Wednesday, January 10, 2018

hard mode

I'm at an interesting place in gaming right now, where I'm able to play in games nearly as often as I'd like.  There are a wide variety of systems being run--Dungeons & Dragons 5e, Pathfinder, and the perennial favorite, Advance Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition.

Containing all the charm, complicated systems, page-long spell descriptions and inconsistencies of the beloved first edition of the game, yet presented in a much more readable format with all the nostalgic late 80s and early 90s artwork and cutting edge layout. 

I was recently asked why I like AD&D 2nd Edition so much--is it a better game?  Is it more fun to play?  Is it just the nostalgia?  Nostalgia certainly plays a large part; even though it's not the first game I ever DMed, it's the system which ruled over my longest, most memorable campaign.  It will be hard to replace those memories, and they certainly guide my judgment here.

Whether it's "better" or "more fun" is certainly subjective; that really depends on what your players find fun or interesting.  I've learned that there are several player types--some live for the thrill of tactics, mechanical computations and maximization of character efficiency, others enjoy the narrative that their characters help create, with many different strata in between, all perfectly good reasons to enjoy a roleplaying game.

For me, I appreciate that the system allows a certain grittiness--resources are limited, and character abilities need to be supplemented by using tools or the environment to succeed in prolonged encounters.  Characters cannot create light at will, so you need to carry around light sources.  Spellcasters can't fling unending cantrips in combat, so they need to be creative on turns in between casting spells to be effective.  Healing can't be generated spontaneously, so priests need to manage their spell availability carefully.  Fighters are sometimes simply outmatched, so retreat is often a perfectly good strategy.

I also appreciate the lack of skills (we don't currently use non-weapon proficiency) and tracked abilities.  Without a perception or diplomacy check to rely upon, players have to listen to the DMs descriptions carefully, be creative in using the clues they provide, and it's more important what is said than how skillfully a player rolls in social encounters.  Sure, there are rules to guide a DMs adjudication in these matters, but the open-endedness of the mechanics gives players great faculty to be creative.  Modern editions of the game certainly don't preclude this, but older editions don't necessarily provide skill checks as crutches.  Because most melee-oriented characters don't have "x times per day" abilities, they have to find other ways to contribute in encounters when their sword won't work--whether it's engaging NPCs in social encounters, carrying around a lump of wax or pouch of crushed chalk for those times where you just need to jam a lock or blind a guard, or tipping over a burning brazier onto foes their other weapons are unable to harm.

Finally, I appreciate the lethality of the game.  Surviving the early levels is hard.  Even if you manage to somehow do that, at any time the bite of an errant venomous creature or undiscovered poison needle can end your character's life instantly.  And if you're unlucky enough to encounter the undead, paralysis can fell the mightiest warrior, and level drain can undo weeks or months of progress (if you somehow manage to survive).

I don't think anyone can argue that AD&D 2nd Edition is the tightest rule set; certainly Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons 5e have built upon decades of gameplay to provide systems that are both functional and easy to understand.   If you and your players enjoy tactical combat (especially if miniatures are involved), if you enjoy rewards for making efficient, effective choices in character building and equipment selection, and you enjoy having flexible rules to create and adjudicate encounters, then these systems certainly excel in that.  I run a Dungeons & Dragons 5e game currently, and love these aspects of the game.

As a player, however, nothing quite scratches the itch the same way that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition does.  It's like gaming on hard mode--it's lethal, unapologetic, and rewards caution and calculation and creativity in ways that I don't think are matched by any other game.

Happy gaming, whatever system you're currently playing!

Monday, February 29, 2016

dungeons & goblins

Something interesting happened this weekend--I killed a dragon.  Helped kill one anyway, manning a ballista while others slung spells and arrows.  Had a conversation with Matt about it, told him that in over 25 years of gaming across multiple editions, I'd never once encountered--let alone killed--a dragon, one of the game's namesake opponents.  His response was fitting.  "Isn't that funny how it goes?  It should just be called Dungeons & Goblins."

It was a pretty exciting night, though laced with a lot of frustration and planning fatigue.  I really liked that every conceivable course of action, every plan, seemed bad.  Too risky, suicidal, too unlikely.  Every plan seemed a hopeless longshot, with most destined to put us in the dirt or leave the town of Brithem open to destruction.  We were the best equipped to deal with the menace, but lacked the resources to turn the fight in our favor.

