September 17, 2010

Who Owns Items?

I posted the below on the Wizards boards, and figured I could repost it here (since I meant to write it out a while ago). Note that this is in partial response to the collective hissy-fit the Internet (or CharOp specifically) is having to the new item rarity rules in D&D Essentials.

I actually the fundamental problem with magic items is that no one can answer the question of whether magic items are a player resource or a DM resource.

If they are a player resource, they they act like feats or powers, and you should just get what you want. This works nicely as providing another place for character customization and ways to get unique abilities (I have a "wizard" character who is actually a warlock but uses a pair of magic gloves to get cantrips to make him seem wizard-like). The original Dragon version of Wild Talents worked along these lines too--you can have a special ability that comes out of your "item" resource pool (as opposed to out of your feat or power resource pool).

If they are a DM resource, then items are like adventure-long (or campaign-long) terrain powers. They provide story elements, give the players something interesting and unique to do, and are basically an unusual or exotic effect. Artifacts are the quintessential DM resource item. The uniquely named Flaming Sword could be another.

The problem is, no one can agree on whether items should be a player or a DM resource. In previous editions (like AD&D, which is as far back as I conveniently remember) I'd argue that items were primarily DM resource. You could get cool items, but you never expected anything and if you did get neat stuff it was a reward. 3e started turning them more into a player resource, with wealth-by level guidelines (that were read as law) that basically explained what kinds of items you should have. But they still want to be a DM resource, as availability was nominally in the DM's hand (items were, afterall, in the DMG).

In 4e, items are pushed even more firmly into position as a player resource. They're listed in the PHB, and they provide a set of numerical bonuses that are required for the game math. But they still have the shadow of a DM resource--the DM is supposed to give out items (even if that is based on a wishlist), so players can't just treat them as an available resource like feats or powers. What's more, there aren't even clean "wealth-by-level" guidelines that would let them easily become a player resource (e.g., how the starting wealth guidelines don't match up with expected treasure gains from the parcel system, etc).

Essentials seems to be trying to move items back towards being a DM resource by restricting availability. It's like putting items back in the DMG: they become something to hand out (a DM resource), not something players expect to have. The mathematically-required items then become mostly a player resource (but not totally, as you don't automatically get/earn a higher level item. Note that this is why the inherent bonus system is so sexy--it helps solve items' split-personality issues), but Uncommon and Rare items can become primarily/solely a DM resource.

Of course, this doesn't totally solve the problem, because they still don't know if items are supposed to be a player or DM resource. And they've also split items pretty poorly, with no explanation why some items can be a player resource and some can be for the DM. I think if they can address that issue and be more explicit about how items can be either player or DM resources (but not both!), then maybe things will work out.

Also, blogging is harder than I expected: I don't seem to have the time or inclination to write regularly like I thought I might...

August 31, 2010

The Limits of Reflavoring?

(Note to self: part of trying to keep up a regular blog is finding time to blog regularly. Must work on this).

So my Red Sonja exercise the other day got me to thinking about reflavoring. Normally I love reflavoring--changing the description or fluff of a game element but leaving the mechanics the same, in order to have something different but having the math and so forth work out. D&D 4e is particularly good about allowing flavor and description to be divorced from the mechanics (an aspect of the edition that some people lament). But are there limits to it?

For example, I mentioned that Sonja might work out well (mechanically) as a Half-Orc reflavored to be a human. I'd like the game statics of the race (the stat boosts, feat support, etc), but not the "you're part orc and so kind of ugly" flavor. I'm usually really cool about race reflavoring--for a number of campaigns I've considered running, I'm planning to ask the players if they all want to be "humans" (with the mechanics of whatever race they want), just to get rid of the whole "species" aspect to the game. [Note that some players might not want this, hence why I have to ask]. I've also done this pretty readily in the past. When I switched my Pirate game from 3.5e to 4e, one of the players who was playing one of my custom races (based on the Darfellan) ended up playing an Elf with a Human feat that gave him a swim speed. In this particular instance it worked out--the character had already been established as an aquatic race, and there were only a few disconnects when the player called out "I use Elven Accuracy" instead of "I use Darfellan Accuracy!" But in past games, race reflavoring has been awkward, as people consistently put air quotes around a player's flavored race (he's an "elf"), so that you basically end up playing the mechanical race anyway.

Moving on. For Sonja, a lot of options for reflavoring involve her gear. I kind of assume that I could just use mechanics for Leather or Hide armor and call it the chainmail bikini--it's light armor, etc. But what happens if I wanted to have her wear actual chainmail armor, but just say that it's the non-armor bikini. Could I do that? Or a bigger issue: I want her to use a sword in one hand and a knife in the other. But two-weapon builds (Ranger and Barbarian) kind of assume that you'll be using two big weapons--a sword in each hand. Could I reflavor a second longsword (or even a bastard sword) as a dagger? So her "dagger" does 1d8 or 1d10 damage and is a heavy blade ("it's a um... a big dagger").

