Wednesday, October 5, 2011

hunt the pixel

I read about this thing.

It got me thinking about last month, when my brother Tim came to visit for a week and we rolled him up a cleric for my Pathfinder game at home. Within the first few minutes of his introduction, I saw that his methods of play were drastically different from my regular group. He drilled me for background information on the setting, and I had some prepared but I really had to be quick on my feet to build up the details of the Empire the PCs all lived in. Before his character even had equipment!

Now Tim and I grew up together, obviously, and had the same formative experiences in the hobby. What I didn't realize is how much difference it makes. While the 'hunt-the-pixel' gameplay of the old Sierra adventure games has been mentioned (and sure, that aspect wasn't very good), I think those very same games trained my brother and I to play D&D the way we do.

A few examples:

-my regular players (there are three), upon arrival in the tiny frontier town where my game is based, did not bother with anything except the blacksmith and the inn. With equipment on and rooms paid for, they headed out into the wilds. Following an old treasure map, they fought a few randoms, went past a waterfall and finally reached the ruined fort (the evening's dungeon).

-Tim scoured the town for clues: he entered the barracks for an interview with the guard-captain (finding the town notice board in the process); went inside the church to see the town's records and pump the clergy for info; wandered around outside town speaking with every peasant and farmer he could find; and finally checked into the tavern for the night. He woke up the next day, did it all again, and THEN headed into the wilderness. While traveling through the forest, he peered (no one else bothered) into the waterfall, tried to climb behind it, took his armour off and swam down into the pool at the bottom! I never said anything about the waterfall, it's just there! It's there because there is a river and a cliff and waterfalls are what happens when you combine them.

But this is what Tim and I learned from those Sierra adventure games: look everywhere, try everything, talk with everyone, take anything not nailed down. That's how you gather information and how you solve puzzles, and I think D&D is the same. Didn't stick your hand into the dirty water at the bottom of the old fountain? Well you missed a few coins, and maybe some other cool thing. Even when I had to ask my dad for help in those games (I was pretty young at the time), the solutions made sense when they were shown to me. You need salt water? Well, Valanice starts crying every time she looks at that memento of her lost daughter Rosetta... get it?

Yes, sometimes this devolves into hunt-the-pixel bullshit, which everyone hates. But it doesn't have to. If you do your homework and the DM (or game designer) is playing fair, you'll have at least an idea of how to tackle any given puzzle, because you're learning about the game world and its logic all the time. And that key you picked up 3 adventures back? Well, it just might unlock that big adamantine vault...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Edition Strugges and more backstory

Well, now that I have a big cup of coffee in me it's time for another blog post. Read the first half of this here.

After I moved out west at 22, my old gaming group had a Pathfinder game going over MSN messenger for a few months. I found myself poring over the SRD, comparing each feat in minute detail. My fighter was only 1st level and I had 3 different feat 'builds' written up all the way to sixth. After a while, I started to get really wound up analyzing the differences between each feat. I just wanted to play the game and instead I was spending all my downtime giving myself anxiety, rearranging my feat progression. It was lame, unfun, and just distracted from the real questions. Things like "how the fuck will we survive this ratman-infested dungeon? What's the deal with those ancient markings?" etc.

My main gripe with 3.x is a problem which reaches its apex in Pathfinder: holy shit you have to make a lot of decisions during character creation. I found digging out my mechanics textbooks and explaining the workings of a differential easier than running my roommates through chargen in 2 hours. And they're playing rogues and rangers! Thank fuck no one wanted to play a Sorceror, god forbid an Oracle or Witch. Handing my players the feat list, I could see their faces slacken, daunted.

Gaining levels in Pathfinder is anticlimactic next to the decision-making and notation you do at first level. Racial abilities, feats, skill points, beginning class abilities - a huge range of choices. Yet your character's areas of expertise are now set: they'll be basically the same at 20th level. You'll still be a half-elf sorceror with the aberrant bloodline, just with a few extra abilities and more damage dice to throw. After spending so much time creating a PC, how can you help but feel that he's special? Feel that he's entitled to live?

