The Great Tower of Oldechi: Gaiden

So here’s the thing.

The summer between floors 16 and 17 was rough for the campaign. I lost players to the summer break, more than I was expecting. I had a falling-out with another player. Of the players who were still there, all but one expressed an interest in changing their characters. In a campaign based entirely around “the party is a unified group and cannot split up”, the players themselves split up instead.

At a loss, I decided to put together a gaiden. The campaign proper went on hiatus for three months while we waited for things to reassemble and to give me some time to sort out what was happening. In-story, right before the summer break Tela’s player missed the only session she missed that entire campaign. As a reward for her attendance and dedication, in the middle of that session a hole opened in reality and stole her soul. The players carried her lifeless body for the rest of the floor, and once they finished floor 16 they met with Jay to ask what was happening.

He told the party that Tela was a victim of the tower’s increasing instability, caused by that maybe-allies-maybe-enemies group I mentioned last post. Her soul still existed but it existed in the Space Between Floors, the parts of the tower that climbers never saw or, ideally, knew existed. Creatures bitter at being abandoned by their creators had stolen the soul and split it into six pieces hidden in the detritus of forgotten, broken, and incomplete floors that had never been destroyed by the guardians.

Luckily, the guardians were prepared for something like this. Occasionally climbers would express an interest not in completing the tower or living there but joining it with the eventual goal of becoming a guardian themselves. These former climbers were able to navigate the Space Between Floors, and Jay tasked them with finding Tela’s soul. The problem was their time limit; if they didn’t reassemble the whole thing in one week parts of it would be lost forever.

And so we started a side story following a new party as they tried to find and destroy the offending creatures. They included:

  • Varon, half-elf bard, who you may remember as a ranger. Arcane Power had come out since the campaign started, and it included a Charisma-based archer. This was a redesigned version of Varon, changed from a striker to a leader, and it explained what had happened to him once he left the party.
  • Bjarn, dwarf fighter/runepriest, who spend most of his time complaining about how the runepriest was terrible. This was the same player as Borris, continuing his tradition of dwarves with startlingly high-damage builds whose names begin with B.
  • Midnorton Jones, wilden monk, an archaeologist who loved the forgotten bits of the tower. His eventual goal was to discovers its origin.
  • Thor, dwarf invoker, who joined midway through the summer. I don’t remember too much about this character, mostly because I was in another campaign with the same player also playing an invoker. That character was interesting enough that it largely wiped this one from my memory. I do remember his “reroll any attack that targets Will and misses, but if the reroll also misses I’m stunned” ability, though. He missed a lot.
  • Siven, rogue, who wore a mask and only joined the party for a few sessions. I recall him spending a lot of time pointedly not interacting with the party. Maybe he stabbed them once? It’s vague.

The neat thing about the Space Between Floors was that it was made of scrapped floors, so I made it of scrapped floors. I used it as a way to throw things at the players that I had considered for the real campaign but discarded for one reason or another, usually because I couldn’t justify making an entire floor out of them. So the players were literally going through a set of levels that the tower designer had created but was not using. It was a pretty meta adventure.

The Space Between Floors was set up like a fragmented computer, with various bits of floors tossed around, often abutting each other in weird ways. The players started in a prehistoric land fighting dinosaurs (scrapped because I had insufficient minis to make it as exciting as I wanted), then went to Ravenloft (scrapped because it wasn’t interesting on its own given Haelyn’s entire section), and eventually went to one-fight-large floors based on concepts that didn’t make for interesting enough plots (sewers, gravity, chaos, music, etc.). Along the way they found that Tela’s soul was held by six pumpkin-men (because I like pumpkin-men for reasons that probably have something to do with The Nightmare before Christmas, but I couldn’t pack six of them into a single floor), one of whom they actually befriended in what I guess I should now interpret as foreshadowing for all later campaigns.

Given the computer milieu, it’s unsurprising that we played with the tech level of D&D. The players got lightcycles from Tron when they started, which were very fast but completely unable to handle anything but the most gradual slopes. Eventually they made it into a Spelljammer spaceship, sabotaged its wireframe control crystal, and fought the MCP. The final boss was Abyss from Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (because he was technically made of Tron lines), for which our local game store owner made some fantastic custom miniatures.

(During this time it became clear to my wife that I had never seen Tron. She remedied that, then took me to see the sequel coming out later that year. So at least now I have an excuse.)

Since there wasn’t a tower guardian to act as a DM this section of the tower doesn’t have a lot of unifying themes. If there was anything I learned from it, it was “don’t throw out anything”, which I already knew. I do think that the pumpkin-men were a discrete leap in my understanding of 4E monsters, because they were the first times I really designed weird monster powers from scratch to fit a narrative goal rather than using powers I knew were reasonable and balanced given the party’s level and abilities. The result was raucously successful, enough that my monster design escalated almost immediately. It’s safe to say the warden never would have had his aura if I hadn’t changed how I designed monsters, and that’s a story too good to not exist.

Eventually the gaiden party succeeded, reassembled Tela’s soul, and rode off into the sunset. Tela woke up after a week asleep to find a note pinned to her armor that said “Got bored waiting, sorry!”. The tower assigned her a brand-new party, and together they completed Jay’s section and moved on to a tower guardian who was less inclined to help them. But that’s another post.

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The Great Tower of Oldechi: Jay

I kind of assume everybody is familiar with some version of the Rule of Three because it’s so ubiquitous, but in case you’re not familiar with it, in general it means that audiences like it when things come in threes. Movies come in trilogies, books have three-act structures, jokes and fairy tales repeat lines and setups three times, and so on. There are enough examples online that I won’t bore you by repeating them.

I lean on this every once in a while in campaigns, and I try to split campaigns into three acts: understanding the world and the central conflict, escalation of the conflict through the actions of the antagonist, reaction from and resolution by the players. Given the nature of a medium where the designer is only responsible for some of the storyline the length and content of a given arc is subject to change. The Monster Campaign followed the rule well, with enemies that were at their strongest in Disc 2 but passive for most of Disc 3. The Eight Arms and the Empire Sin sin was also very good, as the players chased an unrelated plot in Act 1, dealt with immediate problems in Act 2, and spent Act 3 chasing the bad guy and invading his home. The Eight Arms and the Memento Mori wasn’t quite as perfect because the third act ended up heavily rushed, but it was there.

Given this eye on the Great Tower of Oldechi, The first fourteen floors were Act 1. They got the players together and functioning as a unit, introduced many of the major players, and gave the party a feel for how the tower itself worked. Arithmetically-inclined readers may note that this is half of the way to Level 30, so Act 1 was half the campaign. Well, sort of. I expected the early levels to be simple while the later levels were complex, so I designed for each floor in heroic tier to take two sessions, paragon three, and epic four. When all was said and done the party beat Haelyn in session thirty-four of a 108-session campaign, so we were right on.

For the fourth section of the tower I wanted the conflict to ramp up. I wanted to force the players’ hands and have them decide whether to ally with or fight against a looming organization that may or may not have been evil, either setting them up as campaign villains or the party’s only lifeline. I wanted the floors to get to the point where players really felt like they could die, which in this campaign was a permanent death and a new character. And I wanted a tower guardian who moved the campaign at a right angle to where the players thought it had been heading, who knew he was in charge and leveraged it instead of letting them go about their business, and who could in the right light be seen as a legitimate threat instead of just a rough-around-the-edges moderator.

Jay made it clear from minute one that he was messing with the party. One of the first things he said was that “Jay” wasn’t his real name to get across that his reality was exactly as he intended it. He also actively trolled the players, some more than others, with lies and jokes. He was an active participant in his floors, not taking up arms as such against the party but certainly willing to step in to make their lives a little more interesting.

