Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Less Blog, D&D 5E and Nerath

Howdy! If it seems that this tower has been vacant of late, you’re not wrong. As I babbled a few times, I’ve been studying for a job in the government in the last 2 years and now there’s a big public exam on my radar. Because of that I’m not having much time for blogging (unfortunately). However, I don’t plan to leave this tower to the wilderness. If things go as planned (too much to ask for, I know) I intent to update this blog at least three times a month.

Now, to more relevant stuff.

I’m reading Ed Greenwood’s new “systemless” book about the Realms and I’m loving it. I want to write more about Elminster’s Forgotten Realms – maybe even a full review. Until then all I have to say is that if you liked the Forgotten Realms 3rd Edition chapter about 'Life in Faerun' (which detailed everydaily life and general cultures in the Realms), then you’ll probably love this new book. It basically shows us how the Realms are from the common people’s point of view (commoners, merchants, nobles etc., instead of adventurers). However, the true selling point for me is that it shed some light on how Ed Greenwood sees and runs the Realms.

Something completely different: D&D 5E.

Some weeks ago (actually, at the beginning of the month) I managed to run another D&D 5E playtest, using the last released packet (just before the release of “Monk Packet”). I know now that I’m a minority in regard to rules. I preferred the first take on Skill Mastery for the Thief and I actually enjoyed a lot more the inherent simplicity and strong concepts of Themes (now Specialties). While I can understand that by linking Specialties with Feat you get bigger granularity – besides an excuse for more and more Feats –, the whole thing brings back character optimization obsession of 3E and 4E. I also hated the Skill lists – for me you either leave it open or go for extremely minimal and generic lists (almost like the one in 4E). The Expertise Dice mechanic is great, but its implementation left me cold (for the same reasons as the Skill List). Worst, by making Expertise Dice the new universal mechanic the Fighter is again left without “his own cool thing”.

Anyway… I’m getting “ranty”. There’re a lot of good things (to steal) in D&D 5E so far. The basic idea behind Expertise Dice (a fluctuating dice to be used on a roundly basis) is awesome and I’m thinking on using it in my OD&D one-shots. Backgrounds are awesome and a perfect substitute for Skill/Proficiencies etc. The differences between Cleric and Wizard spellcasting are also excellent. Finally, the new Sorcerer – while probably overpowered and unfortunately ditched from the latest Packets – is one of the most funny and original classes for D&D that I’ve ever seen.

D&D 5E has lots of food for thought – for fans of all editions. Sometimes I wished we got a “Director’s Books” of D&D, showing the inner aspects of the playtests, the curiosities, idea and rules that never reached daylight. Like Kaminski’s the Secret History of Star Wars.

Well, I was talking about my last D&D 5E one-shot. This time I attempted something different. In truth I didn’t wished to run 5E (as I said, many of the changes were not to my liking). I wished to run a crazy idea of mine: most traditional fantasy settings are post-apocalyptic in the sense that the Past is full of high magic civilizations.

In my late 5E game I attempted to run the Fall of those civilizations.

The entire game was about the player characters trying to survive Doomsday, watching their entire empire crumbling around them. I used lots of 4E names and concepts for this one-shot.

Basically, the empire was called Nerath and covered almost all of the Known World (and a few parallel planes). It was ruled by the Emperor, with the assistance of the Archmage – both ideas shameless stolen from 13th Age.

The Empire’s might came from its magic and its dragons. The dragons obeyed the Emperor, who commanded the Five Orbs of Dragonkind. A powerful and continent-wide complex magic circle linked the main cities and fueled the power of lesser magic items (like armors, wands and such) without the requirement of power investment from casters.

Nerath defended its borders and inner dissensions with the dragons and the legions. Legions were originally composed by the various human races. However, with the empire’s growth (besides decadence and arrogance), the humans left the grisly task for the Orcs. Considered natural warriors, the Orcs are from beyond the empire’s borders (see below). They’re conquered at great cost and slaved through powerful geas marked in their flesh through tyranny rods wielded by the Legion Commanders (all humans).

Nerath used extensive slave labor for all menial and architectural tasks. Elementals keep aqueducts running, forges burning and harsh climes at bay. Those punished by capital crimes or human barbarians captured beyond the borders were cursed to a hideous but immortal life polymorphed as goblinoids (the slave race).

