Campaign session zero: Group character creation

I’ve mainly been a 4th Edition D&D Dungeon Master. I had a little experience with 3rd Edition, but nothing before that, and I hadn’t run any games regularly until mid 2010. Because my players have had access to the extremely useful Character Builder program, character creation has usually been a solitary activity. Everyone creates their own character at their own home, perhaps exchanging ideas via email to make sure that we end up with a relatively balanced party, and then there’s a little bit of trying to make the characters fit with one another story-wise at the first session.

This weekend, I tried something different. I’ve known for a while that I wanted to run the ZEITGEIST campaign from EN World, and my regular in-person group seemed like the right people to try it with. One of my players, Bree, has been in massive crunch time in art school for months and has been out of gaming, but that’s finally done now (congrats, Bree!) and she’s ready for some D&D.

Because ZEITGEIST is a more story-focused campaign than I’ve generally run, I knew it would work better if the characters in the party had a strong connection to the world and to one another. I first floated the idea of the campaign to the players after an earlier session of a different campaign a few weeks prior, just to gauge their reactions. They seemed intrigued, so I sent them the players guide for the campaign (which you can get here).

I scheduled session zero of the campaign this past Sunday. I told everyone to bring their existing characters for the campaign that we were wrapping up, but also to have a look at the ZEITGEIST campaign guide if they had time and to start thinking about character ideas. I sent a reminder email about this the day before the session.

When everyone arrived, they seemed excited about starting a new campaign together. One person suggested that we fully roll up characters right at the table – and to use dice to generate ability scores rather than point buy. This was fine with me, so we went with 4d6, drop the lowest, assign the six scores as you like.

Thus, my recommended steps for Session Zero of a new campaign:

Step 1: Tell the players about the campaign at least a week ahead of time. Since this was a published campaign, I sent them the players guide. Had it been a home brew, I would have described whatever made my idea special and unique, so that they could “get” the idea of the campaign and start thinking about character ideas.

Step 2: Schedule a session specifically for character creation. Since we also like to actually play D&D, too, I suggest still having a one-shot game with existing characters as a side show to the main event of character creation (ideally your players won’t be jumping right in with the new characters – see step 10).

Step 3: Sit down together and talk about the character hooks for the world. In the case of ZEITGEIST, this meant the eight campaign-specific character themes, which I explained were recommended but not required. In a different campaign, this could be talking about the different regions of the world that the PCs might hail from, or unique ways that particular races or classes are viewed in this world.

Step 4: Ask if anyone is particularly intrigued by any of the hooks, and if anyone already has strong feelings about what race and/or class they want to play. Let the people who already have ideas here be the first to speak up.

Step 5: As the rest of the players one by one what appeals to them or not about the options that are out there. If they’re non-committal at this point, that’s okay; ask if they have any feelings about something broad, like the combat role they want to play. If a player is willing to fill in whatever role is needed, no problem. You can come back to that player.

Step 6: Start going through specific class (and later, race) options. I used the Character Builder for this, but solely as a convenient all-inclusive list of the classes. If someone wants to be a controller, present them with the different controller classes and say a few words about what each class is like and the ways in which that class might fit into the world or the ways in which you would re-fluff it for this world. Jump around a bit from player to player in this process.

Step 7: As people start getting their classes chosen, start handing out books (if the players don’t have their own) and blank character sheets. I liked getting to use my physical books for a change, handing Heroes of the Feywild to the person rolling up a Witch and Players Handbook 2 to the player rolling up a Bard and so on.

Step 8: Generate ability scores. We used 4d6, drop the lowest, and we went one by one around the table so that everyone could watch. This was surprisingly fun to do! Point buy would have been fine, too, though. Start assigning those scores to the abilities, and adding in racial bonuses as the players make their race selections.

Step 9: Talk about the choices that everyone is making. There’s a lot of opportunity for give and take at this point. The players will want to get one another’s (and the DM’s) input on the different options available. Maybe someone will suggest a class or race change, either because of the way the character is shaping up, or in an effort to make characters fit with one another. Perhaps someone will suggest a name for someone else’s character. This a good thing!

Step 10: Set character creation aside until the next session. At this point, the players who have the Character Builder will probably want to get their characters set up in the program so they can browse feats and more powers and so on, and perhaps even reconsider their race or class choices. That’s okay. Let them do the fine-tuning between sessions before actually running the new character.

