Review: Frayed Knights, Skull of S’makh-Daon

This review is long overdue. Of course part of it is just that life and business got in the way, but originally one of the biggest stumbling blocks was I was at a loss for what to say about something I enjoyed so much but had so many complex thoughts on. And for the time it’s taken me to get around to actually writing this, I apologize, since the time it’s taken has not actually made it proportionally better.

A few months back, Cirsova contributor Jay Barnson sent me a copy of his FPRGP Frayed Knights: Skull of S’makh-Daon. While I was playing it, I was absolutely addicted and could not stop until I finished it.

On the surface, Frayed Knights is an exploration-focused first person RPG with a fair share of hack-and-slash, but there’s a great deal of nuance to it that really scratches a lot of itches that someone who has played a lot of CRPGs and maybe burned out on them because of that “seen it all before” feeling will end up still getting a kick out of it and find it highly engaging.

First of all, the writing is great; which should come as no surprise, as Barnson’s a great writer. But the party’s dialogue is consistently witty and entertaining, giving the characters all a unique feel and personality and giving life to a world which is less a spoof than a humorous homage to old-school dungeons and dragons. While not so self-aware as KoDT, fans of that franchise would certainly enjoy the tropes played with. Plus, there are plenty of Easter Eggs that a fan of old D&D would enjoy, not the least of which being that it is set in an expy of the Caves of Chaos.

Something you can’t say about very many CRPGs is that combat was always a dynamic and engaging challenge. Except in areas you may have backtracked to for whatever reason, there was almost never any time where you could just hold down the attack button and expect combat to go your way. While you might settle into a few strategies that are more consistently effective than others, the combination of the pseudo-realtime initiative, exhaustion system, and variable equipment abilities, it was often a unique puzzle to figure out just what the best strategies against certain groups of foes might be – battles could often swing back and forth, and a lucky break or skin-of-the-teeth play could bring you from the edge of defeat back toward victory. One kinda funny part that may be unique to Frayed Knights is that in any fight, even a gimme fight, it is more effective for a magic user to cast a low-level spell than swing with their weapon—your level 1 damage spell is likelier to hit than the weapon against many foes and will also probably accrue less exhaustion.

While there were a couple of particularly tough fights, though, there was never much need for grinding – the biggest problem I had was, due to recognizing the homage to the Caves of Chaos and applying certain assumptions to Frayed Knights, was doing certain dungeons out of order and suffering the consequence. For instance, the Ogre caves present far less of a challenge as a smaller mini-dungeon than the Goblin Caves which, as a major plot dungeon, are filled with a much wider range of tough nasties (like those Shamans who will dish out damage and keep you from downing front-line gobos).

There are some obvious negatives; you might be put off by the low-res textures and simple models or, in some cases, the incongruous assets (generally non-animated NPC models). Graphically, it’s somewhere in the middle-ground between Daggerfall and Thief: the Dark Project. I love both of those games, but the look won’t be for everyone. Really, for me, though, the biggest problem I had was with the game’s scope. And it’s a weird complaint, but Frayed Knights is just big enough that once I was truly impressed by how large it was, I ended up being disappointed by how small it felt. It has a very Episode 1 feel to it; it set me up with expectations of a truly huge world with multiple hub towns, with even more areas to visit and explore, because what IS there is off the one hub town we’re given IS impressively vast.  A part of me wishes that instead of a new game with a new system, Frayed Knights would continue with new cities and new content added (nodes and hubs appear listed as you visit them, and newly visited areas can be quick-travelled to). Frayed Knights ends on something of a cliff-hanger, and it made me wish I could actually go and visit some of those other towns and locations mentioned beyond the original hub. But still, there’s an impressive amount of real estate to explore; maybe not to the extent of an Elder Scrolls game, but enough that you might come to expect it, forgetting that the game, as huge as it is, was developed by a small indie team.

The upside of Frayed Knights 2 being on a new system is that obviously it will allow the dev team to make improvements to the engine and graphics, and hopefully optimize things a bit (you get some vast and seamless 3D environments in each location, but at the cost of some really long loading times). I also hope that you’ll be able to port characters, but that may not necessarily be in the cards.

