What Did I Just Get Myself Into?

Hey all. I’m back. Hopefully it will stick this time. There’s still a lot going on in my world outside of gaming, and I haven’t played D&D since September, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I just hope it’s not coming from a Will O’ The Wisp.

To get my gaming life jump-started. I just submitted a last-minute RPG event for Total Con in February. If it’s accepted, I’ll be running a Leverage game on Sunday of the con. I am going to make the adventure setting a gaming convention. It’s the cool meta-con/meta-game you can only do with a modern-setting RPG.

What’s scary for me is that I’ve never written a convention game before. I got to run Dark Sun at Pax East this past Spring, but that was written by someone else, and I got to play in it the day before. But this is a new experience for me, so I thought I would crowd-source a little advice on the matter.

Any hints for writing a con game? Not just what to do at the table (that can be a second post), but how to structure the adventure and what sorts of things I should take into consideration. I don’t know the players ahead of time, so I won’t know what sorts of things they want to get out of the adventure; although since they are self-selected, I am going to assume they want an experience that captures the essences of the TV show.

The other big concern I have is about timing. Unlike with a regular group, I won’t have the ability to run the rest of the adventure next week or allow for long breaks. I signed up for a single 4-hour slot because there are other events I want to go to (in particular, board gaming) and I assume my players would be in the same boat.

So, what do you guys think? Any words of advice (or condolence) ?

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.

Wardrobe Function: Imposter’s Armor

Here’s a post that has nothing to do with Gen Con. Based upon my RSS feeds and twitters it feels like I’m the only one not there, but I am sure there are others too.

One of my favorite magic items is armor that appears to be something other than armor. There’s like a billion role-playing reasons why this is awesome. In a recent game I played an evil Paladin. I wanted him to be fearsome on the battlefield: he had dark black Plate-mail with blood runes, skulls, and death metal stickers. At the same time I wanted him to be able to travel around the countryside without attracting attention, especially from good aligned priests and warriors. In 3rd Edition, I made good use of Glamered Armor with my rogues, making them that much more sneaky and unremarkable. In 4th Edition we have the Imposter’s Armor [DDI], thanks to The Adventurer’s Vault. I gave my evil Paladin the plate-mail version of it.

This armor is great for appearing to be something else on purpose. By day it can appear as whatever you want (e.g. court clothes, peasant clothes, wizard robes, etc) so it counts as a disguise. Even if you had it appear as normal “adventuring gear,” NPCs may misjudge your function in combat (i.e. a controller not a defender) or may just misjudge your overall “squishiness.” On top of that, while the armor is in “clothes form” it doesn’t incur any armor check penalties, so you can sleep, climb, or swim in it and not have to worry about leaving your armor behind or having a tougher time. The downside is that the armor doesn’t provide any bonus in “clothes form” and I’ve been dinged by this several times by having a low initiative at the start of combat. The advantages are still totally worth it. In addition, if this is a common scenario you can take feats like Unarmored Agility [DDI] to balance out the lack of armor bonus.

With the Imposter’s Armor you can swap it back and forth as an At-Will Minor Action, which means it doesn’t count against your magic item dailies and you can use it pretty much at the start of combat and still get in a Move and Standard, so you don’t loose time switching.

Basically, you should pick one up today for the sneaky Defender in your life! And if that’s not enough for you, there’s also Summoned Armor [DDI] from the Adventurer’s Vault that works with any armor type. It doesn’t give the disguise bonus, but does have the “gone one minute, here the next” of the Imposter‘s Armor. And since it’s not actually on your person it can’t be magic-detected, stolen, or confiscated.

Over-Outsmarting the Villians

This week I wrote a post on RPG Musings on how to set up an “outsmart the villains” scenario. If I carry my own thoughts to next level, then presumably a smart enough villain should be able to out-out-smart the heroes. This means the players would want to out-out-out-smart the bad guy, and so on. We could wind up with dizzying logic only Vizzini (from The Princess Bride) could follow:

But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Basically, what I want to know is: “what happens when metagaming leads to paranoia?”

