A Map to the Minefield - Kobold Guide to Game Design Volume 3

As someone who blogs about RPGs, especially from a new person's perspective, I constantly feel like I'm navigating a minefield without a map. Like any industry, it's filled with its own language, customs and tribes. If you have any opinion at all, you're likely to upset someone.

So what does this have to do with volume 3 of the Kobold Guide to Game Design? Like the other volumes in the series, this one helps to demystify certain dark elements of the game design world, the parts that create the wall between the producer and the consumer. For this reason alone, the series is an important read for anyone who wishes to participate in the discussion of game design.

A few sections of this volume really stand out for me though. In particular, I loved the section on Collaboration and Design. Wolfgang Baur takes on the tricky issue of ego in game design. Ego is necessary to design worlds and games. Without it, we couldn't create and put forth our ideas; we couldn't be gods in our lands. The tricky bit is acknowledging that and knowing how and when to turn it off. For collaboration, learning that skill is a necessity.

Another great section is the Gamers' Social Contract on p. 67. The whole chapter, Myths and Realities of Game Balance, is quite good, but every player and GM should read that section. No amount of rules or guidelines can create a balanced game the way a trusting group can. It's a position I've been advocating since I started playing, but I could never put it as well as Monte Cook.

As with the previous volumes, I learned a lot about the industry by reading this work and they have made me a better DM. I highly suggest it to everyone out there with even an inkling of desire to participate in the industry, whether actively designing or joining the conversation.

Know When to Fold'em

This is going to be the first post in a blog carnival. The rules are simple:

1. Your post must be on topic.

2. The first person in the list of bloggers who are participating who replies to each post will be responsible for writing the next piece. (Don’t reply if you are not ready to write it with in the next 24 hours.)

3. You must add a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at the end of your post.

4. No name calling.

As a DM, I don't like the restriction that creatures above the level of the PCs can't exist or be known to players and PCs alike. It stretches the imagination and story beyond reasonable breaking points. What happens as they level, do the appropriate monsters just spring into existence when necessary, with no history or connection with the current location? How do players and their PCs set goals, experience the bitterness of defeat and the joys of a hard-fought and unassured victory?

On the other hand, I know that as soon as many players hear about a big bad guy, they want to go after him. To quote Jim Darkmagic, "Can I roll to kill Irontooth?" Some players are going to be drawn to the creature, regardless of the likelihood of success, and are going to be frustrated if they can't defeat it.

So what does this mean for our worlds? The answer is that we have to change our definitions victory and defeat. For many of us, the iconic victory is one of defeat in battle, the blood of our enemy upon our sword, the triumphant final blow that tells the world that we are the winners. After all, that is the heroic way, right?

While the decisive victory can be exciting, if it comes too easily, the satisfaction is short-lived. Besides, some players enjoy a good bit of intrigue as much as a hard-fought battle. Perhaps the beloved nephew of the big bad guy just joined the lower ranks and the PCs hear about his location and can kidnap him. Maybe the PCs learn of a nearby brigand weapons cache and steal the goods and lay waste to the plans of a surprise attack. Through these story lines, the PCs can win smaller victories against their enemy and make him weaker as they get stronger.

So, fill your world with monsters of all levels, don't hide them from the players, but be sure they have plenty of level-appropriate victory conditions. Acknowledge that they will transfix on whatever you tell them, so be clear when something might be above their heads and give them the tools that will lead to success down the road. Not only will your stories seem richer, the satisfaction of the win will be longer lasting.

Posts related to this Blog Carnival.
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Announcing the Unofficial Monster Builder Manual

As a DM, I use the Monster Builder quite a bit, for everything from searching for the perfect beasties to put into my encounter to changing a monster's level. In the past, I've been frustrated by the lack of information and guidance on how to use the tool. Heck, it took me awhile to figure out how to add the powers from one monster to another. I figured I couldn't be the only person frustrated and some of my recent conversations confirmed my suspicions. So I decided to fill that void and my unofficial Monster Builder Manual is the result.

I'll admit, it could use some more work. However, I also wanted to get the information out sooner rather than later. So feel free to give it a read and let me know what you think. I'd also like thank some of the people who helped provide support, review and editing assistance during the project.

