Monday, December 31, 2018

Greatest Hits #31 - Ye Olde Fumble Table

In honor of the kind of year 2018 has been for me, this is the most appropriate way to end the year:

In the interest of contributing something at least semi-useful to other people I present Ye Olde Fumble Table.

This is something I put together back around 2001-2002 when I was running a 3rd Edition campaign every two weeks with 6-8 players and we thought the game just cried out for something to balance out the spectrum with the Critical Hit rule. I'm not as big on things like this now as it can slow down the game but we did have quite a bit of fun with it. If I end up running Pathfinder or a 3.5 game again at some point I might break it back out and expose a new generation to the joys of damaging oneself. I believe v1.2 was the final version after we discovered some results needed more clarity or to be simplified.  If anyone is interested I can probably turn this into a PDF and put it up on Dropbox or Google Docs in a more printable format than this.

Looking over it again for the first time in a while, this really would not e difficult to translate into 4th Edition - all those wonderful conditions could fill out a fumble table quite nicely. Hmmmm.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Greatest Hits #30 - Modern Marvels Session 3 - Enter Hercules!

The third session of one of my favorite campaigns ... and I'm sure we played a fourth that I never wrote up! I'll have to rectify that!

We had a chance to get a game together but not all of our Pathfinder crew was available so we settled on ... Marvel Heroic! I ran it as a continuation of our previous games which you can see here:

Yes, it has been a couple of years since we last played. I wasn't going to let that stop me - the boys are still interested, I have notes/recaps, and I'm making more of an effort to finish things I start 

With Paladin Steve joining the campaign he was going to need a character and I had one in mind as soon as the option to play Marvel came up - Hercules! He's brash, he's bold, he's unquestionably a good guy, and while his usual approach is to punch things he almost lives like he's playing in a big game - I knew my friend would have a good time playing him and that he would add a lot to the team. Steve took him on with no hesitation.

Apprentice Blaster continued with Black Panther while Apprentice Who continued with Colossus.

In a cut scene, Zeus summons Hercules then tells him that foolish mortals are monkeying around with the Serpent Crown again and it's time to intervene. "Go and get it before they hurt themselves or do something even more foolish" is the gist of the conversation. Herc is more than ready to help!

Emerging from a mystical gate hidden deep in a cave the prince of power isn't exactly sure where to go but the closest landmark to him is a large structure best described as an ice fortress. Closing in on it he notices two flamboyantly dressed men also approaching the place and decides to introduce himself as only the mighty Hercules can!

A brief but loud conversation (complete with backslaps and strong handshakes and promises of shared drinks later) ends up with Herc's new friends "Black Panther" and "Colossus" agreeing to investigate the ice fortress as they too seek the Serpent Crown.

Seeing no obvious entrance Hercules challenges Colossus to a contest - "Let us smash our way through this ice" - basically the first one to something interesting, like an interior room, wins.

This is one of the reasons I love Marvel Heroic's milestone system - it directly ties XP into character traits like this in a really fun way.

Swinging away, the two mighty-thewed heroes bash a tunnel into the ice and The Mighty Hercules is just mightier enough that he smashes into a large open cavern/room first! Black Panther follows at some distance, mostly trying to stay clear of flying ice chunks. Emerging from the tunnel, they see a large ice/stone room with a throne-like seat. A man sits upon the throne:

He has long, shaggy hair, an equally unkempt beard, a yellow costume, and a blue cape. When he shifts in the chair, they see an S upon his chest. They have no idea who this is. Warily, they approach.

"I do not know who you are or why you have disturbed my solitude but go now and you may leave in peace. I wish to remain alone, not to fight, but I will fight if I must."
  • Hercules is confused - he doesn't really understand brooding
  • Black Panther is interested but wants to know who this guy is before getting too involved
  • Colossus is concerned and breaks out the armchair psychology
Colossus only gets so far before the multiple mentions of the "terrible things I've done" starts to get in the way of further conversation. Befuddled, Peter pauses ...

...and Hercules takes over! Falling back on what he knows best Herc touts the virtues of wine and song and comradeship and beating badguys and good times and drink and winning in general. Faced with this unstoppable torrent of optimism, the stranger's "... almost godlike assurance that he’s guilty" is overwhelmed by Hercules Godlike Positivity!

He stands, brushed the hair out of his face, walks over to Herc, smiles, and puts a hand on his shoulder: "Perhaps you are right old friend. Perhaps I have forgotten how good life can truly be. Perhaps it is time I returned to the world. Thank you." With that, he flies straight up and out of the room into the sunlit sky.

Hercules is extremely pleased with himself. Panther still wants to know who that was. Colossus wants to know what he meant by "old friend". Still pondering, they head for the large skull-shaped mountain in the distance, certain that their goal lies there.

