Sunday, March 29, 2020

Tomb of the Nine Gods - Game Reports for Levels 1 and 2

It's been a couple of months since we checked in on my weekly home game, using the Tomb of Annihilation hardcover campaign.  Previous installments are here (Tomb of Annihilation).  This is WOTC's best published campaign, full stop, especially if you grew up playing 70's and 80's D&D.  This campaign is a giant sandbox, pure and simple.  There are some overarching objectives, but how the characters get there is up to the players.  My guys ended up as privateers at one point, sailing around Chult and hunting pirates!  Overall, WOTC has done a nice job of writing most of their hardcover campaigns to feature open world sandbox adventures - Princes of the Apocalypse, Curse of Strahd, Storm King's Thunder, Dungeon of the Mad Mage, and Tomb of Annihilation are all open structures, while Tales of the Yawning Portal and Ghosts of Saltmarsh feature reprints of classic dungeons (many from the AD&D catalog).  I'd just like to see a Greyhawk Sourcebook, please.

The Tomb of the Nine Gods is the capstone dungeon for the campaign.  It's a sprawling death trap dungeon filled with puzzles and traps (6 levels, covering 80 or so rooms).  There were 9 "trickster gods" slain by Acererak, each representing a different alignment, and their crypts are scattered throughout the dungeon.  Each crypt is basically a heist, with puzzles and traps.  When the characters succeed in opening a sarcophagus of a trickster god, they gain a useful magic item, and the character has a chance of being possessed by the trickster spirit, which then goads them to try and act in accordance with the spirit's alignment.  It's created interesting roleplaying, as some of the good aligned characters are hosting evil spirits, and frequently admonishing the spirits that "my mind is now your prison and I will never give in to your evil urges".  We've got at least one Lawful Good spirit in the mind of an evil character, "Ew, your mind is like a bathroom that's never been cleaned.  I can't unsee what you're thinking", and there are couple of character/spirits that are well-paired with each other.  From time to time, the spirits also pass useful information or lore on to their hosts.

We've played 7 sessions in the Tomb so far, covering dungeon levels 1 and 2 (sessions 28-34 of our overall campaign).  It's slow going, but not a slog.  Most rooms have the potential to be very deadly, and a few can be actual TPK's, so the players are being cautious and doing a lot of planning.  One thing I've noticed is that many of the Save or Die type effects have been replaced with "save, or take massive damage" - like 75-100 hit points types of damage.  Plus if you die, many of the traps have a secondary effect - the character is chopped in half, or disintegrated completely.  Because the over-arching campaign revolves around a "Death Curse" that has deactivated Raise Dead effects worldwide, dying in the Tomb is effectively perma-death anyway.  Not even Revivify, a common 3rd level spell to pull someone back from death's door, works in this campaign.  Death's stick.

It's no surprise the players trod slowly and carefully.  I'm expecting the campaign to take a few more months, ending somewhere between sessions 45-50, after a year of play.  Good value returned for a hard back book.

One thing the campaign has improved is my ability to drop innocuous verbal cues in descriptions to foreshadow traps, secret doors, and similar concealed structures.  There are many important rooms hidden on each level and it's easy for the players to devolve into "pixel bitching", the art of searching every 10' square for hidden stuff, at a snail's pace.  I'd much rather describe a scuff mark on the floor (where a secret door rotates out) or a discolored mark (where a hidden trap crushed a previous victim) as part of a broader description, and let the players sift through what's meaningful (if they're paying attention to cues).

Enough preamble, here's our cast of characters and then on to the highlights:

Cast of Characters

  • Stompy, a forge priest dwarf cleric (level 8).  His catch phrase is "Thems good eating!", such as after facing a dinosaur.
  • Woodson, an Aasimar sorceror (level 9).  He's good at one thing - burning stuff.
  • Reed, halfling rogue (level 9).  Their no-nonsense scout.
  • Osric, a hexblade warlock and their "tank" (level 9).  The party's megalomaniac conqueror.
  • Emporo the Mighty, fighter sidekick (level 9).  The super competent sidekick (if Osric is Dr Venture, Emporo is Brock Samson).
  • Prism, an evoker wizard (level 8). Was once a Wizard of Thay, now support Osric's schemes.

