Table Tips: The Loot List

In our game, we have a very simple and reliable treasure tracking system. When we obtain some loot, either somebody claims it immediately (usually if it is an item best suited for one person) or one guy writes it on a log. After each session, our treasure tracker fellow emails out the list so we can be apprised of it. At the end of an adventure and the party is back in town drinking most away most of the treasure, we trade in our good for gold, and divide the the total by the number of players.

This system has worked out pretty well so far with this group. There hasn’t been any contention for any one item and over the course of a few adventures, there’s been parity between the rewards.  In this sense 4e has me a little concerned due the high price of rituals. In the past we’ve played that potions and scroll comes out of the party fund, but spell components come from the wizard’s stash. But now every spell has a cost to both buy the ritual and to cast it. And its like 100s of gp for a low level ritual, which makes it like burning up a magic item every time you want to cast something. It hasn’t scaled yet with the way treasure parcels work.

But enough of that diatribe. I’m here to share how we manage the loot list. We’ve gone through a number of iterations over the years. With this group we pretty much use a sheet of looseleaf. For awhile our quatermaster had made up a fancy-looking loot register, with lined brown paper and a nice cover. I guess it went away because it was overkill for something he just transfers to the computer each week.

The internets make it easy to share and collaborate with a document. We’ve used most of the following and there really isn’t one that stands out over another; each provides a different type of access and ease of use.

  1. Wiki. Our campaign is now on Obisidan Portal which has wikis for campaigns, but we haven’t used this yet for treasure.  In the past, we’ve used wikis though for treasure tracking on PB Wiki and Google groups.
  2. Google Docs. The nice thing is that you can share a Word-like or Excel-like document with the whole group where they can see and edit it, but it is private from everyone else. The advantage of a spreadsheet is that you can do things like keep a running total or chart your treasure acquisitions over time. You can even try to do a polynomial (or other) fit to the treasure chart and model your GM’s treasure parcel system. Maybe I’ll write about how to do that on my MATLAB or programming blog.
    a screencap of loot list in google docs
  3. Google Wave.  Not everybody’s on this yet, but the nice thing here is that you can keep your log as it progresses over time, and replay your gold pile slowly building up.
    the loot list on Google Wave
  4. Email. The simplest thing would be just email out an updated list after each session. You only have to go back to the email from the week before and add/remove items as necessary each session. We’ve done this method too, and it works all-right, especially since we flush the treasure buffer at the end of an adventure.  Just using the plain text is good enough, but you can use an actual Word or Excel document an attachment as well.
  5. MySql database. I can say that we haven’t set this up yet, but our current DM is good making dynamic web pages and I bet I can convince her to set one up. The nice thing with this approach is it is easier to manage meta-data like where and when you found an item and which monster’s body you took it off of. And you can have it link to the appropriate entry in DDI to look up its powers and gp-value.
  6. A big sign. Another thing I haven’t gotten our DM to let us try yet, but I supposed you could set up a whiteboard in the gaming area and keep track of the treasure game-show style. Or set up a scrolling ticker like the stock market. PLDN +300 RNGR +250 CLRC -200… hehe 🙂

How else have people kept track of the party loot during and between sessions? I’m particularly interested in hearing how people manage party funds for rituals.


Managing Up: Failing Scenes

I just want to say at the start that this scene is inspired by the conversation of Fear the Boot #168, and not from a personal experience with my current GM. This particular epsiode was a wonderful mine of topics for me, and this one is about the comments the hosts made about staying in the game when the GM is floundering and the created scene is failing. Their suggestion was for the player to go along with it.

I think this is a great idea.

So much of the game burden is put on the GM to come up with the plot and keep the story moving, but you know what? Most GMs are people too. This means they have stuff going on their lives and can’t always bring their “A” game. Don’t let a yet another fat, balding innkeeper prevent you from enjoying talking to Srodo and Fam, the halflings that have come into the inn seeking help to get rid of some jewelry.

