4e – Dharvi

goblin_thief_by_paulabrams-d3c8ahvSo I’m running another 4e game – weirdly – for a few people over G+.

They’re kinda-sorta n00bs, which is good because it means there are very few preconceptions and I can fuck with the rules as need be without anyone rules-lawyering me.

We have a half-elf thief with an untapped sorcerer bloodline that gives her a little wild/chaos magic and a mean streak.

We have a half-wild Eladrin ranger who isn’t quite at home in the city.

We have a huge dragonborn with an even huger warhammer and a stereotypical tendency to apply violence as a universal solution.

We also have a crippled, grossly fat dwarven warlock who is conveyed around on her giant beetle mount.

Dharvi – the world I’ve made up for this – is a chaotic world, a patchwork of chaos and weirdness that survives after an apocalyptic magical war over the last century. The walled cities and other defended settlements are islands of security enforced by a powerful Church dedicated to order – not that there aren’t other religions, it’s just that a religion of order and security has obvious appeal in a world overrun by monsters.

Previously only vaguely aware of each other our ‘heroes’ were called together by Grik, the goblin crimelord of the southern part of the city of Marat’s literal and figurative underworld. Marat is ruled strictly by the church but the poor and the unsavoury hide from their gaze in the upper levels of the mines that riddle the desert badlands in which Marat sits.

Grik had been double crossed by Silk, a smuggler and another crimelord who had promised to cut him in on a deal and had reneged. What happened? Well…


Silk, the lizardman smuggler who runs much of the northern section of Marat’s subterranean slums, suffered a massive setback as one of his main stashes of alchemical supplies and trading goods were destroyed after the warehouse was broken into and two of his guards were mercilessly slaughtered – one with unnatural magicks.

In completely unrelated news a swarm of acid-drooling rats burst out of a sewerage tunnel in the same area and devoured a dozen homeless and beggars before they were incinerated by an enterprising lamp-oil salesman.

Silk has placed a 500gp bounty on the people who did this to him but witnesses could only describe a _’fat, deformed little witch riding a beetle’_.

This must surely stand out.


Why are RPGs Crap at Modelling Stealth?

It occurred to me, whilst dumping my sixth unconscious guard into a bin whilst playing Dishonoured (I’m British damn you, it includes a ‘u’) that stealth is something that isn’t handled especially well in tabletop games. There’s an issue with the interaction between stealth and perception and simply rolling one against the other doesn’t model the subtlety of it. In many ways it’s a similar problem to the dissatisfaction with having to resort to social mechanics rather than pure RP.

There is a difference though, I think. While some of us find it damn near impossible to play ‘smooth’ or ‘intimidating’ or to come out with a pick-up line for an NPC that has ‘game’, just about everyone can understand the principle of ‘How not to be seen’ (or heard or whatever).

What we need, then, is a way to represent a state of alertness and the fact that, really, it’s only when the sneaking person a) fucks up or b) gets caught unawares themselves that they’re likely to be detected.

Genuine stealth isn’t just ‘being quiet’, it’s staying in the shadows. Using distraction, opportunity, speed, acrobatics and athletics to move unseen.

I think a way to represent this is stealth being the knowledge of how best to go about it and how best to recover from ‘fucking up’. To get away with fucking up.

This would take a bit more preparation and you’d have to start with a guard ‘alertness’ level based on an average or less than average roll. As more incidents happened you would ramp up that alertness level and it would get more and more difficult to get away with screwing up.

Using 3.5/Pathfinder purely as an example (in 4th Ed this would be a skill challenge). Say you had a temple on a cliff, protected by an elite temple guard. A long avenue runs up to the temple with trees every ten yards or so.

How could you approach?

In disguise, climb the cliff, flit from tree to tree, engineer a distraction. Their alertness level would ‘take ten’ so, perhaps DC 15, at night you might drop that to 13 and they wouldn’t expect anyone to climb the cliff so that might be 13 as well.

