Quick Characters

So here is a fun fact- After 20 months, my gaming group has just finished H1 Keep on the Shadowfell.  Seems like a long time to get from level 1-5?  Probably, but you should look at this more of an indication of how busy our lives are.  Sometimes its months betweens sessions.  Anyway, as a result we have had to use a rule where we play of there are more then 1/2 the players able to show up. This means most sessions one or two players have to play an absent players character.  No one complains, but over time I have come to realize it dampens the role playing.  No one gets a full round to plan their next big move, because they have to take a few minutes and figure out what Bobs character can do, expecially if Bob's character uses totally different mechanics then they are used too.

Some DMs simply rule that the characters of absent players fade into the woodwork, and reappear the next session when the player returns.  I am too much of obsessive stickler for story continuity to go for that, and I feel like it removes some of the immersion in the story for the players.

So in the DMG2 on pages 28-33 there are the rules for creating a Companion Character- sort of a stats-lite version of a PC but layed out in a monster stat block..  WotC designed the companion character to fill the role of a semi-NPC that the players can control in addition to their own character, like the Robin to their Batman.  Reading the rules on it, it is totally designed to be the sidekick to your character- and thus never overshadowing your PC.

"Aha", thinks I- just what I have been looking for.  So with some tinkering, I condensed down the companion creation rules, to be used to convert an existing PC into a 1 page companion character.  My thinking is that the DM would create a Quick Character sheet for each PC in their campaign, and keep them for when some people can't make it.  Players can then choose to run the absent player's characters using the Quick Character sheet for that PC, or simply trade it around the table as they see fit.

I am thinking of the Quick Character as an 'instanced' version of the PC.  They would still be part of the ongoing story, and their main abilities would be there for the party.  But at the same time they are streamlined enough to not be a complex burden on the player running it in addition to their own. Equally important is that all the complex and super cool mechanics are 'turned off' so that only the player who owns it gets do the really cool stuff.  And since its instanced, when they return the next session, everything is just as they left it- none of their daily powers have been expended, and all their stuff is just how they left it.

In terms of death, I see the Quick Character as never actually able to die, but instead why they get below zero HP, they simply are unconscious until the end of the encounter or until someone gives them healing.  No need for death saves, since that mechanic is there prevent players from having nothing to do once their character is down.  But in this case, having the Quick Character knocked out frees them up to focus on their main character.  (On the character sheet, I did add the Death Save check boxes, because I figured other DMs might still want to use them.)

I also had the thought while working on this, that this might be a good solution for young or new players who would find regular 4E too complex.  The DM could create their character for them in the Character creator, but then let them play from the Quick Character sheet until they are ready for the full character sheet.

Anyway, here are the instructions, and a one sheet Quick character sheet included on the last page as a PDF form.  You can fill it in Adobe reader and print it out a Quick Character Sheet for each PC.

Download Quick_Character_sheet.pdf [350 kb]

(Use the comments fields to let me know your feedback on how it works for you.)

Somewhere recently one one of the blogs out there, I read about someones house rule where absent players character only get 1/2 the normal xp from a session.  (if anyone knows where that was posted, let me know in the comments.)

I am trying out with my group doing that, but giving that xp to the person who runs the Quick Character for that session.  That gives a the person playing the second PC a reward, as well as is a good motivator to get people to not miss too many sessions.


For the last few months, I have been exploring the vibrant OSR scene.  I am still involved with 4E D&D, but I have been less fired up about it since they announced the new products for 2010.  It feels like WotC has successfully launched the system, and so for this year they are working on expanding their base of players, and going back and doing some polishing.  I just got the Plane Above that looks like a good read, and I am sure I will pick up the Dark Sun books, but otherwise 4E is not going to be my main focus for a while.

So instead I have been looking at Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, as well as OSRIC and 1E AD&D scene.  The key philosophy that the old idiosyncratic rules systems don't need 'fixing' or 'expanding upon' is kind of interesting. (Here is the primer for OSR gaming that explains it better then I can.)

I think for me the draw is the fact that it keeps the focus on the game session as a social interaction, with "rules" more akin to social rules at a party.  the other draw are the freer OGL type rules that allow creating supplements that can be sold on Lulu.

In any case, I will callout what system a posting is referring to going forward.

