"Marriage is girl-code for, 'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.'"
- Dora, Questionable Content
October 12th, 2007
John and Abigail, my critically-acclaimed Fringe show, is returning for a limited engagement as a South High Theater Alumni Event from October 23rd to October 26th. For this encore performance, Sarah Martin is reprising her role as Abigail Adams and I'll once again star as John Adams. Proceeds from the event will contribute to the South High Theater program.
South High School in Minneapolis, MN has a really amazing theater program run by a woman by the name of Louise Bormann. She believes that students learn best when they are (a) allowed to do something meaningful and (b) asked to do something challenging. When it comes to theater, that means putting on difficult plays and allowing students to take part in every part of the production: Acting, directing, lighting, sound design, set building, costuming -- if there's a job you can do in theater, you can do it as a student at South High.
There have been years when South High Theater put on more than eight shows in a single year. This year, they're only doing six: A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, the musical Cabaret, August Wilson's Seven Guitars, an undetermined project directed by a senior in the spring, and the 17th Annual Student Written and Directed One Acts.
The result of Louise's dedication and belief in the capabilities of her students have been routinely excellent high school productions of challenging theatrical pieces: Not just shows which are "good for high school students", but shows which are just flat-out worth watching.
The success of the program can be seen not only in the hundreds of students it benefits every year, but also in the success stories it has produced: Not only have local theatrical stars like Emily Gunyou Halaas and Nathan Keepers (Theater de la Jeune Leune) emerged from the program, but also Hollywood stars like Josh Hartnett (30 Days of Night) and Rachel Leigh Cook (Nancy Drew).
I attended South High School as part of the class of 1998. My first role in theater was Demetrius in the 1994 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Later that year the first play I ever wrote -- a modern adaptation of Faust -- was produced as part of the Student Written and Directed One Acts. The next year I was honored to star as Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac and was the assistant director for West Side Story. These were seminal experiences which changed the direction of my life and continue to shape my life on a day-to-day basis. They genuinely made me a better person and more talented artist.
So I'm really excited and truly honored to have the opportunity to put on this encore performance of John and Abigail and give a little something back from the theater program which has given me so much.
October 23rd thru 26th - 7:00 pm
South High's Skybox Theater
3131 19th Ave. South
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October 13th, 2007
In 2006, Wizards of the Coast unveiled a revised format for 3.5 stat blocks. James Wyatt explained the logic behind the new form in a Design & Development column in July 2006. Basically, the new stat block was designed around two principles:
1. All the information you need to use the monster should be present in the stat block.
2. The information in the stat block should be organized around the way in which the information is actually used in an encounter.
The new stat block featured five "sections".
Section 1: The information you need to begin an encounter. (What is the monster? How does it detect the PCs? Will the PCs be able to speak to it? What's it's initiative? And so forth.)
Section 2: The information you'll need to know about on the PCs' turn. (What's its AC? Hit points? Saving throws? Resistances and immunities? And so forth.)
Section 3: The information you'll need to know on the monster's turn. (What can it do? What attack options does it have? What special actions can it take?)
Section 4: The information you don't need to know during combat. (Or, at least, generally won't need to know.)
Section 5: Explanatory text. If an unusual ability is mentioned in the first four sections, it's given a full explanation at the bottom of the stat block.
This new stat block did exactly what it was supposed to do: It made it easier to use the monster, particularly during the high-stress period of combat.
But it wasn't without criticism. These criticisms generally fell into one of two categories:
1. It takes up too much space!
There is both a legitimate and a non-legitimate side to this critique.
Let's start with the legitimate critique, because it's easier: There is no doubt that the new stat block takes up more space in published adventures than the old adventure stat block. The old adventure stat block was literally a stat block. The information was all crammed into one big paragraph.
By separating the information out into separate sections and giving it some air to breathe, the WotC designers made it easier to use, but also made it take up a lot more space.
The non-legitimate critique was that the new stat block also took up more space in the Monster Manual products.
For example, take a look at the magmacore golem from Monster Manual V. This creature is very similar to a flesh golem from the original 3.5 Monster Manual.
The magmacore golem stat block requires 22 lines. The flesh golem stat block requires 27 lines.
This is one of the cases in which the new stat block actually requires less space than the old stat block. In some cases the opposite is true. But the difference is never particularly large or significant.
Now, what is true is that the newer Monster Manual entries include a lot of new information outside of the stat blocks, most notable Knowledge check DCs for monster lore and sample encounters.
