Wednesday, September 30, 2009


As I mention in my intro, I'm a graduate student in English. Specifically, I am a Masters student about to take my qualifying exam and hopefully proceed on to the PhD program. If I manage that, I'll be specializing in Medieval Studies, because the literature of the medieval world, especially the early medieval, fascinates me. One of my favorite works of literature is Beowulf, which is the longest surviving work in Old English.

As a fan and student of the medieval era, I am often trying to find a way to bring it together with my interest in gaming. I already have a quite large collection of fantasy novels; some of them are great, while some of them I collected while in my early teens and keep only for nostalgia. I have a growing collection of medieval literature and history, as well, especially concerning Old English and Old Norse. Yes, I find Vikings, and other early medieval Scandinavians fascinating; I once wrote a 25-page paper for a Byzantine History class on the Varangian Guard, a special contingent of mercenaries imported by the Byzantine emperor from Scandinavian nations.

One of the things I have found that works quite well trying to combine my love of the medieval with my love of gaming is the literature and writing of the Anglo-Saxons. They were a harsh people, living in a harsh time, and yes, they did invade the British Isles. But one of the things they also seemed to love was the creation of riddles. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of Anglo-Saxon riddles floating around, and many of them are very cunningly written; they seemed to have a fondness for making something sound like sexual innuendo, when in fact the answer was not sexual at all.

Luckily for me, one of the very first sites that comes up when you punch in 'Anglo-Saxon riddles' in Google is a site created by a former professor of mine from my undergraduate days; without his influence, I doubt I would have made it as far as I have today in the academic world. Riddles are not the only contribution the Old English and Norse made towards gaming, obviously, but they are one of the contributions I have found most useful in flummoxing players, as well as an interesting insight into the culture they come from. If you have any interest, look them up, and if you're looking for more, contact me.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Creating Worlds

As a DM, one of my biggest problems has always been creating interesting environments for players to have their adventures in. Sometimes I spend way too much time detailing a setting, only to have players fast-forward through all my hard work, and sometimes I go with a bare-bones approach and get bitten when players suddenly want to know what happened to an innkeeper's nephew I made the mistake of mentioning. It's really a balance to try and find out what the players will and won't enjoy.

A while back, once I finally realized this, I wondered if there wasn't something else I could do. Granted, I could use pre-made settings; there are some very cool ones out there, many of them much better than what I could come up with on my own. But I realized that, when it all came down to it, I was generally the only one who had any input into the creation of a campaign setting, and that this might be the reason why I was having so much trouble engaging my players.

So, I looked into collaborative worldbuilding. At its most basic, this is where you essentially allow the players to come up with large portions of the setting - most often, where their PCs come from and where they end up going. This can be a bit chaotic, because you will have a number of people all trying to fit different things into a setting, sometimes in ways that will be highly incompatible. So there are easy ways to direct this. First, tell the players what kind of feeling you are going for with the setting; a nation of carefree, rainbow-worshipping hippy elves wouldn't work very well in a setting of grim horror. Second, establish a level of technology; this will be the highest anyone can have their group/nation/whatever's technology advance to. This avoids things like the laser-blaster-wielding mercenary in a low medieval setting, which would get messy. Decide whether the world will have one or two main groups of deities, or whether they will have separate pantheons by culture. Encourage your players to not put things like frost-bitten tundra next to searing deserts, things like that.

There are a couple of places that would be good resources for something like this. The first is a series of questions about world-building by fantasy author Patricia Wrede; as the page itself notes, not all the questions have to be answered, as they are mainly there to provoke interesting ideas and try and get people to think in the same frame of thought.

Second, and possibly the more fun of the two links I have, is to something of a game in itself called Dawn of Worlds. Essentially, the players of the game get to take turns slowly building a world, each getting a certain number of points on each turn that can be spent on things like shaping the land, altering climate, creating a race, causing catastrophes, and commanding avatars, as the players essentially end up playing as gods. As I said, this can be a game in and of itself, and groups may want to devise some rules about how turns are handled so one player's precious forests are not then inhabited cruelly by the next player's evil serpent-men. It can make for some interesting worlds, and whoever is DMing the game may want to stop when they feel the world has been developed enough.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Achievements in Gaming

4th Edition has caused me to rethink a lot of things about the way I play D&D, and other RPGs in general. In particular, I've spent a lot of time thinking about things people have said about 4th Edition's resemblance to video games in general, and MMOs like World of Warcraft in specific. I also have an Xbox 360, and so sometimes I think about what I can do to bring the two together. After reading through a number of message boards, I think I've found something I like.

