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How the NSA Saved Modern Role-Playing Games

posted Saturday, September 28th 2013 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

It is the 21st Century, and over half the population is hooked on portable technology. Digital communications networks have become a necessity of life. But a clandestine government agency monitors all of its citizens in secret: what they read, who they talk to, and even their location. The Agency infiltrates powerful corporations, hacks private networks and plants backdoors in computer security standards. The citizens know, but they’re powerless to do anything about it.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s now literally the world we live in.

This is bad news for privacy, but it finally solves the biggest problem in modern-era roleplaying: characters fearlessly solving all their problems with computers and the Internet.

Set your D20 Modern scenario in the current day, and any character with a $100 smartphone has the sum total of the world’s knowledge at his fingertips. This forces the GM to come up with a lot more answers than a mediaeval Dungeons & Dragons game, and that gets tiring.

It’s for this reason that many D20 Modern GMs set their game in the 1990s, before computer use was ubiquitous. But what if you want to explore the current day? Isn’t up-to-date realism kind of the point of a modern-era RPG?

Solution: throw in ubiquitous surveillance as a plot tool, and make your protagonists people who the government are going to have a problem with: hackers, private investigators, foreign secret agents, UFO truth-seekers, journalists or the like.

Now, every computer, smartphone and internet connection the protagonists use is a liability, because you never know when someone’s watching. That creates interesting decisions. For example, dare you use Google to find the suspect’s address, knowing that investigators could use that to link you to the case? Can you risk switching on your phone to use its GPS, when any agents following you could use it to pinpoint your location?

21st Century technology becomes a superpower that you can’t use without risking detection. Old-fashioned skills, knowledge and detective work become relevant again. You have to do everything personally, because you can never fully trust the machines. For the first time since 2007 you can actually play D20 Modern set in the current year without overpowering the original core gameplay, and that’s amazing.

Not only that, but it gives a new and different landscape for authors and roleplayers to explore. The 2010s are defined by pervasive advanced technology, and government surveillance of that technology. What makes this different from near-future RPGs like Shadowrun is that it’s more than just realistic, it’s real.

Save on Anything Above a 3

posted Saturday, July 20th 2013 by Jonathan Drain

Once, in a D&D 3.5 game, our party consisted of a human paladin, a lawful good dwarven cleric, a chaotic neutral druid and a chaotic neutral rogue. We entered a dungeon and were attacked by eight gorgons. We were level 8 and gorgons are challenge rating 8 each, so any sensible adventuring party would flee.

We weren’t sensible, and decided to try and tackle it anyway. The paladin and dwarf had nothing to fear from the gordon’s petrifying breath, thanks to our massive Fortitude bonuses. Both passed the saving throw on anything above a 3.

Combat went well, until both of us rolled a 3. The druid and rogue fled. Since both the surviving party members were chaotic neutral, they decided to abandon their former comrades.

Somewhere, in a dungeon, stand two statues of a human paladin and dwarven cleric.

Tabletop Gaming at Chicago’s Biggest Anime Convention

posted Friday, May 31st 2013 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Fili and Kili face off against... a dragon.

There aren’t many places where you can see girls dressed as Fili and Kili, two of the dwarves from The Hobbit, facing off against a man dressed as Spike, the baby dragon from My Little Pony. But one such place is Anime Central, the colossal three-day Japanese animation convention held in Chicago each May.

The scale of this event is such that even unrelated nerd hobbies like tabletop gaming and sci-fi/fantasy are extremely well represented. “ACen” this year hosted over forty tabletop gaming sessions from Pathfinder to mahjong, booking out a half-dozen conference rooms for the entire weekend.

The dedicated games area hosted several Hackmaster sessions, along with a whole series of Pathfinder Society adventures. I’ve never thought the four-hour gaming session a good fit for a big anime con where there’s so much else to do in one weekend, but the Pathfinder rooms were always busy so it looks lke there’s plenty of demand.

What surprises me is that none of the Japanese tabletop RPGs appear on the gaming schedule. A gaming section at an anime convention, and nobody’s running Maid RPG? I passed at least a hundred maid cosplayers over the weekend; are none of them gamers?

But then, as most of the attendees were checking out of the hotels on the final morning, we stumbled upon a maid cafe event hosted by the D20 Girls. Convention rules prohibited panels from serving food or drink or charging for services, so the girls instead ran tabletop board/card game sessions. I had enough time before my plane to squeeze in a round of a fun and utterly unbalanced card game called We Didn’t Playtest This At All.

Like a fighter who dips one level in a spellcasting class, Anime Central is certainly a Japanese animation convention first, and gaming is secondary. Still, a gamer and anime fan will find plenty to do here.

Tabletop RPG retailers are well represented too at ACen. Thankfully, I passed my Will save and managed to spend only $10 on dice this year.

Photo credit: brownsaru (Fili) and thespookydoctor (Kili). (More photos)

How To Get Published in D&D Insider

posted Tuesday, April 9th 2013 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

Wizards of the Coast announced that they’re taking submissions for D&D Insider content during April and May. As someone with a few publishing credits in Dragon magazine I can tell you it’s pretty cool to see your work in print (even if it’s digital now), and getting paid for it’s not bad either.

But what are your chances of making it into D&D Insider if you haven’t written for Wizards of the Coast before? D20 Source takes a look.

Continue reading this article »

How Many Of You Used Google Reader?

posted Friday, March 15th 2013 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Google has announced that they’re retiring Google Reader, the RSS feed aggregator. Over 1,200 people read D20 Source via the RSS feed, and the overwhelming majority of those came from Google Reader.

Since most blogs have RSS feeds, a lot of people used Google Reader as an easy way to follow RPG blogs. For those of you who still mainly visit D20 Source from Google Reader, there are a few options.

Feedly is a top contender that has apps for iOS, Android, Kindle as well as Chrome and Firefox extensions. According to our statistics, 87% of D20 Source readers use one of these platforms.

Feed Demon is a stand-alone Windows RSS aggregator program.

NetVibes is an RSS reader similar to Google Reader. Lifehacker also recommends The Old Reader. Both are web-based, but have no mobile app version. NewsBlur has mobile apps too, with a subscription fee of $1/month if you want to subscribe to more than 64 feeds.

If you’re one of the 1.64% of D20 Source readers who use Opera, you may be surprised to learn that Opera has a built-in feed aggregator. (It also has an e-mail client, IRC client, a torrent client, and a USENET reader, left over from an era where Opera tried to cram as many features as possible.) Simply click the RSS icon in the address bar and subscribe via Opera Mail. You can read your RSS feeds via the menu Opera > Feeds > Read Feeds (this only appears if you’re subscribed to at least one feed). Press j to go to the next post, spacebar to scroll through that post, and k to mark it as read.

Most of these options will let you import your Google Reader feed list, which you can download from Google Takeout.

E6: The World of D&D in Six Levels

posted Sunday, March 3rd 2013 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

E6 is a variant of Dungeons & Dragons v3.5 that challenges one of the game’s basic assumptions: What if there were only six levels instead of at least 20? And why would you want to play this way?

