Thursday, July 9, 2009

Design patterns among D&D 4e Skill Challenges

Being that I have a healthy phobia of using other peoples adventure and campaign material, published or not, I find myself constantly working on new encounters and skill challenges. (Hey I gotta fill those down hours at work between 8 and 5) Over the course of creating skill challenges and seeing some others that have been created I have decided to boldly try and classify a good number of different skill challenge mechanics and their purpose or explanation in the storyline.

Now already I have a feeling I've bit off more than I am willing to proverbially chew. I think first and foremost it's best to identify some of the different structures that make up various skill challenge. Since skill challenges are really only limited by the creators imagination there are a limitless number of possibilities. However, just like computer programming there are a number of design patterns that are used over and over again in skill challenges and seem to be very successful. The key is pointing out what these design patterns are and what they are used to accomplish. So here are a few different design patterns I've noticed.

The Trailblazing SC:
Just like the DMing style of trailblazing this kind of skill challenge limits the players choices to only a couple of skills and to quickly lead them along the storyline. Since the story is usually already planned out players will only have 1 or 2 different skills to choose from. In most cases I have seen this kind of skill challenge used to quickly advance the storyline or play a narrative with dice rolls. They require only minimal input from the PCs such as, 'Do you want to go through the mountains or the forest to get to the next town?' Usually these are low complexity challenges because high complexity challenges tend to feel like you're just rolling dice. Basically this kind of SC is used as a narrative or sometimes just introduces an extra encounter into what in previous editions might have just been a flash point or 'Okay a week later you show up in town'. While theses aren't really bad I find them a little unnecessary, the PCs are adventurers if it's not an adventure to do something it doesn't really need to be a skill challenge, then again XP is XP so bring on the trailblazing skill challenges :)

The Resource Pool SC:
The Resource Pool skill challenge is probably the most typical of all skill challenges. This is essentially the framework intended to be used with all (or most all, see social skill challenges) skill challenges. The basic concept is that the party has a pool of available skills to choose from in order to complete the skill challenge. Generally each skill will have some kind of additional effect on top of a success or failure. Such as a +2 to your next skill check or perhaps on a failure, you lose a healing surge. At it's core, this kind of skill challenge encompasses a lot of possibilities for the party. When a group of players are involved in a challenge it makes sense that everyone can take a turn, choose a skill that best suits them and roll to see how they fair. Each individual success or failure brings the entire party one step towards completing the skill challenge.

Since there is a plethora of different kinds of resource pool skill challenges the length of these kind of skill challenges can vary from complexity 1 to complexity 5. More advanced resource pool type skill challenges exist where, based on what skills have been attempted with success or failure, new secondary skills become available that previously were not. A perfect example of this can be found in Dungeon 167 in the"Heart of the Forbidden Forge" adventure in encounter 14: "Disabling the Forge" just to point one out at random.(requires DNDI subscription) It should also be mentioned that in some cases not all available choices in these kind of skill challenges are made known to the players, thus forcing them to come up with their own ideas about how to complete the challenge. In other cases resource pool skill challenges can be modified to become Diminishing Resource Pool skill challenges which add an extra level of decision making on the part of the PCs.

The Diminishing Resource Pool(DRP) SC:
The DRP skill challenge is similar to the resource pool skill challenge but rather than allowing the players to choose whatever available skill they want they are limited to successfully completing each skill a limited number of times. Sometimes a skill will only be good for one success other times the player may be limited to a small number of successes. Sometimes on a success or failure one skill will be replaced with a different skill in the next round. All of these variations build on top of the original idea of the resource pool skill challenge and add the element that certain skills' effectiness deminish as they are used.
When the players have to choose which skill they will attempt on their turn they need to look at who is the most skilled in the party rather than just what their character's best skills are. The idea being that once a skill is used the group might not get a chance to use it again potentially forcing players to make skill checks with untrained skills. This kind of alteration can throw some PCs off their guard, especially when they don't know they are doing a DRP type of skill challenge in the first place. This kind of logic closely follow a lot of fantasy world situations and can make for great enthralling chllaneges. The only downside I have seen among them is that they are usually pretty involved and take a good deal to time to create and flesh out.

An example of a DRP SC might be where the PCs are trying to crack a cipher code on a magical scroll. Each piece of the code can be broken in a unique way but once solved there is no new information that method can present. Say initially the PCs can use insight to learn about the origin of the scroll or Arcana to decipher the magic encrypting it. Succeeding in insight tells the players it has a religious origin opening up a religion check where as the Arcana route displays the text in a certain dialect allowing the players to use nature to determine information about the writer. If the players then succeed in a nature check perhaps they learn it was written by an ancient tribe of magic wielding orcs which could warrant a history check or another arcana check. With each player taking a turn in this kind of challenge the party needs to make sure that the dumb barbarian doesn't end up getting stuck having to make the history check to which he knows nothing about.

