Monday, April 30, 2012

Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, Part 7

Today, a dragon was slain.  We awoke in the morning (from wonderful and terrible jungle dreams) and received the wards of the elder druid, before being transported to the last campsite of group of warriors in the service of the green.  Their campfire was some days old, and we tracked them to an ancient elven temple.  There we were met by an ancient elf by the name of Qual, who claimed that we had in fact been ensorceled, as the green had shifted his shape into that of the elder druid and directed us to slay the other party, which had escaped the grasp of his enchantment.  Qual also told us many things of the origin of the world and the chromata.

In the beginning, there were Tiamat and Bahamut, gods of the dragons.  And they created dragons upon the earth, and the humanoid races with the purpose of extracting wealth from the stone and forging treasures from it, that the dragons might hoard it.  Bahamut and his metallic dragons ascended to a higher plane of existence, leaving only the evil chromatic dragons here (though I refuse to believe in the existence of a beneficent dragon...).  The elves and gnomes stole arcane magic from the dragons, and came to have greater mastery over it than their progenitors.  The dragons took poorly to these upstarts, and sought to crush them.  To this end the five chromata were created by Tiamat, one for each color, and each to aid in the destruction of the arcanist races.  Mavrilith, as we well know, is forged to directly destroy arcanists themselves.  Spiritus Mortus, the white chromata, creates some sort of state between life and death, for purposes unknown.  The Thief of Being, the blue, is a perfect disguise, that the blue dragon possessing it might walk among men and sow discord.  The red Keepsake protects the mind from illusions and enchantment, the traditional schools of the gnomes and elves, respectively.  Finally, the green Gentle Master granted direct but subtle control over the minds of men.  Qual also revealed that the chromata of each color attracts dragons of that color to itself; I, for one, look forward to crushing any black wyrm which comes for us.

When questioned on our motives for seeking the chromata, Qual suggested that we had likely been manipulated by Ythir into gathering them for his struggle against the elf king who rules Dehlia, whose release from an ancient imprisonment Ythir is responsible for.  This elven king desires to conquer the continent and crush free will beneath his pointy-toed boot.  The mention of this king attracted Mavrilith's interest; it coiled in my mind, and suggested strongly that we assist Ythir in this endeavor, for it would love little more than to feast upon such a powerful and ancient mage.  I have little objection to this, for any such tyrant and sorcerer is no friend of mine, but I reminded it that Anaximath must be slain as well, to which it agreed.

With our desire to gather the chromata reaffirmed despite Qual's warnings, he provided us a ward to protect us from the green's influence and we embarked via tree stride back to the druid's encampment, there to meet Scylla the elder in battle after receiving many blessings from both Barradin and Durnik.  We spoke with it, and it shifted and took off while breathing vile gases upon us.  I disrupted its castings while we closed the range, and then the martial trance took me.

When I came to, the dragon was slain, but so was Karath.  He was a good elf (as good a one as I have ever known), and died a dragonslayer.  We gave him a hero's burial, and then Shin-Yao and I set about butchering the dragon while Barradin and Durnik searched for its hoard.  The meat is rank and inedible; I am not sure how best to cure it to make it worth eating.  I consider this a challenge, and will apply all of my art to it.  The horns, bone, and organs may all have value to the mages of Hollowtown, though, so we have gathered them.  Shin-Yao has taken many teeth as trophies, and I have commissioned for myself an emerald scale cloak; the tigerskin was badly corroded by acid.  The magic in the hoard was mostly trivial, but there was much coin of both gold and platinum; we are well and truly in the black (It seems that I have come to be the unofficial treasurer of the Fists...  and I suppose the chronicler as well.  Harumph.).  Barradin took possession of the green chromata; while in other hands I would be worried for my mind, I find myself trusting Barradin with its power.  Mavrilith, after all, has not corrupted me...

We returned to the ship and the crew's spirits were greatly eased by the skull which we carried.  We mounted it upon the bow and rechristened the ship Scylla in honor of our victory (I cannot help but think that Karath would have been as fitting, but I am informed that by tradition all ships must have female names).  We set sail back to Hollowtown with favorable wind just as the sun set.  Next on the list is Anaximath herself...  I shiver with fear and anticipation.

- Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, Fourth Day of Forgefeast


We have made excellent time sailing downriver, and it has been an uneventful voyage.  The jungle is quiet, as if in respect for our victory and for the fallen Karath.  We should reach Hollowtown tomorrow without trouble.  I have found Qual's words on the origin of the demihuman races troubling...  To be a creation of the dragons is humiliating.  On the other hand, to seek vengeance as such a creation is truly poetic justice.  To wield a weapon crafted to crush the demihumans against them, as Mavrilith was, is doubly so.  I grow to feel a kinship with it; we both have a finality of purpose.  We are both willing to be used by the other for our own purposes, and we understand that that is where we stand.  It is a fearsome thing, this loss of sense of self, the merger with something cold and hungry...  But it is not so different from what I was, all those years in the woods.  I realize now that before, I was only willing to die to slay Anaximath, to throw away my physical self, but only recently have I become willing to destroy my mind.  The spirits of the unavenged dead goad me on; all sacrifices are acceptable.  Nothing else matters.  Anaximath must die.

- Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, Fifth Day of Forgefeast


We are One.  The dwarf sleeps, dreaming of all that transpires, and the blade walks in his skin.  Together, we are as Death, riding a wooden horse adorned with skulls down the Lethe.  We continue this journal for the appearance of normalcy it gives the dwarf's companions; they worry for our sanity.  They cannot know the magnitude of the dwarf's bargain and his willing sacrifice, for they do not know the depth of his need for vengeance.  We shall drink deeply of the blood of sorcerers, and we shall avenge against dragonkind.  This is our twofold purpose.  We drank deeply today to seal the covenant; a short, fat, angry little wizard with pretensions of rulership, and then his throne (tangy) and other magical architectures (filling, but bland).  We desired also another small wizard, who the dwarf knows as Barradin, but he is protected from us by our green brother.  He seems to continue to travel with us rather than taking his shattered throne, so perhaps an opportunity will arise.  We have hatched a plan which should fulfill both of our purposes in one stroke; we shall engineer a conflict between Anaximath and the elven king, Oberon, who we know of old, in the midst of his own city.  To this end, we have sent the spearman and the hammerer to petition Anaximath, while we and Barradin shall go to the city and secure Ythir's assistance.  We gathered also several things which we deemed necessary for this plan, including diamond dust, many small pieces of shining metal, and a service of local priests in sending a message to Ythir, then departed upon our ship for the city of Dehlia.

- Gestalt, First Day of Union


We have arrived in the city of the elven king, and are met by agents of another short one, who is called by the name Seche Peret.  He is of no direct interest to us, but has designs against Ythir, so he is useful.  He has aided us in securing a place to meet with Ythir, who confided in us that he will assist us against Anaximath and Oberon, provided that we rid him of an enemy who tails him, one named Asmir.  We agreed to do so, and Ythir departed via teleport.  He will be scrumptious, but we must not let our hunger interfere with the grand strategy.  Sacrifices must be made by all.

- Gestalt, Second Day of Union


A trap was laid for Asmir; we do not enjoy being used as bait, but we perform this function well, and at killing we are even better.  This one had an interesting flavor; dark and aromatic, purposeful like us, and driven to cause death.  Barradin was badly injured in this slaying, and so we were able to pull several items from the corpse without his notice, chief among them a disguising hat and a pair of soft, silent boots.  Duplicity is in our nature now, and assistance cannot go amiss.  We were apprehended by tall guardsmen after the deed was done, for Barradin had lit fire to a building in the act, but they were diverted by Anaximath's arrival over the city.  Our time to strike had not yet come, for the elf has now shown his hand, so we hid and rested briefly.  Ythir appeared and asked that we travel with him to parts unknown; we did so, suspiciously, but found there the bearer of the white shield, Spiritus Mortus.  We tore it from his grasp and crushed the life from him; after some debate, it was decided that we should bear the shield as a gauntlet, for the dwarf already hears the souls of the dead which it bears with it, and since we will likely be foremost to attract Anaximath's ire.  The dwarf stirs, fearing from the shield a damnation worse than death, but we remind him that he has granted us any means necessary to fulfill purpose, and that according to Qual's revelations, the gods and afterlife of men and dwarves are but invention.  He cedes this point, and agrees.  We are three now.  As we write, we make preparations to unite with the New Fists, as Barradin calls them, and to engage Anaximath and Oberon.  The hour of dual fulfillment of purpose draws near.

We seek a custodian for this journal; preferably one who will not be in the vicinity of dragonfire in the near future.  Barradin and Ythir both seem viable candidates.  This is our final entry; we will not journal further, for after what is to come, no illusion of dwarf normalcy will be possible, we think.  Yet we see no reason to destroy this record of what we are and how we came to be.

