Capturing Villains

Sorry for the late post this week. I was out on Isle Royale with no phone or internet service. Hopefully I’ll have some good gaming stories for that soon.

In my game, we joke that the party is basically a murdering machine… we roam the countryside and massacre evil-doers. In the real world, vigilantes can’t just go around executing people. Even in movies and books, there are generally few lethal fights. Sometimes the bad guys go scurrying off, permanently defeated. Othertimes the villains are tied up and left for the nearby and incorruptible authorities to pick up.

When my group feels sympathetic towards the last standing enemy, instead of killing him, we tend to make them forswear villainy and set them up to be a reformed community member. But generally we choose to kill him to save the hassle.

What I want to try is next time we know we’re going after the bad guys, is to notify the good and trustworthy constable so we have backup to arrest and cart away the bad guys after we’re done. That way we can be heroic without having to deal with the logistics of prisoners.

We actually did this once during Keep On The Shadowfell and it worked out pretty well, although I think the DM was annoyed that we brought along a half dozen NPCs into the dungeon.

Another neat thing would be to create an item or ritual that we can use on defeat bad guys to transport them directly to our campaign’s Azkaban or Arkham Asylum. We don’t know about such a place yet, but it sounds like a great adventure location.

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Sword Fightin’ In Style

One aspect of Robert Jordan’s mega Wheel of Time series that I enjoy is its description of dueling, or “dancing the forms” as he calls sword-fighting is called.  A lot of attention is paid in these novels to a blademaster’s maneuvers: each combination of swing and footwork has a fantastical name that evokes an animal and its environment with names like “wind follows the loon” or “heron in the rushes”.  In Jordan’s world, a blade master has learned hundreds of special forms and knows when to use a particular one to counter his opponent’s.

In 4th edition there is a lack of a  a good blade-master class. It’s absence makes me miss the old class kits from 2e, although those were usually associated with the Fighter. In 4th Edition, a Defender Fighter is built to soak up damage: a sword & board type of warrior. I think that my desired type of  sword-master would be more of a striker, like a two weapon ranger, except specializing in one type of sword. The big difference between my vision and what is available is the lack of specialized powers that represent the sword master moves. Martial Power 2 comes close with Combat Styles, although that seems more like different Eastern fighting schools than special individual forms.

Although I probably wouldn’t opt for it in my own games due to the time issues at the table, it would be neat to see some kind of system for more expressive combat: sword forms and dueling. For instance, if an opponent were to attack with a “Fox stalks the Seagull” maneuver, it would be nice to have a list of counter moves to choose from. I don’t know if you’ve played Monkey Island with its unique fight by insulting mechanic, but basically you get a list of responses to given attack and have to choose the most appropriate one. I think I would give that kind of mechanic a go to see how it feels.

Are there any 4e powers or combat variations that put the strategy into individual swings of the sword, rather than the move/damage type strategy of the standard powers?

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?

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.

You’re Playing Your Character Wrong

Today’s Dork Tower illustrates a session recap where one of the heroes wound up doing tons of cool things the previous week , when the character was played  by different player.  I found great humor in this, as I have experienced this situation myself. It happens to all gaming groups: one guy can’t make it the table and so his character is picked up by someone else.  The big fear in this situation is that the character will die at the hands of someone else’s mismanagement or at least without the owning player to have a chance to make that death save himself. But what really ends up happening many times is that the character performs the same or better under the temporary player.

Does this mean the original player is playing wrong? Maybe.

It’s really hard to answer if someone else is playing your character better with only one or two data points over a few years. But assuming that’s enough data, let’s explore what I mean by “the character performs the same or better.” Firstly  I am referring to the character’s effectiveness in terms of usefulness in battle and influence among NPCS (as expressed by charisma checks, participation in interactions, etc). What I am not referring to is how “true to type” you think the character should be role-played (e.g. your dwarf is dour enough or your paladin isn’t preachy). Like any other art, role-playing is highly subjective and can be interpreted in many different fashions, including how well the artist (i.e. player) portrays a character. Like other arts, you can also apply “objective” measures of technical proficiency and use of the medium, but those are also a topic for another day.

At the risk of offending someone, I’m going to continue this article written from perspective that your character is being played by someone else. In this scenario you’re out sick for the week and your buddy picks up your character and proceeds to use him to kick ass and take loot on level that you never acheived. Why might this be?

