Saturday, January 14, 2017

Tabletop Ideas from Skyrim

It only took five years for my kids to convince me to start playing Skyrim.

Since I spent the past year and a half sequestered as an academic, lots of family stuff and hobbies fell by the wayside - limited vacations, no GenCon attendance, things like that.  Each kid extracted a solemn promise to do something cool over the holidays; my daughter wanted to spend an afternoon at Barnes and Noble, hanging out at Starbucks and talking about life; my youngest wanted me to learn Madden '17 and try to challenge his crown; the oldest has been obsessed with getting me to finally play Skyrim and 'get it'.  With the master's degree safely behind me, I took the plunge over the holidays and got the Skyrim special edition version for Xbox One.  I've been enjoying the "open world" nature of the game, and it’s hard not to reflect on how we can adapt some techniques to enhance our table top games.

If you're reading this post based on the title, there's a good chance you know what Skyrim is already (or played one of the earlier incarnations).  If your luddite tendencies have kept you cloistered from modern video games - and who can blame you, really? - this brief video review provides a decent summary of the game and game world:  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Legendary Edition Overview - Newegg TV



Now that I've seen enough to become a 23rd level high elf destruction mage, arch mage of the college of Winterhold, and member of the Stormcloak rebellion, here are various sandbox techniques that I plan on borrowing next time I do a homebrew sandbox game:

Through Line Quests
Regardless of what minor quest or story line the player is pursuing, there are some overarching "big threats" in the campaign setting that create verisimilitude as the player traverses the sandbox.  Examples in Skyrim include a rebellion between the Stormcloaks (rebel Nords) and the Imperials from the south; a plague of vampires and the presence of the Dawnguard, fanatic vampire hunters; the return of the dragons and the threat of a powerful, apocalyptic dragon lord.  Regardless of what you're doing, you might encounter patrols of Imperials and offers to join the Legion; voracious vampires and vampire thralls attack the towns at night; dragons wheel in the distant skies.

Thanes, Lordships, and Property
There are a half dozen major towns across Skyrim; each one is led by a Jarl, and there's a path to become a thane or lord in the Jarl's hall through service.  This opens up the opportunity to gain a follower, buy a house, or develop a homestead land out in the wilds and build your own fortified manor and hall.  After all, you need a nice wall to hang all those trophies!

Guild Memberships
There are a handful of major organizations where the player can climb the ranks - think of it like the thieve's guild, but covering other classes  - so far I've encountered the mages, the assassins, and the companions (the companions are Norse mercenaries that can turn into werewolves).

Discovered Backstory
NPCs disburse elements of the history and setting through brief one sentence blurbs, like tweets, limiting the narrative dumps.  Books are a much richer source of backstory - you're constantly finding books and notes in ruins and tombs; they tell history, and provide hints and clues on negotiating the current dungeon, too.  You can ignore them if reading is tedious.  Dwimmermount used this technique to great effect, and Jim LOTFP pioneered it way back in Hammers of the God, where the secret shame of the dwarves could only be discovered if you worked through the library of books.

Towns
Each town has a distinct character, lots of little subplots and stories, and a number of common services;  an inn, a merchant or armorer, and an apothecary or alchemist.  Plus the local lord and guard.  There's a lot of value in putting more effort into the towns in your game.

Quest Overload and Organization
Skyrim overloads you with things to do, forcing you to prioritize your own story arc.  However, all of the quest ideas and rumors are conveniently organized in a journal.  As a busy adult who only plays once a week, it's really helpful to return to a game log and see my current options as a memory refresher.

In my Dwimmermount game, I made some play aids to help the players keep track of quests and lost knowledge.  I can see myself generalizing it further to include all sorts of quests and rumors that get picked up.  As old school DM's we sometimes view 'note taking' and memory as skill testers, which runs counter to casual, beer and pretzel D&D playing; if the setting is going to deluge the players with options and things to do, help them keep track of the options with a journal of some sorts.  When you show up to game at the end of a bruising 40 hour week, the last thing you want is to have to recall obscure parts of The Silmarillion in order to play.  (Or Forgotten Realms lore).

