Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dr. StrangeOrcs (or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Skill Challenge)

Greetings, Readers!

As you may know, I've been playing the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons since its release two years ago. I love the game, and do what I can to support it. Of course, no game is perfect, and where I've seen gaps in the rules, or a need for "fluff", I've tried to step in throw my two cents in.

One of the things I've always had an issue with, however, is Skill Challenges. I've written a little bit about them, and even managed to get myself in trouble for not really liking them that much. Despite the great work of Skill Challenge advocates like Quinn Murphy (@gamefiend) & Paul Unwin (@pdunwin), I just couldn't get that hang of them. Skill Challenges continued to feel "forced" & they were my one blind spot in the rules.

But not anymore.

Last night, I played a three hour 4th Editions Dungeons & Dragon game.  There wasn't a single combat (oops!), no planned encounters (oops!), and only one Skill Challenge. That's right, folks. I ran an ad-lib Skill Challenge.  Let me break down what happened for you:

The Set Up

The group I was DMing for last night, isn't my DeadOrcs group that I occasionally blog about. This is a group composed of my wife, Anna (@FELTit on the Twitters), myself, and two other couples. A good part of the evening's activities involved the heroes trying to find a specific sage, and asking him about these crystals they keep reading about in the area newsletter. The sage gave them their lead, but to follow it, the heroes would have to journey across the entirety of the local area. The quickest route (though a bit more expensive) was to take a river raft upstream to the town they needed to visit. Since the evening had been all role-playing already, I didn't want to break that mojo with some kind of random monster encounter. Instead, it occurred to me that poling a raft upstream might have some risk.  Enter: The Skill Challenge!

The Skill Challenge

I presented the players with the Skill Challenge by letting them know (through the voice of the Halfling raft pilot), that the water was a bit high this year, and that a spot in the river coming up would be particularly dicey.  The heroes would have to help the pilot get his river raft past the rapids or the craft would (gasp!) flip over and dump them in the river.

Off the top of my head, I quickly decided which skills might be appropriate for that situation: rough water, poling, on a raft, etc. I decided that Athletics, Acrobatics, Endurance, & Nature checks would apply. To make it more interesting, I decided that when rolling the checks, the Endurance and Nature checks could only be applied once to the Skill Challenge. The heroes could use Athletics & Acrobatics as often as they liked.

More Structure From the Ether

Since the heroes were only second level, I decided to make it a Medium Skill Challenge. While the "X success before Y failures" formula can seem - well - "formulaic", I thought it was entirely appropriate in this situation. I made a quick off-the-cuff decision that they would need to succeed 6 times before 3 failures. In addition, I set the DC for each skill check to the Medium check of their level.

What The Players Had To Do

This part was actually the best part of the whole thing. Going around the table in order, I simply asked the player what skill they wanted to use (of the ones I said were appropriate to the Skill Challenge), and HOW they were going to use it. This last part was important, because it allowed me (since I was making this up going along), to respond appropriately in case of either a success or failure.

Example: The Barbarian in the group said, "I'm going to use this pole to push off an oncoming rock, and guide the raft towards a better path" (or something to that effect). When he succeeded, I was easily able to tell him, "Holding on tightly to the pole, you wedge it against a rock, and push the raft to a safer area".

I did this activity with everyone around the table. Each character had to participate in the Skill Challenge at least once, with the remaining checks to be made by which ever character wanted to. I couldn't believe how easy it flowed. The players were actually excited about making their checks, even fearing what the group would think (well, not fear, exactly) if they failed.

The Results

The players LOVED the evening's game. They all felt that the Skill Challenge was logical and flowed really well.  Much better, in fact, than the ones they had participated in before (pre-written ones from modules).  To be honest, I'm not sure why it happened, but it all just clicked into place. Here's what I took from it, and how I'll approach Skill Challenges in the future.

1) Establish the event.

2) Define the skill parameters.

3) Engage player input for appropriate responses.

I know that seems simple, and I know better qualified folks than myself have come to similar conclusions. I guess maybe it's just that now having run a successful Skill Challenge, one where all the pieces clicked, and one that I managed to do without any prior planning at all, cinched it for me.  Now, no longer intimidated by Skill Challenges, I will be adding them to my DM arsenal.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ch...Ch...Ch...Changes in WotC Products - My Perspective

Greetings, Readers!

So earlier today, it seems that Wizards of the Coast (makers of Dungeons & Dragons®, Magic The Gathering®, and other games) announced at least three ongoing projects that would see serious changes in the upcoming year.  In no particular order, the three projects that changed were:

  • The D&D Miniatures line is being canceled.  They might release special editions of miniatures (for example the Beholders set we saw last year), or release unpainted miniatures with board game sets (like Shadows of Ashardalon), but otherwise, pre-painted plastic miniatures will no longer be produced.

