City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities Review

City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities by Michael J. Varhola, Jim Clunie, and the Skirmisher Game Development Group

City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities by Michael J. Varhola, Jim Clunie, and the Skirmisher Game Development Group

I really wanted to like this book. I really enjoy the details of making a fantasy world feel lived in; breathing, functioning. So when I found City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities, I jumped at the opportunity to add such a resource to my library. But there was a singular problem I noticed within the first few pages of the book. The book did not deliver on the title’s promise. It does not guide in the creation of communities or cities. So then, what was the aim? I flipped to the Introduction:

“…the intent behind this book is to provide Game Masters with a resource for making the communities in their worlds more plausible, memorable, and exciting.”
Well it did that… I suppose. And that’s not to say there isn’t some good information in the book, there is. But that information is hindered by its banality, compartmentalization, and its presentation. Some of the sections are so surface level, the information presented so basic, I began to glide over the lines without reading. Like the stonemason entry, for example. There are eight paragraphs describing stonemasons. But truthfully, unless you are really new to the whole RPG, worldbuilding, history, fantasy premise you know what a stonemason is. Even if not, you would probably figure it out from the context. More damning is the stonemason has a one sentence line about quarries, but no mention of what type of stones might be common use.
There are nuggets of important info to be found though. There’s a sentence about the pitch of roof’s depending on climate, more severe to keep snow accumulations from collapsing the roof. It’s something I knew but could useful as a detail one might easily skip over. I don’t rememeber where the sentence is in the book but I CAN tell you it’s not under the Regional Influences under Features of Communities that speaks about geographical influences on a community.
The presentation is a mess. It becomes readily apparent when reading the book that it is a cobbled together short run printing of episodic ebooks (which it is conveniently). The writing suffers from a lack of editing. The grammar and punctuation are fine, but the content needs significant trimming. At 171 pages the book has zero lists, 1 sidebar, and a measly 7 pages of random generation lists focused on specifics likes guilds and taverns, not generating communities. The book would be both better as a reference and guide if it was not drowning in its own insulated content. In all seriousness judicious content editing and the formatting of lists and sidebars could reduce to book to almost half its size.
Take this first sentence under Rooming House:
“Rooming houses are accommodations intended mainly for members of the lower tier of the mid-dle class and the upper tier of the lower class and serve the needs of travelers who will be staying for a week or more in a particular area.”
And no, that’s not a typo. The book was previously 11 ebooks and there is the occasional hanging line break that shows up in the middle of a line now that the content has been formatted for print. The writing is long and obtuse. That is my largest problem with the book. It just isn’t formatted in such a way to be a useful resource. No granule of information is easy to find. The book forces you to sift through its poor language. Someone should have cracked open a proper RPG reference book, or at least an old science textbook to look at how to block the information to make it most useful to the reader. It’s the simple things like the Special Purpose Communities section not featuring communes, nomad camps, and boom towns. Why? Because they were already documented a few sections prior under Other Sorts of Small Communities.
That is the last, great failing of City Builder. It does so very little to actually help me put the pieces together and the bits that are there are buried in corners of random paragraphs. There are also a number of adventure hooks for each entry. I appreciate the ideas but would rather they be omitted and that effort better focused on making the meat of the product more usable. But even in the adventure hooks there is no consistency. Some entries have one hook and others have multiple hooks. All I wanted was a reference that would help me city build and guide me in designing communities. Unfortunately City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities is not that reference.
Really the greatest use of the book is it’s table of contents in conjunction with a few well-placed Google searches and Wikipedia skimming. Following the link trails of Wikipedia entries will better help you integrate the pieces into a living, breathing community. I would suggest picking up this book only if you are absolutely new to worldbuilding and need basic historical information. Even then it will not be long before your knowledge outpaces the book.
Favorite Entry: Pawn Shop
Why? I learned some new information about their operation, usefulness, and how lenient some of the establishments can be. From blatant usury and loan sharking to allowing a person multiple years, interest free pawning. I can easily imagine pawn shops getting heavy use thanks to their versatility in operation.
Least Favorite: General Store
Why? The book makes the distinction between Armory, Arsenal, and Blacksmithy (even mentioning the distinction of farrier) but then gives one shop for picking up all simple items. General stores were incredibly uncommon. Those few that existed were border wilderness trading posts (there’s a separate entry for it). The entries should have been combined under an ‘Outfitter’ entry. Both the general store and marketplace entries are infuriatingly underwhelming.
Table of Contents
Communities
Craftsman Places
Entertainment Places
Professional Places
Tradesman Places
Mercantile Places
Service Places
Scholarly Places
Religious Places
Governmental Places
Underworld Places
Appendix I: Guilds
Appendix II: Inn & Tavern Generation
Final Verdict
I wouldn’t make the purchase again, especially not the physical book given how difficult it is to use as a reference. But there is some OK information here. Pick up the individual ebooks that make up the 11 chapters if you’re looking for something specific or wait for a big sale on DriveThruRPG to pick up the ebook. At its ebook standard price $20 I can’t in good faith recommend City Builder: A Guide to Communities
Alternative
If somehow you haven’t heard of Medieval Demographics Made Easy and its derivative websites and random generators, check it out. I think it will serve you a lot better as a guide to designing communities. Bonus: It’s free!

