Actual play: Fiasco

Fiasco RPG with Wil Wheaton
Fiasco, here seen with Wil Wheaton. He digs it.

We played our first game of Fiasco with four players. Three of us had played together before, but one of the players was new to the group and not too experienced with roleplaying in general, if familiar with the concept. I was initially worried because we had a hard time coming up with a good reference movie or scenario that everyone was familiar with, but turned out it wasn’t a problem at all, in the end.

The idea of the game is that over the course of one game, you tell a miserable story of over-reaching ambition and poor impulse control, of big dreams and bigger losses. It’s meant to emulate a Coen movie.

There are very few mechanics. You do have dice, but there is no conflict resolution. It is the purest storytelling game we’ve played aside from complete freeform. When it’s your turn, you choose to either set up or resolve a scene for your character – the other players do the other half. This forces you to play together and be very involved in what’s going on. Compared to most roleplaying games, Fiasco demands total concentration. The about two hours you spend on a game feel much more intense and require way more energy than most games.

The structure works beautifully. Each player gets two scenes, then something bad happens, then two more scenes, followed by a montage of the aftermath. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s crazy how many juicy situations and drama you can pack into that, when scenes flow between characters and things start bleeding into each other. Each scene clocks in at max ten minutes, so there’s around 30-45 minutes of focus time per character (player). The whole thing wrapped in just two hours and felt like an episode of a good drama TV show.

The setup consists of determining relationships between players and adding a couple of details (locations, objects, needs) to give direction to the game. You then talk about the things we know until you have an idea of who the characters are, and then just go along with it.

You shouldn’t know how it all hangs together – finding that out should form the meat of the game. Our story took place in a nice southern town between people who all worked at a used car shop. There was a snake, a love letter, the AA and a need to cheat money from a handicapped man. As a “tilt” element, a stranger came in looking to settle a score, and somebody would commit murder in cold blood.

Even though there were multiple ways it could’ve gone and every player was going for something a little different, as long as you can accept that you’re co-authoring it with the other players, it does work very well. Everybody took part in each scene, often changing the logic or the details as we combined the puzzle pieces. We did retrofit (change) stuff when it turned out that something probably would’ve turned out slightly differently to make for better drama in a later scene.

What we struggled with a bit was describing it all in visual terms. You’re framing scenes and cutting between them, trying to cut out the dull parts, but we spent the majority of time discussing what’s going on inside the protagonists’ heads. A dose of show, don’t tell would’ve helped, but that would’ve required more trust in being able to tie together the differing storylines.

I guess we also shied away from chaos a bit – the ending was great, but it could’ve been tenser if there was a little bit more of unknown elements in play.

Soundtrack had me worried because I hadn’t thought about it before we started the game. In a pinch, I added a bunch of tracks from movie soundtracks, deleting the dialogue bits. I used Death Proof and Pulp Fiction from Tarantino (probably should’ve chucked in Jackie Brown, come to think of it, and perhaps Kill Bill) and the True Blood soundtrack. It worked great, totally setting the scene in many cases.

I do hope to play more of Fiasco because it feels like the next time would go smoother – we didn’t struggle with anything, but it did take a lot of concentration. The intellectual element of it is very engaging, figuring out how all the angles fit together and where the story could and should go for each character.

I love how we got this very involved, dramatic story out of nothing in less time than it takes to run a single combat encounter in many games. Also, no gamemaster and no preparation required!

miniatures roleplaying tabletop games

Actual play: Flying Lead


Space marines kicking ass, taking names
Space marines kicking ass, taking names.

A friend of mine started running a hybrid roleplaying and miniatures campaign based on a freeform mashup of Starship Troopers, Aliens and whatever else “space marine” and scifi cliches you care to mention. It’s doing something I’ve thought about for years yet never acted on: adding some character to miniatures gaming. Putting some soul into it.

Our space marines are not very heroic – they’re grunts in space. Our three players each have three guys, one of which is always starring in that episode. A game consists of some 20-30 minutes of roleplaying and a tactical scenario. Mortality rate is high. The game master plays the opposing force, so it’s roughly 10 versus 10.

In the initial scenario our nine troopers encountered a hostage situation with a miner uprising in a human colony. We did conquer the day, but suffered a 30% casualty rate. My “star” character for the evening, Corporal “Ace” Wembley, died in the hands of our medic following an admittedly foolhardy rush to the enemy flank. My second most favorite character, Trooper “Dog” Lau, got shot in the first moments of the encounter, but at least lived to tell the tale. The Norwegian Tech, Bjornssen, got killed in a sniper shootout.

