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!

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.


When my group plays, we adventure about under the basic assumption that the GM has scaled all the challenges to our characters’ power level. Some encounters might be easy, some might be really challenging, but they all should be winnable. Should an encounter prove is impossible, we hope our GM would indicate that in some obvious way before a TPK. This hope is likely a dangerous assumption.

In my latest game our DM surprised us by throwing a black dragon into the encounter. Our characters took it in stride and started attacking it. Even after we loosed daily after daily on it and it wasn’t bloodied, like heroes, we persevered despite all rationality. After all, she wouldn’t have put a dragon into the encounter unless we could defeat it… right? Thankfully we were able to subdue our foe, but it came close. In hindsight there was no good in-game reason to stay and fight. But our Standard Operating Procedure is: we haven’t died yet so we must be invincible.

The only way this attitude makes sense is in the meta-game: we rely on the DM to move the plot forward and make encounters winnable. I think the role-playing purists out there would be unkind to me for this behavior, and I wouldn’t disagree. As role-players we should be playing the role of our characters and try to think as they would.  This failure of imagination isn’t the worst part! The bigger issue is that we’re relying on convention for our character’s survival, there’s nothing to prevent the DM from seriously outmatching us. The only thing stopping her is fear of whining players or slowing down the rest of the game as the survivors proceed over-cautiously through the rest of the dungeon.

So… against all my instincts and advice, I guess we’ll keep doing it until it bites us in the ass. GMs if you’re reading… if your party does this, give them one or two over-powered encounters with an easy out so I learn your serious without dire consequences. And if they still don’t listen, then go in for the kill >:-).

Over-Outsmarting the Villians

This week I wrote a post on RPG Musings on how to set up an “outsmart the villains” scenario. If I carry my own thoughts to next level, then presumably a smart enough villain should be able to out-out-smart the heroes. This means the players would want to out-out-out-smart the bad guy, and so on. We could wind up with dizzying logic only Vizzini (from The Princess Bride) could follow:

But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Basically, what I want to know is: “what happens when metagaming leads to paranoia?”

Let’s say you tried out to outsmart some villians you’re chasing with an ambush, but they did not arrive at the prescribed time. Did you get the time wrong and they haven’t arrived yet, or did they arrive too early? Or, did they find out about your plans and have gone around you? Or do they have an even more sinister ambush planned for you?

This kind of thinking can be detrimental in real life and causes analysis paralysis in-game (for a good article on that, see Sarah Darkmagic’s Like a Deer in the Headlights). Basically, you can make yourself nuts trying to anticipate every move of your opponents or by trying to counter moves that may or may not be real.

What are the players supposed to do with an uncertain escalation? I always recommend using two principles: Occam’s Razor and KISS (the principle, not the band). That is keep your assumptions and plans as simple and flexible as possible.  Unless you have evidence to the contrary, don’t assume that the bad guys have you trapped in some kind of meta-puzzle of outmaneuvers, instead just track him down and beat him up. Problem solved.

…by the way, if you have KISS (the band) on your side, then you’re pretty much guaranteed a win.

Why You Should Use a Torch

A sunrod [DDI] is only 4gp, lasts 4 hours, lights up 20 squares, and most importantly comes with the Adventurer’s Kit. On the surface this seems like a better deal than a regular torch [DDI]: for 1sp, lasts 1 hour, and dim lights 5 squares. From this seemingly one-sided contest, I’m going to try to convince you to buy torches for your characters!

Arugment 1: Torches are cheaper. To light 20 squares for four hours requires 16 torches, which is less than half the price of a sunrod. Even if you count the double distance for bright light vs dim, 3.2 gp is still less than than the 4 for one sunrod! “But Mike,” you say, “one sunrod weighs 2 pounds whereas 32 torches weighs 32 pounds!”

Maybe that’s true, and maybe that isn’t. What matters is that you should have at least one buff guy that has a 18+ Strength, so what’s an extra 100 pounds of easy-burning lumber to him?

Argument 2: Torches set shit on fire. Sunrods and even fancy everburning torches [DDI] provide light but not heat. Torches are flaming sticks and one useful property of fire is that you can use it to set other things on fire as well. A single torch can turn a dark dungeon into a dangerous inferno for your enemies. Some easy flammables your characters might find flammable: wizards’ desks, tapestries, inn common rooms, and Marty’s House of Torches. Not only can you light stuff on fire, but you can light most creatures on fire too. If you light an opponent on fire, he’ll take ongoing fire damage! Just don’t try it on a Tiefling.

Argument 3: Torches are smoky. In my personal experience, torches tend give off a lot of smoke, and if made from period materials, probably noxious, dark smoke at that. This smoke could draw attention of enemies if you’re trying to sneak around somewhere, but can also be used to your advantage. Natural beasts aren’t likely to want to come near all that smoke. You can also use a few torches to smoke out a room in a dungeon and make the inhabitants come rushing out into your devious trap.

Argument 4: Torches are intimidating. You don’t see angry mobs carrying pitchforks and glow sticks. A flaming torch tells people that you’re on a mission and they better not get in your way. Fire can also have religious or social connotations, and may add an extra destructive flair to a negotiation.

If this doesn’t make you go out and buy a ton of torches for your character, nothing will!

The 3rd Amendment and Your Character

The 3rd Amendment to the US Constitution states:

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

It makes me wonder what the conditions must have been like in colonial America that this protection was important enough to be third on the Bill of Rights. And more importantly, I wonder how those conditions relate to our fantasy worlds. Since the standard D&D world draws a lot from the Middle Ages, it’s plausible that quartering troops in people’s homes is a regular practice.

Since D&D characters often act as mercenaries or direct agents of a lawful authority (church, king, baron, etc), they might be the “Soliders” discussed in the amendemnt. To me, that implies in a pre-3rd Amendement world, when acting as lawful agents, PCs can demand food and shelter from citizens. That is a great way for PCs  to save the 5sp for a night in an inn’s common room and get a hot meal to boot.

As a bonus to the characters, if a homeowner is going to let you sleep in his barn or guest room, he’ll probably roll over if you requisition his horse, weapons, or other goods needed in pursuit of your service. After all, who is he going to complain to? You’re working for the authorities. (It might be interesting to try this in a land where your organization is not recognized or treated with hostility).

On the flip-side, PCs may be asked (or required) to provide accommodation for NPCs, especially for those higher ranking in the characters’ organizations. This could mean giving up their rooms at the inn all the way to turning over magical gear! When that happens, your characters should begrudgingly give them over and then you should remind your DM at every opportunity that he owes you one!

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.