A little “meh” on D&D for the moment

I haven’t been blogging much recently, which is in part because I’ve been spending a lot of my time on Chaos & Alchemy (currently working on setting up a Kickstarter to run in the next month or so). My audience here on Online Dungeon Master is interested in D&D, not necessarily my new game company, so I try not to inundate you all with content about the game. However, I will note that I’ve opened a call for artists to do color illustrations for the cards – let me know if you’re interested!

Another reason that I haven’t been blogging much is that I’m not as passionate about D&D right now. Again, that’s in part because my gaming passion is elsewhere, and for a while I thought that was all there was to it.

Drow again?

As I reflect more, though, I realize that there are two other things that are keeping my D&D passion in check. The first is that I’m really not digging D&D Encounters this season. I’m still running the game every week, but it’s not grabbing me. I’m kind of sick of the drow, frankly, and knowing that there’s still MORE drow to come in the next season has me feeling a little depressed. Drow are evil and all, I get it. Can we move on now?

I’ve still been creating maps of the encounters, so I’ve included the Week 5 and Week 7 maps below (I was out of town for week 4 and 6, and week 6 didn’t use a map anyway). Enjoy!

Drow Library Map – Gridded

Drow Library Map – No grid

Underdark Antechamber Map – Gridded

Underdark Antechamber Map – No Grid

The impact of D&D Next

The other thing that has me feeling down is D&D Next. It’s not that I don’t like the system – I’m sure it’s going to end up being really cool. But I currently play 4e, and with all of the community’s attention being on Next, I find it hard to get psyched up about 4e.

The obvious solution to this problem is “Play D&D Next!” And I will, eventually. But I ran the first open playtest, and I think that might have been a mistake for me. I appreciated the quickness of combat, but I was really bored with the Caves of Chaos. Also, the limited pre-generated characters didn’t seem exciting.

Now, had I waited for the second batch of stuff that came out just before GenCon before jumping into the playtest, I think I would have been much happier. The new fighter looks like a lot more fun, and having character creation rules is a very big deal. But by the time that packet came out, I was already getting to the point of ignoring D&D Next. I read the second packet, but I didn’t feel inspired to play it. Again, that’s partly because my time was on Chaos & Alchemy, but it’s also partly because my groups didn’t have that much fun with the first playtest packet, and I didn’t feel passionate about getting them to try the second.

What’s next?

So where do I go from here? Well, for the immediate future I’m going to be busy with Chaos & Alchemy. But I’d like to get back to running a regular D&D game. My online family campaign for Madness at Gardmore Abbey has been on hold for many months, but I’ve got it all prepped and ready to go in MapTool; that’s the most likely place to resume. I’d also like to get back to trying D&D Next; I haven’t even looked at the latest playtest packet yet, and that’s a shame.

But I’m not in any hurry to do that stuff. I have other hobbies occupying my free time right now, and I’m okay with that. D&D will wax in my interest again, but it’s in a waning phase right now. And that’s okay.

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

D&D Next playtest results and opinions

Since the launch of the public D&D Next playtest on May 24, I have been diligently trying out the game. I ran one session for my regular group of friends at home (home group), one session for a small group of players I know via play at the Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS group), and two sessions for my Friday night online group (once the prohibition against testing over the internet was dropped). All four sessions were with me as the DM, so I have not yet experienced D&D Next from the player’s side of the screen. I was using the Caves of Chaos adventure for all sessions.

Throughout the whole process, I’ve been keeping in mind that this is just the initial public playtest, not the final game, and I’ve encouraged my players to do the same.

The home group stormed the kobold caves in search of a piece of the Eye of Gruumsh. The FLGS group stormed the hobgoblin/goblin caves in search of a kidnapped heir. The online group got sidetracked into the kobold caves in their search for the Eye of Gruumsh in session one before heading in the right direction into the minotaur caves in session two.

Caves of Chaos map by The Weem

The good

Combat was quick, as promised. Whether online or in-person, combat was much faster than the 4e that we’re used to. It was nice not to have to track a bunch of fiddly bonuses and conditions – although this was only 1st level, and I don’t know how that stuff will be at, say, 8th level.

With the relatively light amount of plot and rules, I was forced to improvise a lot on the DM side of the screen, and I had a lot of fun doing so. I could probably achieve the same result if I just ran a low-prep 4e session, but I’ve never actually done that.

Players who lean toward older editions of D&D really liked the feel of the game. It looks like WotC is succeeding in making an edition that “feels like D&D” to a lot of folks.

Advantage/disadvantage is a fun mechanic on both sides of the screen.

Not being able to heal completely between fights made it feel like the players’ decisions mattered more. They liked that.

