Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Golden Age of the RPG Zine

My first exposure to the term “zine” came back in my skateboarding days of the mid 80s. Growing up in a suburb of Atlanta, there was no coverage of our local scene in any of the major publications at the time. If you weren’t from California or perhaps NY, you just were not represented. Local skaters took it upon themselves to take photographs, create artwork, and scrawl handwritten articles, then go to the library (if you could get a ride) and make near-illegible copies of the things for friends.

My skating led to me being exposed to many forms of music, including punk rock. Zines played a crucial role in the spread of punk. DIY labels could advertise their mail-order catalogs, and the zines provided crucial networking for touring bands. Without zines, the music would not have spread like it did, and a lot of great music would never have been heard in a lot of areas of the country.

I was oblivious during those days to the role of zines in RPGs. I mean, I knew about Dragon, but I was so young at the time I started playing RPGs that the history was not as interesting as simply playing. Fast forward to today, and I am now more aware of the role of DIY publications in the early days. After all, the gaming club newsletters of the late 60s and early 70s were, in essence, zines. They enabled gamers to connect to each other, featured alternative rules to existing games, and helped organize the first conventions. Dragon itself morphed from the Strategic Review, and early copies of White Dwarf almost feel closer to homemade zines than any slick, professional magazine. 

The thing I respect the most about the OSR movement is the DIY aspect. Don’t like where more modern games are taking the hobby? Not finding a flavor that fits your tastes? Instead of waiting for products that would never come, pioneers of new gaming frontiers fashioned their own takes on classic games, designed their own adventures, and breathed new life into the hobby. And while the golden age of RPGs is undoubtedly behind us, there has never been a time in the history of the hobby where self-published zines have flourished and thrived as much as they do today.

I won’t try to provide a comprehensive list of zines; Rended Press has done a better job then I ever could compiling info on zines both new and old. You can easily spend hours just clicking away at all of the juicy stuff. I do want to point out the wonderful diversity. You have very polished works, and those that are best described as crude. Every genre from horror to sci-fi to fantasy is represented. Some, like one of my faves, AFS, are mail-order only (“Um…did you say a new Stormbringer adventure? Here’s my wallet.”), some are PDF only, some both. Some are pay-what-you-want, some are only for sale, and many are free. Some may surprise you with their longevity, while wonderful new zines pop up seemingly every day, with more always on the horizon.

The zine community is tight, welcoming, and friendly. If you are looking for info on how to start your own zine, most folks will happily answer your questions on everything from shipping logistics to cpu programs. Hell, Tim Shorts will show you his monthly revenue. Google + groups like RPG Zines are a great place to start networking. Perhaps you aren’t ready to tackle a whole zine but want to contribute artwork or an article idea; many zines, including my own, take submissions. All it takes is a little effort. There has never been an easier time to self-publish your own work, connect with other enthusiasts, and get your stuff out there in front of your target audience. 

We are living in the golden age of RPG zines so don’t let it pass you by! Support DIY publishers and get involved!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Download a FREE 5e Adventure!!!

Hi everyone. To celebrate and support the release of 5e, I have converted one of my 4e adventures to the new system and made it available as a free download. In the spirit of the multi-edition support I want to cultivate here, I have also included some simple OSR conversion notes. I hope you enjoy it!

*File last updated 7/11/14


Friday, July 4, 2014


Today I am announcing a few changes to my blog and zine. As you may know, I have supported classic editions of D&D on my blog alongside 4e for quite a while. Well, I was so completely blown away by the 5e rules that came out yesterday that I will be DMing organized play at the FLGS and inevitably supporting it on my blog. So, I have decided to change the name of my blog to reflect the multiple edition support that I want to cultivate. The new link is Those out there that link to my site or have me bookmarked will want to update this.

I absolutely intend on still supporting 4e. I actually DMed a great session the other night. With a four player party and a morale system, we enjoyed a nice three encounter delve with roleplay in about two and a half hours. 4e is worth working on because the combat and PC customization options are not like that of any other edition of D&D. I think that over the years many players will return to it for a fun change of pace.

What does this mean for my zine 4e Forever? Well, the second issue is almost done. Unfortunately, several articles I expected to come in never made it, but there is more than enough material for a great mag. After this issue, and once the licensing for 5e becomes more clear, I intend to let the zine represent all editions. The name will change, although I haven't thought of the name yet. I imagine B/X monsters sitting alongside alternate 4e classes, 5e adventures next to AD&D magic items. I love all editions, so why not try and support them all? Expect more info/shameless solicitations on this down the line.

