Archive for September, 2010

Neo-Gygaxian Dungeon Building…I love it!

This weekend I finished an adventure I was designing for my upcoming Dark Sun campaign.  Aside from my usual difficulties with generating compelling adventure hooks, I struggled with dungeon design and encounter building.  Last night, after a full 12 hour day of writing, re-writing and a 6-pack of beer, I completed the basics.  This is not the first time I’ve struggled with 4E encounter building.  As such, I decided that I was going to discuss my problems with the 4E encounter building process.  To my surprise, The Chatty DM has already discussed this and quoted Robert Schwalb’s blog in the process.  Truly the stars must be in alignment today.  Perhaps The Chatty DM and Mr. Schwalb have stumbled upon a higher order concerning the aesthetics of DMing?  I think so.

So, what is the problem? As others have pointed out, it is the carbon copy template of encounter building that is the problem.  The template looks something like this: You have an 8 x 8 room with a warband that is going to fight another warband, the PCs.  This suggests (in fact encourages) a “fight-loot-fight-rest” structure to an adventure.  The PCs enter the dungeon and move from one room to the next, killing, expending resources, resting and then move on to the next room.  I describe this as the World of Warcraft design.  Now, to be fair this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  For the new player who is familiar with World of Warcraft, it is an easy transition to D&D.  And, subsequently, Wizards of the Coast’s income stream increases so we old-timers can continue playing with new content.

But the problem with the World of Warcraft designing philosophy is that it is so damned hard to write an adventure the way I used to write adventures back in the day.  Role-playing gets downplayed, or as Mr. Schwalb as suggested “occurs between encounters”.  Compounding this issue is that I am forced to make many alterations to the creatures I am using to make sure that all of the creatures in the encounter fit my adventure theme.  Otherwise, if I pick any creature to fill out the missing “warband role”, the encounter seems like a hodgepodge of creatures generated by a random die roll.  That’s no fun for the role-player because it makes no sense.

I have always designed my adventures and dungeons using the Gary Gygax dungeon ecology model.  This model focuses on the ecology of the dungeon and how the different creature factions within the dungeon balance the power between themselves.  This opens the door to a whole host of role-playing options within the dungeon for the players to choose.  This approach facilitates story generation and advancement of the campaign.  The Chatty DM does a wonderful job using the pre-existing 4E rules structure to compliment the ecological approach that The Chatty DM is calling “Neo-Gygaxian.”  (I love this label, by the way.)

The Neo-Gygaxian model, to sum it up, is basically dividing the dungeon into a number of sections with a number of rooms.  You then pool the experience points for each room/encounter in a section and divide that total in any way you wish.  If the section of the dungeon is part of a quest, leave some of the pool left over for quest rewards.  You then do it again for the next section.  You should read these blogs yourself.  They are fantastic guides to dungeon creation.

So…after hours and hours of trying to make a dungeon/adventure for my future gaming group, I ended up doing something very similar described by Mr. Schwalb and The Chatty DM.  I am happy with the outcome.  I can’t reveal any specifics because my players read this blog, but future adventures and dungeons should be easier (and quicker) to build with this Neo-Gygaxian model.

Alignment: The Moral Order, The Dungeon Master and the Unaligned Character

Last week I started bloviating on alignment and its importance.  Admittedly, the original post was a little off the beaten path.  But in my defense, I wanted to start there to put into context my perspective when approaching alignment in role-playing games.  In this second post I want to address the issue of precisely “to what” a character is aligning themselves.  I said in the last post, when a character acts it is affirming a set of beliefs but they are also properly positioning themselves in alignment with a higher moral order.  What is that moral order?  What is the object to which the characters align themselves?  Is it a set of principles that an individual character accepts? Or, is this moral order in existence outside the realm of the character’s own mind? 

The “object” to which a character aligns, could be the actions of other characters.  This is certainly an easy way to distinguish a character of good alignment and a character of evil alignment.  But if the moral order is defined in this way, it is merely saying what your character is not.  This provides no guidance to defining the actions of the character and provides no real or meaningful distinctions between characters.

Furthermore, if the moral order is defined by the character’s perspective and it’s relation to the actions and motives of other characters, the moral order becomes relative and there is no order.  A character can claim that what he is doing is really the lawful good action because he likes acting that way.  If everyone becomes lawful good, then there is no lawful good.  Every character has adopted a set of “principles” because these characters think that these principles are the right ones to choose.  Just because these characters “think” or “believe” it is the right choice, doesn’t make it so.  How many have made the mistake of believing the chaotic evil character happily telling you that he’s the lawful good one (as he slides the knife into your back)?  Defining the moral order this way provides no guidance and undermines the alignment system completely.  No, the “object” to which the character aligns is a singular moral order that binds every other character.  And it is the character’s choice to properly position themselves to this order that determines their over-all alignment.

