Saturday, January 31, 2015


The local RPG nerds had a minicon here in town yesterday. I actually made it this time. Played two games. It was fun, but a few critiques as always:

First game was D&D 5e. I think it was a classic case of too many good ideas for a convention game. It was a fun-house dungeon with an end game of apotheosis, but i have no idea how he intended us to do a fraction of the stuff he had prepped. The system of inter-dimensional doors leading from room to room was arcane at best, but we kinda figured out some part of it. That would have been enough good idea though. Part two, after we had sorta figured out part one and also had to go back and explore a room we hadn't actually found initially, was the apotheosis part. It could have been great, but this was a con game where we had made our own PCs. Meaning the DM had no ideas about our backstory and didn't give us a lot of great information about how deities worked in this generic setting. So there were tests of courage, fortitude, wits, etc. All good, but untailored for the players or PCs. Eventually it resulted in a total party kill because it came down to rolling a shit-tonne of saves to avoid exhaustion which were too high of a DC (generally 15+). Also, it suffered a bit that he had lost his 5000 word notes and we waited about 20 min for a phone call and internet access because he was so prepared that he couldn't wing it at all. We could have explored that monstrosity in 12 game sessions though, not just one.

Second game was Serenity. I think she actually requested we be familiar with the show/film, so we actually chose the characters from the show (I was Book). Easy peasy pre-gens and we all knew what the characters were. She ran a module from a book, which was actually decent. Or at least well chosen: as a con-game you need to pick something with a good time frame and she shepherded us through it all in the right amount of time. The game was somewhat ruined by these two younger players. They're of the "I rolled three repair checks, how did I do?" camp. The GM was pretty patient. I didn't understand the math of the system at all though. You roll two dice for any check (from d4 to d12) but the difficulty numbers seemed to be outrageously high at times (9+?). d6 seemed to be average, and d8 above average, but getting a 9+ on 2d4 ain't going to happen, so I thought the target numbers needed to be substantially lower for a lot of stuff. Unless there was somehow more room for help from others and whatnot. Overall the system was nice and simple though, and it made for a really solid convention game. Except its all based on skills, and I kinda hate skills. Especially perception.

Take home message: problem players suck. Don't be afraid to use (and later reuse) your good ideas, but don't throw them all in at once.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Influence of Combat & Tactics

I burnt my hand cooking breakfast today, so in a fit of childishness I opted to do nothing this afternoon and ended up reading Combat & Tactics a bit. I'm still a little shocked at how it really does pre-figure third edition quite a bit. Armor is classified into light, medium, and heavy (or Leather, Mail, and Plate). There are proficiency options that are basically feats by another name. And the whole 5 foot square gridded combat system.

Obviously all of it didn't make it into later editions, but there's one aspect that I'm wondering if we left behind. Third edition codified a lot of bonuses to individual weapons into weapon properties, but left some things behind a bit. And now Fifth feels a bit like an exercise in filling a grid of weapon damage types and properties. Its not quite that bad, but a couple more weapon properties might be helpful.

I think some of this is the tactics that have been left behind with the transition to more story-focused games. Don't get me wrong, I love 13th Age and Vampire and other story-focused games. But I have a hankering for some old school simulation too, and I like the idea of two soldiers opting to use shields and short swords because they're optimal in a cave where both can be in the front ranks where a longsword or battle axe would be ineffective. Maybe I yearn for the days of putting the dwarf and gnome up front too where others can use reach weapons or ranged weapons over their heads. And Henchmen. But henchmen might be for a different post.

Anyway, I've picked a dozen and one (ish) additional properties here inspired by Combat & Tactics. The designers probably considered something like these and opted not to use them, so there may be reasons not to. Chief among them is probably the part where many of these properties only apply to fighting armed humanoids, not beasts. It also makes the game more complex, obviously. A well-trained fighter might be encouraged to switch weapons based on his opponents (a feature, in my mind, rather than a bug). Some of these properties have a "critical" effect. This could be re-worded to happen in addition to extra damage, but it seems possibly excessive. These properties are also written for 5e. As such they are mostly limited to +1 bonuses: advantage seems too good and would synergize with things like a rogue's sneak attack. A small (+1) bonus shouldn't really muck with the math; besides rogues/bards can already get stupid good at disarming or tripping because of expertise. If I were writing these for AD&D, they'd be more like Defensive +1 or Armor Piercing (Mail) +2. Because AD&D could work that way. I also listed some weapons these properties might apply to (though not all exist in 5e): this might be motivation for adding in a few other polearms or whatnot as well.

