What Did I Just Get Myself Into?

Hey all. I’m back. Hopefully it will stick this time. There’s still a lot going on in my world outside of gaming, and I haven’t played D&D since September, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I just hope it’s not coming from a Will O’ The Wisp.

To get my gaming life jump-started. I just submitted a last-minute RPG event for Total Con in February. If it’s accepted, I’ll be running a Leverage game on Sunday of the con. I am going to make the adventure setting a gaming convention. It’s the cool meta-con/meta-game you can only do with a modern-setting RPG.

What’s scary for me is that I’ve never written a convention game before. I got to run Dark Sun at Pax East this past Spring, but that was written by someone else, and I got to play in it the day before. But this is a new experience for me, so I thought I would crowd-source a little advice on the matter.

Any hints for writing a con game? Not just what to do at the table (that can be a second post), but how to structure the adventure and what sorts of things I should take into consideration. I don’t know the players ahead of time, so I won’t know what sorts of things they want to get out of the adventure; although since they are self-selected, I am going to assume they want an experience that captures the essences of the TV show.

The other big concern I have is about timing. Unlike with a regular group, I won’t have the ability to run the rest of the adventure next week or allow for long breaks. I signed up for a single 4-hour slot because there are other events I want to go to (in particular, board gaming) and I assume my players would be in the same boat.

So, what do you guys think? Any words of advice (or condolence) ?

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Bard, Cleric, Fighter, Battlemind

I love the show Leverage; I love it almost as much as I love talking about it on my D&D blog. The show’s writers (or maybe marketers) are really into the character’s clearly defined roles. In the first season, they made the characters play to their roles (Hacker, Hitter, Grifter, Thief, Mastermind/Brain) and then sometimes mixed up those roles to great effect. The Leverage analogy works so well for D&D because our characters have specific roles (Defender, Controller, Leader, Striker), and that these D&D roles are also quite compatible with the Leverage roles. In the second season, I guess they decided to make those roles into one of the defining characteristics of the show by including then in the opening sequence and making them a plot point of many episodes. Now that the third season is here, I guess they figured the audience hasn’t gotten it and they’re now hitting everyone over the head with the five roles. In particular at least once an episode each person is referred to by another character by their technical term (“hitter”, “hacker”, etc).

I find this blatant working of the role names into the dialog annoying. In fact nobody would ever do this in D&D… or would they? Out of game it feels awkward when one character says to another “oh, you must be the Hitter,” but I find this to be common case in D&D! (e.g. “Oh you’re the Paladin?”) In my game, as often as we refer to the characters’ names, we also refer to them by their class. For instance in a recent game we had dialog like: “send the Thief in first”, “does the Bard have any majestic words left”, “I pass a healing potion to the Fighter.”

I hope I’m not making a false comparison because we rarely use the role names (defender, controller, etc), just the class names, but I think the idea is the same. On the show, the characters don’t have classes and there’s only one person in each role, which doesn’t often happen in D&D.

Realistically speaking, the characters’ jobs are probably not commonly called by the class names either. Fighters might be soldiers, mercenaries, warriors, knights, dragoons, lancers, pikemen, hoplites, etc. Bards could be troubadours or minstrels, and there must be hundreds of names for Clerics. In fantasy novels (and even D&D) sometimes distinctions are made between wizardly titles: sorceror, conjurer, witch, warlock, adept, magician, etc. Characters’ titles might also vary by region and religion. Use of a creative titles can help add flavor to a campaign, and also change the feel of a character. Imagine that instead of “Warden”, your character’s title was “Forest Patrol.” The flavored name gives the class a sense of regulation, authority, and probably some sort of paramilitary organization backed up by a government.

Maybe this sort of thing doesn’t bother anybody else. Or maybe you’ve already come up with cleverer names for your character’s job.

In related Leverage news, looks like there is an official Leverage RPG.

More on splitting the party: The Expert

The TV show Numb3rs is about a FBI team that occasionally gets helped out by a math professor. The five FBI agents form the group that goes on missions, hunts down bad guys, and gets into gun fights. Each member of the team fills a different specialty, and yet at the same time are pretty much interchangeable. What makes them work is their effort and teamwork, this is a different model from a team where each person contributes specific skills skills (e.g. the Leverage team). If the show were Star Trek TNG, the FBI guys would be the “away team,” and in d&d they would just be “the party.”  They are the ones going on adventures.

But Charlie the math professor is the main character of the show. He very rarely goes into gunfights with the FBI team. Instead he stays behind in one of the headquaters and hunts down murders through math. In a fantasy setting he would be protrayed by the beyond-wise sage or wizard (but more involved with the world than the stereotypical mystic). But as the main character, he is the cool character that I imagine most people would want to play if the show were a campaign.

