Merric's Musings

Thoughts from an Australian Board Gamer and RPGer

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A busy few days

Merric Blackman
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Waubra
Victoria
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I’m currently fighting a cold that was creeping up on me through the past few days, so my ability to write is somewhat curtailed by my need for sleep.

It’s been a pretty hectic last few days, though. On Thursday, I played Power Grid and Strasbourg with my friends at Goodgames Ballarat – I won neither game, but both were very enjoyable. Then my car’s timing belt broke just as I was leaving to go home. 10 pm in Ballarat, needing to travel 30 km. This wasn’t good. I eventually took a fairly expensive taxi ride home. (Though worth it!)

On Friday, I spent the first part of the day getting rid of my old car – which was very, very old – then the second part of the day obtaining a new car. The people at Ballarat Toyota were very happy and by the end of the game, I was driving off in a brand new car. (I’ve been meaning to get one for the past six months; I was just forced into it by the breakdown).

Friday evening we played the second session of Lost Mine of Phandelver with my regular group. Everyone attended, and I’ll write a report on what happened as soon as I feel better.

Saturday afternoon I’d hoped to play some board games, but Goodgames was very busy due to both a Yu-Gi-Oh! Sneak peak and a Magic game day happening at the same time. Sigh. So, instead, I spent the afternoon revising my manuscript of Secrets of Neverwinter, the adventure I’ve written for this “gap” of D&D Encounters.

Then came D&D Encounters, and we had 31 players taking part. Five tables, most with five players + DM and one with six players + DM. Lee had a lot of fun with the Nothic prisoner I’d put in the adventure, who was pleading with the group (telepathically) to let it go. The session went fairly long – partly due a later start because of us waiting for the card tournaments to finish and partly because there seemed to be quite a bit of material in the adventure. It’s hard judging length when there are substantial role-playing segments!

So we were fairly late in getting to post-Encounters fun. Four tables stuck around, so we had one table of Rifts, one of D&D 5E, and two playing AD&D including my own. And I finally found a place in the campaign to stick Rob Kuntz’s Prisoners of the Maze series. That gave us 22 players in the post-Encounters games, including two players who weren’t in Encounters.

This coming week, we’ll finish off Secrets of Neverwinter, play some 5E, and possibly even get in a game of Fiasco.

It looks like we’ll continue running through all of Tyranny of Dragons; possibly the entire series in the Encounters spot (although we may have some extra-long sessions, depending on how people are enjoying it and how the DMs who run other games afterwards feel. The experienced players really want a shot at going through the entire thing.

We’ll likely still have a table of low-level games running even after we move out of the regular “encounters” levels. It may be a refuge to those who don’t like a particular story, as well as being the place to introduce new players.
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Mon Aug 11, 2014 6:46 am
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More information on the new Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set

Merric Blackman
Australia
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Victoria
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Mike Mearls has enlightened us a little more about the contents of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. And there’s a big surprise for people buying the set:

No character creation rules are in the D&D Starter Set!

Well, that’s not what I expected – or had inferred based on his previous posts. Mike has clarified that the Starter Set is aimed at Dungeon Masters, so given that it covers levels 1-5, it likely has a pregenerated adventure in the box. It definitely has pregenerated characters. But from where comes the idea that you’ll be able to create characters?

Here’s Mike’s original tweet:

Lots of questions about character creation and the starter set – you will definitely be able to make characters when it comes out.

And his follow-up:

To clear up the Starter Set – it’s aimed at DMs, so no PC creation in the box. But players will be able to make characters without it. For a DM running the starter set, there will be pregens to hand out. Players who want to make characters will be able to do so.

So, how does this work?

At this point, it seems clear that there will be some online option for creating characters. The theories are split between a character generator on the Wizards site and a System Reference Document of some kind. My own opinion leans towards both – the big question is whether or not they’ll be behind the pay wall or not.

Here’s Mike again:

You will be able to run a complete campaign starting in August, with the release of the PH.

So, there’s definitely going to be something online – DM Tools, Player Tools and perhaps more. Unfortunately, Wizards seem to be still working out the details, giving us this reply from Mike when we press for more details:

Sorry, we’re still finalizing things, but I think we have a pretty nifty plan.

Sigh.

However, I can definitely tell that Mike is excited about the new Starter Set. He says so himself:

Holding the Starter Set books in my hand. Gotta admit, this is the most excited I’ve ever been about a product I’ve worked on.

For a DM running the starter set, there will be pregens to hand out. Players who want to make characters will be able to do so.

Orion Cooper: would you recommend the starter set to an experienced DM and player?

Yes – it’ll be a good way to either kick off a campaign or run 8 to 10 sessions to get your feet under you with the rules


Unfortunately, Mike didn’t respond to Morrus’s request for pictures.

There are no rules for creating your own adventures in the Starter Kit. The DM material contains only a pregenerated adventure and rules for running it. Mike, again:

Me: Mike, does the starter set have rules for creating adventures, or is it just pre-written adventures in the book?

