30 December 2010

Okay, I am better now. I think.

I had planned to take a short blogging break over the holidays, but hadn't planned on something quite this extensive.  Then again, I hadn't planned on how much work hosting nine family members for five days would be.  It wasn't quite Christmas Vacation, but it was in the same ballpark.  I certainly didn't anticipate getting a stomach bug on Christmas day which left me missing Christmas dinner and needing a few days to recover.  Ugh.

Now, though, most of the boxes are put away, all of the laundry is almost done, and all of the dishes are, at last, clean.  I've got some catching up to do, which will commence tomorrow.

I hope everyone had a great Christmas (or whatever winter holiday you celebrate)!

23 December 2010

What's on the menu?

I'm cooking around the house today (smoking pork, to be precise), so in between trips outside to check on my grill temperature, I came up with this handy random table.  You can roll on it whenever the party decides to order a post-dungeon crawl meal at the local inn.  Sure, some of the entries may not make sense initially (say, shrimp at an inn 1000 miles from the ocean), but you can always reroll or make the party wonder how the food gets to their plate.

100 Meals

1.  Mutton -- very fatty but with a tasty gravy
2.  Bright orange soup.  Presumably carrot.
3.  Porridge with fresh blueberries
4.  Large round crusty loaves of bread with sweet butter
5.  Hard cheese and day old bread (the cook-fire cannot be lit)
6.  Whole chicken, spiced with paprika and served standing up
7.  Millet in a vegetable broth
8.  Fried fish -- bony and very thin
9.  Lima beans mixed with some sort of strange, green seed pod
10.  Mystery brown stew
11.  Smoked pork shoulder doused in vinegar
12.  Potato pancakes with chunks of a smelly, blue-veined cheese
13.  Trenchers of a hearty black bread holding a thin beef gravy
14.  Goose, spitted and roasted over the fire, seasoned with cloves and honey
15.  Mincemeat pie
16.  Soup of thin chicken stock.  Chicken feet and bones float within.
17.  Shredded potatoes, scattered on a plate, smothered in onions, covered in cheese, with chunks of ham
        and diced tomatoes.
18.  Liver and onions
19.  Thin gruel with stale bread
20.  Grilled snake, unidentifiable type.
21.  Wild boar, roasted with leeks and wild onions
22.  Oatmeal with maple syrup
23.  Red and white beans, flavored with bacon and herbs
24.  Beef tongue
25.  Shepherds pie (but they're out of cheese, sorry).
26.  Fresh strawberries, peaches, and cream
27.  Freshwater muscles, steamed with butter
28.  Lake trout in a bread crumb crust
29.  Roasted quail with a cranberry sauce
30.  Chunks of ham and a mild white cheese baked inside a loaf of white bread.
31.  Rabbit, halved and charred over coals
32.  Hard, cold sausages
33.  Corn, roasted in husks
34.  Cold, hard biscuits, but saved by a wonderful sausage gravy
35.  Baked eel pie
36.  Focaccia bread and tomato sauce
37.  Corn chowder with hot peppers
38.  Shrimp, skewered and grilled
39.  Butternut squash and couscous
40.  Abnormally large turkey legs
41.  Brown rice with scallions and diced carrots
42.  Fresh wild greens with dried apricots
43.  Leek soup
44.  Sausages made with apples
45.  Roasted squash and zucchini drizzled with olive oil and flavored with taragon
46.  Berry wheat bread, but no butter
47.  Tomato soup with a wedge of very sharp cheddar cheese
48.  Manticore steaks
49.  Boiled cabbage
50.  Old, creamed spinach
51.  Fresh haunches of venison
52.  Hominy with cheese and scallions
53.  Rosemary roasted potatoes
54.  Seven day old brussel sprouts
55.  Black blood sausages and dark bread
56.  Carrot pancakes
57.  Bell peppers stuffed with red cabbage
58.  Liver and fava beans
59.  Whole suckling pig with apples
60.  Sauteed chicken with pears
61.  Clam chowder with bacon bits and basil
62.  Baked apple cobbler that cannot disguise the worms
63.  Cold fish soup
64.  Broccoli, rice, and cheese
65.  Overcooked pork ribs with a molasses sauce
66.  Strawberry salad
67.  Giant meatloaf
68.  Broiled halibut with red peppers
69.  Custard with rum-marinated oranges
70.  Spicy sausages
71.  Overcooked mutton (tastes like a boiled shoe)
72.  Poached trout
73.  A bowl of moldy potatoes
74.  Head cheese and scrapple
75.  Turkey and rice soup, with carrots and celery
76.  Tuna steaks, charred with chili powder
77.  Shrimp and saffron sausage over rice
78.  Sliced potatoes with thyme, sage, and garlic
79.  Dry and flavorless chicken
80.  Undercooked pork chops
81.  Pears and fresh wild greens with gorgonzola cheese
82.  Flaming red dragon sausage
83.  Shark head soup
84.  Garbanzo beans with garlic and tomatoes
85.  An odd smelling, unidentifiable fish
86.  Goblinberry pie
87.  A very peppery lentil soup
88.  Boiled beets
89.  Giant frog legs
90.  VERY rare ribeye steak
91.  Lamb chops, sprinkled with rosemary and mint
92.  Warm oat porridge with sugar and cinnamon
93.  Salmon, rubbed with a fragrant and mysterious herb
94.  Ox-tail soup
95.  Plum pudding with pumpernickle bread
96.  Mmmmm. . . intestines (chitterlings/meneudo)
97.  She-crab soup (tastes a bit off)
98.  Green beans boiled with potatoes and bacon
99.  Chilled brains
100.  Storm giant surprise

22 December 2010

Forgotten Songs Retrospective -- "Crisis of Self-Confidence"

As I mentioned before, this whole adventure arc was due primarily to placate a player who felt slighted, however justified and minor that slight was.  It did lead to some fun adventures and neat NPC's; Roth was one of my favorites.