Advanced Adventuring & Questing

Welcome Back! I’m going to continue on from the last blog so if you haven’t given that a read I suggest you read through it first.

We’ve gone over the basic quest types, so how do you make your own quests in a simple way? There’s a handy dandy list of questions that you need to run through. These questions are first answered by the DM and then answered by the players.

Who? The persons and parties involved
What? The quest’s objective
When? A sense of time, urgency or expiration
Where? What are the locations involved?
Why? The ‘so what’ part.
Why not you? Your players will ask why the quest giver or some other relevant party isn’t taking care of the issue; have a plausible answer.
What’s the reward? This is what hooks the players into the quest. Get fancy, add some secondary objectives, conditionals, and utilize intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Does your group haggle? Low ball the initial reward and keep a reward ceiling in mind.
Consequences? What happens if the quest isn’t completed?

Ex. Reggie Needs 10 Wolf Hides
Who: Reggie
What: Needs 10 wolf hides delivered
When: Tuesday EoB
Where: Reggie’s Discount Hide Shack, Nearby over-populated wolf forest
Why: Reggie’s behind on his orders
Why not Reggie: Reggie isn’t a hunter, he’s a tanner. Reggie’s usual guy (his brother) is laid up with an injury.
Reward: 2 gp per hide and good relations with Reggie
Consequences: Reggie falls further behind in his orders, loses money. Someone comes and breaks his legs and he dies penniless in the gutter.

Simple enough to quickly see everything that pertains to a quest. The DM should always be able to answer these questions and the players should be able to answer all or nearly all the questions by the end of the quest. It’s important with this information as a DM to be translucent, not transparent. Give them the dots, but let your players connect them so they fel agency by putting the pieces together.

Speaking of player agency there’s one glaring omission on the question list: How. The players determine how they complete the objective. In the example above the players might want to see if there’s an over supply of wolf hides that can be bought for cheap and delivered to Reggie. Also, take what your players give you. A scrupulous player may want to know how Reggie’s brother got injured. Maybe it was a simple accident or something more deadly awaits the party as they go hunting wolves. It’s always a nice change when a group wants to find a solution not involving indiscriminate bloodshed, so reward that.

Now with the simple things settled you can make some tweaks, changes, and complications. Get inventive. Quest givers don’t have to be people with glowing symbols over their heads. The Mines of Phandelver kicks off its first quest with two dead horses prickled with crudely made arrows barring the road. Environmental quest triggers work really well, because players want to solve puzzles. They will often start theorizing what happened before searching the area. Also, really lean on the intrinsic rewards. Like the real world it’s all about who you know, not what you know. If you want your players to treat your NPCs with respect, give them a reason for it. Letters of introduction, referrals, and social friends trump their weight in gold. Favors and reputation are often more valuable than cold hard GP. You can also transform the objective, Bethesda’s Elder Scroll and Fallout games are good examples. NPCs aren’t omniscient, especially quest givers. They likely only know a facet of the larger issue. PCs can often make matters worse before making them better.

Make connections. Bridge different quests by sharing assets like NPCs, monsters, and rewards. This creates continuity and makes your world feel like it’s connected and alive, not simply a string of episodic adventures.

