Saturday, May 29, 2010

Magic: The Role-playing Game

Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons are owned by the same people. The design and development people for each game work in the same building, creating two intellectual properties steeped in the tropes of fantasy fiction, and thus far, there has been very little overlap between the two. Obviously, the design teams have some level of influence on one another; James Wyatt and Mike Mearls have both posted about their M:TG games on Twitter, and if Mark Rosewater hasn’t played Dungeons and Dragons, I’ll eat my hat.* But we haven’t seen a Dungeons and Dragons collectable card game, and we haven’t seen a Magic: The Gathering role-playing game, and I think that’s a damned shame on both sides of the equation.

There are ways to make a D&D CCG, and it would probably be a good game. I mean, the guys at WotC managed to make Maple Story a compelling CCG, and that intellectual property was complete garbage. Hell, porting over some of the system elements from Maple Story probably wouldn’t hurt. Now I want to design a D&D CCG, but that’s not what this article is actually about, so I’ll get more to my point.

That Magic: The Gathering is not a role-playing game is a fucking travesty.

I don’t say this out of spite. I completely understand that Wizards doesn’t want to compete with itself for your disposable income. I mean, Magic sells a lot of booster packs, and Dungeons & Dragons sells a lot of books, and if they can keep those revenue streams separate for the most part, then they’re getting CCG money, role-playing game money, and the overlap money from guys like me, who do both.

But Magic is a rich fantasy setting that is dying to be explored in ways that can’t be done through flavour text or poorly-written novels. That people even read those books should be evidence enough to Wizards of the Coast that people want a more intimate experience with the settings they’re building for their card game.

People have a natural tendency towards storytelling. As a person who suffers under a primary Storyteller motivation for my role-playing games, I find myself inventing stories all the time, with fragile frameworks to build off of. When I flip through Magic cards, I wonder what exactly it is Nicol Bolas wants out of life, or the motivations of a Shivan Dragon. Are Shivan Dragons protective mothers? Couldn’t tell you, but I’d like to find out, and I’d like to make discoveries like that within the framework of a role-playing game.

We all get the feeling, when watching a bad movie or reading a bad book, that we could do better. When I get that feeling, I know it’s not true. I probably couldn’t write a better novel than that guy, because every time I’ve tried, I stop writing about a quarter of the way through. Instead, I think about how I could steal the authors ideas and make a kick-ass role-playing game out of them. When I read the back of a Magic: The Gathering novel, I get that feeling (the last time I cracked one was in Lorwyn, mostly to see if they’d gotten better; they hadn’t**). Right now, the idea of kicking the crap out of newly awakened Eldrazi seems like an awesome idea for a role-playing game. So awesome, that I’m basing one of the colossi from my Bones of a Dead God campaign on the Eldrazi idea.

But playing with Magic ideas in Dungeons & Dragons, as awesome as it is, doesn’t quite satisfy the desire for a Magic role-playing game. While it’s certainly possible for me to set a D&D game in Dominaria, without the signature spells, the cast of characters, the crazy summoning magic, it just wouldn’t be the same. It would be Dungeons & Dragons. In Dominaria.

So I started working on rules for the thing. The player characters were simple, having only three stats to begin with (Fight, Skill and Spark), and a number of mana that they would have access to at the beginning of each turn. These stats were determined by spending some points into various pools, like a bunch of class-free role-playing game systems. Each player would also have a deck of cards. There were a few different configurations we tried out, and in the end we didn’t find anything that was really satisfactory for how to handle deck-building. Either you could include land, or not, and that complicated things in a huge way. Or you could have a separate land deck. Or you could make Spark checks to create bonds to new mana sources. Or a million other variations on mana production.

To be perfectly honest, the game wasn’t very good. But I believe that to be more my failing than Magic’s. My own design for the game had certain design goals that may or may not have been unrealistic as a single-man design team. Though the game itself was just fun enough go get through a couple of rounds of closed playtesting, it wasn’t quite good enough for me to keep working on. But someone should be working on this right now, someone far more talented at role-playing game design than I.

*I’m not actually wearing a hat. It’s an empty threat.
** This is, of course, entirely my own opinion. I’m sure there are people who have enjoyed Magic novels. I’m not one of those people.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Drow, Dirigibles, Duels and Drunkenness

I didn’t get a chance to write a session review for Monday’s session, mostly because I was piloting a starship around the galaxy blasting Klingons with lasers – the game isn’t an RPG per se, but it’s a pretty good game about space ships and lasers.

We start the session off with Babagya tottering away screaming “I’ll get you, my pretties!” and our heroes looking a bit worse for wear. They had been heading to Babagya’s old home, Muidercrag, to see if they might learn something more about the Big B’s history, and while she was headed straight north, they crew decided to steer their chicken-hut north east and investigate the village.

2009-f3-5 The village is a burnt out husk of what was once a thriving little community. Parts of the town have been burned to cinders, while others stand mostly whole, but the whole place is completely unlivable. Give any ghost town twenty years to grow over, and shit starts falling down, plants start growing up where there shouldn’t be plants, and the whole place goes to pot. Memphis occasionally catches a glimpse of Muidercrag as it once was, complete with dwarven citizens and animals and the like. They decide to get down into the city and see if they can figure out what’s going on with that, when the sun falls behind the mountains and the whole place comes alive, with building standing as they once were, dwarven citizens, sights, smells, tastes, the works.

A little girl tugs on Skull’s sleeve and asks for her help. Skull is right freaked out by this, and it turns out the little girl is actually a manifestation of Babagya-as-she-once-was. She explains that she’s going to kill them all, and gives each of them a doll representation of themselves.

When the sun comes up and the village returns to it’s natural, burnt-down state, they decide to leave the village, meeting Francois on the way out. He’s bringing some of the gear to start making the wall that will surround Muidercrag, tells them a bit more about the history of the place and how experiences like the party’s own are why they’re walling the place off. It’s a cursed place.

Also, there is a message for Skull, from her mother. Seems she wants Skull to come home, and it’s rather urgent.

thespineoftheworld As home is in the direction Babagya went, the whole crew heads north to the Spine of the World. The spine is a long expanse of arid land between two enormous cliff-faces that drop off into the world-ocean. On either sides of the spine, reaching impossibly high into the air, are the Cage Pillars. These huge stone cliffs are where the dragons are born. There are cities and towns along the Spine, and a network of roads. Far in the distance, smoke is rising from the captial city.

The chicken-hut is stopped by a patrol of a drow sheriff and his deputies and searched. They don’t seem to believe that Skull is who she says she is, understanding Mathilde of the Draconia Family to be dead over twenty years ago, about the time Skull ran away from home. They quickly search the chicken-hut, not taking anything for fear that whatever they take will dissolve a few hours later, and let the party pass. A few minutes later, they’re stopped by another patrol, and go through much of the same process. This time, though, the patrol is actually a group of polymorphed turtle-minions, who attack the party and are quickly put down.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Reaching the capital, they find the place overrun with turtle-minions, and two colossi are rampaging through the streets! The palace is empty, save for a few looters, who tell Skull that her mother is in fact at the farmhouse. They party moves south, avoiding the colossi for the time being, as Babagya cackles at them from the roof of the palace.

They come across a small hut in the middle of a poorly-tended farm. A single drow sits on a rocking chair with a crossbow in his lap and a piece of straw sticking out of his mouth.

