Friday, August 26, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 26: Attack of the Lizard People

Returning to Phlan after the adventure in the SIlver Pyramid, our heroes discover that they have been gone for a month and that much has happened:

- Increasing lizardman attacksfrom the swamp have cut off much of the landbound trade to the east

- More ships have been destroyed on the Moonsea close to Phlan

- Rumors are flying that the Fire Knives have assassinated the leaders of several rival organizations, consolidating their power in the ruins

- The Temple of Bane, according to the ancient charter of the city of Phlan,  has asked for a place on the council, stating that they wish to play a recognized, legitimate role in the city's growth and promising to help pacify the ruins

The party contemplates these news items for a bit and decides to kill two birds with one stone: At one point in the past the city council, by way of Barnabus,  offered them titles of nobility and a seat on the council if they would reclaim an old keep out near the swamp. The lizardman uprising appears to have taken control of this same keep, so dealing with the lizardmen and claiming the keep will both solve a problem and seal their deal with the city. The city also promises to help supply a garrison and to provide some of the supplies neccessary to rebuild the keep. With their future seemingly secures, the group rests and re-equips (mainly healing potions from the temple of Torm) then heads out to deal with the scaled folk.

Before they depart,Barnabus tells the team that an old woman lives on the edge of the swamp and is a good source of information on the goings-on therin. She may not be completely trustworthy, but when dealt with from a position of strength she can be civil. This becomes the party's first goal. However the journey is not that simple.

While traveling along the elevated roadway the party encounters a group of lizardman blocking the road, and when the team approaches one of the lizardfolk turns out to be a spellcaster and the magic starts to fly along with a rather impressive volley of blowgun darts. Kordan is hit, slowed, and poisoned in the first burst, but the rest of the heroes come through in decent shape although the mystic's spell turns the road into swampy ground, interfering with their advance. This does not slow the lizardmen down at all as two stand fast to protect the castrer while the rest flank the party, spreading out and puffing darts as rapidly as they can.

Mikal, dodging darts as best he can, sets up his infernal curse on several of the creatues. Uthal fnally gets into hitting range and rams his spear through one of the scaly ambushers, killing it and causing the warlock's curses to go off, killing two more! Kordan, battered and angry, engages the bodyguards with the help of Althea and Jovanni as Uthal and Mikal take down the rest of the skirmishers, ending the fight. The heroes win out, but poison darts and swampy terrain go on the list of "things the party does not like."

Soon enough the group spots the small house where the mysterious woman lives. Uncertain of what they are dealing with they show a sensible amount of caution, knocking politely on the door and engaging the rather attractive half-elven looking woman who answers it in conversation. Showing a remarkable degree of restraint they learn quite a bit about the lizardmen and the reasons for their agitation. Jovanni shines, words flowing from his lips like honey, until he commits a terrible faux-pas. Fortunately Kordan decides this nis a good time to strip off his armor and his shirt and offer to start chopping firewood, which he does, and which seems to perk her interest to the point she ignores the Bard's mistake. The strange woman eventually mentions that a party of lizardmen even now carries a powerful magic item to a nearby temple, another indication of their growing power.

Eventually the conversation winds down and all the wood has been chopped. Final pleasantries are exchanged, Kordan puts his shirt back on, and the party departs with the intention of intercepting the magic item and then paying a visit to the temple, one of the rallying points of the unrest in the swamp.

Uthal leads the way through the swamp, using his skill in the wild to guide his friends to their target. They choose speed over stealth though, and they emerge onto the ancient roadway leading to the temple to find four huge black-scaled lizardmen blocking their way. As the party moves to engage they hear a loud slurping sound - something lurches through the swamp on their flank and Uthal identifies it as a Shambling Mound, a terrible plant-monster! The party also spots another lizardman nearby, who begins casting as the shambler closes in and the guards move to engage - the party is in for a tough fight!

