things for their characters to do on the island, everything from building campsites to exploring shipwrecks to going up against wild and dangerous creatures. While not everything may be as it seems, some things are exactly what they look like, deadly!

The adventure itself is written as a sandbox. Players drive the story entirely through their actions. However, the GM has a number of NPCs and other ways of providing hints to the players. It also provides suggestions to the GM how to handle the situation when the players don't take the bait to explore the secrets of the island. I don't want to go into more specifics than that out of fear of spoiling the plot. That said, I would love to use the setting for the adventure in a my normal 4e games as well.

Special Rules and NPCs

In my mind, the product really shines when it comes to the special rules and the NPCs. Each NPC has just enough backstory for the GM to get a good idea of how to run him or her and to provide some tensions for the players to react to without being overwhelming. They have unique personality traits which hint at bits of their history or personality without hitting players over the head with it. I really like Gelik Aberwhinge and his little sayings about things one needs to do to be taken seriously.

The special rules are also well done. In addition to handling basics such as food and water, it covers environmental hazards such as disease and heat. It also provides information for setting up a base camp and handling roles within the camp: defender, entertainer, guard, hunter and medic. Each role provides a benefit to the enterprise and can be done by the PCs or NPCs. Finally, there are rules for dealing with Attitude and Morale. Attitude deals with how the NPCs feel about the PCs: hostile, unfriendly, etc, whereas I think of morale as representing intestinal fortitude. How likely is the NPC to help, especially in a dangerous situation.

Ecology

The adventure comes with an ecology article on the Serpentfolk, an ancient powerful race. I particularly enjoyed the sharp distinctions of caste within the race, which gives a number of role-playing hooks itself. I loved the tablet artwork. It sums up a lot of the feel of the race while still being a bit unclear (at least to me) which is perfect for a mysterious new race. The section also adds a new domain, Scalykind. It doesn't say but I believe it's for clerics of the Serpentfolk gods.

Fiction

The book includes a fiction section written by Robin Laws. I really enjoyed it. It sets the tone for the adventure path well without telling the story of the island itself.

Bestiary

I haven't run a Pathfinder game yet, so going through stats doesn't make a lot of sense. The artwork really helps bring the creatures to life, especially since I'm not familiar with a number of the inspirations for them. However, I love that they also included sidebars with information about those bits of inspiration. I love seeing where other designers get their inspiration from and how they tweak and change things to fit better in a fantasy setting.

Overall

I enjoyed the adventure and am interested in running it for my group in one form or another. The adventure, like many of Paizo's products, gives a lot of detail on creating a rich world. Random monster encounters make sense in part because the island is full of deadly foes. Time of day matters and is marked not only by the passage of the sun but the daily rains as well. The NPCs presented are wonderfully well written and I particularly love that each of them has their own quest.

However, I have a few caveats. The first is, it didn't sell me on running a Pathfinder game. I do a lot of these sorts of details in 4e already and I didn't see anything that made me say, "Oh, I must use Pathfinder for this." What that says to me is that Paizo is an awesome company that concentrates on creating a really good story and hires writers and editors who can pull that off. The other thing I'll suggest is that this might not be an adventure for new GMs. Remembering to handle attitude and morale of NPCs, tracking the number of monsters left on the island, reminding players to make environmental effects checks on top of learning how to run an adventure might be too much. I realize that new GMs aren't the intended audience for this book, but since a fair bit of my audience would be new to Pathfinder, I feel it's important to point out. Finally, I find it a bit expensive. I found enough value in it to justify the $20 I spent, but I'm not sure everyone will and I'm not sure I found enough to pay another $100 to get the rest of series.

That said, I'd recommend #37 to anyone, regardless of system, who would like to run an exploration-based adventure with a lot of rich detail. If you are interested in learning more, they have a handy free player's guide to give you more details.

Games I Love: Avernum

For the first game in the games I love series, I want to highlight the game that fed my RPG needs for years. Avernum was a series of computer RPG games created by Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software. At it's basic level, most of the Avernum games are a huge sandbox open for exploration, providing quests to wind you through the large world.

Basic Play

Unlike many RPG games, you lead a party of 4 characters. While many people might prefer just one character, I really liked this system. To be honest, it gives me a lot of what I love in 4e, the ability to go through a story line, navigate challenges (for instance, investing in its nature skill decreased random encounters during travel) and also solve the "puzzles" of combat. Earlier editions were a bit overwhelming, though, in the number of skills they offered and I often got frustrated trying to figure it all out. Later versions streamlined the skills system (surprise, surprise) and I was much happier as a result. At it's core though, you go around exploring, completing quests and deciding who to back in the detailed world of Avernum.

