Merric's Musings

Thoughts from an Australian Board Gamer and RPGer

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A busy few days

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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I’m currently fighting a cold that was creeping up on me through the past few days, so my ability to write is somewhat curtailed by my need for sleep.

It’s been a pretty hectic last few days, though. On Thursday, I played Power Grid and Strasbourg with my friends at Goodgames Ballarat – I won neither game, but both were very enjoyable. Then my car’s timing belt broke just as I was leaving to go home. 10 pm in Ballarat, needing to travel 30 km. This wasn’t good. I eventually took a fairly expensive taxi ride home. (Though worth it!)

On Friday, I spent the first part of the day getting rid of my old car – which was very, very old – then the second part of the day obtaining a new car. The people at Ballarat Toyota were very happy and by the end of the game, I was driving off in a brand new car. (I’ve been meaning to get one for the past six months; I was just forced into it by the breakdown).

Friday evening we played the second session of Lost Mine of Phandelver with my regular group. Everyone attended, and I’ll write a report on what happened as soon as I feel better.

Saturday afternoon I’d hoped to play some board games, but Goodgames was very busy due to both a Yu-Gi-Oh! Sneak peak and a Magic game day happening at the same time. Sigh. So, instead, I spent the afternoon revising my manuscript of Secrets of Neverwinter, the adventure I’ve written for this “gap” of D&D Encounters.

Then came D&D Encounters, and we had 31 players taking part. Five tables, most with five players + DM and one with six players + DM. Lee had a lot of fun with the Nothic prisoner I’d put in the adventure, who was pleading with the group (telepathically) to let it go. The session went fairly long – partly due a later start because of us waiting for the card tournaments to finish and partly because there seemed to be quite a bit of material in the adventure. It’s hard judging length when there are substantial role-playing segments!

So we were fairly late in getting to post-Encounters fun. Four tables stuck around, so we had one table of Rifts, one of D&D 5E, and two playing AD&D including my own. And I finally found a place in the campaign to stick Rob Kuntz’s Prisoners of the Maze series. That gave us 22 players in the post-Encounters games, including two players who weren’t in Encounters.

This coming week, we’ll finish off Secrets of Neverwinter, play some 5E, and possibly even get in a game of Fiasco.

It looks like we’ll continue running through all of Tyranny of Dragons; possibly the entire series in the Encounters spot (although we may have some extra-long sessions, depending on how people are enjoying it and how the DMs who run other games afterwards feel. The experienced players really want a shot at going through the entire thing.

We’ll likely still have a table of low-level games running even after we move out of the regular “encounters” levels. It may be a refuge to those who don’t like a particular story, as well as being the place to introduce new players.
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Mon Aug 11, 2014 6:46 am
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More information on the new Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set

Merric Blackman
Australia
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Victoria
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Mike Mearls has enlightened us a little more about the contents of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. And there’s a big surprise for people buying the set:

No character creation rules are in the D&D Starter Set!

Well, that’s not what I expected – or had inferred based on his previous posts. Mike has clarified that the Starter Set is aimed at Dungeon Masters, so given that it covers levels 1-5, it likely has a pregenerated adventure in the box. It definitely has pregenerated characters. But from where comes the idea that you’ll be able to create characters?

Here’s Mike’s original tweet:

Lots of questions about character creation and the starter set – you will definitely be able to make characters when it comes out.

And his follow-up:

To clear up the Starter Set – it’s aimed at DMs, so no PC creation in the box. But players will be able to make characters without it. For a DM running the starter set, there will be pregens to hand out. Players who want to make characters will be able to do so.

So, how does this work?

At this point, it seems clear that there will be some online option for creating characters. The theories are split between a character generator on the Wizards site and a System Reference Document of some kind. My own opinion leans towards both – the big question is whether or not they’ll be behind the pay wall or not.

Here’s Mike again:

You will be able to run a complete campaign starting in August, with the release of the PH.

So, there’s definitely going to be something online – DM Tools, Player Tools and perhaps more. Unfortunately, Wizards seem to be still working out the details, giving us this reply from Mike when we press for more details:

Sorry, we’re still finalizing things, but I think we have a pretty nifty plan.

Sigh.

However, I can definitely tell that Mike is excited about the new Starter Set. He says so himself:

Holding the Starter Set books in my hand. Gotta admit, this is the most excited I’ve ever been about a product I’ve worked on.

For a DM running the starter set, there will be pregens to hand out. Players who want to make characters will be able to do so.