Then create complications. You can always make a simple thing more convoluted so it’s important your quests start off simple. Then you can drop in problems, roadblocks, and hiccups to make the party’s life difficult. Done badly it ends up feeling like an item trading quest: boring, repetitive, and usually it’s unnecessary to the larger plot. Done well: Bioshock. The original quest of Bioshock is a simple delivery quest to reach Atlas and escape Rapture. But the environment and society is crumbling around you. Passages get blocked and you either have to find a way around or through the roadblock. People with murderous intent keep getting in your way, indicative of the much larger issues plaguing the Randian paradise.

Let’s look at another example.

Ex. Lord of the Rings
Who: Council of Elrond, Sauron, The Fellowship
What: Take ring to mountain, drop in lava to destroy
When: ASAP, before Sauron’s domination of Middle Earth
Where: Middle Earth from The Shire to Mt. Doom
Why: To stop Sauron’s world domination
Why not Council of Elrond: Temptation of the ring and being too conspicuous
Reward: Not living/dying under Sauron’s move for world domination, destruction of The Shire, Fame
Consequences: Sauron’s world domination, destruction of The Shire, being driven mad by The Ring

Pretty simple idea, then you just add complication after complication. The first big obstacle being the blocked pass making the characters go into the Mines of Moria. Really everything from there on is an added complication, mini-quests within the bigger quest.

I could spend a lot of time and words going into the gritty details of this massive subject but I think these two entries give enough of a springboard to get you thinking and planning better adventures. Leave a question or comment if you like what I’m doing. you can also find me on Google+ and Twitter @Redraggedfiend

5e Character Generation pt II

Welcome back for part two of the character generation process. If you haven’t read part 1, hop back to the previous post. This series of posts are developed in conjunction with Ryndaria.com. So jump over there to see the different

Continue reading

Analog Gaming is Retro-Cool AKA People Crave Human Interaction

4.25 Years

Four and a quarter years it took me to get a magic sword in a play by post (PBP) game. I keep looking at that number and try to make sense of it but it refuses to seem real. It took as long for me to get a make believe sword in a make believe RPG game as it takes the average person to acquire an undergraduate degree from a university. The journey took a number of specific ‘adventures’ and required a trio of game masters to complete.

So what could I possibly learn from such an experience? Perseverance, dedication, patience, and how to take initiative. Worthy qualities surely and some that are by many accounts lacking in our modern age. As a society we’re all about the instant gratification. Don’t think that’s true? All you need to do is look at the rampant success of Free-to-Play games. These games are structured to make the player wait to play for free or pay to play now. Streaming television on demand, public wifi, texting, the world is all about the now.

But you know what’s not now? Table top games.

The resurgence of social, “face time” gaming shouldn’t really be all that surprising. In a world that continues to grow smaller but isolates our interactions more through technology people, especially younger generations, are starving for human companionship. Table top games thus are having a resurgence as are things like bowling and shuffleboard. Yes, shuffleboard, the game old ladies play on cruise ships. Who knows, Bridge clubs may be next.

So why are these things becoming popular again?

Well, I think we’re still too close to the now of the event to objectively examine. But, I think the popularity is due to a few, specific factors as far as I can tell

Time & Duration

Individual games have a short duration. You can have a fulfilling afternoon or evening of fun by completing 2 – 10 games. As long as people spend more time doing than it takes for them to travel to and from the location, it’s a win. Even better if the time can be spent completing multiple games/sessions. More completions = better use of time, we ‘accomplished’ more with our time.

Social & Attendance

As I touched on earlier, we crave human interaction. Humans are social animals, no man is an island… yada yada yada. The nice thing about table top games and social games like bowling is they rarely require more than three people to play, and many require only two players. We don’t feel bad if we’re not able to meet up with a group because they are still able to play and enjoy their evening. Likewise I miss nothing but a good time by skipping, there is no penalty for missing. There are also a good number of cooperative games for those people who dislike being competitive with friends and loved ones.

Low Barrier to entrance, Minimal learning curve

These games are simple to learn. They generally have few rules and can be taught in just a few minutes to someone with no prior experience. Scoring is usually straightforward and easy to understand. Of course there are stupidly complex games, but generally these aren’t the sort of games that only take 20-60 minutes to play anyhow.