The Writing

I loved so many of the characters and scenarios present in the game. Sure, like most computer or video games, the response you could give were limited to multiple choices. But even with that limit, I often found the characters compelling and the choices presented interesting. Depending on the version, actions you took, races you picked, and things you said all affected what you could and could not do. Also, the characters tended to be fairly diverse. I still remember taking up a side quest to deliver a letter to a woman's female lover in another town and the anger displayed by an NPC when he found out I had killed his sister and it's been years since I played those storylines.

The Graphics

Ok, I'll admit upfront, Avernum isn't going to win any awards in the graphics category. They are very old school. It uses a 3/4 view, at least for most games, and a grid based system. There aren't any cutaway scenes and overall the graphics are pretty crude. I happen to love it, but a few of my friends were turned off by the system.

Scope and Demoware

The games are expansive, especially compared to other contemporary games. In many, the storyline changes as the game evolves, secrets are revealed and what was originally presented as "fact" is questioned by the NPCs. A nice side benefit is that the expansiveness of the game allows for a pretty large demo as well. For a number of them, I played most of a weekend before the demo beast raised its head and that's with ignoring a fair number of side quests as well.

The Job Board

I love, love, love the job board. Most towns in Avernum games have one. Locals post side quests, often for the same locations you need to travel to for the main quests. Sometimes they are good old-fashioned, kill 20 rats and bring back their tails. Other times, it's a letter to be delivered or a missing person who needs to be found. Almost all of them involve searching out someone and talking to them which encourages exploration and, at least to me, invests people in the larger story going on in Avernum. It's not always just about the kings and queens or the military. Sometimes it's about the farmer who can't go home because of a wandering ghost or slimes who are attacking the countryside.

The Encounters

Not all enemies are meant to be fought. For certain encounters, you can totally talk your way out of a combat encounter. Sure, you can't do it for all, but that makes sense too. There are some encounters that only happen if you guess something or talk to an NPC. For instance, in one game there is a hermit who makes potions. He wants someone to get rid of a crocodile who took up residence in a small pond near his hut. The crocodile only comes out if you have fish on you, which is available in a nearby barrel. A number of encounters and locations have interactive elements, gongs you can ring and gates that need to be lifted through levers and pulleys. A few big bad guys even have variable resistance and/or vulnerability. I steal all of the elements for my D&D games from time to time.

Magic

Like 4e D&D, magic is an important part of the game but it never gets overpowering. The fighter and rogue is just as important as the cleric and mage throughout the game. Personally, I love that. Later versions of Avernum also added something similar to 4e powers to the melee characters, providing them with cool options too.

The Company

I love the company behind the Avernum games, Spiderweb Software. It is an indie company. They are committed to providing quality games with large demos, money back guarantees and DRM free products. They've long provided a download option in addition to buying the CD and I remember getting loyalty discounts in the past on new versions.

So those are a few reasons I love Avernum. Just as important, it taught me a lot about what role-playing games are and how to play them.

Class Design and Game Balance

Discussing the differences between 4e and 3.5/Pathfinder is hard, at least for me. Seeing the differences is easy but why they are there and how they affect game play is much more nuanced. It cuts to the heart of the differences between the games. I'm going to start with a bit of an analogy and deviate from it as necessary. I spent a week thinking about these things and the best way I can describe it is like this:

  • 3.5 is a lot like a *nix (linux or unix) system. It has some powerful tools and is often very flexible and extensible. However, there are a lot of places where the system relies on user skill and the documentation is often full of "here there be dragons."
  • Pathfinder feels like a distribution or gui on top of 3.5. It patches up the rough spots, adds some new tools, and overall makes things pretty without rewriting or hiding significant portions of the underlying system.
  • 4e is like OS X. Sure, if you are skilled or adventurous, you will see and maybe play with the *nix roots underneath it, but many people have no idea they lie beneath the surface. But for the most part, users interact with it the way the company thought they should.

None of these are bad, and all of them have their pros and cons. For inexperienced or rushed players and DMs, 4e's system has a lot going for it. It tends to provide a satisfactory experience to many players without hours of planning. It diminishes the swing of earlier editions, something that many DMs I know were trying to fix in their own games anyway. It concentrates on the parts of the game that are easy to simplify and which often create conflicts at the table, combat. By removing the easy out from players' control and giving it to the DM, we should have fewer disagreements and fights over whether or not something would work. To me, it also makes the game much more cooperative than competitive.

