Saturday, July 23, 2016

The marriage of rules and setting (Featuring V20: The Masquerade and Dark Ages)

I was recently seduced into looking at a lot of the new V20 material because I foolishly looked at (and backed) Beckett's Jyhad Diary, which looks 100% awesome. Vampire was one of the big turning points in RPGs in the 90s (and Vampire and Changeling finally got me to abandon D&D, so they're important for me personally) and Vampire still has a special place in my heart whenever I go back and look at it. But what really struck me looking through some of this stuff is how different versions do or do not actually let you make a character you want to play. 4e was all about reflavoring: I used a hybrid swordmage/artificer as an ersatz abjurer once to reasonable effect. But its a thing of beauty when the rules seem just right to express a character concept.

Now V20 isn't perfect; there are a few lingering legacy oddities. For example, all the elder disciplines (level 6+) are basically unattainable by player characters by the book, and the books just keep detailing them, pages and pages of these things players can't use. V20 Masquerade itself is largely a compilation and (relatively concise) redaction of much of the core material, while V20 Dark Ages aims to do that but also present a few new points of view, otherwise bother getting the new book at all (unless you're like me and sold all that old crap for a pittance and more shelf space a decade ago). So in between a few new merits or bloodlines we get some interesting new interpretations of things like a level 5 Serpentis power that isn't about removing hearts. It gives Setites a whole different angle on things, as its one of the 15 disciplines (i.e. magic powers) that the clan gets. Assamite Viziers in Dark Ages get their own version of Quietus which focuses on more, let's say, visierly matters rather than assassinish ones. This is exactly the type of thing I wish had happened earlier in the game.

Take another problem issue: Malkavians. Sure, they're a clan of madmen, but they were also said to be a clan of oracles and visionaries. Now, neither Masquerade nor Dark Ages quite fixes this: Dementation only has one oracular power—eyes of chaos—so neither of the two core books really provide much for being an oracle. There's an oracular ability merit that any clan can take, but its still a bit shit. I don't remember any of the old material that really made me want to play a Malkavian oracle, or worse, able to play one well (if there was a level 6 discipline that did, I don't know about it and don't count it). Finally V20 Lore of the Clans comes along with one good merit that might be worth stealing for other systems: cold read. This merit lets you risk willpower to ask questions about an NPC when you first meet them. I'm not quite sure if it'll play as well as I think it might, but its exactly the sort of reasonable mechanic that we need to play an oracle-type character. I might have to revise my Hakima. This merit isn't a perfect fix, but it can be combined with the slightly improved oracular ability merit and new prophetic dreams merit for some good play that is based on die rolls, not the whim of the storyteller or dungeon master.

Another issue: Baali. I freakin' love these guys, but they never supported the idea of the less-than-fully-evil Baali, despite teasing it in many places. The MET rules even go so far as to state that anyone with Daimonion are infernalists. Depending on which version of the rules you're using, Baali can't even actually make infernal pacts because that's a level 6 discipline. How are you supposed to make even an evil infernalist Baali by the rules for NPCs without ridiculous fiat involved? Well, along comes the new Black Hand book and Kraina of the Well. This is literally what I've been waiting for since I first learned of the Baali. Actual rules to let me do what the Baali do. Its still not perfect, as its never been clear how you learn out-of-clan disciplines (does it require a teacher or not?), but I can work with that.

Leaving Vampire for a moment, I had a similar feeling reading through Adventurer Conqueror King again. I like the simplicity of basic D&D with the complexity of some additional classes and options that give you some latitude in creating a character you want to play. But I liked the specialty mages and priests and kits such from second edition. Well, some of that is hidden in their feat system, like black lore of Zahar which is one proficiency (basically a feat) that gives your normal wizard a nice boost for necromantic powers. With a couple little alterations like that plus their nice rules for creating your own class, I might strongly consider that instead of 2nd edition if I run another old school game. Its kind of a shame because I had dismissed ACKs a bit because I wanted something like 2e specialty wizards and instead what they offer is something a little more like 5e wizard specialties.

