Monday, February 1, 2016

Tyranny of Dragons: Hoard of the Dragon Queen Review

I'm late to the party on this one I know, as Tyranny of Dragons is sort of old news, but I've spent a lot of time DMing this campaign for my group over the past few months.  It served essentially as a starter for learning 5e for us.  After having some extensive time with the book, and having run my players through the first half, I'm going to share my thoughts on the campaign.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Things About Mordren: Basics About my Campaign Setting

Every Wednesday night at my local FLGS I run a D&D 5e game set in my homebrew setting. The world doesn't have a name it's just called The Realm.  The campaign is set in the city of Mordren which you can find in the north area of the map below:

My campaign world map
What is Mordren?

It's a free-city far to the north of The Wilderlands.  The largest free-city in all of The Realms, but rather than just your typical city, the place is more like a massive urban dungeon.  The city itself spans across a river and rises high in the air, multiple towers rising into the sky stacked on top of one another.  There are four distinct districts in Mordren: Downbottom (ground level), Midward (Middle level), and Skyhold (Upper level) as well as Undermord (sprawling crypts and tunnels below the city)

Mordren is (or was until recently) run by a council of 13 Nobles called the Mournvale.  Most of them were corrupt and decadent with little care for the plebs below their station.  The overall ruler was The Lady of Sorrow, a medusa who rarely made public appearances and left the day-to-day running of the city to the Mournvale.

The city's levels were distinct each with multiple districts.  Downbottom is the poorest quarter of the city. The folks that dwell on the ground level live in tightly packed dense towers which rise up to a larger ceiling (the ground floor of Midward one level up).  It is composed of shantytowns, red-light districts, a goblin district, and various other slums and hovels.

Midward is the merchant and trade quarter.  Most of the city's goods and services can be found here including most of the city's decent inns and taverns, smiths, merchants, and markets.

Skyhold is the city's highest level, open to the sky above and interconnected by hundreds of bridges making up the streets it is home to all the noble and wealthy families, high-end restaurants and taverns, and exotic goods and services, as well as the Palace of Pain where the Mournvale and the Lady of Sorrow rule.

The city is ripe with adventure and danger around every corner.  Explorers frequently visit Undermord seeking riches hidden in the winding crypts, or the buried forgotten ruined cities below Mordren.

Some Factions of Mordren:

Underfoot Crime Syndicate: The Underfoots are a ruthless halfling family who run most of the criminal and black market operations throughout the city. More than a thieve's guild, they have their hand in just about everything illegal from the drug trade, human trafikking, stolen goods, prostitution, and pretty much anything and everything nefarious in the city.  The family patriarch sits on the Mournvale, regarded as one of it's most influential members.

Order of the Steel Song: This adventurer's guild and mercenary company has been operating in the city for hundreds of years.  Most who seek fortune within the city's walls will join or seek membership.

Mordren University: Mordren boasts the greatest academic institution north of Astaria. The libraries are extensive and well protected and studies range from astronomy to the arcane sciences.

Archons of the Obsidian: This group is devoted to returning the lich king N'gash to his rightful state as ruler of Mordren.

And there are quite a few more.

My players have been campaigning in Mordren for months now.  Thus far they have overcome a Hunger Games-esque gauntlet which kicked off the campaign, stopped a Yuan-ti cult in Undermord, and recently tracked down a stolen tome for Mordren University which was in the possession of a dark naga noblewoman.

The players have nearly all suffered multiple character deaths within the city's walls, and recently were too late in preventing the Archons from succeeding in their plan. Rather than raising N'gash from the dead, they shifted Mordren into a demiplane of shadow in the Shadowfell, and in the process killed all the members of the Mournvale as well as the Lady of Sorrow.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Review: John Carter