- Gestalt, Third Day of Union

To Part 8

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fluff is Crunch - Of Boots and Gauntlets

Roles, Rules, and Rolls has been putting out a stream of really good posts recently.  Two things in particular struck me as warranting potentially a bit of my attention in running ACKS (well, more than that, but this one I decided might be worth writing about).  In Analog, Digital, Procedural, he concludes with the pronouncement that "In Old School play, fluff is crunch."  This, I think, is going to be a very valuable insight for a grognardling trying to run an oldish-school game for the first (well, second) time.

Something which struck me in combination with this was from Taking Secret Doors Beyond the Letter S.  In particular, this bit:
Niche doors usually open by pressing a button at the back of one of the niches, and these buttons also open the corridor doors, though they may be some distance away from their chosen door. Part of my map notes involved working out which niche button would open which secret door. There was a good moment when I combined one of those buttons with a poison needle trap that was already in the key. "Okay, you push the button in ... with your finger ..." Well, the dwarf had a great save and made it, but from then on, used his axe handle.
 The "fluff is crunch" idea immediately caused me to ask "Was he wearing gauntlets?  Because getting a metal needle through a piece of metal might take some doing."  So I started thinking about gloves and gauntlets as a varying continuum of protection vs manual dexterity; on the one side, you have plate gauntlets, where you can poke things with relative impunity but are going to have a fun time unstoppering a potion bottle, and on the other, you have fingerless thieves' gloves, which provide excellent freedom of motion but are no good at all for stopping poison needles (which might explain their popularity on locks).  In the middle you have general purpose "leather gloves" with no particular gains or losses.

A natural extension of this paradigm is to boots as well; I vaguely recall hearing somewhere that the 1e DMG actually did this, but I don't know the details.  Again, you have a stealth vs protection continuum, with soft boots being good for sneaking but no good against caltrops and hard boots being loud but durable.  It might also be possible for the introduction of high vs low boot categories (an important distinction when wading in questionable substances, as dungeoneers often do), but I'm having trouble finding much of a benefit to low boots in these circumstances (perhaps a relative resistance to fungal foot-rot?  More ankle flexibility?  General comfort is hard to measure).  Finally, hobnails and steel toes warrant a mention; I distinctly recall the dwarven fighter in the 3.0 starter box being noted as having hobnail boots, and it's something that's stuck with me as a decent (if loud) idea for dungeoneering ever since.

Anyway, probably not something I expect to ever come up in 3.x, but hopefully I'll remember this when I start equipping pregens for ACKS or creating templates.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Lands of the Inner Sea - The Shieldlands

In elder days, the Empire of Zahar ruled across the lands of the Inner Sea.  The literal children of the moon, they build great crescent-shaped monuments to their dark and chaotic gods, and their sorcerer-lords created the beastmen as their servants.  In time, the race of Men came to the Inner Sea (from where is disputed - the Skanucks claim that men fled from the Farthest North to escape the Long Winter, while the Urdukhar believe they sprang fully-formed from the river mud and the Islanders claim to have always been upon the isles).  For an age their fledgling kingdoms paid tribute to Zahar in maidens and slaves, but the sacrifice of the king of Soros' daughter finally sparked the Zaharan War.  Unable to crush the humans with their legions of beastmen, the Zaharans researched rituals too unspeakable even for them, bringing a cataclysm down upon their heads.  Their lands burnt, temples shattered, and legions decimated, with hordes of angry humans after their heads, the surviving Zaharans swiftly made themselves scarce.

What once was the Zaharan heartland lies well west of Dardantus.  Once a fertile river valley of sandy soil, it is now a mix of vile mires, scorching deserts, and crazed glass where the cataclysm melted the sands down to an unknown depth.  Terrible monsters created by the Zaharans roam the land and have established breeding populations, with bands of beastmen as their primary source of food.  The dead walk, unholy things stir in ruined temples, and when the weather's bad it rains blood and the winds drive shards of glass at deadly speeds.  It is a hellish place, where even the bravest men dare not tread for long.

Between Dardantus and Zahar, the land suffered a great upheaval rather than being burnt, forming a region of badlands, marshes, and stunted forests.  These are the Shieldlands, so called for lying between Zahar's horrors and the rest of the lands of man, and the folk who settle here are a heterogeneous and surly bunch; outlaws, monster hunters, charlatans, relic seekers, cultists, trappers, petty warlords, prospectors, and exiles from a thousand lands.  Few people migrate to the Shieldlands willingly, and wisely so - it is said that no man has ever died of old age in the Shieldlands, and not without reason.

Politically, the Shieldlands are not unified under any central authority.  There are a number of small forts (as well as many ruins) and "cities" (which would be called small towns in any other region) scattered through the Shieldlands, but who rules each changes fairly often - assassination and "unfortunate accidents" are not uncommon.  The terrain has so far impeded the unification efforts of a number of ambitious warlords, and most schooled in history posit that unification is not feasible.  Notable among the towns are Gold Rock (named after the discovery of gold there following the upheaval, now a thriving market town), Freetown (which maintains a citizens' militia and refuses to be ruled; has the best pies in the territory), Dusty Hole (founded as a temporary cave shelter during a duststorm; turned out there was clean water in there and it was pretty safe), and Dirk Hill (site of the infamous Dirk Hill Massacre and a popular place among duelists and sellswords).

Arable farmland is uncommon in the Shieldlands, but that doesn't stop people trying to make a new life from scraping subsistence out of the rocks, sand, and scrub.  Homesteads are a common but risky mode of living; if the goblins don't get you, your neighbor might.  Most Shieldlanders tend to sleep with a weapon close at hand as a result.  Goats are popular as far as livestock goes, and hard liquor is the preferred beverage (with "Anything with alcohol" running a close second).  Water in the Shieldlands is often unsafe to drink, and the contaminants that blow in from Zahar will do less pleasant things to one than a mere case of loose bowels.  Drinking, wenching, drinking, gambling, drinking, and goblin-hunting are the regional pastimes, in order of decreasing preference.  Duels are also a common feature of life in the region, though one feature of Shieldland duels that surprises many recent immigrants is that there are no rules (for all practical intents and purposes), though it is considered polite to verbally challenge the target before trying to stab them, and downright gentlemanly to wait for a response and let them draw a weapon first.  The Shieldlanders tend to wear greys and browns, typically as a result of lack of washing, and also favor a peculiar style of long leather coat.  Masks and bandannas to keep the dust out of one's lungs are common, too; identity concealment is a nice bonus for many wearers.  The Shieldlanders are not particularly devout as a rule, tending to pray in short, violent bouts to any deity that will listen.  As far as clergies go, the Ashtari blade-dancers are by far the most popular in the territory, though it is fortunate for them that they are well-armed and well-trained.  Various chaotic cults have homestead-shrines as well, but no mainstream religion has many worshippers among the Shieldlanders.

Common threats to the Shieldlanders include beastmen (most often goblins, but frequently also gnolls, orcs, and worse), undead, werecreatures, and eldritch monstrosities like skittering terrors and beetlephants.  The typical response to a goblin raid is to form a posse and go after them, but skilled slayers of undead and werebeasts are always welcome in many homesteads.  The monstrosities tend to attract trappers seeking to catch the beast alive and sell it to the fighting pits of Dardantus; such trappers are regarded with suspicion by all right-thinking Shieldlanders, as they've been known to be a bit unscrupulous with their choice of bait.  Zaharan ruins and ruined settlements are both fairly common in the Shieldlands, but most wise folks (read: not PCs) avoid them.

As far as cultural composition goes, the majority of Shieldlanders are Myrmidian or Sorosi in origin.  The Myrmidians are often failed or rogue mercenaries, while the Sorosi are washed-up pirates, bandits, con men, wandering swordfighters, and the like.  A reasonable portion of the 'civilian' population is a mixture of these two ethnicities, and consider themselves to be native Shieldlanders.  The granite dwarves are fairly well-represented here as prospectors, merchants, smiths, and warriors; their craftpriests are also well-respected for their usefulness, lack of proselytizing, and ability to hold liquor.  The elves, Urdukhar, and and Skanucks are all uncommon but not unheard-of, while the Sajuk are quite unfamiliar.  Also notable is that the Shieldlands are the ancestral home of the hobbits; they keep to their shires and defend themselves via savage guerrilla tactics, having long ago had any innocence burned away by goblin raids.  They do, however, produce an exceptional brandy which is widely beloved throughout the Shieldlands, and many a town has gladly welcomed a family of hobbit refugees on the condition that they take up brewing and distilling it.

