Monday, June 27, 2011

Starmada, 26 June

We got together for more Starmada this afternoon / evening as a break from D&D.  Participants included me, Jared, Matt Britton (of the Royal Brittonic Navy), and Matt Glisson.  Glisson hadn't played before, and we were curious to try a 'vanilla' game with pre-built ships and a lack of craziness, so our first game used the OGRE Starmada conversion.  Matt ran an Ogre MkIII, with Jared, Glisson, and I trying to stop him from attacking our command post.  We gave Glisson howitzer command (looong range, but immobile and terrible accuracy), while Jared ran a trio of missile tanks (slow as infantry, but longish range and excellent accuracy) and I got stuck with GEVs (fast fast fast, but weak weapons and terrible durability).  Terrain was rolled as asteroid belt, so we ended up with a size 4 asteroid field, a size 5 asteroid field, and 11 asteroids.  I like to think of them as irradiated zones within the Ogre setting; they affect targeting by interfering with sensors, and deal damage to units by owning electronics and killing folks.  We placed the big asteroid field in a corner of our spawn area to keep Matt from using it, but he used the other to good effect as cover.  I engaged with the GEVs, but suffered pretty horrible losses.  One of Glisson's howitzers took a flight of seekers, as did one of Jared's tanks, but we dealt enough damage that the Ogre was rendered toothless about halfway across the map.  Matt played well, though; he used terrain properly to hide from the howitzers, got us to split our force, and generally did a decent job.  I think the large map combined with the low speeds was what did him in.  I'm curious to play more 'vanilla' games on a more standard scale; I think by playing vanilla, we could take the focus off of ship design and put it more heavily on tactics.  Remains to be seen.

The second game we decided to go all-out with personal ship designs, with Glisson using the Nations of Earth ships from the Grumm sourcebook.  We rolled Breakout, which we hadn't played before, with Matt and I attacking, Jared and Glisson defending.  Matt ran RBN carriers, I ran my most recent (and untried until today) version of Eldar, and Jared ran...  something?  He fielded a couple of 14-point ships, a small flotilla with some strikers, and a cruiser with repeating increased-hits weapons.  Terrain was a planet and three moons.  They hid behind the planet, but Matt's fighters likewise used the planet as cover to close and laid some hurt down on Turn 2 (as well as trading fighters for Jared's strikers).  Turn 3 they tried to move out around the planet, bur I decloaked and hit them from the side.  One of my cruisers took a pounding from their guns, but remained alive and recloaked and ran for it next turn, while my heavy cruiser (based off the Eldar Shadow Hunter line cruiser) obliterated one of Glisson's cruisers at long range, and my light cruiser took out Jared's carrier flotilla.  Turn 4, most of my stuff recloaked, and Matt's bombers finished off Jared's flotillas.  The only VP they scored was escaping Jared's cruiser off the map, while we destroyed everything else of theirs with no losses for us except for carried fighters.  A solid win (though there was a close moment with that cruiser of mine that got mauled - they dealt 10 damage to a hull 6, and we weren't sure it was going to make it.  Would've given them the win at end of Turn 3).

I left then, but apparently a third game was played with Matt and Jared vs. Glisson and Tim, who arrived late.  From what I've heard, Jared fielded his cruiser again, but this time decided to shoot with it rather than running off the map, and dealt something like 40 hits from a 250-point ship in very little time, causing Glisson and Tim to cede.  Regrettable...

It's been a while since I updated the standings...  sadly, I've missed too many games to keep an accurate count, and the ones played without me haven't necessarily been properly reported (names, sides, scenario, terrain, results).  Campaign games with terribly unbalanced forces only muck things up further.  Meh.  If it becomes a regular thing, might start keeping track again, possibly restarting the counts.  As it stands, it seems like who wins depends mostly on amount of time spent out-of-game designing fleets, as well as how much cheese (be it small craft, flotillas, G-arc only weapons, super-repeaters, turbo engines, &c) one is willing to use.  Kind of a sad state of the metagame.  Calls for banning Rules Annex material are currently being fielded...  I approve, actually.  The shield-breaking traits in Annex (Piercing +2 and +3, Halves and Ignores Shields) have made high shields quite inviable as a defense; Alex and I both tried fielding Shields 5 ships for a game or two, and extremely effective anti-shield weapons were just too common for them to be even close to cost-effective.  Likewise, the group is divided on flotillas...  I think at this point only Jared uses them.  They were kinda fun for a while, and I think an all-flotilla game would greatly simplify things by removing the 'rolling and applying damage' step (and removing damage ratings from weapons), but as far as the rest of the game goes, being able to pack an arbitrary number of guns in a small arc into a very fast package is quite deadly, and speed and defenses don't deteriorate with damage like on a normal ship.  Such a ban would mean a serious re-design for Jared...  and given the success of his repeater, I'm not sure we want to force such a re-design, lest he find more Things of Intense Effectiveness in Core.  I'd also like to ban strikers, but leave seekers in, as seekers produce significantly more interesting gameplay.  They can be countered more readily than strikers by terrain or interposing disposable ships, and require more forethought in target selection than strikers (you can't just dump 20 flights of seekers on the table and expect to win; you have to choose your targets carefully to make sure you get it right).  Meaningful choices and planning, basically.

Basically, there is dissatisfaction with the current state of the metagame, and I'm not sure how to fix it.  Until we figure that out, it will continue to be less fun than it could be for all involved.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, Part 4

( To Part 3 )

Having delivered 'justice' to the people of Mekbah, we retired to Tavern's Inn to rest.  We arose in the morning, and Somak resolved to visit the forests north of town to see if it was his home.  Barridan and I decided to accompany him; Barridan seems to be in search of his memories, and hopes that if Somak finds his, we might find ours as well.  For my part, I just want to be out of this town; it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, perhaps from excessive self-righteousness (though it could well be the lack of alcohol instead).  So north we went, guided by Edgerd of the Hunter's Lodge, to an encampment of druids.  Alonso decided to remain in Mekbah for the time being, for what purposes we know not.

