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.

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.

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?

5 Cards to a Deeper Character

I heard an idea a long time ago and I’m wondering if anyone has every tried something similar.  Take 5 random images, magic cards, quotes, book titles, etc and use those as inspiration for a character’s back story. For the next campaign I want to run, I was thinking of providing 5 random magic cards to each of the players to help them with a back-story. For instance, if the card is a soldier, the character could have a military background, been an army brat, could come from a land under occupation, always wanted to be a soldier but didn’t have the health or discipline, etc.

For an example, here are five magic cards randomly selected from a box in my attic. The nice thing about these cards is that in addition to an evocative name, it also has artwork and usually flavor text that can contribute ideas. Before I start, my initial character concept is a Halfling Monk that was adopted by the monastic order and is adventuring to find his true parents.

  • Sea Serpent. Since I’m building a Monk, I think I’ll equip him with a Cobra Strike Ki Focus [DDI] item. I’ll “reskin” it to be a Sea-Serpent Strike Focus. Instead of being made from clay, it’ll be made from the bones a Sea Serpent he helped hunt in his training.
  • Island. This is fortuitously combined with the last card. The monastery where  was raised was on an Island. Dealing with sea creatures was part and parcel of their order.
  • Unsummon. What’s with all the blue cards? I don’t feel like adding some sort of summoner to my character’s past, but the picture on the card looks like a guy in a dark cloak being surprised by an armored demon appearing before him (I think it’s actually supposed to be disappearing). So I’m adding to the Monk’s past an apparition of a demon army. Even though his quest is to find out who his parents are, in the back of his mind he’s worried about when this army might appear and how he might help prepare the world for this event.
  • Mons’s Goblin Raiders. Goblin raiders are pretty easy to work with. For my character I might add that the Monastery was attacked and destroyed by goblin raiders; the loss of the home is what set him journeying. Unfortunately this feels like too many items for a backstory, so I’m not actually going to include it.
  • Dwarven Warriors. This a great card, although with a high mana cost for a 1/1. Anyway… the first adventure my halfling ran into was with a group of Dwarfs. He helped them with a few battles, but couldn’t stop helping himself to more than his fair share of the treasure and so had to leave quickly…

As you can see, this is a great way to come up with some character inspiration, and is especially good if you get “Adventurer’s Block” or feel like everything has been tried too many times. This is probably also a good way to come up with adventurer’s hooks.  Any other good ideas for random inspiration?

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.

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!