Monthly Archives: November 2009

A Truly Random Cool Thing for Monday

I had a good round of character creation on Saturday, and we’re going to run a prologue this coming Saturday, so much of my brain is in that space now. I’ll probably be using that for fodder for this week’s posts so you all get to see how I turn this stack of notes into something to play because, well, we did chargen in the absence of system, and I will hack the system to match the characters in time for play. That’s going to be fun, but challenging. But that’s a topic for tomorrow.

Today I want to talk about Abulafia, which thankfully has the now easier to remember url of It is basically a giant wiki of random generators, so if you need to create a B-Movie Title, a Superhero Name, a Secret Society (or go a step further and make your own Splats) , or possibly every In a Wicked Age Oracle you can think of, this is your one stop shop.

As useful a resource as this is, it’s worth noting that because it’s built on wiki guts, it allows for people to constantly create new and interesting lists. There’s a bit of a performance hit that comes from this – because there’s a lot of referencing various text tables in different places, the page loads can be a bit slow – but the sheer depth of content is more than worth the lag.

I’m a huge fan of these sorts of randomizers, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. It is a rare game that I don’t dip into some sort of rich randomizer (like Tarot, I-Ching, Oblique Strategies or the like) to see what it shakes loose. Abulafia has the advantage of being more diverse and outright wacky than any other option, so it’s a good tool for a GM to keep in her back pocket.

Pay No Attention To The Man Behind the Curtain

Just a quick post today because I was somewhat irresponsible last night, and while I should have been writing, I was finishing Dragon Age. Totally worth it, by the way. The ending was disappointing only in that it meant I could not continue to keep playing this game. I may talk more about it later, but I’ll wait a bit until the glowing haze of joy has faded.

So, I’m grabbing the keyboard in the few minutes I have this morning before I need to start work to answer a question. The inestimable Paul Tevis asked me what my process was for writing this stuff, which was a little bit of a head-scratcher because I don’t really think of it as a process, but Paul is awesome, so I thought about it for a bit.

I tend to think about this writing in terms of seeds – little ideas that could use some fleshing out. Sometimes these pop up in other places, like blogs or twitter (the recent spin on running raids in 4e was inspired by a comment on twitter) and I think they need a response or elaboration, sometimes they’re something that I’m twigged to by a piece of news or fiction[1], sometimes they just come out of left field.

I actually have been writing about things like this for years, but it usually just ends up in one of my black notebooks (Moleskines or Piccadilly – I’m a notebook and pen enthusiast, but that’s another topic for another day). I’m almost never without pen and paper to capture random ideas, and I make a habit of keeping them on hand, even if I can’t use them immediately. It doesn’t always work – I sometimes come back to discover some entirely enigmatic note which I’m sure made complete sense to me when I wrote it, but is now entirely incomprehensible. A few of those experiences have burned me enough that I try to be a little kinder when writing notes to my future self now, because as far as I can tell, he’s not that bright.

For all my good intentions, these remain kind of disorganized, spread across several notebooks, which is bad in terms of being methodical, but is great in terms of the voyage of discovery that comes out of flipping back through them. As an example, one of my current idea pages has the following list:

  • Games as Service and the WOTC business model
  • Drama Fatigue
  • Mechanics are like superpowers – if you have one, it’s what you use.
  • Myopia, Isms, and the Dawkins Effect (where people who might agree with you reject your ethos because you’re an ass)
  • Internet Toxins
  • The Creative Advantages of Genre Ignorance
  • Ideas that work once (‘I Am Hope’)
  • Neil Gaiman’s Terminator (I have no idea what I meant by this one, but I wish I did)
  • The Harmonium as Canadians

Some of these might get fleshed out, some might not. I tend to write them up in a method similar to how Iwould try to explain them conversationally, and that provides something of a natural filter on how much to write, and what to write about. If I could explain it concisely, then I’ve no reason to write for very long[2], but if I feel kind of idiotic explaining it to my hypothetical audience, then it might not be that great a topic.

The ideas that don’t will continue to rattle around and may show up in other things, but the physicality of the notebooks means they’ll stick around as long as I need. Certainly, some of these are not fully fleshed out ideas, but the process of writing or talking about these things helps me work through them (something I think Paul understands), and as far as that goes, there is a very selfish element to my writing.

A lot of what I write is for my own sake, which is why I’ve historically been perfectly willing to do it in a private environment like a notebook. I’m enthusiastically willing to be wrong, or to invest a lot of energy going down a rabbit hole that ends up going nowhere, for the sheer joy of it.

Translating that process to something public is, to be honest, a little weird. I find myself checking page views and comments and engaging in the usual blog neurosis of wondering if I’m talking to the void. But even that is a little selfish – each day’s writing brings me one day closer to being able to set aside that worry, which is good. It’s an ugly, unnecessary monkey.

Anyway, I could probably ramble on, but time is short, so I’ll get this posted and just wish everyone a happy Friday. See you next week.

1 – If it’s from the news, it’s usually something that’s interesting. If it’s fiction, it’s usually seeing something done very well or very badly, and wondering how to capture that in a game.