Requires attention but not concentration

These games do require attention, but they almost exclusively turn-based. Unless you are playing an in-depth game or a game that has liberal use of interrupt mechanics there is nothing for you to do between individual turns. For a modern world where most people have a tech device on-hand people are checking email, social media, texts, Youtube, news, and everything else in the world, this meshes nicely with the games.

You know what isn’t getting a real resurgence though? Pen and Paper RPGs.

Wait, I imagine you say. There was an uptick in interest in analog RPGs over the past few years. Things like 4e, and Acquisition Incorporated podcasts and video plays of RPGs by some celebrities opened the hobby up to some new audiences, garnered some new interest. But a seven year run was all the tenure 4e received, mix that with multiple brand managers going in different directions, unbalanced power creep and options, Pathfinder being born, and the excessive vitriol of edition wars that something can or cannot be D&D, as though its some binary criteria. Some R&D people leaving WoTC and the creation of things like 13th Age and Numenera. Not to mention WoTC refused OGL for 4e and refused to support prior editions of D&D.

TL:DR version: Because a sequence of crappy decisions and poor attitudes by developers/publishers and the community at large.

Why mess with all that when I can go back to Steam and load up Child of Light, Paper Sorcerer, Legend of Grimrock, or Skyrim, to get my RPG fix?

But specifically the reasons social gaming is getting bigger are the exact reasons RPGs are not.

Time & Duration

It takes time to play RPGs, like a lot of time. Sessions I’ve played have been anywhere from 2 – 12+ hours. Personally I find the sweet spot clocks in at about six hours. Nonetheless each session of an RPG is a segment, of a chapter, of a larger adventure path. You have to meet regularly. How often have you sat down at a table with friends after missing a game session or two and people have a difficult time remembering where the game left off? Full adventures often take years to complete.

Social & Attendance

RPGs are definitely social games, they’re cooperative games after all. But they require taking on a role, a persona. Adventures generally require problem solving and teamwork towards some specific end. You can’t just interrupt the process to tell a ten minute anecdote about your cat because it came to your mind. Attendance is also mandatory. If you have a party of four PCs and a Gamemaster, every one is critical to what is going on. If one person has a scheduling conflict everyone misses a session. In the cluttered schedules of the modern world, finding a time for everyone to play at all can be difficult.

Low barrier to entrance, Minimal learning curve

This is a mixed bag. There are some pretty simple to learn and play rules systems out there. But sticking with the two biggest names in the hobby? The free barebones basic rules for the newest edition of D&D has over 100 pages. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook? 576 pages. Someone shows interest in RPGs and you hand them a novel to read before they can play? I know what Sweet Brown has to say about that. And with a community who showed plenty of hate for how the previous edition of D&D ‘dumbed it down’ for the video game/MMO crowd we really shouldn’t be surprised the younger demographics aren’t filling the hobby’s ranks and publishers’ coffers.

Requires attention but not concentration

One of the most aggravating aspects of RPGs is choice. If you can imagine it you can try to do it in an RPG. That’s part of the big selling point but also one of its most aggravating aspects in the microcosm of individual sessions and encounters. It’s someone’s turn and they have no clue what they are going to do, worse yet they ask you what’s happening because they spent the last 5-10 minutes flipping through the newsfeed on their phone. Now you get to wait 5-10 minutes to figure out what this person is going to do, meanwhile the others at the table begin looking at their technology devices and that’s really why it seems to take forever to get through most combat encounters in a game like 4e.

People complain about how boring fighters and clerics can be because every turn is heal or hit the monster with your weapon, but abolishing that simplicity doesn’t help the person playing the game who probably has ADD, because everyone has ADD these days, and can’t sit still for five minutes without being actively entertained.

This I think is the unfortunate state of affairs of the hobby. An old guard filled with grognards who need something to be dissatisfied with, publishers who don’t seem to be confident in their target audience and their ability to make money with an iconic product lines.

Am I critical? Yes, but not because I’m bitter, because I know the hobby can be really popular and great. I know these games can create memories we will cherish for years. Perhaps I am overly critical of modern society, but in a world where people have to be told to take ‘tech sabbaths’ it would be difficult not to be.