Lately, I’m looking at E6 as a possible solution to the problems I have with D&D 3e and 4e. For example, at high level in third edition D&D, combat is slow because characters have a lot of abilities and resources to choose from and opponents have lots of hit points. In 4th edition, this privilege is now extended to even low-level characters!

In fact, it was an intentional part of D&D 4e’s design to cut out the low-powered early levels that form E6. The idea was that D&D 3.5 had a “sweet spot” between levels 6 and 15, where characters were tough and had a lot of resources but weren’t invulnerable. 4e starts you out with enough hit points and powers to ensure your character’s survival, cutting out the low-level experience.

It’s exactly this gritty low level content that forms the basis of E6. In a way, it’s the anti-4e.

A world of six levels

For me, one of the most interesting things is how the world changes when everything in it is scaled for sixth level characters.

There are no Elminsters or Mordenkainens, no epic-level characters raising questions like, “Why do adventurers risk their lives saving the world when there’s a council of 20th level wizards who can stop any villain with ease?”

There are no spells above 3rd level, because there’s no such thing in this world as a spellcaster powerful enough to cast them. Anyone who can even master 3rd level spells like fireball is considered an archmage. Nobody can create a magic sword of greater than +2, and if a +3 sword exists it’s considered an artifact.

And, generally, there are few monsters of high level, with a CR10 dragon posing an epic threat. For the average peasant, even a single ogre is a serious danger, and that’s how E6 sees it.

There’s better realism, too. You never become so powerful that you can routinely survive 200 foot drops or take on an army solo. Characters remain human.

Porblem Sloved

But it’s not all philosophical – E6 offers to solve practical problems.

My number one problem with D&D v3.5 was that high level play bogs down under the weight of options and character survivability, and 4e did nothing to improve that for me. E6 never gets to the high levels, so you never get that issue.

Character generation is swift, and this lets DMs challenge their players better. I think this is extremely important. You don’t have to pull punches or obssess over encounter balance, because if a PC is killed it won’t take too long to roll a new one.

This in turn makes player decisions more meaningful, and players can be satisfied that they won because of their own ingenuity and not because the encounter was balanced that way or the DM was afraid to kill off their PC.

Quick preparation helps the DM too. Generating a complete stat block for an NPC takes very little time. Our old epic level campaign ground to a halt because of how long it took the DM to roll up each 25th-level villain – and we’d defeat it in about two combat turns.

The six level cap is also good for running mini-campaigns. You might run a slow forum game or find that your group can only meet infrequently, so a full twenty or thirty level campaign will never finish. It’s also good if you want to plan a campaign in advance but find that writing twenty levels is too much work and takes too long to get to the interesting part.

But why E6?

While there are other gritty, rules-light D&D variants out there, E6 has one big advantage: it literally is just D&D 3.5 with a level cap. This means you have access to a wealth of resources: the free Hypertext D20 SRD, about eight years’ worth of official and unofficial expansion books, and a very large player base.

The basics of running E6 are obvious (start a D&D 3.5 campaign and stop at level 6), but if you’re interested you’ll want to start with the official ENWorld thread from 2007. This goes into detail about the philosophy of E6 and gives extra rules and guidelines, such as E6-specific feats and a rule for advancing level 6 characters using bonus feats.

How Realistic is Running in D&D 4e?

posted Wednesday, February 20th 2013 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionGame Design

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about D&D 4e’s tactical nature. I stumbled across an article called 1d10 design mistakes in DnD 4e – Tactical movement, which complains that the rules for running in D&D 4th edition are completely unrealistic.

I touched on this topic in an article last year, Does Anybody Walk or Run Any More?, but that article mainly covered archery, so it’s worth going over again. (For a follow-up that examines archery more accurately, see also You Want To Shoot How Far?)

In D&D 4e, running increases your base speed by 2, at the cost of some penalties to combat. If all you do in the round is run, you can double move, allowing a speed 6 humanoid to move 16 squares in one round. That’s 80 feet over six seconds, or a mere 9 miles per hour. Even a horse with speed 10 can only gallop 24 squares, or 13.6 mph.

How do these figures stand up to a real-world comparison? Actually, pretty well. The Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test requires recruits to be able to run 3 miles within a maximum of 28 minutes, an average of 6.5 mph. An unarmoured human in D&D can run 3 miles in 19 minutes 48 seconds, enough to score 89% on the Marines physical fitness test.

What’s missing from D&D 4e is a faster sprint speed for short-term movement. D&D 3e allowed a character to run up to 4x his base speed as a full round action, and maintain that speed “for a minute or two”. That’s about 13.6 mph for an unarmoured human, a little less than the 15mph average required to run a four minute mile.

Alf’s article raises a good point, though. Why are running characters easier to hit, not harder? In D&D 4e, you grand Combat Advantage to opponents when running, giving them +2 to hit you in melee or ranged. This runs contrary to what you’d expect about a moving target being harder to hit.

Before 4e: Iron Heroes

posted Friday, January 25th 2013 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

Mike Mearls is well known as one of the developers of Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition and various expansions. But less well known is his 2005 work Iron Heroes, which removes the spellcasting classes and magic items from D&D and expands the rest to fill the space. The result is an all-martial version of D&D 3.5 with several innovations I still think are really cool.

Iron Heroes class abilities cost power points to use (like 3e psionics or spell points). These power points are called Tokens, and can be accumulated during an encounter by taking tactical actions which vary by class. For example, an Archer can spend a move action to aim at his target and gain 1 point.

I like IH’s token pools far better than 4e’s encounter powers, because they make narrative sense. It’s hard to explain why the fighter can only trip once per combat, but if he can only trip an opponent after taking some action that sets him up for the trip, it makes more sense. The tokens system is also more versatile, because you can use the same encounter power twice.

IH’s system neatly solves another problem in 4e: the grind of weak at-will powers when you run out of encounter powers. Most IH classes gain tokens during combat, so special attack use scales with combat length.

It’s like 4e in some ways, though. IH heavily uses per-encounter resources rather than per-day. It also uses the reserve points, an early precursor to 4e’s healing surges, which lets you recover hit points between combat without a cleric. This is down to IH’s lack of magical healing, I think, as opposed to 4e’s design to remove reliance on a cleric PC as a healing battery.

I also like that like 3.5, IH supports miniatures but isn’t reliant on them. Distances are in both squares and feet. You can flank on your own by moving around an opponent and attacking in the same round, at the cost of your move action (i.e. no full attack this round) and an attack of opportunity.

You can buy the 2007 revised PDF edition Iron Heroes at RPGNow now for £9.43 or whatever that is in your currency. There’s also a complete Iron Heroes bundle for £22.07. If you’re looking for a low-magic setting or a change from your current D&D, Iron Heroes is still as good as it was in 2007.

Mike Mearls’ Combat Maneuvers

posted Thursday, January 24th 2013 by Jonathan Drain
None of the AboveThird Edition

Yesterday I mentioned the manoever system from Book of Iron Might. Mike Mearls, who later went on to design Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, wrote this mechanically interesting expansion for D&D 3.5 in 2004.

