Monday, May 30, 2011

4e vs. 3.5

Ok… So I want to preface this entire blog entry with a little background information so that when I start committing what some of you may deem nerd heresy you will at least know where I’m coming from. If you have read the “About Me” section under my name then you would know that I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons for a long time. I started in about 2000 with AD&D, played 3.0/3.5 all through high school and since 2009 I have been playing in a 4e game that is still going strong after almost two years. I DMed several AD&D campaigns, ran a 3.5 campaign all four years in high school and currently play in a plethora of 4e games as well as the aforementioned ongoing game. All this being said I want to shed some light on an issue that I feel like is a growing problem in the D&D community.
As many of you know we are in a time of division that players of D&D have not really seen before. The division stems from the changes made asthtetically and mechanically from 3.5 to 4th edition. Be it because there just weren’t as many options a few years ago, because the generation that is playing D&D now is so quick to hate on anything new or a number of other reasons, the notion still stands that people either love or hate 4e. The spectrum isn’t very vast and the people on either side make the PS3 and Xbox 360 fanboys look like angels. But why? Like I’m honestly confused. Why is it that 4e has garnished so much disdain in such a short amount of time? How come the same players that welcomed 3.0 with open arms and 3.5 as the second coming of Christ have turned so ardently on 4e and are writing it off as “a kids version of D&D” “Not really dungeons and dragons” “D&D for World of Warcraft Fans” or “Just a board game.” Is it because of the gameplay? The powers system? Nope. It’s the players. Confused? Good, now let me explain.
First let’s take a look at why it is NOT the gameplay, mechanics or the power system. Then lets look at why 4e was a necessary change from 3.5 and then finally what exactly I mean by it being “ the fans” that are at the root of this problem.
So the gameplay… A lot of fans have come out with their dislike of 4e, citing the “simplified” and “streamlined” style of gameplay as visual proof that D&D is no longer what it used to be and that it is becoming to simple or easy or something. I don’t know really the complaints don’t make much sense to me. To those statements I have this too say. IT WAS REALLY NEEDED!!!! Do you remember how long it used to take to create a character back in 3.5? How annoying it was to set up just the basic stats? I once spent like three days trying to pick a Deity that “fit” my character and after pouring over like fifteen thousand abstract, random, and retarded Gods I just said f*** and picked one of the main Deities. And you know what? That’s what everyone always did! And if they didn’t they houseruled and made up a God to worship. When was the last time you ever had Istus; the greater Goddess or fate, destiny, and divination appear in your game? What about Karaan? Iuz? How about Lirr, Mouqol or Osperm? Xan Yae? Telchur? Of course not, NOBODY DID! It was useless fluff that cluttered up the game and didn’t improve it at all. And if you hear ME saying that fluff is unimportant then trust me… IT IS! 4e has done a commendable job as strategically cutting the fat away that was slowing down and holding up D&D from becoming what it was meant to be. Now when AD&D first game out there wasn’t any of the clutter we had/have now-a-days, but over time the fiction has added up and the game has been weighed down by its far too extensive array of useless back story crap. It does two things wrong. It’s adds confusion to new players trying to get into the game and scares them away with a novels worth of pointless information they need to become familiar with before being able to play and it causes entire campaigns to come to a screeching halt when a discrepancy comes up between the games mechanics and it’s story element. Story trumps rules. For more info on what I mean by this just go watch “Gamers 2; The Dorkness Rising.” The guy who plays the Monk Character does a good job as showing just how idiotic some players can be about 3.5 rules.
But that’s just minor stuff right? How about we go into the over use of Chaotic Neutral? Was it just in my games or did everyone who ever chose “Chaotic Neutral” just pick it cause they wanted to screw everyone over and just dick around and do whatever they wanted? It was like a free pass to be the party asshole. We used to houserule that you couldn’t pick Chaotic Neutral cause we all got so tired of players douche-ing up the game and just writing it off as “It’s what my character would do.”