For experienced and invested fans, Pathfinder offers a ton. Having multiple systems for similar elements means there is more to master, making the game less boring over time. The detail in 3.5 and Pathfinder is often wonderful; it tends to be a much more simulationist game and easier to "feel." Players who love resource management will find a home in the system because that's a core element of it.

But I'm not here just to make broad generalizations about the games. While these are just my initial thoughts of the system, I'm not sure I know Pathfinder well enough to prove these. So, let's explore the class mechanics for a bit.

Multi-classing and Game Balance

Pathfinder classes follow the multi-class rules and philosophy from 3.5 and earlier editions. That is, you have your character level and your class level and there should be penalties for multi-classing. So, in Pathfinder, when I create a character, I pick a favored class and I can not change that class once I choose it. Every time I level in that class, I get a bonus. However, I can choose to level in another class instead. I gain all of the class abilities of a character of that level.

Given how 3.5 and Pathfinder both handle "game balance" this is some powerful stuff. The more choices your character has, often the stronger they are (up to a point of course). Take the wizard for instance. In my experience, spells are incredibly powerful in earlier editions compared to similar level melee attack. The best way to balance the characters is by 1) limiting the number of spells per day they can cast and 2) making them pick the spells before they know what they will be up against (at the start of the day).

Compare this to 4e's system where character classes by and large are expected to do a similar amount of "damage" per encounter. Sure, their output might focus more on giving buffs and debuffs or other conditions during the battle. On the whole, however, they are expected to have a similar impact on the fight. Thus, we should be less interested in building a balanced character than we are on building a balanced party. As a result, multi-classing becomes less important for game mechanics. This is further emphasized by the amount of handwaving 4e DMs tend to do. Rarely do we care about the exact numbers of ammunition, difficulty of travel, etc. Places where this changes are games where resource management come back into play, such as for Dark Sun.

Class Design

This shift of emphasis has further repercussions on class design. Classes in Pathfinder feel like they should be narrowly defined and limited since it is adding just one component to a character. Providing too many classes that are themselves mixtures of other classes just feels wrong. It provides the versatility without the balance penalty.

Also, while this system of class building provides lots of options to players, that's not always a good thing. I found it way too easy to build a character that doesn't act the way I think it should. That's because the game encompasses such a broad range of options that an inexperienced DM or group might not provide enough feedback to each other about what their game is about. I know my friends have complained about this since the early days of 3.5. On the other hand, some players absolutely love the ability to go through and mix and match. To each their own.

In 4e, the classes themselves shouldn't be too strict. I should be able to build an interesting character while sticking to just one class build. If I want to go for a particular feel for a character, that should be found in the sub builds, such as the rogues Trickster (Artful Dodger) and Brawny (Brutal Scoundrel). A lot of the specialization in 4e happens on the power choice level. The downside is that many players look at the output of the power more than they look at how it defines their character, so there's often a mishmash of diverse powers.

Unfortunately, this is a subtle distinction and goes against the previous editions' way of doing things. 4e struggled with it a fair bit, as shown by the evolution of the fighter between PHB and the essentials books and the renaming of the PHB1 fighter to weaponmaster. I think it's interesting to see how both systems added sub-builds to their own games, with cleric domains and the like.

Leveling Rates

While not exactly about classes, I want to mention a quick bit about leveling rates. In both games, a PC levels after reaching a certain amount of XP. One nice thing Pathfinder offers is the ability to accelerate this leveling process, offering slow, medium and fast XP thresholds. The only thing I wonder about with this is the use of XP as a reward in a fast system. For instance, offering 50 XP for bringing food for a game makes a lot more sense in the slow system, which requires 3000 XP to get to level 2 but is worth a lot more in the fast version, which requires just 1300 XP.

Obviously, with an article of this length, it's hard to go into all of the details and nuances of the two systems. Hopefully over time I'll get a better feel for both.

Pathfinder Magic and GM Skill

As I read through initial chapters of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, I can't help but think about how I would GM this game. From my readings I see that many characters have abilities that aren't tied directly to dealing damage. In some ways, I really enjoy that, it makes it easier to keep a consistent narrative through the entire session. However, I have a bit of doubt in the back of my mind because many of these powers provide ways to short-circuit an encounter, especially when dealing with a rushed or inexperienced GM.

Now short-circuiting encounters isn't bad. A number of us, @DaveTheGame, @ChattyDM, @SlyFlourish, @gamefiend and others, give suggestions on how 4e DMs can add them to their encounters. Also, I love to reward clever thinking throughout my games. However, dealing with these spells is another thing altogether. While it can take skill to add outs to a 4e encounter game, at least then it's in the DM's hands, the person most often responsible for providing the conflicts and the overarching narrative for the players. If the DM doesn't have a lot of time for prep work or is inexperienced, it's possible that there won't be any planned outs.