The planning paralysis seemed very real--we disagreed on the best course of action, the town's trust in our ability to combat the threat waned, and all the while townsfolk and farms were being slaughtered and ruined by the vengeful dragon.  What could we hope to do, in light of such a threat?

In the end, it was only after several outlying farms were destroyed that the remaining targets were narrow enough for us to stand a reasonable chance of laying ambush, and fortunately it worked.  My character, a dwarf thief named Lincoln, proudly cut a black scale from the beast as a keepsake.  Cliché?  Sure.  But I don't care, I just helped kill a dragon.

This session came at just the right time, in a period of renewed love and interest in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, when I don't have access to a regular game.  The battle came down to planning, tactics and execution, and never devolved into the hackfest that modern games can become against such foes.  I'm not saying that modern games have to be hackfests, but with a greater reliance on mechanics and with creatures having loads of hit points compared to their older edition counterparts, the games I have both run and played often end up that way (I'm looking at you, 3.5e, Pathfinder and 4e).

You can find details of the session, as well as excellent recaps from Matt's campaign, here:

Monday, July 20, 2015

outer reaches: lost and found

Though it's been a year, we picked up the tabletop campaign where we left off.  There were a few minor retcons to adjust the story for my campaign plans--most notably that the Master of Songbirds was being held somewhere against his will within the Spiderwood, as opposed to somewhere ambiguous outside of town.

There was one major change, however, and one generally contrary to the spirit of the blog--for this session, as a test, characters were converted to the DragonAge system by Green Ronin, which is most definitely NOT old-school in mechanics.  It is rather rules-light however, and is a system that provides some narrative possibilities for the players with the "stunt" system.  I think that much, at least, was appreciated by the players.

I also adopted a new approach, one I've never really embraced--instead of providing all of the details, such as the final powers of the artifact, once it was found, I asked the players to tell me what it did.  I intend on using this method going forward, so that the players have more influence in crafting the setting.

With the scholarly (and only slightly alcoholic) venerable dwarf Olin in tow, the group--consisting of Granny, Daisy and Kanaen--heads back to the Spiderwood to investigate the mystery of the glowing webs, revealed by moonlight, and the ancient tomb they discovered.  Olin, having studied the region's archeological record extensively, and having been disappointed by the lack of any evidence of dwarven civilizations in the region (above or underground), has nevertheless made some study of the known elven civilizations that called the Spiderwood home, and was intrigued to learn more.

The trip to the Spiderwood having been uneventful, the group made excellent time returning to the site of their discovery--and as hoped, the thin light of the quarter moon once again revealed the glowing strands of web, creating an ephemeral pathway into the darkness.  The group took much caution, with the nimble Daisy scouting ahead, to avoid making noise, lest there be enemies lurking in the wood.

Daisy discovered, however, not long after taking the path following the glowing web, that they were indeed not alone in the wood.  Sounds ahead, those of a furious combat, alerted the halfling, and almost immediately, they began to approach Daisy's position.  The noise grew to a crescendo, the sounds of battle and cries of the fallen literally all around her, though no sign could be seen of any foe, neither by Daisy nor her companions.  Suddenly, ghostly forms of dwarven warriors began to manifest, being driven back by other ghostly forms, those of orcs and goblin-kin.  It was clear that the dwarves were being routed, and driven deeper into the wood.  The ghosts took no notice of the group, that is until Daisy interacted with one of the spirits--suddenly a trio of ghostly orc focused on her and rushed to attack, their own forms seeming to become more substantial as the boundary between the spiritual and physical seemed to evaporate.

Though pressed into hiding by the attack, stalwart Kanaen was able to force the foes off of Daisy, and with assistance by Granny (in the form of flung caltrops at the opponent's faces), the three manifested orc ghosts were slain.  All evidence of the battle, including the sounds and other ghostly forms, disappeared, though Olin's interests were keen having finally found evidence of the dwarves.  Theories arose, regarding the thinning of the border between the physical realm and "the Fade" in this region...perhaps explaining some of the inconsistencies in time experienced in the Petunia and Magnolia's clearing.