But what really set Jay apart from his predecessors was his advancement mechanics. Alex said, “Beat this guy and you level”. Rody said, “Beat one of these guys and you level”. Haelyn said, “Find the guy to beat, then beat him, and you level”. But this was all too concrete for Jay. Jay said, “Impress me.”

He went on to explain that sometimes all it takes to impress him was finding a big guy and killing him. But that was because Jay cheated wholeheartedly. The most powerful guy on each floor was ten levels above the party; killing something like that was legitimately impressive and merited a reward. But killing a guy who merely looked powerful was not sufficient. Nor was steamrolling a bunch of enemies with the raw power of an excellent character build. Jay didn’t want to see the party strong-arm an equivalent-level solo, he wanted to see something that made him sit up and take notice. And except for “feel free to get yourselves killed fighting a demigod or something” he provided no further direction.

For the first time the players were on their own. They had to explore the floor, think of something to do, try it, and look at the sky expectantly to see if that was enough to make Jay happy. Often it wasn’t. Jay wasn’t treating the tower like a gamist system any more. He was more narrativist: “Get yourself in a ton of trouble, find a way to get yourself out, and do it in an emotionally satisfying way”. Combat still happened on his floors but was no longer encouraged or required. When the party did kill a scary guy, it was only after that guy harassed them for the better part of three sessions by virtue of being largely unstoppable. Instead the party looked to other options, like stealing artifacts, ending ancient rituals, and collapsing entire societies.

The floors themselves weren’t that impressive. Jay based them on the four classical elements, so the party dealt with lava floes, an ancient jungle, incredibly windy cliffs, and undersea ruins. But the story wasn’t about the floors. Jay didn’t put them out and say “and now you will love them”, he put them out and said “find a way to wreck these for me.” In Act 2 the campaign started being more about the players and less about the world they inhabited.

Speaking of the players, there was a fairly radical shift in party makeup midway through Jay’s floors. I’ll mention some of the changes in a future post, but there’s one new character I won’t get another chance to mention:

  • Cletus Hightower, redneck ranger, and his animal companion The President, squig, which is a pretty weird confluence of words for a character in what until that point was mostly a high-fantasy campaign. Cletus was only with the party for two floors, so there’s not a lot I can say about him.

I think the characters don’t have many good memroies about Jay, but the players really liked him. He kept things light, he gave them some agency to decide their own path, he hit them with some hard and some fun challenges, and he seemed more like a regular person than a standoffish arbiter. Running Jay reinforced a few things I wanted to confirm about DMing: players like present opponents more than absent ones, good worlds can stand up to a little meddling without falling apart, and players are happiest when they can make their own way, especially when that way allows them to do things they think the DM hadn’t planned for. It made for a good transition between the serviceable but uninspiring tower guardians of the Act 1 and the challenge-the-player, more freeform floors of Act 3 where the guardians would start really coming down on the players for the first time.

Of course, a lot of Act 2 only worked as Act 2 because of a side-arc that happened between floors 16 and 17. This not only lengthened the campaign but also explained some of the mysteries of the tower itself, letting the campaign focus more on the people in it than its own ontological mystery. But that’s another post.

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The Great Tower of Oldechi: Haelyn

Alex and Rody were part of a common but not mandatory progression in DMing style. Alex was mundane, by-the-book, and serviceable but ultimately forgettable. Rody pushed boundaries and tested the system, but made mistakes as he defined his style. Neither was a bad DM, and both needed to work a bit harder and grow into something else.

The rest of the tower guardians do not fit as part of an obvious flowchart of style. I think all of them are recognizable, but there’s no guarantee that you’ve played with, been, or even met a DM that fits the remaining styles. I wasn’t about to make a global statement like “these are the seven stages of DMs”, not least because I can’t come up with styles that would fit that tree. I also didn’t want to tie the remaining floors to some indefensible notion of “these are the kinds of levels you create as you get better and better at DMing”. That’s not what the campaign was about. Though the tower guardians were a big part of the campaign the story was ultimately about the players and, as they would eventually learn, a series of tests they passed on the way to deification. It would have been a disservice to them and their narrative to restrict their adventures so I could make a statement about good DMing.

So when it came time for to to create the third tower guardian I didn’t sit and think “what would an evolved form of Rody look like?” I thought “what would be a neat antagonist, and what would be a neat series of floors, and how can I marry those into something appropriate for low paragon tier?”

Haelyn could pithily be described as “Wednesday Addams with magic powers.” Her goal was to instill emotion in the players, and the emotion she chose was dread. Her floors were desolate, dark, and foreboding, full of threats lurking just beyond the corners of the players’ eyes. Though still gave them their share of combat and triumph she really wanted them to get the sense that things were bad and were only getting worse, that they were in constant danger regardless of their actions or successes, and that the only reward they deserved was a slow, maddening fall into a mass of despair.

So it was a lot like a story game, really.

I partly chose Haelyn because I wanted somebody to contrast with the party. They were a fairly comedic and lovable group of scamps: the handsome and charming but self-important bard, the highly capable and startlingly tough sorcerer who “accidentally” caught his allies in his blast radii, the brilliant and powerful but single-minded wizard, and the unkillable but exasperated warden who tried keep them all safe from themselves and each other. The astute reader will notice a party change, as the ever-shifting dwarf left the party and was replaced by a new character from the same player:

  • Thump, goliath barbarian, whose love for the world and its meats was matched only by his hate for bees. I don’t think I can describe this character any better than his player already did.

You may notice that this is not a more serious character than the dwarf.

Haelyn’s style was meant to put the party out of their element and force them to deal with a world that was more actively hostile than the previous floors. She didn’t waste any time either; as soon as they stepped onto floor 11 and saw it was a graveyard reaching to every horizon I think they understood what that section of the tower was about. The following floors were an abandoned pseudo-futuristic mining base filled with scattered machinery and mindless robots, a mazelike set of caverns on the brink of inevitable war, and a lifeless expanse of ice. All were designed to rob the party of potential allies and show them that not only were they alone but the land itself was gradually growing more dangerous with each floor.

To the party’s credit they treated each new floor with the deference the environment initially deserved (and no more). They stayed light-hearted and humorous throughout but saved the true wackiness for downtime. Any time I gave them a real threat like a high-level monster or angry terrain, they treated it like a real threat. Basically they kept the goofiness on hold for times when they could get away with it, because they were starting to see that they couldn’t blithely romp through the world like they had before.

The problem was that they had to create their own opportunities for comedy because the floors provided none. Haelyn knew how to increase dread but didn’t know when to hold back. Her pacing didn’t have the ebb and flow that it should, where the players stop to breathe only to have things escalate as soon as they think they’re safe. Because the players were never safe, they never found allies, they never caught a break unless they grabbed the world by the throat and shook it until it left them alone for five minutes (but never rewarded them for it). It didn’t build anticipation and pressure as much as it drained the players.

The only person on the players’ side was actually Haelyn herself. She would heal the party between floors, give them hints about where to go, and be generally supportive. The players didn’t seem to know whether it was out of genuine concern or as part of some elaborate plot to get them to lower their guard. Regardless it made the pacing even weirder.

After floor 14 Haelyn didn’t actually fight the players directly. She knew that she wasn’t the scariest part of her floors and any direct confrontation would remove any lingering dread because it meant any horror could be destroyed by hit point damage. I should have sent the players into some terrifying set piece to tear them apart until they barely clawed themselves free in the end. Instead I just had her throw summoned creatures at them, one a round, so they could see the escalating difficulty but knew they had the power to stop it. It worked on paper and the players did like stabbing things, but looking back I feel it was a missed opportunity.

