Monday, September 20, 2010

Are We Having Fun Yet?: The Mirror of Life Trapping.

After the last session of my game, it occurred to me that there were a few things that had happened that I don't think I could have pulled off in my other gaming groups. I am going to see if I can phrase this without giving away any of the things my party did not figure out, as they could still do some stuff in this room. But nu.

Lemme 'splain.

Basically, in one of the rooms there is a mirror of life trapping which, in order for there to be any real intrest or immediacy to the adventure, requires that one of the PCs fall into it, whereupon they are stuck in a small black room with no doors, and only one window-- to the room where they just were, where they can see and hear their party members, but cannot interact with them. Generally, they can't do anything now but wait until the party rescues them. This could potentially go very badly as more members of the party get trapped, which, after the first one, releases one random creature that had been previously trapped in the mirror.

If you are a gamer like my usual team, you are probably thinking, "Oh man, if that happened to my pc, I'd be so pissed off! I might walk out of the session. Sitting there trapped with nothing to do is not my idea of a good time. That would hugely suck. I feel so lame."

And you'd have a valid point. I have gotten hugely upset myself in the AE game upon falling unconcious, when, since I was all but out of spells, waking me up while the combat was going on would have been a serious waste of party time. That's right, I'm sitting there with nothing to do because, the way combat is structured, to do so would be sapping valuable rounds in which damage could be done, because there's no way to heal and do damage on a single turn, and AE doesn't really (as far as I know) have dedicated healers, unless, say, you went hardcore mage on nothing but the Positive Energy Template. But I digress. Being locked out of the action is no fun, and I can't deny that.

Nonethless, the players I have run through this have all really liked it (in the interest of full disclosure, the second time, I trapped a player who was going to be missing the session), and I am going through this here in part to try to suss out why, and also to justify why I thought this was a good idea in the first place. Anyway, here's the skinny on what justifications I can think of for why this might not just innately suck:

1) the puzzle /is/ avoidable.

The first two times, run in 2e and in 3.5e, you had a dex check to avoid looking in the mirror, and a will save if you did look. When I ran it just now in 4e, I had skill checks to avoid looking (with a bonus after the first party member got trapped, since they knew what it did), and the mirror made a +10 vs. Will attack (yes, against 1st level characters-- not looking is supposed to be the best way to avoid this) if you did look into it. After the first person got trapped, most of the party had no trouble keeping their eyes averted-- the Rogue kept covering it and uncovering it as they tried to get the Avenger out, flubbed one roll, and wound up getting caught also. Fortunately, by that time, they had figured out the keywords, and had no trouble getting the Avenger out. The Rogue... well, that's another story.

That said, if the whole party manages to avoid looking, you're fine. Also, when the party enters the room, I made a random roll to determine which of the 3 mirrors in the room (a heavily modified Mirror of Mental Prowess and a non-4e style Mirror of Opposition) is uncovered; the other two have cloths covering them. Which is a mixed blessing, as poking at the covered mirror may well get you trapped, when you don't know what's under there. But there are ways, such as utilizing the mirror of Mental Prowess, to figure out what is going on with the mirror and even solve the puzzle of it without a party member getting trapped-- if say, the party decides they want to free the other things that are trapped in the mirror.

Which brings us to...

2) There are multiple ways to solve the puzzle.

The first two times I ran this, the players solved it pretty much the same way, which was not even close to the way the 4e party solved it. Using the mirror of Mental Prowess (which worked kind of like an Infocom game in that you had to phrase things in very specific ways to get the results you wanted, but asking enough questions or even regular conversation where the mirror could 'hear' would eventually get you clues to help you out), the party figured out the passcodes to the Lifetrapping Mirror, and only wound up acidentally freeing one thing that was trapped beforehand-- and that one was friendly. There was another way they could have done it-- finding some other living thing (or the creature they'd released, an Orium Dragon Wyrmling) and forcing it to look in the mirror in hopes of releasing the party members randomly, and that option got discussed. Also, if they'd come up with something really neat, I'd probably have let that work. Actually-- well, here.

Because of a number of factors, one of which was that the Rogue was the one who had solved the puzzle of getting the passcodes in the first place, and had tricked the mirror of Mental Prowess into believing she was its master, I allowed the Rogue to make a skill check from inside the mirror to free herself. Doing so was narratively the right choice-- it served the drama of the scene, as for reasons of her own, the rogue bluffed the party into believing that they had actually freed her. One person made their insight roll and is now suspicious, which adds interest to the role play. On the other hand, I can't really claim that this choice was anything but DM Fiat, which topic ought to be another post entirely. But my thought, basically, is that in this case the players trust me enough to realise that if I see them not having fun with this, I am going to do my damdest to make sure they start having fun again as soon as possible. Also--(very tiny invocation of) rule of cool, which in this case is more, Rule-Of-Your-DM-Is-a-Narrativist. Which is yet another future post topic.

That said, I am curious about opinions as to whether this kind of thing is really too risky to run much-- I mean, overdoing the, "oh no, now you're trapped in something and have to be rescued" is no good, but on the other hand, dangers that aren't death seem like a kind of neat thing. Does it fall into the realm of, "This is Not Okay, and you should only do this if you want at least one PC to have a miserable session," "Naw, this puzzle is cool! Do it moar!" or "Well... run right, I guess this might be okay sometimes in moderation," as far as things that might actually ruin a game.

