Saturday, January 22, 2011

Random Saturday Notes - Wrap-up of my First Run as a Player in 4E

We finished the adventure last night and the whole thing was quite a bit of fun. We only ran through two encounters but that was one more than last time so it was a little better. First was a pendulum trap/rat swarm combination that wasn't all that threatening and we plowed through it in about 3 rounds with little damage. Next was a gimmick encounter that  was very reminiscent of an AD&D module in a bunch of negative ways - more on that in a future post. Despite that we triumphed in the end, slew the evil cleric, rescued the girl, collected a bunch of loot, and returned to Phlan in triumph, and that's really all one can ask for.

Things I learned:
  • Even in a party of 6 characters it's possible to have skills in which no one is trained
  • Even in a party of 6 it's possible to have languages no one can speak
  •  Leaders will spend about half of their time doing something other than attacking in any real fight so an over-emphasis on offense is something to watch out for, especially at low levels. My level 1 cleric had a choice for his one daily power of either a party-saving big area effect heal & ongoing healing boost, or a glorious triple-damage single-target weapon attack with his fullblade. I chose the heal and I'm glad I did but it's still very tempting as a battle cleric to go for the potential 30-40 point strike and blow something away in one mighty wallop.  
(Yeah, I rolled a few more single digits last night, including a 1 for initiative in the climactic battle. Brutallus' initiative mod: +0)

This was a one-shot so I'm not sure when I will play again. This same friend wants to run a full-weekend marathon D&D game in about a month as a birthday bash and Lady Blacksteel and I are trying to arrange things to take part. So far it looks like about 8 players are tentatively in so it could be a lot of fun and there is already some chatter about classes and roles within this super-party.

So Brutalus Maximus IV, Cleric of Tempus goes on the shelf for now. I can see us running some occasional one-offs with a different DM throughout the year so hopefully he will get another chance to take up his sword in 2011.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Atomic City: The Animated Series

I'm reading through Icons, a new rules-light supers game that came out last year and I really like it. I briefly considered using it for my initial run with Atomic City instead of M&M. I've decided against that for now but it is very cool.

Tone-wise it really isn't much different than the silver age concept I had already, and the art is great. setting the mood perfectly. That's not really the problem.

Mechanics-wise it's not terribly complicated though it does have some interesting wrinkles.I'm just not sure it has enough crunch to keep me interested long term for a planned campaign - I like some crunch in my ongoing games. The designer makes a point of using it for pick-up games and I think that's where it's going to come in.

One of the interesting approaches in the game is that the DM never makes a roll - only the players roll dice. Hitting the bad guy? Player rolls to attack. Bad Guy attacking the player character? Player rolls to dodge. Not having played it I can't say for sure but I'm betting this has an interesting effect in play. It sort of changes the point of view to a more character-centric one rather than a neutral overview. Rather than "Batman swings at the Joker then the Joker swings at Batman, now Batman swings again" it's "Batman swings at the Joker, then dodges the return blow, then pummels him again!". I think it's a subtle difference but it could change the flavor during play and in telling the story afterwards. I'm not anxious for D&D to do this but in this kind of game, especially if you run it solo, it could be very genre-appropriate. Others could benefit from it too - I wonder if a Star Trek game run this way would feel just a tad bit cooler?

I'm probably going to let the Apprentices play with it a little bit and see what they think. It might turn into some kind of side campaign as "The Animated Series" but I'm not sure when I would have time to fit it in with any regularity - I'll have enough trouble doing that now with the campaigns I'm already running. Even if I don't though, it's near the front of the bag of tricks. Going back to pick-up games and one-offs, I think it could be a fun way to flesh out some other Atomic City stories without derailing the main campaign. I like the idea of a big city with multiple supers in it and multiple storylines happening simultaneously and now I see a way to do it.

For those interested there is a good review here

The main site is here though there isn't a ton about the game there. Read about the App pricing model - it's a great concept and I look forward to seeing how it does for them. It works great for me, but that may not be so great for the company.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Contemplating the Star Wars campaign for 2011

I have a confession to make. A near-sacrilegious one for a gamer of my vintage: the d6 Star Wars thing is just not clicking for me.

I love the basic system and it works well but there are a ton of fiddly little bits that show up that I do not like as much. Plus the Apprentices have certain expectations as to how Jedi should work and the gimped starting Jedi templates (only 1 or 2 of the 3 crucial skills) are nowhere near the leaping-about-slashing-with-sabers-force-pushing-badguys vision from the more recent movies. It's not all the system's fault - my own lack of familiarity with the rules as a whole is mostly due to my own lack of intensive study of them beforehand but that lack and my inability to string several sessions together in a nice neat row has resulted in some very clunky sessions as I try to play fast and loose but end up checking rules on how to do something and finding a whole little subsystem that I can either learn (in the interests of mastering the whole system) or ignore (in the interest of speed). I end up feeling that as much as I like d6 when it's sitting on  the shelf, Savage Worlds could do it better in play - and there's no lack of Savage Worlds conversions out there. But I have another option.

