Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Creative Skill Use (and other ways to overcome Skill Challenges)

Keeping on par with the discussion of Skill Challenges, it is important to know that even though any given SC would best be overcome with particular skills that are key to the challenge, you don't always have to stick to the norm. An SC dealing with the PC's trying to persuade a wealthy merchant to loan them some gold for whatever reason (ok, yeah -- as if the PC's really need anyone to loan them money... just work with me here) would typically best be solved with Bluff, Diplomacy, perhaps Insight, and Intimidate mostly. But what if you're the guy with 8 Charisma and training in Athletics?

This is when you need to start thinking of creative ways to use the skills that your PC is trained in. In the above example you could assume that the scene takes place in an office or maybe a private booth in an upper-class restaurant. Your PC is not a talker really, he was just supposed to be muscleman competitor who was forced to resign because he always made the rest of the competition look bad. He trained in Intimidate, but he's still not all that good at it. Let's just say that he is trained in Athletics also, and has a nice ability score bonus to go with it. Oh, whatever shall you do? Use Athletics to flip a table or desk (success grants a +2 bonus on the next Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate check made by any PC).

Using one of the SC's presented in the DMG2, I'm going to only highlight on skills that are not mentioned in the text of any given challenge to try to give examples of ways to use skills differently. Of course, I won't be able to cover them all, some just won't work in certain situations, but I'll give you one or two for each example I use. I'm not going to detail the SC, I'll just give its title and you can follow along starting on p. 89 DMG2.

Closing the Portal
Athletics could be used as in physically smashing or kicking the portal to weaken a part of it to give a +2 bonus to the next Thievery check made on it (if the Athletics check fails, the PC should lose a Healing Surge from causing the portal to shoot him with necrotic energy or something).
Insight could be used as a secondary skill to Arcana, possible to notice a pattern or something similar in the energies (possibly after a Perception check as a minor action).

Aside from trying to figure out ways to make skills work that normally wouldn't, you have several other options you can use as well. If the SC occurs as a typical encounter or within a combat encounter (yes to my players who are reading; I do put SC's in some combat encounters. You have been warned) there are several utility powers, including the new Skill Powers that will be introduced to the general public in PHB3, that can be used during an encounter. Not to mention some racial traits as well (half-elves, I'm talking to you). For longer or extended SC's, the use of certain rituals can count for successes or in some cases even bypass the entire thing!

The point is, to get over the mechanical feel to SC's you have to look past just what's on the paper. Think of less-obvious ways to use your skills and powers (given a particular situation, even an appropriately-named attack power could be used if the player can come up with a reason for it) and don't overlook rituals either. Coming up with new actions and descriptions for what you do gets you past the dice rolling because you're able to create a picture depicted by the result of the roll. Failure isn't always the end. If you fail an SC, you'll still be able to find some other way; it'll just be more difficult.

Next time on 1d4+5...
I've got my campaigns to run tomorrow and the following night. I'm sure something interesting will come up. It usually does.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Skill Challenges

The question of roleplaying comes up often in those horrid edition wars, often under the assumption that there is no roleplaying in 4E. This is, of course a fallacy, one usually offered by the guy who is so against 4E that he hasn't even tried to play it. However, Skill Challenges appear to make this statement true. An organized method of using one's skills to overcome some obstacle would seem to imply that you just roll dice and move on to the next encounter. My friends, this couldn't be any further from the truth.

Running a successful Skill Challenge (SC) is a lot more involved than just rolling some dice. I mean, who wants to do that? Just sit, and roll, mechanical-like... Yeah, no-one. Of course, first and foremost it is the DM's duty to make sure that this isn't what the SC becomes. The first thing you do when you're about to spring an SC on your PC's is don't tell them they're about to begin an SC! The best way to begin an SC to let it evolve.

