Saturday, September 26, 2015

I think I appreciate the Forgotten Realms...

There's some required amount of background for any RPG game, and its maddening to try to parcel it out to players. I've obviously been thinking about it in the context of my own gaming, but also the antagonizer's latest post bout past and current dungeon thoughts and these silly comics I bought off of Humble Bundle a while ago.

One huge benefit of a campaign setting is being able to play in a world where everyone is on the same page. To some extent, the world of darkness games were genius: start off with 100% familiar things and add a layer of fantasy on top. You could easily start a game where players turn into vampires and then navigate their new existence without any background info, or at least without much.

So its time for a confession: not only have I been reading some of these old D&D comics set in the forgotten realms, but Lords of Waterdeep has been one of my go-to time-wasters. And its actually kinda neat seeing some of the random names from that game show up in the comic. And playing through Princes of the Apocalypse now, I also have a few better ideas about the sword coast and the religion of the Forgotten Realms in general. And its frustrating a bit when new DM brings in crazy greyhawk deities for no good reason. Because he's also then using random Forgotten Realms stuff like the Harpers and whatnot. But the point is there's a vaguely coherent and shared framework that could be used.

I missed the print edition of the Guide to Glorantha, and I'm a bit sad of that. I was warned about this, but I didn't want to drop that much cash on something I might not use. But after backing the 13th Age in Glorantha kickstarter I've come to appreciate Glorantha a bit more. Or, at least the basics, and especially the religions. See, originally the Gloranthan deities were designed to be a bit like a lost pantheon of familiar gods, at least the Orlanthi gods. So Orlanth is the sky-father, Ernalda is the earth-mother, and so forth. There's pretty clear parallels for Orlanth with Odin and Zeus and so forth. Now it's not just some proto-indo-european religion, as Runequest/Glorantha incorporates some aspects of Semitic and Sumerian religion as well, but its somewhat easy to draw parallels with these (dare I say iconic) deities.

13th Age similarly does a nice job of presenting a fairly iconic fantasy world without introducing dozens of nonsensical names full of apostrophes (this is a problem with Princes of the Apocalypse: there's so many NPCs with such nonsense fantasy names that its maddening for me as a player, I can imagine its similarly maddening as a DM). I think the genius of 13th Age is leaving the world half-baked so that the players and GM can fill it in. I think this was, in a way, the genesis of the Antagonist's games which involved a floating island in the midst of the "mist sea". Start small, the build outwards.

Its hard to get this shared sense of the world if you're not starting off. When The Antagonizer and I (and another friend) started playing 3.5 back in the day, we built a world together. Each player had the option to bring things in but it was mostly the three of us and when I decided I wanted a priest of a small pantheon of Wisdom Kings, our friend decided that rather than being dedicated to goodness, they should be dedicated to law. I promptly concurred because it not only took advantage of the shared aspect of world building, but it was, frankly, a bit of a better idea. When I left, crazy things happened that I was never apart of, and it was hard going back to occasionally play with them as new things just kept being added to the world that I had no part in. Likewise, my dreams for our empire of law include the peninsula of Twantu which is mostly ruled by incan-like Dwarves, separated from the Empire of Man by the Sargassso Sea (ruled with an iron fist by Blunanda, Kelp Queen of the Sargasso Sea), and further afield lie the Isles of Abandon where misfits and adventurers dwell. So if I ran things it would be alien to them as well, though with some shared elements (ancient blood gods, a powerful wizard's guild, and a senator named Taira who may or may not be evil).

So the point of this rambling? I'm putting together some background info for my game, but its also hard to know what is enough. I can give players some sections of books to read, or suggest chapters, but I don't know who read what. To make matters worse I'm drawing What I want are some quick setting intro videos or 2-4 page setting overviews for things like Al-Qadim and Planescape and more. I want comics (like the Unity of Rings or maybe Ianto's Tomb) that actually introduce some vital elements of the setting, and novels that hew closely to some of the game mechanics and setting lore (and don't drastically change things from the books like the Prism Pentad for Dark Sun or the Avatar Trilogy for Forgotten Realms or the Chronicles trilogy for Dragonlance did). I miss the World of Darkness short story anthologies and ditto for The Sinful Stars: Tales of the Fading Suns (though I don't think their purpose was to really introduce the setting, we definitely passed those around like a doobie back in the day). I really hope that WotC can make some of this work now that D&D is a huge brand, at least for their big worlds.

Obviously the problem here is trying to figure out what is enough. I love Fading Suns for its detailed world, but I doubt I'll ever use that much intricate backstory. I think an ideal way to do this might be the quick and dirty short into to the setting and then the 2+ page entries on different races and factions, or the short story that focuses on an individual character option (city/region, race, possibly class). I love this new Vampire: The Dark Ages behemoth I've got, but there's no way I'd ask players to read a 400+ page RPG manual as though we were using all those options (and it doesn't even go in-depth on the various clans much more than all the bloodlines). God help me if I were ever a marketer for Wizards of the Coast as this might all just muck things up, but a few simple things like this seem like they'd be immensely helpful.

