Aug 23 2021

On the Other Hand, Screw Omu :P

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Friggin' orcs, man.

Friggin’ orcs, man.

So I’ve been running an adaptation of Tomb of Annihilation for a while, and I have come to the unexpected conclusion that I don’t like running a hexcrawl as much as I thought I would, and also that I’m probably done with “big book campaigns” as a general thing any more once we’re finished with this. (Red Hand of Doom was amazing; every one I’ve tried since then, not so much.) I polled my players, and they’ve enjoyed the game fairly well, except for feeling the pressure of the Death Curse making them anxious about taking wrong turns or losing time to the jungle. ToA as written is kind of the worst of both worlds in that regard, in that you can’t just pfutz around and do what you want (which is the hexcrawl’s theoretical strength), but you also don’t have clear signposts showing you where the plot went (which is the strength of a linear plot).

Still, after only a few major detours, the characters found their way to the Forbidden City of Omu, home of the titular Tomb of Annihilation, except that before you can actually go into the tomb you have to get through… another hexcrawl! There are nine mini-dungeons scattered across the city, from which you are supposed to collect plot coupons, which in turn leads to another dungeon to get the last key, at which point you can start the first… level… of the last… dungeon… and collect… keys… for the… later…

Y’know what? No.

I spent the past few weeks prepping Omu while Plotline ran his game a while, and as we’re coming close the time when I’m actually supposed to run again? I just don’t want to. The stuff in Omu isn’t bad per se, but it feels like busywork, literally grinding for XP to get the characters high enough level to go through the main dungeon. And just… why? I guess it must have been written this way for a reason, but I ain’t running it.

I’ve got at least two weeks before I actually run; I have decided in that time to tear out all that “wander around the city as a whole ‘nother hex crawl” nonsense and instead create a semi-linear structure with a story the players can get into. There are existing and established factions for them to get involved with, a couple of subplots they are already connected to (including Inete’s crisis of faith and the Bag-of-Nails/Hooded Lantern/Copper Bell story), and so on. I’m also going to refactor the adventure as needed so they can tackle it at the level they are, instead of putting in a bunch of STUFF for them to level up with.

Realizing you want to skip to the end of your own adventure is not a good sign when you’re the DM. It’s time to do some fixing.

-TG

Jul 23 2021

Bursty McThirsty

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Shade-Of-the-Candle runs into (or away from) danger!
During Shady’s most recent adventures in Inkblitz’s D&D game, I found her largely underperforming in combat. Some of this was my well-known dice curse, of course… +7 to hit and still couldn’t roll above a 12 even with advantage, that tracks. And some of it was that we’re in a party that’s bursty AF and generally goes nova in every battle because we rarely have more than one fight in a day. In a party that can fire off four fireballs in two rounds and not break a sweat, Shady’s 6d6 sneak attack “is also there.” Neither of these are things I can do anything about, so I’m looking for things I can do.

Besides the fact that the class is perfect thematically for Shady, I picked swashbuckler rogue for her because I was inspired by Sirfox’s Bugs Bunny antics with Nikki in my own Storm King’s Thunder campaign. A pain-in-the-ass who annoys his enemies to death as much as anything, under all that Nikki is actually a supreme duelist, who has dropped the finishing blow on many a boss fight. Not by himself generally–even with uncanny dodge he’s too squishy to one-on-one for long–but he’s still more often than not the one who lowers the boom.

All of that fits with what I pictured with Shady: she talks-talks-talks, tries to weasel and wiggle her way out of most fights to begin with, but once the fighting actually starts, her goal is to maneuver the baddie into position to just get straight-up murdered. Think Jack Sparrow dueling Barbossa to a standstill while Will and Elizabeth run around actually killing most of the pirates, that’s the kind of action Shady’s intended to engage in. It worked beautifully against the dragon Kresthianzé, but a lot of campaign has gone by since then! In most fights since then, Shady has been nearly one-punched before she got a turn, been flailing against mooks, or even better off staying out of the fight entirely and engaging in plot macguffins.

And to be fair, being the one chasing the plot macguffin while everybody else fights also tracks, think Jack Sparrow running around carrying a jar of dirt. And I don’t resent the other players getting cool moments–Leuco the tiny mouse obliterating demons with thunderballs is badass! I’d just like Shady to get some dueling action, so I need to figure out how to set that up.

