“Keys” for DnD

For a longer-term DnD game, I am seriously considering using something like the experience point system in The Shadow of Yesterday — the “keys” that you pick for your character and which give you xp when you ‘hit’ them. (You’d need about 10 to 15 to level, probably, which would be pretty fast, even compared to the speeded up ratio in 4.0.)
Clinton wrote up a hack of the system for 3.5 d20. It’s here, and would require a very little bit of tweaking to update to 4.0. Some excerpts:

The first way you get XP is through Keys. They determine behaviors that will earn XP for your character. Keys are motivations, problems, connections, duties and loyalties. You should pick one at 1st level, and one every odd level after that. You can never have more than five Keys.
Each Key has a Counter. If you go against the Key – that is, act according to the Counter – you can choose one of two options:
* Lose 2 XP.
* Remove the Key and gain 7 XP. You can never take this Key again.
((A few particularly typical d20 key examples.))
Key of Bloodlust
Your character enjoys overpowering others in combat. Gain 1 XP every time you/your group wins a battle, or 3 XP for defeating a foe equal to or more powerful than your group. Counter: Be defeated in battle.
Key of Glittering Gold
Your character loves wealth. Gain 1 XP every time you make a deal that favors you in wealth (max: 3 per adventure). Gain 2 XP every time you finish an adventure with more wealth than you started with. Gain 5 XP every time you finish an adventure with double your previous wealth. Counter: Lose (or give away) over half your fortune.
Key of Fraternity
Your character has someone he is sworn to, a friend who is more important than anyone else. Gain 1 XP every time this character is present in a scene with your character (maximum 3 per adventure). Gain 2 XP whenever your character makes a decision that is influenced by them. Gain 5 XP every time your character defends them by putting himself at unusual risk. Counter: Sever the relationship with this person or the person dies.
Key of Vengeance
Your character has a hatred for a particular organization, person, or even species or culture. Gain 1 XP every time your character hurts a member of that group or a lackey of that person. Gain 2 XP every time your character strikes a minor blow at that group or person (killing a member of the organization or one of the person’s lackeys, disrupting their life, destroying their property). Gain 5 XP every time your character strikes a major blow at that group or person. Counter: Let your enemy go or destroy the entire organization.
Key of the Masochist
Your character thrives on personal pain and suffering. Gain 1 XP every time he is bloodied and 3 XP every time he is dropped to 0 hp. Counter: Flee a source of physical or psychic damage.

There are also some “classic fantasy trope” examples of Keys on the TSoY wiki, here. I particularly like:

Key of the Explorer
Your character seeks novelty and discovery at every opportunity. Gain 1 XP everytime she goes somewhere or encounters something new to her. Gain 3 XP whenever she experiences something unknown to her society. Buyoff: Settle down to a quiet life.
Key of Extravagance
Your character seeks every opportunity to impress those around you with his means and generosity. Gain 1 XP every time he gives a gift or spends money on an unnecessary luxury. Gain 3 XP every time he blows a significant fraction of his net worth. Buyoff: Refuse a luxury you could have had.
Key of Glory
Who cares about power or riches? You crave fame! Gain 1 XP when your actions inspire strangers to talk about you insultingly (there’s no such thing as bad publicity). Gain 3 XP when your deeds win you acclaim and adulation. Buyoff: Adopt a pseudonym or go incognito.

You can probably see where a set up like this would speed up the leveling process in some entertaining ways. 🙂

