Tag Archives: Dungeons & Dragons

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…

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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…

 

Some more D&D4th Character Sheet

My scheme for running a card-based D&D4 dungeon crawl board game has moved on apace. I’ve now updated my “simple” Character Sheet into a character generator for my funky re-tooling of the game.

Every character has two classes, each class being in fact a specialist sub-class of a number of the core D&D4e classes (based entirely on what Power Cards I could get my hands on at a sensible price!)

The sheet automatically allocates Attributes, Skills and Class powers based on the selected roles. I’ve stripped out many, many Feats, leaving only the very simplest and least mechanically intrusive. Characters will only get Feats at character creation.

The second page will be printed as the back of the character sheet. It’s currently all formatted to A4, but I’ll probably go for half that size for a nice compact character record sheet that maximises available table space for card play.

It’s a bit messy underneath, my priority here was speed rather than elegance!

Updated version here

Simple D&D 4th edition character sheet

I’ve been thinking more and more about running with my slightly silly idea for a D&D4th edition card-based dungeon crawl game. It would certainly have some challenges – managing the number of Encounter powers, for example, and how to balance simplicity with the exception-based rules of Feats – but I’ve decided to go for it.

With this in mind, I’ve created a simple Excel version of a D&D4 character sheet. It is designed to show little-to-no workings, just highlighting the important numbers that inform game play.

You can find it here: <link to character sheet>

D&D5 – Mucking about with Proficiency

One of the simplifications that lies at the heart of D&D5 is the Proficiency mechanic: one central value, derived from Character Level, added to your die roll. Whether you’re hitting stuff with a pointy stick or trying to remember the name of that ancient carbunculous statue: roll 1d20 and add Proficiency.

So obviously, that’s RIPE for complication!

So here’s a few proposals on how you can muck about with Proficiency, adding complexity and individuality without breaking the game (too badly!)

 

Proficiency: the five core functions

To begin with, let’s split Proficiency into its main functions:

  • Skill rolls
  • Saving throws
  • Spell-casting rolls
  • Combat (and here I’d suggest further diversifying into Melee Combat and Ranged Combat)

Every character will now have five separate values to represent their relative skill in different areas. So, as a Barbarian you may favour Melee Combat, Saves and Skills; as a Wizard you’ll want to focus as much on Spell-casting; a Bard may go with a more even spread.

Now for deriving and increasing these values. Here’s a few ideas:

Method 1: Simple Level Proficiency

All values start at +2. You get +1 to one Proficiency value of your choice at Level 1 and every level thereafter. You can’t add more than Level / 3 to any one value (rounded up to 1 for L2, with an absolute maximum of +8).

This allows a generalist character to have +6 in all five areas by L20, or a specialist to have a spread of +8/+8/+8/+3/+3.

A simple progression and easy to manage, but leads to over-powered specialists.

Method 1A: Capped Maximum

All values start at +2. You get +1 to one Proficiency value of your choice at Level 1 and every level thereafter. The highest value must be within 2 points of the lowest value.

This reduces the ability of a Specialist to run ahead, with a maximum spread of +7/+7/+7/+5/+5 at L20.  However, it does allow someone to have +4 to one ability at 2nd level. Almost certainly not game breaking, but does stretch the underlying assumptions of the mechanics a little.

Method 2: Points-buy

Each level you get a number of Proficiency Points equal to the new Level (i.e. at 3rd level, you get 3 points). Increasing Proficiency values costs as follows:

Value +3 +4 +5 +6 +7 +8
Cost 2 8 15 25 50 100

You can only increase 1 value per level. This allows for the following progressions:

  • Generalist:  focusing equally on all Proficiency values, you get +1 to one Proficiency value every level (except 18th). At 10th level you have +4/+4/+4/+4/+3 and end up with +6/+6/+6/+5/+5 at 20th level.
  • Ultra-specialist: focus on a single Proficiency, you hit +6/+2/+2/+2/+2 at 10th level and +8/+2 etc. at 20th level. Good luck with those Saving Throws…
  • Dual specialist: 10th level is +5/+5/+2 and 20th level is +7/+7/+2.
  • Priority 3: +5/+4/+4/+3/+2 at 10th, +7/+6/+6/+4/+2 at 20th
  • Focus 4: +4/+4/+4/+4/+2 at 10th, +6/+6/+6/+6/+4 at 20th

More granular, more choice, but complex book-keeping. And in reality, would anyone not go for something akin to Priority 3 or Focus 4? Might be better just defining some possible progressions at Level 1 and having players pick them.

Method 3: Class-based Proficiency

If you’re going to define Proficiency up front, why not just set it by class a la D&D3.x?