2 – This can also spawn its own ideas. Sometimes an idea is very simple to explain, but only if the person you’re speaking to already grasps another idea or set of ideas. Canadian harmonium, for example, is a really potent idea to me, but that comes from an investment in A) Planescape and B) The history of the RCMP, and the contrast between the ethos of the Cowboy and the Mountie. With those two things together, it becomes possible to really flesh out the Harmonium as something more interesting (and more positive) than red armored bully-boy-stand-in-fascists. But that’s a pretty specialized focus, so that one gets put in my pocket for bar talk (or maybe a home game) until I decide I really want to write a post about Mounties and my profound love of Due South.

Running a Raid, Part III

First, an aside: I figured out an easier way to handle agro. The boss must spend a number of threat tokens equal to the taunt value of the main tank on attacking the tank before he can spend them on any other attack. Makes the sequence of events much smoother. And a clarification: taunt tokens are exchanged within a given range, and only work within that range. I mention that because there might be 3 tanks in the last phase of the priest fight.

The Fallen Cardinal

I’m calling this guy level 10 because it’s an easy number to work with. I was struck by the idea of the ghost of a crumbling cathedral while I was thinking about ways to bring in the environment. A transition from corporeal to ghostly to demonic seems to offer a great way to call for very dramatic transitions between fight phases.

Since he’s level 10, he starts with 50 “health”, gets 10 menace points per turn, and has an effective attack roll of 25. Quick math in my head says a Paladin of that level probably has an AC somewhere around 24-25, and assuming that’s true, I may have to take that as an argument to move the base attack to [L]+10 and make spending menace point son accuracy something outside of the cost of the power. This has the additional benefit of giving the boss something to do with the spare one or two menace points he might be sitting on, so I’m going to call that the new rule for now.

Quick math also reveals that 50 health might be low. Let’s assume a 20 man raid: even doing badly, they’ll probably accrue 10 “hits” minimum per round, which makes for a quick fight, probably 2 quick. 100 would probably better, and for purposes of scaling with the number of players, the new yardstick is [L]*(number of players/2). So for our assumed 20 man raid, that’s 10*(20/2), or 100

I envision this fight having three phases: the first against his physical form, a rotting corpse in the regalia of his faith (giant hat and all). This will probably be pretty straight up, with a lot of his abilities focused around summoning up other undead minions to go after people, and maybe gaining some health back from their attacks, so taking him down requires managing his minions. The next phase will be his ghostly form, rising up from his body, and this will probably be rough to fight because of the whole incorporeal thing, so he’ll shrug off a lot of attacks, but he’ll also probably take extra hits from radiant attacks. Last, he’ll call upon his demonic masters to pull the whole cathedral into hell. This is partly because I love the visual – lit by flames and magma, with parts of the cathedral merged into the rock walls, the floor falling away to reveal magma below, leaving only a few places to stand, with the cardinal turning into a towering physical demon in the classic mould. The physical part of this fight will be the most straightforward (giving the strikers a bit of a chance to shine) but the environment will be the big challenge.

Designing Stage 1:
Ok, I want a melee attack, a ranged attack, and a summon, all bearing in mind that his usual budget is 10 menace points.

For the melee attack, I envision him just laying about himself with his ornate staff. For 1 menace point, that would be single target, 20 to hit, 1d8+5 damage. Let’s jazz that up a bit, and see what he can do with 4 menace points: let’s keep it single target and just jazz up the damage with a 3 point bump, bringing it to 3d8+5. That’s a hefty hit, but I admit it feels like it’s expensive – taking that as a note to self to possibly consider upping damage a bit.

For range, we’ll make it a smite, and we’ll call it 6 points, 1 base, 2 for range, 1 to shift the defense to reflex, and 2 to bump damage, so it’s a single target base 20 to hit against reflex for 3d6+5 damage. Again, feels expensive for what he gets, and I think this reveals to me the problem – the damage scale I’m using (from page 42) is really scaled for single attack, but I need to scale the raid boss for _group_ attacks. He should be attacking multiple targets every round, and the way these things are pricing out, that’s not an option.

So that calls for another tweak: Attacks will get priced assuming they’re area attacks. If they’re single target attacks, they get a free two level bump to damage. That reduces those two attacks to 2 and 4 menace points respectively, and I’m good with that.

At this point I feel like we’ve shaken loose most of the clunky bits, so rather than continue to show you all the work, let’s get to the end point.

The Fallen Cardinal

Initial Phase: During this phase the priest is a rotting human form in the rich regalia of a cardinal. He summons forth defenders from the mausoleum beneath the cathedral to fight for him, and he draws strength from their service.

Undead Priest Phase

Health: 30
Success Threshold: 10, extra success threshold at 20 and 30.

Unholy Staff
The priest lashes out with his ornate staff of impossibly tarnished gold.

