Author Archive

Well, here it goes!

Just sent my first submission proposals to Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeon and Dragon magazines.  I hope they like them. I haven’t submitted any writings proposals before, but I am fully aware that I am more likely to get turned down than accepted.  Every writer’s workshop has insisted on that.  It would be nice if they accepted my ideas, because then I would get paid for them.  But, should they choose to reject my ideas, I will post them here anyway.  I like them, that’s why I sent them!

I would like to do more game design to expand on the Dark Sun Campaign setting as I felt the book was lacking in material.  Fortunately for me, a few in my gaming group have indicated they would like to return to my Dark Sun campaign.  I shall have to enlist them as guinea pigs.

Anyway, wish me luck!


There are no atheists at game tables…

Dude, I know you saw that blast of holy light. C'mon! It's real!

Pardon my wizardly musing, but I have noticed trend growing in my game group. Atheism. Not their atheism, (I could care less about their personal worldview), but character atheism.  I have to ask: Does that make any sense?

What is atheism? Put simply, it is the denial of the existence of a higher power. It is not skepticism as to the truth of a divine being. It is the acceptance, as true, the following proposition: “God does not exist.” How does one come to that conclusion? Well, again to keep it simple, by examining the evidence, or lack thereof, and reasoning one’s way to that conclusion.

Again, I am not about to comment on a player’s personal position on that proposition.  My focus is on the player’s character at the game table.  That is why I have been generally perplexed by the atheist PC.  I have to ask: why doesn’t your character believe in the gods? Seriously.  Given the evidence (in the game world), good and evil priests are wielding divine magic and hurling it at each other, raising undead armies and using very powerful blessings to accomplish various tasks.

Isn’t that enough evidence to prove the existence of very powerful deities influencing the world? Sometimes, especially on Aber-Torril and Krynn, the gods themselves walk the land.  Does it make any sense for a PC to not believe in the gods?

To be sure, I have no problem with a PC who, for whatever reason, hates the gods and does not worship them. That is completely different.  But outright rejection of the divine?  It makes no sense to me.

Perhaps I should develop an atheist theme wherein you don’t benefit at all from divine magic, nor are they harmed by it. I could base it off of the “NegaPsychic” character class from Paladium’s “Beyond the Supernatural” (a great game, by the way).

Or, I could tell them that there are no atheists at the game table.


…because his name is on the box.

Drizzt Do'Urden (Duh!)

Yesterday, my group and I got together to celebrate the belated birthday of one of our own. He’s a huge R. A. Salvatore fan so we got him the new Legend of Drizzt board game.  I had purchased the Wrath of Ashardalon game some time ago and it had been received well, so I figured this would be an excellent gift.  Wrath of Ashardalon is a fun game and makes for a quick D&D-esque experience and is easy to play even after a drinking way too much beer from watching football before sitting down to play a game. Why wouldn’t Drizzt’s own boardgame be any different?

Indeed, it is pretty much the same set-up as Wrath of Ashardalon. And like Wrath of Ashardalon, it is a quick game for bored gamers who can’t decide on what type of campaign to get involved in or what character to make once a campaign has been decided upon.  The game designers incorporated some new elements in the Legend of Drizzt that separates the dungeon from the Ashardalon dungeon.  I am glad for this because I was afraid that this would be an exact duplicate of Wrath of Ashardalon.

Also, the character powers were custom-made to parallel their counterparts in Mr. Salvatore’s novels.  My friend had a huge smile on his face as he summoned Guenhwyvar. You know, the big cat that follows Drizzt around. Yeah, well if you play Drizzt you get to have Guen…

There are, however, plenty of choices so playing Drizzt, Wulfgar, and the team can be different each time you approach the game.