I should be getting back to a more regular blog schedule. In the future I should have a supplement review and I’ll speak a little about the new D&D rules… which will likely be different than what most people are focusing.

10 Degrees of Helpful NPCs

If you’re running a game occasionally a PC may stop and speak with an NPC (insert pause for audience reactions of shock and laughter). You may have one of those players who wants to talk with NPCs rather than immediately cutting their throats and rolling their dead bodies. People as a broadcloth statement are generally helpful. If you stop to ask a random person for directions they are generally going to at least attempt to help.

Players, being exploitative, bourgeoishireling-major-817x1024 pig-dogs, will take a poor NPC for all he’s worth. So I developed a little guideline for running helpful PCs. When the party asks for some sort of aid roll a d10.

– 1, 2, 3, 4: The NPC is willing to provide minor aid in the way of instructions, a bit of gear, borrowed item/manpower, or a map. (Superior)

– 5, 6, 7: The NPC is willing to guide the party or supervise an expedition. (Manager/Specialist)

– 8, 9: The NPC is willing to share the trials and troubles of the task equally with the party in a partner role. (Partner)

– 10: The NPC is willing to do minor tasks and errands on the party’s behalf or place himself between the party and danger. (Subservient)

This table even works for NPCs who are hiring the party for a task. Now use some common sense, if the king hires the party and you roll a 6, the king is not going to hop off his throne and go chasing around the countryside in mortal peril. But he will likely send a representative such as a captain, trusted nobleman, cousin, or non-heir son to oversee the task as an agent of the crown.

Likewise an NPC in the Partner role expects to be treated as such. This NPC is not going to be OK with being a human shield or sacrificial lamb. This NPC may also expect a partner share in any reward for the task.

Using NPCs that have their own values and sense of self-preservation help enrich your games. These are also great characters to have recurring roles in the party’s travels. Grooming a rapport between the PCs and NPCs really helps to enmesh the players’ characters into the world. Some of the most rewarding RP experiences are the exchanging of favors, deals, and insights between the PCs and recurring NPCs.

Funnin’ Around

Quick Breakdown:

I have been absent and I will continue to be so for the next few months. I will resume regular posting later this summer but right now I have other demands on my time and energy. And considering what I do here does not pay me in cold hard cash it falls towards the bottom of my to-do pile. But I will return, it has not fallen off my radar.

Also, March marks the one year anniversary of this blog. So go me, and thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read my articles and found enough substance to subscribe. I promise more content will be coming in the future, just hang on a bit. I have to say a year passed almost in the blink of an eye. As I think back to what March 2013 looked like a year has shown a considerable improvement in almost every facet of my life. Hopefully my karma holds for the next year -fingers crossed-.

So again to all the supporters and followers of this blog, a hearty thank you, now on to the article. 

Is it the GM’s job to make sure players have fun in his game?

This seems to be a well-debated subject. I wish I had some stellar insight into it but I really, probably, don’t. I do find the whole concept a bit strange. Why do publishers even feel compelled to add to their products a reminder that RPGs should be utilized for fun? I’ve played my share of board games, video games, card games, even tag, and hide-and-go seek. I don’t recall ever needing to be reminded in any of these activities/games that I should have fun while doing so. The only other example I can think of this creeping up is in something like organized sports.

But is that really the GM’s job? Conventional wisdom states the GM has 3 primary functions when running the game. He is interpreter of the rules, he assumes the role of any and all NPCs, and he is responsible for describing the imaginary world and the PC’s interactions in it. None of the three core functions insinuate fun.

Is it OK to not have fun?

So I don’t always have fun when I play RPGs. It’s a full gamut of emotions and thought processes, not just fun. When my PC takes a crit, or has his mind invaded by deep sea, psionic squids, that’s not fun. Is it the game master’s fault that bad stuff happened to my PC, which my mood soured? No, barring any extreme and obvious malice. In fact a case can be made by, fudging a crit to a normal hit or miss the GM has failed in his role to arbitrate the rules. A judge exists to interpret the grey area, not override the system’s rules because enforcing it would make someone have not… Happy Happy, Joy Joy fun. happy-happy-1

Let me put this another way, this is the list of AFI’s top 5 movies: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Casablanca, Raging Bull, and Singin’ in the Rain. I would describe only number five as fun. Entertainment can be good without being fun. If you enjoy good movies you have probably sat through all of these movies, probably more than once without having ‘fun’. I think probably a better interpretation is a GM’s game should be enjoyable, and worth playing.

