Last month I featured good advice sent in by you on table management. I just want to thank everyone who sent me suggestions. Even if I didn't feature your particular nugget of game-table wisdom, I enjoyed reading every single response.
As promised, this month, we'll talk about tracking table conditions and all the little modifiers, conditions, and other bundles of joy that occur in the heat of the battle grid shuffle, but rather than using 3rd Edition Dungeon & Dragons for our examples, we'll explore some upcoming 4E-isms.
Let me start off by saying, like many DMs, I'm a sucker for little DM table tools. Every convention I attend, I scour the dealer's hall looking for interesting little knickknacks that promise to help me run my game faster or help me convey information to my players with ease. Some have fulfilled that promise and have found a place on my game table week after week. Others collect dust in this storage bin or the other, discarded after one session of use.
Yet, there's nothing like a new edition to make me rethink past assumptions and to help me find new uses for old tools. And throughout the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons development and playtest process, I found myself going through those bins and finding ways to use those nifty little tools that have been lying fallow during the last edition's play.
|Cards, skull beads, magnetic base markers, minis, terrain features, and the obligatory fist-full of dice are just a few of the tools that help me keep my game pace fast and furious.
You're in the middle of a tense battle. The wicked mind flayer and its grimlock minions have backed your group into a corner, and it is going to take pure grit and the best tactics to get out alive. It's the rogue's turn. Her player, Lisa, scans the battle grid. She knows that some of the grimlocks have been hit, but she can't remember which have been hit most often. "Which one looks the most hurt," she asks, knowing she should strike there to make an opening in anticipation of taking out their formidable leader.
I absolutely love the bloodied condition. Not only does it give designers an interesting trigger to put on truly debilitating and heroic effects, but it's also a fantastic tool of communicating the general state of the battle quickly. (If you haven't heard about the bloodied condition, check it out in the current D&D Miniatures rules. Because a number of interesting powers on both the PC and monster side rely on their players knowing when a foe is bloodied, when you start playing 4th Edition D&D, get into the early habit of calling out when your character or the monsters you control are bloodied. On the PC side, it lets the DM know that he can unleash some interesting monster powers and it lets your clerics and warlords know that you may want some hit point relief and soon. On the DM side, it lets players know how they are doing in the battle and gives them crucial information that will inform power and action point choice later in the encounter.
Depending on the size of your group, it may be pretty easy to have your players call out when their characters are bloodied. I'm one of those DMs who doesn't mind metagame chatter, so my players are free to talk about the particulars of their hit points and conditions, but I know that many DMs frown on this. Whatever your take on metagaming, have your players call out when they are bloodied when they become so. Bloodied should be no secret. If you are dealing with a particularly large gaming group, or, as DM, you're afraid that you're going to miss out on monster powers that trigger when an enemy is bloodied, give each player a little table-tent with the word "bloodied" on it. With a glance you can see the state of the PCs and progress the action quickly.
As far as letting the PCs know when monsters are bloodied, lately I've become a fan of actually marking the miniatures in some way. I've been taking my D&D Miniatures and sticking a pin in the top. I can then drop beads for different conditions. I have some white skull beads (picked up during a Gen Con So Cal) that I've been using for the bloodied condition.
|The human fighter (on the left and using the purple disks) marks the left-hand ghost, while the dwarf paladin uses his divine challenge to mark (with the light blue disks) the right-hand ghost from afar.
Marked is a new condition that defenders and some soldier monsters can apply to their enemies. By itself, it gives a penalty to your target if it attacks anyone but you, which helps defenders and soldiers fulfill their role on the battle grid. Often, though, there are other effects that serve as riders on the marked condition. For instance the paladin's divine challenge -- that class's signature marking ability -- does some amount of radiant damage once a turn when the target of divine challenge attacks someone other than the paladin who marked him. Of course, the fighter (the other Player's Handbook defender) features a different effect, dissuading her mark from taking the battle elsewhere. Oh, and this is really important to remember -- a creature can be marked by only one opponent at a time and new marks supersede old marks.
