Pathfinder Adventure Cardgame

For a guy who ostensibly thinks dungeon-crawling is stupid, I sure have played a lot of games in that genre of late. The latest is Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game, a cooperative game from Paizo Publishing, and it’s not bad.

The game is a quite faithful port of the Pathfinder/D&D3 roleplaying experience, minus the actual roleplaying (which is traditionally optional anyway). You’ve got a character with strength, dexterity, wisdom, and so on, each rated as a die size (d4, d6, d8, etc., but ironically not a d20). Encounters (which can be monsters, barriers, allies, treasures) have a target number which you need to beat to successfully navigate. You can play cards from your character’s personalized deck and use your inherent special powers to boost your skills, and occasionally your allies can help you. Track down and kill the episode’s Villain, usually cutting a swathe through his or her Henchpeople on the way, and you win. After the game, you can rebuild your character’s deck using cards you’ve acquired during the adventure to make him or her more potent next time.

The mechanics of this are simple and nicely done, but not particularly noteworthy. What I think is interesting is looking at how the game approaches the question of how to balance narrative scripting against gameplay variability.

Cooperative games usually need to provide some kind of narrative experience to be successful; they can’t just be intellectual puzzles. There are obviously a lot of ways to do this, but the general idea is to give the series of challenges the players must overcome (and rewards they receive for doing so) some sort of structure designed to engage them. This can be entirely narrative, with the challenges having some attached title or flavor text which is read aloud with the story becoming emergent as the texts are read (as long as they are coherent enough that players can improvise logical connections). Or the structure can be much more constructed and explicit, with challenges and rewards designed and ordered to produce an intended overall emotional story arc.

Examples of games which use the first idea are easy to find; successful examples include Robinson Crusoe, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Ghost Stories (or Arkham Horror, Shadows over Camelot, or Defenders of the Realm, if you consider those games good). You have a huge supply of little storylets, which are pulled out more or less randomly and translated into game-mechanics form. A windstorm hits (reducing your shelter level), your lack of Courtly Graces offends the nobility (and you become Scorned), or whatever. As they are read they form a timeline you can create a story out of.

This has the gameplay advantage of making the tasks you are facing varied and unpredictable, and differ greatly from game to game. It also allows the players to do their own storytelling when the events remain within the bounds of the somewhat plausible. The huge disadvantage, as anyone who has a basic understanding of literature or music will tell you, is that we have a pretty good understanding of how compelling narratives are built, and this is most definitely not it. Stories have build-up, carefully managed cycles of tension and resolution, anticipation, and suspense. None of which you can reliably do if you’re just pulling random storylets.

Still, I think there is nothing inherently wrong with this way of doing things. For example, while Nuclear War or Fluxx aren’t particular good games by 2014 standards, they do have delightful anti-establishment or satirical aesthetics that are both completely coherent and tied up with their total randomness (and, it bears mentioning, their brevity). Or a game like Once Upon a Time, where the players’ attempts to create signal out of noise and find ways to creatively link events is what the game is. So clearly it’s possible to do great work this way. But it’s also an easy and unfortunate default pattern when a designer is unskilled, or when a game doesn’t have a strong creative vision or anything particular to say. If you look at a big and intricate game like Battlestar Galactica, where the fictional world it’s designed to emulate has a clear authorial style, it’s hard to see the merit in having the players interact with a simple, random, unstructured throughline.

The opposite end of the spectrum is Knizia’s highly structured Lord of the Rings. Here, the story events and the challenges associated with them are laid out in a strict order. You’re going through Rivendell to Moria to Rohan, and that’s all there is to it. You face the same challenges (and narrative elements) in the same order each game. There is this still quite a lot of randomness in the timing of the events and resource flows, as random draws from a bag of tiles trigger various game elements, but the story events that drive the narrative are scripted.

This strong structure gives the gameplay itself the ebb and flow required to make the story engaging. The designer can directly tweak and manage the flow of challenges and rewards to manipulate the moment-to-moment game tension, hopefully giving us both high-tension action scenes and rewarding us with moments of rest and refresh after we get through. This can, when well executed, give us a far more visceral engagement with the game because it goes after our emotions very directly. Pandemic does the same thing: the structured way the decks are manipulated (pre-stacking the player deck, the stacking and re-stacking of the infection deck) alternates high-risk and high-tension periods where you are firefighting crises with lower-risk infrastructure-building and research-gathering periods.

