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Characters with Character

February 24, 2012 4 comments

There are several different schools of thought when it comes to making a character for an RPG. Two of the bigger schools are the min/maxers and the character actors. A lot of people fall somewhere in between, but first let’s look at the two extremes. I’m about to make some really broad generalizations.

Min/Maxing a character generally refers to people who put their highest numbers in their key abilities, and use a “dump stat” or take penalties to abilities they don’t feel are important for their character. The classic example of this is the dwarven fighter with high strength and constitution and low charisma and/or intelligence. It can also refer to players who scour the rulebooks for the most powerful combination of race, class, feats, equipment, and other bonuses to make the most effective abilities without regard to a character’s personality or backstory.

Character actors generally feel like they should play a fairly average joe with no dump stats as this may reflect a more balanced “real” person. They may have pretty good numbers in their key abilities, but won’t take a penalty in another stat to boost their key scores higher. They also usually have an extensive backstory and have a reason for just about everything on their character sheet, as it relates to their personal narrative.

I personally feel that either approach is fine, as long as you are happy with the character that comes from it. I try and take a hybrid approach, in that I feel any hero should have a weakness, and a reason for that weakness. I’m not one to create a huge backstory for my characters, but I like to have a few key events (dead parents? cliché, yet classic), maybe some distinguishing features and mannerisms, and a short synopsis of how they got into the adventuring game. I feel like if you go over two paragraphs you’ve done too much. Here are some examples:

One of my current characters is a charismatic bard who’s big mouth occasionally gets him in trouble. He was once enslaved, and has vowed to do all he can to eliminate slavery after being liberated by the Eagle Knights of Andoran. He has dark hair, a crooked smile and piercing green eyes. He also has scars around his wrists from being manacled for years. Stats:

Bard 3
STR: 12
CON: 10
DEX: 14
INT: 12
WIS: 8
CHA: 18
Faction: Andoran

Another character of mine is a troubled half-elf who just barely escaped when the orphanage where he was staying burned down. Horribly scarred, he had a troubled childhood, until he was taken in by monks, and taught how to channel his anger. He has a natural affinity with magic, and was drawn to the holy symbol of Nethys, a mask that balances darkness with light. Generally reserved and shy, he joined the Pathfinders to discover forgotten magical lore, and provide his eastern wisdom and burning rage to gain further prestige for his monastery.

Monk 1/Cleric 1
STR: 12
CON: 10
DEX: 18
INT: 12
WIS: 16
CHA: 7
Faction: Lantern Lodge

If you’re going to have a dump stat, not only justify it in your background, but make it part of your roleplaying experience. When I’m playing my bard, I’m the first to try and negotiate or bluff our way out of any social encounter. When playing my monk/cleric, rather than try to be the “face” of the party in social encounters, I’ll try and observe NPCs with perception or sense motive while someone else does the talking.

Whatever type of character you end up creating, make them memorable, and enjoy the game!

Categories: 4e, Adventure, DnD, Pathfinder, RPGs, Tips

Balancing Epic Scales

February 21, 2012 3 comments

http://images.wikia.com/dragons/images/9/9a/Tiamat.pngLast night was another Scales of War session. We’re wrapping up the penultimate module, and while we started at level 10, getting to level 28 has taken more than 2 years of pretty regular gaming. Monte’s recent article and the Weem’s recent post were perfectly timed, as I had them fresh on the brain while playing last night.

As I’ve mentioned here before, playing Epic 4e takes not only an Epic GM, but Epic players who know their PCs cold. Most of our character sheets are somewhere in the range of 10-14 pages, and we don’t even currently have a wizard in the party. That spell book eats paper like no other type of character. There are a number of challenges when playing at high levels for both the DM and PCs.

One of the main ones is encounter balance. It is extremely hard to challenge a well-built epic party. At the beginning of the session last night, we had to figure out if we had just completed an extended rest last session, because several of the party members weren’t down any surges, and weren’t hurt. Not a scratch. Turns out we had been through at least one fight, as some of the guys had used surges, but with the ability to slough off even the most debilitating effects and defenses in the mid to high 40s (my warlord has a fortitude of 53), its very difficult to challenge the party. In the module we are currently playing we encountered an ancient black dragon… as a wandering monster. In a regular game that would be the ultimate encounter and any of the party would be lucky to survive. Using party synergies and team work developed over the last few years of play, we spanked him like a misbehaving wyrmling.

A lot of great ways to counter this and make it challenging using 4e mechanics are detailed in Sly Flourish’s Running Epic Tier D&D Games. One of the best points in there, and one used to great effect in the last fight of the evening, is that big enemies should have auras of vulnerability. Some of the minions were only  doing 10 damage a hit, which at epic level is next to nothing, but then when we stepped up to the big bad, and were vulnerable 25 fire, suddenly the minions were doing 35 a hit; Not insignificant, even at level 28.