Orion Cooper: would you recommend the starter set to an experienced DM and player?

Yes – it’ll be a good way to either kick off a campaign or run 8 to 10 sessions to get your feet under you with the rules


Unfortunately, Mike didn’t respond to Morrus’s request for pictures.

There are no rules for creating your own adventures in the Starter Kit. The DM material contains only a pregenerated adventure and rules for running it. Mike, again:

Me: Mike, does the starter set have rules for creating adventures, or is it just pre-written adventures in the book?

Just the pre-written adventure. Think of it like a set you could hand to a board gamer to make them into a new DM running D&D.

The stuff we haven’t talked about yet is where DMs and players go next – there’s a step between the Starter Set and the Big 3


The five pregenerated characters are very, very likely to be the same identities as those in the Starter miniature set – so:

* Dwarf Cleric
* Human Ranger
* Halfling Rogue
* Northlands (Human) Fighter
* Elf Wizard
(The Drizzt in the set would be just a bonus).

One other point: The 32-page player book contains rules for playing characters levels 1-5. Given how D&D works, it will probably contain the spell lists (or a portion thereof) for the Cleric, Ranger and Wizard. That’s levels 1-3 spells for the Cleric and Wizard, and level 1 & 2 spells for the Ranger, assuming the progressions work like they do in the playtest (not necessarily true).

I've writing about a bunch of this stuff on my main blog: http://merricb.wordpress.com
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Wed May 21, 2014 2:09 am
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Netrunner thoughts

Merric Blackman
Australia
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Victoria
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Last Saturday, I played in a small (ok, very small) tournament for Netrunner. Having it on Easter weekend when a few players were away doesn’t make for great numbers. We had four participants! I played a Whizzard deck and a Haas Bioroid: Engineering the Future deck and won all my four games. Yes, we just had the two rounds. The games were great fun to play, and very close at times – Chris hit two early agendas against my Haas Bioroid deck, and given that the deck is entirely 2 and 3 point agendas, this was rather concerning.

Chris then ran into my ICE – Ichi, I think – which destroyed his two breakers, and from there never quite recovered. Quandary – a 0 strength Code Gate with “End the Run” proved extremely effective at keeping him out, as he couldn’t draw a breaker for it. Eventually I was able to advance a Priority Requisition and win the game.

I then demonstrated the power of my Whizzard deck against his NBN, showing that I don’t need to play programs to steal agendas! I tend to do a lot of running early on without playing any cards just to see what defences my opponent has, and Whizzard is able to trash a lot of assets if they’re poorly defended. I actually drew a good hand with two of the icebreakers and a Special Order. I stalled in the middle game – as is expected – and was a bit disconcerted to see an Astroscript Pilot Program come out along with the Sansan City Grid. Luckily, he wasn’t able to chain Astroscripts together, and I was able to break through and trash the City Grid before it did too much trouble for me. From there, I was just able to pull out the win.

Against Josh, I won. It seems that I’m writing this too late to remember that much about the games. I know that an advanced Aggressive Sanctuary managed to destroy none of my programs (because I didn’t have any), but that may well have been against Chris. The games weren’t one-sided, and I was glad to win them, but the details are gone. Curse my poor memory!

I didn’t get to play Glen, which is perhaps just as well, as he was playing a couple of my decks – my NBN deck which had performed so well in the Store Championship, and an Andromeda deck which also played pretty nicely. He went 2-2 for the tournament (compared to my 4-0), which left him in second place. Chris and Josh would have ended up at 1-3 each, having had the misfortune to play me. J

I’m not getting to play as much Netrunner these days as I would like. In the early days, I was able to play a lot of games with Sarah, but our two-player Thursday night sessions are now long-gone: they’re far more likely to be a group of people getting together to play board games. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not unhappy at all about all the boardgaming. I’ve had the chance to play a lot of games of Caverna as a result, as well as Russian Railroads, Nations and other titles. (Given how D&D has taken over my Saturday evenings, it’s good to be playing serious boardgames). However, Netrunner and A Game of Thrones are a bit on the backburner. My main opportunity to play them comes at these small store tournaments.

Next month will be particularly interesting, as we’ll be doing drafts of both A Game of Thrones and Netrunner. My experience with the AGoT draft was hugely positive, as it allowed the core of the game to shine, away from all the combos (many broken) that you get in the full joust game. Netrunner draft? Now, that’s going to be a challenge.

Netrunner will actually involve two drafts: one for a corporation deck and one for a runner deck. So, we immediately take an hour of time doing the drafts. And I have no idea what sort of game-play will eventuate.

