Friday, January 23, 2015

Story Seed - What Lay Within

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This Story Seed follows up directly from Unexpected Find.
Lorugan and I basked in the golden light for a while, I think we both lost track of time. Occasionally he would utter "wow" but otherwise there was just quiet and the sound of wind outside. Quite until I heard something, a tiny voice, calling out to us.

"Hey," I said, "snap out of it." Lorugan shook his head, looking confused. "Do you hear that?" I asked, "That little voice?" He shook his head. I listened, shushing him as he tried to ask what I had heard ... it was coming through the golden barrier through the astral. No wonder he couldn't hear it.

"Wait here. I don't think we can take it down, but ..." I looked up at him, "you're not going to like this, but I think I can go beyond it in the astral."

"Like hell," he snapped.

"What could possibly be of danger beyond a barrier like this?" I asked, stumping him into sullen silence. "Thought so, I'll be back soon." I settled my rucksack and then faded, merging completely into the astral.

"Be careful," I heard him say dimly.

In the astral the voice was much louder, stronger, and very clearly coming from the chamber beyond. The barrier here was not solid, but still glowed with a clean and healthy light that was as warm as I had ever been in my whole life. If grandmother had been able to play entire days in sunlight like this I could see why she and other old folks wept for the lost world before the war.

The old stones were alive with power here, with even the most worn of the old sigils blazing with power. The room beyond was bright with the golden light and stepping into it made me feel uncomfortably hot, and yet it felt good, revitalizing. It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the brightness, and I was still left squinting. This room had probably once been an armory, or storage, I saw no other exits, and the walls were lined with empty shelving.

The center of the room was far from empty. A large egg, nearly a pace and a half tall, took up a large portion of the room. It was broken, a section missing, but still it radiated power and warmth. It wasn't the source, but it was saturated with the same light. On the floor curled up among the shards of its egg was the source of the warmth and light, a celestial child. It looked up at me and asked for help.

Suddenly the warding stone seemed like a paltry trinket.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Back Issues #15 - Take a Vacation, Do a Side Quest

When originaly write this I had taken a vacation from work the week prior. To paraphrase from Office Space; I did nothing, and it was everything I dreamed it could be. Some might say that I wasted the opportunity, by not traveling, or doing copious amounts of home improvement work, but I didn't take time off from one form of work just to do other work. It makes me wonder why adventurers put up with side quests. Here's a life and limb threatening adventure that will do nothing to help you vanquish the evil overlord. Nah, I'm good, I like my +4 sword thanks...

Issue #15: Take a Vacation, Do a Side Quest

So there you are, on the trail of the artifact that will help you kill the evil lich, or tracking down the only shadow-runner to ever survive contact with an AI in digital combat, or ... well, any number of "main quest-y type things." You arrive in a new town, new planet, or new airport (hey, not every game has teleportation and space ships). You think, "OK, now we just have to find this guy and get the goods," but the GM says, "You see a child, perhaps five years old, looking alone and scared. What do you do?"

Well, crap.

Yeah, you just stepped into a side quest, and there isn't a stick or a garden hose that will help you scrape or wash it off. Your hero, all corded thews of muscle or arcane cosmic power, sees the child and you get sucked in, no save required (sorry rogues). Next thing you know you're tracking down a kidnapped mother, or locating some long lost temple. You might even be enjoying it, and you do get some experience at least, right?

The question then is why can't the side-quest feed back into the main quest? I don't mean the "go fetch" kind of side-quest either; I mean something less obvious, and more optional.

GMs have a tough job, and sometimes they need more time to prepare for the next big download of plot and XPs. Side quests came out of this need to stall. It's easy to grab a handful of goblins, robots, or a ready made villain with a penchant for calendar themed crimes and seven (or twelve) thematic minions, and toss together a quick side mission, something unrelated to the story, that buys the GM a week or two of extra prep and keeps the players from forming a brute squad. As games and gamers get more sophisticated though, the transparent charm of the simple side quest can begin to tarnish. "OH, John isn't ready for this week's game so I guess we're gonna hack up a bunch of gobbos again." Ouch. Player groups lucky enough to have multiple GM class people can avoid this by having multiple games running in parallel, but not all are so lucky.

