Tag Archives: gaming

The Terror of Terraria

Today we learned (once again) the perils of permitting a 4-year-old to play the iPad.

All three of our boys love Terraria. The teen works with his friends to take down bosses and sometimes permits middle son to help. Middle son proudly informs us all what accomplishments he’s made and sometimes even succeeds in making the teen jealous. And our wee guy runs around telling us that he wants whatever cool things we happen to have (and squealing with infectious delight at whatever he finds).

And all three express their creativity in unique ways, whether it’s a large structure full of traps and lava to grind up monsters into gold coins, a strange combination of clothes and items to give their character a funny appearance, or a silly house built into the sky.

But the happiness could not last…

What could this mean? Clicking "Yes" always seems to work well...
What could this mean? Clicking “Yes” always seems to work well…

I stepped out of the bedroom to discover my middle son sitting on the couch heartbroken and my little guy hiding in his big sister’s bedroom awaiting the trouble he knew he was in.

Alas, no amount of defensive armor or powerful magic gear will protect against the mighty delete button. Somehow, he purged my middle son’s primary character. Dozens of hours of advancement and effort, permanently gone at the touch of a finger on the iPad’s surface.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the little one did the right thing once he realized he’d done wrong. He went to his older brother, apologized, and confessed what happened–without anyone telling him to do so.

We discussed the consequences of what happened. After the initial emotion, they calmed down and made up. And then we formed a plan to help make sure no similar accidents happen in the future. I spent some time playing to help my son find a few of the items he lost, and his new character is caught up pretty well.

My wife commented that life sure is different for our four year old compared to what she experienced at that age. There wasn’t any “Johnny deleted my saved game” or “Sarah’s saying mean things over Xbox Live.”

But age-old principles still apply. When we do something wrong, we own up to it and make it right.

This reminded me of a phenomenal post on Penny Arcade, a (frequently vulgar and crass and rude) web comic I follow, written and drawn by video game aficionados. The artist spent an evening doing a presentation and Q&A for his local Parent Teachers’ Association. It’s a long but well-written discussion about rules for game time and social interaction.

If you’re a parent whose knowledge of your kids’ hobbies is “they play the Minecrafts and Call of Duty on that Game Box One thing,” then this is definitely for you. But if you’re like me and my wife, and have struggled with questions like “how much game time is too much” and “what can I let the kids do online” then that link gives some great insight.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences too. What has changed the most in your opinion since you were a child? What would you add to Mike’s thoughts in the Penny Arcade link?

D&D 5E: Character Creation

When the first version of D&D Next came out for playtesting, I wrote a post about my experience creating a character in the new system. That post gets more weekly views than any other in my blog. But I feel bad because it’s based on outdated materials.

So I am happy to write a proper post about the Player’s Handbook and creating a character in 5th Edition.

I finally got my Players’ Handbook (PHB) in the mail, and I dug into the book to see exactly what my dollars purchased.

It's here!
It’s here!

There’s plenty that looks familiar… but some changes I love. Bottom line up front? I got it for less than cover price on Amazon, and I have no regrets about the money I spent. But I’m not sure I’d throw $50 down and be as happy.

Chapter 1 covers the basic intro of “What is D&D?” and the process of creating a character. It lays out some key points: D&D consists of exxploration, social interaction, and combat. The game boils down to the DM giving the players a scene, the players describing their intended actions, and the DM describing what happens next.

Chapter 2 covers races. There are 9 races in the PHB – the 4 primary (dwarf, elf, halfling, human) and 5 uncommon (dragonborn, gnome, half-elf, half-orc, tiefling) – each with a little bit of sub-race variant or an option to guide that permits a little variation and character differentiation. For example, you’re an Elf? Are you a high elf (bonus INT, bonus cantrip), a wood elf (bonus WIS, better stealth), or dark elf (bonus CHA, bonus darkvision, racial spell, disadvantage in direct sunlight)? Each race has similar options.

Chapter 3 introduces classes. The PHB comes with 12 classes, so already it gives more bang for the (considerable) bucks than 4E did. The classes consist of: barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, warlock, and wizard.

Each class has a few subclass options to distinguish one version of the class from another. For example, you may have the nimble thief, the brutal assassin, or the arcane trickster, all falling under the rogue class.

Yes, that’s right, magical rogues.

My favorite section is Chapter 4, Personality and Background. It’s character concept Heaven, with an explanation of four characteristics to guide a player’s understanding of their character from a sheet of numbers to a living person. This chapter introduces traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, and that’s where I’ll focus the majority of this post.

Traits describe likes or dislikes, past accomplishments, fears, mannerisms, and the influence of ability scores. (Perhaps my dextrous rogue takes pride in his nimble fingers and specifically his ability to pull off sleight-of-hand without getting caught.)

Ideals are what drives your character. It’s the principle she’ll never go back on, the rule that guides his decisions, the goal that keeps her up at night. If you don’t have an idea off the top of your head, don’t worry; the PHB provides a bunch of examples to choose from later.

Bonds are those ties which connect your character to someone, something, or somewhere else. It’s the prior allegiance or baggage your character brings–whether that turns out to be a burden, a weakness exploited by a villain, or a source of inspiration that pushes your character to heroic deeds.

Finally, flaws are your character’s blind spots or weak points. What vice does this character secretly cling to? What drives them into fits of rage that might challenge their morals?