This weekend I undertook a trek to the cinema to catch John Carter.  I understand there was a lot of derision aimed at this film when it was announced some months back.  I kept an open mind going in, but being a movie buff, there were a couple of things that stuck out about it before its release.  First of all, there's the fact that the movie came out in March as opposed to the summer blockbuster season.  For a film that cost $250 million to make, this was not a good sign.  Second, there's the fact that this film was a post-production 3D cut as opposed to being filmed in 3D.  I can't attest to how the film might look in 3D, as I generally refuse to see post-production 3D edits (they're usually bad...Clash of the Titans, I'm looking at you!)  So this review will only approach the film itself, rather than the 3D effects (but honestly I wouldn't expect too much from that.) 
So, knowing these facts, and of course knowing how they changed a lot of things from the book after viewing the trailers, I didn't expect a lot going in.  I'll go ahead and get it out there now before you read any further; if you are a purist of the book series, and won't accept anything less than a near word-for-word transition to the screen, you will be disappointed with this film.  The crew was pretty liberal in how they handled the original source material.  If you can get over that, then John Carter might be an enjoyable film for you.
Obviously for those familiar with the source material, you'll know that this story is more a science fantasy than science fiction.  The basic scientific facts about Mars are ignored in this film, and rightly so.  It's a fantasy for crying out loud.  As to the story itself, while convoluted at times, it seems to work.  I think that most who are not familiar with the original novel series might walk away from this movie not completely understanding the story.  There's quite a bit of exposition involved, and much of it is presented poorly and in a confusing manner.  The whole "show don't tell" is largely ignored in this movie.  It's not as mind numbingly bad as The Last Airbender in that regard, but it's still pretty hollow. 
Personally I think the time they invested in exploring the exposition of the world of Barsoom, and all its denizens, could have been better used to develop all the personal relationships between Dejah, Sola, the dog-thing, and John.  The dog's unrelenting loyalty to John, while charming, is never fleshed out really.  The scenes of dialogue between John and Dejah are wooden and hollow, for the most part.  The introduction of the Therns in this film as a major plot element really didn't fit at all.  When explaining (again through boring dialogue) why the Therns do what they do, it's basically a "for the hell of it" reason, which is pretty dumb.  They do serve a role in getting John to and from Barsoom, which is different than the book, but in the film's climax, it is pretty satisfying.
The acting, for the most part, is pretty wooden.  Taylor Kitsch does an alright job as Carter, but certainly nothing noteworthy.  Lynn Collins as Dejah is only a step above.  Honestly the most endearing character in the movie is Woola the dog-thing.  Its unwavering loyalty to John is amusing, if not mysterious.  Dominic West was probably the most disappointing in the film though.  He played the conquering warlord Sab Than, and was about as out of place in this film as one can get.  It's a real disappointment because anyone familiar with his work on The Wire will note that he truly is a fantastic actor, given the right role.  Sab Than was certainly not the right role for him.
The effects in the film were very well done.  Yes, the CGI representation of the Tharks was not even remotely convincingly realistic, but still were well done.  At times the film seemed like a cartoon/live action hybrid film.  The action sequences were by far the best parts of the movie.  Watching John bounce around all over the place was pretty entertaining.  I would have liked to have seen a lot more of the giant white apes than what we got (a rather hasty arena fight between John and two of the beasts.) 
Overall I think the film hit really well in a lot of areas (action, decent effects, a quality representation of Barsoom on the screen) and missed in others (story, convoluted plots, villains who were neither noteworthy or intriguing.)  It is what it is.  A fun, family friendly science fantasy action adventure popcorn film.  It's a good vs evil tale with good attention placed upon the pulpy nature of the source material, if not the underlying plot elements.  Worth a trip to the movies, again, in 2D only.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Caves of Chaos Update: They Survived

If you've been reading the blog of late, you know that my wife and 10 year old daughter have been navigating the kobold lair in the Caves of Chaos, and as I pointed out in my previous entry, got themselves into a particularly bad spot losing 3 of the hirelings and forced to hole up in the food storage room.  I posted an entry here on how some of you might handle the escape from  the room (and the lair.)  As it turned out, they managed to live and escape.
A few moments after they barricaded themselves in the room, they heard a knock.  It was the cleric.  Feeling around blindly in the dark, he managed to make his way to the food storage room.  They moved the barrel they had propped against the door and let him in.  Then they proceeded to devise a plan of escape.  The elf, having infravision, was essentially the only one able to see down the long, dark cooridor, so they cracked the door open so she could get a peek.  Sure enough, two of the kobolds were positioned behind some cover at the end of the hall, bows at the ready.  They quickly closed the door, arranged some of the crates in the center of the room for their own cover, emptied one of the barrels of water, and proceeded with their plan.  Much of it was flying by the seat of their pants.
After taking some time to prep some spells, the cleric opened the door.  The thief, hiding in one of the barrels positioned behind the door, popped up and fired some arrows blindly down the hall.  Some arrows were fired in response, striking the barrel, and nearly knocking her over in the process.  They closed the door promptly realizing this was going to be more of a challenge than they might have forseen.  After a few moments they heard a low gutteral voice speaking out in common echo down the hall, challenging them to open the door and reveal themselves.
They responded by bluffing.  Attempting to convince the kobolds they had a few kobold children as prisoners in the room with them, the elf squealed out in her best kobold immitation, feigning death.  At this point, I rolled an intelligence check for the chief (who was speaking to them, although they didn't know it at the time.)  The chief failed his check, and falling for the bluff, he charged down the hallway.  Once he came into view, the elf hit him with the sleep spell.  The thief popped some arrows into him, while the cleric moved out into the hall (with a sanctuary spell castt), grabbed the chief to use as cover and dragged him into the room.  They quickly tied him up, and when he awoke, essentially used him as a shield to ensure safe passage out of the caves.
Overall I was impressed with how they handled the situation being newbies to the game.  While it may seem like old hat to most of the gamers who read this blog, watching new players figure out a clever means to escape a situation always impresses me as a DM.  So, they have arrived back at the keep and live to fight another day.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

How Might You Handle This Scenario?

