Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In Which The Warlock is "Mal Carne"...

As I've mentioned several times throughout this blog, I'm a self-proclaimed foodie. Our TV is nearly always turned to the Food Network or Travel Channel, and I'm a fiend for the original run of Iron Chef. As such, it's really no surprise that one of my favorites is the culinary outrider Anthony Bourdain: author of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly and host of Travel Channel's No Reservations. I've read all but one of his books--can't find the last one!--countless times, and I rarely miss an episode.

About 2/3 of the way through Kitchen Confidential, Tony gives us a culinary glossary: all the lingo that you might hear if you wandered into one of his kitchens. Among them are standards that you'd expect--"burnt" for a steak well-done, "a deuce" for a two-person table--as well as assorted Spanish and Portugese profanity, usually used as a term of endearment.

However, only one term fits where I'm at right now: I'm in the weeds.

To paraphrase Bourdain, a chef that's "in the weeds" is the guy getting slammed with orders left and right, his tickets backing up and stacking up, and his mise en place (his prep station) running out of everything. A chef in the weeds is one that's in over his head and sinking quickly, with literally too much on the burner.

I've always said that I often feel like a juggler at certain times of year, tossing up knives, chainsaws, balls, and priceless Ming vases. In terms of my gaming schedule, it's just best that I don't look up, and just keep on slinging.

--My Pirates of the Underdark is headed towards its climactic finale...a little earlier than anticipated. With one of our players bowing out, and a second about to move to northern Ohio, I have exactly three sessions to wrap up our convoluted plot, tie in all of the various sub-plots, and reach a plane-shattering end with the demon lords Dagon and Lascer.

--Simultaneously, I need to wrap up my Tuesday Eberron game before the Wittenberg semester is out. My players just managed to find their way deep into the Xen'drik jungle, in search of a House Cannith archaeological dig. The game's been going well so far, and it's a shame to pull it to an end, but it's been pretty rough on me as I've been running it mid-week in Springfield...and waking up for work at 6:30 the next morning. Much fun, but rough on the sleep schedule.

--After hitting a new set of playtests with Draft 4 of Dungeon Slam!, it's appearing more and more like I need to do a full board revision for the next go-round. Draft 5 will hopefully be tighter and faster, especially considering the time the last playtest took; I thought I had the time-issues under control...apparently not.

--In addition, I'm currently in development of another board game! Yes, you heard it here...I'm already starting my second game, even before DS starts getting submitted.
SunnyVale Acres, my second game, centers on the geekiest, most brutal gated community in the Nine Worlds, with cowboys, pirates, ninjas and more vying for the coveted position of Community Chairperson. I'm hoping to have a draft out in time for either the New Year or for WittCon VII.

--Speaking of our con schedule, we've all got to get locked and loaded for this year. We're averaging about one con per month, starting in March with WittCon VII! Afterwards, we'll hit FopCon II, C2E2 in Chicago, Origins, and possibly even GenCon (as it's a week earlier, and will come before I start up back at school!). Plus, with the WittKids looking to run events at Origins this year, we'll be up to our eyeballs in planning.

That's just a sampling of the balls in the air right now. I'm still waiting on one last chapter of WEGS 101--Dice Rules!, which will rock the WEGS community's socks off, once it's finally out...

Let's just hope I don't drop the ball, here!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In Which The Warlock is Mystified by "Good"...

I've been running, in addition to my Friday "Pirates of the Underdark" game, a newbie-level session of D&D, set in Eberron, for the WittKids. At the beginning, it had been kind of rough, but things have been moving apace, and the players seem to be really enjoying the game, now that we're picking up steam.

However, with our session last week, something unique came up which really echoes one of the biggest issues with D&D since its inception.

Arriving in Stormreach--a piratical town if there ever was one--the players began looking for a guide to take them to a House Cannith archaelogical dig deep in the Xen'drik jungle. To do so, they entered a bar (the eponymous "Styx Oarsman", which features in entirely too many of my games) only to be confronted by a conundrum: a group of orcish hooligan regulars sat there, growing angry from the noise coming from a group of dwarves who had "taken over their bar".

Needless to say, I was pushing for a bar-fight, as a GM, and nearly the whole group saw this inevitable resolution coming. One, however, tried negotiating.