When I first got into reading various OSR blogs, the term 'Retro-Clone' jumped out at me. I already love classic videogaming ('90s PC games and the SNES), so why not retro pen-and-paper games? Once I absorbed the core ideas it made perfect sense. I would much rather generate simple characters in 10 minutes and spend the rest of the night dungeoncrawling. If the characters manage to grow in the telling, we can give them special abilities later. Right now I just want to see what's behind the next door.

I'm too young to have played OD&D, 1st edition or B/X. I'm not interested in "nostalgia" or returning to my own roots - 2nd edition was all over the damn place. But damn do I hate 'splatbooks', sourcebooks, and mostly anything that doesn't say "core rules" on it. What I am interested in is playing a rules-light, fast-paced, easy to teach and learn version of the fantasy roleplaying game I know and love, which allows me to generate my own content easily. I'm interested in exercising my imagination. If I wanted someone else's imagination, I'd read a story or play a videogame.

To this end, I tracked down a copy of Labyrinth Lord a few weeks ago at my FLGS, and have been itching to play it with my Friday group. We're currently playing Warhammer Fantasy (read about it), but I'm prepping for the day the GM calls in sick and I can hit them with LL...

Monday, October 3, 2011

(spoilers) free adventure review: Challenge of the Frog Idol

Written for Labyrinth Lord
For characters of Level 3-6
by Dyson Logos
Get it here.

CotFI is a site-based wilderness adventure with a sort of dark 'lost empire' feel, set in the Black Mire and the nearby city of Coruvon. The PCs travel around the swamp looking for the missing treasures of the Frog God, a stone statue which speaks but retains little of its former power. In exchange, it'll give them a magic item which will help them enter the dwarven fortress of Kuln, now taken over by giants. Overall, it's the kind of thing people have seen before: a swamp adventure with lizardmen, troglodytes, giant carp, etc. and some twists and turns.

I don't know if it could be called a "true hexcrawl", but the Black Mire is big enough for the PCs to explore, get lost, travel for days, run out of food, get distracted by side areas and get worn down by random encounters. The treasures can be gathered in any order and a few of the encounters allow for varied strategies, although many are straight up slugfests.

Several locations on the map (including the ruined fortress of Kuln) are left up to the GM's imagination, so you can use this adventure as a jumping-off point for adventures in your own dungeon or more exploration into the Black Mire.

I would absolutely run this module myself. It would probably take my group 6+ sessions to get through it but they are notorious newbies and more seasoned players could doubtless do it in less time. My favorite bits: an island made out of zombies which floats around the swamp, and monstrous tentacles reaching out from under the wooden causeways to drag PCs into the water.

And just sayin', but you should probably play this song at some point in the adventure.

What sorcery is this?

Why the name?

Well, that's an easy one. It's from a classic PC strategy game called Myth: The Fallen Lords, released by Bungie in 1997. I highly recommend this game to anyone who hasn't played it. There is no resources-gathering or base construction like the other RTS games of the day. Your troops at the beginning of the mission are all you have to work with, so you'd better make each one count. And it's tough. The soundtrack is classic, worth listening to by itself, and the whole aesthetic of the game is a big inspiration: hordes of undead marching across blasted wastelands led by their immortal overlords in the twilight of Man.

In the opening monologue, the narrator sets the scene:

"In a time long past, the armies of the dark came again into the lands of men. Their leaders were known as the Fallen Lords, and their terrible sorcery was without equal in the West."

That's pretty much all you need to know.

I live in Western Canada these days. It's catchy. It's kind of funny. And while there are other Canadian guys doing the gaming blog thing (and doing it very well), I don't know of any other ones in this province.

I remember buying an old copy of Dragon magazine that had 2nd edition statistics for several of the monsters from Myth. Some of them *really* didn't need it and were just basic fantasy fare (Trow are just any large D&D humanoid, Thrall and Myrmidons are types of zombie, Shades are more or less Liches).

EDIT: Ghôls kind of make me think. They are hunched, carrion eating, ape-dog-man sort of things and this just reminded me of H.P. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath: "...for his vanished friend Richard Pickman had once introduced him to a ghoul, and he knew well their canine faces and slumping forms and unmentionable idiosyncrasies." Perhaps that's what inspired these creatures in Myth.

