Sunday, July 31, 2011

Games I Want to Run, Part 2

So the votes are in among the options I posted here, from three players from last semester.  One vote of "Fields of Blood would be cool if you can fix the caster issues, but Western Marches would also be badass", one vote of "Fields of Blood would be awesome if you added rules for fighters training units and such, but Wilderlands / episodic would be awesome too", and one that was primarily for Wilderlands.  This input leaves my predicament ultimately unsolved...  but that's OK, because the purpose of asking for feedback wasn't to resolve it, but to get some thoughts from third parties.

So...  Fields of Blood got a good bit of support, but it was all predicated on shrinking the strategic advantage casters get as a result of FoB's increased scales.  First, I'm not sure that's doable; non-casters have no equivalent to spells to be researched, nor an equivalent to items to be created, and they just can't do the strategic-level movement and reconnaissance that teleport and scrying permit.  Craft Fortification, letting individuals boost unit training rates, Command as a class skill, and solo missions into enemy territory are all well and good, but I really don't think it's fixable.

There's also a kind of timing problem - I don't know how long Tim's current campaign is going to run into the semester.  If it runs long, then FoB might end up starting up towards the end of the semester, and then I foresee it dying on Thanksgiving and Winterbreak.  Since FoB would require a lot of work to prep, that would be kind of a shame and a waste.  The episodic structure of Wilderlands would be more likely to survive this kind of thing - as long as I keep a one-adventure buffer prepped and ready to go, Wilderlands could almost be run on a spontaneous basis.  Tim also mentioned today that alternating DMing / co-DMing would make everybody's life a lot easier; as it stands, we have more players than a single DM can run a game for.  Having two DMs who kind of work in parallel, allowing players from the other game into their own game would allow each of them a little more slack.  There is much potential here.

Finally, Western Marches.  I had an epiphany last week, which was kind of disappointing to me...  It was prompted by an observation Ben Robbins makes in the last post in his Western Marches series.  To quote:
You could have a “solo” West Marches game with just one group doing all the exploring, and it would probably be a fun and pleasant affair, but it’s nothing compared to the frenzy you’ll see when players know other players are out there finding secrets and taking treasure that they could be getting, if only they got their butts out of the tavern.
 So: to capture the awesome that was WM, I'd need to have a big playerpool with multiple groups.  This means that I can't run WM during the summer; there just aren't enough people around.  Likewise, to run it as well as possible, I'd also need to have multiple, competing groups meeting regularly at different times.  This implies that I'd need to have a couple nights free a week to run games for different groups...  and I don't see that happening during the semester.  So there is basically no time when I can run it.  After college, I imagine I may have trouble finding a playerpool of sufficient size...  so I think that's a dream which may never come to fruition.  Saddening, but I'm going to keep it in the back of my brain nonetheless in case an opportunity presents itself (say, spring of senior year maybe).

So, conclusions:  Wilderlands it is for the parts of next semester when I'm not playing in Tim's game (I don't think I'll be able to commit to both running and playing regular games, and I really want to finish Fjolkir's grudge against the dragon).  Now the task becomes tweaking Trailblazer for the episodic style of play, studying the setting, and coming up with good hooks and opposition.

Stargrunt Playtest, Part 2: Stuff We Did Wrong

I was thinking about the SGII playtest last night (instead of sleeping...), and I realized that we did a couple of things very wrong.

First, foremost, and entirely my fault was small-arms fire resolution.  We had been adding up the total firepower and dividing by the armor die type.  We were actually supposed to use the range die type.  Next time you guys call me on something like that, be more vehement about it (or at the very least, make me look it up again).  To be fair, this is in part due to the poor example in the book; their sample target has both a d6 range and a d6 armor, which got me thinking it was armor rather than range.  This change has the important implication that even if your d12 range die is rolling like it was a d6, it still protects you by halving your casualties compared to being at a d6 range.  This also means that at long range, you're likely to score one, maybe two casualties if you're lucky, rather than the squad-wiping three casualties we kept seeing.