Just the pre-written adventure. Think of it like a set you could hand to a board gamer to make them into a new DM running D&D.

The stuff we haven’t talked about yet is where DMs and players go next – there’s a step between the Starter Set and the Big 3


The five pregenerated characters are very, very likely to be the same identities as those in the Starter miniature set – so:

* Dwarf Cleric
* Human Ranger
* Halfling Rogue
* Northlands (Human) Fighter
* Elf Wizard
(The Drizzt in the set would be just a bonus).

One other point: The 32-page player book contains rules for playing characters levels 1-5. Given how D&D works, it will probably contain the spell lists (or a portion thereof) for the Cleric, Ranger and Wizard. That’s levels 1-3 spells for the Cleric and Wizard, and level 1 & 2 spells for the Ranger, assuming the progressions work like they do in the playtest (not necessarily true).

I've writing about a bunch of this stuff on my main blog: http://merricb.wordpress.com
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Wed May 21, 2014 2:09 am
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Thoughts on D&D Next

Merric Blackman
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Victoria
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I have mostly kept out of the online debates on the future of D&D. The basic problem is not that I don’t care, but rather that many of the debates are completely and utterly pointless, there simply as an exercise in breeding ill-will.

The other problem with engaging in the debates is that, quite simply, I don’t know enough about the final form of D&D Next to really comment. Yes, I know, the point of a lot of the discussions is to shape the final form, but, in fact, so much of the game’s feel will likely come from which optional modules you choose to play it with, and at the moment we pretty much haven’t seen those modules.

I’ve been running D&D Encounters with the D&D Next rules for the past year or so. (Since February 2013, in fact). This has been the majority of my playtest experience, although I’ve run a few sessions outside of the Encounters framework. My impressions of the core rules? They work, the game runs quickly, and running it is pretty simple.

This comes with a drawback, of course – fights can be over too quickly. Paul, who has been running the 4E table of Encounters, is running a Next table this season, and he’s definitely found it an issue. From the intensely tactical combats of 4E, which, although they could dominate a session, could also be the most entertaining thing about a session, you’ve gone to the fast’n'loose Next way of running things. Well, they’re fast, at least. The loose depends a lot on whether you use miniatures or, like me, run the combats mainly as “theatre of the mind”. However, if you add the tactical module, combats may go back to the 4E style of being fascinating parts of the game.

Or maybe they won’t. I can’t tell, because that bit has been in closed playtesting with people who like tactical combat.

Now, you see, I agree absolutely with Wizards that if you want to playtest a tactical module, you absolutely should give it to people who like that sort of thing rather than taking it to an open playtest and having all the tactical-combat haters derail the feedback. However, it makes it very, very difficult to properly evaluate D&D Next. The core of it? Fine. Know how it works. Doesn’t do everything I want it to? Well, perhaps the modules will fix that. The ultimate truth of it is that we really won’t know what D&D Next is like until it properly gets released in a few months. What I’ve seen so far is encouraging, but that’s all it is.

The most encouraging thing I’ve seen is the quality of the adventures they’ve been publishing. They’re not flawless, but you only have to see my reviews of some of the Pathfinder adventures to realise how far from flawless I consider their range. The new D&D adventures have been innovative and – most importantly – fun. I’d really like to see an ongoing line of published adventures from Wizards in the D&D Next era. At least one per month? Yes, please!

That said, published adventures are problematic. Paizo does well with its Adventure Paths (at least I think it does), but its stand-alone module line is struggling. The latest adventure is us$25 for a 64-page adventure with a poster map. That’s not great value. I got it cheaper through my subscription, but it does should that we may need to expect more e-adventures than otherwise.

So, I like what I’ve seen so far with D&D Next, but it needs more… and we probably won’t see that more until the release. Can we hurry up that day, please?

This article was originally published on my main blog, which also now has articles on the Rogue, Wizard and Cleric, looking at their history and development.
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Tue Mar 18, 2014 4:54 am
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Three Games - all different versions of D&D

Merric Blackman
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Waubra
Victoria
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I’m feeling really good about last week’s role-playing. Three games, each with a different version of the D&D rules, all memorable for their own reasons. There are times when things come together, and that was the case this week.

D&D Encounters – Legacy of the Crystal Shard – D&D Next

This has been a challenging season to run, but it’s been getting a lot better as it continues. The last season (Murder in Baldur’s Gate) presented the characters with three factions they could work with. This one presents three factions they’re trying to stop. The complication here is that there isn’t enough time to stop them all! So, in this session I ran the first interlude, where the threat they hadn’t been dealing with yet became much more active and dangerous.

This is great adventure-writing. The adventure might look physically similar to Murder in Baldur’s Gate, but the change in focus makes it run quite differently. Another big difference is that the encounters are much more fleshed out than in the previous season – the first one gave you a bunch of enemy stats and let you determine the specifics of the encounter. This one suggests numbers and set-up for the encounters. It’s still very free-form, but I’m finding it aiding me a lot more. Against that, I’ve found the adventure much more sprawling and confusing to grasp, but this session everything came together really well.