Even though for all these reasons I think of the structured narrative as “the right way” and the random event firehose as “the wrong way”, in truth it’s a continuum and structure is certainly not an end in and of itself. The goal is to modulate the players’ sense or risk, to feed the dread of anticipation and allow the relief and accomplishment of a challenge faced down, and that requires both a degree of predictability as well as significant risk and therefore uncertainty. Clearly you can go too far in trying to organize your narrative – making the story predictable and boring – just as you can make a game too random and disjointed. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that Britannia, for example, is too well-organized and that it needs more uncertainty to maintain tension. My experience though is that cooperative or narrative-driven games almost never err on the side of being too structured.

The interesting thing about Pathfinder is that from the long view it resembles classic, unstructured, firehose-driven games. You have a box containing a very large number of cards that the characters can encounter, and you randomly pull some of them out and deal them into piles at different locations to explore. When you explore, you just draw a card from a location deck and do what it says, with perhaps minor assistance from the other players. The Villain is dealt into one of these piles at random and you just need to plow through the decks to hunt him down. If your goal is hunting the bad guy, there are no percentages in going to the Apothecary before you hit the Treacherous Cave; the Villain is equally likely to be anywhere. It’s eerily similar to Arkham Horror’s “go to a location and random stuff happens for no particular reason”.

But Pathfinder combines straightforward gameplay with just enough structure to make decision-making and task allocation interesting and have a real but measured sense of risk. Each location has a clearly specified mix of cards that go into the deck: monsters, barriers, weapons, armor, spells, items, and allies. The mix is listed on the top of the location card, where you can always look at it and know what you’re getting in to. So unlike in Arkham Horror, when you go to a location you have a pretty clear idea of what you might get out of it and which character is best suited for the challenges it might present (the Thief for the location with the barriers, the Fighter for the place with the monsters, the Sorcerer for the place with the allies). Still, while the Fighter may be the best person to take on the monsters in the Desecrated Vault, there is still usually the possibility that he’ll run into a barrier or trap that’ll hose him, so there is almost always still some risk. And there are balancing factors; maybe you really need to find a better a weapon, so a trip to the Garrison is worth the risk of facing monsters. More likely, you don’t have a character who is ideally suited to exploring a location, but someone has to do it, so you need to figure out who is going to sign up for the increased risk (because you always have to face the card you draw, teaming up is actually not particularly useful). Additionally, once locations have been cleared of Henchpeople, they need to be “closed”, secured against the Villain’s return. This involves another test, and the character best suited to exploring the location may well not be ideally suited to closing it. Opportunities to close a location are infrequent and valuable and you want someone who is able to do it there when the opportunity presents itself, which is another matter of risk management. This all adds up to a significant amount of nuance and randomness, but because the general contours are spelled out and what needs to be done is clear, it’s interestingly tractable. You always know what you need to do to make forward progress, and you can make judgements about risk and reward that can pay off or not.

However, what this structure doesn’t do is give you any overall sense of pacing or drive. Some locations are more dangerous than others (sometimes significantly so, often not), but the game never modulates its moment-to-moment tension. You’re never forced to run the gauntlet before you want to or go into panic defense mode, nor are you given a moment of respite to recover and gear up after facing something particularly dangerous. Pathfinder’s time pressure is just a 30-turn clock you need to beat – an arbitrary, inorganic limit. Compare to Pandemic, with its beautifully organic ebbing and flowing threat and pressure, where you need to win before the diseases do. By comparison, Pathfinder just has a time limit because if it didn’t there would be no game. Given Pathfinder’s source material this is fine, time just isn’t a dimension of traditional D&D stories; for structural reasons D&D-style RPGs in general have a difficult time managing time as a storytelling pressure. But this is a boardgame, not an RPG, and there is no need to be bound by a stricture of the original format.

Interestingly for a game that lacks any kind of strong overarching narrative, Pathfinder eschews any sort of explicit textual elements. Cards have illustrations and more or less descriptive titles but no flavor text. There are no “event” cards which add dramatic twists or change the rules or environment. The only real explanation of what you’re trying to accomplish comes up front, when you select the adventure to go on and get a few perfunctory sentences of flavor on the card that also outlines the locations, Villains, and Henchpeople involved (location cards also have some static descriptions, but they are in practice invisible because they’re on the back of the card). This makes the experience somewhat generic. The box says it’s the “Rise of the Runelords Base Set”, with the “Rise of the Runelords” being the long-form adventure arc which wends its way through the base game and 5 expansions. But there is no sense that this is taking place in anything other than just a generic D&D fantasy world. If the premise of the story is that there are Runelords and they are rising, the game doesn’t exactly go out of its way to fill you in on what’s up with that.

