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.

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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?

Move, Minor, Standard

Mark of Dice Monkey had a great post today about Analysis Paralysis. That is, when faced with a ton of choices in a D&D combat round, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and freeze up. I never thought myself susceptible to this, but then I read his tip #2:

If playing 4e, organize your powers not by At-Will/Encounter/Daily, but by Move/Minor/Standard

Since I build my character using the D&D Character Builder, each time I level up I print out a new character sheet, cut out the power cards, and put them into either green, red, or black sleeves. During the game, I hold them in my hand like I was playing a card game. I’ve always kept the organized in that pattern: at-will, encounter, and daily! This is silly for two reasons: (1) they’re already distinguished by color so I’m providing redundant information, wasting a dimension of information, and (2) I’m always shuffling through them to plan out my turn’s worth of actions.

No More! Starting my next game, I’m going to use Mark’s advice and sort them by action type. I think this will really speed up my turn because I can just choose from the appropriate column. Since I don’t have move powers, it’s going to just be at-wills, minors, and reactions.

In my hand I also group together cards by usage type. For instance, daily magic item powers and channel divinity powers. Basically anything where I get to choose one of several for an encounter. That way when I use one, I can put the whole bunch together face-down in my “discard” pile.

Since I’m playing a Psion, I also have augmentable powers. This means for one at-will (e.g. Betrayal) I have three cards in my hand. I’ve been grouping them together by power name, but I think I’m going to instead group them by power point cost. We’ll see if that has a benefit or not. Sometimes I choose powers based upon how lethal they are, and sometimes I’m more interested in choosing by area of effect.

To summarize: group your power cards by action type. Sub group by usage (or however you usually make your choice of power). Do this and you’ll have less to flip through when making your action choice each round.

What Do You Do? – Keywords

“What do you do?” I am often caught off-guard when I get asked this question, mostly because I play in games that are heavier in action than role playing. When I have to quickly answer, I come up with something like “I smack the goblin upside the head with my staff for 14 damage,” or “peering into the wisp’s soul, I send it visions of its worst nightmares for 14 damage.” After this action is resolved, I spend the next few moments thinking that my response was good enough for the level of role-play, it was not satisfying to my inner thespian. If only I had some more time to come up with something better…

I’m going to use this out of game time to come up with some ideas of what I can describe in the moment, or at least how to modify my attack description to make it more colorful. For the sake of applicability, these suggestions are going to be pretty general, and may be obvious, but it’ll be good for me (and hopefully you) to have it all in one place.

The first way I am going to tackle this problem is coming up with some quick description for damage keywords. Many of my attacks have some kind of keyword associated with the damage. Here are some of the iconic things about the damage types that come to my mind, and how it might be used in combat description:

  • Acid. When I think of an acid attack, I think of those spitting dinosaurs from Jurrasic Park. Acid attacks evoke some kind of sizzling, hissing ooze. When an acid attack hits, I’d describe it as “[attack] sizzles through the [target]’s armor, staining the hole brown, and causing his skin to blister and bubble.” Pretty gruesome to be sure, but it’s a freakin’ acid attack! When the attack misses, I could imagine describing the acid landing on the stones, causing it to hiss and give off an acrid smoke.
  • Cold. I imagine cold attacks to cover the delivery device and the target in frost, freezing liquids, and turning appendages blue or white. For descriptive purposes, the area around the target could become slippery (non-game effect) with ice.
  • Fire. Fire attacks are among the most iconic and most frequent in previous editions. These are your flaming swords and fireballs. I describe ranged fire attacks as jets of flame, and targets that can combust, blacken, and smoke. Nearby objects might turn to cinders. In addition to the heat, there’s likely to be light given off as well. For example, when using a wand of fireballs: “The tip of the wand turns bright white, looking at it is like staring into a forge, with the air around it shimmering with heat. Once it reaches critical temperature, flames shoot forth and land 5 squares away in an explosion of rolling heat and smoke for fifty points of fire damage.”
  • Force. I like to visualize force attacks as invisible walls or giant hammers knocking into things. Although forced movement can be described as a linear push, I sometimes mix it up with some Magneto-like flinging people through the air. Force attacks not only push and throw, but can also crush, grind, or rip enemies and objects.
  • Lighting. Lighting/electrical is my second favorite damage keyword. These attacks focus the power of storms. In fact when visualize a lightning attack, I think of Storm from X-Men: “the air grows cold and dark, the wind picks up from nowhere, and lighting gathers from the suddenly formed clouds and streaks down….”
  • Necrotic. Necrotic attacks are attacks of death and decay. These cause flesh to blacken and puss, and other living things to wither and melt. I like to visualize necrotic attacks as black wispy tendrils that leave destruction in their wake.
  • Poison. Poison is generally heaped on top of a physical attack and its hard to describe. For a poison indicator, you can describe a wound as one that doesn’t clot, or that the target’s veins become large and green, like the old dude on last week’s Dr. Who.
  • Psychic. There’s not likely to be any physical sign of this attack, other than the expression on the target’s face. When describing psychic attacks I like to describe a physical attack occurring either in or to the target’s mind. As described in my opening, sometimes I describe psychic attacks, especially fear ones, as creating a horrific image or scary scenario in the target’s mind.
  • Radiant. Radiant are your holy light attacks. I like think of giant sunbursts or big ropey strings of light, like a proton pack from The Ghostbusters.
  • Thunder. Thunder seems a little extraneous with both lightning and force, but I understand that it’s its own thing. I want to imagine a bright yellow Guile-style Sonic Boom attack, but my guess is that these attacks come with a loud clap and perhaps rolling waves of air. I would think nearby objects, especially if glass or crystal, might shatter, and cracks could appear in armor or walls. A particularly powerful thunder attack would likely cause the target’s ears to bleed.

