Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tale of Ythir Minicampaign. Also, Neat Puzzles: A Case Study

Since some folks have left for the second half of the summer, the campaign with Barridan and Fjolkir has been put on hold until their return, and Tim's now running a game detailing the backstory of Ythir (since when we met him, he was basically an unknown).  Jared's currently playing Ythir (human illusionist), while Ethan's running a Miranda, a dwarven paladin, Eric has a human blaster sorcerer by the name of Aluna, and I have Asmir, a half-elf thief / wizard multi (he stole a spellbook and taught himself a few useful tricks from it).  It wouldn't make much sense for a thief to keep a journal of his exploits; no sense writing an incriminating document.  As a result, no in-character journals for the next two months or so.  I do intend to do more mechanical / gameplay recaps, though.

Assembling the party was kind of awkward, since there was no prior familiarity between characters except for Ythir and Aluna.  It ended up being kind of contrived; this is looking more like a conspiracy-type game.  Ythir and Asmir are both working for unknown benefactors, and Miranda serves an unknown power through the intermediary of the elders of her religious order.  Only Aluna serves a known master, Seche Peret, the Man Who Knows Everyone (a halfling mafia don, basically).  So nobody trusts anybody else, but we've all been sent after an artifact in the elven ruins.  This could get ugly...

Only had one combat the entire session.  It was in the edge of the Impasse, a region of hazardous and unstable latent magic.  Random monsters fell out of the sky on us, basically.  I was pleasantly surprised by my effectiveness; I dealt a good 90 points of damage to a grey render zombie via sneak attack damage (huzzah for Trailblazer removing undead immunity to sneak attack), justified as putting darts into its eyes and slashing its hamstrings.  The paladin took a hammering from a girallon (enough damage to have killed me, but less than half her HP), and the sorceress laid down the fireballs and did most of our damage.  Jared / Ythir were surprisingly ineffective; the girallon made its save against a hypnotic pattern, and there wasn't a whole lot he could do.  Troublesome...  I imagine Jared will do some plotting over the next week.

When we did get to the ruins, we ran into some puzzles.  Normally I really hate puzzles in D&D...  but normally I'm on the other side of the screen trying to come up with them, rather than trying to answer them.  Likewise, I'm used to a smaller family group; with four players, we were able to come up with solutions fairly quickly.  Back home with only two players matching wits against a well-prepared DM, puzzles could drag on indefinitely.  So a pleasant surprise here.  The first puzzle in particular was a stand-out: We had a grid puzzle which was based off of cellular automata (which were familiar to most of us from classes) similar to Conway's Game of Life.  Our inputs served as starting states for the grid, with 'correct' answers being those that reached a certain end state after any number of iterations from the start state.  Giving an incorrect answer either opened parts of the floor or generated lightning.  Tim's automata was simple, with a cell sharing borders with two black cells becoming black, and the puzzle being solved when every cell became black (given an input of five initially black cells)  Interesting points on puzzle design that could be derived from this one:

  • Use the things you know your audience knows to your advantage - Tim knew we'd seen automata, and so those became a puzzle topic which we could be expected to solve (as opposed to, say, differential equations).  It was neat to see theoretical computer science in a dungeon.  I believe Alex was looking at using non-deterministic finite automata as a dungeon map once.  I wonder what else could be pilfered from computer science for use in dungeoneering puzzles...

  • Alleviating bad trap syndrome - Yes, there was a trap here.  No, it wasn't just a HP tax per wrong answer, since squares on the floor corresponding to black squares on the wall were safe from the trap triggered by a wrong answer.  And it wasn't just a zap trap, because it was interactive and interesting.  We tried all kinds of things, including marking the walls, floor, and ceiling, and seeing how the whole system responded to different kinds of touch (pole, hand, sword, &c).  Finally, the trap couldn't just be disarmed by skill checks, and we didn't have the magic required to bypass it (no passwall, teleport, etherealness, or similar), so it became a team effort.  In short, Tim did an awesome job of making this obvious trap interesting.

  • Build extensible puzzles, then reuse - So Tim's game here was pretty simple; grid of 25 squares, each of which has two states, alive or dead. Player input of five live squares, transition rule of "live squares stay live, squares sharing borders with two live squares become live", and a success end state of "after any number of iterations, all cells live."  There's a lot more you could do with this type of puzzle by changing any one of those parameters...  giving cells three states, for example, and changing the transition rule to account for that, or a different start state with some cells already live but fewer player inputs, or any number of other things.  So it would be pretty easy to generate similar puzzles of higher difficulty, and we should be able to solve them since we now understand the basic concept.  Further, we know it was built by elves to hide artifacts.  Thus, if we encounter such a puzzle, we can guess that it was probably built by the elves, and is guarding interesting things.  Likewise, if we ever need to challenge a high elf to a contest of wits, we might think to build a complicated automata puzzle for him to try.  Just that connection between elves and cellular automata puzzles adds something to the world.  Hopefully they'll come back.  I guess what I'm getting at here is that a puzzle which is an element of a sufficiently complex set of puzzles could effectively serve as a recurring 'villain', in a loose sense of the term.
 So, in summary: excellent puzzle, Tim.  The other two were a series of riddles and a Leap of Faith-style puzzle; both very traditional, and we knew what we were up against pretty much immediately.  Less interesting, but very much in keeping with fantasy tropes.  Also, let it be known that we tricked the paladin into taking the leap of faith because we weren't sure if it discriminated between the 'pure of heart' (ie, characters of good alignment) and the rest of us.  At least, that was what I was thinking.

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