As I am want to do in games that I’m in, I let my mind wander and I came up with a character that fits the campaign and the party better. So rather than playing the character that wins the vote *Combat Assistance Prototype 0.0* I will instead be playing a Half-Orc Warlord. I do want to thank everyone who voted and to say that I am sorry.
Abraxus is also sorry that his creator is a moron.
Wednesday, July 9th, 2014, a day that will live in infamy, the day that Abraxus the Drunk my Dragonborn Barbarian died. Cut down in the prime of his life by a goblin shaman shunting a 34 damage critical hit on to him. Let us have a moment of silence.
Now that that’s over, I find myself with a problem, I need a new character. I’ve talked it over with the party and they’ve said that they want a character with a functional Intelligence score and training in Arcana. (This is not surprising as Abraxus was the smartest member of the party at an Intelligence of 13). Anyone who knows me will tell you that I like designing D&D characters and after working my way through several I have come up with two contenders. The trick is that I like them both and don’t know which one to choose so I’m going to put it up to the blog to vote on the favorite. However, I am not going to tell you anything about them other than give a story hook for each one. No race, no class, and no stat information except that they both have an Intelligence of 18 and are trained in Arcana. Although you will probably be able to figure out races. So with out further ado, here they are.
Prince Marthas the Crown of Storms:
Prince Marthas hurried down the hall to the scrying chamber, his servant following behind. “Do keep up Talan, this is an important day for me.”
“I’m confused my lord, why is this even necessary? Surely your mother isn’t mad enough to pass the mantle to anyone else, who else can compare to you?”
Marthas turned on the elemental with lightning flashing in his eyes, “Tell me Talan did the Glory of Prominence sit idly by and wait for my grandfather to gift her the mantle?”
“Did the Fury of Gales wait for my great grandfather to bestow the mantle upon him?!”
“No they did not!” the prince shouted, “My family have been the God Kings of the Throne of Elements for the last ten generations because no one else was worthy of the title. My birthright is not something that is bestowed, it is not hereditary, it is something you earn. If another in the court proves to be more worthy, more accomplished, more useful than I, where does that leave me?!”
“I… see my lord,” Talan was worried calming his master when he had his thunder up was often quite tricky.
“Good,” said the prince the jovial tone returning to his voice, Talan sighed with relief as they started down the hall again. “Now is everything prepared as I asked?”
“Yes lord, but I must ask, why are you seeking the aid of mortals?” He spat the word the disdain filling his voice.
“Because my faithful servant, I know nothing of the mortal world. Its woes, its hopes, its dreams, and its people are mysteries to me. I could spend years, nay decades learning what needs to be done to preform great deeds. The very deeds that will earn me my throne. No, far wiser to find a group of mortals already preforming great deeds and grant them my aid.”
Two lesser air elementals opened the door to the scrying chamber. “I’ve picked out three groups that seem promising my lord, but I must warn you groups like this are often stubborn and independent.”
“Please Talan, who would be foolish enough to insult a god?”
Designation Combat Assistance Prototype 0.0:
Journal Entry designation day 37
Life Signs: Negligible
Notes: The master has still not returned from his task, this number will continue to wait as instructed.
Journal Entry designation day 103
Life Signs: Negligible
Notes: This number is growing concerned the master has been gone for far to many days now. However this number can not override orders. This number will continue to wait as instructed.
Journal Entry designation day 357
Life Signs: Present
Notes: This number is confused multiple life signs have enter the lab through force. When attempting to intercede with intruders this number discovered the it has been secured to it holding bed and can not move. The master said it was important for this number to stay hidden while he was away, but it can not understand why the master would confine it so. The intruders have destroyed the lab and this number could not prevent it.
Journal Entry Designation day 542?
Life Signs: Negligible
Notes: It is dark, this number finds itself unable to properly designate time without visual input. The bonds that hold this number has broken and it can move freely around the remnants of the lab. Regrettably the entrance to the lab has been destroyed preventing this number from escaping to seek the master. This number will continue to wait.
