Monday, March 20, 2017

Dragons of Renewal DL4: Dragons of Desolation


Dragons of Desolation Cover by Keith Parkinson


The finale to the Autumn Twilight arc takes place entirely within the dwarven kingdom of Thorbadin. Now that the PCs have the Helm of Grallen, they possess a surefire way to get the dwarves to listen to them and possibly provide shelter for the refugees.

Overview

The Heroes of the Lance find the way into Thorbadin, and while there meet the noble Arman Kharas. After fighting their way out of Northgate with Theiwar dwarves in pursuit, they are brought to the Life-Tree of the Hylar where the Council of Thorbadin holds court. After the council debates, the PCs are sent on a quest to recover the Hammer of Kharas in the Valley of Thanes.

Venturing to the Valley, the PCs find a tomb on top of a floating mountain. While there a pranksterish copper dragon disguised as a dwarf acts as a guide. Before they can claim the Hammer, they fight Verminaard's draconic mount, Ember, at the top of the tomb.

Rushing back to Thorbadin, it turns out that the Daegar and Theiwar clans are in league with the Dragonarmies. By letting their forces into the mountain kingdom, a civil war occurs with the purpose of overthrowing the ruling Hylar and gaining possession of the Hammer for themselves. Amid the prisoners is Berem the Green Gemstone Man and Eben Shatterstone, the latter still posing as a loyal comrade if the PCs haven't found him out yet. The PCs are escorted or taken prisoner to the Temple of Stars, where Verminaard awaits. A grand battle occurs dramatically near a pit, which Verminaard is likely to tumble into should he be slain. Regardless of the battle's events, Arman is dealt a grievous injury and dies a hero. With the Hammer, the Hylar leader Hornfel is crowned King and order is restored.

Depending on how long the heroes took, the refugees' fate is either safe from or massacred by the Dragonarmies. Riverwind and Goldmoon have the option to marry if they're PCs in the adventure. The quest ends on a note that although the heroes struck a decisive victory against the Dragonarmy's forces, the battle for Krynn's freedom is far from over.

Things to Change/Look Out For



Maps: The AD&D adventure's strong suit is that it had more detailed maps of Thorbadin and its districts than the 3.5 adventure. Although knowing where the PCs are is not a necessity, given that most encounters are event-based than dungeon-room-based, it can be a nice visual aid to have.

Verminaard's Offer: This is only in the AD&D version, but I advise that you excise this. It's basically an opportunity for the villain to show up, gloat, and make an offer to the party to betray the refugees. While this can work in a book, show, or similar medium, in a tabletop game it's far more likely that the players will try to attack. Given that random nature of die rolls, it's possible that a lucky party might knock the Dragon Highlord off his mount and kill him right then and there.

Northgate: Overall, this section is fine as-is. The PCs meet Arman Kharas, who knows the way better than they do, and provides some good opportunity to do heroic stuff and save prisoners. However, the party is motivated to retreat as an onslaught of theiwar soldiers, dozens at a time, come to assault the party. Regardless of gaming system, running 30+ enemies at once can be a real slog unless you're using a singular "mob" template. I suggest keeping the theiwar army encounters more descriptive, and have a half dozen fight the PCs at a time when they're running.

Dark Dwarves and Derro: In the later RPG supplements, the evil dwarven clans of the theiwar and daergar are their own subrace of dwarves, but not the classic duergar and derro in other settings. In the original AD&D game, the theiwar dwarves are derro.

Personally speaking, I prefer having the dark dwarves physically and mechanically indistinguishable from the other dwarven clans. It plays up the "civil war" factor and makes it seem more subtle in having the Theiwar thane being a secret Dragonarmy agent. Unless the party has a dwarven PC, to an outside observer the feuding of council politics comes off as a less-established clan jockeying for power, rather than an obvious Evil McTraitorface trying to play the part of a villain with good publicity. It also avoids the question of why the council would tolerate and trust a thane from a subrace who are on the whole afflicted with murderous insanity.


