Sunday, October 24, 2010

Skill Challenges

So I have some basic confusion about skill challenges. How do you DM them? So you say, "Hey you are now in a skill challenge!" and do you say "Hey, these are the skills you can use!" What do you say when a player succeeds with a skill but can't use it anymore because it has a maximum number of successes? Do you show the characters the number of successes and failures they have (thereby implying they have begun a skill challenge)? Without doing so things seem kind of arbitrary. If you are just picking a whole bunch of skills for them to roll if also feels a little lame since they aren't making a decision (well beyond the one to start whatever it is) and therefore eight rolls as opposed to one roll seems a little arbitrary.

Also, if a skill works, players will usually just repeat it. Having a diplomatic encounter and have the players just roll diplomacy 8 times seems kind of lame. Defeating a trap by making eight thievery rolls might be neat if you are also in the middle of combat, but it still is a little weird. Are characters supposed to figure out what skills to use and never be told? Players may be afraid to make rolls with skills since they might get a failure, but some skill rolls don't create failures but modify other rolls or open up new paths.

Okay, some quotes from the compendium:

"The DM either informs the players when the challenge begins or lets it begin quietly, when an adventurer makes a skill check that the DM counts as the first check of the challenge."

So you can announce it or not announce it. Seems reasonable.

"As the challenge proceeds, the DM might prompt the players to make checks, let them choose when to make checks, or both."

I think the intent is to make things very free form. But what I have realized I don't like is DM prompted checks without consequences. Maybe if I ask for a check I mark up a success up a success/failure counter.

"The DM might tell the players which skills to use, let them improvise which ones they use, or both."

Yup, really free form which allows you to have good skill challenges and bad skill challenges. A little bit like combat, but combat has a minimum level of fun. Making a boring skill challenge is much easier.

Okay, so like I started talking about before. A good skill challenge must involve player decisions. If the only decision is what skill to use this is dangerous because players will probably just use the skill that works. Negotiating with a king? Sure, you could use History to impress him with your local or Insight to sense what kind of approach would work, but it terms out you have a Bard with a high diplomacy roll so why not just do Diplomacy every time.

So I popped open the DMG to look at the examples and starting reading "Running a Skill Challenge". Originally it forced every character to make a roll, but the errata changed this. That makes the first example "The Negotiation" meaningless. Instead of forcing every character to find some skill that might be helpful you can just have your diplomacy expert do the talking and rack up the 4 successes you need. The same is true of several of the other examples.

This turns a skill challenge into a standard skill roll and that is lame. One solution is to limit the number of successes you can get with one skill, but you will have to deal with a 'huh' look from players because that is kind of arbitrary. "What do you mean Diplomacy no longer works on the Duke and I have to use another skill?"

Another option could be to have an increasing penalty. Each successive roll with one skill causes that skill to be used at a cumulative -2 for the rest of the encounter. That way the characters will have a more organic reason to switch and the switch will be a tactical decision instead of a restriction.

I guess the basic question is how do you make a skill challenge fun and not just a roll-fest. I think it comes down to two things: Decisions and State. Players have to have some decision to make or they are just guys who roll dice and observe. In the basic idea of the Skill Challenge the players have to decide what skill to use and figure out what skills make sense to use. Unfortunately this often fails for the reasons mentioned above, you find the best or most obvious skill and apply it until you succeed. So you need to put in some reason to use something beyond the initial skill. I mentioned above the -2 penalty at a simple option.

State is the other requirement. The simplest form of state is tracking successes and failures. Having even this simple, kind of abstract counter makes it feel like a roll is important.

If you think about combat, every round the character makes decisions, probably rolls some dice based on those decisions, and then sees the state of the battle change. In battle the decisions are more complex as is the state making the game fun. The more decision making and state change in a skill challenge the better. So when you design or analyze a skill challenge those are the two basic factors you have to keep in mind.

