Thursday, May 28, 2015

This Month in Gaming

May has been a very low gaming month. The first two weekends I was out of town, taking the family to Disney World. The following weekend I was also out, which amounted missing 6 games that I should have been running, as well as a lot of potential blogging time. Then of course there was Memorial Day this past weekend, which lowered the turnout of players, so all and all, May was a wash of non-gaming. That does not mean I did nothing...

In Video Games:
The Last of Us
After getting back from the week at "the happiest place on earth", I obviously needed to decompress from all the "fun". What better way than to shoot zombies in the head? 
On the surface, The Last of Us is not a game I would ever play, as it is a combination of elements that I greatly dislike: shooters (yawn), zombies (overdone), linear storyline (bleck), post-apocalyptic (meh). But this game is just so beautiful. Even my wife, who is not a fan of any video games in general, had to comment on how impressive the graphics were. The lighting, the characters, the scenery...awesome.
The game-play is, overall, not too bad. My dislike of shooters was overcome by the game's good array of stealth and melee option (and nicely graphic melee combat). I'm up to about 8 hours of play and have used a gun maybe a dozen times, compared to the 100+ kills from sneaking up and strangling someone or stabbing them with a shiv or bashing their head in with a brick or a lead pipe. The addition of the "Clickers" (sound-sensitive fungus zombies) makes for a nice change as well, taking silence into account for stealth, rather than just the usual crouch behind a couch (though there is plenty of that too). It also seems to handle sight-lines relatively well, so that the "crouch behind a thing" method only works from a fairly long/low angle...if the bad-guys walk up close to the barrier, they will both see you, and probably shoot you in the head. 
The story-line, which centers on an outbreak of a human-infecting strain of the Ophiocordyceps fungus is pretty good (for a zombie apocalypse story), at least in terms of the interaction and emotional tension between the two main characters. Plus the player character's "listen" ability (which lets you spot enemies through walls and hear conversations at a distance in sonar-like fashion) is sufficiently similar to the "Clickers" that it gives a nice feel of creepy inevitability/futility to the whole venture.
...note, I haven't finished the game yet, so if the dude does not turn into a Clicker at the end, don't tell me. I'm enjoying imagining his eventual demise... 
The Bookshelf:

Lots of time on planes this month means getting lots of reading done. A couple of recent reads have sparked some ideas...

The Dresden Files
Yeah, yeah, how have I not read these yet. I just plowed through the first five books: Storm FrontFool MoonGrave PerilSummer Knight, and Death Masks. There is so much awesome to be had in Jim Butcher's series, but one thing really stands out in both its simplicity and its evocativeness. Potion making.
I've always been a fan of collecting ingredients for magic items, often compiling complicated lists of things to obtain with numerous plot hooks and moral quandaries when players express an interest in making a specific, custom item of their own devising. 
The Dresden Files boils all potions down to a simple formula of eight parts: a liquid base, five ingredients to engage five physical senses, one to engage the mind, and one to engage the spirit. What's cool about this is that it adds a small level of predictability/structure on what is otherwise a very open, free-form system. Every item (let's not limit it to potions) has eight ingredients, in eight very broad categories, but these could be anything the DM or player imagine...
I like the elegance of it, and will definitely be using this formula the next time a player asks how to make their dream item...
His Majesty's Dragon
I just started this book by Naomi Novik and am already hooked. Set during the Napoleonic Wars in what basically amounts to normal 18th century Earth...with dragons, the setting for His Majesty's Dragon just screams to be made into a game. In many ways it feels like something that might have come from GG hanging out with his wargaming contemporaries, injecting fire, acid, and poison-spitting dragons into famous Napoleonic naval engagements.
The grafting of fantasy elements onto a historical epic, with small doses of Trollope/Austin-esque English country life makes for a really compelling story so far. I greatly look forward to tearing through the series (which is apparently already up to 8 friggan books) and running a game (or three) using the setting.
Expanded Petty Gods

Game books are hard to just sit down and read, but I would still recommend picking up a copy of Petty Gods: Revised & Expanded Edition. If you like a little weirdness in your games, or are a fan of very broad pantheons with lots of highly specific (but not very powerful) deities, then this is a great resource. 
You also can't talk about the Expanded Petty Gods release, without talking about ORC, the Old-School Role-playing Community designation. ORC is one of the things that makes Expanded Petty Gods truly awesome as a book. It is a collaborative community effort, with all contributions made without compensation, and distributed free as a PDF and at cost in print. As a strong opponent of capitalism and for-profit enterprises in general, this kind of community driven effort to put out a free resource for the good of the contributing community is something I very strongly support.
Much thanks to Richard LeBlanc for putting this together (both the book and the ORC idea) and I very much look forward to seeing a great many more ORC publications in the future.

