Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Tall As A House, Round As A Cup (The Trap of Puzzles in RPGs)

Tall as a house,
Round as a cup,
And all the king's horses
Can't draw it all up?

Puzzles and riddles have been a part of fantasy literature and games since their inception. Bilbo and Gollum partake in a gameof riddles in The Hobbit (the earliest rap battle on record?) . Zork features the famous riddle that starts this blog entry. I remember reaching the bottom of the labyrinth of the evil wizard, Werdna's, only to have to decipher the words, "Contra Dextra Avenue".

Puzzles featured in many old-school D&D games as well. Tons of old modules (especially the ones that were based off tournament modules) were full of tricks and puzzles. The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, the Desert of Desolation, Ghost Tower of Inverness, and White Plume Mountain are all examples of dungeons featuring challenging puzzles. In my days as a DM and player, I remember numerous sliding chambers, rotating corridors, teleport rooms, and subtly sloped passages, all designed to confound the players and get their characters lost in the hostile underground, unable to return to civilization and rest in safety.

And for the truly evil GM's, there was Grimtooth's Traps.

As I mentioned in a previous post, you don't see as much of this anymore. Modern games focus more on mechanical, stat-based challenges than their predecessors did -- Character Skill vs. Player Skill.

But, I recently read a thread about this very thing. A GM was talking about his love for puzzles, and how, more often than not, they didn't work. His group was either not interested, or they got stuck and frustrated with the puzzle. If they gave up on the puzzle, his plot was derailed and he had to scramble to figure out how to keep the game going. I am a big fan of puzzles in rpgs, but as many GMs have found, it is hard to get right. Let's talk about some of the pitfalls and how we can avoid them.

The first thing to consider is whether your group is prepared for a puzzle or not.

It sounds silly. Of course your group is ready for a puzzle! They are experienced gamers who have played together for years. They were just complaining yesterday how endless combats were boring them. And there have been a lot of combats recently. It is time to change things up.

So, you decide to engage their intellects instead of their simulated sword arms by throwing an unkillable golem at them. All of their blows bounce harmlessly off the golem's steel skin. Any damage they do manage is immediately healed. But... a mere two rooms ago, if they can solve the riddle the imp gave them, they will know to put on the silver helmet they found last week, giving them control of the golem, who can then smash through the unpenetrable door they ran into two sessions ago...

... And they flail against the golem ineffectually until dead.

Even the best gaming groups are subject to groupthink and getting into problem-solving ruts. Sometimes, the groups that have been together, and have played with the same GM, for a long time are the worst. In my only slightly made up example, the group in question was used to solving problems one way -- the way they had solved them for dozens of gaming sessions -- with their weapons. Expecting them take such a sudden turn and refer back to events two sessions ago and solve a riddle was a little unfair.

Of course, if your group is used to Gygaxian goofiness, then have at it. If not, try warning them, or easing them into the puzzles. Set the tone by starting with something small, obvious, contained and preferably optional. Maybe there is a riddle to open a box or a door to a treasure trove. A map with some cryptic glyphs that need to be deciphered before the group can enter a secret area of the dungeon. As the weeks go on, and the group gets more used to the idea of puzzles in their games, you can pull out more complicated, devious, and referential stuff.

A simple, but important, thing to watch out for when introducing a puzzle is underestimating the time it will take for the group to figure it out.

I learned this lesson when I taught high-school. I was creating these beautiful tests, filled with problems of varying difficulty, covering all of the material we had gone over in previous classes, a true gauge of my students' skill... and no one came close to finishing. I talked to a veteran teacher, "I just don't know what is wrong. I tested the questions and it only took me 15 minutes to get through them. The students ought to be doing better."  The vet told me that I needed to give the students at least 5x the time it took me to do the questions. My 15 minute test was 75 minutes for them -- jam packed into a 50 minute class.

It makes sense, of course. When you write the test, you know what the phrasing of the question means. You know what you expect in an answer. Theoretically, you have been doing this type of problem much, much longer than your students. Most importantly, you know the answer!

Same thing with a puzzle in a game. You already know the answer, so it is clear as day to you. So, maybe you think it will take 15 minutes to solve your runic code, then the group will be off just in time to fight the Skeleton King before the end of the night. You'd better tell the King you'll be late because it is going to take way longer than you think. And as that 15 minutes turns into 30... and then an hour, people lose interest, which makes a solution take even longer.

So... make sure you allot enough time for your players to solve your puzzles. Even better, shorten them a bit. Instead of having to decipher 10 glyphs, make it 5. A snappier puzzle is going to keep peoples' interest more easily than a long one. Another idea for a long puzzle would be to introduce it at the end of the evening and allow people to work on it between sessions. That will give them ample time to discuss and analyze, as well as keep them excited about the gaming session through the week.

Another mistake that is easy to make is not engaging all your players with the puzzle.

Yes, your play on the Gaelic word for "hatpin" is genius, but if not all of your players shared your love of Gaelic, you're going to have a bad time. When you introduce a puzzle to your group, you need to make sure that everyone in the group will be able to play a part in the solution. Puzzles that are based on a skill or knowledge possessed by only one guy in your gaming group tend to lock out the rest of the team -- unless they are really, really short. Best to keep the puzzle away from someone's unique strength... and toward a more general problem that everyone can help solve.

Also, make sure the puzzle is big enough to accommodate the number of people you have playing. If you have handouts, make sure you have enough to go around. If the puzzle relies on players working together to solve a code on a map, make the map big enough so that the whole group can fit around it and work.

When in doubt, favor puzzles with multiple solutions, and puzzles that can be solved by the clever application of the characters' abilities.