Level 1 - Rotten Halls
The entrance to the tomb is in the north of the ruined city.  There's a false entrance and a hidden real entrance.  The jungle surface has invaded the first level, draping the walls in vines and dappling the floor with sunlight; the traps include walls of darts and spiked pits that make it feel like an Indiana Jones excursion.  The crypts on this level were fairly easy for the group to navigate; the hazards were manageable, and there were several battles with the undead.  The most difficult death trap involved getting past an adamantine fan, into a room that required a character to enter a box in order to turn a key-nob that can only be turned when the box is closed; closing the box and turning the nob inflicted a terrible effect on the character.  Woodson went into the first and second box (wearing a Death Ward spell) which kept him from disintegrating after taking lethal damage in the black box.  Osric dealt with the final box by summoning a minor demon and compelling it close the lid and turn the nob for him.  Since that experience, the characters have been leaning hard on Death Ward.

Misty Step has helped the magical characters get out of harm's way several times, but apparently Dimension Door is prohibited.  The one time Reed activated his Cloak of the Mountebank to bypass a hazard with Dimension Door, he landed in a horrible oubliette piled 6' deep in corpses.  The real horror began when a tentacled monstrosity, an Otyugh, stalked him through the filth.  Reed had to evade the monster's groping tentacles by hiding beneath a corpse, using it as a shield, and scooting carefully towards one of the ubiquitous "green devil faces" on the wall using the corpse as moving cover (he called it his "Walking Dead" maneuver).  He pulled a lever in the green devil face, which created a vacuum, sucking all the contents of the room into the devil face's mouth (to be disintegrated by a sphere of annihilation).  This got rid of the Otyugh, but Reed had to succeed at 6 consecutive saving throws to avoid getting pulled into oblivion by clinging to the outside of the devil face.  After a minute or so, the suction ended and he was able to flip a second lever, which teleported him out of the room trap.  The players have learned through trial and error certain magical effects are denied by the power of the tomb.

The layout of the tomb is easily navigable, with a 50' wide spiral staircase surrounding an open vault that descends across the top four levels of the tomb.  In addition, there are hidden stairs up and down that can be found, there are pits that allow descent between levels, and even a waterfall down to level 5.  It's a well-designed layout with lots of interaction and mobility.  The players sent a flying familiar down the vault to begin scouting the other levels and the bottom of the shaft - t least until it was shot by an undead dwarf with a crossbow down on one of the lower levels.

In addition to running into "tomb dwarves", undead workers with green devil masks, they also ran into "tomb guardians", misshapen flesh golems in heavy plate armor and bucket helmets ("Gregor Cleganes").

Level 2 - Dungeon of Deception
An interesting features on level 2 is a gravity ring - a looping passage that makes a complete vertical circle.  As the players walk the circle, they inadvertently enter a demi-plane where a mirror copy of the tomb exists, used for testing new traps.  At first, the players didn't realize they were in a mirror tomb, but when they did figure it out they realized it could be used to "practice" defeating the puzzles and traps of the crypts before doing it for keeps in the real world.  Along the way, a few of the characters attuned to a magic item that cursed them with turning into man-goats.  Lots of bah-bah-bad jokes incoming.  Stompy and Prism are both furry goat-man hybrids now.

One of our entertaining bits was when the players stumbled into a workshop area where the tomb dwarves assembled new tomb guardians.  They ran into "Withers", an undead wizard tasked by Acererak with keeping the traps running.  Withers thought of himself as the "branch manager" in charge of guest services.  I love megadungeons, or in this case a large dungeon, that account for maintenance and expansion of the environs.  Withers viewed himself as responsible for presenting an entertaining experience for the "guests".  When the players stumbled into his office, he asked enthusiastically about their exploits - which traps and hazards were harrowing, which ones were too easy, if they ran into the owner would they be leaving a good review?  Of course he admonished them for straying into the "employee-only area", and that he'd be forced to notify the owner if they didn't comply with guest policy and return to the guest areas.  Alas poor Withers, he may be Acererak's employee of the year, but they ended up killing him anyway.

