Friday, July 27, 2012

Legend of Zelda Concert

I have a confession to make... I have never played any of the multiple Legend of Zelda games. Shocking, I know! Here's the funny part - I still consider myself a fan. I may not be fluent in Hylian, but I know that Hylian exists. I get the jokes in LoZ spoofs like Legend of Neil, I can correctly identify a Tri-force tattoo, I've picked out a couple tunes on an ocarina, and I own 3D Dot Game Heroes (LoZ-like game that's basically 8-bit in 3D).

Not as weird as it sounds... much, much weirder.
So when my BFF Maggie suggested we go out to the National Symphony Orchestra's Legend of Zelda Concert, I jumped at the chance. The music in LoZ isn't just there for ambience/background noise - one of Link's most important tools is his musical instrument. A concert, IMHO, was the perfect way to honor the game's 25th anniversary (technically last year - whatever!).

We got there early for crowd-watching purposes. I saw several Links (about half of them female!), a cute Saria, a bird-person, two guys in top hats - Hurdy Gurdy men? - and a very creditable Zelda. Adorbs!

Does consent to pose imply assent to post?
Cosplayers, help me out here.
The music was phenomenal, and clips of gameplay and cut-scenes from various Legend of Zelda games were shown on the big screen. It was awesome to see all the different styles - from the original 8-bit to Pixar-level CGI - all telling the same story. Maggie and me being who we are, we did take a moment to wonder why Zelda hasn't had a more proactive role in any of these games.

And we get it, LoZ represents the archetypical Hero's Journey to Save the Damsel in Distress. The one exception of this I can find is her incarnation as Tetra, the female pirate, but even then she's a supporting character. She's not a playable character anywhere in the main series (I'm sorry, becoming a spirit and possessing a Phantom Knight does not count).

Here's the thing, Nintendo. You've told this story sixteen times now. Maybe, just maybe, it's time for a change? And if you could've seen what I've seen - specifically, a crowd of fans essentially split 50/50 by gender - the direction of that change should be obvious.

In conclusion, this: Zelda and Peach Catch Up. What, you thought they keep getting captured by accident?

RPG Lady Armor

Just stumbled across this comic by Anna-Maria Jung and Andrew Bridgman (link). You can also check out Ms. Jung's comics, illustrations, and merchandise at her website (link). You know... just in case you're gift shopping for a certain hard-working DM/blogger. *innocent whistle*

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Encounters Recap: Session 10

When I'm writing an adventure for my D&D group, I don't plan every little detail out in advance. I have the basic story line plotted out, but I typically write each session the week before we actually play. This gives me the freedom to adapt the story line to fit my PCs choices, for (what I hope is) a more authentic "shared storytelling" type of D&D experience.

Encounters is nothing like that.

I don't say this to complain. Wizards of the Coast intended for Encounters to be modular - players should be able go into any FLGS and jump into the game, because they know exactly what's going on from the WotC website. This naturally leads to a more "railroaded" experience - no matter what you do, the same battle will ensue and the same outcome will be achieved (barring, I supposed, TPK).

All aboard! Next stop... DOOOOOOOOM!
(In unrelated news, isn't this a cool picture?
It's based on the Eberron setting - aka Steampunk D&D.)

However (there's always a however). If the party's decisions are going to be railroaded, the writers of Encounters need to realize that non-combat situations rapidly start to lose their appeal. For example, this week we were (apparently) tracking down our two NPC allies who had been captured by the drow. There was an obvious trail of blood. Our DM guided us to use skill checks to "find the NPC." Spoiler alert - he's at the end of this trail of blood. The other NPC will be were there are the most bad guys. It's Encounters, not rocket science.

After we find the NPC and he gives us the obvious exposition, we proceed to the area most heavily populated with drow. By this time, we are pretty sick of skill checks and are ready to jump into battle. But wait! Cries the DM. Don't you want to start by setting traps for the drow? Or, yes. Whatever gets us to killing things faster! So combat was delayed again, while we destabilized key parts of the cavern to... Crash down on drow skulls? Close off escape routes? Prevent them from flanking us? Honestly, I still don't know the reason we did all that.