I played Bruenor only because, for reasons beyond my understanding, the game designers decided not to have Thibbldorf Pwent make an appearance. Seriously. Where is the battlerager? While I am not a huge Salvatore fan (I prefer the early years as opposed to the past 10), I thought Thibbldorf was pretty cool. I’m pretty sure most people do to. Why did they not include him? The saving grace (from my perspective) was that Bruenor can take an extra point of damage to inflict another point on a creature he recently attacked.  Drizzt, of course, gets to make two attacks…and have a cat…

I got the impression that Drizzt is a little over-powered. But I guess that should be expected as his name is on the box.

We all (generally) enjoyed the game, but not enough to play for too long. I think its fun, but it is not really a substitute for role-playing with your gaming group. A nice distraction, but that is all.

But this latest installment of the Wizard’s 4E board game series led me to ponder the following:

What is it with Wizards of the Coast game designers obsession with so many game components? There are so many pieces to the board games, that Jer, a member of my gaming group and NOT a fan of the board games, basically said he would rather jot down his condition on a piece of paper. (which I responded, “so shouldn’t we be playing D&D?”)

But even the table top version of 4E is littered with too many components to it now (fortune cards, power cards, miniatures, etc.) that I am not exactly sure what I am playing anymore.  It has just recently struck me: why, when I print out a character sheet from the character generator, do I get 8 pages of cards? I don’t want to play Magic, I want to play D&D. What is up with the all the cards?

I digress. Legend of Drizzt was a fun game, even if some of the pieces seemed a little superfluous.


Winter is Coming

First, I got married and I’m really excited because, while my wife thinks my gaming hobby is nerdy, she is totally supportive of my interest in, and writing about, gaming.  She does a great job at pretending to be interested in my stories and character ideas. Who could ask for anything more?

Second, winter will be setting in here in Upstate New York which means my group is going to start gaming again. And with the start of the “gaming season”, I have found myself contemplating what I need to do to keep my player’s interested in our games.  You see, I have a problem. I love to role-play. I mean, I really love role-playing and I don’t think my players are all that into it.  They like the challenge of a fight and the thrill of opening a treasure chest, but when it comes to interacting with my NPCs (or each other for that matter!), it’s like pulling teeth.  I have been desperately trying to figure out a way to get these guys serious about role-playing something.

Compounding the issue for me is that I have just discovered George R. R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series. (Yes, I know. I am way behind the times on this one.) I purchased Robert Schwalb’s RPG set in Westeros and it is fantastic! I have always liked the story-teller game system. (It uses a roll and keep system similar to Legend of the Five Rings and Seventh Sea.) But, more importantly, character design is linked to house design. Meaning, in order to make your character, you have to build your character’s family house!

How cool is that!

Anyway. As you can probably guess, I want to play Song of Ice and Fire. But will my players? We shall see. My players have been uncertain and non-comittal about starting up again. The last time we hit a lull in gaming we didn’t return to gaming for quite some time. My great concern is that, indeed, a long winter is around the corner: a winter devoid of gaming.


Gaming is a source of joy.

So, what happened in the past year? Well, I got a job working with a firm that ate up quite a bit of my time, which was expected. My role-playing group continued to gather each week to play Darksun and we had quite a bit of fun. (I will try to do a recap at some point and pick up where I left off with prior posts).  My job, unfortunately, was temporary and after six-months my contract was up and I was let go. Also, my gaming group decided to put on hold any campaign during the summer months as many in my gaming group have families and would prefer to enjoy the summer outside doing family things.  We live in upstate New York. Winter seems to last an eternity and the summer months become a flurry of events, outings, cookouts, picnics and vacations. Gaming generally takes a back seat anyway.

After being let go, for the past few months I have been looking for work and “freelancing” as an attorney taking whatever client comes my way.  Needless to say, I’m broke. And given my financial situation, I haven’t been feeling too good about the future.  I am currently writing, part-time for a local legal publication that pays the bills, but that is about it.

