Sunday, August 30, 2015

Super Dungeon Explore 2.0

Last night there was boardgaming!  It had been a long time since we played Super Dungeon Explore - apparently the unclear rules led to huge piles of errata which eventually became unmanageable and required a total rewrite of the rules.  That rewrite has now arrived, and it's pretty good.

I don't have a complete changelog, but here are the things I noticed:
  • The damage tracker / countdown to endgame is gone.  Instead of minibosses and bosses spawning at points along the damage track, a miniboss spawns each time a spawner is destroyed, and the boss spawns when the last spawn point is destroyed.  This makes the first miniboss fight much earlier in the game than previously.
  • Rules for consul's spawning of monsters are way clearer.  As his whole turn, he can spawn from a spawner, which inflicts a point of damage on that spawner (pushing towards endgame), and he can't spawn two turns in a row (to prevent endgame from arriving very early).
  • Loot has also changed in the absence of the damage track; it's generated per monster killed, up to a maximum of three pieces of loot per player turn.
  • Fewer status effects.
  • Chests now have keys and locks and things.  Killed minibosses drop keys which let you unlock chests at low risk; failure to pick the lock on a chest turns it into a mimic.
  • Spawners drop coins when destroyed, which allow a full heal or a respawn.
  • Characters can heal themselves and remove their own status effects by rolling (based on Wis and Armor respectively) at the cost of an action.  Bosses and minibosses can also remove their own status effects in this way (and with hearts rolled on successful attacks).
It was a very close game, but we made a mistake in party composition - two dex characters and a strength character meant that we were competing for dex items.  We drew a ton of wisdom items, particularly treasure (the higher-teir gear) and lacking a wizard these went to waste.  Still, the end of the game was very close - it came down to our treant with one HP left vs the bossdragon with 1 HP left and a pair of kobolds.  The last attack of the last kobold took the treant out, but if it had missed, it probably would've been able to land one hit on the dragon and win the game.  Honestly I was surprised that it was that close - the dragon gets a piece of treasure that it can use, and drew an axe that gave it double damage, which was one of the worst possible outcomes for us (and contributed to my rapid vaporization fairly early in the bossfight).  If it hadn't drawn that, or if we'd had a wisdom-based attacker instead of two dex-based attackers, I think we probably would've won (granted, Matt wasn't pushing aggresssively for endgame via spawning).

I think my only complaint is that it was a very long game; three players+consul took about five hours (including hero selection, setup, and ordering food), and four or more players would take even longer.  I'm not really sure why it was as long as it was.  It definitely wasn't rules-confusion; lookups into the rulebook were fairly infrequent.  We were fighting kobolds, and kobolds are relatively strong on defense compared to some of the other monsters released in the expansions (like turtles and elementals).  We also played very defensively, with our two rangd characters hiding behind the treant, who pushed into rooms through kobold phalanxes.  More aggressive, high-mobility play on both the PC and monster sides might shorten the game (on the other hand, high-mobility play for the players means that PCs are easily isolated and destroyed in detail.  Surviving high-mobility play probably requires mutually supported 'bounding' fire and motion; troublesome, because having enough ranged characters in a party for that means you're competing for items).  Consul spawn-rush could also shorten the game considerably; the interesting question to my mind at the moment is "is the game winnable against a spawn-rushing consul?"  I'm curious what sort of tactical innovations and party compositions would be required on the player-side to accumulate the necessary gear to win an earlier bossfight.  Ethan argued against spawn rush, saying that as consul, it was important to give the players a chance, but I prefer to look at it as a gauntlet which has been thrown.  Maybe it is actually practically unwinnable despite being totally legal (much like four-howitzer in OGRE), but I have insufficient data to draw that conclusion yet.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Midnight ACKS: Elven Sage

Prime Requisites: Int, Wis
Requirements: None
Hit Dice: d4
Maximum Level: 11

Elven Sages are wise beyond the kenning of mortal men.  Their mastery of ancient lore makes them the chosen advisors of the elven queen, and their ability to speak through the trees makes them valuable assets to operations in the field.