I suppose that part of the reason that I am wondering is because this is not a question I'd even ask myself in 3.x or earlier. I'd say, to any player that whined about it, "don't lawyer me, suck it up and deal. "Having played more 4e-- and just more, with more power-type gamers-- I worry about mechanics screwing things up a lot more, as I like the players knowing how the world works and how to use the tools they have to fix problems-- hence, my love of skill challenges. I've been very fortunate in having players that enjoyed 'stuck in a box' rp-- and man, the poor Avenger has been running foul of every trap in the dungeon, coz she doesn't like to check things out before she messes with them. Whoops. Anyway, I can't help worrying if this sort of puzzle is actually a Douchebag DM Trick(tm) that's squeaked by because I have players who have the patience for it and don't know better, or if it's really all right, and I've provided enough outs.

Anyway, tis something I am thinking about right now.

Also, I will add that this is something you should NEVER do in say, a LARP. Taking agency away from characters when they do not have the option to, you know, go get a snack or go to the bathroom or make snarky commentary around the table, and they have to be in character is a recipe for lameness all around. Also, your resources are very limited, so back up plans to salvage the situation are probably going to look even dumber. But LARP mechanics and Tabletop mechanics are two very, very different things. Well, obviously.

Yes, this is a reference to something that happened at Eclipse this weekend, though not to me. Still, it was a thing which reminded me that I wanted to make this post in the first place.

B's Game tomorrow, gaming schedule-wise. Delicious 12th level assassin antics.

Fun for all.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Indecent Indexes.

For ease of reference, I shall list the recurring games in which I am participating, of all genres. Coz otherwise... ja, confusing.

  • B's Game (Formerly Road to Bael Turath; original world based on Dust to Dust)-- Revenant Assassin, Hane Al'Druth.
  • Eberron (Armistice, run by G., who also plays in Planescape and Chessenta)-- Tiefling Artificer, Ballast.
  • Planescape (The Custodians, run by Standing In Fire, who plays in B's Game and Eberron also.)-- Aasimar Psion, Sa'réja.
  • Chessenta (Book of Serpents, run by Standing In Fire) -- Wilden Shaman, Kinnav Vinnet.
  • My Game (Keep waffling on a name, Original World + Old Skool Dungeon Crawl).
3.x and variants.

  • Arcana Evolved (Cloud and Shade, run by Nemo.)-- Human Magister, Basel Atullican.

  • King's Gate-- Full time NPC.
  • Eclipse-- Harper Kell, Imperial Swordswoman.
  • Dust to Dust (Website in Progress)-- Campaign Committee.

Also, I play a level 57 (mostly) Holy Paladin on Whisperwind in WoW. I'm not actively playing any other MMOs at the moment due to crappy computer-having, but I actually liked Age of Conan-- probably the result of playing mostly the Destiny Stuff in Tortage.

Right now, perhaps my greatest personal tragedy is that I have neither time nor money to play much Magic the Gathering, as my old Magic group was a) through my old work and b) pretty much over it when Zendikar came out. I dunno about you, but after being used to the Alara Block and the ones before it, the name of which I forget and am too lazy to look up right now, Zendikar was way too slow and (in terms of mana cost for cards) expensive. I'm curious about the Scars of Mirrodin set, but-- once again, time and funds for Drafting. Meh.

Speaking of time, there are a few other things that I'd like to either run or play, and the first of these is a Psychic/Horror Game based on the Dawning Star setting, where I am still waffling on the actual ruleset I want to use. Dawning Star was written to be a setting for D20 Modern/Future, but I am not sure that I will be able to get the right horror feel for it. Call of Cthulu has some good things about it, but the sanity/mythos mechanic isn't really appropriate here. 4e has some interesting possibilities as far as cool terrain stuff and having combat that I adore, though psionics in 4e don't fit-- look for a post about how awesome is the setting psionic mechanism, Red Truth, coming soon. Some of the White Wolf stuff (as in the Second Sight splatbook) may be good, but not sure yet. Anyway, the plan is for this to be a 3 session (or so) short-run game with pre-gen characters. We'll see how that goes.

And that's the break down, as much for my own benefit as anyone else's.

...So, About My Game...

(Last Direct LJ Re-Post for a while, I swear. This one is, surprise surprise, after the first session of my current game. Context is so awesome.)

All right, finally, I'm gonna talk about the game I am running in specific. I have five players, all girls, only two of which (not counting myself) are currently playing another tabletop game. Two others have played before, but not for years and not 4e, and one has never played a tabletop game ever. The party makeup is as follows:

Juuntzi -- Shadar-Kai Avenger (Never played 4e)
Rory -- Halfling Trickster Rogue (Never played 4e)
Dhalia -- Deva Invoker (Also plays in Chessenta)
Aretha-- Deva Artificer (Never played tabletop before)
Dian-- Human Cleric (Strength) (Also plays in Planescape)

So, if you know anything about 4e roles, the first thing you'll notice about this party is that there is no defender. the Avenger has also spiked Dex, which was an interesting choice, but I believe she's gone with the Pursuing Avenger build, which is all right for that. The only one with a Strength score at all is the Cleric, which is all right since there is a second Leader in the party to heal her. The most interesting thing about that is how much of the party decided to go for daggers (the Rogue, the Artificer, and I think the Avenger are all using daggers)-- we'll see how that goes in the long run.