Hostage situation in the middle, marines taking cover behind bar, which is on fire after the initial flamethrower action. Notice the ambushing insurgents in the background.
Hostage situation in the middle, marines taking cover behind bar, which is on fire after the initial flamethrower action. Notice the ambushing insurgents in the background.

I was initially skeptical about how much depth the roleplaying would add, but it worked out great. We only played through a very short introduction and briefing – one scene – only sketching out the characters with a couple of lines and a single shot. But when the troops bled, it meant something.

We’re approaching it like a war movie or TV series – rookies come and the ones that stick start to gather personality. But there is no such thing as script immunity. I was really surprised at how little effort it took to breathe some soul into the otherwise standard fare, for a large part identically kitted out marines.

The Flying Lead system was new to me. It’s very good, completely supporting the way we roleplayed the characters and moving fast enough to keep things dynamic. The risk-based initiative system is brilliant. The way the situation developed and deteriorated felt both natural and cinematic. It tells a lot that even though we didn’t document anything, I can vividly recall all the key moments and most of the names and roles of the guys in the squad.

I’ve been thinking about a system to replace Warhammer 40’000 for me, and this could well be it. I like smaller unit action anyway, and Flying Lead allows you to keep things on an individual level without getting bogged down in minutiae. Most closely this resembles the original Rogue Trader, except with a much, much leaner system. Compared to current 40K, Flying Lead works well with individual characters… without adding character level complexity. It’s really rather good. (And it costs eight bucks.)

If this all intrigues you, do take a look at the gamemaster’s side of things.

Freeware PC roleplaying tabletop games

Mechwarrior Online (PC)

Mechwarrior Online screenshot
Mechwarrior Online. There is no third person view.

For years I’ve had Saitek Cyborg 3D USB Gold sitting right above me on the shelf, next to the desktop computer. It’s pretty hardcore. It comes with a hex key. It makes me feel somewhat superior to today’s kids. Who has joysticks these days?

Not that I’ve used it in years. It was initially bought for the original IL-2 Sturmovik (2001) or Heavy Gear II (1999). (Speaking of Heavy Gear, the videogame license has been granted just a couple of months ago to Stompy Bot Productions. This fills me with joy. Do it justice, guys.) Regardless, joysticks are basically only valid tools for flight sims, the these days exceedingly rare space sims and giant robot games. As a man who still dreams, I must have my own joystick so I may pilot a giant robot when the day comes.

That day is here with the open beta phase of the new, free to play, Mechwarrior Online. I never played the original series, not having a gaming PC at the time. I am familiar with the Battletech universe, though, having bought into both the original board game and the pen and paper RPG (also called Mechwarrior). It’s good fun, although as a game it never really grabbed me. The scenario of controlling skyscraper scale robots in gladiatorial combat is very appealing.

Heavy Gear II was everything I ever wanted in a videogame, much like I imagine the Mechwarrior series was for most western mecha fans. Compared to that this new Mechwarrior is slow and limited, but it does a better job of conveying that compelling scenario in the heart of Battletech than the hardcopy games ever did. Marching with your lance mates to meet the enemy, throttling up your ‘mech, assigning weapon groups, it’s every bit the giant robot fantasy. It hasn’t felt this authentic since Steel Battalion.

But how does it fare as a game? They’ve taken a very conservative approach here, not really expanding the game to all the directions it could go. With only the ‘mechs on the battlefield, the fighting feels a little empty, sterile and dreamy. It’s hard to buy into it. But everything that’s strictly about the ‘mech on ‘mech combat just works. As long as you have some semblance of teamwork going on, it’s a very enjoyable game. Few things in online combat feel as good as landing a killing blow to a house-sized fighting machine. Powered by CryEngine 3, it looks and feels the part, too, even if there’s a distinct lack of detail. If they could marry this scale with the bombast of Battlefield 3, we’d have a game I’d be happy to play for years to come. (Hawken is trying just that, as it happens, but it’s closer to something like Unreal Tournament than the slow, methodical, mechanical combat of what a mech experience should be.)

An interesting choice is how expensive the machines are. A basic one will cost you around 10 real money (USD/EUR) or some 3-4 nights of saving up for one, fighting in loaned machines (which don’t award you XP at all). Of course this makes them matter more. Once  you finally do get one, it feels special, even without any customization. As it stands, the customization options are a tad limited. For a mech game, the customization should be the beef, and here it feels rather cumbersome and limited. It just doesn’t compare to something like Armored Core. I would imagine it’s a high priority for them to expand on upon launch.

