February 17, 2010

Fire Resistance

My Monday night game has been going, once a week nearly every week, for over a year. We're approximately halfway through the 30 levels of a 4th edition D&D campaign. This last Monday, our DM was feeling a bit run down. We still had a great time, but I saw something I had not seen before at one of these sessions. Burn out. People started talking about "the next campaign!" Unless my math is seriously off, we've got another year and change before we are playing a new campaign. So that inspired me to tackle a topic that is very close to my heart, because I have D&D ADD (every couple of months I start to get a little bored with my character and want to try playing something else). Today we're talking about adding fire resistance to your game and preventing burn out.

Burn out can arise from a couple of different factors. To make sure I'm not misunderstood, I want to preface this with the assertion that these factors are *never* the DM's fault, or the players' fault. But both can contribute to avoiding burn out. The two factors that often lead to burn out?
  • Monotony
  • Disillusionment
Monotony arises from a combination of sub-factors: a player's character functioning essentially the same way in every encounter, the DM avoiding prep work for sessions because they know they can just "wing it," the campaign arc flattening as the story takes more encounters to progress than expected.
I've definitely experienced the first sub-factor in my Monday night game. My muddled construction of my character has left me with two very distinct sets of options depending on whether I engage in melee or stay at range. The limitations of these two sets of options means that once I've decided to close for melee, or I stay at range, my actions are somewhat predetermined. This can make every fight feel like a chore rather than an exciting challenge to be overcome through wit and ingenuity.

The second sub-factor also seems to be arising in my game occasionally. I have, in previous posts, spoken quite highly of my DM, and I'd hate for you (or him!) to think that I don't appreciate the difficulties of his job. But lately, perhaps because we are using a Wizards published adventure, or perhaps because of other factors I can't see in his personal or professional life, it is apparent that less preparation has gone into our sessions. This signals the players, consciously or unconsciously, that the material doesn't matter. When we search a hut and discover a "16th level magic item" instead of a pair of "Planewalker Boots," we sort of disconnect. The verisimilitude tears and we find ourselves thinking about what character we'd play in a new campaign, or whether we left the toaster on at home.

The third sub-factor is, in some ways, a rehash of the previous two from a slightly different perspective. In my Monday night game, we've been playing through Revenge of the Giants by Wizards of the Coast. I can tell you, with certainty, that I am getting sick to death of giants. I have too many powers the require allies to be adjacent to the enemy for the effect to be valuable. Giants have reach, which means that I spend a lot of time thinking about how useless most of my powers are because the giants refuse to let my allies stay adjacent.

Disillusionment really is a general catch-all for the guys in the group who are finding out that at higher levels, their character doesn't do what they thought they would. The bard who is having trouble coming to grips with his role as healer, the rogue who wants to do more than just deal gobs of damage, the Jedi who wants to spend his rounds doing something other than resolving the five Deflect rolls against the stormtroopers' blaster fire.

So, with such complex and pervasive factors leading to burn out, how does one "fire proof" their campaign? It's not simple, but here are a few suggestions that might work for you:

  1. Tune in to the general feeling at the table when you sit down to play. If everyone is listless, talking about other games, sounding unfocused, suggest that you take five. Discuss the last session in detail, get the players talking over their next move, or their next three moves. Offer to answer questions about the campaign arc, ask players to present where they are planning to take their character in the next five levels. Worst case scenario (particularly effective if you're the DM) suggest that you spend the evening starting alternate game. Play a little Star Wars if D&D is your normal game, or Shadowrun, or Marvel Universe. Not only will it prevent the lack of focus and general disinterest from damaging your primary campaign, but it will also hopefully cause your players to be that much more eager next week to get back to "the real" game!
  2. DMs, get some help from your players. Nag your players if you have to, but get some input from them. Get them to explain what kinds of magic items they still have any interest in, get a list of things they want to do, etc. When the players recognize things from their list, they will become more interested and this can galvanize the entire group when even one player suddenly tunes back in. (See, I meant it when I said it wasn't the DMs fault!)
  3. Players, suggest a break or ask to discuss your character with the DM. If people need a break, even just for five minutes, take it! If you're suffering from disillusionment with your character, address it! Usually, your DM can reach a compromise with you that will help alleviate the boredom or frustration you feel with your character without derailing the entire game. Wizards has restricted retraining to one skill or ability per level, but that doesn't mean that you should suffer through five levels of abilities you can't stand and that don't make the game fun for others.
Remember, it's a game that is designed around having fun. If you aren't, you're probably doing something wrong. But don't worry, just figure out what it is, and start doing it right. If not for the other people in your group, do it for yourself. I know that's what I'm going to be doing this week. Because I want Monday night to be totally fire immune!

