Sunday, December 4, 2011

Time in Game

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.
 Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

Time in RPG's is a tricky business to convey accurately. Over the various editions the rules have conveniently broken down some aspects and left others widely open to interpretation. In 4E a round is thought to occur in about 6 seconds. (Rules Compendium page 189) That means that all most all combats last less than a minute. With a typical combat taking 18 to 36 seconds in "Game Time". For the players thirty minutes to two hours will pass. Combat ends with a short rest, ie a few minutes to catch your breath from the flurry of activity. The day ends with a single extended rest. I like some of the alternate rules out there for limiting extended rests. Simply stating that only one extended rest a day does not seem to be enough. The idea of requiring a safe well sheltered location to rest in is one I wholeheartedly support, but not one I have thrust upon my own players over our campaigns.

In your typical linear or near linear campaign the entire career of a PC from 1st level to 30th can occur in only a few short months up to a year. The absolute minimum being 30 days (due to requiring at least 30 extended rests, one for each level. The typical party takes two to three rests a level in my experience. Adding in a few ten-days per level for travel and you arrive at about 300 days or one year to obtain immortality. I found this matter quite distressing during my first and second campaign. I have always pictured heroic tales taking more time. This may be based on my love of Lord of the Rings, but Bilbo's adventure was a little over a year and Frodo's closer to two. I might ascribe low Paragon to the latter tale but the former was barely mid heroic. Aragorn's tale spanned nearly 50 years before he was king. Surely, he was only mid to high paragon at its conclusion. I am also plagued by my early experience with 1st and 2nd edition. The levels came slower the higher you advanced. However, on the counter point a 1 to 30 level campaign takes about 16 months to 36 months to play depending on your game frequency and table speed. No easy solution there.

In my current sandbox game I have been toying with the weekly session taking a ten-day for party prep and research. This is facilitated by an on-line forum where in the Players role play, shop, level, research, gossip and can get more out of their PC's lives. One PC is marrying, others are dating, another has a blossoming business. It is a fine line between creating a SIMS like in environment and a roleplay challenge. The PC's have a weekly expense book. That is not to say that they have to buy every meal nor clothing and gifts and what not. The typical PC spends about 30 sp a week on food and lodging. All other non-adventuring expenses are said to occur in that allotment. That amount is deducted from their over all silver intake. PCs can do odd jobs, buy businesses or receive stipends (Clerics, nobles etc) based on their character generation choices. This soon slides into the background but does present challenges when choosing missions purely for non-financial reasons. Then it can interfere with the PCs ability to buy that new armor or eat for the week but I digress. The forums are a struggle in that that ten-day between sessions is very abstract. What one PC finds out on the first day of the week may occur before or after what another PC does on the fifth day of our week. Its all about time "In Game" vs. time IRL. Not everyone has the same availability. When you sit down to game you have everyone's attention and things occur chronologically. I thought about linking post times to the time in game but away from the table things require a little less rigidity. I don't want folks feeling that have to rush to participate or time will pass them by. After all the whole hobby and this concept in particular is for fun. Once it ceases to be so it is time to bin it.

The sandbox method does create the passage of time though. Seasons change; 12 weeks have passed and mid-autumn has given way to winter. The world moves but only incrementally. The party has leveled up to 3rd and by my calculations at least two years will pass if we continue to 30th. As the party gets higher level and accumulate wealth, I expect that months or even years will pass "In Game" while only a week will pass for us IRL. After all managing a fief, kingdom or astral domain should occupy time when things are well and be but a brief interlude when they are not. How else will you get moments like Pippin and Beregond sitting upon the walls of Minas Tirith watching the gathering gloom first feeling despair and then finding courage...

Do you deal with time in your game? and if so How do you reckon its passing?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

An Ent by Any Other Name...

Tolkien's Ents are walking and talking tree creatures. They speak the western tongue easily enough but prefer to communicate in Entish. An Ent named Fangorn or Treebeard, if you prefer the western tongue, meets Merry and Pippin. This meeting gives an insight into the Entish mind and the focus of my article to day. According to Fangorn Entish is an extremely slow language to speak. A simple name in Entish is a complete sum of the story of that being's life. This a truly interesting concept. Tolkien never mentions whose perspective the Entish name is told from but for this article it is of little consequence.

From our early days as humans we are labeled. Given an appellation at birth to indicate memories of past loved ones or burdened with our parents expectations. Sometimes just simply tagged with some thing that sounds cool. Humanity does this, we label things. We designate flowers by genius, species and fillum in order to group the world into ordered, digestible bits. This process occurs all throughout are lives. Yet, we expect ourselves never to stereotype nor name call. This contradiction has oft confused me. How can science expect to study with out considering the individual?

