Monday, August 26, 2013

Inaugural

Earlier this month, my 4e group had the opportunity to become the first adventurers to enter Skyfall delve, my Carcosa megadungeon.

For interested parties, the Shields of the Sorrowfell from Khaldun and the Mourners of Saerun Road from Eberron entered the Skyfall delve with the intention of clearing the top level to make the first floor habitable, allowing the Planar Trade Consortium to create a settlement for future adventurers to mount expeditions into the depths.

So far, the Shields of the Sorrowfell have retrieved a golden statuette of Cthulhu.  No word yet on what the Mourners of Saerun Road found.

She of the Dying Light told the Shields and the Mourners that one of their number, Iathacl the Storyteller, obtained a suit of powered armor and disappeared into Skyfall delve.  Whether he went exploring and died or pulled a Colonel Kurtz and went up river is unclear.

Interested parties may read more details here.

Once both parties clear the top level, the goal is to open up the dungeon to ConstantCon, probably using Labyrinth Lord.  Any updates or relevant information about the megadungeon of Skyfall delve can be found on this blog by way of the #fourthworldproblems tag.  I will also try to whip the Obsidian Portal page into shape relatively soon.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I try to keep focused on role-playing games on this blog, but I recently played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (I actually purchased and played a game shortly after release? Shocking!) and feel that it is relevant enough to elicit commentary.

Spoilers abound, although I'll segregate this into spoiler-free and spoiler parts, so you'll have plenty of warning.

Brothers is a platformer/puzzle game about (unsurprisingly) two brothers.  Their mother is dead — drowning, according to the opening cinematic — and their father is dying of some unknown illness.  The Brothers take him to the local apothecary who indicates that their only hope is to find the Water of Life.

Cue epic journey.

A brief word about gameplay: there is no English dialogue.  All dialogue in the game is vaguely-Arabic-sounding gibberish; character interactions are determined primarily by inflection and context.  (There were a couple of interactions that only made sense in hindsight, but this is a minor complaint.)

Likewise, both brothers are controlled by one controller.  Penny Arcade describes it as "a co-op game, for one person."  This is way less wonky than it sounds, as the player is given plenty of time to get used to the arrangement.

As for the game itself, the adventure neatly cleaves to the Dungeon Crawl Classics character funnel paradigm.  It's a bit more fairy tale than D&D games tend to be, but it certainly feels appropriate.  (I would frequently turn to Nicole while playing and note that these characters are going to be awesome adventurers someday.)  You play two children (I'd estimate them to be roughly 10 and 14) whose main skill seems to be boundless energy and an athletic ability to climb.  And you face down ravenous wolves, evil ogres, and vile cults in your quest, armed with only your wits.  (You do get a torch at one point.  That's about as close as you get to a weapon.)

This game seems like a 0-level hexcrawl waiting to happen.

All right, we're getting into the spoiler part, so keep out if you care about that sort of thing.  (If you want my conclusions, though, you should go play the game.  It's available on Xbox LIVE Arcade, and should be available on PSN and Steam soon.  It's a good game if you want to get a feel for level-0 villagers journeying beyond the gates of civilization, and it's also good if you want what the internet commonly terms "feels.")

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Are you gone?

When I mention fairy tales, this game is a bit more old school in its presentation — things are grim, and most of the game proceeds with the oppressive feeling that something bad is going to happen.  (Personally, I thought that the brothers weren't going to make it back to their father in time.)  There are a couple of moments when, in true fairy tale fashion, you transgress, and will be punished for it.  (The rescued girl toward the end comes to mind.)

Emotionally, the game does its job pretty well — one of the most effective points is at the end, when you are forced to play through burying your own brother.  While I didn't expect it, the story foreshadows the older brother's fate nicely — he's not featured in the opening scene, nor is he playable in the dream sequence.  Plus, the rescued girl just seems wrong the more you journey with her.  (And the game warned you that the cult worships spider-things, but that lesson is swiftly forgotten.)

As for the game-able aspects of Brothers, most of the encounters would be interesting things to feature in a hexcrawl.  I found the scene of the giant battle to be particularly effective in this regard — there is no combat nor is there really ever any danger to the player, just a creepy, fantastical sense of foreboding.  The pygmy cultists who get tricked by the brothers, bathed in giants' blood, is both sufficiently weird and metal to warrant inclusion.  The ogres' dungeon is a classic dungeon crawl that could easily be expanded for anybody who wants that sort of thing.

Additionally, in terms of the DCC character funnel, the game includes it.  The older brother dies, and as the younger brother is just a child, it seems likely that his scarred psyche is going to tend toward either extreme: either he's never going to travel again, fearful of the dark, or he's going to become an adventurer, as he's far too restless to stay in a tiny village.