My hope is to keep this updated whenever changes are made to the Monster Builder and to add more guidance about the art of monster creation. Maybe, if this gets good enough, we can convince Wizards of the Coast to host this, or something like it, in a more centralized location where everyone can easily find it.

Pre-Gens and Reskinning

Yesterday, I came across an article called Is D&D Encounters Sexist? Intrigued by the article title, I read it and agreed with most of it. However, it was one of those moments of, "Well, yeah, that sort of thing bothers me too, but I understand the economic and social realities Wizards of the Coast has to work within." Then I made the mistake I often make and read the comments. The comments riled me a bit and when I was still upset a few hours later, I decided to tweet about it. I tried to be as level-headed as I could and wrote, "Ugh, saying the lack of female pre-gens isn't a problem because you can reskin them misses the point."

A fair number of people noticed and spoke about the lack of female pre-gens, and that was to be expected. I heard lots of reasons why there would be a lack of them, everything from the low percentage of female players to the social and economic realities Wizards of the Coast needs to work within. As a woman who both works and plays in male-dominated industries and hobbies, I've made my peace with most of these reasons. That's not to say that I don't get upset by them, but rather, that I'm intimately familiar with them and try to ignore them. What really bothered me, were two things, the remarks about feminism and reskinning.

When I bring up issues like the lack of strong female characters, or in some cases, any female characters, it's not part of some big feminist agenda. I understand that political correctness has quite a few people, especially men, on their toes. But when I mention these things, it's in hopes of finding books and games I might enjoy, commiserating with allies and, perhaps, indicating to others that there might be a market for such things. Stating that including more female characters isn't what feminism is about seems dismissive of my feelings. I really don't care about feminism in this case. What I care about is showing up to the table and having a good chance of picking up a character that I will feel a connection with. If I can do that, you are more likely to have me return. And since gender is one of the primary ways we identify ourselves, if not the primary, the lack of female characters is going to make people like me feel a little left out. I'm used to that feeling but please don't make it worse by talking about feminist theory.

The other part that really bothered me was this comment:

D&D is also a game run by a DM, not by a corporation. Your DM has the ability to change whatever she wants. Make the story your own; make the characters your own.

While I agree that DMs and players should feel empowered to change the characters however they wish, saying that it's no big deal to reskin our characters misses the point. If reskinning gender was a true neutral, then the addition of more female characters to the mix wouldn't be an issue. If there were more men in the group, then they could change some of the female characters to be male or decide to play them as they are. But the reality is that, at least in the U.S., gender identity is a huge deal and asking men to reskin characters is not ideal. As a result, female gamers are asked to do the work instead, largely because they are both a minority and less likely to complain about the situation. These are the real issues at play, either consciously or subconsciously, and acting like they don't exist feels like a slap in the face to me. I don't expect a big company like Wizards of the Coast or even my DM to cater to my every whim, but please, let's at least acknowledge the realities of the world.

So, how can we make things better? For a program such as D&D Encounters, providing more characters with a greater variety would be great. I know in Season 1 they allowed people to create their own characters as well, and they hinted they will do that in the future, but this solves only a small part of the issue. Part of D&D Encounters is about bringing new people to the gaming table. Many of these new people will be the ones relying on the pre-gens so not having interesting and diverse pre-gens for them to play will still be an issue. Another possibility would be to leave age, name and gender blank for some if not all of the characters. This means the cards would not look as cool as they do now, since character portraits would be hard to do, but it might help make some groups feel more welcomed.

As a side note, I know this is a controversial topic and extends beyond gender into other issues of identity such as race and sexual orientation. As a white, heterosexual woman, I only feel comfortable discussing matters of gender. Also, I want to acknowledge that every woman is different and I, by no means, mean to speak for my gender. I'm just a girl, with a blog, who loves to play D&D. :)

Edit: The author of the module responded on his blog.

Playing D&D Over Skype

Thanks to some great guys including my friend Sam, I was able to play in my first 4th edition D&D Skype game. I had a really great time. Being able to play with a bunch of people I met on Twitter made me really happy, even if it meant staying up to 2:30 a.m. on a work night. Between this experience and the awesome OD&D skype game I'm in, I'm over my hesitations regarding online gaming and may even try DMing a game soon. While I don't have a ton of experience yet, here are a few tips I've picked up along the way.