Part of me wants to say "sure, why not?" The game mechanics won't change. I'll keep up with expected damage (instead of falling 3 or 4 points behind because I want a specific image for a character--not a lot, but not insignificant at first level).

Of course, then you have to deal with other minor rules. What if I want to throw the "dagger"? (maybe I make it a javelin reflavored as a dagger instead of a longsword...). What if I want to hide the dagger (maybe it's too hard to hide because the character just isn't good at hiding stuff...). What if I want to hand it to the Wizard to use as a backup? (maybe it counts as a dagger for them, but is still a sword/spear for me? But that gets into a level of abstraction that I think I will talk about next time).

Other issues come up when you need to deal with things that aren't covered by the normal rules. For example, my mind trick happy Force-user in a Star Wars games would love to reflavor his negate energy as making the attacker miss, or think they had fired when they hadn't or something (rather than the Vader-like "hold out a hand and block the attack"). But does that mean that I can use the power without others noticing? I'd like that, but maybe I shouldn't gain that advantage. There was an argument on the D&D boards a while ago where someone wanted to have their wizard carry a "walking stick" that was a reflavored greatclub. The argument was whether this means that the wizard could carry the weapon in to see the king, or whether the reflavoring was creating an advantage.

Part of me says "any game advantages that come from reflavoring can't be too great, so just let it go" as well as "maybe they should be rewarded for personalizing the flavor of their character". But it's an issue that has to be dealt with.

When I started writing this post, I felt like there were problem cases involving extreme reflavoring. But I seem to have had some problems coming up with them. Maybe I'm just unconsciously limiting myself--things that wouldn't work I don't even consider as feasible. Or maybe reflavoring is just a matter of getting players to agree that the mechanics for a particular option can work in a particular way, and then going ahead and enjoying your game and playing the character just as you imagine them to be.

August 28, 2010

Character Development: Red Sonja

I've recently been reading through Dynamite's reboot of Red Sonja (the chainmail bikini warrior). And as is generally the case with fantasy and sci-fi heroes I like, I start to wonder how I could adapt the character to D&D. And it seemed like writing out my build process could be informative, so here it goes. Note that this will be a build for a 4e version of Red Sonja, since that's the edition I'm actually playing. This is basically going to be long-form stream-of-conscious writing to try and work out what to do.

Character Aspects
Sonja is first and formost a melee warrior--she swings a sword and kills people (many people) all around her with ease. Definitely a striker. She doesn't use magic, though there is a bit of the supernatural in her relationship with her goddess--so while a Martial class would probably make the most sense, a Primal class could also fit. She's pretty tough (she can take out whole armies by herself, though she is in no way invulnerable), so she'll have to have some staying power.
She is lightly armored (if you even want to consider her outfit armor). She tends to use a longsword (in either one or two-hands), but will also make use of other weapons around her--in one of my favorite moments, she cuts off an enemy's arm and grabs the mace he was carrying in it to bash someone else. She's also able to shoot a bow and take people out at range--she's really a master of all weapons. In addition to her primary longsword, she also carries around a dagger, which she often uses in her off-hand (Sonja spends a surprising amount of time dual-wielding).

Aside from fighting, she's a very skilled hunter and tracker, with a definite connection to nature. She's extremely athletic, and rides a horse well (for what it matters). She's usually a loner, though can lead and inspire large groups--usually just by being willing to stand and fight.

I think that about covers the aspects that I'm interested in. So how can we put together this character?

Ability Scores
Sonja would be a Strength-primary character--she's built, and she swings a sword. She'll also want to have really high Dexterity: she's very agile, and Dex will help with not really wearing armor (it'll also enable her to be able to shoot a bow as a ranged basic without needing to put a ton of resources into it). We'll also want to give her decent Constitution, though it doesn't need to be a huge priority. While she's definitely beautiful, I don't think she's much of a people-person--her Charisma might be slightly above average, but doesn't need to be that high. Average Intelligence will be fine--she's good at tactics and well-traveled, but isn't especially well taught or anything (also, with a good Dex we don't need Int in 4e). I'm torn a bit on her Wisdom. she's good at tracking (which is usually Wisdom-based), but her will-power isn't particularly great--she often charges into battle without thinking too hard, and tends to make some less great decisions (getting drunk in bars, etc). So I'm thinking I might make Wisdom her dump stat--the other option would be Int, and I don't want to suggest that she's dumb. Dumping Wisdom also helps push her Charisma higher to shore up her Will Defense, and I'm fine with that.