One of the things I've always thought interesting about D&D is the place "adventurers" fit within the larger world.  Is it a normal thing, these people who explore old ruins and fight monsters for fun, profit, and (sometimes) Good?  What do these people do when they retire?  Do they have families?  With Roth, I posited an answer to some of those questions on a limited scale.  He was simply an adventurer who retired to his cabin in the woods -- a Grizzly Adams sort of ranger who was content to be left alone other than occasional visits from his son, who had also turned to the adventuring life.  I had written "The Story of Roth Farstrider" and given it to the players after they had met him.  I have that document in The Blue Notebook.  If I get a chance, I can retype it and post it here (if anyone's interested).  It's full of references to places, battles, plagues, and all sorts of other campaign-world things about which I had absolutely no further information.  I thought that, if the players asked, I'd just make up more stuff.  That's how this is supposed to work, right?

I learned a couple of important things about D&D 3.0 at this point, one of which I quickly house-ruled away and the other, well, it still took me awhile to fully internalize.

The first thing I learned was that deafness caused by thunderstones was permanent.  I had no idea that these  30 gp items could so seriously screw up a character.  After Kreed's player rolled really poorly in trying to throw the stone at the giant bat, we all found out, as Boaz was deafened.  Of course, this gave all the healing spells Boaz normally cast at 20% chance of failure, raising the difficulty of the rest of the adventure.

The adventure itself was pretty simple -- some kobolds from the underdark had found their way into Roth's well, messing with the underground stream that fed it.  The party simply had to navigate around some minor environmental hazards (sticky mud), fight some kobolds and the monster that led them, and unblock the stream.  My second lesson of this particular session had to do with that sticky mud.  The party just had to make a few skill checks to cross some mud that would slow them down and, if they failed a BUNCH of checks in a row, suck them under.  This obstacle took a lot of real-time to navigate, simply because party members kept failing checks and had to be pulled out by other PC's.  It seems so obvious, especially given the boredom and frustration that the failed skilled checks produced in "Night of the Gimlet", that I should have just hand-waved all this away unless they were being chased by kobolds or something. (Why didn't the party just take 10 or 20?  Did I not let them?)  But, no, I stuck with the rules and a bunch of our limited game time was spent hauling PC's out of the mud.

Then the party completely got kicked in the face by the kobolds and their "god."  Risus Monkey missed that session, so I'll try to detail what happened as best as I can in my next post.

21 December 2010

Forgotten Songs Retrospective -- Prelude to "Crisis of Self-Confidence"

 This is yet another part of my GM's commentary on Katja's Diary.  It deals with some party issues and fits between session 5 and 6 in Risus Monkey's write-ups.

I say this is a prelude because it deals with two out of game things that led to the party NOT heading immediately back to Harcomb after their adventure at the Inn of The Western Way.  Instead, they headed West, further away from Harcomb and into the Thoralien Forest.  They had some great adventures there, including what may have been our best session, but it was a major digression from the initial focus of the game -- uncovering the temple of Oghma.

The first out of game thing was my personal resolution to Give the Party Choices.  I wanted the players to have lots of say over where they went and what paths to adventure they wanted to pursue.  This was simply the anti-railroader in me, built from my own rememberances of the best games I had played in, as well as my desire to emulate the best elements of the story hours I was reading on ENWorld -- Piratecat and Sagiro's in particular.  In the later, it seemed, the party always had a list of things to do and places to go (and, occasionally, people to kill) and were pretty self-motivated about working off that list.  The GM's job, then, becomes more of a matter of helping the players explore where they wish and less of a matter of handing them a ready-made adventure path (no disrespect intended to Paizo, as their adventure paths are a lot of fun).  I didn't have the vocabulary for it at the time, but it's a sandbox-style mentality.  I had it, but I am not sure my players ever did, as they often interpreted the adventure seeds I sprinkled in their path as THE ADVENTURE which must be followed.  This is part of the reason those travelers showed up at The Inn of the Western Way with tales of stirges on the bridge and a mystical forest.  It was a seed; it was up to the party to decide when or if they would water it.

Of course I fully expected them to water it right then and there, given some out of game issues that had been growing in the group since the beginning.  I am not sure how it all started, exactly, but I think it had to do with Sunny.  Sunny was a half-drow, so Sunny's player and I worked out some racial modifiers and powers related to her race.  I found those modifiers this morning in The Blue Notebook:

60ft Darkvision
+1 saves vs spells & spell like abilities
+1 Dex, +1 Int, -1 Con
Favored Class; Wizard (male), Cleric (female)

Can cast darkness, faerie fire, or dancing lights once per day

Light Blindness: Character suffers -1 penalty taken to attack roles, saves, and skill checks while in direct sunlight or equivalent.  Rapid exposure to bright light may blind character for one round (Reflex save).

Looking back on it, the numbers are a bit wonky (breaking from the +2/-2 mold for modfiers), but it doesn't seem overpowered or unbalancing.  Yet it became an issue for two players.  Here is where some of the soap opera stuff comes in, so consider yourself warned.

Boaz' player (male, let's call him Bob) and Orion's player (let's call her Jane) were engaged.  From the beginning of the game, Bob had been pestering me to help the players out -- max hit points per level, an extra feat or two, something like that.  These requests only intensified as the party suffered some early defeats (as with the jermalaine).  Bob seemed especailly concerned about "extras" for Jane. This was Jane's first serious foray into RPG's.  Bob didn't want Jane to get discouraged and wanted everyone to have more fun, which he thought max hit points would help with. Apparently, Bob went on to design D&D 4th Edition (heigh-oh!  Just kidding -- no hate comments, please).  When Sunny's racial modifications came to light, this pressure became even more intense.

