I Dream of Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encouraging Ritual Use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Your Heart Into Rituals

On Twitter yesterday a few of us had a discussion about rituals prompted by Stephen Radney-MacFarland's post on NeoGrognard. If you haven't read the post, I suggest you do, especially the first part of it where he discusses the importance of the D&D story to some players and how the game fosters its own culture around it. If you don't believe me when I say these things, perhaps you'll believe him.

But I digress. One issue with rituals in their current form is that they often require some form of gold, either one takes the gold rewarded from treasure and buys component costs or the dungeon master kindly does that for you by just giving you components for the ritual in a treasure bundle. Since they are then part of the overall treasure system, I think they become even more costly. Given that much of the time they are used for story reasons, this cost is too high for many players to justify. Why would I spend 50 GP to obtain create campsite and then spend another 15 GP of components each time I wanted to cast it? Compare that with ward campsite, which requires a 50 GP initial purchase and then a healing surge each time it is cast.

The latter ritual is more in line with what Stephen recommends in his post. He thinks ritual casters should be able to convert healing surges into component cost. Storywise, they would give part of their life energy to the ritual they perform and it's something they can't get back until they have an extended rest. On Twitter, @KatoKatonian argued that we would see a return to the 5 minute work day with this, but to be honest, I don't see that happening because of this. I think it's much more likely that a 5 minute work day results from loss of daily powers. Besides, a DM should make these decisions count, even if it means a random encounter to drive the PCs forward.

Another argument @KatoKatonian made was that this violates the original intent of healing surges which is healing. However, I don't think that narrow intent was really there. For instance, the blood mage utility power soul burn allows a character to trade their ability to heal for the chance of doing more arcane damage by allowing the reuse of a encounter power. And even if the original intent was there, it's clear from the some of the newer rituals that they don't intend to keep it. Martial Power 2 has a number of martial practices (rituals) which use healing surges as their form of currency.

A few people also expressed the fear that using an unbounded resource such as healing surges would unbalance the game. I don't think this will be the case. I think PCs still need to purchase the ritual which is a significant investment. If we wanted to limit it further with cost, we could require a focus for particularly strong rituals, which itself could be the subject of a side quest or awarded in a treasure parcel. Some rituals already have this built in.

Of course, this wasn't the first time this subject has come up and I doubt it will be the last. If you are interested in the subject of rituals, @ThadeousC discusses them a lot on his site and he has a great post about getting players to use them.

While I think this change could result in more ritual use, I don't think it's the main problem. But that's a topic for another day.

When is a fighter not a fighter?

Yesterday Twitter was aflutter with discussions of roles and classes. At least two broader discussions developed from the initial topic. One was how a character's role often leads to social pressure to play a character a certain way, especially in combat. Another was how players often get tripped up on the terminology of 4e, often because the game redefines some pretty broad terms in a narrow way. Both illustrate issues with discussing D&D in general.

The first topic is a really thorny one. With the wide variety of play styles and motivations, it's difficult to give general advice on the subject. However, we can at least discuss the role system and the underlying problems it causes. If you haven't played much 4th edition, the character builds are separated into 4 categories called roles, controller, defender, leader and striker. Each of these roles have something they are really good at, largely that the defender soaks up damage and locks down opponents, the controller generally deal with multiple targets at once, leaders give bonuses to their allies and help them endure a long fight, and strikers deal massive quantities of damage.

This simplified way of looking at characters has a few things going for it. First, if I have a newer player, I can ask him to describe to me what he would like to do in combat. From that description, I can pick the role that is most likely to appeal to him and use that to narrow down the class builds he's most likely to enjoy. If the player enjoys doing lots of damage to a single target, meaning he wants to give me a big damage tally, I know to steer him towards the striker. If he envisions taking out large swaths of minions in battle, well then I have a controller.

It's also easier to know if the party has enough diversity to tackle most challenges. If they have one of each role, the DM has a much wider toolbox available to him. Throwing monsters of the soldier role at a party without a defender gets a bit tricky as does throwing lots of minions without there being a controller in the group.