Let’s say you tried out to outsmart some villians you’re chasing with an ambush, but they did not arrive at the prescribed time. Did you get the time wrong and they haven’t arrived yet, or did they arrive too early? Or, did they find out about your plans and have gone around you? Or do they have an even more sinister ambush planned for you?

This kind of thinking can be detrimental in real life and causes analysis paralysis in-game (for a good article on that, see Sarah Darkmagic’s Like a Deer in the Headlights). Basically, you can make yourself nuts trying to anticipate every move of your opponents or by trying to counter moves that may or may not be real.

What are the players supposed to do with an uncertain escalation? I always recommend using two principles: Occam’s Razor and KISS (the principle, not the band). That is keep your assumptions and plans as simple and flexible as possible.  Unless you have evidence to the contrary, don’t assume that the bad guys have you trapped in some kind of meta-puzzle of outmaneuvers, instead just track him down and beat him up. Problem solved.

…by the way, if you have KISS (the band) on your side, then you’re pretty much guaranteed a win.

They Were In Our Back Pocket the Whole Time

This week in our a game an important plot incident lead to a pretty funny conclusion. My party is tasked with stopping an shadow army from opening a gate to the shadowfell and taking over the world. To open this gate, a magic key is needed. We thought that if we found the key first, we would able to keep it away from our enemies. We thought it would be buried somewhere in town, so we enlisted the local priest of Pelor to help our search with a ritual. Tracy (our DM) turned the special-purpose ritual into a skill challenge. We used Streetwise and History to narrow down likely areas of the town to search, and Arcana and Religion to direct the magical energies.

The end result is that we successfully completed the ritual-challenge and found the magic key…. It was in the Bard’s pocket the whole time! (We got it from dwarves we saved several months ago). It retrospect, it was  funny to watch round after round as the ritual narrowed down on the section of the city where we we were. I started to get excited when I realized it was nearby to the temple, but totally surprised when we found that it was really close.

We all had a good laugh at our own expense and then moved on with the adventure, with the key safely in hand. This interesting anecdote has a few gems I’d like to unpack. First and foremost, we used valuable adventure time and resources to discover something we’ve already been given. This is not anyone’s fault; it’s been a few months of intermittent game time and we didn’t make a special note of the key when we got it. It’s funny that today on Gnome Stew, John wrote some tips to help players remember details about a game… such as the importance of a special item. Unfortunately I don’t think his would have helped us in this situation. At the time, we didn’t make a connection to the item. Back then we were dealing with the aftermath of a sticky combat/skill challenge & intra-party situation, and then in the next few sessions we were focused on a new series of events and new  location… there wasn’t time for key’s importantance (or even its existence) to sink in.

What could we have done better? Well, to start off, we should probably be keeping a separate list of “quest items” or at least “miscellaneous magic items” that don’t fit on our characters. Along with each item, there should be a note of how we came across it and its context.  Just referring to that list might have jogged our memory, although we might not have thought to look there since didn’t even occur to us that we might already have that item.

What else could we have done? Has anyone else been in a similar situation?

What could a DM have done to help us remember? Tracy analyzed the situation on her blog: When The Players Forget. I think she handled it beautifully, and like I already said, we have a good game memory. But what could have happened to have prevented the situation? There are some strategies I learned back in my play-writing days that could help: the rule of three, and simplification of props and sets. The rule of three is pretty simple. If it’s important, mention it at least three times. I don’t mean reapating “here’s a magic key” three times, but to bring up the key in three different contexts. For example: (1) “for saving their lives, the dwarves hand you an ancient key”, (2) “they say that key was being smuggled out of the city by your enemy”, and (3) “later that night as you are preparing your magical studies, your attention is tuned to the key.. it radiates magical energy.” That alone would have had us spending some game time learning more about it, rather than just pocketing it and moving on. Since aDM’s audience is specific and limited, I’d say each one of those mentions might be done when a different player is in the spotlight to spread its importance around.

There’s also a simplification issue. On stage, you don’t want to distract the audience by giving them unimportant objects to focus on. We come across a lot of NPCs and items of interest and so it’s hard to remember them all or figure out which ones are most important (they’re all important). If this was the only non-gear, ancient, mystical item we had to deal with, it would have stood out in our minds more. We could have also been hit over the head with it harder, or the DM could have said “uhm, guys, you already have it” when we set out looking, but that would have been less fun for everybody.

