Posts tagged Dungeons & Dragons

Evolution of My RPG Writings

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I’m going to be switching the blog post day to a different day of the week to better accommodate my schedule. Blog posts may be intermittent until I find a good day, but they will still be about once a week.

From time to time I’ve participated in the RPG Blog Carnival where various blogs come together and share their thoughts on some roleplaying game topic. The blog that originally hosted it shut down several months ago, but I’m pleased to see that it’s continued on thanks to the RPGBA.

This month’s blog carnival is hosted by TripleCrit. I personally know the author and she’s as passionate about roleplaying games as she is about writing. So this month she asks:

Why do you write about games? In what form does writing crop up in your campaigns? What’s your process, your stumbling blocks, your passion? How has writing helped you or your table? Or is writing more like a CR 8 Succubus whose torturous, siren song hurts so good and dominates your very being?

 

I thought a bit about all of the roleplaying game writing I’ve done and I’ve noticed that it has changed considerably over the years. When I first started gaming with the Wittenberg Roleplaying Guild, I wrote quite a few “adventure logs” detailing the campaign from the perspective of my character. Feeling a spur of creativity (and an excess of time since I was at college without a computer of my own to waste time on), I wrote these adventure logs for the D&D 4e campaign Keep on the Shadowfell. One thing I see looking back is that I did a lot of embellishment of what turned out to be a fairly combat-intensive dungeon crawl, especially concerning Paelias’ backstory (with a few references to Morrowind, which I had just discovered the summer before).

Those adventure logs were certainly the longest and most detailed I ever wrote, and soon after I wrote a much shorter journal for Ulrich Hartmann, superhero vigilante “Manifesto” in Andy’s Shadow’s of the Cold War campaign (which I described here last month as part of a blog exchange with Scrolls of the Platinum Warlock). This one was fun because I wrote it in an English/German mashup (which of course goes the way Hollywood would do it, not like how anybody in real life would do it). I also made a conscious effort to have Ulrich’s English improve as the entries progressed as sort of a meta-development of his character. Around this time, I also wrote a writeup for a LARP the Guild ran called “What Happened to Cleavon Washington?” (loosely based on blaxploitation movies) in which I wrote about the events of the LARP from three different perspectives.

The three player logs I’d wrote each became more ambitious than the last with me trying different things with perspective. When I became a GM, I decided to play with this even more. I had intended to write a “behind the GM screen” series for my first campaign ever, a pulp-era game called “Atlantis Awaits,” but unfortunately I never wrote found the time to do so. However for my next campaign, an Urban Arcana game called Thirteen Days, I wrote a summary of each day written from the perspective of a different character (check it out here). And the next campaign I ran, “Star Wars Infinity” (an alternate universe Original Trilogy where the droids never make it to Tatooine), I created an elaborate site where I was chronicling the exploits of my players.

Unfortunately by that point, my ambitions had far exceeded my ability to actually finish the task and I didn’t complete either campaign writeup. College became more intense and I had much less time to write freely and so I never again did a campaign writeup as either a player or a GM. However, I did create a writeup for a Stargate SG-1 one-shot I ran (using an earlier iteration of my Savage Worlds conversion) where SG-1 was telling General Hammond just how their mission went (check it out here). Out of all my writeups, I think that’s the one that I’m most proud of. And it had one of the most bizarre plans I’ve ever seen a group of players create!

After a long hiatus, I was itching to write about roleplaying games again and decided to finally start a blog. And you’re reading it! The Journeyman GM has largely been a transition into my more professional dealings with the roleplaying game industry, both as a freelance writer and as creator of Wild Card Creator. (Shameless plug: it’s a Savage Worlds character creator that lets you import character options from any supplementary PDF!)

I’m definitely noticing a few trends: first my writing naturally reflects what I’m doing with roleplaying games. When I was primarily a player, I was writing about my characters’ exploits. When I was primarily a GM, I was writing about what my players were doing. When I started getting into professional stuff, I created a real blog. In each situation, the scope of my writings has also become much larger as I have spent more time with roleplaying games.

Although I realize that I am a very industrious person and perhaps the amount of writing I’ve done is atypical, I’d be interested to hear if anybody else has had a similar experience in any writings they’ve done about roleplaying games.

Are Arbitrary Mechanics Part of a Setting’s Feel?

