Category Archives: Play

Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar

Like many adolescent geeks, I fell in love with my first computer game back when I had lots of time and very little money.  I mowed lawns for many weeks (probably around 12) to save up for Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar to play on my Commodore 64.   The game came on, I believe, four five inch floppy disks, and a nifty metal ankh and fabric map were included in the box along with two instruction books.  I felt like I’d got my money’s worth.

The object of Ultima IV is to live well and in accordance with eight virtues:  Honesty, Valor, Honor, Compassion, Justice, Spirituality and Humility.  This leads to becoming the “Avatar” of those virtues and positioning your character as an example to the rest of the world.  I was just impressionable enough to invest quite a lot of myself in the game’s core principles.  I took it so far that I stopped reloading at previous save points, when I made a mistake and lost some rating in the virtues.  A simple typo when dealing with a blind vendor would cause me to lose ‘an eighth’ of my avatar hood.  One cannot be the avatar of honesty if one rips people off.  It wasn’t a terrible hardship:  even if you took a step backward, you could always redeem yourself, though this took hours.  I probably added 50 hours of game play by compensating for typos provoked by an interface that I wouldn’t tolerate for ten minutes today.

After I completed the game, naturally I took my tricked out party back and slaughtered town after town.  At that point even the town guards presented little challenge.  After all those weeks spent tightly following a path of virtue, it was quite a relief to just go evil for awhile.

This reminds me of life in a long term Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  I like playing and developing the same character over long periods of time, but sometimes it’s fun to change things up by creating a character who thinks a less and cares little for authority.

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Magic Item Resource Management

I take a decidedly lazy approach to magic items in my monthly Dungeons and Dragons game.  I award the player characters gold, and let them buy what they like off screen.  The economics are standard; they can sell existing items at 20% value and they get the appropriate parcels of value for their level.

While there is something lost for the players since they are never pleasantly surprised when a sweet item comes their way.  On the other hand, they aren’t disappointed either.  They can simply get the item that best suits their character without the roundabout ritual of giving me a wish list.

A controversy arose during last session about the best way to manage the financial resources:  one player suggested that the group pool its money, in order to get higher level items quicker.  The other player wanted to divide up the gold evenly and let each player manage his character’s finances separately.  None of the other three players expressed preferences.  Since I had abdicated magic item control to the players, I very intentionally stayed out of it.

I wonder, is there an advantage to giving one character a high level item rather than a few characters something of lower level?  I have contrary intuitions:  on one hand, it seems that you should get powerful items as quickly as possible.  On the other, the economy seems designed to work out evenly.

Am I (or my players) missing something?

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Filed under 4e D&D, continuous improvement, Group dynamics, Play

Last Session’s Nuts and Bolts

June 2010 Session

Days have passed since the attack of the Shadar-Kai.  The PC’s can spend the time as they wish.  Presumably they found the camp, gathered the loot, got their reward and have arranged for re-equipping and upgrading.

One midnight, Nightcloak escapes and his group kidnaps a child from the village:  Jeff’s daughter.  The sheriff puts Drale on the case.

Shortly after, Clintok sends a messenger – a crow-mask wearing halfling.  He would like to see the group immediately concerning the missing child.

  • Fortified, wooden wall, stone building
  • Salvador Dali art
  • Everyone wears a mask, Clintok wears the Ibis

Clintok wears an Ibis mask – “what did you do before the Zain-kin came?”  “Before we talk business, let’s have refreshment…”

  • Gives exotic fruit, liquor, lemon water.
  • Warriors draw weapons and attack – See Clintok’s Rangers Encounter
  • Clintok does not engage unless absolutely forced.

“Congratulations, you passed the audition”

For parcel 1&2 and whatever salvage, pursue the bandits and bring their treasure to me to examine.

They’ve gone into the 100 Acre Forest, you’d best leave immediately.

Gives a magic compass that will track The Egg.