So that was The Big Mistake, which probably made the game significantly more swingy and less fun than it should've been.  We also accidentally downgraded our chest-high walls to hedgerows by making them soft cover, our handling of woods was most incorrect (from page 13 - "Units at the edge of woods are in soft cover.  Units WITHIN woods may only be engaged by others in the same wood, and then only by close assault, or by artillery."), and our handling of cover in general was quite wrong; cover apparently applies the one or two die shift to both range and armor dice of the target, according to page 14.  I had confused this armor die shift with the armor die shift for being In Position, which only applies against attacks from artillery; thus, the effective / casualty-inducing attacks against units in cover (and who wasn't in cover that game?) should have been significantly less deadly.

This last relates to an observation I made last night as well, while reflecting on the complaint that medics were useless.  I did some math, and with d6 Armor against weapons with d10 Impact, each casualty has about a .23 probability of being wounded, a .42 probability of being killed outright, and a .35 probability of surviving unharmed.  Thus, our choice of gear, namely d6 armored troops armed with d10 impact advanced assault rifles, contributed to the distribution of casualties.  We got pretty close to this ratio; there were a total of six kills (two from Glisson's Dwarf Squad and two each from Tim's Orc and Zombie squads), and four wounds (one in Orc Squad, and all three survivors of Zombie Squad (Yes, we were using D&D tokens instead of minis.  It was what we had)).  Armor d8 being hit with Impact d10 weapons has a .24 probability of wounding, but only a .31 probability of being killed outright, while Armor d10 against Imp d10 weapons has a .2 probability of wounding and a .25 probability of death.  Therefore, if we had been applying the cover modifiers to armor, or if we had had better-armored troops to start with, small arms fire would have been significantly less lethal.  While armor is still really swingy (it doesn't matter if you have a d12 armor die if you roll a 1), the expected ratio of wounds to kills would have shifted up significantly, making medics much more useful, and the expected ratio of casualties to uninjured effectives would have dropped.  So that would've also addressed the complaints of gun combat being either really lethal or totally ineffective by shifting it towards ineffective in the general case...

Finally, there was a caveat in the firing rules that fully effective fire (ie, casualty-inducing fire) also applies a level of suppression to the target.  This was bugging me last night too, because it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for fire that causes casualties to be less suppressing than fire that doesn't, so I was glad to find a rule for it in a summary sidebar on page 37.  It is annoying that the full-text rules on 36 do not suggest or imply this, though.

I'm sure there's some other stuff we screwed up with morale, but I'll be damned if I know what it was.  That might be something to look at after breakfast.  Also, with all this stuff in mind, who's up for a rematch?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Stargrunt Playtest

So we gave Stargrunt a trial run today after we terminated the Trailblazer game early (we reached the Dwarven Lands, but our dwarf is at Otakon, so...).  We divided into two teams of two, with Jared and Glisson on offense (trying to capture a cat from a small church on a hill, then retreat and hold a water tower while waiting for extraction), and Tim and I on defense.  Tim put his troops in cover around the water tower, I had mine on the hill with the church, Jared's were on a forested hill to the north east, and Glisson's were holed up in and around a farmhouse on the south east side of the map.

Things immediately went south for Tim; one of his squads was behind a hedgerow but within range of both of Glisson's units, and they were quickly massacred as a result of some truly abysmal range die and armor rolls.  I advanced my green squad into some woods around the water tower to hold it along with Tim's command squad, while my veteran squad hunkered down in-position near the church and kept Glisson's green troops pinned down.  Jared's troops managed to close on Tim's last squad while keeping it suppressed, though, and it quickly became clear that my two squads were going to be outnumbered two to one in short order, so Tim and I ceded.  Tim was most disappointed, cursing the game for its swinginess and proposing to make the range die a flat Armor Class-like number.  There was also significant criticism of the lack of available options for each squad; the only ones we really used were "shoot, move, get in position, get out of position, try to remove suppression".  This may have been due to a lack of rules knowledge on everyone's part - I was the only one who had read the rulebook in its entirety recently, and they just kinda wanted to go do it, rather than going over the available options.  For what it's worth, Jared and Glisson did realize that value of the platoon command squad as an action-economy multiplier by the end of the game, though they didn't need to apply it.  Rallying also didn't come into play; generally by the time a unit achieved a low morale status (as did Tim's unit who got killed badly and Jared's greenies), it was thoroughly combat-ineffective already.  Finally, close assault was available, but by the time Jared and Glisson's troops got within close assault range, victory was imminent (especially given that Glisson's veterans with LD1 had a flamethrower...).