The Ents continually tell the hobbits not to be so hasty. Really, they are saying not to judge all things as one thing. Thru this simple statement we are cautioned to take time and analyze the situation before rushing in. Judging an individual solely on a group's past behavior has lasting and irrevocable consequences. However, on the flip side of the argument Tolkien shows that inaction due to over analyzation can be just as bad. All this is communicated via the threat that Saruman and his new orcs pose.

The Orc has represented the basest nature of people in high fantasy. To my point, the Internet is full of orcs. Marauding tree chopping and burning, orcs. They turn there rage and hate on anything they see. Like the Ents I am loathe to label the group of orcs and judge them as one entity. Each Orc is unique, it's causes and base nature are damaging, offensive and mind boggling. I cannot fathom its reasoning or internal justification but I can condemn its acts.

My trouble here is that as society we have no ancient beings to come in and squash the orcs. No one in his right mind wants the governments of the world policing the Internet and handing out citations for inappropriate behavior. So what then is the solution? Should we be outspoken and draw lightning bolts down upon our heads? Begging each Orc to Sally forth and meet us in single combat where words and wits are used to make personal attacks until the battlefield is found barren? Do we cast bark skin and try to ignore those who would seek to drive us into hiding or shame us into silence? Do we rattle sabers in sheathes or speak softly and carry big ban buttons? Shielding ourselves from attacks and possibly much needed criticism? I don't have an answer fair reader. One blog author posts hate mail for all to see. Another only shares comments that agree with him. Others block comments all together. Still others by bars and leave the orcs to their devices. Individual choice must drive your own decisions. For me I suppose I say come orcs, Heghlu'meH QaQ jajvam!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Defunct Houserules - Magic Item as Rewards

This is the first in a series of articles I am working on. The point is to trace the history of the Houserules we have used in the past and share what worked and what didn't. Along the way I'll speculate on why they didn't.

First on the list is magic items. The Internet is rife with suggestions on implementing magic item distribution. The DMG itself has plenty of alternate suggestions.

4e Standard Distribution

This is the system straight out of the core books. It awards four items to a five person party with gold value for a fifth each level. My party opted to split the gold equally between them leaving one player under powered for the level. In effect every five levels each player would receive four magic items and the gold for another. On the surface this system seems balanced and fair but their is a flaw. The DM spends a lot of time trying to provide items that the PC's want or can use and balancing that against the "fairness" of expected item level value. Secondly it provides roughly 30 items to each member of the party. My players weren't keen on shopping or utilizing rituals to change the items into something else. The sheer number items leads to longer turns and more ooh I forgot my weapon property when x = y. Enter the wish list system.

Wish List

Again this system is presented in the core books. It demands the players generate a wish list of items for the next five levels. In theory the DM picks from this list to build a treasure package for a given level. Getting the first list isn't easy but ranks higher up on my list of pulling teeth then getting a detailed background does. The real difficulty came when I needed to get an updated list. Again searching thru thousands items to find 30 for their PC was a chore my group wasn't interested in. Enter the rune system.

Rune System

Mr. Optimizer brought this system to the group, I can't give credit to whom ever the idea originated with and maybe the creator will be happy about that. I was trepidatious about using the system in part because of the source and in part because my player's were already disinclined to shop. The system uses blocks of residiium called runes. Connor McCloud's sword is fashioned from metal in Highlander from such a block. Each block represents a magic item level. A player takes the rune to a smith, weaver etc and thru ritual the base item is infused with magical powers. The player looks up an item and the rune + base item is the published magic item. If you later get a better rune simply yank the old one out of your sword and have some boots made. Then add the new one to your sword. This system gives players quite a bit of flexibility. Too much in fact, as it quickly resulted in surplus gold. We added a cost to this re-enchantment process. This system still does nothing to reduce the number of magic items carried nor the analysis paralysis having so many can cause in Epic Tiers. Not to mention some magic items are just plain better and there are of course combinations that impact game balance. Enter magic rarity.

Magic Rarity

This system was released with the Rules Compendium. It assigns a value to magic items rare, uncommon and common. I am glad this didn't come with a ccg which was my initial fear. My hope was that the simply better items would be classified as rare. Nope. The effort to categorize items struggles on over at WotC. Meanwhile, my own hopes were dashed. The unspoken promise that this would return some of the specialness of magic items to the system was broken. My other issue with this system is the additional complexity it added. Now not only did I have level, fairness and game balance to contend with but I had to worry about rarity. System bloating needs antacid.

