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The Art of Fail – What to do when games go bad

May 28, 2013 Comments off

Roper_for_Total_Party_Kill_by_GreenAirplane

Occasionally, a game takes a turn for the worst.

A few months ago, I ran a session of “Expedition to the Ruins of Castle Greyhawk” for a group, and in the module the Deck of Many Things makes an appearance. The Deck has a reputation for danger, dealing fortune and misfortune indiscriminately, but it’s one of those items that my group has come to eagerly anticipate in a long campaign. Five draws later, we had two characters in the Donjon (trapped in an otherworldly prison) and one character in the Void (reduced to a mindless automaton). Needless to say, it threw a monkey-wrench into our game, and was discouraging to a few players.

Donjon

That’s one type of problem, and we fixed it. I’ll go into how in a minute.

It comes to mind this week because we recently had an incident in our Pathfinder Skull & Shackles game that put us in a similar bind. Our unoptimized party staggered into an encounter grossly underestimating the power and skill of our adversaries, and coupled with some cold dice and optimized villains (common in a Paizo product at higher levels), we were nearly killed to a man. Fortunately we stopped the action due to the late hour, and talked about what needed to happen next. Unfortunately, however, some of the votes as to what needed to happen next were to throw in the towel on the entire campaign.

That’s a different type of problem, and an infinitely more complex one. Perhaps most frustratingly, our issue in Skull & Shackles seems to be that our characters, despite our best efforts, are either not optimized enough to face the anticipated challenges of the modules, or our method of playing them does not rise to the anticipated levels of skill anticipated by the module designer. An architectural problem like that takes some work, but that’s not the only problem.

Long campaigns have a number of difficulties associated with them. I’ve never finished a Pathfinder Adventure Path in less than a year, with one of them lasting over 3 years, and that’s a long time to do anything. There is potential for burnout on your character, on the campaign itself, and sometimes your group. High Level play has a slew of issues that are problematic. So what to do? GM’s and Players both play a role in sorting these things out, but each issue lends itself to different solutions. Let’s take a look issue by issue.

Multiple Character Death

This is sure to put a damper on your campaign fun: Two or Three of your beloved heroes die (maybe permanently) meaning your champions are severely humbled, or maybe your entire cast and party dynamic are rewritten. Both player and GM have a role to play here. Players need to evaluate first whether raise dead / resurrection is the route to go, or if there is a persuasive reason to bring in another character. Death during play is definitely a part of the life of an adventurer, and is part of the process of paying your dues. However, if you can bring in a character that adds to the story or brings balance to the party, and the change isn’t disruptive to play, gauge whether this is your moment. If you don’t have a choice in the matter, is there a way to make a new character that complements the old? Is there an NPC already encountered that would make a fun PC? While there’s little you can do if resurrection or raise dead aren’t on the table, conspire with your GM a little to see what other solutions might be possible that would make for an interesting return or cunning plot development.

In the end, more power lies in the GM’s hands where deaths are concerned. If you’ve killed half the party, either someone got incredibly (un)lucky, or you’ve misgauged the power of your encounters relative to your group. While bad decisions on the player’s part certainly merits the occasional ass-whooping, there is the enjoyability and continued longevity of the campaign to consider. As things turn towards TPK in a long term campaign, the GM’s Toolkit includes pulling back on the optimized use of some abilities: tossing a magic missile when a fireball may dish out 10d6 of campaign ending fury, commanding a charmed PC to attack an ally knowing full well he’ll get that badly needed second save, opting for subdual damage. etc. If it’s too late for that, a dropped PC can be raised or healed by the villains to extract information, letting the play continue and granting an opportunity for the PC’s to salvage the situation.

If there’s no room for resurrection, there’s the occasional wish or divine intervention, opportunities for which might be accrued during play over time to be used at just the right moment. In the case of our Deck of Many Things debacle, we actually played a session where a team of specialists went to free the souls of the trapped card-drawers, making for a fun offbeat extraplanar session that gave players a chance to mix it up with a different PC for 8 hours, and fun was had by all. The nice thing about a fantasy setting is that nothing is impossible with the right factors. A quest to get the item that will allow a resurrection is one good idea away, and may make for an interesting adventure in itself.