Uthal and Kordan end up taking on the shambler as Jovanni and Mikal take on the blackscales and Althea starts a magical duel with the mystic. The potent wizard blows the rival caster away in short order, then ties up the plant-thing with her signature "grasp of the grave" spell, as skeletal arms burst from the swampy ground and grab on to the creature. Even with this, the fighter and barbarian bot hget tangled up with the monster and end up hacking at it at close range while it tangels and squeezes them in return. Mikal can't let himself be shown up by the wizard and blasts 3 of the blackscales apart himself, though Althea does finish off the 4th as Kordan and Uthal finally hack down the shambling mound. Jovannis strips some gold necklaces from the big lizardmen and discovers a chest near the road as well.

Breaking open the chest carried by the lizardfolk party the heroes discover a powerful magical rod inside, one useful for defending against magical attacks. Mikal claims it for the moment and then the party decides to rest for the night before "delivering" it to the  temple of the reptile god.

DM Notes:

This was a really good session after a longer break than usual. My players know their characters now, they know the environment now,  and know what they want to do in the medium to long term. This makes things easier on the DM. Some of this is in contrast to past campaigns where they did a lot of wandering and so never got particularly invested in any one area. It also helps that a five person party can be a lot more cohesive than an eight or nine person party which is almost guaranteed to have some conflicting goals, or at the very least someone in an "I don't want to do that" contrarian mood in my experience. This has been a real eye-pener as to the potential with the right mix of players and it's been a lot of fun. Plus it's likely to be the first time in a very long time that I've had PC's running a keep and I'm looking forward to that.

The first ambush lasted all of four rounds. I think the learning curve is starting to pass me by as at 7th level the players have been using the same set of powers with occasional upgrades for along time now while the DM gets to learn a whole new set of powers and tactics with every encounter. Variety is cool, but I'm wondeirng if more uniform opposition would pay off with a greater threat level.

 The encounter at the hut was set up as both a straight combat encounter - a tough one in my opinion - and a skill challenge, and I figured a hint from Barnabus would be enough to let them know it was an option. They took to it wonderfully with the bard's awesome diplomacy skill leading the way initially. They worked in some creative use of history, nature, and bluff as well from different party members. Kordan's player was at a bit of a loss as to how to contribute at first as it was more of a talky challenge and fighters do not typically have a lot of that, but then the bard fumbled a diplomacy roll so he decided to do something different to use his very impressive athletics skill that had us all cracking up around the table. "I see you managed to get your shirt off again." I suspect that is not the only time we will see that move, especially if the opposition is female, and I'm all for it - if it was good enough for everyone from Captain Kirk to the werewolf kid in the Twilight movies, it's good enough for my game.

The second fight was against a slightly different set of lizardmen plus my first use of a Shambling Mound in 4E. Shamblers were a fairly common opponenet in our 2E games  - lord knows I got engulfed by them more than once - and were still somewhat common in our 3E games. I was glad to see that they work similarly in 4E, merrily slapping and engulfing people just like the old days. Despite this different mix the fight still lasted only 4 rounds. Sigh.

One notably effective thing that's going on is that the Warlock took "Daughter's Promise" which is an enhancement to his curse ability. The curse is a minor action and targets the nearest enemy at the time it is done, and it can affect more than one target. Normally it just grants the 'Lock some temporary hit points when a cursed target dies - nice, but not a game-changer. This DP ability though turns them into little grenades waiting to go off, especially minions. Now when a cursed target dies they explode and do damage to every enemy adjacent to them - not a to nof damage but enough to kill minions and badly bloodied creatures. I've seen this thing take out 3 creatures in one turn, robbing the DM of another round of mayhem from those beasties in a seriously annoying way. I'm thinking that maybe it should be "adjacent creatures" rather than "adjacent enemies" - that sounds like more fun - to me, anyway.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Awesomeness of the Fighter/Magic-User

Neverwinter includes a new class for 4E: The Bladesinger. Bladesingers were one of the legendary "kits" for AD&D 2E as they were rather overpowered and were exhibit A whenever someone wanted to point out that the splatbooks were beyond "power creep". I saw more of them than any other Elf kit during the 2E days and there was a good reasona as to why: Bladesingers were specialist fighter-mages who were just better in almost every way. However, fighter-mages were already awesome and popular...

