JP On Gaming

Monday, November 30, 2009

NaNoWriMo: After the Ordeal

I’m sure most of you know by now, that I finally completed my self-appointed task of winning NaNoWriMo, writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. It was a challenge, and a fun one. Creating characters and trying to make it all into a cohesive story. To be really honest, my novel’s story is not very concise. It is not tightly wrapped together. It needs a lot of editing (not just for grammar & syntax, but for continuity). However, I now have, in my personal files a more-less completed novel. I’m quite proud of that myself.

But, other than eating up all of my time, what did I learn from the experience and how can I use that experience in adventure writing (which is why most of you read this blog).

As I started to write, I used some of the "tricks" I developed for adventure writing. But definitely the most important method was the "four questions" that can be found in this article. Once I had my basic characters (good guys and bad guys) defined, I began to write stories in a random way (at least for the first four). The stories I would write from a few different angles, based on the questions.

With the characters in mind, I would create a story header with some comments (anyone I ever edited knows my fondness for word comments) about what the story should be about. For example, "Sir Azrel was part of a battle where he crushed some rebels" and I would expand upon that. This method is similar to biblical apocryphal writings, where a new text is written to explain something that does not make clear sense. For example, if Adam & Eve had only two sons, who did they marry and have children with? (No, do not ask, I know not the answer).

Because of the greater freedom in using the environment, freedom to decide a character’s reactions to the world, his motivations, his thought pattern, and even apply external pressures that rarely work in RPGs. When writing an adventure, those are things that the author must help the DM point the PCs towards, but cannot force upon them (a least in a good adventure). Those intangibles can only result of good teamwork between the author and DM, with the PCs as willing actors.

In the end, I must draw the conclusion that writing a novel has NOT made me a better adventure writer. The biggest thing I draw from this is that a novel and an adventure are both hard to complete and tighten into a nice package, but for different reason. In a novel, the author also serves as the DM and the player, with the ultimate goal of pleasing the reader. In an adventure, he is but one part of the whole, with the ultimate goal of pleasing both DM and player (who take the role of readers).

It’s a different mindset, and both are enjoyable to me, in different ways (like eating steak vs. chicken: both are great, depending on when & how). I encourage everyone to try writing a novel once. It’s very entertaining!


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

NaNoWriMo: I'm gonna make it!

I'm gonna make it! As of right now, my NaNoWriMo project, "The Peddler" should allow me to complete the challenge of 50k words in under 30 days! I am only short 550 words and I have a ideas for way more than the 50k required.

That's why I haven't been posting as much to you all dear readers. But Do not despair... I am involved in a number of other project before the end of 2009! More on that later.

Monday, November 23, 2009

4e Fixing Skill Challenges: A Response

Linda, my good friend posted the following reply on facebook.

I'm somewhat misquoted here, but you got the gist of it, I think. My main point was that, in a convention setting, most DMs and players will cut the skill challenge short so they can finish the module. The way most of the modules are written, you have to really have a synchronized team of players who know each others’ player strengths, player weaknesses, preferred combat tactics as well as character strengths and character weaknesses. That just doesn't happen in a convention setting and 4 hours is somewhat unrealistic for a group of relative strangers stumbling through a scenario.

In running LFR modules with no time constraint, I find that most of them are pretty satisfactory in a 4.5 - 5.5 hour setting. Plenty of time for effective skill challenges, role playing and combat.

Linda is quite right. People who don’t know each other tend to focus on number-crunching and showing off their powers/items instead of playing their character and make something fun out of them. They just focus on Finish. Finish. Finish. As though there nothing else of importance. That is part of the bad culture I mentioned. LFR’s culture minimizes the importance of story in favor of fights. Favoring dice rolls over interaction, clever thinking and creative problem-solving.

However, I have seen many DMs who took 5 and 6 hours to run adventures act the same way, cutting all but the fights and drag those on forever. That is not unique to LFR, but is something I have found in a number of RPGA games. Even LG often had that problem. The confines of a 4 hour time slot at a con are not a problem. The problem is that many feel that if they are not fighting, they are not doing anything and that they "don’t need to get involved in those boring parts." I, for one, usually like those "boring" parts.

