Thursday, June 30, 2011

So Exhausted, I'll Just Drop My Information Here.

My girlfriend's 8 year-old little brother is staying with us this week during his first trip ever out of Kansas. That kid has so much energy that after just three days, both the GF and I are completely pooped. Going back to work today actually felt a bit like a vacation. So, here's a hodgepodge of fantasy and game-related nuggets.

Last weekend I raided my parents' storage unit and retrieved a great deal of my childhood library. It's hard to describe just how good it felt to put those old books back on my shelf, even the ones I will probably never read again in the absence of children. Having them on my bookshelf is like looking into a window of my reader's past... A documented history of my imagination. I have the first 35 Hardy Boys books in hardcover, which I must have read over the course of a couple years in grade school, because by the time I hit 5th and 6th grade, I had graduated to fantasy series. I recovered my Xanth books by Piers Anthony which gave rise to my first, juvenile world-building project, called "Boink." I got my Shannara novels and my David Eddings books (both the Belgariad and Elenium) all of which informed my current game world. I also retrieved all my paperback Wheel of Time Books. Then, of course, there were the Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side books. I have so much new material to read, but pulling out all the old friends made me itch to do some re-reading. 

When I was a kid, I would occasionally fantasize about having a cluttered wizard's library of my own some day, and recovering those books helped me feel like I am back on track towards that goal.

So, with the above-mentioned little brother in town, tomorrow is going to be a very special game night. My group will be trying out the game, Ticket to Ride, which the owner of our FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store) recommended as easy enough for kids, but still fun for adults. I'm looking forward to trying out a new game and will try to deliver a full report this Friday!

The Architect DM series has a new post up about defining fantasy cultures through their architecture. Bartoneous, the blog's author had strayed from talking about architecture and I'm glad that he has come back around to posting on the subject of his expertise.

Aaand, Campaign Mastery has an interesting series going right now about stocking a DM's mental toolbox. The latest installment is all about encounter planning.

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Rules? Where we're going, we don't NEED rules!"

If you don't know Axe Cop, you don't know Awesome!

Last night's game felt like one of the best sessions we have had in a long time and I felt it was largely because I played fast and loose with the rules, often ignoring them altogether. The bulk of last night consisted of a mass combat encounter. My players were tasked with delaying a charging horde of orcs for as long as possible to buy their allies, who were readying an airship for evacuation, time to make the necessary preparations.

Massive combat encounters like the one last night can quickly become unwieldy if too much emphasis is placed on game rules and rolling dice. So, I decided to take a much more narrative approach to the night and, judging by my players' post-game comments, the results were satisfying to all.

When I did need to crunch numbers, I used the Rule of Fives to speed things up, but if it wasn't necessary, I turned instead to the Rule of Cool (i.e. what would make this situation more awesome?) I should qualify that my interpretation of the Rule of Cool is not to use it to gloss over plot holes, but rather to allow my brain to emphasize storytelling over game rules. For example, last night I had several orc druids materialize on a cliff-side out of clouds of flies and begin hurling pillars of flame at the fleeing heroes. Could they have actually moved fast enough to get there in one round? Who cares!? The end-result added to the sense of danger in the scene and so was definitely worth it. On the flip side, my players were slinging area of effect spells into the path of the horde. Is it necessary to roll grapple checks for every orc when the ground beneath their feet erupts in 10 foot-long writhing tentacles? No! just describe how most of them are being hurled into the air, or slammed against the canyon walls.

The thing that was really clicking for me last night was the realization that players (or mine at least) don't play for the rules. They play for the stories, and as long as the story presents a level of excitement that makes them feel like badass heroes, everyone will come away happy.

On a more bittersweet note, I used last night's game as an opportunity to usher one of my story's main characters out of the game. A temporary hiatus by the character's player, who is in an uber-rigorous post-graduate program, became indefinite a couple months ago. Since then, I have been gradually working on an exit strategy so that the group is not burdened with a permanent non-player character drawing time and glory from the real people who are still attending game nights.