There is, however, a silver lining to all of this.  Well, two silver linings. The first is my fiance and her heroic level of patience and understanding with my struggle to find legal work. The other is that I have discovered that I missed writing this blog, writing adventures and being creative.  In order to keep my sanity, I’m going to pick this blog back up and write. I will find time, no matter what, to keep at it.  My gaming group will be gathering to play again in a few months and I have a ton of ideas. Sitting down and putting those ideas to paper has been such a source of joy and relaxation during the past few months, that I am almost taken aback by how much I really do love gaming. Perhaps I should try to get published…?

I don’t know. The thought has always been in the back of my mind, to take part in game design and story-telling. Perhaps this could happen in the future. But as of right now, I’m focused on the next job interview and writing to keep me sane.


Dark Sun Campaign: Second Session

Art courtesy of Luis Royo

The session began with the PCs sleeping through their first night in the desert.  They had only the supplies they had stolen from the slave caravan and not much else.  The PCs slept through the night with only a meager fire to keep them warm, (Arak was using the patchwork quilt that doubled as the defiler/concubine’s spellbook to help keep him warm).  All but Arak, the goliath barbarian and Kirith Blackhand, the human warrior, failed their endurance check to withstand the cold temperatures of the night.  As such, those that failed began play with one less healing surge. 

They took turns watching the dark desert around them.  Their unlikely companion, Polinius, captain of the guard, was not trusting of the PCs and refused to sleep the night.  The moons, Ral and Guthay, cast a silvery light upon the desert giving the rolling sand dunes a soft incandescent glow.  With the crackling of the fire (and the snoring of the goliath) as the only sounds the PCs heard that night, their first night of freedom went without incident.

The next morning the PCs (at the equivalent of 6am when the sun was already baking the land at a cool 78 degrees) had to figure out where they were located on the map they had found in the slaver’s quarters before they had escaped.  I provided the players with a cloth map that came with the Dark Sun 2ed. box set volume 2 (a wonderful role-playing aid).  The skill challenge required them to use whatever skills they felt would help them locate where they were.  Polinius, believing he was a prisoner of the ex-slaves refused to help them.  The PCs discovered they were just west of the northern road leading out of Nibenay.  To the east was the Black Sands region and the Silver Spring Oasis.  They surmised (correctly) that the half-elf woman from the day before was showing the caravan a short cut to the Silver Spring Oasis when she led the caravan into a trap.

The PCs, with the urging of Arcott, decided to head to Nibenay in order to get to civilization as soon as possible.  Arcott revealed that he is the son of a Nibanese noble, a wealthy merchant.  He said that his father would reward the PCs for helping him escape captivity.  When pressed as to why he was placed into captivity, Arcott couldn’t remember. 

Polinius tried to convince the players to take the main road to Nibenay in hopes that the party would come upon another slave caravan or a Nibanese patrol.  Kirith and Akais quickly saw through Polinius’ ruse and challenged him on it.  Polinius again refused to help the party as they were nothing more than slaves.  At this point, Kurrix and Arak decided they had enough.  Before anyone else in the party could react, Arak delivered a critical blow to Polinius, cutting open his abdomen and knocking him to the ground.  As Polinius attempted to keep his guts from spilling on the warming sands at his feet, he was quickly finished off by the rest of the party.  Akais, the psion/wizard, cynically noted that meant there was more water for the party.  Arak joyously noted that he now owns two axes, one an executioner’s axe, the other a battle-axe.

The PCs decided to head south to the mountain range that bordered the Crescent Forest and then turn east toward Nibenay.  Because they no longer had Polinius to drive the wagon, they had to do the “Learning to Drive” skill challenge.  For each failure the jostling of the wagon would spill approximately 10 gallons of water over the course of an hour. They failed three times before rolling the four successes they needed.  By the end of the day, they had gone from 47 gallons of water to 17.

The second day of travel toward the mountains brought a fierce Tyr Storm upon the PCs.  The party found a rock outcropping to help shield them from the stinging sands that were blowing around them.  They also decided to flip the cart on its side to help shield them from the weather.  The storm was fierce and the excited kank nearly broke loose from its bonds as both Arak and Kirith tried to hold on.  The rest of the party struggled to breathe as sand swirled around the party, thunder crashed deafening the party members.  Arcott and Kurrix were targeted by a lightning strikes as well. 