Anyhoo, I am very excited about where 5e can go. I love the simple, clean rules, and I see a LOT of 4e influence in the game. I think its a great thing that 4e happened, because they learned a lot of lessons from it, both good and bad. I hope to continue to bring fans of different editions together and foster a mutual respect for one another, even if you have your own favorite ruleset.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Even MORE Quick Fixes to Old Crappy Monsters

I prefer practical, specific DMing advice to philosophical advice. This is because I feel strongly that experience is the best teacher for a DM as far as pacing, storytelling, handling and involving players, adventure design, etc. However, with 4e D&D there is a wealth of very specific advice that you can pass along to others, especially new DMs. I saw a DM (new to 4e but not RPGs) ask for advice the other day, and my mind went immediately to the monsters.

One of my favorite posts dealt with updating pre-MM3/Dark Sun monsters. Its like nails on chalkboard when I hear someone saying that the old monster books are worthless. Sure, the Monster Vault is the peak of 4e monster design, but part of that is that you get tokens and an adventure. Its not very helpful to just tell someone to go and buy another book or box set. Updating the old monsters does not need to be akin to filing your taxes. You can add adjustments completely on the fly, without ever putting pen to paper, and revive all of your old books.

The main problems with old monsters come down to low damage, low accuracy, and (for Elites and Solos) susceptibility to debilitating conditions. Part of this can be handled by limiting the power creep at your table. I advise using some form of inherent bonuses a la DMG 2 or Dark Sun as a start. Even then, the monsters will still need help. If you do nothing else, follow my instructions on increasing damage.

Lets update and edit the old post's tips with some new notes added. Keep in mind that these tips do not apply to Minions; post-errata Minions should do 4+1/2 their level damage (minimum 1) and you should adjust them separately. Anyhoo:

1. DAMAGE: Add full level damage to Solo and Brute damage expressions. Add 1/2 level to the rest. For example, a 7th level pre-MM3 Brute would add 7 points to all of its damage rolls. A 22nd level Skirmisher would add 11. If a monster has a power that requires an attack roll but does no damage, add its level in damage to the power. So if say a 13th level monster has an Area 1 attack that slows on a hit (and does nothing else), that power now does 13 damage as well.

2. ATTACK BONUSES: Adjust monster attack bonuses up to at least Level +5 vs AC and Level +3 vs NADs. If any attack bonuses are already higher than this, such as an Artillery's RBA, leave them be. Brutes will be the main ones you will need to look out for.

3. MULTIPLE ATTACKS: If they do not have one already, give the monsters a "double attack", a single Standard Action that allows them to make two RBAs and/or MBAs.

4. RECHARGING: Lower any recharge numbers by 1. Encounter powers become "recharge 6".

5. CONDITIONS: Solos and Elites are always immune to the stunned and dominated conditions. To be honest, I would just remove stuns from your game altogether.

6. LAST DITCH EFFORTS: If they still look too weak or don't feel tough enough, let them Free Action attack when they are bloodied and/or when they die.

If you commit these simple tips to memory, you can pick up any old copy of Dungeon, any dated adventure, any old Game Day relic, or any early splat book and instantly breathe life into it. Its actually fun to pick one up, dust it off, and practice in your mind. Its very empowering because you can do it in-game, just eyeballing it. It becomes very natural and automatic if you try it a few times, to where you can look at any stat block and immediately adjust it without much thought.

Anyways, as I said above, I like advice that is practical, easy to use, and very specific. Try this in your 4e games and I think you will find that your old books are still awesome, and you didn't even have to write in the margins.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Will Doyle is on FIRE!

If you aren't already familiar with Will Doyle's work, you soon will be. The freelance designer is enjoying a streak of great successes. Will's amazing work at his blog Beholder Pie led to him getting several adventures published in Dungeon towards the end of 4e's run. These were among the best adventures that appeared during 4e. A few weeks ago, he got 1st place in the 2014 One Page Dungeon Contest. And just TODAY it was announced that he won EN World's 5e adventure design contest.

