Monthly Archives: April 2010

Checking and Acting in Initiative

A few months ago I linked to a video that explains “Plan-Do-Study-Act” (also known as “Plan-Do-Check-Act”) as a disciplined way to continuously improve. Much of this blog explores my own adventures in gaming related PDCA, mostly with Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition. In last Saturday’s game I trialed the initiative system I wrote about last week.

A few elements worked really well. Keeping the necessary player information on one Excel sheet, along with the initiative grid was very effective. It was fairly easy to adjust the initiative order by grabbing cels and dropping them in, then inserting the occasional row when needed. The main encounter of the game was in defense of a village, and the players dropped into initiative tactically, twice inserting themselves within the order of like-typed monsters as the bandits approached.

One challenge I want to improve is how often I have to toggle between tabs during an encounter. Right now, every monster has its own tab, except for minions – they have to share. For the next game, I’ll try and put all same typed monsters of the same type on the same sheet. I’ll have to add additional hit point calculating columns, but that’s simple enough. I also need to build in some space to describe which miniature applies to which hit point column.

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Battlestar Galactica Reflections

I really love the Battlestar Galactica television series that ran from 2003 – 2009. Even now, a year after the series finale’ I consider it the best television I’ve ever seen. I’ve had a few recent reflections about the show that may prove useful for role-playing game players.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition character classes fall into one of four roles: the defender, the leader, the striker and the controller. These roles match well into BSG ship battles: the vipers are clearly the strikers of the fleet. While Galactica’s cannons are significant, a battlestar’s primary function is to launch vipers, so they can shoot stuff and win the battle. Galactica coordinates the fight, much like leader classes. When a viper gets damaged, it can land for repairs (or to spend a healing surge). Galactica is also really good at taking hits. It got hit by a nuke at the end of the miniseries, and do you remember how badly it got shot up in that final battle?

The Colonial Fleet was lacking in the controller department for much of the series. Conversely, the Cylons’ ability to control the battle led to the initial genocide when the entire Colonial Fleet simply stopped working as a result of the computer virus. Finally, during “Daybreak,” the show’s final episode, Sam steps into the controller role and is able to freeze the Cylon fleet, which allows the strike force to rescue Hera. Without a controller, both battles would have ended completely differently.

My second reflection about BSG focuses on William Adama. In season one’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” he puts the fleet at risk to extend the search for Starbuck, who was shot down in the previous episode. While his decision to extend the search is questionable, there is the clear sense that he will leave when he is sure that all hope has passed. Near the episode’s end, he tells his son, Lee “Apollo” Adama, that if he had been shot down, “we’d never leave.” At the time I considered that to be a bit of sentimental claptrap: of course they would have left, there’s no way Adama would have sacrificed the fleet to continue a pointless search, even for his own son.

Then, I watched season four, and my analysis changed. During those final episodes, we see genuine vulnerability in Commander Adama. We catch glimpses of what he will do when his mind is set, even when those actions conflict with the measurable greater good. This is best illustrated in the final episode when he leads a group of volunteers on a suicide mission to save one little girl. He didn’t expect to find Earth as a result, he didn’t believe that she would save the human race. He just knew that Galactica was dying and that Roslin was dying and that he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t try to save Hera.

In light of that, it’s clear that he really would have kept the entire fleet in place until he found Apollo, had the situation warranted it.

In gaming terms, this kind of nuanced characterization can be very effective. What situation will make your character abandon her other values? What does he value above his normal morality? Is this a flaw, a benefit, or a little of both?

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New Initiative System

I only have a quick post for today. I was inspired by the NewbieDM to rework my initiative tracking. As you can see, I have the barest bones of Player Character information on the main tab, along with the initiative grid.

When players announce their initiative score, I will simply enter the name in the appropriate square. If they hold, or if the order is otherwise changed, I can lift and drop. It should be simple enough.

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The Game before the Game

The Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition game I dungeon master for meets about once per month. It’s challenging to develop my skills and tricky to keep the story moving. Over the last year, my game preparation has evolved and will undoubtedly continue to evolve.

