Friday, October 1, 2010

Brecause I'm Lazy on a Friday...The Gamer Girls Motivational Spectacular!

I have been fortunate enough to have girls in my regular gaming groups for the last 20 years. Hopefully this post doesn't make them regret it....


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 7: Into the Well

We begin outside the door discovered down Kuto's Well. Our heroes are::

Uthal, Goliath Barbarian 2
Tavar, Deva Invoker 2
Kordan, Human Fighter 2
Javanni, Half Elf Bard 2
Mikal, Human Warlock 2
Althea, Eladrin Wizard 2

Dropping all attempts at stealth the party makes several noisy attempts to force open the stouter-than-it-appears wooden door. Eventually it gives and opens up to a short, hallway leading to another set of double doors. Again stealth is ignored as battering begins and soon this set of doors is smashed down, revealing a set and ready group of kobold guards - battle begins!

One larger, fiercer kobold stands in the center of a line, with 2 kobold pikemen on each side of him. Behind this line of armored, braced, and ready warriors stands a robed kobold with a wild look in his eyes and sparks dancing around his head. As Kordan attempts to enter the room and join in direct battle, he notices a slimy substance on the floor in front of the defense line but it's too late - he slips and falls flat directly in front of the big kobold.  This gains him a glorious spearing by that warrior and by the 2 on either side of him. Uthal attempts to step past his downed comrade but slips on the slime and suffers a similar fate.The invoker, wizard, warlock, and bard all provide supporting fire via various arcane blasts but the fight is not going well for the heroes.

Sensing a need to change things up, Althea teleports into the room behind the defense line and unleashes a thunderwave, blasting kobolds all over the place and disrupting their formation. Regaining their feet, Kordan and Uthal wade into combat but are quickly surrounded by the shifty creatures, taking a serious beating from kobold spears while the wizard has been frozen and poisoned by blasts from the erratic kobold wizard.

With the situation growing more desperate, Althea shakes off some of the aftereffects and lets off a thunderwave that catches several kobolds plus Uthal! In the ensuing chaos, Kordan and Uthal attempt to reform some kind of defensive position from which they can support each other  while the Kobold wild mage turns his attention to the Eladrin spell-flinger and begins a duel. The heroes seem to be cursed somehow, unable to lay their weapons on the quick-reacting creatures. Things look bad, even with fire support from Javanni, Mikal, and Tavar, to the point that Mikal considers entering the room himself. That's when Althea unleashes another spell that takes out some of the kobolds but also injures Uthal and he falls, unconscious and bleeding. The situation is grim and a retreat is considered.

But No! No retreat will be made! Kordan takes down one scaly pikeman in a furious rage! Javanni leaps in to render aid to the fallen barbarian! Tavar blasts one of the remaining kobolds as Mikal charges in and finishes it off with an eldritch strike! The battle ends with the team battered and blasted but victorious!

Pausing to bind up wounds and refocus their energy, the party decides to press on. The kobolds have to be removed from the well and it appears that negotiation is unlikely at this point.  One odd note- The chief kobold called out to something called "The Emerald Queen" as he falls - a name not known to the group. Filing it away they kick down the only other door in the room and advance.

Down a short hallway the heroes enter a large columned hall. Although they do use caution they are swarmed by more kobolds as they move in. Better prepared this time they maintain a formation and fight them off without serious injury. Afterwards they realize they have slain two dozen of the things, mostly females and younger ones apparently.

Looking around the room they see two other doors. They head to one and Kordan scouts down the hallway behind it, soon discovering a hidden pit, falling down a long ways onto some spikes, seriously injuring himself and making a lot of noise. There is a door directly across from the pit and as the rest of the party attempts to extract the fighter Javanni pushes the door open, revealing a room full of armed kobolds. One of them bellows in broken common "You dare to challenge the Emerald Prince?! Prepare to die!"

DM Notes:

Another great session even if we did only get two encounters done. We got started mostly on time but that fight in the guardroom took over 2 hours. It wasn't a grind, it was just a very tense fight and the players could not roll out of the single digits which prolonged things quite a bit. It was one of the best combats we have had and I felt pretty good when it was over - the party didn't feel over matched but it wasn't a cakewalk either. The higher hit points of 4E does prolong the fights but it also gives the players (and the DM) the chance to adjust their tactics to the situation if they are not doing well making for a more interesting fight. The wizard at one point was slowed, weakened, and bloodied but she was still having fun. The fighter was bloodied and the barbarian was bloodied twice, dropping once.

The second combat was a fight against 24 minions because I wanted to see how that would go. The minions did inflict a fair amount of damage on some of the characters but it takes numbers to get enough hits to generate enough damage to scare a PC and they rarely last long enough to get 2 chances to hit an opponent. Still, multiple waves of kobolds rushing in and chucking javelins was kind of fun and that fight was much shorter. I will probably keep variations of this in play for some time to come. A spellcaster standing behind a wall of 20 minions could make things interesting.

