Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"You Don't Understand; These Ghosts Kill People!"

Just saw the new Ghostbusters flick. First off, it’s fun. Not great, not hilarious, but certainly entertaining; I laughed out-loud a few times.

What it’s not is a remake of the original. This is a very, very different film. It’s a lot darker (one character is killed off-screen and another commits suicide on-screen) and far more physical. It’s a lot more slapstick than the original Ghostbusters, and includes actual action-movie action scenes. These new Ghostbusters wade into a sea of ghosts, blasting left-and-right with twin proton pistols or punch ghosts and other things with a proton-cestus.

In short, the new Ghostbusters are actually cool, unlikely the awkward goofballs of the original. Which is odd, because this Ghostbusters is, in many respects, what the first Ghostbusters might have been if Walter Peck, the annoying EPA agent, had been the hero. And, oddly enough, in spite of that, it works.

Don’t take your friends who haven’t seen the original (or haven’t seen it since it came out) until you make them sit down and watch the original; a good portion of the jokes require you to have that film in your mind when you come see this one.

The writing on the new Ghostbusters is very weak. The plot chugs through its points, but you can tell the only reason the Mayor of New York is in this film is because the original Ghostbusters had a run-in with the Mayor. Lots of things happen just ‘cause. The most egregious example is Jones’ Patty Tolan. She joins the Ghostbusters… erm, well, we really don’t know why she joins. We understand why the rest are eager or willing to let her join, but we aren’t given any reason why she’d want to. It’s not like there’s a paycheck in it or anything.

The villain is equally thin. We’re given a vague sort of he-was-bullied, but we’re never really shown that. He comes off and just a genius nut-job nihilist.

The film feels very small, especially compared to the original. Where the original Ghostbusters had that entire firehouse, the new Ghostbusters have a single room above a Chinese restaurant we never see. They test out their gadgets in a trash-strewn alley behind. Yeoman’s cinematography gives this a very made-for-TV feel, and not the expansive, big-screen spectacle the original was. Where New York was a character in the original Ghostbusters, it’s mostly just a setting in this one.

The editing is rough on this one as well, especially the way it cuts around during the action scenes. It’s impossible to tell where anyone is, the jumping camera makes it seem like moments have been cut out, and it just lacks the natural fluidity you expect from a big-budget film.

If it seems like I’m damning this film with faint praise, well, I sorta am. It keeps referencing the original and utterly failing to live up to it in all sorts of little ways. The original Ghostbusters had a great, tight script, a strong sense of verisimilitude, and incredible writing. This one has a loose, paint-by-the-numbers script, feels like a made-for-TV action-comedy, and has maybe two quotable lines (one of which is in the 2nd trailer: “The power of pain compels you!”) It never seems to find its groove. One minute it’s a dark action/horror film (ghosts murdering people, our heroines blasting away ghosts and rappelling into hellmouths), the next it’s a slap-stick comedy (the final confrontation is won with a literal photonic kick to the crotch), and then it’s trying to be a touching story about friendship. Since it can’t settle on its tone, it meanders about, not quite hitting all the notes its aiming for.

That all said, the casting is great. Hemsworth steals every scene he’s in, displaying the comedic talent that landed him the role of Thor; McKinnon’s Holzmann is endearingly awkward, funny, and kick-ass; and you know the laughs are coming whenever you see Jones on the screen. Kristen Wiig gets the thankless job of playing the straight-man, but she does so while giving us a surprisingly likeable character in spite of the obvious stick up her butt. Unlikely the original, this film has actual scary moments (though it does rely on the jump-scare a bit more than I’d prefer). And where the original Ghostbusters were middle-aged schlubs with mortgages, bills, and receding hairlines, the new Ghostbusters are glamorous, gravity-defying butt-kickers who never have to worry about the state of their petty cash.

So if you think you’ll like this sort of thing at all, do go see it. It’s a very entertaining way to spend an afternoon. And do sit through all the credits; there are extra scenes scattered throughout.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Little 5e Under My Belt


Not quite two months ago I finished my first 5e campaign. We met kinda-sorta twice a month, each session lasted about four hours, and it ran for, I think, 14 months. So ballpark it at about 112 hours of gaming. The highest PC level attained was 10th.

I’d call it a successful campaign; the only player dropping out is moving out-of-state; everyone else wants more. And I learned a lot about how 5e works.

EXP

This is the biggy: EXP-for-kills turns the PCs into bloodthirsty savages. They don’t look for the easiest or quickest route around a problem, they look for the solution that creates the largest pile of corpses. Solo monsters (your traditional dragon atop a mountain) are nigh irresistible, especially if the players have time to prep and plan in advance. The players threw their PCs at the same problem twice with a head-long frontal assault (granted, the first time they did attempt some subterfuge), failed both times, but came out smelling like roses due to the body count and EXPs collected. EXP-for-kills is the first thing I’ve dropped from the new campaign.

Action Economy

This is the principle reason I stick with 5e. The action economy takes a bit of work to wrap your head around, but once you grasp the concept of bonus actions (and that everyone only gets one), it’s a lovely, elegant little trick to allow neat extras, but not give a single player a dozen actions in a single turn. It also gives all the players an easily understood resource to manage in the middle of combat that is not immediately dissociative. Do you use your bonus action to fight with a second weapon? Use a special ability? Wait for an attack of opportunity? It’s usually an easy choice to make, but it’s also one that has a different answer in different parts of a single fight, and very different answers for different character classes.

