Monday, November 19, 2012

A Second Year of Blogging

On November 19, 2010, I created this blog and posted about the games I was running and playing. Last year on this date, I posted again, with a quite different list of games. Since then, well, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

Games I'm Running
  1. Dust to Dust: We've now run six three-day events, a single one-day event, and two World Events. We've been incredibly lucky in drawing an enthusiastic, engaged playerbase. The campaign has been a greater investment of time and energy than my previous experience led me to expect, and I am deeply grateful for everyone who has been involved in the game: staff, volunteers, and players.
  2. Over the Edge: I still fit in a session of this campaign about once every six to twelve months. I still enjoy running it from time to time.
  3. D&D Next: Within the last year, WotC announced the playtest of a new edition of D&D. I've commented on it extensively in this blog, and we're two sessions into a D&D Next campaign set in Aurikesh, my homebrewed setting. In last year's post, I mentioned running "a heavily hacked version of SIFRP," and I did run one session of that in Aurikesh, but I never got around to addressing the serious design problems there. This game is unusual in that I currently have ten PCs running a total of thirteen characters, though they're not all at the table at once.
Games I'm Playing

  1. Eclipse: The game is within six months of the end of its first arc. The recent Safety Wolf event was a top-notch experience, and I'm excited to see the next few events as the climax approaches.
  2. Arcana Evolved: Scheduling sessions has been more difficult this year than in past years, and we're discussing moving over to Kainenchen and me using Google Hangouts to play.
  3. Iron Kingdoms: One of my coworkers has run a couple of Iron Kingdoms one-shots lately. I should write up a post at some point with what I like about the game and what I don't; I like much more in the rules than I dislike.
  4. Mark of the Ninja: A side-scroller stealth game on XBLA. It takes something special to create a side-scroller with multiple paths to success for each challenge, but that's what they've done. I'm impressed!
  5. Enclave: I picked this game up on GOG just recently. It's definitely a bit dated, but the game controls are pleasingly responsive on the PC, and I'm enjoying the game so far, though I haven't had much time for it lately.
My Mage: the Awakening chronicle ended just a little while back. I should really go back and polish up a bit more of the session log I posted for it on Shieldhaven wiki. What time I have for tabletop games is going into my D&D game now, of course; all of the rest of my creative energy outside of work goes into Dust to Dust.

I talk about my job very little in this blog, and that's not currently likely to change, except for me to say that I've worked on two products that have been released in the last few months, and another should be coming out very soon. I hope to make a few more announcements like these over the course of the coming year.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Skill Challenges: Design in Progress

In a recent post on rogues, I discussed some of the issues surrounding 4e's implementation of skill challenges. I've had a few days to give it more thought, and the idea has expanded in my imagination into something I might try to publish as a PDF, someday when I have free time to write. For today's post, though, I want to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of 4e's skill challenge system, as well as changes that would address the weaknesses.

Strengths of 4e's Skill Challenges

Skill challenges represented something new and unusual when 4e first published them: a way to hang a whole conflict on a series of skill checks, with clear victory and failure conditions, and with a huge variety of means to that end. The system has a considerable variety of levers with which the DM can manipulate difficulty. With some creative interpretation, many different skills can apply to a situation, which means that just about every character will have an applicable trained skill (in theory, anyway; in practice this is still a problem).

I am sure that there are comparable systems in other games - FATE seems pretty well designed for something like it - but I can't recall such systems offhand. FATE is awfully good about making just about every skill useful in combat at some point, though - so even if it's a bit off-topic, they get high marks for that! SIFRP also deserves a note for its complicated, but deep and robust, Intrigue system; it is hands down the best social-conflict rules system I've seen, and I've seen a lot of them. (This post is not the place for arguments about whether one should have rules for social conflict at all.)

Weaknesses of 4e's Skill Challenges

Let me start by pointing out that analyzing weaknesses will take more text than listing strengths. This doesn't mean it was a hopeless system; far from it. A skilled DM such as Stands-in-Fire or ShaggySpellsword can make the system sing; some of the best sessions of 4e I played were largely or entirely skill challenges, such as a staged debate between the PCs and wonderfully blustering NPC in Wombat Warlord's 4e campaign. Now that I've gotten those points out of the way...

