Friday, December 17, 2010

Catching up on the D&D 4 Campaign

It's been quite a while since I posted any session summaries so i thought I would recap the campaign prior to starting them up again.

The campaign is title "Return to the Ruins of Adventure" and is set in the 4th edition Forgotten Realms. The specific location is the ruined city of Phlan on the Moonsea*. The inspiration was mainly the old gold box game Pool of Radiance with some reference to the actual pen and paper module Ruins of Adventure.**

My goal was to make a sprawling semi-sandbox campaign area  for the Heroic Tier where players could come and go and even make multiple characters if they wanted to with some static NPC's that the group would become acquainted with and a clear progression towards some larger threats in the region. The PC game was a mechanical inspiration as well as the city was laid out in neighborhoods which were effectively zoned by level. There is really only one area to investigate at first as it is the physical passage to the rest of the city from the small civilized section that remains. Once that's cleared things begin to open up and more choices are available to the players and then everything comes back together in one or two particular areas for the finale of the campaign. There is the possibility of some side adventures outside of the ruined city but most of the activity of the campaign will take place within the vast ruins of the once-mighty Phlan.

At least one of my players had played the old game so I kept quiet about the setting until we were ready to play when I sent out a link to this video:

So that explained the situation and everyone had at least a basic idea of what was going on. Here's a map of the city layout***:

Play begins in the civilized section as the PC's find their way around town, meet some NPC's, and are eventually asked to clear out/retrieve artifacts from/burn down an inn in the Slums. Early sessions were slow but good and the pace has picked up some since then, though lately our track record on getting through encounters has not been great. We began with a party of 4 - Eladrin Wizard, Human Fighter, Human Warlock, and Half-Elf Bard. We added a Swordmage briefly then he disappeared. A Deva Invoker has made several guest appearances but may or may not return. Then UTHAL THE BAAAAARBARIAN joined up and they have been steamrollering the opposition ever since. Through 15 sessions the party is up to level 4 now and pushing for level 5, possibly in this next session. I stopped posting summaries about session 7 so I have some catching up to and will do that to finish out the year so stay tuned.

*which looks remarkably like Phlan did at the end of the 1E era. The more things change...

** which is just poor - you aren't missing anything if you haven't seen it, a real missed opportunity as it could have been a classic.

***which is of limited accuracy, players reading the blog, because it's from before the spellplague and who knows what's happened out there since then?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Testing out a Supers Game

After some debate I am determined to get some kind of supers gaming gong for 2011, even if it's once a month. Since the main group is largely committed to 4E D&D this will probably be done with the family as the main players. I'm going to try out a few systems over the holiday break to see which one works for our purposes. One note: I make several references to Champions below and when i do I mean the tabletop Hero System game, not the MMO. In contrast, I mention City of Heroes as well, and I do mean the MMO there as we play it pretty regularly so it's a big factor here when discussing Super RPG's.

My main candidates are:

1) Mutants and Masterminds (2E) - I know 3E is out now but I have a nice pile of 2E books and I've never run the game, so it goes against my grain to go buy a new edition when I never used the previous edition. As I see it:

  • The basic system is d20 with a similar stats-skills-feats structure that will be familiar enough to my players to make the transition easier
  • Support material is good - this is important with superhero RPG's as it's usually tougher to throw together a random bad guy or NPC than in, say, D&D. I have a couple of supervillain books and the Instant Superheroes book so that's covered, plus the Mastermind's Manual which is the DM's Guide and rule tweak book. 
  • Speed - it looks to me like combat should play pretty quickly as it's bare-bones d20 without Opportunity Attacks or Hit Points. This could prove to be incorrect but of the Super RPG's I know it looks like a fairly speedy system.
  • No Endurance - From Champions to City of Heroes most of my Supers RPG time has involved some kind of Endurance mechanic and M&M has none. This will probably speed up play but I'm not sure it's a sacrifice I want to make. 
  •  Genericness - Equipment stats are pretty broad and there is some lack of crunch in how to differentiate a particular car or gun or device from another. That may be OK in a supers game but compared to Champions there is a lot less room for customization. 
  • Simplicity - It's almost too simple. Blast 10 with an Attack +10 means you roll a d20 +10 to hit vs. the target's Defense number (basically their AC). Assuming you hit then the target has to make a damage save vs a DC 25. The degree of failure or success determines the effect on the target, from "nothing" to "knocked out". There are Fort, Reflex, and Will saves in addition to Damage (which is like AC in 4E as it is the "normal" target for an attack) but there is not much focus on the type of damage as you would find in 4E or Champions or even City of Heroes where it's possible to have wildly different defenses and weaknesses versus certain attack types. 

