Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fighter vs. Magic User - Round 3

The next bit of the Internet that caught my eye in regards to fighters versus magic users, and the one that got me to write this series of posts, was a video posting by tetsubo57 on the same topic, Fighter vs Wizard.  Tetsubo57 has made over 1000 videos and the vast majority of them deal with role playing games.  A bit of warning though, the other half of his videos usually deal with government and politics and he has a liberal view on things, so you might want to avoid those if that is not your cup of tea.

In his Fighter vs Wizard video, he does a good job of outlining the history of the issue, and goes into a little bit of the actual rules from Pathfinder and/or 3.5 edition.  A big point that he goes over is how the fighter plays very different than the way a wizard plays.  He is emphasizing that the two classes play differently, and those two classes appeal to two different types of gamers.  If the game provides the avenue of appealing to (and hopefully satisfying) different mindsets at the gaming table, then balance should not be the big issue in the debate.

It is a fair point, and one that I would characterize as if you are having fun at your table then who cares what people say.  But on the opposite side, if there is something not fun about the game at your table, then it is great to bend or add some rules and see how it goes.  If you look at the history of the game, there is a trend to give fighters more.  In Unearthed Arcana for AD&D, fighters started getting weapon specialization.  In the Masters Set for BD&D, there was similar weapons mastery system that the fighter excelled in.

Greetings Youtube
A lot of people started utilizing the Book of Nine Swords during the 3.5 era as a way to try and equalize the fighter with the magic user.  The rules contained therein gave fighters spell like abilities with a combat flavour to them.  One can also see the seed of how 4th edition is written in the rules to the Book of Nine Swords.  In the comments to Tetsubo57's video, he responds that when fighters start to get spell like powers, it ceases to feel like D&D to him.

I think another complaint against the 4th edition use of spell like powers for fighters, is how the hegemony of the power system inherent in every class makes the classes seem bland in comparison to each other.  4th edition mimics MMOs in quite a few ways, but the one area they seemed to have missed the mark on was differentiating the resource management systems of the different classes.  In the quest to provide combat parity between the fighter and the magic user, they utilized the same powers per encounter system.

There was another book, similar to the Book of Nine Swords, that received excellent reviews that also addressed the fighter versus magic user balancing act (although, in all probability, that was not their primary goal),  Iron Heroes takes the approach of limiting what a spellcaster can do, and also boosts what a fighter can accomplish.  But more importantly, it accomplishes this task by having different resource systems in place for the two classes.

Now that the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons is on the horizon, it appears as though they are going to go back to having a Vancian fire and forget spell system.  Perhaps the designers realize there is appeal to having different mechanics for different classes.  Hopefully, the pendulum does not swing back to far in the other direction and we begin right back where we started.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fighter vs. Magic User - Round 2

Continuing on from round 1 of fighter vs. magic user, I find it interesting how the old debate parallels the never ending declarations of OP (Over Powered) for various classes in MMOs (World of Warcraft in particular).  Recapping round 1, I found the Michael Dodge article in Dragon magazine to be lackluster in its talking points about why magic users are not OP.  A much more convincing argument is presented by the Alexandrian in an article entitled "The Death of the Wandering Monster".

The main point, in regards to if magic users are OP, has to deal with how wandering monsters no longer make much of an appearance in a lot of peoples games.  My impression of published D&D material from the early days of the hobby versus later offerings does agree with his basic premise.  By not having wandering monsters, the player's are able to control the pace of the encounters by resting up.  Once a magic user can rest up, his once a day "spike damage" spell now becomes his standard attack.  By being able to do 6d6 points of damage at every encounter, he dominates the fighter.  The line of reasoning is really a more elaborate explanation of Michael Dodge's second point about magic user's only having a limited amount of spells to cast in a day.

If a Dungeon Master and his players look at the magic user system of having a few spells he can cast a day, and contrast that with a fighter who can do a basic melee swing all day, and they feel that they both balance each other out, then the system, as it is written, is perfectly fine for them.  Throw in some wandering monsters so that the fighter can really shine, while the magic user does some ancillary actions or hides.  I, personally, do not like a game system where the importance of roles shifts as the encounters pile on, but it just stems from a desire to have all the player's be "in the game" and "highly effective" for the majority of the encounters.

Another item I stumbled across concerning this issue was a small section in the game master guide to one of my favourite games, Alternity.  Near the back of the book, in the appendix, there is a section on how to convert an AD&D character to the Alternity rules.  Alternity is a skill based game which allows for a very diverse character creation process.

If one starts to think about how to translate a character archetype like thief, fighter, magic user into a skill based system, I would imagine one would have to break down what a thief, fighter, or magic user can "do" and then assign it a skill.  For a thief, you would probably list things like stealth, slight of hand, and maybe acrobatics.  For a fighter, choose basic melee weapons and then specialize in one such as sword.  But then you get to a mage and it suddenly becomes "kind of odd".  You would pick a broad skill like arcane knowledge, but then if you made the magic user buy each and every possible spell they can cast as a skill, their list of skills will be quite long in comparison to the fighter.

Here is what Alternity has to say on the matter.

Because of the nature of the FX rules (special effects like magic), many AD&D spells will not retain their maximum effectiveness, or they will cost too much to purchase-- forcing the hero (especially high level wizards) to lose a good number of spells.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Fighter vs. Magic User - Round 1

I have mentioned before that one of the incentives for trying 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons was the unsatisfying nature of playing a fighter type with only one basic attack ability.  I should have followed that up with the standard disclaimer that it is just a personal interpretation of the rules.  Recently, over the past month, I keep encountering this topic in various places.

When Jean Wells passed away, I started searching through old Dragon magazines for her contributions to the Sage Advice column.  In one of the very early editions of Dragon magazine (#34, February of 1980) there is an article entitled 'In Defense (Once Again) of the "Poor" Magic-User'  Even the title of the article gives hint that the topic stretches back to the beginning of the game.  The article, written by Michael Dodge, puts forth a few points that tries to explain why the Magic-User is not as overpowered in comparison to other classes.

