Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Aurikesh: Expeditionary Logistics

This week in my Aurikesh campaign, I'll be trying something new. Thus far in the campaign, the players have been based in the city of Chardecum. Some of their adventures have taken them up to a week's journey out of the city, but I expect their next adventure to involve establishing a new base for a month or more in the wilderness while they explore some ruins. This will also be the campaign's first experience with an extended dungeon crawl: the Monastery of the Blessed Scroll.

Actually, let me back up. "Normal" in this campaign is unlike any other tabletop campaign I've run before, and I'm not sure I've explained it in detail. The campaign has nine active players and three emeritus players, and we may be adding two more active players at some point. D&D Next runs quickly and all, but nine players is still more than I generally want to have at the table at once - my ideal party size is still three to six, and that's how many players join in any given session. Since the whole group works for the same mercenary company, though, there's no problem with the party makeup changing - it feels more like "who showed up today?" and less like "okay, every session is the party's first session." D&D Next does a pretty solid job (so far) of supporting party compositions that other editions would generally discourage, which works great for us. This approach to the roster means that we very rarely miss sessions due to player absence.

I've also implemented Upkeep rules. For each week of in-game time that passes, the PCs pay an amount of silver based on the standard of living they prefer to maintain, according to the chart below. As you see, it's heavily reliant on the Hit Dice mechanics we've seen in D&D Next to date.

Weekly Upkeep Effect
0 sp -2 hit dice per day of healing available
10 sp -1 hit dice per day of healing available
50 sp No modifier
100 sp Minimum roll on all hit dice for healing is set to 2
250 sp +1 hit die per day of healing available
500 sp Minimum roll on all hit dice for healing is set to 3
1000 sp +2 hit dice per day of healing available
5000 sp Gain the skill High Society at +1d6, or increase existing bonus by two die sizes
10000 sp Gain advantage on all saving throws against disease effects
50000 sp Gain the Backgrounds Noble or Knight if you maintain this status for six months

The majority of the time, the PCs pay 100 sp in weekly upkeep, though we've also see some 50 sp and 250 sp weeks. In the future, I might tweak the numbers and effects on this chart, just to see if it inspires more variation and interest. Of course, the PCs are still not all that flush with cash - I think the richest PC has somewhere around 2500 silver, late in 2nd level or early in 3rd. Thus far they have had exactly one opportunity to buy magic items, taken from a very short list, so I hope they're not all saving their money to buy magic items. (I'm pretty sure they're not.) I realize that this approach to upkeep is not, in itself, the most revolutionary of thoughts, but I feel pretty good about the tenor (if not the precise balance) of the benefits derived from paying the steeper prices.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Feats, Skills, and Class Options

In yesterday's Legends & Lore post, Mearls talks about feats, skills, and class options. The Big Deal of it is that they're making a Big Change to skills and offering a little more explanation of the Big Change to feats. All of this springs out of their fundamental principle that the game has to remain approachable for new players, which is in itself a solid tenet - but I'm not at all sure it's going to hold up as well for the "standard" and "advanced" modes. More importantly to me, the design continues to move away from the initial architecture of class/race/background/specialty that I liked so much.

Feats

So first let's talk about what they're doing with feats, since I didn't post about that last week. Initially, feats weren't part of the game at all - instead, the game had Themes, later called Specialties. At certain levels, they granted powers that were essentially feat-like, but were never repeated from one Specialty to another. Specialties initially represented how your character handles combat; the most compelling options were the really incongruous ones, like pairing up Necromancer with anything other than Wizard (on which note, I can't wait for them to bring feats of a similar theme back into the game). As the packets have gone along, the focus has shifted onto individual feats and the option to purchase them individually.

As Mearls points out in both posts, feats are a major roadblock of choices for new players, and only somewhat less of a roadblock for any player that isn't heavily invested in system mastery. In itself, this is a valid point. The proposed solution is a problem, though: passive bonuses are just better than active abilities. They recognize this, so they're planning to make all feats as powerful and appealing as +1 to an ability score.  Permit me to dissect some of the problems here. Once it's possible for all characters to have a 20 in their attack stat, there's no excuse for not having 20 in that stat. The principles underlying bounded accuracy reinforce this; the current design makes it so hard to garner a +1 bonus to hit (much less the adjustment to damage and all checks and saves for that stat) that other choices just aren't valid. 4e is a clear example of an edition in which having a primary ability score be something other than 18, 19, or 20 at first level just isn't a valid choice over the life of the character.

