And Now We’ve Got Some Beards

Continuing in my series of “What does your character look like?” posts (see: hats), today let’s think about beards. Classic fantasy settings imply a decent amount of scruff on its heroes and NPCs. When I build a character, I’m more likely to envision his physical traits: height, hair and skin color, etc rather than his clothes. Along with the physical traits I usually have a pretty good idea of what his facial hair will be. For humans and half-elves my characters are usually either clean-shaven or have a goatee + mustache. Generally I use the facial hair style to convey some stereotypical aspect of his character. Thankfully for us gamers, Matt McInerney of pixelspread has created a nice infographic (my other hobby) of beard types compared with how trustworthy the wearer is. This is a great resource for players and GMs alike. The beard-types are most applicable to humans but it’d be awesome to see a Warforged sporting “The Philosopher.”

These stereotypes are nice shorthands for both coming up with a character description and allowing players to grasp what another character may be about. Going against type should be used sparingly and to great effect.

Reported to me via the flowingdata blog [full picture].

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Remembering Stuff

My current campaign has a lot going on. A couple of characters have backstories tied into the campaign. In addition we have some traveling companions that are loose threads that need tying. There’s an an ever-evolving mythology and history of the realm with a new ancient character that needs to be kept track of each week. On top of that, there’s a whole cabal of villains working in concert to bring back a shadow army from the past. Each town has a main villain involved and there are a few agents that are always traveling around, staying one step ahead of us. To add depth to the story our DM has created a series of legends, books, and past heroes to help us figure out what’s going on now. It’s much appreciated and helps with the immersion but it’s also harder to make sure all the facts stay straight. Also some of the players are really into it and its for keeping them engaged.

One of my fellow players has a great system for keeping everything straight: he writes stuff down. Harry keeps a journal and records the names and places of all the interesting facts our GM provides. Being the record-keeper is a good fit for him: he’s naturally curious about history and literature, he sits right next to the GM and he’s playing a Bard, a character well versed in lore. The upside of this is system is that I don’t have to worry about remembering anything, because I can always count on Harry having the NPC’s name on hand. The downside is that it’s hard enough for me to keep all of this straight that having crutch allows me to worry less about it, and I don’t as good a job as a player.

So what I am I to do? I don’t want to be the player that is always asking “what just happened? who are we talking to?” It was particularly embarrassing for me last week because I had mixed up two evil dwarves and everyone around the table looked at me like I was stupid for thirty minutes before someone was brave enough to tell me the that they were two different guys. At the same I don’t have the patience to make detailed notes and charts. Next week I’m going I’m going to try something different, I just don’t know what. Maybe I’ll print out a blank org chart and fill it in like a lawyer rounding up the mob.

At another game I was at recently, the GM had a regular gaming space set up with a big corkboard. On that board he was able to pin up the important parts of the cosmology so we had a persistent visual representation of the different factions that were involved in our game. This was nice for me because I was able to quickly refer to it to understand where our characters were with respect to those groups. It was also nice for me to have someone else take care of tracking the different factions… I could just reap the benefits without the work. I don’t think it would be fair to hijack our hosts’ dining room to this on a regular basis, but if any of you are GMs out there and have the room, you or a player could have an area for charting NPCs and organizations.

What other techniques are out there for keeping track of all the plot points and NPCs that doesn’t involve a lot of writing or remembering?

Ferris Dragonborn’s Day Off

I thought that I had heard just about every kind of source for a D&D Adventure, but then I read Ameron’s (of Dungeon Mastering) post about doing an adventure in the style of an 80’s Teen Comedy. There’s a lot of great iconic moments from the various nerd, teen, and screwball comedies of that era: the delivering of comeuppance, getting the girl or boy, the outsmarting of the bad guys, learning to accept your friends’ differences, etc. These themes fit well in D&D, but I’ll leave it up to the Dungeon Masters to figure out how to wrap an adventure around it: I’m thinking lots of skill challenges and mob combats.