February 09, 2010

Phalanx Powers!

*Also, check last week's post for a revision. Forgot to include a pretty important class ability! >.<*

Phalanx Powers

Your powers are strategic exploits mastered through rigorous training and extensive study. Many of your daily exploits are special stance powers.

Level 1 At-Will Exploits

Hampering Strike Phalanx Attack 1
With expert precision, you hobble your opponent to gain an advantage.
At-Will ◆ Martial, Weapon
Standard Action Melee weapon
Target: One creature
Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
Hit: 1[W] + Dexterity modifier damage, and the target is slowed until the end of your next turn.
Increase damage to 2[W] + Dexterity modifier at 21st level.

Quick Reverse Phalanx Attack 1
Lashing out with blinding speed, you force your enemy backward into a dangerous position.
At-Will ◆ Martial, Weapon
Standard Action Melee weapon
Target: One creature
Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
Hit: 1[W] + Dexterity modifier damage, and you push the target a number of squares equal to your Strength or Constitution modifier.
Increase damage to 2[W] + Dexterity modifier at 21st level.
Special: At 1st level you determine whether you use Strength or Constitution with this power. Once you make that choice, you can’t change it later.

Scattering Sweep Phalanx Attack 1
You swing your weapon around in a flashing arc, driving your foes away from your allies.
At-Will ◆ Martial, Weapon
Standard Action Close burst 1
Target: Each enemy in burst you can see
Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
Hit: Dexterity modifier damage, and you slide each target 1 square.
Increase damage to 1[W] + Dexterity modifier at 21st level.

Scything Strike Phalanx Attack 1
Like a farmhand harvesting grain, you reap through your enemies, culling the weak and the slow.
At-Will ◆ Martial, Weapon
Standard Action Close blast 3
Requirement: You must be wielding a weapon with the reach property.
Target: Each enemy in blast you can see
Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
Hit: 1[W] + Dexterity modifier damage.
Increase damage to 2[W] + Dexterity modifier at 21st level.

Level 1 Encounter Exploits

Dancing Menace Phalanx Attack 1
You spin through your enemies, scattering and scarring them.
Encounter ◆ Martial, Weapon
Standard Action Close burst 2
Requirement: You must be wielding a weapon with the reach property.
Target: Each enemy in burst you can see
Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
Hit: 1[W] damage and 5 ongoing damage, and the target is pushed one square.
Aggressive Formation: You push the target a number of squares equal to your strength modifier.
Effect: You may shift two squares, and make a secondary attack.
Secondary Target: Each enemy in close burst 2
Secondary Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
Hit: 1[W] damage and ongoing 5 damage, and the target is pushed 1 square.
Aggressive Formation: You push the target a number of squares equal to your strength modifier.

Eddies of Battle Phalanx Attack 1
You quickly assess the flow of the battle, and then jostle your foes to be carried off in the wake.
Encounter ◆ Martial, Stance, Weapon
Standard Action Melee weapon
Target: One creature
Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
Hit: 1[W] + Dexterity modifier damage, and you slide the target one square closer to your nearest ally.
Effect: Until this stance ends, every time you hit an enemy, you may slide them one square closer to your nearest ally.

Readied Response Phalanx Attack 1
As your enemies close in intent on your blade, you swing your shield in a wide arc, catching them unaware.
Encounter ◆ Martial
Standard Action Close burst 1
Requirement: You must be using a shield.
Target: Each enemy in burst you can see
Attack: Dexterity vs. Reflex
Hit: Target takes damage equal to your Dexterity modifier, and is dazed until the end of your next turn.
Defensive Formation: You add your Constitution modifier to the damage dealt with this power.

