Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dwimmermount Game 19 - How to Make a Smurf

Our Cast of Characters:

Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 4 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Drev, a level 5 bard
Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 3 fighter
Malthena, a level 3 thief (henchman)
Arethusa, Mage 3
Kawku, Mystic 2

I just finished some course work for my master's degree, and have the chance to get caught up on some blogging.  I'm way behind on game reports, but had this partially written (and unposted) from a month or so back.

A few game sessions ago, the players had ascended to explore a hidden level in Dwimmermount, the level 0 "Divinitarium".  It seems targeted at 6th level characters, and they're level 4, so there was a lot of fleeing and dying.  But the players escaped with a treasure trove of lost works describing the secret origins of the gods of Dwimmermount. While the players shifted back to exploring level 4, they were reading the books on the side, so I gave them another chunk of Dwimmermount's 'secret history' at the start of this game, representing the results of reading in between sessions.  They learned the gods were golem-like servitors created by "the Ancients" to channel divine power; over time, their metallic exoskeletons grew and the gods blasted off for orbit. I picture them like Marvel's Celestials. In time, all knowledge that the gods were originally man's creations was lost, and they were worshipped as divine beings .  These are major revelations!  But the sources were suspect, so one of the main characters, Marthanes, began to wish for more scholarly works with similar information… and this search for knowledge would drive the action in this next game session.

Last time out they allied with some wererats on level 4, and assaulted many of the wererats' enemies among the minotaurs, including the Minotaur King.  The first thing the players did this session was to guide the wererats out of level 4.  Their dialogue with the rats involved forming an alliance, and then educating them about the surface world, since the tribe had been trapped in Dwimmermount for 200 years.  The players agreed to get the wererats en masse to the city of Adamas so they could infiltrate the underworld and become wererat gangsters.   (One scene had the pirate Drev flying to Adamas on his magic carpet, surrounded by a dozen wererats in rat form, like some Pied Piper in reverse).

The players also gave part of their library of Dwimmermount books to the Seekers, which they'll rue by next game, and we also did the typical morale rolls for henchmen in between adventures. They had a guy named "Sloth the Mook" who decided it was time to head out on his own… partially because his patron was Wulfengard, who has a 5 Charisma.  A new PC joined the group in Muntburg, a monk named "Kwaku the Mystic", taking the place of Utor, the elf enchanter PC who died last game when he became a slime zombie.

After sufficient "town time", the players returned to Level 4.  From the wererats, they knew about a library on level 4, and another library on level 5 (but fiercely guarded). They decided these two libraries made good targets for the night's adventures.

On level 4, the players first encountered a "cloning chamber".  Picture a mad scientist's laboratory with two capsules, one for the source character, and one where the clone would be created.  Arethusa, the ancient mage they freed from stasis, knew how to work the chamber, and Wulfengard immediately volunteered to become cloned.  Right before flipping the switch, they noticed a fly buzzing around the chamber with Wulfengard!  The younger players had never seen the horror movie, "The Fly", so they don't know how close they were to cloning a hybrid blood-sucking fly-dwarf monster.  Instead they got a level 1 clone of Wulfengard.

The real comedy started when they found a nearby 'alteration chamber' and Wulfengard agreed to put his Wulfen-clone in the bed for some alterations.  In short order, the Wulfen-clone was turned into a dwarf woman, then she was turned blue, a smurf, but eventually had her color changed to a deep brown.  Keep in mind, there are no female dwarves on the world of Telluria - all dwarves are made male, so the Wulfen-clone is pretty unique as the world's only(?) female dwarf.  I laughed for 5 minutes when she got turned blue and I realized they made the world's first Smurfette.  But the player got very upset at the notion of playing Smurfette, demanding that the folks controlling the alteration table give it one more spin, and was happy when his dwarf lady got turned brown instead.  After a series of attempted names - Wulfen-mook, Wulfen-clone, Wulf Jr. Wulf-Daughter, Mini-Me, and Baby-Garden, he settled on Baby G for the new character.  She would go on to be generated as a level 1 dwarven barbarian - the alterations of gender and color changed the cloning process so her attributes could vary a little from Wulfengard, and barbarian fits her bad attitude.

