Saturday, February 28, 2009
Reaching a milestone has two effects. First, it grants players an extra action point, which can be traded at the end of a player's turn to immediately take another standard, move or minor action (that's "or", not "and"). That's good, but not wonderful, as you can only spend one action point per encounter in any case.
Secondly, it grants players another use of a daily equipment power. Normally players can only use one daily power granted by equipment per day, no matter how many such powers they may have access to. (If you have a daily on your armour and a daily on your boots, for example, you can use one but not both.) The milestone allows a further such use.
Milestone benefits vanish after an extended rest; no matter how many you've accrued, sleeping sets you back to a single action point and a single daily equipment power.
The commonly cited intent behind these powers is to "reward players for a long adventuring day". That's something of a misunderstanding, though. Milestones don't reward long adventuring days, they merely make them less punishing. Given an unlimited pool of time, it is always better to take an extended rest after every encounter, to refresh your daily class powers and regain your full pool of healing surges. If the benefits of a milestone outweigh the cost of surviving two encounters without resting, then your encounters are probably too easy.
Milestones are a very poor way of balancing extended rests. They don't encourage players to press on, they merely make them less angry when they're denied a rest for long strings of encounters in a row. DMs who don't want their players taking a nap after every fight are going to have to introduce time pressure into every story (which generally improves the story, so not much of a loss) or repeatedly make it too dangerous to camp (possibly realistic but rarely fun).
Wizards of the Coast should have gone down a different path. Instead of hitching daily effects to the concept of resting, they should have connected them to some narrative element. "Daily" effects should instead have been "once per session", or, if you don't trust your GMs to wrap up game sessions at an appropriate moment, "once per chapter", with the GM having the explicit power to declare a "new chapter" at any appropriate lull in the action.
It would have been more consistent, too. We already have the concept of an "encounter", a unit defined more by narrative than by time; it seems odd that daily effects don't follow the pattern.
Friday, February 27, 2009
This is the introduction to Commander Keegan's tomb. The players will find their way here from the Crypt of Shadows and arrive on the map above from the north. They're confronted with a corridor lined with "rows of sarcophagi", which connects to a large domed chapel dedicated to Bahamut, the Platinum Dragon (one of D&D's pantheon of "gods of good").
Naturally, the sarcophagi are a trap, and as soon as the players move between the first pair of coffins the whole set spring open and start coughing up magical skeletons. In the first round the trap spawns eight minions and two slightly-more-beefy warrior-types, and for each of the next five rounds it produces another two minions.
Clearly the intent here was that players would see this as a "never-ending torrent of skeletons", and attempt to escape to the chapel. Praying to Bahamut at either of the altars sends the undead back to their tombs, and thematically establishes the conflict between "goodness and light" and "foul, unnatural undead". However, it dosen't quite work like that.
First up, two minions a round isn't an "unending torrent"; in fact, it's barely an annoyance to a competent party. Twink-oriented groups will start farming for XP (at least until the trap runs out of juice), while even groups who aren't power-focused will get the clear impression that they are killing faster than the trap is spawning.
Secondly, the encounter is thematically confusing. These aren't just another bunch of the zombies that have been brought to life by Kalarel and the rift energies; they're a deliberately created magical trap, presumably intended to guard the chapel and the tomb. Why is a chapel to Bahamut guarded by undead? Who created the trap - was it here before Keegan went mad, and if so why? Was it installed afterwards, and if so by who? As we'll soon discover, the ghost of Keegan deserves some respect, but there's no evidence that "magical undead trap creation" is numbered amongst his post-death talents. (It's worth noting that if Kalarel had the power to spawn endless magical skeletons it would render much of his rift-opening work redundant.)
Thirdly, there's insufficient information. The players can't even see the chapel properly from the corridor, can't see the domed ceiling with the painting revealing who the chapel is dedicated to, and have no reason to think that praying at an altar would yield any substantive reward. (That's leaving aside the roleplaying issues of characters who might not feel comfortable praising Bahamut merely for the sake of convenience.)
And finally, it's a tactically uninteresting encounter. Even if you wanted to get to the altars, you can't, because the non-minion skeletons block your way. The exit, by contrast, remains wide open, so players just kind of bottleneck up in the entryway and settle in for some skeleton-killing. The skeletons have bows as well as their swords but as they don't have any allies who can tank and it's such a cramped space they really don't get much chance to use them.
Ultimately, smashing up skeletons never gets old, so it's a fun romp even if it doesn't work as intended.
 To make the encounter work as originally intended, move the tougher Skeleton Warriors to spawn behind the players, blocking their exit, and then double or triple the extra minions per round (to whatever you think your players can almost-but-not-quite handle). Emphasise the "silvery white light" suffusing the chapel area and play up the skeletons' unwillingness to go near the altars.
Friday, February 20, 2009
Characters in 4th Edition who are knocked to zero hit points wind up on "death's door". They are unconcious, and each turn on their action they can roll 1d20. On a 10 or less they slip closer to death; three such failed rolls, and they die. On the other hand, on a 20 they wake up and get back in the fight with the benefit of a healing surge. In the event that a player continues taking damage after going unconcious, they'll die when they hit their bloodied value in negative hit points.
This is a great system. It takes players on average six rounds to completely die, which is longer than your typical combat. Unconcious players have something meaningful to do on their turn with the possible reward of revival for a good roll. Healers have plenty of time to get their friends back on their feet. Really, a player should only ever die if the entire party wipes together, and in that scenario DMs have plenty of opportunity to have them all saved or thrown in prison instead, if that's your play style.
It's great because not playing isn't fun. If we wanted to not play, we could not buy the rulebooks and not turn up to sessions of the game. The difference between unconsciousness and sitting at home with a good book is a question only of degree.
The occasional couple of missed rounds interject some genuine threat into combat encounters but beyond that players are just being punished for playing heroic fantasy as though it were heroic fantasy. There are plenty of exciting games about never taking chances and only attacking when you have an overwhelming chance of success, but they are not Dungeons & Dragons.
