Monday, April 29, 2013

Session report - 28 April 2013

We've been playing in 'cloud' format, so having logs to show to the people who missed the session is kind of nice.

This session, I ran Ignatius (Human MU5) and henchmen Dami (Human Clr4 of the Old Gods of magic) and Grumpycat (Chaotic human MU3; he has a real name, but it is long forgotten), while Kelly ran Lief (Human Fighter 5), Bjorn the Unbreakable (Human Fighter 2-ish?  So named for his Con of 18) and Hadrian (Human Assassin 4ish; fights with two weapons).  We had a guest for the session who picked up Sister Mary (more commonly known as "Nunzilla"), a lawful human cleric 5 who is normally the best of the henches.  Drew and Alex were absent, and so their characters Karl and ??? remained behind in the town of Sarderond.

The aim for the session was to return to the Isle of the Hallowed to retrieve the regalia of the last hierarch of the Eldest at the behest of the prince of Khallar.  We first secured additional supplies in the market of Sarderond, including a scroll of restore life and limb (whoo) and more healing herbs, holy water, and military oil.  Additionally, we sought a Divination at the temple and received directions through the cross-dimensional tower-maze on the Isle to the tomb of the hierarch.  We also took the opportunity to test some of the unidentified magic items for curses, and identified several magic items, most notably a ring of x-ray vision (given to Lief) and a +3 short sword (given to Hadrian as an off-hand weapon).  So armed the party set out by ship for the isle and made a better landing than we did the first time (which is to say that we did not sink the boat).

En route, we encountered a group of rival adventurers with a dragon carcass sailing back to Sarderond, but we avoided them.  Upon arriving, we found a clutch of dragon eggs via x-ray, and one of them hatched while we were investigating.  Ignatius' mystic aura convinced it that he was its mother, and so we acquired a wyrmling, which we named Smallithrax.  Fearing the wrath of the other draconic parent, we abandoned the remaining eggs and headed for the objective.

Notable encounters on the way:
  • Sarcophagus engraving of pain; caused Bjorn to stab Hadrian.  Unfortunate, and cost some spell slots to sleep the berserker and heal Hadrian, but ultimately no permanent damage.
  • The Other Dragon - apparently the father.  None too happy to hear that its mate had been slain and that we had one of its children, but parlayed information of the whereabouts of its slayers in exchange for safe passage.  Also copied a treasure map found in the hoard.
  • Snake Cult - came across a gang of cultists; sleeped them, tied up, and awoke one to interrogate.  He started yelling, which brought the cult leader (an albino Eldest) and her bodyguards running.  Parlayed ineffectively, combat ensued.  She knew dismember and had a staff of withering; Grumpycat lost an arm and some ability score points and Lief lost some teeth, but her berserker minions were eliminated by a fireball and oil wall, and Hadrian slew her after she was trapped in a web.  Two cultist fighters trapped in the web with her surrendered, and were stripped of their weapons.  They served as porters for the rest of the expedition.  Her spellbook, art-object haircomb, and some coins were recovered.  (TODO - return with more porters, steal her fancy furniture)
  • Much the worse for wear and low on slots; used last spell slot to make a web as a a hallway-block for its 8-hour duration.  Rested undisturbed, slots and HP regained.
  • Room with odd pointing idol; pointed at Lief.  Purpose still unknown.
  • Mirror room with Caryatid Columns.  Used Bjorn as a scout on a rope; enveloped the columns at the stairs and destroyed them after he woke them up.  Bjorn sustained significant HP loss, was healed.
  • Finally the tomb; divination proved correct (this is why you shell out for an extra goat).  Odd runes, force-wall + water filling trap.  Used scroll of magic warding to punch a hole in the force wall, drained water, gained access to sarcophagus.  Determined via Sensing Evil and Sensing Power that contents were both magic and evil; carried via floating disk rather than risking touch.
  • Returned to ship uneventfully; captain none too comfortable with cargo, returned to Khallar post-haste.
  • Arrived at Khallar uneventfully, visited sage / loremaster / high mage to get items identified.  Sentient evil vorpal sword, +3 plate and shield, potions of invisibility and speed, rod of cancellation, and some high-quality art objects.  Fenced the goods, then considered the magic.
  • Experimental tests were done on the sword; Ignatius picked up some Eldest-like features (penalty to reaction rolls with humans ): after losing battle of wills.  Party decided it was too dangerous to keep.  Coated it in lead, gave to his Lordship as birthday gift, since it contains the spirit of his (dead) nemesis.
  • Lief donned the Eldest armor, gradual transformation into Eldest (not unexpected, and now has undisputed claim to the +3 plate).  Pretty much ideal, since this lets him use his 16 Int and be a spellsword, basically.
  • XP was gained; Ignatius levelled to 6th, Grumpy to 4th.  Passed morale grudgingly; would like his arm back.  Staff of Withering given to Dami (only non-lawful cleric in party; hence only possible user).
So overall, a fairly productive session.  Risky courses of action were taken, but mostly worked out acceptably well, and large amount of treasure and XP were had.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