Not long thereafter, the company reached the tomb--though they searched for some sort of marker or identification, none could be found.  The tomb was constructed to last the ages, and though they searched for some sign of there being a hidden tunnel or entrance to an underground crypt, none could be found.  Once again, however, sounds could be heard around them--this time of muffled speech, which quickly turned into heated debate.  Ghostly forms of elves and dwarves took shape around the group, though this time the company took care not to interact with any of them, even when the elves drew their weapons and began to slay the dwarves over some disagreement.  Olin had some inkling what this may be, at least partly--the "Dusk King", identified by the elf-stone worn on a necklace, was a legendary antecedent of the elven civilizations he studied.  Little was known of this Dusk King--at least, little that Olin could recall--and as the ghostly forms faded away, it seemed clear that the tomb was some monument--either to the slain dwarves, or to some other event unknown.  With somber moods, especially Kanaen, having watched his kindred be slain, they continued deeper into the wood.

Daisy, again scouting ahead, discovered a tower--this time, fully material, with no sign of any ghostly presence--with only one entrance, a sturdy door with hidden hinges, barred from the inside.  Olin confirmed it was of dwarven construction--a purely defensive building, meant to keep the unwanted out.  There would be no way, short of a battering ram, to breach the entrance.  That is, of course, until Daisy discovered, while crawling on the ground looking for an alternate way in, that ghostly evidence of a siege appeared--along with the bodies of several fallen dwarf soldiers.  She searched for a ghostly axe to try and cut through the door, and when she found one, learned she could take it from the ghost world into her own--also revealing that the door had a ghostly overlay, this one battered and broken, allowing entrance to the tower, but only by entering the ghost realm of the Fade.

The only clue Olin could provide as to the tower's purpose was a reference to yet another legend--the "Heart of the Wood," an artifact of unknown power and origin, presumably wielded by the elves...though in context of the violence witnessed at the ghostly debate, the truth of the Heart of the Wood could be altogether different.  And it could very well be possible that this is indeed the object being sought by Petunia and Magnolia.  Given that the Master of Songbirds may also be held within the tower...presumably seeking the Heart of the Wood himself, for purposes unknown to Granny, the company decides to venture forth into the ghost realm to investigate, passing through the door as if it were indeed insubstantial.

Within, the company found signs--in the form of skeletal dwarven deceased--that the tower's defenses had been breached by orcs and goblin-kin.  Granny, more than anyone else (being of half-elven heritage), felt a supernatural sense of unwelcome, which was proven to be more than just a feeling when the skeletal remains awakened to repel the intruders and protect the Heart of the Wood.

Kanaen, sensing the honor of the dwarven fallen, if not yet fully comprehending their purpose, issued a challenge to the skeletons--in the form of single combat, allowing the company to pass, should he prove the victor.  The dwarf skeletons assented, though proved unequal to Kanaen's challenge, eventually conceding defeat and allowing the group access to the second floor.  Feeling more in charge of the environment, they ventured onward.

The second floor proved to be a puzzle--four statues, two elf and two dwarf, were arranged on the walls, with a door of unequaled strength opposite the group.  In the center of the chamber was a fountain, from which protruded eight objects, each designed to fit within the statue's hands.  There was a sword, an axe, a wheat sheaf, an unidentified plant, a scepter, a set of merchant's scales, a miner's pick and a jewel, similar to the elf-stone seen at the tomb.  After carefully examining the statues, the group divined that the elf was indeed the Dusk King, and anointed him with the stone.

Olin confirmed that the Dusk King's wife, known as the "Black Widow", was thought to have poisoned her husband--Granny, confirming that the unidentified plant was indeed the toxic "Adder's Kiss," gave this relic to the statue.

The dwarf king's maiden wore plain clothes and utilitarian boots, driving the company to bestow the miner's pick upon her, and so it was that only the dwarf king--unrecognized by both Kanaen and Olin--was left without a relic.  After fighting off dwarven ancestor spirits, after incorrectly assigning him the scepter, they settled upon the merchant's scales, causing the door to open as if by magic, allowing them entrance to the third and final floor of the tower.

At the top, they encountered the dwarf king, overcome both physically and mentally by a twisted spirit of greed.  In his hand was a tiara, upon which was set a large green stone--presumably the Heart of the Wood.  Beside him lay his wife, in a restful pose, slain by a knife through the heart.  The Master of Songbirds was present--bound to a chair, having been thoroughly tortured and worked over, the dwarf king believing him to be the Dusk King, having arrived to challenge the king for control of the stone, and also believing that he murdered his wife--though it would be proven that the dwarf king himself struck that blow, in a fit of uncontrolled rage, incited by the spirit of greed.

