Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A: Altar of Set

“Snakes. Why does it always have to be snakes? Why aren’t they ever pony cults?” Rathgar sighed as he surveyed the large chamber. Columns Intricately carved with coiled serpents supported the ribbed ceiling, while the walls were decorated with murals depicting every manner of snake, most of which were eating something.

Nimble arched his eyebrow “Do you really want to go hunt down a pony cult? Seriously, how horrific would that be as compared to this?”

Feris snickered while Alianora secured a rope to the banister railing. “The ceremony is due to start soon. We need to get down there and get the book.” She pointed to the altar at the far end of the chamber. Between four pillars, on a raised platform, the altar stood as the centerpiece of the chamber. Behind the altar, between the back two pillars hung a great bronze gong. While the altar was carved as a great coiled serpent, the gong was cast in scales covering it’s entire surface. “Come on.”

“Me first” Nimble said as he took the rope and hopped over the railing. With the skill implied by his name, he made it to the ground, and had the rope secure before he slipped into the deep shadows of the chamber. Allianora went next, followed quickly by Feris and Rathgar.

Keeping to the edge of the chamber the three of them hustled toward the altar. Halfway there they noticed two things: Nimble at the altar, and a cultist behind him, dagger raised. Before they could yell a warning, Nimble spun around, blocking the knife with the book they were after. He and the cultist struggled until finally Nimble shoved the cultist back, releasing his hold on the book.

Rathgar, Alianora and Feris were in a full run as they saw the cultist stumble back directly toward the gong. Feris spat off a spell as quickly as he could, releasing the final sound as the cultist hit the gong, the sound cutting off almost instantly. But it was enough, and the coiled serpent of the altar shimmered as it came to life, silently lifting it’s head and fixing Nimble in it’s gaze.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Intense Events & Some Trents - 5e WNW

Session 10 of the Weird New World campaign was played on Friday 3/13

The party consisted of the following:
Veidt, 1/2 Elf Wizard 3 (John)
Nessendra, Wood Elf Cleric 3 (Erindale)
Kethra, Human Fighter 3 (Nikki)
Bach, Dragonborn Warlock 3 (Erik)
Riia, Human Ranger 3 [Hanna (Absent)]
Guy Noir, ½ Elf Rogue 3 (Nadia)
Anya Bowen, Tiefling Ranger 3 (Allison)

Breathing a sigh of relief, the party pulls themselves together. They slap a bandage on Nessendra, who then heals Veidt and generally throws out healing spells to the rest. They prod the enormous spider corpse and look up at the canopy for any signs of others. Luckily, this one seemed to be on it’s own. So, off they go. But wait! Guy yells out to the group. He’s just remembered something. When he’d been napping on Kethra’s pack, he’d had a dream. A communication from beyond, even! He’d heard this disembodied voice, calling itself Dee Em, telling him that the temple/tomb they’d run away from was actually only a level one dungeon, which he had clarified was a really easy place to go.

Totally excited, Guy tried persuading the others to go back. At first, the party looks at him in disbelief, baffled that he’d want to go back to that terror house of doom. However, armed with his +8 in persuasion, the others soon fall prey to his silver tongue. Flashing a debonair smile, solid arguments like, “You know you want to“, “It’ll be fun”, and the all-powerful “Come ooooon”, have everyone scratching their chins in contemplation. The parties responses soon change to “Earlier, I really thought that was a terrible suggestion”, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but that just sounds like a great idea”, and “You know, you really make some good points there.”.

And so, the party turns itself around and treks their way back in record time! It’s noon day when they arrive at the stone entrance door of the temple/tomb. Kethra and Bach go about lifting it open again, while the others shove another block under it. Sweeping into the large room again, the noon day sun pouring in through the opening at the top, they immediately notice that the stone statue in the center has been toppled over, the stairway beneath exposed. Not only that, but all the bones they left scattered about have mysteriously vanished. Still assured by Dee Em’s words, though, they venture down the stairs with gusto.