State of the Gamist, 24 April

Graduation looms.  Went travelling last weekend for apartment-hunting; found a nice place, but not yet sure about the gaming culture in the area.  There seems to be a Games Workshop store nearby, and a group running Living Forgotten Realms at a nearby college...  so I may have a good time hewing out an OSR niche (especially with Next in the pipe...  blech market fragmentation).

There is a weekly ACKS game here, though, wherein I am running a 5th-level MU (hopefully to make 6th next session, whereupon I can pick up Magical Engineering and start ID'ing some of the magic stuff we've been avoiding using because we're not sure if it's cursed).  So far we have befriended some water nymphs (awwww yeah) and an undead king (also awesome, but for different reasons), raided two tomb complexes, sunk one boat (unfortunately, we were in it at the time), recovered an ancient golden data storage device, slain or driven off 30 ghouls (22 of which were ghoul monkeys), explored three towers, and located a region of dimensional instability rife with holes to a bejungled pocket dimension.  Also to date we have suffered no casualties, though I expect that may also end next session as we delve deeper into the dimensional pocket.  We do not yet have a party name, though since we adopted as standard practice the wearing of bandanas over our mouths after a run-in with a yellow musk creeper last session, I may propose something like "the masked miscreants" or similar.

As a result of playing, I have not been looking so much at DM-side things or rules recently.  I do, however, really wish we had rules for copying-times for spellbooks so I could make a backup before we end up in the drink next time (I was fortunate to have a slot to levitate my way out of that, but if I'd been tapped out, it would've been bad news).  A spell that copies pages would be a very nice utility to have around for this purpose (and its reverse, Erase, would be quite a scary spell for wizard-duelling...).

Also, Domains at War!  Read through both Battles and Campaigns and they both look like things I wish I had had during the campaign I ran.  Considering upgrading my pledge to get softcover copies (and printing and binding a copy of the Player's Companion, so I'd have everything in paper).  We're looking to play some Battles after finals, but for now people are mostly swamped with projects.  Such as...

The main reason I haven't been posting much recently - picoCTF.  It's a high-school computer security competition that we've been putting together for a couple of months.  If you happen to have highschool-age children, or know any who might be interested, the competition runs for the next two weeks with minimal / flexible time commitment and requires no prior experience (though APCS or similar programming familiarity will be helpful).  Mostly we want to show people that playing with computers (hacking) can be a lot of fun; hell, I dismissed 'computer security' as a field until my sophomore year of college, because I thought it would just be writing firewalls and antivirus tools.

Anyway, I should get back to that.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

ACKS Domains at War Kickstarter Up

At long last, the DaW kickstarter is a go!  I'm in for 20 for now, possibly upping to 35 once I've read the backing texts (and have thought a bit about whether I want to start collecting paper books again...).

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

ACKS Classes: Dwarven Muleskinner

(yes, that was a Dwarf Fortress joke.  But do you know how hard it is to find a picture of a dwarf leading a mule?)

This class grew out of some thoughts on the Explorer and the Venturer, combined with a goodly dose of silliness and perhaps some slight influence from Dwarf Fortress.

