Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ok, Yeesh, I'm On It...

Fine, fine, yeah, I'm on it.

But really, what's there to say?

"There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?"

Lots of theorizing about whose voice this is. I want it to be Max von Sydow, who's supposed to be in this movie. I want to see him be the villain and go all Ming-the-Merciless on the Star Wars universe. Why not? After all, there's a direct line between Flash Gordon and Star Wars.

Then we get freaked-out Stormtrooper. My favorite explanation for him is that he got separated from his squad when he ducked behind a dune and did some Tatooine peyote.

But seriously, clearly not a clone of any Fet we've ever met. Is he a crashed Tie-pilot? A Stormtrooper who's gone AWOL? A Republican in disguise? (The Rebels won, right? So shouldn't there be a new republic? If that's the case, shouldn't the folks who used to be Rebels now be Republicans?) (Oh, and no, that's not a political statement, though now that I go back and read that, I can see why they absolutely won't be called Republicans. >.< Just so long as they're not called Rebels because that implies they still have something to rebel against. Unless, of course, they do, but that would feel both extremely lazy on the parts of the writers and undercutting the victory at the end of Jedi.)

And, ever so faintly, at about 0:25, you can hear the sounds of an imperial probe droid, sounding exactly like the one that Han and Chewie killed on Hoth. Is he being hunted by someone?

Cute soccer droid! Seriously, if you needed any indication that international bank was vital to the success of movies, this is it. R2-D2 has been turned into a soccer ball. Though even making worried boop-beep-boop noises doesn't save this from totally undercutting the tension the music is trying to build.

Happy Stormtroopers! So clearly, somebody's not just using the old symbology and Imperial look-and-feel, but has been improving on it as well: new armor, new assault blasters (with noticeably bigger scopes; can these guys hit what they're shooting at?). So either:

A) the Empire's still alive and well, either in pockets or is actually still calling the shots in most of the galaxy, in spite of the death of Palpatine and the destruction of much of their fleet at the Battle of Endor.

B) or somebody's attempting to resurrect it. This is the less lazy option, honestly, but the more difficult to pull off.

Cute scavenger girl! Her goggles, apparently, are fashioned from the lenses of an original-trilogy era Stormtrooper visor. Her ride looks a lot like Luke's at the beginning of New Hope turned on its side. And if you freeze the screen at 0:39, you'll see, strapped to the side of her ride, what looks like a lightsaber on the end of a long pole. The link between samurai and jedi has been made repeatedly. Is this a jedi version of the traditional weapon of the onna-bugeisha, the naginata?

As she takes off, you hear more lovely Star Wars engine sounds. The Star Wars universe has probably one of the most recognizable soundscapes out there, and the new crew appears to be milking it for all its worth.

Have you noticed how long the pauses of black screen are? They're just a touch too long, to induce you to sit forward impatiently while you wait for the next scene.

X-wings! Our pilot looks clean-shaven, but his helmet has those scratches and dings we associate with the Star Wars universe. (Though, arguably, it should look nicer and cleaner because the Rebellion won. Didn't it?) Hot-dogging x-wings coming low over a lake. The only planet we've seen so far that looks like this is Naboo. Why so low? Training exercise? Attempting to come in below someone's radar?

If you look closely, you can tell that these are not duplicates of the x-wings Luke flew. The engines appear to be solid to the body, with the folding wings stretching out from them. Some have suggested these are closer in design to Ralph McQuarrie's concept art.

Oops! AWOL scene from Game of Thrones! Seriously, cloaked dude in a snowy wood? Is winter coming? "The Dark Side... and the Light."

And here we get what's become the most controversial bit of the trailer: the cruciform lightsaber.

Only, I'm not sure this is a lightsaber. Oh, sure, it's a laser-sword of some sort, but notice the sound is off? That it sputters and flickers more? That the blade is longer and thinner? It looks like a cheap knock-off of a lightsaber, honestly.

Since the original series, there's been a huge revival in what folks are calling the Western Martial Arts, mostly involving the swordfighting techniques of Western Europe. It would be cool to see some of that in a Star Wars movie.

That said, a lot of longsword play had you grabbing the blade for leverage, or to bash people with the quillions. While these quillions look pretty deadly, grabbing the blade looks like a good way to lose your fingers. Maybe this crossguard is simply the logical response to the Skywalker penchant for cutting people's hands off?

WOOHOO! The music, the Falcon, the getting-dizzy-in-your-seat barnstorming, the howl-and-rattle of attacking tie fighters. Fans over the age of 30 just got hooked; we're gonna see this thing no matter what else you tell us about it. :p

Seriously, the Falcon looks great, and it's fun to see it rolling and swooping over the sands to launch head-first into the ties.

Que title, que date, fade to black and give us a lightsaber sound. Seriously? Why end with that? Weird...

But there you go. So far, they've proven they've gotten the basics down. If this trailer's any indication, The Force Awakens will look and sound like a Star Wars movie. Well done to everyone involved. I'm very much looking forward to seeing more.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Great Purge

Lo, as was promised in days of yore, it has begun!

If you'll look at my blog list, you'll see it's noticeably shorter. It's not as short as I expected it to be, but some blogs got whacked. Most got whacked because they're not even there anymore, which is annoying, but what can you do? Others because they haven't updated in over a month or...

Well, to be blunt, this is my blog list and represents blogs I find interesting. So with some, they changed their formats or topics. The Nerdy Girl's Game Blog is now Amber By Design. It's a neat crafts & cooking website, but not really the sort of thing I associate with Trollsmyth. With others, I drifted away from them.

Others haven't been updated in years, but they're still here because I still find them useful (like the wonderful Hamsterish Hoard and How to Start a Revolution), or I've linked to them a lot or I find them of historical interest and value (like Grognardia). Such blogs will likely always have a spot on my blog list for so long as they remain up.

Next step: adding new blogs. I'm still soliciting suggestions, so if you don't see one you think you should, let me know!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"He'll Save Every One of Us!"

The RPGPundit, in his infinite wisdom, has chosen to save the OSR from unmitigated disaster. In order to prevent “the enemies” of the OSR from defining it, he has chosen to define it for us, thus locking the OSR in amber, preserving it for all time. His definition is as follows:

OSR: a design philosophy of creating systems, settings and adventures that fit within the boundaries of old-school mechanics and concepts; that is, either directly utilizing features that were in existence in the period before the advent of 2nd edition AD&D; or features that, in spite of not having historically existed at that time, could have existed in that period without the addition of material or design concepts that are clearly the product of subsequent ideas or later theories.