The first point it makes is how weak Magic-User's are until they get a 3rd level spell such as fireball or lightning bolt.  I agree with this but I find it just adds weight to the argument that they are unbalanced.  And again, this is just a personal preference, but I do not like a system where a magic-user starts off incredibly weak in comparison to a fighter and then grows into a power house.  I do not think it is possible to completely balance things, but it should at least try to make each player's character somewhat comparable in effectiveness, even from level 1, so that everyone has a fair shake at the table.

The second point it makes is how at level 5, with a fireball or lightning bolt, the magic user is severely limited by the number of spells he can cast.  If he had to face down a fighter in combat, he would only do 18 points of damage on average before the fighter could close in and engage in melee.  I agree with this point as well.  My personal, unscientific, opinion is that around level 6, the magic user and fighter are close to equals in combat effectiveness.

However, I have issues with the system of fire and forget.  It is an issue that has been called the "15 minute workday".  When the game puts in a limited resource system in the form of number of spells per day, it leads to situations where the group is constantly trying to find ways to rest so they can recharge.  4E D&D attempts to address this issue (perhaps unintentionally) by making everyone have per encounter powers, and so that everyone has healing surges, so that they can keep going and going.  I wrote about how that system has its own problems as well.

The article by Michael Dodge then continues on to explain that high level magic users will face opponents who are also of high level, and will begin to face things that have a much greater chance of making their saving throws.  I don't feel this is a good point as the question is not specifically about how well a magic user will do against the monsters and opponents that are thrown at the group.  The real question is how well does the magic user fair against opponents in relation to all the other classes being played at the table.

The article concludes with a question about even higher levels of magic user.  The author wonders how anyone could have possible obtained such high levels of play.  It is important to remember this is in 1980 when someone could have only been playing 1E AD&D for a few years.  I have always found such admonishments as slightly offensive, as if the author can somehow claim a moral high road that they played the game by handing out some experience by a drip feeder method and it took them ten years to reach level 5.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Answers to 20 Quick Questions on Rules

As outline in Brendan's blog post, here are the Random Wizard's answers to the 20 questions outlined therein.

Here are 20 rules clarifications that are likely to be needed anyways at some point.

1) Ability scores generation method?
Current: Standard array of scores, choose where to place them.  I wrote about how the essentials line changed the standard array (for the worse in my opinion).
Preference: 4d6, drop lowest d6, in order, in presence of witnesses.  I like to force people to play something a little different.

2) How are death and dying handled?
Current: Unconscious at 0 hp.  Each round the player makes a save vs. death.  After 3 failures, the player dies.
Preference: Unconscious at 0 hp.  Character loses 1 hp per round when unconscious from damage.  Death at -(constitution score).  Bandaging stabilizes character at 1 hp, but with -4 to all rolls until a full nights of rest

3) What about raising the dead?
Current: 4th edition characters never die!  I jest, but the issue has not come up yet.  I spoke about the high power inherent in characters here.
Preference: I do not like the idea of walking into a church and buying a raise dead spell.  Effectively, the only way a player could get a raise dead is if another player somehow knew the spell and cast it.  Rarely, if the entire group pursued the matter, I might put in a quest to find a way to resurrect someone.

4) How are replacement PCs handled?
Current: Roll up level 1 characters.  I then work them into the game and try to give them a magic item to make them somewhat effective in the group.
Preference: Same

5) Initiative: individual, group, or something else?
Current: Individual.  And I hate how everyone has picked Improved Initiative as a feat.  Roll one time at the beginning of combat and that is the order for that encounter.
Preference: Individual.  And I actually like to have the player's roll every combat round, but it is too time consuming.  I also prefer to have segmented rounds, with weapon speed factors but it is too time consuming.

6) Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
Current: One of the few rules I have changed in 4th edition is to have critical hits only give the player a chance to roll another attack roll (instead of allowing maximum damage).
Preference: Same.

7) Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?
Current: Rarely, I might give a bonus if an attack is specifically targeting the head.  Dependant on the situation.
Preference: Same.

8) Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
Current: Yes, although I have not codified the exact rules.
Preference: Same.

9) Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
Current: I will make encounters that are meant to be bypassed or defeated in other ways, but unfortunately, with 4th edition the players seem to be able to power through everything as I have not internalized what level monsters will challenge the players.
Preference: Same.

10) Level-draining monsters: yes or no?
Current: No
Preference: Only temporary level draining.

11) Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
Current: No
Preference: So rare as to be effectively a no answer.

12) How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?
Current: For encumbrance, it is a very loose, eyeball it estimate.  Track food, arrows, torches and other consumables.
Preference: Same

13) What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
Current: Experience tallies are done between sessions.  Levelling is instant, as is acquiring any abilities the level grants.
Preference: I would prefer returning to town to train, but it just slows down the "fun time" since we only meet every two weeks.

14) What do I get experience for?
Current: Majority of experience is awarded to the group for defeating monsters through combat or other means.  Achieving objectives (which are clearly defined).  Making it through an encounter.  Minor individual experience is given for excellent role playing, insightful conclusions, and other memorable moments.
Preference: Like the above but reversed in quantity of experience.  Major for individual achievement, minor for group achievements.  I am afraid this causes too much inter player rivalry and I also fear that I am not a good judge on achievement, so to check myself I try to stick the above reward system.  I wrote a little bit about experience rewards back in December of 2011.

15) How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
Current: Dice rolling.  Has to state where they are checking.
Preference: Same.

16) Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
Current: Discouraged.  Morale is by Dungeon Master judgement.
Preference: Same.

17) How do I identify magic items?
Current: If a character uses an item for a session, I usually, but not always, will hand them the card that details the items magical properties at the start of the next session.
Preference: I would prefer the player's characters return to town, but it just takes too much time and adds logistical complexity that does not add to the fun factor of the game.

18) Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
Current: So rare that the effective answer is no, except for potions! (basic potions only)
Preference: Same.

19) Can I create magic items? When and how?
Current: Effectively no, but not out of the realm of possibility.
Preference: Same.

20) What about splitting the party?
Current: Discouraged, but I can not control the players actions.
Preference: Same.

A few other blog responses

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Session 19 and Iconic Monsters

The group debated on if they were strong enough to defeat ilithids, but decided they couldn't leave the snake man to his fate.  Edilimas told the group to hang back while he tried to sneak up into an advantageous position, but the ilithids could sense his presence and turned to attack.

The ilithids emitted a high piercing shriek that dazed and confused the group.  The stronger of the two ilithids focused on fighting Sidara, managing to ensnare her head in its tenticled mouth.  Ricorin came to her rescue while Victor snuck around and released the snake-man captive.

With the snake-man's assistance, the group emerged from the battle victorious but severely bruised and battered.  They were unable to communicate directly with the snake-man but he seemed keen on following their lead.  The group searched the ilithids and found four strange crystals and two ilithid robes.

They returned to the camp along the shore.  The snake-man joined up with the original group of snake-men who helped ferry the group across the underground lake.  After regathering their strength, the adventurers returned to explore further past the tunnel and cavern.  They began to hear the sound of metal clinking against stone.

Edilimas snuck up to reconnoitre the situation and found three dwarves working a vein of mithril.  He also could see a giant translucent greenish worm hanging down from above near the center of the cave.  He reported back to the group and Ricorin came up with the idea of trying to blend in.  He boldly walked into the room, but pretended to be a bit mindless in his stride to try and throw off any ilithids that might be watching.

Ricorin approached one of the dwarves and calmly said, "Finally, I finally meet a dwarf that I am taller than."  To his dismay, the dwarf turned to attack with his pick axe.  Ricorin could see a large squid like creature attached to the side of the dwarfs head.  He immediately lunged for the creature and attempted to pull it off.

After no small amount of struggling with the alien creature, Ricorin managed to pull it off.  The former dwarven host immediately collapsed to the ground.  The squid like creature scurried up Ricorin's arm and attempted to latch onto his head near his ear, while the rest of the adventuring party sprung to action.

Ricorin kept his distance and attempted to perform nearly impossible near head shots to kill the squid like parasites without harming the dwarves.  Sidara was overcome by one of the creatures and immediately turned on Edilimas, unleashing a flurry of blows with her swords.  Ricorin attempted to shoot the creature on Sidara and hit, but not without causing considerable damage to Sidara in the process.

Victor unleashed demonic fire on the creatures, and Ricorin continued to grapple one with his bare hands.  With nerves of steel, Ricorin held one of the creatures out with his hands and yelled for Sidara to strike it with her swords.  Without hesitation she deftly sliced the remaining ilithid larvae creature into two pieces.

Tired and worn out from battle, the group spent their remaining energy on carrying the unconscious dwarves back to their camp by the underground lake.  They were able to revive one of the dwarves after resting a while.  The dwarf was weak and a bit delirious but spoke of their entire dwarven army being knocked out by gas attacks and then being in a dream like state for years, endlessly working in mines, and repairing a great forge nearby.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Map of the Middle Kingdoms

GIMP Image Editor
I bought Campaign Cartographer a while back in an attempt to make a map of the middle kingdoms that was a bit more natural in appearance, at least more palatable than the one I handed to the players in session 4. I was not happy with the maps I created back then, and decided to try again. When I looked over the old maps from session 4, I realized that the trade map and the religious map were approximations of the style of map I wanted to present. When comparing those two maps alongside the terrain map, the terrain map sticks out like a sore thumb.

It dawned on me that the hexes on the map are what make it look so out of place. The repetition of spacing makes the map look too scientific, or too much like a modern war game map. I fell back on using the open source image editing program known as the GIMP and set about removing the hexes. The hexes enforced a spacing to the icons which still dominated the map so I went a step further and started to painstakingly move and duplicate the icons.

I named the map the Middle Kingdoms to reflect how the area is considered the center of the world to its inhabitants in much the same way as China thought of itself as the center kingdom, ZhongguĆ³. I also drew inspiration from how ancient Egypt was thought of in terms of upper and lower Egypt. Which, in turn, might have lead me to derive the name from Egypt's Middle Kingdom. In Egypt's case, the name was derived in modern times to denote the time period, which is not something the ancient Egyptians would have called themselves.

The players have been adventuring around the map for over a year now so I thought I would use this blog post to write a little note of the information learned so far of the various kingdoms.

Middle Kingdoms - This a nebulous term that refers to the most populous area in the region. Most often it means the kingdoms that were once the domain of Xandriel and were ruled by his descendants (and most still are). Athanor, Galadon, Dunagal, Barcadis, Odoric are always included.  Siradin, Varros, and Kuragond are sometimes included.

Dashara - A small desert town on the edge of the salt sea. Was once ruled by the Sultanate of Talasheem but is now the domain of Androgost. Was attacked by forces of the Talasheem for unknown reasons, though perhaps just to reclaim old territory. Session 3

Androgost - Tentatively ruled by Athanor, the principality of Androgost holds a small amount of independence. The area was once ruled briefly by the Talasheem. The populace was in a panic from news of the approaching army of Talasheem. Session 4

Athanor - One of the most powerful human kingdoms. The king recently died of unknown circumstances and the Prince of Androgost claimed the throne, thereby taking the title of Prince-King. Athanor controls many caravans that travel and maintain roads throughout the Middle Kingdoms.

