Saturday, March 14, 2015

Twenty Questions for the Sewers of San Draso

Jeff’s twenty campaign questions for my Sewers of San Draso campaign, part one.

  1. What is the deal with my cleric's religion?
You’re probably a priest of the elven Moon Empress or one of her many attendant saints-- mostly other gods absorbed into the imperial religion and ancient deified elven heroes, though there are a few more modern heroes mixed in as well. It’s possible that you’re the follower of one of the local gods that hasn’t been absorbed into the Hierarchy, or something even weirder.

  1. Where can we go to buy standard equipment?
There are a variety of blacksmiths and alchemists who provide equipment for soldiers and mercenaries, and more ordinary goods are available at the daily markets.

  1. Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?
Zanz, a half-giant, half-elf armorer, will give you a discount if you commission him to make armor for a kind of monster he’s never worked on before.

  1. Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?
Probably some unassuming member of emperor’s court. Within San Draso itself, most likely Tiago ve Moril, who few men have seen, and who is rumored to be a half-dragon.

  1. Who is the greatest warrior in the land?
Though saying so will get you uninvited from certain kinds of parties, it’s undoubtedly Amerincio Callan, an elven assassin of local ancestry who caused a minor scandal a few years ago by turning down the governor’s offer of adoption, and then making off with his daughter and both of his sons. (Who are, by all accounts, perfectly happy with the arrangement to this day.)

  1. Who is the richest person in the land?
Urraca ve Durran, whose mother bankrolled a great deal of the early exploration and settlement of San Draso and who has been assigned to oversee her family’s holdings for the next few centuries.

  1. Where can we go to get some magical healing?
Any imperial cult will be happy to provide this service to citizens in good standing of Her Celestial Empire.

  1. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?
The imperial cult is still a good option, although depending on the problem, a local shaman may be cheaper and less annoying.

  1. Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?
The two main colleges with satellites in San Draso are the Eye and Triangle (specializing in abjuration, evocation, divination, and conjuration) and the Dragon’s Teeth Conclave (specializing in enchantment, illusion, transmutation, and necromancy). The Eye and Triangle welcomes non-wizards of a scholarly bent into their debate halls, while the Conclave hosts other kinds of arcane spellcasters seeking camaraderie as well.

  1. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?
The merchant’s quarter, inside the second wall-- at least if quality is more important than price. There are also a number of “experts” of various kinds on the outskirts of town.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Tiki Season

Sometime in mid to late February, I get sick of snow, and I start making daiquiris. Mai Tais. Drinks with little umbrellas in them.

Some people think that tiki drinks (“faux tropicals”) are summer drinks. Not me. I made my first daiquiri last month, then a Hai Karate, then a ginger-liqueur variation on the Carioca Hawaiian Cocktail last night. I have pomegranate molasses and orange flower water, and a glass bottle with a pour spout to hold the grenadine I’ll make once I get the pomegranate juice. Or it might end up being a bottle of cinnamon sugar syrup, if I decide to go a little more Don the Beachcomber and a little less Trader Vic.

This time next week, I’ll probably have an order in for Small Hands Orgeat Syrup (it ain’t worth making on your own, and the commercial stuff I can get in that fancy Italian grocery store is crap, and I have all the other ingredients you need for a proper Mai Tai). I already picked up a package of tiny umbrellas, and I’ve been eyeing my rum collection and considering my next purchase. I have a bottle of cachaca, some Martinique aged rum, a bottle of 7 year Angostura rum, but not much in the way of the real staples. I’m still missing the Virgin Islands light and amber that do the majority of the heavy lifting in my tiki bar, and I’m painfully low on the dark Jamaican rum that carries the rest.

I gave away almost all my tiki stuff when I moved to New York last summer, figured I’d get back into classic cocktails. Which I did, for a while-- notwithstanding a brief tiki itch brought on by discovering St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram at the shop down the street.

The tiki thing always comes back, though. I fell in love with plastic swords and drink umbrellas in the Tonga room in 1994, and I’ll never fall out again.

