Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Propping up "Terrible" Builds

Continuation from my first post, but this one should be fine on its own too.

Let's say I'm setting up for a new campaign, with three of my usual players (the kind of people who build amazingly powerful characters that make my jaw drop and my encounter level tables go tearfully on strike) and one new guy (who I just invited to the table because he saved my dog from a cement mixer and has a cool haircut). We sit down to talk character creation. The veterans are all doing the usual tricks: we have a dervish dance magus, a witch with ability focus: slumber and 22 int, and a halfling oracle of life. New guy really wants to play an agile and lethal fighter who wears chainmail and throws knives. 

Oh new guy... there are so many things wrong with this plan.

If he familiarized himself with the rules, that kind of build would never even occur to him (which is too bad, but that's a story for another post). Nevertheless, that's what he wants to build. As a GM, my options are:

a) convince new guy that what he wants isn't mechanically viable and he needs to think of something else (take away his fun)
b) convince the others that they need to build something equally sub-optimal (take away their fun)
c) scour the boards and sourcebooks in an attempt to optimize a knife thrower fighter (effectively taking over the new guy's character)
d) Homebrew!

I look at what this knife thrower is bringing to the party- he's a close range, damage-oriented attacker with 1/1 BAB. That sounds to me like a gunslinger. So I go build a pistolero gunslinger from level 1-20 and see what his damage output looks like. If the new guy had built the optimal build for his chosen role, that's what he'd be doing, so the way I see it, that's about what he deserves to be doing to fill that party role in a group of players who are otherwise Hard, Optimized Dudes.

So what makes the gunslinger the better choice? He only needs to keep one weapon enchanted- he can make all his attacks in a round with only one weapon, and can even bypass damage reduction using silver or cold iron bullets. Our knifeman has neither of these advantages, and he also doesn't get the gunslinger's abilities to attack touch AC or add his Dex modifier to damage, or his ridiculous no-save high level grit effects. There's a reason a gunslinger is a viable build and a knifeman is not.

I could come up with archetypes and conditions, trade out armor training and bravery for some grit variant. But I'd rather the new player simply play a fighter. Really the only problem is that he will hit less often and do less damage than the 'slinger. So here's my fix: I let the fighter take a feat, we simply call it "Bullseye", that lets him add his strength and his dexterity to both attack and damage rolls with his knives (prereq- precise shot, point blank shot). And the crowd goes wild! Broken! Ridiculous! Overpowered!

Yes. It is all of those things. Fortunately, it is not going into a sourcebook. It is a one-time, character specific event. And it might help the player have a good time at a table of characters who push the rules to the very edge of broken. It might actually bring the group together as the rest of the players, the experts who know how to milk the most bonus from every die, get together to teach the new player all the wonderful ways he can break the game using this custom rule.

Pathfinder is a game of rules that are ostensibly balanced. Realistically, there is no way the game can be perfectly designed to maximize fun for all players at all levels of play. It's easy to forget in such a rules-heavy game that the people around the table can change and add whatever they like to make the game what they want or need for a particular character or scenario to be fun.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Optimize Your Roleplaying #1: Shallow vs. Immersive

     There’s no short supply of optimization guides out there on the interwebs. With a basic level of google-fu one can easily turn up a wealth of information on how a player can maximize a character’s strengths while minimizing its weaknesses. It’s just a numbers game. It’s math. But collaborative storytelling is so much more than who’s got the biggest numbers. Often times our group finds that the most memorable parts of the campaign revolve around events that have transpired because of a character’s quirks, rather than his stats. Optimize Your Roleplaying, a semi-regular (hopefully) column, aims to explore ways in which a player can make the most of his or her character’s personality at the table.

     Every game session starts at the edge of a lake. The goal is to walk into the lake as far in as you feel comfortable. Some players are perfectly happy in ankle-deep water. Some prefer submerging themselves as quickly and as thoroughly as they can. Some find deep water pleasant but find getting there takes time to acclimate. The depth of the water in this case represents the level of in-character immersion you, as a player, are comfortable with.

     I used to be a pretty shallow roleplayer. We're talking stand-on-the-shore-with-your-toe-in-the-water shallow. My elven fighter/mage had  a name. I never used it though. It was always, “My elven fighter/mage opens the door” or “My elven fighter/mage attacks the goblin!” Yup. Shallow roleplaying at its finest. Nothing wrong with this style of playing per se. I certainly don’t mean to pronounce any sort of judgment on anyone that prefers this type of roleplaying, such as it is. But aside from the obvious mouthful, talking about oneself in the third person can be pretty tedious. It also doesn't do much to reinforce that character’s personality or quirks. I don’t remember a single thing about that character that I would have found remotely interesting. That elven fighter-mage ended up being nothing more than a mechanical expression of a concept that I thought was really cool at the time.

