Category Archives: Tabletop

On High-Value Targets

Blaugust Post #24

Shadowrun is certainly going interestingly. Our group has managed to make a name of sorts for ourselves in Boston, getting us closer to some of the objectives we got there for (and a brand new one that pays really well). The problem is that completing some of these jobs is likely to bring a ton of heat onto us in very short order, probably to the level that will force us to leave Boston.

the prodigies

We’re nothing if not ambitious, however.

Instead of picking and choosing, we’re trying to get several of the jobs done within a time span of about 48 hours. During this period, we’ll have to erase police records, protect a series of shipments (with a large side order of gang violence), break into a well-guarded mansion, and potentially recover a magical item of unknown origin (currently held by a shadowrunner team with different goals). On top of all of this, another opposing team is probably keeping track of us and may have to be dealt with.

the prodigies home base

As the team’s decker, I get to study up on the disabling aspects of matrix use. I’m far from the most gifted character in combat, and it looks like we might be doing a lot of it. On the other hand, forcing things quickly means that subtlety is not as much of a concern. This is good for me, because my ability to be loud and break things is better than my ability to sneak, both electronically and in meatspace.

At this point, what could possibly go wrong?

On Abstraction

Shadowrun has done interesting things with hacking over the years. In the game I’m currently in, I am our decker, which is to say I’m called on whenever something needs to be hacked. Given the setting, having someone capable of doing this is almost required, although they don’t have to be a decker. Regardless, they’ll need access to the matrix (the internet, according to Shadowrun) and some way of doing things in a less-than-legitimate fashion.

The Way Things Were

In 4th edition, the section of the book that dealt with hacking was rather long and complex, and required a lot of knowledge of real-world networks to make any sense of. Actually using any of it in-game basically required the GM to be running two games at once, one for the hacker and one for everyone else. If complex enough, possibly the rest of the party could go out for lunch in the meantime. (As a side note, this is the real reason you never split the party.) The hacking in 4th was an attempt to make things “more realistic” but it wasn’t great for the pace of the game, or even really for good play.

The Way Things Are

5th decided to abandon that, and went for a system where hacking things depends on establishing marks which can be used to access/control/whatever a given matrix entity. It also established that the “inside” of a host should resemble the physical area, which means that if you need to provide on-the-fly support to a run, you can be presented in the same game space. This obviously has no relation to how actual networking works, but it’s a much better fit for the game system. If you also tack on things like an inability to do the required hacking ahead of time (because you can’t be logged in forever without consequence and marks fade when you log out) and the requirement to be somewhat physically close to whatever you’re hacking (because there are noise penalties for trying to hack a building from across town), suddenly the hacker is a member of the team again, and has to play the game along with everyone else.


“More Realistic”

That phrase I used seems to come up a lot, although usually in the context of video games and not Tabletop RPGs (although that might explain how it found its way into Shadowrun 4). It was the driving principle behind the failed Kickstarter, Clang. Yet when people get what they ask for, the result is often not what they expect.

When I was working at the MIT Game Lab (then called the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab), one of our projects looked at the (then relatively new) Wii Remote, to see what we could do in terms of using it as a motion control device. One of the first things we tried to simulate was the cracking of a whip. If you’ve ever done this in real life, you might know that it’s not quite as easy as it looks in media, and at first we attempted to require similar motions in the game we were building. We eventually found that this frustrated players, and eventually eased off and implemented a much simpler (but more intuitive) motion.

I think what’s desired isn’t to have more realism, but more believability. As long as this thing works this way, and always works this way, it doesn’t matter quite as much if reality doesn’t also work this way. Sometimes reality is boring, that’s why we play games in the first place.

On Pink Mohawks

So as the D&D game is winding down (possibly involving both dungeons and actual dragons), I’m looking to the next thing that I’m likely to take part in, which is Shadowrun. For those who are unaware, Shadowrun is a cyberpunk setting that also happens to include magic and some “traditional fantasy races” although not in traditional roles, in some cases. For more info, play one of the recent Shadowrun Returns games.