When I reviewed the Starter Set, this was a feature I loved about the pre-made character sheets. Seeing it fleshed out in the PHB makes me a happy player / DM.

And if a player gets stuck, the PHB includes backgrounds that might further embellish or expand a concept of a character. Each background gives some story details that can help out in a pinch in-game or can be used as hooks by the DM to motivate a character to action.

My first party had a player who was a “by-the-dice” guy; he rolled an appropriate die for what class, and what race he’d play. He rolled a set of stats and took them in order. When he got “paladin” he rolled a die based on the provided list of gods. He ended up with a Dwarf paladin who worshiped Nature. How’s that for a unique concept?

If you’re a by-the-dice player, the PHB hooks you up. Chapter 4 includes tables to cover each characteristic for a chracter’s background. You can choose an appropriate ideal, bond, or flaw… or let the dice create a concept for you.

My D&D Next character Lamoncha (from the post mentioned at the beginning) was designed to be an artisan who crafted intricate mechanical trinkets based on his time spent with the gnomes near his birthplace. Here’s an example of how he’d shake out with a random-rolled Guild Artisan background:

Guild Artisan:
Business trade: wagonmaker / wheelwright (1d20 – rolled 18)
Personality trait: “I’m well known for my work, and I want to make sure everyone appreciates it. I’m always taken aback when people haven’t heard of me.” (1d8 – rolled 8)
Ideal: “Community: It is the duty of all civilized people to strengthen the bods of community and the security of civilization. (Lawful)” (1d6 – rolled 1)
Bond: “I owe my guild a great debt for forging me into the person I am today.” (1d6 – rolled 3)
Flaw: “No one must ever learn that I once stole money from guild coffers.” (1d6 – rolled 3)

That’s something you can start a character with. He’s arrogant, but he’s noble. He’s driven by a sense of duty based on a debt owed, both figuratively (out of gratitude) and literally (due to his secret theft). And that’s just rolling dice without giving any thought.

It’s really that easy to come up with a character concept if you have no previous idea walking in.

Here’s an example from start-to-finish, rolling dice for every decision:

Race: 1d10 for 9 races, rolled 9 = Tiefling (one of the few classes without subracial options)
Class: 1d12, rolled 7 = Paladin. To add to my concept, I’ll roll now for the 2nd level choice of fighting style.
Fighting Style at 2nd level: 1d4, rolled 2 = Dueling (bonus for wielding only one melee one-hand weapon).
Ability Scores: 4d6 minus lowest, rolled 15 STR, 10 DEX, 11 CON, 14 INT, 10 WIS, 12 CHA (Not a perfect set for a pally, since CHA and CON should be up there right after STR, but it’ll do. So I have a smarter-than-average paladin who’s not as tough as others.)
Gender: 1d4 split evens/odds, rolled 1 = Male
Height: using provided base 4’9“ + modifer 2d8, rolled 9 = 5‘6“
Weight: using provided base 110 lb + height modifier of 9 x(2d4), rolled 6 = 164 lbs. (Does this matter? Not really. But a character can be completely random, and might end up shorter or taller, larger or smaller than average, and that might add something.)
Alignment: 1d10 for 9 possibilities, rolled 2 = Neutral Good “folk do the best they can to help others according to their needs.” (I lucked out, since a Chaotic Neutral paladin might be quite the contradiction.)
Deity: 1d8 for 7 Neutral Good deities, rolled 7 = Mystra, goddess of magic, with domain of Knowledge (using the Forgotten Realms list provided in the Appendices)
Background: 1d12 for 11 backgrounds, rolled 10 = Soldier (skill proficiency for Athletics and Intimidation, some equipment listed)
Specialty (Soldier): 1d8, rolled 4 = Cavalry
Feature (Soldier): Military Rank (with description of how that plays out in social interaction)
Personality Trait (Soldier): 1d8, rolled 8 = “I face problems head on. A simple, direct solution is the best path to success.”
Ideal (Soldier): 1d6, rolled 1 = Greater Good. “Our lot is to lay down our lives in defense of others.”
Bond (Soldier): 1d6, rolled 4 = “I’ll never forget the crushing defeat my company suffered or the enemies who dealt it.”
Flaw (Soldier): 1d6, rolled 6 = “I’d rather eat my armor than admit when I’m wrong.”
Starting wealth (Paladin, 5d4 x 10, rolled 11) = 110 gp

So now I’ve got a Tiefling Paladin who served as a cavalry soldier and suffered a terrible defeat. He’s not a sword-and-board “tank” but a powerful and skilled striker. He’s smarter than average, and his chosen deity is focused on knowledge, so that gives him perhaps a touch of the rational and logical beyond your average religious devotee motivated by faith. He’s straight-forward and direct, willing to sacrifice, seeking to help others… but (perhaps due in part to his above-average intelligence) he won’t admit when he’s wrong. And he has a history that drives him to do good, but might also be a tie to connect him to the story of the campaign, when the last survivors of his defeated company fall under the sway of the new dragon cult encroaching on the borders of civilization…
Yeah, that works as a concept, eh?

Chapter 5 covers equipment, and that looks pretty much like previous versions. One addition I like is the “trinket” table. It’s a d100 table of odds and ends that might be part of a character’s story, since each character gets to start with one. It can also be a DM tool to provide something more in a treasure hoard than just “X gold pieces and a +1 sword.” To me, it’s ripe with possible hooks.