Life-Tree of the Hylar

The Council: The Council is currently unsure of the Dragonarmy's true threat, and their isolationist policy will make them reluctant to open up their gates for refugees. After the Council debates, they will send off the PCs to find the legendary Hammer of Kharas as a token of goodwill, given that the Hammer plays a decisive role in determining which clan's thane becomes king of the nation. As a token of ensuring the party's cooperation, the council keeps Eben Shatterstone as a hostage (which is Raelgar, the Theiwar Thane's, idea). If the PCs refuse, they are imprisoned to await trial for trespassing on Theiwar territory and murder if they killed at least one dark dwarf in Northgate.

Holding off the "Lady in the Lake" Monty Python jokes, this is the next best way for the PCs to go on a dungeon crawl. However, the default example's a bit forced. Have the scene play out normally, but instead of making it the reward an open-ended "whosoever recovers the Hammer of Kharas, that person will the dwarves of Thorbardin befriend," attach a more tangible reward. Most likely shelter for the refugees, or agreement to refuse the Dragonarmy's offers (which the Theiwar and Daegar have been advocating for).

Another thing to consider is that in the AD&D version, the PCs have a chance of realizing that Verminaard is telepathically dominating Raelgar's speech during the meeting by noticing his mannerisms are similar to the Highlord. This is not present in the 3.5 version, but either way things don't change much on whether you include it or not. Even if a free agent, Raelgar's condemnation of the PCs still sets him up as a person the PCs shouldn't trust.


Battle Against Ember

Duncan's Tomb: There are precious few monsters and traps in this dungeon, and the main inhabitant is the copper dragon Evenstar. Emphasize the few encounters, traps, and Evenstar's trials in packed general areas instead of planning out the entire dungeon or doing a room-by-room search. Otherwise it will just feel empty and featureless.

The battle against Ember should be climactic, although like previous dragon encounters he is extremely powerful in 3rd Edition. Using the stats of a Juvenile Red Dragon, but increasing the size category to Gargantuan (without the Strength and Constitution increase) makes for a more reasonable encounter. Additionally, I also turned the flagpole into a mostly-depowered dragonlance which breaks after the battle. This helps demonstrate the power of the campaign's namesake and gives the players a taste of things to come.

For 13th Age, I used a modified Large White Dragon's statistics, save that cold damage is converted to fire and I switched around the vulnerabilities as appropriate.

Both versions of the game have smaller encounters afterwards: in AD&D's case kapak scouts, and in 3.5 six of Ember's children. I personally discarded any encounters in this chapter after Ember, for she served well enough as a climactic battle for this sub-section.

Return to Thorbadin: While the PCs were gone, the Theiwar and Daegar clans helped Verminaard and the Dragonarmies gain access to the kingdom, plunging the realm into civil war. This portion of the adventure involves the party fighting their way through soldiers to the Temple of Stars. One of the encounter locations includes a Daegar prison holding Eben Shatterstone and Berem the Green Gemstone Man. I personally did not include Berem in this adventure; on the contrary, one of the PCs bore the mantle of the Green Gemstone Woman for a 13th Age background. This worked better, as otherwise Berem is an easily forgettable NPC. I'd personally not have him in this adventure, and if he must show up in the campaign have it be during Dragons of Spring.

Capture: In the 3.5 version of the adventure, the PCs are supposed to go to the Temple of Stars after encountering Thane Rance of the Daegar, who demands the PCs surrender (albeit the PC bearing the Hammer of Kharas is allowed to keep it). If not, they must fight a total succession of 93 dwarves and draconians altogether. This is a form of rail-roading I despise.

Instead, allow the PCs to find out the Temple of Stars' location from enemy soldiers, Hylar allies, Arman Kharas himself, or likewise. It feels more satisfying for the party to walk in of their own accord and confront Verminaard once and for all.


The Fall of Verminaard

Final Battle: The climactic battle in the Temple of Stars is  easily one of the high points of the Autumn Twilight arc. Even so, there are a few things to change to make it better.

First, discard the forced handing of the Hammer of Kharas to Verminaard. Be it via the traitor Eben or telepathic mind control, these both take away agency from the PCs with little change in the endgame (Verminaard fights the PCs).