The Group SC:
The group skill challenge is a challenge in which the entire party makes rolls as a group. When I say group I mean literally just that, every one's roll weighs in on each others chance of success. Generally this is done with the majority of the party's rolls needing to be successful in order to count as a success towards the skill challenge. If the majority of the rolls are unsuccessful then the party earns a failure towards the encounter. This kind of skill challenge works great for adventures where the entire party is trying to accomplish a similar task such as scaling a mountain or trying gain control of an of crashing air ship. Group skill challenges tend to have a few different skills to choose from and often require at least 1 player to use each of the available skills. As with pretty much all skill challenges variations can exist where the set of skills change. This kind of change tends to have more of an impact with group challenges if a certain number of PCs need to make checks for the new skill presented. A lot of the time such a change can lead to characters making checks for skills in which they aren't trained which can make things tougher, but usually more exciting.

The Puzzle SC:
The puzzle skill challenge as it's name suggests involves an actual puzzle set inside the framework of a skill challenge. Depending on the difficulty of the puzzle this can sometimes be extremely easy or very difficult. Generally this type of skill challenge will deviate from the typical x successes before 3 failues and instead uses some sort of time limit. This arbitrary limit is the amount of time the players have to work on the puzzle. These kind of challenges really give the player's a chance to get their hands dirty, however for those not fond of puzzles it can come as a distraction from the game. Some player's may also not like it when the half-orc warden who has never seen a book in his life and is dumb as bricks is able to solve the riddle the Sphinx while his worldly wizard ally is dumb-founded by it. This can be a draw back because much of the challenge of the puzzle relies on the player rather than the player's character.

To help supplement what a player's character knows there should be skill checks that are made during a set interval of time. Each successful skill check made gives the players a piece of the puzzle that they haven't already solved. A very clever example of this I came across in another DMs game was when the DM wrote out symbols in 'elven' on a grid as glowing runes on a locked door. It quickly became obvious the grid was a sudoku puzzle using symbols rather than numbers. The runes started glowing brighter as the players interacted with them hinting that something very bad would happen if the puzzle wasn't solved quickly. Suddenly the group of players realized the DM was timing them and everyone scrambled into action trying to solve the puzzle. Every few minutes a player could make a certain skill check to solve an empty square. In this case it was exceedingly simple and easy to implement but it got the players involved as if they had just stumbled upon an angry dragon. However, while puzzle skill challenges can be very entertaining you want to make sure to use them sparingly. Too many and your player's will stab you in the throat with a pencil when you're not looking because they came to play D&D not solve puzzles.

While this post turned out to view skill challenges at a much higher level than I anticipated I believe these 5 patterns do a pretty good job of classifying many of the skill challenges out there and many more to potentially to come. I purposely didn't launch into any detail about social skill challenges since I already have a post on them, granted it's not quite the same thing but no point in reiterating the topic. For those of you who are still actually reading this far you probably want your 5 minutes back that I just wasted but I'll make it worth your while and say if you want to read some more about skill challenge design you can check out Mike Mearls' articles on skill challenges, they are very enlightening.

Why 'Careful Attack' is broken by design

For most this is probably old hat, but for those of you who are unaware or just plain terrible at math, the ranger's at-Will power Careful Attack is one of the worst at-Wills in the game. The reason I bring this up now is in light of the recent update where WotC took the 'nurf bat' to some obviously overpowered class features and powers. As I had mentioned in that post, it's a good thing that WotC are willing to correct overpowered abilities but what about things that are utterly useless and underpowered like Careful Attack? Will they also eventually be addressed? If so, then when? Why not right now... well hell I'll save them the effort of paying someone to do it and do it here. But before diving into a fix it's important that everyone understands the problem.

Careful Attack's Problem: The problem with this At-will boils all the way down to its design. 'Well what is it designed to do?' you might be wondering. It's a simple trade off between accuracy over power in that it's more accurate than a normal attack but less damaging. Well at a high level this sounds reasonable but there is one huge mother F*%@ing problem. That is in almost all cases the ranger's at-Will Twin Strike has a better chance to hit because it gets two attacks AND has the capability of doing more damage then Careful Attack.

So what's the difference between these two powers? Well here they are if you want to check them out:

Careful Attack

You study the enemy, looking for a gap in his defenses. Only when you find it do you strike.

At-Will Martial, Weapon
Standard Action Melee or Ranged weapon
Requirement: You must be wielding two melee weapons or a ranged weapon.
: One creature
Attack: Strength + 2 vs. AC (melee) or Dexterity + 2 vs. AC (ranged).Hit: 1[W] damage (melee) or 1[W] damage (ranged).
Increase damage to 2[W] (melee) or 2[W] (ranged) at 21st level.