Somewhat to my surprise, that dear old Saitek still works. If I’m perfectly honest, it’s easier and more effective to pilot with a mouse and a keyboard, but that matters not. Dying with your fingers on four triggers is a worthy death.



Actual play: Deathwatch

Warhammer 40 000 Deathwatch RPG cover
Warhammer 40’000: Deathwatch

Ever since I first encountered Warhammer 40 000 in the guise of the original Rogue Trader rulebook, I’ve been imagining what it would be like to play as a Space Marine. For some reason this was never realized, not before Relic’s recent action take on the theme, Space Marine. Deathwatch RPG finally came out after Fantasy Flight had built its power level up through two “lesser” games, Dark Heresy (really good) and Rogue Trader (so-so). I just now finally got to play the game, trying and failing to figure out how to run it myself.

The premise for the campaign is a detachment of Deathwatch based on an abandoned Eldar rescue craft along with a nasty Imperial Inquisitor and all manner of alien threats in the sector. We played through an introduction, getting to know what we’re capable of and how we function as a team.

It was great. The level of power fantasy in this game far surpasses anything I’ve experienced in any other game, videogames included. We wielded the power to order kilometers-long spaceships to destroy themselves in order to grant us atmospheric entry, we commanded fleet elements to assault ground forces. The protagonists are so far above most of the forces they’re interacting with, you can pretty much do what you want without fear of consequences. As a war game and a giant sandbox, it works.

I’m still not convinced of the mechanics, but the way it’s run to us, that doesn’t matter. When the meat of the game is basically warfare and you’re not concentrating on the fighting in a round by round fashion, you’re forced to find interesting moments and scenes outside of combat. You structure the combat without rolling the dice when it’s inconsequential.

We discovered we’re able to dispatch some 250 troops and assorted armored forces without a scratch. We discovered that when something is finally strong enough to hurt us, this is still Warhammer – death comes knocking very easily indeed. We discovered our elevated, mythical status in the game world gives us a lot of leeway in how to deal with situations, not having to rely on force of arms at all times. We discovered we can cover an entire planetary siege, spearheading an assault personally, within a single evening.

As an experience, playing a Blood Angel Space Marine of the Deathwatch for a night, assaulting a heretical city, most closely resembles listening through a high-speed metal album that really gets to you. If we can maintain this level of awesome power tripping and mix it with space for reflection, this campaign is indeed going to rock.

All the power to the gamemaster. This exact same content, run by someone else, could have easily fallen flat. We happen to have the most cinematic, dramatic GM I’ve ever encountered. That he happens to be my best friend and I’ve never experienced his gamemastery skills before is weird. We’ve played together for two decades. Don’t keep your skills hidden, people!

roleplaying tabletop games

How to run D&D 4E with minimum time investment

Adorable picture of Japanese kids playing RPGs
Adorable picture of Japanese kids playing RPGs. I tried to find the artist so I could link, but couldn't

I have a background in running and playing (mostly running) tabletop roleplaying games for over twenty years. I consider myself highly skilled in gamemastering. My library of games covers pretty much everything in terms of style, mechanics and subject matter. Some of my biggest loves are Call of Cthulhu, Vampire and Dungeons & Dragons.

D&D 4E

In this post I’m talking about Dungeons & Dragons and especially its fourth edition. It can be tricky to run, but done right, it’s the fastest “crunchy” game – something with very tangible, satisfying mechanics – around.

I know there’s the fifth edition being talked about right now, but still a year or two out, so let’s concentrate on what we have right now. And besides, most of this is going to apply to a new edition, too.

In order to get a new D&D 4E campaign off the ground I knew I had to be able to do it with as little time invested as possible. My schedule at work is very hectic right now. I was lucky because I have a good pool of potential players available. To get things going, I just bought the core Essentials books and agreed to have the first game next week. I had no idea what I was going to do.

I’m going to assume you have players available. D&D has been designed for five players. You can go with four, but I wouldn’t recommend going below that as you want some extra numbers against players dropping out of sessions on short notice.

What I do is keep track of potential players and bring them along as guests if need be. If you haven’t been vocal about your love for D&D, you might be surprised by how many players – veterans and lapsed and curious – there are around.

1. Go Essentials

Unless you’re really good in 4E already, you want to go Essentials. This saves up on (money and especially) time spent reading. You can get the basics covered in a weekend. Get the Rules Compendium, Heroes of the Fallen Lands and the Monster Vault box.

The second and third character books are optional, you don’t need them for now. If you’re really familiar with D&D monsters from previous editions, you don’t strictly speaking need the monster box, either, but it’s good for background and pictures – and you shouldn’t underestimate the value of those in a game about the imagination.