However, these positives come at a cost. One of the biggest I've seen is that some players will always think that the grass is greener on the other side. I can't tell you how many times I've seen the defender frustrated that he wasn't doing anywhere near the amount of damage as the strikers of the party. And sometimes people playing leaders with a name like warlord expect to be a little buffer in battle, at least in either defense or offense but preferably both.

When this happens, I get to hear the stories about how it was so much better in the old days, when you could take levels in the different classes and customize your character... They aren't entirely wrong but at the same time, that system isn't right for everyone either and is rife with its own problems.

Another cost is that it becomes even clearer what your role is supposed to be in battle and other players may expect or even demand that you hold up your end of the bargain. This issue comes up repeatedly at my table. Some players approach D&D as a game and while they will accept, often grudgingly, that you can't win at D&D, they usually have the opinion that there are ways to lose. One of the ways they lose is by not getting the most out of the character they put a lot of time and energy into creating. I'm not even talking about highly optimized characters with some crazy combination of feats and powers that allow them to hit pretty much anything on a 2 or higher.

This pressure is increased when players realize that 4E was designed to foster and reward cooperative play. The rogue needs combat advantage for sneak attack. Before Essentials came out, the easiest way to get that at low levels was by pairing up with a defender. However, when the defender is a swordmage who was developed to keep moving around the battlefield, things can get depressing for the rogue pretty quickly and sometimes tempers flair.

On a similar note, people tend to look down on members of their group who they perceive aren't pulling their weight. If this lowered effectiveness is a conscious choice, feelings can get hurt pretty quickly as accusations of not being a team player are bandied about. This doesn't mean that a player shouldn't play the type of character they want, but I think it's important to have a group discussion about it and to set up some ground rules about what is and isn't acceptable behavior. No one player should be able to always force something on to the group that isn't fun to the rest of them and the whole group shouldn't force a player to always do something that is not fun for them.

Add on top of this the confusion caused by redefining common terms, and the issues become even more dramatic. When discussing Dark Sun and the emergence of themes, the people from R&D love to tell the story of how the term gladiator made them rethink class design for 4E. At first, they tried to make the gladiator into a class but the problem is that so many different gladiator styles exist with no clear winner when it comes to pigeonholing them into a particular role. After thinking about it a bit, they came up with the solution of creating themes, an additional layer to class building which gives the character access to themed powers that are tied to their highest stat rather than one tied to a particular class.

However, this same argument can be made about a number of D&D classes, particularly the fighter. When I think of a fighter, defender is not the first thing that comes to mind, yet until Heroes of the Fallen Lands, that was the way we were intended to see them. The truth is 4E has a number of fighter classes but since one of them is labeled fighter, people will choose it without understanding that the role doesn't match their intended play style. Pain and suffering often results along with accusations that the game is at fault because the player's expectations of the class were not met.

So if I may suggest anything, it's that we keep in mind how important roles can be in finding the right class fit for a player and his character and that when we discuss 4th edition, it's important to remember that some of the game terms are narrowly defined compared to the general definitions. Also, while it's impossible to play D&D wrong, it is possible for a play style to be incompatible within a group, especially if the group is unwilling to discuss their issues and come up with some group rules.

New York Comic Con Update

Thanks to the RPGA and Wizards of the Coast I was able to attend New York Comic Con and run some D&D games for the attendees. First, I want to say I had an awesome time. The last few weeks have been a little rough on me and being around people who genuinely just wanted to play the game and didn't know or care about the current D&D dramas was exactly what I needed.

And that's one of the awesome things about cons like PAX East and NYCC. While some of the attendees may be current D&D players active in the online community, many of them aren't. Heck, many of them have never played D&D before but have secretly always wanted to try. They see the excitement at the tables and decide to join in.

And I helped get a fair number of them into games. I spent a lot of my time during NYCC working as a greeter. I stood near the entrance of the play area, handed out the free comic and just engaged the people walking by, asking if they would like to play a game. If I was told before the trip that I was going to do this, I would have freaked out, but since I was there, my helper instinct kicked in and I went for it. It was one of the highlights of my weekend.

