Thursday, February 24, 2011

I haven't posted in ages. I'm aware of this. I am stressed out with real-life job things, and I'm playing the Wakfu Beta. This has taken up almost all of my time.

I'm going to Cuba in three days, and I will be staying there for a week. While I am there, I am going to catch up on some of my reading, some of my writing, and see what happens from there. Your almost-but-not-quite-fourthcore programming will resume after the break.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Encountering D&D: New Season Woos!

Ah, the first encounter of a new season. This is always fun for me: I get to see some new faces as the season starts, because people want to jump on when they're on the ground-floor; we get our first look at the new designer and get to make some judgements about the adventure path as a whole; we get to see what sorts of innovations are being brought to bear this season, and whether or not they work in the game's favor or against it... The whole initiative has been sort of trial-and-error for this first year; we had a solid showing in the first season with Undermountain bringing us some cool new ideas for how to run Skill Challenges and doing something the-same-but-different. We had a huge hiccough with Dark Sun, and a redemption of the initiative with Chris Sims taking the helm. I don't know Rodney Thompson, but he's done a lot of work with Star Wars over the years, and has had a hand in d20 Modern and Future. All of these are products I've never really played with, but recognize the quality of. I own a copy of the Star Wars Saga book, specifically because I wanted to take a look at the design elements that would be transitioning to D&D 4. I'm reserving the right to moderate optimism.

The Adventure Book for this season is just one huge book, instead of chunk books like last season. I consider this a step in the right direction, and wouldn't at all mind seeing more products like this in the future. It makes this set easier to give away when the season is done (we don't sell the adventure books; we get them for free, and give them away for the same). The first few sections are familiar to anyone who has done some Game Mastery for D&D Encounters in previous seasons. You get a breakdown of how Encounters works, and a n overview of the adventure as a whole; it tells you how to deal with Renown Points (something I forget about consistently), and notes on advancement and treasure.

The stuff that's new is in the Advancement, Treasure, and Fortune Cards.

As a bit of a departure from the way D&D:E has been handling Advancement in previous seasons, this time around you will actually need to keep track of your experience points. You will not level automatically at the beginning of each chapter; if you come in at the middle of chapter three, you will be starting as a level one character. I'm not sure what this is in response to, but I think it's a general improvement. It rewards the players who show up every week, and provides a bit of a slap on the wrist for those players who choose to show up only occasionally (or just the once).

I've been giving out random treasure since I started my home campaign. Admittedly, the table they've come up with for D&D:E is way better than the system I'm using at home (and I may actually just come up with a different version of it for Bones). I like that the GM doesn't really know what the party is going to loot off of BGuy #13, and I like that players get to customize their characters a bit within the preset limits of the adventure. Also, I've already jacked the roll for one packet rather than give out one piece of a packet per person, I'm just having one of the player characters roll once or twice and passing out that much stuff; the resulting fights have been pretty great. ^_^

I've already said my piece on Fortune Cards in a previous Encountering D&D; I don't think the product works the way that the good folks at Wizards of the Coast imagined they would work, I don't think they were integrated well with the game as it was designed, and I dislike that they're being pushed into the D&D: Encounters initiative. They seem rushed and a bit under-play-tested, and I would have preferred to wait an extra season for a more fully-fleshed out product.

The Encounter

The first session actually takes place over a few days. During the preview talks at DDXP, the guys at WotC were talking about how the Encounters would make a lot more use of time, and occasionally months would pass between chapters. Having spent a looooooooooong time doing extended campaigns, I can honestly say this is something that rarely crosses my mind. D&D can be a day-by-day account of the lives of the player characters, and often is. Taking some time out for a breather, or having entire days go by during a session can be an interesting way to show that your characters aren't busy all day every day, they actually get some down-time in.

