“Oh, man, I might need to level those guys down a bit.”
On the list of Things I don’t want to hear the DM say, this might not be tops, but it’s close.
With the character creation process complete, my friend and I decided to check out combat. He took two level 4 monsters and put them up against my one level 1 ranger. Sure, it was going to be a challenge, but we figured it might work out fine.
We’re testing out a few things at once. Our conversation takes place over Skype. He set up a campaign page on roll20, something I’ve wanted to do but never got around to doing. So I’m looking at a grid with a couple features, two circular pics of enemies, and one pic for my character. As a joke, I send the DM a whisper using roll20’s in-window chat function. I’m using Dicenomicon on my iPad to roll everything. If there were any doubts, the app lets you copy a history of rolls to show proof. But we trust each other so that’s not necessary.
Keep in mind, these are just my initial experiences as a player. I haven’t dug into the rules packets yet.
We roll initiative. I get it, and I roll something low for my attack. Maybe a 3. Better luck next round.
One of the two walks up, hits me with its weapon, and the end result is 4 damage. 4 out of 10 total hit points. My character already feels much more fragile than 4E.
“Oh, wait, they have poison, sorry. Roll to save against that.”
I roll incredibly low again.
“Yeah, the poison hits you for…” Dice roll in the background, determining my fate. “Six damage.”
I laugh. “Uh, I’m dead. Well, unconscious, I guess, but defeated.” In one round.
That’s when he utters the quote at the top of the post. Maybe levels make a more significant difference here. Also, I didn’t create the “ideal” character, otherwise I’d have had a few more HP. But still… one shot kills hurt the confidence a little bit.
Round 2…. FIGHT
A few minutes later, healed up and ready for a fight, Lamoncha faces off against two level 1 fire beetles. This goes decidedly better.
Unlike 4E, with multiple powers to choose from each level, Lamoncha has exactly zero combat powers. He has his hand crossbows, with blades built into the structure like handguards in front of the pistol grips. So I declare I am shooting a loaded bolt, or I am slashing something up close.
No dailies. No marks. No encounters. No burst attack. That’s it.
Of course, this is only level 1. There will be special abilities and cool combat attacks coming with later levels.
While I liked the 4E descriptions of what each attack looked like, I see how this is more beneficial both for ease of creating the materials (they don’t need a new list of powers and crazy description of each action every time something comes along) and for running the character.
For one, this cuts down some of the potential delay in combat I see with 4th Edition. No one has to stop and consider what power to use out of a page full of text. Two, this might force some thought and role-playing into the combat.
What if I want to fire both crossbows? That’s something to discuss with the DM. Maybe I want to jab the blade on the crossbow into the creature, then fire the bolt point-blank. I picture this working like called shots, where the DM could set a higher difficulty to hit, but allow the roll as an expression of creativity.
One of the beetles is dead, and the other closes in. I ask, “Are there still opportunity attacks if I use a ranged weapon next to an enemy?” There are.
Lamoncha has taken a hit, and is about half conscious. But the way I pictured him working involves shifting around or between foes and using something like “gun-kata” in a dance of crossbow-bolting death. So I take the risk.
He shifts around the beetle and takes aim, giving it the chance to strike. It rakes its clawed legs at him, scratches leather armor, but does no damage. He fires and kills it, and the DM sings the Final Fantasy victory theme for me.
How is combat in Next?
It’s different, for sure, and a huge shift from 4E. But that’s not a bad thing.
Note: My updated post concerning my character creation experience in 5th Edition D&D is found here. Check it out and let me know if I’ve missed an important subject or left a question unanswered. This post was written when a friend and I were trying out the then-newly-released rules for D&D Next, almost a year before the Player’s Handbook for 5th Edition was published. This post receives more weekly views than anything else I’ve posted, but it’s based on out-of-date material.
“Where are the skills on this character sheet?”
That’s the first comment my friend-turned-online-DM made when I opened the D&D Next playtesting materials. He made it as a joke, because my reaction amounted to “What the–?!”
Yes, the character sheet is a little bit different.
As promised before, here are some of my first experiences with D&D Next, or D&D 5th Edition, or D&D “Wizards of the Coast tries to fix what everyone hates about 4th edition” Edition, or whatever you want to call it.
The playtest materials consist of a bunch of .pdf files for various excerpts of rules. We popped open the Character Creation document, eager to see what else changed. Step 1 was comforting in its familiarity.
Every character needs attributes. The rules present a basic set of stats, a point-buy system, and 4d6 minus the lowest. Since I had no attachment to my experiment, I chose to roll. And since I had no goal in mind, I thought the stats might help guide the rest of the character creation process. So I plugged in the numbers as I got them instead of taking the best rolls for the stats that might suit a particular class.
Nameless ended up with some unfortunate rolls. He’s a little strong, and very dextrous. He’s also slightly smarter than average. But his constitution and wisdom are average, and his charisma is poor. (Str 12, Dex 16, Int 12, Con 10, Wis 11, Cha 9, if you care. These stats include racial bonuses.)
