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Month: September 2008

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.

Burn After Reading


This is a difficult movie. I laughed pretty hard through a lot of it, except where I was wincing. Sympathetic wincing, not angry wincing. The Coens are not in the business of making movies that are easy to figure out, and they don’t do open access. This is like that.

A lot of the criticism of this movie revolves around how unlikeable the characters are. Filmspotting talked about the Coen tendency to mock stupid characters. There’s no doubt that most of the protagonists are dumb and/or cold and/or malicious, but I don’t think I can write the movie off as an exercise in mockery.

Frances McDormand and, oddly, George Clooney saved it from that. Clooney’s performance is really way overmannered — for most of the movie. After sleeping on it for a couple of days, though, I’ve come around to thinking that was purposeful. Clooney isn’t a great actor, but he’s a smart actor, and he can do subtle. Watch what he does with the character after he kills Brad Pitt. I think what we’re seeing is someone who’s overacting because the character overacts. The scene where he calls his wife and begs her to come home? That’s someone stripped of his pretensions, and I think Clooney played it perfectly. Not to mention the symbolism of destroying his own phallic substitute sex toy; he’s destroying his own facade right there, poor guy.

His earlier lines about his quick reactions and his, ha ha, “I’ve never discharged a firearm” are the set up. On first glance, that’s part of the fakery. Those are his lines which he uses to get laid. But the Pitt death shows us a) that he does have really good reflexes and b) that he really hasn’t fired his gun in anger before. That’s the hook demonstrating that there’s a person underneath it all.

McDormand’s role is less complex. It wasn’t hard at all for me to sympathize with her. Yeah, she does horribly stupid things, but she’s intensely lonely. Richard Jenkins humanizes her in a wonderful performance by letting us see why someone would love her. To a degree, she’s a monster — but with someone as decent as Jenkins emotionally involved with her, you can’t write her off as nothing but monstrosity.

So I do wind up — not liking them, but at least wishing them redemption. The arc of the movie brings them together, then thrusts them apart. They’re definitely the centerpiece. And in the end, of course, they’re the protagonists who get out of it all alive. If not happy.

With that in mind, it’s another tragedy. It’s just that the Coens have no scruples about tragic movies overlaid with brutal humor.

Quick Notes on Fringe: the RPG

(Not Fringeworthy, that’s different.)

Use Nemesis, which is fairly simple and free. A couple of nomenclature changes — Madness Meters are Stability Meters, and most difficulties are fairly low. Things are weird but not alien weird. The Unnatural track is the Fringe track. Trump dice are likewise Fringe dice.

There is no supernatural, but there is fringe science, obviously. Those versed in fringe science might go above 5d in a given stat. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nina turned out to have 6d in Body, and Dr. Bishop has 6d Mind. Perhaps more.

Regular combat still exists. Right now the show looks more procedural than actiony, which means firearms should be deadly, which I think they are in Nemesis. However, the interesting combat scenes are scientific. This works more or less like regular combat.

1. Declare your character’s action. The show’s set up with one main scientist, which works fine — everyone else does supporting actions, which feed back into the scientist’s work, giving him bonus dice.

2. Roll the appropriate dice pool. Narrate accordingly. Sometimes it’s going to be science skill vs. science skill (can we figure out how to undo this dimensional transposition before it explodes in downtown Boston?), and sometimes it’d be science skill vs. something else. I think the whole tank scene in the pilot was vs. tactics, for example.

3. Damage is to be contemplated. Could be physical. Could be time ebbing away. Possibly losing a fight results in Stability Meter checks. Mostly I think I like time passing; a lot of this stuff is going to be mad science on the clock, since it’s a procedural show. So it’s… when you run out of wound boxes, you’re out of time or the experiment failed.

You don’t have weapons. You have centrifuges, which get statted up the same way.


It is rather difficult to talk about Neal Stephenson’s newest without spoiling lots. In generic, cloudy, unsatisfying terms: it’s a Stephenson book, with lots of thought experiments and science and so forth. There are action scenes. The world changes dramatically during the course of the book, as a result of the actions of the protagonists. There is a romance of sorts, in which a practical female character falls for a slightly fuzzy-minded idealist.

The alien world setting is nice. I found myself very engaged by the society and the worldbuilding. Which is good, because there’s a lot of it before the plot proper starts.

OK, spoilers. Don’t get too excited, since it’s just gonna be a one-liner quip.

Visit To Another Tribe

I tried Living Forgotten Realms today. It was pretty fun, actually. Short-form explanation: you write up a D&D character, and you sign up for an event — there are two public regular nights here in the Boston area, and each night so far has had at least two modules — and you go down and play with whoever else signed up and the DM, and at the end of the night you and the DM record your progression and then you can do it again the next week, or two weeks from now, or at a con. Whatever.

Pros: no pressure at all. You play when you wanna. Tired of the wizard? Swap to the fighter. Nice casual environment. Meet new people. All the modules are Wizards-approved.

Cons: Not super-heavy on the roleplay. Meet new people. All the modules are Wizards-approved.

I wouldn’t want it as my sole gaming outlet, maybe, but I had a good time and I expect I’ll do more. We had a great GM, who did an excellent job of keeping things moving and who knew the rules well. He handled skill challenges nicely; when we needed a push on appropriate skills, we used ’em, and he was fair about arbitrating other skills we could use.

I got stepped on once or twice when I busted out a bit of clerical roleplay and someone else wanted to make the roll due to a higher bonus, but c’est la vie. From an in character perspective, I think Alesk (oooh, a character sheet) did the talking on those occasions no matter who made the roll, so nyah.

The module was solid. I was wondering how these get built for random groups. Simple setup: “you all got notes requesting your presence at a meeting,” and we all went and met each other, and there was no angst about whether or not we were going to work together. I think the rogues got to show their sinister sides and my cleric got to be all holy and we acknowledged imperfect compatibility without letting it get in the way. Probably not the greatest start for an ongoing campaign, but for six people scheduled to work together for a few days? Worked fine.

The GM framed competently. He wasn’t shy about asking for skill rolls and providing hints, both out of combat and in combat. I think the modules encourage that as well, but the little touches like allowing us to roll Arcana to intuit that Sleep wasn’t going to work on the statue trap was good; saved people from feeling silly for using their big powers poorly. And nudging us gently towards the right places as we progressed towards the crypt was nice too. I didn’t feel railroaded into a specific way of handling a certain pack of guards, but I do feel like we were offered some possible smart ideas. None of which we took! And we still got past ’em.

I pretty much liked the table. I spent a few minutes pre-game chatting about the irksomeness of trying to get Zul’Aman bear mounts with the one couple, and one guy brought his kid along for some D&D exposure, and everyone was cool with that and super-helpful to the kid. Definitely varying degrees of game expertise, but I’m not gonna judge when I kept forgetting my bonuses to hit.

Also I got a +1 Holy Symbol of Life. And I suspect there’s a shortage of healers. So I gotta play again…