Wednesday, August 31, 2011

ToEE: Afterthoughts

Another unnecessary rambling encouraged by my having a week off.

So, our 4e Temple of Elemental Evil campaign is officially over, even though we didn't quite make it to the end.  We finally called it quits after too many cancelled sessions, combined with some of the group's dissatisfaction with 4e.  I also finished the computer game and the novel a while back.  Just for closure reasons, I thought I'd post a few afterthoughts on all three.

The tabletop campaign:
It's probably our fault, but I was expecting more plot.  Based on my meta-knowledge of the campaign, we missed a lot of opportunities to interact with the villains, and instead opted to systematically take out each room one by one.  The difference between being in town and being in the Temple itself was like playing two different RPGs; you could almost hear the *click* as the players switched from roleplay mode to fight mode.

Still, I had fun.  It was a little off-putting at first, but once I realized how it was going to be, I embraced it whole hog.  I even switched to a more front line character so I could get the most out of the action.  But it also made me realize that I needed to try a few other gaming systems.

The novel:
The book was nothing to write home about, it's just your typical cheap paperback.  It had the usual assortment of party member stereotypes, but few characters I actually cared about.  It didn't always follow the same path as the module or computer game, but it was always neat when it would describe a familiar-sounding room and I'd think, "Uh oh, watch out for the skeletal gnolls!"  It was brief, but fun to read, and I will probably read more module-based novels if I find them.  But it didn't have any particular writing style, and it's the kind of book you immediately forget about once you finish it.

The computer game:
The ToEE computer game is a bit dated by today's standards... Okay, fine, it was pretty ugly five years ago.  It's easy to see how rushed it was - it was released in 2003, a full year after the much superior Neverwinter Nights.  While NWN features 3D environments, for some reason ToEE uses pre-rendered static backgrounds and feels like a throwback to older computer games like Baldur's Gate.  Sometimes I don't realize how spoiled I am until I get frustrated over my inability to rotate the camera to see behind the house.

I really wanted to take my time with this one, talk to every NPC, find all the subquests, and pick up all the plot we skipped with the tabletop version.  But that got boring after a while, and I kept screwing things up and/or running into quest-breaking bugs.  For example, I might attempt to join one of the temples and do some jobs for them, but sooner or later a faction script would mess up and the wrong NPC would attack me.  This would either break the quest sequence entirely, or cause the entire temple to go aggro.  So eventually I just decided to kill everything and make my way to the end.

Towards the climax of the game things got really frustrating.  The visits to the elemental planes used SFX that would frequently lock up the computer, so I had to save often.  Keep in mind, my computer is several years newer than the game, and way more powerful than ToEE should require.  Even so, I had to turn down a lot of the graphical settings just to complete those areas.  Also near the end I discovered a Good Bad Bug that I couldn't resist.  Basically, each of the four elemental bosses drops one of the four gems you need to get to the final boss.  Those gems can also be used to summon monsters to help you... but some of those summoned monsters drop additional gems if they get killed.  So you can end up with multiple copies of each of the elemental gems, allowing you to summon lots of crap and cast several of additional spells during the final battles.

But other than a little Save Scumming and Level Grinding, that was the only time I really cheated my first time through.  I beat the final boss, watched the underwhelming ending, and reloaded to try some different options.  There's some choices you can make towards the end that change the ending slightly, but all the endings are equally boring.

Now that I'd played it through semi-legitimately, I decided to go back through and smash the world to bits.  I built a party of five destructive cheaters.  I named them War, Famine, Pestilence, Death, and Cindy.  I used some cheat codes to raise all their levels to 10, set all their stats to 50, unlocked all the spells for the casters, and made them rich.  I used the crafting skill to make some ungodly powerful items, weapons which would often cause instant death, wielded by characters who attack several times a round.  I had them make some uber armor as well, but I quickly discovered that even the best armor couldn't come close to their DEX bonus, so my evil party rampaged au naturale

I made it my goal to kill every single NPC in the game.  Making sure I first spoke to enough people to unlock all the locations I'd need later, my five horsewomen of the apocalypse left a bloody trail of naked horror all across the kingdom.  I actually managed to kill everyone in Nulb, and I probably got about halfway through Hommlet before I got bored (that's a lot of ground to cover).

Yes, I have issues, why do you ask?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Essentials, Edition Wars and Whiny People

Note, I'm off work this week, so I'm trying to clean out some of my half-written blogs.  I actually wrote most of this a while back, when Essentials was first released.  I didn't post it because I wanted to see how long the Essentials uproar took to die down.  It mostly has, though I do still see the occasional post complaining about it.  So if it seems like I'm getting annoyed by stuff that happened six months ago, that's why.