So I going to look at more skill challenge examples, but my initial impressions are that highly specialized skill challenges are the good ones. Ones that have some concrete story and effects around them. Unfortunately, the most useful skill challenges would be generic ones, like negotiating with someone, getting information from a prisoner, or traversing the wilderness.

One thing this makes me think of is the mini games in Mass Effect where you have to complete some sort of mini-game to open a lock or decrypt some information. Figuring out a mini-game for various activities might be possible, but it has the potential to take you too far out of the game. Solve this Sudoku to successfully interrogate the prisoner seems a little weird.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


One lunchtime conversation people were talking about gambling. I tried gambling once. I got very excited, but I decided, like most vices I would be better off not exploring it too much. But I digress. One of the comments someone made was that they took the arms of slot machines and now you just pressed a button and that this change took all the fun out of it. The key observation here is that the physical act of pulling a lever added fun. This brought me back to my younger days when I wrote a dice program to make my Champions game go faster. Champions damage rolls tend to be around 10 six-sided dice. You end up spending a decent amount of time counting dice. From this time I got pretty quick at counting dice totals, but I recognized the loss of time and a wrote a program to automate it. But when I used it my players weren't that keen on it. People like to roll dice. They like the physical interaction with the objects.

While thinking about this I was also thinking about how to handle inventory management in D&D. I toyed with the idea of a program and may still make one, but I thought about how in many 'economy' type games you have little markers for money, i.e. monopoly money. Having this physical money handed around is part of the physical aspect of the game. So I thought for D&D instead of just writing downs numbers that are easy to lose track of, I would get coins and have the characters actually have a physical representation of their wealth.

First, I thought about using pennies and such, but in D&D at higher levels the money scales up quickly so using real money or even fake copies of real money wouldn't work. So I came across a site about making clay coins for hannukah. So I went out and bought 4 lbs of oven bake clay. I got a fairly cheap kind that was undyed. Originally, I though about getting multiple colors and have that represent value. But I went with volume over color options. This turned out to be a mistake...

So the clay was pretty easy to work with. I covered a rolling pin in plastic wrap and rolled out the clay into a thin layer on top of newspaper. I then used a lipstick cap as a mold to cut out small circles. I punched a hole through the top of the cap so I could put a skewer through and push out the clay. I tried a couple different ways of marking the clay with value numbers. I tried carving the number into the clay, writing the number with sharpie on both pre and post baked clay. Due to the carving being time consuming and sharpie not working pre baking, I ended up just writing numbers with a sharpie after the baking. It worked very nicely.

One thing I have seen in craft books was using molds and metallic glitter to make clay coins look real. I didn't bother with this, but it does have potential. One thing I wish I had done was buy the smaller packages of colored clay. Because I bought way, way too much clay. I have made over 200 coins and had barely used my big hunk of clay. I think it would have been much cooler to have brown, white, and yellow coins to represent increasing value and maybe even red and blue coins to represent various forms of residium.

One thing I would like to do in the future is get a nice dice bag for the players coins. Right now they sit in a plastic bag, which gives some nice visibility, but kind of breaks the medieval coin feel.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Falling behind on magic items

I think I have been too stingy. I was thinking about what I would do about characters carrying off items. It seems unfair to allow precious items to be carried off without replacements for newer characters, but I don't want new characters to come in with hand picked items as opposed to random items.

Looking at the distribution of magic items in my current game I have fallen behind. They have missed 3 items. I feel to make the party up to snuff I not only need to replace these items and to also to 'reopen' the slots being taken away by other characters.

Another thought I had was that I should make these random items better since they aren't as useful as items attuned for the characters. This is the effect I want, because I want them to have to adapt to items they find and not develop item based 'builds'. But this also makes them a little weaker than normal. I think I will start boosting the level by 2 and having any consumable rolled by a pure addition. I don't think +2 levels will be unbalancing since an additional +1 usually takes around 5 item levels.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Story Elements

Just some quick thoughts. A lot of time DMs feel forced to play through everything instead of doing hand waving. Sometimes you want story elements that don't fit well into the typical mold of D&D. In these cases you can depart from the normal play style and become more of a story teller.

