Bard, Cleric, Fighter, Battlemind

I love the show Leverage; I love it almost as much as I love talking about it on my D&D blog. The show’s writers (or maybe marketers) are really into the character’s clearly defined roles. In the first season, they made the characters play to their roles (Hacker, Hitter, Grifter, Thief, Mastermind/Brain) and then sometimes mixed up those roles to great effect. The Leverage analogy works so well for D&D because our characters have specific roles (Defender, Controller, Leader, Striker), and that these D&D roles are also quite compatible with the Leverage roles. In the second season, I guess they decided to make those roles into one of the defining characteristics of the show by including then in the opening sequence and making them a plot point of many episodes. Now that the third season is here, I guess they figured the audience hasn’t gotten it and they’re now hitting everyone over the head with the five roles. In particular at least once an episode each person is referred to by another character by their technical term (“hitter”, “hacker”, etc).

I find this blatant working of the role names into the dialog annoying. In fact nobody would ever do this in D&D… or would they? Out of game it feels awkward when one character says to another “oh, you must be the Hitter,” but I find this to be common case in D&D! (e.g. “Oh you’re the Paladin?”) In my game, as often as we refer to the characters’ names, we also refer to them by their class. For instance in a recent game we had dialog like: “send the Thief in first”, “does the Bard have any majestic words left”, “I pass a healing potion to the Fighter.”

I hope I’m not making a false comparison because we rarely use the role names (defender, controller, etc), just the class names, but I think the idea is the same. On the show, the characters don’t have classes and there’s only one person in each role, which doesn’t often happen in D&D.

Realistically speaking, the characters’ jobs are probably not commonly called by the class names either. Fighters might be soldiers, mercenaries, warriors, knights, dragoons, lancers, pikemen, hoplites, etc. Bards could be troubadours or minstrels, and there must be hundreds of names for Clerics. In fantasy novels (and even D&D) sometimes distinctions are made between wizardly titles: sorceror, conjurer, witch, warlock, adept, magician, etc. Characters’ titles might also vary by region and religion. Use of a creative titles can help add flavor to a campaign, and also change the feel of a character. Imagine that instead of “Warden”, your character’s title was “Forest Patrol.” The flavored name gives the class a sense of regulation, authority, and probably some sort of paramilitary organization backed up by a government.

Maybe this sort of thing doesn’t bother anybody else. Or maybe you’ve already come up with cleverer names for your character’s job.

In related Leverage news, looks like there is an official Leverage RPG.

How Do You Know Each Other?

Getting a campaign underway can be tricky. A party that doesn’t use a group template, is prone to the awkward moment where the characters all have to describe themselves and the players have to manufacture reasons why all the characters are going to immediately start trusting each other with their lives. In a recent game, the GM (Quinn from at-will)  started the game using a compromise between hand-waving the introduction and making us create the characters together with a common background. In our game he paired up the players and declared that each pair of characters comes into the game already working with each other. From here, the GM asked us to answer the question “How do you know each other?”

This was tricky for me because I was caught off-guard by exercise at I did not know the other player or anything about his character. Because I was playing a Paladin that hated city folk and my partner’s character was a Druid, we came up with a common story that the two had teamed up to save some forests and were now looking for a new challenge. Unfortunately it turned into a veneer of a backstory; after playing for awhile, we found the two characters at opposite ends of every discussion, but not in a cute odd-couple kind of way. Despite it not working out too well for me (it did for some of the other pairs), the question still sticks out for me as a good way to think about party development.

I think it’s worth it to start a campaign considering that some or all of the characters know each other. In particular if you haven’t all constructed elaborate individual histories, this is a great way to communally fill in back story and provide a starting point if you have player’s block and can’t think of something. It’s also worthwhile to work with your GM on how you might already know some NPCs. I’ve played in campaigns where the GM told everyone to come up with two or three “contacts” that the character knows and can go to for information, advice, or patronage.

To summarize, Mike’s Advice:

  • Ask yourself and one or more players: “How do your characters know each other?”