  • Expect the first few sessions to be a little awkward, especially if no one really knows each other and they are new to the tools. Many of us tend towards the introverted and shy side, and without the visual cues to signify all is well, we take a little longer to get over those. We didn't suffer from this too much in my OD&D game because most of us had met at least one other player in real life. In fact, I'm probably the most shy and even I had a joke or two during my first session. The lack of visual cues also makes conversation a bit more difficult. However, even professional podcasters sitting in the same room with each other will talk over one another and you will too. Just relax and enjoy the game.
  • The tools are good, but they are not perfect. In both games, we use skype for audio and another program for the visuals. For the OD&D game, we use Gametable, in part because the most we really need is the ability to show an overland map and a whiteboard to draw a rough sketch of any important areas. For the 4e game, we used d20Pro. Generally, it's a good idea to have the DM run the visual utility and another player, preferably one with a wired Internet connection, host the skype call.
  • Try to minimize background noise. I'm really fortunate here in that we have a guest bedroom/former home office for me to disappear into, but not everyone has that luxury. Computer mics have a habit of picking up lots of background noise, everything from the television to typing to fans. You won't be able to hear the noise you make, but you can keep watch on the skype call list to see what sort of sound level your mic is picking up. Also, if you have an external stand mic and it is picking up a hum, it's possible that the table is vibrating the mic. Put something under the mic to absorb some of the vibration, like a washcloth or towel. Finally, try not to breathe directly into the mic. Save that for prank calls.

As for last night's session, my illusionist wizard, Madeline, kicked ass. I tend towards playing higher charisma characters so my shyness definitely hurt me at the beginning of the game. But once we got to combat, my tactical side took over and I was fine. Madeline let the big boys in her party take the brunt of the damage at the beginning of the combat, but worked her way through a fair number of the enemies. At the end, she used Guardian Blades to create a protective buffer and walked right up to the remaining zombie minion. She then used one of her ranged spells to attack the boss. The zombie jumped at the opportunity to go after the squishy target, missed, and was cut to pieces for his trouble. I might have left an impression with that move. She was my first controller character. Since I tend to play strikers or defenders, changing my mindset was a little frustrating but the tactical challenges offered more than made up for it. I hope I get to play a similar character sometime in the future.

Customizing a Monster with Monster Builder

I've been using Monster Builder a while to do basic customizations to monsters, adjusting level, removing powers, etc. However, I couldn't figure out how to easily add powers to a monster, especially ones that existed for other monsters. I discussed this with Jeff Greiner of the Tome Show the other day and he shared that bit of knowledge with me. Figuring that I can't possibly be the only person who didn't know how to do it, I decided to write a brief tutorial here. If you don't already have it, the Monster Builder is part of the Adventure Tools available on the Wizards of the Coast website.

Step 1: Edit an existing monster

Pick a monster to edit. In this case, I want to make a dwarf fire archer, so I picked the closest one I could find, "Dwarf Bolter"

Step 2: Edit basic info

Edit the basic information, such as monster name and level.

Step 3: Edit powers

Since I wasn't going to use the crossbow and aimed shot powers, I deleted them. Then I found appropriate powers to add. First, let's add the longbow.

To do this, we'll need to open up the monster power list. On the right hand side, click on the sword image to get the power list. You can narrow down the options by using the filters:
Name:The name of the power.
Type:The type of attack such as ranged, melee, etc.
Action:The type of action, such as standard, minor, move, etc.
Usage:The recharge of the power, such as at-will, encounter, etc.
Additional search options are available by click on the down arrow next to "Power Comes From." These options help you limit powers to certain monsters.
Monster Name: The name of the monster
Monster Role: The monster's group role, such as artillery.
Monster Keyword: A keyword associated with the monster.
Monster Origin: The monster's origin, such as shadow.
Min. Level: The minimum level of the monster.
Max. Level: The maximum level of the monster.
Leader: Whether or not the monster is a leader.
Source: Where the monster was published, such as the Monster Manual.

