Monday, December 30, 2013

“With Your Shield, Or Upon It”: Combat for Players

True to my word, this week’s article is all about the combat. Specifically, about being a player in combat. When swords swing, daggers fly, hammers crunch, arrows hit, and axes cleave, D&D becomes a wholly different game. This is the part where some people thrive, and others simply hope to survive. Either way, combat certainly plays a huge role in almost every story and it is the primary source for character experience and gaining treasure.

On the player’s side of things, your role in combat will depend a great deal on the class of character you are playing. And here’s an important tip: Know your role! I can’t tell you how many times I've seen players step outside of their character’s role in combat and wonder why things aren't working out. Even the most forgiving and accommodating DM will eventually teach the character that thinks they can “do everything” a lesson. I’m not trying to say that these roles are set in stone and there is no room for improvisation or thinking outside of the box, but classes do have limitations and I believe that they should apply more than 50% of the time.

For clarity, I break down the roles into four types as follows: Striker (Rogues, some Bards, some Fighters, Monks, and melee Rangers), Artillery (Some Mages and Clerics, ranged Fighters and ranged Rangers), Support (Some Clerics, Druid, Some Mages and Bards) and Tanks (Some Fighters, Barbarians, and Paladins). Despite my best efforts, I’m sure that there are many opportunities for crossovers and people could cite examples where a Mage could be a Striker or a Barbarian could be Artillery. Despite this, these are the roles that feel work the best for their classes and are the most productive in game.

Let’s take a closer look at each one:

Striker- These characters move in quickly and quietly, do a fair amount of damage, and then slip out. They attack the enemy at odd and unexpected angles and keep them off balance. Sometimes they also work as distractions, keeping the foes focusing on them while the real damage gets done elsewhere. The weakness of the Striker comes into play when they get stuck or surrounded and can’t use their mobility and stealth to their advantage.

Artillery- These characters hit hard and can do more damage than any other group in the game. They stay out of the heart of battle and prefer to overlook everything. This gives them a unique perspective to see the fighting as whole and they can usually predict when things are shifting for better or for worse. Their weakness lies in the age old saying “you can give it but you can’t take it”. The typical Artillery character trades off defence for offence and can be taken out of the fight with a few good hits.

Support- These characters help other characters or harm the foes in non-damaging ways. They can heal, they can add extra hit points, they can buff (improve stats), they can add protection, and they can do all of these things in opposite to enemies. Most people don’t grasp the usefulness of a +1/-1 until I mention that +1/-1 to a D20 is a 5% increase/decrease. The weakness of a Support character is their lack of offence. Don’t look to these folks when the big damage numbers need to be posted.

Tanks- These characters are probably the most misunderstood. Their role is to take damage (not deal it out). They exist to hold the line, take the big hits that other characters can’t, and make the ultimate sacrifice for the party if need be. If your tanks aren't the first to go into negative hit points during a battle, then something is not being done right. Their weakness lies in their lack of versatility. These characters don’t have many tricks up their sleeves and if battles go long they can become burnt out.

It is important for characters to realize that how they conduct themselves outside of combat can be very different from how they need to operate inside. Here are two examples: 

1) A dramatic, flamboyant Bard can be the life of the party (pun intended) at almost every roleplaying opportunity but in combat that Bard will not last very long standing toe to toe against a clan of Orcs. Instead, use him/her as a subdued Striker to confuse and distract the enemy while the Artillery goes to work. 
2) A Paladin in full-plate armor wielding a large shield may be very conservative in roleplaying situations; however, in combat, he/she can be the central figure of the group and should not be running around as a Striker. Not only is it terribly loud (all that clanking and scraping) but it is inefficient. Instead, make him/her the Tank that anchors the battle and holds the ground for the others. 

While it is my personal belief that all plans can go out the window in the blink of an eye, strategy and leadership can make the difference between winning the battle cleanly, or winning the battle with the loss of a character. Part of working as a team in combat is knowing everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and that means everyone knowing their roles. This also cuts down on a lot of the confusion in combat and was the one part of 4th Edition that I thought the designers got right. Combat is sometimes too confusing when everyone is running around without a clear purpose. It can be stressful keeping track of everything for the DM and it can be hard on PCs when battles don’t go their way. I also think this is the main reason why some players dislike combat. They have a hard time understanding the chaos and can’t picture what is happening as clearly as they can roleplaying. The answer, I think, is for the PCs to have an idea of what they need to accomplish going into a battle and for the DMs to be on top of things when it comes to description, explanation, and combat pacing.

