Dec 15, 2009


Fairfield, CA

What started out as a hair-brained idea, slightly less futile than dealing with the dregs of the RPG messageboards, has since become The Fine art of the TPK, a blog where it's owner, Donny the DM talk about whatever in the hell he feels like talking about - within the context of role playing games.

Lately though, dark clouds have been spotted on the borders of this quaint corner of the internet.  It seems, that this lands lord and defender, Donny the DM has been missing!  One terrified villager sums it up, "He made the sun rise and set, he did - we're almost out of bloody candles!"  Another added, "You'd think with all those highfalutin insights he'd have a second or two for us."  Another put it even better, "We have a Lord?  When did that happen?  I didn't vote for him."

This is of course in reference to the alleged abandonment of his blog.  We at RPGBN news were able to track him to his home in Fairfield, CA and paid a visit to this would-be cad.  Upon knocking on the door to his no doubt "charming" fixer-upper in progress, one cant help but notice he seems to have abandoned more than just a blog. 

The door is finally answered by his house troll.  Imagine my surprise when the house troll turns out to be the man himself!  He seemed surprised that I was here (no doubt owing to the alcoholic fog oozing from his pores) and at first tried to downplay his involvement in any alleged non-blogging.  Finally, after bursting into tears and blubbering for a very uncomfortable 15 minutes, we were able to secure an invitation into his home to meet the legendary Donny the DM.

Turns out Donny is actually short for Donovan.  Who'd have thought?  Happily married 6 years, two young children, a big (if desperately in need of work) house, he seems like the kinda guy that has made it - until we dig a little deeper.  Seems that Donovan has been laid off from his Government position, and has a last day coming up in two weeks...well, isn't that cheery.

We Interviewed him for hours, learning all about his current games (2), his regular players (6) and getting to see him make dinosaur noises with a tragically underused Fiendish Tyrannosaurus Rex that he bought years ago because, "I've always loved swallowing players whole."  We talked about the difficulties of having a regular game.  We talked about some of his favorite recipes for group grub.  We even talked about his young daughter, who has just (two games ago) joined both games.  After all of this wonderful reminiscing, we felt it was time to strike at the heart of the matter.

We asked him why he hasnt posted a blog entry in over a month.  First it was denial.  He insisted that there was no way it had been a month.  Then it was anger.  He ranted about people and their expectations.  The it was acceptance.  He spoke of his ideas and plans that had gone nowhere.  In the end, we were able to agree that his blog was a good one, and needed to continue on.  "Besides, it's not like I'll be short on time in the new year."  he said with a hint of the old fire.

In the end, we left this giant of a man better than we left him.  By reminding him of his passion, and showing him that people still come to his blog every day seeking wisdom and/or something to laugh at.  In fact, he asked only one thing of us, that we deliver a message to his readers.


Brings a tear to this old newsman's eye, it does.  This has been an RPGBN news special report.


Nov 10, 2009

Moving forward

After finally getting some forward momentum established in my games, I now have something to talk about.

In my campaign, the party is running through a portion of the Pyramid or Shadows (H3) adventure, located within the castle area of an Eladrin feywild fortress.  As they traverse the extradimensional prison at the base of it, the have encountered several nasty critters.  The one we left off on, and the one we are going to talk about.

One of the more powerful denizens of the prison is a white dragon.  I lifted the encounter pretty much word for word, so the situation is like this:  The party has hacked and fought their way through several "pods" of this place.  Each chamber is a seperate dimesional pocket connected by apparently unsupported stone walkways.  The rooms cannot be seen or otherwise detected until one passes through their doors, where they are greeted by reality somewhat twisted to conform to the occupant.  The more powerful the occupant, the larger and more complex the chamber is.

They seemed to understand that, and so when the opened up the enormous icy cavern, they knew they were in for it.  They wisely adopted a appeasement stance, that is, after I informed them that a loud and impatient sounding voice was telling them to hurry up and make with the tributes.  Having my 8-year old daughter playing has been...interesting so far, and she nearly got the party eaten :)

Needless to say, they paid dearly for passage through the chamber, and were offered some back if they would bring back the head of one of his hostile neighbors.

Now.  This dragon is a lvl.9 solo brute, and will likely wipe the floor with a just turned lvl.7 party.  However, they want to kill that thing SOOO bad they can taste it.  In fact, they are already wondering how they will talk it's enemy into helping them take him down.

As such, I am considering upsizing the encounter to about lv1.11 or so.  Is it just me, or are heroe's just inclined to want to kill any dragon they encounter?  Then again, I "might" have spent a little too much time describing it's bed :)

What do you think?  Are Dragons the ultimate sword fodder?  Or should they be the nigh-undefeatable behemoths of legend?

Oct 23, 2009

Kobold Love - Or why I stopped worrying, and learned to love the magazine.

Greetings minions, casual readers, and all others.  Happy friday and all that. Today, we are going to do something a little different. That’s right! You are going to witness Donny the DM take up the reviewer stick and try beating some sense out of a REAL hapless product!

After much consideration, I chose to take up an offer from the good folks at Kobold Quarterly. For the bargain basement price of one free .PDF copy of KQ 11 (fall ’09) I have taken the plunge and read a gaming magazine that is NOT the long lamented Dungeon or Dragon magazines.  I've heard a lot about this magazine, but have not yet had a chance to actually READ one.  That ended yesterday, and is continuing through an alarmingly large part of today.  While the newest incarnations of the beloved duo of D&D nerds the world round's replacements ARE useful (as a 4E player), the old school Paizo and prior magazines really raised a high bar in terms of look, feel, and content. I’ve missed them, I’ve missed them dearly. I’ll admit I never used 98% of what I saw in their pages, but rather – I basked in the possibilities that each of their content or ad plastered pages represented. Remember drooling over the Reaper miniatures ads? Or wishing you had just $100 bucks to take up the wargames west low price challenge? I mention this because that’s exactly how I felt reading this issue – nostalgic!

This was (needless to say) a pleasant way to begin my reading of this magazine. After skimming through just the first dozen pages, it becomes readily apparent that this product aims to sit square astride the massive OGL content of third edition, as well as the rapidly evolving fourth edition. We have a long list of articles and features (as well as those wonderful ads) that was fun to read even if it wasn’t MY game per se.

I’ll leave it to you to decide if there were any stinkers I glossed over, but I will tell you this, the micro-ruleset on torture was fabulous! Writer Hank Woon has brought the warm and fuzzies on, by giving us a workable,  set of rules regarding torture and interrogation!

Having lived through the exact example he gives in the opening flavor-shot, I can attest that the grittier elements of the game often get overlooked from a rules perspective. Good role-playing requires a robust platform to be placed upon. Nothing breaks immersion quite as badly as crashing headlong into a clumsy fix or a clearly broken subsystem. Most of my readers will cringe a little, remembering the terror, when I add that they tried to dramatically grapple during an interlude. Having a dramatic moment ruined by the rules sucks.

Here we have a system written by someone who obviously enjoyed The Book of Vile Darkness as much as I did. These however, as much simpler in implementation – as well as having utility with both 3E, 3.5, and Pathfinder. I can already see that it will likely work in my 4E games with only a very small amount of compromise!

While this was (obviously) my favorite article of the bunch, I also enjoyed the articles regarding:

Alternate takes on dwarves – as a race, that I found to be just plain fun to read.
Advice for running a lycanthropic character.
Weapon porn supreme!
Wishes and Miracles.

And even more! Gosh, is it just me, or am I getting schillish? Hmmm….better tamp down that nerd-tastic feeling, and bring up my gripes. In my humble opinion, it seemed a little short. Another 18 pages (making it an even 100) would have felt better. Also, the art. It varied wildly, in both style and quality. Remember all of those lavish full color spreads from the olden days of Paizo yore? Well, they are going to remain there. They have been replaced with many smaller ½ and ¼ page MOSTLY black and whites, though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful ½ page color shot that headlines “A broken mind – sanity and mental disorders". Overall these are still just minor quibbles of one spoiled by full color gaming books methinks.

With annual subscriptions for print & PDF at 36 bucks a year, or PDF only for 16, I cant help but mention that this would be a valuable addition to whatever fantasy game you run, even alongside your DDI toolset. I give this product my personal recommendation, and will be keeping tabs on this magazine as it no doubt continues to grow.

Go here - Kobold Quarterly - Learn more.

DISCLAIMER: Just to make sure we are all on the same page, no compensation was made to me besides a review copy of the PDF. I have no business ties with KQ, or any of their affiliates. I own my brain, and only plug products I have not only personally reviewed, but have enjoyed. If you have any specific questions regarding my “review” or any opinions I have brought up, please feel free to comment below.

Oct 20, 2009

Game update - The fortress of bitter leaves

This weekend will mark the return of the 4E game I have been running now for the last year or so. The party has made their way through the castle courtyard, and dispatched the demons guarding the keep entrance. Then they dealt with the Drow assassins lurking in the foyer, and as we left off, are looking up the winding stone staircase, wondering what the intermittent flashes of multicolored light are all about.