Still, I absolutely think that if you dig D&D and/or CRPGs, you should check out Frayed Knights!

Story or Game? An Oncological Discourse

I was recently solicited for opinions on what I would do if given the opportunity to be the one to “make” D&D. My answer was I’d pretty much make B/X, use Holmes rules for scrolls and spell books, use 1e’s rule for acquiring new spells, and Star Frontiers’ order of battle. But that’s not what this post is about.

One guy replied to the initial question with the following:

To me, it’s not about making more complicated mechanics in an RPG, it’s about maintaining an Improv mentality between DM and players. When you put the story first, everyone wins. Improv and RPG can be ruined when someone tries to win, or be a star of the session.

Let’s take a look at those last two sentences. The first is the total opposite of correct, but the second had some merit (thought it springs directly from putting the first into practice), so let’s hear him out:

“If you say “my character is a badass”, you are already ruining it. You have to be open to what will happen, and let your guy interact/change”

This is true, but I often see it coming from players who emphasize “story first” gaming and enabled by “story first” DMs. Players become desperate for their characters to be relevant to the story rather than function as an integral part of the adventure-machine. Story focused games often marginalize particular characters because they remove the mechanical purposes for that character to be there. Fighters with nothing to fight, thieves with nothing to steal or no traps to disarm, wizards with no new magics to find and cast, etc. will lead to unhappy players.

I say “game first”. Story emerges from the party’s gameplay experience. Plus, that way you avoid a Key-man crisis where one character gets too important to the “story”, can’t die, or the “story” stalls out if that player isn’t able to play. The adventure is the “game” and completing that adventure successfully is the win state. The story is what happens during the game.

What about personal player/character goals?

Personal goals are icing on the cake, and they are critical variables in the emergence of narrative.

  • The DM handles world & setting
  • The Party has overarching goals based on DM’s content
  • The Players have individual goals based on their characters

Story emerges from the pursuit of individual and group goals within the framework that the DM provides. Games that focus on story, however, often impose a top-down structure:

  • The DM creates story and sets party goals.
  • The Party goals must conform to story
  • The Individual goals must jibe with the DM’s story goals, or they may go ignored and unfulfilled.

In this situation, players most willing to conform to the DM’s story will take the spotlight away from players who may have different or conflicting goals.

For example, in the con game I was in that Bruce Heard ran, the airship had:

  1. A murder mystery
  2. A haunted train
  3. A zoo full of magic animals

The top-down story, however, was the murder mystery, so it didn’t matter if some players wanted to ride the train or pet the animals. Players willing to conform to the top-down story imposed on the session got the most playtime and impact at the table.

A non-story game of the Dreams of Aerie module would be “Here is an airship, here are the things on the airship; what do you want to do?” The party could discuss and reach a group consensus based on both party and individual goals. The story then becomes what the party does.

Are individual/personal goals undesirable, a problem, or, at best, superfluous to the party’s goal? Of course not! Your thief’s desire to get rich could provide in-game justification for adventures as you’re offered hooks. A DM’s creative bandwidth is not unlimited, and being aware of players’ individual goals allows them to create content that will be of interest to them. Content is responsive to players’ goals.

But what about player’s attachments to characters? Won’t individual goals lead to players becoming over-invested in characters?

“Don’t go bonkers, but let people stay in the game somehow, no matter what.”

Yeah, because when someone’s character dies, we evict them from the table. This isn’t a Jack Chick tract and you’re not booting someone from the group when their character dies. They’re still in the game. And remember, I said “individuals'” and “players'” goals; a player’s goal can easily outlive any number of characters.

“A good DM will finesse the rules so that there can be consequences just shy of death for a character, just like GoT or other great shows.”

No. Just no.

While I don’t necessarily advocate that characters should be constantly dying, keeping characters alive by perpetual DM fiat destroys the game part of Dungeons & Dragons. Frequent character death at low levels can be a lot of fun, though, because you get to try a lot of new and different things.

D&D Alignment Part 2: D&D’s Cosmology

Q: Why don’t alignment mechanics work in 5e?

