Friday, November 26, 2010

OD&D, Session 4

With Castle Caldwell behind us, the merry band of adventurers now proceeds back to Guido's fort to receive our comparatively meager 100 gp each.  Regrettably, I forgot to charge the 100 gp fee for Zhanna, our lost cleric.  Have to remember that in the future.

Zhanna has since been replaced by another elf, we've brought on Earnest's mage, and the thief has returned from  wherever he disappeared to last session.  We've also picked up Ceeay, who has "heard about another really cool god, called Alphaks the Roarer" that she's going to worship since we told her Orcus was "kind of a dick".  This is going to be an ongoing thing, I feel.

We also still have Fritz driving/guarding the cart.  Which is handy because it contains many thousands of pieces of silver and a not-inconsiderable amount of gems and jewelry.  Pretty good start to our careers, actually.

After paying us off, Clifton tells us that he's had a message from a friend of his, who is himself possessed of an ancestral castle.  It has apparently been "lost" for a while, although how one loses a castle I have no idea.  Now that it's found (perhaps it was between the couch cushions, that happens to me with my castles a lot), he'd like somebody to clear it out.  Since we now have "credentials" on the castle-clearing front, we're offered the job.

And he's willing to pay 500 gp each, with half up front.  We get the money, and the thief immediately asks, "so what should we go do instead?" Which isn't a bad questions, since we just got a bag with 1000 gp in it.  After some discussion, we come to the conclusion that we "don't have fuck-all else to do, and look how well the last castle job turned out."  Well, except for Zhanna...  But whatever.

Of course, the downside is that the new-old castle is way over on the other side of Karameikos, close the to inventively-named "Black Eagle Barony".  Karameikos isn't really that big - it's about 200 miles across and maybe 100 miles north-south, and we're pretty much smack in the middle, so we only have about 150 miles or so to travel - first south to good 'ole Speculum-City, then across to Luln.

In planning the trip, we discovered some interesting things about overland travel in the Rules Cyclopedia world.

1) Horses are stupid-fast.  Apparently a riding horse on a standard trail can go 72 miles in a day.  That seems... excessive to me.  Some basic internet research shows that 100 miles in a day is about the most possible, and can generally only highly trained or exceptional riders can maintain that - the equivalent of modern marathoners.  I'd say 50 would be more reasonable, but I might be wrong, so I'll just deal with it.

2) You get a lot of encounters. Even in clear/settled terrain.  Standard is d6 during the day, and d12 at night, with encounters occurring on 1's (or more in rougher areas).  Also, in almost every environment, 1 chance in 8 is a "Dragon" type encounter.  That basically means that on average, every 48 days of travel, one encounters a Dragon.  Which explains why the roads seem so quiet.  How the fuck does Specularum feed itself?  I guess maybe farmers travel at night, very cautiously, and dragons don't eat turnips?

Anywhoo, we had several encounters on our trip south.  We ran into some orcs.  They attacked us so we cast Sleep on them (why have an AK-47 and not use it?). Luckily, they all went to sleep, so we killed them, and discovered that they had $5000 gp in a sack by the road.  Aren't random treasure tables wonderful?  I'm starting to see the attraction of treasure parcels.  But I'm also not complaining!

Then we encountered a couple of bodies with some trained war-wolves standing over them protectively.  Through some inspired animal-training, the thief of the party now has 2 loyal trained war-wolves. Which should come in handy!

Once we reached Specularum, we had some work done on the cart - added sidewalls for better defense, and hired 2 light footmen to assist in guarding it - Frizt's son and his wife - so it's a family affair now.  Plus, light footmen cost 2 gp/month, so we have enough just from the orcs to pay them for... 104 1/8 years.  Good job security, I say!

Further down the road we ran into some giant ants.  They gave us a nasty turn when 1 sleep spell only put 2 of them to sleep!  Luckily, we have 3 casters, and the second spell did the trick.  Ant-shell helmets for everyone!  And then I had to go to bed, so we called it a night.

I'm not sure I'm loving this game, but playing it as written is sure informative.  I see reasons why many changes were made to it over the years...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

OD&D, Session 3

Onward, into the depths (the horizontal, well-lit depths) of Castle Caldwell!

We used a Sleep spell on the Pearl Necklace Gang in the last session, so the party took the cart back to Guido's Fort for a well-earned sleep and feed.  Love those 20 minute adventuring days!

My character has done maybe 40 minutes of real work in this place, and we've looted about 100 years worth of earnings for a hard-working carter.  Put down the tools!  Pick up the sword and adventure!  It's like the lottery but with poisonings and eviscerations!

