Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dungeons and Dragons: Skills in DnD- On the Job Training

Before I dive into the supplemental rules I’m using for languages, I’ll briefly mention the original tweak that led to these rules. It’s something I refer to as On The Job Training, and it allows an extra layer of customization for characters. Somewhere between first and third (or 11th and 13th, or 21st and 23rd) level, players determine that there is a particular skill they’re using a lot, but not trained in. At 3rd/13th/23rd level, players select this skill and receive a +1 bonus to checks with it. This bonus increases by a cumulative +1 for each odd level reached in the tier; when players attain the next tier, they simply become trained in the skill.

I like this option because it addresses something I’ve experienced in most 4e games, which is that certain skills are simply missing from the party (or in the hands of folks not especially well-suited to their use) and other characters are constantly rolling those skills despite lack of training, banking on the rp bonus to pull them through. For myself, this happens a lot because very few of my characters have diplomacy or bluff relative to how many of my characters give long speeches. I like to monologue, whether to deliver horrifying threats to humbled villains before I send their souls to the Abyss or to inspire the party to do something awesome like drop a bridge on a dragon. I don’t always create my characters with the expectation that they’ll do these things (though I’m starting to bow to it), but even if I did, many characters lack the necessary skills on their skill list to make this possible. See also my comments regarding Intimidation in my last language post.

I recognize that 4e already provides a few options for players to pick up skills they’re using (or that the party needs someone to use), but I feel that this option solves things more logically and attractively. Obviously, a player could simply take a feat to gain training in a skill, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one do so; it’s usually much more sensical to pick up a multiclass feat so you get the skill and something else. However, that’s usually a choice made at or around character creation. I have played characters who switched up their multiclass, but this was usually prompted by the publication of new books rather than seeking a different skill.

Characters can also retrain, but as someone who puts roleplaying pretty high on my list of priorities I struggle with the idea that Thog the barbarian suddenly forgot everything that he knew about nature in order to…hell, I don’t even know what else is on their skill list. You get the point. Plus, retraining still locks you into your skill list in the first place, which isn’t helpful if Thog is a Thaneborn who suddenly finds himself thrust into a leadership role and would like to be a bit more politic than just introducing everyone to his axe. The issues I’ve outlined in this paragraph also explain why I don’t view backgrounds as much of a solution.

I want the perception that players grow as they gain experience, and giving them an incremental bonus as they increase their familiarity with a skill dos this. I suppose I could have just opened up retraining to let a player replace a skill on their list, but then they’re spending their retrain for a level, still doing that forgetting thing, and there’s the loss of a sense of learning. I don’t want Thog the Face to be a silver-tongued devil immediately, but I want players to gradually grow in confidence as his skills improve.

Now, one problem that’s already been demonstrated to me by an applicant for Tinderbox is how the on-the-job training bonus combines with Bard of All Trades; so a simple “this bonus does not stack with other feat or class bonuses” probably does the trick, since it means the character will use the higher bonus until such time as On the Job surpasses it or the skill becomes trained. I don’t tend to look at interactions like that as crises, since they usually give the player additional options and expect them to make proper choices.

This is a rule I'm using in Tinderbox, and hopefully it'll spread some of the key roles (from a skill perspective) around the party's class roles.

Language in DnD: Part 3- Headless Turtle

(My turtle is sleeping on a pair of my pajama pants right now, but with her head tucked into her shell.)

Now, the mechanical benefits section could be taken as odd or unnecessary, especially if I've already convinced you of the need for language revolution with all of my appeals to setting richness and roleplaying.

However, many of the benefits are simply psychological; someone likes to be addressed in their own language. DMs can certainly apply circumstance bonuses to reflect this, and I'd encourage it; but in the case of goblins, for instance, the effect is even more considerable. Even if I were awarding a player a +2 bonus on a Diplomacy roll for an impassioned plea for mercy from a Despot Goblin holding a spear to his throat, I'd still also give them the bonus for speaking Goblin to a goblin. The Despot is moved by the eloquence of his captive, but further moved that his captive is managing to be eloquent in Goblin. I'd apply both bonuses even if the character was also a goblin, since in that case there's the added empathy of staring into a like face.

The Draconic and Elemental Tongue bonuses (and possibly the Spirit tongue, which I'm mulling over as I type this sentence) have a bit of that extra mystical flare to them. They aren't just psychologically appealing, they're essentially appealing, in that they speak to something at the core of the audience member. The effects will presumably come into play less often in the Tinderbox campaign than the benefit of knowing Goblin. What makes them powerful, though, is their capacity for use in situations where the audience can't talk. The krask are a good borderline example, as krask are fairly unintelligent and almost never know any language other than Draconic. A player has no hope of convincing a krask to halt its charge if he calls out in Dwarven, for example; but the same command delivered in Draconic gets a boost. Players, even non-rangers, could use similar tactics when beset by guard drakes, which are a fairly common creature in the Tran Empire.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Movie Review: Red

I recently took a trip out to Kansas to visit my lovlier half. It was a wondrous trip, at least partially due to our not having seen each other for about two months. We did all the trip things we do: eat at Olive Garden, walk around Barnes and Noble, watch Nickelodeon.

But after today I thoroughly regret our not doing one that thing was on our list but a low priority: seeing Red.

