Browsing the archives for the Tabletop category

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

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Games, RPGs, Tabletop

For those who hadn’t heard, D&D 5th edition is in development. My reaction is at once unsurprised, but interested. Dungeons and Dragons players tend to be a bit cynical, and so when 3rd (or 3.5) edition was killed off in favor of 4th edition, many players predicted that it wouldn’t be long until Hasbro / Wizards of the Coast killed 4th edition to force players into purchasing another set of books.

I’m not sure if they were right, but it sure looks like it.

It’s a shame, because I liked 4th edition a lot. I personally thought it was a pretty well designed system that resolved a lot of my problems with 3rd edition. Of course, I also liked 3rd edition a lot, and thought that it was a good improvement over 2nd edition (granted, my recollection of 2nd edition is very fuzzy). Both 4th and 3rd edition had their problems, although I would argue that a lot of my perceived problems with these editions simply arise due to the constant production of power-creep enhancements and the ability of the internet to disseminate it all.

I’m currently running a 4th edition campaign, and I’m often surprised at what my player characters can do. Why? Because my players subscribe to the online D&D service that provides all the latest munchkin book goodness for player characters in a handy web application. I am willing to work with players to let them do what they want with their characters and the campaign (it’s a collaboration after all, not my own little lordship) but it’s somewhat annoying to find that players are airily grabbing this and that to min-max their damage and to-hit bonuses. I’m pretty convinced that the sheer volume of crunch leads to the swift decline of the game system as a whole. When the game is mastering the system, then mastery of the system is the end of the game.

In any case, there isn’t much information about 5th Edition out there yet, but Mike Mearls’ letter introducing it seems to indicate that 5th edition will have a modular design whereby players will be able to decide for themselves what they want to use. The goal seems ambitious but also infeasible. There’s a lot of different ideas out there on how D&D should work, developed over the last 30+ years. In that time frame D&D has gone from the archetype to the grand-daddy to the computer-game-simulator. I don’t think it’s possible to bring everyone in under one tent, at least not without essentially publishing a bunch of different rulebooks.

Myself, I’m skeptical of their goals but I’m hoping it goes in an interesting direction. My hopes are especially high that this edition of D&D will focus on delivering a good product that will really embrace new technologies (like phones and tablets) that are becoming ubiquitous and could totally replace reference books for most players.

If I’m feeling ambitious I’ll elaborate a little more later on what I’d like to see in a 5th edition, as a “Best of all Worlds” approach.

Masterplan

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Games, Tabletop, Technology

Sorry for the extended posting hiatus here, things have been busier than expected on the work front.

I’ve been meaning to write for about the past several weeks about a program that I recently discovered. The program is called Masterplan, and it’s a tool for Dungeon Masters of D&D games. There’s a lot of software out there on the internet designed for DMs, and I’ve tried a number of them.

But do I really need software to plan out my plot? No.

As a DM what I need is software that I can use to plan out a plot, create encounters, skill challenges, build maps, write descriptions, store information about NPCs, create treasure, and so on. The jump from doing one thing well to doing all the things DMs need to take into account is quite big and so there are very few programs that ever make the grade. Masterplan is the first piece of software that really seems to integrate well with my workflow as a DM to prepare for gaming sessions.

What’s so great about Masterplan? The key for me is the plot flowchart.

Masterplan Plot Flowchart

Inside Masterplan you can create a flowchart of events that happen in a plot. Whether it’s a scene change, a combat encounter, a skill challenge, what have you, you can enter it here as a plot point. The coolest bit is you aren’t forced into linear plot arrangements. If you want to, you can plan out what happens if the PCs take route B rather than route A, or ingratiate themselves with NPC Z instead of NPC Y.

For each plot point you can add a description, both notes to yourself as the DM and read-aloud text to be shared with the players. You can add a map for significant area features, a combat encounter, a skill challenge, treasure to be found in the area. And all of this is relatively straightforward to do and accomplish, requiring no especially deep knowledge of the program or the 4th Edition game session.