So try this experiment yourself: get up from your computer and walk to your kitchen/office breakroom/coffee shop counter. Get yourself a drink. Now, before you return to your computer, recite RPGPundit's definition.

How much were you able to remember?

How many of you were unable to actually finish reading it before it turned into the mwah-mwah-mwah noises of an adult in a Peanuts cartoon?

I understand what RPGPundit is trying to do here. For the lists and tourneys of the message boards he adores so much, I suppose that definition would serve fairly well. (Looks a touch too broad in concept to me, while also assuming there’s a significant mechanical difference between 1e and 2e that I don’t think he’ll get much support on. But meh…)

You want an actually useful definition of the OSR? Here’s one:
Rulings, not rules.

Now, RPGPundit is going to hate this definition with a purple passion. It’s absolutely useless in a joust with the likes of Ron Edwards. It does nothing to fence “the swine” from the OSR or prevent them from claiming bits of it as their own. And it easily supports a meme of the OSR as a system in which DMs abuse their players.

But you know what? At a quarter-after-midnight, after a grueling but triumphant 4+ hour DMing session, when you’re talking to someone in the parking lot of your favorite gaming store, you’ll remember it.

And when you lay it down, it’ll actually mean something to the person you told it to. And they’ll be able to tell, instantly, whether or not your game is the sort of game they’d like to join in on.

Because that, ladies and gents, is what it’s all about. That’s how the OSR rose to the victorious heights it enjoys today.

And don’t make any mistake about it, folks. The triumph of the OSR is all around you. You can see it in the re-release of the 1e core books in collectable hardbacks (with a portion of the proceeds going to a Gygax memorial fund). You can see it in WotC using The Caves of Chaos in their public playtesting materials. You can see it in the boxed sets of the Dragon Age and Doctor Who RPGs. You can see it in Monte Cook’s Numenera core book, where he writes:

Numenera is a game about ideas, not rules. The rules are meant to be a framework upon which to hang the tapestry of the story you and the players create.

You can see it in the latest adventure path for the Pathfinder Game (a true rival if the OSR has one) being a loving homage to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. And most of all, you can see it in the games people are actually playing.

And how did the OSR achieve this triumph? As much respect as I have for the research and historical perspective offered by folks like Maliszewski, the truth is, we did it by doing fun things and getting excited about them. We built our megadungeons and published them on our blogs and shared death-counts (both those of monsters and PCs) as they were explored. We went through every monster in the 2e Monstrous Manual and brainstormed hundreds of awesome, crazy, and silly ideas. We applauded Jeff Reints when he described our style as Retro-stupid and thrilled to the zany joys of Encounter Critical and spidergoats. We started magazines because magazines are cool and we published boxed sets because boxed sets are cool and we hold contests of all sorts and do blind Christmas exchanges and share our settings and get excited about new adventures and kick-starters because these things make our games more fun. We read about the open-table, nomadic PC play styles of the ‘70s and said, “That looks like fun!” and started Flailsnails. We embraced the “lawn crapper” heavy-metal trappings of Raggi. We have no shits to give about Zak and his face-to-face group’s nine-to-five, or what it says about women in gaming or blah-blah-blah because what they do at the table is freaking amazing and cool and is fun.

We are frikken’ gamers who frikken’ game and have a great time doing it.

And that is incredibly contagious.

People want a piece of our action because our action is a great way to spend three to nine hours. We don’t gaze at our navels, fretting about 30 minutes of fun, brain damage, or what our games say about society. We fill our time with fun things, hang out with cool people, and create amazing memories.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? And, having that, who’d want to waste time worrying about what Ron Edwards thinks?

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Dragon Age: Origins First Impressions

Yeah, I’m really that behind in the world of computer RPGs. >.<

That’s mostly because I was spoiled by Ultimas IV and V in my youth. I got to play a game where the NPCs had lives of their own that didn’t revolve around me and my quest. I played a game that didn’t constantly lie to me about how “urgent” a quest was, and then punish me if I avoided side-quests in order to complete the main quest as quickly as possible. I played a game where you actually had real multiple paths to success and taking everything that wasn’t nailed down was recognized as theft.

Damn kids these days need to stay offa my lawn…

Anyway, I’ve heard tons of good stuff about BioWare’s CRPGs and EA is offering DA: Origins for free, so I figured out check it out. I’ve enjoyed BioWare’s other offerings in the past, most especially Neverwinter Nights. But I’ve cooled on the whole genre over the years.

The big issue, honestly, is that combat-as-puzzle doesn’t really hold my interest, especially when it’s real-time. And most especially when…

Ok, so I choose a mage and I do their Harrowing tutorial, which was a neat way to do a tutorial, even if I did have to ask a lot of questions like I’d slept through every class at the Tower. But after that? My next big quest is pest-control: clearing the storage caves of spiders. Ok, they’re giant spiders, but still…

And just to make it worse, I’m also looting the place. In a real, living world, this would be theft, or possibly even embezzlement. In a computer RPG, stealing everything that’s not nailed down, no matter where it is, is Tuesday.

And then there’s the interface. The things I need to know about my characters are far away from them, way off in the corners. I’m not watching the cool combat animations because my eyes are glued to the spell cool-down timers. Even with one character I’m hitting the space-bar multiple times in combat; once I’ve got a large party I’m really going to be wondering why this thing isn’t turn-based.

There’s supposed to be a “tactics” system that’s supposed to jump in when certain conditions are met, but so far it doesn’t appear to be working. I imagine there’s some sort of box I haven’t checked somewhere to do that. Or it does less than I think it does or only works randomly?

So yeah, so far, not terribly impressed. I’m mildly intrigued by the story. Part of that is because I suspect I’m coming at it from a place that’s very different from where I think most players default. Sure, yes, the magi are being treated poorly and oppressed. But neighbor, I’ve walked the streets of Mordheim and I know what happens when the horrors in the universe next door get their pseudopods on a juicy mage to use as a gateway. No, I’m not helping you abscond with your priestess girlfriend, and the reason you’ve not been tapped to experience the Harrowing is because you’ve already failed!