Prominent inspirations for this area include Renegade Crowns and the American Old West.  It's one of the least Ancient World-y places on the Inner Sea, but it sounded like a lot of fun at the time (and is perfect for ambitious PCs to trying to set themselves up as lords).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sometimes they win... (or, On Dragon Tactics)

Source: https://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/ag/20031108a


In Tim's campaign this last weekend, we spent most of the session fighting the green dragon guarding the green chromata (one of five elder draconic artifacts).  Tim was rather disappointed with the fight, and in some respects I was too.  But first, the good:
  • Snatch + Throw was very cool.  My dwarf was thrown forty feet into a hut.  Nothing says high-level / badass like being thrown into a solid object, demolishing it in the impact, and then getting back up and daring them to do it again.  Also sweet was being able to do the "Tordek hits the dragon in the nose while in its mouth" art from the PHB; rolled a crit for it, too (guess I got the eye).
  • The dragon enfeebled Drew's monk.  That was a smart / rat-bastardy move, and I approve as a result (sorry Drew).
  • Decent use of fly-by attack to disrupt our ability to full attack, and a very interesting interpretation of its interaction with breath weapon.
  • Good terrain / scenery; cliffs to fall off of, rivers to jump over, huts to demolish, and so forth.
  • We managed to execute our planned tactics more-or-less flawlessly; Drew removed fear while I disrupted its spellcasting with arrows, Matt punched an enfeeble through its SR, Jared hobbled its wing with Sunder, and then we beat the living tar out of it.  With buffs up, we were all doing terrifying amounts of damage (70-120 points per full attack each for Drew, Jared, and I).  If Tim hadn't made it a Trailblazer Solo Monster for x4 HP, we'd've downed it within a round or two of engaging.
Which brings us to the not-so-good...
  • I had planned and prepped for a mature adult green (CR16).  We're level 10-11ish, so that would've been about CR+6.  This meant that all the buffs were go for this fight, because at CR+6, you need every last bonus.  I was justified in the belief that this would be such a fight because the black guardian had been a mature adult as well; CR14 when we were at 8th level, so +6.  And that was a hell of a fight.  (Yes Tim, it actually was a mature adult - black dragons aren't huge until mature, it had AC29, and it took about 250 points of damage to bring down.  An adult would've been large / AC27 / 200 points).  So I was a bit let down when it was actually just an adult green at CR13, for CR+2-3, which would've been a challenging fight...  if we hadn't buffed.  As it was, we were hitting with most attacks, and it missed me with about half of its full attack routine, which was highly unexpected.  This dragon was significantly weaker in terms of core numbers and raw melee power than the one we killed three levels ago.
  • Many poor tactics on the dragon's part.  
    • It knew we were coming for it, and it had 5th caster level.  It could reasonably have had some hour per level buffs up before the fight (Mage Armor), and during combat it should've been casting stuff like Haste and Displacement rather than Mirror Image and Fog Cloud (fog was great for the black dragon in a confined space, but I am dubious of its potential utility in the high-mobility fight we were in).  Slow would've negated our Haste edge, too.  The mature adult I was expecting would've had CL7, so I was prepared for stoneskin, improved invisibility, and potentially a mean dimension door + crush combination on Barradin (our sorcerer).
    • Failed to exploit its mobility edge to the maximum extent possible.  Better tactics would've been to continuously use fly-by attack with breath weapon, staying out of reach of our enlarged spearmen.  Once we were out of acid protection, we'd've had to head for cover or the woods.  Alternatively, if we split to avoid breath weapons, a good move would've been to snatch someone isolated (Barradin would've been a prime candidate, as would I) and fly off...  and then drop them from 200 feet of altitude for 20d6 falling damage.  For bonus points, drop into the nearby lake full of sea monsters.  Either of us would probably have survived, either by feather fall (Barridan) or being made of solid hitpointium (me), but it would've split the party and rendered a quarter of our force ineffective.  For a creature with three feats invested in flight (Flyby Attack, Hover, and Wingover), it spent entirely too much time on the ground.  Hover in particular would actually have been a fantastic plan; the 60 foot radius cloud of concealment that it generates would've forced the reach fighters into the dragon's own reach, and would've protected it from most of Barradin's offense (and hindered his casting).  Note that this differs from fog cloud primarily in that 1) it moves with the dragon, 2) it isn't burned off by fireballs or gust of wind.  Hence, useful.
    • Exceptionally smart play would've combined both of these elements.  Engage briefly to determine if we're a serious threat, determine that we are, use fly-by breath weapon to escape melee without provoking AoOs (and deplete acid protection), maybe snatch and drop to split the party or neutralize a particularly annoying foe, and fly off.  Wait 9 minutes so the party's minute per level buffs start expiring and maybe provoke the party into starting a short rest.  If significantly damaged, instead short rest off the damage dealt by the party; what's good for the PCs is good for the monsters (this also relates strongly to Al's advice on Monster Hunts; large solo monsters that are going to disengage need some way to heal, and TB's short rest is a beautiful way to do it).  Then, cast buffs of your own including the Cats / Bulls / Bears suite, Invisibility, Mage Armor, Protection from Good, Shield, Haste, Displacement, and so forth.  Meanwhile the party is either trying to track you (good luck) or sitting around your lair sweating bullets as their buff clocks tick down.  Return and engage with the buff advantage now back in your hands, and crush them beneath your scaly talons.  
    • Also entertaining is the possibility of combining the flight mobility advantage with fireballs from long range for the AC-130 effect, since we weren't warded against fire.  Probably a losing proposition against a party with an artillery sorcerer, though (but he had used most of his 3rd-level slots for elemental protection and haste...). 
    • If, after disengaging, buffing, and re-engaging, it was still losing, retreating back out was certainly a viable option.  A good plan after that would've been to shapeshift into a bird (the dragon's shapeshifting capability, while technically not rules-legal, was established previously so that's a fair move), follow the party back to the ship, and then do one or more of the following:
      • Sink the ship while the party sleeps; huge dragon with water breathing should have no problem punching a few holes in the bottom.
      • Kill the henchmen, crew, and mule if / when the party goes back out into the jungle to find you, then lie in wait aboard the ship.
      • Enslave via green chromata (mind control artifact against which we were warded) the henchmen, crew, and mule.  Attack the positions your opponent cannot defend...  like the minds of his allies.
      Then you end up with an unbuffed fight against the fully-buffed dragon and your former crew at the same time aboard a sinking ship in a lake full of sea monsters in the middle of the night. A third-engagement final climactic showdown.  Exciting!
    • Finally, a relatively minor mechanical error: forgot to utilize combat reactions.  For a creature with 20+ HD and full BaB, these generate giant defensive bonuses that can help keep you from catching rays of enfeeblement or from being hit with dragonbane weapons.
  • No minions!  Every quality villain has a few mooks to get in the way and Aid Defense at the very least.  If you're extra-lucky, they might even grapple the wizard.  Minions the party trusts (like mind-controlled henchmen) are a good choice, as are your own children.  Cultists are slightly less good, and undead are worst as a rule.
So...  short version is that the dragon played like a videogame boss rather than a giant evil intelligent lizard who has dealt with adventurers before (Int 16 is certainly enough to come up with any of the above strategies, especially given what was at stake).  Tactically, it played to our strengths (melee damage output and short-term buffs) rather than its (mobility), and we absolutely ripped it apart while sustaining minimal damage (yeah, Jared took half his HP in damage, but he takes half his HP every fight, so that's nothing special).  Strategically, it didn't play at all, refusing to turn the fight into a running guerrilla engagement or to escalate to total war against the PCs' allies.  Tim ran it in combat-as-sport mode; limited to the immediate battlefield, with no apparent long-term contingency plans in place despite this being its place of residence.  No explosive runes on the treasure, no caged tigers waiting to be released, no hidey-holes out in the woods to run to and lick its wounds...  Nothing.  The dragon existed only in the immediate place and moment; it had no past and no future.

You might ask, though, "Is a fight against a high-mobility flying combat-as-war dragon that neutralizes the party's strengths fun?  After all, isn't that what we're here for?"  And my response to this is that if the party simply tries to engage such a dragon with standard tactics, they will die like chumps.  While this can be entertaining in and of itself, hopefully they will realize this is the case before dying like chumps (this seems fairly likely, given dragon flying maneuverability and our acid protection).  Once this realization is had, the Crazy Plans begin.  Plans like "Let's polymorph the monk into a giant eagle and try to Stunning Fist the dragon out of the sky" and "Let's try to toss the dwarf onto the dragon's back" and "Maybe we can use the [mule | henchman | bard | halfling] as bait get him to fly low enough for the half-orc to break his wing, and then we can gang up on him on the ground."  I, for one, enjoy Crazy Plans much more than standard move-around-the-grid-and-roll-dice-until-it-dies combats.  Then, if and when the Plan goes right and the dragon is slain, the players can claim that it was by their cunning and skill, rather than purely by their numerical and mechanical superiority.  That they truly earned their victory, rather than having it handed to them.  That !!FUN!! was had.

Further, dealing with high-mobility flyers is one of the standard dragon-hunting tropes; comes with the territory, and shouldn't be ignored for the sake of a nice set-piece battle.  Used every dragon fight?  Maybe not; stuff does get old and annoying, and PCs will fall back on old crazy plans again, which then become not-crazy.  But this one in open wilderness?  Hell yes.  We failed to corner or ground the dragon; flight was a natural and suitable strategic consequence of our tactical error (which stemmed from the planning error of not bringing harpoons or giant nets of iron chain, which stemmed from the systemic error of the exotic weapon proficiency subsystem...  but that's another post).