If the scene is about to crumble, there’s two ways to take it as player: prop it up or pull the legs out and run far away.  Let’s say the orc chieftain has just captured the party and is threatening to go all Sweeny Todd on them.  But his death threats as voiced by the GM unintentionally sound more like Galaxy Quest Alan Rickman and less like Robin Hood Alan Rickman. Amuse the GM and hold in your laughter and feign terror anyway. This is tough at first but it keeps the scene going, encourages the GM, and keeps you and your friends around the table focused and in the game.

The other thing to do is drive the plot in another direction entirely. You can do this in a way that’s fun, allows the GM to still respond to and regain the story, but you get to drive for awhile.

Suppose you surprise the GM by declaring you want to go to the shop and sell off that ancient amulet instead of carrying it around for when it’s needed later.  If he says “yes” lets you go ahead with the sale but hasn’t planned for the contingency and stammers and stutters, you can lead the GM.  Say “we’ll go over to Garog’s Fine Jewelery and Watches”, even if you have never encountered this guy before. You’ve just created an NPC for the GM to play with, and if they’re sharp come up with a quick description, back story, and store. They may have trouble coming up with a price for a priceless item. Suggest 250gp and let the GM haggle from there. Maybe he’ll force you to hold on to the amulet anyway by offering a price so low it’s insulting. After all Garog never liked dealing Half-Elves with no appreciation for beauty.

Not all GMs will like you taking over the plot, even if it just to help them out. I think, if anything, this blog is about not letting one ego ruin the fun for everybody. I think most GMs understand that D&D is about shared storytelling and will appreciate you helping out and keeping the story moving. Just don’t be a dick about it. If he doesn’t, it’s time to have a post-game talk and reestablish boundaries and make sure everyone is cool with a particular play-style.

Your mileage may vary.

I am going to be on holiday for the rest of the week. I have set a new article to be published here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5pm while I am out. I won’t be able to approve or respond to any comments in that time. Cheers and have a good American Thanksgiving.

Abiding by the mule (optimizing characters)

WordPress is a funny thing. I’ve noticed a spike in traffic to an old post before I restarted my blog. WordPress automatically suggested it as a related article to this one about optimizing characters and character choices in 4e. It’s an interesting article; I didn’t fully understand what they meant by “heirarchy” but I did agree on several points.

The first of those is that the all choices presented in character building make it hard to present categorically optimal advice like you could in earlier editions. In the olden times the most effective (in combat) min-maxed builds were well understood. I had a standard Evoker build for a mage in second edition, and I remember a party member once remak in a 3.5 game that “open locks” was the most useless skill as he dumped those points into more “useful ones”. 4e has changed up the existing advice. Between all the power books and the dragon subscription that comes with DDI, it’s hard to see an obivous path, but I’m sure its only a matter of time until the min/maxed combos are well known and we can all laugh about goliath wardens.

Tavisallison‘s last point the article is about optimizing choices in combat. With all the options presented in 4e, it’s hard know what the best move is. Now wizards can hold their own in combat, and everybody has a range of abilities that attack different defenses, number of creatures, ranged and melee, and move people around. The consequence of these choices is that there is no longer does one attack neutralize an entire horde.  In the past a good sleep, silence, or tasha’s uncontrollable laughter spell or a turn undead or a flame sword could turn the the battle or even it win it out-right. In 4e this no longer holds true. The best you can do now is optimize your odds on a round by round basis. In order to have the best, statistically speaking, chance to eliminate your opponents, each of the players has to work together to decide what this path is. The other author wants to bring back the old style of play, but I kinda like the new, assuming the party can work together.

In my game it’s hard enough to get each player to make the optimal choice for his own character, let alone for the whole party. The best move at given point for a single character may move an enemy or ally into the wrong side of an effect or cause a change in defenses or conditions that impedes another character”s actions.  I am particularly not good at suggesting strategy to my party-mates in my game. I think people don’t like being forced into planning too far in advance or being asked to give up their spotlight because someone else has a better chance of hitting.  I’m certainly guilty of that.  I have some ideas for encouraging better team play and if they pan out, I’ll post them in a future article.  I think that if the DM or the game designers can make the rewards for team play more tangible than just ending the encounter earlier or safer it would encourage people to think of the whole group in their actions.