Wait, negotiating? Negotiating! This is D&D! Kill them and take their stuff, right?!

Immediately, the other players asked him, "What's your alignment?"
His response? "Lawful good, of course. I always play Lawful Good."

I was flabbergasted. The first D&D character I ever rolled up was a 2e Paladin (complete with heavy flail), though I never actually played him. To be honest, I've only once ever played a LG character--the hybrid paladin/fighter Maxwell Craedon, in Callon's epic level "Dark Tower" saga. Even then, I found it immensely difficult. Put in a situation where a great evil lurked (a fetus lich, if you can imagine that) and I was unable to act, I literally had to call a "timeout" in the game, telling my fellow players that they had better "hold me back, because Maxwell's going to go down swinging".

That situation, by itself, was agonizing enough, trying to play a character that wants nothing more than to "save the world", while being exposed to hideous evil. This is to say nothing of the "lawful stupid" attitude, or the archtype of the 'bland, selfless knight' that seems to pollute fantasy (Dragonlance, I'm looking at you!). Lawful Good is...boring, right?

Meanwhile, I've always been a fan of moral ambiguity. "Pirates of the Underdark" notwithstanding, My characters have always had some strange balance between good and evil, law and chaos. Garius ir'Dolanian--my human ranger in Jules' last Eberron game--coldcocked his own mother with a tequila bottle, because he thought he could save her from the cultists that had brainwashed her. Hell, Jaegren Lern--the One Living Man--was utterly amoral, raised by necromancers and trained to be an undead master.

I guess the thing that shocks me most is not that my player is actually trying to play LG, but rather that he always plays LG. It's been a struggle for me even to play the alignment well once, but he seems to know nothing but it.

Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but some understanding would be helpful. What are your experiences with the Lawful Good Syndrome?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Cathedral of Erudition (Part IV--Ioun)

(This is the fourth section of my continuing series, detailing the Cathedral of Erudtion--a Blackfall-based cathedral dedicated to three major deities. Enjoy!)

Ioun: The Scribe of the Obsidian Hall

Ioun, the Recorder of History and Mistress of Twisting Fate, is viewed most primarily in her aspect as the Scribe, constantly etching the annals of knowledge into her massive tome, while simultaneously weaving and interpreting the tangles of fate. When found in iconography, Ioun is often seen as a young maiden, clad only in unfurled scrolls, her hands stained with the ink of a common scribe. The primary duties of the faith of Ioun within the Cathedral are as follows:
• Provide schooling to all those who seek it.
• Maintain two libraries of tomes: one for public use, and one specific to the clergy.
• Procure information for the Cathedral, including reconnaissance on foes.
• Illuminate manuscripts for use in Cathedral services.
• Uncover ancient archaeological sites, in the hopes to procure lost lore.
The current Illuminated Scriptor is Delia Sen-Maleth (tiefling Invoker 21) who has held the post for 8 years. She is a feisty, quick-witted tiefling, quick with a wry response and a wicked sense of gallows humor. Her predecessor, Jalen Aspenbreeze, is a grim elf (Avenger 24) is still within the church, and utterly disproves of his replacement’s leadership. This has led to something of a power rift within the faith—while all follow Delia’s lead, a significant population yearns for Jalen’s regime, which focused more on copying texts and teaching than active adventuring and excavation of ruins.

The Iounian church holds simultaneously the most and the least amount of power amongst the three churches at the Cathedral of Erudition. While they hold the least amount of membership, the faith of Ioun specializes in information-gathering and lore-keeping. As such, the two other faiths rely on them exclusively for information on cults in the area, on major figures within the populace, and for other “less-accessible” information.

Further, the Iounians often serve as scouts and messengers to other lands and other political factions. This includes less-reputable establishments within the community, including certain thieves’ guilds and black markets. While they certainly are not proponents of such illegal entities, it’s said that “if the Scriptors don’t know about it, it didn’t happen yet.”

