The Alternates Game Recap – Episode #4

This is a recap of a game of my Sentinels Comics RPG campiagn, “The Alternates.” If you have no idea what I’m talking about, this post might help! But it might not.

The campaign represents an animated television show on a premium cable network, where each sessions represents one episode. This recap is written as a “recap” of the “episode” from the perspective of a writer who lives in the world where this (imaginary) television show actually exists. Are you confused yet? If not, you still have a chance to leave before reading on!

The Alternates Episode #4 Recap:
“Falling Star”

By Eddie Jaczerkowski

Episode #4 of “The Alternates” – titled “Falling Star” – is here, and the utter chaos in this alternate Sentinels comics timeline continues to unfold! As always, spoilers for this episode follow (but no spoilers for future episodes). Continue reading The Alternates Game Recap – Episode #4

The Alternates Game Recap – Episode #3

This is a recap of a game of my Sentinels Comics RPG campiagn, “The Alternates.” If you have no idea what I’m talking about, this post might help! But it might not.

The campaign represents an animated television show on a premium cable network, where each sessions represents one episode. This recap is written as a “recap” of the “episode” from the perspective of a writer who lives in the world where this (imaginary) television show actually exists. Are you confused yet? If not, you still have a chance to leave before reading on!

The Alternates Episode #3 Recap:
“Floating in Space”

By Eddie Jaczerkowski

Episode #3 of “The Alternates” is over, and there’s a lot of tragedy in this one. As always, spoilers for this episode are below, but we’ll share no spoilers for what might happen in future episodes! Continue reading The Alternates Game Recap – Episode #3

The Alternates Game Recap – Episode #2

This is a recap of a game of my Sentinels Comics RPG campiagn, “The Alternates.” If you have no idea what I’m talking about, this post might help! But it might not.

The campaign represents an animated television show on a premium cable network, where each sessions represents one episode. This recap is written as a “recap” of the “episode” from the perspective of a writer who lives in the world where this (imaginary) television show actually exists. Are you confused yet? If not, you still have a chance to leave before reading on!

The Alternates Episode #2 Recap:
“Running Out of Time”

By Eddie Jaczerkowski

This show isn’t holding back, and Episode #2 came on very strong! Here we go with a recap of The Alternates Episode #2, titled “Running Out of Time.”

A lot of bad things are about to happen, so here’s your spoiler warning! As usual, I’m only going to spoil things in this episode, and I’ll keep what I know about the rest of the series to myself! Continue reading The Alternates Game Recap – Episode #2

The Alternates Game Recap – Episode #1

This is a recap of game #1 of my Sentinels Comics RPG campiagn, “The Alternates.” If you have no idea what I’m talking about, this post might help! But it might not.

The campaign represents an animated television show on a premium cable network, where each sessions represents one episode. This recap is written as a “recap” of the “episode” from the perspective of a writer who lives in the world where this (imaginary) television show actually exists. Are you confused yet? If not, you still have a chance to leave before reading on!

The Alternates Episode 1 Recap – “This Is How the World Ends”

By Eddie Jaczerkowski

Finally, the long-awaited first episode of The Alternates comes to television!

Of course, if you weren’t a fan of the comic book series of the same name, then you might not have been waiting at all, and you probably have a lot of questions! No worries – whether you’re a long-time fan or a newcomer to this fabulous series, I’ve got you covered in this recap. This article contains spoilers for this episode, of course, but I promise not to spoil what might be coming in future episodes of this series! Continue reading The Alternates Game Recap – Episode #1

D&D: Why Do We Even Roll Skills?

Welcome to the second in my series about Skill Challenges (specifically in Dungeons & Dragons, but probably applicable to other systems as well). You might want to read my first post, How to Fail at Skill Challenges, before this one.

Before I write several more posts about using skills in roleplaying games (and specifically D&D), let’s ask an important philosophical question – why do we even make skill rolls?

We make combat rolls to find out what happens when the fighter tries to put a sword through an orc. A high roll means the orc is hurt. A low roll might miss. These rolls drive the story of the combat, but… really, don’t we know the outcome of most combats? Usually, the PCs win. But no one suggests we do away with the rolling – the rolling is fun!