If there's one group of people who like to complain, it's gamers. They are the epitome of the "Unpleasable Fanbase" trope. If you release a new edition, people will complain. If you make a feat overpowered, people will complain. If you fix that feat through errata, people will complain. If you make any changes at all... or fail to make changes, or release too many books, or don't produce enough books, or even breathe the wrong way... people will complain. If WOTC announced tomorrow that they were going to start mailing out $100 bills to all their customers, people would still complain.

So it's no surprise that Essentials has such a bad rap. With all the errata and splat books that have been released for 4e, Essentials represents the most drastic change. Except, it's not really a change at all, since it's entirely optional. The Essentials line basically contains simplified versions of existing classes. But - and this is the important part - it doesn't replace anything. There is absolutely no reason your Essentials Knight can't fight right alongside a normal 4e Great Weapon Fighter.

Now, it is true that when Essentials came out, a lot of errata was released with it. WOTC wanted to get as much errata out of the way as they could, so that the rules would be as final as possible when the Rules Compendium was released. This makes a lot of people blame Essentials for the updates, even though those updates would have happened anyway. Another sticking point with some people is that the Compendium - the most up-to-date printed version of the D&D rules - is technically an Essentials product, which makes some people think Essentials is non-optional.

Whiners had been wanting to declare the game 4.5 for a long time. Long before Essentials, I'd see message board posts that said, "There's so much errata out there, it's 4.5 by now!" So Essentials finally gave them something definitive, in their minds. Personally, I'll call it 4.5 if and when WOTC calls it 4.5, and even then it's just a number. I realize there's something of a stigma there (when 3.5 was released it caused an uproar), but to me it's just a way to let you know you're buying the newest version of the book.

The complainers would only need to flip through the Compendium a little to realize that the core game hasn't really changed. Other than the corrections and balance fixes that would have happened anyway, the game itself is still the same. All that's different is the addition of some new classes which play a bit different from the original 4e classes. Essentials, in my opinion, feels like you're using a 3.5 (or earlier) character in 4e. This is how WOTC tries to please everyone - by letting the 4e-hating grognards play classic characters alongside normal 4e characters (sometimes referred to as "AEDU" characters). Of course, when you try to please everyone, all you really do make both sides mad at you.

But they did manage to please me. I've only played a couple of Essentials characters so far, but I've looked over most of the classes and I like what I see. They're not always going to be my first choice; in fact, I'm probably going to alternate between Essentials and normal characters in campaigns that allow it.

Generally speaking, Essentials characters focus less on the 4e "powers" mechanic, and replace it with other bonuses at each level. But each class handles this differently. Fighters use basic attacks combined with stances. Rogues use basic attacks but have At-Will movement powers. Spellcasters are the most similar to normal 4e characters. This variety gives it the classic flavor. In the past, some have criticized that all 4e classes are alike, but Essentials classes break that cycle.

Despite the new classes being optional, some people complain that Essentials is turning 4e into 3.5. Am I the only person in the universe who likes both 3.5 and 4e? Is one edition better than the other? Is basketball "better" than football? Why can't people enjoy both, for different reasons? Every edition has highlights and flaws, and different people enjoy different things about the game. Personally I think 3.5 is better for roleplaying and simulationism, while 4e has a more interesting combat system. But I'd be more than willing to play either edition, regardless of whether it's a roleplay campaign or a hardcore combat game. (I won't go much earlier than 3e, though, for risk of running into my dreaded arch-nemesis THACO. Or that STR 18/99 thing. If your Strength is 18, it's 18. Period. I don't know what that /99 means, but if you write it on my character sheet, I'll stab you in the eye with your pencil. But I'm getting off the subject here.)

By all rights, everyone should be happy now. If you never liked 4e, then try playing an Essentials character. You might find it fixes some of the stuff you hated (unless your complaints are about something 4e-centric like Healing Surges, in which case you're a douche and your opinion doesn't matter anyway). If you liked 4e just fine the way it was, then keep playing with the old classes; they haven't changed. The bottom line is, you can like Essentials or simply don't use it. But. Please. Stop. WHINING!

Monday, August 29, 2011

I Need A Hero

One of the many complaints against D&D 4e is that the characters start out practically superhuman. Well, super whatever-race-you-pick, anyway. From what I've witnessed, our DM tends to favor the "start out as average nobodies, and gradually become heroes" style. I can certainly see the appeal. I enjoyed that "Dungeon Crawl Classics" game we played a while back. However, I play these games to get a break from normal life. It's great to be able to sit down and live another life for a while. I already emulate an average person 6 days a week.

Of course, you could argue that it's still a change of pace. You're not just a normal person, you're a normal person in a medieval setting. Great... so now I'm a normal person who doesn't even have indoor plumbing. Yay.