 So then, is it a GM’s job to make sure his game is enjoyable?

Absolutely. Notice I said the game is enjoyable, not that the player’s enjoy is game. Enjoyment is derived by different things for different people. If I as a GM spend all my time juggling the different ways the players derive enjoyment I’m not really focusing on the game itself; forest for the trees and such. Focus on providing a good story and fulfilling your three primary roles to the utmost and good things will follow.

The Player’s Role

A movie’s job is to entertain its audience. It is a passive medium, audience participant cannot change the fabric of the narrative. Thus all the responsibility of entertainment falls to the film. RPGs however are active, and are either plot or character driven. This is not a passive medium. The responsibility for your enjoyment as a player rests on the table and its dynamic. I don’t think I can say I’ve ever played in a campaign that I did not enjoy. But I have played in campaigns I did not particularly like. What’s the difference? I refuse to spend hours at a gaming table being actively miserable. That sort of attitude is selfish, silly, and ultimately petulant. Find a way to have fun. Is your PC little better than a pincushion for baddies? Well, focus your efforts on something else. The game is comprised of combat, exploration, and social encounters so choose one of the other spots to derive your fun. Conversely you can derive your fun from combat.

I suck at FPS video games. I do play them on occasion however; even online multiplayer matches where I struggle to keep an even K/D ratio. One of my favorite memories was playing a match that the opposing team needed to bazooka a pair of tanks to win the round. I was actually able to jump in front of an incoming rocket to save a tank. Stupid, yes; hilarious, definitely. More importantly it provided enjoyment and a memory that stuck with me.

Here are the Dragon Age directions for GMs. It was actually important enough for them to stick right on the center of the GM screen.

Dragon Age GM Advice

Focus On The Characters

As stated RPGs are an active media, it takes cooperation and that means putting the PCs at the forefront. They either need to be primary agents in moving the plot, or the game is campaign on their own personal struggles.

Where this can get sticky for a lot of GM’s is their personal game world. Crafted year by year, almost entirely in sterile isolation, they can spend more time telling you about their world and what’s going on in it than letting the players interact with what’s going on and driving the plot. The big important things are what the players hear about but not generally don’t engage the things during the campaign.

Work with your players to stitch their characters into being organic pieces of the game world. Mutually developed backstory is key. Some players however are wholly unconcerned with this bit of immersive gameplay. Encourage heartily, but don’t demand it of the players.

Push The Heroes To Make Tough Moral Choices

Sometimes things go sideways, there’s no absolute right way to go about things or correct decision. There are some situations not even the greatest string of crit rolls will allow the characters to come out unscathed.

It’s OK to beat up the PCs a little, make the players sweat, even maim and kill the PCs. The important thing is to make those tough situations meaningful. Tough choices are meaningful choices. This isn’t the Coke vs. Pepsi taste test it’s do you take the red pill or the blue pill. The best way to use this is to place the players in a sacrifice situation, where one PC must sacrifice something incredibly important for the benefit of the group. If your players are being proactive for their fun they will only momentarily pout over the situation before running with it.

Paint The World With 5 Senses

Remember one of the main roles of the GM is to be the players’ window into the game world. It is also the role that is most likely to fall to the wayside as the other two roles flex. When we think of imagery we assume image, so sight. Vision is our most acute sense, but it is only one. If you struggle with this try creating an area without sight. Most recently I was able to paint a character investigating a cave in the pitch black. The sound of echoing water, cold and stagnant air, wet stone under touch and poor footing all became far more important.

Maybe you’re not so good with the descriptions. Augment what you’re doing with a map, an image to show the table, pick up a scented candle, change the room lighting, or add a low volume background track. For a ship voyage consider a labeled cross section diagram of the ship, a seaside scented candle, and find a white noise track featuring repetitive waves. You can easily transmit the imagery of the setting without actually saying a word.