I love seeing good things happen to good people. Will's talent is obvious, but he is also a class guy, easy to work with, humble and enthusiastic. I was so blown away by his Scalemail mass combat rules for 4e that I approached him about letting me reprint them in 4e Forever #1. He was totally cool and helpful about it. When you combine talent with that kind of friendly attitude, good things happen to you. I would bet the farm that he will be one of the most well-known 5e adventure designers within a few years.

Check out a short interview I did with Will HERE.

If you want to check out his Scalemail rules, download 4e Forever #1 HERE. Even if you were not a big 4e fan, they are well worth a look.

Congrats Will, you deserve it!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Trimming the Fat, Part 5: The Stunned Condition

Hi everybody. If you didn't know, my "Trimming the Fat" series is all about stuff that I omit from 4e in my personal games. I've mentioned sunrods, skill challenges, backgrounds, and revenants in the past. Today I found myself motivated to write about the ultimate suckage condition: stunned.

I haven't run a lot of 4e lately to be honest, I have been going back to the well of 1e and 2e AD&D. That said, I have still been filling holes in my 4e collection via Amazon and Ebay. Books that I completely ignored before, I find myself wanting now for completion's sake. The chromatic and metallic dragon books are among these.

Its another conversation entirely as to why I shunned these books before, but a lot of it is because they are filled with weak solo monsters that every DM worth their salt already houseruled prior to their improvement in post-MM3 publications. Still, I think they have worth. Some of the delves, items, rituals, and the like are interesting, and much of Richard Baker and Bob Schwalb's lore succeeds. But I digress.

What really triggered today's entry was the common dragon power "Frightful Presence". In most cases this is basically a stun. The flavor isn't bad: the dragon scares you so bad a little trickle of urine empties in your boot. In practice though, its horrible for gameplay. How I wish I had seen that sooner.

When you start off with a new game or version of a game, its natural to trust the designers, at least at first. That is, I typically make an effort to at least play a game by the rules before deciding something sucks, or taking it into my own direction. I realize I was wrong about that now. I should have known that the stunned condition sucked at first glance, but at least now I am learning.

The stunned condition has long been the bane of 4e DMs. Solos being stunned is the subject of many a blog post from many a blogger. Even elites being stunned has always been a bridge too far in my book. That's why on my blog and zine you see rules about elites and solos always being immune to the effect. So what if the fluff can be sloppy? It simply breaks the game for the most powerful creatures to have to sit out the fight.

And here is where I must apologize. I recalled an epic tier game I once ran, still learning the system, in which I allowed a demon to stun one of the party. The poor bastard had to wait like 20 minutes to even do anything. I could feel his seething as he took his next turn. It was my bad.

Here's the deal. In classic editions, spells like Hold Person, Sleep, and the like are familiar and expected. Magic behaves differently. In 4e, magic is usually balanced against the other classes. Some love this, some hate this. I personally look at 4e as one of many different flavors of D&D ice cream. I don't make fun of others and berate them for liking rum raisin. But I digress again.

Being stunned in 4e sucks for everyone. Its also a condition that inherently slows down combat, adding to another of 4e's woes. "Why then", I asked myself, "did I ever allow stuns in the first place?"

That's the solution. Stuns don't exist. Not any more. Not for PCs, not for monsters.

You could just announce well before your game or campaign starts they don't exist, or if you want to delve deeper, come up with an alternate condition to substitute. After all, some paragon paths or epic destinies could incorporate the stunned condition as a partial element, or a player could love most elements of a single power only to have it completely nerfed by taking the condition out. I personally think dazed + immobilized is a solid substitute, but I am certainly open to ideas. One thing I am sure of, the standard 4e stun will never appear in my 4e games again. It just sucks too bad.

Heartfelt apologies to all I have stunned out there.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Manor Zine Bundle

I am compelled to let all OSR fans out there know that Tim Shorts of Gothridge Manor has bundled all 6 of the issues of his excellent zine for 20 bucks. Including US shipping. Yes, try to wrap your mind around how sweet of a deal this is. Just got my package today and I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't tell other people about it. Its just too sick a deal not to. GO HERE.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Last Call for 4e Forever #2!!!

Hey everyone, I know its been slow around here but I have shifted my focus over to getting 4e Forever #2 out before the end of summer. If you want to contribute any material, be it an article, adventure, or (PLEASE) artwork, I have set a deadline for April 30th.

