Friday, May 31, 2013

Optimize Your Roleplaying #3: Accenting Your Game

     Let’s talk about roleplaying with accents at the game table. In the real world, the way a person speaks can say a lot about them. Pronunciation, cadence, and diction can give clues as to a person's ethnic, regional, or social background. The difference between accents from region to region in the United States, for example, is profound. One can usually identify the differences between speakers from two different regions of the US, even without being able to identify precisely where a particular speaker is from. So why shouldn't this also be the case in a fantasy game world? In America, one can tell the difference between a Bostonian and a Southerner by the way they speak. Shouldn't that also be true of Chelaxians and Taldans?

     I’ve heard mixed opinions about players or GMs putting on accents. On one hand, accents can be a simple but powerful way of conveying a character concept or personality. When an accent is done convincingly and well, it can greatly enhance the immersion during a session. But on the other hand, accents can be a distraction at the table, especially when done poorly, and can disrupt the suspension of disbelief for other players. To further complicate matters, if a player chooses an accent for a character and end up struggling with it, they might focus too much on perfecting the accent rather than simply roleplaying their character.

     Personally, I’m a huge fan of accents in a game. As a player, almost every one of my characters has their own unique accent or dialect. At the very least I try for a different cadence or speech pattern. As a GM, I try to give unique accents to as many important, and even some seemingly unimportant, NPCs as I can. This has lead to a greater number of engaging interactions between random NPCs and the party as Randall the dockworker suddenly has a voice that's even more memorable than whatever reason the party was talking to him in the first place.

     I also feel like having an accent keyed to a character’s personality helps me slip into that role more easily. In a previous OYR I used a character of mine, Riordan Soleratov Detrovsky, as an example. My trigger for getting into Riordan’s head was to repeat an English phrase while putting on a heavy Russian accent. This trigger served a dual purpose. Firstly, as I mentioned in the last article, it helped me get into character. But secondly, it helped remind me how to shape the sounds of the accent I chose to associate with Riordan.

     My accents aren’t flawless and I tend towards more entertaining voices rather than accurate ones. But I do make a conscious effort to improve them. A little while ago I stumbled upon this little gem on YouTube. The company, VideoJug, basically runs an instructional video website and one of their tutorial series happens to be on developing different types of accented English. They're short videos, under 5 minutes, and highlight the basic patterns found in different accents.

     So the next time you roll up a PC or stat up an NPC, consider how that character would talk to others. What do you want that to indicate about who he or she is or where they're from? How does your delivery or expression of character impact the ways that other players interact with that character? Go ahead and play with accents, and you might just find yourself just a little more immersed in your roleplaying.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

One-Shotting the Boss

Another exciting way that players can throw a monkey wrench into the plans of any GM? Absolutely trivializing their boss encounter.

You think you have everything planned out well: the Glabrezu is disguised as one of the party's friendly NPCs, and is working at earning their trust. Some of the party members are suspicious, though, and tensions are high. Inevitably he will be discovered and cinematically reveal his true large, pincer-demoned form, sow chaos amongst their ranks by casting Confusion, and deliver a mocking one-liner before teleporting away to safety.

Then, in the one round of combat, the witch hits the demon with a spell that makes it provoke attacks of opportunity from all 6 of the characters and NPCs surrounding it if it fails its will save. It rolls a one.

6 lucky attacks and one extremely lucky crit later: Dead demon.

In another game, you make a puzzle room involving a large, demonic dog rooting around in the bones of a tomb. You need to recover some of these bones to resurrect a story-relevant Prince, but attacking the dog head-on will probably involve a long and drawn-out battle. Clever players might think of ways of distracting it just long enough for someone to sneak down into the tomb and grab the bones that they need. Or the wizard could use his scroll of "Banishment" and send the dog back to hell.


How about the vampire-wizard with the information that you need to track down an ancient, floating citadel?He resides in a manor in the middle of the forest, and is a truly formidable opponent. After a few rounds of parley, it becomes clear that he doesn't intend to allow the party to leave... alive. This fight is most certainly going to be awesome, what with the large collection of spells, resistances, and spell-like abilities at his disposal! After all, he's a wizard AND a vampire! Oh wait, the party wizard has Disintegrate too.