The Race/Class/Theme/Background setup of the characters made several players feel more connected to the characters from a role-playing perspective. Having a trade for the Commoner theme was great.

The Herbalism skill was popular – letting the cleric create potions and Healer’s Kits for half price.

Number of hit points felt about right for the PCs.

The dying mechanic felt fun and exciting.

Coup de grace is satisfyingly vicious in the right circumstances.

The not so good

The characters were pretty limited in their options in combat. We’re hopeful that this might change with later modules.

Since hiding requires your action for the turn, players pretty much never wanted to do it, even the rogue.

Jumping across a 10-foot gap is pretty darn easy if you let characters extend their arms – even an 8 Strength character can clear it.

Having magical attacks like Radiant Lance going against AC felt weird. Simpler, though.

Tactically-minded players found combat to be kind of boring.

We miss opportunity attacks – and yes, I know this will be coming in a later module.

We miss spell cards. It’s a pain to have to refer to a separate book to figure out what the wizard’s spells do. 4e had this right.

The rogue needs more options for explicitly getting advantage. Hiding, as mentioned earlier, was not fun.

The fighter seemed pretty ridiculously powerful compared to the other characters in combat. That’s a lot of damage! And it wasn’t even interesting – the fighter swings his axe and either deals a crapton of damage or 3 damage on a miss. Rinse and repeat.

It would be nice to have all of the skills in one place, rather than the Rogue’s split between two different pages.

We need rules for swarms of monsters – fighting 34+ kobolds, sometimes with advantage or disadvantage, would have gotten really slow if I hadn’t been using a computer for the dice rolling.

I’m hoping that published adventures in Next will not all be so sandboxy. The free-form stuff can be fun, but it can also be fun to have some plot. I’d like to see what Next can do with a set-piece encounter as well.

The players who like 4e and Pathfinder weren’t very excited about this game in general. They didn’t see anything yet that makes them feel like switching (again, though, this is an early playtest).


Overall, I had some fun with this first round of playtesting. By the end of the fourth session, though, I was pretty much done with it. The online group had a final  battle when they found the Eye of Gruumsh piece and it basically possessed the rogue, who turned evil and super-powerful, leading to a player versus player battle that ended in lots of death. With the party pretty much wiped out, I was relieved to be done.

I’ll certainly keep testing D&D Next as new playtests come out, and I’m hopeful that it will end up being a game that I really enjoy a lot. There’s some good stuff here, but it’s not as fun as 4th Edition to me right now. In its final version, though, here’s hoping!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

P.S. Thank you again to the Weem for the awesome Caves of Chaos maps. They were tremendously helpful!

D&D Next – First playtest report

I had the pleasure of having my gaming group over to the house on Sunday for our first playtest of D&D Next. We played for about 4 hours, with the first 30 minutes being about character selection and rules discussion and the last 30 minutes for talking about the session and providing feedback.

First, I want to give a big shout-out to the Weem, who provided a great map for the Caves of Chaos that I used in my MapTool + projector setup at the table. It’s so nice to not have to draw the maps myself! I’ll admit that I was a moron and that it took me a while to realize that each square represented 10 feet instead of 5, but that’s not Weem’s fault – the map says it quite clearly!


Since I always run my games via MapTool, even in-person, I started by plopping the Weem’s map into a fresh campaign file, and then built some monsters. I began with my own 4e campaign framework, and then stripped things down to work for D&D Next. This was mostly easy, though it was a bit messy to write a macro that correctly handles advantage and disadvantage. I got there, though!

There are 34 monsters in the Bestiary for Next, and I prepped about 20 of them prior to the game. They’re pretty quick to put together, fortunately. I like that! Note that prepping them means that I’ve set up tokens in MapTool with an appropriate image, the right stats (hit points, AC, ability scores, speed, XP, etc.), buttons to track damage and buttons for each attack that the monster has.

The characters

Since we had six players and only five pre-generated characters, the party chose to double up on the dwarf fighter. Since it’s a hill dwarf, the first player to pick the character decided that it was a hillbilly dwarf. He named the character Bill to reflect this, which led the person playing the human cleric of Pelor to name his character Ted. The dwarf cleric of Moradin then became Rufus.

The party was rounded out with Gimli the dwarf fighter, Shazzam! the high elf wizzard (she likes the letter Z – and exclamation points), and Stealthy the halfling rogue (my wife likes Once Upon a Time, even though her character wasn’t a dwarf).

I’ll note here that one of my friends was interested in the rogue until he discovered that hiding takes an action. That was a bummer for him.

The adventure begins

My players tend to be more interested in killing bad guys and taking their stuff and less interested in plot. This worked fine with the Caves of Chaos, which does not come with a plot by default. I gave my players some choice among the potential plots listed in the adventure, and they liked the idea of seeking the piece of the Eye of Gruumsh that had ended up in the Caves of Chaos. Off we go!