(Speaking of combat for the DMs, I will cover that in next week’s article. Cheers!)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Oh Roleplaying, Where Art Thou?

In this week’s article I want to explore the many facets of roleplaying. I'll be tackling combat next but right now it’s all about the interaction which usually leads to action.

In my head, roleplaying can be defined as: Any interaction in which the PCs engage, in character, outside of combat. Granted, that’s a very broad definition and can use some specifics. Roleplaying can include but is not limited to: talking with other PCs, talking to NPCs, speaking/communicating with monsters, investigating, planning, strategics, scheming, haggling, negotiating, asking the DM questions, acting, reading aloud, and just plain trying to make people laugh. For many, it is the primary purpose and the backbone of D&D. It is undoubtedly the core social aspect of the game and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what sets D&D apart from a mountain of MMOs, console, and miniature games.

Unfortunately, many players have trouble with roleplaying and their reasons are as varied as the stars. Sometimes, the issue is with the DM. For whatever the reason, the PCs are not being presented with good roleplaying opportunities. This can usually be seen in unexperienced DMs who aren't themselves comfortable yet with roleplaying or running it. In other cases, the PCs don’t engage in roleplaying because of their own reservations. New players may be shy, uncomfortable, and taken aback by the idea that they not only have to “play” this character but they may also be responsible to talk like them and think like them in fast-paced interactions, some of which may determine the outcome of the whole adventure. Yikes!

At the same time, many of the people who play D&D, and this is in no way a criticism, can suffer from social deficiencies. Gamers are quite often socially awkward and that’s part of the appeal of playing these games in the first place. They give many people an opportunity to say things and do things they wouldn't normally have the ability or the will to say in public. In many ways, D&D is an escape, a venue to release inner demons, and a kind of therapy, for thousands. However, these changes and breakthroughs neither come quickly nor easily. Roleplaying is a radical concept in the evolution of D&D from a tabletop miniature game (chainmail) to a truly interactive social game. It is also a major factor behind my personal enjoyment of the game. Nothing delights me more as a DM to see a PC have that epiphany moment when they fully become their character, even if just for a few minutes. It is exciting, dynamic, and it heightens the games of everyone around them, myself included. It is made even sweeter by seeing those dungeoneers who are coming out of their psychological and social shells for the first time. It can be very empowering for them and very gratifying as both a DM and as a human being.

So, with all of that being said, how do PCs become better roleplayers? As with so many things, the answer lies in the little things. Just as writers have to get into the heads of their characters, so must players. Ask yourself the small questions constantly: What am I seeing? What I am hearing? What am I smelling? What does this person/thing look like? What do they think? And occasionally ask yourself the big questions: What does my character (not I) want? Who are they? How would they (not I) do this? And after you come up with the answers, don’t be afraid to follow through.

And even more important: Don’t worry about the rules! (they’re more like guidelines anyway) A good DM will ignore the rules for good roleplaying. And, what’s more, good roleplaying will make you the DMs best friend. When a PC roleplays their character properly, it frees up the DM. There is less pressure on the DM to make the adventure interesting because the players are basically entertaining themselves. Instead of prompting and pushing the PCs for action, suddenly the PCs are self encouraging and the DM’s work is cut in half. To throw in a modified cliche: Don’t ask what the adventure can do for you, but what you can do for the adventure!

You don’t need to be top of your drama class to roleplay. You simply need to be sympathetic to the personality, needs, and desires of the character you are playing. If that character is a lot like you are in real life, then so be it. If your character is nothing like you, then run with it. Take chances, get into trouble, push the limits. Good DMs will pick up on your enthusiasm and encourage your organized chaos. Some of the best campaigns I have ever witnessed included several tangents and plot twists created by the players as opposed to the DM. Keep in mind that bringing an adventure to life is not the sole responsibility of the DM. As a player, if you have the attitude that I am going to sit back and see what comes my way, you are missing out on a fundamental part of D&D. Instead, your outlook should be more like: Here I am world, ready or not! Just like the true heroes of history, you have to get out there and make your own statement, make some noise! 

Take heart in knowing that if you overstep or go too far the DM will bring you back. And should your character suffer the ultimate fate because of your “reckless” actions, fear not because I’m sure there will be a new character waiting for you right around the corner. What have you really got to lose? Nothing but some time. And what could you gain? Stories to tell, confidence, excitement, friendship, and hours of laughing your ass off! It’s not only what D&D is about, but life itself. Let your credo be those immortal words from Malcolm Reynolds: “I aim to misbehave.”   