Dwarves were the first rulers of Creation and are now reduced to a few millennial old holds ruled by immortal kings – Moradin was the most famous monarch and the first to sign peace and alliance with Nerath. 

Elves are actually divided in two groups. The “normal” elves, also called Unfettered Elves, live beyond Nerath. They’re the old chaotic gods of mankind that rules vast hordes of ignorant and subjugated barbarians. Each elf is sort of unique and has vast powers – usually shapechanging, sorcery and various immunities. The second type are the Bound Elves and represent those that were forced to “Taste the Iron”. Bound Elves works by the D&D rules and are fey that were captured and bound in iron by the magic of the Archmage. If they ever come back to their people they would be slaughtered, so they accept their burden and help imperial forces in various demands (and “insider” information).

The world itself is young, with fluctuating borders, surrounded by the forces of Chaos, represented here by ever encroaching glaciers at the edge of Creation (and the formless things and giants that live there). The ice and chaos are kept at bay by the “borders” of the world-wide magic circle – marked by colossal obelisks watched by dragons, potent magic and legions.

The game started when the capital of Nerath literally blew up, forming a magical mushroom-like cloud that could be seen hundreds of miles away (the main bet was that the Emperor and the Archmage had finally decided to face each other to determine who would rule Mankind). Instantly all the portals failed, with the orc legions, elementals and goblin slaves going free. The players were imperial wardens, who have just returned to a local city with a dwarven prisoner. With all the chaos going on, the dwarven prisoner offered refuge at Moradin’s Hold if the party would free him and escort him back home. As the dwarf pointed: “We already survived a Cataclism. We’re good at it, but you Humans are a mess”.

The whole session was devoted to fleeing the city, battling goblinoid slaves, dodging elementals and trying to stay out of sight of rampaging dragons. The funniest part of the game for me was when the party found a crater with a piece of wild magic, flung from the capital. The party’s elf decided that he had good chances of going Unfettered if he immersed himself in the chaotic magic (and about 90% of dying horribly). The party, however, didn’t accept the risk – after all, none wanted to lose the elf (a valuable sorcerer), but also none wanted a crazy chaotic demigod unleashed.

The game ended when the party met a crucified orc legionnaire; apparently, the orc tried to kill and replace his orc commander but failed. If freed and healed, the soldier offered to escort the party to the dwarven Hold through the recently-formed orc horde. Would they trust the orc to keep his word? More importantly, would they help him kill his master? We closed the session around these questions. While I never managed to answer them, maybe this entire mad exercise can provide ideas for your games. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

About Hero Points

Recently my Curse of the Crimson Throne campaign reached 9th level. Half of my players are what you could call ‘narrativists’ – they read fantasy novels, watch fantasy movies and want all those clichés to happen in their games. Things like redemption, corruption and death – and by ‘death’ I mean ‘final death’, including the monologues by the dying. Yes, no gonzo or light-hearted stuff here, which is a shame since I’ve been reading lots of OD&D material that thrives on that style. Nevertheless, I have amazing players and I’m not letting taste issues destroy our entertainment.

As some you can guess, 9th level marked the spot where my gaming group decided that they don’t want raise dead in our Pathfinder games. Death should be ‘dramatically’ significant and resurrection should be something that comes only from divine intervention (literally a miracle). Actually, after talking with them I figured out that what they don’t want is high-level traditional D&D. It’s curious, but requests like this only confirm my suspicions that 10th level should be the official end-game of all my d20 RPGs (possible exceptions including 4E, OD&D/BECMI and – maybe – AD&D).

Anyway, thanks to the dark gods of Paizo, I didn’t have to break my head over the issue. I just banished raise dead and resurrection from my game and started to use Hero Points, from the Advanced Player’s Guide. This is probably my all-time favorite rule from Pathfinder, given that it allows me to use some FATE principles on my d20 games.

Player character now gains Hero Points and can use them to Cheat Death. However, although one of my premises with this campaign was to run rules RAW, I give in to my designer dark side and changed some things. I don’t give 1 Hero Point per level, as predetermined by the APG. I give Hero Points when the PCs are dramatically and appropriately heroic – I want to encourage this behaviors because Paizo’s Aventure Paths are usually about saving the world (‘world’ here can mean your city, your region and not necessarily the whole planet/plane). I also like to give Hero Points as an alternative reward system – they’re something a lot more “concrete” than XP and not so unbalancing like magic items, new powers or permanent bonus. And finally, they’re an awesome metagame tool to simulate the dramatic structure of novels or movies – with Hero Points on the table you can bet that the hero will usually die only in the final battle (or in an otherwise significant encounter).