The Soldier background states that the character already has “an insignia of rank, a trophy taken from a fallen enemy (a dagger, broken blade, or piece of a banner), a set of bone dice or deck of cards, a set of common clothes, and a belt pouch containing 10 gp.” But everyone also gets a trinket!

Our tiefling paladin’s trinket, rolling 73, is “the shell of an egg painted with scenes of human misery in disturbing detail.”
I did not roll for the trinket prior to writing the bit above, but this fits perfectly as a token of the true nature of the dragon cult mentioned. Perhaps a former comrade brought this as evidence of what’s really going on, before she suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.

Finally, Chapter 6 is the “optional” chapter, covering multi-class rules and feats. These can be ignored at DM and group discretion, which is great for newbie players who don’t need to be overwhelmed with more options on top of everything thus far. Looking over the multi-class rules, it seems to make more sense than 4E ever did. I can easily picture my fantasy story’s main character as a cleric/warlock multi-class character. The rules make it easy to see how that might play out, covering possible rule conflicts and how different class features interact with one another. Minimum ability prerequisites are established to keep my kids’ favorite NPC, the dumb-as-dirt “HorcSorc” half-orc Sorcerer from going Wizard, and so on.

For feats, there’s enough to give you something useful, but no pages and pages of options like 4E.

There’s a decent section to cover how the game actually plays, with Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores, Chapter 8: Adventuring, and Chapter 9: Combat. These all look pretty familiar compared to 4E. I’ve noted elsewhere that advantage and disadvantage seem (to me) to be the biggest change. Instead of a million bonuses, if you have a lot of things in your favor, you roll 2d20s and take the higher as your attempt. If you have things working against you, you take the lower of 2d20. It seems elegant and simple, but I still have yet to see it in play to know how well it works.

The last part of the book covers spells, and there are plenty: 3.5 pages of 4 columns per page listing all the spells, since 8 classes use magic. So there are heaps of magic to start with. Spells fill a quarter of the book, from pg 211-289 out of 320 pages. Naturally, pally and ranger are shortest lists, and wizard goes on forever. But the point is, magic is robust in 5E.

And I don’t just mean in the spellcasting mechanics.

I’m quite pleased. The character sheets may be flat but that doesn’t mean the characters have to be. With a little creative thought or even just a few dice rolls, your character can go from zero to 3D with ease.

Thanks for reading! Have you checked out the PHB or playtested 5th Edition? What are your thoughts on it?

Is there something I didn’t answer? Ask a question in the comments, and I’ll look into it.

How to Play and Combat

I started digging into my delicious Starter Set this morning.

This has been sitting in my flight bag for a day or two. Time to get started (har har) with 5th ed!
This has been sitting in my flight bag for a day or two. Time to get started (har har) with 5th ed!

I’m reading through and noting what sticks out to me based on my 4th edition experiences. When I notice what seems like a change, someone may say, “Well in 4th edition DMG page 125 the same sort of rule is clearly written there.” If that’s the case, great, chalk it up to inattention to detail. But this is just my first-read experience and captures what catches my eye.

Chapter 1: How to Play gives you the standard explanation of “What is D&D?” It covers the basics about checks, and how abilities, skills, proficiencies, and saving throws all come into play when rolling dice to determine an outcome.

The skills seemed like a decent set. Nothing seemed missing. Some (Bluff, Diplomacy) are refined and given names and examples with wider applications (Deception, Persuasion). I like Investigation as a concept – putting together the pieces and clues, gathering intel of a sort. It seemed like that always fell under Perception in 4th ed, which is kind of dumb. Perception sees things that might be otherwise easy to miss. Investigation sees things and figures out the details that others might miss. To use examples from the book, Perception sees the orcs hiding in ambush along the road. Investigation sees the wounds dealt to the ambush victims and figures out it was probably a band of orcs.

Animal Handling always makes me chuckle. It has uses, I’m sure, but I can’t stop picturing a pink-haired Druid character named Fluttershy.

One interesting change for 5th edition is the Advantage / Disadvantage system. In either case, you roll two d20s when you make a check. If you have an advantage, you take the higher of the two. If you have a disadvantage, you take the lower. I’m curious how this will play out in a group. Maybe it does away with some of the “+5 for this, -3 for that, but I have combat advantage so +2, and this is my quarry so I have that one feat that gives me another +2…”

I have advantage. I roll two dice and take the better number. Simple. Done.

I can see some potential flaws, though. For example if you’re fighting some monsters in darkness, does it turn into a bunch of flailing around? I imagine everyone would get a lot of low rolls. Then again, if everyone shares the same disadvantage, maybe it’s prudent to eliminate that from the equation and only take other disadvantages into account. I didn’t see that stated explicitly, so I imagine that might be my first house rule to reduce rolling and wasted time.

Filed this under “We’ll see…”

Moving on.

Chapter 2: Combat contains one noteworthy difference from 4E: language involving maps and squares doesn’t appear in the rulebook. Maybe that’s an “advanced” option they’ll incorporate later (because I’m sure Wizards of the Coast wants to sell us some map packs and such), or maybe they know that describing everything in # feet gives the DM and players enough to effectively utilize maps.