There is a table at my FLGS that consistently finishes their Encounters module ahead of all the others, simply because their DM chooses to skip most of the non-combat bits. And why shouldn't he? The only good thing about a railroad is that it gets you to where you want to go as quickly as possible.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Silver Company: Dunsmere Ruins

With a group that only meets once a month, I find it helpful to give a quick summary of the story so far. However, I often struggle with recaps because I don't want to give too much away - if I only tell them what's crucial to the plot, how will I fool them with red herrings in the future? I usually compromise by telling them everything they need to know for right now, with a sprinkling of useless/useful facts.

Back story: There is trouble in the county of Corbais – monsters are making unusually aggressive attacks on towns and villages. In defending Corbais, you have met many interesting characters: a gnome innkeeper named Findle Wimrocket, a capricious pixie known as Mistlethrush, a mysterious swamp witch and a retired half-orc adventurer, Reis Uleka. In order to combat the monsters, Reis has put together a fighting force called the Silver Company, of which you are all members. Two of you are Lance Corporals stationed out of the Eastern Outpost, under the guidance of a half-elf named Ingrid. The rest of you are Privates who have just been dispatched to the outpost. From there, you will all proceed to investigate rumors of a disturbance in Dunsmere ruins. Located just outside of the tiny village of Vervaine, the ruins were once the summer castle of some long-dead noble who had too much money and not enough sense. Now the villagers, a superstitious and solitary bunch, have reported some kind of disturbance in the ruins.

We had a strong showing to this session - a total of six 8th-level PCs and two observers. Here's the party line-up:

*Token Male.

Silver Company PFCs

Aranelle (Rachel) the eladrin wizard
Elora (Carly) the halfling rouge
Marianna (Maggie) the human cleric
Shun Wei (Kelly) the dragonborn paladin

Silver Company LCs
Aukan (Alex*) the goliath barbarian
Iriena (Katja) the dryad ranger

The party sneaked into the courtyard of the ruins and found a sleeping guard dog... well, Cacklefiend Hyena. To-may-to, to-mah-to. When they attacked the hyena, it yelped awake and alerted the Gnolls within the ruins to attack. I did a big dramatic entrance for the HBIC - a Gnoll Demon Scourge. I was standing up out of my seat, swinging an imaginary flail over my head, and making (a very ominous, I assure you) "whum... whum... whum..." sound. I rolled my big light-up d20 - critical hit! I felt like the Universe was rewarding me for good flavor text.

The PCs progressed into the upper level of the ruins, only to be trapped in a corridor by a Harpy and her minions. But the rolls were not in my favor in this encounter, and soon the Gnolls' numbers were so reduced that they could no longer use their pack attack feature to do extra damage. No one fell unconscious, though I think I brought most of them down to bloodied at one point or another. A couple of my PCs dropped Daily Powers - which is completely appropriate, since at this level you shouldn't be able to save everything for the boss fight. Speaking of which...

Next time, on Silver Company: Dunsmere Ruins Boss Fight!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Bard's Tail: Kismet's Journey

In one of my home campaigns, my friend Mac and I switch off DM duties. When I am not running the game, I play a Tiefling Bard named Kismet - I consider him my "main." I love him to pieces, and he is so much fun to roleplay. He's grandiloquent, sometimes to the point of foppishness, but there is a darkness lurking just beneath his polished surface. Kismet's back story can be found on our Obsidian Portal site (link).

Currently (while I'm DMing), Kismet is on a solitary journey through the Kadagast Mountains, in search of the ruins of Bael Turath - the tiefling empire - exploring his heritage. His adventures bring him into contact with other teifling pilgrims, and for the first time he is surrounded by his own people. A lifetime as outcasts has made many of them bitter, and their suffering affects Kismet greatly. He begins to think that life might not be an epic adventure, and a seed of misanthropy enters his heart (setting up for his Cunning Prevaricator paragon path).