The maneuver system (I’ll use the American spelling to stay consistent with the book, as it’s a game term) allows you to perform a wide range of combat techniques without taking a feat, but at the cost of a large attack penalty of -10 or greater. This penalty can be offset by taking drawbacks.

Lets say you wish to knock an opponent prone. You can do so, at the impossibly high penalty of -20 to attack. However, you can reduce that penalty by 10 if the maneuver provokes an attack of opportunity, by a further 5 if your opponent gets a saving throw or opposed check, and another 5 if the attack only knocks prone and doesn’t deal damage.

Other possible maneuver perks include disarm, bonus damage, ability score damage (2 points), blindness (1d4 rounds), speed reduction, daze, stun, and disabling a natural attack or special ability such as the beholder’s antimagic eye.

This deconstruction of the 3e combat system is what got me to first take note of Mike Mearls and his grasp on mechanics. His later work, the similarly titled Book of Iron Heroes, formed a lot of the groundwork for D&D 4th edition. I’ll write more about Iron Heroes in my next post.

If you’re interested, you can buy Book of Iron Might at RPGNow for £4.41 in PDF, £7.25 in print, or whatever that is in your currency, which looks like Monopoly money to me.

One Weird Feat Discovered By A Sean

posted Wednesday, January 23rd 2013 by Jonathan Drain
None of the AboveThird Edition

For some reason today, a strange feat came to mind. It’s called Reciprocal Slaying, and it appeared on D&D writer Sean K Reynolds’ personal website in 2003.

The benefit is this: As a full attack action, you can allow an opponent to make an attack against you as if you were helpless. If it hits, it counts as a coup de grace – for reference, this means he automatically deals a critical hit, and you make a Fort save or die (DC 10 + damage taken). However, if it hits and you survive, you then get to make a coup de grace attack against your opponent in the same way.

Thinking back on it, this is a really terrible feat. It’s something you might use in an emergency, but not often enough to warrant a feat. It’s more of a “Book of Iron Might” manoever: a special attack with benefits and drawbacks that balance out but don’t require a feat to learn. I’ll blog more on those later, they’re interesting.

Imagine it in the hands of monsters, too. A kobold insta-kills your high level character. Or an undead uses it, because he’s immune to coup de grace.

Dicecards: Polyhedral Dice in Deck Form

posted Thursday, January 17th 2013 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Occasionally, something really cool shows up on Kickstarter. Dicecards is one such project.

Dicecards is a deck of Poker cards with varying pictures of thirty types of dice, allowing you to simulate any dice roll by drawing a card from the deck. Each card depicts several dice including polyhedral (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20), Fudge, average (used in wargaming), directional (Warhammmer 40k), Craps and HeroQuest, plus other objects like a coin, a Scrabble tile, and a compass direction.

The Kickstarter has already hit its funding goal of £5,500 with two weeks to go, but you can still get in and pre-order a deck for £8.

The Art of Chase Stone

posted Wednesday, January 16th 2013 by Jonathan Drain

Chase Stone is a digital artist who draws some incredible photorealistic fantasy and sci-fi art. It’s a wonderful source of new ideas for roleplaying game material.

You can find more at Chase Stone’s Deviantart page.

Running a Convention Game? Don’t Be That Guy

posted Tuesday, January 15th 2013 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

A really good article this week at Critical Hits. Chatty DM goes over The Top Ten Things That Can Make Convention Games Suck.

Pathfinder Kickstarter Funded With Hours to Go

posted Monday, January 14th 2013 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Goblinworks’ Kickstarter for Pathfinder Online has just hit its funding target of 1 million dollars, with mere hours to spare.

Yesterday, the crowdfunded project was more than $125,000 away from its target, with a daily average of only around $20,000. In the past 24 hours, 1,328 people have donated $163,308, putting Pathfinder Online at 103% of its budget with 3 hours still to go.

You can still back Pathfinder Online Kickstarter for the next three hours.

What Pokémon Does Right

posted Tuesday, January 8th 2013 by Jonathan Drain
Game Design

Nintendo today announced the next installment in the Pokémon game series. Whether or not you’re a fan, Pokémon has a lot in common with Dungeons & Dragons.

It’s an RPG with a history of over fifteen years, now entering its sixth “edition”. RPG designers can learn a lot from the ways Pokémon has changed since its first version, and the ways it’s remained the same.

1. The core story remains unchanged.

Pokémon is always the tale of a boy from a small village who leaves home to collect, train and battle wild creatures in the hopes of winning the regional championship. Nintendo knows this is a successful story, but do they know why? Either way, they don’t change it. D&D, similarly, has always been about heroes who explore and loot dungeons for treasure.

2. Sacred cows are never slaughtered.

Pokémon games have a lot of features that don’t change. The starting Pokémon are always Grass, Fire and Water type. You always have a friend or rival that you battle along the way. You always fight eight gym leaders, battle through Victory Road, and take on the Elite Four. These things are iconic to Pokémon. Whether people like these because they’re good design, or because they just feel like Pokémon, Nintendo is clever enough not to change them in their main series games.

Continue reading this article »

I’m A Horrible DM Because I Do Things Like This

posted Monday, December 24th 2012 by Jonathan Drain

I like to give monsters potions, then have them drink the potions at the start of the encounter. The potions count as the encounter’s treasure.

Once, in a 3e combat encounter, I gave a ghost a special ring of regeneration that deals negative energy that heals undead. Essentially, it’s a ghost touch ring that hits the wearer with an inflict every round.

The encounter was very long and boring. The players didn’t know where it was getting so many hit points. They calculated that it had taken more damage than a CR-appropriate ghost could possibly have if its hit dice were maximized.

The ring was very expensive.

It counted as the encounter’s treasure.

Running an RPG on a Forum

posted Sunday, September 16th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Long-time readers will remember my advice to use Google Calendar to find out when your friends are free to organize an online game. Recently, I’ve taken to an alternative solution: running the game on a message board.

Why a forum?

Previously, I ran games in real-time over IRC or virtual gametable software. The big challenge was finding a time slot amicable to all the players, who at one point were spread across four continents. When a player quit, we could only replace him with someone who could make the time slot, despite having a wide online community to draw from.

Last year, I started a new game in play-by-post form on a message board. Play-by-post dates back to play-by-email games in the 1960s, and even older “correspondence chess” games from at least 1804 where players sent their turns through the post.

Running D&D in this format has its own drawbacks, but it’s quite feasible. I’d like to share some of the lessons we’ve learned in the past year.

Continue reading this article »

Will D&D Next Have Better Digital Tools?

posted Sunday, July 1st 2012 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

The other day, I had a question about my D&D 4th edition game: What modifiers apply to Initiative? Looking up the answer reminded me of some annoying flaws in the D&D 4e Compendium.

First, search for “Initiative”. After several seconds it brings up a list of 5,011 monsters – practically every one in the Compendium, since nearly all contain the word “Initiative” in the statblock. However, it doesn’t return the entry for Initiative. The search assumes that the category with the most results is the one you’re looking for.