In conclusion: Tim complained of the lack of cinematism in this fight.  I will agree that little was to be had (except throwing through buildings).  Retreating and re-engaging later builds tension; it's almost like having a legitimate recurring villain.  Crazy Plans beget cinematic moments; ergo, if you want cinematism, fight dirty and watch the players scramble.  Eat the henchmen, sink the boat, burn down their hometowns, and so forth.  This is a dragon, goddamnit, the biggest, baddest scariest monster in the book; anything goes.  It has a name and 16 Int, and it's on its home turf; this whole thing should've played out a lot more like Predator, complete with piles of dead henchmen (and potentially PCs), explosions, and traps (starring Shin-Yao the half-orc as Ah-nold).  Good stories do not come from standard "run up and hit him" combats - in the words of a sig on EnWorld, "When Perseus fought Medusa, the math didn't work and combat was really swingy.  Perseus was a hero.  The good stories are never about balanced encounters."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Lands of the Inner Sea - Dardantus

I don't have a scanworthy map drawn up yet, so instead I'm going to be doing a bit of textual description of places.  This is as much a process to get my thoughts in order as it is to potentially inform players, I guess.  Still need a world name and a bunch of place names.

There are two main seas; the Inner and the Outer.  The Inner is long and narrow, running north-south, and its coasts are the primary region of human settlement.  The climate is wet and cold in the north, hot and dry in the south, and pleasant in between.  At its southernmost extent, the Inner Sea meets the Outer Sea at the Straits of Dardantus, which take their name from the city which is built there.  The city of Dardantus is a hub of trade and culture, home to the Great Bazaar and many temples, including extensive complexes of both the Harmakhans and the Ashtari.  Anything which can be bought or sold is available, including magic items, Thrassian mercenaries, war galleys, exotic animals, spices, and slaves.  Who or what rules Dardantus is unclear; it is known only that missives sealed in distinctive purple wax sometimes appear mysteriously, and kingdoms rise and fall upon their content.  Rumor and speculation suggest demons, undead, and worse, but the common belief is that a cabal of merchant-wizards is more likely.

As a result of the lack of clear rulership, law in Dardantus is a murky business.  There are magistrates operating under the authority of the seal, whose purpose is to keep commerce running smoothly.  In practice, they tend to pursue only crimes against particularly wealthy merchants, and those involving destruction of large amounts of property.  Corruption is exceedingly common, and bribes or small gifts are part of daily business.  Justice for small crimes is, by and large, just another commodity in Dardantus to be bought, sold, and haggled over.  All manner of unsavory agents are used to carry out vendettas, including the Harmakhan assassins, mercenaries, and adventurers.  A number of secret societies and guilds of thieves wage a continuous proxy war; adventurers who become unknowingly embroiled in it will soon find their lives made quite interesting.

Dardantus entered human hands during the Zaharan War, when the Sorosi took the Zaharan city of Darad-Knar, upon whose ruins Dardantus was build.  The Dardanians declared independence shortly thereafter, and despite their naval power the Sorosi have been unable to retake the city ever since.  The fact that previous Sorosi efforts have been foiled by unfortunate accidents and freak storms is often used to lend credence to the notion that a supernatural being rules Dardantus, but wiser heads attribute the accidents at least to covert operatives.  While unable to retake the city, the Sorosi pirates are known to favor ships flying Dardanian colors, and as a result Dardantus maintains almost no merchant marine of its own, instead preferring to charge others for the service of using the straits.

As a people, the Dardanians maintain much of the flamboyance of their Sorosi origins, though their tastes have been altered by their constant exposure to cultures from across the Outer Sea.  They enjoy spicy food, dark wines, brightly colored clothes, intrigue, bloodsport, and other 'exciting' diversions.  A grand arena caters to these latter tastes, as well as numerous smaller rings across the city.  Monsters are in high demand, and many a beast-hunter from the Shieldlands to the west seeks to bag an owlbear or basilisk for sale to the arenas.  These arenas also host races, duels (which in Dardantus are often by proxies or champions of both parties, in contravention to Sorosi dueling policy), and the annual Tournament Arcane, which brings an influx of mages to Dardantus in the early spring.  The other great yearly celebration is the Festival of Masks, held in the fall, which is a confusing and often destructive mix of revelry and secret society activity.

Of the other cultures of the Inner Sea, the Shieldlanders, Urdukhar, and Sorosi are all common sights in Dardantus as merchants, priests, and sailors.  Myrmidians in Dardantus are typically mercenaries in the employ of wealthy merchants, while the Talasi are very rare except during the season of the Tournament, which they often win.  It is unheard of for the Skanuks to raid this far south, and various Skanuk chieftains are on record as not believing so large a city possible.  The Sajuk horselords gave up on trying to sack the city ages ago due to logistic difficulties, but individual Sajuk are not uncommon in the employ of caravans as drovers or guides.  The sandstone dwarves of the eastern mountains maintain something of a ghetto in Dardantus, as it is a common destination for their caravans and their works are held in high esteem, though the granite dwarves of the west are much rarer.  Dardantus hosts the greatest proportion of Zaharans in any Inner Sea state, though there is still much prejudice against them and they tend to keep to themselves.  When someone other than a Talasi wins the Tournament, it is typically a Zaharan.

Of the Outer Sea cultures, the elves are the relatively common compared to other parts of the Inner Sea.  Many elves in Dardantus are believed to be agents of the Jade Throne, and often rightly so.  They play well in the intrigues of the city, but have yet to win any significant control from its mysterious masters.  Merchants from the island state of Volar are common as well, being a fellow Sorosi successor state, and they bear with them spices, slaves, and tales from the other cultures of the outer rim.  The lizardmen of Thrassia are most common as slaves and gladiators, though a few merchants are known to employ them as terrifyingly savage bodyguards.  Natives of the Crawling Isles are not uncommon, often coming in on Volari merchant vessels, but are also often slaves.  The obsidian dwarves are highly valued as slaves for their rarity on account of their insular and warlike nature.

In short:  In location, Byzantium meets Gibraltar.  In spirit, not unlike Mos Eisley.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Still Alive...

... but not much to say.  Most of the stuff I was working on seems dusty or non-useful.  I have started brewing a setting for ACKS in preparation for the summer game, though.  At this point I'm just kind of sketching on the macro level.  It would be a viable strategy to just pick a small region, detail it, and drop the characters into it...  but I kinda feel like the Big Picture is an important part of sandboxing.  Even having some rough data down gives me material to use; where are these merchants from?  Well, where does it make sense for them to be from?  And so forth.  I think I'm going to wait on player input before I choose a region to start drilling down to deeper detail for.

At this point I think my primary sources of inspiration are history, the Wilderlands, and Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories (of which I must admit I have not read as much as I would have liked).  History is handy mostly on a flavor level; yes, part of me does want to run wintery Medieval Northern European fantasy, but Skyrim kinda beat me to the punch, and there are a lot of underutilized sources from the classical world.  So far I've tapped the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hellenic Greeks, Babylonians, and Byzantines, and I'm also considering the Hittites.  More of a "civilization is yet young and not really all that civilized" flavor that I really liked in Iron Heroes.

Wilderlands and Leiber both seem to agree on a couple points that I'd like to steal.  From Wilderlands, the primary political unit is the city-state and the territories which pay it tribute, and these city-states exist in a tense pseudo-peace most of the time.  War is a possibility, but open war at least is not continuous.  Related in Leiber's work is the existence of The City, Lankhmar (or, in Wilderlands, the City State of the Invincible Overlord).  Effectively, a Rome-grade city which is rife with corruption.  These are great places to pick up hooks, buy and sell crazy things, become embroiled in intrigue, and (as an endgame goal) conquer and rule yourself.  Also notable in both of these settings is the wide variety of climates; I'd like it to be possible to climb White Fang Mountain one session and explore a ruined desert city the next (just as was done in Swords Against Wizardry) at sufficiently high levels for travel to be relatively easy.  So that's something I'm consciously keeping in mind as I map.  A world of diverse climates is likely to have a higher number of distinct cultures, too; pulling from Guns, Germs, and Steel, cultural diffusion is strongly influenced by crop spread.  Since crops grow best in similar climates, many climates means many less-advanced cultures without that much interaction, which is perfect for the feel I'm going for.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Kernel Mode Engage

No material and no game this weekend.  Must write kernel.  Kernelkernelkernel.  Probably no post tomorrow either, and possibly Wednesday; should be good for Friday.  I apologize for this interruption.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Reflection on My Origins and Supplement Bloat

Freshman year, I tried to run a game that would go back to my roots.  D&D 3.5, 1st level PCs, 4d6 drop and assign with utterly newbie players in the Sunless Citadel.  I expected it to be a blast, and it almost was.  The druid's animal companion was a bit strong, but other than that, things could have been OK.  Except that I had one of Those Guys...  a WoW veteran who went straight for the CharOp boards and ripped through supplements, and ended up running an area control Tome of Battle crusader with a spiked chain.  My official policy on supplements at the time was "anything goes"; I had a fellow who wanted to play a warlock, and what's the danger of supplements for newbies, anyways?  They were having enough trouble getting their heads wrapped around core that I wasn't concerned.  Man, did that backfire.