So what can a GM do? Use call backs. That is have an NPC or a piece of loot from a prior side quest take a larger roll in the main plot. The NPC that the heroes assisted turns out to have a key item or information for them. The magic thingamabob they got off an earlier side villain turns out to be a rare and powerful artifact with a one use power which will aid the heroes greatly. The (nearly) inescapable prison the characters were in (and maybe escaped from) turns out to be the perfect holding place for a major baddy. The sky's the limit really, perhaps the annoying chant that an insane ork shaman wouldn't stop muttering is a protection spell against the evil mage the party must face...

The reward need not be obvious, and in fact, the more obscure is often better. Call backs are also not something to use for every side quest, but occasional use will let your players know that a side quest isn't always just an excuse to buy more time, nor always a way to provide a "concealed bonus" to the group.

Have you ever used call backs as GM? How were they recieved? As a player has your GM ever done this, and if so did it make you appreciate his efforts more?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Story Seed - Unexpected Find

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Though the outpost had long since fallen into ruin there was still power here. Floating observation posts still hovered above their ancient anchoring stones, and the wardings against the Great Enemy could be felt; a slight pressure all over your skin, like being under water. I trudged through the snow, my two curved short swords at the ready; the wardings would not serve to keep out thieves and bandits. Beside me Kaallin stepped lightly over the snow and barely leaving a track; her form shimmering, partially transparent, as she kept herself partially within the astral.

I pointed, the main structure of the outpost was still mostly intact. Kaallin nodded, and sped forward toward the structure. She was confident that any bandit ambush would be unable to harm her, and it was likely that she was right; Kaallin was a wraith, born with the ability to shift between our world and the astral, it made her very capable, even if the downsides were real downers. Here, within the wardings of the old outpost, she must have felt positively giddy however, these places were some of the few left in the world where the Great Enemy's touch on the astral was absent. I can only imagine how it felt for her to be here.

I slogged on, thankful that my boots were well made and proof against the wet and cold. The Everwinter was a little weaker here, its power checked by the wardings, and the air was absent of its usual chilling bite. The wardings were why we had come; the old stones could sometimes be moved without destroying the ancient enchantments. If this outpost's warding stone was intact it might be movable, and if we could move it to the village the old stone could protect the people better than any wall or garrison.

Ahead of me I heard Kaallin's voice, I couldn't make out her words, but after a moment she shouted back to me, "Lorugan, I think you need to see this!"

Cursing I lumbered into a run, the snow was only a hand a half deep, but it made running awkward; on the other hand I had no desire to see Kaallin harmed because I couldn't hustle myself to her aid. Turned out I didn't need to be worried, at least not the way I expected. I approached the old barracks command warily.  From the outside I couldn't hear anything but I could see that the room was lit from within; I thought that maybe there was somebody living here after all.

The barracks' doors were in surprisingly good condition, the hinges free of ice, and the wood undamaged by the continual frost of the Everwinter. I noticed that right around the time I noticed how warm it was. The wardings shouldn't have been capable of this, but there was no way that somebody could keep a fire going constantly, and besides, we hadn't seen any sign of smoke from outside.

I found Kaallin just inside, standing before a barrier of golden light. It felt like what I'd heard the old timers say that sunlight had used to feel like; it was warm, and golden, and comforting, and it made me just want to stand there and let it soak into me. We stood in silence, unsure how, or if, we should proceed.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #14 - Quattro con Carnage - Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (a look at gaming across systems)

This blog references the Quattro con Carnage experiment being run by +James Walls and specifically the third and fourth sessions featuring the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG segment, and my prior blog post discussing my thoughts on Basic Fantasy RPG.

This past week we completed session four of eight planned sessions (or four of ten if you wish to count the two session Dragon AGE expansion I will be running).  It was the second and final session with Dungeon Crawl Classics, an RPG which feels surprisingly modern in a lot of great ways even as it embraces (and occasionally wallows) in old school style.