I don't claim to be typical, though. I know people have different reasons for playing. Some players like the stories, some like the combat. Some like collecting XP, gold, and other virtual treasures. Some like how it feels like gambling. For some, gaming is just a way to socialize, no different than having a weekly poker game or book club.  Some use gaming to escape real life, to fill a different set of shoes for a few hours, like virtual cross dressing.  For most players, it's probably a combination of several of these. For me, it's all of the above.

I've heard people claim that powerful characters kill roleplay. I can see why they'd think that, but I still disagree. Optimization doesn't kill roleplay, optimizers do. It's more about group dynamics than the system itself. If the DM and all the players are roleplayers, then the DM can throw easy encounters at the group, but still make them scary through theatrics and plot twists. But if you have even one optimizer in the group, then you have to make the encounters harder, lest his character rip the enemies to ribbons and take all the drama out of every fight. And if you make the monsters tougher, then all the other players have to optimize their characters to compensate, or they'll have to cower behind the optimizer every time a fight starts. One bad apple ruins the bunch. While you can roleplay in any edition, 4e seems to attract a lot of combat lovers.

I think people should have a lot of freedom when building their characters. But I also wish more players would use this freedom to do interesting things, rather than just squeeze out every possible point of damage. I'd love to see more characters built around an unusual weapon, even if it's not a very damaging one. Heck, I would have built more interesting characters for myself in the ToEE campaign, but I was afraid the optimizer in the group would yell, "She doesn't do enough damage, I don't want her in our party!"

I am having fun with our current Pathfinder game, where we randomly rolled our classes. It's kind of cool not knowing what your character is going to be. We're seeing some players run classes they wouldn't usually play, and building combinations we wouldn't normally try. There's nothing we're doing that we couldn't do if we'd picked our own classes... but would we? It's basically like saying, "You wouldn't normally build a Half-Orc Sorcerer, so I'm forcing you to, because it's interesting."

I like to think I actually would choose an unusual race/class combination without being forced to. But only if I knew it was going to be the kind of group where creativity is encouraged more than combat prowess, and only if I knew the campaign was going to be survivable without optimized characters. And that's the logical fallacy of the hardcore DM: he discourages optimization, but you won't survive his sessions without it. In a plot-heavy campaign, I'll be glad to wear a tutu and wield a large rubber fish if it makes sense for my character. But when I see teammate after teammate fall in battle, I'm more likely to spend my feats on crunch than fluff.

This is also why I don't like rolling stats. For example, if my Pathfinder monk had decent stats, I could take more personality-related options instead of using every feat to make up for her lack of hit points and AC. So while some say optimization killed roleplaying; I say optimization had the potential to enhance it if it hadn't also attracted too many optimizers.

This argument came up a lot back when I played NeverWinter Nights. I was on a persistent server called the Silver Marches, which focused heavily on roleplay. They were very picky about how people acted while playing on their server, to the point where eventually it felt like a police state. Anyway, one of their complaints was people building very specific characters in order to get certain benefits. For example, taking only one level of ShadowDancer just to get Hide in Plain Sight. In that particular case I somewhat agree, but they tended to criticize a lot of people for more benign leveling choices as well. Basically, they didn't want you to plan your character's path ahead of time, as that would be out of character. But some of the prestige classes had prerequisites that were so specific, that you couldn't qualify unless you'd planned ahead.

Personally, I planned out my characters ahead of time anyway. I'd generally level up in the middle of a dungeon somewhere, and I didn't want to have to spend much time thinking about what to pick before returning to battle. Of course, the server mods would have preferred we head back to town before clicking "Level Up" anyway, to represent the training we do to get our new feats... but clearly these people were nuts. Besides, is it really better roleplay to assume your character has no life plans? In real life, some people know what college they want to attend before they even enter high school. By the time they graduate high school, they sometimes know everything they plan to study in the next four years, right down to the electives. So is it really bad roleplay to assume my character knows in advance that he's going to practice certain fighting moves someday?

I'm actually not very good at RPGs, whether on the computer or at the table. If I built characters completely based on their personalities, I'd spend all my time in-game yelling "Save me!" to my teammates. This would be allowing my out-of-character incompetence to influence the in-character actions of my toon. So I usually try to build hardy characters in order to help me stay in-character.

That's why I tend to like my RPGs a little on the easy side. I'm more interested in the story than the combat, so I don't want the story bogged down by having to roll up new characters all the time, or spending three sessions in a near-coma while my companions take a sidequest to cure my Filth Fever. I'm not a teenager; I'm not out to prove that I'm the baddest by building an awesome megacharacter or by rolling higher than the DM. All I want is to build a character around their personality, taking roleplay feats like "Linguist" if I want to, without being splattered into paste next combat for my lack of optimization.  I'm simply not hardcore.