Level Scaling the Extreme Sandbox
This one is a bit controversial, but Skyrim uses what I'm calling "quantum difficulty" - the levels of ruins and dungeons get established when you enter them the first time.  It's not 100% level scaling, or else you wouldn't feel like you're making any progress.  For instance, a wolf that used to be a dangerous fight can now be dispatched with a single blow.  But a newly discovered barrow, which might have contained Norse undead (draugr) when the character was low level, will feature more dangerous draugr variants if you first discover it as a higher level character.

I'm getting more pragmatic as I get older.  If you're going to present a plethora of choices right up front, there might be an opportunity cost to choosing one thing, and ignoring something else.  But if the dungeons aren't going away, the players may loop back to an earlier rumor and pick it up when they're more powerful.  For instance, the early game has the players hearing about a group of "vicious bandits" that have made travel north in High Saddle Pass difficult.  The players travel in the opposite direction and have a series of engaging adventures somewhere else.  When they return to the north and go after the bandits now, assuming the problem persists, maybe that group of zero level men and humans they might have encountered as level 1 characters is actually a mixed band of humanoids and ogres that can challenge a higher level party.  Is that palette shifting, or just-in-time development, because the nature of the bandits was never fully established in prior sessions?  I'm choosing the latter.

However, there are a couple of things I haven't been happy with in Skyrim, but these are issues you can address on the tabletop:

Suspended Quests
You can be engaging with an apparently time sensitive quest (example:  go ambush the evil guys when they cross the bridge near the town) but there's nothing stopping you from sleeping for the night, selling some gear, and heading out to the bridge a few days later.  Whenever you pick up the quest, now is the time the bad guys happen to be  crossing the bridge.  Ouch.

Consequences
The game is full of shrines to the gods (Divines) and the demons of Skyrim (Daedra).  There's nothing stopping you from swearing allegiance to a Divine for one quest, and then doing something terrible to win a Daedric artifact the next quest.  For that matter, NPCs and characters don't pay that much attention, either; you can swear yourself to Mara, the goddess of Light, and wield her holy sword, Dawnbreaker, but a priest of Mara isn't likely to no the difference, and there's no problem joining a quest on behalf of Mara's arch enemy next game session.  It's a little goofy.  Just about the only thing that gets you in any trouble is performing a public crime, especially with guards around.

I understand that in the video game context, all of these quest lines are just "content", and the designers want to maximize your ability to experience all of the content without having to create a new character.  It's a bad video game experience to make choices that completely close other quests. However, in the table top, we don't have the same considerations and can handle both suspended quests and natural consequences in a way that reinforces the setting.

Overall though, I've gotten a lot of good tabletop ideas by playing and observing Skyrim - even if it is 5-6 years later than the rest of you.  Adventurer Conqueror King would make a fine campaign system for a Skyrim style sandbox, since it envisions crafting, homesteading, economics, demographics, rulership and guild establishment - lots of world-building stuff that enhance the campaign side of play in addition to exploration and combat.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Mr Strahd goes to Innistrad



Death comes on blood-stained wings… that's a theme from last summer's Magic card game setting, Shadows Over Innistrad, as the angelic protectors of the plane succumb to madness, stoking the fires of inquisition and oppression.  I knew when Wizards created a guide for placing your Curse of Strahd campaign in Innistrad, this is something I would make happen in 2017.  Curse of Strahd is far and away the best thing for 5E, a sprawling horror-themed sandbox - highly recommend checking it out, if you haven't.

Here’s why ditching Barovia is a good idea.  First, it lets me place the campaign in a setting built around Gothic horror tropes without needing to shoehorn Forgotten Realmsians (ie, Ren-Fest escapees) through The Mists.  A regular Strahd campaign would have the players making setting-appropriate characters for Ren-Fair-Land, backgrounds and ties to various Realmsian organizations like the Emerald Tree Huggers and Gauntlet Knights and Gangster Zhents, just to shunt them off to Dracula-land where all that background becomes immediately irrelevant.  It sounds like I'm hating on the Realms; they're actually just fine for a High Fantasy game, and the 5E version does its job as a default setting.  I don't need 'em for my vampire-bashing game.

Wizards provided a handy guide for putting your 5E game in Innistrad:  Planeshift Innistrad.  There are no demi-humans; it's a human-centric setting with characters from the different provinces getting background abilities in lieu of demi-human abilities.  There are probably 1,000 cool pieces of artwork for Innistrad from years of Magic sets; a fair number have been collected into The Art of Innistrad, which also provides a guide to the plane (and takes the place of a gazetteer or campaign guide).  I've really enjoyed the art book.