Now how about criticals? I mean really. Is there anything more exciting in the world than seeing that sexy two-oh staring you down your d20? No of course not. Crits are pretty rare as anyone playing D&D will tell you and when they do happen they are epic and awesome and should be met with praise and much drinking of the dwarven ale. But not in 3.5. Oh no. Some ass hat decided, “Wait! Let’s make crits do ridiculous amounts of damage and other extra stuff but make it so that when you DO roll a crit you have to then make another roll to determine whether it’s a true crit of not.” Anytime a crit is rolled in 3.5 everyone gets really silent, the room hushes and everyone holds their breath. And either the party gets a free pass on whatever it is they are currently doing, which is stupid to get on just one dice roll, or they get depressed cause it’s not a true crit. I’m sorry, but I call shenanigans on that one. When you get down to the bare bones of it 3.5 is just broken. I’m sorry to say that but it’s a broken system. 3.5 is the 1980’s of D&D. Everyone likes to look back on it as such a “rad” and awesome time with their nostalgia glasses on full blast but in reality it’s something to be embarrassed about. All those Madonna’s and parachute pants? Ew. I mean yeah we all look back and laugh and sing along with those redicculous 80’s-tastic music videos, I’m looking at you David Bowie and Mick Jagger, but whats embarrassing is that people thought that was actually cool at one point. (if you need further proof at how stupid the 80’s were just go on youtube and search David Bowie Dancing in the Street)
Also a big complaint I have about 3.5 is that a lot of the role-playing is done for you. The races are so heavy handedly made that you are kind of forced to role-play them the way the were meant to be played. I always felt like 3.5 sort of took your hand on the role-playing aspect and walked you through the generic phases of role-playing but never took any risks. And since the game didn’t take any risks in what is PRESENTED as option for role-playing than neither did the players. Sure experienced players would get into it but 3.0/3.5 was around for what? 5 years? Yeah no thanks. There a reason it didn’t last long. It didn’t work.
              Now look at 4th edition. You easily know what your bonuses are for each race, you know what races work well with what class, how to easily tweak other races to fit abstract classes that wouldn’t normally work, and Feats add great ways to create a character based on what you want him/her to operate like. They can add some real good depth and room for exploring back story as well. Sure you could meta game the crap out of your character and just pick everything that you should and max out all the “correct” stats and bonuses but if you’re doing that then you’ve missed the point entirely. Now I will admit I really do like how in 3.5 you had to take negatives to your race along with the bonuses and I really wish that 4e would have implemented that in at least some capacity but I’m not going to loose any sleep over that.
              Also 4e introduced the power system. Now let me stop you right there and say this. YES! I am very aware that the power system isn’t the most efficiently running system ever conceived by man but it has unbelievable potential and that potential I feel is being realized as we speak by the people at Wizards of the Coast. I honestly feel that when they perfect the whole “Stance” and “Augment Power Points” thing along with a perfect balance of At-Wills, Encounters and Daily’s that the powers system will be realized as the wonder that it is. As it stands it’s still pretty good. I like the At-Wills, they are good and provide flavor and fluff along with little extra things to help spice up combat while still staying true to each character class. I do think that you should have more than two though but with the essentials character we are getting there. Encounters are also really good, they make you feel like your character is really throwing themselves into the fight and giving and little something extra while adding to the At-Will flavor of adding terrain effects, more damage, better bonuses and so on. The problem that the power system really has lies in it’s Daily’s. Daily’s suck balls. They are dumb. Yes they are good for some classes but most classes could easily do without them and instead should allow you to pick another At-Will or Encounter. Daily’s have what I like to call “The Rocket-Launcher Effect.” Which means that a character will hold off using it because they think they might have to fight something bigger and badder in the next room but there is always something worse in the next room so you save it and save it and end up never actually using it. It’s like in a video game when you conserve the all the ammo you ever get for that one big gun and never end up using it because you are afraid you might waste it and not have it later when you need it. Some classes really benefit from the Dailys such as the Wizard Paladin and Cleric but overall they are pretty pointless to most classes and just serve to clutter up the game in my opinion.
