Friday, November 21, 2014

Inside Out

Click on it. Look at it.




It's impressive and clever and brilliant. From Phillipe Buchet and Jean-David Morvan's Sillage -- Wake in its English translation -- volume five.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Advanced Fighting Gumshoe

A few weeks ago my group had a go at Gumshoe -- why do they capitalise it? Is it an acronym? Are they shouting? -- with The Esoterrorists and in the past few days Doctor Bargle has been thinking about alternative skill systems for Advanced Fighting Fantasy. As is the way with these things some cross-fertilisation occurred in my addled mind and I started to wonder how a Gumshoe -- I'm not doing it -- type system would work with AFF.

The first edition of AFF has a skill system that could be considered a little bit broken. In the basic game a character has a SKILL -- okay, I'm a hypocrite, what of it? -- score that is used to determine if she could jump a crevasse, climb a wall, or hit an ORC; for general use 2d6 is rolled and a success is a result that is equal to or less than the character's SKILL, while in combat the roll is added to the score to generate an Attack Strength -- italicised but not capitalised, because I don't know why -- that is compared with that of the opponent. Simple.

In AFF special skills are introduced. If a character wants to be better at jumping her player can spend points and add those to the character's SKILL score to get a new value, so Alice of Zengis may have a SKILL of 9 and spend two points to get Jump 11. Fair enough, except the number of points available to spend is equal to the character's SKILL score, so someone who has a good score gets more points than someone who doesn't and their skills will all be better too, in a spectacular cascading clusterfudge of wonky maths.

Oops.

In Graham Bottley's second edition of AFF starting SKILL is not random and does not affect the availability of skill points, the same number of which are available to every character. This is all much more sensible and doesn't need fixing, but I will propose an alternative anyway.

There are many versions of Gumshoe -- stop it -- but in general active skill -- something like jumping, climbing, or fighting -- use succeeds on a d6 roll above a number determined by the gamemaster; skill points are spent before rolling to reduce the target number -- or add to the roll; I'm not sure which and I'm not sure it matters -- to increase chances of success. If the difficulty is 4+ a player can spend three points for an automatic success, for example.

Let us now put AFF in one Brundle pod and Gumshoe in another and observe the results. Open your copybook now.


In this misbegotten hybrid of two games systems that were doing quite well enough without my tinkering Alice of Zengis would have a SKILL of 9 and Jump of 2 as before, but that latter value represents not a constant bonus as it does in AFF but rather a number of points that can be spent to influence a jumping roll. In other words, Alice could spend two points to give her an effective SKILL of 11 for one jump or one point for a SKILL of 10 on two different occasions; once out of points Alice would have to rely on her raw ability for all her leaping needs.

The pool of eight or so skill points given in AFF2 is a bit stingy in this context so I would perhaps allow sixteen to twenty points to be allocated during character generation. Spent skill points would be restored at  the end of the adventure -- however that is defined -- just as LUCK is in AFF2.

I have a suspicion that this is an elaborate fix for a problem that doesn't exist -- a charge I've often laid at the Gumshoe system, as it happens -- and it seems a bit of a mean-spirited limitation, or "nerfing" as the Colonials would have it. I also have no idea how or if it would work in play as I haven't played AFF this century but it was buzzing around in my head, clamouring for release, so there it is.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Three Ways Wrong Oreo Ice Cream Milkshake

I hate Oreos. They're dry and tasteless things that have only one redeeming feature: they're not unpleasant as an ingredient in an ice cream milkshake. The Oreo is the poor American cousin of the majestic Bourbon and I began to wonder what the latter would be like in a milkshake, so I made one.

This recipe makes enough to 75% fill a pint glass or one of those fancy metal milkshake things.

It is "three ways wrong" because this Oreo ice cream milkshake does not contain Oreos, ice cream, or milk.

Stuff to Put in It:

About 300ml of soy milk.
3-4 scoops of vanilla frozen yoghurt. I recommend Lick if you can find it near you, otherwise Yoomoo is an adequate alternative.
3-4 Bourbon biscuits, broken.

How to Make It:

Chuck all the ingredients and DESTROY for around ten seconds, longer if you want it smoother.

Bosh! Done!

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Forgotten Phandelver

Undeterred by our previous experience with the game, tomorrow my gaming group will have another go at Dungeons and Dragons 5, this time using the mini campaign from the boxed set, Lost Mine of Phandelver.

There's no way I'm going anywhere near the Forgotten Realms though, so we're going to be adventuring somewhere else instead.



That's better.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Spider/Man

Spiders are intelligent. At some basic level everyone knows this, even if they don't admit it to themselves, because admitting it invites all sorts of existential horror.

