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Archive for June, 2010

I have been following a forum thread about the amount of Fluff versus Crunch in current Dungeon’s and Dragon’s game books.  I will give a brief definition of these terms for those that might be unfamiliar, and thought that fluff had to do with an entry level position in the adult film industry. Fluff is typically referred to as story/history/lore content while Crunch typically refers to game mechanics/rules/stat blocks content.

 These forum arguments can get quite heated and belligerent (as most discussions on the internet can) and tend to follow a typical pattern starting with someone starting a thread about how they didn’t like either the relative lack of Fluff in comparison to Crunch or the poor quality of fluff in comparison to the “good-ole days”. Then the counter opinion comes in that Crunch is what’s important and if you’re creative you don’t need Fluff it just gets in the way when you make all you own stuff anyway…back and forth until it denigrates into essentially a full out flame war, with a you suck and your an idiot and your mother dresses you funny type dialogue.  When I sift through these threads there is a theme that often emerges in that if you aren’t creating or home brewing your game world, contents, and adventures then there is some shame in that. I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional or always the case, as sometimes I think it is a reflection of individual pride at creating something pretty cool, and you creative types should be proud because it is pretty awesome to bring something to life that way.  However, you’ll get comments like “I never use published adventures or settings”…really? Not ever?…Not even once?. You can see this even in forum threads were the original poster is asking for help with a published module they are running, and you inevitably get a response like “…..I guess I can’t really help you because I never use published adventures, I only make my own”. Why would you even add that to a post? It’s like they want to make it really clear to everyone in internet land that they are creative and don’t need published material but in a subtle way puts down the person who is using the published module.  I think some of the best things from 1st edition D&D were the modules like The Temple of Elemental Evil, The Tomb of Horrors, Against the Giants, and Vault of the Drow.

This kind of thinking puts a lot of pressure on the non-creative types like myself. When I was a teenager and my group was running a lot of Runequest campaigns I can still remember the feeling of fear and dread in the pit of my stomach and cold sweat down my back when our regular DM would turn to me and say it was my time to run a game. We had no fluff books back then for the game system, just the one core rule book. So I did what any self-respecting uncreative type would do and pilfered heavily from published works. At the time I was really into David Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean series, so as you can imagine pretty much every adventure inevitably had a prophecy in it. You want to talk about railroading; I don’t think I could have been more railroady unless I had the NPC’s dress in engineer uniforms. One of the great things I have found with getting back into gaming and DM’ng is my comfort level with running games and creating adventures. It seems like I am able to be more creative, although, sometimes I think that I have just read more stuff so when I just pilfer from many sources and combine them it seems more original ;). I like Fluff in my game books, as I find it a nice read, and good for ideas for a time pressed creatively strained DM like myself, and if I don’t think it fits with what I want to do then I don’t use it or change it to suit my needs.

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I had an interesting experience in the last D&D encounters session, one that didn’t have anything to do with that night’s encounter. Before we started playing some of the players I had been regularly rolling with last season were talking about the previous weeks encounter, it was the one I ended up DM’ng and subsequently was at another table than them. They mentioned how Drax (my character from last season’s encounters) was a topic of conversation during play. They explained that when the Lizard Men made their appearance and began looting the caravan and attacking the PC’s, someone asked “are they demons?”, “Drax would probably think their demons”. He absolutely would have, as I played Drax where he would denounce any enemy/monster he didn’t know (which was a lot with an 8 Intelligence and no training in knowledge skills) as a demon as he charged it. It had become a running joke by the end of the adventure where anything the party didn’t understand or know about became a “demon” this or a “demon” that.

I have to admit that this table discussion delighted me to no end. It made me think of Greg Bilsland’s article in the Player’s Strategy Guide, where he talked about how he knows he has made a great character is when the other PC’s can predict how the character will respond in a given situation and have a lot of fun with it. It occurred to me that this is what I had created in the lovable Drax, and that I had added a “role-play” element to a game situation that is pretty on the rails and combat heavy. They also recounted a scene in combat where Drax had challenged this homunculus, which proceeded to continuously blind him thereby preventing Drax from attacking it round after round. I had Drax bellow a challenge “enough cowardice, show yourself and feel Tempus’s wrath you Demon Doll”, followed by him attacking a piece of furniture in front of him since he couldn’t attack the Homunculus. I rolled a critical hit on the dresser and it exploded into pieces…..good times..good times.

