04 November 2014

Novel Writing!

You've probably noticed, but November is National Novel Writing Month and I'm throwing in my hat!

Anybody who's more than skimmed this silly blog for more than five minutes has probably thought to themselves "Damn this dude carries on about stuff," and when some of my friends said that they were doing it, I figured maybe it'd be good to get most of my writing all in one convenient place! It's only 50k words over a month, which means it's as little as 1,600 words a day. That's next to nothing!

So check me out here, add me as a writing buddy, read my novel as it happens, suggest titles, insult my grammar, anything you like! Anything's better than nothing, after all, and nothing warms one's heart like knowing that an internet person cares about what you're doing.

02 November 2014

5e Report, Two Games In

I've been playing in an open-table 5e game for the past month or so. Has it been that long? It feels like we just started. It's mostly the same people as my regular Dungeon-World-Turned-FantasyCraft group, with a couple of friends added from the GM, who is one of my players.

It's been fun, in its own strangely familiar way. I like it. But you know, I'm not sure if I love it.

Part of it might be the way that the system is strangely "flat." There are a small handful of moves you can perform in combat, like Ready and Dash and Dodge, but that's really it. It's back to move and attack in combat, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. You can get a lot of mileage out of just move and attack, as the continued popularity of old-school systems shows. The thing is, the combat wasn't the focus of the show. It's just another simplistic mechanic in a simple system designed to get players interacting with the world through the medium of the rules, and it serves its purpose so well that it's still getting re-purposed decades later.

And here it is again! The thing is, it doesn't feel like the right lessons have been learned here. The designers looked at 4th edition and said "nobody likes being on a modifier treadmill," and they took it out. They looked at 3rd edition and said "every character should be able to contribute at every level," and "every class should have interesting tweaks," and they changed things up to that end. And I appreciate that. But combat is still a drag; it's still half a dozen rounds of "I attack the orc with my sword" and no amount of action surges or infinite-use cantrips really solves the inherent contradiction of the system: they've tried to stretch out the very simple and clear mechanic by adding complications. While intended to create additional depth by providing options, it sometimes feels like padding and a band-aid on the wrong system.

What I'm trying to say is that combat takes up an inordinate amount of space and class features and it doesn't benefit the game. Damage still doesn't matter until you're out of health, and status effects are simple "save or suck for a while" effects that are almost entirely doled out by special abilities. Tripping, stunning, bleeding, tiring, blinding, and knockdowns just aren't effects that you have access to unless your class allows it, and that means that the vast majority of damage is just whittling down the creature's hit points until you reduce that last hit point and they finally fall over.

That said, there are parts of the game I still do like. The classes are distinct and have abilities that are fun in play and create interesting design space in the game. The backgrounds set some cool non-combat abilities and ground your character in the game world (unless you've chosen the Outlander, in which case your choosing not to be part of the game world is your place in the game world, another nice touch). Your skills, attacks, and saving throws all use the exact same proficiency bonus, which is a great step since it makes math much easier. You either have a skill or you do not, and all saves are just tests against your ability score, which is just beautiful design.

I'm very impressed with the way the non-combat systems work together,  and I wish that the combat had been designed with the same elegance as the rest of the system. It's almost certain the that the designers would rather add more classes and feats and continue over-engineering a core mechanic that just plain doesn't need it.

The campaign itself is pretty fun; we've managed to kill some monsters and help people out, and I've been getting almost too much mileage out of Minor Illusion and been enjoying Magic Missile. But the best parts of the game are the parts that aren't in combat, and that's just a shame in a game where the main method of experience gain is killing monsters and the main point of experience is gaining further combat power.

Maybe the game changes substantially at higher levels; we'll have to see. Wish me luck!

01 November 2014

Blog Trimming

I got rid of 30 or so blogs. Mostly they were dead blogs that hadn't updated even once in half a year, but one or two managed to veer from what I like to read about to what I don't like to read about. What's left are 60 of the finest roleplaying related blogs that I care to read and also pimp on my website.

It feels nice. It feels like spring cleaning, in winter. I feel good.

If you notice that I've removed your blog by mistake, because you're writing about roleplaying games and you have good opinions, it was probably a mistake, so tell me so I can read up your opinions again!

If you notice that I'm missing one of your favorite blogs, let me know because I want to read the good stuff too! Don't hog it all for yourself, there's plenty for both of us!

