Monday Morning DM: Can Murder-Hobos Belong and Other Thoughts on My 5e Experiences.

I used the term “murder-hobo” in public the other day and I realized that to anyone who does not play D&D, they might seriously think I was endorsing lethal bum fights. I was on a college campus, so this seemed extra likely.

The context of my comment though, as it would make sense to gamers, concerned the idea that even though I – ostensibly – enjoy a sandbox, hex-crawling style of play – I wonder if sometimes I only think that I enjoy that. I worry about this because it doesn’t just inform my fun as a player but it affects my thinking when I’m planning and running a game.

If I may take a brief aside into video games, I really struggled to enjoy Fallout 3, but I very much enjoyed Fallout: New Vegas. The difference being, for me, that New Vegas included this whole layer of civilization which was lacking in F3. In New Vegas, I was able to connect with different factions, have recurring enemies, build a storyline around my exploration and I didn’t just feel isolated like I did in Fallout 3. I make no objective claims that one is better than the other – it’s just that New Vegas satisfied my need to be a part of something in a way that the purely open exploration of Fallout 3 could not.

This difference really affects my enjoyment of playing an RPG at the table too. I enjoy old-school play to the extent that I really enjoy fragile characters and having to make tough choices and the mystery of a wide-open map with a million stories to be told. But out of the OSR movement, I naturally gravitated right to Adventurer Conqueror King System because of its emphasis on civilization (especially in sharp contrast to the great wilderness). During the explosion of settings surrounding D&D, Second Edition, while everyone was raving about Planescape and Dark Sun, I was quietly sitting in my corner running Birthright (and I would love to see a Birthright revival in 5e). The domain rules appealed to me precisely because they inherently connected player characters to the setting. You were a regent (or if a non-regent, then connected in some way to survive the world of regents). When I was running Warhammer Fantasy, I unbundled the “blooded regent” rules from the domain system and used it in conjunction with my homebrew world. That was a seriously fun game.

Taking another example, out of all the Pathfinder Adventure Paths, the only one I was ever pulled toward was Kingmaker. The whole concept of getting a hex-crawl which was explicitly tied to the idea of building a domain was fascinating to me. It served both purposes and we had some very memorable roleplaying based around the council the team put together to run their budding kingdom.

Amber – my gaming crush from way back – is another example of finding this freedom. Characters created for Amber games are intricately and explicitly tied to forces larger than themselves which will demand their allegiance (or rebellion) and with which their interactions are vital. That said, during the course of any given session it is likely that the players will roam all over Hell and half of Georgia (as my Granny used to say) because they can literally go anywhere. But they still have important, inescapable social ties which are as much obligation as they are sanctuary.

So why is it – as I am running my second 5e game – that I find myself falling back on the habit of treating D&D like a set of disparate adventures thrown together in episodic fashion and not able to find my footing in building a sense of community and continuity? It’s a question that keeps me up at night.

There was an announcement that Green Ronin is going to bring back the Blue Rose RPG. I was excited about this for two reasons. First, I’m a huge fan of romantic fantasy. Second, I’m a fan of the AGE system and I am interested in seeing it supported outside of Dragon Age. That said, I was not enamored of the world/setting of the Blue Rose RPG which shares much more in common with Mercedes Lackey than Tamora Pierce (or new writers like Rae Carson). Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy Mercedes Lackey’s Valdamar stories – and I certainly respect their longevity – but even for a civilization-loving gamer like myself I find everyone just a bit too reasonable for my tastes. Everything is just a bit too ideal. I mean, I wish the world worked like that. At the end of the day though, I appreciate the complexity of motivations which often seem to drive the characters from the later waves of Romantic Fantasy. That said, I am happy that Blue Rose is coming back if for no other reason than it had a beautiful aesthetic and presented a very different kind of fantasy – which is almost always a good thing.

To return to my problem which prompted this think aloud session… What is it about running D&D which shoves me back into module mode? Why do I find it so hard to create, in D&D, the same kind of free-floating wonder I am able to capture in Amber or other games? Why are there so few opportunities in the D&D realm to mix sandbox-style play with a world full of connections? Is it because the nature of sandbox style play (the freedom to roam) is conflicted by the need to have connections which, by their nature, tie your PCs down?