Journal Entry Designation day unkown
Life Signs: Present
Contact: Five Life Forms
Notes: It is dark, this number detects five new intruders in the lab. However this number can find no logical reason for intruders to be hostile when the lab was destroyed so long ago. This number will attempt contact, perhaps these new life forms can assist it in locating the master.
Rian frowned at the bubbling mixture in the larger cauldron. Something was not quite right. He found some tarmis bark and scraped off some of the inner layers into a pestle, then crushed a handful of myar berries onto the powder. The resulting paste looked a lot like fresh blood, if a little thick. He poured it into the cauldron and the potion darkened. He chanted for a moment, smiling as he felt the spell take root. This would be an especially potent batch of feverbrew.
He moved the cauldron to the edge of the fireplace, where it would slowly cook down. In a few hours, he would chip out the dried sludge and grind it into a powder that was the best-known relief for fever. In the meantime, he had to cook dinner and prepare paper packets for the feverbrew. Jora would be irritated that he had used their best pot for his alchemy. She hated the taste of feverbrew.
He grabbed their spare pot and headed toward the well. It was later than he expected, with the sun just barely peeking above the horizon. The dawnward sky was already a deep, rich blue. As he scanned for the night’s first stars, he noticed a twinkle on the mountain ridge. A sickly yellow-green light glowed from the watchtower. The king’s watch soaked their coal in special oils to produce a variety of colors, each with their own meaning. The poisoned emerald hue spelled plague.
Rian sighed, knowing that Jora would want to pack up and head straight towards that trouble. Her thinking was that disease meant goblins, goblins meant orcs and orcs meant murder. She had sworn an oath to kill as many orcs as she could. Rian often wished to retire and leave the fighting to the younger, less scarred warriors, but Jora would have none of it. She viewed the peaceful days on the farm as nothing more than the lull before the next storm.
She had intended to plow the fields towards the river, so he had not expected her to be back until well after dark. He should have known better. He found her in the barn, the horses already combed and fed. She was testing the belts for her breastplate, leather strips already cut and holed for when she found wear. Rian hated everything about the armor. Yes, it was magical, but it could still be pierced.
What he really hated, however, was the enchantment that had been laid upon it. The wearer would not grow weary and could feel no pain. Worse, they could not die so long as the tiniest shred of will remained. They could be hacked into bloody chunks, unable to move or breathe, yet still trapped within their ruined body as long as they still felt purpose.
They had been married a less than a year the first time she fell in combat. An orc had gotten behind her and driven his spear into her armpit. She had turned and killed it, but not before the beast had twisted the jagged blade within her chest. Her last breaths had covered her chest in a bloody froth.
He had been certain that she was beyond his help, but she fixed him with those terrible, unflinching eyes and he had reached down into the depths of his gift. He chanted through the night, long after the battle had ended and all but a few had fallen down in exhaustion. His lips grew chapped and bloody, the words losing all meaning save as a focus for his plea to the Healer. Other clerics came to beg him to stop or to offer to relieve him for a while. He ignored them all.
The sun was well in the sky when her chest heaved like a drowning man gasping for air. When she could speak again, she cupped his face in her hand and thanked him. From then on, it seemed that she was badly hurt at least once each summer. The other warriors both feared and respected her, calling her “deathless” behind her back, though she would not have minded the name, even had she known. Rian had long since lost the ability to make sense or order of her many wounds… save one.
Four years earlier, at the battle of Bheren’s Creek, a mountain troll had clouted her across the back of her head. While she was dazed, an orc had done its best to sever her head. That was when Rian had discovered the limits of his power. He could force breath back into her lungs, he could will her heart to beat, but he could not knit her severed vocal chords. Her last words to him had been, “Fear not, love,” as she kissed his forehead and held him close.
Now they spoke with secret signs in a language they had made up together. It amused her to make him blush with lewd suggestions while they were in public, though it also aroused her, as well. It had served them well to be able to speak silently and in code.
* WATCHTOWER * FIRE * SICKNESS *
“Yes, I saw it too,” he replied. “I have some feverbrew on the fire. I will finish it tonight and we can leave in the morning.” He could see that she was not going to budge on going.
* NO * TONIGHT * Her signs were crisp and irritated.
