Friday, September 23, 2011

Icons Friday Special - The Hedghog!

A long time ago in a short-lived Champions campaign, a DM needed a memorable NPC leader for an underground band of rebellious low-powered supers. Also having been recently thinking that if adamantium claws popping out of one's arms was awesome, why not improve upon that for the next experiment? At that moment, Hogan, "Weapon P", or "The Hedgehog" was born. He's not a really complicated character but he can be deep, as deep as you want him to be, by tapping into flashbacks and lost memories - or he can be simple, angry comic relief.

Hogan was born a long time ago. He has suffered some memory loss so he's not sure when, but he knows he is old. All his life (as far as he can remember anyway) he has healed almost as fast as he can be harmed. This is not a pain-free process, but it does keep one alive.

At some time in the past Hogan's skeleton was coated in adamantium and numerous adamantium spikes were implanted all over his body beneath the skin. With a mere flexing of certain muscles, these spikes extend forth. This process does not improve Hogan's attitude and so is typically used only when something has asked to die. In short order, an angry, super-healing ball of unbreakable spikes is swinging into action - violent action.

The Hedgehog doesn't really need to use a lot of  tactics - he jumps into the middle of a group of enemies and explodes. Against a single tough foe he leaps and goes for a bear hug. Besides the obvious, one model that might be useful is that of Thibbledorf Pwent, the berserker dwarf from Salvatore's Drizzt novels.

The Hedgehog was last seen in Miami circa 2000 leading an band of underground mutant rebels and working with Professer Y and the Y - Men. Since then it is rumored that he headed for Paragon City but only a few unreliable reports actually place him there.

Prowess - 9 (Monstrous) Despite his memory loss he still knows how to fight and has been doing for longer than almost anyone else alive

Coordination - 5 (Excellent) He has very good control over his body

Strength - 4 (Good) Despite his abilities he is not significantly stronger than a normal person

Intellect - 4 (Good) Again he's pretty much a normal guy. He'd probably be ranked higher if he could stop forgetting things.

Awareness - 8 (Amazing) His senses are far more developed than a normal person's

Willpower - 6 (Remarkable) His long life and the many trials he has faced have built his will beyond that of a normal man

Stamina: 10

Determination: 1

Origin: Birthright

Specialties - History Expert (+2)

Healing Ability - Regeneration 10 - baby he was born this way!

Adamantium Spines - Aura 6 - You hit him, he hits you, either way you're taking damage!

Life Support 2 - Pathogens, Toxins

Immortality - 1 [X2]

"Loyal" - despite his bad temper Hogan does feel loyalty - to friends (those he can remember)and  to fellow mutants (he tries to help out as much as he can but he respects it when some people do not want help)

"Unstoppable Rage" - when something bad enough happens, Hogan's response is typically to "flip out and kill someone". This is largely a negative trait, but it does come in handy when the odds are against you - he is relentless in his berserker state and has saved a team on more than one occasion. Note: He has not previously had a problem telling friend from foe - he knows who his enemies are most of the time. The problem is in knowing when to "pull the pin". The good part is the "Unstoppable" part, the bad part is the "Rage" - I thought about separating them into a challenge and a quality but they really go together and so they are here. Different scenes may emphasize differrent sides of this quality so don't be hobbled by a desire for consistency - let him flip out every once in a while without consequences.Hint: Robots, Elementals, and Undead are handy for this.

"Lost Memories" - Hogan knows he has been alive for a long time but he doesn't know for how long. He has flashbacks and sudden bursts of knowledge (represnted by his specialty above) that come out of nowhere and enable him to break down Spartan fighting formations in detail, yet he can't remember what he was doing 10 years ago. This is a good way to get him involved in non-combat parts of the game and pretty much opens him to whatever abuse the DM sees fit to put on him - old enemies, forbidden knowledge, sons of old enemies, pictures of him on old west wanted posters, old girlfriends, his face in a tomb painting inside a pyramid, heroes that remember him as an enemy ... whatever the DM wants is fair game if you want to play the undying berserker combat monster.

 The Hedgehog is fairly pricey but he is not meant to be a newbie starting character. In his own way he may be the most durable sentient being on the planet and a pretty nasty fighter too, so 57 points is a relative bargain. In combat he is strictly a melee monster, so hopefully his regen keeps him up long enough to get to his target. Out of combat he contributes about as much as the DM allows - he is an awesome plot-dropping device via the Lost Memories challenge. This makes him perfect in an ongoing campaign as the ongoing drop-in character: He's a skilled and uncomplicated hand to hand fighter so he's easy for a new player to run, regen makes him pretty forgiving of mistakes, and his memory problems explain why he suddenly doesn't get the jokes or know the arch-villain who the team is facing down this week! If someone shows up at your regular game and wants to play then hand them this guy! "But I don't know anything about the campaign!" - Perfect! You'll do fine!

Another trick here is to let the slow build-up of determination as he recalls things and runs into old enemies during a session (you are using him, right DM?) let the slow build-up of rage, then when it comes time to fight he just explodes in fury, burning determination left and right to do all kinds of crazy things. he is meant to shine in battle - let him!