The most important thing to do, as a player is: knowing what your character is good at and what he is not good at, and PLAY THAT! If you are the one who keeps talking put your points where your mouth is. Literally. If your play style is very quiet, don’t create a character that is fully decked out to interact. Do not limit your interaction with NPCs to “I have +12 Diplomacy. Tell me everything.” You are playing a *character*, not just a miniature on a game board, not just a series of stats on a sheet. Get into your role and have fun with it. When you do all the talking, you should be the one to make the rolls, not the guy next to you just because he has a bigger bonus.

In a home game setting, a DM usually tailors his adventure and encounters to his party. When a table plays together week-in, week-out, players quickly learn who is what and the strength of their fellow players. So a table that is big into socializing with the NPCs and one that is focused mostly on combats usually face different types of challenges.

Some of the recent LFR adventures (to cite them, DALE1-7 and DRAG1-7) all recommend the DM drop the skill challenges in favor of combat. What have the skill challenge been reduced to? A series of boring and useless dice rolls whose only goal is to fill an XP budget. If the powers that be have decided they are an XP-sink (aka "free XP"), then the questions to ask one are. Should we even bother to write them? Is it really worth wasting time writing non-combat stuff? Would it be better to simply have one more big fight or two smaller ones?

The culture is bad, what else can I say?


Monday, November 16, 2009

Fixing 4e Skill Challenges: Part 4

The LFR culture is bad

I won’t go into too many details... It’s just, bad. I’ll focus on two points (for now).


Kill the replay rule. Just kill it. Players usually try to be clever the first time, and rarely the second time, but by the third time, they merely roll dice and wait for their loot. Yes number of tables played has gone up, but the quality of play at those tables is somewhere at the bottom of the Abyss. But then again, *I* must be wrong, asking for a better level of gaming.

Want to see why I’m so much against replay? Run two tables of the same LFR adventure. One table is composed of players new to LFR and the other has half re-players. One table will try to be creative with the challenge. The other will roll dice.

Because of the padded stats, I doubt this will ever go away. However, I have taken a decision and I no longer run any adventure to re-players (I don’t DM anymore, except My Realms adventures); I do not burn then play and do not replay myself. Therefore, every adventure I play is fresh and exciting. I can only encourage others to do the same. Raise the level of the game.

"Get to the fights"While thinking about this post, I spoke to my friend Linda about this and she pointed out that many skill challenges are rushed by DMs and players alike just to be save more time for the fights. News flash people! Even if the leadership insist that D&D is only about the fights that is not true! If the game is just a series of fights, then I would recommend people stop wasting their time on some small skirmishes and graduate to real tactics and play war games. That way your turn will be longer and you will be able to move a number of creatures/ units.

The non-combat parts are where the story resides. It is why you would jeopardize your life for 5gp. I would assume that most NPCs value their lives more than you do yours. If you do not care about what is happening, that’s fine. But remember there are some people around the table who might be interested in those parts and their play experience is no less important that yours.

This mentality of dropping everything but the battles as "boring fluff" or "drop the role-play parts" really gets to me as it removes any chance of role-play. Many player who had experience in previous campaigns that try to get into LFR often comment how "simple" the adventures are because one of two players do not pay attention.

Do your thing and do not denigrate other peoples’ interest in the game. If you are sitting down just for the fight, wait for your turn to shine. This is D&D, you’ll get your fight soon enough.

Group Challenge vs. Individual Challenge vs. Mixed Challenge

The DMG talks about Group checks and individual checks but does not go into enough details. I offer the following break down and method of running.

A Group Challenge is when the entire party is involved in an activity at the same time. There is no time to assist each other. Each PC must make his check alone. Success and failure would be measured by the majority of PCs. Individual successes or failure would affect each PC independently.

For example a pursuit, if the PCs succeed, they catch their target. If they fail the quarry gets away. A PC failing the skill check may lose a healing surge. A PC who decides not to take part is deemed removed from the challenge and cannot take part any further.

An Individual Challenge is more akin to "usual" challenge. Here one PC is the primary roller and other possibly PCs assisting that PC. Success and failure is resolved upon that "single" dice roll. Penalties are applied either to all those involved or to every PC.