Achievements, for the 360, and for WoW, are something I feel almost compelled to get when I play a game. I like the idea that I have achieved something special in a game, especially if it involves a degree of skill or finding something secret. There are something like 900+ achievements in WoW, and I have acquired about half of them. So I was intrigued when I started reading on some message boards that people were trying to implement achievements in their 4th Edition games.

Initially, it sounds like something of a useless idea - there are no real points to gain in 4th Edition, and no real community to show your score off to. But as I thought about it, there are things you could definitely do to make achievements fun and possibly even useful in a D&D game. For one, if one player earns a cool achievement, it might be something to brag about with the other players, and give the PCs more minor goals to work towards. It might also give an opportunity for the DM to hand out some minor, temporary benefits when an achievement is gained - perhaps something like an action point. Particularly worthy achievements might give the PC something to tell others about; an achievement for finishing off opponents in a certain way might translate into a nickname or other honorific.

Courtesy of a thread on ([4E] Achievements, branstorming), here are a few interesting and fun-sounding ideas for achievements.

Till the Break of Dawn - Inflict any condition or ongoing damage that a saving throw can end on an enemy in the first round of combat and keep the effect on the enemy until the encounter ends.
Only a Flesh Wound - Fail two death saving throws in a single encounter and survive the encounter.
Can't Touch This: As a warden, succeed on at least two saving throws on your turn.
Something For Every Occasion: As a bard, use powers or class features from at least three different classes in a single encounter.
Burning Up Inside: As a sorcerer, hit at least three enemies with a single attack which includes a damage type that you have resistance to.
This One's Mine: As a ranger, place your Hunter's Quarry on a non-minion enemy in the first round of an encounter. At the end of the encounter, if that enemy is dead and none of your allies dealt damage to that enemy, you gain this achievement.
Never Knew What Hit 'Em: As a rogue or assassin, inflict the killing blow on a target that is not aware of your presence.
Persistent: Miss with a Reliable power at least three times in a single encounter.
I'm Sorry, Did I Break Your Concentration? - Drop a foe with an Opportunity Attack due to using a ranged or area attack.
With my Tea Cup - Kill a minion with an improvised weapon.
Over 9000! - Hit with a Daily Attack power, with at least three positive effects on your character.
De-fense, Rah Rah Rah - End your turn surrounded by 8 enemies, and survive until the start of your next turn.
Ninja Run - Hit an enemy with a melee attack after starting your turn at least 14 squares away.
Stay Down- Knock a single enemy prone three times in one encounter.
God-botherer (Cleric)- perform 3 heal or religion checks in one encounter.
Antivenom: As a dwarf or warforged, succeed on three saving throws against poison effects in a single encounter.
Hardcore: Choose not to take a short rest after three consecutive encounters.
My Name is Inigo Montoya...: The PC makes a witty comment for each attack he attempts in a single encounter.

Really, the variety of achievements is limited only by the creativity of the people playing. A snappy name, though, is key.

Friday, September 25, 2009

My Life With MMOs

As anyone who pays attention to online gaming should know, World of Warcraft is the big MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) on the market, with something like 11 million subscribers last I checked - of which I am one. I signed up for WoW the day after launch, because I was and am a big fan of the Warcraft series of games. Hell, I'm a fan of all Blizzard's games. I love the story behind the game, and for the most part, I really enjoy playing, though I'm in something of a slump now. There's a good community if you look for it, and if you get lucky, you can find some really great guilds.

I was initially a big fan of the Horde/Alliance separation; I find it cool that players on opposing sides can't communicate with each other, especially since miscommunication is the reason for many historical problems. It has been getting a little bland though lately, what with Blizzard trying to seemingly normalize all races and classes; while I approve of the idea of balance between the races and classes, I think they've been going too far towards making everything the same. I think the continuing quest on Blizzard's part to balance classes and such for both Player vs. Enemy- style play and Player vs. Player-style has gone a long way towards making this a problem, because what balances one playstyle may not balance the other. So things have become increasingly bland. I'm still a big follower of Blizzard, though, so I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

In contrast, less than a month ago, an MMORPG called Champions Online was released. It is based on a popular (well, popular in the gaming community) superhero RPG, and uses the setting and some of the characters from the RPG to give a framework of places to go and things to do. I find that lately I have a lot more interest in this than I do in WoW, and this is likely for a number of reasons.