Game 19 concluded with a massive battle.  The players found the stairs down to level 5 and discovered the Great Library, a location they learned about from the wererats.  Unfortunately, it was the lair of a powerful demon and a horde of manes demons.  The demon was one of those ultra-magical Type 6 Marilith types with a massive armor class (AC 15 in ACKS terms) which meant most players needed a 23 or higher to hit.  However, the simplified conversions in Dwimmermount didn't include Magic Resistance, and that was decisive.  The players had two magic users with multiple Magic Missile spells, including a Wand of Magic Missiles, and they were able to take down the demon through magic.  Along the way, the demon kept cloaking the players in Darkness, with clerics using Light spells to try and cancel pockets of darkness.  Wulfengard, Bart, and Mumford were all dropped by the demon, and Mumford and Bart were badly injured - their adventuring days were over, barring Restore Life and Limb.

Level 5 and 6 of Dwimmermount is where the players start running into really tough fights; I need to keep my eyes open to see if anyone else is running into those areas as well.  I'm way behind on game reports due to work and school priorities, although we've still kept playing every few weeks; for instance, we just ran game 28 even though I'm only reporting game 19.  I may just compile a bunch of capsule reviews and try to get caught up before the next summer courses kick in.  Over halfway to my Master's degree, only about 5 more months to go.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Magic (MTG) and D&D: Games are Colliding

Wizards of the Coast quietly posted a PDF document over on their Magic: The Gathering site this week that has potential to eradicate barriers between the company's two flagship (fantasy) creative teams.

Here it is:  Planeshift: Zendikar

For the first time ever, we have a Magic guide to using one of Magic's premier settings a D&D milieu.

So what's the big deal?  Magic has been a 30+ year gaming juggernaut, steadily embracing more and more story elements to drive the gameplay.  The Magic card game features a series of powerful, magic-using characters called "Planeswalkers", whose  soap-opera intrigues and conflicts take them from plane to plane in the Magic multiverse.  In this way, every two or three sets of Magic cards shifts the action to an entirely different thematic world.  The Magic creative team works very hard to develop fully realized fantasy settings for each new set of cards - including settlements, civilizations, monsters, threats, culture, and character names.

Let's just look at the past few Magic settings:

  • Ravnica:  the world is dominated by a massive metropolis, the city of Ravnica, where 12 competing guilds each seek to control the city - it's full of intrigue and urban noir fantasy
  • Theros:  inspired by Greek Myth, the city-states of Theros are beset by a pantheon of jealous gods and titanic monsters
  • Tarkir:  Tarkir is a war-torn plane where clans inspired by the cultures of South East Asia fight for dominance - it's seriously cool
  • Zendikar:  - Magic's high fantasy "adventure world", where Cthulhoid monsters, the Eldrazi, rise from the ground and terrorize civilization
  • Innistrad:  Magic's Gothic horror setting, full of vampires, demons, ghosts, and werewolves

There is a nice online gallery of the major planes in Magic:  MTG: Planes

What really drives Magic's storytelling is the amazing art for all of the cards. Magic's visit to one of these planes is embellished over a couple of card sets, meaning the creative team will commission several hundred pieces (400-700 paintings) of evocative fantasy art to convey  the story and themes of the world.  By contrast, a D&D book might have a few dozen pieces of art at best, and many of them are mini portraits or maps.

With Zendikar, Wizards of the Coast released a coffee table style book called The Art of Zendikar, which acts as both an art book and travel guide to the plane.  With the recent Planeshift: Zendikar, they've complimented the art book by providing guidelines on game stats and using D&D to run RPG games set in Zendikar.  Based on the survey attached to the article, this is also being looked at as a market test, to evaluate potential new products.

The test makes sense; the Magic product line invests in a massive portfolio of art, and leveraging that art and intellectual property for D&D game worlds gives them more opportunities to drive value from the art investment.  It's "low hanging fruit".  They can create more planar-guide coffee table books to sell the art, or shift these Zendikar-style game supplements into formal pay-to-own game supplements.  Plus, it might enhance both brands by getting some Magic players to try D&D, or getting D&D players to pick up a Magic deck.