Whipping Blade Phalanx Attack 1
Bringing your weapon around in a blinding series of strikes, you punish your foe, along with anyone foolish enough to stand near you.
Encounter ◆ Martial, Weapon
Standard Action Melee
Target: One creature
Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
Hit: 2[W] damage, and any creature adjacent to you takes damage equal to your Dexterity modifier.

Level 1 Daily Exploits

Stance of the Adder Phalanx Attack 1
Assuming the position of a snake, you strike with blinding speed, and recoil just as fast.
Daily ◆ Martial, Stance, Weapon
Standard Action Melee
Target: One creature
Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
Hit: 2[W] + Dexterity modifier damage, and you can shift 2 squares.
Effect: You assume the stance of the adder. Until this stance ends, you may shift 1 square as an immediate reaction every time an enemy hits or misses you.

Stance of the Brawler Phalanx Attack 1
Recognizing that there is an advantage to appearing undisciplined, you appear to drop your guard, lulling your enemies into mistakes.
Daily ◆ Martial, Stance, Weapon
Immediate Interrupt Melee
Target: One creature
Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
Hit: 2[W] + Dexterity modifier damage and the target is stunned (save ends).
Effect: You assume the stance of the brawler. Until this stance ends, when you hit an enemy with a martial attack power, you may choose to do 1[W] less damage but daze the target until the start of your next turn.

Stance of the Savannah Phalanx Attack 1
Shifting your balance, you become like the waving grasses of the great plains, yielding but sharp.
Daily ◆ Martial, Stance, Weapon
Standard Action Melee weapon
Target: One creature
Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
Hit: 2[W] + Dexterity modifier damage and if the target makes an attack during its next turn, you may make a basic melee attack as an immediate reaction.
Effect: You enter the stance of the savannah. Until this stance ends, when an enemy adjacent to you moves, you may shift one square as an immediate reaction.

Stance of the Wall Phalanx Attack 1
Holding your shield before you like a fortification, you strike at your foe in a demonstration of defiance.
Daily ◆ Martial, Stance, Weapon
Standard Action Close
burst 1
Target: Each enemy in burst you can see
Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
Hit: 1[W] + Dexterity modifier damage and ongoing 5 damage.
Effect: You enter the stance of the wall. Until this stance ends, every enemy you hit takes a -1 to attack rolls against you and your allies until the end of its next turn.

February 03, 2010

Phalanx Revealed!

So, here is the first installment of my new martial controller class. I've actually just come to the really hard part: writing powers. So I am previewing the other parts of the class, thought there may be some later revisions. As you might be able to tell, this class will be somewhat centered around stances. We shall see how that works out!

Role: Controller. Through keenly honed skills along with the masterful use of your body and weapons, you impede your enemies, and allow your allies to gain advantage whenever possible.
Power Source: Martial. You have become a master of the battlefield, the ebb and flow of combat, through hours of practice, sheer determination, and your natural physical prowess.
Key Abilities: Dexterity, Strength, Constitution
Armor Proficiencies: leather, hide, chain, light shields
Weapon Proficiencies: simple melee weapons, military melee weapons
Bonus to Defense: +1 Fort, +1 Ref
Hit Points at 1st Level: 10 + Constitution score
Hit Points per Level Gained: 4
Healing Surges per Day: 6 + Constitution modifier
Trained Skills: From the class skills list below, choose four trained skills at 1st level.
Class Skills: Acrobatics (Dex), Athletics (Str), Endurance (Con), History (Int), Heal (Wis), Intimidate (Cha), Streetwise (Cha)
Builds: Aegis Phalanx, Talon Phalanx
Class Features: Combat Improvisation, Harrier’s Grasp, Intricate Footwork,Phalanx Formation

Phalanxes are melee combatants who use a combination of prescribed stances, formations, and attack combinations to inflict debilitating wounds on their enemies. While less defensive in orientation than a fighter, and less deadly than a ranger, the phalanx is a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. Whether they are helping a defender protect their allies, or crippling an opponent so that another ally can make that final, fatal blow, Phalanxes are always in the thick of battle.
Regardless of the methods you favor, your motivations may be to enrich yourself, to avenge some past wrong, to escape some dark past, or anything else. You may be a warrior from a long lost civilization using techniques not seen in the world for hundreds of years, a pacifist who loathes combat, but excels at its execution, or even a bloodthirsty killer who enjoys weakening enemies before slaying them.
Ultimately, you can be a force for good or ill, but you are always a powerful influence in battle.