Inherrent Bonus

As I was ending my second campaign and considering letting D&D go the way of the dodo I stumbled across something called the Inherrent Bonus system. Supposedly this system is in the DMG but to this day I haven't been able to find it. The closest is the sidebar in the DMG2 on page 138 entitled a reward based game. The theory is that instead of math based items you give players the bonuses to attack, damage and defenses that they would get from magic item enhancements as freebies. I like to think of this like the assassin that can pick up any weapon and make it "magic". I can hear it now, "but Axe what about those extra powers and properties?" To be honest I don't miss them. My players get story based items that grow in power as they level.

I discussed this with my players outlining my plan and the system. They agreed tentatively to the play test. I then worked into the end of the previous campaign that the spell plague they caused resulted in the destruction of all residiium. This fulfilled one players destiny and tied nicely into explaining the lack of magic items and the change I made to ritual magic.

For example my wife's paladin started in plate mail, she has a broadsword, and a holy symbol. She gets +1 to damage, attacks with both the broadsword and holy symbol. She also gets a +1 to AC, Fort, Reflex, and Will from armor and a non-existent neck slot item. This makes her a little more powerful then your standard first level character, sure, but it hasn't tipped the scales into ruining my fun as the DM.

Her story item is her broadsword. It was given to her by her uncle and that makes it special in character. Playing on that fact, it is the item I am focusing on improving during heroic tier. At first level she killed a Short-tailed Gar. A Gar is a pretty tough creature from Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. The creature's blood was infused into the blade. Now when she draws the blade it glows with the same sickly green glow as the Gar's eyes. This is the weapon's property and ties into the choice to kill the Gar. As she progresses in level and makes in character choices I add powers to the sword about every three levels. At 10th I may start in on her armor. At 20th her Holy Symbol.

Another player, the rogue, chose to save a prisoner from being whipped on a pillory. They crawled thru a privy hole to reach the river and then swam to shore braving the rapids and waterfall. I marked this character's choice by adding a property similar to slick armor to his now waterlogged and stained leather armor. The stains give a simple bonus to stealth.

We have only played nine sessions but the personal touch seems to be more rewarding then the constant flood of magic items. The slower accumulation of money and difficulty purchasing magic items has been refreshing as well. We spend less time on treasure and more on gaming. Our experimentation with Magic Items has brought frustration and boredom around to something personal and fun. Nuff said.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Keeping the spark

Writing the blog has been hard this week. After canceling my game Saturday and the upsetting events Monday I was having trouble finding the motivation. The net is a buzz with talks of what's wrong with 4E and the hopes for 5E. To be honest I find all the speculation kind of disappointing. Four editions of the game I love and everyone seems to be ready to point out the flaws and cracks in the armor. I see very little of people saying what has worked well and what should stay the same. To that end here is my opinion what should stay the same. (Editor's note: This was written before this weeks L&L column but delayed by my editing schedule and issues with iOS 5)

1. Team work - team work is the bedrock of d&d for me. Even during inter party tension or conflicting character view points; team work is what glues the experience together. If the players aren't working together the game quickly dissolves into a free for all.

2. Monsters - Iconic monsters are a cornerstone of d&d. What makes D&D monsters iconic? The monsters of D&D are powerful and different and strange. Their powers are fantastic, beyond reason. They offer challenges that once faced allow players to accumulate knowledge. That player knowledge makes facing a troll the next time different, less challenging. There is a reward to playing and defeating these challenges. After all whom would ever climb into a green face in a dungeon again after playing thru tomb of horrors. (Note Sarah Darkmagic writes a little about this in her blog this week)

Monsters should be iconic and by that I mean they should have powers or traits that fit them well. Kobold shiftiness is a good example. I am not condoning a system utilizing powers but if they are present they need to be different and overcome by clever play and not just mechanics. See even I can't write an article without making changes to the next edition.

3. Magic and wonder - D&D is an escapist hobby. We escape into story. We escape into environments. We escape into shoes that are not our own. Those experiences are bigger than ourselves and tap into some racial memory of times when the world was dark and the next village was a strange different world. We want the experience of the unknown. We want the rules of science to be violated. We want the fairy tale. Without this experience the world is two dimensional and without flare. D&D is in part the search for the childlike wonder of youth and part the broadening of horizons thru steps taken in another's skin.

