Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Interesting Encounter: Dark and Dangerous Cavern

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

The PCs are walking through caverns deep in the earth.  This particular cavern is entirely inside an antimagic field, faerzress, or other magical anomaly.  As the PCs approach the area, any magical items (especially magical lights) will blink off and on and then stop working.  The antimagic field is just large enough so that light from the edge of the zone cannot light the caverns ahead.

Inside the pitch black cavern is a scorched giant corpse.  The smell from the corpse, for those with relevant experience, indicates the corpse is several days old and heavily charred.  Also inside the cavern is a significant build-up of dangerous gas, that can both asphyxiate the PCs and explode if lit.  This gas can be smelled and identified by an experienced spelunker or miner.  The cavern is wide enough across that it is not certain that a PC can navigate it easily in the dark.  The exit cavern is also pitch black.  Small vermin are scurry about the cavern.

Should the PCs enter the cavern with a lit torch, the gas will explode.  Should they engage the small vermin and critically miss, there is some chance that their metal weapon hitting the rocks can set off a spark and ignite the gas.  Should the PCs go into the cavern without lights and without darkvision, the PCs may get lost and come out the entrance rather than the exit.   Also, with no light, darkvision or not, the vermin will bite and nibble at the PC.  A rope, 10 ft pole, halberd, or item may be used to try to guide the PCs through.

If the PCs encounter the giant corpse, they will find it has a tough outer layer and a gooey center.  Search of the gooey center will produce some small amount of coin or loot.

Interesting Encounters: Necromancer's Onslaught

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

In this encounter, we have a path that runs up to the top of a hill.  The path is sunken into the the hill as you go up, so there is a steep earthen wall that leads up to the full height of the hill to the left of the path.  The weather is dreary with light rain.  The path is mud and pretty slick.

At the top of the hill on the path is a portal.  Undead are pouring from the portal and following the path to attack the PCs.  Disabling the portal requires a magical check to identify and magically cancel the 6 runes around the portal.  This takes enough time that undead will definitely be harassing the PC dealing with it.

To the left of the path at the top of the hill, above the steep earthen wall, is the necromancer and a few guards.  The guards are armed with ranged weapons and can target the PCs pretty much anywhere.  The necromancer can also cast spells at the PCs from this location and attempt to heal the undead.  Reaching the necromancer and guards requires climbing the steep earthen wall which in the rain is a muddy mess.  There is a slight chance that the mud will break loose, unleashing a mudslide on those below and swallowing up anyone in its path.  This chance increases throughout the encounter as rain weakens the wall.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Devil Monkeys of the Underdark

So I am looking for small furry creatures to toss into the Underdark to steal, overwhelm, and generally terrorize travelers in the Middledark.  After a few google searched, I came across Devil Monkeys, a supposed legendary creature inhabiting North America.  These things sound perfect for the Underdark. Now let's turn them into monsters.

Reading the description of this creature, I am going to pick out a few aspects to include in my monster build:
  • Small sized, 3 feet
  • Kangaroo-like legs and lightning speed: 40 ft speed with 20 ft jump for a total of 60 ft normal speed
  • 3 toed claws (attack) and bite (attack)
  • tiny ears, long tail: advantage on acrobatics checks
To fill in the gap for my monster needs, I am going to add the ability to perform 3 sleight of hand checks to steal items as an action with its two claws and tail.  I am also giving it the ability to squeeze through exceptionally tiny spaces.

Now these are just the angry little thieves I am looking for.

Ok, to whip up some stats, I need to start with a base creature with claws bite and about the right CR.  I plan on sending a group of these things through to steal and annoy (they are getting an obnoxious screech when scared).  For my party CR 1 or below if probably about right.  My goal will be to have them run through, grab items, and take off, or to steal items while the party is sleeping.

I browse the Monsters by CR index I pasted into the back of my monster manual.  The Dretch sounds about right and is a demon.  Sure enough he has bite and claws.  So let's write a monster stat:

Devil Monkey

  • Small beast, chaotic neutral (it is just trying to survive)
  • AC 11 
  • HP 18
  • Speed: 40 ft plus 20 ft jump
STATS: STR -1 DEX +1 CON +0 INT -3 WIS +4 CHA -5 (ugly, quick, and clever)
  • Senses: Darkvision 120 ft, Passive Perception 14 (this thing lives in the Underdark, so it needs to see threats)
  • Languages: none, just screeching
  • Challenge: CR 1/2
  • Balancing Tail: The devil monkey has advantage on acrobatics checks.
  • Squeezed Escape: The devil monkey can squeeze into any gap so long as its grapefruit-sized head fits.  While squeezed, it can move at normal speed.
  • Pilfering: The devil monkey can, as an action, attempt a sleight of hand check with each hand and its tail with advantage.
  • Multiattack: The devil monkey can make a bite and claw attack or use its pilfering ability.
  • Bite: Melee weapon attack: +2 1d6 piercing
  • Claws: Melee weapon attack +2 2d4 slashing
The devil monkey survives in the Middledark using its wits and speed.  It has huge hind legs that allow it to move quickly.  It uses a monkey-like tail and clawed 3-finger hands to grab and fight.  It stays away from danger unless there is an opportunity to steal things it may need.  Because of its exceptional balance, it excels at tumbling through enemy spaces (optional DMG rule) to get into position for stealing items.  When cornered it can inflict nasty bites with its oversized monkey-like teeth and wounds with its claws. 

So there we have it --  a Devil Monkey for the Underdark. Yes, I could have spent a lot more time making a special MM-style page for it with official-looking statblocks and artwork, but that wasn't the point.  The point was to generate a monster I needed quickly.  Next time you need a special monster for your game, follow my lead and throw something together. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Faster Mass Combat in 5E

Dungeons and Dragons 5E is an elegant system that has far simplified the math of combat over previous systems.  With this simplification, my previous articles on using expected damage are feeling a bit dated so I wanted to revisit Mass Combat math to better match with 5E.

5E has a nice feature that average damage is already calculated for monsters.  For heroes, small damage numbers give a mean damage pretty easily: (die max - die min)/2.  What isn't easy is calculating how much of this damage is expected to hit.  Enter the expected damage formula to allow us to figure this out.

The formula isn't as important as what is represents.  An attacker can always miss with a 1 and always hit with a 20 for double damage.  In between the attacker gets a bonus on their d20 to try to hit the AC of the defender.  For every hit, the attacker gets to apply normal damage.

So imagine that we look at a collection of lots and lots of attacks.  Based on this we can calculated the expected damage that the attacker will deal in one round.  That value is the expected damage.  Expected damage is the average damage times the factor that represents how often the attacker hits and a bit extra to account for crit double damage.  This factor is the expected damage factor.

Expected Damage Factors for Various Attack Modifiers and Armor Classes
(Click to expand)
This table for expected damage has values varying from 0.1 to 1.  The low end .1 value is the chance we'll hit with a crit at a 5% chance with double damage.  The high end value is the guarantee will hit on every dice roll except a 1, with double damage on the 20 crit.  The red boxes are the AC/Attack combinations at the min where only crits hit.  The green boxes are the AC/Attack combinations where only 1's miss.  In between, the values vary in 0.05 increments.

To use the table, plug in the AC of the defender, the attack modifier of the attacker, and get an expected damage factor.  Take the average damage of the attacker (max+min)/2 times the factor times the number of attackers and you have the damage for that round.  Since average damage never changes, you only calculate it once.  If the same attacks happen again and again, you only need to adjust for numbers dying attackers.

If you have minor effects in addition to AC and attack bonus, feel free to add / subtract 0.05 or .1 from the damage factor. This can include things like the champion fighter's improved criticals or advantage/disadvantage mechanics.

In mass combat, with troops organized in groups, each group attacks another group or individual.  Calculate the damage per the above formula. This damage hits, taking out the defenders one at a time until all of the damage is used up, or until you run out of defenders.  Using the table may seem slow, but it is easy to boil it down to just the numbers you need for the groups and characters you have in play.  Using a slightly more complex formula for Pathfinder, I have successfully run an over 100 combatant battle easily in a 4 hour session.

This method has a number of advantage over other mass combat methods.  First, all of the normal values have an impact on combat.  There are no new values or stats made up or added in.  Second, PCs can still have a significant effect on the combat.  Because PCs can do lots of damage with fireballs and multiple attacks and special abilities, those can still be used.  Just roll their damage normally and apply it.  Third, you can easily mix groups of foes with large foes and battlefield implements like cannons, warships, airships, etc.  The combat of 12 city guards in a group with the PCs versus an ancient dragon still makes sense.

To add to the narrative, put your players and their PCs in charge of groups.  Match the PC to the group, so your ranger is controlling and leading the archers, and you have the start of a great story.  Much like Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas lead the troops at Helm's Deep, your PCs can lead great battles on their own, all without the DM pulling his hair out.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Rules for Flying Creatures in 5E

I'm not one for just throwing my players willy-nilly into something new without an idea of how it would work.  Flying races are on the horizon for one of my games, so here are my clarifications for flying creatures:

A flying creatures requires a minimum space of at least 3 times their height in all directions in order to flight. For example, a 6 ft tall flying creature requires a room to be at least 18 ft in all dimensions before they can fly in it.