In the most recent combat, she was hampered by her low Wisdom save, which left her charmed or feared for half of it; that’s not something I can mitigate any time soon other than by avoidance. After level 12 or so, Shady will have ASIs/feats coming out her ears and proficiency with Wisdom saves is on her shopping list, but before then she gets all of one ASI, three levels away from where she currently is, and that has to go to either Lucky or capping her Dexterity. (Darn you rogue 6, why couldn’t you have been an ASI instead of expertise?)

Numerically, capping her Dex has the most benefits, boosting her AC, attack rolls, and damage; on a meta level, Lucky would mitigate my dice curse and help prevent Wisdom-save-choking as long as I use it strategically. But as I say, it’s still three levels off.

One thing Nikki does that Shady doesn’t do as much, is to hide with cunning action every turn. Shady generally uses her bonus action to make an off-hand attack instead–since the first attack usually missed. ;P Hiding would give her advantage on her attack, but attacking twice is not that different mechanically (roll to-hit twice, crit chance is the same, and if the off-hand attack hits instead of the main-hand it’s 4 less points of damage) and fits Shady’s “in your face” psychology better. Hiding would make her a little more durable in the you-can’t-hit-what-you-can’t-see way, tho. Reflecting back on our recent battles, there hasn’t actually been much cover for her to hide behind, tho, so I’m not sure how viable a strategy that would be. I’ll have to look into it going forward.

Other than that? Well, Nikki has better stats than Shady (since I rather foolishly let players roll instead of going point-buy) and is higher level; he also has cloak and boots of elvenkind, giving him crazy Stealth checks. All of these things are factors, but again not ones I have much control over. Mostly I think I need to just keep looking for ways to boost Shady’s strengths and mitigate her weaknesses, without losing focus on the RP aspects that make Shady, Shady.

I’m just glad there’s no freakin’ paladins in the party. >.>

-TG

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Jul 21 2021

My Growing Suspicion Towards Skill Checks

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THIS JUST IN: I have opinions about D&D. I know, shocker, right? The latest that I’ve become aware of, is that I am growing increasingly reluctant? Distrustful? Resentful of? Skill checks. Both as the DM and as a player.

As a DM, it’s been kind of poking at me for a while; I don’t know when I first noticed, but somewhere along the line, “I make a _____ check” became group shorthand for “I skip to the end, what’s the result?” Talking to NPCs? “I make a Persuasion check to get them to do what I want.” or “Can I make an Insight check to see if I trust him?” Searching for clues? “I make an Investigation check, what do I find?” etc.

And I’m guilty of it too as a player—I think it’s just a habit we just sort of developed as a group—but it’s starting to grate at me. I’m not sure how or when it became a thing, and I don’t really care; but when I’m DMing, it’s something I’m moving away from. (The “Insight Check Lie Detector” is one that’s been a particular worry for me lately. My current campaign has had a lot of very dishonest NPCs, and more than once I’ve gone out of my way to wave red flags, only to have the players lean on their Insight check instead of just coming to the conclusion that the NPC is lying to them. If that Insight check is botched, well, the character believes and steps into the chipper/shredder, the player is frustrated, and so am I.)

As a player on the other hand, I’ve found it a severe handicap for years, because (as is well documented) I can’t roll dice for shit. Give me +15 to a check and advantage, and I’ll still find a way to botch the roll. My most famous incident was rolling 16 on 8d6 during the climactic battle of a CHAMPIONS session back in college, but I’ve had plenty of rangers who couldn’t damage their favored enemy, burly fighters who couldn’t knock down a door, cheesed-out skill monkeys who couldn’t pick a lock, and so on. To combat this, I’ve started being very meticulous in my descriptions about what my characters do and say, searching every nook and cranny of a room, drawing out every conversation with everybody, and so on, fishing for an auto-success so that I never hear that awful phrase, “make a skill check,” which translates to “you almost certainly fail.” I don’t want to have to pay a Feat tax of giving all of my characters Lucky just to get around my dice curse.

But philosophically, the more I think about it, the more it bugs me on principle as well as for any selfish reasons. It’s like the pay-for-shortcuts packages in MMOs, where you’re effectively paying to not have to play the game. The real mechanic of every TTRPG, what makes them a distinct and awesome activity, is the flow of the Game Master presenting a situation, the Player attempting to achieve something, and the Game Master adjudicating the result. That is the game, not your AC and hit points, not your 18 STR or your 8 WIS. “Roll Perception to search the room. (clatter) With a 10 you don’t find anything,” is just as boring as “Make your attack roll against the monster. (clatter) With a 14 you hit for three points of damage.”

