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Xeno-Hunters

I’ve always had a soft spot for D&D 4th edition. Sure, it never felt like D&D for me, but the core engine was just so unlike anything we’d seen before in table-top RPGs.

My previous efforts to convert D&D4e into a fast-paced dungeon-crawl boardgame were documented on here some time ago, an experimental project which showed some promise but perhaps not quite enough to keep me interested.

However, a tweet from Dungeon World co-author, Adam Koebel (@skinnyghost), got me all a tingly again. Another bit of Dice Mechanic tweakery was on the cards…

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Creating Xeno-Hunters

Aim: to create an X-Com or Aliens themed game, based on the D&D 4th edition rule-set.

Methodology: I wanted to prove Adam’s thesis to its fullest extent. I knew I could house-rule and tweak 4e to make a sci-fi game – however, if I was to do this, I wanted to make it as close to vanilla 4e as possible. Reskinned but not house-ruled.

Browsing the Player’s Handbook, it wasn’t too difficult to start to equate different character classes to equivalent sci-fi roles. In 4th edition, Fighters are very much the tanks and blockers of the game, taking the hits and holding up the enemy so their colleagues can deal the killing blows. To me, the immediate image that came to mind was a power-armoured Space Marine struggling to hold back a scuttling mass of insectoid aliens. Wizard’s area effect spells are just magical hand-bombs. Ranger sharp-shooters are clearly 4th edition’s Snipers. Easy.

I decided to make the characters at Sixth level: this gives them a few more powers and feats, a few magic items and allows me a wider range of opponents straight out of the Monster Manual to match them up against.

Results: I’ve created six characters, almost 100% 4th edition compliant, and absolutely sci-fi through and through. I used standard character generation rules, races, powers, feats and equipment. The four relatively minor changes were as follows:

  • Feats: I accidentally gave characters one Feat too many. I spotted this on the 4th character, but by then I was committed and couldn’t be bothered to go back 🙂
  • Weapons: I created a custom weapon for the Assault Trooper, as nothing quite fitted. But I still think it’s broadly balanced in the context of 4e weapons. Everything else is a standard 4e weapon (though there’s a Bastard Sword and a Superior Crossbow in there if you can spot them)
  • Magic Items: the game does have rules for giving magic items to characters created above 1st level. However, instead, I calculated how many items an equivalent party would have earned through play and then shared them out.
  • Sniping: the 4e Player’s Handbook clearly says that Crossbows can be used for Sneak Attacks, but looking online it seems that may have been errata’d to just “Hand Crossbows”. I figured spending a Feat to broaden to all Crossbows wasn’t unreasonable, based on the precedent of the Elf’s Treetop Sniper feat.

The only change I made from my original vision was that, on studying the abilities a bit closer, I decided to make the Close Assault Trooper the Ranger, and the Sniper is a Rogue. It was pretty interchangeable, both classes have great abilities to cover both of these roles.

The Salvageers

After all this, here are the six characters: Salvageers, private contractors making a living by clearing out alien bug infestations from abandoned space wrecks.

I’ve re-designed the character sheet to completely mask it’s origins. I decided if I was going to re-skin things, I was going to re-skin everything. I tried to give it a sci-fi feel and also bury the abilities granted by Race, Class and Magic Items into themed power-sets.

Cleric / Commander: Warlord might be the obvious example for the Leader of this gang of XenoHunters, but Warlords don’t have ranged powers and I wanted to change as little as possible. I think the Commander makes for an interesting and effective character – and probably the only character in the party that is absolutely essential to make the party work.

Fighter / Power Trooper: a Goliath with a good spread of defensive-focused magic items and here you have it, a walking juggernaut who is probably the sole melee combatant as often as not.

Ranger / Assault Trooper: makes the most of the Ranger’s Prime Shot ability and range of move-and-attack combinations to be the group’s scout. And yes, he’s a halfling, but don’t hold that against him.

Rogue / Sniper: with a number of stealthy assassin-type feats in one of the later 4e character books, I was able to create a very effective ranged character. Indeed, in comparison, I feel like the Assault Trooper is a little hard-done-by

Sniper

Wizard / Grenadier: the basic powers were easy enough, but I had to exercise some creativity with the utility abilities a wizard has. I think it works pretty well, a bit fragile but a fun character to play.

Warlock / Psychic: an absolute loony-tunes of a character, with a range of very deadly attacks and a don’t-give-a-damn attitude. I decided to make the psychic abilities Encounter and Daily powers only, as I didn’t feel a constant flurry of psychic blasts fitted the sci-fi psionic aesthetic.

