Thursday, July 17, 2014

Initiate of Amaunator (Min/Maxing)

There is a fun little feat called Initiate of Amaunator where you have to become a cleric of this sun god, then "You can spontaneously cast any spell on your spell list that has the fire descriptor."

Nothing states this only applies to divine spells, so it also applies to other classes as well.

Friend, you just read about my new fav one level dip.

Best coupled with the Cloister Cleric, I find that you can dump Fire and Knowledge for the Devotion feats, then keep the Time domain for the Improved Initiative feat. Then follow up with a Wizard or other arcane spellcaster. Suddenly you can ditch any spell for a fire spell of the same level.

Now take the time to buy Energy Substitution (fire). Suddenly, every spell with an energy description can be turned into a fire spell and cast spontaneously. True, spontaneous spells with metamagic are a full-round to cast, but the sheer number of options now available to you are staggering.

Is it OP? Well, it does cost you three feats, and a level dip. Your wizard will never be completely as awesome as a flat out wizard. Plus your damage is now basically fire, the most commonly defended against energy type. You are a very solid caster, but your focus may prove your undoing.

Still, who doesn't love the chance to just watch the world burn?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

DM ADVICE: Being a jerk

Some people call me a jerk. Which is true, to some extent. However, that's my job as a DM, and your job as well.

A DM's primary job is to entertain the players.

Let us explore this statement.

1. Your job is not to make the players HAPPY. Your job is to ENTERTAIN. Is a horror movie entertaining? Can be. Is a love story entertaining? Sure. Is an action movie entertaining? It's supposed to be. But these movies have ups and downs. They fill you with dread then remove the dread. A TV series can be entertaining, yet be depressing. I present the TV series Taxi as the prime example. It was a comedy, but not a single episode had a happy ending. They all ending in a way that made you feel "mixed" Sure there was triumph sometimes, but often there was something that made you go, "Errr..." It was entertainment none the less.

2. I use the term PLAYERS, in the plural sense. That means sometimes you make individual players unhappy so that the over all group is happy. This is part of saying "No" to a player. The player might dislike you saying "No", but if you let all the players get away with anything they want, your campaign will become muddled and fall apart. Like a movie that tries to do too many things at once. One player might want to play a fluffy bunny PC, while everyone else wants to play grim-dark sci-fi. It's your job to be the heavy. That's part of being the DM.

3. It's a JOB. Your duty. You have to do this. You aren't playing the game, you are running the game. This is something that often is forgotten. Stop pretending you are playing WITH the players and remember you are running FOR the players. Yes, it sucks. Yes, it's not as fun. Being a DM isn't the same kind of fun as a player's fun. A DM has to enjoy the JOB and just accept that he's not a player.

4. You are the DM. You are the guy in charge of a universe. Let the players be in charge of each other. Don't seek to control them, control everything else. The players will find their own way in the world, you need only present the world to them. Present entertaining things. Don't feel the need to go overboard. Not everything needs to be a fight for the fate of the universe. Saving a lost kitten can be just as fun. Scale does not equal fun. Options and choices are fun. Give the players options and choices. Limit your players' choices based on your campaign setting, not based on a desire to control.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Cubic Combat Theory

I feel the need to clarify cubic combat theory.

It isn't an actual combat system. It's a trick. Like building a memory palace, you establish mental images in your head and reduce everything to cubes. It has nothing to do with the actual game mechanics of D&D 3.5.

One DM might choose to picture all dwarves as medium creatures, but because they are dwarves, they are only 1 cube high. This would be fine and would lead to some DM judgement calls that would be different then if you had then two cubes tall. The cubes exists to give you a frame of reference and make it easier to see how they interact, by eliminating that which is not needed.

For example, I once read a story to my wife who was sick in bed. It was by J.R.R. Tolkien. I spent a half hour reading this tongue twisting account of someone who was walking down to a river. It took three pages. The book went on and on about the history of this ford and the battles and the weapons used there and twelve generations of the people who fought there.

Me? I finally realized I spent a half hour describing someone taking a stroll down to a river.

None of those details were important or relevant to the story, in my opinion. Maybe they were because I said, "Good night" and vowed never to read J.R.R. Tolkien out loud again.

In the game, you might WANT to know every stat that a given cube has, but in practice, you don't have time. It's boring to describe the history of a given object back twelve generations if it's just a damn table and the players want to know how much cover does it give them when they flip it over and hide behind it.

Cubic Combat Theory is about only assigning the bare minimum needed for a given cube to function AS FAR AS CALCULATIONS ARE CONCERNED. When you convert back to "reality" you can go into detail of the twelve generations of highlanders that used to own that table, but in combat, none of that matters. My cubes are not the same as your cubes. In fact, the cubes aren't the same from player to player. Initiative roll 8 and initiative roll 7 may have radically different properties on the same cubes because the player who goes on 8 is a pouncing barbarian and the player on 7 is an evocation specialist wizard.

