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.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rogues' Gallery

I have had a couple of requests for the non-player-character portraits I mentioned in my post about running Fantasy Flight's version of The Enemy Within so here are the pieces I drew for my game.


The Enemy Within II - NPC Portraits (600kb)

Each piece was drawn at about 10cm by 15cm and scanned at 300dpi. Aside from Robertus von Oppenheim and Olaf "One-Eye" these are all based on existing pieces of art in the Enemy Within II boxed set and are not of my own devising. I present them here as an aid for players of the campaign and I claim no ownership over them; in the case of Oppenheim and Olaf, I donate them to the community.

Monday, September 08, 2014

More Interesting Than Saucepans

I often see stuff left out on the pavement, sometimes with a "Free! Please take!" sign attached, its ink running as a result of being left out in the rain for days. Most of the time it tends to be a couple of saucepans, a grubby dish drying rack, and a bundle of baby clothes, but the other day I spotted something a bit more interesting poking out of a damp Sainsbury's bag.


The SNES itself had an ominous rattle but this turned out to be a non essential component and once everything had been dried out the console and the games proved to be in perfect working condition. It is clear that whoever left such treasure in the street is some kind of dangerous lunatic but I am grateful to them nonetheless.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Enemy Revisited

I was asked about Fantasy Flight Games' version of The Enemy Within on G+ a few days ago and I remembered that I was going to write a post about my experiences of running the campaign but never got around to it. This is me getting around to it. Sorry.

If you're going to play the campaign do not read on as there will be spoilers. I mean it; there's a central mystery at the heart of the plot and it will be ruined if you know about it, so bog off if you're a player. Go and read Goblin Punch or something.

Game Masters, read on.

It's Not What You Think It Is

The Enemy Within II is not a remake of the original campaign, nor does it have much to do with the earlier adventures. To be fair this is explained in the introduction, but Fantasy Flight could have done a better job of advertising the fact -- it's the question I get asked most often -- although then the title would come across as an exploitative cash-in and we wouldn't want that, would we?

The new campaign does share some ideas-- it concerns a conspiracy to undermine the Empire -- and some locations with the earlier version, and the cult of the Purple Hand makes a cameo appearance, but otherwise it has no real connection with the original. It is set about twenty years later but also follows the timeline of the wargame and I'm sure there is a message board somewhere about how canon has been violated one way or another.

The campaign is written for the third edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay but is light on actual game mechanics so is easy enough to convert to another version of the game, or even an unrelated system. I noticed that beneath all the cards and funky dice a WFRP3 character is not that different to a WFRP2 character and I posted my conversion notes -- and they are little more than notes, because it's that easy! -- here.

That said, I did bump up the Black Hood's statistics a tad as he was a bit weak for a villainous mastermind. I regret nothing.

This Is a Bit Familiar

It's not a remake of the original campaign but neither is everything brand new. I was out of gaming for most of the life span of WFRP2 so I'm not familiar with everything released for it but I did notice that a fair bit of Ashes of Middenheim is reused -- sometimes amended, sometimes verbatim -- and I wouldn't be surprised if other stuff is recycled too; you may need to work on those parts if you have players familiar with the earlier material.

Rogues' Gallery

There are lots of non-player-characters in The Enemy Within II and a key part of the campaign is keeping track of who everyone is, where they are, and what they're doing. I don't mean for the GM either -- although it is important that the GM knows all this stuff -- because it's the player-characters who are going to have to pursue the Black Hood and counter her or his schemes.

In my first draft of this post I wrote that character portraits would be "handy" but I think "essential" is more apt. The campaign comes with character cards -- it is for WFRP3 after all -- but I thought these would be difficult to see at a distance so I created some larger images -- see left -- based on the original art and pinned them to my GM screen. I can make the images available if there's interest.

The Black Hood

This villain is behind most of the obstacles the player-characters will face and the mystery of her or his true identity is one of the key threads in the campaign. The writers introduce three key NPCs who could be the Hood -- and each of the NPCs plays a major role even if they aren't the villain -- and provide plenty of advice on how to modify the plot to fit the GM's choice of blackguard; there are even some brief notes on how to use some different NPCs in the role if the main three don't appeal.