As the PCs skirted the foothills, Kurrix decided to scout ahead.  Kurrix discovered an old man with a herd of goats pleading with a hill giant.  The hill giant was sun-baked and was wearing dirty and smelly rags, in both hands it had two goats.  The old man pleaded with the hill giant not to take more than two.  “Please mighty G’Gax! No more than two!”  Kurrix, the shadowy thief, shot the hill giant in the shoulder with an arrow.  Leaping from his hiding place Kurrix got the attention of the hill giant.  Kurrix ran back to where the party was located, hill giant in tow.

The battle between the party and the hill giant (lvl 8), took place on the slopes of the mountain side.  It was very steep and required the PCs to make athletics checks vs. DC 20 in order to make a full move, otherwise they could only move at half speed.  As they approached, the hill giant threw rocks at them.  The combat included two rock slide traps and a cave system that allowed the PCs to “teleport” to the other side of the battlefield.  The PCs, especially Arak and Kirith, rolled well with regard to the Athletics checks and closed the gap quickly to engage the hill giant.  The hill giant was soon dispatched.

The old man, Olki’in, thanked the party and invited them to his mud hut.  He led them through the mountains along a goat path to where he and his goats resided.  Inside he fed them goat meat and fermented goat’s milk.  He told them that G’Gax was plaguing the mountain side for some time and that A’exa Rae, Wife of Nibenay, couldn’t defeat the hill giant.  Upon further inquiry, the PCs learned that A’exa Rae was a low ranking Nibanese Templar that managed a logging camp a half a day’s journey from Olki’in’s hut.  Olki’in and the other goat herders provided food for the loggers and the guards.  Olki’in also informed the PCs that, because they were ex-slaves, he would have to tell A’exa about them.

The group, using various methods of persuasion, convinced Olki’in not to reveal too much when they spoke with the templar.  (Arak tried to scare the old man, Akais, Kurrix and Arcott tried to reason with him, and Kirrith used his Mark of the Free to show the old man that he was not a slave and would not submit to anyone.)  The following day, the PCs went to the logging camp.

The camp was located at the base of the mountain range within the Crescent Forest, a vast and dense jungle.  The camp itself was surrounded by a wooden palisade and constantly patrolled by guardsmen.  Inside, the PCs saw wooden and mud structures that were used to house the guards, the slaves and the supplies.  They noticed two clay structures.  One was being used to store something covered by cloth that they couldn’t identify and the other was A’exa Rae’s palace.

A’exa Rae wore a white gown made of kestrekel feathers and sat on her throne, rather smugly and bored, while a small obsidian sphere floated over her open palm.  She was surrounded by four goliath guards bearing shields with her mark.  Within five feet of her was her thrall who carried a magical shield that the party identified (via history checks) as the Earth Shield.  (They didn’t figure out its powers).  A’exa spoke with them via telepathy.  The PCs, given their brash natures, were extraordinarily polite and reverent.  Arcott, spoke the truth to A’exa and she was not pleased to discover escaped slaves in her palace, but, upon mind probing Arcott, discovered he was telling the truth regarding his capture and station as nobility. 

As a condition for sending a runner to Nibenay looking for Arcott’s father, (and for not being put to work as slaves), A’exa “requested” (read: ordered) that the PCs look into something that has been hunting some of her foresters deep within the jungle.  The party agreed and headed out into the jungle, led by two guardsmen.

Within a few hours, the party was surprised by a group of halfling cannibals. The guardsmen were hit by poisoned darts and taken out quickly.  The party was then quickly surrounded by the halflings.  Akais and a halfling wilder engaged in a psychic duel as they blasted each other with their powers, while the rest of the party engaged the halflings.  Within a few rounds, it was clear to the would-be halfling chefs were not going to get to eat humanoid for dinner and attempted to escape.  Kurrix and Arak wouldn’t allow that to happen.  Kurrix used his bow with deadly effect and Arak charged head first into the brush and cleaved one of the halflings in two with a mighty swing of his executioner’s axe.  Through out this battle, Arcott issued orders and inspiring words to maximize the party’s effectiveness.  At the end of the battle, one of the guardsmen was revived and informed the party that up until recently, halflings were not common in the jungle.  He has no idea where they come from.