This session will mark the end encounter of this particular branch of the story tree. The Eladrin Lord of the castle is still in residence, having used his own body and soul to power the ritual that keeps the army of Drow and Demons trapped in a stitch of time. Unfortunately, a rather clever succubus named Eloria has spent enough time here to piece together a rough idea of what is going on.

Despite his madness, Lord Bitterleaf is plagued by sent visions of his wife and children that are causing him to lose focus on the ritual itself, weakening the bonds and allowing the temptress to send even more vivid and detailed visions...the center cannot hold, and at this rate, she will have broken him in a very short period of time.

So we will have a hybrid combat / skill challenge for the keep, and the soul of it's master. Failure will mean the unleashing of a lost Demon army that will rage across the feywild. Hmmmm....sounds like fun! :)

So...I'm thinking of having an endless stream of mooks pouring in from several small planar portals - similar to There's a RITE way (which was a BLAST!). The Succubus will be the BBEG for the encounter, and will need just 10 more rounds of continuous concentration to finally break her victim.

I'll have to give this some more thought, before I draft a test version of the SC. Any thoughts or ideas from the peanut gallery?

Oct 9, 2009

I have a have a...dream?

Good afternoon, folks and happy friday :)

I wanted to share something with you, and try a little crowdsourcing - or is it still just plain old social networking? Bah - anyway, My wife and I have decided that our village of 120,000 souls needs a gaming store. Not just ANY gaming store, but one run by myself. There have been a few before, one was too heavily leveraged on comic books and associated merch, another was too heavily invested in Warhammer products. I feel that I can learn from their mistakes, and make it worthwhile - all while living my geek dream of bringing the awesomeness of gaming to the masses.

As such, I wanted to ask for your thoughts, feelings, links, and anything else you can possibly spare the time to provide. This project has actually been in the works for a few months now, and as the newest clients of the Solano Business Development Center, we have begun the arduous process of putting plan to paper, and money where our mouths are.

What say you? I rightly brag to my friends here that I am part of one of the most intelligent and insightful communities this side of MIT. Wanna be able to brag too - or learn a little so you can do it yourself?

I plan on making the evolution of this project something I update on a fairly (Hah!) regular basis. Anything would be helpful. As of this particular moment, we are pegging our opening day at about a year out. There are SO many things to do...I will admit that it's a little daunting.

One of the things I am looking to leverage is synergies. As such, I am specifically looking for other similar businesses that have been able to make partnerships and such work - i.e. A gaming store in Minnesota that I visited a little over a decade ago was a smallish retail spot between a subway and a starbucks. The gaming store (whose name escapes me now) had worked out a deal, in which a monthly membership from them netted the card-holder a 10% discount in-store, and a 5% discount at it's neighbors.

I understand that many feel that the brick-and-mortar business model is slowly dying, but I disagree. I think we are seeing more of a survival of the fittest scenario, and as such I want to enter the market as lean and mean as I can get.

Thank you in advance for your support, advice, or insults. I intend to learn from them all :)

Whew...that all said, any of you play Alpha-omega yet? What were your thoughts?

Oct 6, 2009

Open Question to my readers.

I'm curious. If you were taking a one-way flight into your own personal sunset, and could have unlimited gaming SUPPLIES, but only take one actual game - what would it be?

As contrived as it is, lets go a little deeper. Lets assume that you will have access to the entire product line - as it is. Also, lets assume you will have the optimum number of players for whatever game it is.

What would it be?

I'll accept a two-way tie if you just can't decide.

In other news...Dear god - it's an actual holiday!

Oct 5, 2009

Showing you some FUNNY!

I don't really have anything to say today. Got to have a blast playing Magic this weekend :)

Other than that, making the final tweaks to my 4E hybrid character this week, so I can play him for real this weekend. Still screwing around with the Monster Builder as well. I promised points of light that I'd show them mine - so that's coming as well. Until then, have fun and be excellent to each other :)

A courage strains after the corpse.

Oct 2, 2009

Hybrid characters, too much of a good thing.

Two weeks ago, I dropped out of my 3E Age of Worms campaign and joined a 4E game as a player. Having never PLAYED 4E before, I was ecstatic. FINALLY! A chance to see things from the other side of the screen!

Immediately, I was inundated with choice. I can't express that enough, so for some perspective, we'll bring in Webster's guns.

Main Entry: in·un·date
Pronunciation: \ˈi-(ˌ)nən-ˌdāt\
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): in·un·dat·ed; in·un·dat·ing
Etymology: Latin inundatus, past participle of inundare, from in- + unda wave — more at water
Date: 1590
1 : to cover with a flood : overflow2 : overwhelm phone calls

Even this word doesn't quite say it all. I can only assume (asses and all) that I am not alone in this. What to play? I tried to chhose based on role...okay - a striker. Eventually, I decided to concentrate less on role than what I was comfortable driving around. I tried to narrow it down further, with little success. Finally, after creating no less than 6 complete characters, I settled on three. A half-elven monk, A dwarven hybrid sorceror/Rogue, and a Minotaur hybrid Fighter/Cleric. After my rather forgiving DM and group allowed me to swap back and forth a bit, I think I will stick with the minotaur.

One thing that I noticed when going through the myriad of choices an 11th level hybrid character has, I found myself wondering if it is possible to have TOO many choices. While the hybrid multiclass mechanic is lightyears ahead of the previous edition's mechanic - mostly in level appropriate choices for powers and abilities - I found that it was ridiculously easy to still make very poor power combination choices. I also noticed that the temptation to try and become a swiss army knife was quite difficult to fight.

In combat, and also during RP, things worked out reasonably well - 24 STR and a +3 Greataxe tend to smooth out most of the rough spots :-) After a "test drive" through the first few encounters of the King of the trollhaunt warrens adventure, I am finding that I am thoroughly enjoying myself - and am being thoroughly humbled by losing my DM screen for quick reference.

Any of you out there buried by the cubic-ape-assload of choices at Chargen? Create a character good for little more than bad running jokes? Please tell me I'm not alone :-)

Sep 18, 2009

I can't believe it's really been a month...

First, the mea culpa - I am a lazy bastard, which is why I don't rule the earth yet. I will waste no more time with excuses. After some thought, I have decided to leave something behind in the proverbial pot (as opposed to getting off of said) and will be getting back on the saddle again in good time. While posting will remain irregular for the time being, I will eventually whittle out the unneeded irons currently residing in my fire.

In mitigation, I do offer:

I had my 5th wedding anniversary :)
Finally settled on a life's goal
Bought a new truck
Recieved a tenative layoff notice
Refinanced my house

So it's not like I am being too lazy, right? The summer doldrums will pass, and we can all get back to being passive-aggressive gamer snobs :) On a semi-related note...


Feeling better now, I leave you with this thought - "Only giving up truly predicts the outcome of any particular course of action."

Aug 18, 2009

A bitter curse at the castle of bitter leaves

The Setup: …The party pushes it’s way through the last remnants of the gloomy shantytown in the castle's shadow. After many trials and travails, the heroes find themselves standing before the great gates of Tari os shoraes jhaelaer. A pair of immense white marble slabs, carved elaborately in the dancing lines of the fair folk.

Not to be trifled with the limits of metal, the slabs are firmly held between the woven branches of two towering oak trees flanking them. Nearly 80’ above you, the branches burst out in all directions over the surrounding open plain. Dotting these branches are ladders and shacks. Vines and ropes, buckets – perhaps for arrows, lie in abundance. Typical for Eladrin design, the fortress you stand before seems at once designed for war – and peace.

The lone central spire rises like a needle from within the dense mass of alabaster marble and ancient tree boughs, only to be lost from sight within an enormous thunderhead. Roiling around the castle, like a wind driven rain, a shadowy fog that obscures most of the immense structure. Occasionally, a brilliant streak of colored lightning will leap from the cloud to strike at the castle, all in absolute silence.

What happened here, at the fortress of shoraes jhaelaer? That question is the reason you stand before the gates. They sit slightly ajar, dark wisps of shadow occasionally swirling out to toe an invisible line laid by unknown hands…

The Location: The fall of Cendriane is one of the worst calamities to befoul the ancient Eladrin empire. It’s loss was considered unthinkable. Every Eladrin living today lost friend or family to this dark day. It was not the only story to unfold that day.

To the south of this once magnificent city lay another. Tari os shoraes jhaelaer (The castle of bitter leaves). Here, a garrison was kept to help defend the fair folk from the depredations of their evil cousins. 5000 rangers, knights, and soldiers were quartered here, and might very well have saved the fabled city. Unfortunately, the drow knew this, and planned accordingly. On the night of Cendrianes’ fall, the castle of bitter leaves was assaulted by a small army of demons. Hundreds of the foul creatures laid siege to its white walls. The next day, shell-shocked survivors and refugee found the castle exactly as it is today – cursed.