FantasyCraft Encounters: Pygmy Raiders

Pygmies are interesting in our world- nobody's quite sure why they are so short. Some theories point to a lack of food, some point to a lack of ultraviolet light stunting growth for generations, or to rapid reproduction in a dangerous area, or to minimal calcium in the soil. Whatever the result, pygmies are short and live a harsh life.

In FantasyCraft, though, I wanted to go another route. I wanted to put Pech into the game in a way that they aren't usually featured, in the style that's as far from the "placid peaceful pseudo-Hobbits" that they get stuck into. They had to be bloodthirsty, mean, and crazy, which means island tribesmen. And so we have the Pech pygmies. They're not especially dangerous, since they're small and unorganized, but there are quite a few of them and they keep their skills sharp in raids against each other, hunting for heads and Pech meat.

Outside of combat, they can be found loafing about, fishing, cooking or smoking meats, making small crafts, or playing music. They are cannibals but they're not insane or savage. They're not especially used to visitors, and they're not especially friendly. They are mostly afraid of outsiders and Pech they don't recognize, since they're used to warring and raids, and most Pech pygmies will either have a small knife they carry on their belts, a bow near them, or both.

When fighting, they will flee to a good distance and launch arrows. They are generally disorganized but will attempt to work together, firing at targets closest to their allies and retreating if they must. They are not cowards, and will fight with their sharp knives if they must. Some Pech have been known to go into a bloodthirsty rage, abandon their bows, and fight with tooth and nail and dagger in a frenzied flurry of bone and blood.

Pygmy Warrior (Small Folk Walker — 20 XP): Str 10, Dex 14, Con 10, Int 10, Wis 10, Cha 10; SZ S (1×1, Reach 1); Spd 30 ft. ground; Init II; Atk III; Def III; Resilience III; Health III; Comp III; Qualities: cagey I, meek.
Attacks/Weapons: Short Bow (1d6 lethal, bleed, poison), Dagger (1d6 lethal, bleed, 19-20 threat)
Gear: Bow, Dagger, Loincloth
Treasure: 1L, 1T
Just copy and paste that into the Web NPC Builder (here) and set the Threat Level to whatever is appropriate for your party.

Since there are so few of them, there are usually two to three times as many Pech as players in a "balanced" encounter. This means that there are two or three 1d6 bleeding arrows aimed at a player each and every round. This can get monotonous after a round or two, so it's an excellent idea to spice it up a bit with unusual pygmies or some non-pygmy combatant. They could have a pet, like a tiger or hyena or dinosaur that leaps into combat while the pygmies stand back and launch volleys of arrows. There could be a strong pygmy, or a mutant that's absurdly strong and very tough. There could be a shaman or wizard that casts spells and provides utility beneits, or an elderly leader-type that provides buffing benefits to his warriors with his commanding presence. A giant monster could arrive in the middle of the fight that's hostile to both sides, leading to either an interesting three-part battle, or showing the pygmies and the players that the real enemy is the island itself! Consider each part of the encounter in terms of how the pygmies would expect to win and make that your battle plan. If there's no way the pygmies could make it work, have them retreat and live to fight another day. Their culture has no use for "honorable" combat if it means standing and dying.

Additionally, pygmies are good hunters, so have them ambush the players while they tromp through the wilderness and while they're on their back foot. They might strike at dusk, when  players are setting up camp and getting ready to set up watches, and then retreat after inflicting a couple of wounds. They could even return at dawn with a larger force, ready for combat (and eating!) when the players are still just trying to recover some vitality. Think skirmishing, annoying, constant harassing once they've gotten on the pygmy's bad sides.

15 October 2014

Visiting Family

Last Sunday two out of five players were missing, so we just had a lot of town roleplaying. They made it off the island with the help of an irritated Xildxen, and arrived in the Sevedorian city of Plaack. Pretty basic stuff; they got to go to a rowdy inn full of drunks and pirate-types, they got to visit some odd shops here and there, and visit the market, and get used to the place, and have a decent time. It wasn't half bad. I'm still perilously slow at making up names, but I try and have a name generator or two open at all times so it's not terrible. Making characters is getting easier, and I've been working on converting some of my more workable ideas into concrete "modules," as well as converting my jungle island play notes into something that another person could use.

It's always strange intentionally making things for other people to use. It feels arrogant, like "what I make and play is so good you'll want to read it to play games like me." Of course it's more of a "this is what I thought of, please scavenge any good bits" but I wonder if I'm able to get that across in my writing...

