Tuesday, October 30, 2012


For the last few months I've been running a D&D Next Playtest, which has been going pretty well.  In fact, I have another playtest write-up to do, but I probably won't get to that for a few days, as I get to take my daughter, the Tiger Fairy Princess Warrior (tm) out Trick or Treating tomorrow night.

I also got my beta test key for The Banner Saga (I'm 1 and 1 in multiplayer so far), which I backed on Kickstarter, AND I got a release email from Stardock that my free copy of Elemental: Fallen Enchantress is ready.  That was sorta a Kickstarter in the sense that I pre-ordered War of Magic and is sucked so much donkey dong that Stardock decided to give me Fallen Enchantress for free.  Which was nice, but considering they've had $60 from me for about 5 years now, seems like a bit of a long-term investment.

AND the new Playtest package dropped yesterday, plus the beta for Tabletop Forge came out, which I ALSO supported on Kickstarter.  And I need to read more Vornheim because, well, it's good.  Oh, and the Steam Halloween Sale is on and I MUST HAVE STRENGTH.  THOR GIVE ME STRENGTH NOT TO BUY MORE GAMES.

So yeah.  There is all that.  But tonight I want to talk hexcrawl.  I really want to do a decent hexcrawl, so I've been playing around with setups and reading up on people that are successful at running them.

I got started using Hexographer to build a random map, then used the Hex Map Key from Abulafia and the Fantasy Region generator.  That got me a basic 40x40 hex map, some political players and bunch of cool hex ideas.

But then I started thinking about what hex size I wanted.  I figured 10 mile hexes would be good.  A bit of calculator work meant to me that meant about a 150,000 square mile area.  About the size of Germany, or the southern third of British Columbia, where I live.   So that means that the map I have is way to varied in terms of geography - can't go from ice flows to equator in 400 miles.  I figure I'll rework the map assuming that it's a coastal area at about the same latitude as Washington State. That gives me some nice seasonal variation, a decent amount of area and reasonable diversity in geography.

I'll use the Medieval Demographics Made Easy Domesday Book to work up the regions a bit more, then I want to identify major humanoid tribes and their regions, work up some random tables and develop the map a bit more.

Here's what I have so far - more as it develops.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Monstrous Monday: Chomp-munk!

What to do with all the heads?  It's a common problem for a necromancer.  It's easy to lose track of just how many political rivals and derring do-gooders you've had decapitated, and suddenly, the spare room of the tower is just packed full of disembodied heads!

Sure, the zombies can go through a few, and you can throw a couple of brains into jars for later, but that really only scratches the surface of the head problem.  Luckly, Maleficar the Maledificant came up with a solution!

And it's so simple!  What is the only thing that seems even MORE common than those pesky body-free craniums?  Yes!  The answer is woodland animals.  They are all over the place!  Climbing in the trees, singing to princesses, conspiring with the swan down in the lake to turn her back into a "real" girl.  Just round them up, a few flicks of the cleaver, licks with a needle and twine and a reanimate dead spell or two, and the release the results into the surrounding forest!

Any animal will do, although small cute ones are really effective for that initial "WTF is THAT and WHY IS IS CHEWING ON ME" factor.

# appearing: 1-20
HD 1-3 (depending on animal)
Size (S to L, depending on animal)
#att: 1
Dmj: d6 (bite)
Speed: about as quick as a squirrel with a human head sewn to it...

Anybody encountering Chomp-munks for the first time must make a save against mental attacks/horror or be paralyzed with fear and revulsion for 1 round.

Swarm:  if more than 5 Comp-munks attack a single enemy, all of them make only 1 attack roll.  If it hits, they swarm for 3d6 biting damage.

Happy Halloween!  Check out The Other Side blog for more Monstrous Monday.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Vornheim: The Reviewening

I will start by telling a little customer service story.  I haven’t traditionally been a huge Jim Raggi fan, but I gotta tell you, he’s good at customer service.

I ordered Vornheim from the LotFP online store about 5 weeks ago.  Last week I was getting a bit antsy about it not being in my hands, so I wrote Jim an email through the store support contact.  I received a reply promptly (accounting for time difference) which apologized for the inconvenience, laid out the standard timeline for shipping to my location, described some potential reasons for the delay and offered to buy me another copy from a north American vendor (since he’s sold out)  if the product did not arrive within a certain amount of time.

