Dark Sun Apprehension

My group is looking to wind down the current campaign. That’s probably for the best: The current plot has dragged on for months, mostly due to our inability to get together this summer. A gaming drought makes it easy to loose interest move on to the current shiny, and from my experience this is common in our hobby.

It doesn’t help that the Dark Sun setting is finally out now. It’s certainly the new hotness, and the ‘nets have been going crazy for it. My fellow players are itching to play it, so we’re going to be moving on to it, once we finish up our current campaign.

Dark Sun presents a lot of interesting character options, but somehow I’m not jazzed by it. I read the novels and played a few adventures there back in the 2e days, but it doesn’t bring back warm memories for me. Maybe it’s because the DM kept trying (and succeeding) to kill us, or maybe it’s because I’m more of a high-fantasy type player. On the plus side, the savage monsters and hostile landscape are cool aspects of the setting, and Wizards has done a great job of providing lots of new monsters, themes, hazards, skill challenges, etc to go along with the setting that sound like a boon for any campaign. And on down side, the tireless struggle against all powerful sorcerer kings, the dismal life, lack of traditional arcane and divine magic, twisted races, and the whole Dune meets Conan setting doesn’t inspire me to be heroic.

I think I’ll give it a chance anyway since that what my group wants. It sounds like we’re going to spend a lot of time on the city, so I was thinking some kind of court intrigue/spy character. Any suggestions for race/class/theme combo?

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Dealing With a Full House

I don’t envy my DM. This week she hosted six players. My preferred GM to group ratio is 1:4. Our group and the standard 4e rule book handles five players. And, in my experience, the organized play events fit 6 players to a game.  This week our group had to deal with just about every difficulty 6 players presents: physically fitting everyone around the table, getting turns in the skill challenges, long time between rounds in combat, and difficulty engaging with the GM.

Fitting Everyone Around the Table

We play on our DM’s dining room table, so we were physically limited by the size of the table and the room. This week the last person to arrive had to sit away from the table, and stood up in the corner during combats so he could roll. This situation sucked because there was a little bit of personal space issue, and I imagine that he didn’t feel entirely included in the group.  Unfortunately, I don’t know what we could have done differently. It’s nice to be able to host guest players, but if this became a regular issue, I’d probably ask for a hard limit on the number of people to be invited, even if I had to occasionally sit out.

Getting Turns in Skill Challenges

This is a general problem for my group. At first I thought it was character based, but since we played new characters last night, I’m going to go with it’s personality-based. Like any group, our has a complex dynamic, and some people are better at getting their way and making the rolls during a skill challenge.  With six players the issue is exacerbated in that there are a fewer worthwhile actions to go around and the challenge might be resolved before someone gets to act. On top of the physical layout made it harder for everyone to participate.

I realized these issues at the time, so I feel like I could have been more assertive about encouraging others to participate. We also could have spent more time discussing each challenge with the DM instead of immediately taking actions; in particular, I think I should have asked for a list of available actions, at least as a starting off point to make sure all the bases were covered.

Combat Takes Awhile

No matter what tricks are done to make a combat last fewer rounds, there’s just a minimum amount of time each person needs to analyze his situation, come up with the character’s actions and execute them. It seems harder with a larger group to do some of the usual tricks, like buddying up with someone to discuss strategy or plan one’s turn farther ahead. In fact by the time my turn came around, my plans and next two backup plans were already invalid!

With a large group it might be fun to have two judges run the monsters and split the party (in the same encounter) so each round has two simultaneous parts. That might get tricky, if the two groups are right on top of each other, but if the groups are in two connected rooms or floors, that might work. But as for our particular situation, patience and understanding were the keys for getting through it. The tough part is that long downtime makes it easier to drift off into side conversations or cyberspace.

Engagement With the GM

This is hard for any GM, and I can’t fault ours for how she handled things. It is just a fact of life that people have limited attention span and so we all have to compete for some of it. I think that with four players, getting a 25% share of the GM lets you accomplish a lot in character, in either role playing, skill challenges, or combat. With 6 players, you only get 17%, and it makes a big difference. It’s also stressful to the GM who has to make sure everyone gets his fair share at the spotlight. Once again, I don’t have any useful advice here, other than to be concious of it, be ready to give up the spotlight, and help the GM out where you can.

How do you deal with large groups? Anyone game with more than 6 players? I once DM’d for 10… that was a mess.

How To Cheat in D&D

One of the great things about tabletop roleplaying is that for most groups winning and cheating are irrelevant concepts. D&D is about group storytelling; by negating the game mechanic through cheating  you loose the ability to build memorable scenes out of failure and you won’t allow room for characters to grow. Why should experience (and therefore experience points) matter if you’re just going to blow through all the encounters risk-free. In fact, one of the challenges of 4e is that since all the encounters are scalable to the PCs level, the DM has to work harder to make the encounters interesting yet winnable. Thankfully there’s a lot of knobs in the DM toolkit to adjust encounter difficulty.

With that in mind, I found it interesting that the Roleplaying Tips blog highlighted ways for GMs to handle cheaters. The article covers two types of cheaters: ones who lie about their dice roles (and stats), and ones who read ahead in the module. Flipping this around into advice for cheaters: “lie about your dice” and “read the module.”