The next day - sleep spells reloaded, we head back to Castle Caldwell.  A few people can't make it, so we bring in Jenny's husband Earnest as a ringer, and Jenny rolls up a new character.  A second elf!  Yaay!  And Earnest is a mage.  Now we have 3 sleep spells.  Monsters, beware!

Nobody is really sure where these other characters are coming from, but whatever - there are doors to open.  Cause that's pretty much all there is to do in 'ole C.C.  Lots of doors with stuff behind them.  Verrrry retro.

The next door we open - after checking the inevitably empty corner tower, contains a very attractive female in plate armor with a mace.  She is kneeling in front of a small altar.  As we enter, she turns and says "Greetings, are you here for service?"  "What god are we servicing to?" I inquire.  Politeness counts, people!

"Orcus" she says (we may retcon this to be Aphaks the Roarer).  So I cast a sleep spell on her.

Then we strip off the armor, tie her up and loot the room.  Man, this post devolved into fanfic pretty fast.

Once we've looted and oogled, we wake her up and ask some questions.  Turns out, her name is Ceeay (stands for C.A., which stands for Chaotic Acolyte).  She's been here about a week, just wandered in and set up a shrine.  She doesn't know very much about Orcus (or whoever) but she's keen to be an acolyte of something.  She proves sane and reasonable, albeit totally naive and inexperienced, so we get her to promise to help us out in exchange for 1/5th of the treasure, untie her and now we have a henchwoman/back-up character.

Then we check more empty rooms, find some stirges and a talking statue of a Herdsman which answers 3 questions - we can only think of 2, "what is the most dangerous monster in the castle?" and "how do we get into the magically locked room?"

Answers are: "Giant crab-spider that hangs from the ceiling" and "with the key that the owner of the castle has", accordingly.  So that's handy.

Then we find some sleeping merchants - well, ex-merchants - they left their mule, loaded with silver and pearl necklaces, outside, but it was stolen.  They agree that they are crappy merchants, and leave when we suggest it - citing the impending arrival of the owner of the castle, and the fact that we took away their weapons while they were asleep, as reasons why they should go.

More rooms - we find an internal grassy courtyard with some wolves in it.  Apparently the wolves were trapped here when the merchants shut the door.  Why they were in here instead of the FOREST remains a mystery that we will never solve.  We kill the wolves and find some kobolds - upon which time we cast sleep and initiate operation "Chunky Kobold Salsa".  Apparently the new elf doesn't like kobolds.  Fingolfin speaks Kobold, which suggests at least some affinity for the scaly little assholes.  But that doesn't stop him from finishing them off.

Finally, we encounter the spider-crab thing.  Sleep spell.  Splat.  During the fighting, the new wizard proves to be preternaturally accurate with his sling.  He hits 5 times in a row in a battle against the stirges, and Ceeay proves to be a loyal and a biddable meat shield.  So that's good.

Eventually, we get to the big payoff - a massive chest in the magically locked room.  It contains a scrap of paper which reads "thanks for the treasure - Bargle".  Like we needed more reason to hate that asshat.  I never did get to nail Aleena.  Maybe I'll have better luck with the current attractive female cleric (are henchman allowed to say "No"? - Discuss)?

We left the Castle and returned to the owner, blissfully unaware that we missed the incredibly sucky "Beneath Castle Caldwell" - the entrance was under the giant chest.  Presumably the new owner will find it, but we're off to do something better.  Like modules produced after 1981.

Also, I think we answered the question "why would you use a pseudonym when writing a module"?  The answer of course, is that you're shit at it, and don't want your name attached to it, or people will be coming up to you at Cons and kicking you right in the sack.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fantasy Webcomic Lessons

There are some great webcomics out there on the underwebs.  In addition to being entertaining and cool to read, they can be a great source for DM inspiration.  Here are some of my favorite gaming webcomics, along with a cool gaming lesson I got from reading the comic:

Order of the Stick: The classic gaming webcomic.  OotS teaches us, above all, the value of the villain.  Xykon the Lich is exactly the kind of bad guy that the whole party can really love to hate.  Better yet, he presents a real threat.  Xykon is a capable adversary and comes back to (un)life, so you can use him over and over!

Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic: The name says it all.  This is a long-running fantasy comic that has run a number of plotlines over the years.  Starting off as a Dungeon-Keeper-esque monster comic, it's since evolved into an interesting collection of fantasy stories.