“Good to see you again, Princess,” he says as Skull moves past him into the house. There’s a trapdoor that leads down into the basement, and the stairs are impossibly long, hundreds of flights to the bottom. When they reach the bottom, it leads to one of the colossus platforms the party is used to fighting the monsters on, a huge cliff-face built to house a single massive colossus. Skull’s mother and her step-father, an enormous black dragon, are conferring there with a few drow generals.

Drow magic on the spine is, by necessity, dragon magic. That Skull is a storm sorcerer has always been a point of consternation between her and her mother, but today, she is needed for exactly that talent. One of the colossi destroying the drow capital city has some strange control over wind and rain and lightening, and to get close enough to rid the streets of turtle-minions, they drow army needs to fly in on airships. They need Skull to “turn the colossus off,” for a while, giving them a window to get in and take the little zombie bastards down.

When the streets are clear, the party is the only group in the world with experience taking down colossi, so those will be the responsibility of Skull and her crew. Skull is infuriated.

“Did anyone even try to fight the colossi as they were stomping on people?”

“You noticed they were stomping on people?” her mother countered. “That’s what happened when they tried to fight.”

The party is given access to three airships, while Bruk Hearteater goes with Garuush, the dragon, to recruit the aid of more dragons as needed. Memphis and Bruce keep the colossi occupied while Skull tries to take down the storm colossus’ powers over the airships weather, and though the fight is close, they manage to build a window for the drow fleet to get in and kick some ass.

They rest for a while, as a horde of dragons and airships take out the easier foes. Garuush suggests that he could, with some help and some time, make the chicken-hut fly, and gets to work on that. The party goes to take care of some colossi.

The fight was very different than the other colossus fights they’ve done so far. These foes are, individually, less powerful than a single colossus would be, but taken together the fight is quite a bit tougher. There are still a few turtle minions around, and they’re pretty effective at fucking with people’s shit. And each colossus is still a pretty nasty foe. There are some huge stunts done by both colossi, though the best move of the day is when one of them burrowed down into the earth and exploded out from a building to grab one of the airships in mid-flight.

Halfway through the fight, Bruk and Garuush swoop down to help, and though Garuush is hardly an expert fighter, their help is welcome. Skull and her stepBrotherP&Cultists-father have a touching family moment, where she accepts him as her “Dad,” and they take the last colossus down together.

Then, drunkenness. The party was pretty close to levelling up, so we decided to do some carousing for experience points. While most of the players get away with just enough experience to level up, Skull goes well above and beyond, and wakes up on the altar of a local temple, with a horde of Babagya’s cultists working dark magicks upon her body… and her soul…

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Editions Solve Problems

When a game comes out with a new edition, it’s an attempt by the developers to solve problems they see with the current edition. This isn’t just a thing we see in Dungeons & Dragons, but in every game system ever published in multiple editions. Even in a game as system-independent as Palladium Fantasy, there are edition wars (which is ridiculous, since you need to house-rule the whole game, in either edition, just to make it playable).

Matt and I got into a discussion last week about the edition wars. He’s a new D&D player, having never played editions one through three-point-five, and he’s of the opinion that previous editions are fatally flawed. This is, for the most part, true. It’s no less true of the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons, though; they’re just flawed in ways that are very, very different.

See, third edition D&D solved a lot of pretty intense problems. It cleaned up combat in a huge way, it solidified skills as a part of the phb35 dice-roll mechanic that combat was based on (making the system as a whole much more cohesive), killed negative-value Armour Classes, put most of the core classes into a single book, gave character classes something more interesting to grow into (thereby giving players goals to build towards as they played), provided a framework for determining how challenging an encounter should be, gave creatures stat blocks that were on par with those of a player character… The list of problems third edition fixed is huge and more than a little intimidating.

But a huge contingent of players hated it. They hated it because the system they had already worked. They hated it because it changed so many things that they loved (“No! Not my THAC0!”). They hated it because it made some classes more powerful and other classes less powerful than they liked. They hated it because of all the new rules. They hated it because it simplified things, dumbing the system down. They hated it because they had already bought so many second edition books. Basically, for all of the reasons players today hate D&D Fourth Edition, other players hated D&D Third Edition.

And that’s natural. People resist change. Change usually means uncertainty, and to our reptile brains, uncertainty means greater potential risk than whatever it is we’ve been doing and grown comfortable doing. It’s an instinct.

But people got over it, and they started playing third edition, and when 3.5 came out, people continued to buy it because, though it WOC2173672_500 was a change, it wasn’t such a huge change that people couldn’t stomach it. People got comfortable playing 3.5 D&D. They learned the rules, they bought new books, they made characters and played campaigns and it was good.

But 3.5 wasn’t devoid of problems. I think a lot of people who are on the 3.5 bandwagon are missing this very integral point: Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 was not perfect. It wasn’t even close to perfect. It was good, and it worked, and it did the things we needed it to do, but it was not a perfect game system. There’s no such thing.

Third edition had problems. The magic item creation rules were obtuse and almost impossible to understand, certain aspects of combat would bog down encounters in a huge way, the classes were designed to be fun at different levels, meaning anyone who wanted to play an epic-level fighter was in for a really rough ride past level 12, levelling was completely uninteresting and mechanical, multi-classing meant that everyone could, if they wanted, be good at everything (and often were), classes overlapped on another’s niches in a huge way, the economy was completely fucked, the power-level of even low-level spells got pretty ridiculous sometimes… The system was a mess. Unhindered third party support meant that nearly anything could be in the game, which made the game ridiculous very, very fast.

Fourth edition solved a lot of these problems. Item creation became streamlined and simple, combat was laid out much more specifically and became a lot easier to understand, classes were balanced against one another through every level, multi-classing was made far less attractive while the game strived to protect niches within a party, power level was matched more evenly against the encounters the party would face and the the economy, while still fucked, was fucked in a very new and interesting way.

But Fourth Edition isn’t devoid of problems. A lot of the people on the 4E bandwagon miss this very integral point: Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition is not perfect. It isn’t even close to perfect. It’s good, it works, and it does the things we need it to do, but it is not a perfect game system. There’s no such thing.

dd-box Magic items are uninteresting and common, skill challenges are difficult to understand hard to explain (not to mention the math on them is completely off), the economy sucks in many ways worse than that in 3.5, the feats are pedestrian and boring, the game focuses primarily on combat, solo combat encounters are a sloggish mess, status effects are almost impossible to keep track of without some secondary product, miniatures are entirely mandatory… There are a lot of problems here.

Fifth Edition will likely address a lot of these concerns. There’s no announcement out that it’s coming or anything. We’ve only had Fourth for a few years now, and I can’t see WotC pissing people off that badly by tossing a new edition out so soon. But someday, it will come. And when it does, it will solve the problems of gamers ten years from now. It won’t be a solid answer to problems we had three years ago, which will mean some people will be steadfastly against the new edition. But people will buy it, and play it, and it will be a fun game.

Myself, I’m already looking forward to it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

An Open Letter to People who Make MMORPGs

The big problem is that I’ve been spoiled by 16-bit console RPGs. In my opinion, the most incredible console and computer story-based adventure games were made in the early to mid nineties. The Super Nintendo (the fucking SUPER NINTENDO!!!) brought us Breath of Fire, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, no less than three Final Fantasy games, Lufia, Secret of Evermore, and Secret of Mana. Not one of these games was bad, and I played the shit out of them. Add the kinda-meh RPGs for the Sega Genesis (and a couple of gems, such as Phantasy Star IV), and I grew up with some pretty great console games as a kid.