Meanwhile, it's becoming clear what is the D&D 5E strategy and how it's working.  The core books are evergreen products, and the design team has been true to their word on keeping away from splat books and rules sprawl - no Player's Handbook 4, for instance.  (Thank you).  Instead, the product team seems focused on  releasing two "stories" per year, a large adventure campaign hardcover book, which is then cross-developed in novels, board games, and computer games.  Play the adventure, read the novel, buy the t-shirt, and then download the video game, that kind of stuff.  Something for everyone.  The quality of the stories seem to be improving as it goes along - Out of the Abyss was better than the previous two campaigns, and Curse of Strahd is absolutely full of win.  (I should get around to posting a review of Curse of Strahd, but it will gush with enthusiasm).

Overall, this foray into cross-promoting Magic and D&D is super interesting.  I'm guessing the Magic creative team is thinking like entrepreneurs and looking to harvest value from their creative work, with D&D fans getting a chance to benefit now that the iron curtain is falling.   5E seems to be doing well as a product line. The PHB is back in the Amazon top 100.  I greatly appreciate that the market isn't getting flooded with official splat books like DMG 2 and PHB 3, and this focus on multimedia stories is fairly benign; I can focus on the tabletop specific stuff and let folks enjoy the other media if that's their thing.  There's no downside.

I'll be watching the space closely.  The latest Magic set is Shadows over Innistrad, a visitation back to Magic's awesome Gothic horror setting.  The next set of cards for Innistrad will come out mid-summer, and that would be a good time to see if WOTC is going to publish a Zendikar-style art book and setting guide for D&D Innistrad.  I'd love for them to go back and do some recent worlds like Theros or Tarkir, but it seems more likely to be a forward-facing change.

Magic does nice trailers for each upcoming set, here's the recent trailer for Shadows Over Innistrad:

Shadows Over Innistrad Trailer

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Dwimmermount Game 18 - Flight of the Drevelator

The further adventures of our adventuring party, The Investors:

Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 mage)
Tancrede, a level 4 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Sloth the Mook, level 1 fighter (henchman)
Drev, a level 4 Squindian bard
Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 3 fighter
Malthena, a level 3 thief (henchman)
Arethusa, Mage 3 (henchman)
Utor, level 3 Elven Enchanter

The last game ended on a major discovery.  By way of recap:  our stalwart heroes used Drev's flying carpet to ascend up the elevator shaft in Dwimmermount; in this way, they were exploring a secret area they knew no other adventuring party could reach - a totally new space.  Unfortunately, this Level 0, the Divinitarium, is really, really dangerous to an underpowered group that doesn't have access to Cure Disease.  Most of the monsters are slimes, oozes, and fungi with hideous infection attacks.  We stopped last game session when the players discovered a wonder beyond imagining - a full sized interplanetary space ship, the Astral Vessel, parked in a massive hangar.  It blew their minds to think the setting would let them go to other planets.  "We will invade Aeron and conquer the Eld!".  However, a half dozen or more slimy zombies slurped to their feet halfway across the dimly lit hangar, blocking the way.

We started this game with the players, standing across from the zombies, developing their battle plans.

They Astral Vessel was too awesome not to try and seize; how dangerous could a bunch of slimy zombies be?  The fighters started peppering the slow moving zombies with arrows, while Drev shot forward on the flying carpet, with Utor and Arethusa on board.  The two mages had Burning Hands spells and they figured they'd do a couple of back and forth fly-bys, raining fire down on the slime zombies.  The combination of magic items and spells as technology is giving the players access to 'modern' battle tactics.  Queue the Ride of the Valkyries theme.

Unfortunately, no one looked up at the vaulted hangar ceiling to realize it was covered in patches of Olive Slime, which started dropping like bombs.  Incoming!  Drev tried to weave, but a pocket of slime landed on Utor.  "I am very sorry, Mr Utor", said Drev's player in his Squindian accent, "but I will not be having any slime covered elves standing on my special carpet".  And Drev gave Utor a sharp kick in the rear, launching him into the air.  Drev used to be a Squindian pirate, so he flashes his Chaotic tendencies from time to time.

Poor Utor.  He found himself on the ground, disoriented from the fall, going numb from the Olive Slime creeping over his flesh, with several Olive Slime Zombies craning their way towards him, blindly groping for him.  He took out his Wand of Fear, aimed it back at his own face, and let loose with a charge, blasting himself at point blank. When I asked him why he'd do such a crazy thing, he said, "I'm going to scare that slime right off my body!  I think it's going to jump right off in fear!"  What really happened is that Utor ran off into a dark corner of the hangar in a total panic, at least until the Olive Slime permeated enough of his nervous system to take control.  Somewhere in the darkness, a new elf-sized Olive Slime Zombie shuffled to its feet and started walking towards the players…  brains...

