New Living Campaign for #4e #Dungeons & #Dragons #DnD #RPG #GenCon CC: @Erik_Nowak @Luddite_Vic

Information has slowly been swirling through or local Washington, DC gaming community, and to a lesser extent, beyond that. The Gamers’ Syndicate has put synDCon on hold and is focusing its efforts instead on something that you can enjoy all year round: A living campaign for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Many 4e players feel that there’s still more to do with 4e, just as 3rd Edition players felt there was more to do with 3e, and we’re seeking to give 4e players that same opportunity that Paizo gave the 3e players with Pathfinder and, more to the point, Pathfinder Society.

Living Campaign

For those of you that don’t know what a “living campaign” is, I point you to the Wikipedia entry, because Wikipedia never lies. Actually, “living campaign” is often defined differently by different people. To me, the most important aspect of a living campaign is allowing all of us to meet each other. In other words, it grows the role-playing game community; however, there are other important aspects to it. It allows the players to shape the campaign world even though their playing pre-written adventures. That is, if the majority of players accomplished a task in one adventure, that fact will be tracked by the authors and shape how future adventures are written. What the players do matters, even though they’re sharing the experience with thousands of players worldwide.

The Campaign Setting

Every campaign needs a campaign setting: a world that needs protecting and sometimes saving. Some famous examples of Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings include Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms, Keith Baker’s Eberron, and Gary Gygax’s (everyone bow, right now!) Greyhawk. Our campaign setting hasn’t yet been named, but it’s one of our own design, spearheaded by the devious mind of Erik Nowak (who, if you recall, brought us Rotting Toes). Erik premiered the first two adventures (co-written by Dave Phillips) for this campaign setting at synDCon I and synDCon II. The setting is high fantasy, but not quite that high. Characters will use inherent bonuses so that acquiring magic items won’t be critical, and when they are acquired, they’ll be special.

We’re also introducing a mechanic for tracking a character’s reputation in the kingdom, and have a fairly ambitious plan in the works, but those are topics for later posts.

GenCon 2013

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be running the two introductory adventures at GenCon this year, which serves as a sneak preview of the campaign. However, we’re working on the first four adventures, so we’re on track for an official start not too far in the future. Stay tuned.

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FASA Star Trek RPG: Yet Another Adventure

A friend had a birthday party yesterday, and although it was a board-game friendly event, I prepared a short, self-authored adventure for a game of FASA Star Trek RPG just in case anyone was interested in playing. The issue never even came up. Instead, I played 7 Wonders (came in a close 2nd my first time playing the game) and Circvs Maximus (my character was killed in a chariot race), but I digress . . . .

A Doomsday Like Any Other

By now any reader of this blog or my Loremaster blog should know that I’ve been revisiting the FASA Star Trek RPG recently, having run it once at TerpCon in College Park, MD. The adventure I ran, Anything but Routine, took place in the Outback area of the FASA Star Trek universe, which is where Federation space borders both Gorn and Romulan space. The Romulans were always my favorite Star Trek villain, and the Gorn were oddly underused. I remember once opining online that one of the later series or movies should revisit the Gorn as velociraptor-like enemies, perhaps representing a subspecies of Gorn. Again, I digress . . . .

For this adventure, I kept the same crew of the Chandley class Frigate, the USS Fife (lifted from the FASA adventure, A Doomsday Like Any Other). It was intended to be only two hours long in light of the fact that it was written for a board-game audience, but it can be fit rather nicely into the story I started with Anything but Routine, either before or after that adventure. In other words, I might have the start of an entire FASA Star Trek RPG campaign.

Now, if I can just find a table of players for it . . . .

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Dungeon Crawl System: High Paragon Level

Image © 2008 Jesse Mohn. All rights reserved.

