Saturday, October 31, 2015

Wigle Whiskey Tasting Notes

Totally unrelated to gaming, except inasmuch as it has become traditional for certain of my players to show up to ACKS hungover.

Wigle Whiskey (not to be confused with WiGLE) is a Pittsburgh distillery named after Phillip Wigle, a local hero(?) of the Whiskey Rebellion.  Anything having to do with liquor is a bureaucratic nightmare in Pennsylvania these days (what with the state Liquor Control Board's monopoly), so Wigle is one of just a handful of distilleries (well, legal ones) in what used to be a very still-heavy part of the country.  They had a free tasting last night, so being a whiskey drinker of unsophisticated palate, I decided to go try their goods.

After a bit of a wait in the cold, I tried the following things (in roughly the following order, so it might be expected that things I tried later have slightly less accurate reviews):
  • Landlocked Spiced: Landlocked is a honey spirit that has been compared to rum.  I rather like honey spirits (eg Bushmill's Honey Whiskey, with Barenjager on my to-try list), and this one was OK but not amazing.  Tasted a bit flowery almost?  From their notes, I was probably getting too much vanilla over the honey, which is not what I was hoping for.
  • Small-Batch Maple Wheat Whiskey (which I'm not seeing on their online store, curiously): Wheat whiskey aged in charred oak barrels with maple staves, if I recall correctly.  I went through an "mmm, tastes like drinking a tree" phase a year or two ago, and this is representative of that style in the best possible way.  Not to my current tastes, but if that's what you're into, probably pretty good.
  • Walkabout Apple Whiskey: Wheat and rye whiskeys, barrel-aged, blended, and cut from cask strength using local cider rather than water.  A promising premise, but there was definitely a discordant note that threw things off for me; I'm not sure if it was the rye or the woodiness from the barrel aging or something else, but something did not combine well with the apple flavor.  Not a fan, but it's an experimental on their parts so I think we'll see further refinements in future.
  • Landlocked Clear: I know, you're supposed to mix clear spirits, but this was pretty good.  An unapologetic, uncomplicated honey spirit, would probably blend well with apple flavors.
  • Straight Wheat Whiskey: One of their flagship whiskeys, and quite good - not as sweet as a corny bourbon, not as woody as a Tree In A Barrel, nicely balanced, tasty.
On my way out I ran into some friends in line who decided that the wait wasn't worth it, and we went and got thai food while I metabolized before driving home.  So that all worked out rather well.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Theological Disputes and Legate Factions of Midnight ACKS

I've commented previously on how Midnight benefits from heretical legates.  Since this is rapidly becoming relevant to my current game, and one of my PCs has Theology, here's the data dump.

Structure of the church: The church is currently fragmented and disorganized.  There used to be a Speaker for Darkness, whose word was divine law, but Naxander the Conqueror killed it and received the Dark God's blessing.  When he died, he did not leave a clear successor for the position, and now the princes each vie not only for temporal power but also the support of the church factions, hoping to be acknowledged as the Speaker.   Some legate factions support the princes, while others believe that the next Speaker must come from the ranks of the legates themselves.  A few believe that the Speakership is permanently lost.  It is commonly believed that pilgrimage to the City of Black Ice is a requirement for Speakership; currently the City is held by a militant brotherhood of legates, but should a prince take the city (despite the logistical difficulties), that would greatly contribute to the legitimacy of their claim to Speakership.

Monolithicity: The orthodox position is that the Shadow is the only Shadow and brooks the worship of no other gods.  However, many of the primitive far-northern tribes that Naxander the Conqueror led out of the north have attributed deific status to him, in their tradition of ancestor-worship.  These "dualist" sects claim witnesses to miracles surrounding Naxander's death as support for this belief.  Some trinitarian orc sects even claim there are three divinities - the Shadow, the Conqueror, and an orcish messiah yet to come.