2) Champions (Hero System 4th or 5th Edition) - It's a very good system that can do pretty much everything at the cost of some complexity in character generation and slower-moving combat than some systems, although compared to 4E D&D I'm not so sure it's all that slow anymore. I have a very large pile of stuff for this and I would love to dust it off and use it for real for a change.

  • Detailed exactly-what-you-want character building - there's no contest here, and it works well.
  • Detailed combat - combat in Hero is going to feel similar to 4E in that you will always have a good set of options or maneuvers to try 
  • Support - I have almost every book published for 4E Hero system and 5E Hero System so no matter what the players do I should have some material to draw upon on the fly
  • Might be too complex for the players. It does reward some system mastery but I know it fairly well and can help them get started.
  • Combat is supposedly slow though I do not remember it being all that slow and compared to 4E combat it should flow similarly once we have some experience. 
  • No synergy - apart from being more complex it also has nothing to do with d20 or with any other system the players have learned so we would be starting from scratch. I don't mind  broadening their horizons a bit (d6 Star Wars already did that some) but I do want to actually play.
 3) Marvel Super Heroes - This is a fairly straightforward system and I have a good amount of supporting material  (see a pattern here?).

  • It's Marvel! - everyone knows how Marvel super types would handle a situation so the implied behavior is in there from the beginning. 
  • Easy mechanics - not always simple but they are pretty easy to follow. 
  • Fast play - I think it plays pretty fast when using heroes vs. villains of similar or lower power levels 
  • It's Marvel! - I'm afraid the sheer amount of Marvel flavor might overwhelm the game with the players always wanting to be Wolverine or Spiderman instead of making up their own.
  •  Simplicity - there's not a lot of crunch beyond the basics, no endurance mechanic, and the players may get bored with the color chart.
  • No level or scale - this is a pain as a DM as it's difficult to tell sometimes how to rate the opposition. M&M has power levels and Champions has point limits. Marvel has nothing, really.  
Other options I considered included :
  • Godlike (low powered supers in WW2) but I think it may be too historical and too casual to PC death.
  • Silver Age Sentinels - I like the system but I have very little support for it
  • Savage Worlds - Necessary Evil is cool but it's meant for a very specific campaign and I don't want to run  that campaign again. 
  • Icons - new and cool but if M&M is looking too simple right now then Icons is way lighter than I want to use.  
 So it's really down to M&M or Champions with Marvel as a fallback third if neither of those goes over well. Wit ha more experienced or hardcore group of players I would run Champions in a heartbeat. With my less experienced and less crunchy group of players at hand M&M may be the best choice. I will probably run a combat for each and see what works the best for out group. Once I have that figured out we will start up a semi-regular campaign and see where it goes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons December 2010 - The State of the Game

With 4th Edition coming out in the summer of 2008 we now have 2 1/2 years of the "new" D&D. So how do things look for now and the near future?

Options: We have 3 Player's Handbooks, 3 Campaign World books with player information,  and 2 Essentials player books for a total of 8 books of classes plus 6 books of class options plus 2 racial guides and various add-ons in Dragon. Adding up only what's found in books in print and ignoring any online-only material a character can choose from:
  • 24 races 
  • 24 distinct classes with 97 builds (sub classes)
  • 368 Paragon Paths
  • 78 Epic Destinies
  • Multiclassing and Hybrid classes
  • Backgrounds
  • Themes
  • Spellscarred, Dragonmarked, and Wild Talents (depending on campaign world)
That's a ridiculous number of choices and that's not even getting down to individual feat and power choices which are made at nearly every level. So player choice is broad as far as distinct mechanical options.  Now granted we played for years in 1E with roughly 10 classes and maybe 10 races but there was some clamor for more diversity even back then (witness the number of classes published in Dragon back then) so more choices to me is a good thing and these are not just flavor choices - each item in that list has a mechanical impact on the character, beyond the flavor differences implied by each. Additionally each player character will only be choosing one option from each of those list entries, so there is pretty good niche protection and very little chance someone else will have even a similar character to yours in a typical gaming group. Then you get into magic items (another way to distinguish a character in earlier editions) and there are 2 big books of them plus items in every player book as well - there's no need for overlap there either.