So when we approach skill rolls and scenes where skill rolls drive the story, could we just do away with the rolls? In a social scene, can’t the players just roleplay with the NPCs and the Dungeon Master can decide how well they talk? If the PCs want to search for secret doors, can’t the DM just insist they say which squares they search and how? If there’s a puzzle to solve, can’t the DM just make the PCs solve the puzzle?

Sure. But is that fun? Doesn’t it cheat classes like Bard and Rogue out of a chance to use their stats to their full effect? And moreover, isn’t it unfair to force an introverted player roleplay their charming or extroverted character when the player just isn’t as good at talking and conniving as their character should be?

We roll because it’s fun. But, as I pointed out in the first post, if the DM lets a single die roll decide a whole scene or story, then it’s no fun. There must be a better way to use skills in the game. Here are a few ideas!

Social Combat

Adventurer’s at a social event? It doesn’t sound like a good idea for people who solve most of their problems with swords and fireballs. How do we turn this into a fun opportunity for roleplay and a chance for characters who took Persuasion and Deception to use those skills in more than a single roll?

If the PCs are carousing, or they have to convince a noble of something, or befriend a king, or surreptitiously find out the secrets of the court, why not run it like a combat? Let the players roll their Persuasion, Deception, Intimidation, Insight, History, and other skills as if they were attacks, and let them accumulate points based on their ability score bonuses, perhaps with die rolls. Instead of “damage,” you can have the NPCs make their own rolls to find out information from the PCs, or perhaps to draw favors from the PCs in exchange during the conversation.

Example: Fargin the Fighter chats up the baron’s aunt, and rolls a Persuasion check of 15. The DM decides that’s a “social hit,” and has Fargin’s player roll 1d6 plus his Charisma modifier. The DM records the total, and decides the players succeed when they accumulate a certain number of points. While socializing, though, some NPCs might find out juicy tidbits about the PCs, or corner them into promising favors to the NPCs.

Not-So-Secret Doors

Ugh. Secret doors. They’re a cool part of the lore of dungeons and the secretive treasure rooms of liches, but… without a full rendering of the dungeon walls for players to inspect, doesn’t finding a secret door come down to a lengthy description of how the PCs procedurally probe every corner of a stone room? Or, worse yet, doesn’t it come down to a single die roll? And wasn’t it me who said things like that shouldn’t come down to a single die roll? Exactly.

First, you could make it so the party finds the secret door no matter what (especially if they need to find it in order to advance the story), but allow the rolls to determine what’s waiting for them on the other side. If it’s a monster, maybe a failed roll means it has a few more hit points, or a bonus to hit. If it’s treasure, maybe a failed roll means there’s less of it.

As a default approach, this is over-simplistic. I say let the players describe how they search the dungeon if they enjoy talking about how they search the dungeon. Let them make multiple rolls if they are investigative types. But ultimately, if they find such things dull and pointless, it might be best to let them roll, describe how they find what they find, and then append consequences if their search rolls were awful.

There are better solutions for finding secret doors and things like that, but I’ll talk more about that in a future post on this topic.

Puzzling Hints

For puzzles, if the players are truly stumped, a DM might want to give hints based on skills like History, Arcana, or Nature, or possibly just a Wisdom or Intelligence check with proficiency for those with the right background. In this way, you can combine die rolls with some out-of-character puzzle-solving skills, giving the players a bonus for their skill proficiencies, but not giving away the whole ball game on a single Intelligence check.

But note that this is only really necessary if the puzzle is stopping the PCs from proceeding. If they puzzle opens the door to the treasure, then give hints. But remember, “puzzles” can also be hints about what monster lies deeper in the dungeon, or a way for them to more easily dispatch the monster or get through a hazardous room. I don’t know why dungeon keepers do this, aside from perhaps to entertain themselves as adventurers run headlong into their traps and monsters. I’m looking at you, Acererak!

Acererak, the lich
“What? What did I do? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Why Do We Roll?

Remember, rolling is fun. It’s the triumph of the 20; it’s the despair of the 1. Players expect those die rolls to have consequences, but they don’t expect those consequences to be career-ending for their character. Make sure all the rolls in your game are fun by making sure they move the story forward and carry both benefits and consequences for the PCs that are meaningful and appropriate.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide encourages you to make the game your own, but you can still feel chained to what’s between its covers. But don’t be afraid to stretch things out – if the “social encounter with rolls like combat” sounds exciting, flesh it out for your game! Adding mechanics to the game can be a lot of fun, but it’s best to use mechanics your players are already familiar with.