I'll just, uh, wipe the dust off of his spellbook and other powerful magical items for you.

So what have we learned here? Well, for one, spells can be massively over-powered if used correctly, but so can a lucky power attack vorpal scythe crit. More often than not, your players will fondly look back on those brief combats as not trivial, but epic. "Remember that time I one-shotted the vampire wizard? That was awesome!" While it is important to occasionally instill fear in the hearts of your players, don't forget that it is also good for them to occasionally feel like Heroes. Beowulf wouldn't be Beowulf if he wasn't able to tear Grendel's arm off with his bare hands. Even Smaug was defeated by one extremely well-placed arrow. In a world of epic fantasy and heroic deeds, every so often it's important for the planets to align and for your players to critically succeed.

Friday, May 24, 2013


I love puzzles in dungeons, but I don't get use them as often as I'd like. Here's why:
  1. Crafting a good puzzle takes time, and I have a terrible habit of not planning my sessions in very good detail. Often “session notes” consist of a few frantic pencil lines on a single notebook page. Puzzles don't play well with my largely improvisational GM style.
  2. It's hard to find an excuse to include a puzzle. This is what drives me crazy about games like Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider: castles and catacombs seem to have been designed specifically for acrobatic protagonist puzzle solvers. I never put in a puzzle without spending some time thinking as the builder: who was this puzzle meant to allow in? who was it meant to keep out? What bizarre mania or lavishly excessive Evil Lair Budget drove me to build this thing?
  3. Players might not think of the same solutions I do. In fact, they may not think of any solutions at all. A seemingly unsolvable puzzle is one of the most frustrating experiences in role playing.
Also, a lot of the puzzles you find online are pure logic:  anyone, PC or not, will be able to figure out how to measure exactly 5 ounces of magical goo using only a 9 ounce and a 2 ounce vial, but to me the best puzzles are the ones that require that the players have been paying attention to your world, your story, and their surroundings.

My general approach is to give the players the answer to the puzzle long before they encounter the puzzle itself. Give the PCs a symbol or metaphor that's important to the dungeon (secret cults with esoteric symbolism are great puzzle builders), and then later give them an obstacle that relies on that knowledge in a non-obvious way. Essentially you want to give them the key to the puzzle early, and you want to hide that key in a giant pile of fluff, flavor, and red herrings. 

Here are three of the puzzles I've created over the years:

Light Puzzle:
  • Room 1 of the ruined temple has a massive ceiling mural showing a goddess bathed in yellow light.
  • Room 4 contains a statue of the same goddess and a series of magical lanterns that each, when activated, fill the room with colored light.
  • If the party activates the green and red lanterns (creating yellow light) the door opens. Any other activation of lanterns springs some kind of trap.
Clock Puzzle:
  • Room 1 of the barrow contains bas reliefs resembling tarot cards, with numbers and names under each one written in the cultists' secret language. Many of them are ruined, so the PCs can only fully see four. They are: II- Rest; XI- Eternal Night; VII- Hope; IV- Slaughter.
  • In Room 4, there is a giant clock. On the door to the room is an inscription:
    Here the dead their hours mark. Lay hands on hope, fear not the dark.
  • Inside the room, the walls are filled with corpses. The clock is set to 2 o clock. Every time a PC takes a step in the room, the clock ticks forward and the corpses become more restless.
  • The PCs need to turn the clock all the way back around to 7 (Hope) before it gets to 4 (Slaughter) and they get massacred by the undead. PCs will likely be wary of setting the clock to 11 (Eternal Night) unless they pay attention to the inscription.
  • For added nastiness, the clock has a Dominate Monster effect on it such that the first creature within 30 feet becomes compelled to move the hands forward. It's no fun if the PCs have all the time in the world to concoct a perfect plan.
Armor Puzzle:
  • The party is trying to retrieve the legendary armor of a dead king. The armor was split between his two sons, who each wore parts of it. The npc who tells this story makes sure to mention which son wore which parts, as well as telling what weapons the sons used and how they died.
  • In the final chamber of the tomb, there is a mannequin with the armor on it. Two skeletons lie in open sarcophagi, each obviously killed in battle.
  • An inscription says: If you are friend to these men, and would take their armor from this place, give first to them what was theirs. Else beware, for the land will guard you as it guards them.
  • The party must discern which corpse was which brother, and give them their appropriate armaments.
These puzzles might seem obvious, especially the second one. Remember that the party has been through other rooms of the dungeon, each with its own challenges and encounters, so that the "key" is something that was a few hours back in session time, at least.