My strategy for working the character out was two-fold:
1. Make it Epic
2. Leave the exact nature of the exit open to some interpretation

I wrote a sort of cut scene for the game which came at the climax of the orc battle, and it couldn't have punctuated the event more perfectly. Here it is:

Dramatis Personae:
Lanna - A half-elf paladin of Ehlonna, the goddess of nature
Ceffyl - Lanna's unicorn mount (The unicorn is also a symbol of her goddess)
Ignus - Lanna's magic, flaming longsword
Steponas - The prince of Cydon, a traveling companion to our heroes
The press of orcs becomes more intense, threatening to overwhelm your defenses. It is clear that you will need to abandon your station soon.
Steponas calls out, "There are too many of them, we must return to the ship!"
Lanna shouts, "If we flee, they will overtake us! You go! I shall hold them as long as I can!
Do not argue, Ceffyl has the best chance of outrunning them. Now go!"
Lanna turns to face the sea of onrushing orcs. Ceffyl rears as she raises Ignus above her head and cries out, “I am the tempest over the sea. I am the quaking of the mountains, I am nature’s wrath! For the glory of Ehlonna!” and then she charges into the orcish ranks, her sword scattering bodies in all directions.
As the tide of orcs closes around her, a radiant light seems to cover Lanna and Ceffyl. Perhaps it’s a trick of the mind, but it seems to have the shape of a great celestial charger.

Anyway, game sessions like last night's always leave me feeling energized and ready to jump into the next phase of creative awesome. The dread of my previous post has faded and been replaced with an icy cool sense of determination to make the final act of this story arc super epic.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Creative Stumbling Blocks

I'm back from my business trip and have started looking ahead to my game session tomorrow, and with a bit more dread to the final act of my grand-mega campaign of doom. As I mentioned last month, many of the newbie mistakes I made two years ago while starting this campaign are now threatening to trip me up. The biggest challenge weighing on my mind at the moment is figuring out how to create a satisfying payoff for my players as they proceed into the third and final act of the current campaign structure. I wish I had known about Rob Donaghue's Underpants Gnome theory of adventure design when I first started DMing. The premise is Zen-like in its wisdom and simplicity. Having missed the underpants train, the myriad threads of my grandiose plot loom before me like the tangled arms of the mighty Kraken, threatening to pull me under. Deep breath... you can do it. Just tie them all together with lots of blood and explosions.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tell me all your thoughts on God...

I am currently on a business trip on the opposite side of the country from my home. I had a few drinks with my boss tonight and am now lying in my hotel room musing on the metaphysical. However, I am not pondering any philosophies of consequence, but rather am mulling over how dissatisfying I find the pantheon used in D&D. It's the beers talking! Leave me alone!

Nooo! They be stealin' mah bukkit!
Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 uses a set of deities known as the Greyhawk Pantheon. The world of Greyhawk has been the default setting for the D&D universe since the early days, and so its gods have been adopted as the default D&D gods.

The gods in the Greyhawk Pantheon are divided up into their particular areas of expertise, much as the ancient Greek or Egyptian gods were. There are gods of death, magic, nature and war. The trouble is that, while the ancient pantheons of the real world depict their gods as precocious, mercurial and generally dangerous to piss off, the gods in D&D have all been assigned alignments. (e.g. Heironeous, the god of chivalry is considered lawful-good, while Erythnuul, god of slaughter is chaotic evil.) This clear demarkation of deific morality poses a problem for DMs like myself who wish to create a more nuanced world in which heroes do not all wear white hats and villains do not always twirl mustaches or have names like Skeletor, or Baddie McKillstuff.

If, as the D&D rules suggest, deities favor those characters who uphold their ideals and withold favors from those who deny them, there is little room left for religious or moral dilemmas -a major driving factor in a lot of real world conflict! Why would anyone willingly follow the lawful evil god of tyranny, for example, if it is blatantly apparent he is an evil being. The devil does not show up with horns and a goatee. He is seductive and does not reveal his true nature until it is too late. Furthermore, the D&D rules state that clerical characters lose the ability to cast spells if they perform deeds that go against their deity's alignment. Taken at face value, this makes it very difficult to justify factionalism and intra-religious conflict in the game. Whichever side loses their powers is obviously in the wrong!

I have run into this challenge in my game. I have tried to establish a good vs. good civil war within a devoutly Heironean (god of chivalry and martial valor) country. In my scenerio, a new king has divided the country by denouncing his brother and ordering all to swear fealty to him alone. The trouble is, his brother ran a major branch of the military, forcing his soldiers to choose between loyalty to their commander and loyalty to their king. Now, if I followed the strict interpretation of the D&D rules, those who made the "wrong" choice would immediately lose the ability to cast divinely linked spells.