I then decided to let each character have something extra -- maybe a minor magic item that the PC had inherited or some small bonus to something.  Bix opted for some celestial ancestry (a nice story hook, there) and, I think, a special fiddle.  I can't remember what Katja received, but it's likely Risus Monkey simply decided to wait for her special thing to come along in game at the right time.  I am sure, given Bob's personality, he graciously refused anything for Boaz, as Bob tended toward passivity and maddening refusal to accept exactly what he asked for.  Sunny had her half-drow stuff.  Kreed seemed to be special enough, which left Orion.

Jane told me Orion needed a pseudodragon familiar.  I initially balked.  Pseudodragons were pretty powerful creatures to be carrying around.  If I remember correctly, before all the familiar rules were changed and you still had to use a spell to get one, they could only be called by a 5th level wizard or higher.  Orion was, perhaps, second level at this point.  But I was also sensitive to my players.  Jane had a temper.  And I was getting pressure from Bob as well to give Jane what she wanted for Orion's character, so Jane would "keep having fun".  I relented, with the caveat that the party would have to find the pseudodragon and convince it to go with Orion; he couldn't just cast the spell.

Hence, travelers showed up at the Inn of the Western Way with rumors of pseudodragons.  Katja's in-character reluctance to head off on a diversion mirrored, I think, some general player reluctance to head off on this tangent away from the Oghma temple.  There was some discussion about it, but no one really wanted to put up a fight, as the priest of Oghma seemed perfectly fine with waiting awhile to explore the temple and no one really wanted to ruffle any feathers.  As Katja will show us soon enough, the pseudodragon was responsible for not just one but two major diversions from the general sweep of the campaign.  But, given that neglect of the wizard's familiar would have led to two angry players, we typically followed the pseudodragon.

20 December 2010

An Odd Sign

I am getting back in the swing of things after taking the weekend to visit some family members, but I saw something today I had to share. 

I went with my family to storytime at Barnes and Noble this morning.  As I wandered out of the kids section over to the cooking aisles, I noticed a shelf topper sign that said "Teen Paranormal Romance."  That's right -- two entire six-shelf bays (I can drop the nomenclature because I used to work at B&N) devoted to Teen Paranormal Romance.  Twilight has now become a genre.

16 December 2010

Away for a bit

I am traveling tomorrow and Saturday, so I likely won't be posting over the weekend.  Everyone take care out there!

An Unexpected Party and Roast Mutton

This is the first in a series of posts that will go through The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings a few chapters at a time.  We hope to spread the Tolkien love around the blogosphere, so if you are interested in taking a few chapters, let me know!

Although I read The Chronicles of Narnia first (in third grade), it was finding The Hobbit on Mrs. Rick's 6th grade bookshelf that, literally, changed my life.  After that, it was Lord of the Rings, Mentzer Red Box Basic, and a lifetime of fantasy adventure.  Although I clearly remember the first time I read The Hobbit, I can't remember the last time I read it, so revisiting the work has been fun and interesting thus far.

Note: Any specific page numbers refer to the Houghton Mifflin hardcover with the Tolkien-illustrated dust jacket.

The following thoughts are somewhat hasty and not very well threaded together, so bear with me.

Chapter One: "An Unexpected Party"

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" is a very simple way to begin a book, but it sets the stage nicely for the reader learning about Bilbo Baggins primarily through where he lives.  We get a nice description of Bag-End, as the entire first chapter is set in Bilbo's house.  I know people complain about Tolkien as a writer and about the way The Hobbit in particular is written, but I don't quite get it.  Setting up what is fundamentally a journey narrative by beginning with the staid hobbit's home works very nicely.  I hadn't really picked up on that narrative choice before, but now that I have I think it will be interesting to see how we see Bag End again in the final chapter of this book as well as in Lord of the Rings.  It's the quiet place where adventure, literally, knocks on the door.

Another thing I noticed upon this reading was how Tolkien characterizes Thorin.  He comes across as kind of a jerk, at least to my modern democratic, hobbit-sympathizing ears.  He's described as "enormously important," "haughty," and "too important" to help with the cleaning.  Sure, he's an important dwarf-king, but he's not portrayed as very regal or kind -- just snobby and long winded.  Gandalf certainly takes him down a peg or two when he draws out the map.

Ah, Gandalf!  It's hard not to see him here without bringing all I know about him from LotR, the Appendices, and even The Silmarillion to bear on this chapter.  A demi-god recruits a hobbit to be a burglar.  I can't help but see Gandalf as manipulating world events even here.  While he doesn't know Bilbo is going to find The Ring, he had to have his reasons for picking Bilbo and for thinking the hobbits will be important somehow.  He's working to get the dwarves back in power, get rid of a dragon, and put another good-aligned kingdom out on the frontier, near the Necromancer.

Gandalf and his little mark on Bilbo's door also got me thinking about a game idea: the adventurer broker.  This is the guy who, for a fee, can hook a party up with tools, henchmen, and whatever else they need for forays into the local megadungeon.  He can probably also help you dispose of loot.

Chapter Two: Roast Mutton

And Bilbo oversleeps on the morning of his first big adventure.  I love the sort of leisurely, "we'll leave after we've had breakfast and tea" attitude the beginning of the quest has, with Bilbo running up without a hat like he's about to miss the plane to Disney.  I also think it's nice how the weather mirrors the terrain, getting worse the further into the Wilderness the party gets.