Backgrounds

I love these in concept. In play, they can create lots of neat opportunities for RP; almost all give you a neat out-of-combat/RP “power” that can help drive a campaign forward and give players interesting spot-light opportunities. However, it’s easy to forget about them. Normally, I’d just rely on my players bringing them up, only…

Complexity

… 5e is just on the bad side of the complexity line.

Yes, I know; it’s not nearly as complex at 3.x, the latest edition of Shadowrun, 4e D&D, any version of Fading Stars and Vampire, or just about any mainstream RPG you care to name that’s been released in the last 20 years. So how simple do I need it?

Apparently, simpler than this.

My players are not dumb. They’re not even mentally slow. The youngest was in her late 20s, most had college degrees and even those who didn’t had at least a few years of college under their belt. These were, almost without exception, white-collar professionals or successful entrepreneurs. One dropped out of the game briefly to teach opera in Paris. There wasn’t a dim bulb in this bunch.

And yet, even in the final session, I was holding hands, reminding people of their powers and abilities, describing how simple mechanics worked. And I’ll be shocked if half of them understood the action economy.

Those who were interested in the mechanics picked it up pretty quickly. They understood their powers, how they could leverage their background, what it meant to use a bonus action. The others were eager to dive in and try things, but they didn’t understand how to make their wishes work within the system and often forgot opportunities their race, class and background created for them.

A good part of this I blame on not playing every week. I think a weekly schedule would have kept things fresh in everyone’s mind, and there would have been less remedial education from session to session. But playing weekly isn’t an option when people have lives and money. And that means we need a simpler game, with easily grasped mechanics. 5e is almost, but not quite, that game.

Magic

As I’ve said before, it doesn’t feel very magical. The spell-slot system works, but it feels more like loading bullets in a gun, or apps on your phone. The spells themselves don’t really help, being fairly straightforward in their applications. The most mystical character of our bunch was probably the min-maxer’s druid who freaked the more arachnophobic players out by turning into a giant spider and webbing spell-slingers in the face.

When I abandon 5e, it’ll probably be because the magic is just too dishwater-dull.

Combat

It works, but even with the elegant action economy, it’s not interesting enough to hang a game on. 4e’s probably was, but 5e’s only got a bit of 4e in the shape of its fenders. If you want a fun, successful campaign, you’ll need to bring a lot more to the table than just some bog-standard fights. And 5e isn’t going to help you much in achieving that by itself.

Classes

Meh. I’m not a huge fan of balance; I’m fine with some classes being less interesting, but also less complicated than others. But I do prefer it when the players know ahead of time what they’re getting into.

There’s definitely a simplicity gap between spell-slingers and everyone else. There might be a fun gap there as well, though that’s largely going to depend on temperament. The thief is a good class for someone who wants to really dive in and try all sorts of lateral thinking and wacky hijinks, but if you want to play it as straight DPS you’re better off with a spell-slinger, and certain flavors of monk are far better at the sneaky thing. The bard is struggling to find its niche in a system where three other classes also have Charisma as their most important stat, where the high-Intelligence wizard is blowing away the History and Arcana checks, and the high-Wisdom cleric is the party’s face due to her excellent Insight (and, in our group, nearly as good Persuasion) rolls.

Rangers are a hot mess. They’re kinda-sorta DPS, but they’re not as good at it as other classes and kinda squishy. Their abilities are cool and useful when they’re in their favored terrain, but otherwise… meh. Their combat powers are just weird, and clearly work best if you’re using a battle-grid and minis. The one player who took ranger did ok with the character, but they were dissatisfied and have opted for a sorcerer in the new campaign.

A shape-shifting druid is hard to take down and extremely flexible, in and out of fights. Wizards remain the big guns, but more than ever it’s clerics that win combats, principally by keeping the rest of the party on its feet and buffing their attacks. Clerics are a potent force-multiplier in this game.

Every class has a magical option. People are going to be whipping out magical abilities left-and-right in your 5e games. However, they’re likely to be reaching into the same bag of tricks, time and again. The result is something that feels a lot like an ‘80s Saturday morning cartoon, where everyone has their flashy, signature shtick and occasionally gets to do something really clever with it. The result is something that looks more like He-man and less like Jackson’s LotR. Whether that’s a bug or a feature is going to depend on your tastes.

TL;DR

All in all, I’m fairly happy with 5e. The mechanical changes are largely positive, streamlining the game and keeping the rules out of the way of the fun. There’s a lot less you-can’t-do-that-by-the-rules and a lot more sure-roll-a-d20-and-we’ll-see-if-you-succeed.

Backgrounds can bring a lot to the table, but only if people remember that they exist. The races are decent, but not terribly exciting. The classes are a mixed bag and will result in a magic-heavy game if only because nearly every member of the party is going to be slinging a few spells or spell-like abilities.

The game benefits from some light rules-tweaking. The rules-as-written EXP-for-kills definitely encourages the players to embrace their inner homicidal maniac, but is easily replaced. It’s fairly simple to create new backgrounds and races customized to your campaign. Creating your own classes, however, will require some serious research and effort.