Defensive - +1 to AC while wielding the weapon (even in your off hand). We lost the defensive property from earlier editions, but I'm not sure why a parrying dagger or gunsen couldn't have it. There may be a good reason this went away.
Added to: Parrying Dagger/Main Gauche, Gunsen, Jitte, Ranseur/Spetum/Partisan, sai, three-piece-rod

Wrap Around - This property would give chain weapons a +1 bonus to hit opponents with shields or behind cover.
Added to: Chain, Flail, Whip, Kusari-Gama

Armor Piercing (Heavy, Medium, Light). These properties would give a +1 bonus to hit opponents wearing the appropriate plate, mail, or leather armor. A weapon might only pierce one type of armor or all three. The idea is plate might not be as good at defending from a weapon designed to pierce it.
Added to: Crossbow (Heavy), Dire Flail (Heavy), Mace (Medium), Morningstar (Heavy), Pick (Heavy), Halbeard (Heavy or Medium), Greatsword (Heavy or Medium), Estoc (heavy or Medium), 

Disarming - A +1 bonus to disarm an opponent. On a critical hit, you can instead deal normal damage and automatically disarm your opponent.
Added to: Chain, Flail, Whip, Scourge, sai, three-piece-rod

Tripping - A +1 bonus to "shove an opponent" and instead you may opt to pull them closer or knock them prone. Or/Also, a critical hit you can opt to deal normal damage and also knock your target prone. A tripping weapon cannot trip an opponent with more than two legs.
Added to: Chain, Flail, Whip, Bill/guisarme

Charger - Double damage when mounted and you've moved at least half your speed.
Added to: Lance

Set-For-Charge - Double damage if you set the weapon to receive a charge. (This needs set-for-charge rules and possibly better charging rules. Probably readying your weapon is like readying an action and then you get the attack if your opponent "charges" or moves 15' and then attacks you.)
Added to: Spear, Pike, Halbeard, Glaive and other pole-arms

Shield-Sundering - +1 bonus to sunder a shield. On a critical hit, you can instead deal normal damage and automatically sunder your opponent's shield. [This would need a rule for sundering a shield probably, though the crit property could live on its own.]
Added to: Battleaxe, Greataxe

Close-Quarters - No penalty for attacking in close quarters or while squeezing. [This would be different than just giving this to piercing weapons, which I had considered. Then I remembered picks.]
Added to: javelin, Spear, Shortsword, Rapier, Trident, Pike

Quick - You can use your reaction to make an attack of opportunity when an opponent attempts to grapple you.  [If it weren't such a pain, I'd consider saying that after making an attack with a quick weapon, your initiative increases by +2. So after a couple rounds you'd end up passing people in the initiative order. Its not a bonus attack, but could be interesting.]
Added to: Dagger

Subduing - This weapon only attacks to subdue. If the opponent is reduced to a number of hit points equal to your level + the damage bonus from your ability score, they are instead reduced to 0 hit points.
Added to: Sap

Ineffective (Heavy, Medium, Light). These weapons are less effective against particular armours, and receive a -1 penalty to the attack.
Added to: Blowgun (Heavy), Bo (Heavy)

Surprise - When you initiate combat and your opponent isn't expecting you to be armed, you gain advantage on the surprise role and a +1 bonus to the initiative roll.
Added to: Brandistock, Ninja-to

In 5e, many properties correspond with damage dice alternations. For example, a two-handed or heavy weapon will do more damage than its one-handed counterpart. Likewise light weapons tend to do one die-size less damage than an otherwise similar weapon. Here, I think the quick and defensive properties should likewise be associated with smaller damage dice. The others don't seem like they're quite sexy enough to merit a change in damage dice as long as they're associated with thematically appropriate weapons (i.e. chain weapons tend to do wrap-around, disarm, and trip).

There's a few other bits of "tactics" that would be interesting to add (I'm thinking forming a shield wall), but these might do a bit to help add in a few tactics to the game and make various weapons a bit more unique. I'm still a little unclear on the bonus part. For some, proficiency bonus might be an appropriate thing rather than just +1. But, by and large, +1 is easy to add in and not going to be overpowered. I'll have to take a closer look to decide if any of these properties are redundant or could otherwise be combined, but it just might make a slightly more interesting set of weapons available.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Lazy DMing

I've run a few games in the past month, and I should reflect on them here a bit. But this is all through the filter of lazy DMing. I bought a bundle of holding a while back, that had the Lazy Dungeon Master in it. Its pretty good, and I think must have been some of the intention behind those creating 4e.

See, I was also playing 13th Age, and I've come to suspect that the big minds at Wizards actually run games differently than the publish them. Perhaps normal D&D needs to be sanitized a bit for the mass market, and maybe we're getting some of the variants back in 4e rather than scripture to run games by. Anyway, as I look back on 4e I think that its not as bad or video-gamey as people suggest, but the presentation influences the play style to be even more so.