Lie About Your Dice

This has been the go-to for GMs who roll behind a screen, but there’s no reason why you can’t either. For starters, you can roll on the table and blatantly lie about it. Odds are your GM will be too far away or too short to read the small digits on the die; your fellow players may grumble but will probably look to avoid conflict, so you’re golden there. To be a little more subtle about it, you can get loaded die (let me know if you have a link where to get some), roll on the sly (at the edge of the table, behind some books or your hand, etc), or just nudge the die after it lands.

There’s not just dice that you can lie about. When taking damage, you skim a few hp off the top to last longer, or add a few “bonus points” to skill checks and other rolls. It’s harder to lie about your ability scores and defenses, since most GMs tend to keep the basic stats on hand.

You’ll need to be wary when your fellow players start getting suspicious. Be sure to get good at lying…put a few ranks into Bluff.

Read The Module

This one is far tougher. Lying is an opportunistic event, to get a hold of the GM’s module and read it requires planning, and quite possibly money. Many GMs don’t use published modules or when they do, they modify it, so this has limited value unless you know which module and that your GM is going to use it relatively unchanged. The Kobold Hall in the back of DMG and Keep on the Shadowfell, which is free on the Internet, are easy to access. Also now that Dungeon comes with a DDI subscription, you can get your hands on the adventures in that magazine pretty easy. Other printed or 3rd party modules require that you spend some money, which seems a little ridiculous just to cheat at something where you’d only be cheating yourself.

The upside to reading the module your GM is running is that if you don’t mind knowing the spoilers, you can help the GM out by moving the plot along by making choices that move through a well-paced set of encounters. Also some modules are  balanced towards the PCs finding hiding items or solving puzzles that you wouldn’t be likely to find unaided.

In case your GM is reading this blog… don’t actually cheat, you’re only cheating yourself and your friends. If she’s not… cheat to win! After all, it’s only a game!

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?

My DM was on the Tome Show

In the recent episode of The Tome Show, my DM (aka Sarah Darkmagic) built a skill challenge for us with the help of Mike from SlyFlourish. Here is her take on episode. I can’t vouch for the whole podcast as this is the first episode I listened to, but it was quite good so I’ve subscribed…. The Tome Show seems focused on DM’ing (the last couple of episodes have been about skill challenges). The discussion was particularly awesome for me and my group as we got to directly benefit from all these DMs collaborating on our adventure.

On the show they built an information-gathering skill challenge, which Tracy enhanced with a random rumor table to get things started. In designing the challenge they came up with several different ways for us to get to an NPC and then get the needed information out of him. What we didn’t realize when playing it out was: since we got a lot of information up front, we sorta combined them all into a single scenario in our minds, which was not the intent, but the DM went with it anyway. The challenge for us as a group is that because we are mostly high-Charisma characters so we usually crawl over each other to make the Diplomacy/Bluff checks. The way the challenge was designed, with multiple stages and avenues of exploration, allowed us to work together and split up the roles, instead of our usual conflict. For example, my character forged a note (Bluff) using advice from the rogue (Insight), and then handed the note off to the bard who gave it to a third party to deliver (Diplomacy).

This illustrates that a well crafted skill challenge and teamwork can get most of the people at a gaming involved. Unfortunately it did not work out well for the swordmage (see comments on the rumor table post). He felt left out of the challenge because we decided on that course of action which did not need his character’s assistance. The lesson learned, I think, is to make sure everyone gets a chance to participate in the challenge and brainstorm as a group on what actions a character can take, in light of the overall plan.

Also in the same episode, Quinn from At Will, discussed running skill challenges. I had the opportunity to play in one of his games, and I’ll be paying it forward next week when I DM for him in a homebrewed Arabian Nights game. I’m going to have a bit more of my DMing forays over the next weeks, but I’m going to try to keep my player focus with those posts. In particular, I followed my own advice and I crafted a backstory adventure for my regular character that I was supposed to run tonight, but I had to cancel because of work 😦

Gamer’s Court

It’s not often that I get to listen to The D6 Generation podcast. It’s a great podcast about gaming, including wargames, roleplaying, and board games with a strong focus on minatures gaming.  Unfortunately the episodes usually run 3 hours long, which is a bit much for my commute. But this week I did get a chance to listen to their recent episode on playing board games with children, and there was a small point in their intro segment that I want to pull on here. The hosts described a situation where two of the  hosts made a gentleman’s agreement to play a miniatures game with only painted miniatures that were the exact mini for a particular unit.  In a recent game one of them brought out a unpainted mini to use and the other player called shenanigans and brought the matter before the third host to arbitrate. In a fun segment, each of the players made an argument for their case and presented evidence and precedent before the third host made a ruling.

I think it would be great if there was a People’s Court for games, a Gamer’s Court, if you will. A system where players could bring disputes with other players or DMs and get a ruling. There are tons of situations where a DM makes a call in a gray area of the rules where you’d like to get a second opinion. Even more important are the times when a player has a greivance against another. For example let’s say a character gets seriously injured because another launched a fireball into melee. Was it duchebaggery, carelessness, or a calculated risk? The offended player can seek redress in the court and claim that the wizard’s player has a history of fireball negligence and owes damages (maybe the wizard has to give one of his magic items to the fighter as compensation).