These puzzles also might seem cruelly challenging, especially the third one. Who seriously remembers which guy wore what armor? I was entirely prepared to let the characters make intelligence rolls to see who remembered what, and let them argue about their differing memories... but the alchemist's player rattled off the list with no problem at all, put the armor where it belonged, then when I told him that the tomb was appeased and the bodies crumbled to dust, the party walked out feeling like they had really accomplished something cool.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Just go with it

Sometimes, despite the hours of forethought and planning you have done in planning a campaign as a DM, your players are smarter than you.

Now, before you get your pitchforks and start screaming "impossible!", hear me out.

I once pitted several of my players against an ancient wizard's laboratory, which was equal parts dungeon crawl and puzzle. In front of them stood a hallway full of deadly reflecting laser beams, bouncing back and forth across a series of runes that covered the walls. The beam originated from one focusing crystal which stood in the center of the hall.

Sure, the most agile of them could have acrobatics-ed their way through the hall no problem, but the clumsier people in heavy armor would have to either take severe amounts of fire damage as they trudged through the hallway or find another way through.

Earlier in the dungeon, I had given them two objects: a pair of gloves that were immune to fire damage, and a crystal that they found bending and redirecting a similar beam in the workshop.

In my head there were two ways through the hallway:
1) Speak the command word from the ancient wizard that would deactivate the beam.
This should be impossible, as there was no indication of what that word was and I didn't even hint at the fact that there was such a word in the first place.
2) Arm the rogue with the gloves (which I would have ruled gave a +5 on acrobatics attempts through the beam fields due to the ability to block out certain iterations of the beam without taking the damage) and have her affix the crystal to the point of origin, sending the beam harmlessly away from the reflective rune matrix.

But then they just had the wizard send the crystal floating down the hallway using "Mage Hand".

Right. Forgot about that spell.

At any rate, it was a clever solution to the puzzle, and rather than tell them "Uh, no, the crystal weighs 6 pounds and Mage Hand can only lift 5" I allowed the party to have their victory and be on their merry way.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Measured Response

     Optimizers can sometimes get a bad rapport in most gaming circles. Powergamer. Munchkin. Min-Maxer. I’ve heard these terms used to describe people or players undesirable at the table. And for what? Because they like having big numbers? Because they want their characters to be awesome? We’re playing a game whose inherent objective is to tell stories about characters who are the definition of awesome. So why do optimizers get all the negative attention?

     Building an optimized character can be an incredibly enjoyable experience for some players. It’s the part of the game that they find the most fun. Either as a GM or as a fellow player, it’s not for us to tell people that they’re not allowed to play the game in the way that they find fun. The important thing is that the game needs to be fun for everyone. But how can everyone have fun when it seems as though the very presence of an optimizer at a table can irritate other players?

     As a recovering unrepentant optimizer, I’ve struggled with this question a bit. I think I’ve got it. The crux of the problem is that optimizer is usually super good at doing something(s). So good in fact that it may trivialize a particular challenge or obstacle. If this happens over and over again, where an optimized character comes in and just fixes everything, that character’s player begins to take on more and more of the spotlight. What an optimizer may not realize that by showing off all the great things their character can do and doing it every time that an opportunity presents itself, they are depriving the other players at the table of spotlight.