Don't get bogged down in the details of the cubes, just give the cubes whatever you need at the moment, then move on.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Now, D&D in the end is a simulation. We can describe things as they appear in the real world, one person is 5' 3" and another person is 8' 2", but in the end we cannot hope to describe every single nuanced detail when things devolve into combat. So we have normal, every day, running around in a normal appearing "reality", and then we have combat space.

Combat space is a term I use to describe combat in D&D. The term does not exist in any book in the game, but it exists none the less. It exists in every role-playing game to some extent, but is no more self-evident then in D&D 3.5. Now it has long been "proven" that pi equals 4 in D&D, but that is not entirely correct. The fact is that pi CHANGES to 4 when we enter combat space, then returns to 3.14-blah-blah-blah when combat ends. This is a factor of entering a simplified version of "reality" where combat outcomes can be better represented by random number generation and calculation. If we were to actually work things out, we'd need a supercomputer and several weeks, just to calculate the long term change in ambient temperature every time a frickin' fireball went off.

The problem is, this does have unfortunate side effects on reality when you simplify the fundamental laws of physics. Strange things occur, like the classic conundrum of pi becoming 4. Everyone and everything becomes a five foot, by five foot, by five foot cube. As a matter of fact, since adding the third dimension becomes such a hassle, most people simply choose to ignore it entirely in combat space. Now, as a DM, your job is to work in combat space, yet some how convert it back to a "reality" model that the players can understand. So let's understand combat space.

When we go from "reality" to combat space, the world is reduced to 5 foot cubes. These cubes have properties. One cube might have empty space with the property of "terrain". Another cube has "Slope - 2 movement to enter". Perhaps the cube over here has "Medium sized creature - Lower half" whereas the cube above it has "Medium sized creature - upper half". When the medium sized creature cubes try to enter the cube with the slope, and the cubes fail a tumble check, the two Medium Sized cubes collapse into one cube with a new property "Medium Sized Creature - prone" and we must determine if the "Medium Sized Creature - prone" remains in the cube with the slope property or in the cube before it, cube "Empty terrain".

Now, as a DM, looking at the world like this is NOT FUN. There is nothing dramatic or exciting about a series of cubes moving in, on, through, or around each other. Cubes like to bump into each other, attempting to reduce the hit point property of another cube to -10, or sometimes shout, "Screw this noise" and try to sneak into the back room so it can try and put the moves on the cube "Wench - charisma 15". But that IS what D&D combat is.

So, as a DM, your first step is to take reality and turn it into a bunch of cubes WITHOUT THE PLAYERS KNOWING. This is why walls have no width. When you are inside a building and outside a building, there is a five foot cube on both sides that you can move along, even if the wall in between is 2 feet thick. It's just that both cubes share a side with a property that is "Wooden Wall - Hardness: 2, HP: 20". And usually we don't care about that unless someone tries to power attack the wall to burrow through or some such nonsense. The funny thing is, even though we put down grids and put figures on the grid, the players almost never see the cubes. In fact, putting out figurines often helps the players to AVOID seeing the cubes. The power of imagination is a wonderful thing. YOU need to work hard to make sure the players never see the cubes.

You need to see those cubes, however. This is the hard part of combat space. In your head, you must convert things into cubes, perform your calculations, then turn them BACK from cubes into "reality", explain what the players experience, then ask for the next action, where everything turns BACK into cubes, you run your calculations, then the process starts all over again.

The internet may be a series of tubes, but DMing is a series of cubes.

You see, combat space isn't a static place you "enter" until combat is over. Combat space is something you jump into and out of repeatedly. Most DMs understand "combat space" even if they don't have a formal term for it. But few DMs have the skill to rapid fire switch back and forth between "reality" and "combat space" that is needed to properly entertain the players. Speed kills in D&D combat, but taking too long in D&D combat kills the fun. You can stay in combat space for just the NPCs, but every time a player takes an action, you need to come out of combat space and enter "reality". Skimping on this will ruin your player's enjoyment. It might be easier for you to skimp on converting back and forth, but it kills the illusion. Still, sometimes you might need to stay in combat space for a while, because the cubic interaction can get rather intense, and skimping on the calculations can lead to mistakes and mistakes can kill the illusion just as fast. We will address techniques for this in another lesson.

