Sunday, October 19, 2014

Waving the White Flag . . . Again (The Ever Rebooted Forgotten Realms)

Anyone that knows me and has for a while probably knows that at one point in time my greatest RPG love was the Forgotten Realms.  I could picture the streets of Waterdeep and Skullport, I had a very strong idea of what Mistledale and its environs were like, and I had spent a great deal of time with the grand old city of Arabel in Cormyr.

I enjoyed a lot of the fiction, but I was a bigger fan of the setting itself.  My favorite novels weren't novels that drastically changed the setting or that featured larger than life characters, but rather those novels that illustrated what is was like to live in the setting, as an adventurer, or an agent of a given group, or what it was like to run into a unique monster from the setting.

Fourth edition drove me away from the setting.  In a lot of ways, it wasn't just the drastic changes, it was the fact that what replaced that which came before was a lot less nuanced previous editions.  Yes, we might know that this race lives in this new land, and this dungeon is here, and these monsters are common, but we didn't know that this new dungeon was castle built by duke whomever as a wedding gift for his daughter before she was cursed by an artifact from an ancient empire that fell 4000 years ago.

The changes seemed, to me, to be twofold.  Changes to accommodate things in the 4th Edition rules, and changes to make the setting more inclusive of people that might like settings other than the Realms.  It felt very much like "flattening" a lot of the texture of the setting to allow it to serve as a "generic" setting.

To me, the previous Realms were a thing that you might either love or not love, but it was a distinctive thing, with its own feeling and quirks.  Making the setting more generic relegated the setting to a tool, and while a functional tool might get used, a functional tool is never really loved.

Stepping back from the Realms, however, did allow me to more objectively evaluate the Realms products of the past.  Right from the start, there was a war between native setting flavor utilitarian cut and pasting of generic D&D elements.  At various points in the settings lifespan, the war went one way or the other.  For a while in 2nd Edition, for example, the Realms was a place that had a slavishly bland and generally accurate fantasy version of a real world culture, between Mulhorand, the Hordelands, Maztica, and Al-Qadim  (keep in mind, none of those products are bad, per se, they were historical fantasy settings in ways that Cormyr, Waterdeep, Silverymoon, the Dalelands, or Thay were not, and in the case of Zhakara, there were a multitude of similar cultures scattered about the map that weren't even related to one another).

But WOTC almost got me to come back.  I recognized names that worked on the Neverwinter Campaign Setting for 4th Edition, and it seemed like the focus there was to actually start adding some of that flavor and nuance that the setting used to have by narrowing the focus on one particular region.  But by that point in time, not only was I done with the Forgotten Realms, I had already moved along from Pathfinder as well, and reinvesting in 4th Edition was a bridge too far for me.

People that read my blog a few years back might have noted I was never that excited about 5th edition.  I figured I had left D&D and the Forgotten Realms behind, and I wasn't going to look back.  I thought it was nice that the D&D seminars from last year seemed to acknowledge that they may have gone a bit too far with the 4th Edition changes to the Realms, but I just didn't want to take the time to investigate, and potentially get burned yet again.

But then 5th Edition actually came out.  I went from no interest to, "hey, this thing actually seems kind of interesting."  I like the rules.  Now, I've had ups and downs running it, but that's a whole other blog post.  Still, all of this "hey, it might be good" revelation that struck me got me to look at those Realms changes they were talking about last year.

They talked about bringing gods and organzations back, and trying to get the feel of the old grey boxed set back without getting rid of anything people might have loved about the setting in any edition.  I was excited because for the first time in a very long time, the artwork for elves in the Player's Handbook actually reflected how elves in the Forgotten Realms looked, instead of seeing elves in Forgotten Realms products that looked like generic D&D elves.

They even got me to read an RA Salvatore book again.  I'm not going into details.  It sort of just happened.

The problem is by the time I started doing the research, my excitement about revitilizing the setting was already starting to wane.

I had purchased Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure, since I had a good feeling about Wolfgang Baur and Steve Winter writing it.  I thought that since this was a Realms based adventure, it should give me a glimpse of the "new" Realms.

I can't say that I can fairly evaluate the adventure, because every time I attempt to read it, it just doesn't really grab me.  I can't keep my interest in the adventure, and no matter how many times I skim it, it just doesn't seem like this needed to be set in the Realms.  Rather than telling us how Tiamat fits into the Realms, it seems like the Cult of the Dragon was reskinned as the Church of Tiamat that could exist in any other setting where Tiamat appears.

Tiamat is very generic for D&D.  Not only is she generic to D&D, but since 3rd Edition, we've had the Red Hand of Doom, the big push of Spawn of Tiamat minis, the Spawn of Tiamat themed Monster Manual, the "lets not make it a setting" generic 1st to 30th level digital Dungeon Magazine Tiamat themed adventure path, and now this series of adventures.  And that's not even taking into account that the Realms specifically had a bunch of dragon themed content towards the end of 3.5 that involved hundreds and thousands of dragons going berserk and yet still somehow doing minimal damage to most of the Realms, which also involved the Cult of the Dragon.