Fourth edition lets you build tough characters. It gives you higher starting hit points, At-Will powers that are better than basic attacks, more healing options, and so on. Even the weakest classes are tougher than they ever were in previous editions. But with tougher players, you have to have tougher monsters, otherwise combat-lovers will complain there's no challenge. And when you have tougher PCs facing tougher monsters, you have longer combats. Which attracts combat-loving players, which lowers the quality of the roleplay... so I can't win. I'd love to roleplay in 4e, but I think I'm better off with Pathfinder.

That said, I have seen 4e roleplay done really well. My first 4e campaign, Tantris, was heavy on the roleplay. We generally only had about one combat per session, and those combats tended to take about 5-10 minutes. The DM didn't try to build a balanced encounter that challenged our resources, instead he built plot-specific encounters filled with realistic enemies. Most of the fights would be considered too easy by some standards, but we were all new to the game so none of us had optimized characters. The harder battles usually had other plot-related ways out. Heck, the DM even told us up front that he wasn't going to kill our characters. That was the only campaign I've played where I didn't feel the need to play a hero; I would have been just as happy playing a non-classed NPC. I know a lot of this would turn some players off, but I have yet to see better roleplay in an RPG, and I applaud the DM for making it work.

Now if you'll excuse me, there's a Bonnie Tyler song that I must purge from my brain.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Unlikely Heroes: You Can't Make A Kobold Omelette...

Game Date: 8/20/2011
DM: Rusty

The Party:
Adrilar (Greg): Elf Sorcerer
Davor (Ted): Half-Orc Sorcerer
Durp DuDerp (Cliff): Half-Elf Bard
Glynnyn (Tamara): Elf Druid
Keyanna (Chere): Half-Elf Dragonblood Sorcerer
Nishallivexiania "Vex" Corman (Matt): Half-Elf Monk
Ranell (Michael): Halfling Barbarian

The Session:
Last session left off with a bit of party in-fighting, culminating in the deaths of Moxie and Snidely.  We began the session in mourning, as we said our final goodbyes to our brave companion (and Snidely).  Davor took it the hardest, as he has lost a brother.

On the bright side, this is no longer incestuous.

But people need us, so we had to carry on.  We rested a bit at the forge where we fought the Forge Spurned, but we had to leave when we discovered he was reforming.  We fled the forge, then started to look for areas we had yet to explore. 

One room featured a prominent fountain, and we encountered a pair of lizards.  We tried to walk around them, in the hopes that they weren't hostile.  Yeah, right, in this universe?  Fortunately, we rolled well, and two crits later they were both dead.

Next we came to a room full of statues.  It was a wide room, with three statues on each side, with weapons drawn in ominous poses.  Being the genre-savvy players we are, we did not go barging into the room without a plan.  First we decided to toss one of the lizard bodies into the room, to see if it set off any traps.  Unfortunately, in stepping into the room to throw it, Davor and Vex fell victim to the very trap we were trying to expose.  (Note, whether we actually stepped into the room was a potential point of contention between the players and the DM, but we chose to pick our battles this time.)

The entire room turned sideways, spilling Davor and Vex to one side, where we impaled ourselves on the statues' weapons.  Meanwhile, the statues from the other side of the room rushed downwards towards us, but we managed to get out of the way in time.  We walked along the wall-turned-floor, and climbed up the other side towards the room's other exit door.  Once the room righted itself, we started experimenting to see what sets off the trap.  During the course of getting the rest of the party across the room, we learned that walking around the edges of the room is a lot safer than walking through the middle.

We ended up in a small room that looked like a dead end, until we found a trigger that opened a secret door.  The next room had a trumpet-like tube sticking out from one wall.  Listening through it, we heard some kobolds in another room, arguing in Draconic.  There were also some other holes in the walls that could be used with the trumpet-tube, but we didn't hear anything through them. We found another secret door and proceeded down the next hallway.

Soon we found someone's personal quarters.  It had a rather uncomfortable-looking stone bed (though Vex probably felt right at home), a desk, and an anvil upon which rested a Dwarf skeleton.  The skeleton wore a couple of magic items, but as we approached, an imp appeared and warned us to stay away from his master.  We asked the imp a few questions, wondering why the Dwarf's death didn't release the imp from his servitude.  We also learned that the Dwarf's name was  Gristogar Ashbreath (though in grade school I bet the other kids called him "Assbreath"; no wonder he joined a monastery).

Seeing no way to free the imp, we started to mosey out of the room when the imp attacked Durp.  The bard managed to kill the creature solo, and therefore treated himself to the skeleton's belongings. From the skeleton Durp took a magic gauntlet and a pair of slippers.  Upon donning the gauntlet, Durp's hand and forearm became solid stone.  Durp tried to remove the gauntlet, but we couldn't find a way to reverse the effect.  This has since become the source of many jokes, most involving self-gratification.  The slippers were more favorable, granting Durp the ability to walk on walls.