Some of that is just practical. I like sour drinks in general, I like rum. Rum is cheap, compared to whiskey, and there’s nothing in tiki that’s as perishable as vermouth and as hard to find in small quantities. I like the colors, I like the history, I like putting together a drink that takes eight or so different colored bottles to mix together. Makes me feel like a wizard.

Mostly, though, I like drinks that admit that they’re sort of stupid. Drinks that are kind of tacky, where it makes sense that you're giggling uncontrollably after a few of them. I don't mean that I drink tiki drinks ironically. I like them because they’re good: I love them because they’re sort of stupid.

Monday, March 02, 2015

On Randomness In Character Generation, and Why Old School D&D Is Awesome For New Players

So: Old school D&D is a terrible system for playing the game most people want to play when they pick up something called "D&D," not having any prior experience with old school D&D. The texts don't do a great job of communicating their purpose, and honestly, the other things that people want to do are fun and it's reasonable that they want them.

One of the big things that people want when they pick up something called "D&D" is a game where they get to craft exactly the guy that they want to play. Old school systems by and large do not deliver this, especially on a mechanical axis: Your initial character generation is random, and your advancement is usually relatively fixed and relatively random.

The thing is, most of the folks I've met like that got into the game before I got them-- middle or high school, or occasionally college. These are people who saw "fantasy adventure game" and opened it up to find that there was also a bunch of math and were super happy about it. (I'm in that camp myself-- I've had few happier days than the one where I discovered the interlocking logic of the 3e EL and XP tables.) But there's a big, big pool of people I've gotten into the game who got scared away by all that math and all those decisions, even though they desperately wanted that fantasy adventure.

But those people already get enough air time in the OSR. One of my favorite things about old school D&D is that it's made it much easier for me to run games for a mix of highly invested and brand new players than any other edition I've encountered (except maybe also 5th-- still gathering data). While really serious D&D strategists will get annoyed by the shenanigans the newer, less death-hardened players get up to, it's much easier for brand new players to contribute to the gamier side of the game than with the newer, more character-build focused versions. You don't have to read the book and absorb the rules system to play a really powerful character in old school D&D: You just have to be quick on your feet, and the right mix of careful and reckless.

Random chargen helps make generating a new character fast (important when death rates or high, or you're playing with different people every week so you need to be able to get the new guy into the game fast) and can create interesting tactical and expressive challenges for experienced players: "Well I would never choose to play this guy but now that I've got him what do I do with him?"

Fixed advancement and random advancement also make leveling easier and faster, which is important when your character is more a token that lets you interact with the game-world than an end to be developed in itself. It also really helps players who like developing their character's personality but either don't care about or actively overwhelmed by mechanical differentiation.

In general they all can make getting into D&D a lot less intimidating for new people. Generally my experience with getting brand new people into 3x/Pathfinder has been "Oh my god I have to read that entire book? Oh okay, just these bits... uh... which feats do I want... wow, it's going to take us a really long time to make all these characters, this is kind of boring." 

My experience with getting brand new people into old school D&D has been more "Oh my god I have to read that entire book? Oh, okay, just these bits... rolls stats my intelligence is really high so I guess I'll be a wizard... oh wait no, I want to be a bard, my charisma is really low but that will be hilarious."

Or even "okay, so what are all these numbers on this index card? oh, okay, you'll tell me when I need them, cool. oh, sweet, I have a grappling hook, I wonder what I can do with that."

Not that Pathfinder is a bad system for newbies-- I've played with new-ish people who expected mechanical character differentiation from video games and were disappointed/frustrated by old school games because they didn't provide that. One of the things I like about 5e is that it potentially bridges the gap between those folks and the systems I like.

The old school character generation and advancement are also fantastic for the players who want a strategic resource management game that's mostly about their lateral thinking cleverness. For those folks, choices about what widgets to give their character would be choices they weren't making about things that they care about.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

On 5e: Complexity & Character-Focus

I have the first two books. I've seen the DMG but I don't have my own copy yet. I've played a fair amount (all online) and am beginning work on my own game.