Drev looped his carpet back to the players, avoiding the falling slime attacks from the ceiling, and the players agreed this was more than they could handle, and retreated from the hangar.  "We need Fireballs and Cure Disease and then we'll be back to claim our space ship."  Utor's player took the abandonment of his character in stride.  "I'll play Arethusa (a henchman) until I get the chance to make a monk character.  I want to do kung fu."

The players had enough with The Divinitarium, creatively dodging various wandering monsters to get off the level and make their way back to town.  Bart was still shuffling along in the background with his serious head injuries from last session, Utor was dead, and they had sacks of juicy history books to read back in town.

We allowed a few weeks to pass in town so the players could fully recover, level where warranted, and read the books.  Marthanes also lent the books to his allies, the Seekers (this would come up as a full-blown issue in one of the upcoming games, game 20).  Because "The Secret History of Dwimmermount" requires a lot of exposition, I don't give it out mid-game; I send a document out after the session, incrementally adding the new knowledge.  This way, the 2-3 players that really care about it (and don't mind reading) can absorb it at their leisure, and it keeps the game moving in session.  The players have a 'knowledge tracker' so they can see how they're doing versus the "big questions" and where their knowledge has gaps yet to be found.  Like I said in my review of the campaign book, this really is a nice quest \ scavenger hunt mechanic for the dungeon, and it's created forward progress and interesting player choices.

In "campaign time" it's now early winter, and flakes are falling outside Muntburg as the mountains fill up with snow.  The players trudged back to Dwimmermount, bundled against the cold, and decided they would now head down the elevator shaft and try out level 4 (the Halls of Lesser Secrets).  They've dubbed Drev's magic carpet the Drevelator, as in, "we'll take the Drevelator down to level 4."

Level 4 was partially cleared by the Seekers, so the players knew about some of the entry rooms, and the presence of Minotaurs somewhere on the level.  They managed to get the actual elevator working fairly early on, so they wouldn't be reliant on multiple trips on the Drevelator (which can only ferry 3 at a time).  However, the Seekers failed to warn their "allies" about various teleportation traps in the major intersections, and the player group was quickly scattered across level 4!  Bart and Wulf ended up fighting an Ochre Jelly on their own, but Marthanes sent Tancrede through as an experiment, and the pair quickly figured out a method to get everyone together again at a single rally point - although they had no idea where the rally point was located on the level.  They would need to map, explore, and try to piece it together until they found landmarks.

Glossing over exploration, the interesting bits of level 4 emerged when the party encountered some wererats, and broached a parlay in lieu of combat.  After being brought to the wererat leader and exchanging some knowledge about the outside world (in return for information about the inside of Dwimmermount), here was the deal that was brokered:  the wererat leader is interested in escaping to the capital city, Adamas, and becoming a player in the crime underworld there.  If the players promise to  help the wererats get to Adamas, the wererats will help map the level, and point out some of the choice treasure locations.  The players just need to go kill the Minotaur King first.

If you think this deal sounds too favorable for the wererats, you're right, but the kids were happy to expedite their fight with the minotaurs, and the thought of having crime lord allies in the city is too cool to pass up at their age.  They're thinking long term.  The alliance was formed.

The wererats led the players to a hallway that would take them into Minotaur territory, and ultimately the throne of the king.  They assaulted the minotaur king (and a group of guards that looked shockingly similar to the king, almost like clones…)  The fight ended up being anti-climactic - minotaurs are just dumb brutes, an attrition battle.  Drev's mobile fighting platform floated above the battle, providing a safe vantage for a few of the shooters, while the fighters waded in (along with Tancrede).  "You have one job, Tancrede", chided one of the fighters, "stay back and heal the people that need it.  Why are you always clogging the front lines?  One job."  Bud, the other cleric, is actually a better fighter than Tancrede, but Tancrede always beats him to the front line.