So I found this on the ENWorld forums today:
"Well maybe I take game too seriously in this case, but I personally penalize death a lot. This means most of the time that the player will have to wait until the end of the *adventure* before re-joining the group and usually arrives with a character which is at least one level lower than the lowest level character in the party (I reward experience individually).While the dead waits for playing again, he can assist me as a DM in the adventure, interpreting NPCs or other situations."Oh sweet Jeebers. This is wrong on so many levels. First of all, how did your player die? Did the monsters keep attacking him after he was unconscious, instead of taking down the players who were still dealing damage? "Monsters Who Are Also Self-Defeating Jerks" is one of the lesser acknowledged dangers of dungeoneering.
Secondly, why are you punishing him for death? Are you saying he didn't avoid death to the best of his ability? Watch out for next game, when he'll stay back at the tavern rather than going dungeoneering. Are you saying he displayed inadequate skill in combat? This probably means he's a less experienced player; killing his character and getting him to sit out a session is not a great way to encourage him back for more games. Or was the guy just being an unrepentant idiot? Rather than dumping him for a session you might be better off talking about the issue directly.
Next, you're making him sit out a session AND getting him to roll up a new character? If losing his character wasn't a punishment to him you've got bigger issues with this group than death-happy adventurers, and players skipping a session isn't going to help them any. The only reason a character should ever permanently die is if it makes good story; if that's not what's happening here, your first and most important duty as DM is to find a clever way to save him. If resurrection cheapens death for you then don't let him die in the first place.
And last, your guy's coming back lower than the lowest-levelled player? So the punishment for being too weak to survive a combat is... getting weaker? That's what's called a "vicious circle". And again, that's on top of skipping a session and losing your character.
If this DM's players are really enjoying this type of play in full awareness of the existence of other options, then more power to them, they should keep doing what they're doing. But for everyone else out there, if you're playing like this, do the world a favour and stop.
That tabletop has failed to materialise; earlier in the year Wizards announced a re-focusing of resources to prioritise getting the Character Builder finished. Now an official Wizards survey is asking some fairly pointed questions about how much players actually want the software.
One question asks how interested players would be in using Wizards-developed virtual tabletop software. Another enquires as to how often players currently roleplay using the internet or LANs.
More pertinent is this pair of questions:
"How much do you trust Wizards of the Coast to deliver quality gaming software?"
"How much do you trust Wizards of the Coast to deliver gaming software on time?"
Some may recall that Wizards suffered incredible problems delivering their player tools for D&D 3.5 on any sort of timetable, and ended up vomiting up some distinctly sub-par and poorly maintained results. Their 4th Edition Character Builder is better, but suffers deep flaws, chief among them an inability to export character sheets into non-proprietary formats. On the basis of the entire history of Wizards, I checked the above two questions "not at all".
This survey suggests Wizards is fundamentally rethinking their development of the tabletop. Up until now, they've been developing a full-fledged major application, which they were then going to give away to D&D Insider subscribers. That could be a hard thing to justify on a balance sheet. If the tabletop has hit ongoing development problems I wouldn't be surprised to see Wizards pull the plug.
They're missing the larger picture, though. Having their wider player-base hooked up through Wizards proprietary software gives Wizards a whole new market and a whole new way to sell virtual dungeon tiles, virtual miniatures, and pre-designed virtual adventures.
NB: I can't link to the survey, unfortunately, as it appears to either only offer itself randomly to visitors to D&D Insider or Enworld.org, or otherwise was a one-day-only affair.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Not to great effect, though.
The zombies in the Crypt of Shadows can attempt to grab the players. Their "zombie grab" is a +4 vs Fortitude melee attack; success immobilises the victim, and they can sustain the grab as a minor action. (Players can achieve the same effect with a Str vs Reflex attack.)
Immobilisation isn't paralysis; an immobilised character is merely prevented from taking move actions, and can still disembowel nearby zombies. In the unlikely event that some fancy swordwork is insufficient to fix the situation, you can escape a grab with a successful Athletics vs Fortitude or Acrobatics vs Reflex attack.
Grabbing is a tanking move; it pins the target into contact with the grabber and prevents them from going after more important enemies. In the Crypt of Shadows, there are no targets that are more important than others. Zombies who grab in this encounter are wasting an action.
This is a problem that has haunted roleplaying systems since the dawn of time, for one very simple reason. There is little reason to grapple an enemy if you are holding a weapon. If you are not holding a weapon, there is little reason to grapple an enemy rather than picking up an improvised weapon. In the unlikely event that unarmed combat actually occurs, there is no good reason not to resolve it using the normal combat rules.
The tanking uses of grabbing are interesting, but every class who is intended to tank has more effective ways of achieving this effect. A common theme is dealing damage as well as pinning the enemy. Players (but not zombies) may also drag a grabbed enemy up to half their speed with a further Str vs Fort attack, which might have some rare tactical use but is made mostly unhelpful by the sheer number of ways you can fail the attack or have your target escape before you reach your destination.
There is an example in a later encounter of the grab rules used well, as part of a monster special ability, but by and large, in an exception-based rule system, this is an exception we did not need to have.
 Would the grab rules be substantially improved by allowing a grabber to deal their STR modifier in damage each time they apply or sustain the grab? Or does this just make it clearer that grabbing is an unnecessary exception to the regular combat rules?
This is the start of a new section of Keep on the Shadowfell, which can be broadly described as "the tombs". The flavour enemy here is the undead, and the climax of the area is a confrontation with the ghost of Sir Keegan, the Keep's last commander.
The Crypt of Shadows leads into the tombs with a short maze of corridors, which the players enter from the east (top of the map). "Strange designs" are inscribed on the floor at intervals. Stepping on one of these designs triggers a "throat-tearing scream", which summons the zombies who are waiting at the south-east and north-west of the area, and also subjects whoever tripped the alarm to a fear effect which can send the unfortunate player running straight into the arms of the undead.