This issue looks to be jam packed and much crunchier than the first issue. If you are thinking of contributing any artwork, I could use images of Trolls, Giants, Orcs, generic combat scenes, and drawings of items found in an Adventurer's Kit. That said, I will happily take ANYTHING YOU'VE GOT.

If you have any specific questions you can reach me at frothsof @ gmail dot com or just leave a post! Help keep 4e alive!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review: The Crossroads of Spyley and an Update

I don't typically do reviews, although I sometimes point out new and/or interesting products. I thought I would shine a light on a nifty little OSR product today: The Crossroads of Spyley. This is part of what I hope will become a long series of products from Chubby Monster Games called "Side Treks". It is system-neutral and can work with any edition of D&D.

My current campaign is a sandbox, and I can never have enough little interesting locales for the PCs to pass through. I love rolling stuff randomly, but I also like to have some short adventures and settlements planned out ahead as well. What I don't like is for things to be too complicated. This product fits my needs perfectly. Give me a little village, a nice map, some hooks, a few NPCs, and then leave it alone.

I can see myself devouring a series of these things, just plopping them down in various hexes. At ten pages, you can absorb this product quickly without having to do much prep. Priced at $2, its a steal. I tried to think of something to complain about, but couldn't come up with anything. Buy the PDF HERE.

Speaking of PDFs, I am making the final push to complete 4e Forever Issue 2. I have learned a lot over the last year working on this, and I have to say that I have found that editing is my least favorite thing in the world. It sucks the fun out of everything for me. I actually thought about just quitting, but 4e needs a little love so I feel compelled to persevere. That said, I am no longer going to require submissions to fit with the shared world of the first issue. Its just too much work to try and rewrite everything. I also find it takes away from the original spirit of some of the submissions. I also am not going to toil and beat myself up over the grammar, etc. of submissions. I will give it a once over and publish as-is. Its just gotta be this way, otherwise I have no fun working on it. Anyway, I would like to have all submissions, artwork and otherwise, in by April 30th. If you have any old Dungeon/Dragon rejections, adventures you have been working on, random tables, monsters, whatever, give me a shout at frothsof-at-gmail-dot-com.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Tucker's Giant Rats

So the other day I read someone, somewhere, categorizing the giant rat as a “throw-away” monster. In fact, they went so far as to imply that an adventure that uses giant rats is boring and/or uncreative. I personally love giant rats, but like many monsters, its really the way that you use them that is important.

This sort of thing was covered before in the famous Dragon mag essay “Tucker’s Kobolds”. Kobolds are weak on paper. A few kobolds in an empty room with a couple of slings is not a memorable or challenging encounter. However, put a few dozen crafty, cunning kobolds together with some traps and you can cause some real havoc. Creative use of monsters is the thing.

I like the game world to be reactive. I like player actions to have consequences. Try this the next time you have a group of players exploring a dungeon, leaving a trail of gore and viscera in their wake, with no attempt to conceal or hide the carnage. After a few hours, I figure the stench is going to start to attract rats. Lots of them. If the party spends another few hours venturing further into the dungeon, or better yet, attempts to spend the night in some barricaded room, I make it a point to infest the bloodiest encounter sites with hungry rats. Tons of them. Dozens and dozens of them. Dozens and dozens of diseased rats.

Later, if the party has to flee the dungeon, or if they are haughtily and confidently heading out for the night, assuming they won’t encounter anything on the way back, they come upon the rats. Only now, the rats aren’t weak 1 HD throw-away monsters. Now the rats are in a feeding frenzy, swarming, blocking the passage. Rife with plague. Horrifying and feral. Exploding from a dead Orc’s chest cavity. Pouring from the mouth of a dead Hobgoblin. They double back, but another dozen is rambling down the hallway. They try the side door, and more spill out. Hungry. Mangy. Tucker’s Giant Rats.

On a sad note, Aaron Allston has passed away. I will always be amazed at the sheer output this guy had. Some people are seemingly born to write. Allston never seemed to run out of creative ideas. RIP.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Lamentations of the 4e Flame Princess

Howdy all. I want to talk today about blending two seemingly incongruous RPG products, namely 4e D&D and the OSR game Lamentation of the Flame Princess (LotFP).

So I have spoken at length about my general disdain for most published 4e adventures. They tend to be grindy railroads with back-to-back-to-back encounters, with exploration and roleplay taking a backseat to combat. I am not saying everyone plays it that way; I certainly don't. Its just that like it or not, the first few gaming experiences you have with a system can color your expectations, and for many, the first taste of 4e was a grind, a la Keep on the Shadowfell or the hideous, wretched Dungeon Delve.