I played the original Netrunner back in the day – not that much admittedly – and was greatly hampered by the size of the card pool. There were a lot of cards that were simply bad, and building a playable deck based on a starter and just a few boosters was very, very hard. In some ways, drafting Netrunner is going to take me back to those days: attempting to build a deck from a very limited card pool, and hoping it’s even vaguely playable!

However, the existence of the draft starter means that even if I draft 40 completely unplayable cards for either deck, there will be still some playable cards. As a result, the main thing I’ll be looking for in my drafting is efficiency. It’s the core of Netrunner: making every action worth more than those of your opponents. In essence, if you need to spend fewer actions, cards and credits than your opponent, you should win. It will be tricky, though. I’m really not sure what the card pool is like. Yes, I can look at lists, but they’re not really a substitute for actually drafting.

The Netrunner draft is about a month away. It should be fascinating. It may turn out to be a horrible experience, but I’m hoping it proves to provide a new way to experience the game in an enjoyable manner!
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Wed Apr 23, 2014 2:19 am
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Thoughts on D&D Next

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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I have mostly kept out of the online debates on the future of D&D. The basic problem is not that I don’t care, but rather that many of the debates are completely and utterly pointless, there simply as an exercise in breeding ill-will.

The other problem with engaging in the debates is that, quite simply, I don’t know enough about the final form of D&D Next to really comment. Yes, I know, the point of a lot of the discussions is to shape the final form, but, in fact, so much of the game’s feel will likely come from which optional modules you choose to play it with, and at the moment we pretty much haven’t seen those modules.

I’ve been running D&D Encounters with the D&D Next rules for the past year or so. (Since February 2013, in fact). This has been the majority of my playtest experience, although I’ve run a few sessions outside of the Encounters framework. My impressions of the core rules? They work, the game runs quickly, and running it is pretty simple.

This comes with a drawback, of course – fights can be over too quickly. Paul, who has been running the 4E table of Encounters, is running a Next table this season, and he’s definitely found it an issue. From the intensely tactical combats of 4E, which, although they could dominate a session, could also be the most entertaining thing about a session, you’ve gone to the fast’n'loose Next way of running things. Well, they’re fast, at least. The loose depends a lot on whether you use miniatures or, like me, run the combats mainly as “theatre of the mind”. However, if you add the tactical module, combats may go back to the 4E style of being fascinating parts of the game.

Or maybe they won’t. I can’t tell, because that bit has been in closed playtesting with people who like tactical combat.

Now, you see, I agree absolutely with Wizards that if you want to playtest a tactical module, you absolutely should give it to people who like that sort of thing rather than taking it to an open playtest and having all the tactical-combat haters derail the feedback. However, it makes it very, very difficult to properly evaluate D&D Next. The core of it? Fine. Know how it works. Doesn’t do everything I want it to? Well, perhaps the modules will fix that. The ultimate truth of it is that we really won’t know what D&D Next is like until it properly gets released in a few months. What I’ve seen so far is encouraging, but that’s all it is.

The most encouraging thing I’ve seen is the quality of the adventures they’ve been publishing. They’re not flawless, but you only have to see my reviews of some of the Pathfinder adventures to realise how far from flawless I consider their range. The new D&D adventures have been innovative and – most importantly – fun. I’d really like to see an ongoing line of published adventures from Wizards in the D&D Next era. At least one per month? Yes, please!

That said, published adventures are problematic. Paizo does well with its Adventure Paths (at least I think it does), but its stand-alone module line is struggling. The latest adventure is us$25 for a 64-page adventure with a poster map. That’s not great value. I got it cheaper through my subscription, but it does should that we may need to expect more e-adventures than otherwise.

So, I like what I’ve seen so far with D&D Next, but it needs more… and we probably won’t see that more until the release. Can we hurry up that day, please?

This article was originally published on my main blog, which also now has articles on the Rogue, Wizard and Cleric, looking at their history and development.
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Tue Mar 18, 2014 4:54 am
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Rise and Decline of the Third Reich and other classic Avalon Hill wargames

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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As I was browsing the internet (a dangerous activity, for sure), I came across this wonderful blog entry on Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. Avalon Hill was the major player in War Games for much of its history, and as I get older, I find that investigating its older offerings to be quite rewarding.

