Thursday, July 24, 2014

How Deep Is My Rabbit Hole

This sort of thing rubs me the wrong way. Specifically, this part:

It turns out that if you simply think "hey, there's a village of people here, maybe we can talk to them and figure out what's been going on" then the storyline starts to break considerably, and when the adventuring party starts to make peace treaties with them and get regular intelligence updates, a lot of later "OMG SURPRISE MONSTERS!" moments become less surprising. That's a good illustration of Fucked Up Trope #1: everyone you encounter, if they don't have a Special Plot Helmet, is presumed to be someone you're going to murder and rob, probably in that order.

Ok, by itself, yes, this points out an area where the Temple of Elemental Evil is surprisingly weak (especially compared to Keep on the Borderlands, Vault of the Drow, and especially Shrine of the Kuo-Toa). But that’s not his principal point.

Mr. Zungar’s pointing out the murder-hobos nature of D&D and asks, “Hey, what if we make peace with the hobgoblins instead of attacking them?”

To which I respond, and completely without sarcasm, “By what methods do you make peace with the hobgoblins?”

The hobgoblins are not some misunderstood noble savage, a more pure culture unsullied by contact with “civilization” or the magical brown people de jure. (Though I suppose in Mr. Zungar’s games they could be.) They are a race of slave-owning militarists who consider other sentient beings to be a delicious part of this complete breakfast. They’re medieval Nazis, or Spartans with the humanity filed off. Those who befriend the hobgoblins in the Caves of Chaos are likely to be invited to join them as they feast on plump merchant-and-wife. I don’t have ToEE in front of me right now, but I imagine the hobgoblins there are devotees of Zuggtmoy, demon-goddess of evil (and, one imagines, tasty) fungi. (Seriously, I could totally see Zuggtomy being an Underdark fertility figure, Goddess of the fungal fields, a sort of monstrous Persephone who seduces Hades and robs him of his fecundity in order to feed her legion of followers. Vault of the Drow kinda implies that she, and not Lolth, is the principal deity worshipped by the drow, and that Lolth is an upstart looking to instigate a coup.) In order to befriend the hobgoblins, will the PCs be expected to join the cult? Why not?

I think this is why I find Raggi’s vision of D&D so compelling. It’s a Dashiell Hammett world with swords. These guys might not be so vile as those guys, but nobody’s in the running for the title of actual, unadulterated good guy. It’s vice and greed and brutality and foolishness as far as the eye can see.

But that’s how I play D&D. Mr. Zungar is, of course, welcome to get all post-modern and deconstructive in his games. Others are welcome to go the opposite direction, declaring hobgoblins to be manifestations of the Mythic Underworld, shadows without personality and personhood, and thus “killable” without moral consequences.

Flavor to taste, y'all.

Monday, July 21, 2014

More A5t Via boingboing

Via boingboing, more 5e art, in this case specifically from the Player's Handbook.  Scrolling past the article, we find a red dragon facing off against some heroes by Daren Bader.

My first reaction: the Hildebrandts called and want their color palette back. 

It's ok.  There are bits of it I like, bits of it that kinda remind me of Otis, and the colors and shades and composition and little details all have a pleasantly fairy-tale feel to them.  But it doesn't grip me or get me excited about playing.

I like Tenery's wood elf city much more, in spite of it clearly owing a lot to Peter Jackson's movies and medieval Russian architecture.  Also, the clearly cut-and-pasted elements in it.  In spite of all of that, it has great mood and character.  Looking at this, I can tel you things about the people who live here.  As a player, I'm intrigued and want to explore.  As a DM, I'm inspired and eager to portray the inhabitants of this city to my players.  In short, it does (for me, anyway) exactly what I want art in an RPG to do.  This is especially so when you look at the bigger version at the top of the article. 

