Sarah Facts

For much of college, I lived in a coed fraternity. As it is, parents are often weirded out by this and, well, possibly with good reason. So to help ensure that our friends didn't reveal interesting tidbits during the inevitable family or friend visit, we often would circulate what we called "facts." These were often a list of facts or activities that an idealized version of ourselves would do. For instance:

Tracy Facts
* Tracy brushes her teeth and flosses in the morning, at night and after every meal.
* Tracy _never_ wears pajamas to class. In fact, she always wears freshly pressed khakis and a button down shirt.
* Tracy never plays pong and is always asleep by midnight at the latest.

Well, you get the idea. The nice thing about these facts is that they help illustrate not only what is important to the person but also to those around her. They describe the characters we often play to our family, particularly at that age.

In case you are interested, here are some Sarah facts:

* Sarah has never had a crush on a dwarf.
* Sarah never coup-de-graced anyone.
* Sarah always bathes alone, fully clothed.
* Sarah is not a warlock.
* Sarah writes letters to her family every night. It's just that the postal service around here sucks.

I'm thinking of creating a list of 10 facts about my next character. It should be interesting to say the least. What would your character's "facts" look like?

Good, Bad, or Indifferent

I'll admit it upfront, I'm so incredibly happy that alignment by and large went away in 4th edition D&D and I tend to fight anyone who wants to bring it back. Well, if they want to bring it back for their group, that's cool, but I'll still cry a little on the inside.

I blame it on my misspent youth. In college, I was a government major, specializing in law and philosophy. I spent years studying various governmental systems, the philosophies behind them and how they shape the societies they govern. Add to that background my senior seminar, focused on democratic institutions in a pluralistic society, and you might forgive me for having a hard time with the good versus evil alignment in many role playing games.

In the end, I keep asking myself what is good and what is evil. I know what good and evil are to me and I have some examples I consider to be universal, but I know in the course of our human history, the lines have shifted often. For instance, today we have a hard time putting someone to death for stealing seed corn. Given modern transportation infrastructure, replacement seed can be obtained and we have an abundance of it, at least in the US and other industrialized nations. However, back when such a theft was punishable by death, stealing seed corn meant that while your stomach might be full for an evening or so, the whole town would starve that winter.

Besides, many times the most evil acts are committed by those who think they are doing what is right. The Spartans thought they were doing the right thing by refusing to rear the deformed or weak. The Church thought it was doing God's work by killing the heretics and forcing the conversion of millions of people. But I'm not sure how many players would feel comfortable calling these characters or actions good today.

But something should take the place of alignments. I'm far from the only person to advocate the use of personality traits and a character's personal moral code rather than alignment. By expanding beyond a simple one or two word summary of a character's world outlook and motivations, everyone at the table gains a better understanding of the character. And if these traits are discussed with the group as a whole, it's much easier to have a party of mixed values without having it devolve into a series of arguments.

Actually, this type of character building is what appeals to me in the FATE system. In games built from those rules, characters have aspects, a word or phrase that describes them, that can be used to gain bonuses in play through the use of fate points. From my understanding, if the player wants to do something and it's in line with one of the character's aspects, she can spend a fate point to try to make sure it happens.

Let's say that my character considers herself a real charmer. She tries to talk her way past a guard and, well, I don't roll well enough. But she really wants to get past them. If I have a fate point, I can tell my game master that I want to try to use the charming aspect of my character to help me get past the guards. We would then resolve the action, allowing me to reroll or add 2 to a roll result.

What's nice about the system is that there is both a limit to the number of fate points and a way to replenish them. One way to get fate points is through the compel mechanic. The GM can ask a player to do something that might be detrimental to the character but fits with the character concept. For instance, if a character is stubborn, he might continue to argue a point long after it becomes clear he will not win. As a result, he probably suffers a negative consequence, anything from a physical altercation to losing the support of the other character. This rewards the player for allowing his character to have complications placed in his way and gives him the tools to overcome those issues down the road. And, for many groups, having these sorts of complications makes for a better story.

Such a system easily could be incorporated in many D&D games, perhaps with a similar reroll or bonus mechanic. At the very least, I find this sort of character building far superior to any alignment system. As an added bonus, it completely ignores trying to create universal definitions of good and evil which are bound to be a bit overly simplified and arbitrary and highly influenced by our own prejudices.