On the plane of Innistrad, horrors stalk the shadows and scratch at doors in the night. Humanity is beset on all sides: vampires thirst for human blood, werewolves live for the thrill of the hunt, the restless spirits of the dead haunt the living, and no corpse is safe from reanimation at the hands of cruel necromancers or cunning scientists


Unfortunately, Wizards of the Coast doesn't make maps for their Magic planes.  I went ahead and created my own version of Innistrad, posted above.

We kicked off the campaign last week, so I'll portray the setting as the campaign moves along.  The valley of Barovia becomes the Outland Vales of Stensia, in the far upper left of the map, with Barovia and Vallaki (two villages in Curse of Strahd) becoming Shadowgrange and Lammas, beneath the shadow of Castle Maurer (instead of Castle Ravenloft).

Friday, December 23, 2016

Game On

Nobody found my phylactery in time.  The long sojourn pursuing arcane studies in the ivy-covered halls of academia has come to an acceptable conclusion.  The portal to the sepulchral tomb creaks open, and the lich re-emerges.  The master of the Lich House has returned.

After a year and a half of grinding my way through a master's degree, I'm back.

I've kept tabs on the D&D blogosphere - mostly OSR stuff, naturally, but I follow a little 5E too - and continued to run some games.  I was still running Dwimmermount up until September, but the last semester was crushing.  When you rank work, family, kids, school (defending a master's thesis), running games, and then writing about games, the actual running of games beat out writing about them.  The Lich House had to go dark.

The Dwimmermount group is going to pick up next week (right after the holiday) and I'll do some kind of summary of the missing game reports to get caught up.  We were on session 36 or so, and the published game reports petered out around 18 or 19.  It's a spectacular megadungeon.  The players were battling back and forth with the Termaxians over control of the Great Machine and the power to open the prison of Turms Termax.  We're right at the best parts.  I'm going to run Curse of Strahd for 5E, but I'm especially looking forward to working on my own stuff again.

I'll also catch up on game reading - lots of good stuff came out the past year that I haven't given much attention yet.  I've got Maze of the Blue Medusa, Brood Mother Sky Fortress, ACKS Lairs and Encounters, and Operation Unfathomable queued up to read.  After powering through a book per week for months and months for school, I'm looking forward to catching up on fun gaming reading.  What else did you guys like this past year?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dwimmermount Game 19 - How to Make a Smurf


Our Cast of Characters:

Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 4 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Drev, a level 5 bard
Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 3 fighter
Malthena, a level 3 thief (henchman)
Arethusa, Mage 3
Kawku, Mystic 2

I just finished some course work for my master's degree, and have the chance to get caught up on some blogging.  I'm way behind on game reports, but had this partially written (and unposted) from a month or so back.

A few game sessions ago, the players had ascended to explore a hidden level in Dwimmermount, the level 0 "Divinitarium".  It seems targeted at 6th level characters, and they're level 4, so there was a lot of fleeing and dying.  But the players escaped with a treasure trove of lost works describing the secret origins of the gods of Dwimmermount. While the players shifted back to exploring level 4, they were reading the books on the side, so I gave them another chunk of Dwimmermount's 'secret history' at the start of this game, representing the results of reading in between sessions.  They learned the gods were golem-like servitors created by "the Ancients" to channel divine power; over time, their metallic exoskeletons grew and the gods blasted off for orbit. I picture them like Marvel's Celestials. In time, all knowledge that the gods were originally man's creations was lost, and they were worshipped as divine beings .  These are major revelations!  But the sources were suspect, so one of the main characters, Marthanes, began to wish for more scholarly works with similar information… and this search for knowledge would drive the action in this next game session.

Last time out they allied with some wererats on level 4, and assaulted many of the wererats' enemies among the minotaurs, including the Minotaur King.  The first thing the players did this session was to guide the wererats out of level 4.  Their dialogue with the rats involved forming an alliance, and then educating them about the surface world, since the tribe had been trapped in Dwimmermount for 200 years.  The players agreed to get the wererats en masse to the city of Adamas so they could infiltrate the underworld and become wererat gangsters.   (One scene had the pirate Drev flying to Adamas on his magic carpet, surrounded by a dozen wererats in rat form, like some Pied Piper in reverse).