Character Burnout

You’ve been playing this damn cleric for 79 sessions and if you cast one more Cure Light Wounds spell you’re going to eat your rulebook. While largely a player problem, this is something your GM can help with, too.

Good character design should help to eliminate the onset of ‘Character Fatigue’ – Motivation, Backstory, Goal Setting all give you a roundness that should transcend function. However, especially with support characters, your most effective routines may be the least interesting. Check with your party and see if there can be some give in how roles are played out. Sometimes a few wands or scrolls can free up spell slots to let you take on the role you’re looking for. Depending on your level, there may be time to multi-class, changing you into the character you want to be.

A GM can help this situation a couple different ways. Work with the player to see what they want out of the game, and shape it to meet their needs. Indulge some of their campaign goals, or thrust them into situations where they are in the spotlight, creating unique opportunities.

Character retirement is always an option, and the GM should be able to create an opportunity to phase out one character while creating a compelling reason to feel attached or trusting towards the new PC (or maybe not so trusting, if your game is a little more sinister).

Campaign Burnout

In any adventure path or long running campaign, this danger is one of the most prevalent. Time passes in game and in real life, and the theme of a certain game can grow tired. Individual modules in a series can linger over frustrating details or hair-pulling monotony in many instances, or just a series of frustrations that make continued play feel unrewarding.

Players can attempt to turn the adventure in a way that is more pleasing to them, but this has very limited utility if the GM is not on board. GM’s, of course, have significant influence on this issue, and need to use their discretion to manipulate the campaign to meet the needs of the players. Ideally, this is done without overly telegraphing the modifications. However, if a particular dungeon crawl is literally crawling then removing or hand-waving a few encounters that don’t progress the plot will not usually be lamented by your frustrated players, obvious or not. Sometimes introduction of another element, such as a rival adventuring party, or some sort of internal dispute amongst your antagonists, can create an interesting way of clearing obstacles or adversaries in the path of your party and get them to the epic finale or wherever they may be heading while creating tension in the process.

I have very rarely had a party complain that something is too easy, but make things too difficult and they’ll tell you. There’s a fine line between challenge and frustration and the GM needs to make sure that the party feels like heroes most of the time and that the story keeps moving. Published scenarios should be used as suggestions, and as soon as the party gets bogged down in them, hustle to the next scene change, or take a pleasant detour into something you know they’ll like, to give them the fresh air they’ll need for another dive into peril.

Group Burnout

This is bad. If you’ve been playing with the gamers at this campaign for a while, either something outside of the game is interfering with the way friends play together, or worse, the way the game is getting played is making people rub each other the wrong way. Sometimes sitting down to an extended campaign can create a meeting of people that don’t know each other that well, and force them to meet repeatedly for 4 hours a week for years. While it is my belief that gaming can bring many types of people together (that being one of the things that is amazing about it), it sometimes does bring people together that just can’t click.

Players need to try to work out differences between each other, communicating their frustrations. Sometimes this is best done through a third party that can play peacekeeper and keep things from getting too confrontational during a session. The GM holds some responsibility to keep the peace and play referee, but sometimes your GM might be your problem.

With any relationship, communication is key, and identifying the grievance clearly and getting it behind you should be your first step. But, if you’ve aired your grievance and the other party can’t or won’t change their ways, make your excuses and cut bait. Don’t sit frustrated or mopey at a table and poison everyone else’s good time. If everyone shares the frustration regarding the single player, GM’s got to be the one to man up and diplomatically give the guy a last chance to shape up or ship out. The Jackass Rule states, “If one person calls you a jackass, ignore them. If ten people call you a jackass, get a saddle”.

If you’re the problem, don’t get defensive. Review your Gaming Ten Commandments. Take it on faith that you are representing yourself in a way that is making you come off negatively, and proceed with awareness that this is what your fellow player or players think, knowing you need to control yourself. You are not the first socially awkward gamer. I promise.

High-Level Play Sucks

Yes. Yes, it does. That doesn’t mean it has to, but you are going to find a lot of frustrations in high level play if you are not ready for it. First, you need to know your character and how it works. Secondly, you’re going to need to spend some time prepping for each game to make sure you know what you’re doing and how to do it. Third, you’re going to need to mark your pages or bookmark your pdf’s for common complex rules issues you know you’re going to run into: if you have an ability that grapples opponents, get your grapple rules ready, marked and reviewed; be familiar with the conditions you impose through your spells and know what spells your going to cast; if you have equipment purchases you want made, email the GM ahead of time to let them know what you want and update your character sheet as soon as you get the okay; get any sorts of buffs or powers outlined. In general, know how to play the game you’re playing and if you don’t know, read the rules.

