Thursday, November 13, 2014

Castle Ravenloft

I played Castle Ravenloft as a one-shot using Dungeon World rules. I have both the original I6 Castle Ravenloft adventure from first edition, and the 2nd edition version House of Strahd. They're very similar, I had both on me just in case and borrowed from both.

The group was people I normally play beer and boardgames with. We play rpgs occasionally, but except for my wife none of them have played a proper D&D campaign before. One guy at this session had only played a tabletop rpg once before. The point is, it wasn't too serious, and people were open to the narrative structure of Dungeon World because they're not used to mechanics-heavy games anyway.

Since this was a one-shot, I had to streamline things to get stuff done. Everybody picked a class and filled out their character sheet without too much trouble (one reason I love DW, its easy to grok even for beginners). Everyone described their character and then we did the tarot card reading from Madame Eva. Then a riderless carriage arrived to take the party to the castle. The paladin declined both the tarot reading and the carriage as dark magic, but to move things along I said the party could knock him out and put him in the carriage.

Here's the characters we had (again, not too serious):
Detta , daughter of Calypso - Pirate
Uther the Lightbringer - Paladin
Belatrix LaStrange - Witch
Bryan "The Elf" Johnnson - Bard (human, not an elf)
Wesley Snipes - Vampire (with man-servant Ryan Reynolds)

In the past I've let silly names and such get on my nerves, but I've come to embrace it. Its a silly game to begin with, shooting fireballs and monsters and such, and if it makes the player happy, then great. Also, two things tend to happen: either the player realizes how silly it is during play and lets it drop, or by treating it as normal it becomes accepted and less silly.

Most of the session was exploring the castle. We used a grid and minis, not for exact movement and tactics, but its a great visualization tool. And the castle is slightly complicated in layout, so its better to have a map drawn out. The first few rooms have some ominous gargoyles but they don’t attack right away. There’s organ music drawing the characters to a hall room set up with a feast. The Count himself appears to be playing the organ, but when Uther attacked it was revealed to be an illusion, and all the food was rotten. The wine was good though, and Belatrix helped herself to a lot. THEN the gargoyles attacked. Two of the players had never played DW before but they got the hang of describing actions pretty easy. I really like how I can change up mechanics and tactics based off of player description. When Uther just attacked, its Hack and Slash, but when Detta wanted to tumble behind the gargoyles she rolled Defy Danger and just dealt her damage after it succeeded. I decided the gargoyles would pile on Uther since he was out in front, so even though they were getting killed off at least one of them just dealt damage while he was swarmed.

This was a one-shot, so to make the “mark XP on a miss” mechanic mean something I allowed them to level every time they got two XP. At one point, one of the players was hoping to miss in the middle of a fight so he could get a cool advanced move, but it didn’t happen.

One of the clues from the Tarot card hinted at crypts below the castle, so the group took a spiral staircase down as far as they could. Uther decided to go off on his own on the main floor, finding a chapel in ruins. He picked up a silver raven statue, a holy item of some type. Then he spotted two glowing red eyes watching him from above and…failed a Defy Danger check. So cut back to the main group, who had found dungeon cells partly submerged in water. A teleportation trap put Ryan Reynolds in one of the cells but he was quickly freed, and another prisoner, Ivan, was freed as well. Nobody trusted Ivan, but he seemed harmless. Uther returned to the party with foggy recollection of what he had seen, and eager to press onward. 

Further ahead in the dark was an old torture chamber, half-submerged, with a platform and thrones. Presumably to watch people being tortured? Detta started climbing on the platform just as several rotting hands raised from the water, and the group found zombies all around them. As they were hacking into them they realized that the disembodied limbs were fighting back. A Spout Lore roll discerned that the bodies would keep fighting until they had taken so much damage that the dark magic animating them could no longer sustain them. Wesley had one hand dig into his shoulder, only releasing when he tore off the zombie’s head. Uther tried channeling divine force through the silver raven statue, and a flash of light drove away the zombies. Meanwhile, a great wolf had snuck up on Detta on the platform. When Wesley tried communicating with it as a creature of the night, it actually spoke to everyone in an accented human voice, then disappeared in a cloud of fog. Strahd had visited them.