I struggle with this. As a DM/GM of over 30 years, with many successful campaigns at my back (at least, based on feedback from my players… I am often my own worst critic) why is it that I still struggle with a game I genuinely enjoy? It vexes me.

Let me close with this. I was reading some of the introductory material to Silent Legions and I found the discussion of sandbox play there refreshing. Specifically, the idea that “the stories it produces are all in retrospect – the tale of the choices the PCs made and the consequences that came of them.” This is a well-crafted thought and explains precisely what it is that makes me love the idea of sandbox-style gaming. It captures the spirit of what I have done in my best games – the ones I have run that even I love looking back on – which involves a give and take between the setting and the PCs such that sometimes they will have to accept consequences for choices not made; the road not taken and all that. If I can capture that again – if I can capture that sense of freedom and wonder compounded by a living, breathing world – I think I’ll be happy. Until then… I’m not sure what comes next.

Thoughts, feelings, reactions, stories? Feel free to share.

As always. Thanks for reading.

D&D Attack Wing – Tournament Three (something about poisoning a well?)

The local comic shop (The Secret Lair) held the Month Three Organized Play event for D&D Attack Wing this past weekend. It was a decent turnout and everyone seemed to have a good time. I’m reminded at each of these events that no matter how often we play, there are still rules questions which come up infrequently enough that we should all consider ourselves, “still learning the game.”

That said, I feel like, as players, we are reaching the point where we have developed some tendencies, and we generally know what we like. I, for one, enjoy playing the good guys and I’ve recently been running a team with Nymmestra and two Angelic Paladins which I very much enjoy. The team has also proven surprisingly competent.

So for the tournament, I decided that I’d play a variation, using Nymmestra and Sarpiel – with each coming in at exactly 45 points, and then I’d just take whatever popped out of my booster. I pulled Dragonfly the Gray – the elf druid.

[As a brief aside here… I was deeply disappointed at pulling Dragonfly. Not only is his generic version one of the most worthless in the game – which limits his usefulness outside of the tournament scene – but in my consideration of using him, I’d never really found a reason to think he was worth much. Sure Control Weather is decent but most of my armies fly anyway. Call Lightning is an okay direct damage spell, but all in all, I just don’t like him. To end this aside, I’m just going to apologize to Mr. the Gray. He was a solid member of the team and did a great job. I will no longer malign the Druid (at least the named version).]

The day was a lot of fun. In both Round One and Round Two I squared off against generic versions of the Red Dracolich. I expected him to see play at the tournament, he’s a great looking figure, powerful, and I know several players who have just been waiting with baited breath for his arrival in the game.

My first round paired the Dracolich with a Jarl Horn, who (and his little brother the Frost Giant Fighter) is still a very popular character for play at my local venue. This was the only round where the druid died, getting sandwiched between Jarl Horn and the Dracolich one fateful turn. It was a rough round, exchanging heavy blows, but I pulled out a narrow win.


The second round, a Dracolich, and Malebolge, the deadly gargoyle. He had pulled Rath Modar for his booster figure – which scared me a little – but I knew I had a wizard too, so I felt good. The limited mobility of the Dracolich really worked against it in this game and I was able to position better – primarily due to my characters just having stronger maneuver dials. It was a good fight, but with one battle behind me and a good sense of what I could do, I was able to win this one and take full points.

My final opponent of the day was my wife, Jenny. Now, if you recall my last tournament report, I played Jenny in the first round and she stomped me. This time, I played her in the last round… and she stomped me anyway. She was playing a variation on her team from the previous month, bringing Claugyiliamatar, a generic Ballista, and Talon Everhale. She pulled Rezmir as her booster figure and used her primarily to gather antidote tokens. Which was fine as her remaining force was more than capable of stomping my angel and wizard into the ground.

A few observations from the day…

I really enjoy the Angel. I’m looking forward to the Solar joining the fray in a few months because I’m a big fan of the Angelic Host. Both Sarpiel and his Angelic Paladin generic have been excellent team players for me and I have had such success and fun with them that the challenge now is remembering to play other teams.