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

“I am fire…I am death!"


Well they are a tricky subject aren’t they?  From the tales of Beowulf (PDF version here) to the modern CGI Smaug, Dragons have captured the imagination for hundreds of years. Some DMs like to have at least one in every campaign, some players don’t feel as though they’ve really played the game unless they get to fight one, and others still won’t touch them at all, despite being 50% of the title track. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at these magnificent and intimidating icons.

Part 1: History
The original designers of D&D were Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and both men drew heavily from the popular works of fantasy fiction available to them during the 1960’s. Works from such authors as: Jack Vance (Wiki), Poul Anderson (Wiki), and a newfound popularity for more traditional reading such as the Arthur Legend, Beowulf, and the works of Lewis Carroll (For more info...). Interestingly enough, Gygax stated in an interview by Dragon Magazine that D&D was influenced very little by J.R.R. Tolkien. He admitted that certain elements from his books were added to the game but only for “popularity”. (DRAGON #95) Of course this may have just been a conscious effort to stave off copyright issues.

So, if we look at Dragons in particular, Beowulf seems to have some of the best references for what would become a typical D&D Dragon:

“The Beowulf dragon is the earliest example in literature of the typical European dragon and first incidence of a fire breathing dragon.[9] But the characterization goes beyond fire breathing: the Beowulf dragon is described with Old English terms such as draca (dragon), and wyrm (worm, or serpent), and as a creature with a venomous bite.[10] Also, the Beowulf poet created a dragon with specific traits: a nocturnal, treasure hoarding, inquisitive, vengeful, fire breathing creature.”

So, when it did come time to create an original creature for AD&D, the designers went for some basic archetypes. Dragons were large, intelligent reptiles with wings and breath weapons. And, for the sake of variety and possibly to sell more miniatures, Dragons were given multiple colors with different personalities and attacks to match. The original colors were white, black, green, blue, red, and gold. Very few were considered to be of good alignment, most were considered neutral, and some downright evil.

As the game evolved into 2nd and 3rd edition, dragons became much more versatile and numerous. So much so that by 4th edition there were more than twenty different types of Dragons and their personalities were as varied as imaginable.

Part 2: Roleplaying An Icon (For the DMs)     
When compared to your average PC or NPC, Dragons are supposed to be on an entirely different level. Cunning, devious, masterminds with size, strength, magic, and fighting ability rolled into one impressive and almost god like package. Think of Superman’s body with Batman’s mind. This can be daunting for DMs. After all, and I don’t think I’m divulging any huge secret here, most DMs are not super geniuses. However, particular planning, excellent execution, and inspired improvisation can make for a very impressive substitute. When I think ahead to an encounter my PCs are going to have with a Dragon, I try to keep three things in mind:

a)   Make the encounter worth something. Dragons should not be thrown in on a whim or as a vehicle for “Deus Ex Machina”. It cheapens the affect Dragons should have on PCs and it smacks of laziness.
b)   Keep conversations with Dragons short yet memorable. I’m thinking of quality over quantity. When a Dragon speaks it never wastes any of its words. Also, the longer a DM drags the encounter with a Dragon out the more opportunity there is to make them look silly/dull.
c)   When a Dragon makes a threat or a promise, it keeps it. PCs have to learn, some of them the hard way, that to insult, offend, or deceive a Dragon has very grave consequences. If ever there was an excuse to make an example out of someone, this type of encounter would be it.

I also find that the most important aspect of encountering a Dragon, or any epic creature for that matter, is the buildup to the encounter. While it can be a supreme shock for the PCs to encounter a Dragon without any warning, telling them outright that a Dragon exists in this campaign and you are most likely to encounter it will heighten the anticipation. Throw in some references, maybe a survivor of a previous encounter, or a story told by the hearth of an inn. The PCs will do most of the building-up work for you, all you have to do is deliver.

Part 3: To Slay or Not to Slay (For the PCs)   
Going head to head against a Dragon can be the most exciting, terrifying, and important encounter in all of D&D. You just get a sense when fighting this epic creature that death is right around the corner. Even those who have played this game for decades dare not slouch when a Great Wyrm is present.

Stealth is always tried but usually fails; Traps are sometimes set but have little success; and diplomacy is often attempted but you are dealing with a creature who thinks of the world as a giant chess match and is planning three moves ahead of you. Intimidation is totally out of the question. This leaves you with three fundamental options: Fight, Flight, or Surrender. The option that your group chooses will say a lot about them and the outcome of the campaign.