Some have said that 4E is all about combat and not about roleplaying. I disagree - sometimes combat IS roleplaying! When the wizard hits the fighter with a thunderwave spell and he starts questioning her in character, that's roleplaying! The word isn't a synonym for "solving a mystery" or "meeting NPC's" - Roleplaying encompasses all of those things and more, including combat. Think of Star Wars, think of Schwarzenegger movies, think of the LOTR movies - a lot of the humor and a fair amount of the drama between characters comes during the combat/action scenes. It's part of the deal and not a small part. When a player shouts his character's battlecry, when a player threatens his opponent in-character, when a player or character gives a "Yes" as the enemy falls or a "Damn" as a companion falls that's RP in it's most natural form and it's right at the heart of the D&D game. I've seen it in every edition of the game, form Basic to 4th.  I'll have more on this idea in another post but it's an old tired complaint that needs to be put to rest.

One other note on encounter design - in general I try to make notes, or at least have an idea in my head, of 2 different "levels" for an encounter.

There's the "surprised by the party" level, which in the above case would have found the kobolds standing around talking and maybe playing kobold poker. Even if they are not technically surprised they would usually spend the 1st round reacting to the party. In 1-2-3E it meant no short-duration prep spells would be cast in advance, only get-out-of-bed spells like those wonderful 3.0 Bull's Strength and the like. Weapons may be drawn or not (Spears yes swords probably not) and the advantage is probably with the PC's as they are more ready for a fight. plus any sentries or messengers have not had time to alert another room or more guards before the fight starts which gives the party a chance to take them out first.

Then there is the "On Guard" level which means the bad guys are armed and in position, some buffs may have been cast, some sneaky types may be hidden. This is pretty typical in my games as my players rarely bother with stealth and a closed door usually gives at least one round of warning before the meatshields come crashing in. I don't really worry about passive perception when there is at least one character in plate clanking down the hall - I'm not giving a "passive stealth check" in that situation. It's effectively one round of warning - they can move, draw weapons, cast a spell, and that's about it. Warning messengers are usually out of the room already or ready to run. Doors to the rest of the area are locked if that's a normal defense mechanism.

For the really ridiculous situations I do occasionally pull out "Ambush" level - this is what happened above. There were multiple rounds of bashing on first one door, then another, before the party got to the kobold guard post. That gave them plenty of time to set up the maximum possible preparedness to stop these intruders. Perfect formation with overlapping strike zones, slime fully dispersed (DC10 acrobatics check when entering or go prone), and a held action to strike the first target that enters their reach. It led to a very bloody encounter and meant the common room was warned and had time to hide - hey, it's a frontal assault against a prepared defense, that's how it should go. The same thing happened to a lesser degree with the pit trap in front of the final door - it's both a combat element and a warning system, so the chieftain had time to arm up his boys prior to engaging.

Anyway it was a good session and I'm looking forward to the next one and it sounds like my players are too - that's really the goal

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

4E Open Grave - A Review

Undead: A staple of the D&D game from its earliest days. Feared and avoided in BECMI, 1E, and 2E for their level-draining tendencies.  Hated and avoided in 3E for their level drains and immunity to critical hits and sneak attacks. Laughed at in many cases if you had a decent cleric along (Poof!). This is the 4E Big Book O' Undead Stuff, a 224 page full-color hardback published in 2009.

Overall I like this book, but I have some mixed feelings about it.I feel like I should like it more than I do. It does cover what it says it will cover, but compared to the Draconomicon it just feels less good.

It starts with about 20 pages of biology, psychology and a bit about undead cults. I am not terribly concerned about the biology of the undead so this was of limited use to me. Also the cult section is small and I felt it could have been interesting as a whole chapter on its own. Then we get 3 pages on the Shadowfell - it seems really brief, but it's alright. I still would have liked more.

Next we have 25 pages on using undead in a campaign - brief campaign outlines, skill challenges, magic rituals, artifacts - it's all good though some parts stood out to me more than others. The campaign outlines are good - I would not normally think of undead-fighting as a campaign-long theme but the ideas here are solid.

Chapter 3 is "Undead Lairs" and it is 75 pages of drop-in goodness in the form of 9 ready-made encounter sites 3 for each tier. These are short, consisting of an overview map and 2 encounters which is shorter than the ones in Dungeon Delve, but it's still useful.

Following this is almost 100 pages of new monsters, templates, and some alternate powers to give to undead monsters. Some are returning classics (undead beholder, sodden ghoul (lacedon), stench ghoul (ghast), some are cool variations on stuff we know like liches, mummies, and vampires, and some are just...weird. Fleshcults who don't like undead? Brain in a Jar? Blasphemes? Some of them just feel like they belong in a different game altogether.Brains in Jars - should those even be undead? I thought the whole point of that was to prolong life? - feel to me more like a modern-age pulp or superhero game, not D&D. I probably have a narrower vision of "D&D Undead" than some people. Some of the others are things like a pile of parts or a glob of goo that animates spontaneously as undead. I can see using those but they would probably be one-off things to encounter or maybe one time within a campaign at say a haunted slaughterhouse, but I can't see them being mainstays of a recurring campaign. One bright point her though is the famous undead section - Acererak, Ctenmir, and other famous names are given stats for 4E, and I liked them all.