I am going to be on holiday for the rest of the week. I have set a new article to be published here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5pm while I am out. I won’t be able to approve or respond to any comments in that time. Cheers and have a good American Thanksgiving.

Skill Challenge: World Series

I know it’s a little late, but in honor of my team winning the World Series, I’ve crafted a skill challenge.  In the midst of crafting this challenge I finally got around to to reading the skill challenge of the DMG2. It’s really well written and I a must for any DM writing or customizing their own challenges. I’m a little annoyed at Wizards because this all should have been in the first DMG instead of their vague references to skill challenges. This chapter helped me significantly transform the skill challenge from just a little play on a theme to one I would actually want to play in, myself. I think having the characters participate in some sports would be an interesting way to get them involved in the world.

World series

a baseball game

The party is approached by Winterhaven Lieutenant Oren Thatchbeard. It seems the Fallcrest Gorgons are in town for a little friendly baseball competition against the Winterhaven Yetis in a best three game series. The Gorgons have a reputation for playing dirty. It’s suspected but unprovable that they are behind the sudden illness that has the Yetis down a number of players (equal to the number of party members). If only there was some way the party could help out and take their place and keep Winterhaven’s honor.

The Yetis will take any win they can get, but want to sweep the series. Every three successes means that the Yetis win a game, but any failure causes the Yetis to loose that particular game. The final game requires a 4th success: the succesess through the 11th in the challenge bring game to tied in the bottom of the 9th. The final check will get the one of the players a game-winning home run. Although broken up into three parts, this is not designed to be a “Progressive Challenge” because each part plays the same.

Level: Any.
Complexity: 4 (requires 10 successes before 3 failures).

Primary Skills: Acrobatics, Athletics, Bluff,  Endurance, Insight, Intimidate, Perception.
Acrobatics (moderate DC by level) The character makes a diving catch, grabbing a short-hop for a double play. Or the character makes a leaping catch keeping a Gorgon’s ball from leaving the park. This skill can be used once per game.
Athletics (group roll, moderate DC by level) This represents basic batting, catching, and running. The whole party must make the check and it is successful if at least half the characters make it. This skill can be used once per game.
Bluff (moderate DC by level) The character has managed to set up a good set of signals and you catch the Gorgon’s batter off guard for a strike out. This can be used successfully twice before they catch on.
Endurance (group roll, moderate DC by level) Sometimes the best thing to do is just wear down the other team. Your pitcher stays strong and the Yetis destroy the relief pitcher. This roll can be used once per game.
Insight (hard DC by level) You catch a base-runner stealing or figure out that the opposing pitcher is going to throw a curveball over the plate and you smash one out of the park. This skill can be used to gain 4 successes in this challenge.
Intimidate (hard DC by level) The Gorgon’s are here to win, but you manage to stare them and get the crowd to chant “Gorgons suck” enough times that they start to crack. This can be used successfully twice before they catch on.
Perception (moderate DC by level) You catch on their signals, or notice the pitcher’s hands before the ball is thrown and get a good run-scoring hit. Or the characters catch some words of planning in the opponent’s dug out. This skill can be used once per game.
Special: A character can make a basic ranged attack with an improvised weapon against a hard DC for a success once per game. This represents that character doing a good job as pitcher. Failing this means the opponent takes the ball out of the park.

