Archive for the ‘Game Theory’ Category

20 Questions

June 19, 2010 3 comments

Recently Chris Simms asked “What do you know about your #dnd character? Favorite color? Birthday? More? Less? What?” on Twitter, and this got me thinking about these sorts of questions and how I develop a character.

My characters tend to develop on an ad hoc basis, as they are forced to make decisions or answer questions I fill in their personality as I go. I rarely have a full background or anything sketched out, and this works fine for me by and large. I see characters as a loose framework meshed together between mechanics a picture and sometimes a few other key ideas. This lets me look at that framework in my head and figure out how the character will make decisions.

But there are other means of approaching this and one that I like was first introduced to me by Legend of the Five Rings (L5R): The Game of 20 Questions. You can read the original questions and the basics of L5R character creation here, and AEG produced a similar set of questions for their other games as well, and while many are specific to L5R the list of questions can be adjusted for other games as well – like DnD.

Here is an example of “20” generic questions you might answer about your character:

  1. Is the character married and to whom?
  2. Does the character have children (or want to)?
  3. What other members are there of the character’s family?
  4. What does the character think about their family?
  5. How would others describe his appearance?
  6. Does the character have any prejudices?
  7. What is the character’s main motivation?
  8. Who is the person character trusts most?
  9. What is the characters greatest strength and greatest weakness?
  10. Does the character have a code of behaviour and what is it (or why not)?
  11. Does the character belong to an organisation?
  12. To whom does the character owe the most loyalty?
  13. What are his favorite and least favorite things?
  14. Does the character have any recurring mannerisms?
  15. What about the character’s emotions? (Is the character emotional or cold? Do they have a dominant emotion?)
  16. How would the character handle a subordinate’s improper behavior?
  17. How would the character’s parent’s describe them?
  18. What is the character’s highest ambition?
  19. How religious is the character?
  20. If you could, what advice would you give the character?

Another example taking the L5R questions and adapting them for an Eberron game (intended to be answered before you get to the crunch):

  1. Does the character have a Dragon Mark (and which one)?
  2. Does the character belong to a House (and which one)?
  3. How would others describe his appearance?
  4. Is the character a warrior, a spy, or a politician, or something else?
  5. What is the character’s main motivation?
  6. Who is the person the character trusts most?
  7. What is the character’s greatest strength? Greatest weakness?
  8. What does the character think of  the Prophecy?
  9. What is the character’s opinions of the Houses?
  10. Is the character married and do they have children?
  11. Does the character have any prejudices?
  12. To whom does the character owe the most loyalty?
  13. What are the character’s favorite and least favorite things?
  14. Does the character have any recurring mannerisms?
  15. What about the character’s emotions?
  16. How would the character handle a subordinate’s improper behavior?
  17. How would the character parent’s describe them?
  18. What is the character’s highest ambition?
  19. How religious is the character?
  20. If you could, what advice would you give the character?

Of course you can also answer simple questions like their favourite colour as well, after all it doesn’t pay to get the answer to that question wrong. 🙂

Categories: Game Theory

Expertise isn’t Boring!

April 8, 2010 2 comments

Nor is it a math fix.

Oooh two heresies in two sentances.


I’ll start with the titular one, that the expertise feats are not boring. The first thing is to understand that the idea of them being “boring” is based around what they do – grant a bonus to hit, and nothing else. This supposedly makes them a boring feat choice because their only interaction with the PC is to make them hit more often. Yet this misses the fact that individual feat choices are only as interesting as your ability to gain the benifits that the feat provides.

Many “interesting” feats are conditional “when X is happening you get Y cool benifit”, so unless your character (or party) is optimised to make X happen a lot, you may go whole sessions without ever seeing the benefit of Y, which often leads to forgetting about Y. Now sure Expertise doesn’t come up a lot if the session is all RP and skill checks, but it comes up every time you attack in a combat – and that happens a lot.

So here is the thing, expertise lets your character use their combat powers more successfully. That means you get to do the cool stuff in your powers more often (5/10/15% more often ;)), which makes your game more fun (well it does for me.. I hate missing those effects – Healing Strike I’m looking at you).

Then there is the way expertise enables character ideas. Got a character concept that requires a Fighter with 14 str? Expertise + the right fighter type and weapons will keep that +7 attack that maters so much for making your marks matter. Got a Barbarian/Druid hybrid that you want to keep balanced – Versatile Expertise keeps that +7 and +4 that matter. In short you can just make simply more interesting characters because you can keep the characters accuracy up there in the realms that matter for being effective in 4E.

Math Fix?

This leads to the math fix argument. After all the whole last paragraph seems to say that Expertise “fixes the math so the character works”. But that isn’t what the math fix is about. It is about some calculations people have done to look at the advancement of monster defences vs the advancement of character attacks.