For DM's there are
  • 3 published campaign worlds 
  • 18 published adventures & adventure sites plus Dungeon Delve plus Dungeon Annual plus some short adventures in other books like Open Grave and the Draconomicons, and a few other products like the Essentials Monster Compendium. 
  • 2 DM Guides, an Essentials DM Kit
  • 3 Monster Manuals plus an Essentials monster book plus a Dark Sun monster book, plus monsters in other campaign books and things like Open Grave and Manual of the Planes - lots and lots of monsters.
 So DM's have a pretty good pile of material to work with when building a campaign. Monsters, sample adventures, books to emphasize particular types of monsters and campaigns - these are similar to what was done for 3E (and even 2E in some ways) so 4E is at least as well supplied as those editions and moving forward may exceed them.

 Utility support for the game is a mixed bag. The character builder was pretty good then went to poor. The monster builder has been OK. The online rules database is handy for some. Dragon and Dungeon have been getting very mixed reviews this year but there is a large amount of past material available to draw upon. Plus most of it is behind a paywall which limits interest and access for many. In a strange way it's far more support than any other tabletop RPG has but no other RPG attempts to charge a monthly fee for what they publish online. I have noted some of the missteps with official support here and I see no need to rehash them further. Let's just say it's been a mixed run overall ad a mixed run in particular here at the end of 2010.

Non-official online support is very strong with forums and other sites, blogs, and numerous podcasts. My preferences are EN World and Radio Free Hommlett with a few blogs and some side trips to other podcasts. It's a strong community and most of it isn't afraid to point out both the good and the bad.

There is a lack of 3rd party product support compared to the glory days of 3rd edition - no Necromancer games, no Green Ronin, not much from Kenzer, not much from anyone else really at all other than Goodman Games. Goodman has put out some adventures and apparently plans to put out some more in 2011 - good luck to them. The way 4E is set up I think adventures are about the only way to go. Not so much due to licensing issues but due to the tyranny of the character builder. Many 4E players have the attitude that if it's not in the CB then it's not in their game. This has cut 3rd party development off at the knees and in my opinion is at least as much of a problem as the GSL as I just don't hear a lot of call for 3rd party class books or even monster books, which were fairly popular in the 3E era.  There have been some efforts made at 3rd party campaign world products but even there flavoring a particular world involves a few custom builds, paragon paths, epic destinies, and monsters, most of which are ignored by players due to the CB barrier mentioned above. At that point it's easier for most DM's to build their own world and just stick to the official mechanical material. One thing to keep in mind too is that "limited 3rd party support" is pretty much how it was for 1st and 2nd edition too, so this isn't really a new state of affairs, it's more of a return to the norm.

So, the future - how does it look? Well there is a lot of material coming down the pipe from WOTC. There's the revised class book and a new DM screen in February, "Heroes of Shadow" in March, and a new magic item book in April, plus more dungeon tile sets.  There's at least one more boardgame and some more Gamma World stuff coming too but I'm not concerned with those here. Apparently the new books will follow the Essential format of cheaper smaller paperback rather than returning to the original 4E hardback format. That's fine, I am not concerned. There was supposed to be a sourcebook on the default campaign setting but that was removed from the schedule. There is supposed to be a Neverwinter book and another monster book is scheduled for June but that's a long way out. It's not a total lack of material but it seems small compared to previous years and I am not sure what to think of it. What's the 2011 campaign world? What about more player books? What about a racial or power-source booster book?  2010 had the PHB3, the Monster Manual 3, Psionic Power, Demonomicon, Tomb of Horrors, Dark Sun, and then the avalanche of the Essentials launch. Right now 2011 looks fairly sparse compared to that. It's early so we will see. hopefully some home-run products will be announced and excitement will pick up.