The group decided to look for tracks near the first cave they saw (Cave A on the map), and a good Wisdom check from Ted revealed kobold tracks. When he went closer to the cave mouth to listen, some kobolds revealed themselves and combat began.

I decided to run this combat in the “theater of the mind”, so we rolled initiative and started killing kobolds. They only had two hit points each, which meant that both fighters and the wizard could reliably kill one kobold per turn (the fighters with the miss effect on their attack and the wizard with Magic Missile). The little lizard creatures went down pretty quickly. This entire combat took all of 10 minutes and 15 seconds. Not bad for fighting nine kobolds with six PCs!

The kobolds didn’t have any treasure or distinguishing markings, so the party left the bodies alone and moved into the cave. They saw a passage sloping down to the right, and to the left was a passage with a nasty smell. They decided to investigate the smell and found a garbage pit full of rats.

Rat stomping

Combat number two was another “theater of the mind” one, with the tiny rats swarming all over the PCs. I decided to throw 24 rats at them – four per PC. The rats started nibbling at PC ankles, and the characters started stomping on them.

When the wizard’s turn came around, she decided to use Burning Hands – our first Vancian spell! She waited until her friends got out of the way, then toasted a dozen rats.

Bill the dwarf fighter strode boldly into the garbage pit and took out the dire rat in one shot, and when the three surviving rats had a turn in round three, they fled. This combat took only 13 minutes; not too shabby.


From here, the party started heading down the slope, only to trigger a pit trap. Three PCs fell in, and attracted the attention of four kobolds. Our rogue spent the first round of combat fiddling with the trap to get it open so that the fallen PCs could climb out.

We noticed here that the jumping and climbing rules make pit traps not very scary once they’ve triggered. Getting out of the trap is easy enough; unless the walls are particularly slick, you can climb right out at half speed. As for the people who didn’t fall in, they could jump a number of feet (edit: I originally said “squares” instead of “feet here – not what I meant!) equal to their Strength score, which was at least 8. Add in two feet for extending your arms, and even the wimpy wizard could jump, grab the far edge, and pull herself up. Maybe I was too easy on my PCs here, but that’s the way I ran things.

Anyway, the fight against these four kobolds was pretty easy for the party since they had bright light, giving the monsters disadvantage on their attacks. As I wrote about recently, disadvantage is a big deal, equating to about a -4 or -5 to attack. Still, with all of the shenanigans surrounding the pit trap, this combat took 19 minutes. It’s amazing that this feels like a long combat!

The little boss – a battle with a map

From here, the gang noticed that the passageway eventually ended at a large chamber filled with dozens of kobolds. I decided that this chamber would probably actually have a door, so I created one on the fly. They decided to explore a different passage instead, finding themselves at a locked door.

No problem – we have  a rogue in the party! The pregen rogue has a very cool ability that says she can’t roll below a 10 for any skill that she’s trained in. So she rolls, and if it’s less than 10 we treat it as a 10 on the die. This means that opening locks is no worse than a 16 for her, which popped the storage room right open.

The most interesting item in this room was a cask of wine, which one of our fighters created a hole in with his axe. He then replaced the water in his waterskin with wine.

From here, the next clear direction was down the hall to a chamber that had three tougher-looking kobolds standing around and talking. A frontal assault was declared, and we rolled initiative. I decided that, since there were two waves to this fight and the enemies had the potential to actually take a hit and keep fighting, we would use the map and minis.

All three of the “elite” kobolds were dead by the end of the first round. In the second round, six more regular kobolds came out of a far room, escorting their chieftain. The chief actually had some hit points, but it didn’t matter – he never landed a blow with his axe, even though he was getting two attacks per round. He always had disadvantage thanks to the bright light from the wizard. The whole battle took just under 20 minutes.

Getting a little bit of treasure in the chief’s room was a nice find for the party, although the wizard continued to be disappointed with the lack of hits from her Detect Magic. No magic loot here, guys – this isn’t 4th Edition any more!

Kobold genocide?

The only remaining chamber in this part of the Caves of Chaos was the one that had dozens of kobolds in it. Back down the hall the party went, checking for traps and then opening the door.

They saw a group of 36 adult kobolds in their living quarters, with eight kobold hatchlings in the back corner of the room. A debate ensued among the party members about what to do – kill them or leave? Bill the fighter won initiative and decided to step into the room, slaughter a kobold, and then step back.

At this point, the kobolds reached for their daggers and started throwing, mostly at Bill but some at Gimli who was next to him. Rufus, the cleric of Moradin, was standing right behind them, which meant that her Guardian ability kicked in – all of the kobolds would have disadvantage on their attacks.