             So I know it sounds like I’m being pretty hard on 3.5, but that is only because I see so many people getting into pointless squabbles over the meaningless minuscule points of the changes from 3.5 to 4e. One of those being the introduction of the Dragonborn as a playable race along with the Tieflings visual changes, I find it baffling that these tiny changes were met with the level of animosity that they were. Now I understand that people were a little upset with the appearance change to the Tiefling from 3.5 to 4e but in reality is this that big of a deal? I mean it’s a game of imagination for crying out loud. If you don’t like the way the Tiefling looks then just imagine it as however you want it to look. This isn’t hard to do here folks. I think this is where my point about 3.5 doing all the role-playing for the players is founded. Players actually got up in arms over the art style choice of a single race and because of that one change some people started screaming that the sky was falling. So they have bigger horns and tails?! Holy crap! The Gnoll has been a playable character since 3.0 what are you freaking out about?!?! Look as the asthteic changes from When D&D was called Chainmail and had like five races. Seriously people this kind of bitching needs to cease and desist! Get over the little pictures in the playbooks and start using your own imagination. That’s what I like about 4e, it doesn’t hold your hand. It also allows you to feel more of an individual. Now wait, I can already hear people screaming at me over this one, but it’s true. While 4e is much more streamlined that 3.5 it has much more depth. Because the classes are so much easier to work with you don’t have to spend so much meaningless time on the small details and you get your character right out of the gate and because you probably have the same powers as other characters from the same class (an example being how almost every rogue will take sly flourish as an At-Will or how every cleric has Healing Word) you have to actually put effort into and work on making them as well as your character your own.
I know I’ve rambled on for a while now but here is where I come to the end. This is the big one. I’m looking at you D&D community. And to be frank I am disgusted with a lot of you. It makes me sick to see the way fans of 4e are treated. On blogs, in game stores, in just general conversation I think it is deplorable the things that are said to people just because they enjoy 4e over 3.5.
You see before 4e the people who played D&D had always played D&D with very little exception. Most people who played 3.0 or 3.5 got into it because when it came out they were already playing some version of D&D, most likely AD&D, so they just picked up the new version. The thing is, is that 3.0 and 3.5 were VERY exclusive. They were extremely heavy handed on player knowledge coming out of the gate. In order for a game to run smoothly you had to have a pretty damn good understanding of the rules and world of D&D already. The learning curve was a bitch and that really turned off people who were interested in getting started. It was a step forward from AD&D but not enough of one. With 4e that curve is brought to a smooth and practical arc that allows players new and old to have fun. What this has done is it’s allowed people who would never even think about playing D&D to pick it up for a simple play through and fall in love with it.
That is why 4e is so hated. D&D is no longer that exclusive indie rock band that you get to hoard to yourself. They are full-fledged rock stars. The game is no longer this like pinnacle of the Nerd Kingdom. You see because AD&D, 3.0 and 3.5 were so hard to understand and get into because they required such a large investment from the player that once you got into it and finished your first campaign you felt like you had earned your strips. You were a full on nerd and proud of it. D&D was once the bar by which all nerds and geeks were judged. I mean I’ve seen people arguing over who is better, Picard or Shatner (Shat FTW) and then turn to another friend and tease him for being a D&D nerd. D&D nerds used to be set apart from the rest. Separate in their own little fantasy world of obscure rules and retarded difficulty. But the thing about that is while it may work for a while it is an unsustainable form or game play. There is a reason Wizards of the Coast was making so many lay-offs and cuts in the 2000’s. They invested heavily into 3.0/3.5 and while they sold well within their own predicted market range they didn’t do well outside of that which is where you need to be if you want to continue making the game. 4e was not only a smart move by WotC, it was necessary.
Please though, don’t read this and take any of it as condemnation. If you like 3.0/3.5 that’s rad! Cool! Have fun playing it and punch Tiamat in the face once for me. But it is disgusting behavior for us as nerds, the ones who have been mocked for our taste in entertainment and muse to turn on our own kind and mock those of us who are segregated within our own culture. It has to stop. Don’t hold yourself higher just because you like 3.5 over 4e. Don’t be a D&D snob. Love your fellow nerd as Gygax would. And never stop killing the kobolds.
This is Scott Farspell over and out.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