Firstly, change the default assumption back to 4 Proficiency types, dropping the split between Melee and Ranged combat. Set four core progressions:

  • Strong: +3 at 4th level and further +1 every 4 levels, until +7 at 20th
  • Standard: as per usual
  • Moderate: +1 at 1st level, +2 at 2nd level and +1 every 4 levels until +6 at 17th
  • Weak: +0 at 1st level, +1 at 2nd level and +1 every 5 levels until +4 at 17th

Then allocate classes one of two possible arrays:

  • Specialist class: Strong, Standard, Moderate, Weak
  • Generalist class: Standard, Standard, Moderate, Moderate

E.g. A Fighter would be Strong Attack, Standard Save, Moderate Skill, Weak Magic. A Bard could be Standard Magic, Standard Skill, Moderate Attack, Moderate Save.

Method 4: Simple Proficiency, revisited

Start with spread of +2/+2/+1/+1/+1. Maximum value of any Proficiency is 3 + Level /5 (rounded-down). Add one point to one Proficiency value as Method 1. At 5th level, a specialist could be +4/+3/+2/+1/+1. But by 20th level it’s evened out at +7/+6/+6/+6/+1.

Why put this last, rather than as Method 1B? Well, because if I were to implement one of these ideas, this is the one I’d go with. Balances customisability with simplicity. What’s not to like?!

D&D Deck Building Dungeon Bash Boardgame

When Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition was published, as a fan of game mechanics, I thought it was a work of beauty. OK, it wasn’t D&D as I knew it, but with so many fun crunchy things inside, I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

I loved the way each Class had multiple unique powers. I loved the options they gave the players, the way the mechanics integrated and complemented one another, how they gave different classes a distinct role and feel. However, my first play experience soon put things into context, as my group found combat was slow and the exciting choices hinted at by the range of powers lost their sheen after the third encounter. My group plays infrequently, jumps system regularly, and it’s not unusual to never play a game twice. So we waved farewell to D&D4 and never went back.

I stand by this decision. I don’t regret it, except for one thing… all those lovely untouched powers, sitting there, waiting, calling to me… On the one hand, I’m disappointed that I only scratched the surface of the powers. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be prepared to put in the time commitment to do any more. But what if there’s another way?

Deck Building
Get your hands on the D&D4 power decks that were published. Several sets. Or make your own. Create D&D4th edition characters. Then give every character at least 2 classes. Maybe 3.

  • Give every character all of the 1st level powers of those classes. Give them as cards, in a deck.
  • Allow each player to draw a hand of 3 or 4 cards.
  • Every time you’re in combat, you can draw a card and play a card. If you don’t play a card, I guess you can probably draw 2. Dunno. Maybe.
  • If you play an At Will power, it goes into a discard pile that forms the new deck once it’s exhausted.
  • If you play an Encounter power, it goes into a different discard pile that is shuffled in once the encounter finishes.
  • If you play a Daily power, you could have a third discard pile, but I actually think it would be more fun to treat it as an encounter power, but you don’t get to draw a new card. Or maybe you have to discard another card to fuel it. Or both. Or something.

Dungeon Bash Boardgame
Nominate a DM. Create a 10 encounter dungeon. Start at 1st level. Finish with the 10th level Big Bad Boss Encounter. Create a bit of story and a few puzzles to link them together. Drop the characters in, kick down doors, kill things and take their stuff.

After each encounter, give every character a heal and level them up. Keep things moving quickly, see how far you can get in one night. Strong on dice-rolling. Weak on story. And using deck-building to mitigate some of the issues of encounter speed and analysis paralysis.

Hey presto. D&D4 as a deck-building dungeon bash pure combat board game.

For a one-off, more complex, version of a typical dungeon-bash board game, this actually sounds rather fun to me. Normally, following an idea like this, my inclination would be to get into some really detailed analysis. Check whether every class and every power would work properly with this. Plan it, write it, think about it, rewrite it. On this occasion, I think I’d rather just play it and see what happens. After all, it’s not like we’d ever do it twice.

NB: Ok, it’s not really very deck-buildy. I just like the alliteration. The rapid levelling and adding more cards as a result after each encounter does give it a sort of deck-building element. But I accept, it’s no Dominion.

D&D Starter Set – Pregens in Excel

Even before the D&D Starter Set first came out, I knew I wanted to give it a try with my gaming group. Sadly, running it remotely was the only way I would be able to play it this year. And so, with no PDFs of the Pregens forthcoming, I typed them all up into nice neat Excel character sheets.

The next day, Wizards of the Coast released the Pregens in PDF. The next day.

Still, might as well share in case they’re useful to anyone:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/1w0x5zsxrsdlgoe/Phandelver%20PCs%20-%20Excel.zip?dl=0