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
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
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!

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.

Gotta Give Him Upside!

One of the most difficult things to do when running a campaign is getting your players to ‘buy-in’, leap the invisible gap that separates a player’s character as dictated by its character sheet and the creator’s bubble of imagination to one that is somehow tied to the campaign setting and the places and people that comprise it.
So one question that comes to mind is why does this disconnect, this gap, exist between player and his/her PC and the setting. I think it’s a surprisingly deep question with a lot layers of answers that form the reality. I think there are psychological, sociological, creative parties at silent war in that gap. But, I’m not really here to get into what the gap really is or why, and I’m nothing of an expert on the why persons and people do the things they do.
So instead I would examine my own experience. If you run a game there’s a very high chance you also enjoy RPGs as a player. When I think about a new campaign and adding a new character there is some hesitation. For one the character generation process has become a far more intensive and personal effort as RPGs have evolved. You can roll up an early D&D character in a few minutes, at the table, after Olaf the VII died. In a few rooms the party is likely to find Olaf the VIII. Compare something like 4e, a rules set that is generally regarded as being streamlined. Drafting a new PC in 4e can easily take the better part of an hour, and certainly longer if you’re really tweaking a power gamer build. Time = investment, it’s really that simple. If you’ve played RPGs for any amount of time you have problem had a character die a random, meaningless death from the odd trap or wandering monster.
What else? That’s only one facet another is trust between a player and the game master. If you decide to throw in your lot with the GM and help him tell his story you don’t want to be rewarded with only negative benefits. But the same goes for the other way, I don’t want a GM to heap rewards on my PC simply for playing along, to be made a continuous example to the rest of the group why they should play along.
Playing along also comes to the division point of where the GM thinks your PC should act one way because of some in-game relationship/reason and you feel differently. This can be either because the former is so obviously flawed that you can’t help but metagame or because you know, it’s your PC and you think you should be able to dictate Olaf the VIII’s beliefs and actions all by yourself.
So what to do?
This is one of the things I think the Fate System really nails. Offer the player something tangible and immediate for playing along. Fate Points, they let players do extra special things or mitigate potentially dreadful disasters. You can offer one of these Points to a player in exchange for activating one of their PC’s characteristics. Better yet the player can decline the offer unless they have no fate points in his possession. An empty-handed PC is basically at the mercy of the GM to compel them to act on the PC’s character aspects. But as soon as you fork over a Point to the player they are able to decline as necessary. Fate Points in this way are a fluid currency used in the struggle between player and GM for how characters act and react.
There are a lot of people out there who have toyed with the concept of adding Fate Points to other systems. Next time I’ll chart out my own mod but until then I encourage you to scour the web looking for the many numerous fate point modifications.

4E : 4 Rests

As you may have noticed by now I’m a fan of 4th Edition D&D. Seriously, if you haven’t picked up on this you should not consider a career as a detective. It’s an edition that is much maligned by both ends. The OSR crowd says it is pen & paper WoW pandering. Those people entrenched in 3.X and Pathfinder guffaw at its lack of depth and minutiae. Others just stayed with the MMOs, Diablo clones and other, faster digital offerings in RPGs. It suffered plenty of setbacks, mismanagement, non-existent long-term support, and is riddled with power creep issues. Despite its flaws there is a good, solid system at its core and it’s still my number one choice if I want to run a game with a heavy emphasis on tactical combat.

One of the major difficulties I’ve read and spoken with other people about concerning RPGs, especially 4e, is the weathering of resources. Because 4e’s strength is in its ability to build and run balanced combat encounters there was/is a need for PCs to be relatively the same strength whether it’s the first fight of the day or the fifth. But I empathize; you don’t want to be forced to run 4-5 extensive, time-consuming pitched battle encounters just to exhaust an adventuring party. It’s especially so when they’re only 6 hours of sleep away from being completely refreshed and ready to do it again. A lot of DMs throw in the towel here, get frustrated, and go on the search again for the unicorn rules system, that one perfect storm of RPG that does all aspects of RPG perfect, every time, right out of the box.

It doesn’t exist, have a good cry and get over it. The sooner you do the sooner you’ll be happier with your games. I may sound like a broken record but it’s always worth repeating, choose a rules system that complements the type of game you want to play. If I want to run an intrigue at the royal court cloak and dagger game 4e D&D is going to make that very difficult. I don’t go for a jog in flip-flops; different activity, different shoe.

Now that you’ve had your pity party we can get to work. Game masters are the analog equivalent of a video game’s modding community. If the system works for almost everything you need but one or two minor bits, rewrite the mechanics. Assuming you’ve run games from behind the screen for a while you should be intimate enough with game mechanics to get under the hood and make some changes. One piece of advice? Use the KISS method, Keep It Simple Stupid. If it seems to simple and easy it probably is, but until someone proves it to be otherwise don’t go out of your way to make things more difficult than they already are.

Let’s get practical.