From Beyond the Grave

*This post will contain spoilers to the Scales of War adventure path*

So last time, I gave the intro into the Scales of War adventure, A Tyranny of Souls, or rather the intro that I decided to use. I jumped the party right into the middle of the adventure by killing them off, but that wasn’t the end. I was initially going to leave them on that cliffhanger, actually end that week with that ending with the simple promise that there was more to come, but I just couldn’t do it to them. The suspense was killing ME, so I just had to give them a little bit more.
I described how each party member discovered that they were completely alone and naked in the darkness. There was nothing else there and they felt very ephemeral and weak. Death, if you will. Storywise, what I decided to do here was that  I modified some of the properties of Tu’narath so that anyone who dies there falls under the githyanki’s independence of the gods. As a people they had declared themselves free from all of the gods of the Astral Sea and so they have nothing to look for in the afterlife. They don’t go anywhere after they die. So the party finds themselves completely alone and waiting in some kind of blank darkness with no idea what is going on when they start to feel a dull nudging drawing them forward, but without any real direction. I asked them each individually how they responded to that nudging and if they were even moderately submissive to it, it suddenly whisked them forward and they found themselves very much in pain and very much in a prison cell.
As each of the party members woke up, they started to realize that they were in a prison and all of their gear had been taken. The two arcane characters (artificer and wizard) both realized that there was some kind of arcane mark on their foreheads, but they couldn’t quite tell what it was. At this point, I had a number of guards come walking in and behind them followed a very regal looking githyanki who eventually was revealed as the Emperor of the githyanki. He gloated and commented on how foolish the PCs were in accepting the resurrection spell that his people had cast on them. He also made a veiled comment on how much he was looking forward to torturing them. Basically I was trying to bait the players into attacking him, namely because he was WAY good and they didn’t have their gear and also because he had an ace in the hole. The general tinglyness that the arcane casters were picking up on was a Mark of Justice. 
Just a sample of what the Mark of Justice is like from one of my favorite webcomics Order of the Stick
I have to admit, I didn't come up with the idea myself. I was reading an article a while back about alternatives to killing a monster in combat and it talked about using this ritual from the party's perspective. In just a short aside, it mentioned about how cool it would be to have a villain do this to the party if they could so I thought I'd run with it and see what happened. The key to the mark was that whenever a member of the party made an attack that did damage to a githyanki, they started vomiting uncontrollably (which mechanically meant that they took damage equal to their healing surge value). I made some tweaks to this so that it was a permanent effect, not something that ended after a 24 hour period. Every turn they made an attack against a githyanki, they would take big damage all without the githyanki having to attack...and be covered in their own vomit constantly. Pretty sweet deal.
So the party didn’t take the bait right away and left the Emperor alone, but once he was done gloating and walked out they started going after the guards (all githyanki) and started getting really injured. I watched the fear grow in their eyes with each round as they were just getting pummelled by minion githyanki and seeing their hitpoints drop. I know, I know, I’m a jerk. The point was, they had to get out of that jail (which they escaped super easy, rogue and all) and avoid as much interaction with githanki as possible. Whenever they came into a new section of the prison, the tension was really high because if there were non-githyanki in the room they knew they could have a bit of a breather and kick the snot out of their opponents.
The Imprisoned Gith,
from A Tyranny of Souls,
a paragon tier adventure from
Wizards of the Coast
The other thing that had a huge effect on the party was the fact that all the party’s gear was gone. Not having their shiny swords of awesomeness and armor of invicibility made them rethink the way that they were playing. They had gotten really used to having a lot of additional effects and missing their swag caused some very creative tactics to peak out. The jail break was one of my favorite play sessions we’ve ever had, mostly because the tension was so high and because they were problem solving like champions. The scene all wrapped up after the party burst into a room with a githyanki woman imprisoned by devils who the party was originally supposed to rescue in the second act of the adventure (A-HA, the plot!). Originally it was a conditional story piece in order for them to receive aid (yet another stab at the ‘start quest, finish quest, start new quest’ model) and instead now they had to rescue her because she was being tortured by devils and may well have been their best help in getting out of the prison. As it turned out, she was WAY more powerful than they even guessed and she opened a portal that led them...somewhere. And that brought them from finishing up the middle section of the adventure to the beginning. It was a heck of a session and really set the tone (and fear) of this adventure. And now the party REALLY hates the Emperor, as opposed to just generally feeling bad things about him because he is a villain they should beat up. They are constantly muttering about how they are gonna mess him up when they meet again and I just can’t wait for that little encounter. They figured out a way to have the mark suppressed for 24 hours (nice time limit effect) and they are storming the castle to try and take out the Emperor and steal his scepter (focus item for the ritual) so they can permanently be healed. We'll just have to see if they can make it!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Home Game Announcement

Hello Internets! I just wanted to give ya'll an update about my Home Game which will start up this coming summer. Basically I've been looking around for some fun adventures to take my new party on, and I've decided to start with the Red Box starter adventure "The Twisted Halls" produced by Wizards of the Coast and here's why...