I suppose that the adjective which applies here is 'naturally'-- naturally, this is a fairly roleplay focused group, but the interesting thing that I've noticed is that there isn't really more rp than the other games I'm in. This may have to do with how, since everyone is pretty new, the level of tutorial and rules/strategy table talk is pretty high, and this group may want to cut it out later, but I'm unsure on that. There's a lot of table talk in my other games, and, at least in those, since pretty much everyone is involved in it and setting up what they're going to do, it doesn't slow things down too much. There are certainly games where it could, and I've been in games (though I've been playing 4e with pretty much the same bunch, so those not so much) where the chatter just got obnoxious. We'll see how it goes. Either way, the introductory bit, where the party got their instructions from the half-elf components merchant who has hired them, went pretty okay, and the party used it to help them get into their characters by and large. The Rogue and the Avenger, as it was pointed out-- probably by Dian or Aretha, I don't remember which-- are set up to be quite the pair of Trouble Twins, both being thieves by profession. The Invoker, Dhalia, and the Artificer, Aretha are fairly quiet by comparison, and Dian the Cleric is the grounded, Rational One.

A moment about Clerics in this campaign. All PCs have the option of worshipping a pantheon of 6 gods called a Giedame; they can choose from any deity in the game, or the ones I've created. They can only purchase god-related feats (or Channel Divinity powers) that are for a god in their pantheon, and, though it's a bit rules-breaky, I am allowing Clerics to use an extra Channel Divinity power that is specific to one of their 6 gods once per day, which does not count towards the 1 Channel DIvinity power per combat. I may also make that for divine classes in general, though I'm still mulling it over. I'm not really worried about the power level in this game just yet, though that may well change.

As they left the tavern and approached the curio shop which is the entrance to the Dungeon, I threw them directly into combat with a bunch of goblins that had come out of there-- the party is not sure why, natch. Being that this was my first time running a 4e combat, I went with a fairly basic spread-- 1 3rd level Goblin Hexer (controller/leader), two Goblin Warriors (1st level skirmishers) and 7 ist level minions.

The important thing to keep in mind about goblins, who are sneaky little bastards, is this right here:

Goblin Tactics (At-Will)
Trigger: The goblin is missed by an attack.
Effect (Immediate Reaction): The goblin shifts 1 square.

All of the goblins have this. This is compounded by the following power of the Goblin Hexer:

Incite Bravery (immediate reaction, when an ally uses goblin tactics, at-will)
Ranged 10; the targeted ally can shift 2 squares and make an attack.

But initially, they had just seen the two warriors, who were behind the rogue and the Avenger in the initiative order. So Rory and Juuntzi decided to try their hand at tanking, ran as close as they could, and started throwing daggers and oaths around, to some effect. The Warriors, being skirmishers, skirted the group and threw javalins, getting +1d6 to their damage if they moved at least 4 squares. Then came the minions-- all seven of 'em, dogpiling on the closest good guy-- in this case, the poor halfling.

Which is why controllers are awesome. When it came Dhalia's turn, her Area Burst 1 attack took out all but two of the minions, bam!

Then came the Hexer, who has a lockdown ability that resets, a blinding ability, and this awfulness:

Vexing Cloud (standard; sustain minor, encounter) Zone
Area burst 3 within 10; automatic hit; all enemies within the zone take a -2 penalty to attack rolls. The zone grants concealment to the goblin hexer and its allies. The goblin hexer can sustain the zone as a minor action, moving it up to 5 squares

After a couple of turns, the Warriors were finally locked down into melee with the Avenger, and the Rogue was locked down by the the Hexer's Stinging Gaze, which does 3d6+1 if you move on your turn once it's hit you (save ends). Un-fun. This is also the part where Goblin Tactics and Inspire Bravery started to really suck, as the goblin warriors kept getting an extra attack on Juuntzi, while trying to be sure that they were both adjacent to her at the same time. She did a pretty good job of this when it came time for her to use her Oath of Emnity, and poor Rory did the best she could with ranged attacks. So the Hexer decided to help out his buddies by dropping the Vexing Cloud on Rory, Juuntzi, and the Warriors, and then high-tailing it out of there.

At this point, the Cleric decides to charge the Hexer. And we start to get into that whole Economy of Action thing that I love so much. All class healing, and quite a lot of general healing is done as a minor action, which means that Dian can heal Rory after her pummeling, then charge down and try to smack that Hexer. Which she does successfully, because her melee basic attack is pretty darn decent.

But yes, you heard right, those of you who don't play 4e and don't know why anyone would. This is why. Because the party healer can heal you in combat, and also hit things ever. Also, most Leader powers, in addition to doing damage, hand out smexxy buffs to the party. This does not mean the other classes are short-shrifted, oh no, they can grant movement, combat advantage, knock things prone, and do all kinds of other stuff to help everyone out. So yeah, you're a team, in mechanic as well as attitude. And no one is useless. Really, you want everyone to be as effective as possible, because if you all as a party are running at max efficency, you are bloody unstoppable. It takes time to get there, of course, but yeah. It's a really cool feeling to me-- that no really, you'll pass up something that might upgrade you, if it means making up an item deficit for another party member. Also, resource management matters to everyone. No one is standing there looking and feeling useless because they're out of stuff-- only if they've gotten stunned or something. But I digress. If there had been no other changes but this, I would swear by this edition for it. But moving on.