It would take several rolls to climb the cliff, which would be steep and dangerous, screwing up doesn’t mean you fall (unless you mess up really bad), but for the dramatism of the stealth ‘minigame’ each failure would knock some rocks loose, make a noise, raise the alert level and require you to make a stealth roll against the DC (which would rise with each incident).

Running from tree to tree without being seen? That’s a matter of speed, stealth is really a matter of timing and if you screw up the speed (athletics roll probably) you’ll have to make a stealth roll to ‘get away with it’ and the alertness level will go up.

It makes stealth a bit more involved, adds a little bit more back and forth and, in a way, will make it a bit more like combat.

The other problem we have is that knock-out mechanics also suck. The problem with knock-out mechanics in a lot of games is that if you make the NPCs easy to knock out, that also makes the PCs easy to knock out, and that’s massively disempowering. It also leads to important NPCs being dropped and having their throats slit.

If you’re trying to simulate reality, drugs don’t knock people out that quickly or reliably and knock-out blows are also hard to gauge and its a lot harder to knock people out than it seems in the movies. You can’t expect to render a dame unconcious with a tap to the chin or  to press-gang someone with a single blow of a cosh. At best you’re probably going to stun and concuss them.

In cinematic games you can differentiate between cannon fodder and major baddies in a way that lets you be cinematic while also preserving the ‘hardcore’ nature of the bosses, but that’s not an easy option in every game.

What do you think? Any ideas? Any games that handle stealth really well?

Autopsy 4: Released!

The New-Look Autopsy. Cleaned up and expanded blog articles, support and other material for a variety of games in a more screen/tablet friendly format.

This issue:

  • Shadow World: Cantrip Comprehensive, The Ourobowrong,
  • ’45: Psychobilly Retropocalypse: The Pukes of Dannger
  • 4E: Groin Weasels
  • Blood!: Tips/errata
  • Pathfinder: Flenser Swarm
  • Invaderz!
  • Grim’s Tales
  • ‘Beta Planet’ *Nudge, wink*

Buy it HERE

Balthazar Brokenbell: Why do female Dragonborn have boobs?

It is a question that has puzzled thaumo-anthropologists for any number years. Given that Dragonkin are lizard-like and are related to dragons, why in the seven hells do they have breasts? It’s not as if they’re mammals, it’s not like they breast feed their young so what is the point of these appendages?

Needless to say, flat out asking two-hundred pounds plus of angry, fire-breathing dragonkin about their sexual characteristics is a dangerous enterprise and people of any race can be quite reticent to talk about such things.

There were several theories about why female dragonkin were as shapely as they are prior to my investigations. Some thought that, as a magically created race, the wizard who brought them into being allowed his own desires to shape the transformative magicks that brought them into being and, being ‘typically’ male – as the Amazons would have it, could not help but give them mammalian characteristics that he found… appealing.

Some content that they were not magically created but rather were created by the gods as they are, and we should not question the will of the gods. Others that – like some life – they naturally evolved and are some sort of half-breed between lizards and mammals with the characteristics of both, somewhat like the egg-laying duck-bills of the antipodean landmass.

Given my particular ‘affliction’ and my detached viewpoint on humanoid and monstrous sexuality I was able to befriend a rather charming and friendly dragonkin by the name of Piri who, after a rapport had been set up, intimated to me the genuine nature of the dragonkin bosom.

The dragonkin bosom is a result of both convergent evolution and sexual dimorphism. The female dragonkin ‘breasts’ are, in fact, pockets in their armoured flesh, soft-lined and spacious and capable of cradling dragonkin eggs, keeping them safe and warm without the need for a nest while the female dragonkin is mobile and able to move from place to place without being tied to one place or as weighed down as a pregnant mammal. Needless to say, a nice pair of ‘egg pockets’ are attractive to dragonkin males.