But the real reason that a lot of people think that the new stat blocks take up more space is because they take up more space on the page. But this isn't because of the stat blocks: It's because WotC increased their font size. The original Monster Manual, for example, has 67 lines to the page. Monster Manual V, on the other hand, only has 55 lines to the page.
2. They left out information!
There's no mitigation for this complaint. (Most notably, the Hit Die type and full hit point calculation for each creature was removed. ) And, frankly, it leaves me scratching my head. The WotC design team trumpeted the idea of making sure that all the information you need to use the monster is in the monster's entry... while simultaneously rolling out a revised stat block that removed essential information and forced you to look for it elsewhere.
3. Information has been duplicated!
This is true, but it's not a meaningful critique.. For example, a creature's Spot and Listen modifiers are included in both the first section of the stat block (because that determines when and how they detect the PCs) and in the fourth section of the stat block (in the complete list of the creature's skills).
There are not many examples of this duplication, and wherever it occurs it makes sense: The information belongs in both locations. If this were causing the stat block to bloat in size, it might be problematical. But, as we've discussed, this isn't actually the case.
REVISING THE REVISION
I think the revised stat block was generally a move in the right direction: Breaking the information down into utility-based sections make the new stat blocks considerably easier to use in play.
However, by leaving out essential information, the new stat blocks became more difficult to use in prep (and even more difficult to use if you wanted to make adjustments on-the-fly). And using what was essentially a full-blown Monster Manual stat block for every NPC that appeared in an adventure did, in fact, chew up a lot of space and result in less detailed and elaborate adventures (on a page-for-page comparison).
So I'm revising the revision. Basically I've made two major changes:
1. I've used tabs to introduce more white space and make the stat blocks even easier to read. For example, instead of:
Space 5 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
My version of the stat blocks reads:
Space: 5 ft. Reach: 5 ft.
2. Information that was removed from the WotC stat block -- like the HD type and full hit point calculation -- has been restored in my stat block.
Minor differences? Sure. But every little bit of utility helps.
My revised stat block is available as an RTF file, which includes the blank template and two samples (a goblin and a balor):
SHORT STAT BLOCK
To address the concern that the full version of the revised stat block unnecessarily devours space for stat blocks that don't require that level of detail, I have also designed a short stat block. It looks like this:
NAME (CR #) [Gender] [Race] - [Class] [Level] - [Alignment] [Size] [Type]
DETECTION [special], Listen +#, Spot +#; Init +#; Aura ; Languages [list], [special]
DEFENSES AC #, touch #, flat-footed #; hp # (HD); Miss #%; DR #; Immune ; Resist ; Weakness
ACTIONS Spd # ft.; Melee attack +# (damage); Ranged attack +# (damage); Space # ft.; Reach # ft.; Base Atk +#; Grapple +#; Atk Options ; SA ; Combat Feats ; Combat Gear
#, DEX #, CON #, INT
FORT +#, REF +#, WILL +#;
And here's an example using a lesser bloodwight, a creature which can be found Mini-Adventure 1: The Complex of Zombies:
LESSER BLOODWIGHT (CR 2) Always NE Undead
DETECTION Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Listen +7, Spot +7; Init +1; Aura bloodsheen 30 ft.; Languages: Infernal
DEFENSES AC 15, touch 11, flat-footed 14; hp 26 (4d12); DR 5/slashing; Immune undead immunities (death effects, disease, mind-affecting, paralysis, poison, sleep effects, stunning)
ACTIONS Spd 30 ft.; Melee claw +3 (1d6+2 plus blood welt); Space 5 ft.; Reach 5 ft.; Base Atk +2; Grapple +3
14, DEX 12, CON , INT
FORT +1, REF +2, WILL +5
FEATS: Ability Focus (bloodsheen), Combat Reflexes
SKILLS: Hide +8, Listen +7, Move Silently +16, Spot +7
And here's an elite city guard from Mini-Adventure 2: The Black Mist:
DETECTION Listen +5, Spot +9; Init +1; Languages: Common
DEFENSES AC 17, touch 10, flat-footed 17; hp 30 (4d10+8)
ACTIONS Spd 20 ft. (run 60 ft.); Melee greatsword +8 (2d6+6, 17-20/x2); Ranged heavy crossbow +4 (1d10, 19-20/x2); Space 5 ft.; Reach 5 ft.; Base Atk +4; Grapple +7; Combat Feats: Rapid Reload (heavy crossbow); Combat Gear: alchemist's fire (x2), potion of cure light wounds (x2), smokestick (x2)
16, DEX 11, CON 12, INT 10,
FORT +5, REF +3, WILL +1
FEATS: Alertness, Improved Critical (greatsword), Rapid Reload (heavy crossbows), Skill Focus (Spot), Weapon Focus (greatsword), Weapon Specialization (greatsword)
SKILLS: Climb +5, Intimidate +2, Listen +5, Spot +9
POSSESSIONS: masterwork greatsword, half-plate, heavy crossbow (12 quarrels), 3d8+10 gp in loose change
This short stat block, along with the examples, can also be found in RTF format:
These stat blocks have also been placed under the OGL for your convenience.