(If you help that guy and don’t end up fighting him as a demon-possessed horror later in the game, the writers should have their knuckles rapped by a fire giant. Seriously!)

Friday, October 03, 2014

The Oldest War

Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure.
- Agent Smith

The Manual, however, has a schtick which suggests being unable to breath air is just a disease transmitted as a side effect of being near the aboleth-- which I like very much. I also decided that it drains color out of nearby fish.
- Zak Smith

There are those, learned and respected scholars all, who will tell you that the first Great War was fought between the lizard folk and the serpent folk who were the gods of the Yuan-ti. They spend much of their time combating their minority colleagues who insist, no, the first Great War was fought between the aarakocra and the thri-kreen. Neither side does much more than emit scoffing laughs (laced with a disturbing sense of directionless embarrassment) when the wild-eyed and unkempt seers speak of even older things.

In the mind’s eye of poets and madmen dance a race of children. These children dwell in the happy spring of our world, cavorting and making as they dance and sing. Since this world is all they know, they name their mother the All-mother, and they name our world All Creation. And they shape the beginnings of our world with all the love, curiosity, enthusiasm, and vicious tyranny of children in the nursery.

And then something from Outside came. To say it invaded is to imply agency and choice. To say it tumbled implies it was pushed or tripped. So lets just say it came.

It was utterly inimical to the games and songs and dances of the Children. Their voices quavered in its presence, their gardens wilted, their games went all sideways. They couldn’t even speak with it, and its utterly alien ways went beyond uncouth, beyond creepy. It was utterly abominable.

And, by its very presence, it warped things. It didn’t so much spawn as twist things already in the nursery world and remake them in its image, to fit its idea of what nursery ought to be. It was, to the minds of the Children, the ultimate theft of their toys.

And this they could not stand. They made war against it. They tried to burn it with fire and freeze it with ice. They sang at it and they threw stones at it. But everything that touched it warped and became part if its corruption of the world.

Even worse, its corruption was infectious. The Children built an army, a massive collection of soldiers, all unified in purpose and of one single mind. At the first touch of it, a wave of instability passed through the entire army. The Children were forced to destroy their soldiers before they became a tool of their enemy.

Their next army was far more clever. Each was not just a unique individual, but misanthropic as well. Each individual specimen was a singular army in itself, armed with every clever weapon the Children could devise, it eschewed the company of all others, and most especially those like itself. Thus, should one fall to corruption, the others would be unmoved.

We call the by-blows of these warriors of the Children beholders. And, in the end, they murdered their creators, whom they considered just as repellent and horrible as the enemy they were created to destroy.

The beholders also won the war against it. They created an army of their own, an army of raw chemical hunger that sought only to dissolve everything, rendering it into fuel to grow itself. We know the remnants of this army as the various slimes, oozes, puddings, and gelatins that still lurk in the dark places.

So it was defeated, but the corruption it left behind was not undone. For, you see, the Children were right about their mother. She was also the mother of it. And it was a daydream, a fantasy of children-that-might-have-been, and its very presence implied into being the nursery-that-could-have-been-if-only…

And you can still find those echoes of its existence in the aboleth, and in the twistings of our own mortal shells that we call the illithid, and in similar horrors that do not belong and are not right. And we rightly recoil in horror and destroy to the utmost these terrible children of the Mother Of Us All. For their continued existence whispers in our heart-of-hearts that Mother loves them more than us.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Addendum to my Review of 5e's MM

There are a few bits of coolness in 5e’s MM I forgot to mention yesterday. First are lairs. Many monsters has a special “lair actions.” These special actions don’t count towards the usual limit of actions a monster has and happen on initiative count 20 (though after any tying initiatives). Most are just extra attacks:

A cloud of swarming insects fills a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on a point the [black] dragon chooses… Any creature in the cloud when it appears must make… a DC15 Constitution saving throw, taking 10 (3d6) piercing damage on a failed save...

A lot also knock people prone. Many are clearly designed to give a single monster a fighting chance against the focused alpha strikes PCs will (wisely) unleash against “legendary” monsters. Some are suitably creepy and atmospheric, such as eyes opening on solid surfaces in a beholder’s lair to fire off an extra eye-ray attack, or walls suddenly sprouting “grasping appendages.”

These legendary monsters also create “regional effects.” These are very similar to the sorts of things that precede the attacks of the dragons or the arrival of the monsters in Raphael Chandler’s Teratic Tome. These range from the atmospheric to the mechanical. Some look fairly lame on the surface of things: the first time you enter a demi-lich’s lair you take 16 points of necrotic damage, a sum that will certainly keep out the riff-raff, but barely serves to slow down a party of adventurers over 4th level. On the other end of things, they can make otherwise mundane encounters far more interesting. For instance, the terrain around a blue dragon’s lair can develope dangerous hidden sinkholes. Rodents and birds within a mile of a green dragon’s lair serve as its eyes and ears. Kraken can control the weather within 6 miles of their lairs.

These are both cool ideas and, frankly, I wouldn’t object to extending them to more monsters than got them. Those of you who enjoy playing with mythic-underworld dungeons might even want to come up with lists for orcs, goblins, and similar humanoid manifestations of the evil that lurks where the sun never reaches.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

5e's Monster of a Manual

It’s thick; at 352 pages it’s just noticeably thicker than the the PHB. And it’s full of monsters! (I know: shock and surprise.)

All the standards are represented: dragons both metallic and chromatic (but not gem), giants from hill to storm (plus ettins and formorian), goblinoids from kobold to bugbear, orcs, gnolls, skeletons and zombies and wraiths and vampires, elementals, genies, angels, devils, demons, slaad (and yugoloths!), non-insecty lamia and snakes-made-of-water weirds.

It appears the authors have defaulted to older versions of monsters, as exemplified by the lamia (a move in the right direction) and the water weird (which wasn’t so much). With incubi/succubi, they split the difference and separated them from both devils and demons, making them the independent contractors of the nether-realms.

There are also numerous quotes in the margins referencing classic D&D stuff. Count Strahd, Emirikol the Chaotic, the Temple of Elemental Evil, Acererak, Iggwilv, House Orien (from Eberron), and Undermountain all get shout-outs in the margin notes.

Modrons up to the pentadrone are in the book. The classic demon lords are named and briefly described, but not statted. Beyond Asmodeus, the devils don’t get nearly so much attention (and the hierarchy appears to be the one described in Cook’s Book of Vile Darkness, with Geryon, Malagard, and Moloch all deposed).

