Thursday, January 22, 2015

Turning "What did we get?" Into "Here's What You Know."

Angry’s got a pretty good rant (or, rather, how-to) on exposition. Suffice it to say, your best world-showing probably happens in the game, rather than before (though I never fail to sneak in a little via character creation, and D&D 5’s backgrounds are a great opportunity for more of that).

There are some related thoughts on ars ludi about using treasure as a method for providing exposition:

There are lots of times during a game when players are half-listening, or thinking about other things, or maybe just wandering into the kitchen to get a soda. But in the magical post-combat pre-treasure window, everyone’s attention is high, their curiosity is piqued, and they are clamoring to hear what you will say next.

Couple this with the Three Clue Rule and you shouldn’t have much trouble filling out your treasures with interesting stuff. The treasure doesn’t just include a map to the ancient elven forge, but an elven silvered dagger worn by the scholar the map was stolen from bearing his family crest on the pommel, and an ornamental lapis-and-gold bowl engraved with runes commemorating a deal between the forge and a dwarven nation which agreed to supply the forge with mithril in exchange for an even weight of brandy.

Which answers the question Zak brought up when I was trying to find where I’d read the ars ludi quote above:

I just go "…aaaaaad 5200gp worth of random fancy junk". The thing I hate is when it's like "…and 37 copper and 2 tourmalines worht 6000 each and…" like: why are we doing math for no reason and hearing random jewel names?

I’ll admit the Gygaxian Naturalist in me knows exactly why the hobgoblins have a chest full of uncut rubies, but, as Zak points out, it’s really all the same to the players. (Most of the time. My college group was big on the types of gems they were getting and using them in jewelry they designed and commissioned for themselves. But they were an exceptional bunch in many ways.)

With treasure-as-exposition, you get to eat your cake and have it too. Just be sure the exposition gives them something actionable. That is, it’s not just, “Hearken ye back to the days of yore…” and is more, “Hey, I’ll bet these elves could tell us something about the lost forge,” or “Wait a minute… these are all tools for hunting vampires. Do you think these guys knew something we don’t?”

Friday, January 16, 2015

"There's Gonna be a Rumble..."

Mr. Robertson has been contemplating urban adventures lately after flipping through the 1e DMG’s urban random encounters table (you know, the one with the wanderling harlot subtable). As per usual with 1e random tables, there’s no effort spared on encounter balance. Just as in the wilderness where 3rd level PCs could encounter ancient dragons, so too could that wandering harlot be a succubus and that old man could be a high-level wizard. So Mr. Robertson asks:

While the idea of letting players run into this range of adversaries is appealing to me, I wonder if other people have had success with this? How did you make players aware of the risk involved in the average man they meet with a sword when they could be a 0-level person, or 10th level fighter? If they are not dressed like a Lord, do not have obvious magic items, and are hanging around in a common sort of place do you give any hints to ensure the players don't unwittingly bite off more than they can chew?

Well, as long-time readers of this blog know, I’m more than happy to let my players bite off far more than they can chew anytime they feel like it. That said, my current 5e campaign is almost exclusively urban (we’ve been playing since September and I think they’ll have their first real dungeon-delve of the campaign in our next session or the one after). So I do have some recent observations to throw into the ring.

In general, I've found players avoid violence inside cities. The social repercussions are seen as too daunting. Sure, you can kick around that one-legged beggar, but if he's a member of the Beggars Guild, that means facing enforcers from the guild later, large men without necks and a pinch or two of ogre in their background and absolutely no senses of humor.

And this pretty much holds for the entire city: the pencil-necked alchemist could hire an expert duelist to call you out, the sailor just off the boat has his crew backing him up and the urchins travel in packs.

So violence, when it happens, tends to be very focused, very quick, and the PCs have to be all but pushed into it. (Of course, since we're playing 5e, that also means I've had to chunk the EXPs-for-murder mechanic the game is built around).

Now, I did front-load this by tying local knowledge into character creation, using their chosen backgrounds as opportunities to speak of the dangers of the Beggars Guild, the political alliances of the city, and tying the PCs into their own alliances (that are too useful to threaten by acting like jerks).