This is why I cannot stress enough to DMs who want to reach the next level of being a DM of D&D 3.0/3.5 to adopt the "Cubic Combat Space" Model. For you, the game is nothing more then a bunch of cubes, but the simplification that comes with viewing the game as a series of cubes makes the process move so much faster as you avoid getting bogged down in details. In fact, I would go so far as to say the game was DESIGNED as a series of cubes, the original creators just never formally came out and said it. Likely for the very same reason I'm telling you never to describe the game to your players in this format. Once you accept the Cubic Combat Model, it's hard to ever see the game the old way again.

For example, take the issue of 'Higher ground". Higher ground is a +1 bonus to hit that is granted to players who have the higher ground. What's higher ground? "Ask the DM" is what the books say, basically. Now YOU are the DM. You have to figure out what's higher ground. If you are a player, you start getting bogged down in minute details like, "Is it one inch? Is it one foot? How about four feet?" Which are all important questions, because jumping into the air is by the foot, and a player wants to JUMP into the air high enough to attack someone in mid jump to gain the +1 "higher ground" advantage.

Well screw me with a chainsaw.

If you are trying to figure this out by looking for an official ruling, you're going to be hosed. If this happens in the middle of a game, you are going to waste hours to find nothing. If you just give benefit of the doubt to the player to speed things up, well, this time it might be okay, but let me assure you, letting a player have their way because you feel rushed is a poor long term strategy for campaign maintenance. So how do we solve this problem? With Cubes!

Reading over the rules, we know that a mounted character has high ground and someone on a table has high ground. What do these two things have in common? Well, when a medium creature mounts a large creature, they combine (like VOLTRON) and become one unit. Well, how high is it? Well, the large creature is two 5 foot cubes high. the medium creature is 2 cubes high. So... 4 cubes? No. The top cube of the mount has the bottom cube of the medium creature sitting on it. These two cubes "mingle" in a fashion, so the over all unit is 3 cubes high.

Now the medium creature jumps on top of a table. The table is 1 cube high. the medium creature is 2 cubes high. The two objects do NOT combine, being one is terrain and one is a unit. So we can assume that the top of the medium creature is now effectively 3 cubes high. We have a pattern. 3 cubes high over 2 cubes high provides a combat advantage of +1.

Wait a sec? What about halfings and small verses medium creatures? Being smaller is often a combat ADVANTAGE!

Ah, but this is the other part of Cubic Combat Theory. You see, the properties of size have nothing to do with ACTUAL size. Small is a property. Being one cube high is not. So while to a player this might seem absolutely INSANE, to a DM, it makes perfect sense. The halfling on the floor has his +1 to hit medium creatures, and the human on the table has his +1 to hit the halfling on the floor. From cubic combat theory, they never interact, because one is a matter of placement of cubes, and the other is a matter of cubic properties.

This is why DMs have DM screens and don't let players see dice rolls.

As a player, if you knew about these conflicting bonuses, you might complain. From a "reality" stand point, they are in conflict. "How can short be an advantage, but being up high be an advantage, too?" They might ask. The very act of explaining it will ruin the illusion you are trying to build. Player enjoyment DEPENDS on the illusion, so you have to keep the calculations from them, so they don't go, "What the...?"  On the other hand, most players don't WANT to see the calculations. They want to leap through the air and swashbuckle like Errol Flynn on a table fighting a horde of evil Halfling assassins.

So remember it's a tool. You convert things to cubes, calculate, then convert back as quickly as possible. Describe the situation in flowing descriptive words to buy yourself some time so you can work out the next cubic interaction with as little down time as possible, and move onto the next. When you get the hang of it, it'll move quite smoothly.

How high DO You need to jump?
Assuming round up, round down, anything 2.5 feet high is a full cube in height and anything less then that is a terrain modification, the player would need to jump 3 feet into the air to gain a "higher ground" advantage, or make a DC 12 jump check as a move action. However, since he is jumping up 3 feet, then ending his move, and attacking, he is falling 3 feet as a free action at the end of his turn. Which means he then needs to make a DC 5 jump check or fall prone. Normally not an issue, but on rough terrain or a grease spell, it could become problematic.

Wait a sec... hop up is as "high as my waist" and a DC 10 check.

Hop up has an object you are landing on. Jumping 3 feet into the air does not, thus the 2 points difference in DC.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Advanced Game Mastering Tips: Fake It ‘Til You Make It.

So at some point you are going to have to create something on the fly. A lot of amateur DMs get flustered when the players suddenly turn left, leap off a cliff, murder the king, or do any one of a million things that you weren’t expecting any sane person to do. Well let me tell you about the GM’s Little Friend.