A: Because alignment was a mechanic used in conjunction with a rarely used portion of the game.

Alignment in #dnd is not supposed to be a personality test but a simplified representation of how a character or creature relates to the cosmos in chart below.

Cohn_blank_planes500

A shift in D&D’s cosmology combined with the move away from a human-centric model for the adventuring party effectively broke how alignment worked.

While some people have argued that player-selfishness is part of what’s going on, you need to look at alignment not as a play-style but as a mechanic. The alignment mechanic represents an aspect of the world in which D&D is set. Trying to drop that mechanic into a different cosmology just doesn’t work without rebuilding the cosmology it represents from the ground up. It would be like trying to apply Tolkien’s concept of light and dark elf to other settings’ elves, bereft of any meaning due to the absence of the Trees of Valinor in said other setting.

Isn’t alignment just a reflection of the cosmos through a character’s behavior? To an extent, but not exactly. Alignment in D&D is not necessarily an indicator of behavior: a character can be “good” but not fall into the “GoodTM” column of a cosmology. Just look at the “virtuous pagans” in Dante’s hell.

For alignment to work mechanically as designed, it needs to be treated almost like a birth-sign. You don’t necessarily have to adhere to all of the associated tropes and traits strictly, but you need to assume, for game purposes, that there’s something greater in effect beyond your own understanding and control. You also might need a touch of Calvinism in your setting for alignments to work as designed, too.

Changing alignment should not be done lightly, because you aren’t just changing some behaviors or habits – you are revolting against cosmic forces and changing your destiny.

Alignment is generally more important at higher levels, since a bunch of low-level mooks have little effect on cosmic affairs. As a mechanic, alignment exists to say that “this person is aligned cosmically with x in a tangible way” for purposes of spells and magic items.

As one gets access to specific magics or has done things which have drawn the attention of extra planar beings, alignment matters both mechanically and for story purposes. At lower levels, detection and masking magic reveal or conceal those tangible connections to the cosmos. “Hide Alignment” isn’t going to keep someone from noticing whether you’re an obvious asshole or nice guy, but it will keep someone from seeing the tangible links you have to the greater conflict playing out across the planes. But until you’re a heavy, those tangible links will be relatively insignificant most of the time. But it’s those same links that explain why certain magic items work in certain ways for or against certain adversaries – they are attuned to the cosmic struggle in the same way everything else is; alignment is a wavelength, which also perhaps best explains the bizarre phenomenon which is alignment language.

Picking an alignment which fits your character’s personality and shaping the cosmos around those characters’ alignment choices is doing it backwards, which is why many people find alignment rules baffling. Unless you are actually using AD&D’s implied setting and cosmology, of course, there’s no mechanical reason to keep alignment. It becomes almost purely cosmetic since players and DMs use it mostly as a personality marker. It can be entirely discarded because it’s a rule that explains a character’s relationship to 1e AD&D’s batshit cosmology!

Please keep in mind, I’m not defending alignment as a mechanic, I’m trying to give context of WHY it’s not working the way people think it should.

The reason I like the 1 axis scale is that it’s a pretty simple range of “Is this character aligned with Mankind or aligned with Fae?”

D&D Alignment

Thought I would post this here for posterity; I wanted to share my thoughts on why people complain about the 2-axis alignment system in D&D doesn’t work, why it gets thrown out, or has no real impact on the game.

To those saying alignment doesn’t work in 5e: D&D’s bi-axial alignment system has NEVER worked (at least it doesn’t seem as though it’s really worked as intended), but moral relativism totally kills it. Now, I’m not even talking about real-world moral relativism, cultural rot, yadda-yadda-yadda, but the trend towards standardizing monstrous and non-human PCs.

By using two axes, chaos moved away from, in the minds of gamers, opposition to Laws of Nature to opposition to the Laws of Man.

The Law of Man can be good or evil, but the cultural/moral relativism introduced by moving the adventuring party outside of the traditional heroic fantasy framework makes it even more difficult for the alignment system to usefully reflect anything about a party.