WAR's Mordenkainen's Sword is amazing.  I want to play this character and cast this spell against a foe who's been my nemesis for the past three adventures in a final spell-to-spell showdown.  He oozes cool.  He's clearly a bad-ass high-fantasy version of Dr. Strange, Harry Potter grown up and in another universe, an ass-kicker and name-taker supreme.  This piece grips me exactly in the same way that Trampier's  Emirikol the Chaotic did.  If this character doesn't wind up on a lot of character sheets or in campaigns (alas, most likely as a DM PC), I'll eat my hat.  This is Reynolds doing what Reynolds does best.

Then we have Claudio Pozas' Cloudkill.  It kinda looks like a MtG illustration, more so than even Reynold's Mordenkainen's Sword.  I think that's because in Reynold's piece, it's clearly the spell-slinger that's the focus of attention.  Here, it's the cloud. 

I like the details, especially the dwarves that strike me as vaguely Babylonian.  I think a bit too much punch was pulled on what is, in effect, a summoning of mustard gas.  But maybe I've been spoiled by Raggi's art.

I think I'll come to appreciate Scott M. Fischer's High Elf Wizard the more I look at it, but right now I appreciate the pleasant colors and shapes, but as a composition it just doesn't gel for me.  And is it just me, or does she look like she's just tripped and is about to impale herself on the spikey end-caps of her scroll?

As for the warlock page, it looks good: easy to read, easy to find information, pleasing to the eye and complex without feeling cluttered.  I'd have used a bit more sans serif, but they probably get better effect using color.

I've already said I think all there is to say for now about the cover.

All-in-all, I'm pleased.  I think too much emphasis is put on having a unified look in RPGs.  Sure, with some RPGs that have a very strong theme and setting, that can be important.  In a more generic RPG, like D&D, variety is called for.  There's stuff here that leave me feeling very meh about it, but there's also stuff that gets me excited to play.  And I'll bet you there are folks out there who feel exactly the opposite of how I do on the same pieces.  Variety means, sure, some of your pieces won't click with some viewers, but gives you a much better shot at having something that will click with everyone. 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Playing with Kyma - the Bazaar District

The Bazaar District of the port city of Kyma is dominated by docks, warehouses, and shops.  Located on the shore of the Dromosero, the placid inland sea, it's not as heavily fortified as the southern Market District, which services traffic from the Ocean. The Bazaar is the principle source for elven (herbs, silks, dyes, wooden crafted items like musical instruments and furniture, and mead, wines and brandy) and dwarven (worked metal, ingots of adamantium, weapons, vodka, beer, ale) goods, as well as exotic (elven, dwarven, and orcish) slaves. The goods in the bazaar district tend to feel more exotic, though it’s also the principal market for grains, livestock, and lumber as well. Also includes accommodations (inns, taverns, low-end brothels) for travelers, which are dens for smugglers of all sorts. Connected to the Market District by the Grand Canal.

Encounters of note occur on a roll of 1 on a d6 for every hour spent in the district during daylight hours.  The chance for an encounter increases to 1 or 2 on a d6 after sunset and before sunrise.