It’s not quite the 2e Monstrous Manual. Most creatures get a full-page write-up, but a lot more of that page is taken up with art and the stat block. Still, we do get a few interesting tidbits about each critter, though there’s some blatant padding as well, such as being told multiple times in the aboleth entry about how they remember being defeated by the gods in ancient times. If you’ve got a copy of the 2e book, keep it handy; it remains the best source of monster-based inspiration-fuel yet for D&D.

There are some rather interesting back-and-forth call outs from one monster to another. There’s an intriguing triangle developed between the efreet, salamanders, and the azer, for instance. Graz’zt gets mentioned a lot. Don’t be surprised if he’s central to the plot in organized play in 2015.

There’s a surprising number of monsters that don’t actually die when killed. In addition to vampires, demons, devils, and similar that we expect that sort of behavior from, rakshasa and naga also come back after being slain. Expect to see these as lieutenants and Big Bads that show up later in a chain of adventures, bearing a grudge and with more friends to put the hurt on the PCs.

Like the PHB, the art is very much a mixed bag. Also like the PHB, some of the best stuff is the environmental pieces. Among the best creature illustrations are the hunting pseudodragon, the trippy myconids, the colorful adult salamander, the disturbing piercer, and the amazing harpy.

Unlike the PHB, there’s a distinct lack of multiculturalism in the book. Most of the monsters, especially the humanoids, are wearing tamer versions of 3e’s dungeon-punk stylings, with more restrained bandage-wrappings and shorter spikes on their pauldrons. Even the monsters that you’d expect to be flaunting exotic cultural trappings, like the oni and kenku (who’ve lost all traces of their hawkish beginnings and are now fully crow-ish) look decidedly plain in their simple tunics and hoods and robes.

There’s an annoying amount of soft focus, sometimes taken to extremes. The picture that opens the drow entry is so soft-focused you can barely make out the figures, and facial-features are non-existent. It’s a technique whose time has come, gone, and seriously needs to be retired.

Some critters have small black-and-white studies accompanying their full-color art, and there’s never been a better example of how ubiquitous color has not improved RPG books. The black-and-white sketches are nearly universally superior to their color brethren in life, creativity, detail and playfulness. See especially the delightful running otyugh at the bottom of page 8 for an excellent example of what I mean.

The organization is more than a little puzzling, and I suspect it was done more with an eye towards making things easy for the layout team than it was with making things easier for the DM. Each entry is divided into two parts: a write-up that’s well organized into useful paragraphs summed up with a quick phrase in bold letters and a stat-block. So far, this is great, and works really well for most monsters. Things get a bit wonky, however, when you get a monster type that includes lots of individual critters. In that case, the written descriptions are grouped together and then the stat-blocks and illustrations are grouped together. This puts the werewolf’s written description on page 207 and its stat-block on page 211. The worst offender might be the erinyes, with five pages between the description and the stat-block.

Things really fall apart with Appendix A: Miscellaneous Creatures. What’s in Appendix A? We are told:

This appendix contains statistics for various animals, vermin, and other critters. The stat blocks are organized alphabetically by creature name.

So what’s actually there? Lots of normal animals, giant animals and a weirdly random smattering of classic monsters like blink dogs, winter wolves, blood hawks, flying snakes, phase spiders, and worgs. Plus, the sea horse.

Yes, the sea horse. Since it’s listed as being a “tiny beast” I assume they mean the little curl-tailed critter, and not some fabulous combination of fish and equine. Why is it there? Damned if I know. (Is summoning a single sea horse part of some druid spell?)

But wait, it gets worse, because these creatures are listed in alphabetical order and not by creature type. This means the giant constrictor snake is next to the giant crab and nowhere near the giant poisonous snake. The giant spider is on page 328, the giant wolf spider is on page 330, the phase spider is on page 334, and the just-plain spider is on page 337. If you’re building a spider-themed dungeon and just want a full list of all the spiders, sorry buddy, you’re SOL. Even the index in the back lists them alphabetically, which means if you don’t know to look for the giant wolf spider, you’re likely to miss it entirely. Nor are there any wandering encounter tables from which you could crib a list.

In short, Appendix A appears to be a collection of critters they wanted to include stats for but didn’t want to do full-page writeups on. A few get art. For the most part, all you get is the stat-block, with four to five critters on each page. It’s a mess, and unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, good luck finding anything.

It nearly ruins the whole thing for me. If I didn’t have a group of 5e players very much enjoying the game described in the PHB, the MM might have soured me to 5e. As a DM who often builds adventures by flipping through the MM for inspiration, this mess is going to prove deeply suboptimal. Still, much can be salvaged by publishing a horde of good, themed random encounter tables, lists of monsters by challenge rating (there’s none in the MM), and a better organized index.

ADDENDUM: First, I forgot to talk about two bits of coolness in MM, which are lair powers and environmental effects from the monsters themselves. I rectify that in another post.

Second, WotC has published a PDF version of the index of monsters by challenge rating. This is good to see, and would be great if they included the page number these critters appear on in the MM. This list is from the upcoming DMG.

Friday, September 05, 2014

From the 5orcer's 5croll: Actions

I’ll admit, I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to any sort of in-combat action economy. Typically, no matter what the system is, I give players a move, an action (drink the potion, hack the computer, shoot the stormtrooper), and that’s it unless something odd comes up. And I’m always willing to toss even that out the window if it seems to make sense to do so.

This works with most games and in most groups I’ve played, but I could absolutely see it breaking down as sub-optimal, as it did when running The Lost City this past Labor Day. The PCs were fighting a gang of ghouls. The PCs got the ghouls in a narrow doorway, where only two could fight at a time. When the PCs got a bit worn down, they’d rotate out and let in fresh fighters.

Now, by strict 5e rules, the ghouls should have gotten opportunity attacks on them. What’s interesting, if you look at opportunity attacks, is that opportunity attacks are a subset of actions called reactions. And you only get one reaction until you take your next turn. So each ghoul would only get to make a single opportunity attack until their own turn returned.

More than that, if they used that opportunity attack, they’d not be able to take advantage of any other opportunities for either opportunity attacks or any other kind of reaction until their turn came around again. This means sometimes it makes more sense to ignore an opportunity attack if you know something better is coming along.