It’s also notable that we had two role-playing encounters and four combats in under two hours of play; a big win for the speed of D&D Next, after my well-documented problems with the speed of 4E.

Greyhawk – Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil – D&D 4E

Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil is one of the big adventures of the 3E era. It was designed for a party of 4th level characters and would take them to about 10th level. Or thereabouts. I’m using it as the final adventure of my 4E campaign which I began when 4E was first released in 2008. The characters are now about 27th level, but the ease of adjusting monsters in 4E means that I’m finding it very easy to run. Admittedly, it didn’t help that for this session the notes I’d made on the monster stats hadn’t saved properly to the cloud and so I had to do some fancy footwork to fill the void. Luckily, I’m getting pretty good at estimating the stats (and the DM screen with its damage codes makes it a lot easier to wing things).

After a few sessions of slogging it through the crater mines, it was something of a relief to put in more role-playing and also bring back the idea of Adam’s original character, Archibald, as the chief villain behind the adventure. They’ve known he’s been involved, but he was revealed to be “Number 2” in the Doom Dreamers of Tharizdun this session.

But without doubt, the big event of the session was the group discovering a Deck of Many Things. I somehow completely missed it in my read-through beforehand (not that unusual), and so I didn’t have the Deck printed in Madness of Gardmore Abbey with me. Pity. However, the internet allowed me to find Rodney Thompson’s 2010 version of the Deck’s effects for 4e, and having adjusted a regular set of cards I was set.

This was not the first experience of some of the players with a Deck of Many Things; Greg and Adam had both encountered one when playing through Dungeonland about 10 years ago in my 3E Greyhawk campaign. (Yes, I am perfectly happy adapting adventures for all editions of D&D). So, all of the group – save Martin, as he’s wiser than the others – was happy to draw from the deck. And, by the end of the draws, Greg was imprisoned (DONJON) and Paul’s soul was taken (VOID). It’s quite likely that without Rodney’s notes I might have just left that there (go create new PCs!), but Rodney’s work inspired me to actually have the group break from the Temple quest for a session or two to recovered their lost friends. (It also gave me the details needed for the other, more positive effects, that Adam and Rich earned).

So, off to the Depths of the Earth and (quite likely) the Astral Plane before we return to the Temple. It’s a natural break-point in the adventure in any case, and should work well to getting their levels closer to 30th before the final encounters.

Greyhawk Vikings – The Caverns of the Oracle – AD&D

The week’s D&D ended with the continuing AD&D game. Six players turned up for this session, and they continued dealing with the Knights of Hextor and their Hellhounds. This time I did have all my notes with me, but, as usual for this game, I’m improvising a lot of the map and encounters. There are times in my life when I pre-plan everything, but this isn’t one of those times. Instead, I draw the map one step ahead of the characters and work out what is in each room either according to what should be there (based on theme) or let the dice tell me.

The knights are definitely giving the group some tough encounters, especially as I had most of them working as archers whilst the hellhounds engaged the party in melee. Jesse’s magic-user was back this session, so he was able to take out some of the knights, but the rooms were big enough that his area of effect spells weren’t as effective as they normally are. (We also had Callan running four players in his RIFTS game, so it was a good Saturday evening’s role-playing).

The group found some good treasure, enough for a number of the players to gain a level. Rich’s thief had finally reached level 10 by the end of the session. I’m going to be very interested if he tries to set up a thieves’ guild.

However, the major challenge of the adventure came when the group set off a magical teleportation trap and ended up in a gauntlet of quite dangerous encounters – four wights, two flesh golems and then two cockatrices – before they found their way back to the main dungeon and were able to escape. The wights really gave the party a shock, and they were saved mainly due to having three clerics with the party, and by Tait carrying around a large supply of oil. The group is actually very light on magic weapons at the moment (thanks, in no small part, to the encounter with caryatid columns a few sessions back), and so might not have been able to take advantage of the turning – they still would have had to go into melee with the wights – but Tait’s oil got them out of a tricky situation.

The flesh golems were more standard, but they did so much damage it was a confused version of musical chairs, with characters retiring from the front ranks and handing over their magical weapons to fresh combatants whilst the clerics kept busy healing everyone. No-one died, but it was close.

And the cockatrices? The party were very worried about them, with one hit on the front rank in the first round almost causing a petrifaction, but luckily the saving throw was made. And, at this point, one of the group realised that they held a scroll of protection against petrifaction! With that in hand, they were able to overcome the last challenge and make their way out of the gauntlet, although a few more knights and hellhounds stood in their way...