The rules can also help constrain things. Back to vampire, the new larp rules do just that. Perhaps because of tons of bitching and complaining about blood magic and out of clan disciplines from the old rules (which gave out way too much XP too fast, particularly compared to the tabletop game) there were huge restrictions put on blood magic and they really emphasized the merits and flaws system. I think they went too far, honestly. Merits can be really powerful and you only get 7 points of them, maximum. Unusual or rare clans take up additional merits (2, 4, or 6 points) which is actually a nice way of saying that its a privilege to play a Samedi or Follower of Set. But some of the clan-specific merits are very powerful or stupidly required. I don't mind too much you need to pay more points to have Setite or koldunic sorcery, but Tremere and Giovanni need to buy a one point merit for each extra path they want to be able to master, which limits a dabbler Tremere who knows lots of paths but has mastered few. If you wanted to play a real loremaster, you need to play a Tzimisce because their clan-specific merit literally gives them access to the most potential lore in the game (+2 to max lore and an extra +3 to lore checks in your haven, plus its compatible with the 1 pt loremaster merit). You can never, by the book, play a Salubri healer with the 5pt golconda seeker merit though unless your DM makes Salubri healers a common clan in your game, just like the Tremere need to really plan ahead if they're focusing on their blood magic or not because there's also a limit to the number of rituals you can take based on your path mastery. Now, this feels too constraining to me, but I can see the desire to put out carrots to let each clan do what it was born to do and somewhat balance the clans against one another in a larp game. To be fair, I also found the nature of larp games to be quite constraining because they want stereotypical characters of each clan and the large shared nature of the game means you can't just come in with wacky concepts and your own factions or interpretation of the genre.

I think the point is, the rules can make a huge difference. I generally like a set of rules that's complex enough to let me do what I want to do (or, conversely, open enough to give me the freedom to do it). But I find it a bit unsettling when I look at the vampire larp rules and think of a cool character concept that I can't do. And alternately, when I look at the tabletop Vampire rules where I spot something that makes me think: yes! I can finally play the character that I've always wanted! Sometimes rules are flexible in a house game, and sometimes they're so complex its hard to say what one or two house rules might do. I even understand the need to constrain a game with some stricter rules, particularly for larps or player-vs-player type games. But I'm still struck how the rules can really open up come concepts as viable, or close off creativity.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Crossbows in D&D 5e and in general

Crossbows (and similar weapons) have been bad choices in most editions of D&D despite being rather iconic. This is a recurring theme in 5e, where the system itself seems to work very well in general but there's a few options that just don't quite work well. Supposedly crossbows're easy to use (point and click) but have a longer loading time, which makes them reasonable for wizards but not other less skilled users, but bows are often superior. Combat & Tactics allows them to ignore up to 5 points of legit armor, making them actually viable in late 2nd edition because you've got a reasonable to-hit bonus over bows which are multiple shots. Let's ignore the fact that bows also require strength and longbows shouldn't be used by Str 8 characters and focus on the crossbow though.

The whole "realism" thing in D&D is rather odd, because up until Combat & Tactics rounds were 1 minute each, so attacks and HP and AC were all rather abstract (like you'd really only make one or two attacks in one minute or legit 1.5 attacks a minute so on even rounds of combat you get an extra attack). Fast forward to third edition: loading takes either a move or a full round, perpetuating the idea the they're slow but powerful. Except they're higher crit range than bows (19-20 vs 20) and damage (1d10 for heavy vs 1d8 for a longbow) and simple weapons (longbows are martial) but longbows have a bigger crit multiplier (x3 vs x2 for crossbows). So there's benefits of crossbows but they don't seem that big.

I wish the loading property in 5e came with a rider that loading weapons did an extra die of damage (or extra d12) at 5th, 11th, and 17th level to counteract their incredibly limiting loading property (or perhaps only if you have the extra attack feature). Slow but powerful, but once/per/round like a cantrip.. 2nd edition made that happen eventually with the Combat & Tactics upgrade, plus a larger damage die meant more in 2e I think. But then 5e went and ruined this by making the crossbow expert feat which lets you ignore the loading property, and my proposed loading property fix isn't going to play nicely with the rogue who doesn't care about extra attack right off the bat.

As far as I can tell, the crossbow expert feat does exactly what feats shouldn't do: this feat is basically required for any warrior-type who would be using a crossbow to make use of their extra attack feature (but rogues and clerics don't need it as badly as they don't get extra attacks). In essence, if you want to play a crossbow using ranger, you need this feat. Its also ridiculously abusive, if it was meant for a drow assassin to be able to attack once with the short sword and once with the hand crossbow, because in practice people use it to dual-wield hand crossbows. This just kinda breaks the versimilitude for me. But whatevs, that's how its written.

Can crossbows be fixed here? I think they can with a little slight of hand. This needs to be a D&D style fix though, so it can't be as simple as an alternate weapon system like in 13th Age or Dungeon World where your class determines weapon damage (which is a mighty fine solution, just not D&D). First, remove the loading property from the light crossbow. The feat give it that wonkiness and rogues get it, and removing the loading property will fix the rogue problem. Any rogue can now use it off-hand for a bonus action attack but the ranged attacks while engaged disadvantage will make it less-than-ideal still. Technically any rogue could also dual-wield these, but they could also toss an off-hand dagger so that's not much of an issue. Still ridiculous, but meh. Next revise the loading property: if you are entitled to an extra attack with a weapon with the loading property due to the extra attack feature, it deals an additional die of weapon damage per extra attack you are entitled to. If you ignore the loading property, you ignore all the loading property, because a level 17 fighter making extra attacks is probably better than getting a pittance more damage. This also clandestinely fixes slings in the process. And maybe blowguns, its not clear what an extra die of damage looks like when a weapon's damage "die" is just 1 point. I'm torn between saying an extra die of damage or just an extra fixed damage like a d10.