The other noticeable development in player strategy has been Marthanes, and his discovery that "It's just awesome being me".  Marthanes has a helm (circlet) of teleportation, which lets him blink around, once per turn.  There's basically a 1% chance he goes and never comes back, lost in the ether.  When he first got the helm that 1% chance was a mental barrier, and he swore to only use the helm for emergencies, but now it seems he's willing to assume the risk and teleport around just to show off.  When the king jumped into the fray, Marthanes teleported behind all the minotaurs to sit on the throne and gloat.  His typical prattle to the other players goes something like this, "Just another perk of being Marthanes, world's greatest summoner.  Forgot something in town?  I can go back and get it for you, instantly.  Because I'm awesome".

After slaying the Minotaur king and his clones, the players looted the throne room, regrouped with their new wererat allies, and made their way out of the dungeon.  We'll pick up with more mad-cap antics of The Investors next week, when they demonstrate how a clone chamber and an alteration bed can be used to manufacture your very own Smurfette.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Dwimmer Games 16 and 17, Magic Carpet Rides

When I last discussed the Dwimmermount game, the characters were picking themselves up off the floor after getting horribly beaten by a tomb with mummies, at least until they rallied and destroyed the horrors.  This session began with the injured (and infected) characters dragging themselves to the surface with all the loot they recovered from the tomb.  Their first order of business (after burying the dead guys) was to head back to Adamas and try to get the curses lifted from everyone suffering Mummy Rot.  There's no healing while cursed, with Mummy Rot.

The players recovered some amazing magic items from the mummy's loot - a magic carpet, a flaming sword, and a helm of teleportation.  Drev, their Squindian Pirate Bard, now rides everywhere on a magic carpet.  Wulfengard calls his new flaming sword, the Kylo Ren sword.  Marthanes got the helm of teleportation working in Adamas… his player remarked, "Can Marthanes get any cooler?"  Oh, and Bart hired an expensive animal trainer to train a bear for him, in Muntburg.  He wants to own an armored bear that he can send into battle.  I guess it's like the D&D equivalent of those rich boxers that keep pet tigers around.

Here's how all the characters look after spending time in the city, selling stuff and leveling up:

Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 4 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Sloth the Mook, level 1 fighter (new henchman)
Drev, a level 4 bard
Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 3 fighter
Malthena, a level 3 thief (henchman)
Arethusa, Mage 3 (henchman)
Utor, level 3 Elven Enchanter

Before the new dungeon stuff got rolling, the players returned to Dwimmermount (level 3) and went through the portal to Volmar, to try and convince Arethusa to come adventuring; last session, her friend Collothus, died in the mummy tomb.  It had been some weeks that they left her stranded in Volmar, and she was starting to adopt their ways.  But a good reaction roll and  the promise of a hefty share encouraged her to return with them to Dwimmermount.

The emperor was irritated they'd been gone so long without a report, so they needed to make a full accounting.  The emperor was very irritated to hear the Eld had returned and invaded "his dungeon", so he declared war on the planet Aeron.  Since the players had pacified most of level 3A, the Volmarians would start moving in and taking over the Eld portal.  On some level, I think they'd like to see a Volmarian army march out of the front gate of Dwimmermount at some point, just for the chaos and craziness of it all.

With Arethusa back in the fold, and assurance that Volmar would conquer level 3A, the players returned to the dungeon.  They knew there was no apparent way from level 3A down to level 4  - they had searched the level with 'Locate Object spells' - so they deemed it was time to return to level 1 and start messing with the elevator shaft.  They could use that to get down to 4.  No one had figured out how to use the elevator, but they had a magic carpet.

However, rather than going down, the players went up - the shaft went in both directions, implying there was a level up above level 1.  In the Dwimmermount book, this is a special level 0, the "Divinatarium".  It was both older than anything else they'd explored, and more "high tech" as well.

It was clear to me the players were seriously outclassed, but they persevered regardless.  There were battles with slurping algae men, who incapacitated swathes of characters with brutal mental blasts (algoids).  They fought muscular grey men, with wickedly spiked plate armor and large two-handed swords (Astral Reavers).  There were obviously bad rooms holding slimes and acid monsters the players astutely avoided, and a few rooms infested with terrible fungal monsters, where only a lucky saving throw (and a quick retreat) avoided a gruesome infection.  Without a Cure Disease spell available, it seemed that every other encounter was a roulette roll with death.