Thankfully, I was using the computer to roll the dice. Having to roll twice for each of 35 kobolds would have been a major pain in the butt. When all was said and done after those 35 attacks, the kobolds had only dealt 5 damage – 5 dagger hits for 1 damage each. Disadvantage is POWERFUL! They only needed to hit AC 15, but you only have a 12% chance of doing that when you’re just +1 on your dagger attack and you have disadvantage.

The rogue, the wizard and the cleric of Pelor shot some bullets and magic at kobolds as they backed down the hallway. The cleric of Moradin stayed in place to provide her fighter allies with some protection, but she refused to slaughter the kobolds.

In round two, we had 33 kobolds attacking the fighters with disadvantage. A few more points of damage landed, but nothing too serious. At this point, the cleric of Pelor left her fighters alone with the kobold menace.

Now the kobolds could show what they could do. Since they were out of the bright light, the Guardian was gone and they outnumbered the fighters, this meant the kobolds now had advantage on their attacks. Spears and daggers started landing left and right, and before half of the surviving kobolds had acted, they had dropped both fighters to unconsciousness. The kobolds slammed the doors to their chamber.

The surviving party members came back, stabilized their fighters, and dragged them out of there. The aborted kobold massacre took about 18 minutes, including some time at the end that was just about the dragging of the fighters out of the kobold caves.


I’ll put up another post later with our actual feedback from the playtest, but I’d say it was a successful test overall. There’s no way we would be switching from 4e to this game in its current state, but everyone seemed to feel like it has real potential. The one person in our group who’s been playing for 30 years especially enjoyed the game.

We’ll keep on testing, of course. There are plenty of things that we weren’t crazy about, but we feel like this game can be a good one. Definitely a promising start!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Cover images for 1e D&D reprints are now up

It looks like Wizards of the Coast now has the cover images for their first edition AD&D Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual on their web site:

Hm. Well, I have to admit that I’m not all that impressed. But I’m hoping that they’ll look cooler at full size and in person. I’ve already pre-ordered my copies!

Edit: You know, looking at them some more, I think they’re better-looking than I first thought. I like the nods to the originals while still being clearly different. And as a commenter on EN World pointed out, they sure would look nifty if they were actual leather…

Quick Hits: January 2012

After taking a brief, inadvertent break from blogging recently, I thought I’d jump back in with some quick-hit thoughts on D&D Next, my own D&D campaigns, some non-RPG games I’ve played, the Order of the Stick Kickstarter, and the upcoming Genghis Con.

D&D Next

I’m liking most of what I’m hearing out of DDXP. Simplicity if you want it, complexity if you want it, and a real effort to reach out to players of all editions. The Dice Monkey Radio bonus episode featured yours truly discussing the game with some other folks in the D&D community. I can’t wait to get my 1e books! Yay for potential unity!

My D&D Campaigns

I’ve had some real life stuff interfering with my gaming for the past couple of months, and my Friday night MapTool game is currently on hiatus. Fortunately, it looks like the real life stuff has cleared up, and I should be able to resume that game soon. Yay!

My Madness at Gardmore Abbey and ZEITGEIST campaigns have been similarly delayed, though less explicitly so. I’m hopinh to run a session of Gardmore this weekend. I was thrilled to discover that Tracy Hurley, Sarah Darkmagic herself, included a link to my write-ups of my Gardmore Abbey sessions in her article over on the Wizards of the Coast D&D page. Woo hoo!  Thanks again, Tracy!

I’m also working on a new adventure in response to a reader question. I received a request for some basic “DM 101” tips. I provided a few in an email (this came during the real-life-interfering time, so I didn’t write much), but I definitely want to make this into a blog post. And I think an important DM 101 thing to provide is a good intro adventure. I did a lot of brainstorming on planes last week and am hoping to build the adventure itself and run it in the next couple of weeks.

Non-RPG games

I got a copy of Innovation for Christmas and have played it several times. Cool little game, and it travels well! I was in Florida and Pennsylvania last week, and a friend in Florida and family members in Pennsylvania all enjoyed it. 

When I was in my FLGS recently, I saw a copy of Kittens in a Blender. In real life I’m a cat lover, even fostering kittens for the local animal shelter. Still, I couldn’t resist – in part because the game makers apparently donate part of the proceeds to a no-kill shelter.

I finally tried the game with my wife Monday night, and it’s about what I expected – rather goofy! I think it would play much better with more than two players, of course. I find that there’s an interesting tension in the game when your “best” move is to go ahead and hit the Blend button in order to save your kittens who have gotten away, but when you have a kitten or two who will face death in the machine. The illustrations are adorable, and they make it hard to consign the fluffies to die. And that’s a good thing!

