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Posts Tagged ‘dungeons and dragons’

The torch has been passed, or at least lit with a cantrip.  It is a time honored tradition for a man to pass onto his children the accumulated wisdom gleaned from his time on this earth, so they can carry on and forge new and brighter paths into the future.  As of today, I have fulfilled that responsibility by initiating and teaching my eldest son the ways of the D&D. I glossed over the darker days of wedgies, public ridicule, and involuntary abstinence (he is only 8). It’s a brave new world out there; and the geeks have truly inherited the earth. We are no longer relegated to parents’ basements…unless we want to be. We are everywhere, and social cliques are as fluid as they have ever been. I can’t believe he is going to grow up in an age where people will actually go to a theater or convention centre to watch a live D&D game be played. Still the necessary nods and respect to the old ways were observed. There was Cheetos, chips, and mountain dew aplenty. I tried to kill the boy with a save or suck effect, but he is wily like his old man, and he came away unscathed.

I have to say, without ego, that my son was absolutely amazing, he was a natural.  I mentioned last post that I had converted UK1 “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh” module to 5th edition. The party is comprised of my son’s elven rogue, Stargazer, my friend is playing a half-elf warlock, and two dwarven NPC brothers (life domain cleric and fighter). They have penetrated the “haunted house” and have cleared the first floor. We started with a brief session 0 to establish bonds. My son came up with the idea that he was orphaned  when orcs wiped out his village and he was taken in by the dwarven brother’s family, and now seeks to hunt down these orcs. That’s pretty good eh? He even role played at times. When the barkeep at the Drunken Sea Urchin told him he needed to speak to an elderly poacher if he wanted more information on the “Haunted House” he asked me if he could “mutter” under his breath that this is ridiculous and a waste of his time. Also, when he found out how much it would cost to rent a room for the week he exclaimed, despite having no concept of money and what things cost, that this was “outrageous” and a “rip-off”. We also had to gently explain to him why he couldn’t make the NPC brothers go and investigate the horrible wailing and screams coming from the dark basement.

I think the hardest part was trying not to overly constrain his imagination. He was climbing into rafters to shoot his bow down at the monsters and dodging out of the way of incoming attacks. I made a sinfully bad DM error. He kept wanting to attack with his daggers, but he does more damage with his rapier, which I kept pointing out like some kind of overbearing power gamer. This is something I would never dream of doing with another adult, but I guess I am so used to telling him or teaching him how to do things as his dad that I didn’t catch myself until after. Next time I will be more mindful of that and just encourage him to do what he thinks is cool……and then kill him and build a character that doesn’t have any daggers.

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Hmm where to begin? I am still slowly prepping to run “Ancient Blood”, and by slowly I mean a brisk glacial place. I should be finished just in time to convert it to the 6th Edition rule set. I have been spending most of the time lately making maps for the vtt, reading the adventure again and again, and because I am an asshole, pondering how to add extra content to the adventure. There is one thing that has me concerned and that is converting the combat encounters/monsters over to the new edition. I have loosely mapped out and substituted a motley assortment of foes with which to antagonize my players with. My concern centers on the encounter building rules or guidelines set out the DMG. My little experience with system and what I have heard from other sources seems to indicate the guidelines might be a bit jenky. Encounters meant to be a fun donnybrook can turn out to be a bloodbath or vise versa a deadly set piece battle can turn out to be as threatening as a child’s tea party. It’s kind of all over the place. Part of the issue I think is the increasing experience point multiplier for more and more opponents; it seems to be off the mark a little. A friend of mine (the guy from the last post with the anal fissure surgery) suggests having a way for the players to succeed without killing everything, a way to escape, or knowledge of the threat ahead of time so they can tilt the odds in their favor. The game seems to require a bit of critical thinking and analysis when it comes to encounters, which I am not sure how I feel about it as I am a bit of a button masher kind of guy. I mean really, anymore demands on my critical thinking or mental resources and I am at risk of being reduced to a talking chimp.

So as I mentioned above, like an asshole, I felt I needed to add content to the adventure. A good portion of the adventure is based on content that doesn’t really match my play style and without it the adventure is kind of thin. What I am talking about is the overland travel. In the adventure, much is made about challenging the players and their characters to survive the trek, in sub-arctic conditions, to the abandoned Frost Giant keep. This is meant to be done by playing out each days travel and making camp through random encounters, foraging for food, not getting lost, and surviving and navigating environmental dangers such as breaking ice. I plan to incorporate that into a scene or two, but it is not my thing anymore to play out travel in a live action kind of way. In order “re-fill” the adventure so to speak, I have settled on adding a faction/threat, fleshing out one of the encounters into a possible side trek, and making the spirit of Mok-Turoknin’s (the dead Frost Giant king who’s curse is trigged) more of a factor.