So, whatever else is true, I knew nobody liked Nameless. Step two is choosing a race. The DM thought the high Dex might fit a half-elf, and I was fine with that. That also gave me a choice of another language. For no real reason, I picked Gnomes.
Then we discussed why it might be that no one likes this character. Perhaps he lived among elves that were strict worshipers of nature. On a trip outside his home, Nameless encountered some of the clockwork mechanisms of the Gnomes and fell in love with their intricate designs. His passion for technology and machinery ran counter to his tribe’s culture, so he became an outcast and apprenticed with Gnomish tinkers to learn the craft.
His outcast status also gave me an idea for a name. Since he is arguably crazy in the view of his peers, and since he is consumed with a sort of idealism, I went with LaMoncha, thinking of “the Man of La Mancha,” Don Quixote. Instead of charging windmills, he might build them, to the chagrin of his people.
Step three is to choose a class. Next keeps the standard four: cleric, fighter, mage, and rogue. It also offers six less common classes that may or may not fit a particular campaign: barbarian, bard, druid, monk, paladin and ranger. It doesn’t specify what particular stats are ideal for a given class, but you can look at what gets used in a few class abilities to make your decision.
I did not desire a rogue, though Dex is the obvious high stat for a combat rogue. (Then again, maybe not. Next seems to allow for a thuggish Strength-based rogue, and I’m sure there’s room for the smooth-talking Charisma-based charlatan.)
The description for ranger was that of a loner, which fit my outcast well. I thought of an old character idea for a ranger who uses twin hand crossbows as a sort of “gun kata,” spinning his way through fights and planting bolts in the skulls of his foes. This guy is supposed to be good with intricate technology. Modifying hand crossbows to suit his combat tastes would be easy.
What the class does not do is provide automatic skills like 4E did. The Ranger isn’t automatically the expert at all things nature and dungeoneering. The rogue doesn’t get perception and stealth by default. Also those skills don’t exist.
Each class does get some special features or proficiencies that make sense in the context. A druid gets proficiency with an herbalism kit. Sure, your druid might not want to mix potions, or your fighter may choose to do so. But there’s an inherent benefit for a druid to take up that trade. Rogues have a similar proficiency with thieves’ tools. For the Ranger, the special feature is tracking.
So what about skills, or their equivalent? Step four is to choose a background. This provides the character with training in certain “lore” that sort of replaces skills. There are eleven sets of lore to choose from, some of which you can break out into subsets. For example, “cultural lore” might mean elven culture, or dwarven, or human, etc.
Any time you have a check that requires the use of lore you’re trained in, you get a +10 bonus to that check. It’s not skills per se, but it serves many of the same purposes.
Your background might be as an artisan, working some particular trade. That worked perfectly for my character. Others include soldier, thief, jester, court noble, minstrel, priest, sage, and spy. Maybe I skipped one or two. Each comes with a basic description of the back story of the particular background, a trait which might provide material or assistance in RP, a proficiency with some other item (disguise kit, artisan tools, navigation tools, etc) and suggested fields of lore. There’s a suggested equipment pack as well.
The rules suggest cooperation between player and DM to create a background that fits just right. The backgrounds provided are given as options to spark that imagination. My DM and I chatted and settled on the Artisan with minor tweaks.
Really, that covers the key steps of character creation. Step five is assigning those ability scores, but I did that on step one. Step six is purchasing equipment. I paid a little extra for the various modifications LaMoncha would have to make to his gear. The DM was fine with it. LaMoncha now has twin hand crossbows with partial scimitar blades installed underneath like handguards for the pistol grips. He wears metal hooks on his hips and carries crossbow bolts in bands around his thighs so that in one smooth motion he can cock both crossbows and retrieve two bolts to reload.
Step seven is to fill in numbers. Step eight is the final details like alignment, personality, and appearance. The 9 traditional alignments return, with Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic and Good-Neutral-Evil.
And now I have my D&D Next character. It started as a joke and an experiment, but the character creation process helped solidify a picture in my mind for a character that I came to enjoy.
Next I’ll recount how it felt to actually play the character in combat and in a skill challenge.
UPDATE 5 Jan 2013: I received orders to move overseas, and in the ensuing changes to my life, this project fell by the wayside. My friend and I have not completed any sessions in the last two months, and I don’t know if we’ll be able to restart the effort in the future. D&D Next continues to go through changes too, so this may not be entirely current. Nevertheless, it was a fun exercise, and I appreciate the attention it has received.
A good friend of mine (who sometimes — occasionally — posts things on the internets) proposed a joint venture:
How would you feel about a role playing group that plays once a month for about four hours, records the sessions, and posts the highlights as a podcast?
I love the idea, because I greatly miss having an RPG group. But this has been done before, so what’s the hook?
We can try using D&D Next as a way to introduce it and test it out.