There are some problems with the encounter. One is that players will almost certainly clear out the zombies in the south-east before monkeying with the designs, which takes a lot of the sting out of the set-up. Another is that the southernmost inscription is redundant and can be safely walked around.
The biggest problem, though, is in the description of the runes. The module says only, "Strange designs are inscribed into the floor," and then provides an unhelpful picture of what the designs look like. A DC 20 Arcana or Religion check reveals what the runes do, but that can be a tough roll for even a trained second-level character. (A best-case scenario sees only a 55% chance of success; more realistic chances for trained characters are 40%.)
No rules are provided for "defusing" the runes, although that's a fairly simple house rule for the DM to come up with. Instead, players are expected to jump across these obstacles. Experiments with three parties suggest that new players simply won't think of this; the runes are 10 feet across and on the battlemap it looks too far to jump. The DM will probably need to mention that 10 feet is a jumpable distance.
Jumping them turns out to be quite easy - DC 11 with a running start is 50/50 odds for even the most inept character - but with five characters the cumulative percentages mean that you'll almost certainly have someone fail during the jump. In most situations, that means the party split on either side of the rune as the undead come surging forwards.
This isn't a fair trap. There are several reasons why. The first and most obvious is that it doesn't make sense. Regardless of whether this is an ancient trap set by the keep's original owners or a more recent defence installed by Kalarel, it's haphazard. There is no particular scheme to the placement of the runes - they're not defending anything or placed with any kind of intelligent design. They have the effect of encouraging players to go south before they go north, which is a good thing, as I'll come to in later posts, but they feel random and unfocused both in the larger picture of the keep and in the smaller scale of this encounter.
Another reason the trap is unfair is that by requiring everyone to jump the trap plays on the weakest member of the party; it's punishing players for specialising rather than being generalists. In every other context specialising is the right decision in D&D so here it feels like players are being made to lose because of how often they win.
The third reason that it's unfair is that players aren't provided with the necessary information. There is nothing about these runes to suggest what they'll do, which makes it hard for the players to make meaningful choices about how to approach them. The only available information comes from the Arcana and Religion checks, which are punitively hard considering how vital their information is.
On each occasion I've seen it run, this encounter has been completely underwhelming. It's a definite low point in Keep on the Shadowfell and if the whole module had been like this it's a wonder how anyone could have got past the first session.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
If they do find it, though, they'll come across a cute little piece of design.
The setup is this: players entering the room find a natural cavern filled with "a stagnant pool of brackish water". In the centre of the pool is a small island covered with bones, "spilled coins, and other small objects". That's D&D-speak for "loot". No obvious danger presents itself.
Players aren't idiots, and will suspect a trap. They'll probably suspect the trap to be the water, which they will imagine to contain acid or sharks or somesuch. Crafty Eladrin players will note that the distance from the entrance to the island is exactly five squares, and may be tempted to use their fey step to teleport across the water. Other characters will note that the distance from the shore to the island is ten feet, a relatively easy running jump, and try leaping.
Once one or more characters have reached the island, the real threat emerges; a blue slime, which has been hiding under the water. The slime's a tough competitor, with both standard attacks and area effects that can really mess a character up. Characters isolated on the island will find themselves facing the slime alone, without the benefit of a running start to jump back to safety. The tactical challenge for other players involves either fighting the slime at range, or attempting to join their allies on the island.
I really like the way that this encounter runs the lure of the treasure. By being exactly the right distance away, it tempts players into using the jump and fey step mechanics to their own detriment. The obviously unpleasant water counteracts the room's overly-suspicious atmosphere and tricks players into thinking they know what the threat is without being unfair about it.
What I don't like is that this is the second ooze in a relatively small set of caves. The emergence of the slime should be a moment of surprise and horror but players who've just killed the ochre jelly will more likely be saying, "What, another one?"
Incidentally, this encounter features a half-page "history" sidebar explaining why there is a blue slime in this room. That's more text than all the NPCs in Winterhaven get combined, it's a quarter of a page more than the final villain Kalarel gets, and it's the only room in the entire keep that gets any "history" notes whatsoever. Strange priorities, indeed.
This brings into focus a design disparity in the 4th Edition rules. Elsewhere, we've seen how the sundry items of exploring and travelling crap have been folded into a neat "adventurer's kit". The encumbrance rules are forgiving, allowing even the weakest of characters to lug around plate armour, two polearms and a backpack full of loot without penalty. These are good design choices; we don't need to analyse how our heroes make camp or stay fed any more than we need to know how often they use the toilet. The focus stays firmly on what D&D does well, and away from the minutiae of daily living.
Lighting is problematic, though. How far you can see has very real effects on your decision making, your tactical situation, and on the mood and atmosphere of the game. It seems like something that there are benefits in paying attention to. On the other hand, it's a bitch to track. Putting aside virtual tabletop technology, there is simply no easy way of marking the boundaries of multiple moving light sources.
4th Edition can't decide which side of that problem it wants to fall on. It provides a little over half a page of rules for lighting at page 262 of the Player's Handbook. It also sets out the usual illumination equipment. A torch lights 5 squares, a lantern lights 10, and these are both items that involve a naked flame so someone has to forfeit their shield or weapon in order to carry them.
But then it mentions "sunrods", which magically illuminate 20 squares in every direction and can be safely strapped to the haft of your polearm or suchlike. They cost two gold pieces each, burn for four hours, and you get two of them packed right into your adventurer's kit. They render every other form of illumination in 4th Edition completely redundant; there's no good reason that you can't have one of these tied to every player's helmet all the time.
I suspect the intention was to provide sunrods for groups who just can't be bothered tracking lighting, and DMs who like doing it old-school can house-rule them out of existence. That's a pretty good solution to the problem, but it would be nice if this intention was stated. Would it have cost so much to have a little sidebar talking about sunrods, illumination, and play preferences?
