Things did not go as planned.

Well, Gaming Legend Jay Peters was feeling ill last night so he had to cancel.

BASH being what it is I just threw together a one shot World-Class scale adventure. It went fine, nothing revolutionary happened though it did lead to some important revelations.

First off Wrestling is  little to good. In every game we’ve had so far it’s come up, rarely has it been a big issue. It was in the Battle with Mr. Freeze and it was last night in which one of the players chose to play the Behemoth. The big villain last night was The Sorceror(ess) once the Behemoth got his mitts on her and restrained her from casting there just wasn’t really anything she could do about it.

We decided that it would be appropriate to allow a character to try to escape a grapple with either Brawn or Agility, so we’ll see how that ends up working.

Secondly we determined that a map makes for a better game. I know this runs counter to the opinions of certain Prominent Members of the Role Playing community. But what we found is that if everything has to be mentally abstracted you end up with a standing slug-fest, with no body really moving or doing anything interesting. In my opinion this is the worst thing that can possibly happen in a game. With a map those terrain features that you mentioned when you described the room can be seen and remembered and utilized to full effect.

Getting Pretty Disillusioned With All Forms of d20

In Pain not, feeling well, tired

1. I don’t like character classes, they don’t make sense.

2. The basic mechanic itself favors luck greatly over skill and creates wildly unpredictable results where they should not realistically exist

3. Levels make even less sense than classes do. How does killing 15 goblins make you simultaneously better at swinging a sword, opening a lock, and deciphering ancient manuscripts?

It’s an OK introduction to the hobby and it has a lot of history behind it, but there are better games out there. I’ll talk more about this later when I’m feeling better and it is conceivably possible for it to end better.

On the Subject of Mistakes

Every GM does it occasionally. You make a call, you hand out a piece of treasure, or introduce some magic, or bring in an All-Knowing-NPC then at some point, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, you realize, this is not a good idea.

Me I’m running a supers game. The focus of the game at this point is to find out why a major hero was killed by his sidekick. There’s intrigue, there’s double crossing, good times had by all. Now one of the fundamental hazards of a supers game is that you need some means of getting the Heroes to the adventure. My plan was in the absence of the cities major super hero to give the players access to one of the background characters of the universe who functions as a coordinator for vigilantes. That is what I want after all. The problem with this is how she does it, she has an awful lot of information from many sources.

Now when the detectives in your mystery game have access to an all powerful answer machine it takes most of the game out of it. Now I know I’m not the only GM ever to have done this, in fact I’m pretty sure it’s a common problem. When I read various other Gaming Blogs it’s always one of the first questions to be posed. “How do I deal with the overpowered crap I gave my players?”

It’s not a simple question and there isn’t one simple answer. If it’s an item, then it can be pretty easy to deal with. I mean if it’s that powerful then powerful people probably want it for themselves right? This way it can serve as a McGuffin for further adventures. With what will seem to be some perks thrown in. It is going to have to change your campaign this way which is probably not desirable but better than having the solution to all problems on hand.

If you have some how given the players to some incredibly overpowered ability then I think this is probably the toughest thing to deal with. It’s hard to explain why suddenly the Kick-All-Ass-And-Open-All-Doors spell doesn’t work anymore. Players feel cheated when you take something like this away so it becomes a touchy situation. If your players have a certain maturity level then the best option is often to cop to your mistake, explain that the game is not going to be fun for anybody, or occasionally that it cannot possibly continue and everybody pretends the ability never existed, or that it was only temporary.

Overpowered NPCs are perhaps the most frustrating thing a player can deal with. This is a slippery problem because often the GM doesn’t know he’s doing it, it’s often in the guise of the GM’s PC. This is why I always cringe when I hear that the GM has a character too. Once it has been brought to your attention that your character is solving all the problems the PCs face it is best to gracefully retire the character, or your players will probably find a better way to spend their time. If it’s not the GM’s character then the NPC just can’t be as powerful as it seems. Which brings me back to my overpowered NPC, already they have encountered some of her limitations. When they went into the maintenance tunnels they lost contact radios and GPSes do have their own inherent limitations. Maybe she is occasionally (or often) busy helping more important heroes, or otherwise unavailable. Still this can be a powerful McGuffin, it’s easy for this kind of character to become a DiD, with motivation to rescue her equal to her power.

