So You’ve Pissed Off a Chronomancer

When your party makes enemies with a red dragon, you’re likely to get eaten. Annoy an assassin, and you have to literally watch your back all the time. And if you cross a wizard who has power over time, you’re likely to be sent back in time without a phone booth to get yourself back. Yesterday’s Campaign Mastery features an article about time travel in the author’s super-hero campaign. Except for the notable Dragonlance Legends trilogy, I don’t recall a lot of fantasy settings sending heroes through time. Maybe this is because fantasy settings remain largely unchanged in technology for thousands of years, even as empires come and go.  You don’t hear about D&D games where the heroes are thrown into the “future” either, but that might be because mixed technology/fantasy mechanics tend not to work out well unless the game is specifically designed for it, and even then, it’s not guaranteed.

But let’s say despite that your character makes a time-shift. In the standard 4e campaign, you might find your heroes at the start of the Nerath Empire’s rise. Even if swords, armor, and magic still work the same, your character is still going to be out of her element. She won’t know any of the people, places, customs, or perhaps even language. This is a classic fish out of water situation, which is good guidance for how you might play it. Depending on the tone of the campaign,  encounters with the NPCs could be a great time to ham it up. If your character knows about History, Religion, or Geography you could use those skills navigate your way through the past. The one question remains… do you try to change the past or work to ensure that events transpire as they already did?

Just as exciting is being catapulted into the future. If you make your time travel known, you’ll probably be treated as a curiosity, but at least you can regale people with stories of the “olde days” and laugh at the various situations the historians got wrong. As a twist on the normal dungeon delve, you can offer your services to a patron to explore an “ancient ruin” that was once your childhood palace.

The other thing for your character to figure out is how your character is getting home, or even if he wants to. If you used a magic item or ritual, you might assume that you could reverse it… that might be a bad assumption. Fortunately as players we don’t have to think too hard about it, our GM should give us a way out.

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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.

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.

The first duty of a prisoner is to escape

There may come a time in adventurer’s life when he is imprisoned against his will. Good characters can get imprisoned under false pretense or righteous action, or captured by enemies. When the party is trapped under guard, it’s their duty to escape so they can go on saving the world. This is scenario is the opposite scenario from the heist… instead of breaking in, they’re breaking out.

Smart captors will remove their captives’ weapons before locking them up. Thankfully, in 4e, there’s a lot a character can do without gear. Most powers that are implement based still work without the implement (but at a lower bonus). Hands, rocks, chamber pots etc can be used as improvised weapons. Without the right feats there’ll be a penalty to use them, but hopefully the boss will be so overconfident that your guards will be low level.

To get out of a locked room or cage, a thief can try to pick the lock with improvised tools such as a fork tine or sharpened rat bones. Alternatively, a determined hero can take years or decades to slowly carve out an exit like in the Count of Monte Cristo or Shawshank Redemption. If you go this route, I recommend that the years be hand-waved instead of role-played. It’d be interesting to see how a fantasy world evolves over the years between when a character is active in it, but I think this should be set up at the start of a campaign and not because the party failed a skill check and got locked up.

Another escape option is to overpower the guards. Generally guards will have to open the door to provide food and water, and perhaps occasionally change the chamber pot. If it’s an established prison, the captives may be let outside for a few hours, where events are less under their control. And if all that fails, someone can fake an illness to get the guards into the room.

Without access to weapons and implements, the damage dealt in combat is going to be minimal. Thankfully as we all have learned from countless movies and books that dungeon guards are the definition of minion. Usually there’s one big bad guard with an extra large saber, but he likes hangs out in the room outside the prison room, and if the party has to encounter him without weapons, he’ll just be a big minion.

Once they escape, the party’s first order of business is to get their stuff back. If they’re lucky there’s a big unlocked chest just out of reach; if they’re very unlucky, the boss has appropriated their stuff as his own. Once the party gets their goods back, they should high tail it out of there (or seek their revenge and then escape). Whether the prison is a hut in a lizardfolk camp, or in the dungeon of a well guarded fortress, when the party is low on resources, they’re best getting out quickly and quietly, avoiding excess fighting. Of course, if the escape is certain or the party has the resources, you can stick around a little bit to loot your captors.

None of this advice helps if you have a sadistic DM that comes up with a dungeon impossible to escape. I’ve been on both sides of the table in this scenario. It’s okay to come up with a tough situation and let the players figure it out, but there should at least be a concrete plan that the DM has so she can lead the party to it if they aren’t able to come up with a suitable one on their own. Better yet, the DM should say yes to whatever the players come up and help them make their plan work. The DM could also set up a prison break as a skill challenge (without or without combat interspersed).