Haelyn is a good example of why trying to run a horror campaign, or any adventure based on fear, is hard. Yes, the DM has to been good enough to manipulate emotion with a delicate enough touch that it doesn’t look heavy-handed. That’s a skill worth learning regardless of the system or even the emotion in question, and I’m not convinced I had it. But it works best when the rules work with the intent, and 4E’s combat-happy mechanics and “all problems can be solved by daily powers and trained skills” feel set the DC for running a horror adventure very high. And even with a good DM and an appropriate system, it’s all for naught if the players aren’t bought in. Horror campaigns require a certain restriction on player agency that some parties can’t or won’t accept. No matter how scary and unbeatable you make the monster it loses some mystique when the players start calling it “clownshoes” and critting it. At least movies only have one funny guy they get to kill in the second act, not five funny guys who make it to the end through the power of flexing.

The next tower guardian instead took the players’ style and ran with it, giving them incredible freedom but requiring them to continually top their own successes to advance. But that’s another post.

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The Great Tower of Oldechi: Rody

By level 6 the players were starting to get into a groove, both in party style and in how they worked in the campaign. They’d paid their dues in the early levels, fought some goblins and hobgoblins and such, and beaten their first tower guardian. They were ready for something more exciting than forests and hills. But they were still heroic tier, not high enough level to get to the really fun parts. They needed to go through places and challenges more exciting than starting quests but not so extreme that they couldn’t handle it. In a sense, they needed to find their limitations and how to get past them so they could move on. It was only fitting that their tower guardian was the same.

To be as pithy as possible, Rody was Alex with two campaigns’ more experience and three more rulebooks. While Alex was limited to the rules as written, Rody was working on finding his own voice separate from the vanilla DM the books described. He was very willing and at least partially ready to explore things that the rules didn’t cover to see how he, the players, and the system could handle it. At the same time he held some disdain for the mundane environments of the lower floors and for the party itself.

Rody fell perfectly into the escalation of the tower floors. He still used mundane environments, but he tweaked them in some way to make them a little more fantastic. He sent the players into caves, but with a whole ecosystem that threatened the party instead of a single boss leading a group of humanoids. He gave them a swamp, but one made of poison. He gave them ruins, but with competing players stalking and attacking them more than hostile monsters. In each case he kept the framework of ordinary D&D but modified it a bit to work with his own voice and with the player’s desire for more interesting challenges.

The hardest part of running Rody was figure out how to get some things right and some things wrong intentionally. I wanted Rody to look like somebody who knew what he was doing, but not entirely. Luckily I didn’t really know what I was doing either, so it worked out, though I certainly made mistakes I hadn’t intended.

Some things that went well deserved it. Floor 6 had four groups warring for dominance over the caves, and the players could choose any one of them to fight. Each of them was a sufficient challenge for the players to advance, so they got to measure the threats and pick the one they thought they were best able to stop. Instead of a simple “there are monsters, kill they” plot there were elements of fighting, stealth, and potentially diplomacy in each option. Rody had progressed beyond a video-gaming-style idea of “challenge the players” and was giving them choice and more varied activities.

Some things that went well didn’t deserve it. On floor 10 the party met a group of goliaths, the same race as Rody. They challenged the party to a game of goatball, which Races of Stone tells me is a common goliath pastime. This was supposed to be a bit of racial arrogance on Rody’s part; the last allies the party would meet are goliaths, and to get the golaiths’ help they had to win at a goliath game, because of course goatball is an appropriate measure of heroism. But the party took to it like fish to water. Or, to be more exact, they took to cheating at it. The wizard managed to score at least two goals with a combination of mage hand and the referee’s terrible Insight checks, and there were many skill checks to advance the game in “ain’t no rule” ways. The players won easily, and not by following the rules of the game but by inflicting themselves upon it. We retold stories from that session for months.

Some things didn’t go well like hexes, which deserved success, and flying, which didn’t (though I suppose I’m not the best judge of which of my ideas deserved to succeed). Except for the area of blasts (which I think I understand now, partially, perhaps) 4E seems made for hex-based movement: heavy combat focus, no facing, non-Euclidian distances, probably other reasons. So I tried a combat using hexes. But in what I promise is an unusual display of terrible foresight I also put the players on flying vessels that had a maximum turning radius and minimum forward speed. In my mind it made sense because I cut my teeth on hexes with airplane-based board games. But to the players it was two new, weird mechanics at once, one of which limited their options in combat. I think since both happened at once the flying soured them on hexes. We never tried either again.

But that’s what Rody was about, trying things and seeing what happened. He was a DM with a few campaigns under his belt and he wanted to push the limits of the system to see what bent and what broke. And it helped a lot that I was doing the same. The session between goatball and hexes was the session where I first tested my system for skill challenges, finding the original system lacking. I was designing monsters with new, weird powers. I was giving the players combats made entirely of minions (fun fact, players can handle a lot more minions than the experience point budget thinks they can). I was finally comfortable enough with the game to give the players my favorite sort of puzzle, the type where I don’t know the solution but I expect them to figure something out while I adjudicate it.

At the same time Rody and I still fell into some of the traps of beginning DMs, mostly around “if I like X, my players will.” Mechanically he liked ranged attackers, traps, and damaging terrain (that is, terrain that damages players, not destructible environments). Besides the aforementioned love of goliaths he also liked humanoid enemies rather than monstrous creatures (another trait he shares with me). He liked self-important simultaneously-endearing-and-annoying enemies (a trait my players assure me he shares with me), like the shadar-kai who insisted his name was “Sir” and The Orb who spoke only in third person, who could be beaten with diplomacy. He preferred smaller environments to lands that could conceivably expand infinitely. His opportunity for sending giant constructs at the party was limited by the party level, but he still managed to hit them with one when the players fought him.

I don’t think the players ever picked up on Rody’s list of likes or dislikes. I guess that’s good in that they didn’t roll their eyes and say “oh, a gnoll archer behind a pit of acid, how surprising.” At the time they may have been feeling out their own characters as well, focusing more on how to work with each other and themselves more than the scenery of their story. So Rody was largely left to do whatever he wanted as long as it wasn’t disruptive to the game. It was probably for the best; when a DM is trying to find his voice, nothing shuts him down like the players telling him to shut up.

They did quickly figure out that he was their enemy and he knew it. He had been DMing long enough to know that the players were going to do everything they could to ruin the world he had made, but not long enough to plan for or encourage it. To him the floors were the hero and the players were the villains. They deserved whatever challenges he threw at them (hence a floor made mostly of poison) and if they couldn’t handle it that was their own fault. But he still knew enough to keep things fair and always give them a way out whether they took it or found their own. And, of course, his section of the floor ended with the players beating him and his giant construct in combat. A DM is allowed to be antagonistic if that’s what everybody wants, but he should expect to lose.

The party wasn’t quite as forgiving for the next DM. While they accepted her style, I think they grew weary of it over time despite her attempts to keep things fresh. But that’s another post.

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The Great Tower of Oldechi: Alex

There’s a lot I’ve thought about saying about 5E, mostly about things I don’t want. Things like the focus on Faerun as the default setting. Or using published adventures as a major, if not primary, part of the release cycle. Or the use of dragons as the be-all-to-end-all monster in a game that’s ostensibly about player characters. Or, heck, even the name. (Why not call it “The Dungeons and Dragons”? “2 Dungeons 2 Dragons?” “Live Dragon or Die Dungeon”? At least then the dragons get top billing.)

But there’s not a lot of point. 5E will be what it is whether I like it or not. It’s going to kill the company, save us all, or perform exactly as previous editions have no matter what a blog says and regardless of how much I play it. And, who knows, I might love it. I certainly warmed up to 4E once I figured out what it did, what it didn’t do, and how to accept and correct what I could. And there are parts of 5E I’m really excited about, parts that I hope make it into the final product (the basic rules don’t tell me a lot about monster design, and there’s no way I’m springing for the starter pack). It’s like judging a movie by the trailer; sometimes you get exactly what you expected, and sometimes you get The Mummy.

