September 05, 2011

Seasonal Change

There's something about August ending that gets me thinking about Autumn. I guess that's normal. Perhaps it's the rain, or the cool wind I feel in the late afternoons, or the fact that it's getting darker earlier here in the U.S. I think it's also the knowledge that once October 1st arrives, the space between the beginning of my favorite month and December will fly by. Whatever the reason, with a mixture of expectation and melancholy I look to the coming seasonal change.

Do you "play" in the different seasons as GM? Do the seasons change in your campaign world?

I've rarely had a campaign run long enough to track the change of several seasons, and of course seasons might vary in a fantasy world (winter in Athas, anyone?). But I definitely find running temperate zone adventuring a bit boring, and I think it wrong that a party might have travel way up north just to see a little snow. (Perhaps that's my real-life location speaking to me—living in the northeast USA, I typically see temperatures ranging from 20 to 100 degrees F, and snow is hardly uncommon during the span from December through March.) I rather like the weather-related variety, myself.

About a year ago I began a new 4e campaign (you can read Ken's wonderful synopsis starting here) and I vowed to make it a little different. The initial session, I steered the party toward the beach and sand, and had them playing in the surf with huge crabs, all in an attempt to get away from the typical wooded hills. The attempt was semi-successful, but as the campaign continues (hopefully for a while) the group will voyage across the sea, visit the desert and a Cairo-style city, and explore southern jungles.

Sometimes a little seasonal change can be enough to make that standard campaign just a bit different. So the next time your group sets out looking for that long-lost tomb or crumbling keep, have them encounter some fresh-fallen snow, some driving hail, or perhaps a thick morning fog (all preferably combined with a dangerous encounter)—both you and your group may find it a refreshing change of pace.

June 19, 2011

Free RPG Day - Did you go?

Ah yes, Free RPG Day. So ... did you go this year?

There were lots of good freebies to be had this year, including Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG Adventure Starter, Paizo's We Be Goblins module (curse ye Pett, you've done it again!), the usual nice offering from Wizards of the Coast, and much more.

I'm fully in support of Free RPG Day. So-called brick and mortar stores are disappearing at a frightening rate. Case in point, I headed over Cedar Grove, NJ the other day for a sit down lunch with frequent co-conspirator and kick-ass RPG author Mike Ferguson. The Cedar Grove area was home to two cool stores within arms throw of each other—Time Warp Comics & Games and New Moon Comics. Did the use of the word was there serve as a tip-off?

I've developed a comfortable rhythm on my infrequent visits: stop at Time Warp, grab some pizza next door and talk about upcoming RPG projects (many a published project has been thrashed out there over a slice), and then ride down Rt. 23 a mile or so to New Moon. Alas, no more. We pulled up the the former location of New Moon to find an empty storefront, blank sign, and vacant lot. Yikes, how I hate when that happens. A quick Web search revealed the unsurprising culprit—the dreaded down economy. Now I should note that New Moon continues on as an online entity (link above) and I heartily encourage you to shop there. The owner is a first-rate fellow and the staff was always very nice. I intend to give them my continued business. But I shall miss the storefront greatly.

Online shopping is great. I have a family now, and gamestore runs frankly are harder to plan than in the past. But there is something wonderful about picking up the latest boardgame, turning the box to read the back, and getting the heft of the game. Likewise, flipping through a new RPG book and seeing the art, glancing at the maps, and instantly understanding the length of the work tells me more and is more enjoyable than the best online preview. It's a part of my shopping experience, and an important ritual.

So resist the temptation (I'm guilty sometimes too) to shop online or via ebay, when possible visit your friendly local game store, and spend a few bucks. Not just on Free RPG Day (definitely go then!) but whenever you can. They'll thank you and you'll benefit the hobby as a whole.

May 04, 2011

Cthulhu Dreams

It's a wrap—Age of Cthulhu 5: The Long Reach of Evil is due in stores in about a month.
This book was a particularly enjoyable one to work on, in no small part because of my co-authors—my very skilled sometimes- co-conspirator Mike Ferguson and the fearsomely talented Richard Pett. The compilation offers a nice blend of pulpy Cthulhu adventures set in foreign locations: the Amazon (Ferguson), Sumatra (Pett), and Tibet (my bit).
Tibet was my first choice for location, and an interesting one it was. Even today, travelers to Tibet find a region steeped in unusual history, sometime-curious beliefs (at least to Westerners), and mystery. I suggest that anyone seeking inspiration for Tibetan adventure seek out the writings of Alexandra David-Peel in particular, as there's much to feed the imagination there.

