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Who Wants Free Dice?

posted Sunday, December 23rd 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Site Announcements

Anyone up for some free dice? Kobold Quarterly has an offer until January 10th: subscribe now, get seven free dice, and get one-third off the magazine’s cover price. The next issue is out soon and the list of articles definitely piques my interest, and if it’s anything like the first two issues we can expect it to be the most thoroughly interesting Dungeons & Dragons publication this month.

It’s not often I endorse a publication like this, but Kobold Quarterly comes with my thorough approval. If you’re too stingy to shell out US$36/year for interesting D&D material, there’s a PDF edition for $16/year (but don’t expect to ‘download’ your free dice). Clicky link!

4th Edition: Elves Revealed

posted Friday, December 21st 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

Wizards today announced a sneak preview of elves in fourth edition. What’s interesting is not just what it tells us about the one race, but what it reveals about 4th edition’s rules changes, big and small. Lets see what we can glean.

The first thing we notice is that the elf’s had a beefing up, a little like Andy Collins’ Umber variant. They now have +2 to Dex and Wis – no races have ability score penalties any more, the article reveals, presumably because it wasn’t any fun to waste a 16 by dropping it to a 14.

The elves also have 7 squares of movement, equal to 35 feet in our system, solidifying their place as the “quick” race. Elves also get +2 to the Nature and Perception skills, and while we haven’t seen the official skills system just yet, changes are clear: it’s obvious, for example, that Spot and Listen have been effectivelly rolled into a single skill.

New to the race is an elven racial power, Elven Accuracy, allowing you to reroll any attack a free action once per encounter. The phrasing that seems to be official is “as an encounter power” – I like the blurring of the line between magical and mundane, here. A similar ability is that the elf shares half his Perception bonus with nearby allies, which we can assume to be always active.

Further, we can see that there appears to be an action, the ‘shift’, analogous to the old “five foot step”. It’s not clear if the circumstances of shifting are the same as the old five foot step action, but I suspect it will be something similar. Favoured class is also out the window, replaced by suggestions – the elf is recommended for ranger, rogue or cleric. Given that the elves have been made even more nature-loving, one might speculate that the druid is out, relegated perhaps to a cleric variant. Interestingly, wizard is no longer the elf’s recommended class.

As expected, there are also some flavour changes. Elves are now about as tall as humans, are described as ‘wild’ and ‘tempestuous’, and can have sideburns now – think more Wolverine than before. There’s a definite push here to make elves much cooler – violent and heroic, rather than the frail wizards of third edition. I attribute this in no small part to the popularity of Forgotten Realms dark elf anti-hero Drizzt do’Urden – the article specifically mentions that the drow and Lolth are still in (and canon at that), so we should see a lot more in the way of fighter-types than before.

Flawed House Rule: “Realistic” Sneak Attack

posted Tuesday, December 18th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game Design

Back in July I wrote about a flawed “house rule” or DM’s variant of double-rolling hit dice, something which seemed great on the surface but upon closer inspection affected the game in unexpected, negative ways. Here’s another one of those house rules.

I’ve encountered several DMs who won’t let a rogue sneak attack more than once per round or even once per combat. The reasoning here is that once a character has been struck, he’s no longer oblivious to the rogue’s presence, and won’t fall for the same mistake twice. For realism’s sake, the DM rules that only the rogue’s first attack can deal sneak attack damage, or perhaps only the first round of combat.

This is a nasty rule. To begin with, the character’s ability is being reduced in power from what the designers intended. The rogue is already weaker in combat than the fighter, with lower base attack, hit points, weapon proficiencies and combat abilities, and frequently also lower Strength. Cut out his sneak attack, and he’s a wholly suboptimal combat class. The rogue’s boon is that he stands to deal significant bonus damage when he can sneak attack. This means that the rogue’s power is rated entirely on when, and in what circumstances, he can perform his ‘backstab’.

However, if we turn to the Favorable and Unfavorable Conditions chart and consider when the defender loses his Dexterity to AC, what we see is that the rogue frequently can only attack on the first round, as realism dictates. Your sneak attack most frequently kicks in against surprised opponents, which includes a surprise round (sensibly enough), the first round (when you go before your oppponent) and when you’re invisible or hidden. Attacking, even from a distance, requires you to ‘de-cloak’, just like in Star Trek. We also have a few less common cases, such as a stunned or blinded opponent, but these are generally less common.

