Getting your character into new skin

Newbie DM had another great post today about how he created a Jurassic Park Dilophosaurus (the “spitting dinosaur”) by replacing the the flavor text of a Drow Sniper [DDI]. This allowed him to come up with a unique and interesting monster without having to do the work of coming up with the mechanics and figuring out the creature’s level. This is awesome thing for DMs to do, since it saves time and encourages imparting a uniqueness to their world. NewbieDM called this process “re-skinning,” and I think it’s applicable to characters too.

The easiest re-skin for a player is to take a popular race and replace its name (and maybe change up a class feature or ability bonus). For instance, if I were to make a 4e version of Avatar, I’d make a Na’vi by starting with an Elf and coloring them blue. Then I would look around for a tall race and see what abilities, speed, etc they get for being Large and sorta meld that with the elf, making sure it’s balanced.

Classes are a little harder. I could make a Gospel Choir Leader by re-skinning a Bard to use the Divine power source instead of Arcane. I suppose there’s a lot of flavor and mechanic that comes from the power source and so it may not just be a matter of renaming all the powers. You could re-skin the flavor of a class by changing all the power names. For instance if you had a Harry Potter 4e campaign, the character might have the at-will spell Expelliarmus, which is just a renamed Magic Missile.

The piece of re-skinning I like best was already covered by Newbie, and that’s adding or changing keywords of powers. For example Ice Blast = Magic Missile + Cold keyword, or Poison + Thundertusk Boar Strike = Poison Cobra Fang Strike. This allows you have some flavor without breaking a class: e.g. Ice Wizard, Shadow Warlock, Flame Rogue. Of course one should keep in mind that some classes really fit or don’t fit into a role. For instance the Paladin is already a radiant defender; it might be weird if his powers were instead thundering. Also it might break a game if the party’s powers were all fire based and they campaigned exclusively in ice caves. Presumably the powers’ keywords were chosen as they were for a reason; if you change them do it for flavor and the setting, not to break the game.

Not only can the people be reskinned, but feats and items can be renamed to fit the campaign. If you’re playing in a bronze age setting, arrows can be made of flint and swords can be made of bronze (but otherwise have the same stats). I think in a regular campaign magical items should be renamed anyway to fit their owners or campaign history.

Anyway, you all should definitely check out that article on www.newbiedm.com and post in my comments and his if you’ve tried this change of name or keyword and its worked out well (or horribly)!

Illuminated Ruminations

I was recently watching a show that mentioned the Treasures of the British Library.  Some of my favorite works in their collection are the illuminated texts.  Books come up pretty frequently in my games in the form of magic tomes, black market ledgers, and royal genealogical records. As important as the contents are, rarely does my group pay any attention to the physical object. In a medieval setting I imagine books are pretty rare due to the lack of printing presses and literacy, which should make them relatively expensive to start with. Any important book would probably have a cover made from exotic material (griffon hide or dragon scale), gilt pages, and written with exotic ink. On top of all that, if the book had special significance, it should probably be illuminated too.

Rothschild Canticles Illuminated pagBetween the time need to write and illustrate a book plus the raw materials, a book is going to be pretty valuable without regards to its content.  My first suggestion is for DMs to throw books in with scepters, jewelery, paintings, and statues as valuable “works of art” which are portable objects of wealth. My suggestion to the players is: even though craft has been done away with, using whatever attributes characters have in your game to make things, why not consider illumination as an artistic skill. This works nicely into the background of any divine-powered character, especially those trained in a monastery. It may not be as fun a craft as brewing is when you’re hanging out at the Dwarven hold, but its something that might get you noticed by a noble or church leader.

So far I’ve been talking about mundane drawings (although with fancy, expensive pigments). But in a fantasy world, there’s no reason why Illuminations can’t be magical. The act of drawing patterns, symbols, runes, or pictures in a book can be like applying a spell; in fact, this can be the implementation of how books get enchanted. Spells can be placed on mundane books to ward against fire, mites, and evil intentions. Other spells can make the text either legible or illegible to the reader, make the book invisible to thieves, change its appearance to keep up with the times, or let its owner know where it is at all times. Of course, the contents of the book itself can be magical; examples include a kingdom’s chronicles that updates itself, a biography that changes with its owner, or just a regular book of rituals.

The drawings themselves don’t have to be plain. Characters can get up and move around (like in Harry Potter); instead of just one snapshot of a battle or religious event, the illumination can be animated. A book can also be a scrying device that shows the target in vain similar to a crystal ball or silver bowl. It would be cool if it shown scenes were shown in a medieval stylization instead of appearing like a TV show.

The illuminations in a book can be a reward for an adventure, or the macguffin that gets the story going. Players should feel free to add depth to the world by inquiring about a book’s art, or describing the art in books owned by the characters. In particular pay attention to a character’s literacy, and just because he can read doesn’t mean he likes to.