The Unstoppered Inkwells of the Recorder of History

Currently, only about 15% of the initiates at the Cathedral of Erudition have display their devotion to Ioun exclusively. While this number is relatively limiting, Illuminated Scriptor Delia has been more than adept at keeping her Inkwells active in pursuing knowledge and storing it in the vast Cathedral library.
Racially, humans, elves, and eladrin take up the majority of the Inkwells, with tieflings and dwarves also making up sizable minorities. Much of the teaching done by the Inkwells is done by elves and eladrin, while Inkwell dwarves typically work towards copying and illuminating manuscripts for the library.
Classwise, the Inkwells hold the most amount of arcane ability. Wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks are not uncommon, in addition to bards and swordmages. Avengers are also particularly common, as are rogues, as both serve as expert ‘reconnaissance agents’. Many Inkwells choose to multi-class significantly (at the paragon level), and often choose training in various social and knowledge skills.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

In Which the Warlock is Disappointed with the Day of Dagon...

So, this weekend held the much-anticipated “Day of Dagon (and Friends)” one-shot, which Ebbs and I had been preparing for several weeks. While the basic premise was a pretty simple one, and it seemed like everyone had fun (at least on some level), I can’t help but feel like the whole experience has left a bad taste in my mouth.

The format was a simple one: the rise of 4e brought with it the concept of the “delve” style dungeon—a 3 encounter dungeon, culminating in a “boss fight” during the 3rd encounter. We followed this format near-exactly, with a Blood War skirmish to start, followed by a raid on an Abyssal fortress, then a confrontation with our BBEG du jour, Grazz’t.

The first encounter was a massive series of minions, each with an aura that deals additional damage to adjacent foes. While the vast majority of the characters were melee characters, their natural resistances and their sheer number of hit points made the auras negligible. Rather than weakening the characters, it strengthened them, giving them quicker access to a milestone (and the action point/item use combo that comes with it).

My own responsibility, the second encounter, was meant to be a highlight of 4e encounter design. The Abyssal fortress featured Doomlight crystals (crystals which exploded with force damage when hit by area-effect powers), several traps (a soul-stealing mosaic and “kissing maiden” push traps), and a rickety bridges flowing over a river of psychic fire, which in turn powered a demonic generator.

Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. The encounter ran for almost 15 full rounds, with each round taking what felt like forever. The PCs were pinned on one side of the river of fire, never encountering most of the traps. When one of the characters—Will’s assassin—stepped onto the mosaic and his soul was consequently attacked, he grew frustrated with his alternatives and many attacks were wasted trying to destroy the 300 hit point trap.

While this encounter weakened the party, it took over 3 hours to complete. On paper, it was a balanced encounter—several of the monsters were minions, and none of them exceeded Level 28 (including the traps)—but in reality, poor tactics and design (on both sides of the table) slowed down play.

The final encounter with Grazz’t was almost a joke, once we got there. Grazz’t won initiative, immediately dominating two of the party members—including the paladin/invoker who had been buffing everyone’s defenses heavily. On her turn, Grazz’t forced her to blow her major defense buff and began forcing the party into attacking one another. In between blasts of Unholy Blight and Waves of Sorrow, Grazz’t continued to dominate the group, including the artificer, from whom he sucked off a Healing Infusion.

When at last we called it a night, at 11pm, Grazz’t was still in quadruple-digit hit points, while the party were down to naught but at-wills. Game was called with a pretty convincing battle-of-attrition win for the demon lord. While I was reveling before the game in table smack-talk, the actual event resulted in no deaths, no maiming, and no climax.

Thinking back, I’m pegging a few reasons for this:

1) Fear of dailies.
Hands down, the second encounter would have been over much, much, much quicker had anyone actually used some of the abilities that they get on a daily basis. The entire party seemed to have a preternatural fear of “wasting a daily” on Encounter 2, which only shrank their damage output to smaller levels. Had they actually used their dailies earlier on, they might have escaped with less overall resources spent in Encounter 2.

2) Poor Party Design
Ugh—this was a killer. All but 2 of the characters in the one-shot were melee-based characters, with minimal (if any) ranged abilities whatsoever. This created bottlenecks at several points on the battlefield (which allowed my artillery/controller monsters to blast away with impunity), and created several conflicts over marking/paladin-challenge. Further, the party had absolutely no ability to control the battlefield, and few characters had any multi-target effects, much less status effects to level against the enemies. Needless to say, in terms of battlefield rights, they got pushed around.