I’ve worked in customer service, people.  I was a customer support call center manager.  This is HOW THIS SHIT IS DONE.  Armed with the information that a) the delay was within the range of expected shipping time, b) Canadian customs sometimes slows stuff down arbitrarily and c) I had an alternative if I was unhappy with the wait, which the vendor would pay for himself – I was happy to wait a few more weeks.  And lo and behold, Vornheim arrived late last week.

So from one customer support professional to another – fabulous job, James Edward Raggi IV.  Top f’ing notch.  It’s pretty likely that Jim knew that he wouldn’t have to buy/ship me a copy from a North American vendor, but he made the offer, and that is huge.  Much of customer service is managing expectations and providing options, and that was deftly done here.

On to Vornheim.

This book is smaller than I expected.  There is a certain expectation I have for physical dimensions of RPG supplements, and this book does not conform to that.  But that isn’t bad.  This is a very convenient size for an rpg book.  I could fit it in a coat pocket if I wanted to.  And the contents make me want to.

When I actually read the book, it’s incredibly DENSE.  There is more practical, useful, interesting stuff in this book than in all the 4e books I purchased.  There is NO wasted space.  The INSIDE OF THE DUST JACKET has a map on it.  It’s like working in a well-designed ship galley kitchen.  Everything is right there within reach and no space is wasted at all.

This is the chocolate brownie of role-playing supplements.  It’s small, chewy and tasty.  Getting a bigger piece would almost be overkill.

I quite like the multi-column random tables.  They are a great use of space, since they can be used straight across with a single roll or rolled on multiple times.  The dice-drop tables are also handy.  I’ve spent some time deciphering all the things they could be used for, and I feel that I’ve only just scratched the surface.

The book is also fairly edition-neutral, which is a good thing.  I’m mostly playing D&D Next right now, and I can use the stats and tools pretty much straight across.  A handy-dandy “Later Editions Conversion Table” is also included, plus the dice-drop charts support ascending or descending AC, depending on your preference and system.

I’m a little bit less in love with the included adventures.  They are interesting and all, but I can’t help but feel that the space they use would have been better served with more tools.  And make no mistake, this book is a toolkit.  There are tools for quickly building street maps, tools for populating businesses, for naming taverns, for organizing relationships between NPC’s.

Portable, incredibly useful, interesting art, helpful tables and not a single square inch of wasted space.  This book is fundamentally different than what you see coming out of any major RPG design company.  I can only wish that Gary Gygax was as good at book design as Zak S is.

The only downside is that it took a long time for me to get it.  But Jim Raggi dealt with that problem in an admirable fashion.  Thanks, Zak and Jim – now I have to reevaluate what I expect from BOTH and RPG supplement AND an RPG seller.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Aesthetics of Role-Playing Games

Penny Arcade TV hosts a very interesting series on video game design called Extra Credits.

This week they did a segment on genre in video games and spent a lot of time on terminology. You can see the entire episode here - http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/aesthetics-of-play.

I’m an English Lit major, so terminology and definitions are things I really like.  Watching this episode and thinking about how these ideas apply to RPGs has really crystallized my thoughts regarding random character generation, which I discussed recently.

This information comes from the MDA framework, which was developed for use in the Game Design and Tuning Workshop, taught at the Game Developers Conference.

GDC is focused on video game development, but from my perspective, there is no real difference between video games, board games and tabletop role-playing games in terms of design and tuning.  As we will see, the MDA framework can just as easily apply to any tabletop RPG.

MDA stands for:
Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics, the 3 components of game design.

Essentially, MDA breaks the consumption of a game down into three elements, Rules, Systems and “Fun”, and identifies Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics as the design counterpoints of those three elements.

Mechanics are the rules/systems that make up the actual game.
Dynamics are the play experiences that those mechanics create.
Aesthetics are the underlying reasons we go to the game for.

The Aesthetics component can be broken down further, and each game generally hits specific core aesthetics.  When somebody says to me that something “feels” right, then I automatically assume they are talking aesthetics.

MDA lists 8 core aesthetics:
Sense Pleasure – how the game stimulates the senses.
Fantasy – the ability to step into a new role while playing the game.
Narrative – the game as drama.
Challenge – the game as obstacle course
Fellowship – working cooperatively to achieve a goal.
Competition – games as expression of dominance.
Discovery – the act of uncovering the new.
Expression – the need to express self in the game.
Abnegation – game as pastime – desire to play to disengage or “zone out”.

Different RPG’s, indeed different versions of the same RPGs, focus on different core Aesthetics.