The book also suggests that the GM doesn't choose the identity of the Black Hood until later on, so that the players don't guess too early. I think this is a little unfair -- ogrish even -- and I suggest choosing before the campaign begins and sticking to that choice; all that said I did ponder the possibility of two of the NPCs working together -- spoilers for Scream there, sorry -- and there's no reason why all three couldn't be in on it! I also considered using one of the NPCs as the villain and have one of the others also turn to evil but have no connection to the conspiracy, as a sort of double-bluff.

When I ran the campaign there were enough suspicious NPCs -- it helps that the Skaven all scurry about in black cloaks -- that the player-characters were never sure who the Black Hood was until the end, although their first guess turned out to be correct.

In the Beginning

The WFRP3 background mechanic is not used in earlier editions but if you are playing the campaign with an older version of the game I suggest making use of the cards -- it is WFRP3 after all -- to tie the player-characters into the plot and to each other. It can be difficult to get the player-characters involved at first and the suggested backgrounds help give them reasons to do so.

On that subject, the player-characters don't get drawn into the main plot of the campaign until a couple of game days have passed and so you may need to give the players a nudge to get them to stay in Averheim -- the starting location -- until then. You could also skip those first few days and jump right in but I think there's enough good material in there that it would be a shame to lose it; if nothing else the player-characters have a chance to build relationships that add depth to later events.

Whatever you decide, it's worth paying close attention to the start of the campaign and working out good reasons for the player-characters to hang around the Averheim docks looking for missing vagrants.

Bonus Content and Deleted Scenes

The campaign is structured much like Neverwinter Nights -- for those old enough to remember it -- in that most of the action is confined to three locations and there's not much in the way of connecting detail. You do get what are more or less random encounter tables -- converted to WFRP2 here --but that's it. You could just skip straight to the next location but my group was in no rush to finish the campaign so I put some effort into expanding the in-between bits.

If I'd had more time I would have come up with a secondary campaign that would play out in the gaps in the main plot but as it was I came up with a number of self-contained bits and bobs:

The barrow wights were used to give the player-characters something to do on the way to Middenheim and also introduced a plot element that came into play later on but wasn't explored in full; I hope more will come of it if and when we reconvene for the sequel.

The campaign has the player-characters stop in Delberz for a night on their way to Altdorf but as written nothing much happens, so I expanded a line from the WFRP2 supplement Sigmar's Heirs about unsolved killings in the town into a fullish adventure.

Also on the way to Altdorf the players-characters have a chance of running into a river troll. I wanted more than just a fight with a monster so I created the village of Mistheim and gave the player-characters a reason to stop and explore. I kept the river troll anyway because it seemed like fun.

The Beast of Krankendorf was my invention; there are a few lines in the book about a monster attacking the village but no further details are given; I can't decide if this "plot seed" is half-arsed or inspirational but I took it as the latter.

Some of the central plot points are light on specifics too; in Middenheim, the player-characters will be asked to go and obtain some ingredients for an important ritual and the campaign as written only gives brief notes on what could happen so it's worth fleshing this part out in advance. I added giants and beastmen in an attempt to make it a bit more interesting than a simple fetch quest.

As you can see there is plenty of room to add extra opportunities for adventure but there's also a bit of flab here and there and I did prune some of the text. I cut out three quarters of the -- optional -- fourth chapter of the campaign as it seemed a bit much to visit areas devoted to each of the four Chaos gods and then to play through four similar "are we in an illusion or are we home?" episodes on the return journey. Instead I skipped straight to the flying tower of Tzeentch and only put the player-characters through the illusion once; they almost fell for it too.

The players also missed a major subplot in Middenheim and as a result an innocent man was executed and a Chaos cult prospered, but I believe that player choices should matter, even if it means a major plot is skipped or a campaign finishes earlier than it should.

That's a Big Un

It took my group about six months of weekly three-hour sessions to run through the campaign. There were a number of gaps in which we missed a session for one reason or another or played a different game that week, so it was probably closer to four months. As mentioned above I expanded the campaign in a number of spots so if played as written I reckon it would take my lot about three months -- or twelve three-hour sessions -- to play from start to finish; even if you don't put in any extra work you'll get your money's worth from the adventure. Unless you stole it.