Little red X's indicate the PCs in this room

Ok, since the recent discussion of "combat as sport vs combat as war" came up on Zak's blog and on Enworld, I was curious as to how some of you old school players might handle a particular situation my wife and kid have found themselves in our Caves of Chaos game here at home.

First some background.  My wife is playing a thief, my daughter a magic-user.  The above map is that of the kobold lair in B2, Keep on the Borderlands.  The party originally consisted of the PCs, 2 fighters, and a cleric as well as a 0 level hunter who was their guide to the caves.

The PCs have been to every room except 5, where the kobold chieftain and his kobold bitches are.  They've managed to wipe out all the kobolds in the caves except for 4 regular warriors, the women and children, and the chief and his harem.  But basically most of the fighting kobolds are dead.

In our last session, things didn't go well for the party at all.  They entered area 6, which is the common room with a shit ton of kobolds.  The women and children were already huddled in the back of the room, while two kobolds stood at the entrance on either side, knowing the party was in the cave.  They were set to pop some arrows at the party as they came down the hall.

The short of it is, the magic-user is out of spells.  The cleric is out of spells.  The two fighters and the guide died in this combat.  The thief and magic-user fled and ran into room 3, the food storage room, which contains a couple of barrels of water, and some various food supplies, bones scattered on the ground, etc.  4 of the kobolds chased them, but they managed to get into the room and push the barrel up against the door.  The kobolds tried, but couldn't get the door open.  The party then heard the kobolds footsteps as they moved away from the door, and then...silence.

So, now the cleric is somewhere in the caves, but they don't know where...they don't know if he's alive or dead (he's still alive.)  The rest of the NPCs are dead, and they are holed up in this room.  They have no idea what awaits them on the other side.

My daughter's character has already determined to spend the 10 minutes required to memorize her sleep spell again.  They both have standard adventuring gear:  50' rope, grappling hook, torches, rations, etc.  At this point, they are ready to flee the caves fearing for their lives.  But they don't know what awaits them when they open the door.  They also have taken some wounds.  They are both at 3 hit points.  As a side note, they did not trigger the pit trap on the way into the cave, but they don't know it's there either.

So, I'm not sure I even have the readership to ask this question, but I'm throwing it out there anyway.  If you were in their position, what would you do?  Would you attempt to engage the kobolds in combat?  Try to run out?  What sort of plan might you come up with for escape?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Nice Hi-Res Caves of Chaos Maps

As some of you readers out there might know, I've been running my wife and 10 year old daughter through the original Keep on the Borderlands module to introduce them both to the game.  Zak linked me to his great one page dungeon map for Caves of Chaos whic has come in handy at the table for me.

Thanks to the wonders of Google+, I recently found a beautifully rendered high resolution map of the Caves of Chaos, perfect for printing or using on your laptop or tablet at the table. The map is available in various resolutions.

The maps can be found here.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Blog Has a New Name

I decided to change the name of the blog in an effort to more accurately describe the blog to newcomers and visitors.  I felt Black Hole Diaries in name alone did not really suggest to would be readers exactly what the blog is all about.  The name Dungeons and D20s should more accurately reflect the nature of the blog here being that of D&D and other RPGs.  So, if you're a regular reader and suddenly see this seemingly new blog pop up in your news readers or blogrolls, you'll know what's going on.

Monday, January 30, 2012

My Journey Into B2: Keep on the Borderlands

I'm almost ashamed to admit that up until recently I had never run or played in Gary's B2 module.  I've never been a fan of modules in general other than for idea mining, and growing up, me and the guys never really played in any of them.  We just created our own adventures for the most part unless we were crawling through Undermountain or Night Below. 

I have read B2 over many times, particularly for Gary's advice on how to run an open-ended style game.  To me B2 is perfect for that because it gives you an introductory method on how to run a mini-sandbox.  After some years of playing, however, the generic ho-hum of the content never resulted in me actually playing or running the material within. 