So, that was my week’s role-playing. Next week, more D&D Encounters and AD&D, but the Friday night game alternates back to Martin’s Deadlands Noir game (where I actually play rather than run the game!)
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Mon Jan 13, 2014 8:33 am
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Murder in Baldur's Gate: Launch Weekend - a preview

Merric Blackman
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This weekend is the Launch Weekend for Murder in Baldur's Gate - well, more properly for the D&D Encounters season that uses that adventure, but the adventure itself will be out in a few days (for regular stores - it's been out for a bit longer for stores Wizards like more). For those stores participating, Wizards have sent them copies of a special adventure. It's the first encounter of the regular adventure, but expanded to give more interest and detail.

The adventure booklet is 16 pages, including front and back covers, of fairly thin glossy paper. It contains some background material, the adventure, and the monster stat blocks for three systems: 3.5E, 4E and D&D Next. Each stat block section takes up about a page and a half (with differing amounts of white space). There isn't much artwork - apart from the cover, there's two pages that list the NPCs which provides art for them. One of the NPCs doesn't get any art, strangely enough, but he's on the poster we got for the full season so I can just point at that if necessary.

It's Founder's Day in Baldur's Gate, and there's a celebration taking place, commemorating the event. The player characters have arrived to take jobs as caravan guards, but they've arrived a few days too early for that job, so they're just enjoying themselves. Well mostly - it might be free to enter the city, but every merchant is taking the opportunity to gouge the players of every copper they can get. The adventure starts with the group entering the Wide, the city's grand market square.

This adventure is all about what happens in the Wide on Founder's day, and my catchword for it all is "challenging". It's going to be challenging to run, and it's going to be challenging to play through. At its most basic, things start happening and things keep happening. Events build up and hit some fairly major marks, laying the groundwork for the full adventure to come. In theory the players could just sit back and watch, but that seems unlikely. Most D&D players will want to get involved. The challenge for the DM will be in handling it all: telling the story, giving proper descriptions of the chaos, and allowing everyone to have fun.

The main adventure for this session is laid out in a set of events, which read fairly well. They could be terribly boring if allowed to be, but they've got a lot more potential than that. I do have the distinct feeling that the game will play best if the DM uses the other elements given in the adventure: rules on crowd-handling and optional events to spice up things. Yes, you can concentrate on the main events, but allowing the players to react to lots of different things at once? Yeah, that looks like it will be even more fun.

But it will be challenging to run. The skills of the DM are incredibly important to this adventure; in particular, you need to judge the pacing of the session. Being able to add the right event at the right time will add greatly to the experience. The last city adventure I ran - the otherwise disappointing Storm over Neverwinter - had one session where the party and the DM were able to improvise greatly rather than just follow the rails. It was great fun. I think we could have the same fun with this adventure.

As a lead-in to Murder in Baldur's Gate, the adventure isn't complete. The events of the day are, but they raise the issues that will be dealt with in the full adventure, which you could play as part of D&D Encounters or as a home game. There's combat and role-playing and heroic deeds here... and a little of the grotesque. Vault of the Dracolich, despite leading into Search for the Diamond Staff felt complete in itself. This doesn't, as what it is doing is setting up the adventure to follow. Everything I've seen indicates that the full adventure will be pretty good, but, unfortunately, I've still got to wait a bit until I actually get to see it.

The launch event adventure also comes with a poster-map of the square (the other side shows the map of Baldur's Gate) if you want to use miniatures. The idea for the Launch Event is that you create characters first (1st level, in whichever session your DM is using) and then run the adventure. Honestly, I'd probably create characters before you get there or have pre-gens made up, as creating characters for five or six players in 30-40 minutes isn't all that easy in any of the three systems. (I'd manage it easily in AD&D!) I'm not really sure how long the event will take to play through. My initial reaction is "2 hours", and the documentation says "at least 2 hours". YMMV.

Incidentally, the only pre-gens available specifically for this are in the D&D Next playtest packet. Otherwise, the DMs will need to bring/create them for the 3.5E or 4E rulesets. (I'm pretty sure you'll be able to find a few online). One of my few significant regrets about this package is that it doesn't have a lot of backgrounds to aid the PCs in creating their characters. There might be more in the full adventure, but quite possibly not.

So, those are my initial impressions of the Murder in Baldur's Gate Launch Weekend package. I'll get a chance to run it this weekend, and I'll report back then as to how it went. I hope we'll all enjoy it.

Oh, and that silver-haired fellow on the cover of the adventure? That's Duke Abdel Adrian, the ruler of Baldur's Gate. You might also know him as the hero of the Baldur's Gate computer games. Well, he would have been if you weren't making your own character to play that role. In the "official" Forgotten Realms, it was Abdel Adrian who took on those challenges, and in his later life he's become one of the four rulers of the port city. He loves his adopted home, and the city-folk return that love. He's over a century old at this point, but still hale. His past is, unfortunately, still relevant...
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Wed Aug 14, 2013 2:36 pm
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Rules and my Roleplaying

Merric Blackman
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I find that as I get older, I get a lot less tolerant of having large rulebooks with lots of rules. This isn't to say that I'm against all rules, but I much prefer, as a DM, to need to remember as few rules as possible. It's one of the reasons I've enjoyed 4E so much: it's actually a very light system at heart, with plenty of complexity added through easily digestible chunks. Monster design is a particular case in point: to run a 4E monster, apart from the base game rules, I just need to know what the conditions do: everything else is in the statblock.