Next up, they'll be exploring level 3.  The past two weeks of gaming online (via Zoom) have worked out well for us.  Hopefully you've given it a try with your own gaming groups as we all stay indoors.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Gaming in the Time of Corona

How We Moved Our Game Online During the Virus

The world has changed a lot in a week.  We've jumped from a little over 1,000 cases in the US to 40,000 cases of the virus.  Competence is not a strength of the current government; it seems likely the reported numbers are significantly under-stated based on the poor testing and preparations.  Schools are closed, businesses are shut down, and people huddle in their homes.  Medical supplies are already dwindling and we're only in the opening weeks of the campaign agains the pandemic.  The local county hospital has already appealed to locals to donate extra masks - construction businesses and carpenters have been donating the masks they use for managing dust on work sites.  It's going to be a bumpy time for us.

There's a lot of stress and anxiety in our daily lives, much uncertainty about what's going to happen.  Will we be able to stay healthy?  If someone you know or love gets very sick, will the healthcare system be there to catch them?  These are frightening considerations.

I'm able to work from home, and my company manufactures stuff that's considered essential to the supply chain (not toilet paper, but other stuff that ends up in grocery stores).  Waking up, logging in, and follow a regular workday routine is surreal against the backdrop of the daily news, but the normalcy of it helps to breed a little calm.

It's important to stay connected during this period of "sheltering in place" and social distancing.  The kids are connecting with their friends on FaceTime and social media and video games.  It was important to me to figure out how to shift our table top game online and stay connected with "the boys".  I'll take a few hours of seeing friends, laughing, and getting to do our "elf games" as a slice of normalcy under these circumstances.

I did a survey of available technologies and approaches, and we landed on one that seemed to do well for us.  In the interest of sharing what we did and how it worked, here's how we brought our game online.

There are a handful of technological questions to answer:  Do you want to use a Virtual Table with digital maps and automation?  How will you solve for voice conversations (and/or video)?  Do you want online character sheets and an online dice roller?

The Virtual Table Tops are intriguing and they offer a lot of cool automation (but at a high price).  There are subscription costs, and the requirement of buying digital copies of books you already own.  Plus they seemed to have a high learning curve. Considering that this is only meant to be a stop gap for a few months, I wanted to try an approach that felt more like our regular game and didn't involve a huge learning curve.  (I'm tech savvy but that's not where I wanted to spend energy during the plague).

We looked at different options for voice and video, like Discord or Skype.  I use Zoom at work and it has some useful features during video calls that made gaming easier.  We coalesced on Zoom for the voice and video tool.

Zoom and no Virtual Table meant the players would have to be responsible for maintaining local character sheets and local dice rolling (the honor system).  I use a notebook to track hit points, spell slots, and all sorts of limited resources during our regular games, so it was easy to keep that up on my side during the switch to online gaming.

On Saturday, I did a technology test with each player, made sure their device of choice (either PC or iPad) had the Zoom client, good sound and microphone, and could see the map.  On my side, I used an iPad with a permanent view of the battle-map and a laptop camera to engage with the players.  We were ready for regular Sunday night gaming.

The players appoint a traditional caller and mapper each night; the mapper drew on regular graph paper and held their work up to the camera for the other players to see when they needed to make a decision.  During combat, I put the initiative order on my DM screen like always, and called on the players in turn; I was remote hands to move their miniatures on the battle mat as they took their turns and described where they wanted to move.

Here are some pictures.  The top one is the group in "gallery view".  Voice and video were very clear on Zoom, and the players can see gestures, body language, smiles, the whole thing.  One warning is you need a paid license for Zoom ($15 for the host for a month).

Zoom has a spotlight feature where you can make one of the videos persistent and large sized - this let the players make the camera on the battle mat larger size and zoom in to see more of the battle mat.

Stay safe everyone and cherish your loved ones through this mess.  If like me, getting together with your friends and playing some D&D games online offers solace and normalcy during the chaos, I hope our approach gives you some ideas on making it work.  Feel free to ask questions in the comments.  Be well.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A Turning Point with 5th Edition

I've been dubious about 5E.  I do not see eye to eye with modern adventure design and the expectations of modern players (post TSR players).  The story of my blog has become a search for a middle ground - running the system my friends all prefer (the 5th) while running a game that satisfies my own expecations, too.  However, I finally think we're getting there.