Twin Strike

If the first attack doesn't kill it, the second one might.

At-Will Martial, Weapon
Standard Action Melee or Ranged weapon
Requirement: You must be wielding two melee weapons or a ranged weapon.
Targets: One or two creatures
Attack: Strength vs. AC (melee; main weapon and off-hand weapon) or Dexterity vs. AC (ranged), two attacks
Hit: 1[W] damage per attack.
Increase damage to 2[W] at 21st level.

The key differences between these powers are simply one gets 1 attack with a +2 to hit and the other gets 2 attacks. That's it. As is, they both require two melee weapons or a ranged weapon, both do the same damage per hit and both use the ranger's respective primary attribute.

I don't want to boil down in the math too much but if you have even a remote chance to hit, say a 25% or a 16 - 20 on the ol' attack die this is the difference you'll see when comparing Careful Attack and Twin Strike.
Careful Attack:
16-20 needed to hit +2 from Careful Attack bonus makes it a 14-20 or a 35% ((20-14)/20)
chance to hit.

Twin Strike:
16-20 needed for first attack is a 25% ((20 - 16)/20) chance to hit
16-20 needed for second attack is a 25% ((20 - 16)/20) chance to hit
Which totals to a 43.75% chance to hit. (see Formula below if you want to see how this number was obtained)

To add these chances to hit together you can multiple your chance to miss for each attack and then take 1 - that value to get your overall chance to hit at least once. Since each attack has a 75% chance to miss or .75 the formula would be:
.75 * .75 = .5625 Now take the inverse of this or 1 - .5625 and you have .4375 or in other words a
43.75% chance to hit once and about a 6% chance to hit with both attacks. As your chance to hit increases so does the gap between Twin Strike and Careful Attack.

So from this example it is pretty obvious that Twin Strike is clearly the better choice. It not only has a better chance to hit, but it has a chance to hit twice. Thus the design of the power, to trade up damage for accuracy is flawed because Twin Strike is superior in both respects. Some of you might be saying to yourself or screaming at your monitor, 'Well if it's not good then don't choose it moron!' I use that same logic however I take it one step further; If the power is not good then why present it as an option? An option isn't an option if it's inferior in all cases it's a pit trap. Plaguing only those poor souls foolish enough to walk into it.

So now the question is, what is the solution? Why should anyone even be reading this post from someone no one knows anything about, who has no credibility whatsoever in the world of D&D? Because my solution works, plain and simple. See for yourself:

Careful Attack (new and Improved)

'Cause sometimes all you need is one well placed shot

At-Will Martial, Weapon
Standard Action Ranged weapon
Requirement: You must be wielding a ranged weapon.
: One creature
Effect: Make two attack rolls and use the better of the two
Attack: Dexterity vs. AC
: 1[W] damage + Dexterity modifier.
Increase damage to 2[W] + Dexterity modifier at 21st level.

And there you have it. Now the power is highly accurate, giving you just as good a chance to hit when compared to Twin Strike but on a single hit you will do relatively more damage. However to balance out this increase in power the at-Will is now limited to only ranged attacks. Essentially giving the bow ranger another option over Twin Strike. Less versatile but much more comparable than the original Careful Attack. This also does a better job at a design level of displaying a balance among at-Will powers rather than a basic attack and an at-Will power. It's obvious that an at-Will should always be better than or equal to a basic attack. There should not be a trade off between an at-Will and basic attack. At-Will powers should be compared to each other when determining balance among them.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

New DnD 4e Psion Class Released

Part of the new psion class was released recently. It offers a new mechanic called augmentation that uses a new resource called power points. Rather than have encounter powers psions can use their power points to strengthen their at-will powers to increase their effectiveness. At level three the psion gets an additional at-will but after that has the option to swap out lower level at-wills with higher level ones. They also increase their power points as they gain levels. A level 1 psion will would normally only have 2 power points while a 30th level psion would at least have 15.

I normally don't write about trendy topics as this new class seems to be but I have been a long time fan of the psionic from previous editions and am glad to see WotC introduce a different mechanic into the game like this. To give you an idea, here is an example of one of the at-will powers available to the psionic at level 1:


You insert thoughts of defeat into your foes’ minds, sapping their will to fight.

At-Will Augmentable, Implement, Psionic, Psychic
Standard Action Area burst 1 within 10 squares
: Each creature in burst
Intelligence vs. Will

Hit: 1d6 + Intelligence modifier psychic damage, and the target takes a –2 penalty to attack rolls until the end of your next turn.

Augment 1
Hit: As above, and the target cannot make opportunity attacks until the end of your next turn.