What really happened that day, is that the master of the keep, Lord Taverin Bitterleaf, vowed to die before allowing his castle to fall. Using his formidable powers as archmage, constructed an elaborate and powerful ritual. As a result, Castle Bitterleaf has been partially removed from our plane of existence. It exists in a perpetual loop of time beginning with the initial foray, and ending with the demons celebrating victory as the castle begins to crumble apart – only to repeat itself.

In this way, the Archmage hoped to keep the army trapped here until re-enforcements from Cendriane could arrive. Centuries have now come and gone, and the ritual magic used to power this impossible curse has begun to unravel. If this happens, the hundreds of surviving demons will be unleashed right in the heart of the Eladrin kingdoms!

Encounter Suggestions:

Saving a group of children from the ravages of a gang of carnage demons
5 Evistro demons (Lvl.6 brute) CR6 (1250XP) Encounter for 5 level 6 pc’s.

Gaining access to the central keep, by assisting the defenders at the gates.
2 BarIguras (lvl.8 brute – 700XP)
1 mezzodemon (lvl.11 soldier – 600XP) CR6 (1350XP)

Wipe out a lethal cluster of snipers
3 Drow warriors (Lvl. 11 lurker – 1800XP) CR9 Encounter

Overpowering a group of cowering soldiers to gain access to the inner sanctum
3 Eladrin Fey knights (Lvl.7 soldier 900XP)
2 Twilight incanters (Lvl.8 Controller 700XP) CR7 1600XP

Aftermath / Climax

The party is given three "obvious" choices.

1.) They repair the ritual, and leave the place as is. (minor quest reward)
2.) They strike a deal with a Devil that has been watching, to transport the castle and all of it’s demons to Acheron. (no reward - PC's are now considered criminals by the summer court)
3.) They defeat both the Demon general AND the bound soul of Lord Bitterleaf. (major quest reward)

Obviously there are other ways this could go. I expect to stat out the two “boss” monsters this week using my sweet, but aggravating DDI Monster builder.

I’m thinking a Lvl.8 Solo + Minions for Lord bitterleaf, and a Lvl.10 elite soldier and skirmishers for High Eviscerator Karrgh.




Have some poo, and are itching to fling it?

Jul 27, 2009

The feywild - It's a jungle over there!

When last we left our band of intrepid heroes, the party warlock was firmly grasped within the mouth of a 3,000 pound Feymire Crocodile. In fact, he had just found out that THIS particular critter had an odd aura that prevented powers with the teleportation keyword from functioning...bad news for a shadar-kai warlock :)

Here, the warlord came out with his opening shove power that constantly annoys the hell out of me. For the unfamiliar, it is an at-will that allows the warlord (on a successful hit) to deal normal damage, and pushes the enemy one square. While the idiots on the optimization boards seem to have written it off as a worthless piece of fluff, I have seen what it can do. Ever try to swallow someone - JUST ONE PC! - just to be prevented by a jerk snapping you in the face with a whip?

I spent four rounds trying to swallow the bastard, only to have him healed, or drop him from aforementioned snout shots from the whip. The party, consisting of 5 lvl.5 characters made short work of the Lvl. 10 Elite soldier. They even discovered the gruesome remains of a forest warden it had eaten a few days before. Unfortunately, the leafmail armor he was wearing had not fared as well as his bejeweled longsword :)

Choosing to continue on, the party soon hears a crashing sound coming from within the of the path. They immediately take precautions and hide - except for the swordmage and warlock. You see, the warlock "rolled a 4", which caused the dhampir swordmage standing next to him to, err, silence him with a backhand strike. The scene degraded quickly when the warlock found himself on the receiving end of a 20 STR bitch-slap, followed by the return when he started protesting!

The sound is getting closer, and now a crude and quite foul song is being heard - in Giantish. The warlord decides enough is enough, and breaks his 23 stealth check to try and break up an escalating fight. His appearance reminds them of the stakes, and the both roll fucking natural twenties to literally vanish into thin air - leaving the warlord looking pretty lame standing next to a tree with a branch between his teeth (stealth re-roll 12). The giants, smelling the blood streaming from the warlock's nose, announce, "I smell the blood of a shadow-man". This is greeted with many groans :)

Needless to say, the Warlord is quickly caught out and a fight ensues. They are confronted by 3 Ogre savages, and an ogre skirmisher. I can't say enough about how well they are learning to work together. The entire damned fight had my ogres being tripped, pushed, pulled, or slid into the warlocks Hunger of Hadar zone, for a whopping 2d8+5 damage both upon entering AND starting a turn there!!! Each and every freaking round!

I rewarded their excellent teamwork with absolutely no treasure. The ogres only carrying stone-tipped javelins, moldy bread and cheese, and a sack of skulls - which the wizard took. Continuing onward, they smell the next event well before they actually see it. Apparently, an army or something is camping upriver, and this wide and shallow bend is where all of the...let's say, effluvium has been accumulating. With a layer of "scum" almost a foot thick, the party wanted nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, the path they are following dips right into the mire, and comes up and out on the other side - nearly 80 feet distant.

This encounter was originally planned to be a romp with three Otyughs lurking in the cess. Unfortunately, the party outsmarted me using magic tricks and ingenuity to lash up a pair of ropes 20' above the threat, and made it (mostly) across without incident. Boy were they proud of themselves. I dunno, maybe I'm just a bitter DM, but I haven't drowned a player in shit in quite some time. Oh well...

This game was noteable, as the Dhampir Swordmage (played by my little sister) returned from a schoolwork induced hiatus. Got a weekend off to rototill the back yard, and wash my new dodge ram :) Sooner or later, I will have something profound to say, that will rock the very foundations of our hobby - one blog at a time, but for now I'm in a good place (DM wise) and have been playing instead of being argumentative :)

Also, I would direct your attention to the blog roll on the right. One of the best sites I have seen for making 4E work for you - Sly Flourish. If you play 4e, I highly reccommend checking it out. If you don't, I highly recommend checking it out anyway - call it research :)

As always, until next time - game well.

Jul 16, 2009

As the campaign slowly lurches forward...

As promised, I'll recap the high and low points of my last campaign session. This game was pretty normal, save for the temporary (I hope) loss of our Eladrin / Dhampir swordmage. Our stalwart adventurers last left off at the entrance to a cairn that had been identified (tenatively) as the resting place of several brave warriors of the Dwaran alliance, dating back nearly 700 years ago.

This alliance marked the regions first cooperative alliance between men-folk, and the half-men from under the mountains. While there was little love between the races, both saw the opportunities that far outweighed the drawbacks of such a pairing. The Dwarves brought knowledge of Iron and stonemasonry to the primitive bronze-age tribes of men. The humans, in turn, taught the dwarves how to work the surface soils, and work leather. While seemingly inequitable, the truth is, there were scores of smaller ways their alliance benefited both.

With the cairn identified, and it's link to the past established, the party went back to speak with the surviving two members of the archaeological expedition. Jonny and Daniel were uneducated laborers that, as it turns out, have a valuable piece of information to sell. It seems that the cairn was not the true destination of the expedition! It was a layover, in which their leader, a Professor Markham, was stopping at to collect one more set of charcoal rubbings. The true prize, was an unopened tomb of chieftains "a league or two" away. For the bargain price of 350 gold pieces, the two bumpkins were willing to lead the party there.

After some heated negotiation (one of the high points of the session) the party settles for 275 gold, and pays 100 up front. A brisk country hike later, and the party arrives at the tomb entrance - to find it's stone slab "doors" shattered! Daniel leaves the cover of the woods, and is struck down with an arrow in the throat by a gnoll hiding near the entrance. The gnoll breaks cover and scurries into the tomb, while jonny takes his 100 gold and runs away.

So. I pulled most of this session out of my ass. Deciding early to stand upon the shoulders of giants, I lifted the three encounter delve from the DUNGEON DELVE hardcover released a few months ago. The name escapes me, but IIRC, it was a lvl.5 delve consisting of gnolls and traps.

The first encounter went well. The gnoll claw fighters (and their wicked nasty mobility) in conjunction with the stagnant, mucky water trap, kept the party separated and off-balance. Upon completion, they moved on, and were torn up pretty badly by the gnoll archers shooting from the darkness at their back-lit asses :)

One thing they paused to consider, was a rune-scribe circle on the floor between the 1st and 2nd rooms. The map showed a serpent symbol, but I described it as a stylized silhouette of an elk's head and antlers. The party warlock - sensing magic - left combat to examine it closer. Here, I found myself reaching deeper (in my ass, that is) to reward his inquisitiveness. Discovering it to be a teleportation circle of "natural" origin, he tried re-activating it - no dice. Then he remembered in the cairn, they had found some strange crystals that glowed slightly and radiated magic. He touched them to the circle, and was rewarded by seeing some of the "essence" of the crystal flow out and momentarily illuminate the runes. The smell of fresh flowers wafted from the circle, before it went dead again.