As some of you know, I published an article entitled, How to Build a 4th Edition Dungeon Crawl for Heroic and Paragon Tiers, which sprang from my conversion of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules into 4th edition adventures. The “standard” system of encounter design (i.e., the one presented in the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide) didn’t work. As I pointed out in the article, I could suspend my disbelief in fighting dragons, devils, and slaadi, but the “15-minute” adventuring day was too much for me to accept as applicable to a dungeon crawl or a trek across the wilderness. That is, if the PCs were in an underground dungeon consisting of 100 rooms, it was unrealistic on so many levels to think the PCs could go through those rooms at a rate of 3-5 per day (i.e., the standard system assumes an extended rest every 3-5 encounters). Every 30 minutes, they should expect their rest interrupted unless the DM provided some ridiculous deus ex machina to justify 6-8 hours of peace and quiet. Obviously, another system of encounter design was needed. My conversions started with C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tomachan (before Wizards of the Coast announced they were doing one), C2: The Ghost Tower of Inverness (which I adapted as an LFR MyRealms adventure), L1: The Secret of Bone Hill, S2: White Plume Mountain (available here), and G1-2-3: Against the Giants (again, before WotC announced their conversion). Not being a professional game designer, I didn’t have the luxury of extensive playtests, instead relying on my Loremaster blog to supplement the article as I continued to refine it. As I progressed, I realized that what I had written was really appropriate only for levels 1-15. Once the PCs reach 16th level, some new math was required, which would eventually lead to the proper math at epic level (necessary for the next phase of the adventure, the conversion of the Drow series D1-2-3 and Q1). One of my home groups started G3: Hall of the Fire Giant King last night. It’s my first attempt at the new math. The results were remarkably good considering they were the result of my rough estimates as to what the new numbers should be.

What Am I Talking About?

Let’s start with some context. For those that haven’t read the article, read it dammit! Oops . . . . Sorry. For those that haven’t read it, the basic premise of the Dungeon Crawl system is that each individual encounter creates less of a drain on party resources while maintaining the threat level on the party. Moreover, through the use of “thematic encounter templates” (TETs), the system can be adjusted very easily on the fly for the varying number of players that shows up on any given night (much more accurately than, for example, the encounter adjustment rules provided by the Living Forgotten Realms campaign). The consequences are two-fold. First, for parties of 4-6 PCs, the party can address 10-15 encounters before having to take an extended rest. Second, for parties of only 3 PCs, the encounters create the same threat and resource drain as you find using the standard system, which means you don’t have to cancel your session because only three players show up on a given night.

How It Played out

So, now that everyone’s up to speed on what the system is, let’s talk about last night. I had only three players, so it was “game on,” but the encounters should feel like they would in the standard system. We had a ranger, a paladin, and a warlord, all level 17. There was a lot of role-play and a clever avoidance of combat by the PCs, which means there were only two combat encounters. For those encounters, looking at daily attack powers, daily powers associated with weapons, and healing surges, the PCs went through 30-40% of their resources. Considering they went through 40% of the number of encounters they should expect to face before an extended rest, and things will get harder, this seems to be about right. I have only two data points, but the numbers worked out ideally, and it felt right, so I’m very optimistic that, at the very least, I’m on the right track. Give me a few more weeks, and I’ll be writing the second edition of the article, which will include support all the way up to level 30, though not in the way you might expect. 🙂

Composite Skill Bonuses in the d20 System

My love of the FASA Star Trek RPG gave me an idea on how to handle certain situations that I’ve seen before and believe to be handled less-than-ideally by DMs. I ran a quick Google check to see if anyone had already written about this topic, and apparently they haven’t. This surprises me, so perhaps I just couldn’t find it, but I propose using composite skill bonuses to handle an individual task that simultaneously requires multiple skills.

An Example from FASA Star Trek RPG

FASA Star Trek RPG is a d100, skill-based system so that each character would have a skill rating from 0-99 in each of the skills. To determine the success of an action, a player would roll a d100 against the relevant PC skill rating. Roll less than the skill rating, and it’s a success. For complicated tasks requiring multiple simultaneous skills, however, your target wasn’t a single skill rating, but rather an average of all of the relevant skills.

You’ve just boarded your enemy’s starship. It’s a Klingon scout ship with a crew of 8, so it’s no surprise that the entire enemy crew is dead. Unfortunately, the crew activated the self-destruct sequence and severely damaged the only computer that could be used to deactivate the sequence. Time’s running out. There’s no time to fix the computer, then consult a Klingon-to-English dictionary. What do you do?

You roll against your skill in Computer Technology (i.e., repair of computers), Computer Operations (i.e., use of computer interfaces), and Language: Klingon (i.e., your ability to translate what’s on the screen). So, if your skills are Computer Technology 60, Computer Operation 70, and Language: Klingon 20, your target number is (60 + 70 + 20)/3 = 50. If you never learned a word of Klingon (skill rating 0), you’d be at a severe disadvantage, but your general knowledge of computers could still make for a reasonable chance of success (60 + 70 + 0)/3 = 43. Therefore, not knowing Klingon doesn’t automatically make you useless if you beam over to the ship. You’re still contributing on your own merits.