Once you find the power you want to add, drag it from the list on the right hand side to the monster power list on the left.

The longbow power was pretty easy to search for, but I want the monster to shoot flame arrows. I used the advanced search options to help find something with ongoing fire damage. Looking through the list, Burning Arrow looks like what I want, so I drag it over to the power list.

Now I can just make a few edits if I want, like giving it a new name. It even automatically adjusted some of the numbers for me. You'll always want to sanity check it to be sure, but it's a handy feature.

Cassidy FTW

Last night was Cassidy's first Fellowship of the Tweet adventure. We had a great session with @NewbieDM as, well, the DM. Due to people's schedules, the game starts around my normal bed time, but I am more than willing to make the sacrifice to play with this group. Fortunately my shyness didn't last too long although my computer started to hate me as we neared midnight.

So far, playing OD&D has helped me understand a bit more about 4e which is really great. During the post adventure conversation last night I made the point that one of my problems with many of the 4e books, particularly the DMGs, is that there is a lot of assumed knowledge in them. For someone like me, who doesn't have 30 years experience playing and running D&D, it can be really hard to grok what they are trying to say, especially since so much of the advice is pretty abstract. For instance, I would love a basic tutorial on how to create a monster, what guidelines, math-wise, go into creating new attack and utility powers, and things like that. I'm a coder; I could go through and compare a bunch of them to see what overall math they are trying to get, but I'm also lazy and don't want to do that much work.

While I'm having fun with the adventure, I really miss the way magic is handled in 4e. This 2 spells per adventure/day thing is a bit of a drag. :) On one hand, it means that I reserve them and try to bring them out when they really count. For instance, in our first fight of the day versus two hobgoblins, Toma, one of our dwarves, was hit early for 7 damage. Afraid that the next round might be a bit much on the dwarf, I went in and healed him for 3, putting myself in melee range. On the other hand, it can lead to a lot of, "Well, if we are willing to wait a day, I can prepare a spell tomorrow that will let me clear that water right up and we can see if there is anything down there." I need to wait a whole day? I guess that's better than potentially not knowing the spell at all, but I prefer the 4e way.

Overall, I'm really glad I'm in this game, mostly because of the great group of guys I get to play with. Hopefully we'll be able to keep it going and I won't be as shy in future adventures. For now, I'm still feeling out what I can get away with in the conversation, which seems to be a lot. Great job guys and thanks again NewbieDM for running an awesome game! Hopefully the audio will get released soon, and you'll be able to hear Cassidy's moment of the game, near the end of the session. If it doesn't get released, I'll write it up here. Let's just say things are often darkest before the dawn.

Cassidy, a Priestess of Apollo

My last post centered on the crunch of Cassidy, my 3rd level cleric for @NewbieDM's red box game. In this one, I'll explain a bit of her flavor and backstory. I know it's a cliche but actually, I'm writing to show how I create characters, since this is the process I use for both my PCs and NPCs.

Usually I start off with a concept of some sort, usually a few words that express what I really desire for the character. In this case, I want to play a pretty feminine character. I figure the guys in the group can handle it and such a character would be a good counterpoint to the darkness that is almost fundamental to Red Box D&D. I have a strange quirk in that when there is a lot of lightness and mirth, I will want to go dark and when things are too gritty, I want to go light. Usually I sum it up as I bring order to chaos and chaos to order. In addition, I didn't want to be tied to upholding the laws, so I really want a neutral character. My issue with playing lawful characters is that too often players will tend towards the medieval, favoring chivalry. I find this great for male characters, but a bit limiting for female ones. I don't think it will come up in this game, yet I have an aversion to the whole thing. I'm sure I'll play a lawful character eventually, but for now, I'd prefer to be neutral.

My initial thoughts led me towards a druid-like character, but the rules make that really hard. I'm the only healer and if healing is necessary during a dangerous situation, I can't afford to take a hit. So I scratched the wild child idea pretty quickly. Still, I had to determine how to follow a cause and still be fairly neutral. Not wanting to just steal gods from later D&D editions, I started thinking about the Greek pantheon. Right away I thought of Apollo and as I read the Wikipedia article, I became more convinced. He hits all the things I wanted in my character, prophesy, healing, music and the arts. In addition, he's known to bring both disease and cure, sounds fairly neutral to me. I also like his association with Dionysus, which I might have chosen as my deity if it wasn't a bit over the top.