The Shadowrun setting is a bit of a relic of the 80s, and has some weird things in it associated with that. Some of those have been touched on in later editions (4e and 5e decided that “everything is wireless”), but some have not. The New Age movement influenced the political landscape in Shadowrun, including a nation of hippie elves and Native Americans taking over most of the US. Megacorps are a product of the time the game was written (and the term itself is borrowed from William Gibson)*. Virtual reality did not quite take off like the writers expected**. The fall of the Soviet Union was unexpected, but the only effect in the setting is that the name is changed from USSR to “Russian Federation”***. In 2015, some of it is quite anachronistic for what’s supposed to be the future. On the other hand, they were prescient about a few things. The Internet wasn’t really a thing in the 80s, but it is in Shadowrun, and it absolutely is now. Everything having wireless capability can’t really be credited to the 80s (it was introduced in 4e, written in 2005). Drones that were part of Science Fiction in the 80s are a very real part of military technology now. Other things aren’t quite a reality, but we’re getting there, like cybernetics and brain interfaces.

*We can talk about Wal-Mart and GE and Google and Japan in general, but they aren’t quite there yet.

**We can talk about the current VR wave if you want, but I’m not yet convinced it’s going to go differently than the last few.

***This one I’m not going to talk about, sorry.


Black Trenchcoats

A major part of the way the game is assumed to go is that you are part of a team doing somewhat illegal things for a mysterious benefactor (called Mr. Johnson regardless of their actual name). Some players view this whole conceit more seriously than others, and the terms that have arisen to describe this are “Black Trenchcoat” and “Pink Mohawk”. The names play off of sterotypes: In a Black Trenchcoat game, everyone is wearing a black trenchcoat and trying not to attract attention and complete the mission, and so on. In a Pink Mohawk game, someone shows up with a Pink Mohawk, and everyone else is okay with that.

Personally I don’t see the distinction as quite so black and white, but that might be because I’m predisposed to the latter style anyway. Even if the tone of a game is entirely serious, I think things are more interesting with a bit of personality. Shadowrun mechanically encourages this somewhat with the addition of positive and negative qualities available during character creation. (For the curious, a pink mohawk would almost certainly fall under “Distinctive Style”, a negative quality worth 5 Karma.) Being serious, and competent and yes, even optimized doesn’t necessarily exclude having a bit of fun.


Interesting times

One of the best things to me in tabletop RPGs are what I’d like to call “Interesting Bad Ideas”. If everything goes as planned things can get boring (although a good GM won’t let this happen), and these provide nice hooks for things that are likely to be fun. While Kodra is usually a nice source of these in games we end up playing together, I’ve been known to make my fair share. Our previous D&D campaign was largely defined by a deal I attempted to make with a red dragon in the first session (It seemed like a good idea at the time). This is how we end up doing things like starting (and sometimes ending) wars and uncovering very odd artifacts and sometimes destroying large sections of the countryside and/or planets.

This Shadowrun campaign might be interesting, as there are two groups (one local to the GM and one through Roll20) running for similar goals. It’s yet to be seen if we’ll come into conflict, although I’m guessing we will, indirectly. My planned Shadowrun character is a bad idea personified (as well as the very incarnation of a running joke about a previous character of mine). Details of this aren’t exactly available to the rest of the party (the GM knows, of course), although a few of them would be able to quickly figure it out if they knew what to look for. From what I know so far of the other characters, I might not be the only one playing a disaster waiting to happen. It should be fun to see whose number comes up first.


On Random Number Generation, Continued

One of the things I like about d20 systems is that doing math relating to a d20 is really easy. There’s a 5% chance to roll any given number, so probability calculations can be done quickly without having to get out a calculator. That said, D&D does have a fair bit of math for which a calculator can be helpful. Usually I resort to anydice for complicated math, because I believe in making informed decisions. The most obvious thing here is the Advantage/Disadvantage system 5e adds.

