Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Gaming with Suspense: Building the Jenga Tower

A lot of folks have commented on the difficulty of building suspense and even dread and terror in their TTRPG games.  Whether you are in the horror genre, the political saga, or even the cyberpunk realm, there is a lot that can be learned from a simple jenga tower, like that used in Dread to build suspense.

Starting a game of Jenga means building a stable tower, pushing the blocks together, clearing the gaps, making things straight.  Similarly, in a game with suspense, things usually start out OK for the PCs.  Everyone is pretty much happy with them and they are pretty happy with everyone.  The more important part of this stage is building the layers that will make up the basis of the jenga tower.  Someone is going to pull the first block out of that tower, usually the bad buys, and this is going to set the party in motion.  Once in motion, for vengeance, good will, fame, or fortune, the party needs to start pulling more blocks out, sometimes on accident and sometimes on purpose.

The preparation at this level means putting in groups with competing goals.  Many of these folks would probably like to have help from the party, but none of them will like their rivals gaining help from the party.  What this ultimately means is that either one faction or another is going to be wronged, forcing the party to pull out another block.  Political factions, religious factions, the thieves' guild, the Harpers, the bandits, the mining and merchant interests, the bankers, the poor, the rich, and the blue bloods, all represent people that will have innate conflict that can be used to interact with the party.

The midgame pulling of blocks is all about pace.  Each piece that is drawn must have a consequence incoming, sometimes known, sometimes unknown.  Sometimes the party will have to react immediately; sometimes the party will feel a deadline growing more near; sometimes the party won't understand what is going on.  In some cases, one faction will force the party's hand into drawing yet another block.  As time goes one, the party needs to feel this impending dread of angered factions preparing to fall on them.  This is a good time for some combats, some ambushes, some social interactions, but ultimately all of them can't so easily end the problems with the various factions.  And somewhere in the middle of this heap of interaction should be the party's goal.  When the party aligns with the guard to fight bandits, the bandits will now hunt the party, and now the thieves' guild is angered.  When the party backs the wealthy young duke to take power, the old money in town puts a price on the party's head.  When the party backs the military at the request of the king to deflect the oncoming orc hoard, the military commander becomes jealous of their influence and puts them in the front to be killed.  All these machinations build the suspense.

End game means the blocks are going to start falling.  Impending doom is coming for them.  The PCs may need to retreat, to hide, or even find more allies.  This is the turning point in the plot.  It is the point where the sky grows dark, lightning strikes, and evil is bearing down to destroy the party.  This is where heroes are defined.  The army of the dead is marching towards the city.  Mephistopheles has been raised and is preparing to take everyone's soul.  Tiamat is coming to destroy the city and take her thrown.  The king has captured the party and ordered them executed at dawn.

At the very end of jenga, the blocks fall and the game is over.  In our little game of suspense, there will always be a final showdown.  This is where things come together, allies rally, and the big bad wizard is revealed to be a man behind the curtain.  This is where Gandalf appears with the riders on the eastern hill and take down the orc army.  There is usually a fight, a big fight, and the winner is determined.  To make this party worthwhile, there must be a real chance of failure.  Let the PCs sacrifice themselves for the cause.  Let the monk jump on the dragons back to drop the bag of alchemist's fire into its mouth and be blown to bits.  Let the paladin jump in front of the princess to save her from the disintegration beam.  Let the party wizard fall down the crevasse and fight the Balrog while falling.  Let all the pieces come to play, so the end can be final.  Then, in the very end, tell them how the world becomes by the success or failure of their deeds.  And then, take a breath, and start the next story.

Wednesday Drednaught Campaign: Baldur's Gate

The party had a bit of a quandry this week.  With two wagons full of treasure, a barrel of very valuable black powder, and a signet ring, they had to decide what to do.  They think the ring will get them into Baldur's Gate into the lair of the bad guys who stole the riches of Grievance and other villages.  They are worried the black powder will be dangerous is given to the bad guys.  They find themselves unable to remove anything from the wagons due to some sort of curse.  They also find they can't light anything in the wagons because of some protection.  They douse the 5000gp worth of blackpowder in water, making it useless and head to Baldur's Gate.

Upon entering the edges of the city, they find Flaming Fist guards watching the bridge.  Akag meets up with another dwarf from Mithral Hall, Sir Darno, Paladin of Moradin, sent to investigate a shipment of mithral.  The dwarves have learned to use Bullettes to pull their shipments of mithral to avoid problems, so this capture of mithral north of Baldur's Gate warrants investigation.  Darno tags along, finding a common reason to join the group to investigate the theft.

