Demise of Watchman Island

I was totally planning on writing a review of Demise of Watchman Island, the sample adventure included in the playtest material of Varg’s MYFAROG, but B/X has taken up a lot more of my time lately, particularly my writing on Vampires & Liches. I may get to it eventually, but now that I am writing for both Cirsova (whose core content I am falling behind on) and Dice Monkey, I have my work cut out for me.

Rather than give you my interpretations of it, you can check DoWI out for yourselves, as Varg has made it public. Additionally, he has posted a Fan-written expansion to the module that somewhat rectifies the original’s downer ending, in which no mysteries are solved despite a significant loss of life.

Cirsova

Cirsova! Cirsova! Land of Green, Land of Rivers, Land of Mountains, Land of Forests, Land of Power, Land of Kings!

Cirsova is the heart of culture as it is the heart of empire. All other peoples shall be measured against her qualities and might! The closer to Cirsova a people, the closer to the living gods who have through the ages brought the light of civilization and prosperity to those in the dark.

Cirsova’s calendar is dated to the founding of Gatia, the Imperial seat, though Cirsovan culture goes back a few hundred years prior. About 500 years before the founding of Gatia, one of the tribes, the Akhirs, who’d arrived from across the Dawnsea (some say the founders of Solaris) began migrating northward from Ortia and Paelnor. Upon reaching the heartland, the Akhirs found a land overflowing with milk and honey. Everything a civilization needed to thrive was nearby and plentiful: fertile graze and farmland, abundant timber, plentiful mineral resources, and a navigable river-route to the sea.

The Akhirs made clever alliances and favorable marriages with the native peoples they found inhabiting this new land. Some imperial historians claim that after only three centuries, pre-Cirsovan culture had been fully assimilated, and that no distinction could be made between the two. A more likely scenario, as these historians claim “no distinct pre-Cirsovan artifacts have been identified”, is that the Akhirs were the people who became fully assimilated into the more settled and advanced heartlanders’ culture. This is also evident in the adoption of the heartlanders’ language and pronunciation, hence the ‘Akhirs’ (which is very Ortian) became ‘Cirs’. Joined with “Ova”, pre-Cirsovan for nest, we have Cirsova, or “Nest of the Akhirs”.

For around 400 years, Cirsovan culture revolved around a system of city states that traded with one another and shared a common language and culture. Not long after its founding, Gatia quickly became the most powerful of these city states, unifying the whole of the Cirsovan heartland in only two decades. This first Emperor, Ga Akana, is still today seen and worshipped as a living god, for how else could one man so mightily bring all of the heartlands under his banner?

I’m a Writer at Dice Monkey Now!

I didn’t want to announce this until I had my login and password to start putting stuff up over there, but I’m proud to say I’m now on the Dice Monkey team!

I’ll still be posting here, of course, but you can find more material by me at DiceMonkey.net.

Also, the post which disappeared, “Narrative AC Theory and What an Attack Roll Means”, will reappear there soon 🙂

Bartland Brothers and a Bottle in a Case

Being a major port city, goods from all over the empire may be sampled here.  Midtown Syflanis is one grand bazaar, where food, drink and drug of all variety can be found in the markets, stalls and taverns.  One of the taverns of some renown, Bartland Brothers, has in a wooden display case behind the bar what may be the only publicly available commercial bottle of Shuul.  Drafts from the bottle are expensive, infrequent and often disappointing (it has been said).  No one who has sampled it has ever reported anything beyond its strong and unpleasant taste.  Whether the bottle is real or not is subject of numerous urban legends throughout the city.

Why Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliances Scratches an Itch Even Though It’s Kind of Terrible

Lately my intense jones to play some Dungeons & Dragons with someone, ANYONE, has led me to pick up a game I hadn’t played in years: Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliances.  I had a choice between that and Neverwinter Nights (assuming I hadn’t lost or thrown the discs away in the last 4 months).  I opted not to pick Neverwinter Nights largely in part because I remember playing it was a buggy disappointment (when I got it, I had lousy internet, so I didn’t get it all nice and patched up), where every treasure chest meant rolling 1d12 to see if the game crashed.  That, and I’m not really spending any time in front of my personal computer these days for games or any other reason.

