Wednesday, September 15, 2010

LFR Administration Retool Seems Set

A review of the LFR Group on the WotC Community Boards reveals that the new LFR Administration line-up, complete with areas of responsibilities, has been announced. There are a few questions left unanswered by this information, but we can get a very clear picture of how things are shaping up.

There are five (5) story areas receiving most of the focus of LFR in 2011. Here is there description along with the global admin and writing director(s) responsible for them:

The Rise of Elturgard Global Admin: Greg Marks (skerrit on the WotC boards) Writing Directors: Michael Mockus (mmockus) and Pierre van Rooden (gomeztoo).
  • Return to the story begun with the Battle Interactive and Specials of last winter’s DDXP with the Rise of Eltrugard. The ashes of Elturel and the trade of Scornubel will provide your PC with a home base from which to deal with the vast threat of the Plagueland, while trying to rebuild following the events of A Paladin’s Plague.
  • This story area will have eight adventures in 2011 with two released each quarter and will largely focus on heroic tier play.

Sands of Calimshan Global Admin: Joe Fitzgerald (surgebuster) Writing Director: Bruce Paris (bruce_paris).
  • The sands of the Calimshan and the surrounding areas hide plots of slavery, dark dealings in the arena, and feuding jinn.
  • This story area will have three adventures in 2011 and will focus on heroic tier play.

Fight Against Shadow Global Admin: Pieter Sleijpen (madfox11) Writing Director: John du Bois (johndubois)
  • The tendrils of Netheril are vast and far reaching and in this story area your PC will fight against the tyranny of the Shades of Netheril.
  • This story area will have three adventures in 2011 and will focus on paragon tier play.

Streets of Waterdeep Global Admin: Sean Molley (socerref73) Writing Directors: Keith & Claire Hoffman (keith32)
  • The City of Splendors that we all know and love will take a new turn.
  • This story area will offer three adventures in 2011 focusing on paragon tier play.

Steel Skies of Returned Abeir Global Admin: Greg Marks (skerrit) Writing Director: Eric Menge (galadhion)
  • Revisit the lands made famous by the first MINI-campaign in a land full of secret cults, dashing pirates and covetous dragons.
  • This story area will have three adventures in 2011 and will focus on paragon tier play.

Epic Play Global Admin: Pieter Sleijpen (madfox11) Writing Director: Dave Kay (dkay807)
  • No sneak peak information as of yet for this slate of adventures.
  • I expect these adventures will focus on epic tier play.
  • They are slated to start releasing Epic Adventures at DDXP 2011.

There was mention of "open areas" where new writing talents would be able to craft adventures, but I have seen nothing about that in some time. So far, we are looking at 20 adventures for the 2011 calendar year. That seems low to me, BUT I will wait and see how it plays out.

For those of you looking to write, comment, suggest, or otherwise make your opinion available, this list should help you determine who best to contact. This will also help us all anticipate what to expect from particular regions based on prior experience.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Life Just Got Harder - Skill DC Increase

WotC released new Skill DCs (Difficulty Classes) on their website today; these numbers are what will be included in the new Essentials Rules Compendium and on the DM Screen in the Essentials DM Kit. They differ significantly from those found in the DMG and, more recently, DMG 2.

I won't reprint the table (go to Wizards and see the values for yourself), but there are two significant differences between the old and new values:
  1. There are new values for every level as opposed to values for 3-level bands;
  2. The DCs are higher, making skill rolls more difficult.
Skill DCs increment by 1 either every level or every two levels as opposed to the previous increase of 1 or 2 pips every level band. The top of the DCs increase by 14% for Moderate and by 26%-27% at Easy and Hard difficulties; the DCs for any given level increase from as little as 7% to as much as 80%, suggesting a new methodology behind the DCs as opposed to a small tweak in their calculation. This new methodology assumes success on an 8+, or roughly 65% of the time.

