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Erik the Viking

Hmm where to begin? I am still slowly prepping to run “Ancient Blood”, and by slowly I mean a brisk glacial place. I should be finished just in time to convert it to the 6th Edition rule set. I have been spending most of the time lately making maps for the vtt, reading the adventure again and again, and because I am an asshole, pondering how to add extra content to the adventure. There is one thing that has me concerned and that is converting the combat encounters/monsters over to the new edition. I have loosely mapped out and substituted a motley assortment of foes with which to antagonize my players with. My concern centers on the encounter building rules or guidelines set out the DMG. My little experience with system and what I have heard from other sources seems to indicate the guidelines might be a bit jenky. Encounters meant to be a fun donnybrook can turn out to be a bloodbath or vise versa a deadly set piece battle can turn out to be as threatening as a child’s tea party. It’s kind of all over the place. Part of the issue I think is the increasing experience point multiplier for more and more opponents; it seems to be off the mark a little. A friend of mine (the guy from the last post with the anal fissure surgery) suggests having a way for the players to succeed without killing everything, a way to escape, or knowledge of the threat ahead of time so they can tilt the odds in their favor. The game seems to require a bit of critical thinking and analysis when it comes to encounters, which I am not sure how I feel about it as I am a bit of a button masher kind of guy. I mean really, anymore demands on my critical thinking or mental resources and I am at risk of being reduced to a talking chimp.

So as I mentioned above, like an asshole, I felt I needed to add content to the adventure. A good portion of the adventure is based on content that doesn’t really match my play style and without it the adventure is kind of thin. What I am talking about is the overland travel. In the adventure, much is made about challenging the players and their characters to survive the trek, in sub-arctic conditions, to the abandoned Frost Giant keep. This is meant to be done by playing out each days travel and making camp through random encounters, foraging for food, not getting lost, and surviving and navigating environmental dangers such as breaking ice. I plan to incorporate that into a scene or two, but it is not my thing anymore to play out travel in a live action kind of way. In order “re-fill” the adventure so to speak, I have settled on adding a faction/threat, fleshing out one of the encounters into a possible side trek, and making the spirit of Mok-Turoknin’s (the dead Frost Giant king who’s curse is trigged) more of a factor.

The one faction or danger that I am adding is called “Erik the Viking”. The danger/faction is essentially a classic Viking clan lead by Erik. Their impulse is to grow strong, crush their enemies, and be worthy of Valhalla. Grim Portents for Erik the Viking are: trade to Dagmalstad is disrupted, Dagmalstad is attacked, the clan acquires and ancient power/magic. The impending doom is: Tyranny. As you might have noticed I am using Dungeon World terminology to organize and frame things. It allows to me to leave room for collaboration and to make moves more organically based on what the players do. Well at least in theory. I think the key will be in tying the players to the specific cities or factions in the adventure during character creation or session zero. I will give them the various groups that they can tie themselves too, including, and hopefully, Erik the Viking.

Below is the vtt map for the start of the game in medias res with the player’s boat sinking and being boarded by a raiding party from Erik’s clan. The 4e Dm in me was reflexively putting sharks in the water, because well sharks, until I realized that was like asking for a TPK in the first scene. I am a bit of douchebag but not that much of a douchebag. Besides I usually save the TPK for the second scene or when I want to rage quit my own game.

viking1

Ancient Blood

Hey now Hey now. I know what you’re going to say,”Hey what the fuck man, where have you been?” I realize I have left you all hanging worse than the scrotum of a 70 year-old hot tub enthusiast, and for that I apologize but what are you going to do. Things have been sluggish on the gaming front here since I torpedoed my 5e Hoard of the Dragon Queen game as I have been slowly converting a 1st edition adventure from Dungeon Magazine #20 called “Ancient Blood”. The adventure has a nice Nordic/Norse theme to it. The conversion has been going slow, not due to it being difficult or onerous, but more just the daily grind of existence. It’s kind of weird as I haven’t been playing any rpg’s and have whittled my comic pull-list down quite a bit, but I have been playing a shit ton of video games. Popular titles have included Dragon Age Inquisition, Plants vrs Zombies Garden Warfare, Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze. Legend of Zelda A link Between Worlds and my current jam South Park the Stick of Truth. Yah you are most correct, I am one of those douches with way too many video gaming systems. It is always interesting for me watching my nerdiness ebb and flow and shift around.