 This has also got me to thinking about how I can encourage more character development and role-playing in my home campaign. Given the long stretches in between game session coupled with being in the last stages of what has become a bit of a dungeon crawl, this aspect has been a little stifled. I think things will change, as we are just about finished with the module and I will be diving into my homebrew stuff. I find as I get older that this aspect of gaming appeals to me more and more. This has also given me the itch to let Drax loose again, most likely in LFR, as he has been using his hiatus to re-train to become more tank-like, but more on that in another post. So how do you bring your characters to life? Or add role-playing to your game?

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My home campaign session fell thru this week and rather than sulk or suffer withdrawal symptoms I signed up to DM a Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) game. It was my first experience with this program offered by WoTC.  LFR is an organized play program where players create a character and assign them to a specific region of the campaign world. WoTC then releases modules for each region that allow your character to progress through the levels of play.  There are adventures/games for early heroic level characters up to late paragon levels.

I had been contemplating playing in a game with Drax after the completion of season one of the encounters program, but I hadn’t because I was still working on a angle or pitch to try and convince my wife why I needed to spend more time away from her and the little one in the name of D&D. So I had been monitoring the sign up boards and new that games ran 12-4pm on Saturday’s. From what I can gather the program around here can struggle to get DM’s for the games.  I can understand some people’s reluctance as it can be a little daunting and the prep can be a little bit of a bitch.  I would encourage everyone who plays to give DM’ing a try as it is very rewarding and not as bad as people imagine it to be.  Plus the LFR is a pretty good place to get your feet wet as the adventures are pretty structured.  So when the e-mail came out on the group-list that they were short a DM for one of the tables this past Saturday I just shot off a reply saying that I would do it. What I didn’t realize is that it wasn’t for a regular game session but for a battle interactive adventure called The Paladin’s Plague which is a part of this thing called Spellstorm.  A battle interactive is a convention type game where the success of the players rests on the collective of outcome of all the tables involved in the adventure. Which is kind of cool but what I didn’t realize is it would run between 10am-7pm, and I had less than 2 days to prepare. As my confidence waivered e-mails came back signing my praises, and well I guess flattery will get you everywhere, so I set to it. The adventure was pretty good, fairly complex combat encounters which was a bit of a pain as I didn’t really have a lot of time to prepare and it was difficult remembering all the different things and conditions that the monsters could do. The adventure also called for use of Dungeon Tile sets that are no longer available (thanks WoTC) . I don’t understand why they don’t continue to put out these sets, unless they don’t make any money off them, needless to say it was pain in my ass. I ended up using a blend of tiles I had, homemade tiles, and my trusty battle mat.

The game went well. The adventures in LFR are pretty much on the rails as it is kind of like standardized testing and every administration needs to be the same, which can be a bit of a drag and I think you have to be careful that the game doesn’t turn into a table top miniature game, unless that’s what you and the players want. Where I could I tried to add some role-playing moments and some decent soliloquies.  I am pleased to say that the Silver Wolf Company was quite successful, what do you expect with 2 leaders/healers; I mean what’s a DM to do 😦 . I think the best part of the game was playing D&D with people I would never really have had an opportunity to meet before and having a blast doing it. D&D is really like a giant nerd brotherhood, and I am happy to be a member. I really liked LFR and I might occasionally play and DM a bit, as I think Drax is getting a little antsy in his early retirement.

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I was pretty excited about the new season of DnD Encounters that started up this past Wednesday, as it was the debut of Dark Sun. I never played Dark Sun in 2nd Edition as I spent those years in the worlds of Runequest and Champions. Despite this, I am quite familiar with the world of Dark Sun as my friends and I were and continue to be large consumers of fantasy novels, with the Tribe of One series by Simon Hawke and Prism Pentad series by Troy Denning being favourites of ours.  In fact, Bob who is one of the players in my current game created Rikus for one of our Runequest campaigns.

