Friday, May 2, 2014

40K Friday Returns with Chaos Space Marines!

For May I'm going to get back on track with this because there has been some 40K activity here of late. First up:

 Back in November I put up a post about going with the white & green Death Guard scheme for my chaos marine force. I like the look of it but it is taking forever to actually paint, so I am probably going to throw in the towel and go with a more traditional slimy green with rust, bronze, and maybe some purple. This because 1) I can paint it faster, and 2) it's easier to integrate other painted Nugle-y units if I pick up something already painted. I'm experimenting with a lot of inks/stains/glazes and very little regular paint. So far I like the look I'm getting on the plague marines. I mean, green and purple - doesn;t that justlook like "chaos"? I have a solid idea for the bikers, havocs,  and the chaos lord (also Nurgle-marked) and I think a similar process in red would work for the berserkers I plan to add as well. I also have a solid plan for making the bases something different.  Once I have some finished units I'll put up some pictures but here's some work-in-progress for now:

Experimenting begins with the old fat plastic plague marines. This is a splash of old "Ork Flesh Wash" over white primer.
Now with a coat of current "Athonian Camoshade" over that

After doing 4 of them I am pretty happy with the way this look is coming. Now I have to decide whether to throw some Earthshade over that or focus on the details first. 
The colors so far.

For now the structure is the same as what I posted before: Nurgle-Lord in terminator armor with some terminators, sorcerer on a bike with a bike unit (all Nurgle), 2 squads of plague marines, a squad or two of normal CSM's, some missile havocs, some Khorne CSM's/Berserkers, some possessed just because I like the looks, and probably some helbrutes just because I have the models. I do have a daemon prince for them too but he will have to alternate with the bike sorcerer in a normal force org force.

The theme is that they're coming off of a space hulk and so have plenty of infantry, monsters, and even some bikes and walkers, but do not have big tanks and transports. That limitation may be just too crippling to keep intact but I need to play some games first to make that call.

More next Friday!

Friday RPG Grab-Bag

  • There's a Deadlands TV show in the works. There's not a ton of detail out there but here's an interview with Shane Hensley. I am cautiously optimistic about this - there have been a ton of gaming license disappointments and non-events over the years but if this comes together it could be a lot of fun. I'm betting the elevator pitch was something along the lines of "Walking Dead with cowboys" and I'd be fine with that as a starting point.

  • Here is a surprisingly detailed article about the mass combat system for D&D Next. Ten points for bringing back the "Battlesystem" name - I go all the way back to the 1985 set with that cover up there that seemed like a big box of awesome at the time. I was getting into Warhammer at the time (Second Edition - Salute!) and being able to do something similar with AD&D was amazingly cool. The timing is weird here too because although my Warhammer fantasy interest has cooled considerably, I've been digging into the Pathfinder mass combat rules from Ultimate Campaign because they play a part in Wrath of the Righteous. If WOTC wants this mass combat thing to actually be used I hope they come up with some kind of campaign that features them. The whole "leading an army" angle is one I don't see addressed a whole lot in RPG adventures and it seems like a natural avenue for high-level D&D characters. Maybe that will change.

  • I keep finding myself drawn to this.The Emerald Spire is a 16-level dungeon that came out of the Pathfinder MMO Kickstarter. Now a dungeon that size is cool but by itself not that unusual. The designer list is pretty strong though and there is also this. The flip-mat pack is 8 double-sided flip-mats (like their other mats) so it covers every level of the dungeon. I don't think I've run across this particular combo before: a dungeon that big with pre-printed poster maps ready to go for every level. There may have been one in some other kickstarter but this is the first time I've seen it as a normally available product. It's not inexpensive, but the combined set is about as much as a full Adventure Path if I figure $20 (roughly) each for six adventures. It's very tempting, and even though I don't know how it would fit into our rotation, I am seriously considering it. I need to do some more research and see how far it's supposed to go level-wise and then I'll probably make a decision.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Missing Players in an Ongoing Campaign

I've been running two ongoing campaigns the last few years, both more narrative than sandbox. What happens when a player can't make it? We deal with it and the game goes on. But how do you deal with it? OK let's discuss some details. Here are three rules I go by:

  1. Never end a session in the middle of a fight
  2. Set a minimum number of players who need to show to run your game
  3. There's always a plausible explanation why Character X isn't here right now

Another wave?