Why does it scratch an itch?  I guess because in so many ways, it reminds me of Gauntlet, without the backtracking.  Gauntlet Dark Legacy is an amazing game, but sometimes you just want to kill wave after wave of monsters without having to worry about flipping this switch or pressing that button, then running around all over creation to find out what door got opened.  I also find myself making all of these mental comparisons between Baldur’s Gate and actual Dungeons & Dragons.  How Baldur’s Gate handles and emulates its D&D source material, how the combat situations in Baldur’s Gate would work out in D&D, and how a Baldur’s Gate that retained its engine and combat but more faithfully retained the raw numbers of Dungeons & Dragons (in terms of damage, armor, XP and volume of enemies) would look have all been my brain candy of the last few days.

At the turn of the century, 3rd Ed gaming was coming into vogue, with numerous attempts to recreate the new d20 system digitally for our lonely gaming enjoyment.  For what it was worth, Neverwinter Nights managed to somewhat faithfully cobble together something resembling the actual d20 system, complete with non-plot moving and non-utility spells that functioned something like their dead tree pulp counterpart.  I never played the “real” Baldur’s Gate games, (or Planescape: Torment), though if something very drastic changes in my life, I may take the opportunity to play them someday.  I did, however, pick up Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliances for Xbox out of the bargain bin on a friend’s recommendation.

Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliances purports to be based on 3e rules, but only in the most abstract possible sense.  It’s more Diablo, than anything else, just with better graphics and less (no) mouse clicking. You have three locked race/classes (Human Archer/fighter, Dwarf Fighter, and Elf Wizard) to choose from.  Any degree of customization comes from the point-buy based ability system, but as down as I am on point-buy based custom class/ability systems in table top gaming, they work perfect in video games.

The first time I played it, back in 08, I played as the Wizard.  I’ve always really liked magic-users in D&D, despite all of their weaknesses, failings, and clichés.  No Vancian magic here, just rapid fire casting followed by mana potion chugging.  Not much of a D&D feel to it, really, but the hordes of hundreds of monsters your lone self is up against doesn’t have much of that feel either.  Even though I beat the game with the wizard eventually, it was rough going.  Part of the problem, I’m now realizing, is that I never utilized the Block feature any.  In Dungeons & Dragons, all Defense is passive.  Even active Defense, like “I run around in circles to avoid being hit”, is passive in that it maybe granted a small penalty to the attacker’s roll.  So, in any case, I tend to slug it out and trade blows with monsters, thinking my armor would make enemies “Miss”.  When you’re fighting even a few monsters, they can make pretty short work of you if you’re opting for this kind of melee. Unlike Neverwinter Nights, where combat is simulated using some sort of d20 approximate logarithm, calculating each combatant’s rolls vs. armor and then rolling for damage, in Baldur’s Gate, if you’re there when something is stabbing at you, you get stabbed.

I started playing Baldur’s Gate again recently, this time playing as the Archer.  The sheer amount of monsters you face, combined with the HP inflation makes playing as the Archer somewhat challenging.  If you’re fighting over a hundred monsters per dungeon, and each monster takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 20 arrows, you’re going to be running out of arrows often.  Fortunately, I had my trusty Fine Masterwork Mace of Disruption +1 to fall back on, and I relied on it quite heavily on in Act 1.  Still, a skeleton would take a good 4 or 5 whacks with it to take out.  The Hit Dice/Hit Point inflation, combined with keeping the base damages and bonuses of weapons, makes combat very different from what we’d see in actual Dungeons & Dragons.  With the rapidity of attacks, one round of combat is equivalent to about 1 second.  One is typically able to get off enough ranged attacks against a single enemy before that enemy is able close the maybe 60-80′ distance from the edge of the screen to your character to engage in melee, but the bow isn’t particularly good for crowd control.  Once things get face to face, there is a small resemblance to D&D combat: you and the monster take swings at each other till one or the other dies.  But as mentioned before, monsters never ‘miss’ and their numbers ensure that you’ll be made short work of if it comes to trading blows, even against the smallest enemies.

I spent most of Act 1 trading blows and chugging healing potions.  Unlike my first play thru years ago, I managed to beat the Beholder easily on the first go-round.  Something as concrete as simply being able to jump around like a lunatic gives one a better shot than any saving throws to avoid the various death-gazes of an Eye Tyrant.  It wasn’t until the start of Act 2 that I realized I had been playing things all wrong and making them harder than they needed to be.  I’d been playing under a few incorrect assumptions caused by having played similar games and by D&D itself: the best defense is a good offense and armor makes you harder to ‘hit’.

