Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sandboxing 4th Edition

Early on I wasn't sure how this would work - thought there was certainly no lack of insistence online that it could not work - but after spending a couple of years with the system I don't see it as being any more difficult than earlier versions. Let's look at some of the published material:

The best out-of-one-book option is Neverwinter. I've come around some on this setting from my original take on it. No, there isn't a traditional set of encounters or an adventure in it, but what is there is a pretty solid sandbox. There is a ruined city and the surrounding wilderness, mapped out in some detail though not exhaustively so. There is mechanical support through the themes that tie a character to the local situation. There are factions within and without to give the PC's hooks to look for, sides to take, allies and enemies to deal with. Each one has goals, a history, a list of creatures associated with the faction, a leader with a name and a personality, and typically some monster stats or stats for the leader as well. The whole thing is built for levels 1-10 and there's more going on there then one party could finish before leveling out of that range. Given that and it's small geographic area I think it's perfect for running multiple groups and multiple characters per player in an old-school style campaign.

The most complete published sandbox is the Nentir Vale. First presented in the 4E DMG, that material covered an overview of the vale and its history along with the fairly well detailed town of Fallcrest and a small starter dungeon. Over the next couple of years we saw more detail on specific locations like Shadowfell Keep, Thunderspire mountain, the active dwarven city of Hammerfast, and the ruined Tiefling city of Vor Rukoth which were all published as module-type products. Then we finally got the Nentir Vale Monster Vault which is full of things like a unique red dragon that lives in one of the mountain ranges, a spirit that haunts a certain area in the vale, and monster stats for specific tribes of orcs and barbarians along with notes on where they live and what they are up to. Put it all together and it's a very solid set of resources for a region roughly 200 miles long and 100 miles wide. Players can wander through the vale looking for rumors, contacts, patrons or just plain trouble. Have your players roll up a party, drop them in Fallcrest at level 1 and let them decide what to do next.

If these are too conventional then there is always the Gloomwrought boxed set which pretty much presents a city in the plane of shadow as a sandbox with factions and creatures similar to he Neverwinter presentation but with the weird meter cranked up several notches. I don't own this one so I can't go into as much detail (and it doesn't really push my buttons as a DM) but I think it might serve a somewhat higher level range than the first two - certainly at least 10-15 should work. The shades of gray to just flat-out evil party will probably be more at home here or at least will see less interference from do-gooders. There is also plenty of material on the plane of Shadow in the Heroes of Shadow book and the Manual of the Planes, plus there was a Free RPG Day thing covering another nearby domain. So if you want to go dark, there is a sandbox option for you.

A less-developed option (though there are plenty of resources from other editions out there) would be Sigil from the DMG2. It takes up 26 pages of content in that book including a map, stats for some typical street encounters, and a short starter adventure. It's not a block-by-block description but it's a good overview and certainly enough to start up a DM's imagination. Plus making the City of Doors the hub of your campaign lets the players go just about anywhere they want - demanding on the DM to be sure but it also means the players should never be able to say they're bored with the campaign or tired of the same old scenery.

Another slightly less developed option is the Gray Vale in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide. There's the town of Loudwater, notes on the history and geography of the surrounding area, a starter dungeon and some smaller encounter areas, and some of these other areas are developed in Dungeon magazine. It's mainly lower Heroic Tier but given the are of the Realms that it's in that can certainly be amped up without much trouble.

The main thing all of these published areas share is no metaplot. There is no overarching story driving things forward. There is a base area, various factions going about their agendas, old legends about people or places or things, and lairs and dungeons and wilderness to be explored. That's exactly the kind of thing you need to run a sandbox regardless of edition. Keep something like Dungeon Delve handy in case the players head off in a direction you were not expecting, or a PDF collection of dungeon and access to a searchable index and you should be good to go. DDI and a printer or the ability to rapidly cut and paste monster statblocks into one document could really help with on the fly encounter generation as well.

How would I run it given 4E's heavy emphasis on balance and XP budgets and set piece encounters? Originally I was thinking that zoning a region for different levels, like an MMORPG, would be a good approach but I don't think you need to do that. Rather than geographic level distribution I would look at faction-based level distribution. For example, we know the Bloodspear Orcs have member creatures that cover certain levels, maybe from 4th to 8th. Say we also know they live in the Cairngorn Peaks. I would work up three patrol-type encounters that include what I think their typical patrols would consist of and start with those. Maybe one is a light recon patrol of speedy skirmisher types, another might be warg-riders, and another might be a heavier one with a shaman and a couple of ogres and orc berserkers. The main idea here is that I don't let a set "regional level" drive my choices - instead, my choices determine what level it ends up at. If I end up with a heavy orc patrol that turns out to be level 9 when I add up the XP's well that's the way it is - hope the party is up for it or that the players are smart enough to run if not. If I'm doing random chance for wandering encounters then in the Cairngorns I would pick one of these when the time came. If I do a full-blown random encounter chart then  I would make sure the known home territory of the Bloodspears had a pretty good chance or orcs for random encounters.