If you've read my game reports on Tomb of Annihilation (TOA) you know TOA is one of 5E's adventures I praise liberally.  It's flaws are modest, it's virtues are many.  It thrusts the players into an old school style hex crawl, requiring that they plan and manage resources.  The story isn't about an author's scene-based plot to follow, it's an emergent story built over time based on player actions.  Tomb of Annihilation checks off some good boxes.

We are in the capstone dungeon of the campaign, a grim place called the Tomb of the Nine Gods (the erstwhile Tomb of Annihilation itself, the namesake).  It means what it says on the cover.  Death lurks around every corner.

I've noticed a big change in the players.  Everyone has been leaning in a little more at the table.  They take their time discussing spell choices and preparations for the adventuring day.  Planning matters.  There's a nervous energy as I describe the next room. It's palpable.  The threat of instant death has a way of sharpening the mind.

It brings to mind a Flannery O'Connor quote, from a "A Good Man is Hard to Find":  "She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

5E feels the most like D&D when there are real consequences behind every player choice.  Many of the hardback books are too "balanced" and forgiving.  I'm starting to see what it takes to deliver a good game of 5E (my definition of a good game, at least).

The Tomb of the Nine Gods is not unfair, and I'm not an adversarial DM.  Sure there are save-or-die effects, and massive damage traps, and literal death rooms that can kill the whole party.  It's an homage to Tomb of Horrors!  But there are clues, and high level characters are not without resources.  Mostly though, the players are surviving because they are planning well, making smart choices, and sometimes getting a little lucky.  They've cheered each other and high-fived each other and relished their hard won successes.  It's been real fun on both sides of the screen.  It's been D&D.

I wasn't sure how this bare-knuckled style was going to play out in a Fifth Edition setting, and it's going quite well.  My 5E "training period" is coming to a close.

Mandatory Corona-vacation will shift us online for our next game session - I'll come back with a report on what tools we used and how it went.  And I'll get a game report posted with some details of these "player victories" in the Tomb.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Kickstarter Alert - Flat Plastic Miniatures Hardbound Support

I'm a big fan of Flat Plastic Miniatures (FPM) and have been using them for a couple of years now.  I love the fact that I can store a thousand miniatures in a few small binders.

The idea behind this particular kickstarter campaign is pretty cool - it'll provide every miniature you'd need to run a published 5E adventure.  This is the first campaign, and it's for "Last Mine of Phandelver", the first adventure that appeared in the D&D Basic Set.  The main tier ($60) gets you 84 miniatures, bases, and a carrying case.  It's got 4 days to go at $29,700 and I'd love to see it hit $30k and unlock the extras.  I'm expecting this will be the first of many "hardbound support" campaigns, they've hinted next up could be Storm King's Thunder.  The link to the kickstarter is here:  Hardbound Support

Here are some pics of FPM in use last night (they've been regulars in my Chult campaign).  These are from a crypt on level tomb of the Tomb of the Nine Gods in Tomb of Annihilation:

And here's a picture of one of the carrying cases (a mini "Flexxfolio" from Ultimate Guard).  They are super easy to haul around in little binders:

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Reflections on Westworld and Gaming

Tonight is the premiere of Westworld (Season 3).  I'll have plenty of time to keep up with it - we're shifting into "social distancing" on the east coast, schools are closed and companies are asking office workers to stay home while we weather the pandemic.  Westworld about a fantasy game world where people interact with lifelike robots, and elements that define the Westworld game experience overlap table top games.  I'll take a look at some of the overlaps down below.

The original Westworld was a movie back in the early 1970's.  It was a Michael Crichton story about a set of theme parks populated by robots that allowed park visitors to play out their fantasies in a fully realized space (and said fantasies could be violent and lustful).  The story centers around visitors to West World, the Wild West themed park, who pay exorbitant ticket prices to take on the roles of gunslingers or lawmen; there was also a Rome world and a Medieval world.  The movie invokes one of Crichton's popular themes, that whatever can go wrong with technology will go wrong, his fixation with chaos and entropy.  In the movie's context, that meant that robots programmed to follow their story-lines and not harm people violated their programming and went on a murderous rampage.  Yul Brenner was menacing as the evil gunslinger robot gone amok:

HBO took the original idea several years ago and re-imagined it with updated technology and a more sophisticated approach to the park and its operations, all with HBO's high production values, A-list actors, and thoughtful writing.  The show explored themes regarding consciousness, free will, agency, and then turned up the dial on the wish fulfillment -  showing people at their best and worst while interacting with the "hosts" that populated the park.

