It’s ENnie time again

The ENnies are the annual fan awards for tabletop role-playing game, awarded each year at Gen Con. There are categories for art, writing, products, podcasts, blogs, minis, etc. The awards were originally given out by the EN World site in 2001, and they have been expanding and gaining presitge each year since then. If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you are a RPG fan. This means you’re eligible to go vote now for your favorites. They use a runoff voting system, so you can rank your choices in each category.

Even if you don’t want to vote, you should check out the nominees. They represent the best in this year’s RPG offerings, and I can’t find a bad product or publisher in the bunch. Even the honorable mentions are worth checking out. You have until July 25 to vote.

Most of the nominees are based on the new systems that came out last year. Have any you played them (Shadowrun, Rogue Trader, Pathfinder, etc), and what do you think?


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!

Blog News

There’s been a lot going on in personal-life-land that’s made it hard to keep up my three times a week schedule. Long time followers may have noticed that I’ve missed it twice in the past two months. However, I don’t want to give up blogging, so I’ve done two things: (1) Accepted an offer to guest post on RPG Musings. I plan on posting there ~3 times a month on topics that will be more DM-focused or general role-playing. This way I can keep the player focus of this blog and still talk about other things. (2) I’m going to change my posting schedule. I’m going to instead try for 2 times a week: once on Tuesday/Wednesday and again on Thursday/Friday. I know that this makes it harder to know when to come to the page to read the latest post (sorry for that). Thankfully the Internet has several great solutions for that: follow me on twitter: @mikesdndblog, or subscribe to the RSS Feed. I recommend using Google Reader.

I wanted to thank all of you readers for your input and readership, and in particular for the comments on the posts. I feel like you all have helped me improve my game and have more fun.

So have a good 4th of July! I hope you all get some sun and some gaming in, and I’ll be coming at you next week. Here with an exciting post (7 Ways to Stab your DM with a Fork), and at RPG Musings with a cache of cursed item.

Ferris Dragonborn’s Day Off

I thought that I had heard just about every kind of source for a D&D Adventure, but then I read Ameron’s (of Dungeon Mastering) post about doing an adventure in the style of an 80’s Teen Comedy. There’s a lot of great iconic moments from the various nerd, teen, and screwball comedies of that era: the delivering of comeuppance, getting the girl or boy, the outsmarting of the bad guys, learning to accept your friends’ differences, etc. These themes fit well in D&D, but I’ll leave it up to the Dungeon Masters to figure out how to wrap an adventure around it: I’m thinking lots of skill challenges and mob combats.

The aspect that I want to address is how to play your character when you find yourself in one of these games. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that you’re playing a normal, legal character that can be either younger or a normal adventuring age, but the adventure has these teen movie themes. To illustrate the different ways to play a character, I’m going to steal the archetypes from The Breakfast Club: brain, athlete, basket case, princess, and criminal.

Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete,  and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

  • The Brain. Generally when we think of a “The Brain” in a psuedo-military setting, we envision a tactical leader, such as Warlord or Bard. However in the 80s comedy movie sense, “the brain” is usually a nerd. Build-wise a nerd is likely to have low Strength, Constitution, and Charisma, and very high Intelligence. Races that make good brains are ones that grant bonuses to Int or are considered shy: Humans, Teiflings, Dwarves, Shardminds, Gnomes, etc, but any race can produce an introspective study-aholic. Good classes for nerds are non-charismy builds of characters that tend to stay in the back of the fight or bolster allies: Wizards, Psions, Archer Rangers, Assassin, Artificer, Invoker, etc. A brainy Bard might be a fun character to play as well. The Brain is going to specialize in knowledge skills: History, Arcana, Religion, Nature, Dungeoneering, but may also have good Insight and Bluff that he developed to avoid getting beat in the schoolyard.

    Playing a Brain is pretty easy, just imagine your favorite movie nerd. I’ll pick Egon from Ghostbusters: he’s got a serious mold collection and talks about it right off when meeting ladies, he knows esoteric knowledge from rare tomes, and when encountering a ghost-monster wants to study it without considering his own safety first. Brains are likely to be shy and introspective, but can also be rash and prone to anger when bottled-up feelings explode. The Brain might go first to knowledge skill in a challenge, and should whip out random facts during RP or encounters. If your DM shares the world-building it might be fun to create these facts on the fly and have them become part of the adventure’s canon. The Brain is a great archetype for rules lawyers or the shy guy.