The standard 10

So in the weekly game this past session, one of the players took me to task on the fact that I was making him making roll a nature check to identify a type of fungus.  He cited a rule about a there being a standard 10 you would use, without a roll.  Having no recollection of this, I looked it up after the game, and found indeed there was the following rule on page 179 of the Players Handbook I had missed somehow:

Take 10

When you’re not in a rush, not being threatened or distracted (when you’re outside an encounter), and when you’re dealing with a mundane task, you can choose to take 10. Instead of rolling a d20, determine your skill check result as if you had rolled the average (10). When you take 10, your result equals your skill modifiers (including one-half your level) + 10. For mundane tasks, taking 10 usually results in a success.

So basically to speed up gameplay, and not have people rolling for things their character would reasonably know, the rule lets you just take the average result and assume it is rolled by default.  I can see how this improves the storytelling flow- no more stopping in the middle of describing a scene to tell the players what they know about what they see- instead you just tell them as part of the description.  But on the other hand, I think if a player asks me a question about the room, I sometimes make them roll to give me a moment to get caught up and think of what the answer will be.  But that is more using the roll for a crutch, and when players recognize it, it would hurt the game.

Thinking it over, I am basically for it.  But thinking of myself in the game, I realized I needed a chart to see the highest DCs for each skill covered by the party- so when I am describing them something as a group, I can look down at a chart and know that one person knows X, and call that out.  (like, "you enter a clearing, and everyone immediately notices the strange tree at the center.  Bob with his high Nature skill recognizes it as a death pine- Bob do you let the party know to avoid it?")

So calculating every party member's result with a 10 in place of the die roll took a little while, but I am sure there is a way to automate it- and then figured out the highest DC for which they would have a success result.  This is the chart I came up with, using Google Docs:


As the character's skill levels go up, (due to increased stats, or their 1/2 level bonus, I would need to revisit this chart.)

So now I can have this out behind the screen while DMing, and refer to it when I get to a point where the players gain knowledge, or are trying out of combat actions, and can look and see who succeeds without a skill check.  The real advantage is now I can write up richer description text ahead of time, because I now can see what the players will know by default.  of course if they want to use a skill roll to investigate further, there is always more knowledge they will be able to discover.


A Matter of Perspective

So I have been playing around with the one of the comments that James Wyatt, Ray Winninger, and others have said about the creation of a campaign world.  Basically, that pearl of wisdom is "don't bury your players with needless information."  In other words, even though the world building itch motivates many DMs to create lavish 20,000 years of history for their world, along with 15 nations, and epic songs and other legends to populate the world- that urge should be resisted.  The reasoning is 1) you will burn out before the first game session can happen, and 2) the players will be overwhelmed and get bored.

In UX this is sometimes called the "wall of noise". where users are confronted with a web page full of information, but it is all given equal weight.  That kind of appeals to modernist, Bauhausian design aesthetics (everything is a modular part on the page) but it becomes an overly rhythmic interface for the user— there is no useful irregularities for them to see a hierarchy of importance.  And designers are not only supposed to be making a nice looking page, but also guide the user to the most important things.

When a designer is crating a landing page for users who may lack any fore knowledge on the subject, it is good design to make it asymmetrical and kind of lumpy- with the things you want them to do by default all up in their face, and the less important stuff kind of squished into the background.

In Windows, Microsoft encountered a wall of noise problem.  User testing showed that new computer users were flummoxed by the windows 3.1 desktop, and didn't know which of the similar drop downs at the top of held the important to them tools.  The designers had just assumed people knew how to dive in and use this tool they had built.  But when they realized the problem, their solution was to put a big fat Start Button in the lower left corner of the screen in Windows 95.

Back to world building, the basic idea suggested by the experts is for the DM to detail the party's starting area in detail, and then get progressive more vague outside of the town.  This lets the players understand what they should be worrying about, and not get them worked up about the cool kingdom over the impassible mountains, until they are ready to go over there.  Sort of a Bullseye of information centered on the tavern where the players get their quests.

That got me thinking about how to provide the party with their maps.  The most logical approach would be to put some tissue paper over the world map, and draw a set of concentric circles around the starting town, and then draw in map details, with each ring getting more vague and sketchy, until outside the largest ring it would simply be "here there be monsters" or terra incognita.

Which I suppose it would be a good mental model for a party of peasants who had never left their hamlet.  But its pretty rare that you get a group of players willing to start their characters off at such mundane level.  Players want to start off with cool world wise characters, who have ended up coming to the town, like the Seven Samurai, to sort out the local problems.  So it is not fitting to be with holding information form the players, when their characters would probably know more.