I wonder if it is possible to play d&d where one of the party members takes on the role of the Sage that hangs out at HQ and crunches the numbers? In this hypothetical scenario the only the other players would go into the dungeon and get into fights.

I came up with three sticking points that I think would make it hard to play out this setup at the table:

  1. Combat balance. Let’s say the combats are designed for 5 characters; with one behind, then the battle will be more difficult than expected. If we assume the sage will want some XP as well, a fight  balanced for 4 will make the party advance slower.The party members also depend on each other’s support in combat. The Sage can provide great out-of-combat support (intel, participate in skill checks, etc) but not so much in combat. For this to work, “Sage” would have to be a specialized class (probably a Leader) that can supply bonuses that act like single-use magical items. It might have a ton of dailies instead of at-wills and encounter powers, and those powers can provide party members with one-time buffs, saving throws, healing surge uses, etc.  To me, this doesn’t sound appealing as a character choice.
  2. Split parties. There’s going to be a lot of game time where your expert is in a different location, which means the DM has to divide her attention between two different scenes. I don’t know if there is a good way around this, other than some magic items or rituals that connect the sage to the rest of the party. For suggestions cell the comments on my cell phone post.
  3. Information Access. In order to make it worthwhile for the rest of the party to need a Sage, the Sage needs access to information beyond the regular means of the party. He should have an abnormally high knowledge check or a direct line to the Gods, Demons, etc. If there were a specialized class for this role, it could be a class power or feature. Maybe a Sage could cast divination rituals with reduced time or cost. Either way, he needs to get info from the DM beyond what is normal for the party’s level.

RPG Blog II had some good ideas for “low-magic wizards.” In that post he describes magic users as having a limited set of powers and are balanced out with fighting skills (perhaps even all the PCs have some limited magic). To get powerful magics, you have to find ancient temples, artifacts, extra-planar wizards, etc. In that world, I image that the Sage character would be one of the ones that had power well beyond the common magic-user. This would be a fun way to stand out and make a mark in world, but then you have the opposite problem with balance.

I like the idea of Sage character, but due to the team nature of D&D, he’s best suited to be a NPC that the PCs can consult with. It might be a good role for a retired PC though, if you play in a setting that spans multiple campaigns. Have people seen examples of classes or player characters that fill this role and overcome those enumerated concerns?

How to gracefully fail a search check

I don’t know about you, but sometimes the most mundane events in my life lead me to odd roleplaying ideas. For example, when I saw the office manager emptying out the shredder this week, I thought that a high level modern rogue could sneak in and steal those shredded documents and reassemble them for some corporate espionage.  (Did I also mention Leverage returns tonight?)  My next thoughts were constructing a parallel fantasy d&d scenario for corporate espionage. After a round-about train of thought I developed a skill challenge relying heavily on Perception checks to gather evidence against an evil Baron.

In order to make it to the punchline of this whole diatribe, I have to bring in a bit of my day job. As a software programmer, I’m trained in making sure programs fail gracefully. That means if the database goes down while you’re still connected to it, instead of crashing your computer, the program remains responsive to input and allows you to proceed with your work as much as possible. Bringing that idea to my perception challenge, we don’t want a failed skill check to dead end the party’s plans, or end the skill challenge too soon.

The fantasy espionage example involves the party trying to uncover tangible evidence of a Baron’s dealings with the King’s enemies. Since the Baron is a pretty smart guy, he thinks to destroy all the obvious evidence. A hard DC perception allows the PC to find an incriminating note that got caught in the chimney flue instead of burning up.  In the standard-style skill challenge, beating the hard DC would count as success, and not making it would be a failure. In addition to counting as one strike, as a consequence for failure, the DM may decide that the failed search took 10 out of the 15 minutes before the guards make their rounds.

A gracefully failing skill check would not have a binary pass/fail option, but instead have grades of results (no more than 3 or 4 is practical). In my example, let’s say the PC did not make the hard DC, but rolled well enough to pass a moderate check. In that case she doesn’t find the note, but instead finds an undated bar tab for a tavern known to be frequented by the king’s enemy.  Since this hardly damning evidence, the baron saw no need to destroy it. But this circumstantial piece of evidence could be used by the party to then go to the tavern and try to find eye witnesses to a meeting (requiring further skills and RP). Perhaps only rolling high enough to beat an easy DC gives the PC mud on  boot only found in part of town where that tavern is, meaning the PCs must first uncover the tavern, and then find the eye-witnesses. Maybe this also uses up 10 of the 15 minutes minutes. Failing the easy might get the PCs no evidence and a strike against the skill challenge.

This seems like a nice idea to make skill challenges more fluid. If you play with a discrete skill challenge mode, obviously this will add to the complexity of a skill challenge, so the DM will have to adjust the rewards or break down skill challenges into smaller ones.