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.

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Halflings Are Not Hobbits

I just re-watched the Lord of the Rings movies, and I came to the conclusion… Hobbits are pretty bad-ass. J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic is a fantasy staple, but while you can play elves, dwarves, and humans in D&D, you’re left with the knock-off Halflings. Don’t get me wrong, Halflings are a great D&D race: they’re quick and crafty, like gnomes crossed with elves.

Halflings make great skirmishers of just about every type, especially Rogues. I think this is in part due to the regular referral of Bilbo as party’s thief in The Hobbit. However, as sneaky as Bilbo was, he was certainly more about being clever and enjoying the good life than disabling traps and stabbing monsters in the back. After watching LotR, I wanted to roll up a 6-meal-a-day, singing, dancing, brave-when-he-needs-to-be Hobbit. While as a race they seem to be resistant to adventuring, I could see them in roles like Cleric, Bard, Sorcerer, Ranger, Druid, Warden, Seeker, etc as well as the stereotypical Rogue. I think that Their attunement to the Earth would work well with the Primal power source.

I think it used to be easier to play a Hobbit in D&D. Here’s the first paragraph of the Second Edition entry Halflings: “Halflings are short, generally plump people, very much like small Humans. Their faces are round and broad and often quite florid. Their hair is typically curly and the tops of their feet are covered with coarse hair. They prefer to not wear shoes whenever possible….” The chapter goes on to describe in 2e fashion about how they make their homes and the different sub-genres of Halflings that one could play, and then a complicated mess of situational bonuses for playing a Halfling. These characters were pretty Hobbit-like but already starting to diverge from the novels.

Here’s the similar paragraph from 4e: “Halflings stand about 4 feet tall and weigh about 80 pounds. They resemble small humans are proportioned like human adults. Halflings have the same range of complexions as humans, but most halflings have dark hair and eyes….” Gone from halfling is the plumpness and hairiness in favor of a sleeker, craftier race. This is fine in terms of power balance, but I still want to make my own version of Sam or Pippin.

Anyway, I think I can get away with it leaving the Halfling race itself unchanged, and just literally re-skin it, since the stats themselves seem reasonable for Hobbits. Have people tried making Hobbit-like characters in 4e? Was the regular Halfling enough or did you make any mechanical changes?

Ferris Dragonborn’s Day Off

I thought that I had heard just about every kind of source for a D&D Adventure, but then I read Ameron’s (of Dungeon Mastering) post about doing an adventure in the style of an 80’s Teen Comedy. There’s a lot of great iconic moments from the various nerd, teen, and screwball comedies of that era: the delivering of comeuppance, getting the girl or boy, the outsmarting of the bad guys, learning to accept your friends’ differences, etc. These themes fit well in D&D, but I’ll leave it up to the Dungeon Masters to figure out how to wrap an adventure around it: I’m thinking lots of skill challenges and mob combats.

The aspect that I want to address is how to play your character when you find yourself in one of these games. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that you’re playing a normal, legal character that can be either younger or a normal adventuring age, but the adventure has these teen movie themes. To illustrate the different ways to play a character, I’m going to steal the archetypes from The Breakfast Club: brain, athlete, basket case, princess, and criminal.

Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete,  and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

  • The Brain. Generally when we think of a “The Brain” in a psuedo-military setting, we envision a tactical leader, such as Warlord or Bard. However in the 80s comedy movie sense, “the brain” is usually a nerd. Build-wise a nerd is likely to have low Strength, Constitution, and Charisma, and very high Intelligence. Races that make good brains are ones that grant bonuses to Int or are considered shy: Humans, Teiflings, Dwarves, Shardminds, Gnomes, etc, but any race can produce an introspective study-aholic. Good classes for nerds are non-charismy builds of characters that tend to stay in the back of the fight or bolster allies: Wizards, Psions, Archer Rangers, Assassin, Artificer, Invoker, etc. A brainy Bard might be a fun character to play as well. The Brain is going to specialize in knowledge skills: History, Arcana, Religion, Nature, Dungeoneering, but may also have good Insight and Bluff that he developed to avoid getting beat in the schoolyard.

    Playing a Brain is pretty easy, just imagine your favorite movie nerd. I’ll pick Egon from Ghostbusters: he’s got a serious mold collection and talks about it right off when meeting ladies, he knows esoteric knowledge from rare tomes, and when encountering a ghost-monster wants to study it without considering his own safety first. Brains are likely to be shy and introspective, but can also be rash and prone to anger when bottled-up feelings explode. The Brain might go first to knowledge skill in a challenge, and should whip out random facts during RP or encounters. If your DM shares the world-building it might be fun to create these facts on the fly and have them become part of the adventure’s canon. The Brain is a great archetype for rules lawyers or the shy guy.

  • The Athlete. This one is easy, he’s the guy that’s going to run up in the middle of the fight and start pounding away. An Athlete is likely to have high physical scores: Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. Good races for athletes are ones that give bonuses to Str or Con: Humans, Dwarves, Dragonborn, Goliaths, Half-Orcs, Minotaurs, Warforged, etc; basically something that’s big and strong, although all races produce fine athletes. Athlete classes are pretty much any defender and most strikers and leaders. Athletes should be skilled in Athletics (duh!), Endurance, and Acrobatics. Heal, Insight, and Intimidate are also useful skills to an athlete. Any feat that allows for extra movements, greater range of attack, or the ability to shrug off status conditions or keep fighting when lesser heroes would fall are great to take.