So needless to say I was pretty jacked to play on Wednesday, with the exception of having to use the gimp pre-gens put out by WoTC, but more on those in a minute. When I got to the store they were short a DM for the first week so I stepped in allowing last season’s DM to be a player for a change. So with about 5 minutes to go over the material it was go time. I drew on those old novels and the recent Penny Arcade podcasts to provide some background for the setting. The world itself lived up to its reputation, as the adventure looks brutal, with the environment being as big a threat as any monster.  The Lizard Men, who made up the opponents in the first encounter, were jacked up compared to other early Heroic Tier monsters. They had attacks that could deal massive damage along with immobilizing victims. I ended up dropping 2 players and backed off from dropping a third as it was her first experience playing DnD and I didn’t want that experience to be of her character dying.

 Now let’s get back to those pre-gens. I have already written about my dislike in using pre-gens, as I think there is something special in crafting your own vision and bringing it to life that fosters an investment in the character, allowing an easier transition into role-playing. As I looked around the table I could see the lack of investment in comparison to last season, and a lack of in character role-playing (hopefully this will change as players become more familiar with the characters). In a setting that champions the harshness of its environment, with only the strong surviving, it’s hard to imagine that many of these characters would have survived long enough to have any kind of adventuring life. For example Barcan/Barqan  the sorcerer has only 22 hit-points, 6 healing surges, and an AC of 12 which meant the Lizard Men hit him on a whopping role of 4 (FYI he was one of the characters that got dropped). Now I am not saying everyone needs to be a power gamer with characters optimized out the ass, but I do think in 4th Edition your character needs to be more mechanically sound than in past editions if you don’t want to have your lunch handed to you. This seems particularly needed in a setting where the monsters and environment are juiced up. So it is somewhat puzzling why WoTC would create such gimp characters for this event. I don’t think it would have hurt them to wait to roll out this live play event when the campaign setting and players guide come out in August. I think they would have still had a good turnout despite the layoff, maybe even better as I think it is tuff for some people to get out and play every week and there maybe some burnout from last season.  I think I will purchase the campaign setting when it comes out even if I don’t run a campaign in it just for the reading enjoyment. I am looking forward to  getting back on the other side of the screen next week, looks like I will probably be playing a defender again as the fighter was the only character not chosen this week. Maybe the DM will let me call him Drax.

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When I met my husband nearly six years ago, he did not attempt to hide his nerd tendencies.  He was open and honest from the get-go. One of the first things he said to me was that he thought that getting into the lounge area of the bar we were at was “more difficult than finding the door to Narnia.”  I knew then that hiding behind the tall, handsome, well-built exterior was a nerd of epic proportions.   During this first meeting he also confessed to a comic book collection, a love for science fiction novels and a devotion to the food network. I decided to date him anyway.  As his family often tells me “Remember, you had a choice.”

My husband is a man of contrasts and contradictions.  An all-star jock in high school who loved the ladies, he also played Dungeons and Dragons.  When we began dating, I confess I knew little about D & D.  Most of my knowledge was quickly dispelled as myth.  For example, I thought that D & D involved costumes. I also thought D & D was akin to devil-worship (I am especially embarrassed about this misconception) and that only geeks got their jollies rolling dice and moving minis around.  Today, I’m proud that I understand what Weezer’s “In the Garage” lyrics are about because it means I have begun to understand the complexities of my husband just a little bit more.

For the first few years of our marriage, the endless copies of D&D manuals (so many different editions!) were relegated to a box in our basement and I rested in a false sense of comfort; my husband’s D& D days were done. Then, last year, my husband finally received a diagnosis for a medical problem that had been plaguing him since shortly after our wedding.  In an attempt to speed his recovery my beer-loving, cook-book-obsessed hubby gave up rich food and alcohol.  Around the same time, we welcomed our first child.  In short, our late-night days were over.

In my experience, women deal with the arrival of a child with a little more ease than men given we have nine months to warm to the idea of this new little person.  The change in a woman’s lifestyle begins the moment she pees on a stick and that little cross appears.  My husband is a caring and devoted daddy.  I could be no more proud at how he has met the call of parenthood.  However, the reality is that parenthood is equal parts challenge and joy.  This is where D&D has really stepped up and taken the edge off. 

My husband’s weekly encounters at the local gaming store, the joy he finds in his many D&D podcasts and blogs and his turn as DM for his close friends with whom he plays monthly, has rejuvenated him and put a spring in his step.  I love to watch him pour over his monster manuals, obsess over which minis to use at his next encounter and study his campaign like a school boy cramming for a final.  This re-found enthusiasm for D&D has simply made my husband a happier guy. 

