Wednesday, 18 March 2015

DMing tips

Backup Plans
Always have a back-up plan in case the player you were expecting to hinge a session on doesn't turn up, or the party choose to do something completely different than expected. It can be something simple such as a prepped wandering monster group - anything that will be fun to play and give you time to come up with more stuff. How much alternate prep is needed depends on your improv skills & tools (encounter tables etc), and how much prep the system requires. You never want to be in a situation where you tell the group "If you do that/don't do that I haven't got anything prepped, so no game today."

3e/4e Initiative Tracker
I hand round a lined piece of paper with the init numbers up the left hand side. If the possible range is 1-25, then 1 at the bottom, 25 at the top. The page has a central column, players each write their PC name there by the number of their init count. Ties go to left or right. GM writes his monster inits in last.

Status conditions etc can also be written on the init tracker.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Magical Arcana

It's a common complaint that RPG magic doesn't feel 'magical'. Perhaps surprisingly I found that the way 4e D&D uses the Arcana skill for detection and manipulation of magic goes a long way towards making it feel more mysterious & magical. Instead of cast spell-auto effect, in 4e most magic use outside of combat involves making an Arcana check vs a DC, as the PC pits their own magical powers against the opposing force, trying to eg breach a ward, close a portal, detect & identify the source, etc. This feels a *lot* more like literary/comic-book/cinematic magic than the traditional D&D fire-and-forget system. Of course in combat it's the opposite - big flashy reliable effects.

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I'm aiming to treat magic similarly in the 5e swords & sorcery chatroom game I'm starting up soon.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Campaign Length & System

My 4e Loudwater campaign is an epic with dozens of adventures, started in 2011 and we just played the 81st session - - the 4e PCs are 22nd level but the actual campaign scope feels more like ca 12th level in AD&D. However many of my campaigns recently have been more like 20 sessions, with a limited scope. My Pathfinder Curse of the Crimson Throne campaign will only be 5 full adventures (having skipped the Book 4 railroad) over something like 35 sessions - and it could stand to have been shorter, Paizo stick in a lot of padding to get the level-ups they want. These 20-35 session campaigns typically run around 18 months, with a defined scope.

I think D&D design needs to accommodate both sorts of campaign. I'm in the early stages of planning for my first 5e campaign, and it looks as if the system's XP track, bounded accuracy and lack of magic item reliance should be well suited to lowish-magic exploratory sandboxing (thinking about using it for Caverns of Thracia), or possibly for some of the lower-powered Paizo APs (thinking about using it for converted Skull & Shackles, a piratical AP whose naval theme makes little sense in Pathfinder rules where magic does everything).

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Monday, 9 March 2015

Weapon & Armour Values - relative vs absolute


D&D armour and weapon rules as written bear very little relation to reality - for one thing, a shortsword does as much damage as a longsword when you're getting stabbed. And bronze is not significantly inferior to pre-modern steel, it's just a lot more expensive. I tend to translate D&D armours automatically to fit the setting, eg in my Arcadian 'Ghinorian Hills' campaign the 'plate' armour would be hoplite style armour. I would however leave out weapons that did not fit the setting, eg two-handed swords in ancient Greece, and the 5e longsword seems more like an historical longsword, what earlier D&D called a bastard sword.

Looking at the 5e tables, for a Hellenistic setting I would keep the 1500gp 'plate' as full bronze harness, the excessive cost actually makes more sense here than it would in a high-medieval setting. But I would cut down the weapon table a lot. I think it might be best just to leave out the anachronistic weapons and have PCs with spears and shortswords, but I'd be tempted to raise those king-of-the-battlefield weapons to d8 damage, more to pre-empt player complaints. I might change the names to 'battle spear' and 'sword', say - the standard spear's 60' throw range indicates it's a pretty light weapon compared to the kind of thing a Greek hero would have used. The two-handed 'pike' does 1d10, and would make a good sarissa.