When an SC is about to begin, give the PC's an idea or reminder of their surroundings, and if they seem confused remind of what they had been planning to do. Example: DM - "...So, you're left in cramped townsquare with eight other individuals; witnesses perhaps. That assassin was after you but why? Maybe somebody saw where he came from..." It's even better if a player utters that last sentence.

You as DM know what skills the player needs to accomplish successes. To promote roleplaying, don't tell the PC's what skills they should use to get past this; ask them what they want to do. If any of them say something like, "I want to make an Insight check," you have permission to physically beat the player until he learns right! No, no you don't, please, do not do that. If one does say that, ask them what they want to accomplish by doing it, and how does the character go about performing the action. With Insight, I would think that some degree of interaction would be needed beforehand in most situations. You're not going to know if someone is being dishonest if you don't talk to them, nor would you be able to put the pieces together about clues you've found, determining how they link together per say. Using Insight in these ways requires other things, generally Diplomacy or Perception as per the two previous examples. Of course, you don't want the player saying, "I want to use Diplomacy," or, "I want to use Athletics," either! "I'm going to ask the old man about the dagger," is a good start, but, "Sir, what can you tell me about this dagger," is a better one.

On the other hand, telling them what skills are most useful might be alright because then it forces players to think of ways to use a skill. Just don't let them keep using it the same way every time, that's just as bad as just rolling the dice. Keep the players engaged and thinking like their characters, not like some guys staring at a sheet of numbers. Perhaps doing something your PC isn't good at is the best option. Or maybe you can come up with ways to use the skills your PC is good with in ways that they were not originally designed for.

Next time on 1d4+5...
I'll probably have to elaborate more on this topic, but at the moment I'm leaving you with the above. You should be able to smoothly start your next SC. Next time in this topic we'll discuss different ways to use those skills in an SC, and some creative ways of using them. Readers: feel free to offer up your ideas for creative skill use, either in comments or pm's! Later!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Role Play vs. Roll Play (and why this is a stupid concept)

On a recent episode of Kicked in the Dicebags, Jonathan's girlfriend, Kristin, had previously asked some listeners to provide the podcast with some questions, a typical Q&A session. One of the questions was something along the lines of, "What is your favorite RPG system and why?" Her answer is the reason for this post you are about to read.

It isn't because of her preference to one system over another -- it was her reasoning behind it. She said that she wasn't really into D&D because she's, "more of a r-o-l-e roleplayer than a r-o-l-l player." Despite her claim to having some experience with the system, it is obvious that she really doesn't. It probably isn't her fault, but instead the fault of the DM running those games for her. Or it could be something that she's missing entirely in a role-playing game.

Before I go on any further, there are some terms that need to established: roll, roll play, role, role play, and roleplaying game (RPG). Roll is, obviously, as in to roll a die to determine the result of any action you may take in any given RPG. Roll play refers to people more or less declaring the use of a given skill (say, Diplomacy), rolling a die, and then accepting the result and not following up with any actual speaking or interaction except for the rolling of that die/dice. Role is simply the role you play in a game, your character. To roleplay, is the act of playing that role, your character but not just a sheet full of numbers and stats. It means to speak as your character would (funny voice or not) and do the things he would do in the scope of the world provided for him (not go against his personality, despite what certain stat numbers might say). A roleplaying game is a game in which you the player take on the role of a character. However, because an RPG is in fact a game, to effectively roleplay within its boundaries requires the use of certain mechanics to be in order to decide how you succeed and fail at various things throughout your character's life.

My players all roleplay thier characters and they do it well. Its all in how you play the game. I run mainly 4E D&D campaigns and roleplaying is a must. Now, contrary to popular belief, a die roll is not required for all roleplaying situations; it is only required when a situation has a chance of failure having an adverse effect on the rest of the game. EXAMPLE: The PC's stumble into a small village in the middle of a swamp. Under normal circumstances, one PC could simply just walk up to a local and say (literally, in-character) "Pardon me, do you know where some weary travellers may find refuge for the night?" Of course, the NPC would just simply point the way and all is progressing. But, suppose that the locals resent and distrust outsiders and would prefer that they stay any place but this village, and then you have to work within the scope of the game's mechanics.

