I am writing this while on a bus to New York City to meet up with a friend I made while at Gen Con. While I'm excited about this trip for many reasons, one of the things I'm most looking forward to is the ability to just play. You see, my friend has a puppy. I've already warned him that I'm going to lose all sense of decorum for a moment while I play with the dog. It's not really my fault either; I get so few moments of pure child-like joy, that I need to take them where I can get them. I always feel refreshed and re-energized afterward.
So what does this have to do with gaming? Sometimes I'm afraid we are a bit too serious about our games. We box ourselves into viewing the game in one particular manner. Take for instance the number of people who refuse to view D&D as anything other than a Western-European, medieval fantasy game. Or the people who limit themselves only to the powers and skill manifestations listed on their character sheet or the player's handbook.
So to everyone out there, I say take a night off from the very serious campaign and have a night of pure play. Whether that takes the form of improvised weapons or something completely different, go out and just have fun. You might be surprised at what you discover.
Maybe it was Chris Sims's game at Gen Con. Or perhaps the fact the campaign setting has the right mix of lore to mystery for me. Then again it could be the fact my players asked when they could revisit Dark Sun (I ran Chris Tulach's Free RPG Day adventure for them). Regardless of the reason, I'm sold and am preparing a Dark Sun mini-campaign for when Newhamshire ends.
I have to admit I'm a little intimidated. True, I'm not a complete newbie at this. I created my own campaign world last year, or at least a rather loose framework of a world with lots of borrowed material to fill it in. It was so easy then as I really didn't know any better. My introduction to DMing was a lot like unceremoniously dumping me in the middle of the lake and telling me to swim to shore. I cared a lot less about proper form and stroke and a lot more about keeping my head above water and moving forward.
But now I know so much more. I won't start this adventure in a tavern and I won't make my players go through hoops to get their first quest. Oh, and I should probably add more quests instead of taking the lazy way out and giving them just one at a time.
My plan is to get them involved early, filling in the loose framework given in the Dark Sun book with the types of characters and stories they want to explore. I want to facilitate them telling the stories, with me doing the hard work of tying it all together, filling in the adversary stats, etc.
To help with this, I'm working on a series of vignettes. I'd really prefer to set the campaign in the city of Nibenay, a city ruled by a reclusive sorcerer-king and his Templar-wives and a decadent noble class who owns the water. So far I have three vague ideas for the city, each highlighting a different aspect of what I imagine life must be like there.
A newly captured slave who won't submit to her new "masters" after being sold in the slave market. Such a situation presents a bit of an issue for a city whose populace "expect[s] decorum in all things." For the lower classes, this means knowing one's place and for those in the higher classes it means remaining cool and indifferent.
Someone who refuses to accept this, particularly in public, brings these issues to the forefront. How does this play out? Are the buyers there or did they send agents to perform the sale? Is she made to submit in public or do they drug her to create less of a scene? What do the PCs do when they see this? How do they feel about their actions or inactions?
The official government, in the form of the Templars, is run by women. The sorcerer-king Nibenay is a recluse, although Kalak's assassination concerns him a bit. The Nibenese nobility, the descendants of the once powerful warlord caste, are very wealthy and decadent. From the little information available in the book, it feels like the noble families are run by men. It's also likely that the fortunes do not get divided equally amongst all children, or else the wealth would be too wide spread.
If we go by these assumptions, what of the younger male children of the nobles? The inheritance goes to their older brothers and only their sisters have the chance of becoming Templars. Yet they probably have some wealth and prestige along with a burning desire to stay in the upper echelon of society.
The tension between the nobles and Templars is obvious, but I wonder about the other people of the city. They live in a very wealthy city, one where the tales of the past surround them, carved into the walls of the buildings instead of squirreled away in books. Some are bound to be tired of seeing their friends and relatives used as playthings of the rich nobles while the Templar-wives, the keepers of order, do little more than watch or perhaps avert their eyes.
One way to change this reality is to start secret schools hidden among the winding, narrow streets. Teach the children the evils of excess and give them basic skills to improve their situation. Find the children who have natural talents, whether psionic or arcane, and help them grow and learn or point them in the direction where they can get that assistance. Perhaps there is a Templar or two who is willing to sneak them some books from the royal compound. The schools could be part of the Veiled Alliance or not. They could work passively through education or decide to take a more active role bringing down the nobility.
Hopefully this start will encourage my players to think about what sorts of characters they want to play and help them build a connection to the city. I can't wait to start exploring.
Last week I got a real treat, the chance to run the new D&D Red Box game for my table. As you can imagine, the Essentials announcement had a few of the group members on edge. They are veterans of the older edition wars and sometimes express their bitterness over the 3/3.5 changes. While I could come back from Gen Con and tell them about how Essentials really wasn't 4.5, I knew the only way they would understand it was if they actually got to play it. So when I suggested that we run Red Box instead of our normal campaign, they were all in.