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October 16th, 2007
Take Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire, for example. This is a 672 page tome that is, frankly, worth its weight in gold as a gaming supplement. It features gorgeous, detailed cartography accompanied by enough detail that you always feel well-supported when you're running adventures there, without being so massively over-detailed that there's no place to make room for your PCs. Plus, Monte Cook has supported all of this detail in the city with enough raw adventure material to fill two or three complete campaigns. And this wealth of material is supported by some of the best indexing and cross-referencing ever used in a roleplaying manual, making it delightfully easy to use. (In fact, I found the cross-referencing so wonderful that Dream Machine Productions has been using a similar system for cross-referencing our Rule Supplements.)
In short, I love this supplement. And I'm currently using it to run a really wonderful campaign from which I'll probably start posting campaign journals in the near future.
But I'm being asked to pay for this material for the third time, and it's really starting to annoy me.
First, I was told that only those who pre-ordered the book would receive a plethora of special bonus material. So I made a point of pre-ordering the book at the full cover price of $120 so that I would get all of this bonus material.
... except almost all (if not all) of this bonus material was later released for everybody to get their hands on.
Well, that's OK. I'm not against supporting a really great product in this little niche industry by paying full price for it. And I did get early access to some of that material, which was kinda neat.
One of the things that comes with the book is a CD full of bonus material, which included -- in addition to a lot of original material -- free PDF copies of a lot of Ptolus-related products. Among these were Chaositech and Banewarrens. This was a great deal for some people, but since I'd already bought PDF copies of these it was really just a duplicated effort.
But that's OK, too.
What annoyed me, however, was that this CD did not include the PDF-version of the book which was simultaneously released. The PDF-version was marketed as nine separate PDF products, one of which was given away for free. Total price? $69. I got a 20% discount coupon by buying the book, so that knocked the price down to $55.
(Why would I want a digital copy of content I already own in hardcopy? Because being able to search the text is nice. Also, being able to copy-and-paste text and graphics for handouts and the like is also a nice feature.)
So now I've spent $175 for material which, on the day of release, could be picked up from $60 from the discount dealers.
The only disadvantage of these PDFs is that they're nine separate files, which can make searching a little bit more complicated than it probably needs to be.
Now, however, Malhavoc Press has released an all-in-one PDF "due to popular demand". They want $60 for it.
"Well, screw that," I think. "I"ll just pop open my copy of Acrobat, combine all these separate PDFs into one file, and call it a day." Only I can't do that because they've put a "we know you paid $55 for this, but we don't trust you" protection scheme on it.
So Malhavoc Press is literally trying to charge me $60 for another copy of material I've already paid $175. And it's not even that they're offering it to me in a new format. They're offering it to me in the same format, but in a slightly different configuration. And the only reason I need to pay them for this slightly different configuration is because they screwed me with their copy fascism.
And this isn't like buying all the Beatles albums on CD even though I already own them on LP: If I wanted to, I could just record the LP and burn it to a CD. The reason I'm willing to pay for the CD is because it's got better audio quality.
No, this is like a music company charging you $20 to buy a copy of a CD with the tracks in a slightly different order... and thinking they can get away with it because they put copy fascism measures on the original CD which stops you from ripping the tracks and burning a new CD with the tracks in a different order.
I'm not a thief, and I want people to be compensated for their IP. (Since I make my living creating IP, it would be pretty foolish for me to think otherwise!) And it's not even that I don't like giving Monte Cook my cold, hard cash: When it comes to Ptolus-related products alone, I've spent close to $300. (The big book, the separate PDFs, Banewarrens, Chaositech, Demon God's Fane, the original version of Queen of Lies, and the Ptolus-revision of Queen of Lies. Plus the Deluxe City Map, the adventure maps, and the sketchbooks.)
But enough is enough.
