Sunday, December 26, 2010

i'm a slaya, a slaya, a d&d playa

With a jab of his axe, Eldeth forced the lizardfolk Savage to jump back. Using the momentary respite to glance over his shoulder, the stout-hearted slayer saw that his party’s dwarf cleric, human knight, and eladrin wizard were all sprawled in the dirt, unconscious and dying. “By Moradin’s hammer, that ain’t good,” he thought to himself as he ducked under a wild swing of the Savage’s club. Knowing there was nothing he could do except end this fight as quickly as possible, Eldeth embraced his inner fury, hitting fast and hard with his greataxe.

The tactical situation midway through our most recent Encounters session (#14- Watchers in the Water) seemed distressingly familiar: lizardfolk attacking, PCs falling. But where we only had four adventurers in the previous fight, this time there were a whopping seven of us battling the fierce reptilian humanoids. So although we got knocked around again, having such a large group of players allowed us to prevail through sheer numbers. Eldeth was satisfyingly vicious in this session as he sought to make up for all the time he spent dying in the last encounter. After chopping down the lizardfolk Savage mentioned above, he ended the fight by charging across the clearing and taking out the last pesky Magi.

The day after that game session, I went to the library to get a few books to read over the holidays. On a whim, I checked to see if they had any D&D books and was pleasantly surprised to find that the 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG1) and Monster Manual (MM1) were not only listed in the library catalog, but were both on the shelf. Nice!

I took the DMG1 to the airport with me on Christmas Eve and managed to skim through most of it while I waited for my wife’s flight. One section that caught my interest was the part about Player Motivations (pages 8-10). I didn’t remember seeing that section in the Dungeon Master’s Book (the 6”x9” softcover book that comes with the D&D Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit). Sure enough, when I got home and paged through the DMB, there was nothing in it about the types of players.

The DMG1 identifies and describes eight basic player motivation categories: actor, explorer, instigator, power gamer, slayer, storyteller, thinker, and watcher. The core assumption behind all of this is that “everybody plays D&D to have fun, but different people get their enjoyment from different aspects of the game.” Finding all of this particularly interesting, I naturally wondered which category might best describe my motivation for playing the game.

Here’s a brief rundown of the eight basic player motivations…

  • Actor: You like to pretend to be your character, valuing your character’s personality and motivations over mechanical game elements.

  • Explorer: You want to experience the wonders of the game world, learning about the people, places, and history you encounter.

  • Instigator: You enjoy making things happen. You prefer action over planning, and sometimes make deliberate bad choices to see what happens.

  • Power Gamer: You like to optimize your characters, choosing the best mechanical elements to create a perfect build.

  • Slayer: You just love to kill monsters, and you prefer combat to any other situation.

  • Storyteller: You want to hear the ongoing story of the game. It’s important that your character’s background is significant to the game’s narrative.

  • Thinker: You prefer to make careful choices, solving challenges and puzzles in an organized and methodical way.

  • Watcher: You like being part of the group, but you don’t want to be the center of attention. You just want everyone to have fun.
I immediately discounted the possibility that I might be either a watcher or an actor. Upon a bit more reflection, instigator was also out. Power gamer and storyteller were the next ones to be eliminated. That left explorer, slayer, and thinker. I found myself stuck at that point because there’s something in each of those three categories that makes me happiest when I play D&D.

Luckily, I happened to receive the Player’s Strategy Guide (PSG) as a Christmas gift and within its pages is a quiz entitled, “What’s Your Motivation?” Taking the quiz is supposed to help you find out how important each of the eight motivations is for you. I was game, so I sat down to work my way through the quiz’s ten questions. At the end, I added up the number of points I scored for each motivation. (Note: My score adds up to more than ten since the instructions state that if you can’t decide between two options, you’re supposed to select both.)