So get out there and roll those skill checks! Sure, we could play the game without skill rolls, but we’re playing D&D because we like rolling those d20s! And most importantly, stay tuned for more articles on Save Vs. Blog about how to do skill rolls and skill challenges more better!

D&D: How to Fail at Skill Challenges

Finally, a post about Dungeons & Dragons in a blog called Save Vs Blog. (Also, finally, any post after over a year hiatus, am I right?)

This post isn’t just about D&D, nor is about a single edition of D&D. This is really about how to handle scenes where a single skill check (of whatever variety) can make or break a whole story, adventure, or campaign.

We’ve all been there before – the PCs are racing through a dungeon, on the run from hundreds of orcs, and they come to a dangerous room where they have to make an Athletics or Acrobatics checks… or else fall to their doom. And if you’ve never been there before… maybe you’ve seen The Fellowship of the Ring?

The Bridge of Khazad-Dum
“Swords are no more use here!”

So imagine that the Dungeon Master of the Lord of the Rings campaign puts his players in this situation, and then has Gimli’s player roll an Athletics check to jump across the gap… but Gimli fails the roll. What does the DM do? Does he drop Gimli to his death from falling damage? Instant death seems like a strong consequence of a failed skill check. But if Gimli makes the jump despite failing the roll, why have the roll in the first place? There has to be meaning behind the roll, but not so much meaning that it determines whether a PC lives or dies. How does a Dungeon Master handle this?

Well, first, let’s think about it purely in terms of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons mechanics. What are the average consequences of a failed d20 roll?

  • A failed attack roll is a lost opportunity. While your PC takes no damage and suffers no effects, failed attack rolls add up to a longer and more costly combat. Still, each individual failed attack roll does not carry large, direct consequences.
  • A failed saving throw is generally pretty bad. A failed save against fireball for a 5th-level character costs costs an average of 14 hit points (28 damage average, save for half). 14 hit points is at least 25% and possibly more than 50% of a 5th-level character’s hit points. But on the other hand, the enemy that throws a fireball has expended a powerful resource at that level – a 3rd-level spell slot.
  • A low initiative roll might mean taking damage that could have been prevented, but that’s not necessarily a clear, direct consequence.

If those are our guidelines for the consequences of a failed skill or ability check, then we’re left with a pretty broad range – between indirect opportunity cost and 50% of your hit points! How does that help us?

The answer is to consider the resource cost for the opposition. It costs an enemy nothing to stand there and have an armor class, so the consequences of failing to hit them are low. But it costs an enemy a 3rd-level spell slot to cast fireball, so the consequences of failing are high.

Now if we imagine that the 5th-level PC fails a saving throw against a 1st-level spell slot (burning hands, to keep the fire theme) – they’re only losing about 5 hit points more on a failed save, which is down to less than 25% (possibly as low as 9%) of their hit points for the enemy’s 1st-level spell slot. If they’re attacked by an enemy cantrip, a save completely negates the effect.

And there’s the rub with a skill check. If the source of the skill check costs the opposition nothing, then failing the skill check should be like failing an attack roll or a save against a cantrip – a low, indirect opportunity cost or a small number of hit points. That’s why high-stakes skill checks that involve jumping a chasm or finding a secret door that hides the major treasure feel so cheap – the chasm is just a chasm, not an opponent flinging high-level spells at you.

For instance, let’s get back to Gimli. If the Dungeon Master in Gimli’s game has already established that one-off skill checks aren’t going to decide life-or-death consequences, then Gimli can fail the check without falling to his death. Perhaps instead, Gimli still crosses the gap, but only barely, resulting in the loss of some hit points (which we always need to remember are an abstract concept, not a count of how many pints of blood the character has left).

In the movie, Gimli almost doesn’t make the jump, and he has to be grabbed by the beard by Legolas to be saved from falling. This is a pretty good way for Gimli’s DM to allow him to fail the roll without the consequence being a fall to his death. The drama and action of  the scene remain (when we watch the movie, we know Gimli isn’t going to die on the bridge of Khazad-Dum, but it’s exciting tension nonetheless) without giving the PC a cheap shot of 20d6 falling damage.