The players also gave part of their library of Dwimmermount books to the Seekers, which they'll rue by next game, and we also did the typical morale rolls for henchmen in between adventures. They had a guy named "Sloth the Mook" who decided it was time to head out on his own… partially because his patron was Wulfengard, who has a 5 Charisma.  A new PC joined the group in Muntburg, a monk named "Kwaku the Mystic", taking the place of Utor, the elf enchanter PC who died last game when he became a slime zombie.

After sufficient "town time", the players returned to Level 4.  From the wererats, they knew about a library on level 4, and another library on level 5 (but fiercely guarded). They decided these two libraries made good targets for the night's adventures.

On level 4, the players first encountered a "cloning chamber".  Picture a mad scientist's laboratory with two capsules, one for the source character, and one where the clone would be created.  Arethusa, the ancient mage they freed from stasis, knew how to work the chamber, and Wulfengard immediately volunteered to become cloned.  Right before flipping the switch, they noticed a fly buzzing around the chamber with Wulfengard!  The younger players had never seen the horror movie, "The Fly", so they don't know how close they were to cloning a hybrid blood-sucking fly-dwarf monster.  Instead they got a level 1 clone of Wulfengard.

The real comedy started when they found a nearby 'alteration chamber' and Wulfengard agreed to put his Wulfen-clone in the bed for some alterations.  In short order, the Wulfen-clone was turned into a dwarf woman, then she was turned blue, a smurf, but eventually had her color changed to a deep brown.  Keep in mind, there are no female dwarves on the world of Telluria - all dwarves are made male, so the Wulfen-clone is pretty unique as the world's only(?) female dwarf.  I laughed for 5 minutes when she got turned blue and I realized they made the world's first Smurfette.  But the player got very upset at the notion of playing Smurfette, demanding that the folks controlling the alteration table give it one more spin, and was happy when his dwarf lady got turned brown instead.  After a series of attempted names - Wulfen-mook, Wulfen-clone, Wulf Jr. Wulf-Daughter, Mini-Me, and Baby-Garden, he settled on Baby G for the new character.  She would go on to be generated as a level 1 dwarven barbarian - the alterations of gender and color changed the cloning process so her attributes could vary a little from Wulfengard, and barbarian fits her bad attitude.

Game 19 concluded with a massive battle.  The players found the stairs down to level 5 and discovered the Great Library, a location they learned about from the wererats.  Unfortunately, it was the lair of a powerful demon and a horde of manes demons.  The demon was one of those ultra-magical Type 6 Marilith types with a massive armor class (AC 15 in ACKS terms) which meant most players needed a 23 or higher to hit.  However, the simplified conversions in Dwimmermount didn't include Magic Resistance, and that was decisive.  The players had two magic users with multiple Magic Missile spells, including a Wand of Magic Missiles, and they were able to take down the demon through magic.  Along the way, the demon kept cloaking the players in Darkness, with clerics using Light spells to try and cancel pockets of darkness.  Wulfengard, Bart, and Mumford were all dropped by the demon, and Mumford and Bart were badly injured - their adventuring days were over, barring Restore Life and Limb.

Level 5 and 6 of Dwimmermount is where the players start running into really tough fights; I need to keep my eyes open to see if anyone else is running into those areas as well.  I'm way behind on game reports due to work and school priorities, although we've still kept playing every few weeks; for instance, we just ran game 28 even though I'm only reporting game 19.  I may just compile a bunch of capsule reviews and try to get caught up before the next summer courses kick in.  Over halfway to my Master's degree, only about 5 more months to go.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Magic (MTG) and D&D: Games are Colliding

Wizards of the Coast quietly posted a PDF document over on their Magic: The Gathering site this week that has potential to eradicate barriers between the company's two flagship (fantasy) creative teams.

Here it is:  Planeshift: Zendikar

For the first time ever, we have a Magic guide to using one of Magic's premier settings a D&D milieu.

