The “before” picture
I finally got around to building my new PC on Saturday morning. I woke up early (about 6:45 AM) in part because I’m getting old and old people eat dinner early and also wake up early, and because it was like gawddamned Christmas. I could tell that it had been quite some time since I’d last built a custom PC, because it took me hours for several reasons. First, the motherboard is a gaming motherboard, which means there’s a lot more gee-gaws on there in the event that the builder wants to overclock, side clock, cock-block, and rock around the clock. Second, the case I had bought was nicer than a sub-$100 case had any right to be, complete with a removable side panel that allowed me to route 98% of the cables out of sight to create the cleanest looking internal configuration I’ve ever had the pleasure to build. Third, I didn’t want to put an optical drive in there because everything is on the Internet now, except that for some reason this board’s integrated network port didn’t work at all without drivers…which were on the DVD that came with the motherboard. I had to open the side-panel, disconnect one of the HDDs and wire in a spare DVD to get the install media that would let me get the PC online.
To say that I’m pleased with this PC is an understatement. It used to be that my PC was the loudest thing in the room, what with its aging cooling system ramping up the fans just because the day ended with the letter “Y”. Now, I can hear all kinds of other things from the corners of the basement (and I’m kind of worried about the state of my house as a result) because the fans are software controlled, and the water cooling system is whisper-quiet. Honestly, I still expect to hear the fans whine at certain points of operation and it takes me a second or two to realize why I’m not.
My biggest problem? Finding something that I have that will put the system through its paces. The system I was replacing wasn’t deadweight; it could still handle pretty much everything I’d thrown at it, but looking over the recommended requirements for Mass Effect: Andromeda made me realize that I was only a micron away from falling away from the trailing edge of what I’d be able to run very, very soon.
The first Big Test was probably the biggest game I have that would yield true results: Star Citizen. I had been able to run SC, but not all that well, with visual lag coupled with the motion blur that can’t be turned off resulting in a real headache for me. On the new system, though, SC ran like a real game. I was able to sprint through Port Olisar, jump into my Connie and take off. Moving through the ship was a breeze, and I was even able to get back into the ship when I accidentally shot myself out of the airlock without worrying about mistiming due to lag.
Not representative of temps, but the number of control panels this motherboard offers is staggering
As a consequence of picking up a GTX 1070 from Newegg, I scored a copy of Ghost Recon: Wildlands, a game I’d been cool on, but interested if I could play with others. This game ran exceedingly well and only notched the CPU up to about 68C/154F which from what I’m seeing is either average for an i7-7700K with water cooling, or is on the lower side. In light of that, then, the only issue I ran into thanks to testing with GR:W was with the fact that I’m still using physical platter HDs.
I have an SSD for my main OS drive, and I try very hard not to install anything there, and I have moved all of my high-access content to one of the physical drives (page file, Documents, Downloads, Videos, etc). Everything else is installed to one of these two 500GB physical drives: one specifically for games, and the other for everything else. When running GR:W, then, the only issues that cropped up occurred when the game needed to access data from the disk. It hitched and paused for a few seconds which for an RPG might be OK, but for a game requiring a smooth experience so as not to end up dead, this was nigh unacceptable. Defragging the HD (remember that?) helped, but it got me thinking about what’s called an M.2 SSD.
On newer motherboards, there’s a slot for a device that looks like an old-school stick of RAM with its green board and exposed microchips. The port itself is generic, accepting anything from SSDs to wireless and Bluetooth cards. The benefit of an M.2 SSD is that its bus is supposedly faster than a conventional drive hookup (on my board, it’s a 6GB/sec SATA connection), but it’s also low-profile and requires no cables for connection or power supply.
So I’ve been considering adding an M.2. drive to this system, but it’ll have to wait because I’ve already spent as much as I’m able on this system at this time. Alternatively, I’m now in a place where I can consider whether or not to get on the VR bandwagon (or more accurately the much smaller VR Red Ryder wagon). I looked over what kinds of games on Steam require VR, and came away pretty unimpressed. I have Elite: Dangerous already, and while I know what a boon having head tracking is (thanks to having used TrackIR with the game), I’m not sure shelling out hundreds for a VR setup would be worthwhile just for Elite. Other promising items like Star Trek: Bridge Crew sound absolutely amazing on paper, but since I don’t know too many people who also have VR setups, I’d have to play with *shudder* the general population. Really, right now I’m thinking that I should shelve VR until V2.0 or if I’m hell bent on it for some reason, to look at lower cost versions like PSVR (which seems to have a better lineup than what I saw on Steam).
