How to not split the party

I have to admit a little mea culpa.  On this blog I try to press the point that players have a duty to work together as a team in order to ensure a smooth and enjoyable session for everyone. What I struggle with is how to do that without diluting one’s own sense of fun and Role Play. In last week’s game I split the party. Not to be an egotistical jerk, but because the obvious actions to me was to uncover the nefarious plots of the highly-suspect king’s advisor by gaining his confidence. To do that I wanted to distance myself from the rag-tag bunch of troublemakers that is The Party. As we know from the Wizard’s website neversplittheparty.com, the motto of 4e is “never split the party.”

You might ask “Why, Mike, is that a bad idea?” Well, I’ll tell you. You might find your character in a situation where he’s schmoozing over at one inn and the rest of the party is getting into big trouble at a different an inn on the other side of the town. Or, at least, I certainly did. Our DM tried a few times to get my back into the plot, but I didn’t take the hint, and so with a heavy hand I eventually wound up at the right inn too late to save the party, but fortunately still able to do something. What that something was was to willingly go along with the kidnappers in order to the keep the party together and the story moving.

My first instict in that case was to fight off the kidnappers and single-handedly rescue the party. This kind of thinking is usually a bad idea for the following reasons (A) single character odds of surviving a combat built for 4 are low, and (B) It wouldn’t be much fun for everybody else at the table sitting around and watching me play (see below). For the sake of the story and everybody’s precious time I voluntarily went with the kidnappers (as bonus for cooperating I got to act first when the action started).

Overall this situation was dissatisfying because I made the GM work to provide a good resolution, when I shouldn’t have gone off on my own anyway. I think this a mini-case of the larger issue of information-gathering scenes in D&D. It’s pretty natural to split up for each character to talk to his personal sources; it certainly doesn’t make sense to drag the paladin to an assassin’s guild meeting. I find when we do all go as party to meet with a contact the scene goes quicker because the DM doesn’t have to divide her attention between five people doing five different things. However, only one or two people usually participate in the scene (and the others just sit around or perform actions that are unnecessary in context). Now that Charisma is no longer a dump stat, this especially leaves a whole bunch of characters that could do the same thing, but don’t do anything because it’s silly for everyone to do the talking. Dungeon’s Master did a great job describing this problem earlier this week.

So to summarize, I’m still searching for a good way to balance separate acts with keeping everyone engaged. One thing I just occurred to me about my example of the lone character in a fight would be to have the other players play the NPCs in the  brawl–that way they can take the frustration of not actively playing out on the person who’s fault it is.

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What does the Apple Tablet mean for d&d?

Today’s mass excitement gave us the iPad… Apple’s bigger than a iPod, smaller than a MacBook multi-touch internet device. I’m sure millions of nerds worldwide spun their brains about how this device will work for their game books.  I don’t like carrying around a ton of books, and I would be quite happy with an ebook reader that was both in color (for all the pretty pictures of monsters) and of large enough screen size, a test which the iPad passes.  I hope Wizards brings official iBooks to this device and that those books will support a reasonable search. The printed book indicies are barely useful, and I hate page flipping in the middle of the game.

A tablet also seems like a nice compromise between accessing tools (such as the d20SRD for 3.5 or D&D Compendium for 4e) and not being a laptop. Laptops at the table have physically separate you from the action on the table and the rest of the players.  I enjoy the i4e iPhone/iPod app for managing a 4e character at the table, and I hope they make one for the iPad. There’s a lot i4e doesn’t do and its screens are tight…but a larger screen is precisely what it needs; all the tables can be fit side-by-side on screen,  so you’re not constantly navigating during a combat.

I think the multi-touch aspect too will provide for a lot of useful tools such as combat and initiative trackers, dice rolling apps, and I really hope, interactive maps.  I don’t think its quite big enough for use as a combat surface, they way those CMU Microsoft Surface demos have shown, but that’s fine. If everyone at the table had one, it’d be great for “passing notes” or sharing information like treasure lists or stats.

I actually have a ton of ideas on this subject, a iPhone developer account, and a lot of experience putting together good gaming UIs. Unfortunately I don’t have a ton of time to devote to the project. If anyone out there knows of projects looking for help or want to get something started, let me know.

Reputation as a matter of system

I believe that as a reward for saving the kingdom the heroic characters should receive a bump in reputation. There’s little more rewarding than rolling into town and being recognized as a famous dragon slayer, given free drinks, and getting an instant audience with the duke. It’s also fun when you introduce yourself to a knight and he says something like “You can’t be William Wallace, he’s seven feet tall!” What I’m getting at is that if your character survives long enough he should get some renown, and for gain or ill, his reputation will proceed him.

I like the idea of a mechanical reputation system. If it’s tangible and measurable, then I get a sense of accomplishment every time my “reputation stat” gets bumped up. In some games you add a reputation bonus to social skills like diplomacy or intimidate. I recall there are even games where the reputation system was a little broader, and you could apply reputation bonuses to almost every type of roll.