First, Champions Online (or CO) is new, and that's always a draw. Secondly, the ability to customize a character is great; I have yet to see two characters who look relatively similar in CO, whereas at the endgame of WoW, most characters or a similar class and skill level will have almost identical equpment. In CO, equipment is not shown on a character; you design your own costume or look in the character creator (an offline version can be found at IgN's website), and eventually you have 4 costume slots on your character - for when you want to switch things up and have your character look like a werewolf or whatnot.

The big draw for me, though, is the flexibility of the CO powers. Each power belongs to a power set, and these are divided up into categories like Energy Control (Force, Fire, Electricity, Ice), Gadgets (Archery, Munitions, Gadgeteering, Power Armor), Martial Arts (Unarmed, Single or Dual Blade, or Claws), Might, Mind (Telekinesis or Telepathy), and Sorcery (Sorcery, darkness, Supernatural). Every character starts out with two powers from one set, but as you gain powers, you can choose them from any powerset. While you are doing this, you also get choices on how to upgrade your powers, so even if two characters manage to take virtually the same powers, they may not upgrade them in the same ways. A character could use virtually all of his powers in a single powerset, or have powers from many sets, and so far, it seems that each is viable.

There are certainly other differences, obviously, but I won't go into those; anyone interested can look them up fairly easily. Don't think I'm done with WoW, either; CO is still very early in its release, and has potential to be much better or much worse.

Personally, I'm waiting for Bioware to relase Star Wars: The Old Republic. Mmm, bounty hunters...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mastering the Dungeon: Dungeon Master's Guide 2

As the title implies, this is going to be about the Dungeon Master's Guide 2, published earlier this month for dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition by Wizards of the Coast. It weighs in at 223 pages, hardcover, and it is credited, on the front cover, as being written by James Wyatt (whose blog I have a link to), Bill Slavicsek, and Robin D. Laws. Anyone who has read a fair amount of published advice for DMs probably recognizes that last name, as Robin Laws published a short, but very handy, guide for game-mastering (titled 'Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering') for Steve Jackson Games in 2002. The art, as has been standard in 4th Edition books, is quite good, and even the recycled bits (I didn't see any, but there might be some) have always been good and well-placed, encouraging imagination. This is my first try at a 'real' review, so don't judge me too harshly as I break this down chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1 is entitled Group Storytelling, and like the title says, it is about running a game as a story that the entire group constructs. It has all sorts of good advice, from giving XP awards for roleplaying to cooperative world building, but one of my personal favorites in this chapter is the section on what players want - it suggests creating little questionnaires for not just PCs, but for the players themselves, in order to help the DM figure out what each player wants out of the game. I've had trouble with this in the past, and running a game one or two players aren't interested in is a great way to tank an otherwise promising game. The section on companion characters is good, too, giving recommendations, essentially, for the DM running certain NPCs as supplementary party members.

Chapter 2 is called Advanced Encounters, and as the note at the beginning of the chapter says, it expands on some of the advice given in the first DMG for 4th Edition. It covers trap design (a personal favorite of rat bastard DMs everywhere), encounter pacing and creation, and a number of other good topics, but the section that particularly struck me was the section on player motivation. The first DMG broke player motivation down into a number of types (some categories are reminiscent of Robin Laws' categories in Robin's Laws, so he probably wrote this portion), but this takes a more in-depth look at the various types of gamers in order to more easily encourage players and tailor encounters to the group you have. I find advice like this invaluable, because I like to make my own adventures, and try to tailor them so that every player will end up satisfied.

Chapter 3 covers a topic that was not covered as well as it could have been in the first DMG, that being Skill Challenges. These were an interesting idea from the first DMG; they essentially made experience-gathering encounters out of various ways a group could make use of their skills, and they were a great idea that didn't get as much coverage as they needed to fill things out. This chapter goes a long way towards correcting this, giving some good example challenges along with ideas on skill challenge creation and making them accessible. James Wyatt gives a good example with a skill challenge to let players try and track an enemy back to his current base, incluidng the complication that each failure might be met with some kind of short but inconvenient (for the PCs) combat encounter.