This is not to say that they’re better than today’s war games. Not at all! At the time it was pioneering in its efforts, and games such as Third Reich, PanzerBlitz and Squad Leader influence a lot of games today. These days, you can see the more elegantly expressed rules and concepts in modern games, and so looking at the older games can be slightly irritating; the rules tend to just sit a little wrong for modern sensibilities.

However, the good games remain that: good games. I picked up a complete copy of the original Panzer Leader yesterday to go with my copy of PanzerBlitz. Neither are games I’ve had a chance to play yet, but having them in my collection makes me happy. At some point, I’m likely to pull them out and either play them solitaire to see how they work or I’ll inflict them on one of my friends.

Third Reich belongs to the school of monster wargames. It’s a grand strategy game (says that on the box!) that covers the western theatre of World War II. It can be played 2-player or by up to 5 players. Apparently it doesn’t play badly solitaire either. How long does it take to play? The full game is long; BGG suggests 24 hours, although that may be wildly inaccurate. “Long” is perhaps enough – though not as long as World in Flames!

And yes, I do now own a copy, picked up earlier last year. It’s missing a few counters, but I have some blank counters I can use as substitutes. The mere fact that it uses single-sided counters makes it much easier to create substitute counters.

At some point, I really do want to try playing it. I just need to find (a) time and (b) players. Both of these seem somewhat unlikely at the current point in time, but if you’d told me I’d be playing a lot of Advanced Squad Leader this year, I wouldn’t have believed you. So, I remain in hope.

Third Reich was succeeded by Advanced Third Reich and John Prados’s Third Reich, and A3R was succeeded by A World At War by GMT Games. I actually own that last title (expensive it was, as well!) and you can see where it hearkens back to the original Third Reich design. Yes, I’d like to try it as well, but although it will have a bit more of the modern elegance, it’s still a terribly big game with a lot of special exceptions in the rules (which run over 100 pages). So, learning Third Reich which, while rough around the edges, still doesn’t quite have the same scale and so is easier to digest, seems like an easier option.

I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance, but seeing the blog entry I linked to above made me think about this game. I did manage to play another game of ASL SK with Michael last night; so a session report for that will be forthcoming. Tonight? Nations or Britannia seems likely.
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Thu Feb 27, 2014 12:15 am
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Three Games - all different versions of D&D

Merric Blackman
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I’m feeling really good about last week’s role-playing. Three games, each with a different version of the D&D rules, all memorable for their own reasons. There are times when things come together, and that was the case this week.

D&D Encounters – Legacy of the Crystal Shard – D&D Next

This has been a challenging season to run, but it’s been getting a lot better as it continues. The last season (Murder in Baldur’s Gate) presented the characters with three factions they could work with. This one presents three factions they’re trying to stop. The complication here is that there isn’t enough time to stop them all! So, in this session I ran the first interlude, where the threat they hadn’t been dealing with yet became much more active and dangerous.

This is great adventure-writing. The adventure might look physically similar to Murder in Baldur’s Gate, but the change in focus makes it run quite differently. Another big difference is that the encounters are much more fleshed out than in the previous season – the first one gave you a bunch of enemy stats and let you determine the specifics of the encounter. This one suggests numbers and set-up for the encounters. It’s still very free-form, but I’m finding it aiding me a lot more. Against that, I’ve found the adventure much more sprawling and confusing to grasp, but this session everything came together really well.

It’s also notable that we had two role-playing encounters and four combats in under two hours of play; a big win for the speed of D&D Next, after my well-documented problems with the speed of 4E.

Greyhawk – Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil – D&D 4E

Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil is one of the big adventures of the 3E era. It was designed for a party of 4th level characters and would take them to about 10th level. Or thereabouts. I’m using it as the final adventure of my 4E campaign which I began when 4E was first released in 2008. The characters are now about 27th level, but the ease of adjusting monsters in 4E means that I’m finding it very easy to run. Admittedly, it didn’t help that for this session the notes I’d made on the monster stats hadn’t saved properly to the cloud and so I had to do some fancy footwork to fill the void. Luckily, I’m getting pretty good at estimating the stats (and the DM screen with its damage codes makes it a lot easier to wing things).

After a few sessions of slogging it through the crater mines, it was something of a relief to put in more role-playing and also bring back the idea of Adam’s original character, Archibald, as the chief villain behind the adventure. They’ve known he’s been involved, but he was revealed to be “Number 2” in the Doom Dreamers of Tharizdun this session.

But without doubt, the big event of the session was the group discovering a Deck of Many Things. I somehow completely missed it in my read-through beforehand (not that unusual), and so I didn’t have the Deck printed in Madness of Gardmore Abbey with me. Pity. However, the internet allowed me to find Rodney Thompson’s 2010 version of the Deck’s effects for 4e, and having adjusted a regular set of cards I was set.