Personally it's been a good year for D&D here. "Invigorated" would probably be the word for it. A year ago I tried out 4E for the first time and it was a disaster, so the apprentices and I pulled out  Moldvay Basic D&D and started up a game of it instead. It brought me back to my early days and forced me to think about what and why and how I play and run D&D and RPG's in general. In doing so I looked at all of the editions and eventually decided to re-examine 4th edition and decided it was worth a try. I started up a new campaign with friends and  I am very happy with it. It's very much the main game now though old-school options remain in play at different times as opportunity permits. It's a good place to be.

For 2011 I expect the main 4E campaign to continue and expect we will break into Paragon Tier by the spring. With a really good run we might even make it to Epic by the end of the year.  The apprentices campaign will get to Paragon too but it will probably take a little more time. The Basic campaign will make a reappearance during the holidays and will pop up intermittently during the next year as well. My hopes for a 1E campaign are limited right now because of time but I am going to try and work it in soon, maybe with a kickoff during the holiday break with a mix of friends and apprentices.

As far as this blog I am enjoying it and plan to keep posting as long as I have something to say. It won't always be D&D specific - at least not as much as it has been - but it will always be where I post my gaming thoughts. I'm glad some of you have found it interesting from time to time and I'd like to thank all of you for leaving comments - feedback is good. I know this is kind of an end-of-the-year post but I wanted to go ahead and get it out of the way before the 31st so just let me say Happy Holidays and thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

3 D&D Standards That I (Surprisingly) Do Not Miss in 4th Edition

The 4E campaigns are still rolling along (I plan to post some more session summaries this month) and I've noticed some things that were concerns of mine at the beginning have just washed away. Here they are:

1 - Random Ability Scores

I was 3d6-roll-em-in-order guy for much of 1st esition (and Basic/Expert). Hey, that's the way the book said to do it and it was part of the game. Eentually I came around to the 3d6-in-any-order method as this kept scores reasonable but still allowed players to have some say in what type of character they would play, making for happier players. By the time 2nd edition came out I had been converted to the 4d6-drop-the-lowest method as thats what other local DM's used and it made sense to have one standard for our wandering players. Plus it did dramatically cut down on the number of weak characters and if people get excited over having a 15 in their tertiary stat instead of a 13 then why should I really try to block that - it's not going to make much of a difference in the game.

Now when 3rd edition came out we were strictly 4d6-drop-the-lowest and we stayed that way throughout 3E. I was intrigued by the alternative point-buy method in the PHB but my players wanted no part of it, even as I listened to intermittent whining about how so-and-so's character had much better stats than this other character and it made him much more effective. I offered it up as an option in my last 3E campaign if everyone would go for it but no one really wanted to change at that point.

So then 4E comes out and the standard method for generating ability scores is a point-buy system. I balked at first but since so much of the system is built around balancing PC's with each other we went ahead and tried it and...the water is fine. I really don't care how you got that 18 Str -it's still a high D&D strength score. Having played Champions, GURPS, and Shadowrun for years (all point-buy systems) probably helped too as I liked point-buy character creation anyway already, I just didn't do it in D&D. Now when we play Basic or if I finally get my 1E TOEE campaign off the ground, we'll be rolling stats just like we always did but for 4E I really don't feel the loss.

2 - Random Hit Points

From Basic D&D through 1E, 2E, and 3E we always rolled for out hit points at each level. Fairly early on we came up with a "reroll 1's" rule for hit points that just kind of stuck through all of our games as nothing kills a player's enthusiasm faster than rolling a 1 for HP's. Ever seen fighter with 1 hit point at 1st level? It's bad. It totally short-circuits what a fighter is supposed to do so he ends up becoming a very fragile archer. Somewhere in the 2E era we decided that 1st level characters should start with maximum hit points and this really made a difference as no longer did you have a chance  that the mage would have more hit points than the fighter when rolling up a new party. This was canonized for 3E so we just kept doing what we were doing. Theoretically, having different hit dice for each class will demonstrate over time that class X is tougher than class Y. That goes out the window with a bad roll and so defeats the purpose of having the different die types in the first place. It's small consolation to a player to know that he could have had 6 more hit points than the wizard if he ends up rolling a 1 or a 2.

Mechanically this is most important at 1st level as that's when a few hp's means the difference between living and dying even with the first incoming sword blow but it's important to remember that a series of low rolls in the medium levels was still quite painful. It's also good to remember that a character only rolled for hp's up to about 9th or 10th level = after that it was a fixed (and low) amount for everyone of that class. So a character only had about 9 die rolls to build up their total. If one fighter averaged a "7" while another averaged a "4" then you have a 20 hit point difference where an average 10th level fighter is going to have less than 100 hit points - that's a pretty big gap.