It's great and all that they're capping ability scores at 20, but when the player culture dictates (and yes, this is really how it comes across with players in the groups I know) that you must cap out your attack stat first, that means that players who start below 20 are just playing as if they never really earned those first several feats. There's also the problem that half of the time when you spend a feat on ability scores, they do nothing because you're turning an even number to an odd number. Talk about unsatisfying - it's a good thing they're pairing up feat slots with other class abilities. (Though from the looks of things so far, this means there will be a lot of dead levels, so that's a very surprising choice.) Mearls's comments about not making ability score feats just be a tax is... theoretically possible, but I think they'll have to work very hard to prove that they can accomplish this. Appropriately, Mearls says that "Feats are now more powerful than they have been in prior iterations of the playtest materials" - so we're going all-in on power creep even before the edition's release? How about just pursuing a different model, but keeping feats at about their current level of power - if not just a touch less?

It would help, though, if he were offering any crumbs of information on how many feats a character might receive over the course of their career. We can probably assume that the current packet's "no feats after 9th level" model is out the window, since they're shifting prestige classes and paragon paths - you know, late-game stuff - into feat progressions. Though I initially disliked that idea, I now see it as giving characters a second Specialty, probably starting somewhere between 6th and 9th levels.

My ideal case, so that I've mentioned it, is for Specialties, Feats, or whatever to give players and DMs more clear hooks for stories. D&D's approach to progression is at odds with requiring particular story developments in order to purchase things, until we get into the training-as-treasure items of 4e. I'd like to see rules support for training as 1-3 "slots" in a character's inventory, into which the character equips skills, feats, or class options earned through play. No matter how well they support gameplay, I'm happier with any system element that clearly and comfortably supports the game's story.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

TabApp Elite

In my day job, I make video games (primarily for mobile platforms) for a living. TabApp Elite has been my primary project for... many moons now, and now it is available for consumption.

TabApp Elite Website!

For iPad!


For Android!

I hope you play our game, and I hope you love it!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

GameOnGirl Interview!

Last week, the good people of GameOnGirl interviewed Kainenchen and me about games and gaming culture. We had a great time during the interview, and it's now available as a podcast here.

Thank you very much, Regina and Rhonda!

Also, many thanks to the people of the Rule of 3 community, because I'm proud that I could honestly say such positive things about the community's approach to gender in gaming. (The inclusion of one is not the exclusion of all others - this just happens to be the community that I know and love.)

Friday, April 12, 2013

D&D Next Design Idea: Wounds and Natural Healing

Ever since the last time I wrote about healing in D&D Next, I've been rolling ideas around in the cavernous emptiness of this here melon. I'm still not happy with healing solutions that involve no attrition at all over the course of an adventure, but my stance has softened somewhat from thinking more about how natural healing works in a Ro3 LARP. Importantly, fifteen to sixty minutes of time in a LARP means a lot more than fifteen to sixty fast-forwarded minutes of tabletop gaming, and the inconvenience of being wounded sinks in for the player to a much greater degree. Still, on that basis I could be okay with someone getting knocked unconscious and recovering well enough to fight again through strictly natural healing, and given how cinematic other rules are tuned to be, I'm okay with someone who has sunk some character power into nonmagical healing getting really quite good at it.

At the same time, I'm not okay with zero-cost natural healing in tabletop, but there's not an immediately evident currency to pay with beyond Hit Dice, and those run out quickly. The Administer First Aid skill (digression: what the hell is up with that skill name? You're too good to call it Heal, Physick, or Medicine? Good grief) can stabilize the dying and gather information about various horrible things that might be wrong with you. It can't otherwise do anything at all to restore hit points, cure disease, or treat poison... so why would you spend one of your precious skill slots on this, when a cleric can fully match that ability with the detect poison and cure minor wounds spells (and, of course, no chance of failure)?

In that earlier post on healing, I brushed on past the idea of SIFRP-style Injuries and Wounds. I started plotting that out, but the numbers weren't working out to fit D&D's general scheme, since low-level characters are nowhere near as badass as a starting SIFRP character. I set the idea down for awhile, but recently it came back to me in a kind of... inverted way. I want to preface this by saying that it may totally not work at all. This is a multi-part thing, so bear with me. This is intended for more robust out-of-combat healing only.