The exact form of the success or failure of a skill challenge is the first and greatest problem. Every skill challenge that WotC published, as far as I know, used the format of X successes before Y failures, where Y was originally 2, 3, or 4, and was later revised to always be 3. The value of X was the central difficulty lever; obviously, requiring more successes created a lot more chances for things to go wrong, and if PCs are (perhaps unwisely) shooting for Hard DCs and/or using skills that are anything less than the absolute best they could be at that level, just a few average or poor rolls wraps things up pretty quickly.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Guest Post in Dice Monkey

I wrote a guest post for Dice Monkey's "Winter is Coming II" blog carnival, found here. Enjoy!

Also, the first post in the blog carnival, The Ice Shall Take Us, is fucking amazing and you should all read it. No, seriously. This is a valid answer to the age-old question: "What would happen if Milorad Pavić were a gamer?"

D&D Next: Rogues and Skills

There are a whole lot of interesting issues circulating around fighters and rogues in the new playtest packet. Back in this post I scratched the surface of the changes they've made to rogues, but just today I started to realize how deep those changes actually run. For my Aurikesh campaign that I talk about so much, a group of ten players has created a total of thirteen characters. They know perfectly well that the roster is going to change from adventure to adventure, so it's not a "planned" party - it's just people figuring out what they'd like to play, and assuming they'll be able to build a functioning team out of that. Given that three of the players have created second characters that they'll play to make party function easier, I have every reason to suspect they're right.

So the odd thing that I've found in this small sample size is that only one player has created a rogue, but three people have created Dex-focused fighters with rogue-flavored Backgrounds, giving them excellent Sneak skills (heck, even untrained, +4 is nothing to sneeze at) and an assortment of other skills. Several characters of other classes have likewise chosen rogue-flavored backgrounds, for the very same reason. I love the Background system, though, and I very much do not want WotC to change that. I don't think that system is a problem, though it contributes to something I see as a problem.

Before I completely dig into this, a few points:
  • Character Optimization Is Not Everything, but everyone wants to feel cool and have freedom of options.
  • The combat/non-combat divide is very much at stake here. There are a lot of pejoratives that get thrown around here, like "rollplayer" or "hack and slash gamers." Let's brush the superiority complexes and badwrongfun aside and actually talk player psychology. If players have to choose between "good at combat" and "good at non-combat," they quite consistently choose to be good at combat. Combat is a huge portion of actual time at the table, but just as importantly, they usually don't lose their characters if they are bad at non-combat.

At the same time as other classes are gaining access to skills that have long been the sole purview of rogues, rogues have been seriously dethroned as the leader in melee damage output. They are a few points behind fighters in attack bonus, and finesse weapons are not top damage-dealers among the choices of weapons.
Digression: I roll my eyes at the inclusion of the katana, but find it hilarious that aside from a different damage type, it is exactly as good as a quarterstaff.
Back to my point, as I mentioned in a previous post, a rogue's Sneak Attack is the same, level by level, as a fighter's Deadly Strike, but marginally harder to activate. Now, one of the math secrets of 3.x is that for roughly equal levels of optimization, a fighter stays about even with or above a rogue for damage, thanks to harder-hitting weapons, Power Attack, better accuracy, more attacks per round, and Strength applying to damage as well as attack. (The math becomes hazier when we start talking about two-weapon-fighting rogues, or the overall percentage of creatures that were immune to rogues Sneak Attack and criticals.) But 3.x did at least convince people that D&D rogues should be among the top damage-dealers, and at around the same time video games hammered home the same lesson.

Monday, November 5, 2012

D&D Next: Priesthoods Esoteric and Solemn

In order to give the players in my Aurikesh campaign a range of options suitable to the setting, I have created two new "deities" for clerics to choose at character creation, and one new spell (as I was dissatisfied with the extant options in the playtest packet). I place deities in quotation marks here not because there are no deities in Aurikesh, but because ordination works a bit differently there: clergy (including characters with the Priest background and the Acolyte or Divine Magic Specialist specialties) are clerics of all five deities - the pantheon as a whole represents roles that every cleric may be called upon to play in the course of their service. Any given temple, on the other hand, is consecrated to only one of the five deities, so that those who seek the benediction of a particular deity have a specific place to go (often more like a pilgrimage than a walk down to the local chapel).

