Sunday, February 27, 2011

Itropa and Dusk

Game Date: 2/26/2011  
DM: Matt

The Party (Level 5):

Amnesis (Jesse) - Based on Human Psion.  Amnesis looks like a child, but is actually suffering from an aging condition. 

Salador (Nick) - Based on an Earthsoul Genasi Swordmage. Salador is an intelligent mass of stones. His mind came into being at the end of the last war, when an EMP burst caused several strange effects across the continent.

Sycconus (Bryan) - Based on Dragonborn Paladin. Sycconus is a member of a reptilian alien race called the Scallen. He's a shock trooper / battle medic, from a long line of Scallen warriors. His Divine Challenge ability is now called "Psychic Taunt": He uses psychic powers to mentally compel his enemies to focus on him. This telepathic taunt is so powerful that it actually causes his enemies pain if they attack someone else instead.

X42 (Rick) - Based on Drow Executioner. The Drow as a race don't really exist in Itropa, but of course you can pick any race and justify it through their background. X42 is an experimental prototype clone, grown in a lab. He was created by a criminal organization known as the Inner Eye, and was designed to be the perfect assassin. But X42 was too strong-willed to stay under their thumb, and he escaped. He has the natural ability to control shadows by absorbing light rays (Cloud of Darkness).

This is the first PnP game I've run based on Itropa, a cheesy sci-fi world I created for NeverWinter Nights.  You can find more information about the world in this blog.  I briefly considered running it using Gamma World, but in the end I decided to just use plain ol' D&D 4e, and reflavor everything.

I went a bit overboard with the props. I'm used to gaming on Saturdays, so when a few sessions were canceled in a row, I just didn't know what to do with myself. So I got into my wife's crafting stuff and played around. That's how I ended up with the hovering transport, the gravestones, and some of the other 3D elements. I used Star Wars dungeon tiles for a couple of the encounters.

I was a bit nervous at first - I hadn't been a DM in nearly a year, and I'd only DMed for people who had less D&D experience than I do.  But I think it went pretty well.

I was hoping for about 6 players, but we only had 4, with no Leader role.  So for the first encounter, I used the minimum number of bad guys, and nerfed a couple of their more powerful moves.  My players blew through it with just a few scratches, so I went ahead and used the maximum difficulty for the next two encounters.  Encounter 2 worked out pretty well; it was just hard enough to nearly drop one of them, but they still managed to get through it in a reasonable amount of time.  Encounter 3 may have been too difficult for this party.  All of them were bloody by the end, and the battle took a very long time.  I finally allowed them to use a skill-based solution to terminate the last few enemies.  There was supposed to be a fourth combat encounter, but we ran out of time and had to end the session.

I'm not going to post any specific details about this adventure just yet, because I might end up running it again.  I'll post all my notes from the module at a later date. But in the meantime, here's some pictures from the session (click to enlarge):

XP Rewards:
Encounter 1: 500+62+100=662
Encounter 2: 380+200+400=980
Encounter 3: 400+600+350=1350
Total 2992 XP
748 XP Each

After the game, a few of us weren't quite ready to call it a night, so we played a short game at Bryan's house.  We decided to have everyone roll up Essentials classes.  Bryan played a Half-Elf Hexblade, Rick played a Longtooth Shifter Knight, and Misty played an Eladrin Mage.  Misty doesn't get to play very often, so I looked around for an adventure she'd enjoy.  I finally chose to run "Dusk", which is a 4e Twilight parody written by Gabe of Penny Arcade.  We only got through two of the three encounters before we had to call it a night, but they did manage to save the character they were supposed to save.  The bad guys got away, though.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Board Game Night: Wrath of Ashardalon and Zombies!!!

Game Date: 2/19/2011

Our "normal" campaign (if you can call it that) was canceled, so a few of us met at The Next Level Games and played a couple of board games instead.

Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon
Wrath of Ashardalon: A D&D Boardgame
Wrath of Ashardalon is a board game based on D&D 4th Edition, along the same lines as Castle Ravenloft.  It uses 4e as a base template, but the rules are simplified so that players can just pull it out and play without a lot of setup.

Upon seeing this game for the first time in the store, my initial impression was, "Wow, that's expensive."   But now that I've seen it opened, things are a little more clear.  It comes with 42 plastic miniatures, which are unpainted versions of older D&D minis.  Included among them is the "Huge Red Dragon" mini from the Giants of Legend line, which itself currently goes for around $70 on Ebay.  So even though this version is unpainted, it still makes it a pretty good value.  You also get some interlocking dungeon tiles, and way more tokens and cards than you'll ever want to keep track of.