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First off, I’d like to say that the Wild Card Creator Kickstarter has just reached its funding goal! Thanks to everyone who backed! The Kickstarter is open until September 9th, so there’s plenty of time to pledge if you haven’t already!

Recently, Pinnacle Entertainment Group released Hell on Earth Reloaded, the Savage Worlds version of the post-apocalyptic western setting and sequel to Deadlands. It’s a pretty neat book, but to the surprise of many fans neither the Guts skill nor Fate Chips are used.

For those of you not familiar with them, both of these mechanics have been important mechanics of Deadlands since it was first released in 1996 and they have been part of every iteration of it and its sequel settings until now. The Guts skill is used to resist fear and keep yourself together in terrifying situations (of which there are many in the Weird West). Although some see the Guts skill as a point-sink, it thematically makes sense to use that rather than just plain Spirit because the average person should be terrified by the horrors on the high plains whereas the heroes need to steel themselves up to deal against them.

Ever since Savage Worlds Deluxe was released, the Guts skill has been reserved only for horror settings. Given that Hell on Earth has many horror elements and that previous iterations included a Guts skill, it was expected that Hell on Earth Reloaded would use one too. But to everyone’s surprise, it didn’t. The reason that was given was that unlike in the Weird West, everybody is exposed to the horrors of the Wasted West and people are generally jaded to all but the worst of it. Thus resisting Fear with a Spirit check was deemed adequate. Makes sense, but it was a strange transition and some people weren’t as happy with it.

Fate Chips are a special variation of bennies drawn at random during the start of the session and come in three types: the common white ones that work like regular bennies, the uncommon red ones that can optionally be used to add a d6 to the result of a roll (but the GM gets to draw a Fate Chip), and the rare blue ones that behave like a red one (but the GM does not get to draw a Fate Chip). Fate Chips make bennies slightly more powerful and also provide a bit of the “poker” feel of the Weird West.

But to the surprise of many, Fate Chips didn’t make it into Hell on Earth Reloaded. The reason given was that the powers that be weren’t there to help the heroes, as represented by the more powerful Fate Chips. Nonetheless, many fans disagreed with the reasoning and decided they would houserule in the Deadlands Fate Chips because to them it was an integral part of Deadlands. For comparison, an informal forum poll (started by yours truly) found that a supermajority of responders wanted to see the upcoming Deadlands Noir, another sequel setting to Deadlands, include Fate Chips. Ultimately though, the author revealed that they would not be used.

The strong feelings that came from this debate made me think: are there game mechanics that are actually “part” of a setting? Hell on Earth Reloaded and Deadlands Noir took away some of the integral game mechanics and there was some fan backlash, with many people wanting to houserule it back in to make it “feel” like a Deadlands game.

I imagine you would have a similar response if a new version of Shadowrun came out that didn’t use a dice pool of d6s or Savage Worlds dropped card-based initiative. Especially with the former, it’s a pretty arbitrary mechanic that has since become an integral part of the “feel” of the setting. You could argue that this is why why some fans felt that Dungeons & Dragons 4e didn’t “feel” like Dungeons & Dragons: because many of them viewed certain mechanics as being linked to the feel of the setting.

When I run Urban Arcana, I wouldn’t think of doing it for any system besides Dungeons & Dragons for this very reason. Of course, you could certainly try and come up with interesting situations like the Savage Worlds version of Greyhawk.

So, at the end of the day, I would say that yes, arbitrary mechanics are part of a setting’s feel. It probably has to do with how unique that mechanic is, how loved the mechanic is, and how long the mechanic has been around.

Thoughts on D&D Next

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For those who don’t know (because one should always assume that there is at least one reader who doesn’t), D&D Next is the upcoming version of Dungeons & Dragons, which Wizards of the Coast is currently putting in an open playtest. One of the big design goals is to “unite the editions” by taking the best from each one and hopefully creating an edition that would provide common ground between players who each have a different favorite edition. I imagine that this is why it is called D&D Next and not D&D 5e.

By the way, I made predictions about what “D&D 5e” would be like before D&D Next was announced. It’s not quite time to check off the list, but I’m already getting a good sense of which predictions were right and which ones weren’t. I also had a wish list of changes I wanted to see, but which I was not too confident would actually happen.