Why Don't We Roll Our Scores?

Today I posted on Temporary Hit Points the next article in my Player's Guide series for newer players. This post centered on how ability scores are created in 4e. In response, a few people replied on Twitter that they missed the old days where such scores were rolled instead of created through a point buy system or its subset, the arrays.

A funny thing happened when they mentioned this system. Instead of my normal full body shiver, I just shrugged my shoulders. Truth is, some things happened during my Gen Con trip that totally changed how I feel about certain aspects of gaming. I grew a lot as a player during that trip and finally shook free of a fair bit of my newbie fear and outlook. The biggest thing I realized is that the things that scared me most about the "old school" way of doing things came down to one word, trust.

Now, I've discussed trust a lot in the past. But the truth is, I had never experienced a game where I had complete and absolute trust in the DM and my fellow players. And, ironically enough, I finally felt it during the Dark Sun game I played with Chris Sims on Friday.

Yes, my party was defiled repeatedly during that game, but the truth is, it made total sense for the character and I wouldn't want him to play it any other way. And yes, my character killed the defiler, but I think the player would have thought less of me if I hadn't (at least that's what I tell myself). And Chris challenged our party beyond our limits and a number of us died, as in negative hit points dead, but I never felt like he was our enemy or out to get us.

That requires a high degree of trust, but that sort of trust can be so fleeting. It requires so much from the DM and the players that it's a bit of magic when it happens. You need to be willing to play a potentially flawed character, you need to trust in the dice, and, most importantly, you need to trust in yourself and your group.

And the always changing nature of this trust is one of the main reasons why we no longer roll our ability scores. Otherwise, we have to trust the reports of those who roll their scores privately or ask them to roll them publicly, easily read as a sign of distrust. And then we have to trust that the DM can pull together these characters of various skill levels and create an adventure that is fun and challenging for all involved. It seems like a lot to ask a group who just wants to get together and roll some dice for a few hours each week or two.

I'm not saying that rolling scores is wrong. In fact, I'm tempted to try it out now, particularly the hybrid system where the most important abilities are assigned and the others rolled. But to keep arguing that everyone should do it that way without discussing this issue just seems a bit narrow-minded to me. At least, that's how I view it. How do you feel?

Guest Post: Twilight: New Moon - As Seen in D&D!

GRAIN OF SALT (to be taken internally while reading this post): I am not a Twilight fan, and while I tried to give it a fair shake, I'm afraid a bit of sarcastic vitriol has worked its way into this post. Please bear in mind that my HIGH AND MIGHTY JUDGEMENT of the movie is not a high and mighty judgement of its fans. I'm glad other people like it, for it saves me the trouble of trying too hard, myself.

My first impression of the Twilight series was that it was about a girl named Bella and her struggle to choose which abusive relationship she'd rather be in: cold and controlling or angry and violent. I wasn't impressed with the characters, and found the idea of the central plot to be horrible. Recently, however, some "friends" of mine brought over Twilight: New Moon (and the appropriate RiffTrax as an accompaniment), and I finally sat down and actually watched it. The. Whole. Damn. Thing.

It's a terrible movie. Let's be clear about that. But even the worst movie has some redeeming moments and, in the proper context, can provoke discussion and interest, and New Moon is no exception. As I watched, I realized I'd seen these archetypes marketed to pre-teen girls and their mothers before. A pale, effeminate character who is vaguely aloof but very, very pretty? Legolas would only need a handful of glitter to translate into Edward Cullen. A dark and dangerous individual who, while being heir to an ancient legacy, still remains devoted to the one he loves? If Aragorn had a few tufts of fur on him...

It's not a completely cromulent comparison. Aragorn and Legolas had something that no character in New Moon has: depth. But the tweeny reaction to their onscreen presence? There are some very strong parallels to be drawn there. So, if we can draw lines, however tenuous, between New Moon and Lord of the Rings, and from there make the leap to D&D, then Kevin Bacon does so declare that I should attempt to mine New Moon for some sort of D&D trope application.

It was surprisingly easy. It only required a slight change of context and the removal of all of the horribly convenient plot devices that the author seems to rely heavily upon. Consider this: Vampires are hideous monsters. They are known to take to themselves a thrall, someone who becomes devoted to them due to the vampire's ability to psychologically manipulate the poor mortal.