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Quite a while ago I had written a post about mapping when I was looking into setting up a Pathfinder campaign. In all honesty, I can’t for the life of me remember anything about the reasons for doing such a thing, although I do recall the time I spent learning techniques for hand-drawing maps. I remember this because I was pleasantly surprised with some of my results, although the actual maps I’d made have since been lost the mists of time.
Maps are an ancient and revered tradition in the RPG-sphere because the only reason why not all who wander are lost is because they stopped at the service station and picked up a map. Since the release of the MMO-esque D&D 4E, maps have been getting short shrift as tools of the Devil, dragging what should be a game about imagination into the realm of tactical miniatures (an argument which seems to ignore the fact that D&D was created by a tactical wargamer). Maps have been around since the very beginning of tabletop RPGs and have been used to push counters around as well as serving as useful reference tools for players to understand the lay of the land. While neckbeards around the world are chiding lesser beings for the inability to visualize everything about the elven kingdom down to the embroidery on their undergarments, visual aids not only help with immersion but allow GMs to go that extra mile, because art ain’t cheap and players love the details.
I’ve been on the lookout for easier ways to make maps for some time. As my earlier post stated I’d tried some of the really expensive tools like Campaign Cartographer, and have used freebies like the excellent tools on offer at Pyromancers.com (which I learned this weekend is offering a stand-alone mapping tool on Steam, which works great). Tools like CC bring a lot to the table by providing you with in-app ways to create content if you don’t have access to it, while tools like Pyro’s Dungeon Painter Studio rely on custom artwork to be imported from some other source.
The issue, then, is finding something specific that fits your needs. Yes, we can hand-draw a map, which is great for those who are fortunate enough to play locally, although we can scan it for download for those of us who have to play remotely, and while I’m sure those efforts can be just as appreciated as a frame-worthy map rendered by a top-notch cartographer being able to build a map using software has some advantages, like being able to maintain a sense of scale, and being able to speed up development through features such as layers.
This weekend I spent a good amount of time working with Dungeon Painter Studio trying to put something together for the mini-adventure I’ve been working on for Call of Cthulhu. It takes place inside a museum, which means that I need visual elements for things you’d find in a museum around the turn of the century. I figured there’d be a certain level of opulence in the public areas that was intended to invoke mysterious far away lands in an era before world travel was common: marble floors, Roman columns, tapestries, curving staircases, tropical plants, and so on. The exhibits themselves would also need to be represented, so I needed art for display cases, statues, and “ancient things” like sarcophagi. While I was able to create the perimeter of the museum’s first floor without issue, filling the space inside was decidedly more impossible, since like many mapping applications DPS leaned heavily towards high-fantasy assets like traps, mystical crystals, and castle flooring.
I ended up making a few simple floor tiles in Photoshop which worked OK, but absolutely failed when I tried to create anything more complex. I tried making a red wing-backed chair that resembled no chair anyone would consider sitting in (although for a CoC adventure, that might be a good thing to use). I also tried making a simple top-down view of a banner on a display post but failed in that as well. My only other option was to download a 5.5GB community collection of publicly available assets that were collected from free sources on various cartographic forums across the Internet. Although the organization required for DPS was lacking, there were more than enough assets in that archive to provide everything I think I need to create this map.
Sadly, it took me more time to get a fraction of the assets organized for use in DPS than I had available to re-work my initial attempt at making the map, so I don’t have anything to show you right now, and even if I did I don’t know that I would because it could end up spoiling the mystery of the adventure.
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Well, the search is already over, I’m afraid. I thought I’d stop back here and provide an update in case anyone finds this post later on and has a burning desire to know what was decided, or even if someone wants to give an alternate suggestion.
I had totally forgotten that I owned a copy of Scrivner. Scrivner is an application primarily aimed at writers of novels and short stories, scripts, and other organized documents. It has a fantastic organizational approach, allows for linking between documents, and even embed media.
One thing I had to check on before I got 100% excited was whether or not the iOS version could sync with the desktop version, and the answer is that yes it can if the data files are stored somewhere like DropBox.
For those who are looking for their own powerful organizer for their RPG content, or really want to start working on that Great American Novel (or Great Wherever You Live Novel), check out Scriver for Windows, MacOS, or iOS.