Now some might say "but what if they level past the region?" - let them! You don't have a metaplot, remember? You could decide up front and say I will run this area at Heroic for one calendar year as-is. Maybe players will try multiple characters. After a year you can change things up - maybe the drow burrow up from below, maybe someone opens a gate to the Abyss, maybe the Gityanki start showing up en masse for some reason. Conversely you could have the entire area annexed by some kingdom and become too peaceful for adventuring and it's time to move on to a new area - maybe Sigil. Whatever it is you can have something drastic happen to your sandbox either upping the threat level into Paragon or wrapping it up and changing to a different campaign - or, enforce character retirement. When a PC hits 11th level they get one last adventure and then have to retire to something respectable like high priest or local baron or they take a trip to Gloomwrought or something. You could also move things downward and have more powerful heroes recruited to stop an underground threat like the drow and work up a whole Underdark sandbox in the same region and have a war going on deep beneath the surface with duergar and deep gnomes and drow and all of that lore. Not every group is going to want to go there, but it could be a cool option if you intend to have both tiers in play at the same time.

Anyway I mainly wrote this up to show that not only is sandbox play possible, but based on the amount of material published for it I would say it's even been encouraged by WOTC. The ease of up and down leveling monsters in 4E makes adjustment quite a bit simpler than in previous editions and if you're willing to run wit ha computer at the table tools like DDI and the numerous PDF products out there make seat-of-the-pants Dm-ing even easier. I do not typically run with a computer at the table because my players tend to stay focused on a particular goal or rumor or mission rather than meandering about like so many of us did in the old days, but it doesn't mean that I couldn't  - it's mainly because I haven't needed to do that. Maybe next campaign.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In-Game Software for 4th Edition and Pathfinder

Well, I'm probably way behind some of you out there, but as a follow-up to my previous software post I thought I would take a look at some more tools for the hi-tech DM. That post was mainly looking at character building programs - and I did go ahead and pick up Hero Lab and DDI - but this week I've stumbled across some in-game tools. For me ... the DM ... finally ...

First up is "4e TurnTracker" which looks to be a very solid piece of work. That start page explains it better than I could but my take on it is that it does so much that I am considering a tryout for it and I have never used an application like this during a session.

The idea that you can go into the monster builder on DDI, set up your creatures, pull them into TurnTracker, and set the up as an encounter is a pretty handy thing. Then you can pull in the PC files from the character builder, hit start, and run the whole fight with full stats for everyone at a glance - that's powerful. To top it off, you can run a "player window" with the limited information available to the players showing on one monitor, while the DM can see it all - wow, that's more than I would expect from a paid program! This one is free.

Little touches are often indicative of quality software. This one will automatically roll a save at the end of a turn if the is a "save ends"condition on a participant. However, if you prefer to roll dice yourself - and I do - then you can type over this result with your own. As a final touch, it retains a history of each combat which can be reviewed and erased later - that's a nice thing to have when recapping a session. Like I said, little touches can make a big difference. I may try it on the Apprentices first but if I do I will provide a full report.

As I delve ever so slowly into Pathfinder it appears that PF is getting a lot of the stuff I was wishing for back when I was running 3rd Edition. Beyond the solid and fully supported Hero Lab for character building there is also  "Combat Manager" which is pretty damn close to an offline DDI equivalent for Pathfinder - thank you OGL! This one is also free.

For starters it has tabs for Feats, Monsters, Rules, Spells, and Treasure which provide a searchable repository of what looks like everything in each category. You can use a drop-down list to narrow things to a certain sub-category of each (for example: Spells can be limited by class, level, or school) or you can just type in a word like "chain" which brings up chain lightning and chain of perdition (?) as results.

One of my biggest pains when running 3E was having a monster statblock that had feats and spells in it which meant I had to look each of those up to see what they did and then try to keep track of them all during an encounter. I ended up making some homebrew spell cards to use with my homebrew monster cards but the feats were always a problem. Although you can't see it in the screen above those things are hyperlinked in Combat Manager. Now Pathfinder already took a very 4E approach to  monster block layouts - add in this capability and I suddenly have a lot more interest in running this game. Note that this is a case where technology is actually solving a problem rather than just being cool! Not that I'm against cool - I think some custom sound effects for each spell and weapon in the game that sounded off when used would be just fine - but things like hyperlinking to special or complicated abilities is a big win for DM's and for speed of play.

