Tuesday, April 23, 2013

More on Subtracting

Here’s another thing I’m subtracting out as I build my next D&D campaign: PCs who aren’t sitting at my table. They no longer get campaign support. Sucks to be them.

Wait, what? Of course you aren’t supporting people you aren’t gaming with, Noonan. What’s your point?

My point is this: because I care only about the players at my table, I don’t need to assume a world with other PCs running around.

For example, you can’t play a paladin in my next campaign. Instead, you can play the paladin. Meaning:
  • There’s only one of you.
  • You’re like a slayer from the Buffyverse. That's why you have smite evil.
  • Your crusade is an individual one, because you alone were capital-C Chosen.
No mechanical difference, but that small difference in article—“the” instead of “a”—puts quite a spring in your step, doesn't it?

(In theory, I should have to worry about stuff like “What if two players want to be paladins? What if someone multiclasses into paladins later?” But I can’t make myself care about those questions because with only six chairs at my table, they’re almost certainly hypothetical. And the upside of being the paladin is too good to pass up.)
Now extend that reasoning to the other classes. I’m not going to make every class literally one of a kind, but I’m going to invest every character with that much uniqueness. Every PC stands out from the crowd. Even the unobtrusive PC is a quasi-mystical Platonic ideal of unobtrusive.

Finally, extend that reasoning to the other races, too. You’re not an elf. You’re the only elf most people will ever meet, a dangerous fey creature capable of anything. Do you get your own table in the inn? You bet! Do guards take two steps back when you pull your hood back and reveal the pointy ears? Yes, ma’am!

And when you do meet other elves, it’s because you’ve crossed over into the Seelie Realm, which is Elric’s Melnibone with better shrubbery. Those elves are the payoff for all those superstitious innkeepers and nervous guards. Turns out that was all foreshadowing, and now your elf is dealing with a whole culture even elfier than you are.

So that’s the paladin and the elf. Now comes the fun part: extending that sense of uniqueness to the rest of the classes and races. Then the best part of all: watching the players pick who they’re gonna be.

P.S. I've changed the color scheme on the blog. Your eyes will thank me.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Power of Subtractive Design

I’m part of a worldbuilding collaboration at the moment, and we’re getting significant mileage out of the power of subtraction: taking some things out of the world so that other things have more room to flourish. Seems obvious when you type the sentence, but it’s so easy to forget.

D&D example: off the top of your head, think of mid- to high-level “sinister civilization” races. Drow, mind flayers, rakshasa, githyanki are easy. Yuan-ti and evil giants come to mind right away. Efreet, demons, devils, sure.
And that’s just the start. Pull your copy of Monster Manual Whatever off the shelf, and you’ll have a half-dozen more…in every book. No matter what your favorite edition is, you have way more sinister civilzations than you can possibly use—even if some of those monsters are “offscreen” and only namechecked.
If you’re the designer of a new campaign setting, you probably have a mandate to make all those monsters fit somewhere. You have to figure out what part of the Forgotten Realms or Eberron is home to the dragonborn. You have to leave room for all those sinister civilizations, for the approximately twelveteen elven subraces…and gods forbid you don’t give the gnomes a nation of their own.

That mandate sucks. My favorite published campaign worlds have said, “You know what? There ain’t no _________s in our world.” (Dark Sun is probably the best example of this.)

If you don’t have sahuagin and kuo-toa and troglodytes and lizardmen in the world, the one or two “wet bad guys” you keep can actually have room to breathe. (Possibly through gills, in this case.)
For your home campaign, you can subtract even more. Be realistic about how many sessions you’ll have and how many creatures and places the players will meet. (And by “meet” I mean “kill, then loot.”) Reserve a place in your world only for things the players will actually experience (even if they only hear about them). Don’t have eighteen different kinds of goblinesque mooks. Have one kind of goblinesque mook, and invest them with tons of personality and verve. The other seventeen kinds don’t exist, period.