I've personally have never been a big fan of the adventures Wizards has published. Some of them just aren't that memorable or interesting enough to hold my attention for too long (Eberron being the exception). But with all the new Essential material flooding the scene, I think that I owe Wizards another chance.

Also I have a well blended party of new players, veteran players, and casual players, which makes me a little nervous. How do I please my experienced players and provide enough guidance to my nubs? Normally I would spend a few sleepless nights concocting a complex adventure of my own creation but this time I'm going to take a back seat and see what Essentials has to offer.

Now what does this mean for you? Well, I'm going to make regular posts about the games and the players' experiences, and what it was like DMing. Also, Scott Farspell and I are going to start an actual play podcast so that people can follow along with all the action. So if you are thinking of starting an Essentials campaign, keep checking in for more updates to hear how our game is going.

Anyway, thanks for listening to my rant. Play hard or play safe but at all costs never stop playing.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fun vs. Function (do you play characters the way you want to play or do you play as character as you "should"?)

During the 4th week of the weekly grind my Tiefling Necromancer met his end under a collapsing ceiling while trying to perform the ritual Comprehend Language on runes that appeared on the very same ceiling that became his demise.

For the full story go to and listen to:

I am a horrible player, which is why I prefer to DMing rather than actually playing. My last batch of characters all died in unique and misfortunate ways which I could have survived if I had played cautiously (but that’s no fun).

The first Tiefling I ever played was Nicolus the Artificer. He was naturally curious (not necessarily a good attribute) and always searching for random things to use as components for his alchemy. Nic was very unlucky, by the end of his journey he had been molested by several smelly dwarven women, lost his left arm to a magic gauntlet which I equipped to him without any kind of preemptive check, and lost his wife and three children to a mechanized raid of werewolves. So let me set the scene for you. Here is Nicolus the Tiefling Artificer and his fellow adventurers dragging themselves from an ancient city from which they just barely survived. The earth rumbles as the magic keeping the city afloat above the sea is fading. Our only escape route is a magic stone bridge which is crumbling beneath our feet. Each hero attempts to make it across and succeeds. The only one left still standing on the edge of the falling city was Nicolus. He was defeated and weak. He longed to be with his family. As he stares into the metal gears and plates that hang were his once reliable arm once was, he curses the day he answered the call of adventure. But he could not give up yet. Vengeance was the only fuel left in him and his tank has running dry. He took one step onto the bridge (Acrobatics. . . 3) and he began to lose his balance but he still had a chance to catch himself. (Athletics . . . 3) Nicolus falls 500 feet in an instant. In midair he fires a grappling hook from his bowarm which sticks firmly to the side of a cliff. Then, as Nicolus picks up speed on the downward swinging arc of his rope, he slams into the side of the solid cliff face below. Nothing was left of the poor adventurer except his dangling metal arm still attached to the grappling hook hanging from the cliff.

The moral of the story is that I have to stop playing as Tieflings.

But the reason I want to share this story is because I want to talk about Character Creation. I’m also horrible at this aspect of the game. Too often I choose a Race/Class combination simply based on their ability score rather than weather or not I actually want to play said character.

After Arkmenos (my necromancer) died in the 4th core dungeon, I began exploring the character builder for an appropriate ritual caster. I decided to go with Tyran Terror, a Revenant Warlock. Even though Revenants don’t make the best Warlocks I chose this character based on my desire to play it instead of just matching a Revenant with the class that uses the exact same ability scores.

Players should not feel restricted to any particular role, race or class just because “we need a healer in the party” or “My class uses Dex to hit, what Race gives has bonus to Dex?” Players should play what they want to play as regardless of the game mechanics. Trying to make characters based off the game’s rules and tweaking the system for every desperate plus to die roles takes away from the narrative of the game. My biggest pet-peeve is when game play comes to a grinding halt because a player will not accept a failed role. “LET GO!!!” Of all people, I’ve failed on the roles that have killed my characters; you can afford to miss one attack roll.