Don’t want to make every fight a set piece, epic battle worthy of “O Fortuna” as BGM? Well let’s whittle down 4e’s health system. First of all WoTC went out of its way to screw this up by injecting the toxic waste of surge-less healing into the system via Divine Power. The healing surge system worked adequately in the beginning, Divine Power’s new ability to get back free HP (Something 4e was explicitly designed not to do, just look up the original Cure Wounds power in PHB as proof) set a dumb, OP precedent for leaders. Fourth Edition’s healing is already screwed up so you don’t have to worry about breaking a perfectly good mechanic! Hooray?

I think most people who criticize this aspect of 4e have hit it right on the nose. The problem with 4e, is its rest system. A group of PCs fight off some orcs, take a 15 minute rest and they’re effectively the same as if the fight never happened. Unless you’re throwing things at a party so multiple PCs are blowing multiple dailies between extended rests the adventuring party’s power is the same at the beginning and end of the day.

I’ve seen a number of different people tackle this problem in a dozen different fashions, many making it more cumbersome than needed. The simplest and probably easiest is solution is do away with PCs being able to heal willy nilly by expending surges whenever they want during a rest. This has some underlying, long term obstacles but as a short term fix it’s probably the easiest and simplest way to cover it. Ta da, you’re done. Good for you!


I want something a little meatier, a lot of 4e mechanic stuff deals with the resource management aspect of healing surges. So I want to keep them around because A) I think HP surges are a cool and useful mechanic B) they are seriously important to some race/class/disease/ritual/item/etc. mechanics.

So of course I need to see where we’ve been to know where to go. So take some time and review what actually happens during those pesky short and extended rests.

Short Rest (~15 Minutes): characters can spend healing surges freely to regain HP up to their max, they recharge all encounter powers, and they gain an action point if it’s a milestone.

Extended Rest (~4/6 Hours): characters heal their HP to max, they regain all their surges, their action points reset to one, they recharge all their encounter powers, and they recharge all their daily powers.

That’s not a lot of variety in resting bonuses. So I took some time to review the individual bits of each rest and then applied some of my own knowledge from extended backpacking trips. I may not have had the misfortune of skirmishing with orcs on a regular basis but I do have a general understanding of travel by foot. Putting these bits together I developed a four rest dynamic for 4e. Ha, 4E: 4Rests, got the title anyhow. The types of rests from least beneficial to most are as follows: Short Break, Long Break, Camp, and Room & Board.

Short Break

A short break lasts around five minutes. It allows time to get a drink of water, lets a PC catch his breath, and that’s about it. This is a standing break, the PCs do not drop their equipment, sit down, or try to find a piece of gear in the bottom of their pack.

–        PCs can spend one healing surge

–        PCs recharge one encounter power

–        PCs gain an action point if this constitutes a milestone

Long Break

A long break is approximately half an hour. A long break allows the group to slough their gear, sit, and take food and water. Essentially it’s a meal break while traveling. It also affords enough time for the group make adjustments to gear, check their path, and discuss plans.

–        PCs can spend up to two healing surges

–        PCs recharge all encounter powers

–        PCs gain an action point if this constitutes a milestone


Camping is a rest that takes a considerable amount of time. Temporary living arrangements are made including pitching tents, laying out bedrolls, making fires, cooking meals, mending gear, and other activities that require focus, time, and cannot be completed while walking. Camping requires at least enough time for all characters to gain a full night’s rest (4 – 8 hours depending on race).

–        PCs regain HP as if they spent 3 healing surges, up to max HP

–        PCs regain one healing surge

–        PCs recharge all encounter powers

–        PCs recharge one daily power

–        PCs’ action points reset to one

Room & Board

There’s nothing quite like the luxuries of civilization, even if those luxuries only include a moldy straw mattress and yesterday’s room temperature gruel. Room & Board requires characters gain a full night’s rest (4 – 8 hours depending on race) with the comforts of civilization including a permanent shelter, basic amenities, and at least one meal.

–        PCs regain HP up to max HP

–        PCs regain all healing surges

–        PCs recharge all encounter powers

–        PCs recharge all daily powers

–        PCs’ action points reset to one

With the ways characters recover broken down into four different types of rest you can have more dynamic in your travels. If PCs encounter rigors while traveling in the wilderness they recuperate HP as they rest in Camp mode but only regain some of their HP surge reserves. In this way any travel difficulties costing a character more than one surge per day will inexorably wear them down. In 4e the average PC has roughly 8 surges. A full week of travel on the road with some interspersed fights and no inn stays will show the PCs mechanically weathered by the events.

Concerning Long Breaks you should use DM Fiat if the group decides they are going to take a Long Breaks multiple times per day. In general a party should have breakfast before striking camp and dinner once they set camp. The only substantial break they will take while traveling is to take food, lunch. At most a group will only take a Long Break twice a day. If your group decides they want to take copious long breaks in rapid succession you can decide either to add extra time to the journey, chew through their rations, or they receive no benefit greater than a Short Break.

Well, that’s about the thick of it. Try it out in your games and see if it helps you roll back some of the need for constant combat in 4e. If you like it let me know, if you have a question or would like to get my opinion about another topic drop it in the comments. You can also find me on Twitter and G+ if you feel the need to pretend we’re BFFs.