So like the combat advantage granted by flanking, marked is relational in nature, but unlike flaking, it can't be apprehended purely by looking at the battle grid. In simple battles with one defender or soldier, you won't have any trouble at all -- just have the defender's player keep track of it -- but when you have two defenders in a group (like I do in my Castle Greyhawk paragon-tier game) or a group of mark-using soldiers in the encounter, keeping track of the condition can be a tad tricky, and you'll probably want to use a rigorous method for tracking the condition throughout the rounds.
The method I've been using lately is marking the bases with magnetic, colored counters called Alea Tools. Each character or monster that can mark in an encounter is given his or her own color, and when a target is marked, that color is placed under the base. Alea Tools also offers a tool to create 1-inch magnetized pads that you can put on the bottom of the base to make sure that when you move the mini, the marker comes with it. Last time I was at my local game store, I also noticed that Gale Force 9 offers a magnetized miniature base kit. You could also use beads, like I do for the bloodied condition.
|Ignoring the paladin (and taking a healthy dose of radiant damage), the formerly right-hand ghost moves adjacent to the fighter. The fighter retorts with a thicket of blades attack, marking both of the ghosts. When the dwarf paladin's turn in the initiative comes up, he'll no doubt challenge the same ghosts with a minor action. It's doubtful the ghost can afford to ignore his challenge 2 rounds in a row.
While the combat advantage granted by flanking can be apprehended by looking at the field of battle, 4th Edition features many other ways that a creature can grant combat advantage. Various conditions, such as blinded, dazed, and stunned, also grant combat advantage, and since the rogue's sneak attack is contingent on the condition and not just the act of flanking (or catching someone flat-footed), you'll want to find ways in which to communicate this particular combat occurrence to rogues at the very least. Like bloodied, I use those handy skull beads to mark a figure that grants combat advantage to all enemies, and allow the rogue player to keep track of the occasional enemy that grants combat advantage only to her character (using the magnetic markers in complicated battles if she desires).
|With one glance, all the players can see a variety of things going on all over the battle grid. They know the left-most azer is marked by the dwarf paladin (blue base marker), the top right two are marked by the human fighter (purple base markers), two of the azers are bloodied (white skull bead), and the azer next to the rogue (who's dressed in traditional black just behind the azer marked by the paladin) is granting combat advantage (black skull bead).
Cards and More Cards
I really love using cards in my D&D games. Cards are portable and flexible information devices. They fit easily in the hand, and you can put a bunch of information on them. Right now, I am fitting entire 4th Edition D&D stat blocks on my 3x5 initiative cards with relative ease -- including my current monstrous bad guy, an adult red dragon named Nemisalat (and she's a solo creature to boot!). But I've lauded the virtues of initiative cards in this column before -- no need stomping old ground to death. For my 4th Edition games I've also been using condition, power, and magic item cards.
Condition cards are nothing new. There have been a number of publishers who've created condition cards, and many DMs use them. The reason that I think they'll be especially important in your 4th Edition D&D games is because there will be a period of time when everyone in the group is learning the rules, and the more you can avoid page flipping, the faster your first few sessions will run. While developing the new D&D edition, we made sure that the new conditions were simple, talked to one another, and were bullet-pointed so you don't have to wade through paragraphs to find the one clause you seek. This format lends itself to simple cards that convey information quickly. I hand players cards when their characters are afflicted with a condition, and they hand it back when the condition ends.
Power cards aren't entirely new either . . . other classes have had them in the past (mostly spell- or psionic-using classes, but weapon-users got their first taste of their use in Tome of Battle), but they are very helpful especially when you start playing 4th Edition. Like the casters of past editions, everyone in 4E has a healthy dose of interesting options they can employ in combat, and their use and reuse is determined by their rates of usage. While this greatly enhances choice and fun in game play, if you've never used a power-heavy class in past editions of D&D, this can seem a little daunting at first. Even relative veterans of the system (like my home playtest group) can find being thrown into a higher level of play daunting at first without some mnemonic tools. Writing even the most basic description of what a power does and on what page it appears only expedites game play. I know that some of you will scoff at using cards in a roleplaying game, but my sincere advice is to get over your hang-ups. Cards are tools, not the destroyer of roleplaying.
