Tobold's Blog
Sunday, March 18, 2018
Mobile games growing up

The #1 on the iOS app charts this week is Fortnite, despite the fact that the game only runs if you got an invite from Epic. The pull is that except for the control scheme the game is equivalent to the PC / console version. Likewise Civilization VI exists in a mobile version equivalent to the PC game, and Final Fantasy XV on mobile is also rather close to the console version. Meanwhile PC and console games are getting closer to mobile standards regarding their business models, if you consider lootboxes.

There appears to be a huge demand to play AAA games on the go. It is one of the explanations frequently cited to explain the huge success of the Nintendo Switch console, in spite of obvious battery life problems of the concept. But the Nintendo Switch as a mobile device at least still has the same JoyCon controllers, which works a lot better than just a touch screen for some games. I wouldn't be surprised if we would see alternative controllers that can be connected to Android and iOS mobile gaming platforms in the future.

There are still some issues to resolve on the way. Civilization VI is $60 on Steam, but there are various deals to get it much cheaper; I personally paid $12 as part of a Humble Bundle Monthly. On iOS Civilization VI costs $65, and the best deal ever was the introductory half price. With the PC version having more options in the form of DLC, as well as user-made mods from the Steam Workshop, paying more for the somewhat less mobile version doesn't look attractive. Final Fantasy XV is better, the Steam version costs $50, while the "pocket" mobile version is $20, and you can try for free or just buy some of the chapters if you want. As much as people might like the idea of mobile AAA games, the full price of a console game is very high compared to the usual price level of mobile games.

However the main attraction of high-priced AAA games is that they tend to be "pay once, play forever". Some companies believe that when porting games to a mobile platform, they should rather use the business models of mobile games, sometimes to a rather exploitative extent. The Sims Mobile is only playable in short bursts, until you run out of energy; then you either need to wait for hours for the energy to restore itself, or spend real money to advance with prices that make the highly expensive The Sims DLC look cheap (The Sims 4 isn't on Steam. The Sims 3 from 2009 is, and still has $550 worth of DLCs listed.)

Part of the reason that mobile platforms are catching up to the PC is that the period of fast development of PC graphics appears to be over. My 3-year old graphics card (Geforce GTX 970) in my 4-year old computer is still playing every game at good frame rates. I used to have to change PCs every 2 years to keep up. And as Final Fantasy XV pocket edition shows, you can downgrade graphics for mobile platforms and customers won't care all that much, as long as the gameplay is good.

In summary, I do believe that there is a trend towards more AAA games on mobile platforms. And as long as that happens at reasonable prices, I'm all for it.

Saturday, March 17, 2018
Elemental Evil: Sessions 15

In the previous session the group had cleared out the keep of elemental evil earth, leaving fire as the last keep to attack and get the fourth magical key from. A previous encounter with a druid had given them the information that an unknown druidic circle called the Circle of the Scarlet Moon had sent word throughout the Dessarin Valley was performing the Rite of the Wicker Giant, a ritual that was said to restore nature's balance in the troubled region. As the location was at the same place as their ancient dwarven map showed for the fourth keep, they knew that this must be the elemental evil fire cult.

At the location they found a tower with a crumbled wall around it on top of a hill. Before stood the Wicker Giant, a huge giant-shaped bonfire that seemed to burn without being consumed. On the slopes of the hill were various camp sites, with smaller bonfires. All those fires caused a certain haze, lightly obscuring vision. The group visited the first camp site and met the druid they had previously saved. He told them the ritual would take place tomorrow, and nobody was allowed to go up the hill until then. The druids with him were celebrating in anticipation.

The group used the haze to sneak past the other camps and up the hill. The scouted that besides the tower and the Wicker Giant there was a pit with 3 hell hounds and a guard. Two figures danced around the Wicker Giant, and two guards were patrolling the scaffolding around the tower. At this point a very long discussion about what to do ensued. Finally the group went over the crumbled wall to approach the tower from the side away from the Wicker Giant and pit. They killed the guards coming under a silence spell without alerting the cultists on the other side of the tower. Then they entered the tower, and found room with a big hole in the floor and a staircase going up. Two more guards were in that room, which they killed, but this time without the silence. So we ended the session when they heard more guards being alerted a floor up.