Fantastic. I only know a little of what I’ve heard or read in forums online, so a hands-on D&D Next experience would give me perspective and potentially be useful for readers/listeners. Certainly more than “check out the stupid antics of our RPG group” would.
I’m looking forward to the idea, but there are a few technical tests to run and we need a fourth member, so this isn’t happening tomorrow, just sometime in the Future ™. That’s assuming we don’t all lose our motivation and get sucked into some other distraction.
Then I was chatting with my wife today, and she mentioned how she lost a friend on Facebook over D&D. How do you lose a friend you barely know over D&D?
People fear the unknown, and if all they’re given is misinformation or worst-case examples, it’s easy to villify “that thing those people do” without ever giving it a chance or at least some rational thought. A lot of our friends are Christians, and sometimes we can be the worst at getting good information on a subject. Harry Potter is a tool of Satan in the “culture war” to introduce kids to witchcraft, right? And Star Wars is a tool of Satan to get kids hooked on New Age ideas. And Twilight is a tool of Satan to make kids stupid…
Well, maybe there’s something there.
But all too often we go off half-cocked on whatever the new cultural phenomenon is, and in the 80s, D&D got the same mistreatment from the Christian community. “People sit around in the darkness with candles casting spells!” and “Kids kill themselves when their characters die in the game!”
Hardly. More like “Friends sit around a table and interact in person telling stories, instead of acting like zombies staring at a TV screen or the light of a smartphone.”
But myths are hard to dispel. (Dispel… like dispelling MAGIC! Now my words are starting to incorporate witchcraft terminology! See how easily the evil creeps in?)
My family and I were at a park the other day, and in the course of playing around, we found a toad. After some effort, including a hilarious moment when the frisbee we tossed onto the toad started hopping around the sandbox, we successfully captured the beast.
We released it, and moments later, a little girl was watching it closely with wide eyes. Her parents stood close by, and the mom said, “Did you pick that toad up? That’s a horrible idea! That’s how you get warts!”
No, it’s not. But that’s been said so long, many of us believe it’s true.
To my Christian friends, is it possible we are all too willing to believe the scary news about whatever the next thing is, rather than investigate for ourselves and find the truth? My first-hand experiences with D&D and other RPGs have been nothing but positive. You can find some of those accounts in the Gaming category on this blog.
And to any RPG friends, maybe you’re curious what D&D Next will look like. Or maybe you’ve had a bad experience and can use a second opinion. Or maybe our group will discover that it really sucks, and we’ll post rants complaining about the dumbing down of the traditional game. In any event, I expect it will be a fun ride.
A lot of the Air Force courses I’ve attended include lessons about the importance of setting goals in order to succeed.
Today, we’ll talk about setting goals in your tabletop game. But we’re not talking about incorporating player goals into your campaign (that will probably be another post). We’re talking about giving goals to your monsters!
Everyone needs a goal in life, even your fangorious gelatinous monster. (Okay, maybe not everyone.)
In a tabletop game, your players’ characters are probably going to spend a lot of time fighting against a host of sentient creatures. They may be not be the brightest creatures, they may be evil through and through, they may be tools of some higher villain. But they will have objectives and goals they are trying to achieve.
Make your combat about those goals instead of about the monsters themselves.
Let’s face it, the “kill everything burn everything and die trying” monster makes very little sense. Villains have their own interests, their own purposes. Usually, they have some decent or even good motive that has been twisted around or blown out of proportion into a terrible evil.
“Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet… and it’s remarkable how like an egg is the human skull.”
This guy is going to have a different set of goals and plans than these two.
Your villains’ minions need not line up like a Revolutionary War battle and march to their deaths in the hopes of defeating the heroes. Setting up a fight with no goal means setting up a long, drawn-out slugfest where the two sides try to bring their enemies to zero hit points. Yawn.
Give the monster team a reason to fight. You can speed up combat and you can make the combat matter to the story. Double win!
Perhaps they simply have to delay the heroes from an objective. They can capture or kill particular innocents or valuable NPCs. They can hold a position or activate some magic artifact or complete a ritual. They can make off with a critical object, or damage a strategic location.
“Good job, heroes… you slew fifty goblins but failed to stop the saboteur who destroyed the bridge. Now our army is stuck on this side of the river while the city is under attack.”
When you do this, mindless evil can have a place in such a setting. It stands out precisely because it has no plan, no motive, no ‘higher’ purpose than carnage and destruction. It can be the enemy that simply has to be brought to zero health, something that has to be put down. And then that combat goal tells a story different from all the others, instead of every combat feeling exactly the same.
So, what does the big bad evil guy (or girl, or gelatinous monster) want? Give your villains some goals. Your heroes will thank you for it.
One of the key phrases in my D&D games is, “Roll for initiative!”
For the unfamiliar, that’s a sign that combat is about to start. Initiative is the way the players and storyteller figure out who is going first.
Depending on the game system you use and the way you run your table, combat can really slow things down. You wouldn’t think so… everything is supposed to be fast-paced like a Hong Kong movie fight scene (with slow-motion doves flying in the background).