The group that chooses to fight may think very highly of themselves and feel as though this beast is an affront to everything they stand for. Perhaps this Dragon is pure evil and has done things to inspire the group to rid the world of a flying horror. The group that chooses to flee have doubts concerning their abilities or simply value their lives over the potential rewards. Words such as “maybe when we’re higher level” might get thrown about. And finally, the group that surrenders may be the bravest of all. To submit themselves to the will of such an infamous beast could spell their doom or it could be the beginning of a spectacular adventure. This option was explored thoroughly in the writings of R.A. Salvatore during the Promise of the Witch-King (Wiki).

However you play or run an encounter with a Dragon, I hope that everyone ups their game a little. Moments and memories playing this game can last a lifetime if the feeling is powerful enough, and Dragons are certainly a very good foundation.

Have you had a memorable encounter with a Dragon as either a player or a DM? Feel free to comment about it below!              

Friday, December 13, 2013

DM Advice: 3 ways to be your own worst enemy.

If you've spent any time as a Dungeon/Game Master, you know that an adventure or even a whole campaign can run off the rails quickly and with unknowable consequences. This is usually due to the players and their wacky ideas but every so often a DM can make the wrong move and regret it. In that regard, here are three things to keep in mind and save yourself from stepping in it:

#1-Don’t hand out magic items like Halloween candy.  
     This can be very attractive at first. The DM feels like being generous and 
     maybe the players deserve a really great reward for accomplishing a              difficult task. However, the folly of this issue will eventually rear its ugly        head. Soon magic is flying everywhere and level four characters are 
     taking out level eight monsters. This can also come back to haunt the DM 
     in the form of PC expectations. For example, if you hand out +3 swords by 
     level four, what are they going to be expecting by level six or ten? And to 
     make the situation worse, some DMs (myself included in the past) make 
     the mistake of snatching back the items at the last minute via dispel 
     magic, theft, or even killing the character off. This is only a short term 
     solution if you don’t stop the source of the problem. It’s also a great way 
     to make your players hate you for a very long time and with good reason.
Instead: Make magic items count for something.
When you give out magic items make them small yet useful. Give the PC with the worst AC the +1 cloak of protection. Give the PC with the really nasty DEX the +1 boots. Don’t let the min-max PCs become superheroes, when their party mates can’t even skip rope without falling over. It is also helpful to spread the wealth around. Don’t give the Knight in the party the +1 armor, the +1 sword, and the +1 STR ring, when all the Rogue has is a potion of invisibility. To prevent this, I developed a 1-in-3 system. Under this system I am trying to give each character in my party one magical item for every three levels of experience. Thus by level nine, each PC has three items. This seems to be a good balance and keeps the magic respectable.

#2- Don’t choose the rules over the story.
As a DM, one of my main goals is to weave all of the character’s backstories, aspirations, and adventures into one (relatively) cohesive story. This brings satisfaction to me as a DM, and it brings a sense of accomplishment to the PCs. However, and without fail, the rules of the game will always attempt to ruin your best laid plans. You have a monster that needs to take the PCs hostage? Well they just chopped his head off with a critical! You want the PCs to fall into a trap? Too bad, they just passed all of their near impossible DEX checks. And the opposite is true as well! Such as the PC with the best CHR score rolling a one during the most crucial negotiation of the campaign. While a few of these happenings can be seen as opportunities to expand the game, too many can sour the soup.

Instead: Overrule the rules, when necessary.
Sometimes you gotta’ take the bull by the horns. When something absolutely needs to happen, I usually take the dice and the numbers right out of the equation and go into what I like to call “narration mode”. This is where I ask the PCs to describe what they are doing in detail and we act it out like a script. I find this not only eliminates the randomness, but PCs actually enjoy the opportunity to roleplay such an intense scene, regardless of the outcome.

#3- Don’t go combat/roleplaying crazy.
If asked, most players will tell you how they like their games. Some like a little roleplaying with their combat and some a little combat with their roleplaying. Don’t fall into the trap of diving deep into either one. A campaign with too much roleplaying will seem dull and drawn out to the blood mongers, while too much combat will stifle those players who are anxious to show off their interaction skills.

