General Gaming

20th Level Sucks: a 3.0 Adventure Failure Story

Recently I was talking with someone about my recent first level characters suck post and about my problems with high level D&D games. I promised him I’d post a follow-up about why I hated very high level D&D games so much, so here it is!

Once Upon a Time in 3.0…

I was working at FFG when D&D 3.0 hit and FFG hopped on the bandwagon to make some quick bucks off the unstoppable d20 money train. After dipping their toes in the water with some adventures, FFG leapt in with both feet, publishing a line of hardcover books and eventually getting into settings.

So during the heyday we had a couple of fulltime RPG developers. One of them was very excited when Dragon magazine published a 20th level adventure for 3.0 and his enthusiasm was infectious. Before long he had a group of us rounded up to play in the adventure.

Our instructions were to create 20th level characters, and we were only allowed to use official WotC books for abilities and whatnot (somewhat notably he did not allow us to use  FFG books).

So we set to it. Some people went hardcore with their min/maxing, while others of us spent far more time than we should have on our character background. Eventually we were ready to go.

epic D&DArt by 1mpact

Save or F***

Back when I was playing 2nd edition (first was a bit before my time) we would refer to certain abilities as “save or f**k” abilities, because if you failed your save, game over. Maybe you died, maybe you turned to stone. Even sleep was essentially a save or f**k because if you failed, you could easily have your throat cut.

As D&D progresses these abilities become more and more common. By the time you have a group of 20th level characters, we quickly learned, combat involves sitting around while your spellcasters slaughter everything in their path with DC 40 save or f**k spells. I was some kind of melee fighter, as I recall, and so like the other melee guy was mostly superfluous to the fighting.

natural-1For two encounters the spellcaster (shapechanged, flying, and invisible) laid waste to everything we encountered. Finally we moved on from waves of baddies to one super tough one, some kind of leviathan. This monster was so tough that he could only fail his save on a roll of 1. He had is own save or f**k ability that he used on the party, but we could only fail if we rolled a 1.

So the encounter was really just the monster and spellcasters trading off, waiting for the 5% chance that someone rolled a natural 1 on a saving throw, and then they’d die.

That was literally how combat was decided at that level. Whoever rolls a 1 first loses. Nothing else really matters, with all the healing and giant health pools. I mean sure, the other melee type and myself were jumping in there, doing some damage and taking some damage as we hacked away, but there was no possibility our actions were going to determine the outcome.

After that encounter the DM stopped the game, though we were only halfway through the adventure, and vowed never to run high level D&D again.

I Haven’t Tried Again Either

Now to be fair, that was 3.0. I’m sure 3.5 wasn’t much different, but I have not even looked hard at very top level Pathfinder characters (which is what we play now) or 4th edition. I don’t know how those versions deal with the unbalanced scaling that has been with D&D from the beginning and that breaks the game at high levels.

Perhaps they found a way to fix things — but I know that save or f**k spells still exist, so I kind of doubt it. Either way, I’m a bit trepidatious to try and I’m planning my Pathfinder game to cap out with the characters hitting 12th level or so just to be safe.

First Level Characters Suck

Ranger art by YamaO

My gaming group recently started a new Pathfinder campaign that I’m running, and as the characters started dinging 2nd level, I was quickly reminded once again how much 1st level characters suck. Certainly from a player point of view you tend always to be looking forward to the next level, the next feat, the next spell level or ability gain. But as a GM I’m just desperately looking for the characters to get the point where I can plan a challenging combat encounter without accidentally killing them.

The core problem with the first level characters is simply that they have so frickin few hitpoints. Even after just a few levels, their health starts to reach a point where good and bad attack rolls average out. But at first level, a simple encounter against a handful of CR 1/3 skeletons could kill them off if the dice turn against the party.

Don’t get me wrong, high level characters suck even worse. D&D simply breaks down at high levels, becomes a horribly designed nightmare of a game that ceases to function properly, but that’s a rant for another time.

Our group hung out at first level for a good 4-5 sessions, and every combat was a nightmare to design. The difference between laughably easy and TPK was a thin, thin line. But at second level a bit of magic happened, and all those encounter design problems went away.