One obvious tweak someone could make is to give him some sort of ranged attack. Let him shoot spines! If they grow back over time then it makes the question of what the heck happened to him even more interesting and that much more different than that other guy.

To decrease his cost you could drop the life support and rely on Regeneration and Immortality but it's only 2 points and fairly thematic. Unfortunately this character relies on high levels of Fighting, Regeneration, and Awareness to stick to the concept, and lowering them much reduces it to the point that it's no longer true to that concept. Best I could see is -2 points of Life Support, -1 point of Spines, -2 points of History Specialty, -1 Willpower, and -1 Awareness. This gets him down to 50 points and stays pretty close to the original goal.

So there it is, yet another hero Messed With that Probably Shouldn't be!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

ToEE 4E Session 1 - It's Not Easy Being Green

Although the Apprentices claimed to have made characters weeks ago, when I started setting up for the game there were a lot of last minute decisions and a mad scramble to sort out who was playing what.and we ended up with the following:

 Dragonborn Brawling Fighter (Martial Defender)

Drow Bow Ranger (Martial Striker)

Dwarf Swarm Druid (Primal Controller)

Human Devoted Cleric (Divine Leader)

I spent a fair amount of time setting up the background of the Dalelands and the Temple as both elements are new to the boys. Then I dropped them onto the road leading to Hommlet and let them finish working out how they ended up travelling together. They did a pretty good job of this and were soon entering the village. I put out a map of the area so they could see their surroundings. I also had the soundtrack to "Braveheart" playing once I dropped them on the road and they were convinced I had synchronized everything because the music meshed to the in-game activities darn near perfectly for this whole opening sequence.

Feeling pretty pleased with how things were going, I asked them where they were going in the village - expected them to spend some time exploring the area, talking to villagers, and generally getitng to know the place. They asked me two things - 1) Where can we stay? - Inn of the Welcome Wench - and 2) Where can we buy extra gear? - General Store - and then they were ready to head for the temple. I hurredly dropped some rumors on them at the inn to let them know about the moathouse. Since the original report of trouble in the area was bandits attacking the roads, I made sure they heard that most locals assumed that the bandits were hiding out in the moathouse, although none of the locals were going to go there and see. Our novice heroes though were more than ready to pursue this line of thinking.

Showing almost no interest in the village at all, the party ventured forth into the wilderness following an old road then turning off onto a disused track that led to the old outpost. Approaching the ruins they showed admirrable caution, using their skills to spy out the place from a distance and letting some characters cover others as they advanced - if they've learned nothing else from playing Basic they have learned caution!. After a fairly thourough recon, they decided to go ahead and try to cross the old drawbridge.

As they advanced they noticed eyes in the water of the old moat - lots of eyes. Sensing an ambush, they decided to spring it their way and the ranger opened fire with a twin shot from his bow and both shots slammed into something. A group of giant frogs erupted from the water (one of them with two arrows sticking out of it's head) and attacked! Two of them leapt at least twenty feet and attempted to bite the fighter while another leapt at the druid. Two others moved slightly closer and then shot forth their sticky tongues, grabbing heroes and dragging them closer. All atempts by the party to form a coherent line of battle were for naught as the frogs leapt across the battlefield, entangled various party members, and dragged them apart. The ranger was forced to pull his sword and fight up close, while the cleric was bitten and knocked to the ground in short order. The druid came through in the best shape but the fighter and cleric were both bloodied at some point during the fight In the end the ranger killed three, the fighter and the cleric each killed one, and the frogs killed zero though they gave it a good try. The party paused to bind their wounds and catch their breath before moving on. They also cut open the frogs to look for treasure, having deduced that monsters that swallow people might also swallow some of the things that belong to people, and they are rewarded with a large ruby in the stomach of the biggest frog (this was a very proud moment for me...sniff).

Moving through the ruined gates the group saw a large tower to their left and the entrance to a large hall and the main structure of the keep on their right. They opted for the tower first. Listening at the door revealed nothing (heh) so they cautiously opened the door and the fighter moved in, covered by the ranger and his drawn bow.

Hampered briefly by a lack of light (Who's got the sunrod? Hey the fighter has a free hand! Yeah but I need that to fight! Ranger can't do it he's using a bow! Fine, the Druid will do it! Ok where is he? He's here - no here -wait...Just have him stand over here! Now we can all see!) the fighter sees a huge spider on a ledge opposite the door and moves to engage. A second big arachnid leaps toward the door only to be shot by the ranger and then pounced upon by the druid. A swarm of smaller spiders comes out of the ruined upper story and the cleric is forced to engage them to keep the ranger free to use his bow. Amdist the swirling melee the druid shifts to swarm form and engages the spider swarm, fighting fire with fire etc. One Deathjump Spider is dropped pretty quickly but the other proves to be tougher and inflicts some pain on our heroes. The ranger lines up a perfect shot then blows it utterly, his shot skittering off into the collpased part of the ruin. Poisonous bites begin to slow the party's movements, but they persist in the fight, a torchlit affair punctuated by the blast of a shining lance of faith from the cleric now and then, and the mass clicking of the druid's scorpion swarm tearing into the spiders. Soon enough the spiders are slain and the woozy warriors decide to bar the door and stay the night in the tower to recover from their wounds.