I said previously how this experiment was my first experience with "OSR" rules since they were just "rules" about twenty years ago. Much like I had not played (or heard of) Basic Fantasy before this, I had not been exposed to Dungeon Crawl Classics. Coming to this RPG via this experiment was in some ways the ideal infection vector. Basic Fantasy was so stripped down and, well, basic, that it chaffed in a lot of ways due to its lack of certain aspects of game play that I prefer.

By comparison DCC felt like a breath of fresh air. Characters felt far more capable (I say felt because actual play did not always support this, more on that later though), with more usable abilities, and characteristics that lent themselves to more interesting options during play. At the same time the characters definitely felt grounded in the realm of pants-wetting mortality that BFRPG had, and I suspect is part of what some people like about OSR play. Likewise certain bits of DCC are most certainly rooted in tradition and not always a good way.

Our characters went from 3rd level to 2nd due in part of the level scaling of DCC vs BFRPG. My character, Lommán the cleric, retained similar stats, AC, and health, and so the change was more about his ability with combat and clerical power. Insofar as combat went I didn't notice a huge change; going from a +2 to hit to a +1 was what I would consider a negligible alteration given my character stats and his role in the party. On the other hand, going from a limited number of spells per day, including healing, to an at-will system balanced by a system of deity/sponsor disapproval altered Lommán's during-play feel immensely. From the get-go I knew that, so long as I could roll well enough, I could heal my group as often as needed, and likewise had the option to cast my other clerical spells more frequently.

The dice had something to say about that however; something not very kind, but I'll get to that in a second.

Unlike the spells of BFRPG that just work (like so many other spell systems), you need to make a spell check for DCC.  Success is variable, with the better results on the check yielding more powerful end effects. Scraping by with a healing check gave 1 or 2 dice of healing, while scoring a massive success granted 3 or 4 dice, potentially restoring the target to full health with a single act of justice healing. Similarly, spells like Sanctuary and Protection from Evil give better bonuses or last longer with better check results.

But let's get back to those damned dice, shall we? Remember how I said that actual play did not reflect how things looked on paper? Recall my comment about the dice having something rather unkind to say on the matter of our characters?

Over the course of two sessions Lommán proved fairly capable with healing hands (I think he only failed to heal twice), but his lord God Ogmios clearly felt that the cleric needed to rely on his own talents as much as his divinely given powers. When you need a 12+ to succeed with a spell and you have a +4 to that check you think "oh, an 8 is easy enough to roll, that's like 65% success rate" but when you tend heavily to roll 4's that doesn't work out so well.  Lommán was only successfully in casting two non-healing spells over the two sessions, and soon was worried that Ogmios would refuse any magic that was not used in conjunction with a personal sacrifice.  On the bright side it did lead the cleric to enter a room with known active traps to "take one (or three) for the team" under some holy protection.

The dice were not exclusively unkind to my character either. Our group's warrior, played by +Jeremy Land, had a pretty memorable stretch of poor dice rolling summed up best by the following quote:
Jim - "Has he ever hit anything?"
Jeremy - "Once… he killed a rat…" 
Despite rolling 1d20+1d4+2 for his attacks Umbrin simply accrued a truly epic string of failed dice rolls. This isn't a negative to the system of course, but it certainly makes it harder to assess just what a DCC warrior would play like. As an observer I can only feel bad for Jeremy's luck and hope that things go better in future sessions. Alternately maybe the rest of us can convince Jeremy to destroy those dice, if not for his benefit then for our own!

Back to the bad things for Lommán however. The flip side to divine magic is that each failed attempt also incurs disapproval from your god. The more disapproval you have the higher your chance for getting a divine wrist slap, or even a divine bitch slap, in for the form of an increasingly wide range of roll results that will incur a little retribution. You always suffer disapproval retribution on a "1" but each failed spell or ability check adds to the range going from "1" to "1-2", and so forth.