3) Lack of Player Knowledge
This one’s hard to get around, especially considering that most of the group were playing these characters for the first time. However, with a month of notice with which to build a character and a test-run during the previous week from Ebbs, it’s almost not an excuse. However, at countless times, we had to double-check rules and basic, fundamental abilities were forgotten. As an example: When Jules and I built her character—Jesus de la Morte—two things drove her character: the ardent vow ability (which adds damage to her next attack) and dark reaping (which, again, adds damage to an attack, and heals her). Neither ability was used once through all 3 encounters. This isn’t meant to rag on her—the above is just a good example. Similarly, the warden never once marked a target, despite having absolutely stellar marking abilities and the artificer barely touched his encounter powers or dailies, instead opting for Magic Weapon or Thundering Armor. Further, aside from the aforementioned defensive buffs, I can’t remember anyone using a single utility power. Surely there should have been something? However, that lack of knowledge/execution was murderous.

I guess I make it sound like it’s all the players’ fault. It wasn’t. A lot of this came down to our end as GMs. Some examples:

1) Too much at once.
This fault lies solely with me. I had endeavored, at the beginning of the planning, to create a “complete” encounter…at least as it’s defined in DMG II. In that, I succeeded, but perhaps a little too well. I included interactive terrain, unique (and difficult!) monsters, traps, and a skill challenge (which was summarily ignored). All in all, it was way too much to keep track of, for both the players and myself. With nearly 15 separate initiatives on the table, the encounter quickly became a bogged-down mess. Looking back, I almost can’t imagine doing the same thing again, as it’s simply too much mess on the table.

2) Inconsistency in the speed.
One of the things we were pressing for, as GMs of this event, was to keep everyone moving quickly, so that things would stay fresh. Unfortunately we had forgotten to bring the “Karl-o-meter” (a 2-minute egg timer) to keep everyone on their toes. As such, players (and us, too—we were at fault just as much) began taking longer and longer on their turns. This really reached a head about halfway through Encounter 2, when I actually snapped at a player who wasn’t ready, and who was being exceptionally unclear about weighing his options. Driving home, I felt really horrible about that…while I smack-talk quite a bit around the table (and don’t exactly shy away from profanity while I’m at it), I’ve never really spoken with spite like that…and it’s not something I like. I guess I chalk it up to being irritable over the inconsistencies, but those are things that could have been prevented in the first place.

3) Impossible situations.
When designing the encounters and prepping the monsters, both Ebbs and I desired to go “no holds barred”. This was 30th level play, after all! If the players can whip out divine apocalypses at a moment’s notice, why shouldn’t we? The problem with this comes with the various discrepancies held between characters. The aforementioned paladin/invoker and her cleric companion both utterly refused to cross the bridges in Encounter 2, as doing so required an Acrobatics check (neither of which they were trained in, nor did they have an alternate method of movement).
Similarly, the bullywug ranger, in Encounter 3, would simply be dominated for the entirety of the rest of combat had we continued—his Will defense was so low that Grazz’t would be able to dominate him on any roll but a 1. (Ironically enough, he was nearly unable to hit the paladin/invoker, who abused the hybrid-multiclassing rules to pick up a massive daily defense buff as an encounter power, sending her defenses soaring above 50.)
In essence, we ended up putting characters in situations that made it impossible for them to succeed. “But Warlock,” you say, “they’re fighting in Hell! It’s supposed to be impossible.” Well, yeah…I agree, there’s always supposed to be a chance of success. Here, it became an exercise in futility. And that’s not fun for anyone.

I hate to say it, but I feel like much of this whole experience has only further soured me on really-high level D&D. The disparities between overly-specialized characters, coupled with the continual one-upmanship of the GM/Player relationship, makes for a Gygaxian nightmare of attack-parry-counter that loses the fundamental appeal of gaming.

Ironically enough, I did feel positive about one major thing. As we were packing up, the player of the paladin/invoker mentioned that she wished we had played this in 3.5e, saying “It’d be like Laser Tag with rockets!” I disagreed. If anything, that’d be worse—with no drama, no tension—just a simple matter of who failed a saving throw first. Despite its problems, I’d rather spend 6 hours in 4e, and end in a stalemate, than spend 15 minutes in 3.5e, and utterly fail to deliver any excitement.