Creating a Phalanx
Phalanxes depend on Dexterity for most of their powers. Strength and Constitution are also useful depending on which Phalanx Formation option you choose. For certain powers, Strength or Constitution will improve any secondary effects. Also, Strength will improve opportunity attacks and Constitution will make the Phalanx more durable while wading through the thick of battle.
Aegis Phalanx
You utilize your control of the combat environment to protect your allies and decrease the enemy’s potential to harm them. You prefer using a one-handed weapon and a light shield, because your powers have a tendency to redirect the focus of your enemies from your allies to yourself. Dexterity should be your highest ability score because it will determine the effectiveness of all your attack powers and provide a bonus to defenses. Constitution should be your secondary ability score because you are likely to be taking more damage than many of your allies, and because it will improve the secondary effects of many of your powers. Choose powers that require a shield to make the most of this build.
Suggested Feat: Martial Alacrity* (Human feat: Human Perseverance)
Suggested Skills: Athletics, Endurance, Heal, Intimidate
Suggested At-Will Powers: hampering strike, scattering sweep
Suggested Encounter Power: readied response
Suggested Daily Power: stance of the wall

Talon Phalanx
You utilize your control of the combat environment to empower your allies and decrease your enemies’ ability to defend themselves. You prefer using a two-handed weapon, especially one with reach, because your powers focus on doing more damage, and because you are not always interested in being directly adjacent to your enemies. Dexterity should be your highest ability score because it will determine the effectiveness of all your attack powers and provide a bonus to defenses. Strength should be your secondary ability score because it will improve the secondary effects of many of your powers. Constitution should be tertiary because you might choose an occasional power that relies upon it and because even though you are not drawing as much fire, you are still in the thick of the battle so more hit points are always useful. Choose powers that benefit from reach or use a two-handed weapon to make the most of this build.
Suggested Feat: Combat Reflexes (Human feat: Action Surge)
Suggested Skills: Acrobatics, Endurance, History, Intimidate
Suggested At-Will Powers: scything strike, quick reverse
Suggested Encounter Power: dancing menace
Suggested Daily Power: stance of the adder

Phalanx Class Features
All phalanxes share these class features.

Combat Improvisation
The phalanx scorns the rigidity of most martial disciplines. Melding together all the aspects of their training, a phalanx can shift quickly between stances or use attacks from one stance while in another. You may use any martial attack power that has the stance keyword without losing an existing stance. You cannot gain the benefits of the stance effect of the power during the same encounter unless you are able to use the power again during the encounter.

Intricate Footwork
The phalanx is adept at moving through the thick of battle to a position of advantage. You gain Defensive Mobility as a bonus feat.

Harrier’s Grasp
Any square adjacent to the phalanx is considered difficult terrain for enemies. If you are using a weapon with the reach property, then the area which is considered difficult terrain becomes a burst 2 centered on the Phalanx.

Phalanx Formation
Choose one of the following two benefits:
Defensive Formation
Every ally which starts their turn adjacent to the Phalanx gains a +1 bonus to AC and Reflex defenses until the start of their next turn.
Aggressive Formation
When an ally attacks an enemy they flank with the Phalanx, that ally gains a +2 bonus to damage rolls.

January 27, 2010

Monumental Magic

As some of you are now aware, I'm working on a "from scratch" martial controller. Not that I didn't like the "re-built" rogue martial controller, but I thought it might be fun to create a class from the ground up and experience the process. And it doesn't hurt that this is one particular niche that seems to have been left open either by design or oversight. Unfortunately, the process began just about the time I started playing Open Beta of Star Trek Online, which has slowed my progress immeasurably. However, the Beta is over, and so I am refocusing on my efforts and should have a finished product soon. With the help of my Monday night group, I've named the new class. So, next week, I plan to give you the first installment of a multi-week unveiling of: The Phalanx!