  • The Athlete. This one is easy, he’s the guy that’s going to run up in the middle of the fight and start pounding away. An Athlete is likely to have high physical scores: Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. Good races for athletes are ones that give bonuses to Str or Con: Humans, Dwarves, Dragonborn, Goliaths, Half-Orcs, Minotaurs, Warforged, etc; basically something that’s big and strong, although all races produce fine athletes. Athlete classes are pretty much any defender and most strikers and leaders. Athletes should be skilled in Athletics (duh!), Endurance, and Acrobatics. Heal, Insight, and Intimidate are also useful skills to an athlete. Any feat that allows for extra movements, greater range of attack, or the ability to shrug off status conditions or keep fighting when lesser heroes would fall are great to take.

    There are lots of way to play an athlete. He can be macho and bull-headed, or introspective and looking to constantly improve his or her game. Atheletes are likely to be quite competitive, so its important to know how your character handles victory or defeat. Is he a sore looser, a gracious winner; does he look to blame himself for failure or look towards others. Athletes can view their party mates as lesser mortals along for the ride to fill out roles, or equal members where the team comes first. For a movie example, take Daniel Larusso from The Karate Kid. He’s a bit of underdog but uses karate as way of elevating his status and standing up for what he believe in. Not every Athlete has a Mr. Miyagi, but it is good to think about who any character’s coaches and heroes are.

  • The Basket Case. The Basket Case is a bit weird and generally lives outside societal norms, but doesn’t have to be unstable. The Basket Case isn’t too limited by stats or races, but I’d suggest having a low Charisma. Races that I can see with their adventurers having issues: Humans, Half-Elves, Deva, Warforged, Tieflings, Half-Orcs, Halflings (really Half-anythings). Good classes are ones that can channel an offbeat personality into a power: Warlocks, Sorcerers, Shaman, Druid, Bard, Rogue, Psion, etc. The basket case is likely to surprise his or her friends by really good in just about anything, so I think any skill would be fair game.

    The Basket Case manifests himself more in personality than in any physical trait. He uses his weirdness as a defense mechanism against rejection which is unfortunate because he’s really seeking social acceptance. The basket case will take pride in his or her nonconformity, and may act seemingly randomly. The Basket Case is a great archetype for a player that likes to get an adventure going through action. You can start a fight or talk to a random NPC or basically do any and all things, which is a great way to break an analysis paralysis. Just make sure you don’t do with too much flourish… the basket case isn’t a show-off or a spotlight hog. Lloyd from Say Anything is a good basket case… he’s an underachiever relentlessly in pursuit of a woman out of his league. His actions are crazy and unexpected, but he has a grand plan inside his head.

  • The Princess. A Princess is looked up to and respected. He or she can be bossy but is in that position for a reason. The princess is likely to have a high Charisma, and a low to average Wisdom. Good races for princesses are ones that naturally garner respect from the common folk: Eladrin, Elf, Dragonborn, Deva. A Princess is a natural Leader, but any class that attracts a lot of attention is good: Ranger, Monk, Paladin, Swordmage, etc. A Princess is used to getting his or her way so skills like Bluff, Insight, and Diplomacy are good choices. Other good attention getters: Acrobatics, Intimidate, Perception. A Princess should also have expensive and flashy gear.

    The princess is generally high maintenance and bossy, but has a good heart. The princess may also be more likely to want to please others than the other archetypes, and may be impatient. This is a good match for players that like to be in charge or show off at the table. The character himself could be descended from nobility or just act like he is. A good character arc would be to realize that even the low-born people have something to teach you. Ferris Bueller is a definite princess; he’s overconfident, every screw-up garners him fans, and doesn’t consider who his actions might hurt.

  • The Criminal. The criminal archetype is your chance to play a shady character. Criminals can come in all types, so his ability scores should make the character good at what he does. Every race has their criminals but I tend to picture them mostly coming from Humans, Half-Elves, Halflings, Dwarves, and Teiflings. Rogue is an obvious choice for class, but anyone can be an outlaw: e.g. renegade druids, wizards, and warlocks. Streetwise and Theivery are the skills of a Criminal, use them well.

    A good-guy Criminal could have taken to a life of  a crime as a matter of desperation, or is now repentant. One can also have a criminal mindset without breaking any laws; he or should could a be a renegade with a healthy disrespect of the rules, e.g. Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop. The criminal presents a great RP challenege, because you should still work with the party members and move the story forward in a heroic manner, but you have to seem not to care. This is a good role for anyone who’s naturally a misfit.