Dwarven Muleskinner
Prime requisites: Str, Dex
Minimum stats: Con 9+
Hit dice: 1d6
Maximum level: 11

While the adventurous humans have their explorers of faraway lands, and the elves have cadres of rangers dedicated to defending their forests, one does not usually think of the folk-under-the-mountain as having much skill in the wilderness.  Indeed, there are but two sensible explanations for a dwarf taking up overland travel.  The first is that he has been cast out from his clan holdfast for some deeply shameful act, as sometimes happens when the alcohol flows too freely.  The second is greed; a dissatisfaction with the metal and stonework of the mountainhomes, a desire for the finer things in life as produced by the surface races, or a lust for the wealth that a life of trade might bring.  Most muleskinners claim to have begun their careers for the latter reason, though their companions often suspect that the former is closer to the truth.

Dwarven muleskinners are accustomed to defending themselves and their caravans as they journey across many miles of trackless and monster-infested wilderness, and so they advance in attack throws and saves at a rate of two points per three levels, just as a fighter.  They are skilled in the use of all one-handed melee weapons and all missile weapons except for longbows, which they may not use due to their short statue.  Muleskinners may fight with a weapon in each hand, with a one-handed weapon used in both hands, or with a weapon and a shield.  They eschew armors heavier than chainmail, as these restrict their movement and prevent them from keeping up with the mules or running for their lives.  Like explorers and rangers, muleskinners prefer to engage their enemies at range, and gain a +1 damage bonus with missile weapons, +1 more at each level divisible by 3.  They may use any magic item usable by fighters.

Muleskinners have a sense of direction well-developed by extensive overland journeys, and so begin play with the Navigation proficiency.  They are also responsible for keeping their pack animals out of dangerous terrain, and so are skilled at Land Surveying.  They are as stubborn as the mules they lead, and exhibit exceptional Endurance in harsh conditions.  The nature of their charges means that every muleskinner is familiar with the basics of the care and training of mules, and so they gain Animal Husbandry and Animal Training (Mules) as proficiencies (if you have a merciful Judge, he may extend Animal Training to 'pack animals' rather than mules specifically).  Further, an exceptional few muleskinners (those worthy of the class, rather than just being L0 dwarves) develop a preternatural bond with their animals and an excellent understanding of animal behavior in general, gaining the Beast Friendship proficiency.

Of course, being merchants, muleskinners must cultivate a second set of talents for once the journey is at its end.  They are Shrewd Bargainers, with skills earned through the sale of thousands of lead figurines and the acquisition of tens of discount mules.  Most successful muleskinners also take care to develop a Network of Buyers and Suppliers which permits them to lower the effective market class of settlements which they have already visited at least once by 1, as the Venturer ability.

Finally, as dwarves, muleskinners gain a +1 to surprise rolls while underground.  All are fluent in Dwarf, Gnome, Goblin, and Kobold, and they may detect traps, false walls, secret doors, and other such constructions while underground on a roll of 14+.  Due to their natural hardiness, they gain a +3 bonus to saving throws vs blast and breath, and a +4 bonus to all other saving throws (and so they save as a Dwarven Vaultguard of the same level).  As a result of their attention to detail, they gain a +2 bonus to proficiency rolls (including, from their skill set, Animal Husbandry, Navigation, Land Surveying, and Beast Friendship throws).

Upon reaching 5th level (Dwarven Mule Whisperer), the Dwarven Muleskinner masters the Secrets of the Carrot and the Stick, which motivate all mercenaries, mules, and henchmen that he personally leads to great acts of valor.  Through howled threats of the lash, promises of great rewards, and gently whispered reassurances, he provides his followers with +2 morale when he personally leads them.

When he reaches 9th level (Dwarven Caravan Master), the Dwarven Muleskinner may establish a fortified trading post, ideally located along a trade route through forbidding wilderness.  The trading post must be built in an area which is civilized by neither humans nor dwarves, and attracts a mostly human population, since few dwarves wish to be ruled by so eccentric a lord as a muleskinner.  Additionally, when the post is constructed, it will attract 1d4x10 0th-level human mercenaries, 10 1st-level dwarven vaultguards, and 1d6 1st-3rd level dwarven muleskinners, all seeking employment.