The first thing to realise is that , yes based on straight math comparison it is easier to hit at heroic tier than epic. However that straight math is ignoring the more readily available bonuses to hit (and damage) that higher level characters have available to them so the net effect is that it is often easier to hit in epic than in heroic (depending on party choices).

The second thing is that for it to be a “math fix” it must be necassary for all characters to aquire the feat before 30th level so as to be effective. This simply isn’t true, for characters with an 18 or higher starting stat for their primary attack and an Epic Destiny that further boosts that stat by two the feats are just not required, and an 18 primary stat is anything but hard to have for a 4E PC.

SoiIn looking at the straight math of monster defences at level 30, and assuming a “10” is needed to hit and that no one is helping you the following becomes apparent at level 30 for fighting the 9 current level 30 standard monsters:

  • If you have a 16 starting stat, a +2 accuracy weapon, and no Epic Destiny stat pip you will need Expertise to keep hitting on 10’s (on average).
  • Being able to attack a non-AC defence is less useful at level 30, because non-AC defences largely catch AC at that level. (Hopefully WotC will fix that because it breaks the paradigm between weapons and implements.)
  • If you use an implement you must have the ability to attack all the non-AC defences to improve your chances.
  • If you start with a 16 stat, use an implement, and take no ED pip you must take Expertise, and even then you need to select the lowest defence. (This is the worst case due to the issues with non-AC catching AC.)
  • If you start with an 18 stat, use an implement and don’t take an ED pip then Expertise is a good choice.

So while there is a case that Implement users should take expertise by the time they are in Epic, certainly it is only needed for the least accurate weapon users. So the feats are not a blanket “math fix” but rather they allow “less optimal” builds to still function all the way to Epic level – which strikes me as a good thing for the game.

You might see it as a “feat tax” on “less optimal” builds, yet I would rather such builds be able to work well and be fun than work poorly and be frustrating for their players.


So when you are looking at your character, don’t skip the Expertise feats out of some perception that they are “boring”, and nor should you be taking them because they are supposedly “necassary”. Rather choose the feats because they make your character work better and that makes them more intersting to play.

Just keep in mind that if you have an 18 or higher primary stat, and your attack bonus with a weapon is +7 you pretty much don’t need them ever (as long as you take an ED with a stat pip). Remember also that your allies should be helping you hit more; from lowering enemy defences, to providing combat advantage or other bonuses (often stacking) to hit this will get that required roll down well under 10 more often than not as you go up in levels.

That is really the key to evaluating the Expertise feats, 4E is a group game your party needs to work well together for them to be successful as a group. Your individual character matters in that dynamic, weakest link and all that, but the use of good teamwork will affect the outcome of your fights much more than any individual feat choice.

Categories: Game Theory

More About Defending

Yesterday I wrote quite a bit of general thoughts on playing a defender, and today I thought I would add some specific examples to illustrate those points.

Before going into the examples it is important to understand that there are different environments you can be playing a character in and that those environments greatly affect the choices that will give you the most fun. If you are playing with your regular group, chances are everyone can figure something out and make it fun. If you are playing with strangers that are randomly assembled (say and RPGA event or play-by-post game) it is best to ensure that your character does its job, and does it well to be sure you have a fun game.

Example 1: Alek – Ensnaring Swordmage vs Adrie – Shiedling Swordmage

Together these two provide a lot of battlefield control, particularly of the position that enemies find themselves in, so much in fact that a party with both of them might well not need an actual controller. But alone they are very different characters, Adrie is in many ways the more effective defender – stopping 7 points of damage every round that an enemy doesn’t attack her, is (in my experience) far suprior to the repositioning on its own. This becomes more profound when powers like Transposing Lunge and Dimensional Warp (her level 7 encounter) let you prevent all of the damage an enemy does, and inflict damage at the same time! This is like the Ensnaring Swordmage Aegis but it stops damage!

So what ends up happening is that Alek’s -2 from his mark becomes the biggest threat to the enemy mostly, while Adrie is constantly able to get in the way of the enemies plans, causing her to be a more effective Defender.

Example 2: Beren – Two-Handed Specialst Fighter vs Samaius – Charisma Paladin
(Note Samaius is in the middle of a PbP encounter, hence his used powers and damage ;))

Beren works on 1 enemy at a time, and he does it by doing a lot of damage. Once marked by him ignoring the mark is usually very painful for the enemy. It makes a particularly nasty combination at low levels with his Obsidian Hound – attack the hound and get hit by Beren, attack Beren get hit by the hound! Still at level 4 he is on target with +11 to hit, and 10-20 points of damage with a melee basic means that he is definately outputting enough damage to make enemies keep their attention on him (but you need to watch out for Bugbear Stranglers!).

Samaius on the other hand works by trying to mark as many enemies as possible as often as possible and then punishing them for not attacking him. His Challenge/Sanction does 7 points of damage more than enough at level 1 to discourage enemies from ignoring him (it is around 1/4 of most level 2 monsters’ hit points), and with Valorous Smite, Majestic Halo, and Ardent Strike+Divine Challenge even at level 1 he can keep 2 enemies marked and threatened with damage on most rounds.