The company brought battle to the dwarf king, though it became apparent that he was bolstered by the Fade and by the spirit of greed, and the group suffered a rain of attacks both magic and physical, unable to wrest to the tiara from his grip.  Finally understanding the tangled mess of emotion and motivation guiding the spirit's actions, they appealed to the dwarf king's sense of honor, hoping to overcome greed's influence.  They managed to convince him that the Master of Songbirds was not an agent of the Dusk King, and also that they would become protectors of the stone--for present times, as the dwarf king's enemies were long since dead--and finally he handed over the tiara.

As he did, the tower began to recede into the Fade, though the company was able to escape--with both the tiara and the Master of Songbirds--before it finally disappeared, leaving the company in the middle of the Spiderwood, with dawn not far off.

Friday, May 1, 2015

the rule of cool

A situation arose in my pbp game involving the use of the invisibility spell.  Here's the text, from OSRIC:

In this situation, "King" Corbin, a bandit lord that the party encountered previously while guarding caravan, is waiting to ambush an oncoming wagon in order to steal a delivery of jewels meant to seal an alliance with a nearby lord.  He has 14 men, half on each side of the road, waiting in cover to rain missiles on the caravan in the case that there is any resistance.

What Corbin doesn't know is that the delivery is a trap--the party's fighter, Ithel, is posing as a nobleman, and the party's henchmen make up the caravan crew and guard.  What Corbin also doesn't know is that Aditsan, the party's hunter, lies in wait in the woods nearby, and that Raith, the party's mage, is currently under the effect of the invisbility spell, standing just behind Corbin.

As the bandit lord raises his bow to fire upon the caravan, Raith wishes to foul the shot by tapping the bow with his staff, thus raising the question as to whether that constitutes as an "attack", negating the invisbility spell.

By the rules as written, and certainly by intention, I think that this would indeed constitute as an attack, and that it would negate the spell.

By the "rule of cool," however, by which players are encouraged to stage interesting, flavorful and entertaining actions and scenes, I think this is a brilliant use of the spell, and I've ruled that Raith can indeed foul the bandit lord's shot without cancelling the invisibility spell.

Thoughts?  How would you rule it?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

outer reaches pbp: cheshire and environs

Showing the area between Chimney Rock and Cheshire, including the location of the ambush while headed into Cheshire, as well as the suspected location of King Corbin's hideout.

The ruined keep, in the north Darkwood, is also shown--lands and structure having been given to the heroes by Lothar.

Monday, February 9, 2015

outer reaches pbp: cuprum and environs

A map of Cuprum, protected by Lothar's Keep in the mountains, as well as the surrounding wilderness.  Abandoned copper mines dot the mountains and hills.
Gnolls were encountered in the wood west of the Trade Road, south of the Copperflow.  As for the giants, they are reported to have come west, out of their mountain holds, by way of the Cyprus Pass, and currently torment outlying farms east of the Trade Road, north of the Copperflow.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


The cavern went dark.

Silently, Raith cursed himself for being ill-prepared. His final torch vanquished, he began uttering a cryptic incantation, then waved his arms in a mystic pass. The torch still in his hand flickered to life again, though not by any form of natural fire.

"We've not long to secure the tunnel," he said, taking up his staff and treading onward. "Let us move quickly."

The halflings that followed him hardly needed the magical light to see, but having a sightless mage at the party's forefront was far from an acceptable liability.

Besides, Raith knew that he would serve as a fine distraction when the hin fanned out to either side upon finding their quarry: the vile ogre responsible for murdering more than a dozen halfling villagers. And likely more by now, had Raith not recently been passing through the low valley that harbored their undersized huts and cottages.

Nevertheless, that he was forced to expend a valuable spell distressed the wizard greatly. Raith and the halflings had burned through a liberal number of torches dealing with a goblin encampment near the cave's entrance, a reckless use of supplies that would see the halflings leading Raith out like a blind beggar if they couldn't end their mission soon.

Raith narrowed his dark eyes and swallowed his anguish. Hitherto, nary a hin had been lost, even seriously injured, and Raith very much intended that his full accompaniment would return to their families safely.

For enough halfling blood had been spilled at the hands of the wretched creature they sought.