The set up is pretty standard Fantasy Adventure Fare. A call has gone out to adventurous souls to build a new settlement southeast of Hammerfast (go read the Hammerfast book, I guess...). They've been offered a small stipend to help build their homes, and it is assumed that each player character has a reason for wanting to leave the comfortable confines of civilization for the wilds. The town is to be built on the bones of old Castle Inverness, recently rediscovered by a group of rangers. The new town is to serve as a waypoint between Hammerfast and Harkenwold. There is an argument about fording a stream up ahead that the players can help mediate (and choosing one side or the other will effect later encounters). Then you fight stirges.

Session Theft

There are a couple of cool things you can steal from this encounter for use in your home games. The first and probably most important is how protecting the caravan is worked into the encounter itself. The horses can be saved by a standard action terrain power (terrain powers, by the by, fucking great; more after the break), but it's a standard action and you need to be within five squares of a horse to make it go away. It saves both the horse and the wagon, necessitating that the players split up, some saving the caravan, others killing stirges dead. Little challenges like this make encounters harder to beat, while at the same time adding a new layer of interactions to the game, keeping it from being "just another fight."

Terrain powers are a thing we've seen before, but they're pretty sweet and I love when they're incorporated into a scenario. I rarely, if ever, use them in my home games, but this one has made it pretty clear that I should be more often. I mean, it doesn't have to be horses; using a variety of terrain powers to maneuver a boat or use a keep's natural defenses (ballista! whatup!) can mean the difference between a humdrum encounter and a kick-ass fight with all sorts of weird shit going on because of the place you're fighting in. You want people swinging off of chandeliers and shit? Great, put the power in there, and make it a good one (treated as a charge, Dex+2 vs Ref, 3[w] damage). You'd prefer the slide-down-the-bar, head-in-the-wall bar brawl cliche? We can make that happen (Str vs Fort, 1d6+str+[2X] and you and the target slide X squares, where X is the number of squares from your starting position to the wall).

The last cool thing about this encounter that you should probably steal for your campaign actually takes a fair bit more forethought than most of my D&D planning does. I don't usually plan more than a day ahead of time, and when I come back to a theme, I decide what the repercussions of the party's actions are going to be, and roll with it. I don't pre-plan beyond that, so making something that happens one week effect the next week's encounter directly can be a bit of a chore if you GM like I do.

It is still a thing you should be looking at, especially if you don't GM like I do. If you plan things out, if you build your adventures well ahead of time, having branching paths is pretty much a necessity if you don't want to be Railroad Guy. We get it when we're talking about directions in a dungeon (if you go into this room, this monster is going to kill you; this other room has a totally different kill-you monster), but it so rarely enters the planning stages for non-dungeon planning. The fact that this takes place on a role-playing point makes it even more important for your home campaigns; sometimes the stuff that happens around before and/or after an encounter is more important to the encounter than the encounter itself is. If you go one way, the chance of you getting attacked by Goblins goes up, but your chances of getting attacked by Crocodiles goes down. So the encounter after this one is pretty much determined by what you decide to do this session, which is pretty dope for an encounter made for in-store play.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Bestiary of Badassery: The Vile Darkness

Before You Read Further:
Abuse is not a game. It is the most horrifying and terrible thing a person can have inflicted upon them, and real-life heroes are fighting against it every day. I do not mean any disrespect at all to the victims of abuse or the forces that are doing everything humanly possible to make it stop.
Because I believe in acting locally, if you’d like to make a donation to an association against abuse, I’d suggest you head over to WIN House. They do good work, and can always use more help.
Also, while some of the abusers below are presented as victims of a horrible monster, we should never lose sight of the fact that the real victims are the abused. My heart goes out to them, and they are in my prayers.