(And a quick Google indicates that I just coined the term "copy fascism". Awesome.)
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October 23rd, 2007
Just a quick reminder that John and Abigail re-opens tonight for a limited four-night engagement at the South High Skybox Theater. If you can't make the show because you aren't in Minneapolis, but you do happen to be in Boston on October 25th, you can attend a re-enactment of the wedding of John and Abigail Adams at the Adams National Historical Park. It sounds fascinating, and I wish that I could make it.
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October 24th, 2007
As part of the Ptolus campaign I've been running, my players have recently been running through Mini-Adventure 1: The Complex of Zombies. Basically the entire complex has become part of Ghul's Labyrinth (specifically, it's where the tunnels leading from the "Trouble With Goblins" adventure from the Ptolus sourcebook end up). As part of this I replaced the large iron door in area 10 of the complex with a door of blue steel and then put the password for opening the door safely on the other side (essentially creating a dead-end for the adventure).
But, because I like to be prepared, I did make a decision regarding what the password would be. In my notes for the dungeon I wrote:
I figured there was an outside chance that the goblins might get captured and, therefore, be available for interrogation. Since the goblins must know the password (since they came from the other side of the door), there was a chance (however slim) that the PCs might get the password out of them.
I didn't think that particularly likely, though.
What I didn't anticipate, however, was the unlikely synergy that would develop between area 11C and a particularly clever player. In the adventure, this area is described like this:
So the PCs encounter the blue steel door and they make a few Knowledge (local) checks to determine the properties of the door -- including the need for a password in order for the door to open. They shout out a couple of likely possibilities, and then one of the players says:
"I start reading the love letters out loud in front of the door."
... son of a bitch.
I didn't really want them to get past that door. So I figured that: (a) These letters might not even have been written when Athvor Krassek was the administrator here. (b) Even if they were, it's quite possible that neither member of the couple would have mentioned their boss by name in their love letters.
I didn't want to ignore the fact that this was a pretty nifty idea. But I did assign it a ridiculously low chance of happening, picked up the percentile dice, and rolled...
So after 4d20 minutes of reading (which turned out to be about 22 minutes), the door of blue steel swung open.
I would never intentionally design an adventure with the expectation that the PCs would take a bundle of love letters from location A and use them to open a locked door at location B. But watching that kind of unexpected success materialize out of seemingly thin air is the reason I love roleplaying games: There is a magical creativity which only happens when people get together.
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October 25th, 2007
The rules for how to handle the beginning of combat, awareness, surprise, initiative order, and flat-footedness are some of the sloppiest and most poorly written rules I've ever seen in an RPG. A recent forum discussion at Giant in the Playground got me thinking about these rules again, and so I went through the muddle mess of the Dungeon Master's Guide and tried to pull out all the actual rules for starting combat.
STARTING COMBAT - BY THE BOOK
Combat can start in one of three scenarios:
Preparing for Combat: If one side is unaware of the other, the side that is aware may make preparations before combat begins. The DM may track this time in rounds to determine how much the aware side can accomplish before the unaware combatants become aware of them. If the unaware side becomes aware, combat begins normally. If the unaware side remains unaware, the aware combatants still gain a surprise round (see below).
Surprise Round: If only some creatures are aware at the beginning of combat, the aware creatures roll initiative and can take a single standard action during the surprise round. The unaware combatants are considered flat-footed during the surprise round. Once the surprise round is completed, everyone else rolls initiative and combat continues normally.
Newcomers - Aware: If new combatants join the combat, and they are aware of the combat when they join it, they take their actions before everyone else in the round. The order in which they take their actions is determined by their Dexterity scores.
Newcomers - Unaware: If new combatants join the combat,and they are unaware of the combat when they join it (e.g., opening a door and unexpectedly finding people fighting behind it), they roll initiative checks and take their actions normally during the initiative sequence.
Simultaneous Action: The DM can attempt to cope with the consequences of simultaneous action in a completely ad hoc fashion if it seems appropriate (e.g., having a trap triggered by a character during the round not take effect until the end of the round).
STARTING COMBAT - THE WAY IT SHOULD BE
The way in which a combat begins depends on the awareness of the participants. If only some of the combatants have awareness, then combat begins with a surprise round (see below). There are four basic ways in which a combat can begin:
(1) If everyone on both sides are aware of the other side, combat starts immediately without a surprise round.
(2) If only some creatures on both sides are aware of the other side, combat starts immediately with a surprise round for the aware combatants.