Next, change the category to “Glossary”. We get seven results, including “Fey Beast Companion Actions”, “Ready an action” and “Surprise Round”, but no entry for initiative.

So I dig out my physical copy of the Player’s Handbook and consult the index at the back of the book. Right there on page 267 is the answer, under Rolling Initiative: it’s 1d20 plus half your level, plus your Dexterity modifier.

Why isn’t this basic game rule included in the Compendium? Was it omitted by accident, and nobody noticed for four years? Did someone at Wizards of the Coast think it was beneficial to omit the rules, perhaps to encourage book sales or discourage piracy somehow?

Compare the Hypertext D20 SRD, the Compendium’s unofficial D&D 3.5e equivalent. Search for “Initiative”, and right away we get the rules for Initiative checks. The Pathfinder SRD likewise returns the correct answer.

The Compendium has a similar issue with the tarrasque. While the D20 SRD gives you the creature as the first result, the 4E Compendium defaults to Tarrasque Plate Armor, an item.

Because the Compendium is behind a paywall and therefore not indexable by Google, you’re limited to this clumsy search. There’s also no index, which makes the Compendium a weaker tool than the physical rulebooks or the online D20 / Pathfinder SRDs.

If the upcoming “D&D Next” has digital tools, will they solve this problem? And when unofficial third-party tools arise to solve players’ problems, how will D&D’s publisher react?

The Law According to Dungeons & Dragons

posted Wednesday, June 27th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

Here are five reasons why you don’t want to live in the world implied by the Dungeons & Dragons rules – unless, of course, you’re an adventurer.

1. Theft is legal if the owner is already dead
Dungeons never belong to anyone. If they did, you wouldn’t need traps and monsters to guard your treasure – just an alarm spell that calls the police. Likewise, if you kill someone, it’s pefectly legal to take their stuff.

2. Orcs don’t have rights
Neither do kobolds, goblins or ogres. You want to live in uncivilized tribes, you don’t get the protection of law. In fact, it’s considered polite to murder you on sight. The exception is if they’re an adventurer. If you’re a crazy enough orc to steal from dungeons instead of raiding caravans, the law begrudgingly accepts you as a good guy.

3. Adventurers pay no tax, ever
Somebody must be paying for all these town guards, city walls, roads, abandoned fortresses and cultist-infested public sewers. The king evidently funds all of this with some kind of tax, but nobody ever taxes the adventurers. Impoverished farmers pay ten percent of their crop while millionaire dragon-slayers waste their savings on personal fortresses and marginally sharper magic swords.

4. Prices are fixed by the government
No matter where you go, a Magic Sword +1 costs the same amount. Whether it’s 2,000 gp in your kingdom or or 360 gp, you’ll never get a better or worse price. Why? Clearly, the king is secretly price-fixing to control the supply of magic items. Otherwise, supply and demand would eventually let every peasant own a magic sword and the people would overthrow their tax-happy king.

5. Beggars are the richest peasants in town
If you’re a farmer, you maybe earn the equivalent of one or two silver pieces a day. A hundred gold pieces is more than you’ll see in a year. Imagine how much more profitable it is for the beggar in a major city, when a high-level adventuring party drops him 100 gold in “spare change”. All he needs to do is sit outside any tavern with adventurers staying in it, and he has a hard-working man’s annual salary. No wonder the peasants are fomenting rebellion.

Spare a Thought For the Poor Town Guards

posted Sunday, June 17th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
Fluff/InspirationGame Design

Attending a gaming convention is a lot like being a town guard in a fantasy RPG or mediaeval settlement. You spend a lot of the day on your feet, possibly wearing a cumbersome outfit, and at the end of the day you go back to a cramped room with your comrades.

Let me tell you, spending three days at Anime Central dressed as a Whiterun town guard from the game Skyrim has given me a new appreciation for how careless we Dungeons & Dragons players are when we design characters’ outfits.

1. You can’t see crap out of a face-concealing visor
I opted to do without the Whiterun guard’s iconic face-concealing helmet, since it would limit visibility of the convention stalls and events. Just ask anyone who goes dressed as a Power Ranger.

But the real town guards also need good visibility more than protection. As one says, “I mainly deal with petty thievery and drunken brawls. It’s been too long since we’ve had a good bandit raid.”

Continue reading this article »

Natural 20 by the Blibbering Humdingers

posted Thursday, June 7th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Tabletop Forge: A New Google+ Gaming App

posted Wednesday, May 23rd 2012 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

I’ve talked about gaming with Google+ before. Now, a new app is revolutionizing how tabletop games are played on Google+.

Tabletop Forge is a virtual tabletop app that integrates with Google+ “Hangout” video chat system. In addition to seeing and hearing your fellow players live, Tabletop Forge lets you draw on a battle map, place miniatures, roll dice, and type in text if voice chat isn’t your thing.

This is much better than standard Google+, where we didn’t even have a way to roll dice.

Read on to see how this digital game table compares to the competition.

Continue reading this article »

Why Every Group Should Play Maid RPG, Once

posted Friday, May 11th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Two weekends ago I flew across the pond to Chicago to attend Anime Central, the third largest Japanese animation convention in the US. The convention has a surprisingly large tabletop games presence, with a whole corridor of conference rooms booked out for everything from Pathfinder RPG to Magic: the Gathering.

There’s a fair amount of overlap between fans of anime and tabletop RPGs, and nowhere is that overlap more direct than Maid: The Role-Playing Game. Japan has produced its own tabletop roleplaying games since at least as far back as the 1980s, but in 2008, Maid RPG was the first of those to see an official English translation.

It’s cartoonish, unpredictable, and sometimes—if you use the optional rules originally published in an expansion book—downright lewd. Critics have dubbed it “a joke RPG” and even the translator called Maid RPG a “goddamn weird game”.

And after some friends online convinced me to run a game over Google+, I wholeheartedly recommend that every D&D player and RPG designer play this game, at least once. Read on to find out why.

Continue reading this article »

Nyarlathotep Stars in New Japanese Animation

posted Sunday, April 15th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Tentacled horror Nyalathotep of the Cthulhu mythos appears in a new animated romantic comedy airing now in Japan.

In this season’s Haiyore! Nyaruko-san, the Crawling Chaos of H. P. Lovecraft’s horror stories appears as a cute grey-haired high school girl named Nyaruko who shows up to rescue a boy from a nightgaunt attack.

Continue reading this article »

Photo: Alcove, Nimrod Fortress

posted Friday, March 30th 2012 by Jonathan Drain

Nimrod Fortress, Golan Heights

An alcove in the ruins of Nimrod Fortress, a mediaeval fortress in the middle east built in 1229. The bottom of this room is flooded with water.

Photograph courtesy of Uri Kurlianchik.

Existential Crisis and Dragons

posted Tuesday, March 27th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

In this game, instead of playing elves and wizards, the players control aspects of the personality of an office worker suffering from ennui!

How Mass Effect 3 Should Have Ended

posted Wednesday, March 21st 2012 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Joker frantically pokes at the holographic control panel as the Normandy rushes to outrun a blast wave. As the engines crumble, the ship hurtles toward a deserted planet.

