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) 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.

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.