But that is next week. This week, I have to make a confession. I'm afraid I went nearly twenty seven years without ever watching Conan the Barbarian. Fortunately, this week, I rectified that gap in my education. But as I was watching the movie, I recognized a trope of high fantasy adventure literature and cinema that generally doesn't translate well into your average tabletop game: the item of significance. Many rule sets have been laid out by many different games on how to create "heirloom items" or how to enhance an existing item so that your player doesn't have to sell off the family sword when he gets his first magic weapon. So I don't plan to rehash something so relatively old hat. Instead, this led me to consider old games that I had played. The feeling of wonder when we found a magical weapon. The suspense as the wizard crushed that 100gp pearl and cast "Identify" on the sword, and the exultation as the DM read the description of the potent magical properties of the weapon. That is something I definitely miss. Nowadays, it seems like the magic is expected, expedient, and often very un-exciting.

My Monday night game had a noteworthy discovery of a magic item which relates to this idea. Our fighter uses two-handed axes, so when we found ourselves facing off against the King of the Xane-kin (Goodman Games monster, not even sure I'm spelling it right) wielding an over-sized two-handed ax of obvious magical power, the whole party was agog with anticipation! What would it be? Could Marcus wield such an immense weapon? Would Cain the Cunning be forced to use his powers to transfer the enchantment to a more reasonable sized weapon? My DM, always the master of improvisation (I'm assuming this wasn't completely scripted, perhaps it was.) saw the excitement that this weapon generated and jumped on it. He described the ax falling to the ground with as much attention to detail and color as one usually reserves for the demise of the campaign's BBEG. The whole group was spell-bound as Marcus tried to lift it. And found that he could! This sort of flavor makes magic items memorable. It also helps keep all players engaged in what is going on a the table. That makes it something worth trying.

So, how should we go about making magic monumental? Here are a few suggestions for players and DMs:
  1. As DM, solicit a wishlist of items from your players. This is pretty standard fare, but ask for more than you might usually. Ask the player to "describe" the delver's leather armor they want. Is it crafted from the hides of sentient lizards? Does it appear to be made from the skins of giant spiders? These flavor details, produced by the character's player, increase buy-in from the player, making them less likely to thoughtlessly shuck the item when it's enhancement bonus is no longer on par, and also give you material to use to weave the item into the game at a theatrically appropriate moment, increasing everyone's enjoyment of the game.
  2. As a player, take some time to consider how your character feels about the various items s/he has discovered, and those which s/he hopes to discover. What characteristics make these weapons distinct? Does your character want to be known as the dagger master who leaps from the shadows, face indistinct, but serpentine blades dripping venom and cutting blinding arcs through the darkness? Or does your character wish to use a morningstar with the skull of a barbed demon as the head? Each of these ideas helps the game, and can help you and your friends enjoy it all the more. So think them up, and share them!
  3. Finally, as the DM, never distribute magic items as an after-thought. It is better to have the loot for the fight ready and be fumbling through three monster manuals to keep up with the stats of the monsters, than to pull off an epic battle that your players were unsure they would survive only to kill the elation by announcing "you find a... helm of leadership on one of the monsters."

The moral of the story is that magic should be monumental. And to make it momentous, you have to give it its moment. Both players and DMs need to do their part. With a little extra attention, and some collaboration on the parts of players and DMs, no loot will ever be dull accounting ever again. Until next week, good gaming!

January 13, 2010

One of Those Days...

So, my Monday night game this week was... well, see the title. Anyone else remember that book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day? Well, after Monday night's session, I wanted to move to Australia. It wasn't just the bad rolls (although, it's never fun to spend the entire night rolling 8 or lower other than one 15 and a 13...) but rather the stark juxtaposition of my crap-tacular rolling alongside the multiple crits of our fighter and rogue. Now, D&D is a cooperative game, so I'm certainly not complaining that my team was doing well. In fact, we would likely have ended up ground into paste if they weren't doing better than average. But it got me thinking about 4e, and the frequency of "Those Days."