So...  yeah.  A little disappointed; it was not a painful game to play, and felt much faster-moving than Starmada (it sped up as we went, too, which was neat), but it was also not "rollicking good fun," by any means.  I think perhaps we started things off too close; putting units within shooting range initially may have been a mistake, because it meant things bogged down in gunfights from the start rather than being about maneuver.  In any case, I think we'd have a tough time getting another game together without some rules-hackery first; Tim was greatly dissatisfied, and Glisson and Jared were both more or less ambivalent, it seemed.

As a result, I think my current project of converting stuff from the Starcraft setting to the Stargrunt rules will probably go on indefinite hold.  This, naturally, means I'm back to waffling on what to run next semester...  expect a separate post on that soon.

See Part 2 for an analysis of all the stuff we did that we shouldn't've.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Farewell to Starships

Jared, Eric Faust, Matt Glisson, and I played another game of Starmada last night using ships from the Imperial Starmada Sourcebook only.  Glisson and Jared had Imperials, while Efaust and I had Arcturans; 1200 points per side, straight-up 'to half VP' around a small planet with four moons.  We played this particular fleet matchup in response to a post here, which claimed that the Arcturans were underpowered compared to the Imperials.  Considering that in previous games, the Imperials had not pulled their weight, I found this surprising, and so we set out to test this hypothesis.  Upon a reading of both fleets, though, things do look skewed towards the Imperials - while the Arcturans do have 4+ weapons (with the Imperials stuck at 5+), they lack Fire Control and most of their 4+s are slow-firing.  Likewise, the Imperials all have Countermeasures and Fire Control, giving them a distinct advantage at long range (their 5+s were at 5+ to hit at long, while our 4+s were at 6+ to hit at long).  Finally, their close-range anti-fighter weapons were simply superior to ours in volume of fire, as they had a comparable number of mounts in any given arc, but with RoF3 compared to our 1.  Our lasers had Anti-fighter, but all of their ships had Fire Control for an equivalent effect.  The only things we had going for us were Armor Plating, larger hull sizes, and higher shields; it looks like the Arcturans have to get in under the Imperial long-range advantage to really have a shot.  So that's what we tried to do.

The Imperials deployed a few ships in the moons, but kept most of their fleet out at long range on the right edge of the map.  We pushed into the moons and destroyed their ships there, scoring about 290 VP of the 600 we needed to win, at a cost of 55 VP scored for them by destroying one of our independent fighter flights, and some damage to our carrier.  We were than at an impasse, though - they had no incentive to advance and fight us in the rocks, because they would lose their long-range advantage, and we had no incentive to run out into their guns.  We did anyways, though, because sitting around plotting movement orders of 0 until somebody breaks is terribly uninteresting.

We advanced through the cover of the moons to as close as we could get, but the carrier was out of cover for one turn and was mauled badly; it wasn't destroyed, but it lacked sufficient engines to actually make it to the front in time for the assault, and was worth enough points that we couldn't risk leaving out in the open for fire support, so it hid for the rest of the game.  Our fighters crippled one of their cruisers, but were then obliterated by their close defense cannons, and then we charged.  Emergency thrust was deployed to debatable effect; while the boosts did help close the gap from long to medium, the subsequent (higher than expected) engine damage was problematic later.  We had awful luck with our firing, with only one of our four ships hitting with any weapons.  In response, we took around 30 points of damage, though after damage allocation all of our ships were still functional as a result of armor plating.  However, between an unusually high numbers of 2s rolled and the emergency thrust penalty, we were dead in the water, running on Engines 2 for most of our ships, and our Slow-Firing weapons were shot for the next turn.  As a result, we ceded, as the sheer volume of close-range CDC fire they could bring to bear on our sitting ducks next turn would have been almost-certainly sufficient to win the game for them.