By this point, the party had "accidentally" barged into the apex encounter for this delve. They had no idea what was going on, except that an 8' tall, emaciated gnoll with glowing red eyes and a giant demonic rack of horns was now aware of their presence. The cowardly warlock smashes the crystal on the circle, and vanishes!

There was much party consternation about this. They realized that with him gone (as much as they hated him) they stood little chance of being able to take this hell-spawned beast out. The wizard (himself a portal expert) jumped through immediately after - consuming the leftover energies of the portal. This left the warlord and fighter all alone and very pissed off.

The two arcane masters found themselves standing on a rune-carved dais, overgrown with vines and plants of all types. Around them, a seemingly endless valley of verdant green forest. They quickly discovered that neither had any more of the crystals on their person...making their little field trip a one-way ride. Unconcerned, and glad to be rid of the troublesome dragonborn, they decided to climb a tree, and look for signs of civilization. Several circus-worthy attempt later, they scale a smallish tree, and are now wishing they had another crystal.

Apparently, they are in the dead center of a lush, bowl-shaped valley with high curtain wall cliffs barely visible in the distance. Much closer, a thin plume of smoke is just starting to drift up from the valley floor. Much farther away is what appears to be a castle of some kind - with a huge churning thunderstorm centered above it. There is not another cloud in the sky...

After some conversation, they decide to investigate the smoke, and a short hike later, are rewarded with the smell of cooking meat. Hungry now, they nearly barge into the scene of a slaughter in progress! 10' tall cycloptic giants are systematically tearing down the artfully woven huts, killing the inhabitants, then torching the ruins! Knowing they are outclassed, they watch and wait - hoping the beasts will move on soon...

Meanwhile, back in the tomb, the two warriors are slowly backing away from the slavering monster that will soon be their doom. Running out of options quickly, the warlord recalls the warlock using one of the crystals they had found earlier - that he still had in a belt pouch! Grabbing the Dragonborn, he shatters the crystal on the circle and jumps in, just as the first flight of arrows sails through - and find themselves alone on an overgrown stone dais. Seeing the smoke quite clearly, the dragon KNOWS the warlock likely has something to do with it :)

While the two warriors make haste toward the ruined village, the two spell casters are rewarded for their patience, when the giants - heeding a faint horn call - disperse and retreat from the village. The warlock proceeds to dig through the rubble, looking for loot. The wizard, feeling torn, decides to look for survivors first THEN loot. In short order, they discover the only survivor is an unconscious eladrin woman, and her squalling infant. The warriors arrive with perfect timing :) The Warlock is threatening her in his search for valuables, while the wizard is covering her mouth to stifle her terrified screams! (A shadar-kai warlock and Kenku wizard - both natives of the shadowfell) They defuse the situation, when suddenly, in a blast of sweet-smelling wind and autumn leaves, a dozen eladrin warriors are all around them with lances lowered!

A tense standoff ensues (made much more fun by only the wizard speaking the language!) and finally, a bearded(!) eladrin orders them to surrender their arms, as the Queen of autumn would speak with them immediately. The party agrees, and the bearded Eladrin, now known as Bryant Silverblade sketches a runed circle and transports them to Goldenleaf, home of the autumn court.

Queen Lilliandra meets them, and they aquit themselves well enough that their lives are granted back to them, and they are declared friends of the fallen leaves. It turns out that Irina, the woman they "saved" from the village is a distant cousin of the queen herself. Complicating things further, the wizard has invoked a life-debt on the young irina - that has been upheld by the queen herself!

In short order, the party is told the tale (by the royal company of bards, no less) of the first queen of the fey, and her four lovers. She loved each as an equal, though they were as different as night and day.

"The lord of spring was a flighty thing, who loved to hear her sing,
Always yearning for new days and green growing things.

The lord of summer was a foppish one, who never looked ahead,
he lived each day like it was the only one, a force of nature in red.

The lord of autumn was a dour sort, who counted every grain and loaf,
She loved him for his mind, for in heart he was an oaf.

The lord of winter was cold as ice, and hated all not fey,
Of all the lords his sword was sharpest, so by her side did he stay."

And on the evening went, as the bard regaled them with the tale of how they fey were shattered as a people, by their queen refusing to wed ANY of them. Eventually, they decided that she would only marry them if there were no other options. So began the "war of cousins" in which the houses turned on each other. For a thousand moons, they battled and schemed, until Magrim, king of the fomorians had had enough. He invaded the fey realms from his home deep within the earth.

With a new front in the war opening up on their depleted forces, an alliance was formed. The queen bore a child to each lord, making them equal in stature - before disappearing into the mists of legend. The united houses soon beat back the giantish armies, but at terrible cost. The war has been grinding on for hundreds of years, with neither side taking advantage until now.

At this point, the queen stops the celebration, and asks if their new allies would be willing to help the autumn court, and all of fey-kind. The party (stupidly FTW!) agrees, and she tells them of a growing strangeness within the feywild. Magrim has obtained a new source of power that he is using to create twisted abominations to fight for him. These creatures are as powerful as they are foul, and will turn the tide of the war if they are left unchecked.

Directing the party's attention through a window near her throne, they see again - much closer - the castle and it's attendant thunderstorm. "That was the original castle of our court, lost some 2oo moons ago (time works weird here) when it was lost, my father cast a powerful curse upon it, that has prevented the giants from using it against us. Unfortunately, he never made it out of the castle to tell us how to break it. My augurs have told me that there is something important to your futures in there, how this can be is beyond my ken - but it is, just the same."

The party needs little more persuasion before choosing to accept this mission. The session ended shortly thereafter, when the party tried to cross a bridge that had been shattered by a fallen tree - before finding out it was a GIANT FREAKING CROCODILE! We left off with it chewing contentedly on the warlock.

SO. Some post game thoughts. After the "disappointment" I felt over the lack of role-playing in the party, I was blown away by how much they went looking for it this time around. This is where I think folks are having problems. In 4E, combat is combat, and it is a tight and well oiled machine. Also in 4E, NOT combat is....a fuzzy and somewhat grey area. Every single cool new power and bling in the book is centered around killing shit and blowing stuff up - which makes for some pretty cool combat sequences, but leaves the out-of-combat stuff completely divorced from the main thrust of all those rules and mechanics. It feels oddly - disassociated sometimes.

Luckily, that's just one way to look at it. My players seem to see it as a void, that when desired, they can pour out anything they feel like doing - with less dice rolls than our 3E game to boot. The other observation is that they feel a little more "in their element" now among all of these fantastical people,places, and things. In fact, I was told last Sunday that they don't want to go back to Hogger's Vale - it was BORING!

So there you have it. Apologies to those who dislike long posts, I felt that breaking it up would be a disservice to the story itself, and with no scribe chronicling the adventure - I'm stuck doing it here :)




Bring it on :)

Jul 9, 2009

Do you MAKE people roleplay, and should you?

Lets blow the dust off of this blog, shall we? Apologies for the absence, RPGBloggers is now blocked at work, and I have been swamped with home improvement projects. Excuses out of the way, lets chat, shall we?

I am not really sure what to talk about. Sorry, it's been a slow couple of weeks - gaming wise. Though this weekend I am DMing my Assault on the lightless depths game. Our other game, a Pathfinder alpha Age of Worms campaign has gone on hiatus pending the end of the school year.
The good news is that we will be able to make some real progress :) The bad news is that I will have to ramp up my "homework" in order to keep the good stuff rolling along. In fact, I am working specifically to incorporate a new character (the Kenku wizard from the previous story). After his first 4E game, he was a bit disappointed in how "shallow" it was. He enjoyed the combat immensely, but felt it was missing something that he couldn't put a finger on.
By now you should know that I wasn't about to take that one lying down :) So we conversed a bit, but were unable to nail down exactly what the problem was. After thinking about it a little more, I may have a little more insight into why this was. My sessions are usually divided into three to four pieces. Each of these are scenes built around an encounter.
Example: If you read the previously posted stories, you will see that one of them was a crypt, with a trashed campsite and cave complex attached. There was a small fight at the campsite, a larger one at the crypt, and a massive knock-down-drag-out at the caves. His complaint? There was little inter-personal interaction beyond what the powers that were used "allowed".
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was both right and wrong. Previously, the party had been in a smallish village named Hogshire. While there, they didn't really DO anything. Nobody questioned the townfolk. Nobody asked where to find the local magistrate. Nobody wandered off to the tavern. Nothing. I was in such a hurry to squeeze in the whiskerfish skill challenge, that I overlooked it at the time. As time passed, with little forward movement, I finally Deus Ex'ed them with some wanted posters and such on the wellhouse at the center of town. Still...
What am I doing wrong? Should I have some villagers approach them on their own volition? (Railroading) or should I just sit and stare at them until they actually DO something? (Sandboxing). Should I even care? I mean they have fun and keep coming back, right?
This next session, we are going to start with a short conversation about this very subject. It could be that they simply want to be apalling as that is to some of you. I may also very well be that they are still unsure as to what their characters can actually do (outside of the whole poking folks with swords). These are folks that I have played with for going on 8 years now, so they arent newbies either...Perhaps I am just a piss-poor DM :)
I stand by my statements that 4E does not hamper role-playing. All THAT really requires is imagination, and a way to implement it. You'll notice all of the 3E RP skills are still present, with similar - if not identical uses, and yet they are rarely used - definitely less than they were in 3E. I wonder why?
Any other 4E DM's out there having similar issues? And grogs want to snark me up :) ? Open mike, lets just try to be productive, shall we?