Farther down the long bridge, brigands of Umberlee try to hold up the wagons again.  They bear the same markings as the group that was run off in the woods.  The fight is bitter, Darno is killed and gives his Thunderaxe to Akag to avenge him.  The party takes the advantage quickly and the bad guys jump off the bridge to flee.

At the end of the bridge a group of cultists / bandits meet the wagons, see the signet ring on Lief, and take the party through Baldur's Gate to a warehouse in the docks district.  There is news in the air of a new interim Duke Garavan.  There, several more wagons of loot await along with several more barrels of black powder.  The loot now can be removed, but fire still won't burn.

The party pays the people that lead them in, as these people seem to think the party is their employer.  They mention to the party that they are needed at the Counting House, and that construction is stopped.

Later a couple of men appear, who just barely avoid being smashed by Lesh.  These men are trying to arrange when to bring a longboat to take the barrels out to the "Vengeance".  Lief tells them to transfer them the next night to buy some time.  The men tell them to use the barkeep at the Low Lantern as a drop if they need to leave them a message.

The party goes on a bit of a shopping spree with some of their new coin and heads to the Low Lantern.  There they get ales and quickly are approached by Priest Vallagher Dante of Gond, who hopes the party will financially support High Priest of Gond Anton Tennius to be the new permanent Duke.  Shortly thereafter, they are approached by Nigel Goodrow, Hand of the Flaming Fists who seeks financial support for the greasing of palms in the parliment so Duke Garan may maintain his position.  Lief presses this man to track down the bandits that attacked in the woods and on the bridge.  Nigel guarantees to look into it and provides additional guards for the warehouse once given Lief's assurances.

The bartender gives out info on local rumors.  There was r rumor that Dowell Harpell was dragged through Baldur's Gate, kidnapped, most like for those looking for money.  Iron prices are high.  The sailors are sparse these last few weeks.  Ships sit in the harbor with no crew for them.

A man in the corner eyes the group and tells them that Groof wants to see them at Sorcerer's Sundries.  The note has Lief's name on it.  He also reminds the party to visit the counting house.  He discusses how things need to get underway, or Skullport will be lost and Waterdeep will be next.  He does not explain.

The party visits the counting house and is let in directly to extravagant surroundings.  Lief has an account awaiting the next 60,000 gp deposit for a total of a million to transfer to the Merchant League to finish construction.  Lief tells them the deposit is in the warehouse and to make the necessary arrangements to get construction back underway.

The party checks back at the warehouse and finds it under guard by the Flaming Fists.

The party stays the night at the Blade and Stars taverns.  It is a quite place with no common room, warms baths, and decent meals.  The strictly "no shady characters" policies keep the riff raff out, so the party sleeps well.  Elmeren finds no comfort under roof, so he makes his way to the open green of  The Wide.


The party seems somehow to suddenly be in charge of a vast sum of money and a fortune in black powder.  Construction continues on something.  The Vengeance -- what is it?  And the references to Skullport are not yet connected.  And who is Groof?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Note for the Burnt Out GM

Every now and then, GMs get overwhelmed and burnt out, worrying so much about players and rules and games that it all spirals downword into desperation.  We all end up there.  A while back I wrote a brief note to one such GM, who was fighting character deaths and table chaos, and I thought I would share it for those days when we all need it.

We are our own worst enemies, piling on all these expectations. I think we all need to learn to do more of what we enjoy and less of what we don't. Make players be responsible so we don't get hit with everything. It helps a lot with burnout.
Make players enforce rules. Find a rules lawyer who isn't doing it to min-max and let them loose on it.
Let the characters die. Remind that some fights will be too hard for them, so they should always consider fleeing an option.
Use more premade content. Rip stuff out of premade adventures and reuse it.
Ban anything at the table that makes your life harder. If they need to check their cell phones, schedule regular breaks and ban them in game. If the want to pageflip to argue your rulings, ban pageflipping in game. If a ruling needs made from the book, make a player look it up and read the appropriate section aloud.
Embrace the players as allies and celebrate with them when they do cool stuff. Mourn with them when their characters die.
Arrive each week to take it up a notch. Break all the normal rules and focus on the cool parts.
When you get frustrated, let the players know what you are feeling. Tell them when you feel unappreciated. When they know how it makes you feel, they can alter their behavior.
Try something new when you need to. Pick a new genre or rule system. A session now and then of "Everyone is John" (or better yet, "Everyone is Deadpool") can work wonders.
Get the players to help run the game. If there is a big decision point coming up, make them tell you in advance what they're going to do so you can prepare for next week.
Most of all, know that you are a good GM, because you care.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Drednaught Campaign: The Road to Baldur's Gate

This week, the party from Grievance finished clearing out a set of caverns where some "cult" was hiding loot away stolen from local villages.  The party loaded the loot on wagons, only to be confronted by some upset kobolds.  Lesh jumped on to his favorite horse Tim and ran down a large number of them, while the partly quickly dispatched the rest.