At the foot of the mountain they find a village - a primitive village. As the heroes approach, a group of inhabitants gather. Many have obvious mutations. A four-armed giant of a man moves to the fore and points back the way the party came - "go".

Hercules asks for the ancient custom of hospitality. "Go".

Herc asks again. "Go".

Sensing trouble, Panther fades into the nearby foliage.

Annoyed, Hercules announces/lectures that it is customary for villagers to welcome travelers with food and drink. "Go".

As the last straw breaks, Herc punches the village champion. The mob gasps! Panther moves out of the bushes and into the village, leaping to the top of a hut.

Wrong heroes, but you get the idea
Then Colossus punches Hercules and a huge brawl erupts!

  • The big mutate drops, flattened in one punch by the mighty Hercules
  • The mob charges the mighty Hercules
  • Hercules grabs his jaw - "so that's it, eh?" and slugs Colossus back
  • A sniffing sound at the base of his hut causes Panther to leap into action against a particularly animal-like mutate
  • One mutate with an oddly shaped head tries to mess with the King of Wakanda's mind
Hercules versus Colossus quickly becomes Herc versus Colossus versus the mob as the two titans beat on each other without regard for the swarm of bodies around them. Colossus feels Hercules struck without provocation while Herc feels that the villager was rude and insulting and so the punch was completely justified. over the next few minutes they agree to disagree and to handle the mob together and they quickly bash the primitive brutes into submission.

Panther's leap from the rooftops dispatches his wolflike opponent in one move. Feeling himself under mental attack he picks out the mental mutate and the "Peerless Strategist" faces off with a "Super-Genius". It ends a minute later with Panther reversing a surprisingly strong attack and knocking out the mentalist.

As the heroes gather together Herc is hit by a psychic attack - it wasn't just the one mentalist! Seeing a woman peering from the door of a hut Herc throws a rock at her, cursing her interference! Panther joins in and throws a rock and insults her as well. Somewhat reluctantly, Colossus does the same thing and the woman runs out of the village, crying out in fear and shame.

The heroes pause to catch their breath.

Then Hercules punches Colossus, and the heroic contest resumes. Panther watches silently, arms folded, tapping his foot. Herc eventually wins using some Greco-Roman wrestling tricks Peter had never seen before. It ends with a handshake, much backslapping, and promises of drinks together.

The skull mountain awaits ...

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Greatest Hits #29 - Modern Marvels - Session 2 "Into the Savage Land"

Second session of one of my favorite and all-too-limited runs with a great game ...

We open with a Transition Scene: Knowing they were dealing with a magical artifact the team contacted the only expert they knew - Dr. Stephen Strange. He traced the location of the item to Antarctica but could not pinpoint it. He offered to teleport the heroes but admitted he was not sure he could return them given the fuzziness of the signal. He gave them a card - "Nick Fury - Director of SHIELD" - and suggested that they contact this person and explain the situation. He would be interested in the situation and it was likely he could provide transport.
I decided Strange was at least sort-of-known as an expert on the occult to local NYC heroes, even the new ones.

Meeting with Mr. Fury the next morning he had already talked to Strange and agreed that the threat should be pursued. He shares that he has a file on all three of them and is willing to "deputize" them and provide them with transport to the Antarctic. 

Castle bows out at this point - he has a war to wage here, not at the other end of the world.
Apprentice Who decided that he wanted to take a different hero for this mission

Iron Man says he has to check in with his employer first and heads out. 
Apprentice Red had to go to work earlier so he was not available

Fury announces he's bringing in another "resource" to help out as he doesn't want Panther going alone and can;t spare any of his normal agents. He introduces T'Challa to Peter Rasputin, code name "Colossus". They jump into a (Flying Car? Does SHIELD still use those? Momentary confusion, ended up giving them something like a quinjet. I figure it's an earlier version that Stark has developed and the more advanced one will eventually end up used by the Avengers.) SHIELD jet and head south - waaay south!

Apprentice Who decided he wanted to try out Colossus instead of Punisher so now we have an interesting situation where Colossus has ties to Nick Fury and SHIELD - do the other X-Men fit into this too or is it just Peter? What about Professor X? Is SHIELD behind the X-Men somehow? We will have to explore this some more down the road a bit.

The estimated location of the Serpent Crown has been loaded into the S-Jet's Nav system so navigation is not an issue. Panther makes an easy Vehicles check against the Doom Pool. 

Unexpectedly, in the middle of the icy wasteland the whiteness gives way to a verdant green valley! This is where the Crown is located! Is it responsible for this tremendous climate change?