Rian sighed. “We can’t leave tonight. We need someone to come watch the livestock. The horses are lathered. I haven’t packed.”
* TONIGHT * NOW * Jora’s face was stony and cold.
“Not without an explanation.” Rian crossed his arms.
* DREAMS * FEAR * DEATH *
Rian was shocked. Paladins received many powers from their patrons, but mostly in the form of strength and courage. Jora served the Honorable Warrior. For her to have been gifted with a premonition was exceedingly rare. Rian worried that this was a bad sign.
“Fine, we’ll go, but you’ll have to gather our things while I finish up the feverbrew and make us something to eat.”
*ACCEPTABLE * There was a long pause. *SORRY *
They went into the house. He noticed her watching the watchtower as they walked.
It was well into the small hours before they were ready to leave. As they were about to mount up, Jora turned to him and signed, * GRATITUDE * ME * DIFFICULT * YOU * ALWAYS *
He kissed her and it was good, like it always was.
Okay, so here’s how this works. The more people that respond to this, the better the bennies I give to my Wednesday 4e group. Think of it like KickStarter. I have reward tiers at 1, 3, 6, 10 and 20 respondents. This story takes place in the same setting as that group and will have an effect on that world.
1 – The PCs may use their Second Wind twice in the current combat.
3 – Once each, during the current combat, the PCs may roll twice (declaring before the roll) and take whichever result they want.
Well, after a long hiatus, I’m back running a 4e game. We’re doing something special this time: we’re running it over the internet, using Skype and a virtual tabletop called roll20.net. This campaign is nowhere near as ambitious as Nations of Rage, but that’s okay. We’re having a lot of fun.
You can expect some commentary on playing 4e in the post 4e era and how we are using technology to create a very different roleplaying experience.
This post will look at The Hunger Games as a source of inspiration. As such, there will be spoilers. You have been warned.
If you haven’t read the book and don’t intend to, Wikipedia has a decent synopsis. For what it’s worth, I found it to be an enjoyable read, but you can pretty safely avoid the other two books in the series. It’s dystopian sci-fi, but it has relevance to running a D&D game. While the book borders on sci-fi and might be classified as action-adventure (it’s technically listed as young adult), it is still applicable to a fantasy game.
It’s okay for the world to suck, including the government.
In the book, there was a rebellion and the government punishes the descendents of the rebels in a variety of ways, not the least of which is the actual hunger games. Prior to the lottery, much is made of the oppressive government and the dreary, impoverished existence forced upon the descendents of the rebels. Things are so bad that, just to feed her family, Katniss must risk her life and defy the law. After Katniss and Peeta become the Tributes and head to Capital, the focus shifts to the decadence and cruelty of the elites.
Obviously, the Dark Sun campaign setting shows that there’s a place for stories of hardship and survival. Beyond that, however, it’s okay for governments to treat their people badly. When I hear people talk about their games, nations are most often ruled by benevolent monarchies where the taxes are low, if they exist at all, and all of the citizens are empowered with rights. They seem to be a perfect libertarian paradise, where the roads get paved and the army keeps everyone safe, but the ruler isn’t building a floating summer home or a giant statue to their favorite deity. The grim truth is that, historically, governments have not really existed for the benefit of the people, but to keep power and money in the hands of a select few.
It’s also true that many GMs choose to gloss over this dimension of their campaign and there’s nothing wrong with that. I happen to think that exploring the themes of taxation, despotism and inequality can add a lot to a game. The downside can be that the players will feel that they are at an unfair disadvantage if they play a member of a group that is part of a definitional underclass, even if it’s only in one part of the world.
Now, obviously you can go in too far with a dystopian setting and the theme presents some special storytelling challenges. Tyrannical settings suffer from the same problem as slave settings: either things change for the better – normally instigated by the PCs – or the entire campaign gets locked into a power balance where the characters have little agency or authority unless they’re playing the bad guys, which opens up a whole separate set of considerations.
Sometimes, there is no winning.