An example is an information gathering session where the PCs are looking for someone. They make the check and success or failure is assessed immediately.

A Mixed Challenge is, as its name implies, a halfway solution. Here the PCs need do two or more things simultaneously to be successful. Success requires both actions to be successful. I will admit that mixed challenges

Complex traps make good examples. The PCs are stuck in a deep pit. Every round, a random section of the wall slams the other side. To escape, the PCs must reach the lever just outside the trap. While some PCs climb out, the rest must try to avoid the walls. Success is measured as a whole. If the climber fails OR if the PCs at the bottom are getting beat up by the wall, the party is not in any better shape.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Fixing 4e Skill Challenges: Part 3


In "real" or "traditional" D&D, beyond a certain level, everything could be done using magic and skills become meaningless. Having Arcana in every skill challenge is repetitive. Find something else.

Multi-phase challenge I like multi-phase challenge. It is when the party start a skill challenge doing one thing, but after a certain number of successes, the situation changes and new avenues open up for the PCs. So the PCs start by attempting to enter a close city (phase 1, Athletics, Stealth). But as soon as they get in, they are pursued by the guards (phase 2, Endurance, Stealth, Streetwise).

Evolving challenge The evolving challenge has similarities to the Multi-phase but is a challenge where the PCs, by getting certain successes get a chance to gather more of them through some avenue that was not open before. The PCs are looking for a man in a town. A PC succeeds at a History check and recalls that there used to be a powerful cult in the area. The PCs could try to investigate that avenue (with a series of unique skills), or they can continue searching using the means they had before.

In the end, the PCs have to accumulate the same number of successes, but where they gather those successes will vary from party to party. The end result is the same, but through different paths.

Multi-Scene Challenge this type of challenge presents the PCs with a series of scenes they must complete. It is different from the multi-phase and the evolving challenge. Because here, the location, instead of the situation changes. One good example of this was in Chris Tulach’s preview adventure Escape from Sembia where the players were confronted to a series of locations in town forced to react (at least, that’s how I ran it). Their goal is still the same but they had to run through a market, a section of wall or a sewer, depending on what they did before.

Free-form challenge this is a type of challenge I thought about when faced with investigative challenges that were just tedious and boring, with an endless series of boxed text. What I thought about was to give the DMs a list of skills deemed appropriate for the challenge, a series of X clues (where X was the total number of successes) and 3 false leads, to be given accordingly to the checks. From there, the ball is in the hands of the DM to make the challenge dynamic and fun.

Integrated challenge this type of challenge has the skill challenge as the main component of the encounter and integrates a fight within it. Say a complexity 4 challenge (requiring 10 successes) has a combat with a single monster integrated into it. There are a number of challenges where there is a skill challenge within a combat, and those are often ignored until after the fight, ruining the integration.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fixing 4e Skill Challenges: Part 2

Here are some thoughts I’d like to share with prospective authors about skill challenge.

Real consequences

If you’ve played LFR, you know there are no consequences to failure. At most a healing surge or having the bad guys not be surprised (but set up and as ready to go as they would be otherwise). Whether you make it or fail, the adventure does not change significantly.

In a home game, a challenge where the PCs are involved in a chase, success and failure dictate the flow of the game. The bad guy gets away, forcing the PCs to undertake a new quest to find them. In LFR, the PCs can take ten days to walk across a village and the bad guy is still hiding in the warehouse after all that time... If all you do is waste some time and get some free xp... great.

Work together: Skills that don’t help directly

The DCs are stupidly low for skill checks. The original targets in the DM were MORE than adequate. DC15 at first level is a decent, if easy, challenge for at least mildly competent adventurers working together. But the "helping each other" quickly turns into a long series of dice rolls.

One way is to provide a series of skills that do not contribute to the overall skill challenge, but that contribute to help the overall result. For example, the PCs are looking for the thieves’ guild. A player could use his thievery skill to see where he might buy thieves tools (and where there’s smoke...). Successful use of thievery would not give a success, but could give the party a bonus on subsequent primary skills. Because they do not give as many benefits, failing on such skills should not be as penalizing.

