Friday, July 24, 2015

This Month in Gaming

June and July have  been nicely heavy gaming months, but low time-to-write months. Today is no different on the time-to-write side of things, so I'll try to cover the "what I've been up to" as concisely as possible...which anyone who ever reads these knows is not very concise...

Video Gaming:
Final Fantasy XIII
I've always been a big fan of the Final Fantasy series of games, but this is one that I could not bring myself to finish for quite a long time. I bought a copy and started playing but was quickly turned off by the Sci-Fi-ness of the visuals, the linearness of the storyline and maps, and the inability to level, or really make any decisions at all for the first couple chapters of the game. After finishing The Last of Us in May, which was also fairly linear, I thought I'd go back and give it another try. Luckily it does get better. Much of the game was your fairly standard Final Fantasy fare, but there are a few gems in the plot which are well worth stealing, and one which would lend itself very well to the kind of games that involve old friends who are only able to get together to play once a year or so.
Not to spoil too much (though the game has been out for 6 years and has 2 direct sequels so I shouldn't really care about spoilers), the game centers around the conflict between two worlds, one a semi-utopia where godlike machines provide the humans with all of their needs, the other a Darwinian wilderness referred to by the "civilized" utopian dwellers as "the underworld". The utopian human world is high-tech, low-magic. The tech-utopians have a witch-hunt level fear of anything from the Darwinian world, and conduct "purges" of anyone who comes in contact with anything from the other world, either shipping them off to live in the underworld, or killing them outright. The game opens during the largest of these purges, when a whole city became "contaminated" by finding a relic from an ancient war between the two worlds which contained one of the machine-gods from the lower realm.
It's here where we get the really D&D-able stuff. Anyone who comes into direct contact with one of the "gods" is "blessed" with the ability to use magic (Clerics in an otherwise zero-magic world). The upper-world gods do this only very rarely, the lower-world gods apparently do it much more commonly. Whenever a mortal is given such power, they are also given a quest (logically enough). If they fail to complete the quest within a given (but unspecified) timeframe, they turn into undead monsters (ghouls, ghasts, vampires, and wights all make an appearance as those that failed their quests). Basically like a Gaes or Quest spell on steroids. Simple enough.
However, if these "blessed" individuals succeed in their quest, they are instantly petrified. They are transformed into statues of nearly-indestructible crystal, effectively hibernating, only to be awakened when the god has a new job for them (which may be centuries later). So the ability to use magic and perform amazing adventurous feats (i.e. be a PC) is a lose-lose proposition for the character. To make matters worse, when touched by a god in this way, you are visibly branded making you instantly recognizable to all normal people, who, as previously mentioned, have a tendency to purge anyone and anything that may have come in contact with one of the underworld gods -- so the torches and pitchforks are guaranteed to come out. TL;DR the gods are dicks.
Why is this good for a D&D game. Because it has instantly built in retirement/post-adventure downtime. PCs who succeed in their great save-the-world quest are rewarded by being put on ice until they are needed again. "In case of Ragnarok, break glass". It's a very convenient mythology for the kind of games that are played in very infrequent marathon-session style. Finish an adventure, freeze PCs, wake them back up the next time you can get together.
The other interesting part here, and one I rather like, is the idea that the gods pick you, you don't pick the gods. You are cursed, but get super-powers that no other mortals have out of the deal. This could be done in an amusingly random way also -- PCs go on a fairly mundane adventure, then encounter a shrine to an ancient pantheon, and each PC gets branded (and granted appropriate powers) by a different deity not of their choosing. After which you go on crazy adventures that involve being chased by witch-hunters and inevitably ends with you either undead or a statue. 
Really this would drop into a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game very well. 
The other really dick-ish thing about the FFXIII premise is that the gods don't bother to tell you what your Quest actually is. You get a single vague vision and then have to figure the rest out for yourself. And the dominant religion (of the people guaranteed to hate you) assumes that your mission is always "cause Ragnarok"...which, when combined with the army, witch-hunters, and angry mobs chasing you everywhere, pretty much turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. You might actually be there to save the world and stop a cataclysm, but no one really knows and no one really cares, they all want to kill you anyways. "Hey everyone hates us, and we're doomed to death or petrification anyways, so we might as well try to bring down the government and kill everyone." 

Darkest Dungeon
My other electronic diversion lately (and one that has seriously impeded my work productivity since I installed it on my laptop) is Darkest Dungeon. This is classic 4-person-party dungeon crawling at its best, with an added dose of everyone going insane from the stress of adventuring and have to spend all their money praying/drinking/gambling/whoring/etc after every adventure to wind down (which feels exactly like the carousing rules so popular throughout the OSR community). This feels more like D&D in spirit than any computer game I've ever played, mostly because every character is flawed (like my "Faithless" "Nymphomaniac" Nun who insists on stopping by the brothels after every quest, and makes comments about paying extra to "don't tell anyone I was here").
 It's cheap and available on steam pre-release. Go download it now.