Second, there's a lot of enemies to keep track of. Verminaard, Arman Kharas, the fireshadow, Eben Shatterstone (potentially), and the dark dwarf and Dragonarmy soldiers. When running this battle, I had Thane Raelgar as an enemy NPC which Arman was busy fighting, and the dwarves and Dragonarmy soldiers as a sort of "mob" template which the PCs could attack as a whole.

In the default adventure, the two dark dwarven clans turn on each other when the Theiwar side with Verminaard, as the Daegar thane Rance had a deal that the Dragonarmies would hand him the Hammer instead (Verminaard seeks to take it for himself). This makes for some nice internal treachery, but another idea is to have valiant Hylar soldiers come rushing in to help, particularly if Arman is not with the party. Either way, the pitched battle makes for a chaotic background.

Thirdly, the standard adventure has Arman die regardless of the course of battle from a poisoned blade. This is meant to be a valiant sacrifice, but instead allow the PCs the option to change this. In my games I had Arman and Raelgar fighting in the background, describing how the heroic dwarf was starting to lose, as he lost his footing and the treacherous Thane raised a poison dagger to plunge into his chest...

At that point, one of my PCs rushed forth to save him in the nick of time, taking Raelgar out with a critical hit. Naturally your own campaign's conflict will be different, but granting the PCs the choice to momentarily disengage to save Arman at the risk of leaving their party open has more narrative and tactical impact.

Finally, there is the matter of the giant pit of death in the center of the Temple. It's a given that one or more PCs may get the idea to push Verminaard into it. Indeed this is how the Dragon Highlord met his end in the novels, but it can be anti-climactic system-wise if a PC uses a single bull rush, spell, or opposed Strength check to knock him in on the first or second round.

One idea is to place Verminaard a fair distance from the pit, or to give him a spell such as levitate to have him come back up. But this is quite obviously meant to mitigate a valid tactic with minimal dramatic impact. Another idea is to have him fall in when shoved or at the brink of death, but have him summon the fireshadow to lift him back up out of the pit with a blazing vengeance! This makes the battle feel like a nice evolution from a "first form"to "final stage" boss, to borrow video game terminology.

In Conclusion

Dragons of Desolation requires a few adjustments, but individually take little effort to change and fix.

I'm happy to have completed the first arc of the Dragonlance saga. I plan to begin writing for the Winter Night arc sometime next week. This will also be the first time the saga's two-party split-up is addressed in detail!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

State of the Union: New campaigns, a Tenkar's Tavern pick, and more


Slumbering Tsar Cover Art

I have horrible organization skills. The only two constants in my life are my day job and my tabletop games, and even the latter is subject to change based on players' real life concerns. Aside from this, I am scatterbrained even when it comes to my entertainment. Video games played for dozens of hours lay uncompleted to gather dust when another catches my interest. I share news of cool happenings in geek culture with friends on Steam, only to forget who I told what and end up repeating myself. I got so engrossed in the Witcher 3 the last month I neglected my blog, my writing, and scheduled events.

I bought a weekly planner to get my life back in order, and after noticing my last blog post and undone projects like Dragons of Renewal and Arcana High, I set out to start working again on the things I feel passionate about and want to release into the world for viewers' enjoyment. This blog post is a sort of news update of sorts, to let you know what's been going on while I've been gone.

Two New Campaigns: Way of the Wicked, the Dragonlance Chronicles, Slumbering Tsar, and more. I own a fair share of adventure paths and epic sagas, but many of them go unplayed as mere reading material. I'm pleased to note that my Saturday and Sunday groups settled on two Frog God Games mega-adventures to try out: Slumbering Tsar and Northlands Saga respectively. Amusingly this was mere coincidence that they were of the same publisher; I presented both groups with 4 or 5 adventures I was keen on running, and let them decide. The Northlands game has been going for a month now, 4 sessions in, and Slumbering Tsar just began last week. We're having fun with both, and I may keep a campaign journal of both if the gaming groups are fine with me sharing on the blog.