My goal in this adventure was to cut the characters off from civilization, and to create a setting devoid of the usual comforts. In the middle of Tibet in the 1920s there were no phones, no modern transportation, no police, and no relatives or ready help of any kind (except that found in the location populace). I thought this fit both the investigative nature of the game (quiet investigation over seeking aid from the authorities) as well as the pulpy tone of this adventure line (when do Indiana Jones type adventurers going running to the cops?). And if some nameless horror slaughtered you in the wilds of Tibet, it might be a long time before anyone realized what happened to you...

The movie Hostel wasn't the greatest thing put on film by a long shot, but I do think the movie conveyed that fear of being in a foreign place away from the familiar. Touristas and a few other films that followed likewise tapped into this. When in other country you place by their rules, and sometimes that can be downright frightening.And we can of course find fear of unknown lands within in the bounds of our own country, as seen in Deliverance or The Blair Witch Project.

Lovecraft of course touched on this fear of unknown lands himself—unusual towns (Shadow over Innsmouth coming to mind first there), remote locations (Colour Out of Space or Whisperer in Darkness), foreign countries, Arctic desolation (At the Mountains of Madness), and even deep underwater environments (The Temple). Decades later, authors continue to combine unusual/remote locations with the supernatural/mysterious, such as Michael Crichton's Sphere or Preston & Child's Thunderhead. It's a most effective combination.

So if you run The Long Reach of Evil for your group, do treat them to a bit of sinister culture shock, Call of Cthulhu-style, before you allow the revolvers to be pulled from their holsters.

April 07, 2011

Grindstone blues

Recently a debate of sorts has been raging about the length of combat in 4e. The argument is not about whether it takes longer than in most older editions (only 3rd Edition is really debatable) but whether long combats diminish the overall play experience.

As I've previously opined here, I believe they do.

I've read plenty of the "pro- longer combat" posts and 95% of them seem to raise two basic points:

a) if the combat is fun, what's the difference?


b) if combat is so long for you, run less of them.

Bah. I respectfully take issue with both statements above. Obviously everyone has their own preferred play style, and that's paramount. But neither statement holds water for me.

Let's take "A" first.

Combat is fun. As I've previous stated in this blog, it's an essential element of play. Remove the combat and you've removed much of the die rolling and much of the enjoyment. Let's face it, examine any adventure, even complex ones such as Paizo's adventure paths, and most are basically a long string of set-piece combats.

But the overall roleplaying experience is far more than combat alone, otherwise we might as well be wargaming or playing a tactical skirmish game or simply playing RISK. We want to exercise our brains as well as our dice-throwing wrist. And although choosing combat options and coordinating attacks between characters can involve some thought; exploring the depths of a new character, interacting with NPCs, and overcoming puzzles and non-combat challenges with friends is a huge part of the experience. For me, a near 50-50 balance is best.

Now "B" next.

I actually have run less combats when running 4e games, but out of sheer necessity. This change is not enriching my play experience.

In my experience, everal short combats do more to move the plot along than one grindingly long, let's-whittle-down-those-HPs combat any day of the week.

Playing 4e has forced me to all but abandon the wandering monster encounter, that fun on-the-spot test of DM imagination. My group's time is limited—and in this age of 30+-year-old players we're hardly unique—and we simply can't afford to "waste" a whole session to a wandering monster when more enjoyment would probably be had from a meaningful combat that furthers the plot.

And yes, I realize the point is simply to have fun. Who cares if it's plot-related, you say, if all have a good time? If that's the case, I suggest abandoning the traditional campaign and simply meet for the Fight of the Week Club. Each session the DM simply creates an interesting fight—no plot or reason or connection between them—to challenge the same group of PCs. I think most would drop exercise that rather swiftly.

We need more, an underlying reason for our combats. We could accept a "meaningless" WM encounter in the old days because it meant perhaps 15 or 20 minutes of play time. But now? Is it worth possibly losing most of a session to the experience?

I'm also a big fan of the warm-up fight, that beloved DM technique of letting the players roll some dice right off the bat to let off steam, which starts things on an exciting note and helps ensure they'll sit still for the descriptions or exposition to come. I've found that a first combat, right at the start of a new campaign, is also a great way for players to get a "feel" for their characters. But now, on at least 3 occasions, I've seen a first campaign combat gobble up the entire first session, leaving players & DM that had fun yet feel somewhat "shorted" by the experience.