This is in particular contrast to the Pathfinder RPG, which, I'm astonished to find, has actually made the job of running a monster significantly harder than 3.5E. There are a lot of good things I can say about Paizo's adventure and world design. However, Pathfinder has hit a level of rules complexity that I don't care for at all. I ran two full Pathfinder APs over the last year (Council of Thieves and Kingmaker) and all the flaws of 3.5E were there in spades, and then things were made worse by Paizo's stance to rules design. I didn't fight so hard to put the group back together after I had a run of cancellations in large part that I didn't want to have to struggle with Paizo's rules any more.

I'm thus somewhat disappointed that two new RPGs that I've been looking forward to: Edge of the Empire (FFG's Star Wars RPG) and Shadowrun 5E have horribly big rulebooks, both just shy of 500 pages. They might warrant such large book sizes, but I have quite a lot of other things to do apart from working my way through these tomes.

My AD&D campaign has now been running for about 19 months. It's still incredibly popular; I had nine players at the last session, and I dread to think how many will turn up this weekend! One of the lovely things about AD&D is that because I'm so familiar with the system, I can happily let the system get out of the way and I can concentrate on all the things that are - to me - fun. Interesting tricks, NPCs, exploration and the odd combat or five.

It's a completely different beast to my 4E Greyhawk game, which has now been running almost five years. (When did 4E come out? Since then). It's been delayed by various illnesses and other catastrophes, but we're moving towards the endgame with the group having hit 24th level, and the final foe (Tharizdun) having been revealed.

The biggest trouble with 4E is just length-of-combat, which takes away from exploration, NPCs, and interesting tricks. I'm having fun at the moment as I'm able to put in lots of references to classic adventures. The group are on their way to Verbobonc at present, following the trail of a lot of cultists that have power over elemental creatures. I wonder how many of the group are familiar enough with D&D lore that they get the reference? I believe there wouldn't be that many; I think I'm pretty unusual in my group with my fascination with early D&D lore.

I'm experiencing D&D Next mainly through the D&D Encounters program at present. I made a couple of attempts to play it in place of one of my regular other games, but eventually decided that it wasn't complete enough (this was a few playtest packets ago) and I really wanted to properly complete my 4E game. My experience with Next is coloured by the problems that Encounters brings to the table, as well as a player population that is happy to play Next as long as they don't have to read the rules.

There seems to be a very big gap between the capabilities of a 4th level and a 5th level character at present. It's at that level that Deadly Strike comes into play, which significantly increases the damage the martial characters deal. The group almost got completely slaughtered by chitines last session, but, in retrospect, it was mainly due to the fact that the group almost all have 4th level PCs. Character creation in the playtest documents is nowhere near as clear as it will get in the finished product, and I think the players are struggling with it. Personally, I don't have trouble with it, but then I'm an extremely experienced player of RPGs.

The other game I'm playing in is Martin's Deadlands Noir game, which is using the Savage Worlds system. We're two sessions in at the moment, and it's been heavily biased towards role-playing. The system itself is very basic - well, as much as I've seen of it, which has generally been skill checks. It's not a great distance away from the Serenity RPG, with the major difference being that Savage Worlds works while Serenity didn't. My character does break the system somewhat - he's both Attractive and Charismatic, which gives a +4 bonus to Negotiation checks. When you consider that a standard roll is "roll d8 and d6, take the higher", that bonus is astonishingly good.

The last session had only Peggy and Sarah playing in addition to myself, which was the three skill characters as opposed to the combat characters. We thus did a lot of role-playing and investigation; there was one (short) combat, which I ran away from and Sarah demonstrated how dangerous she is with a flower pot - although, unfortunately, not to the other side. Peggy and Sarah are much better at immersive role-playing than I am, although I can do okay for short periods. As I tired, I wandered back into the more descriptive style of role-playing ("I convince her that...") rather than the immersive style I started in ("Miss Jones, I'm desperately concerned that...") There was one great moment when I was completely tongue-tied and then got the giggles; Peggy and Sarah rather liked that moment. Despite both of them being better immersive role-players, I was the one leading the investigation for most of it... and thus doing a lot of the talking.

Apart from the two big books of Shadowrun and Edge of the Empire (the former only virtual, admittedly), I also picked up The First Doctor Sourcebook for the Doctor Who RPG by Cubicle 7. I'm planning on writing a review of it Real Soon Now, but before I did so I wanted to see what other people thought of the book. There's a good review on rpggeek in which the reviewer has found a couple of mechanical issues with the book. I didn't even notice! Part of this is due to the unfortunate fact that I haven't been able to play the game yet, and thus the mechanical elements aren't that familiar to me. A larger part is that I just don't care that much any more, especially as the book does one thing very well, and that thing is very important to me: it gives great advice on creating good RPG adventures and stories.