A flying creature can attempt to grapple a creature. 

If the the target or grappler are flying, grapple attempts are at disadvantage. If neither are flying, grapples are per RAW.  The state of flying or walking is determined by the last square you have moved.  To change between walking and/or flying, you must use at least 1 space of movement.  Movement rules per RAW apply (PHB pg 190 "Using Different Speeds")

A successful grapple check by a flying creature can allow the flying creature to potentially carry the creature into the air, assuming that the total weight of the grappler's equipment, the target's equipment, and the target do not exceed the grappler's carry weight. While carrying a grappled target, normal grappled rules apply, meaning that the flying creature's flight speed is halved.

A grappled target can attempt to break the grapple normally. Breaking a grapple while being carried in flight is equivalent to the flying target attempting to drop the carried creature, with consequences below.

If the flying grappler attempts to drop the grappled target, the target may make a Strength(Athletics) check or Acrobatics(Dexterity) check (player's choice) vs the Strength(Athletics) check or Acrobatics(Dexterity) check (opposing player's choice) of the flying creature in an attempt to hold on. This is done without disadvantage or advantage unless specifically ruled that way by the DM. If the attempt to hold on succeeds, the flying creature is now grappled by the carried creature. Further attempts to break this grapple are at disadvantage while the flying creature remains in the air. The carried grappler can choose to either allow the flying creature to continue at half speed or drop the flying creature's speed to zero, causing them both to fall. The flying creature cannot break the grapple once the pair have started to fall.

A falling creature takes normal falling damage.

A creature can only carry one grappled target why flying.

Objects are not subject to grappling rules, so a flying creature can hold up to one object per free hand / foot / mouth while flying, so long as the weight on any appendage is no more than 1/4 of the creature's carry weight, and the total maximum carry weight is not exceeded. The free appendage cannot be used in flight. The flying creature cannot talk or perform verbal spell components while holding an object in its mouth. 

A dropped object is generally considered a ranged attack with an improvised weapon dealing 1d4 damage + falling damage (1d6 bludgeoning per 10 ft, maximum of 6d6 for the maximum range of an improvised weapon). Depending on what is dropped, the DM may alter this.

Additional rulings for advantage / disadvantage may apply, per the RAW.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Motivating and Manipulating Characters

Characters are slippery little things, scurrying about the game world.  Corralling them into a coherent story challenges even the most experienced GM.  This articles addresses all those convenient holds we use to push and pull characters in the right direction to keep the story moving.

To get PCs moving, we need a way to motivate them.  Some of this motivation is from the player who has agreed to play the game.  Unfortunately, too often, "that's not what my character would do" becomes a shield against the plot, so it's just not enough. We need handle to grab the PCs by: this is the character biography.

The character biography is part story and part facts.  The story gives a bit of flavor and affords the player a chance to spew volumes of prose about their characters like they like to do.  For the GM though, the meat of the biography are the facts: who they care about, who their enemies are, where they are from, and what has sent them into our game world.  These are our handles.

Unfortunately, players aren't very motivated to give us these handles.  They'd much rather focus on the prose that is mostly useless to the GM.  To fix this problem, I always add a simple qualifier to my directions: anything not defined in the biography is left up to the GM.  Now when they forget to mention siblings, don't tell me who their third grade teacher was, or forget to mention that the dog's name was Indiana, I can make it up, and use tha to motivate them in game too.

To use a handle, we grab it with a plot line.  Grab any old person they like or care about, and have them show up as an NPC.  Maybe this NPC needs saved.  Maybe this NPC needs to convince them of something.  Maybe this NPC is the bad guy.  However you twist it, make feelings they have about this person pull them deeper into the story.  Even locations can be used: now the bad guy assembles an army to attack their homeland.  The PC cares.

Straightforward hooks aside, let's get creative.  Is their biography too short?  The character must have amnesia.  Is it missing family and friends? Oh, no -- maybe the PC murdered them all under a gaes. The forgotten elements complicate the character's life in all the right ways.  They intrude on the happy little story that the player wants to tell, with all the things the character doesn't want known.  PCs have secrets; we the GM know them even when the player does not.