As usual, the game had a series of interludes that only the kids can author.  We may have seen our last "I Bart the Door" from Bart.  One of the rooms had a rune covered door, which Bart triggered (explosively) due to his impetuous nature, before anyone could get the chance to warn him that runes could be bad.  He staggered back, dying.  "Medic!"  In ACKS terms, the system is fairly forgiving of characters that end up near death, as long as a cleric can get to them quickly and perform first aid and magic.  But Bart would be stuck at 1 hp and bandaged for a few weeks.

Tancrede, their balding and asthmatic cleric with the 8 constitution and the combat death wish, started wearing the armor of an Astral Reaver, spiked shoulders and gauntlets and a crazy helmet.  They now call him their "death metal accountant" - the most dangerous accountant in the world.

There were a few signature discoveries on this visit to the Dinivatarium.  In the office where Bart blew himself up, they found a centuries old library of conjectural works on the Ancients and the origins of the gods - like the Dwimmermount equivalent of von Daniken's "Chariots of the Gods".  There was a Book of Infinite Spells in the library, too.  But the most mind-blowing discovering was in a large observatory chamber - a full-sized space ship!  Assuming the characters can figure it out, they potentially have a way to travel to the stars and planets.  The players really want to own a space ship.  Dwimmermount continues to push the bounds.

We had to end the session here, as it was getting late, and a half dozen or more slime-covered zombies slurped to their feet and started slowly shambling across the large hangar towards the characters, blocking access to the space ship.  There was an intense table debate whether to fight or retreat; the younger kids usually want to fight everything.  "You've found the absorbatory, Marthanes, now let us fight these zombies - this is a demarkusry, so we get to vote", said one of the 9 year olds.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

5E: Fear and Loathing in Fifth Edition

I've been playing a lot of the video game, The Darkest Dungeon, when I get some free time.  It's an addictive little skirmish game with a great Lovecraftian horror theme.  As a player, you're constantly trying to manage the stress and insanity of your squad, which compounds with the length of an expedition and the mounting horror.  Most versions of D&D have some kind of mechanics to enforce rests and exhaustion during exploration (with wandering monsters as another mechanism that creates pressure).  Very few of them have actual horror mechanics (even LOTFP, with all that great horror artwork and scenarios, is about tone and referee style over mechanics).  Surprisingly, 5E has a set of simple but evocative horror mechanics.  (These are cleverly concealed in the depths of the DMG).

5E has two groups of related rules - Sanity Rules and Madness.  Sanity is a 7th 3d6 attribute.  If you're using Sanity, you add another "11" into your array for assigning attributes.  Sanity is there mainly as a source for Sanity saving throws and skill checks against Sanity challenges.  Failed Sanity checks can lead to being frightened (a status) or short, long, or indefinite madness.  Long and indefinite madness also causes the loss of a Sanity point.  There are a few tables with effects for the different types of madness.  Indefinite madness represents a permanent personality issue for the player, much like the "negative quirks" characters pick up in The Darkest Dungeon.

5E also suggest a few basic spells to interact with madness: Calm Emotions, and Lesser and Greater Restoration to recover from longer term madness and recover lost Sanity.  Dispel Evil and Remove Curse still remove magical sources of madness.  I don't think it would be hard to also add a few camp or town-centric mechanics, like carousing, as alternative ways to recover lost sanity and put some choice into downtime activities.  The major missing piece in 5E is a list of example situations (or sanity destroying monsters) that would trigger short or long term madness Saving Throws; the referee that wants to run a 5E horror game has to figure all of that out on their own.  It doesn't sound like Curse of Strahd covered this type of stuff.

The discovery of Madness and Sanity rules tucked away in 5E is intriguing (and speaks to the foresight of Mearls and Co., too, in supporting alternative styles of play right in the core.  Sanity is adjacent to the Laser Pistols and Muskets in aisle 15.)  Anyone who has played 5E knows how hard it is for characters to die in the game.  They're like the old Chumbawamba song - I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never going to keep me down…  5E characters are remarkably resilient, physically.  One short rest, and they're ready for the boss fight in the next room.  Pretty much the opposite of antagonists in a horror game.  But their brains are vulnerable!

The Sanity mechanics offer an alternative angle to wear characters down over time.  Fear, as a status effect, forces Disadvantage while the character is Frightened.  Disadvantage doesn't rob agency the way "old school fear" makes the character run away, but it's irritating as hell for the players and can be safely overused.  Sanity is an attribute that will degrade over time, which means the character's Sanity saving throws will get worse, and they'll become more susceptible to future fails.  This is the classic Call of Cthulhu death spiral - we're all doomed in the end.