The woods had eyes on our journey; first squirrels and chipmunks, then weasels, hunting cats, and finally a great bear which stepped forth onto the path and spoke to Somak.  They conversed in the language of the woods awhile, and the bear turned into a nude human female.  Barridan and Somak were much enchanted with her; for my part, I still have eyes only for my Ygritte, who now is but another unburied skull in the ruins of Kathras Deep...  This woman appears to have been Somak's lover, but he did not recall her, as his memories are lost with ours to the Rod.  Though saddened, she led us to a druid encampment of significant size - I was surprised to see so many living among the trees, and with no fire, but only magic for light and heat.  Somak has a residence here, so we dropped our packs there.  Somak visited the Elder Druid, an elf ancient beyond words, and spoke with him at length of the Chromata and the memory loss.  The druids were to have a council that evening, with the intent of sending teams to keep the other artifacts from discovery.  This makes me a little nervous...  I worried that they will try to take Mavrilith from me, and to hide it away.  Fortunately, these worries proved to be unfounded, though I am not sure why...  collectively, they certainly have more raw power than I, so they could have taken it, and they could likely guard it better.  Somak's trick of hiding the Rod deep in solid rock would be a good start.  I am not well liked here; the druids hate fire and axes, and I am marked by one, and carry the other.  I must sleep lightly tonight...  At least their dislike is honest and open, not like the sanctimoniousness of Mekbah.

We waited for the great assembly in what passed for a tavern; while the novelty of their strange brews was pleasing, I long for a cold draught of decent ale...  some of these concoctions were most similar to things brewed unwholesomely in the trenches and tunnels of the Goblin Wars.  My companions found them displeasing, and I suppose they probably were...  but the taste was weaker than the memories.  Barradin made off with a lovely forest lass, while Somak spoke with druids from across the continent who had arrived through the trees; quite a marvel, that.  Somak learned of the woods to the south, known as the Hellheim Green, whose druids are a dishonorable folk, and where dwells a great green dragon, rumored to hold the green chromata...  'tis a fell place, but mighty close to the surfacer's entrance to the Dwarven Holds, and a second chromata might be useful in my quest.  I spoke not such things in the company of those who would prevent the discovery of the chromata, though...  no reason to remove myself even further from their good graces.  I was also disheartened to hear that the stonespeakers were not welcome at this conclave; while I have no strong desire to show my maimed face to another dwarf, it would be good to hear tidings of the homeland...

Eventually the meeting was called, and we sallied forth from the tavern (except Barradin, who returned from his...  exploits elsewhere).  The Elder spoke at length, telling the assembled what he had told Somak earlier, and asked that I display Mavrilith.  Again, I was rather apprehensive here...  not just that they might take it from me, and weaken my ability to slay the Red Terror, but also that it might take hold of me.  As I held it aloft, I could feel it hungering after the magic of the druids.  Every sorcerous light and flameless torch calls to it as food to a starving man.  I worry that one day I will not be strong enough, and it might possess me and drive me at my allies, and wonder if the Black Blade will become more trouble than it is worth..  but for the time being, I held fast.  The meeting was eventually adjourned, and we retired to the home Somak shares with his woman, Rielda among the trees, though Somak rested elsewhere; he feels an outsider here, and is angry that these familiar sights have not returned his memories.  I cannot blame him...  I am not as troubled by the loss of memory, because I retain my purpose, but his purpose was fulfilled with the death of the dragon, and only now does the loss come to haunt him.  I do not think this problem will vex me, if I do manage my final objective...  survival beyond the last, great dragonhunt seems unlikely.  And what more would I want of this earth then, even if I did survive?  The pleasures of the flesh grow dim, and my people await in the feasting halls of the All-Father...

- Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless,14th Day of Firefast

That...  was a hell of a day.

I slept poorly, and dreamed of old battles in the Goblin Wars, advancing in time before the Burning.  In the last that I dreamt, we were taken by surprise by the vanguard of Warlord Urkrosk, led by the orcs of the Blood Rune.  They had marched day and night for a week, leaving the weak behind, and reached our holdfast long before we expected them.  They fell upon us with no warning, and we were routed.  I awoke with a start to the shattering of the door of Somak's dwelling and the screaming of the alarm stone, sometime in the wee hours of the morning.  Outside loomed brutish faces with great axes...  and for a moment, I was unsure where and when I was, but I flew at them with my axes.  I have taken to sleeping in my armor of late, and it was well that I did; they were berserkers, many and strong, but I held the doorway, driving three in turn off the walkway around the great tree.  Barradin also awoke and hurled fire at them through the portal; he tried to avoid burning me, but I dodged poorly, and soon my cloak was aflame and the scars on my face burned once more.  The frenzied orcs had also landed several telling blows, and the situation seemed dire.  Somak's arrival was most fortunate; he flew up on a giant eagle from where he had rested, and drove the remaining orcs back to a rope bridge.  I drank several healing potions to little effect while Barradin and Somak advanced.  More orcs came around the tree across the bridge, but the eagle brought down the bridge with its weight, and Barradin slew them with fire as they fled.  Somak and I then dispatched the remaining berserkers.  He summoned more eagles, and we flew for the center of the encampment.  I continued to nurse my wounds as we went.