A Tenkar's Tavern OSR Pick: Yesterday Erik Tenkar shared Part One of several products part of the GM's Day weekly sale. My latest book, Larius Firetongue's School of Sorcery, was among the choices. Although I did my part to spread awareness of the sale, it's humbling to see one's own work as a recommended pick on one of the most popular OSR blogs. For a time I was afraid that my book would get hardly any notice, that a magic school campaign style wasn't as popular as I thought it would be, a not uncommon fear I have whenever making a new product. It's nice to see that the time and effort I put in to it has not gone unrewarded.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Lego Ideas has a Dungeons & Dragons themed pitch


The full link is here.

I found this courtesy of RPG Net. It's been forever since I played with Legos, but even during my middle and high school years I once entertained the notion of using the old building blocks for dungeon building in my weekly Dungeons & Dragons games. Well apparently someone had a similar idea, and is currently gauging interest to see if it's worth producing. What's fascinating is that the rooms in question for this proposed set are customizable, in that they can be mixed and matched to create a variety of different sequences for the rooms.

This would be perfect for introducing children to table-top games, in that it shows off the game via a a more approachable and friendly medium.

You need to have a registered account at Lego Ideas in order to vote, but all the same if that's not too much trouble consider lending your support if you think this is a cool idea!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

KickTracking: Dungeon Grappling



It's been a while since my last blog post, and I apologize for that. Truth be told January went past me like the blink of an eye, and I neglected some of my regular duties. But over the past few months more than a few RPG KickStarters I backed began delivering finished products to me. I've been fortunate to have most of them arrive around their estimated release schedule, and be more or less what I expected. I decided to share some of my thoughts on them, starting with Dungeon Grappling.

The Pitch: Dungeon Grappling is more or less a variant rules fix for not one, but three popular rules systems: Swords & Wizardry, Pathfinder, and 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. From the days of AD&D to the D20 era, grappling has always been a bit of a bother with baroque resolution to the point that most gamers did not bother with it. I cannot speak as to 4th edition, and 5th Edition's grappling rules don't seem very obtuse from what I've seen and heard, but it was a common enough trend that the creator of Dungeon Grappling sought to create an improvement to make this combat maneuver a viable option as well as being easily understood.

Communication: Douglas Cole was surprisingly active ever since the project first came to light, a rarity for many crowdfunded RPG projects. Updates occurred several times a week, and this did not change even after the project was fully funded. Cole was very active in the comments section as well,

Delivery: The estimated release date for the PDF was in February 2017, with several print copy tier rewards estimated around April. I backed at the PDF level, and the final version of the eBook came to me around mid-January. There are now Print-On-Demand options for the book on Drive-Thru RPG and RPGNow in a softcover color.

Delivered ahead of schedule, a rarity in the KickStarter world.

End Product: The book itself is 53 pages, full-color. The artwork is very good, and the meat of the mechanics can be summed up in the use of Control Points, a kind of pseudo-hit point system reflecting how "beaten into submission" a target is in regards to grappling. I can't help but feel that won't really cut down on "book-keeping clutter," for as it is another value to keep track of in regards to hit points, spell slots, etc. Even more so if multiple creatures are grappled or grappling in the same fight.

The book seems rules-heavier than I like, but in regards to individual systems it does seem to make fighters, monks, and martial types quite competent in grappling in Swords & Wizardry. However, in Pathfinder  the problem of huge monsters having extremely high CMD (Combat Maneuver Defense) values is still a problem as the CMD is substituted for a target's Grapple DC (or the overall defense value when people try to grapple you). As for 5th Edition, the Athletics skill is still important for various grappling moves and defenses, meaning that Bards and Rogues with Expertise and raging Barbarians are still the best class choices for this.

Although I was expecting a more quick and dirty rules-lite option in lieu of a gradient scale, the professionalism and early delivery of the KickStarter  helped earn trust from Gaming Ballistic and any future projects they might have in store.

Dungeon Grappling can be purchased on Drive-Thru RPG and RPGNow.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Core Concepts of Arcana High




For the past 2 to 2.5 years there's been a particular idea stirring in my head for a while. An idea which as of now has several hundred pages worth of notes and draft write-ups the result of 2 campaign's worth of design. One of the campaigns was uncompleted sadly, yet still brought about several months worth of play. I at first decided to write up an adventure path for Pathfinder for this work, as a four-part series. This took a lot more time than I thought, so I decided to work on various side projects all the while hoping to one day see my magnum opus on the shelves of online storefronts one day (most likely for Pathfinder and 5th Edition). But like Larius Firetongue's School of Sorcery, I figured that drumming up interest over time can be a great idea. As such, this blog post is the first in a series of revealing Arcana High.