The final win with Combat Manager is that it does track combat. You can click and pull in monsters straight from the database and you can advance them (see above) too. Then you can drop them right into combat and track hits and damage and conditions and everything else that goes into a Pathfinder fight. I'm still figuring out how to import party members but I'm sure there's a way.

So beyond character builders - which have been around in primitive form since the days of the Apple ][ and Vic-20 -we now have very solid software for referencing the rules and running combat in our games as well. Do I think they're essential? Of course not! Do I think they add something to the game? I used to think no, but after looking at these two I have changed my mind - they do. I used to think of them as a straightjacket that would limit my ability to change things on the fly. Nowadays though being able to adjust initiative order, apply conditions as needed, and drop in standard or custom monsters with the click of a mouse - well, considering I can pull them in from the list of all the monsters in the game instead of having to jump up and grab a book, the tech is finally reaching a level where it's an actual help and not just a flashy toy.  For DM's running games online or over Skype I can see them being even more helpful in keeping track of what's going on.

I've been fine with character builders for a long time, especially considering they really only come into play before the game session. Some of my players have been using laptops or tablets with character management software or electronic character sheets for a while now. Finally, it may be the DM's turn to go electronic - I wonder how they're going to take that?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

2012 - Six Months of Game Change

We're coming up on halfway through 2012 and it already seems like a year where my gaming world is turning upside down:

  • We kicked the year off with the announcement of D&D Next, also heralding the end of 4th Edition. As this is our main game around here it was a pretty big deal. We've already seen one round of playtest material and I expect this will be a major area of focus on into next year.
  • In February many of us were introduced to Marvel Heroic Roleplaying from Margaret Weis Productions, which turns traditional supers gaming on its head. It's strangely compelling as it's a kind of game I typically am not big on, but this game clicks with me and forces me to think about game mechanics in a different way.
  • As of a week ago we learned that Warhammer 40,000 6th Edition will be out at the end of this month. When we're not playing RPG's 40K is the miniatures game of choice around here and an edition change for it is another big deal. The silence on this one from Games Workshop has been extreme, and I think it's comparable to the level of secrecy that WOTC placed around 4th Edition D&D. That didn't work so well for them, we will see how it goes for GW.

Those are the big surprises so far. Things I know about for the rest of the year:
  • I'm looking forward to the Emerald City Box Set for Mutants and Masterminds this summer. I may go ahead and start the Apprentices out on the EC Knights adventures just to give it a whirl later on.
  • I'm looking forward to the wave of supporting material for the Marvel Heroic RPG. There are supposed to be 3 more big events with multiple supporting books for each one.
  • ICONS Team-Up will hopefully be out some time this year. Still crossing my fingers on this one.
  • Traveller Prime Directive is now scheduled for a GenCon release - action-oriented old-school Trek with a decent ruleset should be a lot of fun. 
  • Right now I believe the last scheduled D&D 4E release is Menzoberranzan, scheduled for August as well. I'm looking forward to closing out my collection, as much as one can look forward to the end of production for any game one likes very much. 

On a local level:
  • With the main group I started a Star Wars Saga campaign, ended it, and fired up a new 4E campaign instead
  • Dove into M&M 3E and began making plans for a campaign
  • Began bringing my old Marine and Ork armies up to speed to be ready for a new edition - this is an ongoing project.
  • Introduced the Apprentices to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Pathfinder, M&M 3, Marvel, and Next
Every year brings change, but 2012 has brought edition changes to two of our main games and brought in a previously unknown contender that we really like. We've still managed to play a lot of games, but I'm starting to wonder what else is coming in the latter half of the year. In 1998 we saw new editions of Shadowrun, Mechwarrior, and Warhammer 40,000 (3rd Edition) which were all in heavy rotation at the time. In 2000 we saw new editions of D&D and Warhammer Fantasy Battles which actually spurred us to play even more of both games. Heck, in 2008 we saw new editions of 40K and D&D release about a month apart, so this isn't new and it could be worse! I'm not sure how this year will end up but I am cautiously optimistic that things are moving in a positive direction. Assuming that whole Mayan thing turns out OK.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Apprentices and Pathfinder - After Action Report

So Thursday night we broke out the box and gave Pathfinder a whirl. It went pretty well. We used the pregenerated characters and I skimmed the included adventure while they looked over their character sheets. The presentation is very colorful and the room descriptions look a bit like a 4th Edition encounter page. Apprentice Red took the wizard, Blaster took the fighter, and Who took the rogue. No one took the cleric and I was worried about that but I decided to see how it played out.