The larger chest is also an aspect of sexual dimorphism in the dragonkin. The large, conic blasts of breath that we come to expect from the dragonkin are actually more of a female characteristic. Their larger chests and lungs enable them to spray their breath over a considerable area while the males tend to be able to concentrate their breath upon a smaller, more accurate area to greater effect.

A fascinating revelation for us all, I am sure.

Your servant,

Balthazar Brokenbell, Gnomish Scholar

Rules: Female dragonbreath remains the same and male dragonkin can elect to breath like that, though it’s considered effeminate. Male dragonkin can alter their breath to:

Encounter * Acid, cold, fire, lightning or poison
Minor Action Ranged Attack
Targets: One creature
Attack: Str/Con or Dex +2 Vs Reflex
Hit: 2d6+Con modifier damage. Increase to +4 bonus and 3d6 + Con modifier at 11th level, +6 and 4d6 + cons modifier at 21st level.
Special: At character generation select the ability type used and the damage type used. These remain the same for the duration of your character’s existence.

D&D 5e? Flee!

So the net is rife with speculation about fifth edition D&D, again, much as it has been since 4e came out. I’m not especially interested in the speculation but perhaps that’s because I’m just not as wedded to D&D as many are and I often find its sacred cows to be more like heavy weights dragging against my feet.

4e is, of course, a success compared to the rest of the industry, with the notable exception of Pathfinder which, it seems, is doing better at least in some quarters than 4e D&D has done. There’s a whole host of mistakes and fuck-ups we can point out as to why 4e hasn’t been the success that it could have been but there’s no need to point them out really… oh, all right.

  • Once you free something up it’s a) hard to put the genie back in the bottle and b) you’ll piss people off by trying. 3e owed a lot to the OGL, trying to constrict and thus pissing off the third party publishers and fan publishers was a disaster.
  • The shiny cool looking online tools never manifested, at least not in the style and promise they’d been touted as having. It comes to something when the Neverwinter flash game on facebook is a better and more immersive experience than your online tools.
  • 3.0-3.5 freed up the game to be much more customisable and RP friendly, looser class/skill meant you could represent and play a much broader variety of characters. The RP options were – potentially – infinite. 4e, comparatively, was a huge leap backwards.
  • It was stupid to try and compete directly with the MMO model (niche protection, subscription model in the way it was handled). The strengths of RPGs were not played to.
I haven’t played every edition of D&D but there’s always something that gets in the way and frustrates me. With Basic it was the simplicity of the rules in that they were inflexible and frustratingly incapable of dealing with things I wanted to do, plus my heroes were damn fragile and there was no engaging world expressed.
With AD&D you could get it to do more things you wanted but only really at the end of its 2e incarnation and only by hacking the rules with all sorts of options and house rules. One game of D&D was often nothing like another. At least AD&D moved away from the wargame roots and had some engaging worlds.
3rd Edition finally felt like a ‘proper’ RPG, but it was still, basically, a fibreglass shell over the same old 2CV engine. Multiclassing was easy, but then classes themselves were an issue. The skill system was great for customising characters, but made ‘Rogue’ the default option for anyone who wanted to be a skilful expert. While the OGL lead to a massive amount of creativity and a gaming renaissance, it did also make it ‘messy’. Still I’d rather have that than not. Making up monsters and NPCs was a chore in 3e too, but at least it was directly relatable to characters.
4e was, for me, a massive leap backwards, back to much more hard and fast classes and niches, very difficult to adapt (due to the nature of powers), bloated with powers exception cases, disunified rules and so on. Some of this has been ‘patched’ (fibreglass body shell again) in the later ‘core’ books but still… it’s a bodge job. The massive over-concentration on minis was also massively off-putting after we’d been somewhat freed from it.
Enough armchair analysis of the past, what about the future?
  • MMOs do niche, combat oriented dungeon bashing better.
  • Lego Heroica – and others – do intro games better.
  • Ground in crunchy build-your-own has been lost to Pathfinder.
  • 3PP/fans are still pissed over the GSL and Hasbro heavy handedness and contradicting statements/enforcement.
  • Fantasy Flight do mini board games better.
So, what would I do?
I see two possible paths, but I wouldn’t want to pursue both because that would divide the audience. Either you need to go for something easy, graspable and universal and keep it that way, or you need to embrace what makes RPGs unique, special and makes them work so well. Of these, I’d prefer D&D to finally become an actual RPG, but I can see the worth in both.