It's a bit strange that this product exists, when you could always just play normal, full-on D&D.  But WoA has the advantage of being simpler and self-contained.  Everything you need is in the box, and a full game doesn't take nearly as long as playing actual D&D.  So that's probably the target audience: people who want a quick D&D fix without the commitment.  Another great feature is that you can even play solo. 

I mentioned in an earlier blog that Gamma World is a simplified version of D&D.  Well, Gamma World has nothing on WoA.  This is probably as simple as D&D gets.  You don't roll up a character, just grab one of the 5 character cards and pick their powers.  Leveling up is as simple as turning your card over, revealing your Level 2 stats.  I could see this game being used to give a non-gamer a taste of D&D to see if they want to learn more.

I haven't yet played Castle Ravenloft, but apparently WoA and Ravenloft are compatible board games, meaning you can swap out elements between them to customize your experience.  There's also a Legend of Drizzt game coming out that will most likely be compatible as well, and I wouldn't be surprised if more are in the works.

I had a great time playing it, but I don't know if I could justify the price unless I found it on sale.  I already have a lot of D&D materials, and there's not a lot of good reasons to play WoA if full D&D is available.  If you just keep a few extra characters printed out, and a Monster Manual or maybe a copy of Dungeon Delve on hand, you can already run a quick adventure whenever you need to.  And that's my worry:  D&D fans don't need this, and non-D&D fans won't like this.  Overall I thought it was pretty cool, but part of me still wonders what the point is.

Some pictures:

I'd played Zombies!!! once before, but this time there were more players, and we got to use the "Mall Walkers" expansion.  Zombies!!! is a fairly simple board game in which players try to survive a town filled with undead monsters.  The ultimate goal is to be the first player to either kill 25 zombies or escape in a helicopter.

It's an easy game to learn, and it's a lot of fun.  Like Wrath of Ashardalon above, the game involves randomly drawing board tiles that increase the size of the play area.  But each tile brings a few zombies with it, and after a few rounds there are dozens of the creatures on the board.  While some cooperation between players can occasionally help, in my experience the game is more about screwing each other over.

And that's what makes it fun.  It's a harsh world, and while it would be nice if everyone could work together to defeat the zombie hordes, the fact is that only one of you is going to make it.  If you want it to be you, you're going to have to treat your friends as bait.

I highly recommend this game to people who like zombies.  Just make sure you have a really big table to play it on, because after a while the tiles tend to spread out all over the place.

Some pictures:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sins of the Dungeon Master

In a few weeks I'll be running a game based on my Itropa setting.  As I prepare myself for the upcoming game, it occurs to me that I haven't DMed in about a year. This is not a bad thing. The entire reason I got into D&D is to play. I like the escapism; I want to pretend I'm someone else for a while. Still, I don't mind DMing occasionally, and I always have fun when I'm doing it. I have a lot of stories I would like to tell, and running a game is a great way to do it.

That said, I don't think I'm very good at it. I make a lot of rookie DM mistakes. So learn from my errors, and don't do the same to your players if you can avoid it.

I have discovered that I'm better at writing modules than campaigns. Most of my stories have a definite beginning and end.  This showed a lot during the Praktas campaign, but was partly due to my gaming schedule. My group was full of people with busy lives, so we didn't get to play very often. If we'd had a continuous storyline, we'd have lost track of where we were and what we were doing. So it was just easier to make the sessions more module-like.

Besides, every time I tried to end a session halfway through the story, my players insisted we keep playing. Our longest session, "The Temple of Elemental Weevils", was meant to be divided across at least two sessions, but they wanted to see it through. And it's a good thing, since we didn't get to play again for four months. I'm afraid if the campaign was more freeform, we'd have had trouble finding a stopping place.

Now, there's nothing wrong with module-style play. Some people prefer it. But the problem is, it does mean I came pretty close to railroading my players. This is not entirely my fault - so far I've only DMed for newbies, who might not realize the sheer amount of freedom you have in this game. Every time I pointed them towards a dungeon, they were free to say, "Nah, I'd like to go explore the forest." But either the thought just didn't occur to them, or they knew full well that I put a lot of work into that dungeon. Plus, I think they preferred to stick to the "script" simply because they knew about my weakness when it comes to...