After X successes on secondary skills, the PCs may gather an automatic success, depending on what they seek to accomplish.

Reward Creativity

This one I cannot emphasize enough. Although creativity cannot always explain everything (no, not every town has extensive sewers to justify your Dungeoneering or History). A good roll should always help the party in some way (by granting a bonus or closing off some bad avenue of investigation or McGuffin), but should not always grant the PCs a success in the challenge. Use your judgment.

Magic in a Skill Challenge

I remember when they tried to do things like that in 3.5, poor Lenny got pelted with "what a stupid encounter" after a crowd hit by a calm emotions, an Otiluke’s resilient sphere and a wall of force continued to row. It just went against the rules of the game.

Such things in 4e do not exist anymore as most effects go away after a round or two and the rest can be maintained for up to five minutes. Sometimes, the PCs will have a ritual, a power or an item that will further the challenge. I personally limit successes gathered by non-skill usage to one per skill challenge. Why? Because it is a *SKILL* Challenge, not a "look how much crap I’ve stored so far" challenge! So it will work, but the party will have to rely on more than a single source of information to complete the challenge.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

4e Fixing Skill Challenges: Part 1

There are a number of things I could see to fix skill challenges in LFR. I’m sure home-game DMs of 4e campaign do those things, and make them a valuable addition to their adventures, instead of the Xp sink they currently are. LG had what many people referred to as the OTA (Obligatory Thug Encounter) well LFR has the Filler Skill Challenge. It often has a reason to be there, but a quick DM text would usually achieve the same result.

When I first read about skill challenges, I saw them as a storytelling tool. Where the players could assist in telling how the story went. Simply by telling PCs "you need to get out of town, how do you do it?" Or "You must now find the jewel thief in the capital!" Most would begin to form plans and methods on how to accomplish this. In the days before skill challenges, it was common place.

I thought the two would be integrated together to form a coherent -and unique- story. I was *VERY* excited about them. But like most things with 4e/LFR reality came crashing down. It was not the case. Hard-cased, boxed text incrusted challenge whose result for success had about as much impact as rolling a ‘1’ on an attack.

This series of post will feature a number of ideas I have to make challenges more interesting and a better storytelling tool without breaking any of the rules!

In short, skill challenges have a lot of potential, and can be implemented in a number of ways. They should not be seen as an xp-dump or a "boring part", but as a great tool for storytelling. By varying the way you implement your challenge it can be all it promised to be, even in the strict confines of LFR.


Monday, November 9, 2009

4e Bad Skill Challenges

One of the things that really grind my gears when I play LFR is skill challenges. When 4e first came out, I thought they were the best thing in the game. They got me really excited because they provided an interesting way to present an encounter that focused on a character’s ability other than simple spells. I saw a lot of potential to write stories with that.

However, my illusions quickly came crashing down when I began actually playing in the campaign... Skill challenges, instead of being used as story elements, became an endless series of meaningless dice rolls.

The Skill-Shopping Challenge

       DM: You must do X, here are the skills you can think of right off the bat.

       PC: Okay, I’m +6 who is better?

To me this form of challenge is the most boring of them all and the type that is encountered most often. It turns a game that is already all about meta-gaming (which I don’t like) into a series of number crunching and meaningless dice rolls. This skill challenge is about as interesting as a page full of boxed text.

The problem here is a mix of DMs just not caring about the story and players who just want to maximize and show off their abilities without care for the story is usually the reason for this.

When you get to such a challenge, look at the players around the table. See how many are interested in what is happening and how many are already shopping for next skill to use once they know success/failure.

The No-Creativity Challenge

       PC: I try to use my Bluff to trick the city guard into thinking I’m with the caravan that just left. < <Succeeds>>

       DM: With your Bluff, you disguise yourself and manage to pass yourself as one of the guard.

This challenge is frustrating for a player because you try to come up with a creative use of your skill and your creativity is completely killed by a result that had nothing to do with what you were trying to do. Usually after one or two attempts at creativity, the challenge turns into a Skill-Shopping challenge.

This problem is usually on the DM’s shoulder. Although WotC wanted to have "DMs Empowerment" which they did not tell anyone what it meant or gave a few examples of what they meant until they told people what they could not do with that. That term is now rarely used anything and most DMs simply run-as-written and don’t even care.