Actual Play: Keep on the Shadowfells, Session One

As I mentioned, had a chance to play the first couple events in the sort of “DnD 4th Edition Lite” Keep on the Shadowfells. What you get with this game is basically a DnD Lite version of the rules (somewhat too light in a few places — would have helped to know a few things that aren’t mentioned in the 16 page rules booklet, but it worked out), 5 pregenned characters with all the math worked out and put on a nice, easy to read sheet and their first two level-ups already worked out, and an 80-page adventure… a pretty good one, at that.
Oh, and you get all the maps you’ll need for any combat, so when I fight starts, you just lay out the map, drop down the tokens, and go at it.
Stuff I noticed about the game
1. In MSExcel-speak, 4e still tests as “True” for whatever value you assign to “Dungeons & Dragons.” A lot of people have been busting on it, saying that it’s all-combat, all the time, and there’s no support for anything else, etc. etc. This has pretty much been true for every iteration of the game. The people saying such things are very silly. We haven’t had a chance to do a skill challenge yet, but when we do, I expect good things.
2. You really do need mini’s or good counters to play this thing. I need to get better wood discs than the ones I made — smaller, and less splintery. Either pre-made, or I need to get a 3/4″ dowel and get a MUCH finer-toothed blade for the saw.
3. Combat is a lot more interesting than it’s been before, because…
3A. Everyone can contribute meaningfully to the fight, even/especially the (traditionally useless) first-level Wizard.
3B. Everyone can do a lot of crazy maneuvers and funky stuff. It’s entirely possible for everyone to “Use their Nuke” and really do something awesome.
3C. We did not make full use of it, but I did see that classes are designed to have serious synergy in combat: the Cleric’s maneuvers set up Paladin’s maneuvers set up Fighter’s maneuvers. You’re really a TEAM now. Heaven help me when Margie and Kate start coordinating their respective ‘battlefield control’ abilities — they started to get a handle on them by the middle of the second fight and suddenly my super-mobile Kobolds had a VERY difficult time moving around.
3D. The monsters are really a team too. I played stupidly with the Wyrmpriest in the second fight. I should have bombed guys with his acid bomb ability from long range for awhile first, THEN come in and drop his two AoE attacks once the battlefield set up.
3E. The monsters require so much less book-keeping than before.
3F. A lot of the crazy 3e complications are now much simpler.
3G. There’s some better rules on building an encounter so that terrain, traps, conditions, etc., matter more–the scene is more interactive… there are many more ways to interact and use terrain.
4. On the other hand, while fights require more intelligence and imagination than prior editions’ Rock-em Sock-em Robots combat system, fights last a long time.
5. There’s a disconnect at the table, because most of use have played 3.0 and 3.5 before — I’ve played a LOT, Dave and Margie and Jackie played quite a bit, and Kate’s played less, but MUCH more recently — so when a rule in 4.0 is different from 3.5, there was a bit of shock… sometimes it was “is that a new rule or a Doyce Houserule?” (disclaimer: I used no houserules) and stuff I remember from 3.5 that isnt’ true anymore (Example: Standing up from being prone doesn’t cause an Opportunity Attack — in fact a LOT less stuff does, which makes it easier to deal with… but leaves veterans with the niggling suspicion that we’re forgetting to do something.)
6. In previous editions, each class had a very different feel: if you were a 1st level Magic-User, you had to play the game very differently than a 1st level Fighter. This difference is FAR less pronounced now. Also, the classes that are “simple” versus “complicated” have changed. Paladins and clerics have a LOT of stuff on their sheets. Rogues LOOK simpler than that, but the way you apply what they can do during a fight is pretty advanced stuff.
7. There is pretty much no effort to make the mechanics hyper-realistic. Hit points are as much “morale” as they are “health”, and that kind of logic is the only way some abilities make sense. I like it.
