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!


[Your Advice] No Game? Problem.

My group missed its game tonight, bringing down our average this summer to less than 1 game per 3 weeks. I would love to keep gaming week after week but real life keeps getting in the way. My younger self believed that we could keep the gang together by getting together for a game, movie, or have a guest DM.

The problem we’ve had with the guest DM situation is that it takes time to prep a game. I’ve had a backup adventure in the back of my head for a few months. Unfortunately it’s not fleshed out enough to deliver on a few days notice. It also doesn’t want to fit into one night of gaming, making hard to do it for a one-shot. Even if I ran an encounter straight out of a module, it still takes time to read through the adventure, and pick out maps, minis, tokens, etc. In additions I like to prep monster cards and take some notes to let the game go smoothly. Even if someone was able to run a game completely off-the-cuff, if we’re down one or two players, it’s tough to run any adventure. And if we’re down our hosts then there are logistical and cleaning issues in the way of getting together elsewhere.

And if we wanted to punt on the game and just get together, we have to fight inertia and being tired after a whole day of work…

What do you do to keep going and keep momentum up? If your game gets canceled how do you spend your free evening? For myself, I’m blogging and reading some Robert Jordan, but somehow it’s not scratching that itch tonight…

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.

Play by email

I’ve been interested for a while now in exploring ways to game away from the table. There’s been a lot of activity recently about using Google Wave as a RPG medium. I also tried getting a play by email campaign going a few months ago, and that fizzled before it even began. There’s a certain amount of stuff in roleplaying that is hard to in asychronous text, and there’s a certain amount of momentum required to keep any campaign going.

Gabe of Penny Arcade recently shared with the whole internet an itergame email skill challenge. The skill challenge itself is pretty interesting, but even more interesting is that they’ve managed to keep their gamementum going between sessions. I usually have such big plans at the end of the night of gaming to keep the discussion, planning, and prepping going between sessions, but I can never seem to get it going. Instead I’m usually updating my character sheet at the table immediately before play.

NewbieDM sends a PDF recap to his players after each session so they have something for them to think about in between games.

These are things the DM can do to keep his players involved outside of the game night. Here are some things the players can do between sessions:

1. RP hanging out in the tavern.
2. Split the party: have two guys go off and some streewise stuff in the in-between time.
3. Research a spell or take a one-week apprenticeship with the town smith.

Ask your DM how you can keep your character active while you spend a week or two in the real world.

I am going to be on holiday for the next two weeks. I have set a new article to be published here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5pm while I am out. I won’t be able to approve or respond to any comments in that time. Cheers and have a good American Thanksgiving.

Player focus

In the recent Fear the Boot #168, the guys on that podcast focused on how to keep a player’s attention during a game. The arguments for wanting players to stay focused are good ones, and I can pretty much summarize them with the following statement: “people have limited time to game, and everyone has agreed to spend some of that time gaming together.” There was some back and forth about how much time at the table should be spent gaming vs table chatter and when those instances are okay or not. I am on the side of table chatter is good because I’m there to relax and have fun with friends. But I like to keep it contained because I want to accomplish something in-game as well (for me is fun and relaxing).

There are two consistent times when I feel my attention wandering while the game is going on. Either during combat when its not my turn in a long round or during an role-playing encounter when my character is on the sideline.  On analysis, these two are the same situation: I have nothing to do and what’s going on doesn’t affect me. One the hallmarks of a successful board or card game is that each player doesn’t have a lot of downtime. Since the activities in D&D are quite varied and DMs differ a lot in style, downtime isn’t inherent in the system, and so there are things that can be done to minimize (but not eliminate) downtime. Less downtime means less time for loosing focus and playing Wii while someone else is acting.

For better or worse, the DM is the de-facto leader in most groups and so most of the blogs, books, and podcasts out their give DM advice for helping players stay focused and keep the game moving. I personally like keeping an explodeable cart on every street corner as way of drawing players back into the game.

Here are suggestions to my fellow players on staying focused and keeping the game moving:

  1. Respect the other players’ time. Come prepared; know your combat powers and rituals. Spend the time between rounds preparing in your head an A action (and a B action in case the situation changes). In an non-turn situation limit your time spent dominating the RP.
  2. Provide hooks in the conversation so the DM can pause it or bring in other players. After striking up a conversation with the barkeep, take your drink back to a table and sit quietly for awhile. After prying information out of the lord’s chamberlain, take a while to look at the nice tapestries.
  3. Don’t ramble on constantly and monopolize the game time.
  4. Bring in your fellow players. If you’ve got a rogue, take him with you to scout out the rooftops. A wizard? Suggest that he go to talk to the town’s archmage. If two characters are charsima-y, do a good cop/bad cop routine on a prisoner. Of course that’s just sharing the spotlight with one other character. I’ll to take more time to figure out what you can do for a whole party.You can also bring in another player unwillingly. If two of you are out scouting the town together, punch the guard and you both wind up in jail. Speak on behalf of another to an npc, or start a little something like stealing the halfling’s breakfast ration. Player’s note: only do these things sparingly. Some people won’t take kindly to you forcing their characters to act or being negative towards them, and even a tolerant group gets sick of one player’s jackassery.
  5. Get a combat buddy. Pair up with the guy next to you and help him plan his turn. Of course you have to make sure he/she is amenable to this type of gaming. It’s not about ego, but instead working together to solve a challenge.

What other tricks do you do help your fellow players stay focused?

What to do in an off-week

One problem with adulthood is that there are a lot of competing interests for one’s time. No matter what we might try, life happens and we don’t get to game every week. When we can, we still get together for some non-gaming hanging out. For those occasions I keep the D&D cartoon dvd set, runebound, and munchkin in my car. But sometimes we just punt on the week altogether.

On those occasions, I like to make up that lost time by working on my game. I l use that off night to spruce up my character sheet and update the stats on my power cards. Some other non-game night activities:

  1. Reorganize my game bag. I always seem to wind up carrying an extra DMG or power cards for an old character for no reason. Also my dice bag seems to drop a die into the bowels of the bag from time to time.
  2. Plan for the future. I like to review the feat and power options available for near levels and work on my back story and how that leads into a paragon class.
  3. Look for inspiration in other fantasy sources. Watch some LotR, play a little Oblivion, catch up on some gaming blogs and podcasts (see the link roll on the right), and otherwise get ideas and pumped up for the next week.
  4. Relax. Have a beer and watch some Law and Order. Sometimes its nice to just have a week off to recharge the gaming batteries. Plus there’s truth in absence makes the heart grow fonder

What do you guys do on an off week?