Secondary Skills: Arcana, Diplomacy, Nature, Stealth, Streetwise, Thievery
Arcana (hard DC by level) A character mage hands a ball just fair when it should have been foul. A moderate bluff or stealth check by the same character can be made first to make this check against a moderate DC instead. Failure means the umpires deliver a warning and all checks go up a difficulty class for the rest of that game, but a success counts as a success for the challenge. This can be done once per game until the character gets caught and warned.
Diplomacy (hard DC by level) You successfully convince an umpire to make a call in your way. Negate a failure or give another character +2 bonus to his next primary check.
Nature (easy DC by level) You notice how slippery the turf is and where it is uneven. Give a +2 bonus to Acrobatics or Perception check this game.
Stealth (moderate DC by level) The character is able to take a lead unnoticed by the opposing pitcher, get a +2 bonus to your next athletics check this game.
Streetwise (moderate DC by level) This has to be done before a game. You hear enough about the opposing players that you’re able to hand Lt Thatchbeard a scouting report. Grant a +2 to each player on any primary check, once per game.
Thievery (hard DC by level) Steal a base. Success means you get into scoring position and when you get batted in, it’s the winning run. Failure means you get caught and your out ends the game.

Success: For each successful game the part will win 1/3 of parcel’s worth of gp as a prize. Winning all three games means they are awarded a trophy (either an art item or a baseball-themed magic item) by Lt. Thatchbeard, and the party members gain fame and bonuses to social challenges while in Winterhaven.

Failure: Each failure ends the game, and the people in town have nothing nice to say about the characters for the rest of the day, or their stay if it they loose 2 or three games, and get a -2 to social checks.

It would be fun if failure means that a brawl erupts and the party has to fight the Gorgons. Turning a baseball team into a set of enemies with different abilities would be an interesting extension of this article. I’ll keep in mind for the future though. You have your brutes with bats, strikers with fast pitches, team manager leader, umpire controllers, etc.

I am going to be on holiday for the rest of the week. I have set a new article to be published here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5pm while I am out. I won’t be able to approve or respond to any comments in that time. Cheers and have a good American Thanksgiving.

The Psion, one month review

Tiefling on top of stack of power point tokens.

My Tiefling Psion on top of stack of power point tokens.

Now that I’ve played the Psion class for one month, I thought I’d give a retrospective review.

The Psion is a controller class unlike previous ones. It has only two area-effects, and its the attacks generally have a damage + debuff (increase enemies’ vulnerabilities) effect.  There’s also not a lot of movement like there are for some other classes.  For all its debuff attacks the class is kinda like a Leader, but without any healing abilities. The Mind Thrust ranged attack does a nice bit of damage along with debuff when augmented, and in that sense it reminds me a bit of my Ranger, in the striker sense.

My favorite attack power is Betrayal, in which you slide an enemy and force it to make a basic attack on one of its allies.  It feels a little like chess by moving pieces around the battle mat, and it’s just plain nasty to attack an ally. Unfortunately the way I understand how 4e works, is that pcs and npcs understand all the attacks and their effects, and so it’s absent the confusion and horror on bad guy’s face when his friend takes time out of combat to attack him.

The augmentable at-wills is an interesting mechanic and it works quite well. Because the at-will powers are pretty good by themselves, I don’t miss the encounter powers. The augmentation levels make sense and benefit of using 2 points to augment seems like its worth giving up 2 separate 1 point augments. I’ve been using poker chips as physical symbols of the my power point pool, and that made it quite easy to keep track of them.  There’s also a nice of feel of ante’ing up.

The weakest point of the Psion is melee. My character is limited to cloth armor and none of the attack powers are melee, so if a monster is next door, I have to risk the AoO or whack them with a mere 1/2 level + proficiency with my staff implement. In the combats I’ve been in so far, I am pretty well defended in ranged (especially with resistances and a good reflex and will), but whenever my character’s gotten to melee, his hit points have disintegrated fast.

As with almost all classes of the flavor differences between them plays out only on the battlefield. The thing the Psion is really missing is some kind of mind-reading or empathic ability. Since I have a very low Wisdom, my character’s Insight is my lowest skill, despite the fact that I can command someone to attack an ally. Even the Send Message utility power is pretty weak since a line of effect is implied. It would be more useful to communicate with someone further away. I’ve been using Bluff and Intimidate skills out of combat to pretend like my character is a mean-as-they-come mind-reading SOB.  So far no one has called me on that yet.