Be Flexible

Like I stated under the first point, the idea of actually letting players interact with your creation is what allows the game to move. The truth is that players are rarely going to follow the trail you’ve dutifully laid out for them with single file Reese’s Pieces. They are going to be odd and different and difficult. It’s not a bad thing, but it is a thing. Improvisation is a highly regarded skill for GMs and it is difficult to hone without, well… improvising.

You’re going to screw up, get your facts mixed up, and probably do/not do something in a humongous blunder. It happens to everyone and that’s part of what makes going off-script work so well. Unfortunately there’s not a lot you can do to prepare for it other than just do it over and over again. Give the PCs the opportunity to be at the forefront and to drive what happens, even if it means not doing exactly what you planned out. A sneaky GM secret is to use these offshoot tangents as the plot hooks by improvising a way to curve it naturally right back into your script.

Be Exciting

Now at first you might think this means to always be doing combat, but that’s not really it. Exciting is probably less appropriate than enthralling. No matter the situation you should have the player’s attention focused in on you. Especially in 4e this where solo monsters fall short. At a certain point you tip the scales in the encounter and it becomes very obvious which side will win. Unfortunately 4e solo monsters have a truckload of HP, so it becomes a very boring waiting game until the creature dies. Unless there is some reason to do this, like whittling down HP resources or rolling for potential reinforcements to arrive and angle the combat back to being open-ended you may as well kill the encounter early.

Not everything has to fight to the death. Rarely do real fights end with one side at not least attempting to escape or surrender. However this tactic does make sense for things like automatons, and undead. Unthinking creatures not concerned with self-preservation, just following commands, will fight until they cannot or their task is accomplished.

Speed is not everything. If your players are engaged, and you’re holding their attention with a social scene that you know leads nowhere, don’t cut it short. As long as the PCs are at least attempting to be on task, be flexible and entertaining. Think of this time as a chance for your players to develop a rapport between the PCs. In one of my regular games it is standard for the party to split into pairs or go solo while in town to talk to different people and gather supplies. At first this seems the exact opposite of what you should do to hold everybody’s attention, dealing with one player at a time. But really it allows for a few short vignettes where every player gets to be center stage and be productive. This is a great way to build PC/NPC relationships. Maybe some NPCs like some PCs more than others so it’s more productive to keep PC/NPCs who don’t get along away from each other.

I think if you keep these five ideas present in mind you will run enjoyable games. If you run enjoyable games you can be guaranteed at least one point everyone at the table will have fun. The games that leave me with longstanding memories are the ones I value the most.

Transitioning from Action Points to Augmented Fate Points

Excellent For Counting Points During Play!

Excellent For Counting Points During Play!

For a reminder, if you didn’t read the last blog I suggest you read the previous post as this is a continuation.

Last time I spent a little bit talking about Fate Points and how they operate as a mechanical boon by offering up some specific leeway to the GM for one’s PC. Slacken the reigns a bit on your PC and you get yourself a point to be traded in later to make a challenge a little easier. So first let’s a take a more in-depth look at Action Points, Fate Points, and how they function.

Action Points

If you’re not familiar with Fourth Edition you can probably gloss over this section as it doesn’t pertain to you. Alternatively I suggest picking up a 4e PHB and reading up on Action Points. If you’re looking for just a little extra something to add to a different system’s game action points are a good place to start. Back on point, what’s the deal with Action Points? Action Points in the most basic of terms gives a creature the ability on its turn to take an additional standard action. In most circumstances it’s the opportunity to make two attacks in one round, which is pretty nice by itself; couple the idea with a PC that can utilize two Daily Attack Powers in a round and it is a super powerful boon. While not the only example you can probably see some hints as to why Solo monsters can be difficult to run in 4e. Each PC in the first round with APs can drop 5[W] or more damage on a creature with serious persistent effects. This is a problem is you’re running a Solo Artillery or Controller type with low HP. Get caught in the open early in the fight and a set piece finale battle can turn into 1-2 rounds of very ugly evisceration. The second big bonus to APs is it allows you to do multiple actions when you otherwise would not be able. The Dazed condition is a little more manageable, and an AP can give a PC 3 chances to escape a grab in one turn. The latter is crucial when fighting a creature that gets big bonuses on attack and damage against grabbed creatures or does automatic damage to them.

