Thursday, December 8, 2011

ToEE 4E Session 3 - The Dragon!

We begin in an inner chamber of the ruined moathouse with our quartet of heroes - Torgar - Dwarf Druid (and his bear companion Po), Apollo - Elf Bladesinger, Isaac - Human Swordmage, and Torin - Dragonborn Paladin. After fighting off the dire rats in the middle of the night, they sleep a little later than usual and wake up ready once again. Looking at their sketch map they realize that there can't be too many unexplored areas left and they resolve to thoroughly search the entire place - for both stragglers and loot.

Heading into the southern end near where they fought the giant snakes, they begin smashing down doors and tossing the interior. The old wooden doors give them quite a bit of trouble but they manage to overcome this. As they ransack the place they find no opposition - fortunate, given the amount of noise they are making - and discover a sword hidden behind a stout piece of furniture. The Bladesinger pronounces it magical, a Luck Blade, and claims it for himself as no one else uses a sword as their primary weapon.

Moving to the north end of the place they discover a set of stairs leading down but after some debate decide to finish clearing out the upper level before descending. They work through some otherwise empty rooms and halls, finding a few trinkets. They then break into an old kitchen, disturbing a nest of stirges and finding a whole mess of trouble.

The stirges swarm the Paladin and the Bladesinger who are in more exposed positions in the room. The Swordmage tries to help, but the Druid and his bear are hindered by the narrow doorway and the efforts of the others to fight off the attacking bloodsuckers. They prove to be tough opponents and by the time two stirges are killed the Paladin is also down!  He soon regathers his strength and rejoins the fight but it's a near thing. Eventually the Druid and the bear manage to get into positions to help and the situation turns around at that point. As the last stirge turns to buzz away the Bladesinger splatters it with his magical blade. The battered and bloodied party rests briefly, uses some healing magic, discovers a magical suit of acid-resistant hide armor (folded up on a butcher block for some forgotten reason) and resolves to push on to the last unopened door in the place.

The Paladin and the bear force open the large doors and walk into a room that is partially open to the sky.It is also apparently home to a small black dragon, who is reared up next to a battered wooden chest and asking in draconic just what the heck is going on? The Paladin replies diplomatically that they are exploring the ruin and tries to figure out if the party is in shape to take on this horse-sized wyrm. The Druid offers to trade magical items with the dragon but the dragon interprets this as an offer of tribute, which he accepts - "leave the item on the floor and back out of the room and you may live".  There's nor way our heroes are going to agree to this and so now a fight breaks out.

The Paladin and the Swordmage charge the dragon while the Bladesinger stands his ground and launches his spells. As the two warriors run up the dragon lets fly with his acid breath, catching every member of the party but the druid, wounding everyone and killing Po. Dripping and smoking, the team responds and tears into the dragon with sword and spell. The Druid pauses to restore his friend to life but is now exposed and when the wounded dragon sprays his acid again he blasts the entire party, dropping the Paladin - and the bear! Enraged, the heroes send even more violence against the dragon with the Bladesinger stepping back to get out of blast range and the Druid, somewhat protected from the acid breath by his new acid-resistant hide armor, moves into a better position to fight the beast up close. Once again the beast spews forth liquid smoking death, severely wounding the Swordmage this time and killing the Paladin! The Druid strikes hard and the Bladesinger blasts away with magic missiles, staggering the dragon. It tears into the Druid with its formidable claws, but the newly-returned Po flies into a rage at the sight of this thing hurting his friend and rips the thing apart in response, ending the danger and the carnage in a furious assault.

Battered and with one member down for good, the heroes rest briefly, gather up their loot, and stagger back to Hommlet for the night, bringing word of the bandits' (and a dragon's) demise.

DM Notes: This was a nice little run that got our temple game moving again after a longer than expected break. I figured they could clear the upper level of the Moathouse in one more session and they did so thoroughly.

As they went to start smashing in doors they discovered that they are a pretty low strength party, making those Strength checks to break down doors a lot tougher than usual. The bear was recruited to be the primary battering ram as his Strength of 20 is the highest in the group by far. Once inside I use a combination of Perception rolls and common sense (if you look inside a drawer you can see what's in the drawer, no roll necessary) and had a little fun with them as they insisted there had to be something in one of the rooms because they rolled really high:

DM: "OK you think there must be something in this room"

Blaster: "Can I assist?"