Elven sages neglect mundane combat training, relying on their magic and their rangers to protect them.  They are untrained in the use of armor, and are familiar with only the simplest of weapons: clubs, daggers, slings, and staves.  They may fight with a weapon in two hands, but not with two weapons or with shields.  They advance in attack throws and saves by two points every six levels, and may not cleave.  Their attack and saving throws are as a mage of their level.

They cast arcane spells as a mage of their level, including all the usual rules for repertoires and spellbooks and whatnot.  They may use magic items usable only by mages.

They also cast divine spells as a cleric of their level, from the following list:

  • Cure Light Wounds
  • Delay Disease
  • Detect Evil
  • Detect Magic
  • Fellowship
  • Light
  • Protection from Evil
  • Read Languages
  • Sanctuary
  • Salving Rest
  • Augury
  • Charm Animal
  • Cure Moderate Wounds
  • Delay Poison
  • Detect Charm
  • Divine Grace
  • Holy Chant
  • Obscuring Mist
  • Speak with Animals
  • Warp Wood
  • Continual Light
  • Cure Blindness
  • Cure Disease
  • Detect Curse
  • ESP
  • Glyph of Warding
  • Growth of Animals
  • Locate Object
  • Remove Curse
  • Sphere of Visibility
  • Command Animals
  • Create Water
  • Death Ward
  • Dispel Magic
  • Divination
  • Neutralize Poison
  • Protection from Evil, Sustained
  • Speak with Plants
  • Spirit of Healing
  • Tongues
  • Commune
  • Control Animals
  • Control Winds
  • Create Food
  • Cure Critical Wounds
  • Growth of Plants
  • Quest
  • Reincarnate 
  • Scry
  • True Seeing
Not even elven sages can turn the undead in these dark days.  However, they are masters of ancient elven lore (as Loremastery).  They are also attuned to the Woodwhisper, allowing them to cast Speak with Plants once per day with a casting time of one turn.  This is of particular utility in the elven forests, where the trees are semi-intelligent and can communciate messages across vast distances as swiftly as the wind.  They may also use magic items usable only by clerics, but cannot gather divine power or perform blood sacrifice.

They also get all the usual elf powers (immunity to ghoul paralysis, +1 to saves vs paralysis and spells, +1 to surprise in the wilderness, +8 bonus to finding secret doors, speak elven and beastman languages).

At 5th level, elven sages may research spells, brew potions, and scribe scrolls.

At 9th level, they may build an elven tower, gather apprentices, and engage in crafting greater magic items, preparing ritual spells, building constructs, crossbreeding (though most consider this abhorrent), and, if chaotic, raising undead.

Level XP Title
1 0 Elven Prodigy
2 3125 Elven Seer
3 6250 Elven Theurgist
4 12500 Elven Archivist
5 25000 Elven Enchanter
6 50000 Elven Scholar
7 100000 Elven Luminary
8 200000 Sylvan Oracle
9 380000 Elven Sage
10 560000 Elven Sage, 10th level
11 740000 Elven Sage, 11th level

Class proficiencies (31):
  • Alchemy
  • Apostasy
  • Battle Magic
  • Beast Friendship
  • Bright Lore (turn as a cleric of half level, +2 caster level for healing and light spells)
  • Collegiate Wizardry
  • Craft
  • Diplomacy
  • Divine Blessing
  • Divine Health
  • Elementalism
  • Engineering
  • Familiar
  • Healing
  • Illusion Resistance
  • Knowledge
  • Language
  • Laying on Hands
  • Magical Engineering
  • Magical Music
  • Mapping
  • Mystic Aura
  • Naturalism
  • Quiet Magic
  • Performance
  • Prophecy
  • Sensing Evil
  • Sensing Power
  • Transmogrification
  • Unflappable Casting
  • Wakefulness