What this long arc does capture, though, is very distinctively D&D: the slow, grinding out of improvements to your character and his or her equipment. You wade through monsters and challenges and maybe you’ll find a longsword to replace your short sword. The upgrades to your character and availability of new cards to add your deck are sporadic; after four games, you may have a better weapon or one more spell, or you may have basically the same deck you started with and one minor skill improvement. After you make it all the way through all the adventures your character will have accomplished quite a bit in the end, but that will be a lot of hours of gaming and the rewards for risking death each time out are very incremental. That’s fine, it’s the D&D tradition, but in the context of a boardgame it feels wrong. If this is the route we’re going to go, I’d like more intense pacing. Personally, I’d much rather have multiple, complete 6-episode arcs which have a quick pace and you can play a character through and then move on to the next story with a fresh character. The 36-episode monster arc just seems like a huge time sink. This feels to me like a back-port from MMORPGs, and not really appropriate for a boardgames.

Still, when all is taken into account I do like Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords well enough. The pacing of the long adventure arc is probably too slack to keep me interested for that long, but the individual adventures are playable, quick, simple, and are structured well enough to provide both meaningful decisions and some tension. It’s certainly not in the same league as Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic, or Lord of the Rings, but you can’t play those games all the time and some of them require a significant energy investment while Pathfinder is more lightweight. Besides, D&D is more than a game now, it’s become something of a cultural touchstone. While the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game may not exactly be a work of game design brilliance, it is a workmanlike game that has a huge weight of tradition behind it.

D&D, 4th Edition

The Fourth Edition of D&D has been out for oh, about a year now, so maybe it’s about time I got around to saying a few words about it.

4E is a major overhaul of D&D 3(.5), a system that was in desperate need of something along those lines. I had gotten to the point after 5 years or so of off-again, on-again D&D 3 that I simply didn’t want to play it anymore (I might make an exception for Monte Cook’s Ptolus). I like several d20 systems – Arcana Evolved particularly,  also Star Wars d20, but I had come to loathe D&D: the abusive feat combos, the broken weaponry, the endless puzzling over vaguely-worded spells, the ludicrously unbalanced classes with limited development choices, the power-gaming, the endless splatbooks, the incompetent low-level characters, the classic vaguely-Tolkienesque fantasy archetypes that had all the life sucked out of them. It was an incredible mess, and a sinkhole that I honestly just didn’t enjoy and didn’t want to get involved with again.

So, I was relieved to see that 4E tackled head-on many of the problems I had with 3E. Character abilities have been streamlined and the system complexity greatly reduced. A wider variety of fantasy archetypes can be played in 4E, some (some) life has been breathed back into the stale races and classes, and parties have greater latitude in composition instead of being forced to have a Cleric, a Fighter, a Wizard, and whoever else wants to come along. Non-mainline character classes like Paladins, Rangers and Warlocks are much more interesting, can be developed in a range of ways, and feel like core game elements instead of the bolted-on additions they  have been in all previous editions (I was able to play a decidedly ambiguous Paladin devoted to the Raven Queen as one of my characters). 1st level characters are much more robust and competent. While the emphasis in D&D remains monster-slaying, the new system of skill points and broader skills (Spot and Listen reduced to Perception; Climb, Jump, and Swim to Athletics; a bunch of stuff to Thievery; etc.) allow characters to be good at a variety of things and widens the range of challenges the DM can throw at them. Also, because all characters abilities have now been framed in similar ways (at-will powers, daily powers, and encounter powers), all character classes have interesting choices about when to unleash their powerful strikes, instead of having Wizards pore over their spell lists every round while Fighters just try to guess how much to Power Attack for. Also, as magic users now have decent at-will powers, they no longer have to worry about being completely useless after they’ve exhausted their few, precious spell slots.

All in all, I’ve been pleased with how 4E plays. It’s cleaner, quicker, and appears better-balanced. While it’s clearly aimed at players more interested in the violence than the roleplaying, it’s full of good tips and helpful, if basic, roleplaying cues. Monsters are now easier to run for the GM without sacrificing much in terms of tactical interest, which is a big win. I no longer feel particularly drawn to D&D as a genre; I like Arcana Evolved much better as fantasy, Star Wars Saga Edition does the whole heroic angle better, and I’ve been recently been drawn to the Gumshoe system (Trail of Cthulhu and Mutant City Blues) for investigative-type games. But D&D is an institution, bad D&D particularly so, and 4E does a good job of trying to make it relevant again.