  1. 2d6 dwarves on a carouse. They’ve got gold to spend, and hanging out with the dwarves will net you all the free drinks you can stomach (save or pass out from alcohol poisoning every two hours of carousing with them) plus one of the following per hour (d4 + CHR bonus, any number that repeats yields no goodies):
    1 - an exquisitely crafted iron brooch worth 150% of the usual value of such an item. It’s unusual fabrication will be recognized by other dwarves and gives a +1 to reaction checks with them.
    2 - a loadstone that always points north.
    3 - a sunstone that will always reveal the position of the sun, no matter how dark the clouds or thick the rain.
    4 - a marriage proposal.
    5 - a bronze puzzle ring that hides within it a complete set of lockpicks.
    6 - a silvered dagger.
    7+ - a treasure map.
  2. 3d4 recently unemployed mercenaries, looking for work or, failing that, a fight.
  3. a desperate apprentice warlock, sent by his master to acquire a rare and expensive reagent. Alas, the youth’s purse has been stolen, and there’s little he won’t stoop to in order to complete his task.
  4. 1d4 masked Hasheeshins ambushing their target.
  5. Gang of persistent goblins claiming to sell herbal remedies for nearly all ailments. Roll on Potion Miscibility table for actual results.
  6. 2d8 members of a press gang looking to abduct the unwary to serve as oarsmen on a galley.
  7. apprentice witch disguised as prostitute seeking (roll a d6: 1) a lock of elven hair, (2-3) the seed of any male, (4-5) a mount for a hag, or (6) a gallon of blood for her mistress.
  8. pickpockets! If the PCs get involved in their distraction(roll a d6), the thieves get a bonus on their rolls:
    1 - angry crone beating a disobedient youth.
    2 - pair of sailors preparing to fight/duel for the affections of a half-elven girl.
    3 - naked lover being beaten by cuckolded husband while wife pleads for someone to save her lover.
    4 - fire in an old warehouse.
    5 - two gangs of minstrels start a brawl over a stolen song.
    6 - explosion of hallucinogenic gas. Save or be incapacitated for a half-hour with strange visions. Anyone who rolled a 1 on the save has prophetic visions.
  9. brawl between the crews of competing ships.
  10. slavers claiming to be successful sailors and looking to spend coin on pretty faces. They’ll drug drinks and haul their victims off for sale.
  11. procession of elven dignitaries heading to the Palace.
  12. dwarves disguised as merchants but really on a mission of vengeance against a merchant who cheated them.
  13. City guard raiding a warehouse, dwelling, or other building looking for contraband. 1 in 6 chance the raidees are (roll a second d6: 1-2) orcs, (3-5) heavily armed pirates, or (6) have a warlock or two with them and fight back.
  14. 1d4 escaped slaves (1 in 6 chance of being elven) looking to escape the city by boat. If returned to their owner, will garner someone a reward of 1d6% of their market value.
  15. 1d4 nixies disguised as elves on the prowl for slaves. They’ll attempt to charm any they can lure into the waters of the sea.
  16. 2d4 young adult orcs seeking employment or easy coin so they can purchase weapons.
  17. 2d4 orc mercenaries on the carouse. Every hour spent partying with them gains you (1d6+ CHR bonus):
    1 - a black eye.
    2 - a blood-sibling who you can call on in dire need, but who may also call on you; refusing the call leads to a blood feud.
    3 - a treasure map.
    4 - being chased by the guard and a night in the gaol if caught.
    5 - fleas.
    6 - a new undercity contact.
    7 - an attempted seduction.
    8+ - an attempted rape.
  18. 1d6 elven merchants on a carouse. Every hour spent partying with them results in the entire party (1d4+ best CHR bonus):
    1 - losing half your (d6: 1) copper, (2) silver, (3) electrum, (4-5) gold, (6) most expensive piece of jewelry in the party.
    2 - a valuable rumor.
    3 - a chance to buy (d6: 1-3) a rare herb, (4-5) a potent hallucinogen, or (6) a dire poison at 75% the regular price.
    4 - passed out in an opium den. Everyone loses all the coin they had on their person, 1-in-6 chance for each member to have had a prophetic vision.
    5 - an invitation to an orgy.
    6 - a single ring of silver that can be used to gain an audience with an elven noble of a particular house.
    7+ - being drugged, kidnapped, and sold to merfolk.
  19. a vampire’s agent, seeking victims.
  20. a ghost seeking vengeance.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

You've Got a Nothic Thing Coming

WotC has released a sample page of monsters from the Starter Box. Keep in mind that the whole point of the Starter Box is to train budding new DMs. That said, I think there’s both good and bad in what I’m seeing here:

First, the bad: why no picture of the nothic? Maybe it’s on another page? This is clearly a bizarre thing. Does it have working hands? Legs? Or does it move about upon a giant slimy tail, like a slug?