However, with Pathfinder, I feel it's the players who get more control of the outs, especially through their choice of spells. The GM maybe just as rushed or as inexperienced as the 4e DM mentioned above, but he still needs to deal with short-circuits. If the players have enough spells available, they might quickly go through all of his encounters and get bored with the game. Also, some of the other players might not feel like they get enough of a spotlight on them. While I haven't played Pathfinder yet, I've seen this happen in the few OD&D and 3/3.5 games I've played.

Being an experienced GM with a lot of time doesn't necessarily fix this either. Player characters in Pathfinder can have a lot more variance in their ability level throughout the day. In 4e, there isn't much variance between the start of the day and the end. Most of their powers tend to be at-wills and encounters. The main things that vary are dailies (if they have them), magic item dailies and number of healing surges. For Pathfinder characters, a lot more of their stuff is limited to a certain number of times per day including almost all spells, spell-like, supernatural and extraordinary abilities.

In addition, the spells available to characters varies even more than in the 4e system. While a small number of 4e classes have some version of you know these powers but you can only use a power from this group x times per encounter/day (think the cleric's class divinity powers and the wizard's daily and utility spellbook powers), the Pathfinder casters tend to have a much wider pool at their disposal. Without getting into how the intelligence modifier changes things, the base wizard gets 3 spells for his spellbook at 1st level but can prepare and cast just 1 of them per day. This decision is often, but not always made, in the morning after a long sleep.

As a GM who is interested in rewarding players for their choices, this leaves me with a few concerns. First, I would have to remember a much wider array of spells the caster might have access to if I want to ensure a spell couldn't just short-circuit an important conflict. In addition, if I want the player to be able to short-circuit it, I probably should leave hints that it would be a good use of a spell slot to prepare that spell for the day. It would suck to prepare an encounter to show off a character's awesomeness, for instance as part of her character's narrative arc, only to find out she didn't prepare that spell for that day.

Also, since there are class abilities that aren't tied to combat, that means a GM should build in non-combat conflicts where the players get to use the elements they chose. For instance, the cleric's animal domain gives the ability Speak with Animals at 3 + cleric level. How often can I realistically build in rewards for taking this domain? A first level cleric might wish to speak to an animal up to 4 rounds per day! This isn't bad, but I do wonder how well a rushed or inexperienced GM will handle it.

Now I'll admit that some of the stronger spells probably have some built in ways to lessen their impact in this way. A lot of spells such as sleep affect only a certain number of creatures at a time. Other spells require components that are a bit more expensive to make it less likely that they will be used. I also haven't GMed any other edition before and I'm concentrating just on spells right now so I may be missing an important piece of the puzzle. For instance, maybe counterspells are a good way around this problem. Also, this isn't a bash on Pathfinder, just me trying to understand how I would GM in it. Feel free to tell me what I'm missing in the comments below.

Why Have an XP Budget?

Jerry, also known as @DreadGazebo, has a nice article on his site about Abandoning the XP Budget. While I don't agree with everything in his article, I do think people shouldn't start off thinking in terms of the XP budget. Why? Well, as he mentions it often puts us down the path of thinking about the mechanics rather than the story and plot. The latter is what the players are likely to remember, not "wow, you did a really good job there finding monsters whose XP fit into your budget." That said, I'd like to defend the XP budget a bit.

Puts You in the Ballpark

So why use it? For one, it serves as a good 20,000 foot view of how difficult an encounter might be. So many other factors go into whether or not an encounter is difficult for the players: player experience, party composition, character optimization, NPC group composition, monster synergies, random chance, etc. Let's not forget that the DMG also has encounter templates to use to address part of these issues as well.

Helps New DMs

Also, it's good for DMs, especially new ones, in a group that would rather play a "heroic" campaign than a competitive delve. Neither of these are better than the other, it just comes down to group preference. I know I loved the guidance when I started creating my first encounters as a new DM. I was so afraid of killing the PCs, especially since they said they really didn't want that to happen. Coloring within the lines for a bit gave me the confidence to start hacking around with the encounters. What happens if I throw them a n + 1 encounter? an n + 2? now how about a ton of minions? what about a bunch of soldiers? These experiments were instrumental to me learning the game well enough to write about it and produce content for it. Without guidelines like the XP budget and encounter templates, I wouldn't know where to begin and I might not have met my players' expectations for the game. It also keeps us honest. If we don't keep track of the encounter levels, when things start heading in one direction, we won't know why. If we never calculate it, we'd never know that what we thought were n + 4 encounters are really n + 8.