The aspect that I want to address is how to play your character when you find yourself in one of these games. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that you’re playing a normal, legal character that can be either younger or a normal adventuring age, but the adventure has these teen movie themes. To illustrate the different ways to play a character, I’m going to steal the archetypes from The Breakfast Club: brain, athlete, basket case, princess, and criminal.

Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete,  and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

  • The Brain. Generally when we think of a “The Brain” in a psuedo-military setting, we envision a tactical leader, such as Warlord or Bard. However in the 80s comedy movie sense, “the brain” is usually a nerd. Build-wise a nerd is likely to have low Strength, Constitution, and Charisma, and very high Intelligence. Races that make good brains are ones that grant bonuses to Int or are considered shy: Humans, Teiflings, Dwarves, Shardminds, Gnomes, etc, but any race can produce an introspective study-aholic. Good classes for nerds are non-charismy builds of characters that tend to stay in the back of the fight or bolster allies: Wizards, Psions, Archer Rangers, Assassin, Artificer, Invoker, etc. A brainy Bard might be a fun character to play as well. The Brain is going to specialize in knowledge skills: History, Arcana, Religion, Nature, Dungeoneering, but may also have good Insight and Bluff that he developed to avoid getting beat in the schoolyard.

    Playing a Brain is pretty easy, just imagine your favorite movie nerd. I’ll pick Egon from Ghostbusters: he’s got a serious mold collection and talks about it right off when meeting ladies, he knows esoteric knowledge from rare tomes, and when encountering a ghost-monster wants to study it without considering his own safety first. Brains are likely to be shy and introspective, but can also be rash and prone to anger when bottled-up feelings explode. The Brain might go first to knowledge skill in a challenge, and should whip out random facts during RP or encounters. If your DM shares the world-building it might be fun to create these facts on the fly and have them become part of the adventure’s canon. The Brain is a great archetype for rules lawyers or the shy guy.

  • The Athlete. This one is easy, he’s the guy that’s going to run up in the middle of the fight and start pounding away. An Athlete is likely to have high physical scores: Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. Good races for athletes are ones that give bonuses to Str or Con: Humans, Dwarves, Dragonborn, Goliaths, Half-Orcs, Minotaurs, Warforged, etc; basically something that’s big and strong, although all races produce fine athletes. Athlete classes are pretty much any defender and most strikers and leaders. Athletes should be skilled in Athletics (duh!), Endurance, and Acrobatics. Heal, Insight, and Intimidate are also useful skills to an athlete. Any feat that allows for extra movements, greater range of attack, or the ability to shrug off status conditions or keep fighting when lesser heroes would fall are great to take.

    There are lots of way to play an athlete. He can be macho and bull-headed, or introspective and looking to constantly improve his or her game. Atheletes are likely to be quite competitive, so its important to know how your character handles victory or defeat. Is he a sore looser, a gracious winner; does he look to blame himself for failure or look towards others. Athletes can view their party mates as lesser mortals along for the ride to fill out roles, or equal members where the team comes first. For a movie example, take Daniel Larusso from The Karate Kid. He’s a bit of underdog but uses karate as way of elevating his status and standing up for what he believe in. Not every Athlete has a Mr. Miyagi, but it is good to think about who any character’s coaches and heroes are.

  • The Basket Case. The Basket Case is a bit weird and generally lives outside societal norms, but doesn’t have to be unstable. The Basket Case isn’t too limited by stats or races, but I’d suggest having a low Charisma. Races that I can see with their adventurers having issues: Humans, Half-Elves, Deva, Warforged, Tieflings, Half-Orcs, Halflings (really Half-anythings). Good classes are ones that can channel an offbeat personality into a power: Warlocks, Sorcerers, Shaman, Druid, Bard, Rogue, Psion, etc. The basket case is likely to surprise his or her friends by really good in just about anything, so I think any skill would be fair game.