—- ORIGINAL POST BELOW THIS LINE —-
As our D&D game is winding down, I plan on taking a bit of sabbatical to consider options. It’s been a long time since I’ve played an RPG, so I might lean in that direction, or I might sit everything out for quite a while. We’ve been on the D&D track for several years now starting with 4E and then segueing into 5E and to be frank, I’m pretty burned out on the sword and sorcery angle. If I were to run another game, I’d want to move onto a different system. I’ve been working on a small one-shot module for Call of Cthulhu, but have also been considering an idea for a campaign setting for Numenera.
Organizing a homebrew used to be easy. One pen. One notebook. But since my groups aren’t local, and my locals aren’t interested, I turn to the Internet with its wealth of online tools. I’m never one to use a shovel when a transdimensional AI-enabled cranial backhoe will do, so I am always on the lookout for tools to help organize my thoughts.
The problem, though, is that nothing feels like a good fit, which is why I turn to you, dear reader, and your friends, dear friends of dear reader, for ideas.
What tools do you know of to help organize a world-building exercise for RPGs?
I do have a few requirements for what I’m looking for, although none of these are non-negotiable:
- My goal is to have something as full-featured as possible. This means text and visuals under one roof without having to store images with a hosting service and linked to the rest of the content.
- Ideally, it will be online. Offline is OK, especially if I can store data files in Dropbox or OneDrive or something.
- Ideally, it will be for PC, although if it’s online, something that works well on a tablet browser is also welcome.
- I’m really just looking for something that I will use; I don’t need the ability for players to use it since it’s intended to serve as a reference for future campaign designs.
- Free is good. Cheap is also good. Expensive one time fees will get a consideration. Subscription is less good, but if it’s the end of the road and that’s the only meal to be had, so be it.
And also to save some folks the trouble:
- I know all about pen and paper notebooks. For me, in 2017, they no longer cut it.
- I know all about eNotebooks like Evernote and OneNote. I use them frequently, but they are too unstructured for creating a reference manual. Office Online and Google Docs are also known, and also are lacking.
- I know about Obsidian Portal, but see item #5 above. I also have RealmWorks from Lone Wolf, but ye gawds it insults my eyes. I also have (and love) Fantasy Grounds, which works, but is rather un-portable.
If you have experience with eTools for organizing your campaigns and general world-building, please let me know. I’m so desperate I’ve started writing something myself, but that takes longer than I’d like to spend building tools to build tools. Also, if you could please share this with folks that you know in RPG communities, I’ll grant you Inspiration, an extra 1d8, or some other boon on your next attempt at success.
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I’ve never been able to write up good impression pieces, especially for video games. There’s so much to cover in games and so many angles from which to cover them that I tend to cross lines frequently and mid-stream so my posts are less “impressions” and more “that six year old trying to talk to you about Transformers after his fifth Pixie Stick”.
I’m going to talk about Horizon: Zero Dawn, then, in two phases: first, the mechanics. Second, the impression. Mechanics are facts that you can probably get from the developer’s site anyway and therefore spoil nothing. Impressions, however, are more free-form, and a lot of the time I find that it’s impossible to explain the extent of an impression without talking about specifics, which may mean spoilers. Personally, I don’t really shy from spoilers, and I assume that there’s two camps who read posts on subjects like this one anyway: those who are already in the car on the ride, and those who prefer to take the bus. In effect, you’ll either know what I’m talking about because you are also playing, or you have no intention (or ability) to play the game but want to know what the hype is all about. Yes, third party, I know you’re there: the ones who will wait for a sale or something. But for you, I have nothing but sympathy, as I won’t be the only spoilery outlet on the Internet.
The best shorthand I can offer someone who knows nothing about HZD is that it’s a post-apoc FarCry/Assassin’s Creed. For some, that’s a plus. For others it’s a condemnation. I only compare it thusly because there are some obvious parallels, but mechanics are only one (and even then, a minor) facet of any game. FC/AC mechanics WORK, so I think this is a bonus because of what HZD’s game world represents: open world, exploration, and accomplishment.
The Focus Vision
Early in the game, Aloy acquires a piece of old-world tech that she calls a Focus. It presents a holographic display of items in the world and is used as a kind of radar for game-play purposes. It can see a limited distance and can see through certain obstacles to outline creatures (organic and metallic) as well as lootable corpses in the world. Occasionally, it’s used to present additional information on narrative objects, like when Aloy first encounters a signal being broadcast from a nearby longneck mech. When in Focus mode, Aloy moves slower, and if she’s in crouch mode, she moves agonizingly slow. It is used often for info, and to make sure I don’t blunder into an otherwise unseen pack of mechs.
Focus mode helps identify enemies, animals, and normally unseen clues in the world.