GM’s suffer greatly under the yoke of high level play. You’re responsible for everything, and theoretically need to know what the players can do as well as all your monsters, traps, and so on. It’s a heavy burden, but one you can bear with the right prep and the right attitude. First, read your printed material if you’re using a module. Paizo has good message boards regarding it’s published material and they might address errata or other questions other GM’s might have had with your specific module. Look up strange powers in the bestiary and make sure you know how things work on your side of the screen.

Since you’re dealing with the same players over and over, it also would pay to read over the classes they’re bringing to the table if there is something they’re doing that confuses you. Sometimes you’ll find they’re mixed up about something and it may speed up game play if you both know how the power is supposed to function.

However, if you get down to the wire and are playing and you hit a complex rules snag, and you’re getting player burnout due to high-level play rules? Dump it. Make a call, and err on the side of player success: They will bitch to high heaven in you kill them through some sort of blown rules call, but few will make a peep at an error in their favor. Ties go to the runner. This works because it makes for a better story when the good guys win, and keeping play moving at high levels is key.

What Else?

There are plenty of other frustrations that can kill a campaign, but GM’s and Players alike need to maintain the polestar of Commandment 10 – Thou Shalt Have Fun. Make sure your fellow gamers are having fun with the campaign and that you’re not having fun at their expense. GM’s, make sure your players are enjoying themselves rather than maintaining the rubric of the module at the expense of their enjoyment. And finally, if worst comes to worst, find a good stopping point, set the module aside for a while, and pull out an old favorite or something new and give it a spin around the block for a while. If you come back to it, great. If you don’t, then at least you’re having a good time moving on to the next adventure.

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DiceRings: More Precious Than Precious

May 20, 2013 Comments off

I see some of the gaming-related projects on Kickstarter and think: well, there’s something that’s neat but useless… and to be honest, that was my first thought with DiceRings by CritSuccess. I am not a jewelry person, I have nothing pierced, I don’t wear rings or blings or diamond-covered things, so I watched the video and moved on. Until the next day when I watched it again. Something clicked the second time around. I figured it was worth the small investment to get one ring. It’d be a neat conversation piece at the next convention and if I sit with another idiot maybe I can distract him or her with the shiny. I was impressed with how quickly their project got funded and their stretch goals. By the end, they had 27 “dice rings” and 1 “life counter” to offer. I opted for the gold d20 ring and am amazed at the quality. And it came with a free picture of a Sizzard. Whatever that is. After a quick dip in soapy water to get rid of the grit from manufacturing it spins like a top. The gold is very unobtrusive. It looks just like a regular ring until you get in close. The darker ring probably makes the numbers on the spinning ring stand out more… so there’s an option if you want your ring to stand out.

This is what I love about Kickstarter. Here’s a couple of guys who have this awesome idea, and they share that idea with others, who then give them money, and they deliver a great product and open their own business. As of this post, the store on the website — CritSuccess — isn’t live. But when it is, I’m going to definitely be ordering another.

dicering

Thundersmoke – Pathfinder Gunslingers

May 13, 2013 1 comment
From the Gunslingers Handbook

From the Gunslingers Handbook

THUNDERSMOKE!

Gunslinger.  The word has caused many a game master and player to roll their eyes and scoff.  But why?  Is it because some think that they don’t belong in a world of high fantasy?  Is it because GMs think they are entirely overpowered?  Or is it because GMs don’t understand the actual mechanics of early firearms?  Maybe because both GM and PC alike have seen terrible, terrible ‘cheese’ involving dual wielding double barreled pistols attached to leather straps?  Whatever the reason, gunslingers may be looked down upon by some, but they are here and here to stay.  I, for one, am glad.