The little ones aren't much for conversation or philosophy but have a keen and innate understanding of geometry and structural engineering that dwarfs that of any other species except for perhaps the, er, dwarves.

The big ones -- the ones the size of people -- are as intelligent as people, if not more so. The phase spiders are geniuses but they're also weird, even by the standards of spiders, because they're thinking in more than one dimension at once.

The problem is that spiders are obsessed with order and see everything in terms of its place in the grand structure of the universe -- thanks China MiƩville! -- so when they try to interact with other sentient species they come across as detached and a bit alien at best, and AIEE! MONSTERS! at worst.

Being clever sorts the spiders realised that they needed some sort of go-between to help them deal with other species and convey their great plans without the encounter descending into stabbing, which is just the sort of inconvenient and tiresome business that upsets the order of things. No spider would be able to deal with the limited and erratic viewpoints of the non-arachnid species for long so they created the ettercaps, hybrids of spider and humanoid and the intended ambassadors of spider kind.

Ettercaps are created when a humanoid is captured -- elves and orcs are favoured because they're the most chaotic and removing them is seen as an efficient way to tidy up the universe -- and encased in a cocoon which is then subjected to a phasey-wasey process that changes the creature within. A few days later the cocoon rips open and an ettercap is released.

Alas, ettercaps are frightening creatures in their own right and despite their best attempts at peaceful discourse often invoke the AIEE! MONSTERS! response -- and that's before anyone finds out how they're made -- but the spiders are working on that.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Avenged Twofold

This got leaked today.



I think I'm more excited about this one than I was the first.

Over past few months people have expressed worries about the main actors coming to the ends of their contracts, or deciding that they didn't want to play superheroes any more, and other such doom-laden prophecies. The general sense seems to be that it would be a disaster of  Onslaught-like proportions if Robert Downey Jr refused to play Tony Stark again.

The thing is, it doesn't matter in the slightest.


This issue came out in 1965, just two years after the first issue of The Avengers, and in it the founder members decide to leave the team and new heroes are introduced to the world. There was a great gnashing of teeth and much moaning about the inevitable death of the comic -- the letters pages for months afterwards read much like the message boards and forums of today -- but what in fact happened was that the title carried on and is still going today, and the team reshuffle has happened again and again over the years, so much so that it became one of the classic Things Avengers Do, in the same way that the X-Men are always playing baseball.

Films are different aren't they? Audiences won't go and see a blockbuster full of new characters will they? Well, Marvel released Guardians of the Galaxy, a film full of new characters -- none of which had any solo films to introduce them to the general non-comics-reading audience, as the Avengers did -- and it turned out to be one of the most successful films of all time. They have proved that it doesn't matter if normal people have never heard of Rocket Raccoon or Drax the Destroyer, and by the same token as long as Avengers 4 is good it won't matter if the main characters are Doctor Druid, Firestar, and Triathlon.

Okay, maybe not Triathlon.

Besides, the new Avengers team introduced in that issue includes Hawkeye -- who we know already -- and Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch -- who both happen to be featured in Avengers 2 -- so if Marvel does want to do something similar with the film franchise, I think they have it well in hand.

Anyway, enough of that. I didn't realise until today that I hadn't posted anything all month. Oops.

Next: ettercaps.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Throw Your Hands Up at Me

Benito Cereno, writer of excellent comics, proposed the following exercise on twitter earlier this month:


My knowledge and experience of the Justice League is based on some vague memories of Grant Morrison's run on JLA in the mid-to-late-90's and a small number of Justice League Unlimited episodes, so I was never going to be any good at picking an all-star team.

So I cheated.


It's a good team, although I suspect it's also a leadership crisis waiting to happen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Still Bored of the Dragon Queen

Yesterday my good friend and occasional game-master Ben told us a little bit about what he thinks of Wizards of the Coast's new campaign for their new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Today he tells us about chapters two and three, in which the quality improves to such an extent that Hoard of the Dragon Queen can be counted alongside Masks of Nyarlathotep and the first two thirds of The Enemy Within as one of the greatest role-playing campaigns ever written.

I am dissembling of course. It's terrible.

Episode 2 – scouting the cultist's lair and liberating the prisoners.

I skipped the part at the start of this in which a disciple of the captured monk gives the pcs a quest (the disciple has a boxed text to be read out whilst Nighthill has no scripted words) since the pcs already had been given the mission from Nighthill. Instead the pcs would see the poor monk (whom I had crucified – it wasn't clear in the text – but it was from the art) and seek to liberate him.