Basic D&D: Elves. Most people liked elves. Sure, you advanced slower than the stupid thief but you were a better fighter, had more hit points, and could throw spells - who cared if you needed 4000XP to make 2nd level? A bigger bonus, and one not instantly apparent to new players, was that you had full use of all fighter magic items AND full use of all magic-user items. Attacked by flying creatures? Out comes the wand of lightning bolts! Ambushed by orcs? Shocking grasp followed up by a smack from the +2 sword while protected by your +3 chainmail and +2 shield! Sure, advancement was slower but being able to use all those magic items upped your power exponentially over other classes. Plus, the M-U was likely to get croaked more than once at low levels and if you collected his magic items when that inevitably happened, well, you were even more powerful afterwards...

AD&D Fighter/Magic-User - this was just awesome. Slower advancement yeah yeah, but it had all of the benefits of both classes and none of the drawbacks! Plus the magic item synergy described under Basic still applied! Now there was the potential level cap issue but considering the duration of most campaigns that was less of a problem than it might appear and capping at 6th level spells was not that much of a disadvantage most of the time. Making it to Ftr 7/ M-U 11 was still going to take a while but you were still quite formidable into the teen levels at least, and in any case you weren't item-capped...

2E Fighter / Mage - Still awesome but TSR started messing with them in this edition by putting in rules like "you can't cast spells in armor even if you're an elf" and other nonsense. The loophole to this rule was Elven Chain, which unlike in 1E could be magically enhanced, and so despite all kinds of non-mechanical roleplaying type reasons for it to be rare, pretty soon every Ftr/M-U was running around in elven chain, usually of the +1 variety at least*.  You still had the limited advancement speed but you also still had the wide-open item flexibility, less some of the armor. When you added in certain kits (Bladesinger!) It was a very strong character type and the level limits were even higher, especially if you had decent stats - and c'mon, most of us had darn good stats back then...

3E Fighter 1 / Wizard 1 - OK this is where it started to really go downhill. The fighter/mage was perhaps the most-gimped type of character in making the 2E to 3E transition. No longer could you advance simultaneously in two classes at a reduced rate. Now I view unlimited multiclassing as one of the cooler innovations of 3E as it allowed an impressive degree of customization, but the way the rules were set up it severely damaged spellcasters. Conventional attack bonuses continued to increase across classes but wizards and clerics lost both spell power advancement (saving throw targets did not increase) and spell knowledge advancement (as they got no new spell levels if they didn't level up in an existing class), effectively losing out in two aspects of character advancement. I've always wondered if allowing the spell power to advance with overall level instead of specific class level would have smoothed this out but I never had a chance to try it out in play. Whereas in earlier editions a 9th level party might include a Ftr 7/M-U 8 character** who could still contribute in a big way, in 3E that would probably translate into a Ftr 4 / Wizard 5 in 3E terms and alongside a 9th lvl Fighter and a 9th level Wizard that is just pathetic when it comes to combat effectiveness. On top of the power issues the armor loophole was closed meaning that wearing almost any decent type of armor inflicted a chance for spell failure, even if you were an elf. With the leveling ules killing the offensive potential and the armor rules killing the defensive potential, the fighter-mage became a rare bird indeed. Sure there were prestige classes like the Spellsword but anyone going for one of those tended to be mostly fighter with a few wizard levels sprinkled in, rather than a full-on split power type.