"But Froth," someone said to me recently. "4e's tactical combat is its greatest strength!" Look, I love lemon meringue pie, but I don't want to eat three lemon meringue pies in one sitting. That makes it suck. That makes me puke. Such is the way of 4e combat. The pace of an adventure is important. I've mentioned before that 4e has a good skill system that is well-suited to exploration. I've talked about thoughts on stocking dungeons in 4e, looking at entire megadungeon levels as single encounters, adding morale into 4e, and a host of other ways to tweak the pace of 4e adventures to make them more fun to run and play.

Ok, so let's switch gears for a minute. Many of you out there, certainly those OSR folks that sometimes check out my blog, have heard of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. While it is but one of many old school systems out there, what sets it apart and gives it its own niche, in my humble opinion, are its idiosyncratic adventures and stunningly beautiful artwork.

Now, while there is considerable variation among LotFP adventures, don't get me wrong, enough of them behave in sort of the same way that I feel it is possible to generalize a bit about some of them. THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW. If you think there is a chance you will play any of these, trust me, you don't want to ruin them by reading any info about them.

Some, not all, of the LotFP adventures primarily focus on exploration. The set-up. In many adventures you don't find wandering monster tables. There isn't a monster in every room with a little coinage. Rather, if you do encounter/unwittingly release/stumble upon a creature, its usually a very, very bad thing. For example, The Tower of the Stargazer is a fun adventure where you basically are exploring this seemingly abandoned wizard's tower. There are all sorts of tricks and traps. In one room, you encounter the wizard himself, bound in a magic circle. He will beg and promise the world for you to let him loose, and if you do, well let's just say you will wish you hadn't. In Tales of the Scarecrow, an out-of-the-way farmhouse is actually little more than the bait of a massive underground monster. In Death Frost Doom, the PCs can unwittingly start a zombie apocalypse if they get too greedy. These are the kind of creative set-ups that lead to encounters in LotFP adventures; contrast that with the typical 4e dungeon, and you will start to see where I am going with this.

As 4e does massive, set-piece encounters better than just about any system out there, you might find that it is even more well-suited to run these adventures than classic editions. If that sounds like blasphemy, so be it. Take the adventure The God That Crawls. The "god" is really an accursed mutated former priest; he is now something like an amorphous blob. An encounter with this creature is one thing in theatre of the mind style, but it takes on a whole new cinematic and dare-I-say tactical feel when it takes place on a battlemap with minis and terrain. Its not better; its just different. And you might find you like it.

Somehow, the pace of these adventures works with 4e. Amazingly, you can run many of the LotFP adventures for 4e in one session, whereas with many other OSR-type adventures, you would be falling asleep by the third room/encounter.

LotFP adventures are notoriously deadly. To his credit, the author of many of these adventures, James Raggi IV, has written many them for low levels, so there isn't as much weeping and gnashing of the teeth as there might be if your 15th level Druid bit it. 4e PCs are also much more resilient than their classic edition counterparts, so they might even have a fighting chance to escape what first appears to be certain death. That said, death is part of the game, and the adventures are easy to convert to any level. In fact, that is another major plus in using these adventures with 4e: conversion is a breeze. All I have had to do was build 4e monsters based on one or two creatures. Everything else I just wing with a sheet of DCs.

So which adventures convert best to 4e?

-Death Frost Doom
-Tales of the Scarecrow
-Tower of the Stargazer
-The Monolith From Beyond Space and Time
-The Three Brides (Three great mini-adventures; underrated.) 
-Better Than Any Man (This is a large adventure, almost a mini-campaign.)
-The Grinding Gear

Where can I buy them? 

I recommend checking out their page at RPGNOW. You will have to create an account and verify your age in order for all of the products to be viewable, as many of the adventures have mature content. Note that the core rules are free, and the adventure Better Than Any Man is pay what you want. That said, all of the prices are reasonable, and there are frequent sales on that site if you watch for them.

So that's all I have for you today! After running some of these adventures myself for 4e parties, I can say that based on my experience, it makes for a fun time. 4e's strengths get highlighted, while its weaknesses are almost completely avoided based on the creative pace and style of the adventures.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Art of the 4e Sandbox

Hello all. I thought I would post some thoughts and ideas about running sandbox campaigns with 4e D&D. This is not a comprehensive guide by any stretch, although I do hope it gets some of your wheels turning.