The next session will bring the party to the logging camp and the start of their first minor quest: “Hunting the Hunters.”


Dark Sun Campaign: First Session

This past Sunday was the first session of my Dark Sun campaign (and the first time I’ve DMed in over three years) and I have to say, I think it was a success.  It was a success in so far as everyone had fun and I the fear of surviving Dark Sun was sufficiently placed upon the players.  The group consists of five players.  They include: Akais, a human wizard/psion hybrid (a classic Dark Sun character!); Kurixx, a human shadowy rogue; Arcott Landier, a human Nibenese warlord; Arrak, a goliath barbarian and Kirith Blackhand, a human Urikite fighter (gladiator theme).  I asked my buddies to make simple backgrounds that could be developed as the campaign progresses.  I want to put as much “power” of campaign direction in their hands as possible because, for my gaming group, I’m the only one who has ever explored the Dark Sun setting.  So, I want them to go and explore wherever they want.  Their backgrounds will come into play as they push the campaign in those directions.  I started the group out as slaves (no equipment) being transported across the sandy wastes.  As background music for this opening scene I used a youtube.com video “an arabic prayer for divine mercy”.  It was perfect to set the tone.

The PCs began their Dark Sun experience bound within the bowels of a great slave caravan wagon slowly making its way through the sandy wastes of Athas.  The sun, at its zenith, beat down upon the caravan at temperatures reaching 140 degrees.   As there was no breeze, the heat was particularly oppressive.  Baking the PCs, they all failed an endurance check (DC 22) and began the adventure with one less healing surge.  Adding to their misery was a refuse pile and their fellow slaves, hanging lifeless from their bonds, baking in the sun.  As they looked through the cracks between the wooden planks of the caravan into the desert beyond they saw no signs of civilization.  They were in the middle of nowhere with no hope of escape.  When suddenly, the caravan came to a halt. 

Peering through the cracks between the wooden planks of the caravan, the PCs saw the slaver, the captain of the guard and a half-elf woman (accompanied by a large lion) arguing.  The half-elf woman was tall, tanned and stoic in the face of the tongue lashing she was receiving by both men.  The PCs navigated their way through a skill challenge where they reasoned their way to what was going on: the half-elf woman was hired as a guide and she intentionally led the caravan into a potential trap.  As a result the caravan guards were going to lighten their load by killing the slaves and escaping on smaller wagons with the water supply.  Kurixx used his wild talent “mental tools” to create a small scalpel and began to cut his way out of his bonds.  The goliath used his brute strength to break the bonds.  When the PCs were freed, a warning shout was heard by guardsmen on top of the great covered wagon: “Raiders!”.

Cresting a great sand dune was a great horde of gith, their obsidian tipped spears gleaming in the sun.  The half-elf woman knocked the captain of the guard to the ground and ran off with her lion pet into the desert.  As arrows were shot at the oncoming horde, the PCs heard the captain of the guard bark the following orders: “Get the water! Kill the slaves!”  As the guards from the upper floors of the great wagon made their way to the slave pens, Kirith pulled a plank of wood from the wall to use as a makeshift club.  The Arak tore the leg from a dead slave to wield as a makeshift flail.  Kurixx picked the lock on the wooden door and the three guards sent to slit the throats of the slaves were surprised to see a desperate group of slaves ready for a fight. 