Continues the theme of "cleric+a class that people actually like to play".
The divine-side spell list is not very offensive.  The arcane side should be able to fill that gap.
Levels kinda slow, but within the realm of the reasonable.
The spell selection gave me some trouble.  I think I am happy with having Restore Life and Limb unavailable as a PC-castable spell in this setting; it'd make a good ritual spell (ie, scrolls of restoration might be findable as treasure but probably not craftable any time soon). While on the topic of death, I guess I should probably work up rules for playing Fell.  Accumulating postmortal wounds has Black Knight-style comedy potential, and the ticking clock of your deterioriating sanity means that it's the perfect time for a postmortem suicide mission.  This is the stuff heroic stories are made of.  I was going to need those rules for the players' enemies, anyway...

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Midnight ACKS: Elven Ranger

Starting off with an easy one.

The Elven Ranger is as the class of the same name in the ACKS Player's Companion, except as follows:

Prime requisites: Str and Dex
Requirements: Wis 9+
Maximum level: 12

Elven ranger cast a number of divine spells per day as a cleric of half their level (rounded up), and use half their level rounded up as their caster level for the numeric effects of all of their spells.

Level XP 1 2 3 4
1 0 0

2 2525 0

3 5050 1

4 10100 1

5 20200 2

6 40400 2

7 80000 2 1

8 160000 2 1

9 310000 2 2

10 460000 2 2

11 610000 2 2 1 1
12 760000 2 2 1 1

Elven rangers cast spells from the following list:
1: Cure Light Wounds, Delay Disease, Pass Without Trace, Predict Weather, Salving Rest
2: Augury, Chameleon, Charm Animal, Delay Poison, Silent Step
3: Cure Disease, Eyes of the Eagle, Glyph of Warding, Locate Object, Remove Curse
4: Cure Serious Wounds, Divination, Neutralize Poison, Speak with Plants, Summon Animals

While elven rangers cannot turn the undead, they receive the Healing proficiency.  At 9th level, elven rangers gain the ability to research spells, make potions, and scribe scrolls.
Further, the Goblin-Slaying proficiency is added to their class proficiency list.

Good all-rounder; fights well, wildernesses well, heals OK, and only levels as slowly as a mage. Medic is a fine secondary role to add to a full-fighting class.
Didn't feel right to make Wisdom a full prime req for only one point of casting, so instead it's just a Divine Elf minreq of 9+.  I'm happy with the one point of divine here; low-level rangers can use spellcasting to supplement nonmagical healing (or for utility like Pass Without Trace), while high-level rangers can do some neat stuff but never reach Restore Life and Limb levels of spellcasting.  This feels about right.
The addition of Goblin Slaying to the class list is possible because we're going from Fighting 2 / HD 1 / Stealth 1 / Elf 0 -> Elf 1, which lowers our max level by 1 and adds an extra class proficiency to the list.  Goblin Slaying seemed appropriate, since the primary invaders of the elven forests are beastmen.  On the other hand, it does break the dwarves' otherwise-exclusive access to the proficiency (though this is probably the only elf class that will get access to it).  Not sure about this.  Laying on Hands would also play well with the healing theme without stepping on anyone's beard.

Monday, August 17, 2015

ACKS Midnight

Matt's back in town and wants to play some ACKS, and I've been reading War of the Flea and want to run something Midnight-like. The conclusion is obvious.

As noted previously, there are two (well, three) problems with Midnight as a setting.
  1. No clear (or even plausible) victory condition.  How do you kill a god, anyway?
  2. Monolithic, zealous evil.
  3. Barter economy is a real pain in the ass.
We can solve 1 and 2 in one shot by changing some setting assumptions.