Nothics have traditionally been goofy-looking critters with no more backstory than “humanoid that wants to eat your face and has wacky eye powers.” Clearly, WotC wants to change this, and I love the notion of them being mutated wizards who have peered too long and too deep into the abyss. (Though doesn't that better fit warlocks?  And how, exactly, does one turn into a nothic?  What should PC wizards do to avoid such a fate, and can a foe trick them into it?)

But there’s so much that’s left to the imagination here. Do they have opposable thumbs? What do they want? Do they serve some dark cosmic being, or are they all Gollums-without-rings, lurking about in dark places and going on and on about eating raw fish?

The answers to those questions can be happily campaign or even location-specific, with card-cheat, pants-wearing nothics in one location and feral, face-chewing nothics in another. But there are deeper issues with this description that cripple its utility at the table. How does their Rotting Gaze attack work? Is it a beam that shoots from the eye, and if so, can it be reflected with a mirror? Or does the nothic just manifest wild entropy in the flesh of its target? Or is it some sort of necrotic tear-spray?

In a computer game, the differences are fairly academic. In a tabletop RPG, they’re vital. Knowing something of how the attack works answers questions like:

  • can it penetrate magical defenses? Fog? Smoke?
  • can one character try to block the attack by leaping between the nothic and its target?
  • does the attack damage gear? Can it be used against inanimate objects like doors, ropes, chains, or blindfolds?
  • can the PCs harvest it and use it against foes after killing a nothic?

And that’s just what I can come up with off the top of my head about how players will tackle this odd critter. With only the (nearly complete lack of) clues in the description, it’s impossible to guess, which means nothics in one campaign will be fleeing at the sight of mirrors while in others they will be flinging necrotic tears with wild abandon.

Which isn’t that huge an issue in home games but is HUGE in organized play. And I kinda thought WotC wanted organized play to be a big thing now? 

And that all said, the weird insight ability is awesome! Can the nothic search for a secret in particular, or are they random? If the former, they’d make excellent interrogators and (ha-ha) private eyes.

Monday, June 23, 2014

An RPG Company (kinda) Performs Market Research!!!

This "living ruleset" thing looks like the stirrings of a tempest in a tea pot to me.  Quite frankly, it's the least most RPG publishers should do to take the pulse of their audience.  I see no difference between WotC's surveys and what Raggi does (though I suspect Raggi's attempts are more effective).  Neither option is terribly scientific, and both heavily favor those who regularly use the platforms on which the data-collection occurs and enjoy blathering about their own opinions.  (In short, people like me!)

Though now I'm curious if they do anything to collect data via D&D Encounters.  Sure, they collect "results" but do they collect what races and classes are played?  What about spells prepped and cast?  Abilities used?  How long certain fights take?  Solutions attempted in the face of challenges?

On the other hand, how useful would this data be?  There's long been talk about D&D being shaped by organized play in directions that are not terribly friendly to private games. 

At the end of the day, I'm happy to see folks performing any sort of market research on RPGs.   After decades of stupid and incorrect "conventional wisdom" (Box sets killed TSR!  Adventures are loss-leaders, necessary but a drain on publishers!) it's nice to see folks actually taking the time to find out what gamers actually think and want and use and buy. 

Right now, within easy reach of me, are the core dead-tree resources I use regularly in my weekly games: Moldvay's Basic, Cook's Expert, Vornheim, and 2e's Al-Qadim book (primarily for the equipment lists) and Monstrous Manual.  It's not a collection I think any market strategy team would ever devise.  It is, however, a collection of book-types that have served me very well over the years: basic rulebooks, a monster book, and a book of gear and services PCs should be able to purchase whenever they've returned to civilization.  Vornheim mostly gets used for generating NPCs and for its wonderful searching-a-library rules (among other odd bits in it).  The 1e DMG isn't at hand, but I pull it out when doing prep work.

This collection hasn't changed much since 1990.  Back then, the Moldvay/Cook books were replaced by the 2e PHB.  The Al-Qadim book was replaced by the Arms & Equipment Guide and Arora's Whole Realms Catalogue.  The Monstrous Manual was heavily supplemented with 1e's MM and MM2, largely for the demons, devils, daemons, and modrons, all of whom made regularly appearances in my college game.