Two Myth creatures were unique enough to deserve their own stats, and since I can't find that copy of Dragon anymore I must do it myself. I'll stat these up for Pathfinder (somewhat abbreviated) and Labyrinth Lord, just for the hell of it.

(Pathfinder) CR 1/2, XP 200

NE Medium undead

Init +0; Senses Darkvision 60ft; Perception +0

AC 10, touch 10, flat-footed 10
HP 6 (1d8)
Undead Traits
DR 5/slashing or piercing

Speed 15 ft.
Attacks: explosion (Fort save DC 18)

Str 10, Dex 10, Con -, Int -, Wis 10, Cha 10
Base Atk +0; CMB +0; CMD 10

"Urghhh... zzz... blooog.... BOOM!"
(Labyrinth Lord)

No. Enc: 1
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 60' (20')

Armor Class: 8
Hit Dice: 1
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d8 + paralyzation

Save: F1
Morale: 12
Hoard Class: None
XP: 16

These undead look like drowned corpses, bloated and fish-pale. They shamble along dressed in rags. When they are destroyed, Barrier Wights explode in a cloud of poisonous pus, dealing 1d8 damage to all creatures in a 15' radius and paralyzing for 2d4 rounds (save to negate). If they get close to a living creature, they will burst themselves with their sharp fingernails instead of attacking. Sometimes they hide in rivers or under bridges, waiting to ambush passersby. Necromancers often use them for shock troops, to soften up large groups of enemies before the main attack.

A chunk of an exploded Barrier Wight retains potency for a few hours, and if handled carefully can be thrown to paralyze a target on a successful hit, just as if the wight had exploded.

(Pathfinder) CR 3, XP 800

NE Medium outsider
Init +1; Darkvision 60ft; Perception +5

AC 17, touch 11, flat-footed 16 (+1 Dex, +4 natural, +2 armor)
HP 38 (5d8+15)
Fort +3, Ref +2, Will +5
Immune - Electricity, Poison
Resist - Fire 5, Cold 5, Acid 5

Speed 30 ft.
Melee: 2 claws +2 (1d6+2)
Special Attacks: lightning bolt (5d6, Reflex DC 16 for half)

Str 14, Dex 13, Con 17, Int 12, Wis 10, Cha 14
Base Atk +5; CMB +7; CMD 18

"Hiss... where's my mirror?"
(Labyrinth Lord)

No. Enc: 1
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 120' (40')

Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 5
Attacks: 2 or 1 (2 claws, lightning)
Damage: 1d6/1d6/5d6

Save: F5
Morale: 12
Hoard Class: VII
XP: 350

Cruel horned creatures who wear coats of skin made from their victims. They seem almost human from a distance; when viewed at close range, their hateful expressions and gnarled skin coats can be seen clearly. By then it's too late. They project bolts of lightning 3' wide from their hands up to a range of 50', doing 5d6 damage to anyone in the path. In close combat they fight with their sharpened fingers, but prefer to avoid this as they are vain and lazy. They are summoned from another world through certain dark rites, but woe to the warlord or sorceror that doesn't keep them supplied with fresh victims and entertainments.

From this I've learned a few things. It's way easier to write up monsters in LL. This will get its own post shortly. It's hard to balance things out between systems, and in the end you really can't. The stats don't come across directly. But that's OK, these monsters will work fine for me in either system.

This post brought to you by: you guessed it. Turn it up.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

on and off the wagon

Today's been pretty busy, and now that I have a new dungeon filled with vegetable mold-men to torture the PCs with (I hope they don't get too cocky at 2nd level), it's time for a relaxing blog post about some of my own experiences with the roleplaying hobby.

I was first introduced to D&D by a kid on the bus to school. I can't even remember his name now. This was the beginning of 4th grade, which I think is when I started going to a different school, so I would have been just short of 10 years old. All this guy had was one six-sider and the most tenuous grasp on the rules; no books or anything. I recall being captured by gnolls and failing my d6 roll to escape - game over.

For some reason, I found this experience compelling enough to repeat. When my family moved to the next town, I found quite a few friends that knew about D&D. I got the Forgotten Realms boxed set for christmas, and for the next 7 years or so, all we did was play AD&D 2nd edition. Sure, we had a few rounds of Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer 40,000, but AD&D was the only roleplaying game on the map. It was all we had and we fucking loved it. I met some of my best friends in our middle-school lunchtime AD&D group.