    The Basket Case manifests himself more in personality than in any physical trait. He uses his weirdness as a defense mechanism against rejection which is unfortunate because he’s really seeking social acceptance. The basket case will take pride in his or her nonconformity, and may act seemingly randomly. The Basket Case is a great archetype for a player that likes to get an adventure going through action. You can start a fight or talk to a random NPC or basically do any and all things, which is a great way to break an analysis paralysis. Just make sure you don’t do with too much flourish… the basket case isn’t a show-off or a spotlight hog. Lloyd from Say Anything is a good basket case… he’s an underachiever relentlessly in pursuit of a woman out of his league. His actions are crazy and unexpected, but he has a grand plan inside his head.

  • The Princess. A Princess is looked up to and respected. He or she can be bossy but is in that position for a reason. The princess is likely to have a high Charisma, and a low to average Wisdom. Good races for princesses are ones that naturally garner respect from the common folk: Eladrin, Elf, Dragonborn, Deva. A Princess is a natural Leader, but any class that attracts a lot of attention is good: Ranger, Monk, Paladin, Swordmage, etc. A Princess is used to getting his or her way so skills like Bluff, Insight, and Diplomacy are good choices. Other good attention getters: Acrobatics, Intimidate, Perception. A Princess should also have expensive and flashy gear.

    The princess is generally high maintenance and bossy, but has a good heart. The princess may also be more likely to want to please others than the other archetypes, and may be impatient. This is a good match for players that like to be in charge or show off at the table. The character himself could be descended from nobility or just act like he is. A good character arc would be to realize that even the low-born people have something to teach you. Ferris Bueller is a definite princess; he’s overconfident, every screw-up garners him fans, and doesn’t consider who his actions might hurt.

  • The Criminal. The criminal archetype is your chance to play a shady character. Criminals can come in all types, so his ability scores should make the character good at what he does. Every race has their criminals but I tend to picture them mostly coming from Humans, Half-Elves, Halflings, Dwarves, and Teiflings. Rogue is an obvious choice for class, but anyone can be an outlaw: e.g. renegade druids, wizards, and warlocks. Streetwise and Theivery are the skills of a Criminal, use them well.

    A good-guy Criminal could have taken to a life of  a crime as a matter of desperation, or is now repentant. One can also have a criminal mindset without breaking any laws; he or should could a be a renegade with a healthy disrespect of the rules, e.g. Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop. The criminal presents a great RP challenege, because you should still work with the party members and move the story forward in a heroic manner, but you have to seem not to care. This is a good role for anyone who’s naturally a misfit.

So that’s my Breakfast Club list. There are lots of other archetypes or way to define them: you can have your loner, underdog, bully, valedictorian, etc. These archetypes aren’t meant as a way to define a character or how you play one, or box one into a particular role, but a starting point and ideas for shaping a character. I often use aspects from several different fictional characters to help me identify what kind of character I want to play and get ideas for his background, but then at some point he becomes his own character from there.

Has anyone played in a 80s Comedy D&D game? I think it would be fun.

Do You Play Differently In a One-Shot?

I’ve been trying to assess  my play style to figure out if I play differently in a one-shot situation than a normal ongoing campaign. Conventional wisdom holds that since a one-shot holds fewer consequences and requires less investment, players might tend to play riskier than would in a long-term campaign. I’m not sure that it’s true.

Many times in a one-shot it feels like I am playing a disposable character. On the plus side it grants the freedom to try out a race or class or combination that I might not ordinarily play. On the downside if you don’t care about your character’s fate, it’s easy to get him killed, or act like a jerk. Thankfully this risk is regularly countered by my own primal need to win (which is an abstract concept in D&D).

I’m now playing in semi-regular campaign. Since I thought it was going to be a one-shot, I thought it would be fun to play an evil paladin. And it has been fun to root against my own character, but at some point I decided I wanted him to live and maybe make a journey towards redemption–which is not generally a 4-6 hour character arc. I came to this realization after I had already been subconsciously playing him like a campaign character and not as a disposable character.

Upon reflection, I think I always play my characters like they’re permanent fixtures in their world. Which leads me to wonder I am normal or weird in this regard? Do you treat one-shot characters different than campaign characters?