Since beginning use of Masterplan my D&D prep sessions went from, “I don’t know if I can keep committing this amount of time every week,” to about two hours total. Last week I spent roughly an hour writing up descriptions and dialogue notes for NPCs, then spent an hour in Masterplan developing the combat encounter my players would face. The encounter building itself is simple, I selected the monsters I wanted from a list of monsters I’ve imported into Masterplan and dragged them into the list of monsters for that area. For one monster I added a template, which automatically modified the creature in the predetermined ways. For another I increased the level slightly, which caused Masterplan to automatically update the monster’s experience value and defenses (unfortunately Masterplan doesn’t seem to automatically update the monsters’ attacks when levelling them up, or at least not consistently with all monsters).

I then exported the information about that plot point, printed it up, and had a nice little packet of information ready for the week’s game session.

Interruptions and Interludes

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Games, Tabletop

My gaming group hasn’t met for a week due to scheduling conflicts, but we’re hoping to get back into the swing of things this upcoming week. We’re also running into the final couple encounters of the Keep on the Borderlands adventure that I’ve been running, so my thoughts have been turning to what we can do after the adventure finishes.

The first option, which I’m going to immediately dismiss — Everyone rolls up new characters and we play a different adventure. Our group is really just getting into the swing of things, and I think a lot of the players want to continue playing their characters. I’m a little hesitant to continue the campaign onward after the KotB adventure finishes because D&D 4th Edition has some built-in assumptions I’m not really comfortable with (prevalence of magic mostly, and how this interacts with the game world). However, it’s not about me doing what I want, it’s about everyone having fun, so I’m going to ignore that little voice for now.

The second option is that I could run another published adventure. I actually have a copy of the Undermountain adventure from an earlier season of D&D Encounters, and another published adventure called The Slaying Stone. There are two problems posed by using either of these adventures. The first is story continuity: There really isn’t any story continuity, so I’d need to do additional work to try and fit the subsequent adventures into the context of the Keep on the Borderlands adventure. The second is that both of these adventures are designed for level 1 characters, while currently the group I am running is sitting around 3-5. This is particularly tricky because the Dungeon Master’s Guide spells out that adjusting monster difficulty up by adding levels doesn’t really work that effectively beyond a 5 level jump/dump — So I’d need to really think about the encounter building.

The third option is that I could write my own adventure from scratch. I actually want to do this. At the same time, I really need to invest my time and energy into other pursuits that are more important to me than a D&D game. The only question in my mind is whether it’ll be long-term easier for me to write my own adventure than to take the time and effort to try and adapt a published adventure to my purposes. The Undermountain adventure, for example — I’m sure the encounters themselves are something I could easily adjust to make more challenging. But the plot itself, and the characters, present a problem for me. The alternative, the Slaying Stone adventure, could actually dovetail fairly easily with the Keep on the Borderlands adventure. The downside is it’s designed in a non-linear way and so there’s no easy way to adjust the encounters on a per-session basis. I’d actually have to sit down one day and type up a bunch of new statblocks and encounter notes for level-adjusted encounters. That might be feasible at some point in the coming weeks, but large unfilled blocks of time are something that’s a little tricky to come by.

More on the Borderlands

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Games, Tabletop

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m running a campaign in D&D 4th Edition using the Keep on the Borderlands adventure. Earlier this week my group entered the final “Season” for this adventure, and I figured I’d make a post about it because I thought the ending scenarios are pretty cool and demonstrate some of the neater things about 4th Edition.

Fair warning: Spoilers ahead.

Continue Reading »

4th Edition Success

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Games, Tabletop

I haven’t blogged much about my gaming habits in awhile, so I’m going to give a brief catch up. The last time I was seriously involved in a tabletop RPG game it was Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition. I’ve played in some 3rd edition games since then, and also played in some 4th edition games, but none of them have survived for very long.

I do like 4th edition, but there are some things that bug me about it. Some of those problems are part of the system, and some of those problems are just issues that arise from how players approach the game. That said, it’s fun, easy to pick up, and entertaining enough. This post isn’t about the merits and flaws of 4th edition though, so I won’t get into much more detail there.