Reasoning for Rule 1:
(This is really more about avoiding the awkwardness of having a missing player next time)

Say you have a 5-person party in the middle of a huge fight = "alright, it's two in the morning, we're going to have to call it til next time." Sounds reasonable, except that someone won't be able to make it next time - better hope it's not the cleric! Maybe two someones won't. Then another week goes by and someone else has a conflict. Odds are you're going to end up finishing the fight either a man down (or more) or so much time will pass that no one can remember the details from the first part of the fight and spell or power usage, hit points, and maybe even consciousness state are all very fuzzy. It dilutes whatever dramatic impact your fight might have and for me anyway is just an unsatisfying way to handle things.

Most people who give this advice don't do it because its's a nice theory - we do so because we've tried it and found how many ways it can go wrong. After a few years go by you might be tempted to try it again - nope, it still sucks.


  • Never start a combat 5 minutes before "quitting time". My weekend night games generally run til midnight, but we've called it as early as 11:35 when it felt right.
  • If you know they're starting a good-sized fight and you could freeze-frame before it starts but are tempted to push on, tell your players the situation and let them have some input. They might be cool running over a bit or they may already be running on fumes. 
  • If you find yourself in the nightmare of fight-started-with-plenty-of-time-but-now-taking-way-longer-than-expected-and-it-needs-to-stop here are some emergency ideas:
    • Bad Guys all beam/teleport/vanish out
    • Bad Guys retreat through a hidden secret door to some new room you may need to map before next time. Darkness spells and smoke grenades can help here.
    • Bad Guys heads explode and all fall dead - could be real, could be an illusion
    • Bad Guys surrender - players never really expect this in the middle of a fight. If you can tie it to the death of a particular bad guy leader or a nasty move by one of the characters, so much the better.

These are much more satisfying without built-in excuses like "but the cleric wasn't here"

Reasoning for Rule 2:

Maybe your sessions are "game night" and you play something regardless of who and how many show up. That's cool and I envy you. Here it's "Campaign X Night" and we either play that or we don't play at all. The concept of the "backup game" has never really taken root with us. That said we very rarely cancel at the last minute, so setting that minimum number lets us figure out in advance whether we're going to run next week or not.


  • I was running Red Hand of Doom in 4E with a party that varied from 5-6 players. If at least 4 can make it we play, if 3 or fewer we don't. It does mean you miss some sessions but it also means you don't have a TPK destroy your campaign because the groups was a man or two short the night they ran into a really nasty dragon. 
  • In Wrath of the Righteous I knew I was going to run it mainly for two of my players, so they each made two characters (it's Pathfinder, so it's easy enough). Adventure Paths are written for 4 characters - presto, we're solid. If both of my two can't make it, we don't play that weekend. If someone else can make it on a day we do play, they can make up a new character or continue with the one they had created last time. If someone else starts showing consistently they might get to make a second character if they so desire. It's easier to adjust upwards on the fly than downwards, at least for me. 
  • The Exception To This Rule: Superhero games - I've run sessions with only a single player running a single hero and still had plenty of fun. 
Spock's player couldn't make it that night - look at how that worked out

Reasoning for Rule 3:

If you've seen The Gamers then you've seen "Mark". Mark just appears in the background of the scenes, motionless and doing nothing. Then his player shows up and the character goes into action for one fight.  The player then has to go and his character pretty much disappears from the rest of the story. It's dumb but very true to life. 

Speaking from my personal view as a DM, I'm not here to run your character - that's your job and I have enough to manage. So I'm not going to run your character, Spock's Brain-style, in the background just because you're not here. My rule is pretty much "if you're not here then your character's not here". That pretty much eliminates the issue of characters dying in a session the player didn't attend, treasure shenanigans, and "I wouldn't do that!" conversations. 