Their first fight included Akais using his psionic abilities to throw guardsmen across the lower deck of the wagon, an enraged barbarian beating opponents with a bluddy stump and Kirith losing his hand due to a critical hit from a bone-axe wielding guardsmen.  (I, as the DM, rolled many critical hits this session and was terrified of inadvertently killing all of the PCs, but they had some good crits as well).  While the group battled the guardsmen, Kurixx snuck past the melee in search of a weapon.  What he found among the cargo were three vials of healing salve.  After dispatching the guardsmen, Kirith used the salve to stop the bleeding from his severed hand. 

The PCs searched the cargo room and found some gems, a handful of ceramic pieces, a vial of poison, a small shield and the equipment from the guardsmen which included 3 suits of leather armor, a short bow, a stone mace, a bone long sword and a bone axe.  Now with some equipment, the PCs freed the other slaves and climbed the ladder to the caravan wagon’s mid-deck in search of water and a map of the Tyr region they had over heard the slaver talking about.  Peeking their head up through the floor of the mid-deck, they saw three more guardsmen on the far end of the massive wagon doing some looting of their own.  The group snuck past them to the top floor of the wagon to where the slaver resided.  There the group saw an opulent two room floor lined with potted flowers and silk pillows.  As they approached the door to the slaver’s room, they heard a shout and a loud thump.  Opening the door they saw the slaver’s harem surrounding the body of the slaver, a knife in his back. 

The harem consisted of twelve women of various races led by a dwarven woman named Brela.  When the PCs barged in, Brela was rummaging through a bureau and she was not happy to see them.  Brela and “her girls” were not interested in escaping with a bunch of men.  Akais initially negotiated with Brela to allow him to take the slaver’s map, but, because he was concerned with sharing water with a potential enemy, he and Arak tried to bar the door and lock the harem in the wagon.  This infuriated Brela and the PCs began to hear chanting coming through the door.  Along with the chanting, the PCs noticed the potted plants begin to whither, blacken and turn to ash.  With a thunderous explosion, the door burst open.  The group was unharmed, but they now had to deal with an angry harem led by a defiler.  In addition, the guardsmen below them decided to make their way to the top deck to investigate the explosion. 

At this point, the group became divided between the defiler (level 5) and her twelve minions (level 1) and the three guardsmen (level 3).  Arak and Kirith Blackhand cut a swath through the minions (with the help of Akais’ static charge) and engaged Brela.  However, Brela zapped Arak with a critical hit to the chest knocking him to below 0 hit points and Kirith was soon bloodied by her magical onslaught.  In the other room, Arcott, still unarmed but using his mastery of war history to aid the party with extra attacks and inspiring word, was being chased around the room by a guard wielding a stone mace.  The guardsmen would break his mace upon Arcott’s shoulder, pull a plank from the wall and break that on Arcott as well before he was finally killed by Kurixx’ arrows.  Akais was eventually overwhelmed (critical hit: stunned) and was almost instantly killed by a massive blow by another guard (another critical hit).  Brela would eventually be killed by Kirith and Arak would be healed. (He had failed his death saving throw twice…he was very close to the edge).  During this entire fight, Kurixx was hiding among the harem’s pillows and picking off opponents with the short bow he had previously lifted from a guard.  When the PCs defeated this double encounter, they found what Brela was looking for: an ornate quilt that doubled as her spell book.

The PCs exited the wagon to find the slave caravan overrun by gith raiders.  One wagon was burning and another was swarming with gith.  The PCs could hear the screams of the dying guards and the gurgling glee of the gith.  The PCs, looking past the carnage filled melee, saw the desert beyond and their freedom.  The goal of this encounter was to cross the battlefield before they are swarmed by gith savages.  To make matters more interesting (or worse if you are a PC), a mekilott (level 10) was let loose and was crossing the battlefield (thanks to Kurixx).  Akais used his static charge to slow the mikellot down enough to allow the PCs to skirt the battlefield and avoid any additional combat.  As the PCs lamented their lack of water, they noticed a smaller wagon being surrounded by gith.  It was defended by the captain of the guard and they noticed a lone barrel of water on the wagon.  The PCs charged into the fray hoping for some water.  The gith were accompanied by a small group of baazrags that had latched onto the captain of the guard.  The PCs cut through the enemies rather swiftly and offered the captain a simple choice, let them ride on the wagon or be killed.  The captain acquiesced without protest.  The captain of the guard, named Polinius, took the reins and ordered the kank soldier to pull the wagon forward.  The PCs then left the burning slave caravan behind. 