Think of it as a continuum where Lawful Good is at the top and Chaotic Evil is at the bottom.  A lawful good character is fully committed to the moral order and as the characters slide down the continuum, they are less aligned to the moral order than the lawful good character.  And it follows that the chaotic evil character is the least aligned to the moral order.  From a character’s perspective the lack of alignment may be justifiable.  In fact, justifying why the character is not aligned with the order can generate motivations and backgrounds that create very compelling characters and stories.  However, perspective is still important

Perspective is still important on a meta-game level.  It is the Dungeon Master’s responsibility to enforce this moral order.  Otherwise, the alignment system will devolve to a relativistic system where the player characters can define what is moral.  If this happens, alignment means nothing.  I don’t know about you, but I have had serious conversations with former paladin players who think that slaughtering goblin children is ok because goblins are evil.  Perhaps you, as the Dungeon Master, think that is ok.  Then that is how you, the Dungeon Master, define Lawful Good.   As I will explain in a later post on the Lawful Good alignment, I do not believe so.  (And yes, I threatened to take away his powers if he did what he said he was going to do.)

So what does this mean?  The moral order (in game) is a strict system that defines a character’s actions based the character’s conscious choice to properly position themselves with the moral order.  On a meta-game level, the moral order resides in the Dungeon Master and must be defined and enforced.  I would caution the Dungeon Master from being too free and loose in defining the alignments, but the alignment system is meaningless if it is not enforced with consistency.  But, as always, it depends on what you are doing at the gaming table every night.

Of course, my philosophical outline will be leaving you gamers with an obvious question: “So…what about the ‘unaligned’ character?”   My answer is simple.  The “unaligned” character is not “unaligned” in the sense that they do not have a commitment.  They are unaligned in the sense that they are not in alignment to the higher moral order.

By being the one who “chooses not to choose,” the character is taking a position on law and on good.   This character has chosen not to be aligned to a set of moral beliefs.  To be clear, this character isn’t necessarily “neutral”.  The description of this character is one that will do what it thinks is right or do that which benefits their own interests.  Isn’t this what a lawful good or a chaotic evil character already does when they act?  Going back to the discussion on perspective, all characters already function this way.  What determines their alignment is whether or not they have chosen to align themselves to the higher moral order.  Clearly, the unaligned character has chosen something.

In effect, the unaligned character is trying to be described as one that is “beyond good and evil.”  (Who knew Friedrich Nietzsche would influence the game-designers at Wizards of the Coast?)  Is this character truly the over-man come down from the mountaintop to enlighten the misguided moralists in the <insert church of a deity here>?  No.  The unaligned alignment captures a variety of non-committal and selfish alignments.  The unaligned character could be as random as a chaotic neutral character or as dogmatic as a lawful neutral character.  It could be as conflicted as a neutral good character or as selfish as neutral evil character. They are not “unaligned” they are just in the middle of the continuum.

To be fair, the unaligned character is useful as a game-design choice to provide “an out” for those who aren’t interested in role-playing as much as they are interested in just playing the game.  This is fine.  I am not denigrating such an attitude.  But, if you prefer to role-play, using the original alignment system designed by Gary Gygax may be preferable.  It is more complete and explains, rather nicely, the moral order.  In my future posts, I am going to explore this moral order and the character types that have consciously chosen to properly position themselves with this moral order.

4E Psionic Power Sourcebook: So…where are the psionic powers?

So…what happened to psionics in Dungeons and Dragons? Seriously.  Because I will be running a Dark Sun campaign in a few weeks, I purchased the Psionics Power Sourcebook.  Some of the options provided are nifty, but what I am disappointed with is that there are no non-combat abilities for the would-be wielder of psionic powers.  I suspected something was amiss when the Psion was given the Ritual Caster feat as a class ability in the Player’s Handbook Three.  Why is a psion learning to cast rituals? Shouldn’t there be an equivalent for the psionic player?  “Perhaps,” thought I, “the Psionic Power Sourcebook will provide more to the player in a similar manner as prior incarnations of D&D?”