The first round of public playtesting showed a version of D&D Next that Wizards has adamantly stated is only about 10-20% complete with future rounds of public playtesting providing more developed and finalized rules. There are no rules for character creation yet and the playtest packet includes a set of pregen characters to take through the included adventure, along with about 30 pages of basic rules. Reaction to the playtest has been varied, from highly positive, to neutral, to scathingly negative, although an informal online poll shows that about 65% of playtesters have positive feelings about it with 20% on the fence.

I downloaded the playtest materials myself and read over them, then participated in a playtest at Origins. I’ve also been keeping an eye on the designer’s commentary in their Legends & Lore column. So what do I think about it?

My biggest issue with the first round of playtesting was a lack of innovation in the rules. It seemed like they reverted back to D&D 3.x as a template, made the characters on a level of OD&D simplicity, and threw in the flexibility in spells from AD&D. Now I don’t have a problem with picking and choosing the best aspects from each edition, but I was getting the impression that the rules mechanics were being chosen not as much to create the best of each edition, but rather to take the sacred cows from each edition and put them into one corral (so to speak).

Combat was at about the same speed as Savage Worlds, which I liked a lot. There were some new rules I liked, like the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic and the fact that wizards could use basic spells at-will (hopefully alleviating the temptation to create a fifteen minute workday). I also noticed that there is now an “Intoxicated” condition which gives you Disadvantage to all attacks, but lets you reduce damage dealt to you by 1d6, which could potentially result in some “liquid courage” tactics! I’ve always liked Skills and was a bit concerned about the fact that they were reduced to simple +2 bonuses to attribute rolls, but mechanically it seems to work well enough.

Overall, I came to the conclusion that although the first public version of D&D Next worked well enough, it was not very innovative. Although it was a streamlined version of D&D with a few nice additions, I wasn’t very excited about the system. But that all changed when I read the Legends & Lore article called Bounded Accuracy.

First, some background. One of my biggest complaints about D&D over the years is that common threats are “beneath” higher level characters. This is because as they gain levels, their bonuses to skills and attributes constantly escalate to the point where they can meet the DC of common threats even if they totally botch their rolls and their AC is so high that common monsters can’t even hit them. This makes sandbox games problematic, since the level 20 party rolls a 2 and still kicks down the iron door, then laughs at the fact that the swarm of goblins inside can’t even hit him. As a result, the GM has to make up ridiculous situations just to challenge the party with a DC to match their astronomical skill bonuses (no, it’s not an iron door, it’s an triple-reinforced adamantine door!).

But the aforementioned article stated that D&D Next would be using “bounded accuracy” where characters do not gain increased attribute levels simply by leveling up. Thus with all things being equal, an iron-banded door with DC 17 to break down is just as tough for a 1st-level Fighter as a 20th-level Fighter. This also means that AC is more or less static so you won’t have to get a +5 Magic Weapon or the Weapon Expertise feat just to stay competitive in a fight. In fact, the only thing that really increases as you level up is hit points and the amount of damage you can deal. So an angry mob of level 1 characters could still kill a dragon and a swarm of kobolds could still challenge a level 20 fighter. For the first time, you can use the same low-level monsters to challenge a higher level party, especially if they come in greater numbers.

That is innovation right there and that makes me excited for D&D Next. A long-standing rules issue has been resolved using an ingenious new mechanic for the sake of making a better D&D. If Wizards makes more innovations like that, I will be one of the first to buy the new edition when it came out.

Urban Arcana Cover Art

I’d rather use D&D Next for bugbears in the boardroom than any other version of D&D

Also, it’s probably worth noting that I would rather run my favorite setting, Urban Arcana, using D&D Next instead of 3.x or 4e because it is fast-paced and flexible and appears to be easy to customize. Finding a better version of D&D to run my favorite D&D setting is a total win in my book!

What Encourages or Discourages Avoiding Combat?

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Due to changes in my schedule, I’ve decided to move my “new post day” from Saturday to Wednesday. This should result in a much more reliable weekly posting schedule from now on.

The RPG Blog Carnival topic for the month of April was “Combat Avoidance” and was hosted by Exchange of Realities. Yeah, I know it’s May now, but it is a topic that I really want to talk about.

Combat has always been the heart of role-playing games. After all, Dungeons & Dragons evolved from miniatures wargaming where there is nothing but combat! I’d estimate that 95% of the role-playing games out there have some sort of rules about how to handle fighting and combat (with the remaining 5% being either aimed at kids or deliberately made so as to avoid combat). Although the GM has a lot of say into how much combat there is in a game, I think that there are definitely some external factors that encourage or discourage avoiding combat during gameplay. I would say that the big ones are the expectations of the setting, the expectations of the system, and the danger level to characters.