Where Beren is Defender/Striker Samaius is Defender/Leader. For both of them weapon choice and feat choices are key to supporting their secondary role, and neither of those choices are hampering their ability to effectively undertake their primary role, but may enhance their primary role. One buy saying hit me or get really hurt, the other saying hit me because not only will I hurt you I heal my buddies.

Example 3: Tomas – the Defender who is a Striker

Where the other characters are aimed at groups of strangers, and thus being able to really meet the requirements of your role are critical Tomas is an example of the things that are possible in a group where you are playing with all the same people and know the DM.

Between Divine Challenge, Virtuous Strike, and Call of Challenge Tomas can keep things marked for 3 or more rounds. Change the Salve of Power (originally so he could re-use Magestic Halo) for a few Pearls of Power to get multiple uses from Virtuous Strike in an encounter if needed and he gets those marks out just fine. This then combines with his Striker powers, and the fact he cannot be immobilised (at will teleport 5), and constant application of damage by teleporting and Tomas does lots of interesting things on the battlefield to allow him to meet the expectations of both roles. (The party he was in had no defender other than him, and he worked well in the defender role.)

Categories: Game Theory

Thoughts on Defenders

Everyone wants their character to shine, and a good DM can give every character their chance, but it isn’t just the DM’s responsibility. As a player you need to be prepared to do your part as well for making your character get their moment. This is always easier to do as your mastery of the rules improves, when dealing with shining mechanically. New products and their options always make it easier as well, but they also increase the difficulty of attaining system mastery. So if you want your character to shine mechanically you need to invest some time in ensuring you understand the mechanics of the character.

4E introduced the idea of “role” as an explicit mechanical concept. Each of the 4 roles does a different job in combat and understanding what you want your character to do in a fight is an important part of building a character in 4E so that your mechanics support your narative concept. Getting these two things to align can increase both the fun of playing the character (Hey she is doing what I want. Awesome!) and the number of times they shine (You attack my ally, I do this and save them! Awesome!). To be able to do this you need to understand the job of each role, and how that job is supported by mechanics.

The Defender role is one of the two roles tasked with controlling the options that the enemy has, and thus increasing the options of the other PCs. Specifically the Defender is trying to make themselves the best option to attack. This is important to understand because if your character is not doing this the enemies will ignore you and go for the other characters that are bigger threats.

There are basically two ways to do this; make it to hard to hit your allies, or make it to painful to hit your allies. Every defender has a means of imposing a mark, but the truth is that a -2 is just not enough on its own to get them attacking you. That means your ability to punish can be critical to affecting the decisions of the DM and thus the monsters.

One of the reasons -2 to hit someone else is likely not enough to stop the enemy on its own is that even with the -2 it is possibly harder to hit your Defender than any other PC (or at least it might look that way to the enemy). There are a few ways to make this work better, the obvious one is “impose a bigger penalty”, another one is isolating the enemy away from your allies and restricting their movement, the last is reducing their damage to your allies. It is surprisingly hard to impose a bigger penalty, so without carefully investigating I suggest avoiding this approach. Reducing the damage can neutralise an enemy for a round or two as it must decide between trying to hit your high defence and doing possibly no damage to your allies. As to restricting movement this is where Fighters shine (punishing shifts and moves) and Ensnaring Swordmages struggle – simply relocating the enemy after they have had their way is not enough, you need to stop them getting there in the first place for this to be effective. So make sure your -2 is supported by some sort of additional effect.

The other option is punishment, or having an effect that allows you to damage your enemies if you are not attacked. There are basically two ways to do this; make an attack or do set damage. Set damage, such as the Paladin’s Challenge or Sanction is the easiest to grasp, because if they don’t attack you they take the damage. The problem is the damage needs to matter, if it is less than 5x tier (Heroic=1, Paragon=2, Epic=3) it probably isn’t enough. In fact as you approach the end of your tier you need to be approaching the next tier’s minimum. In short if 5-7 turns of attacking someone else isn’t going to kill the enemy it will ignore the mark and damage. (Remember your mark damage isn’t the only damage a monster should be taking, so few monsters should ignore a mark more than 2 times.) The other option usually depends on your melée basic attack (or things you can swap for that), at which point the accuracy and damage (or conditions) of the attack start to matter. This is a mistake I see often with Assault Swordmages, their melée basic is not accurate (+5 or +6 @ 1st) and does little damage (d8+2 or +3) – in short it doesn’t pose enough threat that it is better leaving your striker buddy alone.

So some general guidelines;

  • you want to be accurate
  • you want to do more than 5 damage reliably both with your attacks or your punishing effects
  • high hit points is better than a super high defence
  • your defence needs to be 17-20 at level 1
  • the more defence you have the bigger the punishments you impose need to be (or the more damage you must reduce)
Categories: Game Theory Tags: ,