Lately I’ve been running a D&D 4th edition campaign using the Keep on the Borderlands adventure. This campaign was initially being run by another player, but I’m a perfectionist and I felt I could do better, so I stepped up to the plate. Due to attendance issues, players in our group are not always near the same level, so it’s been a bit challenging getting the difficulty level for our players just right. Fortunately, adjusting the difficulty of encounters downward is usually quite easy – Remove a creature or some minions and you’re good to go.

This week’s session, we actually had a full group of players, including a new player. This posed a different problem for me, as I felt the group was actually substantially more powerful than had been accounted for in the published adventure. So before the session began (I was only aware we had a new player joining us when I arrived), I had to quickly do some sheet-margin math to adjust the encounters the players would be facing to ensure they’d be challenging. One of the the encounters for that night was actually against a young black dragon, so I wanted to make absolutely sure that monster was a fearsome and challenging foe.

The thing that impressed me was how easy it was to adjust the attributes of a monster upward in 4th Edition. For every level you’re increasing the difficulty of the monster you: Increase hit points based on the creature’s role, and increase all its defenses. For every two levels increase damage. When I saw that I was kind of shocked, in 3rd Edition D&D building opponents can be a very time consuming process. Granted, this is very simple adjustments of one level, and the 4th Edition DMG even notes that this works best for level adjustments of 5 or less, but I was still impressed.

Due to my adjustments the session went great and was a challenging and rewarding experience instead of the pushover it may have been otherwise.

Comparing Feats

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Games, Tabletop

In 4th Edition D&D there are two generic feats that I’m considering taking. I wanted to do a bit of math to see which was better, and I figured this might be useful for other people as well.

Feat 1: Toughness
Effect: Gain 5 additional hit points per tier (ie, gain 15 total HP over the life of your character).

Feat 2: Durable
Effect: Gain 2 additional healing surges.

On the surface, these seem pretty similar. I want to look at the breakdown at a couple different points to see how that pans out.

Scenario 1:

Blank
Wizard, 10 Con
Level 1 HP: 20
Level 1 Healing Surge: 5
Healing Surges: 6
Cumulative HP: 50
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 61
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 60

Blank
Wizard, 10 Con
Level 11 HP: 60
Level 11 Healing Surge: 15
Healing Surges: 6
Cumulative HP: 150
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 172
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 180

Blank
Wizard, 10 Con
Level 21 HP: 100
Level 21 Healing Surge: 25
Healing Surges: 6
Cumulative HP: 250
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 283
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 300

Scenario 2:
Wizard, 18 Con
Level 1 HP: 28
Level 1 Healing Surge: 7
Healing Surges: 9
Cumulative HP: 91
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 105
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 105

Wizard, 18 Con
Level 11 HP: 68
Level 11 Healing Surge: 17
Healing Surges: 9
Cumulative HP: 221
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 249
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 255

Wizard, 18 Con
Level 21 HP: 108
Level 21 Healing Surge: 27
Healing Surges: 9
Cumulative HP: 351
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 393
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 405

Scenario 3:
Dragonborn Paladin, 18 Con
Level 1 HP: 33
Level 1 Healing Surge: 11
Healing Surges: 13
Cumulative HP: 176
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 194
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 198

Dragonborn Paladin, 18 Con
Level 11 HP: 93
Level 11 Healing Surge: 26
Healing Surges: 13
Cumulative HP: 431
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 467
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 483

Dragonborn Paladin, 18 Con
Level 21 HP: 153
Level 21 Healing Surge: 41
Healing Surges: 13
Cumulative HP: 686
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 753
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 768

In conclusion, it looks like Durable is the overall winner, especially when we consider that HP continues to rise all the way to 30th level. With another 9 levels of HP, the amount of healing done by a Healing Surge will continue to increase, making each of those two additional healing surges more worthwhile.

However, Toughness is surprisingly better than you’d expect, and for the most part keeps pace with Durable. It’s also got the benefit in that it’s actually increasing your real HP pool, meaning you’re slightly harder to take down in a fight all things being equal.