The camp had been laid waste, the druids slaughtered, and perhaps a hundred orcs gathered in the amphitheater where the conclave had met.  We were about to engage them when we saw a grave sight above the Elder's dwelling - a black tear in the world, guarded by a massive orc in shining armor with a pair of axes.  We altered course to engage him instead.  At his feet lay the dying Elder, and between them stood Rielda, unarmed and unarmored.  Somak leapt from his eagle and struck the orc upon the head with his spear.  They exchanged brutal words in the crude orcish tongue as Barradin and I dismounted, and then the orc transformed into a mighty bear and the battle began in earnest.  I struck him many times with my axes, and Mavrilith drank deep of his enchantments; it flashed corpse-white and drew his magic from him in red ribbons, then sang in exultation.  He roared in pain and struck at me with his teeth and claws, but he was disoriented and his blows went wide.  Somak also struck him several good blows, and things seemed to be going in our favor, but more orcs began spilling out of the gash, which evidently was a portal they had used for transport.  Barradin had disappeared, and we surmised that he was seeking a way to close it, as well as calling down lightning and his ghost arrows.  To make matters worse, a pale shade had appeared...  Hethras, who had helped us slay Saffras in Duskdale.  While he aided us against the orc-bear, we had no illusions regarding his trustworthiness, and an untrustworthy ally is sometimes worse than a direct foe.  Fortunately, we were able to lay low the bear swiftly, and any chance for treachery he had had diminished, though he did feast on the orcs entering through the portal.  I went to slay the bear, but Somak forbade it, saying that it was his half-brother Somar.  The bonds of blood run deep...  more orcs came from the north, so I ran to engage them while Somak and Hethras fought those coming from the portal.  I prevented the reinforcements from slaying the Elder, and by the time the portal ran dry of orcs, Barradin had determined that it opened to the Abyss.

The key to closing it, he said, was to take the black dagger at its base, step through, and plant it in the soil beyond...  This laid heavily upon us.  I would have done it; I do not fear death.  But, by the same token, my time is not yet - I have one last dragon to slay, an oath to fulfill, a wrong to set aright.  Only then can I go to meet my ancestors.  Barradin did not welcome the prospect of being stranded in the abyss; his magic is not yet powerful enough to bring him back to this realm, so 'twould be a death sentence for him just as for one of us.  In the end, Somak volunteered himself.  He had recovered his memories in his final blow against Somar...  but the home he had known was laid to waste.  To linger here would only bring him suffering, and so he said his goodbyes to Rielda, and to us.  He bade us question Somar thoroughly, but to spare his life; he leaves us a most dangerous captive...  and yet I would not dishonor the last request of a dead man, and a boon companion.  He left the great bag with us, and Barridan cast some wards over him.  Somak readied his spear and stepped through the portal...  and was gone.  I hope, for his soul's sake, that his death is quick and clean, a warrior's death, and that he does not succumb to the corruption of those lower places.

So goes Somak the Strong, Caller of the Waters, Shaper of the Stone, Dragonslayer.  He shall be remembered.

We were put in a somber mood, and spent the rest of the day routing the orcs, extinguishing fires, and burying the dead.  Rielda is disconsolate, Somar still deep in the red dream from his wounds, and the Elder is dying. This is a dead place...  Barridan and I will depart on the morrow, after questioning Somar.  There is nothing more we can do here.  I have been inventorying the contents of the Bag to keep my mind off of things.  It is too heavy for me; we will need to buy a mule.  Now we are but three...  Barridan wants to ride for Malas and Dehlia by way of the Araduin Hills, and perhaps to discover his own past there in his homeland.  For my part, Kathras calls to me...  my scars ache, the dreams grow more vivid, and ten thousand souls cry out for vengeance.  I can hear them whisper, and when I close my eyes, I can see their faces.  My fate, my doom, will not wait forever.  Might I meet it as well as Somak did his.

- Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, 15th Day of Firefast

To Part 5

Monday, June 20, 2011

State of the Game

Man, it's been a while since I did an out-of-character / rules post.  Tim's been running a fun Trailblazer test campaign (which was to be a one shot, but then ran long).  So, some thoughts on what we've seen so far from Trailblazer, in no particular order:

Fighters: nobody's gotten to use Punishing Strike yet, which adds attack and damage on AoOs :(.  Tim fielded a pile of NPC fighters during the first session, and I've been running a fighter / ranger the entire time, and AoOs just don't get provoked for movement like they used to.  Another consequence of the change to AoO rules is that combatants can now circle each other, rather than standing in place.  A point for realism!  Expert Weapon Proficiency, though, has been wonderful; I used it to make Dwarven Waraxe a light weapon, which means I can two-weapon fight with them without penalty, which is awesome (plus Weapon Finesse, being able to use it in grapple, and being able to use it to cut my way out of Swallow Whole attempts.  Not that those last two have come up yet).  Tim's fighters used it to boost damage, I believe, and their attacks stung quite a bit.  So: fighters aren't complete chumps anymore.  And Combat Reflexes is an awesome bonus feat, because it get you more...

Combat Reactions: Also awesome.  These let you do other things with your "Attacks of opportunity per turn" pool.  DR from Blocking saved my hide from the black dragon in session 2 (as did a potion of bear's endurance; lacking either, I'd've been toast), and Dodge, Aid Attack, and Aid Defense have all been used to good effect as well.  AoO has been used the least frequently of any of them, really, which is a nice change.  Having Dodge and Block scale with BaB also helps out the fighty-classes, which I appreciate a lot (and the extra Block DR from shield bonuses also makes Sword and Board a much more viable loadout).

Bard: Tim tasked me with building and running Adam, the party bard, in combat.  I was a little saddened by this, since I'm usually not a fan of bards at all, but man...  bard buffs are good stuff.  I enjoyed being able to time Haste and Inspire Courage when it was most useful for Fjolkir, and really miss the damage bonus from Inspire Courage.  On the plus side, the fact that Inspire Courage largely overrides Heroism in combat meant that I was able to claim all the Heroism potions, which is paying off now that Adam's gone.  Also, Power Chord is a really nice ability; being able to swift-cast Cat's Grace and Glitterdust was useful several times.  Overall, my respect for bards has improved significantly, though I don't think I would want to play one as my only character.