Which brings me to the thing I find most odd about D&D 4E. The one complaint I’ve heard often about 4E is that it’s not D&D anymore, it’s trying to morph D&D into World of Warcraft. Which is an odd argument to make, given that World of Warcraft is basically ripped off from D&D, from what I understand of it. To me, this seems beside the point. 4E is a cleaner system, which takes D&D 3.5, in which perhaps 90% of a character’s abilities were devoted either to killing things or avoiding being killed by things, and brings the number down to maybe 80%. How many times have you been in a D&D game only to realize that none of your characters have any social skills because everyone has mini-maxed their Charisma down to 8 (Charisma being a generally worthless stat) and has too few skill points to focus on anything other than one or two core skills? 4E makes this scenario much less likely, and while most of your powers will involve killing things and taking their stuff, it’s much less likely that your party will be powerless in the face of a slightly uncooperative NPC or a moderately steep slope.

I think the World of Warcraft complaint is based not so much on the system itself, but the fact that Wizards seems to be going with a decidedly retro angle to marketing D&D 4. Despite having developed a pretty good game system, they seem to be trying to go back to the days of AD&D in terms of game sophistication, which just happens to be about where World of Warcraft is. The off-the-shelf modules seem like absolutely classic bad D&D: dungeon hack-fests with random traps to give the Thief’s life meaning and NPCs that are designed either to read exposition or to be killed. Good grief. Maybe this is what players like; but for me, not so much. I’m not into the extremes of “palace intrigue” or “cooperative storytelling” styles of roleplaying either, but I like some variety: a little humor, mystery, or intrigue between the bloodletting, some drama, some pacing. The same things I like in my boardgames. Not just clearing the room, then wondering what’s going to be in the next room, and whether or not we should take a break to allow our encounter powers to reset. D&D is a much more flexible game system than this. Trail of Cthulhu has Pulp and Purist, and Paranoia has Classic, Straight, and Zap, all to help try to support different players who have different expectations. Even closer to home, the Star Wars Saga Edition has really had a quite brilliant strategy in focussing on providing sourcebooks for different periods in the Star Wars Universe (Clone Wars, Classic Trilogy, Knights of the Old Republic, Scum and Villainy) with very different flavors and styles for different players. 4E could really use something along these lines so that those who are into the whole straight dungeon-crawling experience could be happy at the same time as those of us who aren’t. Maybe it’s there, but if it is, Wizards’ marketing isn’t doing a good job of telling me about it.

Anyway, I like 4E. The core of 4E is a good game system that tries to make things much more playable, characters more competent with a wider variety of abilities and more development choices. The Players’ Handbook II further develops the system with some great new classes and races that D&D desperately needs; it would be fun to play a party of characters drawn solely from the decidedly non-Tolkienesque races and classes in the PHB II, just to get some real variety. There is definitely a good game here. I’m just waiting for Wizards to support players like me before I get much farther into it.

Origins Report – RPGs

Although Kim and I are primarily board gamers, over the past few years the focus of Origins has slowly been shifting to RPGs for us. The good reasons are that we’ve found a group (Amorphous Blob) that generally runs events that we really enjoy and because as we’ve become more experienced we’re enjoying the RPGs more. The unfortunate reason is that the situation with board games (wargames in particular) has been slipping a bit.

This year I had signed up for a record for me of 14 hours of RPGs: two D&D events, one Arcana Unearthed, and one Paranoia. Due to my illness, I was only able to make it to one of the two D&D games and the AU, and was really only able to fully participate in the AU.

P6300034The AU game was the personal highlight of my shortened con, though, as it was being run by Monte Cook, the designer. The adventure he ran was a heavily modified version of The Severed Oath, a module available on his web site. The theme remained similar, and it used the same characters, although the details were altered enough to make it unrecognizable. I played the Mojh Mage Blade Karzagedaren. Kim played the Giant Champion of Life Tor-Gerren.

I had a little trouble working with the Karzagedaren character – he was supposed to be a strong-willed, impatient warrior – but I found it hard to find his zen. I, like others I’ve talked too, have been drawn to the Mage Blade class because it’s the sort of spell-slinging warrior you always wanted but just flat-out can’t do in D&D. But I actually wonder if it’s one of the weaker classes in AU from a roleplaying perspective. Compared to the wonderfully thematic Akashic, Greenbond, Oathsworn, Unfettered, and Champion (just to pick a few) with their easy roleplaying hooks, the Mage Blade is a little generic.

Kim had better luck with her Giant character – Tor-Gerren was a noble sort and had some good roleplaying tie-ins in the adventure, so she was able to really get into the character. It helped that she was devastating in combat, as she had enough Giant racial levels to become Large, which means a longer reach and bigger, more damaging weapons. Of course, when it came to time to sneak around a bit, that’s a bit hard to do when you’re 12 feet tall and wearing Full Plate. And the 20 foot movement was kind of a bummer.