I feel that the trick to overcoming the black and white nature of D&D's moral spectrum is to take the alignment with a grain of salt and favor the deity's area of focus instead. For instance, Heironeous cares about loyalty and chivalry. Now, if two conflicting loyalties arise (king vs. commander), he may not necessarily show favor to one side or the other, especially if the side favoring the commander feel the King is illegitimate or overstepping his bounds.

I have been pondering other ways to add some enticing gray areas into the religious landscape of my game and have come up with a few other examples that may help make the minds of the gods less knowable.

  • Pelor (neutral good sun god) - A sect of his followers, obsessed with purity, launch an inquisition style campaign to purge the darkness from society.
  • Hextor (lawful evil god of tyrrany) - in the chaotic aftermath of a great disaster, his clerics establish a new authoritarian order, stabilizing society but at the cost of certain freedoms.
  • Ehlonna (neutral good god of nature) - a sect of this goddess of the woodlands begins razing woodcutters' villages in the name of preserving the forests.
  • Vecna (neutral evil god of secrets) - during a time of war, and underground resistance finds comfort and power from this god who helps them clandestinely struggle against their oppressors.

Thinking of these otherwise knowable deities in such a way, helps to increase the mystery of their mindset and opens up a number of conflict seeds that are absent under a strict interpretation of the D&D rules governing divine classes.
Dear Lord, please save me from your followers...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Changing the Leopard's Spots: Reskinning in D&D

I'm gonna sing the doom song!

The terms, "skinning" and "reskinning" get thrown around a lot in 4th Edition D&D blogs, forums, literature and other forms of communication. the terms refer to changing the description (a.k.a. the fluff) of a game element -most frequently a monster or spell- while retaining the underlying game mechanics (a.k.a. the crunch). The discourse in 4th Edition encourages DM's to use reskinning to quickly adapt a particular game element to fit another situation (e.g. using the statistics of an orc to represent a particularly dim but burly street thug.) sometimes even encouraging the practice to bend genres (e.g. reskinning a beholder from D&D into a sentient and malevolent spy droid in Gamma World.)

Now, my game of choice is an earlier edition of D&D (3.5) but I have nonetheless become incredibly enamored of reskinning and ideas about the subject have been ping-ponging around in my head lately. Earlier this week, I was particularly inspired by the Chatty DM's account of his game at the Grand Roludothon, which featured a masterfully skinned character named Elan the Eladrin mage.

Chatty's account of Elan at the game table highlights one of many potential benefits to skinning: It can help push the players out of a passive, hack and slash mindset. It allows both player and GM to customize things like spells and special moves to better fit a character or situation. Casting a simple spell in combat can suddenly become a launching point for deeper roleplay. A fireball could be just a fireball, but if the caster launches it by spitting out a swig of dwarven rot-gut and then flicking a match, it becomes something to talk about. (I smell an intervention!)

I have not had a whole lot of opportunity to incorporate skinning techniques into my game as of yet. So far, I have mostly used it to develop unique magic items, such as the recently acquired, "Gentleman's Defense" -a magic parasol that functions as a rapier when closed, or as a small shield while open. In this example, I simply took the stats for a rapier and shield from the equipment lists in the player's handbook, and the stats used depend on how the parasol is being used.

However! Though I have not implemented a major reskin for a character in my game just yet, I did come up with a pretty kickass idea for a bard based on an archetypal heavy metal singer. Here's the fluff:

Stephen Rawking, Bard
Stephen originally hails from one of the barbarian tribes in the frozen north. Though he has migrated into the civilized "warmlands" (as his tribe calls them) he has retained many of the traditional modes of dress from his homeland. He wears his hair loose and long, seldom bothering to comb it. He dresses primarily in hardened animal skins with, fur boots and accents. Like the warrior skalds of his tribe, Stephen is expected to fight, and so blades have been affixed to his guitar to double as an axe should he find himself in combat. The magic guitar is further empowered with electrical magic, which can deliver a shock to any it strikes.

Bardic Music:
(Here's where things get fun! I will begin with the official summary of each power and then add my own flavor)
Countersong (Su): A bard with 3 or more ranks in a Perform skill can use his music or poetics to counter magical effects that depend on sound (but not spells that simply have verbal components). Stephen let's out a sustained wail from his electric guitar, drowning out sonic magic within the area.

Fascinate (Sp): A bard with 3 or more ranks in a Perform skill can use his music or poetics to cause one or more creatures to become fascinated with him. Stephen launches into a complex scale progression, which grows in speed, complexity and intensity as he continues to play, all affected stop and watch, wondering "how does he DO that!?"