Stuff I noticed about the play
1. All the characters are awesome. I want to play a fully tank-specced dwarven fighter so much I can taste it. Similarly, I think a rogue with a rapier, a ranged weapon (vs. twin-blade) ranger, and a cleric would all be a ton of fun. There are really no classes that, when reading about them in the PHB, didn’t sound fun and worth checking out.
2. Christ, but we are a persnickety, particular, optimizing bunch of nitwits. I mention this solely because Katherine played with us last night, running the rogue, and by the end of the night I felt positively terrible for her, because the nice nurturing adults just could. not. let. her. play. her. guy. and just do whatever she wanted, because there was a tactically better move to be made somewhere. We need to let her just ‘go in and hit that guy’ for awhile before we worry about shit like flanking and such. Let her GET flanked once or twice, and I guarantee she’ll learn to do it herself.
3. Along the same lines: good lord we’re terrified of taking an Opportunity Attack. Damn.
4. I was tired, and Kate was flat out exhausted — really, we shouldn’t have played, but I’m glad we did — it would have been close to a month before we could have gotten these specific people to the table again, and it was nice to pull out all the dice and really beat on stuff.
What happened?
Oh, Margie’s guy is friends with a sort of professional adventurer guy. Said guy is haring off on one of his wild adventures to find a Dragon’s burial site. He’ll be back in a month. It’s been three month’s and the guy’s wife comes to margie and guilts her into going and looking for him. Said dwarf recruits several mutual acquaintances to come with. His drinking pal the mage. The paladin he knows from the warrior’s guild. The cleric the paladin is tight with… and the rogue that the cleric has turned into a little “rehabilitation side-project.”
Right. Oh, and when word gets out that the priest and paladin are headed for Winterhaven, a friend of theirs in the temple who researches such things drops in while they’re packing and advises them to keep on the lookout for a death cult that was spotted heading that direction about a year ago. “You know, just in case. Sure it’s nothing. Ta-ta.”
So they’re traveling to the town and about three days in and getting close to the town they get waylaid by bandits. Little lizardmen- kobolds. There is fighting. The slinger gets away and the others die.
The group gets to town and starts talking to folks, asking after the dwarf’s buddy. Clues are had. The paladin approaches the Lord of the town and gets a promise of reward if they wipe out the kobolds that are harassing the town.
So they have to decide about what to do next: go down to the rumored dragon’s graveyard to look for the missing guy, or head for the Kobold camp? (Or even head for the old abandoned keep from the fallen empire, up in the hills — the one either haunted, or infested with goblins, or both.) They decide that the dwarf’s buddy is the first priority.
They head south out of town and are ambushed by more kobolds — a bit tougher group. The slinger had run back to camp and told such a tale of horror about the adventurers that some bigger guns were called out.
There was more fighting. A lot of “once per day” powers made an appearance, some of which healed the party for large amounts, others of which set large patches of foliage on fire. The group came out of the fight largely unscratched (thanks to healing) but with some of their bigger powers already used up for the day. They’re a little shaky about if they should move on or rest up. *mutters about over-cautious heroes*
And that’s when we called it for the night. I had a good time. I hope we play again.
At the same time? It made me really appreciate the kind of play we have with In a Wicked Age. Different (very), but also very good. I should always make sure to have a copy of that game with me when heading to someone’s house.
As a side note: I’m rolling all my dice out in front of everyone. No fudging, so there’s a good chance some folks are going to be making Death Saves at some point… heaven knows how many times I soft-pitched a fight in 3.5 to keep folks from dying (and the rogue still bit it like… what? Five times?)