Because I removed raise dead magic and don’t give Hero Points every level, I allow my players to Cheat Death by paying just 1 Hero Point.

So, Hero Points are amazingly customizable. Here are a few other suggestions:

  • You can use Hero Points to stress a low-fantasy campaign. For example: potent spells and save-or-die dweomers now require 1 Hero Point (or Villain Point) to be cast/activated. Spells like raise dead could also require 1 Hero Point from the victim to work – this easily simulates the fact that just heroes, touched by Fate, can cheat Death (and even then, just a few times). Some class features may also require Hero Points.

  • Hero Points can be used to balance characters with different power levels. This can be applied to parties with powerful races (like a minotaur or a full-fledged celestial) or just with divergent character levels. It also allows troupe-style parties to work better: while player A and B control the archmage and his cohort, the rest of the party control their followers and gain Hero Points. People that like Tolkien-like uber-Elves could use them freely by giving Hero Points to the other races (I believe that Warhammer Fantasy 2nd does just that).

  • Hero Points can represent the favor of the Gods and thus add a cool mythological bent to your game. Heroes who follow the right ethos and perfom quests that honor a particular deity gain ‘boons’ in the form of Hero Points.

  • Hero Points can be used to allow wild and rule-breaking stunts (or ad hoc spell modifications). Spent a Hero Point and do something different or cool with you class and racial features or abilities.

  • In games where honor and fatalism are rewarded (like Samurai and Viking campaigns), you can allow a player to pass his Hero Points (maybe with a bonus) to his next PC if the previous died honorably and gained entrance into Valhalla.

  • Hero Points can reward behaviors not supported by Pathfinder rules in general. For example: the classical scene where the hero/king/etc. is buried with his magical gear. This would never happen in a normal D&D games, unless you gave Hero Point to all PCs for honoring their fallen ally/sire.

If you have any other ‘house rule’ for Hero Points, I’m very interested in hearing them. So, please, feel free to post them here.

I also recommend Hero Points to other d20 games (or even non-d20). They’re easy to understand and can help lots with the modulation of your campaigns. They’re a great add-on to solo d20 campaigns, particularly at lower levels.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Augury – Kobold Quarterly #23

Let’s see what Kobold Press cooked for this Autumn.

This issue opens with an article on Dispater, one of the Nine Hell’s Archedevils. The new bits of lore regarding the ruler of Dis are my favorite part – like the information about his wives and his Empyreal Lord son (yes, he has one). Great stuff for adventures and campaigns. The new manifestations are, as usual, awesome.

Slithering in the Moonlight is a peculiar article not because it’s about lamias but because it’s about playing with lamias. You don’t get to play with the classical monster, but with its lesser kin – the lamia commoner (from the waist up a beautiful young woman, from the waist down a snake). Lamia commoners are wicked, sadistic and greed man-eating things – just like ‘normal’ lamias. Actually, I don’t see the point of providing rules for them, as the entire race is evil to the bone, but I must admit that the mechanics are sound and the new racial feats (and oracle mystery) are neat.

Pages from Asmoedus is an Ed Greenwood’s article about an eldritch tome written by the Prince of Darkness himself. As everything wrote by Greenwood the good parts are the flavorful description of the tome and legends surrounding it (indeed the devil is in the details). The grimoire has various proprieties, including changing to an animate cloak (with, of course, 666 hps). The new variant spells suggested by Greenwood are excellent – and yes, they’re just hinted, with gives plenty of room for the Gamemaster. This article is an amazing source of adventures, and not just more ammunition to a spellcaster’s arsenal (though you do get 5 new and traditional-looking spells at the end). One of the best takes on a grimoire so far.

Mechuiti, our next article, is about the Midgard’s Demon Lord of Cannibals, although you could easily call him Demon Lord of Apes, Lost Islands and Cannibal Pygmies. Think of him as a Half-Fiendish version of King Kong and you’re not far off the mark. The Demon Lord’s background is a little over-the-top for me (he seems as dangerous and powerful as Demogorgon). However, the article truly shines when it addresses the mask-hidden gods of Midgard, besides it provides full stats for Mechuiti (CR 25), its behtu servants and a new demon ape creature (CR 7). Pulp awesomeness of the best type.