At the same time, his nobility and romanticism wins him a special place in his new friends' hearts. While his own lineage has been lost to the ages, he records the histories of everyone he meets, building them into a enormous compendium. Kismet being Kismet, he sets most of the stories to song - inadvertantly beginning an oral tradition that preserves and disseminates knowledge about the tiefling race that was all but lost after the fall of Bael Turath.

Eventually, he will become a household name wherever tieflings meet - Kith and Kin Kismet, since he wants to know all about your kith and kin (setting up for his Heir to the Empire epic destiny). A few even go so far to send him letters with their family stories, with requests that he pen another ballad in their honor. These usually end up being forwarded back to his home, the old library where he grew up. His mother is touched at his interest in this heritage, and the head librarian is surprised and proud at his thirst for knowledge. Both feel certain that Kismet is destined for great things.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Sexist Gamer of the Week

I sincerely hope that experience will put lie to the title of this post. C'mon, my fellow gamers, man/woman/gender-queer up!

So, I was at a happy hour with my friend Kim the other day, and we were talking (bragging) about how many women we have at our session of D&D Encounters. And by "many" I mean at least one per table of six, including the sole female DM. One of her friends starts complaining loudly about girls in D&D - apparently, we bring up the level of conversation too much for his tastes. Kim assured me he was joking when he said, "I mean, when's the last time someone at your table raped a wench?"

What dudes like this don't understand is that I'm not offended by their "blue humor." I'm offended by the fact that they consider it humor. It's easy to throw out a curse word, an innuendo, or a poop joke - I do it all the time. But it still has to be funny. And the idea that female gamers make the game less fun for "everyone else" (e.g. egocentric male gamers like this one) is unfunny, and out-dated, and Just. Plain. Wrong.

The other happy hour attendees were not subjected to this rant, however. I think my exact response was: "You clearly have never played with my all-girl group. They are the filthiest people I know."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Encounters Recap: Session 9

Or: Grumpy Healer is Grumpy.

In last night's session, my party was both clever and lucky - in other words, we hardly took any damage. While this sounds awesome, as the party's healer it made me feel pretty useless. We started with a skill challenge - we had to get past a set of portcullises guarded by two ogres. We were able to bribe one with food and the other with gems, and they toddled off like good little monsters. All that remained was to deal with the drow within the fortress.


There were some opportunities for relatively cool moves - our defender climbed up a battlement, defeated one enemy, then leapt across to another battlement to engage two more. Our controller skulked around the corner and sniped at everyone else. And one of our strikers turned insubstantial, sauntered up to two baddies, and dropped a killer Daily power on the asses.

And then there was me. I charged in and missed, then was bloodied, shifted, and knocked prone by a single attack. I'm a melee combatant, so there wasn't a great way to get back into the fray - I spent the next round healing myself. After that, I was immoblized by an area attack and couldn't do anything to save my comrades from ongoing damage. By the time I was finally free to actually do something, the session was over.

I know I shouldn't complain - the healer (aka leader) is a somewhat reactionary role, and if there's nothing for me to do that means my allies are doing pretty well. However, when I ask the table if anyone needs heals at the end of the session and they all turn me down, it's kind of depressing. My "main" is a leader (a tiefling bard) that I have a lot of fun roleplaying, even when he doesn't do much in a battle. However, Encounters is not the forum for role-playing (sadly).

Coming soon: Exclusive details about my main, Kismet. It will make me feel better.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Touch of Madness Campaign, Con'td

On Sunday I met with a couple of my players for the next installment of Touch of Madness. We had some last-minute cancellations, but because of our dual-character system we were able to forge ahead with just two PCs. Spoilers ahoy!

An interesting facet of this particular module is that several of the "bad guys" - the Stormcrows - are actually victims of the "touch of madness" themselves, and therefore can be saved. So far, we have rescued three out of the four Stormcrows (if the PCs remember to go back and collect them on their way out, that is). As an aside, IMHO the two female NPCs seemed more salvageable than the male NPCs. Is this an indication of the "damsel in distress" mentality on my part? Or on the part of the writers of the story? Anyway, something to think about.

