Multiplayer D&D: My online utopia

Posted in Uncategorized on December 8, 2010 by Atlemar

One of the cool things about online console gaming is that when you want to play against a human opponent, you can. It rarely takes me more than a few minutes to find a Magic opponent on Xbox 360. (On the other hand, I was never able to find an opponent for the Bronze Online Cup on FIFA 10 Ultimate Team; that ship sailed long ago.)

This is in sharp contrast to D&D. I came up with a character concept the other day, and now I want to play him. So all I need to do is get a group together, right? Well, it’s not easy when you have a job and a wife and kid, and your players all have similar levels of commitment (one of them is getting married in a few months!)

I am hoping that will all change with the Virtual Table.

Imagine: A central hub where games are played, all hours of the day and night. A forum or bulletin board to manage it all. A DM can post that he’s going to run a game at 8 PT, it’s going to last about four hours, it’s for levels 6-7 and it takes place in Eberron. How long would it take him to find four to six players?

Organized play can take on a whole new dimension. Imagine Living Forgotten Realms being played online. The active player base would explode.

This is where the standardization of 4e will really shine. Casual play, with different DMs and players advancing their characters at different rates, could lend itself to people “cheating” — houseruling their characters into powerful combos, or giving themselves additional magic items. It’d be silly, but don’t think it won’t happen. Some sort of registry, with players using the Character Builder and DMs sticking to the treasure parcel model, could minimize that.

All this could already exist now, but with online play fragmented between different platforms (my group uses Gametable), no central hub has emerged. Wizards’ site will be the natural place for that, although side sites dedicated to specific communities could emerge, and important sites like Obsidian Portal might step in.

Imagine: DMs looking to run a 30-level campaign, or Revenge of the Giants, or their own one-night delve, could get players to sign up. Players could choose between roleplaying-heavy and hack-and-slash games, depending on their mood. Especially good DMs will get a reputation and a following.

Right now, I’m so busy that I haven’t updated this blog in months. I’m so busy that I have been invited to the Virtual Table beta and haven’t had time to play. But by next year, I expect, I hope, to be able to bring my dwarf arcanist to a virtual table whenever I have a few hours to spare.

It’s going to be awesome.

Running a three (two)-stage (elite) solo (who killed your father)

Posted in Uncategorized on September 28, 2010 by Atlemar

Last week, one of my players’ characters met his father for the first time. Well, the ghost of his father, as his father was slain 25 years or so earlier… and the character is 26. And oh by the way, his father said, the dude who killed me has returned here, planning to raise 300 corpses for his undead army. Go get ‘im.

This week, I ran that battle.

I had read The Angry DM’s posts on making a three-stage boss monster. I figured this was a good chance to do the same. But I did it differently:

Shelloukh, orc necromancer, is a standard level 9 artillery. When he is first damaged, or when one of his four Dread Guardians fall, he summons four zombie minions. When he reaches 0 hp, he transforms into a standard level 9 brute.

I didn’t make him a solo because I wanted to use four Dread Guardians without making the fight too dangerous. I just acted like he was a solo, and it worked out.

As an artillery, he was awesome. He stayed back and used ranged and area attacks, and he stayed next to two of his Dread Guardians. He had 78 hp as artillery. He also had a brazier of evil green fire in front of him, which was a great prop for illustrating the somatic components of his spells — he reached in once, picked up some fire, crushed it, and then some mists appeared elsewhere on the battlefield.

As a brute, he had a battleaxe, combat superiority, and 124 hp. I wish I’d given him the standard dual-attack at-will, because he was insufficiently brutal. He had an aura 1 that prevented healing surges, but that never came into play.

On the other hand, four dread guardians meant he took half damage almost the whole battle. I felt bad when the paladin used his daily, rolled well, and delivered 45 points of damage, reduced to 23 because the last guard was still standing there. In retrospect, two guardians and two more living orcs might have been better.

About two hours earlier, in-game, the PCs had slain four orcs on that spot. So when Shelloukh raised his zombies, I just had them zombified. They came up from behind the party and mostly harrassed the wizard, who was forced to turn around, breathe lightning on them, and then turn back to controlling her fireball. I imagined her dragonborn face just annoyed at the undead pests.