The pcs had captured a cultist in Episode 1. Between interrogating him, and the robes of dead cultists, they developed a plan to pose as cultists to enter the camp. They eliminated the rear-guard stragglers of the cultist army and got some new robes.... And at the "gate" bluffed their way in on their wagon. Their ruse was to be posing as cultists who were collecting the prisoners for the sacrifice. It involved Pythonesque dancing and singing to "All Hail Tiamat", drawing on the fact Manoj’s pc Lorseen Liadon had chosen "Cult of the Dragon Infiltrator" as a background which meant he had infiltrated the ranks of the Cult of the Dragon previously, spying on the organization for quite some time, giving him some familiarity with its inner workings and customs.


As a result he had developed a second identity as an initiate of the cult, enough of a facade to blend in as a simple grunt or servant. This was roleplayed to the hilt. We had a great hoot with the pcs entering the cultist camp, spreading malicious rumours to different "wings" (sects) of Tiamat (blue, black, and red sects were encountered)....in an attempt to sow seeds of discord to foment internal strife and do the party's job for them (which they think should earn them xp whenever a cultist is killed by another as a result of their ruse!)....They managed to bamboozle the dragonclaw guards (it would be nice to have some blurb about dragon claws too – their culture, how they relate to half dragons, dragonborn, kobolds etc)....the guards are bamboozled by the pc's bluster, sending them off to clean their livery and polish their weapons, liberating the prisons, knocking out the whingers, and hiding the malcontents within the covered wagon, and having others up front.

They then travelled to the crucified prisoners and manage to get them down in the twilight and vamoose. They take out the gate guards and plant some torn fabric from a rival claw of Tiamat on the dead cultists.... To help fuel tensions they have tried to exacerbate in their brief visit. Officially the monk was meant to tell them "Leave me alone, I have it all covered....don’t rescue me or you will spoil my cover and my master­plan to spy on the cult" which I told the guys....memories of the Black Knight "come back here and I will bite your legs off"... "it's only a flesh wound".... With the monk absconding later despite being tortured and reduced to near­death....the PCs return to Greenest and report, and ker­ching they level up to Level 3!

[We had great fun with this section of the adventure. Once we'd established that the cultists used an elaborate series of hand signals and body movements as their secret greeting we decided to use that to our advantage and spring surprise attacks on them while they were busy gesticulating; Ben didn't have to let us get away with that -- and I suspect that the text of the adventure wouldn't allow it -- but he was having as much fun as we were.

The crucified monk was also hilarious but for all the wrong reasons. I can't believe nonsense like that got into a published adventure, let alone the first major adventure release for the new edition of Dungeons and ruddy Dragons.]

Episode 3: entering and looting the dragon hatchery!

The PCs are asked by the monk Leosin to enter the cave complex at the back of the camp and if possible steal the dragon eggs if they are still there. He is aware the bulk of the army will move on but that the eggs will be left behind, guarded, since they are close to hatching .....though later we discussed the import of them hatching/not hatching for the purpose of the plot.... The Draconomicon I finally referenced today tells me it takes a wyrmling from a hatched dragon egg 100 years to mature into an adult dragon.... 100 years – an immediate tipping of the scales (boom boom) in favour of dragonkind!

This was our first "dungeon­bash" in D&D5. I didn't let their ruse as cultists work – not being of draconic origin, they were attacked throughout the complex. I made the entrance to the chief npc area a secret door thus the pcs were funnelled into the fungi forest, bat/stirge area... It was not described in an atmospheric fashion.... And it didn't make much sense.... Why have your larder so close to the stench of the rubbish, as well as the stirges and violet fungi? It didn't!


[Ye gods, the dungeon. You know those first dungeons you made back when you first started playing when you were ten or so? The ones that made no sense at all but were still great fun? The cultists' temple complex was just like that, except without the fun bit.

Well no, that's not fair. It was fun, but only in the sense that we had a good laugh about how dangerous it must be to be a cultist of Tiamat. Who decided it would be a good idea to trap the curtain in the doorway to the larder? Has there been a spate of food thefts? How do the cultists even get in and out of the temple when the second room is full of homicidal fungus?]

The pcs slogged their way through the combats. Maya's pc had been changed after Episode 1 from a bard into a sword and board fighter – giving the party a "face". Which was just as well – since she was able to act as a blocker in combat. Sleep is still a really powerful spell at 1st level - taking out hordes of kobolds within the complex. The fight later in the Temple to Tiamat was more deadly. The blue half dragon Langdedrosa Cyanwrath and his 3 berserker henchmen dragonclaws (I made them draconic creatures) were a tough drawer for a resource depleted party... yes they had taken a short rest prior to the encounter... but still it was nearly a lethal encounter ....I opted not to use his breath power.... Otherwise it would have been curtains for the pcs... the first few rounds were brutal until Cyanwrath and one berserker were taken down.