So that game dissolved, and I started DMing for a group of established gamers.  I guess I took away the wrong message; I thought it was just a problem with That Guy, and people like him.  There was some cognitive dissonance going on, because I saw in him a mirroring of myself, and that led to my first post on powergaming.  But in any case, when I went to run True20 for the veterans, I once again allowed supplements - the Warrior's and Adept's Handbooks (the Expert's Handbook was a terrible affront to True20's design ethos).  And so we had one canny, sneaky thief...  and an absolutely unstoppable warrior and a wizard who was immune to basically everything I could throw at him.  That campaign died when I finally threw up my hands and went "Look, the only thing that can actually threaten Mr. Wizard here is a caster of like 6 higher level than you guys, using True20's Disjunction equivalent.  There aren't many of those in this setting, and I don't have time to prep that ones that do exist.  Also, if they come after you, they will bring a horde of orcs and you will all die."  So we killed that campaign and converted to Traveller.

But during the post-mortem discussion for True20, we as a group realized that supplements were probably the real problem.  The thief was skilled, and could sneak or lie his way out of anything, but was terrible in a straight-up fight.  In short, he was what a thief should be.  The warrior and the wizard were absolute monsters, and the pieces of their designs that enabled that power came primarily from supplements.  So, for the Traveller campaign, we came to a consensus as a group to make things from supplements available only under the GM's purview, and introduced into the game in the manner of his choosing, rather than being driven by the players.  And with that rule established, the Traveller campaign was pretty damn awesome.  We've been running core-only Traveller and Trailblazer ever since, and those campaigns have likewise gone pretty well; none of them have folded over rules interpretations or inability to prepare for PC combat capabilities (though I think we're pushing the limits of Tim's willingness to prep in the current TB game...  :\.  )

My recent musings on playing with newbies brought to mind my own time as one, and how awesome it was.  And I started wondering, "Wait...  how did I get to be a terrible powergamer?  I know I wasn't like this at the beginning."  And I looked back through time.  My first campaign was the 3.0 starter box.  Went great, except for when my fighter died, but hey, that happens.  Second campaign was right after we got the actual 3.0 books, and went fantastically; many dragons were slain, much treasure gotten, and much fun had by all.  We had access to the A & B 3.0 supplements (Tome and Blood, Sword and Fist, and so forth), but we didn't take that much out of them.  No prestige classes, and I don't think any feats, though probably some spells.  After that...  things started to go down hill.  There was the 20th-level game where we went "Let's see what 20th-level characters can do...  holy shit", the Midnight game with Thagg the feral half-orc half-dwarf giantblooded orc-tosser, the X-Crawl gestalt ubergenerics game, the Savage Species monster-gestalt game, our travesty of a Vampire the Masquerade game (featuring Olaf the Brujah lumberjack berserker), the True Sorcery thought experiments...  urgh.  Notable high points were several low-level games with my friends from high school (rather than my family), and my brother's Eberron game, which was distinctly more sane (though still quite high-powered).

And after a bit of reflection on this descent into insanity and powergaming, when I run ACKS over the summer, I don't think I'm going to be allowing stuff from the Player's Companion.  Nothing against the ACKSPC, but...  class and spell construction systems are really more GM tools, anyways.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Starmada Nova: The Armor Trap

When I first read the Nova rules, I started wondering about armor.  It looked like a nice, straightforward defense, so I ran a little math the next day to see how the shipbuilding numbers work out.  I came to some conclusions that I thought it might be best to keep quiet.  The forums (namely BeowulfJB and a few others) reached similar conclusions recently, so I figured I might as well share here.

In short: the trouble with armor is that it costs the same as buying more hull, but it provides you with very little benefit over just buying more hull.  Having a larger hull provides you with more of those delicious SU, whereas armor actually costs you SU.  As a result, if you want a ship that can take n hits, you're almost certainly better off going with just hull n rather than hull m and armor p such that n = m+p.

There are, however, two possible uses for armor that I can see.  The first has to do with thrust.  A hull n ship has a higher thrust factor than a hull m armor p ship.  How much higher?  Thrust factor scales as hull to the 1.7th power, so thrust t on a hull n requires 2*t*(n)^1.6 SU.  If you look just at the case of a hull n/2 armor n/2, then the armor consumes 30*(n/2)^.7 SUs, though for the same thrust you'll likewise need to use 2*t*(n/2)^1.6.  I did some tables in OOCalc, and I'm having trouble creating useful graphs of my findings since they're in three dimensions and relative, but it is possible to generate an SU savings via armor.  The trouble is that the circumstances must be somewhat extreme; for example, if you really, really want a ship that can take 68 hits and has thrust 8, you can save 222 SU by making it Hull 34 Armor 34 compared to straight 68 hull.  But, for 4, 8, and 12 hits, half-armor-half-hull generates no SU savings for arbitrary thrust.  This is also true of any multiple-of-four number of hits less than 68 for thrusts less than 8.

The other thing armor does is that it lets you ever-so-slightly manipulate the way your systems degrade.  For example, a hull 5 / armor 1 ship can take 3 hits before being damaged, then another 2 to crippled and 1 more to destroy, while a hull 6 ship takes 2 for each step of damage.  Likewise, a hull 4 / armor 4 can take 4 hits before being damaged and 6 to cripple, while a hull 8 takes 3 and 6.  This lets you front-load your damage, and retain fighting effectiveness for slightly longer at the price of a more rapid degradation once you hit damaged or crippled.  However, as you move to larger hull sizes, this effect is diminished; you'll only ever be able to front-load one extra point, which is much more significant on small ships (where armor is basically guaranteed to not generate an SU savings on thrust).  I think this may be a worthwhile use of armor on smaller vessels, though; may have to try it out.  But for like...  a ship that you want to take 16 hits and have thrust 5?  Avoid armor.  You could go hull 14 armor 2 for front-loading (6 to damage, 12 to cripple, 16 to destroy vs 6 to damage, 11 to cripple, 16 to destroy), though it's not clear if that's really advantageous, and but other than that there seems to be little to no advantage to be gained from it in the majority of cases.  Flavor / conversion reasons naturally remain valid.

The really annoying thing is that this is, to some extent, true of ECM and shields as well.  These both have actual advantages, though - ECM can turn long range fire into no fire, and shields can beat the odds if your dice like you.  On expectation, though, both of these will likewise increase your effective hull by some fraction, but use up your SU, generating an effective hull n with less SU and higher potential for thrust than a hull n should have.  I have yet to actually run the numbers on them, though.

Monday, April 9, 2012

On Expeditionary Play

 A vital part of retaining command of any expedition is having the fanciest hat.
A sense of direction helps, too.

During the Hollowtown session of Tim's campaign, we ran into an odd situation.  We had decided to head for Helheim Green, and were in the process of negotiating for passage aboard a ship, and for the hiring of a crew.  Being the party treasurer and a covetous old dwarf (gold may not be terribly useful for my quest...  but it sure is pretty), I was concerned that we actually might not have enough cash to make good on Matt's wager and to provide per-casualty hazard pay to all of our surviving crew.  Matt interjected, though, with "Once we get the green dragon's hoard, the expedition should be in the black, though," and then something clicked.

In particular, it seemed to echo something I had read in the rpgist's ACKS playlogs:
"A few days later we're back in Mitylene. The [stone] head they had recovered fetched a decent price, but with two healing potions used the expedition was in the red."
 And I went "Oooh...  so this is that old-school resource management thing I keep hearing about!"  (I'm actually kind of joking; Trailblazer is really fairly weak on resource management, what with the short rests  and similar.  Really the primary resource we're having ground down is action points.  But gold is certainly one of some concern these days, too).

More seriously, I think the usage of the term 'expedition' over 'adventure' is likely worthwhile.  An expedition clearly entails going somewhere, likely exotic.  It conjures images of dense jungles, crocodile-filled rivers, scorching deserts, mule trains, sailing ships, and volcano-temples full of bloodthirsty natives. It has an almost pulpy feel to it.  The term adventure is positively bland by comparison, evoking a slight sense of risk, but nothing on the order of an expedition.  Crossing the street can be an adventure, but I would be hard-pressed to find streets where crossing entails an expedition.  Further, an expedition ends, by definition, when you return home.  You may decide to mount a follow-up, but it's a separate expedition.  Likewise, you may build a camp at your destination as a base for forays into the surrounding area, but this is not home or civilization, where there are shopkeepers, taverns, and the rule of law.  This clear start and end provides a nice kind of bookending, and is very suggestive of episodic play.  Adventure, on the other hand, has been confused in this sense; where does an adventure begin or end?  When the dungeon is cleared?  There is no clear answer, and the issue has only been further obscured by hundreds of published modules.