I really really like Saga Edition Star Wars too, and I have most of the rulebooks. It's good, really good. Plus I already know the rules - it's basically somewhere between 3.5 d20 and 4.0 d20 - so I am already way ahead of it on system mastery (something I feel is important when DM'ing a game) and it will also help the Apprentices as it will feel a lot more familiar coming from a D&D 4E game too.

There's also a question of material - the vast majority of the d6 material is set in or right after the Rebellion Era. Now there's nothing wrong with that, Stormtroopers and Star Destroyers will always be my "home" when it comes to Star Wars, but it's different for my players in this case. Being of the younger generation they've grown up with the prequel trilogy (I know I know) and the Clone Wars animated series. Now there are some d6 conversions of some of this material out there but it seems like a less than optimal solution when I have a couple of books full of material for this era already sitting on the shelf, albeit for a different system.

So I am looking at starting up Star Wars as a new campaign using the Saga edition and set in the Clone Wars era. Actually it will be right before the Clone Wars start as I run them through a conversion of the old Volturnis Star Frontiers adventures. I'm going to make it a regular part of the rotation and not just a fill-in as the d6 experiment was, and that should help keep it alive too. I admit that some of this is part of starting fresh with the Aprrentices for 2011 - We will have a new 4E campaign, a new M&M campaign, and a new Star Wars campaign now with Basic D&D being our fill-in when some of our group is missing.

I'll post up details on each of them as they develop. I've kind of made Fridays my M&M post days and I'll probably do something similar with Star Wars too just to keep some order to this mass of ramblings.

As for d6, it goes back on the shelf for now. I'd love to play it at this point, but maybe not run it. If I stumble across a group in DFW that's running it I will give it a try but for now I'm going to set it aside and go forward with my "all d20 all the time" approach. It's not something I started out aiming for, but it has worked out that way. We will see if this "system synergy" thing really works - or if I should just chuck them all and go with Hero System for everything instead.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

D&D Characters and the Common Man

Barking Alien raised something in a comment about this post and I thought it was worth discussng.

As I am coming to understand, most old school D&Ders disagree with your opening statement. The D&D PC is NOT special. He is NOT imbued with abilities above the norm. He or she is a fighter just as the baker is a baker, the thief was a street urchin, the miller runs the mill, etc.

They (tradition D&D fans) take great pride in the fact that their not so special character with the 6 Strength and 10 Dexterity somehow survived to 6th level. What skill the Player must have had to overcome these inherent weaknesses (not to mention luck since the bad and good of the game owe a lot to random chance).

That's a good point but I disagree and here's why:

As far as the old school D&D thing, old schoolers _now_ make a big deal about old characters being like a normal person. They didn't back then. It's mainly come about as a reaction to the increasing power levels of 2E-3E-4E. There were complaints back during the AD&D days about how a 9th level fighter could jump off of a 1000' cliff and survive, so characters doing outlandish things isn't even a new complaint - some people hated it 30 years ago.

The concept of the "Normal Man" or 0-level characters (NPC's) in the game shoots this idea down pretty thoroughly IMO and they were there back in AD&D1 and Basic D&D right from the start with their own line on the attack charts and their own line on the saving throw tables too. Gygax even writes that the PC's ability to advance in levels sets them apart from normal people. From 2E onwards it's even more explicitly stated that PC's are special, so I'm comfortable with the statement.

That said the idea is not totally incorrect - compared to 3E & 4E characters, older edition characters do look pretty mundane. For their time though, they were by no means just like anyone else. Low ability scores aside, by 3rd-5th level they are far more powerful than any normal person. At 1st level, sure, they are not vastly superior to a normal man, but they get there fairly quickly. The biggest change is that starting characters don;t die as easily as they did back then, and that's not a change I'm terribly upset about.

One other angle here is that Basic and 1E characters of a given class tended to look an awful lot alike. They tended to use similar armor and weapons or similar spells as some were just better than others. Fighters tended towards plate, shield, and longsword as longswords were the most common magical weapon type in the treasure tables. Clerics were usually plate & shield and wielded a mace as it was the highest damage blunt weapon and the most common magical blunt weapon.. They also took a lot of Cure Light Wounds, Bless, and Hold Person at the lower levels. Magic-Users looked like circus knife-throwers, usually carrying several daggers (unless they found a staff of striking at low levels) and throwing out magic missile or sleep most of the time as their main spell.  So one of the ways to distinguish your character from the others was with a low score in one area, often comically low. The fighter with the 4 Int, the M-U with the 6 Strength, those were good for some humor in the game and really didn't penalize you in those editions as much as they might in newer versions as they had limited mechanical impacts, and it did make them more distinctive than the character with 16-18's in everything.