I am sorry for the pun; I didn’t intend to put it there, I hoped to avoid it, but now it’s present and we all have to live with it in our lives. Her life (“Her” being my lovely lady) is likely to remain tragically unenriched by the experience of Red, at least until it hits DVD and we’re in the same city; she’s not much for hitting the theater by herself. But you, dear reader, could go watch it right now. And you should.

I’ve already expressed my appreciation for The Losers, another excellent film sharing many virtues with Red. I’ve also talked up The Expendables as a fun romp where a bunch of action stars get together and are burly and violent (or tiny and violent, in Jet Li’s case). With Red, we have the lighthearted and generally overblown approach to plot and villainy of the former, with an ensemble cast like the latter—only instead of Red’s cast being comprised of action stars, they’re really talented actors, some of whom can also fire a gun or get into a vicious, choreographed fight.

Bruce Willis (also in The Expendables) is great as Frank Moses, but is that really news? Outside of films like The Kid, does Willis’s performance still require commendation? If nothing else, he seems completely comfortable in this action roll. He’s able to remain extremely understand and laconic without coming off drugged or oblivious. Freeman and Malkovich are also spectacular, each stealing scenes in ways that suit their respective characters. Malkovich’s Marvin is guano crazy, though justifiably so; Freeman’s Joe oozes an affable charm. It’s interesting to view these characters as retirees and feel like one has a sense of what they would have been like in their youth, flying around the globe committing espionage. Joe seems like he’d have been very much a faceman, while Marvin probably didn’t get to interact with people much…though the special surprise during the credits might fly in the face of those assumptions. Karl Urban gives a performance which isn’t nearly as entertaining as Bones, but I’m just happy any time I see the guy getting scenes where he uses full sentences and doesn’t have to be angry at everyone. Richard Dreyfus, whom the lady and I both loved in My Life in Ruins, also has fun with his relatively small role…and gets pimp-slapped by Morgan Freeman, which might very well be a hearkening back to one of his early roles.

I know some men prefer women several years older, though I can’t claim to have ever been one such fellow myself. But Helen Mirren’s performance in Red gave me many reasons to reconsider my predilections. John Rogers mentioned, in a review of Body Heat, that one of the incredible things in that move is Kathleen Turner isn’t the “most gorgeous creature on earth -- until the film convinces you she is.” I’ve loved that line since I read his review, and it was at the forefront of my mind when Mirren’s character is introduced and Morgan Freeman declares she’s still sexy. I don’t know if it’s Mirren’s incredible charisma and vacillation between practical arctic camo and elegant dress (both ivory) that sold me, or that the innate response of a human being to Freeman’s voice making a declaration is immediate agreement. She fabulously portrays a character who remains “one of the boys,” where by boys I here mean a trio of still-lethal superspies…but does so while also remaining inarguably and irresistibly feminine.

Mary-Louise Parker also shines in the film, to the point where I felt guilty that I stopped watching Weeds after two seasons. I don’t think that I actually feel bad enough about it to go back to watching Weeds, but it was nice to be reminded of her exceptional charisma. In a film with so many big names, Parker’s Sarah Ross is content to sit back and react…and that’s what makes her so great. With her alabaster skin and wondrously expressive face, she’s at her most compelling when she has nothing to say—and while that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it’s wholly genuine.

I also loved the earliest scenes depicting Willis and Parker. In an alternate universe there’s a movie that is just shy of two hours of them courting one another over the phone, followed by fifteen minutes of explosions. And I would probably watch that movie.

The movie is fun, well-written, and acted in such a way that one can’t ignore the familiarity its stars have with their craft. Your experience may vary, but I find that extremely engaging, and am a sucker for films where the cast seems to be having fun and not feeling especially stressed. Combine that with lots of gunshots and explosions and Red is a very satisfying, worthwhile experience.

However, I do want to voice one small caveat. This is something I’ve become more conscious of in the last few months (specifically in Dungeons and Dragons Online, which I might address at a later time), and it’s gradually growing more noticeable: the morality in Red is thoroughly ambiguous. I don’t just mean the cloak and dagger, “can you trust your government?” elements to the plot, either. There are least two points when characters, thoroughly likeable ones at that, lament how long it’s been since they’ve killed someone or how difficult it is to stop killing people. And in both of those situations the context is completely lacking.

When we learn Frank Moses was a black ops man (and if that’s a spoiler, people…come on now), the information is carefully packaged to focus on his killing terrorists and drug dealers. The movie spends very little time trying to convince us that Frank is a bad, or even morally questionable, man. Marvin is initially presented as being dangerously paranoid, but the scope of what the retirees are caught in quickly vindicates his apparent mania. Yet when these other characters talk about killing, there’s no discussion about their targets. It made scenes where the team is quite clearly going out of their way to avoid killing other people, both innocents and armed lackeys, ring somewhat false. I was surprised that there was not even a suggestion that certain people are reasonable targets for execution because of their lines of work. I suppose if the film actually did present that sort of argument, it might invalidate the premise of the movie itself.

So maybe I’m glad it didn’t. I don’t think the absence of that moral conversation breaks the film or makes it impossible to enjoy. I’ll be purchasing it the weekend it hits DVD, so that I can sit back and enjoy a double-feature of The Losers and Red….and The A-Team…and The Expendables. That’s less a double-feature, more a movie orgy—and I’m looking forward to it.