5e pregens – Arcane Elves

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment
Half Moon Elf Ranger by Aaron B Miller

Half Moon Elf Ranger by Aaron B Miller

One of the strengths of the Players Handbook is the amount of options included for both classes and races. Not only are there all the major races that you typically think of when you think about D&D, there are subraces that allow for the different types of those races that have been portrayed over the years and worlds of D&D. One of the most enjoyable long-running campaigns I’ve ever been in was a party of dwarves (and an adopted gnome with a fake beard.) Being from the same dwarven clan was a fantastic reason to have the party adventuring together, and strengthened the bonds between the PCs.

In the spirit of a racially themed party, I’ve created a party of elves that use the standard array of ability scores, and form a complete, diverse party, despite all being elves. Since they do use the standard array they would all be Adventurer’s League ready, if you needed a character fast and didn’t want to use one of the established pregens.

Elves in 5e come in three flavors: High Elf, Wood Elf, and Dark Elf (Drow). I tried to avoid the typical elven archetypes with one exception: the Ranger. You can’t have a party of elves without a Ranger! Being elves, they are all inclined towards magic, and by 3rd level, every one of them can cast spells of some type. I’ve included both the 1st level and 3rd level pregens, as I’ve found most classes don’t really hit their stride in 5e until about 3rd level. (Maybe a sideways homage to Dark Sun?)

I’ve chosen to create a High Elf Eldrich Knight (one of the fighter archetypes), a Dark Elf Fey Knight (or Green Knight, Paladin Oath of the Ancients), a Wood Elf Cleric of Nature (like a druid, but more armor and less shape shifting), a Wood Elf Ranger (Hunter, archer-supreme), a High Elf Rogue (arcane trickster), and a Dark Elf Sorcerer (Wild magic).

It was fantastically fun to use the backgrounds to create personalities, bonds, flaws, and ideals for them. High, Wood, and Dark elves probably have less in common with each other than Mountain and Hill dwarves, but I leave it to you to flesh out any backstories of how they met and began adventuring together.

Without further ado, the Elves:

1st Level Sorcerer Rogue FeyKnight Ranger NatureCleric EldritchKnight

3rd Level Sorcerer3 Rogue3 FeyKnight3 Ranger3  NatureCleric3 EldritchKnight3

 

 

Categories: 5e, Character, DnD, DnDnext, RPGs

5e Player’s Handbook Review

October 15, 2014 Comments off

phbThe fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons is really fun, despite the players handbook. I was skeptical about purchasing it, especially because game time is a pretty precious commodity anymore and there are so many awesome games out there. A few weeks ago I downloaded the free basic rules PDF and got together with some friends for a table of Adventurer’s League at the Wyvern’s Tale. We had an absolute blast. The pace of the game moved well, the mechanics were easy to grasp, fun, and manageable. I really wanted to try my hand at running it, so I’ll bite the bullet and pony up for the PHB.

Overall it’s… fine; completely adequate. But that really isn’t what I was hoping for, and certainly doesn’t generate the amount of enthusiasm and excitement for a release of this magnitude. Not to mention the retail price of $49 is steep for a book that is not a complete game system and only 320 pages. I suppose I’m getting spoiled by the quality and quantity of Fantasy Flight‘s Star Wars rpg. Their Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion core books are complete game systems with section for players, GMs, and adversaries. While the MSRP is $59, the book also weighs in at 464 pages.

There are some high points. The amount of classes available is really quite impressive. The temptation here would have been to release 3 players handbooks and split the classes among them the way they did with 4e and essentials. Thankfully WotC resisted that and included Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Warlock and Wizard all in one book. Nicely done. Not only that, but they could have been similarly tempted to release races slowly too, but included are Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human, Dragonborn, Gnome, Half-elf, and Tiefling. Additionally, the races include some sub-race variants like Hill Dwarf/Mountain Dwarf, High Elf/Wood Elf/Dark Elf (Drow) that each have their own characteristics and features, allowing for an enormous amount of diversity in character creation. I also appreciate the nods throughout the book not only to Forgotten Realms, but Dragonlance, Greyhawk and Eberron.

The personality and background section is one of my favorites in the book. During character creation you chose a background that includes a personality trait, an ideal, a bond and a flaw. Each has a small table of possible results and ideas to encourage making a character that is more than just a set of numbers on a page. Not only that, but inspiration allows the GM to provide mechanical benefit to playing to your character’s personality. If the GM grants you inspiration, you can use that or give it to another PC for an important roll to gain advantage for that roll. If you haven’t read about this mechanic already in 5e, having advantage on a check allows you to roll 2d20 and take the highest result of the two. Disadvantage forces you to take the lower. Really fun, inspiring stuff in this section, and I’m sad that it is only 22 pages of the book.