Lesh and Anders then tied themselves to the bottoms of the wagons with Elmeren accompanying them in dog form.  Two guards turned to their cause drove them out of the caverns, through the encampment of enemies in the canyon, and out onto open roads.  Varn, the NPC investigator from Baldur's Gate, accompanied the others to meet them.

They returned with the goods to Grievance where they returned many goods to the town and still made a large amount of gold, set aside to help them further investigate treasures still being transported to Baldur's Gate by the "cult".

Varn had arranged for the party to meet up with a caravan shipment headed to Baldur's Gate.  En route, Elmeren met up with an eerie old woman who knew something of his past and gave him an amulet to help him along.  She disappeared without a trace.

The caravan was a mere three wagons, but the party soon surmised that nearly 10,000 gp worth of treasure was contained therein.  The party learned that part of the caravan group would swap out at Baldur's Gate and that then the caravan would be taken to the docks district to a warehouse.

Unfortunately, before they could learn more, the caravan was attacked by thieves along the road.  The thieves supposed had mages ready with fireball so as to hold the caravan guards all hostage and force them to turn over the wagons, but Akag, Lesh, and Lief all moved quickly up on the sorcerer, sending him flailing with a fireball that hit many of the caravan guards, some of the thieves, and set the lead wagon on fire.  Lesh, distraught with the death of Tim, hunted the sorcerer down viciously and destroyed him.  Varn was able to grab the reins of the rear wagon, mow down several thieves, and get to near safety before the caravan guards were all killed.  The party killed several more thieves, leaving them in a retreat.

Akag lead the questioning of a revived thief and a revived caravan guard.  They found that someone in Baldur's Gate had let out knowledge of the shipment coming.  They also found out that the caravan leader's signet ring would get them into Baldur's Gate with the caravan to the next segment.

The party and GM both awarded inspiration at the end of the session.  Next week, Baldur's Gate!

Port Wayne Revisited: Vampire Hunters in the Nest

When last we left our punk crew, they were hiding with their apparent vampire "friend", Orkbait, in a newly acquired warehouse.  This week the party was hoping to start planning a new heist, but activities were interrupted by three large troll vampire hunters.

The vampire hunters came in fast with elephant guns and large greataxes.  Halar engaged the first in melee combat, doing serious damage with his dual hammers.  Rikolv had less than stellar luck against the other two incoming hunters.  Eventually the two got in position, and despite a stellar performance by the crew (except for Kip, who slept through the whole thing), were able to knock out Orkbait and drag him out of the building.  The nearly dead hunter that engaged Halar made a run for a cloaked vehicle, and after a brief episode of Simon and Halar jumping onto the car, the hunter got the car to an exit where Orkbait was being dragged out.

The next series of events was truly amazing.  Rikolv got to the pickup truck and managed to ram the car.  The crew near or on the vehicle successfully jumped clear without significant injury.  A frag grenade tossed under the car, several melee attacks, and a couple of rounds of gunfire into the smoke grenaded car finally produced three dead trolls and an unconscious Orkbait.

At the end of our story, Orkbait remains unconscious after being given something via syringe by the trolls.  The truck and new car are pulled back into the warehouse for evaluation.  Poor Kip has another truck to fix, but gets a new toy car with a cloaking module.


We had a bit of rule / setting failure this week.  I've been trying to maintain a clean separation between rules and setting, so the setting can be anything.  Unfortunately with rulings on cars, this broke down this week.  Because the stats of cars represent a certain assumption about car design and tech, more of this is going to have to be expanded on in the ruleset.  Specifically, the party hasn't yet gotten to the point to understand that future cars are normally driven by computers, therefore normally lack the safety standards in current age cars, and in fact, are pretty flimsy.  They also are completely electric, driven by an electric motor and cigarette pack sized batteries, sealed fuel cells, solar panels, induction electric feeds, or other tech.  As a result, the hardness of the cars may very considerably between road facing surfaces and aerodynamic surfaces.  A large troll can probably punch though the roof of a car without much issue.  There is also nothing in a car in-game to explode.  There is no steering wheel, just a pop-out oversized game controller meant for emergency control.  There is no radiator.  They make very little noise.