What Essentials does is streamlining character creation. The D&D books outside of the Essentials line have a ton of character options available, and making characters becomes a very involved process. Additionally it takes money and a lot of reading.

Read through the Monster Vault book and make a list of monsters you want the players to fight. This saves time later on when you need to come up with monster of the week.

2. Subscribe to DDI and sign up for Power2ool

Get out your credit card and subscribe to Dungeons & Dragons Insider on the Wizards website. It opens up a suite of tools and resources to you, but only one thing is really of value and indispensable when running the game: the Character Builder. You will want to use this to create and upkeep all of the main characters in your game.

The other thing you get out of the DDI subscription is access to a ton of magical items and traps, which is something you miss when only using the Essentials line of books.

You need a printer, too, or else you’re spending lots of time writing out character sheets.

Power2ool is a free web app that frees you from paper and saves time otherwise spent writing notes by hand. Sign up and link it with your DDI account. When planning and running your sessions, you can just drag and drop monsters, traps and magical loot from DDI Compendium into your Power2ool notes. This is extremely useful and key to running the game efficiently.

The monster scaling tool gives you more variety with the monster levels.

3. Get a battlemat and pens (and dice and miniatures)

Any on the fly notes you need when running the game go on the battlemat. Using wet-erase pens, keep track of initiative, monster HP, any ongoing effects, Skill Challenges and of course combat terrain. The visible information helps players focus and fosters team effort.

If you don’t have dice, get multiple full sets (D4, D6, D8, D10, D12, D20). They’re inexpensive. If you don’t have miniatures, you can play without – the Monster Vault comes with a lot of cardboard counters you can use, and really any object can be a stand-in for a character or a monster. I use mostly miniatures from the Descent boardgame.

Encourage your players to look for a miniature they’d like to use to represent their character. It doesn’t matter what series it’s from, as long as it’s roughly the same scale with the others. Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Pathfinder have lots of good options. If they find something they like, that binds them more strongly to the game, making dropouts and cancellations less likely, saving your time.

3. Agree on a rhythm

In order to take away pressure from getting the games organized, always try to agree on the next two sessions when you’re wrapping up for the night. This way even if you have to cancel the next session for whatever reason, there’s already the next game planned.

It helps everyone plan their schedules if you have a steady rhythm agreed with everyone. Every other week should fit most people’s schedules. If you have one player who just can’t commit, find someone else or agree that it’s okay if people drop-in and drop-out.

4. Plan and communicate campaign goals

To maintain player interest with minimal fuss, be clear about the campaign goals. When starting out the game, it would be a good idea to plan the entire first tier of play (“Heroic”). Make a rough outline of what should happen over the campaign up to level 10 and provide your players with goals that cover ground that far.

The goals help the players concentrate and they drive the game. With the goals outlined, you only need to hint towards ways of making progress on them and your players will jump at the opportunity. This makes your job as the gamemaster much easier. Don’t be afraid of feeding the players party motivations that may not be 100% in-character in every player’s mind. It helps everyone.

Make sure the players write down the goals.

Example: the players’ ultimate goal for the Heroic tier is to return to their homeland. There is a series of goals they need to meet to be able to start their journey – gather allies, raise an army, raise funds. These three are major quests.

Another expectation to manage is the style of play. Explain what sort of D&D game you’re going to be running and what your players should expect when they turn up for a game. Talk about themes and rules and roleplaying. This is especially important if your players are not all old buddies at the game table – there are a lot of ways to play tabletop RPGs and you shouldn’t suppose yours is the one familiar to new players.

Make a list of any house rules.

I made a presentation of the campaign goals for the players (PowerPoint). That way any new players can be easily given the same introduction with minimal fuss.

5. Make a campaign outline behind the scenes

Coming up with session ideas can be time-consuming. So do it all in advance when you have time. Over a single afternoon, you can plan your entire first tier. It’s like grocery shopping: doing it in bulk is economic, doing it while hungry is expensive and stressful.

Things to consider are adventures, treasure and encounters.

Planning adventures is easy using the 5×5 method: come up with five plotlines (quests). Divide them into five steps, each one a single adventure, concluding with an epic event. Drop each adventure into a place in your campaign world.

There’s more to it, but just doing this, you can play in a sandbox fashion, not worrying about where your players are going to go – there’s always stuff to do, and it all ties together. Just make sure they’re aware of the ultimate goals of all five quests… and things should pretty much run themselves.

I’ve added a five-step arc to all major characters, too, including the players. It helps keep a campaign running when you can think in arcs.