But oftentimes, the slow motion is around the table.
“Uh… where’d that one guy go? I was going to shoot him with an arrow.”“Dude, the fighter pushed him out the window on his turn.”
“Oh, ok, who’s the closest enemy to me?”
“Look at the map.”
“Cool, (looks over character sheet for a minute, humming and stroking chin) I guess I’ll just use the same power I always use.”
“Ok, your attack hits, the orc is bloodied. Next up, the cleric.”
“Oh right. Um… let me see here… does anyone need healing? Anyone? …Guess not? So… uh… I’m going to… let me think.”
How do you solve this?
Ideally, let’s wave our hands and make all DMs/Storytellers able to craft the most compelling and exciting encounters that absolutely rivet the players’ attentions to the table.
Ok, that didn’t work. Maybe you’re lucky and you have one of those exceptional DMs. (Thank him or her if you do.)
But the rest of us don’t. So what next?
1. Try a timer.
Get an hourglass timer that runs for 30 seconds or one minute. Set a digital timer. Use something that will make it clear when the player has run out of time to make a decision. If you as the player cannot figure out even one thing for your character to do, then call it “effective role-playing” and your character gets to stand there in confusion. Again, it depends on the system you play, but in my current D&D games, a turn is supposed to be six seconds.
I can imagine standing and wondering what to do, stunned by the chaos of combat, for six seconds. The explanation is believable, and the suck factor of skipping your turn will force a bit more forethought and attention on what’s happening in game.
2. Try default actions.
One argument is that your characters are battle-hardened heroes, capable of daring feats and snap decisions. They wouldn’t freeze in fear. Your player, on the other hand, might be a tired mom, or a guy who just got off a long day of work, or (bad news) slightly severely hung over from a night of partying, or (worse news) showing up already under the influence. So treat the characters different than you treat the frazzled player.
Set up default actions for combat. Characters probably have some basic attack for fighting up close or at range. If the ranger player gets flustered, his character shoots an arrow at the nearest enemy. Done. If the fighter isn’t sure what move he wants to use, he attacks the closest enemy. The magician shoots off a basic spell. Unless healing is limited, the healer restores some health to the character with the lowest hit points. Or the healer clobbers an enemy with a mace.
The same goes for role-playing. If you’re sitting there for a minute while your player tries to figure out how to use a favorite but irrelevant skill (“Can I use Diplomacy to jump across the chasm?”) or if they just can’t figure out what to use, then they support the next player in the turn order. They can roll and on a 15 or higher they earn a bonus for the next player’s use of a skill. If this becomes a problem, you take away the bonus and their default action becomes twiddling thumbs.
3. Training practice.
Maybe your players are unfamiliar with their characters and how things should work. The rulebook and the mechanics of combat (or even role-playing) can be a maze to the new player. Perhaps you can take some one-on-one time with the players who need some additional explanation. You can show them some examples of how their powers work, or what might be useful in which situations. Talk them through a basic encounter. Help them understand some of the player basics like focusing fire on one target until it’s down, or whatever special features might be unique to their character’s class.
Don’t just complain about players. Make better players.
4. Visual aids.
Some products like the initiative tracking board might help players keep up with what’s going on. If people know when their turn is coming up, the hope is that they will get away from the distraction and get back to the game. A turn tracker like the picture gives everyone a clear idea of who’s up next. Ideally, the player can then have a plan in mind and go into their turn ready to move the combat along.5. Ban distractions.
Cell phones and computers can be fun tools for gaming. There are dice apps, and soft copy character sheets with databases and equations that automatically update. Wizards of the Coast has the D&D Character Builder that lets you manage your character online (with a subscription fee). There are ways to use computers to play virtual tabletops (check out Roll20 for example), and some DMs like me find that a laptop screen is the best DM screen ever.
The trouble is that electronics can also be a powerful monster in their own right. Make a Will save to not click alt-Tab and check Facebook or browse YouTube for hilarious videos.
Rocks fall. You lose Wi-Fi access.
6. Give monsters short-term goals.
Often combat becomes a numbers fest where each side fights to bring the other side to zero health. How realistic is that? Do our militaries engage each other in fights intended simply to bring the other side to complete destruction? Generally, both sides in the conflict have an objective to work toward. I’m going to do more with this point in another post, so I’ll stop here. But I hope you can see that a fast objective might keep attention on what’s happening and how to stop the bad guys. It’s certainly better than rolling single-digit attacks for five turns while the big boss monster flails about with a handful of hit points left, waiting for the inevitable deathblow.
7. Cut some useless rolling.
If your group is comfortable with it, cut down on the useless rolls. Does the burly fighter REALLY need to roll a check to smash through the door, or can we say he does it with a wave of the hand? Is that cheating? If you think he absolutely must roll and add bonuses and check against the difficulty of the door… and we must discuss or think about whether it is hardwood reinforced with steel or simply a shoddy construct of wood beams… and if you are fine with the idea that based on the roll of a die, the spindly wizard can walk up and kick the door down with a roll of 18 while the big fighter might batter himself against it uselessly if he rolls badly. Sure, then it’s cheating. But we can save time by simply moving on to the rolls and the actions that advance the story.