Action Points do come with limitations. Assuming general adventuring wear and tear most PCs will only have use of 2-4 Action Points per adventuring day. There is also no active way to gain APs. Outside of simply continuing to adventure and thus gain milestones there is no In-Character action a player can take to gain more. Additionally, taking an extended rest resets action points to one so there is a serious problem with wasting APs. This problem can be compounded as players can only use one AP per encounter and APs are practically useless as written for use in any situation other than combat.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty for Action Points comes for the DM/GM. The use is exactly the same for those behind the screen as those in front of it. Only two types of monsters have AP for the DM to play with, Elites and Solos. With the latter these AP are almost always used when the monster is under the Dazed condition defensively rather than offensively.

In Summary, Action Points are powerful but they’re limited in quantity and relegated only to use in combat situations. As written they are not particularly useful for a DM.

Fate Points

Fate Points operate in a different manner than the traditional Action Point. The first difference is FPs are more abundant. As characters advance they have a higher refresh rate. The refresh rate tells the player how many FP a character will start a play session with at a minimum. And, unlike APs, Fate Points are carried over to the next session. A PC with Refresh 3 ends the session with 4 FPs, he begins the next session of play with 4 FPs. If the PC ends the session with 1 FP he would begin the next session with 3 FP, i.e. his Refresh Rate.

Fate Points have different mechanics. While APs provide additional actions, FPs improve the chance for success or failure for actions. Fate Points can be used to gain a flat +2 bonus to rolls, give a player the opportunity to reroll an attempt, give enemies a -2 on their attempts, and in some cases they can be used to auto succeed at attempts.

In my opinion, the most novel idea about FPs is the way they are bargained back and forth between the GM and the players. Each PC is an amalgam of stats and aspects. Aspects are short, descriptive phrases that explain who the character is. Fate Points are used to engage aspects, for PCs this is usually to be better at something. For the GM, he can use these same aspects against the PC. Tapping the aspect costs a FP. PCs tapping an aspect hand over a FP to the GM. A GM only hands over a FP when he taps a PC’s aspect. If a GM taps one of his bad guy’s aspects the FP goes back to the FP bank/pool. Players can also tap detrimental aspects of their PCs to gain FP from the bank/pool. I’ll give an example of how this works.

In a recent game session I played a half-orc touched by the fire element, which he worships as a zealot (this serves no mechanical benefit). The party has been engaged with a boat trip across a massive lake, all the while being harried by an ice witch. Upon meeting the ice witch in combat my PC launches himself from the boat to charge down the ice witch, howling hateful, fury all the way. This is the sort of action that really reflects the concept of my character and is likely to earn me a Fate Point from the bank.

Fate Points are far more useful for a GM than AP are for DMs. Fate Points can be used to boost bad guys, hamper good guys, entice players to play up their PC’s drawbacks in exchange for FPs, or compel the detrimental effects of their aspects if they have no FPs.

New Points

So what about new points for 4e D&D or any d20 system? Drafting Fate Points directly over to d20 is ill-advised given Fate is a system that uses Fudge dice. But I’ve put together a pretty simple system for new points.

–        Each Player and GM/DM resets to 1 point per day session

–        +1d6 to Attack, Skill, Save Attempt

–        Reroll Attack, Skill, Save Attempt

–        Gain Points by going above and beyond by playing PC’s personality (GM discretion)

–        Gain Points by accepting GM advisement over PC’s personality

There are two major differences to implementing these points over the standard AP. First, there are some abilities and powers which function off of APs. Warlords especially give out bonuses to PCs when they use an AP. In such a case you may find it necessary to limit each PC to gaining these boons once per encounter. The other is that Elite and Solo monsters should still gain their built-in points. While this hinders solo monsters in their reduced ability to function under the Dazed condition it is offset by allowing them a greater bonus when attempting to save from conditions and a better chance of hitting with the limited, more powerful, attacks.

One point of clarification is using points to boost or reroll attacks. This is done for one attack roll. Therefore a monster using a close burst power that misses four PCs cannot spend a point to reroll all the attacks included in the power, but only a singular attack roll.

And that’s it. So read it over, try it out and let me know if you think it’s a better option than standard action points in 4e or a nice addition to 3.X or other favorite d20 system.