The Enemy Concluded

There you go. That's my briefish guide to running The Enemy Within II: Enemy Withiner. We had good fun with it and it's probably the most successful campaign I've run, even if it's not as good as the original; that said, it does have a better ending. I hope it's been helpful; if anyone has any further questions then post them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

GREENSPINES

I have just taken a delivery -- thanks Ben! -- of a pile of boxes from my university days that had been in storage at the other end of the country for over a decade. Among works of classical Greek literature and dry philosophical texts was this:


Also in the box was my first set of gaming dice, bought in 1995 or so.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Man (Robot) Fights Dog

There they were, the heroes of the 13th Age, on the top floor of a rickety wooden tower in the middle of a town that was literally alive, in a stand-off with a fireball-chucking wizard and his angry-looking dog, and all Amras had on his mind was that the wizard about to immolate them all seemed very familiar.

The party inched around the room in an attempt to surround the wizard Hallas without provoking him and as a distraction Amras attempted to engage him in conversation. The party discovered that Hallas had odd gaps in his story; he didn't remember arriving in Shadow Port and while he did remember the box -- in which they had assumed the item they had been sent to retrieve had been kept -- he had no memory of its contents. This was all very suspicious and odd and then the dog said "Get out of here now and you may live", which was something of a surprise.

Ne-0n pointed at the talking dog and asked Hallas what was going on. Hallas indicated that he heard nothing but a bark. The dog bit Ne-0n on the leg, crumpling the robotic sorcerer's metallic skin. Then there was a big fight.

Hallas' spells either failed or were countered by Amras' own magical abilities and the dog was hacked and blasted into bits. Literal bits, as it exploded into rainbow coloured light when they got it to zero hit points; they began to suspect that it was not a normal dog. Meanwhile Hallas was beaten into unconsciousness and the party was just about to tie him up and loot his study when the tower shook as something huge approached. Poking their heads out the window they saw a gigantic shadow thing -- perhaps some sort of amalgamation of the smaller creatures they had fought earlier -- half-stomping and half-slithering towards them.

GIANT BLOBBY SHADOW THING THAT CRIES

Huge 6th level spoiler
Initiative + 11
Vulnerability: light (yes, I know there is no light damage type in 13th Age, so what?)

Inky black tentacles +11 vs PD (3 attacks) - 21 negative energy damage.
Natural roll is above target's Constitution: the target loses a recovery as they feel their life force draining away.

C: Shadow Wail + 11 vs MD (2d4 nearby enemies) - targets are stunned (save ends) as each of the thing's masks lets out an agonised moan.

AC 22    PD 20    MD 20    HP 270

Ooh! A boss monster! Ooh! A boss monster that couldn't roll above a five and so missed with each and every attack except for the wail and that was no good if it couldn't follow up with any other attacks. Never mind then.

At some point during the one-sided mugging of the Giant Blobby Shadow Thing Hallas woke up and tried to crawl into a corner to hide from the enormous monster smashing holes in his house, but Amras executed him with a ray of frost, an act that seemed a little disproportionate.

As the wounded and helpless wizard froze to death a strange magical burst erupted from his body and shattered the windows of the tower; Sartheen the Red was occupied chopping the Giant Blobby Shadow Thing to bits but did feel the weight of the Blue's geas lift as Hallas expired. Was the geas that bound the Blue to the Emperor's service somehow contained, not in the wooden box Sartheen had seen, but in the human being Sartheen had seen carrying the box?

(Spoiler: Yes.)

Then came the looting and as the party ransacked Hallas' study they uncovered a strange and lifelike statue of an armoured half-orc, with a silver vial on a cord hanging around its neck. They opened the vial and poured the contents into the statue's mouth, and to the great surprise of no one the statue transformed into a real little boy a confused half-orc paladin. Before anyone could ask the half-orc who he was or why he had been petrified and stood in the corner of a wizard's study, the whole tower began shaking as the sentient town took control of it and tried to crush the party inside.

They escaped the tower just as it shaped itself into an enormous fist and tried to squash them, then they legged it to the edge of town -- Amras' keen intelligence helping him to plot a course through the shifting streets -- where a group of shadow things blocked their path. Amras teleported past the mob and ran into the woods while the rest of the party hacked their way through the shadows.