DM: "Sure"

Red: "28 with the assist"

DM: "You don't find anything yet but it must be here somewhere"

Repeat until frustrated Apprentices finally catch on that they are chasing their tails here and move on.

They seriously debated going downstairs - "Because there's more stuff and more XP's down there" - and then decided to make sure the upper floor was empty first so they wouldn't get ambushed. I think that's sound reasoning in general, not just in D&D.

The Stirge fight was much tougher than I expected. These are, again, out of the Monster Vault and are pretty nasty mechanically but they are also fun to run. They have a fairly normal attack but once they hit they attach and do ongoing 5 damage at that point, untyped. So if two of them latch on, that's 10 points per round coming out of your adventurer and that's a lot. Their AC and Reflex Defense also go up when they attach so it makes them that much harder to hit. Now it's only a move action to try and break loose (it's considered a grab when they plug in) but it's a tricky thing in a tight space and these aren't minions, so they don't drop in one hit. It's considered to be a level two encounter but my level one party had a tough time with it and took nine rounds to end it.

I think the dragon surprised them, especially since Apprentice Red had just made a comment after finding the stairs that "We have a dungeon, now we just need a dragon".  I want to give them some credit here too - they did try to talk to it first! It didn't go the way they hoped but they did try. My idea here was that this was a very young dragon wounded and on its own. It holed up here in the moathouse to recover and gathered up some treasure in an old chest that it might be able to carry off when it decided to move on. This was not a part of the original ToEE but I added it because a) I wanted another "big" monster and the giant lizard in the original made me think "dragon" and b) I think dragons should show up more than they do in a lot of published adventures, old and new. One of the best moments in my 3E RttToEE campaign was when my extremely confident players walked into the Moathouse courtyard. Some of them  had played or run the original ToEE and were thinking it would still be a "starter area". When the blue dragon appeared the look on their faces was priceless, as was their reaction in trying to deal with a sudden major threat in an area where they had been expecting quiet. When you have cool iconic monsters in the game you should USE THEM! So I did. I killed the bear twice and the paladin once, thanks to two good recharge rolls and the bloodied breath ability. Firing off the breath that many times and hitting that many characters may be a personal record, especially considering it only lasted three rounds! Stat-wise I used a tweaked "Fledgling White Dragon" from the Monster Vault which is a Level 1 Solo.

Mechanically, the main thing that I learned here is that I need to watch levels more closely now. Having only a 4 character party combined with using the powered-up monster stats from the MV means that my guys are taking more of a beating than the older low-level runs did. Monster damage is significantly higher now, and having no striker types means that fights last longer. The Sentinel Druid is a decent healer but two defenders and an easily hit bear mean there is a lot of damage to heal. In my main campaign they were taking on encounters 3 and 4 levels higher just to give some teeth to the monsters. I'm thinking I need to adjust things back to truly reflect a 4-man party or I need to keep the levels down, possibly both. They ended with enough XP to level up to 2nd and Apprentice Blaster was pondering whether to bring back his Paladin or make a new character. They both retreated to the character builder right after and were checking their options for next time.

Beyond the mechanics I learned that the Apprentices instincts are right on and they are having the same kinds of conversations we used to have back when we were playing B/X D&D and AD&D. I choose to see that as confirmation that I'm doing something right. It also tells me that despite all the changes in things over the last 30 years that some things are just fun - army men, BB guns, firecrackers, and looting and mayhem with D&D.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Looking Forward to 2012

Today I'm thinking about next year, and unlike yesterday's more general post this one is more personal. What do I want to change or accomplish next year on the gaming front?  Well what did I do this year?

In 2011 I worked on creating a more balanced gaming diet, introducing the Apprentices to more board and card games like Munchkin, Memoir 44, and Command and Colors Ancients. It is, however, the year I let Warhammer 40,000 mostly die. Part of it is competition for time, part of it is that it's really built around 2 sides and with 3 interested parties that's tricky to pull off, and part of it is expense. Maintaining multiple armies for multiple people is a strain, even with my economic upturn. When a single unit for the game is as much as a core rulebook for an RPG I can get a lot more hours of fun out of the RPG book in the short term.

RPG-wise we expanded their horizons to include Supers via M&M, ICONS, and Marvel. We went into space with Star Wars d6 and Star Wars Saga. We are trying on some boots and saddles with our foray into Deadlands. So it was a good year. Blaster and Red are my main two gamers and they have been armed with PHB's for every edition of D&D along with books for a few other games too. I don't think the OSR is big amongst the high school and junior high crowd just now but if some local 16 year old decides he wants to break out a Greyhawk Wars campaign then my two are ready for it!

