Friday, September 2, 2011

Agonizing over the Apprenitce Campaign

Some of you may remember that the Apprentices started playing 4E last year and ultimately came to an end in an ugly TPK. We then went for something different as I offered them a chance to play in a Greek Mythology campaign but they decided that wasn't their thing after all - they wanted to go back to the Realms. That's probably because they've been reading the Drizzt books over the last year but it was the Percy Jackson books and Clash of the Titans that got them interested in the Greek thing so fair is fair.

Anyway, I took my time on coming up with a new plan for their game because I want to pick something we're going to stick with this time. I find a campaign gathers momentum once it gets going for a little while and I wanted to be sure we had room to grow without having to change settings all over again. I looked through different books, adventures old and new, and eventually decided that the Temple of Elemental Evil converted to 4E was the way to go - it's a classic that I've never gotten to run and it  maps out nicely with the Heroic Tier. Plus if it goes well I can convert the G and D series modules over and have a New Old campaign arc - best of both worlds! The challenge of doing a decent conversion while staying true to the spirit of the originals sparks my imagination as well. So everything looked good for a week or two. Then I saw the info on Neverwinter.

Let's see, a brand new campaign setting for the Heroic Tier set in a classic area of the Forgotten Realms - it's like they were reading my mind! It's exactly what I needed! So I put the TOEE on hold and waited for this to come out, picked it up and ... it's not what I thought it would be. It's not bad, it's just not full of ready-to-go adventuring material. What it does have is a lot of potential as a regional sandbox campaign. Looking at the maps and things it would be pretty easy to go through and "zone"  the map like an MMO, keying each section around a given level, planting some rumors, mapping out some of the dungeons and lairs and graveyards and stocking them with nasties, and ending up with a big sprawling area full of adventure. I'm just not sure that's the way I want to go.

The Apprentices are still somewhat new to D&D and RPG's, and I wonder if a completely open conuntryside might be a little too free-form for them. I think the focus of the TOEE might work better at this stage of their experience. It's not a railroaded storyline kind of focus like Dragonlance but it is pretty straightforward - you're in the village and the big bad dungeon is that way -   so that they can concentrate on the fun part instead of arguing over what to do next (and they will argue, sheesh, sometimes at the worst possible moment - since Heroes of Shadow added vampires as an option I may see if I can talk Apprentice Twilight into playing but that's a longshot at best).

So I'm right back where I started, after leaving it alone for half of the summer. I'm going to go back to my original plan and run the converted Temple campaign, set in Impiltur. I'm probably also going to post about the process here since the players don't know about the blog, unlike my other campaign, so I can be a little more open about it.

I'm still tempted to start sandboxing Neverwinter just for the fun of it and to have another low-level campaign ready to go in the same world I've been using for almost all of my 4E games. I might also set up an open table kind of thing with it and see if the Apprentices and my regular group (and maybe some other friends) have any interest in working in an occasional mixed group outside of the other campaigns. It's not extremely likely to take off but you never know.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September: Messing with games that you shouldn't

During a discussion with my friend Barking Alien it became apparent that we had some vaguely similar thoughts on a theme for September and so we are going to tread a similar path and call it "messing with games you shouldn't" month.

For my part, there are two main topics:

1) I've been playing around with d6 Star Wars tweaks ever since our campaign was called due to rules frustration. I'm convinced that it's still a good system but I'm also convinced that it's in dire need of a serious revamp to clear out the clutter that has accuumulated around it over the last two decades. I will be putting up a series of posts where I do just that and hopefully end up with a game I could actuly hope to run again.

2) I've also decided to go ahead with my Temple of Elemental Evil conversion to 4th edition D&D. Not only is it possible, it's good and very faithful to the original. If it goes well the the Giants and Drow series will be following along next year.

Now there will still be the usual session summaries and I'm going to post some more ICONS as well, but these other things will play a big part this month. I may work in some one-off posts on some other game change-ups as well - I've also decided to do some work on converting Neverwinter to a full-on sandbox for 4E. I'm not sure When I'm going to get to run it so this is a lower priority. I'm pretty sure I've got at least one Rifts post in me, and maybe some others as well.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Musings on Neverwinter

I have a case of incorrect expectations.

 I was thinking of this as a sort of super-adventure, similar to Revenge of the Giants or Tomb of Horrors 4E, with some additional setting material. It is not that, and to be fair to WOTC they didn't really say that it was going to be that. Bad on me.