Double Damage

Potentially one of D&D’s greatest shortcomings is its health system. Now that’s not to say I don’t like HP, I like HP just fine. I think I made that clear when talking about hit points back in the last blog I expounded on health systems.

The shortcoming, the specific failure in this instance is the lack of longterm consequences to poor decisions and/or flubbed actions. When it comes to a scale measure of how much punishment a creature can take in combat before it simply dies hit points are difficult to beat. Hit points have a maximum, a minimum (you are dead at X/-X HP), and it is easily measurable being, you know, uniform points and all.

So what’s the big deal? In theory that sounds pretty great for gauging how much punishment a creature can take in a fight. Hell, in practice it works pretty great and that’s why we’ve been using hit points since pen and paper RPGs have been a thing. Better yet we can empirically tell the difference between a hard hit and a grazing strike just by the data. The DM/GM rolls some dice, calls out a number for damage, and the whole table reacts. Physical wincing, the sucking of teeth, the chortle of inappropriate laughter, and a litany of offhand comments are the reaction of such an event. It’s visceral and it’s a phenomenon that cultivates a true reaction from the participants. That’s a good thing for RPGs.

The difficulty comes with what happens right after the combat ends. The healing process allows creatures to get hit points back by resting, using medical supplies, or by means of magic. They just get better, a 15-minute rest is equivalent of a soft reset after going three rounds with a prizefighter. It unfortunately doesn’t make much good sense. For how good the system is at measuring a creature’s ability to continue fighting while in said fight, it is equally as bad at portraying the fatigue and grinding effect of wounds to a person’s overall health. But perhaps that’s implicit in the name, hit points is a term we regard as an encapsulated idea rather than what the words actually say. Hit points, well it measures how many hits a creature can take. Viewed in that way HP is designed and functions perfectly to suit that specific purpose.

Hit points in this function are limited though. What about all the stuff that happens outside of combat: traps, hazards, accidents, poisons, disease, even falling. As I ran down in a previous post on traps the problems inherent with the system is that if these out of combat problems don’t outright kill a creature they’re of little to no consequence. Sure we can talk about the meta of chipping away at things like healing surges and the bookkeeping aspect of screwing with resource management. I like that stuff, it’s interesting and it adds a deeper, more strategic level to games. Where I see the problem is I shouldn’t have to up to my elbows in the system mechanics to make a trap meaningful. A common bear trap is not going to kill a player character, it just shouldn’t. So why put it in if my only recourse to apply consequences to a creature is take away some of its HP just so it can heal it back arbitrarily?

And that’s likely the exact reason some systems like D&D 4e are almost entirely combat-based and really tone down the dungeon crawl exploration bits with traps and hazards. These things supplement combat, but rarely are notable as obstacles in their own right and often play instead more as a flat-uninspired event at the table and PC resource depletion. One of the options I went over in the trap article was simply making the traps deadly. Traps become a very real threat when (like most traps in the real world) the intent is death for the victim and that is a real possibility. Another possibility is to make the effects of these non-combat engagements and even some combat encounters be something other than straight HP-related damage.

alumni_20100729_1So let’s circle back to the bear trap. This is one of those traps not looking to immediately kill its victim. Because our adventurers possess powerful tools such as articulated, opposable thumbs and the ability to figure out trap mechanics they won’t die of exposure or starvation. Well with HP as is the creature would take X damage and move on to the next scene. But what if there was something other than just some slight damage. Still want to keep that resource management aspect deal the straight damage to HP but let’s add some flair to this trap. Well it’s a bear trap and I think it’s safe to assume the PC tripping it would do so with his leg. So why not add a reduction of the character’s speed. In something like D&D 4e this would be the Slowed condition. Continuing with 4e, this condition should not be an immediate save but should last at least one adventuring day. Why not try having the bear trap impart the Slowed condition with a save at the end of each extended rest. Functionally each day the PC has a chance to recover from his leg injury without it affecting his ability to take hits in combat.

Pro-Tip: Want to make your game feel a little extra gritty? Make critical failure results on initial checks/saves permanent injuries. Maybe the only way to get poor Dave out of the bear trap was to hack off his foot. This can turn your green adventurers into scarred veterans in short order. And no one said Dave couldn’t get a snazzy wooden foot to remove the Slowed condition.

Now I can already hear some of you out there grumbling that this sort of thing is already built into D&D and its kin with the idea of ability damage. I don’t really like ability damage, I think it’s cumbersome and too much long-term bookkeeping. Besides ability damage is regularly imparted by an attack, regardless of the attack’s severity. An attack might only deal one point of HP damage but deals a point of strength damage. A glancing blow hinders a character as much as a critical hit? That seems strange to me. I like my way better as it is variable enough to be tailored to the situation and can be easily explained within the scene’s theatrics.

So, something to think about adding to your games. Try adding it to a standalone trap or other non-combat situation and see if you get better results than you’re used to getting from your games.