Time To Chuck Alignment

By now I’m sure you’ve all seen this alignment chart:

This cute graphic got me thinking. Back when there were mechanical consequences (protection spells, powers, weapons, etc) to your character’s outlook on life, it made sense to abstract and categorize ethical alignment.

D&D 4e presents players with a reduced and asymmetrical choice for alignment. What’s even more important is that there doesn’t seem be any mechanical consequence to alignment choice. In my experience most players choose “unaligned” unless making a bold statement about the character’s heroic tendencies.

I’m willing to make a bold statement: ditch alignment entirely. In two years of 4e I’ve only seen it used as a role-playing crutch for labelling PCs and bad guys. And worse, I’ve seen it used to limit character choice and bog down play with “alignment fundamentalism.” Have you ever heard “oh no! I can’t work with a bad guy for a greater good because I’m Lawful Good”?

Check out DM Samuel’s 7 Moral Dilemmas for  situations that would be easier and more fun to play without being caged by alignment.

I don’t mean to say alignment systems are always bad. There are valid play-styles where it’s important and appropriately used. If you’ve found the 4e alignment system useful let me know! And if you’ve house-ruled away alignment, let me know it’s been going.

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 🙂

Vehicular slaughter

Last week I wrote about escaping from a dungeon. Reader Paras commented that a good scenario would have the heroes locked up with the ingredients to build a battle vehicle for the escape.  This comment got me thinking that vehicles don’t come up that often in regular D&D games. In novels the heroes always wind up on a boat [snl skit], and my favorite element of the Eberron setting is the lighting rail. But in my experience occasionally the characters will own a horse to hand-wave overland movement, and maybe they’ll be on a wagon once and awhile. This leaves out the bulk of transport the characters can find themselves on.

Why do vehicles rarely show up in my games? Well, to start off vehicles are expensive. A cart [DDI] is only 75gp, but it costs 75gp for a horse to pull it. If you want to go faster, a hippogriff will set you back gp 4,200, and a ship costs 10,000. If you want to arrive in style and have a cool 125,000 gp, nothing less than a flying carpet will do. Keep in mind that’s enough to get a Lilting Songblade. And at those prices, you might as well just teleport. But let’s just say that the party gets some transport as a gift. What other obstacles have kept my characters on foot in the past? Oh yeah, the rules are obscure and confusing. There’s a lot of things to keep track of in battle without having to worry about staying mounted, mount size and mounted movement. Plus there’s what about Riding checks, combat advantage, rolling saves, charge rules, etc. What if the animal gets scared or confused? I do have to say the 4e rules are the simplest yet, but they are a headache just for the novelty. I’d rather be in campaign where mounted combat occurs often, so we can use appropriate feats and have incentives to learn the rules. Otherwise it’s easier to deal with “everyone magically dismounts” at the start of combat. I wrote a bit about this a long time ago.

For my own and others’ future reference, the rules for mounted combat are on page 46 of the DMG.

These hassles are only problems if you actually want to get on a moving object. I’ll cover two places where “vehicles” would be fun and how to get your group on it. First place is… the story. Vehicles can be good stylistically for the party: you’re a horse-bound knight or a griffon-riding elf noble. Owning a wagon lets NPCs know you’re a merchanty-type, and rolling into town on your own boat or airship lets everyone know you’re successful. You can trick out a vehicle to suit the party, whether you want to decorate with bright colors, post-apocalyptic tank trim, or chrome rims is up to you. Mobility imparts freedom on party, unless the campaign is literally on rails. In addition to increasing your shared ownership of the world, vehicles can move the story forward: they can take characters quickly across great distances, or to areas that cannot be accessed by foot (high cliffs and isolated islands). Building or finding a vehicle can be the story macguffin, a reward for completing a quest, or an item won from enemies. Large vehicles can also serve as the setting for an encounter or a whole adventure.

Vehicles present phenomenal opportunities for combat. A classic scene is jumping on to a moving vehicle from standing or another vehicle. This could be jumping a guy on a horse, making it onto a ship just as it is pulling away from the dock (with enemies in pursuit or on the boat), or breaking into the lightning rail while it’s in transit. In fact, I’m willing to bet a rice and beans dinner that there is already a module with that scenario. Similarly “car chases” can happen with horses, carts, boats, etc. If you’ve got griffons or dragons, your DM can set up a 3D dog-fighting scenario with fireballs and lightning bolts. Flying is even more complicated than regular mounted combat, so I’d like to see simplified rules somewhere for both situations. Maybe if no one knows of any, I’ll think up some rules and bribe my DM to let us try it out.

So fellow players, if vehicles sound cool talk to your GM about including them. You can indicate interest by purchasing a mode of travel and taking feats that deal with riding, flying, or sailing, to show you’re committed. If your DM balks at the overhead of dealing with with transport, agree to share some of the responsibility, maybe make a rules cheat sheet for each of the players….