More Like “This Advantage”

Advantage and disadvantage were among the first new mechanics revealed in playtesting for what was once called D&D Next. If you’re unaware, having advantage (or disadvantage) on a d20 roll allows you to roll two d20s and take the highest (or lowest) result. Mathematically, how many pluses or minuses this works out to depends on what number you needed to hit; it’s exactly equal to +5 or -5 if you’re looking at a target number of 11, decreasing as you need rolls that are farther from “average”.

advantage graph
The nature of this bonus makes sense if you stop and think about it. If you only need a low number, then your already high chances of success aren’t increased much by rolling a second die. If you need an extremely high number, your chances of success still aren’t very large. The system math keeps things mostly in the middle, so estimating it as +/-5 works in most cases.

Let Justice Be Done

I looked at it when examining fighter features, but paladins also get to pick a fighting style (but from a reduced list consisting of Defense, Protection, Dueling, and Great Weapon Fighting). It turns out that Paladins don’t value these equally, as great weapon fighting would appear to apply to smite damage, making it way out of line.

Normally, GW Fighting is an average boost of 1.33 damage per hit normally, but if you start adding smite damage this changes, getting better and better as you roll more dice. Jury’s still out on whether or not this works, so check with your DM. (Speaking of checking with your DM, it turns out the dueling style is intended to apply to sword and board. Point them at this if they say otherwise, but remember rule 0.)

On Random Number Generation

Blaugust is over, but that doesn’t mean my posting is going to stop. I’m aiming for Tuesday/Thursday, with maybe an extra post on the weekends at times. This week is a bit weird due to Labor Day.

This past Monday was the first D&D session with the new group, starting with being captured by a very powerful wizard and then escaping from the bandits and trapped dungeon she left to guard us. The party is now headed to Watchwall for various reasons, united primarily in the goal of figuring out why we were captured in the first place.

My virtual dice primarily failed me: I did not manage to hit anything with my Paladin’s giant stick at any point and rolled a 2 on survival (a skill I’m allegedly proficient in) in trying to figure out where we’d been taken. My track record with physical dice isn’t much better, I still remember rolling a 9 on a 6d6 Flame Strike. There were some successes: I rolled max damage on dragon breath and a very high persuade roll, earning us a break in the fighting until someone else put a dagger in the back of the person we were attempting to get information out of. (Even as a Paladin, you can’t save everyone.)

Like the Mountains of Illinois

D&D 5 is very flat, and the difference between being good at something and not good at it is not very large, especially at low levels. Previously (in 3.5) full ranks in a skill meant level+3, or +4 at level 1, going all the way up to +23 at level 20 (but probably much higher than that from synergies and magic) which meant that some skills had unusual rules interactions at high levels, and the difference between trained and untrained was impossible to overcome on any dice roll. By contrast, proficiency bonus is +2 at level 1 and only goes up to +6 at level 17, which means that even an untrained character can make certain rolls (albeit with a flat 30% lower chance of success). Rogues and bards can get double proficiency to certain rolls, so they can get up to +12, but they’re intended to have outlandish values on skill rolls as part of their class design.

In general, I like this approach, but I can see how some people would not. It does lead to a lot of chance inherent in most actions, as it’s next to impossible to have anything be a “sure thing” (although you can get close in some special cases). The trade-off for this is that untrained actions have an actual chance of success without rolling 20. (As a side note, this edition doesn’t give 20 or 1 special effects on skill checks or saves. They’re just numbers.) The highest suggested DC for anything in the player’s handbook is 30 for tasks that are “nearly impossible”. A non-bard/rogue with a 20 in the relevant stat at level 17 or higher would only hit such a target number when rolling 19 or better, so that description is fairly accurate.

I was going to discuss how I use anydice to sort out numeric things, but I think I’ve rambled on long enough. Maybe I’ll get to that next week.