I had a good time with this, and it was a pleasure to meet with Monte Cook (and get him to sign our Arcana Evolved book!). He also introduced us to Tact-Tiles, which are a great alternative to the traditional battle mat. He has his own writeup of Origins on his website, which is a good read.

My other event was a D&D adventure from Amorphous Blob, which was more in the roleplaying/humor vein. A Wizard hires the party (which is all 12th level – I was a Ranger 8/Arcane Archer 4) to rid him of a pesky dragon that has taken up residence in the mountain next door. However, the more the party delves into the problem, the more things are not as they seem. For one, there are large numbers of demons wandering around for some reason. It turns out that this is more in the way of a suburban squabble over a fence than anything else, and the Wizard (who might be a weasel) may have summoned a high-level Demon Prince from the Abyss to kill the Dragon, but there was a miscalculation of size which left the huge demon bound and trapped in a tiny room from which he could not escape, but the gate to the abyss was jammed open, letting smaller demons through. The party had to sort out this mess, eventually convincing the Dragon and Wizard to make up and combine their might to seal the gate and unsummon the Demon.

This was an amusing and very entertaining adventure, and I had the opportunity to play with some very good roleplayers who really got into it. I think there was all of about 1 combat sequence which lasted only a few minutes (it was amusing too … we had to take down two Demons, so all the spellcasters in the party just took a couple rounds to pour every enhancement spell in their arsenal into our Dwarven Warrior, who then single-handedly ran screaming towards them and took them out with a few quick axe blows).

I had to bail on the Paranoia game unfortunately, but Kim played and had a very good time, so she’ll be running a session or two for our local buddies sometime soon.

I didn’t buy any new RPG books at Origins, as GenCon is where most of the new RPGs get debuted it seems, but I did pick up a set of Tact-Tiles, and I added to my collection of Iron Wind Metal’s Arcana Unearthed figures a few minis appropriate for my current game. Iron Heroes, the next “Variant Player’s Handbook” from Malhavoc (Monte Cook’s label) which will be released later this month, looks extremely promising and might be something to move on to in a year or two. But for the moment, between Arcana Unearthed, Paranoia, and D&D, I’m pretty much set.

D&D: Sidrea 8 – The Ghostwoods

There has been a break in my coverage of our D&D games, for various reasons. So I’ll keep the transitionary update simple:

It appears vast forces of evil are conspiring to dominate the world. Ancient powers of dubious reputation are marshalling. They seem to be mostly snakes, or at least reptiles. This evil has cursed the party with a disease that will eventually turn us into Yuan-Ti, reptile-like servants of an evil god. That’s bad.

The party has also gained and lost some of the various NPC hangers-on that have been following us around. Tadira, the researcher who hired us in the first adventure, met a grisly death along with her dwarf hireling Honier. On the other hand, we’ve picked up Larkel, an Elven noble from the Isle of the Rose, who seems to be insane. Or at least somewhat nuts.

Lastly, Amathyya, half-elf and major NPC hanger-on, has been revealed to be the hier to the throne of Rondor and the Isle of the Rose. In Sidrea, the Elves have a long history of oppression at the hands of the Humans, so my character (Haethyr, an Elf) doesn’t have much enthusiasm for uniting Rondor, a very large human kingdom currently in Civil War after the death of Amathyya’s father, a brutal despot, with the Isle of the Rose, a peaceful stable, and small kingdom dominated by Elves, and the only place in Sidrea where Elves aren’t oppressed.

Anyway. None of this bears much on the adventure we are about to embark on, but I offer it up as background.

In order to escape the last adventure, the party needed to make a deal with Larkel to help him get to the heart of the Ghostwoods, the ruins of an ancient Elven city. So off we go.

The forest is protected by Ent-like living trees. Fortunately, on a tip from Larkel, the party coats themselves with some living-tree-repellant root, which prevents them from detecting us. The pursuing guards are not so fortunate, and get whomped. I guess that’s why this area has been largely undisturbed.

The second tier of guardians are a batch of Shades. Zerkestor, mighty cleric of Zerthunor, blasts them. I’ve always had a fundamental dislike of almost everything about the cleric class in D&D, which after committing to including religion in the game then turns around and reduces it to cure spells and whacking stuff with a mace, but the whole turning undead thing is particularly annoying. It’s got its own lookup chart, it’s incredibly inelegant, and it tends to reduce encounters to an either/or of rolling high enough to blow them away, or rolling poorly and having little effect. It’s just not interesting, and it’s also thematically weak, a holdover from the cross vs. vampires thing, which makes little sense anymore.

