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.

Half-Completed Characters

I’ve been having a lot of trouble coming up with a post today. I had about 8 half-done posts but I haven’t been able to find the enthusiasm to finish any of them. So I started writing some new posts and I’ve now added an additional six onto that pile just in the past two days. It’s been challenging to come up with something regular to talk about. In fact, it’s a higher standard than I hold my gaming… I don’t regularly game ever week!

Thankfully for today as I stared at my pile of half-posts I came up with this thought… “this is similar to my pile of half-finished characters.”

I have a binder at home filled with green 2nd Edition character sheets that never made it to the gaming table. Some of those characters were completed as far as having equipment and a character doodle, but many were just ability scores and race/class combinations. With the Character Builder, it’s way easy to make characters, and it in fact it’s hard not to completely build a character (or at least though equipment buying…where the UI quality really starts to drop off). Because of this I have a folder filled with 4e characters that I’ll never play… Some things never change!

So, what should I do with them? There has to be something better than letting them collect electronic dust. My first thought was to create a Heroes Gallery on the site, but I don’t see the benefit. These characters are all pretty much non-unique or at least not in any meaningful way.

Nor do I think that I’ll ever go back to them when I need to call up a hero… I pretty much just make one from scratch for each campaign, but yet I’m not ready to delete them either. Maybe I’ll just add them to that great ZIP archive in the clouds…

Oh, to take a +1 or +2?

Reading a recent post on the Level 30 Yinzer blog about using social media (thanks for the shout-out) solidified some thoughts I’ve been unable to crystallize regarding feats. In the post, Yinzer describes an encounter where the PCs have an exciting encounter on a waterfall. I don’t know the specifics, but a waterfall sounds like an awesome setting. I’m imaging a scenario where the PCs have to make their way down to the bottom, having to deal with sharp cliffs, slippery rocks, and monsters that jump out that them from time to time. A waterfall is a great tool for concealing oneself or enemies. If there is a navigable path, maybe it’s not safe for the PCs to all clump together, so they are forced to spread out with monsters that attack them from time to time. This encounter can be combined with some in-battle or ongoing skill challenges that rely on climbing and balancing (athletics, acrobatics, endurance, nature, perception, etc) and maybe successes allow them to find hidden tunnels that let them skip parts of the cliff…

Anyway, getting to my point. As I started building the waterfall scenario in my head I was simultaneously figuring out how I would play my character in it. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a feat that made it easier to fight while hanging on to a cliff (or rope) or to ride your shield down the waterfall like a crazy elf? But even there were such feats, I still wouldn’t take them.

Why not? To answer that, I am reminded that this week my character leveled up and it was time to choose a new feat. As I was scanning the list I saw a cool feat (I forget the name) that added the cold keyword to a certain classes’ attacks. At first I thought this was pretty nifty, but I passed over it the same way I would if there was a feat that let you attack with a reduced penalty while hanging on to a cliff… it’s too special purpose to come up often enough.

Here’s the deal. In the right situation a specific feat like the cold one is pretty awesome. However in my experience a party can expect to come across a linear distribution of monster type. A good variety of enemies keeps things new and interesting for the party. But that means that most of the time, the encountered monsters will have no vulnerabilities, and when they do, they’re just as likely to be vulnerable to fire as to cold. Am I right in thinking that it’s better to take a feat that gives me +1 all the time (like Implement Expertise) instead of one that gives +2 less than half the time (like Distant Advantage) ?

If I had some guarantee from the GM that we’d be in a situation where the feat would be useful for a level’s worth adventures I suppose I could choose it for now and retrain later, but that seems like cheating. These specialty feats are great for fleshing out a character and building him into a unique persona, but at the same time it’s war between the PCs and their adversaries and why not take every advantage they can get? I know that it’s very rare that 1 point makes the difference between a hit and miss, but it feels like penalization for choosing a feat or power that isn’t versatile, unless a particular campaign is built to make use of it.

I guess what I mean is that it feels that all feats aren’t created equally. Is thinking wrong? And if not, have people found situations where they’ve been glad they’ve taken a narrower-purpose feat (that doesn’t combine in a “broken” way with other powers/feats) even if it meant using it less often than an alternative?

Saving the game in the middle of combat

Because my group has a limited time to game each week (about 3-3.5) hours, the amount of stuff we can do in an individual session is pretty limited. In particular, there’†s a big burden on the DM to craft encounters that she knows we can finish in that time. Sometimes the story leading up to encounter or the last few rounds are rushed so it fits all in before bedtime.

There’s a lot of discussion already about speeding up combat, but I ‘ve been wondering if it is possible to stop for the night in the middle of combat and pick up again next week. Here are my group’s constraints that make pausing for a week tricky:

  • We game on our hosts’ dining room table, so leaving everything laid out and set up is not an option.
  • We usually game every week, but there’s about a 20% chance the week will be skipped, so we need to make sure any needed info is not lost or forgotten.
  • The players may be different the next time we game, so we need to account for their characters.