ACKS' default setting assumption is a crumbling lawful empire, besieged by beastmen without and cthonic cults within.  If we turn that on its head, we get a wavering chaotic empire, harassed by elves at the borders and heretics within.  My target model is basically Wars of the (evil, supernaturally-enhanced) Diadochi.  A Chaotic Alexander the Great, tutored by Wormtongue instead of Aristotle and tainted by the Shadow, thundered forth from the North and conquered the realms of light, then died and willed his empire "To the strongest!"  So the empire is split between a handful of Night Kings who, while nominally united in service of the Shadow, often war among themselves as well.

Yes, the Night Kings are scary (near max-level with permanent blessings of an evil god), and they have lots of orcs.  But not even the Shadow's favorites are safe from death, as Nega-Alexander showed.  And the empire is only a few decades old, at most - the economic and legal impacts are less severe than in standard Midnight (solving the Barter Problem, and potentially making things like travel easier).

One level beneath the conflicts between the Night Kings, you have more competing factions - different doctrines within the Order of Shadow, orc clans, the traitor princes, and potentially a to-be-named set of schools of sorcery and accompanying dark archmages.  These factions compete and ally with each other for control of territory and resources, while within them individuals compete for status and power.  As a doctine, "To the strongest!" does not lend itself to stability.  Some ambitious individuals, and some of the more liberal factions, might be persuaded to cooperate with rebel scum in order to achieve their ends (for a while anyway).

So those are the high-level changes I'm planning to make in order to make Midnight slightly more reasonable.  Zooming in a bit, geographically, I think I'd run in a region like the Dornlands / Highhorns / Icewood.  Lots of forests to hide rebel freeholds in, mountains with dwarven ruins (including possibly a Moria-analogue megadungeon passage beneath the mountains), a ruined Maginot Line-equivalent near the north end of the region, towns along the rivers, and the largest city on the coast in the south, where the a major river meets the inland sea.

I am confronted with a difficulty - open table vs closed.  A game involving political factions, world engines, and building rebel camps (in light of Midnight's situation, I'd like to try something like this approach to domains, instead of ACKS' families-by-the-numbers) is necessarily pretty stateful.  On the other hand, the wilderness exploration component has promise for a Western Marches-type approach.  Might be something that changes over time - notably, the Hill Cantons started as a Western Marches-type game, and gradually evolved into something very different.  I guess at the start it's probably safe to assume a relatively open table and WM-like playstyle, with world engines running in the background ("Well last session the PCs knocked over an outpost of the Blood Howlers orc clan, which will delay the Howlers' attempt to wrest control of Durbinford from the antipaladins of the Order of the Gauntlet.  The Overlord's approval of the Howlers also drops.") and overt player-facing political considerations at a minimum for the time being.

Hmm...  what else.  Houserules TODO list.
  • This is the correct time and place for Divine Elves, who rely on their fey nature for inherent magic.  Nobody liked clerics anyway.
    • Divine elf ranger (fighting 2, hd 1, thief 1, divine elf 1-2)
    • Divine elf sage / druid (arcane 4?, divine elf 2-3 theurgy class)
    • Dwarves, also being fey, can keep craftpriests I guess.  Their spell list might need upgrades for maximum dwarfness.
  • Dworg Berserker (I don't plan to generate a full race for dworg, but something like fighting 3 / HD 3 and a few minor abilities like language and inhumanity are what this is going to end up with)
    • Might be something players 'unlock' based on actions in-world, which is a great excuse to not worry about this for now.
  • Hobbits? Eh, they're a prey species, and not native to this part of the world anyway.
  • Zaharans need a new name, but ruinguard is a totally reasonable class for this setting (from a Haradrim / Easterling group equivalent) and fills the fighter/wizard role that the elves vacated.
    • Might be unlockable.
    • Possibly also need a nightblade equivalent
    • Sorcerer-Priest of Shadow would be nifty for NPCs
  • I have not yet developed a thief and skills replacement with which I am happy.
  • Domain rules redux
    • Consequently, hijinks redux, blocking on thief rebuild
  • Economy rules modifications
    • Capturing weapons, armor, and trade goods should be a good thing; possibly a bonus to XP-for-treasure from these things.
  • Merge saving throws
    • One complaint I've heard from new-edition players is that there are too many save categories and they don't make sense.  I want to try Swords and Wizardry's approach, of one saving throw progression and your class gives you a bonus to certain (descriptive) types of saves.
  • Some ideas from a Heroic Companion draft I read a while back 
    • Critical hits
    • Less-deadly poison
    • Honor?
All that, plus building a sandbox full of dynamic factions ought to be a piece of cake, right?...