Today I'm going to be playing in an open table 5e game, which should be exciting. I'm playing Erneminax Vlahakis, the Human Wizard. Character creation in 5e is alright; the packages and quick-buy make it pretty easy, and the fact that at low level you don't have many feats or class features or anything means that you have the simplicity of older editions at your fingertips, but the (optional) feat system plus the optional "roll for starting gold" means that you can get down and dirty with your gear and build if you so choose. The other neat bit is that in-combat character damage and utility are about the same across the board, so there's no character optimizing nonsense that newer editions seemed to enjoy. I haven't done the math but I've read that the difference between a relatively regular stock character (say, a human fighter) and an optimized multiclass mishmash is about 10%, damage-wise. It's like they've actually put effort into learning from past mistakes!

The whole game feels like they've learned a lot from past mistakes; advantage and proficiency bonuses replace the byzantine labyrinth of situational modifiers and the treadmill of DCs and skill ranks, which is excellent. Weapons are either martial or simple, signifying whether your character has any training in arms or not. The economy still runs on gold, for some reason, and doesn't quite make internal sense, but it doesn't feel as outwardly silly as 3.PF/4e tables, and magic items are in the DMG and presumably not considered part of a character's build anymore, which is wonderful. Each class has its own tricks and utility, although it seems like some classes get much more utility than others without giving up much in the way of effectiveness. Maybe it's just me reading too far into it, but it feels like Clerics and Wizards get a lot of "toolboxiness" while still having good combat potential. I hope I'm wrong, because other than that the system is really well designed. Blows 3e/PF/4e out of the water in any measurable way, that's for sure. Very excited to play here in a couple of hours.

After I get some real experience I might even write my opinion on the system here! The horror!

23 September 2014

Last Week Didn't Happen

Happy Fall Equinox, my fellow Northern Hemisphereans!

Last Sunday would have been the climax of the Ship Rekt arc in my FantasyCraft game, where the mystery of Xildxen and the Jade Idol would have been revealed. But instead, I didn't go to my own game. Instead, I spent time with my wife, her best friend, and her best friend's 7 year old kid. It was pretty cool, actually. We drank a lot of beer and played a lot of video games and talked about a lot of nonsense. The kid didn't drink any beer, of course, but kids don't need to drink beer to stay up past midnight and play video games for hours, do they?

We got to see Maze Runner this Sunday; I won't post any spoilers, but the movie was good. Very Lord of the Flies, except less dystopia and more of a smallish utopia. A strong and personable leader holds a disparate group of young adults in check, creating rules to survive in the strange shifting maze they find themselves in. In The Glade there is safety and peace; outside, is a shifting maze with hideous howling monsters that kill anybody that's caught outside the maze's confines after nightfall. The ending is weak, in that it's a confusing jumble of twists upon twists and the movie ends on a cliffhanger obviously designed to get us all to watch the next one. It works, but it's irritating. I'd still recommend it.

With a couple of tweaks, it could be an entertaining dungeon, or a neat setting for a series of adventures. For typical fantasy adventuring party, I'd probably de-emphasize the Grove and instead make it a very spartan safe-room, but keep the "be back by nightfall or else" aspect, giving each day's delve a bit of urgency. The monsters can be somewhat meek by day, but take on a surprisingly sinister aspect by night. Goblins or orc-type monsters could be neat, since the bright light would keep them off their toes but by night they're out in force hunting and fighting at their full strength. If they're bolstered by some sort of shade or night-hag, even better! Keeping some sort of loud extra-dangerous wandering monster could be fun, too, and including a ceiling (so players can't climb, as they are wont to do when able) could be a good idea if you're concerned that the might attempt to make camp at the top and scurry around the relatively safe top instead of the confusing bottom. But it all depends on the angle you want to take with it, really.

Hopefully next week we get to play again- I have some cool stuff planned for the next session or two, and I hope that my players like going through it as much as I've enjoyed plotting!

15 September 2014

The Campaign Proceeds Apace

So my players' characters have stormed a pygmy village and slew everything that moved, in the pursuit of a Jade Idol that a strange and spacy masked tower-hermit asked them to retrieve for them. They did this without attempting to bargain, converse, or make a deal, which surprised me; to their credit they did attempt to infiltrate the pygmy's huts to see where the coveted Jade Idol was. Of course as soon as the burglar was discovered, he decided to punch the poor pygmy to death with his fist, thus escalating the situation directly to "ultra-violence." Oh, well. Sometimes you have peace, and sometimes you don't.