If I look at the Twilight movies as the story of a thrall, told from the perspective of a thrall, many things begin to make much more sense. It turns Bella from a vapid, useless twit to a much more tragic character. Because the story is told from the perspective of one already socially manipulated to be devoted to her vampire master, it makes sense that Edward would be seen as a sympathetic character instead of the monster we know him to be. For all we know, vampires really do sparkle in the eyes of their thralls. If all Edward is doing is meant to break Bella further, to enslave her body and mind and ensure her complete, unshakeable devotion, then I say he's doing a damn good job at being a monster, as he should be.

With this, the context of the movie changes; I know there is no hope for Bella, but I can hope for her anyway, that she might break the enchantment of her vampiric lord. I can wait, breathless, as the shirtless Jacob almost manages to pull her from her doomed path, and question whether she'd really be better off with the shamelessly violent wolf-child or if her death as a thrall would be more humane. The sheer insanity of the movies becomes compelling fiction, if only we can remember that while Bella is a thrall, we are not, and we can tell the monsters from the men in the world.

This, then, applies itself far more liberally to a D&D plot. A poor girl's family beseeches help, as she has recently turned moody and violent, with screaming night terrors. Further investigation allows the players to realize that she has been visited often by a dark and mysterious figure, whom they discover is a terrible vampire. Perhaps the girl tries to dissuade the party from confronting the vampire; her defense of him would be vigorous and committed. The party can decide whether the girl is worth saving, both from the vampire and from herself.

This puts the party in the role of Jacob, then, which seems appropriate. It's not hard to translate one murderously violent character into four or five murderously violent characters who also seek fame, fortune, and adventure. If the party pursues the vampire regardless of the girl's feelings, finds his lair, and fights off his other minions, then finally confronting him could be the epic showdown in D&D that I kept praying for over and over while actually watching the movie.

Who knows what other otherwise dismissable media might contribute to our games? What sort of things have you sourced ideas from that may have been utterly ridiculous but you still managed to translate into an interesting and compelling plot?

Jennifer Snyder is an awesome all-around geek girl and a great proponent of tabletop RPGs. When she isn't busy playing games or wreaking havoc on Twitter as @Level30Yinzer, she works on the outstanding RPG-focused non-profit she and her husband founded in 2009. You can find more information at Level30Yinzer.com.

Running Red Box at Gen Con

One thing I love to do is to give back to the D&D community, especially since it has given me so much. While I do this in many ways, writing my blog, participating in podcasts, one of my favorites is judging for the RPGA at conventions.

So I made sure I signed up to judge a couple time slots at Gen Con. I contacted the organizer for the event and explained my background. He suggested I run Learn to Play which is something I really wanted to do at PAX East. As the con approached, I learned something even cooler, I would be running Red Box!

Although I've played for only a year and a half, I understand what Red Box is about. For many D&D players, especially the ones slightly older than myself, the original Red Box was their first experience with D&D. At PAX East, Wil Wheaton described in his keynote how that original little box changed his life. While I knew I was already initiated, by the blood of my character, into the fraternity of D&D, I still was full of excitement, wonder, and antici-pation over the new version of Red Box. I wanted that moment of wonder and fear that I had denied myself nearly 20 years ago.

When I was handed the box on Wednesday night, I couldn't wait to open it, to see the wonders inside. Most importantly, I wanted to know what adventure I would be running in a little less than 12 hours. I could tell right away that pretty much everything I needed to run was right there. There were two booklets (one for players and the other for dungeon masters) a sheet of tokens (both monsters and player characters), a few blank character sheets, a few sheets of power and magic item cards, a double-sided map and a set of dice.

After taking stock of the contents, I needed to prepare to run this thing for the next morning. I have to admit, I streamlined the adventure a bit to run it for the con. Preparing eight encounters on 4 hours of sleep was asking a bit much of me. With a fair degree of sadness, I decided to ignore half of them. My players didn't mind and it allowed me to work within my comfort level.

Something to note about the adventure is the abundance of opportunity to explore and interact with the environment. Runes need to be understood, crates need to be busted open, and bodies need to be looted. This sort of detail fills my heart with joy. Similarly, they present skill challenges in a way that promotes conversation and the integration of challenges within the story line rather than as something that pulls the players out of immersion.