The night passes uneventfully - clearly the spiders had cleared everything else out from this part of the ruin - and everyone feels better in the morning, even after sleeping in the musty old tower. The heroes step out into the sun and the battered double doors in the opposite corner of the courtyard beckon.

As they approach the ranger and druid look for tracks (another proud moment), noticing human bootprints near the broken gate and near the stairs to the main keep. Alert, they push open the hanging doors to the hall and see ... nothing. The squeaking of the unoiled doors has robbed them of whatever stealth they might have achieved (after moving across an open, sunlit courtyard)  so they smash one door off of its hinges, ensuring no one can secure them against a future entrance. Looking around they see hallways leading off to the right and left and a closed doorway ahead. They decided to go right and walk into the fight of their lives.

At the end of the short dark hallway is a 20' x 30' room full of venomous serpent - very unhappy to be disturbed venomous serpent - in the form of two Deathrattle Vipers. The fighter and the druid are up front, with the cleric and the ranger behind, and the druid quickly learns why he should not be in the front line as he is bitten and poisoned almost before he knows it. The big scaly fighter does his best to keep both serpents occupied, and the ranger fires shot after shot, but the druid is repeatedly bitten and poisoned. When he finally manages to stagger back out of the fight for clerical attention, the fighter is hit and poisoned as well. Hampered by their lack of experience in fighting together this fight does not go well for the new heroes. The fighter eventually finishes off one snake but he then drops from the massive quantites of venom flowing through his veins. The ranger is forced once again to engage up close, drawing steel when he would rather be drawing a bowstring. The cleric's healing is soon exhausted but he does manage to restore some vitality to his companions .Reeling from the rapid up and down experience of poison-healing-poison the druid jumps back into the fight, working with the ranger to encircle the remaining viper and the attended-to fighter joins in as well. In a flurry of strikes they manage to finally slay the beast, and stagger across the room to collapse together, trying to recover from their wounds and hoping that nothing else attacks them in the next few minutes.

DM Notes:

This was an excellent start to the campaign as the Apprentices were excited and enthusiastic after not playing 4E for over two months.I kept the background to a minimum unless they asked about something, the music was a big hit, and they were not interested in dawdling about the village - they wanted to go after something. I had prepared the entire upper level and part of the dungeon level of the Moathouse prior to this so I had plenty of material to keep them busy.

I was very happy with the caution they showed - unlike my other regular party they have some ability to go stealthy and they did as they approached the place. They were also good about looking for tracks, rolling for monster knowledge (when it came up later), and asking good questions about what they saw and heard - I think playing some Basic has been good for them, and playing some other games has helped too.

I was less happy with the bickering over what to do in combat - who was going where, what powers to use, when to use them, how much this thing sucks, how much more awesome this character is than that character - all the perils of playing with teenage boys.

The frog combat went alright, but the first few encounters with a new party are always tricky as no one knows who can do what, the synergies between different characters have yet to be discovered, and people tend to forget a lot of what they can do, as when the dwarf completely forgot about his bonus to poison saves and the fighter kept forgetting to mark things to help keep them off of his allies. 

The spider combat actually went pretty well but they blew through most of their dailies (eager to try them out) and so they decided to take a long rest right there. It's not a bad spot once the door is barred so there was some player experience at work there.

The viper combat was a very close thing. Probably the toughest fight of the upper level and they went straight to it! At least they were fresh and had a full set of dailies and healing surges. This is where the dwarf''s forgetfulness really hurt him as his terrible armor class meant that he was getting hit almost every round for ongoing 5 poison, but after he backed off he had a hard time shaking it off - that bonus would have helped a lot. After the game it appeared that there might have been  math error on the druid's part as well, as his AC was really low. Of course the snakes lower all defenses in a 10' radius too, which makes a bad AC worse, and so maybe it was just inevitable. The swarm druid gets some damage resistance for being in swarm form but he kept forgetting that too and it doesn't help agains ongoing poison damage. The cleric burned up every bit of his healing (including his divine intervention) to keep the party alive and it was barely enough. The ranger had some challenges too, and so after missing with several shots he was informed that perhaps twin strike isn't the answer to all of life's problems and that maybe one good shot for a d10+5 was better than a miss and a hit for 1d10 every round. The brawling fighter realized that being able to immobilize a large poisonous serpent right next to yourself might not be all that great an ability as preventing movement means that it tends to keep right on biting you.

The net outcome of all this, post-game, was that there was a fair amount of dissatisfaction with the characters chosen. I think brawling fighters are cool but as the only defender in a 4-man party I think they might not be the best choice and Apprentice Blaster agreed. He was pretty happy with his bow ranger though.  Apprentice Red thought his cleric did alright but the druid just could not stand in melee next to the fighter due to his low AC and hit points yet most of his powers are melee strikes or close blast effects. He was not happy with it either. Because of this, I'm letting them remake their characters for the next session. Right now it looks like the dragonborn fighter is switching to a paladin (better AC, some healing abilities, plus a mark that does damage) and the swarm druid is becoming an Essentials druid. That version is a leader, not a controller, so the cleric may be history as well since a leader druid covers both interests for Red. He also has an animal companion which gives the 4-man team another player on the field and that should help too. More to come...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ultima 4E - The Second Trilogy: Britannia! or Quest of the Avatar!