There are some low points as well. Namely layout. Recently, I wanted to check how the Rogue’s cunning action works. I flip to the Rogue section, page 96. Its an ability the Rogue gets at 2nd level that allows them to take a bonus action to Dash, Disengage. or Hide. Bonus action? That sounds cool. Flip to the index (which is in 4 point font. ARGH!) bonus action, page 189, (let’s see, for page numbers, lets choose tan on beige. Super-readable!) You can only take one bonus action on your turn, you can choose when unless the timing is specified, unless anything deprives you of taking actions. Cool. How do I hide? That seems like something I might want to do as my bonus action as a Rogue. Index again, hidden 177 Hide action see under Action, 192. 177 brings us to a sidebar in the abilities scores section for dexterity. Once you have all this down on your character sheet, scrawled notes on how different features work or page numbers I’m sure it will be fine, but it makes for a lot of page flipping and a lot of use of a very tiny font index in the meantime.

The chapter on magic starts with a list of all the spells for each class by level. It takes almost 5 complete pages. What would make those 5 pages useful would be page numbers next to each spell so you could look them up quickly like DCC did 3 years ago. Instead its pretty much wasted space.

The art throughout is again, fine, but not inspiring. The racial diversity and ladies in reasonable armor is to be commended, but most are individual character portraits or group scenes where little to nothing is going on. If they really want to encourage not only a new generation of players, but rope old gamers back in they would have done well to give Jeff Easley, Larry Elmore, Jeff Dee, or Erol Otus a call. These guys are still around and still making incredible art the harkens back to the glory days. Just ask Goodman Games! Those books are full of awesome art. Check some samples out on EN world. Chapter 8: Adventuring. Awesome! Surely this will be illustrated by a party on an airship battling a flight of dragons! What’s this? Some people standing around while a gnome scrawls on some parchment?! How is that adventuring?!

Overall, the game is really great. The options presented and the mechanics are plentiful if poorly laid out. I would recommend at least one person in your group pick this up for character creation, and the casters will likely need to look up some spells, but once you get the hang of the mechanics put this book aside and enjoy the excellent game, despite the lackluster book.

Categories: 5e, Books, DnD, Reviews, RPGs

The Need for Speed: The Advantages of Fast-Paced Play in Your Favorite RPG

October 5, 2014 2 comments

combatThe best kind of compliment you can get is one that you hear by way of a third party.  Our FLGS owner from the Wyvern’s Tale advised a player from my Asheville Comic Expo D&D 5th Edition Demo of the beginner’s box came in and said, “Scott runs the fastest game of D&D I’ve ever seen!”  Granted, that might not always be a compliment, but I’ll take what I can get.

A few years ago, however, the Skyland gang was at SCARAB and got to play the Pathfinder Society Special Blood Under Absalom.  It was an 8 hour game they were going to squeeze into 4 hours (which we finished in 6), at least that’s what I heard and that’s what it felt like.  It was the fastest game of D&D I ever played, and it was EXHILARATING.  When your turn came around, you had damn well be ready to take your action with dice in hand, and as soon as your turn was over, you’d better figure out what you were doing next.  Players who couldn’t keep up with that pace got passed over until they could, and a few turns were missed as people ‘assessed the situation’.  I’ve never before seen such frenetic action, but have aspired to bring that to many games since.

THE PROBLEM 

Too many times have I played D&D/Pathfinder/whatever and it goes something like this:

GM: Your character is bull-rushed into the water by the troll.  Make a Fortitude save.

Player 1: (rolls) Does a 6 save?  I have the Iron Constitution feat, does that apply?

Player 2: Yes, it does.

Player 3: No that’s just for poison.

GM: (flips pages for 5 minutes) No, it doesn’t in this case.  Make an upside down underwater grapple check to break the hold.

Player 1: How do I do that?

GM: (flips pages for 12 minutes) uh… Roll a strength check

Player 1: (Looks up from smartphone) What were we doing?

TO HELL WITH THAT.  THIS IS AWFUL. That sort of game play is just the sort of thing that kills off fans of RPG gaming.

