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Posts Tagged ‘Wizards of the Coast’

I had to do it. I can’t even say that I was reluctant or hesitant. I know this sounds serious doesn’t it?  like some kind of important life change. Am I talking about filling for divorce? Changing careers? Vasectomy? Switching deodorants? No no no, I am talking about something even more serious. I am pairing down Princes of the Apocalypse. I have to do it; I feel my sanity is at stake. It’s not that it is a bad adventure, but there are some definite problems that I wish I was more cognizant of from the get go. I might outline some of my issues and what I would do differently in hindsight. Looking around social media and the blogosphere it seems that others have had some similar issues with the adventure, and likely why it is ranked near the bottom in peoples favorite WOTC hardcover adventures.

One of the things I am struggling with, which probably isn’t the adventure’s fault, is the glacial pace at which we are moving through the book. The problem is that we only play every 3 to 4 weeks so it is hard to get a good flow going as well as keeping the plot/motivations front and center. One of the players commented that they were going after these cult strongholds for some reason that he couldn’t remember (more on that next blog, I mean come on I don’t have a lot of ideas and you can’t expect me to blow my wad in one post). This appears to be exacerbated by, at the core, the adventure is a series of dungeon crawls: 4 above ground keeps for each elemental cult, 4 underground temples for each cult, 1 sub dungeon, 1 final node/dungeon.  the above ground temples had some nice variety in terms of setting and features, but I find the underground temples a bit of a slog. Granted my players are a kind of a “storm the keep” style adventurers, I keep trying to telegraph that there maybe be other ways to bypass sections, and I definitely try to be very clear with NPC’S that they don’t need to fight. I kind of just want to get onto something else, like maybe Planescape or that Ancient Blood adventure I have been converting.

My solution to the pacing has been, like a surgeon with a scalpel, to pare down the underground temples something fierce. I had the idea of going back to 4th edition style delves where you had 3 to 4 combats plus some kind of exploration. I have tried to keep the key features of each Temple that make them unique to their respective elements. The challenge rating of the encounters/scenes are pretty stiff, as they are my ace in the hole. If we hit the 3rd tpk I am pulling the chute. I also switched to milestone leveling at the end of each session. It was fairly successful the last time we met, as they wiped out the air cult and their prophet. No fuss no muss. By my calculations we are about 5 to 6 sessions from completion, god willing. They are 7th level now and well on their way to a final confrontation with one of the elemental princes, except for Yan-C-BIN because they dropped the air prophet like a bad habit. I played Aerisi like an annoying valley girl that sounded like Jocelyn from Bob’s Burgers. My players were well satisfied when she got her comeuppance. Should I steer them to a final confrontation with Imix given the evocation wizard is essentially a pyromancer and most of his spells would be ineffective? Naw, they need all the help they can, as I don’t see how I don’t mop the floor with them using one of those elemental princes.

Look out Mike Schley I am coming for your job!

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Human beings are funny things. I don’t mean in a Joe Pescie “funny like a clown” way, but more like a quirky mishmash of personality traits and idiosyncrasies. My wife, for example, frequently states that I am like a fungus in describing how people often initially find me off-putting but over repeated exposures I tend to grow on them until they are quite fond of me. With things like the projective hypothesis and interpersonal dynamics on display, I feel that that there is no place quite like the gaming table to shine a light peoples quirks. For example, I remember running this convention game one time and this kid’s action during a 4th Edition skill challenge was to roast and eat a dead bandit in front of the townsfolk (uhhh…I guess maybe roll Intimidation?). Additionally, I don’t think we have to dig too deep to get an understanding of my penchant for dick, fart, and masturbation jokes at the game table.

Aside from the walking manifestations of our juvenile and delinquent self’s, I like how hard choices at the game table can bring out conflict or drama between players, between characters, and even between a player and his character. In a recent session of my Princes of the Apocalypse game I was absolutely ticked to be able to put the players in a situation where they had to make a tuff decision with some potential negative consequences.