DM Skill

Finally, abandoning XP budgets, building multi-layered encounters, and many of the other things Jerry mentioned in his article require DM skill, not to mention time. And that's hard for someone writing a book to know in advance. I think that's why it's called the Dungeon Master's Guide. As DMs grow in skill, I hope they feel empowered to use and change the rules and guidelines to create the experience their table wants.

Thoughts for the Future

While I understand why Jerry wants to do away with the XP budget, I have a different proposal. Let's think about what the XP table would look like for groups playing different modes of the game, normal, medium, hard, and nightmare. What might the min and max levels be for an individual monster? What might the max level encounter be? The min? When should we break these expectations? Should traps and some terrain elements count in the XP budget? We get a taste of this in the encounter templates and in the Player's Strategy Guide, but it would be awesome to get more.

Pathfinder Magic Chapter, First Look

I recently decided to read the Pathfinder core rulebook. I have a few reasons for this; I plan to play a game at Gen Con and, most important to me, I love learning new things. As with 4e, I feel like I’ve started watching a really cool TV series 2 years in. Added on to this is that the organization of details in 3.5 and Pathfinder don’t make a lot of sense to me. The game rules are often presented as long blocks of text with highly detailed exceptions in the same paragraph with the basic “here is how stuff works.” So, I’m trying to reorganize stuff in my head and here on my site to see if I’m understanding things correctly. I’ve read the beginning chapters so I’m going to start with magic.

So let’s start at the basics. What is magic? Well, that’s a tricky question because they don’t really explain it. The chapter called magic deals more with spells than magic itself. That’s ok though because what magic is might vary from setting to setting. For instance the magic of Eberron seems much different to me than the magic of the Wheel of Time. If they concretely defined it, I might find it too limiting. While it might not be explicitly said anywhere (and it’s possible I just missed it if it is), there is one important bit to know about magic. Magic users at the lower levels are weaker than their martial based counterparts. However, as they grow in power, magic users outpower the martial classes.

That said, mechanically there seem to be three types of magic: spells, spell-like abilities and supernatural abilities.

Spells

The first is pretty easy to understand. These are like advanced recipe books for chefs. Anyone with the training or innate ability to understand the recipe can duplicate it. They also require components, the most common of which are verbal, somatic, material and focus or divine focus.

somatic - A somatic component usually requires the movement of the hands meaning limits on movement often increase the difficulty of correctly casting the spell.
verbal - For verbal components, the caster needs to make sounds to cast the spell. So if a character is gagged or rendered mute (for instance, through a silence spell), it becomes more difficult to cast the spell. Likewise, a deafened person has a harder time speaking clearly. Surprisingly, I didn’t see anything to deal with slurred speech due to alcohol.
material - Material components vary by spell. For instance, control water requires a pinch of dust to lower water and a drop of water to raise water where raise dead requires a clay pot filled with grave dirt and an onyx gem worth 50 GP.
focus - A focus can vary by spell while the deity worshipped often sets the divine focus required.

Spell-Like Abilities

Spell-like abilities are a bit harder to understand. At their core, they are magic spells you can do due to your class. Sometimes they reference a spell, such as the cleric’s Animal Domain, which grants speak with animals. Other times they create their own spell, such as the cleric’s Air domain which grants Lightning Arc. My understanding is that these spell-like abilities don’t count towards a daily spell limit since they often have their own limits which are part of the description. I do wonder if that becomes confusing though as characters multi-class, but that’s a topic for another day.

Supernatural Abilities

Finally we have supernatural abilities, “magical attacks, defenses and qualities.” In my mind, that’s a bit vague, more like, “here are the things that don’t fit anywhere else but we thought were so cool we had to add them.” This category includes things such as bardic performances, the druid’s wild shape, the monk’s ki pool, and paladin’s mercies.

Sources of Magic

Each class has their own reason why they get to derive some of their abilities from magic. For wizards, it’s due to years of study and constant refreshing from their spellbooks. Clerics and paladins gain their magic from their prayers while druids and rangers meditate. For sorcerers, the magic is in their bloodline.

My Thoughts

I understand that a complex system like this makes sense in an evolutionary point of view. Many of these, including spells and spell-like abilities were part of the early D&D game. But it seems like a lot to keep track of to me. Sure, some people love the detail of being able to cast something for x rounds. I love it too, except when it comes to the bookkeeping. Given that, I much prefer dailies and encounter powers with a sustain minor or powers with an “until the end of the encounter” clause.