That is my biggest problem with the Psionic Power Sourcebook.  It provides a few more options to players with respect to combat and class builds, but it provides nothing by way of rounding out what is arguably the most unusual character class option available to players.  The Psionic Power Sourcebook proves, yet again, that the game-designers of 4E were more concerned with combat options than with role-playing options.  It is unfortunate.   In addition, the psionic power point system seems incomplete or rushed.  It is a great start, but why stop at only replacing encounter powers? Why not give the psionic players more points and more options to augment there at will powers? Why have augmentable at-wills and then have daily powers? I feel like this system was not thought all the way through.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea. I think it is a good start.  I think psionics should have a different feel than magic.  It adds a nice element to the role-playing experience, but this system feels incomplete.

Fortunately for me, I have a player who enjoys discussing rules and rule modifications. Fortunately for me, as I am in between jobs at the moment, I have a lot of free time to come up with my own set of Psionic Rituals that I am calling “Psionic Manifestations”.  I will be presenting these when the rules are completed and play-tested.  The basic idea behind these manifestations is that a successful psionic manifestation will give the psionic player an additional bonus to a skill.   For example, a first level fighter trained in Athletics, with a strength of 18, will have a +9 to a jump skill check.  So, to make a 20 foot jump (DC 20) they would need to roll 11+ on a d20.  That is a 50% chance of success.  Contrast with a 1st level psion who needs to make the same 20 foot jump.  If they are not trained in Athletics and they do not have a strength bonus, they will have to roll a 20 to succeed.  That is a 5% chance of success.  But, if they use their Psionic Manifestation that I call “Mind over Matter” they can add their intelligence bonus to the roll in addition to any other bonuses to the roll.  Therefore, if our psion has an intelligence score of 18, they can now succeed at the roll with a 16+.  This effectively adds 2o% chance of success.  While not as good as the trained warrior, the psion has just proven that the mind is truly a powerful tool.  I will give more detail as I play-test the psionic manifestation system.

Alignment: What is Alignment and Why it is Important, Part One

Hail to the King, Baby.

This may be the first post in a series of discussions on the topic of alignment in the Dungeon and Dragons game.  Indeed, if my musings are successful, it may have application in other games.  As the title suggests this will be a philosophical examination of “alignment” and its role in gaming.  Those who have been in my gaming groups know that I take alignment fairly seriously, albeit, in an indirect way.  Considering my serious approach to alignment, I thought it would be a good idea to place these thoughts on the internet for all to examine, think about and comment upon.

So, what is alignment?  Within the Dungeon and Dragon’s context, the 1st edition Advanced Dungeon and Dragon’s Player’s Handbook (hereinafter “First Handbook”), doesn’t provide much guidance as to what it is.  Gary Gygax writes that “after generating the abilities of your character. . .it is necessary to determine the alignment of the character.” (emphasis added).  After a brief description of the classic nine alignments, under a sub-heading, “Changing Alignment” in the First Handbook, Mr. Gygax explains that, while involuntary change is possible (presumably through magical means), “it is very difficult for a character to voluntarily switch from one to another.”  In fact, he suggests that changing alignment is near impossible and would require an in-game story line that takes the form of a quest to make the change.  So, it is clear from Mr. Gygax’s perspective that alignment is important, but we don’t know what it is on its face.  We can only infer from the nine classic alignments that it has something to do with a character’s moral worldview.

Fast forward thirty years and the 4E Player’s Handbook spends some considerable time discussing alignment compared to what the First Handbook provided players.  Indeed, the 4E Handbook has provided a definition of alignment, namely, it is a character’s dedication to a set of moral principles.  However, it doesn’t seem to be giving alignment the same emphasis as Mr. Gygax.  For, 4E prefaces its discussion of alignment with a conditional statement: “If you choose an alignment, you’re indicating your character’s dedication to a set of moral principles.”  It logically follows from this conditional statement, that “alignment” is not necessary for the development of a character, i.e. a set of moral principles.  I find this incredibly odd, but perfectly foreseeable by a cursory glance at the historical evolution (devolution?) of the alignment system.

In 2ed Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the standard nine-alignments were presented, but altering one’s alignment was significantly easier.  It was merely a matter of acting a different way for a period of time and suffering an experience point loss.  Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 made it even easier as a player could simply choose to be a different alignment without any penalty.  This suggests that the subsequent authors of the game do not think alignment is an important corner stone to a character’s development or personality.  This attitude, of course, is fully realized in the 4th Edition of the game.

To be fair, a cursory look at the Dungeons and Dragons game as a whole will show that the 4E incarnation has sacrificed realism for a more streamlined and efficient game.  Perhaps, from the game-designers view, imposing such an obligation upon a player to pick an alignment was seen as too distracting from the goals of the game.  I mean, after all, this is a game about killing monsters and getting “mad loot”, right?