As GM though, we do need to temper our manipulative enjoyment with realism.  Our understanding must be scrutinized by the player and pass their inspection.  We can't totally change their character. Sometimes this means getting into the psyche of the character, understanding their psychology.  More often this means getting the player on board.  When needed, take the player aside and run your background enhancements past them. Explain all your devilish ways for improving the depth of their character.  Don't tell them, how it will be used though; let them experience the shock of what they sign up for totally in game.

In game, we reap the benefits.  Handles and complications both allow easy manipulation and motivation of the PC.  The argument of "that's not what my character would do" gets thrown to the wind.  The story becomes compelling.  This is the game we want to GM; this is the game we want to play. It is the art of the personalized campaign, that makes us all have fun.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Impact of Terrain on an Encounter: The Improvised Prison Example

Terrain can greatly alter the difficulty of an encounter.  Hide ranged attackers above a cliff and they are untouchable by melee attackers.  Bottleneck an incoming hoard into a 5 ft corridors, and the allies can defeat a 10x force.  More intriguing is how a simple reconfiguration of a hall in a building increases an easy encounter to a deadly one. In this post, I am going to look at this example in play in an improvised prison, taken from a recent game.

The improvised prison is roughly 20 x 20 square map made up of 5ft squares.  It consists of a single 10 ft entryway with 2 swinging 5 ft doors.  There are 12 cells around 3x3.  In the map as played, the cells are arranged in three rows.  One hallway accesses 1 row of cells; another hallway accesses 2 rows of cells.  Short corridors connect the halls to the main entryway.  All hallways and corridors are 10 ft wide.

The alternate way to build this map would be to build the hallway as either 1 big hallway that houses all of the cells, or a racetrack of hallways.  Each of these configurations drastically alter the dynamics of the fight.

In our scenario, there are 8 knights and one high cleric defending.  The cells are closed, locked, and the inhabitants are out of play.

In the one hallway case, all of the guards and the cleric are in the main hall.  The heroes attack through the front door.  8 guards attack in melee, but the hall chokes at 2 squares wide with an additional half square for the cells entries  The heroes have a caster and a ranged attacker behind two melee attackers.  The knights have 2 melee attackers in front with the cleric caster.  This direct 6 v 9 gets the knights killed pretty quickly, since 2 knights can't engage (melee only).  The cleric gets taken out in a couple of rounds after the knights' line is broken.  The single hallways is almost no challenge, because the party has more ranged attackers.

One Hallway heavily favors the Party
In the two hall case, he party rushes in and engages the couple of guards in the entryway.  The party scatters when squishy heroes back off to the two near hallways. 3 unseen knights run out and swarm the squishy heroes (rogues, bards, casters).  In 3v1, the squishies die in a round..  The party is flanked from the start.  If the heroes defeat the entryway guards, they must now split between the two hallways or stay flanked.  Splitting up puts the odds at 3v3 in each hall, if no heroes drop; the cleric floats where needed.  The fight is now a lot more balanced since the melee knights can engage.  The cleric takes the advantage at range.  The easy fight with one hall becomes a deadly fight with two hallways.

Two Hallways disrupt the flow of battle and favor the Defenders

In the acetrack hall case, the tactics are similar to the 2 hall case, except that for endgame.  In the end the split party wraps back around to flank the knights and cleric from both sides.  The final kills are a cake walk.  The encounter isn't hard and gets easier if the attackers rush in.

Racetrack Hall splits the Party, but ultimately results in the Defenders getting flanked.
4 key actions of the terrain increase encounter difficulty.  Terrain obscures the number and location of opposing force.  Terrain shapes the battle line between good guys and bad guys, effectively fixing the melee range ratio of good guys vs bad guys.  Terrain determines the split of the party.  Terrain sets flanking.

The encounter would play out very differently if there were more ranged attackers than melee attackers on the enemy side.  In this case, a longer single hallway would allow the enemies to pummel the oncoming heroes before they could reach melee range.  Ranged attackers inside the cells favor the defenders even more.

The other wild card in these scenarios is the ability for heroes and foes to alter the terrain.  A force wall, illusion, or other alteration to the terrain can reinforce or negate the terrain effects.  This can easily determine the winner.

This quick walk-through illustrates the impact of terrain on encounters.  Mind your terrain both when designing encounters and when playing them.  Use it often to keep your encounters interesting and your players sharp.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Rules We Forget

In almost ever game we play, there are rules we "forget".  These rules are the extra rules that no one uses, the rules we ignore for the sake of fun.  In roleplaying games, the GM / DM is essentially defined by the rules he or she doesn't use.  So what are these rules and why do we keep including them?

