The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

My Life in Polyhedrons – HARPGC Year 2

For me the second year of HARPGC was dominated by the events surrounding the Tournement in Fire, and bookended by two small tournements we ran.

The first tournement, which Warren and I ran at the start of the year, did a great deal to make us more visible in our own school, and increased our membership that year. The second tournment, which all of the Tournement in Fire team ran near the end of the year for junior high students, ensured the size of the club would increase again the next year.

During the year, the main event for me during the lunch hours was running the campaign that the Tournment in Fire team used as practice – the Shadowlord campaign.

For being such an important campaign, and for all the things I did very differently, I don’t really remember much about it. I couldn’t name a single character (though guessing which player was playing which class would be very easy; as everyone had a set class in prep for the tourney)

What I can say is this.

This is the first D&D campaign I ever ran that all of the material was my own (though I had done that in other games before). The game centred around the party’s continuing battle with a villian called the Shadowlord (a name I stole from a module, x11).

We would start a new adventure every Monday, play through the week, then get together on Saturday for another four to five hours.

My plan from the start of the campaign was that the villian would survive every week, returning the next week with a new scheme. I always made him two levels ahead of the party, so this ought to have been easy. However, during the course of this campaign I learned a great deal about how not to manipulate players and situations (there were many situations where the players felt they had the Shadowlord trapped, and that it was impossible for his to escape – inevitably he always did).

My thought was that the players would simply feel more and more anger towards the Shadowlord each week (giving them extra motivation), and for awhile this is what was happenning. But, as the weeks turned into months, anger turned into frustration. By the time the game was wrapping up the players were ambivilent towards their nemesis, and annoyed with me.

As little as I remember about that campaign, I remember even less about the other events going on in the club that year. Though I know for much of the year there was another game going on, I couldn’t tell you who was in it (which, considering they were likely people who later became friends of mine, is quite embaressing) much less what they were doing.

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January 8, 2011 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, My Life in Polyhedrons, RPGs | , , | Leave a comment

9 Rules For New Characters

#1 Be Narrow

It can be great fun to sit down and write a few thousand words about all the personality quirks of a new character, but from a playing perspective it is far easier to make a character with a handful of quirks and motives and then add more later when you are ready; if you make your character too broad to begin with much of that breadth will likely be lost during the session anyways. It is far better to make a character you can be true to when you play than one that is a good read.

#2: Be Different

The longer you play, the harder this is, but being different doesn’t necessarily mean completely reinventing the archetype; some times you can make a character who is very different just by putting a focus on an aspect you haven’t tried before. Other times the campaign itself will make the character different, and so much of the onus is removed from you.

#3: Be Flexible

If you have a single minded vision of what character you want to play, you may find yourself in conflict with the other players or the DM. There will always be another time for you to play that one character you are dying to play, today make something that will fit in so you aren’t impeding anyone else’s fun.

#4 Be Picky

Before you make any selection during character creation, think about how this will fit in to the whole. You are far more likely to be happy with the end results if it is a tapestry you weaved instead of collection of threads.

#5 Be Campaign Centric

Without the DM you don’t have a game, so take heed as to the nature of the game before you make any decisions about the character. Moreover, you should look for opportunities to integrate your character with the game before it begins.

#6 Be Self Centered

If you don’t find your game rewarding, then you won’t be having fun. Yes you need to consider everyone else in more ways than one, but that doesn’t mean you need to forget yourself. Don’t make a character you won’t enjoy. If at some point during the character creation process you realize it isn’t working out, go back as many steps as you need to, or even just start over again.

#7 Be Tiny

It’s really easy to go overboard bringing together every resource you could imagine. This isn’t necessarily the best thing. Extra rulebooks are just that – rulebooks. While you might think that you desperately need a certain obscure feat/spell/power to make the character complete, if the book it’s from is unknown to the DM you are better off picking something else. The last think you want is in the middle of an adventure when you try to use said feat/spell/power to have the DM say “Wait a minute, it does that? I can’t allow that!” Whether he suddenly removes it from you or it totally wrecks his adventure are equally bad outcomes.