Terrain Powers For Players

One of the things I love about 4e is how easy it is to customize monsters. Not just in terms of changing power keywords, adjusting levels, or wholesale swapping of powers, but fundamental monster modification. For example in the PHB3 Game Day scenario (spoiler alert) there’s a white dragon stuck in icy walls of a cave. Instead of the normal white dragon powers, this dragon had powers specific to being stuck in that cave. In particular it could bang on the wall and rain down deadly icicles. Maybe this is a re-skin of the breath power, but the example is meant to illustrate that it is easy to customize and tailor monsters for single purpose encounters. When done right this can really enhance the encounter. It also adds a bit of freshness, i.e.  not all white dragons are going to be exactly the same. This monotony of monster was common in earlier editions. The tricky part is to make sure there is still consistency and the monster retains its racial essence, otherwise game world gets confusing and hard to relate to.

Can such encounter-specific powers be applied to player characters? I’m thinking not. Players have to versatile enough to handle situation thrown at them. Maybe a barbarian has a rage power that knocks down stuff from the ceiling onto enemies in a burst, but that would require a lot of indoor encounters. Instead characters could get special magical items that have specific powers (a hammer of icy thundering, in the white dragon case) that is only useful in ice cave situations. Alternatively each encounter could have terrain powers: for example, an icy pillar could allow for an athletics checks to knock it down. This gives a the character an extra choice for a particular encounter without having to be built specifically to take advantage of it.

The nice thing about the terrain power philosophy is that it opens the door for use of an athletic or acrobatic stunt in any situation. Can you turn throwing a table into a burst attack? Who knows? But another nice thing about 4e is that there are tables of level appropriate damage. For example, if I were the DM, I’d say a character could pick up a table as a move action and throw it as a standard as a close blast 2 with an Athletics vs Reflex check for low damage on the table on page 185 of DMG. It took less than half a minute for me to come up with that ruling. It doesn’t matter much to me if there are already rules that potentially cover that, or that there might be a better way to rule it,  as long as the player doesn’t make a habit of throwing tables. If it does come up again and again, I’d probably invest in researching the mechanic, but for a one time situation it’s easier to rule quickly and move on.

But I’m getting off the point, which is that almost any encounter provides a player with an opportunity to do something unique in that situation. In the ideal situation you have a feat that is applicable or the DM has constructed a terrain that you can activate against the enemies AND he’s told you about it. But there is not something the DM has made available, we should always be thinking about how we can use the terrain to our advantage: knocking stuff over, moving ladders, throwing tapestries, creating a cave-in, etc. Even the most open-looking fields can have hidden dips and ditches to knock people into or hide behind.

It’s not something I’m used to thinking about, but it’s never been so easy to improvise.

How to Bring Suggestions to Your GM

I almost didn’t post this today because I’m in the middle of reading Difficult Conversations book. So far seems to advocate treating other people like they’re human beings in their own right, deserving of respect and understanding. If the advice in it turns out to be good, I’ll try to distill some of it down into a follow-up post, but what has me fired up right now are some comments on Chatty DM’s post about cramming too much awesomeness into a single encounter. Commenters Denubis and Charisma both mentioned that were going to share that article with their respective GMs. I wonder how they’ll bring that subject up at their game table.  I know if I printed out some article on the web and gave it my DM, she’d probably kill my character out of spite and resurrect him has a halfling.

In all seriousness, how do you bring new ideas to your GM? This really hasn’t been an issue for me since mine is friendly with the gamerati on the webosphere, but I imagine not GM is open to adjusting his or her play style. This more of an open question than an advice article. I’m a programmer by trade and am not a professional mediator or councilor.  I imagine if you print out a post and give it to your friend: “Here you need to read this” is the not friendliest way to share information. Does your GM ask for feedback, or is he open to discuss how is the game going?