To me there are a lot of rose-colored glasses views in OSR discussions and most of the time I chalk it up to different experiences and the wide variety of customizations made to the system back in those days. When it gets into some of the specific mechanical details though it's nice to have reference material handy to establish a baseline of what was at least in the books.  Just as an example, there's a pretty wide variance in memories of how fast characters advanced in AD&D. As it turns out a very common house rule was to not award experience points for gold pieces recovered which was how it was written in the game - some DM's said "that's stupid" and just dropped it. The outcome of that decision is that PC's advance at half or a quarter of the rate they would advance otherwise and over a year or two of play that has a big impct on the game. It also leads to the view 20-30 years later that 3E or 4E has characters advancing too quickly.

Some of this is probably bias on my part as I was never one of those "Let's start at 0 level" guys. It's not like 1st level characters were THAT powerful, and yet there were people trying to start out even weaker than level 1 and extend out that whole "you can die in 1 hit" period of the game - not me. I was a lot more interested in getting to 2nd and 3rd so I didn't have to sweat the damage roll every time an orc hit me. It's what led to things like the "maximum hit points at level 1" house rule.

Anyway, while there are certainly games where you are basically a "Normal Man" as a character, IMO D&D has never been one of them. Call of Cthulu, GURPS, Warhammer FRP - sure, but not D&D.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Apprentice Campaign - So Now What?

The D&D 4th Edition apprentice campaign has now crashed and burned, so while the main game goes chugging right along I now have to figure out how to restart things with the boys.  They went ahead and made up new characters the next day and we talked about options a little bit. We also ran a session of d6 Star Wars and that made them feel a little better though they got a little shot up there too. They do still want to play 4E so I have the interesting problem of where to start them out this time. My thoughts:

  • Stick with Loudwater in the Gray Vale of the Realms - it's a little familiar to them and it is a good location (that's why I went with it in the first place) but I like to start fresh after a TPK and they feel the same way, so no Loudwater for now. 
  • Start them out in Phlan which is the location of the primary 4E campaign - this saves me a lot of background work and allows for the possibility of a crossover between the two groups. The problem is they are 4 levels behind and might feel overshadowed by the other group. They apparently felt the same way so we're not going to Phlan.
  • Icewind Dale - one of them has been reading the Drizzt books and asked about this and my kneejerk reflex was "No", but then I started thinking and I really like it - tough environment, small towns rather than big cities, barbarian tribes, an emphasis on cold environment monsters - that could be really cool and it isn't a super-detailed part of the world. Naturally, since one of them suggested it, the other one vetoed it almost immediately.  Sigh.
  • The Bloodstone Lands of Vasa, Damara, and Impiltur- I almost started them here anyway as it's another northern environment (not as harsh as Icewind Dale though) that isn't heavily detailed and has old antagonists (Orcus was the regional threat in the 1E days) and new ones (4E has added the Warlock Knights of Vaasa which have a rather dark jedi feel to them).  The feel is different too - lots of knights, ruined castles, noble families in small holdings - I could do some very old school Greyhawk type stiff in this region. 
  • Forget the Realms and go with my Ancient Greyhawk idea using the default D&D 4E world background. The problem here is that I'm kind of enjoying using the new Realms (more than I thought I would) and there is a benefit to only having one set of Gods, one set of races,  and one set of maps to worry about across multiple campaigns. Plus the boys seem to like the Realms and this would be a fairly radical change.
  • Forget the Realms and go with my Classical Greek campaign. I do want to run this but I am probably not ready yet. It's the most prep work of any of them though the work I did a few years ago on a similar idea for Arcana Evolved would carry over in some places. It has all of the disadvantages of Ancient 'hawk and is even less like "normal" D&D as I would customize (read "limit") the races, classes, weapons, monsters, and magic items to be included in such a campaign. It's not a minor undertaking.. I brought it up once before with the kids and I know they are very interested - thank you Percy Jackson, Clash of the Titans, and Mythology Classes.  
Working through this again now I am heavily leaning towards doing the Bloodstone campaign now and starting up the prep work for the Greek idea as the "next" campaign, whether it be the main one, a future side game, or maybe a 3rd game run once a month or so for the family and whoever else can show.

Anyway, that's the thinking so far. I'll post how it goes when things are nailed down and play actually starts.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Special Monday Bulletin - One Campaign Comes to an Ugly End

Well I suppose it had to happen eventually. The Guardians of the Vale are no more. They were exploring the Barrow of the Ogre King not far from Loudwater in the Gray Vale when it happened.