Up another hallway and around a bend, we found a room with two kobolds, the same ones we'd overheard from the trumpet.  Easy kill.  Back down the hallway and through another door, we found a room with a large obelisk.  As Davor approached the obelisk, he was hit with a bolt of electricity.  The exit doors closed, trapping Davor and Vex in the room.  Two more doors opened, revealing a pair of Vargouilles.  Though I'd never fought one before, OOC I remembered them from one well-known list of stupid D&D monsters, where the Vargouille comes in at #2 out of the top 5.  (Maybe next session we can fight a duckbunny.)

Davor tried to cast a spell, but he fumbled, injuring himself, and dropping him.  Vex did her best to hold her own, but it was two against one.  Keyanna finally managed to get the doors open by turning her hands into dragon claws (bet that freaked the kids out), and we soon won the fight.  Now we faced another dilemma.  We had explored every room we could find on this level, and we still hadn't found Jevra.

However, we did remember seeing a well in one room, and even saw a kobold use it to escape.  We headed straight there.  The well held a large cauldron suspended by a heavy chain.  The cauldron was large enough to hold four people.  So naturally, we put our four best people in it - Davor, Durp, Keyanna, and Vex.  The rest of the party (mostly the children we were escorting) stayed around the well.  An important note to all reading this - just because the DM says something is big enough to hold four people, does not mean it's a good idea.  The chain broke, and we fell to the bottom with a painful crash.  This took Vex and Davor into the negatives, leaving Durp and Keyanna to check out this large room.

Moments later, a pair of kobolds came charging down a tunnel, riding on on the backs of Slurks (saber-toothed frog mounts, which somehow did not make it onto the aforementioned list).  Durp fumbled on his first attack, but they still managed to survive the encounter, thanks to Keyanna's cunning use of Sleep (quickly becoming her favorite spell).  Durp and Keyanna turned the cauldron over on top of their fallen comrades for safety, then explored the next room.  There they found a poisoned Choker, and healed it.  They tried to ask the Choker some questions about the area, but the creature couldn't speak, so they didn't learn much.

They dragged Vex and Davor into the room, blocked the door as best they could, and we all rested.  Later, Durp called up the well to make sure the children were okay, but he got no answer.  Hmmm... that's troubling.  Come to think of it, the well was only a couple of rooms away from the Forge Spurned.  Somewhat concerned, Durp used his new slippers to climb back up to the top, but the children were no longer there.  He finally found a message scratched into one wall, explaining that they'd gone back to town.  Durp descended once more and we got a bit more rest.

Later, Kimi (one of the kids) showed up with some new friends.  She had taken the others back to town, where she met a few new adventurers to bring back to the monastery.  This finally added Adrilar, Glynnyn, and Ranell to the party.  Now that we had the safety in numbers thing going for us, we began exploring a few tunnels.  In one tight passage we were attacked by javelins, being thrown at us from over the walls.  With no way to fight back, we just quickly moved through the area.

Next we fought several more kobolds in a cramped set of tunnels.  This fight was especially difficult simply because there were so many of us, keeping us from getting at our enemies.  Some of the kobolds attacked us from ledges, forcing us to either climb up or use ranged attacks.  The final showdown between Glynnyn and a kobold took a while, but Glynnyn was determined to finish him off despite his offers to surrender.

At one end of the passage we found an egg chamber.  A female kobold asked us to please not harm the eggs.  Our group consists of several personality types, both IC and OOC, so we had a bit of a discussion about whether to kill the female and/or destroy the eggs.  It was suggested that she might starve to death anyway with all the other kobolds dead, to which, um, someone replied, "Nah, she's got eggs if she's hungry."

Down another passage, up some stairs, and we saw two more Slurks with riders.  One rider was dead, but the other one fled down another tunnel.  We followed, until we reached a large room with another bunch of kobolds.  Davor and Ranell rushed into the large room, and each was soon surrounded by enemies.  The rest of us got stuck in the entrance for a few rounds.  Keyanna took a few out with another use of sleep, and eventually we managed to clear the room.  We broke there for the day.

I get the impression that we didn't go quite the way Rusty expected us to.  Last session, Tamara spent the entire game waiting for us to meet her character, but we never did.  Today, Tamara, Michael, and Greg spent half the session watching from the sidelines.

OOC, we knew that Adrilar and Ranell were back in town, and that we would probably meet them when we returned to rest up.  And as hurt as our party was at the beginning of today's session, it would have been perfectly forgivable for us to go that route.  But we're also playing our personalities (even if it kills us), and it would take a lot for Vex and Davor to give up the search for Jevra.