An Example from 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons

It shouldn’t be hard to imagine some examples of how this would work in the d20 system. Let’s use 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons as an example.

There’s a group of ogres sitting around a campfire playing the Orc dice game, Rotting Toes. They’re unfamiliar with the game and downright stupid, but they’re also tough combatants that technically are standing watch. If disturbed, they might sound an alarm.

Hat tip to Erik Nowak for creating Rotting Toes.

The party decides that the best way to handle this encounter is to avoid it. Needless to say, the 3rd-level Rogue rolls a Stealth check (+12), succeeds with flying colors, and passes right on by. Unfortunately, the Paladin is in full plate mail armor. Stealth isn’t much of an option.

The accepted solution is a group Stealth check. Everyone rolls their dice, and as long as half of the group makes the check, the party as a whole succeeds. I’m not a fan of this. I know this is a game of magic and monsters, but at times, this solution defies logic. If, for example, due to the surrounding environment, each character must move one at a time across a long distance, the Rogue isn’t going to be able to help the Paladin stay silent. Any way you slice it, the Paladin is on his own, yet the group Stealth check inappropriately allows the Rogue to help.

More importantly, however, is that this is also a game of creativity and imagination, and the group Stealth check stifles that. Even if the Paladin could enlist the help of his friends, that doesn’t me he should. If I were playing the Paladin, I’d want my actions to count. I don’t want someone else to dictate my success in a situation where a little thinking outside the box will keep my fate in my own hands. There are enough opportunities for teamwork elsewhere in the game. Here, I want to be on my own.

Instead, let’s say the Paladin decides to throw a stick to create a distraction. Is this an Athletics check? Is it a Bluff check? How about both? It’s a single action, so if both skills are in play, both should affect the outcome.

The 3rd-level Goliath Avenging Paladin’s relevant skills are Athletics +5, Bluff +3, and Stealth -1. He should have no problem dealing with Ogre psychology (Bluff), but he also has to toss the stick accurately to place it exactly where he wants it to go (Athletics). So, it looks like his bonus to the skill roll for the composite skill bonus is (5+3)/2 = +4. That’s certainly better than a -1. However, this is a Goliath we’re talking about. He’s got a +2 to Wisdom, and his Widsom score is a respectable 14 because it’s his tertiary stat. Moreover, his background includes a strange parentage; he was raised by wolves (Background: Parentage-Raised by Wolves), giving him a +2 background bonus to Nature checks. As a result, his Nature score is a whopping +8.

The Paladin knows that lemurs are the ogres favorite food, and he also knows that this area has plenty of lemurs in it. Instead of throwing the stick simply to get the ogres to look the other way, he chooses to throw it into a lemon tree where Comyrean lemurs are known to play. This way, the ogres not only will look the other way, but also will keep looking, possibly sending one off to grab some lemurs. In order to reflect this mechanically, the Paladin now gets to add his Nature bonus into the mix. His composite skill bonus is now (5+3+8)/3 = +5, which is appropriate for a single action using each of his three relevant skills.

If the DM rewards the creativity with the typical +2, the Paladin has a bonus to his roll of +7, and he deserves it based on his own ingenuity and character build. In fact, the rest of the party might thank him if one of the ogres leaves to investigate — such a ruling is more appropriate for a Bluff check than a Stealth check — as that means one less ogre remains to spot the remaining PCs during their checks.

The +7 is a far cry from the +12 to Stealth that the 3rd-level Halfling Rogue might have, but it’s still pretty good, and it’s his.

It’s Not All About the PCs

This isn’t just a means to inspire creativity. As my FASA Star Trek RPG example demonstrates, sometimes the DM should require the use of a skill (in that case, Language: Klingon) because it’s logical. I’m sure the character with a skill rating of 0 in Language: Klingon wouldn’t want to have to include it, but it makes sense to require it. In the D&D example, perhaps all of the PCs should be required to include their Nature bonus to their checks due to some natural hazard present in the area. There’s a logic to the composite skill bonus that I find hard to ignore. (Yes, I know; magic and monsters….) In any case, a composite skill is appropriate only where a single d20 roll must simultaneously include knowledge or ability covered by multiple skills, such as where there isn’t enough time to take multiple actions.

What Do You Think?

As DM, you could certainly decide that there were no such lemurs present that night, but why would you? This is a system that allows each character to be judged on his or her own merits, and it encourages creative thinking. I can’t imagine any drawbacks, but if you have any, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

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