Are mechanics important? They certainly are, but I'm no longer obsessing over them as much as I once did. When they work, I'm happy. When they don't work, I'm sad, but I'm even less a tinkerer now with rules than I once was. There are systems out there that I'm very happy with and will run. D&D Next might see me not changing to a new version of D&D for the first time (I've gone from AD&D to 2E to 3E to 3.5E to 4E), but it won't annoy me if it's not to my taste; I've got systems that will work for various groups. My feeling is that Next will probably still work for me, but I won't be shattered if it doesn’t.
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Tue Jul 30, 2013 4:43 am
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A regular weekend's gaming

Merric Blackman
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Victoria
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This weekend saw my regular gaming habits continue: D&D on Friday night and Saturday, and boardgaming to fill out the holes. I feel quite fortunate to be able to regularly play games with my friends, and it was really good to have Adam join us again on Friday night.

Yes, after a gap of a few months, Adam has rejoined my 4E Greyhawk game, as his situation still hasn't quite resolved itself enough - he's not in Melbourne full time and is still commuting from Ballarat. Thus, being in a Melbourne rpg group is a bit difficult. Getting his character, Max, back into the group was really good, especially as Josh couldn't join us and Adam allowed us to have a group of four. There's also a strong likelihood that Greg will join in as well, but this weekend ended up not being a good one for his family and he was unable to attend. From worrying about the state of the group I've suddenly gone to six players - if everyone can attend at once, which seems unlikely; it was a major problem with the campaign in recent months.

As a result, I can move into what really will be the endgame of the campaign. I've been running this game since 4E came out, and the group is now 24th level. It's been a very interrupted game at times, but there have been some great stories coming out from it. We finished off the 4E version of Tomb of Horrors two weeks ago, with Acererak being destroyed. My major change to the adventure was instead of having the final encounters be on the plane of the dead god Nerull (who is quite alive in my game), I placed it in a place sacred to Tharizdun. I've been building up to this point for a very long time, and so revelations in Friday's session that the Doomdreamer elementalists that have been annoying the party for many, many sessions worship Tharizdun was not such a surprise to the group.

It's funny: I'm not a fan of the conflation of Tharizdun and the Elder Elemental God that occurred through 2E and 3E, but I am very much a fan of the 4E cosmology (which I've adopted wholeheartedly for my Greyhawk game, though the gods remain as they were in my 1983 boxed set). Thus, it seems that elements of the 2E/3E version are making their way into the game. I had Archibald (Adam's old PC, now a major NPC villain) turn up again, and the session ended with the group chasing him - and the Doomdreamers - off towards Verbobonc. My group doesn't have the Greyhawk lore that I do, though they're familiar with the bits they've played through, so the full implications of that place aren't immediately apparent to them; I'll make sure they are in the next session. There's a little village nearby that I think they'll be visiting soon...

Saturday afternoon was given over to playing boardgames. Jack was unexpectedly there, so Rich, Sarah, Jack and I played through two of AEG's Tempest line of games - Mercante and Courtier. Sarah found Mercante frustrating, but mostly because she was unfamiliar with the play of the game and the distribution of goods in shipments. She still won; I played a horrible game. I'm quite fond of games with auctions, and this one is a very elegant design. It isn't without flaws, but I've enjoyed the two games I've played of it.

In comparison, I really understand Courtier, and I ran away the winner of it - something like 32 points to 17 (Jack and Sarah), with Rich a long, long way behind. It's not a natural fit for Rich at all, and he's as bad at playing it as I'm as good. The Queen got arrested very early into the game, so it wasn't long at all.

The evening AD&D game saw nine players around my table; that number didn't include me as DM! Callan was away, as were Shane and Brodie, which meant that Callan's Rifts game would have taken away... one player. I would have still had eight players. Madness! I hardly expected the game to be so popular when I began it a year and a half ago, but it has proved to be so.

Due to having quite a few new players, the last few sessions have been lower-level games (with the experienced players taking the part of their henchmen), and we've gone through Castle Caldwell and the Lost Island of Castanamir. I'm really looking forward to returning to my proper campaign; I've put the PCs on fairly high XP gains so they'll be ready. 4th level characters can join an 8th level AD&D game and contribute; 1st level characters are just a bit too fragile.o o

I've also moved entirely to running the game using the reprint books, although I certainly have a lot of original books at home, the newness of the books speaks for a lot. I really like the cover designs as well (and those of the adventure reprints). I've now twice used dndclassics.com to download adventures for the group as I wasn't originally expecting to be running low-level PCs. Having my new Surface Pro has been an absolute boon, as it's so easy to use in place of a printed module; certainly in comparison to my laptop. Last session, I brought in the printed version of C3, which is still more convenient, but I didn't have it with me when I began the game.

