A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer

16Mar/11Off

Splitting the Party

"Order of the Stick: Don't Spilt the Party" Volume 4 available at Giant In the Playground (click on above image)

Everybody says "don't split the party"... Most of the time the reason they give is "bad things will happen", which they inevitably do. The real reason is that it's a potential nightmare when it comes to doing it in a table top session. It doesn't always go over well when you tell half of the group "I'm going to ignore you for a while."

As I've stated many a time, all my campaigns as of late have been "play by post", so it's actually rather easy to split the party: just make two separate threads. Short of cloning myself, that's not a readily available option at the table.

In my campaign there are two specific instances that I can think of where the party will be split. One of them is a skill challenge scenario so it's not that bad to handle (it's basically a skill challenge in which you can't see each other), but one is the single most complex encounter in my entire campaign. And it's an encounter that I, quite honestly, really like. In fact, it's probably my favorite encounter in the whole campaign.

So when it came time to write up that encounter for the module... what do I do? I already ran the encounter once in a PbP forum and it went rather well, but looking at the original design I have to wonder how would such an encounter be managed in a table top scenario.

Here are the elements, described in the most generic sense so as not to spoil anything:

  1. Five PCs.
  2. Around 20 NPCs, most of which are neutrals and/or minions. Only one or two would qualify as true allies, and that is compensated for by the encounter strength.
  3. Short of a better way of describing it, one "environmental effect" that has a broad scope and affects everyone in a large area (categorized as an "Elite Hazard", if you must know).
  4. Two areas of potential combat that are divided geographically. That "division" involves a good two to three hundred feet, the areas do not have line of sight or line of effect with each other, and there is some blocking terrain features between the two.

Everything is peachy until that last one, and then the whole table top scenario falls apart. And it's not just a matter of mechanics, but of "fun": there is only one DM after all, so certain players might begin to feel ignored while the action occurs in an area they're not even aware of. And trying to run both encounter scenes at the same time might be a rather confusing experience; heck, I had a hard time doing it using the MasterPlan encounter manager (I had both groups in the same set).

I find myself forced to redesign my favorite encounter to make it one area. I'm not thrilled at the idea, but the whole point of creating this campaign is so that others can run it. And I don't want to create encounters that are simply not usable at the table.

So has anyone out there ever split the party? Any suggestions on how a situation such as the above would work?

12Mar/11Off

Utility: Truly Random Die Rolls

Image provided by XKCD - http://xkcd.com/221/

I've been a programmer for close to thirty years, and during all that time I've had a nasty habit that I show no sign of getting rid of: if I need a program, I don't spend much time actively looking for it... I just write one!

In the online D&D games I was a part of before I entered the world of the Wizards of the Coast forums, there was a certain degree of trust: the DM made all the rolls. The players simply said what actions they wanted to take and trusted the DM to not screw them. As a DM it also allows me to, every now and then, to "fudge" the rolls of the players so that things don't go from bad to worse for them (DISCLAIMER: If I ever fudge player rolls, it's always in the player's favor. I never do anything malicious to the players because I don't like how the dice fall). So far, this has worked out pretty well.

In the Wizards of the Coast forums I noticed an interesting phenomenon: players like to be in control of their own fate. They want to make all their own die rolls, even death saves (I've seen players do several death save rolls all at once, just so they know how long they have before they're truly dead). With that in mind, a lot of DMs go as far as to post the monster defenses right from the start so the players themselves know when they hit or miss before the DM does; with that knowledge, they can write the hits and misses in to their own roleplay text.

But there is little trust in this... Players can't say "I rolled a hit"; they have to prove it. So they use a variety of online die rolling sites: Invisible Castle and CoCo's die roller, and post direct links to the rolls on the site.

I've tried to use these sites, but they just feel... awkward. So I wrote my own: dice.brainclouds.net.

Now one would think that creating a die roller is an easy thing: just generate a random number every time. But I'm a computer science/mathematics person, and I realize something: computers can't generate "random" numbers.

A computer's random number generator is actually a complex equation based on a variety of internal factors. Since it is a mathematical process, it might not seem obvious but over time some patterns do occur. One could argue that similar patterns exist in physical dice; as the edges of the die wear, dice begin to roll a certain way. But I wanted something truly, genuinely random... So I turned to the place that provides just that: RANDOM.ORG.

RANDOM.ORG "guarantees" randomness because they technically do not use a mathematical equation. I'll let their website explain:

Perhaps you have wondered how predictable machines like computers can generate randomness. In reality, most random numbers used in computer programs are pseudo-random, which means they are a generated in a predictable fashion using a mathematical formula. This is fine for many purposes, but it may not be random in the way you expect if you're used to dice rolls and lottery drawings.

