World Building 101: This One’s For the Players

World building is traditionally considered to be the DM’s task. After all, the DM is responsible for setting the stage, portraying the NPCs, controlling the monsters and hazards faced by the player characters, and generally doing all that sort of behind the scenes heavy lifting so that the players can experience the mystery and wonder of the world the DM creates.

Today I’m going to discuss why that’s an inaccurate view. As players you (we!) have a responsibility, nay, a duty, to assist in the process of creating the world in which we play. From locations to NPCs, from magic items to story hooks, players can provide the DM with some much-needed direction and feedback to ensure that the game the DM is running is exactly the one the players want to be playing.

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How To: Character Background

As a DM I often find that I get one of two extremes when I ask my players for their character’s background story. More often than not I will get either a few curt words about who the character is and where they came from, or I will get a long, detailed story about the character’s life and exploits to the start of the campaign.

Unfortunately, neither of those is particularly useful for me as a DM. I’ve learned to be specific about the kinds of background details I’m looking for in particular and have found that now I get results that not only can I use, but leave my creative players feeling less frustrated about their hard work going to waste and my less creative players feeling less lost when they write their backgrounds.

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Beyond “You Hit”: Describing Damage

Last month’s article discussed hit points from a player character’s perspective. Today we’re taking a further look at hit points and what that number means for creatures in general.

Hit points and you

To summarize our last article, hit points are an abstract number representing how much damage a character or monster can take. That number can represent a great range of things, including injury tolerance, resistance to pain, stamina, morale, luck, discipline, training, magic and even divine protection.

Now as a Dungeon Master, or even as a player who wants some descriptive flair to his actions, deciding just what this means can add realism and common sense to your game. That in turn can make your game more engaging, and more enjoyable. There are many ways you can describe the effects of damage and resisting damage.

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You’re Dead!

"The thief, Black Leaf, did not find the poison trap, and I declare her dead."
"NO! NOT BLACK LEAF! NO, NO! I’M GOING TO DIE! Don’t make me quit the game. Please don’t! Somebody save me! You can’t do this!"
"Marcie, get out of here. YOU’RE DEAD! You don’t exist any more."

It happens to every party sooner or later. Maybe that last fight was a little bit too rough, or maybe the dice just weren’t on the party’s side—whatever the reason, someone’s kicked the bucket and now it’s time to decide what to do about the dead character. Obviously the death has to have some effect on the game—if dead player characters just wandered back in after the fight ended none the worse for wear, death wouldn’t mean very much at all. (Unless you’re playing Paranoia, in which case that’s half the fun.) On the other hand, if the penalty for dying is too harsh, it can lead to death really being the end—players will not want to continue with the game with characters who have been heavily penalized if it means they’re going to be at a disadvantage from then on. It may seem ludicrous to consider a player being forced out of the game simply because their character has died, but it’s entirely possible for excessive penalties for character death to cause a player to become frustrated enough to quit.

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Five Ways To Make Your DM’s Life Easier

Tabletop roleplaying games are special among their peers in that they require a GM or Game Master - in D&D terms a DM, or Dungeon Master. The DM is a source of the D&D’s strengths, but it’s also a weakpoint: if your DM isn’t having a good time with the game, there’s a good chance he’ll up and quit, leaving you gameless. It stands to reason, then, that D&D players should keep their DM happy and content at all times.

Below are five helpful hints towards accomplishing that goal.

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Hit Points And You

In every edition it has baffled new players: “If a first-level character can take two or three sword hits, what does it mean when a high-level character can take ten or fifty? Can the 20th-level fighter really survive being stabbed that many times?” The confusion between hit points and physical injury led many groups to adopt the nifty wounds and vitality system, which fell out of favour when it was discovered that the increasingly lethal critical hits gave every character a 50% of being killed outright by a stray bolt before level 20.

The following article should help you to add a narrative explanation to the cold abstraction of the hit points system, including its results: damage, healing, temporary HP, and those fourth edition specifics, healing surges and minions.

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Player’s Guide to D&D 4th Edition (For 3E Players)

Reading an edition wars argument recently, I discovered that a lot of third edition players had misconceptions about D&D fourth edition, or had tried to play but found the rules differences a little much to take in all at once. It hit me that Wizards never wrote an update booklet to help third edition players convert to the new game. To help, I’ve written a short summary of the changes new to D&D fourth edition, for players currently familiar with third edition.

The Basics

  • Most rolls now add one-half the character’s level. This includes attack rolls, skill checks and ability checks. This prevents powerful high-level characters from having a puny +1 to a skill.
  • Fort, Reflex and Will are now called Defenses, and work like AC: they have a base of 10, and the enemy rolls his attack versus your flat number.
  • Saving throws refer to a different mechanic: at the end of each round you roll with a 50% chance to end an ongoing effect, such as being poisoned or on fire.
  • Players have “healing surges”, a sort of resource that renews each day and can be expended to restore hit points. A misconception is that this allows characters to freely heal themselves in combat. Rather, healing still requires a cleric or similar, and healing surges are limits on how much healing a character can receive in a day. Some 1/day or 1/encounter abilities allow a character to spend a healing surge on their own. Clerics can heal at-will out of combat, to the limit of each character’s remaining healing surges.