The game is fun, my players are eager to continue in a new campaign, and 5e is fairly easy to run. This gives it a big thumbs-up in my book.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Dram of Glam and Duran Duran

This is fun. I'm a bit older then Noisms, but younger than the "dark metal" crowd. I got into D&D with Moldvay/Cook, Christmas of '81. So the musical background to my D&D was 80's pop laced with a dose of glam and disco. It was urbane, smooth, stylish, but also unearthly, inhuman, and fey.

And style was very much part of the substance. David Bowie as the Goblin King, Sting and Billy Idol as Sting and Billy Idol. Madonna doing her thing. There was a smooth, glossy finish to everything; even the percussively blue-collar Phil Collins crooned and powered our revenge fantasies with the slick style of "In the Air Tonight." Michael Jackson, magical and aristocratic in his so-right-for-the-times "Smooth Criminal." Everyone wanted a fedora, aviator sunglasses, and shiny silk suits, but none of us could pull it off, and we all knew we'd look like dorks in costumes.

Historical accuracy took a distant back-seat to style and fashion. We chaffed at the universal need for armor on our characters. The ultimate fighter was Rutger Hauer in his black quilted jerkin, pauldrons, and gauntlets with his too-damned-cool double-barrelled crossbow. The ultimate magic-user was Nicol Williamson as Merlin in Excalibur. The ultimate thief was Indiana Jones, with his quick mind, a friend in every town, and swift whip.

Grunge wasn't a thing yet. Urban decay was an artifact of the Carter years, distant, the stuff of fairy tales. Our Shadowrun characters dressed like punks in black snythleather and spikes chromed with neon shades. Our sci-fi characters wore mandarin-collared suits made from glittering, reflective materials, or futuristic camo in zig-zags and overlapping dots. Everyone had a trenchcoat with a huge collar, bike jacket, or a magic sword with wing-shaped crossguard and a giant gem set in the forte. We cruised through our imaginary metropoli in (air)cars that bore more than a passing resemblance to the DeLorean while listening to the hissing smooth tunes of Duran Duran and Pet Shop Boys.

Nobody was surprised when Kiefer Sutherland played a vampire who looked like a Billy Idol wannabe. And nobody was terribly surprised when '80s pop morphed into goth, and the whole melange birthed Vampire: the Masquerade. Again, style was very much part of the substance.

Grunge came as a surprise, though it was a perfectly predictable backlash to the all-synth, all-neon, all-chrome of 80's pop. I ignored it. The '90s were an era of retrenchment for me. I had no interest in Green Day, Nirvana, or Lilith Fair. I was getting into Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails.

But before that, the music was glossy, smooth, upbeat, and aristocratic. It was sharp suits, hot cars, tight skirts, stiletto heels, and dark glasses. It was impossible hair, neon jewelry, and highly chromed. Win or lose, the important thing was to look good while you were doing it.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Those Who Forget History Had Better Start Writing it Down

Over on G+ (where all the cool kids are hanging out these days), Reynaldo Madriñan asked:

How long can a setting's history/event timeline go on before it's boring/useless for you? I like them a lot (I may even be working on one right now) but I think 4-6 pages is my upper limit.

My last one was about 7 pages long. It looks like this (feel free to scroll to the bottom for the TL;DR conclusion):

Because most history is written by the Elves, the following timeline is fairly elf-centric. The further back you go, the harder it is to get specific details. Here’s the Executive Summary:

Age of Myth

Onia the All-mother creates everything, then gets pissy at two of her kids for practicing monogamy. She binds them together to create the world. Later, the Elves and Gnomes migrate from the Feywild to this world.

Age of Heroes

An evil star stirs up trouble. Tiamat and Bahamut, in a rare display of cooperation, shatter it. Pieces of it fall towards the world. Most of the Elves and Gnomes flee back to the Feywild, but the Drow shelter underground because they are badasses.

When the Elves return, they discover that their Drow brethren are now darkly colored and that bits of the star gauged out a new sea they call the Asterfyli. They also find the world is crawling with monsters! Mighty heroes work to slay them all.

Over time, the Elves forge an empire and act like dicks, even accidentally starting a war with the Dragons. They kinda win the war, but Tiamat curses them with low fertility. Eventually, a human called only “the Necromancer” leads a rebellion against the Elves. He’s destroyed after nearly two thousand years of fighting, but the damage is done and the Elven Empire unravels.

Age of Chaos
Bad shit happens all over the place! The Elven Empire completely comes apart. In desperation, human pirates collectively called the “Sea Princes” make pacts with demons to stave off being swamped by goblin invaders. This will have serious repercussions later.

Age of the Tiefling Empire

The Sea Princes become the Tieflings and they start using their new butch demonic powers and warlockery to kick ass everywhere. They even manage to annoy the gods who create the first Paladins and Hasheeshan assassins in response. These lead the rebellion against the Tieflings and create the…


Age of the Holy Confederacy
The Tieflings are kicked off the mainland and driven back to their islands. A victorious paladin declares himself Caliph of the liberated lands. This is a mixed success which goes utterly to crap when they end up with three Caliphs at once, all claiming the mandate of the gods. With some “help” from the Elves, things completely fall apart.