Dwarven Muleskinner Class Proficiency List: Alertness,  Ambushing, Animal Husbandry, Animal Training, Bargaining, Bribery, Combat Reflexes, Combat Trickery (Incapacitate, Wrestling), Command, Diplomacy, Dwarven Brewing, Fighting Style, Gambling, Illusion Resistance, Intimidation, Language, Leadership, Mapping, Mountaineering, Naturalism, Passing Without Trace, Precise Shooting, Riding, Running, Skirmishing, Sniping, Survival, Trapping, Weapon Focus

Fur Trader Template: This pre-generated template represents a small-time fur trapper and trader from the borderlands.  This template is ready for adventure.
Proficiencies: Alertness, Trapping
Equipment: Leather armor of uncertain providence (smells like mule), leather boots, broad leather belt with copper buckle with clan markings, hooded cloak, crossbow with 20 bolts, hatchet (hand axe), boot knife, tent, flint and tinder, hand-whittled whistle, two weeks' iron rations, mule, saddlebags (large sack x2).  Unusually successful fur traders may have some amount of furs or a fancy hat.

Build math: Fighting 2, HD 1, Thief 1, Dwarf 2
XP to L2: 600 dwarf 2 + 450 fighting tradeoffs + 500 HD 1 + 1000 fighting 2 + 200 thievery 1 -> 2750

Monday, April 8, 2013

Games I Want to Run After Graduation

This post differs from previous "Games I Want to Run" posts, in that instead of contemplating what system to use, I can happily say that ACKS will likely be the weapon of choice for considerable future gaming.  Instead, setting is the primary question.

So I think there are three main settings which have my attention currently, and which seem to have a tendency to recur in my thought even over the course of years.  Those settings are Midnight, the Western Marches, and the Wilderlands.  There are some interesting commonalities here.  All three settings are pretty wilderness-focused; in Midnight, the wilderness is where you are safest from Izrador's law, while in the Wilderlands and the Marches, it's where the adventures are and an obstacle to be traveled through.  All three are also fairly unforgiving; there are Dangerous Things in the world, and they want to eat you.  In both of these regards, all three are well-suited to ACKS.  Midnight might get a bit funny with the economics, but the others would work quite well.

As for the particular instantiations of the three, I'm thinking a Wilderlands campaign that starts with the sprawling dungeons beneath the City-State (inspired by Hill Cantons and kjd-imc) at low levels and gradually extends outwards into the wilderness towards classic Wilderlands locations like the Caverns of Thracia, Modron, and so forth, naturally all interpreted with a fair degree of creative license.  For example, the word Modron, for me, is reminiscent of these guys, so I get mechanical vibes.  In my Wilderlands, Modron is a mostly-human city which became a haven for heretical dwarven machinists cast out of Thunderhold.  They turned it into the Clockwork City, complete with Rhodes-style defensive clockwork colossus watching the mouth of the Roglaroon, but tensions between Modron and Thunderhold remain high.  Haghill sounds to me like it's ruled by a lawful (evil) hag countess who has sworn fealty to the (likewise evil-side of lawful) Overlord.  And so forth.

For the Western Marches, I've been working on a Vikingy sandbox in the same model on-and-off in a number of systems over the last couple years.  It would be interesting to run, but I feel like I missed my chance, and now it would likely be held up against Skyrim due to similar themes.  So I might hold off on that one for a while longer...

And finally Midnight.  Always tricky, Midnight.  But Alexander Macriss made an interesting note during this interview, that ACKS' default setting is very much a 'crumbling empire in decline' sort of place, which reminded me of an idea I had for Midnight some time ago - run it at the end of the Third Age, with events in the campaign leading up to the Last Battle and the (probable?  certain?  prophesied?) defeat of the armies of men, elves, and dwarves before the Night Kings and their orc hordes.  Start with hunting spies and cultists in the cities and their dungeon lairs, then move out into the wilderness in pursuit of orcish warbands and marauders.  Finally, come domain-time, move into the political realm, try to maintain cohesion among the allies while ousting plots among the nobility and preparing for all-out war.  Or fall to darkness and perhaps become a Night King yourself...  Come the Last Battle, many PCs would probably die fighting, but ACKS' hench focus would leave a goodly cast of mid-level heroes to flee into the woods to fight in the Fourth Age, in a world that the players once shaped.  Retaking parts of the Fortress Wall or fighting in the ruins of Nalford is more meaningful when these were places you once ruled.  Player investment in the world across the gap of catastrophe.  And of course, there's always the possibility that they might win...  but victory is temporary, for how can you kill a god?