2 MP- Near, single target, vs. AC. Base attack: 20, Base Damage 3d8+5

Dark Smite

The priest calls down a column of darkness to strike an enemy.
3 MP – Long range, single target, vs. Reflex. Base Attack: 20, Base Damage: 3d6+5 (necrotic)

Dark Reckoning
A wave of dark energy washes over the priest’s enemies
7 MP – Long range only, all targets in a single area, vs. Will, Base Attack 20, Base Damage: 4d8+5 (necrotic)
Notes: This is his ugly attack, and if he isn’t taunted enough or he gets too much menace back from his minions, he’ll spam this.

Call Minion
The Priest summons an undead warrior to harass his foes, then crumbles to dust, releasing a stream of black energy back to the priest.
4MP – A 3 token, 8/16/24 threshold minion appears in any area. At the beginning of the Priest’s next turn, the minion is removed from play and he gains any remaining tokens as menace tokens. If a minion “cashes out” for any number of tokens, it also heals the priest for one point.
Notes: The priest will try to spam these whenever possible (especially if he end s up with 12 menace points) , preferably into unoccupied areas like the middle distance, and use the payout to explode in Dark Reckonings.

Phase transition: Once the priest’s physical body is destroyed, his ghost form rises up to strike down his attackers.

Ghostly Priest Phase
Health: 30
Success Threshold: 10/20/30
Special: Insubstantial. Takes no damage from attacks which do not also Push, Pull or Slide, unless those attacks have the radiant keyword, in which case it takes an extra point of damage.
Environment: Lighting one of the cathedral’s candles and saying a prayer will inflict one point of damage. This can only be done from the medium range area, and requires a DC 20 religion check. Failure on this check grants the Priest one MP, just like a failed attack.

Dark Radiant Burst
Blades of shadow blast out from his ghostly form, striking all nearby enemies.
5MP – Short range, all enemies in area, vs. AC, Base Attack 20, 4d8+5

Shadow Spear
A spear of shadow launches at an enemy
3MP – Long Range, single target, Vs AC, Base Attack 20, 2d6+5

3MP – The priest floats up into the air, out of melee reach, and remains there for the duration of the fight, or until he takes a 3-threshold hit (30 points of damage in a single hit)
Note: he cannot use Dark Radiant Burst while floating, so he will freely throw around Shadow Spears.

Circle of Shadows
The Priest draws a circle around himself that shields him from all attacks, and in fact draws power from their hostility.
11 MP – For the duration of the round, the priest takes no damage. Each time he is attacked, he instead accrues 1 MP.

Shadow Apocalypse
The priest has gathered enough shadows to unleash an unholy storm
18 MP -All areas, all targets in all areas, vs Will, 8d10+10
Notes: This is the classic “Do not screw up the tactics, or we all die”. If the priest uses Circle of Shadows, and people keep attacking him, he’ll have enough points to bust this out, which will suck immensely.

Phase Transition:
As the priest falls, he calls out to his demonic master, and the earth shakes and cracks, stone walls shoot up on all sides (or perhaps the Cathedral falls, it is hard to say). In then end, the scene is now a great stone chamber whose features echo the cathedral. Much of the floor has fallen away, leaving only three stable areas, and the Priest has transformed into a demonic figure, ten feet tall with fiery skin and a great flaming sword.

Demonic Priest Phase
Health: 40
Success Threshold: 12/24/36
Special: Fiery: Gains Resist 20 to fire attacks.
Environment: The close, medium and far ranges are now physical locations (the three remaining stone platforms). Moving between them now requires a movement power or an Athletics check with a difficulty of 20. On a failure, the character still moves, but his desperate scrabbling to hang on and the distraction it provides grants the priest 1 MP.

Notes: On paper, this is a pretty simple phase with simple powers, but the demon’s mobility paired with the fact that you can’t let him get off on his own, should allow for things to shift pretty easily, as the demon will always move to the weakest group. His powers are priced with the assumption he’ll jump than use them. Nod to Bartoneus for sending me down this particular direction of thought.

The demon makes a mighty leap form one platform to the next.
2 MP – The Demon jumps from one platform to another, and is now considered in melee range with the PCs in that range category.

Blade Sweep
The Demon sweeps his blade in a fiery arc through his enemies
4MP – Short range, all enemies in area, vs. AC, Base Attack 20, 3d8+5 (fire)

Blade Hammer
Powerful overhand blows rain down on a chosen enemy
4MP – Short range, single target, vs. AC, base attack 20, 4d10+5

The Demon incants a powerful fiery ritual that engulfs another one of the pillars in flame and falling rock
8MP – Any range but short, all enemies in area, 4d10 + 5 (fire) and 4d8 +5 damage (falling rock).
Note: This ability can only be used if the Demon is alone in a given area

So there it is: Does it make sense, and can you see it? This was, honestly, MUCH longer than I expected, so I no longer have any true perspective on it. Normally, I’d sit on it for a week or so to polish, but I’m working on this out in the open, warts and all, so I’m curious as to impressions.

Running a Raid, Part II

Ok, so now that we have the baseline, let’s see about jazzing things up a little. There are three big areas we want to address: we want to make sure there is some reason to use one attack instead of another, we want to capture some way to simulate aggro management, and we want to generally be able to jazz up the fight with special events, terrain and so on.