I think one of the reasons that my conversion effort is at a snail’s pace is that I am not sure how jazzed I am about the adventure. On the one hand it is pretty simple and shouldn’t be too hard to run which is kind of what I am looking for at this place in time. However, I don’t know if anyone else struggles with this, but I get caught feeling like I should offer more to my players. It’s as if the linearity of a published adventurer run straight up is too constraining or a disservice to them and I feel guilty as a DM for being lazy and uncreative. Although feeling lazy and uncreative might be more tolerable than forcing myself to be more creative and having to be confronted with, what I am already pretty aware of, my abject lack of creativity. I am also kind of waiting on one of my players to be available for gaming. He is recovering from a massive hemorrhoid/anal fissure surgery and can’t sit for longer than a few minutes at a time or at least that’s what I imagine he means by “once he gets his life back together”, but perhaps I am reading too much into itJ. More to the point, I want to make sure that I know and enjoy the players for my next foray into 5th edition and gaming in general.

Regardless if I try and add some of my “vaunted” creativity to “Ancient Blood” I do need to modify some things. It’s not bad design per say but more anachronistic of the old days. The first leg of the adventure involves the party needing to transport some medicine from the starting town to a village several days north. There is, of course, a random encounter table populated by local wildlife (no monsters). The adventure specifically notes that the wildlife is not dangerous or threatening unless provoked, which it seems like the party would have to specifically go out of its way to do so. For me personally, this seems a little boring. I also don’t tend to play out travel scenes anymore. I used to when I was younger, you know the drill, describe the day and scenery, set up camp, what’s the watch schedule etc.. I was never any good at that and it always seemed kind of dry unless you had an encounter planned or rolled a random encounter. I tend to just narrate the travel montage and ask the players to tell me if they do anything or if anything eventful happened. Also the lack of threat in the random encounters seems kind of pointless to me unless you are running a really hardcore simulation. Instead I mapped out an encounter with a goblin faction doing a “smash and grab” job on the party. Will see if they can get away with the medicine and whatever supplies the players have.

The second modification centers on the challenge of the environment itself. In the original adventure the players need to travel the frozen tundra to reach an abandoned Ice Giant fortress. The writer notes that the DM should make it quite punishing on the players in terms of provisions, hunting for food, surviving the cold, navigating in snow storms and even getting up the stairs and into the fortress itself. You are directed to the Wilderness Survival Guide for rules on, well, surviving. There is also a 10% chance each day that the glazier will break with the players falling to insta death unless they are constantly tapping with poles. Then they only have to figure out how to navigate the huge gaping holes in the ice. In terms of the doors to the fortress themselves, they are incased in thick ice that requires 20 to 50 man hours to dig through with a specifier that continuous normal or magic fire will reduce the time by a half only if they have some means to make a digger immune to fire. It is also noted that other flash fire magic like a fireball is useless. All this seams meant to challenge player skill at survival in the absence of a more robust skill system. I think I will play out the struggles of navigating the hostile environment through a looser skill challenge with complications or setbacks for failed checks. 5th edition has also introduced an “Exhaustion” condition track that can be used for environmental hazards which I think will work nicely with this part of the adventure.

The last modification needed centers around the big bad. The module is based around this old Frost Giant king whose spirit is let loose to fulfill its ancient death curse on the descendants of his bitter foe. The module states that the spirit is way too high of a level for the party to even consider facing in combat unless they were specifically seeking Valhalla. So the only endgame solution that works is restoring his tomb to reset the trigger of the curse. It seems a little anti-climactic to me and I am pretty sure my players would feel a little cheated if they didn’t get to curb stomp the bad guy’s balls. I think I will still use restoring the tomb as an in combat option that might weaken the spirit or confer some kind of benefit to the party as well being required to ensure that the Frost Giant kings spirit stays put or is banished from the Midgard.

So there you have it, now back to the endless and continual grind

State of the Gaming

Well, long time no post. I am in fact still alive, and more importantly gaming. I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition and running the first published adventure path for the game Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Well that is until I pulled the shoot, but more on that later. I will not review 5E specifically here, as that just feels too overwhelming, and my good man Mr. Morrison over at The Rhetorical Gamer has done a good job again of reaching into my mind, with which I can only assume is some kind of voodoo, and laid it to bear on his blog.

So let’s talk 5E a little. I have to say that I like it. The feel of it in motion is good for me. It seems like a good blending of 3e and 4e from my perspective; they have smoothed over some of the hard corners of those editions for me. For example, I like the stronger but less frequent and numerous feats. Shit, you don’t even need to use feats and instead can just go stat bumps. The races and classes seem cool and strike a lot of the traditional archetypes. The subclass system, feats, and multi-classing allow you to build to your hearts content. I love the magic system and their neo-vancian approach to casters. Magic seems, well more magical again (and remember I loved 4e and played it exclusively for 4 years so no edition bashing hear). One of the things I struggled with in 3E/Pathfinder was the multiple buffs deal, so I like how they paired the slightly more powerful buff spells with the concentration mechanic that only allows for one spell requiring concentration to be active at a time. I also love that magic items are not necessary and have taken a step back to the early days of D&D where you might have found me under my covers picking out magic items that I would ruin the world with. Overall, the game feels very mutable to whatever you want to do.