After the last campaign ended with the Elite Mad Wraith incident, I made some creative decisions about the new campaign. I recently started re-watching Firefly, which helped form some key components:

1) Each session will be mostly self-contained and episodic, in addition to moving the meta-plot forward. Television and comic books work best with this similar structure: each issue or episode contains a complete product, with a beginning, middle and end. Every element should move things forward, without filler; everything should exist for a reason.
2) The campaign will have an American western feel. This is still Dungeons and Dragons, so there won’t be six guns or cowboy hats; I probably won’t even have horses. Instead I’m aiming for the middle ground between law and anarchy. When the sheriff is the only law in town, a weak one opens the door to chaos and a corrupt one can ruin a town.

When I begin to prepare for a specific session, I first consider the primary story for that specific game and what I’d like the climax to look like. Last month focused on the player characters’ escape from prison, and culminated with clearing a hidden base of bandits.

Next, I break down the specific high level beats and start thinking through the skill challenges. I try to consider the pace and to integrate skill use with the rest of the session. Last session’s skill involved fleeing from the posse; the more the player characters succeeded, the more advantages they would enjoy when the battle began. I firmly believe that skill challenges should not determine whether a battle happens; instead, they should influence how an encounter happens.

Finally, I pull together the encounter specifics. I use the Monster Builder (sometimes in conjunction with the Monster Manuals) to assemble the bad guys according to budget, then I sort out the terrain. For the last session, I knew I wanted to use my new Harrowing Halls Dungeon Tiles, but it wasn’t until this step that I decided how they would work best.

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Calvinball, Riots, DMV, D&D

Today I present the “Calvinball, Violent Riots, DMV, Dungeons and Dragons” mental model. It mostly speaks for itself, though I have a few things to add:

Many of the plotted items are admittedly subjective. Family traditions are not always enjoyable; not every dictatorial marriage is a bad marriage, and good marriages don’t all require a balance of freedom with restriction. The intent was to illustrate the model.

As I plotted the examples, I found that complete freedom rarely leads to fun or rewarding experiences. Most often, the greatest fun comes with an alignment of the possible with the desirable. In gaming terms, Dungeons and Dragons is very restrictive in many ways. You have a finite number of options any given time; however, those who love the game love it because the limited number of choices are more pleasurable than too many choices. We roll D20s because we want to lose some control of the narrative; otherwise we’d be storytelling and even in there we have better ways and worse ways. The task of all gamers is to find the balance of restriction that leads to the most fun.

If this graph was interesting to you, please check out my take on Regret, Hobbies, Chores and Oppression.

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What to Choose?

I have two character concepts in the running. Last night I created a first level wizard gnome. My mind was crackling with the possibilities of a Yoda-like, active, arcane wielder. With my links to old school gaming, I want access to the powers from first edition: Mordenkainen’s Sword, Fireball etc… After I finished, however, I was less enthused: since my party already has two strikers, I shied away from Magic Missile and other focused damage powers. Instead, I picked mostly powers that obstruct monsters. At this point, I thought my decision was settled. My interest in the druid had faded and I was pondering paragon.

Then I had a moment of endorphin-clarity during my morning run. While I’m out running, I’m pretty disgusting. I spit when I feel like it, I blow snot at semi-regular intervals. I know these aren’t civilized behaviors, but I feel better when my fluids are flowing. No one enjoys a sniffly nose, especially during exercise. The clarity came when I considered basing a character on that behavior. It would work for any primal or otherwise uncivilized character. Like a switch, I was interested in the druid again. What if he had no concept of social norms, but with a heart of gold (or at least copper)? There’s a lot of juicy role-playing space there.

After I got home, I fired up the character builder and started on the druid. I must admit, from a design perspective, he might be more fun. I like the balance of close-up beast powers and longer range caster abilities.

By Thursday’s post, I should have a final decision. As usual, I’ll also chime in on Twitter with further developments.

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Creative Space

I love the creative space that role-playing games encourage. If it’s well designed, a game provides the structure that can cause creativity to flourish. In Dungeons and Dragons fourth edition, player character (and encounter) creation allows for vast creativity involving both design and artistry. Design, because the mechanics are engineered within specific parameters: a player group works best with a controller, defender, leader and striker, and each is best when created to perform certain functions. Within that framework there is infinite creative space with name choice alone, and it expands from there.

As I previously wrote, I’m creating a new PC for my weekly game. During this process, both design and art come into focus clearly. I tend to start with the artistic element, especially for longer campaigns. Sometimes, however, I do start with the design. In a game like 4e, what your character can do is very important. It ain’t called the ‘heroic’ tier because it’s a discussion group, after all.

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