Did I miss any damage types? How do you describe the keywords used by your attacks? Have you had any memorable experiences with these keywords?

Terrain Powers For Players

One of the things I love about 4e is how easy it is to customize monsters. Not just in terms of changing power keywords, adjusting levels, or wholesale swapping of powers, but fundamental monster modification. For example in the PHB3 Game Day scenario (spoiler alert) there’s a white dragon stuck in icy walls of a cave. Instead of the normal white dragon powers, this dragon had powers specific to being stuck in that cave. In particular it could bang on the wall and rain down deadly icicles. Maybe this is a re-skin of the breath power, but the example is meant to illustrate that it is easy to customize and tailor monsters for single purpose encounters. When done right this can really enhance the encounter. It also adds a bit of freshness, i.e.  not all white dragons are going to be exactly the same. This monotony of monster was common in earlier editions. The tricky part is to make sure there is still consistency and the monster retains its racial essence, otherwise game world gets confusing and hard to relate to.

Can such encounter-specific powers be applied to player characters? I’m thinking not. Players have to versatile enough to handle situation thrown at them. Maybe a barbarian has a rage power that knocks down stuff from the ceiling onto enemies in a burst, but that would require a lot of indoor encounters. Instead characters could get special magical items that have specific powers (a hammer of icy thundering, in the white dragon case) that is only useful in ice cave situations. Alternatively each encounter could have terrain powers: for example, an icy pillar could allow for an athletics checks to knock it down. This gives a the character an extra choice for a particular encounter without having to be built specifically to take advantage of it.

The nice thing about the terrain power philosophy is that it opens the door for use of an athletic or acrobatic stunt in any situation. Can you turn throwing a table into a burst attack? Who knows? But another nice thing about 4e is that there are tables of level appropriate damage. For example, if I were the DM, I’d say a character could pick up a table as a move action and throw it as a standard as a close blast 2 with an Athletics vs Reflex check for low damage on the table on page 185 of DMG. It took less than half a minute for me to come up with that ruling. It doesn’t matter much to me if there are already rules that potentially cover that, or that there might be a better way to rule it,  as long as the player doesn’t make a habit of throwing tables. If it does come up again and again, I’d probably invest in researching the mechanic, but for a one time situation it’s easier to rule quickly and move on.

But I’m getting off the point, which is that almost any encounter provides a player with an opportunity to do something unique in that situation. In the ideal situation you have a feat that is applicable or the DM has constructed a terrain that you can activate against the enemies AND he’s told you about it. But there is not something the DM has made available, we should always be thinking about how we can use the terrain to our advantage: knocking stuff over, moving ladders, throwing tapestries, creating a cave-in, etc. Even the most open-looking fields can have hidden dips and ditches to knock people into or hide behind.

It’s not something I’m used to thinking about, but it’s never been so easy to improvise.

DM’ing in Athas

Today’s Penny Arcade reminded me that I wanted to write about my experience DMing the Dark Sun preview at PAX East. This has also been on my mind lately because I’m gearing up to run a homebrew one-shot tomorrow. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events that got me in to the DM’s chair, but I found myself Sunday sitting at table in front of 6 strangers and a giant photocopied encounter map. I’m curious about what WotC provides the D&D Encounters DMs with, but all I had going into was a quick print-out of the adventure. I think the haste and low-bugetness of it might have been because they were just overwhelmed with the turnout; I had to use my own minis and borrowed Banagrams and DM screen from Sarah Darkmagic.