As an added wrinkle, some spells can be cast as reactions, meaning it really behooves certain spell-slingers to hold back and wait for the right opportunity if they think it’ll come up.

A lot of the same things can be said about bonus actions. Lots of things, but most especially class abilities, can give you bonus actions. You take a bonus action on your turn, mixing it up with your move action and your other action. However, as Mearls made a point of saying at GenCon, you only get a bonus action if something gives it to you and you can only take one. Mutliclassing and spells that grant you multiple bonus actions really only give you lots of options to pick from, but you still only get to pick one.

Which again keeps things simple and more interesting. You have to pick when to fire these special actions off, because you only get one each, and once you use ‘em you can’t again until your turn comes back around. This means a single player shouldn’t be hogging up lots of time by taking action after action on their turn. It may mean preparing to help someone through analysis paralysis, however. In the main, I think keeping things simple like this is good, but then, I like my combats short and sweet. As in all things, YMMV.

Monday, September 01, 2014

5ecrets of the Lost City

For Labor Day weekend, I ran an all-day session of B4: Secrets of the Lost City for a fairly large group. We had dimensional clones of the feral half-elf ranger and snooty elf bard from my Tuesday game, a dragonborn druid (who could have potentially derailed the adventure before it began if we’d had a proper understanding of how her spells worked) and a dragonborn fighter, a halfling rogue who’d been raised as a boy and was now rebelling by wallowing in all things pink, a gnome wizard, and a fey-uplifted anthropomorphic corgi bard (with a 20 charisma!!!). Near the end of the adventure, they were joined by a cleric tour-guide from one of the local cults. This was a HUGE group for me (I usually run between 3 and 5) but things ran smoothly and most of the combats moved along at a good clip.

Spoilers for the adventure follow, so you should probably stop here before reading further if that's a thing for you.

B4 was written by Tom Moldvay who also authored X2: Castle Amber. Where X2 is unabashedly inspired by the writing of Clark Ashton Smith, B4 is a bit more subtle in being influenced by Robert E. Howard’s Red Nails.

The default hook for B4 is that the PCs were part of a caravan crossing a desert, got separated from the rest in a sandstorm, and stumble across the pyramid while searching for food and water. This hook works poorly if there are any clerics in the group (who can create up to 20 gallons of water each per day) and utterly falls apart if there’s a druid who can cast goodberry. 5e is most definitely not a game about logistics.

You can, of course, use a different hook, but the starving one works so well to give the PCs a sense of urgency that it’s a shame when you can’t use it. Of course, if the PCs’ gods want them to go into the pyramid…

Most of the pyramid is built around the kinda-sorta four-way battle between four cults. Gorm, god of justice (who only accepts male fighters as full members), Madarua, goddess of birth, death, and changing seasons (who only accepts female fighters as full members) and Usamigaras, god of healing, messengers, and thieves (who favors spell-slingers but is pretty much accepting of everyone) are kinda-sorta aligned against relative newcomer Zargon, a tentacle horror worshipped as a god who lives at the lowest level of the pyramid. However, the three cults of the old gods spend most of their time fighting each other, leaving Zargon to rule the local roost.

This conflict is the best part of the adventure. It’s relatively easy for the PCs to join one of the original three cults (and encouraged, since the cults are really the only way for the PCs to resupply during this adventure). Usamigaras’ representative in the pyramid, “stout Auriga Sirkinos,” makes an excellent villain for the upper levels, especially since the first group the PCs will almost certainly meet will be the followers of Gorm.

(Technically, the PCs could join the cult of Zargon, but this is discouraged by the adventure. Still, this could take the game in some interesting directions and would work well for an evil party or one that’s built around infiltrating their foes and destroying them from the inside. Also, it’s not assumed the PCs will all join the same cult, though some of them joining the cult of Zargon will almost certainly result in the party being split, and create all sorts of headaches for the DM.)

Unfortunately, the way the upper-most levels are designed, the players can be excused for thinking they’re in some sort of random, fun-house dungeon. They could spend the entire first session fighting fire beetles, stirges, sprites (who flee out a cartoon-esque tiny door near the ceiling if pressed hard), and giant centipedes before they even discover that the place is inhabited by humans. By the time they encounter the giant bees guarding the treasury of the Brotherhood of Gorm, they’re likely to think that giant bees guarding a treasure is just par for the random-dungeon course.

So if you do run this, I’d play up the inhabited feel of the place: the way the statues on the roof still function and have been recently oiled, the resetting of the traps, things like that. Encourage the mystery of this seemingly lost ruin being inhabited.

Unfortunately, the PCs can get involved in the conflict by the time they’ve reached the 10th room in the key. Yeah, I know, I’m being inconsistent here: first I complain that it takes too long to find the interesting inter-cult conflict, and now I complain it comes too soon. Here’s my issue: by the time the PCs get involved in the cults, they have much more entertaining things to do than explore the other 90-or-so keyed locations in the pyramid. Sure, you could send the PCs on various quests inside the pyramid on behalf of their patron cult(s), but there’s more fun to be had in the underground city beneath the pyramid.

This weekend’s game did just that: presented with priests of Zargon who claimed that the PCs were the answer to ancient prophecy, they willingly followed them to the promised hidden city because hidden underground cities sound cool. Only the top two tiers of the pyramid were explored. The rest of the time they spent liberating treasures from the mausoleums on the Island of the Dead. That part is only suggested by a few lines near the back of the book and a broad map of the underground city that’s very much lacking in detail.

Like D3: Vault of the Drow, there’s a lot of cool stuff in B4 that’s implied but left to the DM to really flesh out. Beyond professional rivalry, what’s up with the conflict between the old cults? Do they each have a competing plan for ridding themselves of Zargon? Or do they just assume Zargon’s part of their lives forever now? What, exactly, is the source of the craziness of the citizens of the underground city? How are the different factions likely to respond to the actions of the PCs?

If you’re going to run this one, don’t spend too much time pouring over the lower levels of the pyramid, but do spend some time working out the details for the four factions. Do figure out what they might want from the PCs and how they’ll react to the chaos the PCs wreak. Do spend some time working out the details of the underground city. If your players are at all the sort to chat with the people they come across and not attack everything that moves, they’re likely to become a lot more interested in the Lost City and its secrets than they are in delving the pyramid’s decidedly deadly dungeon.