Well, it could be.  If that is what you and your players are interested in doing, then alignment isn’t all that necessary.  However, if story-telling is part of the fun of Dungeons and Dragons, or any role-playing game for that matter, then alignment should be a necessary component to character generation, a component that ought to be taken seriously.  So what is alignment?

The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines alignment thusly:

“(1) the act of aligning or state of being aligned; especially: the proper positioning or state of adjustment of parts (as of a mechanical or electronic device) in relation to each other . . . (4) an arrangement of groups or forces in relation to one another.”

Wikipedia defines alignment as

 “the adjustment of an object in relation with other objects, or a static orientation of some object or set of objects in relations to others.”

Alignment, generally speaking, is the ordering of objects based upon a relation of some kind.  The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary qualifies the ordering as the “proper positioning” of the object in relation to other objects.  If an object is not properly positioned, then it is not in alignment. 

When alignment is placed in the moral and ethical realm, an alignment requires the exercise of volition.  This exercise of volition is important, as it requires the character to discern the order to which they are aligning themselves.  Choice is necessary for morality and ethics.  Without choice, there cannot be any responsibility and morality is a set of beliefs concerning responsibility and how one self-legislates.  Ergo, a character’s alignment is the conscious arrangement of a character’s actions (object) into a proper positioning with a higher moral order. 

When a character acts, as the definition suggests, they are affirming their worldview by aligning the action in conformity with a set of moral principles.  Therefore, when on a Chaotic Evil character acts, he is affirming his commitment to “entropy” and “self-serving desires” and his ultimate rejection of any strict moral hierarchy, the makings of a very compelling villain.  Conversely, a lawful good player will act, always, to promote the law and the good (generally speaking).  Certainly, humans are fallible (and I suspect so are dwarves and elves), and mistakes will be made.  These mistakes can make for a compelling story.  The classic example is the tragedy of a paladin’s voluntary/involuntary misalignment to the Law and the Good.  It is a tragic tale, and the paladin’s subsequent redemption is an inspirational story.  Without alignment, these compelling characters cannot be made and their compelling stories cannot be told. 

But the definition of alignment is a relational one.  I will explore this aspect in a future post.

More on Alternative Campaigns

In my last post I mentioned “Alternative Campaigns” without clearly defining what I refer to as an alternative campaign.  Basically, it is one where the Dungeon Master purposefully limits the standard options available to players during character generation.  This is done, not to make things tough on the players, but to facilitate the creation of a unique gaming world created by the Dungeon Master.  These campaigns do not involve your standard adventuring party and they require players willing to constrain themselves in some ways, and challenge themselves in other ways.  Of course, making an attempt at playing in an alternative campaign will require you to say “no” to some of your players.  But first, let’s explore some ideas to fully flesh out what I mean.

I had spoken of “an all rogue campaign” that my friend has been trying to get off the ground for some time.  It has great potential to challenge his players, as they would have to overcome encounters using only the tools available to rogues.  An all rogue campaign in 4E would not have a defender to soak up damage, the absence of a controller could prove problematic and certainly, the lack of a leader character would make combat very deadly.  But, think of the new combat strategies players would have to conceive to succeed!

Of course there are other ways of limiting players in their character choices. Perhaps the story you are interested in telling takes place deep within a primordial forest where the human nations have yet to explore or invade?  Disallowing humans would make sense, especially if they are going to be used as enemies in encounters.  In fact, limiting players to only Eladrin, Elves, Gnomes, Halflings, Wilden and Shifters would not be outside the realm of the rational.

Alternative campaigns not only add new challenges to the players, but they add a unique flavor and a variety to the numerous campaigns your gaming group will be playing.  In one of my earlier campaigns, (a 2nd Edition game) one of the main themes was faith and religion.  Many of the players willingly continued to make characters that would be defined in 4E terms as “Divine Power” classes.  The stories told during that campaign had a particular flavor that a standard retinue of characters could not duplicate.  And, if I you will permit me to indulge myself, it is a campaign that is still talked about when we old timers get together for a few mugs of honey-mead and swap lies with each other.