Monday, February 16, 2009
I've always felt that if you want to subtly hint that the players are going the wrong way, a brick wall barring their passage is more effective than making them fight bugs for 40 minutes, but clearly the writers of Keep are of a different persuasion. At least it's a reasonably decent encounter, if anyone ever finds it.
Kruthiks come from the long tradition of D&D monster design that involves taking two unpleasant animals and jamming them together. In this case, they're "six-limbed reptiles with insectlike traits", so a kind of ant-lizard, if you will. This encounter involves the players taking on a hive of the little buggers on what is unquestionably their home turf.
Apparently the players aren't the first humanoids to come this way. Kalarel's goblins have had a go at containing the kruthiks (although I'm not sure how they got past the rats and the ochre jelly to do so). They've dug some concealed pits to try and trap the ant-lizards, but all they've succeeded in doing is making the lair even more deadly. The kruthiks avoid the traps, but the players will have to dodge them.
I've talked before about Keep on the Shadowfell being a kind of player tutorial; we've seen where the bull rush was introduced, and a variety of split-level combats establishing the principles of Athletics and Acrobatics as skills. Here we're seeing a new type of combat action - the squeeze - and a new monster ability - the aura.
As you'll see on the map, the kruthiks are initially separated from the the players by a selection of narrow tunnels. The kruthiks can move up and down these crallways without significant difficulties, but if players want to use them they'll have to squeeze through. Squeezing involves moving at half speed, granting combat advantage, and making attacks at -5; a squeeze move also provokes opportunity attacks. This is really a sucker-test for players; as soon as someone tries it, the kruthiks will block off the exits from the narrow tunnel and take turns ripping the trapped player to shreds.
The other new mechanic is the aura. Kruthiks have the ability: "Gnashing Horde: aura 1; an enemy that ends its turn in the aura takes 2 damage." This isn't a big penalty; that's less than 10% of a first-level character's hit points. In addition, the Monster Manual reveals that similar auras don't stack, so there's no particular horror in being surrounded by these things. (Pity the group playing this module as envisaged though, without the then-unpublished core rulebooks.) The relatively small penalty is a good sign this is intended more as a learning experience than as a real threat in the encounter.
Players who overcome the kruthiks will be able to loot a small pile of gold, and a potion of healing. They'll likely be left wondering what the point of the whole encounter was, which puts them in exactly the same boat as me.
Levelling up in 4th Edition is an odd experience. On face value, it's never been easier. Page 29 of the Player's Handbook has everything you need to gain your new level bonuses. All classes need the same amount of experience to level, and they all level in the same way.
On the other hand, 4th Edition persistently uses the concept of "half your level"; you add this number to your skill totals, your defences, your initiative, some of your attacks but not others, and in certain situations to your ability modifiers. Mechanically, this is a good way of ensuring that characters scale up appropriately, but in practice it means that every second level you'll be re-writing nearly half of your character sheet.
The problem with the half-level mechanic is that it's not consistent. If you simply added it to every roll, you could note it once on your character sheet and just play through. But it doesn't follow such clear-cut rules. You add it to your defences, but not your saves. You add it to your initiative, but not your speed. You add it to attack rolls, but not to damage. These distinctions aren't hard to remember with some practice but they're neither intutive nor clear.
Still, it's a huge improvement on previous editions.
 Keep on the Shadowfell has its own little twist on levelling up. It suggests that rather than players levelling immediately upon hitting their XP target, they should instead only level after taking an extended rest. This not only contradicts the Player's Handbook, but also runs counter to the 4th Edition philosophy of discouraging rest-related downtime. I understand why you might not want characters to pause combat in order to level up, but why is a short (five-minute) rest not a good time?
Friday, February 13, 2009
"Your players are rock stars and they're here to rock your house. [...] Your job is to be the roady and the manager and all the other people who make the concert possible."This is one reliable way to run an excellent game, and it is a great starting point for every other way. Your role as DM is to make your players yell, "Oh, hell, yes!" Your role is to get your players high-fiving after every dice roll. You are here to carefully list the names your players are taking and the arses they are kicking.
That's not the full spectrum of possible games that are fun, but before you start getting arty with the other ones you should make sure you can run this one, because it's the foundation on which all the others are built.
You can read Jeff's full article here.
The rats are nicely atmospheric. This is the first area of the keep that isn't lit by goblin torches; players have only as much illumination as they have brought with them. The rats hide amongst debris and stalagmites, scuttle across the ceiling, and swarm players who become isolated from their allies. They're minions, though, so every player is likely to kill at least one a turn, and rangers, fighters and wizards will probably slay two or more.
The weakness of the rats is supposed to be rounded out by an Ochre Jelly, which is a fairly credible threat to a second-level party. The Jelly moves very slowly though, so if the encounter triggers early the rats will probably all be dead before the Jelly shows up. In the game I ran, I started the battle while the players were in the north-east area of the caves; in retrospect, I should have waited until they were almost on top of the Jelly before revealing the rats. (There's no indication in the module that this is a good plan, and in fact the starting rat layout seems to specifically contradict it.)
The Jelly is an interesting creature. It has 102 HP and the following ability:
* Split (immediate reaction, when first bloodied; encounter)I took this to mean that each of the halves was no longer bloodied and had the encounter power refreshed; therefore my Ochre Jelly kept dividing again and again. The players seemed to really enjoy this rather brutal interpretation, so in this instance it was a success, but it became clear that in order for second level players to win against this mechanic the Jelly would have to split into no less than 16 component parts (possibly more) all hitting as hard as the original. That can't have been what was intended so I'm guessing the Ochre Jelly halves do not get their Split power refreshed.
The ochre jelly splits into two, each with a number of hit points equal to the ochre jelly's current hit points. Effects applied to the original ochre jelly do not apply to the second one. An ochre jelly can't split if it is reduced to 0 hit points by the attack that bloodied it.