Watcher: 0
Actor, Storyteller, Instigator: 1
Explorer, Power Gamer, Thinker: 2
Slayer: 3

So there’s the official result… I’m a slayer. With that in mind, it looks as if it’s no mistake that I’m playing Eldeth, valiant male dwarf fighter dude, in these Encounters sessions. Although other warriors might focus on defense or fancy maneuvers, as a slayer Eldeth has trained from his first day of combat to cut down his foes without mercy. His greataxe is one of the most devastating weapons available. There’s nothing subtle about his approach to combat; he simply closes with foes and hews them down as quickly as possible. (FYI: The photo below is the mini I've been using to represent Eldeth while playing D&D Encounters.)

The question and answer in the PSG quiz that totally pegged me was #3…

Question: A social skill challenge with the prince of Efreet broke down, and now the party has to fight their way out of the City of Brass. What explains the breakdown?

Answer: Who cares? It’s time to stop talking and start kicking efreet butt!

Monday, December 20, 2010

a missed opportunity

Surrounded by lizardfolk and a wolf-sized spider, Eldeth popped up off the ground, swinging his greataxe and roaring defiance. “Thought ye’d killed me, ye nasty ugly brutes? Well, think again!” Just a moment before, he had been unconscious and dying, but then he somehow tapped into a deep well of dwarven stubbornness and now, bloodied but undaunted, he was back in the fight.

Last week’s Encounters session (#13—Chasing the Serpent) at Total Escape was notable for several reasons, not the least of which was that timely 20 I rolled on a death saving throw. That 20 went a long way toward making up for the THREE! critical hits that our DM had rolled against Eldeth up to that point. (When an attack against a target rolls a natural 20, it scores a critical hit and the target takes the maximum damage possible from the attack.) Knowing about those three critical hits, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I actually found myself cut down twice during the session. Some magicky-type healing from the cleric brought me back up the first time, and then that 20 on the death saving throw gave me new life the second time I was on the ground. Eldeth finished the fight standing up, but those three crits he took meant that he really burned through a lot of healing surges in this one encounter.

The session was also notable for including a skill challenge, the first in my Encounters experience. When our DM announced that we were going to have a skill challenge, it made me sit up and pay attention since I expected it’d be an opportunity for some fun roleplaying.

A typical skill challenge begins with the DM describing the situation and defining the challenge. The DM gives the players a goal to achieve and outlines what obstacles they face to accomplish that goal. In most instances, the DM will tell the adventurers which skills are associated with the challenge (the skills they can use in the challenge), but he can choose to skip this step and let them improvise which ones they use. The players then act in initiative order (or some other order of the DM’s choice) and describe an action they take to try to overcome the obstacles and succeed at the challenge. The DM determines which skill the action is associated with, the player rolls and adds any relevant ability score modifier, then the DM compares the result to the DC of the challenge’s level and describes the outcome of the player’s action. The skill challenge is completed either when the group reaches a specified number of successful checks or when three failures are reached. Whether they succeed or fail, the adventurers complete the challenge, there are consequences, and the adventure goes on.

You can see how the narrative aspects of a skill challenge provide a golden opportunity for some fun roleplaying. Each player needs to think creatively about what their character would do in terms of the story, and then how he/she can describe their character’s actions to the DM. In relating the success or failure of the PC’s actions, the DM can paint a vivid picture in each player’s mind and bring the game to life. Another excellent opportunity for the DM to inject touches of atmosphere and excitement into the narrative is when the adventurers are informed about the ultimate success or failure of the skill challenge.

Unfortunately, the skill challenge this past week in our Encounters session was… well, extremely lame. Here’s how it played out:
  • Our DM informed us that we would have a skill challenge and the goal was to track the bad guy after he’d left the Keep and headed southwest into rough terrain. We were told the skills we could use in the challenge and that we had to get six successes (I think) before three failures.

  • We then went around in whatever order we felt like, saying something like, “I’m using Nature. That’s a 12.” The DM would then tell us if we’d succeeded or failed with our roll. The players didn’t describe their character’s actions, nor did the DM offer any narration.