So we end up with a character that would like have stats like: Str 18, Con 12-14, Dex 16-18, Int 10, Wis 8, Cha 12-14. Those probably aren't a correct point-buy, but point to the general modifiers and ranges I'll be hoping for.

Just to get it out of the way: Sonja is most likely human. The extra skill, feat, and at-will help with the versatility (and Sonja is definitely versatile--indeed, I might say that's her primary trait: I want her to be able to pull of all kinds of neat maneuvers and stuff in melee). An Elf might work--the reroll is always welcome, and it would cover bow proficiency. But I have a feeling I'm going to want the extra at-will and feat more. Not much else fits with a quick glance through the Compendium--half-orcs have the right stats and abilities, but go against the beautiful warrior part (though heavy reflavoring to have her be human with half-orc stats might work). So I'll be thinking of human, but with Elf in the back of my mind, or half-orc with reflavoring.

Before I get to class, I want to think about what Skills Sonja has. I'm a big fan of skills, and enjoy being trained in stuff to use for random actions. Athletics is a big one--Sonja can jump and climb and be athletic. Acrobatics could also be appropriate, though not as necessary. Nature is very important, for tracking and for riding horses. Perception as well, particularly to counter-act a low Wisdom but having the character still seem observant. If I want a "social" skill, I'd probably get Intimidate, but otherwise I might just say she's untrained in social interactions. Endurance might also be appropriate if I have extra skills. Stealth is always useful, but I might get away with just having a good Dexterity. So it looks like I'll want likely 4-5 skills--since all classes get at least 3 and humans get a bonus, I should be good to go (particularly if I grab something else by multiclassing).

Now here's the biggest decision. Sonja almost screams Barbarian--she is a female version of Conan in some way. Barbarian would make her a Striker (check), lightly-armored (check), and does a lot of damage with a big sword. Except she's not using THAT big a sword--a barbarian two-handing a long-sword might not be great. Of course, I could make her a Whirling Barbarian and play up the two-weapon fighting. Indeed, mixing between two-weapon and two-handed swings could fit the character well. Of course, two-weapon barbarians are designed to be using big weapons in their off-hand (to get the extra 1[W] with Whirling Rend. Then again, even an extra 1d4 from an off-hand dagger would be enough to take out a minion--and Sonja is all about taking on hordes of minions. [It's worth noting here that I tend to consider abilities in terms of at-will attacks. Most of my play is at lower levels when at-wills are used a lot.] I could still get some flexibility out of switching between Whirling Rend and Howling Strike (with a two-handed longsword), but it might seem kind of weak compared to using a Fullblade or a big axe. Barbarians are also super tough, can be hard to hit (particularly when Dex-based), and can get lots of attacks (which is great for taking out an army of bad guys). The skill list is also almost perfect: Nature and Perception are there, as is Athletics and Acrobatics, and even Intimidate.

What Barbarian's don't get is ranged attacks--no bow proficiency. Of course, proficiency is only a +2 to attacks for bows; with a decent Dex, I could still make ranged attacks with a reasonable chance of hitting. [I'm going to ignore magic equipment bonuses--magic items aren't a thing in Red Sonja, so an inherent bonus system would be appropriate and will help with using whatever weapon is at hand]. I'm also still wavering on how my ability to use a big weapon off-hand will mostly be wasted if I'm using a dagger. Of course, I could just make her a Rageblood and take two-weapon attacks anyway--I'd have to pump her Con more (and I might not have points for that).

So what other options are there for strikers? Ranger would give me bow proficiency, a larger and amazing skill list, and the almighty Twin Strike (though Twin Strike with an off-hand dagger will be a little weak at low levels). Getting Toughness from two-weapon style even means I'll have equivalent HP to the Barbarian for levels 1-3. Rangers also get a number of minor-action attacks that are great for filling the "kills lots of people" aspect. Even Quarry seems appropriate for how she takes people out. For other strikers... Rogue isn't right. Monk could maybe be made to work with some reflavoring (using a ki-focus and then "wielding" whatever weapon I want), but I don't care about the emphasis on movement all that much (this is actually an issue with the Whirling Barbarian as well).

Here's an idea: how about we hybrid Barbarian and Ranger. Then I could get Twin Strike, bow proficiency, and an extra skill, but still have some of the toughness of Barbarian. I could even hybrid talent for the big off-hand weapon if that became appropriate, otherwise I could grab Prime Punisher (if this character is played at Paragon) for extra damage. I also can mix the minor-action attacks of Ranger with some of the big-damage encounters from Barbarian. This has promise.