Rules are written like walls for the game.  They separate the agreed upon model of whatever the game is about, from the things that conflict or break the model.  If you don't put in encumbrance rules, you end up with players carrying around 100 sets of full plate armor in their backpack.  If you don't put in rules for the details of how many words a player can say during their turn, the game doesn't resemble reality anymore.

For the game in play though, rules are like lines on the road: they only mean something if everybody follows them. The DM, despite his apparent position of power, can't monitor every rule every time.  He isn't the police officer, responsible for enforcement.  He is the driving instructor, teaching people the importance of the rules and following them.  If he doesn't care about encumbrance, no one else will.  If no one is breaking the game with encumbrance, it doesn't matter anyway, right?

So why is there this gap between the rules as written (RAW) and rules as played?  The bottom line is that not all rules are created equal.  Some rules are what the game is about.  Some rules are about having a consistent game model.  Game model rules are the rules you don't need, until you do.  They are the rules that form the fences to keep min-maxers and OP PCs out of trouble.  They aren't the rules you need everyday.  And if you gaming group is reasonable, you never need them.

The model rules are also the models used to equalize the level of detail across the simulation of whatever you are simulating.  For example, maybe you really want to have flanking in your new awesome game system.  You feel however, that if you have flanking, you have to include facing so you can't flank two targets in opposite directions.  But, if you want to include facing, you now need a rule on how to change facing.  No one really may want a rule for changing facing, but the model may not make sense, unless you include it.  However, now that you have facing, now you need a rule that describes who you can attack based on your facing.  If you game really cares about individual moves of the sword, maybe you even need to know which targets you can attack with the weapon held in an individual hand based on facing.  All of this is driven by the level of detail of the model.  In the end, hopefully the level of detail matches the level of what the players care about.  If not, start over with different assumptions and iterate.  This very much resembles the evolution of gaming systems over time.

This model detail problem is one of the reasons that rules-light system become so popular.  Rules-light systems don't include a lot of detail, and thus, don't include specific rules for everything.  Instead, they focus on capturing the important things with the minimal level of detail required.  They focus on what the players really care about.  The great thing is that GMs can apply this exact principle after the fast to customize their game.  This is another reason we leave out rules.

Game writers will get judged on how elegant, complete, and concise their rules are, GMs will get judged on how fun and empowering their games are, and players will still just keep looking for a good time.  In the end, all of these jobs are important for that end player goal, even though not all of the rules are needed.  Throw out the ones you don't need in your group, and drive on with having fun.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Rethinking the Murderhobo Problem

About every other week, a request from a frazzled GM appears in the forums regarding "the murderhobo problem".  It is always the same pattern.  The gaming group, in part or in whole, is murdering NPCs instead of playing the game.  They refuse to follow the plot or take advice.  They are a lawnmower of killing.  Sometimes the GMs don't know how to fix it.  Sometimes the GMs tried something already and it didn't work.  The GM and players aren't all having fun, and that is a problem.

The discussions about solutions are always heated.  GMs want to punish players for playing the game wrong.  Players complain that this is a valid way of playing.  GM versus player fights break out.  Because of all this misdirected emotion it is sometimes hard to get to the bottom of the problem and how to solve it.

Why is murderhoboing bad?  Generally, the answer, is that the gaming group (players and GM) has not chosen to play a TTRPG just to kill stuff over and over again.  There are video games for that exact experience.  TTRPGs are socially shared storytelling, and stories need more than just mindless killing.  They need all of the literary elements that make a good story.  When someone posts about murderhoboing, it is because they are unhappy with the mindless killing.

The first line of defense against game problems for a GM is setting expectations.  Before players jump into a game, they need to know what the game is going to be about and what social contract is in play.  This is where the GM can explain that they are expected to move the plot forward.  The GM can also address forbidden topics. Most importantly, the GM can set the playstyle expectations for the game.

My suggestion is to first throw out any expectations of fairness.  Fair implies that the players have a chance of winning any fight.  The world is a big place.  There are lots of opportunities for murderous PCs to start a fight they cannot win.  This is the price of player agency.  They can start murdering commoners in the middle of Waterdeep.  It doesn't mean they are going to escape alive.  They can drive a semi off the cliff, if they choose to, and they will die.  This world is not safe.  It does not mean the GM is out to get them.  It means the GM is not their nanny; the world is not their safe little playpen.

Second, throw out PvP and evil alignments, unless you really have a reason not to.  I'm not going to address all the intricacies of running evil campaigns here, but needless to say, it is an exercise best left to an experienced GM.  PvP and evil alignments are a leading cause of murder hoboing, primarily because players believe that because their players can do anything, without considering consequences.  Dumb and evil combined are a problem best avoided in game.