Here’s the “sitch”, once upon a time four brash and wet behind the ears pc’s stormed the Earth Cult temple at the Sacred Stone Monastery in the dead of night and found themselves resource depleted and fighting the 2nd in command. In the end, two of the players tip-toed over their dying companions as they fled into the night (it was the rpg equivalent of the movie “A Bridge too Far”). Cut to last session where the party, after clearing out the other surface temples and gaining 2 levels, returned to the Sacred Stone Monastery to let the Earth Cult know what time it was. As they confronted the 2nd in command in the altar room he giddily sent one of his minions down the stairs and into the dungeon with instructions to kill one of the pc’s they left for dead.

Well this certainly came as a surprise to my players and much debate ensued. Further complicating the scene was the fact that the cult leader hit them with a slow spell on his first turn, perhaps the perfect medicine for a too big for his britches ranger but I digress. I love when they talk aloud in pseudo-questions while looking at me for subtle tells as to what the deal is. It was interesting to watch. The conflict arose around whether they should fall for the obvious trap with the former party member also likely being dead. I summarized their thoughts and concerns and asked them what would their “characters” would feel and do. The ranger told the barbarian (the two original survivors) that they should act heroically and try, even if it is in vain and a trap, to save their former companion, assuaging their guilt and making amends for leaving him to die and, apparently, to be tortured in captivity. The cleric then casts dispel magic on the barbarian and he flies off down the stairs to what we all know was quite clearly a trap. With a pull of a lever the stairs became a slide into a room with a loosed Umber Hulk. Yes the bad guy also sacrificed one of his minions. Now we are switching back and forth between scenes. The barbarian gets a little irked because the rest of the party leaves him down there to fight for his life alone while they slowly finish off the rest of the bad guys. He sarcastically reflected the ranger’s comments about being heroic back to him, which caused a little bit of tension. I also couldn’t resist needling him a little. His actions were just so inconsistent with his role-playing rhetoric it was hilarious. It seemed he was reluctant to put himself into a potential tactical disadvantage despite advocating that course of action and inducing it in a fellow pc. In the old days we would have had him change his alignment.

Unfortunately I was unable to capitalize on my advantage and the players triumphed without anyone dying. After a leisurely battle with the cult leader, the rest of the party joined the Barbarian and they wiped the floor with the gimped Umber Hulk. IRL their Dragonborn Bard companion is still alive, locked in a cell with the rest of the slaves. The Barbarian’s decision to rush off into danger did save the Bard’s life and they can now reap the rewards in the form of valuable information. If they didn’t go after the minion they would have found the bard dead with is throat freshly cut.  How do your players handle tuff choices?

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The torch has been passed, or at least lit with a cantrip.  It is a time honored tradition for a man to pass onto his children the accumulated wisdom gleaned from his time on this earth, so they can carry on and forge new and brighter paths into the future.  As of today, I have fulfilled that responsibility by initiating and teaching my eldest son the ways of the D&D. I glossed over the darker days of wedgies, public ridicule, and involuntary abstinence (he is only 8). It’s a brave new world out there; and the geeks have truly inherited the earth. We are no longer relegated to parents’ basements…unless we want to be. We are everywhere, and social cliques are as fluid as they have ever been. I can’t believe he is going to grow up in an age where people will actually go to a theater or convention centre to watch a live D&D game be played. Still the necessary nods and respect to the old ways were observed. There was Cheetos, chips, and mountain dew aplenty. I tried to kill the boy with a save or suck effect, but he is wily like his old man, and he came away unscathed.

I have to say, without ego, that my son was absolutely amazing, he was a natural.  I mentioned last post that I had converted UK1 “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh” module to 5th edition. The party is comprised of my son’s elven rogue, Stargazer, my friend is playing a half-elf warlock, and two dwarven NPC brothers (life domain cleric and fighter). They have penetrated the “haunted house” and have cleared the first floor. We started with a brief session 0 to establish bonds. My son came up with the idea that he was orphaned  when orcs wiped out his village and he was taken in by the dwarven brother’s family, and now seeks to hunt down these orcs. That’s pretty good eh? He even role played at times. When the barkeep at the Drunken Sea Urchin told him he needed to speak to an elderly poacher if he wanted more information on the “Haunted House” he asked me if he could “mutter” under his breath that this is ridiculous and a waste of his time. Also, when he found out how much it would cost to rent a room for the week he exclaimed, despite having no concept of money and what things cost, that this was “outrageous” and a “rip-off”. We also had to gently explain to him why he couldn’t make the NPC brothers go and investigate the horrible wailing and screams coming from the dark basement.