Conclusion: Hypothesis confirmed.

Secondary conclusion: In Starmada, ship design > luck > tactics.  Good ship design can protect you from luck (with 3+ or 2+ ACC, high rates of fire, Fire Control, things like that), and as long as you don't do something terribly stupid tactically, good ships can generally annihilate mediocre ships and win the game by VP.  With less good ship designs, where you start seeing 5+ ACCs and low rates of fire, luck trumps tactics - you can play as well as you like, but the dice will still keep you from winning.  Tactics come in a distant third as far as determining factors of victory go, in our experience.  When 'tactical decisions' do arise, the optimal course is typically to maintain range if you have an advantage over the enemy at range (as a result of ship design), or to hide behind terrain from the enemy's long range guns if you don't (as a result of your own ship designs).  This results in the kind of deadlocks that we keep seeing - short-ranged fleets take and hold the blocking terrain, then do nothing, while the longer-ranged fleet sits back and does nothing from the start.  There are both really dissatisfying outcomes.  And sure, there are counters for this type of thing - ship design counters include cloaking, stealth, and tons of engines, while tactical counters include evasive action and emergency thrust as means by which a short-range fleet can try to take the offensive and do its thing.  In our case, though, Evasive Action would have been no good - we'd've given them -1 to shooting, but since we would've ended up in their medium range bands and they had Fire Control, we just end up inflicting a -1 to our shooting and halving our speeds for no benefit.

So I guess that's a systemic criticism of Starmada for us; from the very beginning, from my first game against Alex, short-ranged fleets have perished to even slightly longer-ranged guns.  And there is very little we can do about it, and it makes things less than fun.  The current state of the ship design metagame here is "ships with as much forward firepower with range 15 and Inverted Ranged-Based Something as possible", because that's what wins.  And it's kind of a boring place to be in; I try to liven things up with short-ranged cloakers, but everybody knows that I do that, and I'm pretty easily countered by fighters (can't bring fighter cover with me, or it gives away my position, and can't fire anti-fighter weapons before enemy fighters get a chance to maul me after I decloak.  I've been using Point Defense, and it helps, but it's not nearly enough to save me if somebody decides they're going to launch a cloud of strikers to surround their ships and wait for me to come out of cloak).

In short, I think I'm done with Starmada for the most part.  Jared seems to agree.  It's been fun, and it's been really interesting to watch the ship design metagame evolve (from "fairly innocent" to "oh god so many strikers" to "all guns forward"), but...  yeah.

On a happier note, Glisson suggested StarGrunt II yesterday once we were done deconstructing our problems with Starmada.  I've been reading it, and it looks interesting...  still has the potential to be shafted by dice, but I really like their stance on point values for units (namely that there aren't any), and unbalanced forces / secret objectives.  I'm hoping we'll be able to muster a game of it before the summer's out.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Conceptions of Death within the GNS Paradigm

I've been pondering PC death a bit more than usual recently, as a consequence of reading various Old School narratives at Beyond the Black Gate and The Alexandrian, as well as the resurrection of the EnWorld 2011 PC Bodycount thread.  I suppose Fjolkir's deathwish and Somak's sacrifice might be helping, too.  Basically, it seems to me that there are two reasons PC deaths occur in RPGs.  The first is unexpected death as a consequence of poor planning or poor luck; the first-level monk charges the grizzly bear alone, misses with his one shot, and then is mauled (true story), or the first-level fighter eats a crit from an orc with a greataxe (also true story - back in 3.0, orcs came with greataxes for d12 damage and x3 crits.  They changed them to falchions in 3.5), or a lightly-armored Traveller character decides to provoke a skilled opponent with heavy weaponry.  This seems to be the most common kind of PC death - it's what BtBG and the Alexandrian are talking about.  Sometimes you just suddenly die, and it kinda sucks.  You get stuck building a new character, and the DM gets stuck reworking any plotlines that you're (er, were) critical to, or you have to get resurrected and lose a level if resurrection is available to you (speaking for 3.X here; don't know if older or newer versions handle resurrection differently).  In any case, it's not a particularly fun experience, and you probably feel wronged by the DM, the dice, or the rest of the party for not telling you not to charge the grizzly bear (unless they did and you ignored them, in which case you feel sheepish).