From the Blogroll:

No new additions this round, as I've had a lot of time away from both gaming and my computer. That doesn't mean I didn't find anything interesting...

Beyond the Wall
I've always been a fan of stories that feature young shepherd-types who get shoved into adventures and come out as heroes (of which there are many). I've played around with the concept a lot in my games, often starting adventuring parties as class-less tabula-rasas with no exceptional abilities. Thus I was very happy when WrathofZombie started blogging about Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures. This looks like an awesome game (or even just an awesome character-creation system that could be tacked onto other d20-system games) focused on creating a party of local nothings -- childhood friends forced to deal with adventures greater than themselves.
At first glance it is like any other d20 game, but the character creation really stands out. Each character selects a "playbook" representing a specific country-bumpkin-turned-adventurer archetype (such as "Future Warlord", "Self-taught Mage", or "Reformed Bully"). Starting ability scores are determined not by dice rolls, but by your choice of archetype and a series of choices about your backstory (which may be determined randomly). Choices about such things as "What did your parents do in the village" or "How did you distinguish yourself as a child" add specific ability score bonuses and possibly bonus starting equipment or skills. The best part is that character creation is also collaborative party-creation. One question from every playbook involves a shared experience with another character. "The player on your right was there when it happened" and gains an ability score bonus from participating as well, which means that your choices impact the final stats of your friends, and vice-versa.
There are several books out for it now, a few of which are available for free on DriveThru RPG. In addition, WrathofZombie has made a number of additional playbooks (I'm particularly fond of The Cursed) and also ported some Pathfinder spells to the system. Smirogan at Department V has also created a nice guide for building playbooks. And, of course, there is a G+ Community.
This is definitely getting busted out for the next game I run. 
Regarding Royalty
Strangely monarchal/feudal systems of government do not appear very often in my games, despite much of them being staunchly medieval. My games tend towards a post-plague 14th-century vibe, when councils of guilds and merchants took over most of the cities after the mass-die-offs weakened the noble castes and their military dominance. However, discussion of the role and nature of monarchies as dominated a good chunk of the game-blog-world over the last month: Emily wrote about the pros and cons of primogeniture versus undeath. I've always been a fan of the latter, for, as Maester Kinos said, "Enlightened rule by the dead is preferable to the misguided failures of the living." Jeff talked about the length of reins of the kings of England (and how to synthesize a dynastic line in-game). And Zak put it all together with discussion about how to make dynastic depth gamable.
Maybe I'll actually try this, maybe not, but if I find a story reason to plunge into monarchal dynastic politics, it's nice to know that someone (or many someones) else out there has started doing some of the heavy lifting of putting some dice to it.

What I've Been Playing:

As stated before, I've done very little gaming this past month, but very little is not none. Here is the current state of the many ongoing Ruins of Adventure campaigns.

Good Intentions:
My Sunday group finally got a name, mostly because some of the party keeps insisting that they are good-aligned despite throwing in with Devils and carving out a barony in Hell. After several (poorly documented) sessions of working with the forces of Hell and playing with powerful artifacts and magic beyond their ken, the party finally returned to the material plane to find Phlan in flames. At this point, they are chronologically well ahead of many of the groups and seeing (and heavily influencing) some of the end-game that I have planned for the campaign as a whole. They've (at least partially) achieved many of their stated individual and party goals, and are gearing up for a major showdown once everyone is back from vacations and ready to dive in again.
The Amazons:
Firmly ensconced as the do-gooder counterparts to the devil-dealing Sunday party, the Amazons have officially wrapped up their plot-line. Last session saw the party sail to the far south to break up a wedding and get Princess back in the party. Time-wise they are caught up with the Good Intentions party, whom they have been hunting for some time and who are finally where they can be found.
Thus, the Amazons are officially done. The party has handed over their character sheets with instructions for them to be used to kill the other party. Thus, that big showdown I just mentioned, next time the Sunday group meets they will be throwing down with a complete, equally-leveled adventuring party that intends to kill them. Sadly schedules do not allow for this to be actual mass PvP, so instead I will be botting the Amazons (which admittedly reduces their chances of success, though they are really only truly bent on killing one member of the other party).
With the off-time this past month I have spun up a second play-by-post game, this one using a G+ thread as the primary medium. It's an oddly mis-matched party, and thus should be a lot of fun, although it's been a slow start...
You should expect to see the first log from that game on here in the next month. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Amazons: Session 8

Guest post by +Alan Knightly.