The Gauntlet Witch is a new (duh!) witch archetype where, instead of getting mojo from a familiar, the spellcaster gains her powers from an eldritch gauntlet (an intelligent magic item). It reminds me of the Withblade comic, but without all those absurd powers.

Steve Winter, at his Howling Tower column, shows some techniques for creating a horror atmosphere at fantasy games. You get the usual advices of low lights, candles and such, though Winter address more advanced topics, things that I remember reading from top-notch books like Bearers of Jade (from Legend of the Five Rings).

After that we get Monte Cook talking about world building. The article isn’t insightful – if you’re like me and devours gamemastering guides and books one after another, there’s nothing new here. Nevertheless, Mr. Cook manages to write in a clear and pragmatically way that I found refreshing. His examples using Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and even Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen are great. The second part deals with settings created with player input and deserved a Game Theories of its own.

The Devil’s Food is a small 6th-level urban adventure (actually it plays more like a big encounter) for Pathfinder using Midgard’s infernal gnomes of Niemheim. It reminds me of the first adventures for Warhammer Fantasy – sinister and grim, but always with a subtle dark humor.

Crossroads Crowned presents us with the winners of the 2012 Zobeck Tin Crown and Art Contests, detailing two fully-stated NPCs.

Selling your Soul is an AGE article about, well, selling souls. Actually, this is a complete subsystem for summoning, negotiating and making pacts with demons. You get all kind of benefits and powers, although the costs are high. Another excellent article, and the rules are so good that I wished we also got a d20 adaptation.

A Few Suggestions is devoted to the suggestion spells, commenting on its various uses.

The Devil Smiter is a 3.5 article (yeah, D&D 3.5, a surprise) with variant class features for paladins, all aimed at fighting devils.

Simplifying Sunder is a Pathfinder article that addresses on of those system’s last clunky leftovers: the sunder maneuver. I never liked the way the maneuver worked or its consequences. In my game experience sunder is either utterly abused by all at the table (including the Gamemaster) or simply banished. It fails to simulate the dramatic nature of shattering an enemy’s main weapon, besides dealing with lots of numbers that are rarely at hand. While the author’s suggestion is excellent in regard to bookkeeping and it brings up sunder back to the level of other combat maneuvers, it does so at the cost of verisimilitude (by using the target’s CMD as the target number, the authors links a weapon’s resistance to sundering to its wielder).

The Fruits of Friula details the City of Secrets, from the Midgard campaign setting, where any secret or hidden lore can be found (and bought for a high price). The article details new exotic poisons, narcotics, inks and other substances at sale in the city.

Monk of the Glorious Endeavor is a variant monk that focuses all his training in solely one weapon.

The Urge to Evolve is a Pathfinder Society Quest, a short adventure that can be used in Organized Play campaigns. It deals with the nefarious deeds of a barghest at the city of Magnimar.

Living Gods of 13th Age is about one of my favorite aspects of Pelgrane Press’s new game: 13th Age – a mix of D&D (mainly 4th Edition) with indie mechanics. Two examples are the Escalation Die (already mentioned at the pages of Kobold Quarterly) and the Icons. Icons are archetypal NPCs that are the movers and shakers of a campaign setting. However, instead of just watching (and suffering) these powerful characters’ actions, each PC has a connection with one or more of them since 1st level. This adds a lot of depth (and dynamics) to a 13th Age game and strengths the PC’s role in the setting in ways that other d20 games usually don’t experience. But I digress; this article gives advice on using traditional deities instead of Icons on your 13th Age games. The PCs can pledge themselves to a specific God and gain Boons (or Banes) by acting accordingly (or against) the divinity ethos.

Our next article is a small surprise: material from the Earthdawn setting of Barsaive to Pathfinder. In his case, a Named Horror called Mindtrap (CR 6) and the background surrounding it (including information on the city of Parlainth).

Sign of the White Bat briefly described the derro goddess of madness, for Midgard.

Kobold Quarterly #23 has, thus, a heap of high-standing material for your perusal. The infernal cover nailed perfectly the issue’s stronger points – the articles on Dispater, Asmodeu’s tome and the AGE subsystem for devilish bargains.