Now, I should point out that I’m walking dangerously close to being a hypocrite here.  I enjoy the technical aspects of the game when they create interesting nuance to game play.  When the rules can be applied in a way that makes the game more interesting, I enjoy seeing them unfold.  However, many times this is not the case.  It’s rules-mongering for its own sake.  It slows play, makes everyone lose interest and a feel for the action, and creates migraines.

Instead of that, we should strive as GM’s and as gamers alike is for a fast paced game that reflects that action of the scene and keeps the dynamic tempo of the action consistent with the game itself.  The faster the action, the less likely the players are to get distracted, the more you’ll get accomplished, and the more fun everyone will have.

THE SOLUTION

Fast play can be tough.  Some games are just too rooted in the tactical to be hastened to a point where you might call them ‘fast’ but here are a few tips to make things jump:

1) KNOW YOUR RULES: Even complex rules usually come down to a dice roll or two under the best of circumstances.  If you know a creature uses energy drain and grapple attacks, print out the flowchart or rule you need and be ready to apply it.  SRD links or bookmarks on various apps or programs can make this incredibly easy.

2) HAVE YOUR RULES TEAM ON STANDBY: I have been fortunate to play most of my life with great rules guys.  If someone asks a question that isn’t known, one presents his belief while the other looks it up.  Meanwhile, the GM does what he can while that conclusion is reached or quickly makes a judgment call and moves on.  Complete indecision is resolved with tip #3.

3) THE TALISMAN RULE:  The old Talisman Board Game used to have a fantastic rule when you couldn’t figure out what the answer to a rules question was:

Phrase your rules question for a yes or no answer.

Roll 1d6

1-3 Yes

4-6 No

  You can always default to this, figuring out things on the backend if need be.  Usually, these rules calls aren’t life or death situations.  If they turn out to be, maybe make it one of the few exceptions to the fast play rule and do the research, or better yet, let the GM err on the side of Player success.  Who is going to be upset that the player prevailed?  If it’s the GM, then you are definitely doing it wrong.

4) ROLL TOGETHER: Players and GM’s alike are superstitious and don’t like to do this, but both player and GM should always be rolling their damage dice with their to hit dice whenever possible.  It seems like it wouldn’t save much time, but frankly, you’d be amazed how much time it seems to save, if only because it guarantees that those dice are out and in hand with the first toss, instead of having to fish around for a few extra d4’s because your magic missile just got an extra die because of that last level.  Multiple attacks can be resolved together with sets of colored dice, but colors need to be consistent. Don’t forget to throw in dice for miss-chance, hit location, or whatever other special modifier you need to account for.

5) PLAYER READINESS: This encompasses several things.  When I was younger, I used to make a player with a casting class look up the spell description and have it ready every time they cast a spell, or deemed them to be ‘fumbling with spell components’ until it was ready and they came ‘off delay’. (I am so old, it was actually just added to the casting time for the spell; grognards you know what I’m talking about).  Frankly, I wish I still did this, even though it guarantees I’m remembered as a complete bastard.

A faster game should push players to do this more anyway, and apps like ufisk and Lone Wolf’s Hero Lab can allow you to look up or print out spell descriptions, respectively, with great ease.  I prefer paper to electronics, as a smart phone or tablet can easily become a quick check of an email which turns into watching a five minute video of a cat playing the piano.  Nothing bugs me more than trying to move the action along or having a good RP moment, only to find out that the player involved or that was close to the action was mentally checked out for something unrelated to the game. Paper doesn’t do that.

In the end, a player should know how their abilities work as much as a GM should. Losing a turn or a forced delay allows a GM to keep the action flowing, often without major player detriment, and nudges lazy players into line at the same time.

6) SHAME POINT!:   Players who can’t seem to get their act together (playing on phone, don’t have dice ready, don’t know how their abilities function, etc) are deserving of retribution for ruining everyone’s good time.  Dungeon Bastard uses Shame Points in his World’s Worst Dungeon Crawl (which is amazing and plays fast and is incredibly fun) and even with no actual penalty for a shame point, it’s enough of a poke to get people on task.  Technically, if you roll under the number of shame points you have, you have to leave the game (I keep a broken office chair about 20 feet from the table in the unventilated garage for just such an occasion.  They can shout their actions into the room if need be….)

We also enjoy use of the “Eshleman Hat’ as a shaming device for someone who takes too long of a turn (relating to a friend who once took a turn that lasted one hour… I shit you not).

These things are fun, but also bring attention to a player’s lollygagging in a playful and generally inoffensive way.  Another tool for your toolbox.

