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.

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They Were In Our Back Pocket the Whole Time

This week in our a game an important plot incident lead to a pretty funny conclusion. My party is tasked with stopping an shadow army from opening a gate to the shadowfell and taking over the world. To open this gate, a magic key is needed. We thought that if we found the key first, we would able to keep it away from our enemies. We thought it would be buried somewhere in town, so we enlisted the local priest of Pelor to help our search with a ritual. Tracy (our DM) turned the special-purpose ritual into a skill challenge. We used Streetwise and History to narrow down likely areas of the town to search, and Arcana and Religion to direct the magical energies.

The end result is that we successfully completed the ritual-challenge and found the magic key…. It was in the Bard’s pocket the whole time! (We got it from dwarves we saved several months ago). It retrospect, it was  funny to watch round after round as the ritual narrowed down on the section of the city where we we were. I started to get excited when I realized it was nearby to the temple, but totally surprised when we found that it was really close.

We all had a good laugh at our own expense and then moved on with the adventure, with the key safely in hand. This interesting anecdote has a few gems I’d like to unpack. First and foremost, we used valuable adventure time and resources to discover something we’ve already been given. This is not anyone’s fault; it’s been a few months of intermittent game time and we didn’t make a special note of the key when we got it. It’s funny that today on Gnome Stew, John wrote some tips to help players remember details about a game… such as the importance of a special item. Unfortunately I don’t think his would have helped us in this situation. At the time, we didn’t make a connection to the item. Back then we were dealing with the aftermath of a sticky combat/skill challenge & intra-party situation, and then in the next few sessions we were focused on a new series of events and new  location… there wasn’t time for key’s importantance (or even its existence) to sink in.

What could we have done better? Well, to start off, we should probably be keeping a separate list of “quest items” or at least “miscellaneous magic items” that don’t fit on our characters. Along with each item, there should be a note of how we came across it and its context.  Just referring to that list might have jogged our memory, although we might not have thought to look there since didn’t even occur to us that we might already have that item.

What else could we have done? Has anyone else been in a similar situation?

What could a DM have done to help us remember? Tracy analyzed the situation on her blog: When The Players Forget. I think she handled it beautifully, and like I already said, we have a good game memory. But what could have happened to have prevented the situation? There are some strategies I learned back in my play-writing days that could help: the rule of three, and simplification of props and sets. The rule of three is pretty simple. If it’s important, mention it at least three times. I don’t mean reapating “here’s a magic key” three times, but to bring up the key in three different contexts. For example: (1) “for saving their lives, the dwarves hand you an ancient key”, (2) “they say that key was being smuggled out of the city by your enemy”, and (3) “later that night as you are preparing your magical studies, your attention is tuned to the key.. it radiates magical energy.” That alone would have had us spending some game time learning more about it, rather than just pocketing it and moving on. Since aDM’s audience is specific and limited, I’d say each one of those mentions might be done when a different player is in the spotlight to spread its importance around.

There’s also a simplification issue. On stage, you don’t want to distract the audience by giving them unimportant objects to focus on. We come across a lot of NPCs and items of interest and so it’s hard to remember them all or figure out which ones are most important (they’re all important). If this was the only non-gear, ancient, mystical item we had to deal with, it would have stood out in our minds more. We could have also been hit over the head with it harder, or the DM could have said “uhm, guys, you already have it” when we set out looking, but that would have been less fun for everybody.

The other useful takeaway from our misadventure is our own cleverness. It was our idea to enlist the aid of Pelor and his priests to help us narrow down our search, and our DM’s idea that it would accomplished through a ritual/challenge. PC rituals are expensive, specific, and always a few levels too high, but the game allows anything really to be a ritual. Usually NPC rituals are of evil hellmouth-opening type, but they can be “help us find a lost item” good type too. Be creative in how you seek out NPC aid!

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.

How Do You Know Each Other?

Getting a campaign underway can be tricky. A party that doesn’t use a group template, is prone to the awkward moment where the characters all have to describe themselves and the players have to manufacture reasons why all the characters are going to immediately start trusting each other with their lives. In a recent game, the GM (Quinn from at-will)  started the game using a compromise between hand-waving the introduction and making us create the characters together with a common background. In our game he paired up the players and declared that each pair of characters comes into the game already working with each other. From here, the GM asked us to answer the question “How do you know each other?”

This was tricky for me because I was caught off-guard by exercise at I did not know the other player or anything about his character. Because I was playing a Paladin that hated city folk and my partner’s character was a Druid, we came up with a common story that the two had teamed up to save some forests and were now looking for a new challenge. Unfortunately it turned into a veneer of a backstory; after playing for awhile, we found the two characters at opposite ends of every discussion, but not in a cute odd-couple kind of way. Despite it not working out too well for me (it did for some of the other pairs), the question still sticks out for me as a good way to think about party development.