I had forgotten that Act 2 begins outside of a ‘base’.  You have to fight your way through an army of gnolls and mountain yetis before you reach the dwarven mining camp that will serve as your ‘recall’ point through the rest of the Act.  I had not returned to the Elfsong Inn (‘base’ for Act 1) to restock my supply of arrows and potions, so I went into the fight against the gnolls and yeti woefully under-equipped.  Using my blow trading strategy, I could only make it through 6 or 7 baddies before I was out of arrows, out of potions and out of luck.  I had to start using my shield.

I was playing a very different game. In Dungeons & Dragons, there is no blocking and a shield is only a small bonus to add to (subtract from) your Armor.  It makes you slightly harder to hit.  Now, in Baldur’s Gate, the shield itself and the bonuses to armor that it construes are immaterial to blocking (indeed, you can block without a shield), but the act of blocking and completely negating an attack fundamentally alters the nature of combat.  Actual armor value may have some nuanced effect on damage, but as far as actually stopping an attack, not receiving damage from a blow, or causing a monster’s attack to ‘miss’, one is reliant entirely on one’s own timing and skill.

Combat began to resemble the flow of D&D combat featuring an upper middle level fighter, as I’d block the attacks of 1 or 2 gnolls at a choke point.  After each attack, I would lower my guard, get a chop in, and hope that my shield came back up in time.  Sometimes a blow would get through my guard, but more often than not, I was dishing out far more than I was taking, just slower than before.  Even though the fights began to look more like D&D, they felt less like it.  A part of me was screaming “These defenses should be passive!”  Besides, any time I was pressing the block button was time I wasn’t hitting something with a mace.  But I thought about the combat in Neverwinter, waiting for the characters’ models run through their animations, rolling their virtual dice against one another and slowly grind down numbers.  I want to be the one rolling those dice!  Passive player involvement in combat does not typically make for fun video gaming.

So, what would a Baldur’s Gate that more closely resemble Dungeons & Dragons look like?  For one thing, there would be fewer monsters.  Both monsters AND the player character would have hit points that resembled the tabletop counterparts.  To make it fairer, you might give the player maximum HP at level 1 and average all monster hits, but let’s not have what should be 1 hit die undead taking five or six whacks from a magic blunt weapon specifically enchanted against undead.  Monsters would also do less damage to compensate for your own lowered HP.  You would also level up a lot faster.  It might also have more NPCs within dungeons and more to do than simply kill everything on each level.  Would it be a fun game?  Or more fun than Baldur’s Gate?  Could a game retain the depth and scope of something like Neverwinter Nights while retaining Dark Alliances’ simplicity of play? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to see.

All in all, I’ve found my return to Dark Alliances fun and rewarding.  It’s easy to plunge into for some D&D-themed mind-numbing violence.  Sometimes you just want to beat lots of monsters with a stick, story, puzzles and exploration be damned.  Nothing to see here, just more monsters.  Floor to ceiling with monsters!

I feel like I should mention that there are some particularly jarring and embarrassing moments of unnecessary and extreme boobage.  The bar-maid is cartoonishly endowed, and the almost naked drow queen is cringe-worthy.  I’m only about half-way through, but I doubt those are the only two examples.  It would be nice to play some D&D video games without the bizarre sexism in those I’ve seen.  Still, nothing in Baldur’s Gate is as bad as Neverwinter Night’s god-awful “have a nice conversation with prostitutes for 100 XP” brothel, but in a way, that makes BG’s boobage seem even more out of place.  Neverwinter Nights always felt like it was written with murderhobos specifically in mind, and I’m surprised that it never got the shit that Oblivion got, even though it was more deserved.

Sorry for rambling on so long.  Like I said, I’m jonesing for D&D, and this is the best I’ve got.