Pre-plan treasure to minimize between sessions book-keeping. I go for complete sets of magical equipment for all the characters, pre-choosing the loot.

Figure out your encounter budget and pacing. Remember to include skill challenges. You should build a rhythm to it – easy fights followed by tough fights, strings of skill challenges topped off with a tough fight, easy fights if you’re planning a roleplaying heavy session, optional fights if you want your players to have more say in the session’s direction, gauntlets where the players don’t get a rest between fights. I find it convenient to do this for the whole tier at once – that way you can build up thematically to cool boss fights and have a good idea of how many monster types are required.

Done correctly, when you’re coming up to a new session, you already know what the players are going to do, who they’re going to fight and what loot they should get, and how it advances the overall campaign, with no preparation between sessions.

6. Stick to the session plan

Players coming over and you have no idead of what needs to happen in the game? Just look at your map and plot grid (the 5×5 method). Where are they? That alone should tell you what happens next. Once that is sorted, make a note of what scenes and NPCs should feature and jot them down in Power2ool.

If the players are done with the current location and you want them to get a move on to advance another plot, just cut to them arriving to a new location. You don’t have to explain everything in-character or go over the tedium of choosing where to go next, unless there’s drama there.

Then figure out an enemy. You should vary your fights, but D&D lives and breathes through its combat. Thus for every session you should have an opponent in mind the players can fight. Once you have something chosen from your list of cool monsters to fight, locate its card in Power2ool. Pick one or two supporting monsters to round out the encounter.

Pick a place for the fight. There should always be an interesting thing about the set the fight is placed in. You should draft a list in advance of things you could use – movement limitation, dangerous areas, traps, timed obstacles, risky advantages, opportunities.

Then figure out a twist to the encounter. Is there a time limit? What is the objective – it should rarely be just defeating the opponents?

Finally, decide when to stage the fight. Sometimes you should open with it, with characters already in the thick of it, sometimes you should let the players plan for it, sometimes you should surprise the players in the middle of roleplaying.

Avoid concluding the session with the fight unless you’re good in time management. Even a great fight can be ruined by players getting antsy about catching the last bus home.


Dungeons & Dragons Essentials after a dozen games

"I Roll Twenties" T-shirt by Penny Arcade
T-shirt design by Penny Arcade

I’ve been running a lot of D&D Essentials lately. I think it’s interesting to see how my initial expectations have fared against nine games into a campaign and a couple of off-shoots.

I’ve ended up with a lot of stuff I have no use for.

The characters are created using the online Dungeons & Dragons Insider (“DDI”) subscription service. You might want to flip through Heroes of the Fallen Lands if you’re a player looking for inspiration, but honestly, I haven’t had a need to open it since subscribing. The computer assisted creation removes a lot of guessing and confusion from the process. We are now also using some characters from the second Essentials player book (Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms), but have no real need to get the book.

The Rules Compendium I do use… a bit, even though looking up the rules from the DDI Compendium is often quicker. Mainly the Compendium’s user interface is a bit shit, so when you know where to look for something in the book, the book is preferred. All told I’d want to have it around when running a game, but I rarely open it.

I use the Monster Vault book, but just for pictures and fluff text for inspiration. It has great fluff text! It’s full of adventure ideas and atmosphere. The box and the cardboard cutouts are useless, as we’re using whatever miniatures we have lying around to represent the monsters. The adventure is of no interest, I haven’t even read it. I get the stats and rules from the Compendium, straight into Power2ool.

The Red Box is only useful as a beautiful thing to have on the shelf. The contents I can’t use, although they’re valuable just because they set me down this path. If someone is interested in the game, I could give them the box to go through and they’d have a good idea of how it works.

I’ve ended up with a lot of stuff I do have use for.

Chessex Battlemat and wet-erase pens. Any notes I’m taking, they go on the Battlemat – mostly how the players are doing in a skill challenge, initiative order and monster hit points. All combat encounters are of course drawn on the Battlemat, too. I love the concept so much I think it’s going to be used in also my miniature-less games from now on – it brings an air of open challenge to the table which I really like. My players are totally into it, too, often suggesting ways to draw stuff better and talking about the stats they can see.

Descent: Journeys In The Dark miniatures. I’ve got a big bag full of white and red plastic figures from Descent. So far I haven’t really needed anything else, and when I do, there’s usually a suitable Games Workshop Warhammer miniature lying around. I also think I’ll at some point put a dungeon together just using the Descent modular board pieces. Should be fun.

Dungeons & Dragons Insider subscription. Invaluable when running a 4E game. I have very little use for anything besides the Character Builder, but that alone is worth it. I wouldn’t mind them adding more in the way of managing your campaign (I have complex Google Docs spreadsheets for everything).