2nd Level: the Biggest Gain in the Game

I was marveling at how much tougher the group was when I realized the simple reason: at no other level do characters gain in overall combat power more than 2nd level. I mean seriously — the characters are literally twice as powerful. They doubled in combat effectiveness. Even without 2nd level spells or extra feats, the group was suddenly a combat machine. Why, they could reliably take more than two hits without dying.

So I think in the future there will be no more first level campaigns. At the most they can start with first level characters for the first night, do a bunch of roleplaying, and then bump to 2nd level before they start putting themselves in danger.

Chalkboard Gaming Table

Like many gaming groups, our game takes place on a crappy old kitchen table down in the basement gaming room. I was pondering the water-damaged surface one night and had a great idea — make the table surface into a chalkboard!

Chalkboard Gaming Table

They actually make chalkboard paint, which makes it incredibly easy to turn your gaming table into a chalkboard gaming table. The chalkboard surface is easily erasable with a chalkboard eraser, and you can always wipe it down with a damp cloth if you want to remove all traces of chalk.

We still use a battlemat for running D&D combat, but for looser combat systems, encounters where positioning is less crucial, and broad overviews (the city looks approximately like this, etc) the chalkboard surface works great. The gamers all love it ’cause they can can take notes on the edge of the table (or, in one case, denote the area of the table that belonged to them) for hit points, damage modifiers, etc. It’s also very popular for doodling.

And if you lean on the writing and get some chalk dust on your sleeve, it easily wipes off, unlike leaning on the battlemat and getting marker smeared on your work shirt. Soda spills wipe off easily (and wine spills, as we learned the first night we used it).

How to Do It

You can get chalkboard paint from your local hardware store in the paint section, or order it online. I used this stuff that I got from Home Depot, Rust-Oleum Chalkboard. It’s worth noting that you want to be sure to get latex-based paint for this (which this is).

Chalkboard paint

You’re also going to need a latex primer. I used some old gray primer I found stashed away under the stairs, but regular old white primer will work just fine.

  • Sand down the surface that you’re going to paint. Any kind of electric sander will really save your hide here. You need to sand the shiny finish completely off your gaming table. You’ll be able to easily feel the difference between the smooth shiny finished surface and your rougher bare wood sanded surface. Be aware that this will create tons of dust, so clear stuff out of the room first — or do like I did and toss a giant tarp over the table and do your sanding while crouching beneath the tarp.
  • Vacuum or wipe all the sawdust off the table. Then get a damp rag and wipe it down to clear more dust, then do it again. You really want to have all that sawdust gone before you paint.
  • Let the table dry off from your washing — this shouldn’t take long.
  • Paint the table with a latex primer. This is important — you need to prime the bare wood before putting the chalkboard paint on. You can use a brush or a napless roller for this. Let the primer dry for a couple hours.
  • Paint with chalkboard paint. I found that even the napless roller left a texture I didn’t like, so I ended up painting with a brush. Put it on thick — don’t let anything clump or pool, of course, but don’t paint it out all thinly.
  • Use three coats. At least, this is what I did, to ensure I had a nice thick surface. You have to wait a good four hours between coats, so this is most likely a project that will take a couple of days (but only 10 minutes a coat).
  • Let it dry. Once you have your three coats on, you need to restrain your enthusiasm and let the paint dry for a long time. The can recommends several days, and further suggests that you shouldn’t wet it for 7 days after painting. This makes this a good project to do in between weekly gaming sessions, provided you can rip it out the day after gaming.

The longest part of this was the sanding and dust cleanup, which took me around a half hour. Otherwise the painting was about 5-10 minutes per coat.

It’s worth noting that you may want to very lightly sand the finished surface with some kind of very fine sanding cloth if you want a smoother surface. I did not do this and the surface is a bit rough — but it works perfectly fine for our purposes and I’m probably not going to do anything more to make it smoother.

You can usually get chalk at your local big box grocery store — they have it in the kids school supply section and it’s dirt cheap. You can, of course, also order it online — which is what I had to do to get my chalkboard eraser.

All in all I’m loving the chalkboard gaming table. If any of you try out the same thing, let me know how it works out!

Chalkboard gaming table closeup
The chalkboard gaming table as it looks after our last game.