A “Lawful” party would act on behalf of the world of man against the world of fae/demons/tangible evils, while “chaotic” parties would treat with those forces for their own benefits. A “Good” party in the two axis system would act on behalf of the commonweal, or to its benefit.

But when everyone is playing half-demons, orclings, and priests of nebulous gods of mystic ambivalence, then, yeah, alignment means jack. The cultural and moral framework of elves, half-demons, fae-cat-girls, and all of the other dumb shit you see in post TSR D&D are so alien to the traditionally western framework of morality that both the 1 and 2 axis alignment systems were designed to model, of course it’s not going to actually work!

PC Bushi noted that it might be useful for stuff like Protection from Evil, but Protection from Evil was originally in a system without the Evil alignment axis! Evil was supposed to be so self-apparent to people who were around the table that it didn’t need to be explicitly spelled out what Evil was. The big problem with alignment is that the sort of parties people run today often look like out-of-depth monster encounters old parties had to fight: “You see two orcs warriors, a half-demon thief, a cat-man with a lute, and an elf wizard. They are the lawful-good party at table 2.”

While the alignment system has never been very good, a lot of folks complain that it doesn’t work without really understanding WHY it’s not even working for what they think it’s supposed to be use for or why so many DMs just toss the whole thing out entirely. A DM doesn’t have any justification for dealing with alignment mechanics for your blood-god-worshiping cat-elf being Lawful Good within the framework of its own culture. It’s easier to just ignore the implications of a system that was initially built upon an objective approach to morality within a cosmology rather than attempt to apply that framework to alien cultures and moralities.

Related Reading https://gamingwhileconservative.wordpress.com/2017/07/18/the-angry-gm-is-a-fking-coward/

Related (TL;DR) Reading http://theangrygm.com/conflicted-and-misaligned/

Note: More on this later, as I expound upon how D&D’s in-game cosmology accounts for much of the mechanical aspect of alignment and why it “doesn’t work” at the table in many folks’ games.

The Real Problem With Story Games

The real problem with story games isn’t that the game has a story. It’s not that a system has too much crunch or too little. Some people think that the solution to a story game is more crunch because they think that the problem is that the story game just doesn’t have the robust mechanics necessary for a gritty adventure. Except it’s almost never the mechanics that leave story games hamstrung but the attempt to use a game to tell a story rather than allow a story to emerge from game-play.

Games and gaming, and especially tabletop rpgs, are about player agency. It’s an interactive medium where the player’s actions and decisions have outcomes and affect the environment, setting, and conclusion. The problem with so many story games I’ve played is that players are denied agency, or at best given the illusion of agency, in the name of ensuring that the story is told.

So many story games I’ve played in, regardless of the system (yes, I’ve been in a B/X story game with next to no player agency), have failed at the “game” portion of story gaming. Instead, what players tend to get are story nodes with false challenges that amount to “roll high enough that you will be allowed to move to the next story node”. There’s not much actually determining what story node you’re going to next, nor is there any real penalty for failing to roll high enough other than delaying the inevitable progression towards the final story node.

No matter what, eventually, the rails are spotted, the lack of agency becomes apparent, and I can’t help but lose all interest in what’s happening.

In a recent game, there was a series of the aforementioned challenges. They were just window-dressing, though: cool things to ooh and aah at that had no real bearing on the outcome of the scenario. Yes, we might scrape a knee from failing a saving throw or two, but even failing every last challenge miserably would only ever result in insignificant damage to characters in such a way as to only delay, somewhat, the inevitable victorious conclusion of the story.

Imagine playing a racing video game: imagine blasting through an obstacle course at over 100 mph, narrowly avoiding all sorts of perils. You think you’re doing great, but then you slip – you run into a wall. Except you don’t. Your car bounces off and continues on, unaffected by your blunder. You begin to ask yourself, was I really doing well before? You begin to try to ram your car into walls, barrels, pylons, tank-traps, you name it, but so long as you’re holding the “go” button down, you keep on going, and the computer keeps the other racers just slow enough that none of them are able to overtake you despite your intentional mistakes. I can’t fathom anyone finding that to be a rewarding experience!