This was not the first experience of some of the players with a Deck of Many Things; Greg and Adam had both encountered one when playing through Dungeonland about 10 years ago in my 3E Greyhawk campaign. (Yes, I am perfectly happy adapting adventures for all editions of D&D). So, all of the group – save Martin, as he’s wiser than the others – was happy to draw from the deck. And, by the end of the draws, Greg was imprisoned (DONJON) and Paul’s soul was taken (VOID). It’s quite likely that without Rodney’s notes I might have just left that there (go create new PCs!), but Rodney’s work inspired me to actually have the group break from the Temple quest for a session or two to recovered their lost friends. (It also gave me the details needed for the other, more positive effects, that Adam and Rich earned).

So, off to the Depths of the Earth and (quite likely) the Astral Plane before we return to the Temple. It’s a natural break-point in the adventure in any case, and should work well to getting their levels closer to 30th before the final encounters.

Greyhawk Vikings – The Caverns of the Oracle – AD&D

The week’s D&D ended with the continuing AD&D game. Six players turned up for this session, and they continued dealing with the Knights of Hextor and their Hellhounds. This time I did have all my notes with me, but, as usual for this game, I’m improvising a lot of the map and encounters. There are times in my life when I pre-plan everything, but this isn’t one of those times. Instead, I draw the map one step ahead of the characters and work out what is in each room either according to what should be there (based on theme) or let the dice tell me.

The knights are definitely giving the group some tough encounters, especially as I had most of them working as archers whilst the hellhounds engaged the party in melee. Jesse’s magic-user was back this session, so he was able to take out some of the knights, but the rooms were big enough that his area of effect spells weren’t as effective as they normally are. (We also had Callan running four players in his RIFTS game, so it was a good Saturday evening’s role-playing).

The group found some good treasure, enough for a number of the players to gain a level. Rich’s thief had finally reached level 10 by the end of the session. I’m going to be very interested if he tries to set up a thieves’ guild.

However, the major challenge of the adventure came when the group set off a magical teleportation trap and ended up in a gauntlet of quite dangerous encounters – four wights, two flesh golems and then two cockatrices – before they found their way back to the main dungeon and were able to escape. The wights really gave the party a shock, and they were saved mainly due to having three clerics with the party, and by Tait carrying around a large supply of oil. The group is actually very light on magic weapons at the moment (thanks, in no small part, to the encounter with caryatid columns a few sessions back), and so might not have been able to take advantage of the turning – they still would have had to go into melee with the wights – but Tait’s oil got them out of a tricky situation.

The flesh golems were more standard, but they did so much damage it was a confused version of musical chairs, with characters retiring from the front ranks and handing over their magical weapons to fresh combatants whilst the clerics kept busy healing everyone. No-one died, but it was close.

And the cockatrices? The party were very worried about them, with one hit on the front rank in the first round almost causing a petrifaction, but luckily the saving throw was made. And, at this point, one of the group realised that they held a scroll of protection against petrifaction! With that in hand, they were able to overcome the last challenge and make their way out of the gauntlet, although a few more knights and hellhounds stood in their way...

So, that was my week’s role-playing. Next week, more D&D Encounters and AD&D, but the Friday night game alternates back to Martin’s Deadlands Noir game (where I actually play rather than run the game!)
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Mon Jan 13, 2014 8:33 am
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AD&D: Chairs of Doom!

Merric Blackman
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Waubra
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The final AD&D session of 2013 saw seven people playing, and the regular range of character levels from 1st to 9th. It also saw the group discovering What Lay Beyond the Orcs of the Bloody Eye, as - after rather destroying the first group they met - the group then negotiated their way past the other orcs. Mostly with, "Let us past or we will slaughter you", It worked pretty well.

The group actually found itself with no clerics when it began, so Shane had to hire a new henchmen to accompany the group. Paul turned up a little bit later, bringing with him his 5th level cleric henchmen, and the group was slightly better for healing. However, the major source of healing for the group was now Shane's 7th level magic-user, who had hired an alchemist and brew potions of healing. Every 2 days, for 200 gp each. So, given Shane will be playing something else next week, I expect he'll come back with quite a few potions in a fortnight's time. Or, maybe he won't - he also expressed an interest in researching some spells, find familiar in particular.