Either way, it is now incumbent upon me to write a story with 
all female monsters and a dude in distress.

In this session, the PCs advanced into the second level of the Forlorn Tower. They met two more of the Stormcrow mercenaries, and they confirmed that the Tear of Ioun is no longer there. However, since their primary goal is to protect the town of Wellspring from this tower's monsters, it makes sense to continue. I think we've got about one more session left, but I'm getting a bit nervous. With our spotty attendance, I'm not sure that all of my PCs are going to be at a high enough level to deal with the final battle. Will this be my first TPK???

Murder in Grisly Gulch

To the townsfolk of Grisly Gulch, you are all cordially invited to join me for a night of celebration and surprises at my home, across from the Bank on Main Street. I have an important announcement to make that I know will be of interest to you all. I daresay it will shake the very bedrock of our little community!

E. Feingold, Esq.

Last Saturday I put on another murder mystery party, this one with a Wild West theme. These are something of a tradition amongst my friends, which got started two years ago when I asked Maggie and Mac to throw me a murder mystery themed birthday party. Since then, several of our friends have taken turns writing and/or hosting these parties - we've done Sci-Fi fantasy, Greek gods and goddesses, 20's gangsters and Vegas casino themed parties. They're always a blast, and we keep improving the format with each iteration.

Typically, the writer (me!) plays the victim and then comes back as a minor character. This time, I divided the rest of the cast into five categories: Detective, Suspects, Allies, Adversaries, and Observers. The role of the Detective is to to actively solve the mystery (and finish the story). Suspects put the "who" in "whodunit" - they are the main characters. Allies and Adversaries are more like minor characters - they participate in the story by either helping or hindering the Detective. Finally, the Supporting Cast can just sit back and watch the shenanigans. I usually ask people what role they are willing to play, and assign parts accordingly. This is what the final cast list looked like:

  • Marshall Frederick (Mike) is a Federal Marshall fresh out of training. He is on a routine visit to one of the small towns in hisjurisdiction, Grisly Gulch. The banker, Ephraim Feingold (Sri), invites you to a party where he plans to make a "big announcement. When Feingold is suddenly murdered, it's up to Marshall Frederick to solve the case! 
  • Barry Cade (Zach) is the mayor of Grisly Gulch. He is a notorious flirt, but his wife keeps him on a pretty short leash. He is up for re-election this year, and will probably use this party as an opportunity to campaign.
  • Miss Sugar (Maggie) is the madam of the town brothel, the Heart of Gold. Everyone knows that the banker, Ephraim Feingold, has been mooning after her for years. But she considers herself married to her work, and is fiercely proud of what she’s built.
  • Powell P. Lay (Chris) is a successful rancher. Currently, he is attempting to buy out several other smaller ranchers. He is an influential man in Grisly Gulch.
  • Cassie Cade (Lauren) is the wife of the Mayor, Barry Cade, and is an avid missionary. She frequently makes proselytizing trips to the nearby Indian reservation, plans fundraisers for starving orphans, and leads the Women's Bible Study group.
  • Charles "Sleepy" Knapp (Mac) is the sheriff of Grisly Gulch. While he excels at breaking up barroom brawls and chasing down train robbers, he's never had to deal with something as complex as drawing-room murder.
  • Suzanna Spice (Sri) is a saloon girl at The Heart of Gold, and a voracious reader of the Old Sleuth dime novels.
  • Anita Lay (Priya) is the daughter of influential rancher, Powell P. Lay. Her father's connections got her the job of schoolmarm, and he never lets her forget it. Also, he is constantly trying to marry her off. 
  • Growling Bear (Chuck) is the Chief of the local American Indian tribe. He is openly dismissive of the authority of the White Man.
  • She-That-Is-Pleasant (Amy) is the sister of Chief Growling Bear. She is much friendlier than her brother.
  • Fast Fanny (Carly) is a female gunslinger with a chip on her shoulder. 
  • Ian Briate (Alex) is the town preacher who loves his communion wine
  • Kitten Kaboodle (Katja) is a traveling entertainer, whose song and dance routine is being hosted at the Heart of Gold brothel.
  • Vani Singh (Nalini) is a vaudeville magician.
  • Ranch Hands (Mike and Monique) just stopped by for the free booze.
Each suspect had an excellent motive for doing away with the victim, Ephraim Feingold. Miss Sugar and he were lovers who had recently had a falling out. Powell P. Lay was afraid Feingold would realize that his dealings with other ranchers were not strictly on the up-and-up. And Mayor Barry Cade knew that Feingold held in his hands some damning evidence of his recent affair - one that could cost him his re-election bid.