4E - now this is where things turn around. The initial PHB had the traditional classes and very limited multiclassing but dropped the armor issues - you could make a fully armored wizard if you wanted to spend the feats on it! Not a bad start, but then the Forgotten Realms Player's Guide came out and included the Swordmage...oh yeah! Not only was he a fighter type that threw magic he was a full-on defender, the toughest of fighter types - a new wrinkle for the fighter-mage fan because they had never been the most durable of characters. Teleporting around the battlefield smacking enemies with a sword, dumping spell effects out through the sword, and even hitting things at range on occasion, the Swordmage was a lot of fun. It definitely leaned more towards the "Fighter" side of the spectrum but it was unlike a conventional fighter in many ways. Other classes came out in other books and some of them leaned in the fighter-mage direction with various elemental or magical effects like the Warden or the Hexblade Warlock, and multiclassing plus the right paragon path could add some pizzazz as well. Now though, the Neverwinter book is out and it gives us the Bladesinger...

The Bladesinger class is the return of the fighter/magic-user in all of its glory. Not since 2E have you been able to fight up close with a decent weapon and armor class then turn and blast someone across the room with a lightning bolt! Their utility powers are almost all magic-user flavored too, consisting of wonderful things like Mirror Image, Shield, Expeditious Retreat, etc. They also have some of the teleport abilities of the swordmage but it's not as pronounced as with that class. The key mechanical limitation on them is that they choose wizard encounter powers at most levels, but they are treated as dailies, meaning they do give up some power for flexibility - just like the old days - but with dailies like lighning bolt and charm monster and with magic missile as an at-will power they are not giving up a lot. In short, they will play very much like an old school elven fighter-mage (and they no longer have to be an elf although that is the typical background) and I like that very much.

So there we go - after my trashing of Traits here's something that the 4E Neverwinter book got right. Note that it's not just because it's an old-school type of character, it's because they did it right! Now, I'm off to roll one up and see if I can talk my player who occasionally DM's into letting me take it on his next run...

*Another good choice was Drow armor if you were going through those adventures. "Oh but it loses it's power in sunlight!" - hey, you know what? Once I get back up into the sunlight then I'm not going to care because I won't have a bunch of Drow shooting at me! "Oh but if they see you wearing Drow armor they will hate you!" - I'm a surface elf, they already hate me. Besides it might make them realize that I'm both practical and ruthless - like them.

** Figure a fighter needed 250,001 XP's to hit 9th. Give hime 251,000 split evenly and you have a level 8 fighter and a level 8 M-U, but Elves could only advance to 7th as a fighter anyway.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Joy of Lost Cities

After looking over Neverwinter, thinking about my own 4E Phlan, and remembering some others from older editions and other games I realized that I am a huge fan of the rpg adventure set in the ruined city. For me the sense of mystery and wonder peaks with the exploration of the city in ruins, even more so than the typical dungeon or even megadungeon. Some of that probably ties into my affinity for post-apocalyptic settings where the lost ancient city looms large (like in Gamma World) and the prospect of a ruined city in a fantasy game pulls some of that PA element into it - I mean, SOMEBODY used to live there and if it's ruined now then they would probably describe it as post-apocalyptic from their viewpoint!

You don't get a ton of ruined cities in some of the classic sources - LOTR has Osgiliath, I suppose, and maybe Minas Ithil, and fairly tales and mythology don't usually get into things like that but pulp and sword and sorcery... now we have some material. The search for the lost city is a common theme in these works, from about every third Conan story to IMO the best Cthulu story - At the Mountains of Madness which is set in an ancient ruined city. Movies and TV shows tap into this sometimes too, from Sinbad to Escape from New York to Indiana Jones. It's a rich trove to mine with lost secrets of magic or technology, ancient knowledge, and terrible guardians aplenty.

I might also argue that a ruined city makes more sense than the huge underground complex, at least I would think there would be many more ruined cities than complex excavations rivaling the NYC subway system. in a typical fantasy world. YMMV of course but it's easier to explain in many ways and a little more familiar to the modern player.