Making a Sandbox

My thoughts:

The introduction: How railroady is too railroady?

a. Starter dungeon - In classic Moldvay/Mentzer D&D the expectation was that the PCs would start at the 
entrance to the starter dungeon, but with a motivation for exploring it. But once they got 
back to town the sandbox would open up.
b. Rumours. Those rumour tables in Judges Guild stuff and old TSR modules were there 
for a reason. Sandbox PCs should never be lacking in rumours of things to investigate. 
This also explains why old school PCs hang out at inns - that's where the rumours are. Be sure to always have at least 2-3 rumours ready for the PCs to investigate, if they choose. Most rumours 
should relate to interesting adventure sites. Some can be time-critical 'missions' but those 
are un-sandboxy; the PCs will always feel they need to rescue that princess before she gets
sacrificed to Orcus. 
c. Overarching mission - sandbox PCs don't have to be footloose wanderers; you can have the PCs start as members of an organisation such as the Texas Rangers or Starfleet, exploring/patrolling/peacekeeping. Arthurian questing knights are ok. But they need a lot of freedom of action in where to go and what to do.

Player vs monster level: This is much less of a problem in 5E than in 4E, but how do you plan appropriately balanced encounters in a sandbox when you don't know when or how players will tackle them? 

"Environment" Design - you create a range of environments suited to a range of PC levels. 
Traditionally this is a megadungeon with stacked threat levels, the deeper you go the 
bigger the challenge and reward. This lets players choose their preferred threat level. 
It can also be done in wilderness sandboxing, with different terrains & areas having 
different threat levels. It should be widely known that the Mountains of Doom are more 
dangerous than the Foothills of Mild Adversity. Again this lets the players choose their own threat level. The Ars Ludi West Marches posts discuss this well. Typically more dangerous areas are further away from starter town, but you can have the Barrow Mounds right on the edge of the Shire, too.

The conclusion: When is a sandbox adventure over? My players are a big fan of free agency, but they are equally big fans of story, including the climax, the denouement, and the eventual

a. Traditionally the sandbox dungeon has the dragon or mad wizard or lich in a chamber at 
the very bottom, defeat the ultimate foe to 'win' the dungeon. Full sandbox campaigns do 
not have endings, they are more like episodic TV serials or picaresques than movies. 
But many stories should emerge in the course of play, and these will have beginnings and 
b. Have lots of dynamic NPCs in your sandbox with their own motivations. Have them plot 
and act independently of the PCs. Some of them will be antagonists. From this antagonism 
great stories will naturally emerge - bottom-up, not top-down. The 2e Villains book is
very good for creating interesting antagonists -

Player paralysis: With no big sign saying "go here, do this" my players are apt to scratch their heads and say, "I dunnow." 

Rumours again - but not too many! Unless the players are actively seeking more rumours, 
three is plenty. That gives choices without overwhelming them. However if they 
absolutely refuse to decide what to do then you may need to have the old man offer 
them gold to do X. This should work unless they're actively Turtling, in which case sandbox
won't work.

Setting material: In no event has a player ever read any material I have ever written for an adventure. So is it a waste of my time? 

You want enough material prepared in advance for the first 2-3 sessions of play. 
You typically want a wilderness map, a starter town, some NPCs, and several adventure 
locales on that map - detailed starter locales and probably some undetailed higher level ones 
to explore later. A good approach is to put several short published site-based adventures on a 
wilderness map of your own creation, with the 1st level ones nearest to the starter town, higher 
level further out. This starter map can be 2-6 miles per hex, at higher level you can switch to a larger scale or add adjacent area maps with more challenging stuff.
For a megadungeon you might sketch the general structure, and a map of 25-30 
rooms on the first 1 or 2 levels for your first session. I realise now that megadungeons should NOT be fully detailed ahead of play!
You need enough prepped that players can make choices in play - unless you do West Marches 
where the players have to make their choices what to do ahead of the session & the GM preps in 
response to that.
But don't create everything up front, create in response to player activity & interest. 
You need eg some gods for Clerics, so eg choose a pantheon or three, but you don't need 
a detailed calendar or historical timeline unless you want it. In fact too much detail can
stifle creativity in play; lightly-sketched histories tend to work best.

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