Overall my players really enjoyed the adventure and I enjoyed running it. I'm still not sure if it's something that someone relatively new can just pick up and run, but I think a new DM would be able to run it with not much more effort. This is particularly true if they are willing to wing it and not worry about the rules too much, just the way most people did with the first Red Box.

So, the big question, is this 4.5? My answer is no. Nothing felt different about running the adventure and while the character classes definitely had a different feel, they did not feel foreign to me. If pressed, sure, I'll say it's similar to a point release or a service pack, something that improves the system, fixes a few bugs, but is still completely recognizable as the original system. To me, they are just new builds of some classic classes, full of the goodness that came after PHB1. The rules are streamlined a bit to help new players (something I wish I would have had when I started) but the game felt the same way there as it did at my weekly table.

So what questions do you all have? I only have Red Box (thanks Wizards of the Coast!) and I don't want to spoil too much for you guys, but I will try to answer what I can.

Edit: One thing I would like to note. The pregens used at the convention gave the wizard magic missile and the only power that required a die roll was his daily. As a result, the players just used magic missile the entire time and their turns were over rather quickly. I won't say that the speed of their turn wasn't fun, but I'm not sure they enjoyed the characters quite as much as say the people who played the rogues.

I Was Defiled By Robert Schwalb

So if you are wondering if I fell off the face of the earth or something, worry not. I spent the last week traveling to and from Indianapolis and my first ever Gen Con. I thought PAX East was amazing and yet Gen Con exceeded even that. One of the big reasons I had such a great time at Gen Con is the Dark Sun game I played in on Friday, run by Chris Sims.

Chris is an amazing Dungeon Master. I hope one day I can be as good as him, particularly when it comes to confidence at the table. He's also an awesome story teller and I felt more connected to his game than any other game I've been in.

Beyond Chris, I had the chance to play with two people I knew from Twitter, Jared von Hindman and NewbieDM. In addition to them, Robert Schwalb played with us. Rob was on my list of people to meet at Gen Con so it was a great honor and privilege to play at a table with him, even when he insisted having his character, Taewyn, constantly defile us, which meant we kept taking damage whenever he used certain powers.

Of course, he wouldn't have been able to do that if I didn't keep healing him with my shaman, Malamac, a good shaman and one who was particularly close to 3 other party members. Yet, he was doing so much damage, I justified it in that a living party was better than a dead one.

However, at the end of the adventure, I got my revenge. We defeated the big bad guy before he could finish his evil ritual. At this point, Taewyn thought it best to take over the ritual in case it would make him powerful instead. Since he had just killed, as in negative bloodied hit points, Malamac's close friend, I had to avenge the death. As a result, I attacked Taewyn, rolled a crit, and killed him.

So that is the story of how I was defiled by Robert Schwalb and how I killed his character. It was an awesome game and one I'll remember for a long time. Now to design some t-shirts for my group.

Gen Con Schedule

All the cool kids are doing it so I figured I would post mine as well. Fred and I will be arriving in Indy early, probably Monday or Tuesday. He's a big open-wheel racing fan so we have lots to see and do outside of the con.

Wednesday:
7 pm - RPGA Judges Meeting
After that, hang out and meet some peeps.

Thursday:
8 am - 1 pm: RPGA Judge Learn to Play
2 pm - 4 pm: Monster Building Workshop
4 pm - 6 pm - Design & Development: Presented by D&D Insider
8 pm? - ?: DMing a D&D Hooters GenCon Interactive Adventure

Friday:
8 am - 1 pm: RPGA Judge Learn to Play
1 pm - 6 pm: Hanging out in the hall and maybe a seminar or two
6 pm - 10 pm: The ENnies

Saturday:
9 am - 10 am: What's Coming from Open Design
10 am - 12 pm: Dungeons & Dragons Preview and Q&A Show
2 pm - 7 pm: Chris Sims' Welcome to Dark Sun, B!#@&s! game
8 pm - 10 pm: Media Meet & Greet

Sunday:
Leaving early to drive back, but should have some time free in the morning.