Well we Went West

First off I had a good time. We spent most of the night creating characters, we didn’t really know anything about where we where or what we were doing, other than The GMs wife is playing a Can-Canning rogue. The game is based on Star Wars Saga-Edition so even that doesn’t mean much since there is no rogue in that game it was fairly evenly divided up between the Scout, the Scoundrel, and the Noble. She ended up going with scout the more stealth based of the three.

So we have the Can-Can dancer, a Slave bouncer, and my character the Faithful Sharpshooter.  We where at the bar (The GM didn’t account for one of the characters to be a teetotaler) The sheriff walks in and is promptly shotgunned in the face by the only other patrons in the place at the moment. After a short battle the bandits where dead and only we three and the bartender remained. We went down to the jail to report the happenings to the deputies when we where asked to go investigate a train robbery that was supposed to happen that day. Being obliging sorts we obliged. And this is where the rails began to show (no pun intended).

Shortly after arriving at the train it became clear that we where supposed to miss the train and go riding off after it. That didn’t seem optimal and there was no reason for us to intentionally do that, when we where not provided with a solid reason why we could not be on the train. After getting on the train we did what people do and took our seats. I suppose we could have tried to figure out who intended to rob the train before it happened but every time the bandits had been described thus far they where just described as regular folk, and getting into character a bit more than I probably should have I just assumed that when the time came for me to do what I was supposed to do the correct course of action would become apparent. And eventually it did. We heard gun shots and went to investigate. When we got there we found some folks in a gun fight with a few soldiers. I was about to Search My Feelings, (remember we are playing star wars with a western skin on it) when the gm referred to the people fighting the soldiers as the bad guys. This fire fight was somewhat brutal mostly due to the terrain involved. We eventually came out on top and it was abundantly clear that of the three groups involved we where the superior.  The Dancer and the Slave surrendered to the soldiers and the sharpshooter went back to take his seat. It turns out that surrendering to the soldiers and giving them our weapons was what the GM wanted us to do. I playing the sharpshooter didn’t see any reason to do that what-so-ever.  After one of the soldiers followed me back to my seat and tried to get me to give up my weapon in the most unconvincing manner possible we had one of those moments in a game that was so absurd that it could only possibly work because it’s cool and the dice gods like that. The Solder drew on me and fired missing, so in response I drew my knife and with some awesome die rolls disarmed him and we walked to the rear in a more civilized fashion.

Now for my discussion of railroading players. The rails for the story are a bit too obvious for my tastes, aside from the fact that we are literally on a train at the moment. Not that I’m against railroading, I think it is the basic GM technique that allows a game to run smoothly, and without it you end up in a mire of unforeseen circumstances, wondering how you will ever get back to tell your story. That said players need at least the illusion of choice. Rather than shoe-horning them into a clearly suboptimal choice make the course of action you want them to take the best available. Let’s go back to the getting on the train scene. Our GM could very easily have gotten the scene he wanted without it feeling like it was just him saying “No, you have to miss the train,” without him being able to back it up with any real reason why we have to miss the train.

Here is what happened in detail we have three characters who attempt three different things, all apparently wrong. We arrive at the station and the train is getting ready to leave. I choose to get on the train, the Dancer chooses to buy a ticket, and the Slave who arrived shortly after us has to run to catch the train. I was met by someone telling me that I couldn’t get on without a ticket but the train is leaving this minute if I go to buy a ticket I will miss the train. So I pay the conductor, I have no intention of stealing a train ride. The Dancer runs and jumps onto the back of the train as it pulls away from the platform, and the slave has to run to catch the train and jumps onto the back.