In a 4e game, I often felt like I was building a set of 3 encounters for the night. Now, I would keep things a little flexible, and its a testament to the encounter building of 4e that it was easy for me to swap creatures in and out on the fly while my PCs were taking their turns. It helped that I printed out a huge stack of loose-leaf monster sheets and shuffled through them constantly, I suppose.

I felt a little of this while running 13th Age and a 5e Planescape one-shot. But I've tried to consciously keep it lazy. Its not hard to build a quick list of all the possible monsters and their XP/CR/whatever stats you need to build encounters for the night. For this planescape one-shot, I knew there'd be a mind flayer, probably some intellect devourers, githzerai thralls, rival githyanki hunters, maybe some Harmonium goons, and assorted citizens of Sigil who may or may not be thralls (sad, I didn't end up pulling in the host of children in the end). But this is basically what I used towards the end of my Dark Sun game, just a bit differently organized because I don't have everything printer-ready.

The planescape one-shot would have gone a little smoother if I had had time to write down some more notes on the creatures, and realized that both Intellect Devourers and Mind Flayers force Int saves so I could have given the players that for their Githzerai bonus instead of recommending useless Wis saves. Meh. Live and learn.

Aside: The plot was the PCs were a (mostly) githzerai rrakkma band trying to oust a mindflayer from Sigil. They had a deadline for when a deed would be signed making the mind flayer a property-owning citizen of Sigil, and had to act before that deadline. There was a scheduled delivery of some trunks to the property, and an inn (stolen from In the Cage) where the mind flayer was staying. Pretty darn simple but enough for a solid 6-hour session (1-9pm but we took at least an hour to chat and get started and had a couple minor interruptions, though I also meant to give one more quick break).

I didn't get as much feedback from the players as I might have liked for the Planescape one-shot, so I hope everyone mostly enjoyed themselves. There were 6 players because I wanted to invite people who I hadn't played with in a while, and also possibly get a new person or two into (or back into?) Zack's orbit for his regular games. I had thought going in that I would say from the beginning that I was going to be an anti-phone/tablet tyrant, but decided not to. There was a lot of investigation with a lot of players, and its hard to keep that engaging for everyone. I tried to hand-wave some table-talk by saying that players could still give suggestions and stuff, and I think that worked reasonably well. At least no one was sharing youtube videos during the game, which was an unfortunate thing I also saw recently.

In terms of what to prep to be lazy, I really liked Zack's contacts he gave people for his Planescape one-shot, so I totally lifted that, though it wasn't as well-done as it could have been. Particularly for a one-shot, you need to give people some short and clear info that's useable. I was relatively proud of my Githzerai racial bonds table (though some were lifted from ENworld or Wizards of the Coast forums:

Githzerai Racial Bonds (roll d12 or use the list as inspiration).
  1. Any enemy of the mind flayers is a friend of mine.
  2. All my friends know I said that githzerai should only think about their freedom and independence, leaving ancient feuds behind.
  3. Once, when I nearly died, I had a vision of the Nine Hells flash before my eyes. Now I seek to atone for whatever sins I’ve committed.
  4. Our race’s traditions are as important as our personal beliefs.
  5. I swore an oath that I would only kill in the most dire of circumstances.
  6. I’ve been convicted of a crime I didn’t commit and must redeem myself in the eyes of my fellow githzerai.
  7. My significant other is a leader of the githzerai in Sigil.
  8. Something from my childhood makes me afraid of the dark.
  9. The destruction of mind flayers is more important than any faction or feud (even with the githyanki).
  10. My best friend will never walk again because of a battle I provoked. I choose my fights with greater care now.
  11. I hate mind flayers and githyankai so much it drives me to take irrational risks, even when I know I shouldn’t take them.
  12. My brother is a drunk, so his wife and children depend on me to keep them safe and financially secure.

Obviously not all of these came into play and some could have been better, but I thought it would give players some possibly appropriate personality traits for their Githzerai, who are supposed to be a dour and stoic lot. I even made good use of #7 by replacing the not-so-great NPC (Parakk the Rat Catcher) I was going to used to instigate things with the spouse. This was somewhat inspired by the Appendix A from Hoard of the Dragon Queen which I also loved in its simplicity, though I could have probably personalized it a bit more if I had more time. But its a hard balance between what to prep and how much time to spend prepping it. A few of my own plus some cut-and-paste from a forum search got me in solid B range.

The racial bonds table isn't something you need for every session, but I had a couple very similar lists I was referencing at the table: rumors they might find, the actual facts they needed to discover, and the true motivations of the illithid. But I was ready to roll some random rumors if people were into streetwise checks and that. It turns out when you give actual contacts then players tend to focus on what they have in front of them though (their contacts). Its all about prepping the right lists. Also, I like lists.

Rambles aside, I think that Lazy DMing is a pretty good way to go. At least for me. Though I still love me a good module at times, even prepping a module requires a good list or two.