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.

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.”

5 Things I Learned From Pandemic

Pandemic the board game has become quite the go-to for my group when we just don’t feel like doing D&D. It’s an awesome game, and one of the few  games where it’s fun when you loose as well as when you win. It’s especially fun when you’ve almost won but then suddenly loose… it makes you want to try again to beat the damn thing. I highly recommend it. But this is not supposed to be a review post, but rather some observations I’ve made while playing the game that I can apply to D&D.

  1. Strictly speaking you can get by without a Cleric, but the game is a lot easier if you have one. In Pandemic, the Medic gets to clear all the cubes in a city with 1 action (0 if the cure is discovered). While all the characters are useful, the medic is the one that gives the most breathing room,  allowing your team to survive that one more turn needed to win. The cleric does the same in party, supplying important healing and buffs that often turn the tide of battle. As the difficulty of an encounter goes up, the party’s survival is increasingly dependent on healing.
  2. Troubles are exponential. In Pandemic, when things start to go bad, they spiral out of control. One outbreak can spark another, and each time there’s an epidemic the infection rate goes up. It’s no different in D&D. Things may start out fine in a battle, and then all-of-a-sudden, your character is immobilized, and then monsters start ganging up on him. Soon he’s taking 15 ongoing, bloodying him, thereby triggering blood rage on the opponents, causing them to do more damage…. Well you get the picture. Things can be just as bad on RP side. One blown Diplomacy check and suddenly the duke no longer trusts the party, making it harder to pry information out of his servants, making your information less reliable to your patron, and so on.
  3. You’re not going to get there until its too late. In Pandemic you can be busy fixing things in Asia, and just when you feel like you’ve got the red disease under control, the yellow explodes all over South America, and there’s no way the team can get there in time. For every damsel we’ve saved, there’s been twelve townspeople slaughtered on the far side of the encounter. We justify this as collateral damage or calculated losses, but it really burns to know that maybe if we were just a little luckier or planned better we could have saved those villagers from being eaten, enslaved, or sacrificed.
  4. Teamwork is the key to success. The only way to win is to work together as a team, make the most of each others special abilities, and sometimes using powers in a way that helps your team mate out more than you. This is true in D&D, especially when abilities allow you to grant each other moves, attacks, and bonuses; you can wind up doing more damage by setting up a party member’s attack than your own.
  5. It’s not about winning, its about having fun playing. For every time I’ve won at Pandemic, I’ve lost 3 times, which I think is a pretty good ratio. The best part is that no matter if we win or loose, everyone has fun. That’s true in D&D as well. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how many orcs were killed, how much treasure was accumulated, or realms saved from invasion…what’s important is that friends got together for an evening and had fun.

So remember to have fun and play games!

Rolling Tools Review

Hi All. Sorry for the long lapse between posts. I honestly thought I could keep up my schedule indefinitely. I’ve been super busy and traveling. I hope to get one post a week out now through Halloween and then back to twice a week starting in November, as well as regular contributions at rpgmusings.com.

It was a funny coincidence when I was asked to review two different iOS die-rolling apps in the same day. I accepted their offer (full disclosure: I got a free copies) and thought it’d be interesting to see how they stacked up against some of the other die rolling app’s that I’ve had on my iPod touch for a long time.

Let me start off by saying that I prefer physical dice to electronic. I love the colors and sounds of the physical act of rolling. Plus, my dice have sentimental attachment. And there’s somehow a sense that physical dice are fairer than the electronic ones, although I’m pretty sure that the electronic die are probably a lot closer to random than my physical ones (even the Game Science dice).

Dice have one big problem… I have to remember to bring them! This past week I forgot my bag with character sheets, minis, dice, etc. Fortunately I go everywhere why my cadre of pod touches and iPads, so I was able to pull up my electronic character sheet on i4e (where is the iPad version??) on the iPad and the rolling apps on my Touch and was ready to go.

I tried out these apps under various conditions. I’ll list the various things I liked and disliked about them, but leave it you to decide which ones, if any, are right for you.