This whole campaign is the quest to become the Avatar and save the world. It's going to be a bit out of order from the original games to give us interesting things to do along the way, but it should still work. Our setting is the map of Brittannia from U4, U5, and U6 using those same locations, characters, and creatures.

The central concept of the Britannia games are the Eight Virtues: Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility. There are 8 cities in the land, each associated with one of the Virtues. There are 8 shrines in the land where one can learn about each of the 8 Virtues. There are 8 dungeons in the land which reflect the opposite of each virtue. An Avatar is someone who has mastered all 8 of the Virtues and as a result has achieved a higher level of existence. I'm not going to get into real-world philosophy but this framework makes for a helluva D&D campaign setup.  Each Virtue is also asscoiated with a particular class:

The 8 Virtues are represented by the Ankh
The eight Virtues

Honesty - Wizards (Controller)

Compassion - Bards (Leader)

Valor - Fighters (Defender/Striker)

Justice - Druids (Controller/Leader)

Sacrifice - Tinkers (Artificers- Leader)

Honor  - Paladins (Defender)

Spirituality - Rangers (Striker)

Humility - Shepherds (Monks - Striker)

There is a lot of symmetry in the game - there are the 8 Virtues and each virtue is linked to a particular city, dungeon, and class.I really like this concept for this specific campaign so I'm keeping it. It does put some limits on player choice when it comes to classes but there is a good mix of roles there that should keep things interesting. Plus those limits sometimes push a player towards trying out a class they might not have examined before which can be a lot of fun. If absolutely required, it's not a big stretch to squeeze Warlocks and Sorcerers into Honesty as other types of "Wizard" , and I think even Psion could work in there too.

There is another possible approach - link each Virtue to one of the power sources:

Honesty, Sacrifice = Arcane

Valor, Humility = Martial

Compassion, Honor = Psionic

Justice, Spirituality = Primal

Now this would disrupt the original class association but not as much as you might think

Honesty - Tinkers (Artificers - Leader) - I see the Tinker as questing for the truth of the way the world works, surely a connection to honesty

Compassion - Ardent (Leader) - Remember that they can constantly sense the emotions of those around them, certainly an incentive towards compassion

Valor - Fighters (Defender/Striker) - The obvious choice

Justice - Druids (Controller/Leader) - If we assume that Primal represents the current religion, then Druids as the leaders of that religion would be the moral authority

Sacrifice - Wizards (Controller) - Wizards give up much for their power, including the ability to wear armor while on dangerous quests

Honor  - Battlemind (Defender) - the battlemind comes across as Jedi-like, implying an honor code. Portray them as secular paladins and you're good.

Spirituality - Barbarians (Striker) - those who are really in touch with the spirits behind primal power

Humility - Shepherds (Rogues - Striker) - the poor and downtrodden, who often can only afford leather armor and a dagger

Note that the Divine power source is completely absent here. There is no organized religion in Britannia and no named gods. There are druids who live in harmony with nature, implying some spiritual connection with the land and so the Primal source fits right in. The fact that the Virtue Shrines exist implies that the way of the avatar might have been a religion in the past, or perhaps they were placed there when the new world was created after U3 - specifically to be found by the future avatar.

A possibly less-popular feature of these three Ultima games is that they are human only. Now humans are pretty popular in my games because of the mechanical benefits, and my instinct is to keep this rule too. Yeah 4E has all kinds of cool races but for this campaign things are not wide-open. There's more structure here, but the point is to create a certain feel. If yo uabsolutely must have race options, I would keep it to the near-human races, perhaps explained as vestiges from the previous world (U1-U3) so I would go with Devas, Shifters, and Tieflings in addition to Humans. I would de-emphasize the physical aspects and just have everyone called "Human" with certain "bloodlines" showing specific traits, rather than having them as truly distinct races. You could probably fit Half-Elves and Half Orcs in here too if you absolutely had to, with a similar "bloodline" justification.

It isn't neccessary to play through the "First Trilogy" campaign to play this one, but it might give it a little more impact if descendants of those characters play a part in this one. Regardless, let's give the players a little backstory:

"Long ago there was a war against three evil beings. In the end they were defeated and the world was remade into its present form. Now there were gods in the old world, but in the remaking they were washed away, and in their place we were given the Eight Virtues as the pathway to a better life. For a long time life the world was peaceful and life was good. However, men can be stupid and so things began to change.Eventually great pits opened up and soon monsters roamed the land. Over time much knowledge was lost and men fell back to an earlier state of being. Now travel within Britannia is increasingly dangerousand the cities of men turn inward, forsaking enlightenment. Lord British, ruler of the land, worries for the future of his kingdom, the land, and the race of man itself. The time has come to take action or accept the inevitable descent. He has called for a representative from each of the cities of the realm to appear before him this very day - and after formidable journeys worth a song in themselves, the eight of you now stand before his throne, awaiting the pronouncement of the troubled king."