For example, in my recent game it made sense for a character to return to his temple so I quickly went through the story of him returning to his temple and finding it in ruins. As I think about other plot elements and story lines I think this is a useful method. For example, having a point in the adventure where the characters spend several years doing something. For example they join a war that lasts many years. In a story there would be some overall plot statements and then focus on some specific scenes like a memorable mission.

This is a good way to also handle the party splitting up. Quickly gloss over the time apart. For example, 'You return to your people triumphant and are hailed as a hero. You take great pride in your accomplishments and you begin to settle down to a normal life. Every day is another day between you and your adventure. Your story is told less frequently over the months and years and you yourself begin to grow restless with a calm life and yearn to fight for your life against insane odds. Given this you welcome a message from an old friend and eagerly accept a plan to meet him at an old tavern full of memories.'

Saturday, July 24, 2010

New Potential Project

So one problem I have run into and discussed previously in this blog is the generation of random magic items. Wizards of the Coast provides no 'random' magic item table and in addition constantly adds new magic items. I want some kind of random magic item generation for reasons stated before, but I also want to somewhat tune things to my players.

1) My first attempt: My first attempt at random magic item generation was to look at the length of the entire magic item list of the onlilne compendium. A generated a random number and then looked at that number in the big list. I did this five times and then picked out the thing I felt fit best. The problem quickly became that certain types of items showed up more often. There might be many more kinds of rods than belts so the players would find rods they don't need and never find something to go into the belt slot. I decided to try and find a better system.

2) My second attempt: So I created this complex set of charts and rules. I tried to even out stuff based on slots so that found magic items would have an even distribution around the magic item slots a character has. I messed with things to put some twenty sided dice rolls in there, but the problem became that generating a single magic item became a arduous process.

So I thought to myself, I would like to have a simple system where a single button push can give me a random magic item. The system should take into account slot flexibility and be somewhat configurable. It should also adapt to whatever WotC is currently publishing. Based on the last condition mainly I decided to examine the D&D Insider Compendium. Bringing up fiddler I started discovering a couple things about how they managed their site, some of which I liked.

The compendium, despite a slightly clunky UI, has a fairly well-designed web interface. The page controls generate a POST to a web service, ConpendiumSearch.asmx. Posted to the web service are the inputs. This web service then responds with a potentially large xml document that has all the raw data of the listing of the search. An xslt transformation then turns this data into the list displayed by the page. It creates a url to a page item.aspx that returns an HTML page displaying the details of the specific item. The is unfortunately inconsistent and it would be much nicer to have a web service to give specific item xml instead of just a page. But apparently they want to expose web services to do simple searches but not more than that.

So this means I can build a simple random magic item generation tool. One of the drawbacks is that certain items like armor have different types and this isn't conviniently represented or searchable on. The searches aren't great either. They don't let you search by slot.

But let's switch back to what I would like and they reconcile this with what is possible later.

I would like to enter a list of classes of the party. I would then want to pick a random slot, a slotless item, or a slotless item with charges (potions, scrolls). Then I would want a roll that took into account the party composition. For example, if 5 people could use rods and only one could use superior melee weapons then the chance of getting a rod would be 5 times that of getting a superior melee weapon.

Okay, so one problem is that you can't really search by slot and the returned xml does not have slot information, but you can search on 'Category'. You can create a rough mapping between these categories and slots, so now I have to consider these slots and what kind of slot distribution I want.

Slots: Armor, Weapon/Implement, Waist, Ring x2, Neck, Head, Hands, Feet, Arms.