Friday, August 22, 2014

From the 5orcerer's 5croll: Concentration and Spells

WotC was, shock and surprise, really rolling out the red carpet for 5e at GenCon. One of the best parts was getting to listen to Mike Mearls and others on the team speak about their intentions for the game and why they built the rules the way they did. I hope a lot of what they talked about is in the DMG because there’s some stuff that seems (inadvertently) designed to trip up us old-timers. If you basically treat all RPGs as additional rules, gear, and monsters to bolt onto some version of Basic D&D from when Reagan was president, then you’ll want to keep your eye out for these things.

Magic is one of the big ones. I’ve already discussed the changes to how preparing spells and spell slots work. Mearls, however, pointed out a few things I’d missed that are probably more important to how 5e is supposed to play at the table. So, in the spirit of “5e is always right,” I’ll be combing through my notes and sharing what I heard with y’all here.

One change that’s huge is how 5e handles concentration. Nearly every spell that lasts longer than 5e’s six-second round requires concentration. Concentration isn’t that limiting; you can still fight, run, drink a potion or whatever while you concentrate on maintaining a spell.

One thing you absolutely can not do while concentrating is cast another spell that also requires concentration. This is huge because most (though not all) buff spells require concentration. This means stacking buffs (like bless and enhance ability) can only be done if you’ve got multiple casters. Gone are the days when the party’s lone cleric would start every fight casting bless and prayer and whatever else buffs, stacking a pile of +1 and +2 bonuses on the rest of the party.

This is part of streamlining the game. One of the things advantage/disadvantage (and I’ll be talking more about that later) does is remove the chained arithmetic that plagues older versions of D&D: +1 for you STR bonus, +2 for being specced, +1 for bless, +2 for holding the high ground, -4 because your foe is invisible…

So, with a limited number of buffs, and most situational modifiers handled by advantage/disadvantage, it should be a lot easier to judge whether any given roll is a success. This shaves seconds off every player’s turn in combat and minutes off every combat.

There’s more to concentration however. If you’re killed or KOed, you lose concentration. Also, if you take damage while concentrating you have to make a Constitution save and the target number is 10 or half the damage you took, whichever is higher. Fail and the spell goes poof.

This isn’t just a big deal for buffs because a lot of spells that used to be fire-and-forget now require concentration. This includes the various “wall of…” spells and those like it, like web. That’s right, stop concentrating and your wall of sticky webs vanish and whatever was trapped in it is free. I don’t know about you, but that radically changes how I assumed those spells worked.

But wait, there’s more! Check out this bit from the spell flesh to stone (page 243 for those of you playing along at home):

A creature restrained by this spell must make another Constitution saving throw at the end of each of its turns. If it successfully saves against this spell three times, the spell ends. If it fails its save three times, it is turned to stone…

Yep, turning someone to stone is no longer a quick, save-or-die roll. I think all the old save-or-die spells have been changed this way. Mearls said he wanted to end the anticlimax of facing down the ancient dragon in its lair, only to have it fail a save in the first moment of combat and end the fight right there.

I’m not sure how much I agree with that goal, but it certainly makes those spells a lot more exciting and dramatic in combat.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Spell-slinging in 5e

During the playtesting for 5e, I never DMed and I never played a spell-slinging class. Most of my play was with a low-level monk, a class I don’t think I’d ever played before. It was neat, and did a good job of introducing me to the basics of 5e as they evolved through the playtest. However, I completely missed what they’d been doing with spellcasting in the game.

The writing of the rules is subtle but the changes are dramatic, and if you’re as guilty as I am about treating all later editions of D&D as just extra options and monsters to bolt on to the BX/BECMI rules, then these changes may come across as jarring at first. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

The 5e rulebook describes spell slots as “a grove of a certain size--small for a 1st-level slot, larger for a spell of higher level.” This sounds just like the spell slots we’ve always known and (sometimes) loved, but that’s absolutely not how they actually work.

A better metaphor for spell slots would be capacitors. A 1st-level spell slot holds enough magical juice to power a single 1st-level spell. A 3rd-level spell slot holds enough juice to power a single 3rd-level spell.

Yes, magic-users and clerics still prepare spells, but the number of spells and their levels are NOT based on your spell slots. Wizards prep a number of spells (that they have in their book) of any levels they know equal to their Intelligence modifier + their Wizard level. Clerics can pick from their whole list, but it’s about the same: Wisdom modifier + cleric level = number of spells you can prepare.

Now, why would you prepare spells in a ratio of levels that doesn’t match your spells slots? Because, while a 1st level slot doesn’t have the juice to power a 3rd level spell, you can use any higher level slot to power a single lower level spell. So if you really need to fire off another Jump spell (1st level transmutation), you can burn a 3rd level slot for it. (And yes, it uses the entire slot; you can’t cast three Jump spells from a single 3rd level slot.)

But wait, it get’s even weirder, because casting a spell doesn’t end its preparation. By that I mean, if your wizard has prepared Jump and they cast it, it’s still prepared! From a single preparation, your wizard could go on to burn every single spell slot of every level to keep casting the Jump spell over and over and over again.

So, the number of spells you can prepare (appropriate stat modifier + class level) is the breadth of your spellcasting ability. It defines your character’s magical flexibility. Your character’s spell slots define the depth of their magical ability; how many spells they can sling before needing to rest and recharge their magical capacitors.

This gives those classes unprecedented flexibility in spell-casting. You’re going to be seeing a lot more unusual spells prepared and actually used. (I expect we’ll also see a lot less angst and time spent in picking just the right spell list, too.)

But wait, there’s more! Because that’s just the cleric and magic-us- er, I mean, wizard.

Sorcerers work from a much more limited selection of spells known, based on their level. But there’s nothing in their description that mentions preparing spells. If you played any 3.x D&D this won’t be surprise to you. Bards handle spell-casting in an identical way (but do not get “sorcery points” that allow a sorcerer to use 3.x-style metamagic abilities to modify their spells).

The warlock, on the other hand, gets a set number of spell slots and each of those slots is at the same level. Combined with their Eldritch Invocations (largely power-boosts to particular spells), most warlocks are going to have a very limited number of magical tricks they’re very good at which they’re going to use repeatedly. Sorcerers are going to have a wider variety of spells, but still not as wide as most wizards and never as wide as clerics. However, the sorcerer is going to be able to do more with the spells they have in ways that will surprise people who think they know how those spells are “supposed” to work.