Those games set the bar for me, and there have only been a few games out in the past decade that I feel met or exceed them. Dragon Age comes to mind, probably because it’s fresh in my memory. Knights of the Old Republic, too. Jade Empire, Elder Scrolls – Oblivion, Fallout 3. So there have been some decent games, but in general the quality of good story-based adventure games has gone down in the past decade. While the games have gotten much prettier to look at, they’ve lost a lot of what made the 16-bit games so much fun.

The thing they lost was “character.” Not in the sense that I couldn’t tell Jade Empire from Fallout; the games are definitely unique and have some pretty amazing art direction and flavor. But they’re missing something. And it’s something games like Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star have in spades.

I really like the characters I interact with in those games.

The protagonist guy from Chrono Trigger doesn’t speak. He’s just your avatar. Whatever you would have said there, that’s what he just said. But characters like Frog and Magus stick around with you. They’re cool. They have interwoven histories. They’re unique and interesting. You get to learn more about them as you progress through the game. They gain depth through their actions and through the way they tell their story. Modern console and computer role-playing games, with a few key exceptions, have lacked this, and it’s noticeable in the quality of the games.

See, the guys at Bioware understand what the hell is going on here, and they make up for it. Dragon Age has some really neat characters in it, and they’re unique and they’re fun and you get a pretty good idea of what they’re about by the end of the game. None of them are humanoid frogs, but they don’t need to be for you to remember who they are. Morrigan is sarcastic and strangely naive. Alistair is straight-laced and thinks he’s funnier than he is. I haven’t played the game in months, and these are character traits I remember. Very few computer or console rpgs are going to the effort to make that happen anymore.

This is especially true of MMORPGs. This started off as a criticism of Star Trek Online, for its absolutely horrendous lack of interesting characters, but it’s been pointed out to me that the problem is rampant throughout the platform. It is generally assumed that any sort of role-playing you might want to do during an MMO would occur with other players. Or, at least, that’s the only reason I can fathom that would explain the complete absence of interesting non-player characters in MMO games. And sure, that’s an option for some games. I’ve had moments of pure role-play in World of Warcraft and FlyFF, but those moments were very few and so far between that I believe they happened once per game in years of playing.

See, people don’t want to role-play on a console or in a computer game. For one thing, it’s currently impossible to make a program do all of the cool things your imagination can. For another, people understand how to interact with a game like Star Trek Online from their experiences with other console and computer games. They interact with one another on STO the same way they would interact with players in a HALO game. Which is really sad, because HALO doesn’t pretend to be an RPG.

If you take all of the RPG elements out of Star Trek Online, it’s a pretty fun adventure game. If you take all of the things that make Star Trek fantastic, it’s a pretty good homage to the setting. But both RPGs and Star Trek are about character and that is something that the MMORPG market is missing entirely. In playing STO, I want to care. I want to talk to my crew and learn something about their history. Hell, make it up. Make it random. Choose 100,000 pre-made “who are you” character scripts and compile them into chat trees. Pay me enough money, I’ll write them for you just so that I can go home and read my own chat trees and feel like I know something about my crew.

I want them to interact with me and with one another. I want missions to be based on the fact that my chief of security walked into my Ready Room and told me his wife is having a baby on Deep Space K-7 and he’d love it if we could get him back there before his daughter is born. I want a mission that is just me mediating a dispute between two members of my crew. I want to know that when my helmsman and one of the science lieutenants are working together, they’re more efficient because they’re lovers. Or less efficient. Or whatever. Any character trait at all.

And if there was a storyline behind Star Trek Online as compelling as that found in Chrono Trigger, you’d never get me to leave the captain’s chair. Hell, if the story was as intriguing as the worst season of Enterprise, you’d have me knocking at your servers constantly.

As is, it’s a pretty good adventure game.

I’m just going to post a link here. It’s the Memory Alpha entry for Lieutenant Commander Data. Take a look at the things that made this character interesting. Let me know how much of that is based on the space ship he flew or the away missions in which he shot his phaser. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions on just how important character interactions are for MMOs based on that…

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Tournament


Team F*cking Lazorz – A group of Dungeons & Dragons: Encounters veterans, looking for a taste of glory in the tournament arena.
Team Fighting Mongooses – Coming in from the outside, this team of Warp One freshmen is here to prove themselves to the competition.
Team Los Angelas Lakers – Under the vicious Game Mastery of the Magnificent Matt Bowes, this team of old pros and veterans is ready for anything.
Team Srs Bzns (Serious Business) – Longtime D&D players, this team has limited experience with 4th, but this is balanced by a burning desire to crush the competition.
Team Vagina – Three women with a chip on their shoulder and dice in their hands, Team Vagina has been prepping for this tourney for months.

This is, to my knowledge, the only Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition tournament in Edmonton. If this turnout is any indication, it will not be the last. In our first round, we had Team Lazorz fighting the much-lauded Team Vagina, while the Lakers took on Srs Bzns. Team V has been planning for this tourney for two months, planning and tweaking and building and rebuilding, practicing and talking a big game. There has been a lot of buzz, and people have been talking; can they live up to the hype?

On the second table against the Lakers, Srs Bzns’ Assassin Jordan Thompson took a third-turn kill, taking down Jeff Turner’s Paladin/Cleric Hybrid with a 4-shroud swing for 35 damage. Shortly after, Srz Bzns’ own Warlord, Tim Griffith, and their defender, Berni Jugdutt, go down. Thompson goes in for the kill against both opponents and crit-fails. The Lakers fire back with two critical hits in a row!!! Thompson weathers the blow, thanks to a well-timed Shade Form.

The Laker’s rogue, Ian Bowes, falls from four to zero, and finally goes down, leaving their monk, Marcus Cunningham (at three hit points), alone against Thompson’s assassin (also at three hit points!!!). Thompson tries to hold the monk off, but Cunningham gets in for the final blow, using an at-will weapon power to sneak in the final damage.

Teams Vagina and F*cking Lazorz are stuck at a stalemate, each trading blows and healing with equal proficiency. The teams are well-built, tough and terrifying. Vagina’s cleric drops to as low as three hit points before casting Healing Word on herself, the lowest anyone has dropped in the match so far.

Slowly, Lazorz whittles Team Vagina down, but the girls are well tuned to taking damage and living through it. It goes to time, the full 90 minutes, and though Anna-Marie Million, the team’s warden, fell to negative hit points, her team was able to revive her in time to pull it to a draw.

Round two features Team Vagina facing off against the Fighting Mongooses, and the Lakers against the Lazorz. Team V gets off to a rough start as Stephanie Adams, the team’s cleric, falls to 49 damage over two rounds. Next round, Mark Oleschuk delivers the coup de grace on the cleric, crippling Team Vagina for the rest of the round.

On table one, the stalemate finally ends with a vicious coup de grace against Ian Bowes, the Laker’s Rogue, from Brodie Williams, the Team Lazorz battlerager’s. A few turns later, Mike Wright gets off a big turn, hitting for heavy damage and dazing Jeff Turner’s cleric until the end of his next turn.

On table two, Holly Booth rocks her daily for 28 damage, reduced heavily by the fact that Andrew Hryciuk’s swordmage has her marked. Mark Oleschuk takes out Anna-Marie Million, making that his second coup of the night, leaving Holly Booth as the last woman standing on Team Vagina. Overwhelmed by three opponents, she fell to Oleschuk’s blade.