Bomire - A minor self styled baron runs this port city state. Merchants ships flow in and out to all points along the coast; Varros, Siradin, Barcadis, and even the Talasheem. Session 5

Varros - An island nation dominated by the capital city. Ruled by a large 100 member council. Very little gets done without knowing the right families who have great influence over the political situation. Considers Athanor a rival on trade matters. Session 6

Siradin - An opulent city with a gleaming white castle. The culture of the city thrives on exotic goods and the latest fashions. Ruled by a petulant teenage queen. The mystical lady of the meadows is rumoured to live in the old forest nearby. Session 7

Derevna - Once a province of Siradin, the northern part of the island was conquered by northmen many years ago. Ruled by the shrewd battle hardened warrior by the name of Denschal. Denschal desires information on the actions of Jarl Canute.

Odoric - Ruled by a northman that still pays homage to Jarl Canute. The Kingdom of Odoric has been plagued by strange monsters that have destroyed several villages along its northeast frontier. Session 8

Atlochlan - Trade ships rarely stop here. The adventurers only saw the city lights from afar as the ship they were on made its way north.

Eldamir - A wild, cold forested area that is inhabited by elves. The path of the dead leads up into the valley of blood mist and is the final resting place of many Jarls. Elves guard the area from intruders-- both from the outside and the inside. Session 10

Virkheim - "Virk" means wall, "Heim" means town. Ruled by Jarl Hrimgar. Erik and Bjorn split with the group to head to their homes in the area, but the rest of adventurers decided to not to head to the city to save time.

High Gate - A huge gate that leads into the dwarven city of High Crown. Ruled by 5 dwarven clans, one of which is the deep dwarves. The deep dwarf mithril hammer was returned and now all 5 hammers hang in the grand hall of the dwarves. Session 18

Aradel - The adventurers were told that not many ventured up into the forest of the mountains of Aradel, and being pressed for time they decided not to make a detour.

Keldon - Many references are made to Keldon ale. Dwarves find it to be a weak drink but most humans find it to have a unique satisfying taste. The adventurers did not have the time to leave the main road to venture into the wilds of Keldon.

Pelnoren - A wild land. Galadon has taken over an old watch tower in the area and posted guards.  Missionaries of the Divine Twins operate from the tower and are trying to stamp out pagan worship of the Earth Mother in the area.

Galadon - Built along the high road and the wythyn river, this town has prosperous trade income. A castle carved into the side of a mountain sits nearby in the Spindle Claw Mountains and is rumoured to be haunted.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

If I Were King of 5th Edition

I am not fond of the sort of criticism that is solely based on negative statements. Constructive criticism, on the other hand, is vital to double checking assumptions made, although, even there, I would temper that statement with the belief that there are things where criticism is not necessary-- private matters and personal decisions come to mind.

I have been slightly critical of what I have read about 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons and I have not offered much in the way of constructive criticism. Mainly, I don't see any way my thoughts would influence the direction of the game. I suppose the various legends and lore polls are an avenue I could pursue if I wanted to try and influence the next edition, but it feels inconsequential.

In my mind, I have already started to pigeon hole the next game as just another edition. I base this on the meager information that has been provided, mainly through the Wizards of the Coast legend and lore column. Their approach to making a new game is to go back to the old game and find themes and commonalities and try to make an edition to bridge all editions.

I feel that is a noble goal, an interesting design, but the devil is in the details and the approach they are taking is not going to bring the diverse fan base back into the fold. It might bring a few people together. It might be a very fun game. It is probably a game I will run out and buy. I might even get a campaign going using those rules. But that is not the approach I would take to making an eternal edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

The approach I would take if I lived in an alternate universe where I had some control of the Dungeons and Dragons development process, would be to actually utilize the old rules. In trying to find commonality and differences, I would start by breaking out each edition of the game and reorganizing them so that all the rules through out each iteration followed the same layout. In essence, I would reissue all the old games, except they would conform to the same indexing standards. By categorizing them in a similar fashion, it would facilitate finding differences.

It would be a herculean task. These new releases would be almost scientific in nature. They would not contain all the fantasy explanations, would have very little artwork, and none of the excellent Gygaxian prose. The point of the books would be to categorize and name all the rules for each edition so that they can be easily indexed, searched, and read.

Then, and only then, would I begin writing the 5th edition of the game. It would, in a more scientific manner, pull from the indexed versions of the older games. I would even start to outline plans of having a web application that would let the end user choose the rules that suits his game best, and since everything is indexed, it becomes easier to identify what the various disparate pieces are; Descending Armor Class, OD&D Fighting-man experience table, Segmented rounds with 1d10 initiative.

That is not the sort of game we are going to get. As I mentioned before, the 5th edition appears to be just a "do over" of the essentials line tacked onto the 4th edition. There will be simple classes with basic attacks mixed in with complex classes with a lot of abilities. There will be a few game mechanics that hearken back to the older editions, but it won't be comprehensive. It is those little things that will be left out which will keep the fanbase divided, as it has always been.

Update March 07: Well it appears someone else thought of something very similar 17 days later.
How Wizards of the Coast Could Slay in Profit

Friday, February 17, 2012

About That Underground Map

As usual, I was reading through old adventure modules to find ideas.  I kept returning to the modules that were the foundations of Dungeons and Dragons, the original items written by Gary Gygax.  I had already used S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks as the basis for the adventure for session 8.  For Sidara's personal quest, I drew inspiration from S1 Tomb of Horrors for sessions 10 through 15.

So for Ricorin's adventure centered around the deep dwarf home city under High Gate, I was naturally drawn to D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth.  I love giving handout maps to the players, and I have been pondering a little puzzle involving cipher substitution.  When I saw the player's map from D1, I liked how the map tried to convey information by icons.

Much like S3, I felt the adventure, as presented, would be a campaign all unto itself.  I needed a way to make it shorter.  I made the map area smaller, and did not have a lot of open ended areas.  This allowed me to fill in more icons that would allow the players to make informed guesses as to what would lie in their path.  I also moved the lake to be in the center of the map as an obstacle they would have to cross over.