Vampires vs. Liches Part 1: Test Prep and B/X Liches

After doing a little homework, I’ve realized that the comparison between Liches and Vampires may be apples to oranges, at least if we’re looking at B/X.  I’ve only recently begun looking back at the D&D/OD&D rulesets.  Liches from one edition to another are VASTLY different (OH MY!).  This may throw a bit of a wrench in my plans to play out some B/X scenarios

See, I’m mostly familiar with Liches from 2nd edition AD&D.  Based on the Lich entry in the Monstrous Manual, a magic user of around 16th level or so could turn oneself into a Lich.  It took some digging, but I finally found where Liches stood in B/X (the Master set, to be exact), and it’s pretty damn near the top, suggesting a character level of between 27 and 36.  Sweet Jesus!  Fortunately, B/X Liches’ hit dice are restricted to their class, because they’re treated almost like a prestige class(!) rather than a monster.  That figures out to somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-50 HP (with a generous average of 2.5 per hd roll) for magic users and 50-60(avg. 3.5 per hd role) for clerics.  Despite being level 27-36, they’re about 10-12 Hit Dice monsters, at least in terms of HP, since Characters top out on actual dice around level 9 (I’d overlooked this initially; without using Character HD caps, they’d have around 70-100HP, putting them on par with AD&D Liches).  They do, however, have an additional 20 levels of wealth, legendary items and epic level spells.  Plus, B/X Liches can snap their fingers and have 2d4 Vampires show up. Don’t forget that even random Vampires take some storylining (kill & destroy at LEAST one coffin) to actually kill off.

It is interesting to see the difference in power between the B/X lich and his AD&D counterparts, or his 8HD (roughly 36 HP) OD&D counterpart.  Also, I think it’s important to point out that in B/X an Elf cannot be a Lich.  This means that the Vampire route is still probably the best for an Elven mage wishing to increase his powers further.  And some of the B/X Lich’s immense power might simply be from the desire to hold back some iconic monsters for the higher level sets.  But who really plays at those levels?  Even Tomb of Horrors, which features D&D’s second most famous Lich, is recommended for levels 10-14.  Yes, it’s AD&D and Acererak is a Demi-Lich, but I think the point still stands: high end of Expert set levels ought to be appropriate for Lich hunting.

It’s not atypical for parties to be fighting monsters a few hit dice above their level.  There are a number of experiments that could be set up to see how 8th-10th level B/X parties fared against a B/X Lich and a converted AD&D Lich.

I still intend to go forward playing out some scenarios, but I know now that I should probably include both an OD&D Lich AND a B/X Lich.  While a standard B/X Vampire could probably take an OD&D Lich, I seriously doubt he could hold his own against a B/X or AD&D Lich.

So, here are some experiments to run through:

1. A level 8-10 party against an OD&D Lich

2. A level 8-10 party against a B/X Lich

3. A level 8-10 party against a B/X Vampire

4. A level 8-10 party against an Elven B/X Vampire

5. A B/X Vampire vs an OD&D Lich

6. An Elven B/X Vampire vs an OD&D Lich

7. A B/X Vampire vs a B/X Lich (I have the feeling this will be short and brutal)

8. An Elven B/X Vampire vs a B/X Lich (This may last a bit longer, but I still feel it will be very one sided)

In doing these experiments, there are some assumptions I need to make about the mechanics of Vampires.  How many of a Vampire’s hit dice are determined by their pre-Vampire life?  Any persons killed by the Vampire may be raised as Vampires, so do we assume that even a low level character would return as at least a 7HD Vampire.  There’s nothing to indicate any relationship between a Vampire’s Hit Dice and the Hit Dice of whoever the Vampire was beforehand, other than that we’re given a range of 7-9 Hit Dice for Vampires.  Because I don’t want to turn B/X into some d20 point-buy twink BS, I’m only going to extrapolate high level Elven or magic user Vampires based on other undead who retain spellcasting abilities (such as mage wraiths).  At most, I’ll throw in an extra Hit Die.  Vampires’ abilities already put them +2 Dungeon Levels/XP tiers over normal monsters.  A normal fighter-build Vampire (7-9HD) would be Dungeon Level 9-11.  Therefore, a 10 HD Elven Vampire would be Dungeon level 13, adding an extra level for the spellcasting ability.  I think this is more than reasonable to throw against an 8th-10th level party.

I still can’t get over the stats of the OD&D Lich.  Both the OD&D Vampire and Lich are 8 HD monsters.  The Vampire has remained more or less the same (the B/X Vampire mostly just moves a bit faster), while the Lich has more than doubled in power.