This is a little heavy handed, but it gets things moving quick and avoids a lot of the "how did we get together" debate you might otherwise encounter. Besides, it's something I've never done with my players so they will be so shocked I can run right by them. Let the players work out the rest of the details - were they actually appointed b ythe leadership of their city or were they perhaps the only ones in their city that took it seriously? Oh, and your players need to make up 8 PC's - Seriously.  Even if you only have two players, let them make up four characters each and rotate them out as they wish. The whole group should level up at roughly the same pace so that your players can pick from a pool of 8 characters of the same level. Assume the others are doing things off-screen and keep them maybe one level below the highest character if they are not getting played. Anyway, back to the kick-off:

"Lord British stands and announces that he is worried about the future of his people and his realm and so he has decided it is time to restore the old ways and set an example for all - it is time to take on the Quest of the Avatar!"

So Heroic Tier begins with a quest handed down directly from the king! Several things need to be done so let the players tackle them in any order.

 - The cities need to be reconnected so there's a fair amount of wilderness bandit-clearing to be done and local lord convincing to be undertaken (Major Quest either for each of the eight)

 - Lord British knows the shrines exist but no one knows where they are, so each town must be visited for information on the associated shrine

 - The existence of the dungeons should be discovered along the way

 - The existence of the Moongates should be uncovered as well

 - The ruler of each town must swear fealty to Lord British as the true ruler of the land - even more opportunity for diplomacy or intimidation

This should keep a typical party busy for at least 10 levels. I would suggest that the ceremonial gathering for the swearing of the oaths be the capstone of Heroic Tier, with the heroes introduced with their new Paragon Paths after returning from the liberation of the first shrine.

For the first adventure I would use Town British, home of the Bards and the Virtue of Compassion. A corrupt organization is running much of the town as an old and ineffective leader runs things on the surface. If the PC's meet with this leader his lack of ability for the job will become evident quite quickly - he is an old friend of Lord British but he has no heirs and has not found a suitable successor. The bardic college is a shadow of it's former glory. Poor citizens starve in the streets. The local "organization" has taken over the town, including the town guards and sucks up every gold piece they can find. They are, however, overconfident. They will accost the PC's in the street in a rough manner and things could get violent in a hurry. The PC's need to take a firm hand in dealing with the crew and then seek out and break the power of the leaders of this group. If they do this, the old lord will either die in the fight or resign when he realizes his error. In the aftermath, one of Lord British's trusted advisers, Lord Blackthorn, will ride to the rescue with some of the royal knights (even if it is not needed) and will be appointed temporary governor, becoming the permanent ruler in the big ceremony later. Or, if one of the PC's wishes to become the leader of the town (maybe not likely but certainly possible) then Blackthorn will feel snubbed as this upstart nobody is put in this important position.

When it comes to specific encounters I leave that up to the DM. Ultima has some specific monster types (take a look here) but many of them are just a name change from a typical D&D monster so if you're comfortable using alternate names then it could help the flavor. Ultima has Orcs and Demons and Dragons and Sea Monsters just like any regular D&D game so use your Monster Manuals without fear!

Paragon Tier is spent finding and liberating the rest of the shrines (Major Quests). Part of the process for mastering each Virtue is entering and clearing the dungeon associated with each one, and that's where a lot of the XP will come from. As the dungeons are explored, a huge Underground is discovered along with another intelligent race - the Dragonborn! They live in a huge underground realm and are extremely hostile at first, seeing the dungeon expeditions as an incursion into their homeland. While finishing up the shrines, the PC's must also take the lead in beating back and possible negotiating peace with the underworlders. After mastering the 8 virtues, the PC's muct locate the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom and read it to become Avatars. Unforttunately it's in the Abyss, and only the Dragonborn know the location. The big finale here is the expedition to the Abyss, the recovery of the Codex, and the ascension to Avatarhood - 21st level; time to choose some Epic Destinies! Joy abounds, Lord British makes grand pronouncements and offers the characters their own domains within the realm, and all is well - for a while.

As Epic Tier begins it turns out that while the heores were off in faraway places not everyone was thrilled with the new movement. There is some unrest in each city but no violent outbreaks yet. Peace with the Dragonborn could be the last straw - it depends on how your campaign is going. Regardless, Lord British disappears and Lord Blackthorn becomes the regent in his abscence. Things soon begin to go wrong. To ratchet up the tension, have him disappear while exploring the great underworld, throwing some suspicion on the Dragonborn and threatening to reignite the war.Blackthorn begins applying the Virtues as law - his interpretation of the law, and one that grows harsher and more twisted as time goes on. Taking action, the PC's soon discover that three mysterous beings known as the Shadowlords are advising Blackthorn, and they are soon revealed to be powerful outsiders intent on twisting the Virtues into a mockery of themselves. I would have them be the returned souls of the Triad of Evil, sent back to wreak havoc in the world again. Defeating them (individually) is the first part of Epic. Freed of their influence, Blackthorn realizes he has made many many mistakes and resigns in dishonor. Lord British is still gone though, so another regent is appointed - a PC or NPC that has played a role in the campaign - and the PC's prepare to go get their king - from the Nine Hells. Fighting the Shadowlords reveals that they are devilish agents and that they kidnapped the king, spiriting him to the Ninne Hells where he remains. With a clear target, the heroes can undertake their final and greatest quest (which can last as long and involve as many levels of Hell as you need) to bring back the eternal lord of Britannia, Freed of outrside influence, the realm can finally begin its new path towards enlightenment for all people.