Practical Considerations for Rule 3
  • It's incredibly easy to explain character comings and goings in superhero games - they were "called away" or Lois is in trouble again or they had to go take some pictures for their day job. it's trivial and should never be a real problem. Unless you're running Time of Crisis, then it's a little tricky. 
  • Wilderness adventures are great for this kind of thing - communing with nature, following some interesting tracks, leading a hostile monster away from the party, gathering some rare herbs, celebrating a high holy day in private, heading back to watch the road, spending quality time with his new dryad friend, acquiring a new familiar - these are all pretty easy to do. 
  • Cities make this even easier - it's not hard to figure something out. Shopping, stealing, or carousing are all popular options.
  • In contrast dungeons can make this really painful, especially the big ones. When the party is six levels deep, the DM still checks for encounters even on "cleared" levels, and there's no shortcut back out (Hello Town Portal!) then it can really strain belief to come up with a plausible reason why the fighter suddenly isn't going to fight for awhile. My advice is to think about this beforehand and try to come up with some possible explanations. Some ideas:
    • Fell through a trap door into another room or another level - hey megadungeons are supposed to be "living" right?
    • Taken prisoner by some group on this level or the next one
    • Ran into a rival adventuring party and didn't want to lead them back to the group until he checked them out
    • Wizards are studying in that last library/laboratory/summoning room the group discovered
    • Clerics are purifying a defiled temple, defiling an enemy temple, or communing with their god in some other room
    • Thieves are off sneaking around looking for more loot - you know how they are. A good candidate for "taken prisoner" above. 
Sure, let the DM run your character while you're gone ...
Final Thought: If you're really stuck for ideas ask the player what their character is doing while they are out. Their third or fourth idea is probably good enough to use.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Experience and Advancement in D&D and Pathfinder

I stumbled across this post a few weeks ago and it spurred some thoughts that have been buzzing around in my head ever since. It's about gold and megadungeons and how to manage PC wealth but that's not really the part that started the wheels turning for me. It's really right there in the first paragraph, this:

There are a number of inter-related factors in old school D&D that work together to support the megadungeon as a campaign centerpiece.  Dungeon level equaling monster level and difficulty provides the players the most direct control over danger versus reward during their planning.   XP for Gold means that creative problem solving and ingenuity is more important than combat - avoiding fights and still making it out with the money is the best path to victory.

Down in the comments, John Arendt has a post that adds a little more:

XP for gold is elegant in its simplicity and abstraction - it's fairly objective, transparent to the players, and it covers the gamut of adventurer activities by rewarding the end state and not the process.

One of the complaints I see online about RPG's now is that they only reward killing monsters. The last few versions of D&D, Pathfinder, and lot of similar type games do primarily give XP for defeating opponents. This understandably tends to heavily focus the game on combat encounters. There is a whole system for rating monsters that's tied into a formula of encounters per level to determine how fast a character makes the next level. It makes the whole thing seem very precise and mechanical but leaves it laser-focused on combat as the way to success.

It wasn't always like this. As much fun as has been made of the older D&D advancement system of XP's for gold, the quotes up above show why it was not nearly as limited as some people thought back then and still think today. Experience was awarded for killing monsters back then too, but it paled next to the awards for gold, totaling maybe 10% of a typical run's XP. It doesn't matter how you get the gold (or magic - magic items had an XP value too) what matters is that you came away with it in the end. That encourages a much broader approach to a situation than killing the monster. At a minimum, deception and negotiation are clearly options and the bards, monks, and rogues in the party might find themselves valued for something besides backstabs and carousing bonuses.

Just as a point of illustration, when was the last time you heard someone say in a D&D game "yeah we need him he's really clever" compared to "we need more DPS" or "we need a tank". I don't hear it a lot around the game these days.