4th Edition Flaws, part 2

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Games, Tabletop

I mentioned in my previous post how I was kind of unhappy about how my Warlock (ranged striker) plays compared to some of the other classes in the game.

As I already said, it seems like melee-oriented attack bonuses fly around a lot more than spell-based ranged attack bonuses. You’ve got an ability modifier, you’ve got a weapon proficiency, you’ve got feats, you’ve got combat advantage through flanking, and you’ve got a lot of stacking buffs from support classes.

I also feel compelled to mention that pretty much every spell is ranged 10 (Magic Missle is the exception), where bows are ranged 20. And, I’m sorry to say, but ranged 10 is just silly. Most things in the game move 6 squares. Elves move 7. You can double move and not incur any sort of defensive penalty, and easily get yourself into melee combat with a ranged combatant. I’m not really interested in realism here, but I’d think that, the point of ranged attacks being to shoot enemies at range, that you’d be able to hope for at least one round of firing before enemies are upon you.

I haven’t found this particularly problematic, but mainly because my character doesn’t pose an exceptional threat that deserves going out of the way to target. At least in my understanding, a Striker character is supposed to be doing substantially more damage than other characters. Not so. I find that other members of the party regularly hit as hard as I do.

Why? Again, that there are substantially more feats and cooperative abilities dealing with boosting weapon damage than there are for spell damage. The few feats that exist for spells are relatively unimpressive in comparison (being designed for the Wizard’s AoE attacks, rather than the Warlock’s single-target damage). And at this point I just don’t have the confidence that I’ll be making a good choice — Assuming we play to say 15th level, who’s going to say I’ll still want a feat that only affects Fire damage? Unlike a weapon user, a spellcaster can’t count on something that applied to his spell continuing to apply to future spells.

Another example: Warlocks have a ability called Curse they can apply to the nearest enemy, and when they damage that target they do 1d6 additional damage. Rangers have an ability called Quarry that they can choose on an enemy, and when they damage that target they do 1d6 additional damage. Rogues get a similar ability in Sneak Attack. Both Rogues and Rangers get a feat which increases this additional damage from d6 to d8. Warlocks don’t.

In fact, as a whole, the Warlock has almost no choices. At level one you choose your “pact.” Your pact grants you your two known at-will powers, you do not get a choice. Once you have chosen your pact you have already chosen your paragon path, because they are tied together. There are only four feats specifically for Warlocks in the entire book, and three of them tie into which one of the three pacts you chose (you only can choose the feat associated with your pact).

Even though I’ve been kind of anti-supplement for awhile now, I’m actually looking forward to whatever splatbook Wizards may put out for arcane casters, because the Warlock is sorely lacking in options, and they really do need substantial improvement in terms of choices to stand up to other classes.

4th Edition Flaws, part 1

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Games, Tabletop

So I’ve been playing in my group’s 4th Edition campaign for awhile now, and I think I’ve got a good enough handle on the game so far to feel out things that could be done better.

4th Edition is pretty convoluted when it comes to tactics. Once a combat gets going, you’ve got every class slinging around some kind of marker onto enemies, or enemies slinging them back. Positioning matters, and there are a number of abilities that allow constant repositioning. When people say 4th Edition is a miniatures game they’re not kidding – I don’t see any way to play this game except with miniatures.

The character I’m playing is a Warlock (a ranged striker), and I’m noticing a couple of things about the game.

Typically, when a character makes an attack, they roll a d20 and add the relevant ability modifier and a weapon proficiency bonus. That’s all well and good, except as a Warlock I don’t get a weapon proficiency bonus, because all of my attacks are “spells” and don’t use a weapon. On the plus side, my attacks aren’t usually hitting enemies’ Armor Class, but rather their Fortitude, Reflex, or Will defenses. This means I can potentially target the enemy’s weakest defense, which will compensate for not having a weapon proficiency bonus.

