In medias res

A while ago there was an episode of the DnD podcast from Wizards of the Coast that had a tip for DMs to start every session with the players rolling initiative. This usually indicates that combat, or at least some action sequence, is about to play out and initiative determines the order that the characters act in. The idea is that by having your players start the session in medias res, literally “into the midst of affairs”, they will be more engaged in the session as a whole.

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From paper to screen

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a trend at my DnD table as more players have moved from the traditional pen(cil) and paper to having a laptop, notebook or, more frequently, a netbook or smartphone in front of them instead. In this article, I’ll explore some of the tools available to facilitate this move and explore my own experiences.

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Character development

Whether you’re writing a novel or playing a role-playing game, there comes a time when you have to develop a character. There are a number of ways you can approach this and this series of articles will explore some of those.

I’ll start with the character development that I’ve dealt with the most: Developing a character for a role-playing game, specifically DnD.

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The written word

Through all fantasy games, single- and multi-player, virtual or table-top, runs a common thread: The writing. It has been argued many times, and reasonably successfully, that the history of fantasy gaming was born of the ground-breaking work of Tolkien, however it is more correct to say that he was the great populariser of a genre that has been with us for hundreds of years. The archetypes that exist in his work still inhabit the games we play today: Orcs, Dwar(f|ve)s, Elves, Trolls, etc.

The images that those names invoke, and that are visualised in modern MMOs, aren’t too far from the descriptions found throughout fantasy literature. So what of the state of writing in fantasy games themselves?

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Raising the dead

It seems we can learn from our mistakes! Obligatory warning: This is another DnD post.

This weekend’s DnD session was the one where I first found out if my party were going to raise me from the dead or if I was going to have to roll up a new character. I am not yet particularly invested in my current (dead) character, Tordek the Dwarf Paladin, but rolling a new character when one dies does feel like cheating the system. It seems that my party agree, as they pooled all of their resources and all the great stuff we’d accumulated and paid for me to live again.

Once back on my feet, it was time for action! Happily, the DM threw in some more puzzle elements this time. Essentially, we had three in-game hours to find some items, as well as solve some clues, or the battle that we were going to face would be hard. We knew we were facing battle, the only thing at stake was how difficult it was going to be. I love sessions like this: I find the puzzle solving aspect, while staying in character, more of a challenge than whacking orcs/undead/halflings. I might make a particular logical leap, but would my character? I might have a problem with a particular ethical standpoint put forward by an NPC, but would my character?

Having solved the puzzle with only 2 in-game minutes left (isn’t it amazing how it always works out like that?) it was time to bear arms. I was not really looking forward to this, having seen our party struggle with combat previously. It seems that having two characters die in battle last time, and having most of the party be unconscious for the majority of that fight, has taught us something key about 4th edition DnD. I will now save you the pain of figuring this out for yourself by stating Dominic’s Golden Rules for 4th edition:

DGR 1: Know your role and stick to it. For anyone who has been involved with end-game raids in World of Warcraft, this should not be particularly difficult. For people used to 3rd edition, it takes a little getting used to.

DGR 2: Don’t be afraid to blow your daily powers early. The quicker you can reduce the odds against you, the easier the fight will be. If you save your dailies, you’ll just have a long fight ahead and will be possibly too low on health to be useful before you get the chance to make a difference.

Following these rules certainly made our party more effective, but did it make the game any more fun? Well, I think it’s too early to tell. Unlike 3.5 ed, when it was easy to try to bend and break the rules and watch the DM squirm, it feels more difficult under this ruleset. My hope is that as we become more effective and learn the system, we’ll also learn how to successfully bend the rules to bring more life to our characters.

Today I died again

I died today. Those damn spiders with their poison were just too much for me.

Oh, I should probably explain that I’m talking about DnD. And right about now, a whole bunch of you who are not interested can tune out and come back when I write something about something else. Of course, if you do that, I’ll know that you only spent 20 seconds reading this and I’ll be able to track you down thanks to Google Analytics. So just you think about that!

Have they gone? Great, so it’s just us geeks now.

Last Sunday was my first session playing DnD with a new group (for me; they’d been playing together for some time) and I was especially excited as it was my first time playing the new 4th edition. I’d heard mixed reviews of the new edition, mostly complaints that it played too much like a video game, but as a long-time gamer was eager to try it for myself. Also, I was walking into a group of mature, experienced gamers. I suppose that’s fairly normal for the Bay Area, but it’s not an experience that I’m used to. My other half was convinced that they were cunning cannibals laying a trap for unwitting fresh meat (“unused meat” was the term she rather unkindly, but wholly accurately, used).

I rolled myself a Dwarf Paladin as the group was looking for Defender type characters; essentially, for those of you who may know this terminology better, the Defender in DnD 4ed is a Tank; there to soak up all of the damage so the other characters can survive to hit, burn, poison or stab things for longer. The first thing I noticed that was different was that the Character Builder I used (the official one from Wizards of the Coast) printed out some nifty cards that I could use to keep track of which powers I’d used and what their effects were. Before I go on, I should point out for the purists that I did roll my character up on the floor surrounded by pencils and paper before typing it up into the Character Builder: It’s the only way, really.

Aside from some cosmetic differences in the character sheet, everything was very familiar.