Levelling Up

When do you like to receive experience points? And when do you like for your characters to level up? Video games (Super Mario Bros. in particular) has conditioned me to expect to know how many points I’ve earned immediately. There is a part of me as a player that wants instant gratification… a desire to get the XP immediately every time a creature is killed or challenge overcome. As a player I am motivated to level up as soon as I can because new levels means new powers.

There is a wide variety of how leveling up is handled in the CRPG world. In final fantasy, you go up a level as soon as you get the XP for it at the end of the battle. This allows the player to stock up on healing potions and spend a few hours grinding in the lava dungeon. In the elder scrolls games, you need to sleep for at least one hour in a real bed before you can level up. This means you could potentially gain multiple levels at once. My personal favorite is in the original Bard’s Tale; there you have to discover the location of the Review Board and go back there when you get enough XP to level up.

In D&D leveling up works a little different. Generally my group plays such that the “level up” moment comes after at least an extended rest between game sessions. When we do this, there is no latency between the rewarding of XP and the leveling, since we add up XP after each game. With previous groups, I’ve generally done leveling up at the end of the “adventure”, with XP being handed out either after each night or at the end of the adventure. It would be nice theme-wise, to have to do something to get that extra level – training, meditating, etc, but in practice it’s hard to fit that in to the adventure flow and to role-play. I think the hereos are always training and experimenting with new skills, and the levelling up is a just a mechanic to abstract it out. So while everyone might not in reality learn their skills at the same time, it just makes it easier to play it that way.

When I DM I generally like to hand out XP at the end of the adventure. Since all the classes advance at the same rate and there is a strong emphasis on rewarding all the players equally, I feel like the whole XP thing can be shortcuricuited completely. I forget the exact number, but the idea is to have 10-12 encounters per level. In my game group, that’s probably an average of 6 sessions, or about 2 months. This seems like a pretty good advancement rate to me.

The downside to the 1 level per “adventure” is that it might feel like there is nothing players can do to affect the experience points, and how much fun is that? I’m not sure how much XP is really under the player’s control (unless the DM gives optional RP rewards and quest XP), but there is  a nice fiction in getting XP after each night–I feel like what we did directly influenced the rewards.

I think the best thing for my group is to keep doing what we’re doing…XP after each night of gaming. But it would be nice if there was an in-game way to RP out the level up part.

More on splitting the party: The Expert

The TV show Numb3rs is about a FBI team that occasionally gets helped out by a math professor. The five FBI agents form the group that goes on missions, hunts down bad guys, and gets into gun fights. Each member of the team fills a different specialty, and yet at the same time are pretty much interchangeable. What makes them work is their effort and teamwork, this is a different model from a team where each person contributes specific skills skills (e.g. the Leverage team). If the show were Star Trek TNG, the FBI guys would be the “away team,” and in d&d they would just be “the party.”  They are the ones going on adventures.

But Charlie the math professor is the main character of the show. He very rarely goes into gunfights with the FBI team. Instead he stays behind in one of the headquaters and hunts down murders through math. In a fantasy setting he would be protrayed by the beyond-wise sage or wizard (but more involved with the world than the stereotypical mystic). But as the main character, he is the cool character that I imagine most people would want to play if the show were a campaign.

I wonder if it is possible to play d&d where one of the party members takes on the role of the Sage that hangs out at HQ and crunches the numbers? In this hypothetical scenario the only the other players would go into the dungeon and get into fights.

I came up with three sticking points that I think would make it hard to play out this setup at the table:

  1. Combat balance. Let’s say the combats are designed for 5 characters; with one behind, then the battle will be more difficult than expected. If we assume the sage will want some XP as well, a fight  balanced for 4 will make the party advance slower.The party members also depend on each other’s support in combat. The Sage can provide great out-of-combat support (intel, participate in skill checks, etc) but not so much in combat. For this to work, “Sage” would have to be a specialized class (probably a Leader) that can supply bonuses that act like single-use magical items. It might have a ton of dailies instead of at-wills and encounter powers, and those powers can provide party members with one-time buffs, saving throws, healing surge uses, etc.  To me, this doesn’t sound appealing as a character choice.
  2. Split parties. There’s going to be a lot of game time where your expert is in a different location, which means the DM has to divide her attention between two different scenes. I don’t know if there is a good way around this, other than some magic items or rituals that connect the sage to the rest of the party. For suggestions cell the comments on my cell phone post.
  3. Information Access. In order to make it worthwhile for the rest of the party to need a Sage, the Sage needs access to information beyond the regular means of the party. He should have an abnormally high knowledge check or a direct line to the Gods, Demons, etc. If there were a specialized class for this role, it could be a class power or feature. Maybe a Sage could cast divination rituals with reduced time or cost. Either way, he needs to get info from the DM beyond what is normal for the party’s level.

RPG Blog II had some good ideas for “low-magic wizards.” In that post he describes magic users as having a limited set of powers and are balanced out with fighting skills (perhaps even all the PCs have some limited magic). To get powerful magics, you have to find ancient temples, artifacts, extra-planar wizards, etc. In that world, I image that the Sage character would be one of the ones that had power well beyond the common magic-user. This would be a fun way to stand out and make a mark in world, but then you have the opposite problem with balance.