So far my reaction is broadly positive. My main comment so far is that it strikes me as "old school character-centered D&D," which was definitely an open spot in the D&D pantheon.

There are at least two axes that have separated the editions that I think of as "new school" (3e, 4e) from the editions I think of as "old school" (everything else, more or less) but until now they were always paired. On the one hand, old school D&D tends to be focused on the world more than the character. Your character develops over time and maybe accretes some kind of individual identity, but they don't start out that way, and their fate is a lot more random than it is in the later games. In those, you have a lot more control over your character "build," and your dude is a lot more durable, so it makes more sense to put some effort into them up front.

This goes hand in hand with the another major difference I see between the editions, which is that the older versions are generally a lot simpler than their descendants. It's faster to build a character and easier to run an adventure. This fits with the focus on world rather than character-- if your character can die easily, then you want to be able to roll up a new one quickly, and if less of the fun of the game comes from your character being unique and special then it's less important for character creation to be complex-- but one doesn't necessarily follow the other.

5e is a very character-focused game. I have a lot of options when I sit down to make my character, and my character is pretty tough and capable. They dish out a surprising amount of damage, if you're used to older editions. But it's the first "character-centric" game where character creation didn't drive me completely up the wall with fiddly nonsense.

That's mostly because 5e strips out the complexity that's unnecessary to that goal of "making my character interesting." Individual skill points are out, and skills themselves are largely side-effects of other decisions. Feats are strictly optional-- they're relatively small modifications to your character, so the complexity cost was always a lot higher than the customization value. Instead, the character complexity comes more in big "packages" that do a lot of work for you at once: You make a couple of big decisions (which kind of fighter am I? what's my background?) that quickly narrows the focus of the small decisions you need to make down to a manageable size.

Which is, I think, a very good thing, and so far I'm glad they went in that direction. I don't always want to play that kind of D&D, but I am sometimes in the mood for it, and now I have an option that doesn't require a spreadsheet or five to build my character with.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Khans of Tarkir + Diablo II's Sanctuary

Figured I'd do a bit of public brainstorming

  • Archdemons/Prime Evils
  • Angels with mysterious agendas
  • Many races of fiends swarming over the world
  • Soul-trapping gems
  • Magical gems in general
  • Magic item crafting
  • The Church of Light
  • Corrupted jungle temples
  • Desert tombs
  • Towns built on the borders of great evil wastelands
  • Cathedrals
  • A distinct sense of East and West
  • Clans (of mixed races)
  • Steppe nomads
  • Warbands
  • Desert fortresses
  • Jungle palaces
  • Tundra encampments
  • Mountain monasteries
  • Rakshasas
  • Ancient dragon bones
  • Poison
  • Martial arts

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Absolute vs. Relative Time

How often do you actually refer to a specific date (October 1st, third day of the first moon of spring, etc.) or year in your campaign, rather than a relative date? (Next week, two days from now, next summer?)

I've used the relative time a lot but it occurs to me that even when I know the former, it doesn't actually come up in play much. In Risus Monkey's Buffy game I usually knew the exact date, but that was because it was a real historical date, (the game was set in the early 90s) and since we were college students, what holidays were coming up and whether it was the weekend or not was pretty important. Also, because we used the actual weather in the area from that date, part of the "beginning of session" ritual involved looking up and discussing the date.

In Trollsmyth's game I have no idea what the calendar date is and never have. This is partly because the pace of that game tends to be really slow, but also because, as adventurers, what I care about in terms of time is "how long until we get to the dungeon?" and "how does it take to recover from the last dungeon?" It also just doesn't come up a lot from other players/characters in the game. If Brian mentioned it at the start of every session I'd probably remember.

I seem to remember doing that in the cyberpunk/post-apocalyptic d20 Modern game I ran in high school, and I think the people who cared remembered and wrote it down. I don't know that we used it that much, in play or in talking about play, though. Same with the Arcana Evolved game I ran at the end of high school. I don't know that I've even known myself in all the games I've run since then, although that's partly because they've been rather scatter-shot. I haven't started keeping real thorough track of time in the ACKS game, but I've been keeping the notes that I'll need to go back and normalize it if/when I decided specific dates are important.