Genghis Con

The local convention is a couple of weeks away, and I’m excited! I’ll be running my Staff of Suha trilogy, and I have players signed up for all three slots. I was disappointed to learn that the Hero System game based on Dr. Horrible that I was registered for was canceled, but I’m still looking forward to trying some Dresden Files and Ashes of Athas.

Order of the Stick books

I’m guessing most people who read my blog probably know about Order of the Stick, Rich Burlew’s awesome web comic about a stick figure band of D&D adventurers. I own all of the books except War and XPs, and was therefore very excited when Rich announced a Kickstarter project to get that book back in print.

He needed to raise almost $60,000 in order to get the book in print. He blew through that in about a day. As of this writing the Kickstarter has been up for a little over a week, and he’s raised nearly $300 grand and counting. This pretty much means that all of the OotS books will be in print. Yay!

My only frustration: The comic is so popular that all of the special rewards (such as those involving signed copies of the books) are snatched up before I have a chance to sign up for them! Oh well; good for Rich!

If you love OotS, I recommend supporting this Kickstarter.

Looking ahead

Now that real life seems to have gotten out of the way, I’m looking forward to more gaming goodness. My new web site should be going live soon, and I’m excited about the improved look and feel. Fun things are afoot!

-Michael the Online Dungeon Master

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

WotC to reprint 1st Edition AD&D books – woo hoo!

Check out the solicitation to retailers: http://www.wizards.com/ContentResources/Wizards/Sales/Solicitations/2012_04_17_dd_1stED_Solicitation_en_US.pdf

This is excellent! I’m pretty much just a 4th Edition player, and I plan to pre-order a set of these as soon as they’re available from my FLGS. I’d love to have my own copy of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide in particular, but also the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual. And it benefits the Gary Gygax Memorial Fund. Too cool!

I’m very encouraged by this. Maybe WotC will have some success in uniting the D&D community after all. Way to go WotC! April 17 can’t come soon enough.

A plea for good PR for D&D

I’m not an edition warrior, and edition wars make me sad. I know they’ll always exist, but I hope for a day when they are barely noticeable.

I came to D&D too late for the last edition war. I played a little bit of 3rd Edition in 2002 or thereabouts, but didn’t really get into the game until early 2010 with 4th Edition. Thus, my information about the 3e to 4e edition war has come after the fact, when 4e was already well-established and people had taken sides. I missed the “people forming their opinions” stage of the war and have only personally seen the “cold war” state of things.

It seems to me that there are certainly facets of 4e that people who dislike the game actually dislike. However, a lot of those have become less prominent with the introduction of the Essentials books (for instance the “sameness” of classes and martial classes with daily powers).

It also seems that people who don’t like 4e dislike the way certain things are presented in the books. For instance, they feel that there’s too much emphasis on tactical combat and not enough on flavor, exploration and wonder. A fair criticism, and also something that’s gotten better in later books, but it’s something that’s not an inherent problem with the game itself, just its presentation. A good 4e DM can have plenty of flavor, exploration and wonder in the game.

Thus, I think a lot of people who hate 4e could potentially have a lot of fun playing the game if they wanted to. But they do not want to – strongly.

So why are there such strong negative feelings toward 4e in some quarters, rather than just apathy? If a game doesn’t appeal to me, I generally ignore it. I don’t complain about it.

I think it’s clear that a big source of the vitriol against 4e was the poor public relations (PR) surrounding the launch of the edition. I didn’t see all of the “4e is the new edition” PR when it actually came out in 2008, but I’ve seen bits of it quoted in edition warry forum posts and such.

It was bad. WotC seems to have really alienated a large part of their player base. This isn’t always a bad thing for a company – sometimes you’ll have customers whom you’re not really interested in serving, and it would be better for the company if those customers went away. But I don’t think that’s the case with the customers WotC lost in the 4e transition. I think they screwed up by alienating that many people, and I think they’d agree that they screwed up.

Thus, my plea: Please, WotC, as you move forward with the D&D game in all of its incarnations, whether that’s 5th Edition or something else, please make PR a priority.

Note that I’m taking the term “public relations” at face value here – relations with the public. I don’t mean marketing-speak or alternate reality games or weird PR stunts or anything like that. I mean, think very carefully and put real resources into building and maintaining good relationships with the gaming public as you work on new projects.

To be clear, I think Mike Mearls has done a very good job of this so far. I think the hiring of Monte Cook, clearly a fan of older editions, is probably a step in the right direction (although WotC will need to delicately handle the message here to folks who LIKE 4e; Monte’s columns have the potential to alienate them). But I could see it blowing up, badly.