To assist you in preparation for your scathing scorn or pompous praise (FTW!) I will also do something I haven't done in awhile - FUNNIES!

And now, from the darkest corners of the internets!

Jun 24, 2009

Games are always better in re-telling.

So a couple of sessions before the events of the flaming warlock, the party had been tasked to investigate strange lights and sounds coming from the masterson estate - about 10 miles north of the village they were currently in.

Having fished the mighty whiskerfish (see Here). The emboldened party marched down the rutted country road for the better part of the afternoon, when they noticed that the sun was setting far too early - and doing it amazingly fast! Moments after it sets behind the hills, it reverses course, and rises back up to midday - before doing it all over again.

Skill checks ensue, and the best anyone can do is that there is an awesome amount of arcane energy permeating everything around them, and spreading slowly from a center - right where they are headed.

With renewed purpose, the party sets out and is at the manor house in minutes! Here at the manor house, things are definitely out of sorts. The ground trembles, and the very air feels heavy as lead. All are struck with a "static" in their thoughts that makes it difficult to concentrate. The house is dark, save for a bright bluish light that seems to emanate from deep within. Occasionally, the tremors rise, and the house flexes and groans like it's alive.

Stealthily making their way through the empty house, the make their way to an observatory on the rear of the building. The light, and frenzied chanting, seem to be coming from within. Worried over what the flickering shadows and shapes might portend, the heroes take positions and kick down the door.

Inside is a scene that takes some description. A large, high-ceilinged room 40 feet wide by 80 feet long. Overstuffed bookshelves lining every available wall. At the back, a large mechanical contraption, seemingly assmembled from equal amounts brass and glass, focuses a moonbeam through a shard of crystal. The beautiful and scintillating rainbow of colors fans out and spins around a circle of runes and computations drawn out on the floor.

Nearby, jarringly out of place, sits a medium sized stained stone altar. It's occupant is mostly out of view, but several slender tentacles extend from it's bowl, dripping bluish ichor onto the floor.

Around the altar is chaos. Above it, a nexus of shaking bluish light pulsates - almost in time with the fan of colors emanating from the crystal. Standing below the light are three grey robed humans. They are gesticulating and chanting frantically, but are plainly exhausted. As they watched, one is struck by a blast of blue-white light from the nexus he was gesturing at. He falls to the ground, joining two others already there. One - a young man with blonde hair, looks up at you through dead, glassy eyes. Blood pooling around his head, as it leaks slowly from his ears and nose.

About this time, two things happen. First, the leader of the ritual notices a bunch of armed intruders in her inner sanctum. And secondly, she stumbles on her incantation. There is an intense blast of light, and a shape begins to...pour into the confines of the ritual circle. A viscous, semi-transparent goo - filled with clotted whitish chunks.

The party springs into action, and gets right on it with learning :) The arcaney types begin analyzing the scene, trying to figure out what is going on. The ritual leader pulls back her hood, and turns out to be a hottie! Slbeit, a hottie about to collapse from fatigue. "Close the rift...break the binder..." and her eyes roll back. In unison, the three mages fall to the ground.

The party flounders around a few moments, trying desperately to plug the pieces together, when the slop in the circle begins to move! It forms long tentacles, and the pieces of matter within are migrating together. Lightning ripples across it's entire body, as it begins casting arcs of purple lightning around itself.

Wherever these arcs strike floor, the floor disintegrates, and a bright blue-white glow can be seen. From the larger cracks more clotted bluish ooze can be seen issuing forth. The party exchanges "oh shit" looks and goes to work :)

The battle is intense. The beast hurls bolts of screaming terror, as well as rage, and confusion. It's tentacles are also deadly accurate. Every three breaths, it splits off more smaller "children" that harry the flanks. With a combat going on at the same time as a skill challenge (see here). After a VERY tense touch-and-go battle, the warlock breaks the last thread of arcane power holding the whole mess together.

The ritual unwound, the beasts are banished back to the far plane. As a reward, they are granted a few precious baubles of magic, and a fortune telling:

"The path ahead of you and your is a twisted on indeed. I see trials and travails - alongside victories and rewards. In your next tenday, you will touch a darkness that knows nothing of you - as well as find an evil that seeks you - but only if you seek it in return. Go now, and bring the light of dawn to light the way in these troubled times."

We'll get to dawnbringer, and their other adventures, a wee bit later. Until then - game well :)

Jun 22, 2009

Spontaneity in 4E, winging it - and setting heads on fire.

Greetings all, apologies for the barren week - I was busy :) 'Nuff said.

Today, I wanted to talk about my 4E campaign - Assault on the Lightless Depths. Seemingly forever ago, I stated on this very blog, that I wanted to design the "perfect" adventure. This has been a mixed bag. So far, what I have to show for my efforts is 30 pages of sword-swinging, peasant bashing, giant catfish catching goodness. Soon, I hope to make a .PDF available for critique and such, but for now I want to talk a little about my last game.

The weekend before last (Due to Father's day and all) We played a 6 hour session at my house. We last left off with the party leaving the King's Road to investigate a rather close plume of black smoke they had spotted in the morning. There, they found "One".

One, is one of three white dragon younglings that were hatched and raised by a Kobold clan, after the abandoned nest was found. The knows nothing of any backstory, as they killed the dragon's keepers along with the beast itself. They DID, however, ask me why it's wings were nothing more than scabbed stumps. In fact, they were led to believe (Via Dungeoneering and nature checks) that dragons were intelligent as well. This odd beast seemed more like a giant, poorly trained lizard - something akin to a hunting dog the size of a pony :)

With two new party members being introduced (A Dhampyr swordmage, and a Kenku wizard) in the middle of a pretty nasty fight, the chaos was legendary! But they kept coming back to the dragon. "Why are it's wings missing?" "Why is it stupid?" "Why doesn't it just eat the Kobolds?" "How did they train it?" The party was intrigued.

As they floundered about in search of answers (not realizing that collectively they had already figured it all out) they continued on and began searching the wrecked camp that had attracted their attention (Via smoke) and evidently the ire of the kobolds.

Questioning the injured swordmage, they noticed that she was one of the runebound - just like they were. Backstories exchanged, she was invited to join the party until they reached civilization again. In the meantime, she informed them that she and a "bird-man" had been assigned to guard an archaeological expedition dispatched by a local wizard. The spring rains, along with the odd seismic activity recent to the region, had uncovered an ancient tomb that apparently dated back some 4-700 years.

Still missing the bird-man, as well as a Dragonborn paladin of the raven queen, it was decided that they would investigate the tomb - helping the swordmage to complete her mission. It soon dawned on the party that the tomb was infested with Kruthik!

Now, our party is mostly unaligned. We have an unaligned Warlord. An unaligned Swordmage. and an unaligned Kenku Wizard. They do their thing, and are always polite, courteous, and very mindful of their actions, and how they affect the world around them. But every group has their oddballs. Mine are a Lawful Good Dragonborn fighter, and her foil - and evil Shadar-kai warlock.

The warlock is a pretty twisted fellow. A runaway from his people for crimes that will not be mentioned...okay, he's a traitor and a coward, with a very powerful enemy who is actively seeking him out (though he doesn't know this yet). He always makes the choice that leads to personal gain and profit. He always chooses "Kill the captives, they are too expensive to feed" approach. He steals from the party at every turn, and routinely curses party member who look like they are near death.

While the rest of the party is pretty live-and-let-live, he is opposed by The fighter. She is a self-righteous, opinionated, first into combat type that rarely compromises on ANY issue that attracts her attention. Like a paladin - without all the foofy holy crap :)

She fastidiously shares loot and information, and is always first to charge to the front lines to defend the party or strike down bad guys.

This in mind, Lets return to the tomb. After a tough Kruthik encounter, the party takes a short rest, and hears a feeble cry for help echoing from a small tunnel broken into the granite walls of the tomb. The swordmage recognizes it as Otto, one of the henchman from her expedition. He is obviously terrified, and is calling out for death - due to unimagineable suffering.

While the party tries to decide what to do, the Warlock sneaks into the tunnel and finds the kenku wizard tangled up within a bloodstained canvas tent. No sooner is he freed, they look around and notice they are being watched by scores of little red glowing eyes - swaying rythmically in time to a rumbling inthe earth.