But, there are so many options available to players and, if they are like my gaming group, they can only play a few hours a week.  Limiting a gaming group like this could aggravate the players, especially if their Dungeon Master is constantly coming up with unique worlds and stories to tell, with very few standard campaign story lines.  On the other hand, younger players aren’t going to care about the nuances of your unique game world and will be focused on exploring their creative potential (and “get mad loot”).  Indeed, a standard dungeon crawl or game module can incorporate any kind of character which is perfect for these players.  If a player wants to play a spell-scarred minotaur psion, there are rules available to make this desire a reality.  If you are attempting an alternative campaign and wish to limit your players, make sure you know their sensibilities. 

Chapter 10 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide One, as I have stated earlier, is so important, it should be memorized by Dungeon Masters.  Specifically, the use of “House Rules” can be used to justify the limitations a DM may impose on players during character generation.  Put it simply, the House Rule does not need to be narrowed or limited to “fixing gaps” in 4E mechanics.  However, all House Rules must be supported by a clear rationale as to why they are being used in this way.  In other words, the Dungeon Master must ask the question: why am I imposing such a limitation on the players?  If such a limitation can be supported by a creative explanation that goes toward the world you are creating and the story you are trying to tell, then the players are more apt to accept it. In fact, they may embrace it.  If you are excluding the psionic power source just because you don’t like psionics, then it will simply feel arbitrary and players will lose faith in the Dungeon Master’s ability to be judicious.

Judiciousness is what every DM must strive for when making gaming decisions.  If you can prove your judiciousness, the players will be apt to trust you when the time comes to tell them “no”.

Alternative Skill Training for the Alternative Campaign

A friend of mine (who has a penchant for rogue-ish campaigns) lamented that the 4E rogue skill list doesn’t allow you to make rogue characters that have specialties within the “career” of a rogue.  The main problem, as he saw it, is that when a rogue trains in Thievery, he has a +5 bonus to every subset of skills that fall under the “thievery” category.  Ergo, in a thief campaign, everyone can do everything.  I can’t help but agree.

However, before I inadvertantly indict 4E (yet again) for an issue with mechanics, I think it wise to reflect on why skills operate the way they operate in 4E.  Skills are purposefully broad so as to allow a player great latitude in determining their character’s next course of action in a given situation.  Its simplicity actually facilitates role-playing and allows the players to participate in the story-telling.  The writers at have been doing some great work with exploring the concept of the skill challenge and other ways of looking at a character’s skill set.

With that said, if an enterprising DM desires to write a campaign with a specific campaign theme, such as a “Thief’s Campaign”, these generalized skill categories aren’t going to help engender the atmosphere and flavor of such a theme.  Considering that I have an idea to run a Forgotten Realms Harper’s Campaign (limiting PCs to Bards, Rogues and Rangers) sometime in the future, I thought it would be a good idea to come up with an alternative system. 

What I did first was to break down each of the 4E skills into their sub-skills.  If a 4E character class had the option to train in the category of skill, they could elect to train in the sub-skill. For example, Thievery encompasses Disable Trap, Open Lock, Pick Pocket, and Sleight of Hand.  Therefore, a rogue character can opt to train in any of those sub-skills. He could not opt to train in any of the sub-skills that are encompassed by the Arcana skill (Detect magic, Monster Knowledge, Arcane Knowledge).  Some of these skill categories do not have clearly defined sub-skills. These skills, such as diplomacy and intimidate, I have left as is. These categories are indeed broad and cannot be narrowed down to a manageable number of sub-skills.

Next, I totaled the number of skill bonuses available to a character class when they train in a standard campaign.  This is, essentially, five times the number of skills available for training. Therefore, a rogue has an initial 30 points worth of bonuses, i.e. the rogue trains in a total of 6 skill-categories.  The player then adds the modifier of the character class’ primary attribute.  So, a 1st level rogue with a dexterity score of 18 would have a total of 34 points.

The player then selects the number of skill-categories to train in according to the character class description.  For a rogue, that means they must train in Stealth and Thievery, plus any four.  After that, the player then distributes the bonus points to any of sub-skills located in the skill-categories selected to a maximum bonus of five.  After doing this, the player then adds all attribute modifiers associated with the sub-skill’s category, along with any racial or feat bonuses.

For example, if I wanted to make a halfling rogue that is a smart-alecky and nimble pick-pocket, I would pick the following skills to train: Stealth, Thievery, Acrobatics, Bluff, Streetwise and Perception.  A 1st level halfling rogue with the following attributes could have a skill spread such as this:

Attributes (using the standard array found in the player’s handbook): Str: 10 (+0)          Dex: 18 (+4)        Con: 13 (+1)        Int: 11 (+0)          Wis: 12 (+1)        Cha: 16 (+3)

Acrobatics: (Dexterity)  

Acrobatic stunt: +1 (skill bonus)+4(Dex bonus)+2(halfling bonus)  = +7  (total); Balance: +1 (skill bonus)+4(Dex bonus)+2(halfling bonus)  = +7  (total); Escape Grab: +2(skill bonus)+4(Dex bonus)+2(halfling bonus)  =+8 (total); Escape Restraints: +2(skill bonus)+4(Dex bonus)+2(halfling bonus)  = +8(total); Reduce falling: +1(skill bonus)+4(Dex bonus)+2(halfling bonus) =+7 (total).