4. Over coming odds with creativity - D&D is challenging and sometimes frustrating but the result of overcoming this challenge is a heady reward greater than the treasure to be found or the character we created. It defies the words chosen in a role-play encounter nor can a lucky roll replace its sustenance. We play D&D to exercise our mind and imagination and no matter if it be 5th or 25th edition this is a part of d&d that can not be replaced by technology or mechanics. At it's core D&D is theater of the mind and must remain so.

5. Social- D&D is a social game. The shared love of the past time. It Sparks blogs and twitter feeds. It drives the creation of virtual environments for the gathering of friends. Gaming groups span decades, they can be as close as families and share common bonds. Bonds based not only on common interests but also on the things that are shared between dice rolls. Like old poker buddies the game is more than the bets lost and won, dnd is a gathering of people from different walks of life sharing time and words.

If we keep true to these core things the mechanics will matter only as much as we have let them in the past. The edition wars have been around for as long as multiple editions have existed. They will be around as long dice are rolled and people gather to wile away the hours.

Monday, October 3, 2011

As, promised the PDF

Here is the Hill Giant adventure I created based in part on the excellent work of Kenzer and Company.
I highly recommend beginning DM's or DM's looking to create a sandbox adventure investing in Frandor's Keep.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Week 5 of the Campaign - Prep Article - In Search of a Hill Giant

I am into my fifth week of my 3rd Dungeons and Dragons campaign with my Virtual Table group. I relayed some of the information on how I set up the campaign and today I am updating the process and using this as a sample of how I plan my weekly sessions. Let's get started. Warning: this article contains Frandor Keep Spoilers.

On Saturday I posted a summary of the night's session on our group's forum. The party used the session to deal a blow to the local group of Brigands known as Rikar's Ravens and will start off this week leveling to 2nd. On Sunday I updated the character wealth on the forum to give the party a chance to shop. Both of these actions are standard activities for our group and take about 30 mins total. I rolled on my random rumor tables and posted the results for the group to digest at the same time. The group has a meeting in character each week to decide what rumors to pursue. Tonight at midnight the vote closes and the Hill Giant rumor is leading the pack by a long-shot. It is now mathematically impossible for any other result to be achieved.Any one familiar with 4E's monster manual and hill giants are probably wondering WTH? Hill giants are level 8 to level 13 standard monsters. This is well out of the threat range of a second level party.

So why would I do this? The answer is simple during week 3 one of my players met a down on his luck bounty hunter named Larzon. Larzon was down on his luck due to being unable to find and slay the hill giant he tracked to the area. This was to be a hint at a future adventure opportunity. My player, whom we will call Mr. Instigator, decided he would scream out a challenge to the hill giant and issue a warning. He is playing a half-orc thief, and as such he knows giant. The rest of the group has no idea what he hollered, but I am sure the giant would have taken offense. A 20 on the giant's perception check ensured the echo would reach his ears.  I dearly love Mr. Instigator. He keeps my game moving and doesn't let the game bog down. The big problem is he loves to be hated so I have to respond in a manner that makes the rest of the party gasp and him chuckle. So during the rumor list last week I posted this as the warlord's rumor. (The warlord was out of town and missed so...)

Seiler - Does not show at the meeting; his time spent with the blacksmith's daughter has become greater lately. Now, his sister is also in town. They haven't been eating at the Broken Hilt though due to the large boulder that now sits in the middle of the dining hall. Rumor has it that a large boulder arrived via the roof. Apparently, if you believe such tales, a hill giant launched the boulder from the mountain top and missed his target for it landed in the Broken Hilt.

Now, during week four the promise of the Ravens' treasure protected by a gnarly beast was more interesting to the party than the Hill Giant rumor was. This probably had to do with the lack of funds most of the party was suffering from and the hate they had developed for the Ravens. This week though Mr. Instigator is leading the charge out into the wild to find the Giant and bring him down once and for all.

Building the Adventure

The party will start in the Keep. My standard party is pretty weak in Nature. The best one in the group has a whopping +6, that is my son the Wizard. These are city dwelling folk trying to make their living on the frontier tsk, tsk. I have dropped hints about the forums as my PCs shop, hinting about Larzon's superior woods lore.

Encounter 1 Role-playing - Larzon Bayz - Optional

Description text

Larzon is an enormous Draegarian, his minotaur horns are shod in iron and his dragonborn scales are a fierce bright orange. His studded leather armor is supple and well oiled. A greatsword sticks above his left shoulder. A heavy crossbow with a quarrel case is never far from his reach.