Backing away slowly, they both decide to leave the screaming man to his dark fate - when the earth explodes and a Kruthik Hive lord pops up - blocking their escape! The party has been bickering over the best course until this point, then it's GO time! With the two weakest member trapped in the hive, they choose to carve a path to their comrades and rescue them - treasure be damned!

Now, as they effortlessly cut through the lower level minions and other associated pissants, I paid attention to their in-character banter. In particular, the part where the fighter and warlord exchange boring bug squashing jokes :) The hive lord is not amused, and succeeds in luring them a few more precious squares - triggering the hive QUEEN to burst out behing them, effectively cutting the party in half. This ended the bug jokes, and began the soiled breeches jokes.

After a grueling battle of attrition, the hive lord (and lady) are defeated, leaving the party to tend to their wounds - when the piteous wailing from deeper within the caverns resume! The fighter is heart-wrenched to do SOMETHING, and proceeds further into the caves.

About this time, the rest of the party is rolling skill checks like mad and piece together that the "hive" is actually a partially finished crypt of some kind dating back to before the union of men and dwarves long ago. Apparently, barbarians of the Elk tribe dug this out as a resting place for their chieftains long before it was sealed up, and the newer tomb was built.

The warlock smells ancient treasure, and only a team of oxen could have kept him from joining his arch-nemesis in exploring the rest of the caves. The two of them exchange heated banter and insults as they enter the room holding a bloodied human partially encased in some sort of stone. His piteous screams caused by the kruthik larvae chewing on his exposed extremities.

Winning initiative, the warlock walks past him, pausing for a moment (The player asking what kind of action it would be to piss on him) before continuing back to where he sensed magical emanations. The VERY pissed off fighter saved the poor soul, BTW.

Moving into the final room, the warlock takes advantage of being alone to approach the stone sarcophogus placed between two large gilt sword bearing skeletons. Without hesitation, he slides the lid back...and is introduced to karma!

At this point, I might add, the players themselves were arguing a LOT. There was some tension, and in character threats had been made. Trying to defuse this to some extent, I made a spontaneous judgement call. The result of which being that the fighter rounded the corner just as the bright white flash of the radiant energy trap made itself known!

Picture if you will, the party dick talking all kinds of trash to you. You stop to help a wounded man KNOWING in your bones he is going to rob the party blind. Now picture coming around the corner, executioner's axe held at the ready - this time is one time too far - When there is a flash, and said party dick is running around in circles SCREAMING that his head is on FIRE! White fire no less :) Now ask yourself, "What would I do in that situation?" If you are my player, you flip your axe around and (using it's handle) start beating the fire out!

This went on for three rounds (bad saves!), well - 4 for the clubbing the fire out (I saw a cinder!) before all was under control. Fences were mended. Player tension defused.

And the best part? The entire session evolved from this note:

CR:7 Kruthik nest - tombs/catacombs - not too easy!
2 separate encounters!! (7 and 8?)
New players already in-situ. Characters unknown.
Treasure: Rune carved antlers (Arcana DC 18)
Healing potions in crude ceramic pots
Crude gold coins w/no stampings
Game well, folks :)

Jun 10, 2009

Qualia - Or why you have the RIGHT to dream about stepping on up to play in the story now.

Continuing down the well worn path, we can see the glimmer in the distance that must be the vaunted "salient point." It is as elusive as ever, so I will try and reframe my dithering in the context I was trying to communicate.

I was attempting to shine a light on how intricately intertwined game design was with not only playstyle, but the community as a whole. Instead, I got hung up on design theory, and chased that darned red-herring halfway across the ocean. The answer was right here under my nose the entire time.

You are doing it wrong. My game IS better than your game. Your game sucks.

That's right. You read my english correctly. I don't care what edition you are playing. I don't care what system you are using. I don't give two shits about you optimal build, OR your STR 8 fighter "for the RP Lulz". I simply do not care. In fact, You are an idiot for even TRYING to do it any other way than I do. Don't argue - I'm not listening, and will only mock you for daring to waste my time with your obvious stupidity.

I am absolutely right.
For the absolutely wrong reasons.
Or maybe the other way around.
Allow me to explain.

First off, my main goal of writing the last two posts was to attempt to demonstrate that most of the labels and schools and other silliness, are simply human nature. An excellent example of this is the big, abusive step-parent of GNS Theory - The Big Model. The big model is the entire framework used by Ron Edwards to unify the whole RPG design model. Love it or hate it, this appears to be the only model anyone seems to even care about. There are others, but having never heard of them, their influence is irrelevant to me - simply restatement of the same recycled words and concepts. I am not going to bore you for 1200 words or so recapping it, that's what the link is for. Instead, I will utterly destroy the entire modern theory of gaming using one wikipedia link.


In short, Qualia is the term used to explain subjective experiences, i.e. the reality of your experience as perceived by you - and only you. This is why men are from mars, and women from venus. This little term is the sawdust in the mortar that renders all edition wars and schools completely moot and devoid of anything but the part with monkeys banging on their chests for a mates or bananas.

The mere existence of Qualia is the reason why there is more than one RPG on the market. It's the reason we have to listen to overly loud gangster rap music in traffic. It is the reason why your wife's ex-husband thinks you are insane.

I pose to you, that this makes all game comparisons in any way moot. This is why even your favorite reviewer is never 100% right. This is why you liked battlefield earth on the big screen. This is why you gave up on lost. This is why Firefly got cancelled.


In gaming, Qualia works a little like this: As avid RPG players, most of us have a lot of experience playing D&D, as well as many other systems and various editions of said systems. Yet we all have distinctly different tastes, based on our subjective experiences we had while playing them. This includes WHO, WHERE, WHEN - hell, it includes what cartoon you used to watch back in the day.

I mention this, because we see here the ludicrous nature of the edition wars. Two sides that cannot be wrong, opposed by sides that cannot be right, arguing and debating the relative merits or a SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE!!!!!!!!!!!!! Notice the Caps there, please.

For those who would scoff, I direct you to the english language. (And a big shout out to Merriam-Webster!)

1: of, relating to, or constituting a subject: as aobsolete : of, relating to, or characteristic of one that is a subject especially in lack of freedom of action or in submissiveness b: being or relating to a grammatical subject ; especially : nominative
2: of or relating to the essential being of that which has substance, qualities, attributes, or relations
3 a: characteristic of or belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind : phenomenal.
b: relating to or being experience or knowledge as conditioned by personal mental characteristics or states
4 a: (1): peculiar to a particular individual : personal
(2): modified or affected by personal views, experience, or background.
b: Arising from conditions within the brain or sense organs and not directly caused by external stimuli.
c: arising out of or identified by means of one's perception of one's own states and processes.

1 a: direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge
b: the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation.
2 a: practical knowledge, skill, or practice derived from direct observation of or participation in events or in a particular activity.
b: the length of such participation.
3 a: the conscious events that make up an individual life.
b: the events that make up the conscious past of a community or nation or humankind generally.
4: something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through.
5: the act or process of directly perceiving events or reality.

Read it and choke. No really, can anyone defend the practice of arguing subjective experiences and "feelings"? Anyone? Please comment - I am all ears : )

I submit to you, dear readers, that this is why the edition wars, schoolism, and GNS theory is nothing more than a steaming pile of dragon dung. I don't LIKE playing older editions. You don't like playing in newer ones. That's fine. There doesn't need to be a debate. We CAN agree to disagree - as opposed to the endless posturing and accusations we see - why? - because neither side has the same subjective experiences.

What you call "old school sandbox style" gaming, I see as a swingy, overblown, snoozefest. What I see as a WHAM-POW action movie done right with dragons, you see as a box full of crap studded with ritalyn. This will not change simply because you point out another broken mechanic, any more than you will suddenly wake up and realize that with Gnomes back as player races - you can play it for reals this time!!

It IS alright to leave it at that. We do not HAVE to agree. In fact, it is impossible for the aforementioned reasons to have even a reasonable discussion on the topic - there can be no it just keeps going on...and on....and on...and on...

What edition / style wars are:
Don't DM like me? You suck.
Don't play like me? You suck.
Don't like edition ___? You Suck
Don't agree with me? You suck.

What they should be:
Gaming is fun
Play how you want.
What's THAT game like?
I'll try it out.

Jun 5, 2009

The light at the end of the sandbox is an oncoming train!

My goodness! In merging three of the more controversial elements of roleplaying, and then squishing them in a big ugly ball, I got some feedback!

First off, a big thank you to all of you for keeping it classy. While I sometimes fail utterly at this, it is still a bar I strive for when I can. Secondly, a big thank you beyond that for the constructive criticism. Even the snarks were well heeled - THANK YOU!

One session post in!

On to the meat. In the comments, I see three camps. One that agrees wholeheartedly enough to have nothing to add. One that disagrees completely - or near enough to count. And one that evidently sees some merit, but disagrees on specific points.