Then, of course, the trolls.  How very un-D&D this whole "encounter" is, with Bilbo getting tossed in the briars and the dwarves getting nabbed one by one.  I had completely forgotten about how Bilbo gets caught in the first place -- the troll has a magic purse!  That's an interesting magic item to toss into a game!  Gandalf saves them all, of course, showing that he's both mysterious and very clever.

That's all I've got for now.  I think Risus Monkey is going to take the next two or three chapters.  Who wants the ones after that?  

Forgotten Songs Retrospective -- "The Call of the Silver Huntress"

 This is part of the ongoing "commentary track" for Katja's Diary, posted on Risus Monkey.  I was the GM for the game in which the Monkey played Katja.  The entry that corresponds with this commentary can be found here.

Of course it was a trap, Kata?!  I did not anticipate, however, it would turn so nasty so quickly.

Briefly, here's what happened (as best I can recall) while Katja was unconscious.  It sounds like I scored a critical hit on Katja with my first attack, which knocked her out.  It may very well have killed her, but we used the opportunity to begin Katja's conversion to a cleric of the Silver Huntress.

The Innkeep, who was pressured into being in league with the bandits, had arranged this meeting knowing the party would be ambushed, but not knowing about Kreed, Boaz, and Sunny, who waited in the distance.  The bandits knew the party was onto them, but thought they could take out Katja, Orion, and Bix easily enough, gaining treasure in the process and possibly selling them into slavery somewhere.  The ambush went off well enough, but when the back up crew arrived the bandits knew they were in trouble.  At some point, the Innkeeper was used as a human shield/hostage by one of the Cimbrian thugs, bringing about a standoff.  Poor Durslap was murdered so that the bandits could get away.  Apparently, the party had adopted a "do not negotiate with bandits" policy (which would come into play again several months in the future).  Seeing the wanton murder of a man he knew, Nob the bandit decided he'd had enough and surrendered.

I am not really sure what I intended for Katja, exactly, in the ensuing chase.  The message from the goddess indicated she should hunt and kill the nasty bandit who shot her and also killed Durslap.  This, obviously, didn't work out so well as, apparently, the party had also adopted a "take prisoners" policy.  Like many times before, these opponents were probably too tough for the party, being 3rd level (where the average party level was maybe 2nd at this point), but I was trying to compensate for there being 6 PC's, one of which was min-maxed to be a melee machine.  I hadn't anticipated the bandit's capture, and I REALLY didn't anticipate Kreed sneaking back to murder him once he had been captured.  Again, not the last time this happened.  But it did cause some ruffled feathers among players as well as characters.

The leader of the bandits had fled back to their hideout, a semi-collapsed fort that was once part of the Tempian (Roman) fortifications that could be found throughout the area.  The party again captured the bandit leader and presumably killed the wizard/alchemist that made the gimlet; I am not sure what happened to him and Katja's diary doesn't mention him at all.  This hideout also contained some clues to the Oghma Temple that the party, in their anger, haste, and frustration, didn't really pay much attention to.  The verse carved into the wall of the fort was one of those clues.  Written by a famous bard, it refers to the ancient Tempian governor of the region, noted for his cruelty.  There was some connection between that governor and the Oghma temple, but I can't quite remember it now.

I also think there was some plates or plaques with some letters.  Or did I end up putting those somewhere else?

The party also, at last, gains some real treasure.  The note Bix found was legitimate; the rogues were supposed to meet up with some representatives from a world-spanning thieves guild in Duma Fafni, the nearest city, about four or five days south. (It read: "You and Pembroke look promising.  Will meet you in Duma Fafni at August festival.  Go to the Tavern of the Shining Helm.  Ask for Meddlyn.") I halfway hoped the party would try to follow up on this lead, or at least ask about the August festival.  I intended for the party to head to the city for that festival as a break from the Temple.

The party also has a name!  I absolutely loved The Outsider's Aegis as a party name.  It suited at least most members of the party quite well.

Next: The party veers WAAAY of track so that I can make a player happy.

15 December 2010

Forgotten Songs Retrospective -- "Night of the Gimlet"

This is part of the ongoing "commentary track" for Katja's Diary, posted on Risus Monkey.  I was the GM for the game in which the Monkey played Katja.  The entry that corresponds with this commentary can be found here.

Looking back at these sessions is occasionally difficult for me, as they reveal glaring deficiencies in my GMing skill that made the game significantly less fun than it could have been.  This was one of those sessions that went off the rails in a bad way.  what’s more, this could easily have been prevented had I thought a little more about what would be the most fun thing to happen and was a little less slavish about following the game system.  I’ll elaborate more on that point later.

With my recovery of The Blue Notebook, I have almost complete notes for this session!  As Lord Richard told the party, robberies had been reported at this inn and Richard wanted it taken care of.  The robbers were a gang of four men.  A rogue from Lienster (the neighboring nation) had teamed up with an alchemist and hired two local thugs.  The alchemist had concocted a slightly addictive drink that, after three mugs, would lead to blackouts and leave the drinker open to suggestion.  The plot was simple: give the innkeep a bit of the take and rob travelers until the game was up or they ran out of Gimlet.  Further in the background was the rogue’s connection to the major thieves guild in Lienster; he was angling for entrance and the alchemist’s drink was his ticket.  The two thugs were hired muscle, but enjoyed the work, particularly any bloodshed.  I don’t think the party uncovered much, if any, of this plot.  But it does illustrate what I think is an important GM’s point: if you understand and know the background and motivation of the NPC’s, improvising their actions isn’t so hard.  Of course, that didn’t stop things from getting all pear shaped once the PC’s and NPC’s had it out.