Chapter 4 will be a favorite of those who didn't think the Monster Manuals gave enough variety in monsters,because it is entitled Customizing Monsters. It is really three sections; the first covers monster themes, giving examples of thematic suites of powers and abilities to give similar opponents a thematic link; templates, to allow for variations on classics, such as if you want to create a tough-as-nails veteran out of a standard soldier; and finally creating mosnters, on how to create your own unique monsters, to give you something to throw at your players they've never seen before.

Chapter 5 is on Adventures, and is one of my personal favorite chapters because of all the goodies it contains. First, it includes alternate rewards - things like divine boons or special training that give a PC the same kind of benefits as a magic item, but without the constant upgrading. Along the same lines, it gives some advice on having treasures be item components instead of actual items, so that PCs can craft the things they want. It has some artifacts included, some of which are favorites from older editions - what player from 2nd Edition AD&D didn't want to put the Rod of Seven Parts together? Then there are guidelines for creating organizations, whether they are thieves' guilds or world-spanning conspiracies, for the players to work both with and against, and the chapter ends with some short examples of campaign arcs that span the entire 30 levels of D&D.

The book's final chapter covers paragon campaigns. Where the first DMG covered the heroic tier of adventuring, this covers the middle tier, from levesl 11-20. It gives several pages of advice and ideas on how to change a campaign moving from heroic to paragon tier, and then it moves on to the meat of the chapter - Sigil, the City of Doors. Sigil comes from the Planescape setting of 2nd Edition, and is one of the settings that was not revised in 3rd Edition. It is a city at the center of the planes, with hundreds, possibly thousands, of portals, that can take a knowledgeable traveler anywhere - or strand a poor, unlucky person in the worst places imaginable. I was initially not a big fan of Planescape, but I grew to love it, especially after playing Planescape: Torment, and so this, and the adventure taking place in Sigil that follows the city description were a real treat for me, and probably quite a few fans of Planescape. It isn't a full treatment, but it is a good start.

I think there could have been more done with skill challenges, personally; it is an idea that I thought had great promise in the first DMG, and it took a year for anything to be published fixing initial problems and expanding on the idea. Being able to use skills more often, and for real, useful purposes, is of great interest to me; it's why I am encouraged by the idea of Skill Powers (previewed on the Wizards of the Coast website, though only for D&D Insider subscribers). Other than this, though, I think the book is one of the best guides to running a game I have seen since I started playing (in, has it been 17 years already?), though Robin Laws' other GMing guide is also a good place to look. If you are planning to run a game of D&D anytime in the near future, this is will likely be invalluable, and some of the advice would be great even for games other than D&D. As a player, it won't be of as much use, but might still have some utility - though it is called the Dungeon Master's Guide for a reason.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

First Time for Everything

I used to have a LiveJournal, but since it seems the cool kids are all migrating to actual blogs, I thought I'd try it. First, I guess I should introduce myself. My name is Jamie Smith, and I live, predictably, in St. Louis. I'm a 30-year-old grad student weeks away from my Masters degree in English, and hopefully going on to my PhD, specializing in Medieval Studies - I love Medieval history and literature, though I also have a fondness for Greek and Roman history and myth.

One of my real passions, though, is gaming, whether it be tabletop RPGs, various kinds of video game, or even just chat-based gaming. I used to game quite a bit in undergrad, and before that, but ever since moving to St. Louis, I have had very poor luck getting into or running any games.

This isn't necessarily because of the people here, though; shortly after I moved here, I was diagnosed with major clinical depression, and that plus a naturally shy personality makes for a difficult time getting to know people. Thankfully, the internet has provided me with many opportunities, though I probably haven't made use of all of them.

Currently, I play both World of Warcraft and Champions Online, as MMOs go. I reserve a place in my collection for games like Planescape: Torment, Half-Life (1 and 2), And the Diablo series. I have a fairly vast collection of tabletop RPGs, though my current favorites are Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, the New World of Darkness games, Mutants & Masterminds, and Greg Stolze's Reign. I have been gaming since early in the AD&D 2nd Edition release cycle, and I have spent most of that time DMing and GMing, so that is likely the way I see game most often; I'd like to play more often, but it is easier to promise to DM than to offer to be a player.

Well, that's the introduction. Since it is burning a hole in my creative centers, I think next I'll probably end up talking about the new D&D 4E Dungeon Master's Guide 2. Hint: I love it.