Meta-metagaming

When my group plays, we adventure about under the basic assumption that the GM has scaled all the challenges to our characters’ power level. Some encounters might be easy, some might be really challenging, but they all should be winnable. Should an encounter prove is impossible, we hope our GM would indicate that in some obvious way before a TPK. This hope is likely a dangerous assumption.

In my latest game our DM surprised us by throwing a black dragon into the encounter. Our characters took it in stride and started attacking it. Even after we loosed daily after daily on it and it wasn’t bloodied, like heroes, we persevered despite all rationality. After all, she wouldn’t have put a dragon into the encounter unless we could defeat it… right? Thankfully we were able to subdue our foe, but it came close. In hindsight there was no good in-game reason to stay and fight. But our Standard Operating Procedure is: we haven’t died yet so we must be invincible.

The only way this attitude makes sense is in the meta-game: we rely on the DM to move the plot forward and make encounters winnable. I think the role-playing purists out there would be unkind to me for this behavior, and I wouldn’t disagree. As role-players we should be playing the role of our characters and try to think as they would.  This failure of imagination isn’t the worst part! The bigger issue is that we’re relying on convention for our character’s survival, there’s nothing to prevent the DM from seriously outmatching us. The only thing stopping her is fear of whining players or slowing down the rest of the game as the survivors proceed over-cautiously through the rest of the dungeon.

So… against all my instincts and advice, I guess we’ll keep doing it until it bites us in the ass. GMs if you’re reading… if your party does this, give them one or two over-powered encounters with an easy out so I learn your serious without dire consequences. And if they still don’t listen, then go in for the kill >:-).

Over-Outsmarting the Villians

This week I wrote a post on RPG Musings on how to set up an “outsmart the villains” scenario. If I carry my own thoughts to next level, then presumably a smart enough villain should be able to out-out-smart the heroes. This means the players would want to out-out-out-smart the bad guy, and so on. We could wind up with dizzying logic only Vizzini (from The Princess Bride) could follow:

But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Basically, what I want to know is: “what happens when metagaming leads to paranoia?”

Let’s say you tried out to outsmart some villians you’re chasing with an ambush, but they did not arrive at the prescribed time. Did you get the time wrong and they haven’t arrived yet, or did they arrive too early? Or, did they find out about your plans and have gone around you? Or do they have an even more sinister ambush planned for you?

This kind of thinking can be detrimental in real life and causes analysis paralysis in-game (for a good article on that, see Sarah Darkmagic’s Like a Deer in the Headlights). Basically, you can make yourself nuts trying to anticipate every move of your opponents or by trying to counter moves that may or may not be real.

What are the players supposed to do with an uncertain escalation? I always recommend using two principles: Occam’s Razor and KISS (the principle, not the band). That is keep your assumptions and plans as simple and flexible as possible.  Unless you have evidence to the contrary, don’t assume that the bad guys have you trapped in some kind of meta-puzzle of outmaneuvers, instead just track him down and beat him up. Problem solved.

…by the way, if you have KISS (the band) on your side, then you’re pretty much guaranteed a win.

Anti-Magic Zones

One of the old D&D idioms that I haven’t seen come back in 4e yet is the Anti-Magic Zone. This is an effect (zone, terrain, trap, power) in which magic no longer works. In older editions this was easy to implement as spells were quite easy to identify and deny. In 4th Edition, it’s not as easy. If we define “spell” as a power that uses the Arcane power source, then anti-magic zones either loose their potency against parties without arcane characters. Worse: if there is just one arcane character, you’re left with a player that feels singled out. In 4th edition, all characters have “spells” of some sort, whether they’re prayers, exploits, or some other type of attack. In my imagination any “anti-magic” effect should affect powers from all sources, not just arcane. There’s also a separation in 4e between magic Rituals and magic Powers. In an encounter you’re not likely to use rituals so an “anti-Ritual” zone wouldn’t be much use; similarly an “anti-Power” zone wouldn’t do much good if the purpose of the zone is challenge players by stopping rituals (such as Sending, Knock, Detect Object, etc). Of course, one zone that affects both is good either in or out of combat.

Here’s my new proposal for a Anti-Magic zone as fantastic terrain. I’m thinking that an easy Arcana check would allow a player to identify it before stepping inside, and you might let the players make Arcana checks to disable the zone as well.

Anti-Magic Zone

The ground has been scrawled with runes that seem to invert on themselves. The ground radiates an awkward silence that seems to suck all the magic energy out of the air.