I also like the flow of combat in terms of its pace and not being tied to the grid. Although I am not sure if I still have the chops for theatre of the mind (is there a less douchey term we can use for this?), either that or we as a player base have become addicted to the grid. In my game I have been saving the gridded combat for the more fleshed out encounters, everything else I tend to use a white board on roll d20 (since I play mostly online) with pogs to show positioning. I then use 13th Age style distances such engaged, close, and far. The gridless fights seemed to be a bit of a struggle, a little cluncky with the players being hesitant. In some ways I think throughout the past 2 editions we have been conditioned to think in terms of miniatures on a grid. It doesn’t help that all the abilities and spells are pretty structured with distances and dimensions. Now part of the problem might also be that I have trouble effectively describing the back my hand to someone. We will have to see, it might get better with more practice at it. Also I think I should go full descriptive for old times’ sake. I know what you’re going to say, “dude you never go full descriptive”.

Now on to Hoard of the Dragon Queen, I scuttled the campaign for a lot of reasons. In many ways I just wasn’t digging the adventure. The story itself was okay, it just didn’t grab me. I didn’t like the organization and felt that I was always looking for important content buried in long pieces of text while at the table. I think it also suffered a little from being developed simultaneously with the rule set as it includes terms and rules that didn’t make it into the PHB. They did a good job fleshing out the NPC’s and providing mini-sand boxes for each section of the adventure. I found myself not looking forward to games and it was a real struggle to get down to it. In general, I have been struggling to want to game as of late. I wasn’t really enjoying the group in terms of it not being a good fit and whether it was me or them I am not sure. Between working six days a week in my day job and private practice and having young children There is about an hour or 2 window in the evening between the time the kids are asleep and me passing out, and I found myself not wanting to invest in something so concrete as a weekly or bi-weekly rpg. It became easier and more desirable to just play video games or watch television. So basically, all of these things sort of combined and culminated in me turffing the game. So where do we go from here? Well I am still excited about 5th edition and my DMG just came in the mail. I have been going through old Dungeon magazines and modules looking for an adventure to convert, you know busy work. One of the strengths of the system seems to be that it is pretty easy to convert older 1st and 2nd edition material. I settled on the adventure “Ancient Blood” by Grant and David Boucher in Dungeon #20. The adventure has a nice Viking/Nordic angle to it and a magic sword called “Thor’s Fury”, so really what’s not to like. I think I am looking to sometime into the new year to run it.

I have been thinking a lot about complexity in rpg’s , that and the metric ton of shit that Rob Schwalb took over a recent blog post . From what I can gather it seems that some folks felt betrayed by his self-admitted rant as they perceived it to be the metaphorical equivalent of him dropping his pants and bricking into the mouth of the character optimization play style and by extension into the mouths of 3rd and 4th edition fans, who he was supposedly meant to represent in the design of 5th edition. I didn’t take his post that way, I mean really what DM hasn’t felt the berserker rage as some filthy fucking optimizer…er sorry… -deep cleansing breaths, finding my warm happy place- I am also not prone to being narcissistically wounded by the decisions a game company makes or need what I like to be validated by others, but hey that’s just me. Anyone who has followed Rob’s personal blog shouldn’t be surprised by this at all as he has long expressed his growing dissatisfaction with the aspects of very “crunchy” game systems that were becoming increasingly at odds with the experience he was looking to have at the gaming table. If you look past the hyperbole, you see a guy who is really just describing the results of his gaming “vison quest”, and what he has learned about his preferences and what makes the hobby awesome for him.