I must say this session depressed me a bit. We got so little done, just compare this to the other post today of the other group I am playing with. People weren't focused on the game, and had a hard time to make decisions. I think I need to do something to increase motivation, making the story a bit clearer, in spite of the group not making much effort to gather information. I was also slightly annoyed by the Princes of the Apocalypse chapter on this place: One discussed option was to wait for the Rite of the Wicker Giant. Fortunately they didn't do that, because I found out that this option wasn't foreseen in the book, and there was zero information what exactly the fire cult had planned to achieve with that ritual, and why they had invited the druids to it. There are some vague hints that the cult wants to recruit some, and sacrifice the others, but the sequence of events would have to be improvised by me if the group had chosen to wait.


Rage of Demons: Session 3

In the previous session our heroes traveled towards the kuo-toa village of Sloobludop, pursued by the drow. They had learned from their kuo-toa companion Shuushar that there were two factions in Sloobludop: The followers of the goddess Blibdoolpoolp (aka "the Sea Mother") with her archpriest Plooploopeen (aka "Ploop") were vying for control with the upstart followers of the god Leemooggoogoon (aka "the Deep Father") and his archpriestess Bloppblippodd (aka "Blopp"), daughter of Ploop.

Before they reached the village they were accosted by a patrol of kuo-toa, who offered them safe passage to Sloobludop if they would put all their weapons in a sack to prevent a surprise attack. They agreed, but before they could reach Sloobludop another patrol of kuo-toa attacked and killed the first patrol. That second patrol was led by Ploop, who explained that the first patrol was from the other faction, who would have sacrificed the group to the Deep Father. Ploop led them to the village and told them which quarters to stay in to not attract the attention of the other faction. But Surina the sorceress was curious about the other faction, magically disguised herself as kuo-toa, took Nyx the druid in the form of a small animal on her shoulder, and went exploring. She found that in fact the altar of the Deep Father looked rather grim: Two octopi were tied together on top of a manta ray, to give the impression of a two-headed monster. Traces of blood sacrifices were visible. In contrast the altar of the Sea Mother had offerings of knickknacks like sea shells, and looked more welcoming.

Based on that information the group agreed to a proposal of Ploop: They were to hide their weapon and armor under robes and be led by a group of Ploop's followers to the upcoming festival in honor of the Deep Father. Ploop would pretend to give them to Blopp as a peace offering, as sacrifice for her god. But then Ploop, his followers, and the group would attack Blopp and her followers.

They executed the plan as intended. When striking down Blopp, the archpriestess called out "Leemooggoogoon", and fell bleeding on the god's altar. Suddenly the dark surface of the lake behind the altar began to bubble, and a huge monstrosity with tentacles and two baboon heads rose from the water. "Leemooggoogon" turned out to be the demon prince Demogorgon! With a single attack Demogorgon killed Prince Derendil, one of the NPC companions of the group. They also lost another NPC companion, Jimjar, by getting separated from him in the ensuing chaos. While Demogorgon killed Ploop, the group escaped and found a boat. With their remaining NPC companions Buppido, Shuushar, Sarith, and Stool, they got away from Sloobludop. Now they knew that something more dangerous than drow was afoot in the Underdark!

With the help of Arkoy's curse that gave them a sense of direction, and Shuushar's knowledge of the lake, they decided to travel towards Gracklstugh, the duergar city where Buppido claimed to know a way towards the surface world. But that was 20 days of travel away. On the evening of the first day they stopped at an island where they found a tunnel leading underground in which fungi grew. Unfortunately those turned out to be Timmask, a poisonous mushroom, whose spores put a confusion on Nyx, so she wandered deeper down in the tunnel. Following Nyx to stop her, the group was caught in a tremor causing a cave-in and were trapped. However a new passage had opened in one of the tunnel walls, leading to a strange temple. At first the group encountered gray ooze twice, who fell from the ceiling and damaged Mog'burz' weapon with acid.