Classic editions of the game have an embarrassment of riches to aid sandbox play. Armed with my Greyhawk box, the 1e DMG, and some old Judges Guild stuff, I am basically impervious to my players' wildest choices, able to react and flow with virtually anything that can be imagined. It is possible to reach this state of samadhi with 4e, but there are a few tips that might help you get there a little more quickly.

First off, if you don't want to run a sandbox style game, I am not judging you. If you have the next 10 levels planned out, more power to you. It isn't for everyone. I personally love it, as it helps me hone my improvisational skills, gives players the feeling that they are in control, and makes for completely unexpected awesomeness. But is it a contradiction in some ways? Can 4e, with its carefully planned and balanced set-piece encounters thrive in an inherently unpredictable environment? Yes, yes it can.

So the first thing to ponder is the environment, the world, the sandbox. Despite some poor adventures, 4e did manage to release some great products over its run, and the best of these are actually suited to sandbox play. Vor Rukoth, Hammerfast, Gloomwrought...these are all very strong products that are not adventures; instead they lay out large areas, delineating the factions that inhabit them, providing seeds for DMs to make their own adventures. They also include unique monster stats and some flavorful items. So how do you take these products and make a sandbox out of them? There are three basic steps that I would suggest. Think up some different mini-adventures or encounters that can take place at various locations. Don't overdo it, as many may never be used. Utilize the provided hooks and histories (or make up your own) to make the area live and breathe. Finally, design some random encounter tables that fit the area.

In my Gloomwrought game, I used the text to influence my encounter tables. You have a religious district, so I had some encounter tables that reflected this; different groups of monks and clerics might be encountered. In the seedy district, they might encounter more Humanoids and bandits. Skim the lists of monsters in the back of the various monster books and put together some ideas. It doesn't matter what level the monsters are, what matters is the flavor. Do they back up the "feel" of the area? Your PCs need not FIGHT everything they encounter; in a lot of ways, random tables just help reinforce their surroundings. Experiment with widely varying group sizes of creatures encountered. No party is scared of two or three bandits, 30 however, and you might give them pause. You might find this article helpful in the process of setting up varying totals of wandering monsters in 4e.

I also looked at different areas throughout Gloomwrought and prepared loose little "mini adventures" in different locales. The cemetery is rumored to be haunted. Nobles need bodyguards for sketchy areas. Lizardfolk have infested a sewer. Populate your map with little hooks, and let players be drawn where they may. 

Finally, I slowly disseminated lore. The more the PCs explored, the more they became privy to the various power struggles and histories of the city. While they might have never even acted on any of the information, it served the purpose of bringing the area to life. That feeling that things are happening outside of the PCs; the city is alive.

If you want something less scripted and sculpted, try the Chaos Scar. Get yourself a list of the Chaos Scar adventures from the most recent Dungeon index, make up a few landmarks and random tables, and let the players go where they may. For the especially adventurous, simply offer your players a hex map of the Nentir Vale and just let them roam. Use published modules and products like Threats to the Nentir Vale to populate random tables and come up with adventure hooks. Again, the Dungeon index is your friend. Of course, you can always make up your own world; many DMs do. My overall advice for approaching it would still be the same.

Fly in the face of 4e conventions. Find ways to emphasize the passage of time. Don't hand-wave travel. In sandbox play, the travel often IS the adventure. Challenge yourself with random weather tables, scarce food or water, odd geological formulations, and bizarre encounters. If you need to make up a monster on the fly, consider these tips for quick 4e monster creation. 

To experienced DMs, a lot of this probably sounds old hat, while to others, you may have never thought of running a 4e game this way. I personally think running 4e in a sandbox style can be one of the most rewarding experiences you can have with the game system; unfortunately, you just don't have as much of the work done for you like you did in previous editions. By utilizing suitable 4e products and settings, populating some areas with adventure hooks and mini-scenarios, and designing flavorful random encounter tables, you can quickly set the stage for hours and hours of sandbox play.