Ranger: About the only things they changed here that have mattered so far were opening up bonus feat selection (I used it to get Two-Weapon Defense since I already had TWF; wouldn't've been able to do that normally), Improved Reaction (+1 Init; since I also have Improved Init and 18 Dex, I usually go first.  Nice.), and spellcasting.  Getting low-level spells to be able to heal myself a little and to use Longstrider, even as a multiclassed character weighted mostly towards fighter has been really useful, but improving my spellcasting is slow going; I'm not going to get 2nd-level spells until 10th level.  I'm currently at Fighter 6 / Ranger 3 - I think the plan out to 12th (not that I expect the game to run that long) is Fighter 6 / Ranger 4 / Fighter 2.  I'll get 2nd-level spells from the next level of Ranger (as well as Uncanny Dodge and Speak with Animals at will), then Expert Weapon Proficiency from Fighter 7 for 2d6 damage on the waraxes, and then Greater TWF at Fighter 8.  Which brings us to...

Iterative Attacks: TB changed iteratives so they work like TWF, Flurry, and Rapid Shot - extra attacks at a penalty to all of them.  Being able to roll a handful of d20s all at the same bonus has sped my turns up nicely.  Jared (who plays Somak) has also taken advantage of it, though Dan (who plays Alonso) really hasn't yet; he keeps rolling them sequentially rather than in parallel.  I had to go buy a fourth d20 to roll all of my attacks, but it was quite a pretty die, and I don't regret it.  Four attacks, each at -4, has been pretty effective; I'm very very likely to hit with one of them, and usually hit with two.  It's basically the D&D application of the Starmada principle that "Volume of fire is important," and it's easy on the maths.  I almost with I had Power Attack so I could really benefit from the math reduction this change saves.

Skills:  Being able to scatter points across class skills and get effectively four ranks for one skill point has been useful; I've been spreading mine around to get a few points each in things like Swim and Heal (which actually helped recover from the ability damage from Malevolence last session).  I think I'll probably get Knowledge (Nature) next level...  something I really ought to have, but I bet Somak's got me beaten on it.  Being able to assist wouldn't hurt, though.  Getting 4+int skills as a fighter was also really useful; I'm at max ranks in Stealth, Survival, Perception, and Search, and then I got the class bonuses from Ranger.  I'm as sneaky as the rogue, have the best perception in the party (thanks for the Eyes of the Eagle, Tim), and can track a party of four humanoids across firm ground a week and eight hours of rain after they passes.  Haven't gotten to use search yet, though.  Anyway, being good at useful skills as a fighter is a nice change of pace.

Druid: Somak's been effective in melee, tripping with a modified guisarme (using TB's melee weapon customization rules; he reduced crit threat range and boosted base damage) and Enlarge Person from Barridan, but he has a hell of a glass jaw; at last check, Somak at 9th level had around 36 HP, while Barridan, the halfling sorcerer, had 42ish.  Probably poor HP rolls on Jared's part, but it puts the druid solidly in the second line of melee behind me (for reference, I'm at 85 HP.  Toughness got upgraded pretty hard in TB, and Con 16 and d10 HP are awesome).  The bonus to hit prone foes in melee has really helped offset my full attack penalties, especially now that Adam's Inspire is gone.  Unlike the 3.5 druid, though, the TB druid hasn't been dominating melee in wild shape (they really toned Wildshape down; it's kind of like an Astral Construct of personal buffs now); he has been succeeding wildly on his trip attempts (with the size bonus from enlarge, using a two-handed weapon, ability score buffs, and ability score boosts from Hybrid Form), but he's not an unstoppable bear with an army of bears (no animal companions, and summoned creatures are fairly weak - the dragon slew a Summoned Monster IV from him in one shot of its breath weapon).  I think we're all pretty happy with the changes here.

Rogue: I think Alonso's been less than maximally effective due to poor design choices by Dan, rather than by poor design by the TB folks.  This is all.

Sorcerer and/or Cleric: Barradin was initially a Cleric 4 / Sorcerer 4, but eventually realized he was basically just using sorcerer spells and leaving curing to the wands, so Tim let him switch to full Sorc.  And he's been throwing fireballs like a sorc ought to be; he picked up Empower Spell at 9th, and has been using it on his Scorching Rays and Fireballs to good effect.   No complaints here, though I'm sad that we didn't get to see a proper half-and-half caster in full, versatile action (they operate very similarly to a caster of full level in each class, but lose out on some bonus slots and readies from each class).  I'm also sad that we didn't have a proper caster / non-caster multiclass; I guess I'm the closest, with +2 BmB from my fighter levels and +1 BmB from my ranger levels.  Maybe next campaign I'll run a Barbarian / Druid or a Cleric / Monk...

Not a whole lot else to report...  we haven't run into any really annoying parts of the system yet, that I can recall.  Oh, Dispel Magic.  We're not sure if we like the Dispel change or not...  they changed it so that it got to dispel at most one effect from the target, so that you weren't stripped of all of your buffs in one go.  On the one hand, this is really nice for your PCs if they like to buff and your enemies like to dispel.  On the other hand, Tim's NPCs have been better buffed than we have (except for the fight against the dragon, where we drank so many potions that if we had been using the old Potion Miscibility rules, we'd've all died), and his enemies haven't been using dispel, so we've been getting the short end of the Dispel Magic stick when we go to dispel their buffs.  I guess the real problem is buffs themselves; they're annoying to keep track of, and Dispel Magic just means you have to recalculate everything in the middle of combat.  Tim proposed changing their durations to encounters, rather than simulationist units of in-game time; this could be justified by the fact that if you're not actively using the benefits of the buff between combats, the power of the spell isn't being expended, or it's just leaking away slowly enough that it'll evaporate over a rest period, say.  It's an interesting solution, but we haven't tried it yet.  I almost favor removing buffs from the game wholesale; TB's spine analysis didn't take them into account and still came out which reasonable numbers, which suggests that they could be removed without severely breaking any of the core combat numbers for the game.  Alternatively, granting inherent bonuses would work nicely as well; just give me something that I can write down and add up once, and then not have to remember.  Fodder for another post on another day.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, Part 3

( To Part 2 )

We spent several days resting, training, and exploring in Duskvale before heading back to the shrine.  During this time, I studied the black sword.  When I drew it, I learned its name instantly; Mavrilith.  It hungers for magic, and offered me power if I were to use it against creatures and items of magic.  I offered it Adam's rod, but it balked from it; it was unsure if it could devour the rod's power.  A worrisome development...  As I am not properly trained to use a hand-and-a-half sword, and as Barridan is worried of its possible malevolence, I think the sword may be best kept under guard, and not drawn unless all other options against a supernatural foe are exhausted.  I am, at least, a little reassured that it is not a daemonic weapon; it did not thirst for blood or slaughter, only magic, which I have no particular objection to delivering to it.