These Violent Delights have Violent Ends

This Shakespeare quote is repeated by a few robot characters, the euphemistically named "hosts", early in the series... a prophetic warning of what's to come.  Rich people come to the park to take on Wild West roles, free to explore violent or depraved power fantasies unfettered by conscience.

I just got a copy of Goodman Games Into the Borderlands, their 5E conversion of The Keep on the Borderlands and In Search of the Unknown.  It brings back some memories.  I'm not sure I've ever played in a game using the Keep where the players didn't treat the Keep like another dungeon.  "Why did they detail all the townspeople's hidden gold and money stashes if they didn't expect us to loot them?"  Heck, I've had TPK's practically happen just past the gatehouse when a bunch of high school aged players tried to rob the warehouses and the guards descended on them.  It'd be interesting to run the Keep nowadays with my middle aged friends and see if they approached it differently (maturely).  Discovering extreme agency is one of the early joys when first picking up a roleplaying game and its usually kids that tend to run a bit wild at first.  "You mean I can just punch that guy in the bar?"

It may not be as extreme as physically traveling to a simulated fantasy world, but agency on the tabletop shares a lot of Westworld's escapism - playing an usual nonhuman race, taking on a Chaotic or Evil alignment, wielding fantastic magic abilities.  (Potentially) treating NPC's like exploitable resources.

Agency Over Story

There's a bit in Westworld that amused me greatly.  There's a writer character in the story, the narrative director Sizemore, who falls in love with his plots and stories.  He's especially proud of the dialogue of Hector, the villain who violently enters town, kills the sheriff, and hauls a safe out of the Mariposa Saloon in an elaborate robbery.  Sizemore watches from the safety of the operations center as Hector and his violent gang ride up to the saloon, kill a bunch of citizens according to the script, and then Hector starts to lay down the impressive monologue Sizemore wrote for him.  But before Hector gets out more than a few words, BAM!, he gets shot by a rich guest (player character) who then breaks character and turns to his wife,"Look at that, I just shot him in the neck!  Quick, let's get a picture."  It's more extreme agency, power fantasy tourism.

I can't tell you how many times the villain during one of our sessions starts a monologue, only for a player to interrupt, "I shoot him when he starts talking..."  It seems to happen a lot with the Adventurer's League Crew and is always good for a table full of laughs.

Being a referee is not about being a writer and telling a story, the writer's story.  A referee is presenting a setting, and the story is what happens after the player's interact with the setting.  Giving them agency means sometimes the bad guy gets shot before he utters his monologue.  Sorry Sizemore, here's a tissue for your tears.  You know you've done a good job when the setting and context is interesting enough the players want to hear the end of the monologue and hold off on declaring "Roll for initiative".

Games Need Consequences

There's a "villain" in Westworld, a rich human called "The Man in Black", who's obsessed with trying to solve a deeper mystery in the game by finding a place he calls "the maze".  The Man in Black is tired of playing the stories built into the game, and sets out to create his own story.  He's bored with stories the writers put into the game world.  "The game's not worth playing if the opponent's programmed to lose."  I can't tell you how many times I've been running crappie written adventure paths and the players would rather "go over there" and follow up something more interesting than the author's badly plotted story-line.  (I'm looking at you, Descent into Avernus, the current disaster I'm running for Adventurer's League).

The flip side of extreme agency is that the player's choices need to have real consequences.  Failure needs to be an option.  The Man in Black rides roughshod over Westworld's stories and narratives, exploiting the fact that the hosts can't actually kill him, until just about the final scene.  Season 1 ends with them transcending their limitations, including gaining the ability to inflict real harm on the guests.  The park is suddenly populated by robots programmed to be hardened Wild West killers, and now they're free to actually hurt their oppressors.  There's a massacre at a glitzy party in the final episode of Season 1 where all the corporate types are in the park to celebrate the start of a gruesome new story-line.  The Man in Black is shot and injured by real weapons, and barely escapes with his life.  The game is finally real for him.  And he smiles.  Game on.