But this does inherently free up groups to use things like simple description or generic drawings on whiteboards or paper to run combat without counting out squares or laying down rulers for line of sight determinations.

Could you do that in 4E? Sure, but it seemed pretty obvious that wasn’t what they were pushing for. Now tiles, maps, and minis are an available option instead of the default.

First off, the Combat chapter lists available actions you can take on your turn. Everyone can take a move and an action. I’m liking some of the updated choices: You can take a Disengage action to avoid provoking opportunity attacks when you move; you can take a Dodge action to give attackers a disadvantage against you (as well as permit Dex saving throws with advantage); you can Help another creature in completing a task, meaning you give them an advantage to do the stated thing so long as they attempt it before the start of your next turn.

Opportunity attacks count as a “reaction” – and you only get one reaction per turn. So there’s no more taking five opportunity attacks in a turn as I’ve seen sometimes argued in 4th edition.

Also, everybody gets critical hits on a roll of 20, and everyone misses on a 1. Sauce for the goose (player characters) is sauce for the gander (monsters). And crits look decidedly deadly… deadlier I suppose is the correct term.

Instead of max damage for the base attack, you roll any damage die twice and add it all together. So a rogue with Sneak Attack rolls those dice twice too.

A glance at the character sheet for the pre-made rogue tells me at level 5, they roll 3d6 for Sneak Attack. Let’s assume 1d4 for a dagger, 3d6 for a sneak attack. A successful crit sneak attack nets you 2d4 plus a whopping 6d6 damage just from dice rolls with no other modifiers? Egad.

Rogue carves the Kobold for infinity damage, exploding it like a blood sausage.

At least a fighter gets a crit on 19 or 20. But yeah… Sneak Attack crits look sick and dare I say it, broken. Another thing I look forward to seeing fleshed out when I get to play this with a group…

Next post – Chapter 3: Adventuring and Chapter 4: Spellcasting

D&D Next: Skills

“I’m going to need to have you start rolling dice on camera…”  – My online DM (who clearly has trust issues)

A few weeks ago, my friend and I started playtesting D&D Next in order to set up an online group that he could turn into a podcast.

The first session involved character creation, a couple combat challenges, and a couple skill challenges. I posted two blogs about the experiences (and one on my writing blog, concerning character backstory). Since those first posts, we played through another session, with mostly RP and a skill challenge.

First, I haven’t seen D&D Next refer to anything like skill challenges. There isn’t even a list of skills on the character sheet, so “skill challenge” is a misnomer in the first place.

Next – in my limited experience – appears to move away from non-combat encounters. But there are still ways to create them if desired, for situations where one simple roll of the die does not capture the complication or multifaceted nature of solving a crisis, or the length of time it might take to get through an ongoing series of events requiring the hero’s intervention.

The DM Guidelines draft does break down common tasks under the applicable ability, with basic descriptions and appropriate DCs to accomplish the desired task. For example, Strength has entries for Break an Object, Climb, Jump, Swim, and examples of Improvised Tasks.

The entries under Climb are “scale a cliff with plenty of handholds,” “climb a rough stone wall,” “climb a sheer surface with scant handholds,” and “climb an oiled rope.” Improvised Tasks include “push through an earthen tunnel that is too small,” “hang onto a wagon while being dragged behind it,” “tip over a large stone statue.” and “keep a boulder from rolling.”

Each ability has an Improvised Tasks section, as well as how hazards might affect failed checks and what sort of requirements the DM might choose in order to even attempt an ability check. (Strength might require firm footing, for example.)

None of this feels like a complete rewrite of 4E. The descriptions look very familiar. However, skills are absent as the middleman between how well your ability helps you succeed (or not) at a given task.

How did this play out?

In our sessions, when I normally might ask for a “Sense Motive” or “Insight” check, the DM simply said “Give me a Wisdom check.” If something involved sneaking around or crafting highly technical gear-work devices, we went to Dexterity. (My character’s background includes training under gnomes to craft intricate mechanical crap.)  The old terms and names of skills are a helpful jargon for players to express what exactly they’re trying to do, and for DMs to determine which ability to use.

It was a bit frustrating to see what happened when I didn’t have a bonus for a given check. At one point I rolled a 14, which was under the moderate DC 15 challenge. That implies that 75% of the time, the character would fail at any task related to that ability. The DM and I chatted about how skill checks are meant to be difficult, and no one is supposed to win all the time or else what’s the point? Also, I recognized that a party of one is going to bring inherent weaknesses.

Plus there was the quote at the top of the page, for when I rolled a 20 followed by a 19 at the beginning of the night, for checks with no inherent character bonuses. So it’s not impossible to “win.”

In order to succeed as a party, the group of players might want to take some time prior to character creation to figure out which character will have which strengths. Then again, that can create unique challenges and opportunities for creative solutions to problems.

