Nothing like a Playtest

During DDXP I had the honor of running an adventure I wrote for 3 groups of players. The experience was absolutely wonderful and I learned a ton from the process. My adventure was called "Dream a Little Dream of...Death." When I decided to run my own adventure, I decided I had a few goals:

  • I wanted people to have fun.
  • I wanted to encourage role-playing and exploration.
  • I wanted people's decisions to matter.

Overall, I reached these goals, particularly the first two. My groups all had fun. I heard they even told other people about how much fun they had, which was awesome for me. Beyond DM challenges, I haven't done anything like this so it was a good confidence boost. The fact that people could buy tickets specifically to play with me helped. Most of my players had an idea of who I was and what sort of game I was likely to run. That helped increase the probability that our play styles would match up.

Beyond that, I just listened to the table to see how serious or funny they wanted to be with the adventure. My first two groups were a bit more serious in how they wanted to play the adventure while my last group decided to have the knight wear bedazzled armor and order wine coolers from the barkeep. All the groups were a ton of fun for me to run and having them laugh during a rather dark game helped keep us all sane too.

So great, first goal done. How about role-playing and exploration? The easiest way to answer this is that all 3 groups spent an hour or two role playing during the first part of the adventure. This made my heart sing. I give a lot of credit to the players but also the story was an easy one to pick up and figure out what to do. The adventure had two layers to aid in role playing.

First, I set them up as members of the Rose Brigade, a special force in Arcadia's army that is tasked with protecting the nobility and raising the reputation of the military in the eyes of the common people. So as part of their PR duties, they often travel around and perform for crowds, turning the skills honed for the very serious art of war into something the average person would find entertaining and awe inspiring. So when we did the character introduction phase, I often asked them to describe how they might use their skills to entertain a crowd.

Second, the start scenario encourages role-playing. Their captain had received a number of letters from old military buddy Tomas detailing some of the events in Tranquility, namely the bad dreams and the recent spate of deaths. The captain sends them to investigate, offering them so rest and relaxation in the vacation town in exchange. When they get there, they find Tomas fairly quickly, only to find he's just been arrested for murder in connection with the deaths. From there, they need to investigate the deaths in hopes of freeing Tomas and bringing the real murderer to justice. This gives them lots of reasons to explore town, talk to some NPCs and make a wide variety of checks.

My last goal was to make people's decisions matter. I can't discuss this one without releasing some spoilers, so you've been warned. The Rose Brigade setup helps with this a bit, as long as they buy into it. Also, if they refuse to solve the murders, Tomas will be found guilty and put to death. Beyond those story elements, the biggest area with choices is the first encounter. The artillery creatures use the spirits of those who were murdered as "meat" shields against the PCs. The spirits have an aura of despair that causes a -1 saving throws for each spirit adjacent to the PC. So, they can decide to save the spirits, with a penalty to saving throws and the types of powers they can use or they can decide they don't care and take out the spirits. Overall I'm pretty happy with it.

Overall, running my adventure multiple times was a wonderful experience. After each one, I had a bunch of changes I wanted to make to it. Fortunately, the new DM screen has the damage by level numbers so I was able to quickly adjust at the table. For instance, the first time I ran it, the monsters in the first encounter had a lot of burst powers. The problem was that they would take out all of the ghost spirits which isn't something I really wanted the monsters to do. Now I can't wait for the next con where I can run it again and get some more feedback.

What I've been doing

So, I've been talking about work a lot lately, especially the launch of our new product. Well, it's time for it to become public. My company does a lot with online quizzes and we created a tool for companies to create apps, starting with quizzes, to engage with their audience. If you don't mind, try out the quiz and let me know what you think.

Gamma World Baseball (Rough Draft)

While they are still pretty rough, I wanted to post my current notes for baseball, Gamma World style. I hope they capture enough of the flavor of baseball while still being fun to play at the table, particularly for a group of strangers. The Wii Sports baseball game inspired me a bit to cut down the game to its essentials.

Gamma Terra is a rough place, much of the nuance and art of our baseball would be lost on its inhabitants. Instead, they took the basic rules of baseball and turned them into a full-contact, spectator sport.

* Team with the highest score at the end of the game wins.
* Game ends after 5 innings or when one side is out of hit points.
* All players on a team have one at bat per inning.

Batting: Roll to see the outcome of your at bat.

d20 (need to adjust for level):
2-4: Single
5-10: Double
11-16: Triple
17-19: Home Run
1: Strike out
20: Out of the park - Do not provoke opportunity attacks.

(Considering 3d6 here; need to determine how skills such as athletics, science and perception play in)

Base Running:
* You don’t have to go as far as your result allows. Each base you decide not to take increases your AC by 2 until the end of the inning. For instance, if you roll a triple, you can decide to stay at first base and gain a +4 to your AC.
* On your turn, passing a baseman provokes an opportunity attack.
* You may attack at any point during your run.