Continuing along, we meet some friendly pixies. They warn of traps. We add it to the checklist. Berek sings them a Dwarven drinking song, and So’yoko tells them a joke: “A dwarf, and elf, and a pixie go into a bar …”. They are amused by this and give us a gift. This was a nice roleplaying encounter.

Somewhere in here there was an encounter with some more guardians – air elementals of some kind, ancient guardians of the city – that wasn’t particularly memorable.

We finally make it to the Elven city. It appears that long ago they were assaulted by a plague created by someone or something to destroy the elves. Three sisters, high-ranking in the city, tried to perform a magic ritual to cleanse the city, but two of the sisters subverted the ritual for reasons unknown and fled to the swamp north of here. We are told that Amathyya has the power to undo this damage, and cure our own curse-related issues into the bargain, if we can retrieve a magical harp from the swamps to the north.

That sounds like a good idea.

So off we go again. The swaps are large, so we’re trying to figure out how we are going to search them all. Haethyr sends his Owl familiar up to have a look, and the DM tells us there are caves. Caves you say? OK, we’ll check them out. They turn out to be inhabited by Trolls. 4 Trolls, actually.

Trolls are really nasty. They’re big, they’re strong, the regenerate. Haethyr is only packing one fireball today. As they come charging out of the cave to engage us, Berek – valiant fighter he is – blocks the corridor. With subsequent enhancement by Enlarge, Haste, Circle of Protection from Evil, and Shield of Faith, then his own Combat Expertise, he turns into an Armor Class 30 monster. Despite Haethyr’s screams that we should retreat and regroup until tomorrow, when he can take 3 Fireballs and make comparatively short work of them, Berek continues to hack his way through the Trolls. Assisted by Scorching Rays from Haethyr and So’yoko, and plenty of cures from Zerkestor, Berek just barely manages to hang in there as the last Troll is felled, albeit not without being knocked unconscious a couple times and bailed out by Zerkestor.

Hopefully the harp is in there. We’ll find out next time.

This was an interesting and fun module, with some nice roleplaying encounters (the pixies, the elves), and the knock-down drag-out fight with the Trolls at the end; but it still was a classic railroad job – players go to point A. NPC gives them some information, tells them to go to point B. At point B, another NPC tells them to go to point C and do D, then return to point B. The players don’t get any real feeling of freedom. It’s not bad to have some more straightforward adventures occasionally, but in the main you want at least the illusion of control. The GM has said a number of times that this series is inspired by Babylon 5, and I think this is a critical hazard when using books or movies or TV shows as your primary inspiration for RPGs. Stories have their own set of narrative rules, which are driven by drama, while a game has very different requirements. When Tolkien wrote the riddle at Moria’s East Gate in Fellowship of the Ring, he didn’t have to worry about what would happen if the characters blew their Lore skill checks and failed, or if the players didn’t quite understand something, perhaps because the GM forgot or didn’t present it clearly, and so the players didn’t get it. In a game, the players have to have the freedom to make choices, even poor ones, and even to fail sometimes; in Sidrea, it’s often been obvious that anything but complete success simply isn’t an option, because if we didn’t succeed the whole story arc would be over. Telling an interesting story is a critically important element of RPGs of course, but it has to be balanced against the needs of the game. Since these goals are often contradictory, that’s obviously tough.

Our GM also keeps a blog on our game, in which he covers events in much more detail. If you’re interested, you can find it here.

D&D: Sidrea

Fortunately, Dan (our DM) has started up his own blog with a summary of the events of relevance in Sidrea, so I will refer you to that for the blow-by-blow of our party’s adventures, and stick with some general overview and analysis.

This adventure ran much more smoothly for me than the last one. Kim pointed out to me that the stereotypical D&D adventure went through phases of being “in town”, i.e., gathering information, recovering, buying equipment, generally being “safe”, and then in the wild, actually adventuring (she brought this up because the bounty hunter tracking us last time made a point of confronting us outside the town, rather than in, say, a bar, which seemed to emphasize the pattern). I felt that we as a party struggled with the town portion last time, spending too much time on less-interesting activities. But things picked up quickly this time, as we actually found the tomb containing the lost artifact, bypassed the security system, battled hordes of various Undead, and escaped with zombies on our tail.