Effect: Any creature starting his turn in the zone cannot use any powers other than basic attacks for the duration of the turn. Any ritual starting, ending, or passing through the zone fails.

Usage: Anti-magic zones are dangerous for players and monsters alike. Smart characters would want to push enemies into the zone and then prevent them moving out of it. Use these sparingly as limiting to basic attacks might be frustrating and make the combat last longer.

Anti-magic can also be used as an attack: Int vs. Will, effect: target can only use basic attack powers until the end of its next turn. This selectively disables a character’s super-weapons for a round.

Do you have special memories of old anti-magic zones? Is there a 4e incarnation that I missed?

It’s ENnie time again

The ENnies are the annual fan awards for tabletop role-playing game, awarded each year at Gen Con. There are categories for art, writing, products, podcasts, blogs, minis, etc. The awards were originally given out by the EN World site in 2001, and they have been expanding and gaining presitge each year since then. If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you are a RPG fan. This means you’re eligible to go vote now for your favorites. They use a runoff voting system, so you can rank your choices in each category.

Even if you don’t want to vote, you should check out the nominees. They represent the best in this year’s RPG offerings, and I can’t find a bad product or publisher in the bunch. Even the honorable mentions are worth checking out. You have until July 25 to vote.

Most of the nominees are based on the new systems that came out last year. Have any you played them (Shadowrun, Rogue Trader, Pathfinder, etc), and what do you think?

They Were In Our Back Pocket the Whole Time

This week in our a game an important plot incident lead to a pretty funny conclusion. My party is tasked with stopping an shadow army from opening a gate to the shadowfell and taking over the world. To open this gate, a magic key is needed. We thought that if we found the key first, we would able to keep it away from our enemies. We thought it would be buried somewhere in town, so we enlisted the local priest of Pelor to help our search with a ritual. Tracy (our DM) turned the special-purpose ritual into a skill challenge. We used Streetwise and History to narrow down likely areas of the town to search, and Arcana and Religion to direct the magical energies.

The end result is that we successfully completed the ritual-challenge and found the magic key…. It was in the Bard’s pocket the whole time! (We got it from dwarves we saved several months ago). It retrospect, it was  funny to watch round after round as the ritual narrowed down on the section of the city where we we were. I started to get excited when I realized it was nearby to the temple, but totally surprised when we found that it was really close.

We all had a good laugh at our own expense and then moved on with the adventure, with the key safely in hand. This interesting anecdote has a few gems I’d like to unpack. First and foremost, we used valuable adventure time and resources to discover something we’ve already been given. This is not anyone’s fault; it’s been a few months of intermittent game time and we didn’t make a special note of the key when we got it. It’s funny that today on Gnome Stew, John wrote some tips to help players remember details about a game… such as the importance of a special item. Unfortunately I don’t think his would have helped us in this situation. At the time, we didn’t make a connection to the item. Back then we were dealing with the aftermath of a sticky combat/skill challenge & intra-party situation, and then in the next few sessions we were focused on a new series of events and new  location… there wasn’t time for key’s importantance (or even its existence) to sink in.

What could we have done better? Well, to start off, we should probably be keeping a separate list of “quest items” or at least “miscellaneous magic items” that don’t fit on our characters. Along with each item, there should be a note of how we came across it and its context.  Just referring to that list might have jogged our memory, although we might not have thought to look there since didn’t even occur to us that we might already have that item.

What else could we have done? Has anyone else been in a similar situation?

What could a DM have done to help us remember? Tracy analyzed the situation on her blog: When The Players Forget. I think she handled it beautifully, and like I already said, we have a good game memory. But what could have happened to have prevented the situation? There are some strategies I learned back in my play-writing days that could help: the rule of three, and simplification of props and sets. The rule of three is pretty simple. If it’s important, mention it at least three times. I don’t mean reapating “here’s a magic key” three times, but to bring up the key in three different contexts. For example: (1) “for saving their lives, the dwarves hand you an ancient key”, (2) “they say that key was being smuggled out of the city by your enemy”, and (3) “later that night as you are preparing your magical studies, your attention is tuned to the key.. it radiates magical energy.” That alone would have had us spending some game time learning more about it, rather than just pocketing it and moving on. Since aDM’s audience is specific and limited, I’d say each one of those mentions might be done when a different player is in the spotlight to spread its importance around.

There’s also a simplification issue. On stage, you don’t want to distract the audience by giving them unimportant objects to focus on. We come across a lot of NPCs and items of interest and so it’s hard to remember them all or figure out which ones are most important (they’re all important). If this was the only non-gear, ancient, mystical item we had to deal with, it would have stood out in our minds more. We could have also been hit over the head with it harder, or the DM could have said “uhm, guys, you already have it” when we set out looking, but that would have been less fun for everybody.