The last element to note is that the centre of this map contains a secret room, designed as a hidey-hole for Balgron the Fat. This is established as the location Balgron flees to if he escapes the Chieftain's Lair, although how he avoids the rats and the jelly is a mystery. The module has him rather unexcitingly remain hiding here until the PCs leave, whereupon he rallies the remainder of his goblins and sets an ambush for them in the Goblin Guard Room.
This is a stupefyingly bad plan, given that there are only 24 goblins in the dungeon, of whom all but three must be dead for Balgron to be here in the first place. (If the PCs took the secret tunnel to Balgron's chamber, he has no way to flee, so they must have come through the Guard Room, the Torture Chamber, and Balgron's guards.) The Goblin Guard Room is also a terrible place to set an ambush, given that the PCs will already know about the room's sole trap and it is the only goblin area with absolutely no cover or defensive emplacements. DMs taking this route can expect a weak and unexciting death for Balgron.
A much better solution is to have Balgron emerge from his secret chamber and wade into battle at the height of the player's fight against the rats and the jelly. It gives Balgron his best chance to do some damage, and to some extent compensates for the positioning problems of the other monsters in this area.
 Balgron's loot is in a chest in his room back at the Chieftain's Lair, rather than either (a) on his body, or (b) in his secret hideaway. As a result, killing Balgron doesn't feel particularly rewarding, as the players receive their treasure prior to earning it. Was this a deliberate decision?
Thursday, February 12, 2009
This month the column's on what happens when a player wants to play an evil character; their answer is, largely, "say no unless everyone agrees it's awesome", which is a pretty good answer. It is not by accident that D&D no longer offers you the ability to play "evil" or "chaotic evil" characters, and is a deliberate choice to leave the evil deities out of the Player's Handbook.
The larger issue is this: what happens when a player is breaking the game, and justifying it as "roleplaying"? This is not just players who want to sacrifice everyone to their dark god or pick the party's pockets once per day. It's also overly-preachy paladins, emo loners, and players who want to be merchants in a hack-n-slash extravaganza.
It's important for players to make meaningful choices and have opportunities to express themselves. They should never be asked to act out of character for the sake of getting along. But if a player's breaking the fun, there's no good excuse - they need to be stopped.
There are two elements to this problem.
1) The job of the DM - Communicate your goals clearly
Tell the players what sort of game you're going to be running. Is player infighting encouraged? If you don't explicitly say it is, players should assume they're supposed to be working as a team (unless you're playing World of Darkness or Paranoia, in which case the opposite is true). Establish the genre, tone and pacing up front, and don't be subtle about it. I got called up on this one recently, and for good reason. Players want to experience the story you want to tell, and you need to be communicative in order to let them. There are no bonus points to be won for being needlessly coy.
If you find a player that just doesn't get it, and insists on acting like a jerk, be straight. This is something 7th Sea is explicit about, which other games should probably take on board. Say, "This is a game about heroes. What your character is doing is not heroic. Characters who are not heroes are controlled by me, the GM. I need you to find a way for your character to fit into this story, and if you don't, you're in danger of your character coming over to my side of the table."
You can replace "heroes" with "gentlemen", "sane people" or "surgeons who are not also serial killers", as the case demands. Your players are here to play the game you are running, not some other game, and if they're not cool with that you can ask them to leave. You don't throw dice in chess and you don't murder puppies in heroic fantasy (unless everyone is agreed that it is totally awesome).
2) The job of the players - Err in favour of other people's fun
You're playing a social game and unless you're told otherwise it's a co-operative one. That means you need to be enabling everyone else's fun rather than protecting yours. Definitely roleplay - but find in-character reasons for your character to get along, rather than creating conflict for the sake of your art. If you really can't justify following the plot while staying in character, tell the GM, and let him know what you need to get back on track.
You can say, "There's no way my character would do something so risky unless someone he loved was in danger," or, "I don't think my character would trust this person unless someone else in the group vouches for him." It's usually not hard for the GM to work these kind of things into the story.
Here's an easy first step to being a better player: every time you go to do something, ask, "Am I the only one who will enjoy me doing this?" If the answer is yes, then it probably wasn't a good idea. (Actually, that's a pretty good rule for being a DM, too. Even when you screw the players, they should be enjoying it.)
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Director Alfred Hitchcock believed that every element of every shot should be deliberate; that the smallest thing that appeared on screen should have an intention and a purpose; that purpose being to further the plot, theme and tone of the film. He was not the first or only proponent of this theory, but his works provide many accessible examples of this principle being put to practice.
How many of us have known the DM who embellishes his world with cascades of maps, scores of named NPCs, and encyclopaedias of historical facts and dates? How many of us have been that DM? (I raise my hand.) This kind of thing is fun for lots of people. Worldbuilding is great, and letting players explore those worlds is exciting.
It's not necessarily good storytelling, though. If you have a world you want to show people, go and write a novel. Make a film. Worldbuilding is ultimately about the worldbuilder; it's you pitting your toy soldiers against your toy heroes. An overly detailed world is just as offensive as an overly-competent Mary-Sue.
Roleplaying is not about you, it is about the players. Each and every aspect of your world should be about the players. History is character development; maps are foreshadowing. If knowing the world's history does not substantively change the way your players behave, it is wasted history. If you have a map marked with "Here be dragons", the players had better be going there, and you'd better have some dragons ready.
Your encounters exist because they change things. If nothing is different after the players kill the goblins, then there was no point in having them kill the goblins. Either the defeat of the goblins has a lasting impact on the game world, or it costs the players something valuable, or it teaches the characters a lesson about who they are and what they believe. Random encounters are masturbation.
Keep on the Shadowfell features a set of caves that there is no reason to visit. The only incentive to go there is if Balgron the Fat escapes the battle at the Chieftain's Lair, which is a problem with Balgron being able to flee at all rather than an exciting subplot that screams out for spelunking.
The caves take up six pages of the module. The total space devoted to fleshing out NPCs is less than one page. When designing an adventure, it is important to have your priorities right.
Some statements I've been subjected to about the gentle craft of roleplaying this week:
 "If you're going to play a system that uses a 20-sided dice you may as well just convert it to [the] d20 [game system] because everything else is just too complicated."