Naturally on his first attempt of the 2nd session Lommán rolled a "1". He was forced to roll on a table to find out the effects of his punishment, but luckily my penance was easy; Lommán just had to convert a new follower for Ogmios' church. Thankfully there were four level 0 characters nearby and a natural 20 later not only had he done just that, but his conversion roll was a "20" and Ogmios even forgave Lommán's earlier trespass and removed a point of disapproval.

I would be remiss to point out that the party's elf (since elf is a class in DCC, one of those times when DCC wallows in OSR in my opinion) had the opposite luck with spells. Magic Missile can become a deadly rain of destruction with a high enough check result and between good dice rolls and judicious use of spell burn there were some spectacular fireworks.  Spell burn is another not very OSR mechanic that really looked cool and fun. Basically it allows for the spell caster (I think it is only usable by arcane casters) to take ability score damage in trade for additional power/bonuses for their spell checks. You get weird results when you do it, and the scars and facial ticks of the party's elf certainly added additional dimension to that character in only two sessions, making me wonder how things would look over a full campaign.

We also saw the preferred method of new character introduction in DCC in our second session, with an new player coming to the table with four level 0 commoners. As expected not all of them survived the entire session, with only a single character standing at the end of the evening. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, it was the dwarf blacksmith who earlier in the evening had converted to worship of Ogmios who survived, showing that indeed the God of Justice was watching out for his followers.  That or maybe +Andreas Walters just got lucky with his rolls.

All is not perfect in the pages of DCC. Being a demi-human is a class, which makes me concerned that all such characters will end up with a certain sameyness. You can't play a halfling rogue or a elven cleric for instance, which is a real shame, and an aspect of game design that holds the game back. Meanwhile while certain buff spells seem weak to the point of uselessness (+1 for a single round, seriously?) at their lowest level of success. These really stand out to me as an unnecessary holdover from the "old school days"; a +1 bonus maybe wasn't so powerful when there was no risk to the caster for using the spell (aside from the risk of preparing a crappy spell).

At the end of the evening, and the end of our time with DCC, I felt pretty good about these two sessions. Where Basic Fantasy had reminded me about much of what I did not enjoy about my AD&D experiences in high school, Dungeon Crawl Classics felt like a game that balanced rewards and punishments with equal measure (dice not withstanding), and genuinely felt fun.

I don't know that I would ever look to play BFRPG again, but I would certainly be willing to play in more sessions of DCC as I feel that we only touched the tip of the iceberg of that game's potential. Is it the best RPG for OSR style fantasy? I dunno, two sessions isn't enough to make a real judgement, and personal taste for certain factors will also contribute to your like or dislike, but for short and medium term play I can get behind it.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Story Seed - Leap of Faith

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At last, the journey was coming to an end. The wind whipped bitterly at his clothes, trailing the remnants of his cloak behind him. He ignored it, having long ago gained techniques to insulate himself from the perils of heat and cold. His borrowed leg twitched, pushing him forward once more, toward the edge of the rise to see how next to proceed.

Across a great chasm, carved into the hidden rocky promontories, was the lost city. He mused that it was no longer lost to him, though in ways he wondered if he was now lost to the world he had begun in. He had given up much for this pilgrimage, and the sacrifices demanded by the Way had changed him fundamentally. I am no longer what I was when I began, he thought.

The chasm was hundreds of yards wide, and dropped away to a mist enshrouded bottom. The fall's distance could not be judged, but he knew that it was far enough that even after all of the trials he would perish. He looked back to the city, to the end of his journey, searching for the next step he must take.

There was no bridge, no device to extend a draw, no cables upon which to balance or hang, there was nothing, just a half mile of open space over a drop that no man could survive. He sat and he waited. He meditated, and studied. He considered his apparent failure, and the goal that lay so close and yet so very far.

For a week he waited. He observed people in the city, lights at night, and heard the sounds of music. He even saw some of the figures watching him, studying him as he was studying this test. At last he stood once more. No man could make that jump, and no man could survive the fall that would surely follow, but he was no longer a man, he was more; transformed by the tests along the Way he was no longer what he had once been.

Without a second thought he took off running, and at the chasm's edge he flung himself into the air, hands grasping.