In order to create a facade that will appeal to the people who can help them win the Games, Katniss and Peeta have to pretend to be in love. The people running the Games endorse this for better ratings, even going to far as to change the rules so that two players can win – and survive – as long as they are from the same district. When Katniss and Peeta are the only survivors, the game masters capriciously revert the rules. In response, Katniss and Peeta decide on a mutual suicide pact using poisoned berries that is only stopped by yet another reversal. In the aftermath, both are permitted to live, but they have to maintain the charade of a relationship. Neither of them are happy about the outcome.
The Kobayashi Maru scenario remains one of the trickiest feats for a GM, because you are doing a very bad thing  in order to either advance the story or to prove a point . The thing we can learn from The Hunger Games is that sometimes it’s okay to take away some of the victory or to thwart their goals. This is a very different thing from putting them in a scenario where the only correct plays are to run or submit. In D&D terms, Katniss and Peeta get to keep on playing, but the nature of the game has changed. Would it have been nice for the government to have gotten all warm and fuzzy over their love story and left them to live in peace? Absolutely, but it would have been a different story.
That’s the real lesson of The Hunger Games, that you can win and still not get what you want. The story goes on, but in a different direction. Once you’ve internalized that concept, you have to learn how to find the middle ground. Not giving them what they want creates tension, which is good. Denying the players too much, however, can lead towards resentment. Looking at the reverse, how often you tell the players yes, the real danger is giving them too much and draining out the sense of accomplishment.
Sometimes the good guys are just pawns.
The government uses the hunger games for some specific purposes. First, it reinforces the subjugated status of the people living in the districts. The government forces them to submit to something awful as a reminder of their impotence. The games also reinforce the idea of shame in rebellion.
There’s definitely room in a campaign for a stretch where the PCs lack genuine agency. They might not be subjugated themselves, but they also lack any sort of control or authority. They aren’t Robin Hood. They’re just people trying to get by in a shitty world. The concern with these types of stories is that, sooner or later, the players are going to expect to emerge from the cocoon, so to speak. That’s why you should definitely have an exit strategy.
Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
Many of the characters in the book, particularly Katniss, do things because they don’t feel that they have a choice. Katniss goes beyond the fences because she can’t see another way to survive. She volunteers to take the place of her younger sister in the games. Interestingly enough, Katniss doesn’t kill any of the other Tributes without having been attacked first. Instead, she tries very hard to simply disappear into the forest so as to simply out wait her opponents.
The choices that people make under duress can be excellent fodder for a story, but you have to be careful not to take it too far. You don’t want the players to feel that they are being railroaded or that they don’t have any control.
 I know that there are some simulationists who take exception to the idea that a scene in which the “correct” play is to run away is generally unfun, but I’m not going to proselytize to them. If your players appreciate that particular flavor of chocolate, then by all means serve it to them. I’m just not the guy that can teach you how to do it.
 I think that trying to force your players to see their characters as weak is almost certainly the most dangerous justification for a no-win scenario. Part of the allure of roleplaying is getting to feel things that might not be accessible in “real life.” Taking away that ability to escape can seriously dampen your game and it strongly defines what you’re trying to do as a GM.
I’m still not going to be all the way back yet, but reading Mearls’ most recent Legends and Lore got under my skin. Part of the reason I wanted to take a break is because I felt that too much of what I’ve been doing here is bitching about Next. I would much rather be writing about something positive, but obviously we’re in the doldrums between editions. It’s worse in this transition because they killed 4e so far in advance of Next.
Let’s skip to what I consider the money quote:
“If the five-minute workday bothers you, you have the tools to judge its effect on your game and can take steps to fix it. If you don’t care or have never noticed the issue, we don’t make it one for you.”
I happen to think that this is exactly the wrong perspective and it’s emblematic of Next development. If I think that the 5-minute workday is a problem – and I’m hardly alone in thinking that it is – I shouldn’t have to cut things out of the core game to fix it. The Vancian play style is distinctive enough that it should be an optional module. They’ve gone to tremendous lengths to avoid offending the Grognards, but I’m going to make a radical suggestion:
Why not avoid offending any substantial segment of the population?