(image courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/beinecke_library/ / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Making stamina checks

I haven’t really thought much about the Endurance skill until this past weekend. I guess I’m typical, as taken by Wimwick’s point about Endurance’s usefulness in his writeup on Dwarves. Generally in my games endurance doesn’t come up; maybe it’s because we’re only at the heroic tier, playing in pretty temperate environment. Or maybe most monsters and traps just make use of a PC’s fortitude defense instead of tapping endurance. In addition, many of skill challenges I’ve seen are written as social combats instead of physical challenges (or obstacle courses) where endurance might be useful. This observation is just my experience, and I couldn’t say what the typical 4e experience is like.

If we accept that Endurance is a lackluster skill, my first question is when is it useful? Has anyone used in a game-saving or creative way? Has training in Endurance saved a character’s ass? When I think of a character with a high Endurance, I picture Colonel Quaritch from Avatar…there’s a dude who can take a lot of punishment. I just don’t know if it’s worth spending a “trained” slot to capture that aspect of a character.

I thought of a few things where I might house rule to let a player use Endurance check to do a super-human stunt. I don’t have my PHB handy, so if any these are actually in the rules, they’re a good idea.

  • Regain a spent healing surge, or a bonus to a roll where a consequence of failure is a lost healing surge.
  • Make an action when at 0 hit points.
  • Get a bonus to Fortitude defense or saving throw.
  • Resist elemental or force damage.
  • Reduce falling damage.
  • Allow the character to take feats that let him stay standing longer.

The other way to make Endurance more useful is to make it more relevant. In my games we often handwave a lot of activities where the characters aren’t active in a role-playing or combat situation. But it’s reasonable to expect Endurance checks if the characters are carrying bodies or heavy treasure back out of  a dungeon (failure means they have to stop and rest). Characters may be required to make Endurance checks to travel more than 6, 8, 10, etc hours a day (if on foot). I know that after a few hours of solid hiking, I’m ready to lay down and call it a day. I don’t like these uses of the skill, because it penalizes the whole party for having someone who is bad at endurance, rather than reward a player that took the effort to spend a training slot.

What are the parallels of Endurance to Stealth? If a party is mixedly stealthy, there are ways for the whole party to overcome the obstacles, but I feel like if a party is super hearty or wimpy it would affect which adventures they chose to go on (stay in town vs scale an impenetrable cliff in the Ice Mountains to get to a dragon’s nest) rather than affect an individual challenge in an adventure. I suppose some people could scale the wall while others charge the front gates…

Timing Out

One of the biggest complaints about 4th Edition D&D is that combats take too long. That’s certainly been my experience. Characters and monsters have a ton of hit points, a wide range of powers with different tactical effects to choose from, a slew of situational bonuses, movement concerns, ranges, area of effects, and a plethora of bad guys with their own set of complicated powers and tactical strategies. For many of the individual aspects of a combat encounter, 4e is actually simpler than 3.5, especially when it comes to flanking, range, size, and area of effect. However there are just more options per piece on the board, making the time per round seem longer.

This discussion is nothing new. What is new for me is in our game group this weekend, even though we did have a big fight, each individual turn felt much quicker than it ever has before. I think this is due to several causes. Firstly, I think we’re hitting our stride both as players and as a group in terms of knowing what our own powers and each others are. This means we’re not only more effective (requiring fewer rounds to deal the same damage), but also quicker to decide on a course of action. Secondly, there were a lot of effects in play that potentially required action on someone else’s turn, and so we were more focused during the whole encounter. And significantly, we were down from 5 players to 4. This last point is pretty important as there seems to be a nonlinear effect of number of people on the time per round. In the past I’ve felt like 4 players was the optimal size, but now I wonder if 3 is a good number for 4e. 3 is certainly not in terms of durability or tactics, but purely in terms of time. If I ever do run a game at a convention, I think I’d like to try out this theory. (p.s. to my party-mates, I love you all equally).

Since 5 is the standard number of players, the suggestion I do have for speeding up combat after all the other options are exhausted (using cards, picking a buddy, halving monster hit points, etc) is to use a sand timer. The guys at Fear the Boot suggested a 5-minute timer. I think that may be too long, as that’s 25-minutes + DM time, which means an 8 round combat is going to take at least 4 hours! I think the timer should be between 1 and 2 minutes. Instead of loosing your turn, the out-of-time player should just be restricted to a move and basic attack. I thought about using a total time timer (like a chess timer), but so much can happen in an encounter that it doesn’t make sense to leave too much or too little time for the later rounds.

Does anyone have experience gaming with timers, or at least a gentleman’s agreement on time per person per round? Does it speed things up or just cause needles anxiety? I’ll have to see if as we level up as players (and DM) if the combat just starts moving faster on its own, as it seems to be slowly doing.

(image courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/laffy4k/ / CC BY 2.0)

I finally figured out how to play my character

I won’t bore you with the details of my Teifling Psion character, but I did want to mention an issue I’m having role playing to his ability scores. In attempt to min/max the character, he wound up with a really high Intelligence and Charisma, average Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, and pretty low Wisdom. Sine super-human intelligence and charisma generally don’t go with substandard wisdom, and I have been struggling with what this means to role play. When I created the character I imagined a too-cool Psi-Cop like Bester from Babylon 5…a character that comes in to a scene make everybody nervous with his creepy and unflappable demeanor. However Bester was quite perceptive and empathic (but not very sympathetic), which means that kind of character needs a good wisdom to go along with the brains and personality.