#8 Be Agile

A campaign is a story that is not yet written, be prepared to change your plans and go off in other directions. Planning for your characters future certainly has merit (especially in 3.x), but don’t write that plan in stone.

#9 Be Wary

Over generalized lists of character creation “rules” are not to be taken too literally; there are exceptions to everything.

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January 7, 2011 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , | 1 Comment

The Price of Plate Mail

I don’t think there has been any piece of equipment that has varied as much in price from edition to edition as plate mail. There are two schools of thought on how much plate mail should cost. In Basic and 4E plate mail is priced so a first level character who wants a suit of it can get it right away. In 1E, 2E and 3E plate mail comes at a handsome price that most characters can’t afford for a couple of levels.

For many years I was part of the camp that felt plate mail should be really pricey. For one, making plate mail several orders of magnitude too expensive for the typical peasant seemed to make sense; a peasant should have access to plate mail like you or I should have access to tanks. But more than that there was huge psychological aspect to it. From the moment a player made a new fighter character obtaining plate mail was a goal. And when your fighter finally obtained plate mail it was like announcing to the world “This character is for real.”

As you can imagine, I was against the lowering of the (monetary) cost of plate mail in 4E. But when I decided to abandon 4E for Basic, I felt like I needed to justify the low cost of plate mail; not so much from a meta-game perspective, but from an in-game one.

Does this cost 60gp or 400gp?

Why Plate Mail Might Be Cheap

Before one can talk about why the price of plate mail might be low, one needs to understand why it might be expensive. In the real world plate mail was expensive – it required large amounts of high quality steel to be crafted in to many fine interlocking pieces; a massive undertaking. This same argument could be used to justify a high cost in a fantasy world.

However, a fantasy world does not have to work the same way as the real world. First of all, the presence of various fantasy metals could create new types of steel whose properties we can only imagine. Perhaps plate mail in a D&D world is made with a special alloy that significantly reduces the hardships involved. Second, whether the mail is made from a fantasy alloy or real world ones, the availability of the raw materials, the tools, and the expertise might be very different in a fantasy world than the real one. Finally there is the matter of necessity; a nation threatened by orcs and dragons might be willing to commit more resources to making plate mail than one that only has other humans to war against.

The Right Price

I don’t think there really is a right price for plate mail, though obviously where it is set will impact the balance between classes and where the party’s money will go for the first few levels. There is a part of me that loved watching the players pool their money to get the fighters plate mail at the first possible opportunity; but there is also a part that likes seeing a fighter kicking ass from day 1.

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January 6, 2011 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , | 7 Comments

Free Form Weapons

While I haven’t had a chance to play the new Gamma World box set, having read about it is giving me a case of rules envy, particularly with regard to weapons; the idea of free form weapons seems really sexy to me.

Now I will be the first to concede that I have complained about the lack of weapons in the 4E PHB, but, I think if you are going to cut out the weapons players aren’t using, going free form is the way to go. Because, while free form weapons gives none of atmosphere that an extensive weapons list does, it does bring with it a whole lot of other pluses.

Free Form Weapons Invite Imagination

I for one find it very depressing how very often a player will have a go to weapon that virtually all of his characters will use. The strangest thing about the phenomena is that many of these players seem to actually spend time perusing the weapons list before settling on old faithful. I can only conclude that either they would like to pick something else, but find that nothing strikes their fancy or they just can’t get away from the statistical advantage that their normal weapon gives.

But if any one handed weapon they could dream of did 1d8 damage, then surely many of these players would find different weapons to use. If not other weapons from lists, then surely they might think of weapons from history or fantasy which have caught their eye but previously been missing from D&D.

Weapons Lists Invite Disputes

Is there a gaming group on the planet that has not had someone in it question entries on a weapons list? And with good reason – the very notion that you can pin down broad classes of weapons into one line on a chart and expect it to realistically portray how those weapons perform compared to other weapons is absurd.

I don’t think there is any weapon in any PHB that I have seen a player actually buy, that someone hasn’t complained about. My personal pet peeve is the portrayal of bows and crossbows; I think most editions make bows too easy to use; long bow ranges are hugely under estimated; crossbows should do more damage but take longer to load.