As a player, there’s not much I can do other than make my best case to the DM and hope. As the DM, tho, I have started to change the way I handle skills. First and foremost was to institute a “please don’t roll dice unless I ask for it” policy at my table. And then, I try to set up my adventures such that I don’t have to ask for it. My policy for that is “ask for details, not dice rolls.” When players are being vague or evasive about what they’re doing, I come back and ask for specifics. I don’t demand that players who lack confidence in real life give speeches for their high-Charisma characters any more than I make players swing real swords in combat, but I do at least require them to tell me what it is they’re trying to communicate and/or get from the NPC, and what means by which they’ll try to get the NPC’s cooperation.

Now there are times when playing out every room search/enemy looting/secret door searching would get old, and particularly as we get into the back half of Tomb of Annihilation I expect that will be pushed to its limits. There has to be a certain allowance for the fact that it’s just not fun to detail the poking of every corner of every hallway. I generally get around this with my third policy, “assume the characters are competent.” And what I mean there is, if someone in the party is trained in Survival for example, assume they are good enough trackers to find trails and food/water unless there’s a particular reason why they might not. If they’re creeping through a dungeon, assume they’re watching the shadows and looking for traps, etc. In terms of game rules, this boils down to the “passive skill check” mechanic as a way to bypass “routine” things. The comedy of “Big Damn Hero Is a Stumblebum Because Fuck Dice” has long lost its appeal for me, if only because I keep building Big Damn Heroes and they keep stumbling instead.

-The Gneech

Jul 09 2021

Main Character Syndrome vs. the Ensemble in D&D

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I’m not going to mince words: I am prone to Main Character Syndrome. I am not proud of this fact.

I am not the only person in our D&D group who suffers from this affliction, but I suspect I may be the one who struggles with it the most. Shade-Of-the-Candle could be a study in it: she is a natural leader, but also prone to going off and doing her own thing without telling the rest of the group what’s up, always thinks she knows the score (and is right more often than she’s wrong), and gets very prickly when things don’t go her way. As her player, I spend a lot of time biting my tongue to prevent the game from becoming “The Shade-Of-the-Candle Show, Guest-Starring The Other Player Characters.”

My drow bard Obsidian was even worse about this. In her case, I had built it in to her as a deliberate character flaw that she only really cared about herself and regarded the rest of the party as “her staff.” It was intended to be there to get some laughs at her expense, but I discovered to my mounting horror that some other members of the group readily bought into it and worse, the DM literally made her the most important person in the universe as a plot point, at which juncture I felt like both Obsidian and my own presence were doing the group more harm than good. :(

So for Plotline’s game, when I created Dusk, I deliberately crafted his personality to buoy up the other members of the party first. He is constantly talking up the other players’ abilities and interests, trying to find new devotees for the cleric, being fascinated by the artificer’s inventions, or dazzled by the other fighters’ combat prowess, etc. (He’s no slouch in the bragging-about-himself department either, mind you, but in his case it’s the buoyant “I love being awesome!” way of a himbo, and not the sneering “What have you done for me, lately?” way of Obsidian.)

I bring this up because over the past few days, I’ve been watching a series of “D&D Highlights” videos on YouTube (my favorite of which is posted at the top of this post). The videos are very silly and entertaining shenanigans, which is enough by itself, but what I have been most impressed by is the masterful way the players are supporting each others’ RP. Even the “grumpy dwarf” character is expressing that “grumpy dwarfness” in a way that can allow the other characters to shine, such as the character walking blindly into the pranks they pull on him even when the player knows exactly what it is going on. It’s terrific “yes, and” RP all around, even when it’s just pure goofiness.

Granted, these are highlight reels, so they’re showing off the best moments. But this is the kind of thing I want to see in my games, and it’s the kind of thing I want to bring to the table when I’m a player. A good D&D game is the story of the group, not of any one character. I think Dusk works towards this goal pretty well for the most part, and I think Shady can do that as well, I just need to be better about making it happen. In both cases, PEBCAK (“Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard”) applies, in that I the player have to remember to be focused on making the rest of the group shine instead of chasing after my own glory.

-The Gneech

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Jun 24 2021

Shady vs. Dusk: Throwdown!

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Shade-Of-the-Candle uses diplomacy.