The one faction or danger that I am adding is called “Erik the Viking”. The danger/faction is essentially a classic Viking clan lead by Erik. Their impulse is to grow strong, crush their enemies, and be worthy of Valhalla. Grim Portents for Erik the Viking are: trade to Dagmalstad is disrupted, Dagmalstad is attacked, the clan acquires and ancient power/magic. The impending doom is: Tyranny. As you might have noticed I am using Dungeon World terminology to organize and frame things. It allows to me to leave room for collaboration and to make moves more organically based on what the players do. Well at least in theory. I think the key will be in tying the players to the specific cities or factions in the adventure during character creation or session zero. I will give them the various groups that they can tie themselves too, including, and hopefully, Erik the Viking.

Below is the vtt map for the start of the game in medias res with the player’s boat sinking and being boarded by a raiding party from Erik’s clan. The 4e Dm in me was reflexively putting sharks in the water, because well sharks, until I realized that was like asking for a TPK in the first scene. I am a bit of douchebag but not that much of a douchebag. Besides I usually save the TPK for the second scene or when I want to rage quit my own game.

viking1

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My group kicked off the second adventure in the 4th edition remake of the Against the Giants series with myself as the DM. I have some thoughts about the first adventure, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, and the changes we have made going forward that I thought I would share in my rambling, loosely coherent manner.  We absolutely crushed the first module, essentially finishing it without an extended rest or anyone dropping below zero HP. We skipped nothing as well, methodically scouring every inch of the setting and exterminating anything that walked, crawled, or slithered with extreme prejudice. Dick jokes were abundant, and a good time was had by all….except I found the lack of threat, while invigorating for the majority the adventure, a little blazeh by the end, at least for me.

Thus began the Great De-Optimization Debate of 2013. One player, through rhetoric or maybe it was more like browbeating, managed to convince the others that the party should de-optimize in order to re-calibrate to the intended challenge level of a generic module. No small feat, but he is a veteran of the WOTC forums and can be seen daily waging an endless war against hardcore simulationists and alignment worshipers.  What was agreed upon, albeit begrudgingly, was re-training powers to anything not rated blue or above on the optimization guides. It was framed as a grand experiment. Perhaps it would add an element of thought to the adventuring? Instead of going out of the way to fight everything perhaps some thought would be put into avoiding fights or outsmarting enemies?

During these discussions many things were tossed around as a mechanism for increasing challenge without touching the most sacrosanct of player traditions. Some things discussed, all on the DM’s end, included not allowing short-rests until certain milestones were achieved, penalties for extended rests, and adding monsters and terrain powers to make combats more challenging. I had no problem with any of these things, as I am pretty indifferent, but it was decided that the group go the de-optimization route.  Part of the reason for this was when we decided to run these modules it was to do them as is with as little prep as possible for the DM, saving the effort for “creator-owned projects” so to speak. I took some shit for this stance, even though I was okay with whatever was decided. There was an undercurrent of sentiment percolating around it being solely the responsibility of the DM to make changes to the game to enhance player enjoyment.

The first session of the “experiment” was pretty brutal. I am not sure it had much to do with the level of pc optimization, although it is possible that with highly optimized builds they might have pulled it out. What occurred was not the best display of playing or DMing out there. The module begins with the party needing to get into the keep. To accomplish this they split up with 2 characters bluffing their way in and the other three scaling the mountains up to the keep. The players scaling the mountain triggered part of the first encounter with a Roc and it’s stone giant rider assaulting them on the side of the mountain, not the best place to fight a Roc that’s for sure. I ended up killing one of the characters after the Roc had cumulatively dropped him over 200 feet. We did a bit of a ret-con that allowed him to be alive. Even though there was no entrance into the keep where the players were headed I knew one of the characters would be able to knock a whole in the wall, so no big deal.  Now when combat breaks out one of the characters that bluffed their way in and peddling meat pies to the stone giants, ran into a room facing the side of the mountain his comrades were climbing, hoping to aid them. This is where the wheels came off a bit as by entering the room and coming within a certain distance of a particular alter he  caused the stone giant shaman to have a vision, igniting a berserker rage  and triggering another encounter, which then triggered a third encounter.