I picked up a copy of Torchbearer to read through; after some internet search, it looked like there was even some talk between Burning Luke and The Darkest Dungeon guys about making a mash-up for table top, but that was a while ago and there hasn't been any news.  The gothic horror megadungeon is still available as a project (Bueller, Bueller?)  In the meantime, I'm going to scan some other editions on how well they anticipate things like stress and madness, versus light, food, and exhaustion.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 15 - All Mooks Die in the End

Cast of Characters:

Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 3 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Drev, a level 4 bard
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 2 fighter
Malthena, a level 1 thief (henchman)
Akmed, a level 1 fighter
Collothus, the Thulian (mage 1)

"The Investors", the name the players have given themselves, had discovered a portal to the Eld homeworld of Aeron on level 3A of Dwimmermount near the end of the last game session; they defeated a patrol of Eld and Bugbears, and captured the Eld leader.  We ended that game outside the dungeon, with the players in the woods outside of town figuring out what to do with the Eld leader.

Marthanes insisted on keeping the Eld prisoner alive for debriefing; the Eld were basically immortal, and he surmised they'd be able to learn "Eld secret history" if they could get him to talk.  If you've read my review of the Dwimmermount book, you know that piecing together "secret history" is one of the great mechanics that's been added to the dungeon, and a few of the players have really focused on it as a motivation.

This objective, getting information from an Eld prisoner, forced the players (most of them teenagers) to work through a number of alternatives and options on the best way to get what they needed.  Some of the options, like intimidation or torture, you don’t exactly want your teenagers getting too excited about or describing in any detail, but the larger context of the problem forced them to do critical thinking, weighing alternatives, and strategy.  This is where tabletop gaming is such a great medium.

For example, would it be better to camp in the deep woods and do their 'nasty business' far away from town, or smuggle the Eld into Muntburg surreptitiously?  If they decided to smuggle the Eld, how could they get him into the town without the guards and authorities finding out they had a living Eld?  Could they charm the guards, or scale the walls at night, Sleep some wall guards, or hide or disguise the Eld somehow?

I enjoyed the debate and thought they came up with a clever solution all around.  First, they decided an ESP spell would be a better way to get information (from mind-reading) than torture or intimidation; there's hope for their ethical growth yet.  Second, they decided the best way to get the Eld into their cottage basement would be to smuggle him in the front gate, hidden in a wagon.  They Charmed and bribed a simple peddler out on the road, hid the unconscious Eld in a barrel, and got him in that way.  Drev, their Bard, started an impromptu musical performance near the gate on the way in, distracting the guards with his charisma (and stories of the party's latest exploits) to make it easy for the peddler to slip through the gate without much scrutiny.

While a few new players have joined, we haven't seen one of them in a long time, meaning his character is a near-permanent resident of Muntburg and the cottage.  So Parquas the Elf has been tasked with keeping the Eld prisoner secure and fed.  The rest of the players planned a journey to Adamas to buy an ESP spell for addition to Marthanes book.  They had a treasure map to the Adleigh Woods, something they've been sitting on since the first game session, and decided this was the time to go find the lost treasure, while they were near Adamas.  (A number of characters were close to leveling up, so they figured recovering a sizable treasure would push them over the top).

I don’t know if I've mentioned it before, Simon Forster (fellow blogger and ACKS-phile) published a book of lairs for ACKS on RPGNow (Book of Lairs); it's nicely done and is a handy tool for wilderness lairs and treasure maps.  I love these kinds of supplements for quick use at the table.  I pulled a lair to use as the destination right from the book, an old tomb filled with mummies on a misty island out on a pond.

In theory, the players only had to fight a mummy at a time, if they explored carefully, posted guards, and kept their wits.  Mummies are pretty dangerous to low level characters, since their paralyzing fear can (and did) take out huge chunks of the party.  In this case, they defeated the first mummy fairly easily, then allowed their Protection from Evil spell to lapse, started bickering and fooling around, as they're kids, and thus were completely surprised when another 2 mummies shambled out of the darkness behind them, paralyzing just about everyone.