Now that I someone for her to worship and follow, I needed a way to demonstrate it. Apollo is known for his lyre and music. What better way to show her devotion than to have her play an instrument of her own? I'm sure she doesn't play it wonderfully, but she'll carry it where ever she roams and her natural charm will get her a crowd. Since we're not following the skill rules, the process of getting her the play instrument skill was simple, I just asked my DM. He agreed and now I have something distinctive about my character. She's a bit of a bard and cleric, a perfect combination for someone who worships Apollo.

With those things squared away, all that remains is a bit more character back story. To play up the Apollo and Dionysus angle, she has a twin sister who is an acolyte of the latter. In fact, most of her family favors the Dionysian side of the equation, which is part of the reason she left home. Her orders are to travel the world for the next few years to learn about as many bits of culture and art as she can. Besides, many can use her healing powers and the older members prefer not to travel that much. She'll favor reason and civilization over instinct and primal concerns but with her background she can't help but have moments of pure emotion.

I'll develop the rest of the backstory over time, usually through interplay with the rest of the group. Since she's a PC, I went a bit deeper than I would with most NPCs. I can't wait to play her on Tuesday.

Giving Red Box a Try

Even though I swore I wouldn't play anything other than 4e, I'm giving the original Red Box a try. The truth is the game mechanics still make me weep, at least so far, but my fellow players are awesome and I really want to play with them. They're promising me a good time and I have no doubt that they will deliver.

Obviously the first thing I needed to do was roll up my character. My DM, @NewbieDM, gave me permission to change my ability scores a little, if necessary, to make a cleric work. With that in mind, I rolled my 3d6 in order from top to bottom. The rolls actually weren't too bad with the notable exception of Strength: Str 8 Int 10 Wis 12 Dex 14 Con 13 Cha 13. Sure, I wish my strength and wisdom were just a tad bit higher so I could wipe out that -1 penalty to attack and damage and I could get 5% more XP. But then I remember it's balanced out by lowering my AC by 1 with dex, an additional hit point with her constitution, and perhaps the ability to hire an extra loyal helper or two with her charisma. Besides, if I fudge the numbers too much, I won't be able to complain as much later when she dies.

Next up, determine hit points. If I remember correctly from the audio recording of the first game, the DM is allowing the players to take the max for the first round and then roll for each additional round. After doing that, I ended up with 14 hit points, not too shabby. Last night I thought it was 12, but that's because I didn't see the part where I get to add my con bonus every level. I'm feeling a little better about her already.

Now it's time to go shopping. Normally I would roll 3d6 and multiply it by 10 for my starting gold, but I think he's allowing us to take the maximum amount of gold and he is figuring we already have our weapon. This still leaves me a fair bit to buy, but I should be able to get everything I need:

* chainmail
* shield
* mace
* sling with 30 sling stones

* backpack
* long cloak
* boots, riding or swash-topped
* mirror
* rope
* holy symbol
* 2 torches
* tinder box
* 2 waterskin
* Clothes, middle-class

These are a good start, although I might refine the list before the game on Tuesday. Now that I have my equipment, I can figure out my armor class. We are using the descending system, so lower is better. My chain mail gives me 5 and the shield brings it down to 4. Once I add in my dex bonus, I'm down to 3. Not too bad.

Now I just have character story creation. Cassidy the cleric needs a god and reason for existing. More on that later.

There's No Role Playing in 4e

I hear this all the time, 4th edition doesn't lend itself to role playing. I blame it on not knowing any better, but my campaign tends to involve a fair bit of role playing. Last night was a perfect example, we spent the entire session doing just that. No combats. No skill challenges. All I had was my storyline and the Hammerfast book (I reskinned Hammerfast to fit Andernach in my campaign world). In fact, here were my notes for the session:

After breakfast Elessandra announces that the preparations have been made for their trip to Andernach. She tells the party that they will arrive in the temple of Pelor, headed by Sunspeaker Deldaran. Deldaran can answer their questions about the town and perhaps point them in the direction they need to go.