Unfortunately, the Hexer's rolls were all really gross, and he wound up blinding poor Dian (save ends) and locking her down with a reset Stinging Gaze. Doubleplus not-awesome. She wound up going down shortly, as one of the warriors and the last were dispatched and the Hexer and the other Warrior tried to take off. Which is why having a second Leader in a Two Striker Party is so very good an idea. The Artificer, having not spent any of her heals yet, was able to get in close burst 5 and get Dian up within the round, and the party chased the Hexer down-- while being careful to stay on the outside of the gawd-awful zone that the Hexer was hiding in. The Avenger pulled him to the edge of it, and-- I forget who killed the last warrior-- but Aretha nailed the Hexer finally for Exactly Enough damage. It was at that point that I realised that the only one who did not have a magic weapon/impliment was the Invoker, who had had some issues with the fight-- fortunately, the Hexer had a +1 Hexer Rod on him, and she-- well well!-- uses a rod impliment. So that worked out well for everyone.

The party now being free to explore the curio shop and the dungeon entrance, they did so, and this is where I'll stop, though they did some more exploring-- one because this is getting very long, and two, because that encounter is not entirely over. I did it as sort of an informal skill challenge, which I think I would have preferred to have more... tight? Alors.

Anyway, I want to maunder on the topic of skill challenges some other time, but for now, sine.


(almost done with the direct reposts from LJ. This one is from July, and linky here.)

So, had our first introduction to Paragon tier 4e D&D last night. As I had hoped, Standing In Fire did an excellent write up of it here, and I've some reflections about this aussi, as well as D20 in general, just at the moment.

So, there's no question-- 4e does low level gameplay right. I'm probably going to start my D&D game (which I ought to be picking up next month as a 2Xmonth game) at 1st level, because I /can/ and the power level seems right. 1st level in a 4e game /feels/ roughly equivalent to 3rd level in a 2e/3.x game, largely due to the fact that in previous editions, that's when wizards start to feel useful at all.

As for high-level gameplay... well, we'll see. It's completely changed the game, that's for sure, for both GM and players. For starters, there was already a ridiculous amount of stuff resolving at any given time-- this is especially true for my Revenant Assassin, which I would possibly have a better handle on if I had not started her at 10. Lemme 'Splain.

I adore this character. I cannot stress this enough. She is an awesome undead-dwarf of the badass with the stealth score from the Grim Prison, and probably the first character that I just gave up and min-maxed to all hell, with no hedging. Fortunately, she also seems to work okay in the world, but I digress.

Assassins are these terribly gross, terribly brutal strikers who have a pretty neat not-exactly-marking mechanic-- that is to say unlike marks, it doesn't care whether or not the target makes an attack that includes you or not. It's pretty much a damage-widget that gets a kick at 11th level. Also, they have a built in at-will teleport (you have to begin it and end it next to a creature) that goes up a square at 11th. Also, especially if they are revenants, they can do a whole shit-ton of necrotic damage, because they are the only class at the moment to use the Shadow power source. Combine this with Revenant-- no really, you want to combine this with Revenant. For starters, revenants have the correct stat bonuses-- dex & con-- and there are a bunch of feats specifically for Revenant Assassins, most of which have to do with the Revenant racial power, Dark Reaping. I have a ton of things that resolve when I use Dark Reaping-- first off, I can drop an extra shroud (yon mark-not-mark damage kicker) on my shroud target when I invoke the power (someone within 5 of me drops to 0 hp). Then, when I actually invoke the power (next hit I make before the end of my next turn), then dark reaping does 1d8+5 necrotic damage, and my shroud target takes the full damage of the shrouds on them-- 1 d6+3 (since I am 11th level) per shroud, up to 4 shrouds max. Those shrouds do not disappear, as they normally do when I invoke them. Ja, awesome. I neglected to have anything else happen when I use dark reaping for my feat, but believe me, it was possible. Instead, there's a metric shitton of stuff that happens when I use an action point, including crap that lets me phase through walls and go insubstantial and yeah... it's a mess to keep track of. And worse for the GM, who is doing his best to keep up with all of the monsters that are hitting us at the same time, and well...

Nonetheless. We got to a point where the huge and nasty Minotaur was about to charge a red swath through the whole lot of us-- and lo, but it triggered every nasty thing under the sun-- the hybrid barbarian/runepriest used an immediate interrupt to do some radiant damage and blind it, putting it at -5 to hit everyone, in an already pretty high defense party. This was on top of the 10 ongoing untyped it had from my Shared Suffering Armor, and some fire damage (less, because it was resistant to fire) that it took from an ability of our Mageblade's, that did damage when it moved.

All of this resolved at about the same time. And I don't hardly blame B for throwing up his hands in frustration and amazement. We hadn't expected to be quite as awesome as we suddenly were either. 4e apparently tells you, as a GM, that yes-- at Paragon you've got to increase your game in some pretty specific ways-- but here you run into a serious problem that has scared a lot of people I know off of 4e-- information presentation. The main of the books you'll find are all character stats-- huge lists of powers and feats and racial stats and OH GOD, for crying out loud just download DDI Character Builder already and not have to deal with this madness. Because you're going to miss something. Without question. Or else you're me, and you're going to want to play a class that is only found in Dragon Magazine anyway. I'm starting to feel like releasing PC class books ought to be seriously de-emphasized-- or at least set up for what it is-- and the emphasis switched to getting folks hooked up with DDI, and making it more houserulable (it isn't. At all. Dear Lord.) But the PHBs are pretty much all stat blocks, and that's kind of eye-crossingly frustrating to look at.