I met a lot of people with that look of wistfulness in their eyes as they watched others play D&D. When asked if they would like to play, many responded that they'd been away for too long and wouldn't know how. I loved how the wistfulness often changed to joy when I explained we had people here who would love to bring them up to speed and sessions dedicated to new players. And thanks to the great discussions many of you have had, I was able to point out things in the new Essentials player's book that would appeal to someone who has played D&D before but didn't enjoy the original 4e classes.

Beyond greeting, I played and ran some games. We were short a few players for a Gamma World game on Friday, so I jumped in to make a full table. Gamma world is so much fun and seeing the people at my table (many of them a fair bit younger than myself) enjoy it was just wonderful. I ran three sessions of the D&D Encounters catch up which was great too. My first table was much better than I was, they wanted to do a lot of role play and exploration. Being around people who just wanted to play and didn't care about all the debates refilled my creative reserves.

Outside of the game play area, I didn't do much at the con. I saw one of my friends from college who had a table in Artists Alley. Also, I finally was able to give 3D D&D a try. While my group wasn't the most enthusiastic, I really enjoyed playing the barbarian and trying to smash the wraith. Rolling a 20 made some of the a bit more excited as we got loot.

So yeah, awesome time and I can't wait to volunteer some more for the RPGA. I firmly believe we're all part of a great community and that you have to give as much as you take. I still have quite a bit of debt to pay off, but I don't mind it a bit. Many thanks to the wonderful RPGA judges and marshalls who helped make this trip an absolute treat and made me feel at home, to the NYCC attendees for being so nice, and to Chris Tulach for the wonderful conversations and keeping me sane. It was also great to see Phil (ChattyDM), Lou (AlioTheFool) and Seamus (icu_seamus).

System versus Game

A few weeks ago, I came to the conclusion that one of the things that makes discussing 4e D&D difficult is that it has two parts. On one hand, we have a rules system, largely divorced from any particular setting, which tells us how to keep things balanced and hopefully fun for everyone at the table. On the other, we have the game, set often, but not always, in a world based to some degree on medieval fantasy. The core rulebooks reinforced this divide, separating out much of the canonical story and just providing the bare essentials to support the stories being developed at individual tables. The setting books were tasked with modifying the core so that it fit best with the stories common to those settings.

To be honest, while I sometimes had a hard time picturing certain monsters, I loved this system. It allowed me to easily create any story I wanted without having to find all the ways in which my story was different from canon. However, it made the game less approachable to a fair number of players. What I've gotten from the conversations I've had is that the way they like to tell D&D stories didn't fit as well into the existing expressions of the core system.

For someone who doesn't share that problem, the common reaction is to "blame the victim." If those people were only more creative or would just open their minds a bit, things would be better. This is a weak argument and one I loathe. We all have our personal preferences when it comes to which stories we like to tell or consume and the truth is that for some people it breaks their suspension of disbelief to have fighter dailies. Arguing against it doesn't make any sense, just like telling me that fighters can't have dailies is a futile exercise that only leads to frustration and perhaps booze.

Now the awesome thing, at least in my mind, of having these two layers to D&D is that both parties can be happy. Nothing in the core rules says that a fighter needs to have dailies. I realize it looked that way from PHB1 but we, the outside fans and players, have never seen the actual core system, the math and algorithms they use to determine what is balanced and what is not. What it does mean, however, is that each individual slice will get less of the overall creative time, especially the older philosophies since so much already exists for them. Also, some of 4e's simplicity will be lost since it didn't support all play styles either. This does make teaching the game to others a bit harder, but it's a problem I'm willing to live with if it means we get more people into the game.

Anyways, that's my feelings on the matter, expressed in a way that just isn't possible in 140 characters.

New York Comic Con Schedule

New York Comic Con is just around the corner and I'm so excited to go. Unlike previous cons, I'm running a lot of games for the RPGA at this one and my schedule is pretty free otherwise. For those who are interested, here is my game schedule as it stands right now. My understanding is that we'll be at the Wizard's booth.