So the count is split party vrs three encounters. Here is where I failed as a DM and they as players. For my part I didn’t do a very good job at framing what the character saw as he opened the door to the room with the alter in it as he likely would have stopped if he immediately was aware that there was no exit from the room, thereby not triggering the encounter. It was also pointed out later, with hindsight, that we could have entered a skill challenge to keep the stone giant from attacking, at least until the party had reformed. I didn’t think of it in the moment, again I should do better, nor was it offered by the players so we proceeded as is. I don’t think the player tactics were the best either and that doesn’t necessarily mean splitting the party but more not adjusting to the fact that the party was split as well as not really synergizing in terms of focusing fire, using terrain and choke points etc.. What we really saw was the default fight everything to the death tactic, which typically works with very optimized characters, but not so much here. What occurred, is in some ways unique to 4th edition, was a slow painful death in an unwinnable straight up fight. It wasn’t like people were dropping like flies a la a save or suck effect; it was the slow inevitable death by attrition. It ended with me calling the scene and negotiating next steps with most of the party fleeing with and one being thrown in a cage.

I felt terrible after the session, like I should be stripped of my blog for running such a cluster fuck of a session. It was not a good test of the de-optimization experiment either, although there were cries of re-optimizing cause getting beat sucked. There was also some suggestion that I should have altered things on the fly to ensure the party’s success. Now this kind of stuck in my craw a bit. First things first I am in no way the type of DM that feels he needs to punish players for mistakes or poor play and I will usually work very generously with the players to get the outcomes they want.  With that being said should players, no matter what they do, succeed at everything? Does this not negate the agency of their choices? Failure is only a complication and only sucks if it is uninteresting or doesn’t lead anywhere. So I could have been quicker on my feet and offered a solution, but it is also a two way street and what I got to work with was “let’s fight”.  Who knows where things go from here, this might have left such a sour taste in people’s mouths that the game breaks.

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I read a blog post the other day that made me groan inwardly and let out a deflated sigh at my desk, once again requiring me to reassure my officemates that no one had died. I would post a link but that would mean diving into my twitter feed, and as you know I’m kind of lazy and prone to half-assing things. Oh yah I am on the Twitters now, you can follow me @middleageddm. I don’t really twat a lot…is that the right term? Is it twating or tweeting? Whatever, anyways it wasn’t like this article was a provocative flame war punch to the crotch; it was just the depiction of modern D&D that rankled me a tad. The gist of the post was about gamers retreat from the heavy rules focused editions of D&D back into the loving embrace of the OSR. The part that stuck in my craw was a statement that 4th edition’s particular rule set and combat focused mechanics had eliminated role-playing from Dungeon’s and Dragons.    

I just find assertions like these a little rigid and myopic. Don’t get me wrong this has nothing to do with the OSR. I fully understand the desire to dust of those old 1st edition texts on the shelf and head off into the bowels of the Moathouse, holy symbol in hand, to kick Lareth the Beautiful’s ass six ways from Sunday. When I hear assertions about role-playing and how 4th edition discourages it or has an absence of it, I feel like that person is erroneously applying their subjectively held schema about what role-playing is for them in a weird sort of nerd pattern recognition.

Look I will grant you that the rules/mechanics can make combat pretty long in 4th edition, which can be off-putting to some, but I don’t find that it reduces or discourages role-playing in anyway…well at least based on my subjective schema of what role-playing is. You see for me combat is or can be role-playing. It’s all there for the taking; you get character-character interaction, character-npc interaction, character-environment interaction, character-monster interaction, collaborative storytelling, and narrative descriptions of character actions/moves and the corresponding DM narrative moves. Combat itself can be a rich, flowing tapestry of smack down, that is if you want it to be. So are we then talking about a lack of exploration or interaction scenes? I don’t find this to be true either as these things seem more dependant on group play-style and taste, as games can have as much or as little of each as desired. Are we then talking about how the clearly defined and codified combat and pc mechanics stifle creativity? I haven’t really found that to be the case either, maybe even the opposite for some people as this allows for easy fluffing..er I mean re-fluffing (fuck why does my mind always go there first?) or re-skinning as desired. For example I had two wizards in my last game that weren’t even recognizable as wizards. One was essentially Green Lantern and the other was a dumb as rocks gladiator.