  1. He’s got loaded dice, the DM likes him better, or it was just a lucky day. There are so many variables from week to week that it’s hard to say. Perhaps if you were present, the numbers would have come up in your favor as well. Either way, this is the least useful assement because there’s not much to learn from it. And without you missing multiple sessions with your character being picked up by the same player, and performing glorious exploits each time while being a dud with you, it’s impossible to rule out. This means you can stop here and go check out you tube, but if you are willing to entertain other possibilities:
  2. He’s got extra attention. When a player volunteers to run someone else’s character, odds are that he’s the one with the most extra energy that night to put into a second character. Especially if you game at night, it’s to be expect that some to everybody is pretty tired. It’s not anything you’re doing wrong, so much as that night your buddy was able to manage all that was going on. In fact, maybe it’s good exercise for everyone to take a turn at hosting two PCs. The extra burden of two characters might force you to be more efficient in terms of managing powers and choosing actions since you have to do it twice as often per round. With two characters, there’s no time to fumble through rule-books because your turn will always be next. In fact you’d have to spend more of the battle paying attention if you have to strategize for two different characters, meaning you might make better decisions for one.
  3. He can build synergies. Unless your friend is a role-playing superstar, he’s going to be tempted to play the two characters like they were of one mind, basically giving the player twice as many actions in a round. Because 4e is really built around PC combos, he can be really effective using movement and attacks. In the 8 ways your character can die, we joked about launching a fireball into melee, but when you have two characters you can have one hold back until after your other’s fireball explodes and then rush the first into battle. I find Hold Actionis not used optimally since everyone is vying for the glory of the kill. So it’s not that he’s playing your character better, but just being more effective with two independent weapons. The same synergy and holding action can be used in skill challenges with equal ruthlessness. If you’ve ever played in a party where another player has a Shaman with a spirit companion, you know what I’m talking about.
  4. He’s got more experience than you. For example, you recently started playing an elf ranger, but your buddy’s been playing elf rangers for the past two years and has a better feel for how they’re effective on the battlefield. Or even if your character is a new type to him, he might have a system for tracking conditions, using powers, or taking advantage of enemy weaknesses that might have escaped your notice. If this is the case, don’t get defensive or upset, but instead ask details of specific exploits so you can learn from him; watch what he does with his character and see if any of his style is applicable to yours.

This assumes you want your character to do be doing the types of things he did under the control of your teammate. Perhaps you’re playing a shy peacenik who would never charge into the middle of a battlefield, no matter how “cool” a scene it was. This should hold true for when you’re playing someone else’s character: you should try to be faithful as you can to how the character normally acts. Even if he has a +4 broadsword of smiting, if the character always hangs out in back and shoots crossbow, try to stick to that gameplan; you’ll be thanked by having your character portrayed accurately in your absence.

Marking your opponents

One of the difficulties in D&D’s combat is system is keeping track of all the different status effects. It’s not so bad when it comes to tracking the effects on your own character; you can use the boxes on a character sheet, status markers, or status effect cards to record multiple effects. Each player also has motivation to track the effect’s they’ve put on enemies, like status conditions and ongoing damage. The DM has the same burden but for all the monsters, of which there could be many.

What’s more difficult to track are the non-constant effects. That is effects that vary depending on which character’s viewing it. For instance if a monster provides combat advantage to some but not all of the PCs, line of sight, hiding, cover, etc. In particular this was an issue I touched on in my last post on stealth. When a monster rolls a stealth check against the PC’s passive perception, they may be hidden from 0-N players. In this case it may be important for a player to know if his character can see the monster, and it’s important for the DM to know which PCs can see the monster. This situation seems pretty difficult to track on the board. If I get time before our next game, I may pick up a small piece of plexiglass and make a “visibility token” with 5 or 6 small boxes that represent each player and can be marked for depending on who it’s hiding from. Doing the same for tracking player visibility is harder as there are generally a ton of opponents… however that’s a problem for the DM.

Another thing I wish was easier to track on the board is line of sight/cover. I have trouble remembering the deal about figuring out the unobstructed path from one corner to many corners. We’ve tried string and dowels, but rarely is there a nice flat path between two minis. Usually there is some kind of terrain with hard-to-follow rules about how it affects cover, as well as other minis in the way.  This prevents laying down something straight on the table.  This seems like the thing an electronic board would excel at (that and light/concealment). But without the $10,000 for a Microsoft Surface, I can’t think of viable alternative that isn’t more annoying than string and counting.

I plan on eventually getting around to reviewing some of the tools we use already for marking up the map, but in the meantime I’m interested in what people use, especially if players use any software that is more than a character sheet to help with this problem. I found this list on the ‘net and its pretty good.

More on stealth

Stealth seems to be a topic that I’ve been writing about a lot (see On Sneaking) lately. The reason why I’m writing about it again is because at our last game, we had a tough time of it.  Our stealth woes were so bad, my DM wrote about it on her own blog. On the surface, our problems were related to figuring out when to make Stealth and Perception checks, what bonuses to apply, how light, cover, and different actions change a character’s ability to hide. Digging deeper, the real problem was that the party got totally schooled in the sneak department by our Kenku opponents.