    There are lots of way to play an athlete. He can be macho and bull-headed, or introspective and looking to constantly improve his or her game. Atheletes are likely to be quite competitive, so its important to know how your character handles victory or defeat. Is he a sore looser, a gracious winner; does he look to blame himself for failure or look towards others. Athletes can view their party mates as lesser mortals along for the ride to fill out roles, or equal members where the team comes first. For a movie example, take Daniel Larusso from The Karate Kid. He’s a bit of underdog but uses karate as way of elevating his status and standing up for what he believe in. Not every Athlete has a Mr. Miyagi, but it is good to think about who any character’s coaches and heroes are.

  • The Basket Case. The Basket Case is a bit weird and generally lives outside societal norms, but doesn’t have to be unstable. The Basket Case isn’t too limited by stats or races, but I’d suggest having a low Charisma. Races that I can see with their adventurers having issues: Humans, Half-Elves, Deva, Warforged, Tieflings, Half-Orcs, Halflings (really Half-anythings). Good classes are ones that can channel an offbeat personality into a power: Warlocks, Sorcerers, Shaman, Druid, Bard, Rogue, Psion, etc. The basket case is likely to surprise his or her friends by really good in just about anything, so I think any skill would be fair game.

    The Basket Case manifests himself more in personality than in any physical trait. He uses his weirdness as a defense mechanism against rejection which is unfortunate because he’s really seeking social acceptance. The basket case will take pride in his or her nonconformity, and may act seemingly randomly. The Basket Case is a great archetype for a player that likes to get an adventure going through action. You can start a fight or talk to a random NPC or basically do any and all things, which is a great way to break an analysis paralysis. Just make sure you don’t do with too much flourish… the basket case isn’t a show-off or a spotlight hog. Lloyd from Say Anything is a good basket case… he’s an underachiever relentlessly in pursuit of a woman out of his league. His actions are crazy and unexpected, but he has a grand plan inside his head.

  • The Princess. A Princess is looked up to and respected. He or she can be bossy but is in that position for a reason. The princess is likely to have a high Charisma, and a low to average Wisdom. Good races for princesses are ones that naturally garner respect from the common folk: Eladrin, Elf, Dragonborn, Deva. A Princess is a natural Leader, but any class that attracts a lot of attention is good: Ranger, Monk, Paladin, Swordmage, etc. A Princess is used to getting his or her way so skills like Bluff, Insight, and Diplomacy are good choices. Other good attention getters: Acrobatics, Intimidate, Perception. A Princess should also have expensive and flashy gear.

    The princess is generally high maintenance and bossy, but has a good heart. The princess may also be more likely to want to please others than the other archetypes, and may be impatient. This is a good match for players that like to be in charge or show off at the table. The character himself could be descended from nobility or just act like he is. A good character arc would be to realize that even the low-born people have something to teach you. Ferris Bueller is a definite princess; he’s overconfident, every screw-up garners him fans, and doesn’t consider who his actions might hurt.

  • The Criminal. The criminal archetype is your chance to play a shady character. Criminals can come in all types, so his ability scores should make the character good at what he does. Every race has their criminals but I tend to picture them mostly coming from Humans, Half-Elves, Halflings, Dwarves, and Teiflings. Rogue is an obvious choice for class, but anyone can be an outlaw: e.g. renegade druids, wizards, and warlocks. Streetwise and Theivery are the skills of a Criminal, use them well.

    A good-guy Criminal could have taken to a life of  a crime as a matter of desperation, or is now repentant. One can also have a criminal mindset without breaking any laws; he or should could a be a renegade with a healthy disrespect of the rules, e.g. Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop. The criminal presents a great RP challenege, because you should still work with the party members and move the story forward in a heroic manner, but you have to seem not to care. This is a good role for anyone who’s naturally a misfit.

So that’s my Breakfast Club list. There are lots of other archetypes or way to define them: you can have your loner, underdog, bully, valedictorian, etc. These archetypes aren’t meant as a way to define a character or how you play one, or box one into a particular role, but a starting point and ideas for shaping a character. I often use aspects from several different fictional characters to help me identify what kind of character I want to play and get ideas for his background, but then at some point he becomes his own character from there.

Has anyone played in a 80s Comedy D&D game? I think it would be fun.

Making more dramtic scenes

John on Gnome Stew recently posted advice for GMs to get their players more involved in the storytelling. As a player I can tell you it’s not easy to be dramatic when you’re not that into a particular scene or you’re having an off night. And then there’s the potential for embarrassment factor, especially if you’re not a dramatic type, such as myself. Johnny’s advice is for the DM to ask certain leading questions at various points in the story to get players involved in sharing the description.

If you want to want to become a more descriptive player, don’t wait for the GM to prompt you. If you’re not sure what to do, pretend like you have a “little GM” inside your head asking you the questions John mentioned. For instance, when you score a hit and your first thought it is to say “I whack him with my longsword for 12 damage” ask yourself “was it a big around-the-head Conan the Barbarian-style hit or was it more like quick jab through past his attempts to parry, scoring between the gaps in his armor?” It’s easy to think of a cool scene from a movie and replace the hero with your character. Use the scene as inspiration for description. Feel free to steal it wholesale 😉

Getting out of the chair and pantomiming is another good way too for getting involved in a scene. Swords and guns are pretty easy to pantomime, but you can always swish and flick a pencil like it was a magic wand. When pleading with the queen to spare your lives, get on your knees and beg. Take any action your character attempts and pretend likes a charades: climb a wall, sway your arms on a tightrope, weave a basket. It’s good for the circulation.

And if you’re sneaking around, be sure to hunch over, pull your hands up to your chest, and make some “dink dink dink” glockenspiel sneaking sounds like you’re Homer Simpson.