Arcana check to use the compass
Any Point in direction
Medium success or better See through eyes
Hard  success Know limited thoughts of Egg’s owner

  • Shadowcloak has The Egg
  • Hates the PCs
  • Hates Westfall
  • The new boss will give him new power

The woods are dark, weird, sprites flitter about 15 miles (three hexes) from town, the sprites coalesce into a swarm and Doc and his pets attack the intruders.  See Outside the Hag’s House Encounter

The thick forest leads further to a house of gold, platinum, copper, jewels, magical knowledge – all of the dreams of player characters.  When the PCs approach the door opens and a beautiful, elderly elven woman in a fine gown appears.

Clintok’s Rangers

XP #
1250 1 Clintok
38 5 Burly Halfling Sellsword
38 5 Halfling Slinger
1630



***********

Outside the Hag’s House


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More about the Game within the Game

At last, I used folded index cards to help track initiative.  Or, rather, I used the cards to communicate the initiative order to my players and they used a bottle cap to note whose turn.  Players’ names were in pink, monsters in green.  I kept my own electronic tracking in the Excel spreadsheet I wrote about previously.  All in all, it was a great success, and I understand why DMs swear by the method.   Since I only use my DM’s screen as a reference, I set the cards in front of me, as table tents.

The other fun experiment arose when my sprite swarms used their rechargeable, close burst Darkwave to create a zone.  We’ve struggled with the best way to mark zones with mixed results.  Pipe cleaner boxes get tangled with the minis; placing a dice in the middle of the zone works reasonably well, but feels unsatisfying to me.  I don’t like having to count to remember the zone’s size, even if I only have to count to one.  We’ve also placed small stones in the zone’s corners.

The battle had begun in earnest, my monsters were getting busy and I had to hurry and figure out what all the power does in addition to creating the zone.  I glanced around my living room frantically when my eye fell on a small dish of toothpicks, probably left over from a recent dinner party.  Eureka!  I bent four toothpicks in half and placed one at each corner of the zone, like little brackets.  Since toothpicks are small and discrete, they don’t interfere with the minis.  They visually contrasted nicely with the battle map, and bend into the nicest 90 degree corner that I can remember.

Here is a pic from our recent game.  You can see the things I wrote about above, plus the world level hex map, our robust use of pipe cleaners and the map tiles, all fully in action.  You can even see the gold coins that we use to incentivize good play.

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Filed under 4e D&D, continuous improvement, Information management, Play, Session Debrief, Tools

The Story in the Session

Our last session ended after our heroes (the player characters) defended Westfall from a group of Shadar-kai raiders.  I first went around the table and asked each player say a few things about how their characters spent the following few days.

I next introduced the central McGuffin:  a previously encountered bandit named Nightcloak had escaped and kidnapped one of the town’s children.  The party’s investigation led them to “Clintok’s Ranch,” in a way I didn’t anticipate.  They didn’t know that an invitation from Clintok was waiting for them back in town; instead they sent the party assassin and the party monk in for reconnaissance.  They quickly discovered that Clintok and his fellow halfings are an odd bunch: they wear animal masks that seem to correspond with their jobs at the ranch.  This was inspired by the Granbretan empire in Michael Moorcock’s The History of the Runestaff .

The first encounter of the day was an audition.  At the snap of a finger, ten of Clintok’s minions attacked (remember that scene from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?).

Clintok did not engage in the battle, though the assassin nearly changed that in a moment of eagerness.  I had his stats ready, just in case.  From my perspective, this was a moment of big decision for the campaign.  While I didn’t expect them to kill Clintok, and I have big plans for him later, I wasn’t about to say ‘no.’ It would have been a tough battle against a solo, but they could have prevailed and there would have been long term, interesting consequences.