Also convenient about Third Age Midnight (Dusk?) is that events are in motion which are not immediately threatening to the PCs, whereas in the Fourth Age, it can be hard to generate sensible events without necessarily crushing the PCs beneath a pile of orcs.  There is the problem of foreknowledge, though - if you tell your players "We're playing Midnight in the Third Age, leading up to the fall of the world to darkness as the ending of a chapter of the game", they're going to act very differently from "Sure there are rumors of the Dark God stirring in the North, but nobody takes that seriously.  Every other time he's invaded, we've pushed him back; we'll do it again if we have to.  In completely unrelated news, the Prince has disappeared recently."  Also challenging to mix the sort of inherent plottiness of "Izrador is coming" into a sandbox game; could prep it as a timeline, or use some sort of world engine to track the progress of his agents and react to PC actions (philosophical question - if you build a world engine with a finite-time convergence property, is it railroading?).

Of course, the syncretic approach is also an option.  An icebox where the PCs may accidentally awaken the Shadow in the North gives a sort of poetic justice to it, since it puts partial responsibility on them, or a game set in part of the Fortress Wall focusing on wilderness expeditions into Izrador's lands leading up to the war would work well too.  Viridistani invasion could serve much the same function in a Wilderlands game, as a catastrophic event which shatters much of the social order and redraws borders.  I guess that's something to consider, too - even if the PCs in a Dusk game do manage a feat like killing the Night Kings at the Last Battle, there are orcs enough for everyone, and there will be cleanup operations and reconquests for years to come.  Combining all three would be even better, but would probably require some custom setting work (and it's hard to justify a megacity + underdungeons right on the northern frontier).

Anyway, fun stuff to think about.

Friday, April 5, 2013

ACKS Scripts - Magic Item Availability

One thing which can sometimes be annoying in ACKS is when your players ask "Well, what magic items are available in town this month?"  When it comes to most goods like war galleys and military oil, indexing into the availability table and rolling the percent chance isn't so bad, because there just aren't that many things.  But depending on how you count scrolls, there are close on 300 magic items in ACKS Core, which can make playing the "magic item availability guessing game" a right royal pain in the arse if your players have a long wish-list of low-probability items.

So I automated it.  Here's a python script that checks availability for each item in this text file based on price and market class.  I'm reasonably certain it would work on Windows if you passed the input file in with Windows-style path separators, but don't actually have any (working) Windows machines to test it on :\ .  Works on linux, though.

Writing and running this script has also made me realize that scrolls are much more available than we thought, though the selection of available spells is pretty random.  This has a number of interesting implications.  First, wizards can use bought scrolls to expand their spell selection with a bit more control than learning from a master, and with a higher rate of success than doing research (as long as the spell is one available on bought scrolls, ie in Core).  Likewise, high-power scrolls of Death Spell, Disintegrate, Flesh to Stone, and similar are a nice (if pricey) way for a mid-level party to add some one-shot punch.  On the other side, high-level cleric scrolls of Restore Life and Limb, Remove Curse, Remove Disease, and Neutralize Poison can provide super-healing in the wilderness for a high price (something I know the Grim Fist has done; I kind of wondered where they had gotten two RL&L scrolls...).  Finally, with scrolls more readily available, the thief and bard ability to read scrolls is suddenly much more useful than when they were only found as random treasure or crafted.

In any case, this is the most recent of a decent pile of scripts I've written for ACKS.  I'll release more as I clean them up.  Others of interest include a treasure generator (there's already a good online version but I needed to write a recursive parser anyway, and didn't want trade goods in hoards by default), automatic hex-stocker (needs expanding with the recursive parser from the treasure generator, more monster data files), a henchman generator (needs naming, proficiencies, and hench magic items, but does choose class intelligently based on stats and generate wizard spells known), and one that takes in a text file containing information on a region's towns and their relative locations and generates all the mercantile demand modifiers (needs waypointing to cut down on the number of links you have to specify - all traffic from the Mediterranean to ports on the Atlantic has to pass through Gibraltar or Suez, so it would be better to specify distance from each Med port to Gibraltar and Suez and each Atlantic port to Gibraltar and Suez, but as it stands you'd need to specify the distance from each Mediterranean port to each Atlantic port, which is a real pain).  And I guess I should get a github or something for storing these, rather than throwing them in a web-public directory...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