Then they saw a strange sight before them: A skeleton (not animated) was seemingly floating in the air, along with a dark metal mace and some coins. Trying to take the mace with a mage hand spell led to the hand encountering an invisible wall, and a telepathic message of "Hey! Stop tickling me!". Thus the group encountered Glabbagool, a gelatinous cube who had become sentient. Glabbagool was friendly and spat out the mace and coins on request, and told them about the rest of the temple. He warned them about traps full of black puddings in corridors leading to a closed door, of which he didn't know what was behind it. The group went there with Glabbagool escorting them (and dispatching quickly some more gray oozes). They discovered a new cave which Glabbagool said hadn't been there before, from which water flowed into the temple.

They went to the closed door, which turned out to be easy to open for creatures possessing hands to use the door knob. Behind was an octagonal room with 7 niches, of which 4 contained strange, formless sculptures, and a big fountain in the middle containing dark water. Touching the statues unfroze them, and they turned out to be another 4 gray oozes. After killing those they discovered some treasure under the water of the fountain. Having explored the whole temple, there was no apparent way out. And from the new cave water kept rushing in, the whole complex being below the surface level of the darklake. They explored the cave and saw that the water was coming from fissures in the ceiling. With the help of a Magic Missile (and creative rule interpretation by me as DM) they made the ceiling collapse, at which point they could swim to the surface of the lake and back to their boat.

There a nasty surprise awaited them. Buppido was found unconscious with a big bump on the back of his head, while Shuushar was dead, with his entrails arranged in a bizarre fashion around him, like by some sort of ritual. Woken up, Buppido couldn't provide an explanation of what had happened, and the group found no traces of the killer. So the next day they said goodbye to Glabbagool (who wouldn't fit on the boat) and rowed off.

Two days later they were passing by another island, when they heard a soft feminine voice inside their heads pleading for help. Somebody on the island needed rescue! On the island they found a big green door, which turned out to be of heavy marble, covered in corroded bronze, and with an axis in the middle. Pushing with much force on the side opened the door (we were joking that Mog'burz, who failed several door opening rolls in this dungeon, kept pushing in the middle of the door). Behind the door was a Nethril tomb from millennia ago (basically Ancient Egyptian in design), the Lost Tomb of Khaem.

In the tomb the group came upon a room with a stone sarcophagus. That turned out to be a false tomb with a trap cursing them to have disadvantage on all attack rolls and saving throws. As they were all affected by the curse, this turned the dungeon into a far more deadly place. And there was another strange feature to the tomb: Any spell cast resulted in a wild magic surge, giving a random result form the wild magic table of the chaos sorcerer. That turned out to be an insidious feature when in the next room the group was attacked by four specters, who were resistant to non-magical damage. It turned downright deadly in the final (hidden) room, where the group encountered Brysis of Khaem, an evil sorceress who was now a wraith. Mog'burz the eldritch knight countered an attack of Brysis with a shield spell, but that triggered everybody's favorite wild magic surge result: a fireball.

They barely survived this encounter, but then found the source of the voice: an intelligent sword called Dawnbringer. They also found a bunch of other nice treasures, like a necklace of fireballs, and over 2,000 gold pieces worth of valuables. Danger has its rewards in Dungeons & Dragons. At that point we ended the session, the group having reached level 5.


Saturday, March 10, 2018
Out of the mouth of babes

For a president, Trump is remarkably unguarded in his speech. In absence of a teleprompter he talks stream of conscience with no regards for the party line or the politically correct. So when presented with a clip of footage from several modern games, his reaction appears quite honest: "This is violent, isn’t it?" and then "I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts. And then you go the further step, and that’s the movies. You see these movies, they’re so violent and yet a kid is able to see a movie if sex isn’t involved, but killing is involved.".

Now video gamers are as partisan as the next guy and quick to dismiss any criticism as just being motivated by a desire to distract from the NRA. But can't you just step back for a moment and read these quotes above at face value? Aren't they fundamentally true? We do have a "violence in entertainment" culture. We do have systems in place that prevent movies and video games from displaying sex, but not from displaying gore. And it would be extremely callous to assume that a kid's mind is in no way affected by seeing that sort of stuff. That doesn't mean that there is a direct causal link between playing video games and school shootings, or that gun control wouldn't be a better option than games control. But there is also a lot of very visible denial from the games media, which shows you that Trump's remarks have hit close to home.