7) JUST ROLL THE DAMN DICE!: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone fret about a rule that might arise before they have determined whether or not the action succeeded.  Get your players to throw those dice as soon as the action has been declared (and you do the same).  Half the time, you’re going to see that the tough rules call was irrelevant because the attack didn’t connect in the first place.

8) HAVE AN INITIATIVE MONKEY:  Sometimes running the combat can be tough while also tracking initiative.  If you have someone you can rely on (and that’s a big if) have them keep the pace going.  When they call out initiative, have them also call out the next player “On Deck” which will help to focus the player coming up.  Having a good initiative monkey is key, as a bad one will actually hurt you more than doing it yourself.  Another alternative is to use a board that everyone can see, or clothespins on your game screen with each player’s or characters name written on it, along with monster pins of a different color.  Names actually work better here, because people always respond to their name, whereas character names get ignored sometimes.  This is doubly true at conventions.

9) LIMIT RETCONS:  Players will worry you to death and stop the continuous flow of action by saying, “oh, I wanted to move here after I attacked” etc. etc.  A good house rule is that any action can continue to be modified or changed until someone rolls a die.  Then, an irreversible determination of luck has occurred and all actions are locked in. Apply this to yourself as well, if possible.  Sometimes, as a GM, you’ll have a lot more to keep track of, and so it is (mildly) forgivable.

10) KEEP UP THE RHYTHM:  As GM, all these other things are useless unless you can keep the action flying fast and furious.  You need to push to make each turn seem dynamic, and that includes non-combat rounds if at all possible.  Have a way to move around your table if not in initiative.  If someone takes an action, jump on that, but then move to the next person, tell them what they’re seeing and ask them what they do in response to that. Even if it’s nothing, ask them if they have a sword/blaster/torch out, where they are positioned, or maybe even make them roll a die and when they give you the number, laugh manically and move on to the next person.  Keep them reacting to what you’re doing.

11) ERR BOLDLY:  Key to this whole process is making sure your players are not watching you read.  Nothing is more action chilling than watching someone read a book. Do your best with the guidelines listed above, but as Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going to err, err boldly.”  Try to err on the side of the players, and they will love you for it.  But keep the action moving, toss the dice, and get the action back into the player’s hands.

Fast play isn’t always what the doctor ordered for every game, but most games benefit from the application of dynamic action.  Others that don’t (Vampire, Call of Cthulhu, etc) will still have their moments where you’ll want to apply these techniques, and even then you’ll want to bring intensity of a different sort to those games.  But that’s another article for another time.

Star Wars: Far Horizons Review

September 15, 2014 3 comments

SWE10-Book-leftBefore we get to the review, Asheville Comic Expo is this Saturday! Your favorite local gaming bloggers (FLGB?!) will be organizing and running a lot of the RPG tables. If you haven’t reserved your seat for a game or two, check out the warhorn! Never signed up for any public games on warhorn before? Check out our handy guide from last week.

The most recent sourcebook for Star Wars Edge of the Empire is Far Horizons, which expounds upon the colonist career. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know if I would pick this one up. Out of all the careers colonist is probably the least exciting option, and having to follow the awesome Dangerous Covenants? Good luck.

After flipping through it I became a lot more interested. From the core book the colonist specializations are Doctor, Politico, and Scholar. This book adds Entrepreneur, Marshall, and Performer. It also goes into some really great detail for new obligations and backgrounds for the existing specializations, as well as the new ones. New species are Arcona, Gran and Chevin.

Entrepreneur is similar to the trader, but with some talents that actually depend on the flow of credits. Sound Investments gains you 100 credits per rank at the start of every session. Greased Palms allows you to spend 50 credits per rank to upgrade a social check (Charm, Deception etc.) and Throwing Credits allows you to ignore the strain penalty from a triggered obligation. Most of the other talents on the tree have to do with finding items, and getting a better price for what you sell.

Marshall is a very intriguing class, especially for those smaller parties that need PCs with a balance of combat and social skills. Essentially the sheriff of a colony, how you would come to be part of a band of adventures can pose some very interesting plot hooks and obligations! There are plenty of talents in the tree to make sure your character can do well in combat like durable, grit, point blank, and quick draw. The most intriguing new additions are Good Cop and Bad Cop. Good Cop allows you to spend two advantage from a Charm or Negotiation check to upgrade a single ally’s subsequent social check, per rank. Bad Cop is similar, but you spend the two advantage on a subsequent Deception or Coercion check per rank.