Nymmestra remains the star of spell casting glory. While Rath Modar is a great addition to the game, I feel we are overdue for another full caster with a variety of interesting options. I would also like to see a spell enter the game that makes Disintegrate not the automatic go-to choice for Nymmestra. I like Ice Storm and Phantasmal Killer but nothing compares to that six dice attack that penetrates armor for raw effectiveness.

The other armies at the game today included a Balagos sighting, an Elf Troop (right?), another Nymmestra, and no Ontharr Frume (no one pulled one). Though several of us own Arveiaturace, we all tend to shy away from using her (at least the named version) so you probably won’t see her pop up in my play reports too often.

If I have any gripe about the Organized Play so far it is this. The two scenarios, while interesting on paper, were not very well realized on the table. The Month Two game was decent and a few players made attempts to get out of the Vault with the Compass. The Month Three game though was overly complex and basically lent itself to, “eh, let’s just fight it out.” I think only one game in three rounds had anyone competing to poison/cure. I have not yet read the upcoming scenarios but I hope they add more to the game play.

Overall, I am still finding a great deal of enjoyment in this game. With five waves of figures and multiple organized play prizes all in circulation, I was worried that I’d reach a point where I felt the metagame start to bog down, but as of now I still find the balancing and range of effective possibilities inherent in the 120 Legion Point standard game to be exceptional. There are a few glitches (high armor is over-valued considering the myriad means to penetrate it, for example) but this game is solid. D&D Attack Wing continues to draw favorable comparisons to Battletech in my mind and I find that I’m continually excited to play as well as at the prospect of “what comes next.”

Hope you all are having fun and that your skies are full of dragons!

D&D Attack Wing: Unique vs. Generic Creatures

One of the more interesting aspects of the D&D Attack Wing game is the difference between the Unique and the Generic versions of the available figures. In my opinion, it was a very smart strategy with the game, as it encourages purchasing multiples of certain figures and it provides multiple play options right out of the box. I’m not really sure what the official name for these generic versions is (calling them generic seems to imply they are somehow boring options) but it fits and is less awkward than calling the versions Named and Unnamed (which makes them sound like Cthulhoid monstrosities – and we don’t have the mind flayer in the game yet). So I’ll be sticking with Unique and Generic as I discuss the game.

This is to be the first in a series of posts discussing the generic creature options in DDAW. I want to explore their differences from their Unique counterparts, but really, more importantly, I want to discuss how I see them fitting into the scheme of the game overall and where some strong options exist for the generic figures which might help flesh out a team. Before discussing specific creatures though, I thought it might be useful to just look at the state of the generic options as a whole – and maybe by category. I’m feeling my way through this as I go, in a game that is still evolving, so I’ll do my best to make it coherent. I encourage other players out there to chime in and let me know your experience with the generic versions of the figures and how they’ve played out for you.

General Notes
The generic creatures are always weaker than their unique counterparts. This usually shows up in four forms.
1. They lack the special power of the Unique Creature. Balagos, for example, gets an attack bonus when he is more wounded than his target. The Adult Red Dragon does not.
2. They have weaker stat lines. This can vary quite a bit, with some generic creatures very similar to their unique versions and some losing a little more of their punch.
3. They have fewer upgrade slots. The impact of this also varies. Some creatures, such as dragons, lose all options except Dragon slots as generics. Other creatures simply have less of the only type of slot they’d possess anyway (usually the case with Monster slots).
4. They are of lower level. Again, the range of difference varies. With some creatures the change can almost seem negligible when considering how play might go on the table.

While these changes are important, don’t forget that some aspects of the two versions of a creature stay the same.
1. Their type remains the same – so they are eligible for the same types of upgrades as before (though again, their options may be constricted).
2. They also – at least so far – maintain the same important designations such as “Shadow” and “Incorporeal” as their base creatures. These are usually fundamental to the type of creature it is so that certainly helps.
3. The most obvious similarity, of course, is that they share the same maneuver dial. This means that the transition from playing a unique to a generic version of the same creature still allows for the same understanding of positioning you have with the unique, so you don’t have to retrain your brain for each version.
4. A specific benefit of the generic version of creatures not related to their unique versions… You can play multiple of the same generic figure. This should not be underestimated for utility.