What about next year?

Well my main 4E campaign came to an end so I will probably move to fill that gap. I'm tempted to go back, pick up, and finish my Neccessary Evil campaign just for a change of pace. I'm also tempted to run a Mutants and Masterminds game both for a change of pace and just because I think it would be fun. Somehow though, I suspect I will be back running 4th Edition before the year runs out and I'm fine with that - D&D has always been our "trunk" game, with other games branching out from it. Nowadays I seem to only have the bandwidth to run one regular (sorta weekly) full-length grown up game, and Lady Blacksteel and my other regulars seem to prefer that schedule too. In the past the desire for more variety has spurred me to try alternating sessions between two games and it works some of the time, but it can cause a loss of focus and some "what did we do last time?" moments each session. Have to ponder that one.

With the Apprentices we have ongoing campaigns of D&D 4E, ICONS, and some irregular games of Basic D&D, Star Wars, Marvel, and now Deadlands. That will probably continue. The other RPG's I'm sort of interested in introducing are Champions, Gamma World, Traveller, Shadowrun, and Star Trek. I realize "only" may be a mischaracterization there but they are still so new to this thing that I want to expose them to a wide variety of games and then play more of what they like. I once half-jokingly proposed to my gaming group that was suffering from a serious case of short gaming attention spans that we just go ahead and plan to play a new game each month: assuming we could meet 3 times in a month, session 1 would be character generation and the kickoff, session two would be the meat of an adventure, then session three would be the finale and a discussion about the game. The next month we would do it all again with a new game. It was funny then, but I'm seriously considering it now for 2012 to help me better manage the Apprentice games. If we can keep the main 4E Temple of Elemental Evil going at least once a month too, then I think this would be a really good "World Tour of RPG's"  because I could work in a few more besides - GURPS and Warhammer FRP and some others. Hmmm.

Besides RPG's I want to continue the boardgames and I will probably work in Settlers of Catan and some more light wargames like Combat Commander. I also want to work in some other miniatures games (I have a lot mini's, many of them gathering dust) like Federation Commander, Battletech, B5 Call to Arms, Song of Blades and Heroes, and Giant Monster Rampage. I had some homebrewed car combat rules and giant monster rules of my own a few years back so I might even dust those off if the time opens up. I'm not sure how 40K fits into this anymore as while I love the universe and have nearly 25 years of stuff for it I don't like the cost and the overhead of painting and storage and keeping up with the rules so much anymore. It's probably going to be a "when I really really feel like it" and not according to any kind of plan.

On their own the boys have made some attempts to start their own D&D games with friends but it has not been easy. All of them have complicated schedules and homework and there is still a huge "nerdy" stigma attached to it even in this age of Warcraft and Skyrim. They also have been playing some Heroquest (the old MB boardgame) and Risk and Stratego so that's been fun to watch too.

Beyond this we do some Xbox time together and play City of Heroes regularly too so we don't lack for options with our fun time - the trick is juggling kid schedules and work schedules and doing all of those normal family things while still making time for these. I've found that if we don't schedule it ahead of time, like any other gaming session, that it tends to get eaten up by other things and bumped by last minute changes of plan. I did a lot of that this year so I intend to change it for next year so no one ends their weekend disappointed.

I'm sure some new things will emerge that will change all of these plans at some point, but for now these are my goals. Whenever I do set up a new main game you can rest assured it will be chronicled here, warts and all. If I do go with the "Game of the Month"  plan - and that idea is really growing on me as I write this - then I will certainly document that here as well.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pondering the Hobby - 2011

I try to stay plugged in to what's new in the hobby. That mostly comes from online sources of course but occasionally something new sneaks up on me in the local game store. One thing I've noticed this year is that there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of  NEW out there. This year's Gen Con is the first one in a long time that seemed to have almost nothing new being announced. I mean both new games outright and supplements for existing games apart from adventures. - things that players and DM's get excited about and generate some chatter and some interest. Some of this is probably my fault.