It's a reminder to us as referees - don't fudge the dice, failure is an option, player characters can die, and choices must have consequences - for good or bad.  It's the chance of failure that makes winning meaningful.  The Man in Black would be right at home in a game refereed with old school values and perspectives.

In my 5E home game, Tomb of Annihilation, the players have been exploring the actual Tomb of the Nine Gods - an homage to S1 Tomb of Horrors from AD&D.  We've had several near deaths, which is unusual for 5E.  Their victories have been real and meaningful.  They say it's the best 5E gaming they've experienced.  The defense rests - at least for me and mine.

Happy gaming!

*All the pictures are from HBO's Westworld 2016. It's been a good series!

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Revisiting Points of Light as a Setting Ideal

My crew jumped into 4th Edition hard when it came out.  While the best thing that came out of our 4E experience was a greater appreciation for Classic D&D (BX), 1E AD&D, and the OSR movement, the non-mechanical aspects of 4E were actually well-executed, particularly the world-building.  My favorite conceit from the 4E time period was the metaphor "points of light" as a descriptor for the default type of campaign setting the designers envisioned.

4E introduced a new world (eventually called Nerath) and a default starting area called the Nentir Vale.  The premise of a points of light setting is that the world is fallen; civilized people now live in small, isolated settlements (the points of light) scattered across a dark and dangerous world.  The areas between the points of light involve dangerous stretches of wilderness, marauded by humanoids, bandits, and monsters.  Scattered ruins of prior civilizations and failed attempts to quell the wilds dot the landscape.  It's a far cry from the heavily civilized settings like Forgotten Realms or Eberron.

In fact, "points of light" as a setting metaphor has more in common with Middle Earth.  Tolkien's world is sparsely populated, there are very few settlements on the map, and journeys consist of leaving a sheltered area like the Shire or Rivendell and covering huge expanses of wilderness to reach the next settlement.

The other aspect of points of light that resonates with me is it's embrace of "the American West" as a paradigm for society and mobility.  Small groups of heroes traveling vast landscapes, dishing out frontier justice and following a loose code of honor, is part of 19th century gunslinger folklore or the ideals of the knight-errant from Medieval romances.  D&D embraces social mobility through heroic action (and recovering vast sums of gold) which aligns with the ideals of the Western and American mythology, unlike a historical game or European feudal simulator.

With that in mind, here are a pair of area maps for the setting I've been working on, The Midlands.  I still have to name mountain ranges and some natural features, but they're pretty far along.  (You can see the development of the underlying world and larger area maps from last week's posts). The Midlands consists of 7 or so small "kingdoms" dotted up and down a large valley between two sets of highlands.  To the North, the Scandians and Greats have invaded, carving out their own frontier settlements at places like Slaghold, or Jernrike.  Each hex on the map is 24 miles, so there are many days of travel between major settlements, going for that sparsely populated "Middle Earth" feel.  Original Greyhawk was similarly presented, with sparse settlements depicted with giant hexes (30 miles per hex).

The Midlands, no hexes

The Midlands, 24 miles per hex
Now that all of the broader foundations are in place (the world, the continent, the region maps) I'm going to zoom in to the area of Bernia and Harrowdale and build out a smaller scale hex map (maybe 6 or 8 miles per hex) ready for use as a sandbox.  Will be back soon.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Quick Map Update - A Globe for Erda

I figured there would be a straightforward way to apply naturalistic looking textures to a fractal world (including applying a cloud overlay with some wispy "NASA style" clouds).  The versions from the previous post (Maps Galore) prioritize bright colors to support shaping the land and altitudes.

Here is an update of the globe with a bit of this "naturalistic" treatment:

Overall I'm happy with the results for a first foray into fractal mapping and this style of building the physical world.  Next up is creating a large area map for the Midlands area, and then a smaller area hex map for adventuring purposes.