Instead: Balance out your games.
I always aim for a balance, and by balance I mean 60% combat and 40% roleplaying. Is it always possible to accomplish this? No. Sometimes combats run long and sometimes roleplaying sessions can snowball into huge monstrosities, especially when a tangent pops up that you weren't expecting. Sometimes the people in your group are new and might be shy to the whole roleplaying aspect, ergo they might be skimmed over for combat that is far less awkward. This is all perfectly fine in moderation. As a DM, your chief concern should be your audience, and that means your players. Don’t force situations on them, but don’t shy away from pushing their comfort zones either. It may take some trial and error but when you finally find the sweet spot your games will not only be fun, they will also be memorable.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Thoughts on the D&D Next Playtest...

So now the playtest for D&D Next has officially reached its conclusion (The Next Phase), now begins the winter of our discontent. Or perhaps, I should say the winter of our paranoia. Allow me to explain...

For some, myself included, this playtest has been seen as a great success. The measurement for that success can be quantified in two ways: 1) D&D Next seems to have very little to do with 4th Edition; and 2) The game designers for D&D Next have not only been listening to the playtesters but have also been implementing their suggestions. I personally feel that this D&D by committee was the way to go. It engaged the Dragoneers (that's my own word for people who play D&D) in unprecedented numbers. Suddenly the basement-bound and the closeted dice-rollers had a voice! And they continue to share their opinions by the hundreds even now (D&D Next Forums)

But, as suggested in article "The Next Phase", the goblins and ogres, elves and gnomes at Wizards have now taken over for a few months of tweaking, tinkering, and tampering. That's where my paranoia kicks in because, just like WWII France, it only takes a few months for everything to go wrong. What will they change? What will they keep? What will the final product look like?

In theory, if you figure that the last playtest packet will form the foundation for the final product, then we may be in for something really special. From my view of the playtest, D&D Next is blending together a sweet cocktail of the best from every edition that has preceded it. This makes for a dynamic, easy to learn system, with just the right balance of opportunity to combat and opportunity to role-play. Personally, I would feel great about releasing that last playtest packet as the final product with just a few bells and whistles and art work.

Sadly, I fear that the wooden shoes will be flying during these last few months (look it up!) and things may not pan out as well as I hope. What really scares me is the idea that some of the design team over at Next have to conform the game to the expectations of their masters (i,e. Wizards and ultimately Hasbro). Unfortunately, this means the supreme commercialization of the product in as many permutations as can be humanly conceived. Put simply, the fear is they might kill the game to make more money.

Part of my beef with 4th edition, and the beef of many others, was the amount of planning and purchasing involved to run a game "properly". This included the inclusion of books, supplements, adventures, power cards, tiles, and countless miniatures. I swear that planning a 4th edition campaign sometimes felt like I was making the calculations to land Armstrong on the moon with all of the expenses. For clarification, let's break this down by the numbers:

Purchasing: I would respectfully submit that the average PC of 4th Edition had to buy around $300.00 in materials to play and the average DM around $1000.00. Maybe this is not that much considering that you could be entertained for hundreds of hours, but still staggering when compared to other roleplaying games. For a struggling economy and historically high unemployment numbers, this is quite intimidating.

Planning: In 4th Edition, your average night of game play (3 or 4 hours) required a minimum of 3 to 4 hours to plan out. Compare this with the fact that back in 2nd Edition the planing for the same night of game time might have been an hour at most. Thus you can see why many DMs were turned off. In my opinion, if the game is not as fun for the DMs to run as it is for the PCs to play, it will not survive.

Thus, imagine my surprise and pleasure to find out that the D&D Next playtest was free and simple! It offered to free up my planning time, it offered to cost me nothing except printing fees, and the fun was back! To date, I have tried out D&D Next with as many as thirty players, including two campaigns spanning more than seventy hours each and the results have been impressive. With the exception of those few people who enjoyed the overly detailed, strategic style of 4th Edition (yes Virginia, they do exist!) or those folks who feel that 3.5 will never be topped (that's what a lot of people said about 2nd Edition), I have had few complaints. In fact, I have taken note of the compliments such as: "It's so easy to learn!", "That's just like we used to play.", "Oh! This is a lot of fun!", and many more.  

Hopefully, what we will end up having is even better than the playtest. But until that fateful day when the books arrive and we get to see what has changed, my paranoia will remain seated upon a throne in my mind laughing down at me and proclaiming that Murphy's Law shall prevail. However, if that happens, I shall be more than happy to carry on with what I already have: a playtest that I love. Wizards and Company, take note.

-A.A. Amirault