In addition, I wish they organized the magic chapter a bit differently. For instance, the classes chapter explains a lot of the spell preparation parts of the mechanics. Rather than going over the same details while introducing lots of little details, I wish it had a quick bullet-point refresher and then the more detailed information that this chapter has. I also wish that the schools and sub-schools weren’t part of the how to read a spell section and were in their own section instead. When I read through the first time, I totally forgot we were in the how to read a spell section and was confused by the information that came after the last school. I also wouldn’t mind having that section in the spells chapter instead of the magic one. Having to go between that many pages is annoying, especially since the section covers multiple pages.

In my mind, certain classes remind me of the primary forms for the game, such as fighter, cleric, and wizard. Other classes seem to be reflections of two other forms. For instance, the paladin feels like a reflection of the fighter and cleric and the ranger of fighter and druid.

Those are my initial thoughts after reading the magic chapter in Pathfinder. I’ll dig into it some more over time.

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, was on my reading list for a while and with the HBO series about to start up, I decided to finally read it. Most of the book is about the continent of Westeros, based on medieval Europe although it doesn't place itself in a particular time or place.

Life in this world reminds me of Hobbes' Leviathan. "Bellum omnium contra omnes" meaning "the war of all against all." The story is dark; very, very dark. It includes elements of rape, incest, murder, death and the like. As the Stark family motto says, "Winter is coming."

Edit: Some people have asked me to clarify this. I haven't read the rest of the books in the series. These are my opinions of and reactions to the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones. It's possible that some of my feelings or opinions will change as I read later books in the series.

Likes:

The characters shine, even if some of them are a bit archetypal. In particular, he did an excellent job with the children, something many authors aren't very good at.

The plot is woven together nicely too. Characters have to react to the decisions other characters make in a way that feels natural. It reminds me of the military histories I read when I was younger. Often they are shocked by what close family and friends do, something I've noticed a lot of authors leave out.

His prose is excellent, although at times I feel he knew that too and wrote more than necessary. If you want a book with good descriptions, read this one.

Dislikes:

It's a bit of a nitpick but the emphasis and repetitiveness placed on key information annoyed me a bit. Sure it helps ensure that the plot never runs away from the reader too much and, given the number of concurrent story lines, it may be needed more than in other novels, but it took me out of the story at times. I started "meta-gaming" the novel.

While I think the characters were quite good, the female characters in particular often didn't feel real to me. Of the main characters, Tyrion seemed to be the most multi-faceted. The rest of them seemed a bit too archetypal. Others may disagree with me on this one, but it is how I felt reading it.

Using the Book in a Game or Here There Be Spoilers

There's a ton in A Game of Thrones to use in a game. I really enjoyed Green Ronin's A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. I want to steal the heraldry and house building parts of the game for instance.

Additional elements to use in your games:
* Remember to have your villains react to the plans your players make. Sometimes it's fun to have a giant chess match played out instead of a straightforward storming of the castle.
* Not all myths or fairy tales have to be true, but sometimes it's fun when some of them are.
* Named weapons are pretty awesome. In 4e we use the term magic weapon to apply to a broad range of weapons, including masterwork.

One thing the book made me think a lot about is the use of gender inequality in story telling and in role playing games. Since the book is not historical fiction, the author could have chosen to leave that part of our history out of his world. If we look at a number of the main characters, many of them are women with a fair amount of power and prestige, so it doesn't seem like he wanted to write a men-only story. Instead, he consciously decided to include it.

While I haven't read the rest of the books, my friends tell me it's important and I think I can see why. Most of the characters are a direct reaction to the world. Take Sansa and Arya for instance. They are two sides of the same coin. In a world where gender didn't matter, most of what makes them unique wouldn't be important. Catelyn's struggles with trying to remain passive in a world that increasingly requires her to take action doesn't mean as much if she has no limits on her action due to her gender. Even Tyrion and Bran's stories would be diminished in a less patriarchal society.

In this case, gender inequality is critical to understanding the characters' lives but I don't think the same is true of most of our games. Instead we often include it just as flavor. It serves the same purpose as the types of food served or clothing worn. Even worse in my mind, we include it without thinking and then wonder why women such as myself would feel the desire to play male instead of female characters. Including it in the world in such a meaningless way reinforces the idea that women are weak and means every female character must fight the entirety of a society just to be. She is instantly an outsider even if half the population is of the same gender as she. Unlike having the wrong holy symbol, it's much harder to hide one's femininity. Binding breasts is not a pleasant way to spend a morning and imagine the difficulty of performing certain bodily functions in a world with little privacy. Not only that, because it's not a main ingredient of the story, female characters don't have any hope of changing this, of fighting it.