  • Several book releases have been canceled or changed significantly.  Effected titles include Heroes of Shadow, Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium, Hero Builder's Handbook, and Class Compendium: Heroes of Sword & Spell.

  • Dungeon & Dragon web zines will go away as compiled magazines.  Instead articles that would go into these magazines will be included in columns on the DDI site under those titles.

I hang out a lot on Twitter, and when announcements like these are made, my time line becomes filled with all kinds of chatter.  Some it is useful (links to official sites, etc.) and some of it is rather useless.  I try to jump in and offer my two cents in a respectful way (if at all feasible), but I was locked in many meetings at work, and couldn't really participate in the discussion as it unfolded.  Since I was unable to really offer my perspective there, I decided to this post.

I'm not really going to go into what is being said about WotC in regards to these particular business decisions.  There are plenty of sites around the blogosphere that are doing that.  Instead I thought I'd just offer my own thoughts about these decisions.  So let me just take them on one at a time:

No more miniatures:  Well, not exactly, I guess (see the linked WotC announcement).  Look, I love miniatures, and when WotC started producing inexpensive plastic ones, I was giddy.  Over the years, I've bought many, and have quite a collection.  I never played the Miniatures game, however, and always just used them for role-playing.  Am I sad to see them go?  Sure.  However, I'm hoping this will open up an opportunity for another manufacturer to make something similar.  Reaper Miniatures and Dwarven Forge have plastic miniature offerings, so it's something that will be picked up.  So what if you can't pick up a Mind Flayer.  Maybe they'll offer a "Brain Eater" instead.  In the meantime, look for companies like Litko or Dapper Devil to offer acrylic tools to help you manage your monster tokens.  Tokens, for now, seem to be the approach WotC is using for the table top at this point.  The nice thing about tokens, is that they are easier to DIY.

My prediction?  Expect a glut of third-party offerings soon.  Also, expect the after-market sellers of miniatures to experience a small "gold-rush".  It's a damn certainty, that sealed D&D Miniatures Boosters and Cases will be a sought-after commodity.  Spend your money wisely.

Publication changes:  From my own personal perspective, this one was kind of disappointing on a couple of levels.  The first is that I was really hoping for a book of treasures to augment the new magic item rules set forth by D&D Essentials.  Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium (in a nice digest form) would have been a great addition to that set of books.  Those items are probably sitting on some designer's or editor's shelf yet, and will probably see the light of day in some fashion.  In the meantime, a clear set of rules on how to make Unusual and Rare magic items would be really useful.  I'm happy to make my own, but it would be nice to have a set of guidelines to go by so I don't have to "wing it".

I'm also disappointed that Heroes of Shadow is going to be a hardcover book.  I understand why they probably did that, as some of the classes in that book aren't really Essentials classes, and it makes sense to differentiate that line.  That's a business decision.  I get that.  However, the fan-boy in me is a HUGE fan of the digest format.  The digest format is handier at the table and looks better on my book shelf.  I know that's a personal asthetics thing, but now I'll have this book that really doesn't fit anywhere else.  I'm sure the contents of the book will be fine.  I love the digest though, guys.  Don't give up on that format.  I want to see more of it.

My prediction?   Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium will become a collectible card series like the Fortune Cards currently planned for release.  I think that WotC will use the Gamma World model here.  If you think of Alpha Mutation cards as equal to the Fortune Cards (after a fashion), it's not a big stretch to see a fantasy based set of magic items (The Emporium) modeled after the Omega Tech cards.  Try not to burn down Blogger when responding to this prediction, okay?

Dungeon & Dragon Magazine:  Having played the game of Dungeons & Dragons for over 30 years, I have fond memories of both of these magazines.  I grew up with them, and even maintained a subscription for a couple of years.  Print media of all kinds is being replaced by digital offerings though, so while I can wax nostalgic, I'm not going to fret about it.  My only concern is that the identities of these magazines will become lost if simply placed on the DDI site as articles. If that's they're fate, so be it.  I said my goodbyes a long time ago.

My prediction?  WotC will release Dungeon & Dragon magazine annuals.  They've done this before, and I think it might be worthwhile for them to publish a choice group of a year's articles in a book format once a year.

Well...that's my take on all the angst making news coming out of Seattle.  Like everything a large company does, you have to take things with a grain of salt, and stay posted.  Everything is cyclical, and one thing's for sure, good ideas don't necessarily go away. Call me a fan-boy or whatever, but I continue to expect that WotC will find a way to keep providing great content to its audience.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Anticipating the New Year

Greetings, Readers!