Inspire Courage (Su): A bard with 3 or more ranks in a Perform skill can use song or poetics to inspire courage in his allies (including himself), bolstering them against fear and improving their combat abilities. Launching into a driving chord progression broken by well-timed key changes, Stephen stirs the blood of his allies with a battle-hymn call to arms.

Spells: (I'll just do one example from each spell level)
Level 0
Summon Instrument: This spell summons one handheld musical instrument of your choice. Stephen hold his hand dramatically out to the side, and suddenly a portal to the 9 Hells opens and an imp in a black t-shirt steps through, placing a fresh guitar in stephens hand before disappearing back from whence he came.
Level 1
Charm Person: This charm makes a humanoid creature regard you as its trusted friend and ally (treat the target’s attitude as friendly). Stephen flashes a smile, speaking in his handsome northern brogue, he invites the spell's target to join him for an after-party later that day.
Level 2
Glitterdust: A cloud of golden particles covers everyone and everything in the area, causing creatures to become blinded and visibly outlining invisible things for the duration of the spell. Rawking lets out a sustained high note and stomps his foot, two bursts of sparkling dust erupt from the ground with a sudden flash covering all within the area.
Level 3
Confusion: This spell causes the targets to become confusedmaking them unable to independently determine what they will do. Caught up in Stephen's music, the targets of this spell begin to flail about in a chaotic revelry of rawk (mosh pit!) roll to determine their action each round.

d%     Behavior
01–10 Attack caster with melee or ranged weapons. (The creature becomes overzealous and lunges at Stephen)
11–20 Act normally.
21–50 Do nothing but babble incoherently. (The creature cheers, whistles or attempts to sing along)
51–70 Flee away from caster at top possible speed.
71–100 Attack nearest creature (Mosh pit!!!).

I think the example of Stephen Rawking does an excellent job of illustrating the ability of custom flavor text to make a character unique and memorable without requiring a whole custom rule set. I hope to start incorporating more of these specific types of description into my game in the future, and if any of my players are reading this: there might be some bonus xp if you come up with something similar for your character!

Monday, June 13, 2011

"Do you bite your thumb at me?" Swearing in Fantasy Cultures

Dear readers,

I apologize for the missing post from last Friday. I came down with some sort of plague this weekend and despite wanting to do nothing but lay on my couch eating pho and sipping tea, I was obligated to further aggravate said plague by attending my sister's various graduation ceremonies. I wanted to attend... I did not want to attend while sick.

As I have convalesced, my addled wits have turned to entirely sordid thoughts. Today, I would like to talk about naughty words. If you do not like naughty words, please do not read further, because I write them out in their full, titillating glory:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Minecraft and other Sundries

Its all Fun & Games
I was actually pretty impressed by the response to my Its All Fun & Games post. I don't think any post on this blog to date has generated quite so many comments, and as a bonus, my little nugget of virtual narcissism has hit 30 followers. If you are reading this, hooray for you!

I continue to plug away at my Minecraft world. However, now that I have a solid grasp on the fundamentals of the game, my approach has changed slightly. I am beginning to focus more on building vs. digging and have plans to create some grandiose structures. This shift in thinking about the game was inspired, in part, by some amazing time-lapse videos like this one.

The good stuff starts at the 1:30 mark

I love the idea of using the Minecraft as a sort of 3D virtual palette for creating completely fantastical structures -who says video games need to be violent? As I have mentioned in previous posts, I am fascinated by mapping and architecture. However, I don't think I have the time or ambition to undertake a project quite as massive as the one in the above video. The overall effect reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Neil Stephenson's, The Diamond Age in which an entire island is created by nano-bots for young Princess Charlotte's birthday.
The smart coral burst out of the depths with violence that shocked Hackworth, even though he’d been in on the design, seen the trial runs. Viewed through the dark surface of the Pacific, it was like watching an explosion through a pane of shattered glass. It reminded him of pouring a jet of heavy cream into coffee, watching it rebound from the bottom of the cup in a turbulent fractal bloom that solidified just as it dashed against the surface. The speed of this process was a carefully planned  sleight-of-hand; the smart coral had actually been growing down on the bottom of the ocean for the last three months, drawing its energy from a supercon that they’d grown across the seafloor for the occasion, extracting the necessary atoms directly from the seawater and the gases dissolved therein. The process happening below looked chaotic, and in a way it was; buteach lithocule knew exactly where it was supposed to go and what it was supposed to do. They were tetrahedral building blocks of calcium and carbon, the size of poppyseeds, each equipped with a power source, a brain, and a navigational system. They rose from the bottom of the sea at a signal given by Princess Charlotte; she had awakened to find a small present under her pillow, unwrapped it  to find a golden whistle on a chain, stood out on her balcony, and blown the whistle.

