Thursday, July 30, 2009

4E - Is change possible?

I've been agonizing over this post, but the time is ripe for me to jot down a few observations on what I see as specific weak points in 4E. I say this because our group is going through a possible metamorphosis.

Or more to the point, I'd like to stay with the group, they're playing 4E, so we're collectively (at least the DM and I), thinking about how to make tweaks to the game. The end result that we're trying to achieve is a game that makes everyone happy. But there needs to be a systematic, session by session recap of those things that I think need to be changed.

Unfortunately, and maybe glaringly, this sounds like a completely selfish exercise. Most (if not all) of the guys currently sitting at the table are quite happy with the game. They like the way the game plays. I'm the turd in the punch bowl here. And for the record, I've offered to bow out. But the majority has opted towards changing the game in order to make the whole "happy". In the end though, bowing out might have been the least painful choice.

Anyway, on with the examination.

We played this Tuesday and I've let my thoughts roll around inside my head, like magnets in a jar. I've hopefully let them coalesce into something a bit more cogent and supportive of meaningful change. Overall, I liked the session. We didn't have a single combat encounter, not one. And personally, I liked it a lot. Combat is 4E's glaring weak spot in my mind. But that's a topic for a different day.

Two things leaped to mind though regarding Tuesday's session.
  1. We didn't waste time with minis and drawing mats or location pieces.
  2. Magic items are now completely mundane.
I'll try and keep my thoughts and opinions on the straight and narrow here, and stick to those two topics. Minis and their supporting pieces are not a new phenomenon in the game of Dungeons and Dragons, and as my current DM often claims, they're a natural extension of the original Chainmail game. It was after all a war game.

I'd have to say that, yes, he's right...And wrong. While the game claims many of its mechanics from the war game Chainmail, it is not at all meant to be played as a war game. This is clearly stated in the earliest of editions. Miniatures are supporting pieces only, the meat and bones of game play is meant to come from your imagination.

This might be a completely subjective observation, but I find that when someone throws a bunch of minis down on a map of some sort, I wander away from the rich tapestry of the mind. I start paying more attention to what's going on at the tactical level and wander away from the realm of imagination.

And that is one of the root issues I have with 3rd and 4th edition, they've taken a game of imagination and forcefully combined it with a war game. You're constantly asked to move back and forth between idioms. Many people like that...Heck, there are times when I've certainly welcomed the change. But most of the time, I like to keep the pace by maintaining the same medium.

It's tough to maintain the mood when you're adventuring through an alien landscape, you round a corner and WHAM!.... Please break for the DM to set up the minis and draw the map... Tick, tick, tick. Wow, what a buzz-kill. All of the sudden that cool momentum you had is washed down the toilet. And that was one of the strengths of Tuesday's session. We never brought out a map or minis. Cool.

Now, to the second point: Magic Items, and the way that 4E has totally stripped the "magic" from them.

We garnered quite a load of loot during our foray into the slime encrusted demesne beneath Kaldrak Lyres, known affectionately as the sewer. A slew of magic items were won. I understand what our DM is doing, he's balancing the scales. Loot is cool. We all love coming away w/ stuff.

Oh boy, this is going to be a tough one to nail down. But, I'll start with one of the things that I heard that 4E was "fixing" when it was initially announced. A claim that I distinctly remember reading was that they were attempting to pull the characters away from "being" their magic items. Apparently many older addition characters were defined by the items that they carried, and used with regularity. So in essence, a character was just a mobile platform for a powerful item of one type or another.

I can see that as being an issue with some people. I get it. But WotC's answer to that is this sad little plug-and-play methodology. They've taken magic items and cut the usage back to once per encounter, once per day, or something similar. So, you see what's happened is that they've swapped abilities and magic item powers. Now each character has a few abilities that they're able to pull off at-will. Meaning that you can shoot magic missiles (if you're a mage) forever, without stopping. And THAT used to be the realm of a wand...until the charges ran out, and you were forced to either toss it, or refill it. Which could have opened up new adventure opportunities.

The feeling that the new system engenders is quite literally plug-and-play. Your character has a bunch of "slots" that can be filled by the appropriate "level" item. Each of these items has a very specific role to play within the overall structure of the rules. All in the name of balance.

Furthermore, you can "drain" the magic from an item. You come away with some type of "stuff" called residuum...Or something like that. Your character can use this like money, or you can use it as a generalized component in some of your rituals, or magic item creation. Talk about taking an item that was at one time wondrous...something that you pondered over...that opened your eyes and made you go "Oooo! Ahhh!", and turning it into something as mundane as a coin. Phhbbbt.