What it is is a regional campaign setting centered around the half-ruined city of Neverwinter. There are maps of the city, the region, and some potential adventuring sites in the area. There are descriptions of various power groups in the area (there are a lot of them) including their leaders and agendas. There's is a lot of crunchy player stuff like Character Traits, deity-specific domains for the Essentials cleric, and mechanical bits for the various Forgotten Realms sub-races that were not a mechanical part of 4E before now. There are quite a few new monsters in the book, usually tied to certain groups or areas where they might be found, and that's cool.

There are no ready-to-run adventures, though. Not one. No gridded maps, no "Encounter 1-A The Dig Site" type pages in the whole book. That's what I was thinking would be included and is not. My linking of this to the earlier Pool of Radiance adventure settings was flawed as those included a ton of small adventures and this book includes none, which is where it falls down for me.

I don't really need a hyper-detailed area to run in - I like to do that kind of thing myself. I thought the 4E FR Campaign Guide handled this kind of thing pretty well, as it gave a write-up of a small town, gave short overviews of a region and the features therein, and then gave a starter adventure and some individual encounters tied to the area and the NPC's in that area. It took up one chapter in the book and was pretty handy IMO. I was expecting something more like that approach. Instead, if you took that chapter and expanded it to fill an entire book, while simultaneously deleting the actual encounters, that's the Neverwinter Campaign Guide. It is very nicely done, and if someone is looking for a detailed region to start up a Realms campaign in then this one will certainly fill that need. It's just not the fit for my needs that I thought it would be.

My problem is that I can write up what lives in the local haunted forest in an hour or so at night or maybe even on a slow day at work. Until my players investigate it I can revise and refine as I choose to make it fit them and the current state of my campaign as needed. What I can't do in between other things is write up the numbers - I have to make time to sit down with monster books to do that. That's where the time or lack of it really comes in. That's why I like having a few pre-made adventures or encounters available and why things like those big adventures and the Dungeon Delve book are so useful. I can easily find a place to put them and a way to connect them to the overal campaign, and in a pinch they save me the time it takes to draw up maps, pick out the right enemies, and choose treasure and magic items. Background and connections are much easier to determine during the course of a grown-up working day, yet that's the majority of the stuff that Neverwinter gives me.

I am also not a huge fan of the "let's work in everything" approach to the setting. It has scheming nobles from Waterdeep. It has old dwarf kingdoms and old elf kingdoms. It has a band of Drow mercenaries (yeah, that same one if you've read any of the mid to later Drizzt books). It has Red Wizards. It has Harpers. It has a bunch of undead.It has aboleths (organized aboleths!). It has Netheril (which I don't really care for in a low-level setting as I think they represent a higher-powered threat that's better addressed in the teen-to-twenty levels). Some might call it "rich" while I might call it "overloaded". It feels like it's straining to work in as many FR groups/threats as possible. It's a matter of taste and I tend to run my Realms games with a lighter sprinkling of that kind of stuff than others do, I suppose. For me it starts with the gods, the races, and the geography at the core and then the rest can be used as lighter or heavier flavor. As I've mentioned, not neccessarily wrong, just not completely to my taste.

I'm also a bit down on the lack of adventures due to the lack of  shared experiences it generates. What I'm talking about is the post-game story part of the playing experience. Pretty much anyone who played Basic D&D at some point played through The Keep on the Borderlands. I would guess a big percentage, if not a flat-out majority, of players of AD&D played through Against the Giants. A bunch probably played through White Plume Mountain and Tomb of Horrors too. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was legendary. Other games had this too - Many d6 Star Wars campaigns I have heard of started off with "Tatooine Manhunt". A lot of Runequest games started with "Apple Lane" then died in "Snake Pipe Hollow" or "Griffin Island/Mountain". Shadowrun had "Harlequin" among others. What is the legendary adventure for 4E? Is it "Keep on the Shadowfell"? Revenge of the Giants? I'm not sure, but if Neverwinter had included a set of adventures to use in a regional Heroic campaign it might have been the one. The type of thing where meeting another gamer ofr the first time and the talk turns to AD&D and Tomb of Horros and the four-armed gargoyle  - "oh we killed him in one round!" - "Wow our M-U used Charm monster and we took him around as a trap detector the rest of the way"  - that kind of thing where you get a little bonding from having played through something that someone else did too, even if you never played it together. It's a part of the RPG scene that I really like and I probably see it as more important than a lot of others do.