Drev, the bard, ended up dragging Marthanes away from the mummies, who were stooped and rending falling characters, spreading mummy rot and death.  Marthanes ended up summoning two heroes and a squad of berserkers, and sending them in to fight the mummies.  "Pick up any weapon off the ground", he exhorted, "It was probably dropped by one of our frightened guys and is enchanted".  Meanwhile, Drev continued to look for openings to drag other guys out of the room so they could recover from Mummy-Fear and attempt to re-enter the fray.  This one was clearly pointing towards being a full on TPK until Drev (one of the adult gamers) settled on the plan of saving Marthanes first, getting Marthanes to send in some level 4 heroes and occupy the mummies, so he could pull more guys out of the fray.  They owe that guy big time, and he single-handed prevented a restart to the campaign.

This game ended with two dead henchmen (Collothus, the ancient Thulian they freed from a stasis tube), and Akmed, the Volmarian mook that went from zero level mercenary to first level fighter over the past few sessions. All mooks die in the end.  The survivors were beaten badly and suffering from Mummy Rot.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

I love "The Darkest Dungeon"

My 14 year old picked up this game on Steam a couple of weeks ago, "The Darkest Dungeon".  I watched him play a few minutes and didn't think it was great - it has this low tech 2-D graphics and combat techniques out of something like 4E or an MMO, full of buffs and de-buffs.  But then I watched the trailer to the game…  "Ruin has come to our family. You remember our venerable house, opulent and imperial, gazing proudly from its stoic perch above the moor…"  It's a theme straight out of HP Lovecraft, about a decadent ancestor that dabbles in forbidden lore and awakens an eldritch horror deep beneath the ruined mansion.  In the game, you take your squad of four stalwart warriors through dungeons filled with cultists, fish-men, undead, and horrible Lovecraftian bosses like the Inchoate Flesh, the Collector, and the Shambler (which looks a lot like a Shoggoth).  The art is reminiscent of Mignola's work with Dark Horse comics, full of stark shadows.

What drives the Lovecraft theme home are the stress and afflictions suffered by your party.  The party takes on stress damage in many ways - any time the dungeon gets too dark (and you let the torches go dim), any time you run out of food or the right equipment, whenever a monster scores a critical, and many monsters do psychic damage to the characters.  Stressed out characters develop afflictions, like paranoia or abusiveness or fearfulness, and stop responding to your inputs - they may not let the party healer fix them, or pass their turn when you need them to attack.  Characters also develop quirks (both positive and negative), like addictions to material things, or a thirst for strong drink.  Whenever you return to town, it's common to check most of the survivors into various institutions in the hamlet for stress relief - the tavern, gambling hall, brothel, prayer or meditation, for instance.  There are doctors to cure diseases and a sanitarium to remove quirks.  There's always new adventurers arriving on the stagecoach, because it's common to need new guys (or abandon mentally unstable characters that pick up too many bad quirks).  You end up managing a troupe of 20+ characters - it's awesome.

Of course, the game-play itself is really about resource management - maintaining the health and sanity of your party, making sure they have the right skills for combat and camping, managing your money, buying the right gear for the dungeon delves.  Actually, gear is very important, as there are lots of things in the dungeon that react positively if you use the right equipment on it - like getting a benefit from the unholy fountain if a character pours holy water on it.  You're constantly outfitting parties and planning a wide range of delves.

Naturally, the mind wanders to consider how the game play in The Darkest Dungeon could be adapted to the table top.  I like the stress mechanic, since it gives the referee a nice in-game reason to drain money in-between game sessions when players spend time at the tavern or chapel, or getting their various grotty diseases cured.  Quirks and afflictions are a little harder in the OSR space, as blogger theorists get really upset at any mechanic that threatens player agency.  For instance, you may come across some nasty barrel of rot gut in the dungeon, and that one guy who is addicted to alcohol will run forward and take a drink before you can do anything during the game, picking up a disease.  That type of mechanic doesn't port as well to the table top, but there might be a way - D&D is full of charm monsters, for instance.

Anyway, I've been in India a couple of weeks, away from the states and away from the gaming computer.  Writing about The Darkest Dungeon is going to help me with my own withdrawal symptoms.  It's worth checking out if you'd enjoy what's essentially a squad-based tactical game with a theme and monsters heavily influenced by the Cthulhu Mythos.  It'd make a fantastic setting for LOTFP.

Here are some links to check out on YouTube:

The Darkest Dungeon Trailer
Intro to the Game (to get a sense of the story)