Colour printer. You want to be able to print those character sheets and especially power cards.

Deluxe Dungeon Master’s Screen I’m referencing all the time. Plus it’s big, sturdy and beautiful, giving you loads of confidence at the table! Seriously, it’s the best GM screen ever, four panels full of useful stuff.

Power2ool. I believe I’ve spoken of it’s merits at enough length already, but I wouldn’t want to plan and run a game without it. It’s that good.

Essentials really works for me and my group.

If the aim of Essentials was to lower the barrier to entry for new players, they’ve succeeded. We’re having a lot of fun with D&D and spending money, which would likely not have happened without Essentials. While I can now read and understand powers with ease, the “vanilla” flavor of D&D still feels a bit ridiculous to me. The Essentials streamlining is just about perfect.

There are some things that could be even more straightforward. They could’ve done a much better job streamlining the magic users into something more newbie friendly – as it is, I’d never give a wizard to a new player. They’ll be swamped and paralyzed by options.

Games rant roleplaying Xbox 360

What’s wrong with Bioware? (Mass Effect 2)

Mass Effect 2

I used to think that Bioware was the coolest studio out there. They were putting out games I absolutely loved: mainly Baldur’s Gate and its sequel. I always forget that the AD&D game I liked the best, Icewind Dale, was not a Bioware production despite using their Infinity engine in the Forgotten Realms setting – it was Black Isle’s (of Planescape Torment and Fallout 2 fame).

Up to Knights Of The Old Republic – still the best Star Wars entertainment out there apart from the original trilogy – they could do no wrong. I fell in love with Star Wars all over again because of that game.

I skipped Neverwinter Nights due to not having a gaming PC at the time. From what I hear, it suffered from a lack of focus. MDK2 was alright. I was a big enough man to allow them this sidetrack into action.

Then there was Jade Empire, which was good, but not what I was expecting. The mechanics were weird. The fighting worked, but it never felt good. As ever, the world and the characters were very cool and inspired. I did not mind the smaller scale and overall I really enjoyed my time in the kung fu epic.

I am a big fan of Mass Effect, but that’s the point I realized Bioware is not something I can unconditionally trust anymore. The inventory was broken, most of the mechanics were poorly implemented (poower use, Mako driving), inadequately explained (grenades) or just broken (skills) and the fighting was never fun in and of itself.

What they got right was a super cool science fiction world, characters, and dialogue. My FemShep kicks all kinds of ass and I love her for it and Bioware for letting me do that. The story held me all the way, even though it contained only new space opera cliches. I didn’t care about the problems, because the narrative completely seized me.

Considering that Mass Effect 2 got even higher praise than the original game, I was ready to get it on. About ten hours in, I completely lost my interest.

It’s the same world, much of the same characters, same good dialogue, improved combat and somewhat improved mechanics, but they’ve completely dropped the ball with the story.

I have no idea what I’m doing and why (I guess there’s a gate I should jump in), and I don’t care. I’ve been told to go and collect all of my missing friends, gotta catch ’em all style, and then talk to them and talk to them until they offer me a mission to get them to trust me. This is not what I imagined the second chapter of saving the goddamn universe (again) to be like!

It’s like an endless sequence of those pointless fetch-a-thons that comprise the side quests of most RPGs (Bioware’s included). Even though the missions are generally well put together, well framed and well acted, I just don’t give a shit. Getting my crew together should be a side order, not the main course.

Apparently the game ends in a cliffhanger once you’re finally ready to go to the gate and jump in to tackle the actual threat to everything in existence. Sorry, a game of cloned preludes cannot hold my attention. I don’t think I’m going to complete the game, and probably will just skip to Mass Effect 3.

We’ll see how Mass Effect 3 manages to resolve these issues, if at all. At least my damn group should be together already. And based on how much the fans of the original Dragon Age hated the sequel  – which I haven’t played already, but I very much mean to, precisely because of the internet furore – maybe they’ve learned some lessons.

Less is more: Dragon Age has a lot to learn here with its swathes of uninteresting content. Show, don’t tell: Mass Effect’s best stuff is hidden away in a codex. I need a motivation to do stuff: Mass Effect 2, I’m looking at you. These are cliches because they’re true. They’re also simple rules which Bioware used to know. Previously they’ve only struggled with mechanics and game rules – initially helped by using an established ruleset when working on Wizards‘ systems – now they’ve started to stumble on their unique strengths. It worries me.