In any case, subsequent discussions have been fruitful and a new version of the rules with many revisions with be forthcoming to resolve various issues.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Obligatory Terrain Post

So quite a while ago we received our kickstarter package of caverns from Dwarven Forge.  Thanks to Stefan Pokorny's how-to videos, my wife, daughters and I were able to transform the indestructible pieces of dark gray dwarvenite into a magical realm of wonder on my gaming table.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

D&D 5e Drednaught Campaign: The Road So Far

I am a bit behind on game summaries, so I though I would just do a recap, increasing detail as we approach the latest session.

So the party met in a tomb outside of Grievance during a spring squall filled with lightning.  After clearing some obstacles and gathering some treasure, they headed back to Grievance.  Grievance was attacked by "cultists" and a blue dragon.  The party was able to save many people and take out quite a few bad guys before the intruders fled with Grievance's wealth.

The party tracked the "cultists" (they seemed to be disguised as cultists) and kobold army back to a forward camp, that they ambushed.  There they gained some more gold and more insight into the main camp.

The main camp lie in a canyon with various groups of tents scattered therein.  A single lone watchman's tent lay on the land overlooking the canyon.  The party took out the guards and searched the main tent (the largest), finding a hostage.  His name was Varn, and he claimed to be an elven investigator from Baldur's Gate trying to figure out the recent town raids in the area.  The tent also contained maps showing the various attacks on local villages and towns.

Varn left to man the signal lantern on top of the ridge, while the party went to investigate a nearby cavern that one of the guards claimed help treasures and leaders.  Two guards at the entrance were quickly dispatched.  Inside the guards found more cultists with large battle lizards, the leadership remaining, and a captured gold wyrm.  The party slayed the leadership and cultists, freed the dragon, and recruited some of the bandits.  Farther in the bowels of the tunnels, the party found a treasure hoard guarded by a rather hungry roper.  They fought it off and recovered the treasure.  After resting, the party prepared to leave only to be intercepted by a group of perhaps 15 kobolds and a couple of bandits blocking the path of the treasure laden wagons.

Upon interrogating an acolyte leader, the party also discovered that the treasure is being collected to retake the Skullport home of some of the "cultists".  The acolyte gave the name "Low Lantern", a dockside tavern in Baldur's Gate.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

D&D 5e: The Falling Flyer Problem

From reddit:
In a session recently my players asked for a ruling on fall damage when it came to flying creatures. RAW fall damage would be equal to the number of feet a target was from the ground no matter how fast they were travelling prior to that. The issue came up where I was attacking with a dragon that had a fly speed of 80 and one of my characters used his turn to paralyze it using a houseruled effect that is basically a copy/paste of hold monster. Since the dragon was paralyzed it couldn't continue flying and fell. It was strafing them at 30ft in the air so RAW it would have taken 3d6 damage, but he thought that was unfair given that it had moved (80ft) and then dashed (an additional 80ft) showing that it obviously was moving at 160ft per round, which if converted to fall damage would be 16d6.
TlDR: Is fall damage RAI velocity and therefore equal to ft/round.

There were some very misinformed responses to this question.  The bottom line is that the horizontal velocity component given here as 160 ft per round does impact the physics of the problem to increase the effective falling damage.

I'm not sure I have mentioned it elsewhere, but I am a physicist, which comes in very handy as a GM.  Being a physicist, I just cringe when I see some of the tomfoolery pulled with physics equations on place like reddit.  I spent a good bit of time the other day trying to debunk the top post for this question the other day.  Finally I gave up and decided to put together a full analysis here, that I'll probably link over.  Don't let the word physics bother you, I'll speak plain.

Please reference this article for a better explanation of the full equations.

First let's revisit the RAW: for falling damage we take 1d6 bludgeoning damage per 10 feet of falling given on page 183 of the D&D 5e Player's Handbook.  Maximum damage is  at 20d6, which we will assume indicates some general "terminal velocity" limit. 

When objects fall, gravity causes them to accelerate down.  Accelerating down doesn't change their horizontal velocity, but it causes them to fall faster and faster.  This would continue without limit except that the drag of air opposes the force of gravity, meaning an object will only get faster and faster until the drag force equals the force due to gravity.  This velocity is called the terminal velocity.

Falling doesn't really do damage.  The problem is that when an object with velocity hits the ground, it gets acted on by a force from the ground that causes it to change velocity to zero.  This force causes damage.  The faster an object is falling, the more damage it takes.

Now it doesn't really matter too much which direction this velocity is in so long as the ground causes it to stop quickly.  So our flying dragon may hit the ground at an angle, but we don't really care, because he is going to sink quickly into the ground and stop.   