The GM  wanted for us to have to ride our horses to the train and jump onto it, which I agree would have been a cool scene. All that would have been necessary for that to happen is for us to have arrived at the train station in time to see the train pull past the water tower as it left the station. At that point if we want on that train we gotta go get it. and it doesn’t feel like we where screwed out of a choice because no choice was ever presented to us there was only one feasible course of action.

There is also the illusion of choice, I use this a lot. You stay up all night planning out an awesome encounter, it’s gonna rock the players are going to have a blast, then they choose not to go down the road that leads to your encounter or choose not to go in the room that it’s in. Simple solution, just put it somewhere else. The players don’t know where it was originally and most often it’s fine to just do it a bit later or in a different place. I once spent three days writing a dungeon it was going to be super awesome, the people I play with always go left when presented with a choice. My dungeon had one such choice in it at the very beginning, they could go left through my super awesome dungeon with neat and interesting encounters or they could go right directly to the end of the dungeon get the McGuffin and be on their way, on this one occasion they went right.  Unfortunately it did not occur to me to just flip the dungeon over, it was a learning experience, we all have them.

Oh, we did also play Rise of the Runelords on Monday. We are missing our Fighter and the Bard, they went to GenCon the bard works for a bead store with a booth there, and the fighter is married to her. The fighter had to go because something came up with the rogues real life job and she was unable to attend. Which meant in theory we still had a balanced party until the rogue called and said she had a headache and wasn’t coming. We did the boar hunt, then dealt with the goblin in the closet. I had forgotten that that’s when you go to the glassworks. we made it through the first main room in the glass works before the GM called the game, which I am super glad of because I have no desire to do the rest of this portion of the adventure with less than four people. I suppose that’s not true, entirely, if we are still down a player this monday I will still go and do the rest of the glassworks.

House-Rules

Anyone who knows me from Saga-Edition.com Knows my stance on house rules, or they should if they have been following it for any length of time. I don’t like them, in general.

Let me hop in the Way Back Machine and go back to when I got out of the army (the first time) in 1998. We where playing a fair amount of ShadowRun 2nd edition at the time. It always kind of bugged me that there was no real reason, mechanically speaking, why anybody should ever use anything but a heavy pistol, the Ares Predator more specifically. The extreme imbalance of the game toward heavy pistols didn’t make sense to me with my knowledge of how bullets and firearms work. So I spent about a week or so poring through the game and distilling all the firearms into a rules set that fit the game, made sense, and was as realistic as possible. I had inadvertently just relocated the problem, when it was all said and done there was some other type of weapon that was clearly the best in the game. This is where I had an epiphany regarding house rules and simply deleted all my work.

What I realized was that while my rules where pretty good, in the end nothing had changed. So what I was addressing was not really a problem. If it was a problem my solutions would have fixed it rather than simply move it around a bit. And that’s what I find happens a lot when people try to house rule things, nothing. If a house rule does change something it is rarely for the better. Usually things just end up getting bogged down and play is not improved.

We are talking here about games in which there is magic, people can fly, vampires have dinner parties, it’s total fantasy, everything about it. Yet somehow we get hung up on some minor detail in the rules that in the end has a negligible effect. Why does it take longer to get from the outer rim to the core than from one side of the outer rim all the way around to the other? I don’t know traffic, maybe. But I do know that it is better to be able to roll a die and say “the trip takes x amount of time, you get there”. than to fumble with charts and graphs to handle a more  realistic system for 15 minutes to arrive at the same or a functionally very similar “the trip takes x amount of time, you get there.” Does it really matter how you arrived at x?