Entering the Barrow had begun with a really tough fight against some goblins in an excellent defended position. They eventually won through and took time to recover before proceeding. Moving into a long hallway they were attacked by zombies and a pair of goblins and those were dispatched in short order. They proceeded down a long stairway, kicked in the double doors at the end, and seeing only 2 goblins before them (one clearly a shaman of some type) they charged in. They then realized that there were two hobgoblin soldiers flanking the doors behind them so two of the party peeled off to fight them while the other two charged ahead. Things got ugly from there. The hobgoblins gathered in the center of the room, reinforcing each other with 2 forming a front line while 1 stayed in the back firing arrows from his longbow and preventing access to the shaman. That shaman fired off an obscuring cloud that interfered with the party's vision then began systematically blinding the members of the party, greatly hampering their fighting capability. In the confusion the heroes each began attacking separate targets and didn't bother to try and shake off the various magical effects that swirled around them. Heroes fell and were revived several times but they gradually wore down. until finally only the Druid and the Goblin Shaman were left standing and unfortunately the Shaman was in far better shape. Darkness closed in and the heroes never returned from the Barrow of the Ogre King.

DM Notes: I haven't presided over a TPK in several years and I don;t like them any better in 4E. The apprentices blew right through the first encounter with moderate damage to 1 or 2 characters. After a short rest they were in excellent shape. That next encounter though...

What can I say? It was 5 Level 3 monsters against 4 Level 2 characters, and the adventure is supposed to be for level 1 characters so it should have been fairly easy, right? Well it might have been, except that they utterly failed to concentrate their fire on one target and the most dangerous target -the shaman- was not attacked until everything else was dead! They also bickered over tactics, and worst of all, they kept forgetting to roll their saving throws! I eventually got tired of reminding them and simply asked "Are you done with everything" at the end of their turns and moved on. We ended up at one point with  out of 4 badguys bloodied and 3 out of 4 characters bloodied, then it went downhill. Just as an example, the Elf Ranger fired off his daily at one of the hobgoblin soldiers while he was blinded and rolled a nat 20 - Epic! It was something like 38 points of damage in one shot and it took the soldier from unbloodied to 4 hit points, and he would stay there for about the next 10 rounds as no other attacks were made against him! One round later the Dwarf Warlord activates his daily and gives the Elf Ranger a shot (still blinded) and he rolls ANOTHER nat 20 - for another 30-odd points of damage! Against the other hobgoblin soldier! Sigh. Also while he's high fiving and enjoying these moments he's forgetting to roll his save against the blindness from the shaman, and that soldier ends up sticking around for another 8 or 9 rounds with 6 hit points too. It was touch and go for a while but in the end the Shaman was nearly undamaged when all of his goblin buddies finally fell and the heroes were all bloodied and mostly in the single digits so he simply picked them off one by one and never even reached bloodied status.

I will say that the opposition here is tough - hobgoblin soldiers start with a 20 AC which goes up to a 22 if they are next to another hobgoblin, and then the shaman (a Goblin Hexer) can throw out a cloud that nearly fills the room and gives his allies cover, effectively making them a 24 and that cloud is a sustain minor! So he fired it off in round 1 and simply maintained it for the rest of the battle!. Even at 2nd level AC24 is a a tall order. He can also hit individual targets for 2d6+1 damage and blinding as an at-will which is also nasty as it's a -5 to everything. Of course, forgetting to roll your saves against these things makes it that much worse. At one point the poor Dragonborn Paladin was Blinded, Slowed, Marked, Hexed, and Bloodied - we use pipe cleaner rings to mark status effects and we couldn't see the mini as he was buried in little colored rings!

So some lessons learned:

For the players:
  • If there's a guy in the back shooting you every turn and really messing you up then SHOOT HIM! They had a Druid and a Bow Ranger...
  • Running away is OK - you don't have to stay and die together
  • Healing Potions are worth it
For the DM:
  • Look a little harder at synergies between monsters even when the encounter is supposed to be level appropriate in published adventures. I didn't really see that escalating armor class thing with the hobgobs and the hexer. Of course the hexer was only AC 17 so the best answer there is to shoot him full of holes, but still, it can get nasty in a hurry.
  • Stick to my guns - I reminded them for the first few rounds and even gave them an "are you done" prompt after that but bad things happen when you don't pay attention and use bad tactics and sometimes that bad thing is a total party wipeout.
So there it is, my first TPK of 4th Edition. See, it's more like old school D&D than some of you probably thought. Now of course my dilemma is where to go next. The apprentices have already made up ne characters and they have some ideas about what they want to do. I'll talk about that later this week.

Motivational Monday