My question back to you Helmsman, would be "Is your game truly a sandbox game?" Or does it already incorporate elements of Linear plots, i.e. You've killed the priest in dungeon A, and a note leads you north toward swamp B? Would a "true" sandbox not be exactly what you described in your comment? WHY would the encounters make any sense in their placement at all, unless you were customizing (cough...railroading) them around to keep the training wheels touching the ground? Do the EL3 orcs feel a sudden urge to move closer to the PC's while the EL11 ones move farther away? Why wouldn't they terrorize a low level village? Why stick to somewhere that more powerful good guys hang out? Does the dragon decide he should go to a higher level area for a "real" challenge? Or does he stay where the pickings are easy?

I cannot get too specific about the background issue without actually having some hard info to go on. Are the PC's strangers to the area? Are they prisoners in a caravan? Are they merchants + guards? Are they bumpkins with a single magic sword? How far out DOES their information network spread out from their starting point? Are the villagers typical commoners - i.e. Int and Wis 10 or so each? Each answer changes the whole equation.

I am glad to see that you "do it right". But the unexpected ALWAYS happens in D&D. It's the only thing as certain as having to make saves :) In a living, breathing sandbox - with a little of uncle gary's random encounters, that dragon may be out looking for some white meat, or horseflesh. There are no rules dictating an all powerful CE monster's behavior. It does what it wishes, when it wishes. I should have been more specific in the last article, as a "true" sandbox would likely have lots of random encounters. The random part being my biggest beef with the older editions. I mean WOW, talk about disassociated mechanics!

And lastly, yes. You are using the middle ground quite well. Move here, now please :)

My article was meant to convey that a purist approach to GNS theory, Schoolism, or Gamestyle is nearly impossible. Making it's advocacy somewhat irresponsible.

Yes it is "possible" to have adventure paths in a sandbox, but you have an odd quandary by doing this.

Example: Deus Baaj (For you Sham :P) is working to release an eruption of necromantic energies that will kill every man, woman, and child on the continent - turning them into zombies under his control. Easy-peasy stereotypical "epic" adventure right? So what happens when the party misses a clue and goes off on a weird tangent? The clock should be ticking, and will eventually run out. Game over. That is, unless you send in the train to railroad them back in the right direction! Sure, you could say tough titties - but then you're technically just wasting everyones time watching them fiddle as Rome burns. The entire game derailed because of one missed roll or badly described action...Unless you intervene with a little DM fiat.

Make no mistake - DM Fiat IS Railroading. It just sounds better. The DM "deciding it does" is still an intervention more often than not.

Example: The party has been making a nuisance of themselves to the same BBEG. After a particularly good haul, they decide to kick back for a month or two and make some magical items and such. Does the world stop while they do this? Why doesn't a pack of highly trained assassins descend upon them? Then another. Then another. Why wouldn't Douchebag himself pop in for 10 rounds (60 seconds of his time + 2 teleport spells) to lay them to waste? Any bad guy with an INT of more than 14 has to realize that it would be a good investment of his time, right?

Are we railroading away from this encounter? Or railroading toward this encounter? Even in 1E, a 15-20th level wizard is a force of nature. If the slaves at his obsidian mine are released, wouldn't he invest a low-level scrying spell plus the aforementioned teleports and such to eliminate a threat? LOL! BBEG scry and die :)

As to poor games - I do not describe an actual game, but a logical extreme of one. A sandbox with a truly random dispersion of encounters of all kinds. Please forgive my somewhay jumbled prose, I write what I think, and sometimes it comes out in half baked chunks. I am working on this, but am a long way from publishing my first novel :) And Kudos for the author / editor simile, it was beautiful!

The black and white characitures (Bad sandbox and Bad railroad) used in the previous article were used for comparison purposes mostly. I posit that a "true" sandbox style game is a simulationist representation of a gameworld. You (as a DM) are trying to faithfully represent the impact of having a band of heroes moving in a random(?) fashion through an interactive environment. No "story" as such, until they decide to follow something that may or may not be what they are looking for.

A "true" Railroad style game forces the player to move from set-piece to set-piece. It is narrative in the sense that the story trumps all other considerations. That "chosen one" reference I made was based on experience. The character was a REQUIRED part of the endgame, so the DM had to make up all kinds of silly BS to keep the character alive. The rest of the world matters little, as gods (the DM's) magnifying glass is focused only on them - nothing else is really real.

While extreme, I would say that these silly cardboard cutouts are the reasons we, by necessity have to blend in other (sometimes contrary) philosophies to create a coherent game. Mashed potatos are alright, so is gravy. Add them together in the right proportion and you have a side dish that is more than the sum of it's parts. As opposed to flavorless mash and flavored schmoo getting all over our meat and veggies.

That brings us to the "gamist compromise" I brought us to yesterday. It is the Game that matters. And as we all know, the game is whatever in the hell we make it. This is where the houserules come in. Where we insert more G, N, or S (Or Dramatism - thanks Thanuir) into the homebrew we are serving up. Why doesn't the BBEG just take a short break to deal with the PC's? Add a little N with a dash of Railroading - he's busy with an involved ritual that requires ALL of his time. Why doesn't he send his slightly less powerful (but still more than capable of killing the PC's) Lieutenant to deal with them? A little S with a dash of Sandbox - he's a Blackguard and must travel for 3 weeks to get where he thinks the party is.

There's nothing wrong with this, I can't think of a lamer story than the party scoring a big victory, and then an epic bad guy shows up and sodomizes them with long pointed spikes.

As it stands, I disagree with Wikipedia's well referenced definition of GNS theory. I feel it suboordinates the true definition of the words themselves to make it relevant to too many mediums.

Gamist refers to decisions based on what will most effectively solve the problem posed. These decisions are most common in games which pit characters against successively tougher challenges and opponents. (Note - After this the definition descends into bullshit.)

Narrativist refers to decisions based on what would best further a dramatic story or address a central theme. (Note - same as above re - bullshit.)

Simulationist refers to decisions based on what would be most realistic or plausible within the game's setting, or to a game where the rules try to simulate the way that things work in that world, or at least the way that they could be thought of working. (Note - You get the idea.)

Anonymous, while I allow anonymous posting on my blog, I don't hold conversations with faceless entities. It puts me at a disadvantage - which is lame - and doesn't give me the chance to reconcile the comment with the poster's thoughts on other topics, which matters to me. If you live in a basement with a tinfoil hat, and refuse to make at least a blogger account, then I don't know if we can produce anything productive anyway. Start a blog! Tell the world I am a jackass! Just don't be faceless :)

Kaosdad, the "purist" sandbox is a totally simulationist approach. There is no story, that is, any story that does exist is always optional - simply another part of the landscape, to be pursued or ignored. This is contrary in every way to both published fantasy and every module ever created. While each and every encounter does not need to be linked to the same chain, too many optional side quests kill any impetus to advance at a reasonable pace. "Don't worry guys, the BBEG will wait for us, he wants an audience for his final victory, so lets take a vacation, go back
to that first town we partied in and kill the rest of those stupid goblins - then their mothers - then their aunts - then all of their distant relatives, just for kicks!"

MMO design gives this a REALLY bad name. You can pick up and drop the main quest as many times as you want. Go make potions. Go gather materials. Take the family to Hawaii for 2 weeks, It will all wait. Even games with DM toolkit like neverwinter nights are like this, the tools are finite, so the options and all that follow are as well.

Thanuir - The option you describe is my personal bane of all existence :) I don't know about any of you, but I have had the pleasure of watching the party discuss how to enter a garage door, secured by a mechanical lock for 2 1/2 hours. It was a d20 future game, with players wielding plasma cannons, mono-edge weapons, and hyper grenades, and yet they could not figure out how to get inside. If I could have swallowed my dice and choked to death - I would have! While it IS possible to free-form an encounter in most editions of the game, that tends to leave you very vulnerable to the "Diplomancer" of 3E and to a lesser extent 4E. With the older editions lack of structured skills to guide a conversational encounter, it leaves an awful lot to chance. I can see this working better with random encounters than plot encounters.

This is mostly a problem in terms of prep time. While I am not helpless when it come to improvising, when I get caught with my pants down, it tends to show. As to gathering information. This too is a good place to have randomness kick you in the balls. You either railroad them (just have someone spill their guts as to where you want them to go), or you sandbox them (roll on the random rumor table and they go in the direction the dice tell them to - stomping off blindly indeed :)

As to bloodshed :) With PC's it always come to bloodshed! They have pointy pieces of steel and want to use them to free the air trapped within their enemies abdominal cavities! Sure there is talking, but as one of my favorite book characters once said, "First there is smiling, then there is talking, after that the killing starts - don't be still talking when we get to that part." An orc is still an orc. A troll still just wants to eat you. A fire giant is still a great big red-skinned Nazi. Combat is too integral to D&D to remove, and while it isn't the only thing for sure, I don't think I would have any takers if I announced a campaign that consisted of being diplomats and trying to find compromises.

