Saturday, July 16, 2011

4E, TOEE & the Why-Nots

 -Why not just set it in Greyhawk? Well Greyhawk is something special to me and it needs to feel a certain way. I don't like a bunch of Drow and Minotaur PC's running around Greyhawk. I wouldn't call it wrong if someone else was running it that way but that kind of thing destroys part of the feel of the world and turns it into the Realms or something else. Part of what makes a campaign world unique is what is NOT a part of it. Trains and airships are Eberron, not Greyhawk. Drow PC's are Forgotten Realms, not Greyhawk. Mortals ascending to godhood is certainly a part of Gryhawk, so 4E itself is not un-Hawk to me, just some of the options. Even psionics fits just fine in GH as a sort of underground power source. There are just some quirky limitations I would have to put in place and my players probably wouldn't like it or understand them beyond "Dad's being a jerk because I can't play a Drow after asking to play one for 6 months"  so why not place the campaign somewhere else?

- Why not Eberron? Because although I do have the books I have not read them, nor have I played in Eberron. I have no attachment to it and I don't think it has any quality that makes it particularly suited for placing TOEE over the Realms.

- Why not set it in the default 4E D&D world of Nerath or the Vale or whatever it's called? That would ensure a good fit with 4E but it doesn't have a ton of flavor. If we had been using the default setting already I probably would find a place to put it, especially since one of my early campaign ideas was to use that as a legendary age of Greyhawk [LINK] set in the distant past of 1E/2E/3E Greyhawk continuity. The problem there is that the temple shouldn't be around that far back and it just messes up my timeline in a big way. So the generic world has nothing to recommend it over the Realms and my ancient Hawk idea has too many problems with the timining.

- Why not run something else? There's the published string of 4E adventures, the dragon themed path published online, and now the Chaos Scar /Keep on the Borderlands thing online too. Well, I haven't seen the Chaos Scar stuff and the draogn thing looked kind of cool but the lower levels didn't do a ton for me. As for those published adventures...well, there is some cool stuff in there. My biggest problem is that they only really work in the generic D&D world as the whole theme of the series is the attempt by Orcus to wrest power over the dead from the Raven Queen. Move it to Eberron or the Realms and you don't have a Raven Queen anymore. There was a published conversion for the frist few at least but the problem with the Realms conversion is that it made the major opponent Shar the night goddess rather than Orcus, invalidating what few links there were already! Plus I don't care about making Shar my big bad - I want to use Orcus! What I needed was a replacement for the Raven Queen that made sense, not a replacement for Orcus! I would like to run these someday and they will probably form the backbone of my someday campaign set in ancient Greyhawk whenever I do eventually get to run that. I've also learned that 4E is fun for me to design in again - I like tweaking monsters and creating new ones and a conversion project gives me a chance to do that rather than just running some preset material.

- Finally, why not just run it in 1E or 2E as the lord intended? Sigh. I want to. One day I will run it in the original form. Right now though it's a tough sell on the Apprentices, Lady Blacksteel, and my other players. Some of them are a little interested, but they all know they like 4E so this wouldn't be a replacement for a 4E campaign - it would be a side game so I would have to come up with another option for a 4E game. Since I know I want to run it, and I know they want to play 4E, the obvious solution is a conversion to make us both happy. The old school urges still run deep, I just won't get to exercise them for this game.

Friday, July 15, 2011

4E, TOEE, and the Realms

Setting Hommlett and the TOEE in the Realms is a little weird to me. Oh I know people have done it since the Realms came out not long after the TOEE adventure did, but I've always thought of it as a Greyhawk adventure, probably one of the defining GH adventures. That said however, since I am converting it to 4E placing it in the Realms is probably not the greatest sin here.

So why am I placing it in the Realms? Well, my current main game is set there and the potential for some crossover action down the road is good to have. I also like only having one D&D 4E world in play - it means I don't have to keep track of different kingdoms and gods and races and the like. Plus one of the Apprentices has been reading the Drizzt books this year and is all fired up to play a Drow and there is no way in hell he's going to do that in any Greyhawk campaign of mine. FInally there is the challenge aspect - can I convert it to a more Realms-specific focus while still keeping it recognizably the classic TOEE? Since the 4E conversion means some fairly major changes anyway, moving it to Faerun actually makes some things easier.