D&D Next I'm playing primarily through D&D Encounters at present. The current season is massively more entertaining for me than the last; the mere fact that there are different factions struggling over the staff and that the players HAVE BEEN ABLE TO FIND THAT OUT means a hell of a lot. The holidays and midwinter have impacted our numbers somewhat, but we're still regularly getting two tables and might get back to three in the near future. The biggest problem we've been having relates to DM availability; one of my DMs hasn't made it for four weeks and another now has a job that conflicts. I still have two other options, but as we rarely have good notice, we're often running the sessions without good preparation. (Thankfully, they haven't been that difficult).

The D&D Next system still has problems, but they mainly relate to the maths. I'm very worried about the number of high-damage Area Effect spells the NPCs can cast; which, when coupled with the difficulty of saving throws, can cause a party to go from fully healed to dead with a poor initiative roll. I'm hoping the D&D Next team manages to fix this in the next packet.

It's really interesting how much I'm enjoying AD&D (and I look at Next through those eyes). I also really like 4e, with the exception of how slow combat can go. 3E is something of a dead system to me at the moment, though I think a very large part of my disenchantment with it is due to Paizo's philosophy of encounter design, which often boils down to "do you have spell X? If so, you can win. Otherwise, you'll lose". That's part of 3E in general, but my experiences with Paizo adventures is that they take it to extremes.

With any luck, Next will avoid that trap. (I don't mind monsters you need specific ways to take down; I hate them when taking them down is required by the adventure and it's a common occurrence).
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Mon Jul 22, 2013 4:45 am
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Vault of the Dracolich (D&D Game Day) was AWESOME!

Merric Blackman
Australia
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Victoria
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It's 1 am, and I'm just home after co-ordinating my FLGS's Worldwide D&D Game Day event. It was so much fun!

Vault of the Dracolich was a multi-table game by Wizards; D&D Next rules. Each group was exploring a different part of the same dungeon, with contact allowed between the groups (and encouraged). Eventually they joined together for a final encounter (although run as separate tables, what happened on one could affect the others).

My FLGS ended up with three tables participating, each with a DM and five players. And then I was running around like a crazy person between the tables keeping everything organised. I'd brought in enough miniatures for the event, and I gave them to the DMs depending on which encounters they were handling. And then I was dealing with other events that could affect the groups...

I won't say that much now because of the time difference; I think it's still going in other parts of the world, but I had a great time. We got some great stories out of it!

More later...
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Sat Jun 15, 2013 4:07 pm
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Storm over Neverwinter (D&D Encounters) retrospective - ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE!

Merric Blackman
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D&D Encounters: Against the Cult of Chaos was fantastic. It was an adventure that pulled material from three other adventures and weaved it into a really coherent whole. What made it really great was how it allowed the players and the DM to create their own adventure - the town was well-detailed, and the PCs could investigate the segments of the adventure in the order they liked. When they talked to NPCs, there were enough notes for the DM to create memorable personalities and give the players real interactions and information.

This season that just finished, Storm over Neverwinter, was nowhere near that good. It was a return to the linear plotline of previous adventures, and, to make things worse, the role-playing and investigation elements are barely there. Basically, it ran like this:

Session 1: Interact with locals at the inn, then get attacked. This works; there's good building of suspense before everything starts.

Session 2: Investigate kidnapping, then brave cultist hideout. The investigation is fairly simple, and the descriptions of where the party end up aren't detailed enough (IMO), but the session still works.

Session 3: More investigation, then go to pub and get attacked. This session is where the adventure really begins to fall off the rails; the "investigation" beforehand makes little sense for the characters to be doing (why don't they just go home and do it the next morning?), and why are they waking people up to do it? It feels very forced. There's a key death here, but the group doesn't get to interact with the NPC in this session enough for it to be felt.

Session 4: Chasing people through the streets worked well as I took what was there and added a lot of humour and danger to it, and then there's a combat.

Session 5: There's a lot of follow-up hooks for the players, with very few actual details on what the DM should do if they try to follow them up. Then you have them trying to get into a stronghold - which is fun - but it's quite possible to end the session without any combat at all, due to a lack of doors to the final chamber.

Session 6: A straight-up fight with no role-playing. And, in D&D Next, not a particularly interesting one. It probably played better in 4E.

Session 7: A straight-up fight with no role-playing. More interesting than the last.

Session 8: Very limited role-playing (hampered by the players not having a clue what was going on), and an insane fight in the D&D Next version.

I'm really feeling that this adventure worked best if (a) the players are big fans of the Forgotten Realms and thus can recognise the familiar Neverwinter faces (we're not), and (b) you like combat a lot.

It felt railroady, and though most Encounters seasons are railroads (they need to be), this one felt more forced than most.

I just hope that the Game Day adventure is better, because Storm over Neverwinter was FUCKING AWFUL!