The other kind of death, though, can be fun.  It's the heroic sacrifice, the martyrdom, the death by player choice.  When you, as a player, go "Yeah, my character is willing to die to achieve this objective", and then you make it happen.  From your perspective, you've taken the spotlight of the scene and hopefully seriously influenced the outcome; you get to be the Big Damn Hero.  From the rest of the players' perspective, you've gone and done something they probably weren't willing to do; props to you (plus, hey, now they get your loot).  From the DM's perspective as storyteller, the act is useful because the sacrifice trope has a strong emotional impact; you've gone and given him something to work with.  There's no resentment, no DM-Player antagonism going on.  It's a win all around, except for the character.  Prime example from experience here is Somak's sacrifice, but there were one or two examples from the Bodycount thread of the Sacrifice as well.

The sacrifice death is, essentially, a narrativist conception of death - you die for the story, or as a final act of characterization, by your own choice.  Consequential death, likewise, is essentially a gamist notion - you die as an outcome of the game.  Finally, a blend of the two is relatively simulationist of a realistic world, where sometimes people die to further a cause, but usually people die as a result of external factors.  I think this recognition of the causes of PC death as linked to the GNS paradigm could be useful if you're striving to embody a particular part of that paradigm; if you're trying to run a game where the narrative is king, you could remove death as a likely consequence of combat and make it purely by player choice, much as E6's Death Flag rules do.  Likewise, in a strongly gamist game, there might be no benefit to be gained by the act of self-sacrifice; death is losing, and if you lose you can't win.  I would argue that 3.X does a pretty good job of this as far as mechanics go; with a few possible exceptions (epic spell backlash and that one Wu Jen spell, for example), there are almost no rules that let you die in order to achieve a grand effect on a mechanical level.

Pursuing a more narrativist perspective on PC death has interesting implications, though.  In a game where you can't die except by choice, combats have to have a little more meaning than "kill or be killed" - there has to be something else at stake.  On the flip side of that, though, if death isn't the result of hit point / resource depletion, what is?  There needs to be some penalty for running out of stamina.  Further, how best to allow the choice to die to generate mechanical benefits while being neither overwhelming nor ineffective?  There's some design space to be explored here for a "death for effect" d20, diverging from the traditional "Ah, crud, I'm dead" d20.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Games I Want to Run

I have an awesome problem going into next semester: there are more games that I want to run than I could possibly actually run.  So I'm going to toss them up here and see if I can get some feedback.

The first I've been considering is Fields of Blood.  For those unfamiliar, FoB is a sourcebook devoted to letting players rule and run realms under D&D3.5.  As far as setting goes, I'm considering a Norse / Germanic / Northern European land of Black Forests and grim peaks, where the cunning nibelungen dwarves of Niflheim can craft whatever you desire for a dread price, and the Fey Folk of the woods are dying out as the power of the realms of men waxes.  To the north is the Grey Sea, and to the south lie the Howling Hills of the wulfen beastmen.  The realms of men are fractious, tenuously united beneath a High King, but with each of the noble houses scheming for its own advantage.  Notable source of inspiration of the Song of Ice and Fire, as a lowish-magic northern European highish-lethality setting. The PCs enter this milieu as landless humans, disinherited second or third sons of minor lords, minor knights, upjumped peasants, highwaymen on the run, that kind of person, probably around 8th level, and proceed to carve out lands and titles for themselves.