     This was back in the early 2000’s. I’d just started playing 2nd Edition D&D and was just wrapping my head around the idea of pretending to be someone else. So I guess it wasn’t that surprising that I wanted to roleplay a stereotypical hero. You know the one, Commander McAlways Awesome. Emperor Uberstrong No-Flaws. I didn’t pick up on the idea that developing an alternate persona for myself was just as big a part of the game as throwing fireballs or swinging swords. Like I said, shallow roleplayer.

     Fast forward to the present. I’m typing up the first post of a column dedicated to helping people design better and more interesting characters. Sometimes I don't even start on the shore of the lake anymore. I've constructed a sling-shot mechanism that launches me past the shallows entirely. I love the deep end. And while I haven't plumbed the entirety of its depths, this is where I'm at home roleplaying. So something must have happened between 12 year old me and now. I guess after college, grad school, and a few dozen characters and games since then I’m finally comfortable enough with my own play style that I can talk about it in a public forum.

     I’ll leave you with an exercise that I picked up during a writing class my freshman year of college. It’s called the Speech. Think about what your character would say to someone else about a significant event in your character’s past. Imagine your character is directly addressing his or her subject. Write a paragraph or so about that exchange. The Speech exercise is a quick and illustrative way that can help you to discover your character’s traits and personality through dialogue.

I’ll give an example.

     “Hello friend! Fancy you in here at this hour. Well. No surprise I suppose. Say, you haven’t seen Yorick around recently have you? No? That’s a shame. I’m afraid I’ve something of his that I’ve been meaning to return to him. You see, we were venturing into a dungeon day after last I think. My memory’s a bit foggy on that regard. Anyways, venturing into a dungeon we were. Some gods forsaken hole in the ground a few miles east of where the Yondakabari River does that crazy little hairpin. Some Sczarni family told us about it. What colorful wagons they had. Pretty girls too. Anyways right. Hole in the ground. Dirty, filthy, thing. Right full of guards too. Ugly louts. Must have been rotting for centuries. Smelt kind of like that compost heap that farmer whatshisname has. You know the one. With the wife’s too pretty for him? In any case Yorick and me we make quick work of them. Finally come upon the goods. You know these ancients. Always got to be buried with their goods. Nice stuff too. Mostly silver. Not too much wear and tear. ‘Cept now Yorick says something like dividing by one is easier math. I feel something cold and sharp in my back and my eyes go black.  So anyways. Thanks for listening. I’ve really got to find Yorick. He’s really got to be more careful about where he leaves his knives.”

     So what did we learn about our nameless narrator? Specifically what did we learn about his personality? Well he likes to ramble. He sidetracks himself quite a bit, especially at the thought or mention of women. We also learn that after the events that had transpired with Yorick, he’s keen on revenge. He’s not much of a forgive and forget type. If I want to develop this narrator’s character further, I’d give him a name and then go into figuring out why he went adventuring with Yorick in the first place. Or perhaps I’d explore his relationship with womenfolk that he likes to think of so well. Either way I’ve got a solid basis for developing an interesting character concept.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Professional Adventures Vs Amateur Adventurers

"Play what you want. Come up with a character and a personality first, and then we'll fill in the numbers and stats around it."

 That's the advice I always give friends who are taking their first steps into roleplaying. Rather than worry about finding or learning the "correct" builds, I always encourage them to come up with a character concept first: can they use magic, what kind of weapons do they use, why do they risk life, limb, and personal hygiene fighting tomb-beasts instead of settling down with a nice pipe to smoke on a comfortably rustic back porch somewhere? Often the answers, from friends who don't know rpg tropes so well, would not build into especially optimized or "playable" characters. Nobody ever sat down to their first gaming table and said, "Man, my fantasy self would totally be a Bard 6/Battle Howler of Gruumsh 3/Sublime Chord 2/Spellsword 1/Eldritch knight 8!" In fact, the first time I played with Anthony (the co-author of this blog), he built a multiclass rogue/cleric that was a really cool piece of conceptual roleplaying... and quickly discovered that he was largely useless in a fight.