Third, the GM can set a clear expectation for realism.  I like realistic games in realistic settings, so I tell my players that the world will react to them. What this ultimately means is that if they help the mayor save the town, the town will love them and the mayor will give them rewards.  If, however, they murder the mayor, the town guard will hunt them down, and if they are lucky, imprison them, try them, and execute them.  When they murder bad guys, the repercussions may be even more severe.  When the players hit, the world, for good or bad, hits back.  Without action and reaction, we are back to the railroading video game.

Now, keep in mind that all of this is addressed before the game starts.  Murderhoboing is basically off the table at this point, both by the gaming style chosen and the social contract in place.  Expectations has been set.  Those characters that do murder, kill, and cause mayhem will be facing consequences in game.  Still, that doesn't solve the problem.

For the next step, lets discuss murderhobo mentality.  Murderhoboing can be a symptom of a couple of things.  First, and most likely, it is the natural response to the freedom of playing a roleplaying game where a character can do anything.  This is doubly so, if the character is evil.  Players want to push their character to do things they can't do themselves.  This natural response is fine, if it fits into the game being played by the group.  When it doesn't, the GM needs incite the player restraint.  This is best done out of game by talking to the player.  In game, other players often exert social pressure to for not doing stupid things to get the whole party killed.  This, in fact, is how most new players learn.

The second reason that murderhoboism emerges is boredom.  I am bored talking to NPCs, solving puzzles, or whatever, so I am going to start combat every chance I get to make the game exciting.  When this happens, there are two options.  Change the game to keep the player or players engaged.  Sometimes this works; sometimes this is futile.  If everyone in the group wants to play a different style, it is a no-brainer.  When one players is causing the other players and/or the GM not to have fun we have to revert to the other option. Talk to the player to discuss their disruptive behavior, and if necessary, remove them from the game.

A key point is that at no point does the GM punish a player.  There is no need for emotion or confrontation.  Everyone is at the game to have fun, and when that fails, have a talk and change things.  The GM only has the power that the players give, and that is not the power to punish for character actions.  Play the game, adjust as needed, and don't let it get personal.  If everyone is not having fun, then it is something that has to be fixed.  It really doesn't matter who is wrong or right.  It only matters that things get fixed so everyone can have fun.

In the end, the game is a success if the players and the GM are engaged and having fun.  This can happen a number of ways.  Hopefully these tips can help you avoid problems, especially murder hobos, in your game.

The Cost of Kickstarter in Gaming

Gamers love kickstarters.  There have been no bigger opportunity for games in decades to get cool new stuff than the hundreds of gaming related kickstarters that have emerged in the past few years. I have backed quite a few myself -- some of them have been phenomenal; some have been total disasters. Unfortunately, kickstarters have hidden costs for our hobby that often go unnoticed on both sides.

Kickstarters basically allow anyone to post an idea online to get money to produce it.  In return, those pledging towards the production get something in return, usually at a reduced price point.  By ensuring enough customers come together to fund the initial production, no financing is required.  It also ensures that there is a market for the product before the product is produced, giving the producers a much lower risk.

There are a number of problems with this model.  First, all of the risk doesn't just get eliminated.  Instead of the producer taking the risk of getting the financing and producing the product, the customers are taking on the risk that the product will be produced.  Numerous cases exist where kickstarters produced nothing; other cases exist where multiple chained kickstarters produced nothing. Kickstarter generally does not get involved, acting as only the middleman.  Unfortunately, kickstarter does little to provide or manage a real assessment of these projects and whether or not they can actually be produced.

A recent kickstarter I backed is failing. Why?  Because they didn't get a contractual price on production.  Once the kickstarter succeeded, the third party company refused to produce at the price quoted.  With much of kickstarter production located in other countries, the legal repercussions are too much to be handled on a kickstarter budget.  The backers had no idea the production quote was no good, something a good businessperson would have solidified from the beginning when inspecting this deal for investment.  Kickstarter backers are simply investing blindly.

Kickstarters are also notorious for being poorly planned and poorly executed. Late has become the expectation for kickstarters.  Too often, when projects fall behind, the producers just simply stop posting updates and lose contact with their backers.

It took very few million dollars kickstarters before companies started realizing the deal to be had in using kickstarter to fund their projects.  By running a kickstarter, they could effectively make huge investments in non-recurring capital with no real risk.  Miniature molds started being made.  Production capabilities were being brought online.  The problem, in these cases, were that pledges were no longer the good deal they could have been.  The costs passed along to the backers were much closer to retail than they should have been, because they were now investing in the company. Kickstarter was becoming stock for capital investment with no stockholders.