This isn’t the only way to handle jumping a chasm – the solutions to the Singular-But-Calamitous skill check problem are many-fold, and I plan to explore them through a series of posts about skill checks, but there are a few principles I think we can take away from this examination of d20 rolls and their outcomes.

  • Never make any failed skill check more costly than a failed saving throw.
  • Most failed skill checks should be as costly as a failed attack roll.
  • Never let a single skill check be the difference between success and failure for the encounter, the adventure, or the campaign. A single skill check might occur at the climax of the story, but it should be a set of choices and strategies that make the difference between success and failure for the characters.

There’s much more to come on this topic, so stay tuned!

Update: The next essay, Why Do We Even Roll Skills?, has been posted.

WIP: Deathwatch Killteam

These guys are mostly done, but they are miniatures representing members of a Deathwatch Kill Team that is being played by friends of mine in my Deathwatch RPG campaign. The painting is pretty far along, but I have a lot of detail work left on some of them.

Sigismund, tactical marine from the Black Templars, holding his power sword aloft.
Calibos, Librarian of the Dark Angels.
Phastos, Devastator of the Salamanders.
Catallus, Apothecary of the Ultramarines.

Some cleanup is needed, but these have come along pretty well so far (especially since I feel like I couldn’t paint well at all a year ago). Hooray!

As Your Lawyer, I Advise You to Get WordPress

In a previous post from last year, I advised you (as a Dungeon or Game Master) to get a wiki. I still advise that if you’re making a homemade game world or otherwise need to pump a ton of information to your players in a searchable, easily linkable format. Wikis rule.

But recently, I started a Dark Sun campaign and I wanted it to be very deeply character and story-driven, with good roleplay elements and opportunities. I wanted players to really connect with their characters, and for their characters to develop actual personalities over time – not just “I like to kill evil and drink booze” type of things.

So my course of action was different this time. I decided, “Why not blog the game?” In fact, why not blog the game as an engaging narrative story?

For this, WordPress was perfect. It’s easy to set up (and in fact, I didn’t do the backend customization as I have for SaveVsBlog, just to show how easy it is). It has the capacity (now) for both blog entries and static pages (for PC and NPC descriptions). I’m hoping (time will tell) that the players will eventually want to write entries from their character’s perspective, or otherwise contribute – and WordPress lets me set that up with just a few clicks.

So, follow us now at The Light of a Dark Sun as five “renegades” in the Veiled Alliance attempt to rid Athas of defilers and usher in a new Green Age. As always, comments and questions are welcomed below!


The Problem with Solos

If you play 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, you’ve probably noticed a problem with a lot of the solo monsters in the game. Solos are supposed to be a challenge equal to multiple monsters, but they often fall short of that challenge. There are several reasons for this:

– Solos can be hamstrung by defenders’ marks. This can easily prevent them from being a threat to anyone else in the party, and it’s important that an encounter give all party members something to worry about.

– Solos can be dismantled by stun effects, or even slow effects that reduce their ability to move around. Stun or daze can ruin a solo’s day. Slowing or restraining might mean the solo remains a danger to melee characters, but ranged characters will yawn and fire away.

– Solos can sometimes stake their game on a single attack roll, and don’t do squat when they miss.

In fact, the only times I’ve ever seen a solo really challenge a party – both as a player and a DM – is when the solo is at least a few levels higher than the party.

How do I think this problem can be addressed? It’s a tough thing to make solos appropriately threatening without making them too powerful. Let’s consider the following points about solos versus a four monster encounter.

– The monsters can attack four times, or attack three times and buff once, et cetera. The solo probably doesn’t get to attack four times, or if it does, it’s on recharge or once per encounter.

– One or two of the monsters might be marked, but the others are free to harass healers, ranged attackers and flank the defender. The solo can’t flank with himself, he can’t be everywhere at once and, if he’s marked, he only screws himself by attacking anyone who isn’t the defender.

– The monsters can be spread throughout the initiative track, giving the characters something to think about when their turn comes up. Most solos only get one initiative, so players can really put them in the worst positions before their turn.

With each of these disadvantages, there are some abilities solos get to counter them, but usually it’s not enough. I do have some ideas to make things a little more effective.

For instance, solos’ attacks could be modified slightly. They could be mostly bursts and blasts, with the occasional attack power that lets them hit attack multiple people. Most importantly, if an attack is only going to hit a single target, it should do damage on a miss or have an effect.