Now those knowledgeable about Ultima will realize I have taken some liberites here:

 -  The Heroic Tier is fairly faithful to U4 but the Underground Dragonborn storyline is originally from U6 and the other race were known as Gargoyles. I think the Dragonborn are a better fit for a D&D campaign so I went with them. I also think the whole conflict fits better as a backdrop to the upper levels of the Quest for the Avatar rather than the finale to the whole campaign.

- In U4 the Codex is located in a special dungeon named the Abyss. We're talking 20th level D&D characters here so I think it makes for a bigger better finish to just make it the literal Abyss

- The Usurper/Shadowlord plot is from U5 and Lord British is kidnapped and taken into part of the Underground (before the Gargoyles/Dragonborn turn up). The Shadowlords working behind the scenes to corrupt the Virtues and place a usurper on the throne sounds like a devilish scheme since 4E paints them as the deceivers and infiltrators rather than just raging engines of destruction like the demons. After dealing with the demonic threat at the end of Paragon, rescuing a king from the Nine Hells sounds like a pretty strong and satisfying finish for Epic to me.

This is a fairly story-heavy campaign, moreso than I have run in the past, but the buy-in is all up front - if the PC's accept Lord British's quest at first level, then everything else flows naturally from that. Technically, they achieve Avatar status at level 21, but hey, the universe doesn't always cooperate. That would be a natural break point if the group did want to do something else for a while, leaving the Epic scenario outlined above as an option for a later return - "after years of peace...". There is a fair amount of freedom after the kick-off as the party can go deal with cites or search for shrines in whatever order they choose - clearing the countryside of threats is part of the plan too, so not every encounter has to be tied to a virtue. Sometimes the hydra living in a cave near the town is just a hydra living in a cave near the town and you can kill it, drive it off, or ignore it as you choose, it has no other significance.

As I see it, knowing what your party will likely be doing several levels out is not railroading. Attempting to have a specific starting and ending point for each tier is not railroading, as long as they have plenty of choice in between. Laying everything out in a linear order including specific shrines, towns, and adding in specific NPC's would be a railroad. They key is making sure the players feel like they have a choice about where they are going and what they are doing in eac hsession, and I think that's easily achievable within this outline.

All that said I really like this concept, but no, I don't know when I'm going to get to run it. I like it enough to try and work it in, but even I can only play so much D&D, and I like the campaigns I'm running now too so I'm not dumping them. I will gather more material, put togehter some interesting encounters as they come to me, and see if I get a chance down the road.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ultima 4E - The First Trilogy: Against the Triad of Evil

- Heroic Tier is Ultima I. The evil wizard Mondain has taken over the land and he must be stopped! I would use the maps and cities and monster types from U1which are pretty standard fantasy types. The land is divided into four islands which are separate realms so there is some opportunity for travel.

- Paragon Tier is Ultima II (sort of). A few years later, Mondain's evil apprentice has become even MORE powerful and taken over a land across the sea! The Heroes of the earlier adventure must venture to a new land and stop her! This takes place on one large landmass known as Sosaria. I see this as happening a few years of game time after the events of Heroic Tier - things quieted down then rumors begin of a new menace and the PC's (perhaps including some new faces) decide to journey there and finish the job.

 - Epic Tier is Ultima III (also sort of). A few years after this the evil offspring of the prior two villains, known as "Exodus", has achieved immense power and disrupted time and space. The now legendary heroes who stopped the evil wizards must now take on their greatest challenge and journey through time and space to put a permanent end to this unholy legacy. Time gets a little fuzzy - it could start 10 years later or 10 seconds after Minax goes down -  and heroes from a variety of ages and lands could join the fight.

Sosaria - the land of Ultima III, which I would use for Paragon Tier
The biggest thing I would change here is to use the map and world of Ultima III for the second part, then use the time and space jumping theme and plot for the third part because (Spoiler alert here for a game from 1983 - BEWARE!) Exodus is a computer. In the CRPG when you finally invade Exodus' fortress even the grass attacks your party, followed by the bricks of the fortress as you move in. I think a plane-hopping, time-hopping, potentially planet or moon-hopping fight against a self-aware supercomputer would make for an awesome Epic campaign. It's a good reason to throw in some technological elements and maybe a side trip to Gamma World (for the Aftermath) and just talking about it has me ready to play. If Exodus' goal is to remake the universe into a more logical and rational place, you have a nice conflict for the characters without going stereotypical "Big Evil" after doing that in Heroic and Paragon. As the universe comes apart, the heores fight a final battle against the abomination of magic & technology. Assuming the good guys win, the final scene would be the chaos subsiding and a new world coalescing, containing many elements of the old but also much that is new, and setting the stage for the second campaign.

The map from Ultima II - yes, Time Bandits was an inspiration according to the game designer
In building and playing this I would keep Heroic to strictly traditional medieval fantasy elements - orcs, dragons, swords, etc. I would keep the whole far realm thing and abominations way out of it. Player races would be Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling. Classes would be anything from the Martial, Arcane, or Divine power sources, although I think "PHB I /Essentials HoFK only" would be a pretty solid approach.