So I would like to ask a couple of favors. First, when considering the question of gender inequality in games, try to determine if it might make any of your players uncomfortable. It might not only be women who are upset by the implications of a heavily patriarchal society. What those societies often say about men isn't kind either, at least not to the modern ear. Also, if the gender inequality is more on the flavor end of things rather than a central point of your story, consider not drawing attention to it and remember that even in these societies, some women often rose above the limits placed on them. Finally, don't be surprised if you dispense with other elements of medieval society, such as the limited social mobility and the realities of a feudal system, and people get upset about the inclusion of the oppression of women.

Announcement: New 5e D&D Setting

This article is part of an April Fool's day joke orchestrated by the Weem. To find out more information about our 5e, visit the website DnD5.com

When Weems of the Coast approached me a few months ago to work on their awesome new 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I was floored. At first I figured they just wanted to tease me about the info, knowing I couldn’t talk to you guys about it for months if not years. But then they started saying things that really didn’t make sense. “We want you to design the new campaign setting.” Wait, what? Me, design a campaign setting? Surely they were pulling my leg. At least that’s what it felt like until they told me their idea....Candy Land.

Now I’ve been interested in translating this unique and well-known world into a D&D setting, well, ever since I started playing D&D just over two years ago. What’s great about it is everyone has heard of it. We don’t have to explain what a gingerbread house is or who King Kandy is. People just know. The setting isn’t a barrier to getting new people involved in gaming.

Speaking of King Kandy, the established characters and locations are just wonderful. Who doesn’t want to go snowboarding with the Duke of Swirl or talk to the conductor on the train through the Gummy Hills. Sneaky Lord Licorice and his twisted minions are just delicious foes. And don’t let her name fool you, Princess Frostline is anything but cold to visitors.

If you’re like me, you’re sold already, but just in case you need more, here’s a few more details:

Cost

People complain about all the money they need to spend in order to play the game. For D&D Candy Land, we kept cost in mind. No need to buy set after set of dungeon tiles. If you own a copy of Candy Land, you have the game map. All you need is a copy of the campaign setting book and a few skill booster packs. We may release future variations of the core game, but then you’ll be getting two games in one.

Skills

We really listened to the community on this one. Many of you felt the skill list in 4e was just too short. For this edition, we will have 25 skills as part of the core rules and each setting will add their own. Candy Land adds 75 more skills, meaning that you have a hundred to pick from each time.

Example Skills:
42) Know It All (Int) - You have many answers, at least if you find the right questions.
69) Cunning Tongue (Dex) - Your tongue moves fast and with great dexterity. You never trip over your tongue and words sound like honey dripping from your lips.
88) Take a Licking (Con) - Even when you crash, you get up and keep on going.

While that helps the people who wanted more variation, others complained the increased list is too unwieldy and that players only pick the skills that they are good at. While we think the 100 skills helps with the former (you’re unlikely to be very good at many things), we took it a step further. Instead of training or taking ranks in skills, players buy skill booster packs. The number of duplicate cards determines how skillful they are in a particular area. When they have trouble deciding between skills, just have them draw from the deck. If they prefer to roll dice instead, no problem, just roll a percentile and count off the correct number of cards from the top of the deck.

Why go with this system? The randomness will keep the players on their toes. Besides, D&D is a game about imagination. It will always be interesting to see how players decide a skill applies in a certain situation.

Skill Challenges

We decided to go in a bit of a different direction for skill challenges. Rather than let the players decide how to deal with a problem on their own, we set up very specific challenges for the players to beat. But the DM doesn’t tell them how to solve it; that’s part of the challenge. Players just love a good puzzle and we presented a few doozeys.

Help the Gingerbread Kids Build Their House (Level 1 Skill Challenge)

Frame the Walls
The gingerbread walls look and smell so yummy, it’s hard to resist their lure.
Skills: Carpentry, Bossiness, Superhuman Strength, Gluten Intolerance
DC: 15
Special: You get a +5 bonus to your roll if you are blindfolded or you can’t smell anything. You get a +10 if both are true.
Failure: You eat the gingerbread instead and develop a tummy ache. You get a -2 to future rolls in this skill challenge.

Raise the Roof
Finishing the roof is hard and dangerous work. Don’t fall!
Skills: Carpentry, Cat Balance, Fly, Spider Walk
DC: 19
Special: You get a +2 bonus to your roll if you have a safety harness. However, if you fail by 5 or more, you have a 25% chance of getting tangled up in the rope on your way down and being strangled by it.
Failure: You fall off the roof. Roll the body damage die to find out which part of your body you break. You are weakened until you can take 2 extended rests. If you break your neck or hit your head, you are unconscious for 1d6 days.