My plan is to go from here and explore the various generic versions of the creatures in the game but I’m still struggling with the best way to do that. When I consider them in my own head, I am constantly weighing them against other options, Unique and Generic, and thinking of them as creatures in their own right as opposed to the lesser version of a Unique. This makes it somewhat harder to review them in isolation. So I’ll probably try a middle road, if I can. For my first follow up to this, I’ll explore the generic options in the Starter set and then move out from there.

If any readers are into D&D Attack Wing, I’d love to hear about your experiences with the Generic options so far.

Thanks for reading.

D&D Attack Wing: OP2 Tournament

Played in the OP2 event for D&D Attack Wing this past weekend. (Then got sick which delayed this post.) My original plan – and the team I had playtested – was Lord Maximilian and a Cave Wyvern. I was going for a Witch King and his Fell Beast kind of thing. At the last minute, I bailed on it as too finesse and fiddly and went with something a little more beatstick with Balagos and Jarl Horn. They are both tough, have high damage potential, and can attack well close or at range. When I pulled Rezmir for my booster mini, this seemed like a very good choice.

Choosing my upgrades for Rezmir, I gave her Hazirawn and Hellish Rebuke. 4 Damage in melee and a reaction-style attack are great, but I came to realize that the heavy requirements to get Hellish Rebuke to actually hit made it a less desirable choice than it seems at first. I never actually used it throughout three rounds of play and would have benefited more from the breath weapon option. Here’s a little insight into how my day went down.

Round 1
In the first round, I was paired off against my wife. I have fought her team before, as we playtested teams for the tournament. My wife’s style is pretty straightforward. She likes strong base creatures who don’t need to juggle a lot of upgrades. She was also trying a strategy for this tournament of trying to get four creatures on the battlefield instead of just three (which would seem to be the norm). Thus, she was running Claugiyliamatar, a Frost Giant Fighter, Dwarven Ballista, and pulled Talon Everhale for her booster.

I would like to give a clear accounting of the battle but it’s difficult as it was such a blur. The round was started and we were off. After a little first turn positioning, we charged in for the second turn pass of death. She weathered that much better than I did. I was completely wiped by the fourth or fifth turn of play. My only consolation – minor as it was – is that I didn’t give her a chance to escape with the artifact because I was so incompetent that I was defeated before anyone even grabbed it.

My analysis of the game doesn’t really lead me to much insight. She positioned better than I did initially, and through the first two turns and for the most part, the rolls went her way. Don’t take that as an excuse though… She mopped the floor with me.

I had two issues in this first game. The biggest was switching teams at the last minute. That was a mistake. I should have stuck with the team I already knew better and felt more comfortable with. The second was the fact that I chose poorly for Rezmir. The beating I took in the first round helped me clarify my issues and do better in the second round.

Round 2
In the second round, my opponent brought a Blue Dragon (generic), a Frost Giant Fighter, and a Dwarven Ballista. He pulled Dragonfly the Grey as his booster. Staring across the table, I had a sinking feeling as I’d pretty much just faced the exact same team.

He set his team up with the Blue Dragon and the Frost Giant to one side and the Ballista and Druid to the other. This game was an oddity because we moved toward the middle quickly and after Dragonfly set off Control Weather, my Balagos trundled forward on the ground for a couple of turns. In a bit of luck, my opponent’s Blue Dragon was in the zone as well and ended up getting grounded right in front of my Jarl Horn. This was perfect as I was able to use Poison Blade to good effect, all but killing the Blue. Balagos took a hit from the Call Lightning that followed up the Control Weather. In true Balagos fashion though, he embraced the pain and then went on a killing spree, taking out the Ballista and the Druid in short order. The next few turns saw a few exchanges between the Blue Dragon, Balagos, and the two Frost Giants, but in the end, my team just had more power on its side with the loss of his other two pieces so early.

This was the only fight of the day where Rezmir actually scored any damage, making two attacks against the wounded blue dragon with Hazirawn. These were largely ineffective and left me further disappointed in the out-of-the-box Rezmir.

Round 3
My opponent this round was running Galadaeros, a Blue Dragon, and also pulled Rezmir as his booster figure. I was interested to see if he did more with his Rezmir than I did as they would at least be able to face off against each other. I’ve also played against him before and I know that he’s very capable with his Galadaeros. He’s the only person I’ve really seen so far who has had much luck with the little guy. But this player knows how to use him well.