The problem with the Stealth rules is not just their complexity, but also that it has been errata’d at least once. For my own (and possibly your) future reference, the 4e erratas are kept here: http://www.wizards.com/dnd/Article.aspx?x=dnd/updates. In the latest update (March 2010), the Stealth rules are on page 15 of the errata, although that is likely to change as the document changes, so just search for “Stealth” and you’ll eventually get there.

Here’s the breakdown of how I think Stealth works:

  • You hide (and roll the opposed checks) at the end of the move action. That means you can’t move, attack, and then hide. Your character must be able to make a move action to hide (even if he moves 0 squares). As long as you end the move in a spot where you can hide, you’re can still make the check, even if the move happened out in the open.
  • You make the check against any enemy against which you have total concealment (invisible or obscured but not next to) or superior cover (behind a window, arrow slit, grate). That means you can be hidden from some enemies but not others. It’s incumbent on the player or DM not to use player knowledge to unduly influence a character’s actions in this case. If character that can see the hidden creature points it out his friends, I suppose they should be able to make attacks into that square as if it had total concealment (-5).This particular part bit us in that recent encounter against the Kenkus, since the Kenku Sneaks [DDI] have an ability to hide if it has cover from another Kenku. I believe our DM rightly and effectively used this power against us, even when the Kenku only had partial cover. The ability text refers to just “cover” and the Stealth rules explicitly state that a character can’t use an ally’s cover to hide, meaning this is one of those exception-based abilities the rules are so fond of. These exceptions are good for the game as it gives these monsters a unique flavor that others won’t have, but is frustrating as heck to a rules lawyer.
  • To stay hidden all you need is to maintain a little bit of cover or concealment, not make a lot of noise, and not attack. If you move more than 2 spaces you have to make a new Stealth check, but if you’re okay if you move two or less and have just a little bit covering.To me, this means if  one hides in the first round, and then in next round he attacks someone, it breaks the hiding.  But then he can use a move action to rehide (if he still satisfies the cover conditions). This is a pretty good deal for a sniper. In fact you can imagine a pretty good ninja-character sneaking in somewhere, killing a minion and then re-hiding with a move, silently sneaking from guy to the next, taking them out. Another interesting piece is that you need total concealment to hide, but can stay hidden with partial concealment. When dealing with light sources, you can go into hiding when it’s completely dark, but then sneak through dim light.
  • The one caveat is that you can’t rehide as part of an action that makes you loose hiding. So if you have a power that grants an move & attack as part of an action, you can’t use that move to hide after loosing the hiding from the attack: you’d have to do another move action. Also if you move out of cover/concealment or move more than 2 squares and fail the new Stealth check, you can’t re-hide at the end of that movement.

There are a few interesting questions that aren’t covered explicitly by the rules, and I wanted to take a stab at them, since they are likely to come up again as we fight more stealthy enemies.

  1. Generally, to be hidden an enemy needs some amount of cover or concealment. In that case I assume the normal rules for cover/concealment apply for attacking, which is generally a -5 when you can’t see the enemy. However what if the creature has a special power that lets it remain hidden without cover/concealment? Then I assume for standard attacks the rules are the same as if the creature were invisible (-5 to hit), but what about with an area attack? On page 281 of the PHB, it says that an close or area attack doesn’t suffer the penalty when attacking an invisible enemy. I assume the same applies in the Stealth case.
  2. What about forced movement? Let’s say I have an area force attack that pushes everything 3 squares. Does this mean a hidden creature is now exposed? Or do they get a chance to reroll Stealth to hide, even though it’s not their move action? What about if the forced movement is only 1 or 2 squares? My gut reaction would be that anything forced to move would be moved away from what it was hiding behind and is thus exposed.
  3. In a second post, Sarah wrote again about the Kenku situation, and postulated in her notes about moving the Sneaks around to give each other advantage. While devastating, I don’t think it is cheap tactic since an attack breaks hiding and they have to use a move action to rehide, so any sneak hidden by another can attack (breaks hiding), and move to provide cover but can’t rehide without cover/concealment itself. The now covered kenku can use a move action to hide, and then attack from hidden (for extra damage) but then can’t rehide that round (see my comment on her post). It’ll be tough but I think sending the  defender to limit their movements will help break the pattern.  This pattern I think is most useful for an archer on a rampart: he attacks (breaking cover), moves down to the next hole and rehides, and repeats this round after round.
  4. If creature A is using creature B to hide, and creature B moves, leaving A without cover, is A no longer hidden? I’m assuming that’s the case here.

So, have I gotten these rules completely wrong? After rereading the rules two dozen times in writing this article, I feel like I understand them much better and are no longer afraid to use them, but there still seems like there could be a ton of situations where logic and rules clash. I know it’s up to the GM to make the call and move on, but sometimes a fair ruling isn’t the fun one 🙂