A combat encounter from Ultima III, C64 style!
For Paragon the action expands to the continent of Sosaria and while it is still traditional fantasy I would add in some new elements - more Greek myth type creatures to  give it a slightly different feel. I would wither go with that classical Greek/Roman feel to make it distinctive, or I would go with some Reaissance tech to move the feel in that direction instead. Expand player race choices to include PHB 2/HoFL in addition to the orignal options.  Druids are found deep in the forests of Sosaria so they need to be in at least. The idea is to expand and broaden horizons but still keep things pretty much tied to the world and mostly classic fantasy features. This really highlights the contrast when we get to Epic and normality drops away.

Then in Epic things get crazy and you can add in some technological opponents, Warforged as a PC race (maybe a rebellious sub-fragment of Exodus) weird mixed elemental types, and bring in the Far Realm stuff for the first time as the walls of reality collapse.Add in everything from the PHB3, the Realms & Eberron player guides, maybe even Dark Sun and Shadow as well as strangers from afar with new ways join the fight to save the universe. This is an anything goes phase of the game so bring it all in and SAVE THE UNIVERSE!

Some might look at this outline as "too simple" especially for Heroic and Paragon - I see it as "focused" and there is a difference. Many campaigns are a sort of sandbox where the PC's wander between adventures with no specific goal or theme and if that works for everyone then there's nothing wrong with it, but it's not the only way to play. If the players discover at first level that the land is in trouble and it's the fault of the evil wizard who has taken over the four realms, then they have a goal and everything they do after that can be in furtherance of that goal. The players can still decide how they want to go about taking down the enemy and it could easily make things more player-driven and less "what has the DM prepared for us this week." There are still dungeons to be delved and gold and magic to be acquired. Targets for player action could be local garrisons, gold shipments, monsters that the wizard has allowed to roam free, then eventually the centers of power in each realm, freeing the rightful leaders of each realm (some of which might be the PC's) and then taking down the evil wizard as the finale for Heroic Tier. Playing the rebels against an oppressive authoirty is a less-common type of campaign and puts a different spin on things than the traditional loot & level-up approach.

With Paragon it's less about inexpereinced rebel forces and more about experienced, competant commandos taking down the evil leader and her allies - dragons, giants, etc. Stealing from Star Wars is one way to go, and Lord of the RIngs may have some material worth checking here too. If you take the approach that Minax is in the process of conquering, rather than has already conquered the land, then things get that much more interesting as the party has a chance to jump into some big battles and perform heroic deeds. It also keeps Heroic and Paragon more clearly separated - one was throwing off the shackles, the other is preventing those shackles from ever being put in place.

They aren't kidding
One unusual feature of all of the Ultimas is the use of the Moongates for long-distance travel. There are "gates" in various places around the world that only appear when the moons (two moons - Trammel and Felucca) are in specific phases. It's an interesting twist on the portal concept as the timing is fixed for each gate but may not be widely known, so the players can't just learn a spell to pop across the country nor can they speed up the cycle - knowing the schedule is a big deal but then you still have to live with it, so timekeeping might play a bit more of a role within this campaign than some. A little-used moongate could provide the travel from part I to part II, and then special moongates (perhaps the systems is bent by the awakening of Exodus) could provide access to different times and planes in part III.

That gray square is a Moongate
Another potentially interesting feature of the campaign as outlined is the turnover of player characters. In my experience most players like to start a character at low level and play them all the way up into the higher levels - most players, not all. Some people get bored, even with new powers, new gear, and new opponents to use them on. A too-heavily plotted story can become dependent on tying things to individual characetrs so that if one dies or if someone just wants to switch it screws up the plan for the campaign. The trick here is to not do that - plan for it from the beginning so that if someone does became less than thrilled with their character they are only expected to play it through that tier. When the campaign moves to the next one they are welcome to change. Ideally at least one player will keep their character for the entire campaign but even there the moongates allow consultations and a "guest appearance" by old characters now retired and the time disruption in Epic opens up anything you can think of. For anyone who thinks that character continutiy is essential I submit to you everything from X-Files to X-Men - characters can change and the story can still go on. Remember the origin of this campaign as well - very few computer game sequels let you "import" your characters from the prior game. The events may be known, but each chapter tends to have a different hero or set of heroes. It's just a part of the genre, and you can use it or ignore as you see fit.

The lands of Lord British, circa U1
This started off as a more speculative what-if exercise as I loked through some old computer stuff, but as I've worked through these ideas I've become convinced that this would make a pretty good campaign. There is a ton of supporting material for each Ultima game online (like here) from maps to backgrounds to music depending on how "authentic" one wants to be. Knowing the overall plotline right from the start gives the DM a better focus too, as certain confrontations will have to happen, but the rest can be very lightly sketched out around certain milestones, say the liberation of or adventuring in certain towns, or specific dungeons might contain knowledge or items needed to defeat the evil overlord. I really like this idea and knowing it may be a while before I get a chance to run with it I thought I would share - maybe it will inspire someone else out there. If I do get a chance to run it I will of course share it here. In the meantime I may have another binder to put together - just in case.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Campaign Concepts - Ultima 4E

People say 4E is like a computer or video game anyway right? Why not explore that as a positive for once?