It was a lovely wedding, up until the point where my sisters kicked in the door, beat up the guards, and "abducted" me, which was totally sweet. Oh? Right...introductions. I guess I'll back up a bit.

My name is Imogen Jedea, daughter of Kassur Jedea, the Crown Duke of Threskul. A little over a year ago I ran away from home and joined a group of totally kick-ass adventurers known as the Amazons. A few months ago I got magically transported back home, where I immediately got forced-engaged to this sniveling weasel of a middle-aged count. Luckily I had my scroll of communication, so I could keep in touch with my girls. Needless to say, they came and saved me.

During the winter, the girls had found a magical forge in an enchanted forest protected by a dragon. Cool huh? Long story short, the dragon killed our friend Worthy and I wasn't even there to help. Some new girls whom I had not met helped kill the dragon, then helped turn Worthy into a totally awesome talking sword.

Since my scheduled wedding was still several months out (for all that my dad is pushy he likes to do things "right" and do it with style, so he was planning a big one), Hot Flanks, who is totally hot by the way, convinced the girls to stick around for several weeks to customize some other gear. We'd been working for a while to track down an evil minor nobleman cum undead warlord cum demon worshiper (or some such) and had gotten our asses kicked a few times, so it made sense to prepare as much as possible. I told them as much in writing if you don't believe me.

So, they hung out in the woods until late Mirtul, mixing and matching things we had on hand to make some totally sweet magic items, with the occasional trip back and forth to Phlan for supplies (but that's boring). There were a couple of minor skirmishes with bandits, faeries, undead, and wolves on the road and around the forge while they worked, but nothing too serious. Just enough to be good practice and keep them on their toes without killing anyone.

Then they headed back to Phlan to talk to our patroness, the totally awesome and not-at-all-evil, Councilwoman Elissa Bivant-Mondaviak. It's amazing how people who don't work for Lady Elissa get the wrong idea about her sometimes. Probably because they are jealous of a girl being better at politics than them.

With Elissa's help, the girls chartered a ship to take them down to Messemprar, where the wedding would be happening. Elissa told the girls that she was really concerned about the events of the last few months: the evil squire's escape, the giant army of undead we saw in the mountains, some colossal giant god-thing waking up and causing earthquakes in the mountains, the government in Hillsfar (which had always been a close ally of Phlan) being overthrown by a coup...things were not going well for Phlan. Elissa understood that the girls had personal business--saving me--and agreed that we should all be present and ready for the coming battle. She even covered the entire cost of the round-trip passage, and included a wedding present of sorts, a big stack of books for us to study on the way back.

The wedding ceremony was scheduled to take place on Shieldmeet (because, hey, leap years are awesome). The ship was fully stocked and they sailed out on the first of Kythorn. The trip to Messemprar took more than two weeks, which the girls spent reading and hanging out, broken up with a small skirmish with some buccaneers from the Pirate Isles, just off the coast of Altumbel. Again, quick, easy, and none of the girls got seriously hurt--though the same could not be said of the pirates after Don't Fail and Hot Flanks both fireballed their ship. Apparently the book-learning really helped.

The ship docked in Messemprar the day before the wedding. I invited the girls to stand in as my maids of honor (it was a political marriage, I figured I might as well go through with it, so long as I could escape before I had to consummate the damned thing). Unfortunately, my prick of a father refused to even let them into the palace, despite them having a hand-written invitation from yours truly. It's like the old meany didn't trust my sisters-in-arms or something...