For me though, I'll just have to ask the players what they've had time to read of the Al-Qadim stuff and put some things together for them. And, I guess, appreciate that the new D&D stuff does have a setting, with a stable of deities and cities and NPC groups even if I find it a bit lackluster. I can at least see the benefits, even if it still just makes it feel like 5e is a great compromise edition.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Surprises from Second Edition

So my Church of Al-Qadim (i.e. SundAD&D) game is up and running, and four brave souls are letting me run my dream Al-Qadim game (with a few modifications to fit their points of view). Its been a bit rough so far, because I forget how much work it can be to run a game, in this case stitching a number of Al-Qadim and non-AQ adventures together into a nice sandbox. So I haven't even given out all the background info I was hoping to, and might need to recommend a couple changes to characters still, but things are coming along fairly well I think.

However. I had a few surprises with the second edition rules.

First off: random wilderness encounters. I mucked it up a bit and ran the dungeon rules for the wilderness, but I'm not sure it affected all that much there. But afterwards when I sat down to really read through the random encounters rules I see this:
Unlike the dungeon tables, those used for the wilderness are not so neatly organized according to deadliness or power. One principle of wilderness adventuring (which makes it more dangerous for low-level characters) is that virtually any creature can be met—and often in sizeable numbers. This is a risk the players should be aware of before they take their characters out into the untracked forest.
This really hit home after killing one PC and rolling for a 10-hit die giant snapping turtle (6d4 damage with a successful bite means it would be virtually guaranteed to kill any of the PCs with one hit).

Second off: Death's door. After killing a PC, I used the obvious Hovering at Death's Door optional rule. I shocked myself a little, as PCs can't recover more than 1 hitpoint for a full day (and are basically useless that whole day). This is definitely a lot gritter than the rules in modern D&D where there are cantrips to stabilize people and warlords can yell people back on their feet. I definitely like it, but I wonder if there's a role for letting high-constitution characters get off a little easier. Though maybe it could just be you're officially dead when your negative HP hit your constitution score, rather than -10 for everyone. This rule also makes me feel a little justified with my proposed 5e house rule of assigning a level of exhaustion if you get to negative HP.  Second edition also made it a bit easier than first edition, where it can take a whole week of rest before the injured character can adventure again. I suspect we'll find the pace of healing a lot slower too unless the priestess uses all her spells for healing constantly. Makes me think a little about whether I want those second level healing spells in the game or not: priests can't heal as much if there are no healing spells at a particular level.

Third off: Crazy spells! The save for Charm Person might only be made in spans of weeks, not days or hours. I kind of knew this but didn't actually read it before we played. Animal Friendship is basically indefinite (though there's a limit to how many you can have at any given time), which we discovered right before we started. These are all basically hidden class features (much like Eldritch Blast & Hex or Hunter's Mark or Find Steed in 5e).

Fourth off: Ability scores! I didn't know dexterity didn't modify initiative (probably cause it was hard on group initiative which was the early standard). Instead it modifies your likelihood of being surprised (you might not surprise everyone in a group). Likewise both dexterity and wisdom have broad impacts on classes of saving throws (dodge-able and mind-affecting spells) and everyone gets a constitution bonus to saves versus poison (though dwarves and halflings get a bigger bonus for their race). I like some of this and you can see how it prefigures the fortitude, reflex, and will saves/defences of later editions.

Overall, I'm liking it. It definitely seems to be working for a gritter game, is easy-ish to modify some aspects, and it would be a bit harder to get 5e to do some of this as well as second edition seems to be (not to mention I have all this second edition stuff, I doubt they'll ever actually convert Al-Qadim to 5e).

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Good techniques: Background Info

Since I've had a few days of boring meetings, I've been thinking about some of the good that I've experienced recently and hope to bring to my own game. The first one is hooks and background info.

New DM used some little faction-based hooks for Princes of the Apocalypse, so that each PC has a few ideas of what's going on. Now he did it in a kinda odd cut-and-paste style where we have no idea who Windharrow is or why we're after them, but meh. The idea is good. So I'm hoping to give out a few specific ideas to specific characters, both in terms of background info and possible leads. Also, giving people stuff pre-written-down might help alleviate a few issues of player record keeping. The PCs in Al-Qadim SundAD&D (Ruined Kingdoms Church) are going to be a bit more selfish than in New DM's TuesD&D game, so it'll be nice to give out some good info to different PCs without everyone else knowing.

Hopefully my cut-and-paste jobs won't be too much of an info dump for PCs, but I think it'll be a little helpful to give the PCs some knowledge (slightly redacted) of what I'm working with. The only problem I've got so far is how much info to give people, but I think I can just be cautious to start and add to each PC's document over time as needed.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

TuesD&D Recap II: Heavy Hands

Continuing my bashing of New DM (He's still doing quite well, I'm just going to focus on the less-good things so far): Things felt rather heavy handed last night.