  • Compentent Hunter
  • Drinker/ Gambler
  • Sterile Race
  • Born of a Far Continent Dragonborn and Minotaur
  • Often found sitting sharpening his sword in front of his tent

  • Found his way to Frandor tracking a hill giant
  • Along the way he was offered a bounty for retrieving stolen property from thugs (Rikar's Ravens)
  • He has since lost the trail and only hears rumors (like the one about the boulder in the Broken Hilt Tavern) 
  • With no luck on either front he eventually moved out of the Keep and set up his tent in Quarry town 
  • Despite his success as a Bounty Hunter he has little to show for it 
  • Drinking and Gambling eat up his income 
  • Often said over a Legasa Ale
Larzon "No better quarry than some scum who deserves a killing."

This is the basics of Larzon's character. The party met him when he bought them an ale for taking out one of the Ravens' Lieutenants. I want to bring him back in now to aid the party with the hill giant. It is entirely possible that the party will never make the trip to Q-town to get his aid. That's fine. I prep it any way.

I want to have a challenge set up to get the party to interact and get to know Larzon a little more. My initial idea is to have him drinking like Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride. I don't want him to seem totally useless however, so I decide to go with dice instead. This gives two of my players the ability to revisit some role-playing from week 2 when they used Sorcery and Psionics to rip off a poor dragonborn guard man in a game of poker. In fact I will have the guard come back for this game of chance as well. Rounding out my gambler's will be a human Jiric Helsan. The PCs haven't met Jiric yet but his interest in wild creatures could put a spin on the whole adventure. He is a slaver that ships demi-humans and monsters south to the arena. He can perk up at the mention of the giant and create an inter party debate.

This gives me three NPCs in the situation with different goals.
I list them out with their agendas like so:

Jiric Helsan - Convince party to bring back the giant alive (offering 500 sp), introduction to the party for future ops or as an enemy at the parties option
Lazon Bayz - Happy to see party again , he tries to get them off track and into the gambling; if beaten at dice or convinced by party that they need his help will walk away
Shathen "Shast", Man-at-arms - Not so happy to see Crazelle and Zusk; wants a rematch, wearing plain clothes, If the party loses some of his months pay back to him he can provide info about sightings of the giant as a lead

Encounter 1a Skill Challenge or RP - Where is the monster?

Complexity 1 if skill challenge, dcs will be level 4 to be competitive with their skill sets

If the party doesn't bite on the Larzon hook, I still have to get them to the adventure site. They have heard the boulder was hurled from Karpar Peak, but my monster doesn't live there since it is the location of a watch tower. Those guards might be a good place to start. A few easy checks talking to them using Social Skills (Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate, and Insight) would do the trick here. This is a good idea and I will make it simpler because of that.

Alternatively the party could use general monster knowledge and try and locate the monster that way.
As cruel as it is I will make these moderate and hard checks. (History, Dungeoneering, Nature at moderate and Religion, Arcana, Perception at hard) I throw perception in here as part of the tracking skill set. This is the straightforward kick in the door method, and plays to the party's weaknesses instead of their strengths.

I should have a third example option here but I am having vapor lock. Maybe it will come to me over the next few days. For now it is enough to decide that Physical skills will be at moderate DCs though I don't see a clear way to use them in this situation. (Stealth, Thievery, Acrobatics, Athletics, Endurance, Heal)

Encounter 2 Exploration/Travel - Mt. Tanara

Here I describe the terrain as the PCs approach. This satisfies my Ms. Explorer's desire to see the world. She will interact with the environment so I need to describe the splintered trees and large foot prints. She is a professional CSI which leads to challenges, luckily I can count on Mr. Instigator to keep things moving if we are stalling.
I also will throw in a random encounter. I have sixteen left from my initial prep. Only six of these are guaranteed combat encounters. The others are role-play and exploration. I prepare a second version of the dwarf miners one. It originally read:

"A half-dozen dwarves in miners clothing lounge casually on a fallen log next to the road. They eye you suspiciously as you approach. "

Now it reads:
"A half-dozen winded dwarves squat behind a copse of bushes. They scan the tree tops cautiously, picks and shovels wielded as makeshift weapons in their hands."

This will add nicely to the tension of facing the giant in a few moments. Depending on the players actions they may gain a bonus to the confrontation with the giant by interacting with the dwarves that just survived a brush with death.