So, in honor of all "Those Days" we've had, here are some ideas on how to avoid the need to move to Australia.
  1. Don't take only attack powers. When you get the chance to pick up a utility, make sure it's not simply something that augments attacks. Grab at least a few of them that are encounter powers that you can use when you are scared of rolling a D20. Give someone else a save, remove a condition from someone else, teleport the heck out of a tight spot. If you only have dailies to rely on not needing to hit, you're going to spend a lot of turns doing nothing when the God of Dice is laying down the smack.
  2. With the support of your DM/fellow players, make it an off-day for your character. Flubbing a lot of rolls? Come up with some hilarious antics to explain why your normally savvy hero is suddenly the Chevy Chase of high adventure. Things like grabbing the wrong weapon, forgetting the words to that Inspiring Refrain, or just straight up bad luck can not only make your wasted turns sting a little less, but they can also make the fight more fun for everyone. Tap into the groups Schadenfreude, get everyone laughing at the frustration you are experiencing. It may just make you feel a little better about it.
  3. Help the DM out a bit. Maybe your rolls aren't the reason you're falling all over yourself, maybe the bad guy is just THAT AWESOME! Whenever you dump a roll, describe some incredible maneuver the enemy performed that caused your well-aimed attack to miss. This is, of course, subject to DM approval but most DMs will appreciate you playing up their villians. Especially when they feel like the dread has left the game, and no one is taking that evil warlock they spent three hours designing as the B.B.E.G. seriously. This could earn you some points, make you feel like less of a failure, AND help your fellow players enjoy the fight a bit more as they all experience more satisfaction when they manage to hit the guy on whom you couldn't lay a finger.
  4. Finally, look at other benefits you can contribute. Give the rogue flanking. Sure you're a wizard, but use the bloody staff and go flank that goblin! Use the often-overlooked "Aid Another" action. +2 to defenses against an opponent, or +2 on the next attack roll against that opponent? You only have to hit an AC 10 with a melee basic attack. And if you're going to roll horribly, at least you have better odds against a defense that low.
So there are four ways to make that terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad session a little less painful. And hopefully, a little more fun! And who knows, maybe you'll accrue some handy karma that will get that evil God of Dice off your back before the end of the session. You might be back to fighting fit before you know it! Or you can always use Ode of Sacrifice to take the stun condition off the rogue. Those striker-types love when you do stuff like that!

January 06, 2010

Ride the Wave

Today, I'm going to try not to wax philosophical and take up too much of your time. We're going to take a quick look at Google Wave, which is bringing a new avenue to RPGs. After talking in general, I'd like to share some ideas that have occurred to me on usage, and share some links to the gadgets and extensions that look like they will be most helpful in running a game on Google Wave.

So, Google Wave was designed as a collaborative tool. This works out wonderfully, because Wizards of the Coast has mostly spiked the plans to create a gaming table feature for D&D Insider. And for everyone who doesn't play D&D, Google Wave offers an alternative to play-by-post games and similar fare. The advantage of Google Wave lies in the melding of synchronous and asynchronous communication. Basically, with existing programs and web applications, players either had to be sitting down at computers at the same time, or they ran the risk of posting things simultaneously, leading to confusion and redundancy. With Google Wave, all participants can see, in real time, when a contributor is posting. This means that the fluidity of the game is more protected. Players can check in with one another with less chance of derailing the game. And best of all, if a session with everyone present is desired, it is absolutely possible.

The second advantage comes in the form of gadgets and extensions that I mentioned earlier. These are user generated (for the most part) little programs that can run within your Wave. There is an extension that will automatically roll dice when you enter them into the Wave, and a gadget that will show a map, battle mat, or other image withing the Wave and allow you to place markers on it. As more people start to use Google Wave, there will undoubtedly be further improvements to the breadth and application of gadgets and extensions.