Adding things later is easy. They publish whole books full of that stuff, man, and you can make up even better stuff yourself. But subtracting is easy only at the start. Subtract! Make your campaign lean and mean.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Better Boss Battles, Part 3

Alternate Title: "A DM, an adventure designer, and a monster designer walk into a bar..."

In the first two parts of what has apparently become a trilogy (three stages about three stages?), we talked about adapting AngryDM’s three-stage boss designs for Pathfinder and D&D Next.

Whatever flavor of D&D you like, try it at your table—I think you’ll like the results. And once you fight against (or DM as) a three-stage boss, you’ll ask: why aren’t all boss monsters built this way?

After all, it’s not a 3e/Pathfinder problem…or a 4e problem…or a D&D Next problem. The problem stretches back to the point when we all started playing monsters out of rulebooks in the first place. A traditional monster doesn’t work for a climax encounter, and a climax-encounter monster doesn’t work for a traditional “1d4+1 of these in room 22.”

Whose Job Is It, Anyway?
The climax battle of a good adventure has three co-authors: 

• the DM
• the designer who built the final monster
• the designer who wrote the adventure

(Sometimes the DM is two of those dudes, or maybe even all three, but let’s assume they’re all different people.) 

Who’s best equipped to make a great climax monster, whether it’s a three-stage boss or some other style?

The obvious answer is the DM, but that’s a copout. Because the DM knows the players, knows the campaign, knows the narrative, and can improvise on the fly, of course the DM is going to do the best job designing a climax monster. But that same reasoning applies to every sort of RPG design. The DM is also the best encounter designer, NPC designer, world builder, mechanical balance designer, etc. DMs don’t necessarily have the time to design everything, and they’re being paid only in pizza slices. So they’re off the hook.

(By all means, DMs, make cool three-stage monsters! But the sole responsibility for a great climax monster shouldn’t fall in your lap.)

Since climax monster design is, well, monster design, you might think it’s the monster designer’s job. But three-stage bosses and similar designs are best when they’re idiosyncratic—when they twist, bend, and sometimes break the established rules in satisfying ways.

A skill challenge—either 4e’s formalized version or the more freeform versions in Pathfinder and presumably D&D Next—is a great foundation for part of a three-stage climax. But such a challenge is baked into the specific environment and story of the climax, so we can’t exactly expect a Monster Manual to have a great skill challenge as part of every stat block.

(I’d buy an all-three-stage Monster Manual, but for reading and inspiration, not actual use at the table.)

Another problem is that some monsters serve double duty: they’re both bosses and regular monsters. The lich? Almost always the boss monster. But what about a marilith? Maybe she’s alone in the final room of the temple, but maybe she’s outside the door, guarding it with lots of her demon buddies.

In other words, boss monsters need to not only be awesome, but specifically awesome, constructed for the situation and constructed for the climax.

That leaves you, Dr. Adventure Designer. You’re the one who knows both the narrative terrain and the actual terrain. You know that after this fight, the credits roll. It’s your responsibility to make the climax monster worthy of the climax. Use three stages! Throw in wave attacks! Steal ideas from MMORPGs (fair is fair, right?)! Do something beyond plunking down a level-appropriate mob, adding a couple interesting terrain features, and writing your “Concluding the Adventure” section.

If you’re DMing an adventure you wrote, then the onus is on you to make your bosses as cool as the three-stage bosses. (Good news, though: designing these bosses is fun.)

And if you’re DMing a published adventure with a climax that’s not as good as a three-stage boss battle, make it better! You’ve got the tools and the know-how.

Your players will love you for it. They might even spring for pizza.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Better Boss Battles, Part 2 (D&D Next)

Can you do a three-stage boss monster for D&D Next? Absolutely—and it’s warranted. If you thought that the Big Bads of 3e/Pathfinder and 4e…

• don’t get enough actions
• have the fun parts front-loaded
• are too vulnerable to conditions, and
• lack a sense of progress through the fight

…well, the D&D Next monsters have those issues when used as boss monsters, too.