The first problem is probably the easiest to solve. “Sarah” tends to draw the board out ahead of time on paper or a foldable grid map, and so I think the board will stay stable between weeks. We could mark up the board with either post-it flags or wet-erase marker to remember all the character positions and effects. We could then collect all the minis and other detrius and put them in a special box. My recommendation is to have a scribe write down any important info at the end, such as initiave order, effects on the characters and board and how much longer they will last. It’s a bit of pain, but I think it can be done in less than five minutes. The state will be easiest to save if we end the night at the top of a round instead of in the middle.

The second problem is really two problems. The first is information integrity. I’ve already suggested having a scribe record the state of the combat in terms of initiative and monsters, but it’s also important that each character saves his state: hit points, remaining healing surges and action points, used powers, status effects, etc. It’s incumbent on each player to dutifully record this information on a character sheet. Even though we use cards for tracking powers and poker chips for action points, the standard character sheet has boxes for checking off when these things are used. I can see myself doing this all at the end of the night if we are pausing the combat, but not on a round-by-round basis…I’m too lazy. It makes sense to leave all recorded the character sheets together in a folder with the other materials that will stay behind so they don’t get lost. For me, this may mean having two copies of my character sheet on hand — one for reference and one for tracking the battle.

The second part to the problem is inertia. Sometimes it may be better to slog through or rush a combat rather than having to pick it up a week later. There could be a loss of tension, excitement, or motivation between the weeks (or a gain, depending). Also there will a be a certain amount of time dedicated to resetting the battlefield and remembering what we were doing and what the plans were. It may help for each player to make notes about what they were planning on doing at the end of the night. For us, we’d probably use the same tactics we do now for getting pysched up before a regular game: beer and AC/DC.

I don’t know how general the third problem (changing players)  is, but it affects my group regularly. In the situation where we have one less player, another player or the DM could in theory take over the character of the remainder of the combat. This is logistically easy since he would have left behind the mini and updated character sheet. The difficulty here overcoming the resistance to play another character. I think it should be issue-free for half of a combat. When we have an additional player, the player can either take over some of the monsters or enter the fray as unexpected backup. This might upset the encounter balance, but since the game is about everyone having fun… who cares? There is still an issue when there is a mismatch of players to characters. When this happens we can instantly swap the characters, which may put the character in a sticky situation, or the player can do as above and play the other character for the remainder of combat before the characters are switched out.

Has anyone experimented with this? I think it’s easiest still to finish up an encounter before calling it quits, but it’s nice to have other options.

i4e review

I’ve been meaning to post this review for awhile. At the end of last year I blogged about playing without my character sheet. In the comments, DM Ron suggested I check out a iPhone/iPod Touch program called i4e. It can be replacement for a paper character sheet, but I find it I an accompaniment.

i4e home screen

The i4e icon and home screen

The first step is to manually enter or upload a Character Builder character sheet.  I recommend the upload method as you can spend 5 minutes per power to enter all the stats, keywords, etc.  Uploading is very easy, you just put your email into i4e’s web site and upload the .dnd4e file. Then put the same email address you used into the i4e Configuration, and hit import from the Characters screen. Now you you can choose from all your uploaded characters to import. If you have a straightforward character, it’s pretty much ready to go from that point. If you’re using some thing new or obscure, it may require tweaking.  At the top of every screen in the program is an edit button that allows you to modify the elements shown on that screen (stats, skills, powers, equipment, etc). The editing powers is pretty complex since there are so many variables on a power.

There are a few things that make using it during play very nice. First is that you can use it to keep track of hit points pretty easy. It is a quick subtract 5,10,15 points and then a screen to do a lot more. You can then apply healing healing surges easily, and it keeps track of their use for you. i4e also quickly tracks saving throws, death saves, milestones, and action points. The “short rest” and “extend rest” recharge the appropriate stats, including used powers. This is the second thing I really like: it does a great job of tracking power usage. In particular it’s easy to set up an encounter power that you can use multiple times per encounter. This is an important feature that makes many other trackers impractical to use. You can also easily equip and unequip items and see their applied bonuses. However if it is able to track using up the global magic item daily, I have not figured it out.

The powers table and individual encounter power

Almost everything is customizable, which is great when you start bringing in things from other sources. See below for the list of screens for customizing a power. The only thing to keep in mind is that any customization has to fit in with the rules set. For example alternate power pools or magic items that work on non-mechanical conditions are hard to represent in the program; you’ll have to track  those yourself. I don’t blame i4e though, in fact, the customization options is greater than in Character Builder.