The first is the easiest, and we solve a bit of the third at the same time. The trick is that you can offload most of the fiddly bits onto the bad guy. The simple gimmick for this is to assign vulnerabilities to the bad guys that reflect tactical situations, and those can be paired with resistances. To give a concrete example, suppose the Boss can turn into a swarm of bugs – for the duration of this it might not take damage from any attacks except those that can hit more than one square. Or perhaps he can still be hit, but he’ll take an extra point of damage from those attacks.

Provided that these vulnerabilities and resistance switch over the course of a fight, you successfully capture the idea that if you know what to do during each phase, you can fight more effectively. Now, admittedly the fact that in a WoW raid this knowledge is gained by dying repeatedly until you get it right, but that knowledge can probably be gotten some other way depending on the venue – for a convention game, for example, it might be part of the prelude.

There’s a temptation to address the second point (aggro) with complex systems, causing certain actions to increase aggro, marking to move it around and so on, but that is unnecessary complication. If you step back, aggro is really just a mechanized way for the boss to “fight smart”, seeking to go after the most cost effective targets – the squishy ones in particular. As a GM, you can already make that decision, targeting healers and more lightly armored PCs, so the only thing we really need is a way to allow the PCs to inhibit this.

So we’ll compromise on a simple mechanic: any time an attack would mark the boss, the attacker gets a taunt token. Taunt token’s can be spent to cancel a menace point which it used to fuel an attack that does not include the PC as a target. This does not cancel the attack, just the menace point – the boss can spend another or, if he cannot, the attack changes targets to the taunting PC. However, we want to model the idea of a “Main Tank” so let’s add one more twist: at the end of a turn (after the last PC, before the Boss), all the taunt tokens need to be given to one character. This also saves the trouble of havign to track everyone’s threat tokens.

For the third and final bit, , we need to add in a little bit of extra variety – enemies that support the boss, terrain features and so on. We don’t want these to be too fiddly, so we’re not too worried about details – what these should take the form of are choices – opportunity cost decisions that give a reason to choose one action or another (rather than provide only one obvious choice).

There will generally take two forms: The first will be special actions that can only be taken at specific times and places. If the fight takes place in a fallen cathedral, perhaps there are candles to be lit (which takes an action from someone in the middle range), and lighting a candle reduces the number of threat tokens the boss has, or grants attackers +1 damage or otherwise provides some benefit. These are easy to design, and simply depend upon the description of the environment. The only limiter is that these are usually only useful in a single phase of the fight.

Representing secondary creatures is a little more difficult. Mechanically, they should be represented as one more power of the boss – he spends menace to make them appear, but since it’s not an attack, it’s not influenced by aggro. Support enemies will appear in a given area and be represented by some number of threat tokens. They work like the boss, in that players can attack them instead, and if they clear a threshold of damage (usually the boss’s level -2) then they remove one of the tokens. If there are any tokens left when the boss acts again, then they get used. What they’re used for depends on the monster: sometimes they’ll be turned in for straight damage to a target or targets in the area their in, but if the creature is more built for harassment, then the boss may get those threat tokens back in addition to any it generates this turn.

Now, with the reminder that this is still just an interesting stunt, tomorrow I’ll try to take this theory and create a sample or two, and maybe discuss how to use some of these ideas in a less over-the-top fashion.

Running a Raid in 4e, Part 1

Gamefiend threw out the question of whether or not you could run a WoW style raid in 4e, and I’ve been finding myself chewing on it. I’m pretty confident the answer is “Yes”, though I admit I think you’d be kind of crazy to try it, since anything that involves juggling that many players is crazy enough to really qualify as a stunt. It’s something you could do at a convention, but it’s probably better suited to online play (heck, maybe it’s a good use of google wave). This is the a window into my thinking on this, and while it’s super, super raw, I figured I’d share it as I work through the details on how I’d make it happen.

Now, you could do it as a straight-up fight, just by making a staged villain[1], probably a triple solo to make sure he has enough hit points to last, but that could quickly end in madness as everyone takes their turn to move and arrange and track their hit points and so on. Also, you’d need to add more area attacks or the things just going to get torn apart by sheer numbers.

So instead, I would probably set it up like an open ended skill challenge with an abstract map. The trick is to capture the two elements of a good raid: distinct roles, and a necessity to change up tactics.

The simplest way to do the “map” is to set up areas of engagement: Near, middle and far. Near means adjacent to the boss (where the main tank and melee damage dealers are going to be), far means at a distance (where most of the healers, buffers and ranged damage-dealers hang out) and middle is the space between, most occupied by skirmishers, off tanks, and specialized roles.

The boss, whatever he is, has a level. That level pretty much determines exactly what sort of threat he is, and also is the basis of most of his capabilities. His hit points are abstracted into the number of “Damage successes” it will take to take him down. I’m calling the ballpark on that his level (which I’ll just call [L]) times 5, but this is totally unplaytested, so that might be off base, especially since it would probably be smart to scale him with the number of players. I’d endorse representing these with tokens, like poker chips, but it could just be that I’m nuts for tokens.

In a straight up fight, things go like this: On your turn you can move one “space” (or two spaces if you use any kind of movement power) or use a power (whether to attack or not). You might also do something else, but that’s much more situational. Moving is hopefully self explanatory, but the actual fighting is something else.