We are approaching the ultimate battle with Tiamat herself. It looks to be the very epitome of epic play for 4e. Of course, once we defeat her (and we *will* defeat her), won’t the balance of good and evil be thrown out of wack and cause a dragonlance-like cataclysm? We’ll see.

In the end though, I think I was hoping for something more. Sure, we’re rolling a big pile of dice for any major attack, and my head-math skills have improved appreciably because of it, but shouldn’t our near god-like heroes be something more than just bigger numbers? We’ve got enough feats to allow us to break every rule in the book (Flanking? No I don’t grant combat advantage. Oh he’s got cover? Great! I’m more accurate if they have cover than not.) So why have those puny ‘mortal’ rules at all? I think the Weem has got the right idea. If you stick with it long enough, your hero should ascend to the heights of a pantheon, and when he does, a lot more than the size of the numbers should change.

Categories: 4e, 5e, Adventure, DnD, Epic, RPGs, Tips

RPG Blog Carnival – Things to Love, Things to Hate about Organized Play

February 6, 2012 1 comment

Courtesy of Nevermeet Press

This month’s theme for the RPG Blog Carnival is Things to Love, Things to Hate. It seems like a fairly broad topic, as nerd devotion/rage towards RPGs knows no bounds. The host this month, Jonathan Jacobs of Nevermet Press, suggested we focus on game system or adventures that we love or hate and why.

We’re going to take a little different angle and talk about what we love/hate about organized play. This is mostly going to be about Pathfinder Society, as that has been the majority of my organized play experience. I met the other guys that make up Skyland Games through the D&D Encounters program. I’ve had a little Living Forgotten Realms play, and I know some of the other Skyland guys have extensive Living Greyhawk experience. If they want to chime in, all the better.

First let’s talk broad generalizations about organized play, and things that are pretty common occurrences regardless of system. I really enjoy meeting other players, and observing a lot of different play styles and picking up tips. One of our more popular articles about tracking initiative and speeding up combat was something I observed the guys doing at a D&D encounters game. It’s great to get to know other gamers in the community and talk about RPGs.

The flip-side of this is meeting a problem player. Problem players can manifest in many forms, but most commonly those who excessively arguing with the GM, excessive rules-lawyering, trying to find some rules loophole to make a “broken” character, selfish players that act in ways that may be “in character” but their character is a bastard to the party, hogging the spotlight, random egregiously evil acts, the list could go on and on. In a home game there are several ways to deal with problem players: taking them aside and talking to them, calling them out in game, and finally if all else fails just not telling them when your group gets together. A public game is a bit different. People may not know each other very well or may feel uncomfortable calling out somebody who is causing a problem for everybody. In extreme cases, one of our FLGS has a list of banned players who are not allowed to game in store. Its a shame when it comes to that, but can be a relief to the rest of the organized players.

Another potential pitfall is a problem GM. This tends to happen less frequently, but can happen quite a bit at larger conventions when perks are given to GMs, and they are unprepared, unfocused, or “phone it in.” This can also be a problem at regular organized events if the GM is just doing it for perks given by publishers for running organized games. This is an even more difficult situation to deal with because it maybe very difficult to approach an organizer and say, “Hey, your GM sucks,” without bruising some egos. The best alternative is to probably start your own thing, at either another game store, or playing a different system. If you’re motivated enough, get your own group going. Enthusiasm is contagious, and before you know it, you can have a big group of eager gamers coming back week after week.

I’m not a big fan of Living Forgotten Realms. I’ve played a few modules with friends and I think “hate” is probably too strong a word but there are aspects I dislike. For one, story lines that link some modules together can be several levels apart. Oh, did you like the first part of this story line on level one? Hope you can remember all these NPCs and what the crap was going on when you reach level 7 and play part two! Boo. Also, at the end of every adventure, the loot can endlessly replicate. Did the big bad guy have a Raven Cloak that lets you reroll a save once a day and give you resist 5 cold and necrotic? Super! Now everyone in the party has one! With #DnDnext LFG is a long forgotten after thought, but it never was very well supported in the WotC community pages, and the official LFR WotC pages themselves. I think I can figure out why.