I think in reality I have found 4th edition’s rule set to be the most flexible and inclusive of multiple play-styles. I have seen or heard about games that run the full spectrum of the continuum. On the forums one guy was describing his multiple 1-30th level campaigns that don’t even have a DM and are a series of delves and completely combat focused. While at the other end of the spectrum I have heard many descriptions of peoples games were they proudly declare having an entire session without any dice being rolled.  As an aside this seems to be the gold standard seal of approval for grognards when championing the greatness of the older editions and the bastard demon spawn that is 4th edition. This is something I don’t really get as I tend to get kind of jittery if I don’t smash something in the mouth during an evening of gaming, but that’s me.

Role-playing isn’t necessarily inherent to a system, unless were talking like a diceless system such as Amber or some heavy story game, it really seems more related to the individual people playing the game and what they do with the rules. Take Battletech as another example. That game is essentially a tactical Mech Fighting game but some cats have created such deep role-playing rich campaigns that would make some of my 1st edition campaigns look like a game of checkers. So when people say that the older editions of D&D encouraged or had more role-playing in them I just don’t buy. My personal experience and anecdotal research shows that a lot of people just killed things and took their stuff through endless dungeon crawls back then just as much as they do now.

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Over The Hill

I am feeling very melancholy as tomorrow is my 40th birthday. I can feel it looming like a giant albatross of death and decay, harbingering a withering decline into that good night. It also has me reflecting a bit on my life thus far, the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all. Fantasy and rpg’s have been such a big part of my life and the basis for some of the fondest memories of my youth. I have also been pondering what the future holds and what memories are to come. My heart already bursts when my 3 year-old asks me if he can play Dungeons and Dragons or forces me to engage in life or death swordplay as the evil “Green Knight. The thought of sharing my passion for fantasy and gaming with my son overwhelms me with such raw emotion that tears of joy well up in my eyes and inoculates me against the inevitable day when he just thinks I am lame. Unless of course my son turns out to be some kind of fantasy realist and telling me that my play style ruins his verisimilitude well then he can go fuck himself 😉 In all seriousness though, I only hope that both my sons find something that sparks their imagination the way fantasy and rpg’s has for me.

My mother dropped off a bunch of clutter she uncovered while clearing out some boxes in her basement the other day. Sand wedged in between crap where these hidden gems from my youth and fit with the sickening degree of nostalgia I am feeling today. I remember when I got the World of Greyhawk campaign setting for Christmas. I was always excited to get D&D things given the visibility and accessibility of gaming stuff just wasn’t what it is today. It meant my parents had to work hard to get me something they didn’t understand but knew would make me exuberant. I was just so taken by the detail, history, and lore contained in the pages that it almost made it seem real, like I was reading something for a geography or history class at school. I would stare endlessly at he coat of arms on the inside cover, imaging which my mighty paladin would paint his shield with and hoist into battle. This product even came with a two piece full color hex map of the setting, which I thought was the coolest thing ever and would act as a gaming table cloth for years to come, even if the game had nothing to do with Grewhawk.

The other hidden gems were these Endless Quest Dungeons and Dragons story books. I can’t begin to tell you how voracious my appetite for all things D&D was, it approached an Aspergers like quality of fixation, so it is no surprise these things found their way into my home. I look back and laugh at how tense and “involved” I got when reading and re-reading these books. I would read them like I was playing chess. I would keep my finger on a page when asked to make a plot choice and then briefly skim the outcome on whatever distant page. If it even hinted at ending in death I quickly retreated back to the choice page standing firmly behind my conviction that it was allowable because I hadn’t taken my finger off the choice page and therefore the choice/move was not complete. Man did I ever win the hell out of those books.

Well enough sulking for today, I am off to Vegas to celebrate my ever encroaching march to death.

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Saying no can be such an easy thing for me given that I am prone to being a lazy, self-absorbed misanthrope. I can say no to almost anything, from lunch with the in-laws, dinner with other couples, cuddling with the wife, lap dances from strippers, household chores, to shopping for anything that isn’t nerd related. So why do I find it so hard to say no as DM? I am not talking about something interesting or creative in game, but more along the lines of player options such as races, classes, items, feats etc…. I think part of the problem, aside from my unconscious need to be liked and avoid rejection, is that there is a really heavy emphasis in a lot of gaming literature to say yes to the players wants or desires or risk

"NO FUN FOR YOU"

being called a massive douchey, control freak, hater of fun, dick DM that runs a lame game. I mean I don’t want to be lame, douchey I can handle, but not lame.