Now, I’ve also been in story games where the party did “lose”, but there, one had an incredibly drawn-out and ponderous route to reach the one point of the game where player action did matter, and it would all come down to one big fight, more or less regardless of how the players got there. And frankly, that’s not all that fun for me either.

Let players actually do things. Let them mess up and lose. Let them sequence break. Don’t make a game a series of rolls to see if you can tell your players the next detail you want to tell them. And if there’s an island that is obviously the important place everyone is supposed to go to and 5 minutes in a player says “Let’s find a canoe and go out to the island”, there’s no point in dithering around for two hours waiting for the “story” to reveal that you’re supposed to get a canoe and take it out to the island!

More Pellucidar

So, my Pellucidar game is running smoothly and playing better than I could’ve expected. My initial theories on how combat would play out have all proven correct so far, but the next session will test how well firearms vs. firearms battles will work.

Friday, the party did some more mapping, with orders to recon the area immediately adjacent to their new base camp. While they pussy-footed a bit more than i would’ve liked, I can’t blame them for wanting to return directly to their camp after each encounter (though they were somewhat punished for it with the first hex).

The first hex they explored, they found some Draco Lizards; rather than leave well enough alone, they took the opportunity to use the giant lizards for some target practice, not knowing that they were up against 8 of them and had only spotted 2. Some of the other lizards came at them through and from the trees. While they killed and hurt a couple, they still got a few big bites taken out of them before they managed to drive the beasts off. A perverse desire to haul the carcasses back to camp meant they were slowed down enough to warrant an extra random encounter roll, which led to a pack of mountain lions ambushing those carrying the two carcasses. It cost the life of the medic, but a few rifle shots killed or drove off the big cats.

Fireteam got some fresh blood and kept exploring, managing to ambush an allosaurus on a game trail. If the allosaurus had not rolled a 1 on its perception roll and the players hadn’t got a free round to fire on them, at least one guy woulda been ate before the beast went down.

Last hex, I rolled for a Nazi base in a forest on my random terrain generator, so I asked if we could call it while I came up with some content for it.

I’m making a sub-hexmap for a relevant portion of the hex, where I’m putting in a small Nazi forward base. Along the game trails will be a couple of strong-points, and there will be a few patrols. The main base will be set in a clearing where they’ve pushed back the treeline and set up a few machine gun teams in front of a couple crude observation towers (scoped Mausers!).

This will be a damn tough fight if my players try to attack the base head-on. The first strong-point should be a warning, but if they just come out of the treeline, especially if they’ve alerted the base with a fire-fight, they’ll almost certainly be mowed down by MG42 fire.

I HOPE that they will remember that there’s a pack howitzer setup on a mountain top in the adjacent hex and that they have mortar teams at their disposal. Otherwise, the 30-50 Nazis hanging out in this hex will not only repulse the attack but almost certainly jeopardize the Allied base camp (which is apparently just a 12 miles south of another tribe of lizardmen! ::I rolled up to see what happened to the other NPC scout teams, and those guys didn’t come back…::).

I’m actually to the point where I may need to figure out how many guys are in the US company; they’ve lost one entire team, and probably about 15 or so other soldiers (so maybe 25-30 KIA/MIA). Some of them went back with the dirigible to pick up more supplies once the mountain base was established. Some of them will HAVE to stay back at camp to keep it secure. So, I guess if I want to really ramp up the scale, I could have as many as 100 soldiers dedicated to this particular OP. I’ll probably use some handwaiving for the NPC fireteams who will be a) reconning other parts of the hex, b) possibly flanking to get a better position for the assault on the base, c) getting into fire-fights with Nazi scouting teams, d) acting as “off-board” artillery as mortar teams.

This will be the first real test of the Star Frontiers Advanced Combat Order I’ve been using for initiative by side. Up until now, initiative hasn’t mattered too much, because whether the players win or lose initiative, you’d better believe they’re going to hang tight, guns ready, and shoot at whatever’s coming towards them. A couple times against the lizard men, the lizard men got some javelins in, but guns are always going to go off first against enemies who don’t have a ranged attack. With the Nazis, though, the players will be facing substantial fire themselves for the first time.