I’m a bit of an evangelist for Pathfinder Society. Most of my feelings for PFS are going to fall squarely in the love category. Paizo seems to have this pretty well figured out. Modules that have multi-parts can be played in order, and have multiple level tiers. Once you’ve played that module you have access to the treasure from it, but must by it with the ample gold awarded at the end of each session. If you don’t have enough for the item you want, save up after a few more modules and by it later. The more modules you play, the larger your inventory of available gear. Experience is also brilliantly easy. Completed three modules? Level up. Want to let your friends catch up to your character so you can play the same modules? Take the slow-track advancement at your next level, and only gain a level after 6 modules. The faction missions and prestige points add some awesome roleplaying opportunities, as well as a mechanical way to express your characters growing renown in the world of Golarion. You can earn prestige points by completing faction missions, which are different for each faction on each adventure. Turn in prestige points to call in favors from your faction for magic healing, or items. It’s awesome! If there isn’t a game around you at your FLGS or bookstore, look in to starting one. Its been the best organized experience I’ve ever been a part of.

We’re all going to have things that we love and hate about organized play. In the end, it can be a great way to grow the hobby and meet some fun people. Let us know some of your best/worst organized experiences in the comments!

Dungeon Building Resources

February 1, 2012 3 comments

O is for Oozes - courtesy of Goodman Games

It may be sacrilege to some loyal DMs, but I really like using published material. Most modules from WotC or Paizo are pretty well thought out and can be run with a minimal amount of fuss.

For the truly dedicated DM, everything must come from the creative pit of monsters and demons known as the DM’s brain. I think I’m ready to graduate to this level. I’ve assembled some resources that I feel get the creative juices really flowing.

I’m not one to just randomly roll on a table to get things going (that’s level III belt-of-many-colors DMing), I like to peruse those random tables for ideas and run with one. I’ve got two awesome books for just such an occasion, one more brutal than the other. First up, Goodman Games’ The Dungeon Alphabet. At $10 featuring art from Erol Otus, Doug Kovacs, Jeff Easley, among others, it’s a no-brainer. You need this book. Each letter has a different dungeon feature with different variations on that feature, i.e. D is for Doors, T is for treasure, etc. If you are brave enough to roll randomly on the tables for each letter you certainly can, but I like my dungeons to make some kind of cohesive sense, which doesn’t always happen on random tables; purely a stylistic choice.

Another resource in the same vein is Sersa Victory’s Fourthcore Alphabet. This is mainly geared towards very brutal 4e adventures, but really you could apply these to any dungeon you wanted to make more dark and deadly. It’s the same principle as Goodman’s, but pretty much everything in here will kill PCs right and left. If you have a group with players that are really invested in their PCs, this probably isn’t a wise choice. It is great for a one-shot, or if your players don’t mind rolling up a lot of characters and trying different things out. Not as much inspirational art in this one, but plenty of tables brimming with brutal ideas.

Designing interesting rooms can be a stumbling block for budding dungeon architects. Inkwell Ideas has the answer. Dungeonmorph dice and Dungeonmorph cards provide endless inspiration for chambers and can even make an endless dungeon if you desire. Typically, I just use them when I’m looking for interesting ideas for a particular room or if I’m trying to string a few ideas together. I find the cards to be a little more useful than the dice, but for the truly random DM, roll ’em up!

Hopefully these tips and resources will help you on your way to building your own adventures. What’s your favorite resource? Let us know in the comments.

Going Epic – Keys to building, playing, and concluding the epic story

January 25, 2012 5 comments

I’ve been gaming for decades now, and though I’ve seen the beginning of many campaigns in that time, I’ve seen very few endings.

As gamers, the start of a new campaign, regardless of system, always holds so much promise, and as GMs, we often plan an adventure or two ahead, with maybe some vague notions for the long term.  A good game is often continued at the behest of the players even after the first story arc is complete, and in my experience, campaigns tend to peter out more than closing in an epic finale.  I think it’s a misstep to approach it that way, and I have some thoughts about campaign planning that might address how to avoid anticlimax.  This week, we’re going to talk about Epic Beginnings, Endings, and getting from one to the other.

This issue is on my mind because a few weeks ago, we finished Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path, which we started playing on a weekly basis in early 2008 with both novice and experienced players.  We started with PFRPG’s Alpha playtest rules and ended with the finalized version of the PFRPG.  While we took some time off here and there for different side-games, we played pretty regularly for the past few years, and went through 6 modules in that series, taking the heroes from 1st level goblin killers to 15th level giant-slaying saviors of the free world.

For about half of our players, it was the first time they had a character over 10th level, and certainly the first time they had played a character from 1st straight through to 15th. I don’t know about you, but I can count on one hand the number of characters I’ve played straight from 1st to 15th or higher, and for many of our group, it may be the closest they get for a while.

But more than that, as we shelve the campaign with no immediate plans to pick up and run with these characters again, it’s a rare moment of closure in an epic story arc.  So, how do we get to this Epic Finale?  Well, turns out it starts at the beginning.

Beginnings, as it turns out, are easy.  We have different expectations in what makes a good beginning, but the origin story allows us to build without a sense of continuity or history, and there is nowhere to go but up.  Usually at lower levels, game balance and play speed are less of a factor than with higher level play.  As you move towards higher level play, combats can grow in both complexity and duration, and both players and characters can wind up overburdened.