I have to say that I think this process went really, really well. The players seemed to have fun, and their characters definitely make more sense in the world of this campaign and relative to one another then they would have if everyone had created characters on their own.

Once this process was done, we had some food to eat and then played a one-shot game with characters that they already had from an existing campaign. We set a date for our first actual ZEITGEIST session sometime over Christmas weekend. I can’t wait to get it going!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

I’m going to play some Pathfinder

Sometimes life gives you a weird confluence of events.

A couple of weeks ago, I checked out the Pathfinder Core Rulebook from my local library. I’ve since renewed it and have been working my way through it. This was just for the sake of curiosity. I love learning new games, and I know that Pathfinder is quite popular, so I thought I’d learn more about it.

Shortly after that, I received an email from the guy who ran the Call of Cthulhu game I played in at Genghis Con back in February. He was getting ready to start a Pathfinder campaign and wanted to know if I was interested. At first I had to say no because he was planning on running the game on Wednesdays when I was already running D&D Encounters (and once the fall arrives, going to my bowling league). Then the game changed to Monday nights… and I have no reason to say no! So I’m going to give it a shot.

I haven’t read the entire Pathfinder Core Rulebook yet, but I’ve read enough to understand the game in general terms (and sitting around the table with experienced players will help, too). The first session is going to be this coming Monday, and it will be a one-shot Pathfinder Society game to see how the players and GM gel together.  The plan is to start an ongoing campaign every other week after that.

So far I’ve tried my hand at putting together a first-level cleric, Beren. I wanted to keep things relatively simple but not “well, you’ve got to play a fighter” simple. Beren is a human cleric of Desna with a focus in the domains of luck and travel. He’s wise and strong and charismatic, though not especially dexterous. He’ll stab things with a starknife or bash them with a morningstar… or, you know, smite them with holy justice a few times a day (though he’ll likely do his best to heal his allies instead). I’ve probably screwed everything up in building him, but I think I should be able to get by.

Incidentally, I used this Pathfinder Character Generator to build Beren. I’ll admit that I’m spoiled by the D&D 4th Edition character builder, and I expected to see even better free tools for Pathfinder. Hm.

I’ll share more about my overall thoughts on Pathfinder in a separate post. But for now, I’m putting out the call for input – what should I be thinking about as I embark on a campaign in a new game system?

One-page character sheet from the online Character Builder

I’m at peace with the online Character Builder. I appreciate that it has the content that’s been released since the middle of last year – that’s its main benefit. However, it’s not as good as the old downloadable Character Builder in several important ways:

  • You have to be online to use it (so you can’t use it on an airplane, for instance)
  • You can only save 20 characters at a time before you have to start exporting and deleting them
  • There’s no house rule capability
  • You can’t customize your character sheet

I can live with the first three, but the last one has really been getting on my nerves. So, I spent a little time today hacking the character sheet for my newly 5th-level Elf Hunter, Greenleaf.

The original character sheet spanned six pages – three pages of information about Greenleaf and three pages of power cards (including magic items). There is so much wasted space in those first three pages, and so many extraneous power cards in the last three. So, I decided to create a custom version the hard way:

I used Photoshop. (Well, Photoshop Elements.)

First, I used CutePDF to print the character sheet from the Character Builder to a PDF file (I always do this for character sheets – I never print directly from the Builder).

Next, I opened up the PDF in Photoshop Elements, which gave me six separate image files.

After that, the copying and pasting began. I took the elements that I wanted from the first three pages and copied them all onto one page. I also copied and pasted the power sections of a few of my magic items onto that page as well (potion of healing, flaming longbow, shadowdance armor).

For the power cards, I really only needed nine of them so I copied and pasted until I had just the nine I wanted.

The final step was to create a multi-page PDF in Photoshop Elements. I went to the first page image and clicked Edit -> Add blank page. This brought up a message that the file would be converted to a Photo Creation Project (PSE), which is fine. I coped the power cards to that new page and saved the file as a two-page PDF.

Before (PDF version):

After (PDF version):

Now, I freely admit that this would be a pain in the butt to update whenever the character sheet changes, so I don’t think I’m likely to take the time to keep recreating it every time I play a new session. But I MIGHT be willing to modify it when I level up, since I now have a template to use – I can just copy and paste the new bits into their places in the template.

All of this is a long way of saying: Wizards of the Coast, PLEASE give us back the ability to customize our character sheets in the new Character Builder! I don’t want to reprint six pages when I only really need three. Thank you!