In my previous role playing post, someone commented on the practice of "pixel-bitching" (which I knew as "pixel-hunting", but his version is so much angrier), which was when the designer of a computer rpg would require you to click on a specific pixel to solve a puzzle, or open a secret door. This is bad design in a computer game, and unfortunately, is an easy trap to fall into in a tabletop rpg as well. When your puzzle has a single solution which you think is so clever and awesome, and yet, so obvious, that your players, if they just think a little, will get easily... you are setting yourself up for a dead end.

Better to keep your puzzles loose and allow for multiple solutions. Better yet, keep the puzzles firmly within the context of the game. This keeps the players immersed in the game and it encourages them to use their character abilities creatively to solve your puzzle. Your players will come up with all manner of wacky solutions, making them feel like geniuses, and keeping you from the dreaded dead-end adventure.

So, when your stone riddle door is turned to mud by the PC mage, roll with it, friend, and let them enter.

And finally, when all else fails, have a backup plan.

When is all goes wrong, your players are stumped and everyone is frustrated, the worst thing that you can do is make that the dead end to your adventure. Always make sure you have a plan in case the puzzle cannot be solved. Be prepared to give hints. Be prepared to have alternate ways to get through the obstacle in question. Be prepared to totally change the course of your story line, but be prepared with something in the event that your group gets stuck.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Birth of a Knight (Magic Realm with the Kids)

I busted out my physical copy of Magic Realm last night and while my 10 year old was buried in a video game, I asked my 7 year old, Dan, if he would help me set the game up. He had seen the game before and knew that it had cool tiles, tons of neat character pictures and three trays full of pieces, so he was intrigued. We cleared off the dining room table and went to work.

First thing was to choose what 3 characters would venture into the Realm. While I started organizing chits, Dan spread the character cards out across the table and contemplated each champion's picture. Ultimately, he picked three of the toughest, most iconic characters in the game, the White Knight, the Sorcerer, and the Berzerker.

Next came building the board. I explained to Dan how each piece needed to touch at least two others, have all the roads connecting, and be able to trace a path back to the Borderland. He is good at puzzles and so he picked this up pretty quickly and we had a legal board in about 10 minutes.

I handled the rest of the board setup while Dan got the pieces for our three heroes... a task made easy by the distinctive symbols on the back of each character's chits. A few minutes and he was ready, and a few minutes after that, the board was complete and we ventured into the Realm.

The Berzerker spent a day trading and hiring at the Inn and managed to get a hireling. He then headed off to the nearest possible treasure sites in search of fortune and glory. The Ruins contained the Statue, but the prospect of battling the slimy imp over a few meager treasures and a couple of spells did not interest our Viking Steamroller.

Instead, he crawled cautiously into the Crag and managed to find the Lost Castle!! Unfortunately, instead of rich treasure sites filled with slow, tremendous monsters, the Berzerker saw only red... chits that is. The Lost Castle tile had 5 red sound chits and no treasure sites. Fortunately, the monster roll called for a couple of giants to appear, and only one in the clearing of the hidden Berzerk.

So Dan and I set up our first combat and we talked about intersecting and undercutting. I am almost certain that he found combat confusing. I am guessing that it didn't help that a hidden Berzerker is a guaranteed kill of a giant. Still, he sort of hung with it -- after all, the monster and weapon counters are awesome!!! And the Berzerker was first to score fame and notoriety.

The Sorcerer also managed to hire one Rogue from the Inn and headed out in search of adventure. After a few days, he found himself in the Borderland, searching for the Cairn. Unfortunately, before the treasure site could be located and looted, a war band of axe-wielding goblins appeared and made camp in the clearing.

The Sorcerer managed to escape into a nearby valley. From there, he formulated a risky plan to destroy the goblins and reclaim the Cairn. He alerted his Fiery Blast spell, hid a couple of times, and reentered the clearing without the foolish goblins noticing him.

Our second battle was a little more interesting. The hidden Sorcerer would take a free shot with his alerted spell. The spell would hit all of the goblins, but each attack would be subject to the dreaded missile roll -- 2d6 and on a "6" (on either die), the missile's damage would not kill the target. I told Dan about the missile table, and our chances, and the fact that if too many goblins lived, the Sorcerer might have a hard time. However, luck was with us! 4 of the 6 goblins died in the conflagration, leaving only 2 for the Sorcerer and his rogue accomplice to finish off.

The White Knight was the most interesting for Dan because he was the one making all the final decisions, writing the moves and making the rolls. We talked a bit about the common opening move of trading the Knight's great sword for a morning star, and Dan thought that was a good idea. Unfortunately, the dice were not with him and so, after a day of failed trades, he decided to head to the nearby Deep Woods to find his fortune.

And fortune was there to find! He reveals the Pool in the Deep Woods. The Pool is very dangerous for the White Knight because the Tremendous Octopus that lives there is very hard to hit and tiring to dodge. He could slay the octopus, but could also end up fatiguing and being drowned in the pool. Dan decided to risk it, but to hide twice a day, just to be sure.

To his delight, he managed to locate the Pool, and draw out several treasures without seeing the dreaded Octopus. Each draw was tiring the Knight, but his Health advantage kept him in fighting shape. Four days later, he decided to take his loot back to the Order, sell it, and buy that cool morning star and the 7 League Boots!!

The White Knight then made the long trek in search of his next adventure... which unfortunately, was bedtime.