There are a ton of different ideas you can get from this comic, but the one that really jumped out at me is the way that the adventures have large-scale impact on the world.  Kingdoms rise and fall, village and cities are destroyed and the world changes.  Making sure that the actions of the players have an impact on the world is a great way to keep them engaged in the game.

Erfworld: What if you lived in a turn-based strategy game?  Erfworld is funny, violent and all-around great.  The funny aspect of Erfworld really caught my attention.  My best memories of gaming are the funny moments, intentional or, more often, unintentional.  The best lesson I got from Erfworld is that you can tell an awesome story AND keep your party snickering at the same time.

Goblins: Goblin PC's, lots of violence, and a character called Minmax.  What's not to like?  A couple of things from the Goblins comic really stand out for me.  The first is that a little metagaming is not a bad thing.  The characters in this comic (and OotS for that matter) discuss game rules the way we discuss things like gravity or oxygen - they represent the natural laws of the world, and therefore, must be talked about.  So let the players chat about rules and metagame - no need to even assume it's out of character...

The other really cool thing about Goblins, is the reminder that random tables are AWESOME.  Complains the goblin has a magical shield that causes a random effect when it is struck by a weapon.  It creates the most excellent fight scene in the comic so far, and random effects can have equally awesome impacts on your game, if you can let them (but then, I played a Wild Mage when Tome of Magic came out).

Challenges of Zona: This is a bit of a weird one.  It's got sex, violence and classic rock and roll, though!  The best lesson I learned from Zona is that heroes should be heroic.  There needs to be something that sets the characters apart from the common ruck of humanity - something that makes focusing on their adventures exciting and worthwhile.  Zona, Mentl, Tula and even Yatta-Ta (of Ir Anis) are capital-H heroes, which is what I think that characters in RPG's should be.

Girl Genius: Setting, setting, setting.  The three rules of fantasy real-estate!  The great characters, cool art and generally excellent steampunk/mad science story notwithstanding, it's the setting that really sets (hehe) Girl Genius apart from other webcomics.

 Alternative history/fantasy Europe, ruled by a powerful, ruthless Baron?  Check.

Crawling with monsters and worse, mad scientists?  Check.

Huge castle built by generations of the most insane and villainous of all the mad scientists?  Check.

Castle AI fragmented, homicidal and insane, with thousands of death traps at it's command?  Check.

Awesome?  Check and double check.

Anything I missed?  What are your favorite fantasy webcomics, and what gaming lessons did they teach you?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Towers of Midnight: Book Review

Have you ever sat down and eaten an entire pint of Haagen-daz?  Not really on purpose, but you just keep finding excused to keep eating, and pretty soon the entire pint is just... gone.

I did that with Towers of Midnight.  I kept meaning to go to bed.  Just a few more pages and I'll put it down.  It's getting late... better stop.  But I didn't stop.

I read this book until 2:30 in the morning, then got up and read for another hour to finish it.  It was mental.  I had to drive 8 hours the next day, and I was exhausted because I literally could not put this book down - that's something hasn't happened to me with a Wheel of Time book for a looong time.  So - that's a good thing.

But what was it, exactly, that kept me so engaged?

Some if it is definitely the feeling that a marathon is almost over.  I read the first Wheel of Time book when I was in junior high - 20 years ago or so.  After a run like this, it's hard not to try and sprint across the finish line.

Towers of Midnight was also a pretty compelling read, even though it had all the problems of the middle book in a trilogy.  There was a definite "Empire Strikes Back" vibe to it - lots of cool things happening, but you know that you won't get the real payoff until the next installment.  Still and all, this book accelerates the final race towards the conclusion of the series - wrapping up plot lines, bringing things together as much as possible.

In a fast-paced book like this, where the action comes quickly and time is at a premium, Sanderson's talents are really valuable.  He's better at straight action scenes, things like swordfights and mage battles, than Jordan was, which makes for some great scenes, like Perrin's battles with Slayer, and Egwene's fight against the Black Ajah in Tel'aran'rhiod.

There are some things that Sanderson doesn't do as well Jordan, though.  And Sanderson's voice is becoming a louder part of the book.  He's working off of Jordan's notes and partially-written manuscript, so it's inevitable that he has to fill in more gaps as time goes on.  In those gaps, we see more and more of Sanderson, which isn't always a bad thing, but the feeling of reading a book by a different author is getting stronger.

You really start to see the differences in this book when we read war scenes.  The big battles in the book are good, but I felt like they lacked something that Jordan brought to them.  Which isn't that surprising, as Jordan was a Vietnam veteran with combat experience.