With all of the edition turnover and balkanization - the end of the d20 boom for example -  a lot of companies have gone off and done their own thing. For me Green Ronin, Sword and Sorcery, Kenzer, Malhovic, and Goodman Games were big players in the days of 3rd Edition D&D. Green Ronin is still on my list for M&M but they went off and did Dragon Age which holds little interest for me and have a few other things that are mostly outside of my interests as well, and they do nothing for 4E now. S&S is just flat out gone. Kenzer has Aces & Eights and Hackmaster which interest me a bit but not enough to keep up with them constantly and they make nothing for the games I play now. Malhovic pretty much went on hiatus with the launch of 4E. Goodman tried and gave up on continuing their 3E business model with 4E and has their own fantasy RPG coming out now. So these companies that were getting a lot of my money over the last 11 years stopped getting most of it over the last two.

Insert Fistful of Dollars reference here

This is not entirely their fault - a lot of it is tied to badly handled licensing arrangements by WOTC. Rather than the glory days of 3E where a whole bunch of the industry was devoted to supporting one game system - yes it was chaos but it was a glorious chaos - 4E has sort of gone off into it's own fortress and shut the gates, keeping everyone out. Sure, you can come in, but you're going to have to pay rent to stay and they can kick you out at any time. Most of these companies didn't choose to leave - they were told to! Pathfinder has tried to capture the 3E glory and has succeeded to a degree, but not on a scale like what we were seeing before. If you like more-retro-than-that there is all manner of old school goodness available at costs ranging from free to not free. There is Hackmaster. There is Goodman's thing with the d5's. There is Dragon Age. There is GURPS, Hero, and Savage Worlds. There is Warhammer FRP. There's probably some version of the Palladium FRPG in print right now too. Diversity is good, having options is good, but I can't personally contribute to all of them - and those are just typical fantasy RPG's! So I think a lot of us "choose sides" and try to focus on one or a few games. For a few shining years we really didn't have too - we could get the output of a lot of good people and it was all intended to work together. That's no longer the case.

Glorious Chaos - Kor agrees. And wants his new game.

Sure I could just pick them all up - at different points in my life I've pretty much done that. Not anymore - I'm trying to actually run these things, so the priority goes to new stuff for games I am running, or might run in the near future, or have run and liked enough to maybe run again. In a way, keeping up with a game system is like starting a relationship. I have to buy the main rules, check out supplements and adventures, stay in touch with the forums and the website to see whats going on. I don't really have time to sustain that kind of effort for more than a few systems, so if I'm not running it then these days I probably won't even bother taking a look at it other than a review somewhere. It's not so much the expense of buying one rulebook - it's the overhead of keeping up with the game. That's time I could spend working up material for my campaign, running my campaign, or trying to see what people are doing in the forums for a game I already have, like, and run! In the pre-internet days we had less to keep up with, and the "news updates" only came about once a month in the form of a magazine or a new book showing up at the store. Now a popular game with an active fanbase can generate a ton of material and be found in a dozen forums and blogs and fan sites. It's not a bad thing in and of itself but it does mean that there is just more "there" out there for any game nowadays*.

I used to buy main rulebooks for some games just because they looked interesting, I liked the subject, and if someone decided to run a game of it I would know enough to join in and play.** As it turns out, there are a lot more players than DM's and so what got played was largely determined by what myself and the other DM in the group felt like running. On those rare occasions someone else stepped up to run a game, it was usually a game we had already played because that's what they knew! The outcome is a lot of shelves of books that got read (or more often skimmed) and then set aside, never to see real action***

So yeah, some new games that are undoubtedly cool go uninspected by me. Some join the rotation. It feels like there just isn't a whole lot of new out there this year. Last year saw Dragon Age, M&M 3/DCA, Gamma World, a bunch of D&D Essentials stuff, Deathwatch, ICONS, the Dr. Who RPG (maybe that was technically 2009 but it was the end of 2009 so it's pretty close). This year we have that new Middle Earth thing and ... what? Looking at RPGnet for reviews of games published in 2011 and there's not much RPG there. It's a little bit of a conundrum - I don't really have a ton of free bandwidth to go diving into a new game but it bothers me when I see that hardly anything has come out this year. In many previous years I felt like there was more coming out than I could keep up with - now I feel like there's not much coming out that's worth keeping up with and I'm not all that picky about these things.

Now it's not like I'm going to run out of games to play - I think most of us are well-supplied in that area and could probably make one up on the fly if pressed. It just seems like this is a low point for new game releases or development. I hope so.  The last few years haven't exactly been prolific either - if you take away 4E and Pathfinder I didn't see a whole lot of new books on shelves in 2008 - 2009 - 2010 either. In 2007 we had Star Wars Saga edition, Hollow Earth Expedition, Savage World's Explorer Edition, Aces & Eights, Battlestar Galactica, Dread (not my thing but hey), Reign, and Scion. That's a pretty varied group. After that it narrows considerably with Traveller and the 40K universe games being a notable bright spot.