Creating D&D converts

Ah, the Christmas season.  That magical time of year when friends and family gather together and give the D&D fans in their lives the chance to talk about what a fun game this is and to turn them into brand-new gamers.

My wife’s brother and his family are staying with us for two weeks over the holidays.  My wife and I talked about D&D several times in the first few days of their visit, and they were interested in hearing more.

I received the Castle Ravenloft board game for Christmas, and my brother-in-law and I played it a couple of times .  Castle Ravenloft is a pretty good introduction to the concepts of D&D 4th Edition:

  • You have a standard and move action on your turn, with the option to turn the standard into a second move
  • You roll a d20, adding a modifier and comparing it to an armor class
  • There are D&D classes with the appropriate roles and flavors
  • There are D&D monsters with reasonable approximations of their feels

My sister-in-law joined in a five-player Castle Ravenloft game on the evening of Christmas Day, and while she was a little overwhelmed, she seemed to enjoy it.

So, the day after Christmas I showed them the online Character Builder (figuring that Essentials characters would be better for beginners) and helped them roll up their very first RPG characters.  My brother-in-law went with an elf hunter ranger named Homer, while my sister-in-law created a half-elf warpriest named Stasi.  My wife rolled up the sister of her beloved swordmage (another swordmage named Sora), and everyone was anxious to try out their new toys.

Sunday evening, the day after Christmas, we all sat down at the gaming table to really introduce my family to D&D.  I gave my in-laws a choice of three different low-level Living Forgotten Realms that I had prepared on the computer (using MapTool and my projector setup to run the game), and they chose to play a Luruar adventure in which they would be helping people at a magical college shore up some problems underground (LURU 2-3 Forgotten Crypts, Hidden Dangers, which I’ll be running at my friendly local game store this evening).  While my wife finished putting her character together, I ran my in-laws through a simple encounter with some orc minions, just so they got a feel for how battle works.

And then we were off!  We ran through the entire LFR adventure, with me scaling it down for 3 PCs on the fly.  Apparently I did a lousy job with the scaling, as I managed to kill off my brother-in-law’s character in the first battle (only the second time I’ve killed a PC).  All three of the bad guys in the battle had the ability to deal ongoing damage, and all three players had a horrible time with their saving throws.

The party decided that they wanted to take the dead character out of the catacombs and get him resurrected (rather than either give up or create a new character).  I introduced a cleric at the magical college who would resurrect him in exchange for a promise that they would work off the debt for the resurrection later.  The living PCs accepted the deal, but used some good diplomacy to persuade the cleric to give them a discount because the dead PC was working for the same organization as the cleric.  Good stuff!

Back into the catacombs, and the party made it through a skill challenge to get to the lair of the big bad guy.  They realized that the room was trapped, and they killed off the monster from the first battle that had caused them so much trouble before fleeing (a Kobold Rat Master, quickly renamed Rat Bastard).  They then retreated and took a short rest before coming back for the last two bad guys.  I had those characters move to a different part of the catacombs, and I’m glad I did – the original room for the final fight is pretty boring for the PCs if the trap is in effect.

They had such a good time on Sunday, that they asked what was next for the party on Monday!  They made it clear that they were really interested in the setting and wanted to do some more adventuring there, so I took a half day off work on Monday to whip up a brand-new adventure for them, which we ran Monday night.

This new adventure was a much better balance for the three-PC party.  They fought zombies, tracked some wraiths, bypassed a skeletal dragon (though they were sorely tempted to fight it), chased some skeletons through a series of rooms, and ultimately came to the crypt of a ghost who was using some portals to channel necrotic energy and bring more wisp wraiths into the world.  I’m quite proud of this encounter – it worked out even better than I had hoped.  I’ll write about it in more detail sometime – maybe I’ll write up the whole adventure as a PDF.

Anyway, I’ve created two new D&D players!  Now the trick will be to figure out how to keep their gamer fires burning.  We’ll probably play a little Gamma World before they head home, and maybe find time for one more D&D adventure (though I won’t have time to write a whole new one from scratch).  Maybe we’ll play using MapTool after they go home – who knows?  It’s been a fun experience so far, and I hope we get to play more in the future.

Online Character Builder review

As of Tuesday, November 16, the new online Character Builder is live.  Fortunately for me, I did not get a chance to try it on the day that it came out – from everything I’ve heard, there were some serious server problems at launch, perhaps because every DDI subscriber on the Internet tried to use the program at once.