I am partial to these fleshy artillery pieces since my first Pathfinder Society character is a gunslinger.  Granted I have had to really learn how to play Sir Danaris Redfeather, Knight Captain effectively but I think it is one of the more interesting classes available.  Having said that, I think that you need to give the character a personality and not treat them purely like a means to shoot firearms.  For example, Danaris was a young backwoods lad whose father trained him in the use of his musket.  After joining the Pathfinder Society, he was recruited by the Andoran military and became a marksman, a ranking officer and a knight.  As of the posting of this article, Danaris is a Gunslinger (Musket Master) 5 / Steel Falcon 5.  See how a developing backstory over a character’s levels can flesh out a character?

So keeping all of these points in mind I present this week’s Pathfinder Society pre-gen party – ThundersmokeLike always there is a common link for all of the characters in the party and this week they are all gunslingers.  I know you are thinking that I am crazy to just provide a party of just one class and not include essential classes, but sometimes the challenge is part of the fun!  I also changed up the regular blurb format to include progression of feats and skills to a prestige class.

Now, without further delay, I present Thundersmoke:

1) Jase Heilgonne – LN Male Human Gunslinger (Gun Tank/Pistolero)

A stern lad from a stern family, Jase is uncompromising in his ideals of law and order. Finding his prized pistol after Hellknights suppressed an insurrection near his hometown in Cheliax, he set about to master its use. He favors heavy armor and shields and even carries a longsword, but he uses his pistol to stop lawlessness, cold.

Goal:  Hellknight at 5th Level

Progression:  Rapid Reload – Pistol (3), +1 Wisdom (4), Precise Shot (5)

2) Ilyade the Swift – CG Female Elf Gunslinger (Musket Master)

The beautiful and intelligent elven huntress known as Ilyade the Swift has long been a master of the bow, but came upon the difficult and loud musket by chance.  In the process of mastering this thundering, smoky contraption, she has now offered her tracking services and her intricately carved musket to the Grand Lodge in Absalom. If she happens upon any drow in the process, they won’t live long enough to regret entering her sights.

Goal:  Lantern Bearer at 5th Level

Progression:  Point Blank Shot (3), Precise Shot (4), +1 Wisdom (4), Bullseye Shot (5)

3) Ada Lilybottom – CN Female Halfling Gunslinger (Mysterious Stranger)

This jovial little halfling is just incredibly lucky. She was lucky to escape from slavers, now lucky to work for freedom fighters in Andoran and still lucky to find a small musket just her size. Amazing things just seem to go Ada’s way!

Goal:  Halfling Opportunist at 5th level

Progression:  Rapid Reload – Musket (3), Precise Shot (4), +1 Charisma (4), Defensive Combat Training (5)

4) Goron Axehead – NG Male Dwarf Gunslinger (Gun Tank)

Gruff, grumpy and occasionally self-serving, Goron walks a fine line between dictates of the church and his personal agendas. Having ‘procured’ a pistol from an underground source, he has declared open season on demons, devils and all matter of evil trash as part of his Silver Crusade.

Goal:  Low Templar at 5th Level

Progression:  Weapon Focus – Battleaxe (3), +1 Dexterity (4), Mounted Combat (5)

5) Hurga the Stout – N Male Half-Orc Gunslinger

Finding life in Osirion desert cities tough, Hurga traveled out into the desert where he encountered a sphinx.  The sphinx, finding him interesting and worthy, shared part of its treasure and knowledge with the young half-orc.  A certain device, a blunderbuss, caught Hurga’s eye and begged the sphinx to teach him how to use it. The sphinx agreed and, in exchange for service to the sphinx and the Ruby Prince, Hurga now knows the secrets of the blunderbuss and gunpowder.

Goal:  Living Monolith at 5th Level

Progression:  Endurance (3), Deadly Aim (4), +1 Dexterity (4), Iron Will (5)

6) Angliss Borbas – LN Male Half-Elf Gunslinger (Mysterious Stranger)

A vain and misguided half-elf from Taldor, Angliss has completely reversed his thinking about life and has embraced the philosophy of Kalistrades.  Now dedicated to acquiring wealth, he keeps his prized pistol close for those times when deals go wrong and he has to regulate.

Goal:  Prophet of Kalistrades at 5th Level

Progression:  Rapid Reload – Pistol (3), Rapid Shot (4), +1 Consitution (4), Deadly Aim (5)

Kickstarters Galore!