RANDOM.ORG offers true random numbers to anyone on the Internet. The randomness comes from atmospheric noise, which for many purposes is better than the pseudo-random number algorithms typically used in computer programs. People use RANDOM.ORG for holding drawings, lotteries and sweepstakes, to drive games and gambling sites, for scientific applications and for art and music. The service has existed since 1998 and was built and is being operated by Mads Haahr of the School of Computer Science and Statistics at Trinity College, Dublin in Ireland.

But then I thought of something else... "Law of Averages". If many people were using the system, if one person got lucky and got all the good rolls another person would get the bad ones. So I decided to make all the die pools unique to each person. In other words, imagine you own your set of dice that nobody else could use. Nobody will "steal" die rolls from you!

So there you have it... an over-engineered die rolling program. What did you expect from a software engineer, anyway?

Anyone and everyone is welcome to use it. It's currently in what I like to call a "beta" form, and is being actively used by several people on the Wizards of the Coast "play by post" forums, even though it technically isn't an officially sanctioned utility for such a thing. Maybe some day it will be.

Here you go: http://dice.brainclouds.net/

Finally, I also have the functionality on the website as a standalone application (that goes to RANDOM.ORG and retrieves the rolls). One of these days I'll package it up and distribute it. I'm also considering making something similar for smartphones, but that will take some doing.

11Mar/11Off

Overly Complex Encounters

"Out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge" - Winston Churchill

Part of my problem designing a D&D 4e module is that I haven't played a live table top D&D game in over ten years. During that time, all the games I've been involved with are "play by post": I'm currently DM-ing several online games, and playing multiple characters in many more.

And the reason I can do so many concurrently is because of the nature of "play by post". The advantage of PbP is that all the mechanics involved in managing encounters is transparent to the players, so the players may not be fully aware of the amount of work the DM has to do. Since all my games are PbP and I have a multitude of utilities in order for me to do that management, I have the luxury of making some rather complex encounters. These may not translate well to a table top setting.

Several of the encounters in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of my campaign involve NPC allies. If it were one ally that's not a problem, but I use them a lot, and in once very specific case there are five PCs, five to six enemies and - last time I counted - twenty-three allies and/or non-combatants. I can't imagine what it would be like to handle the status of thirty-four creatures using pen and paper, dealing with things like rolling initiative over a dozen times. Heck, most people might not even own that many miniatures.

So there's my problem... I really like some of these encounters (the one I mention above is my favorite in the entire campaign), but some DMs might take one look at them and think "No way I'm going to deal with all that!" For the sake of publishing, I think I'm virtually forced to modify them so that they are manageable, so that DMs won't be dismayed at running them and elect to either reduce the complexity or skip the encounter entirely.

Another option I'm considering is possibly including two versions in the module, or at least enough descriptive text to explain how to simplify a seemingly complex encounter. But that would feel kind of odd... Including a "normal" version and a "use this if you're crazy" version of the same encounter.

But something interesting happened relating to all this... In addition to all the 4e campaigns I'm active in, I'm also active in one rather epic 3.5e campaign (also PbP). In that campaign we are a group of eight 8th level players currently fighting over ninety orcs, most of which are minions. As a player it doesn't appear that overwhelming, but I can see the amount of work involved in managing such an encounter. Even dealing with all the markers on the digital map is quite daunting sometimes.

But in 3.5e it seems almost... normal, as if that level of complexity was expected and commonplace. In 4e, it's ludricrous. I assume that's simply due to the nature of the 4e mechanic, and the new level of number crunching involved.

So has anyone out there run these sort of "epic" encounters where there are few against many, or perhaps a normal encounter that has a lot of NPCs just waiting to be turned in to collateral damage?

Part of my problem designing a module is that I haven't played a live table top game in close to fifteen years. During that time, all the games I've been involved with are "play by post": I'm currently DM-ing several, and playing multiple characters in many more.
And the reason I can do so many concurrently is because of the nature of "play by post". The advantage of PbP is that all the mechanics involved in managing encounters is transparent to the players, so the players may not be fully aware of the amount of management the DM has to make. Since all my games are PbP and I have a multitude of utilities in order for me to do that management, I have the luxury of making some rather complex encounters. These may not translate well to a table top setting.
And there's the added benefit of time. It's much easier to do that much die rolling and encounter management when you don't have five people sitting across from you at the table wondering "well? Are you done yet?"
Several of the encounters in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of my campaign involve NPC allies. If it were one ally that's not a problem, but I use them a lot, and in once very specific case there are five PCs, five to six enemies and twenty-three allies. I can't imagine what it would be like to handle the status of thirty-four creatures using pen and paper, dealing with things like rolling initiative over twenty times. Heck, most people might not even own that many miniatures.
So there's my problem... I really like some of these encounters (the one I mention above is my favorite in the entire campaign), but some DMs might take one look at them and think "no way I'm going to deal with all that!" For the sake of publishing, I'm forced to modify them so that they are manageable, so that DMs won't be dismayed at running them, preferring to reduce the complexity or skip the encounter entirely.
I've been interested in getting a feel for live games once again, even if it was simply observing and not an active player. Maybe then I'll have a better idea of whether these encounters really are as complex as I fear them to be.
9Mar/11Off

Skill Challenge: The Interview

POSSIBLE SPOILER WARNING: If you are participating in my campaign, or intend to participate in it, you may not want to read the attached PDF.