The changes are subtle in how they’re explained in the rules, but have dramatic effects on play, so you’ll want to take a closer look at those classes before you either play them or DM for them. The end result is greatly expanded flexibility across the board for every spell-slinging class while simultaneously removing the need for agonizing over every spell slot in advance for fear of not having just the right spell when it’s needed. While the changes were jarring at first (literally causing me to sit up and say, “What, what the fuck did I just read?!?”) I’m cautiously optimistic about how these will play at the table.

And now you know, and knowing is half the battle!

Monday, August 04, 2014

Playing with Kyma - the Fields & the Farmers' Gate

The Fields
The terrain west of the city is, by ancient decree, kept flat and clear of trees and bushes. The current Sultan’s father modified the law slightly by turning it into wheat and barley fields tended to by slaves, principally prisoners-of-war, criminals, and their descendents. These are kept in barracks nearly a mile from the city walls.

Tending miles and miles of grain fields is grueling work, but the bread they make is the lynchpin of the Sultan’s popularity in the city, as the food is given out for free to the poor (and sometimes these distributions are used as hunting opportunities by slavers). These distributions occur at noon in various spots in the city, but the largest happens at the Farmers’ Gate.

The slaves themselves are generally on good terms with their overseers. During the monsoon season, when there’s little work to do, they’re eager to hire themselves out for whatever work will earn them a bit of coin, and few have any scruples about the sort of work they’ll do.

Farmers’ Gate
Actually a large plaza just inside the largest of the city’s gates, it’s a daily market of fresh foods, livestock, oils, and fuel.

Every 2 hours the PCs are in the Farmers’ Gate, roll a d6. A roll of 1 indicates a significant encounter. During the monsoon, roll a d12 and consult the table below. The rest of the year, roll a d8.

  1. Relatives of POWs or convicts sentenced to slave in the fields looking for them. Roll a d4. On a 1 or 2, they are human and will reward any successful location of their loved ones (or other significant aid) with (1-10 on a d12) their gratitude and 3d4 silver pieces, (11) a useful rumor, or (12) a treasure map. On a 3 they are orcish and will swear a blood-oath to perform one important service (usually limited to killing or breaking something/one, though they will do up to a month of bodyguard work). On a 4, they are elvish and reward successful aid with (50%) two useful potions or six silvered arrows of such excellent quality that the shooter has advantage on rolls to hit.
  2. A farmer looking for help rescuing his wife and daughter from a gang of satyrs who have seduced them away.
  3. A farmer looking for help rescuing her husband from a dryad who’s seduced him away.
  4. Frightened farmers with tales of (1-3 on a d6) marauding orcs, (4-5) nocturnal werewolf attacks, or (6) wyverns carrying off livestock.
  5. Werewolves posing as frightened farmers in order to lure skilled warriors out to their collective of huts where they will be infected and charmed into the pack.
  6. Rangers looking for aid in hunting dangerous game (probably wyvern, griffons, or possibly even a roc).
  7. Centaur seeking to complete a bride-challenge in order to win the hand of a female centaur. The task she has set requires him to either (1-3 on a d8) acquire at least 50 gold pieces, (4-5) a prize goat for her herds, (6-7) an object of art blessed by the priests of Phaedre, or (8) a useful magic item. He’ll have 1d4 rivals in town, also seeking to complete the same quest.
  8. A riot as too many of the poor showed up and there’s not enough bread to go around. For four hours, the players will be challenged every round you roll a 1 or 2 on a d6 by (roll of 1-2 on another d6) their number multiplied by the result of rolling a d4 in 0th level squatters from the Warrens, (3) a gang of slavers looking to capitalize on the lawlessness including 0th level fighters equal in number to the party plus two 1st level fighters and either a 5th level thief leader or a 4th level priest of Shkeen, (4) city guards angry and looking to bust heads including a number of 0th level guardsmen equal to the party’s number +2d4 lead by a guardsman lieutenant equal in level to a roll on a 2d6, or (5-6) a gang of orcs on a rampage equal in number to the party, lead by a pair of half-orc fighters equal to the party’s average level. During any fight, there’s a 50% chance that assassins from the Beggar’s Guild will strike if the PCs have earned that Guild’s enmity.
  9. A witch from the countryside, come to procure (1-2 on a roll of a d6 + highest Charisma bonus in the group) the eye of an elf, (3-4) expensive alchemical equipment she needs transported 20 miles back to her home (25% chance a rival witch attempts to interfere), (5-6) the egg of a fertile woman of orcish ancestry (25% chance she has a magical method of procuring it that doesn’t involve the death of the donor), or (7+) one or two high-charisma individuals she can charm and lure off into slavery to her.
  10. 1d4 field slaves looking for work. They have no useful skills but know the city and the surrounding countryside extremely well.
  11. 1d8 field slaves looking to settle old scores. Their target is (1-3 on a d6) a wealthy merchant, (4-5) a city judge, or (6) a master of the Beggar’s Guild.
  12. A skilled slave looking for work. Determine the slave’s race and class randomly. They will be 1 + 1d4 levels lower than the PCs, though never lower than level 1.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

On Zak S.

If you asked me to draw a picture of an apple, I’d probably whip out something that looks a lot like the logo for Apple computers. From an objective viewpoint, the logo really doesn’t look like an apple. It’s flat, usually colorless; a gross simplification of the real thing. Like eyes in the paintings by ancient Egyptians or the modern smiley face, it’s more symbol than reproduction, an easily recognized and processed shorthand that, by itself, conveys a simple idea and then gets out of the way. These sorts of symbols play to our assumptions (no matter what color Apple’s logo, we all know apples are red) and work as a very convenient shorthand in our day-to-day lives.

When my mom paints apples, they look like this:

You don’t need to look closely to realize these are some really messed up apples. They’re a dozen different colors at once: red, yes, and green, but also blue, grey, purple, violet, various shades of yellow and gold and even white. What the heck is wrong with my mother’s eyes?!?

My mother’s eyes don’t just see what is assumed, but what is actually there. Take an apple and really look at it. Don’t just let your mind process “apple” and then speed off to the next thing. See it. See how the skin retains hints of every color it’s ever had as it matured from bud to fruit. Notice how it reflects the light and with it the colors of things near it. See how even the red is actually a complex mottling of various colors, nearly pointilist.