The Endless Boxed Text

       PC: < <Succeeds>>

       DM: < <Begins reading boxed text about what the PCs found or learned>>

There is something about boxed text outside of introduction and conclusion that irk me, there is no surprise there. However, in a skill challenge, most of those text assume or dictate a PC’s action "you go here, do this, then that." And that is something I strongly dislike. While in the intro "you all head to the bar" and the conclusion "you go to claim your rewards", during the adventure it is MY time as a player to do what I want.

This problem rest half on the DM and half on the author.

The One Character Challenge

       DM: You can use Arcana, Insight or Religion

       PC: I’m sitting this one out! Call me when you guys are done!

Some skills are a LOT easier than others to come up with a reason to use: Arcana, Diplomacy and Religion are I believe, the most common skills found in skill challenges (Arcana is almost always there). This creates obvious focus on specific characters and leaves others in the background. Rogues are no longer any better than anyone at being skill monkeys. They are just like everyone else.

The problem here is on the author. Thinking of skill challenges that require the use of many skills is hard.

The Skill Challenge in an encounter

First off, let me tell you that not ALL of them are bad. Some make perfect sense and can really help the party, the adventure or the story. Those I am talking about here are those where a PC or three could attempt to do something while the rest of the party is fighting a monster. And as is the case in 99% of those encounters, killing the monster negates the need for the skill challenge. With rogues being the biggest damage dealers in the game, sending him/her to stop a trap is just a waste of time.

This type of thing I became aware some time ago when I wrote "The Sands of Time" for WotC back in June of ‘08. I had an encounter where the PCs were getting beat up to all hell by a trap AND attacked by monsters. The trap was just tearing the PCs to pieces and the monsters did keep them busy. I had a disable skill challenge which I thought was pretty nifty. When I ran the encounter, the PCs did argue that it was stupid for their rogue to spend her entire encounter trying to disable the trap. While perfectly valid, my encounter was flawed simply because it did not make any sense to them. I did argue (as I am wont to do), but they were right.

Another example, during this past weekend’s SPEC1-4 Ice Queen’s Crossing by Shawn Merwin, there was 1 example of such a bad challenge. The fight had a bunch of mooks moving forward and one blaster staying back and firing bolts of something at us (he had decent damage). Behind him there was a statue that fired blasts of energy (doing minor damage and possibly dazing us). Now we could’ve 1- killed the guy or 2- entered a skill challenge against the statue. Let’s sit back and examine this. We can beat up a guy with all of our abilities or split our resources and try to disarm a statue. On a failed check vs. statue something bad happens. On a failed attack, nothing happens. If I take out the guy, the statue is neutralized. Let’s see... touching the statue sound pretty stupid to me. It’s good to have the possibility in there but really there is no need to do so. Realistically, how many parties did he expect would spend time deactivating the statue while some guy attacks them?

This one is a more insidious and harder to figure out. While the author appears to be the one at fault, he is trying to provide option to the PCs in the encounter. Is the DM at fault? Not really, because he presents the encounter as written and if the PCs/NPCs do not play with the environment, then he should not force the environment on the PCs. Then the players must be at fault! Again, the players react to what is most threatening and when there are opponents moving on the field, they naturally focus on them.

There you have it... the most insidious of all skill challenge: the one that sucks and that is no one’s fault! Or maybe is that a little of everyone’s fault?


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

You’re not writing a novel... Wait, I am!

This year, I am taking part in the National Novel Writing Month (or Nanowrimo). The short of it is to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. For full details, visit My username, without any surprises is JPChapleau.

I heard about the idea through Roger French on Facebook and it intrigued me. Writing all those adventure writing articles here for you and no having any "real" writing experience was something I thought would be interesting. After all, I often refer to "you are not writing a novel" so I thought of trying my hand at it.

The experience is very strange for one who has spent so much time writing adventures and trying to cover as many possibilities as I could think of. Well, now my protagonists are fully under my control. I am writing about a knight, Sir Azrel who becomes involved in a number of plots and stories. Sir Azrel, as many of you know was the name of my LG Demon-Hunter character. Well here, he is a holy warrior.

