PHB 2 Fiddling

The Character Builder has been updated, so I started fiddling around with Players Handbook 2 ideas. The first thing I statted up was a human shaman named Bivvy, who claims to be of a noble family fallen on hard times. His spirit companion is a butler. “Whichever type of spirit companion you choose, it can have any appearance you like.” I’m just sayin’.

He’s taking Wrath of Winter as one of his at-wills, on the premise that the butler ought to be able to appear at someone’s side noiselessly. Also, I think, Blessing of the Seven Winds. Bit of a tornado, what?

I need to find a small figurine depicting Stephen Fry to make this really work.

Alesk, 2nd Level

Danger, Will Robinson! D&D post! (I know. But I can’t bring myself to clog up the community with boring crap about a character nobody actually plays with. Er, clog it up more than once, anyhow.)
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D&D Stuff

Just in case anyone was missing it — most of my D&D commentary will wind up over here, since I wanted my compatriots to be able to post as well.

Scrivener and RPG Writing

I recently got a new text processing program called Scrivener. It’s oriented towards the writing process; you don’t use it to format text and produce final output. You use it to outline, shuffle, and put down words. I think it’s awesome for pen and paper gaming work, and I wanted to document my current workflow with an extended example.
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Dungeons and Index Cards

I tried using a stack of index cards instead of an initiative tracker last session, and it worked out pretty well. I put most of the monster stats on each card, plus checkboxes for hit points. I think it was smoother than using the tracker.

I may need to put more of the stats on each card; I kept having to go back to the book. Maybe only for more or less simple monsters, and Big Bads can still require book reference?

I really like the ease of having defenses and hit points all in hand, though. The checkboxes in particular fit how my mind works.

Building Blocks

I’m still trying to fuse the brilliant combat engine from D&D 4e with the brilliant narrative engine from Gumshoe. You may not have known I was trying to do this. But I am.

Let’s skip over the skills question for now and pretend that we have a Gumshoe adventure all mapped out, with the multiple paths and the clues and the major and minor scenes. It’s a flowchart, basically. None of these scenes are directly combat-related, although it may require combat to reach a given scene. Here, have a PDF example. Contains spoilers for the Esoterrorists sample adventure, though!

Now: for each scene, we may (not must) attach either a prerequisite combat, a resulting combat, or both. A prerequisite combat is a fight you need to engage in, or possibly win, in order to get to the clue scene. The clue scene might be really brief; e.g., maybe the fight happens and one of the combatants has the clue on him. Or, say, you have to fight through the kobolds to get to the secret lair in which more information is available.

A resulting combat is when they come after you for finding a clue. Actions have consequences. I think it’s important to make the linkage super-clear for the best narrative effect.

The idea is that by strongly pairing investigative scenes and combat scenes, you reduce any chance that the players will feel like they’re playing two different concurrent games with the same set of characters. This is just a theory right now. I should probably test it sometime.

Another tangential note: you could maybe keep skill challenges as long as you went with the current WotC approach, which is that failed skill challenges result in problems rather than failures. This is attractive in that skill challenges seem to be cool, but I think it’s too much of a departure from the Gumshoe skill model. Or you could ditch the Gumshoe model altogether and make clue acquisition into skill challenges? I don’t know how to run skill challenges well enough to do this, however.

Updated 4e Tool Notes

Referring back to this post

The DM’s screen fits on the card table with the battlemaps, so that’s all good. Alea Tools magnetic markers work like a charm if you remember to use them, and your players are happy to take care of slapping down the markers for effects they generate. Chris suggested clipping the Encounter Manager sheets over the GameMastery initiative tracker; that worked fine too, with magnets and all. I may look for slightly stronger magnets or something, but it works well enough as is.

So yep. GMing continues to get easier. Tools are fun. And it’s a good group.

4e GMing Tools

As per request, quick summaries of the tools I’m using to GM D&D 4e:

First cool tool: the GameMastery Combat Pad Initiative Tracker. It’s a wet/dry erase board with a steel core and a bunch of magnets that you shuffle around to track initiative. It works very well; in the first session, I was pretty much able to run combats with the module and the tracker held in one hand. However, it’s got a lot of wasted space.