Aloy is a young woman who has trained her whole life to survive in a hostile environment. She has learned to use a spear and a bow, and most importantly, to move silently among the machine predators that inhabit the wilds.
Movement is smooth, and I haven’t had any issues with the camera whatsoever. For an action game, this is super important, because no one likes to have their vision screwed up as they’re trying to take down an enemy. There’s an analog speed mechanic with the left stick, a sprint, and a stealth mode.
I personally have issues in using the weapons (not as in “my personal gripe”, but as in “I suck at it”). The difference between using the bow and using the spear is a matter of context. If you use the left trigger, you zoom in with the bow and can fire with the right trigger. If you just use the right trigger, you take a light swing with the spear. Using the right shoulder button, you can perform a hard attack with the spear. Not a few times did I try and fire an arrow at relatively close range (i.e. not zoomed) and found myself taking a swipe with the spear which was just OUT of range. Beyond that, I simply suck at hitting things with the bow. Early on I bought the ability that allows me to slow time for a bit when using the bow, but it doesn’t stop the target from walking or twisting and putting the target zone out of reach before I could fire off a shot.
Crafting is a major part of the game and is one of the reasons I make FC/AC parallels. Not only do you have to make your own ammo (arrows, mainly), but you need to use resources to increase the capacity of your bags in order to hold more weapons, ammo, potions, resources, outfits, and traps. Thankfully, materials that you need early on are in abundance, but I’m hearing that more esoteric materials used for advanced items and upgrades are more difficult to come by.
Most of the gear is upgradable as well by using a slot system. You’ll extract items from machines that can be added to weapons and armor to increase their stats, and I guess there’s not a lot more to say about that.
Collector’s Edition armor with upgrade slot.
Another FC/AC parallel is that the world is vast, open, and divided into points of interest. You start off in a region controlled by your birth tribe, the Nora. Within their walls, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Eventually, you’ll be sent on a mission outside those walls.
The map pinpoints your objective locations, giving you a route along the road to follow. Along the way, you’ll see icons for campfires (save and fast-travel points), side quests (green “!”), villages, merchants, and hunting grounds represented by an icon of the most prevalent mechanical game found there.
Nora citizens heading for the Proving.
Because you’re working within a pretty mountainous region (best argument I’ve seen puts the game world somewhere in Colorado), there’s a lot of uneven terrain. I rarely had issues figuring out how to get to where I needed to be and was only occasionally impeded by unclear pathways. One mechanic borrowed from Uncharted has Aloy able to climb rock faces using natural hand-holds as well as artificial pinions and ladders. Sometimes, these elements aren’t as obvious as they should otherwise be; I’ve circled a few rocks a few times looking for handholds that I know should be present, only to find them rendered in a very close color analog to the rock they were embedded into. The good thing is that simply pushing the stick in a direction will make Aloy leap, so traversing the vertical is pretty quick and very satisfying.
There are day and night cycles, although it sometimes seems that they change for narrative purposes when the need arises. There’s also rain (which generates a dense fog) and some light snow (which is all I’ve seen so far). At night when there’s a low-lying mist, the lights from the mechanical creatures have the right kind of haze you’d expect animals with built-in headlights to have.
HZD is a beautiful game, and I don’t even have a PSPro. The landscape appropriately lush for a world where nature is running rampant, although I have to reserve the best praise for the character models, which I feel are second probably only to Naughty Dog’s stellar work in Uncharted 4.
Because Aloy is a hunter living among mechanical creatures who are stronger, faster, and (frankly) heavier than she is, everything about the prey is dangerous even when they aren’t actually attacking. Because of this, stealth is a major component in combat.
Crouching is augmented by hiding in abundant patches of tall grass which shields Aloy from the sight of most predators unless they’re right on top of her. She can throw rocks to redirect attention, but can also whistle to draw a target’s attention to her. Both of these are super useful because the name of the game is sub-system targeting.
Aloy set upon by a Watcher.
Each machine has at least one weak spot, and it’s where you want to hit. For example, Watchers are like velociraptors with no front arms, and their one massive eye is their weak spot; get them to face you, and hit them once with a standard arrow to take them out. Other creatures may have a canister on their back in addition to smaller eyes, making it difficult to hit BOTH; hit the cannister and the creature will run away but hit the eyes and you lose visibility on the cannister. Some creatures have weak points in inconvenient locations, like the belly area, or move so fast getting a bead on specific body parts is difficult with advanced abilities. From what I can tell, then, the more visible or inaccessible weak spots a creature has, the harder they’ll be to take down.