There is, however, one major situation in which the rogue doesn’t even need to take his opponent by surprise: flanking. A holdover from when you had to stab someone in the back (and D&D accomodated this with strict facing rules), flanking simply requires you to be in melee combat with an ally on the opposite side. Full-time sneak attack, and you don’t even need to be sneaky about it. That said, it’s not as easy to achieve as you might think. Even spending numerous feats on feats Weapon Finesse and the Two-Weapon Fighting tree, rogues are weak in melee combat and take a risk by entering it. The Tumble skill is also necessary to move around without provoking Attacks of Opportunity, which you risk by moving within any opponent’s threatened area.

Thus, while you can flank to deal hefty sneak attack damage, a rogue is not the sort of character who can take toe-to-toe combat lightly. He has barely more hit points than a wizard, sub-fighter combat ability, and around the same armour class as the fighter – it should be lower, except that shields were never popular in 3e and the game was playtested assuming that 15 was a high Dexerity score. The rogue thus accepts a greater risk than the fighter in melee, at the benefit of increased damage output. Not terribly rogueish, perhaps, but a valid choice nonetheless.

Vow of Poverty, Revisited

posted Friday, December 14th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdvicePlayer Advice

One of my most popular posts of old seems to be my article on Vow of Poverty, a feat from Book of Exalted Deeds. It seems there’s still a strong idea in the D&D community that VoP, which sacrifices your equipment and magic items for bonus abilities, is horribly broken and overpowered. With a new edition on the way, I decided now would be as good a time as any to take a closer look and see if there’s any truth to the matter.

One of the biggest complaints about VoP is that no other feat grants you powerful abilities at every level. This is true, but we must remember that by standard, players are expected to have a certain power level of magic items commensurate to their level, which Vow of Poverty characters must give up. In order to make some sort of fair comparison, therefore, what I’ve done is to go through the average gold piece value chart and compare the values of the abilities gained. For reasons of time I’ve only taken four samples: levels, 5, 10, 15 and 20. Continue reading this article »

Description, Description, Description

posted Monday, December 10th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Despite strong competition from online games, traditional RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons remain popular. What’s the reason? A big factor, in my opinion, is imagination, and that’s something that can only be spurred by a DM with a solid ability to make good description. Good DM response, moreso than any factor, is what keeps D&D a solid and engaging experience.

The concept of a dungeon master or game master is special to traditional roleplaying games. While online games have GMs of a sort, we see them largely relegated to online security guards as games move from human arbiters toward computer control. The reasons for this are largely practical: a game master can only control so many players at once, and the cost of adding new material becomes prohibitive as games become more complex. Adding a single NPC or monster to World of Warcraft may require several experienced staff working for hours or days at a cost thousands of dollars, but a talented D&D GM can create entire adventures in the same time frame, sometimes even on-the-fly.

The reason for this is that unlike a modern videogame, the Dungeon Master’s primary medium is description, not visual display. Your words are your paintbrushes, and your players’ minds are your canvas. Conjuring your imagined scenes is much more of an art form than many people realise. A good description can be far superior to even the most elaborate of computer graphics available today. Remember that the art of storytelling is as old at least as nine thousand years, while visual storytelling has only been in development for perhaps 130 years, and computer graphics less than forty.

The number one guideline for any DM, therefore, is to read. There are hundreds of writers who can tell a better story than you, so learn from them. See how they use language to invoke the imagination, conjure up emotion, and weave a narrative. An often-quoted rule of fiction writers is show, don’t tell. “You see a ten foot tall red dragon” might be descriptive, but it practically reads like a police report. It’s mundane, and that’s not what you’re usually going for in an adventure RPG.

Good, evocative description is the Dungeon Master’s number one tool. What he describes is almost less important than how he describes it. Your players should never encounter “a big forest” unless you deliberately want it to sound mundane and unimportant. Don’t just tell your players, when evoking powerful imagery in their imagination would be better. Consider what they should see, hear, feel and even smell. Plan important scenes in advance, or at least do some thinking. Get this right, and you’re good to go.