Note: I know there was a version of the Moathouse and Hommlet put out for LFR a year or so back. I haven't looked at it. I intend to do all of this one myself and I don't want to "contaminate" my thinking by using someone else's work for a chunk of the campaign. It's probably quite good although I heard there were some issues with the map size or something. Regardless, I'm not going to be using it.

So what's the basic idea for the campaign? I plan to use the original maps, prety much as-is. I plan to use the original flavor text, again mostly as-is. My main job here, as I see it, is the adapt the mechanical parts of the adventure from 1E to 4E. The differences may necessitate some changes to the descriptive text and I may liven up some of the maps with extra detail (tables! beds! flaming braziers!) but I expect this one to adhere much more closely to the original adventure than my Pool of Radiance campaign which is more of a riff on the original ideas than a by-the-book adaptation. In that campaign I've used almost none of the original maps or text. In a way my vision for TOEE is the opposite of that approach.

Now even if I do go by-the-book for this undertaking, it is still moving to the Realms so some of the place names may be different. How's that going to work? Well, first I really have to decide where to place it. I considered the Western Heartlands/Sword Coast area but there is already so much going on there. I don't want it up around Waterdeep for similar reasons. The Dalelands are tempting because that's precisely the kind of place it was located in for Greyhawk, but again it's a high-mileage area of the map. So right now I am leaning towards Impiltur ... again.

Why Impiltur? It's not an over-explored or detailed region.That means I can make the local map look however I wish without anyone getting to upset. It does have a heavy tradition of paladins and knights fighting against encroaching evil. That ties in nicely with the backstory of the Temple. I had also been working on some background material and adventure hooks about lost heirs to the royal bloodline and TOEE happens to have a missing heir to a local kingdom just waiting to be rescued. If we do end up going into the G series it also has a nice range of mountains along one side that look like a good place to drop a Steading. To me, it fits pretty well and is the leading contender right now. I need to do one more run-through of some of these other areas but that's probably the direction I'm going to go.

Besides the geography I have a few other things to think about:

-Races: Whatever works in the Realms. yes that means that assuming things go as planned I could eventually have a Drow PC working through the Temple and the Giants and going up agains the Drow modules and Lolth. Yeah that's a little weird, but think of all the angsty conflicted roleplaying moment s that could give us!

-Classes: This isn't really something that has to be limited in the Realms. Bring 'em on! Even the psionic classes! Let's see something new!

-Deities: St. Cuthbert is usually traded in for Helm or Torm, I might add Lolth in as one of the temple backers to make some kind of eventual tie-in more dramatic, Iuz might get swapped out for Orcus or some other lesser evil power, and Zugtmoy may get replaced by Moander. Yep, good old Moander. In fact I think a weak avatar of Moander would make a really nice final opponent if things go that way. If any of you played the old Gold Box computer games back about 20 years ago then you know how much fun Moander can be.

Looking at that list and some of my other thoughts this really should not be that difficult. We have a nice local adventuring hub in Hommlet that can easily accomodate the arrival of new characters, a nice big dungeon for long-term delving, a place in the Realms, and a legendary story to tie into - maybe I can actually keep this one going for the long run!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

4E TOEE Conversion Challenges - Mechanical Details

I mentioned earlier this week that I was thinking about running Hommlet and TOEE as my Second Great Low Level 4E Campaign. I do see some potential problems in doing so and thought I would share. Before I get into the problems let's look at one positive: The original is intended to take chaacters from levels 1 to 8. For a complete Heroic Tier camapign I only need to expand this to levels 1-10. That shouldn't be difficult. Another plus is that the entire adventure is divided into discreet zones:

Hommlet itself
The Moathouse level 1
The Moathouse level 2
Wilderness ancounters in the swamp and local area
Upper Temple Ruins
Temple level 1
Temple level 2
Temple level 3
Temple level 4
Elemental nodes  1-4

Now depending on how I break those down we have plenty of material for 10 levels of adventuring. I don't really want Hommlet to be an adventure site as I prefer it to be a home base area and source of information. Maybe split a levels worth of encounters between it and Nulb rated about 2nd or 3rd as I see it as being part of the same lower end investigation as the Moathouse.