In my circumstance, in which the players meet once a month (and we're happy to get that), I'm forced as DM to (re)consider how we're going to spend each 5-hour session. My goal is to pack those 5 hours with plentiful combat, brainstorming, intrigue, etc. I don't always get it all, but the overall experience should be a mix. I accept that groups that meet once or twice a week have more time to kill and may not feel this constraint, just as my 1e games many years ago allowed for much time "haggling in town." But as the game grows older so does many of its players, and time can become a precious commodity. I think newer versions of the game need to streamline elements of the rules to allow for this. (If, for instance, granting characters killer powers means the bad guys must have more HPs and that means fights become a grindfest, perhaps PC powers should be scaled down.)

That's my two copper pieces.


My peer, the worthy Mike Ferguson, comments here on this very same issue.

February 11, 2011

It's All in the Timing

Recently the wise Ken Hart raised the subject of slow combat in 4th Edition. Certainly this is not a new subject to you, gentle reader. I’ve seen numerous posts and solution posts addressing this so-called flaw in the 4e rules. I’ve seen other posts stating that the slow combat isn’t a flaw at all.
Here are my 2 copper pieces on the matter, taken in part from a recent e-mail I sent to Ken and other worthies.
I've read enough posts about the slow combat in 4e that I do consider it a flaw (especially as they promised at 4e's release that combat would be faster than 3e combat, which is blatantly untrue). Some contend—and it’s good argument—that the plethora of combat options 4e offers all participants more than makes up for the extra time, the basic idea being “If it’s interesting combat, who cares if it’s long?”
Recent blog posts by Mike Ferguson and myself examined some differences between 1e and 4e, in particular the boring combat of 1e versus the more tactical combat of 4e. I don’t discount this. The swing-repeat cycle of combat for fighters in 1st and 2nd Editions could get boring. But I think there is also the consideration of what the players accomplish, how far the plot moves along, and so forth. Dice rolling is all well and good, but D&D is a roleplaying game, and if a single combat dominates your session you’re getting too much roll and precious little of the role. The price of interesting combat should not be at the expense of the rest of the game, or at the expense of what have become precious hours of playing time for many older players.
For me, combat is a big deal—an essential part of the game—but it's not everything. 4e can taken a lot of (justified IMHO) heat about being overly combat-minded, and I think it's important to remember that those final combats can mean a lot more if the players have previously interacted with NPCs, made friends, exposed spies or turncoats, solved puzzles, explored new environments, etc. A 3-hour play session that is dominated by a single, routine combat doesn't allow for such things. It squeezes them out. And that hurts the play experience.
As an old grognard, I used to love the DM-challenge implicit in wandering monster encounters. Now you rarely hear about wandering monsters. Why? Because in 4e no one wants to lose an hour of play time to a random, non-essential combat encounter.
So why is 4e combat so long?
A part, say 25%, of the problem comes from player options—players deciding tactics and interactions and such when in the 2e days, as Mike mentioned at Emerald Lich, you just kept swinging away. Likewise, the DM has more critter combat options (though often less than 3e, particularly with regard to enemies with spellcasting ability).
In the case of our group, all roleplaying veterans, there is rarely any lag time. Every player generally know what they play to do when their turn comes, so I think much of the problem lies elsewhere.
I feel that the main culprit is enemy hit points. In my 1e adventure Training Ground (published in Dungeon back in the day) the big bad guy had 34 HP. A goblin underboss in 4e has 110 HP! A goblin! It do think it’s cool that players can be surprised at the toughness of a mere goblin (as my players were recently), but with that number of HP there's no way most combats won't grind on and on.
The flaw is thus: The 4e bad guys have a ton of HPs. Why? Because certain Daily powers or power/feat/racial combinations or a lucky critical can dish out enormous damage. Giving a boss 34 HP when a player’s 4th-level barbarian might dish out 30+ HP in one strike doesn't seem balanced.
The problem, IMHO, is that 90% of the time you guys dish out 1-12 HP of damage—so the bad guys are stacked very high to balance a rare event. In most combats, any decent non-minion takes 8+ hits to down, which is makes for long combats, especially given that 4e encourages combats with multiple (and mixed) opponents. (Most of pre-4e adventures feature single opponents in many encounters, something that rarely happens in 4e.)
Assuming that your 4e PCs do an average of 8 HP damage per strike, that goblin underboss still takes 15 hits to down—and that doesn't factor in your misses or other opponents...
So what to do? Let’s slice down those hit points a bit. Minions aren’t a problem, but most other monsters can be reduced, depending on their role. Secondary creatures, those beneath the big bad, can definitely be reduced.
Let’s take a sample 4th-level encounter (balanced for 6 player characters):
Level 4 Encounter (XP 1,050)
1 goblin underboss (level 4 elite controller leader) - 350 XP (110 HP)
1 dire wolf (level 5 skirmisher) – 200 XP (67 HP)
1 goblin skullcleaver (level 3 soldier) - 150 XP (53 HP)
2 goblin warriors (level 1 skirmisher) - 100 XP (29 HP)
6 goblin cutters (level 1 minion) – 25 XP (1 HP)
We’ll leave the minions alone. The big boss and secondaries (his dire wolf steed and skullcleaver bodyguard) will have their HPs trimmed by approximately 25%. The warriors, being mere flunkies, will have their HPs reduced by a third.
Big bad, secondaries = HP x 75%
Flunkies = HP x 66%
Minions = No change
So here are our revised numbers:
Level 4 Encounter, revised (XP 1,050)
1 goblin underboss (level 4 elite controller) - 350 XP (85 HP)
1 dire wolf (level 5 skirmisher) – 200 XP (50 HP)
1 goblin skullcleaver (level 3 soldier) - 150 XP (40 HP)
2 goblin warriors (level 1 skirmisher) - 100 XP (20 HP)
6 goblin cutters (level 1 minion) – 25 XP (1 HP)
If time allows, I'll run two sample combats using the same PCs against the standard and revised groups above and report the results in a future post.
Of course, this is only a start. Hit points aren't the entire problem. Dropping enemy hit points without a corresponding drop in PC hit points also has the potential to make life a lot easier for the PCs, but I'm not sure to what degree.
I'd advise against lowering PC hit points, but instead consider limiting Daily powers (to once per 24 period, regardless of resting*). Another option, possibly to be combined with the Daily limitation, is a slight decrease in XP awarded for "downgraded" monsters. Such downgraded critters can still dish it out, so I wouldn't recommend more than a 10–20% XP reduction.
*A rest would still be required between each Daily use, but the "new" Daily wouldn't become available until after midnight. So if the PCs got into a fight 10 minutes before midnight, there wouldn't be an automatic second helping of Dailies after the strike of midnight.
What are your thoughts about speeding up combat? Special skirmish rules for non-climatic combats? Changing some combats into skill challenges? Using number tweaks as suggested above? Something else? Or perhaps leaving well enough alone?