My goodness this has been hard. I've been working on this for nearly four hours now! My point (as it is clear I buried it well and often) is that the heart of any "good" game is always a compromise. On their own, none of the Schools, Theories, or styles can support a robust experience. There must always be an osmosing of fresh ideas, and as such, compromises to keep the desired game intact. You can't always trust your players to make the "right" decisions and more than they can trust the DM to always be right.

I hate to rush this out, but I am drained. Please let me know if I missed the point, jumped the shark, or deserve to be eaten alive by a pack of vicious snarks. This is a discussion, and as such - there is no right or wrong yet :)

Until next time, have a wonderful weekend, and wish me luck - those damn zombies aren't going to kill themselves!

Jun 4, 2009

Sandboxes are for kids and cat-turds. Railroads are for hobos and railcars.

Oh yes, he has been to your "sandbox" it was a good place for poops.

The sandbox. That iconic ideal we all strive for. The idea that the party should make their own decisions, and interact within an organic medium that reacts with their every action and choice. Let me tell you folks, it is over-rated as hell. Let me explain why.

First off, what is the antithesis of the sandbox? That's right, the railroad. That, to the uninitiated, is the literal "railroading" of the party to move along a pre-set course that the DM has charted out. This is prevalent in published modules and adventures that are usually light on any content not directly relating to the current adventure.

I am not aware of any other methods, if any of you would like to comment and point them out, I will edit or post a new article with them included.

First off, to quote a fellow blogger, "there is no spoon." We like to try and categorize ourselves like there are prizes awarded for most quirky, most old school, most new school, whatever. This is silly, and unfortunately very typical human behavior. GNS theory is a good example of this as well.

Truth is, no matter how much we try and pidgeonhole ourselves, we are so alike that any seppuku would serve only to take us all down. Back to the original topic!

The Simulationist Sandbox

Sandbox gaming is as far on the simulationist extreme as is possible to easily go. You are a member of a group of heroes(?) exploring an unknown area, interacting with it's inhabitants, and doing whatever in the hell they wish to do.

Where this really chaps my ass, is when the map or grid or whatever is being populated, the DM has to assume that a party that survives will "level up" and gain in power. Therefore, the encounters have to be truly random, spread out all over the place at all levels of play. This is effectively a double blind as the DM has no idea where the party will go, and the party has no idea what the DM has thrown down.

This fails in a couple of ways. The most obvious is the party encountering something that could de-flesh them with a mere thought. Does the party run away? - The dragon lazily flies over and nukes you from orbit. The giants are faster than you, etc. So the random direction you picked just killed you. How fun.

To those who would say, "but Donny, the dragon is full from eating a merchant caravan, and is willing to parley." I call Railroading! You have just metagamed yourself out of the sandbox. Unless that encounter was specifically designed around a dragon lounging on a bed of loot and skeletons - who just happend to be in a converational mood - you have failed. You had to change the parameters of the encounter to suit the story, commonly known as railroading.

The alternative to this is even worse. What do you get when you cross a "typical" 7th level party with a pack of kobolds? An extremely lackluster encounter. The kind of encounter where the highlight is the one rat that took TWO swings to drop. Yay, how awesome.

Randomness is just that, random. It is nobody's friend. It is nobody's mistress. It is a voluntary inclusion of chaos into a game defined by it's rules. It works, but too much randomness creates an incoherent game. For example, the party (3rd level we'll assume) moves north from the village.

Hex #c5 says, "A band of 2-12 orcs is terrorizing a farmhouse, it's residents still inside. The farmer has a magic sword, but doesn't know how to use it." The party has a tough time, but prevails.

Moving east, to hex #D5 says, "A pack of d4+1 dire weasels are eating berries off of a bush - the bush has 2D10 berries that will cure d4 HP each. The party manages to survive here as well.

Continuing on, they travel north again. Hex #D6 says, "Three hill giants are eating a woodsman they caught. They would love more meat." Guess what, the party dies. Wow, that was sure fun. Time for new characters.

Am I missing something? Are there actually people out there that LIKE this kind of game? Where you never know what is going on until you are suddenly dead? Here we had a total lose scenario - The giants are not only massively more powerful than the party, but also are faster than the party. What about an ochre jelly? It's mindless, it'll just keep following. A vampire? Another toasted party. How is this fun? Seriously, somebody let me know - I am at a loss.

It's not even about dying. THAT happens in D&D with clockwork regularity, it's a part of the game. However, a well designed encounter will ALWAYS have a way for the players to win. Before you start foaming at the mouth about the word win, I ask you who plays to lose? Any commenter who want to admit that they have secretly always played just to brag they've died or lost in every conceivable way will be trapped, tagged, and released with pity.

In my humble opinion. The sandbox fails because the very randomness it relys on to exist, is antithetical to an enjoyable game experience. This is not to say that randomness has no place by any means. Just that using randomness as a fudamental building block for a campaign is like playing russian roulette with your loved ones for giggles. "Gee dad, I thought this game was fun?" Thank you random troll pack encounter.

The Narrative Railroad

Railroad style gaming is Narrativism taken to the same ludicrous extreme. In this style, the DM reserves the right to do whatever it takes to "guide" you along a predetermined path to a specific event. Most game modules are good examples of this. They contain only information pertinent to the chain of events and encounters that lead from point A to point Z.

This is the method that currently gets all of the badmouthing. It's gonna get some more today. Railroading your party is a good way to have your party do stupid, silly, and otherwise idiotic behaviors - i.e. "Let's burn down the tavern!" or "I pick everyones pockets." They do this as a test of their boundaries. They know that the cage has bars, but cannot often see them. As such, they play with resignation.

This is why it is a BAD idea to allow a character in the party that is essential to the endgame of the campaign. Without them, the campaign collapses - and they will broom-handle you relentlessly once they figure that out!

As if that wasn't bad enough, when the party asks the DM where they should go - the DM is not doing their job. Either A. The information was not passed on properly. Or B. They honestly have no idea where your next set-piece event takes place, and don't want to piss you off.

The Gamist compromise

This is the game most of us actually play. Where the two circles come together into some common ground. This is where we can have a dragon encounter at level 5, and use it to further a story without the party feeling like well armed care bears. This is the game with an established plot line, random encounters, an A a Z and all points in between determined as needed. We get it ALL here. This is the game where your character is something other than a snack to a badly(?) placed encounter, or a wooden puppet marching to the last page of the module.

This is the game that gives you the tools to WIN! To accomplish the goals said character has set. This is the game where everyone is having fun. This is where the hex simply says, "Party level +2 encounter. Captive nymph in bad mood. May strip out of spite. No treasure." Is this old school? Is this new school? Does it matter? It's actually both. A winnable encounter, with a basic framework that (to me anyway) provides everything I need to have some good roleplaying as well! Is the nymph part of the encounter? Is it a trap? Does she kill the party out of annoyance? Who has her? All of these can be pencilled in on the fly, within the framework of an EL+2 encounter!

In my humble opinion, a lot of the "controversy" surrounding this leg of GNS theory has been the whole "win" thing. In fact, 4E was recipient to a lot of identical criticisms - lots of noise about every character winning everything or somesuch. I am not here to tell you how to game. Maybe your players are mongoloids that need to be herded. Maybe your group has a long standing bet relating to the total number of character deaths. I say that if you aren't in it to "win", what ARE you in it for? beer and pretzels? Funny looking dice? All the hot chicks? To die in an epically thematic way at the feet of the villain your party has spend the last 2 years of real world time trying to get to? To LOSE?

In my opinion, the biggest flaw in GNS is that the three exist in opposition to each other. Going in one direction distances you from the others. In my mind, they are all mishmashed together in a pile of nearly useless letters - until you form a group. At that point, you need to fish out the bits that will fit the group as a whole. A game "tailored" to 3 power gamers, one method actor, and two folks allergic to dice will look differently than, well...any other group on the planet - but I digress.

In summation, there is no one true way. The artificial divide between the "schools" of gaming thought is just that - artificial. We choose to build these walls around our narrow interpretations of the most subjective game on the planet. We choose to dig the moat, and how deep. We even choose when to fill it with water - and when to fill it with flaming trolls.

As to game design itself. Sometimes when you codify every minute detail into easily digested, modular little bites, you lose a little bit of perspective. D&D is not chess. D&D is not snakes and ladders. We get so pre-occupied with using formulae and rules that we forget there is likely not a single game ever published that is played RAW.

We all have different ideas as to how is "should" be. One person's Xanadu is another's steaming pile of poop. This summarizes the edition wars, Gaming theory and design, ans well as the silliness of the old school / new school movements. This is also the reason we have such a vibrant gaming community. Do we really need to build walls to feel better about our personal choices?

Long live gaming! And all of it's silly players.