They continued into a room with locked doors and a “throw a gem in the fire” puzzle that they figured out right before the iron skeleton statues in the room attacked. They continued on to the crypts, an enormous room (it took up the entire dry erase mat) dotted with small tombs and hallways to greater tombs. They mostly ignored the smaller tombs and got separated by a portcullis at the king and queen’s tomb. As Bryan Johnnson waited outside three hellhounds approached. He climbed on top of a tomb as the rest pushed the gate up. Strahd appeared again and grabbed Uther in a choke hold, then used the charm he had placed on him earlier in the chapel to make him attack his allies, though he ended up being more of a distraction than a threat. Belatrix had found a red amulet earlier and noted that Strahd was wearing a similar one, made by the same hands. This was enough of a tie to use her thorn attack to pester him from a distance. The escaped prisoner Ivan turned out to be a werewolf loyal to Strahd, but Detta shot him with a crossbow with a silver medallion tied to it and he fled. Detta also distracted the Count by attempting to stake him with her own peg leg. Yep, pirate. It only did 3 points of damage so didn’t get his heart by a long shot, but was enough to make him withdraw. 

I was worried about time at this point but felt like we could accomplish a little more so pressed on, and it worked out wonderfully. They recovered the Sunsword from Sergei’s tomb, took a different door from the puzzle room and found their way upstairs in the study, where they found the Tome of Strahd, describing his sad story, and the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind. Knowing that the object of their search was in a high spot, they found a staircase up the tallest tower. A distant thudding turned out to be a supernatural heart near the top of the tower, and the whole structure started tilting wildly back and forth as a strange creature of Strahd’s necromantic magic chased the group of the stairs. A hybrid abomination of a werewolf, a gargoyle, and a giant spider, it was knocked down the stairs as Detta used the Holy Symbol to blast the heart with sunlight.

At the top of the tower Strahd was waiting, next to several open windows as a storm raged on. Uther attacked with the sunsword and Wesley with claws, and Strahd threw them both around like rag dolls. Bryan hammered the abomination with sonic attacks while Detta finished off the heart with her rapier. Uther was picked up by Strahd and thrown out of the window, landing far below on another tower…with the Sunsword, the weapon best suited to fight the vampire. Still, he was overwhelmed by superior numbers. A rapier strike brought him to 0 hit points. He could have disappeared in fog, but I ruled that the strike went through his heart and pinned him to the wall. Since the Vampire class says a staked heart keeps you from rising, and vampire legends aren’t consistent about a wooden stake, I figured that was enough to keep him down. Just to be sure, Wesley tore Strahd’s head off with his claws. Sergei’s ghost brought Uther back to group and he destroyed the body with his sunsword.

Not bad for a one-shot! I’ve never actually had all of the items from the Tarot card reading come up in play, but luck worked in everybody’s favor. Everybody was really focused, even though most of them weren’t very familiar with the Dungeon World rules. One thing I love about casual RPG players is they just want to have fun with the game, they don’t get too hung up on rules. They also trust me to run a fair and fun game, which helps. 

Some notes on individual characters:

Detta was the Pirate class. Her peg leg was a “look” she chose off of the character sheet, and DW encourages you to embrace the fiction, so her trying to use her own leg as a wooden stake was awesome. She used her “fight like a pirate” move in almost every combat, we found it easy to work in her using the environment to her advantage and actually encouraged her to do more than stand there and attack. Her “sea legs” move helped in the rocking tower too. We kind of skipped over the Bonds part at the beginning of the session, but she filled hers out and used it to role-play her interaction with other characters.

Uther the Lightbringer—okay, the player of this character has a habit of challenging the other players in the group and being a little annoying on purpose. He’s the “lets open two doors at once” or “lets split up” player, but he knows not to push it too far. Which works perfect for a stereotypical Paladin surrounded by Chaotic characters (the only other Lawful character was the Vampire). He played along well when I had to be heavy handed with the vampire charm, or knocking him off the roof.

Belatrix LaStrange was the Witch. I LOVE the Witch class but I feel like more than most classes it needs a conversation with the player about what it can do, specifically the Hex and Thaumaturgy moves. Funny enough, most of the time Hex backfired by hitting another party member or targeting an undead creature in disguise. Also, she used her Skinchanger advanced move to turn into an elephant, which is not what I think of when I think Witch. But at the same time, it wasn’t that effective in a tight castle, she mostly just picked up things.