Customizing a power in i4e

The i4e power customization screen, with options for "Information"

Some gripes I have is that it does not remember your last location, so if you switch out of the application to go to a die rolling app, twitter, check email, etc., you’ll start all over again at the “choose your character” screen. App switching on the iPhone is a big pain as it is, so it sucks to loose a second or so. My other gripe is that it handles making adjustments very well, unless you want to add new rules or keywords to the game.  For instance, I have been using this with my Psion character, but as it does not know about power points, and so I have to keep track of them outside the application.

There are a bunch of enhancements I’d like to see. It’s nice that powers table lists by action type, but I’d like to also see maybe the range or area of effect, as I usually choose a power based upon how the monsters are grouped. Also since the list can grow quite long, it’d be nice if used powers shrunk or dropped to the bottom (also the add a new power button takes up a whole row and is only useful occasionally). The other thing I’d like to see are copy and export features of a character, so I can mess around with one and not worry about having it ready to go for a session.

Hopefully soon there will be a new version with these enhancements. Also I think an iPad version will be boss. With some more screen room and the popup menus it’ll should be really fast and convenient to navigate an interactive character sheet. I highly recommend this a good table tool for a player. It’s more than worth its price ($3.99).

I finally figured out how to play my character

I won’t bore you with the details of my Teifling Psion character, but I did want to mention an issue I’m having role playing to his ability scores. In attempt to min/max the character, he wound up with a really high Intelligence and Charisma, average Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, and pretty low Wisdom. Sine super-human intelligence and charisma generally don’t go with substandard wisdom, and I have been struggling with what this means to role play. When I created the character I imagined a too-cool Psi-Cop like Bester from Babylon 5…a character that comes in to a scene make everybody nervous with his creepy and unflappable demeanor. However Bester was quite perceptive and empathic (but not very sympathetic), which means that kind of character needs a good wisdom to go along with the brains and personality.

If you were a fan of Bablyon 5 I hope you’ll follow me to my point, and that is, I think I should play my character more like Emperor Cartagia. The Emperor was cunning (high Int) and a natural leader (high Cha), but a touch mad, refused to listen to reason, and didn’t have of a lot of “street smarts.” I don’t want to play my character exactly like the evil emperor, because he’s not chaotic, but there are definitely some lessons I’ve learned. To play to my character’s low Wis, I am going to make him more trusting and naive (grew up sheltered by a magical organization). On the battlefield, I will have him make less optimal choices…. but more importantly, he’ll be less flexible. Since he’s smart and lawful, it’s in his nature to plan a few rounds ahead, but with a low wisdom and high charisma, he’ll be too self-sure and self-absorbed to doubt his plans, even in the face of contrary evidence…. But not too much, since he is a Hero.

In my experience low scores in the “soft” abilities are much harder to role-play than high ones. When I play a character with a much higher Charisma than me, I can still try to make an impassioned speech and let the ability bonus make up for my own shortcoming. With Intelligence, I can just assume that the character can figure out a puzzle or translate some old runes. And with Wisdom, a good Sense Motive check can see through a NPC plot better than I could on my own. But when the scores are low, that means I have to limit what I do and the types of conclusions my character arrives at. It’s hard enough keeping meta-game knowledge out, but pretending not to know something is tough.

What strategies have you guys found useful for playing slow-witted characters? Are there any fast rules? With strength it’s easy… there’s only a certain amount the character can lift.

What does the Apple Tablet mean for d&d?

Today’s mass excitement gave us the iPad… Apple’s bigger than a iPod, smaller than a MacBook multi-touch internet device. I’m sure millions of nerds worldwide spun their brains about how this device will work for their game books.  I don’t like carrying around a ton of books, and I would be quite happy with an ebook reader that was both in color (for all the pretty pictures of monsters) and of large enough screen size, a test which the iPad passes.  I hope Wizards brings official iBooks to this device and that those books will support a reasonable search. The printed book indicies are barely useful, and I hate page flipping in the middle of the game.

A tablet also seems like a nice compromise between accessing tools (such as the d20SRD for 3.5 or D&D Compendium for 4e) and not being a laptop. Laptops at the table have physically separate you from the action on the table and the rest of the players.  I enjoy the i4e iPhone/iPod app for managing a 4e character at the table, and I hope they make one for the iPad. There’s a lot i4e doesn’t do and its screens are tight…but a larger screen is precisely what it needs; all the tables can be fit side-by-side on screen,  so you’re not constantly navigating during a combat.

I think the multi-touch aspect too will provide for a lot of useful tools such as combat and initiative trackers, dice rolling apps, and I really hope, interactive maps.  I don’t think its quite big enough for use as a combat surface, they way those CMU Microsoft Surface demos have shown, but that’s fine. If everyone at the table had one, it’d be great for “passing notes” or sharing information like treasure lists or stats.

I actually have a ton of ideas on this subject, a iPhone developer account, and a lot of experience putting together good gaming UIs. Unfortunately I don’t have a ton of time to devote to the project. If anyone out there knows of projects looking for help or want to get something started, let me know.