The Obvious Caveats
I have only the playtest packet to go by, and by definition that means the game ain’t done yet. These monsters are also designed for general use, not as boss monsters specifically (but see the “Part 3: A DM Walks Into a Bar” blog entry tomorrow). Most of the playtest materials we’ve seen have been player-focused: classes, spells, etc.

D&D Next playtesters have been given multiple adventures to play through, so if we can divine designer intent from someplace, that’s where to look, eh? My experience thus far has been that the bosses play like regular ol’ D&D monsters, not the three-ring circus of awesome that is a AngryDM-style boss monster. They aren’t pulling their weight as adventure-climax foes.

That sounds critical, but the boss monster awesomeness isn’t necessarily the monster designer’s job, so it’s not really a critique of the monsters themselves. Again, see tomorrow’s blog for more on that. First, though, let’s three-stage up one of these 5e puppies.

One note: I’m sharing my playtest impressions here—to my mind, playtesting D&D Next’s suitability as a toolkit is of paramount importance. D&D has always been (among other things) a toolkit. I’m not revealing stat blocks or anything, though—sign up for the playtest and see for yourself.

OK, Playtest Packet, What Ya Got?
For starters, ya don't got dragons equivalent to the high-level Pathfinder one we talked about in Part 1. The D&D Next dragons are straight-up claw/claw/bite machines, with the requisite breath weapon and frightful presence. No spell-likes, let alone full-on spellcasting. Nothing like the 3e dustcloud they’d make by hovering. (Remember, they ain’t done yet, and that might be the reason.)

Let’s look at something more obviously a boss monster. How about the lich? It’s a natural boss-monster. You always find the lich in the last room of the dungeon, right? It’s not like you’ll find “Room 22: 1d4+1 liches.”

The D&D Next lich is mechanically simple…kinda. All the complexity is sitting within the spells it casts. It’s got the usual set of undead immunities and a paralyzing touch. For spells, it’s got straight-up damage (fireball, lightning bolt), some area denial (cloudkill, wall of fire), and some sneaky stuff (invisibility, mirror image)…all 1/day.

That’s it…kinda. There are also a bunch of customization options that amp up the lich’s lethality: a damaging aura, frightening gaze, draining touch, and a bunch of “cast as higher level” stuff. No word (yet) on how these change the lich’s level.

Three-Staging the Lich
The lich wants to cast a spell every round—that's the fun stuff, right?—but it has nothing beyond its undead immunities to make sure it gets those spells off. Vulnerable to conditions? At least somewhat.

But the real thing is that spell list. Those are all 1/day spells, so in round 1, the lich does its most interesting thing. In round 2, the second-most interesting thing. By round 4 or 5, the lich is scraping the bottom of the phylactery. (And none of those customization options offer more spells, just a higher caster level.)

The flip side is that there’ll be a strong sense of progress. When the 5e lich starts using clearly weaker spells, the players will feel like they’re getting somewhere. That’s good! Let’s build on that.

To make this lich into something that AngryDM would tolerate, let’s split up the spell list and differentiate the lich's behavior a bit.

Stage One: The big-boom stuff goes in the first stage. That’s when our lich is shooting lightning bolts from its bony hands, cackling maniacally, and using Noonan’s nerve-jangle (not an actual spell) to force-move players into that cloudkill. The special-effects guys work overtime in stage one.

Eventually, the players deal enough damage to force a stage change. The D&DN lich disappears (that invisibility spell!), and its disembodied voice taunts the players.

Stage Two: This stage is all about the lich being clever and sneaky. It’s got second-shelf, single-target spells in this stage, but it’s using mirror image, invisibility, and maybe even disguise self to impersonate a party member. The fundamental challenge to the players is to deal with all the obfuscation.

I’m enough of a ham to have stage two end with some play-acting about the lich’s magic failing. Maybe its wand breaks in two, or it tries to cast a spell…and it fizzles. Don’t dedicate an action to it—just describe it and do your stage-change.