Last of the new specializations is Performer. I had thought this would be the least interesting of the three, but with nice mix of social and melee skills, you can create quite an intriguing and well-balanced character. Not to mention all the interesting narrative benefits and complications that can come with being even a small-time celebrity. One of the interesting new talents for the performer is Biggest Fan. Once a session, a performer can make a hard charm check and if successful, an NPC in the current encounter becomes that character’s biggest fan. This can drastically decrease difficulty checks for social encounters, or the NPC may be willing to do favors for the character at the GM’s discretion. There is a big caveat that GM’s may rule some NPCs ineligible to be targeted by this if they are central to the plot.

There are two new signature abilities, which haven’t come in to play at my Star Wars tables yet, but are somewhat interesting. Insightful revelation allows a PC to learn valuable information about the current situation they did not previously have. All it will cost you is two destiny points and a hard knowledge education check. I get the spirit of this power, but it doesn’t seem like it would come up very much and doesn’t seem to me to be an apex ability if you’re telling a good story. The other one in Unmatched Expertise, which allows a PC to reduce the difficulty of all career skill checks by one for the rest of the encounter, again for two destiny points. This could be cool, but by the time you unlock this you are going to be pretty amazing at most of what you can do, and may have the unintended consequence of making boss fights a cake walk, or starting a difficulty arms race between the players and the GM.

SWE10_8148_Chapterplate1_MattBradburyThe next section in the book is new equipment and vehicles. Once of the most intriguing weapons is the sonic rilfe, which has the unique quality not being subject to light-saber deflection. This could prove handy for GMs looking to challenge young Jedi in the upcoming Force and Destiny chapter of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG. Also interesting is the Riot Shield which adds to melee characters defensive options as well as the alternate version that allows for a slot to support a rifle, albeit at the cost of a setback die. The gear section includes a forensics kit if you want some CSI in your Star Wars, as well as a Thunderhead Portable Entertainment System which is sound amplification and lights for performers that would make one heck of a distraction.

The vehicles add a few options for parties that need a landspeeder, or one that is designed as more of a paddy wagon with six holding cells. There is also stats for a police interceptor landspeeder, as well as a few automated vehicles that include the stats for the vehicle in addition to the droid that drives it. There are a couple of light-freighter ships appropriate for PCs, most notably the HWK-290 from Dark Forces and flown by Kyle Katarn. The capital ships include a unarmed silhouette 6 freighter, and a silhouette 7 Luxury Starliner. A lot of awesome missions could happen on a star-cruise.

SWX12_5932_RoarkGarnet_TimothyBenZweifelThe third section of the book is geared toward the GM, but has a bunch of great advice for coming up with hooks and backgrounds for every colonist specialization. It also has some great advice about keeping social interactions interesting, and making medicine check more compelling for doctors by adding pressure based on location, time constraints, or triage. Towards the back of the section are Colonist Contracts, which are short 3-act synopses of adventures that include a twist or unexpected complication. This is a GM gold mine for ANY group, especially an episodic gathering at a friendly local gaming store. It also includes some longer campaign outlines with several episodes planned out.

Furthermore, there are rules and a system to setup a homestead or business as a base of operations. One of the most fun experiences I’ve had with a homebrew D&D campaign is when our party of Dwarves bought a tavern, and used it for a base of operations, and as a revenue stream. The same idea applies here and is really well laid out. It gives you prices in obligation or credits for upgrades and upkeep, as well as plenty of ideas for what the business could be about. Beyond that, there are colonist jobs, and what the typical pay would be if you have a day job, as well as suggestions at the very back for multiclassing in interesting combinations. Cybernetic Chop Doc? Start as a doctor, then add outlaw tech. Sector Ranger? Start as Marshall, then add Scout. Intelligence Agent? Start as a scholar then add thief.

Overall I’m way more impressed than I thought I would be with this book. It has excellent value for both PC and GM alike, and may be the best sourcebook yet. Fantasy Flight continues to hit homeruns!

Warhorn101

September 7, 2014 3 comments

Warhorn.net is a great site for convention organizers and Friendly Local Gaming Store event planning. For the uninitiated, it can be a bit confusing to sign up, and reserve your seat at the gaming table. Somewhat recently the site went through a significant overhaul, with one main feature being that once you sign up for your free user account, you can use that same account for recurring game days at a FLGS or a yearly convention, like Asheville Comic Expo.

This is going to be a screenshot-heavy article, as I would like to detail the process on how you sign up for an account, and register for tables. Once you sign up, keep your login credentials handy, and you can use them for any events organized through warhorn. You can even add your Pathfinder Society Number and DCI (WotC/D&D organized play) numbers that will follow your login from event to event, but let’s not put the cart before the horse.