OD&D, for example, is largely focused on Challenge, Fellowship and Discovery.  Fantasy enters into it to a lesser extent, as do Narrative and Expression – but really, old-school D&D as written isn't as much about those aesthetics.  For many people who have been playing D&D for a long time, there is also a sense pleasure aspect to rolling handfuls of dice or putting the first few lines on a blank sheet of graph paper.

“My” version of D&D – the one I played the most of, is 2e, and 2e, especially with the splatbooks, has a fairly different set of core aesthetics.  It’s much more about Fantasy, Narrative and Expression, piled on top of the Fellowship and Discovery aspects of earlier versions of D&D.  I feel like the Challenge aspect is somewhat reduced, too.  Not that it isn’t challenging, just the Challenge as a core aesthetic takes something of back seat other aspects.

How about you?  What is your favorite RPG and what are the aesthetics that draw you to it?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Character Creation VS Character Generation

At first blush, these two seem like they are the same thing – what we call making a character.  They really aren’t, though – and I have a strong preference for one over the other.

Let’s start by defining our terms.  Not defining your terms is a HUGE problem in conversations about role-playing.  Things like “balance”, “encounter scaling” and “resource management” mean TOTALLY different things to different people, so a conversation can go off the rails pretty fast as people talk past each other.  And I like to have conversations where everyone is mostly on the same page - at least in terms of what is being discussed.

To me, character creation involves selecting from available options for mechanical elements of the character and making up from whole cloth the non-mechanical elements.  Crunch and Fluff, if you will.  The best example of this that comes to mind is character creation in Vampire: the Masquerade.  Everything is allocation and trade-off for the parts of the character that have game mechanics.  You are not reliant on randomization at any point.  You can make up a backstory and build the character towards fitting that or create a character and then build a backstory around it.  Either way works.

Character generation, on the other hand, relies wholly or largely on randomization – dice rolls – to determine mechanical and occasionally non-mechanical elements of your character.  This can include things like Background, Stats, Hit Points and other core mechanical elements.  D&D pre-4e is a mix of creation and generation.  Traveller or Hackmaster are even more generation-heavy, and many homebrew systems introduce random tables for various elements of character generation.

The standard arguments in favor of generation go something like this:
1)      If you allow players to choose everything, then certain optimal solutions will be identified and abused.  Randomization solves this problem.
2)      That’s how the game designers set it up, so that’s the way it should be done.
3)      You might get some bad rolls, but they will balance out with good ones in the long run.
4)      The interaction of random elements creates neat and interesting things.

Me, I don’t like character generation.  I believe that it is poor game design, displaying a failure of imagination and skill on the part of the game designers.  There is nothing that randomization in the “making a character” phase of an RPG can do that a well thought-out system of allocating resources cannot do better.  All randomization or “character generation” does is create arbitrary winners and losers right at the beginning of the game.

Whenever I’ve pointed this out, the immediate response has been “well surely your players are mature enough to deal with that.”  Or, “but things balance out in the end if you look at the big picture”.  This, frankly, is bullshit.  Or malarkey, as popularized recently by one Joe “Angry Gramps” Biden.

Why should my players have to be “mature” enough to deal with getting the smelly end of the randomization stick?  What concrete benefit does this provide to your table or gaming experience?  None, say I.  Wanting to make interesting decisions myself rather than being forced to accept random results is reasonable, especially in the context of modern tabletop gaming.

I feel that the best example of why generation systems are problematic is the new player, sitting down at the table excited and ready to play for the first time.  “No,” you explain, “you don’t get to make up your character, you have to roll this handful of dice and check these charts – that will tell you most of what you need to know about your character.”  

Murder-hobo.  Possibly diseased.
They roll and check the results, which indicate they will be playing a diseased murder-hobo.  “Ah, not to worry," you blithely reply, "I’m sure your next character will be better if/when this one dies - unless he isn’t.   He’ll be behind everyone else either way of course.  Good luck and enjoy your experience.”

And we fucking wonder about the decline of the tabletop RPG?  It’s like drinking a Rusty Nail.  You have to be specially conditioned to enjoy that shit.

It’s not that I don’t like random stuff.  I love the horrible vacuum of entropy that is the failure cascade in Dwarf Fortress.  I like random encounters.  I like using random tables to generate cool stuff in the game world.  But I don’t like random character generation.  All phases of the game should present interesting choices, especially the start of the game – the “gateway” by which new players enter.

That being said, creation has its own pitfalls.  It has to present interesting trade-offs.  There should not be some choices that are clearly superior to others in all cases.  It should be reasonably easy to understand the ramifications of your decisions, without extensive knowledge of the entire system.  Choices should start out manageable in scope and work up to more complex.