Thankfully, there are more options than just rocks and whistles. Early on Aloy buys a tripcaster. This is a small crossbow which requires you to fire two ground stakes to string an electrified tripwire between them. Any mechanical creature of small or medium size that trips the wire is incapacitated for a time. There’s also the ropecaster which allows Aloy to secure targets to slow or immobilize them, but I haven’t bought that weapon yet and can’t speak about its effectiveness.
Aloy also has different ammo types. She starts out with a standard arrow but early on learns to craft flame arrows which explode and can set certain targets on fire. Even though they are mechanical, targets can be susceptible to elemental damage, and Aloy can discern this info using her Focus vision.
Beyond that, there are different damage types — fire, electrical, and a machine-specific CORRUPTION type — that can be applied to arrows, grenades, and traps.
A lot of NPC interactions are handled via cut-scenes and are driven by a Bioware-esque conversation wheel. Normal topics are listed unadorned, but critical path (i.e. decision making) options have a diamond icon next to them. On occasion, Aloy can choose from special responses designated by a brain (logical), heart (empathetic) or fist (strength) that have different effects on different NPCs from what I can tell. What the over-arching result of these decisions is, I don’t know.
Finally, you will be able to secure a mount. This system is most like the one found in The Witcher 3, with repeated taps of a button to increase and decrease speeds, and also the option (in settings) to have your mount stick to a path so you don’t need to constantly course-correct along the road (just when you reach an intersection).
Well, the clinical stuff is mostly out of the way, at least up to the point I’ve gotten (about 8% of the game after a few hours). Now we can talk about our feelings.
HZD is a great game. It’s already nailed what I’d hoped to get out of it, which is the narrative and the immersion in this weird world that Guerilla has created. I loved the Uncharted series as much for its depiction of the Drake’s home life as I did when Nathan was running and jumping through jungle ruins because there was that sense of sonder built in. Characters are remembered for their heroics, but they can’t be heroic without a reason to get up off the proverbial couch and to me that matters just as much as high-voltage cut-scenes.
Aloy was raised as an outcast by a man named Rost who opted to leave the Nora tribe for reasons we don’t find out early in the game. When Aloy was a child, she stumbled upon some “metal age” ruins — an old lab. Inside she finds several aged corpses, and a bit of technology she calls the Focus which allows her to interact with the world using holographic interfaces. She learns a bit about the dead through recorded logs that they left which give us just a bit of creepy insight into how the world ended up falling: there was apparently some catastrophe which caused these specific people to lock themselves away until their only decision was how quickly they were willing to die.
Aloy finds the Focus in a metal age ruin as a child.
Rost trains Aloy because he hates that she has to live as an outcast and knows that some day she can participate in the Nora ritual of the Proving, when any young person who finishes can join the ranks of the “braves” of the tribe. For outcasts, this means an opportunity to return to the tribe. For the winner of the ritual, though, he or she can make a single demand of the tribe that must be granted, and Aloy already has her’s lined up: she wants to know who her mother is. She’s not Rost’s child but was given to him to raise for reasons we barely understand: Aloy wasn’t born, she was found inside the sacred mountain in what the Nora call the Temple of the All-Mother, their most sacred space. No one knows how she got there, or who her mother really is, but once the village is attacked by an unidentified cult who seemed to be specifically after Aloy, she leaves the Nora homelands for the city of Meridian in order to track down a lead on a traitor who might have some answers.
The mysterious birth angle isn’t anything new, but the direction the story points us in is really how it should be judged. Aloy was left at a literal doorstep: a massive sealed door in the Temple, behind which is a complete and utter mystery. Aloy believes her mother exists behind that door. We’re given the hint through her Focus that Aloy is descended from someone specific who is recognized by the door’s security system and who lived before the apocalypse, but if it’s her mother, her original template, or something else, we don’t yet know.
The mysterious door in the Temple from which Aloy emerged as an infant.
One of the things that I think would be critical to nail is the feeling that Aloy exists in a stone-age world alongside both the shadow elements of a fallen humanity and the hyper-advanced living machine ecosystem. While the Nora aren’t the most technologically advanced humans we see, they’re not paralyzed by ignorance. They understand some technology but don’t have the faculty or know-how to recreate old-world technology that can work for them. More to the point, we get the sense that they don’t want to. When Aloy returns to the Nora village of Mother’s Heart, she can watch a storytelling session given to children where the speaker talks about how the elder humans left the teachings of the All-Mother and embraced the technology which lead to their downfall. The Nora see technology as evil and don’t want any part of it outside of what little they can repurpose for their own use — armor and weapons that are most effective aginst machine creature attacks. In this, I think Guerilla did a great job of making Aloy and the Nora the believable “contemporary” civilization, with the ruins of past humanity suitably ruined enough to be mysterious while being stupidly familiar to us as players, and the presence of machine beasts consistently feeling as alien as they first did when we saw the original reveal trailer, in part because Guerilla puts actual organic animals in the world as both a ground (“this is what hunters would normally hunt”) and a necessary as a crafting reagent.