Their first request was that they create their own characters, using paper and pencil. They wanted to go through the solo adventure and build their character that way. While it led to a slow night of gaming, they had a lot of fun with it. This way of building a character was a little different for them but they enjoyed it.
If I could make one suggestion, it would be to include a short cut version, even if it's only available online. I had the pre-gens from Gen Con we could use, but they all wanted to create their own. Each character took about half an hour to create. One of them wanted an old-school experience and rolled for his scores, 4d6 drop the lowest, in order. While doing this is likely something someone brand new is unlikely to try, it would be nice to support it since part of the appeal of Red Box is the nostalgia factor.
New Character Sheets
One of the first things they commented on was the new character sheet. When I handed a sheet to each player, one of them asked where the rest of it was. That's right, the sheets are now 1 page. In fact, the solo adventure references just writing the information down on a scrap piece of paper if desired. My husband has been complaining about this for years now so I'm glad to see it addressed. If you want to see an image of the new sheet, Games HQ has one as part of their unboxing.
But there is more to the change that just the number of pages. Skills are now listed beneath the corresponding ability score. All those funny little boxes are streamlined to just two, your misc modifiers and the overall check modifier that you would use. If I had this sheet when I started out, it would have made so much more sense.
In addition the page is divided into three vertical sections, abilities and scores, combat statistics and character info like class, race, languages, and notes. The top portion of each column lists the info you are most likely to need during the game.
In addition to character sheets, the box provides cards for each class's abilities and powers and the magic items found in the adventure. This keeps the character sheet nice and clean and means no messing around with a printer and scissors. The only downside to these cards is that they are a bit flimsy and I ripped a few as I tore them out of the stock.
Given how long character generation took, we didn't get much in the way of gaming that night. It was nice that they already knew the basics of the story and so I didn't have to point them in a particular direction or anything. The first encounter, which was devastating at Gen Con, was pretty easy for my group, but they know how to work well together. On my side of the screen, running the adventure didn't change at all.
Different Skill Challenge Organization
The other thing I want to mention about Red Box is something they haven't gone through yet but I noticed during Gen Con. The skill challenge format is much changed and, in my opinion, much improved. I'll admit I was wary of the change when I first saw it. But then again I had fewer than 12 hours before I had to run it and some of that time had to be spent sleeping. When I pointed out the difference to Chuck Arnett, he said something along the lines of "Interesting, isn't it?"
Once I got over that though, I fell in love with it. First, there is a whole section on how to roleplay the NPC with usable information about how the NPC would act and react. In addition, it details ways to deal with each failure, giving the players clues that the accumulated failures are making the NPC unhappy.
It recommends that the DM "[t]ry to keep the skill challenge flowing like normal conversation." To aid this, it suggests the DM encourage the players to get into character, describing what the character does as it interacts with the NPC. It describes three ways the PCs might try to interact with the NPC and how different skills might help the PCs achieve their goals. In addition, it explains why the DCs are different for different checks and also states that different characters may want to use a different strategy during the challenge. Great advice for all DMs, regardless of their experience level and something I was pleased to see.
I'll discuss more about the Red Box as we play through the adventure, but the character sheets and change to skill challenge layout were things I just had to mention straight away. I can't wait to see what other goodies await in the Essentials series. So far the judgment of my players is that this is no 4.5.
1 - Ha, a footnote! I have to show my appreciation to Chuck ( @wotc_chuck ). I saw him the Wednesday night of Gen Con when I was, well, freaking out about having to run Red Box the next morning. I looked like I was cramming for a really hard exam and he noticed. He was very patient with me and suggested that I streamline the adventure a bit to make it easier for me to run. I would have been so afraid to make a decision like that on my own and I think he really saved a large portion of my Gen Con experience from potential ruin. Thanks again!
Saturday was the Dark Sun World Wide Game Day. I have to be honest and say I almost didn't go in for it. Between Gen Con, con crud, writing a ton, my podcasts, not to mention my real life, I was a bit worn down. But my friend Jason ( @neldar ) told me they could use players and so I signed up for the noon slot and I'm so glad I did.
I knew it was the right choice as soon as Jason placed the pre-gens down on the table. Expecting the normal 1 or 2 female characters, I had decided to let the other woman at the table pick her character first. However, when I saw that there were 3 female characters (out of 6) and that one of them was a goliath barbarian gladiator, I had to claim that one. Fortunately the rest of the table was ok with the grab and I spent the next 5 minutes determining who she was.
It was obvious right away that she was strong, both in body (20 strength) and internal fortitude (16 constitution). She was trained in athletics, endurance and the ability to intimidate. My guess is that she makes quite the opponent in the arena.