I was a bit surprised and dismayed at the party’s plan to send Katja, Orion, and Bix in while the fighter-types stayed far away.  It made sense in an A-Team sort of way, but is also violated my Number One Rule of Adventuring Survival: NEVER SPLIT THE PARTY (My #2 rule is “always take the swim skill”).  Of course, I didn’t tell the group this was my #1 adventuring rule, as I was the DM.

The infiltration went pretty well, overall.  I think Bix didn’t do so hot on his Gather Info checks, which led to him getting a nice collection of rumors and travellers tales but not much on the actual goings on at the Inn.  I actually have a list of those rumors in The Blue Notebook, many of which were true reports of larger goings on in the world, including something I thought would come into play in the game -- interclan fighting to the south as a powerful warlord tried to unify the clans of Connaught.  (If it’s not apparent, the part of the world the party was in was modeled after medieval Celtic Ireland, with the neighboring nation of Lienster modeled after say, Elizabethan England).

The magical properties of the gimlet led each drinker to immediately associate it with their favorite drink, which is why Orion and Katja thought it tasted differently.  They were right to think the next night would be the prime night for robbery, as the Pembroke rogue and one of the Cimbrian thugs would bring the new shipment, watch everyone drink themselves silly, then steal just enough so that the thefts wouldn’t be noticed until the travelers were well away from the Inn.

The giant wasps were just a random encounter, but I remember the party being really freaked out by them!

And so the party launched it’s big plan, only to have nothing happen whatsoever.  Katja was frustrated and so were the players.  This was my big mistake.  I SHOULD have had something happen because it would have Been More Fun and Been Better for the Story.  My recent interest in story driven games and general GM maturity since then makes this point obvious.  What actually happened was the rogue and thug made their spot/detect/gather info roles to the degree that they knew something was up, so they refrained from trying anything  I remember Bix pretending to be asleep and I made my spot check to notice him.  So nothing happened.  Which sucked.  

Then what?  Well, I figured I couldn’t just have the party leave the Inn, so I thought maybe Herr Dirslapp (which, by the way, I have stats for.  He was a 5th level expert innkeeper.  This is where 3rd Edition led me to -- spending prep time making out stats for innkeepers) wanted out of his sticky situation and could try to set the party and the thieves at each other.  This, um, didn’t work out so well for him.

Edit: I am sorry about the odd text & background for this post.  Who would have thought simply copying and pasting from Google Docs would result in such a mess?  After the blog disappeared, I really want to write my posts somewhere else, then paste them over.

14 December 2010

The Blue Notebook -- Found!

Last Friday our family got our Christmas tree.  This meant that, not only did I found out I am alergic to cedar (as my hands became swollen and red whenever I touched the tree) but I also ventured into the attic to retrieve the Christmas ornaments and such.  In said attic are multiple boxes full of my role playing stuff, as I lost all that shelf space when we had our second child in September.  I took a peek in one as I took a break from hauling stocking, ornaments, and holiday miscellany down the stairs.  Lo!  What was laying right on top?  A blue notebook with an Atlas Comics sticker stuck to the front.  It was my Forgotten Songs notes!

Highlights include a complete character sheet of Bix at 7th level and a hand-dawn map of Lienster.  There's a ton of stuff in there, so expect more details in future commentary on Katja's Diary.  If only Risus Monkey would slow down posting those things so I can get caught up!

Forgotten Songs Retrospective -- "Displacer Beast" Part 2

Two things brought me the idea of having the party help out a pack of blink dogs as they fought their mortal enemy, a displacer beast.  I felt the party needed a good win, something to lift morale after the jermaline debacle and death of the boy.  I was judiciously trying to avoid the low-level humanoid fights that seem so common in D&D, but there just aren't a lot of monsters appropriate for low level characters (or at least I was having a hard time coming up with some).  I read somewhere, probably ENWorld, that one could challenge a low level party with a higher level foe by simply making that foe wounded somehow, lowering its hit points in a believable way.

But what monster?  I remember kicking the idea of a wyvern around, but then had a flashback to my first ever D&D character.  He was a Mentzer red box era elf (Taelsyn, thanks for asking) that I played throughout 6th and 7th grade.  His "treasure sheet" contained, I kid you not, a "pack of blink dogs".  (He also rode a gold dragon).  I believe the thinking was we saved the creatures from some awful fate, so they followed us around as helpful servants.  I remembered that displacer beasts and blink dogs were enemies, and the idea of the party stumbling into a fight between blink dogs and a displacer beast seemed perfect.  The blink dogs and the party could help each other out and, if the party was successful, they could gain some sort of allies in the process (though no one tried to adopt any of the dogs and write them on their character sheet).  Sadly, the blink dogs were never heard from again.

Rereading this entry also made me realize that soap and bathing became a reoccurring theme for this group.  I've never head of a group being so conscientious about cleanliness.  Katja takes a lot of baths. 

Apologies for Vanishing Blog

Apparently, my blog was caught up in a Google bug with their blog spam software, which caused it to be down all day yesterday.  I'm sorry if this caused anyone confusion or serious angst because they couldn't read ProfessorPope :)

Lots of grading to do today at the end of the semester, but I'll work to get caught up here as well, starting with The Hobbit re-read.

12 December 2010

The Hobbit Re-Read, Proposed Schedule

My idea here is for a group re-read of The Hobbit.  Each person will take the lead for a couple of chapters, posting their thoughts on that chapter on his/her blog.  The rest of us can, of course, post whatever we want on our own blogs, but will support the chapter leader with a link and comments.  That sound alright?

If we do two chapters a day, starting with chapter one on the 15th, we will finish The Hobbit by Christmas.  Is this too ambitious?  I'll be happy to take the first two chapters for Wednesday.