What Do You Do? – Keywords

“What do you do?” I am often caught off-guard when I get asked this question, mostly because I play in games that are heavier in action than role playing. When I have to quickly answer, I come up with something like “I smack the goblin upside the head with my staff for 14 damage,” or “peering into the wisp’s soul, I send it visions of its worst nightmares for 14 damage.” After this action is resolved, I spend the next few moments thinking that my response was good enough for the level of role-play, it was not satisfying to my inner thespian. If only I had some more time to come up with something better…

I’m going to use this out of game time to come up with some ideas of what I can describe in the moment, or at least how to modify my attack description to make it more colorful. For the sake of applicability, these suggestions are going to be pretty general, and may be obvious, but it’ll be good for me (and hopefully you) to have it all in one place.

The first way I am going to tackle this problem is coming up with some quick description for damage keywords. Many of my attacks have some kind of keyword associated with the damage. Here are some of the iconic things about the damage types that come to my mind, and how it might be used in combat description:

  • Acid. When I think of an acid attack, I think of those spitting dinosaurs from Jurrasic Park. Acid attacks evoke some kind of sizzling, hissing ooze. When an acid attack hits, I’d describe it as “[attack] sizzles through the [target]’s armor, staining the hole brown, and causing his skin to blister and bubble.” Pretty gruesome to be sure, but it’s a freakin’ acid attack! When the attack misses, I could imagine describing the acid landing on the stones, causing it to hiss and give off an acrid smoke.
  • Cold. I imagine cold attacks to cover the delivery device and the target in frost, freezing liquids, and turning appendages blue or white. For descriptive purposes, the area around the target could become slippery (non-game effect) with ice.
  • Fire. Fire attacks are among the most iconic and most frequent in previous editions. These are your flaming swords and fireballs. I describe ranged fire attacks as jets of flame, and targets that can combust, blacken, and smoke. Nearby objects might turn to cinders. In addition to the heat, there’s likely to be light given off as well. For example, when using a wand of fireballs: “The tip of the wand turns bright white, looking at it is like staring into a forge, with the air around it shimmering with heat. Once it reaches critical temperature, flames shoot forth and land 5 squares away in an explosion of rolling heat and smoke for fifty points of fire damage.”
  • Force. I like to visualize force attacks as invisible walls or giant hammers knocking into things. Although forced movement can be described as a linear push, I sometimes mix it up with some Magneto-like flinging people through the air. Force attacks not only push and throw, but can also crush, grind, or rip enemies and objects.
  • Lighting. Lighting/electrical is my second favorite damage keyword. These attacks focus the power of storms. In fact when visualize a lightning attack, I think of Storm from X-Men: “the air grows cold and dark, the wind picks up from nowhere, and lighting gathers from the suddenly formed clouds and streaks down….”
  • Necrotic. Necrotic attacks are attacks of death and decay. These cause flesh to blacken and puss, and other living things to wither and melt. I like to visualize necrotic attacks as black wispy tendrils that leave destruction in their wake.
  • Poison. Poison is generally heaped on top of a physical attack and its hard to describe. For a poison indicator, you can describe a wound as one that doesn’t clot, or that the target’s veins become large and green, like the old dude on last week’s Dr. Who.
  • Psychic. There’s not likely to be any physical sign of this attack, other than the expression on the target’s face. When describing psychic attacks I like to describe a physical attack occurring either in or to the target’s mind. As described in my opening, sometimes I describe psychic attacks, especially fear ones, as creating a horrific image or scary scenario in the target’s mind.
  • Radiant. Radiant are your holy light attacks. I like think of giant sunbursts or big ropey strings of light, like a proton pack from The Ghostbusters.
  • Thunder. Thunder seems a little extraneous with both lightning and force, but I understand that it’s its own thing. I want to imagine a bright yellow Guile-style Sonic Boom attack, but my guess is that these attacks come with a loud clap and perhaps rolling waves of air. I would think nearby objects, especially if glass or crystal, might shatter, and cracks could appear in armor or walls. A particularly powerful thunder attack would likely cause the target’s ears to bleed.

Did I miss any damage types? How do you describe the keywords used by your attacks? Have you had any memorable experiences with these keywords?

Calling In Sick

I’m sorry for missing Monday, I needed the day off, as we all do sometimes.. Even our characters get busy and run-down, and have to take a day off.