I hoped the physical evidence I planted would exonerate two of the suspects, but I'm afraid I fell into the trap of, "Well, I don't want to make it too obvious!" I always have these big revelations about how I should've written these things as soon as we're done solving them. Which, I suppose, is how we can keep improving the model... Anyway, the most important thing was that people had fun!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Encounters Recap: Session 8

This session of Encounters finds our heroes descending deeper into the Underdark, and once again the game was played on an unusual map. Apparently, the denizens of these caverns (in this case, drow and their goblin slaves) had hollowed out a stalactite and turned it into a extremely defensible stronghold. It was an interesting visual, but it took several explanations by our DM for everyone to get what was going on - a picture of the structure itself might've been helpful.

I imagined something like this. The description also mentioned
that there were rows of windows glowing with an unholy red light. 

The map was divided into three parts, representing the three internal levels of the stronghold - the large top floor where we entered (the top of the stalactite), the smaller middle floor where the end of the encounter played out, and a tiny lower floor that lead to the exit. Below the stalactite, a giant web acted as a safety net... just kidding! Anyone who fell off was going to get chomped by an enormous spider. And since it's D&D, the only paths between the levels were on the outside. Drow engineering at it's finest.

My table ended up staying waaaaaaaaaaay past the usual time, for a couple of reasons. First of all, we had two newbie players - like, "played once in my life" newbies. Secondly, the DM wanted us to help them level up their pre-gen characters. It was a nice intention, but in the end I think it just made things more confusing. The biggest reason it took so long, and this is an unfortunate possibility in D&D, is that we were all rolling complete crap.

Speaking as a DM, it's hard to know what to do when your players - or even worse, just one of your players - is consistently getting terrible dice rolls. There are some mechanical "fixes," like Heroic Effort (which lets you add 4 to your attack) and Elven Accuracy (which lets you re-roll a terrible result), but not everyone has them and they're only good for one use per encounter. In my home campaigns, I've instituted the Nightly Re-Roll - anyone can re-roll once per night. On one memorable occasion, they were doing so poorly that I allowed them one re-roll per encounter. If a player is really close to hitting, I might have them roll and Athletics or Acrobatics check as a minor action to "help guide their attack."

Usually, however, I try to do things "behind the screen." You don't want to seem like you're being too easy on your players, so as not to cheapen their victory. Sometimes I'll forget to use a monster's regeneration power, or I'll neglect to recharge their most badass attack. That's why I hate players who try to sneak in a re-roll or add bonuses they shouldn't have - there's no need to cheat! Mama's got this.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Touch of Madness Campaign

For the second of my D&D groups, I am a lazy lazy DM that primarily runs modules. Currently I am running the Touch of Madness module, the first installment of the so-called Madness Trilogy (along with Depths of Madness and Brink of Madness). As you might suspect, it primarily involves monsters from the Far Realm, who specialize in being batshit insane and inspiring batshit insanity in others. SPOILERS BELOW.

Oh, and tentacles. Mustn't forget the tentacles.

Our group changes all the time (people join, people leave, schedules conflict, etc), so right now I am allowing more than one character per person. This allows us to play with as few as two players and one DM, but is not recommended for inexperienced players. But guests are always welcome, because I believe in recruiting people to my twisted lifestyle.