  • And so it continued. We went around the table, rolling skill checks until we accumulated three failures, at which point the DM told us we’d failed the skill challenge and as a result, each of us lost a healing surge. No reason was given as to what had happened in terms of the story that caused us to lose healing surges.
By the end of the session, I was sorry I’d lost that healing surge since the three crits that were rolled against Eldeth would eat up hit points … a ton of hit points. This was the first encounter after an extended rest, so that means I have to make it through the next three sessions with five surges. And I have the feeling that’s going to be a tough challenge for a feisty fighter like Eldeth.

As sorry as I was to lose that initial surge, I was even sorrier that we’d missed an opportunity to roleplay during the skill challenge. Roleplaying is an important aspect of D&D that I’ve found to be in short supply during Encounters sessions. There are probably several different reasons for that absence of roleplaying, but to my mind, the greatest factor is that new D&D players simply won’t know much about the nature of cooperative storytelling unless it’s modeled for them. I think that within the framework of the Encounters program, that modeling needs to begin with the DM. “The DM is a person,” according the PHB, “who takes on the role of lead storyteller… The DM narrates the action for the players.” With the DM narrating the game and actively encouraging each player to imaginatively describe PC actions, everyone’s experience of the game is enriched as characters come alive & as the adventure becomes an epic quest that everyone has a stake in. Minus that roleplaying/cooperative storytelling aspect, D&D Encounters sessions become a less enjoyable, much less fun experience than they could be.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

a lesson from moose the wizzard

“Hi! I’m here for D&D Encounters.” …insert a strong sense of déjà vu here.

After driving into Boulder to play in four Encounters sessions at Karliquin’s Game Knight, I was surprised to discover that Total Escape Games, my most local-est game store, was going to be starting up an Encounters group midway through Keep on the Borderlands: A Season of Serpents. I enjoyed the sessions I participated in at Karliquin’s, but those games were at 5pm on Tuesdays and I had to make a mad dash from work to get into Boulder in order to play. Total Escape’s sessions would be at 6pm on Wednesdays and since the store is literally right down the street from where I live, I wouldn’t have to rush straight from work to get there. So once again I found my introverted self nervously anticipating playing D&D with a new group of gamers.

I needn’t have worried, though. Four of us showed up to play that first night at Total Escape and Sheila Higgins (who owns the store along with her husband, Steven) went out of her way to get us situated and introduce us to Chance, our DM. Besides me, the other guys who showed up to play that night were a dad and his two sons. The dad had a story like mine— he had played D&D back when and was just getting into it again— and I think his sons (a 7th grader and a 9th grader) had played maybe once before.

We started out that night with Session 8: Saving Benwick and, oh man, did we get our butts kicked. Chance just missed a TPK by a hair. (For those of you who don’t know, a TPK is a Total Party Kill. Despite the PHB’s assertion that the DM “isn’t your adversary,” I suspect that most DMs secretly yearn to get a TPK every once in a while.) Right from the word “GO,” we were each just kind of doing our own thing and not working as a team. The 7th grader’s halfling rogue inexplicably went waaaay out by himself on one flank. He was still out there all by his lonesome when he went down midway through the session. Then, quite incredibly, he failed three death saving throws in a row and actually died. Chance said it was the first time he’d seen a PC actually die in two years of playing 4e. After that, the 9th grader’s human knight went down, too. That left Eldeth and the dad’s dwarf cleric as the only PCs still slugging it out with the two remaining lizardfolk. We promptly dispatched one of the bad guys, but then Eldeth was cut down (Nooooo!) and the cleric was left alone to face the last enemy combatant. Thankfully, the cleric took him right out and ended the ugly, sloppy fight with a marginal victory for the adventurers.

That was when I figured out that if you decide to play in Encounters, you need to be prepared to take a pretty uneven ride. I had been spoiled playing at Karliquin’s and I didn’t even know it. The other players there were all college guys (the University of Colorado campus is just a stone’s throw away from the game store) and extremely competent players. So sitting down to play with a 7th grader and a 9th grader at Total Escape came as a bit of a surprise. So did playing with the nine-year-old and eleven-year-old brothers who have showed up since then. But you know what? It’s all good.