When a player attempts to attack the boss, he can use any of his attacks, with the following limitation. Melee/close attacks require the character be near the boss, and ranged attacks (anything that would invite an attack of opportunity) need to be from the middle or far distance. If a character uses an ability to heal or buff an ally, that works normally.

An attack is always assumed to hit successfully, but most of the time the only thing that matters is the damage dealt – Raid Bosses are immune to all manner of special effects and statuses (except when they are not, see below), but benefits that help allies can still be triggered. If the damage dealt meets or exceeds a certain threshold (probably based off [L]), then it counts as a success, and the boss takes one point of “damage” – accruing damage successes is what ultimately takes the boss down.[2] However, any failure gives the Boss one “Menace Point”.

This matters a lot because, after everyone’s taken a turn, the boss gets to go. He has a number of menace points equal to his level, plus any he’s gained from player failures. He uses them to build his attacks – he should have a list of abilities that have menace point costs, but in the absence of that it works something like this.

For 1 menace point he can make an attack against a single target in the “close” area. It is an attack against AC, where the boss effectively rolls 15+[L] and does damage equal to the low normal damage on the table of the gods (aka page 42 of the DMG)[3]. For each additional menace point spent he can enhance the attack by doing one of the following:

  • Affect an additional target
  • Affect everyone in the area (costs 3 menace points)
  • Target the middle distance instead
  • Target the long distance instead (Costs 2 menace points)
  • Increase damage one step to the right (low normal becomes Medium normal, high normal becomes low limited and so on, costs 2 points)
  • Increase the effective “attack roll” by +2
  • Change the attack to a different defense (Reflex, fortitude or Will)[4]

The boss can make as many attacks as he has menace to pay for, and certain bosses will have special abilities that they can spend menace to trigger that do more than just damage.

This proceeds, round robin, until either all the PCs are dead or the monster has taken enough damage to go down. Simple as that.

Now, this is very basic, and very mechanistic (which is, arguably, very apt for a raid) with very little in the way of tactics. It would be intensely boring because most player will simply do the same thing every round. However, this lays down the baseline for the next step, adding in important things like aggro, roles, abilities and events. And that comes next.

1 – A staged villain is one who, when reduced to zero hit points, changes rather than dies. In most cases this is a physical transformation (like clay statues that have snakes burst out of their chests when they’re beaten) but it’s also a useful way to simulate the changes in tactics that are familiar to video game players. Normally, each “stage” has normal hit points for its level, though you can just as easily make one stage elite or solo (but I normally wouldn’t – the point of this trick is to offset the long dull endgame of solo fights). Easy to budget for it too, as each stage is just treated as its own critter, which is a little bit kind to the players, but I think it comes out in the wash.

2 – As an optional rule, you might allow additional thresholds to speed things along, and to make strikers feel more valuable. So if a creature’s threshold is 11 and a hit deals 23 points of damage, you might decide it removes 2 points of damage and so on. Alternately, that might just be situational, but that’s something for tomorrow’s post.

3 – I am tempted to have damage be measured in healing surges rather than hit points, but I need to think about the impact this has on healing, and whether it means tanks (sorry, defenders) end up insufficiently tough. If damage is in hit points, it’s the one thing that can’t just be handled with different colored poker chips, but the onus of bookkeeping is on players, so it is distributed. That said, tokens or cards definitely have certain logistical advantages, especially for the large combats. Similar thinking could be applied to damage (just say that at-wills, Encounters and Dailies do 1, 2 and 3 respectively) and while that simplifies things, it’s actually a bad idea because it makes things REALLY boring for the player, and removes the tactical choice-making I hope to introduce next.

4 – This is, by the way, insanely abusable, which is why the DM shoud not actually use this on the fly unless he’s willing to show some restraint. It’s a decent yardstick for pricing boss powers though, and I’ll use it later when I craft up some demo raid bosses.

Monday Randomness: Dragon Age

Like most of the rest of the world, I am totally freaking hooked on Dragon Age: Origins. My one line summary is that it feels like a campaign GM’d by Fred Hicks. Fred is a mean bastard of a GM, so this is high praise indeed. That sense of a GM’d game is one of the hallmarks of a Bioware game, creating a world that responds to the actions of play, and Dragon Age really turns this up to 11 – the technology for the graphics and stuff is nice, but the real benefit of the tech can be seen in just how many choices the game can now support.

So, with about 40-50 hours of play under my belt, split between a few characters, I feel like it’s time for a list of 10 things to know about Dragon Age:Origins.

1. Fighter’s are the simplest class to play, and there’s a lot to be said for starting with a fighter to try out a starting background and to get familiar with the rules and controls (especially if you’re on X-Box because the manual pretty much exists to convince you to buy a strat guide). Once you have that familiarity, you can try a rogue or mage. So far my sense is that Mage is probably the most interesting to play.

2. This is a Bioware game, so get the intimidation/persuasion skill. Lacking it will greatly diminish your options in play. Also, as a Bioware game, do not buy into the idea that there is some “right” decision the game is expecting you to make. There isn’t. There are rails, certainly, but they are very wide, and your leeway within them is much more than you might expect.