I think that this has made it difficult to set appropriate limits and boundaries. Perhaps you want to implement the new magic item rarity classification system in 4th edition D&D because you see it as step towards re-balancing the game…nope sorry you’re a dick that wants to kill fun. This has become more of an issue in modern gaming after companies began to figure out that they could make a fuck ton more money selling to the players rather than the DM’s, thereby saturating the market with character options and crunch with the inevitable power creep and unforeseen interactions that ensue, at which point the bean counters tell them that sales have stagnated and it’s time for a new edition and the processes starts over again…rinse and repeat.

I will give you an example from my online game of an instance where I felt I needed to say no. We are looking to add a new player or two. One of the new players wanted to play a Leader. Usually this not an issue and I am thrilled someone wants to play a Leader in these Striker dominated times, but there is already a Leader in the party, a friggin pacifist War Priest (don’t even get me started) no less. There was no way I even want to deal with two Leaders in the same party (particularly with 2 defenders and a striker filling the other slots), as the combats will grind out forever with no threat and it will just make encounter design miserable for me. I can also see this making the game suck overall for everyone. So I nut up and say no, which I think pissed off the potential new player and made me feel like a massive douchey, control freak, hater of fun, dick DM that runs a lame game.

One thing that gets left out in the “yes man” philosophy is that the game may need limits and boundaries to be fun for everyone, including the DM. I think the players bear some burden in this regard, as just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, like just because we can clone a sheep’s nuts doesn’t mean that’s what we need to do. It is admirable that you can build a character that can pown the multiverse and one shot Orcus, but maybe reign that in a little bit tuff guy and think of everyone else at the table, including the DM and don’t force him to be a dick.

I think if I was to ever start another 4th edition campaign I would limit options from the start in terms of what sources to draw from, utilize inherent bonuses, and make use of the magic item rarity system. It would not be unlike my current home campaign as the players have never really read any of the materials let alone a forum thread, but a world away from my online game. Although in fairness to them there was kind of a mutual agreement from the get go, before I was thrust into the role of DM, that the game would be a smorgasbord de jour of power gaming.

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I think that one of the hardest challenges of being a DM is maintaining the campaign after that initial burst of nerdgasm supercharges the first few sessions. As the DM, we are likely the most passionate and interested person in playing the given drug….I mean game of choice in comparison to your nerd crew. This passion may even straddle that thin line between hobby and full on collecting-your-urine-in-a-glass-jar style obsession. This is further complicated by the fact that life just happens and depending on the stage of your life finding time to game can be difficult. This can become a truly Herculean task when having to negotiate the various schedules of my middle-aged cohorts. I often feel like a commodities trader on the pit floor when trying to set up the next game session. I send out an e-mail with some dates which then sets off a mass flood of back an forth messages that I have to sift through, analyze, and eventually come up with a firm date that isn’t really firm as it maybe subject to a last minute change/session implosion. I say this in all honesty without any anger or resentment, particularly since I have pretty much boss-hogged and bullied my players/friends into the current campaign to satisfy my need to play D&D. This is just the way it is if I want to play the game I like with the people I like (which is in some ways is more important than just playing the game I like).

That being said, I have implemented or initiated some fail-safes in order to keep the campaign lumbering forward, and thereby keeping me a happy camper and relatively sane…well I guess that would depend on your definition of sane. I think in some ways the key, as a lot of things in life, is being flexible, as rigidity leads to much agita. For me, this has meant a few things; the first was in lowering the quorum for a game session to happen. I originally started with 5 players, and it became readily apparent that hell in fact was more likely to freeze over before I was able to get all 5 players at once. So I set the minimum number of players for a session to happen at 3. To make scaling encounters more manageable and to ensure adequate role coverage I created 2 companion characters per the Dungeon Masters Guide 2, a defender and leader (there are never any shortage in strikers at a 4e  game) that have been crafted into the frame of the story. The players use them in combat and I role-play them as NPC’s outside combat. Only one of the characters is available at a given time. Secondly, I had to become comfortable with hand waiving certain things such as re-incorporating characters into the story after they had missed a session or two. Lastly, I have started to add some new blood to the game, thereby upping the number of players to 6 and possibly higher as this increases the probability of reaching quorum once a month. It might be a bit of a bitch if everyone makes it for a session one day, but since I am pretty sure that if that happens it will be a sign of the impending apocalypse, and I will probably have other things to worry about at that point.

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