The other real crack that shows here is Sanderson's take on Matt Cauthon.  Matt is a character that I always got the feeling Jordan really liked and identified with.  He was a more light-hearted, slightly comic character - a counterpoint to the damaged Rand and self-involved Perrin.  Unfortunately, Sanderson doesn't really do Matt justice.

Sanderson's Matt has all the essentials of the character.  He ogles women, swears a bit too much, and trusts his luck, but - like the war scenes, something's missing.  It doesn't feel like Sanderson really loves the character, so Matt's comes across a bit flat.  His Rand is much, much better, though - and his Perrin is pretty much the same as Jordan's.

Ultimately, the book is a great success.  It finishes off a lot of loose threads and sets the stage nicely for the last book in the series.  There is a bit more Sanderson here than in The Gathering Storm, but that doesn't detract from the book, so much as it changes it a little.  It's still a ripping story that moves at a great pace, has all your favorite characters and really sets up the coming finale.  If you like the Wheel of Time, you'll probably have a few quibbles with this book - but it's a great read.  Of course, if you've been reading these freaking books for the last 20 years, you don't have any choice but to read the damn thing.

Friday, November 12, 2010

How to Sort Out the Digital Initiative

I've been talking a bit about DDi, rules distribution and digital tools for gaming lately.  I've been drawing a lot of parallels between gaming rules and software - both are updated with new material frequently, can sometimes get over-complicated, and now have the option of being updated digitally.

What initially started me thinking about this was a post by Bill over at Digital Monkey Shines, where he likens various editions of D&D to software and tax code.

The tax code part got me thinking...  Right now, the government releases the tax code and provides the technical specs for submitting taxes electronically - they say "this is how it works".  Anybody who wants to can write a piece of software that contains the tax code information, does calculations automatically, and creates files that allow you to submit them electronically.

And this works freaking great.  Tax software is relatively inexpensive (free in some cases), is generally both accurate and usable, and is compliant with the required format.  There is also a lot of selection, and thus, lots of competition, making for very good product.

Imagine then, if you will, what a Government-produced tax software, that everyone was required to use, would look like...  Once you have stopped screaming, and put some ointment on the claw marks on your face, consider that WotC has basically been playing the role of "the Government" in this little drama for a while.

Right now we have a new online Character Builder, online Compendium, unsupported Monster Builder, no encounter builder, no parcel treasure builder, no character visualizer, no online gametable, no virtual minis, no great campaign manager tools.  We have maybe 1/3 of the tools that WotC announced when DDi came out.  Which kinda sucks, because I was pretty stoked about those tools.

When asked about why they don't have these things, WotC generally respond "we still don't really know shit about computers" or some variation thereof.

So - you want to sort this digital shit out, Wizards?  You should, cause it's been a sticking point.

Try this - give some guidelines about what a software app needs to do to be considered "Wizards-Approved".  The app maker will need to pay you a certain amount to get "Wizards-Approved", and there will probably be ongoing licensing fees.  You will give them access to the game data and such, and they can build the programs.  Then you let the market decide which programs are really good.  If they are bad, people won't use them.  If they are good, people will probably pay to use them.  The really good ones, you sign an "Official Support" agreement with, package onto DDi as premium content and then you enjoy the shit out of actually having good digital tools.

Because guess what - there are people out there with good computer skills who like D&D and will do great stuff if you A) stop imagining that you have to do everything and B) start thinking like a smart company.

But that might be hard...

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rules Cyclopedia: Session 2

I've played Castle Caldwell for 3 hours, and I want to punch Ron Charulsky in the nut-sack.

Seriously.  This is not how you do things.  I have argued with Trollsmyth before about the steaming "theoretical framework" pile of D&D is always right.  I warn you - this does not display me at my best.  I'm irritated about this, and remain that way.  I cannot think of a better refutation of "D&D is always right", than Castle Caldwell.  I'll get into that in another post, though.

So far, we have encountered the following monsters:
3 goblins
1 spitting cobra (more on the cobra later)
2 fire beetles
1 giant shrew (apparently both ferocious and terrifying)
3 bandits.

We have also encountered one magically locked door and a poison gas trap.  We've found something like 10000 sp, and hundreds of gold worth of gems and jewelry.  Oh, and the cleric died - see spitting cobra.

After the last session, we had slept in the dubious comfort of Guido's fort, bought a 4-wheeled cart and 4 mules to pull it, and hired a drover named Fritz to drive said cart and feed/watch said mules.

Fritz was available for 5 sp/week.  Which means that we have found enough silver (mostly in bags under beds or piled on the floor) to pay Fritz for 40 years.  Not bad for 2 days work... and a cleric.