I'm kind of played out with Tiamat, dragons, and the Cult of the Dragon being the big bad guys in published Realms storylines.

But my enthusiasm managed to ebb even further once I started reading WOTC's plans for the Realms.  You see, the Sundering novel series may have sort of kind of reintroduced some of the dead gods, and may have walked back a few of the 4th Edition changes, but with the exception of a few big events, not in any real detailed manner.  So, that's what a campaign setting book would be for, right?

Well, sure.  Someday.  If they ever do one.  Which according to WOTC isn't going to happen any time soon.  In addition, the next big thing for D&D is going to be an Elemental Evil themed "story" for next year, including a new player's handbook thing with options just for this adventure series.

So the next big thing for D&D is to take the previously Greyhawk-centric "Elemental Evil" style adventure, and shove it into the Realms.  While not detailing the setting in any significant way, except to have three authors writing novels about specific characters that will obliquely reference the current "story" of organized play.

Then it occurred to me, this is just another shade of the generification that has always been the bane of the Realms.  In 4th Edition, we just nuked a bunch of existing lands to introduce lands that were more "general D&D" friendly.  In 5th Edition, something big and ill defined happened that involves planar changes and gods.  And it won't be defined outside of novels.  The Realms are whatever you want it to be, so long as we never really detail it very much!  If you want hard setting details, buy the mega adventures, which will have maps, and not much more in the way of facts, but at least you will know how far apart stuff is now!

So, despite my spike in interest in 5th edition, I now face the fact that I need to combat baggage that D&D has as a ruleset, and I'm not at all interested in doing the Forgotten Realms dance again.  Nothing against anybody working on the setting, but it seems that WOTC is fighting hard to keep the Forgotten Realms as generic as possible.

I think if I use a setting that already exists, maybe I'll give the Wilderlands of High Fantasy a shot for the first time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Nobody Expects the Inquisitorius (Session Recap, Force and Destiny)

This upcoming Thursday will be the second session of our Force and Destiny campaign.  While we mainly did character creation last session, we had a bit more meat to the session than our introductory Iron Kingdoms game, and I wanted to make sure I got a summary posted before we dove into our next session.

Our game is set about 15 years after Order 66, coincidentally around the same time that Star Wars Rebels is set.

All of our characters are former padawans whose masters died during the Clone Wars, and who received our promotion to knighthood right before Order 66 was issued.  Because of people like Cad Bane breaking into the Jedi Temple and the bombings perpetrated by Barriss Offee, Mace Windu had a ship set aside as a reliquary vessel, a ship that would carry artifacts from the Jedi archives, staffed by trustworthy temple staff, and guarded by newly minted Jedi Knights, along with one master to coordinate the effort.

Almost as soon as the artifacts were loaded on the ship, Order 66 was issued.  The Jedi on the reliquary ship survived because none of the staff were clones.  Our master devised a plan where only one Jedi would be onboard the ship at a time, and in between shifts, the rest of us would lie low, until we met with another of our group to coordinate shift change on the ship.

This is where our session began.  My ithorian Jedi was just about to start his shift, when he found the Jedi Master slaughtered by a lightsaber, and quickly found himself running from an Inquisitor and shadow troopers.  I got to make a fear check, cut open a window with my lightsaber, and use the Force to close a door.

Since it seemed that the master had been discovered despite all of our protocols, I hit the emergency recall that we had, and all of our merry bad converged and met up in Nar Shaddaa.  Apparently I stood out like a paranoid ithorian.  The macrobinoculars probably didn't help.

Eventually we realized that we had been discovered, and split up to separately arrive at our transport and get back to our ship.  Apparently me trying to stop and heal people wasn't a good idea.  Oh, and a city block got vaporized with turbolaser fire where we had our initial meeting, so it was probably good that we moved at that point.

All together on our ship and out of danger  (for the moment), we received a last message from our master, who tasked us with finding more Force sensitives, and more artifacts, to keep them safe from the Empire.  Upon looking at various locations, my ithorian tried to discern a bit about the future for each location that we might travel towards.

Since I rolled a dark side point for one of the locations, I suffered the strain, and let it color my vision of the future.  I determined where a powerful artifact might be, but was dwelling on how that power might be used to make us safe . . . to make us invincible!  Hooray, conflict!

We decided which artifact we would follow up on, and set course.  At the end of the session, I rolled my morality check and subtracted my Conflict, and sunk every so slightly towards the Dark Side.  My ithorian is balanced between caution and fear, and in light of the inquisitor's attack, finding artifacts that can be used preemptively, that can be used to put fear into our enemies, is looking like a definite prospect.  Surely doing something like this, just once, in an extreme situation, won't change my ithorian's outlook, right?