We started out in typical fashion, maneuvering for that second turn clash, with Balagos facing off against the Blue and Jarl Horn facing Galadaeros. Both Rezmirs set up to make a run at the treasure. As we closed, the Blue took a good hit from Balagos, Galadaeros outmaneuvered the Jarl, and his Rezmir was better maneuvered than mine. His Rezmir had the advantage, able to take advantage of a third turn where mine was exhausted and she cut mine apart. It was the best showing I’d seen from Rezmir… and of course, it was at the expense of mine. My opponent this round is very good at maneuvering.

Which led to much surprise a few turns later when Galadaeros smashed into the wall of the Vault and was forced to land. This gave Balagos a clean shot with a breath weapon… which promptly did 1 damage. Oh, dice. Jarl Horn was there to bat clean up though and managed to drop the copper dragon a few turns later. It was a game that was more of a bloodbath than I expected it to be. I’m used to fights against this opponent – and Galadaeros – to be lots of acrobatic maneuvers and careful positioning but this one time, Balagos and Jarl Horn seemed able to force the issue and outmuscle the other team.

Overall Observations on the Day
There were a lot of generic blue dragons at the event. Out of 8 teams, 3 had a generic blue on the field. One army had it paired up with Sarpiel and they seemed to do well together. My own feeling is that the generic Blue Dragon is one of the best non-unique options in the game – something I want to address in a later blog post.) Two people brought Galadaeros, with one player trying to up the damage potential of the littlest dragon by giving him the Human Paladin upgrade from the Silver Dragon set. Only one Wyvern made an appearance, and was overall disappointing. No Lord Maximilian sightings (thanks to me), and very little in the way of spellcasters.

The addition of the booster figures was a great experiment and I really enjoyed playing against unknown enemies. These pieces are pretty good right out of the box but I have a feeling they will be amazing when they can mix and match freely with upgrades from other expansions. I’ve already fought against a flying, Soaring Assault-ing Rezmir in a game I played after the tournament and she was terrifying. Six dice melee attacks on flying charges. Ugh.

As this was my first chance to play and watch games against opponents I don’t normally play, my initial impressions hold true. Dice can be swingy but rarely decide the battle (it happens, but not as often as we like to believe). Positioning is vital and a mistake in positioning can doom a creature before it ever gets to do anything productive (this has happened to me a few times).

At the end of the day, my wife came in second, I came in fourth, and a lot of fun was had by all. For the core group I play with, I think we are still evolving our strategies and figuring out what works for us. This was only our second OP event and for some, their first. It was also a day when I think people experimented with figuring out how they might take the treasure – and a few people got it out – which was a pretty cool result. Having a scenario definitely changed the play experience.

I also walked away still believing in the strong balance of the game. Sure, there are better and worse options. Even so, it still feels like most pieces have a strong shot in any game. I think the original White Dragon OP prize is broken good, I think the Wyvern may be underpowered, and I think that everything in between is a matter of taste and finding your play style.

So that was my big day of D&D Attack Wing. Have fun, keep playing, and if anyone wants to tell me how their Month Two events went, I’m all ears!

As always, thanks for reading.

D&D Attack Wing, now with more play time

I’ve been playing a good bit of D&D Attack Wing recently and it has quickly morphed into one of my favorite games. With three waves of figures plus two sets of Organized Play figures/prizes released, I am constantly finding new reasons to be excited about this game.

First, a quick word about the play environment. The FLC/GS that I play at is a very accommodating environment with a focus on fun play over hyper-competitive. We are a group that knows each other well, have played many games together (Anachronism, Mage Knight, Heroclix, lots of board games), and while we all enjoy winning, we tend to play more, “this is a team I want to play” over “this is a team to crush my enemies and see them driven before me.” I mention this because it informs my views of the game. I’m sure that my feelings would be different if I played in an environment where the constant focus was on standing on the throat of the guy across the table.

Continue reading →

The Known and the Unknown in RPG Conflict

First post of the new year. I’m focused right now on building this new game I’ve been working on. Some initial feedback has led me to believe that it’s too complicated in exactly the wrong places. Needs more work. As I contemplate this and try to sort it out, I’m going back to my roots and looking at my inspirations – specifically Amber Diceless – as my standard for “getting it right.” Well, getting it right in the ways that matter to me and what I’m hoping to create.