Luckily the wedding was open to the peasantry (nice thing about big royal functions, you have to let the rabble watch or else you risk an uprising), so the girls were able to sneak in close as the thing started. Like I said, it was a lovely affair. Everything was festooned with flowers. All of my father's knights showed in in full polished plate (though that made things harder later). I got to wear the most gorgeous gown of my life, white with a silver-mesh veil and my crown, and just enough of a bustle to hide the Handsome Prince (that's my sword, not a literal prince) underneath. If only my husband-to-be wasn't such an old, bearded, codger (though he did look pretty good in his armor).

We processed, and danced, and said our vows and our "I dos". Then the old priest of Tchazzar said the whole, "you may kiss the bride" thing (which was the official precursor to the public bedding--yuck!) the girls kicked in the door. Literally.

Dragon Bait raged out and blew the big doors off their hinges.

Don't Fail and Hot Flanks burst into the ball room, cowing the less militant spectators with a few well-placed (above their heads so as to not kill everyone) fireballs. , Doesn't Shake, Finds Them, and Battle Cry charged forward, clearing a path to the dais with a mixture of spells, gunshots (Finds Them apparently packs a really loud toy she calls a "arquebus"), and deliberately extra-creepy illusory monsters.

I did my part, acting just-scared-enough to get my new husband to step in front to protect me, then kicked the armor-laden windbag down the stairs face first, before drawing Handsome Prince and shadow-stepping down to join the other girls. I thought it would be all shock-and-awe and an easy run for the boat from there, but, like I said, my dad had all of his knights standing in for the procession, and fully geared up. So, we fought.

It was tough, mostly because we were trying to NOT kill everyone. It's amazing how hard that is really. Especially for Dragon Bait apparently. When she goes into fighting mode, she turns into some kind of spike-covered raging demon thing. If she hadn't had Worthy (our paladin turned awesome sword) in her hands, shouting at her to calm down and pulling her blows a bit, she probably would have killed every last one of my dad's knights. Instead we just maimed them a bit.

I aimed for a lot of hamstrings and tendons. Handsome Prince helped as usual, turning even tiny cuts into wickedly bleeding messes (it's awesome how quickly you can convince someone to retreat from a fight when you knick an artery). Battle Cry did her usual grab their arms and break it routine. Don't Fail froze them in their tracks with her spells. Doesn't Shake kept them off balance and swinging wildly at her illusions. Hot Flanks blasted them into submission with her mind powers. And Finds Them deafened them with her boom stick.

All told, there were some thirty-odd fully armored, well trained knights. And we totally kicked all of their asses.

Just for giggles I tagged my new husband with a "potion of ugliness": on the way out, turning him into a toad (temporarily). Adding insult to injury like that was probably not the best move. I'm sure I left my dad with a national crisis and potential war on his hands, but, that was not really my problem. I have no intention of going back there (baring another blast from that wand of cruel banishment).

Once out of the palace, we ran like hell. The general hue and cry ran out before us, both yelling and trumpets calling the castle guards, city watch, and every other man at my father's disposal to come out and catch us. We bull-rushed our way to the ship, beating guardsmen like baby seals. Our hired crew had been given the word that morning to be ready to sail at a moment's notice, and so they were.

Then, with a pop, Mahāna, my dad's court wizard, appeared in our path, along with a solid iron wall. It was a tall wall and he was a tough wizard, but I'm a shadow walker, and I laugh at walls. Literally, walls are funny, especially when you can step right through them. I never liked Mahāna anyways, and we were so close, so I stepped out of the wall right behind him and planted Handsome Prince between his shoulder blades (yeah, that one is REALLY going to piss daddy off).

We hauled ass onto the ship and cast off.

As we pulled away, I pointed out my dad's fastest naval vessels in the harbor and we nuked their sails with fireballs...not enough to ruin the ships for good, but enough to keep them from following us (again my dad is probably going to kill me, hard, if he ever catches me).

The winds were against us going north so it was a long ride back to Phlan. I caught up on my reading on the way back. It turned out the wedding gift that Elissa had sent along was a Manual of Stealthy Pilfering, sweetness.

On the 19th of Eliasias we got a sending from Elissa informing us that while we were gone the Squire had hijacked some powerful artifact of law that the Council had been using to help keep the precarious peace in Phlan. With this artifact gone, the peasants in the slums, the orcs and Xvimlar on the north side of the river, and the monsters in the ruins had risen up en masse, torn down the walls, and torched New Phlan. She asked us to meet her in Mulmaster, where the Council had fled to, to discuss how we might find and put a stop to the villain for good...