I like the idea of Sage character, but due to the team nature of D&D, he’s best suited to be a NPC that the PCs can consult with. It might be a good role for a retired PC though, if you play in a setting that spans multiple campaigns. Have people seen examples of classes or player characters that fill this role and overcome those enumerated concerns?

Critical Misses

Does anyone else miss critical misses? I’m not sure if they were ever a real part of the rules or if some sense of fairness and consistency wanted a critical miss to balance out critical hits. I know at somepoint “natural 20” == automatic hit became a real rule, and by the time 3rd edition rolled around there were weapons and feats that expanded the auto-hit range. At or around the same time as 3E the idea of the critical miss was taken out of the official lexicon.

I understand the change. After all it’s easy to apply some sort of mechanic to a critical hit (times 2, max damage, etc), and much harder to mechanic a critical miss. After all you can’t do any less damage than 0. I suppose you could give temporary hit points to the monster; that would be more fun to justify than just “hit points.” When I did play with critical misses, the rules were pretty much arbitrary: a bowstring snaps, a sword drops and goes rolling, the arrow instead hits an adjacent ally. The exact effect never really mattered much when playing as these seemed to happen a lot less often than critical hits; also we could always pull another weapon off the belt or go and pick up a fallen one. Critical misses were more fun as a DM. I once had a big lizard creature break its fangs on a critical miss (it only had natural weapons). Of course that affected all future turns and not just that one, but he was pretty much dead anyway.

I guess there are two things I miss about CMs. (1) combats were a little riskier. Even with permanent (or heavily penalized) death, level drains, and other nasty things to worry about, there was always a turn-by-turn real fear of the die coming up “1”. (2) The random flair. It’s easy to inject color into any RP situation, but when it’s based on the die you can’t predict it, so we had to come up with a significant but not too-significant result on the spot. That led to  a lot of creative GMing.

What I don’t miss is the extra penalty. In 4e with all sorts of powers and implements, it’d be pretty tough to come up with a fair and consistent implementation of the critical miss anyway. There’s enough already going against the players… who needs one more?

I suppose a good compromise is that a critical miss bolsters the enemy, giving him a recharge on a spent second wind or a +2 circumstance bonus to attack you next round. Does anyone play 4e with critical misses?

Snow and Ice

My morning commute provided me time to think of all the awful situations that can occur weather-wise in a d&d setting. Be it driving a lightning rail through a thunderstorm or fighting a white dragon in a icy mountain pass, bad weather can really ruin one’s day.

In my experience weather rarely comes up in an adventure. A long time ago I tried using the random weather tables in the 2E DMG to track weather on a daily basis;  since we never used it in-game, it was a piece of color that faded into the background to be forgotten. When weather does factor into combat, it usually provides some attack adjustment (like concealment or distraction). Personally, I find it annoying to have to keep track of yet another effect in combat. Especially in 4e, the number I announce as my result is so far removed from the roll of the die with all sorts of situational modifiers, that the extra flavor doesn’t seem worth it

This is too bad because when used appropriately weather can really mix things up and give a sense of reality to a fantasy world.  Since one of the reasons why I don’t like weather is keeping track of modifiers, I’ll try to explore non-modifier options.

The first thing that comes to mind is weather as terrain. For example, let’s say there’s a type of terrain called “slippery driveway” that counts as difficult terrain and any character moving more than 1/2 speed through it has to make an Athletics check or fall prone. Or there can be a constant sleet over a set of squares that does a set damage per round or slows characters caught out in it. How about a fog that emulates low light conditions? The DMG talks about extreme weather taking away daily healing surges, which is a good non-terrain option. In those cases, the DM should really try to press the party to make lost surges count.

Weather can have roleplay effects too. Some NPCs and mounts might not want to go outside on a rainy day, or frost can threaten to ruin the season’s crops, or a heat wave might kill off weaker villagers. Weather gives a character a chance to brag about how great it was back home or that he’s spent winters in Icewind Dale. Weather gives him something to talk to strangers about at the Inn.  Nature-y characters should be able to show off in bad weather with tracking monsters, finding food or shelter, or detecting unusual patterns of storms.

When going to to an ice planet, hopefully the characters know to buy coats and bring along some Tauntauns. But what if it’s an average spring and but the party gets caught up in a freak blizzard? Unexpected weather provides a great way for the DM to apply those effects because it catches the PCs unaware. Weather also gives the PCs an excuse to use rituals like Endure Elements and Control Weather, which hopefully don’t break the game.

D&D is a fantasy game, so I expect to see some magical weather. Make it rain donuts, have the snow fall upwards, and of course, the ocassional bout of Purple Rain.

While I’m talking about the weather, does anyone else think the monsters that live in extreme climates don’t make sense? If a Frost Giant [DDI] has resist cold, it’s reasonable to expect that the Ice Lions they eat also have resist cold. Therefore shouldn’t it make sense for the Frost Giant to use fire attacks instead of cold ones?