Out of those, three have special functions represented as item bonuses to AC (Armor), Attacks and Damage (Weapon/Implement), and Defenses (Neck). A naive approach would be to assign equal likelihood to each slot, but this would ignore the necessity of having these bonuses. So since these are more important they should have a higher weight when being rolled for. Another consideration is the 'who can use' issue. Many slots like Rings, Neck, Feet, Waist, etc. can be used by many classes, but weapons and implements will often be limited to who can use them. So if you evenly distribute slots you will have a situation where you will feel like you have a lot of choice for most slots, but your most important weapon/implement slot will have few choices. So perhaps Armor and Weapon/Implement should have a higher weighting because they are more limited.

So for weapons, implements, and armor if you just roll randomly you get lots of stuff your characters won't be able to use. So again you want to weight, but weighting just against 'Category' could cause issues. Armor and weapons have an additional 'type' and for some items they are limited to a type of weapon or armor. For example, what if no one can use a bow but you roll a weapon that can only show up as a bow? Also, armor won't be balanced by what your party can use, but rather by the random distribution of what various armor types can be. Luckily, some of this info is in the xml. So you could search for Armor, randomly determine the type based on what players you had and then narrow the search. This works fine for Armor, but weapons are distributed by type. But it gets more complex with weapons....

I will stop here for now and continue in further posts.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Comparative Marking

Marking is a pretty neat addition to 4e, but the mechanic has brought up questions. These questions are exacerbated by the fact that there are 5 Defender classes each with its own mark. Okay, so marking is basically dividing into two parts: 1) application and sustaining of the mark and 2) what you can do to marked targets. One of the universal parts is applying the Marked condition. This condition imparts a -2 penalty to all attacks the don't include the marker. This is especially great if the Marked target can't attack you!

  • Fighter: Every target attacked is marked until the end of next turn.
  • Paladin: Minor Action to mark up 5 squares away but you must sustain the mark by either attacking or ending next to your target.
  • Warden: Free Action on your turn to mark all adjacent until end of next turn.
  • Battlemind: Minor Action to mark up 1 (or 2 if augmented) targets up to 3 squares away. Lasts until you use the power again.
  • Swordmage: Minor Action to mark 1 up to 2 squares away. Lasts until you use the power again.
So right off you see some interesting things. Fighters can mark outside of their turn with immediate and opportunity actions. Paladins have the best range (not counting fighters with ranged weapons), although since they need to sustain their marks they have a hard time taking advantage of this without ranged weapons. Wardens can mark a lot of targets, but they all have to be adjacent.

Added Effect
  • Fighter: Immediate Action to get basic attack against adjacent who attacks another or shifts.
  • Paladin: Free Action to do damage AT RANGE when mark attacks another. Once between turns.
  • Warden: Immediate Action to do a vs. Fort attack that causes combat advantage when target attacks another OR Immediate Action to do slide, slow, and prevent shift when mark attacks another target.
  • Battlemind: Opportunity Action to shift when adjacent mark shifts OR Immediate Action to do same damage done by mark to adjacent enemy.
  • Swordmage: Choice of 3 that go off when mark within 10 HITS another target. They can either teleport to be adjacent to the mark and take a basic attack or make it grant combat advantage. Or they can reduce the damage done.
Each type of defender has strengths and weaknesses in the way it marks and can open up different tactics. For example, the Swordmage and Paladin have mark benefits that can be used at range. A Swordmage can mark a target a 2 squares away, get to a spot the mark can't reach within 10 squares, and then constantly reduce its damage as well as give it a penalty. A Paladin with a bow can mark a target within 5 squares and constantly apply mark damage at range while keeping its mark up with a bow attack.

So one tactic I want to bring up is applying a lot of marks in order to give a lot of people the -2 penalty. Although every class has abilities that allow marking multiple targets, only the basic marking of Fighter and Warden really allows this. The danger of this is drawing too many attacks and getting wiped out. Also, the mass marking tends to be limited to enemies close by. One exception is a ranged Fighter. You could build a Fighter designed to mark multiple targets at range, but then your build is getting so specific that you are making valid tradeoffs to act more like a Controller than a Defender.