So there you have it.
Seven options you can adapt to what suits your group, in order to make the slow parts of the game pick up some speed. Take some initiative and give these a shot, then let me know if they work for you.
For those of you who regularly play, what am I forgetting? What works for your group?
“I want to leapfrog over the rogue and flip through the air to land next to the goblin and smash his face with my hammer.”
“I want to grab hold of this powerful conduit of magical energy while casting a spell at the incoming ranks of undead, in the hopes that maybe it will, like, amp up my powers… or something?”
What do you do when your players come up with unique plans and crazy ideas?
Just say “Yes!”
Tabletop Role-Playing is all about collaborative storytelling. It’s all about the characters, the heroes of the story. “Actions speak louder than words,” so when the players come up with unexpected methods to deal with conflict and trouble, that’s an important part of defining those characters for the story you’re all telling.
Sometimes this takes a little bit of stretching, a little imagination to figure out “How do we make this work?” It can be challenging to come up with a solution on the spot, but that gives the DM more practice being flexible.
Someone wants to jump on an enemy and bite at them, Mike Tyson style? Say yes.
Someone suggests setting the whole outpost on fire in order to gain a short-term advantage? Go for it.
Someone decides to activate a mysterious magic device in an attempt to stop a powerful foe? Why not!
Psst, to all the rules lawyers, you and I both know this is completely unacceptable. Stick with me for a bit. If nothing else, they just handed you a golden ticket as the DM.
Perhaps, “Oops, now the whole building is burning down, and you must race to rescue the innocent captives / recover the precious artifacts before it collapses on your heads.”
Or several sessions later, “Remember when you activated that device in order to destroy that elite monster? Yeah, you also set off a beacon that attracted the attention of an incomprehensible alien race that is now making their way to your realm. Better get ready!”
Or, “Hey, that sounds cool. Sure, you gnaw the guy’s face.” And everyone in that region now knows what this hero is willing to do in order to win.
I recall a story from a game designer recounting a session with his son. At the end of the fight, his son says, “My character goes to the statue near the altar and discovers a hidden treasure. He tries to open it, but it has a trap.” The kid starts alternate-DMing for a moment. And the game designer father had the good sense in the moment to just go with it.
The party ends up with a little extra gold, the kid’s character gets poisoned and needs to heal more than he did before, and everyone moves on with the rest of the session. But that moment told the child, “This is your game too. This is your world. Let’s explore it together.”
Just say “yes.” Your games will be better for it.
Okay… rules lawyers, it’s time for a very important caveat.
Are there limits to this suggestion? …Yes. (See what I did there?)
“Is there a way that I can use diplomacy to leap across the chasm and then maybe do an endurance check in order to disarm the trap?”
No. No, there’s absolutely not a way.
Every DM has probably had a player who gets one exceptional skill, and then tries to use it every round. “Can I use my Dungeoneering to fight the goblin? Can I use my Dungeoneering to forage for food in the sky temple? Can I use my Dungeoneering to understand complex magic and recall a historic religious ritual that will help us spot the hidden treasure? I do have a really high Dungeoneering score…”
But your players never want to hear “No.” So what do you do?
You want your default inclination to be “Yes” so long as it makes sense.
Take advantage of that collaborative aspect of the tabletop game. Make them explain how exactly their favorite go-to skill is going to help in this particular situation. You give them the impression you’re willing to go along as long as they can come up with a convincing answer. You show them you’re willing to bend a bit for the sake of story without completely breaking the game or common sense. You put the ball back in their court and ask how it’s supposed to go from there.
Your average tabletop player is probably going to be reasonable and admit that their idea is beyond the scope of reason. If not, then once again go collaborative. Have a majority vote from your players or invite suggestions on how to make it work. And of course, as the DM you have the ultimate power to conclude that there’s no reasonable way to agree to the crazy plan. So, sometimes say, “No.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about tabletop role-playing, but it’s the first Tabletop Tuesday post. I hope to funnel all the related topics into this weekly category: reviews of various products, ideas for how to add to your game on the cheap, thoughts about how to run a group, or accounts of silly thing my players have done in game.
Yet for many, the idea of tabletop role-playing is quite a mystery. Some of us have probably heard a lot about the evils of games like Dungeons and Dragons, and perhaps we’ve seen groups of young (or not so young) people dressing up and playing live action games in local parks. Even my wife was worried before her first time playing a tabletop RPG.
“I don’t have to wear a cape, do I?”
The extent of role-playing is defined by the group. No one has to quote Harry Potter terms or wave a stick around yelling “You shall not pass!” If the players are open to that, more power to them. But that’s not what the games are about.
Tabletop games are all about a group of people telling a story together.