Dice Trophy

The topic of gaming trophies comes up among my gaming group more often than you would think. We have our own little local Iron DM tournament every year, and one of our members helps run the Cthulhu Masters tournament at GenCon, as well as Novos Ordo Seclorum. When I was at FFG I was in charge of getting the Dragonstar RPGA events started and organized. So the topic comes up.

We talk a lot about what kind of prize is suitable for the winners of a role-playing tournament. The discussion usually begins with the idea that RPG games don’t need a trophy, that we’re in it for the fun and if you’re going to win anything some kind of gaming product is better. But we’ve also observed that any kind of RPG tournament with a trophy gets the most interest (Cthulhu Masters vs Novos, for example), or failing that whichever has the biggest prize.

Quest for a Trophy

A situation came up recently for which we wanted to get a trophy, only to discover that we literally couldn’t any kind of gaming-themed trophy anywhere. As far as we can determine, these just aren’t made. Thus if we really wanted a trophy with some dice on it, we’d clearly have to make it ourselves!

For this particular trophy, we were doing a board game theme so we wanted to focus on d6s. We went to a local trophy store (which was a nightmare to deal with by the way — just order one online and save yourself the hassle) and got a generic trophy with cups on it. We then unscrewed the cups to make room for our dice.

Gaming dice trophyNow, if we were using a d20 for the trophy, life would be simple. We could just grab the giant foam d20, then paint it gold, and shunk it onto the post that the little plastic cup was screwed into — possibly also grabbing a washer and nut to hold the post in place (these posts are what hold the trophy layers together). But since we don’t have any foam d6 dice life got more difficult (and those foam d6s tend to have squared corners and no indents for the numbers so we wouldn’t want them anyway).

We grabbed a giant 75mm d6 from my collection (alas, these are no longer manufactured) for the top and two 47mm d6 for the side pillars. We clamped the dice into the drill press table and set it at an angle so we could drill directly into the corner of the dice. This is harder than it sounds. We then added threads to the holes with a tap kit, and found some threaded posts of the same diameter and thread as the originals so they could stick further into very heavy dice.

With the dice all prepped, we spray painted them metallic gold (spray one half, let it try for a day, spray the other half, dry for another day) and screwed them into the trophy with some epoxy. As a final touch we grabbed a tiny gold 7-dice set and superglued it around the base.

The final trophy is pictured here — it’s actually pretty ridiculously heavy and quite top-heavy, but it looks awesome. If we decide to make another in the future for a RPG award we’ll probably ignore the two side dice and just use the foam d20 on the top, which would be much easier and faster to put together. Anything to keep us away from the drill press calculations again.

Close-up of the gold-plated mini dice on the base of the trophy.

New TableTop Trophy?

The purpose of the trophy? We decided to make it for the awesome Wil Wheaton show on Geek & Sundry, TableTop, which is a great demonstration of why table top games are so much fun. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should absolutely check it out. When we first saw the show we were understandably huge fans, but we thought the little cheerleading trophy for the victors wasn’t awesome enough for gamers, which is what finally motivated us to build the gaming trophy.

Of course, since then the cheerleading trophy has grown into a thing, but we went ahead and tossed this trophy into the mail and shipped it off to Geek & Sundry’s TableTop division just in case they wanted to use our version!

World Building

I’ve been spending far more time than I should lately reading about the Pellatarrum setting over at Lurking Rhythmically. It’s a D&D (or Pathfinder) setting that throws off some of the standard fantasy setting tropes; after all almost all settings are really just variations of a Tolkien-esque western European fantasy world. While Pellatarrum has the familiar fantasy races — dwarves and elves and orcs — so that it’s familiar enough for RPG gamers, the world itself is startling different.

It reminds me in some ways of the feeling I had when reading the Prince of Nothing series (which was a kind of eastern fantasy setting) — the idea that hey, this is magic and make-believe, it can be anything so why is everyone always doing it exactly the same?

In the ancient history of Pellatarrum Armageddon has already come and gone. The entire material plane was annihilated along with the outer planes, and thus all of the gods and demons. Small bits of the races survived in the elemental planes and, over enough time, managed to reconstruct the material plane — only very differently. It’s a vast disc rotating between the negative and positive energy planes and it’s these planes that provide day and night, rather than a sun.