Overall, I think it went pretty well. Dan understood the basics of moving, trading, hiding and searching. I know combat was befuddling for him... but he is seven; I know 45 year-olds for which combat is impossible to understand. Not sure how a battle would go, but we will certainly have a chance to find out because today Dan came up to me and announced that he liked Magic Realm and we should do it again.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Monday, February 17, 2014

Let's Play Magic Realm (Week 4)

Day 22

I have managed to avoid the horrible Tremendous Troll and I have found the Vault. With one more successful HIDE, I should be able to pull a treasure or two out of there. Of course, by mentioning the successful HIDE, I have just doomed myself...

I record HIDE and SEARCHx4. Cross your fingers.

Darn! I fail to hide and thus, I am blocked by the Troll. Even worse, the monster roll pulls up a Heavy Spider to add to my woes. On a good note, this means I can show you a fight -- it just might mean my death, that's all.

Here is the combat sheet for Magic Realm. Both the Troll and the Spider are on my sheet, ready to rend me to bits. Before we run the combat, let's quickly go over combat in the realm. Combat is one of the more intricate and complicated parts of the game, but fortunately, this is a pretty simple scenario, so it should be easy to understand.

First thing in each combat round is the Encounter step. In this step, you determine who will battle whom, and characters have a chance to flee, ready weapons, or cast spells. This Encounter step is pretty simple. I am unhidden and alone and so all of the monsters are going to attack me. If I had some hirelings, I could have had them lure a monster off my combat sheet. If another player was in the clearing, I could have hoped that one or more of the creatures would have randomly attacked them instead of me. Unfortunately, I am alone, so I am the target.

The next part of the Encounter step is where players are allowed to perform an action such as activating a piece of equipment, readying a weapon, or fleeing the battle. In this case, it would be prudent to flee. However, doing so would require me to play a MOVE chit that is faster than all the enemies on my sheet. The fastest chit I have is a MOVE M3*. The Troll has a move of 4, but the spider's move (the number in the blue circle) is also a 3, and so the spider will stop me from leaving the clearing.

I could try to alert my weapon, but that requires a FIGHT chit that is faster than the spider's move, and I do not have one. It would do me little good anyways; the short sword is as good unalerted as it is alerted. I have no actions to perform, so it is on to the Melee step.

The first thing I have to do in the Melee step is choose a target to attack this round. I am faced with a Tremendous Troll, that I cannot kill, but can run from... and a Heavy Spider, that I can kill, but can't run from. The general plan is to kill the spider so that I can flee from the rampaging troll. Doing this before being ripped to shreds will take a little luck.

In the Melee step, you place a FIGHT chit to attack, and a MOVE chit to defend. You can see from the combat chart, that I can place attacks in the Thrust, Swing, or Smash circles on the right of the sheet. I play defenses in the Charge, Dodge, or Duck boxes at the bottom of the sheet. The monsters will be placed in the center of the sheet on the red squares marked 1, 2 and 3. Notice that monsters attack and defend in the same direction.

I will initially place the monsters on whichever box I want (though I have to fill as many boxes as I can), but they will move randomly after I place them -- they have a 1/3 chance to end up in any box when all is said and done.

I also place them "white side up", which refers to the bar of color under their combat stats. As you can see, both creatures have totally different combat stats based on which side they are on. The spider does light damage with a speed of 4 and defends with a move of 3 on his white side. If he flips, he is slower, but does tremendous damage! (I always imagined this to be the effects of a poisonous bite.) Each round, when you determine which maneuver box the spider ends up in, you roll the dice. On a roll of "6", the spider "changes tactics" and flips.

The troll is a tremendous creature, and thus gets a red bar on its flipped side. Tremendous creatures never change tactics on a roll. Instead, the first time they hit you, assuming they don't kill you outright, they flip to their red side to indicate that they have grabbed you. If they hit you again while on the red side, you are torn to bits (or eaten, or burned to a crisp) and die. That is why there is no damage letter by the red side attack speed -- the damage is instant death.

An attack connects two possible ways. First, an attack can intercept its target, meaning that it lines up with with the defender's MOVE chit. So, if the spider ends up in the Swing and Dodge box, and I played my FIGHT chit on Swing, then I intercept and hit. I can also hit the spider if my attack time is less than its move time. For instance, I could hit the troll every round if I play my FIGHT M3** chit, because his move is only a 4. However, because the troll is tremendous and armored, I cannot do enough damage to kill him.

Hopefully, all of that made sense. With the explanation behind us, let's look at the Amazon's chits and plan our combat round.

So, first priority is to not get hit by the troll. His attack speed is a 4, so I need to at least match that to not be undercut. I will play a MOVE M4 and thus will avoid being undercut by either creature.

Being able to play my slowest MOVE chit is nice. In a given combat round, I could normally play up to two effort asterisks, but if I do so, I would have to fatigue an asterisk. (Because I have the Girdle of Effort, I can play up to three effort asterisks, but I would have to fatigue two. Fatiguing two asterisks is rough, and I will only do it if necessary.) The fact that I can play a MOVE with no asterisks gives me more options with regards to my attack.

Looking FIGHT chits, I cannot undercut the spider on its white side, because its move speed is 3. If it flips, it slows to a 4, and I could undercut it with a FIGHT M3**. So, my option is to either play a FIGHT M4* and hope to intercept , or I can play a FIGHT M3**, and hope either to intercept , or that the spider changes tactics and flips to its slower side.

Here is my play. I attack FIGHT M3** in the Smash box and MOVE M4 in the Duck box, lining up my attack with my defense. This is called covering your move with your attack. The reason for this is because the spider cannot undercut me. He will only hit if he lines up his attack with my defense. However, if he lines up with me, then I am guaranteed to intercept him and I will hit.