The artifact we recovered now causes some further problems. It is obviously of exceptional power, probably dating from a mythic time when gods roamed the earth. So do we hand it over to the archeologist, or keep it? We made a deal to turn it over, but we had no idea it was so powerful at the time. We are unsure of the archeologist’s motives, although we feel she is sincere. It’s almost certainly too powerful for low-level characters like us to be toting around. An interesting quandary, and one we had not yet resolved when the session broke up.

Our characters went up from 4th to 5th level after this session, which was good – 5th level is a big breakpoint for my Wizard, as he gets a big, area affect spell (Fireball) for the first time. It also reminded me just how broken certain elements of D&D are … for background reasons, my character is an Abjurer (Elves are somewhat oppressed by Humans in this world, so he wants to gain the power to protect himself and his people – think Melian or Galadriel). Unfortunately, from a gameplay perspective, most specialties other than Diviner or Evoker are designed for morons. Specializing has some restrictions as well as benefits, and the costs are the same whether you specialize in Abjurer (a comparatively weak school with only a few generally useful spells) or Evoker (the overwhelming majority of the combat spells). In D&D 3.0, specializing in powerful schools like Evoker was much more expensive in terms of what you had to give up – but now they’re all the same. Fairly odd that WotC would have gotten in right in 3.0, then broken things rather badly in 3.5. Unless you are playing in an unusual D&D campaign in which combat situations are the exception, any Wizard who doesn’t specialize in Evoker (or Diviner, which is the only school to have a slightly reduced cost associated with it) is an idiot.

D&D: Sidrea

After getting things off to a rolling start last session, the party made sporadic progress this time. We had two main things we were going to investigate: first tracking down an artifact on behalf of the archeologist, hopefully earning passage out of this enclosed valley; secondly, dealing with some bandits and/or vampires.

Before embarking on any of these objectives, we got a bit bogged down in purchasing equipment, perhaps not the most entertaining element of a D&D adventure. Haggling over a +5 Vorpal Weapon, OK, but time-consuming haggling over a 3GP mace and sleeping bags is not to my mind gaming at its finest. However, a tip: if a merchant all of a sudden offers you cold-wrought iron weapons somewhat randomly, buy them. One thing I’ve learned about D&D, there are so many kinds of damage reduction, you want to be prepared, and if the GM drops something specific on you it’s best to take heed. I also learned here that “cold iron” in fact refers to the process of forming it, not to the fact that it is kept refrigerated.

Anyway, after gearing up, we attempt to leave town. At this point, plot lines start to further proliferate, to the point that it starts getting hard to keep them straight. For starters, there is a bounty hunter out after the escaped slave Amathyya whom we have taken under our protection. We have a little parley with the bounty hunter, who is somewhat intractable and refuses a payoff. So we tell her to get lost, which she does – for the moment anyway – but it appears that Amathyya may bring us trouble. Amathyya also turns out to be a mid-level (3rd or so) Bard, with some useful skills. We discover a warrant out for the capture of some slave traders, who may or may not be the bandits who ambushed the archeologist’s party. There is some evidence that the whole Vampire story is bogus (as we suspected, not least for the unfortunate meta-game reason that even a low-level Vampire would be too much for our party to handle), but there is some other funky undead action going on here, with corpses spontaneously rising. Or so some locals of dubious credibility say. And there is a kid who wants to tag along, further increasing our entourage of hangers-on.

We choose to track the bandits (if you recall last time, we found some frozen corpses on the outskirts of town where the archaeologist’s party had been ambushed). We track them up the mountain, where we are ambushed by a demon of some description who had been teleported in, further complicating things (good thing we picked up those cold iron weapons), and then the party of bandits. The Demon takes some work to dispose of, but Berek and his spiked chain – once he’s been Enlarge Personed and Bull Strengthed – makes short work of the bandits, after some quick thinking by Zerkestor who puts up a Wall of Wind which blocks their arrow fire. The bandits do in fact turn out to be the slave traders. Then, in the finest D&D tradition, we loot the bodies, and call it a night.

I had two major observations after this session.

Firstly, I think we as a party need to be a little more focussed. We spent an hour or so just haggling over nickel-and-dime equipment and roleplaying interactions with shopkeepers. To me, this is not where the action is.

Secondly, I’m starting to think there are just too many things going on here. Any 2 of the currently active plot lines would make one full adventure, but we seem to have 4 or 5 (or more). More focus would be good. It does kind of remind me of the big jump from 80s American games to 90s European games, in which the euros pruned away all the chrome and excess from the American games to produce sleek, streamlined games that focussed on the good, interesting stuff, the real decision-making. I’ve commented before that I know that the toughest thing to do as a game designer is to throw good stuff away, but it’s frequently the best thing to make the other good stuff even better.