Shepard takes off his VR helmet and hands it to the arcade attendant.

“Thanks for playing Normandy! It’s one of our most popular VR games!”

Shepard nods and strolls back to his job at the food court.

Best Game Ever: A Different D&D Song

posted Saturday, March 17th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

How to Build a Sniper in D&D 4e

posted Tuesday, March 13th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceFourth Edition

There’s a great sniper scene in the movie Full Metal Jacket where a sniper takes out one of the soldiers, and the rest of the squad is pinned down debating whether to rush out and save him.

You can’t easily recreate the same scene in 4th edition D&D. Instant kills are unpopular and combat tends to happen at short range. Still, it’s possible as a DM to create an encounter with long-range attackers.

Sniper as a warmage

The warmage was a concept formalized in third edition’s Complete Arcane. It’s an arcane caster who wears light armour and learns offensive and support magic through arcane military training rather than research.

Build such a creature by statting up a level 1 wizard with the war wizard build, using the quick NPC rules. Add some light armour to up his AC to around the average for his class.

The key here is to give him the Magic Missile spell, with an unusually long range of 20 squares or 100 feet. The latest version of this spell will only deal 2 or 3 damage, but they can use Stealth (given +6 from training and Dexterity) to hide immediately after they shoot, and a full level 1 encounter will have five warmage snipers working together for an automatic 15 total damage to one PC per round, enough to bloody a PC. If the enemies get close they switch to a spell like Stone Blood or scorching burst.

Sniper as rogue

The rogue (scoundrel) class can take the Sharpshooter Talent class ability, which grants +1 to attack and increases the range on a crossbow to 20 squares, or 40 at penalty. The advantage over the warmage setup is that they gain 2d6 bonus damage when they have combat advantage from being hidden, and they can hide every round after firing. For a rogue with 13 Dexterity, the average damage of 1d8+2d6+1 is 12.5 per hit.

The thing is, this might actually be very unfair. You’ve got an opponent 20 squares away that you can’t see, perhaps a team of five rogue snipers, and they’re hitting you for a third to a half of your HP per shot. The NPC rules allow it, but monster rules tend to hold to a certain balance.

Sniper as a monster

There’s no reason in 4th edition D&D to limit yourself to normal character rules for building opponents, even if your snipers are human. Simply start with any artillery creature of the appropriate level and work from there. Look for one that strikes at a very long range, and give it helpful terrain like a position atop a cliff. Count the terrain as part of the encounter XP budget, if it gives a strong advantage to the opponent.

Make Your D&D Website Better than WotC’s

posted Wednesday, March 7th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

When I’m not writing about Dungeons & Dragons, I’m a website developer in my day job. I find myself habitually critiquing websites, and Wizards of the Coast’s official D&D homepage is no exception.

Here are my top five problems that you want to avoid to make your site better than WotC’s D&D website.

Keep page load times to a minimum

Opera web browser has a little-known feature that shows you how much data. WotC’s site takes a whopping 2MB to load. If you felt like their site was slow, it’s because it’s transferring five to ten times more data than a normal website.

Even in this age of broadband internet, keep your webpage below 500KB, and ideally below 200KB.

Keep design uncluttered

In the late 1990s, the trend in website design was to cram as much content into the top of your page, on the mistaken belief that users don’t scroll down. The result was cluttered websites that make it hard for the user to find what they’re looking for.

Modern “web 2.0″ principles recommend a minimalist layout that helps the user find what he wants, rather than what the publisher wants the user to find. Nobody comes to a website to read advertising billboards.

Let your users stay logged in

When I visit the D&D Compendium to look up some monster stats, it logs me out after a day or two and I have to enter my username and password again. This is a very short time to keep a user logged in. Many popular websites allow you to stay logged in after a month or even more.

If your site has a login, let users stay logged in for at least a month, unless you’re running something high-security like a bank.

Readability is key

In 1999, the trend was to use small fonts, because they looked neat at low resolutions. Now, the average screen resolution has doubled and anti-aliasing makes bigger fonts look good. The average web user is older, and not all of us have perfect eyesight any more, but WotC’s using an even smaller font size than their own website 13 years ago.

Make sure your main article text is well-spaced, has good margins on either side and is an easy to read font size.

Use Group Initiative to Speed Up Combat

posted Saturday, March 3rd 2012 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Here’s a house rule I use in a play-by-forum D&D game. I think it speeds up combat a lot, and I’m interested in hearing how well it works for other groups.

Group Initiative
Make a single initiative roll for the opponents’ side. Use the initiative modifier of the opponents’ leader or whoever has the highest initiative modifier.

Make individual initiative rolls for each player character. On a forum game, the DM can make all the initiative rolls to save time.

First, any PCs who beat the opponent in the initiative take a turn. They can act in any order.

Next, all the opponents take their turns.

Next, all the PCs take their turn, even PCs who acted before the initiative. Again, they can act in any order. Once all PCs have taken their turn, the opponents take their turn, and so on.

On a forum game especially, you don’t have to wait for the person ahead of you in initiative order. Waiting is a bottleneck. When a player is ready to take his turn, you don’t want to make him wait, or he might not be ready when his turn comes up.

Characters with high initiative bonuses are still valuable, because they get a bonus turn at the start of each combat. This is really what happens anyway in normal initiative.

A character can wait for an ally to coordinate their attacks in the same turn. For example, a fighter can wait for the cleric to heal him before he attacks.

The enemies all get their turn before any PCs can react. This can be dangerous if they gang up on one target.

Certain rules expect normal initiative, and you’ll have to improvise. For example, some D&D 4e monsters take extra actions ahead of their normal initiative count.

What’s your experience with group initiative rules?

The Challenge of Finding Epic Level Soap

posted Wednesday, February 22nd 2012 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Over at Critical Hits, Vanir (who you may remember from the blog Stupid Ranger) has written up a list of 10 epic level problems nobody thinks about. For instance, where do you get the epic level soap necessary to wash off epic level bacteria? And how do you speak to normal folk when your voice booms with deific thunder?

Then there’s this problem:

Woe betide the fool who ascends to godhood at a family reunion. Does your family worship you now?

“Please pass the green beans, Sun Lord.”


Link: 10 Epic-Level Problems Nobody Thinks About, via Critical Hits

You Want To Shoot How Far?

posted Saturday, February 18th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionGame Design

Commenters on my last article raised some very good points on the historical accuracy of archery in Dungeons & Dragons, or perhaps lack of it. This gave me cause to do some research on the difficulty of long-range archery.

According to various estimates, the mediaeval English longbow had an effective range of 180-250 yards (540-750 feet or 108-150 D&D squares). However, at this range archers would fire into enemy formations rather than individual targets. Only at shorter ranges would an archer be expected to hit a man reliably.

The modern day sport of clout archery shows that this kind of shooting is entirely possible. Men shoot toward a flag on the ground 180 yards (540 feet) away, with one point for landing within 12 feet and more points for landing closer. This suggests that even with mediaeval wooden bows and little training, a man could indeed shoot into a formation of men at 180 yards.