This last session I added the printableDM Encounter Manager to my toolbox. It’s nice; I tried the ones without the initiative trackers but I think I’m going to swap over. As noted, the GameMastery tracker is a bit clunky in that half the space is chewed up in ways that simply aren’t useful in combat. Holding two full page sheets in one hand is obviously a lot harder than holding one full page sheet; if I can track initiative easily on the Encounter Managers, that’s a win.

I think the right thing to do here is find a slim steel clipboard of some kind, clip the Encounter Managers to it, and use the GameMastery tracker magnets to track initiative. That gets me back to one sheet. Unfortunately, steel clipboards are hard to find.

The Wizards Dungeon Master’s Screen is very good. I just need a better place to put it, since I’ve been DMing standing up. I’ll figure that out with time.

Alea Tools is good magnets for tracking status effects on miniatures. I didn’t use them enough last session, but I will.

Jim Goings’ Condition Cards (scroll down a bit) are great easy reminders of which PCs are undergoing which conditions. Also it’s nicely intimidating to say “you’re weakened” and slap down the big indicators. There are a bunch of other nice tools on that page, btw — I particularly like Kiznit’s character sheets.

LFR Update

Unfortunately the local Living Forgotten Realm group’s plans to run bi-weekly Sunday games fell through, and I can’t make the regular weekday games. There’s a big weekend event coming up in a couple of weeks that’d get my puny level 1 cleric up a couple of levels, and thus perhaps enable him to play in the next tier of adventures — but I’d still have the same scheduling issue, so it’s not really worth it to burn a day on that.

Possibly at some juncture the Framingham group that was discussed will get underway. Until then I’ll get my 4e kicks from running the modules. Since I was so jazzed about LFR to start with, I figured I’d toss out the update.

Running 4e

The thing that really surprised me about running 4e was how amazingly simple it was in practice. Setup is perhaps a different story, which I can’t speak to yet, but assuming you have an adventure in hand and a bunch of players, it’s nearly frictionless to run.

A well-presented adventure, as per WotC’s example, puts stat blocks for each monster with each encounter. These literally have 70% of what you need to run the encounter. You get each attack listed clearly, with the bonus to hit and the damage included, along with any other effects. Everything the monster might do is right there.

Each encounter also has tactics and of course room descriptions, which is another 15% of what you need. Tactics aren’t absolutely necessary but it’s handy to have the script for monster actions available. The room description gives you special features, treasure, and all that. Note that traps and such are statted up as monsters, so you continue to have the stat blocks handy and the mechanics aren’t any different. Skill challenges also fall into this chunk of material.

All in all, an encounter is going to be two or three pages. I haven’t checked but I bet the vast majority of encounters are two pagers.

The other 10% is condition modifiers, attack modifiers such as cover, and so on. I think I’ll have these memorized pretty soon, but in the meantime there’s an excellent Dungeon Master’s Screen which is stable and laid out in landscape format. The latter means you can see players behind it. It has all the charts you want. Literally. It’s impressive.

I added in Paizo’s GameMastery Combat Pad, which is a magnetic whiteboard designed for initiative tracking. I didn’t need it; I could have tracked initiative on the battlemat. But being able to slide counters around when people hold or delay is handy.

So what I discovered was that I could run the whole game standing up, with the combat pad tucked in the adventure booklet, in my left hand. Right hand’s free for dice, moving minis, checking off hit points. This may sound really trivial, but I ran four combats in five hours and I didn’t have to look anything up more than once or twice — OK, having players doing some lookups for me was handy, but even so. 4e is ridiculously easy to run.

I’m thinking about more tweaks. I found some full-sized 1″ maps for the WotC modules that some people did in Dundjinni and Campaign Cartographer (note to players: spoilers, try not to peek too hard), and I think I can use those to good effect to cut down on the time it takes me to draw maps. Also they’re pretty.

I’m definitely gonna use these encounter worksheets next time. It’ll make it easier to track hit points. I’m considering backing one of ’em with magnetic paper so I could use the initiative magnets on that instead. We’ll see.

But it’s all gilding the lily. The core smoothness lies in the game. Kudos to WotC and the designers.

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