Part of all this is also that I haven’t quite figured out what I’m looking for in a good RPG. Certainly it’s not the tactical game of whacking bad guys, as I have plenty of games of this type that do a way better job than D&D. RPGs score generally of course in the much more open-ended problem solving, the opportunity for character development, and the just plain fun of trying to assume the personality of a more heroic character than we get to experience in everyday life. But I guess I’m still not quite sure exactly where the game is, for me personally. Once I figure it out, it will help me a lot.

D&D: Sidrea Kickoff

This was the official kickoff session for Dan’s new campaign world, Sidrea. The party includes Berek, the spiked-chain wielding human Fighter raised by dwarves; Dalrick, the Ranger-Barbarian who has a thing against goblins; Soyoko, the Wild Elf Sorcerer; Haeythir, the Grey Elven Wizard of mysterious purpose; and Zerkestor, the Cleric of Mighty Zethunor, who gets nervous around bad weather.

We have all been gathered together, without explanation, to learn at a rather mysterious college at a hidden location that trains the best and brightest of Sidrea for future greatness. The studies don’t go on for too long, though, before Soyoko starts having unsettling dreams about dark tentacles emerging from the earth – which, quite frankly, is never a good sign. The various staff don’t seem terribly concerned about this, although there is a general sense of dark portents. And then, before you know it, wham – creatures being gated in from the abyss, weresnakes of some description, and general mayhem. Taking some time out for Berek to demonstrate his mastery of killing lots of things with a big honking spiked chain, the party decides to let the 16th level Wizard handle the giant killing machines while we make our escape, guided by a letter from the Dean and aided by his parrot familiar. The letter instructs us to rendezvous at a particular location at some later date.

After stepping through the escape-teleporter, we find ourselves in a cave. It’s cold. There’s lots of ice. We seem to have left our winter clothes back in the dorm, so this is not so good. We find an escaped slave named Amathyya Calanor hiding here, a half-elf. Haeythir has a mysterious insight that she isn’t dangerous, so we help her out, heal her up, and she joins our party. We sneak past a sleeping bear, and she then guides us into town – although not before we discover some frozen corpses of Dwarves and Men.

On arrival in town, we find that we are in the middle of a valley in the mountains, and the way out is blocked until spring. Plus, the innkeeper seems to have a thing about garlic. Oh, yeah, the vampires. There is also a woman who would like us to acquire a lost heirloom of her family for her, since 4 of her party were just recently killed off – some Dwarves and Men, apparently. Having not much to do until the passes clear, and since she offers a guide for a shortcut out under the mountains, we take it under consideration, to begin again next time.

This was a nice adventure, Dan has done a lot of work on this setting and it showed in both the details and in the confidence with which he could GM the session, which is always important. It was still the “pilot episode” in some sense, in that there was a lot of setup but the characters didn’t get to actively do as much as is usually the case. But still, both Kim and I are looking forward to the next session.

Can I offer a suggestion for gamemasters? Seriously consider banning or altering the Spiked Chain. While the thing doesn’t appear abusive on first inspection, when combined with various feats (Power Attack particularly in 3.5, and also Whirlwind Attack and Combat Reflexes) and spells like Enlarge, I’ve really come to the conclusion that this weapon is grossly out of line. It’s a reach weapon that can attack adjacent at no penalty, it’s two-handed so the new power attack feat (which doubles the bonus for two handed weapons) allows it to do massive damage, and with enlarge and whirlwhind attack it becomes staggeringly abusive. And it’s only 5 GP more than a Rapier. It’s better than any other exotic weapon in every respect except maybe it’s critical threat range. Sorry guys, but they just plain screwed up this one.

This was also my first chance in a while to mess around with PCGen, the free tool for generating d20 PCs. I’ve always just used pencil and paper because generating PCs for D&D and such is really just not that involved. I must say that PCGen didn’t do much to sell me. Rule number one of software development: if you have one overwhelmingly common use case (like, say, generating low-level standard D&D characters using classes and races in the Player’s Handbook) make sure that one is easy. Generating new characters in PCGen is not easy, neither is leveling them up. Sure, it tracks a lot of stuff for you to make sure you don’t make mistakes, which is good, but it also requires you to track a lot of stuff in your head because information is so hard to get at and you can’t see a significant portion of your character at one time – you’ve to flip between some 6 or 8 different screens. All in all, I found it took 2-3 times as long to generate a character in PCGen as it did the old fashioned way, so I stopped. All that, and it’s still pretty easy to make mistakes.