When we finally left Duskvale, the weather was fair and we made good time.  We were ambushed by a troll shaman of some sort at the place where we had fought the great apes.  The plants came alive around us, slowing our movement but entrapping the giant as well.  Barridan's fire spells were greatly hindered by a ward about the monster, but Somak, Alonso, and I put it down and then slew it with a simple torch once Barridan had dispelled the wards.  Somak was gravely wounded, though, and I brought him back to consciousness with the blessings of my ancestors.  He then knitted his remaining injuries with a fearsome speed.  We tracked the troll back to its lair, and found there a great many gold coins, as well as a magic staff, which Barridan took possession of.

We stopped in the mid-afternoon to rest at the Shrine of Fharlanghn and to determine the rest of our course.  After Somak attempted to divine the our previous path from a crow, we found the answer in my journal; we had come from Mekbah, to the east.  We therefore took the road east rather than south.

We made worse speed after nightfall, as Barridan lacks night vision and impeded our progress.  An hour outside of Mekbah, we realized we were being followed, and Somak saw the ghosts of the half-dragons pursuing us.  Upon glimpsing them, Alonso turned tail and fled like one possessed, but Somak, Barridan, and I stood our ground; I see the dead every night, and they hold no terror for me.  Barridan was invaluable against these foes, destroying two with fire and a third with shimmering arrows, while I slew the last with my axe, driving Tooth into the axe-wound which had slain it in its first life.  The toll was high, though; they sapped all of us of our vital force, and we were left exhausted and vulnerable.  We eventually caught up with Alonso, and sent him in disguise into Mekbah while we rested beneath the trees.

Alonso returned eventually, and we went to their inn, a foul establishment which served no alcohol.  We rested the night, and I tended the wounds of the others.  We were awoken early by a maiden bringing us breakfast and triggering my stone of alarm...  it did not go well.  We left the inn to requisition supplies, but were quickly stopped by a man being pursued by a mob who claimed that he had killed another man.  Somak took it upon himself to discover the truth and dispense justice, and the rest of us aided him in this, though perhaps grudgingly; I would much rather have spent the day drinking at the Hunter's Lodge to the north.  We questioned the accused, Roger Grey, and discovered that he was a con man who sold 'Elixers of Perpetual Youth', which were actually water spiked with redwort, a hallucinogenic substance which makes the user believe he smells a pleasant aroma.  He had sold the victim, Arnie Pilken, three bottles of it (why a man would need perpetual youth thrice, I do not know).  We investigated Arnie's home, finding two unopened bottles and one half-drunken, and Arnie himself dead of supernatural terror.   We thought it unlikely that the redwort had done this, and decided to investigate Millard, the village wizard, who owns a potion shop.  Somak and I entered by the front door and engaged Millard in conversation, while Alonso and Barridan broke in through the back door under cover of invisibility.  I am slightly ashamed to have been the one to suggest such a dishonorable tactic, yet at the same time was pleased by its success; they managed to acquire Millard's diary and escape undetected.  We discovered also that Alonso is a poor thief; he managed to break his lockpicks off in the lock of the back door as they were re-locking it from the outside.  It appears that Millard had made a deal with one Ythir, who would provide him with scrolls of summoning in exchange for help with a 'project' of unknown nature.  Barridan believes that Millard had used such a scroll, as there was a broken summoning circle on the floor of the back room.  We were not sure the death was related to the summoning, and continued investigating other leads.

From Arnie's correspondence, he appeared to have an ex-wife who had left for Malas Fangrey, a town further east, so we asked the citizenry of her.  He was a former apprentice to the town blacksmith, so we questioned him as well, but to no avail.  The blacksmith was also unable to tell us anything useful about the material or manufacture of the black sword, though I felt almost as though it were speaking to me as I drew it to show to him.  We asked questions at the Hunter's Lodge, and had an ale, as that was where Arnie had spent much time, but they knew little of him, but that he tried to break swords and had a cat.  Somak tried to find this cat to ask it questions, but was unable to locate it, despite the 'assistance' of a local squirrel.  Finally, we ran out of leads, and with the mob demanding that someone be lynched, we confronted Millard with his diary.  He claimed that the summoning had gone wrong, and he had summoned a 'bodak' rather than a celestial as he had planned, and warned us to flee town immediately.  Instead, Somak threw him in the sack of holding, and we ran back to Arnie's home (apparently bodaks can kill a man stone dead, and those slain by them rise as bodaks themselves; this was all Barridan's lore knew of them).  In the dimming twilight, we found the bodak, a pale, vile thing, dragging Arnie's corpse into the woods, and Somak and I ran to engage it while Barridan hung back and Alonso vanished into the brush.  Somak met its gaze and fell dead; I did the same, and felt my soul try to escape through my eyes, but held it to my body with the power of my unfulfilled task.  I hacked at it mightily, but to little avail; its skin was hard as stone.  Alonso fired a few arrows at it, inflicting some injuries, and Barridan threw fire at it but missed.  Again and again, my soul tried to escape me, but I denied it.  In time I felt that we were doomed; I could hold out only so long, and would eventually die, but could hardly hurt the fiend.  It came to pass, however, that it was an illusion; one instant it was there, solid as a rock, and the next it had disappeared, and Somak stood alive and with a wizard, Ythir, as his captive.  We interrogated Ythir, and learned that he had set up this elaborate trap to take the black sword from us.  He pursued the set of mighty artifacts known as the Chromata, of which Mavrilith is but one fifth.  Apparently there are also blue, green, red, and white artifacts, each guarded by a dragon of its color.  Barridan and Somak struck a deal with him; we were to spare his life, and he was to locate the remaining Chromata and return to us with their locations.  They think that because he was unable to take one from us, he will likely be unable to take the others from their respective owners, and that perhaps by cooperating with him we might acquire the rest.  I am a little concerned by this...  I trust him not at all, but was overruled by the others.  Ythir also solved the problem of the angry mob demanding justice by providing them with an illusory duplicate of himself to burn.  Thus was justice not served, and we let the killer loose to return and betray us later.  We further betrayed justice by permitting Barridan to extort a sack of potions from Millard in exchange for our silence about his involvement in Arnie's death.  I will be frank; I do not stand by justice as a principle, but if we make it our goal, we should at least try to carry it out properly.