11 December 2010

Forgotten Songs Retrospective -- "Displacer Beast" (Part 1)

The diary entry that inspired this commentary track can be found here, at Risus Monkey.

One of the great things about Katja's diary is that it's written, well, like a diary.  There are gaps, just as there would be for an adventuring woman who is laid up for a few days recovering, or on the road travelling from place to place.  I love it.  It's also challenging to give commentary for, at times, because of those gaps.

I've wracked my brain for days to remember how the Harcomb boy died and what (if anything) the party had to do with his death.  I simply can't recall how poor Fergus met his end, but it clearly involved the party somehow.  Now I had a sad party, an angry and sad town, and two half-orcs who were still afraid to come into town.  I'll admit to playing to this fear a bit.  I am not sure how or why I inherited the idea that the half-orcs stat benefits should entail a social cost.  I am not even sure that's a fair assessment.  But I do know that's exactly what I had been doing in the game up until this point.  I viewed it as realism, especially given that Boaz and Kreed had been described as more orcish than human.  But it constantly split the party, making this more difficult to manage and it frustrated the players.  Thus one of the goals that had developed by this time was to find an in-game reason for the half-orcs to be welcome in town.  Maybe saving Fergus was supposed to make that happen, but that obviously didn't work out so well.  I then came up with the idea of doing a favor for the local lord.  What better way to gain acceptance than by noble fiat? ;)

This was the party's opportunity to begin getting involved with the politics, such as it was, of Harcomb.   There was Father Caparzo, who had been sent to this out of the way church of Pelor because he was something of a eccentric, theologically speaking.  He claimed to have visions and held somewhat unorthodox views, thus he was semi-exiled to this backwoods parish.  Caparzo was to have three functions.  First, he was a contact, albeit a marginal one, for the Pelorian church.  When or if the Oghma temple was reopened, you can bet the continent-spanning church of Pelor would take interest.  The party's relationship with Caparzo would then help determine their relationship with other church authorities, should they come into play.  Second, Caparzo was the highest level cleric for miles around, so he would be the guy the party would turn to if they needed healing.  Third, he was just a good guy.  Though a bit kooky, he was guileless, willing to help anyone in need.

Lord Richard, on the other hand, was not guileless.  His background, as I remember, was that he had the blood claim to the land around Harcomb, but little way to set himself up as a meaningful ruler.  Thus, he married a former adventurer who, with her chests of looted gold, provided him with the funds he needed to restore his title and family claim to the land.  He certainly wasn't a bad guy, but he did have an agenda.  That agenda mainly included peace and stability for Harcomb, so he was a bit concerned with the idea of exploring the temple and stirring up trouble.  Still, a reopened temple could be good for the town, so he cautiously began dealing with the party to feel them out and use them to assist in the good of Harcomb.  The fact that he got the group to investigate the goings on at the Inn of the Western Way for a  relatively small sum aptly illustrated his general way of doing things -- do what's best for the town in as cautiously a manner as possible.

Richard's wife had her own agenda, but we'll get to that later ;)

10 December 2010

Tolkien Re-Read, Anyone?

After my summary of Lord of the Rings for my daughter, I was immediately struck by the desire to revisit certain scenes -- Bilbo sneaking into Smaug's lair, the battle on the bridge at Khazad-dum, the Entmoot, the Battle of the Pellenor Fields, Sam and Frodo atop Mount Doom at "the end of all things."  After putting my daughter to bed (which takes a considerable amount of time, mind you) I went to grab the DVD's and queue up some of those scenes.  Then I stopped myself:
"Man, you have the books right there.  Go get them.  When was the last time you actually read them?"  I couldn't give myself an answer, which bothered me.  Once upon a time, I'd reread them almost annually, but I don't think I've actually read them since I did a re-read before the films came out.

Crap, that's nine years ago.

Hence, my idea: a public and communal re-read of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.  We could set up some sort of schedule, then engage in multiple posts across multiple blogs on a somewhat regular basis.  Anyone interested?

09 December 2010

Lord of the Rings for a 3 Year Old

I was all set to write another commentary track for Katja's Diary, but the car ride home with my three year old was just too entertaining not to share.

My daughter and I play this game called "Did you know?" where we tell each other things, well, that the other doesn't know.  I see it as an opportunity to hear about what she did in preschool (since that's pretty much all she tells me about) and share some things about myself with my little girl.  After leaving the pizza place, she says "Daddy, did you know that we made a train station in the block center today?"

"No I didn't!  That's awesome!"

"Now you tell me one."

"Okay.  Did you know that Lord of the Rings is one of daddy's favorite books?"

"What's that story?"

"Well, it's about a magic ring that turns people invisible."

"What's invisible?"

"It means you can't see them."

"What else happens in the story?"

And so it began, as the next 25 minutes were spent with me telling her the basic plot of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, spurred on by lots of questions.  My favorites included:

"What's a balrog?"
"Were the elves nice?"
"Why were the wraiths mean?"
"Why did Frodo have to throw the ring in a volcano again?"

Sure, I had to edit.  Sauron was "a really mean, really powerful wizard."  There was almost no mention of Gollum.  And no Tom Bombadil.  But she seemed to get the basic plot, from dwarves to Bilbo to Frodo to Rivendell to Moria (she seemed really interested in the dwarven tunnels) and even to the Breaking of the Fellowship, where she was able to follow two (admittedly very abbreviated) plot threads.  When we got home, she asked to see the books, but was disappointed they didn't have any pictures.  I then pulled out my Tolkien Bestiary and showed her pictures of elves and dwarves and hobbits.  She especially wanted to see a picture of "the tree-man," so I showed her Ents and Hurons before I made her get ready for bed.