Once in the relative safety of the hills above Shadow Port, the party -- and their new addition, Gothrog Thickskull, paladin of, er, Communism -- discussed their next move. Some wanted to return to the cave with the magic portal but others pointed out that this would take them straight back to the Blue. Shadow Port was on an island so the only other way off -- given their current resources -- was to steal a boat, but that would have required returning to town and they were about as keen to do that as they were to face the Blue again.

Sartheen suggested a third option. He knew -- via an Icon relationship roll -- of a small gang of smugglers who had tried to circumvent the established order of things in Shadow Port and while the smugglers themselves had been forced into early retirement by the thieves' guild it was possible that their hideout -- and their boats -- would be intact. The dragonspawn's hunch paid off and the party escaped the island in a sloop with Rarity falling back on her skills as a former pearl diver to guide them to a safe port. Alas, those skills were a bit rusty and by the time they slouched into Glitterhaegen the party was battered, bruised and half-drowned.

They knew that they had burned their bridges with some Icons and made enemies of others, so they booked into an obscure inn far from the main thoroughfares of the city and kept their heads down. As the party convalesced, Ne-0n meditated and when he emerged from his trance, days later, the robot announced that he was tired of being manipulated by powerful beings and that it was time to take the Icons on.

With the summer holidays upon us and regular attendance due to become sporadic as a result we decided that we'd arrived at a good point to pause the campaign. The characters have reached fifth level and so a new tier of play has opened up; when we return to the 13th Age in the autumn we'll see how the player-characters intend to oppose the Icons. Until then it's board games for us and we may even have a go at this new Dungeons and Dragons thing everyone's talking about.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Street Fighter

The party were in Shadow Port -- the 13th Age's generic hive of scum and villainy -- searching for a box that they believed to contain some sort of focus for the geas that kept the Blue -- the sorcerous dragon overlord -- on the side of civilisation and decency. After battling some ruffians -- and seeing Jordan Young beheaded -- they had found the box but they had found it empty.

They found this a bit puzzling. Ne-0n attempted to interface with the fabric of reality around him in order to glean some clues about the box but was soon assaulted by an overwhelming presence that threatened to drown his psyche. No closer to having an answer, the party decided to head back to the portal through which they'd been sent by the Blue; as they left the temple they spotted a gloopy shadowy thing following them at a short distance.

This shady -- ho ho -- fellow seemed to be some sort of scout and didn't put up much resistance when the group assaulted it. Moving on, they got lost again and this time noticed that the streets were reshaping around them and seemed to be herding them towards the centre of the town; Amras floated up to the rooftops to get a better look and was attacked as more of the dark blobby things pulled themselves from the shadows.

SHADOW THINGS NOT AT ALL LIKE THAT ONE FROM SPIRITED AWAY

6th level spoiler
Initiative + 11
Vulnerability: light (yes, I know there is no light damage type in 13th Age, so what?)

Inky black tentacle +10 vs PD - 18 negative energy damage.
Natural roll is above target's Constitution: the target loses a recovery as they feel their life force draining away.

AC 21    PD 19    MD 19    HP 72

The creatures proved to be a bit more effective in a group, until Amras dropped a fireball on them. One hundred points of damage will tend to discourage resistance from even the most tenacious of opponents.

After the battle the party was beckoned into a house by a portly fellow; they were of course suspicious but the alternative was a series of running battles with energy-draining shadows through streets that were always changing. A spot of tea and cake with a rotund stranger seemed like the lesser evil.

As the party ducked inside the man's cottage he introduced himself as Robul the Holy -- or Robul the Wet -- a priest of "the sea god"; Ne-0n spotted a small shrine in one corner of the living room devoted to a vaguely anthropoid deity with an octopus-like head and a mass of feelers for a face, and knew right away what kind of sea god Robul worshipped. This revelation didn't make anyone feel any safer.

The interior of the house was covered in all sorts of charms and symbols; Robul explained that these were intended to keep him hidden from agents of the Prince of Shadows. As the priest shared his dinner with the party -- glancing at Amras' burning third eye with considerable suspicion -- he explained that he had been sent by the Priestess to keep an eye on Shadow Port but that he also had a personal goal; to reconsecrate the temple from which the party had fled.