Augment 2
Hit: 2d6 + Intelligence modifier psychic damage, and the target takes a penalty to attack rolls equal to your Charisma modifier until the end of your next turn.

The thing to keep in mind here is that each at-will has a basic unaugmented power that functions as a normal at-will power. As with the power shown above, if you spend 1 power point you add an additional effect to the basic at-will power in that on a hit, targets cannot make opportunity attacks. Spend 2 power points and the damage in increased to 2d6 + int modifier and the targets penalty to attack rolls increases from a -2 to minus the psion's cha modifier. (hopefully that is more than 2 in this case)

This versatility is great because a level 1 psion could make two attacks each spending only 1 power point an effective get two weaker versions of an encounter power or they could spend two on any given at-will and get a spell that is comparable to a regular encounter power. On top of that a psion will have at least two at-wills at level one opening them up to 2 different Augment 1 powers and 2 different Augment 2 powers. It's a shame this system of power points has only started to be implemented with the psion because I would have loved to have seen this put into place for some of the arcane classes.

Another thing I like, although some might see it as a con, is that the psion is very specialized. From what I have seen practically all of their powers target will defense and do psyic damage. While this can be a huge hindrance for the small subset of monsters with either a higher than normal will defense or are resistant to psychic damage, it leads to reaping a bigger benefit from feats and powers that improve psychic related powers. Compare this to the warlock class (another long time favorite of mine who I feel is still lacking in 4e) who has powers all over the place, doing various kinds of damage, some with effects some without and targeting different defenses. It's difficult for a warlock of any given pact to limit their powers to 1 or generally even 2 different kinds of damage. This makes it nearly impossible for them to benefit from a single feats that focuses certain keywords as much as less diversified classes. For the psion, if you have something that lowers the will defense of your enemies you are guaranteed that it will be effective across the board for practically all of your powers. Being a fan of a 'glass cannon' kind of build the psion is certainly a class that has my interest.

The only potential downsides I can see other than the aforementioned lack of diversity in damage type is that the psion has no class features that boost their AC and some people might not like the idea of trading up their at-will powers for higher level ones. The low AC certainly does seem like it can be a valid concern. Being only about to use cloth out of the box an no class feature to supplement their AC like the wizard and druid the psion may find themselves being extra squishy. The second possible downside is trading up at-will powers. Although from what I have seen of the higher level at-will powers this isn't an issue for me, for some people they may not like the idea of having to give up an existing at-will power to get new pseudo encounter powers.

Despite these potental set backs, all in all I find the psion class much to my liking and give it a big two thumbs up. I am curious if WotC will have other classes use power points as well or if they will try to come up with new mechanics for each. It'll be intersting to see. I am looking forward to trying psion out in future gaming sessions.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Art of Social Skill Challenges part II

The Art of the Social Skill Challenge:
1) Backgrounds are key! Yes this is step 1 and although some may think it's optional if you are considering creating a social skill challenge then there needs to be some piece of information that is useful to the players. A quick story board perhaps leading to an over arching theme can do wonders to provide various NPC motivations. Or you could have something as simple as a noble wanting to make some extra coin by running drugs on the side.

2) Determine what happens if the players succeed in the challenge and what happens if they fail. With any social skill challenge experience should only be icing on the cake, the information the players will learn is the meat of what should be the player's reward. Failure might result in no information at all or incorrect information. Incorrect information is especially threatening to PCs as you can still quickly advance the storyline as if the player's had succeeded the skill challenge but when it comes to crunch time it'll be the PCs who end up getting crunched. Well in a manner of speaking...

3) Determine the key pieces of information the players should be looking for. Think about which pieces the players will learn if they are successful and which one's they won't learn. If they need to find out why a noble donated 1000g to a baker down the street then make sure you have both a correct version of the answer and an incorrect version. If successful the players might learn that the baker's flour is actually holding the drugs for the noble. If unsuccessful the players might learn that the baker was merely taking a loan from the noble to expand his business. (No new information) Or perhaps they learn that the baker actually kidnapped the nobles daughter and is holding her for ransom (incorrect information). This might cause the players to rush to the rescue of the noble and save his daughter. It may even result in them mistakenly slaying the baker or perhaps lead to a trap as the noble's guards who are closely protecting the drugs attack the players when they go to rescue the believed damsel in distress.

4) Let the players initiate the skill challenge, don't try to force them to look for the information. This can be tough because if the players aren't interested in a particular hook forcing a social skill challenge on the group is one of the worst things you can do as a DM. It's best to let the player's initiate the skill challenge by dropping hints to them over the course of the playing session. If they are trying to solve a mysterious murder and Count Von Duke knows some information perhaps have the city guard provide a short list of eye witnesses to the PCs that has his name on the it.