First, go to warhorn.net and sign up for a login in the upper right corner of the site:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.03.19 AM

Fill out the form with your email, desired username, and password. You can use either your email or your username when you login to the site:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.05.24 AM

It will now ask you to verify your email address. Clicking on confirm will send another confirmation email (check SPAM filters!):

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.06.26 AM

In your email you should see a message much like this. Click the Confirm my Account link in the email:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 12.25.40 PMOnce your account is confirmed, we can use warhorn Event listings to search for events in the area. They are divided into recurring game days (frequently at FLGS) or Upcoming Conventions:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.09.48 AMUse the search field just above dates to search for events happening in your area, or an area where you will be traveling:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.10.18 AMClick on that event to get more info and register for tables by clicking on the Register for this event button in the upper right. If you have questions you can also email the organizer on the far left:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.10.36 AMOnce you are registered, check out the Event schedule and sign up for tables:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.11.02 AMFor both conventions and recurring game days, games are typically listed by start time, and title. Open tables will list a “Play” if you want to be a PC or “GM” button if you want to run that table. It also gives you the option to join a waitlist if the table is already full. If there is a no-show, you are in!

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.11.38 AM

After clicking “Play” the site will ask you to confirm, just to make sure you got in on the right game:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.12.28 AMOnce you click Save it will reserve your spot at the table, allowing organizers to plan for more GMs if necessary, and allows you a guaranteed seat at your favorite game! If something comes up, or you want to switch tables before the event, you can always click “Withdraw” and sign up for something else:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.12.52 AMBe sure and check for recurring game days in your area as well, and support your FLGS!

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.14.58 AMHope this helps, and remember, once you’ve created your account you can use it for any conventions or game days organized through warhorn. It’s also a great site to see events in your region you may want to travel for! In less than two weeks, the Skyland Games crew will be running the RPG tables for Asheville Comic Expo (ACE). Sign up at the warhorn, and we’ll see you around the table!

 

 

To Grid or Not to Grid

September 2, 2014 3 comments

Tactics.

‘Tactics’ has meant different things over the years in the context of fantasy RPG’s.  In first and second edition Dungeons and Dragons, tactics meant techniques and abilities, and were fairly rudimentary, getting a few bumps from various splatbooks and later with the Skills & Powers books.  In versions 3.0 to Pathfinder, however, tactics became more closely associated with tactical movement, movement on a grid, and it became fairly critical: flanking, five-foot-steps, attacks of opportunity, and templated spell effect areas could all mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield.

I remember starting to play 3.0 many years ago now and thinking, “Man, this combat is almost like playing an additional game or mini-game” which shows what a break it was from older editions.  It was thrilling at the time, but as time has gone on, the pros and cons of the grid weigh on me as a player, but even more so as a GM.

This came into sharper focus recently with our trial run of the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Starter Set.  We played with very vague illustrations of the rooms we were in, didn’t count squares, and approximated distances.  The game flowed well, played quickly, and we didn’t run into any problems. Players continuously improvised and thought outside of the box, trying to obtain ‘advantage’, where two dice are rolled taking the higher result (a primary 5E mechanic).

By contrast, the following week we returned to our Reign of Winter game where we encountered creatures that could create a cage of bones over the players with a touch attack.  The grid lead to accurate depictions of positioning, but as a result, a horrible slog ensued where players couldn’t act effectively due to the specificity with which we were able to chart their positions, many of them being out of reach of their opponents and of other players.

Some of my players hate the grid.  Kevin, for instance, and increasingly, Michael, find it frustrating.  We’ve played a fair amount of Dungeon Crawl Classics, and reversion to the grid has always been a mistake in that. DCC plays fast and loose, with crazy things happening all the time, and counting squares runs afoul of it’s old school roots and free wheeling ‘sure, try it’ attitude. Accordingly, they don’t recommend it.

Really, any time you’re counting squares (especially Pathfinder’s diagonal movement rules) you’ve stopped the creative flow of the game and the action, and have approached minutia that is probably  not enhancing the actual play of the game.

That said, sometimes you want something technical.  Sometimes being a few inches outside of that explosive radius is a high-five inducing event.  The grid keeps things fair, for both GM and player, and that can be important with the right group (and even more important with the WRONG group).

THE EXPERIMENT

So I decided to try 5th edition with various gridded and non-gridded play areas to see how the party responded.  At the table, we had old and new players, and players that were both for and against gridded combat.  The results were interesting.