Not only did she have the skills to survive in the arena, she was a bit of a showman (14 charisma) which translated to her scoffing at her enemies when they missed and her declaring herself king of the mountain after she caused the perched bowman to flee.
Beyond that, the rest of the ability scores told me she was decent at dodging and moving (12 Dex) but wasn't great at matters of wisdom and intellect (8 and 10). I did decide that she must have some knowledge of tactics given that she lived long enough to see level 4.
The adventure itself was very challenging, just the way a Dark Sun adventure should be. Luck played a big role in our survival as did our tactics. My poor barbarian went unconscious once and was brought back to life by a very tasty piece of fruit. And the tembo didn't have much of a chance when I rolled a crit on my Avalanche Strike power (6d6+11 damage which came after a decent use of my daily for a total of 66 points of damage in one round). When we finally killed the beast, my barbarian claimed the hide for her own.
In the end, everyone at my table survived and our poor DM looked a little sad that we had brutalized his monsters. I had so much fun playing that when I came home, I announced to my husband that I had won at D&D. This amused him greatly. But the truth is, I did feel as though I had won, at least against Athas.
Some of my tweets from the game:
- Yes I provoked a marked target just to watch him die. :)
- This archer is pissing me off. Time to climb the rocks and make him cry. At least it would have been if I didn't roll 2 twice :)
- Archer thought he was clever and tried to launch into an awesome jump attack. I am king of the mountain now!
- Ok dice, I hope the 1s and 2s are out of your system now. Time to kick some ass!
- Looks like an arena to me. http://yfrog.com/18snwj then again everything looks like one to me
- Stupid hobbler pinned me to the ground with his javelin. Pulled it out and returned it. Missed but damn did that feel good
- Barbarian just ravaged the tembo for 66 points of damage. AP & Crit on avalanche strike 6d6+11. But I've let my guard down a bit as a result
- OH: Player: oh I'm no longer bloodied DM: yeah hold that thought
- Got ravaged by that tembo in return. But the leather will make a nice addition to my wardrobe.
- OMG is the barbarian really going to try to be the diplomat?
- Well my hammer says me own this now! Take it if you dare!
- Ha your weak attacks are meaningless against me. Taste my hammer and then eat earth! (hammer fall)
- Our ardent gave me a free melee basic. Killed that challenger and charged the Templar. Hammer struck a ringing blow (21 dmg)
- Harried the templar (go with the flow) and made him spend his action point to shift again. That sucker is mine!
Starting at 8 am on Thursday, I had just 76 hours to give to GenCon. Due to scheduling constraints, my husband and I had to leave Indianapolis by noon on Sunday. In this time, I had to sleep, eat, play games, hang with friends, and network. As it was, I had so little time to do everything I wanted to do, and yet I gave 10 of those precious hours to the RPGA. Some of my friends have asked me why and I'd like to answer their questions here.
I've received numerous kindnesses from members of the D&D community, especially from RPGA members. I met Mark ( @AsmodeusLore ) at PAX East and he encouraged me to ask Wil Wheaton and Scott Kurtz for their autographs and shared in my excitement when they signed my DMG. He also encouraged me to run some games that weekend, particularly the DM Challenge. And he was kind enough to put my husband and I up for a night during our great GenCon road trip.
Marcel ( @Mudbunny74 ) and Dustin ( @WolfStar76 ) are both my go-to community guys whenever I have a question about online D&D resources. Both have encouraged me to become more active in the community and in the RPGA. Dustin is the person who threw me to the delves when my learn to play group finished early, giving me the confidence I needed to give it a shot.
These are just three of the people who've nudged me to give public play a try. And I know that by participating and running games, I'm paying forward that kindness to others. I'm reminded each time I run that not everyone has a home group, at least not one that will play 4th edition. During PAX East, I heard a number of people waiting in line express that this was their only chance to play for the foreseeable future. Giving a little over 10% of my time to make that happen doesn't seem like that much of a sacrifice to me.
Leveling My Game
War often changes the cultures of those involved in interesting ways. Back when travel was difficult and information scarce, war provided one of the few opportunities for large-scale cultural exchanges. The crusaders brought back technologies and spices from the Middle East just as G.I.s returned with a love of tiki drinks and pizza.
Fortunately, war is not the only mechanism for such exchanges. While many of us play with just one or two home groups at a time, the running and playing games with the RPGA gives us the opportunity to play with many different people in a short time span. Only after experiencing a number of different players, from different backgrounds, is it possible to grok what the different play styles mean and how they influence game play.
Besides, I love analyzing how other people play or run games and see what ideas I can steal from them. And I love it when someone tells me that they are going to steal an idea from me. While the Internet is a great forum for information exchange, nothing can replace seeing it in person, being able to interact with it and have a conversation right there about it.