So what's the big deal?  Magic has been a 30+ year gaming juggernaut, steadily embracing more and more story elements to drive the gameplay.  The Magic card game features a series of powerful, magic-using characters called "Planeswalkers", whose  soap-opera intrigues and conflicts take them from plane to plane in the Magic multiverse.  In this way, every two or three sets of Magic cards shifts the action to an entirely different thematic world.  The Magic creative team works very hard to develop fully realized fantasy settings for each new set of cards - including settlements, civilizations, monsters, threats, culture, and character names.

Let's just look at the past few Magic settings:

  • Ravnica:  the world is dominated by a massive metropolis, the city of Ravnica, where 12 competing guilds each seek to control the city - it's full of intrigue and urban noir fantasy
  • Theros:  inspired by Greek Myth, the city-states of Theros are beset by a pantheon of jealous gods and titanic monsters
  • Tarkir:  Tarkir is a war-torn plane where clans inspired by the cultures of South East Asia fight for dominance - it's seriously cool
  • Zendikar:  - Magic's high fantasy "adventure world", where Cthulhoid monsters, the Eldrazi, rise from the ground and terrorize civilization
  • Innistrad:  Magic's Gothic horror setting, full of vampires, demons, ghosts, and werewolves

There is a nice online gallery of the major planes in Magic:  MTG: Planes

What really drives Magic's storytelling is the amazing art for all of the cards. Magic's visit to one of these planes is embellished over a couple of card sets, meaning the creative team will commission several hundred pieces (400-700 paintings) of evocative fantasy art to convey  the story and themes of the world.  By contrast, a D&D book might have a few dozen pieces of art at best, and many of them are mini portraits or maps.

With Zendikar, Wizards of the Coast released a coffee table style book called The Art of Zendikar, which acts as both an art book and travel guide to the plane.  With the recent Planeshift: Zendikar, they've complimented the art book by providing guidelines on game stats and using D&D to run RPG games set in Zendikar.  Based on the survey attached to the article, this is also being looked at as a market test, to evaluate potential new products.

The test makes sense; the Magic product line invests in a massive portfolio of art, and leveraging that art and intellectual property for D&D game worlds gives them more opportunities to drive value from the art investment.  It's "low hanging fruit".  They can create more planar-guide coffee table books to sell the art, or shift these Zendikar-style game supplements into formal pay-to-own game supplements.  Plus, it might enhance both brands by getting some Magic players to try D&D, or getting D&D players to pick up a Magic deck.

Meanwhile, it's becoming clear what is the D&D 5E strategy and how it's working.  The core books are evergreen products, and the design team has been true to their word on keeping away from splat books and rules sprawl - no Player's Handbook 4, for instance.  (Thank you).  Instead, the product team seems focused on  releasing two "stories" per year, a large adventure campaign hardcover book, which is then cross-developed in novels, board games, and computer games.  Play the adventure, read the novel, buy the t-shirt, and then download the video game, that kind of stuff.  Something for everyone.  The quality of the stories seem to be improving as it goes along - Out of the Abyss was better than the previous two campaigns, and Curse of Strahd is absolutely full of win.  (I should get around to posting a review of Curse of Strahd, but it will gush with enthusiasm).

Overall, this foray into cross-promoting Magic and D&D is super interesting.  I'm guessing the Magic creative team is thinking like entrepreneurs and looking to harvest value from their creative work, with D&D fans getting a chance to benefit now that the iron curtain is falling.   5E seems to be doing well as a product line. The PHB is back in the Amazon top 100.  I greatly appreciate that the market isn't getting flooded with official splat books like DMG 2 and PHB 3, and this focus on multimedia stories is fairly benign; I can focus on the tabletop specific stuff and let folks enjoy the other media if that's their thing.  There's no downside.

I'll be watching the space closely.  The latest Magic set is Shadows over Innistrad, a visitation back to Magic's awesome Gothic horror setting.  The next set of cards for Innistrad will come out mid-summer, and that would be a good time to see if WOTC is going to publish a Zendikar-style art book and setting guide for D&D Innistrad.  I'd love for them to go back and do some recent worlds like Theros or Tarkir, but it seems more likely to be a forward-facing change.