I've made this decision because several of the gods have some sinister aspects, yet I do not want clerics to feel like they are in any way expected to clash with clerics of those other deities, for the deities' sake. (Clerics can clash with one another as a result of their own natures and motives just fine, thank you, but in Aurikesh they find it slightly harder to blame it on the gods they serve.) Ultimately, it's a thought experiment, but the gameplay implication is that Aurikesh clerics can and do "respend" their choice of deity - requiring probably a day or two of prayer and ritual ablutions.

Another of the odd things about deities in Aurikesh (less relevant to this post) is that when two cultures meet for the first time, they invariably find that they use the same names for the same five gods, and basically agree on their aspects - even if their languages have not even one other word in common. The existence of the gods is regarded as incontrovertible; the more relevant debates for the setting are whether or how they ought to be worshiped. This is a direct result of the repeatable, demonstrable success of divine magic, in particular the commune spell. I am not attempting to make any broader theological or political statements here - I just felt that it would be a rich ground for gameplay.

Deity: The Esoteric

The Esoteric is a god of mystics, wizards, seers, wisdom-seekers, and astrologers. The god might offer enlightenment or sanity-destroying secrets, depending on whether the god is benevolent or malicious. The god is usually portrayed as being of advanced age, or a person who has surpassed the limits of mortality, as a sign of the value in the god's lore. Esoteric gods are very often associated with physical blindness leading to spiritual awakening. They value patience, perseverance, and discernment above all else. When faced with challenges that they cannot simply outlast or avoid, the Esoteric often takes on an aspect of the Trickster, teaching moral lessons to the adversary or exercising superior understanding.

Examples of the Esoteric include Thoth of the Pharaonic pantheon, Hecate (and often Hermes) of the Hellenistic pantheon, Odin of the Norse and Germanic pantheons, Vecna and Ioun (as opposite aspects) of the Greyhawk pantheon, and a whole list of Faerunian deities: Mystra, Oghma, Azuth, Deneir, and Savras. However, almost every deity has esoteric aspects, comprehended only by those who pursue the god's mysteries; such a cleric might represent a truth-seeker of any deity who largely eschews the warrior-priest mentality of other clerics.

As a follower of an Esoteric god, your life is barely distinguishable from that of a wizard, but your specific practice of magic differs somewhat. Dabbling in arcane magic is hardly uncommon, but it is also not universal. The quest to become truly Wise, and offer your wisdom in service to the world, is the most benevolent manifestation of this path. Others pursue darker secrets, leading them toward lichdom and madness. The promise of powerful secrets has been the lure that many evil deities have offered their followers - this is, after all, what is at stake in the word occult.

Esoteric gods favor the ordered mind and an alignment with Law, though that is only a tendency.

Domain Spells: You always have the following spells prepared, provided you are able to cast spells of the given level.
  1. Identify
  2. Augury
  3. Speak with Dead
  4. Divination
  5. True Seeing
Esoteric Disciple: You gain a +1 bonus to your Magic Attack and Save DC values for all divine spells you cast.

At-Will Spells: While you have any 0th-level cleric spell prepared, you can cast it without spending a spell slot.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Four More Magic Items of Aurikesh

As I continue to flesh out the Aurikesh setting for what I hope will be its first adventure in the coming week, I am also working on getting comfortable with design inside the rules structure of D&D Next. Especially for magic items, they've created two really interesting hooks to hang additional powers upon: secrets and attunement. This isn't spelled out quite clearly enough in the rules as written, but there's nothing stopping the DM from customizing the requirements for secrets and attunement to things that make sense for that particular item (a more exceptional version of the Easygoing property, for example). The holy avenger is a fine example of an item with a requirement attached to attunement - I'd like to see that become reasonably common, if appropriate to the item's individual story. I've tended to use Secrets a little more in the vein of Earthdawn than the WotC designers have: an extra power, always-active, once you learn an important part of the item's history. The means of attuning to an item could, of course, be an interesting secret as well, but my feeling at the moment is that if the characters have put forth significant effort to learn the secret, the item probably shouldn't also use up one of their precious attunement slots.