Since I did not have any ideas that could take the character from beginning to end, I chose a format I like a lot: short stories. If you ever read Conan, then the format is similar. The stories happen in random places and random times, with a few common threads. This short story format allows for a lot of creativity without necessarily explaining how the characters got there.

There are a few things I find strange:

  • It is like writing pages upon pages of boxed text!
  • It is like describing a scene and sending PCs (except I play all the characters) through it, writing the results as the scene unfolds.
  • No need for stat blocks! HURRAH!
  • Background is very simple… It’s almost like writing for LFR!

    I’ll keep you updated on how I am doing as I inch towards the finish line. I am already over 16,000.


  • Tuesday, November 3, 2009

    LFR: State of the Moonshaes…

    Well it’s been a while since I posted something directly relevant to the Moonshae Isles.

    I have sent in the first draft of MOON2-1 Darkness falls over Moray to Shawn for further editing and review. I do like the end-result a lot because the adventure does force the PCs to think a little more than usual in LFR. It also features a major decision point and ties to other adventures in LFR. No, I won’t say which ones.

    I have been working together with Otavio from Baldur’s Gate on BALD2-1 Turning Point. Why? Because it is the finale of the “Fey Gates of the Sea of Sword” Major quest that is the first complete multi-regional quest in LFR (yeah for us & BG!). The other parts of the quest are BALD1-5 Lost Refuge and MOON1-5 Lost Love, both 7-10 and can start or continue the quest. It is an interesting finale with a nice epic feel to it. I strongly encourage you, if you can to play those 3 adventures in a short amount of time to do so. Yes, yes, I know the BALD1-5 is late, but that’s out of my control… it should be out any day.

    Today I just sent in MOON2-2 Dark Lords of Oman, which is a 14-17 adventure (what we call P2). I can’t say much about it except that yes, there will be giants. This is also the first adventure where the “Fey Path” is offered for all-fey parties.

    Year 2 in the Moonshaes has a over-arching plotline that encompasses MOON2-2, MOON2-3 and MOON2-4. MOON2-1 and MOON2-5 are assumed to be somewhat stand-alone.


    Monday, November 2, 2009

    FalCon 2009: a review...

    Here is a quick post-mortem about Falcon, the US Air Force Academy’s games convention from the view of a DM. I ran two slots of my Call of Cthulhu "In Darkness, It Waits" adventure and played one game, Mario’s Warhammer FRP game "Living the Nightmare". Because it was Halloween, I could only attend those three slots.

    My expectations were not particularly high. The con having been on a 4 year iatus I did not know what the turnout was going to be. Low numbers on the warhorn site and Compleate running a concurrent event pointed to a low attendance. The fact that it was on Halloween did not help either. So I expected low numbers, with cadets forming the majority of players.

    The venue: Arnold Hall has a lot of good things going for it. First, it has large rooms, easy-to-reach bathroom facilities and a food court next to where we were. Its main problem was that it is hard to find for those of us not from the Academy. My wife got lost, Mario got lost, and Mike got lost… That one could’ve been corrected by having better signs or making sure the people at the gate knew where it was. This also meant that people trickled in.

    The attendance: It was low, but a number of games went off nonetheless. Players and GMs seemed to have a good time with the games. A number of tables merged in the usual chaotic ballet that is a games convention. I think most of it was painless and everyone had a good time. My hope is that if Falcon happens again next year that the attendance will go up. I did expect to see more cadets than were present, but still it was fun to have cadets and “outsiders” sit together and play.

    Costumes: There were a few of us, but really… there should’ve been more!

    Player-Killer Award: Okay, now normally I do not really attach too much importance to this type of thing, but I must report that Johnnie takes the cake… Not content with his first PC to die during my CoC World War II game (by getting shot at by Germans), but then he goes and start playing with a grenade and blows himself up. Then he later gets killed by some Mythos things while Mike’s sanity keeps going down from seeing Johnnie die over and over… Well done Johnnie, you killed more people in a CoC game than I did!

    Overall, the con was fun. I enjoyed myself a lot with those at my tables (I did not have much time in-between game anyway). Good times. Good times. I should be back next year.