Friday, July 17, 2009

Group vs. Individual Initiative

This old 3.5e blog post caught my eye on Twitter. The gist of it is that individual player initiative ruins the game, and I have to agree: Players zoning out when it's not their turn has been a problem ever since the concept was introduced. Even round-the-table ordering didn't really prevent it. Almost every table has at least one person who spends their time between turns flipping through the rulebooks, doodling on their character sheet, or running to get a soda from the fridge. In some games, that's nearly everyone at the table. That leads not just to detatchment from the game, but slows it down for everyone else since they have to catch back up every round. In a particularly tactical game like 4e, that can be deadly to the party.

Here's my idea for helping counteract that, and at the same time help speed up combat: A pre-round huddle. Everyone rolls individual initiative as normal. Everyone who beat the monsters initiative takes a moment to plan out their actions for the round, then they act in initiative order. If you roll initiative for individual monsters or groups, you may wind up with the party split into multiple initiative groups. As suggested in the other article, I would exclude whoever rolled lower than the monsters from the initial huddle, then do the pre-round huddle on the straggler's turn to bring things back around. If there are PCs stuck between monster initiatives, you could either give them their own huddle or leave them out of the huddle. That last would be particularly appropriate if they're also physically separated from the party.

The idea here is that you involve everyone in the whole combat by giving the party an explicit period for planning out their whole round, and when the time comes to perform the individual turns everyone already knows that they're doing. Keeping the individual actions ensures that various feats that grant initiative bonuses keep their value. Individual actions should go quickly, since they should just be the DM confirming that they still want to go with their planned action and then calling for the roll. You can rationalize the coordination (if you're into that sort of thing) by saying you're consolidating the regular inter-party chatter that happens throughout the combat. That also makes it a good place to interject NPC threats and taunting. Most importantly, it encourages the party to work together on the combat round instead of considering just how much damage they can do to the bad guys on their turn.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Gimmie That Old Time Religion Part 1: Gods About Town

A recent re-reading of the Dark Horse Conan graphic novels got me thinking about the importance of religion in Dungeons & Dragons. Quite often, it seems, the gods are only important to the occasional cleric or paladin, and even then mostly as someone to swear oaths to. In Conan's world, arguably one of the prime inspirations for D&D alongside Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, features it's gods prominently.. or at least their priests and easily robbed temples. Conan distrusted religion, though, and with good reason: even the servants of Mitra, a benevolent deity, are often corrupt and embroiled in secular schemes. Retaliation for stealing religious artifacts and getting embroiled in the plots of scheming priests is one of the great motivators behind Conan's later adventures. How, then, to work this sort of thing into a D&D campaign?

The first step, and the one I'll cover in this article, is to make the local religions and temples a bigger part of the personality of the city. Churches tend to be a focal point for communities and a large influence on them, so having two or more gods with different goals and precepts should have a significant effect on the character of the community. To do this, decide on two or more of your campaign's deities that have particularly significant temples in your city and then consider how those deities and their priesthoods would interact with each other and the community. Remember that even gods that share the same alignment can come into conflict when their specific goals are opposed. That conflict can take the form of rumor campaigns, open political maneuvering, or even armed conflict if the differences grow extreme enough. Here's a quick example of different interactions for one random group of religions: Avandra, goddess of change, trade, travel and adventure; Erathis, goddess of civilization, invention, cities and law; and Kord, god of storms, battle, strength and glory.

The Frontier Bastion: This fortified town lies on the edge of civilization, along the frontier that Avandra is so fond of. The three temples exist here in an uneasy truce. Avandra's priesthood is here to explore and expand the frontier, and to support the traders looking for new routes and adventurers seeking fresh plunder. Erathis is here to bring the light of civilization to the frontier, support the town's merchants and craftsmen, and ensure the law of the land is upheld. Kord's militant priesthood is here because the frontier is a dangerous place, and battle-hardened men are required to hold the monsters and any rival civilizations at bay. Though Avandra and Erathis are nearly polar opposites, they recognize that each has a place here in creating a stable bastion for humanity, and both look to Kord's followers for strong swords to protect it. The community is a mix of entrepreneurial merchants and traders, their guards and mercenaries, and adventurers. It's a rough and ready sort of place, undeniably a frontier town, but also solidly constructed and well policed, with none of the slapdash temporary feel of other places at the edge of civilization. Adventure opportunities will often be presented by the priesthood of Avandra or Erathis offering bounties on local monsters or rewards for helping secure new trade routes, with the temple of Kord offering support for these endeavors.