Run Forrest, run!

In 4th edition D&D, each character has a “speed” value which is the number of squares he can move in a normal move action. Most of the PHB races fall into speeds of 5 or 6, which means the average character can cover 5 to 6 squares per round. When stacked up against the defaul spell range of 10 squares, we can expect the heroes to take damage without a chance to retaliate for at least one turn, unless they can get close to the bad guys quicker.

There are two mundane ways to increase a character’s speed on a round by round basis: (1) double move and (2) run. The double move means you give up a standard action for a second move action–in essence, foregoing an attack for extra movement. This is not so bad if it’s important to move some defenders or strikers up to a bad guy to either pin them in place, provide flanking, or secure an attack of opportunity. A double move can effectively combined with an action point to get two moves and an attack.

Running is a much tricker proposal. A run gives a +2 to speed, which when considered by itself isn’t that exciting. Moving the average range from 5-6 to 7-8 doesn’t help much when you want to go 10 squares, but could make a difference if you need just one extra square or two. The other advantage is that it does not require an extra action, so you can run and attack or do a double run. However there is a heavy cost for this, and in my experience it is rarely worth it. Once you start running, you take a -5 to attacks and grant combat advantage until your next turn. Combat advantage is not so bad, but a -5 to hit is a serious penalty, especially if the purpose of running is to get up close to an enemy.

If that’s the case, when is running worthwhile?  Two scenarios where running can make a lot of sense, is (a) running away. You’re probably doing a double run in this case and not going to attack making the extra 4 squares a big deal. And (b) when there is a time consideration, such as when there is 6 seconds left on the Doomsday Clock, and it can be stopped with a simple arcana check, and your hero is standing 7 squares away.

I thought of one cool scenario that combines those two elements. Your PC is one side of a crumbling bridge and safety is one the other side. For extra tension, add monsters shooting at him while he’s exposed on the bridge. Perhaps the hero should make one final Athletics check on the last round to jump to safety. Just make sure there’s a good backup plan if he misses 🙂

To the other players out there, have you found the run action useful? When has it payed to take the -5 to hit in exchange for just two extra squares?

Starting in the Middle of Combat

One of the most popular topics in Role Playing philosophy is the initial encounter of any campaign. The “initial encounter” the event which kicks-off the adventure. Sometimes the heroes are all separate entities in a tavern and  stranger comes in attracting their attention. Other times, they’ve all answered an add at the adventurer’s guild. Maybe they were individually hired by an eccentric wizard. These situations all fall into the category:  “you find yourself at a table talking to some dude.”

Another type of initial encounter “is the party meets each other for the first time,” usually at a crossroads in town. This results in the awkward scenario of describing your character and convincing the other players why your characters should all instinctively trust each other. Because this awkward from both a logical and a role-play situations, it is often hand-waived and the adventure really gets going once they all agree to talk to the NPC that sets up the scenario (see above).

Since these are tired cliches, a lot of DMs have experimented with starting the adventure off with some action, which is a great thing.  Some examples are

  • the party is walking down the street and a stranger runs up to them and falls over dead from a stab wound, or
  • they are all part of a caravan guard and the adventure starts and the caravan is under attack, or
  • everyone is on a boat in the middle of the ocean it suddenly starts sinking…

This is a great way to avoid the awkwardness of starting a campaign and getting going with some adrenaline. I think I’d like to start my next campaign off not right before battle, but right in the middle of a battle. It could start 4 rounds in already, with all the participants having taken a little damage and maybe a dead minion two. With this the players would have to jump immediately into action, and at the same time figure out who is trying to kill them and how to get to safety. If the PCs start off as strangers, it should be obivous to them they are all on the same side. It could be fun making introductions in the middle of battle; it seems like something they might do in a superhero cartoon.

    In a system other than d&d you might be able to get away with starting the campaign just as the characters suddenly regain conciousness (in the middle of fight). They would have either temporary or permanent amnesia and have to piece together what the hell is going on. This extends extend the “middle of combat” idea from the players to their characters. I imagine a game setting where you can define your character’s prototype on the fly. By declaring your character is casting a spell gives them spell-casting ability, or if they run away, they would get the attributes of a rogue, etc. I feel like I’ve seen that kind of character building in a video game.

    Have you started a campaign in the middle of action,  or in some other way that wasn’t in a tavern or meeting with a hiring NPC ? Was it successful? How was this experience colored by being a DM or player?

    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?