Now, with all that said, my daughter, who is now 10, sees me pouring over my D&D books, and reading things about the game.  She's asked me several times if she could play, and I thought, what better way to introduce her to the game than B2?  After all it has all the classic tropes (goblins, kobolds, ogres, orcs, etc.) and it's pretty much open-ended enough as a site that I could toy with it enough to make it my own.  Plus, it would save me in having to prep for yet another game.

So, with that said, the wife decided she wanted to join in as a player too, and as she is fairly inexperienced with the game herself, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for us all to experience this module.  I don't know, I kind of feel like just as inking your own dice, playing or running through B2 is sort of like a rite of passage into the game that we all should go through at least once, especially those of us with the mindset of an "old school" mentality. 

So, the wife made a human thief named Lornella and the daughter made an elf mage named Aran.  I threw in a NPC fighter (to give them a little muscle) named Crokus, and away we went.  Eventually they met up with a cleric who is trying to retrieve an amulet from the kobold cave, a 0 level guide whom they paid to take them to the caves, and a hireling level 1 Fighter.  We are now about 3 mini-sessions in, and they've been having a blast.  Heading into the first delve into the cave was dangerous for them.  As they went to enter into the kobold lair, they were ambushed.  I decided that the kobolds would use a weighted net strung up in a tree to drop down on them then have a couple of archers in the trees to shoot any that might escape the net when it came down.  Well, Lornella and Aran managed to dodge the net, but couldn't dodge those two arrows, and both got shot, and reduced to negative hit points in their first encounter.

Naturally I start to panic a little, as I really didn't want their very first taste of the game to be a TPK (although had it happened, oh well.)  The cleric was stuck in the net and couldn't seem to get out round after round of trying.  The kobolds jumped down from the trees and attacked Crokus and the other hireling, but eventually the cleric escaped and healed Lornella and Aran. 

Now, they've managed to enter into the kobold lair, but haven't managed to get past the first entry area.  A group of 6 kobolds, then the wandering kobold troops have kept them at bay and they've really had to focus on managing their resources.  They've spent a lot of time in that one area provoking random encounters as they try to heal up and memorize spells.

I was a little concerned about my daughter playing a magic-user at 1st level.  We all know that low level mages are often a liability in a game rather than an asset.  She's gone down a couple of times, but she has never complained.  She's even asked me a time or two "Did I die?" but not in a truly disappointed way, but more of a "I'll roll a new character up" kind of way. 

All in all, it's been a great time.  They've both been enjoying it, and it's a way for us all to experience B2 together.  I'm not sure it will matter to my daughter in a few years, as she will likely grow up into her teens and forget D&D, but maybe one day she'll look back and be able to say, "oh yeah, I played in the original Keep on the Borderlands."

As a side note, I'd like to thank Zak.  I asked if anyone had any legible maps of the caves of chaos on G+ the other night, and he responded linking me to his totally awesome one-page dungeon map he did of the caves.  Really, really handy and has saved me tons of time at the table flipping through the module pages.

Anyway, as they continue to progress through the caves, I'll continue posting updates of their exploits.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Motivates Your Players?

Sounds like a simple question really, and one that would seem easy to answer.  What kind of rubbish is this?  Players are motivated by killing things and taking their stuff.  And yes ultimately no matter what kind of game you play in, that is at least one of the end goals, but it is often not enough to motivate your players, especially in a sandbox game.

I often hear the question raised, "how can I get new school players into older style or 'old school' gaming?"  I think the key really boils down to one thing; how experience awards are handled.  This one feature sets the tone for a particular style of play.  You see, back in the day, when players sat down around the table, and began to seek adventure, they did so on their own, and the DM facilitated the world for them.  This was because the players had a goal (kill things and take their shit and advance and become more powerful) and the goal was rooted in the process by which they attained it.  Going up in level via experience points.

The older iterations of the game made it quite clear.  You advanced in level and gained experience points primarily in two ways; killing monsters that were challenging to your level and by collecting treasure.  Even up into the 1e DMG, Gygax held this to be true.  In that guide he references the exchange of treasure, or gold pieces, into a converted ratio for experience and specifically pointed out that the treasure must be somehow carried out of the dungeon, not just found.

The change began in 2e, in which the game began to take a shift overall as a whole.  It became less about gaining treasure and fighting monsters and more about that dreaded two-word-phrase "the story."  In the 2e DMG the notion of awarding XP for treasure is resolved to a small blurb, highlighted in light blue, and annotated as an "optional rule for experience."  

"As an option, the DM can award XP for the cash value of non-magical treasures.  One XP can be given per gold piece, or equivalent, found."