3. There is no way I won’t be trying all the backgrounds, and I expect this game will probably get 2 or 3 playthroughs out of me at a minimum. I’ve tried 3 so far (Male-Human-Fighter-Noble, Male-Human-Mage-Circle and Male-Elf-Rogue-City, my primary) and every now and again something from one of the other backgrounds shows up in play, and it really makes the world feel more organic

4. Oh, God, Backpacks. I have bought every backpack I could afford and I am still short on inventory space. This gets really annoying because I tend to be deep in a dungeon when I’m running out of space. The soldier’s peak expansion helps with this, but it’s still pretty maddening.

5. The resolution of one of the big plot knots involved a lot of watching two NPCs talk to each other. As it turns out, this is not much more fun on the console than it is on the tabletop. It’s well written and interesting, but it comes off as a bit of a sour note. I don’t mind watching cut scenes of events taking place elsewhere in the game – that’s part of the genre – but watching my character watch a scene makes me wonder why I’m there.

6. It’s the small choices that kill you. I have yet to have any huge, sweeping choices that were particularly hard (or even terribly moving), but I have had innumerable small choices that left me staring at the screen, paralyzed, totally invested in the result. Bioware’s always been good at this, but this takes it to a whole new level.

7. The game combines of a lot of voice acting talent, quality writing, and an engine that allows them quickly generate visually distinctive characters. That’s all well and good for the heroes, but it’s much more important for the support characters. It is far harder to play “Spot the named character” by looking for the one with better graphics or voice acting, and that’s fantastic, because it really drives home the sense that things can change at the drop of a hat.

8. The downloadable content has been worth the price (though I got some of it free for pre-ordering). Soldier’s Peak adds an extra dungeon that has a solid story to it, which also serves as a base once you’ve cleared it out. Sadly, I have not been able to recruit people to come work there, so my dreams of this being Dark Suikoden have not yet come to fruit. The more expensive pack, which adds the golem, Shale, is possibly even more worth it. First and foremost, it’s not a Bioware game until you throw in a killing machine with a dry wit. He’s fun to have in the party, and he’s incredibly useful. I have so far had at least two boss fights that I’m pretty sure I would have lost if he had not been tanking for me.

9. I am pretty sure I’m missing a lot by not reading every codex update, but honestly there’s just too much, and the console is not ideal for it, especially since when I get a codex update I need to go track it down deep in the menus. In theory, this is helped by new things being highlighted, but the way navigation works, if I have to scroll down to something new, I un-highlight it without realizing it. This is a pain, and while I recognize that there are limitations to the interface that come from playing on the console, this (and some inventory management) are close to genuine frustrations. This is exacerbated by the gameplay being so fun that I already resent needing to drop out into the land of menus, so having that be a kind of rough experience is unfun.

10. I’m pretty happy with the graphics. I can niggle about things like the palette or compare it to other games that do this or that better, but the simple truth is that the graphics are good enough to convey a strong sense of place without impeding on the gameplay, and they are capable of generating the occasional moment of wow from a surprising vista or a unique animation. Sound is similarly impressive, though I find I greatly miss hearing my hero speak, a la Mass Effect.

I’ve been sick for days, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to marathon this game and I am hooked enough that my wife has started developing a deep loathing for it. Likely I’ll have to drop to less frequent play now that I’m starting to recover, but I look forward to working through it. So far I’m really excited – I’m a console RPG nut, and so far this has blown a lot of previous contenders out of the water in terms of play experience. But I am also well aware that I’m not done yet, and it’s entirely possible that it could all come crashing down, or end with a whimper rather than a bang, but for the time being I will hold out hope.

The Project so Far

I realized this week that this little experiment of mine has gone on for a month, so I figured I’d stop and look at how it’s gone.

At the beginning of October I began this self-imposed project of writing one entry per weekday, every day. As much as I hope you’ve all enjoyed the content, the real purpose was for my sake. I tend to write in fits and starts, so I was looking to get more consistent practice, both with writing and with maintaining some level of discipline.

So far it’s worked out pretty well, and I’ve learned a few lessons that would hopefully be of use to anyone.

I moved off of Livejournal for this one big reason – I needed to be able to write drafts ahead of time and schedule their posting, something Livejournal’s not so good at. As a secondary issue, Livejournal’s blocked at work – this is not a big deal for posting (I try to do it all the night before) but I have enough vanity that I like checking comments over the course of the day.

Blogger’s been good – it offers the features I need with a minimal amount of fiddliness. I have a self-hosted wordpress blog, and as much as I like it, it is easy to get distracted by messing around with plugins and keeping up with the latest version. That said, I do miss the flexibility and power that wordpress offers, so if I were to do it again I would probably go with a wordpress hosted blog, but the benefits are not so much greater that I would deal with the hassle of swapping over. If blogger’s spam filter proves useless, or if some other problems reveal themselves, I might reconsider, but I’m good for now.