Because it is the first round of battle, the longer attack strikes first and my short sword has a better reach than his "tooth and claw" attack. My sword will connect first and I will do M* (heavy) damage and kill the spider before he harms me. On later rounds of combat, the attack speed determines the order and my FIGHT M3** would hit before the spider's L4 attack. The spider is a pretty easy kill for the Amazon.

The troll on the other hand is deadly. If it hits me, my armor will absorb a shot, but be destroyed in the process. However, because the troll is tremendous, it will flip to its red side. Its attack speed on its red side is 2, I have no MOVE that can match a 2. The troll is guaranteed to undercut me on the next round of battle and kill me. If the troll hits me at all (he has to intercept , so 1/3 chance), the game is over.

So, I am playing my FIGHT M3**, trading fatigue for the slightly better chance of killing the spider. If the pressure of the troll weren't here, I could play a more leisurely strategy. Let's see how this round plays out... it might be a short week :)

Here are the results of round 1. The die roll kept the monsters in the same boxes I placed them, and the tactics roll flipped the spider. The Amazon intercepted the spider (and undercut) and did heavy damage, killing it. The troll did not intercept my move, nor did he undercut me, so he missed. Because we played two asterisks on a FIGHT chit, we have to fatigue one asterisk, and choose a FIGHT M4*.

Yay, we lived!!! Now, we have to escape. Fortunately, now that the spider is dead, a simple MOVE M3* will allow me to flee next round.

Day 23

We start the day in between clearings, having killed the spider and escaped the troll. We are still going to try to get into the Vault, because we earned it. I need to move to Crags 5 as my first two phases of the day, hide, and try to sneak back to the Vault.

I record MOVE, MOVE, HIDE, HIDE, MOVE, MOVE and I should end up back at the Vault, right under the troll's nose.

The move goes off without a hitch and we are ready to try to loot the Vault again.

Day 24

I record a HIDE and then SEARCHx4 to see if I can loot the Vault of its enticing large treasures.

I hide successfully, but manage to find a single treasure.

The bracelets are interesting because they allow me to move my attack if my enemy's move speed is 5 or more. Unfortunately, these are sort of lame for the Amazon, because I can already undercut any defender that slow. Still, they are worth some cash, so I stash them away to sell. I am going to stay another day or two to see if I can get any more goodies from the Vault.

Day 25

I found a Flying Carpet, which would allow me to fly if I had access to purple magic. I don't. However, it is worth another 17 gold, so at the very least, I can muster up some cash. It is getting late in the month and the game would normally end soon. I am going to head back and sell my ill-gotten treasures to the Rogues.

Day 26-28

I headed back to the Inn, and could sell on day 28. I sold a bunch of treasures for a total of 52 gold, upon which the Amazon retires.

It was not an epic run, but I managed to survive a couple of bad situations, gather a bunch of treasures, and make it back alive. Hopefully, you enjoyed the Amazon's journey and learned a little bit about Magic Realm in the process.

If you have any questions or comments, fire away. I love talking about Magic Realm and would be happy to discuss the play through with you, or answer any rules questions you might have.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Let's Play Magic Realm (Week 3)

Day 15

We left week 2 with the Amazon having escaped the clearing of giants and dragons. We need to get out of here and look for less dangerous treasure sites. I am going to try to escape this tile and head to the Crag which is just to the northwest. Doing so will require me to sneak through the now deadly Ledges clearing 6.

Because I fled last night, my first phase must be a MOVE into clearing 1. Then I will HIDE (twice for good measure -- I have the Cloak of Mist which gives me an additional HIDE) and hopefully move through to the Nut Woods. It is times like this that the Amazon's extra MOVE phase is so handy.


Everything goes without incident and the Amazon finds herself standing at the base of the Crags looking for a new adventure.

Day 16

Mountains are a pain. Each clearing takes two MOVE phases to enter. This means they are hard to navigate, and it is harder to escape clearings with monsters. Since I made a costly error leaving the Lair and heading to the Ledges, I feel the need to move cautiously. I will hide, head into the Crags and search, hoping to find the hidden path that connects clearings 2 and 3.

So HIDE, HIDE, MOVE, MOVE, SEARCH, SEARCH looks to be my plan for the day.

I have no trouble hiding and moving into the Crag. My search is fruitless however, but when I reveal chits, I do find something interesting.

The only treasure site here is the Vault. The Vault requires a chit of Tremendous strength to open. This could be a FIGHT or MOVE chit, a hireling, a spell, or an item. The Amazon has none of these of the required strength and so the Vault is impossible to open right now. Except... for one important thing -- I have the Lost Keys and with them, I can open the Vault without great strength.

This is great news. The Vault contains 5 otherwise difficult to get large treasures and it can spawn the Tremendous Troll who is impossible to kill, but I can avoid him with my fast MOVE chits. The STINK M chit can draw giants and/or spiders to the tile, but currently, the giants are prowling the Ledges, so we only have to worry about the spiders.

I decide to head into the Crag and loot the Vault. I record two HIDES and then four MOVES to get to Crags 3. Everything goes well and I sneak into the clearing with the Vault. The monster die of "1" means dragons prowl, but I am only concerned with rolls of "4" or "5", so all is quiet. Tomorrow, we search.

Day 17

I am going to spend the day searching for the Vault, but I will be careful and burn a couple of phases hiding to make sure I don't get jumped by any scaly or hairy creatures. I record HIDE, HIDE, SEARCHx3 and roll the dice!

Nothing... tomorrow, I will continue the search.

Day 18 - Day 20

My initial enthusiasm for finding the Vault has damped slightly. I have spent the past three days carefully searching every corner of this clearing and I still have not found the Vault. To make matters worse, the Tremendous Troll shows up on Day 20.