 "D&D 4th Edition removes the beautifully crafted storytelling and deep character-driven roleplaying that D&D is famous for."
 "It's a pretty disappointing campaign unless you have a total party kill (TPK) somewhere in the first three sessions."
 "I don't like D&D 4th Edition because it's too hard for the DM to win."
Hopefully you're laughing with me and not at me, but if anyone's in doubt as to why these are dunce-cappers, drop a comment, and I'll do a post.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
The encounter features three goblins excavating a room for treasure. They have dug a deep pit, and then bridged portions of the pit with rickety wooden planks. Players triggering the encounter will face a two-level fight against the goblins and their guard drakes while struggling to stay balanced on the planks. It's a great tactical set-up. (In typical Keep fashion, there's no mention of what the goblins are digging for, other than "treasure" which they "doubt they will ever find".)
This location is tucked away in a dead end to the east of the Goblin Guard Room. You can come to it in one of three ways. First, you can head east immediately upon entering the dungeon, which, although possible, doesn't happen. Secondly, you can discover it at a later stage in the course of attempting to completely map the dungeon (more of which later). And thirdly, you notice it while chasing Balgron the Fat from his bedroom to the cave complex.
It works reasonably well if the players come to it straight up; this seems to be how it was designed. However, if it's reached after the conclusion of the Chieftain's Lair encounter, it's anti-climactic. These random goblin goons trivialise the players' early struggles. (The module seems to know this, as it calls it "Encounter Three" and places its page before the page for the Chieftain's Lair.) I opted for having these goblins surrender when my players came on them, but it's a shame that this otherwise decent scenario couldn't have been placed more squarely on the main storyline.
The forgotten-corner setting of this encounter, and the rather senseless "excavation", suggest that this encounter was not originally intended to be placed here, and may in fact have been created for another adventure altogether. It really makes no sense for this digging to be occurring, considering that the goblins know what is underneath this room - the second level of the dungeon! Which they can walk to perfectly safely, if they are so inclined, without structurally weakening the entire dungeon.
As far as game design goes, the lesson here is if you have a really great set-up for an encounter, (1) it doesn't have to make sense as long as it's fun, and (2) if you genuinely think it's fun, put it where your players will find it, not tucked away in an optional dead-end.
The centre of this encounter is a goblin called Balgron the Fat. This chunky villain heads up the Keep's goblin contingent and can present a reasonable challenge for a first-level party. His presence (and the fact that he warrants a distinctive name) suggest to players that this is the conclusion of a small-scale quest line, and the drama is upped accordingly.
The players can reach the Chieftain's Lair in two ways; either by proceeding directly east from the Torture Chamber, or by using a secret door located on a corridor adjoining the Goblin Guard Room. They're unlikely to discover the secret door by their own investigations and will really only find it if they interrogate Splug at length.
Using the secret door takes the players right into Balgron's bedchamber and lets them kill him in his sleep. That's neither heroic nor climactic but it's the kind of thing that some players are in the game for. I'm not a fan of this kind of conflict resolution. The theory is that by brains and cunning the players have overcome what would otherwise be a significant obstacle, although really it's more like by avoiding heroic behaviour they've opted out of the inherent challenges of being a hero that define high fantasy as a genre and D&D as a game. Ultimately it's a matter of play style, though.
If the players come in through the front door they'll be facing what is theoretically a hard encounter. Two guards near the entrance sound an alarm, summoning the remaining goblins in the area. The party may be initially swamped if they've charged into the front room, but the profusion of choke points will soon let them re-establish control. Also, Balgron doesn't enter the battle - he instead waits to see how it goes, and then flees through the secret door when things turn against him.
Balgron's escape is frustrating from a encounter standpoint; it can leave the players feeling robbed. However, it's necessary from a dungeon design standpoint. The developers have unwisely tacked a series of dead-end caves onto the first level of the crypts (which we'll come to in due time) and it is to these caves that Balgron flees. Were Balgron not to enter the caves, there would be no reason to visit them, and three significant encounters and a sackful of loot would thereby be entirely missed. Probably the better option would be to delete the caves, have Balgron stand and fight, and shift the cave loot to his corpse, but for the purposes of this exercise we're seeing how the adventure runs as printed.
In the end, aided by terrain and an absentee villain, the players will end up making pretty short and unsatisfying work of Balgron's guards, so DMs who'd hoped to use this fight to cap off a play session will probably wind up feeling shortchanged.
 The whole purpose of the goblin series of encounters seems to be for the players to kill Balgron. However, there's really no reason to kill Balgron other than to loot his corpse. Added to the cave system, it makes a total of six encounters that can be completely bypassed without the players even noticing. Why are these encounters in the module? Or alternatively, why are they not placed down the main spine of the adventure?
Keep on the Shadowfell is pretty light-on for memorable NPCs. The entire population of Winterhaven are cast from a single "generic villager" mold, and the few named villains revel in their cliche-ridden crapulence. The sole exception is a little goblin named Splug.
Splug turns up at the end of the Torture Chamber encounter, where PCs will find him locked away in one of the cells along the corridor to the west. Splug has been locked up because "he tricked too many goblins out of ale rations" and he "portrays himself as a pathetic, helpless figure". The adventure suggests "Splug can provide comic relief, serve as a convenient porter and servant, or be a hidden threat who eventually betrays the party - whatever you think is best for the story."
Splug is, in part, modelled on the kobold Meepo who appeared in the 3rd edition launch module The Sunless Citadel. Meepo went on to be a huge fan favourite and Splug, as it turns out, is pretty successful himself.
Players love recruiting allies. Seeing a named character come over to their side is a tangible demonstration of the impact they're having on the world. Players particularly love NPCs who are incompetent. If NPCs were competent, after all, there'd be proportionately less XP for the players to pick up.