The violence is frequently gratuitous, games like Splatoon prove that you can take the same genre and cartoonify it into something much less violent. Nintendo makes a lot of great games with minimal violence. And it isn't just the graphical display of violence in video games, it is also the gameplay. Multiplayer shooters or games like Fortnite Battle Royale with its last-man-standing victory condition are inherently teaching a very wrong message of hate. There are a large number of games out there which I simply can't play because I am too disgusted by both the violence and the toxicity of the players.

I have zero trust in Trump coming up with a viable solution (he appeared muddled on the existence of rating systems). But his gut reaction that this stuff is violent and potentially a problem is right. Gamers need to overcome the denial step and face the truth. If the industry doesn't change voluntarily, politicians are going to intervene at some point.

Friday, March 09, 2018
The culture war is a deliberate distraction

Capitalism is the best economic system for the overall creation of wealth. However it is lousy at distributing that wealth fairly between the people who contributed to the creation; and it equally sucks at all other issues which require solidarity (e.g. health care) or involve the common good (e.g. the environment). After WWII it appeared that the first world countries had solved that problem: They had all created political systems in which "the right" fought for freedom and capitalism, and "the left" fought for fair distribution, solidarity, and the common good. Alternating between left and right governments created a balance, and even allowed different countries to arrive at different points on that balance, e.g. Scandinavian countries having more solidarity, and the US having more capitalism.

However the system had one inherent flaw: Politicians are by definition members of the elite, the ruling class. And that is true for left wing politicians as well. Thus a right wing politician fighting for unfettered capitalism that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer was both following his party politics and his own greed. While the left wing elite was naturally less inclined to fight for policies that aided less well off, because it didn't help them personally. So at various points in the 90's the left wings in different countries simply gave up on economic policy for fairer distribution of wealth, and just joined the capitalist camp which made the elite richer. Today a left wing politician like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn who still push for some economic fairness and solidarity are considered as "odd" and decried as "communists".

Now this has created a growing rift between voters and the elite that leads them in politics and media. The people simply isn't represented any more. They are being fed lies like "your salaries are only low because of immigrants" or "tax cuts for the rich will trickle down to you". In their desperation they increasingly vote for extremists and populists, and end up harming themselves even more through the resulting policies. And the left and right wing elite in order to be seen to do something play acts a culture war to distract the masses from the real problems.

In Germany there is an organization of soup kitchens which collect food past its sell-by-date and distributes it to people who are so poor that they have to beg for food. One local organization recently made headlines because they enacted a controversial "Germans first" policy, after food fights had broken out in which younger male immigrants shoved aside elderly German grandmothers. And the discussion is all about the culture war, with the left fighting for equal rights for the immigrants, and the right defending priority for the natives. Only the extreme left is mentioning the real problem: That in one of the world's richest countries, at the top of the economic cycle and full employment, there are still so many people having to beg for old food that the soup kitchens can't feed all of them.

As Bill Clinton still knew, "it's the economy, stupid". If the centrist parties fail to represent the economic interests of the majority of the population, they will fade into irrelevance. History repeats itself, and the rise of populist parties in Europe in the 1930's (not just in Germany) isn't really the example we would want the world to follow. We need to see the culture was as the distraction that it is, and concentrate on the real economic problems.

Sunday, March 04, 2018
Elemental Evil: Sessions 13 & 14

I just noticed that I am behind on my reporting on the Elemental Evil campaign. In the previous reported session the group had reached level 5 and was about to head for the Sacred Stone Monastery. Sessions 13 and 14 were about the adventures of the group in that monastery. However once again it has to be remarked that this particular group is mainly interested in the combat aspects of D&D, and less interested in the role-playing aspects. And the campaign has been chosen with this preference in mind, containing a lot of dungeon crawls. Nevertheless even in that campaign the group still managed to avoid most opportunities to find out more about the story, and spent those two sessions mostly in combat encounters.

The group entered the Sacred Stone Monastery via the garden and from there into the main hall. However that was exactly what the bad guys had planned for invaders, as the main hall contains a trap that drops the group down into the dungeon and into a cage with an Umber Hulk. Having beaten the Umber Hulk and then some orog and ogre guards, the group liberated a group of slaves used for mining work. That included members of the Mirabar delegation, which in the book is the official story hook. However the group showed absolutely no interest in asking them about what had happened to the delegation, and allowed the slaves to leave unescorted.