Day 21

Well, I am faced with a choice now. On one hand, I can remain in the clearing, hiding and trying to find the Vault. The risk there would be that the spiders also show up. They are faster than the troll and would stop me from running away. The other option would be to leave and head south, back through the Borderland, and into the Cliff or the Ruins in hopes of easier booty.

I decide to stay. Having the means to open the Vault is too good to pass up. The monster roll is another "1" and so we are safe again today.

And on the last phase of Day 21, I find the Vault.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Note to Self: Experience Points Are Useless

In addition to my weekly Runebearer campaign, I am running a Pathfinder game at my local game store. Running Pathfinder, or any d20 game for that matter, is a novelty for me and I am having a pretty good time. But, as I sit down after our first completed adventure and start tallying up experience points, I came to a realization.

For most campaigns, experience points just don't matter.

My current campaign is a prime example. I am dividing the experience equally. I am not giving per session xp for showing up. I was thinking about offering xp for characters completing personal subquests, but ultimately, those would be offered fairly, to give everyone the same chance at advancement.

The end result is that everyone has the same experience total... all the time. So really, the only reason to tally points is to understand how fast the game thinks the PCs should be advancing.

Keeping track of experience only matters when there is going to be some difference between PCs in a game. Early editions of D&D offered bonus experience for having good stats. A favorite character might jump from campaign to campaign. Certain classes required more or less experience, or had to face certain challenges at certain points, or have their advancement frozen. Tracking xp mattered in these games.

Other games make xp matter in other ways. In HERO, you might get the same amount of experience as others in your group, but you spent it differently. In my own game, Runebearer, you get experience as you succeed at skill checks. Rolemaster has perhaps the most ugly (and awesome) experience point system in existence... so much so that there is an app for it!

But in this particular Pathfinder campaign, it really doesn't matter much. I will still tally up the points, because I am new at running Pathfinder, and I would like PCs to advance at a proper pace. However, to differentiate their progression a little and to make experience fun, I am going to periodically allow them to choose some low-powered traits tailored to the events and their actions in the game.

So, the guy who was knocked out 4 times in the adventure may have the option to get an extra hit point or two. The PC who faced down a horde of bad guys alone might get a +1 AC when outnumbered. A couple characters might have the option to add a class skill. Stuff like that.

I am new to Pathfinder and curious. How do you guys handle experience in your games?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Lamenting The Death of Dungeoneering

I have had the pleasure of participating in two Pathfinder games recently, and one thing that has struck me is how the players' approach to dungeon settings has changed over the years. In the old days, navigating the dungeon used to be one of the key challenges in an rpg. Each room was a negotiation between the DM and players, starting with the DM's rendition of the room description and continuing with a detailed account of every PC's action. Who searches what part of the room? Where is everyone standing? Who is opening those moldy old sacks in the corner? Hmm, so I see no one checked the ceiling... (chuckles and rolls behind the screen...)

Whereas before, it was critically important for the players to tell the DM exactly what they were doing, what pieces of dungeon dressing the characters were investigating, and how they were going about it. There was still a lot of combat, but it took only a couple of minutes; this back and forth of description and reaction WAS the game. Today, in many gaming groups, the fights take most of the table time and much of the dungeoneering boils down to a quick, "We search the room," and a host of perception checks.

This is starting to sound like a graybeard nostalgia post. It isn't. Just an interesting observation of how players have changed their behavior over the years. I think there are two main reasons why the emphasis has shifted... and if these damn kids would get off my lawn I would tell you about it.

The first reason -- and perhaps the key reason -- is the fact that our game systems have gotten better (or perhaps just more specific). Skills and talents are the norm in rpg systems now, whereas before, you really didn't have a good accounting of a character's abilities. In 1st edition D&D, you knew if someone found an item hidden under the bed because they said they searched under the bed. You knew if they detected the spider lying in ambush because they said they checked the ceiling.

Now, we have skills and skill challenges, which is great, but it also means that a skill checks have replaced a lot of the meat of dungeoneering. Many games have skills, like Perception and Dungeoneering, that dice much of what had to be described before. I like skill-based games and I like having skill checks as an rpg mechanic, but the double-edged sword of these systems is that they encourage us to dice out what used to be interactive sequences. Conversation skills are one place I see this change, overcoming traps is another, and dungeoneering falls into that dice pit as well.

Another thing to consider is that dungeoneering used to be the focus of games like 1st edition D&D. Early editions of D&D were resource management games where the dungeon environment was the main opponent. Your hit points, spells, oil, torches and provisions were all resources in the pool, being slowly depleted by the denizens of the dungeon.

As you burned your resources, you had to decide whether your group could continue on and face another fight, or trap, that would weaken it further. Even worse, you may stumble on a devious trick, like a sloped passage or a sliding wall, that would make it hard for your group to navigate out of the dungeon -- and every minute you spent wandering around lost, or rechecking your map, brought you closer to a wandering encounter check... and a fight you might not be able to withstand.

And let's not discuss the dreaded pit trap. This dastardly trap was a triple threat. Not only would it damage the group and burn precious hit points and healing resources, but it would negate all of your careful mapping, dumping you into a new area and forcing you to find your way to the steps up. In the meantime, you are fighting for your life on a dungeon level you are probably not quite ready to face... They get harder as you go down, remember???

Nowadays, the focus has shifted from the environment to the individual combat encounter or skill challenge. Navigation is often a non-issue; the GM reveals the map as you explore it. There is no emphasis on getting you lost, after all you can see the map, too. If you have no chance of getting lost or stuck in the dungeon, and running out of critical supplies, like torches, time becomes way less important... and if you take wandering monsters out of the game as well, there is no need to track time anymore.