* Sliding (minor, 1/turn): Gone are the rules against spiking. You go for an extra base on your hit and get an extra basic attack. This maneuver provokes an opportunity attack (immediate reaction) from the baseman you are sliding towards and you are prone until the end of the turn.
* Sacrifice Bunt (part of hitting, consipracy check?): Your batting result is used to move a teammate already on base further along. He has all the same choices as if he had hit the ball. You do not get to go on base and you take the damage of any opportunity attacks his movement provokes.
* Stealing (trigger: start of batter's turn): You attempt to steal a base (stealth check). You provoke an opportunity attack from the baseman of the base you are leaving. You cannot steal a base that already holds a runner.

Switching positions: You may switch which base you cover but only at the start of the half-inning.

Things to think about:
* Can I do an opportunity attack each time a player leaves a base or is that too brutal? Maybe lower damage amount on them or have them do something other than damage?
* How does this look with 4 players? 5? 6?
* Do I need to make the decision of which team is home random?
* Do I let the players know that the second and third basemen probably will take the brunt of the hits?
* Do I get the crowd more involved?
* How do I add some combat advantage situations in here?
* How do I make burst and range powers make sense?

Some Pregens for DDXP

So I'm creating my pregens for my DDXP game, "Dream a little dream...of death." As usual, I'm probably putting way too much effort into these, but since it's a good way for me to just have fun, I think that's a good thing. When I created these, I didn't go for the most optimized character ever. I followed my own advice from Temporary Hit Points and worked on creating a character concept first and then picked what I thought best fit that story. That means Desmona is a knight even though she doesn't carry a shield and Alyth isn't a melee fighter even though the switch to using Dexterity instead of Strength for melee basic sets her up to be one.

Desmona (Level 4 Human Knight)

Desmona is a tall, muscular yet soft, woman with striking green eyes. She is an initiate into the Order of the White Oak, a mercenary knights guild. They require their knights to earn their shields by defeating a creature of pure evil, but the relative peace of the previous 20 years means she’s had a hard time finding a way to do so. She hopes the Lady of the Lake knows of a worthy challenge.

In the meantime, she attempts to comport herself as one of the heroes from the Age of Song. Without a shield, she’s convinced bigger weapons are better, and carries a greatsword. Besides, it was good enough for her grandfather and people in four towns know his name.

Base Stats: HP 47, Speed 6, Init +4, AC 21, Fort 22, Ref 14, Will 16
Abilities: Str 19 (+6), Con 14 (+4), Dex 10 (+2), Int 11 (+2), Wis 10 (+2), Cha 15 (+4)
Skills: Athletics +11, Diplomacy +9, Endurance +9, Intimidate +9
Powers: Defend the Line, Hammer Hands and Glowering Threat
Feats: Heavy Blade Expertise, Armor Finesse, Heavy Armor Agility, Superior Fortitude
Equipment: Vicious Greatsword +1, Flame Bracers (heroic tier), Fortification Plate Armor +1, Amulet of Protection +1, 5 Throwing Hammers

Alyth (Level 4 Elf Thief)

Even a land of milk and honey, such as Arcadia, has its share of seediness. Alyth grew up in the port district of the human city of Rhodes. Things weren’t always easy for her, but she used her elven talents to her advantage. By day, she and her brothers worked as shipbuilders with her taking on the tasks that required a bit of climbing and finesse. By night, they were little more than common thugs and thieves. Her specialty was robbing the houses of the rich, climbing up the tall “privacy” walls. Then carefully picking her way to the roof to find the often unlocked windows of the upper sleeping chambers.

All that changed one night when she was caught in the apartments of the fiancee of Lord Bryon’s son. Due to her youth and circumstances, she was given a choice. Spend the next 5 years in the city’s prisons or join the King’s army. She chose the latter, believing she could desert at the first opportunity. However her first commander was so nice and, as soon as he saw her talents and the way others responded to her, he recommended her for service in the the army’s demonstration squad, the Rose Guard. Her talents make her excellent at high wire acts and tumbling.

Base Stats: HP 38, Speed 7, Init +6, AC 19, Fort 13, Ref 19, Will 16
Abilities: Str 10 (+2), Con 11 (+2), Dex 19 (+6), Int 10 (+2), Wis 16 (+3), Cha 15 (+4)
Skills: Acrobatics +11, Bluff +9, Insight +10, Perception +12, Stealth +11, Streetwise +9, Thievery +11
Powers: Sneak’s Trick, Ambush Trick, Tumble, Acrobat’s Trick
Feats: Master at Arms, Hidden Sniper, Crossbow Expertise
Equipment: Delver’s Leather Armor +1, Safewing Amulet +1, Vicious Hand Crossbow +1, Catstep Boots, Short sword

Where's the beef?

