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.

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Gamma World

Hi all! I don’t know how many people are still following me, but if you are, you’re awesome! I’ve been on a gaming hiatus, which turns out it meant that I was on a blogging hiatus as well. Fortunately I finally got some D&D on after a four month break. This past weekend I got to play at little Gamma World, run by my friend and fellow blogger @gamefiend.

If you’ve been under a rock the past few months as I have, Gamma World is the mutant, post-apocalyptic, very weird world of D&D. Rumor has it that it’s been around for quite a long time, but I hadn’t heard of it before it’s current incarnation was announced. The new edition is based on the D&D 4e rules, so jumping in to the game play was straightforward, although the characters are anything but familiar. Instead of the standard race/class combos you get randomly assigned two aspects (although you can probably choose two specific ones). I pulled “Rat Swarm” and “Electrokinetic”. You’re encouraged to develop how those aspects physically manifest themselves. Since “rat swarm” is just the generic name for any kind of swarm, I made my character an anthropomorphic swarm of sentient batteries. The other characters were some kind of radioactive android and a doppleganger. The monsters we faced were violent pig-men, radioactive birds, and gangster cockroaches. From my understanding, this craziness is pretty typical of the setting.

In addition to our random characters, we were randomly assigned Omegas which are scavanged tech items (in this world tech is rare and powerful), which seem to fill the spot of magic items. We also each got an Alpha power, which is a powerful one-use power. When you roll a 1 or when the encounter ends, you get a new Alpha. These represent powers your character has in different parallel universes, and receiving a new one represents that alternate universe crossing to the this one (or maybe it’s the character that is shifting, it wasn’t too clear).

Overall the power levels seem pretty amped up over regular D&D 4e, as we barely survived each encounter. Monsters could kill in or two hits and could out some pretty nasty effects, even at first level. I attribute our party’s survival to my character’s insane near-invincibility due to the combination of tech items, armor, high dex, and swarm resistances.

Overall I enjoyed the experience, but I don’t think I will go out of my way to play this game again. The theme doesn’t really do much for me. I think it’s because the whole setting feels too alien to be relatable. I wasn’t able to get into my character’s head; I couldn’t come up with goals and motivations or even a personality. Most of the species in this world seem to be mutant animals or machines, and it’s hard for me to see why they would be anything other than violent, impulsive monsters, let alone go adventuring. The other issue I have with the setting is the same one I have with Dark Sun, it seems to bleak to be worth saving. Maybe I have too many years of high fantasy to thank for that.

However there are lot of things I do like about the system. The random rolling for scores and gear reminded me of old school D&D. In particular you get a 18 and 16 to put into the primary and secondary skill, and the rest are done by 3d6, no choosing, no rolling a 4th die and dropping the lowest. It’s been a few years since I last had a character with a 7 in any stat. The random mundane starting items encourage creative thinking. It’s amazing how useful a flashlight, a gun, and a canoe can be when that’s all you have and you’re up against a giant cockroach gang. Also the constant churn of random abilities and tech give license to try new and interesting things in an encounter, and the lethality of the world forces you to “play big or go home.”

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?

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.

Sword Fightin’ In Style

One aspect of Robert Jordan’s mega Wheel of Time series that I enjoy is its description of dueling, or “dancing the forms” as he calls sword-fighting is called.  A lot of attention is paid in these novels to a blademaster’s maneuvers: each combination of swing and footwork has a fantastical name that evokes an animal and its environment with names like “wind follows the loon” or “heron in the rushes”.  In Jordan’s world, a blade master has learned hundreds of special forms and knows when to use a particular one to counter his opponent’s.

In 4th edition there is a lack of a  a good blade-master class. It’s absence makes me miss the old class kits from 2e, although those were usually associated with the Fighter. In 4th Edition, a Defender Fighter is built to soak up damage: a sword & board type of warrior. I think that my desired type of  sword-master would be more of a striker, like a two weapon ranger, except specializing in one type of sword. The big difference between my vision and what is available is the lack of specialized powers that represent the sword master moves. Martial Power 2 comes close with Combat Styles, although that seems more like different Eastern fighting schools than special individual forms.

Although I probably wouldn’t opt for it in my own games due to the time issues at the table, it would be neat to see some kind of system for more expressive combat: sword forms and dueling. For instance, if an opponent were to attack with a “Fox stalks the Seagull” maneuver, it would be nice to have a list of counter moves to choose from. I don’t know if you’ve played Monkey Island with its unique fight by insulting mechanic, but basically you get a list of responses to given attack and have to choose the most appropriate one. I think I would give that kind of mechanic a go to see how it feels.

Are there any 4e powers or combat variations that put the strategy into individual swings of the sword, rather than the move/damage type strategy of the standard powers?

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?