All of these go away when you make a free form weapon system because instead of telling players that weapon x does y damage you are asking them what kind of weapon they are using (which happens to do y damage).

Being Nebulous is the D&D Way

Perhaps the biggest argument for bringing free form weapons to D&D is that the rule would fit so very well with existing rules. D&D is a game that glosses over so many details in favor of nebulous concepts, why not make weapons work that same way?

What is the point of having huge long weapons list that makes long swords do d8 damage while broad swords do 2d4, when the very hit points they are taking away have no real world analog? There isn’t one, of course, which is why this idea would fit so well in D&D.

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January 5, 2011 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , | 4 Comments

Rules Quirks – Called Shots

One thing that 2E explored in greater depth than any other edition was the notion of called shots – choosing where on the target’s body you would like an attack to hit; other editions have either only mentioned the concept in passing or ignored it all together.

But even though 2E spent a fair bit of text explaining all the details of called shots, they didn’t really use them, by which I mean that it was so inefficient to make a called shot that other than to exploit a weakness of a specific creature or to role play, a player was a fool to use them. And to be honest, that’s the way it should be.

Called shots either take over your game, or are completely useless.

The entire foundation of the D&D combat system is based around the notion that very complicated situations can be boiled down to a single number. A defender’s AC combines every aspect of his defense. An attacker’s to hit bonus combines every aspect of his offense. An attacker’s damage bonus combines every reason he might be able to injure opponents. A defender’s hit points combines combines every reason he might be able to stay alive. One thing D&D, or any system that combines many concepts into nebulous numbers, does not do well is explore ideas that require breaking those nebulous numbers into component parts.

In order to make a called shot on an opponent’s leg you need to first know the AC of defender’s leg.

  • Is it higher or lower than his body as a whole?
  • Does he have more armor down there, or less?
  • Is his weapon is one that defends well on low shots, or it is one that is vulnerable down low?

Then you would need to know how capable an attacker is at making low attacks.

  • Is his weapon designed for low blows, or weak at them
  • Is the attacker carrying anything that would limit his ability to strike low?

Then you would need to know just how difficult it would be for the attacker to specifically choose to make a low attack over just attacking at whatever it open.

  • What are the relative heights of the combatants?
  • How large are the defender’s legs compare to the rest of his body?

Finally you would need to know just how many hit points the defender has in each leg?

  • How many of the defender’s hit points are stamina and how many are luck?
  • How much of the defender’s stamina exists in one leg?
  • How much of his luck is in one leg?

As you can see, when you start opening up D&D’s black boxes you are left with a whole lot of questions that just cannot be answered. Because of that, I don’t recommend called shots either when playing 2E or any other edition. If a player has a long term desire to do called shots, I think the best thing to do is to figure out what the end result is that he is trying to achieve, then find other rules will allow him to achieve that; for example, if his is looking to hamstring opponents to keep them from escaping, use powers (4E) or feats (3E) to let him do just that.

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January 4, 2011 Posted by | 2nd Edition, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs, Rules Quirks | , , , | 3 Comments

Diseases in D&D

Gestalt Gamer over at More Than Dice has a very excellent article about how to make diseases more potent in a campaign. But the thing that stuck with the most after reading his article was this line:

Never once have I played or DMed a game in which a character contracted a cold, a chronic illness, or suffered from a disease that couldn’t easily be removed with magic.

This, really got me thinking about disease in gaming, and in particular the lack of it.

The Real Medieval World Was Dominated By Disease

In the real world, medieval times was absolutely horrific with regards to disease. The average lifespan was just 30 largely because of disease being everywhere.

Poor sanitation hugely contributed to the spread of disease and a total lack of understanding of the nature of disease made most conditions incurable. Moreover, poor nutrition contributed to common diseases such as the flu having a much higher fatality rate than they do today.

Now, how much one wants his campaign to resemble the real world is a matter of taste. At the moment I am quite happy to have a game world that is clean, and as such disease is never more than the plot of a single adventure, not an issue that permeates the lives of every living thing in the world.