I think it’s worth it to start a campaign considering that some or all of the characters know each other. In particular if you haven’t all constructed elaborate individual histories, this is a great way to communally fill in back story and provide a starting point if you have player’s block and can’t think of something. It’s also worthwhile to work with your GM on how you might already know some NPCs. I’ve played in campaigns where the GM told everyone to come up with two or three “contacts” that the character knows and can go to for information, advice, or patronage.

To summarize, Mike’s Advice:

  • Ask yourself and one or more players: “How do your characters know each other?”

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.

When you can’t talk it out

The solution to many of the player-player problems I’ve described over the past few months is a simple two-part solution: (a) don’t be a jerk, and (b) talk it out. This supposes not just that your fellow players are reasonable people, but that you’re all capable of giving and receiving constructive criticism. I would love to play in a game where this is the case, but I game in the real world where everyone around the table is an actual, emotional human.

At times in our game someone will say something in a way that annoys me, or the party will reject my plans, or I have to share the spotlight with others. I can be rational enough most of the time to see the other’s point of view, respect it, and go with what maximizes everyone’s fun.  But sometimes I strongly disagree with group’s decision or with one person in particular. In those situations, I usually keep my mouth shut because it’s not worth discussion, or I don’t to want to risk embarrassing someone, or it’s worth it to me for them to get their opportunity while I wait for my turn.  Also there are times when I just don’t know how to say what I want in a constructive manner that will be well received. This is the balance I’ve struck, and I assume everyone else is more or less on the same page.

This week one player’s frustration boiled over on to my DM’s blog. I read his comment as being frustrated with three aspects of a skill challenge: a mismatch in expectations about how the skill challenge should be run, a sense of character uselessness in the given situation, and the group action going off in a different direction. Personally if I were him, I would have found the combat portion more frustrating as we are still adjusting to our new group and the tactics did not pan out.

When two people have incompatible gaming styles, there’s not much that can be done so that both people still have fun. If you’re all about combat and are stuck in a game where most of the adventure is devoted into sitting around a parlor reading into NPC body language, you’re not going to have a lot of fun.  Both are fine ways to play D&D and if enough of the adventure fits what you want to get out it, then it’s worth your time to stay in the game, but otherwise it’s time to find a new group. But when two people at the table have different expectations about how a game should be run, this can usually be corrected. Sometimes the GM will promise one type of game and deliver another: e.g.   high seas pirate adventure turns out to really be a merchant-guild intrigue.  In that case, the party should either: call out the GM and adjust the adventure, agree that you’d all prefer the intrigue game, or elect a new GM. When the expectation misalignment comes from “I think skill challenges should be run like X” (which was what happened to us) or “I thought you would rule Acrobatics worked differently.” Here the player has a duty to constructively talk to the GM about the expectations, and negotiate a resolution. This is best done before or after a game, and it may not be resolved satisfactorily.

When it comes to skill challenges in 4e, I think that sense of character redundancy may be overblown. My engineering instinct is to maximize the party’s success at every point, meaning the person with the highest modifier has the best chance of making the roll. I’ve only had one failed skill challenge, so maybe it’s time to let up a bit and let everyone have a chance at making untrained skill checks. Usually the DCs are set so everyone has a reasonable shot. I think I may make a table of way out of the box uses for certain skills and rituals as a reference for myself for these situations and share it here, so people can use their main skills in off ways or off skills as primary roll.

For me, it’s difficult in a free-form situation to make sure that every player gets a chance to do something or influence the group decision. In last night’s game, I advocated for a plan that involved splitting the party to guarantee success in multiple aspects. My plan based on the rumors that the party heard and I was able to understand, which was not the entirety of the available information available. The plan we chose with was simpler and better, but until I was able to parse all the information and agree, I felt like my plan was being trampled but some of the other players. We had five people and five plans (to start) and not everyone based theirs off the correct set of assumptions (including me). It’s tough to get your voice heard in that situation. I understand from a logical point of view that everyone’s ideas should be considered before choosing a course of action, and I think we did that. I just prefer it when it’s my plan that gets chosen (which it does often enough). I also understand my fellow party members intentions and why they rejected the other proposed actions; those were either inappropriate or less appropriate for the situation.