But perhaps it takes away some of the skill tunnel vision players get in 4E:

“I want to use Diplomacy to negotiate the harsh terrain and survive the bitter winter in the mountains.”
“You can’t use Diplomacy that way.”
“Uh… how about History? Or can I get an Insight check on the storm?”

taken from 2guystalkingmetsbaseball.com
No? Well then Dungeoneering HAS to work…

Lore Have Mercy

Though skills are gone, characters now have Lore to cover areas of specialized knowledge. Any Intelligence check for an area in which the character possesses lore will net a +10 bonus. The types of Lore are broken into:

  • Cultural
  • Forbidden
  • Hobbyist
  • Magical
  • Military
  • Natural
  • Planar
  • Political
  • Religious
  • Trade

I won’t go into exactly what’s covered by each, for space and time considerations. The guidelines describe specific examples, like Military might cover fortifications or tactics, and Natural might involve the flora and fauna of a region or the usual weather cycles in an area. But you can imagine the +10 bonus makes it a player’s priority to figure out how to fit the square peg of their available lore into the circular hole of a given challenge.

How this played out:

When a situation called for making a decision or choosing a course of action, I often sought to use Lore to aid me in picking a right path. For example, my character found himself pressed for time and in need of supplies and assistance in order to (hopefully) construct a number of devices for a buyer. I was able to use Trade Lore while looking through merchant’s wares in the market to find what my character deemed a competent craftsman. And I used Cultural Lore to get a good idea on how auctions of large shipment of goods were conducted, so that I could avoid a time-consuming and more expensive process. My character was able to skip some layers of market bureaucracy and go straight to the source of supplies to haggle.

Still, the uses for lore appear fairly narrow. Hopefully that plus the shift away from lengthy skill challenges will keep lore from falling into the tunnel vision trap of highly trained skills. Clear communication between player(s) and DM will help.

I see some interesting qualities to the system, and I did find myself having to rely more on imagination to describe intended action instead of the crutch of “I do a (fill in the blank skill) check.”

I look forward to seeing more of it. Sadly, my character was in a bit of a pickle at the end of the last session. That will be my next post, but as a spoiler, here’s this quote from my DM:

“Oh man. Well… that will be interesting.” (sigh) “I made it clear – so very clear – that this was a lawful city.”

WoW, srsly?

So I took a moment to lie to myself errr… justify my monthly payment to Blizzard for the privilege of logging into World of Warcraft.

The launcher opened up, and to my surprise, there’s an add for Cosmetic Head Gear that you can BUY NOW!

No, you’ve got to be kidding me, I think. Curiosity wins, and I click the link.

Put a hat on your toon for the price you pay to play the game for a whole month! WHAT A BARGAIN!
Put a hat on your toon for the price you pay to play the game for a whole month! WHAT A BARGAIN!


Hats for your character.

Fifteen bucks each.

I know the Free-to-Play slash Free-to-Pay model is sweeping the medium, but Blizz, here’s a bit of advice. The trick with that model is the term microtransactions. Charge $1.99 for an app, or 99 cents for something cool, and people will pay without thinking too much.

I suppose they have some reason to go this route. They’ve sold unique mounts like celestial steeds, and special pets like mini versions of big bad bosses in the game. Those have ranged from $10 to $25.

But a $15 hat?

Nope, that’s way over my head.

New Challenges

Time flies when you’re having fun… or raising kids.

I recall looking down at a crying pink mass of baby as a brand new dad, unable to fully grasp all the changes about to take place, wondering how much I didn’t know, unsure of how I would become the father my daughter deserved.

It's a natural reflex... but it still hits right in the feels.
It’s a natural reflex… but it still hits right in the feels.

Then, in a hesitant and uncertain effort to help keep Deborah still while the nurses cleaned her up, I gingerly took hold of her hand. And she wrapped her tiny finger nubs around one of mine and held tight. And her cries started to quiet down.

That was over thirteen years ago. “Almost fourteen,” Deb would say.

She soon became a big sister to our first son, Jonathan. When we discussed baby names for boys, I thought of David and Jonathan in the Bible – the friendship and closeness they shared. While I know that a parent is not always able to be their child’s friend instead of disciplinarian, I still focused on the hope that my son and I will enjoy a healthy relationship as he grows into maturity.

A few years after Jonathan, Justin was born, his name meaning “Righteous” and “Justice.” And two years ago, we welcomed Judah into our family, whose name means “Praise.”

Life easily becomes a blur of day-by-day responsibilities. Exhaustion sets in, and by the end of a busy day, it’s too easy to get caught up getting the kids to bed and catching a breather before going to sleep to face the next day. Individual days often go by slowly, working at the office or in the home, taking care of dinner and the children’s needs, trying to carve out family time, finishing all the chores and responsibilities, and ushering kids to bed.

But the years flash by when we’re not paying attention.

About a week ago, Deborah was playing Rock Band 3 and some of the various Guitar Hero games. And I discovered she had switched over to Hard difficulty. The jump from Medium to Hard is significant as it incorporates more buttons to press, more notes to hit, and all at a faster pace. Yet she was performing songs smoothly, something of which she never used to be capable.

We played some songs together, challenging each other to see who could get the best performance. She kept up and beat me several times. Then we switched to Street Fighter, and once again I was surprised to find that she put up a fight. In fact, unless I was playing one of the two characters I’m best with, I was really working hard to win.

The bear is one of my favorites if I'm just messing around... because, come on. A BEAR.
The bear is one of my favorites if I’m just messing around… because, come on. A BEAR.

If you’re not familiar with the old-school Street Fighter games at the arcade, whenever a second player puts in a quarter and starts a game against the current player, a message pops up with a shout saying, “Here comes a new challenger!”

That’s what I was hearing in my head as Deborah defeated me a few times.