Dungeons & Dragons: Skill Challenges

D&D Rules Compendium
D&D Rules Compendium

I’ve praised D&D fourth edition’s skill challenges before, but they warrant some more love. Initially I dismissed the system – I thought it was just about Wizards branding the concept of rolling for a skill outside of combat or something.

But they’ve taken a leaf out of new wave roleplaying games, with their non-negotiable open systems, designed to direct the roleplaying in the table instead of being just a tool used for a purpose (say, combat). I find that I’m using skill challenges all the time, and my players love them. (I like to think so, anyway!)

Skill challenges are a stuctured way of approaching out of combat conflicts. The players want something and in order to make it interesting, they risk something.

The system could use more structure with what’s at stake – as it is, it’s left for the game master to determine how failures are punished. Typically you lose some healing surges or take some damage, but as seen with my example of the city defense as a skill challenge, you can think of more substantial wagers.

Players get experience points for completing a skill challenge (even if they fail it), so they’re automatically invested to a degree. But what really makes them pay attention – much like a combat encounter – is that the skill challenges require them to start their imaginations. You don’t just propose a solution and ask for a roll – as the Dungeon Master, I set the goal, lay out the terms (this is what you’re risking, this is how many successes you need), and then ask the players how they’re going to approach the situation. What they’re doing is rolling, but what it requires is team-play and imagination. Typically everybody chips in with assisting skills.

I have never seen more active and imaginative use of player skills in any game. The characters are coming alive just by virtue of their different skills coming to the fore, players thinking of ways to justify rolling with “Athletics” in an academic challenge, say. As a game master, I don’t have to pre-think of ways to make everybody’s skill choices meaningful to the campaign: they’re going to do that on their own – and enjoy it!

To me skill challenges are the best part of D&D 4E Essentials, along with combat that keeps everyone alert. Indeed, 4E has made some age-old RPG tropes exciting again.


Dungeons & Dragons: Running an epic fight against a dragon

Black dragon

We are now five sessions into our “In Exile” (“Maanpaossa” in Finnish) campaign, in which the players portray nobles and their servants who have fled their homeland, now trapped in civil war. It is very much back to basics D&D, as per the Essentials flavor.

The game has been very successful so far and I’m only more pumped to run it as we’re getting further along. Last night we had an awesome fight with a black dragon. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for decades now and I’m happy to say it met my expectations.

Running an epic fight against a dragon

I wanted the players to be invested in their base of operations, the town of Winterhaven (“Talvensyli”) from  H1 – Keep On The Shadowfell. We had already established that Count Padhraig would be evacuating the town based on a warning from the heroes – the black dragon Saessan would be coming for the town at midnight. There were around 50 defenders at the Count’s command.

I wanted an epic dragon fight. My players deserved it.

Even though the 4E combat is fast, I was not about to draw a map with fifty defenders on it. That would basically just make the combat a very large slugfest. As the majority of the defenders were minions, they would just get wiped out very quickly and not really add to the fight at all. Giving them levels (more hit points) would just make the fight very easy for the players.

Skill Challenge: Defend Winterhaven from Saessan, the young black dragon (Complexity 3, 150 XP)

With my love for skill challenges, I set the defense of Winterhaven as a long, complexity 3 task. They would need six moderate (DC 13 for level two heroes) and two hard (DC 20) successes before failing three times. As an advantage, they could remove up to two prior failures by using one of their hard (DC 20) successes.

Every “turn”, the dragon would attack something in the town – either one of the groups of defenders (militia and dwarf warriors in groups of ten and five), one of the NPCs (the count, innkeep and smith), or the PCs. I just whipped up a random table and rolled for it.

On its turn, the dragon would do damage with its breath weapon (2D8+3, I bypassed the ongoing damage in this case) to its target. This means basically wiping out a group of defenders with minion status. To make it interesting for the players, one of them could opt to guard the threatened group and instead take the damage all on their own. Guarding players could not participate in that turn’s skill shallenge.

The players could not use their normal powers and attacks to damage the dragon. Rather, they would need to use their skills as part of the fight. You can only use a single skill once as the “rolling skill” per skill challenge, so they would need to come up with new ways to fight the beast. If someone needed healing, they could use healing surges freely.

Every round they failed, the dragon would destroy part of the town. The players would get to choose between the smithy, the inn, the wizard’s tower or the homes of Winterhaven.


The way it played out, the players got to around halfway of the challenge and then failed three times in a row with natural ones. This was a great outcome, actually – demoralized, the defenders wouldn’t dare to face the dragon anymore, parts of the town were in ruins, but the heroes had soaked up all the damage, leaving all the defenders in (relatively) good health.