5) Keep your options open when it comes to using the various social skills in the game. This step basically means that for each social interaction you should have an idea of how a NPC might respond to any one of the usable social skills, namely: Bluff, Diplomacy, Insight and sometimes Streetwise. If you plan on having an NPC automatically react negatively to a particular skill it's a good idea to try to hint at that, or maybe even use the highest player's passive insight to determine if the players know that information outright. If the players are on their game they might try to make an insight check of their own after talking to the character for a little bit.

I find it's easiest to just start having the player's role play their characters in this kind of skill challenge. Don't have them pick a skill and make check right away. Have them meet the NPC, and ask a question or two. If the players come straight out and ask "So what do you know about Lord Dilithi" the NPC might ask a question of his own or want to know why the PCs want to know this information. Depending on how you respond to the player's you can subtly influence what skill the players might want to use. If the NPC responds "Are you guys from the city guard investigating Lord Dilithi?" then the players might consider using a bluff check to convince the guy they are with the city guard. Or they might use insight to see if the guy is leading them on. Ultimately what skills they use shouldn't matter, just so long as it goes along with how they are role-playing there character. Ultimately it will boil down to success or failure but the player's don't need to be aware of that. Once the outcome is determined the DM knows which piece of information he should include in the conversation. For this reason it's good have an idea of what DC you'll want to use for any given skill ahead of time. If you are doing the skill challenge on the fly using the DCs listed on page 42 of the DMG (also see the updated errata) is a great resource.

6) Don't be afraid to adjust the skill challenge as you go. In most social skill challenges you want to lose the notion of six successes before three failures. Or that everyone needs to take a turn. The length of the skill challenge should be based on what the players are trying to figure out. If you have 5 key points of information you want the players to learn and they figure everything out after the third success then end it early and just award them as if they had successfully completed the challenge. Perhaps have the NPC they are talking to spill his guts and reaffirm the player's suspicions. On the flip side if the players talk to someone and completely go off on a tangent, say stab the NPC in his throat (probably not the first time it's happened either...) you as a DM have the option of just assuming they failure the skill challenge out right or you can perhaps try throwing an extra NPC into the mix who might help get them back on course. Success in the social skill challenge, as with any skill challenge, shouldn't make or break the storyline. Things should continue to move regardless, just keep in mind of what the consequences are for players for being ill-informed.

7) Tying the pieces of information together. You want to make sure the various points you decided to be important to the players are related or can be related to one another. If you decide on two key points being that a noble committed suicide and a cobbler's shoe shop got burnt down then you need to have a story that would tie these events together. If the events don't go together then make them separate skill challenge or if they aren't important to the players, then they don't need to be a skill challenge at all. Having a single key piece of important information can be enought to create a simple skill challenge. This can be done by requiring the players first to locate the right person who might know this information, (streetwise) and have the player's talk with them (any social skill). If the player's succeed perhaps the NPC doesn't know the right answer to the player's question but he knows someone who does, and he can point the players to the next NPC they may need to talk to, which can easily become another streetwise check to find that other person (perhaps with a bonus due to their previous success) and another social interaction. If the players fail their social interaction then perhaps it is more difficult for them to find the next person who really knows the answer to their question. The key point here is that you want to have an idea of what will happen next depending on success or failure of the player's interactions. In doing so you will ensure that the first key point is somehow related to the second key point thus making the entire series of social encounters appear just as if the player's were normally role-playing their characters with sporadic skill checks mixed in.

And there are your seven somewhat simple steps to social skill challenge (try to say that three times fast)

So while it is apparent that a social skill challenge is a bit more involved than most other kinds of skill challenges I have been able to use these steps to create quite a few social skill challenges that I was able to ran successfully in my campaign. Hopefully someone out there might be able to find these steps useful as well. If anyone is interested I can post a few challenges I have used in the past as examples.

The Art of Social Skill Challenges part I (introduction)

Skill Challenges seem to constantly be a discussion among players of D&D 4e since the framework adds a layer that was never previously there. It adds a system to reward player's who successfully perform difficult tasks outside the normal realm of combat. Logically it makes sense to offer such a reward but often the actions of the player character's can easily fall outside of a designed skill challenge. The DM has an option of announcing to the players that they are starting a skill challenge but this often banishes any pretense of role playing and generally leads to a series of meaningless rolls.