I am going to be on holiday for the next two weeks. I have set a new article to be published here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5pm while I am out. I won’t be able to approve or respond to any comments in that time. Cheers and have a good American Thanksgiving.

Engaging your GM

The following post is presupposed on the fact that you enjoy gaming with your GM and would like to improve everyone’s enjoyment at the table. If you and your GM have fundamental and irreconcilable gaming philosophy differences, find a new game! But if sometimes there’s a bit of misalignment and you want to fix things, read on.

Dungeon’s Master recently wrote about Engaging Your Players. Smart advice there for DMs. In the author’s campaign the DM brought the players in through two elements: mystery and a time-limit. I personally enjoy these elements in a game I’m playing. I find time limits need to be well tuned. It’s pretty frustrating when you can’t win due to circumstances outside your control. Also there should be several levels of outcomes, so if you’re only a little late it’s not castastrophic.

But what about the reverse situation? It’s pretty challenging to keep a mystery from the GM, so we’ll leave that element for a future post.  Here I’ll describe turn the time-limit idea around on your GM when he is the one who doesn’t care. One way to bring the game back on track and get the GM involved in your plight is to create a false sense of urgency.

Let’s say you’ve got the party in town and you’re trying to track down a werewolf, but you’re having a hard time of it not because of bad rolls but because the problem is too open ended and you haven’t figured out the trick yet. You’re stumbling around trying to figure out what the GM wants you to do.  While no NPC has said it, you come to the conclusion that if you don’t discover the werewolf by midnight, another villager will die.

Here you are bringing the GM back into the game by forcing him to take action. One option for him is to run with it and make that part of the plot or to at least pick up on that energy and put some NPCs in your way for you gather some information from instead of letting the villager get killed. Or he can have an NPC respond to your inquiries “I don’t know what your talking about, the werewolf never strikes more than once a week.” But now you have someone to talk and ask more questions of. Or the DM can inform you that you are mistaken and the time concern is not part of this challenege, but at least then you’ve forced him to think about what’s going on at the table and hopefully bring his attention to your plight.

The worst option is that you have a sadistic GM who enjoys watching you and your partymates flounder around trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do. That’s when you have to remind him that you’re all there to have fun and he should throw you a bone or you all bring out the xbox.

I haven’t needed to try this yet in my current campaign, but I am interested if anyone has tried forcing the GM’s hand or done something similar.


I am going to be on holiday for the next two weeks. I have set a new article to be published here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5pm while I am out. I won’t be able to approve or respond to any comments in that time. Cheers and have a good American Thanksgiving.

Play by email

I’ve been interested for a while now in exploring ways to game away from the table. There’s been a lot of activity recently about using Google Wave as a RPG medium. I also tried getting a play by email campaign going a few months ago, and that fizzled before it even began. There’s a certain amount of stuff in roleplaying that is hard to in asychronous text, and there’s a certain amount of momentum required to keep any campaign going.

Gabe of Penny Arcade recently shared with the whole internet an itergame email skill challenge. The skill challenge itself is pretty interesting, but even more interesting is that they’ve managed to keep their gamementum going between sessions. I usually have such big plans at the end of the night of gaming to keep the discussion, planning, and prepping going between sessions, but I can never seem to get it going. Instead I’m usually updating my character sheet at the table immediately before play.

NewbieDM sends a PDF recap to his players after each session so they have something for them to think about in between games.
These are things the DM can do to keep his players involved outside of the game night. Here are some things the players can do between sessions:

1. RP hanging out in the tavern.
2. Split the party: have two guys go off and some streewise stuff in the in-between time.
3. Research a spell or take a one-week apprenticeship with the town smith.

Ask your DM how you can keep your character active while you spend a week or two in the real world.

I am going to be on holiday for the next two weeks. I have set a new article to be published here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5pm while I am out. I won’t be able to approve or respond to any comments in that time. Cheers and have a good American Thanksgiving.