Sometimes it's hard to get things back on track when the players raid your dungeon in the wrong order.  I'd like to think that if I'd been the DM, I would have found ways to introduce the new characters a bit sooner.  I don't like making players sit around and watch longer than they have to.  On the other hand, a while back I wrote a blog about my own failings when I run games, not the least of which is my inability to think on my feet.  So it's just as possible I would have waited too. There's only so much you can plan ahead of time, and sometimes it's hard to recover when your players throw you for a loop.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Unlikely Heroes: PvP Zone

Game Date: 8/14/2011
DM: Rusty

The Party:
Davor (Ted): Half-Orc Sorcerer
Durp DuDerp (Cliff): Half-Elf Bard
Keyanna (Chere): Half-Elf Dragonblood Sorcerer
Moxie (Michael a.k.a. "Stud Duck"): Half-Orc Fighter
Snidely (Greg): Halfling Rogue
Nishallivexiania "Vex" Corman (Matt): Half-Elf Monk

The Session:
Last session, we explored some of the lower level of the Dwarven Monastery to find several missing children.  We ended the session after rescuing a couple of the kids from kobolds. Today we continued our search for the rest of the missing children.

First we found a room full of rows of cells.  Each cell contained a skeleton.  Whenever someone would try to walk past the cells, the skeletons inside would either try to grab them, or would throw their heads at the PC.  Davor was nearly killed by some of these attacks.  Once a few of the party members made it through the gauntlet, they heard a meowing from behind an anvil.  It turned out to be one of the missing kids - Savram - who was holding a cat (actually a familiar).

In another room we encountered four ghouls eating a kobold.  During the course of this battle, Vex was paralyzed, and Durp and Davor went down.  Moxie finally finished off the rest of the ghouls, and we managed to get Durp & Davor back on their feet.

In yet another room, we found five kobolds, one of which had wings (Dark Talon).  As in the previous session, some of the kobolds kept shouting "Glintaxe!" when they saw Moxie.  One kobold critted Vex, causing her ongoing damage, and she spent most of the battle unconscious.  Actually, a lot of the party spent a good deal of this session lying on the ground.

As the battle neared its end, Snidely was attacked by a Forge Spurned (Chain Demon).  It was a tough creature, but we survived.  Once it was dead, a few of us explored the smoky tunnels it had come from.  They found a forge, and another one of the missing children.  This left us with two more to find.

Next room, we fought several more kobolds led by a mystic.  They hit Davor and Moxie hard, and they went down early in the fight.  The kobolds closed the doors to the room, sealing themselves in with the downed Half-Orcs.  Sensing a losing battle, Snidely fled down another hallway.  Worried for their safety, Vex ordered the children to follow Snidely.

Vex was still at -2 hp from the previous battle.  She was able to stand, but any strenuous activity required her to make a saving throw or else collapse from exhaustion.   Nevertheless, she pushed open the door and finished off one of the kobolds.  This still left four kobolds, and it looked like a losing battle until Keyanna cast a Sleep spell.  This turned the tide, though one kobold did manage to escape out the side door.

After the battle, we got our fallen back on their feet, and Snidely and the children returned.  Durp made sure to inform Moxie of Snidely's cowardice.   This led to a fight between Snidely and Moxie, the Rogue taking advantage of the Fighter's rare moment of weakness.  Although Vex and the children pleaded for them to stop, they couldn't prevent Snidely from killing Moxie.  On Vex's next turn, she took the Halfling down with a well-rolled Flurry of Blows, and Durp finished off the dying Rogue.

With two party members dead, it seemed like as good a time as any to end the session.

We still have two children to find, including our ward Jevra.  Those of us still alive are low on hit points.  Vex is still at -2.  Next session we will introduce two new characters to replace Moxie and Snidely.  Michael will be playing a Halfling Barbarian, and Greg will be playing an Elf Sorcerer.

In-party conflict can be an awesome thing, provided that all members of the group are okay with it. The Tantris campaign I was in had a ton of it, and we all had a great time. We were very good at keeping our IC and OOC knowledge & feelings separate. My character was a goody-goody naive Cleric who'd had a sheltered youth, and was the type to see an advancing orc and say something like, "Sure, it's a big axe-wielding snarling brute... but maybe it's a big axe-wielding snarling brute in need of our help." Some of the other party members were low-life scoundrels, who were constantly doing shady things behind my character's back. Quite often I'd find myself saying things like, "It's okay if you do that, but please make sure my character doesn't find out about it." It was actually a lot of fun keeping track of who knew how much about what and when.