So what's my point? Well, at this time every year I can usually think of at least one game that came out that I don't have that I wish I had picked up. I don't feel that way this year. Now there are some supplements that I'd like to catch up on, but no new games. Since my personal economic downturn ended earlier this year you might think there would be some pent-up demand for some things I missed while things were tight - there really aren't any. I've managed to pick up the few games I really wanted and managed to mostly keep up with the 4E product train when it was humming. For the things I am running though, I don't really feel an urge to grab a bunch of stuff - I have plenty of material and there's nothing else out there that I see as a must have. I still like to play, and I still like to see new stuff, and lord knows I have plenty of room to comment on things, so I don't think it's a tremendous attitude change on my part, I think that there is less stuff out there.

Is it an economic downturn thing? I'm not sure. Is it the fracturing of D&D into 4E/PF/OSR? Maybe. Is it the growing "New Model" approach of publishing primarily PDF's that some companies use, leaving the physical books to print on demand services? I could see that. With bookstores and game stores taking a beating I wonder if physical books will become a luxury version of an RPG, an optional upgrade kind of like the special leather cover limited editions we saw a few years ago, while most will "get by" with pdf versions of the rules. I was thinking that this trend along with the end of the d20 license as "the" system that we would see an explosion of creative new games published like a small press game of years ago, mostly living online and growing in scattered small pockets where a DM manages to talk some players into trying something new. I'm not seeing that to the degree I thought we would, but I do see it happening. I do like my books, but if things go that way I think that I can live with it.

I'm still a little surprised though - where's the new Star Wars game (it is on TV right now)? Where's the new Trek game (there was a movie in 2009, and presumably will be another)? Aren't we due for a new edition of Shadowrun about now (4th came out in 2004 - The previous record was 6 years!) ? How about some kind of competitor for Vampire -  we're 4 movies into Twilight and 4 seasons into True Blood and we only have the original game as any kind of big player here? I know we're neck deep in fantasy RPG's and about hip deep in superhero RPG's (look at the movies and TV shows over the last 11 years to see why) and that's fine but there are other things that are popular right now that might spur some interest in an RPG. C'mon people! I'm not the guy to do this - I've been playing too long to see vampires as anything other than experience points waiting to be collected - but surely there's someone out there, maybe even a female game designer, that could pull a nice mechamically light supernatural romance game together. Or else let Cinematic Unisystem take it - they managed to turn Smallville into something resembling an RPG. Heck, over the last 10 years we've also had the Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and some other shows about criminal lives - why isn't there a non-supernatural dark side of life game out there somewhere? I wouldn't expect to see it from WOTC, but I would expect to see it on RPGNow. 

Twilght: The Hunter

I've probably rambled on enough now, but this has all been on my mind as I start to look back at 2011. It's been a definite upswing for me personally, but "this thing of ours" doesn't seem to be doing terribly well on the whole. I hope it's temporary or at most a transition to a new method of doing business. In 2021 I expect I will be playing some of the games I enjoy now but I am not sure I will be acquiring/updating or supporting them.  I suppose I'm just trying to stay on the lookout for The Coming Thing.****

*Except for Rifts - nobody is allowed to talk about Rifts on the internet. Thank you Palladium Games.

**This was the source of my Law of Gaming Depreciation: The value of a main rulebook to any game declines over time. Not financially - mechanically. This is because traditionally a Big Book is 100% of the game for a few months and then a supplement comes out. Probably one about guns (modern/sci-fi mainly) that adds a bunch of equipment and possibly new combat rules. Then the main rulebook is 90% of the rules. Then there's one about Elves that adds some new stuff to character generation and the main rulebook is 80% of the rules. So a year or so into the life of a new edition you're Big Rulebook is still mostly useful. By about the end of year two though, bringing only that book to the table will get you sneered at by regular players as they are forced to share their stack of splatbooks to help you get your character up to par. If you need examples I suggest Rifts, Shadowrun, and every edition of D&D since 2nd. GURPS was pretty good about avoiding this, Hero too, and Savage Worlds is too. I'm sure there are conclusions to be drawn there but I'll leave that to another day.

***unless they were pulled out to argue with someone on the internet. Even I get bored sometimes.

 **** and for both of you who get that reference *hat tip* and we should play something sometime