The dungeon used to be an environment to be conquered. A fair bit of skill and decision-making was required to successfully navigate a large dungeon, and doing so was the strategic part of the game.

Cleric (leader) : "Guys, I know the kobold king is nearby, but the I am down to my last two heals, and the mage is out of spells. If we turn back now, we'll have to face at least 3 wandering monster checks. Maybe we should consider heading out."

Fighter: "Yeah, but remember last time, those damn kobolds set up tons of traps and old Fumblefingers here doesn't really have a good Find Traps percentage. I can't face another one of those black spore traps again... (shivers)"

Cleric: "Ok then. Wizard, get out your wand. We'll try one more door."

Wizard: "But my wand is out of..."

Thief: "Let's do this! I open the door."

Ok... maybe strategic is too strong a word, but there were decisions involved, and a lot of sloping passages and secret doors to be discovered, and pit traps to be dreaded. A lot of that is gone from our adventure designs, and now dungeons are more a way for GMs to arrange encounters in a logical fashion and to limit choices while still offering a few options, but the meat of the game is the diced encounter.

So when we play Pathfinder again, and our group smashes its way from room to room, not marking off torches, or worrying about another random encounter check, I will remember "the old days" fondly and sip my beer and lament the death of dungeoneering.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Let's Play Magic Realm (Week 2)

Let's continue our Amazon run. The first week was great at first, but bogged down quickly. Now it is time to see how the second week goes. Here's the Amazon's card so we can reference during the game.

Day 8

It is time to move on. I would love to loot the Lair again, but we have wasted a couple of days here with no benefits, so I am going to head north to the Ledges and see what's up there. The nice thing is that the Amazon gets a free MOVE, and with the Cloak of Mist, I also get a free HIDE, so I have six possible phases to burn each day. I record five MOVES and a HIDE to get me to the Ledges. Here is my path:

We move up there, but fail our HIDE again, so we are exposed as we reveal the chits...

Day 9

Hmm... there is a lot going on in this tile. Some of which won't be apparent in the picture above. First thing is, we found the Lost Castle in clearing 1 (the red chit is hidden under the Altar). All tiles with six clearings get a yellow warning chit and a red sound or a gold treasure site chit (these are randomly mixed when you setup the game). Two of the red sound chits are the Lost Castle and Lost City chits. Those are special because when you turn one of those up, you actually put five red/gold chits on the tile. This makes these tiles very dangerous and possibly very lucrative.

In this case, you can see two ROAR chits in clearing 4 and 6. Those are bad, because all they can do is draw monsters to the tile. However, there are also three gold treasure sites on the tile. The Altar in 1, the Shrine in 4 and the Statue in 2.

Both the Altar and the Shrine have 4 treasures. The Altar has 4 large treasures which makes it pretty nice. All three of these sites have spells the characters can learn. Unfortunately, that doesn't do the magic-illiterate Amazon any good.

Statistically, the Lair is a better bet for the Amazon. There are only two chits that can summon monsters, and there are 4 treasures left in the Lair, which matches the best sites here. However, since we are here, and would like to get our hands on some of the large treasures in the Altar, we are going to spend a day or two here and see how it goes.

So, I am record HIDE, HIDE, MOVE, MOVE, SEARCH, SEARCH and try my luck.

You can see that the day is a mixed bag. I missed the first HIDE, but made the second and thus avoided one hungry giant. Once I got to the clearing with the Altar, I failed to locate the treasure site. Fortunately, the monster roll today is a "3" and nothing is roaming in this tile. Luck has granted us another day to search. It is still a little disconcerting, desperately searching for treasure with Tremendous Giants prowling on either side, just waiting for the chance to smash us with their massive clubs.

Day 10

I record HIDE, SEARCH, SEARCH, SEARCH, SEARCH. I want to get the extra SEARCH in today. Ideally, I hide, find the Altar on an early roll and can loot the remainder of my phases.

Well, my hide failed, but I did manage to find the Altar and pull a Girdle of Energy from it. Let's take a look at this new treasure.

A couple things about this treasure. First thing to notice is the gold dot which indicates that this is a "large" treasure as opposed to the rest of my belongings which are "small" treasures. This has no game effect beyond setup -- large treasures are always put at the top of piles, which due to the loot rules, makes them harder to obtain.

The Girdle is interesting because it allows me to play 3 effort asterisks each combat round. Each MOVE or FIGHT chit has a strength, a speed and a number of effort asterisks. So, you can see on the Amazon's card that I have chits like MOVE M4 and FIGHT M3**. Typically, the heavier and faster the chit, the better, and the better chits usually take more effort.

Each round of battle, you generally play a MOVE chit to defend against your opponent's attack, and a FIGHT chit to attack. You may also have played a MOVE or FIGHT earlier in the round to perform actions like readying a weapon, or trying to flee combat. In a single round, you are usually only permitted to play a total of 2 effort asterisks. The Girdle allows me to play up to 3, which gives me a little bit more flexibility in a fight.

Ok, explanation's over. Let me end my turn and see what disaster awaits the unhidden Amazon!

Well, the monster roll is a "1", and I am in a tile with a SMOKE M chit and so you can see in the far upper-left of the setup card, I am going to pull 2 Heavy Flying Dragons.

Unfortunately, I cannot kill these guys with my current weapon because they are heavy and armored and the best I can do is M* damage -- remember the armored creatures cancel a sharpness star and so, that leaves me with medium damage. Still, they can't catch me, so I can flee, but that is going to leave me in a really crappy position...