I know a lot of you 4ers out there have done some of this before, so leave a post and let me know how sandbox play has worked for your 4e game!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Let's Clear Up A Few 4e Myths, Part 2

Howdy. So a while back I had a fairly popular post (here) regarding various myths about 4e. Now don't get me wrong, as readers of my blog know, I am fine with criticism of 4e and/or any other game system. Criticism helps improve things. What I am not a fan of is hyperbolic nonsense. Today I want to tackle a couple more myths that have been aggravating me.

"Every class is the same, AEDU, etc etc etc, blah blah blah"

To anyone that has spent a lot of time playing 4e, I don't really need to explain why this is not the case. Play a Shaman, play a Fighter, play a don't walk away feeling like the same thing just occurred. Why then, is this such an oft-repeated complaint? The so-called "AEDU" structure. Now forget for a moment that Essentials exists, thereby obliterating the argument in and of itself. You will only hear back that, "Well Essentials didn't exist at the beginning." Fair enough. So what is it that propels this argument forward? Why is it so common?

Let's consider for a second classic editions. If you take a look at 1e AD&D, you find that different classes obtain different class features at different levels. A Druid can identify plant types at the 3rd level. At 8th level, Rangers gain some limited Druidic spell ability. At 4th level, the Paladin can call his war horse. These abilities do not resemble one another, and the level at which they occur could be argued as largely arbitrary. I mean, I trust Gygax completely, but if Druids took until the 4th level to identify plants, the book doesn't explode.

Now consider the 4e structure. All it is doing is proving choice points at the same levels. The choices are not the same. Are the utility powers of a 4th level Cleric the same as those of a 4th level Swordmage? Not hardly. The only thing that they have in common...the only thing that is "samey" that they choose an ability at the same level. Likewise, if a Fighter gains a maneuver at level 7 that allows her to swing his sword in a circle, attacking everything adjacent to her, is this the same thing as a Witch choosing a spell? No. Not at all. The only thing in common is that they are both choosing abilities at the same levels.

I imagine that Heinsoo and company thought that this would be a popular "improvement" on the game. It does make it easier to anticipate and remember when new class features and abilities become available. When I play Pathfinder, if I try a new class I am continually looking back to the class description to figure out what I get and when. I admit I am somewhat of a newb, but there sometimes seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. Yet it is the very attempt to organize this sort of thing that gets so much derision! I will never claim to understand it, but the simple fact is that 4e classes do not play the same. They tried to experiment with a more...predictable, I guess is the word...progression of "choice points", and though the choices in no way resemble each other, they got slammed in the process. Oh well.

This leads me to the mother of all 4e myths, the biggest lie of all:

"You can't play 4e without a grid."

You know, sometimes you hear something said so many times, the mind almost wants to start believing it. That might be a quote or something from the novel 1984, I can't recall. What I do know is that the biggest myth about 4e, in my humble opinion, is that it is unplayable without a grid.

I am tempted to say that most folks that espouse this argument have never tried to play it without a grid. The reason this is tempting is because it is probably true. However, having spent some time on the *shudder* WOTC forums, and having seen what constitutes an "argument" on some gaming sites, I realize that I will almost immediately be hit with a, "Oh yeah? My table tried it! And it was a complete disaster!" Fine.

There is no doubt that 4e implicitly and explicitly encourages you to use a battlemap and minis. No argument there. But that isn't to say that you cannot play with only pen, paper, and dice. After all, in the 1st edition DMG, Gygax encourages the use of minis, and from what I understand, he hardly ever used them (although apparently Arneson almost always did). My point here is simply that encouraging is not the same thing as requiring.

Now forget about 4e for a minute. Try if you can to picture yourself back in the old days, a complete virgin to D&D. Do you remember what it was like looking at spell explanations? The varying ranges (in inches), the varying sizes of the areas of effect? How about trying to mentally picture the various types of dragon breaths?

I posit to you the following: there is no power in 4e that is any more or less complicated to adjudicate in gridless play than there is in any other edition of D&D. If you can handle a Stinking Cloud in your mind's eye, you can handle a close blast 3. Sorry; its just a fact.

So where on earth does this argument come from, besides the fact that grid rules are in the book? Well, I can only speculate, but I think part of it might be that instead of only the spellcasters having explicit abilities that deal with areas of effect, pushing, sliding, etc, it is also the martial types. Part of it is the published adventures, especially the early ones. There is also for some reason a strong desire in some players for perfect adjudication of distances...but any DM that has ever run classic editions in a mapless style knows that it is ok to handwave some things, or to otherwise approximate. "Are you 25 or 30 feet from the Goblin? Eh, you are close enough to move up to it and attack." Did the world end? No, no it didn't.