THEATER OF THE MIND

First, I ran a session with no map.  Just words.  This is commonly called “Theater of the Mind” and worked well enough.  Play was quick, but in the end fairly featureless.  For whatever reason, players didn’t seem to put much into the attacks or the environment that brought anything new to the game.  I think, in some games, like DCC, you might see Deed Dice rolled that create critical hit scenarios that add flavor, but for the vast majority of games, TOTM combats really reflect the skill and energy of both GM and player.  The more player’s or Game Masters drop the ball, the less engaging that combat is going to be.

DWARVEN FORGE

I wanted to use maps or illustrations in my games to supplement game play, and avoid a lot of repeated questions about positioning. So, for the next encounter, I used a grid in form of Dwarven Forge game tiles.

If you haven’t been fortunately enough to get in on Dwarven Forge’s Kickstarters , you can still pick them up at their company store.  They are beautiful.  Perhaps their biggest shortcoming in my mind is they have partial squares against the walls, which make spacing a little vague, upon occasion, but that worked for the experiment.

Players were pleased to see the high-detail mapping, but quickly became constrained by the nature of the gridding.  Bottlenecks occurred frequently, and play slowed down significantly.  Further, players stopped jockeying for advantage and improvising, and fell back into the rather stolid roles of ‘move and attack’. It drained something out of it, despite the verisimilitude of the map dungeon dressing.

Ironically, I should note, that the bottlenecking served to help the party tactically.  Tactics sometimes help the character but detract from the player’s experience, which arguably is a lot more important.

PRINTED – NOT TO SCALE

Third, I used a printed map, but not to scale:

I found a few interesting things in this scenario.  My map had a grid, but I told the players it was not to scale (being 10 foot squares) and to disregard it.  Despite that, players still tried to force themselves to the grid.  Combats began to feel tight, despite there being plenty of room, and other distances got confused as players tried to leap over 20 foot chasms before remembering the distances involved.

Perhaps the worst part of this was a final confrontation with a dragon.  Players became lazy with positioning their miniatures.  When the dragon turned to use its breath weapon, revisionist history began to play a role:

“I wasn’t standing there, I was behind it”

“I would have been around the corner”

“I’m too far away”

I had to play evil GM (the “Dog” as we call it) and explain that based on their descriptions of their actions, these players were within the deadly area of this blast.  Some players took it in stride, others grumbled a bit.  I appreciated their frustration, as things got murky on this particular battlefield.

QUICK SKETCH ON TACT-TILES

Lastly, combat took place on set of Tact-tiles, with crappy hand drawn maps by me:

These expensive little guys have been in my collection for about a decade, and despite the upfront costs, they’re the best thing going.  You’ve just missed the kickstarter, but hopefully they will have fixed their supply issues and be back on the market soon.

Strangely, this hand drawn map did the trick. Noting that everything was only approximately to scale, we quickly worked to move miniatures without counting squares but being fair and mindful of the speed limitations of the character.  As GM, I attempted to err on the side that permitted the character to make the most of their turn, within reason, and sometimes adding complications along the way.

5E’s greatest strength will likely prove to be the advantage/disadvantage mechanic replacing a lot of detailed hand-wringing rules that discourage improvisation in the interest of fairness.  If the halfling wants to dash over the slick cobblestones to dive into range to throw his dagger, 5E lets that dramatic scene happen, and as GM all I have to do to comb in the complexity of that is to have them roll with disadvantage.  It’s a signficant penalty, but not insurmountable, and a hell of a lot better than saying, “No.  You double move and that’s it”.

There was enough accountability with my crappy hand drawn map that if there was an area of effect ability in play, the square counting got a lot more precise, with ties going to the player where a close call was concerned.  No one had difficulty with the rulings, and the game continued quickly.

THE TAKEAWAY

Your mileage may vary, but I saw merit in both systems at their appointed times.  A lot of this depends on your group: A Good or fair GM might be trusted by his players to do everything in the theater of the mind, with not even so much as a map or sketch to give players an idea of what was going on.  This can be excellent in more routine or featureless situations where players don’t need to know ranges, tactics are simple, and game play more fast and loose, but falls short where terrain features a large role in combat, or where positioning and visualization of the flow of combat is highly relevant to the outcome.

Off-scale maps seemed to create more of a problem than they solved.  Unless the map is to such a scale that players can’t try to position themselves on it with any relevance, I think it’s to be avoided.  Best to show a small scale map and then ‘explode’ the scene into something tactical when necessary.