This is the kind of post that probably should have gone up on New Year's Day, but I have a tendency to enjoy my time off work a little too much, and thus, never really got around to it.  However, on this lazy Sunday morning, I've had some time to organize my thoughts, and thought I'd let you all know what I have planned (gaming wise) for the new year.

Before I go into that list, I thought I'd do a quick reflection on the past year.  2010 was a great year for getting things going for myself in the gaming community.  Here are some of the things I got to do:

  • I got to be a guest on "The Dungeon Master Guys" A podcast by Enrique Bertran, Dave Chalker, & Phillip Menard - three guys that are probably better known by their respective handles: Newbie DM, Dave The Game, & The Chatty DM.  These three dudes are real powerhouses in the RPG blogging community, and I was grateful to talk a little bit about my RPG terrain interests.

  • Not long after that, I was invited to a gaming group started on Twitter by Newbie DM.  Together with DMSamuel, ThadeousC, SarahDarkmagic, Gamefiend, & Chatty DM we formed the "Fellowship of the Tweet".  While we only played a few times, it's been a blast getting to actually play with folks I only just used to read about.  Oh, if you run into the name, "CHAZ STANDISH - FIGHTING MAN®, that's my character in the group.  He appears on Twitter from time to time, as well.

  • Scheduling of the Fellowship of the Tweet games has been difficult, so to fill the time, ThadeousC, DMSamuel, SarahDarkmagic & Myself started hosting a regular podcast called, "The DM Roundtable".  This podcast focuses not so much on one specific game (although we do talk about Dungeons & Dragon a lot), but instead focuses on the experiences of several DMs, some with years of experience, and some who are still learning & exploring the trade. Each week we have two special guests from the RPG community (some famous, some sure to be famous) and we all tackle the important RPG subjects of the week. We've already recorded some 14 shows, and I don't think we intend to slow down for the new year.  

  • Recently, WotC launched a beta test of the new Virtual Gaming Table they are developing.  By virtue of ThadeousC  elite connections, I was invited to do one of the initial tests.  It was a real pleasure testing a gaming environment with folks like Trevor Kidd (from WotC) & WotC software developers.  It was a peek inside the industry I enjoy greatly, and while it was only one evening, it's a memory I'll keep with me for some time.

  • Finally (and certainly not least), is the writing I've been doing for ThadeousC at his fantastic web site - This Is My Game.  I've been contributing some flavor text for Thad's "Ritualistically Yours" posts, as well as contributing a series of columns about converting Star Frontiers to the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules.  The posts seem to be pretty well received thus far, encouraging me to continue into the new year.

Despite the great fun I had last year involving myself with the RPG community, I am looking forward to some of the things I have planned for 2011.  While everything can change at a moment's notice (as life has a way of doing), here are some things I'm hoping to get done in 2011:

  • Appear (alongside with my wife) on a Jennisode!  This is scheduled for January, and I look forward to seeing what kind of questions Trapcast Jenn will throw at us.  Jenn has had a number of game designers, bloggers, and RPG community members on her excellent podcasts.  My wife & I are flattered to have made this illustrious list of guests!

  • Continue with DM Roundtable episodes.  With any luck, Thad can arrange for those of us attending Gen-Con this year to have a panel discussion with all you other fantastic gamers out there.  We plan to continue having great guests on the show, important movers & shakers in the game designer community.  

  • Actually attend Gen-Con this year.  It's been about 6 years since I last went, and I miss the chaos a good gaming convention can muster.  A first for this year:  My wife, Anna, (@FELTit on Twitter) is going with me.  My plan to turn her into a rabid gaming geek proceeds apace. I also hope to game with some of the great friends I've met on Twitter & in the RPG blogging community.  August might be a ways off, but it's gonna come on fast!

  • I hope to actually move my blog this year.  I'll probably go to a Wordpress blog, as there are tools there that Blogger just doesn't have a good handle on.  While I'm "fairly" web savvy, I'm not a coding genius or anything, so I hope I'll be able to wrangle some support from the community to make the switch.  I don't have the move scheduled out yet, but I'll be sure to keep you Readers posted so you know where to look.

  • Finally, like most good gaming nerds, I'm working on a SECRET PROJECT.  This one's a business venture, so I'm keeping the details pretty close to the vest, but I hope to have made some progress on this one by spring.  Stay Tuned!

Well Readers, those are the big pots that I have bubbling at the moment.  With everything going on, I really hope it turns out to be a GREAT YEAR!  Please allow me to wish you all a HAPPY NEW YEAR!  My hope is that yours will be as great as mine!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.