I don’t know how to advise people to be more assertive in this group, and that’s the sticking point for me. I sucked it up loosing out on the plan, and it hurt at the time, but once we moved on to implementing it I started having fun again. Looking back on it after getting a good night’s sleep and having the beer leave my system, I know the group made the right call.  When advocating a plan, acknowledge the good points in everyone else’s plan and make an impassioned argument (including sharing the assumptions) for your own; and don’t just declare “this is what we’re doing.” And once that decision is made, people can start figuring a way for their character to be useful in it.

So… assertiveness advice?

You’re Playing Your Character Wrong

Today’s Dork Tower illustrates a session recap where one of the heroes wound up doing tons of cool things the previous week , when the character was played  by different player.  I found great humor in this, as I have experienced this situation myself. It happens to all gaming groups: one guy can’t make it the table and so his character is picked up by someone else.  The big fear in this situation is that the character will die at the hands of someone else’s mismanagement or at least without the owning player to have a chance to make that death save himself. But what really ends up happening many times is that the character performs the same or better under the temporary player.

Does this mean the original player is playing wrong? Maybe.

It’s really hard to answer if someone else is playing your character better with only one or two data points over a few years. But assuming that’s enough data, let’s explore what I mean by “the character performs the same or better.” Firstly  I am referring to the character’s effectiveness in terms of usefulness in battle and influence among NPCS (as expressed by charisma checks, participation in interactions, etc). What I am not referring to is how “true to type” you think the character should be role-played (e.g. your dwarf is dour enough or your paladin isn’t preachy). Like any other art, role-playing is highly subjective and can be interpreted in many different fashions, including how well the artist (i.e. player) portrays a character. Like other arts, you can also apply “objective” measures of technical proficiency and use of the medium, but those are also a topic for another day.

At the risk of offending someone, I’m going to continue this article written from perspective that your character is being played by someone else. In this scenario you’re out sick for the week and your buddy picks up your character and proceeds to use him to kick ass and take loot on level that you never acheived. Why might this be?

  1. He’s got loaded dice, the DM likes him better, or it was just a lucky day. There are so many variables from week to week that it’s hard to say. Perhaps if you were present, the numbers would have come up in your favor as well. Either way, this is the least useful assement because there’s not much to learn from it. And without you missing multiple sessions with your character being picked up by the same player, and performing glorious exploits each time while being a dud with you, it’s impossible to rule out. This means you can stop here and go check out you tube, but if you are willing to entertain other possibilities:
  2. He’s got extra attention. When a player volunteers to run someone else’s character, odds are that he’s the one with the most extra energy that night to put into a second character. Especially if you game at night, it’s to be expect that some to everybody is pretty tired. It’s not anything you’re doing wrong, so much as that night your buddy was able to manage all that was going on. In fact, maybe it’s good exercise for everyone to take a turn at hosting two PCs. The extra burden of two characters might force you to be more efficient in terms of managing powers and choosing actions since you have to do it twice as often per round. With two characters, there’s no time to fumble through rule-books because your turn will always be next. In fact you’d have to spend more of the battle paying attention if you have to strategize for two different characters, meaning you might make better decisions for one.
  3. He can build synergies. Unless your friend is a role-playing superstar, he’s going to be tempted to play the two characters like they were of one mind, basically giving the player twice as many actions in a round. Because 4e is really built around PC combos, he can be really effective using movement and attacks. In the 8 ways your character can die, we joked about launching a fireball into melee, but when you have two characters you can have one hold back until after your other’s fireball explodes and then rush the first into battle. I find Hold Actionis not used optimally since everyone is vying for the glory of the kill. So it’s not that he’s playing your character better, but just being more effective with two independent weapons. The same synergy and holding action can be used in skill challenges with equal ruthlessness. If you’ve ever played in a party where another player has a Shaman with a spirit companion, you know what I’m talking about.
  4. He’s got more experience than you. For example, you recently started playing an elf ranger, but your buddy’s been playing elf rangers for the past two years and has a better feel for how they’re effective on the battlefield. Or even if your character is a new type to him, he might have a system for tracking conditions, using powers, or taking advantage of enemy weaknesses that might have escaped your notice. If this is the case, don’t get defensive or upset, but instead ask details of specific exploits so you can learn from him; watch what he does with his character and see if any of his style is applicable to yours.

This assumes you want your character to do be doing the types of things he did under the control of your teammate. Perhaps you’re playing a shy peacenik who would never charge into the middle of a battlefield, no matter how “cool” a scene it was. This should hold true for when you’re playing someone else’s character: you should try to be faithful as you can to how the character normally acts. Even if he has a +4 broadsword of smiting, if the character always hangs out in back and shoots crossbow, try to stick to that gameplan; you’ll be thanked by having your character portrayed accurately in your absence.