I was prepared for their advance into insanity (and had been expecting it, honestly- they aren't a very peaceful group and this was nothing new), so most of the session revolved around them battering the pygmies to death along with the shaman (their leader) and his various summoned friends. They got banged up but nobody died, although it got close a couple of times. The pygmy swarms weren't particularly dangerous and one of the players used his action dice to narratively decide that the black storm clouds they'd seen before were coming in right now, and so in a couple of turns the island was dim and everybody got a defense bonus. This obviously helps the players more than the rabble, but I think that's an appropriate way to use action dice and also it was really cool imagining this scene. It was fun stuff.

They've returned to the tower of Xildxen and are standing before the door to his sanctum, on the top level of the tower. I have some fun surprises planned and I wouldn't dare spoil any of them.

12 September 2014

The Arcanist's Conundrum (Comic)

This is entirely too silly a concept for me, but I like the idea.

It's a strictly modern conceit that magic is some sort of an "other" force in the world. It used to be that learned men would gather in universities to study alchemy, gnostic lore, astrology, and other parts of the natural sciences. They saw nothing "occult" about using the position of the stars to learn about the world they inhabited, and if they saw fit to summon a spirit or two it was nothing unusual. It was the same kind of knowledge, preserved and transmitted and respected the same way a man might be famous for his healing abilities, or for his historical knowledge. If you look at long-preserved histories, you can see that even the brilliant Isaac Newton took time off from developing calculus to study alchemy. It was not strange or unusual; it was a perfectly natural thing for an inquiring mind to study and learn about.

So, as silly as the comic is, and as great as the joke is, there's an element of truth in there somewhere. There very likely were quite a few heroes out there who believed that their success in combat was due to their inherent magics, who might have believed that their sword must have been enchanted to cut through a man's head and not even suffer a nick, and who was blessed by the gods themselves to never be defeated.

It's fun stuff.

09 September 2014

The Good Lich's Story

No matter how little skin you have, your cats will always love you.

I like the idea of a good lich- some sort of everyman necromancer who, instead of trying to summon armies of death and slaying people mercilessly, is just kind of curious. Like a mortician. He's interested in the effects of undeath, and its practical applications, and its abstract implications for the world he lives in. He can cast a ray of death, sure, but he mostly uses it to zap insects, which he then studies and dissects and sometimes tries to bring back to life using his magic. He's frustrated at the limitations of his craft; even the freshly dead return as mere shells of their former selves, and what use is a mindless husk?

One day he's reading through some particularly ancient scrolls while visiting the Royal Library. He can tell they've been ignored- they're gathering dust. He blows off the dust and reads through them. What at first seemed like half-mad scribbles of dubious value quickly reveal themselves as strange and unproven magical theories. Theories that he can solve...

It took him a decade, but he's finally ready. Through numerous small magical experiments, it's obvious that this is the right way. The way to true immortality; to real, eternal undeath. The phylactery is ready, the magic circles are drawn on the floor of his study, and the formulas are balanced. The potions stand nearby, and the ritual dagger is drawn. The arcane words are intoned, exactly so; the potions are briskly quaffed one after the other; the dagger is raised above his head and plunged into his chest.

He wakes up, still in the circle, still clad in only the light undergarments he performed the ritual in. He takes a deep breath, then realizes with faint alarm that his heart's stopped. He looks down at himself and sees that his flesh is gone, and only his pale bones remain. They are completely under his control. His head is clear for the first time in ages, and maybe the first time in his existence. His thoughts seem to ring around in the cool stillness of his mind.

It's time to feed the cats, he thinks. And then it's time to study. Forever.

I think I might make The Nice Lich a character in Fantasy Craft. At first they'll be all "oh shit a skellington" but he'll be like "Wait, hold on, you've got the wrong idea!"

And they'll be like "Who taught skellingtons to talk?" and he'll answer them, "I'm not a skeleton, I'm a lich!" and then he'll say something polite, like he'll invite them to sit down and have a chat, or maybe he'll offer to let them stay at his house because he wants to hear their adventuring tales, or maybe he's got a problem that they can help him with ("Do you think you could settle my affairs with the merchant down the street, he insists on seeing me but he's superstitious and there's no way I could meet him like this, he'd never understand"), or maybe he doesn't particularly need anything and it's just kind of part of the world?

One of the players' characters has an interest in old books anyways and he'd probably want to see what the bony dude's got so he can leaf through them. That'd be pretty neat.