Stage Three: Now our lich acts desperate. We design the whole stage to get this feeling across. This is when it uses most of its undead tricks like the paralyzing/draining touch and maybe a necro spell or two, but that’s it. This is a lich who’s out of gas, and the players get the emotional reward of feeling that  desperation before the lich finally succumbs and the “great hunt for the phylactery” begins.

To be honest, my own D&D Next proficiency hasn’t reached the point where I can comfortably eyeball how many spells you should give a three-stage lich. And the game ain’t done yet. Maybe four, of which you’ll likely use three?

Right now, D&D Next monsters are really simple. For an exercise like this, that’s good! It gives us plenty of room to get our toolboxes out and get to work.

Next Up: A DM, an adventure designer, and a monster designer walk into a bar. Among the three of them, who’s best equipped to build a three-stage monster?


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Dungeon with Better Signage

Part 2 of “Better Boss Battles” is coming tomorrow. I’ve been sidetracked by a fantasy city I’m working on.

Moreso than most fantasy cities (Sharn, Waterdeep, Sigil, Kaer Maga), this city is overtly hostile and dangerous. It doesn’t have a name yet—which is annoying.

But it does have a mission statement:

When I’m typing at my desk, I festoon my peripheral vision with notecards like this. I have a probably bogus theory that doing so keeps the key principles in the back of my mind.

Other inspirations for this city:

• The part of D3: Vault of the Drow that described the eight noble houses, where they stood in the hierarchy, and who their allies and rivals were.

• The planet Aurore, from GDW’s Traveller: 2300, which had immense tides—“immense” as in “anything on the beach when the tide comes in gets obliterated.”

• Another tide thing…part of Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds that involves an incoming tide that rushes into a sea cave, pressing the explorers against the stalactites on the roof.

• Real-world revolutions of recent vintage…Arab Spring, all the 1989 revolutions, etc.

But all that other stuff only works if it feeds the main principle: “It’s a dungeon with better signage.” I’m looking forward to players turning to each other and saying, “I’m running on fumes. We better head out of town.” What a great reversal that will be…


Monday, April 1, 2013

Better Boss Battles, Part 1 (Pathfinder)

First, if you haven’t seen TheAngryDM’s four-part series on how to redesign 4e solo monsters to make for better climax fights, read these first. They’re terrific.

Note that part 3 is several pages long, but it’s the best part. AngryDM takes you through the design process, step by step.

The intriguing thing is that the redesign is based on the very 4e-specific critiques laid out in the first part of the series. But AngryDM’s solution isn’t just a mechanical fix. It’s a rethinking of the dramatic pacing of a boss fight.

And thus it makes me wonder…could you apply these design principles to 3.5/Pathfinder? To 5e?

First, A Caveat
AngryDM’s designed a solution to a problem at his 4e table. But Pathfinder tables and D&D Next (eyeroll) tables don’t necessarily have the same issues. You’re always on thin ice when you apply a prior solution to a new problem.

(This is true of game design and of life in general. “Short bursts of all-out speed improved my running, so short bursts of all-out speed should improve breakfast as well. And my morning commute.”)

I wouldn’t even try this, but for the fact that AngryDM’s boss fights are grounded in principles of dramatic pacing and only touch on the game mechanics when they need to. In other words, they might represent good advice in general…not just when you happen to be playing 4e.

So without further ado, here’s how you could adapt AngryDM’s boss fights for Pathfinder and D&D Next. To keep things simple, let’s talk about dragons.

3.5/Pathfinder Dragon Boss Fights
Good news! Most of AngryDM’s critique about 4e solos (not enough actions, the fun is front-loaded, vulnerable to conditions, no sense of progress) applies to Pathfinder/3e monsters, too. (I’m going to use Pathfinder for this, because I’ve got the book handy.)