Restoring Hit Dice

Natural healing still occurs through spending Hit Dice outside of combat. Low- to mid-level characters in particular need that extra out-of-combat healing to keep going for multiple encounters in a day; even at higher levels, the spellcasters should be saving their spells for in-combat healing. Therefore I'd like to see a way to restore Hit Dice in the span of a day, and this is where the inversion of the Injuries/Wounds idea comes in. Instead of taking an Injury or Wound in place of hit point damage during the fight, the battlefield medic uses a healer's kit to patch up your injuries and get you up and moving again. Those wounds might get reopened in combat, though, and if that happens you're worse off than if you'd taken a hit while uninjured.

In addition to using a healer's kit to allow a character to spend Hit Dice for healing, a character can use a healer's kit to restore spent HD by giving a character (partially-healed) Wounds. The character can immediately spend the restored HD to heal damage.

Wounds

Characters can have a number of Wounds equal to the maximum value of their Hit Die (possible variation: "...plus their Con bonus"). When the character takes damage from any non-ongoing source (here presuming that D&D will eventually add more damage over time effects), the player rolls a die of the same type as her Hit Die. If the result is less than or equal to the character's current number of wounds, the character takes 5 additional damage. (Again, a possible variation is "...player rolls a die of the same type as her Hit Die and adds her Constitution modifier, if positive." This would let tough characters endure quite a few more Wounds before being at any risk.)

After a long rest, characters can make one Constitution saving throw per Wound, with a DC equal to 10 + the current number of Wounds. On a success, the Wound is removed. A character trained in Administer First Aid can substitute a skill check in place of one or more of these Wounds; each substituted check costs one use from a healer's kit.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Lore Game: Intermediate-Level

A few weeks ago, two of my readers were kind enough to provide me with questions on the implementation of a lore game. Owing to preparation for a Dust to Dust event, I couldn't provide an immediate answer, but I will attempt to do so now. As a disclaimer, I will say that there is no certification class for Expert in such a thing, and I am still learning a lot - hence the title of this post. While my statements will be phrased in the first-person singular, there would not be a campaign at all if it were not for the time, talents, and considerable treasure of the DtD Plot Committee.

JohnKazuo writes:
How do you balance the integrity of your overarching story and world history with the desire to have players be able to impact it, and tie in to past events? How do you deal with the desire to tell "your story" but the need to engage players by making it theirs?

How you balance this, and where you put the emphasis often means the difference between a railroaded game, where the staff is just focused on telling the story, versus that wonderful synergistic place where players are able to see how their actions and their histories have impacted the world?
The first thing I want to say about this is that I did not create Dust to Dust so that I could tell a particular story. The setting and its aesthetics were, from its earliest conversations, the only thing that mattered to me to express. There are some things that are very likely to happen at a given point in the campaign, but in general those are open to movement based on player actions. Therefore the difficulty that we face is not in preserving the beat-by-beat flow of the story, but in balancing the aesthetics and social rules of the setting against what best supports playability. We spend a lot of time during our Plot meetings discussing various probable outcomes, but we try not to hang dependencies off of the outcomes we see as most likely.

It would be a total dodge to leave off with that answer, though. Historical Events have turned out to be a boon here, to a greater extent than I had personally foreseen. It's an opt-in system that, depending on the role the player chooses, represents some amount of fame, infamy, or straight out people-trying-to-kill-you. The original point of Historical Events was to give characters a place in the world from Day One, "earned" in the sense that the player could only choose a limited number of roles. Players made some unexpected choices, though - switching the gender of roles, combining two roles into one character, or assigning roles not to their own characters, but to NPCs from their character histories.

All of these created useful story connections. As the campaign goes on, many minor plot threads are practically written already, while others gain nuances that break them out of conventional patterns. To put that another way, I wasn't specifically thinking of how complexity increases in a narrative as time goes on, because the Historical Event system gives complexity (here used as a positive) a leg up. Also, we have continued to create more Historical Events even after the Day of Legend, comparable to the Whispered Tales, Port of Call, or INN Reports of our sister games.