     So what can a self-aware optimizer do about this? Well the first option is to convince everyone else at the table to be satisfied with less spotlight. Good luck with that. And honestly, if you don’t like sharing spotlight, why are you playing this game? The other option is to share the spotlight better. What do I mean by that? Well say you built a sorcerer that can drop a 15d6+30 Fireball twice a round, every round, all day. That’s 165 Fire damage per round, every round. Splash damage. And any enemy damaged by said Fireball also happens to be Entangled for 3 rounds. No save. 

     That’s really cool. That’s awesome. You’ve built a super powerful character. You’ve made Fireball your best spell. But do you really need to drop your best spell every time you get the chance? Yeah, that gang of hobgoblins grouped up in formation. They’re a great target. You could probably drop them all in a single round. Oh, what songs would be sung! But what if that fighter in your party really wanted to show off how good he was at cleaving? Or what if that bard wanted to try to parlay first. 

     The point is that as an optimizer, you know the ins and outs of your character. You know what he can and can’t do. And you know that you probably have a solution for almost every problem. But solving every problem for the party, trivializing every challenge, takes away some of the enjoyment of the other players at the table. Because maybe they had a different solution. Their solution is no less valid than yours. Likewise, their right to fun at the table. No less valid.

     As an optimizer, you deserve to show off just as much as any other player. But learn to measure your response. If the situation isn’t dire, your Standard Action could be an Aid Another or an Assist or it could simply be something flavorful and wacky. When the fat hits the fire, then you can pull out the big guns. That’s what will make those moments special. Overuse of gamebreaking mechanics only serve to trivialize both the encounter and your abilities.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Benchmarking Your PCs?

In my last post, I proposed a fairly unbalanced feat to prop up a sub-optimal character. But what happens if the character takes that feat and does astoundingly well in the campaign, blowing up my monsters before they get a chance to do anything cool? How do I know whether my success has gone too far, or whether I've succeeded in matching a comparable optimized build? I'd love to compare that character's numbers to a baseline chart to see whether I've homebrewed too far and he needs to be reined in.

In D&D 3.5 and its younger sibling/child/sleek and deadly archnemesis cloned from a piece of its DNA (Pathfinder), there is a table you can look at if you're trying to make a "balanced" monster. If I wake up from a particularly worthwhile nightmare and decide to lob its monstrous protagonist, tentacles writhing and hellmaws grinning, at my unsuspecting players, I can look at that table to figure out what reasonable stats might be for my homebrew beastie to challenge a party of any level. The table is especially useful if I don't know the rules for advancing monsters, templates, assigning DCs to supernatural abilities, etc... or if I just don't want to take the time to build a rules-legal monster from scratch.

What if I had a table like that to compare PC power levels? It would let me compare my players' numbers to see how they stack up to other builds. To me, player numbers are much more important to balance than monster numbers: I can flub, adjust, and flagrantly lie about what happens on my side of the screen, but I want to adjust loot and challenges so that the PCs are within the same strike zone of fun and challenge, so that I can merrily fling my nightmare beasts and baseball metaphors at them and know that the entire party will be equally and appropriately challenged by them.

I was going to sit down and start working on that table... until the thought struck me: a monster of a given CR should be an even match for a PC of equal level. The chart should work for PCs as well as monsters, if all you're trying to do is gauge where on the power curve they fall.

Let's try a few examples (PCs written without magical gear):

Level 2 dual-kukri ranger, 18 strength. Attacks at +5/+5, deals 15 average damage. Significantly higher than the +4 attack, 7-10 damage CR 2 monster.

Level 8 dual-kukri ranger, 20 strength. Attacks at +12/+12/+7/+7, deals 41 average damage (using very sloppy crit math). The CR 8 monster attacks at +15 and does 26-35 damage if all its attacks hit. This lines up well with the table: “a creature with lower than normal attack bonuses will often deal higher damage”.

Level 2 enchanter, 18 int. Enchantment spell DC 16. Destroys its monstrous counterpart, whose primary ability DC is 13. By level 8, the enchanter is throwing DC 22 spells while the monster is still at 18.