Whoa there hoss, D&D IS an RPG!

Sure, in the sense homo habilis is a computer programmer from Milton Keynes. While people bitched about 2e, 3e and 4e for much the same reasons ‘It’s not like it was!’ the same few, new zombified, sacred cows are still marching on. Class, level, hit points in particular.
D&D hasn’t ever really been an RPG, it’s been a skirmish game in which roleplaying occasionally takes place. It could do more to encourage and allow for roleplaying and in my opinion, it should.

Option 1 – Simple and Universal

Strip the whole thing rrrrrriiiiight back as simple as you feel you can go. Hit points? Fuck no. LIVES. Classes? No. Cobble together what you want by picking ‘powers’ or a bunch of templates, like, say Fight/Magic/Expert/Scholar in various combinations. Levels? Bugger that, just improvement in individual things. Make it use d6s instead of dice salad. Makes it easier for people to pick up. Go Gamma World style in presentation and push the fucker in toyshops and bookshops. The D&D brand is enough to carry the change through and blow me if it wouldn’t attract a shitload of attention and publicity.
Option 2 – The Proper RPG
Keep the skeleton of the system and the world as is but concentrate on the aspects that make RPGs different (and in my opinion better) than the board game and computer game alternatives. The freedom, the characterisation, the roleplay. Budge the mechanics to be more freeform and RP encouraging, espouse that ethos in the books along with the mechanics, engage people in the story and the world, place it front and centre. Rather than rules – necessarily – teach GMs techniques and approaches, example heavy, explanatory, hand holding. License the same IP OUT of the RPG into board games, computer games etc using the RPG side for IP production and the other aspects as the cash cows, leaving the RPG side free to experiment, take risks etc without being held hostage or having to ALSO be all these other things.
Is any of this what’s likely to happen?
Is it fuck.
The only thing I will absolutely hope for is that licensing remains and frees up from the GSL’s next-to-useless absurdity. Your fans and third parties are creative and they drive your success. Embrace them.

Off the Grid: 4e Tactical Pool Expanded

Tactical retreat’ my arse.

Previously I’ve written about how we’re playing without a map or grid in our 4e Dark Sun game, very successfully as a matter of fact, by translating the normal slides, pushes, shoves etc that take place on the combat map into a ‘combat pool’ that acts as free-floating bonuses for either side to use to boost their attacks or defences. It’s an abstract representation of the kind of positional advantage that a group with high tactical skill and mobility can have over a slower or less populous group.

This works great for one-on-one and small unit tactics as is, so I don’t really need to expand on it as that’s where 4e D&D sits, at the skirmish level. Now that I’ve introduced this change though my brain starts to think on how I might encourage and expand the use of the existing rules I’ve created at the existing level of combat.

So, how else can we use this combat pool without needlessly complicating matters? After all, simplicity was one of the main reasons we decided to get rid of the board in the first place (and boy does it speed combat up). We also need to keep in mind that these bonuses are also available to the bad guys, should they manage to outmanoeuvre the characters. So, I think we’re really looking at other ways that this tactical pool can be spent:

  • Moving further: Spend points 1/1 to move further, up to your normal movement again.
  • Passing on your turn: 5 points to give your go to someone else on your side, your action becoming a distraction to the enemy that allows your ally to go again. Someone can only get one extra turn this way.
  • Taking an extra turn: 10 points to get an extra turn with your character as you outmanoeuvre your enemies. You can only get one extra turn this way.
  • An automatic critical: 20 points to automatically strike an enemy for a critical hit. A sort of advanced backstab, available to anyone who’s managed to so completely control the battlefield.