So instead of looking forward and shrugging, this might be a good time for looking backward and commenting, specifically about a campaign I ran some time ago. The Great Tower of Oldechi was an ontological mystery: the players knew they were in a tower and that they could advance in levels by performing tasks, but the exact nature of the tower and the way they advanced were questions they had to solve along the way. During their trip they learned more about their lives before entering the tower, explored a wide variety of worlds, and fought monsters, other explorers, and eventually the tower’s creator on the way to the top.

The campaign was somewhat special in that it was the first thing I ever did in 4E, and when I started I decided that it would be a full campaign from levels 1 to 30 corresponding to the thirty levels of the tower itself. It ran for 108 sessions over three years (you miss a lot of weeks in a college town) and ended with the players ascending to godhood so hard they were added to the pantheon in other campaigns I ran using other systems.

There are a lot of great stories I’m sure we’ll get into during a podcast, but that’s not what I want to talk about. The tower, and thus the campaign, was divided into seven sections, each controlled by a tower guardian. Each guardian had total control over his or her section of the tower, including deciding how the floors (demiplanes, really) looked, what monsters and allies lived there, what challenges the players might face, and the criteria by which they were judged. The seven guardians had seven distinct styles in how they designed their floors and how they treated both the players and the tower itself. Essentially, each tower guardian was a DM, and the PCs were players in a world they created.

I didn’t set out for the tower guardians to be different DM archetypes, but partway through the campaign I looked at what I was doing and worked with it from that point onward. In a sense it allowed me and the players to explore various styles while sticking with the same system, characters, and people, and it told me a lot about the way players react to DMs and vice versa. None of the guardians was objectively good or bad, but each had his or her points that fit or didn’t fit with the players specifically and the campaign at large.

So for this and the next few posts I’d like to look at each of the seven tower guardians to discuss their DMing styles and what that meant for the players in each section of the tower. In doing so I’ll go through the campaign retrospective that a single campaign writeup couldn’t have covered. That should cover us while I’m waiting for a 5E campaign to start.

Along the way, we’re going to play a game. The seven tower guardians share a unifying theme. When you figure it out, post in the comments that you did (but don’t say what it is, of course; that would be a spoiler). If you see the theme before the seventh guardian, congratulations! You managed to get it before every single player in the campaign.

The campaign started at the beginning in more ways than one. Of course the players were level 1 and it was the start of my first 4E campaign, but it was also the bottom of my normal escalation path. My recent campaigns tend to start with easy fights and challenges while the players get their bearings and feel out the world and their characters, and over time problems ramp up as the plot thickens. By the end of a campaign the players are barely hanging on, the villains are poised to win, and character death is unsurprising if not expected.

The Great Tower of Oldechi was no different. I knew that I wanted to start with simple floors and gradually get more and more complicated and unlike standard D&D. I had some great ideas for endgame floors, most of which I used. But to get there I first had to go through the simple, easy parts of the campaign so the later parts would seem that much better. There’s no point in hurling the players right into a demiplane set on the back of a city-sized, flying dragon at level 1. So I needed a tower guardian who was fine with relatively simple worlds and encounters.

Before I talk about the mundane guardian and his mundane world, I just want to talk about the party, which was anything but mundane. We started with:

  • Varon, half-elf ranger, who was an incredibly curious case for 4E because his highest ability score was not his primary attack stat. Varon was a Charisma-based ranger, which is not a thing. It made him a decent party leader but not very good in combat, especially with his “lead from the rear” style.
  • Rascon, tiefling bard, who managed to be everything Varon wanted to be but better because his class was actually build for it. Rascon was very nearly the “as likely to jump off a bridge as cross it” version of chaotic neutral but had some golden interactions with NPCs over the course of the campaign.
  • Lao, bladeling wizard, another race/class combination you might recognize as not mathematically ideal. I don’t have a strong memory of Lao for reasons that will become clear shortly.
  • Jaffar, elven avenger. Not even the player of this character remembers his name. We mostly remember the character because the player tended to choose powers he had a hard time saying. For that reason, to this day he remembers the name, text, and pronunciation of “angelic alacrity”. (Edit: turns out the character’s name was hidden on the campaign wiki, further proof that nobody reads those things.)
  • Baerd, dwarven fighter, who was exactly what you would expect from a dwarven fighter.

we think. It quickly became clear that the party wasn’t very fun for the players. 4E is not designed to handle suboptimal builds so half of the characters were meaningfully underpowered for such a low level, and before long we had a player unexpectedly leaving and another player unexpectedly joining. So on Floor 3 the party split up. One half of the party freed some captives, who happened to be characters designed by the members of the other half of the party. Some further shuffling happened between floors to work with everybody’s schedule. We ended up with this party, which we remember much better:

  • Rascon, still.
  • Laotzu, dragonborn sorcerer, who love spitting energy and damaging allies more than life itself. Laotzu was very effective in combat and very frustrating for me because of his high damage output and ridiculous defenses. But he is also the reason War Wizardry is the only feat we’ve banned in our local metagame; any mechanic that encourages a player to damage their allies, regardless of the scale of the damage or the benefit against enemies, is a recipe for trouble.
  • Tela, goliath warden, who started as a mundane warden but slowly reskinned her powers over time to become more of a weather-focused defender. Unlike most characters she picked a deity available to PCs and stuck with it, and she ended up being the party’s most moral member by omission. Spoilers: Tela is the only character in this post who survived to the end of the campaign.
  • Borris, dwarf chameleon. The thing I most remember about him is when his player explained that Borris had changed every floor. That is, more than 4E traditionally allowed. He had been creating a new Borris every level, complete with different classes, to see if the other players were paying attention. They weren’t, at least not enough to see through his heavy reskinning. This might have been a strategy I respected except I found out about it at the same time everyone else did.
  • Hadarai, elven wizard. There’s a feat tree that allows wizards to hit a creature with cold damage to make them vulnerable to later cold damage, which put their damage at low levels nearly on par with strikers. Hadarai took that tree and made it into an art form. He had a tendency to solve all problems with the same at-will attack, even in skill challenges. “An air vent spouts poisonous gas!” “Arcana check to cover the vent with ice using ray of frost.” “The door is locked!” “Thievery check to disable the lock mechanism with ray of frost“. “The orcs are scary!” “Intimidate check to awe them with ray of frost.” At the time I was irritated. Now I’d probably allow it if all his other attacks did cold damage as well. Cryomancy is somewhat underrepresented in D&D.

This is the group that really started to play off each other, and they had some great stories. But we’re here to talk about their DM and villain, of sorts.

Alex was a fairly bookish human (and I mean that literally; he carried around a giant tome that he used as his primary method of attack). He interacted with the party between floors, during the downtime they used to gain levels, and no other time, but during those times he was fairly understanding and a little affable. His floors were incredibly boring compared to the later parts of the tower: plains, a forest, hills, a tundra, and a desert. On each floor the party had to kill some monster to progress; once they beat the boss, they could return to the beginning of the floor and enter a magical door that took them to the next level.

Again, I did not plan on having each tower guardian represent a DMing style when the campaign started. But looking back Alex is a perfect example of the beginning DM. His environments were the ones described in the books, his monsters almost all came from the monster manual, his puzzles were small and didn’t always mesh narratively, and he was friendly with the party but standoffish about the floors themselves. It’s the sort of DM a person thinks they should be if they’ve read the examples in the core books but not thought about the softer advice like “read the table” and “give the players control”.