Now 4th edition didn't completely ignore this idea. Aside from the math and formulas around the level and experience system in that game it also added the concept of Quest XP, rewarding a party for completing certain tasks aside from killing monsters. There were major and minor quests and based on the level assigned to them they awarded a certain number of XP's. That game also added Skill Challenges to allow for a system for resolving and rewarding non-combat encounters that fit into the larger experience point system. That's pretty solid coverage, but it's still mainly determined in advance by the DM - This is a combat encounter, this is a skill challenge, doing this awards some quest XP. I like it and I've used it for several years but I'm sure it could be improved upon.

Pathfinder doesn't have as formalized a system for going outside the lines on XP but I do see it in the Adventure Path modules. There are plenty of combat encounters of CR-whatever but there are also points in the adventure where there are things like "award a 600XP story award if the players do X". Some of them encourage PC's to behave in class/race/alignment appropriate ways. Many are a lot like the Quest XP from 4E, intended to give players a bonus for running down side-plots or advancing the main thread. Others are a bonus for finishing the adventure and may also be there to ensure the party is bumped up to the next level and ready to begin the next adventure in the series. Given the structure of Adventure Paths I have no problem with this.

It's an odd quirk that Pathfinder, a system with a ton of support for pre-made story/quest type adventures, has a primary XP award system based almost entirely on defeating opponents. It does use story awards but that's extra, not the primary. I suppose it does work though. Using the first adventure of Wrath of the Righteous as an example, the opening sets up the premise of the whole campaign. After that, there is a lot of stuff, but the players can succeed, fail, or ignore quite a bit of it. The climactic encounter is the only other thing that "must" happen to set up the rest of the campaign. In between, as long as the characters are beating up bad guys (and they are bad - it's all demons and demon cultists) they should gather enough XP to be ready for that final encounter even if they skip some set pieces, get their NPC friends killed, and generally blunder along without a clue and without regard to some of the expectations on the part of the adventure. A purely story-based award system would force a lot more railroading on to the party. Basing it on combat encounters does give the team some freedom. Maybe these guys do know what they are doing.

I still wonder if gold-based XP wouldn't work at least as well, but I'm not going to rewrite the whole thing to find out.

Interestingly, D&D type games are the only places I see this kind of discussion/debate. Most other games are structured differently and the XP system built for each game fits what it's trying to do well enough that there's not a lot of call to change it or tweak it. Games without levels in particular seem to avoid this whole segment of RPG talk, maybe because of the lesser emphasis on advancement and more on completing the story. Superhero games are almost entirely story-award based. At the end of each scene there is some kind of reward (it may be hero points and not experience points, but it's there), then at the end of the mission/adventure/arc there is a larger award. No problems there as it fits the genre. Star Trek tends to do the same. Star Wars games tend to follow the same structure thought the d20 versions did have XP for defeating opponents featured pretty heavily.

Another approach I see sometimes is per-session XP. I agree players should feel like there's a reward for being in a game, but I've never liked giving points just for showing up. Ideally, advancement should come from doing stuff in the game. I could see some benefit to this in an open-table type game to reward regular players for taking time to get a group together, but that's about the only situation where I like it.

To me, experience systems in a game should reward the kinds of behavior you expect to see in the game. If the primary reward comes from defeating opponents, that's where the game will center. It's very specific though. Quest/Story XP does mitigate this somewhat but even then it's the exception and not the norm for the system. The XP-for-Gold approach is pretty broad and doesn't worry about the means so much as the end. It encourages play more akin to the Conan/Fafhrd/Gray Mouser stories. A focus on completing scenes/missions quests is going to be more like Lord of the Rings. A focus on killing the opposition as efficiently as possible encourages play more like ... Warhammer 40,000.

I know this post covers a lot of ground but it's not something I see enough of, especially outside of the D&D family. New games come out regularly, especially with Kickstarter, and there tends to be a lot of focus on mechanics from skill resolution to class features, but there's little focus on how experience is awarded. Sure, GM's are going to change it to suit their own tastes but that's true of any subsystem in a game. Having a well thought-out, clearly described system for experience and advancement is incredibly important for driving behavior in a game. As a GM it tells me what the designers were thinking. As a player it tells me what I'm supposed to do. Combining this with in-game rewards (magic, money, other nifty gear) should tell players how to get what they want for themselves and their characters.