Because the PCs didn’t kill Polinius, they avoided the skill challenge “learning to drive”.  If they had to accomplish this skill challenge, they would’ve lost 10 gallons of water for every skill check failure due to the tumultuous journey through the desert.  The session ended with the group making camp for the night.   The PCs never had a chance to take a 5 minute rest and they didn’t even ask as the players were absorbed into the fast paced nature of the session.  The next session will involve the PCs trying to figure out where they are on the map and surviving the desert trek to civilization.

I rewarded Kirith with the first legendary boon of the campaign, a battle scar titled “Mark of the Free”.  (I felt bad for cutting off his hand…but then again, this is Dark Sun, its gonna be brutal.)

“Mark of the Free”
“Many freed slaves bear the marks of their former captivity, whether it is in the form of crisscrossing scars made from a slaver’s whip or the haunted look of a mind tortured by the cruelty of the noble class.  You, however, bear the mark of a slave who has no master. One who is determined to survive, no matter the costs.  Stories of how you won your freedom will vary widely, but all will know you by the scars you display and the fierceness of your demeanor.”
Power: (Utility, Daily) When interacting with slaves or ex-slaves, you may add a +5 to your diplomacy checks for the duration of the encounter as the members of these casts look upon you with awe.  When interacting with nobles, templars, merchants, etc. you may add a +5 to intimidate checks for the duration of the encounter as the members of these casts know you are not one to take kindly to orders.  This power will not work on creatures without a social hierarchy.


Moving to Rivendell and Playing in My Athasian Sandbox

I haven’t posted in some time and that is because my fiance and I have moved from our run down apartment in Albany, New York to a very nice townhouse in East Rochester.  It was a very hectic move as everything that could go wrong almost did.  Our car’s master cylinder fried itself a week before the move.  I got sick before and after the move.  I had a job interview two days after our move.  And, of course, because my fiance and I are from the Finger Lakes area, the past week has been one filled with “we need to get together and have lunch/dinner/beers with insert family/friend/acquaintence here>.”  Not that I mind…it’s just hectic.

Our new home is nestled amidst a wooded area that is absolutely beautiful.  Rivendell was the first thing that came to mind when I saw it.  The only thing missing is a river and some elves…(and, of course, if I had the One Ring, the whole job situation would be the least of my worries!)

In a few hours my old gaming group is getting together to play Dark Sun with yours truly as the Dungeon Master.  I am very excited to play, for it has been at least three years since I have played with these guys and five or so years since I have really DMed a session.  I have spent a lot of time trying to find ways to get my buddies into the “feel” of Dark Sun.  That has involved a series of House Rules that I will be experimenting with as well as background music to play.     

To make Dark Sun more brutal, I am incorporating critical hit charts and critical fumble charts that are based on damage type.  Included in these charts is the chance for an instant kill.  Calculated it is approximately .017% chance that on any given attack roll, someone is going to be killed instantly. I like that.  I have also included the 2nd Edition weapon materials rules that modify attack and damage based on the materials used to make the weapon.  I suspect that after a few sessions we will stop using this rule as I am finding it to be a tedious addition to my own NPCs and monsters while writing adventures.

The background music I have selected include the Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures Soundtrack from the online video game.  It is incredible and fits perfectly.  I plan on adding the original Conan Soundtracks to the playlist. In addition, I am adding some pieces by Lisa Gerrard (of Dead Can Dance fame).  Her particular and unique vocal style and language add a otherwordly quality that I think will enhance the gaming experience.

In any event, it is six in the morning and I have approximately ten hours before we begin playing…I can’t wait.


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?”

Nope.

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 Dungeon-Master.com 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.


Yikes!

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.