Psychic

I’d love to hear your thoughts / comments, either on the feedback below or via Twitter.

Next up: XenoHunters: the scenario. You’ll be amazed how a simple name change and bit of colourful description can turn a D&D standard into a scuttling alien menace…

The Belgarithon

I started it with a couple of not-entirely-favourable tweets on my reading of David Edding’s “Pawn of Prophecy”, first of the famous fantasy quintet, the Belgariad.pawn-of-prophecy

It ended with a group of UK Twitter geeks committing to reading (or re-reading in most cases) the entire sequence of books in a kind of virtual geeky bookclub. All five of them. Or perhaps ten. Or maybe fifteen. It really depends who’s counting.

Anyway, if you’re of a geeky bent and want to join in, just follow #belgarithon on Twitter. And read Pawn of Prophecy by the end of February.

We’ll probably discuss it. Somehow. And then read the next one. I think it’s Rook of Destiny. Or King of Fate. Or perhaps Knight to Queen’s Bishop of Doom. Something like that…

Forth #Belgarithon!!!

 

 

Torchbearer character sheets – for newbies

Will be running a short try-out of the Fantasy dungeon-crawl RPG Torchbearer in a week or two. It’s a wonderful game, full of complex interlocking game mechanics that support rather than replace role-playing – at least that’s the theory. It puts a lot of pressure on the GM, both in terms of system mastery and improvising when character’s rolls don’t quite go as intended.

Invariably, I create new character sheets for every game I run. I find most default character sheets are messy and over-written, so I try to emphasise the key features while removing unnecessary detail for players who don’t know the system.

This is my first effort to do this for Torchbearer – the level of mechanical crunch that players directly interact with make it hard to strip back to the level I’d like, but what I have been able to do is only retain the elements that players will directly interact with in their first few sessions.

Unusually for me, I decided to do this in Powerpoint rather than Excel. Sssh, please don’t tell. Both .pptx and .pdf versions can be downloaded using the links below.

PDF version (non-editable)

PPTX version (editable)

My contribution to Grogzine #1: Star Wars RPG, West End Games

A story that certainly echoes my own. Very few RPGs I’ve ever felt such visceral love for as much as WEG Star Wars, a true classic and one of the best and most influential RPG designs of all time.

Asako Soh - speaking to the kami

Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. 1st edition, 1987, West End Games.

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We didn’t go on holiday when I was growing up, and there were no gaming shops in my town.  A trip to the exciting metropolis of Birmingham, and the delights of Games Workshop and Virgin Megastore, offered the rare outlet for my RPG addiction (now serviced all too easily by Kickstarter and on-line stores).  However, in 1987 I found myself as a teenager on a somewhat surprising and surreal holiday – a trip to York to the see the recently opened Jorvik Viking museum, but with my mum, sister, and my former infant school teacher and her husband.  Wild times.  I recall a dingy B+B, with all my family in one room, and a bathroom shared with the other guests on the rest of the floor.  In addition to the stomach-churning smells of the museum (is it still…

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Fightin’ Fiction II: 3 More Melee Myths

REJECTOMANCY

Since the first article I did in this Fightin’ Fiction series was so popular, I thought I’d double down and do another one in the same vein. So, here you go, three MORE melee myths.

Like the last article, this one is aimed at authors who would like to add more realism to melee combat in their work. The first article covered some broad stroke concepts, but I’m going get just a bit more granular with this article. Again, everything here should be taken as advice on writing melee combat in a very specific way. It is NOT the only way to write melee combat nor is it the BEST way to write melee combat. It’s a stylistic choice, and if it suits you, awesome. If it doesn’t suit you, also awesome. Also, yes, I’ve broken every one of these “rules” in my own writing, shamefully bowing to the almighty “cuz it…

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D&D4e Dungeon Bash Board Game – Playtest

After much planning, prepping and spreadsheet making, I ran a quick play test of my card-based D&D4e dungeon crawl concept. This is quite a long post, as I go into the design decisions I made and then the results of the test.

If you’ve got the stamina, read on!

Part 1: Dungeon Bash Board Game Design

Because of the way D&D4e is designed, each class is made up of a number of possible “Builds”, with each deck of Power Cards usually supporting 2 different builds. I embraced this and made each build into a distinct sub-class with its own specific power sets, e.g. Druid (Guardian) and Druid (Predator). For Fighters, I picked up a copy of the Martial Power deck, which supported two new sub-classes from that supplement: Battlerager Fighter and Tempest Fighter. However, it also had a number of specific powers relating to Spear/Polearms and others for Shields, so I used those to create a third sub-class: Hoplite.