This has all kinds of fascinating ramifications, including the fact that couples can only conceive during the daytime (when the positive energy is bathing the world). Liasons are safe at night, but the effects of the negative energy plane heighten the chances of STDs. The settings of Pellatarrum is filled with all kinds of neat concepts and ramifications. I’m also particularly fond of the creation of the races and the unique take on the culture of them all.

I definitely recommend checking out Pellatarrum. At the very least it’s the kind of thing that can help DMs rethink their own house-campaign settings and realize that this is fantasy and you can do anything you want with it.

Balthazar on D&D 5th Edition

We asked Balthazar if he would record a video about the 5th edition news, and his thoughts on 5th edition as one of the world’s leading Dungeons & Dragons players. What we received was over an hour of footage of Balthazar alternately ranting and raving in between lulls of philosophical musing. This video is some highlights of Balthazar’s thoughts on D&D editions.

While we don’t necessarily always agree with Balthazar, it has to be agreed that 4E was largely a reaction to MMOs and World of Warcraft in particular — and certainly an RPG is never going to be as good as a MMO at being a MMO. I agree with Balthazar that it was, thematically, the wrong direction to take D&D and I think the move has demonstrably hurt the brand and Paizo’s Pathfinder has reaped the benefit. But as D&D players, we’re paying the price with an increasingly fractured playerbase.

I’m very curious to see what direction Wizard’s takes with 5th edition, and whether it’s at all possible to capture a bit of that 3rd edition magic again.

Balthazar on D&D 5th Edition Transcription:

Oh hello. I’m Balthazar. Yes, the Balthazar.

You know there’s all this talk about the announcement of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons and how it’s going to go into development and oh they want your opinion? Well in my opinion, 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons has been completed for quite some time and it’s called … Pathfinder!

Let’s be honest. D&D 4th edition was a piece of #%!$, or #%!$ if you’re British. We all know that they basically just ripped off World of Warcraft and as we all know World of Warcraft sucks ass — a bunch of #%!$ing lonely people sit in their basement on their computers. And being lonely and in a basement, that’s fine, that’s #%!$ing tradition, but having a computer there, that’s just #%!$ing weird!

If I wanted to play World of Warcraft I would just cut off my balls with surgical precision, move back in with my mother and just sit there tippity tippity tippity on my little computer. No, I need a man’s game, with pencils and graphs and dice and #%!$.

I don’t know man, I don’t know what happened with Wizards of the Coast. They had all this awesome pool of talent for 3rd edition but then just pfffff.

Monte Cook: one of the creator’s of 3rd edition went on to create his own successful game line.

Chris Pramas left and created his own company, Green Ronin, and created Mutants & Masterminds, two great things that go great together.

Cindi Rice: intelligent, resourceful, hot — even though she’s kind of responsible for the Dungeons & Dragons movie, we’re going to let that slide.

Erik Mona: RPGA, editor of Dragon Magazine… kind of obsessed with Greyhawk. And what happened to him? Oh! He’s making Pathfinder! Mother#%!$!

Screw 5th edition, screw Wizards of the Coast, the real Dungeons & Dragons is Pathfinder, yeah bitch!


Romance & Reltationships Follow-Up

Last week I reminisced about the FFG April Fool’s product, Romance and Relationships. At the time I bemoaned the failure of the internet in finding the actual fake book cover that the graphic designer whipped up. It appears that I was a bit too fast to claim failure on the part of the internet. I was emailed with the Internet Wayback Machine page that recorded that moment of history.

So for the sake of posterity, here’s the actual post. You can determine for yourself what it means that so many people kept asking for this product for so long, thinking it was really in development.

Romance & RelationshipsFighting demons from the abyss and saving the world can be lonely work, and even the most savage barbarian or cunning rogue needs companionship at some time. Romance & Relationships introduces complete d20 System rules for dating and marriage, from first meeting to lifelong partnerships.