Introduction

Arcana High is a hybrid four-color fantasy and magic school campaign in the vein of Harry Potter meets Teen Titans in a D&D fantasy world. For those unfamiliar with my earlier posts on the subject, the general idea is that the PCs are adolescent mages who found some magical artifacts. With these powerful relics, they can transform into alternate identities to better fight the forces of evil. All the while they must juggle their public lives as students in a world-renowned magical academy along with keeping the good people of Brancean safe from their ever-growing rogue's gallery of villains.

It was a rather popular itch I've been wanting to scratch for a while, due to the rarity of such play elements in traditional fantasy games and retroclones. When you think about it, the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons can support a pseudo-superhero style of play quite well. You have titanic dragons ravaging cities, foul cults seeking to awaken sealed evils, mad archmages brewing up new and deadly horrors to inflict upon the world, and holy forces bestowing their powers upon worthy mortals. With the preponderance of city-based campaigns and sourcebooks, diversity of adversaries, and the ever-popular appeal towards saving the world, a superhero kind of game with masked vigilantes wielding supernatural powers not for gold but for justice is not only feasible, it can work very, very well!

Major Themes

Four-Color Fantasy: Masked knights, sorcerers, and druids battle a mad alchemist atop an undead leviathan creation wreaking havoc on a port city. Thieves' Guild goons shake down storefronts and make a quick getaway on charmed manticores. A golem built by the lord-governor to fight crime goes on a  rampage due to interpreting the law in an over-literal fashion. The city's gnomish-designed printing press publishes eye-catching headlines of the PCs' latest exploits and clashes with the aforementioned threats.

A Central City of Adventure: The city of Brancean is modeled off of the real-world city of Constantinople, the capital of the East Roman Empire and then the Ottomans. As such, it is the focus of most of the setting, akin to what Gotham is to Batman and Metropolis to Superman.  It is a city of history, formed around the foundations of Highstone Academy when Aleria was but a division of independent baronies and tribes. As a principle nexus of an intercontinental trade network, it sees folk from all corners of the world (and some say of the planes). It is home to many wonderful sights, from the Colosseum where one can watch and participate in chariot races and all manner of sports tournaments; a literal Undercity home to drow, dwarves, and other subterranean beings; a 200 foot tall statue of the Goddess of Law and Civilization; and the pre-eminent Highstone Academy, of course!

Mediterranean Style Setting: The region is known as the Bowl of Levios, dominated by a central sea also called the Sea of Levios. This body of water was home to a great sea serpent of its namesake who ruled the lands as a god-king in times long past. Although in the current era there is debate as to his divinity, there is no question that he left a great mark on the land, and many of the oldest realms are seaside and underwater cities. Here are but a few lands of the Bowl:
  • the Alerian Empire, home to the cosmopolitan metropolis of Brancean and the world's most famous magical academy. 
  • the Al-Bahri Sultanate, a southern kingdom home to the Ridhai, who sail the seas on the back of island-sized Zaratan turtles.
  • the city-state of Kremdora, which suffered a devastating cataclysm while fighting an ascendant mage-tyrant and whose domain is now located within a residual anti-magic field.
  • Bristor, a northwesterly realm of small, independent kingdoms and tribes, home to knights, druids, and berserkers.
  • Tabiach, a realm of merchant princes and feuding city-states.

Imagine a Venice with merfolk and aquatic elf residents.  Imagine open-air tavernas serving pita bread dips and shish kebab street food to apprentice mages on their way to school . Imagine masked vigilantes fighting a possessed toga-clad statue of a long-dead emperor. Imagine an adventuring company accepting submissions from not just honorable knights and iconic elven archers, but also fair-haired northern reavers and steppe-borne nomads with curved swords. This is the world of Arcana High.