Attempting to get the lay of the land they spot 3 areas of interest: a mountain with a skull carved into it, something that looks like some kind of ice fortress, and something that looks like a modern-ish installation. The jet is acting up so they decide to land an equal distance from all three structures to minimize travel time. The VTOL system engages and they land in a clearing, in the jungle ... in the middle of what should be Antarctica.
Scene Distinctions now in effect: "Dense Jungle" and "Dangerous Flora and Fauna"

Feeling that the jungle is at least something like familiar territory, however unexpected, Black Panther debarks the jet and climbs a tree to take a look around. Colossus loiters near the jet and is suddenly jumped by 3 velociraptors! Shifting to metal form the "Russian Farmboy" uproots a nearby tree and tree-slaps all 3 of them into next week! Panther looks down in amazement - he didn't even have time to jump out of the tree.
This was creative action and an awesome roll by Who backed up by some pretty vivid descriptions of what he was doing and a nice justification of how  "Russian Farmboy" applies to fighting dinosaurs in Antarctic jungles. The answer is that he pulled up a lot of trees working on the farm and used to swing them around like baseball bats for fun - sounds good to me!

Fortunately for Panther's ego, 3 more raptors emerge from the jungle, this time circling and approaching more warily "Surrounding" the metal man. (Imposing the "Surrounded" condition on Colossus) Panther leaps out of the trees, sinking his daggers into one of the beasts - he's never fought dinosaurs so he's not taking any chances.

Line of the night, Apprentice Blaster:"... that's a d6 Weapon for my daggers because I'm going to stab him, then a d8 for Enhanced Strength, because, uh, I'm going to stab him really hard ..."

The remaining 2 dinos attack Colossus whose steely skin resists their tearing teeth.
Apprentice Who learns the awesomeness of the "Invulnerable" SFX: Spend a Plot Point to ignore physical stress or trauma unless caused by electromagnetic effects" - yeah. The dinos don't have a chance after that. The kid gets pretty giddy because he has about 5 Plot Points when he discovers that.

Colossus finally gets to go and sensing his chance he leaps into the air, snatches a Pterodactyl, lands back on the ground, and proceeds to beat a raptor senseless with it.

He wants to use the "Dangerous Flora and Fauna scene distinction to do this - WTF? I made a face, and then it was pointed out to me that he's playing a metal man fighting dinosaurs in a jungle in the middle of antarctica. I decided to allow it Heck, that one is right out of the basic book and dangerous doesn't have to mean only to the player characters..

Black Panther goes next and throws a dagger "really hard" and takes down the remaining raptor.
T'Challa is pretty vicious in melee

Raptors handled, the heroes turn to discover the face of a huge T-Rex peering at them from behind some trees - then it emerges from those tress and steps on their jet!

"Threat to Wakanda!"
'Denied! - with the jet destroyed he's stuck here just like you so Wakanda is safe!"

Colossus is kicked like a football into the jungle when the beast charges. Panther runs up the dino's back and looks for a good place to execute his tried and true anti-dinosaur strategy. Then with a roar of full-throttle boot jets, Iron Man flies in!
Apprentice Red is home now and jumps right in!

The Unibeam charges up and unloads - doing absolutely nothing! Those Rexes are deceptively quick! 

A ferocious furball of snapping jaws of giant teeth, punching metal fists, stabbing daggers, and more metal punches end with a T-Rex on the ground and 3 slightly battered heroes still standing  The Doom Pool ends at 2d6 and a d10. In the distance, three interesting structures beckon ...

Notes: Progress continues and this one went much smoother. The basics are down. I added the scene distinctions this time and they actually saw use! I am using elements of both the campaign I mentioned in Session 1 and the material in the basic rulebook that is Act 2 of Breakout - if you have it you might as well use it!

Blaster got in a bit of a rut with Panther's dagger attacks and I pointed out he might as well play Wolverine, but he did handle the plane stuff and did some scouting around as well.

Plot Points flowed freely - Apprentice Who rolled three "1's" at one point - and the Doom Pool was rising. Who sat on his quite a bit to keep his new favorite ability going. Red and Blaster got pretty comfortable with theirs, spending them on stunts and adding in extra total dice too.

I really like the concept of "Scene Distinctions" as a way to include the setting and the scenery in the game mechanically. I think any location deserves at least one and they will be a part of my notes from now on.

I'm still figuring out Complications. I went with "Surrounded" as the three dinos closed in but as soon as Panther dropped one the question came up: Is he still surrounded with only two? I said he was but then once we're down to one it doesn't really make sense anymore. There's a fairly subtle note there that I think a complication really has to apply only to the target, without requiring anything further of the inflicting party, or it can fall apart in the next round. Typically I think the target should have to use some kind of effect to offset or counter the Complication but against weaker foes it may just be easier and quicker to wipe them out in spite of the complication, rather than wasting a round to undo it. I need more practice here.