New skills like Small Talk and Wine & Dine and new feats such as Sex Appeal and Smooth Talker give your characters the tools they need to compete in the brutal fantasy world of dating and relationships. An important equipment section gives expanded rules for fine clothing, covering social modifiers for clothing, and a complete guide to accesorising. New prestige classes such as Cassanova and The Ex give expanded options and development paths for characters in social campaigns. But new abilities and mechanics alone won’t put a beau or belle at your side — roleplaying is key. An in-depth DM section covers advice for incorporating roleplaying conversations, wooing, and poetry.

Romance & Relationships is a 176 page hardcover book, coming this August at GenCon by the masters of romance, Greg Benage and Wil Upchurch. Check out the FFG booth at GenCon for live-action demos!

Available August

Free Preview!

Asking Someone Out on a Date
This exciting, and slightly nauseating, system based on the new d20 rules found in Romance and Relationships encapsulates FFG’s commitment to stomach-turning realism and d20 compliance.

One of the hardest things for an adventurer to do is approach a female and ask her out on a date. Slaying beholders and turning zombies is easy work compared to this nerve-rattling task. After all, she could say no, or worse, insult you in front of a tavern full of brawlers. Approaching someone in your own adventuring party is even more difficult, as a rejection could lead to awkward moments in camp (“Yes that’s my rod of lordly might!”) or in battle (“I jumped on you to cover you from the fireball….what?!”). Open relationships might cause envy or ridicule from other members of the party.

With these dangers in mind, here are some modifiers to your Asking Someone Out on a Date roll, which is a Bluff check (“I’m not nervous.”) opposed by the target’s Sense Motive (“He’s not a moron.”):

Adventuring companions heckling nearby: -2 penalty
Target’s Charisma modifier: multiplied by -1
Smooth Talker feat: +2 modifier
Sex Appeal: +2 modifier
Successfull Small Talk roll: +1 for every 2 over DC
Grappled with an otyugh within 3 days: -4 penalty (would you want to succeed?)
Anatomically Over-Endowed feat*: +4 circumference bonus

*OGC used from the Ambient product Portable Hole Full of Beer

Romance Rules in D&D

Many years ago when I worked at FFG we had a tradition of posting some kind of April Fools product every year. During the height of the d20 explosion FFG was making the Legends & Lore series of d20 books and one of our April Fools announcements that year was a new upcoming title, “Romance & Relationships.” The graphic designer even put together a lovely fake cover — all in pink, of course.

Alas the interwebs have failed me and I can find no record of that cover art, but I did find this lovely review someone made of the fake product, and the sale sheet text we wrote for it:

Romance & Relationships

Fighting demons from the abyss and saving the world can be lonely work, and even the most savage barbarian or cunning rogue needs companionship at some time. Romance & Relationships introduces complete d20 System rules for dating and marriage, from first meeting to lifelong partnerships.

New skills like Small Talk and Wine & Dine and new feats such as Sex Appeal and Smooth Talker give your characters the tools they need to compete in the brutal fantasy world of dating and relationships. An important equipment section gives expanded rules for fine clothing, covering social modifiers for clothing, and a complete guide to accesorising. New prestige classes such as Cassanova and The Ex give expanded options and development paths for characters in social campaigns. But new abilities and mechanics alone won’t put a beau or belle at your side — roleplaying is key. An in-depth DM section covers advice for incorporating roleplaying conversations, wooing, and poetry.

People Wanted This Book

It was a funny April Fools product, but here’s the thing: people wanted this product. We had a slew of comments and email from people who didn’t realize it was a joke talking about what a great idea it was. For months and month and even a year later I would see people asking about it and whether it was released yet. When they were told it was a joke, more often than not they asked that someone serious consider publishing it.

FFG never did publish it — we were pretty certain there wasn’t enough demand, even if the subject was taken seriously. Of course the level of demand that FFG needed to justify a product was much higher than for most d20 publishers at the time. But in today’s world of PDF games and print on demand services, I’m kind of surprised that no one has pursued a D&D supplement like this one. Not that I’m interested in getting back into that game — I’m happy living in a world of dice.

I suppose that most publishers — even indie ones —  can’t imagine that there is a core of gamers seriously interested in a supplement filled with rules to govern their RPG relationships. And I have a sneaky hunch that there just might be enough of them that this book would actually sell decently.