Bryan "The Elf" Johnnson, using a variant Bard class that’s more about inspiration and less about “magic music”. So he encouraged Uther to use his bare hands while being swarmed by gargoyles, which was perfect because his sword wasn’t effective at that range and he got a +1d4 damage. Also the name—its a human Bard, he just goes by the nickname “The Elf” because its easier to get gigs this way. This player likes to dick around and has a very dry sense of humor, so he’ll push the story in weird ways.

Wesley Snipes…the vampire who doesn’t have sunlight as a weakness (jaywalker). He was disappointed he couldn’t choose “black leather trench coat and sunglasses” as gear. He could choose a trusted manservant instead of an actual weapon (since he had claws anyway), so he named that guy Ryan Reynolds. It was funny but not distracting, honestly. And this guy had only ever played an RPG once in his life before this, so he did a great job playing his character, picking up the rules, staying focused, and helping build the story. The thirst mechanic didn’t come up much, mostly because I forgot to have him start with 1d8 points at the beginning of the adventure, and he didn’t take much damage to heal. 

Three of the classes we used were from Awful Good Games, you can find their products here

Friday, September 19, 2014

5E Basic Monsters

I looked at the free DM's guide for 5th Edition. Which is just a monster book.

168 creatures listed. 95 are Beasts. 19 are Humanoids. 18 are Monstrosities.8 Undead, 6 Giants, 5 Elementals. Minimal Aberrations, Celestials, Constructs, Dragons, Fey, Fiends, Oozes, and Plants.
Lots of animals. Lots of giant animals. Lots of both versions of animals. Giant frogs AND toads. Goats and giant goats. Baboons, apes, and giant apes. Black, brown, and polar bears. Killer and reef sharks, and killer whales.
Thank Crom we have stats for a cats, crabs, and weasels.
Bubears are pretty brutal. +1 damage die and +2d6 sneak attack. The extra damage die feature was called "Brute" and I thought that might be a thing, but no other monster has it.
A goblin's Nimble Escape ability is cool (disengage or hide as a bonus action). They fight sneaky.
Goblin total gear--leather, shield, scimitar, and short bow. That's a well outfitted sneaky grog.
Gnolls can make a half move and bite after dropping a target. Dropping a PC doesn't happen that often, and you don't always want to cheapen that moment with a "gotcha" monster ability.
Lizardfolk attack twice. And can hold their breath 15 minutes.
Ogres...don't do anything special.
Orcs get a bonus move action towards a hostile target. So orcs are super fast now.
Tigers and panthers do more damage with bite than claw. Sabre-tooth tigers do more damage with their claw than bite. WTF? Also, pounce is: if you move and claw, then you might knock them prone and if you do then you bite. Way less complicated than 3E big cats.
Trolls regenerate 10hp/round but not if they took fire/acid damage that round.
"Damage Immunities: bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage from nonmagical weapons that aren’t silvered" ...that isn't very easy to read.
Creatures I'm glad to see in a basic list: blood hawk, deer, death dog, flying snake, yeti
The Spectator seems like a cool low-level beholder.
I'm guessing monster stats aren't necessarily a flat-line average for a race but the stats you'd expect from a warrior. For example, the Hobgoblin has a +1 mod in Str, Dex, and Con; and the human Bandit has good Dex and Con. This is different from the 3E model of baseline stats for generic creatures, and also different from the 4E model of the ability scores having nothing to do with anything at all so why are they there.
I'm amused that town guards are more powerful (more HD at least) than a 1st-level character.