Another things I want to note is the bonus. Most of these bonuses are Immediate Actions or can only be used once per round. This is a basic tenet of the special extra damage abilities. Warlock's Curse, Sneak Attack, Hunter's Quarry and so on do extra damage only once each round. The special mark extra damage is the same. You can apply it once per turn. The only marking ability that does not follow this is the Battlemind ability to shift as an opportunity and this doesn't do damage.

Defenders mark abilities tend to be useful against targets that try and get away from. Fighters get their attack versus people shifting away. Paladins can do their damage despite the target not being in range. Wardens get their mark attack with reach weapons and can use a movement hampering ability on marked targets at range. Battleminds can shift after targets shifting away and Swordmages can just teleport range attackers back adjacent. Of these, the Fighter seems to be the best in terms of pinning down shifters. A ranged attacker mark by a adjacent fighter had 3 options. They can shoot at point blank. The fighter can then get a free attack and can stop the attack without using his Immediate. The ranged guy can shift away. The fighter can then use his immediate action to attack. Next turn the fighter will be close by and can continue to press the attack. Or they can run away and attack. They take the opportunity attack and don't use up the Immediate action of the fighter, but they can at least make an uninterrupted attack and now have some distance, but expect that fighter to charge you next turn.

Fighter: Fighter are fairly versatile in applying their mark since it can be attached to any attack they make. Their Immediate Action is a basic attack. The drawback of this is you have to be adjacent to make the attack and you might miss, but the advantage is that you get this attack on a shift. Fighters are the only Defender that can mark outside of their action with opportunity attacks.

Paladin: Paladin marks are a little bit like a Fighters in that the target they attack is likely to be the one they mark. But they can only mark one target. This is made of for by the flexibility of not attacking your marked target and instead just being next to them. Paladins can't respond to shifts, but they don't need to since they can do their damage at range. The other drawback shared by many Defenders is needing to use a Minor Action to change marks. The Paladin mark does require the most management since you have conditions to sustain it and can be penalized for letting it drop.

Warden: Marking is really easy. You just hit everyone adjacent. You don't even have to stay adjacent since your mark abilities can hit targets at range or reach. You of course have the issue that you need to hit and you can't mark targets at range, but you can pull people back to you and slow anyone trying to get away. Warden marking is very good

Battlemind: Battleminds have the only Opportunity Action mark ability. This allows them to shift after a ranged unit shifting away, but doing so uses their AoO and the ranged unit can then attack them without worrying about an attack. So they aren't great againt artillery. The have a encounter long mark and can even augment their marking to mark two targets but they don't have to engage the target to maintain the mark like a Paladin, but of course, they can't use their special mark abilities at range either. The neat thing about their marking ability is that they do the damage done by their target. This requires the target to hit unlike the marks noted above, but doesn't require a hit roll like the Fighter and Warden marks. This is very nice against powerful single targets that can dish out a lot of damage.

Swordmage: Unlike some other Defenders that mark at range but then can only use it while close the Swordmage can only mark targets close by, but can then use the mark ability to teleport to the marked target and then get either a basic attack or make it so they grant combat advantage. They also have the option of having damage reduction. These are all fairly nice, but you suffer because your marked target can essentially pull you out of position if you want your mark benefit. The other major drawback is that it requires your marked target to actually hit. You don't get the advantage if they miss. This combined with the fact you need a hit roll probably makes the Swordmage marking the least damaging marking.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Turn Order, Events, and Such - Ramblings

So been working on my battle tracker javascript program. Ran into a technical difficulty caused y an architectural choice. I developed the notion of secret tracker entries that controlled timed effects. These tracking entries would automatically do things like increment conditions and so on. The problem comes up with delaying. When someone has several tracking actions these actions happen automatically when their turn comes up, but a person who is delaying should be able to act before these tracking events go off. For example, Controller A puts an effect on a target that lasts until the start of Controller A's next turn. Striker B wants to delay but also wants to take advantage of this effect. What will happen with my current design is the the effect will turn off because Controller A's turn will start and Striker B will not act while this effect is on. Currently entries do not actually remove entries and just increment them so there is no actual problem in running combats, but this prohibits automatic removal and corrupts the underlying data model.