The items below are starlock (that is, flintlock) weapons, because a week or so ago, there was some discussion in a Google+ circle I read about how no one ever creates cool magic weapons that are anything other than swords. The one part of magic item design I'm not yet at peace with is rarity designations - they are really power designations, but the system doesn't quite bring itself to admit that.

The Shale Pass Sentinels

In the province of Tyrema Ridge, there is a settlement - little more than a border guardpost - at Shale Pass, the broad, clear, stone-paved pass through the mountains between Gallmonte and Tyrema Ridge. As recently as ten years ago, Shale Pass was staffed by a few good riders and an enchanted item to speed communication. As relations between Tyrema and Gallmonte soured, however, the Prince of Grevanda poured resources into the post; it is now filled past capacity, with sixty soldiers and a detachment of twenty scouts. More famously than this, however, the Prince bargained with the wizard Mandarnek to enchant weapons that would make a difference in the defense of the outpost. Ever one to seek out challenges to his magical might and creative thought, Mandarnek accepted. After a full year of work, Mandarnek delivered just three weapons; the Prince was enraged, but it is never wise to cheat a wizard, and Mandarnek received his payment. Even worse, when he subjected the long rifles to their first trials in Grevanda, they were only marginally better than a standard-issue long rifle. Mandarnek observed, "Your Highness, you did not ask me to protect Grevanda from straw dummies."

Once the Prince saw the Shale Pass Sentinels in action against Gallmontese scouts, he realized his error.

The weapons have since become the pride of Shale Pass, and there are yearly contests among the soldiers stationed there to win the title of First Rifle. This title grants the right to be the first to wield the rifle in battle; every soldier of the post is expected to pick up a Shale Pass Sentinel and wield it with distinction if one of the current wielders should fall. Within the past two years, volunteers from Chardecum and Adeschon have likewise arrived on the day of the contest, though they are subject to close scrutiny lest they be Gallmontese infiltrators.

Many in court who opposed the expense of the rifles wonder what will happen if the Gallmontese ever raised their banner over Shale Pass: would the guns then serve the Grand Duke?

The Shale Pass Sentinels are a group of three +2 starlock long rifles. Powerful in the hands of a trained soldier, but nothing truly extraordinary, they do not even receive the benefit of their enchantment in target practice.

Attunement: Within twenty miles of the banner that flies over Shale Pass, the Shale Pass Sentinels may be attuned with ten minutes of effort. This attunement automatically fades if they are taken outside that area. While attuned:

  • The range increment increases to 200/800.
  • The wielder gains training (+3) in Spot and Listen. If the wielder already has both of these, she instead gains advantage on all Spot and Listen rolls.
  • Up to three times a day, whenever the wielder reduces a humanoid target below 1 hit point with an attack from this weapon, the wielder gains five additional charges of powder and shot, one of them loaded into the gun directly. As a result of this power, the wielder may use the Cleave maneuver (if she possesses it) with this weapon's ranged attacks.
  • This weapon always misses any person that the Grand Duke or Duchess of Gallmonte has designated as a herald, unless and until that herald makes an unprovoked attack against a subject of Tyrema.
Rarity: Rare

Fortunata's Slayer

In the year 1418, Fortunata of Suralinn built the first starlock long rifle. For the next three years, Fortunata received from Saivel the Great more wealth than she could count, or ever spend; Saivel demanded that Fortunata spend every waking hour producing more long rifles for her army. Nor would the queen allow Fortunata to train more apprentices to expand her shop's production; Saivel feared that this would only hasten the spread of long rifles to other domains. Fortunata was torn: she came to despise Saivel, but she would not give the soldiers of Rindaria - many of whom were her friends and kinsmen - shoddy weapons, and the range and stopping power of her guns kept many of them alive in Saivel's reckless war. When she refused to continue forging more guns, Saivel built bars around her forge and posted guards.