I can’t wait to get out of my cast and take her on in basketball, which has rapidly become her other favorite game.

Jonathan is no slouch, either. But his strengths are more mechanical. He loves building things, whether with Legos or with various electronics he takes apart (with supervision). Yes, he loves destruction too. He regularly surprises us with new constructs, and briefs us on the multiple special features and components he builds in to each one.

His favorite video game is Plants Vs. Zombies, but he still has that problem-solving mechanical eye when he watches me play. I was working my way through the new Tomb Raider, and at several points where I would be stuck considering how exactly to solve a puzzle, he walked in, looked it over, and pointed out the solution as if it was the most natural and obvious answer. Humbling, for sure.

Justin’s biggest strength seems to be living up to his name, as the family “Fairness Police.” Maybe it’s middle-child-syndrome rearing its ugly head, but Justin definitely protests any imbalance in chores or in rewards. He balances that with giving the most hugs ever (like constantly), so I guess it all works out.

Even Justin has some mad skills with his favorite games. We recently loaded Sonic Dash onto the iPad, and Justin started playing it with glee. It took me several days to get to the point where I could even match his high score, and honestly, that’s probably because I used the coins you earn in-game to upgrade scoring abilities. Justin hasn’t played in a bit; I’m afraid to see what he’ll do with the new powers in game.

Judah is still pretty young, so I’m not sure what skills he’s going to demonstrate. He sure loves to dance and sing to music – fitting based on his name and based on his parents’ musical abilities. He absolutely loves to sit at the piano with me and play (read: pound) notes… but that’s probably true of any two-year-old.

I don’t yet know what to expect from him. However bittersweet it may be, I know that the years will go by in a flash, and in no time, he’ll be showing us where his strengths lie. I want to say I can’t wait to see it, but “almost fourteen” years have flown by already.

I can wait and take it slow, one challenge at a time.

Corporate Apologies

It’s 2 AM and I’m thinking, “There’s still all that writing I planned to do today… I should get it done.” I wanted to post some pics of the family getting out to enjoy the first day of pseudo-Spring… I wanted to post about motivation to get or stay fit, and some of the tools that I’ve found helpful… I thought about getting started on a creative writing piece, and some reflections about how fast my kids are growing up.

Forget all that! Video games! Facebook! Distractions!

I won’t apologize. I hear it’s one of those pathetic blog posts, to say “Oh sorry, I know you all couldn’t live without my meaningless banter all this time. I’ll write more.” I have a life, and so do you. We’ll catch up when we get the chance, digitally or in person. I’m cool with that. You too?

That said, apologies are amusing to me at the moment. Right now, a $60 video game is downloading onto my computer, courtesy of Electronic Arts. When they launched the newest rendition of SimCity – the perfect playground for anyone with a God complex – they screwed the pooch. EA set it up as a dedicated online game, but failed to prepare enough servers to handle the large amount of customers on launch day or in the weeks that followed. They misled their fans about the requirement for constant online access to run the game, claiming it was necessity when in fact their claim has been proven false. The creators turned off a number of features in order to keep the game running, but it was still such a mess that Amazon stopped selling the game until all the problems could be resolved.

This looks about right...
This looks about right…

Needless to say, it was less than ideal.

To make up for this failure, EA offered a free digital download out of a selection of games from their portfolio. They put up Battlefield 3, Mass Effect 3, Bejeweled 3, Dead Space 3 (so many 3s!), Medal of Honor: Warfighter, SimCity 4, Need For Speed: Most Wanted, and Plants Vs Zombies.

I won’t go down the list of how many of these I already own on the XBox, but I settled on Dead Space 3. I figure instead of playing it on the XBox with the volume turned down too low for the kids (and thus, me) to hear any of the swearing and screaming, I can pop in headphones and play it on the PC, and I’m paying nothing for the added flexibility.

EA is still the devil. But if it might be a little while till we next catch up, it’s their fault.

Set Some Goals

Tabletop Tuesday

A lot of the Air Force courses I’ve attended include lessons about the importance of setting goals in order to succeed.

Today, we’ll talk about setting goals in your tabletop game. But we’re not talking about incorporating player goals into your campaign (that will probably be another post). We’re talking about giving goals to your monsters!

Everyone needs a goal in life, even your fangorious gelatinous monster. (Okay, maybe not everyone.)

In a tabletop game, your players’ characters are probably going to spend a lot of time fighting against a host of sentient creatures. They may be not be the brightest creatures, they may be evil through and through, they may be tools of some higher villain. But they will have objectives and goals they are trying to achieve.

Make your combat about those goals instead of about the monsters themselves.

Let’s face it, the “kill everything burn everything and die trying” monster makes very little sense. Villains have their own interests, their own purposes. Usually, they have some decent or even good motive that has been twisted around or blown out of proportion into a terrible evil.

“Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet… and it’s remarkable how like an egg is the human skull.”


This guy is going to have a different set of goals and plans than these two.

Your villains’ minions need not line up like a Revolutionary War battle and march to their deaths in the hopes of defeating the heroes. Setting up a fight with no goal means setting up a long, drawn-out slugfest where the two sides try to bring their enemies to zero hit points. Yawn.

Give the monster team a reason to fight. You can speed up combat and you can make the combat matter to the story. Double win!