This project will take some time and doing- the first place to start will be to look at the “Pathfinder Iconic” characters and see how they match up. I'm betting they will match the creature design table very closely... and that the actual PCs I've seen at my table over the past two years will look nothing like those numbers at all.

Any takers?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Miniatures and Visualization

Miniatures can be a great boon in roleplaying games, especially when simulating combat. It's often hard to picture the chaos of the battlefield when a full party of adventurers goes up against a large band of orcs. But what minis do more than anything else is provide an immediate and lasting image of what the party is facing for any given encounter. When a gargantuan white dragon lands in the center of your party of medium-sized adventurers and you put those miniatures side by side, it readily becomes apparent that shit just got real. That being said, not everyone has the right mini for the job 100% of the time. Sometimes, we compromise. Isn't a hydra close enough to a dragon? A bear is vaguely horse-shaped. How about this pinecone, can't it stand in for the treant?

If you happen to be the type of person who owns miniatures, you probably have a collection of the basics: a bunch of guys with swords, some ogres with clubs, a few zombies, a dragon, and maybe a cool-looking female rogue with two daggers. If you're really into collecting minis, you might have a an entire shelving unit reserved for your vast catalog of lizardmen sorcerers and bugbear fishermen. But can you really ever have every mini for every encounter?

Sometimes the party is facing a large-sized scorpion-like thing made of blackened bone and chitin, with a tail composed entirely of chattering skulls. Well, Mr. "I own a mini for everything", do you have one of those? Oh, you didn't buy the campaign-specific miniature set? Well, too bad! What are your options?

1) Order the exact mini online. Gotta catch 'em all!
This is a fine answer, provided that you A: have a lot of disposable income and B: have room in your miniature menagerie left. Minis are small, yes, but the habit of collecting them all can get quite expensive and take up a lot of space.

2) Use a stand-in. Spiders look sort of like scorpions, and you have a Giant Spider mini.
This will work in a pinch. As previously outlined, though, it's not the best option. When the battle is over, someone at the table will be remembering it as the "big spider fight", and not the "chattering scorpion-horror" fight. Some people are just more visual people than others.

3) Get creative! Grab some paper and draw your own two-dimensional mini.
Personally, this is my favorite thing to do, because even bad art can be evocative, and it will allow the players to fill in the missing pieces with their imagination. Afterall, even if your players laugh at your derpy interpretation of the monster, they will stop laughing once its hungry claws wrap around their squishy, tasty heads. And hey, if you don't want to draw it yourself, odds are that someone else already has.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Optimize Your Roleplaying #2: Pulling the Trigger

     Every other Thursday night I sit down at the gaming table and mutter this under my breath, usually accompanied with a sardonic grin. It’s silly and makes me chuckle. But it’s an important part of helping me transition from Anthony Li, unassuming gaming blogger into Riordan Soleratov Detrovsky, imperious and cynical swordsman. What does a brief line about warships from a popular space-based RTS game from 1999 have to do with my Pathfinder Character? Everything.

     The best trick I know for getting into character is what I’ll call a trigger. There’s probably a more official name for this out there. But for the sake of this blog, let’s just call it a trigger. A trigger can be a phrase, gesture, or similar quirk that can serve as a portal into the personality of the character that you’re representing. You might develop a feral grin if you’re playing a half-orc barbarian. Or you might steeple your fingers as a calculating arcanist. “Battlecruiser: Operational” is one of my triggers for Riordan.

     So why use a trigger? Referring back to the lake metaphor from the last post, triggers can help you skip past the shallows, allowing you to get right into character from the start. It acts as a mnemonic save point that lets you carry a character’s personality consistently between sessions. This is especially helpful if your group goes weeks between gaming sessions, or if you’re juggling multiple characters in several different games.

     There are a number of different ways to develop a useful trigger for your character. I find it easiest to picture what it is my character is doing, right now, at this moment. Is it an action? A gesture? A phrase? Then I try to figure out why my character is doing or saying that thing. This process helps me to mentally associate that action with that character’s personality.