Finally, to return to the beginning, an expedition suggests logistics, and it is fairly natural for english speakers to say that an expedition is in the red or black.  If you say that an adventure is in the black, the natural response is to ask if you're playing Traveller and speaking in the Firefly style.  Thinking in terms of expeditions seems likely to encourage players toward resource management, because it brings to mind such people as Lewis, Clark, and Shackleton, who made a habit of bringing quite a lot of supplies and henchmen with them.  The term "adventurer", on the other hand, has been torn from its roots among the gentlemen-adventurers of previous centuries and, in an RPG context, means "drifters capable of destroying towns", or, colloquially, "murder-hobos."  Also conveniently, one who undertakes expeditions is not an expeditionist, expeditioneer, or other noun; it is to the players to choose titles for themselves, rather than "adventurer."

So: come summer, when I too run ACKS, there will not be adventures.  There will be expeditions.  And I quite look forward to using the Wilderlands of High Fantasy Ruins and Relics table to generate targets for them (even if I am unlikely to run a game in the Wilderlands, it's a good table).

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Starmada Sunday: Nova Clarifications / Errata

The MJ12 boards have been busy shipbuilding and theorycrafting, and a few revisions have been made.  There were a number of fixes for some of the shipbuilding numbers which are fairly irrelevant to people just using tools to build spreadsheets, but a couple of important player-size clarifications have been made as well:
  • Long-Range Sensors are going away.  The math didn't work on them properly, and they were going to be the next "Just Too Good" thing.
  • Carronade is going away.  There was a fun hack with it that I found where you could use a range 9 carronade on a thrust 6 ship and have it actually cost less than a range 6 weapon, despite being strictly superior.  There's no fix except a total rebuild of the ship pricing rules, and since dual-mode weapons can now have different ranges between their modes, its primary intended use in AE is gone.  Hence, no more Carronade :(
  • Double, Triple, and Cata damage have been clarified to not be any more effective against fighters than normal weapons causing the same number of hits (ie, one double damage hit against a fighter flight causes them to be damaged, not destroyed outright).  This is analogous to AE impact / damage against fighters.  These traits have gained a pricing discount as a result.
  • Scouts upgraded - If you have one Scout per 400 points of fleet, all enemy ECM values are reduced by 1.  This has the potential to reduce Scout's uselessness against a fleet with no Escorts, but is also useless if they have no ECM.  Scout ships also become high-priority targets when used in this function, which is nice.
  • New weapon trait - Pinpoint.  Pinpoint weapons ignore the -1 penalty for firing at fighters, drones, mines, and seekers.  It's the old anti-fighter trait, basically, but less expensive.  Perfect for all your point-defense / CIWS needs.
Mostly, I think these changes are for the better.  Carronade will be missed, but Fire Control can help ameliorate its loss.  In any case, my spreadsheet has been updated to reflect these rules changes.

Cricket has also relented and created a shipbuilding subforum, so I have yet to determine whether to just post my BFG conversions there and link from here, or to double-post.  Remains to be seen.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Duelists and Dullness

The audience loves this guy.  The rest of the players...  not so much.

As I mentioned in my last journal post, a mage-duel took place last session.  Matt's sorc went up against a wizard of similar level, and he had a great time (though he went through a worrying number of action points...).  Meanwhile, the rest of us were sitting around, dispersed among the watching throneguards, waiting for things to go south.  They never did, though; Matt achieved a clean win, and the rest of us were sorely disappointed.  It was a terribly boring event for four out of the six people at the table at the time, which is hardly an optimal outcome.

This isn't an uncommon problem for duels in D&D.  I've seen it happen twice before; once was a mage's duel on an airship in Eberron, and another was a duel of swords in a dungeoncrawl (the BBeG, knowing himself outnumbered, challenged the party paladin to a duel, trying to exploit his honorable nature for a tactical advantage).  Both times, the rest of the party sat around bored while the duelist's player had a high old time, and it was unfun.

I have, however, seen two reasonably successful duels pulled off.  In the first, the party had actually been split, with the fighter fighting his duel against the half-fiend giantblooded gnoll berserker leading the siege of a town while the rest of the party dealt with a separate warband of gnolls many miles distant.  This structure worked out very nicely; nobody was bored, and yet there was still the notable, dramatic event of "fought unaided in single combat against a powerful foe."  The second success occurred during my Trailblazer one-shot, with a lizardfolk berserker challenging a champion of the party's choosing to single combat in a ring of battle.  While this was taking place, though, the remaining lizardfolk sounded their drums of panic and engaged the rest of the party, since the rules of the duel were that 1) the duelists couldn't leave the circle until one was dead, and 2) nobody else could attack or aid the duelists.  Allies were perfectly legitimate targets.  This also was a reasonably good fight for all but the bard, who failed his save against the drums and fled.  This, I feel, is basically the canonical solution - PCs never, ever expect the enemy to fight fair, and so during a duel the rest of the party fully expects to be attacked by whatever minions the duelist may have lurking in the wings.  Sometimes, giving the audience exactly what they expect works out beautifully.

There are also two possible solutions which I have yet to try.  The first I will term the Roman Solution, as it originated in the Dragon magazine issue on gladiators.  Gladiatorial combat is just a long series of duels, and so the solution to party boredom that was suggested was a combination of "make sure everyone gets their time in the spotlight by dueling on a regular basis" and "have intrigue in the stands, in the gladiator stables, and elsewhere while fights are happening".  Thus, PCs not actively engaged in the duel might be busy betting on the outcome, or under attack by members of a rival stable in a dark alley, or trying to rig the fight in some way (or prevent their enemies from rigging it), or otherwise occupied by something besides building dice towers and twiddling their thumbs.  Effectively a variant of splitting the party, but one worth noting for its primarily non-combative nature - the other PCs are doing things, but those things probably aren't fighting.

Finally, I have yet to try the Rokugani Solution - duels which are either to first blood, or which are exceptionally lethal.  Such a duel could work not by keeping the rest of the party involved, but by being exceptionally fast in terms of resolution time, such that the rest of the party doesn't have time to get severely bored.  High lethality dueling also places that much extra tension on the duel and makes the decision to duel significantly more meaningful.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, Part 6

We spent two days at the bridge waiting for a ship to take us downriver.  Truth be told, I think it likely we could've walked to Hollowtown in that time, but the rest was welcome and we'd've had a good time trying to cross the triangle of rivers guarding Hollowtown if we'd walked.  On the first day, I focused on drilling with Shin-Yao and Karath.  We must act as a unit if we are to best dragons...  Shin-Yao is prone to rash offense, while Karath is defensive and takes advantages of openings presented by others.  As Lord Ingveh the One-Handed taught in the Granite Academy at Kathras, one should use one's men according to their temperament, and so I think it best that we plan on Shin-Yao making reckless charges into the enemy, with Karath and I following to support his advance.  It lacks glory, but if glory is the price of victory, then glory we shall sacrifice.  The next day was spent fishing, wrestling with the bridge-guards, and other such simple amusements.

Finally, around noon today, a boat arrived at the bridge, the Lieutenant Strange under the command of one Jeremy Jeremiah, a former hunter of whales.  She was bound for Hollowtown, and so we decided to buy passage.  More surprising, however, was the appearance of a tall, gaunt man in robes with a great pike on the deck.  He introduced himself as Durnik, a priest of Kord, and claimed that Karath and Shin-Yao had abandoned him for dead after their battle with Adam.  For their part, Shin-Yao and Karath did not recognize him, and things were heated until Barradin stepped in and invited him to join us on our quest.  While this was taking place, I was approached by Arnie Tavern, seeking employment in our service.  I offered him a wage of five pieces of silver each day and the title of Muleguard, and so we have gained a retainer.  We therefore numbered six and a mule upon boarding the Lieutenant Strange.

I had not been on a ship before, and so went with some trepidation, but found the rocking motion strangely comforting and not at all as terrifying as many of my relatives had described it.  The journey itself was uneventful, and we arrived at the docks of Hollowtown several hours after nightfall.  Barradin and I secured room and board while Shin-Yao, Karath, and Durnik went carousing.  For my part, I found it hard to believe that they would have much luck in a town that serves halfling-sized drinks.  I was vindicated in this when Shin-Yao returned disappointed, though Karath managed to learn many rumors and Durnik returned in the company of a human harlot.  I have little love for either men of the cloth or wenchers, and so finding that we had gained both in one person among our ranks was most disappointing.  I retired to polish my axes and my armor; Mavrilith hungers, for this is a city renowned for its mages and arcane works.  I hope I am not given call to feed it.

- Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, 24th Day of Firefast


While breaking our fast in the inn, a squad of guardsmen came calling in search of Barradin.  We were led under heavy guard to the palace of the Magelord; while the officers did their best to disperse the crowds that followed our march, many turned out to see Barradin, and one even shouted that he should be elevated to Magelord.  I do not support this plan of action, for this would surely put an end to our current plan of dragonslaying.  Fortunately, Barradin agrees, as was made clear in our meeting with the Magelord.  The palace itself is a great stone structure, and the way the floor feels under my boots tells me that there are cavernous rooms below the surface as well.  The Magelord himself, a fat, bejoweled little creature short even for a halfling, sat upon a powerfully warded throne and belittled Barradin extensively, accusing him of a plot to overthrow him and assume the Magelordhood.  Barradin denied these allegations, but when his competence was insulted, he challenged the Magelord to a dual of arcane power to surrender rather than to the death.  The lot of us were made to watch from bubbles of magical silence surrounding the hall's pillars, where the Magelord's bodyguards also waited.  While it is wise to keep prying ears from private conversations, this cannot be good for their morale...  and when I plied them with a flask, they seemed most undisciplined as well.  Even among dwarves, drinking at one's post is not tolerated; it used to be, but we learned the hard way when the goblins attacked on Saint Vodka's Day.  In any case, I was quite prepared to deal with them violently if necessary after this damning evaluation of their soldiering, and I quite expected to have to, as duels often escalate in just such a fashion.  Fortunately, this was avoided when Barradin transformed into a great bear and mauled the Magelord into submission.  Truly, a dwarfsome strategy; I cannot help but approve of this direct and violent method in contrast with the Magelord's own indirect and defensive witchery.  With this victory, we had won our freedom...  but Mavrilith began whispering most disturbingly that I should slay the Magelord and shatter his throne.  My finger itched to take it in hand and do as it bid, and I was sorely tempted, for the man is clearly a witch and a tyrant and treats his soldiers poorly, but I resisted, for this would undo all that Barradin had won.  As we exited the palace, it was greatly wroth with me, but I consoled it with the thought that we would likely return, and vowed that when we do, it shall feast upon the Magelord's throne.

A great crowd had gathered about the palace awaiting Barradin's return, but they were forcibly dispersed by the palace guards and we returned to the inn.  One of the guard captains conveyed to us that they had been given orders to slay us, but that they refused to carry them out for fear of their own lives after the duel, and that we had but a few days to flee the city.  We therefore arranged, by way of a most expensive wager with a most disreputable human by the name of Gorb of Chovis, for a ship to Helheim Green.  Gorb refused to go himself, or to book us passage, considering it a suicide mission, and so we wagered him that we would not return, such that if we did, then we were to keep his ship, and if we did not, he would have thirty thousand pieces of gold from the black dragon's hoard, held by a reliable bank in Hollowtown in the interim, with a halfling accountant by the name of Lazy Highcharts.  Gorb consented on the condition that we provided five of those thirty thousands upon completion of the deal, and this we did, and so gained a ship, though it is not yet named.  Convincing the crew, represented by one James Firstmate, was easier, though they required an odd term in their hazard pay contract.  With these dealings done, our treasure was nearly as exhausted as we were, and so we retired to the inn for a final night in Hollowtown.

- Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, 28th Day of Firefast


We embarked as the sun rose upriver to Helheim.  We had two days of uneventful sailing as the woods grew darker and thicker and the climate hotter around us.  This is kilt-and-breastplate weather, if ever I have felt it; I have been in forges colder than this (and fitting too, for the turning of the month).  The crew is terrified of the jungle, but my companions seem to be holding up well (except for a few who are having trouble with the sea-sickness), and Tom the mule is downright unconcerned.  I spent yesterday fishing off of the rear of the ship (the aft, I believe the sailors call it?) and today drilling with Tavern.  He is not a terribly skilled fighter, but I have seen worse, and in time he may be made dangerous.  It unsettles me that I sometimes think of people as weapons to be wielded against the dragons, but here the likeness is strong; this weapon requires sharpening, but is made of good steel.

At the end of the second day, we arrived at the mouth of a great lake with banks of black volcanic sand, from which the river flows.  The crew were greatly afeared of this place as well, due to tales of great crocodiles and worse monsters, but we saw none, and weighed anchor a hundred yards from the coast.  We resolved to head east into the trees in the morning, then bedded aboard the ship.

- Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, 2nd Day of Forgefeast


We awoke early and headed into the jungle before heat of the day came; the crew was sad to see us go, but we left Tavern and Tom with them.  Shin-Yao has been entrusted with the carrying of the useful consumables from the bag, which was likewise left with Tom; to the crew's knowledge, it is but a common saddlebag, not a powerful artifact full of more powerful artifacts.

We traversed many miles of terrain, with Barradin deploying magical eyes throughout the forest while Shin-Yao tried to keep us from quicksand and other hazards.  For my part, I searched long and hard for signs of the dragon's presence; at its adult size, it must be quite large, and so I should expect to see holes in the canopy from its passing through, or great swatches torn through the undergrowth, in addition to the chemical-stinking corpses of its victims.  Despite my best efforts, I found none of these, and am convinced that this area of jungle must not be part of its territory; if it were, I would surely have known.  This was, however, part of the territory of a mated pair of tigers of great size, which attempted to ambush and devour us.  They were easily-enough detected, and Shin-Yao and Durnik went after one while Karath, Barradin, and I went after the other.  The one fell beneath Karath's blades and my axes after inflicting some superficial injuries on Barradin, but the other pounced on Shin-Yao with terrible strength, dragging him to the ground, tearing at him fiercely.  He was badly wounded, and we had to drag him out from beneath the beast's corpse after it was felled by a spear-blow from Durnik.

I skinned one and made of it a crude cloak, and also cooked and ate its heart; only after the fact did I realize that there is something in this place which awakens in me a savage nature which has slept since my memories returned.  I have been having...  flashbacks, I suppose, throughout the day.  Terrible atrocities of which I have no memory, and yet which I believe I may have committed in the Norwoods after Kathras' fall.  These thoughts disgust me, but I cannot avoid them - if these are things that I have done, then I must know them.  And yet...  for all that this place and my savagery is horrific, there is something beautiful in them as well.  This is a place of predator and prey, of life and death, constant growth and decay, of perfect balance upon the razor's edge.  This is the true nature of the world, writ large; no hesitation, no mercy, only the strong and the dead.  The wonder I feel for this place is only amplified by my newly-found beast-speech.  After Shin-Yao and I constructed a wooden sleeping platform in the trees, I spent an hour just listening to the frogs.  They are many, and their thoughts, while simple, are...  eloquent, I suppose is the word.  This place is as much a city as Kathras ever was, and I am as at home here.  For here, strength determines one's place in the hierarchy rather than appearances and tact as among humans, and I have strength to spare.  The thought that the humans on their boat fear this place perplexes me...  for an instant, it marks them to me as prey.

I hesitate to sleep, for I dread what horrors I may dream in this place.  It is truly a strange thing, to hope for the burning dream...

- Journal of Fjolkir the Beardless, 3rd Day of Forgefeast

To Part 7

Monday, April 2, 2012

Random Books

Riffing off of Query-Based Reconnaissance, Grognardling, and the Dungeon Dozen, I decided to come up with some books for fantasy campaigns, along with topics and number of questions.  I think I'm going to do something like "For each day of study, a reference work allows you to ask one question about its topic, up to a maximum of n plus your Intelligence modifier.  These questions need not be asked immediately, and may be asked during combat without taking any time."

And so, books!