However, while that might make the solo more effective, it doesn’t go far to make the fight more interesting.

Perhaps a solo fight could involve a big monster who can generate or empower minions. The minions could basically be an extension of the solo, representing the attacks and actions he should otherwise be getting. The minions don’t have to be zombies or guards – they could be mirror images or shadow doubles. Perhaps the wizard has mastered time and space and can appear in multiple places at once.

To make a solo much more interesting, though, I suggest a more active solo. The Dragon of Tyr has a nifty ability – he acts on four initiatives each turn. I think this is a really good way to make solos interesting. A big, brutish solo can act on multiple initiatives, perhaps only getting a standard on each of his initiatives. A quick assassin can have an opportunity action (triggered by being attacked, or an enemy moving adjacent) that gives her a chance to counterattack, or dodge an attack and shift away. In this way, the solo replicates the multiple attacks, multiple initiatives and multiple threats of the four monsters it replaced. It can also avoid stuns and dazes by losing only one of its multiple turns instead of all of them. I’m not sure whether or not it gets a save at the end of each of these turns, as that might make things too powerful. Honestly, I am currently in favor of getting multiple saves, just like multiple monsters get multiple saves, but remove the +5 bonus that solos normally get.

I think another piece of the puzzle for the “multiple action” solo is an ability that removes marks. It should not be automatic, as that is a sure way to frustrate the Hell out of the defender’s player. But, for instance, if the solo hits a target, the solo removes any mark from the target. Or, the solo gets a save at the beginning of its turn to remove any mark. In this way, the defender does not feel that marking is useless, but rather it’s just occasionally ineffective.

Solos can offer such an awesome encounter for the heroes to face down a villain, for the Big Bad to finally be confronted, and for the big dragon to be slain. However, the solos that exist, especially in the early books, make it a little too easy for that villain to be skunked by the player-characters. But with a little work, they can make for truly epic encounters.

On Competitiveness

Since this is a gaming blog, I thought I would talk a little bit about competitiveness and how it strikes a weird chord with me.

I don’t feel competitive most of the time, but when I do feel competitive, it annoys me and I become a bad loser. So I mostly don’t play competitive games. I like cooperative games, and never do I feel bad when losing if I’m losing with a team. So Arkham Horror and Castle Ravenloft are my favorite board games, and I love PvE World of Warcraft and I love team PvP World of Warcraft (if the team is my friends).

I don’t like playing Dungeons & Dragons as much if I feel like it’s “Us versus the Adventure” instead of “The players and the DM crafting a story,” although a tough Dungeon Master is often better than a pushover Dungeon Master. I prefer competitive games that evoke the idea of a story or fiction, or games where I can feel like a story is being told. Obviously, chess and poker don’t interest me very much.

Further, I don’t really want to play Magic or Warhammer 40k or Warmachine/Hordes against someone who’s crafted a deck or army to win games rather than a deck or army that is themed. Back when the Mechwarrior Clix game was… still existent… I used to play tournaments on weekends, and my armies were always based around the given theme for that week. I usually played against people whose armies only thinly followed the theme for that week – people who followed the theme just enough to be legal. That annoyed me.

I would rather both my opponent and I have well-crafted miniatures who we’ve named, who have little stories and fun customizations to suit the personalities we’ve made up, or who follow some comical or dramatic theme. Even if the armies aren’t well-crafted or storied, if we tell a story as we play the game, making up personalities and proclivities as we go along, giving little descriptions to go along with our die rolls, I’m much happier. Perhaps, in a way, I am just playing with Barbie dolls when I play miniatures, but my Barbie dolls have plasma cannons and they are blast weapons. Ken’s hair could not survive that.

In all of this, Magic: the Gathering deserves a lot of credit. Magic is actually set up mostly to win by playing themes. Your cards will have complementary abilities if you choose, for instance, a vampire deck or a rat deck or a goblin deck. Thus, I can easily be competitive (in the sense that my decks can win games) by indulging my urge to tell a story or set a scene with my choice of cards.

It’s important for me to talk about this, I realized, because I build my miniatures and play my games with this always at the forefront of my mind. If you read this blog, then you are going to come face to face with the fact that I’d rather have a sweet tank with poor stats than a powerhouse unit with boring models. Now, if I can achieve the best of both worlds through the art of conversion, more power to me.

More to come!