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!

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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.

Sword Fightin’ In Style

One aspect of Robert Jordan’s mega Wheel of Time series that I enjoy is its description of dueling, or “dancing the forms” as he calls sword-fighting is called.  A lot of attention is paid in these novels to a blademaster’s maneuvers: each combination of swing and footwork has a fantastical name that evokes an animal and its environment with names like “wind follows the loon” or “heron in the rushes”.  In Jordan’s world, a blade master has learned hundreds of special forms and knows when to use a particular one to counter his opponent’s.

In 4th edition there is a lack of a  a good blade-master class. It’s absence makes me miss the old class kits from 2e, although those were usually associated with the Fighter. In 4th Edition, a Defender Fighter is built to soak up damage: a sword & board type of warrior. I think that my desired type of  sword-master would be more of a striker, like a two weapon ranger, except specializing in one type of sword. The big difference between my vision and what is available is the lack of specialized powers that represent the sword master moves. Martial Power 2 comes close with Combat Styles, although that seems more like different Eastern fighting schools than special individual forms.

Although I probably wouldn’t opt for it in my own games due to the time issues at the table, it would be neat to see some kind of system for more expressive combat: sword forms and dueling. For instance, if an opponent were to attack with a “Fox stalks the Seagull” maneuver, it would be nice to have a list of counter moves to choose from. I don’t know if you’ve played Monkey Island with its unique fight by insulting mechanic, but basically you get a list of responses to given attack and have to choose the most appropriate one. I think I would give that kind of mechanic a go to see how it feels.

Are there any 4e powers or combat variations that put the strategy into individual swings of the sword, rather than the move/damage type strategy of the standard powers?

Dealing With a Full House

I don’t envy my DM. This week she hosted six players. My preferred GM to group ratio is 1:4. Our group and the standard 4e rule book handles five players. And, in my experience, the organized play events fit 6 players to a game.  This week our group had to deal with just about every difficulty 6 players presents: physically fitting everyone around the table, getting turns in the skill challenges, long time between rounds in combat, and difficulty engaging with the GM.

Fitting Everyone Around the Table

We play on our DM’s dining room table, so we were physically limited by the size of the table and the room. This week the last person to arrive had to sit away from the table, and stood up in the corner during combats so he could roll. This situation sucked because there was a little bit of personal space issue, and I imagine that he didn’t feel entirely included in the group.  Unfortunately, I don’t know what we could have done differently. It’s nice to be able to host guest players, but if this became a regular issue, I’d probably ask for a hard limit on the number of people to be invited, even if I had to occasionally sit out.

Getting Turns in Skill Challenges

This is a general problem for my group. At first I thought it was character based, but since we played new characters last night, I’m going to go with it’s personality-based. Like any group, our has a complex dynamic, and some people are better at getting their way and making the rolls during a skill challenge.  With six players the issue is exacerbated in that there are a fewer worthwhile actions to go around and the challenge might be resolved before someone gets to act. On top of the physical layout made it harder for everyone to participate.

I realized these issues at the time, so I feel like I could have been more assertive about encouraging others to participate. We also could have spent more time discussing each challenge with the DM instead of immediately taking actions; in particular, I think I should have asked for a list of available actions, at least as a starting off point to make sure all the bases were covered.

Combat Takes Awhile

No matter what tricks are done to make a combat last fewer rounds, there’s just a minimum amount of time each person needs to analyze his situation, come up with the character’s actions and execute them. It seems harder with a larger group to do some of the usual tricks, like buddying up with someone to discuss strategy or plan one’s turn farther ahead. In fact by the time my turn came around, my plans and next two backup plans were already invalid!

With a large group it might be fun to have two judges run the monsters and split the party (in the same encounter) so each round has two simultaneous parts. That might get tricky, if the two groups are right on top of each other, but if the groups are in two connected rooms or floors, that might work. But as for our particular situation, patience and understanding were the keys for getting through it. The tough part is that long downtime makes it easier to drift off into side conversations or cyberspace.

Engagement With the GM

This is hard for any GM, and I can’t fault ours for how she handled things. It is just a fact of life that people have limited attention span and so we all have to compete for some of it. I think that with four players, getting a 25% share of the GM lets you accomplish a lot in character, in either role playing, skill challenges, or combat. With 6 players, you only get 17%, and it makes a big difference. It’s also stressful to the GM who has to make sure everyone gets his fair share at the spotlight. Once again, I don’t have any useful advice here, other than to be concious of it, be ready to give up the spotlight, and help the GM out where you can.

How do you deal with large groups? Anyone game with more than 6 players? I once DM’d for 10… that was a mess.

Half-Completed Characters

I’ve been having a lot of trouble coming up with a post today. I had about 8 half-done posts but I haven’t been able to find the enthusiasm to finish any of them. So I started writing some new posts and I’ve now added an additional six onto that pile just in the past two days. It’s been challenging to come up with something regular to talk about. In fact, it’s a higher standard than I hold my gaming… I don’t regularly game ever week!

Thankfully for today as I stared at my pile of half-posts I came up with this thought… “this is similar to my pile of half-finished characters.”

I have a binder at home filled with green 2nd Edition character sheets that never made it to the gaming table. Some of those characters were completed as far as having equipment and a character doodle, but many were just ability scores and race/class combinations. With the Character Builder, it’s way easy to make characters, and it in fact it’s hard not to completely build a character (or at least though equipment buying…where the UI quality really starts to drop off). Because of this I have a folder filled with 4e characters that I’ll never play… Some things never change!