Note:  I didn't go into a lot of detail about my fellow Jedi because, well, it was character creation night, and a lot of people changed some options around, so anything that wasn't an important plot point was up for grabs.  Always in motion in the future, but next time around, I should have some more detail about my fellow Jedi Knights in hiding.

Into the Iron Kingdoms . . . Viral Marketing or Why I'm Not a Profiler (Session Recap)

Last Thursday was our first full Iron Kingdoms session  (after a once scene non-combat encounter to set the campaign up the night of character creation).  The adventure we were playing through was Bitter Medicine, and had I actually seen the cover of the adventure before we played, well, let's just say that my theorizing might have gone differently.

That said, if you plan on playing this adventure spoilers ahoy!

Our group is organized into a small mercenary company.  It seemed to fit the setting well and offer a fairly well rounded backstory to facilitate adventures in the future.  Our group consists of a dwarf warcaster and his warjack, an Iosian elf who none of us know is a member of the Retribution of Scyrah, a Nyss elf storm sorcerer, a ogrun pugilist, a gobber pirate, and my dwarf bounty hunter/Searforge Trader.

The company leader is the warcaster  (somewhat naturally), and the ogrun is my bodyguard.  I'm playing the company treasurer, and our bright-and-not-at-all-motivated-by-murder Iosian investigator is our second in command.  Oh, and I actually made a charter/contract outline for the company.

Last session, we got a job.  A simple job.  Just ride on a train, escort a doctor to help contain a disease, and if bandits attack, cut them down.  Oh, and get rid of them once the doctor is safely to his destination.

The train was attacked by said bandits.  Our ogrun managed to punch a hole in the chest of one of them.  There was so much shooting.  But, in the end, we lost the doctor.  Honestly, that was totally our fault.  While the adventure seemed to call for this to happen, not one of us thought to keep an eye on him or stay close to him, because he must be safe on the train with us, right?

The bandits also managed to infect all of us, because they had the same disease that the doctor was heading to treat.  Which meant that we had a vested interest in finding the doctor, since, well, we might be dead as well if we didn't have him at hand.

We had a lot of fun getting horses from the mounts left after the fight.  This was one of the cases where we got to use some of the skills that don't have a single associated attribute attached to them, so when we were making animal handling checks, we got to explain what we were doing to control the horses.  The ogrun pretty much wrestled one into submission, and I studied the horses and drew a diagram  (my character drew a lot of diagrams) on how I was going to approach it, and used my intelligence.  Our Iosian second in command borrowed my diagram, but we had to make notations on it, since I removed a horse from the equation.

Apparently, due to the superior intellect and reasoning skills of my dwarf and the Iosian combined, we managed to get an insane result when it came to analyzing the tracks that led to the bandit camp, which also allowed us to sidestep a significant portion of the adventure.  The Iosian and our gobber pirate crept into the bandit camp, out where a pair of gobbers was digging graves for those bandits that had died due to the disease.

Our gobber pirate did an amazing job of reasoning with the two gobber laborers, and ended up hiring both of them  (we had to slightly renegotiate later, but for now, a brilliant tactic).  The gobbers gave our scouts the layout of the camp, and what to watch out for.  When the Iosian came back to camp with the information, we formulated a plan.

My portion of the plan was predicated on the fact that the bandits wouldn't risk the doctor's life since all of them were infected as well.  Clearly if they needed the doctor to cure them, we might be able to negotiate and perhaps circle back around to dealing with them after the doctor had cured everyone.  Again, I hadn't seen the cover at this point in time.

The cover says you are wrong.
Our plan involved sending the Iosian back to give the gobbers grenades to drop into the armory to create a distraction and potentially take out a few bandits, and at the same time the armory was blowing up, our warjack would start shelling the compound, far away from the building where the doctor was at.  Then our crack insertion team would go into the building with the doctor and grab him, and then we could fall back and assess things from there, once the doctor was safe.

The gobbers decided not to blow themselves up on accident and actually rigged traps that would go off if the armory was entered, which threw off our timing  (it's okay, the rest of the plan went south, so timing didn't really matter).  Our crack insertion team found out that the bandit leader was actually quite fever addled and was more than willing to kill the doctor, and when his turn in the initiative came up, he put a bullet into the good doctor's mouth. 

Also, apparently there were a lot of bandits.  Lots and lots of bandits.  We had them surprised and disorganized, but as soon as they figured out where the shelling was coming from and what direction to head, we were probably well and truly screwed.  

Thankfully the pirate gobber hired well, and the gobber backup team managed to harass an armored carriage.  The orgun punched the crew out of the carriage, and our insertion team started the "tactical retreat" part of the plan.  In this case, at high speed, nearly tipping the wagon over.