By the by, I'm still torn on trying to fix strength by removing the ability of Dex to add to damage, or capping it at +2 to damage (i.e. a finesse weapon adds strength to damage or a max of 2 points of dex bonus, whichever is higher). It would nerf dex-based characters a bit in terms of damage, making strength a bit more appealing, but might have other implications that I haven't explored yet.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Alignment Redux

After listening to the Antagonist's latest podrambling, I had a few reactions to their comments on the problem of alignment (I'm going to keep this alignment-focused). I see the point of their discussion, but feel the two of them were talking a bit across one another.

See, the Ginger Giant seems to like players having slightly wacky PCs (mental trauma for almost dying), while the Antagonist and I fall a little closer on wanting serious PCs. Which isn't to say that I don't like a whimsical or gonzo game, I just prefer to know what I'm getting into and have most of the players interested in the game I'd like to play (which, for longer-term things, is generally something more serious). I got the sense from their discussion the the Ginger Giant doesn't think alignment is worthwhile or adds much to the game and that's why it is problematic (the shades of grey problem), whereas the Antagonizer sees alignment as an active problem (and mostly the Chaotic Neutral problem).

Basically, I see a combination of two problems with alignment, both of them coming in at the point where people have different underlying assumptions about the game.

First, is the (shorter) Chaotic Neutral problem. We've had a few discussions about alignment before, but basically Chaotic Neutral (and Unaligned in 4e) can be an excuse to play a character who's a selfish prick. Not only that, but they can be disruptive to the group's goals and the group itself. But that's not in and of itself a reflection of the alignment, its a reflection of a player who wants to play a selfish prick. They are, wittingly or not, stealing the show from everyone else and making the story more about their character's story than about the group or the adventure. So I think this problem can, to a small extent, be mitigated by a discussion at the table about what sorts of games people like to play and what people are signing up for. Some folks seem happy to watch or participate in conflict within the party, which I find occasionally fun but I don't like that to be the focus of the game. Because if that were the focus of the game I'd like it to be more in the form of a Vampire LARP rather than a D&D group. Those rules are designed to pit player against player, often without requiring any storyteller to intervene on the basics. Now, I definitely was thrilled with the one 4e halfling game that I played in back in the day where we made a slight mockery of things (it was a one-shot, perfect to bring in Frondo Maggins, a do-nothing hobbit with a heart of gold), because we did add in elements of feuding amongst characters and slightly wacky concepts. So its not about ignoring the wackiness, but trying to get the players on the same boat: the game should not be about one character and their zany actions. It could be about the zany group and its members' interactions. It could be about the adventure and narrative wherein the group is the relatively vanilla protagonists with little background or flavor. It could be about some grand narrative of the world where the PCs play a small but vital part. Difficult to do perhaps, but I bet if you nip it in the bud you can channel people's desire for zany characters into something better than Chaotic Neutral.

The second, longer shades of grey issue is that I wonder if we're doing a disservice to our players when we play a game with shades of grey using alignment since alignment was originally absolute. Because we're bringing in our modern mores to the archaizing game (and possibly archaic alignment element), people often have this sense that a drow or orc could be good. Drizzt didn't help here, though Unearthed Arcana was the book that gave us drow PCs in the first place. Evil wasn't necessarily illicit for PCs in AD&D until 2nd edition focused more on the heroic. In Dortherdoreft where I stole the show with derro fetal savants, the players felt bad about killing them but knew that in-character that was the thing they needed to do. Because the things looked young and innocent but were powerful and malevolent.

I recently encountered this repeatedly in my game here. One huge issue with my Princes of the Apocalypse campaign is the DM opted for the morally grey interpretation.  Then when he used DM fiat to say one of the prophets had converted to good (it was one of his favorite NPCs he had planned to use and we just wouldn't let him), he literally had to bring celestial beings and the gods of good into it to try to say "Guys, it's obvious that she's repented and is now good".  It was extremely unsatisfying. We caught a group of bandits and brought them to our supposedly good allies (a group of Order of the Gauntlet paladins) who immediately decided to put the bandits to death. This caused more friction all because of the underlying assumptions about the game: is there an absolute good? I thought we were playing shades of grey. There was another incident where we spent half the night debating how to take out only the evil knights in a tower and not killing innocents when eventually the DM just said "Oh, you know to be one of these knights you have to murder someone," and that was that. Which made my character extremely leery about the group since he was a notorious pirate and I thought we were playing a shades of grey game where not every orc was irredeemably evil. Well, turns out we ended up playing it that the cultists were basically irredeemably evil, despite the fact that one of them was obviously redeemed, and we kept rehashing the same discussion about whether or not we should take prisoners. It was really relevant because, as a fey warlock, I had lots of spells in the sleep and hypnotic pattern realm where I could take a few out of the fight but they weren't dead. We had to deal with them. And I had initially decided to play an evil character bound by superstition to be a party-friendly guy (can't harm widows and orphans or people who have surrendered, cause that's how you get cursed), so I tried to get someone else to kill the captives whenever I could since we were doing morally grey.