Marcus Cunningham busts his Spinning Leapord Maneuver to drop Daniel Lamoureux, Team Lazorz’ bard, to –6 hp as the players scatter across the map. Brodie Williams drops Jeff Turner, leaving Marcus Cunningham the last man standing on Team The Los Angelas Lakers. He puts up a valiant fight, dropping Williams to one hit point before a Fury of Blows took him out. Mike Wright finishes the job, taking Cunningham out with an at-will.

Round Three pits the Lakers against the Mongooses, and the Lazorz against Srs Bzns. Berni Jugdutt drops Mike Wright with a critical hit on an encounter power, taking him to over half his negative-bloodied value in a single shot.

On table two, the Lakers start with a distinct disadvantage, their rogue starting at a mere 8 hit points. The Mongooses take quick advantage, bringing him down, but things get gummed up when Cunningham begins regenerating 5 hit points per turn.

Griffith heals himself for 29 hit points, taking him from near-helplessness to back-in-the-game in a single turn, and Wright is taken out of the round by Jugdutt’s coup de grace. Thompson crits on an at will, taking Lamoureux down and le aving Williams the last man standing, who goes down quickly with Srs Bzns pressing the 3-1 advantage.

Cunningham and Turner start to turn up the heat, but Olanchuk’s rogue is still rocking the Lakers hard. His +11 to strike comes as a bit of a shock to some, as an optimized rogue build should. The Mongooses continue to press the advantage, and pull the Lakers down, asserting their primacy in this, the first Dungeons & Dragons tournament held at Warp One Comics and Games.

A Few Issues We Need to Deal With

Byes work well in some ways, but they’re pure win in Dungeons & Dragons, especially when people don’t get their healing surges back between matches. The last round this was especially notable, as the Lakers were sitting with one character at no Healing Surges, while the Mongooses hadn’t had to spend many, having come into the fight with only a single round of combat behind them. It was a lopsided advantage, and it determined the outcome of the match.

Backgrounds are, from this point forward, banned from Dungeons & Dragons tournaments. They have a fairly specific purpose, and that purpose has nothing to do with tournaments.

Timing. I was originally planning on 50-minute rounds, but we ended up going to 90-minutes because 50 was far too restricting. That time-limit worked just fine, so I would suggest that if you’re going to do this somewhere else.

Overall, the tournament was a good time, and we’ll be doing it again. After I get back from Europe, I’ll be setting the next time and date. ^_^

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bringing it All Together

This is the third and final of my Player Type articles.

Timmy, Johnny, Spike.

Diamond, Spade, Heart, Club.

Real Men, Role-players, Loonies, Munchkins.

All of these thing boil down to a few key motivations for why people play role-playing games. While these are, of course, not very detailed, to encompass the reasons we play as inclusively as possible, they can’t be. The way I figure it, role-playing has the following things to offer:

It’s a game: Gamers are playing to play the fucking game. They want to roll dice and make strategic choices. They like the intellectual challenge of the game, and want to beat it.

It’s a story: Storytellers are here to tell a story that is completely, ridiculously awesome. They want to advance the plot, engage with the non-player characters, involve themselves deeply with the game world and make choices based on what will produce the best story.

It’s a simulation: Simulators want our game worlds to adhere as closely to the real world (or what the real world would be with the speculative fiction elements included) as possible. They want to come up with solutions to their problems that are founded in common sense, and they want to engage in worlds as detailed and nuanced as our own.

It’s a way to socialize: Socializers want to get together with their friends and hang out. And role-playing games provide a context for doing just that. A lot of people, especially the wall-flowers and the table-talkers, are just there to chill out and eat snacks.

It’s an outlet for fantasies: Fantasists have things that they would love to be able to do in real life, but can’t. They want to swing swords and sling spells and fight crime and fly blimps. Role-playing games provide a framework that is safe, interactive and fun in which they can do just that.

This Ain’t no GNS, Kids

Some people may look at the top three tiers of this categorization and find similarities to Ron Edwards’ GNS Theory. Personally, I’ve always taken exception to the idea that GNS applies to players. I don’t think you can really be a “Gamist.” I think that a particular situation in a particular role-playing game session can be gamist, but that a person who plays the game for the sake of playing the game is a gamer. The difference is subtle, but the implications are pretty intense.

A gamer is no more likely to respond positively to a gamist situation than any other player. The particular situation may or may not appeal to the gamer’s specific motivations for play, and he or she may space out when certain gamist situations arise, or perk up and pay special attention for others.

See, none of these motivations occur without some overlap. If I play a game because I a) like to play games and b) have some pretty intense power fantasies in which I am a hulking brute of man-strength, then gamist situations involving diplomacy and stealth aren’t going to appeal to me as much as gamist situations involving combat.

I’ve been talking about gamism a lot, though. Let’s look at narrativism, for a moment, just for some variety. It’s possible for a player whose key motivation is storytelling to have no interest in the above-mentioned diplomacy/stealth situation, too. If that player is telling a Shonen-esque story of growing-in-power-to-defeat-great-evil, well then shit, she’s probably got some power fantasies in the mix. Or, if the situation in which the diplomacy is held doesn’t mesh with the internal consistency of the game world (“Why would the captain of a starship be engaged in negotiations with a hostile alien force? She should be on the ship, where she’s needed. This makes no sense…), we may have a simulator on our hands.

So each of these reasons for play happen in different amounts for each of us. I think we can build a relatively universal system of player archetyping if we assume that each of us resonates with two of the five motivations listed above more than the others. Myself, I would say I’m most inclined towards storytelling and gaming, with my focus being much more solidly on storytelling. I’m a 70% Storyteller, 30% Gamer. Everything else informs the way I play to some degree, and if I wanted to get deeply involved in it, I could.

Kris Hansen’s Stats:
Storyteller 50, Gamer 20, Socializer 15, Fantasist 10 Simulator 5.

What the above does (something I’ve never seen another player archetype system do) is provide us a way to talk about player tendencies, actions and motivations while addressing the individuality of the player. Not everyone is going to value Storytelling as much as I do, and not everyone is going to focus on Fantasies as little as I do.

Moreover, it gives us the opportunity to shift and change and grow without needing to shoehorn ourselves into a specific player archetype. We don’t need to worry about whether or not we’re a Real Man or a Munchkin; we can admit that we’re 60% Gamer and 40% Fantasist, and be done with it.

Another thing this system does is makes space for a group of players that are often seen as peripherals to the game. Socializers are there to have fun and hang out with their friends. Sometimes, they’ll do the crazy, just to get a rise out of people. Sometimes, they’ll annoy other players just for the reaction they get, but the real motivation behind these behaviors is the desire for socialization within the context of the game. This is where we get our “Loonies.” This is where the “Casual Gamers” come from. They’re not here to play the game, at least, they’re not here for that as much as for the social outing.

So How do the Other Systems Fit?

Rosewater’s Archetypes

What Rosewater’s built as far as player archetypes goes is amazing for Magic: The Gathering, and the driving goals behind his psychographic writings is part of what inspired me to do this in the first place.

Timmy is here to experience something. He wants to feel something. He’s probably going to identify most closely as a Fantasist and Storyteller.

Johnny is here as a form of self-expression. He wants to show you something you’ve never seen before. He’s mostly going to be a Gamer and Storyteller.

