Dinner with the Despot

Monday, June 30, 2008 - 10:02 AM

For quite some time now, I've been adapting the plot arc from the Age of Worms adventure path (Dungeon magazine), and my group had finally gotten to the point where they needed information from a decadent prince's advisor. This brought us to Richard Pett's inspiring "Prince of Redhand" adventure, which is more or less entirely revolving around a dinner party.

Being the sort of fellow I am, I'd long since decided to have an in-game dinner party. Due to various difficulties in wrangling NPCs, schedules and other incidents where life kicks one in the shins, this party kept getting delayed. But a weekend ago, pressed for time, I pushed it, and things came together at last.

I didn't get much rest that weekend, but the result was well worth it. The original menu was very bizarre, but I simply didn't have time to do the food fabrication I would have preferred, and instead adhered to a menu with the theme of 'things hidden'. It went for five courses, dinner was all in-character, and people had a fantastic time.

We had four PCs and five NPCs at the table, not including myself. NPCs had 13 points of Favor that they could allocate to anyone else, and they were to keep track of these things. Favor could be given only up to 2 points at a time, but any amount could be taken away at a time. This had little in-game impact, primarily counting for future interactions between the PCs and NPCs, but people were to tell me if they gave someone 6 or more Favor.

Sometimes the Prince didn't care for some of the Favor being thrown around, and it is dangerous to offend him.

On that note, everyone started with points in the Prince's Regard. Everyone also started with three cards, essentially, denoting their ability to resist, influence or otherwise juggle the Prince's Regard. Unfortunately, I was not horribly clear on explaining how to use these cards, so they did not get used as much as I'd hoped... but a few did, and that was quite fine. Each card could only be played once, and of course, the Prince could give or take Regard at his whim. As a result, nobody really knew what their Regard score was by the end of the game... unless it had reached zero, at which point the Prince was not happy with that person, and it was generally fairly obvious.

Even without cards, the politics were fierce at the table, and there was plenty of chicanery going on. I was quite pleased with the result. I'll close this entry off with the rules for Bowling the Devious Heads, which I based off of bocce, and which my players intensely enjoyed (we used a softball for the Dead King, and croquet balls for the Dukes).

Enjoy an ancient Redhand tradition in this simple court game of competition and accuracy, in which individual players divide into Factions in order to win the Throne.

The game is played thus:

One ball is the Dead King.
All other balls are Dukes.
Player order for the first turn is chosen randomly.

I: The host stands at the line and tosses or rolls the Dead King underhanded, to whatever distance desired.

II: The players then take up the Dukes, and each in turn stands at the line, wherever they like, and attempts to land their Duke closest to the Dead King. This continues until all players have made a toss.

III: Players are divided now into Factions. The two closest to the Dead King are one Faction, the two next closest are the second Faction, and so on until all players are in Factions. Factions remain as teams until conclusion of the game.

IV: The player who has landed their Duke closest to the ball is the Regent. He takes up the Dead King and tosses underhanded, just as the host did. If one player is left over after division into Factions, that player tosses the Dead King instead, and is named the Pretender.

V: Players again toss their Dukes in an attempt to be as close to the Dead King as possible, starting with the Regent's Faction partner. Turns follow in Faction order. The Regent throws last of all. If the Pretender lands the Dead King, then he throws second to last, prior to the Regent.

VI: In throwing, it is acceptable to knock the Dead King from his position (this is called Creating an Heir). It is also legal to deliberately knock another Duke away from the Dead King with your Duke (Usurping a Duke), though if the Duke is knocked out of the field, the player gets a new throw.

VII: If a Duke lands or rolls outside of the bounds of the Court, he must be retrieved and thrown again.

VIII Factions accumulate points after the completion of each round. Dukes are scored by the number of Factions which rest entirely outside their distance to the Dead King.
Thus, if a Duke lands closer to the Dead King than 2 other Factions, he scores 2 points. It does not matter whether both Dukes of an opposing Faction are outside, so long as one of them is.
Turns change according to who has the highest points in that round. Thus, a new Regent is appointed. Factions remain the same, and if a Pretender is present, he is always the Pretender.
The game is played until one Faction earns 23 points, though it can be played for longer.

IX In a game with a Pretender, the Pretender cannot win the Throne by himself. His points are calculated normally, but after all other points are calculated, and they are then added to the Faction with the lowest score of THAT round, not the Faction with the lowest score overall. The Pretender can only win with a Faction who scores 23 in the same round they take his point.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008 - 11:52 AM

Well, the day of 4ed is here, and I have been giving the system a look. I've only run one test session so far, but the rules set is fairly comprehensive, and I believe I have a fair idea how things balance out, at least at the low-mid levels.