Take the gridless “Theater of the Mind” combat. Yeah, the majority of the community is probably going to use a map and minis, but having tactical combat live in an optional module means that people who want it can make that choice. When they announced that tactical combat wasn’t going to be the default, there was a certain amount of panic and then the community wrapped their brains around the notion. Some people who hadn’t considered trying it gave it a shot. This is exactly what we want. Moving the Vancian play style to a module makes it a deliberate choice, rather than the default option, and prevents us from having to carve into the base system to root it out.
“We do not want groups to feel that they must rest after a single battle. If you’re exploring a dungeon, we want to make sure that you feel like you can make good progress each day. We’re also aware that classes that need to rest to regain spells are the main source of this pressure, though hit point loss also plays a role. Since the game balances the fighter’s and rogue’s staying power against the wizard’s and cleric’s spell attrition, it’s important that the “workday” last long enough for the rogue and fighter to shine.”
There’s so much wrong with this that I hardly know where to begin. How about:
Do NOT define one class’ cool by the absence of someone else’s power!
No offense , but this is one of the stupidest concepts I have ever heard floated about in a design discussion. It’s LFQW, but in reverse and at the encounter level, so the players are experiencing it all the time. No game should be designed so that the GM has to artificially extend the time between rests so that certain characters can “shine.” What happened to allowing the story to progress organically? Worse, this is hard-coding in a specific style of encounter design, a style that is questionable at best. If the Vancian classes are doing their job, they will have considerably more center-stage time than the non-Vancian classes.
I can tell you right now what will happen if this design philosophy persists. Vancian players will complain that the things they get to do when they’re out of spells suck too much. People will design more exciting at-will abilities to compensate and the non-Vancian players will get an even smaller share of the coolness pie.
Further, I still have major issues with the notion that someone that does big, flashy things some of the time is no more exciting or rewarding than a character that does less powerful things all of the time. Do you really want the Rogue to turn to the Wizard and say, “Neener! You didn’t get a chance to memorize your spells! Guess this fight sucks for you!” Obviously I’m exaggerating, but I think the point is still valid. Having to wait until the cool kids run out of ammo before you get to shine sucks donkey balls.
“What does this mean for the five-minute adventuring day? DMs will have a crystal clear guideline on how many rounds of combat a group should tackle before resting. If the group spends less time in fights, casters grow stronger. If the characters spend more rounds fighting, the fighter and rogue grow stronger. The solution to the problem rests in the DM’s hands, who can use the tools and guidelines that we provide, plus keep track of how long fights take and adjust adventures accordingly.”
It’s a bug, not a feature.
If you want to truly understand how ridiculous and useless that statement is, imagine that you’re an experienced GM and you have to explain this concept to someone just taking up the mantle. Look, I get that you want to teach GMs how to tweak their game. That’s the main purpose of this blog. When I talk about tuning, however, I’m not talking about spackling over a fundamental imbalance between characters – when you have to “add rounds to combat” so that certain classes aren’t awesome all the time, you have a balance problem.
“That means that during the typical adventure, we expect the average party to defeat X levels worth of monsters over Y rounds of combat. In other words, we’re assuming that an adventure includes a certain amount of combat, and this amount is defined in terms of rounds and enemies.”
Is anyone else confused by the use of the word “adventure” where we would expect to see “day”? Maybe that’s just me.
Anyhow, the problem I have with this is that it seems to be an oblique fix to a concern that hasn’t seen a lot of discussion: Vancian characters have traditionally enjoyed a profound edge over non-Vancian characters in what they can do outside of combat. Rather than giving every class equal access to abilities in the Interaction and Exploration pillars, they’re mandating that you provide enough combat that people don’t feel left out. I don’t have a problem with assuming that combat will happen. I do have a problem with telling GMs that they have to include combat to make the system work.
There’s actually a fairly simple solution to this problem and, as an added benefit, it’s even classical. Why not grant non-Vancian characters access to certain things in the interaction and exploration arenas as part of their advancement?As an example, Fighters used to get men-at-arms at certain levels. Rogues used to get guild connections. At the very least, give me a module that allows me to empower the Fighter and the Rogue in non-combat situations.
 – Most of the time where someone says “no offense”, what they really mean is, “I’m about to say something insulting, but I want to cockblock you from being offended.” That’s not my intent here. I have respect for Mearls. I just think that this is a very destructive design philosophy.