This showed best in his mechanic for advancement. Each tower guardian decided whether a party merited admission to the next floor, and since they controlled the world there was no other option. Alex always had players advance by killing a boss, because that’s how D&D works: kill monster, get experience points, make numbers go up. Alex legitimately didn’t understand other methods of advancement or experience gain because the books didn’t explain them. He DMed with Intelligence but not the sort with carefully-balanced encounters and meticulous plots. He followed the manual for DMing in as much as it could teach him, and anything he couldn’t learn from reading wasn’t worth learning.

When I explained Alex to two of our local GMs, one responded “That sounds boring.” Before I could respond, the other said “Well, it was the beginning of the campaign. I think the players expected boring.” That’s a pretty good representation of how the players reacted to Alex. They tolerated him and his floors, but only because it was a way to get to later floors. Nobody loved the mundane levels, even if they did love some of the things they did there, and once they were past Alex they barely referred to him or his section of the tower again.

And that’s kind of how beginning DMs work, or at least the kind they teach in the core books. The rules can’t teach good DMing because that comes from other sources: experience, communication, theater, pacing, all bits of a whole that aren’t addressed by charts or text. The rules do teach what they can, but on their own they are insufficient for a good DM. The best they can do is create a tolerable DM who creates tolerable campaigns. Nobody watches the clock waiting for it to end, but nobody talks about it the next day. Alex was a larval DM who needed work, and his problem was that he had no interest in putting that work in.

When the players finally fought and beat him at his lighthouse, I don’t think they were glad that they were done with him per se. But they were so interested in what came next that his whole arc became an afterthought. The next DM was a little more evolved, and he played with the rules in ways both good and bad. But that’s another post.

Posted in Campaign Writeups, D&D 4th Edition, DMing | 4 Comments

In Defense of the Indefensible

World Engineer has a post about the impending 5th Edition, and I find it hard to disagree with most of what he says. Fighting over editions is bad, there’s no need to convert people, and so on and so forth. But while I agree with what he says, I think I disagree partially with why he says it. I don’t think that people complaining or worrying about 5E are motivated by childishness or spite. I think they’re motivated by fear.

I’ve been going to my friendly local gaming store for longer than I’ve been a friendly local gamer. Now I can’t swing a cat without hitting two ongoing campaigns, but for a while there were only two or three people willing and able to run a regular session. If you wanted to be in a campaign, you had to go through all the normal steps (seeing if a spot was available, making sure you were free on the day in question, arranging transportation, tolerating the other players and house rules) but with the added complication of a limited option pool. If you didn’t like either of the current games, you had no game.

The standard blackjack-and-hookers options didn’t apply either, because the players were similarly limited. There simply weren’t enough people to guarantee a group willing to play in 2nd Edition or try an indie system. Most of the available players were college students, which meant they were playing largely what they knew from high school and what the local clubs supported, and at the time the hotness was D&D 3.0. Even if I wanted to start a GURPS session gathering a group was an uphill climb. Campaigns with only two players aren’t very fun (trust me—I didn’t learn my lesson the first time).

When an edition change occurred, the problem escalated. When 3.5 came out, some 3.0 campaigns stuck around as a show of defiance but gradually petered out. When 4.0 came out, we had the same issue. Anybody who wanted to play in a 3.5E campaign was out of luck unless they managed to get into the one campaign that was playing it.

I suspect a lot of this mindset is still around. Folks in smaller areas or with limited gaming options worry not about the existence of a new system itself but the presumption that it will be adopted locally. It’s a Hobson’s Choice: if I don’t like 5E but every gamer in town moves to it, I can either play in a system I don’t like or not play at all. In that sense, a new edition may actually diminish my enjoyment of the game.

In an online world or with a large enough player pool, the problem is instead merely a dilemma. I can either stick with the people I like and play a game I don’t, or leave the people I like and look for a system I do. There’s something to be said about knowing that my friends are enjoying themselves elsewhere while I’m taking whatever I can get.

This is related to but distinct from the very real expectation that a new edition will prevent a company from expanding the old edition. When 4E was announced, 3E and the OGL went away (until Pathfinder, but it’s not like we knew that would happen at the time). When 5E was announced, 4E stopped as well. The edition died in the same sense as a language. It could not expand except via house rules, and coupled with players moving to the new edition the interest in expanding it faltered in kind.

We’re people. We have a strong loyalty to our favorite things, and anything that is not that thing is in some way less (or else it would be our favorite, of course). A favorite edition is no different. Every person who adopts 5E is a person who isn’t looking for 4E and thus isn’t interested in what I want or have, and the issue is exacerbated when adjacent editions are so different. Players aren’t really attacking people who play other editions because they think those players deserved to be attacked. They’re lashing out as a survival instinct: “if you would do the thing I do and enjoy it as much as I do, the thing I like would not be dying”.

They’re wrong, of course. No system or edition can last forever. Eventually 5E will die, and if it was sufficiently profitable 6E will come out, and we’ll complain about that too because it shows too starkly how dead 5E is. Pathfinder will die too, and in the sense of system expansion it may already be dead so Paizo can focus on world-building and adventure modules. Any gaming historian can rattle off a dozen systems that don’t have the player base they once did. The only systems that stand a chance aren’t really systems as all but vague concepts. Apocalypse World and its related games are large and varied, but that’s mostly because its core concept fits on a sheet of paper and trusts DMs and others to build the system for them. It’s a like a building—a house of bricks may fall, but bricks will still live in another building somewhere.

So while I can see why some players are worried about 5E and what it means for the system they want to play, I’m not. I tend to take a system and pervert it until it’s something I enjoy anyway, so doing it all over again with a new edition strikes me as more of an intellectual exercise than a death knell. But I do think I understand why people are upset, and understanding it helps me. If I know what players liked about a given game, I can adjust my game to work with it, like applying story game principles to D&D. It’s a little more fire, a little less brimstone.

This all assumes that people aren’t complaining about how 5E is a money grab. Of course it is. A business’ job is to find ways to get more money out of their customer base. By this definition your shoes are a money grab. “5E is Wizard trying to get more cash out of us” is no more a valid complaint than “cars travel on roads”. Don’t worry about whether a given game costs money—worry about whether it’s worth that money to you.

Posted in Commentary, D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 4th Edition, D&D 5th Edition, Pathfinder | 3 Comments

Underpowered: Kenku

I’ve said before that the power level of racial powers can be ranked roughly like this:

  • The dwarf
  • Minor action encounter powers that attack enemies
  • Immediate-speed powers
  • Minor action encounter powers that affect enemies without an attack roll
  • Minor action at-will powers
  • Powers that help the character using them
  • Standard action powers

However, there was one option I forgot, one rare enough that it didn’t even come on my radar until somebody pointed it out:

  • No power at all

It took me a minute to accept “no power” as a power, but zero is a number and black is a color, so here we are. Luckily, there are only two races with no racial power (the half-elf and human technically have “some class at-will” as their racial power), and I’ve already addressed one of them. This leaves us with only the kenku.

The kenku, debuting for 4E in the Monster Manual 2, is the best of a bad lot. The duergar and the bullywug might as well have not had any racial traits at all, and the kenku gets one of the most powerful racial traits in the system:

Flock Effect: You gain a +3 bonus to attack rolls against a creature you are flanking instead of the normal +2 bonus, and you grant a +3 bonus to attack rolls or skill checks when aiding another instead of the normal +2 bonus.