  • Dice Bag [iTunes]. I’ve had Dice Bag on my iPod Touch since I got the thing, maybe 2 years ago. This is a great app that does just one thing: rolls a die. It has one screen with a picture of a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, and for you old school D&D’ers, there’s a percentile, 3d6, and a 4d6 drop lowest. The graphics are so-so and the die sound is a little hallow. On the positive side it’s very easy to use and free. It currently has 2.5 stars on iTunes review.
  • Mach Dice [iTunes]. Moving a step up, for $0.99, this app lets you roll an arbitrary set of dice, so you could for instance roll a 2d4 + d8 damage with one go. You roll by shaking the device, which gives a nice physical feeling to rolling. You can pin a subset of dice to reroll just a few. You can customize a ton of the graphics, from the die color, background textures, pip types, etc. However the dice are surprisingly aliased looking. It also gives you several fields of dice, so you can have one screen that rolls your attack and another for the damage die. The roll action makes a good craps table noise. The die rolling is fun, but a bit sensitive. It’s a good general purpose app that you can use for Yahtzee or other games as well. The app currently has 3.5 stars on iTunes review.
  • Feudz Dice [iTunes]. This is a new-comer the app store. It is $1.99 but also has a free version [iTunes]. Feudz Dice combines the best aspects of Dice Bag and Mach Dice. The top screen has your choice of single die (d2-d100) and under the “Complex” tab is the ability to put in up to 7 multi-dice expressions (5 in free version). If you pay for the full version you don’t get ads, and there is a 3rd screen where you can save “groups” of rolls. This lets you create a custom roll for each power, for example and save them as a group. This lets you put in variables such as “level” and “base attack” into that expression. Finally there’s a “Tavern” tab which is just extras and settings. The graphics are top notch and well-themed for D&D, but the rolling sound is too mechanical, and there are no animations. The app launches quickly, which is a plus. I’m not sure I’d use the more complicated die rolls, since its pain to input all the information from my character sheet. I’d rather just press the die number several times, or use a character sheet tool for rolling powers. 5 stars on Itunes reviews.
  • iTools Game [iTunes]. This $1.99 app has one thing going for it that the others don’t. It comes with both English and Italian versions, which you can choose at startup (instead of it using the normal iOS localization route). Unfortunately the English translation is not that good, which can be distracting for some users. The App also unfortunately has a more complicated navigation system with inproper usage of UIActionSheet and other iOS menus. One thing I do like is that on the “Advanced” Die screen, which has your choice of various-sided dice, there is also a bar to let you quickly choose the number (so you can do 3d6 with two taps instead of three and having to total in your head). It unfortunately has a separate views for d6’s, and d2’s. The app suffers from trying to do too much. It has a generic score-keeper, but not as nice as the Score app, and it also has other modes for Dungeons & Dragons and magic. The Magic view has life and mana counters, as well as text fields for some other use. The D&D views have hard to navigate forms to replicate a character sheet. And this being a dice app, it’s unfortunate that you can’t even make rolls for the stats once you put them in. The graphics are okay, except that the “rolling” animations are dizzying spins and go on too long. The dice sounds is pretty good, actually. No ratings on iTunes.

Overall these apps do exactly as promised, but none are as fast or satisfying as rolling actual dice. In a pinch, I’d put on Feudz or Dice Bag, especially since they are both free.

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?

Public Gaming

When I was in my youth we used to game in a study room of our public library. Then I didn’t think anything of it, although now It would never occur to me. Perhaps that’s because I have a private apartment now, free of judging parents or a pesky sister.

A few months ago we played a post-PAX East d&d game at a bar in Cambridge. The well-themed Celtic pub made a great environment for gaming, and the staff and nearby patrons were between amused to intrigued, but not disparaging. We had a good time, even if it was loud and alcohol fueled. Also we didn’t get through the adventure, but it was a good time. And playing out in the open, moved my gamer shame token down one notch on the track.

Tonight, instead of gaming we returned there just to hang out and geek out (without props)… well we did get a game of Pandemic in (and lost). Sometimes it’s good to get a little fresh air.

Where have you gamed in public? And I mean in a non gamey context. Cons don’t count.

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.