The pledger paradox became apparent to me at Gencon one year.  I had stopped off to pick up a new release of an item not offered by the kickstarter.  There in line, waiting, I watched non-backers buying the same products I had kickstarted for nearly the same price, before mine had even arrived.  I was no longer a special backer. I was just another exploited customer.  The kickstarter producer didn't give me anything special in the end.  That, to me, was unforgivable.

The next part of the paradox came later.  I had found some great new content on kickstarters that I wanted to use in my games.  Unfortunately, because of the processing feeds, even increasing shipping costs, and increased production costs, only backer rewards were produced.  This happens a good bit of the time, often costing the producer money beyond the kickstarter. What this ultimately meant is that the product died at production. I had a book in my collection I could never use, because none of my players could ever hope to get a copy.  Kickstarter had effectively killed the product. I had just an orphaned work that I could never use.  The idea was so dead with the creator's bad experience that not even a PDF was released.

The bottom line is that kickstarter, despite bringing cool new products into existence, finds its success at a cost to customers and small producers.  It has altered the economy of production to move the risk to the wrong side of the table without any tools to properly assess these risks.  Until kickstarter changes this dynamic, I think it is important that we all carefully consider this situation before we back kickstarter projects, no matter what products are offered. It doesn't mean I won't pledge again, but I heed the warning that pledgers beware.

Future Glimpse: Late for Work

I stepped out of the shower, hot air blasting to a stop, knowing that I was already late when I went in.  I pulled my underclothes up with one hand while shoving the toothbrush into my mouth with the other. A small fraction of a second later it whirred to life, slowing walking across my bicuspids with brushes spinning.  I tried to force out a whistle, spitting toothpaste foam all over the bathroom mirror.  The door opened.  My belt crawled in, snakeline, pulling my pants along with it.  I gave it a quick yank and my pants were on.  

I dashed to the closet, grabbed my shirt, slipping it over my arms while lifting one foot.  A black suede loafer crawled out of the closet, carefully aligned to my foot and wrapped itself on.  With a beep indicating the end, I spit my toothbrush out.  It floated in the air for a moment to get its bearings and flew back into the bathroom, while I lifted my other foot and other arm.  The second shoe was on and I pulled my second arm through.  The shirts button snapped together with a sharp magnetic hum.

I stepped from the room and gave a clear double whistle.  Hyr, our server floated up with a pop tart and cup of coffee.  I almost got a sip when my tie caught hold and pulled tight.  I lost my breath for a second.  Grabbing my food I was out the door.

The car saw me coming and flipped the door open.  Display sprung to life with daily news, weather, and sports numbers.  The door closed and I got about half my "let's go" out before there was a tap on the window.  "Let him in".

My watch crawled in as the window lowered on onto my wrist.  The car queried with a friendly beep and I complete my thought, "Let's go."

I glanced at my wrist.  My daily health check was 50% complete.  Hopefully this late breakfast wouldn't cost me too much -- another hour pedaling on the way home would interrupt the game.  The car sprung to life, backing out of the driveway and moving forward in one smooth motion.  The seat rotated and displays shifted so I was looking forward.  I guess I am old fashioned.  My wife prefers the seats facing each other for her shopping trips with the neighborhood ladies.

An alert popped up with a shopping list for approval.  "Approve all."  The happy computer voice read the total and confirmed for delivery this afternoon.  "Confirm."

The dinner menu popped up next.  My wife had already chosen the meal, so I flipped past it into the sports scores.  The car rounded a curve, causing the passenger compartment to swing every so slightly.  I glanced at the car status.  All greens and cruising at a smooth 89 mph.  Hard to believe all this articulated tech, and we are still using the English system.