I also need more practice using Hordes (like the raptors) and Large Threats (like the T-Rex) as I thought it was all clear then once the game started I got a little fuzzy on how it all worked. I'm sure we will see more of each type. 

Finally, we all  still keep forgetting to use an opponent's condition against them. Hopefully we will get past this eventually.

The best part - we kept laughing all through the game as it was a blast. Something about the Marvel thing combined with the mechanics of the game leads to a very different atmosphere when we're playing this one, even over ICONS and it's fairly relaxed structure. I think it's that Marvel is something we all are familiar with to some degree and so we all "get it" when someone makes a reference or does something interesting with a "known" character. I can't really pin it down just yet but it's just a lot of fun.

Next up: Exploring the Savage Lands! What could they possibly find down there?

Friday, December 28, 2018

Greatest Hits #28 - Modern Marvels - Session 1

One of my favorite systems of the last 5-ish years and one everyone who has tried it has thoroughly enjoyed ...


This campaign began a few weeks before the announcement that the latest Marvel RPG was kaput. I'm pretty disappointed with that as I think with some time the game could have made some serious inroads amongst that section of the RPG playing crowd that likes different mechanics, narrative play, and has at least some interest in superheroes. Unfortunately it won't have any more time, but I've rarely let a game's production status decide whether we play it or not so this campaign will be going on for some time. I've sketched out 6 events with around 3 acts each for our "Season 1". As long as the boys are interested, we will continue.

I am totally stealing the campaign concept from this thread on The more I read it the more I loved the idea so that's what I used. The main conceit is that the time is now but the Marvel Universe is just getting started - the Fantastic Four have been around for about a year, Tony Stark's bodyguard about the same, there are some rumors about a secret mutant group running around, and a few costumed villains have appeared and robbed banks and the like but there's been no big, open, super-event to bring it all together. SHIELD is a covert organization that has been assigned to stay on top of these new powered types and find out what's going on.

Our initial cast:
  • Iron Man, played by Apprentice Red
  • Black Panther, played by Apprentice Blaster
  • The Punisher, played by Apprentice Who
(Of course this means that our version of the Avengers may end up with Punisher as a founding member. It's weird but we will manage.)

The legendary Serpent Crown is about to be placed on display at the New York Museum of Fictional History. A private party for donors and bigwigs associated with the museum is the kickoff for this exhibition.

  • Black Panther is there because the name "Serpent Crown" triggered some vague memories of some old Wakandan legends. He is not in costume but is instead attending as a Wakandan diplomat.
  • Tony Stark is there because it's a party and there will be free drinks and he might want to buy the crown for his collection.
  • Frank Castle is there because he figures someone is bound to try and steal the thing or maybe just rob the patrons and he can make a very public example of anyone who tries this.
(Yes, I made the boys come up with reasons for their characters to attend. They did a good job)

There is some general hobnobbing then a group of large men shove their way to the front of the large room. One seizes the crown from it's display case (SMASH!) , places it on his head, then announces he is their new ruler. His men begin pushing the crowd back.

Frank gets the party started right by pulling dual .45's from beneath his long coat and unloading on one of the thugs in a very Matrix-esque move.

T'Challa pulls up his hood, sheds his jacket, then leaps onto the platform, claws out. He attacks and wounds Paul Destine, new holder of the Serpent Crown!

Stark steps out into the hall, opens his briefcase and armors up!

The villains go next as Destine and Sidewinder take on Panther, Cobra goes after the Punisher, and a woman starts herding the crowd to one side of the room.

(Here we learned about bad decisions and the interesting MHR initiative system as the bad guys got to go twice before the heroes got to go again at all)

Punisher and Cobra are tied up in a duel of guns and fangs and Frank declares war on these serpent guys. Panther declares Destine a Threat to Wakanda and is in a brutal close-quarters slugfest with him and Sidewinder who constantly teleports behind the beleaguered king.

Iron Man rockets into the room and is promptly grabbed by the female villain's stretchy arms - Anaconda!

After a momentary struggle he breaks free and blasts Destine with his repulsors. Enraged, Destine flies up (another power of the crown) and smashes a display case over Iron Man's Iron Noggin' - which does absolutely nothing! Seeing his chance, the Invincible One fires up the unibeam and blasts Destine with maximum firepower!

In mid-air Destine, realizing this is not his time (and realizing he has d8 emotional stress and d10 physical stress) raises his arms, begins to chant, and then he and his 3 minions disappear in a flash - gone!