the DMGs, the Planes books, and some of the Setting Guides are better, but not explicitly so. Clearly, there's a fall-through when it comes to explaining the balancing math from Heroic to Paragon tier, so it still feels as though you have to fudge things around a lot-- the biggest issue I've seen in 4e is that most DMs will under-stat their monsters in Heroic, thinking that they're throwing stuff that is /way/ too powerful at the PCs... only to have the whole encounter mopped up out of hand. And then there's the one or two who run encounters straight, and nearly wipe the party out of hand. Which leads into my first point of advice for folks who have never run 4e before-- START AT 1ST LEVEL. Getting a feel for how your party plays, and getting them used to using their powers at lower levels is vital, and not something you can do easily if you jump into high level encounters. Modding an existing game without resetting it is a bad idea as well, methinks.... this is not going to feel like the games you've played before. For me anyway, that was /awesome/. I have hated 2e/3.x combat for ages while sort-of enduring it, without being able to put my finger on why I hated it. The answer has to do with economy of action. In earlier editions, you don't have it. Everything is a standard action. Heaven forbid you heal anyone and hit anyone in the same turn! You've got to make a choice between working on killing a d00d, and maybe keeping your other middling damage dealing friend from getting killed-- depending on if you're a cleric, or a wizard with heals (like an Arcana Evolved Magister, which conceptually I do really like), or what. And this frustrates me hugely, even more than the whole running out of spells idea (and don't get me started on spell prep. I am one of those who never got used to trying to gauge how many of what spell I was going to use in a day. When they came out with Sorcerer, I never went back). So...

If I were running this game in 3.x again, I would probably houserule a lot of healing to be minor actions, as long as that is all that they do. I have a much more complicated short-run Dawning Star game (d20 modern) that I seriously need to work on, and the biggest obstacle I have run into is considering how I want to deal with combat, as I really suck at running it (thusfar), and I really hate most d20 combat mechanics. A lot will depend on the nature of the creatures that the players will be fighting, but... hrm. I know, this has gotten fairly far afield of high level 4e maundering, but meh.

Combat can be fun!

(Another re-post from LJ, originally viewable here. Incidentally, you will sometimes see references to a gentleman called B. B is a fellow gamer, one of my DMs, and also my boyfriend ~K.)

Instead of the post I was going to originally make, which was a run-down of my problems with 2e and 3.x D&D, I am going to sum those up, and get to a topic about which I actually care a good deal more. To wit, earlier editions do not have 4e's barriers to player entry, obtuse and overwhelming character creation system, or near-necessary online program that pisses you off when you realise you need it after having spent a ton of cash on books. 4e does not have the huge vagaries and limitations of role that previous editions do, and adds economy of action to many different things, healing in particular-- plus you realise from the outset when you've built a character badly, instead of only figuring it out 6 levels later, after you've been convincing yourself this whole time that one day, you'd be awesome, really. Proponents of both systems argue that it is the other one which is actually limiting and frustrating-- I know that I do. So, I have come to the conclusion that it is a matter of A) what one is used to, and what sorts of limitations you are willing to accept in presentation, and b) What tools help you, personally, become immersed in the game. I would like to think that there are ways for those who love the old editions to share their preferred format with those (i.e.-- me) who have become spoiled by 4e, and for those who are skeptical or downright hostile to 4e come into it in such a way that they'll enjoy the new things that are coming out for the system.

First of all, let's talk about what not to do if you're running or playing in your first 4e game. Primarily, and while I have said this before, it bears repeating-- Start At First Level. When I ran 1/2e/3.x, I generally would start a game at 3rd level, particularly if there were any spellcasters in the party. 2 words-- Haste, fireball. Also, you might possibly have a hit point or two by now. This will not be so much an issue in 4e, so it's better to get used to the way things work from 1st, than to try to jump up. Also, this is easier on the DM, so that they can get a feel for how to stat encounters for this party.

Converting your current game to 4e and keeping going is a really bad idea for every possible reason. For one, you're still in the old game mindset, people are used to what they can and can't do, you have established mechanics and ways of doing things that are natural to the characters and the game. Suddenly switching to Powersets, condensed skill lists, magic items that work a lot differently (and this is huge-- changing up people's stuff is a really good way to tear them out of your world and make them angry, /especially/ if it is something they use all the time-- also, You Don't Want To Convert Them All, Trust Me), non-combat characters suddenly becoming Useful and Important in combat-- no no, is too much. Play out your current campaign in the way you're accustomed, and run your 4e game new. This will also give you, the DM, the ability to get used to the Monster Manual, and the way statblocks work for monsters.

I hadn't noticed, but a friend pointed out this weekend that the Monster Manuals don't physically describe the monsters. Spacewise, you see, it seems to make so much more sense to include blurbs about how the monsters fight tactically-- so that if you're say, throwing goblins at your players (this being the 1st 4e encounter that I've run, and yesh), you can throw a bunch of different kinds of goblins who all fight differently, and have powers that help out their allies and do horrid things to the players. This is pretty durned neat to me. Goblin Tactics is awesome. As players encounter more of them, they learn who to kill first and how-- and it isn't always the caster, though sometimes, ja (If the caster is a Goblin Hexer and there are other goblins on the board, OMG KILL IT FIRST, KILL IT WITH FIRE). Anyway, hit dice don't really exist-- all monsters of a given name and level are going to have the same hp. This is something, by the by, that the players a) don't know unless you tell them and b) if you really want to, you can modify. It is very easy to raise/lower hp if you really want to, or if you want to tweak fight length, but it's not likely to be necessary. Also, there's the matter of minions-- don't skimp on them. Your AOE casters will really like being able to mop them up, and they have some interesting strategic uses for the standard monsters in a given encounter.