Robul told them that the town was alive -- 13th Age has living dungeons, so why not? -- and had taken a disliking to the party for some reason, and that while they would be safe under the protection of his charms, he wouldn't be able to help them escape. He did recognise the description of the albino man who Sartheen had seen carrying the pyramidic box; this was a wizard named Hallas, who was not associated with the Shadow Port thieves' guild but dwelled unmolested by both the guild and the living settlement in a ramshackle wooden tower towards the centre of the town.

After a night's rest under the many watchful eyes of Cthulhu the party decided to further investigate the box. Sartheen thought the best way to test if it was indeed the object of their quest was to smash it -- if it was the focus of a geas, the dragonspawn surmised, it would resist destruction -- but Ne-0n argued that tampering with a geas would be dangerous and Amras made up some guff that demonstrated that he hadn't paid any attention during geas lessons at wizard school.

The box was smashed to bits and nothing happened. Sartheen felt that the geas the Blue had placed on him was still active and so the party decided that they would visit the wizard Hallas, hoping he would know more, but were in no mood to venture out into the malevolent streets. Sartheen used his helm of communication to check in with Drakkenhall and request aid, asking first for a dragon -- a bold opening gambit -- but he was told by a black, assassiny-looking dragonspawn that there was a squad of assassins hiding out in the same cave that contained the portal through which the party travelled, and that they were ready to help.

Having realised that they had murdered their own extraction team the day before, the party decided to sneak towards Hallas' tower to see if the town reacted against them. They left Jordan Young's body with Robul for a proper burial, but Sartheen kept some of Jordan's toes, according to the custom of his tribe; he planned to have them with a honey mustard sauce when the party stopped for lunch.

Shadow Port seemed to unaware of their exit from Robul's safehouse -- or its attention was elsewhere -- so the party made good progress towards Halls' home, but were interrupted as a fiery mass fell screaming from the sky, shattering a nearby building. As they picked themselves up the party watched a figure stride from the smoking crater. It seemed to be a suit of black armour topped by a black skull wreathed in bright green flame; the blazing skull turned to Ne-0n and cackled.

Amras tossed a spiky seed pellet he'd found in a previous adventure and thorny roots, er, rooted the skull-thing to the spot. It stopped cackling.

The party then blasted the creature to bits. The armour survived the onslaught, a sure sign that it was enchanted; it seemed to be a good fit for Ne-0n but when it was identified as being made of halfling skin, the robot sorcerer declined the opportunity to wear it. He did keep the garment though, because player-characters never turn down loot, even on moral grounds.

After the briefest of rests the party staggered at last to the base of Hallas' tower without any interference from the sentient settlement -- eat your heart out, Stan Lee! -- and rang the door bell. No answer came and so the player-characters spent a few minutes discussing whether to break in before realising that yes, they were player-characters in a Dungeons and Dragons variant so of course they were going to break into the wizard's tower.

The building was of unusual construction, in that all the rooms were stuffed into the top two floors and the five storeys below that were empty save for a rickety wooden staircase looping around the inside walls. The stairs were trapped, of course, and the party suspected as much and so were careful about checking for traps as they went. Although Rarity spotted the traps, their magical nature meant that Sartheen could not disarm them and so instead I asked the players to roll a single d20 each as they stepped over the glyphs; on a one, they would slip and set off the trap.

Stuart has appalling luck -- although I would challenge him in the next session -- and seems to roll at least three or four ones each session; these had been saved up for the stair climbing and so by the time the party reached the top, Sartheen the Red was more Sartheen the Crispy Fried. After passing through some living quarters the party reached the top floor of the tower and a wizard's study, complete with a wizard cooking up a fireball in each hand and demanding to know why they were in his house.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pyramid-Shaped Box

This session happened two weeks ago but I didn't think enough happened to merit a discrete post, so I was going to combine it with the next summary; as it turns out my waffling got a bit out of hand and the combined post was far too long, so here's that session from two weeks ago anyway.

Having stepped through the portal in Drakkenhall a somewhat dazed party appeared in a dark and damp cave. Behind them was a vast carving of a skull, its mouth wide open in a scream, or perhaps a Skeletor-like chortle; a few specks of magic sparkled in the mouth of the skull as the portal's energy dissipated. As the adventurers recovered from teleportation sickness they spotted a cloaked figure watching them from the opposite side of the cave. They pursued the figure and ran into his friends, a group of black dragonspawn, all of whom were slaughtered without mercy, for some reason.