Encounter 3 Combat - At the Giant's Lair - Mt. Tanara

For the actual fight I want something lethal but attainable. There is every chance a character or more will die Saturday. This isn't my ideal desire but it will reinforce the fact that this environment is truly sand-box and be careful what you take on. I take the 12th level Hill Giant Rockthrower from Monster Manual 3 to use as my base monster. This is way out of my players threat range. I adjust down five levels. Dropping its AC and defenses appropriately. I do the same for Attacks and damage. This monster has three attacks Greatclub, Knockdown Throw, and Shattering Rockburst. My RP reason for the low level is the hill giants old age. This will also be important for its solitude.

This monster will effectively be run as a solo monster so I want to make sure it has varied actions and can deal with five separate attackers at once. Its area burst dazing power is ok for this but it is a recharge and a standard. I do a search for other hill giants and don't find anything that strikes my fancy. I expand my search to all giant like creatures and find a Kick power I like from the Monster Vault Ettin. I rename the power Foot Shove and keep it as a move. It doesn't damage but it keeps the Giant mobile. Its still not enough with two defenders (Pally, and Fight...Weapon Master) a striker (Thief) and a Warlord (blah, Marshall) my players are melee heavy.

I add a power I call mighty roar as a minor. I have it do a d4 of thunder damage and push those hit 1 square giving the giant room to maneuver. This could get annoying for me as well as the players, so Recharge 4, 5, 6. I check my player's resistances, and verify no one is playing a dwarf :D. Only the wild sorcerer has a 1 in 10 chance to ignore this damage type and she probably won't be close enough, but I decide if she reduces all the damage the push fails as well. Validates her choices and could be of tactical significance, even at a long shot on the dice.Half way home, I upgrade the brute to an elite to keep the encounter tough.

The rest is terrain and victory conditions. The giant's lair is chosen for its limiting approach. I place four locations that allow PCs to get up and have height advantages, these will benefit the ranged characters if they can utilize them. I force a difficult approach with a deep pit allowing me to take a round to taunt and beat on them. I add climbing areas and difficult terrain. The Githyanki wizard will be able to allow one PC to bypass this difficult approach, allowing him to shine. I set the DC's for the climb at 14, see yesterdays article to understand why.

Hill Giant Lair with Symbols

These leave a single use terrain power and my victory condition. The single use terrain will be to trigger the avalanche of stones precariously balanced above the cave entrance. I will hint at this thru out the encounter as the giant plucks boulders from it to hurl at the party. For example "As the giant grabs another boulder from the cliffside, the sound of loose scree sliding down between the boulders reaches your ears." The trigger will be thunder/force damage to the hill side, or an athletics check to dislodge a key boulder etc.

The single use terrain ties into the two methods of victory conditions. Should the rock slide be triggered the hill giant will be pinned unconscious beneath the rubble. This will allow the PCs to sell him off to Jiric the Slaver, if they so choose. The other option is to bloody the creature and manage to succeed on the DC 25 intimidate check. The party has a max roll of 32 on intimidate so this has a 35% chance of success.Hmmm, any treasure? Need to research hill giant lore to see how I can modify a weapon, or gear appropriately. Leave that for tomorrow and another article

Encounter 4 RP - Wrap Up
The party can wrap up by getting the giant back down the mountain alive if applicable, meet up with Larzon to tell of the exploit, take the ears in to collect the bounty, bury their dead or do something else I don't even see during the prep.

Jiric has two story awards tied to him - one for going to work for him and one for putting him out of business
Larzon has two story awards tied to him - only one matters for this adventure, if the party used his aid or not
The party will garner a large amount of fame for pulling this off, as new of a band as they are, this reward will be to reputation

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Art of Building a Failable Skill Challenge - Axe Man Method

Neuroglyph posted his Article Skill Challenges: Impossible To Fail! which is prompting my posting of two articles this week. I tried to convey my thoughts in brevity via the comments over there and Neuroglyph filled in some of the blanks for me but I thought I would expound on the discussion a bit further.

The links to his two articles are HERE and HERE.

I am going to use my current group consisting of a Half-orc Brutal Scoundrel Rogue, a Dragonborn Baravura Warlord, a Dragonborn Virtuous Paladin, a Tiefling Marauding Fighter (er Weapon Master), a Drow Wild Sorcerer, and a Kalashtar Psion. I am using my party because I have the data handy and in my opinion because running a published adventure requires you to make some adjustments based on your party’s strengths and weaknesses.

The above chart is taken from my current 1st level group. The first chart is a graph of the probability of the best individual making a successful 1st level skill check. The party is strong in Intimidation and weak in Endurance and Nature. Arcana, Religion and Streetwise are secondary weaknesses. Every other skill has a 95% or more chance of succeeding on an easy Skill check. Only the weak skills will be used at the easy DC in my skill challenges. I do use these DC for checks, both passively and actively, to dole out information to the whole party or the SME (subject matter expert) during exploration and role-playing encounters.