Next the group entered a part of the dungeon in which a Lich lives. A Lich is a challenge rating 21 monster and obviously not meant as a combat encounter for level 5 characters. But in spite of the Lich just being a bit grumpy and not immediately attacking, the group decided against getting information from him, and just fled. Having otherwise cleaned out the basement, the group found another staircase up, and found themselves in the middle of the monk's quarters, where a big fight ensued. That included the boss of the place, a blind female monk with the name of Hellenrae. Just like in the previous two elemental keeps, the group killed the boss, looted the magical key part the bosses are carrying, and then legged it.

Then they returned to Red Larch to rest and recuperate. But the next morning at breakfast in the inn, they were attacked by four hell hounds. That was a bit annoying for the sorceress, who mainly had fire-based spells like scorching ray and fireball, to which the monsters were immune. But although they took heavy damage from fire breaths, the group prevailed and sent the dogs packing. They (correctly) concluded that the hell hounds had been sent by the one cult they hadn't visited yet, the fire cult. As they had previously heard about druids planning a fire ritual at a location which corresponded to the location of the fourth elemental keep on their ancient map, they plan to go there in the next session.


Saturday, March 03, 2018
How abundance makes us poorer

Maybe it was to be expected with an offer that involves charity, but it turns out that for me the Humble Bundle Monthly is mostly an investment in a source for philosophical thoughts. When I initially bought the bundle in order to get Civ VI for cheap, I went for the three-month plan. So even if I since unsubscribed I just got my second months worth of games. And compared to the first month, there are even less games in there which I can see me playing. That is not to say that the offer is a bad one, or the games on offer are bad. Rather it reflects upon how my interests got narrower over time.

I am old enough to remember a time before video games. The first video game I played was Pong on a console that couldn't play anything else, in black and white on a TV screen. When people got the first consoles with cartridges and computers, kids typically had just a handful of games, not necessarily chosen by themselves. If you only have 3 game cartridges, you will play the hell out of each of those games, whether those are your favorite games or not. Fast forward to 2017, where 7,672 games were released on Steam alone, again nearly doubling the number of Steam games available for a fourth year in a row.

Everybody has favorite games and favorite genres. If you are limited by the number of games available to you, you play what you got regardless of genre. If you have an abundance of choice, you get more and more picky and only play your favorite genres. The bottleneck becomes the amount of time available to play, so why should you play let's say a platformer if you prefer role-playing games? Of course the consequence of that is that you end up with a much narrower experience. You only play a handful of favorite genres and don't have the time for a bunch of other genres, which might offer a very different experience of gaming.

I see a parallel to the world of news and politics. Back in the day where your only source of news was one paper you and everybody in your street was subscribed to, you all got the same variety of news and opinions. Today there are so many sources of news and opinions that you can choose one which aligns well with your own opinions. If you are a fan of Trump, you watch Fox News and read Breitbart, if you are on the other side you watch CNN and read Huffington Post. But the result is that you end up in an echo chamber which doesn't allow for a variety of opinions. This has gone so far that the echo chambers of today don't even agree on the same set of facts. A news source that reports something uncomfortable to you is "fake news", truth has become subservient to opinion.

The future is one in which we lead comfortable lives in which we play only our favorite games, see only our favorite genre of movies and TV shows, hear only news that please us. Until we have become so isolated from another group of people (which might well be our neighbors) that the two groups don't consider each other of being of the same kind any more, and start killing each other off. The internet, which had a promise of offering us a much wider offer of everything from information to entertainment, ends up making us all poorer and more narrow-minded.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Rage of Demons: Session 2

In the previous session the group escaped from a prison of the drow in the Underdark. Now they were free, but more or less lost in an unfamiliar environment, with neither food nor drink, and limited equipment. And the drows were pursuing them. So apart from a few combat encounters this session was mostly about how to survive and travel in the Underdark.