Of course, the same flexibility that allows such dynamic game play does come at a price. This medium allows anyone to edit any post in the Wave. This means that there is a bit more of an element of trust than in other formats, where finalized text is immutable, or at least restricted in who can alter it. But it is a necessary price which allows the players to move their character's marker on the map, or to note an immediate interrupt on an enemy's turn. Ultimately, the system's benefits make it ideal for the purposes of the gaming community. I remember a time when several hours of prep work were wasted because my players asked me to grab sodas for them and then stole my adventure notes and read through them. (I was only 13 at the time, and far too trusting a lad!) So trust is not merely required on Google Wave. If you're like me, this is exciting as a way to supplement your table-top game, try another character, or run a campaign you've been itching to start. I still endorse sitting down at a table with friends, but when that isn't an option, I think Google Wave is providing us with an outstanding alternative.

Use player "check-ins" during combat or other activities that could involve taking actions that aid or interrupt others. This might slow down the game slightly, but could also reduce the amount of "ret-conning" you have to do. Just have each player edit the post with each turn adding a small, agreed-upon designator at the bottom acknowledging that they have reviewed the actions of the turn and do not wish to take any actions in response. If a player does want to react, such as taking an opportunity action, have them add that instead of their designator. e.g. An orc attacks Stan the Wizard. GM Steve writes out a post detailing the attack and includes the roll, showing a successful hit and the damage dealt. When Bob checks the post later that evening, and sees that the orc his Swordmage marked attacked Stan, he opens the post and adds a line to the effect of: "A brilliant flash of light deflects the brunt of the orc's swing, Stan only receives 4 damage."

Try to set things around 3-day windows. This way, if players have a busy day, or the GM does, no one is getting upset with the lack of movement on the thread. This also gives people a mental count on when the next round is going to occur. Because everything is ultimately editable, it doesn't hurt too much to go back and change things, but from round to round consistency helps players make decisions they are happy with going forward. If a monster crits a character, dropping them to 0 hit points and the Rogue uses his turn to stabilize that character, then the defender comes along having missed the last couple days of action and interrupts the attack, negating the crit, it is understandable that the group is going to be a little miffed about having to redo that whole round and any subsequent rounds that included actions stemming from that chain of events. This is partly addressed by the suggestion above, but setting some sort of loose time table for the progression of rounds gives everyone a way to feel more secure.

Useful Extensions and Gadgets
Fighty is a map extension that allows you to make an interactive battle mat out of most anything. Find the directions on how to use it here.

For a dice simulator, try adding "randomleetwenty@appspot.com" as a "user" to your Wave. The extension will fill in the roll when you write things like "1d20+10."

Now I am off to start planning my Google Wave game. Good luck, and good gaming!

December 30, 2009

Holiday Meta-Meta-Gaming

My apologies for not updating last week. Now that the trials of family holiday celebrations are at an end, I'm back at the grindstone, working away!

As a DM, I often recoil a bit from the term "meta-gaming." As a player, I find it less offensive despite my DM attempting to use operant conditioning to train us not to partake. But the prefix "meta-"is derived from Latin, and actually means "after, beyond, with, adjacent, self." When we have a discussion with another player about an over-powered feat, item, or combination, that is meta-gaming. When the DM puts his foot down and invokes Rule #1, that is meta-gaming. Ultimately, meta-gaming is unavoidable; and due to the nature of the game it is not even desirable to cut it out completely. But as with many things, each group must find the balance which works best for them.

There are several ways that meta-gaming can become troublesome. When one of these occurs, it can make a DM's life more difficult. The Dungeon Master's Guide already talks about how to tackle these problems as a DM, but ultimately the game relies on the participation of all for best results. Today, let's discuss when meta-gaming goes bad, and how to tackle it as a player at the table.

The first case where meta-gaming becomes problematic is when players damage the verisimilitude of the system in order to achieve optimal results. When a player rolls a Perception check to look for traps and gets a 1, the temptation is to say "Hey, meat-shield, come over here and step on this tile/open this door/open this chest!" This shatters the shared construct of imagination that the other players and DM have been creating up to that point in the game.