Apart from the card-play rules, below, the other significant change I wanted to bring in was introducing a 13th Age Escalation die, to stop combat getting bogged down.

Character creation

Each character is made by selecting:

  • 2 sub-classes
  • Race – the usual D&D races, with a bit of editing to balance abilities out
  • Characteristic array – either [4,1,1,0,0,-1], [3,2,1,1,0,0] or [2,2,2,2,0,0]. Characteristics are rated solely in terms of their bonus value, not traditional D&D score. My character generation spreadsheet automatically allocates values to the priority attributes for the chosen sub-classes, but no reason why a player couldn’t over-ride that if they chose.
  • Feat – each character chooses 1 Feat, except humans who have 2.

One design choice I made was to cut back the number of Racial Abilities and Feats. The trouble with these is that in effect they create “rules exceptions” – the define ways that a particular character operates differently to the core game. My aim for this game was to make it faster-paced than the original D&D4e and the last thing I want is players constantly having to check a long list of abilities to see which, if any, apply in any given situation. I kept abilities that simply affect another number that can be hard-coded into the character sheet (e.g. Weapon Focus; Improved Initiative). For the same reason, I also removed gaining Feats as characters level up – the range of powers available means characters will have plenty to do without introducing new exceptions.

Game Play

The idea is that game play will be exactly like D&D, up until the point combat starts. That’s when the usual declaration of actions is taken up by card play.

  1. Each character has a hand of 4 cards
  2. Characters act in Initiative order (fixed value, no 1d20 roll)
  3. Characters get 3 actions:
  1. Standard – play a Standard Action card or discard any card to take a default Standard Action (e.g. basic Attack)
  2. Move – play a Move Action card or discard any card to take a default Move action
  3. Minor – play a Minor Action card or just declare a basic minor action (no discard required)
    1. Resolve actions
    2. Tidy up your cards:
  4. If you played a Daily action, it goes back in the box.
  5. If you played an Encounter action, it goes in your Discard pile
  6. If you played an At-Will action, it either goes in your Discard or you can choose to pick it back up
    1. Refill hand back up to 4 cards

The aim of discarding to Move is to burn through the deck more quickly and increase the chance of lots of interesting powers coming up and of discarded cards coming back around.

My original thought was that At-Will cards are discarded just like Encounter cards, but the trouble is some At-Will abilities are fundamental to particular classes (e.g. Druid (Predator) shape-changing into an animal), so discarding them would cripple those characters.

Part 2: Play Test

I used the very first encounter from the D&D4e Dungeon Delve sourcebook, a fairly simple encounter with a bunch of kobolds on a 10×10 map. The kobolds were set up as designed, with the PCs all entering from one corner of the map. The PCs were represented by:

Half-Elf Sorcerer/Rogue
Half-Orc Barbarian/Warden
Dwarf Druid/Invoker
Human Warlord/Paladin

The aim of the play test was to see how the combat card play worked, although checking the usability of the character sheets was also a desirable outcome.

It took about 7 rounds (I didn’t keep count) for the 4 PCs to dispatch the Kobolds. The Barbarian PC took a beating, but the Paladin fortunately drew his Lay on Hands card in the second round, so was able to bring him back from the brink. Other than that, it was all very straightforward, with the plethora of Encounter powers played meaning the PCs were at no risk of being out-classed.

Lessons Learned

From this simple test, I learned a huge amount about how to take this endeavour forward to completion:

  1. Card-play – generally worked well. Discarding to move was a tiny bit clunky, but I think it’s a necessary evil just to ensure the decks get well-used. Allowing player to keep hold of an At-Will power after it was played is consistent with original D&D4 rules, but severely reduces deck-cycling. Perhaps once played they remain face up in front of the player, effectively increasing hand size?
  2. Hand-size – four cards may be too few. Of the 4 characters we ran, over around 7 combat rounds, 3 times hands came up with no attack powers in of any kind. If making a basic attack is the optimal play, that’s not using the powers to their best advantage.
  3. Encounter design – this is critical. I used an off-the-shelf encounter, and it was boring. The setting was too small (every ranged power was automatically in range because of the size of the map) and there was a major choke-point which rendered dynamic movement virtually impossible.
  4. Monster design – this is also critical. Minions are fun in that they allow you to have large numbers of creatures that are killed in a single blow, but it’s anticlimactic to use a big power and find that you might just as well have done a basic attack. With more powers available, fewer monsters with more HPs are by far more interesting as opponents.
  5. Initiative – I decided to make Initiative scores fixed, removing the d20 roll. This worked fine. Only reduces one roll, but it’s one less number to keep track of.
  6. Weapons – stumbled across a design problem in my character sheet. Weapons have Proficiency Bonuses, and the character sheet combines that with the relevant stat to give a compound To Hit score. However, some powers use Weapons with a different characteristic, a value that the character sheet then doesn’t provide. Also, weapon-based attacks hit more often than magical powers, because they gain +2 or +3 from the weapon itself. This means that against Minions, who perish in a single blow, making a basic weapon attack is often the optimal choice over a more interesting but less accurate power.
  7. Missing is boring – there is nothing more dispiriting than playing a big power only to have it fail. Not only is it dispiriting, it’s boring. And non-weapon powers miss a lot, roughly 50/50. I’d rather powers hit more often but opponents have the Hit Points to suck them up. So Defences need to come down and/or accuracy needs to increase. I’ll probably remove Weapon proficiency bonuses and either give all characteristics a bump of +2 or +3, reduce defences by a similar amount, or perhaps widen the characteristic arrays (e.g. 6,5,3,1,1,0). Of them all, I think I prefer reducing the Defences, so the characters don’t look out of kilter if a player has D&D4 experience. This may imbalance the Powers, as it may be that Weapon-based power cards do less damage than non-Weapon-based to reflect the different accuracy: if so, I can increase weapon damage slightly to compensate.
  8. Escalation die – in this scenario, I didn’t use it. I’m not sure it’s actually needed if the encounter design is done right.
  9. Minor actions – only came up when there was a specific power that used a Minor action. I think they probably do need to remain though. Perhaps also need to discard when these are used, both for consistency and to maximise deck cycling.
  10. Monsters – bit boring really, they had nothing to do but stand still and slug it out. Either monsters or PCs need to have some objective to encourage dynamic play. Did think that monsters could be semi-automated using a deck of cards, but this would require a deck (albeit not a big one) per creature type and that would be a lot of extra work.
  11. Rolling damage – in a board game model, this may be an extraneous step. Fixed damage would certainly speed things up by maybe 10 seconds per successful attack.

Next Steps & Further Thoughts

A bigger piece of work is to re-evaluate the under-lying game design philosophy. What do I want this game to be? If it’s a slightly faster version of D&D4, then that aim is pretty much accomplished.

However, if I want to create a dynamic dungeon crawl game that is “powered by” D&D4e, then there’s actually a lot of additional work to do. Parts of game play are a bit clunky and there is a lot of clutter on the character sheets that either didn’t get used or was over-looked. Fundamentally, it is not very accessible for anyone without prior experience of D&D4e.

The powers should really sing out, and to do that I think I need to do even more to strip back extraneous elements.

  • Class abilities should be converted into Powers or removed – I think 1 signature power on the character sheet is probably fine, but much more than that becomes unwieldy.
  • Skills should become binary abilities with no skill value – you have it, or you don’t – and should probably have an associated Power card so its combat-use is clear (if applicable – e.g. Bluff).

However, this will lead to even more cards in the players’ deck, which means the issue of deck-cycling comes back up. The decision of “burn this card, but it’ll come up later” is very different to “burn this card, and it won’t come up again”. Part of the solution is to make combat last for more rounds, but it will probably take a minimum of 15 rounds for the deck to recycle unless more than 2 cards are discarded every turn, and this means PCs will be taking more damage. Theoretically there will be more healing powers out there, but the randomness of the deck creates a potentially vulnerability.

One thought on this is to tweak the Action economy somewhat.

  • Every character has 3 actions: Attack, a Move and another.
  • Each turn you play 3 cards, which you then reveal or discard each as necessary. E.g. if you have an Interrupt power, you need to put it face down and leave it there. Or you might flip over an Attack action, discard another for a Move, and leave the third face down to potentially discard to take an Opportunity Attack later on.
  • At the start of your turn, any cards remaining go on the discard pile.

This would really get the cards cycling round, because every round you’d always be getting rid of 3 cards. Which fundamentally is the whole reason I came up with this hair-brained scheme to begin with – D&D4 powers are fun, and I want to play with them ALL!

And next time I should definitely take some photos…