Monday, September 7, 2015

5E Tactics: A Living List

Tactics are patterns used to deal with specific situations.  In the lists I have collected a list of tactical patterns that can be used effectively in 5E.  This is a living document, so comments and additions are always welcome.
  1. Curse and Save -- First, the saves of the target are reduced; then a spell with a save for damage is cast against the target.
  2. Pit and Illusion -- Dig, find, or magically generate a pit.  Cover the pit in an illusion.
  3. Kill Zone -- Using spells, terrain, or other features, funnel the bad guys into an area one at a time.  Have a large number of allies positioned so they can attack each foe all at once.
  4. Ambush -- Set up an area the foes will come through, and hide.  Before they can react, have all the allies volley off a deadly surprise attack.  An effective first attack can even cause the foes to retreat.
  5. Grab and Teleport -- This idea can be implemented several ways.  Most of the time it is used to either move an ally in or out of combat.  The teleporter runs in, or teleports in, grabs the ally, and then teleports them both to a new location.  Some mechanics allow a similar thing by switching places with an ally.
  6. Hit and Run -- A common tactic of rogues, this is essentially a turn where the attacker hits the target and then moves out of range.  This works nicely with cunning action.
  7. Resistant and Reckless -- If a character is doing more damage against an attacker than is being done against him (often due to damage resistance), the character should engage to maximize hits.  This is often done with Reckless Attack.  Because the foe is going to take more damage, it helps to speed the battle, kill the foe, and move on to the next one.
  8. Hit and Reinforce -- Much like Hit and Run, this is a favorite of rogues.  The character attacks the best target and the runs back into position to provide sneak damage to another character.
  9. Sniper -- Ranged attackers, if they can hide in a hard to reach location (tree, building roof) they can fire and hide. A move thrown in while hiding can help to avoid melee attackers too.
  10. Confuse -- This tactic works well for bards.  Essentially the bard attempts to use spells and social skills to confuse the attackers.  The best goal is to convince the foes that they have turned on each other, so they fight each other.  It can also be used to make a character appear to an ally to the foes when they are not.
  11. Out of Reach -- This can be used in terrain and/or with a quick movement speed.  Basically you use the terrain to ensure attackers cannot reach you by either outmaneuvering them or outrunning them.  This may require occasional dash actions, which works nicely with cunning action.  The barbarian's higher movement speed helps too.  The idea is to keep the foe occupied until the allies greatly outnumber the enemies.  Works well for characters that for some reason cannot engage in battle: a hurt character, a caster with no useful spells left, a character not wearing armor
  12. Run and Heal -- This is used in bad fights.  When a character goes down, they keep a potion in plain view tied to them.  Any ally can run up and heal them by giving them the potion.  It alleviates the need for a dedicated healer in most scenarios.
  13. Swarm -- This simple tactic is that all allies only attack one enemy at a time.  When it is dead, they move onto the next.  Order is chosen by the least rounds to kill per the attackers damage output.  Also known as focusing your fire.
  14. Beatdown -- This tactic involves grappling a target and then forcing them prone.  With the target prone and grappled, they cannot get up unless they break the grapple.  It works well with Swarm, where one grapples and holds prone while the others engage.
I am sure there are plenty of other tactics available. The games I have been involved with have been light on flying, scrying, and other spell techniques that certainly offer a lot of advanced tactics.  If you have any you can think of, please feel free to comment.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Art of the Disruptive Encounter

Art is what you can get away with, so the disruptive encounter is clearly a piece of art in the GM realm.  Sometimes things get boring. Sometimes the PCs seem like they are a step ahead.  You get to that point where you need a big change.  This is your tool: the disruptive encounter.

The disruptive encounter has a few key characteristics that make is extremely powerful in altering your game:

  • It breaks a key assumption.  By breaking this PC assumption it requires a complete rethink.
  • It forces a change in the party plan. They may have had a lot of time to plan things before this, but now they are starting from scratch.
  • It rotates the alignment matrix.  By scrambling what is good, evil, lawful, and unlawful, the PCs may not longer know where they stand.
  • It denies an implicit pending success. The PCs were planning to find the leader in the next city and kill him, but now things have gotten a lot more complicated.
Let's do a quick example.  My PCs are chasing down an enemy in a dungeon.  The enemy is a real bad guy who has been killing people, stealing, and all that sort of stuff.  He seems connected to other bad guys they have been fighting. During the big fight, the party knocks a necklace off of the bad guy.  In a struggle to get it, they hit is with a weapon.  A portal opens and they are teleported.

On the other side of the teleport they find an ancient black shadow dragon.  He is sitting in a castle that has a hypermagic field x100.  He has an army of giants serving him.  He is controlling all of these bad guys and plans to take control of Waterdeep.

So the twists are definitely there.  The bad guys they have been fighting are victims of this dragon (rotating the alignment matrix).  This new big bad isn't something they can fight; their plan is out the window until they gather allies.  Their success against this current bad guy is snatched away and now they have a new problem to solve.

Disruptive encounters aren't something to use all the time.  They can, however, be used a couple of times in a campaign to give it a unique twist, and to switch up the adventures.  Use them when your players aren't engaged.  Use them when you, as the GM, gets bored.  Use them whenever you need them, and continue to have fun gaming.