The Vile Darkness

There is a monster that lives in the cellar of the el’Harr farm down the road a ways from Hammerfast. The only one that knows it’s there is little Alphonse, the youngest of the el’Harr’s children; he has tried to bring it to his parents’ attention, but you know how people can be about the monsters their kids talk about. Besides, no one’s ever seen it, so it’s all in the kid’s head, right?
At night, the monster whispers things to Cody el’Harr, things that shouldn’t be whispered by any good soul to another. Cody can’t see the thing, or even hear it, really. It speaks to his mind, and the dark places in his heart.
Alphonse is bruised betimes, and he’s a quiet lad. Walks with a limp since the incident in the barn a few years back, but it hasn’t slowed him, none. He plays by himself, mostly, the imagination games of children. In his head, he wears a suit of armor and slays monsters. One monster in particular, over and over again.
And when it’s dead, Alphonse’ pa never puts hands to the boy again.

Deeds, Not Words

It was announced recently that the Book of Vile Darkness is up for the Fourth Edition treatment this year. It was one of them ore popular books for 3.5, and it started the whole “Intended for Mature Audiences” movement of D&D books that brought on such wonders as the Book of Exalted Deeds and the Book of Erotic Fantasy (heh). It was probably one of the best sourcebooks 3.5 D&D put out, but I had a few issues with it. In particular, I found the focus to be more on gruesome content than any real discussion of evil. There’s some demons and stuff in it, sure, and a lot of the spell effects are like “Fuck you, good characters! Mwah ha ha ha ha haaaaa!” but there isn’t a lot of stuff that I would throw part-and-parcel into the “evil” category.
There’s a lot of wiggle-room on the concept of “evil,” though. Is killing sentient creatures and taking their stuff “evil?” Well, I put that into a solid “Yes,” on evil, but it’s the preface for the vast majority of D&D (and other role-playing) games that you will occasionally bash in monsters’ faces to increase your own power, wealth and status. So when I need to unnerve my players a bit, when I need them to squirm a little, I have to pull out some big guns. Simply hurting people isn’t enough to get across that a bad guy is vile; that bad guy needs to hurt people in the most intimate and horrifying ways possible.
This creature is an example of the sorts of things I’ll do to make my players a touch more uncomfortable than just putting them in a 10x10 room with a hobgoblin. It’s not something for the faint of heart; this monster feeds on the fear, pain and suffering of others, and manipulates people into some of the worst betrayals a person can imagine. It reaches into the darkest places of someone’s mind and brings those things to the fore.

The Monster(s?)

The real monster is abuse. Let’s be fair, this monster is not one you’re going to throw into a random dungeon; it can’t survive there. It needs to live in someone’s home, where the potential for real emotional turmoil and trauma exists. Most importantly, it needs to find a crack, a place where the dark desires and urges run through a human mind. While a mother or father might normally love and support their children, the Vile Darkness can urge them to the unthinkable. Where a woman might love her husband unconditionally, the Vile Darkness can seep into her mind, taunting her into an horrific betrayal. And though a young man may truly love his betrothed, the Darkness can turn his mind to harm, or even murder. It would be incapable of doing these things if those emotions, those thoughts, didn’t already exist in the victim’s mind. The most monstrous aspect of this creature is its ability to bring out the monster in otherwise good people.
Discovering the Vile Darkness requires some investigation. If you want to relegate this to the realm of the Skill Challenge, feel free to do so, but I would rely more on heavy role-playing with a couple of prompted Perception and Insight rolls. And the abuse that the Darkness brings out in people doesn’t need to be physical; sexual, emotional and mental abuse all happen every day, and each comes with its own cocktail of betrayals. Complicating factors for the encounter can be as complicated as the victim of the abuse trying to protect the abuser, or another abusive situation in which the Vile Darkness has had no part (and this, truly, is more terrifying than any fantasy monster ever could be). When it turns out that the physically abusive parents on the el’Menith farm aren’t violent at the urging of a monster, but that the Darkness’ target has been Avery ven Maslia and his pretty new bride, it pushes the encounter to a different level.
The Vile Darkness
Level 3 Elite Controller
XP 300
HP 86; Bloodied 43
AC 17; Fortitude 15; Reflex 15; Will 15
Speed 6
Saving Throws +2; Action Points 1
Initiative +1
Perception +1