I'm really looking forward to this grand adventure and I'm glad to be sharing it with Fred. This is our first Gen Con and second convention ever (PAX East was our first). Yeah, we're a bit spoiled.

In particular, I can't wait to run Learn to Play and hopefully convince some people to play 4e D&D at home. I'll get to see the new Red Box in action and hopefully make my saving throws against sleep. I may even give voices a try. :)

The monster builder workshop will be a great time too. My understanding is that Greg Bilsland will walk through the monster creation process. (At least, that's my hope.) Greg is a great guy and I can't wait to see him again.

While it may seem strange to have me DM a game in Hooters, I think it's a really funny plan and is going to be awesome. This cartoon (NSFW!) sums up how I'm viewing that game. Hopefully my story will be able to hold their attention long enough to get through a game.

And finally, I'm so honored to be able to play in Chris Sims' game. He even created a character just for me (at least that's what I'm telling myself), using a concept I sent him.

Beyond those planned events, I would love to run my lumbermill delve while I'm out there. I also need to meet a large number of people and thank them personally for all of their encouragement and advice over the last year or so. So if you're going to Gen Con, send me an email tracy [at] sarahdarkmagic.com or a message on twitter. I'll also be tweeting and posting the best I can with my crazy schedule. Hope to see you there!

Arcadia Recap: Mimics, Cool Terrain and Dragons

I had a great time running our regular game last night. No one quite wanted to stay on task but we still got through a bunch of story and encounters in the time we had together, which was awesome. The game started easily enough. Last session the PCs had defeated Ragdin and his henchmen when they came to collect the latest group of "volunteers" for the Shadow Army. They allowed Ragdin to live with the promise that he would make it easier for them to enter the mine where they are holding Sirius Darkmagic.

Mimics, Mimics, Everywhere

This session was supposed to be them going to the mine but, like PCs like to do, they took a bit of a detour. The bard was convinced that a man in town, Garel, still had the papers about the Shadow that he stole from various libraries. So they decided to break into the guys house.

Now, I'll be honest, I had nothing planned for this event. I mean, I knew where the guy lived, in the end, he was just a dwarf who had more money than sense thanks to the papers he stole. But the players had no idea about this and they started making checks for...every...movement. Perception to see if the door was trapped. Arcana to make sure it didn't have an arcane trap. The list just goes on. Believe me, I'm not complaining, but it told me they wanted something to happen.

Trying to think quickly on my feet, I settled on the idea of mimics. I invented a study on the first floor of Garel's house since that would be a good place for papers. Ok, so a desk full of papers, some chairs and bookcases. What to make into mimics? The desk was a bit obvious, so I settled on the chairs. True to form, they asked all sorts of questions about the desk but the chairs sat there, unnoticed.

So what should be the trigger? Ok, how about one old looking sheet of paper, its corner sticking out from the pile? On it, one word, "Die!". When the bard found the paper, lifted it from the desk and read it, we rolled initiative and had fun with the mimics for a bit. I think the players felt rewarded for their carefulness and they had the fun of reminiscing about instant death traps without their characters actually being in one.

The Shadow Army's Home Base

After they settled out the mimics and terrorized poor Garel, they made their way to the mine. I created this encounter months ago and I'm glad I was finally able to run it. The entrance to the cave is beneath a waterfall cascading off the side of a cliff. One both sides are recently constructed platforms holding dwarf fire archers. While they are using dwarfs to guard, they didn't use them to build, a fact gleefully pointed out by Ragdin to the PCs when they interrogated them. It didn't take much to trigger their collapse, and when the tumbling rocks also wiped out a bunch of minions, things were even more fun.

As the last minion and archer died however, a large form sprang forth from the pool beneath the waterfall. A dragon! It flew high into the air. A few seconds later, the body of a dwarf, Ragdin, fell and landed at the feet of some of the players. The black dragon then landed in front of them and taunted them the best he could. "Did you really think I wouldn't notice that you had turned Ragdin against me?" he asked.

A recent addition to the encounter, I created the dragon that morning. I started with the earthquake dragon from Monster Manual 3 and just changed some things to make it fit a black dragon better. I can't say that it's the best conversion ever, but I'm pretty happy with it. And the exploding aura is pretty awesome. However, working on this dragon did bring a few more bugs in Monster Builder to the surface, but I'm sure they'll fix it soon. One of them involves the additional speeds. For some reason it keeps putting the difference from normal instead of the full distance.