Splug draws from both of these reservoirs of fun, and works extra well because he's easily moldable to what will work well with your group. One group played him as a "hoarse, hispanic Smurf" with a penchant for lighting fires. Another had him locked up for being "a little too cute for the other goblins", and upon release he became "a kind of cheer leader".
The character of Splug is a great chance for players to express themselves, both in their reactions to the goblin and in how they incorporate him into their group and their story. The DM will love him, too, as he's a great way to subtly (or non-subtly) guide the players through the dungeon, providing hints about what lies ahead so that players can shape the danger and speed of the encounters to their personal tastes.
 According to the module, Splug has the stats of a Goblin Warrior, except that he has a Charisma of 15 and a Will defence of 13. The sharp boost to his Charisma makes sense given his character, but I'm baffled as to why they bothered to specify his Will as being a single measly point higher than normal. (This is less than would be explained by his new +2 Charisma modifier.) Does the transition from 12 to 13 take him over some mechanical threshold that I'm unaware of?
Friday, February 6, 2009
This is kiddyspeak. We are clearly intended to read between the lines. The goblins have a total of four rooms in the keep, and a grand total of zero living outsiders to torture. In fact, as far as we know, the only visitors who have EVER come to the keep were the pair of Thunderspire Slavers who Kalarel summarily executed.
It's possible that the goblins may have designated a whopping 25% of their living space for torture, and kitted out an entire room with a rack, fire pit and cage, but you're fooling yourself if you think that this is in some way judicial. Clearly they're up to something entirely more lewd. Take the hobgoblin, who is described as "clad in black leather armor and wearing a leather mask". That's not standard issue for either torturers or prison guards. That is, in the vernacular, a gimp suit. A gimp suit that is going to give him a nasty rash.
The suit, incidentally, is treated mechanically as +1 bloodcut hide armour, which players can salvage after the fight. The question of whether anyone wants to wear a magical hobgoblin-sized gimp suit into battle is one that players may well struggle over.
This encounter has an ulterior motive. By the conclusion of the kobold quest chain, players have presumably come to grips with the basics of 4th Edition combat. Now that they're in the keep, it's time to teach them some of the bells and whistles. The Goblin Guard Room really highlighted the importance of tanking, and got at least one player familiar with the intricacies of the climbing rules. Following that theme, the Torture Chamber is all about learning how to bull rush.
To bull rush, a player uses a standard action to target an adjacent enemy and makes a Str vs Fort attack. If they are successful they push the target one square and move into the square thus vacated.
Usually this is a loser's move as the attack does no damage and your opponent can recoup the lost ground with a shift. However, the Torture Chamber introduces environmental hazards such as the aforementioned fire pit that make it a potentially more interesting tactic. In addition, the hobgoblin has a +5 strength modifier, making him much more likely to hit with a bull rush than with his standard weapons.
It's a bit unfair on the players, though. There's no two ways about it - bull rush is a loser's move. Very few players will have the +5 strength modifier that the hobgoblin exhibits, very rarely will there be so many damaging obstacles in close proximity, and players who do happen to be muscled up will probably have better regular attacks than the anaemic +6 vs AC that the hobgoblin is packing.
 The "tactics" section specifically says that the Hobgoblin Torturer will use bull rush. This module, released prior to publication of 4th Edition, was intended to be played without the Player's Handbook, and yet bull rush is not defined in its quickstart rules. Another sign that the module wasn't playtested or another casualty of an enforced page count?
UPDATE: Actually, the bull rush rules do appear - twenty-five pages further into the module, tucked into the "features of the area" column for the Hobgoblin Guard Room. So, they're defined - just not helpfully. Again - space considerations, or poor quality control?
 Is bull rush considered to be balanced as currently printed? Many classes feature at-will or encounter powers that push or slide in addition to dealing damage. Causing a bull rush to do the player's STR modifier in damage alongside the push would make it significantly more attractive while still making it weaker than any of the class-specific powers. Would this have an unforeseen imbalance elsewhere?
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Players need structured choices. A player with too few choices is not a player but an audience. A player with too many choices is not a player but a DM. When there is nothing but choices, play becomes unfocused, the story becomes bogged down in debate, and everyone stops having fun. The job of the DM is to narrow down the infinite canvass of possibility into the tight structure of a story.
DMs should give players choices for good reasons. There are a limited number of good reasons, and they are these.
1) A test of skill.
The player is given a small range of options, one of which is "right" and the others of which are varying degrees of "wrong". The player is given enough information in the environment to discern the right choice, if he or she is clever, perceptive, or patient enough. The choice rewards players for their intelligence.
2) A chance for self-expression.
The player is given a broad range of options, where the eventual choice meaningfully defines both the character and the game. This may be, for example, a "morality call", a setting of priorities, or a chance to define the future development of a location or NPC. The choice made says something important about who the character is and how they think, and lets the player express their uniqueness and individuality.
3) A means for player feedback.
The player is given two or three options, with information as to the likely gameplay consequences of choosing each option. There may be a "dangerous" option and a "safe" option, a "quick" option and an "extended" option, or a "roleplaying" option and a "combat" option. The player's choice lets them direct the game towards the the type of situations they enjoy and away from the ones they find dull or unpleasant.
That's it. They're the only meaningful choices. If your choice doesn't fall into one of these categories, then you shouldn't be offering it to the players. Or, alternatively, it should be a false choice such as the one we looked at a moment ago, where despite the illusion of choice the players proceed on to the same consequences regardless.
Needless choices will distress your players, and they'll make it unnecessarily hard for you as DM to deliver a high-quality game experience. Give your players a meaningful choice whenever possible, but don't stuff around with other ones. Your players will thank you.
A DM is typically caught in the fork of two competing objectives. He wants to provide players with a range of options, to make them feel like they are expressing themselves by way of decisions with meaningful consequecnes. At the same time, he wants to structure encounters in a logical progression, so as to provide players with a coherent story, a well-paced play session, and a rewarding difficulty curve.
One solution is equivocation.