Spike wants to win. He doesn’t care how he does it, he just wants to win and make sure everyone knows he did. He’s most closely associatied with Gamers and Fantasists.

The Munchkin File

Sadly, it’s a little impossible to take the Munchkin File seriously in regards to modern gaming. I don’t remember gaming in the 90’s being that much different than today, so I can’t even be sure it was a valid discourse on gaming “back in the day.” Still, it’s interesting to see them as extreme examples of other archetypes.

Real Men are manly men, the sort that jump in front of buses to save babies. Fantasist and Gamer.

Role-players are here to tell a kick-ass story, and to step into the role of their character. Storyteller, maybe as high as 90%, with any subtheme, really.

Loonies are here to do the wacky, and do it often. They’re trying to get a rise out of people. Socializer, maybe as high as 90%, with any subtheme, really.

Munchkins are extreme fantasists, but they achieve their fantasy goals through manipulation of the rules, putting them firmly into the Gamer category, too.

Bartle’s Archetypes

The interesting thing about Bartle’s archetypes is that most of his observations apply equally to my own archetypes. The biggest difference between his archetypes and my own is the inclusion of self-expression desires and fantasy. It’s also interesting to note that there are two types of Socializer in Bartle’s breakdown.

Spades want to explore, want to delve into the core of the game world. Simulators are analogous.

Diamonds want to win the game. They push to achieve the game’s set goals, which makes them analogous to Gamers.

Clubs are extreme Socializers, using the social aspect of the game to annoy other players. On the opposite end of that scale, Hearts play to enjoy the company of other players, which means that they are _also_ sozializers, but express it in a very different way. I believe that the focus on socializing and the lack of storytelling or fantasist behavior may have something to do with the nature of MUDs as a role-playing platform.

Laws’ Archetypes

Laws talks about a lot of archetypes in his book, but most of them are covered elsewhere. The ones we’re looking at specifically helped inform the archetype scheme I’ve developed here.

Storytellers and Casual Gamers as archetypes were both integral in building the breakdown we have here. Casual Gamers, especially, are difficult for die-hards to understand, but when I looked at the similarities between Casual Gamers and Bartle’s Hearts, it sort of clicked in my head.

Specialists are a type of Fantasist. Their fantasy involves playing a very specific type of character, over and over again. The character they play is likely a manifestation of something they wish they had in real life, hence its repetition around the table. Specialists are intriguing to me, from a psychological perspective, but I don’t really have the time or expertise to go into it too deeply here. I’ll leave that for people with some of that there book learnin’.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Why Game Master?

I talk a lot about Dungeons & Dragons. I also talk a lot about Game Masters, but I don’t say much about Dungeon Masters.

When I’m talking about the role of the Game Master, regardless of the game I’m talking about, I always use the words “Game Master,” or the abbreviation “GM.” More often, I’ll spell out the whole title for the same reason you’ll never see me call a “player character” a “PC” (a PC is a computer, GM is an auto manufacturer).

I believe in a common lexicon for gamers. I believe that by calling the role of the Game Master something else, we are diluting that lexicon for the sake of distancing ourselves from other games. To call your Game Master a “Dungeon Master,” or a “Storyteller” or a “Referee” is to call an apple a “gremith,” or a “speloink.” An apple is a fucking apple. Calling your apple something that isn’t “apple” just makes you an asshole.

The only exception I’ll allow is for some indie games, in which you call the Game Master something for flavor reasons. But if a game like Dogs in the Vinyard can get away with calling you a Game Master, I can’t imagine many games needing to do away with the title.

Munchkins, Laws and a Bartle

This is the second part of my essays dissecting the “Player Types” that circulate in gaming circles. Today, I’ll be taking a look at the infamous Munchkin Files, Robin Laws’ additions to those files, and Richard Bartle’s suit-based ideas on player motivations.

The Munchkin File

The Munchkin File breaks players down into four key archetypes. Whether this is to be taken seriously or not is up to some debate, as the archetypes are as ridden with holes as Rosewater’s psychographics when it comes to RPGs. The archetypes are: The Real Man, the Real Roleplayer, the Loonie, and the Munchkin. Players are supposed to fall into a range of these character types as described thus:

The Real Man

The tough macho type who walks up to the attacking dragon and orders it to leave before he gets hurt.

The Real Roleplayer

The intelligent cunning guy who tricks the constable into letting you all out of prison.

The Loonie

The guy who will do anything for a cheap laugh, including casting a fireball at ground zero.

The Munchkin

Need we say more?

Well yes, actually, we do. Munchkins get a bit of a bad rap in the role-playing community. They are, to go back to Rosewater’s terms, Spikes. They play to win, and are willing to use whatever resources are available to them to do so. If that means twinking a character to hit for 600 damage at a range of 50ft at-will for the rest of the game, well… Okay, let’s do that.

For those unfamiliar with the term (I’m sure there are at least a few), a Munchkin is a player who derives entertainment or a sense of self-worth from creating powerful characters in a role-playing game. The more powerful the character, the better. It’s usually a term of derision, but we won’t be using it as such in this article, because the object of the article is to understand the motivations behind play.

The problem with the above archetype distinctions is that they are pretty exclusive of other kinds of play. Where would a player who likes to build twinked-out Charisma machines fit in – especially if that player uses the high Charisma to power some intense role-playing scenarios? More to the point, where would the average player fit in?

Still, from this, we can garner some interesting ideas as to why each of the above archetypes wants to play a role-playing game. The Real Man has something to prove, wants to get into the thick of it, and loves combat encounters. The Real Roleplayer’s wants to act, wants to create interesting stories through word and action. The Loonie is looking to get a reaction from the other players. The Munchkin is looking for a power-fantasy outlet. All of these drives exist, and I’ve seen players who exibit these traits to one degree or another, but I hardly believe it to be a comprehensive list of player motivations. Even the Five Gamers only picks up for those looking for an intellectual challenge.

Robin D. Laws

Robin Laws knows a lot about games, and he knows a lot about Game Mastery. He wrote a really good book on how to not suck as a Game Master, and if you’re serious about becoming a more adept GM, it’s something I would highly recommend you pick up. It’s worth every fucking penny.

Mr. Laws adds a few archetypes to the mix, in particular the Specialist, the Storytellers and the Casual Gamers. A specialist is the type of player who plays the same character type over and over again, regardless of game type, sometimes with the same name as in other games. The personality rarely changes, the general abilities stay roughly the same, the set-dressing never differs. Storytellers are in it for the plot, and they’re willing to put their characters through hell to get it (these are, for the record, my favorite types of players to Game Master for). Casual Gamers show up to play once in a while, like the game and like he people playing it, and when it’s done, they put it away.

The thing I like the most about Mr. Laws’ archetypes is that so few other writers touch on them. To bring it back to Mr. Rosewater’s archetypes, a Specialist is a sort of Timmy who is in the game to experience one particular thing. They like being the assassin or the brawler, and will be that character in every game they play forever. A storyteller is very Vorthosian, in that the flavor is all that really matters for them, and experiencing that flavor is important.

The casual gamer… Well, she’s a harder creature to pin down. What motivates a casual player can be difficult to understand for those of us so deeply immersed in the hobby that we plan games, play in them on a regular basis or, gods forbid, read blogs about it. What brings her out to the table every third session to eat nachos and swill Mountain Dew with the rest of the group?

I think the next set of archetypes will answer that a little more clearly.