Dealing with the whiff-factor in DnD

Played some DnD last night. It was good. I will talk about that more in a bit, but for now, an idea for combating the frustration of repeating missing in a fight.

The Angry Meter
If you miss, you get a token. A Big bowl of glass stones that you get to grab from when you miss — a nice tactile way of portraying building anger. Conceptually it transforms a miss from “a whiff” into “I didn’t hit you yet…but I’m getting closer”.
You can turn in five tokens on a future roll, after the roll has been made.
In Heroic Tier: they’re worth a +5
In Paragon Tier: +10
In Epic Tier: +15
That way, if you would miss anyway by spending tokens, you wouldn’t spend them and just rack up another for the pile.
Critical Fumbles give you two tokens, because 1’s make us really angry… alternately, if you want a fumble to suck more, you lose all your stones when you roll a 1.
You lose all your stockpiled tokens during an extended rest.

Kind of like it… but I’m not sure a game with so much “Marked enemy” stuff going on needs another token floating around the table.

OM Freakin’ G: The DnD 4.0 game with the seven-year old got even more awesome.

You haven’t been keeping up with the exploits of D and his dad Tony? Why on earth not? Go here. Read.
Turns out two of the kid’s characters can speak draconic, and they’ve been fighting kobolds, so the kid is making Dad translate what they’re saying all the time.

At this point in the fight it was very much all over but for the agonized draconic shouting. But that, interestingly, is when things got really funny and weird.
“GGLgLGGGLGG! SSSSSSSssss ss ss …”
“What’s that mean?”
“We are done for, my brother! Let us die with honor!”, I say. After all … they’re toast. Everyone knows it.
Quoth D: “Do you surrender?”
>Blink, blink< "Uhhhh ... SSS?" "What's that mean?" "Uhhhh ... yes?" So now he's got two prisoners, and I'm all like "What the heck is he going to do with prisoners? Is there going to be horrific torture involved? Is he going to wring information out of them, then slaughter them? Kids can be dark ... " Quoth D: "Are you good now?" >Blink, blink< "Uh ... I don't think we're really ... uh ... good or evil. We're just sorta ... us." "Oh. Well I've decided you're going to be good." "But that ... that doesn't actually make us good." "It will. I believe in you." Wow. His major adventure-genre influences have been Fantastic Four, Naruto and Avatar ... but I didn't realize he'd actually been listening.
So he took them back to Winterhaven. He said “You’re going to live here now, and you’re going to be good.” He spent all afternoon talking to extremely mistrustful villagers, convincing them to give these two guys a chance.
In the interest of having chances to, y’know, fight (which D definitely agrees is a lot of fun) we established that he’d gotten lucky and captured the only two non-evil kobolds in the whole tribe, and that the rest of them were terribly evil right down to the core and needed to be killed with extreme death.
D listened to that and said “Yeah, because otherwise we’d have to rescue everybody, and I don’t have enough legos for that.”

Can’t. Stop. Grinning.

Watching the 4.0 DnD release

… is a fascinating kind of car-crash voyeurism.
Lots of folks into gaming have never really tried anything outside of their comfort zone for gaming, and that’s fine.
Many many of those folks are playing DnD.
But what’s happened with 4.0 is that the designers for the game, unlike many of their players, have been watching and (unlike some of the gaming-industry-aware-but-disdainful d20 faithful) embracing some of the significant gaming innovations of the last five years or so. For example:

  • In-combat “tagging” with non-combat skills to give your allies bonuses. (Spirit of the Century)
  • Reducing resource overload to keep the characters streamlined and fun to play as they level. (MMOs)
  • “Respeccing” your character without significant penalty as you level. (SotC. MMOs)
  • The same system used for all actions, even spellcasting. (Heroquest. Dogs. Hell, any indie game in the last 5 years.)
  • Taking actions that set everyone up to be awesome, not just you. (The driving force behind most any indie game.)
  • It seems like a small thing, but it’s something *I* had been playing with a hack for for a couple months now… mechanics to support a “Tank, holding aggro” in a tabletop game.

One of the things I hadn’t seen so far, though, was this little tidbit…

*Q:* Will there be social combat rules in 4E or some other system that allows for non-combat conflict resolution?
A: Yes. We have been playtesting a new social encounter system, which has been one of the most heavily developed—and contentious—parts of the game. Look for it in the DMG.

One of the things that bothered me about 3.5 DnD is that, as a tactical combat game at heart (something it does very very very well), non-combat interactions (ie: the “roleplaying” in RPG) never got the same amount of system support that combat does. Consequently, combat is more *important* than other activities; it has more weight, just in terms of time-devoted-to-it-at-the-table. When a scene that uses Bluff and Diplomacy will simply be ten minutes of roleplay and (if I’m lucky and it’s not simply hand waved away via GM Fiat) one die roll… while a combat with that same antagonist might run 30 minutes to an hour of game play… why would I put much time into developing my Bluff and Diplomacy feats when Combat skills let my character ‘be awesome’ for a much longer stretch of play-time at the table? It’s got a bad payoff percentage at the gaming table.
Answer: I wouldn’t, or I will anyway and be frustrated. (See also: my bard character Gwydion.)
Rules that let an important ‘soft skills’ encounter get the same love and attention from the system that a physical fight does? Games with that kind of ability are the reason I abandoned 3.5 in the first place.
It heartens me that the designers for 4.0 obviously paid so much attention to the best stuff that the REST of the gaming industry (both pen and paper and electronic) has introduced in the last 5 years.
Why is watching the release of the game like watching a car crash?
Well, for many DnD players, all of this new stuff, which is familiar to ME (and my friends, thanks to the evangelical nature of my enthusiasm for those sorts of games in the last few years), is very unfamiliar, new, strange, and just plain WEIRD to them… watching them come to grips with the new DnD is just… fascinating.