This is harder than listing a bunch of randomly rolled statistics and write up some background tables.  It requires quite a bit of work and thought and skill.  Done poorly, it leads to endemic min/maxing and generalized munchkinism.  Done correctly, it makes character creation and development as interesting a part of the game as all the other components, rather than a crapshoot.

Thoughts?  Do you prefer character creation or generation and why?  What systems have you played that do interesting things with either method? 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Music to Hobbit By - Galadriel

The Hobbit is coming!  Or at least the first part, and I'm getting more excited.  My daughter is still too young (she's only 3), but we've started reading the book together on the odd time that's she's interested in sitting still for a while and listening to me read.

I did teach her to stand on the porch and shout "WINTER IS COMING!" at the top of her lungs, but that's something for when she's quite a bit older... and for when I'm not in the room or even aware that she's watching it.

So in anticipation of the Hobbit, here is a Middle-Earth-themed track written and performed by Paul Galewitz, an old family friend.  Yes, I know Galadriel isn't in the Hobbit.  But this is a cool tune anyway:

  03 Galadriel by Jeremy Murphy 8

Friday, October 5, 2012

D&D Next Playtest Session 4: Against the Kobolds

When I ran Chapter 3 of Blingdenstone Enhanced, I didn’t get a chance to use my full remake and ended up using the included map instead.  That actually worked out better than I thought it would, but I still wasn’t that happy with it.

For Chapter 2, I managed to get the Enhanced Version finished before we ran it, so I got to use it.  As you may have already seen in Chapter 2 Enhanced, I combined the random-encounter format of chapter 2 as it’s presented in the standard Reclaiming Blingdenstone with a fully mapped-out kobold lair. I also added some additional kobold traps and modified the encounter table to make it more likely that the party would find crystals without having to roll dozens of encounters to find them.

After chatting with Gurmadden and Kargien a bit more, the party loaded up on supplies (a couple days worth of dried mushrooms) and headed out over the barricades into the ruined city.  They brought torches and have the cleric’s orison available for light purposes, and since they leveled up last session, the Halfling thief (Steven Seagal – he fights with a knife and can cook) has low-light vision now, so he was able to take the lead.
Of course, they neglected to mention that they were actually on the lookout for traps or ambushes and strolled blithely right into the first kobold ambush.  On the upside, the thief was way out in front and his high dex and light armor made evading the net and resulting shower of javelins pretty simple.  The rest of the party rushed up and laid the hammer down on the ambushing kobolds, who scattered immediately and only took about 3 casualties.

The kobolds didn’t get off so lightly on the next ambush, though.  Incensed that the monsters were fleeing them, the party pushed on in full alert.  Steven Segal noticed the next net trap, surreptitiously alerted the party and led them around it, then hid and came back to look for the ambushers.  The kobolds didn't really twig to the fact that the trap had been spotted but were staying hidden, so Steven was able to sneak back and start killing them. 

Then the party spotted the hiding kobolds and laid into them – essentially turning the ambush.  Only about 3 kobolds managed to get away this time.  Kobolds are quick little buggers when they are scared.
Afterwards, the party continued on to the Wormwindings (I keep forgetting it’s called the Worm WRITHINGS, so I just changed it to what I keep calling it).  My version of the chapter gave the PC’s the option of asking Miglin to search for the kobold lair directly, which is what they elected to do – after managing to identify the rockfall trap at the entrance.

I rolled a 4 on the amount of time it would take for Miglin to find the lair, which meant that they had 3 random encounters before locating it.  On reflection, I might bump that roll up to a d6 or a d8.  It didn’t seem like it was long enough.  The 3 encounters they had were:  precious metal vein (silver), precious metal vein (gold), crystals…  but they elected not to do any mining on any of them for fear of alerting the kobolds.

When they finally found the lair, they managed to sneak pretty close to the entrance, then launched an assault.  The initial defenders broke pretty quickly since both fighters and the thief were in hand-to-hand range and the cleric and wizard both laid into them with ranged spells.  The 2-h weapon fighter then pursued the fleeing kobolds deeper into the lair, where he was met by a shower of javelins in the secondary ambush, dropping him from 29 HP to 9 HP in one round.

A quick retreat, cure light wounds, then a charge led by the heavily-armored dwarf and a missile barrage from the thief and the spell-casters broke the secondary ambush and sent the kobolds scattering into a network of low tunnels.  The thief pursued them and they had a bad time.