The End of Days: Most orthodox "accelerationist" human sects hold that when the Shadow has devoured everything, it will break the interplanar veil and release the trapped souls of the dead to afterlives of its choosing.  It follows then that acts in service of the Shadow (sacrificing all the mans, absorbing all the magic items) accelerate this process, and bringing about the End as quickly as possible is a good thing because it will put the spirits of the dead at peace.  Some scholastic, gradualist sects, however, believe that intelligent life converts "potential" trapped in the land itself into harvestable energy, and question whether or not just sacrificing all life would provide enough energy to shatter the Veil.  These sects promote fertility and economic investments aimed at producing large, stable populations, with the intent of guaranteeing the End eventually after depleting all of the residual magic of the soil and sun (a process accelerated by having more people).  Many gradualist heretics have found favor with the Princes, as sacrificing all the peasants weakens the army and leads to being crushed by one's rivals.  Finally, orcish variants of the End of Days include "we kill all the humans and reign over this, our destined dominion" and "we kill all the humans and the Shadow transports us, Its chosen people, to some other world to conquer and despoil in Its name."

Divine Revelation: Some orthodox sects accept only the recorded words of the Speakers as canon ("Canonists"), while others believe that the Shadow grants divine revelation to chosen prophets beyond the Speaker ("Revelationists") or anyone at all ("Individualists").  This leads to any number of contentious minor theological differences (whether you can eat fish on wednesdays, the type of dagger appropriate for sacrificing halflings, and so forth) depending on which version of the canon you're using.

For its part, the Shadow doesn't seem to care much about any of these matters; everyone still gets the same number of spells per day.  On the other hand, perhaps it is just testing its followers, weeding out the weak.  The joy and terror of evil gods is that sometimes they're just messing with you.

A few sample sects:

The Militant Brotherhood of the Monolith: Guardians of the City of Black Ice, super-orthodox.  Currently backing no candidate for Speaker (believe it will be obvious when the Shadow chooses, all current claimants therefore impostors), violently monotheist accelerationist canonists.

The Whisperers: Cultists who spread the worship of darkness in human lands before Naxander came.  When he did, they came out of the woodwork and set up shop in places where they already had influence.  Often cooperate with other Whisperer organizations in neighboring towns, tend to have a established political bases.  The shrine legates in Ostergot are of this faction.  Typically believe that the next Speaker must be a legate (and question Naxander's claim to Speakership), belligerently monotheist, moderate to lip-service accelerationist, and belligerently revelationist.

The Skami: A collective term for the tribes that Naxander brought south, the Skami have formed a sort of priestly class in many of the large cities that they conquered.  They are often in conflict with their local Whisperer organizations for power; while the Whisperers have economic / peasant support, the Skami can draw on their settled tribal warriors.  They usually favor either their local Prince or a powerful Skami kinsman for Speakership, are mostly dualists, lean pragmatically gradualist (gradualism offers many fruits for the decadent priest-nobility as well as the favor of the Prince, but they typically don't really grok the metaphysical arguments about gaian potential and the Veil, and sometimes it's politically useful to sacrifice a bunch of those Whisperer-loyal peasants), and are also often pragmatically revelationist.  The Skami are weak in the Vale of Traitors, as the region maintained much of its own native nobility and autonomy, but are strong in Verlath the dragon's realm, where their tribes displaced or enslaved many of the Norse natives.

The Scholastics: While the Whisperers got their start via the Shadow's whispers and messengers, the Scholastics began as wizards who experimented too greedily and too deep, and glimpsed the coming darkness with prophetic certainty.  Though few in number and often considered illegitimate by other legate branches, they do get spells and turning, and those sufficiently politically adept often hold high favor with the Princes.  No consensus on Speakership, monotheist gradualist individualists.  May warrant a custom class or something (because to be honest, these are the guys the PCs are going to want to ally with and henchrecruit, and also the ones who make the least sense in plate).

The Udareen: The orcish holy women hold beliefs just as heretical as the Scholastics, but have an army to back them up.  Believe that orcs are the Chosen People; the next Speaker will be an orc, trinitarian accelerationist (with favorable orc End of Days) individualists (but divine revelations by non-orcs are invalid).  Tolerated by non-orc Princes who value their hordes, a common enemy for the other legate factions.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

1.5 Mile Hexes

I used to think that people who did sub-6-mile hexes were lunatics!  But it turns out with the right tools, it's actually pretty satisfying to map this way.  Here's a thing I've been working on.

Vale of Traitors, 1.5mile hexes, open in new tab or window to enbiggen

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Domains at War: Another Test Battle, More Piledrivers!