Checking the first room, they notice the sarcophagus’ top has moved, but seeing no danger, venture on. They arrive to the scummy pool room again, but the long basin has been emptied somehow, the watchful skulls now settled at the bottom. Only that wasn’t the strangest part. Not only was the pool empty of water, it was actually bone dry! Not a speck of moisture. Guy bets it only took one Ounty sheet to dry up the whole thing. The others, never hearing of such a drying device, look at him strangely but otherwise ignore him. They make their way down to the black sand beach next. The stone is uncovered again, and the boat looks thrown upon the beach, it laying on it’s side. It is extremely quiet, they realize; the chanting no longer in occurrence. Taking that as a good sign, they wrestle the boat off it’s side and back into the water, jumping in afterwards, raring to go. The moments pass. Nothing happens. Looking around the boat, they see the candle that once burned is nothing but a nub; it’s flame snuffed out. Ignoring it for the time being, they try out various ideas to get the heavy boat moving, and after some exhausting efforts, manage to move the boat two feet at about a quarter mile per hour. Situating themselves back into the boat, Veidt easily lights the nub with a cantrip. A jerking lurch, and they’re off! Coasting along, the party members chat about past adventures of by-gone days.

As the conversation goes on, they almost miss a soft burble of water to their sides. They peer over, checking the water, and two thick tentacles are slowly rising out of the lake to either side of them! Bach uses his dark vision to see down through the depths of the water. Attached to the tentacles, is a huge eyeball creature! It’s unblinking eye fixed on the underside of their boat. Hoping it’s just some kind of welcome party, the group waves nicely to it and hunker down. Not very welcome-like though, massive tentacles begin bending to wrap, and probably sink, their boat! Time to attack. Magic flies, and swords swing. Bach focuses on the bulbous eye, while the others gang up on one of the limbs, all the while massive tentacles moving nearer and nearer to crush them to oblivion. The gang-up finally pays off with a final hack; it’s thick, sticky blood spurting down on them. Unfortunately however, severing the tentacle from the main body only leaves gravity to control it. *Thwap!* With a wet and floppy thud, the falling tentacle smashes down on the boat, sliding off and sweeping almost everyone on board splashing into the lake with it!

Veidt and Anya are the only ones who manage not to fall from the vessel. The others splash about the dark waters fighting to stay afloat, knowing how helpless they are to attacks now. They scramble as fast as possible back on board, Anya and Veidt helping best they can. When they ready themselves to fight off the second tentacle though, they see that it’s been withdrawn. They look down at the water and see bubbles break the surface as the eyeball creature darts away through the dark depths. Breathing a collective sigh of relief, they continue on towards the pyramid.

The boat bumps against the pyramid with a soft *tunk*. They’ve arrived. Veidt blows out the candle so it doesn’t use up while they explore, and they jump out. There are steep steps going up and around to the top of the temple to their right. There is no chanting or other noises, so they make their way up. At the top, they find the area abandoned, but right at the center there is something very menacing. They look down into a pit to see something that can only be described as the depths of hell. Bach takes a copper coin and tosses it in, but it only falls down down down and disappears into the fires. The only other interesting thing around are large hoof prints melted into the stone leading away from the pit. They check them, but see that they’re cold. More of those square gold coins are littering the ground as well, so they grab them up and decide to go.

Making their way back across the lake, they see no sign of the eyeball monster, and make it back to shore safely. Kethra grabs the numb of candle as they leave the boat. Then, up and out they go. Closing the door behind them, they head off towards town again, proud that they have finally finished something. Not much happens on their way, except for a chance sighting of two trents across the river just before town. The group holds Riia back while Anya, being inclined towards nature, calls out to them asking if they’ve seen anything strange lately. They haven’t, so Anya warns them about the dragon, Blightfang. They inform the party how she hasn’t been seen since the demons brought Chaos upon the land, long ago, and to talk to the Alabaster Lady in the town about it. Anya thanks them for their information, and they set back off towards town, intrigued how this has happened before, and wondering how it was ended the last time.

What will the party find in town? And who is this mysterious Alabaster Lady?

Thanks to Nadia for the write up!!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Playing With Adults

It happens that when you put a group of people together there can be friction. My Wednesday night D&D Encounters game had been having that issue for a while now. Of my 6 regular players, 3 were great, and 3 consistently rubbed each other the wrong way. I hoped that they would put aside their differences and just enjoy the game. Instead what happened was they brought their issues to the table, and it was disruptive and unpleasant in the extreme... and I sat back to let it play out. With the exception of the 17 year old, everyone in the room was an adult (legally anyway), and I wanted them to act like it. Unfortunately the behaviors escalated, and feelings were hurt. Everyone felt ignored, marginalized, and treated with disrespect.