The other useful takeaway from our misadventure is our own cleverness. It was our idea to enlist the aid of Pelor and his priests to help us narrow down our search, and our DM’s idea that it would accomplished through a ritual/challenge. PC rituals are expensive, specific, and always a few levels too high, but the game allows anything really to be a ritual. Usually NPC rituals are of evil hellmouth-opening type, but they can be “help us find a lost item” good type too. Be creative in how you seek out NPC aid!

Calling In Sick

I’m sorry for missing Monday, I needed the day off, as we all do sometimes.. Even our characters get busy and run-down, and have to take a day off.

In the real world when you’re feeling a little under the weather, you can call in sick. When you’re a hero tasked with saving the world, there are no sick days, holidays, or mental health days; team evil never takes a vacation. In fact in most games, like a comedy-drama tv show, the plot happens to the characters. If they win a week at an Elvish spa, the local orcs will choose that time to invade!

One saving grace is that the rules of D&D don’t allow for getting sick naturally. Or if they do, I’ve never of a campaign playing with those rules. So, feel free to send you characters outside in the cold without gauntlets and helm! Or have them lick random strangers, drink the water, and eat the street food. The assumption the only way to get sick is from being diseased or poisoned.

In the olden days you either needed a 1st level Paladin or a mid-level cleric spell to undo a disease. Now through a series of Endurance checks (which can be superseded by Heal) a hero can recover on his own with some bed rest. Of course, it’s probably more likely that waiting it out will worsen the condition, but the actual risk will depend on the disease. Think of this series of necessary extended rests to get cured up as if it were going on heroic short-term disability. If you don’t want to wait, the health care in the Nentir Vale is better than in the US. It’s only 150gp and a 6th level ritual to Cure Disease and get your character up and running again in no time (well, in less time than it takes to get a pizza).

As frightening as diseases are, thankfully we no longer have to worry about level drain! So while disease-causing monsters are bad news, with some precaution, old fashioned bed-rest, or magic, it doesn’t have to be fatal.

So You’ve Pissed Off a Chronomancer

When your party makes enemies with a red dragon, you’re likely to get eaten. Annoy an assassin, and you have to literally watch your back all the time. And if you cross a wizard who has power over time, you’re likely to be sent back in time without a phone booth to get yourself back. Yesterday’s Campaign Mastery features an article about time travel in the author’s super-hero campaign. Except for the notable Dragonlance Legends trilogy, I don’t recall a lot of fantasy settings sending heroes through time. Maybe this is because fantasy settings remain largely unchanged in technology for thousands of years, even as empires come and go.  You don’t hear about D&D games where the heroes are thrown into the “future” either, but that might be because mixed technology/fantasy mechanics tend not to work out well unless the game is specifically designed for it, and even then, it’s not guaranteed.

But let’s say despite that your character makes a time-shift. In the standard 4e campaign, you might find your heroes at the start of the Nerath Empire’s rise. Even if swords, armor, and magic still work the same, your character is still going to be out of her element. She won’t know any of the people, places, customs, or perhaps even language. This is a classic fish out of water situation, which is good guidance for how you might play it. Depending on the tone of the campaign,  encounters with the NPCs could be a great time to ham it up. If your character knows about History, Religion, or Geography you could use those skills navigate your way through the past. The one question remains… do you try to change the past or work to ensure that events transpire as they already did?

Just as exciting is being catapulted into the future. If you make your time travel known, you’ll probably be treated as a curiosity, but at least you can regale people with stories of the “olde days” and laugh at the various situations the historians got wrong. As a twist on the normal dungeon delve, you can offer your services to a patron to explore an “ancient ruin” that was once your childhood palace.

The other thing for your character to figure out is how your character is getting home, or even if he wants to. If you used a magic item or ritual, you might assume that you could reverse it… that might be a bad assumption. Fortunately as players we don’t have to think too hard about it, our GM should give us a way out.