We ran a test combat the other day of platoon-scale Domains at War Battles, with rough approximations of the PCs in my Midnight ACKS campaign leading a mixed force of elves, dwarves, and woodsmen against a column of orcs.  The PCs were handily victorious.

We did screw some stuff up, however!
  • No generals, just independent and interoperating commanders.  This is relevant, because generals apply half of their morale to the rolls of all units, and can force a morale check when killed.  Their leadership also limits the maximum number of divisions (independent commanders) available to each side. This mistake favored the orcs, who lost both of their commanders (which would've forced morale), and denied the PCs' units their general morale bonus.
    • James the Dwarf, having Morale +3 and Leadership 4, is probably the best choice for the PCs' general at this point.  I could see Skorn the Varangian being an excellent general in time, between her Charisma bonus, class features, and potential class proficiencies, but she is yet unlevelled. 
  • No lieutenants, but the PCs didn't really need them.  The orcs should maybe have had them at platoon scale.  Each platoon is roughly a warband of orcs (~35), which should have a subchieftain qualified to lead it.  This would've made the orcish command situation much less tenuous and enabled ready replacement of slain orcish commanders.
  • Applied commander morale bonus to all units in their division.  Again, this favored the orcs, who had more units per commander, whereas the PCs had three commanders and four units.
    • Although the only PC with a morale modifier was James; the Elder Bear inflicts a morale penalty on enemies but provides no bonus to his allies, and Scarth the wizard has excellent strategic ability / mass combat initiative but no bonus to morale (which made him a fine leader for the archers in the rear to disorder the enemy early in the turn).
  • When a commander is slain, his division's remaining units are not reassigned to other commanders until after the next morale phase.  We reassigned immediately.  Whoops.
  • We did not permit a fireball to be directed at an orc chieftain personally, even though he was within visibility range for a man-sized hero.  This one cuts both ways, of course.
  • The rules were unclear on whether or not retreating units can pass through threatened hexes; an orcish unit whose only path of retreat laid through one was ruled to be routed.  This, it turns out, is not correct.  So that one favored the PCs, and pretty handily, since that was a command unit.
  • Retreating, recoiling, and withdrawing units can be pursued, and irregular infantry like orcs must pursue.  This would've brought an orcish command squad back into melee with Scarth's longbowmen, and prevented him from firing on his next activation (granted, they're about as good in melee as at range, but that would've been a more concerning situation for the PCs).
  • Loose Foot cannot withdraw from units which have equal or greater marching speed, so actually the longbowmen couldn't've withdrawn from the orcs and should've taken the damage after all.
  • Initially we forgot that the longbowmen could withdraw, but we figured that one out and it was OK.
  • Our deployment was not doctrinaire, with the PCs coming at the orcish column from both sides and without a clear rearguard, vanguard, and main body.  On the other hand, it's platoon scale.  Meh.
  • Terrain was not handled rigorously.
We handled most of the 'core' combat mechanics of the game OK, though - movement was much more intuitive this time than last, hitting and damage are easy to start with, and shock and morale went way better than previously.  Last time we were running from a .doc draft of the Battles rules and it was cumbersome; this time I had the paper book in my hands, with bookmarks for the shock and morale modifier tables, and those went very quickly, which pleased me.  The heroes were all very effective in different ways; the Elder Bear shredded orcs with 4 attacks at 3+ while shape-strengthed, James' morale bonus kept the outnumbered dwarven infantry from breaking despite flanking attacks, and Scarth's fireballs did excellent damage on this scale, forcing shock rolls wherever they landed.  The fact that heroes engage heroes attached to their target unit instead of the unit itself did influence targeting decisions some (in that the Elder Bear really preferred to shred half a unit of orcs instead of trying to hit one chieftain once), but with generals working properly the incentive to kill enemy heroes should be stronger next time.

We also played an extra-large game of OGRE!  We had three players, so David and I each took a MkIII while Matt ran a double-strength defense.  It was a brutal game, with David stripped of all weapons but his AP guns and no movement about six hexes from the objective, while I lost all of my non-AP guns and was down to speed 1 at the end.  Matt almost stopped me one hex short of the objective, but the dice turned against him on the last turn of firing at my treads, and I succeeded in destroying the command post.  For our part, we destroyed most of his forces (of 24 armor units, he had 2 heavy tanks, a missile tank, and a howitzer out in the boonies remaining at end of game), but it was the closest game we've had yet.