I think the hardest part was trying not to overly constrain his imagination. He was climbing into rafters to shoot his bow down at the monsters and dodging out of the way of incoming attacks. I made a sinfully bad DM error. He kept wanting to attack with his daggers, but he does more damage with his rapier, which I kept pointing out like some kind of overbearing power gamer. This is something I would never dream of doing with another adult, but I guess I am so used to telling him or teaching him how to do things as his dad that I didn’t catch myself until after. Next time I will be more mindful of that and just encourage him to do what he thinks is cool……and then kill him and build a character that doesn’t have any daggers.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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So I was reading Mike Mearls’ Legends and Lore column, you know so I can fill myself with indignant rage to fuel my sleep deprived workweek. Anyways, it was the article about “what happens in between adventures” in D&D Next that started this ball rolling.  Apparently they have created mechanics for what your character does in between adventuring that then confers some kind of benefit.  This covers things from socializing and gaining beneficial acquaintances/contacts to the old favorite of spell research (yes we are back to that again).  My initial response was “Why the fuck are they doing this, like really who needs this in their lives?” Were the faceless masses, with flaming dice bags in hands, screaming and demanding this?  It seems like it flies in the face of their primary design goal to strip the core rules down to the very essence of what D&D is. I guess I always thought you just had conversations about what happens in between adventures and what you did or wanted to do, you know you kind of talked it out or role-played it out or whatever. It doesn’t really seem to make sense to put mechanics to these things, it feels…..burdensome.

The article, aside from causing agita, got me reflecting on my own gaming style and how it has changed over the years. I find that I don’t really do much with the scenes in between scenes these days. Any Interaction scenes, set up by me, are meant to drive the adventure or impart necessary information for the adventure.  Gone are the shopping trips, visits to the tavern, or just shooting the shit with the locals. I might flesh out player ideas or goals through some Q&A that can be built into the adventure or narrative of the game, but that’s about it. The 4E game system might have something to do with it, as there is an emphasis on encounters, or it might be a slight withdrawal from simulationist aspects, I don’t know.  In some ways I think I just have less time.

You see back in the old days much of the gaming sessions were spent in these scenes between scenes, sometimes more so than the actual adventure.  Throughout high school I mostly gamed with my best friend. We played  Runequest and Champions, with each of us taking turns running games for our characters (yes the GM played his own character). Sometimes another friend of ours would join. In the summer we played in my 2 car garage that never housed a car. We were surrounded by multiple weight benches, free weights, and other implements of pumptitude. The walls were adorned with various comic book and basketball posters, sport illustrated covers, and anything else we thought was cool. Our playing surface was an old wood boxed television set with an unused door laid across the top (I know sounds super ghetto but it was awesome).  Like most teenagers we had nothing but time and our sessions definitely reflected a certain lack of urgency.  Everything was played out because we could and it gave us the opportunity to bull shit and make each other laugh. We were the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of gaming. Nothing was important but everything was important at the same time. The game could pause at the drop of a hat so thorough discussion could be had on hot girls, sports, movies who had the coolest super power, what superhero would win in a fight  etc… Anything that wasn’t accomplished or gotten too was easily done tomorrow night.  It also helped when you were a little light on the prep or ideas.

These days I just have so little time that I get agitated if something’s not happening. I need to be smashing something in its face before the sessions over or I get too tired to remember where I am and what I am doing. I am not really looking to know what happens in between adventures, unless it is substantive, and then we can handle it through some quick Q&A.  I also really don’t want to be talking with every npc on the block, especially if it doesn’t give me vital information or lead directly to me kicking something or somebody in the nuts. The thought of adding mechanics or minutia makes me nauseous and seems the opposite of streamlining and more like bloating. The people I know that have playtested  D&D next have been somewhat neutral about it. It hasn’t’ been horrible, it hasn’t been great; it’s just kind of whatever. With so many options out there these days I do get the sense that WOTC needs D&D Next more than we need D&D Next, or at least than I need it.

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