I always tell my players to be whatever they want to be. If that creates an imbalance in the party dynamic than I feel it is my duty as the dungeon master to compensate for that. In one adventure I ran, we had no healer. So I created an animal familiar that could perform healing word at the cost of a standard action. It was a small enchanted frog. With the right nature check the players could command the frog to heal themselves or an ally. This creative solution also provided a fun and interesting creature that the players treated like a loveable pet. If the players create gaps in their defenses or abilities then instead of exploiting those weaknesses by killing off you party (thus teaching them a valued lesson in party organization) the DM should see this as an opportunity for some creative storytelling.

“No defenders? Hit them with artillery and provide cover.”

“No strikers? Add exploding barrels to an encounter that deal out massive damage when detonated.”

“Really poor passive perception? Have fun with that, traps are a DM’s best friend (muhahaha).”

“Lazy DM? Expensive mercenaries can always cover the party’s back for a price.”

Even though I hate dying so often, I never regret playing a character based on theme alone. Bottom line, I would never play a game where the players hated their roles. A happy player means that they will be more engaged with their character and roleplaying will come more natural to them.

Anyway, thanks for reading my rant. Play hard or play safe but at all costs never stop playing.

Fluffernutters and D&D

        I love fluffernutters. Holy crap are they delicious. For those of you who have never had one, a fluffernutter is a sandwich with peanut butter, but instead of using jelly or jam as the other condiment to complete your delicious lunchtime snack you use fluff. Fluff is a marshmellowy jam like spread that has a distinct after taste of Heaven. But why am I talking about Fluff? This is supposed to be about D&D. Well aside from the fact that I really want a fluffernutter right now I want to talk about the importance of fluff in D&D. I’ve seen a lot of games go bad when players lose interest in their characters, stop being as involved and committed to the game and just overall stop caring about the world they are playing in and, in turn, the game itself. I have been one of these players so I know what a stale game of Dungeons and Dragons tastes like, and I think the cure for a stale game is more fluff.
        So what is fluff? Fluff can be anything from adding flavor texts to your actions, to describing what your attacks looks like in an encounter to the DM describing the weather conditions. In short, fluff is everything that acts as an adjective to the world you are playing in.
         Fluff is something that is and should be used by DMs and players alike. It’s really hard for a player when all he/she hears from the DM is - Ok I got a natural 16, plus 9… so that’s 25 to your AC, I do 13 points of damage. Next this little guy right here is gonna move 6 squares and attack you. He gets a 17 to Fort. Miss? Ok, next in initiative is Valrun. I mean come on! I’m at this table killing my liver with two liters of Mountain Dew and this is the game I’m playing? No. If this is what your D&D game sounds like then there is something seriously wrong. How much better does – The elven warrior runs right up to you and with a furious battle cry bring his halberd down right on top of your shield! How’s a 25 feel against your Armor Class? Alright you scream out in pain as the halberd pierces your shield and skewers your arm causing 13 points of damage. Then the other elven warrior is going to cast his halberd away, you see him start to focus his energy into his hands and he runs right up to you and throws a powerful fist right at your chest. You feel the full weight of the elf break across your chainmail. Will a 13 hit your Fort? Ok then as the elf’s palm slams into your chest you brace yourself against his blow, shift your weight and easily absorb the hit. Valrun, as you see this happening you are spurred to actions!
          Do you see the difference? One is so basic that even George Lucas would laugh at it. The other feels epic and grand like a real encounter should. Now I know you can’t do this all the time, as a DM you have a LOT to keep track of and things can sometimes get overwhelming but more times than not you should be adding some fluff to the combat.
However fluff does not partner well with only furious combat. Oh no, fluff is delicious with everying, skill challenges, minor details of towns and people, anything really. Tell your players what the weather is like, let them know that the weight of their wet cloaks feels heavy as they approach the dark town, the cold bites at their windswept faces driving them to seek shelter. I promise you that little things like this will do more for your campaign than any amount of story hooks could ever do.
Let’s say you want your players to talk to a certain person in town to highlight that person because you want the NPC to come back and be useful later, the only problem is that your players have a nasty habit of never doing what you want them to. Just add fluff. (DM rule #1: No matter how many scenarios you plan to present your party with, be it one thousand or ten thousand, your party will always choose the one course of action you not only hand’t planned on, but didn’t even know existed until just now.)