The factional stuff is a big chunk of the book and is pretty heavily tied in to the regional discussions so that you really have to read the whole thing through to get a good picture of what;s going on. It's...goood... but I think it's where the book goes particularly overboard. There are 10-15 factions in play, depending on how you want to count them, and some are under another's control, some are unaware of others, some are opposed to each other, and some have their own sub-factions. The core of it is the noble from Waterdeep who has come to the city with his mercenaries and an agenda and the local citizens who oppose his rule and have formed a resistance movement. That movement has been split into two factions, both groups  have been infiltrated by devil-worshippers, some of them have been mind-controlled by aboleths, all are watched by the red wizards and the shades from Netheril, and there are other groups outside of the city proper who have ties to and opinions about many of the others. They are all webbed together to the point that I wonder if any of them could be easily removed from play without revamping a bunch of the connections. The two human factions are pretty critical to the setting as written, as are the aboleths beneath it, and some of the others keep each other in check so that if you have one you need several to maintain the balance The full spread of groups though is pretty wide, and in my experience wider than most groups are likely to need. In fact, trying to work in all of the potential plotlines and connections is likely to render players confused to the point of frustration as they try to puzzle out which group of evil magical types is infiltrating the guard AND kidnaping citizens AND ambushing patrols AND running the graveyard AND smuggling things in through the old docks etc. Shadowrun is good for that sort of thing but I'm not sure a DnD game really needs so much of it. A DM could ignore it, but considering how much of the book it makes up that seems like a waste. I expect that I would throw a few things out to a new party. see what catches their interest, and then focus on those, leaving the rest to another campaign or another party.

One thing I do see as poitentially rewarding with this book is sandboxing: There is a great deal of stuff here that could serve as the bedrock for a classic pure sandbox campaign, similar to the West Marches campaign (the sandbox part, not neccesarily the open table part). There is a "safe" part of the city, then a whole lot of "unsafe" parts like the chasm, the graveyards, and the ruined areas. Then there are the areas outside the city, various forests, mountains, ruins, and of course the dungeons. If a DM could sit down, put a hexgrid over the regional map (if you like the old school approach) and then stock and populate the areas of interest, one could have a very nice heroic tier sandbox with a strong grounding in the Realms. A lot of the factional stuff would have to be handled outside of the safe area rather than in the city itself (remember, the city is NOT where the adventure happens in a classic sandbox) but a lot of it is there already anyway. The Waterdeep noble would have to be repositioned as having his hands full just maintaining the city walls and needing help from adventurers to push outwards. The local resistance would probably have to be scaled back as well, but all of those other factions could be a lot of fun. There could even be some Fistful of Dollars type scenarios that come into play if the players handle things the right way.

My last bit of concern comes from the timing: This version of the game has been out for over 3 years now, yet one of 2011's big supplements* for DM's is another product designed to support low-level play. What about Paragon? What about Epic? Between the early adventures, three campaign settings, campaign adventures, and some of the other supplements like Vor Rukoth, we have a lot of Heroic tier material. Did we really need another book of that type rather than dedicated support of hgher levels of play? I'm not so sure. I think what this points to is that the 2010 Essentials releases effectively reset the clock just as if a new edition had been released. It was not a new edition mechanically, as characters were not made obsolete, but it was a new edition marketing-wise and so rolled things back to zero and shifted the product emphasis to lower-level starting play. I'm seeing that now and while it makes some sense I'm hoping that 2012 takes the focus to Paragon, not least because by the end of the year that's where my main game will be going.

All of that jabbering above could be taken as me being down on WOTC's shiny new book and I feel a little bad about that. It's a good thing for new players especially and there really hasn't been a book like it for 4E, although it was a fairly common type for 1E and 2E. I think there's a place for this kind of thing in the game - it can't all be powers and monster stats. It's a lot like the old Gazeteers for the D&D Known World - maps, NPC's plots, and creatures for a set region. Those were a lot of fun (I have 4 or 5 of them) and I imagine there will be some people, especially new DM's, who get all kinds of excited over this book and I expect it will be a lot of fun for them.

I'm just not really sure how to fit it into my plans just yet but I'm working on it. It's not what I expected, but working through my sandboxing idea above has caused me to re-think my plans for the Apprentices campaign at least, so I may end up liking this book more than I thought - more on that later. For now, it's a very good book if you want a regional sourcebook with a fair amount of player crunch and limited DM crunch but tons of DM fluff. It is very strongly tied to the Forgotten Realms, so for good or ill that should factor into your decision. I think it's mainly aimed at newer DM's, but it's not without value for anyone running a game in the Realms. If it fits with what you need than it's very good. If not, then it still may be good enough but that's something each DM would have to decide for themselves.