The coral was converging on the site of the island from all directions, some of the lithocules traveling several kilometers to reach their assigned positions. They displaced  a volume of water equal to the island itself, several cubic kilometers in all. The result was furious turbulence, an upswelling in the surface of the ocean that made some of the children scream, thinking it might rise up and snatch the airship out of the sky; and indeed a few drops pelted the ship’s diamond belly, prompting the pilot to give her a little more altitude. The curt maneuver forced hearty laughter from all of the fathers in the ballroom, who were delighted by the illusion of danger and the impotence of Nature.

The foam and mist cleared away at some length to reveal a new island, salmon-colored in the light of dawn. Applause and cheers diminished to a professional murmur. The chattering of the
astonished children was too loud and high to hear.

It  would be a couple of hours yet. Hackworth snapped his fingers for a waiter and ordered fresh fruit, juice, Belgian waffles, more coffee. They might as well enjoy Æther’s famous cuisine while the island sprouted castles, fauns, centaurs, and enchanted forests.

Princess Charlotte was the first human to set foot on the enchanted isle, tripping down the gangway of  Atlantis with a couple of her little friends in tow, all of them looking like tiny wildflowers in their ribboned sun-bonnets, all carrying little baskets for souvenirs, though before long these were handed over to governesses. The Princess faced Æther and Chinook, moored a couple of hundred meters away, and spoke to them in a normal tone of voice that was, however, heard clearly by all; a nanophone was hidden somewhere in the lace collar of her pinafore, tied into phased-audio-array systems grown into the top layers of the island itself.

“I would like to express my gratitude to Lord Finkle-McGraw and all the employees of Machine-Phase Systems Limited for thismost wonderful birthday present. Now, children of Atlantis/Shanghai, won’t you please join me at my birthday party?”
In other Minecraft news, apparently the game will be available for XBox 360 sometime this coming winter. When that happens, I fully intend to get in on some massive cooperative world-building with my friends.

Impending Visits
My girlfriend's 8 year old brother is scheduled to fly out for his first visit out of his home state (KS) at the end of the month and he will be in town over one of our regularly scheduled game nights. I am weighing a couple of options for how to approach the event:

Option 1: cancel game night and spend time with little brother -practical, but unimaginative.
Option 2: incorporate little brother into our already existent game night structure. While I think it would be fairly simple to work him in, I think a hyperactive 8 year old might be unable to sit through 3 hours of D&D.
Option 3: Run an alternate game with little brother and some or all of the usual game group. Possible alternates include RPG kids, Castle Ravenloft, Munchkin or other simplified game systems.

Any recommendations? I'm generally good with kids. I have nephews of my own and have worked in museum education for several years, but when it comes to kids, nobody knows everything.

Monday, June 6, 2011

It's All Fun & Games

So, today is the It’s all Fun and Games blog hop, which focuses on a subject dear to my heart... well, two subjects, really... fun and games. Since this blog focuses on my current favorite games, I decided that I would take a slightly different approach to the blog hop and post about three favorite games from my past.

Warning: This is a long one!

1. The Board Game - HeroQuest

This is the game responsible for starting my interest in RPGs. Produced by Milton Bradley, HeroQuest ran on a super-simplified D&D-style rule set. Players could select from 4 character types, a barbarian, a wizard, a dwarf (fighter) and an elf (archer). The game included plastic minis for each of the characters, as well as the various baddies that would occupy the dungeon. The bad guy options included orcs, goblins, skeletons and zombies, with two BBEGs, an undead wizard called the “chaos sorcerer” and a wicked looking gargoyle. The game also included trap tiles, plastic furniture and some excellent door standees that I wish I still had for use in my D&D campaign today.

The thing that really grabbed me about this game was the way it encouraged the user to make up his/her own adventures after playing through the provided material. I spent quite a bit of free time dreaming up new dungeons, many of which would have been certain death to anyone foolish enough to play with me--game balance comes with age, I suppose. This infinitely morphic quality is a major draw for me, and is why I continue to enjoy games like D&D today. Every time you play a game like HeroQuest or D&D feels like the first time.