No fluff:You get confused walking through the streets and are now lost. Give me a streetwise check. Ok you notice a guy sitting outside his house in an old wooden chair who looks like he lives here, you think asking him would be a good idea.

Fluff: “After setting out for the mansion district you realize that you don’t really understand the layout of the town and as you continue to pass by brick buildings and clay houses they all start to blur together. Soon you find yourselves lost amongst the towers and spires. These behemoth of brick lure over you, causing you to feel like you are lost in a sea of stone and mortar. After several minutes of this you come across a small clay house that seems to have aged faster than the rest of the city. It’s not decrepit; it simply looks more homely than any of the other buildings you have seen. What’s more is that sitting outside this house, in an old yew chair is a man who seems to have noticed the puzzled looks cut across your faces. His eyes meet yours, he seems kind, the blue hue in his eyes seems to have faded with age yet you get a feeling that he wishes to talk to you. You see him wave at you, beckoning you.”
         Now there are two things to take away from this. One is obvious the other is not. First off, which one do you think your players will be more responsive to? Obviously the second one. It not only helps to set the mood for the town and the player’s current situation but it also helps your players get a feel of their own characters. A lot of the time players forget that they are not playing themselves in the world you are laying before them but rather playing a character in the midst of a world that is unfolding in response to their actions.
The second thing that you may or may not have noticed is that aside from fluff catching your players attentions with it’s alluring and captivating flavor, is that it can eliminate needless and pointless dice rolling. Let me just say this, if you are asking your players to roll for a skill without them prompting it (i.e. them asking if a nature or religion check would be better on a particular monster) then you are doing something wrong. But more on that in a different post. Fluff will capture that players attentions and bring their minds and imaginations back to the table/game and help block out other distractions that may be present at the table.
          But!!!!!! This is not a DM only game. A DM is only as strong as his/her weakest player. You MUST get your players hooked on using fluff too. Have them describe their actions, ask them to explain how they are feeling after a major event in the game, how they feel about finding out it was really the old man in the chair that had been helping the kobolds with their invasions of the city. The best way I have ever seen this put to use is actually in a game I am currently playing in. My DM, who is actually the author of this blog, gives all players a +1 to attack rolls if we describe what our attack look likes before we roll. Now you can’t just be like “I swing my axe really super duper hard!” No. That’s not going to cut it. Try, “As I charge the Fomorian Guard I hurl my axe overhead and with an ear shattering howl I bring my blade down, burying it in his purple skin.” Now THAT is worthy of a plus one. This is a perfect way to get players in the right mindset to respond better to fluffy goodness. Maybe even trying basing the success of a skill challenge on how well they describe what they say to an NPC. If your players find themselves invited to tea by an NPC they suspect is up to dastardly deeds, and in his presents at the tea party are conversing with him DON’T ask them for a Diplomacy or Intimidate roll. FIRST ask them to role-play, I know crazy idea. Ask them to actually talk as if they were face to face with the NPC. This forces the player into the mind of their character, and while this may seem second nature to some veteran players you would be surprised at how well it works with newer players and people having a hard time finding a grip on their character.
          Now I know the stuff I’m saying here isn’t groundbreaking or probably anything you haven’t heard before but sometimes I think we need to state the obvious because the obvious can be overlooked. A lot of the times, especially in 4e, players will get really excited over what a power can do or how many dice they role. They forget about the rich and thriving world that they are exploring and instead center on the mechanics of the game which can really grind games down after awhile. I mean sure rolling a crap ton of dice is fun but it will get old I promise you that. The story, the adventure the thrill though… well isn’t that what we nerds come to D&D for in the first place? I mean if you wanna be cool and roll dice go to Las Vegas, man. But if you want to bitch slap a mummy into an iron maiden with Mage Hand, or stop the slaughter of the Githzerai… well then I’ve got a sandwich for you.
The gist of what I’m trying to say here is that fluff when looked at from a distance can simply be what it appears to be. A little dollop of some sweet treat with no lasting impression or nutrition. Nothing big or anything to get excited about. But when you spread that fluff evenly over a nicely paved foundation of peanut butter and sandwich it together between two well prepared pieces of bread… well… well you’ve got yourself one hell of a sandwich right there.
          Good look at I hope this helped a little bit. I am now off to the kitchen.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Beginnings...At the End of the Middle?