Don't get me wrong, this is a good, solid book. If you're planning to run an undead-heavy campaign or even a decent-sized adventure using undead you will probably find some useful material here. I just didn't feel as inspired as when I finished the Draconomicon. That book was full of good ideas and useful monsters and bits. This one just didn't fire me up as much. Maybe I'm more of a dragon guy than an undead guy. Additionally the usefulness of this book is a step down form that one and from Dungeon Delve. A fully-statted out dragon's lair is a good thing for a DM to have. A 3-encounter monster lair or dungeon is a nice drop-in piece. A 2-encounter graveyard in need of more work, really. It seems like it's missing at least one encounter and for a themed location like a graveyard or temple, I'd push that up to 5 encounters to be truly interesting.

So for me it's not as inspirational nor is it as practically useful as the Chromatic Draconomicon. It's not a bad book, but for me personally I would have felt bad if I had paid the full $30 list price. Like a lot of gaming products the bang for the buck matters greatly to me and with this one it's just not as high as some of the other 4E books out there.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Further Details on the Guardians of the Vale Campaign

I had a crisis of placement over the weekend as I started doing some prep work on the Nentir Vale campaign. I wanted to set it in the Realms as that's where the other group is playing and I wanted to at least entertain the possibility of crossovers. I was going to place it near Cormyr and the Daleleands as that's one of the recommended locations for the vale and the Keep on the Shadowfell. The problem came up after I read through the FR conversion of the adventure from WOTC - it totally screws things up! It changes the villain from a priest of Orcus to a priest of Shar. Considering that Orcus is the recurring theme/badguy of this 4E "adventure path" it seems ridiculous to me to present a change where he's removed from the starting adventure. Now we may not play straight through all of them in a row but I think it's fitting that something from first adventure should show up in the epic tier as the major opponent - I like that kind of thing. Now Shar is fine and is a much more of a villainous force in the 4E Realms with returned Netheril and all, but I don't particularly like her or the whole Shade thing. She's not Orcus, however and I'm not as interested right now.

So I don't like the "Realms Conversion" document. I also want to use Nentir Vale as-is and looking at the maps I realize it takes up a bigger chunk of real estate than I expected. It's going to be tough to fit it in to the Thunder Peaks/Dalelands/Cormyr/Sembia intersection as-is. Plus, that's in the middle of some of the most detailed sections of the Realms, so I have to decide how much un-detailing I want to do which is "little to none". I'm Ok with that part of the game world. Plus it's not exactly post-apocalyptic even in 4E, which the Nentir Vale kind of is. Hmmmm.

So I flip through the 4E Player's Guide and Campaign Guide for inspiration. I looked back at some of the 3E and even 2E Realms stuff. Then I looked through some of the adventures themselves and started thinking about long-term campaign options beyond those modules. I seriously considered chucking the whole thing back into my Lost Empires/prehistoric Greyhawk concept and just giving up on the same-world-multiple-groups idea. Then I thought about dropping the whole concept and going with the FR starter adventure + Scepter Tower of Spellguard to begin as it has a set place in the Realms and it works. But I still wanted to run through these things - I'll save the FR published stuff for a later campaign - so I need to find a place for it in the Realms. Maybe Returned Abeir? Less canon stuff there. No, there's nothing that's a good fit geographically without major refits. Then, finally, I recalled Bloodstone Pass and looked up Damara, Vaasa, and Impiltur. Jackpot!

These areas have a history of turmoil, a history of Orcus problems, and are not super-detailed in Realms canon. There's a war with a lich 100 years ago that wrecks the kingdom - awesome. The lich is beaten by adventurers who become the rulers of the kingdom - fine - but the 4E book has the last heir being assassinated years ago and a usurper on a somewhat limited throne - OK that's going out but the geography is reasonably close, the history works well with that one small change, and it doesn't screw up a bunch of other material. Additionally there's a new set of badguys next door in Vaasa called the warlock knights who give me a little bit of a bad-Jedi vibe which is something that will go a long way with the Apprentices. Plus there's always the chance the old witch-king could return. I have the 4E FRCG, the 3E FRCS, and the 2E FR9 The Bloodstone Lands for history and inspiration with an unfettered wide-open future situation.

In the end my players will not care, this is solely a mental thing with me, but it's important enough in my head that I thought I would share the process with anyone who cares. No one else in either campaign is a Realms scholar, and really neither am I. I have played in them extensively and read some of the novels so I have a pretty good picture of how things are and have been but I do not argue over timeline details on messageboards nor do I consider it a holy text - game worlds are meant to be used. I just wanted to fit the thing in with the minimum amount of disruption possible and I think this will work out just fine.  So yes, the Nentir Vale in MY Forgotten Realms is now located in Damara, 1479 D.R. The Bloodstone Lands await!