And here's where the wishy-washy alignment gets rough: there is nothing truly good in the world, so tactics like assassination and take-no-prisoners hold, despite being thoroughly unheroic and murderhobo-ish. Because its true: anyone you let escape might tell of your presence or come back as a foe again later when they're rested and have gathered more allies. So one clear solution to this problem is to re-assert the cosmic nature of alignments, despite the Antagonizer not being a fan of that when its rare (i.e. with unaligned in the mix). But it can also be common: goblins are evil and must be eradicated without exception. Undead are evil too. The gods of good fight tooth and nail against the gods of evil. Or do it with the old-school Moorcockian system where Law/Civilization opposes Chaos/Destruction. Because a lot of people don't want to play Authoritarian/Lawful characters when Individualistic/Chaotic is much more fun and in line with many flavors of American culture. I think that's why the alignment restriction of the paladin has softened: when good and evil aren't absolute, playing the honorable or lawful good paladin who loses his powers if he makes a wrong choice is really hard and totally dependent on the DM's fiat power.

I recently read the Dragonlance comic books and finally found a statement interpreting why there are gods that are neutral with respect to good and evil, which I've previously dismissed as ridiculous. There was a time when good was triumphant in the setting, and it resulted in hubris and thus the cataclysm. So even the gods of good accept that there must be balance between good and evil, despite fighting tooth-and-nail against evil. The more I read about Dragonlance, the more I keep thinking they did some shit totally right: the setting fits with the rules quite nicely, even if the rules were a bit wonky at the time.

A real problem with 5e alignment is perhaps that if it feels tacked on or like some legacy element, it is! Almost nothing in the rules refers to it. But if the rules and your story were properly wedded, there would be mechanical options for playing heroic characters. I've been really tempted to write up some of these options as a sort of Heroes of Mercy option and throw it on the DMs Guild, but in the original Oriental Adventures the Shukenja had a few options to sort of make their enemies into noncombatants. These are things like charm person or the geas spell but there's a few more. I feel like I've seen this sort of sentiment in a few different anime series, where the villain is defeated and then goes to pursue their dream of being a farmer or some such. It doesn't have to be ridiculous, but if the cleric had a cantrip to ensure an escaping mook wouldn't be a threat again it might allow players to be more heroic. Its been hard trying to put the idea into mechanics, however. I feel like it could be tied to an honor system, but the 5e DMG honor system is really just some wishy-washy half-baked nonsense that I don't understand how you'd use at the table. Basically, the rules don't support that kind of heroic play and players might be happy to take that option to play a heroic paladin rather than a cavalier one.

So I currently suspect that a useable alignment system has a few options:

  1. Discuss the group/party dynamics before people make characters. You already are likely to know who the problem players are and maybe you can channel their boredom/"chaotic neutral" nature into a better relationship with one of the other PCs. You could also go with some cheesy random table of party relationships where each player rolls one and that's their relationship to the character on their left. But I had trouble coming up with a lot of generic good options for this. I think the party alignment concept is definitely worthwhile if you are using alignment at all.
  2. Use alignments as cosmic truths (and allow wholly good beings in the planes): then you have permission to kill all the goblins and the game makes sense as long as you're opposing evil (or chaos). 
  3. Give the players the means to really play their alignment. Mechanically, that is. The rules need to support the player choices.
  4. Replace the useless ideals or flaws with alignment, straight up. If you do something good/heroic, lawful/authoritarian, or chaotic/individualistic you're up for inspiration. Or focus alignment on the ideals players select or roll. 
  5. Replace alignment with some other roleplaying tool. Drives from Gumshoe or Nature/Demeanor from the World of Darkness games might be suitable. The Dortherdoreft dwarf personality traits were wonderful, and you might give inspiration based on other players guessing someone's nature/demeanor at the table.
  6. Why bother with it at all? There's only a few places in the rules where it matters, mostly magic items. I don't think there's even a spell that really needs it as "good and evil" have been relegated mostly to extra-planar creatures. This kinda fits with the replace-it option.
Because I'm a pretty strong proponent of matching the rules and the story, I'm keenest with options 1 (discuss it with the players), 4 (use alignment in lieu of crappy background options), and 5 (create a means so players can play their alignments well) at the moment, but open to counter arguments. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Actual Play 7—Final Session

We finished Strahd today. It was pretty epic.