The second ingredient I wanted to add was a cipher puzzle.  I have always been fascinated with encryption since reading Edgar Allen Poes challenge (that he originally wrote for Alexander's Weekly Messenger newspaper in 1840).  The same concept was used by Julius Ceasar in his campaign against the Gauls.  I searched around for some runic alphabet of the dwarves, but ultimately decided on just creating my own.

I thought the puzzle would be too easy if it just contained the key that the player could consult, so I thought about how could I easily include pieces of the key and ciphers on the map.  It had to be something obvious and not outright give away what all the runes represented.  I hit upon the idea of adding a map compass with north, south, east west written in runic letters.

In actual play, the map worked great except for three little issues.  The first issue was that I drew the low road on the map and it leads directly to the forge they are looking for.  Naturally the players thought they could just march straight on down the road and get to their goal, when the point of the whole map was to have them go through all the encounters along the right side of the map.  That was easily fixed in game play by having the guards block their way and not allowing them to march to their certain doom, but I still think the map would work better if the main low road was removed so as to not mislead the players.

The second issue was that the smallest deviation on the two runes along the bottom right threw off the players as they thought they were different runes at first.  I should have cloned the runes instead of drawing them free hand so that all the similar runes were consistent.

The third issue was that I used the same rune symbol for the letters M and the letters N.  I did this without thinking about it too much as I was trying to mimic how Romans used the same symbol for I and J.  I thought any word that had an M or N in it would be easily to determine what letter it was suppose to be by the context, but I was wrong.  The players were a bit stumped when they decoded the bottom right rune script as HANNER, when the word was HAMMER.  If I were to use this map again, I would differentiate the runes used for M and N.

Here is an updated map that attempts to address the three issues above.

Session 18 and Underground Maps

The group made their way up into the cold mountains.  The road they were travelling ended at a rock slide.  Ricorin seemed to recall that there was a tunnel road leading up to High Gate, but that it was closed long ago and that the tunnel entrance was probably buried under the rocks.  They decided to travel back to the hill giant they encountered earlier and see if they could acquire his assistance on moving the rocks.

The hill giant agreed to help them since they had saved his life earlier.  After several hours of work, the giant and the adventurers were able to clear the path.  The giant was tired and said he was going to return to his cave and sleep while the adventurers made their way through the old dwarven tunnel.

They came across a ravine and old worn out dwarven cage contraption that would ferry them across.  On the other side of the crevice, they began to hear a strange humming noise.  Bravely travelling in the direction of the noise, they were surprised by a most alien looking creature that materialized out of a stone wall.  With three arms, three legs, three eyes, and a giant toothed mouth on the top of its head, they prepared for battle as they did not know what to expect.

The creature spoke in a crude dwarven dialect, "I have never seen such tall dwarves before.  Smell shiny on you.  Me hungry.  Give shiny.".  Ricorin readied his axe but the group soon figured out the creature wanted their silver and gold.  Edilimas was adamant that he had no coins to spare, but Cornelic and Sidara decided to part with their remaining gold and silver to appease the dangerous looking creature.  Luchus went a step further, and asked the creature for assistance on the quickest way out, which the alien creature agreed to in return for a future payment of crystals.

With the three armed monster's assistance, the adventures made their way through the tunnels and up to high gate.  The massive dwarven gate was impressive to behold but shut.  Several stone buildings lined the side of the road, but only one of them had some light coming through a window.  Ricorin knocked on the door and was greeted by an elderly dwarf wearing a thick coat.  He introduced himself as Bertran and was quite shocked to see a deep dwarf and some humans so late in the year.

Bertran had his son go and fetch the adventurers horses, and the group sat around a warm fire while Bertran explained that the gate is usually closed during the winter as not many merchants risk the journey up into the mountains, although, occasionally, a small group of gypsy caravans will arrive.  Bertran then went on to mention that he can unlock the gate for them, but cautioned that Ricorin would not receive a warm welcome.

Ricorin asked for an explanation and Bertran related that the Ironhelm clan of the deep dwarves had requested the use of one of the five sacred hammers of the dwarves.  Since the hammer was the ancentral hammer of the deep dwarves, such a request was granted.  The Ironhelm clan lead an expedition into the low roads of madness, and the expedition has never returned.

Since the hammer was never returned, the deep dwarves had lost voting rights on the council, and many in the crown city were disdainful of deep dwarves who dared to stay for long in the upper levels.  But deep dwarves till had the right to travel through the city, but few choose to do so.

The group decided to stay the night and have Bertran's boy lead them to the deep city in the morning.  They travelled by the great hall and saw the four remaining hammers hanging over the council chambers and proceeded down the great stairs.  After hours of travel, they came into the deep city near the southern bulwark.  Betran's son impishly told the story of how the southern bulwark was built to guard against evil creatures that occasionally made their way up from the low road.

After getting into a bit of trouble at Ricorin Battlebeard's family owned tavern, and encountering some guards who were suspicious of outsiders wandering the streets, the adventuring party eventually found themselves at Ricorin's mothers house.

She was happy to see her younger son again and admonished him for being away so long.  Since his older brother was part of the army that never returned from the low road, that made Ricorin the heir to the Battlebeard's fortunes.  She dug out a small key and locked chest and presented to Ricorin.  The group enjoyed more of her conversation, especially the parts that went into Ricorin's youthful days of folly, and then decided to open the chest.

Inside they found a strange map with old dwarven runes and a small ceremonial hammer made of silver.  Sidara and Ricorin quickly went to work deciphering the runes and came to the conclusion that the map was of the surrounding tunnels and a secret entrance must reside in the Battlebeard's tavern somewhere.  With that information, the group headed back to the tavern and quickly found an iron grate in the basement leading to the sewers.