Magic does nice trailers for each upcoming set, here's the recent trailer for Shadows Over Innistrad:

Shadows Over Innistrad Trailer

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Dwimmermount Game 18 - Flight of the Drevelator

The further adventures of our adventuring party, The Investors:

Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 mage)
Tancrede, a level 4 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Sloth the Mook, level 1 fighter (henchman)
Drev, a level 4 Squindian bard
Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 3 fighter
Malthena, a level 3 thief (henchman)
Arethusa, Mage 3 (henchman)
Utor, level 3 Elven Enchanter


The last game ended on a major discovery.  By way of recap:  our stalwart heroes used Drev's flying carpet to ascend up the elevator shaft in Dwimmermount; in this way, they were exploring a secret area they knew no other adventuring party could reach - a totally new space.  Unfortunately, this Level 0, the Divinitarium, is really, really dangerous to an underpowered group that doesn't have access to Cure Disease.  Most of the monsters are slimes, oozes, and fungi with hideous infection attacks.  We stopped last game session when the players discovered a wonder beyond imagining - a full sized interplanetary space ship, the Astral Vessel, parked in a massive hangar.  It blew their minds to think the setting would let them go to other planets.  "We will invade Aeron and conquer the Eld!".  However, a half dozen or more slimy zombies slurped to their feet halfway across the dimly lit hangar, blocking the way.

We started this game with the players, standing across from the zombies, developing their battle plans.

They Astral Vessel was too awesome not to try and seize; how dangerous could a bunch of slimy zombies be?  The fighters started peppering the slow moving zombies with arrows, while Drev shot forward on the flying carpet, with Utor and Arethusa on board.  The two mages had Burning Hands spells and they figured they'd do a couple of back and forth fly-bys, raining fire down on the slime zombies.  The combination of magic items and spells as technology is giving the players access to 'modern' battle tactics.  Queue the Ride of the Valkyries theme.

Unfortunately, no one looked up at the vaulted hangar ceiling to realize it was covered in patches of Olive Slime, which started dropping like bombs.  Incoming!  Drev tried to weave, but a pocket of slime landed on Utor.  "I am very sorry, Mr Utor", said Drev's player in his Squindian accent, "but I will not be having any slime covered elves standing on my special carpet".  And Drev gave Utor a sharp kick in the rear, launching him into the air.  Drev used to be a Squindian pirate, so he flashes his Chaotic tendencies from time to time.

Poor Utor.  He found himself on the ground, disoriented from the fall, going numb from the Olive Slime creeping over his flesh, with several Olive Slime Zombies craning their way towards him, blindly groping for him.  He took out his Wand of Fear, aimed it back at his own face, and let loose with a charge, blasting himself at point blank. When I asked him why he'd do such a crazy thing, he said, "I'm going to scare that slime right off my body!  I think it's going to jump right off in fear!"  What really happened is that Utor ran off into a dark corner of the hangar in a total panic, at least until the Olive Slime permeated enough of his nervous system to take control.  Somewhere in the darkness, a new elf-sized Olive Slime Zombie shuffled to its feet and started walking towards the players…  brains...

Drev looped his carpet back to the players, avoiding the falling slime attacks from the ceiling, and the players agreed this was more than they could handle, and retreated from the hangar.  "We need Fireballs and Cure Disease and then we'll be back to claim our space ship."  Utor's player took the abandonment of his character in stride.  "I'll play Arethusa (a henchman) until I get the chance to make a monk character.  I want to do kung fu."

The players had enough with The Divinitarium, creatively dodging various wandering monsters to get off the level and make their way back to town.  Bart was still shuffling along in the background with his serious head injuries from last session, Utor was dead, and they had sacks of juicy history books to read back in town.

We allowed a few weeks to pass in town so the players could fully recover, level where warranted, and read the books.  Marthanes also lent the books to his allies, the Seekers (this would come up as a full-blown issue in one of the upcoming games, game 20).  Because "The Secret History of Dwimmermount" requires a lot of exposition, I don't give it out mid-game; I send a document out after the session, incrementally adding the new knowledge.  This way, the 2-3 players that really care about it (and don't mind reading) can absorb it at their leisure, and it keeps the game moving in session.  The players have a 'knowledge tracker' so they can see how they're doing versus the "big questions" and where their knowledge has gaps yet to be found.  Like I said in my review of the campaign book, this really is a nice quest \ scavenger hunt mechanic for the dungeon, and it's created forward progress and interesting player choices.