The other useful takeaway from our misadventure is our own cleverness. It was our idea to enlist the aid of Pelor and his priests to help us narrow down our search, and our DM’s idea that it would accomplished through a ritual/challenge. PC rituals are expensive, specific, and always a few levels too high, but the game allows anything really to be a ritual. Usually NPC rituals are of evil hellmouth-opening type, but they can be “help us find a lost item” good type too. Be creative in how you seek out NPC aid!

Move, Minor, Standard

Mark of Dice Monkey had a great post today about Analysis Paralysis. That is, when faced with a ton of choices in a D&D combat round, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and freeze up. I never thought myself susceptible to this, but then I read his tip #2:

If playing 4e, organize your powers not by At-Will/Encounter/Daily, but by Move/Minor/Standard

Since I build my character using the D&D Character Builder, each time I level up I print out a new character sheet, cut out the power cards, and put them into either green, red, or black sleeves. During the game, I hold them in my hand like I was playing a card game. I’ve always kept the organized in that pattern: at-will, encounter, and daily! This is silly for two reasons: (1) they’re already distinguished by color so I’m providing redundant information, wasting a dimension of information, and (2) I’m always shuffling through them to plan out my turn’s worth of actions.

No More! Starting my next game, I’m going to use Mark’s advice and sort them by action type. I think this will really speed up my turn because I can just choose from the appropriate column. Since I don’t have move powers, it’s going to just be at-wills, minors, and reactions.

In my hand I also group together cards by usage type. For instance, daily magic item powers and channel divinity powers. Basically anything where I get to choose one of several for an encounter. That way when I use one, I can put the whole bunch together face-down in my “discard” pile.

Since I’m playing a Psion, I also have augmentable powers. This means for one at-will (e.g. Betrayal) I have three cards in my hand. I’ve been grouping them together by power name, but I think I’m going to instead group them by power point cost. We’ll see if that has a benefit or not. Sometimes I choose powers based upon how lethal they are, and sometimes I’m more interested in choosing by area of effect.

To summarize: group your power cards by action type. Sub group by usage (or however you usually make your choice of power). Do this and you’ll have less to flip through when making your action choice each round.

Why You Should Use a Torch

A sunrod [DDI] is only 4gp, lasts 4 hours, lights up 20 squares, and most importantly comes with the Adventurer’s Kit. On the surface this seems like a better deal than a regular torch [DDI]: for 1sp, lasts 1 hour, and dim lights 5 squares. From this seemingly one-sided contest, I’m going to try to convince you to buy torches for your characters!

Arugment 1: Torches are cheaper. To light 20 squares for four hours requires 16 torches, which is less than half the price of a sunrod. Even if you count the double distance for bright light vs dim, 3.2 gp is still less than than the 4 for one sunrod! “But Mike,” you say, “one sunrod weighs 2 pounds whereas 32 torches weighs 32 pounds!”

Maybe that’s true, and maybe that isn’t. What matters is that you should have at least one buff guy that has a 18+ Strength, so what’s an extra 100 pounds of easy-burning lumber to him?

Argument 2: Torches set shit on fire. Sunrods and even fancy everburning torches [DDI] provide light but not heat. Torches are flaming sticks and one useful property of fire is that you can use it to set other things on fire as well. A single torch can turn a dark dungeon into a dangerous inferno for your enemies. Some easy flammables your characters might find flammable: wizards’ desks, tapestries, inn common rooms, and Marty’s House of Torches. Not only can you light stuff on fire, but you can light most creatures on fire too. If you light an opponent on fire, he’ll take ongoing fire damage! Just don’t try it on a Tiefling.

Argument 3: Torches are smoky. In my personal experience, torches tend give off a lot of smoke, and if made from period materials, probably noxious, dark smoke at that. This smoke could draw attention of enemies if you’re trying to sneak around somewhere, but can also be used to your advantage. Natural beasts aren’t likely to want to come near all that smoke. You can also use a few torches to smoke out a room in a dungeon and make the inhabitants come rushing out into your devious trap.

Argument 4: Torches are intimidating. You don’t see angry mobs carrying pitchforks and glow sticks. A flaming torch tells people that you’re on a mission and they better not get in your way. Fire can also have religious or social connotations, and may add an extra destructive flair to a negotiation.

If this doesn’t make you go out and buy a ton of torches for your character, nothing will!