One nice thing about Chatty’s post is the way that he phrases it. He does not say “my encounters have too much stuff going on that it’s hard for me to manage and distracts the players to the point where it takes away from the game”, but instead says “I’m cramming in too much awesome.” When bringing up a sensitive subject, be sure to phrase things positively and give lots of feedback about what aspects are working and that you enjoy. Remember too that that your fellow players may not see the same areas of improvement as you do. What I do in these situation is share the conversation with everybody, usually like “did you see latest post from Sly Flourish? Isn’t that beholder wicked awesome? We should go find one of those to fight…” That might get the hint across that you want to fight a beholder and then if other people get jazzed by it, your DM can find a way to work one in.

Enough of that ramble… so, how do people bring continuous improvement to your gaming group?

PS @SarahDarkmagic, at no time does Skamos want to encounter a Beholder or any of its ilk.

Top Ten Things to Put in Your Keep

Lately all my posts have been inspired by the intersection of two separate events in my life. Today’s post was brought on by my quest to become the land baron of small parcel of New England, and the re-discovery of the plans for one my old 3.5 party’s strongholds. (It was on a pad of graph paper I haven’t touched in years, but needed to plan out my game this past weekend).

In every hero’s life, there comes a time when he’s either looking to settle down for awhile, hide out until things cool down a bit, or at least store his earnings. I won’t go in to the types of adventurer housing available, so let’s assume you’ve got a small manor somewhere that your character owns. What does he deck it out with? Or in other terms, if your GM turned it into an encounter setting, what would be the dungeon dressing? To help you figure out what you’d fill your house up with, here are 10 ideas.

  1. A (insert race) Cave. No adventurer’s home is complete without a place to relax, have a mug of mead with old friends, and scry in peace. A place to escape the trials and tribulations of everyday life. It should also double as a defensive area and a good place to store one’s hoard.
  2. An arcane tower. Especially useful for wizards and other arcane casters, but any hero’s home could benefit from a tall tower from which to read the stars for signs and portents. A wizard’s tower can double as a guard tower and a place to house one’s griffon.
  3. 10′ wide corridors. D&D fire code requires all corridors to be an even 10′ wide, and rooms to be at least 8 squares x 8 squares. Even if you never expect to be in a fight, it’s good to be prepared.
  4. A throne room. You need a spot with a big a comfy chairs, tapestries, and pillars with which to greet guests an supplicants. If the power ever goes to your head, you’ll need a spot for your guards to bring captured (N)PC’s to you so you can deliver a monologue on the proper stage.
  5. A treasure room. You’re going to acquire a lot of expensive items. You’ll need a high-security vault for all that stuff, and if you want to impress your guest, they’ll need to be on display. One bonus of having a personal museum is that you can charge your guests a modest fee for the privilege of looking at your loot. I also suggest hiring the services of a mimic or two to mess with anybody that tries to rob you.
  6. Arms and armor. In 4e, treasure is now rarely found on the bodies of one’s enemies. That doesn’t mean they’re not wearing interesting and diverse armors or carrying cool weapons. You can bring these back to your keep and put them display and show off the number and variety of enemies you’ve conquered. A Nature or Heal check should be sufficient for a little taxidermy…. There’s nothing like a stuffed Ogre wearing his original plate, just the way you slew him.
  7. Traps. If your house is all decked out, it’s likely to attract attention of unsavory types. Plus you’ve probably managed to gather a few enemies by now that would just love to catch you in your sleep. It’d be a good idea to have false floors, fire traps, murder holes, portcullises, secret doors, and all sorts of other nasty surprises. A giant rolling boulder would go great with those 10′ wide halls. Of course you’d have to make sure your legitimate guests know how to spot and disable these.
  8. Guest quarters. For those people and creatures that are welcome to come visit you should have a place for them to stay in comfort. That means you’ll need quarters with beds that should fit all sorts of guests from gnomes to goliaths, to archons and fire elementals.
  9. Teleportation circles. Important heroes may be called upon to save a distant kingdom or they want to go visit old friends and allies. Having a handy circle saves weeks of overland travel. For security reasons, you could get a pet dragon instead, which doubles as both transportation and security.
  10. Wainscotting. Little decorative touches turns a castle into a home.

What does your characters’ homes look like?