The focus is on the interplay in Amber of the known and the unknown when facing challenges. In a system where this is very little in the way of chance, it becomes incumbent upon other avenues to create that tension normally generated by a roll of the dice. One of the reasons I gravitate toward diceless (or low randomization) play is that dice rolls don’t generate much in the way of tension for me – they generate more in the way of frustration. But that is a topic for another time.

Continue reading →

D&D Attack Wing: A Few Thoughts

I like minis games. I’m not hardcore about it or anything, but I enjoy them. I play Heroclix at my local store and I have, at one time or another been into Warhammer 40K, War Machine, Malifaux, Mage Knight, and a few others. I like simple minis games (which is why Mage Knight appealed so strongly to me when it was first released) and I like skirmish style games over “army” style games.

All this is to say, I was determined not to get into another minis game.

Continue reading →

Ruminations on Amber, Gaming, and other Stuff.

The Amber Diceless Roleplaying game is the greatest diceless RPG of all time. That is a statement of opinion but one that I will joyously discuss with anyone to explain the virtues of this most excellent system. To say that Amber DRPG changed my life would be a bit melodramatic. To say that it changed me as a gamer and a game master, not so much.

I had not even read the Amber novels when I was drawn into the game by the spectacular Phage Press ad which ran in Dragon Magazine. I was sold without even knowing the setting. I wanted to play this game with a “mature and demanding” character creation system and its weird auction rules that forced character creation to be both collaborative and competitive. As someone whose gaming life up until that point was dominated by D&D and GURPS, I couldn’t even imagine how profoundly I would be shaped by the ideas presented in that book and then explored through years of campaigns.

Continue reading →

Coming to Theory: A few thoughts

I am often skeptical of “theory” when it comes to gaming. While I agree that there is an art and a science to running a good game, the variety of what constitutes a good game and the ways to achieve that seem to be far more rooted in individual preference and group-based communication principles than game design…

That said, I am also fascinated by the variety of games in existence and the attempts to parse out the endless variety of “what happens at the table” into thoughtful mechanics. While I sometimes struggle with some of the more radical approaches to “story game,” I also find many of these creations to be overwhelmingly awesome in terms of what they are trying to accomplish.

Continue reading →

Character Class as Goal Setting

I’ve been writing long posts recently and I thought I’d take a breather and explore a small idea I had today.

Character classes are a strange thing. Some people absolutely hate class-based systems, some people love them. I fall into a bit of a middle ground. I find class-based characters to be interesting but I also enjoy the ability to make a completely freeform character.

At the heart of a lot of complaints about class-based systems (at least that I hear) seems to be the unnatural manner of “leveling up” which involves just spontaneously having new abilities when you hit the appropriate level and the oddity of being locked into a class progression for a whole game/campaign/whatever.

When I was playing Adventurer Conqueror King a while ago, I was really enamored of the classes and as I’ve been thinking a lot about domains for my current campaign (I’m back to messing with Birthright again) I find that there is another small angle that old school puts on character class which I’d never considered before.

What would happen if we viewed character class selection through the lens of goal-setting?

That is to say; what if we looked at a player’s choice of class as a series of goals which are accomplished as the character levels?

Suppose, for example, that I choose to play a fighter in ACKS. I’m saying something immediately with this choice. I want to be tough, fight on the front lines. strength is probably my best stat and I intend to use it.

But I’m saying more. I’m also saying that I want to develop certain abilities across my career. I’m saying that my gold is going to get saved up to buy a certain kind of stronghold and that I might have dreams of conquest. I’m saying that I want to grow my character into one of the best warriors in the world.

These things happen as a natural part of leveling. I get better with weapons, I gain certain abilities, and eventually, I attract the followers I need to staff my stronghold. But instead of seeing these things as part of a rigid progression which forces my character down this path, what happens if I start down this path with the thought that the end is actually where I want to be? It’s a very small perspective shift really. I imagine that some players always make their characters this way.

Try it out the next time you are considering what class to play and see if it changes your thinking about your character. Let me know if it does.

Thanks for reading.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 244 other followers