The thing I don’t like is having to keep track of yet another modifier; there’s already too much to keep track of. So then I started thinking of what I a simple reputation system might look like. In 4e, you add 1/2 the character’s level to practically everything. For a reputation system, character level is a pretty good approximation for reputation if the kinds of things the party does for experience is helping out others. Take the Elder Scrolls series of CRPGs, where your character can earn fame and infamy by completing quests. The more quests you complete the more XP you get and the higher your level. It’s not linear like the 1/2 level score, but that’s okay. We’re only dealing with an approximation.

I think I like the level model of reputation. It’s not something that has to ever be kept track of since you add 1/2 level to diplomacy score anyway. It’s an easy way for the GM to figure out how new NPCs might react to your character. By the time you reach 20th level, practically everybody on the plane should have heard of you.

Are there any D&D-compatible reputation systems out there? I seem to remember some stuff to add on from the 2E splat books and the Birthright campaign setting….

Getting the party inside your character’s head

I just had a fun idea for an occasional flipping of table roles in a way that lets a player GM for awhile but keeps the campaign continuity. The idea is to  let the other players play parts in a story narrated by your character.  Two scenarios where this might happen in an existing campaign are:

  1. Through evil magic the party is trapped inside the nightmare of one of the characters.  In this scenario there are real-campaign consequences (death or madness) and the other players can use their regular characters.
  2. Your character narrates a vivid story from either his own past or from a legend and the other players temporarily play characters in that narrative.  For ideas here, see any Simpsons episode where they play out some myth or Shakespearean play. Also definitely see the Family Guy star wars spoof. The other players can either play temporary characters, or their regular characters performing the role of a character in the narrative.

What does this buy the group? Well, you give the GM a break on the story telling for awhile (he or she can play another character in the story or the NPCs). It also allows you to do character development in a shared way with everyone else at the table.  Fr example, if you go with option 1, you can play out the character’s darkest fears , and option 2 allows you to share a meaningful story with the rest of the party.  This might be a good way to get one’s feet wet GMing, as pulling this off requires a lot of structure and support from the regular GM.

When developing the adventure, work on the story with the GM. She’ll need to make sure she has something to do during the session, and she should have the final say on anything that lasts beyond the mini-adventure. For instance, if the story involves the regular party characters, they should receive XP for the obstacles overcome; the GM makes sure the rewards are balanced and fit into the overall game arc. If the back-story is how you got that magical frost sword, and the reward for successfully completing the adventure is actually having the sword (you had it the whole time but just forgot!). This is a good way to introduce some of the group items or lair items from Adventurer’s Vault 2, since the whole party can share them. Another way to share past rewards is to make them pay out in the present. For example, if the adventure saves a local church from a demon’s attack, and your character hasn’t seen the deacon until the present, then he can hand over 400gp reward, which you graciously share with your adventuring friends. If your character and the party is trapped inside your mind’s imaginings explaining XP is pretty easy, but the treasure is a little more difficult. A tangible, shared reward here is remembering a clue you once overheard to the location for a fantastic treasure.

When actually running the adventure, there are a few ways to play it. If the DM comes up with the plot just using the ideas you’ve given her, and she runs the adventure then there’s not much more for you to do.  If you wind up running the adventure or at least write the bulk of the plot, then you have to play your character as a GM-PC. I’m giving the okay for this one despite my long standing rule against GM PCs, because (a) this is only a side adventure and (b) the regular GM still has veto power. The most important advice is to let your friends at the table do the role playing, figure out the puzzles, and slay the monsters with at most gentle guidance from you. Don’t run their characters, please. Also be sure that the story gives every character a chance to shine; don’t put them in the background because it’s your character’s story. Narrating a legend works well here since you all can take on roles not directly related to the PC.

If the adventure is successful, the DM can extend any of the plot elements that come out as adventure hooks for the main campaign. If you want to try this out, I recommend reading the tons of DM guidance out there like www.newbiedm.com, www.dungeonmastering.com, www.gnomestew.com, etc (see the blog-roll to the right), and find articles on writing and running adventurers for first timers. Running a mini-adventure might give you appreciation for all the hard work put in by the GM.

Let me know if you have any corollary ideas. This just sprung to mind on my drive home, so I haven’t had time to really bake it yet.

Fantastic Phones

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While going through a little bit of an existential phone crisis, I thought about how much our lives have changed with an always-on connection to everybody else on the planet. In a world with dragons and magic spells it certainly seems possible that adventurers can stay in touch with their friends and family back home in Winterhaven. The ritual Sending [DDI] seems like the most logical in-game analog to a cell phone. It’s heroic tier (6th level) which is not too bad, but at 50gp for 25 words, it’s a pretty expensive tweet (that’s over 3 months’ lodging). The 20th level True Sending let’s you send 50 words to anyone, anywhere in existence for only 4,000 gold, making Sending seem like a pretty good deal. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty steep time and cost involved sending a message this way, and it requires a Ritual Caster. Sending Stones get a little bit closer to something like a phone. I guess they work like a 1-time Nextel phone, for only 9 grand.

We start really talking with the Psion’s short-range Send Thoughts and Wizard’s Ambassador Imp, which just sounds like a hell of lot of fun (pun not intended). In my games, I keep trying to find a use for Send Thoughts, but its range requirements make it hardly more useful than speaking.