On the writing end, its amazing how satisfying it is to get ahead of things. This week’s material on villainy was done as one block (pulled in from a One Bad Egg Project that never saw the light of day) so I got to relax over the course of the week, and that was a good feeling, but it also made me a little lax. It’s satisfying to get ahead of the game, but if I get too far ahead, it’s easy to get lax.

But the big lesson has been that I need to write less. Not less often, but rather, shorter material. I have a tendency to just keep writing until I hit a stop point, and the net result can be a little bit sprawling. That’s problematic for two big reasons. First, it makes it much harder to maintain any kind of schedule – without a clear sense of end points, it’s hard to get to “done”. The second is that shorter is better for blog posting – the occasional long post has its place, but people have a lot of material to absorb in the day, so something that’s quick to read and gets to the point has a lot to offer.

This is actually a kind of fun lesson.. The path to getting better at this will also make it easier to do, so I’m pretty good with how that shakes out.

I’m happy with how it’s gone so far, and I hope to keep it up. And I hope you all will continue to enjoy reading it, and I thank you for your attention to this little project so far.

The Villain’s Monologue

Before I kill you, let me first lay out my plan in exquisite detail…

One of the classic tropes of villainy is the villain’s monologue, the point where he launches into a little speech detailing what he’s done and why, often with an explanation of the inevitability of his success which will soon be rendered ironic by heroic effort. This is a much-maligned idea, and the running joke is often some variant of “If I were the villain I wouldn’t just waste my time talking to my prisoners, I’d just shoot them in the head.” We laugh and nod because that seems logical, but it’s a lie.

The simple truth is that people tend to want to be acknowledged. Just being right is rarely enough—we need the other person to acknowledge that we are right and that they are wrong and to generally concede our awesomeness. For the damning evidence of this, I direct you to every internet discussion ever. Given a person with a plan, a high opinion of himself, a position of power and an opportunity to show off, it seems that a villain who does not monologue would probably be the rare case. Even our jokesters would certainly take time to explain how clever they are to just shoot the heroes and make sure they understand just how smart the person killing them is.

All of which is to say the villain’s monologue is a very natural thing, and it should sound like that. It should not sound like a planned speech, but rather like an indignant internet posting. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of examples for you to draw on.

For well established villains, there’s also a nice emotional twist to the monologue—sometimes the characters are the only audience the villain has. Imagine for a moment that you’re a super genius, about to conquer the kingdom after years of work, planning and profound cleverness. Your underlings do their job well, but none of them really understand the big picture. Who are you going to talk to, to connect with on a human level, about this thing which is the single most important thing in your life? The hero you’ve taken prisoner is not the ideal companion, but you two have a strong emotional bond (even if it’s negative) and he gets what you’re trying to do. Logic might dictate that you need to kill this guy, but the simple human need for companionship can make it really easy to defer that decision.

If this doesn’t seem to make sense, take some time thinking about your own friends, co-workers and people you deal with and the conversations you have—you may find that logic is only a small part of the equation.

As a bonus, the monologue is also a useful tool for the DM who wants to demonstrate he hasn’t been cheating. When the villain explains how he did things it can help the players connect the dots of events. Use this sparingly however—if the villain needs to explain more than two or three things this has crossed the line from “tying off loose ends” into “DM gloating over how much smarter he is than his players”.

Other Quick Tips for Villainy
* In 4e, Just assume that all villains have access to ritual magic. You’d be amazed how much it simplifies things.

* If you game has action points, fate points, bennies or some other currency that is tied to the character (rather than a GM pool) then be transparent about it. You should absolutely be using those points to help villains survive to recur, but you need to do it out of their legitimate budget. Spending “Just one more” point on the villain for his defense or escape feels like a the kind of sleight of hand players won’t notice, but I promise, they will. Just keep things where the players can see them. If the system has a general “GM Pool” then you have a little more leeway, but remember not to cheat it. Even if you fudge, find some other way to do it – cheating on budget is too blatant to stand.

* Respect where things are not. If the players are the first people in a tomb in 1000 years, that’s a bad place for ambushers from the rival party to be waiting. If the enemy is going to drop from the trees and they only drop from the trees that are near the characters, things feel false and overly convenient.

* Pay close attention to where your players are directing their ire. Sometimes (perhaps often) the players are better than you at sniffing out who the long-term villain of the game should be. Be willing to change your plans in response to this.

* Be willing for your ultra-cool bad guy to look stupid. When that happens, and your players are the cause of it, it is wildly entertaining. For a demonstrations of this, see nearly any episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

* A villain that thwarts, cancels, or removes PC motivations and goals is a poorly-done villain. A villain that complicates, changes, or creates PC motivations and goals is doing his job.

Hate the Villain, not the GM

Five Things You Would Think Would Make Players Hate a Villain But Actually Make Them Hate You

1. Steal Their Stuff

This is a classic, and it will absolutely result in some rage, but it has all sorts of problems. First, it’s very hard to do without cheating or otherwise making it look like an obvious GM force, and that puts the blame on you. Second, if you steal the character’s gear (esp. in a gear-heavy game like D&D) the players will feel like they’re being penalized, and they may have to do extra bookkeeping to address the changes in their sheets. This is not to say that nothing can get stolen—plot items, macguffins and loose treasures are all in play—but think long and hard before you take anything that is written on the character’s sheet.