     As an example, Glenn-Gladdion is a PFS character of mine. He is, like many gnomes, in the market for excitement. If I throw my hands above my head and shout, “Gnome Hemothurge and Arcanist Extraordinaire!” I’m channeling the mirth and joy I’d expect to come from such a zany gnomish wizard. I’ve created a link between the emotion I express with the trigger with the emotions my character is likely to feel or express during the session.

     As a GM you benefit from triggers much more than as a player. Being able to switch back and forth between NPCs at the drop of a hat is a great skill to have during games and can do a lot to up the immersion level of your group. Since I’ve started to come up with triggers for the recurring NPCs in my group, I’ve found that the personalities of these NPCs start to become more apparent to my players. My players are more eager to interact with these NPCs as a result, creating a more engaging experience for everyone.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Some Things Can't Be Unseen

     There comes a point in roleplaying games beyond which there is no return. Much like the shadows in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the arrow in the FedEx logo, and how 3.14 is just PIE backwards, character optimization once understood cannot be forgotten. Furthermore, the path towards optimization is a slippery slope. You want to come up with a cool character concept. And you want that character to shine. But it’s hard to feel like your concept aristocrat/wizard/monk is shining when the RageLancePounce Barbarian next to you completely mauls the Elder Kraken in a single round. Once you see that, once you witness that there are builds that DO things and builds that DON’T, it changes your outlook on roleplaying games and you can never go back.

     I come from a background of competitive Magic: the Gathering. So I’m quite familiar with the concept of builds that work and builds that don’t. If your goal is qualifying for the Pro Tour, your card selection criteria isn’t going to be based on what cards look the prettiest. But when I joined Ricky & Jeremy’s 3.5 game in the mid-2000’s it never occurred to me to apply that sort of logic to roleplaying games. I was told to bring a 14th level character. So I rolled up a Rogue 6 / Cleric 8 who could throw a bunch of knives. I put about 15 minutes into the character sheet and about 12 hours into writing up his background. My first full attack dealt against a CR appropriate threat dealt a whopping 7 points of damage. Next up was the Transmuter Wizard who ended up Disintegrating  an Adult Red Dragon. It was a high level game, and that session I felt more useless than trail rations.
     After that experience I began to see things differently. I found out that there were class features that were complimented by feats and that synergized with abilities from different classes. I discovered what Damage Per Round meant and what Party Roles were for. It was more than just learning to play the game, it was learning to game the system. In hindsight it’s easy to see why the road to optimization was so seductive. Better numbers meant a higher chance of success. More successes led to more moments when my character shone. The more my character shone the more validation I felt.
     Soon after I couldn’t peruse a book of character options without mentally comparing its contents with pre-established  standards. How does that feat stack up against Power Attack? Why would I ever use [this weapon] when [that weapon’s] stats are clearly better? Why play a Rogue when Ninjas can do everything they can do and more? These were the sorts of questions coming to the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t think about roleplaying games in a way that didn’t involve making my numbers as high as I possibly could. Hmm… That sentence pretty much sums up my experience with D&D 4th Edition. But that’s a different story.

     I'm not advocating one style of play over another. You'll have to find the right style for yourself, your group, and your game. But personally, I’ve learned to tone things down. I’ve learned to enjoy the crafting of backgrounds again, the allure of storytelling. I’m backing away from the arms race that saw my fellow players punished by impossibly tough encounters because my GM needed to challenge my broken build.  I've found the middle path between fluff and crunch. And you know what? I’m having more fun. I still cringe internally when I hear someone in my group say that he’s rolling up a Rogue. But I let him do it. Because it’s not about the numbers. It’s about the story.

     But I can't go back to looking at roleplaying games from a purely story-based perspective. Whenever I make a choice for my character I'll forever be haunted by the specter of optimized mechanics. I’ve opened Pandora’s Box, eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. I know the state of Schrödinger’s Cat. And I can never un-know.