The party starts in Strahd's study, takes a short rest and explores a bit. Nothing major, but they do find Helga and she joins them, asking them to rescue her and offers to show them the way to the crypts. They keep going back and forth about where they want to go, because they know their last Tarokka clue was wine-related, but they kept forgetting it obviously said "tomb" in there and for some reason were going to have her take them to the wine cellar. So I had to keep reminding them it was a tomb.

The rogue wants to make a detour at the throne room, so Helga takes them there. He wants to search for secret doors looking for the treasury, but as we're on a tight schedule here I took the random encounter of bats and just made them fly around the throne room. It was obvious if he wanted to search for secret doors that the bats would attack, so the party just went to the chapel instead. With Helga leading them they bypass the dummy, the zombies on the balcony, and hit up the chapel. Obviously they stop to investigate the alter, and I swap the armor on the body out for plate mail since the module doesn't seem to have any way for them to have bought it or found it in the sections I ran so far. They spend extra time in the chapel donning armor and identifying the made, so I threw the Rahadin and unseen servant encounters at them to let them know resting there was possibly dangerous. I roll the wine cellar for Rahadin, so Helga pretends to be afraid and refuses to keep going with them unless they hit up the wine cellar (which really means the elevator trap). She had already told them to take the stairs from the chapel to the crypts, so they just do that without her.

So finally, its around 7:30pm and they're in the crypts. They explore a little, learning that no greedy deed goes unpunished, but stop shy of their Tarokka goal because they find Sergei's tomb. They open the portcullis and go in, realizing he's got magic armor they do another armor change and put one set of plate on Periwimple and the paladin takes the magic plate. They dispel the magic preserving Sergei and plan on animating him and Strahd's mother, but the bard wants to wait till he can use one 4th level slot to do it. The rogue spots Strahd standing at the edge of their light on the other side of the portcullis.

Thus begins their epic battle with Strahd. The party is in Sergei's tomb with the portcullis down, so Strahd just sits at the edge of their light radius and casts fireball for a few rounds. They freak out and for some reason thought keeping the portcullis down was the best plan, and take an extra fireball or two for their troubles. Strahd is playing it cool and they're not doing much damage with ranged attacks. He finally get the shadow lair action off, but the shadow is quickly slain. After a bit, Strahd backs off to let his regeneration kick in a bit and the party is dumbfounded not knowing where he is. He casts greater invisibility just for fun.

At this point the players decide they've got to get out of there and open the portcullis, just in time for Strahd's two spawn to waltz in and make their attacks. Strahd seals the portcullis with his lair action trapping them inside again. At this point the party makes a few moves and Strahd realizes the paladin is wearing his brother's armor and goes into a bit of a rage. He spider climbs through the wall and is invisible behind the party watching as they lose a few actions and shatter the portcullis so they can get out. Then he drops another fireball and finally uses his legendary actions to start in on melee attacks, downing the blood hunter and getting a bit of healing from a bite. Strahd is in place to majorly fuck up the party now with lair actions and a couple spells.

Enter the paladin. On his turn he's got the sunsword out and gets 3 attacks because he's hasted. He deals 86 points of damage to Strahd killing him. And, because Strahd is in sunlight, he doesn't get mistform and actually dies. 1d8 for the sunblade + 1d8 because sunblade deals extra damage to undead. 3d8 for divine smite with a 2nd level slot and another 1d8 because divine smite deals extra damage to undead. 5 damage from his strength, 2 from duelist, and 2 from the blade's magic and another d6 from hunter's mark. That's 6d8+1d6+9 damage per attack (plus the sunlight damage), and that's how you kill Strahd. Which was needed because the paladin was grappled and Strahd was about to drag him up onto the ceiling to use him for cover and try to bite the paladin and then drop him on the ground. The blood hunter was down and the bard was close to dropping, so one more fireball might have done enough to drop some PCs.

Rahadin enters after, mutilating the swashbuckler who was hiding from Strahd behind the tomb, hitting with 3 attacks (one a crit) and dealing his crazy psychic damage. Again the paladin comes in and murderizes, doing just enough damage to drop Rahadin before he gets a chance to act again which would have done psychic damage to 4 of the heroes plus getting 3 scimitar attacks in.

So, they saved Barovia after alienating most of the Barovians, and did it all with just Periwimple (who's really fucking tough!) and the sun sword at level 8. Well, their obnoxious antics enraged Strahd, so if he were coolheaded he would have retreated to one of the other tombs and maybe murdered them still, but alas. A game well done.