In "campaign time" it's now early winter, and flakes are falling outside Muntburg as the mountains fill up with snow.  The players trudged back to Dwimmermount, bundled against the cold, and decided they would now head down the elevator shaft and try out level 4 (the Halls of Lesser Secrets).  They've dubbed Drev's magic carpet the Drevelator, as in, "we'll take the Drevelator down to level 4."

Level 4 was partially cleared by the Seekers, so the players knew about some of the entry rooms, and the presence of Minotaurs somewhere on the level.  They managed to get the actual elevator working fairly early on, so they wouldn't be reliant on multiple trips on the Drevelator (which can only ferry 3 at a time).  However, the Seekers failed to warn their "allies" about various teleportation traps in the major intersections, and the player group was quickly scattered across level 4!  Bart and Wulf ended up fighting an Ochre Jelly on their own, but Marthanes sent Tancrede through as an experiment, and the pair quickly figured out a method to get everyone together again at a single rally point - although they had no idea where the rally point was located on the level.  They would need to map, explore, and try to piece it together until they found landmarks.

Glossing over exploration, the interesting bits of level 4 emerged when the party encountered some wererats, and broached a parlay in lieu of combat.  After being brought to the wererat leader and exchanging some knowledge about the outside world (in return for information about the inside of Dwimmermount), here was the deal that was brokered:  the wererat leader is interested in escaping to the capital city, Adamas, and becoming a player in the crime underworld there.  If the players promise to  help the wererats get to Adamas, the wererats will help map the level, and point out some of the choice treasure locations.  The players just need to go kill the Minotaur King first.

If you think this deal sounds too favorable for the wererats, you're right, but the kids were happy to expedite their fight with the minotaurs, and the thought of having crime lord allies in the city is too cool to pass up at their age.  They're thinking long term.  The alliance was formed.

The wererats led the players to a hallway that would take them into Minotaur territory, and ultimately the throne of the king.  They assaulted the minotaur king (and a group of guards that looked shockingly similar to the king, almost like clones…)  The fight ended up being anti-climactic - minotaurs are just dumb brutes, an attrition battle.  Drev's mobile fighting platform floated above the battle, providing a safe vantage for a few of the shooters, while the fighters waded in (along with Tancrede).  "You have one job, Tancrede", chided one of the fighters, "stay back and heal the people that need it.  Why are you always clogging the front lines?  One job."  Bud, the other cleric, is actually a better fighter than Tancrede, but Tancrede always beats him to the front line.

The other noticeable development in player strategy has been Marthanes, and his discovery that "It's just awesome being me".  Marthanes has a helm (circlet) of teleportation, which lets him blink around, once per turn.  There's basically a 1% chance he goes and never comes back, lost in the ether.  When he first got the helm that 1% chance was a mental barrier, and he swore to only use the helm for emergencies, but now it seems he's willing to assume the risk and teleport around just to show off.  When the king jumped into the fray, Marthanes teleported behind all the minotaurs to sit on the throne and gloat.  His typical prattle to the other players goes something like this, "Just another perk of being Marthanes, world's greatest summoner.  Forgot something in town?  I can go back and get it for you, instantly.  Because I'm awesome".

After slaying the Minotaur king and his clones, the players looted the throne room, regrouped with their new wererat allies, and made their way out of the dungeon.  We'll pick up with more mad-cap antics of The Investors next week, when they demonstrate how a clone chamber and an alteration bed can be used to manufacture your very own Smurfette.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Dwimmer Games 16 and 17, Magic Carpet Rides

When I last discussed the Dwimmermount game, the characters were picking themselves up off the floor after getting horribly beaten by a tomb with mummies, at least until they rallied and destroyed the horrors.  This session began with the injured (and infected) characters dragging themselves to the surface with all the loot they recovered from the tomb.  Their first order of business (after burying the dead guys) was to head back to Adamas and try to get the curses lifted from everyone suffering Mummy Rot.  There's no healing while cursed, with Mummy Rot.

The players recovered some amazing magic items from the mummy's loot - a magic carpet, a flaming sword, and a helm of teleportation.  Drev, their Squindian Pirate Bard, now rides everywhere on a magic carpet.  Wulfengard calls his new flaming sword, the Kylo Ren sword.  Marthanes got the helm of teleportation working in Adamas… his player remarked, "Can Marthanes get any cooler?"  Oh, and Bart hired an expensive animal trainer to train a bear for him, in Muntburg.  He wants to own an armored bear that he can send into battle.  I guess it's like the D&D equivalent of those rich boxers that keep pet tigers around.

