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!


Public Gaming

When I was in my youth we used to game in a study room of our public library. Then I didn’t think anything of it, although now It would never occur to me. Perhaps that’s because I have a private apartment now, free of judging parents or a pesky sister.

A few months ago we played a post-PAX East d&d game at a bar in Cambridge. The well-themed Celtic pub made a great environment for gaming, and the staff and nearby patrons were between amused to intrigued, but not disparaging. We had a good time, even if it was loud and alcohol fueled. Also we didn’t get through the adventure, but it was a good time. And playing out in the open, moved my gamer shame token down one notch on the track.

Tonight, instead of gaming we returned there just to hang out and geek out (without props)… well we did get a game of Pandemic in (and lost). Sometimes it’s good to get a little fresh air.

Where have you gamed in public? And I mean in a non gamey context. Cons don’t count.

What’s In Your Wallet?

Recently a friend shared a story where he tried to explain 3.5 after playing 4e for awhile. I don’t remember the exact quote, but he was describing how armor weight interplays with other gear weight (in non-linear fashion) when determining encumbrance for determining armor check penalty and speed penalties. Encumbrance is something I’ve generally always played without. My house rule is generally: everything can fit into the backpack, but nothing unusually large or heavy (doors, statuary, ladders, bodies, etc).

The advantage of an abstracted inventory is that it takes away tedious bookkeeping. Also by having a vast arsenal of items on hand, it makes it possible to MacGuyver up some interesting solutions to puzzles and other situations. The downside is that it takes away some of the challenge and a lot of the realism. But D&D is supposed to be heroic, not realistic… so I guess that’s kinda moot.

Besides the size and weight there’s also an issue of location. Obviously the equipped items are filling up some slot on the body, but everything else? Is it in a belt pouch, pockets, backpack, saddlebags, chest strapped to the pack horse? Normally an item’s location doesn’t make a difference; it’s always just a minor action away from my character’s hands.

But what about if an enemy wants to steal or attack an item? Called shots, sundering, and pickepocketing are out of the rules in 4e so I guess it’s pretty much at DM’s discretion. This is good for an enterprising player that wants to lift a key out of a guard’s pocket, but bad if the DM turns around and has an enemy ritual your sword right out of your hand!

To that end, even though I don’t fastidiously record the weights and locations of everything, I like to have a general sketch of where all my character’s items are, even if there is probably more than is reasonable in the backpack. That way if my DM is feeling evil, I can at least make a case for saying something is hard for an opponent to get at.

Photo courtesy of kevindooley on flickr.

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.


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 >:-).

Do You Play Differently In a One-Shot?

I’ve been trying to assess  my play style to figure out if I play differently in a one-shot situation than a normal ongoing campaign. Conventional wisdom holds that since a one-shot holds fewer consequences and requires less investment, players might tend to play riskier than would in a long-term campaign. I’m not sure that it’s true.

Many times in a one-shot it feels like I am playing a disposable character. On the plus side it grants the freedom to try out a race or class or combination that I might not ordinarily play. On the downside if you don’t care about your character’s fate, it’s easy to get him killed, or act like a jerk. Thankfully this risk is regularly countered by my own primal need to win (which is an abstract concept in D&D).

I’m now playing in semi-regular campaign. Since I thought it was going to be a one-shot, I thought it would be fun to play an evil paladin. And it has been fun to root against my own character, but at some point I decided I wanted him to live and maybe make a journey towards redemption–which is not generally a 4-6 hour character arc. I came to this realization after I had already been subconsciously playing him like a campaign character and not as a disposable character.

Upon reflection, I think I always play my characters like they’re permanent fixtures in their world. Which leads me to wonder I am normal or weird in this regard? Do you treat one-shot characters different than campaign characters?

8 Ways to die in D&D

I wanted to take a break between PAX-inspired posts to share a blog article forwarded to me by reader and friend Paras. It’s called The 8 Most Common Ways D&D Characters Die from the Topless Robot blog. I have characters killed off for all 8 of the mentioned reasons, although of the 8 only #8 “Being Eaten”, #4 “A Dragon”, and #2 “The Goddamn Dice” are actually non-meta game possiblities.  The other 5 ways come down to life/tiredness (#7 “Death by Edition” and #1 “You stop playing”) or the others at your table (#6 “Another PC isn’t taking it seriously”, #5 “Friendly fire(ball)”, and #3 “You piss off the cleric”). And although the article is a bit tongue in cheek, they are all serious matters that occur more commonly than we’d like.

There’s not much you can do to prevent being eaten by a grue or slain by a dragon other than by leveling up and having the right equipment. But there’s a lot you can do before you get to the other points.

Respecting the other players goes a long way towards having the cleric (and everyone else) covering your character’s back. That means helping out allies in combat, sharing the spotlight, and being nice to each other. If you show up to a game and your head’s not in it, don’t be a distracting dick and pick a fight with the blacksmith! Instead either excuse yourself for the night and sit this one out, or at least fake enthusiasm, but don’t ruin anyone else’s time. If someone is being a jerk, call him or her on it, and if your DM lets a situation devolve into a intraparty fight (and your group is not okay with it), stand up and call a time out. D&D is a game and it’s supposed to be fun. If your game is not fun, and you’re not playing in prison, you can get up an leave. Find a new gaming group or game.

Death by fireball is the most interesting of the eight scenarios, because it implies it is neither due to luck nor jerkiness. In my group we ask the others at table when it’s okay to use a power that will damage an ally, and trust in each player to know his character’s ability to survive an attack. Sometimes mistakes happen or a crit gets rolled, and that’s just party of the game. It sucks, but as long as the fireball wasn’t cast carelessly or maliciously it’s okay. If a player is carelessly lobbing fireballs into melee, you should once again talk to that player about it and see if there is way to retool the character so she’s still effective, but only on enemies. And if that doesn’t work, withhold healing.

In the case of edition-cide, you can try one of the (un)official conversion guides, but sometimes if the group moves on to a new game, it’s time to retire your hero while he is still in his prime. Finally, as someone who has been able to get back into gaming after a long break, there’s not much advice I can offer if you stop playing other than to stay atop the hobby and get back in when time frees up.