Mother’s Heart, the center of Noran civilization.
I love the character models. Up close, we get the uncanny valley of design that tries too hard to make things look authentic: scrubby hair, shiny moisture, and massive pores. At speaking distance, though, the character faces are significantly different so it’s extremely easy to give characters physical personality beyond what comes out of their mouths. It looks to me like major characters were each crafted as individuals, and not cobbled together from a limited set of face shapes, eyes, brows, mouths, noses, and facial hair.
A fellow Norian destined for the Proving.
The voice acting is pretty damn good as well for most of the characters. They have the kind of cadence and inflection that you’d expect from someone in normal conversation, based on their personality and the situation they’re speaking about. The only stumbling block is Aloy herself when it comes time for her to respond based on a player-made conversation decision, a failing I call “Shepard Syndrome” because of the same result in the Mass Effect games. Normal conversation sounds fine, but when the character needs to say something in response to a player decision, the delivery sounds wooden and very “prompt-like”, as if they’re querying a voice-activated computer and aren’t expecting a human response. For how it’s done right, consider Star Wars: The Old Republic’s voiced player-character responses.
I see a dangerous precipice, though: the need for repetition. HZD’s conceit is that you’re a hunter who has to hunt robots for survival and for parts used in survival. At that level, a lot of games would push you hard into having to constantly farm targets even beyond the point where it’s fun anymore. Once I got the ability to “tame” certain creatures and got one as a mount, I just wanted to run full speed ahead to the next story destination but found myself having to dismount or slow because I had to avoid detection by roving mechanicals placed too close to the road. On one hand, I need the materials and the XP and — quite honestly — the practice, but on the other hand, I am playing on EASY mode because I’m all about the story and not any sort of chest-thumping that would accompany anyone taking issue with my choice. I know that in games past when I reached the point where content was becoming annoying, it was a harbinger of losing interest. While I also had moments comparing my time in HZD to my recent time in Uncharted 4 where I said “yeah I can see myself putting all else aside to return to this game until complete”, I don’t want to supersede THAT feeling because the design thinks fighting robots is too cool for anyone to NOT want to do it over and over and over.
An angered Watcher.
I suppose the question for anyone looking for info on whether or not to pay full price or wait for a sale is “is it fun?” I hate that question because fun is subjective. “Is it worth full price” is a resounding YES from me because even though I don’t care for the Assassin’s Creed-as-inspiration vibe I get which short-circuits whatever OCDness I have when it comes to task management, I don’t feel quite so overwhelmed with HZD’s implementation. At the point where I’m at, I feel that there’s enough to do without it being a burden or without too many side-quests becoming the “main quest”. The game has striking visuals, great acting, solid mechanics, an engaging story, and enough to keep players busy for hours without stopping (not that I recommend or endorse that kind of binge).
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The plan (as I recall it), was to free the prisoners that were being held in the Well of Dragons, and to use them as a distraction while the party did what it was that they came to do.
What happened was that the party found a bunch of prisoners, but had no key to unlock the cages. There were anywhere between 150 to 200 prisoners left in the pens spread out across at least three rooms, so a quick assessment was needed. While the party tossed one room looking for a key, the barbarian wandered down the hall to another, more populated room and found a gnome cultist busy trying to to unlock one of the cage doors…with thieve’s tools.
Turns out that the spy that the Zhentarim had deployed to the Well was the party’s good friend Jamna, who left the scene after the party crashed the flying castle. She mentioned that she was working for the Zhentarim all along, and since their goals and the goals of the party worked so well together, she was ordered to tag along and gather intel on the Dragon Cult. Once they had enough info and an opportunity, the Zhentarim pulled her from the group and sent her undercover into the Well of Dragons. It was her information that allowed the party to know about the unused southern entrance.
With a way to free the prisoners, the party was under pressure to open the cages. Soon after, a patrol wandered down the hall. They stopped to make conversation with the warlock before continuing on.