Age of Myth

???
Onia the All-mother gives birth to Cronviach (the Moon), Gania (the Earth), Apanat (the Ocean), Bahamut (Order), and Tiamat (Chaos).


???
Gania and Apanat forsake all other lovers for each other. Onia punishes them by binding them together into the world Emhain.


c. 100,000 years ago
The first Lizardfolk Empire clashes with the Dragonborn kingdoms.


c. 80,000 years ago
The Elves and Gnomes migrate from the Feywild to Emhain.


c. 70,000 years ago
An evil star attempts to enslave its siblings. It is shattered by Tiamat and Bahamut. Pieces of it crash into Emhain, some of which create the Asterfyli Sea. The Great Sundering as most of the Elves and Gnomes flee to the Feywild, but the Drow remain behind. The Lizardfolk Empire is destroyed in the resulting chaos.
Age of Heroes


c. 68,000 years ago
The Elves return to find Emhain ravaged by strange creatures, spawn of the Evil Star. The mightiest among them hunt the monsters down, greatly reducing their number.


c. 60,000 years ago
Elven monster-hunters accidentally spark the Dragon Wars by destroying a clutch of Tiamat's eggs. Founding of the first great elven cities.


c. 66,000 years ago
Dragon Wars end with Dragons greatly reduced in number and elves cursed with low fertility by Tiamat. Elves forge an empire of their own.


c. 50,000 years ago
Elves found more cities, including A'kyma-oum (present-day Kyma). The Second Sundering as a third of the Elves turn their backs on the cities and Empire and seek freedom in the old ways, splitting Elves into High and Sylvan.


c. 46,000 years ago
The human Korvus Wordthief steals the rules of wizardry from the Elves.


c. 30,000 years ago
Successive waves of Human barbarians invade from the east. Most are enslaved. This is Prelude to the First Goblin War: armies of Hobgoblins march out of the east. Some elven cities are sacked but the Elves triumph when the Bugbear Emperor, his three brothers, and their mother are slain.


c. 12,000 years ago
The Trolls rise from the Ocean and attack the Elven Empire. Many cities are sacked, including A'kyma-oum. Last Great Alliance between all three races of Elves leads to victory over the Trolls when their nine Warlock-queens are slain.


c. 8,000 years ago
The Necromancer leads a rebellion of humans against the Elven Empire. Through careful diplomacy the Sylvan Elves are kept ambivalent.


c. 6,000 years ago
The Necromancer is finally destroyed, but the Elven Empire is already collapsing, surrounded by new Human kingdoms.


Age of Chaos
c. 5,800 years ago
The Second Goblin War begins. Humans and Elves fight together to push back the hordes. In desperation, the Sea Princes make pacts with demons.


c. 5,600 years ago
The First Orc War mends much of the breach between Sylvan and High Elves even as it spells the end of the Elven Empire.


c. 3,500 years ago
The War Against the Giants: Giants invade, conquering many human kingdoms. They are eventually pushed out over the next 300 years.


c. 2,800 years ago
Brief war between Elves and Dwarves (spawned by a drunken beauty contest) ended by the beginning of the Second Orc War.


Age of the Tiefling Empire
2,253 years ago
The Sea Princes, now the Tieflings, invade the mainland.


2,220 years ago
Tieflings capture Kyma, forge their own empire. Humans fleeing west into the Stonelands first encounter the monastic traditions of the Dragonborn.


2,186 years ago
Tieflings bring the Orcs of the Volgun Swamps to heel, turn their eyes on the Elves.


1,900 years ago
Tieflings capture three Elven cities, sack and pillage one. The rest sue for peace and offer tribute. Sylvan Elves flee to the deep woods.


1,788 years ago
Tieflings complete capture of all lands and cities on the shores of the Asterfyli Sea.


1,724 years ago
Year of the Great Plague


1,676-74 years ago
Third Orc War. Sylvan Elves ally with Tieflings in exchange for forests they were driven out of.


1,643 years ago
Tieflings reneg on deal with Sylvan Elves, some forests burned, many Sylvan Elves slain or enslaved.


1,432 years ago
Tiefling Empress Katarina the Viper attempts to make war upon the Dwarves. This disastrous war gives the Sylvan Elves the opportunity to liberate much of the forests and some of the lands along the eastern coasts of the Asterfyli Sea.


1,406 years ago
Katarina the Viper's granddaughter, Iskra the Sly, murders her, takes the throne, and reclaims all the coastal cities liberated by the Sylvan Elves, if not quite all the forests.


1,200 years ago
Tiefling Empire invades the Stonelands. 300 years of ongoing warfare result of the destruction of two of the original seven Dragonborn monasteries. Dragonborn pay tribute to the Tiefling Empire, but remain unconquered.


876 years ago
Tiefling Empress Iskra the Serrated invades the Goblin Lands, probably pre-empting a third Goblin War. First contact with the Sorcerer Kingdoms of the Eastern Barbarians made.


692 years ago
Asad, Chosen of Xithras, becomes the first paladin. Asad liberates the Temple of Phaedre at Ar which rallies the hidden ranks of the Phaedre's warrior-priestesses to rebellion against the Tieflings.


689 years ago
First Hasheeshin citadel founded on the edge of the Stonelands.


652 years ago
Second Hasheeshin citadel founded deep in the Volgun Swamps.