A tabletop role-playing game always plays on two levels at once: The story level where the warrior chops off the head of the orc, and the game level, where a player rolls some dice. The art of Dungeon-mastering is to balance these two levels and to connect them. By treating travel and survival in the Underdark as a series of dice rolls, with modifiers based on player decisions, the players gain agency over the story. And unexpected dice rolls can add surprise to the story. The Out of the Abyss book, chapter 2, has some very good suggestions on how to handle travel and survival. I just needed to combine that with existing rules in the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide to a "loop" of rolls to do every day: A roll for navigation in order to avoid becoming lost, a random encounter roll for during the day, another random encounter roll for camp at night, and a roll for foraging.

The trick to make all of that a bit more interesting is the drow pursuit: Players can choose to travel slow, normal speed, or fast. Traveling fast makes them gain more distance from the pursuers, but prevents them from foraging, and increases the difficulty of navigation and perceiving enemies. Traveling slower increases the risk from the pursuit, but makes everything else easier. In this session we played through that loop for 7 game days, which with several days traveled at high speed meant the group went from the drow outpost Velkynvelve to the kuo-toa village of Sloobludop.

To give the group some means of orientation I used the previous encounter of the cleric with Juiblex to give him a level 1 madness which made his face wounds burn whenever he looked in the north-western direction from Velkynvelve (towards Blingdenstone to be exact, for reasons that will become obvious much later). That gave him advantage on navigation rolls, and the group used a second character to help with navigation when they were traveling at fast speed, so they never got lost. After the first day the cleric also switched spells to have Create Water, which solved their thirst problem.

As encounters we first had one attack at night by goblins, which weren't too hard to beat and provided the ranger of the group with a short bow and arrows. It also turned out that the players weren't the squeamish kind, and they filleted the goblins, cooked them over magical fire, cast Purify Food & Drink on the meat and ate it. Later in the session they encountered a bunch of gnolls, which are larger than goblins, and thus ended up with more than enough food for their journey (although I ruled that meat wouldn't keep longer than 2 days, because otherwise the whole foraging thing would become useless).

Then they came to the Silken Paths, an area of spider webs crossing a large chasm, connecting stalagmites and stalactites. Two non-aggressive goblins had created a business guiding people across, and the group agreed to pay them for passage. On the web they found a large chest, which of course turned out to be a mimic (that still works with new players). Then they were attacked by darkmantles, which after killing them they used to make waterskins out of. In fact this group is the first one I see in 5th edition which makes use of crafting skills from their background. Once over the chasm, the group decreased their pursuit level by burning the webs they had crossed, although of course they couldn't burn the whole giant web.

The gnolls they met in an encounter which was supposed to have them come upon a hunt, with the gnolls chasing a pair of hook horrors. But the group just cast a fog spell to hide from the monsters and then traveled on. Then they came upon the second half of the hunters, and killed them. The group decided to rest there, but of course the first group of hunters came back before they were rested and they had to fight gnolls again.

At the end of the session the group arrived near Sloobludop, and gained level 4 from the xp for survival and the various encounters. Just like in other campaign books of Wizards of the Coast, level increase is at least twice as fast as what you'd get if you just gave out xp for monsters. I decided that was okay, as nobody wants to be low level for too long. I might have to slow that down a bit if I feel that the group is becoming too powerful for a dark themed adventure.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Dice Brawl: Captain’s League

I have a strange fascination with the game Monopoly, must be some memory of my childhood where games weren’t as plentiful as today. But somehow the various computer versions of Monopoly never really excited me. But now I found a nice little game on iOS called Dice Brawl: Captain’s League, which is basically a pirate themed Monopoly on speed, and it is fun.

The board is much smaller, and there are only two players. It is styled as PvP, but the opponent always reacts so fast, and never quits, that I suspect it is fake PvP against an AI controlled opponent just using the name and deck of another player. That is pretty much the only sort of PvP I like. So just like in Monopoly you roll two dice, move around the board, and if you land on an empty spot you can build a fortress there. If you land on your own fortress you can increase its level. If you land on an enemy fortress, you take damage, but then you can try to attack it and conquer it. The player with the most fortresses after 8 turns wins, unless a player gets killed in combat earlier.