The article also goes on to better explain the three categories (Easy, Moderate, and Hard) and what types of situations call for each. Looking at those descriptions and the new skill DCs leads me to the following conclusions:
  1. Easy challenges were previously too easy and not real challenges. I've come across that determination several times while playing / running several adventures. Now, the Easy DC represents a challenge to someone untrained in a particular skill and to those without a relevant ability modifier. The DC values range from 8 to 24 in this tier and have increased the most, an average of 37% over all 30 levels. This increase indicates that unskilled checks and group checks will be a more challenging, and provides a real incentive for a designer to include these checks in their adventures.
  2. Moderate challenges were more in-line with the goal, as they have undergone the least change. This DC represents a challenge for someone with a bit of training or a high ability score or a racial bonus combined with a feat or class bonus, etc. The DC values range from 12 to 32 in this tier and have increased the least, an average of just 17%.
  3. Hard challenges were affected significantly, but not as much as Easy challenges were. The Hard DC represents either a challenge for a focused character or the target for the second use of the same skill (following the success of the first check at the Moderate DC). The DC values range from 19-42 and have increased an average of 27%.
For LFR Mods, the new skill DCs are as follows:

H1 9 13 19 10 14 21
H2 10 15 22 11 16 23
H3 12 16 24 13 18 26
P1 14 20 28 15 21 29
P2 15 22 30 16 23 31
P3 17 23 32 18 25 34

Do you think these are too easy? Too hard? How do you feel about success occurring roughly 65% of the time? Let me know!

Whose Next? Initiative Tracking Tips


Ah, combat. Nothing gives the players the same excuse to roll dice with such gusto and make use of every trick they spent hours putting together on their character sheets. Since nothing spells danger quite like the charging ogre wielding a great axe, combat represents the tension high-point during a convention slot. However, running combat also represents the biggest challenge for a DM during an adventure; there are powers to track, hit points to record and change constantly, conditions to monitor, dice to roll, and, perhaps most importantly, initiatives to track.

There are as many ways to track initiative as there are DMs, and any successful system accomplishes the following goals:
  • allows the DM to keep track of who is doing what when
  • keeps the players informed about who is next so they can prepare actions ahead of time
  • frees the DM to focus on using challenging monster tactics and providing colorful descriptions
  • provide a method of tracking on-going damage and effects
  • be as easy to use as possible

Some methods I have seen used with great regularity are index cards (with each player and monster type having their own card), white boards, table tents (similar to fast food order tents), and the Paizo Combat Tracker . During this past Gamex Convention in Los Angeles, I implemented a super low-tech system which I found easy to use and which exceeded all of my expectations: notebook paper - with or without lines.

First thing to do once your table is mustered is to take a 1/2 sheet of paper and note who is sitting where; get character names, classes, races, visible armor and weapons/implements, passive insights, passive perceptions, and anything else you might want. This seating chart will help you refer to the PCs by name, know which PCs might detect a sneak or a trap, and generally put everything you might need at your fingertips. Collecting this information during character introductions also avoids spending extra session time preparing.

Next comes the combat tracking itself. Each combat will need 1/2 of a sheet of paper. Leave enough room on the left-hand side to record initiatives; ask for them in bands (i.e. anyone have an initiative above 20? Alright, 15-20? Above a 10? etc.) and record them in decreasing order. Be sure to leave a bit of extra room so you can note changes from delays and readied actions. Use the rest of the paper to track monster hit points, conditions, tokens/miniatures, etc. That way, you don't have to shuffle cards, everything is in one place, and all you need is the module page of statistics and this tracking sheet and combat is off and running. There is an example below of my combat tracking mid-fight so you can see for yourself how it works.

If you want a low-key and easy to use system, this is tough to beat. More importantly, it's something you can try our very cheaply and, if you don't like it, can leave behind with no waste or left-over stuff you might never use.

What do you use to track initiative and why does that work for you? I want to see what other ideas are out there.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Preparing an LFR Module for an RPGA Event

Four hours may seem like a long time, but when that's all you have to DM an LFR Module at an RPGA event, you need to make the most of each of the 240 minutes. Being as prepared as possible before you sit down ensures that you and the players are best positioned to get the most out of the adventure; not only do you have a handle on tactics for a particular encounter, you also have an understanding of the flow between encounters and the underlying theme tying the encounters, the back story, and the NPCs together. This means your combats are challenging, your NPCs memorable, and your on-the-fly adjustments fine-tuned. How do you best prepare to run a mod?