But in the Artifact Hunters campaign, we saw the flip side to in-party conflict.  We had one player who despised all types of mounts and companions.  He was constantly letting his OOC feelings on the subject influence his IC play.  Things came to a head in one session when he tried to kill another player's giant slug mount.  His character had no IC reason to do such a thing, and he did it while the rest of us were in battle, taking advantage of the owner's distraction when he should have been helping us fight. Now, I like it when people play their character's personality. Even playing a jerk can be entertaining as long as it's done just right, and as long as everyone in the group agrees it's okay.  But in that case it was clearly the player's own prejudices influencing his character's actions.

Today's conflict was pretty good.  Both players stuck to their character's personalities, they didn't appear to bring any personal grudges into the game, and they both left in a good mood.  This is a fight that had been building for a while, and if it hadn't happened today, it probably would have happened eventually.  And I have to admit, while IC Vex probably considered it a necessary evil, OOC it felt pretty good pounding Snidely's face.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Worldwide Gameday: Neverwinter Campaign Setting

8/6/11 - Next Level Games

DM: Rusty

The Party:
Belgos (Matt) - Drow Hunter
Brandis (Cliff) - Human Cavalier
E.J. (Andrew) - Warpriest
Fargrim (Rick) - Dwarf Slayer
Gorak (Bryan) - Half-Orc Slayer
Nameless One (Michael) - Elf Hunter
Shecky Greenbaum (Greg) - Elf Thief
Zandara (Chere) - Human Mage

Today's Gameday was based on the new Neverwinter Campaign Setting for D&D 4e. As you can see, we had a rather large party, but that doesn't mean it was easy.  Several times we came close to losing party members.  This was my first time playing the Hunter class.

Our characters were hired to be bodyguards, on a sea voyage from Waterdeep to NeverWinter.  The voyage itself went without incident, but when we arrived at the dock, we were attacked before we could even get off the ship.  A large number of aquatic zombies crawled out of the water and climbed aboard the ship, and we found ourselves surrounded.  This was especially difficult for ranged characters like mine, because there wasn't a whole lot of maneuvering room. 

The second and final combat had us fighting a Necromancer in a graveyard.  At first the boss was only accompanied by a pair of gravehounds, but he soon summoned a bunch of zombies to surround our party.  Once again, my character started the battle in a difficult position.  However, once I was able to get away from the enemies, the Hunter turned out to be a really interesting class.

Early in the battle, the boss teleported into the middle of our party, in order to effectively use his aura power.  It was an Aura 2 which did 5 damage each turn, so we all did our best to keep our distance.  Additionally, the boss had the ability to steal energy from fallen PCs, and could even recover from death itself.  But again, we had eight party members, so we managed to overwhelm him with sheer numbers.  A couple of our party came close to death, but we were all on our feet at the end.

This wasn't a particularly long session.  We only fought two combats, though I'm told we avoided at least one more potential battle.  It was a fun module, if a bit forgettable.

I have, however, reached my personal limit on Essentials-only events. It's not actually so, but it just feels like this is the 14th time in a row I've been in an event/campaign/whatever where someone said, "Hey, you know what would be a neat change of pace? Let's all play Essentials characters!" Don't get me wrong, I actually like Essentials. In some ways, I prefer it. However, as of 8/6/2011, the concept of the Essentials-only event has officially been done to death. It is no longer creative or different, it's just restrictive. By my count, Fourth Edition has 26 classes, over 100 builds for those classes, only 11 of which are Essentials builds. Asking us to only consider 10 percent of 4e's wonderful content is like giving us wings and then throwing a net over us. In recent months I've found that one of my favorite things about Essentials characters is how well they integrate with "classic" 4e builds. At this point, Thief is just another build, and can be played right along next to the original PHB's Fighter and Wizard. So come on, DMs and event organizers, it's time to showcase that ease of integration, and let players have their freedom back.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Part-Time Players

Poor DM. All he wants is to run a coherent storyline with a consistent cast. And yet, real life keeps getting in the way. If one player's not going to a beer convention, another player is having a baby or catching a cold or getting kidnapped by aliens. What happened to the days when everyone respected the game? Well, we're no longer teenagers, that's what. Adults have different priorities and less free time. The unfortunate result is that you just can't find six people who have the freedom to commit to every single week.

The DM books always have a few tips for what to do when a player can't make it. Things like have their character fade into the background, or have someone else run the character, or just have the character split from the party temporarily.  These are all acceptable methods, but what do you do if you know from the beginning that a player is only going to be able to make every other session?