4E has a very tight constraint on attack rolls because any variance in them is a serious power shift. 3E can survive a player who hits on a roll of 3, because that character’s later attacks need an 8, 13, and 18 respectively and a single attack rarely carries a devastating, fight-ending effect. 4E doesn’t have this variance; instead of having multiple attack bonuses from a single character, the game expects everybody in the party to have comparable attack bonuses and for those bonuses to fall in a narrow band. The system doesn’t know how to deal with a player who hits 90% of the time, and a character who discards even the meager +1 bonus/tier from expertise feats is fairly unoptimized. Into this environment comes the kenku, who gets a +1 bonus to attack rolls against almost every enemy in the game, and the only restriction is that another ally must be in melee? Where do I sign up?

But the rest of the race is fairly mediocre. A +2 bonus to two stats with no opportunity for choice (a trait of almost all races until Player’s Handbook 3), no racial power, and a second racial trait that keys off a single skill. Yes, it’s a skill for which the kenku gets a bonus, and the kenku’s ability score bonus feeds into the skill also…and actually that’s the problem. The kenku is built for one and only one type of character. The kenku only works in melee (to flank), using Bluff (to use the other racial trait), as part of a class that uses Dexterity and/or Charisma. That’s a short list:

  • Ardent (Charisma-only)*
  • Assassin*
  • Bard (Charisma-only, melee-only)
  • Paladin (Charisma-only, preferably blackguard)*
  • Rogue (melee-only)
  • Vampire*
  • Warlock (Essentials version, potentially Charisma-only)*

Everything with an asterisk was published after the kenku. Heck, four of those seven options are from the same book, Heroes of Shadow. If you need supplemental material to make the race viable, the race isn’t viable.

Arguably there’s still lot of opportunity here for a non-optimized character. With a single feat (Skill Training) any character can gain training in Bluff. A character doesn’t need to use both Dexterity and Charisma to be worthwhile, and they also don’t need to use the flanking bonus. Sure, other races are better options numerically by almost every standard, but if a character really wants to play a kenku they can play a kenku.

And therein squats the toad: nobody wants to play a kenku. This is the full and complete description of the race from their monster entry:

Sly and secretive, kenkus thrive in the underbelly of the civilized world. Like the ravens they resemble, these avian humanoids are opportunistic. They do not allow laws or morality to stand in their way.

That’s not a race description, that’s a class description. Kenkus are written to be rogues and nothing else. There’s nothing about the race itself that seems fun, unique, approachable, or even appropriate to a D&D party—further reading suggests that their interaction gimmick is “if you’re not family, we don’t like you”. If we want people to play the kenku we have to give them a good reason from both numerical and entertainment standpoints.

As usual their monster entry provides more information if you check their lore and read between the lines. It gives us this picture of the kenku: they live mostly in cities, often in secret; they don’t put stock in laws or morals; they run criminal enterprises; they live, work, and socialize in kenku-only clans; their racial traits rely on kinship and deceit; they’re mostly low-level so they work in numbers; and they don’t like fighting but can do it well when needed.

This…is starting to sound an awful lot like kenkus are the D&D mafia.

So let’s roll with that, because at least it’s something unique in 4E. The racial traits can stay; one assists in working with close allies, one assists in trickery, and both make sense for a member of a tight-knit band that trades in deceit. But instead of providing the Bluff bonus to all kenkus and hard-coding the race to one and only one skill, let’s provide some options based on an individual’s skills within the organization. We can also leverage the loyalty with a defense bonus, and we can give them an encounter power that demonstrates the will to punish anybody who harms a kenku’s allies. As always, we adjust the ability score bonuses to fit the new model, so let’s give kenkus an Intelligence bonus to represent their scheming opportunistic nature.

So we end up with this:

Average Height: 5′ 0”- 5’ 6”
Average Weight: 110-150 lb.

Ability Scores: +2 Charisma, +2 Dexterity or +2 Intelligence
Size: Medium
Speed: 6 squares
Vision: Low-light

Languages: Common
Skill Bonuses: +2 Bluff
Flock Effect: You gain a +3 bonus to attack rolls against a creature you are flanking instead of the normal +2 bonus, and you grant a +3 bonus to attack rolls or skill checks when aiding another instead of the normal +2 bonus.
Loyalty: You have a +1 racial bonus to Will. In addition, you gain a +2 racial bonus to saving throws against effects that dominate.
Criminal Expertise: Choose one criminal expertise: discretion, mimicry, or protection. Each criminal expertise offers particular benefits.
     Discretion: Once per encounter, you may automatically miss one creature with a close or area attack you make. In addition, you have a +2 racial bonus to Streetwise checks.
     Mimicry: You can mimic sounds and voices. A successful Insight check opposed by your Bluff check allows a listener to determine that the effect is faked. In addition, you have a +2 racial bonus to Stealth checks.
     Protection: Enemies marked by you take a -3 penalty to attack rolls when making an attack that does not include you as a target instead of the normal -2 penalty. In addition, you have a +2 racial bonus to Intimidate checks.
Proportionate Retaliation: You have the proportionate retaliation power.

Proportionate Retaliation Kenku Racial Power
The blood of your allies spurs you onward, giving you and your allies the resolve you need to enact swift vengeance.
Immediate Reaction Close burst 20
Trigger: An enemy damages your ally with an attack.
Effect: You and your allies gain a +2 power bonus to damage rolls against the triggering creature until the end of your next turn. If the attack was a critical hit, you and your allies gain a +3 power bonus instead. This bonus increases to +4 and +6 at 11th level and to +6 and +9 at 21st level.

I’d like some more options for criminal expertise, but I could only come up with two I liked (and the grandfathered mimicry). The options we have relate to using wide-ranging attacks, sneaking, and defending respectively, so there’s room for something more in line with a leader or very loud melee striker. I expect a racial paragon path would provide bonuses or powers based on the criminal expertise, allowing for even more variance among different types of kenku.

With that, I’ve looked at every race in the Monster Manual 2 and come up with versions that are hopefully a little more powerful and a lot more interesting. I’m not sure what else could use this sort of treatment, so I’m open to suggestions. If everything in 3E and 4E is solved, perhaps I’ll keep this article line on hold until I start seeing problems in 5th Edition.

Posted in D&D 4th Edition, Underpowered | 1 Comment

Puzzles (Part 3, The Handsome)

I used a lot of puzzles during the Great Tower of Oldechi. The tower was divided into seven sections, each with a different manager. Each manager built a section of floors on a certain theme, like the classical elements or gothic horror. The fifth section, floors 19 through 22, was based on puzzles. Each floor was actually one giant puzzle, often with smaller puzzles of various types scattered throughout. When I later asked the players later which floor was their favorite, every one of them picked on of those floors (and among the five players, they picked all four floors). Remind me to talk about that someday.

But this story is about a different puzzle. The party was breaking into a tower in modern Tokyo, on the run from the military because a thousand-year-old police officer was chasing them (it was that kind of campaign). They had to disable computers in a server room, but they had to only mess with computers that were already running because doing anything else would trigger the alarm. So I gave them this:

The players solved it quickly, so I gave them a slightly harder one to represent the next server farm. When they solved that, they moved on.

Fast forward two years, to the Eight Arms and the Memento Mori. The party’s ship had gotten damaged by some sort of sharks with ankylosaurus tails or something. Without sails or a steering mechanism, they drifted to a ship graveyard populated by elementals from the plane of carpentry. In order to find shipwrecks of sufficient integrity to provide salvageable parts, they players had to determine where the ships were knowing only how many their divers could see from the side.

I gave them the same puzzle. Not just the same type of puzzle, but the exact same puzzle. The rules, clues, and solution were exactly the same. Two of the players were in both campaign,s and neither recognized it from before. Heck, I didn’t even remember I had used the same puzzle until I was going through old notes to prepare for this article.