The second week that the young brothers showed up to play, I happened to be sitting next to the nine-year-old and helping him throughout the game. I noticed that on his character sheet (which was done entirely in pencil, in a typical nine-year-old’s childlike scrawl), in the blank space next to character class, he had written: w-i-z-z-a-r-d. And we had already nicknamed his character “Moose,” so I got a quiet chuckle thinking of Moose the Wizzard. But as I watched that little kid playing D&D and being a hero & exploring a world & battling monsters, I got to thinking about how seriously we adults tend to take the games we play. Sometimes, sadly, we take them so seriously that we lose sight of the fact that games are supposed to be fun. As adults, we tend to view games as competitive contests in which we get a free pass to be quarrelsome, act rudely, and bully others as we seek, above all else, to WIN. I mean, just google something like “parents-fighting-at-kids-sporting-events” and watch some of the shocking videos that come up and you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about.

After switching to the Encounters group at Total Escape, I have to admit that I was a bit put off that I had to play D&D with a bunch of kids, but now I’m truly glad that I’ve had the privilege of helping a young person who is playing the game for the first time. Watching a nine-year-old boy play Moose the Wizzard helped remind me that at the end of the day, D&D is just a game… and games are about having fun & enjoying the experience.

"The child is in me still and sometimes not so still."
— Mister Rogers

Saturday, December 11, 2010

the great essentials hullabaloo

That first Encounters session back in early October was a lot of fun, but it was also my introduction to The Great Essentials Hullabaloo.

I wondered what was going on when I noticed that Eldeth, my pre-gen male dwarf fighter dude, bore very little resemblance to the fighter character class I’d been studying in my spiffy new 4e PHB. I mean, Eldeth had something called stances and I was certain I hadn’t read anything about those in the PHB. In the PHB, I’d also been impressed with a fighter’s ability to use Combat Challenge to mark targets, but I was dismayed to see that Eldeth apparently didn’t have that capability. What on earth was going on?

The guys at the Encounters session clued me in on the fact that Eldeth wasn’t a PHB fighter… no, he was an Essentials fighter. Essentials? What’s that? I heard various answers from several D&D veterans that night at the gaming store: Essentials was WotC’s clumsy attempt to push aside 4e & introduce Edition 4.5 … Essentials was a tragic dumbing down of the core rules & character classes meant to appeal to teenage videogamers … Essentials was ‘D&D Lite’ (said with a disdainful roll of the eyes). Huh? I was confused.

When I got home and started to research the matter on the internet, I discovered that WotC had set off a firestorm of criticism and confusion with the launch of their Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line of products. The line comprises ten products for players and dungeon masters, released from September (starting with the Red Box) to December 2010 (ending with The Wilderness dungeon tiles). I’ll give a brief overview of eight of the products, and then spend a bit more time looking at the two books at the center of The Great Essentials Hullabaloo.

Dungeons and Dragons Roleplaying Game Dice. Everyone who plays D&D needs dice, but you can find a perfectly nice set at your local gaming store for much less than the $12.95 you’ll pay for these “official” game dice. In fact, the only reason I can think of to purchase this product is to get the D&D dice bag.

Dungeon Tiles Master Sets. Three master sets of Dungeon Tiles (The Dungeon, The City, and The Wilderness) let you create encounter areas for any adventure. Each set contains 10 double-sided sheets of illustrated, die-cut terrain tiles printed on heavy cardstock. Each set is $19.95. If using Dungeon Tiles is your thing, then you’ll want to pick up these sets.

Dungeons and Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set, better known as The Red Box. The first release in the Essentials line, the Red Box ($19.99) was specifically designed to introduce brand new players to D&D. It contains a solo adventure that guides a new player through the character creation process. It also includes a group adventure for characters of 1st level. The Red Box focuses on the classic D&D races (human, elf, dwarf, halfling) and classes (wizard, fighter, rogue, cleric), so it gives enough of an experience to newbs to hook them without overwhelming them. The box includes a 32-page book for players (with rules for character creation and a solo adventure), a 64-page book for Dungeon Masters (with the rules of the game and advice on how to run an adventure), 2 sheets of tokens for characters and monsters, cardstock character sheets and power cards, a double-sided dungeon map, and 6 dice.