My running from the clearing has left me in between a Giant and the Dragons. Remember that because I am between clearings, I have to record a MOVE as my first phase, which will put me in reach of one of these two monsters. Unfortunately, as soon as I end my MOVE phase unhidden in a clearing with a monster, I will be blocked and my turn will end, forcing me into a combat I cannot win. I will then have to flee and because I just entered the clearing that day, I will have to go back the way I came, putting me between two monsters...

I am stuck.

There is a modicum of hope. If the monster roll comes up either on a "1" or "4", some of these creatures will be "prowling" which will draw them into the clearing with me and that will clear a path to escape.

Which highlights the fact that staying in this tile with the Amazon and her starting weapon was a pretty bad idea. The high number of chits on the tile almost guaranteed I would run into a bunch of creatures I could not handle and the placement of the chits on the tile meant that my current predicament was predictable. At its core, Magic Realm is about risk management. You have to minimize the worst possible outcome of the dice, because that is the most likely outcome! It is very much a game of balancing risk versus reward and in this case, the odds were much better heading back to the Lair, or exploring somewhere else.

Or heck, at least recording two HIDE phases instead of one. In this case, had I hidden twice, like I did trying to get to this clearing, I might have saved myself. Instead, the Amazon is in for a clunky few days of fleeing and hoping for a favorable monster roll.

Day 14

Finally, we get the break we need. The dragons and giants have all lined up in a single clearing, allowing the Amazon to escape.

So, I am off to the Altar again and I will have to make some tough decisions about how to navigate the Ledges next week.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Let's Play Magic Realm (Week 1)

I recently waxed nostalgic over one of my favorite board games, Magic Realm, and subsequently decided it might be fun to do a play through. Though I usually play with tons of optional rules and the expansion tiles and spells, for purposes of teaching people the basics of the game, I will stick with the base rules and use a fighter to keep things simple. I am not even going to worry about victory conditions this game -- we will just get used to the game, play for a few weeks and see how we fare!

I chose the Amazon to run this play through:

The Amazon is a medium fighter, favoring speed and her armor over hitting power. She is an awesome explorer due to her STAMINA advantage which allows her to record an extra move phase each day. However, in spite of her martial appearance, her combat options are limited by her starting weapon (the lowly short sword) and her lack of heavy FIGHT chits (she has only one), which means even if she upgrades her weapon, she will have trouble dealing enough damage to defeat the toughest enemies in the game. On the other hand, if she can find a bow (not easy, but possible), her AIM advantage will make her a very deadly combatant. In the meantime, discretion and valor go hand in hand in Magic Realm.

Note: Personally, I feel the Amazon does much better using some of the optional combat rules where her fast medium FIGHT chits can make more of a difference, but that is a discussion for another day.

So, let's take a quick look at the map:

Day 1

The Amazon starts, like most characters, at the Inn (circled on the right side of the map). In MR, tiles with six clearings have the possibility for adventure and more importantly, treasure sites. At first glance, I can see the Borderland, the Crag and the Ledges are all within striking distance. I will head to the Borderland first, because it is only a day's travel. Before that though, I will spend a day trading at the Inn to prepare for my trek into the wilderness.

Trading isn't necessarily a safe bet for the Amazon. She is neutral with the Rogues which means they could insult her (- to her fame or notoriety, which she would need to meet victory conditions), or worse, turn on her and attack. Also, there is the possibility for other groups to appear at the Inn. Namely the Patrol (good because we are friends with them), or the notorious mercenary Company (bad because we don't like them).

How do we know who can appear where? For that information, we look to the game's setup card.

Here it is. What you are seeing is that each dwelling in the game, as well as treasure locations, and sound and warning chits are cross-referenced with the result of a random die roll. Each day, after we record what we want to do that turn, we roll a die. When someone ends their turn, we check all of the dwellings and chits on the tile, and see if they line up with our die roll. If they do, something shows up... usually to eat us. You can see on the chart that if we end our day at the Inn, a roll of "1" will bring the Company and a roll of "3" will cause the Patrol to arrive.

We will take our chances for the ability to see what treasures the Rogues have to sell, as well as the opportunity to hire one of them to assist us with the journey ahead. If the Patrol appears, all the better. If the Company decides to crash the party, we will get out of Dodge... and head to the Borderland.

With that plan in mind, I record my move -- HIDE, TRADE, HIRE, HIRE. We hide to hedge our bets and minimize the damage done by poor rolls on the trading tables. The trade is recorded because I want to see what items the Rogues have for sale. The two hires are there to maybe score the Amazon a loyal henchman. We could also record a MOVE (because the Amazon has the Stamina advantage), but we will not do so today.

Ugh... for my HIDE phase, I roll a "6,4". In MR, most actions are resolved by rolling two dice and taking the higher of the two. High numbers are usually bad and so, in this case, I got the worst possible result, a "6", the only result that makes you fail to hide... so I am exposed for the day.

On the other hand, those Quick Boots are nice. They give you an extra MOVE chit. In this case, the boots are better than any MOVE chit the Amazon has. They are as strong and fast as her chits, but without the nasty fatigue asterisk... which we will talk about when we have to fight. Unfortunately, at a base cost of 8, I will never be able to buy them from the neutral Rogues without some cash, or treasures in hand. So, we will make a quick note of it and see if we can hire someone.

Jeez... so the Rogues not only refused to lend me some muscle for my journey, they challenged and insulted my honor, forcing me to lose points, or be blocked and battled. I am not ready for such a confrontation, and so I took the point loss... the Amazon will sleep in the stable tonight and hope tomorrow is a better day.

Day 2

I seriously considered staying at the Inn one more day in hopes of hiring a rogue or two, but I decided against it. The rogues I can hire won't make a difference as to what I can fight. They would just act as a meat shield to protect me in a battle, or allow me to flee. Useful... but a rogue or two won't allow me to take on giants and dragons. I figure, let's just head out on the road and see what happens!!