So the thing I have been playing around with is perspective maps.  It is closer to the mental model we humans have when thinking spatially, and is more a reflection of where we are, and how we see the world around us. 

Some classic examples 

So playing around with the default setting in the Dungeon Master's Guide, and Google Sketchup, I made a low quality 3D version of Mike Schley'svery cool map of the Nentir Vale.  (which I am using here without permission.)  The idea of this experiment is to show to the players how their characters would see the Nentir Vale mentally from their home base in Fallcrest.

 The 3D map


Looking North East

Looking North West

Looking South East

Looking South West

The view looking back at Fallcrest from Winterhaven


...and the view looking back from Hammerfast

Now this perspective is hovering about 12 miles in the air, but everything in the map is exaggerated.  (the forests are about a mile tall, and Thunderspire is about the height of Mount Everest, if this was all to scale.)

Probably it would be better to offer the players a 360 Quicktime VR type online tool, where they could look around the Nentir Vale from Fallcrest, and get a real feel for their environment.  And then by the nature of their perceived proximity, they are able to understand the things they should be focusing on.



Stuck on Stickers

I am a huge fan of stickers. Maybe it goes back to elementary school, when rather then grades, you got a cool sticker on your homework, if you did good enough. It was a very clear and rewarding indication of success. I am sure some teacher was having a hard time getting a bunch of 10 year olds to understand why getting a "checkmark plus" was something to stive for, while getting a "X" was to be avoided.

They probably began drawing smiley faces and frowny faces on homework to show graphically the emotion the student's hard work (or lack there of) had produced in the heart of their teacher. But at a certain age, kids get wise to that sort of guilt manipulation and stop caring. So then one enterprising teacher browsing in Woolworth's, saw a sheet of stickers for the Monkees or something, and had the idea of decorating the successful papers to give their student's tangible results on their homework.

I like tangible results. They encourage users to continue with behavior that you as a designer want to encourage. Also I like stickers, because they are empowering. You can peel them off and apply them to something, changing it. leaving your mark on it. Transforming it by your own hand.

In my D&D game we have found that it has been hard to track effects that last for more then the length of a turn. As the DM I have had to keep a legal pad ready to track just what all is going on with the Mobs, and who has used an action point, etc. But as the players get higher level they gain powers that have more complex effects, many of which combine to produce powerful results. So important for everyone to be able to understand every effect that is inplay at the start of their turn.

I saw where Kiko from Penny Arcade designed status effect stickers that could be printed out on an ink jet printer. I am sure the idea has been around as long as printers have been cheap. I can recall watching the Napoleonic wargamers at the old Rusty Scabbard (my local RPG store when I was in high-school) would drop small colored rubber gaskets around soldiers necks when they were killed. (they played with smaller scale minis, so a company of 5 men were all attached to the same rectangular base- so they would not remove the unit till all were dead.)

And then also Bdrago at Eberron Strikes Back took that idea and created a sheet of status effects, and also Bloodied status stickers, using the perfectly sized ¾"round labels. (I am sure other people have also put their spin on the idea, but these are the ones I saw.) So anyway, I thought that was pretty brilliant, and created my own take on the game aid:

» Download Status Sticker Set (.5 MB PDF)

(Print on the Avery #5408 round ¾" printable labels)



Bloodied, Second Wind, Failed Death Save, Dazed, Weakened, Slowed, Immobile, Poisoned

Damage Types

Fire, Cold, Acid, Electricity, Thunder, Radiant, Necrotic, Psionic


A sheet of variously colored Marking indicators (so different players can have their own color. Even the Warlock.)

+/- 2,5,10,15 markers (For use for other ongoing effects, and other specific situations. For instance, as a reminder that a character has cover (and thus a -2 to be hit) from a specific enemy. You might use a -2 lable, and draw an arrow toward the enemy it applies to.

...anyway leave a comment and let me know how well these work, or if there is anything I have overlooked. I am thinking of these more as player reminders, which is why I focused more on unique colors then trying to cover every situation. Anyway, If i had to choose between noting on a sheet of paper that I had caused an ongoing fire damage effect, versus getting to slap a big old "on fire" sticker with flames on it, on the DM's fancy troll mini, I know what I would pick as a player.