My mother doesn’t paint apples as we expect them to be. My mother paints apples as they really are, with the parts we miss in our daily lives highlighted, brought into focus and shoved in front of our faces, where we can no longer ignore all that we gloss over in our headlong rush to towards five minutes from now.

That’s not something all artists do, but it’s something that many good artists do. This is exactly what people mean when they talk about art giving us new eyes to see the world with, of helping us see and appreciate what’s always been right in front of us.

It’s something Zak does. When Zak decides to make a gaming book and asks, “How can I make the cover useful?” or wonders, “What else can we do with dice when we roll them beyond just seeing what number is on top?” he’s doing the same thing my mother does when she paints apples. I love getting into things with Zak because I know he’ll see what I miss. He doesn’t gloss over the things I just assume. Zak takes ideas to the next level and asks questions like, “What does it mean that Tiamat has five heads?” and “How can we convey the important stuff about our settings in a way that the DM will actually remember and use at the table?” or even how avoiding immersion is part of the fun in our immersive fantasy games.

Perhaps most importantly, Zak calls me on my bullshit. (Oddysey is also indispensable for this.) You need people to do that to keep you out of deep, stifling, and creatively barren ruts. Of course, some people love wallowing in such ruts and hate being prodded out of them.

Nobody has asked Zak to drink hemlock. Not yet. But folks have gotten grumbly. The world, as seen through the eyes of an artist who sees things as they are, lacks the comfortable assumptions that most of us need to get through the day. Some people simply cannot endure what the eyes of such an artist see. Sometimes, they’ll lash out bitterly at those who knock over or ridicule the illusionary worlds they’ve built for themselves.

They’ll also lash out at you when you accidentally bump up against the set-dressing you can’t even see because you don’t share their illusions. Just something to keep in mind.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Playing with Kyma - the Market District

The ocean-side port, warehouses, and shops on the southern shore. Heavily fortified to protect against both storms and pirate attacks. Good source for exotic fruits and woods, spices, gemstones (especially turquoise, obsidian, coral, and pearl), whale oil, wool and furs, marble and exotic construction materials, and human and dragonborn slaves, as well as more exotic sorts. Also includes accommodations (inns, taverns, low-end brothels) for travelers).

Connected to the Bazaar District by the Grand Canal. While you can get seafood here, those in the know go outside the city walls to the Tumbles.

During the monsoon, encounters happens on a roll of 1 on a d10 every hour. The rest of the year, they occur on a roll of 1 on a d6 every hour.


  1. 2d12 Palace Guards searching for something (or someone) missing from the palace. Roll a d6. On a 1-3, they are alone, not terribly serious about the search, and eager for a distraction. On a roll of 4-5, they have a weretiger forced into half-form on a silver chain sniffing down their quarry for them. On a roll of 6, they are being guided by a seer.
  2. A selkie disguised as a human or elf. Roll a d4. On a 1-3, it’s searching for a good mate to conceive a child with. On a 4, it’s searching for a lost sibling.
  3. Werefox disguised as an exiled elven noblewoman, searching for a suitably talented elven or (if really talented) human woman to serve as her slave/lover/apprentice.
  4. Devotees of Xithras, heavily armed and looking for trouble. During the day, they’ll be attempting to discourage the sale and transport of necromantic paraphernalia and transformative magic, especially fertility enhancers like minotaur milk. If encountered at night, they’ll be conducting a clandestine raid on a warehouse or ship, and will be led by a paladin 25% of the time. In either case, they’ll avoid confrontations with city or palace guards, and will not engage in violence with any group that is equal to them or greater in strength.
  5. Human barbarians from the west. They’ll be heavily armed and looking for excitement and adventure. They’ll be boisterous, but polite to women and any they perceive as weaker than themselves. However, disparagement of their honor or character (and any negative comments about their mothers) will lead to drawn blades and shed blood.
  6. Human barbarians from the east. They’re quiet, seeking as little attention as possible, stick together, and will shrink from open combat. However, they’ll happily murder anyone they see as interfering with their quest (and will even hire Hasheeshins to do the job if they don’t know they’re up to the challenge), and will not hesitate to employ any means they deem necessary for the completion of their mission. They are in the city in order to (d6) 1-2: rescue a kidnapped princess; 3-4: recover a lost scroll; 5: assassinate a wealthy merchant; or 6: steal a powerful magic item.
  7. Delegation from one of the Sea Princes. 25% chance they’ll have an escort of Palace Guards. Haughty, rude, expecting to be hated, but eager to capitalize on opportunities for profit.
  8. 1d8 sailors on carouse. 1 in 20 chance that one of their fellow carousers is a selkie in disguise of either sex. For every hour the PCs spend with them, there’s a 1-in-6 chance of one of the following happening (d4 + highest CHR bonus):
    1 - fist-fight with rival crew.
    2 - knife-fight with rival crew.
    3 - acquire a pinch of dreamblossom snuff (powerful hallucinogen and aphrodisiac, and even a pinch is worth 10 gp).
    4 - PC gifted with a selkie-gold earring (advantage on sight-related rolls once per day).
    5 - PC wins a talking parrot in a game of chance (1-in-10 chance the parrot is a fey in disguise, else 1-in-20 chance it’s an eastern barbarian prince/ess transformed by spell).
    6 - PC wins lifelong friends who will smuggle things/people/PCs out of/into town when the ship is in port (1-in-10 chance any given week, 1-in-20 during monsoons).
  9. western barbarian witch hunting a man who owes her (d6) 1-2: 50 sp, 3-4: the skull of an enemy, 5: his soul, or 6: his firstborn.
  10. delegation from the merfolk. 2d6 humans (25% they’re actually selkies) plus one merfolk noble being carried in a bowl-like litter filled with seawater born by burly human (10% instead sharkfolk) slaves.
  11. 1d6 escaped slaves, looking to smuggle themselves out of town. If returned, they’ll net a reward of 2d6% of their market value.
  12. 1d3 agents of the sharkfolk intent on (d6) 1-3: securing protection money from a bold but broke ship’s captain, 4-5: disguised as carousing sailors looking for victims to kidnap and return to the sharkfolk as slaves/food, 6: looking to burn a ship that didn’t pay its protection money.

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.