I am not trying to consciously make my children into geeks, but I do welcome the chance to share my geekdom when the opportunity arises.  Sharing these stories with her, even at a basic level, was special.

07 December 2010

And I love the weather. . .

Marin sighed as he turned the chair around at the battered table and sat down, crossing his arms on the chairs back.  "We're not going anywhere by sea, at least not until spring.  Cowardly sailors!"

Alejo took a delicate sip from his goblet.  "I cannot really blame them."

Marin shot him a look.

"Good Marin, the sea in these months is fickle at best.  Storms follow those northern rivers straight from the  Immovable Ice, spilling out onto the Tyrrish Sea like those Urolls out of a brothel at dawn.  The winds whip around, making those predictable winds of spring vanish.  Ships can be becalmed one hour only to be driven by a gale the next.  No fool in his right mind ventures out of sight of land in Gullan or Hamal."

"Why, then, did you send me out to find us passage!"

"Good Marin.  We need to leave this city.  I simply hoped someone out there may be as crazy or desperate as us."

06 December 2010

Giant Lake in Egypt!

Maybe my world needs more giant lakes in deserts.

io9 sent me to Discovery News, which gives the story of a lake the size of Lake Michigan that was once in ancient Egypt.  The lake was pre-historic, it seems, so it didn't influence Egyptian civilization.  But what if that lake was there in my fantasy Mediterranean?  Would it de-emphasize the importance of a place like Cairo?  Would it make land routes through the Sahara more feasible?  Would it have vikings and/or pirates?!!??!  My head is swimming with possibilities.

And, yes, expect me to try my crude cartography skills at dropping a blue blob in Egypt very soon.  But today's a busy one. . .

04 December 2010

Play Report -- Lady Blackbird

In June, I sent a Facebook message to a gaming friend that said "Help!  I have to run a game tomorrow and we're all a little tired of dungeoning it.  I need something quick, easy, and that I can run with no prep."

Tall order, I know.  But he replied with "Lady Blackbird, no question.  Just get your players going and the game runs itself."  I had heard of Lady Blackbird before, but had never played it.  In fact, my story game experience was virtually nil.  But it looked very cool when I downloaded it and I was excited to give it a try.   I was finally able to run it two weeks ago.

The group I ran it for was very diverse, with some gaming veterans, two people who had played D&D in high school but not again until recently, and two folks who had never gamed at all until this group began in September.  Lady Blackbird is very mechanically simple -- a basic trait and dice-pool system -- so I wasn't worried too much about the players grasping the system.  What I was worried about was the players getting the narrative "gist"of the game.  Would they buy into the idea that they were responsible with moving the story forward?  Would they bite when I sowed the seeds of inter-player conflict?  Would they realize that failing checks is sometimes more fun than making them?

I read the intro text and told the players to imagine it was crawling up the screen, a la Star Wars.  That helped set the tone for the adventure, and the players bought into it very quickly.  The game begins with the PC's locked up in the brig of an imperial cruiser and every PC wanted to bust out in their own way.  They encountered guards and set off an alarm, but the real fun began when they made it to the hangar bay where their ship was kept.

The ship was guarded and out of fuel and the docking bay doors were closed, so the party split up, with the captain trying to open the doors, the Lady and her bodyguard securing the ship, and the rest of the crew finding the fuel (which we decided was coal).  Hilarity ensued.  It turns out a guard was on the ship.  He was quickly incapacitated by the bodyguard, but then promptly forgotten about.  The coal was found and loaded no problem.  The captain, meanwhile, totally flubbed his roll to open the doors, instead raising the launch ramp the ship rested on and sending it sliding toward the still closed doors!  Inside the ship, the crew was having trouble getting the engines lit.  Then, the captain open the doors using foul language and spite and sprinted toward his sliding ship.  He lept onto the open ramp as the ship tumbled out of the hanger into the vastness of the sky.  Plummeting downward, the ship finally got it's engines lit and flew away!  Very cinematic and exciting.

That was clearly the highlight of the evening.  They fought a sky squid, then made it to Haven, where they tried to contact Lady Blackbird's roguish cousin (Rasputin) for the location of the pirate king.  Running into some trouble (shocking, I know), we ended the session with the group holed up in a house of ill-repute.  Given that the group has now disintegrated due to some external issues, I am not sure we'll ever see if the Lady finds her pirate prince.

I generally like dice pool systems, which let players devote more resources to rolls they feel are very important.  It took a bit for me to remember that players had dice returned to their pool whenever they failed a test, so there was some self-correction and me simply resetting everyone's pool once I realized my mistake.  Generally, everyone was comfortable with the system, though the players were reluctant to spend their advances for some reason.

The one thing I did notice was that the degree to which individual players were comfortable describing the results of their PC's failure in exciting terms was correlated highly with the experience of the player.  One guy (who played the goblin pilot), instantly got it and wasted no opportunity complicating things for everyone else.  He's the one who brought on the sky squid encounter when, after failed navigation role, nonchalantly said "We're a little lost.  We probably stray right into a sky squid migration route."  And of course I made that happen.  The  other players weren't quite as comfortable with the idea that roll failure = more fun.  As we played, however they got a little more into the spirit of things, as when a failed contacts roll by the captain led to an encounter with a jilted ex-lover (who also happened to be a prostitute).

I had a lot of fun and hope to play more story games in the future.  I am especially intrigued by one.seven's The Mustang, which has a Dark Tower vibe.

02 December 2010

Naturalism and conflict

Moby Dick 2Listening to my first ever Postcards from the Dungeon podcast got me thinking about conflict, nature, and gaming (particularly D&D).  It's a fun podcast, by the way.  One of my new favorites. 