I really liked the adventure, though I think I could have used one more read-through of everything to put a few more pieces together (like how really important it is to have sunlight to fight Strahd). Because I've got so much of it prepped, I'm considering running it again in the fall. I did it in about 35 hours of play not by cutting things per se, but just by removing a dozen or so cards so they wouldn't need to explore some things, and I made a couple minor changes to keep them on track. I could have pulled more random encounters and taken an extra session, or let them do more and taken another 3-4 sessions, so my guess is it'll take something like 50-60 hours if you just ran it by the book, more if you don't start them at level 3. I've got a couple ideas for condensing the adventure differently, blending the towns of Barovia and Vallaki and moving a few other plots there to run something closer to the original module but with a few of the fun bits included, which might make the adventure more like 30-40 hours total with the pacing a bit slower. But most of the work is behind me and if I think I have the time and some interested players, I might see about running it again here in the fall.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Hints of abandoned sub-classes in the 5e Player's Handbook?

Reading through the players handbook a bit lately (my Princes of the Apocalypse character was trapped in the plane of Air by Yan-C-Bin so I think I'm making a new character, at least temporarily), I remembered something I thought was strange. There's a pretty clear hint at the storm sorcerer in the flavor introduction to the sorcerer. I know that, by and large, the classes are introduced by flavor text for 3 of the iconic builds, but it struck me that storm sorcerer was seemingly included in the flavor but the subclass was left out.

It immediately made me look at the druid and bard options because they were also only two-subclass classes and I was wondering what else I'd find. Indeed, one of the bard options could be read as a College of Guile/Subterfuge/Chicanery and there's a possibility that a third druid circle would be some sort of druidic avenger/warden. I'm not sure of a good name for this druid, I'd tentatively call it Circle of the Storm to indicate nature's fury but that's likely to give people the impression that its all about lightning and thunder when its about being a warrior druid.

Looking at the others, we see a dwarf battlerager described in the barbarian intro. Cleric lists three iconic domains. Fighter is a laundry list. Monk lists the three monastic traditions. Paladin lists the three oaths. Ranger, oddly, seems to list two types of hunter and the beastmaster, possibly harkening to a time when there were more subclasses that got condensed. Rogue, warlock, and wizard also follow suit by listing three examples from their subclasses.

Intriguing, but I'm not sure if that means a College of Guile bard or drudic Avenger/Warden were planned but not released yet or abandoned as they didn't make the cut. I'm guessing they were half-baked but due to space some things needed to be cut. The storm sorcerer saw a release in Unearthed Arcana and was later toned down slightly (such a waste, they could have just given the storm sorcerer 5-ish thematic utility spells and it would have been perfect, or perhaps just feather fall (1), gust of wind (2), and wind wall (3) to solidify the storm theme with spells that are thematic but you just don't have room for in your build).

So the druidic avenger (let's stick with Circle of the Storm) is pretty easy to mock up. Take the Valor bard's features as a base: extra weapons/armor plus bardic inspiration uses at 3, extra attack at 6, and cantrip/attack mix at 14. You have to modify it a bit, so the main circle feature is probably a couple ranger hunter-type spells and a melee damage boost at level 2 and/or a bit of extra land speed, extra attack at 6, land's stride at 10, and the bonus action spellcasting at 14. Spells might include: ensnaring strike (1), hunter's mark (1), find steed (2), silence (2), elemental weapon (3), nondetection (3), fire shield (4), locate creature (4),  contagion (5), geas (5). I tried to pick only things that worked on melee and missile attacks and mostly spells from off the druid's normal list. So you end up with a caster using the druid list, who's about as good as a valor bard at melee attacks but with more weapon-enhancing spells and a mount. They're probably about on-par with some clerics, and will be using spell slots to cast spells augmenting their melee attacks. This does make for an interesting variant of the 4e Warden class though without the war-forms. It could be a nice alternative to the ancients paladin, totem barbarian, or ranger for a wilderness character.

A guile bard isn't as straitforward. They're superficially similar to the lore bard, you'd assume they'd get expertise in deception and slight of hand maybe plus something like mage hand. But that's really similar to the Lore bard's training just more specific. And its not really clear how to modify their bardic inspiration here. Lore bard uses inspiration to hinder foes and valor uses it to boost allies. This makes me think that they just said the lore bard basically covers what a guile bard would need, and the guile bard was aborted because the lore bard killed it and took its stuff. One could potentially poach some Arcane Trickster features, but that actually also covers much of the same ground as a guile bard would. The college of satire bard from unearthed arcana (and college of blades bard too mabye) also suggests that if they did consider a guile bard concept initially they abandoned it.