Here's how all the characters look after spending time in the city, selling stuff and leveling up:

Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 4 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Sloth the Mook, level 1 fighter (new henchman)
Drev, a level 4 bard
Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 3 fighter
Malthena, a level 3 thief (henchman)
Arethusa, Mage 3 (henchman)
Utor, level 3 Elven Enchanter

Before the new dungeon stuff got rolling, the players returned to Dwimmermount (level 3) and went through the portal to Volmar, to try and convince Arethusa to come adventuring; last session, her friend Collothus, died in the mummy tomb.  It had been some weeks that they left her stranded in Volmar, and she was starting to adopt their ways.  But a good reaction roll and  the promise of a hefty share encouraged her to return with them to Dwimmermount.

The emperor was irritated they'd been gone so long without a report, so they needed to make a full accounting.  The emperor was very irritated to hear the Eld had returned and invaded "his dungeon", so he declared war on the planet Aeron.  Since the players had pacified most of level 3A, the Volmarians would start moving in and taking over the Eld portal.  On some level, I think they'd like to see a Volmarian army march out of the front gate of Dwimmermount at some point, just for the chaos and craziness of it all.

With Arethusa back in the fold, and assurance that Volmar would conquer level 3A, the players returned to the dungeon.  They knew there was no apparent way from level 3A down to level 4  - they had searched the level with 'Locate Object spells' - so they deemed it was time to return to level 1 and start messing with the elevator shaft.  They could use that to get down to 4.  No one had figured out how to use the elevator, but they had a magic carpet.

However, rather than going down, the players went up - the shaft went in both directions, implying there was a level up above level 1.  In the Dwimmermount book, this is a special level 0, the "Divinatarium".  It was both older than anything else they'd explored, and more "high tech" as well.

It was clear to me the players were seriously outclassed, but they persevered regardless.  There were battles with slurping algae men, who incapacitated swathes of characters with brutal mental blasts (algoids).  They fought muscular grey men, with wickedly spiked plate armor and large two-handed swords (Astral Reavers).  There were obviously bad rooms holding slimes and acid monsters the players astutely avoided, and a few rooms infested with terrible fungal monsters, where only a lucky saving throw (and a quick retreat) avoided a gruesome infection.  Without a Cure Disease spell available, it seemed that every other encounter was a roulette roll with death.

As usual, the game had a series of interludes that only the kids can author.  We may have seen our last "I Bart the Door" from Bart.  One of the rooms had a rune covered door, which Bart triggered (explosively) due to his impetuous nature, before anyone could get the chance to warn him that runes could be bad.  He staggered back, dying.  "Medic!"  In ACKS terms, the system is fairly forgiving of characters that end up near death, as long as a cleric can get to them quickly and perform first aid and magic.  But Bart would be stuck at 1 hp and bandaged for a few weeks.

Tancrede, their balding and asthmatic cleric with the 8 constitution and the combat death wish, started wearing the armor of an Astral Reaver, spiked shoulders and gauntlets and a crazy helmet.  They now call him their "death metal accountant" - the most dangerous accountant in the world.

There were a few signature discoveries on this visit to the Dinivatarium.  In the office where Bart blew himself up, they found a centuries old library of conjectural works on the Ancients and the origins of the gods - like the Dwimmermount equivalent of von Daniken's "Chariots of the Gods".  There was a Book of Infinite Spells in the library, too.  But the most mind-blowing discovering was in a large observatory chamber - a full-sized space ship!  Assuming the characters can figure it out, they potentially have a way to travel to the stars and planets.  The players really want to own a space ship.  Dwimmermount continues to push the bounds.

We had to end the session here, as it was getting late, and a half dozen or more slime-covered zombies slurped to their feet and started slowly shambling across the large hangar towards the characters, blocking access to the space ship.  There was an intense table debate whether to fight or retreat; the younger kids usually want to fight everything.  "You've found the absorbatory, Marthanes, now let us fight these zombies - this is a demarkusry, so we get to vote", said one of the 9 year olds.