Monday, September 23, 2013

New Adventurer Conqueror King Campaign

Here's an e-mail I sent to the players in my new Adventurer, Conqueror, King game this morning. We've had one session, mostly character creation crawl and a little "oh shit! we're 1st level! this game is scary!" but they were asking a bit about the setting so I wrote some stuff up. I'm trying to take it easy and build stuff as I go with this one.

Basically, this is what I’ve got for the world so far: Sword & sorcery, ancient empires, a little more psycho-fantasy dreamscape than realistic. People use swords and ride horses, magic is around and people have heard of it but no one trusts sorcerers. Priests are a little more common (the town has one or two) but there’s a cacophony of minor gods and weird cults more than any kind of organized religion.

The town, Khujak: It’s a river town, built near where the Muar river meets the Diamond Sea, and mostly built on stilts because sometimes the river floods and then everything is terrible. It’s a trading town, where merchants pass through on their way from the civilized lands of the east to the pirate lords and barbarian kings of the west, and back again. It’s run by a man named Baron Svandir, who theoretically pays homage and tithes to the Thousand Faceless Kings, in the east, but an emissary of the Faceless Empire has not been seen in this land for more than a generation.

The area has been a crossroads of trading, empire, and barbarians for more than a thousand years, and there’s ruins of various ancient empires (the learned among you might have heard of the Hora Quan, an race of undersea vampire sorcerers, the Nephilim, men who were half angel and half demon, and several kingdoms of elves) all over, as well as, perhaps, stranger things.

Directly to the west of the town is the Black Marsh; to the the east, the Bay of Eels, with an ancient lighthouse on the other side. The Diamond Sea proper, and its many islands, is to the south; to the north are fields and forests, and snow-peaked, brooding mountains rise out of the horizon.

There’s a small library in town, funded by the Baron himself in imitation of the old ways, that copies books brought through by travellers, though its texts are often mistranslated and incomplete. The scribes there can answer general historical and factual questions, but often will have to direct you to experts elsewhere for more detailed information.

The town has a several taverns, bars, and inns, the main ones being Istvan’s Meeting House, The Stump and Claw, and The Goat’s Tavern.

What you know about what the locals call the Old Tower:
  • It was built by an empire of Men, said to be necromancers, who carried golden blades, and who conquered this area and drove the vampire sorcerers back into the sea.
  • It’s lain in ruin for several generations, but recently seems to have come under occupation by a group of goblins; goblins have been harassing travellers on the main road in that area.
  • The guide you acquired last session (Oldrich, and a friend of Art’s, mentioned below) says that goblins this far south is very unusual, especially at this time of year (late summer) but not entirely unheard of, and that they can likely be bribed or threatened into leaving.
  • The witch, Nergui, who lives deep in the Black Swamp (will mark on the map) knows a great deal about the Necromancers who built the place, and is said to be interested in objects of their power. However, the price for her help can be high, and she cannot be paid in gold.

Other News & Info You’ve Heard
  • Ancient elven priest-kings buried a fantastic treasure in the black marsh.
  • Pirates, always a nuisance, have been attacking ships in greater and greater frequencies lately.
  • The old lighthouse across the bay has recently started shining again.
  • Dreamblossom reputedly grows where things have died recently in the Black Marsh. The opium dens in town will pay a great deal for fresh pollen, but collecting it is treacherous.
  • There were reports of a huge green dragon in the forest a few months ago, but since then no one has heard any sign of it.
  • An old bridge on the Muar river, built by the Imperials, collapsed two springs ago. The Baron would like to send out a party of workers to repair it, but so far his attempts have been foiled by weather, bandits, and the river’s more exotic dangers.
  • A fortress manned entirely by skeletons lurks somewhere within the Black Marsh.
  • No one’s come through the northern mountains at all this year. One trapper, a man named Art, went north to see if he could find out what was going on, and hasn’t been seen in two weeks.
  • Any man or beast you meet in the northern mountains could secretly be a goblin in disguise.