But what if you wanted a world with the feel of medieval times? What if you wanted disease to be a thing of mystery and a constant threat?

Make the Players Ignorant

I think the first thing you need to do is nullify the knowledge that players bring with them to the table. We live in a day and age where diseases aren’t really feared because we understand them too well. So you need to take that understanding away. The only way to do that is to change the underlying way that diseases work.

Forget about bacteria and viruses. Forget about malnutrition and cancer. A fantasy world needs a fantastic method for diseases. Either invent one of your own, or do some research on what people at the time thought caused diseases. One theory in Europe which could very easily translate into game play was Humorism.

The four fluids of Humorism.

Make Disease Omnipresent

Then, having taken away players knowledge, they need to be beat over the head with the idea that people are always sick and dying in this world. They need to see illness everywhere they go, and they need to see that people are both terrified by illness and unable to escape it.

As Gestalt Gamer points out, magical healing of diseases needs to be severely limited, either in availability or effectiveness. This could take the form of restricting spells, restricting the pool of casters, or just making Remove Disease and the like only affect conditions like Mummy Rot.

Finally, there needs to be a real chance each and every week that PCs will get ill. What that chance is and how ill a character might get would depend largely on how much of a focus you are wanting disease to be. But if you start every session with “OK everyone, time to see how sick you are.” players will come to really fear disease.

Disease Makes For a Gritty Campaign

I think introducing disease on this level makes for a far grittier campaign than I think my current group would like, so for now I am going to pass. But I could see great potential for this given the right players and atmosphere.

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January 3, 2011 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , | 4 Comments

Gender Bias in RPGs

Trollsmyth has had a couple of posts lately tackling the issue of how the presentation of rpgs impacts the number of women wanting to play them. But as some of his commenters have pointed out, there is a real dicotomy to the situation; if you move the art and marketing away from the very “appeals to men” style it has always had to a “appeals to women” style (or even a more gender neutral one) there is a risk of alienating a segment of the existing user base.

While thinking about this I was reminded of a toy line from the 80s that took a very interesting take on how to appeal to both boys and girls. Mattel took what was essentially one line of toys and marketed it to boys as He-man and to girls as She-ra. They didn’t hide the connection between the two, but the commercials for each line were very much aimed at their target gender.

You can sell large numbers of girls on fantasy, you just have to markey it right.

Could this work for a role playing game? What if, say, the core rulebooks of D&D had in addition to the male aimed version that already exist had a set of books that were visually different in a manner that made them more marketable to female customers. Would there be a point to this? Could such books bring about gender parity in gaming?

Or what if Wizards started putting some ads aimed at women in places women or girls would see them? If presented correctly could ads in magaines like Good Housekeeping, O or whatever magazine teen girls read these days, possibly snag new players?

I don’t know if simple changes could bring in new players, but I find Trollsmyth’s argument that the current manner of presentation probably discourages some would be female gamers from even picking up a book very compelling. What do you think? Does the visual style and markey affect the gender ration of role playing games? Could changing just those elements (ie leaving the rules intact) make a noticable different?

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January 2, 2011 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , | Leave a comment

Gaming Resolutions 2011

Its that time of year when people love to make resolutions. I am a person who for many years, poo-pooed resolutions and people who chose to make them. But in recent years I have been able to enact a number of positive changes in my own life via resolutions. So here are some of my own for this year that pertain to gaming.

1. Bring Healthier Snacks

There was a time years ago where my group brought a wide diversity of snacks, but somehow, over the years we have degraded into a group who exists almost solely on potato chips (though once in a while someone brings candy).

I am going to lead by example and hope others follow. My plan is start bring a veggie tray, with the hope that not gorging on chips every week will help us life a little healthier and game a little longer.

2. Drink Healthier Drinks

While our snacks are communal, we for the most part bring our own drinks to game night. I resolved a couple of years ago that I was going to stop ingesting so much sugar at game night, and so switched from drinking Coke to drinking Diet Coke. While that was a positive change, I don’t think it went far enough. I am always awake for hours after gaming, and its hard not to suspect that the large amount of caffeine I am ingesting is to blame. So next year I am going to cut out caffeinated drinks too.