I’m just rambling at this point, I guess. What I’m aiming for is before making changes to rules sets to correct problems it’s important to first determine if it really is a problem. If yes, it really is a problem you need to consider if by changing the rule am I conceivably creating a bigger problem elsewhere. Does the house rule create a game imbalance? With the rule in place does one choice become clearly superior and all other choices inherently sub-optimal? As an example of that in the 3.o D&D Unearthed Arcana, there is a rule for save versus damage. When someone hits you you roll a fortitude save and see how bad it hurt basically. In principle I love how this works. Unfortunately you would be a complete retard to not then take the feat Great Fortitude it will save your life, probably repeatedly. And given that a failed reflex save most often simply results in damage that you would then also have to make a save against, why bother taking the supposedly equivalent feat lightning reflexes?

Not all house rules are bad or at least bad for certain groups and play styles though. Going back to my example of ShadowRun, my friends and I play a very compartmentalized game. Everybody has a job to do and that’s why they are there. In second edition when you rolled initiative, the combat round started with whoever rolled the highest Then they would subtract 10 from their initiative and if that was still the highest they would go again. Now this rule suited our style of play perfectly. Then SR3 came out and was in virtually every respect the superior game, except now (bear in mind ‘now’ was a decade ago) when you roll initiative who ever rolled highest went first then whoever rolled the next highest until you get down to the little old granny who rolled a 1 on initiative, then everybody subtracts 10 and repeats. This was a huge problem for us, some people where upset that previously the decker never got to go in a fight. We liked that it wasn’t his job to shoot people we had somebody else for that. So we just used the SR2 initiative system instead as a house rule.

Man I just can’t end this thing.

If it’s not broke don’t fix it. If it is broke make sure that it needs to be fixed. If it is broke and it does need to be fixed make sure that the fix is not worse than the break. In the end though you have to do what makes the game best for you and your group.

…. Oh, yeah and there’s a dragon.

Boxed text in a published adventure has always made me laugh.

GM:
You enter the dank dungeon room the fetid smell of decay assails your nostrils. The polished finely hewn stone of the Dwarven tunnels gives way to rough natural stone as if even the stoutest of the Dwarves feared to tread further. You can see the faint glow of a long abused and broken warding circle on the floor
that clearly did not hold as well as it’s creator might have liked. At the far end of the room crudely constructed palisades, broken and failing, tell further of defenses that simply could not contain the great evil below.

Player 1: What where the palisades made of, and did they just fall, or where they knocked in, or out, or what?

GM: Just a minute let me look here… Oh, yeah and there’s a dragon roll for initiative.

Player 2: Wait a minute isn’t that the first thing I would have noticed, what was it doing while I was apparently studying the Wardng Circle?

GM: Larry, just roll.

Now I’m not saying boxed text is bad, it gives important mood and allows the adventure writer to set the scene for what is about to happen. For example I love the boxed text in Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords, but it is the best example I’ve seen in a long time of writing about the wrong things. I’ve always thought that when writing adventure text you should note things in roughly the order the players are going to notice things or at least the order in which the players are going to have to deal with things. I realize in my entirely fictitious example that I just made up the circle is most likely important to the story and the fallen ramparts are important terrain pieces in the battle. But I have now completely forgotten about them because I’m rolling initiative to fight this epic battle against the cave dragon.

You know there’s nothing wrong with having multiple text boxes in a single encounter. It’s entirely reasonable to divide up the tactical information and the story elements. really it just gives the GM/adventure writer more opportunities to set the stage and to exercise his failed novelist ambitions. I’ve always thought the way to do it was to describe what you first notice, it’s dark, it’s bright, there’s an ogre with a hula-hoop. Then describe the challenge, and anything tactically significant. When the fight is over then you have a second wall of text describing the story elements that you need the PCs to notice but you know that they are going to ignore anyway in search of the next door to kick in.

GM:
You enter the dank dungeon room the fetid smell of decay assails your nostrils. Between where the finely hewn Dwarven tunnels give way to natural stone, and a broken wall at the far side is an immense black dragon she raises her head and locks her eyes on the intruders in her lair.
Roll for Initiative.

GM:
With a mighty bellow the great beast gives out to her wounds and falls lifeless on the highly polished dwarven stone her acidic blood filling the shallow crevices of a faintly glowing and broken warding circle carved into the floor.