The final session was probably a lot better in 4E, but whoever was doing the Next conversion didn't pay that much attention to the monsters' abilities. As the battle started, the players rolled really low and lost initiative. Then Karis cast her Storm Burst spell and dealt about 25 damage to everyone who failed a save. Not surprisingly, most characters failed it and took a bunch of damage and were knocked prone. Her husband folled up with a Fireball spell for about a further 20 damage. And then the dragon flew in and breathed poison gas on the group for a yet another 20 damage or so.

How many hit points do 4th level pregens have? It's in the range 25-50. Now, this is meant to be against a party of five 6th level characters, but even in that case, you're not talking about all that many extra hit points. Even making all three saving throws you take half damage...

Now, because I'm an experienced DM, that's not how it ran. I held off on the dragon arriving, I stopped casting area effect spells once the party started falling over, and I was generally nice to the party. (Josh wasn't so nice, and may have had a TPK. It was going that way, but I didn't see the end). But the insane thing about this rash of area effect spells? They could cast them again... and again... and again. Well, Karis couldn't cast more than two Storm Bursts, but then she would move to lightning bolt, so not much damage lost. And the design of the encounter put everyone close together and made it very difficult to spread out.

Yuck!

When the monsters were hit, they tended to go down quickly - real glass cannons, especally as by Level 6 (which most of the PCs were), their Deadly Strike made for some impressive damage, especially as a few criticals were rolled.

At the end of it all, the players looked at each other and asked me what had just happened - not just the encounter, but the entire season. The plot was opaque to them. Why was the wizard being attacked by the cultists and then aiding them? While there are answers, they didn't come up in-game, which is where they needed to be.

The next challenge will be D&D Game Day, assuming that Wizards are able to get the adventure to us in time. We haven't got it yet, so there's four days left for it to arrive...
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Mon Jun 10, 2013 1:54 pm
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The Problem with Ability Score Bonuses in D&D and Pathfinder

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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Ramping up my reviewing.
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Happily playing games for many, many years.
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Microbadge: Ultimate Session ReporterMicrobadge: AD&D fan (1st edition)Microbadge: Doctor Who fanMicrobadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level II - If I have seen further, it's only by standing on the apex of other's dice.Microbadge: Geek of the Week
D&D has come a long way since its original presentation. Back in those days, the difference between a fighter with an 18 Strength and a fighter with a 9 Strength was the rate they gained experience points at; there was no modification to attack rolls from high strength.

Dexterity did allow a modifier to missile attack rolls, but it was at most a +1/-1 modifier.

In D&D 3E, it was possible for a character to reach a 34 Strength by 20th level, and thus gain a +12 bonus to attack (and a +18 bonus to damage if using a 2-handed melee weapon). How far we've come!

A lot of the trouble in 3E (especially) and 4E (to a lesser extent) come from the insane bonuses given by ability scores. Quite frankly, getting more than a +4 bonus is going to break the game, because it's so out of whack with your lower scores.

D&D revolves around the tension between Attack, Defense, Hit Points and Damage.

In AD&D, Attack overwhelms Defense for physical attacks for the most part as you go up in levels (though PCs tend to get better defenses than most monsters at high levels), but Defense wins against Attack for magical spells. It needs to, because low-level magic is just variant damage spells, but high-level magic is "save or die".

In 3E, Attack overwhelms Defense for all attacks, except when you break one of the defenses. It was extremely easy to break AC - I had a couple of characters that on-CR creatures needed 20s to hit, although they could hit the bard and magic-users of the group on rolls of 2. The overwhelming of Defense was a much bigger problem in 3E due to "save or die" spells still being on the lists.

In 4E, Attack and Defense *mostly* keep up with each other, except for stat-pairs you don't care about. A cleric's Reflex save is laughable at high levels. At least there aren't so many "defend or suck" monster powers.

But 3E and 4E both suffer from the "I'm a thief with a high Dex, my Reflex is great!" but "I'm a thief with a low Wis, my Will is horrible." At higher levels, you're looking at a gap of 8 for those defenses *just from ability scores*. Given that the "good" defense is often hit about 50% of the time, the "bad" defense is hit 90% of the time. (3E is actually even worse: the gap can be between a 34 and an 8 at level 20, or a massive 13 in bonus value and thus defense score).

3E "dealt" with this problem by making the game into "get the right magic" - so Freedom of Movement, Death Ward, etc. are required at higher levels just to stop all the Save or Suck spells, because no character has the ability scores to deal with all the attack types they might be hit by.

Limit ability bonuses to a maximum of +4 and you kill a lot of the problems the mathematics of the system throw up.

The real trick is working out what OTHER things will allow bonuses - something that the 3E designers failed to do. Having scores vary is great, but you need to understand how big the difference can be. +6 works great when ability scores are the only thing adding to defenses/attack, but much less well when feats, class abilities, magic items and spells also allow bonuses.

It's the entire package you need to look at. How poor should a low defense be and how good should a high defense be? Understanding that part of the mathematics is key to designing a new edition of D&D.
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Wed Jul 18, 2012 3:33 am
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