Monday, October 12, 2015

ACKS in the Wilderness

I have a confession to make.

As much as I hate using grids for combat, something they really do make things better.

In this case, last session we had our first real wilderness combat in ACKS.  We'd had some during previous campaigns, but in the theater of the mind things tended to get very muddled in so open an area of engagement, and the party's melee contingent tended to assume they could always get in and engaged.

This combat was very different.

The party was hunting a group of ghouled woodsmen in the mountainous forests north of Ostergot.  Their cunning plan was to catch and field-strip a deer, hoping that the smell of blood and meat would draw the ghouls to them.  They were quite correct, and over the top of the ridge advanced a group of 8 ghouls with bows in a broad skirmish line (I play ghouls as "of malign intelligence at least equal to a human's").  The PCs were mostly 5th-6th level at this point, and the PCs fighters have ACs in the 8-9 range.  Eight ghouls at this level is somewhat concerning, but not normally a dire, mortal threat to a PC unless something goes quite wrong.  The ghouls advanced down the slope, trading arrows with the party's archers and taking a fireball in the center of their line.  The ghouls began a fighting retreat and two of them managed to inflict some pretty serious damage on the party's unarmored witch.  The party's heavily-armored fighters were unable to catch them and engage, and in the end it was the archers that did them in.

This was a very unusual combat for us in ACKS.  Ranged enemies are not particularly viable in the dungeon, but in the wilderness even weak ranged foes can still be dangerous as long as they're fast.  This fight was not the fighters' to win; instead it was the assassin and the explorer's (and those few fighters who had thought to bring bows).  In the absence of archers in the party, I expect the ghouls would've exhausted their arrows before downing any of the party's superheavy fighters, but the party's wizard and witch would've been toast long before then.  I see three counters to this:
  • Superior ranged firepower (as happened in this case) - beat the archers at their own game.  Honestly a party of mid-levels fighters can be a competent ranged force if they're willing to carry; most archer-types aren't super-high AC, so losing out on dex bonus to hit them is probably not a huge deal, and strength+fighter damage bonus applies to bowfire.  The problem with this approach is that it means you can't use a shield, which drops the fighters' ACs by anywhere from 2 to 5 points in this party (shield +3 and fighting style shield), leaving them vulnerable to missile fire and cavalry charges themselves.
  • The phalanx / testudo / hedgehog - huddle up (perhaps aided by favorable terrain), shield your casters, and wait for the enemy to run out of arrows.  Not a whole lot of fun, and honestly pretty risky, because they are going to get some lucky hits even against high AC PCs before running out of arrows.  Also requires a very high ratio of shieldbearers to squishy casters, because a more-mobile enemy can encircle a fixed defense and strike from any side.  Performance against horse archers should be comparable to that against foot archers, but might actually be able to receive and stop a heavy cavalry lance charge if done properly.
  • Superior speed - mount up and run the bastards down.  Takes a proficiency (Riding) and requires a horse (in short supply), leaves you vulnerable to having your horse killed out from under you, but also the premier delivery system for heavily-armored melee fighters in the wilderness, and massed lance charges are spectacular, especially with fighter damage bonus and cleaves.  Also scales well into the high levels with monstrous mounts.  Still somewhat vulnerable to light cavalry / horse archers, but not in the same way that infantry is to infantry archers - if the horse archers are in range to fire on you, you're in range to lance-charge them.  The lance charge can also bog down against tough / high HD foes, leaving the party's fighters engaged with something scary without a good way to retreat (particularly if their horses are slain).
  • (Situational) magic and trickery
In any case, I look forward to more exploration of tactics outside the dungeon.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Quality Links

I've been pretty busy between crunch at work and prep for my Midnight ACKS game, but there have been a number of really good posts that came up on my radar this week.