This being a mobile game, it comes free but then uses the Gacha game or lootbox mechanic. In the lootboxes you find captains, ships, and crew members of various rarities. By finding more of the same card, you can level that card up. And the various cards have skills which you can then use in battle. The obvious idea is that you spend money to buy lootboxes, but I found the game well playable without doing so.

Overall a fun little game which isn’t overly exploitive, unless you are the kind of player that easily gets sucked in by lootboxes.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Rage of Demons: Session 1

I am member of a local role-playing game club. As part of our club activities in December I organized a session of "5th edition Dungeons & Dragons for Beginners". That way I met a group of young (adult, but half my age) people who were very much interested to play more D&D. So I started a full regular campaign with them.

I asked them what genre of fantasy they would prefer, from the generic heroic fantasy, to less heroic dark fantasy, the gothic horror fantasy of Ravenloft, or even the steam punk fantasy of Zeitgeist. They opted for dark fantasy, which left me with not much choice based on what little material I had for that in 5E: The Rage of Demons campaign, which consists of only the Out of the Abyss campaign book. As there was already another Out of the Abyss campaign in the club (and another one based on that book in which I had participated as player before it went dormant), I preferred to use the Rage of Demons title to avoid confusion.

As I posted a few weeks ago, I had to turn a not-so-great experience as a player of Out of the Abyss into a a much better appreciation of that book by better understanding how it was supposed to be played. Once I got the basic recipe down (follow the chapters in strict linear order, but improvise as much as you can within each chapter), the campaign appeared doable. So I started preparing, and this week we played our first session.

Out of the Abyss has the least subtle start imaginable for an adventure, the much overused "you start the game near naked and in prison". As the players had played the start of Lost Mines of Phandelver with me and wanted to keep their characters, I needed to get them into that prison. (The DM I had played with had avoided that start, and that turned out to be very detrimental to the story.) As we had ended in the middle of a dungeon, the Red Brand hideout, I simply told them that in the next room they had encountered not just the boss of that hideout, the mage Glasstaff, but also a drow priestess with six elite drow bodyguards. The drow had then quickly incapacitated everybody with their poisoned hand crossbows, and carried them off as slaves. Well, they had said they wanted dark, so they got dark. :)

The reason you need to start in the prison is so that you can encounter all the wonderful NPCs there, ten fellow prisoners. There is everything from a deep gnome with a betting habit, to a Yoda-like kuo-toa pacifist hermit and a hairy monster claiming to be an elf prince. I explained to the players the basic principle of interactive story-telling in D&D: As the DM I was setting the scene, which includes some obvious story goals like in this case escaping the prison. But it was up to them to come up with a plan on how to escape, who to take with them, and what means to use. I must say that ended surprisingly well, with them showing a lot more initiative than my regular group of old timers.

I used the NPCs to give the group an overview of the locations of the Underdark. The closest town from the drow outpost is the kuo-toa village of Sloobludop. Buppido the derro told them that from there they could cross the Darklake and get to his home town of Gracklstugh, where he claimed that in a tunnel system called the Whorlstone Tunnels there was a way to the surface. That gave them a general idea on how to proceed after the escape.

Due to there being several female players, I played up the matriarchy of the drow, so the male slaves were doing laundry and kitchen duty, while the women were doing heavy manual labor. That led to one NPC, an orc named Ront, getting killed by the drow for tearing the priestess' underwear, and the warrior of the group being forced to feed Ront's remains to the giant spiders. I think I got the message across that the drow are cruel bastards.

The group's cleric had written for himself a background story where his temple had done a forbidden ritual that got most of them killed, and him with a scarred face, wearing a mask. I turned that ritual into a summoning of Juiblex, and his injury into an acid burn. And io and behold, while doing kitchen duty the cleric saw one of the elite drow with similar acid burns. Based on that connection he could persuade that drow to help, and ultimately got the key to their cell from that (although the drow clearly cared more about hurting his boss than helping them). Meanwhile the ranger managed to pickpocket the smaller key to their chains from another drow. That precipitated their attempt escape, when they heard from other drow that there would be an inspection the next day, where the missing key would be noticed.