If you want an alternative to epic fantasy and you just want to see how the common level-0 schmoes live in a fantasy world, check out Brothers.

Friday, August 9, 2013

On Game-Breaking and Powergaming

This is a post about powergaming, except, it isn't.  Not really.  I'll ramble all over the place, so just bear with me.

I've devoted a lot of word count to my love of Unknown Armies.  My occult horror gaming background informs much of what I do gaming-wise — I try to make my fantasy wizards at least a little off-kilter, for example.  I try to keep this picture in mind when I contemplate fantasy wizards.  In my current 4e game, the gnome wizard was given a temptation in the form of a sexy vampire wizard woman with forbidden knowledge.  (He took the bait, and is now a vampire diabolist himself.)  The other wizards encountered in the game tend to be weird and buried in their own pet projects.

Don't worry, I'm getting to it.

I don't have a head for powergaming.  I have a head for numbers and figures, sure, but I usually would rather make a broader character.  In our recently-ended Deadlands game, I could have made Father Seward a straight-up gunslinger with a 5d12 shootin', but I wanted him to have a bit more happening, so I also made him a holy man and theologian with a troubled past.  In classic World of Darkness, I typically couldn't conceive of making a character without at least a dot of Etiquette, for example.

Basically, I tend towards a well-rounded character.  Jack of all trades, master of none, and all that.

One of my powergaming triumphs?  The guy who ran Deadlands is running a Changeling: the Lost game.  I just made a character who is amazing at chemistry — assuming he has access to his library, he rolls twelve dice with the 9-Again quality.  He tried to physically resist someone else at the first game session and failed miserably.  Not typically how people min-max their characters.

Of course, that's not really the focus of this blog post.

What I really want to talk about is the game-breaking sort of powergaming.  You tend not to find it in horror gaming — even if you max out your rifle skill at 99%, Cthulhu still eats 1d6 investigators per round.

This sort of min-maxing never really bothered me.  Real people do it all the time — if you're a Nobel-winning astrophysicist, you're probably not also a UFC champion, and if you're an Olympic-award winning boxer, you're probably not also a famed actor.  (Not to say that these things are impossible, just that they're rare).  If you make a combat character, he probably has some notable flaws, like an inability to negotiate through social situations or a weak will.

Game-breaking, though, is a different story.  Since it doesn't really happen in horror gaming, one typically finds it in games such as D&D.  Various people have attempted to create game-breaking characters, frequently in D&D 3.x, that exploit poorly-written or poorly-considered rules to make characters of preternatural power.

Of course, since the heights of power typically rely on magical abilities, this means that it is typically magicians performing these feats.

In my mind, that is what magic-users do.  Player character magic-users decided to throw away a life of quiet experimentation to use their talents for profit, but the majority of wizards and sorcerers in the world are probably idiosyncratic research scientists, spending decades to unlock the properties of the philosopher's stone, or some similar eldritch discovery.

Do you remember the Zodiac wizards in Isle of the Unknown, each of whom is perfectly aspected to a sign of the Zodiac?  What about the mosaic magician in that same book, who bound his mind and spirit into the mosaic in an old temple?  What about Louhi from Vampire: the Masquerade, who has spent centuries engaged in a ritual to blot out the Sun?  What about every gutter magician in Unknown Armies, trying to turn his life into an allegory for some grand occult design?

I imagine that magic-users do that sort of thing all the time.  With that in mind, game-breaking characters seem pretty natural.  It's an intriguing thought exercise to consider what makes them tick: why would you engage in a particular avenue of research to the exclusion of all others.  Consider the following:

  • The muscle wizard is a very specific character build: you have to be an Illumian, for starters.  This works, though; Illumians are very driven magical researchers who always hope to be the best in everything.  At second level, an Illumian has two power sigils glowing around her head; these two power sigils combine into a single word.  The "Aeshkrau" word allows the Illumian to use her Strength score to determine bonus spells for a spellcasting class.  When combined with the Cancer Mage prestige class from The Book of Vile Darkness (allowing a character to become a disease carrier who receives the benefits but none of the drawbacks of any diseases, among other things) and the Festering Anger disease from the same book (which causes boils, fits of rage, and a degenerative constitution but also causes increased strength), this allows the character to increase her Strength score every day and gain more bonus spells (in addition to slowly but steadily gaining a ludicrously high Strength).  Within weeks, you'll be able to memorize prodigious numbers of spells and split boulders in half with your bare hands, although you'll be a pock-marked pariah with a crippling vulnerability to Cure Disease spells, not to mention the fact that you had to mentally train yourself to maintain a near-constant murderous rage for about a year to catch Festering Anger in the first place.  Such is the price of power.
  • Pun-Pun the super kobold is a kobold from Forgotten Realms whose quest for power led it to learn (or steal) shapeshifting abilities to assume the form and powers of a sarrukh.  It uses this same power to do this to its serpent familiar.  As the progenitor race of all Scaled Ones on Toril, the sarrukh can use the Manipulate Form ability to enhance their statistics.  Since both Pun-Pun and its familiar are both reptilian creatures posing as sarrukhs, they can use Manipulate Form as well as various other enhancement magics to form a feedback loop whereby they can constantly improve each others' statistics.  Through this method, Pun-Pun slowly but surely becomes a potent being, even holding Divine Rank in some character builds.  If allowed to continue this activity, Pun-Pun will eventually become immune to the puny attacks of mortals, although the gods themselves would likely take interest in such a creature's activities.  Interpretations of the character tend to cast him in the vein of the Monkey King; a divine trickster who stole power from the gods.  Pun-Pun might cause havoc on the Material Plane, but it seems more likely at that point that such a creature would move into the realms beyond and quickly fade into legend.  Who can say?
  • The Locate City nuke is not quite as narrow as the other two, but still requires a significant level of dedication.  The Locate City spell locates the nearest city within several miles (specifically ten miles per caster level).  The classic version of the build requires a specific selection of feats to add cold damage, lightning damage, sonic damage, and an explosive effect that throws everyone in the radius outside the radius of effect.  This modified spell now locates the nearest city while also causing small amounts of elemental damage to everyone within its radius of effect, and flinging them several miles.  Since the spell is centered on the caster, he is recommended to remain indoors while casting this spell.  Assuming a Level 12 caster, he will be struck by the elements and thrown a few feet, likely surviving the encounter with significant but not life-threatening injuries.  However, anybody else inside the area of effect is hit with elemental damage and thrown to the outside of the effect, which should strike in a 120 mile radius around the caster.  (As noted, this is about the size of Spain.)  Being thrown even a single mile will kill just about anybody, to say nothing of being thrown 100 miles.  This will certainly kill every Level 0 entity in the radius, whether or not they are indoors when "thrown," and will kill many characters with class levels, as well.  This 45,239 square mile holocaust will probably also make the character the most wanted person on the planet.  Why someone would wish to inflict this level of villainy on the world is unclear, but any magic-user with a grudge or an agenda could clearly perform such a feat.  Of course, it is also possible that the magic-user in question has no intention of surviving the blast, feels like he has no other option, or has been brainwashed to train in such a way.
Each of these potent wizards seems to come with significant weaknesses that make perfect sense of some mad genius who sought the heights of power.  Of course, that doesn't necessarily justify allowing a player to attempt to derail a campaign in such a way, but anyone dedicated enough to try these sorts of antics might deserve having the opportunity to try.  Even if it backfires horribly, as it often does.

Edit: This post marked two years of this blog, and I totally didn't notice!  Happy birthday to me.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Couple of Things

I just discovered Frog God Games' obituary page, featuring the deaths of many in The Slumbering Tsar and Rappan Athuk.  Worth a look and a chuckle.

More to the point, I was directed to Blog of Holding's Dungeon Robber game and have been playing it in my spare time.  For those not in the know, Dungeon Robber is built off the Random Dungeon Generator as a Dungeon Map project, itself built off the random dungeon generation charts from the first edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, pages 169-173.  This game emphasizes the exploration and treasure retrieval parts of dungeon delving, while also dabbling in the domain game — adventurers can retire and make the town more prosperous, making future dungeon delves easier.  Worth a look for a simple old-school dungeon experience.

Friday, August 2, 2013

When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Turn Pro

Vice magazine is in the habit of putting out some pretty cool documentaries.  (It's beyond the scope of this discussion, but my introduction was The Vice Guide to North Korea, which I highly recommend.)

Recently, I've come across two that detail weird, idiosyncratic little bits of modern occult lore.  I give these to you specifically with the white trash gutter magic of Unknown Armies in mind, but they could conceivably be used in any modern occult conspiracy game, like Call of Cthulhu or World of Darkness.

Do you remember hearing anything at all about a woman named Valeria Lukyanova?  She's a Ukrainian model who gained notoriety a year or so ago for being one of those women who gets reconstructive surgery to resemble Barbie.  Well, Vice did a documentary on her, detailing both her modeling thing, as well as her life as a New Age guru:



I also came across one recently featuring several teenage girls from Arizona who perform exorcisms, trying to prevent things like "sexually transmitted demons."  Watch it here:

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