Which brings me to another potentially problematic bit-- if you are not used to using minis and a map (grid, not hex) in your campaigns, in 4e you pretty much have to. 4e has a lot of forced movement, terrain with various effects, and variable ranges. This can be a roadblock for players who are either not used to those, or are not used to the sheer, laid-open mechanics of movement and move actions being so much a part of the game. When learning it, I completely understand it breaking one from immersion. Here's a place where the DM and Player aspect can fix this-- it is, like so many things, a matter of describing what you're doing. A lot of powers have wonderful descriptions, as for instance:

Forceful Drag
You dig your fingers into a foe and drag the struggling opponent across the battlefield.
Encounter Martial
Move Action Personal
Requirement: You must have a creature grabbed.
Effect: You move your speed. For each square you move, you slide a creature grabbed by you 1 square to a square adjacent to you. The creature remains grabbed, and you do not provoke an opportunity attack from the grabbed creature for this movement. At the end of the move, you can end the grab to knock the creature prone.
Published in Martial Power 2.

Here's where the roleplay part comes in-- and it is some badass roleplay, as your fighter, having grabbed ahold of some critter or bad guy explains how they are hauling their sorry ass across the field, and then deciding whether they want to knock dude to the floor or not. Hells. Yeah.

I really want to talk about limitation, and who can do things like grab monsters and how, and the differing roles of skills and their base stats and the like, but I have realised suddenly that this is a heap big topic that I'll have to maunder about at another time.

So playing with map and minis in 4e has convinced me that one of my big mistakes in previous editions was not using them for combat. The inclination to use very small spaces and non-specific locations made combat kind of arbitrary, like turn-based video game combat. This is not a problem with previous systems themselves, but it is a problem with how I played and ran them. In going back to 3.x or earlier, I might be tempted not only to go to map & minis, but to limit ranges on spells and effects so that their use is more strategic. But that brings me to another issue, which I guess I'll go ahead and bring up now. Since we're talking about straight up mechanics. Which, of course, is marking.

But before I get to marking, I have to talk about roles, which are another new thing, and which for me were difficult to wrap my head around initially. You have the Leader, which means, basically 'Healer'. That is to say, the classes that fill the Leader role are generally going to have some power, usable as a minor action, which allows them to drop healing, usually 2x per combat. And here I restrain myself again for going into what I feel is the biggest strength of the system-- economy of action. /ahem. So we've got Strikers, which are there to do huge buckets of damage, and are kind of squishy otherwise. Then Controllers, who are also squishy, generally work best from range, and move things around and set them up so that other people can do huge buckets of damage to them. Also-- AoEs. And finally, Defenders, who have a Mark.

Marks are excellent. Marks are what permit Defenders to truly protect the other roles from games of SmashCaster. Basically, it's an ability that punishes x enemy for attacking people who are not the Defender, so that if said enemy is standing next to a Wizard and a Fighter, and can only attack one of them, he's not going after the wizard for being all cloth-wearing and tasty-- except at a -2 penalty. No, he's going after the paladin-chick with the effing axe who has been hacking at him for the last 5 rounds. As it makes sense from a story standpoint for him to do so, it also gives a material benefit that is good for everyone in the party, and allows the Defenders to do what they're good at-- tank!

This is, however, an extremely visible gears mechanic that some folks might find a turn off. I think that it's a case of explaining why, from a narrative/simulation standpoint, that focused attention effects are cool. I think the best example is actually a first level bard power:

Misdirected Mark
You conceal your arcane attack, tricking your foe into thinking the attack came from one of your allies.
At-Will Arcane, Implement
Standard Action Ranged 10
Target: One creature
Attack: Charisma vs. Reflex
Hit: 1d8 + Charisma modifier damage, and the target is marked by an ally within 5 squares of you until the end of your next turn.
Level 21: 2d8 + Charisma modifier damage.

Once again, the description is what's important here-- in which our tricksy bard makes the ogre think that the paladin chick over there? Yeah, she totally smacked you upside the head while running past you. I am just an inoffensive dude with a mandolin. Now go away.

So hopefully, the Narrativist types (I am one of those, btw) will like this enough to accept it. This is Gameism at it's finest, so I assume that the Gameists are way ahead of me. But I can still see the Simulationists being somewhat dubious, and making arguments that marks are arbitrary. This is a harder one to see a good solution for, to make it more palatable to older edition sorts. I do think that it is something that can be simulated in 3.x with a generic mark, used as a minor action or something, that a fighter could use to hold the attention of probably a single enemy, if you wanted to make the argument that a fighter could probably only hold the attention of one at a time. But seriously, it's a mechanic I'd like to see done backwards-- I don't know if there's something similar previously, but I've never seen it.

All of this said, here's the hard part, and something that I could stand to keep in mind as I continue with my game-- run things straight before you start changing stuff. And the corollary-- once you understand how the mechanics work, don't be afraid to change stuff.