I think my initial approach was the correct one. They are adults, and should be treated as such, not schooled like disobedient middleschoolers. I also think I could have been a more proactive force for cooperation.

It wasn't quite this bad....

Things got worse and I found myself wondering why I was bothering to run a game for people who didn't like being around each other.

I had several offline discussions with individual players, and it seemed like everyone was on the same chapter, if not the same page… but getting everyone onto the same page? It reached the point where one of the players was ready to quit the group, and I was near ready to stop running. I just didn't want to deal with it. But I also realized that it was my table, and so in some ways my responsibility, and I wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel. Would the departure of one player tip the scales and make the game better? Maybe. Did I want to lose any of my players? No.

The biggest problem, from my point of view, was that there wasn't nearly enough communication. They weren't a party, they were 6 individual players who occasionally managed to go in the same direction. They didn't respect each other, or their time at the table.

The announced departure of one player spurred the rest into action. It really was the catalyst that changed the dynamic of the room for the better, much to my surprise. I arrived last week to game to find the players had talked and decided that they'd all give it another go. We spent the first 30 minutes of our 2 hours talking it out, literally going around the table and airing our issues, sharing our thoughts, and apologizing to each other. Even me. Like I said earlier, it's my table, and I feel a level of responsibility for what happens at it.

Beyond talking it out, the players decided to nominate a party caller. This is the first time I've played in a game where a party caller has been used, and I’m actually thrilled to see how that will work out going forward. They also decided that they would make all decisions out of character first, and then role play it out afterword. Both of these choices were very effective last week, and definitely helped keep the players together as a party.

In the end, (or at least so far) my players decided to act like adults, and tonight they'll find they each have a new shiny point of inspiration to start the session off with.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Blue Rose Review Part 1 (again)

A year ago (almost exactly) I began a review of the Blue Rose RPG... and I never finished it. Look, last year sucked even more than the Blue Rose setting, and I just didn't have it in me. Last week I pulled out the book again to give it another read through and pick up my review where I left off.

Then yesterday Green Ronin announced that they were re-releasing the Blue Rose RPG using the AGE rules engine, and funding it via a kickstarter. So it seemed like a good time to repost the first part of my review. The rest of the review will continue in May after I get back from my hike.

This is going to be a multipart review, cause I just couldn't do it all in one sitting...

Blue Rose RPG in some ways is a very typical d20 clone built around a style of romantic fantasy fiction exemplified by writers such as Mercedes Lackey, Diane Duane, Tamora Pierce, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Tanya Huff, just to name a few. Their works usually have a plucky but downtrodden protagonist with an untapped magical potential, an animal/spirit/magical companion, some true friends, and usually (by the end) love. When well done, it can make for great reading, especially when you’re 14 years old. I’m personally a big fan of Lackey’s earlier books like the The Last Herald-Mage trilogy, By The Sword, and the Mage Wars trilogy, though it’s been well over a decade since I read any of them, and the last Valdemar book I read… well, it just wasn't good.

If you've ever played a d20 game, just about everything mechanically should feel pretty familiar. Apparently this was Green Ronin’s initial True20 product. What probably will feel very different from most other d20 games is the level to which the campaign setting is the star of the show. This isn’t something I've encountered very often, except in core books for licensed games like B5, Star Trek, or Star Wars. In Blue Rose, it’s not only the main focus, it steals the show.

When you have something as well written as B5, Firefly, or other finely crafted media this usually works out pretty well. You want your game to feel like the source material. That's the whole point. Plus by the time the game’s been written, there’s already a base level of knowledge about the setting that anyone who’s picking up the game probably already has.

Blue Rose’s technique wasn't to draw on a single source, like the Valdemar series or the Song of the Lioness series, but to make the most generic pastiche of every romantic fantasy series ever written...