3. Maximize Play Time

One of my group’s biggest problems is that we can’t find enough hours to play. But I make this problem far worse by allowing us to start late and end early. This year we are going to start on time, and we are going to play to the end.

4. No Frivolous Campaign Switching

As I have mentioned in this blog before, I am somewhat prone to ending games prematurely and starting new ones because some new idea has caught my fancy, and I desparately want to build a campaign around said new idea. No more. This year we are going to stick with the game we have unless it reaches its natural end, or other group members express a desire to end it.

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December 31, 2010 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, Featured Site, RPGs | , , , | 3 Comments

Reinventing Mythology

Two of my favorite tv series in the past decade have been Smallville and Merlin both of which are based around the same concept – taking an existing mythology and reinventing it with all of the main characters being young adults.

Smallville cast pic from a few years ago.

There are many other similarities between the shows, most notably that both shows reversed the nature of the most important relationship in the show, but then have allowed said relationship to gradually become the one fans of the mythology know (Smallville with Clark-Lex, Merlin with Merlin-Arthur).

Merlin cast photo.

This morning I find myself wondering how this sort of re-envisionment might work as a basis for a campaign. Start with a mythology that all the member of the group are very familiar with, then together reinvent it, by de-aging the characters, and grouping them together; have them all be young, and inexperienced in the same time and place.

Inevitably the result of this is going to be a world that is different from the one of the source material; but that’s the point. The idea of making a campaign like this would be to bring a feeling of familiarity without all the constraints which would accompany basing a campaign around the original world.

For example, one could make a campaign where the members of the fellowship of the ring are all young rapscallions growing up together. The changes you would have to make to Middle Earth for such a campaign to function would be huge, but easily accomplished if you designed the campaign in the same way these shows seem to be made – with no initial preconceived notions of how the world is supposed to be. Basically you would not be figuring out how to modify Middle Earth to suit your campaign, but would instead try to find ways to work elements of Middle Earth into your campaign.

Unlike the some of my other campaign ideas I have shared on this site, I feel quite certain that this would work and work well. All it would need is a group that all know and love a given mythology, but aren’t afraid to change it.

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December 30, 2010 Posted by | Campaign Ideas, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic Items, RPGs | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Board Game Review – Minotaurus

When I picked the game Minotaurus off the shelf at Walmart as a Christmas present for my son, it didn’t really cross my mind that this could be a great game for my gaming group the next time we have down time, but I sure am thinking that now.

Fantasy game with a latin title - how can you go wrong?

The Basics

The game board is a labyrinth made of LEGO. Each player has three men who you are trying to get from your corner of the labyrinth to the center (the labyrinth is symetrical, for fairness). Complicating matters is that there is a minotaur running around the board, sending you back to your starting position, and that other players will at times rearrange the walls to your disadvantage.

On your turn you roll a six sided die that has the numbers 3 through 6, plus a plain black side and a plain grey side. Rolling a number means you can move one of your men that many spaces. Rolling grey means that you can move one of the grey walls in the labrynth. Rolling black allows you to move the minotaur 8 spaces – sending home every man he touches along the way.

The board set up as per instructions.

Even just played out of the box as is this game is way more fun than I would ever have guessed, but, you don’t have to play it out of the box as is. The entire game is made of lego, making it infinitely customizable. Just off the top of my head you could change:

  • The number of men
  • The number of players
  • Add more minotaurs
  • The position of the walls
  • The size of the board
  • The shape of the board
  • The size of the movable wall pieces
  • The faces of the die

I mean, if this game were any more customizable you would have to call it an rpg.

This Game Rocks

I have already played the game a bunch of time, and despite the simple game play, am nowhere near being board of it. So if you want something for your group to on an off night, especially if you have lego sitting around, I highly recommend this game. Naturally the recommendation goes double if you have kids.

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December 29, 2010 Posted by | Board Games, Review, RPGs | , , | 1 Comment