5 Things I Learned From Pandemic

Pandemic the board game has become quite the go-to for my group when we just don’t feel like doing D&D. It’s an awesome game, and one of the few  games where it’s fun when you loose as well as when you win. It’s especially fun when you’ve almost won but then suddenly loose… it makes you want to try again to beat the damn thing. I highly recommend it. But this is not supposed to be a review post, but rather some observations I’ve made while playing the game that I can apply to D&D.

  1. Strictly speaking you can get by without a Cleric, but the game is a lot easier if you have one. In Pandemic, the Medic gets to clear all the cubes in a city with 1 action (0 if the cure is discovered). While all the characters are useful, the medic is the one that gives the most breathing room,  allowing your team to survive that one more turn needed to win. The cleric does the same in party, supplying important healing and buffs that often turn the tide of battle. As the difficulty of an encounter goes up, the party’s survival is increasingly dependent on healing.
  2. Troubles are exponential. In Pandemic, when things start to go bad, they spiral out of control. One outbreak can spark another, and each time there’s an epidemic the infection rate goes up. It’s no different in D&D. Things may start out fine in a battle, and then all-of-a-sudden, your character is immobilized, and then monsters start ganging up on him. Soon he’s taking 15 ongoing, bloodying him, thereby triggering blood rage on the opponents, causing them to do more damage…. Well you get the picture. Things can be just as bad on RP side. One blown Diplomacy check and suddenly the duke no longer trusts the party, making it harder to pry information out of his servants, making your information less reliable to your patron, and so on.
  3. You’re not going to get there until its too late. In Pandemic you can be busy fixing things in Asia, and just when you feel like you’ve got the red disease under control, the yellow explodes all over South America, and there’s no way the team can get there in time. For every damsel we’ve saved, there’s been twelve townspeople slaughtered on the far side of the encounter. We justify this as collateral damage or calculated losses, but it really burns to know that maybe if we were just a little luckier or planned better we could have saved those villagers from being eaten, enslaved, or sacrificed.
  4. Teamwork is the key to success. The only way to win is to work together as a team, make the most of each others special abilities, and sometimes using powers in a way that helps your team mate out more than you. This is true in D&D, especially when abilities allow you to grant each other moves, attacks, and bonuses; you can wind up doing more damage by setting up a party member’s attack than your own.
  5. It’s not about winning, its about having fun playing. For every time I’ve won at Pandemic, I’ve lost 3 times, which I think is a pretty good ratio. The best part is that no matter if we win or loose, everyone has fun. That’s true in D&D as well. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how many orcs were killed, how much treasure was accumulated, or realms saved from invasion…what’s important is that friends got together for an evening and had fun.

So remember to have fun and play games!

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Deepest, Darkest Fears

Sarah Darkmagic just got back from Gen Con with a crate of swag.  When your DM gets new material, it is an occasion of concern for any player. This event combined dangerously with a simple innocuous email she sent out my fellow players: “Can you please send me your characters worst nightmares?” Now I’m suspicious about what she has planned. My guess is our campaign is headed for some sort of abyssal/madness encounters with sanity-eating monsters. Or maybe just some heavy shadowfell and fear themes. Or maybe these questions are just about adding depth to characters. (Yeah, I don’t buy it either).

This question isn’t one I’ve previously answered for my character. There are two interpretations of “worst nightmare” that could answer her question; its usefulness depending on which direction the campaign is going. The first is a literal nightmare. I’m talking about scary dreams that might involve being chased, falling, being trapped, etc. Nightmares tend to have common themes for people, but vary in specifics. In particular it’s common for fantasy characters to have reoccurring nightmares. These can vary from being chased and captured by a blue dragon out in the Misty Mountains, or seeing your homeland ravaged by savage orcs.

Since my character is a Tiefling, I imagine his nightmare are more demonic in nature. He probably dreams of being captured and tortured by Dispater for not being evil enough and failing to terrorize the material plane.

A more colloquial interpretation of “worst nightmare” is an intellectual fear. These could be being trapped in an elevator with an annoying coworker, being asked to campaign for a political rival, or having your spouse find out you’ve been lying about your identity all this time. These aren’t nightmares per se, but this kind of very personalized anxiety can be just as powerful in a role playing situation.

My character is a Psion and his identity and source of power comes from his incredible intelligence and telepathic abilities. Being stripped of his mental faculties is a big fear of his, and he’d probably turn tail and flee from a mind flayer when he might stand up to a powerful dragon or devil. He’s also a little egotistical so a worse fate than being rendered stupid (which he might then be too dumb to realize) is being treated as if he were. A big irrational fear of his is being trapped by some kind of playground conspiracy where everyone pretends like he’s an idiot and won’t admit to it. That’d drive anyone nuts.

Fears may not be a traditional aspect of character generation, but a good one to think about when fleshing out a well-developed person to be your PC. Any good suggestions for nightmares for my Tiefling Psion or for your own characters?

5 Cards to a Deeper Character

I heard an idea a long time ago and I’m wondering if anyone has every tried something similar.  Take 5 random images, magic cards, quotes, book titles, etc and use those as inspiration for a character’s back story. For the next campaign I want to run, I was thinking of providing 5 random magic cards to each of the players to help them with a back-story. For instance, if the card is a soldier, the character could have a military background, been an army brat, could come from a land under occupation, always wanted to be a soldier but didn’t have the health or discipline, etc.