At the end, the paladin with the ghost dad delivered the killing blow, and I used the rules about story events improving magic items to make his new ancestral hammer go from +2 to +3.

Overall, it was pretty sweet. I think the stage switch from an artillery to melee kept the encounter from becoming too much of a drag, despite that two of the three melee characters ran out of dailies, encounters and action points. It perhaps wasn’t as scary as it should have been. No PC was on the floor at any time.

In Defense of Daily Powers

Posted in Uncategorized on September 21, 2010 by Atlemar

One frequent complaint about the design of 4e is the concept of encounter and, especially, daily powers. The big Mike Mearls interview has given a lot of attention to this critique of it:

Imagine Robin Hood shooting an arrow and causing someone to jump backwards; or a furious swashbuckling duel with a clever swordsman shifting the ground on which they fight. It’s right there in the fluff text description: Through a series of feints and lures, you maneuver your foe right where you want him.The problem  is that this is a Daily power — which means it can only be used once per day by the rogue.

Huh? Why is Robin Hood losing his skill with the bow after using his skill with the bow? Since when did a swashbuckler have a limited number of feints that they can perform in a day?

There’s a fundamental disconnect between what the mechanics are supposed to be modeling (the rogue’s skill with a blade or a bow) and what the mechanics are actually doing.

If you’re watching a football game, for example, and a player makes an amazing one-handed catch, you don’t think to yourself: “Wow, they won’t be able to do that again until tomorrow!”

And yet that’s exactly the type of thing these mechanics are modeling. Unlike a fireball, I can’t hold any kind of intelligible conversation with the rogue about his trick strike ability:

Me: So what is this thing you’re doing?

Rogue: I’m performing a series of feints and lures, allowing me to maneuver my foe right where I want him.

Me: Nifty. So why can you only do that once per day?

Rogue: … I have no idea.

Well, here’s why.

My wife introduced me to Xena this year. Xena is a great model for action fantasy, which is what 4e combat is. But this also applies to Robin Hood, Star Wars, Terminator and all sorts of other fantasy, science fiction and even non-genre action TV and movies.

In a fight scene, the hero has a technique — fighting with a sword or lightsaber, shooting a laser gun, unleashing arrows at close range. Those are represented in 4e with at-will powers. The hero may also have a signature attack that is used frequently but not constantly. Xena’s chakran (or however the hell you spell it) is like this. And of course, this is an encounter power.

Now, think about the big battle at the end of the movie. The hero is overmatched, but summons a store of will he didn’t even know he had. Or the villain suddenly makes the slightest wrong move, and the hero suddenly takes this opening to spring. Either way, he does something he didn’t do before.

This is the martial daily power. It’s an abstraction of an attack that is made possible only by an unusual circumstance. In the Robin Hood/trick strike example, the power depends on the enemy being exactly where the rogue can take advantage of him. Maybe he’s off-balance; maybe he’s standing under the chandelier. Either way, what the once-per-day mechanic represents is not that the PC forgets the power, but that he won’t have a chance at it again. If this were real life, he might have that chance twice on one day and none on the next.

Not all martial dailies are like this. Some, the 3[W] powers of the fighter, for example, just represent an enormous expenditure of strength, possibly fueled by the desperation of the fight. That’s more akin to the arcane daily, the spell of immense power.

Now, in game, we don’t have to wait for the DM to declare that an opponent has stepped with his left foot six inches forward allowing the perfect opportunity for you to strike. We don’t want that level of detail. We just want to be able to deliver the devastating blow made possible by that.

And that is why the rogue and the ranger have daily powers.

Update: Holy [very bad word], Critical Hits has an awesome example of using 4e to represent cinematic combat.

An encounter two decades in the making

Posted in Uncategorized on September 21, 2010 by Atlemar

Last night, I ran the third part* in a storyline I’ve been wanting to play out for something like 20 years.