*Yeah there's Gloomwrought, the city in the Shadowfell, which  I haven't read yet but it does appear to be more inline with my expectations - Paragon emphasis and actual encounters. I'm just not super-excited about an extended focus on the Shadowfell. Visits, sure, but it's not where we're going to live for the campaign. It also makes me wonder if Neverwinter would not have fared better as a boxed set - more maps, including encounter maps, some tokens, and an adventure book would have added a lot to it. Some of the Netheril stuff ties in to the Shadowfell making the Gloomwrought set a feasible next step for Paragon usage.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 27: Temple of the Reptile God

After camping for the night our heroes proceed to the ancient temple of the reptile god. With the skilled barbarian leading the way they soon discover a pile of collapsed stone atop a hill that rises out of the swamp. Observing from a distance reveals no activity so they close in and discover amid the ruins a clearly maintained stone stairway  leading down into darkness. Intent on their goal the group descends, Kordan in front, then Uthal, then Mikal, then Althea, with Jovanni bringing up the rear.

Emergining into a torchlit room at the bottom of the stairs the group sees lizardman guards doing exercises or possibly rituals. Due to the complete lack of stealth on the way down some of the temple guardians are already alerted to them and rush to engage. Caught on the stairs the party does not have a lot of room to fight until Kordan shield bashes some of them away from the landing, allowing Uthal to charge into the room. As soon as Jovanni gets a head around the corner he unleashes his usual storm of vicious mockery and cutting words as the wizard and warlock light up the room with various flaming magical bursts of death. These guards fight a little differently from the lizardmen of the swamp, swinging greatswords and following that up with a vicious poisonous bite - clearly they are the chosen ones. Unfortunately this does not save them as they are rapidly hacked and blasted down, the final two protecting the only other passage leading out of the room.

Barely pausing for breath the companions rip down the tapestry hanging in the doorway and see a large, oddly shaped rooom beyond, Notable features of the room include two glowing columns, two glowing snakes, and two even larger snakes, non-glowing. As ther serpents stir, the party readies for action.

Leery of the wet, magically glowing room, Kordan decides to try a new tactic called "stand in the doorway". With Uthal able to strike from behind him with his longspear, this seems like a viable plan, and sure enough the two larger snakes move up to engage. Unfortunately the two glowing snakes begin to spit fiery blasts from across the room, negating the effectiveness of this manuver to a degree.

Things are gong fairly well until one of the large serpents grabs the Fighter and wraps around him. Uthal, Jovanni, and Mikal redouble their efforts and slay the two big constrictors while Althea (who hates snakes) concentrates on blasting the flame serpents from afar. After the two big ones drop and one of the flamers has been blasted apart, Uthal rushes in and slays the last fiery snake up close.

As they recover, Kordan notices that while there is standing water in the room one there is one section that looks different, where the water seems to flow strangely. Testing the floor with spears they determine that it is a much deeper pool or well, difficult to see as there is water everywhere. Giving it a wide berth they move towards the opposite end of the chamber where there is another damp tapestry hanging in a doorway.

DM Notes:
This was another good session where progress was made and the encounters were fun. The travel and recon at the beginning felt much like some of our older games from 2E AD&D where we seemed to spend a lot of time in swamps. I think they are one of the creepier environments to play in and I was glad I had a chance to work this in.

The first encounter, even beefed up to a level 8, was not terribly challenging for the party as I had a terrible time hitting anything, even with double-digit bonuses to hit. It lasted all of four rounds. Hey, minions die quick.

The second encounter was a little more interesting as the Kordan;s player, reasoning that snakes were primarily melee opponents and not liking the water-covered floor (traps, hidden monsters - he's been playing since 1E so he's seen a lot) decided that it was better to stand in the doorway and fight and it did work but the fire-breathing snakes were an unexpected wrinkle. Giant constrictor snakes are fun too with 4E's grab rules (much less hassle than 3E). In the end the fight only lasted 5 rounds but it was a good little scrap.

The atmosphere I was going for in the temple itself was wet, ruined, ancient stonework corrupted to use by an evil, poisonous cult, old and dangerous. I tried to emphasize certain aspects of it as tt's all building up to the final encounter which I thought would be a lot of fun (and it was - next post) and while this little setup was very linear, hey, that's how a small underground temple would be IMO.

This whole setup is one of the things I like about prebuilt enocunters such as Dungeon Delve - the original delve caught my eye as being cool so I put it on the list of things to use if possible. The leveling and the chosen adventure worked out very nicely, so all I did was enhance the descriptions a llittle bit, reskin some of the monsters, and swap out the main attraction to something I liked better. I think it will end up being one of the more memorable little pieces of the campaign and I'm pretty happy with it.