This is a term that comes from stage magic, where the magician presents a false choice. For example, the magician may offer someone the choice of two cards. The magician wants the person to end up with the right-hand card. If they select the right-hand card, the magician says, "An interesting choice! Take the card and sit down!", whereas if the person selects the left-hand card, the magician says, "Fascinating! I'll hold on to this card you've selected; can you mind the other one for me, and resume your seat." Either way, the mark ends up with the predetermined card while still believing they've made a choice.
In the Goblin Guard Room, there are three exits: through a doorway to the east, a doorway to the south, and a corridor to the northwest. (The stairs to the north are where the players have just arrived from.) Despite there being three exits, an extensive sample of internet write-ups reveals almost every party goes northwest.
That's great. It's the direction the DM wants. Northwest takes the players to the Torture Chamber, and continues their journey through the goblin-themed subdivision of the keep while giving them the chance to pick up additional intelligence about what lies ahead. East would have taken them to some quite challenging caves that they may not be ready for yet, whereas southwest shortcuts about half the and progresses them straight towards Kalarel.
How does the encounter accomplish this? It plays on some basic psychology. Westerners read from top-left to bottom-right. We're trained to think of northwest as "first". Secondly, the corridor offers the path of least resistance - it's an open passage whereas the other two options are delineated by doors.
Third, it pulls at our sense of incompleteness - the doors form hard lines, whereas the passageway trails out into a blur, which is the sort of undefined state human minds gain satisfaction from resolving. Fourth, it's the nearest option - it's chosen as soon as you step into the passage, whereas heading for the theoretically equally-close door to the east requires first bypassing a cross-passage.
And fifth, the map shows stairs behind each of the doors, which suggest to players they'll be heading "deeper" by going in those directions, even though the stairs turn out to be largely aesthetic features that don't actually take players to another level of the dungeon.
Players are practically hardwired to go northwest, while at the same time thinking they've made a decision about their destination. It's like clockwork. And, in the unlikely event that they don't make that choice, a DM who doesn't want to just run with it is free to equip these other doors with locks and have their key carried by the goblin boss to the northwest.
 Was this effect deliberate? It's significantly cleverer than any of the other design in the module, so I'm tempted to think not, but the placement of the otherwise redundant stairs on the map suggests the designers may well have had this goal in mind.
Monday, February 2, 2009
This encounter introduces the new theme enemy, goblins. Just as players are getting tired of kobolds, Keep switches them out in favour of the largely-identical goblins, who persist through this and the next three encounters. These little pests have a big focus on staying out of melee and attacking at range, so characters able to prevent enemies from shifting (such as a fighter) really have a chance to shine.
The players enter the map from the stairway to the north and arrive in the large square room. They are immediately able to see a goblin in the corridor opposite, who taunts the players and prepares for combat. At least one player invariably charges across the room at the enemy, resulting in them plunging into a hidden pit filled with starving rats. As the unfortunate player struggles to escape from the pit, the other goblins emerge from the adjoining rooms and attempt to pick off the player's friends.
The character who charged is typically the group's tank, which often means that the group will end up fighting the goblins without the aid of a "defender" character. This provides an interesting tactical shakeup, and it also elevates the threat level of the goblins in their first appearance without artificially boosting their statistics. Players see the goblins as a genuine menace, and develop a respect for these monsters that will last them through the next several encounters.
The Goblin Guard Room is a good encounter. It's fun, it's surprising, and it's a strong introduction to the keep. It's standardised, which is something you want in a pre-packaged module - each group of players who run this encounter will have a very similar experience, while all thinking that they've seen something unique. Someone always falls into the pit, but it's clear that you could have avoided the pit, and it's also clear that this was a deliberate goblin plan, rather than just being dungeon design from the school of "random traps in every corridor". So it really feels like the goblins have had the better of you, rather than just something going randomly wrong. It also gives you an emotional investment in the battle that follows - you've got something to prove to these goblins who've just tricked you into their pit.
This is how Keep on the Shadowfell gets by despite some generally terrible writing - it's got a well-designed encounter roughly once in each play session, and as long as it can keep up that pattern it'll keep players interested.
I've been looking for that sort of thing in roleplaying. It exists, but it exists at the bottom of the deep and murky sea of roleplaying journals.
Roleplaying gamers document. They do it obsessively. They write up sessions, they describe characters, they relate anecdotes, they diarise worlds. If your game is good, chatters the gestalt, then it must be recorded.
Videogamers don't do this. No matter how much you loved Mario Bros, you don't write up your play sessions as prose novellas. Not even computer RPGs. You can love Final Fantasy, you can talk Final Fantasy, you can even create Final Fantasy fanfic, but you don't ever translate the actual game into text.
There are some reasons why roleplayers document, both valid and invalid. The most pressing is the impermanence of the medium. Once a session is played, it is gone. It's a transitory experience, like watching theatre, and performance can never be recaptured once it is performed. Humans don't deal well with impermanence, and we're forever attempting to trap the momentary in the illusion of eternity.
Another reason is the mistaken belief that a story is a story is a story. It can be easy to think that what makes good narrative at the gaming table will make excellent narrative in a novel. This just isn't the case. Interactive multi-participant stories lend themselves to certain techniques that don't pace well in a novel; they demand validation for multiple protagonists and they thrive on cliches and stereotypes that fall flat on the printed page.
Gamers often mistake the sequence for the game. Documentation rarely rises beyond an embellished narration of what has happened to the player characters. It seldom captures the performances of the GM and the players, the pre-conceptions of the players, their interactions with the mechanics, and the ebb and flow of pacing caused by late arrivals and pizza orders. Good players and good GMs take these things into account every bit as much as the rest of the game, and a session can be made by a snappy and compelling in media res resumption after dinner as much as it can by the structure of a key encounter.
I'm against documentation. It's a crutch for GMs. Documentation provides the illusion that a weak game can be made strong by reduction to writing. Games should embrace the medium, and work because of the impermanence, the group interaction, the unexpected intervention of the real world, and not in spite of it.