So as a thought exercise, I levelled up both Shade-Of-the-Candle and Stars-At-Dusk to 20 to see how they compared both in a fight, and at their respective party roles. Here’s what I came up with:

SHADY: Bard (College of Swords) 6/Rogue (Swashbuckler) 14
AC 17, hp 167 (20d8+60), Spd 30, Initiative +11
Saves: Dex +11, Int +5, Wis +6
Multiattack (2/round); Crescent Moon: +12 to hit, 1d8+6 piercing +7d6 sneak attack; Cutlass (off-hand): +11 to hit, 1d6+5 slashing; Pistols: +11 to hit, 1d10+5 piercing
Acrobatics +17, Athletics +12, Deception +9, Intimidation +9, Investigation +11, Perception +12, Persuasion +15, Sleight of Hand +11, Stealth +17
Bardic Inspiration (d8, 3/short rest), Blade Flourish, Countercharm, Cunning Action, Distraction, Elegant Maneuver, Evasion, Fancy Footwork, Fighting Style (2-handed), Lucky (3 uses), Panache, Rakish Audacity, Reliable Talent, Uncanny Dodge
Spells: Charm Person, Cure Wounds, Enemies Abound, Enthrall, Healing Word, Hold Person, Mage Hand, Sleep, Thorn Whip, Thunderwave, Vicious Mockery

DUSK: Fighter (Champion) 15/Rogue (Swashbuckler*) 5
AC 20, hp 178 (5d8+15d10+60), Spd 30, Initiative +15
Saves: Dex +11, Int +6, Wis +8
Multiattack (3/round); Compelling Argument: +12 to hit (crit 18-20), 1d8+8 piercing +3d6 sneak attack; Longbow: +11 to hit, 1d8+5 piercing
Acrobatics +11, Athletics +12, Deception +8, Intimidation +8, Investigation +6, Perception +8, Sleight of Hand +8, Stealth +17
Action Surge (1/short rest), Alert, Cunning Action, Fancy Footwork, Indomitable, Second Wind, Uncanny Dodge
*My original concept for Dusk was to take assassin, but the way he’s been played leans more towards swashbuckler.

The first thing that immediately jumps out is that Dusk is a much deadlier fighter than Shady. Yes, if she can get the drop on Dusk and land a big sneak attack up front, that’ll surely hurt. But with that Alert feat, Dusk is almost guaranteed to be going first, and even if his individual attacks hurt less, he’s going to be doing more and occasionally hitting just as hard as Shady does with that increased crit range. Dusk is also more durable, thanks to his shield. To get in a third attack, Shady has to give up her cunning action, although with both of them being swashbucklers, there’s going to be a lot of hit-and-fade going on that makes cunning action superfluous. Also, Shady has to use Blade Flourish to bump her AC or damage output, and she only has 3 uses of that in any given fight.

On the other hand, Shady has a lot more flexibility and potentially fight-ending abilities, particularly Charm Person and Hold Person. Dusk’s high Wis save and Indomitable strengthen him against that, but Shady’s Lucky feat could then come along and say “Nope!” Heck, if Shady can get Dusk below 40 hp and drop a third level Sleep spell on him, that’s all she wrote.

In terms of the party, Shady is definitely a better leader and a lot more useful in social or exploration situations, while Dusk is more purely a striker. And the truth of the matter is neither one is likely to be interested in fighting the other one to the death. Dusk would probably be hitting on Shady the whole time, while Shady would be focused on whatever achieving goal Dusk stood in the way of and be looking for a way around him. But if they had to fight for some reason, I’d call their chances about even, maybe favoring Dusk just a bit but not much.

Which honestly? Seems about right. Shady is Jack Sparrow, while Dusk is Inigo Montoya.

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May 28 2021

Writing Game Mechanics For a Plot Device

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Enigma Sector is intended to be “big tent” space opera the way D&D is “big tent” fantasy, so it pulls from a lot of sources, and of course Star Wars is a big one. One of the things I’ve been trying to fit into the game is “ion damage” as it’s presented in Star Wars. We see four clear examples of it:

  • Jawas zap R2-D2, he keels over
  • Controls of Luke’s snowspeeder become ionized and he crashes
  • Hoth ion cannon disables a star destroyer and the transport ships breeze past
  • Y-Wings hit a star destroyer with ion torpedoes and disable it, allowing a hammerhead corvette to play billiards with it

It could be that ion damage is the “stun setting” that knocks out Leia in Ep IV and that she uses on Poe in Ep VII, as well, that’s harder to say. That’s how I’ve been treating it, anyhow.

But the common element of all of these is that ion damage, while not inherently lethal, is presented as a one-punch fight ender*, which can have its place when it’s a plot device, but poison when you want to have a playable game. The biggest question it leads to, however, is “If you have a cannon/torpedo that can one-punch a star destroyer, why wouldn’t you just do that all the time?” Or to put it into game terms, if you give the players in your game an “I win!” button, they’ll just press it over and over. And if you give the enemies the same button, the only real contest becomes the initiative check to see who can hit the “I win!” button first.