Stay positive. Don’t bad-mouth other editions of the game or other games (like Pathfinder). Talk about what’s great about your new projects without dwelling too much on the perceived “problems” you’re solving . Think carefully about how your words will be interpreted before you write them or say them in public.

This is not an easy task, of course. One extreme would be to say as little as possible and to make sure that everything you say is carefully vetted. That’s a mistake, too. Openness of communication with the gaming community is a hugely important way of building goodwill. But you have to make sure the people who are doing that communicating have the right attitude.

Be nice. Be welcoming. Develop a thick skin (because haters gotta hate). Acknowledge what’s good about other editions and other games.

Even if you don’t get waves of people migrating to your game, good PR will keep you from seeing waves of people migrating away. And from reading comments online, it sounds to me like a lot of people who don’t currently play 4e are open to the idea of considering WotC D&D in the future, if it’s done well. Bad PR will make sure that those potential customers never give your product a shot. Be positive, open and welcoming.

You can do it. Good luck!

Skills in D&D 4e part 2: Player skill versus character skill

In part 1 of my skills series, I talked about passive skill use and rewarding players who choose to train skills. Now it’s time to share my views on player skill versus character skill.

It’s useful to note my D&D background here. I had a hint of exposure to D&D 2e when I was about 13 or 14 years old, but never even played a single session. I got the books and learned Third Edition in the early 2000s but only played a few one-on-one sessions with my wife and then one session with a couple of friends before things petered out. So, most of my real D&D experience has come with Fourth Edition since early 2010.

The old school approach

As I understand things, earlier editions of D&D (especially prior to 3e) tended to focus more on the skill of the player sitting at the table than the skill of the character in the game for things like social interaction, searching and puzzle solving.

If a player wanted her character to convince the town guard to let her through the gate after hours, the player would try her hand at making a moving speech, or telling a convincing lie, or scaring the guard into backing down, or whatever. The DM would then judge whether she had made a good enough play to get through the gate.

If a rogue was searching a room looking for hidden doors and secret treasure, the rogue’s player would describe going to each corner of the room, tapping on the floorboards, feeling around the window frame for catches, moving the rug out of the way to look for trap doors, and so on. If he searched in the right place and in the right way, he’d find the secret. If not, then not.

If the party were confronted with a puzzle, the players around the table would put their heads together and try to figure it out. They might beg the DM for hints, and he might or might not give them out.

The new school approach

In 4th Edition, things work a little differently. The player whose PC was trying to get by the town guard would likely be asked by the DM to make a Diplomacy, Bluff or Intimidate check, perhaps with a +2 bonus for good role-playing. A good roll of the die can overcome a lousy speech, a transparent lie or a meek threat.

The player whose rogue was  searching a room would be asked to make a Perception check. If he wanted to really take his time and search extra carefully, the player might tell the DM that he wanted to take 20 (more for 3.X than 4th Edition) and be sure to find every possible secret.

The party confronted with a puzzle might be told to make an Intelligence or Insight check to get a hint – or to possibly solve the puzzle outright.

My approach

Like most DMs, I tend to do things my own way, but I’m definitely more new school than old school when it comes to skill use at the table. I default to challenging the character rather than the player in most instances.

The logic of this approach is consistency. I don’t require the player to demonstrate the ability to pick a real-world lock in order to use Thievery or to lift a heavy object in order to use Athletics; why would I require the player to make a real-world speech in order to use Diplomacy? Why should they have to demonstrate that they (the player) know where things are likely to be hidden in order to use Perception?

That said, I certainly want immersion in my games, and I absolutely reward players with bonuses for being creative and entertaining in whatever they’re trying. If they actually do a good job of speaking in-character for their Diplomacy check, I’ll given them a +2 bonus to the check as well as a bonus point. If it’s a really fantastic speech or lie or whatever, I might just say “Success!” with no roll needed.

If they look at the map of the room and say, “You know, that bookcase looks a little out of place; can I check to see if pulling on any of the books triggers a secret door?” then I might just say “Success!” with no roll needed.

If they’re working on a puzzle, I’ll probably set things up so that they can solve it as players, perhaps using character skills to get a hint, but I’ll also give them an option to handle the whole thing with skills in case my particular group of players isn’t into doing puzzles. A good example of this is the Room of Runes puzzle in my Descent Into Darkness adventure (page 7-9 of the PDF). The players can solve it as a puzzle, but if that’s not their style, they can just use skill checks to get through the room without actually dealing with the puzzle’s solution.

Reward skilled players, but don’t penalize unskilled players

You might be complaining at this point: “Hey OnlineDM, you say that you focus on character skill more than player skill, but you just gave examples where skilled players can achieve automatic success without rolling the dice. What gives?”