The other option that might be perfect is the new Slayer build from the Essentials fighter. Strength/Dex primary, and can deal lots of damage even with a small weapon because they get to add Dex to damage. What I might do with this is to just have Sonja normally use a longsword two-handed, but occasionally pull out a parrying dagger to use as a shield. I could flavor some kills as her stabbing people with the dagger, but I wouldn't be gaining offensive advantage from the off-hand. I think I could be happy with that. The skill list isn't great, but with a background and multi-classing (Ranger or Barbarian likely) I could get it to be what I want. Of course, I'll have to see how the whole class works before deciding. But that's definitely an option.

As I've been saying, I kind of want Sonja to use a longsword and an off-hand parrying dagger. What is kind of interesting is how a "sword and dagger" build doesn't seem to be well supported by 4e at the moment. Standard damage-boost feats like Weapon Focus would only apply to one or the other (heavy blade or light blade). Using a Drow Long Knife as a "dagger" would solve that problem (and give me an extra damage point for the Barbarian and Ranger builds). But then I don't get the defensive benefits of the parrying dagger (which can be boosted by the Rhythm Blade enchantment).

Final Decision: None yet. This character will remain under development--probably indefinitely, since I'm not sure my group would let with me playing a hot red-head wearing a bikini without any weirdness. I'm also waiting to see what Essentials look like--I'll probably read through the Slayer with an eye towards seeing how well it fits Sonja. And how Essentials will affect multiclassing, hybrids, feats, etc. all seems to be up in the air. And of course, an exact build will depend on the game level (heroic? paragon?) the setting (Sonja would fit in well in Dark Sun), the group composition, etc. A Barbarian|Ranger hybrid is probably my current favorite, followed by a Slayer, then a straight Barbarian or Ranger. But it's something to continue thinking about.

August 25, 2010

Quest Description

Purpose of this blog
Roleplaying games such as D&D are probably my biggest hobby. I spend much of my free time thinking about characters to build, adventures to run, rules to try out, or other aspects of game design. This blog is intended as a place for me to write down these ideas. Part of this is to give me a place to rant about things that I like or dislike in games that I play. Part of this is to give me a nice place to write down house rules and character designs for future use. Part of it is to create documentation about my thoughts and efforts in thinking about games (for future claims of "I do game design!"). Part of it is the slim by real potential that I can be part of the RPG blogging community that I've enjoyed reading over the past year. Basically I want to start writing down the stuff I think about, with the hope that it may be used by me (or someone else) in the future.

My goal is to try and update this on a regularly scheduled basis (say, 2-3 times a week), just to keep myself thinking about game stuff.

This blog will primarily be about the RPGs that I play--D&D 4e in particular. I am involved in a number of different gaming groups (both as a DM and as a player). These games generally play D&D (4e, after a relatively recent switch from 3.5), but I'm also playing in a few Star Wars Saga games. [Note that I tend to think of Saga as just another form of D&D, with a different setting and some custom mechanics. For me, almost all RPGs are really D&D at heart, making my idea of D&D pretty flexible]. I'm also interested in other systems--I'm looking forward to my next game of Fiasco, for example. So most of my thoughts about RPG play and design will be based on these systems.

I also might talk about video games if I play any that are interesting (I tend to enjoy RPGs there as well--for example, I'm a huge fan of the Final Fantasy series). Board games are also fair game (hah!), as is anything else that seems relevant.

Finally, in my day job I'm working on developing Persuasive and Pervasive Games, and so could use this space for thoughts about that (such posts might have a more academic flavor).

Who I am
I've been playing D&D for something like 14 years now, starting with AD&D 2e--indeed, AD&D flavors a lot of my base assumptions about the game, though I didn't know much about game design at the time. I settled into the DM chair about 6 years ago, and now consider myself a DM first and foremost (though I enjoy being a player of course).

I consider myself mostly a storyteller (per the DMG descriptions)--I'm most interested in telling good stories and coming up with things that fit into a larger narrative. I also minor in powergamer, messing with the fiddly bits of math that make up the current incarnations of D&D.

Otherwise I'm a graduate student studying computer science, researching the relationship and interactions between social systems and computer systems. I'm also married to a wonderful and beautiful woman who I love gaming with.

And what the hell is a majaether anyway?!
A majaether is the name of an artifact in the Pirate D&D campaign I'm running. Meaning "sky-stone" in the language of the dragons, these two-foot wide gemstones hold the key to potentially bringing about heaven on earth (or, as the PCs have begun to learn, hell on earth). It's also one of the few made-up words and world elements that my players readily remember. They thought that "sweet majaethers!" was such a great exclamation, that I decided to use it as a title for a blog.