DM Notes: This was a straight-up fight as we get back into the Marvel system, but it was a lot of fun. There is a learning curve with the game but it only takes a session or two to get the basics down. I really could have added some scene distinctions like "panicked crowd" or "large high-ceilinged exhibit hall" but we didn't really notice the lack. I was mainly focused on getting the basics of the system down - totals, effects, plot points, and the doom pool - so we left a lot of the flashy stuff for next time. We also kept forgetting to use an opponents stress dice, but we will be watching for that next session. By the end Punisher & Panther both had some stress and Iron Man had none.

My goal was to get the doom pool to 2d12 as soon as possible so I could end the scene before Destine was defeated as this would make the next scene and the rest of the event a lot tricker to set up. It's nice to have a mechanic to do that beyond just "the DM says he leaves" - there are actual mechanics at work in building up the pool and mechanics for spending those dice. It ads a little structure to it and puts a clock on the scene that everyone can see - Nice!

Fun moment: As we're getting started the boys are checking out milestones and figure out that if Stark drank too much at the party (he gets XP for this), then Punisher could call him weak and pathetic for doing so (he gets XP for that) then Panther could declare Drunken Iron Man a Threat to Wakanda (XP for Panther) and so everyone could gain some XP before anything else happened! They thought that was both very funny and pretty cool.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Greatest Hits #27 - Spirit of '77 Adventure Seeds

I almost ran one of these over Thanksgiving but we decided to go another way - regardless, I still like these ideas ...

I was doodling a bit the other day and started coming up with one-liners I thought would make a good title for an adventure for Spirit of '77. These are in no particular order and may of them are clearly mixing some familiar things:

  • Land of the Lost Saucer
  • Space: 1977
  • The Outlaw Mary Tyler Moore
  • Interstate '77
  • Cloned to Run
  • Schoolhouse Rockets
  • The Poseidon Inferno
  • Any Which Way You Can Lose
  • Capricorn Dos
  • How the West was Run
  • The Galileo '77
  • The Shiner Syndrome
  • Kotter vs. Kotter
  • May the Magnum Force Be With You
  • The Computer Wore Racing Slicks
Now those alone might be enough to start your wheels turning, but here's what I came up with for them as I thought through it a little more. I may have individual entries on them down the road when the final rules come out.

  • "The Computer Wore Racing Slicks" - The world's first intelligent car is being tested - then it takes off! The PC's are hired to secretly (SECRETLY!) bring it back "alive". The car appears to have an agenda of its own and there may be more going on than simple advanced electronics. There are also other parties interested in acquiring the vehicle for themselves, some far less scrupulous than the party.
  • "Land of the Lost Saucer" - An old friend of one of the PC's, a crazy scientist, has been working on a wrecked alien spacecraft and its robotic crew. When terrorists interrupt his first attempt to power up the craft, the crew takes a journey to ... somewhere else. Somewhere with dinosaurs, furry humanoids, scaly humanoids, and strange crystal-filled pylons.
  • "Space: 1977" -  Organized crime has taken a crew of NASA astronauts hostage. They are the only ones trained to fly a new experimental spacecraft and with the launch only days away the agency needs them back, pronto! One of them may have escaped - and is now hiding on the tour bus of a famous rock band.
  • "The Galileo '77" - a massive, high-tech airship named "Galileo" is taking its maiden voyage from LA to Honolulu and the PC's are invited. While on board they get to know the other members of the inaugural passenger list and everything seems fine until a storm and a series of equipment failures force the airship down onto a strange island filled with strange, savage inhabitants. Can the PC's keep the peace? Can they get everyone working together to repair the craft? Can they protect everyone from the savage inhabitants?
  • "The Outlaw Mary Tyler Moore" - An old reporter friend of the PC's shows up on the FBI's ten most wanted list. Has this once happy big city girl gone rogue and fallen in with kidnappers? Is it case of stockholm syndrome? Or is there more to this than meets the eye? 
  • "Interstate '77" - in a nod to the wonderful 90's PC game Interstate 76 the team crosses paths with Groove Champion and Taurus for some automotive mayhem out west.
  • "Cloned to Run" - a new criminal gang is causing trouble back east and when the PC's intervene and get a chance to remove some perpetrators' helmets it turns out they are identical! A science experiment gone wrong falls into the hands of organized crime and it's up to our heroes to clean up the mess.
  • "Schoolhouse Rockets" - A high school auto shop class in the inner city has become affiliated with a powerful local gang. When the PC's intervene to save a kid brother, the gangs don't take it well. Lessons are learned and extreme property damage is inflicted. An ABC Afterschool special produced by Michael Bay.
  • The Poseidonworld Inferno - The PCs are on vacation at a massive underwater resort which suffers a few problems when a nearby underwater volcano erupts. Also, why is the robotic waiter looking at us that way?
  • "Every Which Way You Can Lose" - Clyde the Yeti has escaped and taken up with a trucker and part-time brawler out west. Add in a animal activists, corporate repo men, vengeful motorcycle gang, a legend ready to retire, and some rival girlfriends and things get complicated quick. (PC hooks include contact by the biologist or being old friends of the trucker) Lots of room for a sequel too.
  • "Capricorn Dos" - A fringe reporter friend of the PC's has photographic evidence that an astronaut who supposedly dies in an accident years ago is actually alive and living in Mexico. He wants the PCs to head south of the border and find out what's going on.
  • "The Shiner Syndrome" - In the wake of widespread reports about the appalling conditions of the big corporate breweries the best little brewery in Texas is trying to expand -  but the Big Beer Companies are trying to buy them out (to water them down like any other corporate beer) and the PC's are called in to help out and deliver a special shipment to a potential benefactor across the country.
  • Kotter vs. Kotter (double sequel) - A high school teacher meets himself walking into class one morning. A science prodigy with a thing for the teacher's wife accidentally clones the teacher instead. Ties back to "Schoolhouse Rockets" and "Cloned to Run"
  • "May the Magnum Force Be With You" - San Francisco's greatest inspector runs thinks he's investigating a series of grisly killings but this time the perps are Not From Around Here and this time the .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, may not be enough.
  • How the West was Run - A greatest hits adventure as all of the notable NPC's from all of the other adventures - and some new ones - come together for a "friendly" race across the country. A big "season finale" adventure that's going to take multiple sessions to complete. It should also lay the groundwork for some future encounters too. Featuring:
    • The Car from Computer Wore Racing Slicks 
    • The Mad Scientist from Land of the Lost Saucer who shows up in an unusual prototype
    • Groove Champion and Taurus
    • The High School crew from "Schoolhouse Rockets" has an entry - possibly the cloned teacher from K vs, K
    • The main NPC from EWWYCL (and Clyde?). The motorcycle gang will probably show up somewhere along the way too. 
    • Reformed bad guy from Shiner Syndrome shows up as another driver
    • Outlaw Mary could be an entry
    • A famous Russian race driver
    • A British secret service agent