My vague map seemed to work the best for this group, but I think probably with other groups or more technical situations, this could be problematic as well.  If it really comes down to a game of inches, GM and player alike are going to feel either guilty or cheated if a fireball catches the character and roasts them to ashes based on a flimsy or hypothetical map or position.

My solution is this: Map as little as necessary, but with precision for critical combats. Positions where combats are melee only and non spell effects or powers that relate to range are good for loose maps where position isn’t key.  You may still run into problems now and again, but the time you save and flexibility you pick up from that fast and dirty map is going to be worth it 9 times out of 10.

If instead you’ve got a boss-fight, a fight where terrain plays an interesting role, or where flanking and areas of effect are going to be repeatedly relevant, draw it to scale and play it to scale.  This requires a little foresight, but speed of play is key to keeping people entertained, and precision and tactics become highly relevant and add to the game where the single combat or combatant are the focus and potential endgame.

Future expansions of 5E have been rumored to contain additional tactical combat rules.  If so, you’ll be able to choose how that game, at least, gets played. We’d love to hear your thoughts about whether you prefer the grid or not, and why.   Let us know, and maybe I’ll try that out with my poor poison-cloud-choked adventuring group in a few weeks.

 

 

 

 

Onslaught at Arda I Review

August 25, 2014 1 comment

SWA04-bookA quick note before the review, Asheville Comic Expo draws nigh! Due to popular demand yet another DCC Funnel table has been added: Nebin’s Perilous Pantry! Back to the review:

Once again, Fantasy Flight has taken the Star Wars ball and run with it! The first module set in the Age of Rebellion chapter of the most recent Star Wars RPG is very well balanced between railroad and sandbox, combat and exploration/investigation, and foot and ship encounters.

I’ll try and avoid spoilers for those who plan on playing this. While it is meant for a band of fresh rebel recruits, it can easily be adapted for rebels with a few missions under their belt, or fringer converts from Edge of the Empire. The book (like Edge predecessors Beyond the Rim and Jewel of Yavin) is divided into three acts.

From just the module’s description and art that accompanies it, things will not go well for the base at Arda I in the first act. Unlike individual adventures released for this system, but identical to previous longer modules, the action does not start in media res. The party is given some time to explore the base and the terrain surrounding the base before the battle.

The battle itself is almost a picture perfect example of a railroad, but necessarily so. It also introduces the mass combat rules featured in the book, which provide a great system to estimate large scale battles happening around the PCs based on troop numbers, experience or skill (i.e. regular rebel infantry or elite rebel commandos), vehicle assets present, and skill of the leaders of each force.

Also provided is a handy chart for using advantage/triumph and threat/despair that result from the mass combat check. It looks like a pretty handy way to simulate a huge battle without rolling a crazy amount of individual checks, and captures the cinematic feel this system strives for.

SWA04-Art01The second act is all about establishing a new rebel base on the swampy planet of Jagomir. This act offers an interesting balance of exploration in scouting the local fauna and points of interest, interspersed with investigating increasing disturbing evidence of a traitor in your midst back at base. I really like this approach, in that in a single session you could do a little of each, allowing both you combat PCs and your more social PCs a time to shine.

The third act is on yet another planet, allowing the PCs to cover more galactic ground than in previous adventure modules, and has a much more sandbox-like feel, allowing the party to explore different districts of a city in their efforts to thwart the traitor from reporting back to his imperial handlers. It offers a lot of different approaches for success to try and anticipate what the party will come up with, or nudge them along if they get stuck.

Throughout the adventure there are several sidebars for rewarding 2 or 3 duty points for especially heroic actions, and there is a suggested 5-10 duty award in addition to the regular XP rewards at the end of every act. Some of the sidebars are pretty vague about the success conditions, not setting a specific difficulty to convince a smuggler to aid in the evacuation for instance. I still need to read up and duty again before we play more than the beginner box so I can get a clearer understanding of the mechanic.

A lot of the scenes, especially the investigation, will require significant GM prep. I would suggest at least running the beginner box to become familiar with the system before running this. Not for novices. My only other gripe is that the big area maps of locations are way too small in the book. You can just barely make out they would be gorgeous in higher resolution, blown up. Hopefully FF will release high-res images on the support page. Those are pretty minor in the scheme of things. Overall, this will provide many sessions of varied, exciting adventure! I would recommend picking it up.

Categories: Adventure, Books, Reviews, Star Wars
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