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

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 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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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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Mar 14 2021

Shady, Rogue or Bard? Time To Choose

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Shade-Of-the-Candle Takes It Easy... But Takes It
Yes, Shady, choosing is very hard in this case.

WARNING: Lots of rules rambling ahead. Read only if you are a big ol’ D&D nerd.

So last night Shady hit 6th level after a fun session fighting against the most cheerful demonic bounty hunter ever. So now I have to actually choose, Rogue or Bard? Neither option is great immediately—6th level rogue gets her expertise in Investigation and Persuasion, but nothing else changes. 1st level bard gets her a new skill, a new proficiency, a small handful of spells, and three uses of bardic inspiration per long rest.

So neither choice is about what happens at level 6; they’re really about what happens at levels 7, 8, and 9.

If Shady sticks with rogue, at 7th she’ll get evasion and more sneak attack, at 8th she’ll hit 20 Dex, and at 9th she’ll get that awesome Panache ability and still more sneak attack. If she jumps over to bard, at 7th she’ll get Jack of All Trades (double-bumping her Initiative on top of her swashbuckler boost), at 8th she’ll get Blade Flourish (which is a game-changer ability) and Two-Weapon Fighting*, and at 9th she’ll finally catch up with that 20 Dex.

The problem is, I want all of this stuff for Shady! Panache especially is something that suits her perfectly, that whole “piss off the baddie so they chase only you—but also can’t actually GET to you” annoyance/avoidance tanking strategy goes all the way back to her fight with Kresthianze the black dragon. Having a mechanical backup for what she’s been doing purely through RP would be very nice.

On the other hand, in play, Shady’s biggest weak spot is totally her AC. The pattern with her, from the mimic that one-punched her at 2nd level, to the fight in the warehouse, to fighting Gornstard the Wailer last night, has over and over been:

1) Combat starts
2) Shady gets almost one-punched before she even gets a turn
3) She spends the rest of the fight either out or reeling from the first hit

To a certain extent, this is the rules working as intended. Rogues are glass cannons, and even swashbucklers—who are intended to get in melee and stay there—are expected to jump in and out, hide, and generally be evasive more than durable. Fortunately, Uncanny Dodge is a big mitigator here—when I remember to actually USE it—but the fact remains that Shady’s paltry 16 AC is her big ol’ Achilles Heel.

But short of magic items (and man, she is looking for that Cloak Piratey Longcoat of Protection), the only ways for her to boost her AC are 1) maxing Dex, or 2) Blade Flourish—either of which she can get at 8th level, it’s just a matter of which.

20 Dex will set her AC to 17 whenever she gets attacked, before she gets a turn or after, all the time. Blade Flourish, using the Defense option, potentially adds +1d6 to her AC (typically putting it around 19), but only after she’s made an attack, and only up to three times per long rest. It also boosts her already-crazy speed and bumps her damage on the initial attack roll.

The biggest thing is that going the bard route gives Shady the 20 Dex at 9th level—which means that in terms of AC, she gets both of the boosts by going the bard route, at the expense of a bit of sneak attack, evasion (which has not been a factor so far since we don’t have a lot of fireballs flying around, but might become one if more dragons start showing up), and, of course, panache.

I dunno; I keep going around and around and not being able to land. All of this is solved by 15th level, in which she has all the bard and all the rogue she wants and everything after that is gravy… but what are the chances of any campaign getting there? Generally not considered good. That’s what makes this a tough choice—whichever direction she chooses is likely to be the only choice she gets.

-TG

*Theoretically it would also open breastplate + shield, but even if the breastplate looked like a leather battle corset, the Dex cap would make it a net wash, and I just cannot see Shady carrying a shield. Dusk does, because he’s a fighter-flavored-with-rogue, but Shady is not a gird-her-loins type.

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