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10 Ideas For Your Next Character

Thinking up new characters can be tricky. Here are ten ideas to inspire you. If you’re happy with your current guy, bookmark this page and come back to it when you next roll up a character.

  1. The last barbarian of a tribe, who dedicates his life to hunting down the monsters that wiped out his people.
  2. A dwarf of royal lineage, adventuring in self-imposed exile until he proves himself worthy to lead his people.
  3. A common thief, with a secret identity as an elite assassin.
  4. A loudmouthed cleric who secretly only does it for the money. For reasons unknown to him, his deity grants spells anyway.
  5. A disgraced warrior, falsely accused of treachery, who seeks to restore his name.
  6. A mage obsessed with finding and studying new and rare monsters.
  7. A paladin of the Lawful Neutral deity of commerce, hunting for treasure to stimulate the economy.
  8. A silver-tongued villain who plots to lead a rebellion and overthrow the king.
  9. An exile from a distant world who seeks a way home.
  10. A decorated military leader who hides a secret that he’s actually a terrible coward.

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Unleash Your Battle Cry

Kobold Quarterly issue 8 is here, and I’ve been reading with interest. One article in particular grabbed my attention, and that’s Inspiring Words: A Warlord’s Field Guide to Battle Cries by Mario Podeschi. It’s a list of ideas for war cries to add a little roleplaying flare to your martial characters, whether a 4E warlord or a 3E fighter.

History’s not without its great words and deeds, and great military leaders have said and done inspired their men. Take these tales from the Roman text, The Strategemata.

Alexander the Great

Marching along the desert roads of Africa, and suffering in common with his men from most distressing thirst, when some water was brought him in a helmet by a soldier, he poured it out upon the ground in the sight of all, in this way serving his soldiers better by his example of restraint than if he had been able to share the water with the rest.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla

When Sulla’s legions broke before the hosts of Mithridates led by Archelaus, Sulla advanced with drawn sword into the first line and, addressing his troops, told them, in case anybody asked where they had left their general, to answer: “Fighting in Boeotia.” Shamed by these words, they followed him to a man.

Julius Caesar

The deified Julius, when his troops gave way at Munda, ordered his horse to be removed from sight, and strode forward as a foot-soldier to the front line. His men, ashamed to desert their commander, thereupon renewed the fight.

Servius Tullius

In the battle in which King Tarquinius encountered the Sabines, Servius Tullius, then a young man, noticing that the standard-bearers fought halfheartedly, seized a standard and hurled it into the ranks of the enemy. To recover it, the Romans fought so furiously that they not only regained the standard, but also won the day.

Improve Your Game with The Art of War (Part 4)

Today we’re back on our examination of ancient combat treatise The Art of War and how we can apply its lessons to our D&D game. Previous chapters cover laying plans, waging war and attack by strategem.

Part 4: Tactical Dispositions

Sun Tzu says:

The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

The roman legions had this idea down pat. The iconic Roman soldiers fought in tight formation behind tower shields, leaving just enough room to stab with a spear or sword. It didn’t make them invulnerable, but this high-defence method often proved effective. Many modern martial arts follow a similar “defend first, let your opponent leave an opening” mantra.

The Dungeons & Dragons rules often encourage us to make direct, offensive attacks. Kill your opponent in two rounds and he won’t get a third chance to attack. Sun Tzu’s school of thought considers this reckless, especially when we ignore the famous rule: “Know your enemy and know yourself.” Having seen injured characters charge foolishly into combat, I think caution is too often overlooked.

How can you boost defence over offence? Depending on class and resources you can opt to invest in greater defensive capability rather than offensive. This is only really effective if you can acquire defensive ability easily enough to become especially well-defended.

Since D&D characters can often take quite a few knocks, the practical situation has to be taken into account too. Is it worth surviving two more rounds against your opponent if you could have killed him in two rounds earlier instead? As long as you don’t underestimate your enemy, offensive action is fine.

What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage. He wins his battles by making no mistakes.

Attacking a superior force may be brave, even exciting, but to do so unnecessarily is reckless. If you succeed you’re hailed as a hero, but as a D&D adventure often requires many battles, and taking injury now is only wasting resources that may be needed later.

Consider an adventuring party that stumbles onto a gang of trolls. The brave hero will launch himself into the enemy, hoping to take them by surprise. The clever hero will rest the night and return with more fire spells - the troll’s weakness.

That said, D&D is about excitement and risk. If you are confident that you can complete the adventure even with a suicidal attack on a bundle of trolls, why play it safe? Besides, I’ve previously complained about too much sleeping in dungeons - this isn’t ancient warfare, and when you take out most of the risk you take out most of the fun.

Part 5 Next Week

Stay tuned for the next part of this article in a week’s time. You can subscribe to this blog via the RSS feed, the Livejournal feed, or if like me you prefer the old-fashioned method, simply bookmark the front page.