In shorter-range target shooting, archers are expected to hit a 40cm target at 18 metres (60 feet) or a 122cm target at 90 metres (295 feet or 98 yards). Traditional hunters typically shoot deer with a bow at a range of 25 yards (75 feet) or less.

D&D 4e’s shortbow has a range of 15 (75 feet) without penalty, 30 (150 feet) at -2, very close to what modern hunters describe. One says, “All my animals taken are between 7 and 25 yards [21 to 75 feet]. I practice beyond that but I can really see the arrow dropping off after 25 yards so I stay under that.”

That range increases to 20/40 (100/200 feet) for the longbow and 25/50 (125/250 feet) for the superior greatbow. Here we have a small problem: how do you simulate the mediaeval longbow, which by some estimates could fire 250 yards (750 feet) with an accuracy of perhaps five feet?

The only real difference between 3e and 4e’s archery is that 3e lets you fire very long distances at reduced accuracy. A 200 yard (600 feet) shot like a mediaeval archer or clout archer incurs a -12 penalty, so a trained archer can hit an unarmoured man some of the time. Unfortunately, D&D 3e doesn’t simulate mass combat well, so the massed archer effect isn’t directly equatable.

Although D&D 3e technically lets you shoot a longbow at 1,000 feet, in practice it’s not feasible. You take an impossible -20 penalty to the shot, giving an unarmoured man an equivalent AC of 30.

Does Anybody Walk or Run Any More?

posted Wednesday, February 15th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionGame Design

I’ve spotted an odd difference between D&D third and fourth edition, in how they handle moving and shooting over long ranges.

In my last D&D 4e session, the players made the ill-advised choice to split the party. Half went into the woods to look for the creature who was menacing the village, while the other half stayed in the village to look for clues.

When the scouting party finally encountered the creature, it was 500 yards away from the village. Combat began with two of the player characters 300 squares away from the creature.

This sort of long range is where 3e and 4e play very differently.

In third edition, you can run 4x your speed. If your base speed is 30 feet or 6 squares, you can run 120 feet or 24 squares in a round.

In fourth edition, running only increases your speed by +2. With a run-double-move, an unencumbered human’s top speed is only 16 squares, or two thirds of what it was in third edition.

Ranged weapons are similarly shortened from their third edition counterparts.

In 3e, a light crossbow has a range of 75 feet or 15 squares without penalty, with a -2 penalty for each full 80 feet or 16 squares. The maximum range is ten such increments, so you can technically hit a target at 800 feet or 160 squares if you’re lucky or talented.

In 4e, the crossbow has a similar range of 15 squares without penalty and a further 15 squares at a -2 penalty. However, you can’t shoot any further than two range increments, so your maximum range with a crossbow is 30 squares or 150 feet.

This short range of D&D4e is no problem inside dungeons, but a bother at long-range battlefield stuff.

It’s also lacking in realism and historical accuracy. A person can easily run 120 feet in six seconds, or a quarter-mile in a minute. Not only could the English longbow shoot further than D&D4e’s 200ft (40 square) limit, but King Henry VIII ordered that archery practice ranges be at least 220 yards or 660 feet (132 D&D squares).

My question of the day: Why do you suppose the D&D designers shortened ranges this way? Does it enhance the game, or hinder it?

Is This Dragon Encounter Too Deadly?

posted Sunday, February 12th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceThird Edition

A couple of years ago I came up with an idea for a particularly unfair combat encounter involving a dragon who takes every advantage of his terrain and abilities. I never inflicted it on my players, but other Dungeon Masters may not be so merciful.

Using the D&D 3.5 rules, take a young red dragon, CR7. Red dragons are described as preparing multiple strategies ahead of time, and taking great care to avoid damaging their enemy’s items so they can loot them later. This one is no exception.

The dragon lures his enemy to a chosen spot: a beach, at night. With +17 to Bluff, setting up a ruse like this is no problem. Bluff is a class skill for red dragons, and they have a lot of hit dice.

He begins the battle by reading a scroll of resist energy for cold resistance 10, which he can do since he casts spells as a first level sorcerer. It costs 150 gp, but 7th level characters have about 19,000 gp worth of equipment each, so it’s a sound investment. The dragon uses his own spellcasting ability to cast mage armor and resistance, for +4 to AC and a brief +1 to saves before swooping in for the attack.

This is where the beach terrain is important. The dragon swoops in from 150 feet away (30 squares) and uses the Hover feat to make a whirlwind of sand. The sandstorm extinguishes all torches, gives the dragon full concealment if he’s 25 feet away or more, and forces casters to make a Concentration check (DC 16) to cast a spell. The dragon can hover at a height of up to twenty feet, out of the range of melee attackers.

The PCs will have to move into 10 feet range of the dragon to attack without penalty. This means archers can’t make a full attack and spellcasters must move into melee range. A PC at the very edge of the dust cloud must move 45 feet to attack without penalty. Area spells work normally, but the red dragon is immune to the usual fireball and resists the first 10 of a cold based attack before its cold weakness is applied.

Now, lets say we scale this encounter up to a young adult red dragon, CR13. We have even more frustrating tactic to use here. Remember that we’re on a beach.

At Huge size, the dragon qualifies for the Snatch feat, giving him the ability to pick up anyone he hits with a bite or claw, provided he can succeed at a grapple (at a whopping +37). He then flies over the ocean at full fly speed of 150ft and drops the grabbed character into the ocean.

To get back, the dropped character must swim 150 feet. Assuming he passes a Swim check each around (DC 10), the character moves at one-quarter speed: half speed for swimming (even as a full round action), and half that again due to the little-known effect that you move half speed in darkness. The average character will be out of combat for twenty rounds.

This snatch attack assumes the dragon hits with his bite attack and flies off in the same round. If it misses, the dragon continues his full attack (two claws, one tail slap), choosing to grapple with the claws at a -20 penalty to hold without penalty to himself (still grappling at +17). If the target fails to escape, he begins the next round by dropping the target in the ocean as usual.

Once there’s only one character left on the beach, the dragon can do even worse. Hovering at 10 feet, he snatches the target with his bite and flies up diagonally at a 45 degree angle at half speed (the maximum allowed by his fly movement category), moving 35 feet forward and 35 feet up. If the target breaks free on its turn, it falls 45 feet. If not, the dragon flies another 35 feet diagonally up, blasts the target with his breath weapon allowing no save for 10d10 fire damage, then drops him 80 feet for 8d6 falling damage. On average, this is 83 damage in one round.

What do you think? Too much?

Japan 3DS Game to Recreate Tabletop Experience

posted Thursday, February 9th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Japanese publisher Level-5 has announced Crimson Shroud, a Nintendo 3DS game that actually simulates the features of pen and paper RPGs: rolling dice, moving miniatures, and paper maps.

“Now, the die is cast,” reads the Japanese website. “Experience a new sort of roleplaying in a tabletop-style RPG.”

Screenshots and concept art show dungeons built out of Dwarven Forge style terrain pieces. Characters can be seen standing on pedestals like tabletop miniatures. We also see a map in a hand-drawn style.