Finally Fortunata got word of her plight to the Iron Temple, who had opposed Saivel from the start. For the Iron Temple, this was just another example of Saivel's gross breach of justice, if not the law, as this was closer to slavery than conscription. In a daring pre-dawn raid, the knights of the Iron Temple overwhelmed the soldiers on guard, leaving them alive but chained to the bars of Fortunata's prison. They marked each guard with the sign of Talend, the hammer and crown, and conveyed Fortunata out of the city and away to their temple in Ferradona.

In her wrath, Saivel rounded up everyone who shared even a drop of Fortunata's blood, imprisoning as many as 120 men, women, and children in her strongest dungeon. Mere days later, reports arrived from the front lines of battle that an elite cadre of Eksorines now wielded long rifles as well. Convinced that Fortunata was now committing treason and selling weapons to Eksoris, Saivel ordered the execution of one-tenth of those she had arrested.

When they received word of this, Fortunata's grief was equaled only by her desire to avenge her kindred. Before a priest in Talend's holy temple, she swore an oath of vengeance against Saivel and all who would kill innocents in such a way. The priest, Brother Aquilon Calett, was deeply moved, and bound his holy symbol (itself a significant item of magic at the time) to the rifle's stock by the symbol's chain. Light flared, and both chain and symbol became completely one with the stock, in a way that does not impede the rifle's use. Fortunata permanently lost the gift of gunsmithing, which was likewise part of Talend's domain, and in exchange gained extraordinary personal capacity for war - both in herself, and in the form of the now-enchanted long rifle.

Fortunata and Aquilon traveled to Eksoris, where even they were not enough to stem the tide of Saivel's gradual advance; when Eksoris fell, they were among the leaders of Tarimel's Defiance. Aquilon was eventually handed over to the forces of Rindaria by treachery within the organization's own ranks. As a subject of Ferradona, he was executed for treason on the same day. After that, Fortunata left Tarimel's Defiance, and fought on alone. First she slew Aquilon's executioner, and then she hunted down the soldiers who had slain her family. Before she could kill Saivel, however, the war ended and Saivel the Great was deposed, dragged through the streets of Eksoris and kept in the palace at Morisceth, in Dalassiria, as a prisoner for life. Fortunata was denied her final vengeance, for she could not slay the innocent guards who had been commanded to protect their prisoner.

Fortunata's Slayer is a +3 starlock rifle made from blackened steel and covered in tally marks. Whenever the gun passes to the hands of a new wielder, the tally marks are wiped away and that wielder's personal tally with the rifle appears on its barrel and stock. It deals an additional 1d10 holy damage on any attack made against a target who has dealt damage to a Good-aligned target in the last round. In battle, the wielder feels nigh-invincible, and is easily incited to violence by any act of aggression that someone else takes against someone the wielder regards as innocent.

Attunement: Fortunata's Slayer can only be attuned in a temple of Talend, with the aid of an ordained priest. This attunement involves naming an individual or small group of individuals against whom the wielder has just cause for deadly vengeance. While attuned, it gains the following properties:
  • Once per day, it provides guidance to the wielder as per the augury spell (no material components required). It sometimes activates this power without the wielder's intent.
  • The weapon deals an additional 2d10 holy damage against those who have dealt damage to a Good-aligned target in the last round. 
  • The wielder gains resistance to holy damage.
  • Expertise dice spent on maneuvers with this weapon against the named targets of vengeance are increased by one die step.
  • Any attack made against one that the wielder regards as innocent causes the wielder to suffer the amount of damage that a successful attack would deal to that target, regardless of whether or not the attack hits the innocent. (This most often comes up in the case of protectors throwing themselves in the way of the bullet.)
  • Upon completion of the oath of vengeance, the attunement ends. In most cases, the wielder can never reattune Fortunata's Slayer.
Rarity: Legendary/Unique 

SPOILERS: Weapons posted below the cut involve a lot more in the way of campaign secrets. My players can read them if they don't mind some spoilers.