To keep the element of role-playing alive in skill challenges the mechanics of the challenge should be seamless to the players. Players shouldn't be thinking, 'okay We've failed twice if we mess up one more time we'll fail this challenge' they should just know that each time they misplayed a note on the organ a section of nearby floor has collapsed and they are standing on the only remaining piece. Success and failure shouldn't be in terms of mechanics but in terms of what's gone on in the storyline. The biggest challenge often seems to be providing the players with enough information to make informed decisions while keeping the challenge seamless within its role-playing element. To much meta gaming and the players know exactly what needs to be done but it loses the roll playing aspect, too little information and the players may not have an idea what consequences their actions might cause. This is generally in reference to the DC or difficulty check needed for a success. If you give a player two choices, say between using their nature skill and dungeoneering skill they will go with what is their best skill nearly 100% of the time. If you tell them the exact DC value needed then they can do the math to figure out which choice gives them the greatest chance of success. Describe in game what is different between the two choices then you have informed the player which is the more difficult route but not in terms of a quantitative amount. You leave it up to the PC to decide which choice is best for them.

Beyond the difficultly of providing information to players there is another big issue which is that the general framework made for skill challenges doesn't accurately address the plethora of different skill challenges a character could face. The framework works beautifully for things like the 'Urban Chase' outlined in the DMG. I've had players who thought that skill challenge was the most exciting part of a playing session, even more so than combat. (This was coming from a player who's self described favorite part of the game was usually combat).
The idea of players chasing a cloaked assassin through the city, scaling sheer walls and leaping over roof tops plunges players into a type of fantastic excitement that most aren't used to. The idea that each player is chasing after this guy and therefore needs to make a skill check makes sense. Perhaps someone fell down while trying to scale a building, no worries they just get up and purse along the streets. They aren't out of the race just a little behind. How could players aid one another? Perhaps one player pushed his buddy out of the way of a speeding horse and carriage. The possibilities are only limited by what the DM can come up with to explain what is happening to the players. The framework present in the DMG just does a good job of keeping a quick pace and determining how successful the player's efforts are.

However, when you take this same framework and use it in a social encounter, say trying to gather information about a possibly corrupt noble things become much more impractical. First off, if a group of adventurers are going around town asking questions only the people with the best skills will end up making rolls. The street-hardened rogue will be making streetwise checks, the charming diplomatic paladin will be making the diplomacy checks and the big scary dragon born sorcerer with a nasty disposition will be making the intimidate checks, should any need to be made. Meanwhile others in the group, trained in none of the aforementioned skills may not be willing to contribute to the skill challenge. If a group is trying to establish diplomatic relations with a band of distrustful goliaths you don't want the fighter with his 8 charisma to be opening his trap and screwing everything up. There is no reason for him to do so and therefore no reason to force every player in the group to take turns making a skill check. Sure you can force them to make a roll, but it can become difficult to justify this. The downside to this is that if you aren't including everyone in the skill challenge then some people can get bored. This is why it's important to keep it seamless.

Having the group essentially role-play through the skill challenge is fine, when they do something that might seem difficult have a skill check determine the result. If a player does a great job of role-playing their character, says the right thing that an NPC would want to hear or gives a convincing speech go ahead and use the DM's friend (+2 or -2 to the roll) or even give the player an automatic success social challenges can seem kind of combersum when a character does a great job of role-playing their character and is then required to make a skill check because the skill challenge was designed that way. If the player rolls poorly it undermines their effort of playing their character. Ultimately it's up to the DM to decide what warrents an autmatic success vs a +2 or no bonus at all but the more DMs work with such kind of skill challenges the easier this becomes.

I've read quite a few articles that say to stay away from using skill challenges in social encounters altogether but I believe that with a slightly different design template they can be both fun and rewarding for the players. The key is to focus on important topics of the conversation that are pertinent to the players purpose. This often means doing away with notion of the typical skill challenge framework and replacing it with something more flexible. Also not every interaction with an NPC warrants a skill challenge.

Wow, this post seems like it'll be much longer than I anticipated so it looks like I'll have to continue it some other time. In the next part to come I will outline some steps that I have used to create successful social skill challenges.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Putting the Beast in Beastmaster Ranger

So back when Marital Powers came out I was thrilled to hear the Ranger was going to get a Beastmaster ranger build. I was both anticipating a major change to the core class along with an interesting way of keeping it balanced. I remember from the days of Yore working hard to obtain some pet that was easily your equal in combat, some fierce beast that the mere sight of made enemies second guess attacking me. Well needless to say I was sorely disappointed after reviewing what was in Martial Powers.

While the Beastmaster ranger does do a great job of keeping the ranger balanced among to the other class builds it really does little in my opinion to make the Beastmaster ranger's pet very interesting. Ultimately it seems like the beastmaster's pet ends up fulfilling the roll of either a meat shield or a flanking bot neither of which are very fun. In fact I've always felt that there was very little incentive for a ranger to every really attack with his pet if it meant giving up his own attack to do so. This would make sense in looking at it from a game design perspective because WotC specifically stated that they don't want the beastmaster's pet to outshine the ranger. I didn't necessarily agree with it, because if a Ranger needed to always give up their attack to attack with their pet then their pet's attack should be roughly equal to their own. The problem with that is the original designers had created ways in which the beastmaster ranger wouldn't have to give up their attack. So I set about doing what I like to do so much, and design a solution to fit a problem only few ever perceived. I wanted to find a way to put the beastmaster's pet on par with the beastmaster himself without being over powered or wrecking the existing framework that made up the beastmaster ranger. A difficult task indeed.