Now that I’ve had a chance to see it in action, here are my thoughts.

The good things:

  • It looks pretty
  • It has Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Dark Sun
  • It’s good at recovering a character you were working on in case you accidentally close the program or it crashes
  • I have access to my saved characters at any computer
  • It has real potential for the future

The not-so-good things:

  • The character sheets can’t be customized at all
  • It’s a little slower than the downloadable Character Builder, at least on my computer
  • You can’t export characters to send to your DM or to archive on your own computer
  • The scroll wheel on my mouse does not work with the program
  • I won’t be able to play around with it on the plane tomorrow and Saturday when I leave for a business trip because it requires internet access
  • Did I mention that you can’t customize your character sheet?

I think my original impression of the program based on the initial announcement was about right.  One thing I hadn’t realized was that I wouldn’t be able to customize the character sheet as I can in the current Character Builder.  I LOVE to be able to get my character sheet down to one page, with separate pages for my power cards (I’m one of those people who likes to cut out the cards and flip over my expended powers when I use them).  That won’t work here.

For the short run, I’m sticking with the downloadable Character Builder that I happily still have installed on my computer.  It’s just a better program.  If I want to build an Essentials character, I’ll give the online program a shot at it.  But the Essentials character that I’m most interested in building is the Hunter Ranger from Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms – which isn’t in the Builder yet.  Sigh.

To be fair to Wizards of the Coast, I fully expect that the export function, customizable character sheets, support for house rules and use of the scroll wheel will eventually be added to the program.  But for now, the online Builder is inferior to the downloadable one.

Of course, the big news today is the announcement of the Virtual Table, which, as the Online Dungeon Master, has me excited.  But that’s a topic for another post.

Online Character Builder – video preview

Just a quick post to point out the video for the upcoming online Character Builder to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.  While my earlier complaints about it not being usable when you aren’t online still stand, I’m happy to see that the design of the program appears to be good.  I’m looking forward to taking it for a spin on November 16.

What do you all think?  Does it look like an improvement in usability over the current Builder?

The death of the downloadable Character Builder

Update 11/18/2010: I’ve added a review of the online Character Builder now that it’s available.

I don’t tend to write many posts about “news” in the role playing game community, but since I go by “Online Dungeon Master” I thought I should chime in with my thoughts on the news that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is changing their fantastic Character Builder program from something you can download into something that you use within a web site.

The good news:

  • You will be able to access the Character Builder on any computer with web access and Silverlight installed.  If you’re visiting a friend or family member and want to help them create a character or something, boom, you’re rolling.
  • Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Dark Sun will be included on the November 16 launch date
  • Macintosh users will be able to access Character Builder without having to boot to Windows

The bad news:

  • If you have no internet access, you can’t use Character Builder.  No more building characters during boring plane trips or anywhere without reliable WiFi.
  • You can’t (at launch) export your character file and send it to your DM.  This is a pain in the butt for me as a DM – it really helps me plan sessions when I can see my players’ character files.
  • You have to rely on WotC to store your characters for you and to make the application available.  Server crash = no character for you.
  • For those cheapskates who liked to pay for a one-month subscription to D&D Insider in order to download the Character Builder and its updates, that’s not going to work any more.

I’m sure that combating people who only would pay for the occasional month of DDI in order to get the updates is a big part of why WotC is making this change.  I’m sure some of those people will say, “Oh well, I guess I’ll pony up for a regular subscription now.”  But for people like me, who gladly support the company by subscribing to DDI all the time, there is nothing meaningful in this news that is good.

  • I don’t care about being able to access the Character Builder on a machine without having to download it.  I really only use it on my laptop to begin with.
  • I don’t have a Macintosh.
  • Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Dark Sun should have already been in the downloadable Character Builder by now.

From my perspective, in an effort to combat piracy / cheapskatedness, Wizards of the Coast has diminished the value of their best program for their best customers.

I’m not one to say that I’m canceling my subscription or will never play D&D again or anything like that – I really enjoy the game and want the company to keep making it.  I’m guessing this is why this strategy will work for WotC – their good customers, like me, will be disappointed but will keep subscribing.  Still, it feels like a bad business decision to take value away from your best customers (offline access being the main one) without giving them anything in return.

Now, the expectation is that WotC will be making other online tools available for DDI subscribers, so it may be worth it in the end.  But for now, it’s bad news for good customers.  Bummer.