To be honest, there are only three reasons I can think of to get the Red Box: (1) you’re a D&D virgin desiring the easiest entry point into the game, (2) you’re a veteran player wanting to teach someone how to play D&D, or (3) for the nostalgia value.

Dungeons & Dragons Rules Compendium. This 6”x9” paperback book ($19.95) contains the core rules in a portable, easily referenced format. Unlike the 4e PHB, which includes material on classes and races, feat descriptions, & a catalog of magic items and rituals, the Compendium is pure rules material. It includes rules updates and clarifications (errata), reflecting refinements since the current edition was released in 2008.

Even though I already had the PHB, I also ended up purchasing the Rules Compendium. It’s an incredibly handy resource to tote along to a game session. Whether you’re new to D&D or a seasoned gamer, I’d recommend having a copy of this book at your game table.

Dungeon Master’s Kit ($39.99). This kit was designed as a product for the new dungeon master to move to after the Red Box, but veteran gamers may also find it to be a worthwhile purchase just for the cool two-part adventure (Reavers of the Harkenwold) which is included. The kit includes a 256-page book (6”x9” softcover) of rules and advice for DMs, 2 sheets of PC and monster tokens for use with the adventure, 2 double-sided battle maps, and a fold-out Dungeon Master’s screen.

I picked up the Dungeon Master’s Kit since I’m interested in DMing 4e sometime in the future. I don’t have the two hardcover 4e Dungeon Master’s Guides, so I can’t really rate the softcover DM’s Kit book as compared to them, but the Kit book undoubtably has all the information and material that a new DM needs to get a low-level heroic tier campaign up and running. Even leaving aside the book, I’d think the updated DMs screen, rollicking two-part adventure (which will take players from 2nd to 4th level), tokens, and battle maps are a worthwhile investment for any DM.

Monster Vault: Iconic Creatures for All Campaigns ($29.99). This product collects some of the most iconic monsters of the D&D world in one handy box and presents all-new variants, including new spins on such beloved monsters as dragons, orcs, and vampires. The monsters described in the Vault are designed to be easy for DMs to use and fun for players to fight. In addition to combat statistics and full-color illustrations, each monster entry comes with story information to help DMs incorporate the monsters into their adventures and campaigns. In addition to the 256-page softcover manual of iconic monsters, the hefty box contains 10 sheets (!) of tokens for the monsters that appear within, as well as a 32-page adventure (Cairn of the Winter King) that showcases several of the monsters.

Future DMing was also my excuse to purchase the Monster Vault and, I have to say, this is one fan-freakin’-tastic 4e D&D product. I was blown away by the large number of tokens, which will definitely prove very useful for someone like me who doesn’t have a ton of minis. The new ‘monster manual’ is beautifully laid out, with most entries consisting of a two-page spread with an illustration of a monster and some lore about its origin, habits, allies, and ecology. You’ll also find some information on how to run the monster in both combat and noncombat encounters, as well as details about adventure and campaign hooks related to a monster. Following the illustration and lore is a series of monster statistics blocks representing different varieties of a type of monster.

The two products at the center of The Great Essentials Hullabaloo are the clunkily titled Heroes of the Fallen Lands and its companion volume, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. Both of them are 365-page books printed in the 6”x9” softcover format and retail for $19.95.

Heroes of the Fallen Lands (released Sept. 2010) contains details on the cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard classes, along with rules for human, dwarf, eladrin, elf, and halfling characters. Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms (released Nov. 2010) contains details on the druid, paladin, ranger, and warlock classes, along with rules for dragonborn, drow, half-elf, half-orc, human, and tiefling characters. In addition, both provide an array of feats, weapons, armor, and adventuring gear, as well as a basic summary of the rules of play.