 This second chart is used to look for the overlap between the best roller (Orange) and the worst roller (Blue). The dot represents the passive mark (Skill bonus +10). The Green, Yellow and Red lines are the DCs with the max DC for 30th level in blue at the top of the chart.

My worst roller in Arcana has a +0 and my best a +4. The overlap of the two varies from DC 5 to DC 20. That means my worst roller has a 5% chance of succeeding on DC 20. It also means that the best roller has a 5% chance of failing on DC 5. When designing a skill challenge involving a single Arcana check I will aim at a DC that allows success 50% to 75% for the SME and 25% to 50% for the Worst roller. This range is the sweet spot of fun for my group. Adjust it thru experimentation for your own group. For us this encourages skill use by anybody in the party for any skill but still rewards the SME for his skill choices. It also follows along the guidelines for monster defenses. A first level moderate DC 12 fits this criterion providing a 60% chance of success for my SME’s (Psion/Sorcerer). It gives a 40% chance of success for the worst rollers (Paladin/Warlord/Rogue), but a 45% chance for the Fighter. This is where the math for the DCs works well, mainly because there is no Wizard in this party.

Now let’s look at thievery. There is a rogue in my party i.e. a character class that’s primary attack stat matches his training options. Looking at the chart I know the Rogue will always succeed at an easy check. He has a 90% chance of making Moderate DC and a 50% chance of making the hard DC, and this is without his thief tools (an additional +2 for some checks). The worst roller in the party can not make the hard check with a roll of twenty. Normally, your thief is going to pick the lock or disable the trap or pick pockets so you could just set the Hard DC and go on down the road. This same logic applies to stealth or diplomacy or what ever other skill your SME has training and a primary stat in. Part of the purpose of building a skill challenge instead of calling for a single skill check is to engage the entire party. Maybe the party has to make two simultaneous thievery checks to unlock the vault. Just for fun, imagine making two pick lock checks instead of turning the keys in the Skynet vault (Ref: Terminator 2). The thief can’t make both checks. How do you challenge both characters? Splitting the difference between the overlap arrives at a DC of 14. This gives the thief an 80% chance of success and if the worst rollers (Paladin/Fighter) step forward a 14 gives them a 20% chance of success. My Warlord and Psion are in between with a 25% chance and the Sorcerer has a 45% chance. Logically the party will have the Sorcerer be the second roller. (Er, but there is always that outside chance of miscommunication that is both painful and fun to watch as the DM)

So this is the theory lets put the theory into practice. I am going to use the cliché moment where the Fellowship has to get into King Theoden’s presence and warn him of an impending orc attack. (Refer to the Two Towers to see how Aragorns’s party accomplished this feat) Theoden’s advisor Grima has poisoned his mind against the party. His guards are on high alert due to the growing threat of war. My party isn’t Aragorn’s. They may use similar tactics or something completely unexpected, I won’t know until the actual session. Therefore, I prepare all the DC’s. (Note: the DC for intimidate is based on my players awesomeness not on how hard it is to intimidate the king, his guards or advisor) I don’t follow the typical use skill A in manner B methodology. Here is what I have come up with.

Scene 1 – Access the hall – 2 Successes before 2 failures

Setup – “Somewhere inside the Hall of Eodras is King Theoden, probably still mourning the loss of his eldest son. Hama and two of his gate guards patrol the great bronze doors to the hall. A half-dozen archers are on the walls around you. The city buzzes with worry for the on-coming war, guards and peasants alike are alert and wary. Somewhere the king’s advisor lurks ever vigilant for those that would break his hold over the king’s mind. You must alert the king before the sun rises to have time to prepare a defense, the sun has just begun to set. How will you get in to see the king?”