“As illustrated here, dice will be an essential key item,” reads the caption to a screenshot showing the polyhedral dice familiar to any D&D player: 20, 12, 10, 8, 6 and 4-sided dice. For many Japanese roleplayers, this will be their first encounter with polyhedral dice, which are less common in Japan’s tabletop RPGs (Sword World RPG and Maid RPG both use only six-sided dice, for example). It seems inspired quite directly from modern Dungeons & Dragons, which did see a Japanese release.

Crimson Shroud’s creator is Yasumi Matsuno, famous for his work on video game RPGs including Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre and Vagrant Story. Matsuno says he’s influenced by western games, and joined publisher Level-5 to work on a small-scale project like this where he is able to have complete control over the finished product.

(Thanks to Nintendo DS blog TinyCartridge for the story.)

French Adventurers Restore Priceless Works of Art

posted Monday, February 6th 2012 by Jonathan Drain

From Wired: The New French Hacker-Artist Underground:

UX’s most sensational caper (to be revealed so far, at least) was completed in 2006. A cadre spent months infiltrating the Pantheon, the grand structure in Paris that houses the remains of France’s most cherished citizens. Eight restorers built their own secret workshop in a storeroom, which they wired for electricity and Internet access and outfitted with armchairs, tools, a fridge, and a hot plate. During the course of a year, they painstakingly restored the Pantheon’s 19th- century clock, which had not chimed since the 1960s.

It reads like something out of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure. Small groups of brave young men explore the tunnels underneath the city and break into museums to steal valuable works of art. The only difference is that instead of selling the artworks for gold coins, these real-world rogues restore artworks that museums have forgotten.

UX is a kind of adventurers’ guild who specialize in restoring objects of cultural importance. The monsters they fight are incompetent museum security and lazy officials who don’t care about the artworks they protect.

The story provides real-world tested answers to questions of realism in D&D that are normally fobbed off with mundane gameplay-based reasons. Why isn’t every dungeon door locked for security? The game designer says “because lockpicking can be boring”, but now the French urban explorer can tell you “because whoever owns the site now doesn’t expect anyone to penetrate their first layer of security.”

Photo: Machu Picchu Temple of the Sun

posted Thursday, February 2nd 2012 by Jonathan Drain

The Machu Picchu Temple of the Sun, an Inca ruin from the 1400s. Its dry stone construction still stands to this day. Photograph released into the public domain by Fabricio Guzmán.

So Long, Fourth Edition

posted Monday, January 30th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNone of the Above

With the recent announcement of Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition, D20 Source is coming out of retirement to respect a roleplaying games tradition that’s older than D&D itself: complaining about the old version of the rules.

Personally, I was a big fan of D&D third edition. It was the first version of D&D that I played a proper campaign, and there was a lot of technical consistency to the rules that I could get a grasp on and create meaningful material with. I even wrote 3e material for some major publications.

Over the years, I began finding imperfections in D&D 3e, as did a lot of long-time 3e players. High-level combat took too long without instant-kill effects. Groups needed a proper mix of class roles to succeed, and so on. When 4e was announced in 2007 I looked forward to seeing those issues addressed.

What let me down most about 4e is that it not only failed to solve the worst problems, it only codified and made them worse, while taking out some of the things I liked the most.

Take solos, for example. In 3e, one of the worst combats I ever DMed was an elder earth elemental versus two PCs, a paladin and a monk. It became what’s been nicknamed “padded sumo”, a fight where both sides have lots of hit points and just keep hitting in a boring battle of attrition. 4e didn’t solve this. It just gave lots of hit points to both PCs and solo creatures.

Slow combat in general was the number one problem that 4e failed to solve for me. I gamed online where the limits of communication slow play more than you’d expect. 4e gave PCs more hit points, more combat options and more things to fight, without any way to compensate for the way this made combat turns take longer. At least low-level 3e combat was quick and decisive!

It’s too early to tell exactly what D&D 5th edition will be, but it’s my hope that it’ll be a game that solves the problems a lot of people discovered with both previous editions, and in doing so, unifies the Dungeons & Dragons playerbase that was fragmented by the release of 4th edition. It’ll be interesting to see what the designers come up with.

D20 Source is On Hiatus

posted Thursday, February 3rd 2011 by Jonathan Drain
Site Announcements

After five years and over 500 posts, D20 Source is taking a break. You can still follow @d20source on Twitter for occasional interesting links, retweets, and important announcements.

In the meantime, feel free to peruse the D20 Source archives:

I’d also like to recommend the following RPG blogs. I’ve listed them here by topic; please check them out and subscribe to whichever take your interest.

Thank you for your patience.

Merry Christmas!

posted Saturday, December 25th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

No blog post today. It’s Christmas! Spend some time with your loved ones.

If you have no loved ones, buy Eversion on Steam. It’s a deceptively neat platformer, on sale for the next few days at 50% off, making it cheaper than a beer (and lasts longer too). Absolutely nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons, but I recommend it all the same.

Links Roundup: 19th December 2010

posted Sunday, December 19th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

DriveThruRPG enters a Brave New World, via Stargazer’s World. A review of DriveThruRPG’s new print-on-demand service. This could become something important for the RPG industry.

Understanding the Economy of Actions, via Sly Flourish. An in-depth analysis of actions per round in D&D 4E. It discusses the difference between heroic tier and high epic level, and ways for DMs to counter PCs with a ludicrous number of attacks per round.

Five Reasons to Love Gamma World, via Sly Flourish

Did I miss anything good this week?

Now That’s What I Call Terrain

posted Thursday, December 16th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Uncovered this old post from Penny Arcade, where Gabe shows off his artistic talents by creating elemental planets for use as D&D terrain. The effort that went into these constructions should be an inspiration to every Dungeon Master.

Links Roundup: 13th December 2010

posted Monday, December 13th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

The Things We Do For Love, via Penny Arcade. Webcomic on DM burnout.

Semiprecious Stones, base 50gp value, via Jeff’s Gameblog. Actual photographs of gems from the D&D treasure list. See also last week’s Links Roundup for the 10gp base value gem list.

The Largest RPG Download Store introduces POD, via Stargazer’s World. In short, Drive Thru RPG is doing print on demand now.

The Executive Barrier, via Kayinworks. The designer of I Wanna Be The Guy discusses reward, skill and difficulty in game design.

89 Colorful Kennings, via Kobold Quarterly. Metaphors from Viking myth. I can’t think of a way to integrate this into a D&D game but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Understanding the Economy of Actions, via Sly Flourish. Fourth edition mechanics.

Five Reasons to Love Gamma World, via Sly Flourish.

What I Like About Pathfinder

posted Thursday, December 9th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

From Rise of the Runelords:

Exceptional Stats (Ex) Karzoug was destined from birth to become one of the greatest wizards of his age. As a result, his ability scores were generated using 32 points, rather than the standard 35-point elite array. Additionally, he has much more gear than standard for an NPC of his level. These modifications increase his total CR by 1.