In the real world when you’re feeling a little under the weather, you can call in sick. When you’re a hero tasked with saving the world, there are no sick days, holidays, or mental health days; team evil never takes a vacation. In fact in most games, like a comedy-drama tv show, the plot happens to the characters. If they win a week at an Elvish spa, the local orcs will choose that time to invade!

One saving grace is that the rules of D&D don’t allow for getting sick naturally. Or if they do, I’ve never of a campaign playing with those rules. So, feel free to send you characters outside in the cold without gauntlets and helm! Or have them lick random strangers, drink the water, and eat the street food. The assumption the only way to get sick is from being diseased or poisoned.

In the olden days you either needed a 1st level Paladin or a mid-level cleric spell to undo a disease. Now through a series of Endurance checks (which can be superseded by Heal) a hero can recover on his own with some bed rest. Of course, it’s probably more likely that waiting it out will worsen the condition, but the actual risk will depend on the disease. Think of this series of necessary extended rests to get cured up as if it were going on heroic short-term disability. If you don’t want to wait, the health care in the Nentir Vale is better than in the US. It’s only 150gp and a 6th level ritual to Cure Disease and get your character up and running again in no time (well, in less time than it takes to get a pizza).

As frightening as diseases are, thankfully we no longer have to worry about level drain! So while disease-causing monsters are bad news, with some precaution, old fashioned bed-rest, or magic, it doesn’t have to be fatal.

So You’ve Pissed Off a Chronomancer

When your party makes enemies with a red dragon, you’re likely to get eaten. Annoy an assassin, and you have to literally watch your back all the time. And if you cross a wizard who has power over time, you’re likely to be sent back in time without a phone booth to get yourself back. Yesterday’s Campaign Mastery features an article about time travel in the author’s super-hero campaign. Except for the notable Dragonlance Legends trilogy, I don’t recall a lot of fantasy settings sending heroes through time. Maybe this is because fantasy settings remain largely unchanged in technology for thousands of years, even as empires come and go.  You don’t hear about D&D games where the heroes are thrown into the “future” either, but that might be because mixed technology/fantasy mechanics tend not to work out well unless the game is specifically designed for it, and even then, it’s not guaranteed.

But let’s say despite that your character makes a time-shift. In the standard 4e campaign, you might find your heroes at the start of the Nerath Empire’s rise. Even if swords, armor, and magic still work the same, your character is still going to be out of her element. She won’t know any of the people, places, customs, or perhaps even language. This is a classic fish out of water situation, which is good guidance for how you might play it. Depending on the tone of the campaign,  encounters with the NPCs could be a great time to ham it up. If your character knows about History, Religion, or Geography you could use those skills navigate your way through the past. The one question remains… do you try to change the past or work to ensure that events transpire as they already did?

Just as exciting is being catapulted into the future. If you make your time travel known, you’ll probably be treated as a curiosity, but at least you can regale people with stories of the “olde days” and laugh at the various situations the historians got wrong. As a twist on the normal dungeon delve, you can offer your services to a patron to explore an “ancient ruin” that was once your childhood palace.

The other thing for your character to figure out is how your character is getting home, or even if he wants to. If you used a magic item or ritual, you might assume that you could reverse it… that might be a bad assumption. Fortunately as players we don’t have to think too hard about it, our GM should give us a way out.

Where Do You Game?

A few months ago, this totally awesome D&D room made the internet rounds.  The guy has a totally crazy collection of gaming memorabilia, and a tricked out room to showcase it and play games. The description of the integrated lighting and sounds makes it seem more like a theme park attraction than a room in what might otherwise be a normal house.  Although I can’t imagine ever having enough rooms in my house to dedicate one entirely to gaming, I wouldn’t mind upping my geek cred by having a regular space for games and gaming.

We don’t game at my apartment because the space isn’t sized, shaped, or furnished for it. Instead our GM hosts the game in her dining room. As you can see here, she’s got a sweet setup with computer and recording equipment. On the table is our books, character sheets, and minis representing the heroes about to die. Although some libations did make it into the photo, missing is the awesome pulled pork we had for dinner.

Our Gaming Room

Where do you game? Growing up we gamed in kitchens, basements, and the public library. In college we generally used a study room or the floor of someone’s dorm. Now that I’m a little older, I insist on an actual table and chairs. Of course people are now gaming over the internet, which makes space less of an issue, if you’ve got a laptop and a desk or table.