First, there was another party in play. I wasn't expecting another adventuring party to be in the same location as we were. That was kinda good, but how did they avoid the first trap which was a Zombie pushing rubble on top of us. Did they somehow sneak past the zombies? I really do like this idea though that there are others interested in the same goals as the players, but its kinda odd for the GM to portray whole parties at once, and a party of two dudes seemed very small to encounter. 

Second, New DM doesn't really roleplay charactersBut he had one of them killed so he just did one character, and didn't even say the words the NPC was saying: he just said things like "He basically tells you X". All of this while one of the other players was trying out voices for his character. It was also funny, because after we slaughtered the guy in the cave, he mentioned how it was sad cause he wanted to roleplay that guy... So... I'm confused.

Third, I'm not sure how much information we're supposed to be getting or how quickly, but he was doing a lot of reveals. This other adventuring party gave us quite a bit of info, all but saying there were four evil cults we needed to deal with. [Its very tempting to look through the module to see how the location was described and if he's adding new stuff or what.] He also loves the idea of the factions in these new D&D modules, and I've found them all rather lackluster and generic. But now the factions are actively trying to recruit PCs and also spilling information hither and yon. I was kinda expecting something a bit slower, like how I ran Against the Cult of the Reptile God. It all seems rather fast.

Fourth, dude has just raced us up to third level: that was the second session and now we're 3rd level. This might not be a mistake, but it did seem quite swift. Obviously characters don't really come into their own till 3rd though, so its probably fine. I still have a few spells/powers that I haven't even used yet though.

Monday, September 14, 2015

TuesD&D Recap I: First session thoughts

So I joined a D&D 5e campaign on Tuesdays, we'll see if it lasts. The DM is running Princes of the Apocalypse, which makes it difficult for me because I have to not read the book I have. Oh well. Here's his mistakes thus far.

First mistake: I am chaotic neutral apparently. Despite my thoughts that maybe I'd be Lawful Evil at the beginning and transition to something more good. He basically told me my character is chaotic neutral. My character is a warlock, former pirate captain who was captured by Blunanda, Kelp Queen of the Sargasso sea. She forces me to do her bidding because she's got my lover captured in her shipwreck castle, and it pleases her to watch the evil pirate do good. Also I've been replaced by some changeling fetch, so there's still a Captain Glafiro sailing the sword coast and causing trouble. I'm playing the character as an evil dick who's being forced into do-goodery and is suspicious that the Kelp Queen is watching over his shoulder constantly. And I'm arbitrarily Chaotic Neutral.

Second mistake: He's enthusiastic, but probably hasn't played this new edition much. The first encounter he gave us an NPC light cleric of St. Cuthbert (we're in the forgotten realms, that's a greyhawk deity). So that seems wrong to me, not just the mixing of D&D worlds (which isn't a huge deal) but also feeling like we need a healer NPC. Ick. And he's somehow a NPC with the healer feat at first level. Double ick for us not needing to worry about healing ever apparently.

Third mistake: My crazy wizard eyes didn't see the zombie coming. He gave us a level up midway through the first session, so I obviously take the detect magic at-will warlock invocation. I'm actively detecting magic when we investigate this body lying on the ground, nothing. No faint aura of necromancy, just flat out nothing. 5e is a game with a lot of silly little absolutes, so I was a little miffed at this.

Anyway, I'm picking on the dude but the rest was actually pretty good. I hope he can keep all the NPCs and locations clear and distinct, cause this might be a fun little sandbox for the Captain to explore.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

New DMs fucking things up before we start...

So I'm travelling for a conference but see this message about a new D&D game that's starting up that I was going to play:

For those of you wanting to roll up a character, use a 16,14,12,12,10, 8 point spread. Place them where appropriate. If anyone needs help rolling up a character, message me.

Now... WTF? Dude admits he hasn't played/run this edition before and is already mucking up the 15,14,13,12,10,8 stats the book recommend? So here's my thinking.

1) By giving me a 16 it does open up all races to all classes. So that Aarakocra or Lizardman diviner might be a bit more appealing.

2) However, that makes the +2 to an ability score super powerful as now I can start with an 18. +4 to hit, +4 to damage on all my attacks is nice.

3) And that +1 from my race is basically useless. Like non-variant humans, who get +1 to everything, or Half-Elves who get +1 to two different abilities in addition to the +2 charisma

4) High scores mean feats will be important. Because if I were a half-elf warlock and start with a 18 charisma, I can only take one charisma boost, the rest might as well be feats.

5) I kinda do things like this too maybe, but I don't think I'd change the basic stat array. More likely to modify spell lists or something. I'd like to think that I'm more aware of the consequences of doing things like this though.

And these are the things going through my brainpan. It seems particularly true in 3rd, 4th, and 5th editions where ability scores are huge, but it is really odd how just seeing one little set of numbers starts me along the lines of: maybe that Aarakocra Diviner isn't such a bad option afterall.