So that’s my Breakfast Club list. There are lots of other archetypes or way to define them: you can have your loner, underdog, bully, valedictorian, etc. These archetypes aren’t meant as a way to define a character or how you play one, or box one into a particular role, but a starting point and ideas for shaping a character. I often use aspects from several different fictional characters to help me identify what kind of character I want to play and get ideas for his background, but then at some point he becomes his own character from there.

Has anyone played in a 80s Comedy D&D game? I think it would be fun.

How to Bring Suggestions to Your GM

I almost didn’t post this today because I’m in the middle of reading Difficult Conversations book. So far seems to advocate treating other people like they’re human beings in their own right, deserving of respect and understanding. If the advice in it turns out to be good, I’ll try to distill some of it down into a follow-up post, but what has me fired up right now are some comments on Chatty DM’s post about cramming too much awesomeness into a single encounter. Commenters Denubis and Charisma both mentioned that were going to share that article with their respective GMs. I wonder how they’ll bring that subject up at their game table.  I know if I printed out some article on the web and gave it my DM, she’d probably kill my character out of spite and resurrect him has a halfling.

In all seriousness, how do you bring new ideas to your GM? This really hasn’t been an issue for me since mine is friendly with the gamerati on the webosphere, but I imagine not GM is open to adjusting his or her play style. This more of an open question than an advice article. I’m a programmer by trade and am not a professional mediator or councilor.  I imagine if you print out a post and give it to your friend: “Here you need to read this” is the not friendliest way to share information. Does your GM ask for feedback, or is he open to discuss how is the game going?

One nice thing about Chatty’s post is the way that he phrases it. He does not say “my encounters have too much stuff going on that it’s hard for me to manage and distracts the players to the point where it takes away from the game”, but instead says “I’m cramming in too much awesome.” When bringing up a sensitive subject, be sure to phrase things positively and give lots of feedback about what aspects are working and that you enjoy. Remember too that that your fellow players may not see the same areas of improvement as you do. What I do in these situation is share the conversation with everybody, usually like “did you see latest post from Sly Flourish? Isn’t that beholder wicked awesome? We should go find one of those to fight…” That might get the hint across that you want to fight a beholder and then if other people get jazzed by it, your DM can find a way to work one in.

Enough of that ramble… so, how do people bring continuous improvement to your gaming group?

PS @SarahDarkmagic, at no time does Skamos want to encounter a Beholder or any of its ilk.

Characters Paragon Wild

I hear the latest 4e rules update brings a lot of big changes especially in the realm of plugging holes in broken character combos. In light of these updates, Ameron from Dungeon’s Master has retired his broken Sorceror Daggermaster, a combo that used to mix a Rogue paragon class’ bonuses with Sorceror abilities. In the same day Rob Donoghue published a post about the difficulty of reconciling a paragon path’s powers with its flavor and then shoehorning it on to a character. This begs the question: what’s the purpose of paragon paths?

First a little history. Back in 2nd Edition we had class kits which were basically optional builds that were presented in the splat books. The kits provided additional abilities and power swaps, and were generally intended for a specific base class. These were intended to be used at character creation time. So you made a particular type of Paladin (Cavalier) or Rogue (Swashbuckler) from the start. In 3rd, we had Prestige classes, which were optional multi-classes that did not count towards a multi-class limit. Some were meant for specific classes, and some were open to any character that met certain prerequisites. The idea here is that a character would earn specialized levels in a specific organization (The Harpers), handling certain skills or enviroments (an Explorer), or subscribed to a certain philosophy (Assassin). For many of us, we had a particular prestige class in mind when we built a character, and tried to craft a story around obtaining that class. But that generally did not work out very well because either the prestige class’ powers were not as good as taking another level in your base class, or were too overpowered and unbalanced the fun for everyone else.

In 4th edition, everyone gets a paragon path, and with continuous rules updates, it’s harder to build a legal, broken character. The downside as Rob points out is that it is also hard to build a story around the paragon paths. Maybe it’s because I don’t find the paragon paths particularly compelling… they are often based on the unattractive 4e cosmology. Also, I haven’t been considering what paragon path my character will take once he reaches 11th level. I haven’t done this because I don’t know where my character is going (we’re only 8th level) and partly because every month a whole set of new paragon paths come out, changing the landscape.

What I think I want is some set of rules to build a custom paragon path for my character, and is also balanced. For example I’ve built my Psion as a character whose job is to hunt down evil wizards. Ideally I want to build an “arcane hunter” paragon path that gives him powers in those areas, even though this is not at all the focus of our campaign.

What do people think of paragon paths? Do they add to the feel of a character or do they just provide more attacks to choose from?

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.