The advantage of the FoB approach is that it solidly grounds the PCs in the gameworld.  Their actions have consequences, and there are incentives for involving themselves in local affairs.  They take squires, lead crusades, hold castles, marry ladies fair or strapping young knights, and have children who grow to be the next generation of PCs.  On the other side of the same coin, though, is the necessity of a well-detailed setting for the PCs to go conquer, as well as the addition of an extra 'realm layer' of mechanics for me to keep track of and prep.  I also expect that balance issues may be magnified in FoB as compared to 3.5; a 9th-level wizard can decimate an army with fireballs and teleport out if things are going badly, while a 9th-level fighter simply can't, to say nothing of realm-level capabilities like scrying and other powerful divinations.   Timescales are also a problem; time in FoB is measured mainly in weeks.  Casters gain here, as well, from the increased availability of time for things like spell research and item crafting; fighty-types have no similar 'downtime'-burning mechanics.  Finally, it isn't very flexible as far as player availability goes; if the General of the Armies can't make it to one session, you're kinda hosed.

The other approach I'm considering inverts these advantages and disadvantages.  I found a used copy of the Necromancer Games version of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy Campaign Setting, and want to run an episodic game set there, played in the open-table style.  Basically, play would be divided into short, one-session adventures, corresponding to a single episode of a TV show or a single short story in an anthology.  I intend to draw on the Thieves' World anthologies and Fritz Lieber's Lankhmar anthologies for inspiration (though I should probably also read up on Conan as well).  A typical session runs as follows: I prep a hook and a session's worth of opposition.  Players show up, with veteran players assisting new players in rolling up characters at an established 'baseline' level (probably in the 4th to 6th range) while I do a little more prep.  The Heroes assemble in a seedy tavern in the City State of the Invincible Overlord, get their hook, and go do their thing (along the lines of the Beyond the Black Gate post linked above with the word episodic).  The session ends with them back where they started, but richer and more experienced.  XP is awarded by the numbers, so players who show up more often tend to level faster.  I'm considering using one of the old-school "Spending GP on ale and wenches gets you XP" rules so that leveling doesn't end up being terribly slow (13 encounters per level is a few too many for me...).

The open-table part comes in with the easy entrance and exit of PCs; if you have a new player (or if somebody dies), they get a new character.  If somebody decides not to show up one day, no big deal; larger shares of loot for everyone else (if they survive).  If somebody decides never to come back, it's bad, but the campaign goes on.  This allows new players to 'dip their toes in', so to speak, without committing to spending n hours a week on the game.  This style of play also saves me prep time; prep consists of rolling up a random objective, assembling some opposition from one or more monster manuals, and embellishing as I go.  This style of play has another advantage, in that it parallelizes well; if I need a week's break and I know another decent DM (and I dare say that I do), I might be able to hand a week's session off without giving away any big secrets or burdening them with a huge amount of work.  Heck, I could even alternate weeks of DMing (or, better yet, roll each week for who's DMing), and play in the campaign on my off-weeks.  There are two obvious disadvantages here, though: the first is the inverse of FoB's boon, namely that the PCs are terribly disconnected from the world.  They're itinerant sellswords doing dirty work for gold, not holding castles and leaving grand marks on the world.  The second disadvantage is of down-time; with no standardized (and probably not even any specified) amount of time between episodes, item creation and spell research suddenly become hugely ambiguous.  I'm considering turning item creation feats into 'per-episode' resources; for example, Brew Potion might, at the beginning of each episode that you show up for, let you roll up 2d4 random potions that you brewed since last episode.  You get 'em at no cost, but they spoil at the end of the episode.  Scrolls could work similarly, but wands would be much trickier; perhaps a variant of Crafting Points as a per-episode resource would work.

The third and final option that I've been tossing around for a year and a half now is to run a derivative of Ben Robbins' Western Marches campaign.  This, however, would be a ton of work for me, and I like the Wilderlands as a setting well enough to run that instead.  Then there's the other crazy option, which is to run Fields of Blood in the Wilderlands, but then I lose the flavor that I want in FoB and have to put up with the craziness of the Wilderlands.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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