Friday, August 14, 2015

Reviewish: Shadow of Mordor

Shadow of Mordor was a console/Windows open-world game that came to linux recently, where I picked it up while on sale.  Premise: ranger back from the dead runs around Mordor killing orcs, freeing slaves, and disrupting the power structure of Sauron's armies.  Promising!  My feelings on the implementation are mixed, however.

Tonally, it's intended to be fairly dark.  Your character and his family are killed during the opening sequence (look, it's not a spoiler if it's in the opening sequence).  You find yourself surrounded by slavery, executions, and orcish brutality in a grim landscape while music with lots of drums and minor chords plays.  Driven by a quest for revenge for a family you (the player) barely knew, you soon descend into a sea of senseless violence against a transient cast of orcish captains.  Your only meaningful relationships are with these foes.

In practice, it goes so dark that I found it hilarious.  Nihilistically comedic.  The orcish dialogue is one of the best parts of the game.  The combat system is an inversion of all good sense - even when they have you surrounded, the orcs only attack you one or two at a time (providing you with opportunities to parry).  The safest place to be in combat is right in the middle of a huge group of melee enemies, so that archers on the edges of the battle will inflict friendly fire rather than hitting you (also walls interfere with your camera control, so fighting with your back to a wall is a good way to end up dead).  Vaulting over enemies in melee is actively encouraged by the combat system.  The end result is something that some might describe as "epic" or "badass", but that I think would be well-served by a Benny Hill soundtrack.  The choice of minor-key music superimposed over such silly combat just makes it funnier!  The stealth system is similarly amusing - you can backstab and kill an orc in mid-sentence and the rest of his patrol won't notice.  Repeating this process lets you wipe a moving group of almost arbitrary size, provided that they don't turn.  Resource management is purely tactical; if you're willing to disengage from combat, recovery is instantaneous via fast travel.  The one-liner introductions from the orc captains vary between cringeworthy and genuinely funny, and the fact that they sometimes come back from the dead with their skulls held together by enormous spiked metal plates (and they complain about it) is also moderately funny.  I actually got a little sad when some of the orcish captains I'd killed a couple times stopped coming back, and then I laughed, because this is a game about killing orcs and here I am being sad about having killed an orc (again).

Those captains are arguably the best-developed characters in the entire game.  You get to know the things they fear, the things they hate, who their rivals are, what drives them to acts of unspeakable cruelty.  And those traits all matter, because they make them easier for you to kill (not that most of them are all that hard, but sometimes they matter).

An assassin's dilemma; if you can predict your target's actions perfectly, you must have a perfect simulation of your target running inside you - you have become them, subsumed them.  If you do not hold them in the deepest contempt, if you bear them any respect, you must feel a little emptiness at snuffing them out, as your inner simulation becomes a 'ghost'.

But perhaps I am not cut out for assassin work.

In any case, this is not the hard-bitten, combat-as-war guerilla warfare and political hierarchy manipulation simulator that I was hoping for.  It is fun when met on its own terms, if you get it on sale and take it for what it is (playing while inebriated might help), but it does get pretty repetitive pretty quickly, and the controls make it very clear that it's a console port (everything is contextual and overloaded, and you can't separate the multiple functions of each key).  The graphics are OK I guess.

To return to a point relevant to tabletop gaming, this (combined with my recent reading of War of the Flea) has me thinking about Midnight again, particularly as regards infighting among the orcs.  More to follow.