I could even forgive the generic... Looking at a lot of other RPGs out there, they’re pretty generic too. D&D for example. GURPS, by definition is generic. Rifts is kind of bat-shit insane with the kitchen sink, but still fairly generic until you really start tinkering under the hood. Drop jedi, and Star Wars becomes really generic too.

The main problem with the generic world building that Blue Rose decided to use? It’s sooooo boring. Boring is a bad descriptor though so what do I mean by it? There isn't any aspect of the setting that I would be inclined to include in my own home game. For example, the main action of the game takes place in Aldus, a noble land, ruled by the good Queen Jaellin with assistance from her advisory councils. The realm is protected by the Sovereign's Finest (police), the Sovereign's Guard (small army), the Knights of the Blue Rose (elite army), and the Spirit Dancers (arcane). The game strongly suggests that PCs be members of an established organization, and these groups are recommended. That's all fine, a bit boring but fine. Sounds a lot like Cormyr from the Forgotten Realms. It's been done.

The main threats to Aldis are Unscrupulous Merchants, Fallen Nobles, Bandits and Pirates, The Silence (mob), Shadow Cults, Shadow Dancers (corrupted arcane), The Unending Circle (cultists), Arcane Relics, Shadowgates, and Sorcery. This list is in the order it's presented in the book, and yes, Unscrupulous Merchants really are listed first. As someone with an accounting/auditing background, I can certainly see how those with financial power could threaten a nation, but does that really make for a good RPG? Bankers and Robber Barons the RPG anyone?

A note about Nobles - anyone can be a noble, as long as the ruler uses her magical Blue Rose scepter to determine that the person who wants to be noble detects as Good. Also, anyone can be the ruler. When the current king/queen dies, a magical stag picks the next one. Makes strange women lying on their backs in ponds handing out swords seem a little more normal, doesn't it?

The other thing about the setting that bugs me is the heavy handed egalitarianism of it.

"The Kingdom of the Blue Rose makes certain all children receive a basic education"

"Aldins accept marriages between two or more legal adults, regardless of the sexes involved. Many Aldins expect everyone to marry. Once they figure out the types of people their single friends are attracted to, they become thoughtful, polite, but exceedingly determined matchmakers."

"Aldis's justice system is primarily concerned with restoring the social harmony a crime disrupts, not punishing the guilty."

"Murderers and other violent criminals are usually confined while they undergo counseling. They are only released when they have subdued their violent urges."
This is an amazingly enlightened society, given that it's neighboring states are a patriarchal theocracy, an evil sorcerer lich, and various clans of (noble) barbarians. It can probably be explained, in part, due to the prevalence of  magic in the kingdom. However, it still comes off as Kevin Sorbo's Hercules level of politically correct utopianism.

One of the things that makes RPGs (and stories, movies, books, etc.) interesting is conflict. Even better when it's interesting conflict. The kingdom of the Blue Rose seems spectacularly designed to prevent any such conflict from actually happening. It feels really odd for a game based on Dungeons and Dragons.

Beyond the world building, I found Blue Rose to have a writing and organizational problem. The prose is overly verbose and details are kept hidden. As an example, there is no timeline, just 10 pages of world history that you have to read through to get even a basic understanding. While I understand that the authors want you to really get their setting, it makes it harder to just pick up the book and run a game with it.

Information isn't necessarily well organized either. For example, the arcana effects for the cursed swamp is near the beginning of the book in the setting section, rather than in the arcana chapter. Since it's a sidebar anyway, wouldn't it make more sense to have the mechanical stuff (crunch) in the chapter with the other related crunch, rather then in the fluff?

I feel a little bad criticizing the fiction writing included, since I do the same thing on a lot of my blog posts. The thing is, it isn't any better than my writing, and it should be.

Next post will focus on the races of the Blue Rose RPG and looks at how it could have been done better, using Valdemar as an example.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Great and Powerful A to Z Theme Reveal!

As for the last several years I am participating in the April A to Z challenge. Extra challenging this year, since I'm going to be away from the internet for most of it. Luckily for you, I've already written most of the posts, and will wrap up the rest before I go offline.

But what are my posts going to be about? Well, I took Michael Curtis' Dungeon Alphabet, rolled on each of the charts, wrote a bit about each, and made a matching map.

I hope you enjoy!