They've even taken away the wonder by putting all of the magic items in the PHB. You're actually encouraged to go through and take a look as a character, and choose the items that you think might best slot into your current build. "Sigh". Whatever happened to the magic ring that you couldn't quite figure out? That was the impetus of many a journey to witch doctors in deep, primal forests, or crooked, dark wizards in tottering ancient towers. Now, it's just an item under glass at your corner Wal Mart.

How to change this...CAN you change it? Not sure, I'll have to do some thinking.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Go and VOTE

Go HERE... and vote for Swords and Wizardry. There are also other categories where you can support your old school team by voting for either a publisher or a game. Go to it then. What are you waiting for?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Second assualt on the Moat House

Welcome back y'all. Gather around for another rousting tale of success and failure, of life and death, and of love won and lost...Well ok, there's not a thing in the following excerpt that even remotely resembles love. Nonetheless, read on.

Paul, Chris and I met last night for a beer and pretzels game of Castles and Crusades. Paul rolled up another first level character to replace Stryke, his deceased 1/2 orc assassin that perished beneath the fangs of a giant hunting spider.

So both Chris and Paul rolled up characters at the table last night. Chris came up with a bard with fairly average scores. While Paul rolled up a wizard with quite high scores. A human male, the bard, one Sebastian Goosebury was just passing through, looking for extra coin. While the mage, one Drizzle Spatchcock, was also hungry for any type of arcane knowledge.

Each had briefly stopped in Hommlet while on a journey in search of "something", adventure, easy money, knowledge, it didn't matter. Our heroes meet at the Inn of the Welcome Wench, the only game it town.

It is morning and Drizzle sat at a table sipping his wine while reading a book, and Sebastian sat close to the door, tuning his instrument in preparation for the night's entertainment, for he's been hired for an evening by the proprietor.

Just then the door bangs open and three filthy dirty, disheveled and exhausted men stumble in dragging a body. The proprietor hustles forth waving his arms, stating that there's a strict policy against keeping corpses inside the Inn. All three nod and the fat one drags the corpse back out through the door while the "leader" launches into a story about the dangers overcome at the "keep" up the road.

Seeing his opening, Sebastian introduces himself while swiping the wine from in front of Drizzle and offering it to the parched story teller. Delvin by name, the self-styled leader of the small band begins telling the tale of danger and woe. His quiet companion, Wonkin, sits nearby, mumbling and rubbing his eyes. After hearing the intro, Drizzle gets involved by also introducing himself.

Eventually the story is told and the two are more than interested in exploring this "keep", or moat house as it is called locally. Arrangements are made with Wonkin and Portly Tom as henchmen. They will meet up w/ Drizzle and Sebatstian in the morning. They have one concern though, Rufus and Burne. It seems as if the previous party had been some how "sponsored" by the pair. So, a jaunt to the tower on the hill seems necessary at this point.

On their way to the tower, the two are confronted on the road by a armed guard who extorts the two for a toll, in order to pass. They unwillingly pay and pass on. As they top the path to the tower they find a small practice session with the town militia under way. Led by a grizzled veteran (think Iggy Pop w/ long white hair in a pony tail), the small group of boys and men swing wooden swords at one another.

A lone guard stands atop the small staircase leading to the tower. The young man stands to attention as the pair mount the stairs and asks what their business is. They declare that they're here to see Rufus and Burne...and Sebastian strums a chord announcing that he's a bard. Soon they gain admittance and after a short wait are sitting in the main chamber, speaking with the mage Rufus. (Yes, yes, I know. I mixed the two names up in the initial session. Sigh. Too late now.)

A brief meeting reveals that the Rufus and Burne are concerned with recent rumors that there have been strange goings on at the moat house. Figures have been seen passing to and fro during the evening hours, while the place is supposed to be abandoned. Any kind of reconnaissance that nets solid information will be paid for. And a 10 gp / person stipend is paid. 1/2 now, and 1/2 upon the return of any useful intel.

Rufus warns them though that the place is dangerous. It has been years since anyone has gone out there and many of the swamp's more nasty denizens might have taken up residence. The former employee, Stryke, met his demise there and should prove amply that the place is not to be taken lightly. With that they leave.

On their way out Rufus asks if they met a surly guardsman upon the road who charged them a toll. They acknowledged that yes, indeed they did. Rufus sighed and refunded the copper...That man is trouble, he mumbled under his breath as he did so. Drizzle asked if perhaps Rufus might want to allow the man an extended leave perhaps. Rufus agreed, and the party grows by one surly henchman.