The first encounter is with some very weak opponents in the form of two drunk goblins. Once the boys realized that it worked pretty much the same as 4th Edition when it came to the whole d20 thing then they relaxed a bit and started acting like old hands.

More goblins were encountered and dispatched and Red got to learn how wizard spells work - "it lists my damage but not my hit bonus" - so we got to cover the whole auto-hit/save mechanic that most older editions of D&D use. Of course one of his main abilities is magic missile which is just plain old auto-hit anyway. He figured out the staff-throwing thing too - wizards in pathfinder have an ability to throw their staff at an enemy and have it return, which seems more like a Jedi thing to me but it's cooler than non-stop dagger-tossing - even Red commented "oh it's like a saber-throw from Saga" as that is one of Blaster's Jedi's signature moves.

Blaster had fun smacking down enemies with his sword & board fighter, though for some reason the default setup on that character is to go two-handed with a longsword for an extra point of damage. This comes at the cost of two points of armor class, and he quickly rectified that mistake. There wasn't a lot to figure out after that and he was perfectly happy hitting for damage each round, especially after picking up a magic sword.

Who figured out the d20+something mechanic easily enough though he had a harder time referring to the character sheet. It wasn't bad it's just busier than ICONS which is where he has spent most of his time until now. He was actually interested in talking to the goblins at one point but the older two boys overruled him (they do that a lot) and charged in with swords and magic missiles. He had a good time but he has a shorter attention span than the other two and was ready to do something else after about two hours, but we talked him into sticking around for the finale.

One funny thing: There is a magic fountain in the dungeon. They encountered it, they detected the magic, they deciphered the runes and figured out they could toss a coin in for a blessing but they never drank from it! I didn't want to just flat-out tell them that's how it works and for whatever reason they just never made that connection. I've never had that happen before.

They did get to the big finale and they were properly equipped. The fighter landed a solid hit and the wizard helped but then the fighter went down - the enemy is pretty nasty for a 1st level dungeon - but the invisible rogue picked up his sword and went after the thing in his stead. He had a perfect chance for a sneak attack with a bane weapon while invisible which would end up granting all kinds of bonuses to hit and damage - and he rolled a 1. There's not much I can do with that, and a chorus of "NO!"s went up around the table. He recovered nicely though with some normal hits although for some reason the wizard was not interested in closing in to give him a flank bonus - "But it's a +2! Yeah, for one round!" Between this and the wizard blasting away they had it down to around 15 hit points when it decided to retreat and the rogue and wizard were still shooting at it as it escaped.

Bad stuff: The wizard dropped 3 times during the adventure, the fighter once, and the rogue never did. The 1st level wizard is still pretty fragile, even in Pathfinder. The fighter only dropped at the end in the big fight which is likely to happen when you don't have a cleric along so I didn't see this as a big problem. These mechanics really do assume significant healing magic in the party so without a cleric they were operating at a pretty big disadvantage. There's a wand of cure light wounds at one point in the adventure and I changed it to healing potions to help make up for this and it was a good thing I did. Also: Critical Hits - the boys were very frustrated by the whole "confirming a crit" thing after 4E's instant gratification. This was largely because they kept rolling low and not confirming them. Once they finally saw a double-damage crit in action they got a lot more comfortable with the concept.

Good stuff: We played through 10 rooms which included 6 combat encounters and three interesting object/trap situations and enough XP to get them past the halfway point to 2nd level all in about 3 hours. That's a tremendous pace and much faster than our typical 4E encounters. Now it was only 3 PC's and small groups of enemies but there are some tough fights in there and they still went pretty quickly. One fight went 8 rounds, the others were 5 or less so they were pretty typical. I was looking for "faster" and we seem to have found that.

So I am happy with out first taste of the game. The basic mechanic is the same as 4th so everyone understood it. Knowing that they did all that with pre-gens while down one character from the standard makes me think it should work very well when we get a chance to add a cleric to the group. I set up the character builder on their computers so they can monkey around with the rules a bit and make a character that is more their own.

They're all gone next week but once they return I expect we will take the now-customized characters through a follow-up adventure or two (there are some handy downloads on the Paizo site) and then start our Pirate campaign with a new batch of characters.

Motivational Monday