Richard Bartle

In 1996, Richard Bartle put together a lengthy article on the types of players who play in Multi-User Domains, or MUDs. This article summarized a huge debate on his own MUD’s forums on the topic of “What do people want out of a MUD?” While that may seem a bit removed from table-top role-playing, I think that the archetype work he put together can, like the archetype work on Magic: The Gathering, be used to shed light on our hobby in a way we haven’t really looked at previously.

The things that he posits a game-player wants are:

  1. Achievement within the game context
  2. Exploration of the game
  3. Socializing with others
  4. Imposition upon others

Each player is going to have these drives to one degree or another. Everyone has goals they want to achieve within the game, and everyone sits down to play a role-playing game to socialize. The amount of each that a player desires from a game creates an interesting scale on which one can place oneself.

Personally, I rate myself thus: achievement, socialization, exploration, imposition, with achievement being the highest and imposition the lowest. You will likely rate yourself differently.

When you throw percentages into the mix (I’m 34% achievement oriented, for instance), you get a much more accurate idea of what sort of gamer you are.

Bartle’s essay has graphs, and examples of the style of play you might see in a MUD from a particular type of player. We aren’t going to do that here. What is more interesting is his association of player types with suits of cards.

Diamonds: Go for the goals of the game, whatever those are.

Spades: Explore the game world.

Hearts: Hang out with other players.

Clubs: Play to have an effect on other players.

I think part of what I like about this delineation is that it’s easy to grok. In many ways, that’s what drew me to Mr. Rosewater’s archetypes in the first place, was the idea that you could easily describe the tendencies of a group of players with a single word. If the player you are speaking about wants to win, and will do everything in his or her power to do so, that player is a Spike. Awesome, that’s easy to figure out. He or she is also a Diamond. Or, depending on your definition of the goals of the game, a Munchkin.

Part of what role-playing games need is a unifying language that describes underlying player motivations. Some published products have attempted to make that happen (see: the Game Master’s Guides), but the definitions they give for player motivations are surprisingly limited and inflexible. What I aim to create here is a language through which we can better understand why our players do the things they do.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Psychographics in Role-playing Games

This is the first of three articles I’m writing on the topic of Player Types. This first will be a look at Mark Rosewater’s Magic: The Gathering psychographics, and how they apply to Dungeons & Dragons (and, perhaps, any other game).

When you’re trying to sell games for a living, it’s pretty important to try and figure out why people play games. That’s part of the reason I love reading Mark Rosewater’s articles over at Wizards of the Coast; he talks at length about why people play games, and how we can get people to play them more. A lot of that comes from a design perspective, which I appreciate, because it gives me a bit of an inside look at the motivations of the person in charge of making Magic lack suck. 

But Magic is not a role-playing game. It really should be a role-playing game which is a thing I’ll talk about in a future post, I’m sure, but it’s not actually a role-playing game. It’s a card game, and the reasons people play card games are pretty different from the reasons we play role-playing games.

Or are they?

Timmy, Johnny, Spike

Rosewater posits that there are three key psychological demographics (“psychographics” to marketing and buzzword folks) that play Magic: The Gathering. He has named these psychographics Timmy, Johnny and Spike.

Timmy plays the game because he wants to experience something. In the world of Magic: The Gathering, that means he wants the rush of throwing down a huge creature and beating face with it. He wants to take one look at a card and go “HOLY CARP I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT THIS!!!” He’s looking for the Wow Factor of a card or a deck or whatever.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the idea of “experiencing something” opens up in a huge way. Each situation in a role-playing game has the opportunity to evoke emotion. And, honestly, that’s always been one of the biggest draws to the game. The idea that a game can affect you in the same way that a novel or a television show might is a powerful motivating factor in playing it. I have seen people cry during sad moments in a role-playing game. I’ve never seen that happen at a Magic tournament.

(Well, that’s not strictly true, but it had nothing to do with a sad moment in the fictional game world and was instead the result of having lost a game to that person’s significant other during a tournament…)

Johnny plays the game as a form of self-expression. In Magic, this is through creativity in deck design. He puts the pieces of the puzzle together in a way no one else has, and even if the deck doesn’t win, as long as it pulls off that one amazing trick once it still pulls it off and gives him a story to tell later.

In Dungeons and Dragons, we have the opportunity to tell stories as part of the game. And a lot of players take a special sort of delight in doing so. Personally, as a GM, I love crafting elaborate plots through which my player characters navigate. I love creating fleshed out, interesting worlds in which to play. I especially love giving my players interesting non-player characters with whom to interact. I am, in nearly every way possible, a D&D Johnny.

Another incarnation of this would be the person who has tried out every crazy build for every character class and race combination with a billion different feat choices. Sometimes that’s the domain of a Spike (trying to build the character that wins), but a lot of the time, the combinations aren’t great. Sometimes you build a goliath earthsong warden with optimized everything. Sometimes you build a drow paladin airship captain with a boomerang (+1 Dex! Woo!). But if a Johnny gets to tell great stories with the character (or about the character later), then it’s all good.

Spike plays to win. In Magic, this means finding the best decks, playing them against the best decks, finding ways to beat the decks that beat your decks and learning to optimize your own play to the point that you never, ever fail at Magic. For Dungeons and Dragons, this falls a little more into the category of the power-gamer. They trawl online boards looking for character optimization options that will help them live longer, fight harder, kill faster and rake in the experience points.

But as in all things D&D, there is more than one way to “win.” You win if you do your job better than anyone else could. You win if you did the coolest thing anyone had done that night. You win if you’re the guy who gets all the spotlight time. You win if you got the most loot. There are a lot of ways to win at Dungeons & Dragons, and a lot of ways to consider yourself successful.

Also, because D&D is a cooperative sport (most of the time), it can be difficult to actually say you’ve won the game. Honestly, I think of all the Magic psychographics currently catered to in Dungeons & Dragons, Spikes are the ones left in the dust. That’s part of the reason I’ve established Warp One’s first D&D tournament, a three-on-three contest of skill and brute strength. It should be a blast.


The two newer pseudo-psychographics, Melvin and Vorthos, also have a place in the Dungeons & Dragons equivalence discussion. Melvin, for those who haven’t read the Magic: The Gathering articles (linked at the bottom of the post), is a player who likes the crunchy number bits of a card, the rules, the interactions and turn sequences and the like. Vorthos is all about the flavor of a card, what the card feels like and looks like, how it interacts with their idea of the fictional world in which the card interacts.

Melvin exists in Dungeons & Dragons. We call him a rules-lawyer at his most extreme, but to be fair, it’s a major motivating factor in why he’s playing the game. He isn’t being a dick about the rules to be a dick. He’s being a dick about the rules because he really, genuinely cares about the rules. This is the sort of player who loves when a new edition comes out, or a new game, the sort of guy who will rummage through Savage Worlds or Mouse Guard and steal rules from them to use in a D&D game, or vice versa. Melvin loves rules, loves systems, and loves playing with them until they do exactly what he wants them to do.

Vorthos, too, exists in Dungeons & Dragons. He’s read every Forgotten Realms novel, and is prepared for any eventuality, knowing who to talk to and where to go to get things done. He can be hell on a plot sometimes, or he can be an amazing boon to your campaign, a driving force that brings your party where they need to be as often as possible.

Or, he’s the guy who has pored over every map in every world book ever produced for every edition of the game. He knows the GDP of Zilargo, their major exports, their major imports, and how many gnomes it takes to build an airship. Again, this guy can be both a boon and a detractor from your game, depending on how much you want your players to know before hand.