Another consideration going the other way, however, is the openeness of the urban environment. If they players haven't wandered into a well-planned ambush, they can almost certainly flee in multiple directions. So if they do get in over their heads, they can generally beat a hasty retreat, regroup and figure out who they need to pay off to make this problem go away.

Mr. Robertson adds:

I was thinking of the 'Rake' encounter from the DMG: 2-5 young gentlemen fighters of 5th to 10th level (d6 +4). The rakes will always be aggressive, rude, and sarcastic.

In this case, the NPCs are begging for a fight. If the PCs take the bait (the wood elf barbarian and feral, raised-by-wolves half-elf ranger in my current group absolutely would), what then?

Well, assuming they’re badly outgunned, they’re unlikely to suffer a TPK in a single assault. Even 10th level fighters can rarely do more than 20 points of a damage to a single individual in a single attack, and that’s only if they roll critical. (I think. Important caveat here: I've only played so much 5e and barbarian rage can be pretty scary.) So it’s unlikely even one PC will be KOed after the first round of combat. Even a wizard with no Constitution bonuses or defensive spells up has 14 hit points by 3rd level, and the party’s fighters will have 22 without Constitution bonuses. So they’ll get a single round of fighting at the very least where I can make clear to them the skill of their foes when describing the wounds they take. A smart party would hopefully see what’s happening and take the opportunity to flee, regroup, and plot revenge.

And if they don’t? Well, as Mr. Roberts points out, “The 5e rule where they could elect to make their attacks non-lethal might be helpful as well.” Why did the rakes start the fight? Maybe they just roll the PCs, lifting all their loose coinage and jewelry and leaving them for others (local clerics or the like) to rescue. Were they just trying to make a point to a patron or organization friendly to the PCs? Or do they drag them off for ransom? Sell them to the Temple of Shkeen? With a TPKO, the adventure’s just begun.

Friday, January 02, 2015


I haven’t heard. I have heard scuttlebutt that they’re still trying to figure it out, and I suspect that’s the case. Magazines aren’t the revenue-generation machines they used to be. With the existence of the internet, DRAGON can’t be the social hub and font-of-all-news they were back in the 21st century. Print is expensive to produce and ship; unless you plan to go the Raggi artisanal route (which is kinda the polar opposite of what we expect from a magazine, but in this age of retro-cool maybe it could work) there are better methods for delivering that sort of stuff.

For 3e, WotC farmed out production of the magazines to a third party. This created Paizo. I suspect there’s some resistance inside WotC towards going down that path again. Still, it is in keeping with farming out the production of the Tiamat adventure series to Kobold. So while I see this as terribly unlikely, I don’t see it as beyond the realm of options they’re probably looking at.

The magazines went digital in the era of 4e, serving as loss-leaders and content generators for a digital portal that was supposed to be the hub of 4e play and a strong source of revenue. Alas, about the only part that really worked was the (admittedly indispensable) character generator. With the faceplant that was the Morningstar project, I suspect D&D’s digital future is still being hashed out. If they go digital with the magazines, there’s a very good chance they’ll be attached to whatever online offerings WotC offers behind a paywall. I see this as the most likely option, but that’s assuming WotC doesn’t just throw up their hands and walk away from any sort of digital for-pay products. Their history with that sort of thing isn’t exactly festooned with success.

Which brings me to what I consider to be the most interesting option. Assuming a fairly permissive third-party publication license, DUNGEON and DRAGON could be the methods by which WotC leads and guides that sort of thing. They could serve as a sort of Manual of Style for publishers. They could be used to showcase the sort of work they’d (officially) like to see more of. The magazines could be a vehicle for publishers and designers to get their names out there. In short, they could serve as a sort of guide and ideal and possibly even imprimatur by which WotC could lead third party publishers and their customers towards the best work.

What appeals to me about this is that, as a guide-by-carrot, it won’t shut down the likes of Raggi if they decide to publish something really out there for 5e, but could possibly mitigate some of the tide of utter dross a really open publishing license is likely to unleash. However, I’m not seeing a really good way to directly monetize that sort of thing short of selling ad space (which isn’t a bad thing, mind you, just not a recipe for financial success to date). Maybe they could go the route of digital comics and sell dead-tree collections, or maybe best-of compilations as they did in the 1e days?