The others were somewhat discomfited by the discovery that Mavrilith was intelligent and of great power, and further by the fact that I had been convening with it without their knowledge.  I think I will have to ask it of its origins next; even Ythir knew not the makers of the Chromata, and I am led to suspect that they were created by dragons, if dragons guard them.  That could be a weakness, if they truly serve the dragons, or it could be justice too, if I were to use the weapons of the dragons against them...  also to that end, I must ask Mavrilith if it can reshape itself into an axe.  It certainly has the raw power, and I cannot use it properly as it is.  I fear I must use it, if I am to succeed at my quest for vengeance...  but at what price?

- Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, Thirteenth Day of Firefast

( To Part 4 )

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, Part 2

( To Part 1 )

We broke camp in the woods and hiked back into Duskvale, where we found the bodies of the half-dragons, undisturbed but for flowers placed upon them.  We began the perilous descent down the cliffs towards the dragon's lair just before noon.  I espied dark, humanoid shapes climbing up the shadowed cliffs toward us, but the halfling, Barridan, rained fire down upon them, and they fell into the sea.  We proceeded to the cave mouth, where we were met by the half-blood swordsman who had escaped us last night, as well as a giant human woman in heavy armor with a great sword, who claimed to be the human parent of the halfbreeds, and was enraged by their deaths.  She struck two mighty blows at me, one of which pushed me back to the edge of the cliff, and the other of which was mercifully blocked by a stalactite.  Seeing us outmatched, the halfling and the bard decided to dive off the cliff using magic to slow their falls, and my footing was weak enough that they shoved me over the edge as well.

It was a long fall, and only made longer by the magic which protected us from the impact.  I stowed my axes so that I would not drop them when we hit the black, churning waters.  None of us were trained swimmers, and we were swept under by the current.  An eternity of darkness followed, and I resigned myself to death, regretting my failure.  When I was grabbed by great claws, I did not have the breath to fight back.  The sea cats, as we found them to be later, dragged us into a sea cave in the bowels of the cliffs.  Barridan was unconscious, but Adam, Alonso, and I were unscathed.  Additionally, the cats brought with them a towering half-orc clad in armor of dragonhide and wielding a strange spear.  He introduced himself as Somak, and stated that he, too, was here to slay the dragon.  Adam claimed that we had met Somak before, in the hills while fighting giants.  'twas a strange coincidence, but we thought little of it at the time, for we realized that further up in the cave was a row of coffins, three of which were open and mostly full of dirt.

We deduced that the closed coffins were likely full of vampires, and that the three people we had seen on the cliffs were likely the absent three, fleeing back here to escape the sun.  Alonso and I bound most of the closed coffins with rope, with the plan of dumping them into the water, while Barridan spread oil as a back-up in case it came down to using fire.  Unfortunately, Somak awoke the vampires by bumping his spear against the cavern's ceiling, and battle ensued.  The vampire escaped their coffins as foul vapors, except for the one whose coffin had not yet been bound, which jumped out at Alonso and stole his mind, making him attack me.  Alonso discharged a spell from his blade into me, and I was badly injured again.  Adam cast a spell which caused Alonso to collapse into a fit of hysterical laughter while Somak, Barridan, and I dealt with the remaining vampires.  One hid in a crack in the wall where we could not reach him, and stole Somak's wits as well, though he requested that we cease to fight.  We did so, and eventually the lord of the brood emerged from up the tunnel, a vampire by the name of Hathras.  He explained that he desired our aid in slaying Saffras, the mother of the half-dragons, who was a cleric of a vile god and had trapped him and his spawn here in servitude.  We reached a deal with Hathras, that we would let him go free if he aided us in slaying Saffras, and then rested in the sea caves, keeping a close eye on him.  I dreamed the dream I always dream...  of the burning of Kathras Deep, and of my family, and of myself.  But I was strangely interrupted; one moment I was standing atop the melted battlements, and the next I was in the deep woods, meeting Somak.  'twas disturbing, to change thus - it has not happened before in my memory.  I awoke early, and assumed the watch from Alonso.

Hathras told us that Saffras was waiting for us at the top of the cliffs, so we proceeded up after waking.  On our way through the caves, we pilfered her potion workshop, and drank many potions before engaging her on the plain outside the exit from the caves.  Hathras was as good as his word (odd for a vampire), and managed to disarm and grapple Saffras, who the rest of us then rained blows down upon her.  Alonso also slew the remaining half-dragon, and struck the killing blow to Saffras as well.  She wore a great suit of mightily enchanted black plate, and I was sorely tempted to don it in the tradition of my fathers, but we were pressed for time before our potions wore off, and we again used Adam's falling magic to traverse the cliffs, down to a great black eye in the rock where the dragon laired.