Returning to the keep, we used the age-old dungeoneering technique - always turn left.  We found a tower room (not really - this is a 1-level bungalow castle) with a tree growing through the window.  The tree was cut down and shaped into a 10' pole.

Then we found a room that used to be a kitchen.  It contained a leather (?) chest, which we opened by tying a rope to the lid and pulling open - which proved to be a good decision, as the chest was apparently used for poison gas storage.  Nothing else in it though.  What kind of asshole traps an empty chest and leaves it in the kitchen?  Someone with a psychotic hatred for scullions, that's who.

The next room contained a "pile of sacks and garbage" and a dead goblin with a swollen arm.  The voices of experience screamed "Rot Grubs", so we doused the goblin in lamp oil and lit him on fire - then retreated out of the room for a while.  I mistakenly assumed that the sacks and garbage would be in contact with the goblin, and that the flames would also drive out anything nasty lurking in them - I was in fact mistaken.

We re-entered the room, poked around a bit, and "disturbed" the spitting cobra who lived under the sacks and garbage.  It proceeded to spit at us vigorously, and Zhanna, the cleric, took a load in the face (I know, I'm a child sometimes).  The 4 damage was not too bad, the save vs poison was... worse.  She did not in fact save, and died instantly as a result.  Bugger.

Zhanna was a great character too.  She had excellent stats (so good that I asked the DM if he had watched them being rolled - the player is his sister...), the best armor possible, and was generally being played in a competent manner.  And now she is dead.  And that is why I hate save-or-die.  Oh, and the snake was worth 31 xp (or 8 apiece).

Jenny didn't have another character ready, so we grabbed Fritz from cart-duty, gave him a spear, shield and Zhanna's plate mail, and dubbed him "Sir New Character".  He did pretty well, actually.

There was, predictably, no treasure in the room.  Nor in the next room, although we found some nifty romance novels (no value, notwithstanding that books were very costly before the printing press), some fire beetle glands - which we detached from the beetles using swords (wtf do people do with those?).

In another room we found a bag full of thousands of silver pieces... Rational.  We also encountered a magically held door, and a room with 3 bandits and a mule in it.  I was fed up after the spitting cobra debacle, so I dropped the tactical nuke (or Fat Boy, if you will) of the OD&D world - sleep.  And then we hit them over the head and took their stuff.  I mean, I'm Lawful, but bandits are, well, bandits.

They were pretty good at banditing, though.  They had thousands more silver, as well as a box of gems.  Oh, and 2 of the bandits had "pearl necklaces".  But not the leader.  I think we can all figure out how that happened. Rank hath it's privileges, after all.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fail. Fail and Double Fail

Argh!  I fucking hate it when somebody proves me wrong!  I have defended ye olde WotC and their Character Builder tools in the past.  Even going so far as to say that I think it's one of the best deals in gaming today, and a wonderful and innovative way to distribute RPG as a software.

But they have, in their infinite wisdom, decided to take all the things I really liked about Character Builder and turf them.  Bravo, Wizards.  Bravo.

Offline access?  Turfed.

Multiple updates for my gaming group?  TURFED.

Ability to stay current without an ongoing subscription?  TURFED.

Reasons to subscribe to DDi?  TUR-Fucking-ERFED.

Wizards... I don't want to be this guy.  I've stood up for you in bloody (blistered?) flamewars for several years.  I like 4e.  I love the tools.  But, there comes a time when a man cannot be kicked in the nuts and smile about it any longer.

And the worst, the very worst part of this is... YOU HAD OTHER THINGS TO WORK ON.

This is like when I tell a programmer that he needs to fix a bunch of critical reporting tools, and after a week he tells me that he did some design work on the USER INTERFACE.  Oh, and he figured out a way to make clients pay more for the software...

So now my clients can access their buggy reporting tools (which makes them upset), more easily, and for more money.  Bravo, man.  Way to fix the system.

Wizards, you could have been working on the Virtual Gamespace you promised me 3 years ago.  Or the character visualizer.  Or a Treasure Generator, or an Encounter Designer.  Fuck's sake - on anything but the tool that was ALREADY the best selling feature.  The thing that most 4e players agree is "indispensable", and which has basically killed the whole 3rd party 4e market (that last bit is not such a good thing).

But instead you reinvent the wheel - and proudly point out that it's now square, works on less carts, and has tolling stations available on all major roads.

Man... now I know why people seem to enjoy raging and ranting about WotC - it feels kinda good.  I'll be playing TMNT and Rules Cyclopedia if anybody needs me... Maybe I can even find my old 2e stuff....