2. The Video Game - Age of Empires/Kings

I first got into Age of Empires (AoE) during the early boom of real-time strategy games that happened in the 1990s. There were a couple of things that I greatly enjoyed about Age of Empires, and especially its sequel, Age of Kings (AoK), over other games of its type. First was the historical aspect. Games like WarCraft, StarCraft, Command and Conquer, all set their games in highly fictionalized universes, whereas AoE gamified history.

I loved playing as civilizations that don’t get a whole lot of attention in the standard history curricula, like the Hittites, the Minoans or the Saracens. Furthermore, each of these civilizations played differently from the others. If you played as the French in Age of Kings, your path to success lay in heavy cavalry backed by bombards, crossbowmen and strong fortifications. These tactics would not work, however, with the Mongols, which fared much better with an effective application of horse archers and light cavalry.

I also really liked trying to outsmart the AI in the AoE games. In the single-player campaign, certain events would trigger the next step in the AI’s programming. By learning to identify those triggers, I could often exploit or circumvent them entirely. For example, in one mission of the French campaign, the player is tasked with occupying an enemy town in preparation for an assault on the enemy army. The trouble is, destroying the town square triggered the game to start sending increasing waves of enemy troops to harass the player while he/she was trying to prepare. I found that by destroying the whole town, except the town hall and then moving my starting force against one of the enemy forts, I could instead set up my base behind the enemy’s own walls and return to trigger the enemy AI when I was ready. As a bonus, the AI would not attack the walls of my alternate base of operations as it still recognized them as belonging to an allied civilization.

3. The Physical Game - Capture the Flag

Capture the flag was one of the standard summertime diversions of my group of friends until well past the age when it would be considered socially acceptable?...expected? Most people associate this game with summer camp or grade school field days. My friends and I took it well into high school, playing with various accoutrements from Supersoakers to paint ball and laser tag guns. However, the most memorable capture the flag event of my youth was one late night game which my friends and I have dubbed the greatest game of capture the flag ever played.

  • Location: Lynndale Park and Elementary School
  • The Players: A group of friends from my high school theater program
  • The Field: One team occupied the park’s picnic and play area and tennis courts. The other occupied the adjacent elementary school and baseball fields. The dividing line was a path running between them.
  • The Flags: A pair of foam pool floaty noodles.
The game took place well after dark when the park was closed and unlit. I played for Team Play Field and, being the sort who loves sneaky missions, decided to push deep into Team Elementary’s territory in search of the flag.

The elementary school, like most suburban schools in the area, consisted of a number of single-storey classroom blocks connected by partially covered breezeways, which makes for a labyrinthine environment with plenty of places to hide. By the time I reached the far line of enemy territory, several of my less-careful teammates had gotten themselves captured, so I decided a jailbreak would be the first order of business. Team Elementary was holding their captives along the wall of a breezeway in the center of the complex which could be accessed from either end. Of course, the captives were guarded.

I crept along the side of one of the intersecting walkways, crawling on all fours. At one point, a Team Elementary guard passed within plain sight and inches, but did not notice me through my veil of ninja stealth. When I reached the corner leading to the holding area, I paused and waited. Team Elementary had made one major mistake in their captive management plan -they let their prisoners pace. When one of my fellow Play Fielders strolled past the edge of the holding area, I put a finger to my lips and tagged them to freedom before evading back into the shadows.

I used the chaos of the ensuing jailbreak as an opportunity to get up onto the roof of the school. I’m not sure that I really had a plan, other than to observe Team Elementary’s movements and hang out on the roof, which was cool. I once again crept up to the edge of the prisoner holding area and peered down.

Suddenly, one of the more observant sentries spotted me and sounded the alarm. With my cover blown, I ceased trying to be sneaky and stood up bold against the night as Team Elementary began surrounding the building to cut off my escape.

Then I heard the telltale scrape of someone climbing onto the roof after me. This began a rooftop chase which exists in my mind on par with any found in an action movie. I dashed up rooftop inclines and slid down the far sides, making my way across the complex to what I hoped was an unobserved edge. Sliding to the edge of the roof behind a chimney, I peered down to see a closed dumpster below me. I could easily make the leap without hurting myself, but the noise would signal my whereabouts.