From the Blogroll:
Dear Prudentia
I am an unabashed feminist, but I also have a huge soft spot for satire and a love of classic, trope-laden fantasy literature and artwork. So when a female fantasy author decided to make a fake advice column for would-be female adventurers suggesting such things as wearing chainmail bikinis and letting your male companions save you, I was hooked. Marie Bilodea's ability to turn a trope on its head by embracing the absurd extremes of it are unbelievably amusing. "Dear Prudentia" has been featured in several articles on Black Gate and I strongly recommend reading all of them:
 General Amusement
It's been a good month for comedy. A recent addition to my RSS feed has been Your D&D Stories Illustrated, a tumbler that takes short, out-of-context, stories told by various D&D players and turns them into comics. In addition to the simple humor of them all, these are all vignettes that belong in your game somewhere.
Low-level Threats
Roger over at A Life Full of Adventure recently posted a list of 1HD monsters from the AD&D 2nd-edition monster manual, proposing that it represented a list of appropriate alternatives to the stereotypical goblins and giant rats for a 1st-level AD&D party to face. Hit Dice, however, does not tell you much about the actual power level of monsters in AD&D. Technically a Quickling only has 1 HD, but with natural invisibility, super high AC, multiple attacks per round, poison, and at-will spell-like abilities like shatter, dig, and forget, it could easily destroy a 1st-level party. Which is why it's worth 2000xp despite having only 1HD (enough for your fighter to immediately jump to level 2). 
This got me thinking, and discussing with Roger, about what would make an appropriate gauge of "Challenge Rating" (if we can borrow a term from later editions) for AD&D. XP value seems the obvious answer, since the table in the Monster Manual take all of HD, armor class, damage output, and special abilities into account when calculating the XP reward that a given creature should give out.
Setting the bar for reasonable 1st-level challenges at less than 100xp rather than at 1HD gives a wide range of creatures from Planescape's 4HD but still mostly harmless Dabus, most of your common animals like wolves, camels, ostriches, and hyenas, down to creatures with only 1hp that can still be dangerous such as the memory-draining Obliviax moss or the disease-carrying Addazahr. Because, let's face it, an ostrich may have 3HD, but, baring unlucky rolls, it is hardly a threat for even a single 1st-level fighter.

What I've Been Playing:
Boardgame Night:
Last month, and again this week, I got together with some old D&D-friends, with whom our schedules have not lined up to get a campaign going for a couple of years, to play some board games. We had, for a long time, been trying to make it monthly thing, or at least quarterly, but twice a year has been about as close as we could get. Hopefully two in a row will make this a thing we might actually keep going. We're trying to play a new game each time we meet, both to grow our collections, and also to try out things that we may not have had the opportunity to previously.
June's game was Sentinels of the Multiverse which is a collaborative card game, with a superhero motiff. July's was Small World which is a competitive conquest-based game. I won't go into long descriptions or reviews (you can find plenty on the web already), other than to say that both games were very fun and present a lot of unique options and combinations which should make for lots of replayability. Sadly neither had anything that seemed particularly stealable for D&D games (I've got a one-track mind).
The End of Two Games:
Somehow, my Sunday and Saturday Ruins of Adventure games both chose to break up at the same time. The latter because of Summer scheduling issues, the former because it reached something resembling a stopping point and had another GM really biting at the bit to start a new game (after a nearly 4-year hiatus from that side of the table).
The End of both games involved PVP between the Amazons and the Good Intentions party, followed by a series of truly improbable events (thanks to some reality-warping magic items the latter party had acquired a long time ago). While there is much more that could have been done with these parties and this story-line, both parties worked pretty hard to make sure they were leaving a good pile of plot hooks and new adventure locations for the other parties operating in the world.
The E-mail Games:
June and July saw a long quiet period for the first play-by-email game (not an unusual thing as it moves in fits and starts). The party finally got out of their extended forray into the Squatters in Onyx kobold warrens and have been trying to figure out where and how to move next. Updates will be forthcoming once the players get their footing again.
Conversely, the new play-by-post game has finally achieved some momentum. We lost three of the eight originally signed-up players do to life circumstances, but have found a functional base-line group with a reasonably well-rounded party (Fighter, Paladin, Cleric, Enchanter/Druid, and Bard). They are currently involved in investigating a mystery involving grotesque bird-man hybrids in a small village north and west of Phlan. The story is pushing along, so you can likely expect more updates from them in the near future.
The Exodus:
I'm happy to have some time on the player's side of the screen again, which has not been the case for close to a year and a half. In the wake of the Good Intentions game, one of my favorite GMs, Joahua Fairfield has spun up a new campaign that he has been working on for several years. Dubbed "The Exodus", the game draws its inspiration from the many stories of human migration through the ages. Here it is described in his words:
"The Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years. The Trail of Tears. The Mongol Invasions. The wagon trains to the American West. History is marked by mass human migration, villages uprooted, families packing everything they have and setting out on a desperate, years-long journey to find a better place. Migration is one of the great human stories, and one that has not yet been the subject of a campaign."
The world is based on the Mongolian steppes, populated with Eocene era wildlife, with classic medieval-fantasy era magic and technology. We're using 5e D&D, but with the "What would Gandalf do" caveat:
"This story is about a journey, and the perils of journeying. Many effects in D&D remove the journey, or take important parts of the tension of adventure away. Fly or Feather Fall remove the fear of falling. Water-breathing removes the fear of drowning. Teleport removes the entire journey. So, as a guiding point, we ask: what would Gandalf do? If the effect removes the adventure, it will be Rule-0’ed. This currently means that any flying magical effect is straight out. (Flying mounts are another question entirely. Gandalf rode eagles.)
and, as always "Shields Shall be Splintered".
We are playing every Sunday, and have had four sessions so far, but my schedule will not allow perfect attendance for the next few months, so expect updates on it to include some gaps. I will try to keep the prose flowing though. For now, you can enjoy reading about Session 1Session 3, and Session 4 (I missed the second game for family reasons).