Scaling Powers: One of the chief mechanical principles of the two Pathfinder campaigns I ran for Arcana High was the use of magical relics. Once belonging to heroes of the distant past, they could transform a wielder into a masked form which the original heroes wore themselves. Aside from the super-genius gadgeteer, most superheroes were not known for carrying around gabs of equipment to act as the primary extension of their abilities.

For that reason, instead of accumulating gold and magic items as a primary campaign concern, I more or less made the relics into scaling magic items for the "big six" bonuses (weapon, armor, shield, saving throws, deflection, and natural armor). I also let the PCs choose from a broad array of relic upgrades which could be gained once per level. They included things ranging from an elemental energy blast attack to a Green Lantern-style major creation spell-like ability of limited duration. Magic items were still a thing in the campaign, and the PCs did have access to a pseudo-Batcave where they could load up on common gear between missions, but with the versatility of relics reliance upon the "Magic Item Christmas Tree" effect was nowhere near as pronounced. Being an all-spellcaster party helped ease things as well, for they are the classes in base Pathfinder which can best replicate a superhero feel.


Conclusion

I have a lot more to say about this dream project of mine, but right now I wanted to focus on the major themes instead of losing my dear readers in layers of lore I already wrote up in various documents.

What aspect of Arcana High should I focus on next?  Talk a bit more about the magic school? Perhaps a few figures from the supervillain rogue's gallery? Sample relic powers and abilities?

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!


Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: A Year in Review for RPGs



2016 has been an interesting year; it's also not been a great one for many reasons. All the same, it's been a bumpy and wild ride. But what of table-top games? What new and interesting innovations have we seen so far, if any?

Lord of the Rings got the 5th Edition Treatment: Although there's only a Player's Guide, Cubicle 7 combined too wildly popular franchises within geekdom, an effective official stamp on campaigns many gamers have entertained throughout the years as the twin progenitors of fantasy fiction and role-playing games.

Delta Green got an update: Published not by Chaosium, but by Arc Dream Publishing, this 90s style X-Files blend of Lovecraftian horror took an interesting spin on a well-worn genre.

Exalted 3rd Edition released: After a long and worrysome KickStarter, Exalted hit virtual and store shelves to varying levels of appreciation.

7th Sea 2nd Edition produced one of the most successful crowdfunded works: At $1.3 million dollars, this is amazing even by general KickStarter standards. Many fans answered John Wick's call to once again delve into a world of romantic swashbuckling action.

Advent of the Chronicles of Darkness: Although the "core book" update got released in December 2015, the 2nd Edition of White Wolf/Onyx Path's New World of Darkness kicked into overdrive. From upgrades such as Mage the Awakening to entirely new lines like Beast the Primordial.

Godbound brought us playable divinities for old-school D&D: Kevin Crawford built up a good reputation within the OSR community for years, but 2016 was his most ambitious project to date. With mechanics both familiar yet surprisingly rules-lite and balanced, a campaign where players are part of a traveling pseudo-pantheon of rising gods graced the tabletops of many gamers as well as releasing top-quality artwork into the public domain.

Apocalypse World: Quite a lot of revised games this year, huh? Another heavy-hitter which spawned its own fanbase and a vibrant third party community, Apocalypse World came out with a 2nd Edition.

For a more fantasy-based milieu, Fellowship (an apocalypse world-derived game) came out in spring to critical acclaim among the system's fanbase.

Eclipse Phase gets the FATE treatment: Much like Shadowrun, Eclipse Phase is much beloved for its unique and innovative setting, yet the rules scared off more than a few interested viewers. As part of a successful KickStarter, Transhumanity's Fate came out to add a more rules-lite touch.



Quite a lot of high-profile works got released around this time. Although these are the most noticeable and renown, some honorable mentions go to Frog God Games' Bard's Gate (a metropolis set in their Lost Lands world with some tabletop gamer celebrity cameos), Swords & Wizardry Light (a minimalist 4-page treatment of the aforementioned RPG with over a thousand free downloads), Dark Obelisk: Berrincorte (a crazy 1,000 page Pathfinder adventure meant to be the first of a four-part series), and Onyx Path reviving the Scarred Lands setting for Pathfinder and 5th Edition D&D.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas!



I was busy all day spending time with family, and had a very enjoyable holiday. May your hearts be filled with warmth and those you love kept close.