Of course, some DMs don't mind just hand waving their absence, concentrating on the story more than the actual characters present.  But other DMs really want to account for every character's location at all times.  If it were me, I'd want to use it. Why just apply duct tape to the problem, when the problem itself is a potential plot hook? There are several good ways to integrate sporadic absenteeism into the story.  For example:

Shared Character
Early in the ToEE campaign, we had two players who were only planning to make alternate sessions. The DM's solution? Make a character they both like, and have them share. Unfortunately it didn't work out as well as it looked on paper (one of the players didn't like the character, and the other player never joined the campaign), but it was still a good idea. Still, let's spice it up a bit. This game takes place in a world where magic is common; why let it go to waste? And why try so hard to make a character that both players like? Here's some of my alternatives:

Peppy the Halfling Rogue and Bjertha the Dwarf Cleric are a pair of treasure hunters. One day they happened upon a witch's treasure. The witch caught them and demanded they remain as her slaves. Peppy, being a smooth talker, persuaded her into just taking one of them. But which one? Finally they decided to split the punishment, so the witch placed an unusual binding spell on them. The result is that one character is always tending to the witch's needs, while the other is out questing with the party. At certain points in time, they magically switch places. Perhaps there could even be times at which she temporarily lets them both free, for the rare occasions when both players show up. It could even be part of the campaign's story arc to free them from the witch's control.

Or how about this one? Doctor Jackel is a Human Mage who was experimenting with a new spell, when it backfired and cursed him. Now, at random times, he is transformed into the monstrous Mister Clyde, a Half-Orc Barbarian. When one player makes the game, he's the good doctor. When the other player makes the game, he's the brutish Clyde. And then there's the Ladyhawke method - Gelf is a Wizard with a hawk familiar. The hawk sometimes changes into Zia, a Beastmaster Ranger. Zia's pet wolf is really Gelf... but they're never both humanoid at the same time.

Of course, the above ideas only work if you're in a very specific situation, where you know two players are going to alternate their attendance (or you have someone always ready to sub for the one who misses a lot). If you just have one problem player, here's a few more ideas.

Glorified NPC
This is what we're doing in our current Pathfinder campaign. We have a couple of players who aren't really into gaming just yet, so we're letting them contribute as much or as little as the feel like at the time. Our party has a couple of guides, who double as MacGuffins when the plot demands it. Our situation isn't quite the same as the focus of this blog, but it's not a terrible solution for players who miss a lot. Just have the DM run the character as an NPC when the player isn't there. The downside: If it's just a torchbearer, then the player can't really build a kick-ass character. Also, you'd want a way to explain the character's personality changes... why does he join the fight some weeks, and just stand back other times? Eh, we can get a little more creative than that. How about...

Rexx is the victim of a werewolf's curse. But rather than changing with the moon, he changes randomly. He's human when the player is there. When the player is absent, the wolfman runs off into the woods (or the DM runs him as an NPC when plot-appropriate). Of course, this also gives many opportunities for side quests as the character tries to break the curse. It also adds a lot of potential conflict as the rest of the party deals with the hostile wolfman and keeps him from attacking other NPCs.

Malfunctioning Warforged
The party finds an old automaton - it could be a rock golem, or an enchanted suit of armor, or even a gnomish clockwork man. It still works, but only sporadically. Sometimes (when player isn't there) all it does is follow the party around, maybe holding a lantern. Other times, it is a mighty war machine. Maybe one member of the party takes responsibility for it, and is constantly polishing the mechanoid and tinkering with its settings.

Animal Companion
If the oft-absent player doesn't mind playing an animal, perhaps he could actually be another player's pet or familiar. For whatever reason, this particular animal can only be summoned at random times, to coincide with the player's attendance. Fluffy is a large talking mastiff, who wanders away to hunt at random times, tracking and rejoining the party whenever Fluffy's player attends a session. Shelly is a sapient armadillo who has to spend a certain number of hours a day rolled up into a ball, carried around by another character when the player isn't there. Perhaps they work more like Drizzt's kitty, being summoned from a small statue or magic gem. Maybe they even spring from a Pokeball-like device.

Object Curse
After a nasty encounter with an evil Wizard, Rocky was transformed into a small stone. His friends managed to work out a counterspell, but it only works for random amounts of time. Whenever he's a stone, another party member carries him around in their pocket. Or perhaps he's trapped in the reflection of a pocket mirror, or contained in a magical amulet, or even lives in a magic lamp.

River is a convict who lives in a magical prison. She has found several ways to escape, using a magic portal which always transports her back to her party. But her captors are able to track her, and usually manage to catch up to her after a few hours.   Then they teleport her back to her cell, increase her sentence, and fruitlessly hope she won't escape again.

Viva was killed by a mystical trap, but her will was too strong to be completely pulled into the other side. She now lives a part-time life, phasing in and out of existence. Sometimes she is a normal human, and just as solid and vulnerable as any other party member. Other times she is in a ghost form, invisible and intangible, and can do nothing but follow her friends around and watch.

These are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head. I'm sure there's many more ways to explain a character's absence. You might even come up with an explanation for every member of your party, just in case they miss.  If you have any favorite methods of your own, please post them below!