Well, I admitted that my own approach was a mixture of old and new school, with a leaning toward new. What I don’t like about the pure “player skill” approach is that you can end up penalizing unskilled players, even if they’re running skilled characters.

A high-Charisma bard who’s trained in Diplomacy is going to be able to charm a barmaid into sharing some details about the last party to pass through the tavern, even if the bard’s player can barely string a coherent sentence together in real life. If that player says he wants his bard to charm the barmaid, he should be allowed to roll a Diplomacy check and succeed if the character’s skill is high enough.

In this situation, I’ll still ask the player, “What’s old silver-tongue saying to the barmaid?” in an effort to encourage some role-playing, of course. But if Tommy Tongue-Tied gets a great roll but can’t come up with something reasonable to say in-character, I don’t tell him, “Well, your bard stammers and then insults the barmaid’s mother. She tosses a mug of ale in your face and storms off.” I encourage the role-play, but if the player can’t manage it, we move on based on character skill.

Yes, this means that I’ll occasionally let a character with low Charisma and no social skill training succeed on a task that’s probably beyond their character’s abilities by role-playing the heck out of the situation, or I’ll let the low-Wisdom unperceptive character find the secret door because the player suggested looking in just the right spot. I won’t let this be abused at my table, though.

If a great role-player wants to be the face of the party but chooses to put all of her skill training in the non-social skills in a power-gamey way (“It will be just like having training in all of the social skills without having to waste my skill training slots!”) then I’m going to clamp down. A great role-player should also be able to role-play having low Charisma, for instance. If she comes up with a genius lie every now and then, despite a terrible Bluff score, I’ll go with it. But if it becomes an abuse of my approach, I’ll say, “That’s very creative, but let’s see what your character comes up with. Roll me a Bluff check.” I’d probably still hand her the bonus point for creativity, though.

This is mainly going to come up with skills tied to Charisma and Wisdom, and perhaps Intelligence to a lesser degree (recalling some piece of history from the setting’s background materials could test player skill, I suppose, instead of asking for a History check). But creative description and good role-playing can make any skill check easier at my table. If your fighter’s struggle to brace himself against the stone block that’s trying to close off the exit to the room is described in especially vivid, exciting terms, I’m going to give you a bonus to the Athletics check plus a bonus point, but a terrible roll can still result in failure.  On the flip side, if the player is absolutely convinced that the shaman is lying to him, regardless of the result of his Insight check, he still could proceed as if the shaman were lying (which, of course, the shaman might not have been after all, but the character wasn’t Insightful enough to tell).

Player skill matters, and if the players have got it, it will certainly help them at my table. But if they’re lacking in social skills or wisdom skills as actual individuals, that doesn’t mean that their characters must also be lacking when they play with me. Best of both worlds, that’s my goal!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

No more Pathfinder for now

I’m officially done with my first Pathfinder campaign after just three sessions. I would have liked to have continued playing, but other things interfered.

The big one is that my wife’s health has not been good, and she just needs me around more. I have to cut back on gaming time, and since this was my newest campaign it was the obvious choice to cut first. I’ve also cut way back on Living Forgotten Realms games, but with the awesome DM Andy having moved to New Mexico, I wasn’t as motivated to show up to LFR as a player anyway.

I ended up missing this past Monday’s Pathfinder game because I had to take my wife to the emergency room Sunday night, and she still needed me Monday evening.

Then, one of the other three players ended Monday’s session by bowing out of the campaign. He decided that he really preferred playing 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons and was getting out of Pathfinder and d20 System games entirely. With only three players left, the game was looking shaky; when I bowed out, too, that was the end of the game.

I met with Phil, the incredible GM running the game, tonight at our local game store for coffee and a post-mortem. Why did this campaign fail?

  • Obviously in my case, it was my wife’s health (although I wasn’t passionate about this particular game)
  • One of the players decided that he just didn’t like Pathfinder
  • One of the players was a bit socially awkward and didn’t really fit in with the group
  • We only had four players to begin with, meaning that the game was almost impossible to run if anyone was absent (or dropped out of the campaign)
  • Phil observed that a game like Pathfinder really needs a rules wizard at the table, and we didn’t have one

Some reasons that I would have expected the campaign to make it:

  • We had a fantastic GM
  • The story was engaging
  • Three of the four players really clicked with one another

So, there are some lessons to be learned here for future campaigns.

  • If you’re not playing with an already close-knit group of friends or family, make sure you have at least one more player than you need in order to run a fun session (if you need four, have a party of five or six)
  • Screen players up front; if someone isn’t going to click with the rest of the group, it’s hard to fix that problem down the line
  • Make sure you have enough system mastery at the table – if not from the GM, then from one of the players (this isn’t a concern with a rules-light game, of course)

I feel bad for Phil, as he’s a great guy and a great GM, and I know that he poured a ton of energy into this campaign. The biggest change to make for the future is to make sure you have enough good players lined up before starting the campaign. It may stink to delay the start of the campaign by a few weeks in order to recruit another person or two, but it’s the right choice in some instances.