On Fighter Options

I was asked about this, and what was a short email became a blog post. Fighters in D&D 5 have a number of choices to make quite early in their character development, so let’s examine them in a bit more detail.

Fighting Style

The first choice is what fighting style to take. For the sake of this particular discussion, I’m ignoring the fighting styles that don’t boost damage in some way, although they’re certainly worth considering (Protection in particular is rather powerful). We’re going to be examining these using Kodra’s assumption of 15 AC as a decent target, and a 16 in the primary attack stat.

  • Archery: This is a +2 to hit, or a flat 10% increase in your chance to hit (advantage/disadvantage can mess with that a bit). Longbow damage is therefore going to be .6(7.5)+.05(12) = 5.1 DPR at level 1. Fighters don’t get any thing that directly boosts this until their subclass choice, but that’s for later. No other style provides a boost to hit, so this one provides the most consistent damage.
  • Dueling: This would seem to be the default choice, but our DM has ruled that it doesn’t apply to sword and board. Anyway, at +2 to damage modeling this is also pretty straightforward: .5(9.5)+.05(14) = 5.45 DPR. Not bad, and it gives you a free hand to work with (which might be important depending on later choices).
  • Great Weapon Fighting: The important note here is that if you’re in this category, you’re probably planning to use the King of Weapons, the Greatsword, as it’s the objectively most damaging weapon in the book (although the Maul got moved up to match it). As such, this would come out ahead of the Dueling numbers without taking the style (5.85) but the style is another damage boost on top of this. The end result (assuming that you always reroll an initial roll of 1 or 2) is 6.65 DPR.
  • Two-Weapon Fighting: This should probably be evaluated differently because hitting with both hands requires your bonus action, but as a low-level fighter you don’t have any other uses for that anyway. This also requires light melee weapons (without a feat), which means you’re down to shortswords (or similar). Final damage is (.5(6.5) + .05(10))*2 = 7.5. This lead decreases when Extra Attack comes into play.

Martial Archetype

The choice between these really depends on what you want to do with your fighter. One thing to keep in mind is that fighters are still mostly supposed to use their weapons on things, and this remains true even if you’re a Battle Master or Eldritch Knight.


This one’s definitely the most straightforward. More criticals, another fighting style, and some bonuses to checks you’re probably not doing a lot (although it’s worth noting Remarkable Athlete does cover stealth checks if you don’t have proficiency). I don’t quite have Kodra’s patience for calculations, so I’ll trust him when he says that the critical bonus isn’t worth that much at low levels. The additional fighting style can be used either for defense or versatility. This archetype gives nothing that uses a bonus action, so TWF works fine with it.

Battle Master

All of the things people liked about the 4e Warlord ended up here, except constrained by a limited pool of superiority dice (which are recovered in a short or long rest). Many of the maneuvers you can pick from allow you to add the superiority die roll to the damage of an attack, making it better for damage than Improved Critical (as long as your dice last). Some of these require you to use a bonus action, making TWF a less attractive option for this archetype. There are other interesting things you can do in this one, like getting an off-turn sneak attack out of a rogue in the party if you have one (requires your bonus action and the target’s reaction). Once you run out of superiority dice, this archetype doesn’t have much to offer, but I know it’s Kodra’s favorite.

Eldritch Knight

This one’s a bit odd. The paragraph at the start of the archetype description hints at where this one is going, and what it gives you. While it does grant cantrips, they’re less likely to hit than weapon attacks unless your INT is abnormally high for a fighter (maybe you rolled for stats; consider Blade Ward if you’re more… typical) and will also do less damage in most cases (especially if you’re using a greatsword). The primary power here is access to one of the better Wizard defensive spells (Shield is very good) and some AOE that other fighters cannot duplicate (look for spells that still deal half-damage on a successful save like Burning Hands, or later, Fireball). At much later levels, you can start taking other wizard buffs, like Haste or Stoneskin. Spell slots are limited, so the primary thing you’ll be doing is still using your weapon. Because casting most spells requires a free hand, and later features do use your bonus action, TWF is a no-go for this archetype. Jury’s still out on if you can cast spells with a two-hander, so check with your DM. (I’d say yes, but it’s not entirely clear.) I personally think this might be the best archetype for “tank” type fighters.