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Greatest Hits #26 - Sandboxing 4th Edition

One of my favorite posts about 4th Edition D&D - so many people were convinced that it could not do certain things that they never tried ...

Early on I wasn't sure how this would work - thought there was certainly no lack of insistence online that it could not work - but after spending a couple of years with the system I don't see it as being any more difficult than earlier versions. Let's look at some of the published material:

The best out-of-one-book option is Neverwinter. I've come around some on this setting from my original take on it. No, there isn't a traditional set of encounters or an adventure in it, but what is there is a pretty solid sandbox. There is a ruined city and the surrounding wilderness, mapped out in some detail though not exhaustively so. There is mechanical support through the themes that tie a character to the local situation. There are factions within and without to give the PC's hooks to look for, sides to take, allies and enemies to deal with. Each one has goals, a history, a list of creatures associated with the faction, a leader with a name and a personality, and typically some monster stats or stats for the leader as well. The whole thing is built for levels 1-10 and there's more going on there then one party could finish before leveling out of that range. Given that and it's small geographic area I think it's perfect for running multiple groups and multiple characters per player in an old-school style campaign.

The most complete published sandbox is the Nentir Vale. First presented in the 4E DMG, that material covered an overview of the vale and its history along with the fairly well detailed town of Fallcrest and a small starter dungeon. Over the next couple of years we saw more detail on specific locations like Shadowfell Keep, Thunderspire mountain, the active dwarven city of Hammerfast, and the ruined Tiefling city of Vor Rukoth which were all published as module-type products. Then we finally got the Nentir Vale Monster Vault which is full of things like a unique red dragon that lives in one of the mountain ranges, a spirit that haunts a certain area in the vale, and monster stats for specific tribes of orcs and barbarians along with notes on where they live and what they are up to. Put it all together and it's a very solid set of resources for a region roughly 200 miles long and 100 miles wide. Players can wander through the vale looking for rumors, contacts, patrons or just plain trouble. Have your players roll up a party, drop them in Fallcrest at level 1 and let them decide what to do next.

If these are too conventional then there is always the Gloomwrought boxed set which pretty much presents a city in the plane of shadow as a sandbox with factions and creatures similar to he Neverwinter presentation but with the weird meter cranked up several notches. I don't own this one so I can't go into as much detail (and it doesn't really push my buttons as a DM) but I think it might serve a somewhat higher level range than the first two - certainly at least 10-15 should work. The shades of gray to just flat-out evil party will probably be more at home here or at least will see less interference from do-gooders. There is also plenty of material on the plane of Shadow in the Heroes of Shadow book and the Manual of the Planes, plus there was a Free RPG Day thing covering another nearby domain. So if you want to go dark, there is a sandbox option for you.