Get Out of the Dungeon

posted Thursday, December 6th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Dungeoneering might be core to the Dungeons & Dragons game experience, but there comes a time in every Dungeon Master’s life when he has to ask, “What adventures await my players in the world above ground?” Delivering ancient artifacts into volcanos, solving crimes in a major city, and military assaults are all viable alternatives to the traditional dungeon, as The Big List of RPG Plots will attest.

Ultimately, the dungeon is merely a structure which happens to be especially conducive to adventure. An adventure, more generally, is any series of exciting, heroic events involving a group of heroes who set out with a purpose. In the books and movies of this genre, the heroes always seem to pull through despite impossible odds; in a roleplaying game, success is up to the players. In other words, an adventure roleplaying game has three important factors: it must be fun and interesting, the heroes must always have a goal, and the players must make meaningful choices.

These three factors are of constant importance in D&D. An adventure that doesn’t interest your players isn’t an adventure, it’s a chore. Likewise, if a game’s not fun, it’s no longer worth playing. Secondly, adventure without a goal is merely unfocused rambling, and even the most elementary D&D game has a goal of “successfully whomp all monsters in the dungeon”. The third, and sometimes overlooked aspect, is that the players’ choices and actions must genuinely affect the outcome of their goal – otherwise it’s not an interactive adventure, it’s just a regular old-fashioned story.

This isn’t to say you can’t spring unexpected encounters on your players, or have game events attempt to thwart their plans. It simply means that the choice of how to react to that situation must genuinely be theirs, and that whatever they do will affect the outcome realistically. Unless you truly are just telling a story together with your players (and this can be fun, but not necessarily as exciting), it’s important to retain the element of risk and avoid “railroading” your players through your plot.

In any case, what defines the “adventure” is that in each event, or scene, something interesting or exciting happens. In a traditional dungeon, rooms may contain combat, which is exciting because of the risk, as well as the potential reward in treasure. They may contain traps, the mere possibility of which raises tension. They might contain only decoration, or they may include clues that lead to the adventure’s goal. Often it’s exciting just to contemplate what might be in the next room. What’s important is that the players can always work out where to go next, and that un-interesting and un-exciting aspects (empty rooms, long travel times) are largely glossed over or hurried through. Remember that if it’s not exciting or interesting, it’s not really an adventure scene or event, and these are what you want to focus the game on.

Keeping this flow going isn’t quite as straightforward when you have a more open-plan adventure like an exploration or crime solving mission, but it helps to try and think of it as an invisible dungeon, where each room is an interesting scene or event. Just as the heroes’ motives goal naturally leads him to walk through the doors that are immediately evident upon “finishing” the room, so too must the players have one or more clear directions to take after each event. Often, it helps to prepare several “exits” in order to increase the chance that a player will “find” one, since it’s very important that players don’t become frustrated and lose their direction. The story must always advance in some direction, even if the players have to take a more scenic route to the finish line.

Keep the purpose of adventure clear, and this should help guide you through the DMing process. Always remember to keep things interesting and/or exciting for your players, and most importantly, keep things fun.

Top 50 RPG Websites

posted Tuesday, December 4th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Links and ResourcesNews, Reviews & CultureSite Announcements

Today I discovered that fellow D&D blog Dungeon Mastering has published its list of Top 50 RPG Websites. It’s a fantastic list of Dungeons & Dragons resources and interesting blogs like this one. Among the top ten are Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips, fan-favourite news site EN World and Monte Cook‘s site. Definitely a list worth reading.

I’m quite honoured to find that I’ve been rated #15 on the list, above the D20 SRD, RPG.net and popular webcomic Order of the Stick. There are a lot of excellent sites on this list, several of which are new to me. So far they’re looking pretty good, so I encourage you to check out this list.

Livejournal Feed Now Open

posted Saturday, December 1st 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Site Announcements

Those of you who use Livejournal and would like to read D20 Source on their Livejournal friends page can do so now at http://jd20.livejournal.com/.

The rest of you can plug my RSS feed into their reader at http://d20.jonnydigital.com/feed. If like me you prefer old-fashioned websites, simply hit your Bookmark or Favourites button now.

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