Overall, not impressed. Like most of what I've seen from 5E, its stripped down 3E with a few nods to nostalgia, a very select picking of ideas from 4E, and one or two small innovations. I did not get any sense of wonder at flipping through this like I did from 3E or 4E. Granted, its just the small free package, not the core Monster Manual. But my red box monster list was smaller than this and way more interesting.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

RPG A Day: late and all at once

14th - Best Convention Purchase
I won a Pathfinder book for winning a D&D Trivia contest, does that count?
15th - Favourite Convention Game
I've never played an official convention game. I'd like to, but at most cons the cool games are full before I have a chance to plan.
16th - Game you wish you owned
Owning one of the older Basic D&D boxed sets would be cool. There was a game called Lost Souls I read about when I was young that I never found...OH, HAI INTERNET:
17th - Funniest Game you’ve played
The single funniest session I ever had was running a Werewolf game (the PCs were a were-naga and a were-dino, but that's not relevant). I improved some random NPC, a drunk farmer complaining about his goats, and the way it played out had us all crying laughing. I've found the unexpected humor always works better than the forced stuff.
That being said, Gamma World using the 4E system was a lot of fun. It was the only game where I tried to "out-silly" the players, like having two sasquatches (a rocket surgeon and a brain scientist) in a crashed spaceship with John Carpenter's the Thing on board.
18th - Favourite Game System
I've played D&D the most, but lately I've been loving Dungeon World. I feel like I'm just out of reach of really running it the best way, but I've been pushing my friends to play it whenever I can.
19th - Favourite Published Adventure
Ravenloft. I have the 2E House of Strahd version and also bought the 1E pdf last October before we ran Castle Ravensmash (heavy drinking was involved). Its really a solid dungeon with lots of character. It helps that I have a deep love for the "haunted castle" idea.
20th - Will still play in 20 years time…
Some type of D&D.
21st - Favourite Licensed RPG
Slaine. I never even ran it as written, but I stole a bunch of ideas for my 4E Celtic game, which was one of the best campaigns I ever did.
22nd - Best Secondhand RPG Purchase
I bought my friend's old copy of Heroquest. Not an RPG really, but its hella-fun.
23rd - Coolest looking RPG product / book
Its sad that nothing immediately comes to mind. The art in Freak Legion was pretty weird.
24th - Most Complicated RPG Owned
I think I still have a copy of 2E Shadowrun. Loved the setting, couldn't grok the rules.
25th - Favourite RPG no one else wants to play
4E D&D. I still like a lot of the elements of it.
26th - Coolest character sheet
I made one once :)
27th - Game You’d like to see a new / improved edition of…
I don't want to buy a new game anytime soon, I've got too many to play already. That said, a stripped down version of D&D 4E that allowed me to use some of the books I already have would be great.
28th - Scariest Game you’ve played
Honestly the only time I've ever been scared in a game was in a D&D game when we went into the faerie realm. I read lots of folklore, I knew to be scared.
29th - Most memorable encounter
As a player, I still remember the time Eodrid finally took out the evil wizard that had been terrorizing the town. With his custom spell Prismatic Arrow.
30th - Rarest RPG Owned
31st - Favourite RPG of all time
Dungeons and Dragons.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


D&D got me interested in history at a young age, and I love running quasi-historical campaigns. I say quasi-historical because I like including lots of folklore, and I'm not trying to run something 100% historically accurate, because that's too much to keep track of and nobody would really care anyway.

I ran a Celtic game based heavily off the Slaine comics and their vision of prehistoric Britain. At one point the group time-travelled to sub-Roman Wales and joined Arthur and some of his knights (notably not Lancelot, who was a later invention) against Mordred, even killing the traitor themselves. I looked up a lot of Welsh mythology, including the oldest Arthur legends. They have been added to so much over the years that the original legends are vastly different.

Anyway, I recently remembered the Russian storm god Perun and decided to look him up. Turns out he's THE good god of the mythology. He takes the form of an eagle and sits on an oak that connects the whole world. He wields thunder and lightning as weapons, and is the lord of sky and war. He's like Zeus and Thor in one god. In the roots of the above oak tree is Volos, a horned serpentine being who gnaws at the tree and is frequently put in his place by Perun. He is also the god of the underworld, wealth, magic, and music. So he's Hades and Loki, not all evil but associated with a lot of dark things. I thought that was a great simple mythology for a game world.

The idea took root. I'd love to play a setting that was more Russian/Slavic influenced than the typical Western European-style medieval world. I tend to go towards Britain-style fantasy, but that always leads me to a more primitive Celtic world. That's just where my mental rails go. There's lots of cool medieval weirdness that's associated with a later time period, and I could mix that with a Slavic setting and keep the pagan bits, because that area converted fairly late, around the 8th-11th century. That's also when the viking were ravaging Europe, including parts of Russia (the name actually comes from the word "Rus", used to describe the foreign pirates--they became the ruling class).