(*Sort of. The Hoth ion cannon fires four shots, and we see two connect, while the Y-Wings in Rogue One just pummel the star destroyer with something like six hits, and that’s explicitly after the shields being knocked down “made an opening.” But in both cases, the star destroyer goes from “fine or mostly fine” to “dead in space” in a matter of seconds.)

So this brings us to ion weapons and spaceship combat. My original idea was that a hit from an ion weapon would knock down a ship’s shields, which is kinda-sorta what we see in the case of the star destroyers: the first hit mucks up the shields, and the followup hit(s) muck up the controls. Since all the hits happen in rapid succession, we don’t get to see if the star destroyers could recover from the first one in time. But that led me to imagining my players, in their own little not-quite-the-Millennium Falcon, being swarmed by enemy fighters with ion guns that lead to a super-fast death spiral of the shields going down and staying down. I’ve already established that ion weapons have shorter range and do less damage than blasters, but that add-on effect is still hella powerful.

(In the case of Luke’s snowspeeder, there’s no indication that the walkers are firing ion weapons, so I’m assuming that would come under the heading of system damage: the regular blaster hit incapacitated the ship for a round and, being next to an enormous obstacle (i.e., the planet), the snowspeeder crashed into it. That incapacitation just happened to come in the form of ionized controls.)

So how do I fit ion weapons into that Venn Diagram sweet spot between “doesn’t add math,” “is worth doing sometimes,” and “doesn’t become the only thing worth doing”? I started looking at monster debuffs for inspiration here. 4E was full of “controller” monsters, who all pretty much did the same thing: “Piddly damage, and the target is dazed (save ends).” Dazed in 4E was roughly analogous to 5E’s version of the slow spell: attackers had advantage on you, you could move or attack (but not both), and you couldn’t use bonus actions or reactions. That’s not bad, honestly. (Slow tweaks the numbers and adds some stuff about spell failure that isn’t really relevant here.) 5E’s major monster debuffs come from grapples, poison, or petrification, which all do variations of the same thing. Grapples hold you in place, poison gives you disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks, and petrification starts with being restrained (can’t move and attackers have advantage) and gets worse from there.

So let’s break these down…

  • Grappled (immobilized): Having a movement speed of 0 can range from being immaterial (if your plan was to just buzz around shooting anyway) to being a game-ender (if your plan was to escape to the jump-point). There is a vague vibe of “moving fast = hard to hit, not moving = sitting duck” that isn’t reflected in the rules per se. That leads to…
  • Restrained: Your speed becomes 0, as above, but attackers have advantage against you, and you have disadvantage on Dex saves. This is a heck of a debuff, especially when the enemies pile on, but while you can’t move, you can at least still act. This pretty accurately reflects ion damage as presented, but it’s also dangerously close to the “becomes the only thing worth doing” category.
  • Poisoned: You have disadvantage on attacks and ability checks. Probably the worst thing you can do to a rogue because it tends to kill sneak attack, but is mostly a nuisance for everyone else, and also doesn’t model the desired result.
  • 4E-style Dazed/5E-style Slowed: You have to choose whether to move or attack (choices are interesting!) and have a fairly significant debuff, whether it’s advantage for your enemies, or -2 AC/Dex saves for you.

Of the choices, I think I’m liking the 4E dazed the best. (Hey, 4E wasn’t all bad.) In 4E, “save ends” meant that at the end of your turn, roll 10+ on a d20 and the condition went away (rather than being impacted by your stats like a 5E saving throw). This was a key part of the design: debuffs were meant to sting, but they were also meant to be something you could shake off fairly easily, on the grounds that being hamstrung through the whole fight was anti-fun. And I still want that to be the case here: tying recovery to a Constitution saving throw would make it way too hard for small ships to recover, and way too easy for big ones. So how about something like this…

Ionized (Condition): The vehicle’s controls are locked up by ionization. The vehicle can’t take reactions, and it can’t move unless it uses the Dash action. Attackers have advantage against the vehicle, and it has disadvantage on Dexerity saving throws. At the end of the vehicle’s turn, roll 1d20: the ionization effect ends on a roll of 10 or higher. The vehicle may also end the effect by using its action to spend a hit die as damage control.

This could also work for droids being hit by ion weapons as well. Whattya think?

-TG

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