638 years ago
Alliance between the Rebellion, three of the Dragonborn monasteries, and the Sylvan Elves forged.


622 years ago
High Elves join the Rebellion. Gnomes return to Emhain.


589 years ago
Dwarves openly join the Rebellion after Tiefling Emperor Vladislav killed by Hasheeshins in his own palace.


580 years ago
Tiefling Empire forced out of all lands north and east of the Asterfyli Sea.


576 years ago
Paladin Ghazi forges the Holy Confederacy among the liberated lands. Is crowned the Confederacy's first caliph.


562 years ago
In spite of High Elves withdrawing to their cities, the Holy Confederacy captures Kyma, last Tiefling possession on the mainland.


558 years ago
Last Tiefling Empress, Zaria the Arcane, murdered in her bed. The Sea Princes turn to fighting one another over the succession, sundering the Empire.


Age of the Holy Confederacy
520-513 years ago
Fourth Orc War and the last great alliance between Humans and the Sylvan and High Elves.


502 years ago
Kyma withdraws from the Confederacy over the legality of necromancy and transmutation magic as well as warlockery. Its independence is supported by the Sylvan Elves and thus is not openly challenged (though also not acknowledged) by the Caliph.


489 years ago
Caliph Ghazi's successor, Calipha Sezen, captured by Orcs at the disastrous Battle of the Two Rivers. Orcs run all but unchecked along the Asterfyli's eastern shores but avoid those lands under elven protection.


485 years ago
With the Calipha still in orc hands, she is deposed in absentia and Calipha Tajah crowned in her place.


480 years ago
War of the Three Caliphs: Calipha Sezen "escapes" from Orcs, leads a rebellion against Tajah. Few fail to notice how important her orcish "allies" are in her councils. The eastern cities, feeling abandoned, form their own confederacy and elevate their own caliph, Jalal.


480-320 years ago
The War of the Three Caliphs rages for over a century, with never fewer than two claimants to the Caliph's throne (and at one time their being five). While the Orcs clearly have a hand in matters, the Elves are also secretly involved, hindering whichever side seems stronger in order to prolong the conflict.


319 years ago
Days after Caliph Hakem witnesses the disembowelment of the last "pretender" to his throne, he is assassinated. The Hasheeshans are blamed; rioters plunder and torch Skotas' temples all along the shores of the Asterfyli Sea. In the chaos, the eastern cities cut deals with the Sylvan Elves to secure their independence from the Confederacy.


Modern History

300-240 years ago
Gnolls, ogres, bugbears and other humanoids living along the borders of the Stonelands invade from the west. For the next 60 years they will raid, plunder, and occasionally conquer and enslave the human communities west of the Asterfyli Sea.


240 years ago
Dawud the Bear leads an alliance of humans with dwarven support against the humanoid invaders. The tide is stemmed, but Dawud's lust for another king's wife destroys the alliance.


219 years ago
Altair Silverhawk, son of Dawud, returns to claim his father's throne. He claims to bear the sword of Asad and is accompanied by Sylvan Elves, Dwarves of the Hill Clans, and representatives of two dragonborn monasteries.


200 years ago
Altair's forces drive the last large host of humanoids back into the Madlands. Altair establishes a Circle of Paladins to safeguard the western shores of the Asterfyli, and a Brotherhood of Rangers to patrol the Madlands and keep an eye on the humanoids, as well as maintain strong alliances with the Dragonborn monasteries. He refuses the crown of the caliph, though does claim the title of High King.


167 years ago
Altair and his bastard son slay each other at the Battle of Nadon. The Circle of Paladins is slain to the last holy warrior protecting their king and the western alliance disintegrates. The Brotherhood of Rangers lives on, though largely as an escort service for caravans travelling into the Stonelands.


140-128 years ago
An alliance of Tieflings and Hobgoblins invades from the Ocean. Many coastal cities fall, but Kyma and the Orcs of the Volgun Swamps unite to keep the Tiefling fleet out of the Asterfyli. The siege of Kyma lasts for a dozen years.


130-128 years ago
The Green King, a mysterious figure many believe to be Altair Silverhawk returned from the dead, forges an alliance of western kingdoms and leads a crusade to rescue Kyma. The Green King vanishes mysteriously during the victory celebrations.


116 years ago
Perizad returns from exile leading a band of western barbarians in a clandestine assault on the Sultan of Kyma's palace. She slays her brother, Abbud the Mad, and is crowned Sultana by the High Priestess of Phaedre.


99 years ago
Perizad founds the University of Kyma to serve as a font for scribes, navigators, and cartographers. It soon also acquires a reputation for excellence in educating wizards.


94 years ago
Perizad's son, Zafir, is crowned Sultan. At 21 years of age, he leads a successful campaign against the Orcs of the Volgun Swamps, securing treaties, tribute, and mercenaries from them.


90 years ago
Sultan Zafir leads his conquering army west, claiming wives and tribute from all the major human cities along the coast of the Ocean all the way to the edge of the Stonelands.


88 years ago
Zafir turns his armies northward, subduing Human kingdoms and city-states. An alliance with Galazos, the last High Elven city on the shores of the Asterfyli Sea, is cemented when he marries the elven princess Kosmyna.