Expectations of the Setting

Here are the first lines in the “Makin’ Heroes” chapter of Deadlands Reloaded:

Strap on your six-guns and saddle up, amigo. It’s time to make your salty gunslinger, mysterious huckster, or savage brave.

And here is an excerpt from the “Characters” chapter of The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild:

Whatever their motivation or purpose, most characters created for The One Ring are individuals who have chosen to abandon their day-to-day activities and become adventurers. They are not soldiers or captains following the commands of a lord, nor are they subtle wizards trying to weave the threads spun by fate: they are bold souls putting themselves in peril by their own free will, sometimes simply for the love of adventure itself.

Notice something? They each describe the characters in their games very differently. The quote from Deadlands provides three archetypical characters, all of which are typically combat-oriented (even though you can play one that is not). The preceding sentence even makes pretty broad statement about Deadlands characters having six-guns. The One Ring however describes characters in terms of their love of adventure and specifically says that they are not soldiers (even though there is a “soldier” career). It’s quite conceivable that characters in this system would not be combat oriented, and indeed many of the characters in the source material, like Bilbo and Frodo, are not.

So which is more likely to avoid a typical combat, the “salty gunslinger” or the “adventurer.” Probably the adventurer. Why? Because that’s what the setting expects them to do. The setting also creates an expectation for what the characters’ default behavior will be when coming up against something hostile. In Dungeons & Dragons, the default behavior when confronted with a dragon is probably to fight it, not talk to it, and to only run if the fight is unwinnable. But in The One Ring, the default behavior would probably be to riddle with the dragon or run, but to fight it as a last resort (like if it’s burning Lake Town to the ground).

Expectations of the System

There’s a pretty easy litmus test for how much combat is expected in the system: how much of a character sheet is devoted to combat? Here’s a Dungeons & Dragons 4e 5th Level Dragonborn Rogue I found online using the standard D&D 4e character sheet. Aside from the sections on skills, senses, character info, gear, and arguably ability scores, the entire character sheet is devoted to combat (including 2 out of 4 pages devoted specifically to cards describing combat maneuvers). I estimate that about 85% of the character sheet is for describing stuff about combat. You might extrapolate then that 85% of D&D 4e is about combat, which in my experience (especially considering the official Wizards of the Coast convention games) is about right.

In fact, one of the big criticisms from D&D 3.x fans when D&D 4e first came out was that it was too focused on combat and not enough on role-playing. Often times they cited the fact that there weren’t profession skills or other non-combat character options. I won’t take either side on this, but I do wonder if part of the reason was that the D&D 3.5 character sheet from the PHB had about 60% of it devoted to combat, implying that combat only featured in 60% of the time.

So what does that mean for combat avoidance? With more space on the character sheet for non-combat related items, it would make sense that characters have more things to do to avoid combat. In D&D 3.x, you might have the means to avoid 40% of combats whereas in D&D 4e, you only have the means to avoid 15% of them. Now I’ll be the first to say that this is not a definitive measure and there are no doubt many factors, like GM play-style, that have a greater influence. But the fact remains that in a system where the important parts of your character are what they can do in combat, then it is less likely that it will be avoided.

Danger Level

On a more practical level, combat is typically avoided if there is a lot of danger of a character suffering ill consequences because of it. In Call of Cthulhu, investigators almost always avoid combat because there is a very good chance that they will die if they fight (or they will go insane, or both). Contrast that with a system like Hollow Earth Expedition where there is little danger of getting into a fight with Nazis, even if they have guns and you are using your fists. If combat is the most direct means of achieving your goals (as it would be if there are Nazis in the way of claiming the lost treasure) and there is little danger, then combat avoidance is very unlikely. The risk is small compared to the reward. But if there is a lot of risk, you might try some safer alternatives to avoid combat altogether.

I’ll reiterate once again that at the end of the day, the GM probably has more influence than these factors in determining how much combat there is. For instance, I’ve seen sessions of D&D 4e run without combat. But you might want to think about these external factors if you are wanting to encourage or discourage combat in your game session.

Urban Arcana Cover Art

Creating Urban Arcana for D&D 4e

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Urban Arcana Cover ArtAt WittCon last weekend, I ran a Dungeons & Dragons 4e game using the Urban Arcana campaign setting (the game is further described here). There were a few comments about the setting last time I posted about it, so I figured I would talk more about it.