Friday:
10:00 - 12:00 Delve
1:00 - 5:00 Gamma World
5:00 - 7:00 Encounters

Saturday
11:00 - 1:00 Encounters
5:00 - 7:00 Encounters

Sunday
11:00 - 1:00 Encounters
3:00 - 5:00 Encounters

I think an extended weekend of pure fun is just what the doctor ordered. I can't wait to go.

As a side note, my good friend Blair Shedd will be at the con as well. He worked on the IDW Doctor Who comic.

On Confidence and Trust

In Death to Dungeons, I tried to give a more specific example of how a lack of confidence and trust affects me as a player, and particularly as one newer to the game. I think the conversation that resulted is wonderful in large part because it made people talk about what they love about dungeons and the game itself.

However, parts of it bothered me deeply and point to a behavior that kept me away from the game for over a decade and a half. I'm a very live and let live person. When someone says they have a problem with something I really enjoy, my response isn't that there is something wrong with that person or even with the thing that I enjoy. Not everyone is going to like everything.

Yet, when I express my likes and dislikes and how those preferences affect my ability to enjoy the game, I often get a variety of responses that feel like there must be some fault with me. Personally, I really don't enjoy underground environments, it's not my thing. I'm not a fan of them in movies, in books or even in video games. It's not from a lack of imagination. It's not from a lack of a good DM. It's personal preference, pure and simple, and is not meant as an affront to anyone who enjoys them.

My issue with responses that "it's a game of fantasy, just use your imagination", is that playing a game like D&D often takes some level of confidence and trust. I need to weave the narrative of my character with those of my fellow players and DM. Her actions need to make sense in the context of the greater whole. When most of the players have the same cultural literacy and background, that's a lot easier. But the truth is much of my background feels vastly different from those of people I've played with. When I play, I'm putting myself out there, faults, story preferences, and all, for someone else to see and possibly judge.

When I started playing, I was faced with a dilemma. On one hand, I wanted to have that experience of learning as I went. I wanted to learn that trolls regenerate by having one I thought was dead attack me from behind. Those are some awesome stories to tell later. On the other hand, I was so afraid of disappointing my group by not knowing something. This lead me to take a back seat in the game, for the most part letting them make the decisions and just reacting to them. I felt I just didn't know enough about the game or its world to be useful beyond my dagger. Add on top of that the fact we were in a dungeon crawl environment with no appeal to me, and I almost gave up playing right then. In fact, one of the main reasons I didn't give up was that when I first started one of the guys in the group said it might happen and I didn't want to prove him right.

And that's why I suggested that sometimes it's good to leave the "dungeon" and introduce new players like me to a wider world of D&D, one that is closer to their own experiences or story preferences. If we had been playing a game that involved tracking down a pack of wolves who were terrorizing the town, I would have had more confidence in my ideas leading to a more active role in the game. As my confidence and trust in the group grew, we could have moved to other locales, ones I wasn't as familiar with, and I would have been more engaged and less stressed about learning so many new things at once. A lot of worry and anxiety might have never existed.

Anyways, those are my 2 cents on the matter.

NPCs of Newham Shire

What I love most about D&D are the stories I get to tell. In the course of my simple little campaign in Newham Shire, we explored quite a few plot lines, although not always to completion. In addition, my group collected a merry little band of NPCs who I absolutely love. I'd love to beg your indulgence as I share a few of them with you.

Hallomak Stromm
Ok, I didn't come up with the name. He is mentioned in the level 11 Dungeon Delve. For some god forsaken reason I decided to run that one for my brother as my second attempt at DMing. Hey when I go for something, I go for it. But the guys in my game wanted to learn more about poor Hallomak and so I made him a focal point of the start of my campaign.

Hallomak is a paladin of Melora. His family was named the guardians of Arcadia during the age of legend, before it was covered in ice by the gods. For 1500 years, they and their scribes painstakingly copied and recopied the lore books of the old world so that when they returned they would still have the knowledge of the ages of song and legend.

However, before they could return and take their rightful place as leaders of the land, one of the Darkmagics pieced together the location of Arcadia and returned early, founding Newham Shire and naming himself the rightful human ruler.