Time was short after a late start that evening thus the dragon hatchery was run as an atmospheric encounter and no fighting happened there.

On to the trail of the cult....and trying to sandbox that as far as is possible!

Verdict so far:

On the positives ­ am liking D&D5 a lot overall. Need more variety in the monsters. Am hoping the Monster Manual does to critters what the 13th Age one does - making each unique (13th Age Kobolds RAWK! whilst so far in D&D5 they are so LAME!).

HotDQ....? Whilst having some hidden gems, it leaves a lot to be desired coming from professional game designers. It needed a serious playtest.... And really – I would have been far happier with a softback adventure with more depth/help and advice, a better layout, and no railroading! Some decent playtesting should have thrown up some serious problems with the design that should have been fixed before publication. I was despairing earlier in the week but now have worked out a way to make it work by the next session on Friday. Am very glad for the help so far from Hack and Slash – however I am now over­taking the blog's write up! ARGH!


Thanks Ben!

I like D&D5 too and I think it's a great shame that the first major adventure release is so poor. Not only is it full of nonsense like the crucified monk or the absurd deadliness of the cultists' hideout, but there are lots of instances of invalidating player choice, like having to escort refugees into danger for no good reason, or Cyanwrath's twin brother turning up to read his lines if the players manage to defeat Cyanwrath himself. It doesn't seem like the adventure was playtested at all; I rather suspect no one read it before publication either.

I have read worse adventures than Hoard of the Dragon Queen but I think it may be the worst I've ever played. To be fair we have enjoyed playing it but it's only because we've been subverting and ridiculing it as we go and if we took it seriously I suspect it would be a miserable slog. It is a terrible, awful adventure and it should be avoided.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bored of the Dragon Queen

Over the past couple of weeks my group has been playing the new fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. The plan was that I was going to run The Lost Mine of Phandelver from the starter set but Ben -- our group's regular game-master -- got excited when Wizards released Hoard of the Dragon Queen, bought it, and has been running that instead.

It is fair to say that I have not been impressed by the campaign so far. Well, to be honest, from my perspective as a player it seems a rather shoddy adventure, but as I haven't read the book I can't say for certain. If only Ben would write a guest post about his experiences running the game.

Oh, hang on...

Ben in Norwich in 1625.
First there was the media buzz about this story….. and as Justin at the Alexandrian mentions in his review, it sounded initially like it would play like Masks of Nyarlathotep, as a node based adventure design….(and having run Masks this got me excited)….. plus many of us were excited by the possibilities/ hopes of D&D5 (simplified game design making it more playable and runnable than Pathfinder). On the latter- D&D5 is easier to run than PF – it wins.  But hell….on the first point, …. Has the adventure lived up to expectations? ……in short sadly no. Fortunately there is some online advice by Courtney Campbell at Hack and Slash which draws on some great material from Zak S as well on the sects of Tiamat. But it needs so much work to make it more exciting. Encounter design is weak, monsters are generic and all the same – nothing is learned from 13th Age critters or from dare I say it, D&D4 The Unmentionable encounter design. The layout of information is poor: npcs, story ideas are lost in the text: there are no side bars, a lack of boxing of text, no flow charts which could summarise how the rival factions of Tiamat get along or how they would respond to XYZ…..and no cultural information on the various new draconic races and their rivalries/ relationships/ culture (namely dragon claws and half dragons). Primarily it starts of in a silly fashion: PCs are railroaded into entering, at 1st level, a village under attack from an army and an adult dragon, and rescuing some villagers to then escort them through the village (not away) to the castle under attack from the dragon, and then be given missions GTA style from the Noble there (the art inside does not help here – instead of presenting him wounded and heroic, he looks like a toff, drinking and clean)…. And the railroad is never ending.  :/

However, there are lots of possibilities within the adventure and some hidden gems…. And despite the railroad parts, we have had fun, subverting the railroad and trying to open it up to other possibilities.