What's odd here is that the battlerager was clearly forseen and released in the SCAG where it maybe belongs (really wish they had just renamed the class berserker still). The storm sorcerer looks like it wasn't done in time for the main book, which also makes sense why it would be left out. They only had so much time to test it and so much space in the book: they just happened to leave the flavor text in. These are obviously things the designers considered and found worked well or otherwise filled a niche. The druidic avenger could just have been a nod towards a land-druid who liked flame blade (following their rule of threes for the class intros) but it is a reasonably obvious concept that would add a bit more diversity to the druid and wouldn't take up that much space in the book. And the druid is the only class other than the ranger that is left with only two subclasses after the SCAG came out, though the circle of the land does have many sub-options within it. There's easily space for another druid build, especially a smaller one like what I sketched out above. So I'm not sure why it wasn't fleshed out unless I'm totally misinterpreting the signs here. Finally, the guild bard seems like a viable option, but maybe less so once the lore bard was finished  and they moved on to some other directions that seemed more viable.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Actual Play 5&6—Marathon Double Session

I am super glad that we opted to do a marathon Saturday session for Strahd. I feel that even rushing people through Strahd would take seven 5-hour sessions (35 hours) as they're probably one 5-hour session away from finishing, and this was a shorter version. Today's session went 10am to 10pm with some food breaks and chat in there, so it was basically two sessions.

To be fair, I removed some cards from the reading so they weren't required to go to places that I thought were less interesting. But they did Barovia, Villaki, Krezk, the Wizard of Wines, Yester Hill, the Old Bonegrinder, and now Castle Ravenloft. So that's not nothing. But it's not everything either.

To sum up: This session they started in Vallaki after clearing St. Andral's Church. Last time they defeated a few vampire spawn and let Strahd escape and re-consecrated the church. Ezmerelda had taken Ireena and Ismark out of town, so they met up with her at the Vistani camp but avoided talking to Kasimir and didn't follow up on Arrabelle. They spent another night in Vallaki so they could talk to new new Burgomaster, Viktor Vallakovich and pay to get the church fixed up. Ezmerelda wasn't able to sneak back into Vallaki during the day, and the players conveniently forgot all about her, so now she's just an entry on the random encounter chart. Party isn't into Fiona Wachter, so they get the impression that Viktor won't rule like his father did, and seem content. They ask to see Izek's room, and find it creepy as fuck, distributing the spoils of that amongst the children. That won't creep Ireena and Ismark out at all. They wanted Ismark to take over running Vallaki, but he's not into it and doesn't trust them enough to leave Ireena at St. Andral's church alone, so he stays there.

The party takes little note of the swarms of ravens they've seen and head to the Old Bonegrinder, having a few non-combat random encounters on the way. They come to the windmill and the blood hunter uses spider climb alongside the sorcerer's prestidigitation (to clean windows) and scouts the windmill. I was super excited for the hag encounter but it was a bit disappointing as they were level 7 and just murderized the hags, though Bella Sunbane did escape. They spend the time to take the children they find back to Vallaki before heading to Barovia.

In Barovia they confront Bildrath in his shop, creepily asking about Periwimple (their greatest ally). With some creepy innuendo and a suggestion spell they get Peri with them but realize they can't spend the night in Barovia or he might go back to his mother and people will notice. They stop at Jenny Greenteeth's house (from the Adventurer's League nonsense) and talk to here but quickly realize they can't trade magic items to here but do waste a bit of time swapping trinkets. Eventually they sneak out and stay with the Vistani at the Tser Pool encampment. From there its right on to the castle.

They cross the bridge no problems, and actually take the expected way into the castle: main door, meet Rahadin, get to the dinner scene. Missing the secret door at the organ, they head up because they know one of their treasures from the reading is in a place of dizzying heights where the stones are alive. Trying to get to the taller tower, they go all the way to the parapet and fine Gertruda, who directs them to the other side of the castle to the north (heart) tower. After a somewhat dangerous battle on the stairs where I generously had the first two people only fall 30 feet to the landing and told them it was obvious they could drop prone and crawl up the stairs, they eventually dealt with the halbeards and a group of vampire spawn coming after them. In Vallaki I determined that there was a large group of folk from Kara-Tur so most of the "adventurer spawn" are easterners by dress which makes them stand out. I'm not sure why I did it, but I stuck with it. They're not consorts.