After many versions, alterations, trolling on forums and brainstorming I eventually came up with a proposed solution to the problem, unfortunately I have no groups with people playing a beastmaster ranger so I have no clue if these rule changes accomplish the goal or not. If anyone is ever interested in using them I'd appreciate feedback to see how they played out. The solution I came up with addressed the beastmaster ranger in two different areas. One in the beast categories which are ridiculously imbalanced RAW and how beasts can benefit from using powers with the beast keyword.

For the first part, redesigning the beast categories of the beastmaster ranger I decided to formulate two distinct roles for the beast. One is effectively like a striker role while the other role is more like a controller. Now pretty much across the board I strengthened the pets, except for the wolf who was plenty strong the way it was written but the key to strengthening these creatures was to ensure that the ranger is actually giving something up to benefit from these changes. To do that I made a list of changes but they only apply to beast powers that aren't basic attacks. This makes it so that using an at-will or encounter power will always be stronger than a basic attack. Below you can find this list of the changes to the beast categories that are discussed in detail in Martial Powers:

Each Pet category has the following changes. All attack bonuses are added to non-basic pet attacks, basic attacks remain RAW.

i. A Bear Companion now has the high critical property added to their attacks.
ii. Bears get bonus to their attack equal to their level +3 rather than their level +2

i. Boar Companions can now add their constitution modifier on critical hits
ii. Boar Companions can score a critical hit on a 19 or 20. If a 19 misses the target the boar still misses.
iii. Boar Companions now do additional damage equal to their constitution modifier when charging rather than a flat +2. If a boar scores a critical hit while charging they can add their constitution modifier twice.

Cat Companions are now also trained in acrobatics
ii. On a Critical hit your cat’s target is dazed until the end your next turn.
iii. Cat companions now have the “Dazing Pounce” Encounter power which is described below:
Dazing Pounce + Cat Encounter Attack 1
Standard Action
Target: One Creature
Effect: Your Cat Companion can shift up to 4 spaces before making this attack.
Attack: 3 + Level vs. Reflex
Hit: 1[B] and the target is dazed until the end of your next turn.
Increase damage to 2[B] at 21st level

i. Lizard’s knock the target prone on a critical strike
ii. Lizard’s no longer get a +2 to opportunity attacks
iii. Lizards have a “Thunder Tail” encounter power that can as described below.
Thunder Tail + Lizard Encounter Attack 1
Martial, Thunder
Standard Action
Tail – Weapon Close burst 1
Target: Each enemy in the burst
Attack: 3 + level vs. Fortitude
Hit: 1[B] and the target is knocked prone. Increase damage to 2[B] at 21st level

i. On a Critical hit the raptor blinds its target until the end of your next turn.
ii. Raptor companions now have an encounter power “Blinding Bite” as described below. Blinding Bite + Raptor Encounter Attack 1
Martial Standard Action
Bite – Weapon Melee
Target: One Creature
Attack: 4 + level vs Reflex
Hit: 1[B] and the is blinded until the end of your next turn
Increase damage to 2[B] at 21st level

i. Serpents add their strength score to critical hits.
ii. Serpents can score a critical hit on a 19 or 20. If a 19 misses the target the serpent still misses. If a serpent scores a critical hit on an opportunity attack they can add their strength modifier twice to the damage roll.
iii. Serpents now have a starting attack bonus of 5 + level rather than 4 + level.

i. Spider Companions now on a critical hit slow and weaken their target until the end of your next turn.
ii. Spider companions can spin webs at a speed of ½ their movement when using it to lower themselves from ceilings or treetops. This web counts as silk rope and lasts 5 minutes. Webbing created in this manner has no impact in combat other than allowing the spider to move from high locations to low ones without falling. Also PCs can climb up webbing created in this manner at a DC 10.
iii. Spider Companions now have the Spider’s Web ability as described below:
Spider’s Web + Spider Encounter Utility 1
Martial, Zone Minor Action
Web – Weapon Burst 2 in Area 10Target: 1 square within 10
Effect: This creates a web-like terrain that lasts the encounter or until destroyed and counts as difficult terrain. Whenever a creature starts its turn in the web or enters into the web it must make either an athletic or acrobatic check VS a difficult DC based on the spider’s level immediately or become immobilized until the start of its next turn. A creature that makes a successful check still treats the web as difficult terrain but can otherwise move through it freely until the start of its next turn, at which point, if still in the web it would need to make another skill check or become immobilized. Immobilized creatures can us an escape action to escape the immobilizing effect. The web provides concealment. Creatures with the spider climb ability are immune to these effects.