If you were a fan of Bablyon 5 I hope you’ll follow me to my point, and that is, I think I should play my character more like Emperor Cartagia. The Emperor was cunning (high Int) and a natural leader (high Cha), but a touch mad, refused to listen to reason, and didn’t have of a lot of “street smarts.” I don’t want to play my character exactly like the evil emperor, because he’s not chaotic, but there are definitely some lessons I’ve learned. To play to my character’s low Wis, I am going to make him more trusting and naive (grew up sheltered by a magical organization). On the battlefield, I will have him make less optimal choices…. but more importantly, he’ll be less flexible. Since he’s smart and lawful, it’s in his nature to plan a few rounds ahead, but with a low wisdom and high charisma, he’ll be too self-sure and self-absorbed to doubt his plans, even in the face of contrary evidence…. But not too much, since he is a Hero.

In my experience low scores in the “soft” abilities are much harder to role-play than high ones. When I play a character with a much higher Charisma than me, I can still try to make an impassioned speech and let the ability bonus make up for my own shortcoming. With Intelligence, I can just assume that the character can figure out a puzzle or translate some old runes. And with Wisdom, a good Sense Motive check can see through a NPC plot better than I could on my own. But when the scores are low, that means I have to limit what I do and the types of conclusions my character arrives at. It’s hard enough keeping meta-game knowledge out, but pretending not to know something is tough.

What strategies have you guys found useful for playing slow-witted characters? Are there any fast rules? With strength it’s easy… there’s only a certain amount the character can lift.

Run Forrest, run!

In 4th edition D&D, each character has a “speed” value which is the number of squares he can move in a normal move action. Most of the PHB races fall into speeds of 5 or 6, which means the average character can cover 5 to 6 squares per round. When stacked up against the defaul spell range of 10 squares, we can expect the heroes to take damage without a chance to retaliate for at least one turn, unless they can get close to the bad guys quicker.

There are two mundane ways to increase a character’s speed on a round by round basis: (1) double move and (2) run. The double move means you give up a standard action for a second move action–in essence, foregoing an attack for extra movement. This is not so bad if it’s important to move some defenders or strikers up to a bad guy to either pin them in place, provide flanking, or secure an attack of opportunity. A double move can effectively combined with an action point to get two moves and an attack.

Running is a much tricker proposal. A run gives a +2 to speed, which when considered by itself isn’t that exciting. Moving the average range from 5-6 to 7-8 doesn’t help much when you want to go 10 squares, but could make a difference if you need just one extra square or two. The other advantage is that it does not require an extra action, so you can run and attack or do a double run. However there is a heavy cost for this, and in my experience it is rarely worth it. Once you start running, you take a -5 to attacks and grant combat advantage until your next turn. Combat advantage is not so bad, but a -5 to hit is a serious penalty, especially if the purpose of running is to get up close to an enemy.

If that’s the case, when is running worthwhile?  Two scenarios where running can make a lot of sense, is (a) running away. You’re probably doing a double run in this case and not going to attack making the extra 4 squares a big deal. And (b) when there is a time consideration, such as when there is 6 seconds left on the Doomsday Clock, and it can be stopped with a simple arcana check, and your hero is standing 7 squares away.

I thought of one cool scenario that combines those two elements. Your PC is one side of a crumbling bridge and safety is one the other side. For extra tension, add monsters shooting at him while he’s exposed on the bridge. Perhaps the hero should make one final Athletics check on the last round to jump to safety. Just make sure there’s a good backup plan if he misses 🙂

To the other players out there, have you found the run action useful? When has it payed to take the -5 to hit in exchange for just two extra squares?

Getting Con’d

When I was a kid, I saw ads for GenCon in Dragon magazine and wished I could go. I never understood why my parents wouldn’t let me go by myself to Wisconsin for a convention. But now that I’m adult, I should, in theory be able to go a gaming convention. Unfortunately travel and vacation is not free, and most of the conventions that I’ve heard of happen in the midwest: Gencon, Origins, Fear the Con, D&D Experience, etc.  Until I started getting involved with RPG blogs and podcast last year I thought there weren’t any in New England. But I guess it’s con season here now.

I missed TempleCon and Unity Games last weekend, and I don’t think I can afford Boskone this weekend, but I hope to make it to TempleCon next weekend and I already have tickets for Pax East. As a con newbie, I’m looking for advice from the crowd. What should I look forward to? Am I better off looking for a d&d game or pickup games of Magic and board games? What should I avoid? Have people run games at a Con? I think it might be fun to try someday, especially with one the many game systems I own books for but are unlikely to play with my regular group.

And if anyone is the New England area, what other cons should I be looking forward to, and is anyone going to them?