Clintok revealed that the Nightcloak not only kidnapped a baby from town, he stole an artifact from Clintok’s private collection.  He offered a deal:  if they retrieved the item, he would use his connections to clear their criminal records.  He then gave them an arcane compass-like device that would help them locate the artifact.  They soon learned that in the right hands, the compass would also let them see through the eyes of the artifact’s carrier, and listen to his surface thoughts.

Their pursuit took them in into a nearby fey infused forest.  This forest has been a name on a map for over a year, so I was excited to let their characters get in and explore a bit.  I emphasized how dark and weird the forest was, with an uncontrolled, random feel.  While the forest wasn’t sick, it felt a little like the bad side of the warden’s hometown.

The forest grew dense, and the sprites suddenly gathered into two aggressive swarms (Tinkerbell’s friends were mean!), and the party was ambushed by a Duregar named Doc (in the forest?!) with his pet fey panthers.  As with most good Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition encounters, there was a moment in the battle, after the monsters had used their recharge and encounter powers, and things were looking a little bleak for the player characters.  However, used solid tactics and won the day without too much drama.

I had one more encounter prepared for that session, but by then I knew we didn’t have time.  We had started later than I’d hoped, and the party had spent quite awhile investigating Clintok’s ranch.  That allowed me to end the session on a cliff-hanger.

The forest soon cleared and the party came upon a house constructed of gold, platinum, gems, jewels and magical weapons.  In short, there was everything an adventurer could desire, ready to be plucked.  There was movement inside the building, but they couldn’t see any details.  After one of the PCs tossed a pebble at one of the windows, an old elfish woman opened the door and introduced herself (“Miss White”). – end of session.

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Filed under 4e D&D, Fluff, Fluff/Inspiration, Play, Session Debrief

Game Prep and Digital Pictures

Today I’m doing some more prep for my game next Saturday.  This time I’m using a lot of maps and Dungeon Tiles, which makes encounter design different for me.  Before I would draw maps on paper, then transcribe it them onto my battle mat.  This time I sorted through my box of tiles and maps, and worked out how I want it all to look.  I took a few digital pictures, so I’ll remember what it looks like when game time comes.  I also put some miniatures on them, just so I’d have a sense of scale for each battle.

If you’re one of my players, there are some vague spoilers, but it shouldn’t ruin anything if you look at the pics.

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Excel is this Dungeon Master’s Friend

I probably have an above average comfort with Microsoft Excel, but I’m no expert.  While wrestling with how best to track initiative in my monthly game, I thought I’d try using Excel.  After a few sessions, I’ve made some adjustments, added a few things, and am happy with it overall.

Here is my standard template, and every participant in the battle gets one, except for minions.  They usually have to share.  The top half is for key information.  For the player characters I document defenses, passive perception and insight, character name and a note about the mini.  When battle begins, I’ll enter the initiative into the appropriate box.  I don’t track PC hit points.  If this were a monster, I would enter the damage as it is incurred, and Excel does the subtraction.  It’s important to note that when I set up those formulas, I didn’t tell the ‘bloodied’ and ‘surge value’ cells to round.  In standard math ‘16.5’ rounds up to 17, but, as we know, in Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, we always round down.

After all the initiative values are entered, I rearrange the tabs accordingly.  When a monster dies, I can either delete the tab or shuffle it off to the side.

Here is what it might look like during a battle.  The green tabs are the PCs, the black is a dead monster.  The Zain-kin Centurion has taken 12 points of damage, which happens to equal his surge value.  Trackless went first, then Anafos, then the Centurions etc…

Another advantage of using Excel is that I can insert other DMs helpers into some of the other tabs.

This tab helps me track my experience budget, so I can adjust to player absences or additions on the fly.  I often paste in images of information from the Monster Builder, especially if I’ve customized them for my game.

On a whole, I’ve had great success using Excel, but I only recommend it for those already familiar with the software, and to those who don’t have to pay for it.  How do you track your encounters?  Do you use index cards or other software?  What ideas for improving my system do you have?

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