Game balance in 4e can be a sort of scary thing to contemplate-- as you play through encounters, you'll notice that, as written, they look ridiculously brutal on paper. Thing is, the player? Ridiculously brutal. Heroic tier is effing heroic. Go with the basics initially to get a feel for what sort of damage the party can do, and what of their defenses are strong and weak-- you only roll saves when you have a condition on you in 4e, generally, attacks are rolled against the appropriate defense. Yes, this means wizards can miss or fizzle their spells. But since they're not frying a spell slot, that doesn't screw them in the same way it would have previously. The experience point chart is a pretty good guideline for what you ought to be throwing, and you can always pad out the numbers with minions, or extra standards if say, you've got a party with 2 controllers who basically mop them up like crazy. The players will figure out fast that a lot of their abilities do things that help out their allies, or otherwise effect their allies. This means that there is likely to be a lot of mechanical table talk, as they try to suss out what they can and can't do, and how it helps their pals. The biggest difference in feel that I ran into in changing to this edition was that I didn't feel as though I was acting in a bubble. What I chose to do mattered-- not just to me, but to everyone standing next to me, and I might save a power that gives attack bonuses or resistances to adjacent allies till I was, say, next to the greatest number of allies. Effects look at the battle and apply only when certain conditions are met, so-- and here's another zap for you-- you've got to pay attention not just to your turn, but to everyone else, to see what they've done to the enemies, and how they're moving, so that you can adjust your actions accordingly. Versus getting up and wandering out of the room till it's your turn again, while the hasted et al fighter takes a bazillion actions.

Which brings me to another point-- in 4e, no seriously, don't play evil. Or even crazy-chaotic neutral. I know that people telling you not to do that was arbitrary and sort of lame in earlier editions, but in 4e, you won't have a good time. What will happen is that you could lose the 'ally' status with the other people in the party, which means their enemy only stuff will hit you, you'll be cut off from buffs and bonuses, the enemies still don't necessarily count you as /their/ ally, and the chances of you getting asked back sink to pretty much no. I cannot stress enough how much you /really/ want to get along with your party. And if you do, the more cohesive you are, the more awesome you are. Which is why most games will not use tribal and guild feats. The more cohesive you as a party get, the more powerful you are by orders of magnitude, even if your numbers don't look it.

So, what I want to know here-- how would any of you, as DMs or Players, build a similar kind of party cohesion in a 3.x or earlier game? How would you suggest that I, as a player, build my character so that I can support the party in combat, and not also be ineffective elsewhere? I suspect that the skills system might have some solutions, since they are fairly vague, but I am very open to suggestions.

And a 4e question to go along with that-- if you wish to run a game with intra-party suspicion and paranoia, the way that the party mechanics work, you seriously risk making combat situations un-fun if they party winds up disliking each other enough. In our Planescape game, for example, which is a pretty awesome game and my first intro to how much fun skill challenges could be, all of the PCs belong to different factions in Sigil, some of which, like my Sensate and B's Doomguard, are very much opposed to each other. Nonetheless, due to the nature of the game, we all wind up getting along much better than we perhaps ought. Now, some of this is that the histories written for the various characters are all sort of middling when it comes to faction loyalty-- but playing someone who was a hardline factionist would be /really/ difficult both from a story perspective, and from a game mechanics perspective. ETA: Well, admittedly, this game isn't the best example because it is Planescape-- if we are too fractious on faction lines, the Lady of Pain will personally send us all to the Maze. Bad times. Personally, I prefer in this instance just accepting that it's going to be collaborative and move on, but I can definitely see situations and games where one would really want to make party schism-- or at least suspicion-- possible, without completely screwing everyone.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Now you're gaming with power.

(This entry is reposted from my livejournal, and so can be viewed in its original form here. Enjoy!)

So one morning the Rabbit woke from uneasy dreams to find that she had become a giant power gamer. Unlike Mr. Samsa, however, she is not of the opinion that power gaming-- and here I am speaking specifically of tabletop gaming, and more specifically of D&D 4e-- is not the vile cockroach of play, incompatible with Good, Proper RP. In 4e, it's actually very much the opposite, that I have found. And I further have come to suggest a theory, which has a lot to do with why, I think, that 4e turns some players so completely off.

Okay, so things 4e does badly-- there are three of them that spring immediately to mind, and they are all character creation.

The first is materials. The books-- except for the setting books-- are confusing collections of powers laid out in such a way that you always suspect you're missing something. And you are. There's a ton of unreleased-as-yet info, Dragon Magazine Articles and the like that might do Just That Thing you're looking for, once you've realised what that is (getting to that.) What you really want are a bunch of setting books (so good!) and DDI Character Builder. Hopefully someone has told you that, or else you'll find that you've shelled out a lot of money for something that is not going to be much use if you've, say, just been invited to a game and need to put together a character real quick. Which brings me to the second problem.

That 'real quick'. Yeah, not so much, especially if you're never looked at this stuff before, character creation is the most confusing and slow process in the whole game. This is a problem when you (I wish I could find [info]theferrett's post on the topic) are looking at D&D as a product-- they lose a lot of customers right when said customer try to start to think about building their first character, especially if they've played a lot of previous editions. 4e expects you to be, at least stat-wise, a min maxer. Seriously-- unless this is going to be a no combat at all game (and why would they do that? Combat is /fun/ in this edition!) For the love of Moradin, max out your attack stat! And match your race to your class, not the other way around (3rd problem, getting to that). Seriously, being effective in combat is /awesome/, and the combat is seriously cinematic and beautiful when you can. This is most apparent when you're looking at a Grappling Fighter-- so yeah, in our Chessenta game, B's Grappler frigging-- and this is no-shit built in-- grabbed a wyrmling dragon by its tail and slammed it into the wall. For decent damage. And thus moved it where /we/ wanted it-- or rather, away from where we did not want it to be. This is not something I have ever seen done well previously, and that's kinda sad. Artificers send tiny constructs whizzing through the aid to aid their friends and befuddle their enemies. Invokers summon flaming angels down to do their will, Druids shift smoothly from wolf to humanoid and back again, Assassins slip in and out of their enemies shadows and don't even get me started on a well executed teleport.