Bluff (Charisma)

Con-artist: +3 (Skill bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus)  = +6 (total); Disguise: +0 (Skill bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus)  = +3(total); Forgery: +0(Skill bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus) =+3 (total); Gamble: +1 (Skill bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus)  = +4(total); Gain combat advantage:  +1(Skill bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus)  = +4(total); Create a diversion: +3(Skill bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus) = +6(total).

Perception: (Wisdom)

Listen: +2 (skill bonus) +1 (Wisdom bonus) = +3 (total); Spot/search: +2  (skill bonus) +1 (Wisdom bonus) = +3(total); Tracking: +0 (skill bonus) +1 (Wisdom bonus) =+1(total)

Stealth: (Dexterity)

Move Silently/Hide in Shadows: +5 (Skill Bonus) +4 (Dex bonus) =+9 (total)

Streetwise: (Charisma)

Word on the street:   +3 (Skill Bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus) = +6 (total)

Thievery: (Dexterity)

Disable Trap: +0 (Skill bonus) +4(Dex bonus) +2 (halfling bonus) = +6 (total); Open Locks: +0(Skill bonus) +4(Dex bonus) +2 (halfling bonus) = +6(total); Sleight of Hand: +3 (Skill bonus) +4(Dex bonus) +2 (halfling bonus) = +9(total); Pick Pocket: +4 (Skill bonus) +4(Dex bonus) +2 (halfling bonus) = +10(total).

 As you can see my halfling rogue’s focus is on escaping grabs, picking pockets, and being a con-artist.  He will not be the locksmith of the group. 

The pros of this alternative approach are (1) it will allow players playing in a campaign that narrows their choices in character generation to differentiate themselves from the other characters with the same character class and (2) the skill point spread isn’t that far removed from what a standard array would look like. Therefore, this alternative skill selection will not make skill checks that much more difficult to hit the DCs the Dungeon Master will present during in-game challenges.

However, the negatives are (1) there will be things a character trained in a skill-category can’t do well, such as disable traps in the example above; (2) the players may be constrained in using their skills in more creative ways as they have compartmentalized their training in sub-skills; and (3) this will not work as well in a standard adventuring party, i.e. if there is one thief in the group and he can’t open locks, the party is going to be hamstrung when dealing with a trap-based encounter.

I hope this helps to add some flavor to your home-brew alternative campaigns.

Dungeon Master: Enter the Rules Legislator

DM’s Discretion has always been my favorite rule. It was the source of all power in the multiverse and it was taken from the Dungeon Master in the 3rd Edition, but after many battles with the rules lawyers, 4th Edition has returned control back to the Dungeon Master, albeit in a somewhat reversed, behind the scenes sort of way.  When DM’s discretion was exercised prior to 4E, it was exercised to settle in-game disputes. Now, the discretion occurs prior to the game. In effect, the Dungeon Master becomes a rules legislator.  A general survey as to how the rules of the game have changed can explain what I mean.

During the good old days of 2nd Edition the simplified rule set was focused primarily on combat. The Dungeon Master’s task was to use what was available to make determinations for player actions not covered by the rules.  How many remember this tired old phrase from their Dungeon Master:  “Hmm…ok, make a Dex check.”  This, of course, could infuriate the rules lawyers in the group who, being the good lawyers that they were (and I am serious about that) would point out the inconsistencies between the call for “dexterity checks” and advocate for a strength check or for some kind of bonus to an ordinary attack roll.  And we all remember how those discussions went: the Dungeon Master would have to assert his authority or the rules lawyer would take control of the game.

Now, that is not to say that such use of discretion was a bad thing, but clearly, gamers wanted something more concrete and less arbitrary.  They wanted a rule that they can rely upon when thinking about how to kill the ogre charging down the corridor, or unlocking the trapped chest full of goodies.  Enter Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 and 3.5. 