I gamed last weekend without a laptop.  This was unusual, and I think the first time I've done so since coming to college.  It started as kind of a lark, since I wanted to bring a thick notebook to scribble notes and maps and whatnot in and could not fit both the notebook, my laptop, and the ACKS Binder (a printed copy of the ACKS main rulebook) into my backpack.  It definitely caused a few slight hangups, mostly in the transmission of henchman statistics (which we usually send via electronic means), but I think I liked it.  It kept me more involved in the game, since I had no internet to distract me, and also removed any temptation to covertly communicate with my fellow players or look up errata or material from the Player's Companion (which I have not yet printed).  Overall, it left me feeling refreshed after the game rather than tired, and sans the usual post-game headache to boot.  Part of it might've just been unplugging at all really; it's fairly unusual for me to spend six consecutive waking hours completely without computer access.  I should do it more often, and gaming is as good a time as any.  As it is an escape from the real, so too might it be an escape from the machine.

I don't know if I could do it as a DM, though, especially for ACKS, where the ability to script automation tools is immensely useful for content generation.  I guess I could generate content digitally and then print it out, but that extra step is kind of annoying, and has the irritating tendency to set things in stone / ink.  Pencil is easy to edit, and digital is easy to edit, but when you start moving back and forth between them things get harder.  But on the player-side, I cannot help but conclude that the no-laptop experience is more pleasant and generally better than on a laptop.

Monday, April 1, 2013

On Chivalry

I recently finished a short book by the title of French Chivalry, and found that it contained a few interesting bits for use in D&D.

During the early feudal period, fealty was not anything like absolute subservience, and was actually somewhat democratic (at least among nobles), to the point where "for a lord to marry, he required the assent of all of his vassals to the marriage."  Not the sort of stuff we usually see in modern portrayals of feudalism, but eminently suitable to ACKS domain play.

Tournaments began as basically 'small-scale wars' at a mutually agreeable time and place, with the defeated usually being taken prisoner and ransomed.   They were a source of income as well as a way to alleviate boredom in peaceful times.  Using peasant footsoldiers was uncommon, but occasionally done.  Only later did these tournaments evolve into jousts and more ordered forms of martial competition.

There existed three main strains of chivalry, which evolved over time and were often in conflict:
  • Martial chivalry - Loyalty, bravery, skill at arms, and ambition.  Those traits which made a fighter effective.  The earliest form of chivalry.
  • Ecclesiastical chivalry - Piety, humility, charity, and service to the church.  Subverted martial ambition to "the search for glory in the name of God" by permitting martial glory to earn admission to Heaven, opposed tournaments as vainglorious and wars between Christians as destructive to Christendom.
  • Courtly chivalry - Wit, skill in music and poetry, love and the willingness to suffer any indignity in the name of one's distant maiden in a tower.  Broadly opposed by proponents of ecclesiastical chivalry due to its tendency to lead to adultery, while some proponents of martial chivalry found it distasteful to have to woo women gently.
What's interesting here is that we see all three influenced in the Paladin, where they're portrayed as a unified front.  The 3.x paladin clearly has martial chivalry by way of full BaB, immunity to fear, and required lawfulness, and a religiously-motivated code of conduct plus divine blessings and smiting enemies of the faith satisfy the ecclesiastical side as well.  Courtly is relatively muted, but present in their focus on Charisma, as well as their access to Diplomacy and Sense Motive (as compared to a common fighter, whose only social skill is Intimidate).

But if I were to run a medievalist game...  I think a proper 'knight' class would best be split into several tracks along the lines above.  Would add a nice bit of period philosophical conflict to the mix, and provide for some variation among 'ye olde fighting men'.  Working within ACKS' class-building system, I could definitely see Knight Errant being Fighting 2 HD 2, Brother Militant being Fighting 2 HD 1 Divine 1, and Courtier being something like Fighting 2 HD 1 Thief 1 with skills or power-swaps focused on interaction.

In any case, it was a worthwhile and enjoyable read, and small enough that I may keep it around for later reference.