Failing the challenge meant fighting the dragon the old-fashioned way, and it couldn’t have been better, really. We had gotten a much more interesting, dramatic fight out of it, and would still get to use all the powers and play out the fight “properly”, as some of the players were itching to do. The fight had moved across the city streets and through several buildings, culminating in a trap in the smoking ruins of the smithy.

I counted all the successful attacks against the dragon over the course of the skill challenge, leaving out traps and the like, and let the players roll for damage as normal. This left the dragon down by around a third of hit points.

My crew won the fight fairly with a well-timed illusion winning them some time, almost overcome by the dying dragon’s acidic blood in the end. It was suitably touch and go.

Lessons learned

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have planned to rob the players of the joy of the actual dragon fight. The “best case” outcome should have been leaving the dragon bloodied, which still makes for a fearsome opponent.

Some of the players found the “epic fight” approach confusing to begin with, but by the end, I think my first time actually letting a dragon loose on my players was a major success.

The reason it played so well was that the players got to make the important, dare I say heroic calls about their actions – who to protect, at what cost, what part of the city to sacrifice to the dragon’s rampage. Meaningful choice and facing concequences are interesting and thus fun.

I believe I’ll use a similar approach in other big fights in the game. Perhaps I should find a way to allow the heroes to use their normal abilities and attacks, as well, though.

Someone might fret over experience point economy – the players got the XP for completing the skill challenge (150), as well as felling the dragon (175), as well as completing the quest of saving Winterhaven from the dragon (125). I think it was suitably challenging and a standout moment to be worth it. The game world is now a much livelier place, with a cool moment in history bonding the players to the city. Plus it ties neatly into the multiple quest lines I’ve got running in the background. I want to make the events meaningful to the players to make them care more about the future plot lines.

roleplaying tabletop games technology

Power2ool: Better than paper

Dyson Airblade
Dyson Airblade: better than paper, scary as hell. Why'd they have to call a thing you insert your hands into a "blade" of any sort is beyond me

I started planning the D&D game I ran over the last weekend some years ago in a Moleskine notebook while on a cruise boat to Sweden. Since then I’ve iterated on the plan and written it up in Google Docs and latest in Notepad as I was without internet access during my summer roadtrip. Making my final plans for the game a week ago, I was frustrated with my tools. Running a nonlinear RPG campaign is just not compatible with the format of a text document, which is linear.

To get around this problem I have in the past tried using mindmapping software. I like Freemind the best. But they have not been designed with running roleplaying games in mind. I have generally resorted to printing out my material and using the hardcopies plus pens, but it’s not ideal.

Coming across Power2ool with my half-prepared Notepad documents in hand, I could immediately tell it was going to be good. But until actually running the game with no printouts, just using Power2ool, I had no idea just how good.

Power2ool gives you a set of workspaces. Within a workspace, you have a blank canvas which you can populate with note cards. They can be any size and you can arrange them however you wish. You can write text on these cards. It is just that simple. This functionality alone would make it superior to text processing software as I’m able to easily use my whole screenspace, minimize the need for scrolling and adapt to changing priorities during a game.

Then there’s the ability to create cards, much like the ones you have in your D&D books. I found this very useful as I could easily create custom magic items, print them out and hand them out to my players with a look that matches their other stuff.

The monster card creation is awesome. Copying monster information from a book to have it available without page-flipping couldn’t be quicker – you still do it manually, but the pre-formatted cards and auto-completion help a lot.

Only it actually can be even quicker, because Power2ool is able to log into a DDI subscription and pull monster information and more straight from the Compendium, inserting the data you know you’re going to need straight into your workspace. Even though I could manage without a DDI subscription, Power2ool makes it much more tentative.

The user interface is smooth enough and very importantly, it’s pleasing to look at and use. It comes with a nice dice roller, too, if you’re son inclined.

It could be more refined still – you really want to be able to move cards between workspaces – but even as-is, I wouldn’t want to go back to paper. As long as Power2ool is available, I can see myself plotting my D&D adventures on it.

It was only weeks ago when I thought I wouldn’t need a laptop at my game table – now it’s hard to see going back to being without one. In my around 20 years of gamemastering, this was the first time ever I haven’t had any printed out or hand-written notes at the table, and I didn’t miss them one bit. Even the combat notes (initiative, HP, special conditions) were done in water-soluble ink on the battlemat. I’m saving on time and space and money and trees! Plus I’d need the computer anyway to manage my playlist during the game.

Power2ool is currently free to use. I hope Wizards never shuts it down, although they easily could – as it is, it’s helping me play D&D and makes me want to spend more money.