As an option?!  Seriously?  So, the new school player (or those whose roots lie in ONLY 2e or editions that followed) have a clear reference on how the game should be.  This is why the new school player will sit around, waiting for the DM's guiding hand to lead him to "the story."  And when the DM doesn't do this (i.e. the old school DM), the game becomes lost in translation and can become a bit awkward.  An example of how a typical adventure may start with an old school DM with new school players:

DM: Okay, you're at the Blazing Drunk Tavern enjoying drinks with your mates.  A minstrel plays a lively  tune in the common room.  Patrons move to and fro eating and enjoying the evening.  What are you doing?
New school player:  Uhh....I have an ale.
DM: Okay, 1 copper.  The keep brings you the ale.  What else are you doing?
New school player: Uhh....*waits for DM to spoon-feed him "the story."*

A very similar exchange with old school DM and players:

DM: Okay, you're at the Blazing Drunk Tavern enjoying drinks with your mates.  A minstrel plays a lively  tune in the common room.  Patrons move to and fro eating and enjoying the evening.  What are you doing?
Old school player: I order an ale, slap the serving wench on the arse, and ask the keep if there are any rumors of this place.
DM: Okay, 1 copper.  The keep brings you the ale.  The serving wench slaps you in the face.  The keep then tells you of some ruins just outside of town which are said to hold a golden jeweled crown worth a fortune.
Old school player: We head out tonight.

You see, the old school player doesn't need any other motivation than the notion of the possibility of fighting some shit and getting a treasure, because the treasure paves the way for the advancement.  It is THE motivation to play.  There is no need for them to sit around and wait for the DM to serve up the one ring to take to Mount Doom.

The key, when starting a new campaign, is to find  the players who fit the style of game you want to run.  There is nothing wrong with storylines in games.  I use them myself.  But make it clear from the on-set on how experience is gained and how level progression works.  So, if you're running an old school style game, make it clear to the players, "hey, you level up by killing shit and taking treasure because each gold piece worth of treasure taken also equals that much in xp."  If they are new school players, they might not get it at first, because it might not come natural to them.  If you have someone more familiar with this style of play at the table it helps because they can guide the new school player, and really, it's so bloody simple they'll feel foolish for not catching on in the beginning once they see how it's done.  The difference is being able to recognize what motivates the new school player vs the old school player.

To put it in a simple analogy, the new school player is all about the destination (the story) while the old school player is all about the journey.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

So You Need an Idea for an Adventure

Yesterday one of my friends suggested we play some D&D over skype later in the evening.  So, naturally I agree before thinking and then the "oh shit I need an adventure" hits me.  I created this table a while back, mostly for writing purposes, but thought, what the hell, I'll give it a go.  After a few random rolls I was able to come up with a pretty good adventure for the group.  Unfortunately, we didn't get to play after all, because one of my friends got ill later on that night.

Here is a link to the table (hosted on Google Docs).  Now, the original chart only had the first two tables, which I used last night to make my adventure.  I added a third table on the chart this evening.  Basically all you do is pick up a d100 roll it and consult the first table.  Roll it again, consult the middle, then roll it a 3rd time and consult the 3rd table.  Keep doing this several times.  Write down your results.  If you get something that sounds cool, write it down.  Then go through, pick out the best ones, and you should have some good starting inspiration for an adventure.

I'll give you an example off the first couple of tables, of what I got.  I rolled several times, but eventually came up with these usable combinations:

Sad Prince
Whorehouse of Decadence
Cathedral of the Fatal
Mute Bride
Charming Demon
Verses of Failure
Servant of Fear

Now, the tables as they are leave out the "of"s and "the"s.  Just mix and match the words and let the imagination take over.  When I began I knew this adventure would be city based, so I took what I thought could be most useful of what I rolled for that.  So, out of those useful combinations I came up with the following notes which I scribbled down in a notebook:

"Sad Prince in disguise approaches PCs about rescuing his bride who is mute (now.)  Tracked her down to Whorehouse of Decadence which is being run by a succubus (charming demon) named Absuroma.  But first the PCs must infiltrate the Cathedral of the Fatal and steal the Verses of Failure which contain banishment ritual to banish her back to her plane."

So, a few rolls on the chart, some inspiration, and I have a couple of adventures to last at least 2 sessions.  I added some more stuff as well once the ball got rolling.  Like the fact that the Cathedral of the Fatal is being overrun by ghouls.  Why?  Because their is a priestess in the halls below the cathedral being held in a sleep like stasis because some BBEG harnessed her soul into a garnet stone and put it in a circlet which the priestess is wearing.  So the ghouls are entering the cathedral through her dreams.  Of course, this leads to even more plot hooks.  Who did this to her and why, etc.

Anyway, the chart and tables are useful for brainstorming when the old adventure writing block demon strikes.