Take a look at your character sheet there, do you see all those numbers listed next to abbreviations like Str, Int, and Cha? That's not you, that's your character! Based on what a 17 Intelligence translates to in game terms, most regular people fall short of that, generally in the Average 10-11 range. You are not as smart or as charming as your character. Especially if you're playing a character who's world is defined by one of those stats. Sometimes, it works the opposite way. If your PC has a low Int score you most likely are smarter than your character. It can be really hard to play something you're not. I've seen several rogues and most of their players simply aren't charming enough to play them up to what their Cha score suggests. That is why dice come in when failure to do something can alter the course of the game. Suppose you need to convince a nation's beloved king to impart a secret of great importance upon you so that you may vanquish a foe quicker and easier -- without it, it will be a long, ardous battle that may see the very end of some of your beloved companions. Of course, the king isn't going to just tell anybody this secret... You get the idea.

You don't need dice for the menial things, but if a single word or phrase is all that hangs in the balance of begging to not be thrown in prison or getting a well-reputed freelancer to accompany your group on their next adventure, the dice define your character's abilities in the context of the game world.

There are certain caveats: If a player, in-character says or tries something that is so profound, or just plain creative (I'm thinking of the token one-liner that just makes the whole group start cracking up -- as long as its appropriate to the situation), they should either get a nice bonus for the roll (+2 to +5) or just an auto-success as warrented by the situation. If someone says something like what was said by Jim Darkmagic, a character in a recent D&D podcast, "Now that your wife's dead, let's dance," would totally earn something at my table -- for that it would probably be a +2 to the attack roll.

Basically, the dispute between roll-playing and roleplaying is a ridiculous concept when it is directed at RPG's. You are not your character, nor is the DM really that NPC. You are not as skilled as your PC's are at certain things, mechanics help you describe that better than simple play-acting ever could. Just because you roll dice to determine success or failure in any given task does not mean you shouldn't portray your character. Even a simple, "Please sir, I'd never survive in a prison," along with your Bluff roll is acceptable.

Next time on 1d4+5...
Perhaps this calls for a discussion on Skill Challenges? Or maybe I'll talk about religion in RPG's, something I had been planning on doing for awhile now and today found out that The Podgecast had a discussion about it on their last episode. It don't matter, I have other things on the subject that they failed to discuss upon. Until next time, keep rolling those 20's!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What am I doing here?

That really is a good question.

Alright, so as a long time DM who feels he can help others with their roleplaying needs by offering insight, advice, and wisdom. Granted, I know that there is a lot of this around already, and that mine is a singular voice doomed to be drowned out by other, louder voices that are already in place. Podcasts, for one.

See, I really wanted to do a podcast. There were a few things preventing this at the moment: First, the equipment is expensive and at the moment, there isn't room in my budget for it. Secondly, I don't have a reliable person to co-host such an endeavor with me, and despite the availability of Table Saw from The Podgecast, one-sided conversations of the audio variety can be kind of boring (no offense to The Tome Show, another great podcast). Lastly, there was the issue of "What can I talk about that hasn't been discussed directly already?" Most of the great RPG topics have been discussed at length and more often than not, discussed way further than they really need to be. That is not to say however, that there is no new information to be gleaned.

Anyhow, I decided that a blog was going to have to be the way to go so here is my first attempt. I plan to bring you the reader advice and tips that I learn (both as I play and part of the collective efforts of the many podcasts I listen to), cool or interesting products that I hear about (and probably use too!), and the possible review from time to time as well. My game of choice is Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, so most of my ramblings will apply specifically to D&D 4E -related items. Although, most of my advice should be applicable to whatever system you're running, so hopefully we'll get some readers from outside the scope of D&D as well (and yes, I'd love to hear your feedback, whether its D&D-related or not). Oh, and I may talk about my current campaigns as well -- examples of play are something that I've always found interesting, I'm sure others will agree.