As a GM, you can always change your own game and write things that appropriately challenge your party. It would be entirely possible to run a whole campaign in which all the PCs were commoners and in which all of those commoners felt heroically challenged in every session, barely overcoming the obstacles put before them each week (feats such as "wrestling those escaped pigs" and "rescuing Widow Birchark's boy who climbed up the inn and is too afraid to get down again"). As they leveled up, they could probably even take out an orc or two. And finally, as 5th or 6th level commoners, these brave heroes of the town could muster their courage, grab their torches and pitchforks, and go kill that troll that's been terrorizing the village since their grandfathers' time. This would be --or at least COULD be-- a successful and entertaining game.

Now imagine those commoners in Rise of the Runelords. When the need for heroes arises and these fearless farm-raised citizens answer the call... they will be slaughtered. When James Jacobs wrote Burnt Offerings (the first module of that path) he didn't write it with a gang of commoners in mind. That much is obvious. Anybody who goes in with a gang of commoners knows what to expect: grisly horrible death, and hopefully some good laughs around the table as the ill-fated PCs stumble way in over their head and are comically disemboweled by monsters.

Obviously this is unrealistic. But now let's imagine a more plausible gang of first-time adventurers: a group of players who have just picked up the hobby and made characters based on my well-intentioned advice: "play what you want". We have a rogue who decided he wants to be an archer (he was discharged from army sniper training because he refused to kill an unarmed combatant), a middle aged sorcerer who took Youthful Appearance and Air Bubble as his spells (he comes from an island nation where people are killed when they begin to show signs of aging, and so in terror learned to mask his age until people became suspicious, then he left), a cleric whose player comes from an MMO background and thinks of himself only as a healer and so carries no weapons, and a low-strength fighter who has weapon finesse and a rapier, modeled after Arya Stark.

These people will also die horribly. They're all interesting characters (except for the cleric) but they're simply not up for the challenges of a professionally written adventure path. An amateur GM will likely murder them all almost by accident just by running the modules as written. An experienced GM will either murder them intentionally (if she's a by-the-book GM) or will spend hours bringing down the power level of the monsters they face so that the players can experience the rewarding, challenging story that their characters deserve.

What can be done about this? I have a few ideas, and many more things to say on the topic. I'm hesitant to make my first real post an enormous wall of text, so I'll break this into multiple posts with this, the problem, as the first. Consider it a cliffhanger, and if you're one of the three people that see this, feel free to let me know your experiences.

Now we've got a party going

I'm the other guy! The name's Ricky. I guess it's time for my origin story as well.

The first time I played D&D was back in college.

No, wait, rewind. The first time I thought I played D&D was a young boy, in the back seat of my father's car, on the way to karate.

Twice a week, several of my childhood friends and I would pile into my father's car and make a 40-minute trek to our karate dojo. For a kid, this is a LONG trip. There are only so many arguments you can get in to about "which Power Ranger is the best" before you get exceptionally bored.

One day, to help pass the time, one of my friends brought a copy of the 2nd edition "Dungeon Master's Guide" with him. None of us had played before. In fact, I'm not certain that the kid with the book had even played before.

We engaged in epic adventures on those car rides, though in retrospect I don't remember rolling a single die. It might have been a simple matter of logistics, as rolling dice in a moving vehicle is no small matter, but the 10-year-old "Dungeon Master" of our group didn't seem to find dice all that important. I can't remember what (if any) numbers were on my character sheet, but I still vividly remember the moments. Moments like my character, a were-flying-squirrel warrior, fighting an ogre by stabbing it in the eye with an arrow.

A couple years later I acquired one of the rule books myself, and spent many sunny Saturday mornings pouring over the epic fantasy drawings, the cinematic examples of gameplay, and most of all the cornucopia of magic items in the back. Flying carpets? Rings of wishes? A cloak that lets you turn into a bat? Badass!

As I got older, my close friends grew away from pretend games of D&D, and I developed a taste for video games and online computer games. I spent many afternoons in the fantasy-themed chat rooms of early America Online. Eventually, I discovered the world of roleplaying MUDs and MUCKs, and those sustained me through high school.

So maybe I didn't technically play D&D until the first time I rolled a d20, many years later, in college. As far as I'm concerned, it all started in the back seat of my father's car.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Since we're doing intros

I accidentally invented D&D when I was 11.

Back in the 1990s my friends and I played a lot of console RPGs- Final Fantasy VI, Ogre Battle, Chrono Trigger, the Dragon Quest series... all those things with classes and levels. We beat them, we learned the stories, knew the characters, and ran around in the park acting them out. But then we decided to play our own games in those worlds, with those or other characters, and started building rules to see whether you hit, tracking how much MP you had, etc.