They journeyed through the sewers and encountered giant rats that were easy enough to dispatch.  The sewer tunnel emptied out into an underground river.  They followed along the banks of the river and then through a cavern filled with a forest of mushrooms.  Luchus was able to identify a particularly poisonous red mushroom and carefully collected some in a bag.

Travelling further down a side tunnel they came upon an underground lake with two snakemen sitting next to an makeshift boat made from a giant mushroom cap.  The party entered into negotiations with the snakemen, even though no one in the group could speak their language.  After much pantomiming and pointing, the adventurers bartered a few dead giant rats for a ride on the mushroom across the underground lake.

Luchus set up camp on the far shore, and the rest of the group explored further down a tunnel they discovered.  After exploring for hours, they heard strange voices echoing down the passageway ahead.  They slowed their pace and approached cautiously into a cavern containing two human figures with squid like heads, who appeared to interrogating a tied up snake man.

Sidara murmured in disgust, "Illithids"

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ever Increasing Edition Wars

In Monte Cook's Legend and Lore column for February 13th, 2012, there was a bit of a snafu committed concerning their regular poll options.  If you have not been paying much attention to the 5E Dungeons and Dragons development effort, there have been an almost weekly set of polls put up to gather feedback from readers concerning different development strategies, rules, and issues from previous editions.

The faux pas was including a voting option for having ability score adjustments based upon gender.  In the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook on page 15, there was a chart that had the maximum attainable ability scores for various races and it went further by differentiating the maximums based on male and female genders for the various races (humans, elves, dwarves, etc...)  For example, a human female could only have a maximum of 17 strength.

It was one of those odd rules that nobody I knew of actually used way back in the day.  I know I certainly never used the rule.  It was very rare to find a woman who would play a game of Dungeons and Dragons back in the early days of the hobby, and I certainly wouldn't have tried to drop some pseudo scientifically modeled ability score adjustment on a character.  The game is about playing a hero in my mind, and I would not have seen a benefit to such adjustments.

But coming back to today, in 2012, the poll was quickly taken down, and an explanation was posted by Mike Mearls.  It is a well worded addendum of how they are thinking about things, and I feel some honesty shows through in how they feel they made a mistake.  They are really trying to tackle a many headed hydra (that is the fan base).  The difficulty of the task was summed up nicely by Penny Arcade way back when Wizards of the Coast first announced they were doing a new edition.

Here is the video of Penny Arcade thinking up a strip concerning the 5E announcement.

To my mind, it seems that Wizards of the Coast are trying to tackle this problem in the wrong way.  They are trying to make a new game that somehow will capture the essence of various editions of the game to unite the disparate fan base.  Here are two quotes from the articles...
" seems likely that there are a handful of things from prior editions that we don't want to bring forward into a new iteration of D&D." --Monte Cook
"The least we can do is respect your efforts and keep the polls focused on actual ideas we’ve entertained..." --Mike Mearls

The trouble with that approach is how attached people are to the littlest details.  There are people who will fight until their dying day about little details (such as descending armor class).  As talked about in the Penny Arcade episode, those people already have the game that they want to play.  It was published long ago.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Healing Surges and Human Versatility

In our last session, Session 22 on February 11th 2012, a couple issues manifested themselves concerning 4E Dungeons and Dragons that I wanted to go over.

The two issues are related in how they interact with the pacing of encounters.  The first one I wanted to bring up is the human racial ability of human versatility (renamed to heroic effort in the essentials line).  This effectively gives the player a +4 bonus to a single roll during any encounter.  But how should this be handled when the player's are just going along and exploring a somewhat empty dungeon.

If they stop and try to climb up some rocks, can they use human versatility?  If they listen at a door for sounds?  They wander down a hall and trigger a pit trap, can they use the +4 bonus to an acrobatics check?

(edit) Later, I found out that human versatility is suppose to only be used in combat!

Now, in 4E adventures, I have noticed that the encounters are mapped out in such a way that various monsters and traps all fit neatly into boxed areas on a tabletop like tactical map.  These maps are not like the older style graph paper maps, and I think this is evidence that 4E is a very combat heavy game when you rely on the material that has been published.

The second issue comes down to healing surges.  I, personally, have never liked the plausibility of healing surges.  They don't seem to be easily explained in the context of a pseudo medieval fantasy setting, unless you hand wave them away as innate magic.  Perhaps a better explanation is they represent courage, or an abstract hit point system that combines fatigue and combat readiness.

On the other hand, mechanically, I am a little more forgiving of their use.  I like the idea that heroes do not have to rely on a cleric as a healbot (to borrow a MMO term).  But in a similar way to human versatility, healing surges wreak havoc on the pacing of encounters if they do not follow a very sectionalized 4E style ecounter plan.

In session 22, one player decided to try and climb a mountain cliff that had already experienced a rock slide.  I described the rocks as loose and unstable, but they attempted to give it a shot.  They failed their roll (even with human versatility), and triggered another rock slide.  But it was no big deal because after taking the 6d6 damage, a player can just heal themselves up by utilizing healing surges.

Later on in the dungeon, the entire party fell into a spiked pit trap, which caused 2d8 damage.  I don't blame the party for falling victim to the trap as it was not obvious.  Then, later on, the party fell victim to a magic fire trap that was triggered by a failed pick lock attempt on a safe.  The entire party took 8d6 damage.

Those three traps should have done 50 points of damage (18 + 8 + 24) and would have put a serious hurting on the group, but was merely brushed aside by utilizing the copious amount of healing surges available to the characters.  And here is the real crux of the matter, if I, as the Dungeon Master, want to penalize the characters appropriately by increasing the damage of traps so that they do enough damage to heighten the suspense (to put forth the notion that death might occur), I have to increase the damage to such a high amount that the character might be instantly killed by a trap.

That is a big mechanical problem with healing surges.  In the old rules, 50 points of damage would have put such a serious hurting on the group that would leave the group shaking in their boots, because they only have 10 hit points left.  That in turn would lead into the old problem with the old game where the group is constantly resting to gain their health back.  I don't like the old style of camping in the dungeon to regain hit points but I can't say healing surges are a good solution either.