Back at the Inn of the Welcome Wench, with Belsay, the surly guard in tow, they meet yet another interesting character, one Elmo. This dumb, yet large individual seems intent on making money for more ale. He pesters Sebastian and Drizzle telling them that he'd need a big axe and possibly some armor if he were to be convinced to go. They agree...and he wanders off, a smile on his face and a tankard in his meaty fist. (They have absolutely no intention of purchasing the stuff, but are going to try and bilk him out of the deal yet still have him come along.)

The next morning dawns bright and clear as the new group's members meet at the Inn. Elmo shows up with an axe over his shoulder, girded in mail. Drizzle tries to convince the simpleton that he's got what he needs but Elmo's insistent, his price is a big axe and mail....still. But, if he gets gold for ale then he'll take the axe and mail upon their return. All is agreed and the group heads out upon the road to the moat house.

Nothing untoward happens upon the road to the moat house, while the trail proves a difficult journey. Swamps, brambles and generally horrid conditions accompany the group as they trudge their way through the fetid landscape, mosquitoes plaguing their every step. Eventually though they make it to their destination. It's early afternoon by the time the moat house ruins come into view.

Close observation through the heavy, bug laden air, shows that nothing moves in the ruins. Wonkin and Portly Tom stay with the mule back on the trail while Drizzle, Sebastian, Belsay and Elmo make their way cautiously towards the crumbling walls. A rotted draw bridge lies open and a pair of wooden doors stand ajar, but still, nothing moves within.

Elmo is the one to spot something moving though and the group moves off the path into cover, and off to the side for a better angle. They spot a man, crossbow at the ready, leaned up against the door. He peeks out from time to time...

A nod from Drizzle and Sebastian sends Belsay's crossbow bolt whizzing through the air. It strikes right next to the man's head, vibrating madly in the wood. Sebastian sends a shaft from his bow on the tail of the bolt though, nearly simultaneously. This strikes true, piercing the throat of the leather clad guardsman. He tumbles back in near silence. Only his shoes, toes pointing to the heavens, prove he ever existed.

Slowly the group moves closer but are again stopped in their tracks as the boots begin to slowly disappear around the door. Someone is dragging the corpse. Drizzle stops, quickly readies his components and casts a sleep spell. A dull thump, and the movement of the boots stops. Apparently the spell has taken affect. The group moves on.

They make their way across the rotted drawbridge and enter the overgrown courtyard, light from the westering sun filters through the bug laden air and a light breeze sways the long grasses festooning the old cobbled area. Nothing but grass moves though. A pair of double doors opens off the courtyard but the darkness within reveals little from their current vantage point.

With this, Sebastian mounts the wall, intending to make his way around to the building's entrance, hopefully this higher vantage will throw any observation and prove an easier route. He makes it to the double doors w/out mishap just as the others clear the courtyard. They're all now gathered outside the double doors, one of which lies upon the ground.

Drizzle casts light upon the tip of his staff and slowly levers it around the edge of the upright door, in order to draw any fire from within. Nothing happens. So, the group slowly moves into the large room, one by one. Stillness and the smell of dampness, and old smoke greets them, nothing moves. Two hallways and a standing door prove the only exits from this old battered room.

Hacked furniture, old torn tapestries and garbage are all that remain in this great hall...rubble from the burnt upper floor protrudes into the chamber as well, throwing odd shadows. Sebastian moves as quietly as possible across the floor toward the left-hand hallway. Three doors lead off the hall, which itself opens upon a larger room. wherein light spills weakly through holes in the ceiling and walls. The bard moves to the right-hand hallway, group holding tight, and peers down that one.

It is the mirror opposite of the other hallway, but this one is chosen. So down it they proceed. Drizzle takes one of the three doors while Sebastian takes another. Just as they are about to take a look, a noise from the chamber at the end of the hall alerts them. Abandoning the doors, the group proceeds to the end of the hallway to look into the dim, yet large rubble strewn room. Sunlight streams in weakly from a few holes and dust fills the air...but also a strange scent, as if something has nested here.

And suddenly, from a shadow, a large four-legged beast slithers sinuously from the shadows with surprising quickness, catches Drizzle up in its mouth and delivers a bone-breaking bite. An enormous lizard of some type has made this corner of the moat house its lair and is now determined to take Drizzle with it, as a tasty snack. It attempts to retreat but the others jump on it, yelling and wielding their weapons.