That’s a lot of words to say “different choices work better in different situations”. Unlike Ranger, where I firmly believe one of the archetypes is weaker than the other, the fighter ones are all good in their own way. The Fighting style question is a little easier, as Great Weapon is great unless you have compelling reason not to use it (dex-based fighter, want protection style, etc.). Hope this helps anyone who’s intending to play a fighter in an upcoming game!

You know what this link is by now. Also, you have until the end of the weekend to finish the Four Job Fiesta. I apparently owe another $10 now.

On Placeholders

I was going to write about Hangeki, a game I enjoyed much more than RefleX, but I find myself away from my computer and that one deserves screenshots. Instead, you get more D&D.

A Dragonborn Paladin isn’t the most original of characters, but I think it’s what I’m going to play. I like lizard people, and I’ve honestly liked Dragonborn since the 4e Player’s Handbook. (I play Argonian in the Elder Scrolls games by default.) I like the “otherness” that races like that represent. The stereotypical class for Dragonborn is the paladin, and with the new options it’s finally a class that appeals to me. A new system seems like a good time to try something “standard”, so this is what it’ll be.

At the same time, I don’t want a stereotypical background. Unless I’m given a strong reason to do otherwise, I’m going to take the Outlander background, representing a character that grew up away from society. I want to break from the idea of the trained holy warrior because I dislike zealots. I liked the Guardian in GW2 for similar reasons. I still need to finish my character’s background, but I have a fairly good idea of where it’s going.

On Terrible Ideas, Re-examined

Wrapping up a week of posts primarily about D&D, I think I’ll take another look at that evoker from earlier.

Actually a Bad Idea

Overchannel does let you use it on spells from 1st to 5th level, but there really are limits to this sort of thing. Using it on Cone Of Cold is nice for your first maximized spell of the day, but as the second it will do 10d12 damage to you. At level 14 on average rolls you would have 80 hit points as a wizard (Con 14 assumed, which might be generous), so this is 65 damage to yourself on average and has a roughly 10% chance of dropping you from full HP. Fireball isn’t quite so bad, but 39 damage is a rather high number to be doing to yourself. If cast in a 5th level spell slot (the highest number for which you have more than 1/day). This represents a ~25 damage increase over casting it normally per target that doesn’t save, so you’re technically doing more damage out than you’re taking if you can catch two or more targets. It’s still a bad idea except in the most desperate of circumstances. Don’t do this.


Maximizing Potential

A generally better idea is to maximize something big for the one you get for free, and spend the rest on something like Chromatic Orb. As a first level spell, you only take 2d12 damage (average 13) from overchannelling this. It does 7d8 damage in a 5th level spell slot (4 points less when maximized than Fireball), but only hits a single target, and uses an attack roll instead of a DEX save (which is better for hitting monks/rogues and worse for hitting heavily armored fighters/paladins). Burning Hands (7d6) or Thunderwave (6d8) are other first level spells worth considering for use with this feature if you are a bit too close to a few too many enemies.

Since Concentration rules make CC in general worse than it used to be, I don’t think evoker is as much of a noob trap as Kodra makes it out to be. It just requires not overdoing it, and being aware that Fireball is not the only spell on your spell list.

For more posts about… everything, check out the Blaugust initiative. For a quick look at Divinity: Original Sin, check out Stargrace’s post from yesterday.

On Character Options

The Iron Kingdoms game I’m currently playing in is winding down, and with the launch of the new edition, it’s looking likely that I’ll end up in a D&D game soon. As always, the question becomes what to play. Since getting the book last week, I’ve been tossing a few things around. Since I happen to know that I’m going to be rolling stats for this character, what I play may depend on what stats I end up with.