So Hommlet, Nulb, and the Moathouse, spiced up by some wilderness encounters here and there should end with the party at 4th. From here they would investigate the temple itself starting with the upper works and working down into the dungeon levels. I'm not sure I want to delve too deeply into the elemental nodes as combat encounters but they might fit in as a skill challenge for each one that leads up to a final encounter with the powers behind the temple. Assuming that goes well for them they would end at about 11th level, ready for Paragon and to go Against the Giants.

The biggest complaint I remember from the original is that the dungeon levels of the Temple turn into a grind with hordes of bad guys and not a lot of options besides powering through them. There was some chance for deception by using different colored factional robes but most groups ignored this and just plowed ahead. Pulling back to rest could be tricky, depending on the DM, as scouts from the still-inhabited lower levels investigated the carnage that was happening above them. A good DM would have a dynamic back-and -forth with raids and things but some just had the rest of the temples inhabitants sitting in their rooms waiting for the slaughter. I would like to avoid all of these in a new game.

Avoiding grind is tricky as one of the complaints about 4E is that it tends to grind on during long fights. It's a different issue than repetitive encounter design grind but let's address them both. The fight grind I have not noticed as almost all of our fights in the ongoing campaign have been less than 10 rounds and that seems to be a good threshold to watch. A starting chracter will have around 5 powers between at-wills, encounters, and daillies so they can go 5 rounds without repeating themselves if things go well, and the number of powers goes up every level. Encounter grind can be avoided by mixing up the opponents and keeping the terrain varied as well - not every fight has to be in the 20'x30' rectangular room with 6 cult fighters in chain wielding longsword and shield. The minion/leader/elite rules and the various templates will be very useful here too. Setting up some skill challenges to get "in" with some of the important NPC's in each faction could liven things up too and promote a more interactive game than forcing every interaction into an exchange of insults before swords are drawn. Being able to play the Earth temple against the Water temple should help entertain some of the players as much as the combat will.

I'm still not sure how to handle the big powers that can appear at the end of the adventure. I will probably write them up and hope I don't need them. I can see Zuggtmoy being a unique solo like a weaker version of the lvl 30+ epics we see n the MM's like Orcus, Demogorgon, Lolth, etc. I could tie the challeneges in the elemental nodes to her description and have success or failure enable or disable certain powers or maybe even her actual level, tying the power of their final foe directly to their results in those challenges.

The only other issue I could see is the epic feel of the original temple - that grind was present because there were a lot of enemies to subdue. With 4E's 10 encounters per level system, will it feel as "big"? I admit to seeing some temptation to make it double-sized and have the whole campaign cover levels 1-20, with the lower levels of the temple being horrific 20-encounter maps of serious nastiness and making Zug the first epic opponent to fall to the party as they wrap up at level 20/21. I think that this would run a large risk of grind/overkill/hommlett fatigue by the time it was over. Plus it doesn't leave much room for the Giants and the D-series followups.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

WOTC, 4E, and a Loss of Momentum.