So, what should I do with them? There has to be something better than letting them collect electronic dust. My first thought was to create a Heroes Gallery on the site, but I don’t see the benefit. These characters are all pretty much non-unique or at least not in any meaningful way.

Nor do I think that I’ll ever go back to them when I need to call up a hero… I pretty much just make one from scratch for each campaign, but yet I’m not ready to delete them either. Maybe I’ll just add them to that great ZIP archive in the clouds…

How To Cheat in D&D

One of the great things about tabletop roleplaying is that for most groups winning and cheating are irrelevant concepts. D&D is about group storytelling; by negating the game mechanic through cheating  you loose the ability to build memorable scenes out of failure and you won’t allow room for characters to grow. Why should experience (and therefore experience points) matter if you’re just going to blow through all the encounters risk-free. In fact, one of the challenges of 4e is that since all the encounters are scalable to the PCs level, the DM has to work harder to make the encounters interesting yet winnable. Thankfully there’s a lot of knobs in the DM toolkit to adjust encounter difficulty.

With that in mind, I found it interesting that the Roleplaying Tips blog highlighted ways for GMs to handle cheaters. The article covers two types of cheaters: ones who lie about their dice roles (and stats), and ones who read ahead in the module. Flipping this around into advice for cheaters: “lie about your dice” and “read the module.”

Lie About Your Dice

This has been the go-to for GMs who roll behind a screen, but there’s no reason why you can’t either. For starters, you can roll on the table and blatantly lie about it. Odds are your GM will be too far away or too short to read the small digits on the die; your fellow players may grumble but will probably look to avoid conflict, so you’re golden there. To be a little more subtle about it, you can get loaded die (let me know if you have a link where to get some), roll on the sly (at the edge of the table, behind some books or your hand, etc), or just nudge the die after it lands.

There’s not just dice that you can lie about. When taking damage, you skim a few hp off the top to last longer, or add a few “bonus points” to skill checks and other rolls. It’s harder to lie about your ability scores and defenses, since most GMs tend to keep the basic stats on hand.

You’ll need to be wary when your fellow players start getting suspicious. Be sure to get good at lying…put a few ranks into Bluff.

Read The Module

This one is far tougher. Lying is an opportunistic event, to get a hold of the GM’s module and read it requires planning, and quite possibly money. Many GMs don’t use published modules or when they do, they modify it, so this has limited value unless you know which module and that your GM is going to use it relatively unchanged. The Kobold Hall in the back of DMG and Keep on the Shadowfell, which is free on the Internet, are easy to access. Also now that Dungeon comes with a DDI subscription, you can get your hands on the adventures in that magazine pretty easy. Other printed or 3rd party modules require that you spend some money, which seems a little ridiculous just to cheat at something where you’d only be cheating yourself.

The upside to reading the module your GM is running is that if you don’t mind knowing the spoilers, you can help the GM out by moving the plot along by making choices that move through a well-paced set of encounters. Also some modules are  balanced towards the PCs finding hiding items or solving puzzles that you wouldn’t be likely to find unaided.

In case your GM is reading this blog… don’t actually cheat, you’re only cheating yourself and your friends. If she’s not… cheat to win! After all, it’s only a game!

Remembering Stuff

My current campaign has a lot going on. A couple of characters have backstories tied into the campaign. In addition we have some traveling companions that are loose threads that need tying. There’s an an ever-evolving mythology and history of the realm with a new ancient character that needs to be kept track of each week. On top of that, there’s a whole cabal of villains working in concert to bring back a shadow army from the past. Each town has a main villain involved and there are a few agents that are always traveling around, staying one step ahead of us. To add depth to the story our DM has created a series of legends, books, and past heroes to help us figure out what’s going on now. It’s much appreciated and helps with the immersion but it’s also harder to make sure all the facts stay straight. Also some of the players are really into it and its for keeping them engaged.

One of my fellow players has a great system for keeping everything straight: he writes stuff down. Harry keeps a journal and records the names and places of all the interesting facts our GM provides. Being the record-keeper is a good fit for him: he’s naturally curious about history and literature, he sits right next to the GM and he’s playing a Bard, a character well versed in lore. The upside of this is system is that I don’t have to worry about remembering anything, because I can always count on Harry having the NPC’s name on hand. The downside is that it’s hard enough for me to keep all of this straight that having crutch allows me to worry less about it, and I don’t as good a job as a player.

So what I am I to do? I don’t want to be the player that is always asking “what just happened? who are we talking to?” It was particularly embarrassing for me last week because I had mixed up two evil dwarves and everyone around the table looked at me like I was stupid for thirty minutes before someone was brave enough to tell me the that they were two different guys. At the same I don’t have the patience to make detailed notes and charts. Next week I’m going I’m going to try something different, I just don’t know what. Maybe I’ll print out a blank org chart and fill it in like a lawyer rounding up the mob.

At another game I was at recently, the GM had a regular gaming space set up with a big corkboard. On that board he was able to pin up the important parts of the cosmology so we had a persistent visual representation of the different factions that were involved in our game. This was nice for me because I was able to quickly refer to it to understand where our characters were with respect to those groups. It was also nice for me to have someone else take care of tracking the different factions… I could just reap the benefits without the work. I don’t think it would be fair to hijack our hosts’ dining room to this on a regular basis, but if any of you are GMs out there and have the room, you or a player could have an area for charting NPCs and organizations.

What other techniques are out there for keeping track of all the plot points and NPCs that doesn’t involve a lot of writing or remembering?