I suppose a pessimistic reader could see this as “your puzzles are so uninteresting that no player wants to remember them”, but since the puzzle was something like the third or fourth most exciting part of that session I’m not too bothered. More than that, this is an example of the power of reskinning. The exact same puzzle becomes unrecognizably different when presented in a different way, and that’s a good thing.

The key to reskinning a puzzle to fit your story is to have the two meet somewhere in the middle. Don’t come up with a brilliant story and try to shoehorn a puzzle into it, because it will feel out of place. But for the same reason don’t come up with a brilliant puzzle and try to staple it to your session. Puzzles work best when they work into the story better than “the bank vault for some reason requires Sudoku”. Even if it’s a somewhat flimsy argument (“The bank manager is a former Sudoku champion, and he designed this lock specifically to waste a would-be thief’s time”), players are a lot more forgiving when there’s an argument at all.

This means that it’s easiest and most satisfying to start coming up with a puzzle when you know roughly what the session and potential obstacles are but while they’re still in a sufficient state of flux. Given the above example, you can justify Sudoku as a bank vault combination. But instead, what if the combination was a nine-digit code that could only be determined from a Sudoku in the bank manager’s office? It’s basically the same justification, but now it feels more real because you haven’t already decided that the puzzle must be in front of the vault door, so you have some wiggle room.

I’ve also found that players are happiest when you don’t plunk a puzzle in front of the characters and say “solve this puzzle, orc barbarian!”. You can get away with doing that to the players, yes, but to the characters it would feel like a sudden cognitive break. This is why the example from my sessions framed the puzzle in the form of turning off servers or finding shipwrecks, because it made some sense for the puzzle to exist in the world. Solving a logic puzzle to get a bank combination is a little weird, but solving a wiring puzzle to short out the door lock feels a lot more realistic.

Given these tenets, the ideal puzzle is setting-agnostic (good job building that puzzle around dwarf culture, but you won’t be using it in your Star Wars game) and able to represent a number of things to make it easier to reskin. Following up from the last article, we also want a puzzle to be solvable by logic or reasoning rather than blind intuition and we want it to be challenging without being frustrating. And since we’re trying to marry it with a group of players, the ideal puzzle is also somewhat mutable, so that its difficulty can change a little if that’s what you need for your session.

Now for one of my dirty little DMing secrets: there are a few sites I’ve been using for years that fit all of these criteria. One hosts a wide variety of logic puzzles with unique solutions, different rules, and escalating challenge levels that I’ve been able to tweak to fit any number of sessions. If you’ve seen a puzzle by me, there’s even odds that it originally came from Erich’s Puzzle Palace. Case in point: the very first picture on that page is a link to and solution for the puzzle I posted above. So, you know, spoilers in case you’re playing at home.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t link to the page for Conceptis. A lot of their puzzles require pen and paper manipulation, making them more appropriate for handouts than for solving by simple observation, but they provide many difficulty options for each puzzle type so you can escalate at your leisure. If you’re not a fan of registering with strange websites, a lot of their puzzles are available on Kongregate (and if you are a fan of registering with strange websites, I’ll be happy to provide you my Kongregate referral link).

Both of these sites contain puzzles that can be slotted into any number of situations. Consider one of my favorites, Hashi. The general idea is that each number represents an island and each line represents a bridge, so it’s easy to give this to the players as a “connect all the islands” puzzle. But it could be anything where you need to connect objects without connections crossing each other. Each number could be a power terminal that needs to share energy with other terminals or be at risk of explosion. It could be an orc camp that needs a supply route with another camp, where the routes can’t touch because that might encourage banditry. It could be a glyph that needs to connect to other glyphs in a specific way to power a spell (here, feel free to replace the numbers with arcane symbols and give your players a key to correlate symbols with numbers—it’s no harder and it increases the immersion).

Once you strip a puzzles to its bare essentials, you can pile anything you want on top of it to make it specific to your session or campaign. This is sort of an extension of what I suggested in my post on designing a session in one hour. Training yourself to file the serial numbers off a plot or character is different from training yourself to figure out the root of a puzzle, but they serve similar purposes in that both allow you to take something designed by somebody else and change it into something all your own.

The easiest way to do this is to think of a description of the puzzle, then take all the nouns in that description and change them to “thing”. When you stop thinking of Hashi puzzles as “islands” and “bridges” and start thinking of them as “things that need connecting” and “connectors” you start to see the possibilities. Similarly, full house puzzles aren’t “touch all the floor tiles once” puzzles, even though that’s the most obvious application. They’re “touch all the things once” puzzles, which opens up power, supply route, exploration, and even communications reskinning opportunities.

This makes it easier to go the other way as well. If you know you need a puzzle where the players need to place magic symbols that interact badly in certain prohibited arrangements, you could look for a puzzle all day. If you think of it as “place things so they don’t affect other things”, you have many more options.

There are plenty of other options for puzzles, but these are the easiest I’ve found to reskin. If you’re willing to put in more work you can turn almost anything into almost anything else. A great example of this is the room escape genre of games, where the player is put into a situation (usually “trapped in a room”) and must perform tasks, solve puzzles, and combine and use items to work his or her way out. Given the sheer number and variety of such games they’re probably the king of non-sequitur puzzles. More than once I’ve had to rotate discs into a picture to open a desk drawer, the exact mechanics of which are neither explained nor necessary. A full room escape game is probably not appropriate for D&D given players’ predilections toward bursting through a door whether or not it’s locked by the triangle key, but bits of the games are right at home in a session. I’ve provided some links below.

Of course, if you want to create a massive, arc-spanning puzzle, you’re better off designing something brand-new. The simplest way is to have your MacGuffins be pieces of the puzzle, so the players must travel far and wide to collect segments of the puzzle’s solution. A more complex but more rewarding option is to present players with a prophecy or other tract open to interpretation that the party solves gradually. In any case, a puzzle that size becomes one of the points of the campaign, and that merits something group-specific and personal.

When I first started adapting puzzles from other sources, my biggest concern was that a player would recognize the puzzle and solve it immediately. With puzzles like this, that’s not a problem. A player who solves every puzzle I’ve linked above or player every room escape game is likely to have forgotten exactly how he or she did it and would be willing to do it again. If I’ve proven nothing else with puzzles in my games, it’s that the act of solving a puzzle is greater enjoyment than the knowledge that a puzzle has been solved, which is why players only ask for hints or leverage the “but my character is Reed Richards!” argument when they’re well and truly stuck. As such, I’m not nearly as bothered by linking to these sites as I would have been a few short years ago.

In fact, I hope one of my future DMs grabs some of these puzzles, repackages them, and gives them to me. I’ve been meaning to solve a bunch of them and haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Mild Escape by TESSHI-e: Especially pretty given the genre, and they rarely rely on searching for specific pixels to find items or combining clues in a haphazard, moon-logic way.
Crimson Room: The first room escape game I played, arguably one of the first at all. It and its sequels are fairly good, if a bit reliant on pixel-hunting and only occasionally solvable depending on whether a certain website opts to cooperate in a given day.
Jay Is Games: This is where I get most of the room escape puzzles I play these days. The quality varies wildly. As I write this, one of the first articles is “The 12 Best Escape Games You Might Not Have Played”, which is a decent introduction to the genre even if some of the games they list aren’t my cup of tea.

Posted in DMing | Leave a comment

I Further Podcast Magic Missile

I know I said my next post would be about reskinning puzzles, and it will be once I edit it. But a new set of Story Times with Blake and Highcove are out, this time discussing the blackjack and hookers* version of D&D Delve Night that we ran at our local store long after Wizards of the Coast had moved on to something else. We ended up creating something unique, varied, magical, and filled with death and references to media most of the players were too young to remember.

Delve Night, Part 1
Delve Night, Part 2
Delve Night, Part 3

The producer promised me we would get better at naming. In actuality all we did was start putting hashtags on the podcast descriptions.