A little planning goes a long way to developing a memorable conclusion to your epic adventure arc, and keep things from stopping short or going beyond the natural life span of the game.  So, our first tip is:

BUILD YOUR ARC (Noah’s Rule)

Okay, so maybe Noah built a different type of ‘Arc’ but the principal remains key: Every epic campaign should have a beginning, middle and end planned from the outset.   A little structure goes a long way in keeping character motivations logical and consistent.  Some folks prefer things to flow more organically, but even a very loose framework with established goals for both GM’s and players will gently urge both towards an epic conclusion and not a meandering whimper.

I’ve played and run in plenty of games where the course of the campaign was mostly influenced by whatever the GM picked up at his FLGS that weekend.  That can still work, as long as you’re careful to integrate personalized connections with the module/scenario, and work in Arc related content in between non sequitur adventures.

With a solid yet adaptable framework in place, you have a pole star to guide your ship by, allowing you to step into the shoes of that villain when your players inevitably trash his well laid plans.  Keeping a logically consistent and flowing story arc will tell a better tale for your players and make your experience truly epic.

Tomorrow, we’ll dig deeper into that idea.  We’d like to hear your thoughts/tips/ideas about what makes a good start for a campaign, and how you build it to last.

Categories: 4e, Adventure, DnD, Epic, Lore, Paizo, Pathfinder, RPGs, Tips

Gamma World – The good, the bad, the mutated

January 19, 2012 1 comment

The guys and I played through the 4e Gamma World box set last night, and had a pretty good time with it. The character creation process is certainly one of the highlights. The party consisted of the following: a Demon Plant, a Quickling Vampire, a Pryokinetic Anti-matter Blaster, and my guy a Regenerative Hypercognative.  We used the origins from the original boxed set as well as the Legion of Gold expansion.

We had a great time trying to conceptualize our characters and come up with post-apocalyptic arms and armor. My guy was using a sledge hammer as a two-handed heavy, and throwing cinderblocks as a ranged weapon. Strangely the demon plant elected to have a gun as a ranged weapon, as well as a pointy stick for melee. Probably most memorable was the Pyrokinetic using a 50-gallon drum as heavy armor. Fire in a 50-gallon drum? I don’t remember what he actually named his character, but I just started calling him hobo fire. It was awesome.

The actual encounters included with the original boxed set seemed a little arbitrary. They introduce you to some unique Gamma World bad guys like the Porkers and Badders, but they didn’t seem to have much to do with each other. Overall not a great starter adventure. The previous time I played Gamma World 4e, the GM (Gamma Master?) came up with his own stuff and it was way cooler than what was included.

The card mechanics of Omega Tech and Alpha Mutations were interesting. The Omega tech was a cool way to hand out “treasure” that gave the PCs some different combat options. Getting a different mutation every encounter was a little weird, but not as bad as I thought it would be. Overall, we agreed that if your PC had a power that worked really well with your character you could roll a save for it, the same way you do to salvage re-usable Omega tech. Some of the powers were a little game-breaking, so you wouldn’t want them to have access to it forever, but if you got one that just didn’t work for your guy you wouldn’t be stuck with it forever either.

Next week we level up, and I may try a different guy. Overall, it makes for a fun break from your average fantasy RPG. We may work on giving our game a darker, grittier feel than the typical Gamma World aesthetic as presented by WotC. We’ll let you know how it goes!

Categories: 4e, Gamma World, Reviews, RPGs

Dusting Off Gamma World

January 18, 2012 2 comments

All the buzz on the blogs is about 5e or DnDNext, wishlists of what to add, what to ditch, and what to keep. While we all wait to be invited to the beta test, Skyland Games is going to take a look at where 4e shined. While not being perfect, the 4e version of Gamma World is a great example of how 4e mechanics can be really fun. If you haven’t tried it yet, I would encourage you to do so. There is even a free online character generator (PS – that would be on my wishlist for 5e!) that allows you to roll up a completely random character or choose the values you want, or have rolled.

Since it has been out for a couple of years, fans in the blogging community have supported  the version with some great articles and tables. 4e Critical Hits has put together an incredible resource for 4e Gamma World material. Roving Band of Misfits has put together articles analyzing the monsters as published, as well as a guide to converting iconic DnD monsters for use in Gamma World.

There are tons of other resources out there, but this will get you started. The guys and I will be rolling up some crazy characters tonight, and I’m sure it will be a hilarious play report tomorrow. If you haven’t given 4e Gamma World a try, it”s a worthy diversion while we all wait for what comes next!

Categories: 4e, Adventure, DnD, Gamma World, RPGs, Tips