Jul 23 2019

Check Out JohnRRobey.com!

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I still use Gneech.com for random bloggy stuff (and as an archive of {mumble} years of writing), but if you’re looking for my professional writing site, head over to JohnRRobey.com!

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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

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

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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Jun 23 2021

Fictionlet

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“So what exactly is your point then?” asked Isadora. “I’m afraid I’m not following.”

“Nothing terribly grand, I suppose,” said Greg. “I was just thinking, that Roy Clark is to guitar, as Victor Borge is to piano.”

Brigid wrinkled her forehead. “I don’t know who either of those people are.”

Greg winced at her. “Do you say these things just to hurt me?”

“Oh please,” said Isadora. “Do you really mean to suggest that Mr. Picking and Grinning is on the same plane as Phonetic Punctuation?”

“Suggest it? I’m stating it explicitly!” said Greg. “Look at the facts. Both extremely capable musicians. Both leaning on humor to the point of being defined by it. Both constantly being asked to ‘play something straight.’ Roy Clark doing a duet of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ with Johnny Cash is right up there with Victor Borge and Leonid Hambro playing the Hungarian Rhapsody. The only difference is NBC or PBS.”

“Bah. Never!”

“I resent the fact that you two understand each other better than I understand either one of you,” said Brigid. “Can we talk about traffic accidents or something?”

-The Gneech

<-- previous B&G

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Jun 22 2021

The PTSD Is With You (Jedi: Fallen Order)

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Jedi: Fallen Order is a game that just beats the crap out of its protagonist.

Poor Cal Kestis can’t catch a break. One day he’s just a young Padawan, honing his force powers through tough love by a Jedi master, then suddenly some jerk says “Execute Order 66” and his world goes to crap. Fast forward five years and he’s hiding out on the planetary junk yard of Bracca, tearing apart Republic ships to sell the scrap metal back to the Empire to make Imperial ships, which is a dirty and dangerous job with a low life expectancy. But, unlike Jedi, it does have a life expectancy.

That is, until your only real friend gets tossed into a !sarlacc pit by an on-the-job accident and you have to use your only reliable force ability to slow his fall long enough to get him out of danger… catching the attention of the Imperial Inquisitors (former Jedi-turned-disciples-of-Darth-Vader) and having to flee for your life.

Cal, as you might expect, has some issues. But while PTSD makes him jumpy, fearful, and reluctant to stick his neck out (and understandably so), it never makes him mean or bitter, and I love the game for it. Cal is not badass. Not even a little. He’s sweet and humble in that Luke Skywalker way, doing his best to do the right thing in a universe where doing the right thing tends to get you horribly mangled or killed. He’s always checking in, looking for the best, and cheering up the companions he picks up along the way, even when almost every one of them screw up in some fashion that makes bad things so much worse. He gets mad about it—he’s not a saint—but he also works through it and looks for the positive (or, failing that, the least awful) outcome in any scenario.

Over the course of the game, Cal doesn’t exactly “get over” his past traumas, but he does undergo significant healing and growth, to the point where, at the end of the game, when confronted with a terror that he can’t possibly overcome and told “you would be wise to run,” he replies with a regretful, “Yeah… probably…” and stands up to the terror anyway, because somebody has to protect the people Cal has chosen to protect, and Cal is the only one there to do it.

And given the shit this game throws at him, that’s probably his most amazing superpower. Slowing time, Jedi psychometry, double-jumping and wall-running, wading through stormtroopers to the point where they’re literally calling for help, these are all useful abilities, but none of them define Cal the way just “being thoughtful and kind” do. In a world where so many game protagonists are grizzled, macho space marines, having a hero like Cal is a breath of fresh air, and makes not just for a good game, but for good Star Wars, which is something I have come to be grateful for whenever I can find it.

I fear for young Cal. Fallen Order 2 is on the way, and given that he needs to be out of the picture within the next ten years in order for Luke to take up the mantle of the last of the Jedi, I can totally see that going the way of Rogue One. But given Cal’s heroic (in the best way) nature… a Jyn Urso-style sacrifice for the greater good seems like his inevitable destination.

-The Gneech

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