The problem with labelling these guys as psychographics in terms of a role-playing game is that flavor and mechanics, while motivating factors in playing, are not the core reasons people will play. I will not play a game of… well, anything, if the only reason to play it is to experience the flavor of that game. I could just read a book and get the same experience. And I certainly won’t play a game just because the rules look pretty kick-ass. There has to be some other draw for me.

I am, however, both a Vorthos and a Melvin. I love rules, I love tinkering with them and making them up on the spot, I love house ruling things that I don’t have rules for, I love stealing rules from other games to use later, or hijacking a rules system to play a game that I think that system would be better for than the one it’s using. But I also love flavor. I pore over Eberron books, not because I need a new feat for my drow paladin airship captain, but because I want to. I love the history of the world, the nations, the people who move and shake within it. It’s lonely fun at its best.

Your Psychograph Can’t Hold Me!

The problem with these psychographics is that they aren’t completely inclusive of role-playing game motivations. For instance, I can’t figure out where a player who wants to annoy other players (or the GM) fits into the psychographics. Or the guy who only wants to watch and will roll dice when needed. While Mr. Rosewater’s psychographics give us a good launching-off point from which to explore the profiles of role-playing gamers, they don’t cover quite enough ground to be wholly useful in figuring out our players’ motivations.

So in my next post, we’ll be looking at the profiles other folks in the games industry have put out for role-playing gamers. In particular, I hope to be dissecting The Munchkin File, Robin Laws’ archetypes, and Richard Bartle’s exploration of MUD players.

Join me next time, when I won’t be biting Mark Rosewater’s style!

Until then, may your graphics be as far from the psychos as possible.

Session Review: The Most RP of Sessions

After all the crazy slogging we’d been doing in previous sessions, I decided I wanted something of a change of pace. We were, instead, going to role-play through most of the session and see about some monstery things right towards the end. I was attempting to solve a few of the problems inherent in the game thus far (an endeavor I believe any GM should work towards at all times in every game), so I also decided that today was going to be the day we fought Babagya for the first time.

This session was a lot of fun. The fight at the end sucked a lot. Fighting bad guys that are of a disproportionate level to you is never a good time. From now on, the fights are more even, a lot more mobile, and, hopefully, a lot more fun. Next week’s Colossus, for instance, is going to be a fucking blast.

After defeating the Colossus of Femur, the party notices smoke coming from the south-east, near where they left the Femural elves. They rush back to find corpses, burning tents, and elves suffering on the ground. Cecil, Memphis’ hated cousin, lies dead on the forest floor as the tents and trees burn above them. Auntie Sheila is cradling his crushed body, ignoring the fact that she is touching the soil of the earth, and heartbroken.

The group learns from her that Babagya and her minions came through this way, headed north to the Basin Plains. They rush off, followed and paced by frantic animals trying to escape the burning woods. I considered making the escape a skill challenge until I remembered my own advice: never make a thing a skill challenge if the outcome is going to happen anyway. So instead they just get out, and find their way to the edge of the forest. Here, the animals are looking back at their home, wanting to go back, but not yet able for fear. The party is less inclined to ever deal with the Hair Metal elves again.

They follow Babagya’s tracks, only to find them intermingled with Dwarf_by_88grzes other chicken tracks the size of a man. Hers get lost in the tangle, with what seems like a hundred other chicken-huts on the plains. The group spots a tower to the north, a golden spire that rises out of the grasslands, and when they reach its base realize why: there are dozens of chicken-footed houses here! Hailing the owners of the homes, they make contact with an assembly of dwarves, who offer the party the use of a chicken-hut for the night, before they talk about their next step in defeating the witch woman.

Staying in the chicken-hut for the first night, Bruce Fitzhugh notices a written greeting on one of the walls and replies in dwarven. “Hello, house.”

“HALLO!” the house writes on the wall.

After some testing, he realizes that he can communicate with the house by talking, while the house communicates with him through the written word. Because Bruce is the only member of the team who speaks, reads or writes dwarven, he is the only one who can talk to the house. He learns that the house desires an owner, and that only a divine or primal caster can take ownership of such a house. He attempts to mediate between Memphis Green and the spirit of the chicken-hut, but his attempts are made more difficult by Awakened Iron Skull’s attempts to horn in on the conversation.

See, Skull wants to own the house. But Bruce, he’s afraid of what she’ll do with one. She’s a bit on the crazy side, he’s a bit on the neurotic side, and it makes for some interesting in-party drama. Myself, I’m more than content to let them fight it out.

The next morning, the group meets with Francois, the dwarf they’d met the night before. He tells them something of Babagya’s history, and about the chicken-footed houses, and the requirements of owning one.

Of Babagya, he had this to say: “She was one of us, once. She was a dwarf, the Wisdom of her tribe. She was never right, though, a sick one in the mind. When it was discovered that she was using her position as a wisdom to hurt the weak and the sick of her tribe, she was shut out from them, made into one of the Dispossessed. She went into hiding for many years, and when she returned, she was not as she had been. She was twisted by the dark magicks of the Cage Spires, by the things the demons did to her there. She came back a changed creature, a hag of the night. She bred darkness around her and filled the world with pain and suffering. She put a plague on her own clan, the Muidercrag, and all but one died, all but her own mother who is doomed to walk that place the rest of her days.”

On the subject of chicken-huts: No one person can own a chicken-footed hut. To do so is unnatural. Of all the owners of our huts, only Babagya owns one to herself, and it is a terrible crime against our people. You must learn to direct it together, you must learn to be a family within it, or you will surely die in the upcoming race.


“Race. To prove that you may be the owners of such a gift from our people, you must also prove that you can use it. That takes cooperation and dedication and courage. These are the things the dwarven clans live for.”

 Dwarf_by_vielmond At this point, Bruce begins to ask Francois’ wife questions about her lovely mutton-chop braids. She answers, and as the two talk, no one notices Francois leave the hut. When they finally do, she explains that he’s gone to a meeting of the clan chiefs to discuss what is to be done about Muidercrag. When he is done, the Wisdoms (who are almost always the wives of the clan chiefs, usually through arranged marriage), will have their own meeting, and the Dispossessed will sit in on both, though Babagya, no longer a dwarf, will of course be denied entry.

When the men get out of their deliberations and the women enter, the Chief of Chiefs challenges our intrepid heroes to a race. They get into their chicken-hut, finally agreeing to work together towards the common goal. They convince the chicken-hut to move faster while the two fightery types hop onto the roof to toss a cauldron and a bookshelf tied together as a bola at the trailing Chief of Chiefs. They win the race, knocking the chief’s hut to the ground and busting it open, killing a number of his dwarflets (described as something of a cross between a human child and a kitten). He awards them the chicken hut with no hard feelings, and everyone is happy! Yay!

After hearing the announcement that the dwarves will do nothing about Muidercrag, the party decides to travel there for themselves. They hope to meet up with Babagya’s mother and, hopefully, learn something about her that will show them her weaknesses (if she has any). They travel for a day and a half, when Skull notices another chicken hut on the plains. She wakes the rest of her party and suggests they give it a wide berth before a hideous THUNK – THUNK – THUNK sounds on the chicken-hut’s door. Outside is one of Babagya’s zombified flying-turtle minions, with a gift-wrapped box. They hesitate before opening it, finding four well-crafted invitations to the adventurer’s deaths, the next day, at noon.