Now I'm not one who needs to the machine to feed me to keep the interest level going but the completely deflated feeling coming from WOTC & D&D currently is hitting me more than I ever thought that kind of thing would. There is next to no air in 4E production-wise now. This year has seen one new player supplement type book about Shadow, and there is a new monster book scheduled for later this year, plus one setting book, and that's about it. No, novels and boardgames and computer games do not count! The relaunch in 2008 saw a bunch of books come out, with even more in 2009 and then maybe the single greatest burst of production I have ever seen in the RPG field in 2010 with the PHB3, Psionic Power, the Demonomicon, Tome of Horrors, and the Monster Manual 3 in the first half of the year, Dark Sun with its campaign guide, monster book and adventure in the middle of the year, and then the Essentials explosion in the second half of the year. It was a firehose of material and I think most of it was quite good. Plus they worked in a Gamma World relaunch and two boxed expansions for that! Since the beginning of 2011 though not much has been happening and it does make me wonder what the future plans for the game are - with a solid new foundation in place there just hasn't been much forward movement. The Living Forgotten Realms thing seems to be largely over and that was a pretty big deal for a while. All those "Pathfinder is outselling D&D" articles that looked iffy to me last year look a lot more likely this year. Pathfinder is on a roll with a bunch of new stuff coming out and D&D has dropped to a trickle at best.

Again it's not that I care so much about having new shiny books to read - I tend to run way behind anyway - but it's partly inspiration and partly what I wil lcall momentum, oddly enough.

Inspiration-wise I sometimes see a new book that's coming out and start getting ideas for ways a campaign could go. The Draconomicons were like that (in older editions too) and the Demonomicon was too. Before I even read the book, the knowledge that there's going to be a sizeable volume on them might stir some ideas and make me drop some lore or links into the campaign to be followed up later.

The momentum aspect is a mental thing with me sometimes and with other people too. If I put the word out that I'm thinking about running a 1E Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, well, I have to approach it differently than I do if I put the word out that I'm running a 4E TOEE campaign. If I put out notice that I want to run a Shadowrun 3E game, or a Champions 4th game, or LBB Traveller it's the same. If you're not running the Current Version then there's some extra or at least different baggage that goes along with that, even with good players, and one of the nice things about 4E D&D, controversial as it has been, is that there's been very little of that kind of thing. I'm not really worried about it being cancelled - not until 5E is announced anyway - but I am worried about it dying on the vine with minimal support. They let Bill Slavicsek go a few weeks ago too and that doesn't fill me with confidence either. There are a lot of names I don't recognize working there now and while there's a chance someone steps up and hits a home run the game has spent the last 10-15 years tied to names I did recognize and mostly liked, going back to the designers of 3rd Edition. Now in this time of controversy as Pathfinder ramps up, the OSR continues to roll along, a new version of Hackmaster prepares to launch, and even Goodman Games, staunch supporters of 3E, launches its own retro D&D style game, we have a bunch of unknowns running the biggest name & game in the business.  How did it come to this? Is it penny-pinching, a loss of direction, corporate power struggles, or what? How can the biggest company in the hobby lose its way with the flagship project of the hobby?

I don't have detailed answers as I don't know the internal specifics or the causes - all I know are the symptoms. To get it restarted one simple answer would be neo-retro: WOTC has a huge back catalog of D&D worlds and adventures. Start converting those to 4E! That's the low-hanging fruit that could generate some forward motion for the game and some interest. Paizo can't do "Birthright 4E" but WOTC could. Goodman can't do "Slavers 4E" but WOTC could! You're doing a city book for the Realms this year - do a regional or city book for Eberron too! Dig into Epic a little more and put out the DMG 3 and "Epic Power" with a bunch of new Epic Destinies and Artifacts! How about another "Dungeon Delve" book - that thing is pretty handy!   There are a ton of obvious and not-so-obvious products that could be released, yet they aren;t doing much in that department so I assume there is a good reason. Still, new books on the shelf is what tells people the game is still a going concern - not web articles, not new dungeon tiles, not more beta tests of the online play aid - books! They could have redone Expedition to the Barrier Peaks as a big hardback adventure tie-in with Gamma World earlier this year and maybe added the "Tech" power source to the game (no I'm not sure how that would work) and that would have been cool. Heck just coming up with a theme for the year and supporting it ("2011 is all about mixing technology into your D&D game, from steam power to laser pstols") would be cooler than what we're seeing now.