Koschei the Deathless, warrior lich
So here's broad strokes: Russian and Eastern European legends, dark forests and mountains, vampires and werewolves, a christian-style church that's mostly popular with the nobility, peasants who pay lip service to the church while still honoring the old ways openly, any elements of medieval life and folklore I can shoehorn in. I'm not even sure about system, I'd love to do more Dungeon World but its got so much flavor built into the classes that sometimes it doesn't fit a setting. I'm a little over D&D on the other hand, and people tend to bring their system assumptions with them.

I spoke recently that a setting needs to be compelling. It has to draw the characters into adventure. I'm thinking using 13th Age's icons as inspiration, and coming up with several powerful characters that can influence the setting. The Midgard setting from Kobold Press has articles on icons for that setting, including the Baba Yaga. I'll use that for some inspiration. 

Baba Yaga, making a skull lantern
Influences--Hellboy, Dracula, Slavic mythology, Vampire (Tzimisce, Nosferatu), Werewolf (Silver Fangs, Shadow Lords), Midgard setting, Ravenloft setting (Barovia, Vistani), Hemlock grove, Codex Slavorum (not out yet!), Stravinsky

Characters/Monsters--Baba Yaga, vampires, werewolves, gypsies, Koschei the deathless, firebird, zmey (dragon), domovoi (house spirit), likho (bad luck goblin), vodyanoy and rusalka (mermen and women)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Overthinking & Observations

Random thoughts:

There are lots of things I don't like about D&D, but its still my favorite game.

I go with generic too often, I should go for specific, stylized, or even silly. Reading more will help with this. My next cleric NPC is going to be like one of the priests in Cornwell's Agincourt book--a rude soldier who praises god while demeaning his enemies, who lazily makes the sign of the cross while drinking ale.

I need ideas I get excited about, so I get excited while running the game, so the game is more fun and energetic.

A panel I saw at Dragon Con got me excited about world building. One thing I took away was that cause and effect is the biggest contributor to making the world seem realistic and alive. One thing from reading some good historical fiction lately is that its all the interactions between people that make the world interesting. Again, I tend to go for a generic feel sometimes, but a viking chief that stands out is more compelling than trying to represent an accurate depiction of a typical viking chief.

That word COMPELLING. Setting should be. NPCs should be. Adventures should be.

Another panel about the Cthulhu Mythos and gaming reminded me to put more weird shit in my games. I flipped through Monte Cook's Chaositech book, the Wyrm stuff from Werewolf: the Apocalypse would work too.

By the way, Lovecraft was a huge racist. Visionary horror/sci-fi author, but a horrible man in that regard.

I saw Monte Cook twice, was able to speak to him briefly too. I was a big Monte Cook fanboy during 3E, I played Arcana Evolved and Call of Cthulhu d20, and I've tried running Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil twice (I think I need to strip it down to play it--I like the Celtic twist I had for it a while back).

I also saw Tracy Hickman, who's most known for Dragonlance but also helped write I6: Castle Ravenloft, my favorite adventure of ever. Also met Kenneth Hite, who wrote the Qelong adventure I'd still like to run (and also helped write Call of Cthulhu d20).

I went to the D&D Trivia event at Dragon Con, and ended up winning. I feel super nerdy for accomplishing this, and then I feel bad for being ashamed of my geekiness.

I went to an Irish pub with my wife during the Con and ended up sitting next to two other guys who had also just come from the world building panel. We talked about D&D games over beers and food, that was a cool experience.

Speaking of my wife, we make a good barbarian couple.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

#RPGaDay, part 1-13

...or like, a couple times a month.

I kept getting confused why the RPGA was having a Day, and why it seemed to happen multiple days. I can be kind of thick sometimes.

I'm no good at blogging regularly, so here's short answers for the month so far.