Humans vs. nature is a staple of narrative conflict.  Many, many stories in many, many mediums make use of this conflict, often pairing it with other sorts of conflicts.  In Moby Dick, for example, you get humans (Ahab) vs nature (the whale, the ocean), but given the narrative and thematic circumstances, you also get a lot of human vs. human conflict and human vs. himself conflcit.  In Into the Wild (a book and film which I like a lot), you get the man vs. himself conflcit primarily because of the man vs. nature conflict.  Chris' encounters with nature force personal reflection and change.

Conflict is a necessary part of RPG's, but the human vs. nature conflcit seems to be a hard one to pull off in an interesting way.  In D&D, the "nature" is almost always personified in monstrous form.  There are animals of normal and monstrous stripes (though "normal" animals aren't "monsters" anymore, at least if one defines "monsters" by what's in the Monster Manual), but there are also treants, elementals, plant monsters, and other things where "nature" has eyes, claws, and 10 hit die.  By default, then, human vs. nature becomes human vs. monster.  There's little left of the human vs. environment side of the human vs. nature conflcit that seems so prevalent in other sorts of narrative -- the sailor, struggling against the sea itself, the nomad, alone in the hostile desert.  Sure, in D&D there are rules for environmental hazards, but in my personal experience (limited as that is), these were never a central part of an adventure.  Nor, perhaps, should they be.  Rolling checks to find water, then rolling Constitution checks to see how long before you die of thirst doesn't seem like much fun, if that's all that happens in the game.  Of course, "you die of dysentery" always gets a chuckle ;)

I am curious to hear others' take on this.  Is the human vs. environment conflict one that can be incorporated into an RPG in a meaningful and fun way?  If so, how?  What are some good examples, from any system?

01 December 2010

Forgotten Songs Retrospective -- "Jermlaine Attack"

Ah, Jermlaine.

For the second adventure of the party, I wanted something that was going to be more nuisance than deadly foe.  I was aiming, actually, for something slightly comic.  I pictured the party falling a lot while swatting little beasties and gaining some XP in the process.  Remembering an old issue of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons comic, where the centaur protagonist was tripped up by jermlaine, I was dismayed to find the 3rd Edition Monster Manual didn't have stats for them.  I then turned to our friend The Internet, where I found some conversion.  Then, viola!  A fun little adventure that we could all laugh about later.

Obviously, that didn't happen.  I almost had a TPK with tripwires.

How did things work out that way?  I'll shoulder a significant portion of the blame.  As I recall, I rolled just exceptionally well this session, with lots of 18's, 19's, and 20's.  I distinctly recall a critical hit on someone with a piece of firewood attached to a rope thrown by a jermlaine from the rafters -- something right out of Home Alone (ha!  It was funny in the movie, so it will be a riot in an adventure! *facepalm*).  There was Orion's spectacularly failed save from the trap that resulted in him doing the splits on a floor beam.  Some of this was just luck.  Another component was my continuing struggle balance encounters for the party.  The EL/CR math was still not working for me, but I continued to trust it, with the idea that I'd figure it all out sooner or later.  Since the jermlaine were cobbled together, who knows if their CR was "right"? 

But there was something else beginning here, something in the party and player composition, that would plague this group until this game ended.  Katja says:
Kreed seemed interested in exploring the old house. The rest of us discussed whether we should participate in the search for the boy, investigate rumors of the wolf attacks, or move on towards Boaz’ goal of reaching the old Oghma temple. In the end, nothing was decided. Kreed’s curiosity caught on and Orion, Boaz, and myself joined him in exploring the house.
Nothing was decided, so some of the PC's did one thing while other PC's did other things.  I can't recall if there was an actual argument about what to do here or, the group being new, everyone was simply too polite to make a strong case for a single course of action.  Either way, the result was a lack of direction in both which plot thread to follow at this juncture and subsequent tactical decisions vis a vie fighting the jermlaine. The later certainly contributed to the party's lack of success against the minute foes.  The former both resulted  in immediate plot consequences and became an unfortunate trend within the group; they simply had a hard time making decisions.

This game took place long before I was aware of any Old School Renaissance; I am not sure what state the OSR was in in 2001, but I do know that I didn't know anything about it.  Given the current vocabulary supplied by the OSR, however, I can say that my initial approach to the Forgotten Songs game was old school.  I had a town that was to serve as a home base in Harcomb.  I had a nearby megadungeon that was to serve as a campaign focus (The Lost Temple of Oghma).  Thought I didn't call it this at the time, I did have a sandbox approach to the game: the PC's were going to tell me what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go and I would say what happened when they did it and what existed when they got there.  I was also very keen on giving meaningful consequences to the PC's actions (or inaction).  I am not sure I ever communicated this directly to the players, likely because I wasn't very conscious about these parameters myself.  They were simply the way I had been playing the game.  My previous game, in which I played a magic-user using some mash of 1st and 2nd edition rules, was filled with consequences of our actions and opportunities to make meaningful choices.  The party routinely had a "to do list" which we tried to make progress on given the opportunity.  This past experience fueled my assumptions about how my game was going to be played and how it was going to be run

Tactically, the confusion in this fight comes through in Katja's entry.  I'll admit to cultivating that confusion a bit, but also remember being confounded by the party's utter lack of coordination (or simply propping the door open). I should have been more forgiving, given that all of us were unfamiliar with the tactical emphasis 3rd edition brought to the game.  Although I think I am right in saying the party never really turned into a SWAT-team like unit.  I remember a session a year or so after this one, in real time, in which similar confusion reigned and antics ensued.  The only difference was the PC's had enough hit points to absorb 5d6 worth of falling damage and not be killed.  But that will come up eventually, I am sure.