I bring this up to speak of the limits of the sort of market research I see WotC performing.  They're looking backward: what did we do right and what did we do wrong?  A stronger focus on utility would probably serve them better, but they need to take a broad view of utility.  I replaced two books narrowly focused on my need (the Arms & Equipment Guide and Arora's) and replaced them with a book that, ostensibly, has little or nothing to do with that need (Al-Qadim).  Utility has nothing to do with what's on the cover and everything to do with what's inside and what can and does get used at the table.

How do you capture that data?  Maybe by asking DMs to take snapshots of their gaming table at the end of the game so you can see what books and resources are there, having been used.    

Friday, June 20, 2014

DMG as Hackers Guide for 5e D&D

From an interview with Mike Mearls over at the Escapist:

Mearls: The DMG is, well - going back to Basic D&D as a starting point - if you think of the Player's Handbook as for the player who is looking at character classes and played a couple of them and wants more options or wants to fine-tune what their character is, or who says "I want to play a paladin." The DMG serves the same role for the DM. Basic D&D hits core fantasy, it's stereotypical fantasy adventuring. If you're the DM and you want to do something more exotic, you say "I want to add technology to my game" or "I want to have more detailed rules for a grim and grittier game, more of a horror game." That's where the DMG comes in, it's for really fine-tuning your campaign, and creating a different type of experience than your standard fantasy campaign. It's also for expanding the scope of the game. So we've talked about things like ruling a domain or things like that. The more detailed rules for that would be in the DMG. We've talked about having some basic rules for things like that in Basic D&D but we're not 100% into it either way - is it confusing to new players or is it nice that it gives them a clear progression? We're still not quite decided on that yet. It's for if you want more depth on specific topics.

The DMG also has a lot of utilities in it, like for dungeon creation, adventure creation, creating monsters, creating spells, even if you wanted to create a character class. It's not quite the point-buy system from 2nd Edition, but it does say things like "Well if you want to create a class for your campaign then here's a good way to approach it."

So it's really for getting under the hood of how the system works and building up your campaign.

Bolding: So really, besides maybe Unearthed Arcana, there's never really been a hacker's guide, as it were, for D&D.

Mearls: No, exactly. And that's what we were inspired by. People like to tinker with their campaigns, and especially if you've been DMing for a while and you kind of want to do something different. Really going into in-depth [changes]. And now, it's not going to be deconstructing everything, but it's giving you the tools you need to make your own changes. And there's always going to be art to it, like monster creation, we can't give you a formula that's perfect. What do you do with a monster that has one hit point, one AC, and can cast harm once per day? How do you balance that? There's no simple answer, but even just telling DMs that helps.

I'm actually pretty happy to see this.  Others may disagree with me, but I've found the advice for DMs in post-Gygax-era D&D to be of questionable value.  ("Here's some problem players you may run into and some passive-aggressive methods for dealing with them, since expecting you to act like adults never occurred to us!")  Getting at what the rules are trying to do and how tinkering with them might affect things would have been great advice back at the beginning.  Having these sorts of assumptions and ideals spelled out in advance will give new DMs a leg-up on understanding what the game's about and what they'll need to do to make it be about something else.

Monday, June 16, 2014

EN World Interviews Monte Cook and Shanna Germain

In which we learn that gaming is rising in popularity among 30-something women, D&D nearly didn't survive the '90s, and OD&D is utterly lacking in a resolution mechanic.

  • How D&D nearly didn't survive the '90s and (some of) the thinking behind the OGL @ 10 mins & 17 mins.
  • Thoughts on Kickstarter and how it's changing the RPG industry and landscape @ 35 mins.
  • OD&D and what the early years of RPGs were like @ 43 mins.  
Lots of good stuff here, worth a listen though you don't necessarily need to watch it.  So perfect for doing the dishes or as a break from your usual podcast feed.