This was when the party had to figure out what to do about the prisoners. One option was to lead the prisoners to the entrance of the Well that the party had used and leave them to their own devices. Another was to leave them in the cell rooms where at least they should be safe until the party could complete their mission. A third option (favored by Jamna and the warlock) was to misdirect the prisoners deeper into the volcanic complex to stir up confusion among the cultists. Finally, someone suggested that the party take the prisoners with them.
In the middle of the conversation, however, the guard patrol re-emerged at the rear of a column of about 50 prisoners. The earlier interaction with these guards informed the party that prisoners were being taken to the Black Chapel where they were being sacrificed to lend power to the ritual. Rather than allow this group through, the party silently redirected the oncoming stream of prisoners into the cell rooms they had just liberated.
About half way through, the guards at the back noticed that the column wasn’t progressing towards the intended destination, and two guards pushed through the remaining crowd to investigate. They were promptly cleaved in two by the barbarian. While this solved 1/2 the party’s issue regarding the guards, the remaining prisoners were now trapped between the other two guards and a gore-covered barbarian and his party, so their problems were just par for the course at this point.
These remaining prisoners were ushered into the cell rooms. Upon seeing the hallway empty, two dead compatriots, and a party of what looked like traitorous cultists, one of the guards turned and fled immediately. As the rest of the party set upon the remaining guard drake, the warlock chased the running cultist into what was apparently a guard drake stable. He managed to take out one drake and fell back to the hallway intersection where he met with the rest of the party to make short work of the remaining enemies.
With the coast having been cleared, the party really needed to come up with a plan of attack. They sneaked within range of the Black Chapel, finding that there were eleven cultists on three levels of the structure — two of which required their occupants to be floating 50 and 100 feet above the ground — performing a gate summoning ritual. Once again, the prisoners came up as a potential disruptive technique, but the idea was deflated when it was realized that “slaughter the prisoners to fuel the ritual” was actually why the prisoners were there in the first place. Due to the way that the chapel was built, however, it was decided that the party might be able to take out the ritualists in each silo — both at ground level and levitating one level up — one alcove at a time.
+ + +
It had been about a month since we’d last convened, due to several real life issues. We opted to have an Emergency Session Tuesday in order to catch up.
Seeing as this is the “end game”, there’s not a lot I can speak to without potentially giving away info that would greatly affect the course of action should one of the players read this post. Suffice to say that I remember being concerned that the party was focused on the wrong goals and would spend a lot of time exploring the Well of Dragons, but they seem to have come around to face the point from which the urgency stems. I tried throwing some “deus ex machina” in there by way of the guard patrol (“based on how often they want prisoners, and how many we have, I guess the ritual has maybe about 2 hours left before the glorious return of our Queen”) and also the reintroduction of Jamna the rogue.
I wanted to bring Jamna back because of no good reason, I suppose. Technically, she fit the bill: the Zhentarim DID give the party insider info, and Jamna IS a member of their outfit, and she HAD run with the party for quite some time, so it was a tropey addition. Plus, GM run NPC companions can serve as a Greek chorus, assuming the players ask the right questions, but will never volunteer critical information on their own. And, you know…she’s more firepower in the event that the party needs it.
The plan is to assault the Temple of Tiamat. I’m glad the group got a plan sketched out before the next session; it could be over fairly quickly if the party is efficient and smart about it, or it could turn into a protracted bloodbath. We’ll see!
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My two favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy, which is boilerplate for nerds around the world, but I had no idea how to open this post beyond stating the obvious. The main reason why I like these genres is because they both allow stories to exceed the possible — sci-fi goes beyond technologies that we live with now, and fantasy…well, fantasy has license to simply blow the doors off of reality. Novels, movies, and video games are all about escapism, and give us stories set in worlds where problems can be solved with a plasma cannon or with a carefully selected magical spell, unlike the real world where a lot of the issues that concern us are way outside of our reach or exceed our available resources to deal with.
Most fantasy, though, seems to have limits. “high fantasy” is a super-popular sub-genre which practically defines the sweep of its parent, thanks to the enduring nature of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and other folks who use letters as whole names, and folks like Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss whose names are short enough to spell out in their entirety. I shouldn’t have to elucidate the meaning of “high fantasy” for you, dear nerd, but in the event someone happens along who has no idea what the hell I’m talking about, consider this: elves who live in trees, dwarves with Scottish accents who live under mountains, humans who bumble through the world and reproduce at astonishing rates, maybe a live dragon or memories of dragons long since dead, orcs, trolls, giant spiders, and of course, magic both good and evil. Despite the presence of magic as magic (unlike “the Force as midichlorians”), high fantasy worlds seem to have a hard stop to their possibilities. The genre offerings always seem to have lines that they won’t cross, because even when you’re talking about pointy-eared humanoids who live hundreds of years and in the woods, there are some ideas which are apparently too wacky to approach.