Perhaps they simply have to delay the heroes from an objective. They can capture or kill particular innocents or valuable NPCs. They can hold a position or activate some magic artifact or complete a ritual. They can make off with a critical object, or damage a strategic location.

“Good job, heroes… you slew fifty goblins but failed to stop the saboteur who destroyed the bridge. Now our army is stuck on this side of the river while the city is under attack.”

When you do this, mindless evil can have a place in such a setting. It stands out precisely because it has no plan, no motive, no ‘higher’ purpose than carnage and destruction. It can be the enemy that simply has to be brought to zero health, something that has to be put down. And then that combat goal tells a story different from all the others, instead of every combat feeling exactly the same.

So, what does the big bad evil guy (or girl, or gelatinous monster) want? Give your villains some goals. Your heroes will thank you for it.

Take Some Initiative

Tabletop Tuesday

One of the key phrases in my D&D games is, “Roll for initiative!”

For the unfamiliar, that’s a sign that combat is about to start. Initiative is the way the players and storyteller figure out who is going first.

Depending on the game system you use and the way you run your table, combat can really slow things down. You wouldn’t think so… everything is supposed to be fast-paced like a Hong Kong movie fight scene (with slow-motion doves flying in the background).

But oftentimes, the slow motion is around the table.

This can’t get confusing at all.

“Uh… where’d that one guy go? I was going to shoot him with an arrow.”“Dude, the fighter pushed him out the window on his turn.”

“Oh, ok, who’s the closest enemy to me?”

“Look at the map.”

“Cool, (looks over character sheet for a minute, humming and stroking chin) I guess I’ll just use the same power I always use.”

“Ok, your attack hits, the orc is bloodied. Next up, the cleric.”

“Huh what?”

“You’re up.”

“Oh right. Um… let me see here… does anyone need healing? Anyone? …Guess not? So… uh… I’m going to… let me think.”

How do you solve this?

Ideally, let’s wave our hands and make all DMs/Storytellers able to craft the most compelling and exciting encounters that absolutely rivet the players’ attentions to the table.

Ok, that didn’t work. Maybe you’re lucky and you have one of those exceptional DMs. (Thank him or her if you do.)

But the rest of us don’t. So what next?

1. Try a timer.

Get an hourglass timer that runs for 30 seconds or one minute. Set a digital timer. Use something that will make it clear when the player has run out of time to make a decision. If you as the player cannot figure out even one thing for your character to do, then call it “effective role-playing” and your character gets to stand there in confusion. Again, it depends on the system you play, but in my current D&D games, a turn is supposed to be six seconds.

I can imagine standing and wondering what to do, stunned by the chaos of combat, for six seconds. The explanation is believable, and the suck factor of skipping your turn will force a bit more forethought and attention on what’s happening in game.

2. Try default actions.

One argument is that your characters are battle-hardened heroes, capable of daring feats and snap decisions. They wouldn’t freeze in fear. Your player, on the other hand, might be a tired mom, or a guy who just got off a long day of work, or (bad news) slightly severely hung over from a night of partying, or (worse news) showing up already under the influence. So treat the characters different than you treat the frazzled player.

Set up default actions for combat. Characters probably have some basic attack for fighting up close or at range. If the ranger player gets flustered, his character shoots an arrow at the nearest enemy. Done. If the fighter isn’t sure what move he wants to use, he attacks the closest enemy. The magician shoots off a basic spell. Unless healing is limited, the healer restores some health to the character with the lowest hit points. Or the healer clobbers an enemy with a mace.

The same goes for role-playing. If you’re sitting there for a minute while your player tries to figure out how to use a favorite but irrelevant skill (“Can I use Diplomacy to jump across the chasm?”) or if they just can’t figure out what to use, then they support the next player in the turn order. They can roll and  on a 15 or higher they earn a bonus for the next player’s use of a skill. If this becomes a problem, you take away the bonus and their default action becomes twiddling thumbs.

3. Training practice.

Maybe your players are unfamiliar with their characters and how things should work. The rulebook and the mechanics of combat (or even role-playing) can be a maze to the new player. Perhaps you can take some one-on-one time with the players who need some additional explanation. You can show them some examples of how their powers work, or what might be useful in which situations. Talk them through a basic encounter. Help them understand some of the player basics like focusing fire on one target until it’s down, or whatever special features might be unique to their character’s class.

Don’t just complain about players. Make better players.

4. Visual aids.

You know you want one
No excuses. You’re up next, and you can see it plain as day.

Some products like the initiative tracking board might help players keep up with what’s going on. If people know when their turn is coming up, the hope is that they will get away from the distraction and get back to the game. A turn tracker like the picture gives everyone a clear idea of who’s up next. Ideally, the player can then have a plan in mind and go into their turn ready to move the combat along.5. Ban distractions.

Cell phones and computers can be fun tools for gaming. There are dice apps, and soft copy character sheets with databases and equations that automatically update. Wizards of the Coast has the D&D Character Builder that lets you manage your character online (with a subscription fee). There are ways to use computers to play virtual tabletops (check out Roll20 for example), and some DMs like me find that a laptop screen is the best DM screen ever.

The trouble is that electronics can also be a powerful monster in their own right. Make a Will save to not click alt-Tab and check Facebook or browse YouTube for hilarious videos.

Rocks fall. You lose Wi-Fi access.