*This post will contain spoilers to the Scales of War adventure path*

I’ve been working my way through the Scales of War adventure path that Wizards of the Coast put together. The adventure path is designed to provide material for a party to travel from level 1 all the way to level 30 through a series of interconnected stories and plotlines. The party I am running through this whole thing has been playing for over 2 years and just hit the level 20 mark.
I make a point of reading through the adventures going forward and trying to figure out where the story is gonna lead and what is going to be important in the future. As I was reading through the end of Garaitha’s Anvil and into A Tyranny of Souls I noticed a point where the pattern was just blatantly getting repeated. There was an established pattern of the party being sent on an adventure and then when they finish the goal they get a reward and then someone else tells them what to do. Rinse and repeat. I could tell that this particular quest dynamic was getting too familiar for them so I decided to do something drastic. I altered the deal.
image from Garaitha's Anvil, a paragon tier adventure
published  by Wizards of the Coast
Garaitha’s Anvil ends at a githyanki shipyard with a combat on a githyanki astral warship. The party was hunting down the crystal key to give the Coalition control of the githyanki portal system. Supposedly the Admiral of the Imperial Navy had one of the three keys that could unlock and control the portal system. The adventure was supposed to end with the keys being grabbed and the party just getting to wait until the next adventure comes through and invites them along. Unfortunately, many of these adventures are designed that way. It didn’t feel as interesting as it could be so I made a little twist to the published adventure (which I’ve tried to not tweak too much).
In order for them to catch up to the Admiral’s ship, they grabbed an astral skiff and tried to race ahead and catch up. This runs as a skill challenge and unfortunately the party didn’t do very well. They stalled their ship out racing forward. At this point I got fancy and rammed their little ship with the Admiral’s flagship, hut the party a little, and started the battle in earnest. They were still able to defeat the Admiral and all of his lackeys, but in the end they were all on the damaged flagship as it started to spiral out of control towards the giant glowing portal at the center of the shipyard. I tried to be very descriptive and clarify just how out of control the ship was and how quickly it was moving towards the portal and even how the portal looked like a portal (which I think the party may not have figured out at this point), but the party was really focused on looting the Admiral’s body and cleaning up the remainder of the encounter. After all, they had to recover the key, that was there goal and without the key they couldn't finish the quest and move on to the next piece of the story. So they found the key on a chain around the Admiral's neck and after a short while longer the ship passed through the portal, which lead to right to the front door of the githyanki capital city of Tu’narath…where the rest of the githyanki navy was currently in tactical engagements…with a dozen flights of dragonriders…and an elder red dragon who just so happens to be an exarch of Tiamat. Getting the picture? The party hadn't yet.

image from A Tyranny of Souls, a paragon tier adventure
published  by Wizards of the Coast
So the party dives under the deck of the ship leaving the paladin (best negotiator) on top deck with a hat of disguise that makes her look like the Admiral they  just killed (I mean she did just steal his armor). The elder red dragon lands on the top deck and starts asking the “Admiral” what happened to his crew and why his ship is impaled on another ship…in Deep Speech…which the paladin doesn’t understand...and the Admiral should have spoken fluently. So suffice to say, the paladin (who is played by my wife, who was NOT pleased with me) got bit in half by the dragon and then all of the ships opened fire on the astral warship. The entire party died.
Now I might just be a jerk here, but I had a very clear motivation for doing this. The party had always faced challenges that they knew they could beat and they mostly had had it pretty easy. I wanted to push them to the limits and beyond and prove that there were in fact some really intense and terrible situations in the world their characters exist in and that while they are awesome heroes they are not invincible. So it may seem like I was just a jerky DM trying to prove that he is tougher than the party who just wanted to put THE FEAR into them, but their death on that ship was not the end. I used this opportunity to drop them in the direct middle of the next adventure as originally designed and it most definitely caught them up in the story of end of the paragon tier of the Scales of War beginning what I hope will be a rush to the climax of a tier and a very dramatic end it could be.
I’ll have the next piece of what exactly that looked like some time soon.

WeeklyGrind4E - Week 4

Here is an actual play recording of us playing through the 4th room of the WeeklyGrind4e dungeon crawl.