O Betrayal • Aura 2
A creature that starts its turn within the Vile Darkness' Betrayal Aura makes a saving throw. If the creature fails that saving throw, it is possessed until the end of the Darkness' next turn.
Standard Actions
M Incite Violence • At-Will
Attack: +8 vs. AC
Hit: 1d6 + 4 psychic damage and the target deals damage to an adjacent ally equal to their Intelligence modifier. .
R Dark Whispers • At-Will
Attack: Range 10 (ignores line of sight); +7 vs. Will
Hit: 1d10 + 5 psychic damage and the target makes a melee basic attack against an adjacent ally. If the creature is possessed, it gets a +2 power bonus to the attack. .
C Shame • At-Will
Attack: Close burst 3 (targets enemies in burst); +8 vs. AC
Hit: 3d10 + 3 psychic and shadow damage, and the target is dazed until the end of the Vile Darkness' next turn. .
Triggered Actions
Feeding on Your Pain • Recharge 6
Trigger: An creature is hit by an ally's attack. .
Effect (Free): The Vile Darkness gains hit points equal to one half of the damage dealt by the triggering attack.
Str 11 (+1)
Dex 11 (+1)
Wis 11 (+1)
Con 11 (+1)
Int 11 (+1)
Cha 11 (+1)
Alignment      Languages
© 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. This formatted statistics block has been generated using the D&D Adventure Tools.
Art jacked from ~therook @ deviantart

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Peculiar Curios: A Double Helping of Earrings

Sun and Moon Earrings Level 17

This pair of matching earrings bears a crescent moon near the hook, a starburst in the center, and an arrow point at the bottom. When you wear them, a soft glow shows the time of day.

Item Slot Head 65,000 gp

Property: Gain an innate sense of the time. You know what time it is, down to the clip_image002second.

Power (Daily): Standard. Make a Primary Ability attack vs Will against a single creature within ten squares of you. If that creature is hit by the attack, choose Standard, Move, or Minor. That creature cannot make that type of action until the end of your next turn.

Something I think I'd like Wizards to do a bit more would be integrating flavor and rules a bit more. Like, it's great that the rules are simple to read and easy to use, but when I read something like the rules text from Legend of the Five Rings, I get all giddy inside. They can write "The troubles of the world take a toll on your soul that only sake can lift," right there in the rules text, and people are like "Yeah, sure, whatever. Card does this," without any difficulty. It would make reading rules descriptions for shit a lot more interesting. So I'm going to re-do the Sun and Moon earrings, and we'll put them side by side, and you can tell me which one is better.

Sun and Moon Earrings Level 17

This pair of matching earrings bears a crescent moon near the hook, a starburst in the center and an arrow point at the bottom. When you wear them, a soft glow shows the time of day,

Item Slot Head 65,000 gp

Property: Even though you can't see the glow, you gain an innate sense of the time. You always know what time it is, down to the second. The glow is not bright enough to betray your position to enemies while you hide, but it allows your allies to tell what time it is just by looking at you.

Power (Daily): Standard Action. You draw strength from the arcane time-magic in the earrings and direct it at your opponent, stealing a few precious seconds from their life. Though it doesn't hurt them directly, they'll definitely notice the inconvenience. Make an attack using your primary ability vs Will against a single creature. If the attack hits, you can choose either Move, Minor or Standard. The target cannot make that type of action until the end of your next turn.

That, to me, makes a lot more sense. Stealing a few seconds away from you is what I was looking at doing with the mechanic, and I think that the mechanic does that, but it's a lot more fun for me as the guy with the words to actually show you what I meant by it. And all it takes to separated a piece of flavor text from the rules text is some italics.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Encountering D&D: The Boss Fight

To be perfectly honest, if anything was a misstep in this adventure's design, it's putting Benwick up as the last fight instead of the giant, awesome dragon of the previous encounter. Story-wise, it totally makes sense to have a showdown with Benwick at the end of the chapter, and I understand why the choice was made, but fighting a portly monk/cultist after taking down a fucking dragon seems a bit anti-climatic.