I was surprised to almost die twice in the first session, however as the Dwarf Fighter alongside me was lying on his back unconcious as much as I was, I didn’t worry too much about it. The encounters definitely seemed more difficult to win, but we were only a four-man party and only had my Lay on Hands (stop sniggering at the back) prayer, and judicious use of the Heal skill, to keep us alive at all. Once we had a cleric, it was said, we’d be fine. I’ve already suggested above that this might not be completely true.

This week, we had a cleric yet I and another character died, and a third almost did. I should point out that this is very unusual. Characters do die in DnD but it’s usually due to something incredibly stupid, or very, very bad luck with dice rolls. In fact, in our group’s first session the DM rolled around a dozen natural 20s. This is extremely unlikely, and was another reason why I wasn’t that surprised to be taking massive amounts of damage. This session, however, we were just overwhelmed by the encounter. It could be argued that the DM is at fault for leading us into an unbalanced fight, however I would expect a party of our level to be able to handle what was thrown at us. It just seemed like we needed to hit every attack opportunity, and when we rolled badly, it hurt.

This leads me on to how the game plays under the new rules, and by now I expect only one or two people to still be reading. One of these will be my wife, who I will be holding at gunpoint to finish and give me feedback, as always. Hello, dear.

I want to first deal with the comments that I mentioned earlier about it playing more like a video game: I think I know what those people mean. Combat is more streamlined, with a simple attack roll vs a static defense number, and while there are more abilities available to a player, one has to be judicious in when they are used as they have limitations (and can easily fizzle into nothing on a poor roll).

Essentially, 4th edition encounters, like instances in World of Warcraft, revolve around having a group with all roles represented (damage, defense, buffs, heals, gnome) and everyone sticking to their roles. Sadly, I feel that this goes against what I’ve enjoyed most about the game in the past. The last campaign I played I started as a Gnome Barbarian. There was a Gnome Sorcerer in the group so we decided that our background was brother and sister. From there, it was a short hop to have me taking levels in Sorceror and her taking levels in Hitting People Very Hard With Things. Having this ability to play with a character and create something, or rather someone unique, and still being able to vanquish the horde, or defeat the dragon, or rescue the princess, was what I loved about the game. This, at least as far as I can see, has either gone away, or is very well hidden. <insert joke about a perception check here>

So why will I be back in a couple of weeks, whether my Paladin is raised from the dead or I turn up as someone entirely new? Well, the core of the game is still there: A group of like-minded people sitting around a table telling a story together is still fun. And frankly, I think I might be able to find a way to break out of some of the boundaries the game rules have placed on me, and if I can’t, I’ll damn well have fun trying!

MUDs, MMOs, and me, oh my!

Two pieces of news have inspired this today. News the first is that the humble text-based MUD is 30 years old. The second is the news of a new MMO from a company that I have a vested interest in seeing succeed, and based on an IP that I have a certain fondness for.

Most of my gaming background is rooted in role-playing. I started gaming when I was around 12 or 13 when I was invited to a lunch-time session of the Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game. The invitation was from an older boy at my school who was known as a ‘strange’ one, meaning that he had long hair and wore a black trenchcoat. Stereotypes have to have a grounding in some reality, right? These lunchtime gaming sessions were a relief to the young me that ate packed lunches quietly in the corner of the playground and avoided all ball-based sports that were played around me.

I’m not quite sure how the progression went, but the next memory I have of gaming with friends is a small group of us meeting at one of our houses every Sunday to play Rifts. I must have been around 16 years old, and I know that we met through a combination of pub-going1 and loitering around youth-clubs2.

It was around this time that I started finding out about MUDs. I’d been online for a while and had run a BBS for a while3 with a couple of friends, and of course I’d been playing text-based games for years, so when I found out that someone had combined these two things into an online text-based game with actual real other people playing, I was instantly hooked.

I don’t remember my first, or my second, but I do remember my last. Discworld MUD managed to hook me in with yet another factor I could not deny: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. I played so much that I ended up as a creator, coding new rooms or items for players. This ended up with me meeting my future wife as she was my boss on the MUD. It also started getting me thinking about a career as a software engineer in the games industry rather than the theoretical physicist I thought I was going to be. I owe quite a lot to that game.

Right before moving to Singapore, I found a new gaming group. We played through the first couple of stories in a 3.5 edition DnD campaign, but then it was time to leave for the other side of the world. It’s my first time playing DnD, believe it or not, and I loved every second spent with my Gnome Barbarian/Sorceror (don’t ask).

I don’t play on MUDs so often now. I have to pick my hobbies more carefully due to a more limited playtime schedule and there are just other things that capture my interest more. I have played a few MMOs (EVE Online, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft) and have recently picked up Warhammer Online for the pleasure of exploration of a new world, and I’ll always pick up other non-RPG games to see what is out there. When it comes down to it, I’d still rather spend time sitting around a table with a group of friends rolling dice and arguing about rules than anything.

I suppose that’s why I couldn’t resist the 4th edition DnD Player Handbook when we went shopping for books for the upcoming flight. I’m not sure I agree with the changes they’ve made, but I can’t wait to find a group of players in San Francisco to find out how it plays.

1 – Playing in bands, rather than under-age drinking. Honest.
2 – Sounds Workshop: A recording studio masquerading as a youth club.
3 – Archetype, on the off-chance that anyone ever used it