* — If you’re reading this, Mom, there were no actual card games or prostitutes in any of the sessions.

Posted in D&D 4th Edition, Pathfinder, Podcasts | Leave a comment

Puzzles (Part 2, The Good)

So rather than griping more about what puzzles don’t work in D&D, this time let’s go over making puzzles that do. Last time I outlined four points that I feel make puzzles worthwhile:

Good puzzles challenge players, not characters.

“Challenge the players, not the characters” is something of a mantra around these parts. It refers to the distinction between a difficult encounter in-character versus a difficult encounter out-of-character. An enemy with astronomically high numbers and terrifying powers is a challenge, but one that normally relies on pure luck more than any effort or investment from the players (unless you expect your players to realize this early and flee, which is very rarely a safe assumption). Instead consider an enemy with tricksy powers, an environmental advantage, or a weakness that’s difficult but rewarding to exploit. This becomes more of an exercise for the players themselves, interacting with the enemy via their characters, and it gives their choices some weight that “I need to roll a 16″ doesn’t.

To give an example of how this relates to puzzling, consider a room full of lore that the party must translate and interpret to find some important artifact. This is an intellectual exercise for sure, and it seems like a break from running and jumping and fireballing. But if the translation is resolved by a Linguistics check and the interpretation by Religion, it’s no different from any other skill checks except that the bard is good at them. This isn’t a puzzle, it’s a trap where failure causes lost time or story stagnation instead of damage.

Instead give the players something to do. Write the document you want them to read in a text editor, then change the characters around via a substitution cipher. If you’re being fancy, change the muddled text to a fantasy font before printing it. Let the players do the translation instead of leaving it to a roll, and let them perform their own interpretation (and, if theirs is better than yours, steal it). Give them a chance to exercise their own minds instead of their characters’.

If this sounds like more work on your end than adjudicating a die roll, that’s part of designing a puzzle. And if this sounds like it will take more time at the table, good:

Good puzzles take time and/or effort to resolve.

Nobody’s satisfied by a combat that only takes five seconds unless the explicit point is that there’s a huge power gap or extreme luck involved. Similarly, nobody’s satisfied by a puzzle that they solve at a glance. A one-minute puzzle isn’t really part of a session for the same reason DMs don’t schedule a certain amount of time for Monty Python references.

Puzzles that take time but no effort are actually worse: they consume a valuable part of the play session, but there’s no engagement on the part of the players. It’s like fighting the same goblin encounter for the sixth time. Puzzles like this generally require taking rote actions over and over until a solution occurs; examples include a fifteen puzzle and the Tower of Hanoi. The first time a player sees them they’re interesting, but once you’ve solved one you’ve solved them all. The older your players are, the more you can assume they’ve already seen the puzzle and the more likely it is that at least one player has a solution or method memorized.

Most rote puzzles have some more interesting version that let players think instead. If you’re dead-set on having players push blocks around, consider a Sokoban or any of the innumerable sliding puzzles with blocks of multiple sizes like Klotski. Puzzles where the players build towers aren’t as common, but any sort of pentomino usually works.

Good puzzles have points where the players can feel they are making headway.

Players (read: humans) like knowing when they’re doing something wrong or right. If the wizards hits the robot with a lightning attack and it takes extra damage or shuts down for a round, it rewards the player for finding the robot’s weakness and encourages them to try it again. Equal and opposite, if the robot instead takes little damage or immediately responds with a lightning attack of its own, this discourages further lightning attacks but still rewards the players (if they survive) because they’ve learned about the monster. A party should know when their cause has an effect, even if it’s as simple as “I killed the orc, so now we only have to fight three instead of four”.

In a sense, I think this is actually part of the design aesthetic of 4E. Since my first campaign players have asked me “how damaged do I think the enemy is?”, something the rules don’t cover at all. We ended up deciding that a Spot check could give the players a rough idea, and good Spot checks gave more specific health information. In 4E players are allowed to know when a monster become bloodied and vice versa, and healing is more static and thus more predictable.

Puzzles are the same way. This is why mazes are much-reviled even though every DM tries them at least once—there’s no way to know whether a character is any closer to the exit and no sense of accomplishment until the very end. In games where puzzles can span more than one room, a lot of moon logic puzzles fall under this umbrella; the party knows they have the rooster key, but they have no idea whether that’s something they need to open the moon door or if they needs to explore the eastern wing of the dungeon first. The party could be tantalizingly close to the solution (shine light on the rooster key so it crows, turning the moon door into the sun door, which the key opens) but there’s no way of knowing it unless they’ve exhausted their other options. And if they shine light onto the rooster key in another room, they even don’t know which puzzle they’re solving.

If the players shouldn’t know exactly how close they are to a solution, they should be allowed to know that they’re getting closer. Sometimes this works by giving the players a map and letting them see the whole room at once, like the aforementioned Sokoban. When the players have five crates out of six on solution squares, they’re closer than when they only had two out of six. If a puzzle has multiple rounds, each success brings the players closer to a goal and may increase the difficulty to underscore the advancement. It’s about the ability to look back at the puzzle and say “at least we’ve done something” rather than “we’ve been here a half-hour and all we’ve determined is that orange is not green.”

Puzzles with progress also serve a secondary goal in that they make it much easier for you to give hints. A frustrated player has every right to point out that their wizard is very smart and should be able to figure out something about the puzzle. You can say something like “for a second you think you visualize a workable solution, and before your brain gets it muddled with every other possibility you latch onto the fact that this crate needs to be over here” without giving away the whole thing.

Good puzzles let everyone have fun.

Of course a puzzle lets players have fun. That’s why we’re here. The important word in this item is “everyone”. A puzzle is not good if it’s printed in small font on one sheet of paper. This means that one player actually works on it while everybody else strains their eyes trying to catch up. That’s swell if you’re dedicating the cleric to the document of religious lore while the rest of the party explores the room or talks to the ghost librarian, but lousy if it’s supposed to be a task for everybody.

This came into stark contract for me when a player complained about one of my puzzles. To me, it was a puzzle I really liked and one that the party solved after some significant effort. To her, it required a way of thinking that she couldn’t quite follow, so she wasn’t able to participate at all. It was like I’d paralyzed her for an entire combat, or left her to stew for an entire session in a hag’s larder while the rest of the party got to have adventures. A puzzle that only part of the party can solve is not a successful puzzle.

It’s why my puzzles rarely require small handheld props that only one player can manipulate at a time, and why they more often take place on our gaming screen or drawn large on the mat. One well-received puzzle from The Great Tower of Oldechi involved jumping over pits from one side of the room to the other. Though the party was all in one location, half of the players started solving the puzzle from the entrance and the other half started from the exit. When they met in the middle they knew they were onto something. It’s also why I tend to prepare two smaller puzzles rather than one big one, because it lets a player jump from one to another if they’re up against a wall. If the party knows they need to deduce the sequence of two locks before the door opens, it makes perfect sense that a character can cross the room and see what the other lock looks like.

Just as with combat, few puzzles survive contact with the players. There’s a chance that a player blows through the puzzle quickly, or that the party gets stuck early, or that one player you thought would love the puzzle came to the session very hung over. Usually if a puzzles only meets three of the above criteria I still consider it a partial success (but just in case, I try to prepare some variants of the puzzle with varying difficulty in case I need to change my plans—for every puzzle my players end up seeing, I have at least one they don’t).

Now we know what puzzles work and what puzzles don’t, at least theoretically. That still leaves the question of integrating them into the game. In the next post I’ll give some examples from my sessions, touch on reskinning stock puzzles to fit your session, and provide some links to my favorite puzzle sources.

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