Primary Skills
DC 12, 19 –Endurance, Arcana, Nature, Religion, Streetwise
DC 13, 20 - Athletics, Perception, Insight, Dungeoneering, History, Heal
DC 14, 21 – Acrobatics, Stealth, Thievery, Diplomacy, Bluff
DC 22 – Intimidate

Kick off Skills
DC 8

First Failed Check – Raise DCs by 2 except intimidate
Full Success – The party gains access to the hall with weapons
Partial Success – The party gains access to the hall, but without weapons or some members are caught and arrested (non social encounter)
Total Failure – The party is driven off if negotiating with the Door warden or taken captive if attempting to enter via subterfuge/B&E – Raise the DCs by 2 and repeat the challenge or move to Scene 2 taking place in the prison with raised DCs

So for Scene 1 the party has to come up with a way to enter the hall. I have no idea what skills are going to be used or in which way. I list to DCs one for the intended use of the skill and one for using it as a replacement skill. A player using athletics to impress the gate guard, in place of a social skill, can earn a success by making the Hard DC listed second. Since, players typically do this with their primary attack stat + training combo I have no compunction about using the higher DC. I give the scene a kick off skill in case nobody has any ideas about how to get into the place. Using Insight as a kick off skill to determine the gate guard’s mood, body language or just to get a hint of about Rohirim culture is a free easy check without real chance of success or failure. Likewise, using Perception to walk the perimeter and find an open window could be a kick off skill, I might also call for a stealth or bluff check to hide or act inconspicuous while doing this. The perception check is at no risk but the bluff/stealth is a normal check with risk of failure.

Ok so getting a little too much into running the challenge, going to pull it back a touch. With scene one designed as a two minion encounter I move on to scene two. Scene two is a little tougher. I intend it to be the confrontation with Grima. No matter when the PCs try to enter the Hall, scene 1 applies. Scene two is contingent on when the PCs decide to break in. Scene two could occur in the throne room directly after scene 1, or it might occur when the king summons his adviser from his bedchambers or even possibly after the PCs are arrested and the adviser comes down to the dungeons instead of the king. I know I want it to occur but when is flexible. There is also the possibility of Scene 2 and Scene 3 occurring simultaneously.

Scene 2 – Confronting Grima – 2 successes before 1 failure

Set-up – “Grima appears, he is pale and greasy of skin and hair. He walks with a hunch and speaks with a silky-toned voice. “Why do you trouble my lord in his time of grief?” The words seem to seep into your mind, you feel bothersome and shallow for bringing this matter to the king.

GM Note: Grima is using charm magic to slowly sap the strength of the king and his loyal subjects. Eowyn is the least affected by this spell, checks to break the hold on her gain a +2 circumstance bonus. The spell can be countered with divine, psionic, or arcane magic once detected by the party or countered by social skills.

Primary Skills
DC 12, 19 –Endurance, Arcana, Nature, Religion, Streetwise
DC 13, 20 - Athletics, Perception, Insight, Dungeoneering, History, Heal
DC 14, 21 – Acrobatics, Stealth, Thievery, Diplomacy, Bluff
DC 20 – Intimidate

Kick off Skills
DC 8 – to initially detect the magic of Wormtongue’s voice

Full Success – The party breaks the hold of Grima on Theoden his amulet shatters. The heroes still must convince Theoden of impending doom. Move to Scene 3
Total Failure – The party fails to break the magician’s hold on Theoden. The party must now defend themselves against the Rohirim present. Slaying anyone during this encounter will raise the level of scene 3 by one level.

Again the DCs are very similar but I only give the party a single opportunity of failure. A fight could occur here; this would add no XP to the skill challenge but moves the story forward. During the fight the PCs will need to find that the source of Grima’s magic is the amulet about his neck.

Scene 3 – Convincing the King – 3 Successes before 2 failures

Set-up – “Orcs are coming and the hour grows late. You have but little time to make your voice heard and convince the King of your sincerity. Choose your words and actions wisely.”

Primary Skills
DC 12, 19 –Endurance, Arcana, Nature, Religion, Streetwise
DC 13, 20 - Athletics, Perception, Insight, Dungeoneering, History, Heal
DC 14, 21 – Acrobatics, Stealth, Thievery, Diplomacy, Bluff
DC 22 – Intimidate

Kick off Skills
DC 8 –  None

Total Success – Theoden summons the door warden and has his nephew released from prison. He means to make ready a ride against the Orcs
Partial Success – Theoden summon the door warden and has his nephew released. He orders defenses to be readied and you to be given rooms as his guests.
Failure – Theoden is not convinced by your words, the Rohirim are doomed. The only question is do you stay and fight and maybe die with them, or do you take matters into your own hands and try something else?

Now that I have done the prep I run through the scenario several times and look for at least three possible methods I would use to solve this problem. I create a total victory condition. I.e. if the party comes up with a solution that short cuts the process what happens. “King Theoden orders his forces marshaled and kick Wormtongue down the front steps of his Hall, banishing him forever on penalty of death."

I check each PC’s skills and ensure they have something they can offer. I use spider web charts like this one. The graph represents the 50% chance result a PC could get (ie Passive).