February 01, 2011

The Legion of Super-Minions?

Recent experience DMing my 4th Edition campaign has gotten me thinking about the minions concept.
Overall, the minions concept is an aspect of 4e that I really like. The idea of a mighty hero hacking his way through a horde of orcs like Aragon in the Fellowship of the Ring film is cool. It also allows the DM to present an interesting tactical situation: the hordes of minions (because, let’s face it, they rarely travel alone) can be dangerous to the player characters, yet they can be easily defeated. They are more bite than bark, as it were. It makes for an atypical combat situation and I like it.
It’s admittedly hard at times to get my head around the idea of 1-HP giant minions, but I mentally justify the idea by telling myself that the 1 HP is just a contrivance to ensure that one hit downs these guys, and that any character fighting giants should be at a level to do a considerable amount of damage in a single hit!
On the downside—and there’s always a downside to most RPG rules in my experience—as a DM I’ve grown to dread the inevitable player statement that is bound to come: “Oh, they’re just minions!” I don’t blame the players for this metagaming lapse; I could no more expect a player not to say/think this than I could expect them not to picture a striped horse when I say “zebra.” But I don’t have to like it.
I mitigate the minion “discovery problem” by mixing up my humanoids and making it difficult to discern minions, thus making it a trial and error process to determine which figures on the table might actually be minions. This helps. But still…
So recently I’ve toyed with adding concept of super-minions to my game.
What’s a super-minion? It’s a minion that lasts just a bit longer—two hits to be precise. Short enough to still have a minion effect in combat but long enough that players, when seeing that one strike didn’t do the job, will have some doubts as to what they face.
How to implement this? Giving each super-minion more than 1 HP, say 5 or 10 HP, isn’t the way I’d do it. That’s too much calculating for the DM. The real beauty of minions in 4e is the ease of the one-hit drop rule. No, something simpler is needed. I’d propose a two-hit rule. On the second strike that does damage, the super-minion falls.
Of course, this could lead to some oddities, such as a super-minion being struck once for 6 HP damage and staying upright while another super-minion is struck twice for 2 HP both times and dying. But this might contribute to keeping the players uncertain about what they face. Savvy players—and aren’t they all?—may of course determine that two-hits-and-down equals a super-minion, but hey, no system is perfect…
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