6. Give monsters short-term goals.

Often combat becomes a numbers fest where each side fights to bring the other side to zero health. How realistic is that? Do our militaries engage each other in fights intended simply to bring the other side to complete destruction? Generally, both sides in the conflict have an objective to work toward. I’m going to do more with this point in another post, so I’ll stop here. But I hope you can see that a fast objective might keep attention on what’s happening and how to stop the bad guys. It’s certainly better than rolling single-digit attacks for five turns while the big boss monster flails about with a handful of hit points left, waiting for the inevitable deathblow.

7. Cut some useless rolling.

If your group is comfortable with it, cut down on the useless rolls. Does the burly fighter REALLY need to roll a check to smash through the door, or can we say he does it with a wave of the hand? Is that cheating? If you think he absolutely must roll and add bonuses and check against the difficulty of the door… and we must discuss or think about whether it is hardwood reinforced with steel or simply a shoddy construct of wood beams… and if you are fine with the idea that based on the roll of a die, the spindly wizard can walk up and kick the door down with a roll of 18 while the big fighter might batter himself against it uselessly if he rolls badly. Sure, then it’s cheating. But we can save time by simply moving on to the rolls and the actions that advance the story.

So there you have it.

Seven options you can adapt to what suits your group, in order to make the slow parts of the game pick up some speed. Take some initiative and give these a shot, then let me know if they work for you.

For those of you who regularly play, what am I forgetting? What works for your group?


Just Say “Yes”

It’s time for Tabletop Tuesday!

Roll for Imagination
Roll for initiative to see if you can keep up with your players’ insane ideas.

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to leapfrog over the rogue and flip through the air to land next to the goblin and smash his face with my hammer.”


“I want to grab hold of this powerful conduit of magical energy while casting a spell at the incoming ranks of undead, in the hopes that maybe it will, like, amp up my powers… or something?”


What do you do when your players come up with unique plans and crazy ideas?

Just say “Yes!”

Tabletop Role-Playing is all about collaborative storytelling. It’s all about the characters, the heroes of the story. “Actions speak louder than words,” so when the players come up with unexpected methods to deal with conflict and trouble, that’s an important part of defining those characters for the story you’re all telling.

Sometimes this takes a little bit of stretching, a little imagination to figure out “How do we make this work?” It can be challenging to come up with a solution on the spot, but that gives the DM more practice being flexible.

Someone wants to jump on an enemy and bite at them, Mike Tyson style? Say yes.

Someone suggests setting the whole outpost on fire in order to gain a short-term advantage? Go for it.

Someone decides to activate a mysterious magic device in an attempt to stop a powerful foe? Why not!

Page 183 of the Player’s Manual clearly defines Diplomacy, but you say in your post that you allowed your group to use it in a fight… so… can you clear up the obvious discrepancy?

Psst, to all the rules lawyers, you and I both know this is completely unacceptable. Stick with me for a bit. If nothing else, they just handed you a golden ticket as the DM.

Perhaps, “Oops, now the whole building is burning down, and you must race to rescue the innocent captives / recover the precious artifacts before it collapses on your heads.”

Or several sessions later, “Remember when you activated that device in order to destroy that elite monster? Yeah, you also set off a beacon that attracted the attention of an incomprehensible alien race that is now making their way to your realm. Better get ready!”

Or, “Hey, that sounds cool. Sure, you gnaw the guy’s face.” And everyone in that region now knows what this hero is willing to do in order to win.

I recall a story from a game designer recounting a session with his son. At the end of the fight, his son says, “My character goes to the statue near the altar and discovers a hidden treasure. He tries to open it, but it has a trap.” The kid starts alternate-DMing for a moment. And the game designer father had the good sense in the moment to just go with it.

The party ends up with a little extra gold, the kid’s character gets poisoned and needs to heal more than he did before, and everyone moves on with the rest of the session. But that moment told the child, “This is your game too. This is your world. Let’s explore it together.”

Just say “yes.” Your games will be better for it.

Okay… rules lawyers, it’s time for a very important caveat.

Are there limits to this suggestion? …Yes. (See what I did there?)

“Is there a way that I can use diplomacy to leap across the chasm and then maybe do an endurance check in order to disarm the trap?”

No. No, there’s absolutely not a way.

Every DM has probably had a player who gets one exceptional skill, and then tries to use it every round. “Can I use my Dungeoneering to fight the goblin? Can I use my Dungeoneering to forage for food in the sky temple? Can I use my Dungeoneering to understand complex magic and recall a historic religious ritual that will help us spot the hidden treasure? I do have a really high Dungeoneering score…”

But your players never want to hear “No.”  So what do you do?

You want your default inclination to be “Yes” so long as it makes sense.

Take advantage of that collaborative aspect of the tabletop game. Make them explain how exactly their favorite go-to skill is going to help in this particular situation. You give them the impression you’re willing to go along as long as they can come up with a convincing answer. You show them you’re willing to bend a bit for the sake of story without completely breaking the game or common sense. You put the ball back in their court and ask how it’s supposed to go from there.

Your average tabletop player is probably going to be reasonable and admit that their idea is beyond the scope of reason. If not, then once again go collaborative. Have a majority vote from your players or invite suggestions on how to make it work. And of course, as the DM you have the ultimate power to conclude that there’s no reasonable way to agree to the crazy plan. So, sometimes say, “No.”

But only if absolutely necessary.