Read the Adventure
Read the LFR module cover to cover looking for theme, flavor, and flow; at this point focus on the mood of the adventure (frightening, humorous, etc.), get a sense of mystery, adventure, romance, etc., and see how the different encounters lead to one another and into the story as a whole. This will provide clues regarding narration and basic NPC attitudes.

Read Each Combat Encounter
Lay the encounter out to get a sense of terrain, enemy placement, basic tactics, etc. Look for appropriate interplay between foes’s powers keeping in mind the roles and intelligence of the monsters. Remember that the difficulty of an encounter is based in large part on how well the creatures use their powers. Poor choice of power usage can under power the fight in the PC’s favor, although having a monster change to a suboptimal tactic is a subtle DMing trick to give the players a small break (if necessary). Make notes about the best time to use a foe’s powers and have them be as opportunistic as possible.

Assuming you use index cards to track initiative, make cards for each foe (or group of essentially identical foes) so you can include them in your initiative stack and track HPs, powers, etc. right on the card. Doing this will speed up play and will help you remember tactics, etc. Also, if you prepare the cards for 4, 5, and 6 PCs at both low and high difficulties, it will make the combat process much smoother and maximize playing time.

Read Each Skill Challenge
DMing skill challenges is one of the more challenging aspects to running an LFR Module; nailing this skill set will enhance your games tremendously. Make a list of skills available and determine whether they are primary (i.e. a success counts toward the number of successes necessary to complete the challenge) or secondary (i.e. a success gives a bonus to another PC or removes a previous failure). Mike Mearls has a series of articles in “Dungeon” and “Dragon” magazines that discuss skill challenge design. See if there are any glaring holes in the design (i.e. the primary skills are all specialized into one or two classes, a particular class doesn’t have ANY trained skills from the list, etc.) Most importantly, make sure you have a sense of the time frame each skill challenge encompasses; this will enhance the narration by making sure it covers the elapsing of time during the challenge.

List Each Significant NPC
One criticism of 4E D&D in general, and LFR Modules in particular, is the relative lack of role playing opportunity the modules provide, particularly given the amount of time alloted to a convention session. An easy way to provide some role playing opportunities and enhance the story you and the PCs are telling is by making the NPCs come alive. While there are dozens of techniques available, I’ll suggest three easy ones:
  1. Pick a (somewhat) distinctive voice. It doesn’t have to be flawless, but having the old guy talk with a gravely voice and the service wench talk in a high-pitched voice can make a world of difference. Alternatively, or in addition, come up with a phrase or way of speech unique to the character. Again, it's a little touch here that will make all the difference.
  2. Pick a mannerism. Have him wheeze, sneeze, cough, sniffle, squint, scratch his beard, break wind frequently, whistle, etc. Just make sure he does it enough that the players can associate the mannerism with the NPC.
  3. Pick a goal. It can be simple (He wants to bring the PCs food and get paid for it), or complex (he wants the attractive female pc to become sympathetic to him so he can use her to make the Mayor’s Daughter jealous). Then just have everything the NPC says or does work in some fashion towards that goal. Generally, the smarter the NPC, the more complex the goal CAN be (although it certainly does not have to be that complex).
Make an index card of each NPC with a brief physical description, notes on his voice, mannerism, and goal, and keep that index card by the appropriate encounter(s). Then, pull that card out and run with it during the encounter.

Make Any Narration Notes
The last preparatory step is to make sure you have a grasp on the narration. Be sure to note anything you feel MUST be conveyed. Try to pick a theme for each encounter to make sure your descriptions match the tone and feel of the encounter and the adventure. Also note the passage of time during the narration and that helps keep the story in focus.

The above work takes roughly one hour preparation but the results are worth the effort. Don’t forget that you can complete this work when you first get a module then just keep your notes for repeated running. This can also help continuity when you run multiple modules from an extended story arc.