Conversation with Sunspeaker Deldaran

  • Residents of the tenements are going missing at night. He suggests that the party keep an eye on the tenements to see if they notice anything.
  • He also mentions that the person thought to have stolen the books is probably staying in the tenements.
  • If they ask about history, he suggests they visit the House of Memory.
  • If they ask about hidden knowledge, he suggests the Grand Library.

Mystery of the Missing Destitute
Tenements are never nice places to live and the residents of the one in Andernach have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Players can hang around the tenements to see if they can spot what is happening to the residents.

I tried to make the mystery of the missing destitute into a skill challenge before the session, but I couldn't figure out a good system. Figuring the mystery would pique the PCs' interest, I decided to wing that part of the game at the table. I'm really glad I did, because it opened up the possibility that they could just explore town.

They decided to explore a number of different options in town. The warlord Lady Alexa pretended to be an elderly lady seeking a room in the tenements. Skamos, the psion, and Birkalis, The Bard[tm], tried their luck at the Great Library. Berend, the dwarf paladin, talked with a humble blacksmith to get his take on the town. Finnan, the rascally rogue, met up with some of his guildsmen to get their version of events.

All received clues that confirmed most of the rumors they had heard and conjectures they had made. Not only was someone kidnapping residents of the tenements, others went missing as well. Word is all of the workers in one of the smaller mines near town are gone. The town's leadership was doing its best to keep the news secret, to no avail. In addition, it seems Garell, the rumored book stealer, did make his way back to Andernach. He went from living in the tenements to buying a house in a nicer section of town. Some think he must have made his money at the Hidden Coin, a gambling hall, but it all feels a bit strange. The head librarian also remembers seeing him and Ragdin, a rather wealthy dwarf of Andernach, in the library, trying to find the books on the Age of Legend.

Done with their exploring, they headed to the Arcane Inn, a place recommended to them by Sunspeaker Deldaran. While Birkalis and Skamos chatted with the innkeepers, Berend and Alexa arm wrestled and Finnan sat in the corner and watched. Sensing Birkalis' sleepiness, the innkeepers suggested that he take a walk around to waken his mind so they could continue their conversation. Finnan left secretly to follow him while the rest stayed behind. They recommended a walk along the battlements and while he was up there, Birkalis heard a heated discussion down below. Curious, he let himself down to the ground. Worried about his friend, Finnan did the same, and let his presence be known to Birkalis. They saw a boat moored under the bridge and an open door. Sticking to the shadows, he snuck up to the door and overheard a heated conversation where a rather gruff voice was demanding more money for services rendered, saying that the kidnappings were becoming too noticeable and it was harder and harder to find good candidates. The other responded telling him to be careful as he would make a fine candidate himself for inclusion in the army. With that, the inner door opened with a bang and the two continued their conversation while walking towards the boat. Finnan did the best he could, hiding himself in the shadows under the bridge and, fortunately for him, was able to escape their notice.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group became worried about their friends and set off to look for them. As they neared the bridge, they heard the raised voices down below. By the time they got down to the lower level, one had gone back inside and the other was rowing up the river. Alexa tried to follow him, but he quickly passed out of sight around a bend. After a brief discussion, they determined that the one who stayed was the half-orc, Urgak, who runs the tenements and the other was either Ragdin or one of his men.

Overall, I'm really happy with this session. Inspired by @NewbieDM's red box session, I really hammed it up for them. I made up a lot of stuff at the table, such as how Celdaran the Mad died defending the library.

Celdaran: So there I was. It was dark and I could hear the screams throughout the town. I rushed to stash away the most important books. Then I saw their shadows outside the windows. I walked up to the doorway. Remembering a story from my childhood, I yelled, "Thou shalt not pass." I even killed some of them too.

Birkalis: You killed some of the orcs? How many?

Celdaran: Well, one and it was a woman, but I took one of them with me anyways.

I can't take all the credit though. The Hammerfast book provides so much great content that can be used and reused in numerous different ways. And my players were great, getting into character and just having fun with it.

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