Making It Work
: To make a theft work, you must spend some time thinking about how to make it recoverable. That means that the villain should not steal things he intends to keep unless you expect things to end with the players looting his corpse. Instead, the villain should be the means by which the item stolen gets transmitted to a new owner or location. This way the villain opens the door to further play rather than just being a black hole that valuable things disappear down.

The balance here is that you definitely want to hit things that are important to the characters and players (and their gear definitely qualifies) but you want the pain to be measured in emotional intensity, not in added bookkeeping.

2. Make Them Feel Stupid

One common situation to encounter when GMing occurs when you present your players with a problem which you can clearly see the solution to, but for one reason or another it completely baffles your players. This is normal enough, but it becomes a problem if the villain then solves the same problem in the way that GM envisioned it. For all intents and purposes this is telling your players they were too dumb to figure out what they “should have done” and then rubbing their nose in it. Not only is this a jerk thing to do, there’s a good chance the original disconnect was more your fault than theirs, and that just makes it all the more insulting.

Making It Work: Let your players see the villain have similar frustrations to their own. If the PCs really had to work to get past a challenge, that work really feels rewarded when they see that yes, it really was hard. Hard enough that it’s stopping other people. Plus, every time you show the villain being stymied, you earn a little more credibility in the eyes of your players—if they feel your villain can’t just breeze past things with the power of GM fiat then they are less likely to assume you’re cheating the next time you do something clever with him

3. Second Verse, Same as the First

The idea of a chain of villains is an old classic—kill off one villain and now you have to face the new, more powerful villain that was behind the first one. This is a good, usable trick, but you need to make sure that each successive villain is distinct. If the new villain is basically just the old villain with more powers, bigger weapons and a more ominous cape then it’s not much different than just re-using the old villain, except now you’ve undercut any sense of victory the players got out of defeating the old villain. Even bringing back the original villain is preferable to introducing a knock-off.

Making It Work
: This is pretty easy to fix—just take a little time and flesh out your villains. You absolutely should connect you villains so that the new villain has a motive tied to the old villain, such as avenging him or fulfilling an oath to him, but otherwise make sure he’s different. One easy way to underscore that difference is to change the type of villain—if the old villain was a brawler, the new one might be thinky or sneaky. The mechanical changes will emphasize the other changes.

4. Outshine
When one of your characters really drills down to excel at something, like a skill or particular combat style, there is a temptation to make the villain better than him, so as to inspire the character to new levels of performance. That works to a point, but remember this: a villain who outshines the character has one purpose—to be defeated by the character in reasonably short order. When that happens it’s pretty satisfying. The problem comes when a recurring villain does this, and is only made worse if he outshines multiple characters. When this happens the GM is basically communicating to the players “It doesn’t matter how hard you work, I’m the GM and I can trump your efforts with a whim.”

Making it Work: There are two good solutions to this. The first is to simply have the villain excel in an arena that none of the characters overlap with. That gives him a gimmick that’s recognizable, and can create problems the characters are not as able to tackle directly, but which don’t make them feel inept. For example, if you have a group that is not at all sneaky, a high stealth villain creates interesting problems.

The second is possibly even more fun, especially for a rival. Pick an area of expertise and make sure the villain is good enough to make the character sweat a little—even if the villain is not quite as good as the character, he should be good enough that the character can never take success for granted. As a bonus, make sure the villain understands and respects their respective level of talent in a way that other people who are less well versed in it do not. If you have seen or read The Princess Bride, the dialog during the big fencing scene is a great example of this.

5. Bulletproof Sheep’s Clothing

It is not hard to fool your players. This is not because they are not smart, or because you are particularly clever, but because they trust you to do your job as DM.

This trust means that they are willing to overlook small inconsistencies and make decisions that lead to fun play rather than spend their time studying every detail for the potential twist. One common way that this trust gets abused is to introduce a villain as an ally and then proceed to cause all sorts of bad things to happen to your players while the villain remains hidden in plain sight. Often, this is accompanied by the GM expressing disbelief that his players can’t see it when it’s “so obvious.”

While the breach of trust alone is very bad for a game, this is more subtly toxic over time. Players expect bad things to happen to their characters as part of adventuring, and if the GM is using the hidden villain in this fashion, players are likely to just assume he’s cheating (because he is) and that will taint the whole game something fierce.

Making it Work: The purpose of hidden villains is to be discovered, so it is your job to make sure they’re found out. This does not mean there won’t be complications or that it won’t take time, but it needs to be doable. You can start with clues that there is a traitor, and build investigation from there. For a nice twist, you can have the characters know the villain’s nature but lack the evidence to convince those around him. Whatever you do, keeping that goal of discovery in mind changes the hidden villain from a way for the DM to feel clever into an engine to drive play.
This idea also has a lot of overlap with the betrayer, an ally who sells out or changes sides. The difference is that the betrayer should be a genuine ally for a time, and when he switches sides, then he plays out much like a hidden villain.