(3) If one side is completely unaware, then the aware side can choose when to start combat. They can also choose whether to start it with a surprise round or they can all delay their actions and start it with a normal round in which they get to take the first actions.
(4) If one side is completely unaware and only some combatants on the other side are aware, then the aware combatants make a choice of when to start combat (and they can wait to start combat while they make other combatants on their side aware).
A combatant has awareness if they know that combat is about to begin. At a bare minimum, this requires that the combatant be aware of the presence of their opponents. In most cases, therefore, awareness can be determined by using Spot check and Listen checks. In some cases, a Sense Motive check may be appropriate.
Spot Checks: A simple Spot check
Concealment: Even if a Spot check is successful, if the opponent has concealment the percentage concealment chance applies each round. (For example, if a party of orcs is approaching the party through a foggy forest, there is a 20% chance that -- even if the Spot check would normally succeed -- the orcs will not be seen.)
Cover: If a creature has total cover, it cannot be seen. (For example, if a party of orcs is on the other side of a solid wall, a Spot check cannot be used to become aware of the orcs.)
Sight Ranges: Use the tables below to determine the maximum range of sight in different terrains.
Listen Checks: If an opponent is not detected through a Spot check, it may still be possible to become aware of them with a Listen check. (Whether this results in an awareness that combat is about to begin will depend on how accurately the character identifies what they're hearing and what action they take in response to it.)
Sense Motive: If a non-hostile encounters suddenly becomes a violent one, a Sense Motive check opposed by the Bluff check of the person initiating hostilities is the most appropriate way to determine if a character is aware that combat is about to begin. (The character initiating hostilities, of course, is automatically aware.)
Once combat has begun, all combatants roll an initiative check (1d20 + Dexterity modifier + initiative modifiers). Characters act in order, counting down from highest result to lowest. In every round that follows, the characters act in the same order (unless a character takes an action that results in his or her initiative changing. If two or more combatants have the same initiative check result, the combatants who are tied act in order of total initiative modifier (highest first). If there is still a tie, the tied characters should roll again to determine which one of them goes before the other.
If some but not all of the combatants are aware of their opponents, a surprise round happens before regular rounds begin. Any combatants aware of the opponents can act in the surprise round, so they roll for initiative. In initiative order (highest to lowest), combatants who started the battle aware of their opponents each take a standard action during the surprise round. You can also take free, immediate, and swift actions during the surprise round. If no one or everyone is surprised, no surprise round occurs.
Combatants are flat-footed until they take an action during combat (either during the surprise round or during regular rounds). A flat-footed combatant loses their Dexterity bonus to AC (if any), cannot make attacks of opportunity, and cannot take swift actions.
If a new combatant becomes aware of the combat after it has begun, the new combatant immediately rolls an initiative check. The new combatant takes their turn normally in the initiative order, but cannot take any action during their first turn. (Note that a new combatant may become aware of the combat without the existing combatants becoming aware of them. If this happens, the new combatant may be able to safely "burn" their turn of inaction without revealing themselves.)
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October 26th, 2007
REVISED STAT BLOCKS - CORRECTION
Apparently I uploaded the wrong file for my revised stat blocks. Keith Davies was kind enough to point out that there were not, in fact, sample stat blocks for goblins and balors in the version of the file that was uploaded.
The correct version of the file has now been uploaded.
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October 28th, 2007
Now, it's important to understand that he was trying to argue that I was misinterpreting Rich Burlew. That Burlew never intended for his Diplomacy rules to be used in order to determine whether or not someone wants to accept a deal. This despite the fact that Burlew wrote:
Now, if you can read "I want a clear and concise mechanic for determining how people react to specific requests" and interpret that to mean "I want a clear and concise mechanic for determining how people react to specific requests (after I've already decided how they'll react to the request)" -- despite the fact that Burlew then goes on to specifically say that this is not what he wants the rules to do -- then you're an idiot.
EDIT (12/7/2007): I just received a long, rambling e-mail from Zincorium in which he accuses me of deliberately lambasting Burlew on his own personal forums in a fit of ungrateful spite that was both "arrogant" and "in poor taste". This is the same Burlew, you'll note, who I said had "nailed it" in his handling of Diplomacy. Allow me to quote myself:
I can see how "one of the best dynamics for basic social skill resolution I've ever seen in a traditional RPG" could be interpreted as "Burlew, you SUCK!", can't you?
(I'm sorry, my sarcasm switch seems to be stuck in the "on" position.)
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