The Ultima computer games were a pretty big deal in the 80's and into the 90's. Though primitive by today's graphical standards, they incorporated some elements that many modern games could stand to try. I think they could make an interesting model for a tabletop campaign too. There are really three trilogies within the games:

    * Ultima I is a pretty standard fantasy CRPG - The evil wizard Mondain threatens the land so you level up fighting monsters until you're strong enough to defeat him.
    * Ultima II has a similar theme but the threat is Mondain's female apprentice Minax and you must journey through time and space to learn enough to defeat her. This one had four time periods on earth (BC, AD, The Aftermath, and the Time of Legends) plus you could take a rocket to the other planets of the solar system (I believe Venus was infested with orcs) and I spent much of the summer of 1983 exploring it. Notably, the maps are completely different than the map from U1.
    * Ultima III goes back to a traditional fantasy game. The evil offspring of Mondain and Minax threatens the world (again a completely new map) and you must level up by going around the map and into dungeons and cities to gain the power needed to defeat this evil. The notable change here was that you could do it with a party of up to four characters. Some of the names from this game would reappear in the next trilogy, from towns, to the moons, to NPC's.

So the first three games are somewhat linked by story, but in effect they are separate games and playing the earlier ones doesn't really help or hinder you and there isn't much continuity.

    * Ultima IV brought us a new permanent home: Britannia. This continent and its geography of towns and terrain would remain the same for the rest of the series. Many of the names from Ultima III are carried over and the previous games are treated as previous ages of the same world. The quest in this game is a complete departure from all previous CRPG's, most of the ones that came after, and most tabletop RPG's as well. More about that below. Suffice it to say that there is not single overarching enemy.
    * Ultima V brings us more details of Britannia and the quest to bring down a usurper to the throne
    * Ultima VI further details Britannia and opens up a new realm and a new enemy in the gargoyles. The quest here leads to a resolution with the gargoyles and hints at other powers in the world

These three games are the most closely linked in the series. They follow each other bam-bam-bam chronologically and to me are the high point of the whole series. The world is pretty stable, many of the same characters appear in each game, and each one builds upon the prior game in detail and lore as you move about the world. Plus the quests are not the typical "Stop Giant Evil" of most RPG's, computer or not.

Ultima VII, VIII, and IX take place in the same continuity although VIII involves a trip to another world and spends little time in Britannia. The short version is that VII confirms that there is an enemy out there of great power that is interested in you personally, and that he will do bad things to Britannia just to get your attention. In VIII you journey to his world to learn about this enemy, then in IX you are back in Britannia setting things up to take on this enemy. After VII the quality of the games goes downhill as the focus on the graphical elements increases and leads to a weaker story IMO.

There are the makings of a legendary campaign in there though. In IV (the real turning point of the series) the player takes their character thhrough a journey to learn 8 virtues and if he can learn those virtues and demonstrate them in-game (things like killing guards and stealing items are bad in IV and will hurt your quest, unlike earlier games) then he can enter a final dungeon to find the Codex of Wisodm and ascend to become a super-being called the Avatar. Through the rest of the series the Avatar becomes a kind of Eternal Champion, ala Moorcock, or Superman, ala DC Comics, in that while they do not rule or seek power in Britannia, they are its ultimate defender. Now in each game you have to start all over again but after IV you are known as the Avatar right from the start and are just working back through the cycle to regain your power.

Once you hit VII - IX your personal Darkseid, a being known as the Guardian, becomes your main long-term opponent. As the Avatar is sort of a being of light, he is of course more dark and conflict is inevitable. In the end, though, supposedly instead of beating him you must merge with the Guardian to ascend to another state of being. I'm not sure if this ever happened as I never finished IX and never played Ultima Online, where presumably they would mention this kind of thing. It's a little like the Matrix trilogy also, so if that enlightens or inspires you, there you go.

For the overall greatest impact and focus, I see each trilogy as a separate campaign:

   1. Ultima: Against the Triad of Evil
   2. Ultima: The Quest to Save Britannia
   3. Ultima: Not sure what to call this one

 I see the first one as a somewhat traditional fantasy campaign for Heroic and Paragon then exploding out into Planar/Planetary travel with some technological elements coming in at Epic level.

I see the second one as a semi-traditional fantasy campaign concentrating on the quest for Avatar statuis as the overarching theme while exploring Britannia and dealing with rulership, reblelion, and an invasion from somewhere else.

I see the third one as, well, there should probably be a thiord one but I didn't care all that much for U8 and U9 so I'm not going to do it. Maybe after becoming the avatar in the second campaign you convert the characters to Mutants and Masterminds and run it as a fantasy-themed Legion of Super Heroes or New Gods campaign against the Guardian/Darkseid for the third - it would probably be the most fun after two back-to-back 1-30 campaigns.

This started out as an idle thought but the longer I thought about it, the more interested I became, so I'll break down two separate campaign outlines in more detail later in the week.

Motivational Monday