Lately, I've heard a number of rumblings on Twitter and other places about the lack of this or that D&D content. This morning we had a discussion about the lack of concrete content in blogs and podcasts, how most of it consists of generalities and wishy-washy suggestions. I agree that this problem exists and, to be honest, I see it as a long term problem. Related to this lack of specifics is a general lack of debate. As a group, we are often afraid to create "in your face" controversy. Here are some of the problems I see with changing things and ideas for how we might improve.

Different meanings to different people

Creating content with some real meat to it is often difficult. For instance, my experience tells me that I need to sculpt encounters to appeal to my players and their characters' abilities. I've played with my guys long enough to know what that means for them. However, I have no idea what your group is like. With the number of play styles, group interactions, etc, coming up with actual tips is pretty difficult and quickly become niche. The problem with niche is that it only applies to a small number of people and the return on investment is very small. In the end, I think we just have to embrace niche, but it's scary to do, especially when people then complain that what I just spent my life energy on doesn't appeal to them and is useless.

Difficult to create

In addition, podcasts have the added hurdle of two distinct audiences. One audience wants to listen to it in the background. They don't want to have to pay attention. But the type of information we need to convey requires a much more active audience. To add to the pain, presentations without visuals are difficult for a fair number of people. Have you tried listening to a football game on the radio? At the end of the day, I know I don't know how to provide information in this format in an efficient manner. I'm willing to learn, but it will take me awhile.

Debate needed

We need to debate things. Through debate we often get to the crux of the issues. It requires us to spend resources and proves to ourselves and others what ideas we really care about. My posts on dungeons created some awesome and heart-felt responses. What's important to remember is being anti for the sake of it can easily backfire. But if you have an issue with something, open your mouth. Write an email to a the site (especially if it's not a personal blog) to see if they would be willing to post your rebuttal.

Participation society

Like open source, the D&D blog/podcast community is based on who participates. I produce content, some people seem to like it, and my role in the community increases. That is awesome because it lowers the barrier to entry. On the other hand, it doesn't mean that the people who rise to the top are the best at what they do or have the tools to provide everything to everyone. Don't like what you see? Create something you love. Talk to the people in the community you like about working on your dream project.

Opportunities abound

I mentioned niche earlier. One nice thing about blogs in particular is that they don't have the overhead of other forms of publication. Printed material needs to be, well, printed. Audio podcasts need to be edited. However, both blogs and podcasts have a low cost of distribution. This makes them great for niche. All it takes is time and love.

Anyway, that's how I see things. I have one wish for 2011 and that's people get out there create, tear down and talk about it all with passion and respect.

Epic Mickey

My in-laws were nice enough to give me Epic Mickey for Christmas this year. I heard good things about it from @ThadeousC and @MichaelRobles, so I decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did. Unlike other video games that I try once and put away, I go back to this game again and again.

Sweeping story arc, short tasks

One thing I enjoy about the game is that while it has a longer story arc and a number of long term quests, most of it is focused on short objectives. Find and turn the two gears, climb to the top of the clock tower, deal with two threats. In my busy life, it's hard to find more than a half-hour to an hour to play, so the short quests make me feel like I accomplished something. Then at the end of a chapter, I complete some of the longer term quests and feel even more satisfied.

Meaningful choices

We talk about this a lot in D&D land, but in the flurry of campaign design, it often gets lost or, at least for me, I try to let my players get everything they want. In Epic Mickey, you have to make choices that affect not only you, but the entire game world. In one scenario, I had to choose between a life and treasure. When it comes to "bad guys," I can try to knock them out and maybe push them into some terrain that will kill them or I can try to hit them with enough paint that they will like me. The latter tends to be much more dangerous for me, but I gain some protection if I can turn them. Recently, I had one of the random characters tell me that word on the street is that I'm a softie and that's not good in the Wasteland.

The tension between creation and destruction

When you play, you have two main tools at your disposal, paint and thinner. Paint repairs. Part of the bridge is missing? No problem, just paint in the missing part. But what may be done, may be undone with thinner. I have the most problems with this part of the game. I'm a creator and a builder and I often forget that wiping away can be as useful as building up. When I get frustrated with the game, it's usually because I forgot to give thinner a try.

That's where I'm at now. I really like the game. I think it's the perfect amount of challenge and I'm enjoying the story. Some of the interludes are great too. For instance, they have some great Steamboat Willie mini scenes in there.

The Importance of Storytelling

Deconstructing Powers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contest: The Winding Story

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

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

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

Contest: Swing and A Miss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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