It never occurred to us that someone else might have done this before, or that our favorite games were all heavily inspired by some common source material. When you're a 5th grader in 1996, you don't exactly know how to look up "pencil and paper role playing games" online, and even if you do, your parents will probably tell you to stop taking up the phone line and their valuable AOL minutes.

About a year later, as we showed a friend our new rules for how Apprentices became Wizards at level 5 and then at 10 got to turn into Necromancers or Sorcerers or Warlocks and how that was super cool because now Tim's wizard would be able to make skeletons to crew the ships that brought oil to and from our antarctic drill platforms (a concept we only knew about from Warcraft 2), the friend looked at us with a raised eyebrow and said, "You guys know you're just playing crappy Dungeons & Dragons, right?"

He showed us the AD&D Second Edition Player's Handbook, and after a few minutes giggling over "bastard sword", I was in.

Since then, I've been running and playing in games. If I had to pick one defining characteristic of myself as a gamer, it's the struggle to balance "the rules" with what players want to do with characters and story. I'd say more on this now, but that's what this blog is for, isn't it?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Getting Started: About Me

     I think I’ve always identified as a gamer. When I was six, Super Mario Brothers for the NES and the Legend of Zelda for the GameBoy taught me about adventuring. Chess and Halo taught me about competition. Magic: the Gathering taught me about optimization. But Dungeons & Dragons? D&D taught me to make friends, write stories, and explore worlds.

     I think we were seven when my cousin suddenly declared, “I’m bored of playing Power Rangers. Let’s play D&D.”

     “What’s D&D?” I replied.

     “It’s like Power Rangers but you have swords and magic instead of robots.”

     “Magic? Like Merlin?”

     “Yeah. Just like Merlin.”

     It wasn’t until years later that I finally discovered what D&D stood for. I had met a boy at an after school program and he introduced me to what he called a roleplaying game, complete with multicolored funny shaped dice. It turns out he’d found an old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook and was looking for a few people to start a game. We took turns reading that book cover to cover, making characters, memorizing tables, and internalizing the words of David “Zeb” Cook. My childhood is full of fond memories of our adventures. Our party, an Elven Fighter/Mage, plucky human bard, and terse dwarven cleric saved a villages from goblins, signed treaties with dragons, tricked genies, and tamed the Tarrasque.

     I eventually got all of the 2nd Edition D&D Core Rulebooks along with a scattering of any and all D&D related material I could get my hands on and assumed the DM’s mantle. I recruited some of my younger cousins and ran them through things like the Classic D&D Game Box Set, the Diablo II Box Set, and one particularly ill-fated session using Council of Wyrms. But my true passion, where I felt the most enjoyment, was writing my own adventures. I knew in my heart that I would never get to run everything that I wrote. But something about coming up with plots to unravel and villains to thwart was innately gratifying to my pre-teen self.

     Through my mid to late teens, my interest in roleplaying waned as my relationships with my cousins lapsed. High school with its new and bizarre challenges left little time for gaming. Well, except for MTG. That was a job. My friends at the time had plunged into the world of amateur competitive Magic: the Gathering and had dragged me in with them. But after years of drafts, net decking, and one abysmally bad Pro Tour Qualifier I realized that not only had I spent a small fortune on pretty cardboard cards but I wasn’t actually having fun playing these games. College came and went with my time divided between girlfriends, drugs (Pharmaceutics - my field of study), and X-Box Live. I look back on this as probably the most miserable time of my life. I had friends but I couldn’t relate to them. I had a job but it wasn’t fulfilling. By any measure that I could think of I was successful. But I didn’t feel like it. I felt alone and creatively stymied.

     Enter Jeremy and Ricky, the co-authors of this blog. They were friends in college and recently had moved to Boston for one reason or another. I serendipitously met these two through a network of connections that are frankly beyond the scope of this blog. They each have their own long and torrid love affair with roleplaying games as I’m sure they’ll relate in their own time. In any case I was invited into their gaming group and haven’t looked back.

Monday, April 8, 2013


     It started one night after dinner. We were sitting around the table rehashing the events of the last Runelords session. A “you know it’d be cool if…” teamed up with a “we really should” and turned into a “yeah let’s do it!”

     So KIWD was born. A beautiful, healthy, pen & paper roleplaying game blog. Not much to look at right now. But check back next week. And the week after. And the week after that. You should probably subscribe just in case you forget to check back after that. You know, just to be safe.