You see, every role playing game in existence boils down to percentages. The chance of success, the chance of failure. If you can determine the chance of success of failure, you don’t need any rules, or stats, or anything. All you have to do is roll the dice, then determine the outcome. When in doubt, go with the averages. Now there are three ways to roll the dice, and I will explain them. There is the 1d20, the 1d100, and the 3d34-2. That last one is a little complicated.

A d20 is really a percentile dice in 5% increments. It lends itself well to High fantasy games because anyone has a 5% chance to hit. It’s quite possible to get very lucky with a d20, hence why it’s a good choice for games like D&D.

The 1d100, or percentile, is a bit more realistic. You only succeed automatically 1% of the time. That’s still rather high in some situations, but it makes it much less likely that someone can stumble through an encounter by sheer luck alone.

The 1d34 is a strange die that looks somewhat like a top. You roll three of them, add them together, then subtract 2. You’re better off programming an automatic roller on your computer. This produces a number between 1 and 100, but it’s on a bell curve. The statistical averages keep the numbers somewhere in the 30 to 70 range. The chance of getting a 100 is .0025%, or 1 out of 39304 rolls. This sort of random number generator is great for people who want to simulate the real world. Life is usually on a bell curve. Linear random number generation tends to lead to some strange outcomes, but a bell curve is… normal.

With this in mind, you need to think about which one is more like your play style. High fantasy, low fantasy, or realistic. Once you pick, then you can easily learn to deal with strange situations on the fly.

If something would automatically fail, it fails.
If something would automatically succeed, it succeeds
If there is a slight chance of failure, on a 1 it fails.
If there is a slight chance of success, only the highest result on the die is success (20 or 100)

If it isn’t one of those four, you only have to figure out what percentage chance of success is, then roll the dice. If you are using a d20, pick a number between 2 and 19. Otherwise, 2 to 99. Once you pick the number, WRITE IT DOWN. I cannot stress this enough. Write it down and what it’s for. Reuse it if it comes up again.

For example, if you are creating a monster on the fly and you are trying to figure out if he can hit the PCs, work out the chance of success, write it down, then roll, and live with it. Only roll your randomizer once. That’s the hard part. Living with the roll. All too often you roll the die and wince a little and say, “Errg… it’s a 99, I know I said only a 100 succeeds, but…” If you find yourself on the fence, consider a degree of failure, or an “almost” success. Or a victory with a price.

A DM has to create the illusion that he's impartial and fair, that he's playing by the rules, but the thing is, the players have no way to figure that out. We have hundreds of rulebooks, and we look at them. We make faces and contemplative noises. Why wouldn’t you just figure out the rules and use them? What does all this have to do with running?

Time Management

You need to know the nature of the game. It's TRUE nature. You need to strip away everything that is holding you back. You need to see past the rules to the intent, creating shifting conditions of success, failure, and result. In the end, if the players believe in you, all you need is one d20 and a whole lot a chutzpah. If you find yourself bogged down in reading rulebooks and trying to determine every possible outcome, the game lags, and player enjoyment drops. Sometimes you just need to do calculations in your head, go with your gut, take a guess, and figure that the player has a 15% chance of leaping off a roof onto a moving train.

After the game, go back and try and figure out what really should have happened and plan to use it next time. Because sometimes you just need to fake ‘til you make it.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Standarized Combat Opening (DM Advice)

So combat is about to begin. For you, combat's been a bitch and you want to speed things up without just completely taking it over. May I suggest getting a little chart of the following with just the bonuses for each player:

Spot Checks
Listen Checks
Knowledge Checks (Each One Individually)

Now have each player roll ONE 1d20. That's it. No need to add anything to it, just give me a 1d20, because combat is starting. Then using the same roll, go down the list for each person.

Initiative is order.
Spot Checks give you a good idea what they see.
Listen checks give you a good idea what they hear.
The knowledge check gives you a good idea how you should describe the critters they are facing. The guy with the high Arcane roll will know more about the magical beast then the guy without.

Now, it is rather brutal leaving it up to one die roll, but on the other hand, it makes it go faster and it makes the start of combat just that much more lucky. The guy who rolled the  20 knows all, and the guy who rolled a 1 just can't put two and two together. By simplifying the combat this way, you make things run smoother for you and the players, and don't have to spend ten minutes just figuring out every minute detail.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

NOOB TRAP: Avoiding Information (Player Advice)

I know I said scouting is bad, but there is the other side of that, which is NOT gathering information. I’m not just talking the rogue wandering the city, but asking questions, pointing out you have knowledge skills and want to roll them so you know what you are fighting, asking the other players what they can do and how they do it and what you can do to help them and what they can do to help you. It means not working out combat maneuvers ahead of time. It means no planning, no rumors, and just barreling head long at the problem. It means not asking what’s going on.

You have to ask questions in character and out of character if you are going to learn.