These games fully democratized the game and turned the Dungeon Master into just another player, or a merely a referee of a game.  The d20 system simplified the general formula for determining success and failures with the game (which was genius), and with that, there was no room for the Dungeon Master’s discretion without sounding completely arbitrary.  With the multi-class and feat system a player could design his or her character in any way that he or she saw fit.   Aside from some general campaign prohibitions, the Dungeon Master was powerless to stop the PCs from doing just about anything.  If the Dungeon Master attempted to alter a rule, a competent and well-read rules lawyer could make a very compelling argument as to why the rule should remain the same.  Any work a Dungeon Master wanted to put into an adventure or villain had to be supported by a concrete rule to justify the action. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing, but it does create a lot of work for the Dungeon Master.  I once spent 8 hours researching the Dungeon Master’s Guide, The Player’s Handbook, both Forgotten Realms books and the Book of Vile Darkness to create a red wizard of Thay that could, in the very first round of combat, cast a twin-quickened-maximized fireball (free action) followed by a maximized meteor swarm (Standard action).  Another villain I made could kill a PC instantly with a critical hit if the PC failed a fortitude saving throw vs. 38. He had a critical range of 15+ and with his chaotic evil vicious two-handed sword he could inflict 10d6 + 25 damage on a critical hit against my lawful good player characters (and there were a lot of them in the party).  Both villains were totally legit.  Unfortunately, I never saw these villains in action…but I was ready for any complaints!

Of course, the 3rd Edition of the game brought a whole host of rules. Some players, Dungeon Masters included, found this to be too unwieldy and the game became more about rules and less about story-telling, a valid criticism to be sure.

Fourth Edition of course has provided a streamlined version of the game.  (I am not exactly sure if you can say it is all THAT streamlined…)  But, the game has certainly changed: it has simplified combat (sort of) and simplified the role that skills play in the game (sort of).  This is, of course, from the player’s perspective (read: “Rules Lawyer’s perspective”), makes it easy for rule adjudication, character design and developing combat strategies.  From the Dungeon Master’s perspective, the Dungeon Master has been given chapter after chapter of rules that are really just “the rules about the rules”.  These “rules about the rules” provide the Dungeon Master with limitless possibilities to mold and shape anything and everything in the game.  From skill challenges to monsters, the Dungeon Master can do just about anything and it is entirely legit.  The Dungeon Master, when countered by a rules lawyer hell-bent on challenging something (usually anything) the Dungeon Master has in mind, can point to chapter 10 of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and explain why the goblin that just killed the PC is a 6th level ranger with fire powers.

This is what I like most about 4th Edition.  The rules provided in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are the nuts and bolts to the very game itself.  The rules provided in the DMGs are at the heart of the gaming reality to be molded by the Dungeon Master.  Dungeon Master’s Guide One and Two are truly tomes of magic and wisdom that equip the Dungeon Master with the necessary tools to legislate effectively and, as Gary Gygax once stated, “to give shape and meaning to the cosmos.”  The game designers at Wizards have produced a set of rules that places the Dungeon Master back where they belong, at the head of the gaming table.


To pick up where I had left off the other day, (and to continue venting my disappointment with Dark Sun), I am happy to point out that there are 117 pages of rules errata for the 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.  And, to be clear, the statement ‘I am happy to point out’ is utter sarcasm.  There is something terribly wrong with this product when the game designers at Wizards have to “rely on the input of others”.  What happened to thoroughly play-testing a product before releasing it?  I have no idea. 

To be clear, there are plenty of good things about 4e…I’ve just haven’t decided I am ready to stop complaining about it yet.

“Of Dice and Men” a play by Cameron McNary

Critical Hits blog writer, Vanir, posted an interesting article concerning a play called “of Dice and Men”.  The play is about two friends wherein one enlists to go to Iraq.  It is an exposition of gamers and their relationships.   The author, Cameron McNary said of his motivation:

“I wanted to write about the kinds of gamers I knew, not the cheeto-stained, overweight, mom’s-basement-living stereotype, but the highly-functional, attractive, fun-to-be-around folks I game with.” 

In any event, this author is attempting to do the impossible and portray gamers in an honest light, as opposed to the geeky light that pop culture is so quick to use.  If you have $5 to spare, help this guy out. 

Attached is a YoutTube clip of the writer, Cameron McNary, promoting his play “Of Dice and Men”. 

Is it Dark Sun? Or just 4th Edition in a desert?

Many, I’m sure, were as eager as I to purchase the 4th Edition Dark Sun Campaign Setting when it was announced over a year ago.  I was so desperate to read and dive head first into the Silt Sea and start wrestling with Silt Horrors that I pre-ordered the book.  When the great tome arrived on my doorstep the first thing I noticed was how thin the book appeared.  Sadly, I would discover that the book’s thickness reflected the effort put into the remake of one of D&D’s more legendary campaign worlds.

