Running an RPG on a Forum

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.

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How to Build a Sniper in D&D 4e

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.

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Use Group Initiative to Speed Up Combat

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?

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Is This Dragon Encounter Too Deadly?

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?

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Links Roundup: 5th December 2010

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

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.

Keeping a DM Log

The astute reader will have noticed that over the past few weeks, the World Building 101 series of articles has trailed off. I really enjoy writing WB101 pieces, and do hope to continue the series, but I’d prefer to avoid writing about bizarre minutiae simply to keep it going. (I’m pretty sure some of the articles already got close to that point as it stands, in fact!) That said, I do intend to continue WB101, but at a slower pace. In the interim I’ll be continuing to write DM advice, though with a slightly different focus than worldbuilding. Today’s piece will focus on DM logs.

I have previously written about writing and maintaining a campaign bible—a document containing details of the setting and events of your game. A campaign bible may also contain notes for the Dungeon Master’s eyes only, but this is not a DM log. The purpose of a DM log is quite different—rather than tracking the story or NPC notes, a DM log tracks notes on the actual act of DMing.

Every session you run can be a learning experience, and it can be very helpful to keep notes on what worked and what didn’t work, to improve your game sessions in the future. Keeping a DM log will help you do just that. After each session you run, take a few moments to jot notes on things that your players seemed to enjoy, or things that fell flat. Doing this can help you marshal your thoughts and give you something to reflect on before your next session, and can also be used to track your progress or remind you a few weeks or months down the line of problems you encountered in game and how to avoid them.

Make a point of talking to your players regularly about the campaign, as well, and note the results in your log. You don’t need to do this every session, but you should do it once every three to five sessions at least. Ask what they like and didn’t like about the session you’ve just completed, as well as what they want to see more of (and less of) in the campaign as a whole. Look over these notes when you’re planning future adventures, and you’ll find your players stay very happy and keep their enthusiasm for the game high.

Another technique you might consider—though this is not something that may be possible for everyone, for a variety of reasons—is to record a session and listen to it after. You can often hear in the players’ body language and tone of voice what they enjoyed or disliked during the session, and get more specific details about it than you would with asking them after—they may not remember everything as clearly at the end of a session, but by observing their reactions during play you can pinpoint it. You can also monitor your own performance, checking for bad habits when providing descriptions (lots of “ums”, pacing problems, repetitive word choice, or just droning), and take notes on what you can be improving that way. If you do want to record a session, though, make sure your players are all okay with the idea before you do so, and if any of them are uncomfortable with it, don’t press the issue.

Keeping a DM log is something that can help you improve your technique and reduce your bad habits or mistakes. It gives you a written record of the lessons you learn after each session and helps you remember things you want to do more (or less) of in the next session. It’s a tool I’ve found invaluable when I run games, and I can safely say that my dungeon mastering has improved a great deal as a result. Even a few short moments of taking notes and reflection can be enough, so give it a shot!

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How Well Do You Know Your Rules?

For a large segment of the roleplaying gamer population, familiarity with the rules of their game of choice is something that is almost taken for granted. After more than a few months of playing with any game, to suggest that a player or DM should refamiliarize themselves with the system is a breach of etiquette and often met with dismissal or outright derision. After all, we’ve play once (or more) a week every week over the course of a year, obviously we know what the rules are, right? To suggest otherwise is insulting the intelligence and the integrity of the gamer, especially if it’s directed to a DM, who must adjudicate fairly for his or her players on top of merely knowing the relevant rules for one particular set of actions.

The problem with the knee-jerk defensiveness that can arise so readily from such a suggestion is that in many cases it’s a valid suggestion. As a DM I make a habit of actively reading the rules every three to five months—and not just skimming, either. Each time I do so, I discover some nuance of the rules I’ve missed, or that I’d misremembered during a session and had to make a quick call on to keep the game running. Each time I make a point of noting down what the correct rule is and make certain to adhere to it more closely in the future.

Something that can exacerbate the issue is that many (or most) groups play with house rules in place, and over time it’s relatively easy to lose sight of which rules are the “official” rules and which rules are in place only at your particular table. This is less important if you only ever play within the same circle, but when you bring in a new player (or play at someone else’s, or in a public game at a convention, game day, or Encounters night) it’s crucial to be able to distinguish between the two. Even something relatively minor can throw people for a loop.

Refamiliarizing yourself with the rules isn’t hard, and it’s not a particularly onerous task. The most difficult part is simply forcing yourself not to assume that you’re familiar with a given rule and skim past it—read it again as though for the first time, so as not to miss anything. Your understanding of the game will improve, and you’ll always be able to speak confidently and with assurance when you need to make a rules call, even if it’s a relatively obscure bit of mechanics that doesn’t come up very often. Don’t sweat too much if you’re not always spot on, though—nobody’s perfect.

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Experience and Advancement in D&D 4th Edition

Experience points are one of the most widespread concepts in roleplaying games. Many RPGs use point-buy experience systems or provide variable scale rates of advancement. D&D 4th Edition’s experience system functions by characters accruing points and gaining levels at specific point totals. The system, as presented in the PHB and other resources, uses a single scale of experience point values required to level up, and the stated assumption is that characters will gain a level around every ten encounters, give or take.

This assumption can be used to calculate roughly how much playtime it will take to go from level 1 to level 30. In practice, the experience required to go up a level can be gained in fewer than ten encounters, thanks to a combination of quest rewards, experienced gained from skill challenges and other noncombat encounters, and higher-level combat encounters. One can generally assume around seven combat encounters will provide sufficient experience to gain a level.

According to the assumptions of RPGA organized play events, a four hour session should be sufficient to make it through about three encounters and a bit of roleplaying. In my own experience as an RPGA DM, this assumption is not too far off the mark. Thus, for every two to three sessions of play (at four hours per session), one can expect to gain a level.

If the above assumptions hold true, then gaining 29 levels should take roughly sixty to ninety sessions, likely leaning towards the higher end. A campaign running from level 1 to level 30, then, can be expected to take over a year of play, even if a group plays once a week without fail. In practice, it is likely to be somewhere between a year and a half to two years of play, with one session of four hours a week.

Once you understand the expected duration of a 1-30 campaign, based on the assumed rate of advancement, it becomes much easier to play with it. Some DMs don’t bother tracking experience totals numerically, advancing their players in level whenever it feels appropriate to do so. This works well, but can lead to some levels being “longer” than others if it is not tracked—going by the numbers at least ensures a consistent rate of advancement. Numbers can be adjusted easily, as well.

For example, if you wanted to slow advancement slightly, you might shift the total experience required to level up to reflect twelve encounters rather than ten—three to four sessions, rather than 2-3. This would mean that second level is reached at 1200 experience, third at 2500, fourth at 4300, and so on. You could also speed things up, aiming for 8 encounters, ensuring a level increase every second session—second level would then be 800 experience, third at 1800, fourth at 3000, etcetera.

Adjusting experience requirements isn’t difficult, especially once one understands the play time the numbers represent. There are two things one must bear in mind, however, before deciding to go forward with such an alteration. First, the treasure parcel system will need to be adjusted to reflect any changes. If you reduce the number of encounters between leveling up, you should either hand out treasure faster or use the inherent bonuses system presented in the DMG2—simply because the defenses and attacks of monsters assume that at certain levels, a certain minimum enhancement bonus will have been applied to players. The other consideration is that you must let your players know before you begin about any adjustments you have made.

Experience and advancement are an important part of any roleplaying game, and by understanding the assumptions the game designers have made in creating these systems it becomes much easier to adapt them to suit your group’s particular requirements, be they for a speedier game or a lengthier campaign duration.