It’s not much different from the lure of major sports. We watch men and women perform challenging but ultimately useless feats of athletic skill, and we get drawn into all the rivalries and back-story of our favorite teams and superstars. No one really cares if a guy can put a ball into a hoop suspended up in the air, or if someone can hit a little white ball with a stick.
No, we get into the stories.
Will so-and-so ever lead his team to victory? Maybe this is his year to shine. Can that player overcome his public indiscretions, or will his performance on the field suffer? Will Team A triumph over Team B this year, since Team B crushed them in the finals last season?
We even go so far as to imagine “what if” with sports. What if this great player from this team and that great player from that team were actually on the same team? What if I took these five players I really like, and put them on the same team? How would they compare against other people’s choices? And thus we have Fantasy sports, so-called D&D for Jocks.
We are drawn to the characters, the conflicts, the victories and the failures. That’s ultimately what tabletop RPGs are about. You’re not merely reading a book or watching a movie, waiting for the next twist, wondering when the mystery will be explained or the hidden villain revealed. You’re not trying to comprehend and relate to whatever main character you’ve been given.
You’re helping write the plotline for a character of your choosing.
Beyond that, tabletop gaming is a social activity with friends gathering (usually) in the same place. It’s a creative activity, allowing players the chance to think outside their daily norm and even act a part. It’s a strategic activity, with rules and tactics that players can use to their advantage, like a chess game with dice. When it works out, tabletop gaming can be a great diversion, just like any hobby.
We’ve been playing a tabletop role-playing game for Family Game Night.
Tonight we took a break to level up the characters.
I also took some time to level up my son’s interest in the game.
Justin (7 years old) has a rogue character named Clayface, and he seems to be enjoying himself. The problem is, all Clayface ever really has to do is shoot his crossbow at everyone’s face.
When I ask, “Justin, what do you want to do?” that’s always the answer.
“I shoot the goblin in the face.”
“I shoot my crossbow at the spider. In the face.”
“I want to shoot my crossbow RIGHT IN HIS FACE!”
So I thought, how am I going to get Justin to think more about what different things he might want to do?
That’s when I thought of these guys:
Justin is an absolute nut about Angry Birds.
And this is a silly family game where anything can be allowed.
So why not give Clayface the rogue a slingshot and a sack of birds to use as ammunition?
For the next session, I get to hand Justin the sheet below. It may not get him sneaking around and role-playing a rogue, but it will get him thinking about what he wants to do in the game, even if it turns into, “I fire Little Red into the goblin’s face!”
Some of the best parts of tabletop role-playing are the creative ways players solve or avoid (or outright ignore) the problems and troubles the DM/GM/Storyteller sends their way.
One of the other best parts is coming up with those surprises to stump your players.
This afternoon, I sat down with the wife and kids to continue our D&D campaign. They’ve been steered (mostly by their characters’ needs and not by railroad tracks) toward tracking down a manipulative vampire clan. Members of the clan operate behind the scenes all over the realm, and it’s the heroes’ job to root these villains out.
They’re starting to travel all around the region, which gives me the chance to use a variety of settings.
I was going to use my copy of Dungeon Delve, with its pre-made adventures. But that would require getting tiles together, and I was looking for something with less prep required.
Good thing I had an unopened pack of GameMastery map tiles: Mines.
It’s 18 tiles that are made to mix and match, so that you can create a variety of tunnels to explore.
Events in the game led the wife’s and kids’ characters to a nearby mine overrun by goblins somehow connected to the clan. There are surviving miners… probably. Rescue is the main goal… as far as they know.
The intrepid heroes are ready to move in, and since it’s a dark mine, I lay out one Mines map tile at a time as they advance through the mine. I fanned out the tiles, blank backs up, and let the kids and Jami pick which one would be next. Then I came up with a brief answer for why that section of tunnel mattered. Sometimes it was tracks in the dungeon. Sometimes it was signs of battle to hint at what they might soon face. Once it was a vein of gleaming ore.
But even before all of that, right off the bat, their creative juices are flowing. I start off with a Dungeoneering check, as Beastly Tiger notices something amiss in the entrance of the tunnel. The goblins have prepared a rock-fall trap for unwanted guests. The kids discuss how best to deal with this, when I tell them their characters hear goblins chatting ahead in the tunnel.
The children gave me a pleasant surprise by remembering the idea of “holding action.” Basically, that means a character is ready to do a certain action if something specific happens. “I hold my axe up, ready to chop at the first goblin that walks through the door,” for example.
Deborah decides Beastly Tiger would make some noise to get the goblins’ attention, then she prepares to chuck a rock at the cords that will trigger the trap. Justin likes this plan, and declares that Clayface has his crossbow ready to shoot the cords at the other side of the tunnel, once the goblins are in position. Jonathan finishes up by “holding” a magic missile to hit any of the goblins who survive the rock-fall trap.