For an example, here are five magic cards randomly selected from a box in my attic. The nice thing about these cards is that in addition to an evocative name, it also has artwork and usually flavor text that can contribute ideas. Before I start, my initial character concept is a Halfling Monk that was adopted by the monastic order and is adventuring to find his true parents.

  • Sea Serpent. Since I’m building a Monk, I think I’ll equip him with a Cobra Strike Ki Focus [DDI] item. I’ll “reskin” it to be a Sea-Serpent Strike Focus. Instead of being made from clay, it’ll be made from the bones a Sea Serpent he helped hunt in his training.
  • Island. This is fortuitously combined with the last card. The monastery where  was raised was on an Island. Dealing with sea creatures was part and parcel of their order.
  • Unsummon. What’s with all the blue cards? I don’t feel like adding some sort of summoner to my character’s past, but the picture on the card looks like a guy in a dark cloak being surprised by an armored demon appearing before him (I think it’s actually supposed to be disappearing). So I’m adding to the Monk’s past an apparition of a demon army. Even though his quest is to find out who his parents are, in the back of his mind he’s worried about when this army might appear and how he might help prepare the world for this event.
  • Mons’s Goblin Raiders. Goblin raiders are pretty easy to work with. For my character I might add that the Monastery was attacked and destroyed by goblin raiders; the loss of the home is what set him journeying. Unfortunately this feels like too many items for a backstory, so I’m not actually going to include it.
  • Dwarven Warriors. This a great card, although with a high mana cost for a 1/1. Anyway… the first adventure my halfling ran into was with a group of Dwarfs. He helped them with a few battles, but couldn’t stop helping himself to more than his fair share of the treasure and so had to leave quickly…

As you can see, this is a great way to come up with some character inspiration, and is especially good if you get “Adventurer’s Block” or feel like everything has been tried too many times. This is probably also a good way to come up with adventurer’s hooks.  Any other good ideas for random inspiration?

The 3rd Amendment and Your Character

The 3rd Amendment to the US Constitution states:

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

It makes me wonder what the conditions must have been like in colonial America that this protection was important enough to be third on the Bill of Rights. And more importantly, I wonder how those conditions relate to our fantasy worlds. Since the standard D&D world draws a lot from the Middle Ages, it’s plausible that quartering troops in people’s homes is a regular practice.

Since D&D characters often act as mercenaries or direct agents of a lawful authority (church, king, baron, etc), they might be the “Soliders” discussed in the amendemnt. To me, that implies in a pre-3rd Amendement world, when acting as lawful agents, PCs can demand food and shelter from citizens. That is a great way for PCs  to save the 5sp for a night in an inn’s common room and get a hot meal to boot.

As a bonus to the characters, if a homeowner is going to let you sleep in his barn or guest room, he’ll probably roll over if you requisition his horse, weapons, or other goods needed in pursuit of your service. After all, who is he going to complain to? You’re working for the authorities. (It might be interesting to try this in a land where your organization is not recognized or treated with hostility).

On the flip-side, PCs may be asked (or required) to provide accommodation for NPCs, especially for those higher ranking in the characters’ organizations. This could mean giving up their rooms at the inn all the way to turning over magical gear! When that happens, your characters should begrudgingly give them over and then you should remind your DM at every opportunity that he owes you one!

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.

Restaurant Recommendations [Twenty Questions]

What is your character’s favorite place to eat? What about when she’s in Sharn? Waterdeep? Sigil? What kind of food does he or she like? Elven? Dwarven? Northern Halfling? Seafood? Underdark mushroom risotto with Ithilid meat?

I’m trying out a new format today: 20 questions about an aspect of a character. This week it’s food. The idea is to inspire and challenge all of us to further develop our characters. Who knows… this may lead to a role-playing opportunity. Or at least the next time the party is in a tavern and the GM asks “what do you do?” you don’t  blind answer order steak, potatoes, and ale…unless of course that is what your character likes.

So here it goes, 20 questions about food for your character:

  1. Does he/she have any racial dietary restrictions? Warforged don’t eat, Wilden likely eat dirt and sunlight, but mamallian races are probably omnivores.
  2. Does he/she have religious dietary restrictions? Different deities might restrict what their followers should eat. For instance followers of Pelor might not eat anything that doesn’t grow in sunlight.
  3. Does he/she have food allergies?
  4. Is he/she a vegetarian?
  5. What food grosses him/her out?
  6. What did his/her parents/servants like to make?
  7. What is the culinary specialty of his/her homeland?
  8. Does he/she have a sweet tooth?
  9. Is he/she a picky eater?
  10. Is he/she an aggressive eater? Did she grow up in a household where there was competition for food? Does he finish other people’s plates (maybe before they are done)?
  11. Are there particular colors of food he/she is drawn towards or away from?
  12. What food is associated with his/her favorite festival?
  13. Does he/she drink alcohol?
  14. Does he/she prefer making food or dining out?
  15. Are his/her trail rations simple jerky or hard tack or something fancy? Does it come in a silk-lined tin, or just thrown at the bottom of the bag?
  16. Any weird rules about food? E.g. doesn’t eat meat from flying creatures or only eats fruits with the seeds on the outside, etc?
  17. Cookies or cupcakes?
  18. Do all the ingredients have sit separately on the plate or jumbled together?
  19. How does he/she eat a Reeses?
  20. What is his/her favorite food?

Two bonus questions:

  1. Crunchy or creamy?
  2. Vanilla or chocolate?

Let me know if this format is interesting and if thinking about these helps with character generation. Bon Appetit!

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.