I also happen to agree with what I think Rob is trying to say. I didn’t take his post as advocating or that he, in some way conspired, to remove the mechanical crunchiness or complexity from D&D, but rather that the game needs to offer more than just that. D&D, to be truly successful, moving forward needs to allow and support different play styles. I realize that you can play a given edition anyway that you want and are not limited to doing things just one way and I am not talking about flirting with barmaids or talking to the king because those are the same whatever you’re playing. I am talking more about the game in action. For example you can try and recreate a heavy exploration or dungeon crawl feel similar to what you experienced in 1st or 2nd edition D&D with say 4th Edition but the system constantly fights you. It pulls for long set piece tactical skirmishes where the roleplaying, exploration, and interaction happen in combat. The combat essentially is and where the roleplaying happens. The combats are long because we need to make sure to use every standard, minor, immediate, free, and no action we painstakingly crafted together and that are at our disposal. Character creation can be a beast, even for someone like me, and a bit of a barrier just from the sheer volume of decisions and options. It’s one thing if that kind of stuff is your jam, but if it is not then you are kind of boned in 4th edition. I saw this first hand in my face to face group, were none of them probably ever read the core rulebook let alone a charop forum. Character creation and leveling were brutal. When they clicked on that button for their first level feat you could see their eyes glaze over at the nauseating volume of choices. Again, it doesn’t mean 4th edition is bad or wrong or that you can’t just say fuck it and pick the first option you see, it’s just the system pulls for something different. I found Pathfinder the same way, maybe even more so.

After reading the Basic Rules I am beginning to get sense of what they meant by an edition for everyone through modularity and I think it’s fantastic. If you want easy character creation and an old school feel of play you go with the baseline classes, opt out of feats and stick with stat bumps, and use theatre of the mind for combat. It’s quick, easy, and you’re cooking with gas. You want a more 3rd to 4th kind of feel? Then add some of the more complex sub-classes, opt into feats, use the rules for grid play, and boom Bob’s your uncle. There is even supposed to be different ways to handle healing, other than the default hit dice system, coming in the DMG that will allow you to tailor it to your desired play style. For those of you who are having aneurisms at the thought that Mr. Schwalb has single handily ripped out the still beating heart of the charop play style devoured it in front of you, take it easy. It doesn’t matter what system it is the minute you have any choices there will always be the best choice and best combinations, especially with multi-classing and feats. Plus this is just starting; you don’t think there is going to be tons of more player options in the future? You have to remember that charop is a lucrative play style for any company, because there are more players than DMs and player options sell. I think the take away is that WOTC is trying to provide you with options in terms of play style, not choosing one over the other. Is it going to be perfect? No, but what in life is aside from beer, pizza, and for some of us online streaming pornography?

Personally, I would have to say I have been leaning towards moderate complexity, in terms of character creation and game rules. You could sort of say I am like goldilocks in that regards. I like a descent amount of choices or options in character development and play, but not so much that it is overwhelming where you have to study the books like they were the Dead Sea scrolls. In gameplay, I am finding I prefer a system that is easy to adjudicate (parsimony over simulationistic detail) and combat that is not sluggishly long. I know you are laughing at the last point as I have played predominantly 4th Edition over the past 4 years, but it is likely that fact that has more clearly defined my preference. However, having said that I can make do with less or more complexity; I am kind of a cheap date that way. I am pretty intrigued with the new D&D, and maybe it will hit my sweet spot, but more on that later.

Dropping Loads

Unless you’re a gamer that lives under a rock then you have probably heard that 5th edition is jismming (is that a word?) all over our collective faces, necks, and chests July 15th with the release of the Starter Set, and get this, a free version of the core rules (or what they are calling Basic D&D) in a pdf download. The Starter Set is DM focused coming with pre-gens, advice/rules, and an adventure for levels 1 to 5. The free Basic D&D is the core of the game with character creation rules for levels 1-20 with four classic races and classes. It will also include some monsters, game rules, and magic items so you could technically play full campaigns with the free pdf if you so desired. The traditional core books will have a staggered release (a sort of refractory period between jisms if you will) with the Players Handbook coming August 19th, the Monster Manual September 30th, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide November 18th. The PHB will have the fuller contingent of classes, sub classes, races, and the rest of bells and whistles. The DMG will provide the traditional world building/campaign guidelines and magic items as well as some of the promised modularity in terms of variant rules. I of course pre-ordered all three core books. It also looks like WOTC is going to try and focus on adventure paths this time around, especially after giving the core rules away for free. The two entries The Hoard of the Dragon Queen (8/19/14) and The Rise of Tiamat (10/21/14) are set in the Forgotten Realms. I am not sure how I feel about this. It just seems like yesterday’s news, but I guess they want try and appeal to the largest segment of the audience.

The reaction to the free Basic D&D was pretty amusing. I personally thought it was a great move and a lot of others on the interwebs were in agreement. However, there was a fairly vocal contingent that took a dump all over it. I have never seen a company take so much shit for trying to give something away for free. A friend of mine said you’d think they were giving away free syphilis or something. People are screaming that it is not enough, giving us a gimped game, with chants of an OGL or nothing. WOTC has stated that they have plans that they will announce later detailing the license structure of 5th edition and it seems like there will be a system for being able to sell individually created stuff, so will see. On a side not it would be ridiculous for WOTC to ever do an OGL type thing again. It was probably the worst business decision they have ever made, great for consumers, but ultimately terrible for them.