Setting-wise, Urban Arcana is a lot of fun. During the mission at WittCon, the players were investigating the strange happenings at the Astral Sea Casino run by the Corsone Syndicate. They saw a lot of fun sights like a Githzerai in a white suit who the party suspected may have been using some psionic powers to rig a roulette game. The second group also wound up meeting Oliver, a burly Dragonborn in a tuxedo who was a high roller at blackjack.

One compliment I got from both sessions I ran was that the characters I gave the group were really memorable and exciting. I found this kind of surprising because I didn’t give the characters backstories. But I think what worked was that I made the characters iconic enough that the players were able to easily build them into whatever they wanted. The group consisted of:

  • Leonard, the Bugbear Street Warrior (Fighter). He’s a surprisingly civil bugbear who wears a three piece suit, but he can lay down the pain when necessary.
  • Darren Turner, the Gnome Technomage (Wizard). Rather than relying a spell tome, Darren prefers to use an iPad to generate his magical spells. And for all his cantrip-related needs, there’s an app for that.
  • Maddie Webber, the Drow Rogue. Although her punk nature sometimes clashes with Department 7’s leaders, her street knowledge has helped more than a few times. She wields a katana in her right hand and a modified pistol in her left.
  • Mixmaster C, the Halfling DJ (Bard). The Bard with a Boombox, he’s able to feel the funk to play just the right song to affect those who are listening. He especially loves the 80s.

By the way, everyone’s pictures are taken from the art in the Urban Arcana book, which is available online here. The exception was Mixmaster C’s picture, which surprisingly was taken from The Book of Wondrous Inventions, by TSR in 1987. Who knew that magic boomboxes were treasure loot in the AD&D era?

If you look at their character sheets (click on their names above), you’ll notice that I made some substantial changes to the D&D 4e mechanics. Most of the information on the first page is the same, but there are a few changes to Skills. I changed “Dungeoneering” to “Urban Awareness” to represent knowing general facts about a city or how to get around (e.g. where’s the nearest pizza place and are there any shortcuts to get there). Because Urban Arcana is a modern game, I also added Driving (Agility) and Computer Use (Intelligence) to the game. These small changes definitely helped the gameplay and were very easy to houserule in. The only issue I had was that I originally made the characters in the D&D Character Builder online and they don’t let you houserule new skills.

On page two, I only listed feats and racial features that would actually have an impact for the one-hour one-shot that I ran. I included basic melee attacks and everyone could use a pistol as a basic ranged attack (I just reskinned a hand crossbow to be a pistol).

But the biggest change was with powers. In D&D 4e, all characters have powers to represent combat maneuvers, spells, or other special actions that they could perform. Especially because this was a one-hour one-shot, I got rid of most of them, especially the ones that were basically “you attack with your weapon.” So Maddie Webber and Leonard in particular just use basic attacks, although Leonard has a “common tactics” section of his character sheet to indicate the special combat powers that I left in. Darren the Technomage still has several apps, including a “Burning Hands” app, but not nearly as many spells as he’d have as a standard D&D 4e wizard. And finally Mixmaster C has four songs he primarily uses (most of which are only once per encounter because playing it a second time just isn’t cool anymore) although I told the players that if they wanted they could play some other appropriate song.

I also did this all without miniatures. They were either in melee or some ranged distance away. And to my surprise, the players didn’t even seem to notice.

The result was that combat was a lot faster and players were more interested in describing their own complex maneuvers. For instance, we had Leonard leaping over a balcony and doing a drop attack on one of the Kuzzer Brothers. He didn’t have a powercard for that, the player just decided to do it. Since nobody was looking through their powercards or counting squares, it all wound up going a whole lot more quickly.

What did I learn from this heavily modified version of D&D 4e? The descriptions you give things are much more powerful than the mechanics that drive them. It was a simplified D&D, but I think it was the setting that made the game so much fun for everyone!

I’ve also learned that D&D doesn’t need all the powers and mechanics to still be fun and playable. Having them are still nice in small quantities, but I think this game has led me to the conclusion that standard D&D 4e has too many of them. I’m betting that D&D Next will be largely eliminating them like I have done. I’ll be looking forward to trying a D&D Next version of Urban Arcana as soon as it becomes available.

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