Also, the meeting with Longstrider seems a bit, y'know, tacked on. It's like this entire encounter was more of an afterthought, and the season actually ended last week. Still, there are some nifty things going on here, and there are a couple of cute tricks you can pull into your own games, if you look for them.

Kendon Longstrider

The idea of having a wishy-washy NPC ally mechanically represented is cute. Here's poor never-seen-before Kendon, hanging out and doing his own thing, when his whole life gets flipped by some dragon cultists and a boatload of lizard folk. He doesn't know whose side he's on; he isn't on anyone's side, and if he can be convinced to fight for one side or the other, that has more to do with the force of personality of the people involved.

Kendon is sort of Everyman Fighterguy. He is the very definition of what I consider the Neutral alignment from 1-3.5 to have been; he's indecisive and will fight for anyone, mostly because he doesn't know what to think. He's known Benwick for a good long time, and he's seemed like a pretty alright dude, but the adventurers have saved the keep a couple of times now, and Ben's acting like a bit of a douche.

Having some (pretty much all) of your non-affiliated NPCs act like this guy probably isn't a horrible idea. I ran a session of Bones where a crowd of people was loyal to the villain, but when he started causing the deaths of hundreds of his fans, they started to turn on him. For a while, the struggle went back and forth between the party and the rock star they were fighting, but eventually the group won out and the crowd came to their aid in fighting the Badness.

It's Okay to Let the Boss Fight Go Long

There's a lot of boxed text in this session. Not so much in the beginning, but after everything's been taken care of, there's more, and the more is pretty hefty. That is totally reasonable, and I'm glad Wizards took the time to wrap the campaign up in a way that is interesting from a rules perspective (more on that in a bit).

One of the things that's been getting a lot of airtime in the 4E community is the length of your average fight, and how to make that time shorter. Personally, I like the long fights. If I spend a five hour session of D&D, and the single fight of the night lasts about an hour and half to two hours, that's a pretty solid session. It's something I needed to learn to account for in my game planning, but beyond that, there's no reason to vilify long fights.

Boss fights are allowed to go longer than most. They're supposed to be climatic moments in the story of the game, points where everything finally gets resolved, and sometimes you need to take some extra time to really focus in on those and make them worth it. It can be very satisfying to bash in the skull of someone who has been screwing you around for a few months (like Benwick has), and the players are going to enjoy finally taking his ass down,

The Quest Challenge

One of the best things about this chapter, one of the things that I looked at and went "Huh. Why didn't I think of that?" is on page eight of the adventure book. It has a little chart that tells you what all the minor quests were in the chapter, and then has you tally those up and see how you did overall. If your party succeeded in most of the minor quests, you get the happy ending. If your party failed at most of the same quests, you get the unhappy ending. This is an interesting look at what Chris Tulach, Greg Bilsland and Gregg Marks called "Branching tree design" at D&DXP last week. It's interesting to note that in this season, the only branch to the tree is in the last chapter, but I think we can expect to see branches like this coming out earlier in the season through March of the Phantom Brigade and Dark Legacy of Evard.

It's something that people who GM at home do fairly naturally. "Oh, you sucked at this thing? Well, it's definitely going to come back and bite you in the ass."

That's all I've got for this week's Encountering D&D. I have the books in for next week's Session, and I'm chomping at the bit to get the new season started. This one was a lot of fun and I hope that continues through the next few seasons.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

My Players Wrote Filk

So the universe is in peril, and my player characters are trying to build an alliance of peoples to fight against it. There's this dead god they woke up a while ago, and he's doing naughty things to all of existence. While trying to convince Jacques le'Dwarf to sign the alliance papers, they wrote a song, and I thought it was clever. It's in Jacques' native Dwarven.

Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques
Signez-vous? Signez-vous?
La fin du monde arrive, La fin du monde arrive
Maintenant, maintenant