The beast hid upon the ceiling, using illusory duplicates to foil our attacks, and engulfed us in mists.  We spread out to avoid being crushed from above, and to avoid its breath, but it breathed upon me and Barridan.  I took the brunt of the breath, but was protected by Somak's magic, which warded me, Alonso, and Somak himself against the vile acid.  A vicious battle followed; Somak struck several good blows, but kept his distance with his spear and a spell which made him as tall as a giant, while Barridan's spells bounced off the beast, Adam diverted some of its strikes with illusions, and Alonso failed to pierce its hide, but for one lucky shot with his bow.  I closed with the beast, and struck many deep blows with Tooth (once my father's axe, but melted in the dragonfire that took my face, then reforged in the blood of a white wyrm, and now a deadly weapon against all dragonkind), but the beast did just as well - sensing that I was the deadliest threat to it, it tore at me savagely, and my soul was held to my body only by the magic of the many potions I had imbibed earlier.  A red mist descended upon my sight, and the voices of my ancestors urged my onward; I had an opening to retreat, but could see that the beast was nearly dead, and pressed in for the kill.  I was not to have that honor; Somak downed the beast with a thrust into its spine.  It then began to speak, accusing Adam of manipulating us.  Adam stepped forward and slew it with his rapier...  odd, since yesterday he did not have one.  I collapsed into a stupor of strange dreams from my wounds...

When I awoke, Barridan and Somak had slain Adam, and they and Alonso claimed that he had in fact been controlling our minds.  In truth, I do not remember much between the burning of Kathras and the temple at the crossroads.  It is strange...  I am not sure I believe them, for he seemed a decent sort, but the effects are writ large across all of our memories.  None of us remember meeting, nor do any of them remember where they came from.  I do...  but it is part of me.  They believe that the rod is to blame; we are not truly sure what it is, so we have buried it deep in the rock of the sea caves using Somak's magic.  We are still unsure of Adam's motives, but we speculate that he may have come for a strange, perfectly black sword, which Barridan believes to be a 'wardbreaker' weapon of some kind.  I have been entrusted with carrying it - we think that it might be malevolent, but I have assumed this risk and burden willingly.  The hoard was large, and contained a bag of great space, which we managed to store it all in, except for a few wands which Barridan has assumed possession of.  Somak has been entrusted with the bag; despite its great weight, it slows him down no more than his armor did.  We butchered the dragon's corpse for meat and the hide, and Somak and I each took a tooth as well, as trophies.

We are unsure of our next move.  We're not sure who Adam really was, or for what purpose he sought to control our actions.  I think we will begin retracing our steps with the aid of this journal; it remembers more than any of us.  Apparently there is a village a day's walk from the crossroads where we first remember; we will likely go there, and see if anyone knows of our original purpose, and perhaps seek a sage who can tell us of the black sword.

-Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, Sixth Day of Firefast

( To Part 3 )

Monday, June 6, 2011

Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, Part 1

Sometimes I wonder why I travel with these fools.  How far have I fallen, to wander in the company of an elven thief, a halfling priest-witch of the thief god, and a foppish bard who doesn't even carry a weapon.  At least the bard, Adam, has a little sense; he advocated caution while we planned our attack on the black wyrm.  The priest and Alonso, the thief, were for running straight into the beast's gullet, citing the example of Lurgorath of Yunkinsdelve, the dwarven adventurer known to them as "Leroy Jenkins."  He is more commonly known among my people as Lurgorath the Reckless.  For all they tell the stories of his triumph, the surface races never seem to tell the story of Lurgorath's death...

We sheltered the night in an abandoned shrine of Fharlanghn to keep out of the rain.  Of the human gods, he is probably the one I favor most, since the gods of my fathers abandoned me and my days are spent on his roads.  Adam thought it ill luck to sleep at a crossroads, but I think it good luck to sleep in a temple.  I suppose we shall see.

We departed the temple in the mid-morning for a long slog along a muddy, abandoned road.  To our north lay a thick jungle, and to the south a swath of fallow fields and abandoned farmsteads.  Reminded me of the Northern March after the Goblin Wars, but a damn sight warmer, and with more giant four-armed apes.  For all their bravado earlier, the thief and the hobbit fought with commendable caution...  I hope their wits do not desert them when the dragonfear hits.

We reached the abandoned town where the dragon makes its lair in the afternoon, and began a search for it.  We found instead one of its vile hybrid children, a skilled warrior with a two-bladed sword.  He charged and gravely wounded our priest, who disappeared in a cowardly fashion, leaving us to deal with him.  His hide was unnaturally thick, and he proved a worthy foe, injuring both the thief and I with his acid spittle before being felled by my axes Tooth and Claw, as well as a barrage of magic missiles from Adam.  Alonso was terribly ineffective; he could not pierce the creature's hide, but provided a useful distraction which allowed me to strike more easily.  We attempted to interrogate the beast, but it refused to speak, and so Alonso slew it and stripped the body.  Hardly the best possible outcome; more information on the lair of the wyrm could be crucial, lest our expedition end like that of Captain Ingmar to recover Tyrok's Deep from the goblin warhosts.  The goblins had dug a maze of tunnels beneath the plains south of the ruined city, and Ignmar and his army marched into the midst of it and were surrounded and slain to a man.  I hope we are not so blind.

We took shelter in a crumbling inn (though by all the Old Gods, what kind of inn has no cellar for its ale?!), and resolved to continue our search in the morning.  I thought our choice of campsite imprudent, since the dragon might notice the absence of one of its offspring and attack us in the night, but reports of zombies in the woods deterred my companions from resting there.  As it happened, my fears were borne out, though not in the manner expected.  In the late evening, the zombies of which we had heard shambled forth from the wilds.  The halfling and the thief hid in the rafters, while I resolved to hold the doorway and Adam sang a fast-paced song to stir the blood (but no proper battle chant, since he had neither horn nor drums nor pipe).  Though the sorcerer rained fire down upon them, the zombies were undeterred, and zombie wyverns brought down the roof of the inn with their weight.  We escaped out the windows while the remaining zombies tried to tear down the walls to get to us.  The wyverns attempted to crush us with their bulk, but we made mincemeat of them with our blades, and then the rest of the undead fell easily.  The zombies had tripped the Stone of Alarm which I had placed on the door of the inn, though, and as I went to retrieve it, we were ambushed by four more dragonspawn who had heard its shrieking.  I took an arrow, and then a blast of acidic bile while I engaged one of their archers, and narrowly avoided a brutal swing from one with a greatsword.  Our priest summoned a great lion, who rushed to my aid, and with its assistance I slew both the archer and the swordsman.  Meanwhile, the thief slew the second archer, though he was badly burned by its acid (for a thief, he is terrible at dodging...  he would not survive the first room of the Gauntlet of the Vaults), and the bard and the priest let the final swordsman escape down the cliffs...  Can only expect so much from magicians, I suppose.  At this point, exhausted and with the enemy alerted to our presence, my companions finally heeded my advice, and we headed for the hills to lay low for the night.  All told, not a bad day, since we had no casualties, but not the best strategic position for the morrow.

-Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, Fourth Day of Firefast.

( To Part 2 )

Friday, June 3, 2011

Trailblazer Mages: 3/4 Base Magic Bonus?

So it looks like the group's taking a break from Starmada this weekend for a D&D one-shot while we wait for Jared to return from somewhere.  I'm pretty OK with this; Starmada's fun, but we get really competitive about it, so I'm not sure it's the best thing for group cohesion.  But as the games go, so go my thoughts, and so goes the blog, and so this one's about Trailblazer

Trailblazer (henceforth TB) is a 3.5 derivative that is nominally competing with Pathfinder, though on a much lower budget and with basically no support (I hear they're coming out with a monster book soon - might have to pick that up).  They did some really neat things that made 3.x significantly more fun; my favorites are their iterative attack changes (now works like Rapid Shot, Flurry, and TWF - penalty to all attacks to get an extra attack.  Much easier to keep track of the Power Attack penalties), combat reactions (AoOs, Aiding Others, Dodging, and Blocking now all fall under one mechanic that scales nicely with BaB, giving the martial classes a nice boost in addition to the extra class features they already get), and the unified Base Magic Bonus progression / casting system, which eliminates the need for classes like the Mystic Theurge and makes Caster / Non-Caster multiclassing much more viable (for example, a Cleric 3 / Monk 6 casts as a 6th-level Cleric in all respects, which is still useful at 9th character level, while 3rd-level Cleric casting would not be so much).  Non-casters like the Rogue, Fighter, and Barbarian get 1/3 BmB, Ranger, Paladin, and Monk get 1/2, Bard and Adept get 2/3, and full casters get +1 BmB per level.  Your total BmB is indexed into a table that determines the number of slots and readied spells (CD Spirit Shaman-style) you have available from all of the class lists you have access to (with a few restrictions that I won't go into here).

Trailblazer also did a bit of class rebalancing using a numeric system developed by Craig Cochrane (author of the Immortal's Handbook).  This generates a number around 1 for each class, which is the average CR gained by taking a level in that class.  The non-caster classes get the short end of the stick, ending up mostly between .9 and .95, while the full casters end up around 1.2 after TB's modifications, plus or minus .03.  The primary contributing factor to their higher CRs is naturally their spellcasting; they gain about .4 CR per level just from their casting.  The CR from casting formula's interesting; I've reverse-engineered it to .00025 * max spell level available at 20th level * total number of spell levels per day available at 20th level (before bonus spells and whatnot).  So a 3.5 Sorc ends up with about .6 CR per level of casting, while a Wizard ends up around .4 because they have fewer raw spell slots per day.  I think, however, that the casters in the 1.2 range could be pulled down to around 1 by reducing their BmB from full to 3/4.  At 3/4 BmB, at 20th-level caster gets 100 levels of spells per day and a maximum of 8th-level spells, for a CR per level from casting of .2.  This, applied to any of the full casters, would reduce their CR per level to 1, plus or minus .3.  It also raises the level at which play starts to break down from 4th-level spells like Solid Fog that hose non-magical characters unstoppably from 7th to 10th, which means that Epic 9th then becomes a viable option (for those unfamiliar, I recommend checking out Epic 6th here).

There are, however, a couple of problems with this solution, as pointed out to me by one of my caster-playing friends.  The first is that at low levels, casters suck extra - you don't get 1st-level spells until 2nd level with 3/4 BmB.  The second is that your caster level lags as well as your spell availability, decreasing the power of all your spells in addition to limiting your slots.  The third, and perhaps most systematically serious, is that since saving throw DCs are based on spell level, by reducing spell level availability, you reduce saving throw DCs against spells across the board.  My proposed solution to problem 2 is to do something similar to the Bard's Arcane Forte ability, which grants them a bonus to caster level with spells from certain schools.  This lends itself beautifully to specialist wizards, and to domain-centric clerics, but I haven't found a good way to apply it to subsets of the Sorc or Druid lists yet.  Problem 3 could probably be solved through careful selection of spells - those without saves, like most rays, or those with saves that you know your enemies to be weak against.  I'm loathe to increase save DCs across the board, though I'm also slightly tempted by True Sorcery's approach, where all spells had a save DC equal to 10 + half caster level + relevant ability score modifier.  It introduces a nice parallel to monster special ability saving throw DCs, and makes low-level spells more useful at high levels.  3.5's psionic augmentation rules might be the best way to go, though.  Finally, I don't have a good solution for lack of spells at first level, except perhaps to round BmB up at first level with a 3.0 Druid Animal Companion-style caveat (for those unfamiliar, a 3.0 druid could choose an animal companion with a number of HD less than or equal to their druid level, except for 1st-level druids, who could get up to 2 HD of animal companions).

Thoughts?  Nerdrage?  Willing victims for playtesting?  I'm hoping Tim'll let me run a TB character this weekend for the one-shot; while I ran a 10thish level TB campaign last summer, I could stand some 6th-level playtest data as well.  Also, this may lead up to a Wilderlands of High Fantasy TB campaign - I found a cheap used copy of the Necromancer version of Wilderlands recently, and it looks like it would play kind of as a cross between Traveller and D&D, which would be pretty awesome...