I think even with these item and power restrictions, it’s interesting to think about who a character keeps in contact with and how. My character is a bit of a persona non grata, so he probably uses his minutes for bejwelled. But other characters might send letters home between adventures. To letter sending to be possible, homebase Inn would have to have somebody who coordinates with merchants passing through to carry letters and hope that they somehow make its way to the destination. You certainly couldn’t send anything confidential or time-sensitive that way. Maybe the King has implemented a postal service, or perhaps the priests of Pelor provide a postal service. If a letter could take months or a year to reach its destination, what would he or she say in it? What would your character do if he intercepted a letter or was asked to deliver one to a remote location?

In a world with a higher level of magic, temples or wizard schools could have magic spheres that let people communicate between them for a nominal fee like a fantasy Western Union. If it was easy to stay in touch, who would your hero send messages to and how often?  There’s nothing more fearful than a Dragonborn mother who doesn’t think you call often enough! (Now I’m imaging a dragonborn with thick glasses and an apron sitting in the living room waiting all day for you to call).

In the world with easy communication, what happens when that communication is suddenly cut off? Are you nervous that your friends might be worried about you? Having the magical communication network suddenly go haywire also sounds like an exciting plot hook.

Did I miss any of the other communication options available in 4e?

Snow and Ice

My morning commute provided me time to think of all the awful situations that can occur weather-wise in a d&d setting. Be it driving a lightning rail through a thunderstorm or fighting a white dragon in a icy mountain pass, bad weather can really ruin one’s day.

In my experience weather rarely comes up in an adventure. A long time ago I tried using the random weather tables in the 2E DMG to track weather on a daily basis;  since we never used it in-game, it was a piece of color that faded into the background to be forgotten. When weather does factor into combat, it usually provides some attack adjustment (like concealment or distraction). Personally, I find it annoying to have to keep track of yet another effect in combat. Especially in 4e, the number I announce as my result is so far removed from the roll of the die with all sorts of situational modifiers, that the extra flavor doesn’t seem worth it

This is too bad because when used appropriately weather can really mix things up and give a sense of reality to a fantasy world.  Since one of the reasons why I don’t like weather is keeping track of modifiers, I’ll try to explore non-modifier options.

The first thing that comes to mind is weather as terrain. For example, let’s say there’s a type of terrain called “slippery driveway” that counts as difficult terrain and any character moving more than 1/2 speed through it has to make an Athletics check or fall prone. Or there can be a constant sleet over a set of squares that does a set damage per round or slows characters caught out in it. How about a fog that emulates low light conditions? The DMG talks about extreme weather taking away daily healing surges, which is a good non-terrain option. In those cases, the DM should really try to press the party to make lost surges count.

Weather can have roleplay effects too. Some NPCs and mounts might not want to go outside on a rainy day, or frost can threaten to ruin the season’s crops, or a heat wave might kill off weaker villagers. Weather gives a character a chance to brag about how great it was back home or that he’s spent winters in Icewind Dale. Weather gives him something to talk to strangers about at the Inn.  Nature-y characters should be able to show off in bad weather with tracking monsters, finding food or shelter, or detecting unusual patterns of storms.

When going to to an ice planet, hopefully the characters know to buy coats and bring along some Tauntauns. But what if it’s an average spring and but the party gets caught up in a freak blizzard? Unexpected weather provides a great way for the DM to apply those effects because it catches the PCs unaware. Weather also gives the PCs an excuse to use rituals like Endure Elements and Control Weather, which hopefully don’t break the game.

D&D is a fantasy game, so I expect to see some magical weather. Make it rain donuts, have the snow fall upwards, and of course, the ocassional bout of Purple Rain.

While I’m talking about the weather, does anyone else think the monsters that live in extreme climates don’t make sense? If a Frost Giant [DDI] has resist cold, it’s reasonable to expect that the Ice Lions they eat also have resist cold. Therefore shouldn’t it make sense for the Frost Giant to use fire attacks instead of cold ones?

Combat Tactics: Gorilla’s Paw

I discovered a great tactic in our game this past week. It’s overcoming an enemy’s strong efense using another enemy’s offense through a weak defense. Confused? Let me explain…

Here’s the set-up: There are at least two adversaries: a powerful, high-hit point enemy with a strong Will defense and bad AC and a big, dumb brute with strong arms and weak mind. Amongst the party members there needs to be a character with an ability like the Psion’s Betrayal [DDI] or the Bard’s Song of Discord [DDI] or the Rogue’s Strong-Armed Loyalty [DDI], that is, a power that has the ability to make one create attack his ally.

What you need to do is have your character gets around the smart enemy’s strong Will defense by having the brute smash on him. Generally characters are either Brainy or Brawny, and so if you have a strong gorilla, you can get him to attack his trainer through a Will attack, rather than attack the trainer’s Will outright. This is your fabled Cat’s Paw scenario, and it works like a Charm (pun intended).

Try it out in your game and let me know if it works. Also, are there parallel situations with other defenses? Can you push a character with a low Fort into one with a high one and explode him for some damage?