76 years ago
Having won the fealty of nearly all Human settlement on the shores of the Asterfyli, Zafir returns his attention to the Ocean. Leading the largest fleet since the height of the Tiefling Empire, he sets sail for the Islands of the Sea Princes.


75 years ago
Zafir's fleet is destroyed at the Battle of Basilisk Shoals. Zafir's third wife has the children of the other wives as well as all of Zafir's other wives and concubines strangled to secure the rule of her son, Zafir's eldest. Galazos is infuriated by the cold-blooded murder of Kosmyna. In spite of gifts and abject apologies from a number of sultans over the decades, Kyma's ships keep a sharp eye out for vengeful elven corsairs.


74 years ago
A princess of the Islands of the Sea Princes boasts that she keeps Zafir's bloated corpse as a zombie slave. Kyma's grief turns to outrage. Race riots result in the murder of hundreds of Tieflings in the city, as well as thousands of Orcs and Goblins in addition to widespread looting. Up to a tenth of the city is perpetually in flames until the coming of the monsoon.


73 years ago
The Dwarves successfully wall off their ghetto, creating a fortress inside Kyma. They win the right to patrol their own streets in force by bribing the new sultan. They are also tasked with keeping the city's cisterns clean and well-stocked.


70 years ago
A sailing accident results on the drowning of Sultan Zakiyy's favorite concubine and their son and daughter, as well as other favorites of the harem, including one of his wives. From this day forward, the children of the Sultan are forbidden to leave the harem.


66 years ago
Sultan Zakiyy dies under mysterious circumstances. A storm of murder rages through the palace, until only two wives and a concubine are left. The three forge a pact, with the aid of a priestess of Phisia, to rule the succession in the future and limit the bloodshed.


54 years ago
Rumors run rampant through the streets of Kyma that the College Invisible, the secret school of the warlocks, has moved into the city's catacombs. Periodic witch hunts flare up in the city over the following decades, often fanned and spearheaded by the Temple of Xithras.


20 years ago
The ritual murders of children, especially from the Warrens, is blamed on Tiefling warlocks. Race riots erupt in the streets. The Sultan's army crushes the riots brutally, but levels the blame on the Tiefling community. One in ten surviving Tieflings are enslaved, including the girl who would one day be Basheera Quickshadow, as well as her mother. Some claim the Vizier, Suraj, took personal interest in the girl and her mother.


19 years ago
Basheera is purchased by Emira Kardelen to work in her villa outside Kyma.


18 years ago
The Brotherhood of Rangers allied with certain Dragonborn clans and monasteries to crush an Ogre settlement in the Madlands. The assault was unaware that the Ogres were merely the pointy end of a spear being wielded by Hill Giants. Lured into an ambush, the alliance was crushed brutally; the few survivors who were not eaten were sold to unscrupulous humans who in turn sold them into slavery in Kyma.


6 years ago
Malika Qamar begins feuding with Emira Kardelen, culminating in a raid on Kardelen's villa in search of warlocks. While none are found, Kardelen's flower fields, the source of her income, are ravaged by the search. A week later, Qamar is found dead, face down in her breakfast. Physicians and seers are unable to determine the cause of her death, so it is ruled to be of natural causes. The next day, Basheera is freed.


4 years ago
Basheera is given the title emira under mysterious circumstances "for her service to the City and Sultan of Kyma."


2 years ago
After the death of his father (and the surprising upholding of the succession plan created at the crowning of said father), Sultan Habib II is crowned. At 22 years old, Habib has never stepped so much as a toe outside the palace. It is said the new sultan has little patience for the business of ruling and wiles his days away enjoying his harem of exotic beauties and collecting gemstones. The Sultan's mother and his wives are said to wield the true authority, though they often clash with Vizier Suraj who challenges their authority.


1 week ago
Pasha of Two Feathers Bashadin bin Jafal's palace is raided by the Sultan's Palace Guard. Bashadin is found guilty of attempting to blackmail the family of one of the Sultan's wives in order to influence national policy. Bashadin is publicly drawn-and-quartered, his wives and children sold into slavery, and all his worldly possessions (including our heroes, the PCs) are given to Basheera Quickshadow, who is also elevated to Pasha of a Single Feather.




So, at the top, I have a less-than-400 word summary of the broad strokes. This corresponds to most people's understanding of world history: ancient Sumarea, ancient Egypt, classical Greece, Rome (republic followed by empire), the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, etc...)

Even at less than 385 words, my players retained only the most basic aspects of it. They got that the tieflings had an empire in the past, and that many of the ruins they visited had been built by them. They were vaguely aware of an older elven empire. Beyond that, not much.

Still, it gave them enough to get grounded in the basic direction of history, and it was a nice summary for me to refresh myself with.

What follows is a very brief outline of the events of history. These answer basic questions I, as a DM, might ask (or be asked) in the game, like:


  • why does this bunch hate that bunch?
  • who built this dungeon? Why? What did they put in it?
  • is there an old alliance I can call on to infuence this situation?
  • what is this book about history I just found about?
  • what does the 500 gp worth of jewelry look like, who made it, and why?
  • who's in that temple's stained-glass windows or carved reliefs?
  • I rolled 28 on my History check; what do I learn?
  • which wizard did it?


Keep in mind that many PCs can be hundreds of years old (elves, I'm mostly looking at you, here). What's ancient history to a human was an elf's wild and reckless youth.