When 2e came out, Ral Partha launched a line of AD&D figures. I vowed to collect them all, a task that far, far outstripped the income of an unemployed high schooler. But one blister I did get was the human fighters. The male figure (they all came in sets of male and female) wore light plate, had a sword, and wore a helm with wings. I painted him in a blue-and-white motif.

And then I envisioned a story. He was a paladin, most likely, and one day, on the high plains of Tralyne, he and his party would come upon a rope ladder hanging from the sky. And when he climbed that ladder to the cloudscape, he’d find a castle — his castle, an ancestral fortress left to him by his father. And his mount, a pegasus, would be waiting there.

That was then.

In 2008, when I started this campaign, one of the players chose a paladin as his character. And the gears in my head started turning.

His paladin, Thorssen Darkhammer, is a paladin of the Raven Queen. And this campaign isn’t in Tralyne; I left that world behind years ago. This one is set in the barony of Greenhill, surrounding the small city of the same name.

Early on, I suggested that Thorssen be an orphan with no memory of his parents. I didn’t tell him why. I planted an astronomical scroll on a skeleton in a kruthik lair two years ago. I planted a lens of reading in a treasure parcel in a satyr’s labyrinth last year.

A few sessions ago, the mayor of a small town plagued by zombies mentioned Darkhammer Crossing, which Thorssen (and his player) had never heard of. They went up to the ruins. And last night, they made it into the hallway underneath, where Thorssen met the ghost of his father, slain 25 years ago by a grayskin necromancer who, by the way, is coming back right now because he finally found a ritual to break the divine seal and raise 300 years of dead for the army of his master, the deathpriest Gulxogoth. And then Thorssen got to pick up the hammer for which his family is named.

It’s completely different than I envisioned 20 years ago. Rather than inheriting a castle, Thorssen is now the heir to ruins. His family is scattered, if they’re even alive.

But I got to give the paladin a castle. I have completed something that’s been on my to-do list for 20 years. And I got t0 advance the plot at the same time.

That kicks ass.

* This is my night game, run on Skype and GameTable after my kid goes to bed and before everyone else does. So we play for one to two and a half hours, depending. In a normal, face-to-face, six-to-eight-hour game, this would be done in one session.

Continuing the Edition War from Somewhere Else

Posted in Uncategorized on September 20, 2010 by Atlemar

I’ve started a couple posts, but I’m working on them slowly in order to give them a chance to become mostly fully formed. Plus, work and family have both been busy, so the Edition Wars have had to take a back seat.

But over at this other dude’s blog, this other other dude and I have been having what passed for a fairly reasonable debate in the EW. Granted, we both think the other is wrong, but that’s Why We Fight.

So, Paladin, to continue the argument, I have two pointed questions for you, related to what we’ve been saying over there:

1. You point to the 80 percent treasure rule from the I think the 1981 box. Can you provide the same rule from BECMI or 1e AD&D? Not that the 1974, 1977 or 1981 boxes don’t count, but BECMI and 1e count more, because they were the state of the game for a longer time. However, back then I was a player, not a DM, so I have no memory of that rule.  (EDIT: he  already did this for BECMI on his own blog.)

2. Someone else, but who I believe you agree with, pointed to the monster reaction chart (friendly, unfriendly, hostile) as a good thing, because it sets up opportunities for roleplaying. I, on the other hand, make the players roll when they use their skill. What is the substantive difference between the DM rolling at the beginning of the interaction to see how the monster behaves and the DM using the player’s roll during the interaction to see how the monster behaves?

And, now that I think of, a third question:

3. How do you define “quest” that excludes the way you like to play (looting, information-gathering, low-combat)?

Hello war!

Posted in Uncategorized on September 16, 2010 by Atlemar

I’m a DM. I’m an edition warrior, and I’m aiming to take the 4e Defender paragon path. For now, though, I’m heroic tier.

I run two D&D games. One is in-person, running through the H1-E3 series. We’re on H3 now. I’ve been running it since summer of ’08, and only one of my original players is still in the game. The other is via Skype, in a homebrew setting. I’ve also been running that since ’08, and we’re also still in mid-to-late heroic tier.

Being an adult, with a job and a kid and other hobbies, really sucks. I wish I were in college so I could just cut class to play D&D.