Some critiques apply a little less. Pathfinder dragons get more melee attacks than their 4e counterparts, to be sure. Even though they don’t have action points, the Pathfinder dragons take more fundamental “actions” over the course of a fight than 4e dragons do.

Some critiques apply even more. Pathfinder dragons have their actions even more clumped-up (no immediate reactions beyond attacks of opportunity). With guaranteed-to-last durations on PC spells, the Pathfinder dragon is much more vulnerable to conditions than the 4e dragon. This is mitigated a bit by the Pathfinder dragon’s greater defenses: SR, maybe spell turning or greater dispel magic among the ancient dragons. I’ve seen a lot more Pathfinder dragons than 4e dragons fall to “one key spell,” though.  

Enough already! Let’s take Pathfinder’s ancient red dragon and see what it would take to boss-monster her up.

Timing the stages: No problems here—in fact it’s even easier than 4e because you don’t have “until end of encounter” powers gumming up the works. When the boss does its stage-changing “disengagement,” just give the players a one-round breather where they can reposition, cast healing spells, change their buffs, etc. (They’ll probably appreciate the respite.) One round ticks away on their short-term spells, of course, but that’s life in the big city.

Rerolling Initiative: Works just fine. As a practical matter, it’ll be boss, players, boss, players…whether you reroll or not, but I like the psychological impact of rerolling; it kinda freshens things up.

Durations: This is the tricky part. My advice here is to end all hostile effects with a duration on both players and the boss at each stage-change. In other words, you can keep your buffs running, but the debuffs all go away. This enables the stage-two and stage-three bosses to start fresh and not already poisoned/slowed/ability drained/etc. And the stage-two and stage-three bosses don’t need the stage-one debuffs to linger on the players…because they’ve got newer, scarier whammies to hit ‘em with.

Extra Actions: This is the place where Pathfinder boss monsters can use some help—whether they’re built for three stages or not. The good news is that there are lots of ways to give them extra actions. You can do 4e-style “action points that grant standard actions”—my 3e campaign did this for years. You can build immediate reactions, better-than-usual attacks of opportunity, and interrupts into the monsters. Anything you can do to get the boss attacking when it’s not the boss’s turn does good things for battle pacing.

Action Denial: This is less prevalent in the Pathfinder ruleset, but it’s still there. I think the ability to get rid of debuffs twice in the fight is enough help for the boss, but I’m honestly not sure. Say you’re dealing with PCs armed with stun effects. “Cut stun duration in half” is klunky, “immune to stun” is overkill…maybe something like “a boss can invoke a disengagement and stage-change early if it wishes” would work. That rule might have a side benefit: it gives the DM the ability to skip a laborious exercise in damage-dealing a stunned foe and get on with the fun part—the next stage. And the PC that stunned the dragon still feels good because that stun was the equivalent of up to a third of the dragon’s hit points.

What About Spells and Spell-Likes?
I recommend taking only the good ones and splitting them up among the three stages. Put some in the stage-one stat block, some in stage two, and some in stage three. You’re taking away some of the boss’s versatility, but you’re making life much easier on yourself as the DM and you’re focusing the boss’s tactics nicely. If unholy blight appears only in stage two, it'll stick out in the stat block and be more prominent in your tactics.

Don’t be shy about leaving some spell-likes out. That 3/day pyrotechnics isn’t worth the space in the stat block; you can always delve into a book in the unlikely event it comes up. Likewise, don’t be shy about mixing it up. Use spells and spell-likes that are fun at your table. Don’t sweat about whether the Pathfinder Bestiary agrees with you.

It’s tempting to put all the high-powered spells and spell-likes in the third stage, because we all have a natural instinct to build to a climax. But don’t do this every time! As in AngryDM’s examples, it’s fun if the third-stage stat block represents the boss when it’s battered and running on fumes. That stretches out the sensation of victory for the player, while maintaining some tension until the battle truly ends.

Next up: Same thing, but for D&D Next. And a discussion of who's best-equipped to build a boss monster: the DM, the adventure designer, or the monster designer?