The last time we met, Kevin brought along his friend Andrew - he had played before, and just needed a refresher on a few things and the nuances of 4E. I created a character for Andrew in character builder - I decided to go the Essentials route, to save myself some time. Approximately five decisions later, I had a fully-functional 10th-level Dwarf Cleric, with only one easily-correctable error (they gave him expertise in a weapon he didn't have). Kevin is playing a Dragonborn Paladin, and Reuven dual-wielded his Dwarf Fighter and his brand-new Shifter Monk.

So far in the plot, our adventurers are seeking to protect the people of Wellspring from an uncertain threat - the story began when grells descended upon the town. They have been lead to the Forlorn Tower - formerly a temple to Ioun (D&D goddess of knowledge) and home of the Tear of Ioun, one of many sacred relics. In this session, the party was supposed to speak to a woman who had been sent after the Tear of Ioun and who knows more about it's whereabouts. However, when they came upon her party they immediately attacked - which, to my mind, was a valid decision. You're a grimlock hanging out in an evil tower, and the group just fought a whole bunch of you two sessions ago. Of course Han is going to shoot first!

On the left, a grell. On the right, a grimlock. 
Seriously, what the hell.

This left me in something of a quandary - I needed to let them get their hits in without sacrificing exposition. Also, we were down one PC, and this was a high-level encounter. If I had let them fight it out, the heroes may not have survived. I know that's OK with some DMs, but I think TPKs are boring and pointless. The story advances when the heroes advance - why would I want to stop that?

I compromised by giving hints that the grimlock's leader, who announces herself as Denva of the Stormcrows, was not quite right in the head (which was true). Our Paladin was the only one who was close enough to interact with her, which was probably not ideal - even though every player was involved in the battle in some way or another, only one got to do any Skill stuff. The small exception was that our Fighter got to use his Athletics to smash through a wall - and eventually made it!

When they had subdued most of the grimlocks and successfully navigated Denva's warped mind, they find out quite a bit. 
[Denva] reveals that a human named Cylus hired her and her companions to search for the Tear of Ioun. The relic transformed the Stormcrows (a group of merry mercenaries), but then mysterious shadow creatures stole it. Elomir, the Stormcrow leader, sent the grells to Wellspring. He won’t stop searching until the stone is recovered.
In other words, "Sorry - your relic is in another castle." Denva tells the adventurers where to find Elomir (at the top of the tower, duh!) and begs them to take her to Wellspring for treatment. They came up with the clever idea to enlist the help of the Half-orc natives of the nearby forest, the Harrowfolk, to help Denva reach the town. After a short rest, they plan to forge ahead - up the stairs!

Encounters Recap: Sessions 6 and 7

I skip one lousy session of Encounters, and I find out later that they did two encounters to make up for missing the holiday. Boo! Luckily, my BGF Mac was in attendance - here's his recap!
As previously mentioned, one of the central tenets of the game is "don't split the party". Wizards apparently said "blow that for a game of soldier" for this encounter. Everyone in the party is forcibly separated, and each is faced with an individual challenge. Pro: it's something not a lot of players have seen before. Con: there's a reason we haven't seen its like before.

What ended up happening was, each person got five or ten minutes to solve their own puzzle. Since it required DM interaction and there's only one, that meant the other five people sitting around the table got to sit there and watch someone else roleplay with no ability to interact. To top it all off, several of the challenges were doubled, so in the interest of "fairness" Ozzy, for example, who was in the same type of challenge as Liz, had to walk away and not listen as she solved her challenge so he wouldn't learn the trick. My character, who is multi-talented but has NO athletic ability, was required to climb up and down ropes repeatedly.

The next session was pretty straightforward. The group as a whole was a little pressed for time, and it was an exercise in how to quickly get through the action. Most people handled it fairly well. The group of new players sitting next to us TPK'd. AGAIN. I think this brings the total to 3 TPKs out of 7 sessions, only six of which were even combat.