I record four MOVE phases to take me to Borderland 2 and a HIDE (typically, you hide first, but in a solo game, I have no fear of other players getting in my way). Let's hope I am stealthier today than yesterday. Here is my travel path:

And when I end my turn in the Borderland, we reveal the chits, consult the setup card and see what creatures appear.

Interesting! The Lair appears and because the monster roll today is a "1", the Tremendous Dragon comes with it. The "Bones C" chit draws no monsters.

Day 3

So, I am intrigued by the Lair. There is no way I can fight the Tremendous Dragon. Damage and vulnerability in MR go on a simple scale:

Negligible (--)
Light (L)
Medium (M)
Heavy (H)
Tremendous (T)

My short sword is an L* weapon. The L means it does "Light" damage, and because the Amazon has medium FIGHT chits, she can over-strength her light weapon, making her weapon's base damage medium. The star means it is a sharp weapon, which ups the damage by an additional level. So, the Amazon's final melee damage would be M* or heavy. However, armored opponents (which the dragon most certainly is), ignore one sharpness star, which drops my damage back to a mere medium level... and I need tremendous damage to kill this foe.

Having said that, the dragon is big and slow. The number in the blue circle is "6" which means he moves super-slowly (lower is faster). My MOVE chits, in contrast, are 4s and 3s, which means I can easily run away from this beast if needed.

So, my plan is to hide, head into the clearing with the Lair and see if I cannot locate and loot it. If I screw up hiding, I will be blocked by the dragon and forced into combat, but I can easily flee and try again. The only way this goes bad, is if other creatures are summoned to the tile -- the Bones C chit means trolls can appear. Heck, I can escape them too, so we might be in luck. Let's see what happens!

I record HIDE, SEARCH, SEARCH, SEARCH and enter my turn.

Success!!! Excellent. I avoided the dragon, and found his Lair. Now, with one more lucky day, I can loot the site and get some treasures.

Day 4

Today is easy. I record, HIDE, SEARCH, SEARCH, SEARCH to loot the Lair. It all hinges on not rolling a "6" while trying to hide. The reason is blocking, which is a pretty important concept in Magic Realm. If you end any one of your phases (actions) unhidden in a clearing with enemies, those enemies will block you, ending your turn immediately.

So, we are starting our day in a clearing with a Tremendous Dragon. If I started my day with a SEARCH action (instead of HIDE), I would complete my search, but the dragon would then block me and the rest of my actions for that day would be lost. Thus, I am going to start my day with HIDE. If I succeed, great! I can get three searches in before my turn ends. On the other hand, if I fail my hide, I will end a phase unhidden, and thus be blocked and my turn will be short and fruitless.

I roll double ones for my hide and manage to avoid the dragon for another day. I loot three times and collect three treasures from the Lair. Let's take a quick look at what I have plundered.

Eh... the Scroll of Nature is useless to me as a fighter with no MAGIC chits, but it is worth 10 gold (the bold number in the lower right hand corner of the card) if I sell it to the Rogues. The Lost Keys are useful if I find any of the sites listed on the card. They require Tremendous strength to open and so the Keys are the only means for me to access those treasures. The Cloak of Mist is the best item I got, as it gives me an additional HIDE phase each day.

I feel a bit of greed coming on, and so I think I will repeat my looting on day 5.

Day 5

I recorded a HIDE and then SEARCHes to loot the Lair. Unfortunately, I came up empty-handed. The reason for that is that looting, like most other tasks in the game is resolved with the "roll 2 dice, take the highest (worst)" method. In the case of looting, the treasures in the site are piled up, and your roll determines which treasure in the pile you take. So, if you roll a "5", you take the 5th treasure card from the pile. However, if the pile has only 4 treasures, you get nothing on a "5" or "6". Thus, as you loot treasures from a site, your chances of getting more treasures decreases.

The Lair starts with 7 treasures -- 4 small and 3 large treasures. These are piled up with the small treasures on the bottom (and thus easier to get), and the large ones on top. Since I have already acquired 3 of the 7 treasures, that leaves only 4 on the pile. Rolls of "5" or "6" on loot phases get me nothing.

Day 6

I think I will spend another day or so at the Lair, trying to loot it. If more creatures show up, or I can drag one more treasure out of there, then I will move on. My Cloak of Mist gives me an additional HIDE each day, and so I am recording HIDE, SEARCHx4 from here on.

And... we blow the HIDE roll and are blocked on day 6. Now, I am in combat with the Tremendous Dragon.

We will get into combat at a later time... when I actually have to fight. This battle isn't going to happen because before a blow is struck, the Amazon is going to flee for her life. All I have to do is play a MOVE chit lower than the dragon's horrible score of 6 and I am out of the clearing. I play an MOVE 4 and get out of there.

Day 7

So, after an awesome start, we stalled out a bit, and as day 7 starts, we are stranded between clearings in the Borderland. When you flee, you end up on the road in between two clearings and your first phase has to be a MOVE into one or the other spaces.

Now, if I were worried about victory conditions, I would be a little concerned because I have wasted several days trying to scrape more treasures from this site. Most victory point games last only one month and I am 25% of the way through. But... I don't care this game, and so I can procrastinate a but and thus, I am going to give the Lair one more shot to end the week and then I am heading north to the Ledges.

I record a MOVE into clearing 2, then a HIDE, a MOVE back to the Lair, and three SEARCH phases. I feel lucky today!!!

And... I fail to hide and I am blocked again and forced to flee. It is an omen. Time to go.