I could hear my pursuers drawing closer. I had no choice. I leaped from the roof.

“He’s on the ground!”

I jumped from the dumpster and hit the parking lot running, sprinting around the corner of the school only to have my legs clipped out from under me by a chain strung across the parking lot to prevent vehicle access after hours. I don’t know how, but I managed to roll with the fall and popped up uninjured only to see a rather large kid from Team Elementary barreling towards me. Earlier in the night, this guy had shown his ability to build up quite a head of steam, but I rightly suspected that he was limited to straight-line performance. I charged towards him and cut to the side at the last second, causing him to overshoot and miss the tag. I then took off at full speed for the safety of the play field, making the friendly lines ahead of my pack of pursuers.

After my venture into enemy territory, I decided to play defense for a while. My team had hidden our flag along the net line of one of the tennis courts. The light colored pool noodle blended perfectly with the base of the net. Furthermore, the fence around the court restricted access to a single entryway or over a noisy fence.

I’m not sure how he got in, but a member of Team Elementary managed to get into the tennis court and found the flag. However, one of our guards spotted him and sounded the alarm. The guard was waiting at the courts entrance when I arrived.

“He’s going over the fence!”

Our team scrambled around to the parking-lot side where we thought the suspect would make his escape, leaving a guard at the entrance to the court just in case. Later, it would turn out that the clang we heard was actually the kid running face-first into the chain-link fence. He bore a waffle mark on his cheek for some time after. Though our team was now combing the parking lot side of the courts, the intruder managed to scale the fence with unexpected stealth and was not spotted until he was already going full speed towards his line across the parking lot.

The intruder from Team Elementary made the safety of his line, and the game was a loss for us, but in execution, I still believe it was the greatest game of capture the flag ever played.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Rule of Fives!

First off, L.G. Smith over at Bards and Prophets tipped me off to a new blogfest that looks to be right up my alley.

However, since this blog makes my favorite game pretty apparent, I think that I will instead post about some awesome game night alternatives. Keep an eye out for Monday’s post.

So, last night was game night and my group was properly lured into a sense of complacency, having just killed a big ol’ dragon, so what did I do? I threw a rampaging horde of orc barbarians at them! YAY!

Anyway, I had really been wanting to try my hand at running a defensive encounter, similar to this one. In the typical D&D format, players are usually the invaders, breaking in to the homes of unsuspecting monsters who are just trying to mind their own business and eat a few villagers. Well, I decided to turn the table on my players, giving them two days warning of an approaching horde of orcs. They had to prep their defenses and hold them as long as they can.

Now, as implied by the word “horde”, this encounter included a LOT of combatants, which has the potential to severely bog down the play rotation as the GM has to resolve every roll made by every creature not controlled by a player.

To make my job easier and keep the pace snappy, I devised a mass-combat system, which I have dubbed the “Rule of Fives!” Now, five seems to be a magic number for DMs. There are a variety of planning techniques based around fives, from the five-room dungeon to the myriad of applications of the five-by-five technique. My Rule of Fives, however, is different.

In summary, this rule takes the base hit points of every NPC and monster, and makes it a multiple of five. More importantly, whenever damage is dealt to that NPC or monster, it happens in multiples of 5, with each 5 being recorded as a check-mark on my combat tracker (i.e. 1-5 hp = ✓, 6-10 hp = ✓✓ and so on.) When the tally marks reach the total hit points of the creature divided by five (e.g. ✓✓✓✓✓ for a 25 hp monster), it dies.

The Rule of Fives simplifies the mental math every GM must churn out down to the quick and easy task of counting by fives. However, it still accounts for variation in the amount of damage dealt by different attacks (i.e. a fireball can kill in one hit, while an arrow is unlikely to do so.) When implementing the rule last night, I combined it with a couple other shortcuts to speed things along. The first was my random attack roll sheet I mentioned back in April. The second is a simple mechanic, whereby NPC minions only deal a single ✓ of damage to each other when making basic attacks. Big spell effects are different, but this rule works well for arrow shots and sword hits. This also helps emphasize the importance of the players. They are the heroes. They deal the most damage, and they can dramatically swing the tide of battle.

Anyway, the system worked beautifully last night, and we got through an entire combat session at the players’ first defensive line, and the group killed almost 20 baddies in an hour. If I had hand rolled everything, I doubt we would have made it through a single round.

You know what? three can suck it, five is the new magic number!

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