My own gaming has been a little stagnant of late. I have prepped the new introductory module for the Slaver’s A-series published in the re-released hardcover collector’s edition using the OSRIC system. The game has been put on hold as sadly one of the players, who is my best friend, is dealing with the final stages of his father’s battle with cancer. I am still playing in the 4th edition Against the Giants game and we have slowly ground our way to the last bit of the final module. My Dwarven fighter Karl Laggerbelly is a beast of a defender. I have to say that the published modules in 4th edition have really not been great. Even with Chris Perkins writing the giants ones, I just find the combat system ill-suited to the traditional dungeon crawl. The best 4e games I have played in or run have been homemade with an eye towards the mechanics of the game. Lastly, I have been slowly working my way through the new Runequest rule book. I really like the system as it brings back a lot of fond memories from my youth. I am amazed by how much more complexity they have added to the system. I had the thought that with the gritty style of play that can be created that the system would be great for a Dark Sun setting. With a little work the Folk Magic could be re-flavored as psionics. So I have that percolating around my brain, we’ll see what comes of it.

Well the specter of D&D next hangs heavy over the nerd realms these days like a giant Rorschach level pit stain evoking a myriad of responses ranging from the second coming of Christ or Elvis to complete and utter revulsion and white hot rage. Where do I fall on this spectrum? Well somewhere in the middle around indifference and bordering on complete apathy. Don’t get me wrong I will still buy the core books because well, I buy everything anyways. But I really need this thing to come out soon so some of the edition warring can simmer down. I know it will never stop but with the open play testing it seems to have concentrated it like a lightning rod in the WOTC forums. They still haven’t set a firm launch date, which isn’t helping much as it gives the illusion to some that the game is in trouble design wise. They have stated that they are shooting for a summer 2014 release, which most took to mean at GenCon this year. However, with that date inching up on the horizon, they have been pretty coy about whether it is a go or not. There aren’t any official events listed for D&D Next on the schedule aside from some seminars that use the wording “upcoming” edition (edit-a poster named Wavester confimred theat he has entered WOTC events for the registration at GenCon but they are waiting for a few details to be ironed out before they get “turned on” and that they will be using a D&D Neext ruleset). There is an unconfirmed rumor that the Basic or starter set (not to be confused with the PHB, DMG, and MM which will come later) will be launched July 15th. I don’t envy the developers and I f I was one I would probably try and push it off for as long as possible as there is the very real possibility that it’s release could land with a big echoing thud, regardless of the actual quality of the game. Then what?

It’s hard to get a bead on what’s going to happen. The forums are a bit of a wet hot mess with each feature, mechanic, or playstyle being constantly attacked and ripped apart by packs of jackals. Nobody can agree on anything and everything seems polarizing from cries of dissociative mechanics to vancian vrs neo-vancian casting to healing and hit dice. Perhaps my favorite clash was WOTC’s decision to remove movement penalties for the smaller races in combat. The rational being that there are more interesting ways to bring out the flavor of the individual races than a movement penalty. So Dwarves and Halflings no longer have a lower speed than the rest of the races. The shit storm and threatened rage quits that erupted in a thread was something to behold with some decrying it as the further pussification of the game because the munchkins don’t want any kind of challenge compared to the good old days. Then there were simulationists claiming that this ruined their verisimilitude because it’s just not physically possible for someone smaller to move the same speed as someone taller. This led others pointing out that in a six second period a little person or even a child could probably sprint 30ft which then led to, I shit you not, someone entering the land speed of a cheetah into the conversation. How can you win when you’re designing for these people? Now granted I am a firm believer in the silent majority that are way less bothered by any of this bullshit and I see a lot of people that are reasonably flexible that seem to like what they see so far. But then there is the part of me that thinks who is really going to run a table top rpg these days other than some crazy, intense motherfucker that posts on forums (or writes a dumb blog-natch). When you look out over the hobby landscape these days table top rpg’s are an ever shrinking niche market with so many strong options and contentious factions you have to wonder what the expectations for D&D can be? The strength of Pathfinder alone and I realize rpg’s are not a zero sum area, has to dent performance expectations let alone the general hatred that WOTC tends to evoke in a lot of people.

I know personally I won’t allow myself to get caught up in the product frenzy like I did with 4th edition. I look at my shelve full of all that crap and get angry. I am going to keep it simple this time around and be a little judicious with what I get, perhaps being satisfied with just the core books…yah and then pigs will start flying and hell will freeze over and I will start shiting golden eggs out my ass.

 

runequest

 

 FUCK YOU RUNESLINGER!

 

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