Let's break down a level 6 4E warlock to highlight the problem of healing surges and traps.  Considering the warlock has an 18 constitution, he or she should have 30 + (5 * 5) = 55 hit points.  And a healing surge value of 13 that can be used 10 times in one day.  If the warlock does not die outright from any one trap, this effectively gives them an additional 130 hit points!

To make an old module effective against 4E characters, that 50 points of damage would have to be closer to 175 points of damage to yield the same result of having the players fear for their lives because they are almost dead.  But if you divide 175 up by three traps, you get 58 points of damage per trap.  And if a single trap did 58 points of damage, it then turns into a potential instant death trap.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Video Clips for Session 21

Slowly but surely, the text write-ups for sessions and the video clips for sessions are converging.  My sense of orderliness would prefer to put the clips in order, right after doing a write-up, but I have opted to put up the videos as soon as they are ready.

I decided to have the group play a board game.  I am always striving for variety, so that the campaign does not feel stale.  The game should have only taken 30 minutes to and hour, but with cross talk and trying to figure out the rules, we ended up playing for 2 hours.

We changed up locations of where we play for this game, and some of the player's wives and children got to listen in on the game.  Like always, someone picks up on some small detail to riff on, and that snowballs into more and more riffing, until we have a giant Katamari ball of goofiness.

I wish I could think a little quicker on my feet as a Dungeon Master, but I do alright most of the time.  Here, I try to introduce the player's to a crazy bard, but they really didn't want to have anything to do with him.  But it was still an amusing encounter.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The B3 Controversy

Does this illustration look familiar?  Would you believe it is suppose to be of Gary Gygax?

After putting together the post in honour of Jean Wells, I came across various links to information regarding her original module B3 The Palace of the Silver Princess.  I owned the edited version of the module way back in the day.  It was probably one of the very first modules I owned.  I remember running the adventure for the group when I was a youngster.  It was not until many years later that I read (on the Internet) about the controversy surrounding the module.

The original version of the story concerning the controversy stated the reason the module was recalled was due to a manager at TSR being upset about an image that alluded to sadomasochism.  Wizards of the Coast had an article by John Ratliff up under their Dungeons and Dragons site that echoed that same story.  The image in questions was supposedly the one below, which is rather tame compared to some of the other provocative images in various D&D rulebooks.

However, as with most things in life, the story is not all so clear about the reasoning for recalling the module.  According to Frank Mentzer and a post at Dragonsfoot, the real reason the module was recalled was due to a piece of artwork by Erol Otus in the module that mimiced Brian and Kevin Blume's portraits onto the heads of ogre like creatures.  The Blume brothers were two thirds of the controlling interest of TSR at the time.  The other third of controlling interest was Gary Gygax.

Another post over at the Acaeum by Evan Robinson (employee of TSR and friend of Erol Otus) states that Gary Gygax was behind having the module pulled from the distributors.  Something to consider on that point is if Brian and Kevin Blume were concerned about the picture, which pictures are of them in the illustration? There appear to be only four male portraits, and three of them are accounted for.

Kevin Hendryx (another employee of TSR) elaborates on the story as well in a post at Grognardia.  He also provided a little more detail concerning the picture in question by relating that there is a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, as San Fransico was where Erol Otus hailed from.  He also provides a few more names of the some of the other faces in the illustration; Paul Reiche, Evan Robinson, and Erol Otus himself.  Makes one wonder who else is in this illustration.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rambling On About Verisimilitude

Reading through old issues of Dragon Magazine got me to thinking about the subject of verisimilitude.  According to Merriam Webster the definition is

The quality or state of being verisimilar : having the appearance of truth, depicting realism.

It is bandied about quite a bit when discussing a campaign world, but what constitutes realism varies from person to person and hence campaign to campaign.

Here is a question that was posed to the Sage Advice column of dragon magazine.

Question: We have a group of players here who insist that they can ride on a mule in a 10-foot-wide and 10-foot-high corridor and shoot arrows from longbows. Now, there are two characters who say they ride side by side and do this over the objections of the rest of the party members. I think this is wrong. Am I right?

I read into the question more than the actual facts stated about mules and bows, and start to paint a mental picture of a group of young kids, much like I was at the time, trying to attack a dungeon in an unorthodox way.  Sitting around and thinking up ways of utilizing resources to gain an advantage in combat, even if riding on donkeys (to gain speed and carry treasure) and wearing plate mail (for protection) while firing volleys of arrows (increased fire power) all seem ridiculous when you try to actually imagine that playing out in real life.

One of the common attempts to gain the upper hand in every campaign I play, is for the players to try and utilizing burning oil or throwing their lanterns as some sort of Molotov cocktail.  I try to discourage using lanterns in that way as I believe ancient lantern oil probably burned at a low temperature, but I have not done scientific research on the matter.  But the general idea is that the players characters hail from a medieval time, without sophisticated technology.

Mankind has an amazing ability to adapt, which is evident in the world we live in.  If magic existed, and monsters and treasure lurked in caves and dungeons then I could see a lot of odd scenarios playing out as man adapted to the circumstances.  In effect, the world would probably end up a lot like World of Warcraft.  You would see cities filled with heroes.  Magical effects would lurk around every corner.  Undead death knights would openly walk the streets.

I am, unfortunately, behind the times when it comes to constructing a fantasy world.  I want there to be a sense of amazement when the player's characters encounter an undead knight or a golem, even if it is only implied, superficially, through the game world by not having a golem walking down the middle of the main street of town without anyone so much as blinking an eye.  But I sense that I am a Luddite in the matter.

I play World of Warcraft, but deep down in my heart, I strongly dislike how it has become the de facto goto point for fantasy terminology and culture.  Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings use to be the champion of fantasy during my younger days, and like some grumpy old man talking about the old days, I feel like they did a much better job of wearing the crown.