Emerging from the cave onto a wooded hill, the party looked down to see the lights of Shadow Port below. Sartheen the Red had been to the town many times before and it was on one of these occasions that the dragonspawn had seen an albino man with bright red hair carrying a pyramidic box to a temple; Sartheen's understanding was that the box contained the focus for the geas that bound the Blue -- one of the powerful dragon lords of the 13th Age -- to the service of the Empire.

The group scrambled down the hillside, sneaked into town, and soon got lost. Sartheen remembered that Shadow Port had some sort of mystical protection against raids by hostile powers and assured his fellows that his inability to find the old temple building was a result of this power, and not his poor memory or even worse perception rolls.

The group approached an old washer woman for directions and Jordan Young the bard-brawler-pirate offered her a gold piece for information. The woman explained that she had a husband to feed, so Jordan produced another coin. She also had children who were hungry, so Jordan flicked another gold piece her way, and another when she mentioned the starving dog she had taken in just the other day. Jordan started to get suspicious around the time the woman mentioned the peckish cousin of the dog's children, but in a rare moment of restraint for this group, they allowed the shrewd old woman to go on her way rather than eviscerate her and take back their money.

Amras took over negotiations as they collared a filthy street urchin and offered him one coin to take them to the temple and another if he'd wait for them outside. This proved to be a more effective approach as the blatant Victorian stereotype led them to an empty and overgrown square at the centre of which was a murky pool and a grey stone building spotted with moss and grime.

The great bronze doors of the building screeched like a krenshar in heat as they were pushed open -- stealth is not this party's strong point -- and inside the group encountered a trio of untrustworthy bandit types. It was no surprise that a fight broke out, but rather more surprising was Rarity -- the tiefling barbarian and the party's meat shield -- being blasted into unconsciousness by a wizard wearing those circular sunglasses that were all the rage in the 1990's, and most surprising of all was the beefy swordsman with whom Jordan was duelling rolling a triple critical, lopping off the bard's head, and sending it bouncing around the room.

Jordan had acquired an enchanted orcish helm that gave him a sort of second wind when suffering a fatal wound but we all agreed that it wouldn't work if it was worn on a head that wasn't attached to a body.

Mister Sunglasses rifled through Rarity's pockets and stole one of her magic items before vanishing with a smirk, while the rest of the party chopped his friends into bits. Victorious but battered, the adventurers mourned the passing of Jordan Young for about fifteen seconds before looting the temple. The upper floor of seemed to be some sort of store room for artefacts, and among the treasures Amras spotted a circlet emblazoned with the symbol of the Diabolist -- one of the bad guys and an Icon who had taken an interest in the elven mage in a previous adventure -- and so of course he picked it up and tried it on. The circlet vanished but the elf felt a boost to his magical abilities; also, a fiery third eye appeared in the centre of his forehead but he considered that to be a fair trade.

Meanwhile the rest of the party -- sans Jordan -- pocketed a few bits of jewellery and after a while found the object of their quest, the strange -- and not at all like the Lament Configuration, no way Jose -- wooden box Sartheen had seen on his prior visit to Shadow Port. The box was locked but after a bit of trial-and-error and pass-the-parcel the mechanism was bested and the lid flipped open, releasing a puff of toxic green gas into Sartheen's face. As the dragonspawn coughed and spluttered the rest of the party peered into the box, only to find that it was empty.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Revisiting Vornheim

I wrote this review of Zak Smith's Vornheim back in April of 2011 and little has changed, except that I know Zak a little better than I did then, I've run a few games of some D&D variants since, and I have a new coffee table. I've changed the link to the Lamentations of the Flame Princess shop in the final paragraph as the original hardback is no longer available, although I am told a reprint is in the works.

It's worth mentioning that in the three years since I wrote the original review I have done some minor work for LotFP, but at the time I was but a customer. Not that my association with the company would change my opinion of the book; I still think it's innovative and inspirational.

(Now, cue Wayne's World wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey flashback effect as we head back to the space year 2011.)

Player: Fluffy the half-golem needs repairs! Where's the nearest alchemist?

GM: Err... [flips through three hundred pages of text] hang on, it's here somewhere...

Player: I'll put the kettle on.