Learn about DnD 4.0 with some cool, funny guys.

Okay, so here’s what happened.
Tycho and Gabriel from Penny Arcade, plus Scott Kurtz from PvP, got together with one of the R&D guys from Wizards of the Coast, who runs a DnD game for them.
They recorded the whole thing. Plus, Gabe and Scott drew some scenes from the adventure.
So what the teeming public gets out of it: the whole adventure has been recorded as eight podcasts, plus funny comics.
But that’s not all!
See, Tycho plays d20 all the time. Scott hasn’t played in years, but did at one time. Gabe has never played DnD or any other tabletop RPG at all.
And the GM is really good and takes his time explaining everything, so you find out about the game’s system in a way that’s really natural — the guy is REALLY good explaining the game.
And you have players who are just kind of excellent to listen to.
The first session is here.
The second session is here.
You have to create a login to the Wizard’s web site to see the stuff and download the podcasts. If you have the least little interest in the game, at all, this is how I would suggest you learn about the game, before even looking at the rules, or buying them.
I have to admit, I’ve been looking over the rules for the levels 21 to 30, the “Epic” ranges, and thinking that those rules represent exactly the direction our long-time DnD game went… an ogre warrior gathering an army to become a battle master… or a cleric on the way to demigod-hood, for example (she gave birth her deity’s son, after all)… it’s a shame these weren’t the rules we were using back then. We would have had somewhere to go.

For the nerd on your Father’s Day list

Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition.
I’m sorry, I’m just hearing too much good stuff about it. The indie roleplaying community is going gah-gah over it. “If old-school basic Dungeons and Dragons were rewritten by Days of Wonder, after they’d played Spirit of the Century for six months.”
It’s meant to be a high magic game… crazy high magic like rivers of flowing earth and villages of dragonblood humanoids. Dunno if I love that, but …
Eh. I dunno. I mention it mostly because of the great reactions from people whose opinions and gaming tendencies I frequently agree with, and from this actual-play write up, in which the gamer’s seven year old son plays through the first DnD 4th edition module, simultaneously running five characters, keeps all the rules straight (even for Attacks of Opportunity), and outmaneuvers his dad.
I confess: the battlefield rules sound really fun.

Analyzing the last few sessions

It is something of an irony that the players in my d20 game have been so interested and involved and generally pleased with the last couple sessions that have followed the dungeon-crawl-that-wouldn’t-end. Having well and truly poisoned the well with regards to combat (six months of nothing but pretty much put paid to that need for awhile), I’ve been digging in with what can best be described as Bangs for each of the characters (there are about 3 too many players for this to be wholly effective, but it’s basically working), and we haven’t rolled more than a handful of dice per session in that time.
It’ll never last — I haven’t got the stamina to make things up on the fly in d20 forever and the system works against anything of the kind, really — but right now we’re doing some interesting things and I’ve gotten folks to a point where they’ll be willing to put their characters away pretty soon and call the whole thing good.
After that, I’m looking forward to trying out HeroQuest and some other systems — still a little surprised at some of the resistance to anything-but-d20 that I keep running into, but them’s the breaks. I have to acknowledge that I run games better when the system doesn’t fight more freeform story construction and try to find a system that let’s me run a better game in the genre that both I and the players find interesting.