Other than the Historical Events, I have to give credit to the players themselves - Dust to Dust is blessed with an incredibly clever, thoughtful, and engaged playerbase. Once the players start developing and implementing plans of their own, the effects that players have on the world becomes self-evident. We also put puzzles into the game that weren't solved in the same event, and weren't intended to be. From that point, it was out of our hands, though we had a few levers left to us if we wanted to hurry things along. This meant that the revelation of some major campaign secrets was, in a sense, a bomb on an unknown countdown. Putting information in-play that way was very liberating to us as a Plot committee. It also suggested to players that the answers to some mysteries were in-play and waiting to be solved, rather than keeping the players in a mode of waiting for revelations. Not every mystery is seeded or solvable in this way, but enough of them are that players who care deeply about those kinds of puzzles have things to do. (On the other hand, a thirty-ish page book of encrypted texts is a huge amount of work to create - I wish we had time to make more of them.) The point I want to make is that the players who solved those puzzles can know that their own efforts changed the timeline of campaign secrets, and they can start doing things to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate those secrets.

Below the cut: Lilisonna has a question as well!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

D&D Next: Tiers of Play

Yesterday's Legends and Lore post deals with what WotC calls tiers of play, or the way the campaign changes over the course of play. This gives me a great opportunity to toss out a link to my previous post on high-level play. Mearls gives a brief breakdown of the history of tiers in D&D; notably they dropped out of any kind of formal usage for most D&D players for more than twenty years, from the "end" of the Mentzer OD&D rules (still played by some, but not actively supported beyond 1985) to the beginning of 4e in 2008. In a faintly less formal sense, tiers are a major part of 1e and 2e rules, as gameplay shifts radically at 9th or 10th ("Name") level: characters gain followers and strongholds, but hit point progression drops off precipitously and characters no longer gain Con bonuses to hit points when they level.
Total digression onto that point: I've been struggling with numerical scaling in my own thinking on design. The good and bad parts of D&D Next put me in mind of how I would design my own ideal tabletop game. Scaling from level to level is, of course, very slow on things like attack bonuses and AC, but it's quite steep on hit points and damage. I think I'd be happier if going from first level to second didn't double the character's survivability (well, less than that if you roll poorly, but I'm not a big fan of die-rolled hit points). More frequent but gradual advancement appeals to me at this point, thanks to years of conversations with Stands-In-Fire. Slowing down hit point progression at some level might be worthwhile overall.
Some classes, such as the druid (and in 1e, the monk and assassin) pick up additional progression hurdles somewhere around 14th level, such that at least one encounter and probably a whole plotline has to be dedicated to that player's advancement. In theory, though, advancement doesn't matter all that much for a druid of those levels, because there are only seven levels of cleric spells anyway. Oh, and if you decided to play a nonhuman character that doesn't have unlimited advancement, you're either advancing with glacial slowness (if the DM decided to use that optional rule) or not at all, so the game's "tier" mechanic is "everyone now wishes they had played humans." The perennial defense of racial level caps - that no one played the game up to those levels anyway - means you could also call it the "game over" tier.

3e - the edition so successful as to be the lens through which all later D&D products are considered - is the one edition that doesn't have pretty explicit tiering on either a story or rules front, prior to 21st level. In theory, gameplay can focus on dungeon-crawling adventures from first level all the way through 20th and beyond. The rules do have unacknowledged tiers, though.

  • The Leadership feat opens up at sixth level, making followers and strongholds an opt-out reality.
  • Teleport changes everything once the wizard hits ninth level. If the DM and players don't solve for scry-buff-teleport as a way to take down bad guys, the game changes very quickly indeed. ("Solving for" may include the players quietly ignoring that option, as they were kind enough to do in my one campaign that reached such exalted levels.
  • Plane shift opens up for ninth-level clerics and 13th-level wizards, and plane-hopping no longer requires outside assistance. This can be a tier shift unto itself - or it could be a complete setting shift into Planescape. (The only problem with the latter is that DMs have a long road ahead of them to adapt 2e material to 3.x.)
  • Discern location takes care of most remaining questions that the players have for solving their problems. The arms race of divination and divination-blocking is probably in full swing by the time the wizard hits 15th level.
    • Around this point, players have outleveled a lot of giants (unless the DM is comfortable doing a lot of work to add on character levels), and it's a fair bet that monsters starting with D are getting a lot of airtime, and will continue to do so for the rest of the campaign.
  • Beyond that, 21st level is a seismic tier shift. Epic-level feats and classes are still more powerful, and the default recommendation is a setting shift into alt.Planescape.
So, okay, while it may not have formal tiers, 3.x absolutely has game-changing powers that come from level gain, and those fall (at earliest) at 9th and 21st levels. That's awfully close to 4e's 11th and 21st level thresholds. In my experience, though, 3.x's tier breaks change the game more than 4e's do, since the teleport ritual is at least a bit of a pain.