Thing is, I LIKE the wacky approach a lot more than fantasy with artificial bounds. Sci-fi will always need to be rooted in the idea that “we’ll get there, someday”, which is why I love shows like Battlestar Galactica (the newer) and The Expanse (and the book form). Over the years, I’ve come to want more from my fantasy than what Tolkien’s legacy has left us with, and I’ve been able to find such things in works of Clive Barker (Imagica, et al), Felix Gilman (Thunderer, et al), and China Mieville (Perdido Street Station, et al).
What ties these offerings together isn’t their lack of elves and dwarves, but their world building. High fantasy popularized the practice of deep world building, and to this day you’d be hard pressed to find a D&D DM who DIDN’T get into the business because of his or her love of creating a whole world from scratch. RPGs, in particular, give people opportunities to create worlds to their liking, and a lot of game-runners tackle this step with gusto because it sets up the parameters of what is and is not possible for players and NPCs to accomplish. But world building is hard, especially if one has grown up only on a diet of high fantasy with its contrived limitations and an understanding that if the Evil Necromancer can raise an army of the undead, then by golly the players should be able to do that too! And if the players can wield the Sword of Interdimensional Collapse, then by golly…the Ultimate Evil should be able to do that too…for better or worse. I call this the “Deck of Many Things Conundrum”: give your players leeway to come up with creative solutions, but don’t destabilize the game world because if the players can do it, then the NPCs should be able to do it as well*.
When the world becomes a character, things get interesting. Case in point: Numenera, a setting that uses Monte Cook’s Cypher System for role playing games. The world of Numenera pulls absolutely no punches; several billion years in Earth’s future, humanity has survived several “ages”. Each new age is built upon the ruins of past ages which means that players in the current age are constantly finding bits of ancient artifacts — numenera — that are unexplainable and range from the stupidly mundane to the terrifyingly game-altering. Whereas high fantasy discourages the idea that the players should find themselves in control of something that could cause the fabric of reality to turn itself inside out, Numenera considers that kind of opportunity “a day that ends in ‘y'”.
As you can imagine, this opens up opportunities for game runners to throw down absolutely anything he or she wants to in an effort to reward or bait the players for making good decisions or to try and push them to make really, really bad ones. Magic works as either a mystical force OR as science. Space ships are either technologically invented OR are unexplained steampunk contraptions. A creature is either organic OR mechanical…or both…or neither if you can figure out a way to present that. When there is no explained limit to what can be done, or in the case of Numenera, explicit instructions that THERE IS NO LIMIT, things get weird…and difficult.
I tried setting up a Numenera play by post game once, and quickly found myself confounded by the options in the face of established examples of what Numenera is capable of. My scenario involved nothing more than a hand-wavey reason to put the players up against a criminal syndicate, which in retrospect seems lame, and a waste of the expanse of what Numenera provides. In fact, I was recently playing the soon-to-be-released Numenera: Tides of Torment on the PC when I realized that I am simply not equipped to do the Numenera world justice.
Case in point: This screenshot.
Click for the horrifying description
If you’ve ever read anything by Clive Barker or China Mieville, then the LEVEL of this kind of weirdness is par for the course. To me, it both makes my skin crawl and gives me gooseflesh because of the sheer level of malevolence and creativity involved in pushing well past the barriers of the kind of thing high fantasy would employ to tackle such a scenario. This is some other-world level stuff right here: one part mystical, one part horror, and one big part psychological. It takes the conceit of the world and employs it in ways that are projecting at an angle that can’t be measured by traditional geometry, and it hurts my head. I am in awe of the creativity in this one panel simply because I know such a system would never have occurred to me. I don’t know if I’m too practiced in the ways of high fantasy, too old to get my mind kick-started to think this far outside the box, or if I’m just nowhere near as creative as I’d always assumed I was. I suspect it’s at least a little from each column, and that makes me sad.
The Cypher System is one of a new breed of “anti-D&D” systems that have been cropping up over the past few years, where the rules call for fewer numbers, less dice, and more free-form roleplaying. For many, it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around, but I continue to really want to try. Problem is, I don’t know that I could ever do the system justice, certainly not on the level that Tides of Torment is offering. That is what makes me sad: it’s a great system with actual, limitless potential, and here’s me…wasting it.
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