All of this downtime activity from Shane is pretty new to my campaigns; it's never something I did with Meliander, my 13th level wizard, but a large part of that came from the nature of the campaigns. Meliander lived in a campaign where he was mostly busy adventuring, and - in addition - none of us were really that familiar with the crafting rules.

It's also due to one of the many sections of the AD&D rules where Gygax was horrible at describing the procedure. Not so much as in what was required (though this is somewhat lacking), but in just being horrible to the players. The list of ingredients for the suggested scroll in the DMG? By no means is it easily attainable - other suggestions are even harder! Yes, Gleipnir may have needed six impossible things to craft, but there's a big difference between the ingredients in a myth and the ingredients in a game - especially one played with pen and paper. Computer games would later take up the torch of collecting ingredients from slain monsters and putting them together to make magical items, but in AD&D it's a level of detail and messiness that the game doesn't need.

At least, my game doesn't need it. Yours might differ.

At some point I'll probably have to work out some territory acquisition rules and the like...

Meanwhile, down in the dungeon, the group found the Chairs of Doom.

Okay, they're not actually called that, but in a room on one of the lower levels, they found four wicker chairs. Yes, one of the group sat in the chairs. For once, they weren't man-eating chairs: instead, each pair of chairs teleported you from one to the other. The group started making plans for how to use them - put one near the entrance to the dungeon, and they could bypass a lot of encounters... (and have monsters randomly teleport to the entrance! They did consider this, and decided not to put the chair in their home!)

The next set of chairs were more standard - superglue chairs. All of which led to Paul's cleric teleporting back to town without his armour - picture a slightly portly cleric, running around in rust-stained padding, looking for a new set of platemail.

This game can be so much fun!
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Sun Dec 29, 2013 8:13 am
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AD&D: Scribing Scrolls, Resurrection (non-)Survival, and other things

Merric Blackman
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The penultimate AD&D session of this year had six players in attendance, with characters ranging from first level to ninth level, and another trip into the depths of the Caverns of the Oracle. It turned out to be quite dangerous, as a number of hellhounds attacked the party as they got closer to the levels that Hextor’s followers hold in sway. The party consisted of a thief, a wizard, a low-level assassin and a number of clerics, and they were having trouble hitting the monsters – and the hellhounds were having little trouble hitting them!

One of the interesting things about the hellhounds is that they got to breathe fire every turn in addition to their regular attack – either 7 or 4 hit points per turn (depending on whether the player’s saving throw failed or was successful), and this stripped away the hit points very quickly. A number of characters went down and needed to be healed, and – in the end – Lee’s seventh level cleric was killed!

A quick trip to the capital and the high priest of his faith cost a little time and money, but it was all in vain, as Lee’s resurrection survival check failed! (A 98% on the dice!) Lee proceeded to roll well and created a new human ranger. I allow maximum hit points at first level, so Lee’s new character has 20 hit points.

Apart from that, the group faced orcs and ogres (which they retreated from), hobgoblins and trolls (which they slew, but didn’t press on as they were quite hurt) and found a door that summoned ghasts. Not really a problem for the group as they had three clerics at the time, but the clerics chose to stand in the centre of the room where the ghasts appeared! They were fortunate to not be surprised or to lose initiative... although then a few moved into melee with the turned ghasts only to be attacked (the assassin, one of the few bow-wielding characters, was paralysed for the rest of the combat!)

Another important part of the session was when the 7th level magic-users and clerics discovering they could now scribe scrolls – something that gave me some trouble in adjudicating as the AD&D DMG is somewhat vague about the costs involved. Time and success chances? No problem! How much it costs to make the ink? No idea!

The suggested cost for a scroll of protection from petrification includes a number of odd ingredients and likely 1,000 gold pieces worth of crushed gems. Possibly. Such a scroll sells on the open market for 10,000 gold pieces. Meanwhile, spell scrolls sell for 300 gp per spell level inscribed on the scroll. At the time, I assessed that the ink for one scroll would cost 1,000 gold pieces – and could be used for up to seven spells on that scroll.

Of course, getting home I wanted to research as to if there are any better costs in any of the supplemental materials, particularly FR4 The Magister, but though it has a section on creating magic items, it doesn’t really expand on the rules that much. The original game books list 100 gold pieces/spell level, so I will likely go with that for future scribing, although their time (1 week per spell level) will be discarded for the 1 day for spell level suggested in AD&D!

So, armed with scrolls of neutralise poison and knock, the group will be better equipped for their next descent into the dungeon. I do need to keep better track of time, and I need to consider what other penalties there are for the magic-users sitting out scribing – do the other characters go down without them? It may be best to let the group decide.