May 13, 2013 4 comments

db_wwdc_ks_cover_500pxHere are some notable Kickstarter projects that I have found or pledged to that look like they might be worth a look at.  These look to be really fun and offer many different platforms, themes and challenges that will keep you busy for quite some time:

The World’s Worst Dungeon Crawl! (http://kck.st/17NKgRS) – The name says it all!  Drag your minions into the depths of a dungeon that is sure to be terrible, but terrible in a comedic way.

Robotech RPG Tactics (http://kck.st/10kBVaN) – I am excited about this one.  One of the first RPGs I owned when I was a pre-teen was the Robotech RPG from Palladium Games.  There was an absence of affordable figurines at the time and now they come out with this!  This may be the game that gets me more interested in wargaming styled RPGs.

Golden Sky Stories: Heartwarming Role-Playing (http://kck.st/11lNSZ8) – This one is billed to be kid-friendly.  I have been looking for one such as this to get my daughter more interested in RPGs and this one may be the one.

Sovereign Stone: Pathfinder Edition (http://kck.st/17cgjfQ) – Larry Elmore!  That is all.  Well, and that I think the setting may be awesome!

Torchbearer (http://kck.st/ZVr5q9) – Another dungeon crawling masterpiece; I just like this one.

Cartoon Action Hour: Season 3 (http://kck.st/13SgiM5) – As a child of the 80s, I grew up on Transformers, GI Joe, Thundercats and the like.  With a generous amount of dungeon crawling themed offerings on Kickstarter, this is a refreshing change of pace that heavily appeals to my nostalgia.

Deluxe Exalted: 3rd Edition (http://kck.st/15OgwZr) – This one will be very good.  I am very interested in looking more into the system and the world of Exalted.

OVA: The Anime Role-Playing Game (http://kck.st/13hF9u0) – Another ‘refreshing, change of pace’ offering, this one visually looks stunning and makes me want to color my hair blue, or maybe just watch some anime.

Dungeons of Dread S1-S4 review

May 6, 2013 Comments off

s_seriesWhen I started playing D&D in the late 80s, I was the youngest kid on the block. One of my friends showed me these crazy looking dice, we sketched out character sheets on notebook paper, and very likely followed very few of the rules. I did learn what Armor Class is, and what Hit points are, and had a fantastic time.

I was just young enough to miss most of these classic adventures gathered in Dungeons of Dread, but interestingly I did pick up White Plume Mountain in a garage sale when I was a teenager, not even really understanding what I had. Unfortunately that was sold along with so many other treasures from my childhood in the “going off to college” garage sale.

In my RPG renaissance of the last few years, I’ve had a great time gaming with a bunch of different guys, but of the main Skyland Games crew, I’m still the young kid on the block. Most of these guys have played D&D almost since the beginning, and have shelves of books and some of these very adventures. I would hear war stories from The Tomb of Horrors, or Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, but had never played them myself.

This collection offers a great opportunity to immerse yourself in D&D lore by collecting classic, iconic adventures written by the pioneers of the game. It includes the lethal Tomb of Horrors, the quirky and memorable White Plume Mountain, the zany gonzo Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and finally a little taste of Greyhawk in The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. This hardback format is great for looking through and preserving these in an archival sense, but would be pretty difficult to run from. One of the benefits of the old modules is you can lay them flat behind a DM screen, and show the players the illustrations a bit easier. Also, the maps are at the end of the adventure, so if you are trying to run one of these for a group, I would suggest investing in some page flags so you can easily find those sections while flipping between maps, illustrations, and room descriptions.

Fortuitously, Wizards has released the illustrations for the modules as stand-alone PDFs, making them a lot easier to show to the group. Hopefully, they’ll do something similar for the maps! The maps are in black and white, which I understand from a printing perspective, but they could have earned some serious nostalgia points if they used the original D&D light-blue that was so iconic of the old maps.

If you’re one of the old-guard grognards or a collector and own all these in their original print form, there is no sense purchasing them in this form. If you just missed the boat, or have heard all the old guys talk about how it was when THEY started playing, this is for you. I really enjoy having it on my shelf for reference and inspirational purposes, and look forward to adding the next archive to the shelf, Against the Slave Lords!

Categories: Adventure, Books, DnD, Lore, Retro, Reviews, RPGs