Needless to say, the battle went poorly for the goblins. It also went poorly for Jami’s new monk character, Lily-Ann, a halfling who is unfortunately about goblin sized. That explains why Beastly Tiger may have accidentally swung his hammer to smash Lily-Ann in the side of the head:
Deborah rolled a 1. We picked a fumble card, and it said “You attack your ally instead. This attack is a critical threat.” So Deborah rolled for her attack against Lily-Ann, and the die went off the table. She tried again, and rolled a 20. Murphy’s Law, I guess.
Even so, the heroes had little difficulty dealing with the goblins and some creepy-crawlies in the tunnels.
I needed a good hook to end with, and as we took a quick break, it came to me.
I’d been removing the old map tiles behind their characters in the mine, partly to save space, but more importantly, to set up the surprise.
They hit an intersection, determined a direction, and quickly came to a dead end with the section that has ore. They fought more beasties, then turned around to back-track…
And eventually they found themselves right back at the ore, even though they’d gone the opposite direction.
Deborah and Jonathan look at me funny. Jami asks, “Wait, what?” And then it starts to dawn on their faces…
Time and space are being shifted around in the mine. The path they took is now completely different. There is a monstrous creature in the cavern whose powerful twisted magic creates this effect, and they must find it and slay it in order to find their way out.
Jonathan’s eyes go wide, and he declares, “I like where this is going.”
Removing the tiles saved space and created a fun challenge.
The kids took off to play outside, since there was only a couple hours before sunset. But they made sure to ask, “Can we keep playing once we come back inside?”
Real life has been hectic and complicated, forcing me to adjust priorities and pay time and attention to some important things…
…Like family game night!
(Not really, but we did make time Monday night to get our game on for a bit.)
A couple weeks ago, my wife and I discussed her character. Jami likes the idea of Bethrynivere the military leader, but the character bores her. Likewise, Deborah loves Beastly Tiger, the dim-witted wall of muscle. But she doesn’t care so much about the panther companion that comes with a beastmaster ranger.
We looked into some other options while leveling up the kids’ characters.
Deborah selected a marauder ranger, which basically means combining various actions in order to capture a sense of “You’re the fastest character out there, rushing around the battlefield, charging into your enemies.” She plays to Beastly Tiger’s strengths (namely, his Strength stat) by chucking throwing hammers and then running up to smash faces with her larger war hammer.
We finished the character, and I couldn’t help but hear, “Stop! Hammer time!”
Meanwhile, Jami is trying to choose a class and race for a new character. She doesn’t want to duplicate any of the roles in the party, so a magic user is out. A rogue is out. A burly up-close fighter is out, because that’s basically what Beastly Tiger is no matter what the class says. On top of that, the party has no healer. Jami is convinced she should make a healer just because they need one, but that’s not what she wants to do.
I assure her not to worry about healing. I have a plan for an NPC of sorts, an angelic being that grants healing to the characters (in a limited fashion) when they get their butts handed to them in combat.
I don’t know how exactly I’d explain its presence yet, but I’m sure I’ll think of something! I just don’t want Jami feeling forced to play something she’s not interested in. So she ignores the healing classes and looks at a few options.
And maybe it was excitement about the upcoming Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria… or maybe it was inspiration from Gollum’s total rage assault on Frodo at the end of Return of the King… or maybe none of the above. But Jami settled on the idea of a Monk, and she decided her monk had to be a Halfling.
Yeah. You heard of Frodo, now meet his cousin Judo.
I kid, I kid. The monk’s name is Lily-Ann. The heroes met her in a session a while back where they fought that Dire Bear.
Once the bear was vanquished, the team gathered all available clues and figured that the thieving merchant they needed to find was probably holed up in the abandoned cathedral near the town. They set off to chase him down, and encountered an assassin who also sought him for reasons known only to her.
There was a brief tense moment–Beastly Tiger threatened to eat the assassin for dinner, and she responded coolly, “I think you’ll find my meat too tough for your tastes.” (I was proud of my off-the-cuff cheesy retort!)
Then the heroes realized the assassin shared the same short-term goal–stop the merchant, recover the gem–so they agreed to work together. They stepped into the cathedral and found the merchant holding the gemstone, protected by a large bubble of energy. Goblins surrounded the bubble, clawing and scraping to no effect. The merchant raised the gem, revealed his true demonic form, and exerted control over the goblins, turning them against the heroes.
That’s where we left off about two weeks ago.
While plotting the big fight, I thought about incorporating vampires into the plot line. I liked the idea of this merchant-devil guy gaining power from the blood that is drawn on the pre-made map. (Eevil Paizo, including little hooks and plot ideas in your simple map drawing!) But then he’d have to be a merchant-devil-vampire guy.
Devil vampires? Yessss…
Come to think of it, I had a campaign that was headed toward an arc about toppling a vampire clan. We had to stop due to various military deployments and such, and we never got to realize that portion of the story. Maybe these devil vampires could be a similar arc for family game night.
And the need to stop their evil would certainly explain the angelic being’s presence and interest in the heroes. Bonus!