The keys got them out of their chains and cell, but the outpost was built high up the wall of the cave with only a well-guarded elevator to connect to the floor. And they had absolutely no equipment. So they decided that part one of the plan was to attack the guard tower in front of their cells, where only one elite drow and two regular drows stood guard. They had the good idea (I might have nudged them a bit in the right direction) to use the fact that the other way to the guard tower was a hanging bridge, to try to cut the ropes of that bridge. The first rope cut made quite some noise, so the combat began with the drow looking out the far door of the guard tower to see what was happening, and one regular drow getting pushed of the ledge by the warrior rushing in through the other door.

The fight was rather tough, a group of level 2 characters against a drow elite warrior of challenge rating 5 having two attacks each round and poisoned weapons. The warrior went down early, but got healed back up; fortunately the group has three people with healing spells, a cleric, a druid, and a ranger. The drow then outright killed one of the NPCs, the dwarven scout Eldelth, who had wisely asked the group before that in the event of her death they would carry word to her family in Gauntlgrym. During the fight the sorceress and drow NPC managed to cut the rope bridge, preventing drow reinforcements. The druid meanwhile had gone up to the store room and dropped weapons for them from there. So ultimately the group prevailed, got decently equipped (although not finding their initial equipment back), found ropes, and used those to escape from the drow outpost. We decided to stop there and play the rest of the escape and pursuit the next session.


Monday, February 12, 2018
Elemental Evil: Session 12

In the previous session the heroes had finished the second keep of elemental evil and killed its boss, a wereboar. This session began with the realization that the group paladin was now infected with lycanthropy. And being just below level 5 they didn't have the necessary remove curse spell to get rid of that. So instead of directly heading for the next keep, they returned to Red Larch again, where the local priests were able to heal the paladin from his curse.

On leaving the temple the group witnessed an attack on the town by two ankheg. They were able to defend the town, but the burrowing monsters caused a sinkhole to appear in the middle of the town square. Exploring that the group found a small dungeon (the "Tomb of Moving Stones") with a temple inhabited by a priest of the earth cultists. They killed the priest and discovered evidence that he tried to convert a group of town elders, the "believers", from a harmless excuse to spend evenings among men to a far more sinister cult of elemental evil.

The Tomb of Moving Stones is normally a far lower level adventure, designed to get a level 1 group started in Red Larch. In this case I thought it would be a nice opportunity to introduce the earth cult a bit more, before the group heads into their keep. The added advantage was that the xp from that dungeon got the group to level 5, which is what the next dungeon is designed for. As level 5 is a major jump in power, I thought it was wiser to do it that way.


Saturday, February 03, 2018
Unsubscribed Humble Bundle Monthly

I recently subscribed to the Humble Bundle Monthly, because the $12 for the bundle included Civilization VI with two DLCs, which was way cheaper than any other way to pick up Civ VI. Now the rest of the bundle arrived, and I must say that I am disappointed. The idea of the Humble Bundle Monthly is that it is "curated", giving you a bunch of good games. So I thought that in a curated bundle with Civilization VI I would find a few other nice strategy games. Unfortunately I was very wrong: The other games in the February bundle are all adventure games, and cheap ones at that.

To quote Steam when I open the page of one of those games: "Is this game relevant to you? This game doesn't look like other things you've played in the past. As such we don't have much information on whether or not you might be interested in it.". Steam is right. Basically I haven't played adventure games since way back when adventure games were still a thing, the days of Leisure Suit Larry or Monkey Island. I don't really like the new generation of adventure games, which is often described as "walking simulators". The only game in the Humble Bundle Monthly I might try is Snake Pass, because I've heard that it is somewhat unique with its controls, and not really an "adventure game".

Another reason to unsubscribe was that the highlight of next month's bundle is Dark Souls III plus one DLC. If you like the Dark Souls series, you might consider this, as $12 is an excellent price for something going for $75 on Steam. For me the unforgiving nature of the series has always turned me off. I don't play games to get punished for my mistakes, I have a job for that!

What I did now is change my Humble Bundle e-mail settings to send me info on future Humble Bundle Monthly offers. (I had turned that off, which resulted in me not even getting informed that there was a bundle of games waiting for me.) Getting $60 games plus DLC for $12 is interesting. The rest of the bundles probably not so.


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