The things that bug me about Warcraft would probably not even register as a blip on most peoples radar.  Warcraft has all sorts of zany, off the wall, settings and people.  It has gnomish mechano hogs (motorcycles).    It makes constant references to the modern world such as three bank tellers named Olivia, Newton and John.  It has a giant crystal spaceship that crashed on an isolate island (oh so convenient) with a new race that hailed from a world that a magic portal opened up to.

Which segues into my second big complaint about Warcraft.  I have to preface my complaint with the usual "as it appears to me" because it is my interpretation, and difficult to prove scientifically.  The story to Warcraft feels very hackneyed, almost like an afterthought.  I strongly suspect that they put what they are trying to achieve on the table first, such as, "How do we make Draenei an alliance playable race?" and then they just quickly throw together whatever story that makes that decision possible, "Oh, lets just have the Draenei crash their spaceship into the planet."

The younger players, and even some of the older ones who are avid World of Warcraft fans, seem alright with playing Dragonborne or Shardminds.  The world we live in now is bombarded with fantasy in comparison to a generation ago, and, more importantly, it is acceptable without being a social stigma like in times past.  So maybe I should let go of trying to keep my campaign based in medieval times.  Perhaps for my next campaign, I will dig out Eberron or Iron Kingdoms or maybe even the World of Warcraft role playing game, and see if I can embrace a high magic world where the out of ordinary is actually quite common.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Session 17 and the Road Not Traveled

This was the first session in which we decided to fire up my laptop webcam and record some of the goofy things we say while playing. Check out Videos for Session 17 to see the videos along with some additional commentary.

After battling for their souls, and overcoming the mistress of the darkness tests, the adventurers returned to their bodies.

Ricorin, Luchus, Morgan, and Victor were all locked away in a cage nearby, and could only look on in horror as the purple smoke engulfed their friends. Sidara, Cornellic, Bjorn, Edilimas and Daskus battled for their souls, and after overcoming the tests of the mistress of darkness, they returned to their bodies.
Taken by surprise that the ritual had failed, the dark cultist leader hesitated in dismay.

A nondescript hooded cultist approached the cages. Ricorin prepared to lunge through the bars but heard a familiar voice whisper, "It is Erik. I have snagged the key to the cages." and proceeded to let them out.
Confused by the ritual, and suddenly assaulted by the adventurers from all sides, the dark cultist leader called on his ogre guard to defend him. Ricorin got the ogres attention, while Sidara landed a round house kick on the leader. The rest of the adventurers engaged the chanting cultists. The cultists summoned undead to assist them in battle.

As the tide of the battle turned against the cultist, the leader once again utilized his magical staff to teleport away to safety, but not before taunting the group that they have not seen the last of him.

Sidara confronted her aunt and demanded to know how she could ally herself with evil and put her up for sacrifice. Feranor interjected that Sidara's aunt was a practitioner of an ancient belief that elves's souls come from a pool of star water, and that elves are reincarnated from the same pool many times in their life. As time has progressed through the ages, and more and more half elves are born, and as fewer and fewer elves return, the various tribes of elven kind have dwindled.

Feranor looked upon Lyrin with a piercing gaze, "I believe she was trying to summon the ancient tree menders who defied the sacred teachings of the elves in an attempt to bring back power to our tribe. Is that correct, Lyrin?"

Lyrin spoke solemnly, "It would have been an honor for your body to act as a vessel for the wise elders. But now my plan has come to naught and I am defeated. Kill me if you must, for I have nothing left to live for. We shall all perish in the end, ever so slowly."

Sidara instructed Feranor to take Lyrin back to the tribe, and to make sure she would bring no harm to anyone else.

And here I had to fight a great urge to railroad the players. In my spare time, I spent a lot of time reading GAZ 7 The Northern Reaches. I had worked up a roster of people for the player's to interact with, and some dramatic plot points with Jarl Ragnir. But alas, the players made a very practical decision that they were short on time and needed to find the quickest route back to save the day.

The adventurers then regrouped and made plans for their next course of action. Sidara wanted to travel to Virkheim to find out why Jarl Ragnir how put a bounty on for her capture. Cornellic put forth the idea of travelling to High Gate, and utilizing the dwarven high road to make a quick return to Athanor as time was getting short. Sidara agreed that the mission was more important than her own personal interests. Erik and Bjorn decided to split from the group and make their way home. Erik agreed to tell Jarl Ragnir that Sidara had perished in battle.

After saying their goodbyes, the group headed northeast into the mountains. The air became thin and the temperature dropped to near freezing. They began to hear moaning drifting through the wind. It sounded as if someone were in pain or sick, quite a distance off of the path, but the group decided to investigate. Lying in a gully, they came upon an injured giant, easily fourteen feet tall. He opened his eyes at their approach and spoke in dwarven, "Ha, just me luck to be finished off by little ones."

The party was interested in parlaying, and decided to help the giant. Daskus called on the spirits of nature and cast some minor healing on the giant, which enabled him to gather enough strength to stand again. The giant was grateful and gave the group some bear furs he had gathered. He also warned that there was a giant frost wyrm lurking on the road ahead. He relayed how he had wounded it greatly, but was in turn overcome by its ferocious bite. The group asked if the hill giant would be willing to do battle gain with the wyrm if they were to assist. He agreed on the condition that he could claim the wyrm as his prize.

With the giant as an ally, the sought out the frost wyrm. Cornellic tracked the wyrm in the freshly fallen snow. The wyrm caught sent of the group and barrelled at them from across the field, but was no match for the combined attacks of the adventurers and the hill giant. Keeping their promise, the giant threw the wyrm over his shoulder as a prize. The group and the giant went their separate ways, with the giant making his way up the hillside to his cave, and the group continuing back on the road to High Gate.