Lee’s new ranger managed to get a few experience points before the session came to an end. We’d started at about 5.30 pm, had a break for dinner, and it was 10.30 pm when I ended everything as it was really obvious that everyone was tired. At least, it was obvious that I was tired (as I was experiencing it), and the others had been arguing about how to deal with a trick stairwell. For twenty minutes. When the group loses the ability to make decisions, it’s time to call it a night!

I think I need to make a copy of the advice in the Players Handbook to give out to each of the players; in particular, the section on setting goals for each expedition. This is a very old-fashioned sort of mega-dungeon game (with a lot of funhouse encounters, because that’s the sort of DM I am), and the older advice still applies.

Actually, it’s very nice to see how many players at the table have copies of the Players Handbook – I think there were three or four copies there in addition to mine. (All Gygax Memorial editions. So is mine, though I have originals). The campaign is now over two years old, and I’ve switched back to running weekly sessions. Long may it continue!
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Mon Dec 23, 2013 12:41 pm
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Murder in Baldur's Gate: Launch Weekend - a preview

Merric Blackman
Australia
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This weekend is the Launch Weekend for Murder in Baldur's Gate - well, more properly for the D&D Encounters season that uses that adventure, but the adventure itself will be out in a few days (for regular stores - it's been out for a bit longer for stores Wizards like more). For those stores participating, Wizards have sent them copies of a special adventure. It's the first encounter of the regular adventure, but expanded to give more interest and detail.

The adventure booklet is 16 pages, including front and back covers, of fairly thin glossy paper. It contains some background material, the adventure, and the monster stat blocks for three systems: 3.5E, 4E and D&D Next. Each stat block section takes up about a page and a half (with differing amounts of white space). There isn't much artwork - apart from the cover, there's two pages that list the NPCs which provides art for them. One of the NPCs doesn't get any art, strangely enough, but he's on the poster we got for the full season so I can just point at that if necessary.

It's Founder's Day in Baldur's Gate, and there's a celebration taking place, commemorating the event. The player characters have arrived to take jobs as caravan guards, but they've arrived a few days too early for that job, so they're just enjoying themselves. Well mostly - it might be free to enter the city, but every merchant is taking the opportunity to gouge the players of every copper they can get. The adventure starts with the group entering the Wide, the city's grand market square.

This adventure is all about what happens in the Wide on Founder's day, and my catchword for it all is "challenging". It's going to be challenging to run, and it's going to be challenging to play through. At its most basic, things start happening and things keep happening. Events build up and hit some fairly major marks, laying the groundwork for the full adventure to come. In theory the players could just sit back and watch, but that seems unlikely. Most D&D players will want to get involved. The challenge for the DM will be in handling it all: telling the story, giving proper descriptions of the chaos, and allowing everyone to have fun.

The main adventure for this session is laid out in a set of events, which read fairly well. They could be terribly boring if allowed to be, but they've got a lot more potential than that. I do have the distinct feeling that the game will play best if the DM uses the other elements given in the adventure: rules on crowd-handling and optional events to spice up things. Yes, you can concentrate on the main events, but allowing the players to react to lots of different things at once? Yeah, that looks like it will be even more fun.

But it will be challenging to run. The skills of the DM are incredibly important to this adventure; in particular, you need to judge the pacing of the session. Being able to add the right event at the right time will add greatly to the experience. The last city adventure I ran - the otherwise disappointing Storm over Neverwinter - had one session where the party and the DM were able to improvise greatly rather than just follow the rails. It was great fun. I think we could have the same fun with this adventure.

As a lead-in to Murder in Baldur's Gate, the adventure isn't complete. The events of the day are, but they raise the issues that will be dealt with in the full adventure, which you could play as part of D&D Encounters or as a home game. There's combat and role-playing and heroic deeds here... and a little of the grotesque. Vault of the Dracolich, despite leading into Search for the Diamond Staff felt complete in itself. This doesn't, as what it is doing is setting up the adventure to follow. Everything I've seen indicates that the full adventure will be pretty good, but, unfortunately, I've still got to wait a bit until I actually get to see it.

The launch event adventure also comes with a poster-map of the square (the other side shows the map of Baldur's Gate) if you want to use miniatures. The idea for the Launch Event is that you create characters first (1st level, in whichever session your DM is using) and then run the adventure. Honestly, I'd probably create characters before you get there or have pre-gens made up, as creating characters for five or six players in 30-40 minutes isn't all that easy in any of the three systems. (I'd manage it easily in AD&D!) I'm not really sure how long the event will take to play through. My initial reaction is "2 hours", and the documentation says "at least 2 hours". YMMV.