A less-developed option (though there are plenty of resources from other editions out there) would be Sigil from the DMG2. It takes up 26 pages of content in that book including a map, stats for some typical street encounters, and a short starter adventure. It's not a block-by-block description but it's a good overview and certainly enough to start up a DM's imagination. Plus making the City of Doors the hub of your campaign lets the players go just about anywhere they want - demanding on the DM to be sure but it also means the players should never be able to say they're bored with the campaign or tired of the same old scenery.

Another slightly less developed option is the Gray Vale in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide. There's the town of Loudwater, notes on the history and geography of the surrounding area, a starter dungeon and some smaller encounter areas, and some of these other areas are developed in Dungeon magazine. It's mainly lower Heroic Tier but given the are of the Realms that it's in that can certainly be amped up without much trouble.

The main thing all of these published areas share is no metaplot. There is no overarching story driving things forward. There is a base area, various factions going about their agendas, old legends about people or places or things, and lairs and dungeons and wilderness to be explored. That's exactly the kind of thing you need to run a sandbox regardless of edition. Keep something like Dungeon Delve handy in case the players head off in a direction you were not expecting, or a PDF collection of dungeon and access to a searchable index and you should be good to go. DDI and a printer or the ability to rapidly cut and paste monster statblocks into one document could really help with on the fly encounter generation as well.

How would I run it given 4E's heavy emphasis on balance and XP budgets and set piece encounters? Originally I was thinking that zoning a region for different levels, like an MMORPG, would be a good approach but I don't think you need to do that. Rather than geographic level distribution I would look at faction-based level distribution. For example, we know the Bloodspear Orcs have member creatures that cover certain levels, maybe from 4th to 8th. Say we also know they live in the Cairngorn Peaks. I would work up three patrol-type encounters that include what I think their typical patrols would consist of and start with those. Maybe one is a light recon patrol of speedy skirmisher types, another might be warg-riders, and another might be a heavier one with a shaman and a couple of ogres and orc berserkers. The main idea here is that I don't let a set "regional level" drive my choices - instead, my choices determine what level it ends up at. If I end up with a heavy orc patrol that turns out to be level 9 when I add up the XP's well that's the way it is - hope the party is up for it or that the players are smart enough to run if not. If I'm doing random chance for wandering encounters then in the Cairngorns I would pick one of these when the time came. If I do a full-blown random encounter chart then  I would make sure the known home territory of the Bloodspears had a pretty good chance or orcs for random encounters.

Now some might say "but what if they level past the region?" - let them! You don't have a metaplot, remember? You could decide up front and say I will run this area at Heroic for one calendar year as-is. Maybe players will try multiple characters. After a year you can change things up - maybe the drow burrow up from below, maybe someone opens a gate to the Abyss, maybe the Gityanki start showing up en masse for some reason. Conversely you could have the entire area annexed by some kingdom and become too peaceful for adventuring and it's time to move on to a new area - maybe Sigil. Whatever it is you can have something drastic happen to your sandbox either upping the threat level into Paragon or wrapping it up and changing to a different campaign - or, enforce character retirement. When a PC hits 11th level they get one last adventure and then have to retire to something respectable like high priest or local baron or they take a trip to Gloomwrought or something. You could also move things downward and have more powerful heroes recruited to stop an underground threat like the drow and work up a whole Underdark sandbox in the same region and have a war going on deep beneath the surface with duergar and deep gnomes and drow and all of that lore. Not every group is going to want to go there, but it could be a cool option if you intend to have both tiers in play at the same time.

Anyway I mainly wrote this up to show that not only is sandbox play possible, but based on the amount of material published for it I would say it's even been encouraged by WOTC. The ease of up and down leveling monsters in 4E makes adjustment quite a bit simpler than in previous editions and if you're willing to run wit ha computer at the table tools like DDI and the numerous PDF products out there make seat-of-the-pants Dm-ing even easier. I do not typically run with a computer at the table because my players tend to stay focused on a particular goal or rumor or mission rather than meandering about like so many of us did in the old days, but it doesn't mean that I couldn't  - it's mainly because I haven't needed to do that. Maybe next campaign.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Greatest Hits #25 - The Greatness of the Game of Thrones Dragons

Still one of my favorite recent-ish posts...

I was talking to a friend the other day about fantasy TV and movies and one of the things that came up was dragons - mainly how poorly done dragons have been in most TV and movies yet they are somehow still cool. The outcome of this was that dragons Game of Thrones has really amped up the presentation of dragons over the last few seasons, to the point that I think it has the best dragons ever presented on film.

Warning: There are many spoilers and many pictures in this post. If you haven't seen seasons 6 & 7 and want  to enjoy them naturally, do not continue. 