A big table-like thing is easier to use than block paragraphs. It just scans easier. As always, I'm not looking for in-depth details (I can make those up as needed); I just want to be certain I get the dates and names right, and what they PCs find corresponds to the general ebb and flow of history.

Monday, May 09, 2016

What's it Worth to Ya?

Via Google+, Greg Christopher draws our attention to an article by Christopher Helton about how gamers need to be less a bunch of cheapskates and be willing to spend more on RPG books. Greg Christopher does a pretty good job of knocking down Helton’s arguments, but there’s more to this. Quite simply, the problem is not with the fans. We’re not cheap.

How can I say this? Quite simply, we’re willing to spend US $40+ (depending on what the exchange rate is this week) for A Red & Pleasant Land. And has everyone forgotten Ptolus already? Back in the double-oughts, when everyone was saying that RPGs were going the way of the model train hobby, Monte Cook embraced that model with an almost-700-page book with CD and handouts and stuff that retailed for US $120. I don’t remember Monte Cook having all that much trouble selling copies of Ptolus. (The electronic version is still available at drivethroughrpg for US $60. Nope, I didn’t miss-type that, the actual price is fifty-nine-point-nine-nine US dollars.)

So the truth is, gamers are willing to spend the money. If you give them something worth that much money.

Calculating value isn’t easy, but here’s a handy cheat: does the feature you’re paying for make it easier to play your game? Does it make it more likely I’ll play your game? Does it make your game more fun to play?

Those are the things that matter to me, the player. I’m not interested in collecting books, I’m interested in playing games. So how does your book make it easier, more fun, or more likely that I’m going to play?

Here’s an example. This table of contents is printed on the inside of the cover, not a few pages buried into the book. It’s quick and easy to find. And notice what’s right on the bottom, left-hand side: if the PCs want to do x, then go to page y, with a list of things PCs commonly want to do. How awesome, yet simple, is that? Why doesn’t every adventure have that? They don’t, but World of the Lost (hard-cover, 176 A-5 sized pages, black & white interior art, MSRP US $40) does.

If you want gamers to spend money on your books, you have to convince them that the value is there. I’m a big fan of Green Ronin’s stuff, but I don’t care how much it costs to produce a full-color hard-back, coffee-table book. I play games; I don’t collect books. But even if I did, why would I buy another glossy coffee-table book when I can get A Red & Pleasant Land or the hardback version of Carcosa, with their stitched bindings, voluptuously tactile covers, sewn-in ribbon bookmarks, and sumptuous paper?

Don’t tell me that the glossy coffee-table format is the only one people will buy. Raggi’s success proves otherwise.

Hell, as a gamer and not-a-book-collector, I’d rather Raggi dump his gorgeous book-printing fetish and go with spiral-bound for everything from now on. That format is just so terribly easy to use at the table. But that’s not Raggi’s bag, so I’m not holding my breath on him doing it.

Here’s what I also know about a book I buy from Raggi: it’s been playtested. The layout has been meticulously crafted to make the book easy to use. The writer, layout expert, and Raggi have all thought about how they can make the book easier to use. The book I buy will take advantage of the innovations they’ve come up with for this book and others.

There’s more useful innovation coming out of a one-man, officing-in-his-living-room shop in Finland than there is out of all the companies based in the Seattle area.

You want me to pay US $40+ for your adventures and settings and RPG rules? I’m willing to do it for Raggi and Monte Cook. I’ve spent US $23.00 for select softcover Pathfinder adventure path books, and that’s a game I don’t even play, because I know there will be cool ideas in them that will entertain my players.

That’s the bar folks. You want my money? That’s how high you gotta jump.

Now get to it.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bloodless Magic of 5e

I love a lot of things in 5e. I love the action economy that keeps the game moving quickly and prevents a single character from dominating a turn by taking a stack of a dozen actions. I love the way skills work, there if you need them but equally small enough to ignore when they’d just get in the way, and how the skill system never tells a player: “NO!” I love backgrounds, and the races work, and I love how easy and fun the advantage/disadvantage mechanic is and how concentration prevents characters from layering up on the magical buffs. If I play another version of D&D, even my beloved Moldvay/Cook, I miss a lot of these things, and will sometimes even import them because they work really, really well.

But magic in 5e feels flat. It has no sparkle, no pizzazz. And I’m not sure why.

It’s not the spells themselves. With spells like Mirage Arcane, Crown of Madness, Dissonant Whispers, and Hunger of Hadar, 5e sports some of the most flavorful and evocative spells the game has ever seen (though I’d certainly not be against seeing a more consistent effort across the board to sex them all up, a la LotFP’s spell list). The neo-Vancian spell-slots thing doesn’t help, calling to mind capacitors and other technology-heavy metaphors. Still, preparing spells reads like magic; it tends to fall flat on its face in the actual implementation, when it goes from bundling components or chanting mantras and becomes bare bookkeeping.

And that, right there, is clearly one of the issues. What, exactly, does it mean to prepare a spell? The PHB treats it as nothing more than a bookkeeping chore:
You prepare the list of wizard spells that are available for you to cast. To do so, choose a number of wizard spells from your spellbook equal to your Intelligence modifier + your wizard level (minimum of one spell). The spells must be of a level for which you have spell slots. (PHB pg. 114)

It’s almost verbatim for every other class that casts spells. There’s nary a fig-leaf of mumbo-jumbo, woo, or the like to dress it up. Admittedly, this is not something we want to spend a lot of time on, and is best done between sessions. Still, at least a façade of mysticism would be nice.