Incidentally, the only pre-gens available specifically for this are in the D&D Next playtest packet. Otherwise, the DMs will need to bring/create them for the 3.5E or 4E rulesets. (I'm pretty sure you'll be able to find a few online). One of my few significant regrets about this package is that it doesn't have a lot of backgrounds to aid the PCs in creating their characters. There might be more in the full adventure, but quite possibly not.

So, those are my initial impressions of the Murder in Baldur's Gate Launch Weekend package. I'll get a chance to run it this weekend, and I'll report back then as to how it went. I hope we'll all enjoy it.

Oh, and that silver-haired fellow on the cover of the adventure? That's Duke Abdel Adrian, the ruler of Baldur's Gate. You might also know him as the hero of the Baldur's Gate computer games. Well, he would have been if you weren't making your own character to play that role. In the "official" Forgotten Realms, it was Abdel Adrian who took on those challenges, and in his later life he's become one of the four rulers of the port city. He loves his adopted home, and the city-folk return that love. He's over a century old at this point, but still hale. His past is, unfortunately, still relevant...
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Wed Aug 14, 2013 2:36 pm
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Edge of the Empire woes

Merric Blackman
Australia
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I spent some of my free time today looking over my recently acquired copy of Edge of the Empire, the newest Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight Games. I haven’t picked up all that many of the rules yet, as I really didn’t have that long to look at it. Oh, that and I was rather frustrated by the awful state of much of the explanations and the poor editing of the book.

An example:
“Obligation plays a vital role in defining a Player Character. Defined simply, Obligation represents the debts a Player Character owes. These debt may be physical (money owed, services that must be repaid, or a binding contract) or they could be intangible (a feeling of responsibility for a friend’s well-being, the duty he feels to help his family, or a favour owed to someone else. A character’s actions can often be guided by his Obligation, and in Edge of the Empire, Obligation is a vital aspect of a character that can have very tangible effects on his development.”

Well, it’s wordy – but not too bad. However, then comes the next paragraph:
“During character creation, players must not only customize their characters by selecting skills or characteristics, but also by choosing what sort of Obligation the character has. An Obligation may be a large outstanding debt, the PC being blackmailed for services, owing a crime boss ‘favours’, having a price on his head, or being locked into a binding contract.”

I’m sorry – didn’t we get the definition of Obligation in just the previous paragraph? Why are we getting it again? It doesn’t really help that after these three introductory paragraphs we get a subheading, “What is Obligation?” Again? How many times do we need the same information?

In fact, this section is far more about how you choose your starting obligations, with a few words as to the format of the descriptions. This is poor layout and organisation, and it recurs throughout the book.

The section on the key mechanic of the game – the dice pool (which uses special dice) – suffers from the same long-winded descriptions. We get explanations of what the symbols mean. We learn how to construct a dice pool. And then we get a section on interpreting the pool – which includes explanations of what the symbols mean. Argh!

The book also flat-out lies to you:
“In Edge of the Empire, any character concept found within the Star Wars universe is possible.”

That is true, unless you want to play a Jedi, the rules for such being notably absent from the book.

There’s useful advice for the GM, of course:
“The GM should give the players an idea of what sort of campaign he intends to run for the players.”

Oh, that’s good. For a moment there, I was worried he was going to run a campaign for a completely different set of players. (The sentiment is good, but the phrasing is woeful. Either use ‘for them’ or omit the last three words).

A few oddities managed to make their way into the rules:

“After determining this initial value, further increases to a character’s Brawn rating do not increase his wound threshold”, and “After determining this initial value, increases to a character’s Brawn rating increase his soak value.” I love having part of the rules work differently to other parts. There’s probably a good reason for this design, but it reads oddly to my inexperienced eyes.

The greatest problem with the book, however, is the poor choice of font and size. Quite simply, it’s a book I find difficult to read as the text is relatively faint; certainly so compared to, well, about everything else I read, but certainly the 4E books. The Talent Trees in particular have a very small font which when combined with the narrowness and faintness of the font may require magnification for my elderly eyes.

We also get the wonderful decision of putting dark blue font on a black background for some quotations in chapter headings.

There may be a wonderful game in here, but the book is not making it easy to find.
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Wed Jul 31, 2013 12:37 pm
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