Later on in high school I branched out. I started buying weird-ass old games at the used bookstore: Paranoia, a few Palladium books and some other things I don't recall, although I could never get anyone to play them with me. I got a copy of Champions from my aunt (and fuck did I ever love it). Somebody brought some White Wolf games to our lunch-hour group, and they blew our minds at the time.

Vampire and Werewolf I could take or leave, and Wraith I never bothered to play, but both Changeling and Mage had a feel that was unmatched in my experience. They were a total package, with production values a lot higher than I was used to. The artwork, the (at the time) out-there systems, the sidebars packed with obscure bits of flavor text, leaving you with more questions than answers (it's difficult to maintain this feel in actual play with real people, which is why our high school White Wolf games were totally gonzo). Through all this, we still played 2nd ed AD&D.

When 3rd edition came out, I thought just like my friends: bullshit. Those corporate weasels would never take any more of my hard-earned allowance! Until one day when I actually opened up the books and found a lot to like. Regularized XP tables, the new skill system (no more weapon proficiencies), and a more streamlined approach to rolling (no more bend bars/lift gates) all appealed to me. The clutter had been swept away; it was a new format, the art was different, there were new mechanics but it was still D&D.

It took me years to actually play it.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

let his blood flow, let our crops grow, it's time to meet the king

Ok guys, here's my third shot at some Forge stuff. This time it's place names - some of them end up doing nothing for me and I had to hit the generator for a while before I found some I liked. I only have three, but these ones are really cool and I'll be throwing them in my home game. No numbers, just flavor!

ACADEMY OF FRUIT - It is said that high in the mountains, where no caravan might pass and only the strongest or most reckless travelers venture, there is a lush valley. Filled with all manner of growing things, it would provide food for a kingdom if only it could be reached. Why is it there? And who guards it?

The Academy of Fruit is a bizarre monastery set up in bygone days. Insects and hummingbirds fly year-round in this valley of perpetual summer. The monks spend their time tending to their orchards and gardens, growing all manner of sweet things. They press grapes into wine and berries into jelly. In the evening, these monks have tastings - whose apples are the juiciest? Whose wine the most fragrant? And so they pass their days in contemplation of the earth's bounty, free from the sorrows of the world below. They're not interested in enlightenment or any of that stuff - and they certainly frown on any raggedy-ass adventurers stumbling into their monastery to bring trouble.

COIN PORTAL - Old men in the tavern speak of a doorway deep in the dungeon, made of a rare metal more precious than gold. Anyone who dismantled it and carried the pieces to the surface would be filthy rich...

It's a doorway made out of big-ass platinum coins (electrum, mithril, whatever you use make it tempting) which leads into an important room. The coins can be easily taken, but there are only 100 of them. Every time the PCs pull some coins out, roll a d%. See where this is going? Number of coins missing is the % chance the doorway will collapse. Saving throws to dodge as with a similar trap, but roll to see which side of the door each PC ends up on. You can scale this as you like depending on how much wealth you like to give out (200 coins, and each 2 coins are 1% to fall, or 50 coins and each one is 2%, etc).

ZIGGURAT OF SILENCE - Deep in the Drownings, on the bank of a muddy brown lake lies an ancient stone city. Built by the great architects of old, its inscrutable writings and fantastic carved artworks give no clues as to the nature of those ancient beings. The city is built around a stone step-pyramid with 137 stairs, each one almost the height of a man. Upon this pyramid is a powerful enchantment, which encloses it in a field of complete silence.

This has led to some strange cultural developments for the humanoids of the swamp (anything you like - mine are Lizardmen) who currently occupy the ancient city. Their simple folk religion has been changed by the unspeakable carvings inside the Ziggurat. Over the years, many powerful witch-doctors, shamans and sorcerors were born, and learned from the Ziggurat the secrets of Silence. ALL their spells are cast with no verbal components, and they have a form of sign language which they use to signal each other in combat. If you cross them, expect lethally silent ambushes at every turn while you're in the swamps. On the other hand, they can speak and the PCs might get along well if they brought some nice gifts or trade items.