Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Battle of the Mounds

I can’t explain why the “Battle of the Mounds” sequence has been sticking in my head recently. The track from the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack hasn’t come up in my playlist for a while. Haven’t rewatched the movie. It’s simply there, occupying my headspace, occasionally muttering something about the grim fate that awaits all flesh. Or something. But as long as it’s up in there, it has to pay rent. I need to get something out of it, for writing or game design. And the thing that leaps to mind is the skill challenge.

The skill challenge of D&D 4e is a curious beast. Its closest relative that I’m experienced with, on one hand, are the extended rites from Werewolf where other players can contribute to the overall success. The closest relative on the other hand is combat — a situation where all players are expected to take turns contributing, possibly with an initiative order. If you boil it right down, it’s non-combat combat: the structure of organized participation from everyone at the table, trying to overcome an obstacle in common. It’s rather unlike the skill checks made by one or two players that leave the rest waiting for an obstacle that’s more their speed.

Skill challenges were a flawed thing that never really caught the gaming world on fire for a variety of reasons. I kind of suspect it’s because they have the same weaknesses as 4e combat: they’re so structured that they make fantastic set pieces but don’t necessarily make good impromptu challenges to strew liberally throughout an evening’s play. They can be improvised, of course; and to some extent I think they need to be open to at least some improvisation. I don’t want to decide ahead of time what will and won’t work, and it doesn’t benefit my players that much to be handed a short list of viable options. But it’s the set pieces that justify the concept.

The Battle of the Mounds is a great example of a skill challenge. At a guess, I’d say that it involved some Endurance checks for physical labor, some Bluff checks to set out “bait” for the traps, some Thievery or Dungeoneering to set traps with moving parts, perhaps some Perception to suss out the best approaches for enemies, and right at the end where Conan prays, a botched Religion check. Wait, his dead girlfriend showed back up. Maybe it was a critical success!

The point of such a skill challenge isn’t that “pass” means you go on with the adventure and “fail” means you’re stuck. I see it more as a sliding scale of utility. Every success removes a mook from the upcoming fight, maybe two, in gloriously described fashion. Every five successes removes a named character (like poor Sven-Ole Thorsen). You keep rolling until you get enough failures to halt the challenge normally, which represents you running out of time and having to cover up all the working traps. You could also structure it such as successes granting you extra bits of fortification, or adding traps to the battlefield. Whatever suits.

I honestly could see this working with other game systems; a big extended roll to fortify the caern before the Black Spiral Dancers get there, for instance, or some sort of communal batch of die rolls in Shadowrun. There are other cinematic examples that could work just as well or even better, to boot. Consider The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven: that just adds social die rolls to the mix, as you try to inspire and discipline the peasantry.

And the practical upshot of all this is that you get a set piece that leads into a set piece. Pretty climactic stuff. Ideal for cueing up the Poledouris and letting the slow build of “The Battle of the Mounds” shift into the combat music.

Or you could put “Montage” from the Team America soundtrack on instead. Hey, I don’t judge. Much.


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Posted by on November 27, 2012 in Uncategorized


D&D For Newbies, Final Session

“It’s not fear! I’m cowering in intelligence.” — Bruais.

So last night we wrapped up the business of Grimstone Keep. Though there might have been some desire to go smack down the traitorous farmer who was bad at his job, we rolled in with quickly moving to the Keep to see what was what. It went well — I provided two fights, one rather challenging, but these guys naturally had plenty of tactical experience from video games that helped them out a lot. Some luck didn’t hurt, either, but when your players are saying things “We need to reduce the number of people who can hit us,” and they’re right, they’re on a good track.

Teaching points! Yep, there are always those.

Props Matter. On one of the towers of the keep one could find a ballista. I am pretty sure if that ballista hadn’t been there, the group wouldn’t have been as excited about scaling the walls to take out the sentry up there. Because, of course, then they could turn the ballista on the enemies. It wound up not working out so well for Perseus the elven ranger as he could have hoped, but when Bruais sent a second bolt to take out two of the stripped-to-the-waist Iron Masks with one shot, it was a high point. (They also asked about the control for the portcullis, but alas, it didn’t pan out right for them to use that until the fight was over.)

Sportsmanship Is Awesome. You see it in the way they delay actions to let someone else shine, how they make the best of a bad situation, or how they root for each other. Being a great gamer is in part about being a great sport. These guys were good about using both their successes and failures to entertain one another.

Gamer Superstition Is Not Completely Unfounded. Remember Bruais? The only player character to get sub-par stats when they rolled? Bru was the one who not only backstabbed the wight lord with a timely crit, doing thirty-some-odd points of damage in one hit*, he also managed to get the finishing blow on the villain later on. The dice made it up to him. Of course, the player was also pretty cunning, so it sure didn’t hurt.

*”If this doesn’t bloody him, I’m going home,” said the wizard’s player. I subtracted the hit points and asked him “Are you going home?” Elites, man. Nothing to mess around with.

D&D Is For Thirteen-Year-Olds. I don’t actually mean that in a bad way. Sure, one of the two observers who drifted by was a little embarrassed for us, maybe. (The other lamented he didn’t have time to try it out, what with having an infant and all.) But the Fountain of Youth was in full effect. Players both went into acting specifically on what their characters would know even if disadvantageous, and basic metagaming of the other sort. You know, once the rogue’s player declares he’s slipping away to look for treasure, other players start asking, “Oh hey where has the rogue gone?” They were super-thirsty for magic items, even as they were sportsmanlike about dividing them up. My producer Craig wound up shouting “I shall smite thee, evil fiend!” at one point. I don’t think it was ironically.

I heard today that Craig (the lone veteran, if you recall) is talking about doing another adventure for these guys, taking over now that I’m stepping down, and that’s pretty awesome. These guys kicked ass, enjoyed themselves, and entertained me greatly. Even as I look forward to having Monday nights free again, and devoting myself to more complicated settings exclusively, I’m a little jealous of ’em.

It’s funny. I have always credited the quality of my games of only playing with the right people, and being super-selective. This experience hasn’t really undercut that moral, because these guys were the right people. Beyond being awfully enjoyable, I do hope it taught them something about the roots of one branch of gaming, and why these tropes have endured over the years. I know I learned more than I expected to.

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Posted by on November 6, 2012 in Uncategorized