The RPGA is a real community and they are very welcoming of those willing to spread the love of the game. In addition to these highly personal perks, tangible rewards are often given as well, everything from books to passes to hotel rooms.
So, that's why I give time to the RPGA even during my first GenCon. I hope you'll consider volunteering as well.
I mentioned on Twitter today that when I first started playing, I almost went with a male character instead of a female one. Someone replied that he knows a woman who refuses to play anything but a male character. This preference confuses him a bit and he asked the reasons why I had the same initial preference. 140 characters are a bit too few to explain my reasons completely (particularly when I'm in the middle of a game) so I wanted to explain a bit more here. I want to warn my readers in advance though, this isn't a pleasant topic and I'm going to show a bit of my soul here. I can't tell you that any other woman has these same reasons; I can only attempt to explain myself.
My parents raised my brother and I in about as gender neutral of an environment as one can get. I got matchbox cars as well as dolls as presents and the only reason they were concerned about me playing sports was due to my heart condition. My brother and I had the same chores and I often was my dad's helper on construction projects.
Most of my town, however, didn't show the same outlook. I was told my love of sports was a phase that I would soon outgrow. When I wanted to play basketball against the wishes of the boys in my class, I was offered the position of cheerleader. When I brought out the classroom ball, the boys attempted to take it away from me and dragged me across the playground. I was told that as a girl I should have known better and just let them have it.
All of this resulted in me hiding my gender for much of my youth. Since only boys were allowed to do the things I loved, I took on the look of a boy. I had my mother cut my hair as short as she could bear it and wore boys clothes. Of course, this confused many adults and some of my classmates, but to me it made perfect sense. Of course, this was in elementary and middle school. By the time I hit high school, I had convinced enough people through sheer force of will that I didn't have to do this anymore and could just be myself.
Beyond this highly-personal learned behavior, when I play, I don't want to feel like the girl of the group. I don't want the male players or characters to feel like they need to heal the girl over anyone else or to protect her from the evils of the world. Many guys are more than willing to treat me as an equal, but when I'm in a group of people I don't know, I like the neutrality of playing a male character.
No easy way exists to discuss this topic. For a subset of players, and I think it's actually a really small minority, playing a fantasy game like D&D brings out their dark side. I'm well acquainted with how dark things can get, although I haven't had it happen to me at the table.
When I was in middle school, honors students were given passes that allowed them to go outside early during lunch and study hall, without adult supervision. I loved this as it gave me an opportunity to play sports. However, boys that age aren't always nice, and for months I had to undergo a number of tortures, everything from pretty detailed descriptions of what some of the boys wanted to do to my mother to threats, by some of them, that they were going to rape me in the woods by the school.
One day they finally broke down my will and my cousin could see I was upset during class. After I told him what was going on, he convinced me to tell the principal. So here I am, in 7th or 8th grade explaining to my male principal the bullying I was undergoing. After he heard my story, he told me that the only way he could do anything was if I repeated my allegations in front of my tormentor. Except it wasn't really in front, he sat the boy next to me. The end result was the boy got two days of in-school suspension and, while the overt sexual tone decreased, the bullying got worse.
Now, I know there are many wonderful men who would never do anything like this. And I have enough wisdom now to know that this was more about power than sex. But I always have that fear when I meet a new group of guys. So, at least in my mind, playing a male character is a protection mechanism against this darker part of society. It may not be fair and it might not even work, but it is what it is.
So those are the two main reasons why I might prefer playing male characters to female ones and, to a large degree, why gender issues are so important to me.
I can't believe the amount of time that has elapsed since I last wrote one of these. However, I'm ecstatic about breaking this drought by talking about Robert Schwalb's blog.
From the start of my D&D "career", I've heard wonderful things about this man. I followed with glee the tweets and blog posts of those who were lucky enough to meet him. He's a prolific writer and while I try to read everything he writes, I still have a lot of catching up to do. And his blog is making this even more difficult. Recently I've felt like I should take down my little shingle and just direct people to his posts because they are that good.
Not only are his posts full of good advice, he lets his own personality shine through. He talks about his fears, his gratitude, his weaknesses, his industry and his preferences. Whenever I see that he has a new post up, I feel compelled to stop what I'm doing and read it. His productivity is hurting mine.
- Ask Doctor Evil - Rob let's his dark side out and invites us to ask him anything
- Gnomes, Gnomes, Gnomes - A behind the scenes look at his recent DDI article about gnomes and why even small creatures can generate a long articles
- Austrian Pineaples - Getting the gang together on a regular basis is hard.
- Lighting Cigars with Dollar Bills - Some great (hard-won) advice on being an RPG freelancer
- Spit & Polish: Old Monsters Return - Rob professes his love of creating monsters and brings back the Anaxim Battleguard.
I hope you give his site a try and enjoy it as much as I have!
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 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?
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.
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?