First off, Koewn's analysis of ACKS' stealth mechanics is fantastic.  I was considering (am still considering, actually) an ACKS assassin that trades plate for something else, and this has reasonably convinced me that they don't need Naturally Stealthy (-1 to enemy surprise rolls) to be effective at sneaking at low levels.  Honestly, reading his analysis, I'm pretty convinced that ACKS' stealth system is fine and we've just been Doing It Wrong; I actually kind of like that a 1st level thief is ~18% more likely to surprise a target than a common man.  As Koewn points out, this is about on par with the incremental improvement in combat ability that fighters get, with a 1st-level fighter being better but not massively better than a common man. The question remains, though: what to give assassins?  I'm thinking Poison Use (some combination of bonus to saves against poison, bonus to proficiency throws to produce poisons, no chance to poison self when using poison), but I haven't set on anything yet.

Second, Trilemma has a pair of solid posts on knowlege and preparation and DM-player bandwidth.  The first is a good statement of the general philosophy behind his prior (excellent) posts on useful dungeon description and monstrous effects on terrain, as well as explaining the importance of intel in old-school gaming, the prevalence of monsters with crazy immunities, and (indirectly) why vancian casting was awesome.  In a way, it explains a lot of the mechanical oddities of the Old School that fell by the wayside as cultural, playstyle elements of the Old School (which made those mechanical elements sensible) faded due to dilution, and in identifying those cultural elements provides a path forwards/backwards, depending on how you look at it.

Trilemma's second post, on bandwidth, is particularly relevant to me at the moment, as I am engaged in world creation and trying to get data to my players.  It's also somewhat interesting because "the bandwidth problem" was something parts of my group have been talking about for years, but never thought to write down.  I have the good fortune of having a player this campaign who really likes lore (at one point he explicitly asked me for more lore, and I was taken aback; not a problem I've ever had before!), but my approach is still mostly a combination of a (written lore), c (no lore), and d (players propose reasonable lore).  Some but not many things are fixed (written lore), many things that aren't relevant to the game just don't exist (no lore), and if my players propose something that makes sense, it's on me to either find a good a reason it isn't true, or to adopt it.  I imagine this is probably true of most campaigns, that they follow hybrid approaches.  Still, interesting stuff to think about.

Finally, today from the Hill Cantons, two solid posts on building and running dynamic sandboxes [1, 2]!  Since I'm running a dynamic sandbox at the moment, these are extraordinarily relevant to my interests.  The first article discusses having a campaign news cycle and dynamic encounter tables, while the second focuses on his Chaos Index world engine and campaign-scale event charts.  The campaign news cycle is probably not reasonable for a setting like Midnight, where news is sparse and literacy is sparser, but dynamic encounter tables are something I've been playing with lately.  ckutalik proposes a "New Development" slot on one's random encounter tables, where something related to a world event or past PC actions shows up when rolled.  I've been thinking about having an encounter queue instead - when the PCs take an action which generates Consequences, those consequences go in a queue.  When you roll "queued encounter" on the table, you pick something sensible from the first couple of things in the queue and that's what they find.  This means that consequences can linger in the queue for quite a while, but will probably find the PCs eventually.  I've also considered having multiple queues on a per-area basis; failing to assassinate the duke might queue a squad of royal guards in his domains, and bounty hunters in each of several nearby domains.  Things like that.

From the second post, I could see setting up a Shadow Index, where certain actions increase the grip of the Shadow on the world and that alters things cosmologically (again, ideally I think I'd want per-area or -domain indices, so that some places can be deeply shrouded while others are 'points of light').  I've been running some loosely-defined world engines for various plots that are afoot; when the players decide to engage the ghouls hunting the farmers of Ostergot, the mushroommen of the Monastery Caverns grow and multiply, and when they fight the mushroommen, the ghouls spread.  Event charts are something I should consider; my plan currently is to use politics as the primary event-driving factor for the campaign, but the occasional natural disaster or similar would not be amiss.  My thought is to set up a network of high-power NPCs who have various relations with each other, and in any given unit of time some may undertake actions (declaration of war, assassination, charm / domination, slander, ...) against others, the consequences  of which trickle down to the PCs.  Event tables would be a simpler way to handle this, though, with "assassination attempt on X by Y", "raiding of X's domains by Y", and "warfare of X against Y" as table items with fillable variables as sensible.  Maybe I'll do that instead.

Anyway, good posts, well worth reading.