The second is when a player uses broad, system knowledge to motivate their actions: "Oops, that green lumpy monster is a troll, obviously, alright everyone, use fire attacks!" This use of meta-gaming also damages the verisimilitude, and additionally, makes balancing fights harder for the DM. If the DM balances the fight predicated on difficulty with a new, unknown (to the characters) monster, a player using their own extensive knowledge of the system can vastly skew that balance, and what was intended to be a significant, tense, challenging encounter can become a tedious, underpowered distraction.

The third is when a player uses system knowledge to attempt to strong-arm the DM. The rules are in place to keep the game fair, and certainly should only be broken on the rarest of occasions. However when a DM modifies the rules, or flat-out breaks them, for dramatic effect or to keep things interesting, it can be detrimental to have a player calling out what rules were violated and why the events or actions described by the DM couldn't have happened.

While it is often the DM's job to adjudicate disputes and rule on grey areas of the game, when the DM is one of the disputant parties, it can often seem like bullying or "cheating" when they try to resolve such a dispute. In addition to struggling with impartiality, the DM might overlook how the situation appears from the perspective of the players. For these reasons, it is important for players to have a few tricks up their sleeves to help out in these critical moments.

When a player is gaming the system, as in our first example, it can help not to play along. The "meat-shield" should refuse to set off the trap. Especially if they are not the person who usually opens a chest or door, or who walks down the hallway in the front position. If you aren't the player who can directly refuse, suggest that the player who is swerving into meta-game territory describe an in-game reason for the request. While it can damage the verisimilitude to simply call out for someone else to open the chest on a 1, it can reinforce it if the player who was searching changes the process to exclaiming, in-character, "I've got a bad feeling about this chest here, no trap? Not sure I buy it. Jarvis, try popping this open with that sword of yours; I'd rather not have my face right in it if I missed something!" Everyone at the table can then enjoy an additional moment of role-playing, the verisimilitude of the game remains intact, and the rogue with only two surges left does have to eat the symbol of pain trap he missed on the chest.

When a player is using their knowledge of the system to gain an advantage for their character, as in the example with the troll, a DM can often remedy this by swiftly swapping out abilities. Perhaps, with quick thinking, the troll becomes fire-resistant and only vulnerable to acid, or even cold. However, it is also possible for players to help in this situation. When a player declares "These must be trolls, hey guys, use fire and acid attacks!" you might help in two ways. If you are the "knowledge skill-monkey" in the party, ask the DM what type of skill check is required and then gently remind the player who "stole" your thunder that you would like to have the chance to use your skills when they are relevant. If you aren't the "knowledge skill-monkey" you might say something like "Garris has no way of knowing that, having never seen a troll before. He raises his ax and charges forward, shouting his battle cry!" Often, setting an example of how you would like to play is more effective than chastising another player, which can set up disagreements and tensions that will hurt the group and the game.

Finally, when a DM is called out for fudging or breaking the rules, it can be helpful for a player to perform two functions for the group. The first is to act as the "voice of reason." If the rule amendment or breakage seems to be onerous or unfair, rather than challenging it by declaring it "against the rules," try to explain why you think it would be harmful to the game. The DM probably thinks that the change is necessary, but may have overlooked some repercussions that you could bring to light. This type of meta-gaming can be quite helpful, and can often prevent hurt feelings and antagonism between the people at the table. The second role for the player in this critical situation is, if the changes seem reasonable, to remind the "rule-lawyer" that the DM has the prerogative to adjust the rules slightly if need be. Sometimes, simply voicing support of the changes can bring the opposition around. Other times, you might need to explain why you think the rule change would be good for you, the players, not just the DM. Suggest that you record the change in some form as a "house rule" for perpetuity. This can also ease the concerns of a gamer who feels strongly about the sanctity of the rules.

In these ways, players can help ease some of the tensions at the table caused by misplaced meta-gaming. Many times, meta-gaming is also the answer to the problem. When players rely solely upon the DM to keep the game running smoothly, they are bound to be disappointed. RPGs are a team game, and it takes the whole team to keep things moving on the right track. A little balance, the right people at the table, and everyone chipping in can make all the difference!

Happy Holidays, and may the New Year bring many 20s!