My intention is that this Court be for players themselves to get a conflict or question resolved, but if an adventure has off week or between-sessions, it might be a nice RP opportunity to play out a character grievance in-game. The characters can take an argument (say the above-mentioned fireball incident) to the local magistrate or arcane guild for arbitration. For something in-game, the resolution should be light-hearted and acceptable to both players, lest the argument spiral into a bigger one instead of resolving. In the fireball case, if the wizard was found to be reckless, he could be asked to refrain from fireballs into melee or provide a fighter a cloak of fire resistance.

I’m offering my services to write a short brief on behalf of a player that finds himself in Gamer’s Court, provided I can use it as material for the blog.

When you can’t talk it out

The solution to many of the player-player problems I’ve described over the past few months is a simple two-part solution: (a) don’t be a jerk, and (b) talk it out. This supposes not just that your fellow players are reasonable people, but that you’re all capable of giving and receiving constructive criticism. I would love to play in a game where this is the case, but I game in the real world where everyone around the table is an actual, emotional human.

At times in our game someone will say something in a way that annoys me, or the party will reject my plans, or I have to share the spotlight with others. I can be rational enough most of the time to see the other’s point of view, respect it, and go with what maximizes everyone’s fun.  But sometimes I strongly disagree with group’s decision or with one person in particular. In those situations, I usually keep my mouth shut because it’s not worth discussion, or I don’t to want to risk embarrassing someone, or it’s worth it to me for them to get their opportunity while I wait for my turn.  Also there are times when I just don’t know how to say what I want in a constructive manner that will be well received. This is the balance I’ve struck, and I assume everyone else is more or less on the same page.

This week one player’s frustration boiled over on to my DM’s blog. I read his comment as being frustrated with three aspects of a skill challenge: a mismatch in expectations about how the skill challenge should be run, a sense of character uselessness in the given situation, and the group action going off in a different direction. Personally if I were him, I would have found the combat portion more frustrating as we are still adjusting to our new group and the tactics did not pan out.

When two people have incompatible gaming styles, there’s not much that can be done so that both people still have fun. If you’re all about combat and are stuck in a game where most of the adventure is devoted into sitting around a parlor reading into NPC body language, you’re not going to have a lot of fun.  Both are fine ways to play D&D and if enough of the adventure fits what you want to get out it, then it’s worth your time to stay in the game, but otherwise it’s time to find a new group. But when two people at the table have different expectations about how a game should be run, this can usually be corrected. Sometimes the GM will promise one type of game and deliver another: e.g.   high seas pirate adventure turns out to really be a merchant-guild intrigue.  In that case, the party should either: call out the GM and adjust the adventure, agree that you’d all prefer the intrigue game, or elect a new GM. When the expectation misalignment comes from “I think skill challenges should be run like X” (which was what happened to us) or “I thought you would rule Acrobatics worked differently.” Here the player has a duty to constructively talk to the GM about the expectations, and negotiate a resolution. This is best done before or after a game, and it may not be resolved satisfactorily.

When it comes to skill challenges in 4e, I think that sense of character redundancy may be overblown. My engineering instinct is to maximize the party’s success at every point, meaning the person with the highest modifier has the best chance of making the roll. I’ve only had one failed skill challenge, so maybe it’s time to let up a bit and let everyone have a chance at making untrained skill checks. Usually the DCs are set so everyone has a reasonable shot. I think I may make a table of way out of the box uses for certain skills and rituals as a reference for myself for these situations and share it here, so people can use their main skills in off ways or off skills as primary roll.

For me, it’s difficult in a free-form situation to make sure that every player gets a chance to do something or influence the group decision. In last night’s game, I advocated for a plan that involved splitting the party to guarantee success in multiple aspects. My plan based on the rumors that the party heard and I was able to understand, which was not the entirety of the available information available. The plan we chose with was simpler and better, but until I was able to parse all the information and agree, I felt like my plan was being trampled but some of the other players. We had five people and five plans (to start) and not everyone based theirs off the correct set of assumptions (including me). It’s tough to get your voice heard in that situation. I understand from a logical point of view that everyone’s ideas should be considered before choosing a course of action, and I think we did that. I just prefer it when it’s my plan that gets chosen (which it does often enough). I also understand my fellow party members intentions and why they rejected the other proposed actions; those were either inappropriate or less appropriate for the situation.

I don’t know how to advise people to be more assertive in this group, and that’s the sticking point for me. I sucked it up loosing out on the plan, and it hurt at the time, but once we moved on to implementing it I started having fun again. Looking back on it after getting a good night’s sleep and having the beer leave my system, I know the group made the right call.  When advocating a plan, acknowledge the good points in everyone else’s plan and make an impassioned argument (including sharing the assumptions) for your own; and don’t just declare “this is what we’re doing.” And once that decision is made, people can start figuring a way for their character to be useful in it.

So… assertiveness advice?