That’s my opinion anyway for what it’s worth.

Friggin Monsters Ignoring Hindering Terrain

So this happened last Thursday, but it seemed kind of appropriate so I didn’t comment on it but it happened again last night and now it really bothers me. I mentioned that we are playing Pathfinder, but the module being run is written for 4th edition D&D. This means a few things. First of all there are more tougher encounters because every character in 4th Ed. has a small amount of healing to use on their own. Secondly some monsters ignore hindering terrain. This is starting to piss me off because most of the time it means that we have to use our entire movement to close with the monsters, then they just walk away and hit us with missile weapons and there is nothing we can do about it.

There is a difference between writing a challenging encounter and writing an irritating encounter. First of all you have hindering terrain, now I really like hindering terrain it helps break up the featureless void feeling that a lot of encounters have.

But if the entire encounter area is hindering then you just change the features of the void, but it is still a void. It also discourages tactical thought rather than encouraging it.

If everything is Hindering then your best option is to simply slog through to the bad guys by the shortest route available. After all it is costing you twice your movement to do anything. This is especially true if the bad guys, simply ignore the hindering terrain. The players just end up feeling screwed, at least they do if I am the players, as with everything this may bother other people to a greater or lesser degree.

How I do it is to break up the normal terrain with smaller or larger even patches of hindering. This causes the player to make decisions, do they want to simply slog through the hindering, or is it in their best interest to go around?


Now the monsters who can ignore hindering terrain have an interesting but not particularly game breaking advantage.

That rant out of the way, I did have fun and continue to have more fun in the Thursday game than I do in the Monday game.

We took a job looking for some books stolen by some sort of lizard man who murdered a local sage. Simple enough, it seemed the reward was high so we felt a little cautious going in. We managed to track the lizardman with my character acting as the party’s tracker since our Druid had to work last night. (Yes the same ass saving druid from last week.) The tracks led to a decrepit old manor house, specifically to the cellar of the decrepit old manor house. So we readied ourselves for a fight and went down the stairs. The first room we encountered is the one depicted above it had kobold (I think they where kobold) archers in each corner and two spearmen just back from the base of the stairs. So to get to them we had to pass through thier longspears and one square of hindering terrain (which they get to ignore). The Paladin tried to talk to them, this GM is not big on letting talking interfere with his fights, so the fight was kind of inevitable but the talking was good roleplay anyway. Negotiations failed and the Paladin moved into attack. We stumbled around the rubble as best we could until we where all engaged with some of the most bad ass kobolds I’ve ever encountered. That’s actually why I think they may have been something else. Then the medium sized black dragon burrowed up out of the ground, he was kind of scary until the paladin started wrecking his day, because that’s what Pathfinder paladins do. Eventually the dragon burrowed away and we mopped up the kobolds except for one who managed to escape deeper into the dungeon (because there was no way to catch him with him ignoring the hindering terrain that made up the entire room).

We followed him into another room where we where greeted by what we assumed was the Lizard man we where after another spearman and three archers including the one we chased in here. I ended up wrestling with the spearman because the bastard was really to hit, and he was small I am bigger and stronger. Between the rest of the party they managed to take down the archers no problem but where having some problems with the lizardman that the cleric managed to hold disarm and manacle. They did manage to stop him.

Then we got the “Sorry Mario, your lizardman is in another room.” There was a magic portal that led else where in the manor house, so of course we sent the captive spearman through first. Which was fortunate because on the other side of the portal was a lizardman with a balista and a readied action. Fortunately he missed. We cautiously (fighting defensively) closed the gap and engaged this last group of baddies, my new friend cowered in a corner just like he was told to. And ultimately I couped the lizardman when the paladin wasn’t looking, because the reward is the same either way, he was a murderer, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to carry a head than an uncooperative captive. (I wish people would have been that nice to me last time I played a paladin, it would have resulted in way fewer trains of prisoners running through gallows station.