Many times the right card can enhance the roleplaying experience. I've been using the Paizo GameMastery item cards since their release and they're just as useful in 4E. They're relatively inexpensive, and they feature great art and basic descriptions, plus they offer enough room for you or your players to write what the item is or does on the back. They are especially handy to give out when the PCs have found an item, but aren't sure what its purpose (or true purpose) is yet. They are also very handy in that they allow your players to keep track of inventory and have a handy way of trading items . . . just pass the card along. There are, of course, other companies that produce similar products, and using index cards is probably the cheapest way of pulling off this particular time-saving trick.
Finding Your Own Way
Of course my tools are exactly that: my tools. While I hope some of you have found some inspiration and helpful advice (especially those of you who will be running the first public 4th Edition D&D games at Dungeons & Dragons Experience) my tools are based on what I have at hand, my love of experimenting, and the quirks of my own peculiar predilections. There is no doubt that the particulars of my tools will change the more I play 4th Edition, and there is also no doubt that you will find ways that work better for you. The general wisdom that I hope you'll take away from these words of advice is that it is helpful and important to communicate what's going on in the game (and the story) to your players, and the more you can do that with at-a-glance tools, the more time it frees up to use your words, gestures, and general brain power on telling a good story and presenting memorable challenges. After all, if you've done your job right, your players are going to tell the stories of those things for years to come long after the memory of the game mechanics that brought them to life fades into dead neurons.
Delving into the Mailbag
Wow, the proactive part of the column is really long this month, but I hope it helps you when you start running your 4th Edition D&D game. But now it's time to dip into the mail bag and find more specific problems you might be having with your game. And this month they have nothing to do with crunch!
Finding My Voice
I know this sounds a little, well, dumb, but I really want to use a funny voice while playing my D&D character. The problem is, I'm really bad at it. I float from a bad Italian accent to a worse French one and then on to a truly horrid Spanish one in single sentence . . . and not on purpose either. How can I get better at talking funny during my D&D game?
-- Aaron of the Many Bad Accents
Well, Aaron, it sounds like you've nailed talking funny, just not the talking funny you want. I've had characters with outrageous accents. I've played with people who use them. There's a player in my home game (also named Aaron, by the way) who uses accents to help define his characters. Here's the secret behind the funny accent -- they don't need to be good, they just need to be distinctive. Accents are great to get you in the mindset of your character, for others to know when you are talking in character, and to give others the impression that your character is somehow special (or maybe a little touched), but they are also very silly. Sometimes it is just fine to embrace the silly. You're playing in a fantasy world after all, and a mixed-up accent can make your character seem more fantastic. You're not trying to emulate an Italian, French, or Spanish accent . . . it's Sembian!
Rationalization of bad accents aside, if you want to become better at accents, some instruction and practice is your best bet. Professional and amateur actors learn new accents all the time . . . why can't you? There are a surprising number of books with CD and DVD instruction on the subject. You also may want to check out local community theatres or community colleges -- sometimes they offer a variety of workshops for aspiring actors, and I hear (though I can't confirm) that accent training is a rather popular course of study.
I have been playing since the early 90s and have always been a very hack-'n'-slash-style player and DM. When I moved and started a new gaming group with complete n00bs, this trend continued. But recently I started playing with a new DM who emphasized roleplaying, and I had a blast. I have been trying to add in some roleplaying into my games, and I have been falling flat on my face. I try to get my players to interact and get into the world I have created, but they try for about ten minutes and then revert to talking in third person and out of character. I am not trying to turn a hack-'n'-slash into a nothing but roleplaying but just trying to find a happy medium. Any advice?
-- Flat on My Face Dustin
Well, now that's an entire subject, Dustin. When you first catch the immersive roleplaying bug, it's very easy to take it too far or try to inundate your group with it too quickly. Immersive roleplaying may seem strange to the more gamist groups and can make some players feel self-conscious and silly. The trick is to take things slow and steady. Next month we'll explore four ways in which you can infuse more immersive roleplaying into any group -- even those die hard hack-'n'-slashers -- some of them use very gamist tools!