NTRPGCon: A Tale of Three DMs

This is not a full con report, and I don’t know if I’ll have time to give one, but I’d like to share my experience of the games I signed up for. I won’t use any names, but suffice it to say that these are all well-known and famous DMs.

DM the First –

This DM was running OD&D, 3 volumes only. We were all pre-gen 2nd level characters, Fighters, Clerics, and MUs. The party had a list of general adventuring equipment that we were assumed to have, and before we went to the dungeon, we were told we could get one or two reasonable miscellaneous items. The dungeon was a simple and straight-forward (though non-linear) old school dungeon, with each room as a set-piece puzzle or encounter. The encounters/puzzles were well hinted at, and while not particularly inspired, enjoyable and not unfair. Obvious ogre lair was obvious enough to not mess with, for instance. Fake vampire room was an easy enough puzzle and someone only died because we couldn’t leave well enough alone. The fights we had, we both got lucky AND made correct tactical choices, so we won them. The final set-piece encounter was a cheesy Fleetwood Mac joke. It was not a mind-blowing experience, but the DM was a nice guy, fun to be around, friendly, and I had a pretty good time. I would not mind gaming with him again, though I’d prefer more of an experience of ‘this is what it’s like to game at my table’ than ‘this is a simulation of what it’s like to game at my table’.

DM the Second –

This DM was running OD&D + Greyhawk. We were playing 9th level pre-gen characters with some pretty tough and high level equipment. This DM was an asshole. He would berate players and treat them like they were stupid for not asking enough questions and would berate players and treat them like they were stupid for asking too many questions. One door that sealed in a couple of undead trolls was apparently covered with sigils and warnings about the trolls, but, oh, we didn’t see the sigils and warnings because we didn’t specifically look at the door for them. I got yelled at for overthinking when I asked if a pair of silver manacles in a dungeon cell included both pieces for hands and for legs and was told to use it as hack-silver and divide it among the party because ‘old school’. An AOE sleep hit my character at one point, and the lady next to me said “I try to wake him up” – DM says “okay, you hit him to wake him up, and he punches you in the face”; she did one damage to me and I apparently punched her for 8. At one point, he berated the party for not mapping, the whole “mapping is a dying art” bit, despite the fact that one player HAD been mapping for the first half of the session before giving up. Turns out, the entire “adventure” was a playtest of a series of TPK monsters famous DM had been hired to design based on an early monster he’d designed. He was very proud of the fact that even the friendly-ish neutral good variant managed to kill and eat us. I was scheduled for another game with this DM on Sunday, but he was such an abrasive dick that I skipped out and we left the con a few hours early.

DM the Third –

This DM was running BECMI with 5th level pre-gen characters that also had some pretty cool equipment and unique abilities. The setting was awesome and I was really excited about it at first, especially playing a mid-level magic user with a couple really sweet scrying abilities on top of my base spells. The flying circus was in town and we were hired by the ringmaster to investigate a murder and by an asshole mayor to retrieve his hot daughter who’d run away to join the circus. Things started to unravel for me a couple hours in when it became clear that it was going to be a purely investigative game with almost nothing but talking to NPCs and asking them questions. The DM was actually VERY good at running an investigation game, and I feel bad about being so bored, but investigation games, in my experience, work best with 4 players, 6 max, and we had 9. Also, the setting was so neat that it seemed like a damned waste to be spending all of our time asking questions about the murder. I’m like “I don’t care about who murdered the dwarf bearded lady; there is a haunted train ride on an airship! Why aren’t we riding it?!” The carnie games, the roller coasters, the Ferris wheel, the menagerie of monsters were all things I desperately wanted to be able to interact with in some way, meaningfully or not, but I couldn’t. So, about 3 and a half hours in, I lost my ability to functionally interact with the rest of the group. 5 hours in, some carnie finally threw a punch at a fighter. 45 minutes after that, by the time the one encounter the game had been building towards, I had no idea what was going on, who we were fighting or why, because I’d zoned out so bad. Half-way through the encounter, several folks begged out because their next game was starting. I didn’t have another game, but used the excuse to leave the table as well.