Ruined cities have been well-represented in fantasy RPG's but maybe not as much as big dungeons. Some high points for me:

  • The first one I would nominate is I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City, which while not extnesively detailing all of the ruins, did at least include a map of the whole ruined city. For being crammed into a small page count it does a pretty good job of setting things up.
  • B4 The Lost City is an odd one as it is a city but it is also buried underground in a kind of arcology. I like it, so let's count it.
  • Ruins of Adventure is in here of course as Phlan was covered in a pretty big softbound module.

So Basic and 1E were represented but 2E is a little dry. I suppose ROA was considered 2E as well so maybe it's one per edition of the game.

  •  3E had The Lost City of Gaxmoor and The Lost City of Barakus from third party publishers, both of which were interesting
  • Alongside 3E Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved had a really nice big adventure called Ruins of Intrigue which I really liked and would probably used if I started up a game of that - the only flavor of 3E I am interested in running at this point. There are various things living in the ruins and factions competing with each other as well in a real sandbox setting, not a linear story arc waiting to be acted out.   
  • Monte Cook also gave us Ptolus, the mega-supplement, and while not technically ruined it does sit atop a huge dungeon, next to a huge graveyard, and near an evil mage's fortress, so it's not in the best shape. 

 4E has had Vor Rukoth which I understand is sort of a ruined city in a small package and it now also has Neverwinter, the inspiration for this whole discussion.

 Beyond D&D there was RQ's Big Rubble which I know little about but I do know it was a pretty popular setting for adventuring and was a ruined city.Warhammer had Mordheim which was a city flattened by a comet which left behind deposits of warpstone, a valuable magical resource that drew in adventurers from all over the world. I'm sure there were others too but I'm not remembering them as I write this.

There are several advantages to the ruined city as an adventuring environment. There is usually a small settlement of some kind or base area, and the areas near that tend to be the least dangerous, growing more and more dangerous as one ventures deeper into the ruins. This makes it easy to "zone" things so that players do not get in over their heads, but it also keeps the other areas "visible" to the players. You don't have to find the stairway down to dungeon level 9's Burial Pits -  you can see the Haunted Graveyard from the window of your room at the inn! If you think you're tough enough you can go there right now! It sets things up for a true sandbox, where the players can go where they please and into as much danger as they can stand, without neccessarily having to pass through all of the prior material, unlike a conventional layered dungeon. You can have variety comparable to a wilderness area packed into ruined city, cutting down on travel times and ration checks and letting you get to he good parts thsat much faster.

So what can I say? I like the ruined city, probably more than I like even the megadungeon, though they are really not that far apart and each can take on aspects of the other. Both are usually landmarks in the world, both tend to have factions within and without, giving the PC's something to hook in to. Both tend to cover a fairly large area physically. Both tend to cover a range of adventuring difficulty as well, from starter to veteran. Also, if you do either of them right, they will become legends among your players, not just your campaign world.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Character Themes in 4E D&D

I know these got a lot of pub from the Dark Sun book, but I haven't read any of them. My first exposure to them comes via Neverwinter and I am underwhelmed.

For those of you who don't know these are an extra thing that can be chosen at character creation in addition to race and class (and build and alignment and background feats if using them). It's kind of like a template in that it overlays your other choices and adds some small bonuses. Most of them seem to be tied to a cultural background or a profession like "Neverwinter Noble" or "Uthgardt Barbarian" or "Harper Agent". After reading through them I am wondering what all of the fuss was about - maybe the Dark Sun ones are cooler? Because I just don't think all that much of these.

 One, they don't do all that much mechanically so on some level I feel like "why bother"? Harpers get a magic item that gives them a once a day bonus on a save or something similar and can pick up 2 additional similar powers at 5th and 10th. Whee. It's a pretty small benefit in exchange for tying your character down with pre-set baggage at 1st level. Most of them get a small power or two at low to medium levels and some extra choices among Utility Powers at higher Heroic levels. It's not all that much to get excited about. Mechanics aren't everything but these just don't do much for me.