The Party:

Bran, a human cleric of Helm (played by Kelvin)

Cornelius Putsch, a Halfling shadow monk (played by Stuart)
Lorseen Liadon, an elven archer (played by Manoj)
Drako Ironfist, a dwarven wizard (played by Stuart’s son Seb)
Drasnia, a half-elven sword and board fighter (champion) (played by Stuart’s daughter Maya)

Episode 1: Entering Greenest


Entering a small town under siege from an attacking army of kobolds and cultists was a dangerous affair…..the players accepted their script (instinct was to flee)….and despite wanting to move refugees away from the carnage, they accepted the script to take refugees to the castle….. a few of them nearly died en route – it it dangerous at 1st level…. More so than in Pathfinder…. D&D5 like 13th Age and WFRP can be a little swingy. Then they met Lord Nighthill….the art jars with the scene/ moment… instead of being a man bloodied, wounded, looking like a war leader… he looks like a pompous toff with a deformed hand! Our gaming group are excellent at quickly spotting, and then calling such nonsense OUT…. Previous key npcs got immediately renamed/ laughed at… Nighthill was an immediate joke.

[The art shows Nighthill posing with a goblet of wine in one hand -- and a weird cube of flesh where his other hand should be -- so of course we imagined him doing the same; cue lots of in-character berating of the governor for getting drunk while his town burned down around him.]

The pcs did the GTA style side quests in Greenest, and with the aid of the random tables from Hack and Slash, there was more variety in the encounters….but given the fact there was an adult Blue Dragon flying about pulling its punches rather than levelling the town… it all felt a little contrived. Ditto the final part where Langdedrosa Cyanwrath the half-dragon (why didn’t the designers have a side bar/ boxed text on what the hell half dragons are, and their relationship to other draconic creatures (eg dragonborn)?) challenges a pc/ npc to a fight they cannot win. All felt too railroady. :/ Cornelius had a go (at this point Maya’s pc was a bard so the party’s only tank was the Halfling monk!)…and was reduced to negative HPs. He survived. Just. A meaner DM would have had him executed which would have been perfectly legitimate. :S

Ben will be back tomorrow with some more thoughts on the campaign. I have to agree with what he's said so far as the adventure seems to be jam-packed with staggering nonsense, like having to escort civilians towards the army from which they were fleeing in the first place. Even that is nothing compared to the rampant absurdity of the dragon cult's lair, but we'll leave that delight for tomorrow.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Fifty Best Role-playing Games Ever (in 1996)

In the mid-90's there was a gaming magazine called arcane and although it disappeared after twenty issues -- I am told that the demise of TSR and the consequent evaporation of TSR's advertising budget killed it -- I still have a great fondness for it. It was no White Dwarf but it had that characteristic Future Publishing slickness that made it fun to read.

The fourteenth issue came out just before Christmas in 1996 and presented the results of a survey to discover the readership's favourite role-playing games. The cover is a bit of a spoiler.

Here's the list in full. I doubt it's useful data in any way as it presents the opinions of a specific set of gamers -- those reading a British gaming magazine in 1996 -- but it may be an interesting historic curio. Or not.

50 - 2300AD
49 - Mechwarrior
48 - Dragon Warriors
47 - Fighting Fantasy
46 - James Bond 007
45 - Castle Falkenstein
44 - Cyberspace
43 - Dark Conspiracy
42 - Don't Look Back
41 - Golden Heroes
40 - Heroes Unlimited
39 - HOL
38 - Top Secret
37 - Ghostbusters
36 - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
35 - Twilight 2000
34 - Dream Park
33 - Werewolf: The Apocalypse
32 - Tunnels and Trolls
31 - Millennium's End
30 - Skyrealms of Jorune
29 - Aftermath
28 - Over the Edge
27 - Champions
26 - Palladium Fantasy
25 - Stormbringer
24 - Earthdawn
23 - Conspiracy X
22 - Rifts
21 - Judge Dredd
20 - Space 1889
19 - Ars Magica
18 - Feng Shui - arcane loved this game and mentioned it whenever possible; there's a new edition on the way soon.
17 - Bushido
16 - Mage: the Ascension
15 - Rolemaster
14 - GURPS
13 - Wraith: the Oblivion
12 - Pendragon
11 - Middle Earth Roleplaying
10 - Cyberpunk
9 - Star Wars
8 - Shadowrun
7 - Paranoia
6 - Vampire: the Masquerade
5 - RuneQuest
4 - Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
3 - Traveller
2 - AD&D
1 - TORG

Ha. No, first place went to Call of Cthulhu, of course. It's clear to see that White Wolf's dominance was in full swing at the time -- although pity poor Changeling! -- but there are also lots of the classics that I'm sure would appear in a similar list today.

There are also a fair few surprises in there. Paranoia is higher than I'd expect and when was the last time you saw someone talking about Millennium's End or Don't Look Back? 1996 perhaps.

I don't remember if I submitted a list at the time but for what it's worth here's my top ten as of September 2014... Ah, you know what? I think I'll save the top ten for another post.