The Default Choice

Now that there are a lot more animals to pick from, my default choice (a Druid focusing on shapeshifting) seems like a good option. The playtest druid encouraged focusing on martial stats, and wild shape provided a bonus to them (like in Pathfinder). The final druid lets wild shape replace your physical stats (like 3.5) but also adds the shape’s HP on top of your own. (To make up for this, most forms have fairly low AC.) I don’t know what race I’d use for this; Elf would be the obvious choice but I avoid playing elves whenever possible. Given the druid ability to mostly ignore physical stats, I’ll probably end up here if my rolls are particularly low.

The Bad Idea

I went over this one with a friend yesterday, but it would be entertaining to play a dragonborn (black dragon heritage) warlock for maximum bad ideas (also works with Half-Orc). I tend to avoid playing squishy arcane casters, but warlocks have a few options to help them stay alive and with blade pact at level 3, the ability to mix it up in melee themselves. This probably works better with a DEX-based character, but STR seems like it would be more fun. I haven’t played the big guy in the party in a while. It would take a lot of stats to make this work, however.

The New Toy

Paladins have 3 class options available to them. Oath of Devotion is similar to the traditional paladin, (with Flame Strike thrown in as a bonus spell for good measure). Oath of Vengeance is similar to the 4e avenger, and it’s a bit less supporty than the other options. The option I would play is Oath of the Ancients, which has a bit of the 4e Warden, making the paladin a bit less “holy warrior” and a bit more “defender of nature”. This gives it some spells from the druid spell list (including my new favorite, Moonbeam) and changed abilities (Channel Divinity allows you to turn fey instead of undead, for example). I like having a paladin that has “removed the stick”, so this might be an interesting thing to try.

All of these have a bit of magic and a lot of beatdown, so I guess that’s the sort of character I’ll be playing in whatever comes next. I expect some of my time is going to go into developing backgrounds for these characters, whether they see play or not.

For more posts about… everything, check out the Blaugust Initiative. Two posts today to make up for the lack of one yesterday: Maevrim starts to write about her 15 games, and Thalen talks about what he wants out of the new Sierra.

On Min-Maxing

There’s a certain mentality when it comes to pen and paper RPGs, the drive to “win the game” as it were. Kodra speaks about this in his preface to his post from two days ago, and I want to expand on it a bit. (For the record, I think the big winner in Wizard schools is Conjuration.)

Optimization is not Bad

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting your character to be better. Kodra and I occasionally talk about this sort of thing, we spent a lot of playtest time trying to figure out what was “broken”. When it came time to actually play the game proper, we mostly shied away from these things. Also, our usual DM probably would have murdered one or both of us if we brought in a triple-class character with an AC of 22 and 4 attacks per round at level 6.

But even in play, there’s no reason not to make informed decisions. While it might be fun to have a Monk with high strength, one with more dexterity will usually be better. While Rogues are proficient in clubs and longswords, class features are more effective if you use a rapier or dagger. If you’re a Wizard, you should probably try to have an intelligence of more than 8.


Roleplaying is Good

How much is too much depends on the playstyle of the group. An adventure that is a straight dungeon crawl may call for characters that are more combat-focused. If your adventures mostly require dealing with people in town and rarely getting into combat, then that wizard with 8 int might not slow you down too much, and will provide amusing RP possibilities. (You may also want to explore roleplaying systems that aren’t D&D; many others are better at this sort of thing.) Most groups will be somewhere in the middle, it depends on what your group finds fun.

When I feel it goes too far is when winning the game becomes a primary character goal. It can cause problems when not playing the same game as everyone else and rolls Pun-Pun when the rest of the party is more-or-less standard. There are more reasons for this than just roleplaying, an unbalanced party makes encounter design somewhat challenging. Things that challenge the super-character would crush the rest, and things that would challenge the rest are brushed aside handily. I think it’s better to come up with characters that fit the direction of your campaign, and see where it goes from there.

For more posts about… everything, check out the Blaugust Initiative.