We get the same sort of just-the-facts-ma’am attitude on how spells are acquired. Clerics and paladins clearly acquire their spells from their deity, which gives DMs wonderful openings for tying the PCs to their world. Wizards get their spells from books (mostly). But everyone else (including wizards) get spells when they level up.

How? It’s never explained.

It sorta makes sense with sorcerers. Since they acquire magic via genetics, the power grows like an exercised muscle. Druids and rangers can kinda crib from both clerics and sorcerers, saying that, as their experience with Nature grows, so does their ability to channel its wondrous powers. But how do you explain wizards and bards just suddenly acquiring new spells when they level up?

But the most egregious example is the warlock. Yes, obviously, they should acquire their new spells from their patrons. But there’s nothing at all in the books about how this works. I could see a scholarly warlock with a Great Old One patron actually having their mind expanded by reading the Necronomicon a few too many times, but really, there’s nothing in the book about how warlocks interact with their patrons. How are they contacted? What is the nature of the relationship? What do the patrons get out of it?

On the one hand, I appreciate the light touch that leaves lots of room for individual interpretations. On the other hand, there’s a ton of cool opportunities just left on the table, and, in the heat of the game, it’s easy to just ignore this sort of thing. And if you do that, magic kinda deflates into a technology with the wires and gears hidden behind sparkles and unicorn farts.

Art by Thomas Dewing.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review: The Last Witch - Trust and Tension

The Last Witch Hunter is a Vin Diesel movie. By that I mean it's fun, it's exciting, it's a touch melodramatic (in a good way), and it's incredibly imaginative.

It's also a bit disappointing. Especially if you've seen Pitch Black recently.

A movie like Pitch Black is a hell of a thing to saddle an actor with early in his career. You know what he's capable of, and you want to see him hit those heights again. And when it's a near thing, it hurts a little.

What follows is less a review than a dissection of how so much can go right and the movie still be a near miss. If you're on the fence at all, go see it. It's fun. You'll be entertained. Diesel's character has a lot of heart, the visuals are entrancing, and if you've ever been attracted to the whole goth thing, you'll find something to enjoy in the world they've created. So yeah, close this post and come back after you've seen the movie.

Ok, so what's wrong? It's not the acting. Diesel's badass-with-a-heart might not be as dramatic as his badass-shocked-to-discover-he-has-a-heart from Pitch Black, but he's very much a hero you can root and cheer for. Michael Caine does his Alfred thing, which does a very good job hiding his character's dark secret.

But then there's Rose Leslie. From her very first line, we know she's set up to be the love interest in this story, and they never allow her to shake that feeling. And that undercuts everything that happens between the two characters. Their relationship is all about trust. He's the Last Witch Hunter, the immortal badass who slays witches. He's got a nasty reputation, and while we know it's not entirely earned, he certainly leans on it throughout the film. And she's a witch, a witch with a dark secret that ought to set our Witch Hunter's spidey-senses tingling.

But when they're forced to trust each other, we don't feel any risk in it at all. Of course she can trust him; he's the hero! He smiles at kids and risks his life to save little puppies! (Ok, not really on the puppies part, but if there had been any, you know he'd have totally saved them.) And she's the love interest! Of course he can trust her.

So there's no frisson there. No tension, no spark, just meh. Remember that scene in Terminator 2, where they take the chip out of Ahnold's head, and Sarah Conner is standing over it with that hammer in hand? She can smash him to bits. And everything in her background, her character, up to this point, says she's gonna do it. You can feel the tension in the air, feel how much she totally wants to smash that motherfucker to broken bits.

The Last Witch Hunter needed that moment. We needed to see Leslie holding Diesel's life in her hand (or worse) and we needed to see her tempted. We needed to wonder, "Oh crap, is she really going to do it?!?"

But we don't. We know she's totally trustworthy, so when that trust is put to the test, and passes, we just shrug and move on. And without it, there's nothing much else to get excited about with her. Oh, she's fun and all, and we understand, on an intellectual level, what her bond is with the Witch Hunter, but we don't feel it. Their relationship is simply taken for granted by the script, robbing it of pretty much any spark.

Which is frustrating when you consider how much we ought to be trusting Elijah Wood's character, but we totally don't and are not shocked at all by his third act betrayal. Again, Wood never earns our trust in this film, never woos us away from our loyalty to Caine's character. In fact, the warmth between Caine's character and Diesel's, and Wood's youthful, big-eyed face keep us from investing trust in him. We expect him to fail (more so to youthful naivete and inexperience, perhaps, but still). So we're very much expecting him to fuck up, prove he's not up to the obvious level of trust and admiration we have for Caine, trust and admiration so strong that when *his* betrayal is revealed, we don't hold it against him for a moment.

So yeah, I'm blaming the writing on this one. We don't feel the risk where it ought to be. We don't feel the trust where it ought to be. This film, in short, doesn't do enough to mislead us, to tease us and make us question our assumptions. Because of that, it feels very paint-by-the-numbers in its plot beats.