The adventure, Death in the Arena, itself was rather straightforward. The introductory paragraphs highlighted the main flavor points of Dark Sun, the elements that give it a post-apopolyptical feel: defiling magic, lack of gods, savage halflings, scarcity of metal, etc. There was also an explanation on the rules regarding magic, and the breaking of weapons. The author of this adventure, Chris Tulach, did a good job of understanding the DM audience, as there were a few pages devoted to the background of the adventure, the motivations of the main bad guy Gazal, as well as the motivations of the two pregenerated groups of PCs. In addition the adventure has an ending point that would make a logical jumping off point for a future campaign. My guess is that this will the model for the first adventure in the next season of Dungeons and Dragons Encounters, which will be set in Dark Sun.

So how was my actual experience? I was a bit nervous and very tired going into it. It’s been a few years since I last GM’d and I had never run a 4e game. I felt comfortable enough having read so many blogs, and having played the adventure on the previous day. My two biggest fears was getting the rules wrong or that that the party would not have fun. I also had the goal of really trying to make Athas fun and exciting, which is hard because it’s not a traditional setting. Thankfully I think the group did have fun, and I didn’t let on that I was a total noob at this. They were easygoing and not rules-laywery, which helped. The other factors that made it were a success was its one-shotness, no one was that invested on what would happen next time, and that the adventure game with pre-generated characters and was well-structured. And nobody complained that that the session ended early.

Some of the things that I learned:

  1. Skill challenges are hard to run. I tried my best to say yes to proposed actions, but if a skill isn’t used the way it’s listed you need to think fast on your feet.
  2. Monsters can be challenging, especially keeping track of and remember to use all their available powers. My Giths were cut to shreds before they could do anything because I forgot to use their teleport powers.
  3. It’s not solely the GM’s responsibility to keep everyone engaged and having fun. I tried really hard to be energetic, but since I hadn’t slept in a few days and it went through lunch, my energy faded towards the end, which the party resonated. If one of them had some extra energy, I probably could have activated my second wind. But despite that, I think it still went really well.
  4. DMing isn’t as scary as I thought. I look forward to my session tomorrow and perhaps some chance as well. Although in many ways its great when you get a written adventure with pre-generated characters, because they you don’t have to worry about making the encounter designs interesting or balanced.

Granting yourself situational bonuses

We players invest a lot of time during character generation trying to set up the right combination of abilities, feats, weapons, and powers to make sure we have a high chance of success in whatever situation our characters find themselves in. But once the character generation is done, I don’t think too much about getting new bonuses, especially on a situational basis.  The one major exception is combat advantage, which I pay attention to all the time because our Rogue player is obsessed with sneak attacking. And by “obsessed” I mean that he seeks out that extra damage (as he is supposed to), not because he’s a douche who likes stabbing people when they least expect it. 3e used to be filled with tons of situational modifiers: size, height, wind speed, etc. In 4e there’s basically combat advantage and cover/concealment. This is a good thing, it makes it easier to apply the rules.

What this means is that it is left up to the DM to give situational modifiers as he or she sees fit. For example, the Gabe from Penny Arcade handed out bonus cards depending on  the crowd’s reaction during a tournament. This mechanic was also used in the PAX Dark Sun adventure.  I think these types of situational are pretty awesome: it’s an easy mechanic that doesn’t unbalance things but encourages roleplay and strategic thinking. The only problem is that these are not part of the rules and thus the DM has to come up with them and then tell you about it so you can make use of it.

But who wants to wait for the GM to come up with a mechanic for you to exploit? I think we should be proactive about requesting bonuses (do so before taking a particular action instead of being told “no” after performing that action). Things that might warrant a bonus: having a background or character experience with a particular ritual, having something special in common with an NPC (race, language, religion, etc) especially when that trait is rare (both being from Sharn isn’t that impressive in Sharn), or doing something cool on the battlefield or being in an unusual situation.

There are two levels of bonuses generally available in the game. There’s the small +/- 2 that is a useful but not-unbalancing boon, which is given for difficult or exceptional situations. For example you can expect a +2 for  cover, combat advantage, or from a racial bonus or background. A +2 is probably going to be what we’d normally expect to get from doing a cool stunt, knowing the NPC’s mother, or belonging to a certain group. There’s also a +/- 5 that one gets for truly difficult, rare, or super-human events. A character can will get a + 5 for total concealment or training. +5’s are generally not something that can happen with a little situational context. For a +5 to a diplomacy, I’d expect to have saved the NPC’s life. I’m not sure what would merit a +5 in combat without applying a status that already grants that +5. Maybe some sort of magical effect or unique terrain?

I think for any group there will have a be a learning period to discuss what sorts of things your GM thinks is worthy of a +2 or a +5, but hopefully you have room for negotiation. These should be situational and you shouldn’t build a character around using them or abuse any bonus, because that would be unfair. Besides, it’s easy enough to get combat advantage and the like already. Do you play with an established house rule for situational bonuses?