Not only has D&D made my 37 year old husband feels like a kid again, it has rekindled his imagination, and provided an opportunity for him to meet and catch-up with friends, many he has had since the D&D passion was first sparked in early adolescence.  So, although I may groan about the stack of manuals by his bedside table, the Amazon packages that seem to arrive weekly containing the latest D&D book and the amount of disposable income spent on miniatures (that once arrived in, I kid not, a generic frozen chicken finger box) I secretly thank the Wizards of the Coast and their 4th edition for bringing my husband so much joy. And this Friday, when I bemoan carrying a tray of goodies down to the basement for a group of thirty-something men (like a good D&D mommy does) I’m really quite happy to play my part in his 1983 fantasy re-deux.

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So season one of D&D Encounters is over and Drax and his party were victorious…well barely. I enjoyed the program as a whole, with probably the majority of my enjoyment coming from just playing the game of D&D and the people who I shared the experience with rather than the adventure itself. You can find an excellent recap of each encounter at Dungeon’s Master. From my perspective WoTC accomplished their goal with the Encounter’s program as it showcased well what 4th edition has to offer and got people playing the game, particularly new players (we had 2 people in our party who had never played any edition of D&D).  Drax’s party really struggled throughout the majority of the encounters. We had one official TPK in session 8, and had the DM not pulled his punches we would have had TPK’s in the final 4 encounters, for example in the final fight he had 2 of the monsters attack the main villain and in one encounter a skeleton fell down a ledge and just didn’t’ get back up.  Part of the problem was in party composition as there was no leader and 3 defenders, which is just a really awful combination, plus one of the strikers was a gimped sorcerer (cosmic).  I had some minor issues with a few design aspects, as the amount and type of difficult terrain/hazards became a little tiresome by the end, and certainly did not favour poor Drax and his fellow defenders. It often seemed like we would try and slog our way to the villain, fail an athletics or acrobatics check, then fall or take some form of punishment.  Then by the time we made it somewhere the villain either had some movement technique or power and puff they were gone, which then began the slogging all over again. Having said that I think you do need to mix up terrain and hazards to add some flavour to battles and prevent blandness in combat from setting in, but I do think there is a balance and sometimes less can be more. My biggest peeve, however, was in the number of monsters with aura effects that did damage. I thought that was fairly brutal for first and second level characters. It is particularly punishing for the defenders at early levels to try and stay standing and occupy the enemy when they are taking automatic damage each round in addition to any damage they might take from having said enemy marked (like a good little meat shield), you just don’t have the hit points. Poor Drax was dropped several times by an Aura effect. I think it would have been more balanced if some of the aura’s had effects other than just straight damage like dazed or weakened. I think Drax is going to hang up his gear and retire from the adventuring life, as I don’t play in LFR, but I can see him involved in some sort of shenanigans in my home campaign as an NPC. If I play in the next Encounters program, which is set in Dark Sun, I think I would like to try another role other than defender.  They are using 6 pre-generated characters for the next adventure which I am not that thrilled about as I think one of the best parts about the game is customizing and creating your own vision, like the lovable Drax. What was your experience of the encounters program?

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Allowing for Awesome

I had a conversation with Paul, who plays the monk in my campaign, after our last session.  This was right after his character had pretty much mopped the floor with the villains in the last encounter of the evening. You can read the play by play in my last blog post. The question he asked me was, and I can’t remember the exact quote as it was 2 am, was essentially didn’t I want to fudge it so his character didn’t drop the Hobgoblin Warcaster before he could even act in the encounter. I had to admit that there was a little part of me that wanted to give the Warcaster like 5 more hit points so he could unleash a little bit of smack down but I choose not to, as that just isn’t my style. I told him that what he pulled off was pretty friggin rad, and that really outweighs everything else. The game is all about being heroic and awesome, and that sequence was definitely both.  I am a roll the dice in the open type DM, letting the chips fall where they may, and that’s how they fell that night. I am also not the kind of DM that wants to kill any PC, I do however want to make them bleed…a lot. Ideally I try and straddle that fine line between cakewalk encounters and TPK’s.  With that in mind, I haven’t dropped any of my players in the last 2 sessions, so maybe I need to amp up some of the encounters, oh and next time I think I need to be mindful that the monk can do all kinds of freaky movement and attack. So what kind of DM are you?

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