Thing is, how am I as a player supposed to determine what defense is an enemy’s weakest defense? I’ve purposefully avoided looking through the Monster Manual and finding info on enemies the GM has thrown at us, but it seems like I’m just hamstringing myself. As far as I’m aware there’s no game mechanic I can use to say, “I want to look at this creature and assess its weaknesses.” Sure, you can guess the extreme cases reliably – The musclebound savage, the darting creature, the brain in a jar – but the problem is when you’re talking about Joe Goblin who has a 15 in everything except Fortitude. You can’t even count on spellcasters having low Fortitude anymore because lots of spells factor in Constitution, and Intelligence counts as a Reflex defense.

Furthermore, it seems like melee combat is, frankly, just a lot more interesting tactically. If a combatant charges they can gain a +1 bonus to an attack roll. If you’ve got a friendly Cleric nearby, they can use Righteous Brand to give you a bonus to hit equal to their Strength modifier. If you’ve got a Warlord, they can allow you to shift a square (great for setting up flanks, which grant +2 to attack rolls against the flanked target) with Wolf Pack tactics, or boost attack and damage by his Charisma modifier with Furious Smash. And all of this before you consider things like feats that can add further bonuses to weapon users, but are basically entirely lacking for spell-based attacks. In short, there are a lot of cumulative conditions and interesting interparty tactics that take place for melee characters, and not so much for ranged.

It’s a bit of a nuisance to feel like the game has purposefully left my character out of “the loop” of combat tactics. Where everyone else is constantly coordinating with other characters, my choices are mainly about where I move, which enemy I target (The already-beat-up one, or the one who is hanging back?) and what attack to use to try and get a better chance to hit. It’s a lot more interesting than 3rd Edition on an individual level, surely. But none of these choices really play into the fun of coordinating with other people, except on the level of “I’m going to attack the guy back there so he doesn’t try to shoot at you guys.” Sure, that’s a valuable role. But it’s nothing like saying, “I’ve marked this guy, you move here, provoking an attack from him, but I’ve got this bonus going from another party member, and when he goes to attack you, my mark activates I will attack again with all X, Y, and Z that we have synchronized for this perfect moment of execution.”

When you can pull something off like that with your friends it feels great. When you’re off on your own rolling your d20 and hoping to make a difference in the big picture? Not quite as much.

Campaign Ideas: Star-Crossed

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Games, RPGs, Tabletop

This is a fairly simple idea, but it’s modular enough that you could work it into a variety of contexts. The major downside to this idea is that you’ve got less flexibility in dealing with character turnover, and so for that reason it probably wouldn’t work all that well in a gritty campaign, or one which people attend irregularly.

The idea is that each player character was born under a specific star sign, a sign under which few are ever born. This designates them as people who have great destinies. In game terms, you may also wish to expand this idea further to say that their special attunement to the stars grants them an increased affinity for magic. You could then use this as a possible explanation of how PCs could be readily healed and resurrected, but important NPCs, such as kings, may not be able to be. The explanation should facilitate creating a game world where dramatic actions have consequence on the game world, but which don’t overly penalize players.

As a campaign, once you have set forth that the players are all bound to this same destiny, you have a plethora of ways to get them together for a story. I suggest that you create an NPC character, an astrologer/astronomer, who has sent a summons to each character. When they arrive, the characters will be informed of the common bond between all of them.

At this point, with the characters assembled and, bound, however tenously, you can easily begin any adventure you like. There are a couple of ideas which I believe may work better than a standard-issue “Clear out the nearby goblin village” sorts of quests, though.

-The player characters are only part of the group that was sent a summons. There remain several individuals who did not manage to heed the astrologer’s call. The PCs are instructed to seek out these few remaining individuals. The conflict here would be that someone else has learned of these individuals’ special destinies and has been hunting them down and killing them. The villain himself could be one of these individuals, who has realized that only others born under this star sign may have the potential to stop his plans.
-The player characters have learned of their destiny, but must complete a ritual to complete their attunement to the stars. In order to do this, they must undertake a quest. This particular possibility would not pit the players against a specific enemy, but rather against a series of trials. Ideally, this line would focus on building the bonds of trust between characters as they face the obstacles.
-The astrologer may have nefarious plans, and is attempting to subvert the PCs into doing his will by posing as a mentor-type character. The PCs may be instructed to carry out various plans, but hints should be dropped that not all is as it seems.