Wolves remain unchanged from what is written in MP.

The second part of this change was to have pet attacks that usually require a standard action, such as an at-will, encounter, or daily attack power was to scale better with that of magical weapons. So the next change to include with beastmaster pets was this:

When using a ranger power with the “Beast” keyword and the power grants your pet a non-basic attack, your pet can add damage to its damage roll equal to the enchantment bonus of the melee magic weapon you are currently wielding if any. If your pet scores a critical hit while using a non-basic attack then you can roll a number of extra d6s equal to the enhancement bonus of the magical weapon. If you are unconscious or otherwise not present in combat then your pet cannot gain such an enchantment bonus.

So after implementing these changes I feel that a beastmaster ranger's pet would certainly be more of a threat, more interesting to play without actually causing any further imbalances in the game. Again if anyone would like to use these rule changes concerning their beastmaster ranger I would love to hear feedback on it.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Minions, Monsters and more Minions, Oh My!

So I have had the joy for several months now of building some of the craziest adventures I could think of and seeing how player's in my games fair against them but have come to notice that the threat presented by minions typically seems to fall short when looking at their experience cost. I can completely understand the purpose of minions and their use as general 'creature fodder' but if I take a level 5 creature out of an encounter to replace it with 4 level 5 minions that should not make things easier than if I had never swapped out the level 5 creature in the first place. However time and time again it seems like whenever there are minions in play they fall much easier and quicker, generally doing a lot less damage than their standard creature experience equivalent counter parts would. Now it's clear minions can and should be taken down in droves if unaccompanied by larger tough creatures but it seems like PCs should be just as worried about a dozen minions in a combat as they should be 3 equal level standard creatures.

Since this rarely seems to be the case I have examined a few alternatives for making minions a bit tougher in combat. All in all I found two options that I really like which can be applied independently or together depending on the DMs preference. These optional rules are outlined below:

Damage Resistant Minions: Minions have damage resist of 1 + ½ their level against automatic damage. If a minion is hit it is always destroyed but for abilities that automatically do damage, or do damage to additional targets upon hitting an initial target, (such as cleave) and the damage dealt is less than the minions resist damage, then that minion must make an immediate saving throw. If successful the minion survives the damage, if it fails then the minion is destroyed as normal.

Example: A fighter does a cleave attack with 18 strength against a two minions. If he hits, the minion hit is automatically destroyed. Say the 2nd minion is level 8 so his damage resistance is 4 + 1 totaling to 5. The damage the minion takes from cleave is only 4 (granted from the fighter’s 18 strength). Since the 4 damage is less than the minion’s damage resist value the minion gets to make a saving throw, by rolling a D20. If the minion rolls a 1 through 9 then it is destroyed as normal, if it rolls a 10 through 20 then it survives the cleave attack. If in that same example the fighter had 20 strength, granting him 5 damage on his cleave attack then the 2nd minion would automatically be slain since its damage resist is equal to the amount of damage it took.

More Minions for the XP: By increasing the number of minions that equal the same XP of an equal level standard creature you can place more minions in any given combat. From personal experience I have found increasing the number to 5, so that 5 minions of some level are equal to a standard creature of that level, has seemed more accurate in difficulty than 4 minions as suggested in the core books.

Either one or both of these changes can make your minions subtly tougher without adding any additional paper work in combat. I have found myself more willing to throw minions into combats now since it no longer feels like swapping a standard creature for a group of minions is making the encounter easier or harder, just different and different is good.

It's About Freaking Time!

Quick side rant from what I would typically consider the norm, but WotC recently released a 'small update' to FIX issues that were considerably over powered when compared to other builds. Long have many of these powers been topics for heated debate as people on one side claim they are too powerful and on the other side are the blind followers of WotC will, afraid to stray from the rules set forth in their books. My hat goes off to those who strived to balance out these rules and other's that still truely need to be addressed. And for those who still cower at the thought of changing rules that really are obviously unbalanced, here is a quote put out from WotC:

"Today, we published a small set of updates for the Player’s Handbook, Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide, and Martial Power. These updates modify key portions of the game that weren’t working as we intended. The updates bring these mechanical elements back in line with the game’s base expectations, while retaining their flavor and utility. Character builds relying on these options remain playable and fun; they just aren’t abusive or eclipsing other build options."

The full article can be found here

So while this certainly doesn't address all of the issues it is certainly a step in the right direction for somethings. I for the D&D designers they don't want to rush into anything but I for one certainly thought changes like that which affect 'Rain of Blows' were long over due.