Now let's do a little math.  The acceleration due to gravity is 32.174 feet/second/second, meaning that our velocity increases 32.2 feet per second for each second we are falling.  Using this, we can determine the speed at which we hit the ground when falling for various amounts of time.  We can numerically integrate our velocity to calculate the height that we've fallen at each time, as well.  Based on RAW, we can then calculate our damage.  The image below shows these relationships.

Here we can see that in about 3.5 seconds we fall 200 feet resulting in our maximum damage.
The figure also illustrates another big problem though.  The damage should be proportional to the velocity when we hit the ground, but instead it is proportional  to the distance we fall.  This is incorrect per physics, but is a nice simplification for the game.  To include damage from horizontal velocity, we need to know how much damage per unit velocity we are using.  We will calculate this at 10d6 damage value, the midpoint, to get 0.124 d6 per feet per second. (We could have used the point at other values or an average, but this value is reasonable.)  This midpoint linearized model now gives us the ability to convert velocities to damage and back again using a similar approximation as the RAW.

How fast is our dragon moving in feet per second?  160 feet in 6 seconds (1 round) which is 26.7 feet per second.  This means the damage from horizontal velocity alone if we crashed would be more than 3d6.

Now, how do we combine the effect from horizontal together?  It turns out to be a vector addition as given below.

The Vector Sum of Velocity Vectors

To get the magnitude of the vector, which is our crash speed, we take the root sum square of the two values.  So in our case, we had 26.7 ft / sec flight speed horizontal with a falling velocity of 43 ft / second.  The total speed is now 50.6 feet per second.  Multiplying this by .124 d6 of damage per feet per second gives us damage of 6d6, twice what we predicted from falling alone.

Now as a GM, how do we really want to rule this?  After all, we really don't want to build a full kinematic model for every case.  The "average" rule would be add a d6 of damage for every 50 feet of motion of an object moved in the round before it started falling.  A normal character walking off a cliff takes no extra damage, but a normal character dashing off a cliff could likely take an extra d6 of damage.

Monday, March 9, 2015

GM Things: Dealing with the Bad Week of No Inspiration

Whatever goes up, must come down.  That goes for inspiration, luck, and all the positive things that go into making a GM host good games.  Sometimes you are going to have a bad week.  Sometimes bad things are going to happen.  Sometimes you have to deal with it.  This week, we're talking about how to pick up the pieces when the inspiration isn't there.

I've had a bad couple of weeks, missing games I'm playing in and missing games I GM.  Snowstorms, sickness, internet outages, and a failed Windows Update that trashed my wireless driver all contributed.  Underlying all this, I am fighting a bad back that on bad days leaves me bedridden.  It's a tough recipe for cranking out compelling NPCs, plotlines, settings, and encounters.  Frankly, it's a tough recipe to do anything some days.

So how do you pick up the pieces and move on?  First, don't force yourself to do something you don't want to do.  It isn't going to be good for anyone.  You can't force yourself and expect anything good to come out of it.  Instead, focus on things that still excite you.  For me, when I can't play, I create.  When I can't create, I write.  When I can't write, I hit reddit and answer forum questions.  Helping someone else is the quickest way to pull yourself back up.  Find what you can do and stick to it.

Second, and probably most important, is when you do feel like doing something, do it.  Sometimes inspiration hits me for a single sentence, a single idea, a single name, or maybe a whole new world.  While it is there, I succumb to it and capture it.  It may not be a big thing, but it is something. Small things add up and pull new things into form.  New exciting things are keys to get over that bad week.  I keep a GM notebook, online notes, even a notepad on my phone, so no matter what, I can capture the ideas I have when I have them.

Third, dump everything that is boring drudgery,  If the side questions in your campaign aren't motivating you, get rid of them.  If the plot is slow and boring, spice it up.  Gaming time is too short for boring.  If you want to see this in action, go watch an Acquisitions Incorporated game by Chris Perkins.  Every single game normal GMs are saying to themselves, "He gave his players what?" in awe.  He doesn't hold back.  He breaks out the cool airships, walking robots, beholder mechs and makes his entire game the rule of cool.  Campaigns aren't like food; players can eat dessert all the time, and the GM is more excited when we give them what they want.  So do it.  It's like cooking with Emeril --- BAM! Take it up a notch!

Finally, if those bad days turn into weeks without inspiration and it all becomes drudgery, talk to someone.  Sometimes it can be a seasonal thing, like Seasonal Affective Disorder, where lack of sunlight and activity leaves a person down.  Sometimes it can be depression.  Don't try to face it alone.  Your doctor, family, friends, and even strangers can help.  After all, we all want you to get back to enjoying life, including gaming.

See you in game,