The rest of the party followed the main tunnel and came up on the kobold barricade.  They quickly formulated a plan and opened up with a missile/spell barrage on the barricade defenders.  One of the spells was Radiant Lance, which hit and killed a kobold defender.  I’d been describing the radiant lance kills as bursting the kobolds into flame, so when that happened, I rolled to see what the burning lil bugger would do, and what he did was fall over onto the barricade and prematurely light off the pitch that they had soaked it in…

That, combined with a sleep spell that had caused half the others to drop asleep, cause big problems for the kobolds, and the few survivors fled again, leaving a merrily burning barricade.  The party waited for the barricade to burn down, then crossed and was faced by a fork in the road.  On way let to a kobold dining room, the other to a tunnel for which came a horrible, horrible stench…

They chose the horrible stench.  I’m not sure why players do that – but if you tell them they smell something horrible, they will go and find out what it is, by god.  I think it’s the same reflex that makes us look inside the Kleenex after we blow our nose.

Anyway, the source of the horrible stench was the kobold’s trash-heap, and it’s attendant Otyugh, who was not happy about them attempting to steal his delicious trash.  One short and unpleasant (for the Otyugh) fight later, and the party was able to retrieve a corpse with a masterwork short sword from the pile of garbage.
Turning back, they encountered the kobold scouts who were searching for them.  In a simultaneous ambush, kobolds come off poorly against armored dwarf fighters, and the surviving kobolds fled again.

Things We Learned:
Killing kobolds doesn’t get old.

When pretty much everyone has +3 dmj adjustments, kobolds are pretty much all minions.

Concentrated fire can be very dangerous.  If anyone but the high-hp fighter had run into the kobold crossfire, they would likely be dead.

The thief is AWESOME.  I’ve read some places that the thief is seen as somehow problematic.  If that’s the case, you’re playing the thief wrong.  He has good ranged and close attacks, his skills make him essential for trapped or dangerous areas and his sneak attack makes him brutal if he gets the drop on you.  Last session I really saw the flexibility of the expertise dice for the fighter – this session I saw the versatility of the thief.

Short-range AOE stuff from the wizard can clear out low-hp enemies, but it’s really dangerous.  There is none of the ranged AOE stuff from 4th on display here yet, so the risk/reward is really high, which is kinda good, I think.

I dig this game.  As does the rest of my gaming group.  Hopefully we’ll see more playtest stuff soon, because I’m already planning out a long-term campaign.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Blingdenstone Enhanced: Chapter 2

Ah... Chapter 2.

I like a lot (but not alot) of things about this chapter.  I like that it presents a tunnel complex as a series of connected events without a specific map.  I like that it uses random encounters to build the structure, essentially making it play differently for each group.  I like that there are both positive and negative random encounters on the list.  These are good things.

But I also hate some things about it.  There are 2 kinds of kobold traps and some weak-ass ambushes.  The frequency of the crystals is also a bit of a bother.  The average number of crystals you'll find is 2 (1-3).  You have a 1 in 5 chance of finding crystals for each hour that you spend in the Wormwindings, and you need 6 crystals.  That means that you will likely have to roll at least 15 times on the random encounter tables to find said 6 crystals.

Since the encounter table only has about 6 entries on it, statistically you're going to see them a number of times, which is not ideal.  Makes the whole thing pretty repetitious, in fact.  Of course, I haven't actually played it yet, but I'm not really willing to run risks on that, so I modified the table to give a higher chance of finding crystals.  That way if the party wants to wander around looking for mineral/gem deposits, they can, but they are likely to find the crystals pretty fast.

I also don't really like the idea that the kobolds are going to be blocked off by collapsing the one passage.  These are KOBOLDS.  They get in places.  That's what they do.  So blocking the tunnel will provide a temporary relief from kobold incursions now, but not a permanent cessation.  Of course, blocking the tunnel does have the benefit of heading off some of the random events that I added in Blindenstone Enhanced, so it's a trade-off.

In this version, the only way to really get rid of the kobolds is either a) kill a bunch of em, a la the orcs, or b) track down the lair and kill a bunch of em.  Kobold tunnel rat work is not for sissies.

So this chapter of Blingdenstone Enhanced features a full kobold lair, along with a 5e conversion of the Otyugh.  Enjoy!

Chapter 2 Enhanced.

Since killing the little buggers is a standard method for control, here is a cheat sheet.

Kobold Cheat Sheet

If you are using a VTT, here is the warren map file.  Pretty sure I got it off Campaign Cartographer, but I went on a helluva downloading spree a while ago and didn't attribute everything.

Kobold Warren.