Someone reading this in the future (Hello there, future reader person!) may wonder what the fuss was all about, but much of the recent confusion and criticism surrounding Essentials stems from the fact that the classes presented in the two Heroes books are new, very different takes on existing classes found in the PHBs. Looking through a ton of forums and blogs, it became apparent to me that a lot of the negative, kneejerk reaction of many veteran gamers to Essentials was because they feared the release of Heroes of the Fallens Lands in September meant they’d be forced to rebuild the PHB dwarf fighter (or whatever) they had been playing in August. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

I think the most important point to understand is that the two Heroes books, like the rest of the Essentials line, are meant to serve as a starting point for new D&D players. That doesn’t mean veteran gamers can’t be excited about the different options presented in them, but the books were designed— first and foremost— as an easier, less expensive point for new D&D players to jump into character creation and game play. So that veteran gamer playing a dwarf fighter (or whatever) in August didn’t need to rebuild that character once the Essentials products were released. The Character Creation Police aren't going to come knocking at anyone's door to force them to throw away their PHBs and use the Essentials builds.

Once I started to look into it, The Great Essentials Hullabaloo appeared to be an ill-informed reaction by some veteran gamers, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. Essentials isn’t a new version of D&D. With the two Heroes books, it’s just new, optional builds for existing character classes.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

woo hoo! look at me... i'm playing d&d!

Covered in soot and scorch marks, I charge across the room toward a dastardly fire elemental. One of the magical beasts has already fallen to the bite of my greataxe and now I bellow a challenge as I run down another of the fiery creatures. Woo hoo! Look at me… I’m playing Dungeons & Dragons!

Uh, that last part is said out of character (OOC), of course.

I’m at one of our local game stores, taking part in a session of D&D Encounters— an ongoing weekly campaign shrewdly designed to lure new players into the world of D&D. And, I have to admit, I’m hooked right from the first roll of my d20.

Being quite the introvert, I was a bit nervous before showing up to play. The other guys at the session were all pretty laid back and very friendly, though, and soon put me at ease. I happily discovered I was well prepared to jump right into the game thanks to a week or so’s obsessive scrutiny of my spiffy new 4e PHB. And listening to a few D&D actual play podcasts also helped me act like I knew what I was doing. The only thing that threw me for a loop was when I found out I was playing a female dwarf.

You see, when they asked me what class I wanted to play, I said, “Fighter.” I figured a fighter, being a relatively easy character to play (“Me a fighter… me hit things.”), would be a good tool to allow me to slide into an Encounters session and put my book learnin’ (and iPod listenin’) to use in a real game. So they hand me one of the pre-gens, Eldeth the dwarf fighter, and I’m off and running. I’m hackin’, I’m slashin’, then about halfway through the session, I suddenly realize, “Hey, my valiant dwarf fighter is a… a… chick!”

Despite the shock of this realization, I manage to soldier on through the rest of the encounter. I put my berserker's charge stance (a fighter stance is a special power that combines positioning, footwork, and combat tactics to maximum effect) to good use as I run around, laying waste to my foes. While the rogue and cleric in our party take on the other elementals, our eladrin mage teleports next to an enchanted circle that is benefiting our enemies. He does some magicky-stuff and quickly disrupts the source of the mystical flames. When all is said and done, a quick search of the smoke-filled bank building by our band of adventurers turns up a slightly scorched map depicting an area outside the Keep with a location marked “Well Hideout” and a time for a secret meeting. Hmm… this is already the third session of the ongoing Keep on the Borderlands campaign, so missing the first two weeks means I’m a bit hazy on where we are, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it, but even I recognize that this map might perhaps be a significant clue. Hmm… maybe in next week’s session we could, oh I don’t know, ambush the bad guys when they show up at the well for their secret meeting.

Between now and then, though, I have a very strong hunch that Eldeth, valiant female dwarf fighter chick, will have somehow, magically, surreptitiously, turned into Eldeth, valiant male dwarf fighter dude.