The real reason for the character’s stats is probably balance, as writers knew as far back as Dungeon’s print run that solo mages in D&D 3.5 are defensively underpowered for their challenge rating. You can see this in Touch of the Abyss (by Wolfgang Baur, Dungeon #117, December 2004), where a wizard is possessed by a malevolent spirit to raise his ability scores and makes especially optimal use of spells and terrain to survive.

What I like about this statblock though is that it explains the character ability with an in-setting context. It evokes the sense of something in-setting, rather than something mechanical.

A movie character might shoot someone because it’s dramatically appropriate at the end of act two of the main plot, but that’s not how the audience is presented with it. They’re engaged in the story and the motivations of the characters and the conflict, not the nuts and bolts. Even if some film student understands a movie on a mechanical level, as a game designer or dungeon master might in his game, he’s also watching on the level of the fiction that everyone else sees.

What makes Dungeons & Dragons engaging, for me, is the connection to a malleable, coherent, fictional world. If you’re just playing like a miniatures skirmish game, then for me, that’s missing the point. Aramil the dwarf isn’t just a collection of fighter feats, and the places he adventures to aren’t just encounter sets. I think the biggest advantage of tabletop RPGs over video games is how you can go beyond the depiction of graphics and experience a world which, although fictional, is coherent and interactive and interesting all the same.

Links Roundup: 5th December 2010

posted Sunday, December 5th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

What I Learned Running a 1 to 30 D&D Campaign, via Critical Hits. Now that D&D 4E’s been out long enough for a campaign to have run to completion, Mike Shea gives his insights into what we used to call “the new edition”:

Near the end, there wasn’t any bad roll that couldn’t be boosted up by five points using some combination of forgotten feats, situational bonuses, magic items, or triggered actions. People would say things like “deep rumble strike” and then hit an invisible monster for 130 damage. [...] There wasn’t a way in hell I could tell if they had a real power or were just making up nonsense words and then doing whatever they wanted to do.

I sound like I’m complaining but 3.5 was even worse for me. Chainwielding half-orcs and solid fog spells trivialized every monster I ever threw at them. High level D&D games pre-4e seemed to end up as coin tosses. Heads you kill them all, tails they kill you all. [...] Of course, with 4e, I miss having monsters even potentially that lethal.

The (Lost?) Art of Trap Placement, via JD Wiker.

R.A. Salvatore Is A Grognard from Cave Of Chaos, via Cave of Chaos.

Real Steel: The Tetsubo, via Kobold Quarterly. Interesting article on the Japanese long spiked club.

Maybe there’s method in Wizards’ madness after all, via Greyulf’s Lair. Brief speculation on Microsoft’s port of Silverlight to the Xbox 360 and what this could mean for the D&D character software.

State of the Mongoose 2010, via Paranoia blog. While the Paranoia: Troubleshooters core book has sold well, the alternate core books Internal Security and High Programmers have been less successful. The news is excerpted from Mongoose’s 2010 report, a mammoth 10,000 word document of interest to anyone in the RPG industry.

When Is It OK To Railroad?, via RPG Blog II.

Ornamental Stones, base 10gp value, via Jeff’s Gameblog. Picture of the gems appearing on the low end of D&D’s treasure chart.

That’s probably the perfect mentality, I think:, via Quote Unquote. On developing a game, whether a video game or tabletop RPG.

How to Captivate Your Audience with Story (From America’s Greatest Living Playwright), via Copyblogger. Advice on story writing applied to marketing, but equally valuable to the tabletop games writer and Dungeon Master.

Possibly Intriguing D&D Virtual Table News, via Grognardia. There’s a rumour that D&D’s virtual gametable will support systems other than D&D 4E. Nothing that Maptools and OSU-GT Gametable don’t already do, and I suspect that few oldschool-only players will subscribe to D&D Insider at full price just for the Gametable, but still.

The Smallest of Gaming Groups: DM+1, via Newbie DM. How to run D&D 4th edition for a single player.

competing processes of play, broad appeal, and improving D&D, via Elliot Wilen’s RPG theory/design/philosophy journal.

World Building 101: Life Long Rivals

posted Friday, December 3rd 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Every story has a protagonist or protagonists. They’re the heroes, the viewpoint characters, the ones we root for–in roleplaying games, these are always the player characters. (It’s possible to have protagonists who are not player characters, but if your player characters are not protagonists there’s a good chance something’s going wrong.) A story also requires, to be interesting, that the protagonists have some sort of opposition or struggle–often in the form of antagonists. Antagonists are the villains, the “bad guys”, or at the very least, the characters who get between the protagonists and their goals. These descriptions can be much more complicated, but for the purposes of the discussion, the definitions above will suffice.

While a lot of the opposition player characters face in a D&D game is short term–monsters who last one single fight, or to the end of a given adventure–sometimes a DM will bring out long-term rivals or create a nemesis, a recurring character who time after time foils or escapes the player characters. This is not a bad thing, nor is it unique to roleplaying games. Comic books and serial stories in just about any medium have had these types of characters since well before D&D. Sherlock Holmes faced off against Professor Moriarty many a time, and the Joker from Batman is at least as iconic as Batman himself. In a roleplaying game, you can use a recurring villain or rival to create a sense of continuity as well as to give the players someone they love to hate.

There’s a complication, though. In fiction, we love to hate the recurring villain on behalf of the characters we’re reading about, but in a roleplaying game, a character who constantly foils the heroes and seemingly escapes their every effort to stop him can quickly become frustrating to the players. Constant escapes or a villain who always gets the better of the player characters regardless of their actions can make the players feel as though they are being shut down, or as though they are ineffective. Always be careful to give the players a chance to defeat the villains, and try not to cross the line between running a character they love to hate and running a character they just plain hate.

Don’t leave the characters in a position where they feel unsatisfied with their inability to overcome a recurring rival or nemesis. This doesn’t mean you need to let them kill off your favourite villains prematurely, but consider that there are other forms of defeat. Remember also that in D&D, death is not necessarily the end–a vile and murderous assassin might be slain by the players only to return a few adventures later as an undead creature. The trick to bringing a character who the PCs kill back is to give it time. Don’t have them immediately return as if nothing is wrong. Even in a case where the recurring nemesis successfully escapes the wrath of the players, take an adventure or three where they don’t show up at all before you bring them back around for another go. Using a recurring villain every adventure can feel like you’re rubbing in the players inability to stop them.

When you do give your characters a chance to finish off one of your recurring villains, though, make it grand, and make it memorable. Let the player characters relish and delight in their foes getting their long-awaited comeuppance. Don’t cheapen it by taking away their chance to avenge themselves for the slights they’ve suffered at the hands of the rival. Not every recurring character needs to be killed to be dealt with, either–some rivals who are not directly opposed or evil, but just keep getting in the way or one-upping the heroes could find themselves humiliated or imprisoned, forced to eat humble pie at the hands of the main characters.

Giving the characters someone to love to hate is great, but in the end, the satisfaction of victory over those special villains is what makes them work. A villain who can’t be defeated is one who provides nothing but frustration, and frustration is a good way to kill the enjoyment of a campaign forever. Don’t just hand over the victory, but don’t deny it forever, either. That’s the trick to handling recurring villains.

« February 2010