A terrific blow from Elmo causes the lizard to drop the unmoving body of Drizzle and Belsay moves forward with his spear, attempting to push the monster back even further. Hissing and bleeding profusely, the monitor backs away from the dangerous foes. Sebastian takes this opening to patch Drizzle and pull him from harms way. With that though, the group finishes off the beast with arrows and bolts.

A chest is discovered amidst the rubble. Rotted, it proves little deterrence and disgorges a tunic of scale mail, a light crossbow with 20 bolts and 31 copper pieces of unknown mintage. Elmo picks up the bandaged, yet still living Drizzle, while the others tote the spoils from the chest out. It's time to retreat, heal some wounds and try the moat house again in the future.

While retreating across the courtyard, a leather clad bandit emerges from the darkness (random monster roll), shades his eyes and yells as he spots the PCs. He unslings his crossbow and takes a shot. The hurried bolt sails high though. A return shot by Sebastian though proves fatal, and the red-headed bandit falls to the ground with a groan.

But the noise has apparently stirred up a hornets nest, as the sound of more voices is heard from within. Quickly the group takes cover behind the gate doors as two more bandits appear from the darkness. One, armed with a halberd, sees Belsay and charges, bellowing the entire way. The other pulls his crossbow to his shoulder and places a bolt firmly in the surly guardsman's chest. Belsay topples backwards to the ground.

Sebastian, wild eyed, tells Elmo to get Drizzle across the bridge to safety, and to run and get Wonkin and Portly Tom while he holds off the bandits. The bridge breaks in the attempt, but Elmo lunges forward dumping Drizzle in the dirt, and grabs the opposite bank, pulling himself to safety. Off he trundles into the brush, heading for Tom and Wonkin.

Meanwhile Sebastian pulls his sword, ducks a wild swing from the halberd and thrusts forward, piercing the man through the femoral artery. The bandit screams, drops his halberd and falls to the ground, bleeding out lie silently in the dust. Seeing that the odds are now tipped, the other bandit draws his sword and spins, running off into the darkness, yelling the entire way.

Sebastian again nocks an arrow and waits... Eventually Elmo returns, trailing Portly Tom, Wonkin and the mule w/ Drizzle's body slung across its back. No bandits have since emerged from the moat house and the PCs take the brief opportunity to loot the dead and make good their retreat.

They return to Hommlet, tails between their legs, to rent a room at the Inn and heal up. But, they fully intend to return to the moat house again, for it's obvious, there are riches and secrets yet to be gained.

To be continued...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lose one, lose them all?

It's been awhile. I've been away from my computer for over two weeks and it's been a wonderful thing. Vacation can really help clear the head. I had a great time if anybody is asking.

Well I've been back only a few days, and have even played once with the main group of guys that I generally game with every other Tuesday. There's been a new "situation" though, and it's this that I would like to speak about if I may.

As some of you are more than aware, I'm not a fan of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. I've given it plenty of chances, it just has not succeeded in winning my allegiance. There are just far too many gulfs to span between the rules as written and the way I envision a game of dungeons and dragons proceeding.

Well, the "situation" is that I've finally spilled the beans to the group. I did not pose it as some type of ultimatum though. I simply stated that I do not prefer 4E and that if the group wishes to play with that system further, then I will gracefully extricate myself. Not happily, but I'd do it since I was the odd man out.

One thing that I certainly do NOT want to do is to break the group up. This is an exemplary group of guys...I'd certainly prefer to stick with them and keep playing. But 4E is just too high a hurdle and, after all, it's a game, aren't I supposed to be deriving some type of fun out of it?

I selfishly mentioned that I'd love to stick around if we chose another system. Not 3E or 4E though. I've had my fill and I'm no longer interested in either of those choices. What does that leave? Our group is strictly interested in Dungeons and Dragons. We're all pretty hard core fantasists. And, for the most part, we all grew up on Dungeons and Dragons. We're loyal to the core.

This of course has started a conversation surrounding what system we would like to play. It's likely confined to either a retro-clone or to an earlier version of D&D. I'm not sure how it's going to shake out. We have 4 fairly vocal members, out of 7.

But what I'm circuitously coming around to is that IF we decide to change systems, and this is by no means a foregone conclusion, then it'll be 7 guys changing from one system to another. What does this mean? Well, in my humble opinion, that if you value group over game, and we all know how hard it is to find a good group these days compared to finding a "game" (online, your local brick and mortar, etc.), then you're likely more willing to change games.

Now I know that no game or company can please everyone. But imagine if WotC decided to support two editions of the game. They'd still have 7 guys playing "their" game.

I'll keep you up to date with how this shakes out. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Like I said above, it's hell trying to find a decent group of guys to game with.