So 4th edition has a fixed (and much higher) number for starting hit points. All characters get their Con score plus an additional amount determined by their class role. Fighter types get +15, while wizardly types get a +10 and in-betweens like  clerics get +12. As they level up the Con bonus no longer contributes, it's strictly a fixed amount. Fighter types get 6 per level, Clercs 5, and Wizards 4 - this is effectively like the higher level progressions in 1E just implemented earlier in the character's career. The net outcome is that one character of a given class can still have a different hit point total than another character of the exact same class but now they do not have to worry about being gimped by a few bad die rolls along the way. It works well in practice and in the end HP's are still a value on the sheet that goes down during an adventure and goes up when you level up, and the fighter still has a lot more of them than the wizard does. I don't even think about rolling them anymore with 4E.

All that said when the 1E game finally starts we will be going with max hp at 1st, roll after that - hey, that's one of the reasons to play the old school games because they are mechanically different.

3 - Level Drains

Hoooo boy I will say right up front that level-draining undead in Basic/Expert and 1st edition AD&D were my most hated monsters as a player and my players' most-hated monsters when I DM'd. There was no comparison. We would rather be killed and lose a point of Con being raised than get hit by a spectre and lose two levels. I will also say that each subsequent edition has made them less scary and that's not a totally bad thing.

By the time 3rd edition came around they only inflicted "negative levels" instead of actually draining character levels. Neg levels were a fixed set of penalties (-1 to hit, -1 to skill checks, -5 to mak hit points) that were annoying and inconvenient but were not the player kryptonite that the old method proved to be. All it took was a 4th level cleric spell to remove one so it wasn't difficult to clear up. This was easier on the PC's but if you were fighting multiple level-drainers it could get pretty nasty as there was a direct impact to combat effectiveness, leading to a death spiral where the characters are less and less effective in combat as the fight progresses.

One variation that happened with some undead creatures in 3E was the ability drain where characters could lose points of strength or con or whatever. that was rough too as most characters have less than 20 points of an ability to lose. This resulted in a similar death spiral effect as losing Str affected to-hit and damage numbers while losing Con reduces a PC's hit point total.

For 4th edition they did away with level draining and ability damage altogether. "Pansies!" I can hear some of you say and yes, it does make undead less reputationally scary (and yes I made up that word just now). Now some undead inflict various conditions like Weakened (half damage to all attcks) and that works well, but the new trick that some undead have now is that they drain healing surges. I know some of you hate the concept of healing surges but they work in some interesting ways. For one, there is a finite number of them per day and that number does not increase with level, outside of increasing your Con score. So, a Wizard gets 6 + Con mod per day at first level (so probably 6 or 7) and will have that same number of them at 25th level. A Fighter type gets 9 + Con mod so probably 10-12. That may sound like a lot but the most common healing effects (Potions, Cure Light Wounds, etc.) use up a healing surge. Some skill challenges are set up so that if the party is say, crossing a desert and fails their survival type skill checks then everyone loses a healing surge. It's another resource to manage besides hit points and powers.

I can tell you now from experience that players are very conscious of the number of surges they have left. During a typical battle an active player may burn 2-3 surges, typically one from Second Wind (the heal self action that can be done once per encounter) and one or two more from some outside heal or a potion. When they run into a pack of wights who do reasonably strong claw damage and also drain a surge on every hit, they get concerned. One or two hits is OK, but if 3 or 4 land claw hits in one round there is a definite morale impact on the player. However, there is no immediate combat impact - the fighter doesn't suddenly have a -3 to hit or 15 fewer hit points on top of the claw damage - but he can feel his life force slipping away and there's nothing he can do about it! There are no spells to restore surges to a character who has lost them - you have to sleep it off. It's a mechanically elegant solution that solves the issue in a much more subtle way than raw draining and it still inspires the proper attitude in the party. After running some of the beasties I'm very impressed with how well it works in play. I see no need to force back in some kind of level draining mechanic because the replacement for it works very well.

Anyway those are my game-mechanical thoughts from the last few sessions. Summaries are coming soon.