Bartertown: Nestled safely within the borders of the kingdom and situated at a major crossroads, this town long ago outgrew it's walls to become a sprawling nexus of trade. The priesthood of Avandra is powerful here, with the backing of rich and powerful merchants fat on steady trade. Their wealth buys not only great political power, but martial power in the form of mercenaries, many of whom follow Kord. The local ruler, despite the backing of the priesthood of Erathis, feels threatened by the merchant's growing power and angered at the political maneuvering that has allowed them to dodge taxes and his efforts to limit smuggling. The conflict is mostly political, but outbreaks of violence in the back alleys of the city and even the occasional assassination aren't unheard of. The wealthy merchants of the town and their allies strut about as if they own the place, accompanied by highly trained and well armed bodyguards. The town watch, on the other hand, are ill equipped and poorly trained, and easily bribed into indifference. The populace in general are eager to get in on the action, populating the streets with small time merchants, con-men and petty thieves. Adventure opportunities will focus around the power struggle between the priesthoods of Avandra and Erathis, either securing opportunities and treasures before the other can, guarding against the machinations of the other, or even outright attacks. Any action against the merchants is likely to run into opposition from the followers of Kord.

The Seat of Power: Not far from Bartertown, off the main trade routes, the priesthood of Avandra is in a much more difficult situation: they've been driven underground. The town's ruler is a tyrant and has the full support of both Erathis (happy to see the law enforced to the utmost) and Kord (eager for the possibility of a nice war in the near future, and skirmishes with rebels in the meantime). Avandra's priesthood has been officially banned from the town for their scofflaw ways, but her worship continues within the walls amongst those fighting the baron's heavy taxes and power hungry ways. The heavily taxed merchant class, though few, form ready allies for Avandra's rebels. The town watch, backed by Kord's militants, is a powerful force that keeps the peace with an iron fist. Laws grow stricter by the day, and punishment is swift and severe. The streets are shockingly quiet as both outlaws and everyday citizens attempt to stay out of the way of the guards lest they run afoul of some new statute. Adventure opportunities would mostly come from the rebels attempting destabilize the tyrant's regime, ranging from retrieving lost magic items to help their quest to direct assaults on the guards or rescuing freedom fighters from the dungeons. The tyrant's forces, and thus the temples of Erathis and Kord, are unlikely to seek aid from adventurers, but a small elite military unit might find work with them attacking rebel cells.

All that variety from the interactions of just three deities and their varying precepts. Of course even more variety can be had by varying the mix of deities, but there is something to be said for showcasing the same set frequently. It establishes the deities and their priesthoods as real entities in the campaign with a real influence on events, and makes them more then generic wise men PCs can go to for restoration and resurrections. A good way to combine these two strategies is to establish one or two deities as the primary gods of a particular kingdom or region, and vary the additional gods worshiped in each settlement. This adds the extra advantage of making foreign cities seem even more exotic their regular temples to Bahamut and Pelor replaced by Sehanine and the Raven Queen, with all the resultant changes to the local culture. Start sprinkling your campaign with lost religious relics and chatter about rival priesthoods, and you're halfway there.

Next week (probably): Corruption makes for great stories. A god-by-god look at how priests of the 4th ed core deities can go wrong.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Tarot Delve

I recently decided to try doing weekly delve nights with my girlfriend while pining for a regular campaign to run again. At a loss for inspiration for a delve, though, I decided to try a little experiment. I've seen many folks suggesting using tarot spreads to generate NPC or character backgrounds, so why not do the same with adventures? So I ran a quick spread on Llewellyn's free tarot reading page and here's what I got:

I chose a simple three card past/present/future spread for my first go. It's not only quick and simple, it fits a delve perfectly, with the three cards possibly representing the actual past, present and future of the scenario, or the three consecutive encounters in the delve, or any number of other aspects. In this case I got a rather plain spread: Four of Wands, Two of Wands, and Three of Wands, with nothing reversed.

It's been a while since I did an actual reading, so I'm relying largely on Llewellyn's interpretations here and the look of the cards, in this case the Llewellyn Tarot. As a side note, I'd suggest using one of the usual Rider-Waite based decks rather than the more abstract decks out there so you can use the imagery of the card as inspiration alongside the symbolism.

The Four of Wands in this set is represented by a fairly Arthurian looking castle overlooking meadowy hills and a pair of bridges over brook. Four poles decorated with festive banners and garlands are planted around the brook. The card represents, among other things, celebration and rest after an ordeal. Both the card and it's symbolism suggested to me the setting for the delve: a kingdom celebrating the end of a long war.