Skill challenges have always been my heroic flaw. I don't think I've been able to run a skill challenge correctly yet, but I'm getting there. A boatload of online resources and posts on other blogs surely helped me get it together, and I suggest everyone to look those up if they're having as much trouble as I.

The first scene in my campaign isn't an encounter... It's an interview. The five players are brought before the rulers of the village of Solis and essentially interrogated for the job of "village protectors". Depending on how they respond, the nobles might like them (in which case they'll actually support their efforts) or despise them (in which case they don't really care if the players die painfully).

In concept this was perfect for a skill challenge, but the mechanic didn't quite fit as it was designed. There were a few concerns:

  1. The party wasn't doing this as a collective; each person was being interrogated one at a time. They may be able to assist each other, but they can't speak out of turn.
  2. There were two people asking the questions, and they were both radically different individuals: one was a soldier and war general, the other was a mystic. The DCs should definitely not be the same.
  3. It was an interview to gauge the ability of the players... Should the players' reactions be restricted to a handful of "primary" skills? Almost anything should be fair game (I had a hard time figuring a way that Stealth could be used, though).
  4. The two people asking the questions have a high degree of bias for certain races and classes; there are certain types of people that they will be more sympathetic to, and others that they will have a seething hatred for. For example, they're elves who worship Corellon... so God help you if you're a drow.

Here is "Chapter 1, Scene 1" from my upcoming campaign, edited slightly to remove the really major plot spoilers (no "Conclusion"). You'll note a few changes to the skill challenge mechanic:

  • Number of failures is irrelevant; only successes count. Furthermore, a PC has the option of not doing a skill check at all. If you're no good at being diplomatic or talkative, you don't have to force yourself to succeed. You simply don't do anything (you can speak, but it doesn't have to be a rolled skill check). In fact, if the players never fail they get bonus XP.
  • There are two sets of DCs, depending on who the players are responding to: Laris or Lia. The warrior reacts better to feats of strength and endurance, while the mystic reacts better to diplomacy and intelligence.
  • There are a whole boatload of modifiers depending on the player's class and race. You'll probably do great if you're a shardmind psion, but you're pretty much screwed if you're a drow rogue (you're lucky if they talk to you at all).

So here you go... The first scene in my upcoming campaign! Hope you enjoy!

Chapter 1, Scene 1: The Throne Room (PDF)

7Mar/11Off

Encounter: Hall of Spiders

We Xogo recently had a "Create an Encounter" contest. Unfortunately I didn't win, but I figure the following encounter should not be wasted.

During the development of my campaign quite a lot of things have changed. Rooms have been added and removed, creatures have changed drastically, the plot has been altered five different ways, etc...

The main reason is that certain things look good on paper, but when it comes to actually using them in a game it doesn't quite work. Many a time I have thought of a really cool idea that I wound up trying to railroad in the the D&D 4e mechanic, and the end result isn't quite what I had hoped. And some things that do seem to fit perfectly end up being a disaster when it comes to playtesting it.

On the massive external hard drive I use to keep all my campaign information I have one folder called "Legacy", which is where maps go to die. But just because they don't fit in to my campaign doesn't mean they'll never see the light of day. Maybe someone out there could use them... Someone like you!

So this will probably be an ongoing series of mine where I provide encounters or scenes that are disassociated from the rest of my campaign, and because I have no immediate plans to use them they aren't "spoilers". Maybe someone out there will breathe new life in to them.

The Hall of Spiders

One of the focal points in my campaign is, without giving too much away, a dungeon with very strong divine and arcane influences that has been abandoned for hundreds of years. In these environments there are generally three different things you can find: undead that simply refuse to die, strange creations infused with arcane energies or nature simply taking residence in a nice comfy place. This is the latter of the three.

This encounter was the very first encounter I developed for my campaign, at a time when I had no idea what the rest of the zone was going to contain. I didn't even know what this was the entrance to... A castle? A lair? The local inn?

After everything else in the zone was developed, this seemed horribly out of place. And the fact that it came immediately after a complicated encounter with a lot of enemies didn't help; I know some would argue that it goes against some sort of DM's obligation, but I simply didn't want to keep slamming the PCs with encounter after encounter.

Originally this had a fixed amount of minions, which you are most certainly welcome to do to simplify your life (I had six Spiderlings in the original design), but recently I read the article by Mario Podeshi on Save Versus Death called "Endless Hordes" Minions and I wondered "why does the number of spiderlings have to be finite?"

So here it is... The Hall of Spiders (Level 4+ Encounter)

 

Enjoy! If you do use it, or make any modifications to it, do let me know.