1st - First RPG Played
Still torn between Fianna and Shadow Lords
The D&D Red Box had a solo adventure I played in middle school. I think the first time somebody else actually ran a game I played in was Werewolf: The Apocalypse in high school.
2nd - First RPG Gamemastered
D&D Red Box, probably for family members.
3rd - First RPG Purchased
With my own money? Either some D&D 2E supplement or Werewolf.
4th - Most recent RPG purchase
I just bought some DCC adventures. They're awesome.
5th - Most Old School RPG owned
Wow...Hulks & Horrors? There's so many retro-clones its hard to say.
6th - Favourite RPG Never get to play
I didn't get to play much 4E D&D, and there were some awesome character concepts I wanted to try.
7th - Most “intellectual” RPG owned
Mage: the Ascension. Every spell is a philosophy discussion.
Warp drive is created by space slugs having
sex, but not if anyone's watching.
8th - Favourite character
Eodrid, the Grey Elf Oracle of Pelor.
9th - Favourite Die / Dice Set
I'm playing more dungeon world, so my d6's with cthulhu symbols for "ones" are neat.
10th - Favourite tie-in Novel / Game Fiction
I've never much cared for official rpg fiction, though the Warhammer 40k stuff interests me a bit. I'd rather read the "Appendix N" books that inspired the game to begin with, and historical/pseudo-historical fiction for inspiration.
11th - Weirdest RPG owned
HOL, or the homebrew game system where I played a Werewombatman.
12th - Old RPG you still play / read
Marvel Super Heroes. Its a surprisingly elegant system, and by far the best superhero rpg I've come across.
13th - Most Memorable Character Death
The first one that comes to mind (which by definition makes it the most memorable) was my Storm Cleric facing down a dragon in D&D Encounters. I was low on hit points already when I saw my chance to take him down. I turned to my fellow adventurers and said, "Gentlemen, its been an honor and a privelege." Then I charged with my spear.

I want to play. Lets play.

I came across this post from Robert J. Schwalb that discussed his relationship to D&D. My main takeaway is this bit:

So with all that love, I’m left wondering what the problem is. In suspect it’s that for the last 15 years or so, the most important part of the game has not been playing but rather creating for it. Character creation used to be something you had to do before you could have the fun. The mechanics were the necessary evil, the gauntlet you had to run. In recent years, the fun has moved from the time you spent at the table to the time you spend thinking about the table. Sure, back in the old days, I made plenty of characters for games I played and games I wanted to play but never really did. It was just like doing math problems. They had solutions. You just had to roll the dice, make the choices, and plug the information into the sheet. But hasn’t been that way for a while.

It seems the fun for many is in putting the different pieces together to create something new. Clever play now occurs in isolation. The player earns the greatest reward not from having a good idea at the table or thinking to look behind the wardrobe and finding a magic item, but from the discovery of a winning combination of mechanics, the perfect marriage of two spells, skill and feat, class feature and widget. The pleasure comes from realizing the broken combination and from putting the mechanical abomination into play. No delight is sweeter than that which is experienced by watching the expressions of those who must bear witness to your creative horror. Does it matter that the loophole makes the game unplayable? Does it matter that such shenanigans immediately put the beleaguered Dungeon Master on the defensive, to the point that he or she flails because the game no longer seems to work? Not at all. Why? Because the game wants you to break it. It begs for you to dig in and explore the options. The endless parade of new mechanics demand you to pick them up, peer at them in the light, and plug them in. It’s a game made for the tinkerers. Oh, you just want to play? Well, you’ll need these ten books, this character generation tool, and on and on and on.

The prize for being the best player goes not to the creative mind, the cunning tactician, the burgeoning actor, but to the best mathematician. Perhaps this was the way it was doomed to go. The seeds were there all along. The mechanical-minded played spellcasters—who dominated—while the rest plodded along with fighters. As the game evolved, it was no longer sufficient for the fighter to become more accurate or to attack more often: the fighter had to do things beyond swing a sword or loose an arrow from a bow. The game needed rules for every situation, for every scenario, and with each new rule came a new exploit, a new opportunity to bend the game into something terrifying.

This is what I mean when I say I have a different play style than a lot of gamers I meet. I want to play more than create. I love world building, but I've discovered I'd rather have some cool ideas to fill in questions as they come up in play, rather than a completely detailed setting like an encyclopedia. By the same token, I only care about what your character does in the session, not his backstory. Dungeon World has taught me a lot about how to integrate this into the game as you play. Asking a few questions here and there helps flesh out a character very naturally.

I've said it before, it only matters if it comes up in play.