The Two of Wands shows a woman in a brightly patterned black dress looking into a crystal ball that catches the low sun, flanked by two sprouting poles with buildings silhouetted in the background. She looks like she may be perched on a parapet overlooking these buildings. The card symbolizes planning, seeking out new opportunities and hidden options. "Viewing a situation from a higher perspective." Once again both the art and the symbolism suggested things to me. This time it's the villain of the piece: a mystic woman, a sorceress or wizard, plotting in the background and viewing things from on high.

The Three of Wands depicts a princely figure overlooking a bay or inlet where three ships of various sizes are setting sail. He grips one garlanded pole like a staff of office, with two more planted around him. It symbolizes launching new enterprises, exploring adventure, as well as trade and gambling on the unknown. This card helped flesh out the setting: not just a castle, but a fortified trade town overlooking the mouth of a river. The princely figure may represent a nobleman, perhaps the one motivating the PCs.

A quick side trip to Google Maps to grab some appropriately European city names, and we have the fortified trading city of Mazara celebrating the end of a long war with it's neighbor Catania. A festival is being held in honor of the treaty. But our villainess isn't happy with this development for some reason. A bit of brainstorming and she becomes the Bella Donna, a beautiful noblewoman who was exiled from the city years ago for dabbling in forbidden magics and trafficking with the foul creatures of the river marshes, nowadays reduced to a minor boogeyman parents use to frighten their children. I might even make her a custom monster, a hag tweaked to match the level of the adventure. Excellent. But what about the action?

Looking over the cards again I see the villainess with her crystal ball looking down over the city. There's the nobleman, dressed in red and gold, contrasting with the more subdued colors of the castle and it's festival poles. Aha! The noble is a visitor from Catania, come for the festival, perhaps one of the signers of the treaty. What better way to disrupt this new peace than by having him assassinated and blaming it on Mazara.

So, we have the evil sorceress Bella Donna lurking on the rooftops, watching while her minions move in to assassinate the Duca (sure, we'll use Italian titles, since I stole the city names from Sicily), disguised as guards for one of Mazania's prominent noble families. The PCs see the assault or hear the clash of combat and come running to help. A street full of commoners in the midst of a festival should make for interesting combat, especially if the PCs have to worry about keeping the attackers away from the Duke at the same time. Since the Donna is the big bad and the first encounter is a bit early to have her getting directly involved, she curses when her minions begin to fall, drawing attention to herself, then flees across the rooftops. A perfect opportunity for a Rooftop Chase skill challenge once the last minion falls and she has a decent lead.

Where to after the chase? The first encounter matched up nicely with the first card, out on the festival streets. The rooftops of the second card gave me the chase scene. The ships of the third card give me an idea, but I want to save that for the big finale. Time to improvise. City on a river, villain needs a getaway.. into the Absurdly Spacious Sewers! So, the Donna ducks down into the storm drains. Here's where the reward for the skill challenge comes in: if they succeeded, the PCs managed to stay hot on the Donna's heels. They get down into the sewers just in time to hear her shout to her minions to arm themselves as she slams a grate down behind her, giving them a surprise round against scattered and unprepared guards. If they failed, they barely manage to spot where the Donna was going and wind up facing armed and ready guards waiting in ambush. Either way, they'd be wise to deal with this opposition first before battering the door down and giving chase again, dealing with the constricted passageways and ample difficult terrain in the sewer tunnels.

I hadn't decided up to this point just who the minions would be. Demons? Undead? Goblinoids? I also hadn't specified a level for the delve. We'll say 3rd. With that, a sewer encounter added in and the city's placement on the river, my choice suddenly became clear: bullywugs. Obviously just putting on a tabbard isn't going to disguise a frogman as a guardsman, so now I have a reason for the Donna to be lurking watching over her minions: maintaining the illusion spell that masked them during the attack. And just imagine the look on the PC's faces when one of the "guards" in the first encounter opens his mouth wide and snares a PC with his exceedingly long tongue!*

Once the guards are dealt with and the grate blocking the way removed, the PCs follow the easy trail of the fleeing Donna to the river docks, just in time to catch her barge pulling away. The fight takes place between the PCs and the Donna and her most loyal minions amidst the crowd of revel-barges swarming the river, with lots of opportunities for daring leaps from boat to boat, swinging on lanyards, and unfortunate tumbles into the water below. If they succeed in bringing the Donna down, they're able to present her to the nobility of both cities, alive or dead, narrowly preventing renewed hostilities. If they don't, well, the river has played host to it's share of corpses. What's a few more?

Voila. A complete delve in three cards plus a bit of brain juice. There's still plenty of work to do building the individual encounters in details, maps and stats and all, creating the rooftop chase skill challenge, etc, but the tough work of actually putting a story on it is all done.

* I know, bullywugs in 4e don't actually have a tongue attack.. but I'm the DM so by gods I want tongue-grappling frogmen so that's what you get.