One possible situation is to have tracking events go AFTER the event that inspires them. This might make sense.

Anyway, this made me start thinking about various conditions and effects and I wanted to oput my thoughts in text.

There are essentially four types of persisting effects that I can think of: a condition you can save against, a condition that lasts until the end of your next turn, a condition that lasts until the start of your next turn, and a condition that lasts for the rest of the encounter. Everything else is an effect confined to your turn or action.

So the question becomes how do these effects interact with delaying and readying. Okay, readying is simple since you basically resolve your turn.. But delaying is a little more complex and forces you to look at the structure of a turn. A turn basically consists of three phases: a start, an action section, and an end. The Start includes ongoing damage and regeneration. The Action section includes your three basic actions and their effects. The End includes saving throws and the end of sustained durations.

A Delay action happens after you Start. This has some interesting ramifications. You can not avoid the ongoing damage by Delaying, but the ongoing damage for the next turn is put off possibly allowing you to be healed in the meantime. It also slows down any regeneration. Although this effect is of note it doesn't really matter that much in terms of durations. If something ends at the Start of your turn Delaying will not stop it automatically turning off when your turn comes up. The End phase is more complex. Effects beneficial for you and sustained duration effects end. (Another interesting effect is that Delaying is really unattractive is you have sustainable powers.) Effects that are negative only end when you take your Delayed action. The book mentions an enemy stunning you as an example, but that is a bad example because you can't actually Delay when stunned. Let's generate an example that is almost as bad. Let's say an enemy Blinds you UENT. Your action comes up and you Delay. The enemy's turn comes up and you are no longer Blind. You can then take you Delayed action while not Blind. So the 'you can't Delay out of harmful effects" actually only applies to harmful effects you put on yourself. Let's take a slightly better example, Heedless Fury gives you a -5 on all your defenses. If you Delay you keep this penalty until you take your action. This is also kind of a crappy example so I will generate a goo, but hypothetical example. Suppose you have a power that causes you to go blind UENT. When your turn comes up you can Delay because you can take actions, but you can not use the Delay to escape the Blindness unlike in the example above where you were Blinded by an enemy. Frankly, I am not sure if there are examples like this in the game, but I expect that this rule is 'defensive' to prevent a hypothetical abuse.

So one question: Can you launch UENT or USNT actions from a free, immediate, or opportunity action? I will have to keep an eye out for that kind of effect since it will impact the program. Well, you can definitely launch such an effect from a Readied action which is technically immediate, but it is modeled as a whole action by the program and it resets initiative so this works nicely.

Okay, back to software. If I change the architecture of my little program to not have 'tracking entries' but instead have effects tied directly to the Start and End this reflects the game better. My notion of tracking entries actually fits with 3.5 and not 4.0 since in 3.5 you have effects that essentially get their own initiative since you Delay to be out of synch with them.

When your turn comes up naturally all your USNT effects should turn off. You then have 3 choices. If you take your turn or ready an action ALL your UENT effects should turn off. If you Delay your positive UENT effects should turn off. If you either take your delayed action or you delayed action is lost when you go to the top of the order all your negative UENT go off. So you can actually have your UENTs go off right before your USNT would go off. Course you probably wouldn't have any USNTs because you didn't act.

Note, you can not Delay in front of yourself. This would allow you to basically allow you to skip your Start phase if you Delayed the entire round.

So this leads to each entry having a list of effects that can be triggered by specific FSM transitions. Back to coding!