RIP Father Beren, my first Pathfinder character.

Pathfinder session #2: Fun but fiddly

Last night was the second session in the ongoing Pathfinder campaign I was fortunate enough to be invited to join. As a player who knows D&D 4th Edition well but who’s still learning Pathfinder, it continues to be an enlightening experience.

The GM for the game is awesome, and he’s the reason I jumped at the chance to play (it’s not like I have an overabundance of free time – I’m running a lot of games right now!). We’re playing the Rise of the Runelords campaign path, which everyone tells me is a great adventure (and I agree so far). My character is definitely a real character – Father Beren, a gypsy cleric of Desna (goddess of luck and travel). Kind of a grim hippie. He’s developed in part because of my thinking and writing about a back story and in part because of awesome work by the GM to mention how various things in the game affect him (seeing horrible creatures and places devoted to the god opposed to Desna is repulsive to Beren).

The other players are fun, too – two of them in particular. One is a pensive traveler from afar (a druid with a cat companion) and another is a dwarf with terrible luck who decided to toss his crossbow in the fire at the inn because he was so frustrated with it. Our awesome GM played out a scene the next day where the dwarf went to a weapon merchant to buy a new crossbow. He first swapped a magic dagger for a magical repeating crossbow, but he does not yet have the right feat to use such a crossbow. So, the dwarf asked if the merchant had any regular crossbows for sale. Sure enough, the merchant had just gotten one in the night before… and he pulls out this fire-blackened crossbow that the innkeeper had apparently rescued from the fire after some crazed dwarf had tried to burn it. Classic.

I’m obviously having lots of fun, but it’s due to the other people around the table. What about the system itself so far?

Well, Pathfinder is way more fiddly than 4th Edition. It’s more simulationist while 4e is more gamist. And so far, I think I like my games to be more gamist. The crossbow-wielding dwarf has had such a hard time hitting monsters in part because he’s always shooting into melee, which imposes a steep penalty on the attack until he can take a feat to get around that problem.

Another PC grappled an enemy at one point, which led to a lot of rule lookups. Making and sustaining the grapple wasn’t too complicated (the PC made an attack using her Combat Maneuver Bonus – CMB – against the target’s Combat Maneuver Defense – CMD), but once the monster was grappled we had to do a bunch of searching for the changes to the monster’s attacks and defenses, and oh yeah, there’s a dexterity penalty, so that’s an extra penalty to defenses… or wait, was that already included? Sigh.

I also miss power cards from 4e. I’m not used to using books at the table, but in Pathfinder you have to constantly refer to various books to look up your spells. I suppose you could print them all out on a few pages, but you have a lot more spell choices in Pathfinder. It’s a good thing and a bad thing.

I’ll admit that I’m kind of digging Vancian magic in certain ways. My cleric currently gets:

  • Three first-level spells per day
  • A domain spell
  • Four different orisons (minor at-will spells in 4e parlance)
  • The ability to channel positive energy seven times a day (minor healing or undead fighting)
  • The ability to call on the luck of Desna five times a day (a great ability)

It’s kind of cool to be able to choose those three spells and the domain spell each day, plus occasionally tweaking my orisons. For instance, we encountered a temple to an evil god in which was a small basin of horribly unholy water. Beren wanted to destroy it, but he didn’t have Make Holy Water prepared. So, the next day he prayed to Desna for that spell and came back to start destroying the water. That’s some nice flexibility to have.

I’m also getting used to the fact that I don’t have at-will powers like a 4e cleric exactly. On his turn Beren will either attack something with my starknife or he’ll cast a spell to make his team more effective; not both. I don’t mind playing a support class, because Beren is a pretty great supporter.

I do think that the change to Fortitude, Reflex and Will as defenses in 4e rather than saving throws makes things easier to follow (it’s fiddly to figure out the DC of a saving throw against various abilities), though it leads to interesting situation where ongoing poison, for instance, requires a Fortitude saving throw each turn until you fight it off. Honestly, the 4e saving throw (get a 10 or better on a d20) is a lot simpler and easier to use, though less simulationist. I’m okay with that.

I’m looking forward to continuing to learn Pathfinder and playing with my awesome fellow players and GM. I’m having fun, and I’m reserving judgment on the game until I’ve been playing it for many months and feel like I have some measure of system mastery as I do with 4e. But so far, I think I’m learning that I’m fine with more abstract game mechanics if they make the game go smoothly, and I think 4e does a pretty good job with that.