None of which matters if you just can't bloody hit-- and this here is my theory-- the game's monsters are base-statted in such a way that /they/ are certainly optimized. If your party is not, you have a serious problem. A DM running the monsters flat and at recommended numbers will wind up tearing through their party and not knowing why-- conversely, a DM whose players /have/ optimized, looking at the monsters available for the levelled encounters (and the recommended monster party makeups, et al) and thinking they need to be nerfed a bit-- such a DM is going to wonder why the hell the party keeps cleaning up the encounters in a couple minutes. This is before we even get into the sexy beasts that are fantastic terrain and traps.

So okay, problem number 3. I hear a lot of worry from people that 4e, considering the Powers mode of play for combat, is too mechanical and doesn't give enough room for RP. Nothing is further from the truth-- except in one area, also at character creation. That is, you've really got to choose class first, then race. You /want/ to match your skill bonuses with your class's preferred stats, and more specifically, your build's preferred stats. Then you want to make sure that all of your attack stat bonuses are decent. They try to make class your primary role play outlet, and that is true, but that's also a bit counter-intuitive, and I can definitely understand feeling limited. But this has been true in all editions, if you think about it, and more so when there were stat /minuses/ for certain races too. I mean, I once played a multi-classed Gnomish Ranger-Mage back in 2e-- technically, so against the rules it's not funny. Now, you /can/ pick whatever you want, there are no limits per-se. But for the reasons mentioned above, picking race against stats will be very sad for you when you realise that you just can't hit anything, and if you're a Leader, you're not healing as much as you /could/ be if only you had picked That Other Race... and if you had your heart set on being a tank, but you also wanted to be pretty much anything for which Strength isn't a main stat, you're spending feats on making up that deficit, or you're playing a battlemind. Now, I am ignoring the builds, which do have some solutions for this, but once again, we're talking about people new to the system, who are thinking about making their first character, and right now are in the process of being brutally overwhelmed. My first 4e character a Gnome Cleric in an online game, and I didn't understand, at the time, that I didn't /have/ to use a weapon. If I had realised that I could be implement only, my power choices would probably have been much better. Fortunately, there were 2 paladins in the party, and a /lot/ of players, so I didn't have to worry about much-- which was good, coz I couldn't hit anything for shit. Mostly, I was running off of good will and a lot of effects that still did what I wanted most on a miss. My next character was a little better-- Tiefling Artificer at least has Int as a bonus stat, which is the most important thing. Cha isn't helping me out any, but Con and Wis are /good enough/. Ballast handles herself pretty well, but the DM allows her to not get targeted a lot of the time-- and he has that bloody god-awful Storm Sorcerer to worry about if he is wanting to try to squish a squishy caster. Now, I understand that Essentials, when it comes out, may have some solutions for that. We'll see when it happens.

But anyway, so you want to play a race that's sub optimal for your class. there's a couple of choices here.

a) suck it up and pick a class based on the race you want to play. This is okay, but problematic if you already have the roles that work for your preferred race covered. Mostly, you don't want to play in a party without a Leader. THAT IS BAD. Or a party with all Leaders. Yes, even if one is a Warlord. Don't please make rabbits cry. Also don't get her started on All The Controllers ever. Seriously, I am so tempted to find a defender or leader multiclass for my psion.

b) suck it up and pick a race based on your class, min maxing all the day long. You might play something you'd never considered and wind up liking it! I got both my Revenant Assassin and my Wilden Shaman that way, and honestly, I really like those. The only trouble with the Shaman is, from an RP perspective, it's kind of hard to get into the mindset of a giant plant with an affinity for astral bears. I keep wanting to play her like Swamp Thing, and sort of hulking around silently. But it is definitely different.

c) Go gimped. And if you have the party support, aren't afraid to learn the hard way, and have a DM who will let you respec liberally, there's not really anything wrong with that. But go in knowing that this might not be the easiest deal for you, and don't be afraid to talk the situation over with your DM, if you're just not having fun.

Interestingly, the reason that I say you might not have much fun being gimped isn't actually a selfish, "wow, I am not as cool as everyone else and don't look badass," thing. It's more a, "I could really be helping my party members with this stuff, but I just can't make it work! And I find that I am being a burden/draining resources (esp healing) that are very limited, and pulling things down. Woah! Not cool!"

At least, this was my problem.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The games people play now.

So Hi. Das ist ein Kainenchen. I may have an opinion or two on things as relate to Games of various sorts. Video, board, LARP, tabletop and yeah, I really, really like 4e D&D, though I started with my dad running me and my brother through The Caverns of Quasqueton when I was 8.

Now I am running an all-girl 4e game, playing in a bunch of other 4e games and one Arcana Evolved game. Also Campaign Committee for an as-yet unreleased LARP called Dust to Dust. Also aiming to play more Arkham Horror and Battlestar Galactica Board Games, finishing up my Fallout 3 DLC and dying a lot in Bioshock 2 Multiplayer.

So that's me.

Edition wars maunderings to come.

Peace out.