A proper old-school GM cares not one jot for detailed maps of every street of every district of the City of Genericfantasyburg, because the old-school GM will just roll on a random table to discover what's round that corner or behind that door. I don't know him aside from his blog persona, but Zak S. -- it stands for Sabbath or Smith depending on which hat he's wearing that day -- seems to prefer this philosophy of generating random data and trying to sort it out at the table, but with Vornheim he suggests that even random tables aren't quite fun enough.

Vornheim also represents an explicit dissatisfaction with the rpg book as a format, that as game books, they're perhaps a bit too bookish and aren't nearly gamey enough. Zak wants them to be more than just containers for text -- this is reflected, consciously or not, within the city itself, where snakes are the medium of choice -- and as such Vornheim is a thing to be used, a bundle of mechanics and tools, a -- you knew it was coming -- kit that only takes the shape of a book, for lack of a better format.

Imagine I want to generate a city location, so in order to do so, I use the front cover of the book. I adore this. It's the author saying "I don't want the cover to just be the thing you stick the title and a pretty picture on, even if I am an artist; I want you to be able to get an actual use from the cover." The idea is to maximise game utility, because the prettiest painted cover image is of about as much use as a chocolate fire guard if your players want to know what's behind that green copper door.

So, I want to generate the location. I get a d4 and I roll it -- this only works with the pointy types; my fancy twelve-siders just roll right off the book, off the table and into the dark corners of the room, where the spiders dwell -- onto the cover of the book itself.

Vornheim is a city of towers, so let's generate one of those. The 14 to the right of -- and almost obscured by -- the die tells us that the tower has fourteen storeys, and the 2 below the die tells us that the tower has two bridges linking it to other towers. The number rolled, a 1, tells us how many entrances the tower has. This takes about a minute, start to finish, more if you faff about trying to find your dice bag.

It's not just cute and fun -- though it is that too -- as this kind of innovation is also there to make the generation of game data more useful and efficient; the exact same roll gives us a fighter with an Armour Class of 18 or 2 -- depending on D&D version -- of second level, and wielding a sword. The same chart can also generate an animal, monster, thief, wizard, group of city guards, inn, two types of internal room, two types of magical attack, and a poison. There's another very similar chart on the back cover, and the book contains a number of different pages that operate along similar lines.

Not all the material in the book follows the same format. There's some prose description, maps, a couple of keyed map adventures, and more than a few random tables, but these are all infused with the same sense of trying to do more with such tools, to not fall back on what is expected of a city-based rpg sourcebook. This informs and supports the general approach of describing Vornheim through examples, rather than present an encyclopaedia of every street, house and citizen.

That said, the GM is given the tools to generate such elements as and when they are needed, and more importantly perhaps, to make them interesting and dynamic when they do come up; Vornheim rejects the mundane, conventional and boring, and this attitude is apparent on every page. The stated goal of the book is not only to allow a GM to create a city on the fly, but to make it interesting, memorable and fun, and I would argue that it more than succeeds in that task.

It is rather D&D-centric and I don't run D&D, but that's not the fault of the book and it's not as if Zak's blog title doesn't make it very clear what his game of choice is. It's not a huge problem by any means, as the book uses so few actual statistics and rules that it's easy enough to convert to one's chosen system, and besides, my key interest was in how Zak pushed the boundaries of rpg sourcebook presentation, and that's something one can appreciate irrespective of the game system.

The book could have done with another editing pass perhaps, as there are some glitches here and there, such as missing table headers and a couple of cases of repeated and redundant information. In places, there's also some repeated and redundant information. Even so, these glitches are few and none of them have any negative effect on the utility of the book, and that's what counts at the end of the day.

To compare Vornheim to the perennial Best City Book Ever nominee Ptolus is perhaps not fair -- although I sort of just do that, oops -- as they're very different products with very different intentions, and to say that one is better than the other seems a bit pointless. Let it be said then that I prefer Vornheim, even as an infrequent fantasy GM, because it strives to be more useful than exhaustive, and because I admire and support the genuine attempts to do something different within the format of the rpg sourcebook.

Vornheim is a sixty-four page A5ish pdf, more or less compatible with most versions of D&D -- even the Unmentionable -- and is available from the Lamentations of the Flame Princess shop for 6.20€. It's well worth every whatever-pennies-are-called-in-the-Euro-is-it-cents-I-don't-know.