Think about the major movies that have used dragons in some important way. I can think of four main movies:

  • Dragonslayer (1981) - Vermithrax is pretty well done and appropriately impressive in size and violent capabilities but is limited by the technology of the time, mainly that its glory shots are all done in stop motion animation. Now I grew up on this kind of thing but my kids just laugh at it and it does detract just a little bit from the spectacle. 
  • Dungeons and Dragons (2000) - This terrible movie, the first with a shot at CGI Dragons, did nothing to make dragons more impressive. After Jurassic Park I know my own hopes were high, and they were dashed pretty quickly. Lots of dragons in the finale, but all of them look terrible.
  • Reign of Fire (2002) - It's not a great movie to me, but the dragons are almost right. I initially thought it was the design here, where they don't have forelimbs, just wings and back legs like a bird, but I think it's that they are too skinny - altogether it just puts it "off" some for me. The D&D'er in me says they're big wyverns, not dragons. 
  • The Hobbit (Desolation of Smaug - 2013) More than a decade after the D&D movie and done by the team that did the Lord of the Rings movies you would think the dragon would be the showpiece of the trilogy. Sadly, you would be wrong. Smaug in these movies looks so cartoony I thought it was some kind of joke in the theater. "Underwhelmed" is the nicest way I can put it. Sure, he thrashes Laketown nicely but the wyrm himself ... sigh. 
Honorable Mentions:
  • Smaug in the animated Rankin-Bass Hobbit movie is really cool. That cat-like face really sells that he's something different than just a big animal and the fire spiraling around him and the screen in many shots almost makes it seem like he can control it. He's just more magical, more of a fantasy creature, then the later movie version we saw. 
  • Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty - so much scarier, meaner, evil looking than a lot of the presentations over the years. 
So Dragons have been ... iffy ... over the years as far as being fearsome magical fantastic beasts, at least in movies and TV. 

 Game of Thrones has completely overcome this and set a new, much higher standard. Daenerys has three dragons who started out as eggs, then hatchlings, then dog-sized, then horse to elephant-sized, and in this last season or two are finally the awesome army-smashing beasts they should be.

The first time we see one in action is Season 5 episode 9, "Dance of Dragons" - The Queen and her companions are trapped in an arena as a rebel faction that dislikes the changes she has been making seize this moment to try and assassinate her. It looks pretty grim - then she closes her eyes and seems to be concentrating and then we get that awesome moment with fire, a roar, and an angry dragon making his entrance ...

Even here he's say elephant-sized. Big enough to ride but not humongous. It also demonstrates that they can be hurt by weapons, at least a little. He gets hit by several spears and clearly feels them but they don't really seem to slow him down. It's a great scene and marks the emergence of the dragons as an actual, not just a theoretical, threat.

The next time we see them in a glory segment is in Season 6, episode 9 "Battle of the Bastards". Everyone remembers the other big fight in this episode but the dragons get a nice sequence here where everyone learns that wooden ships are not a great weapon against fire-breathing opponents,

This is the kind of stuff we didn't see as much in the early seasons of the show. It's the kind of thing that makes it a fantasy show and not an alternate medieval history series.

The next big scene for them is in  "Spoils of War", Season 7 episode 4 where we learn that supply trains and foot armies are vulnerable to even a single dragon - oh, and a screaming horde of barbarians.

It's just spectacular.

They're huge, they're terrifying, they're nearly invincible ...

Even a hero can have a hard time facing one down:

The whole thing is just really well-done.

Sadly, they are not invulnerable, and about the time they start fighting, you know they're going to get hurt. Mortal opponents and weapons seem to be painful but not all that dangerous to them. Then, they had up north for the first confrontation with the Night King in a sort of Black Hawk Down scenario.

The white walkers have been really well done here too. Also - flaming swords! In combat! Plus an undead polar bear attack! It's a great episode. So much more fantasy than most other shows or even movies ever get too. Easily the best look and best story and characters since Lord of the Rings.

Surrounded and facing the ultimate bad-guy-lich-thing of the setting, what do you hope for?

Air Support!

Look, fire breath works just as well on the undead as it does on the living! All 3 dragons are in full action here, flying and flaming. Unfortunately for our heroes, the Night King knows about dragons and is not without a means to deal with them.

It's a shocking moment as the dracos have been unstoppable so far on the show,  It's sad, amazing, and one of the highest and lowest points on the entire series to date.

Even more amazing, you know it's not going to end there. I mean, he animates the dead, you know?

To conclude: Game of Thrones is an amazing show and has only gotten better over time. These last few seasons, the last two in particular, have really turned it into an epic fantasy show with dragons, undead, giants, magic weapons, and barbarian hordes fighting knights ... it's just the most fantasy thing on TV now or ... really ever. It's just spectacular. The dragons are at the heart of it, awesome and inspiring - as they should be.