Overall the fight between the PCs and the dragon went really well, with the players honestly afraid for a good portion of the battle. I think having the elite rather than the solo was a great change. It had just the right amount of hit points to worry the players without dragging out the fight past the fun limit.

Guest Post: JoJo's Deific Diner

It was with great pleasure that I sat down with Sarah Darkmagic (of the respectable New Hampshire Darkmagics) and spoke at great lengths about our plans for world domination. Fear not, we do intend to shape it into a nicer place, molded after our own glorious images. Plus free drinks. At any rate, we rambled on as future benevolent dictators do, and Ms Darkmagic touched upon some ideas she had developed with regards to gods and other deities for a cleric she once played. She jokingly referred to a lack of a “menu of gods” to choose from at the time and went on to describe the deity she ended up half-inventing as part of her cleric concept.

But I was stuck on the phrase “menu of gods.” When we gamers play “serious” DnD, a cleric's path is no light matter, and many find their calling under dire circumstances, forever after strengthened by the guiding hand of their god. However, sometimes it's delightful to say “To hell with serious!”, and for those campaigns, I might present your choice of deity like this:

Jennifer Snyder is an awesome all-around geek girl and a great proponent of tabletop RPGs. When she isn't busy playing games or wreaking havoc on Twitter as @Level30Yinzer, she works on the outstanding RPG-focused non-profit she and her husband founded in 2009. You can find more information at Level30Yinzer.com.

When the Players Forget

Last night the players presented me with an interesting dilemma. They wanted to look throughout town for a item they already possessed. The bad guys who are trying to free the shadow from its prison are searching town for the key. The players would like to find it first, only problem is, they already have it but don't know that.

I can't fault them for forgetting. Sometimes I hit them over the head with information and other times it's a bit more subtle. In this case, a group of dwarfs the PCs had saved from a watery grave presented them with the only item they had, an artifact that the ship captain had tried to smuggle out of Andernach and one of the dwarfs had snatched before walking the plank.

But they forgot about the gift last night and they determined that their next move would be to find the key in town. I know that I could have reminded them but I remembered they weren't overly interested in the key when they received it either. Besides, having them look could be fun as long as it didn't take too long.

So when they went to the one person in town they trusted and confided in him the state of affairs, I quickly formulated a plan in my head. One of my players already had taken out a book to start looking through the rituals. I decided that I didn't want to make them spend any money on this and thought something custom might be better. I remembered that the PCs in The Slaying Stone are given scrolls that will help them locate the stone in the town and decided to do something similar here.

Their contact is Sunspeaker Deldaran, a devotee of Pelor (I'm using Hammerfast for Andernach). After hearing their story, he finds one of his colleagues, a rather tall, scrawny man in long, brown robes with mussed red hair and rather large glasses. Called Boniface, he is the bookish sort.

The two of them clean off a table and place down a map of Andernach. Boniface pulled out a long string with a heavy metal object at the end and explained that he will need their assistance to perform the scrying ritual since they are searching such large an area for so small an object.

The first round goes pretty well. Working together, they try to both guide the pointer and remember information about the section of town the device pointed to. Mechanically, I made them all roll their skills checks at the beginning of the round, and then we pieced together a story of what was happening. At the end, they knew that it pointed to the lore ward of Andernach, that quite a few likely targets existed there and one of them was able to assist in the arcana check the next round (with a +4).

With the general area narrowed down a bit, Boniface moved the device so it was centered over the lore ward and they tried again. Again, I had them make the checks at the beginning of the round. I attempted to resolve the non-arcana checks first and then I had to ask the group an important question. I reminded them of the time they saved the petrified dwarfs from beneath the lake of lost memories and that the dwarfs had given them a gift. At this point, one of the players remembered the key but I asked him to hold off on telling everyone else for a moment. Eventually, it was decided who had the item and I finished describing the ritual. They did really well on their arcana check so the device pointed horizontally, right at the PC with the key.

Overall, it was a great moment and while it took a little time to play out, it didn't take so long that the players thought I was wasting their time. While not every seemingly insignificant item will turn out to be quite this significant, sometimes it's fun to have one or two items that are.

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

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