...Thinking On My Feet
I'm not very good at improv. When I put a session together, I like to write out every possible thing, in anticipation of everything the players might do. For the most part, that hasn't been difficult. Two of my players generally stuck to the "kill 'em and take their gold" philosophy, so I could usually predict what they were going to do. But they still managed to throw me for a loop a few times.

Example #1: In the "Pirate Queen" session, after the PCs defeated everyone on the pirate ship, they said, "Okay, we get her ready to sail and take her back to the mainland." Now why didn't I think of that? I handed my players an entire ship way too early in their careers. They could have sold it for an unbalancing amount of money for their level, or they could have used it as a mobile base of operations, or gone into the shipping business, or even become pirates themselves. Instead, I allowed the NPC Captain Jarran to tow the boat back to town, where the city claimed it and gave the PCs a reward for its capture.

What I wish I'd done: First off, Jarran's ship should have had a ship wizard like Robillard from Salvatore's books. While the PCs were exploring the pirate ship, I should have waited until they found the map, then told them that they notice the room was starting to fill with water. Having been badly damaged by the wizard's spells, the pirate ship was now sinking. The PCs would have had to grab what they could, then rush back to Jarran's ship before it sank.

Example #2: In "Small Sacrifices", Tirah was presented with a room she wanted to enter. The door was open, but she knew the floor tiles were enchanted to wake up the skeletal guards. She asked me, "Can I climb the walls?" I had to stop and think for a minute. I knew it was impossible. The walls were relatively smooth, and it would have impossible for her character to stick to them. But at the same time, it was the first D&D game she'd ever played, and I wanted to encourage her to think outside the box. So rather than just telling her, "No, the walls are too smooth," I wish I'd come up with some other suggestions for her. I wouldn't normally consider feeding a player ideas, but the session was mostly for practice anyway.

Example #3: In "The Princess and the Dragon" session, after Delmer revealed what he'd done with the Princess, the group demanded he accompany them to the dragon's den. I should have expected that one. I handled it okay, but I still wish I'd thought of it in advance. I could have had Delmer try to escape during the trip. Or maybe even had him try something really nasty, like lead them somewhere besides the dragon's den. Maybe he's less afraid of Trolls than dragons, or maybe he has some sort of allies in the mountains somewhere that would help him out. Hey, maybe that's how he got the Princess up the mountain in the first place, despite it being populated by hostile creatures. Just like Doctor Smith from Lost In Space, he could have really thrown a wrench in their plans.

Let The Dice Fall Where They May
I'm too nice. I just can't see myself killing off my PCs. In the very first session I ran, "Kobold Hall" from the DM book, there is a dragon's lair below the room with the kobold boss. We were running with just two level 1 characters... there's no way they should have been able to survive that encounter. I gave them every opportunity to flee, but they wanted to try it. And they beat it, barely. Mainly because I didn't have the dragon use any of his more vicious powers. Those two characters still died in the next session - twice - but if they'd wanted the characters to live the second time, I probably would have found a way to make it work.

Battle Strategy
As mentioned above, I don't always remember to use my special moves. I tend to forget to have the baddies work together, and I most of my monsters act like brutes: charge the nearest player, then make attack rolls until you die.  There's so many interesting attacks out there, and battles can be more than simply counting hit points as you trade blows.

Balancing the Economy
Early on I designed Trasa's Bounty Hunter Guild. I made it sort of expensive to join, because I felt it was the sort of thing that should wait until higher levels. Then I got impatient. Rather than lower the price of admission, I raised the amount of gold I gave my players. Well, once they were in the BH guild, I couldn't just go back to giving them low rewards per bounty, or else it looks like joining the BH guild was a bad deal. I can see it now: "5000 to join, but I only get 50 per bounty? It'll be years before I break even!"

So, at level 5, my players were decked out in the best equipment they could get at their level (I did at least enforce restrictions on what they could buy, thank goodness), and they generally walked around with about 4000 gp spending money. So of course this meant that finding treasure in dungeons meant less. "Eh, I've already got some pretty good gloves. And boots. And necklace. And helmet..."

The Future
Lest you think I'm totally being unfair to myself, I admit I am learning. I am getting better at hiding my confusion when my players do something unexpected. If I ever run another campaign I'm going treat it more like LFR, with more structured XP and rewards. The Praktas campaign was good for me, but there is a reason I called it "Praktas" - it was always meant to be a learning experience for both the players and myself.