Hallomak is fine with this order of things. The truth is, not having to rule Newham gives him time to be its protector. He runs a school of agriculture, teaching sustainable agriculture to those who will listen. In addition, he has a side project creating a replacement for Ironwood in ship building. The importance of this project is heightened because the elves in the northern woods are getting upset at the humans who are logging those trees.

His wife though, did not see things this way, and she filled their son's mind with visions of grandeur. Because of this, Reginald joined up with the Free Arcadia Now (FAN) group and is the leader of the organization in Barmouth.

Dionysus Spriggan
Still one of my favorite encounters, we had the classic trolls under the bridge scene. Only they were spriggans. The PCs killed all of them but one, who they then interrogated. At one point the bard says he will let the spriggan live if he promises to live a good life. At that point, Dionysus was born. He readily replied that he would love to live the good life. Of course, his definition was a bit different from theirs. With that promise, they gave him a few gold from the treasure they collected and sent him off on his way.

A few weeks later, they found out what the merry little spriggan was up to. Turns out he always wanted to run his own bar, but his older brothers forced him into a life of banditry. He took the coins, scrounged up some building supplies and finally fulfilled his life's passion. He opened a bar, in the middle of the woods. Everyone is welcome so long as they respect the neutrality of the place.

Chompers
An early encounter involved a small number of burglars with guard dogs trying to break into Hallomak's house. The PCs woke up in the middle of the night and uncovered the attempt. They defeated the robbers and one of the two guard dogs, but the second one got away. The next morning they tracked down the dog and defeated its owner. At that point, the player of the halfling rogue, Finnan, asked if he could make the dog his, which I allowed with the caveat that he couldn't really attack. Hence, Chompers was born and he's been a great companion of the group ever since.

Well those are a few NPCs from our game. What are some of the favorites from yours?

Freshly Stocked for Your Enjoyment

The title of my last post, Death to the Dungeon, was meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek. I think dungeons should be in every dungeon master's toolbox, but I find it just as important to note that they should be one of many. The reason I have this on my mind is the excellent article by Robert Schwalb, "Reexamining the Dungeon." I don't intend this to be a reaction to his article. Rather, this is just where my mind wandered after reading his post.

My problem with most dungeons is that the way we create them often reinforces a disconnect between player and game. For some D&D players, dungeons are meant to be self-contained, isolated little bundles of XP and loot, playgrounds for the adventurers so they will stay out of town and stop annoying the locals. Heck, sometimes I wonder if the townspeople purposefully stock them with monsters just for that reason, but that's another post.

Likewise, I've found many people design dungeons by first laying out the rooms and passageways and then determining what should go into them. People tend to like their dungeons a bit on the large size, at least large enough to span 3 sessions or so. Too often, this means we either run into the problem of too much sameness, how many different orc groups can we have, or too much diversity and artificial separation, the zombies never go upstairs for a snack nor do they go down the hall to the goblin lair for one either. When the story is built around the dungeon, rather than the other way around, it can feel inorganic and forced. Leading to interplays like the following, Player: "Wait, how did 20 goblins survive down here with no food and water and traps too powerful for them to get out." DM: "There used to be 50."

I also worry that dungeons reinforce the feeling that players have very few options available to them, and, because of that, every choice counts. While a bit of this is important, when I play in a dungeon environment, my mind fills with this meta-game thinking. I become too scared to do anything lest it cause harm to the rest of my party. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that in many of the dungeons I've played in or read, the interactive points have just one right answer and a series of wrong ones. They often rely on my cleverness as a player rather than what my character would think or feel and not being clever enough means that my group loses out on something. Instead of exploring, I shut down and let the rest of the group take the lead, except they are just as nervous as I am and don't do it either.

I'm not saying that any of this is wrong for everyone or is inherent in everything that might be called a "dungeon." A lot of people like traditional dungeon design and people should play what they love. But, I do worry that sometimes we don't realize that dungeons, particularly to veteran gamers, have an implied method of play that is different from other environments. One that, at times, is counterproductive to the type of game experience we seek unless we've been trained to view them a certain way.

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

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