Now, I am not going to sit here and tell you that mapless play is ideal for a lot of encounters. Hell, there are myriad classic edition encounters that I would never DREAM of attempting without some sort of visual aid (see the entry to the Temple of Tharizdun). What I am saying is that the alleged inability of 4e to be played without a map has been so grossly exaggerated that many DMs accept it as reality without having ever even tried to run an encounter without a grid.

Its really the subject of another blog post to provide tips and tricks, benefits and drawbacks, etc of gridless play, but I will say this: try a random encounter. Nothing special...say the party is on the way from point A to point B, there is a clearing in the woods and a few Orcs attack. They flee after the first or second death. I think you will see that this huge worry about distances and everything is really not so bad in play. It changes from a player counting the squares to an enemy to a DM saying, "You are about 20 feet away". It changes from a player counting how many Orcs can get caught in a blast to the DM saying, "Eh, you can get three of them."

None of this is going to shock or surprise many experienced DMs, as a lot of you out there already switch between maps and mapless play when it fits your game anyways. Hell, I am almost ashamed to have to explain this. For some reason, this myth was allowed to gain traction; all I can do is try my best to discount it. If you have DMed any classic editions without maps and minis, you have doubtless already experienced the worst that 4e can throw at you.

So that is what I have for you today. Sometime down the line I might go into more detail about how mixing gridless 4e encounters into your campaign can be a benefit. Just remember that the best way to learn anything, as a DM, is to run games. Try things. Experiment. Don't take someone else's word for it. Don't assume things. Let your own experience be your guide.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

An Adverse Reaction to Immediate Actions

Yeah...sorry about that. There's a clever title there somewhere but I missed it badly.

Well, first of all, happy new year to you. My resolution is to be more prolific this year, so it is fitting that I am putting up a post today.

Complaints about immediate actions affecting combat speed are not new to 4e gamers. I realize that some people will have different experiences than my own. All I can tell you is I have run games for hundreds of folks and I have played under dozens of DMs of all levels of experience with 4e, and OVERALL, immediate actions have posed a problem.

Now let me say that I see the value in having some actions act as interrupts and reactions. After all, like many seemingly "modern" 4e conventions, these mechanics actually have their origins in the classic editions. Familiar spells such as Feather Fall operate something like immediate actions. So they have precedence. They can also add a cool cinematic element to some situations. That said, you only really have to sit through one 4e combat encounter that is filled with endless immediate actions to recognize they are a problem.

Complicating matters, many 4e classes partially rely on immediate actions for their very identities in combat. In particular, Defenders rely on mark punishments to enforce their role; these are often immediate actions. And lets not lose sight of the fact that these abilities are FUN for the player playing the Defender. Some of my favorite moments in 4e combat involve my Fighter/Monk dancing through combat, marking everything she attacks, hit or miss, then daring them to ignore her mark. I have to believe that there can be a place for these kind of mechanics without completely slowing everything to a snail's pace.

So it isn't as easy as just flat-out banning immediate actions. They are cool, and they are woven into the game. I propose the following houserules to limit them. Like any houserule, I would talk to your players about it prior to PC creation.

1. THE BASIC RULE: Allow immediate actions from utility powers, class features, and/or theme powers only. This allows for Defenders to still defend, for iconic and otherwise flavorful powers to still act as immediate actions, and prevents you from having to get too fiddly with banning specific themes. This is a simple way to get rid of the endless crap like Disruptive Strike and other "must-have" powers that make for slow, herky-jerky combat.

2. THE ALTERNATE RULE: As above, but players can also choose immediate action dailies. This allows a few more into the game, only they are far less annoying to deal with or sit through as they only happen once a day.

I think these are fair. I mean, I myself have built catch-22 Binder hybrids that are basically bred from annoying immediate actions; in other words, I have been guilty of adding to the problem, and can be honest with myself that it isn't good for the game. What happens is you end up with a lot of well-built PCs at the table, and even though its great for PC survival, you have a lot of off-actions going off that basically signify bathroom breaks.

The above options will make a difference in your game, especially at high levels. They also actually enhance the classes that remain able to to use them, as they make it more rare/special for these kind of actions to take place.

Thoughts? Anybody else houseruling immediate actions?