Two, I feel like Paragon Paths already do this and do it better - at low levels your character is not extremely well defined as a Heroic individual just yet and I think Race, Class, and Build, along with a possible background feat, cover plenty. By the time a character hits 11th level the player has a pretty good idea of what their character is about and can choose a path that fits the character the way they play it. Plus a character at that level is powerful enough to be worthy of some of those titles or being a part of some of those famous groups. It makes sense at that point to add another layer of detail and perhaps tie them in to the world a little more. To me a first-level character has no need for this kind of thing as the character is new to adventuring and the player is going to need some time to nail down exactly how they want to play this one.

Third, it's unnecessary baggage. When starting a new group in a new campaign area I like to have them come from outside the area. This puts them all on an even footing as far as lack of knowledge of the region, both in-game between characters and in a metagame sense for the players. They can't just rely on skill rolls backed up by "well my character is from here so he should know" type justifications. They can gain some general knowledge but the specifics come from actually playing through things, exploring and talking to NPC's - as it should be. The Neverwinter book heavily recommends that every new character should choose one of the themes in the book. There are only 13 however, so options are a bit limited. Some of them are restricted to certain races, further curtailing the choices. Here they are:

  • Neverwinter noble - you're a lost heir  - humans only
  • Oghma's faithful - you are tied to the god of knowledge - any race
  • Harper agent - you're part of the Harpers - any race
  • Dead Rat deserter - you're an ex-member of the Dead Rats thieves' guild from Luskan and a wererat - human, half-elves, or halflings only
  • Illiyanbruen guardian - you're from an Eladrin hidden city - eladrin only
  • Uthgardt barbarian - you're part of a particular barbarian tribe - humans only
  • Pack outcast - you're a barbarian outcast and a werewolf - humans or shifters only
  • Heir of Delzoun - you're a dwarf descended from a lost kingdom - dwarves only
  • Renegade Red Wizard - you're an ex-Red Wizard of Thay - any race
  • Scion of Shadow - you're a spy for Netheril - human, shadar-kai, or shade only
  • Devil's Pawn - you've been marked by Asmodeus and a former Waterdhavian noble - any race, sort of
  • Spellscared harbinger - you are touched by the spellplague - any race
  • Bregan D'aerthe spy - you're a drow spy - Drow only

So if I have someone all fired up to play a gnome, or a goliath, or a minotaur, or a plain old elf, there is not a lot to choose from. See the level of baggage involved here? What if I want to be a graduate of a magic school in Waterdeep? Nothing! There's one tied to the divine - what if I want to play a Paladin? There's really only one choice for dwarves or eladrin. What about dragonborn?

In my games, if someone decides to play a rogue at 1st level and expresses an interest in joining the thieves' guild I would rather play that out than say "OK choose that theme" and have them in it from the start. Same thing with an Uthgardt Barbarian - OK, take a barbarian and we will work out the details! No longer is it enough to be a "Wizard", no now you have to play a "Renegade Red Wizard". You can't just be a human Thief you have to be a "Scion of Shadow" or a "Dead Rat Deserter" but what if I don't want to be a wererat or have ties to Netheril?

The low levels of the game are the time when things like this are explored the most and the idea that a 1st level character comes into the game with a web of relationships and obligations already in place because of a mechanical feature just annoys me. I don't know that it's wrong, but it feels wrong to me, for my games.   In other games where you start off as experienced characters (like Shadowrun) or where a player can choose exactly how they want those relationships to be defined (Hero System) then it can work but traditionally a 1st level D&D character is a neophyte looking for their place in the world and I like to keep it that way. If a campaign demands more detailed and developed characters then start at 11th level and use the ton of material we already have!

So there it is, my trashing of Character Themes in 4E. I'm not proud of it but it's how I feel as I read through these things - it feels more like chrome for chrome's sake than something addressing a real need.  If I end up playing in Neverwinter I probably won't use them - I won't forbid them or anything but they hardly strike me as anything neccessary to the game. Like many sub-systems they will strike people in different ways and I am perfectly happy living without them.