  1. Manual of the Black Lotus: An Assassin's Formulary.  A thin black book with no writing on the exterior; provides up to five questions on poisons.  Often written in obscure, secret, or malevolent languages (Zaharan, Infernal, Assassin's Cant, &c).
  2. Drums in the Deep: The Memoirs of Durik Thalagrim, Goblin Hunter.  A formidable tome bound in unadorned brown leather and written in a clear style, providing up to seven questions on goblins or subterranean navigation.  Almost always written in Dwarven.
  3. Of Gods Most Foul.  A thick book, with an iron cover and a lock.  An exceptionally complete work on the deities of the monstrous races, this tome provides nine questions on the theology, worship, and rituals of such gods.  Compiled and written by a militant inquisitorial arm of one of the major good-aligned churches, typically in a Church Latin-equivalent language and in a writing style similar to the historical Malleus Maleficarum.
  4. A Compleat History of the Broken Wands.  A scholarly treatise on the history, membership, tactics, and campaigns of a famous company of mercenary wizards, as well as the opponents that they fought.  The book provides up to five questions on these topics, and may additionally provide a few tips or suggestions for spell research to combative mages.  Often written in Elvish, and considered a canonical volume by Elven war-wizards.
  5. The Saga of Ingbold Norviksson, as Compiled and Translated by Imris the Scholar.  Typically found as an illuminated manuscript, though the first editions are rumored to be on scrolls of sealhide, the Saga provides up to seven questions on the gods, heroes, myth, and culture of the Frozen Northlands or other viking-equivalent culture (should such exist in your campaign world).  Typically written in common, but in the style of the historical Prose Edda, and often with very confusing metaphors.
  6. Shortbreads, and other Hobbit Cuisine.  A cookbook, typically bound in green, and providing five questions on cooking or hobbits.  Typically written in Common, as no respectable hobbit would be caught reading a book with such a terrible title.  It's rumored that the original author was ostracized from his shire as a result of the publication, and became the first (and perhaps last) adventuring hobbit.
  7. On the Creation and Descent of the Beast Races.  A weighty tome with a wolf's head on the cover, written by a clearly unbalanced wizard with a good amount of personal experience with beastmen, On the Creation is still a useful reference work for those interested in hunting them.  It provides six questions on the habits, societies, religion, and arcane methods of crossbreeding to the astute reader.  Written in an odd rambling style, typically in an obscure arcane language.
  8. The Unabridged Travels of Alain of Murdosh.  A blue-bound volume of fantastical stories of the sea by a retired deckhand-turned-pirate captain.  Some of them are even true!  Most useful to adventurers, however, is the section on managing a crew of rowdy pirates.  As a result, the book provides four questions on nautical superstition and the practice of piracy.  It may be used for a further four questions regarding other fantastical locales mentioned, but the answers to these have only a 50% chance of being correct.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Starmada Sunday: Battleships of the Imperium

Well, Nova's been out almost two weeks now, and I still have yet to play a game.  Cricket has a web interface for shipbuilding up called the Drydock.  Unfortunately, it has save / load / view-other-peoples'-stuff functionality, so it's replacing the Bourbaki Basin subforum.  I'm not a terrible fan of its input procedures, nor do I like having to be tethered to the web for my shipbuilding, so I rolled my own.  As a result of the lack of a Nova Basin subforum and my dislike for the Drydock, my BFG to Nova conversions are going to be posted here (all ships intellectual property of Games Workshop).  There is some debate over formatting for text-only outputs, since ship cards are one of the things Nova set out to accomplish, so I'm going to be using a variant of AE's Drake Notation.  Should be pretty straightforward if you're familiar with either Nova or AE.

At this time, I have a strict conversion system for Imperials and Chaos.  I tried the same on the Eldar, and, well...  they looked like they needed some help (not that the Imperial preponderance of Range 6 weapons is great, mind you, but they needed some extra help).  Not sure how to handle them yet; might want to play a few games first.

Anyway, conversions!  Without further ado, battleships of the Imperium:

Emperor-Class Battleship (572)
Armor: 6 5 * 4 3 * 2 1
Hull: 18 17 16 15 14 13 * 12 11 10 9 8 7 * 6 5 4 3 2 1
Thrust: 3 2 2 1 1
Weapons: 0 1 2 3 4
ECM: 0
Shields: 3 4 5 6 6
[X] Batteries, 4 / 8 / 12.  [PP4] [SS4] [FX2]
33 23 17 12 | 8 6 | 4 3 | 2 1 | 1 1 | 1 0
[Y] Turrets, 1 / 2 / 3, Acc.  [TT0]
8 5 4 3 | 2 1 | 1 1 | 0
Special: Fighters (Slow; 8 flights), Marines (6)

Retribution-Class Battleship (440), TL1
Armor: 6 5 * 4 3 * 2 1
Hull: 18 17 16 15 14 13 * 12 11 10 9 8 7 * 6 5 4 3 2 1
Thrust: 4 3 2 1 1
Weapons: 0 1 2 3 4
ECM: 1 1 1 0 0
Shields: 3 4 5 6 6
[W] Batteries, 4 / 8 / 12.  [PP2] [SS2]
36 25 18 13 | 9 6 | 5 3 | 2 2 | 1 1 | 1 0
[X] Lances, 4 / 8 / 12, Acc, Prc, Gid.  [FX0]
5 3 2 2 | 1 1 | 1 0
[Y] Torpedoes, 6 / 12 / 18, Dfs, Skr, Slo, Prc.  [FR0]
14 10 7 5 | 3 2 | 2 1 | 1 1 | 0
[Z] Turrets, 1 / 2 / 3, Acc.  [TT0]
6 4 3 2 | 1 1 | 1 0
Specials: Directional Defenses (Forward), Marines (6)

Apocalypse-Class Battleship (440), TL1
Armor: 6 5 * 4 3 * 2 1
Hull: 18 17 16 15 14 13 * 12 11 10 9 8 7 * 6 5 4 3 2 1
Thrust: 3 2 2 1 1
Weapons: 0 1 2 3 4
ECM: 1 1 1 0 0
Shields: 3 4 5 6 6
[W] Batteries, 4 / 8 / 12.  [FX0]
9 6 5 3 | 2 2 | 1 1 | 1 0
[X] Lances, 2 / 4 / 6, Acc, Prc, Gid.  [PP2] [SS2]
18 13 9 6 | 5 3 | 2 2 | 1 1 | 1 0
[Y] Nova Cannon, 5 / 10 / 15, Acc, Bls, Gid, Prx, Prc, Cat.  [FR0]
3 2 2 1 | 1 1 | 0
[Z] Turrets, 1 / 2 / 3, Acc.  [TT0]
6 4 3 2 | 1 1 | 1 0
Specials: Directional Defenses (Forward), Marines (6)


Oberon-Class Battleship (463)
Armor: 6 5 * 4 3 * 2 1
Hull: 18 17 16 15 14 13 * 12 11 10 9 8 7 * 6 5 4 3 2 1
Thrust: 3 2 2 1 1
Weapons: 0 1 2 3 4
ECM: 0
Shields: 3 4 5 6 6
[W] Long Batteries, 4 / 8 / 12.  [PP2] [SS2]
18 13 9 6 | 5 3 | 2 2 | 1 1 | 1 0
[X] Lances, 4 / 8 / 12, Acc, Prc, Gid.  [PP2] [SS2]
6 4 3 2 | 2 1 | 1 1 | 0
[Y] Batteries, 3 / 6 / 9.  [FX0]
15 11 8 5 | 4 3 | 2 1 | 1 1 | 0
[Y] Turrets, 1 / 2 / 3, Acc.  [TT0]
8 5 4 3 | 2 1 | 1 1 | 0
Special: Fighters (Slow; 4 flights), Marines (6)


Here's what I've been doing:
Hull equals BFG hull times 1.5.  Escorts have hulls down in the 4-6ish range; hull 1 just doesn't work.
Armor is equal to 1.5 times BFG shield rating.
Shields are equal to 8 minus the BFG shield rating (this maintains the same probability of damage).  For the Imperial armored prow, I used Directional Defenses (Forward), which grants a -1 to incoming fire from the front and +1 to fire from other sides, and ECM 1, which inflicts a -1 to fire from all sides.  This combines to produce a -2 to frontal fire, which is half effectiveness, and -0 to fire from other sides (until ECM degrades, at least).  The difference between 5+ to damage and 6+ to damage is half effectiveness, so this models that nicely.  If you feel like it, swap out the ECM 1 for Stealth 1, which does the same thing but doesn't degrade.
Thrust and ranges are converted at 5 cm to 1 hex.  BFG's fighters are too slow to work in Nova on this scale, so I've given them the Slow trait; best I can do.  I've also considered doing a "Fighters and Bombers as Slow-Firing Guided Seeking weapons with broad arcs" conversion; that might be in the future (possibly after I add Dual-Modes to my spreadsheet).  One problem, though, is that since seeking weapons can't be fired at other seeking weapons, you'd be unable to use fighters to attack bombers.  And that just seems wrong...  More research is required.
Weapons have BAS of 1.5 (since we multiplied hull by 1.5), and a number of weapons equal to their firepower in BFG.  Lances are Accurate, Piercing, and Guided (no range mods), since they ignore armor and range in BFG for 'always hits on 4+'.  Torps are Slow-Firing, Diffuse (double range mods), Piercing Seeker weapons; this should model their variation in effectiveness over range nicely.  The Nova Cannon is Piercing, Accurate, Ballistic (minimum range), Guided, Proximity (Area effect), and Catastrophic, with a BAS of 3.  Be afraid.  Very afraid.  Turrets are range 3 and Accurate; not much to see there.

So that about covers everything needed for an Imperial or Chaos conversion...  Orks should be pretty easy (Direction Defenses + ECM for defense, Volatile weapons), Tau and Tyranids will enjoy the new Seeker rules (but Tyranids are going to need longer-range weapons than the 3-6 they tend to use), Necrons should work OK but will be very expensive (Hyperdrive + Regeneration + Reinforced Hull + best shields...  ouch), and Eldar still don't quite work when strictly converted.  So it goes.