So anyway there's my occasional rant on WOTC for the summer. Halfway through the year and it feels like it's the lowest ebb by far since 4E was launched, with virtually no excitement about what's coming next and a lot of questions about what they are thinking. Fortunately I can play whatever I want regardless of the company's marketing effort, but it would be nice if the Big Dog of the RPG scene started acting like it again.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Summer Campaigns - Update

The main Friday game is back on track. However, as I noted earlier, the Apprentice games continue to be up in the air and even the usually reliable summer schedule has proven tricky with kids shooting off in all kinds of directions at inconvenient intervals for sustaining a good solid campaign of anything and they've lost interest in the whole Mythology thing for whatever reason. Kids and short attention spans today grumble grumble...

Note: Star Wars is still something they are very much interested in so that is still going to get played. A smarter man with less gaming ADD would probably say that one solid game is enough so let's just focus on playing that. I can't do that however. I'd like to have two in the rotation.

They have shown a lot of interest in starting up and running their own games with their friends though, which is refreshing. So much so that I may break down and buy that stupid neo-Red Box thing that came out with Essentials last year so that they have a one-stop game in a box to start up with their friends. They're pretty cheap on Amazon so I may grab two and see where they go with it. I'd really like them to have their own games with their own crews so if that's what it takes then I will do it.

That still leaves me with the question of what to do with them when we do get time to play. In no particular order:

  • D&D-wise there is a book coming out in August (one of the few this year) that is a setting book based around a ruined city in the northern Forgotten Realms that's for Heroic Tier characters levels 1-10 ... hmmmm .... that's a little familiar but it could be fun. This is probably what I'm going to do - just put 4E on hold for now and start the new campaign up in August using that book.
  • Do something I've been contemplating for months now and convert Hommlett, Verbobonc, and the Temple of Elemental Evil to 4th Edition as a new Heroic Tier campaign. It's a pretty big undertaking but by doing it in chunks it would be manageable and something that would be very satisfying to me. The 4E encounter structure could cut down on the grindiness of the temple quite a bit, and having things like skill challenges to throw in around some of the NPC factions, deity interplay, and puzzles within the dungeon could be a lot of fun too. The looming shadow with this one though is that it _must_ be set in Greyhawk and that means settng the baseline for 4E Greyhawk, which will take some thinking outside of the adventure itself. Then of course the obvious followup would be converting the G series and then the D series for Paragon. Fun fun fun and perhaps worthy of being the _main_ campaign and not the side campaign. Plus now that I think about it some more setting it in the Realms (heresy! I know, I know) means it doesn't step on some of my old Greyhawk continuity. Hmmmm.
  • Gamma World! Chuck the D&D thing altogether and go for blasters and mutants! Probably not as our main thing but I do like the idea. for a more episodic approach to the game that might be a better fit.
  • They like the Marvel Universe and there was at least one request to play Supers in Texas so they "know where things are" so: Run a full-on Marvel Super Heroes retro-game as the "Gulf Coast Avengers" and tap into my pile of MSH material - it's all new to them! Plus I have a fairly good idea for a campaign arc that I think they would like.
  • DC Adventures/M&M 3 campaign potentially using the same idea as above but being "Justice League Dallas" or something similar instead of the adventures. I don't know the DC universe as well but that might make the game better anyway. I really like the system and handing them all a shiny new book would probably energize them too.
  • Something similar to the last two using ICONS and keeping it Marvel/DC free. I think the kids could get into that system.
  • Finally, Savage Worlds: they were fired up about Pirates but I am pretty sure the novelty won't last as there's no magic or psi or other special element in the Pirates universe. Deadlands might be worth a shot and may get a one-shot tryout using an old starter adventure. I do like that system though. Maybe a series of one-shots unconnected by anything but the player characters who appear in them, an episodic thing as they drift around the weird west.
So there's my thought list, from epic conversion to vague plans to wing-it. I'm leaning towards making July a tryout period and running some one-shot games in some of the systems they don't already know, from Savage Worlds to Icons to Gamma World 2nd edition and seeing what sticks. As these concepts develop I will post them on the blog for comments etc.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The almost-ran-out-of-Monday Motivational Monday

I've tipped a hat to a lot of people with these but not many to Lady Blacksteel and she has seen way too many movie posters for this lately...