After destroying the heart and finding the Tome, they headed back down, some of them apparently thinking the tome wasn't the treasure despite the part where I clearly described the tower as "alive" and had printed out copies of the reading for them. So they did some scouting with spider climb and saw Pidlewick II in the high tower but didn't go there as I said it was obviously not a good resting place unless they had 8 hours of firewood due to the exposure to the cold and rain. They spied down a bit and saw Escher in the lounge and the bottle room, and I made some of the doors have cat-sized holes from being broken. They took all the scratched up furniture and went back up the heart-tower for a long rest, but were ambushed by 7 invisible witches. The party mostly made their saves against Tasha's and they murderized the witches, earning their long rest and hitting level 8. The bard finally realizes he's lost his original trinket (stolen by some Vistani bandits they met on the road and travelled with) and the winery's gem (stolen by the Martikov's at the Blue Water Inn before they burned it down). he's unfazed.

After the rest they explored the cat/witch level, then met Escher. He somehow survived till his turn and escaped out the window thanks to spider climb despite the fact that Periwimple is a fucking beast with large number of hit points, 3 attacks, and property that lets him deal an extra die of damage. So Escher is still out there and the party discovered their bedroom after they no longer needed it. Also I realize how lucky they are to have Peri as their ally. They could have had Arrabelle.

They move down to Leif the accountant, and I slightly fucked up by having them encounter the rat swarms on the wrong level. They'll never know, but this castle is fucking complex and I was looking at the wrong level. Sad thing is if each room were named the descriptions it would be a lot clearer rather than just a room number (e.g. this staircase leads to K37 The Study, as well as blah, blah, and blah). Would be a lot more helpful, especially in cases where it's hard to find where a staircase is on the adjacent level or where they same staircase number shows up on multiple levels. I also realized while prepping this beast that the reason the numbering is wonky is it still corresponds to the old maps. This means I could print out some old fan-versions of top-down maps and use the numbering, which is pretty cool even if the players haven't explored any levels enough to get to see them (I plan on just handing out the crypt floor for ease). After some intimidation they get a little information from Leif (who's been through this sort of interrogation a few times) and he gives them directions to the high tower and the crypts (basically: down).

From here they went down down down to the flooded dungeon. It took a while and used up the three witch-zombies the bard created, but they made it and freed Emil and only found the two magic items. I fast forwarded through the strahd zombies in the torture room just asking for 2 resources (i.e. levels of spell slots or hit dice, a HD from the paladin and level 1 slot from the sorcerer) and they encountered the ridiculous brazier room.

This was a bitch, because I knew I didn't want them teleported to Tsolenka pass or the Amber Temple because of time but I hadn't realized that during my read-through. So I panicked and tried to use the House of Strahd version of the trap, which made little sense since I had initially read the description from Curse, not House. But basically it meant they could bypass it as long as they didn't harm the brazier, hourglass, or statues which they didn't. 10 minutes for a detect magic ritual meant a random encounter, and its a black cat who nudges one of the doors open and they blast it with eldritch blast, killing it. No more black cat encounters anymore. But they're left with 3 doors and they pick the spiral staircase over the obviously shorter staircase or the longer one (neither of which spiral).

I try to telegraph they they're going quite a ways up while not telling them exactly how far up they're going, but they end up all the way in the study at the top of the castle. Here's where we end, so I hope they have the sense to go back down and try one of the other doors which at least keep them in the Larder or Crypt levels.

Overall, I'm relatively happy with this adventure so far. The players seem to like the weirdo sense of humor, even ridiculous things like Prince Ariel the Heavy. I think we'll essentially have what amounts to seven 5-hour sessions (35 hours total). If I was running this and not rushing the players a bit, I expect it'd take another session to do Argynvostholt (its biggish, if empty),  another for Berez and the Van R's tower, plus one or two for Tsolenka Pass and the Amber temple, and another one for the Tower of the Mad Mage, the den, and more nonsense in Vallaki. So total about 50-60 hours to do it pretty fully, though not everyone would opt to do everything obviously and the Amber Temple might not be done till after you defeat Strahd (making it an optional final session or two if they finish early, though the book doesn't call that out as explicitly as it could).  My only vague regret is I didn't ban chaotic neutral alignment and didn't force them to intertwine background more, and that I didn't quite have time to let them explore the countryside a bit more (I wanted to use Berez). But I pumped them through levels quickly and they'll hit 9 if the find the Holy Symbol and take a long rest and then they can attempt to kill Strahd or murderize them. I'm slightly glad they didn't hit the elevator trap, though they might still do that.

Long story short, the PCs are well positioned to get to Strahd in the next 4-5 hours of play and hopefully will so I don't need to open an extra trap door shooting them into the crypts after 3 hours of play on Wednesday. If you want to run this beast in less than 40 hours you need to cut some things but can defo run it as the original module with just Barovia and Ravenloft (I'd guess 20-25 hours, 2 marathon sessions), or possibly add in a few things like the Old Bonegrinder to spice things up before the castle if you have the time. Fudge the reading, put one of the things there if you need to, or make the winery and Yester hill closer, move the abbey, whatever you want.