So, with all this in mind, I set up the fight. I throw in a heap of goblin minions. In game terms, they’re the cannon fodder, the scrawny little losers that die as soon as they take damage. Minions give the players a sense that their characters are really powerful heroes, crushing all opposition.
They serve my purpose as well; the devil vampire has a healing buff that grows with the blood of each goblin slain.
On top of that, Lily-Ann and the assassin NPC both take bleed damage early in the fight. Bleeding sounds like something else that might give the devil vampire strength, so I describe the power he gains. Now they really want him to die.
Of course, with all the bleeding, they need a healer. So I tell them there is a flash of radiance at the back of the sanctuary, and an angelic being appears, hovering above the ground. She starts shooting beams of warm light at the heroes, and their wounds are healed. They want to know what her deal is, why she’s there, but they’re content to let that wait until after the fight.
The heroes smash their way through many goblins, while the assassin tries to distract the devilish merchant. The kids and Jami focus exclusively on the goblins, but the devil vampire remains completely protected behind a powerful shield. I set about 13 black token stones in an arc inside the cathedral, marking the boundary of the shield.
Deborah describes the various ways she wants Beastly Tiger to attack goblins… usually something like playing Leap Frog over a friend and then landing a crushing shot with the hammer. At some point, Jonathan decides that his not-sneaky-at-all Dragonborn Wizard is going to try to slip around the goblins by creeping through the shadows behind the pillars of the cathedral sanctuary. I can’t believe he wants to do this, but that’s the beauty of the game.
They can do whatever they want, or at least try.
As the kids and Jami beat up the goblins, Justin misses his attack by a very narrow margin. I describe how his crossbow bolt flies through a goblin wizard’s robe instead of hitting the goblin. And I think, “Well, if it flies through his robe, it’ll hit whatever is behind it… namely the shield.”
I describe the impact on the shield, and I replace a black token with a red one. This piques Jonathan’s interest.
On his next turn, he abandons his sneaking plan and decides to start attacking the shield directly. I end up replacing another token or two with red, and I explain how the shield flickers or wavers with each hit.
Suddenly no one cares about the goblins.
Like, not at all.
All of them are focused on the shield, to the extent that they’re ignoring the attacks of little goblins standing right next to them.
Justin has Clayface firing one crossbow bolt after another into the shield, trying to bring it down. The heroes are close to breaking through. One of the little pesky goblins runs up to harass or attack Clayface, and rolls a 1. I pick a card from the Critical Fumble deck.
The goblin ends up with something like, “Return to Sender.” It means the attack failed so bad that the opponent grabs and keeps the weapon the attacker just used. The goblin essentially runs up and hands Clayface his knife in the middle of the fight, while Clayface remains focused on the shield.
The goblins didn’t last long. And once the shield was brought down, the heroes were quick to pile on the devil vampire. Jami’s monk has a powerful move she can do once per fight, called Open the Gates of Battle. It does extra damage when you attack a target that has full health. Throughout the fight, we were discussing when she could or should use “Open the Gates.” She really really wanted to use it on the big devil vampire, and the moment finally arrived.
She says, “I wanna OPEN THE GATES!” Deborah and Jonathan cheer with her, “Yeah! Open the Gates! Open the Gates!”
Justin yells, “AND THEN CLOSE IT ON HIM!”
The heroes surround the devil vampire and beat on him with everything they’ve got. My assassin NPC manages to snatch the gemstone from the monster’s hands, and jumps away. (I’ve been trying to get her to grab it the whole time, but unfortunately I’ve been rolling a string of 3s and 4s.)
He responds by spraying acid and bile all around him a la Exorcist, pushing the heroes back. Then he rushes at the assassin and tries to get the gemstone back.
With everyone unloading their best attacks, the devil vampire is in a bad way. I get my turn, and he takes the gemstone back, raising it up into the air triumphantly, calling on its power to aid him and cackling in a mustache-twirling villain sort of way.
Justin declares, “I want to shoot him IN THE FACE!” and attacks with a crossbow shot that I know will kill the vampire. And it’s really late at this point, and we need to finish.
Always finish with a hook, if you can get away with it.
The devil vampire’s grin turns to open-mouthed confusion and he looks from the gem to the assassin at his feet. Something has gone wrong. “NOOOOO!” He screams at her. “WHAT HAVE YOU DO–”
I tell Jami and the kids, “The crossbow bolt flies into the creature’s mouth, killing him and triggering the explosive power of Clayface’s weapon. The devil vampire explodes, sending the assassin sliding across the ground. The goblins under the vampire’s control fall dead. Aaaaaand… we’re done. Time to get ready for bed.”
Deborah and Jonathan shout, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
And the next day, Jonathan is already asking, “Can we play more tonight?”
They can’t wait to see what happens. Thinking of the silliness they come up with, I can’t wait to see what happens either.
The home of David M. Williamson, writer of fantasy, sci-fi, short stories, and cultural rants.