The group gets pro-active, building a ballista on the roof of the hut that they fill with Acid Orbs and launch at Babagya’s hut. The wall of her hut dissolves into a puddle of good, revealing the remains of her preserved snacks, the corpses of dozens of children hanging from hooks and placed lovingly on shelves. Some look like they’re sleeping. Others have been skinned. A second bolt from the ballista destroys her hut, but she was not in it.

Baba_Yaga_by_Wiggers123 Laughing from above them she swoops down, blasting dark rays that force some of the party into a daze, putting others straight to sleep. She pulls in beside Skull, tearing a hole into her head and pushing herself inside, making herself effectively invulnerable.

The fight is nasty, it’s a slog, and it damned near kills a few people. Just as they bloody Babagya, their resources depleted in a huge way, needing rest and healing and a new plan of attack, Babagya flies away, cackling at the party.

“You’ll never be strong enough to face me,” she screams. “This is but a taste of my true power!”

The party limps back into their new home, defeated and disheartened, following her black form as it disappears to the north.

Pictures by: Wiggers, Vielmond and 88grzes

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Undermountain Encounters 4 and 5

The 4th Edition Undermountain Revival

I was waiting for Ian to get me an encounter before I was going to post another one, but I needed something to write about today, and he’s had like, two weeks to make that happen. So I’m doing another one. Room 4 in the original Undermountain campaign didn’t have anything in it. Room five had a bad fight. So “Encounter” 4 isn’t actually much of an Encounter.

I guess one of the problems with old school Undermountain is that sometimes it’s horrifically boring. The two rooms coming up are pretty good examples of that. One of them is empty, except for a couple of loose cobblestones, and the next has a pretty mediocre fight against two bugbears, and the life history of a whole party that probably never made it through this room in the play-test. The second room, in particular, insults my sensibilities as a Game Master. I mean, I can deal with a flavor room with some random treasure. But room five of Undermountain is so obviously a tribute to a lost party that it hurts my brain just to think about it.

I think the worst part of it is that the party isn’t even all that interesting. They’re just a bunch of dudes who died fighting some fucking bugbears.

These encounters aren’t much different from the originals. I needed to share the pain…

Cobweb Room

The floor of this area is strewn with
stony rubble, and gray, dust-shrouded
cobwebs hang from ceiling to floor,
blocking all view of what lies within.

This room is basically empty. There are no creatures, and whatever may have made the webs is long gone. The rubble on the floor ranges in size from tiny pebbles to fist-sized chunks. If you put all of them together (a task that will take a good long time), the stones form a statue of three human warriors standing atop a rounded hump of stone. Each faces outwards, and is holding a short sword; the statue is well-crafted, but beyond broken. It might be worth as much as a few silver to a collector who would want to reproduce it.

If a character makes a DC 20 Perception check, he or she will notice a couple of loose flagstones, under which they’ll discover the skeletal remains of a human hand and a sack holding eight gold pieces. The coins are stamped with the Hammer and Anvil of the trading dwarves of the Sword Coast.

Chamber of Death

In this chamber, many bodies lie -
both human and those of tall, armored,
hairy creatures with long earsTerrok_Enforcer_by_BenWootten
and fangs. Only two figures move in
the room, searching among the bodies,
grunting and snarling to each other.
One breaks off and raises its head to
look your way!

The two creatures are bugbears, a warrior and a shadow walker. The bugbears will attack ferociously, seeing themselves as outnumbered and outgunned, their only hope of survival resting in a strong and immediate attack. If the player characters start to beat face (bloodying them, or killing one), the bugbears will simply try to fight past them and flee. They will only fight to the death if the death in question is that of the player characters.

If the bugbears do manage to escape, they will begin stalking the player characters (+12 stealth), and waiting until the party is weak or asleep to attack again.

Bugbear Shadow Walker

Level 5 Lurker

Medium natural humanoid

XP 200

Initiative +9                          Senses Perception +3; low-light vision
HP 49; Bloodied 24
AC 19; Fortitude 17; Reflex 17; Will 16
Speed 7
Action Points 1

m Short Sword (standard; at-will) • Weapon

+10 vs AC; 2d6 + 3 damage

M Blur of Movement (standard; recharge 5 6)

The shadow walker shifts up to 8 squares, and can make 2 short sword attacks at any point during the move. The shadow walker must attack two different targets. On a hit, the shadow walker slides the target 3 squares.

 Shadow Walk • Illusion

When a shadow walker moves 3 or more squares on its turn, it becomes invisible until the end of its next turn or until it attacks.

 Predatory Eye (minor; encounter)

The shadow walker deals 1d6 extra damage against the next target granting combat advantage to it.

Alignment Evil

Languages Common, Goblin

Skills Acrobatics +9, Athletics +9, Stealth +12, Thievery +10

Str 14 (+4)

Dex 17 (+5)

Wis 12 (+3)

Con 13 (+3)

Int 13 (+3)

Cha 11 (+2)

Equipment Leather Armor, Short sword


Bugbear Warrior

Level 5 Brute

Medium natural humanoid

XP 200

Initiative +5                          Senses Perception +4; low-light vision
HP 76; Bloodied 38
AC 18; Fortitude 17; Reflex 15; Will 14
Speed 6

m Morningstar (standard; at-will) • Weapon

+7 vs AC; 1d10 + 7 damage

M Skullthumper (standard; encounter) • Weapon

requires a morningstar and combat advanage against the target; +5 vs Fortitude; 1d10 + 7 damage, and the target is knocked prone and dazed (save ends)

 Predatory Eye (minor; encounter)

The bugbear warrior deals 1d6 extra damage on the next attack it makes against a target granting combat advantage to it. It must apply this bonus before the end of its next turn.

Alignment Evil

Languages Common, Goblin

Skills Intimidate +9, Stealth +11

Str 20 (+7)

Dex 16 (+5)

Wis 14 (+4)

Con 16 (+5)

Int 10 (+2)

Cha 10 (+2)

Equipment Hide Armor, Morningstar

© 2009 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. This monster statistics block has been generated using the D&D Adventure Tools.


Undermountain 5

Terrain Features

Corpses: Each square occupied by a corpse counts as difficult terrain.

Pile of Skulls: The pile of skulls provides partial cover (-2 to ranged attacks against a character with cover), and count as difficult terrain.

The corpses, recently slain, are those of seven bugbears and five human men. The skulls are likely trophies kept by the bugbears. The men were all novice adventurers, much like our heroes, trying their fortune in the most dangerous dungeon in the world. Feel free to come up with some adventure ideas.

The original adventure gave you a bunch of history on each of the corpses, and a detailed description, but I’m not going to do that here. Personally, I think the Black Banner Band was one of Ed Greenwood’s crews, or maybe the party of a play-tester or something. There is a LOT of detail, let’s put it that way.


The total amassed treasure in the room is as follows:

  • 6 pp 37 gp 25 sp 32 cp
  • A glowing dagger +1
  • A ritual book with Spider Climb and Tenser’s Floating Disk
  • Three day’s rations
  • A silver holy symbol
  • A mace
  • Four daggers
  • A broad sword
  • A short sword
  • A battle axe
  • Hand axe
  • Three bloodstones, worth 50gp each
  • A set of thieves’ tools
  • 70ft climbing rope
  • gold ring worth 3 gp
  • brass buckle worth 2 cp

Picture by this guy: Benwootten