Unfortunately, I don't really have a lot to discuss today. Both of my campaigns took the week off so I don't have any in-game stuff for you. Also, with this being my first blog, I don't want to go off in too many directions. I did attend World Wide D&D Gameday last week for the DMG2 and had a blast. That experience, along with some collective podcast knowledge, taught me something interesting, something that I've been hesitant of and used sparingly throughout my career as a DM. Breaking the rules is alright.

I've always been of the mindset that rules in roleplaying games are there for a reason. They create the structure needed for the players to interact with the environment in a (for lack of better word) controlled setting. I mean, its the rules that keep us from moving 10 squares across a battlemap when your speed is 6 and attacking with an Encounter power and an additional At-Will with an "Awesome" bonus of +20 to both rolls... and you can just make up the rest. Why even play a game at all if you can just do whatever you want.

Okay, yes I know. A gross overstatement and obviously very embellished. But that isn't the point. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, the point was not as obvious as I had assumed either. The point is found in the 4E PHB initially. I'm not making an exact quote or citation, but basically it says there is a basic structure for the rules but the various character races and classes all break those rules in many different ways. Every class feature, heck every paragon path feature, and every racial feature break the rules. For instance, you have 22 points to create your ability scores, no more and no less. However, your race gives you a special bonus to two different ability scores (determined by your race of course), which clearly breaks the rule about a point limit to setting up your ability scores. In theory, your two plusses could either fall in your two lowest ability score values, your two highest, or any combination inbetween, effectively changing the value of the +2 anywhere from 1 point to 6 or more! And this is just one example. Of course, not all the rulebreaking fun goes to the players, the DM's get quite a bit as well also (and I'm not talking about monsters that appear out of thin air, or how a monster's Reflex value suddenly changes from 16 to 22 on a whim... bad DM's, I'm talking to you)! Monsters and traps/hazards all break rules in small ways too. The goblins' ability to shift after being missed by a melee attack for instance is a great example of this. And also the most obvious because its spelt out in the Monster Manual or in the Dungeon Master's Guide. You don't actually realize the potential of this until you start looking at modules.

In a podcast (I don't remember which one so I'm not crediting anybody, sorry) I heard a discussion about how module authors are constantly breaking the rules. Then, at Gameday, when setting up the encounters with my group a few small rule-breakages were suggested. I of course was hesitant, but soon I was convinced that it would be all right. One of my collaborators was a man I had never met before, but he was the organizer of my local D&D Meetup groups. Knowing that he had vast experience in gaming as well, his presence inspired me to try it out. We made up a power that the underground stream possessed related to healing and death, and converted a group of standard soldiers into minions that die, get back up, die again, get up again, etc unless they were killed in the water (or fell four times, whichever happened first. Four was the magic number, by turning standards into minions, it was like adding nine more monsters for a total of 12 from 3, perfect math in D&D encounter building). Of course, we added clues and hints, there isn't any point if the players have no chance in figuring out your little mystery.

All in all, the group I DM-ed for loved the adventure. Afterward, one of the guys was close to joining one of my ongoing campaigns, though the drive was too much for him; another guy, a future DM, picked my brain for half an hour for tips, which is also part of my inspiration for this blog. I learned that breaking the rules in minor ways actually led to a more entertaining engagement. Little rule breaks are what keep the game together, despite what their name implies.

Next time on 1d4+5...
I haven't decided yet. Perhaps I'll continue with Breaking the Rules and explore when its too much or just not acceptable. Maybe I'll offer a mini-review of DMG2, the latest book every DM should have a copy of. Maybe I'll create a character, or a monster, or a trap. Maybe I'll talk about some of my upcoming game sessions, or tell anew about my previous ones. Maybe I'll share the story behind the name of this blog. Either way, it'll turn out much better than this first one, hopefully I'll get some sort of format in mind.