Well that’s the sneak peek behind the new campaign setting for 5e Dungeons & Dragons. Initial playtests reveal that people love this and I’m sure you will too. Even Orcus approves.

Critical Thoughts

Today I commented on twitter that I didn't find the article how to punish kids who don't play D&D "right" particularly thoughtful and I wanted to provide more information on that lest anyone think I was just trying to be a jerk. However, I first wanted to provide some comments on the original article.

Comments on the D&D Kids: Punishment:

1. Spend a few words explaining that the content of this article was meant for the times when rewards failed to produce the desired outcome. This would have helped sidestep the issues of people complaining that rewards should be used instead.
2. Reorganize the first section. Start off with the rewards system and then follow with the punishments to use if that fails.
3. Give a bit more information about his experiences with children especially that sometimes the groups are created for him instead of him having control. People seem to assume that the kids playing want to be there or that he has control over the group composition.
4. While the tone was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, that can be hard to convey in written form, particularly online and the conversational tone isn’t the most efficient way to give this information and may lack a degree of clarity.
5. I’m not sure Punishment is the best theme for this article since very little deals with punishing players for “bad” behavior. It’s use in the title and the introduction frames the discussion in a way that does the rest of the content a disservice. Given that it’s an article on children, it’s likely to be incendiary.
6. Add a heading before the paragraph that begins with “Now, in my work...” to make it clear that this is different from mere reward or penalty. I would keep it neutral on the word punishment, perhaps saying “Common Trouble Spots”
7. Some people are very much against labeling children. Yet the subheadings/groupings make it easier for the audience reading the article. It might seem obvious to the author, but adding a disclaimer that one shouldn’t actually call children these names might help.
8. Use of the Wizards of the Coast style guide would help here. I understand that traditionally “he” is considered gender neutral, but there is enough resistance to that idea in the US that many companies, including Wizards of the Coast, has changed their style to reflect popular opinion.

Now that I've provided some comments on the original article, I'd like to discuss the response article.

Comments on the response article:

1. The tone of the response article sounds combative to my eyes/ears right from the start. For instance, she describes Uri as someone “who is apparently a professional ‘teacher of RPGs’ in Israel.“ First, nowhere in the 4 articles does he use the phrase “teacher of RPGS.” He says he plays D&D with kids in a variety of settings. He doesn’t state anywhere that his aim “to punish and humiliate children between the ages of 7 and 11 who don't fit his idea of what a roleplaying game should be.” In fact, he says that some of the issues are minor enough that a DM shouldn’t pay too much attention to them while a few deal with situations where the actions of one child make it hard to have a game at all. In other blog posts, he talks about D&D in pretty expansive terms defined by what the children want. In fact, in the first article of the series he talks about letting kids create their own races. “Another approach, one that entails much more work on the part of the DM, is asking kids to draw and describe the character they want to play and then to design—with or without them—appropriate statistics for their creations. You’ll be surprised at just how creative and original (and occasionally random) kids will be!”
2. She oversimplifies the author’s statements in an exaggerated manner. He does not say that the Antagonist type “should just be banished for being a threat to the DM's authority.” Instead, he explains that it’s very hard to get a child who takes this stance to play the game in a manner that the other kids will enjoy since the goal of the child isn’t to play the game but to defy authority.
3. She brings up the "Real Men / Roleplayers / Loonie / Munchkin" and loses me. He wasn’t categorizing all children who play but rather trying to detail some player groups that might make the game hard to play and provide some support for how to deal with the issues that may come up. He even states that “While the below archetypes are gross generalizations, they might help you to identify and solve the problem in some cases.” In the cases he mentions, these are not merely different play styles or goals, but potential trouble spots for keeping a game going. I’m sorry but I fail to see how a player intent only on proving that he or she is not subject to the DM’s authority is a valid and reasonable play style. In fact, none of these are play styles with the possible exception of the serial character changer.
4. She assumes a meaning of seriousness that doesn’t make sense to me given the context of the article and the ones that came before it.
5. She claims “the article focuses almost entirely on the idea that it's the role of the adult Dungeon Master to inflict punishment on the children.” Yet when I read it, there is actually very little punishment going on. In addition, yes the article focuses on dealing with problems at the game table, but it’s part two of a two part article, the first of which focuses on rewards.
6. Her post goes on from there with a bunch of “I’m offended” claims without any information to backup her claims other than a presumed “It’s obvious why this is an issue.”

At least those are my thoughts.

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

Resources for FAQs

Search

Syndicate

Syndicate content