First, let me explain why I was so eager to read the 4th edition version of Dark Sun.  The world, in a nutshell, is different from any fantasy gaming world out there.  Sure, there are now post-apocalyptic games available, but at the time Dark Sun was first released back in 1991, D&D players had little to choose from.  Indeed, the campaign source books available were very similar in scope, history, culture, and plot.  Since its release, no other campaign world by TSR/Wizards has compared to the distinctness of Dark Sun.  What made Dark Sun so memorable?

Obviously, the research and writing that went into creating Dark Sun was stellar and the results of such work unique.  The setting focuses on ecological disaster in a world reminiscent of Sumeria or Babylonia.  The gods of this post-apocalyptic world are either dead or they have abandoned the population to the arbitrary whims of the Sorcerer-Kings.  Civilization hangs on by a thread as the people starve under the yoke of their cruel masters.  The writers, Troy Denning and Timothy Brown, went to great lengths to rewrite standard D&D races to reflect how such poverty, resource depletion and godlessness would affect their cultures. Who doesn’t remember the first time they tried to shake hands with the not-so-jolly halfling cannibals of the Forest Belt? Or tried to negotiate with an elven dune trader in Baalic? Not this guy!

But what really made the world of Athas unique and come to life was that the 2nd edition rules changed to fit the world.  The world was no longer a backdrop for a dice game, but the world affected the mechanics of the game itself, which added a level of reality to the role-playing experience.  For example, to reflect a defiler’s abuse of the land and give a player an incentive to be evil, the defiler class gained levels faster than their preserving counterparts.  Psionics were commonplace and operated with a wholly different system than magic.  As metal was scarce, weapon attack and damage penalties were added to reflect the materials the weapons were made from, thereby making combat more brutal and desperate.  Armor was so hot that a player would have to wear “piece mail” as opposed to the whole suit, which would affect the character’s armor class, thereby adding to the brutality of combat.  And finally, my favorite rule of all was that a player’s character could turn evil if the party ran out of water by failing a saving throw versus death.  Dark Sun was a beautiful amalgamation of rules and story-telling that I have not seen duplicated.  The effect of this brilliant game designing was a unique experience that forced the player’s, even those that don’t like to role-play, to role-play.  The 4th edition setting does not do this, or at least, not very well.

So what happened?  The authors Richard Baker, Robert Schwab and Rodney Thompson, provided aesthetic descriptions with few rules modifications, most of which are optional.  The net result is a watered down version of Dark Sun that does not reflect the desperation and survivalist themes incorporate in the original.  All in all, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting feels like 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons in a desert and not the burning sands of Athas.

To be fair, the campaign sourcebook provides some optional rules to make things “tough” on the players as they trek through the wilderness.  For example, they incorporated “Sun Sickness” and a -5 additional armor check penalty for sun sickness or endurance checks if a character is wearing heavy armor.  But, heavy armor is still available!?  Why!? The authors provide a flimsy reason: it is made from chitin with holes drilled into it to cool off the wearer.  WHAT!?  Furthermore, all weapons are presumed to be made from bone, obsidian or stone, so there are no penalties added to your attack and damage.   It seems as though the authors were afraid of upsetting potential players by taking away their favorite toys.  But taking away the player’s toys is exactly why 2 Edition Dark Sun was so memorable.   

Another disappointing aspect of the book is that it does not address the non-standard races that appear in Player’s Handbooks 2 and 3. The authors give each a mere 2-3 sentence paragraph and expect you, the Game Master to do all the work. The authors gave the standard classes the same short shrift as the races.  Now, I don’t mind working for my game, but I do not purchase a campaign setting so that I can do a bunch of extra work to make the campaign setting that I had just purchased. 

The problems with the 4E Dark Sun campaign setting are a reflection of the problems with 4E in general.  The game has sacrificed realism for ease of game play.  There are ways of manipulating the 4E rules to tailor your game and match your gaming style, but here the authors did not go far enough.  Indeed they seemed timid and their product weak.  The authors could have done so much more to make the Dark Sun 4E stand apart from a Forgotten Realms campaign or an Eberron campaign.  If you are an old-timer like me, then you probably have one of the Dark Sun box sets.  If so, use it as supplemental material.  I used them as resources to develop my own rules to make the world of Dark Sun more like the way I remember it: beautiful and brutal.