We provided cover fire.  The warjack was better at it than I was with my sword cannon, but hey, what are you going to do?  When the carriage was nearby, I jumped on, and our warcaster pumped up the warjacks speed, and we ran like a  . . . well . . . like a mercenary crew trying to keep a doctor alive so that they themselves would not die and then might have a chance to actually acquire more wealth.

Thanfully, the doctor's assistant managed to keep him alive, and he assisted her in administering the cure, even though he was partially incapacitated and unable to talk . . . with a big hole in the back of his throat and all.  Sorry about that doc.  

We hired the gobbers on.  I've got to amend the documents now to adjust for junior members of the company that get a quarter share.  But I think they earned it.  I was all excited, because I had dreams of actually going to a tailor and working up designs for a formal uniform for our company, but alas, another job was waiting for us.

Our job invitation was delivered by someone that literally ran themselves to death to deliver it.  When we didn't respond right away, someone else showed up, with the same fervor, and apparently our little company now has a meeting with the Harbinger of Menoth.  Yikes.  

Highlights of the Night

  • The Iosian's disregard of the gobber's hat when she shot a hole in it.
  • The gobber appearing to be an oversided greatcoat with a hat while he was sneaking.
  • The gobber-moot.
  • Driving lessons.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Rigors of Hyperspace Travel

In the Age of Rebellion adventure Onslaught on Arda I, a new mechanic is introduced to the Star Wars Fantasy Flight game system.  It's a simple mechanic, but it's basically an event based timer that lets you track the progression of time without getting into the minutia of how much time various actions might take.

Essentially, there is a track with a certain number.  Once each of those numbers have been ticked off, an event happens.  As this is used in the adventure, what this means is that each time a character goes to one of the scenes, a number ticks off the timer, limiting how many of these scenes that a character can take part in before an event happens.

This got me to thinking about hyperspace travel.  How fast ships move in Star Wars are problematic.  We know exactly how far apart planets are  (at least in the Legends version of the universe), but not how fast the ships are.  We've gotten various ship speeds from various RPGs over the years, but these don't always match up.

In the movies and the television series, ships move at the speed of plot, and it never seems to take more than a day for people to get even from one end of the galaxy to another.  The only thing that seems to matter is the relative speed of ships with different hyperdrive ratings.

Putting the new rules together with the "speed of plot" concept, I thought, what would happen if you came up with a chart for "travel events," events that happen after a ship has been traveling for a longer period of time.

My thought is that you might have an Event Track of 100.  Each time the ship jumps to hyperspace, the Event Track ticks off a number equal to the hyperdrive rating.  Once the group hits 100, roll on the Travel Event Chart.

These results do make more sense for a game where the group is more "on their own" and without a support structure. For example, this chart is set up more for Edge of the Empire or some flavors of Force and Destiny rather than Age of Rebellion  (Age of Rebellion travel events might revolve more around military movements and forces arrayed against the Rebels involved).

Keep in mind, this is a first pass.  There may be some fine tuning that makes it work better in a campaign, and the chart may be fleshed out better.  For now, I would love to hear back from anyone that might want to try these out in their games.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Just Wait Until Next Time! (Thoughts on How to Start a New Age of Rebellion Game)

Reading A New Dawn and watching the first two episodes of Star Wars Rebels gets me to thinking about Age of Rebellion again.

Last time I inherited my Age of Rebellion group, and everyone had kind of loose reasons for being in the Rebellion, but I think a lot of the lack of focus may have come from the fact that everyone kind of built their characters almost like Edge of the Empire characters that happened to end up in the Rebellion.

I am thinking that to really reinforce that an Age of Rebellion game is about fighting the Empire, tooth and nail, until it falls, I might try something different for an opening session.

My idea is to have everyone agree on a planet where all of the characters are from.  They may not have been born there, but they have lived there long enough that it is home.

Then I want everyone to come up with something the Empire took from them.  Not in too great a detail, but job, family, friends, riches . . . something that meant a lot to them that is gone now directly because of the Empire.

Then for the first session, a very specific Imperial bad guy, who will be the face of everything evil and bad about the Empire, will show up on planet and be the person ordering all of those things taken, one way or another.  The PCs won't be in the Rebellion yet, but they will all be present when the Empire cracks down.  Time wise, this would probably actually be a few months before the Battle of Yavin.

Then the game will start up about six months later, with all of the PCs having joined the Rebellion, with a specific reason to strive against the Empire, and with a very specific Imperial villain that personifies everything wrong with the Empire.

I am thinking that a shared experience of suffering at the hand of the Empire, and a recurring villain of their very own might serve to draw that line of distinction between Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion a bit more clearly, and thus serve to naturally make the campaign feel a bit more mission based and random interest based.