First off, I've mentioned this to a few people, but it bears repeating. My advice to people is to stop sitting 4ed next to 3.5. They are different games, almost entirely. Sure, some of the mechanics are similar, but they are just not the same. The power scaling is utterly different, the focus of play is different, and the balancing is different. You're better off looking at 4ed as an entirely new rule set for old material.

Some will say, but wait! DnD is about combat. 4ed is just more tactics and combat. Well, yes, it is. Emphasis on tactical action is pretty much the core of 4ed, though I'll point out that tactics certainly existed in 3.5. The difference here is that in 3rd, it is all about what a character can do, and all the options available to build that character. In 4ed, it's all about what the group can do, and the game revolves around tactical combat. This is further emphasized by the stripping down of skill sets and the compartmentalizing of player character classes into very specific roles. My suspicions at this point are also that in order for a group to be viable at higher levels, they must learn to act as a group. This was not as important in 3.5.

In some cases you can regard this as a natural evolution of the super-specialization that tended to occur in 3.5. With so many options available to customize a character, the usual result is characters focused on one aspect of their abilities to the point of exclusion, building glass cannons which then in turn need a group to function outside of theoretical number-crunching exercises.

In any case, I won't be converting my long-running campaign to 4ed. As it turns out, some sorts of characters simply can't mechanically exist in 4ed, for one. I am going to be playing around with 4ed some more, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it ticks. There are a few items about 4ed that I do not like, however.

First, I have a powerful loathing for the tone of writing in any of the core books, especially the PHB. It is an eye-gouging non-stop advertisement about how awesome the game is and how you should want to play it. Sure, this might be fine for trying to open up to new audiences, but I found it annoying. I'd go into a few specifics, but it is seriously not worth commenting on.

Second, though I applaud the overall balance of this edition, it is very clear what the business model is for 4ed. Limited power sets and cookie-cutter characters ensure that people will be champing at the bit for new power lists when new books come out, and if the designers can keep the same balance after a couple splatbooks, I'll be daunted and impressed, because I certainly have my doubts about that. It will be the feat-glut all over again; when you generate 200+ set character abilities meant to diversify and enhance, you will invariably have a large chunk of them which are simply better to take, and the rest will end up ignored. In 4ed, this is very significant, because mechanical differences in a character concept will be very rare unless people decide to take the subpar powers anyway. But why should you?

This is tied into the notion that mechanics can, in fact, influence the general mood of a game, which is something I strongly believe. But that's for another entry.

Also for next time, but briefly posted here: For all those who participated in the Prince of Redhand dinner party, you all were awesome. Without such good PCs and NPCs, the event would not have been nearly so spectacular. Thank you.

Paths, pt 5

Monday, June 9, 2008 - 10:02 AM

Eoan adored history. He never tired of studying how the threads of event and counter-event were mirrored again and again, nor of watching new threads weave themselves from what had come before. It was easy for him to understand why time was sacred to his people, the Cyroi, and that made him well-suited to be a priest.

To the Cyroi, there were three kinds of priest. Historians were the primary sort, and Eoan was one of these. They recorded, studied, pored over and confirmed the long history of their people, and considered this a prayer to their austere deity, Annum. Of course, Historians were expected to participate actively, whether as witnesses or instigators, in whatever sort of history they focused on, and in that, Eoan was something of a tragic figure.

When the Time for Duty had come to him, he was given to become a Historian of War.

To the Cyroi, to do something is to be resolved utterly to the task. All things were art, and worthy of refinement, if they were going to be done at all. But war was a terrible and repugnant act, and so the Cyroi feared it because they did not like to think about what they became when it was a time for war. Yet, the Unity of Annum demanded that sacrifices be made for the whole, and war, however monstrous, was one of these.

So other Cyroi saw Eoan with respect and sympathy. He was expected to learn war in all forms, to be ready to lead his people if the necessity would ever come, and none ever hoped for it. Like many Cyroi, after the fervor of war had left him, Eoan would weep for those he had slain, but on the field he was a machine of efficiency as cold and inscrutable as the weapons he used.

But studying the wars of the past was not the same. It still tugged at his heart, the death and misery of it all, but he could pore through the scrolls and books and take delight in the patterns there. There was much to learn. Annum taught that strategy is all that is necessary for resolution of conflict. Superior forces and superior numbers can be overcome by intellect.

Every war the Cyroi had been in, they had won because of this teaching. But the cost had been very high indeed, and Eoan's people had long since begun to fade from the world.

Humans, on the other hand, thrived despite all their victories and losses. To the Cyroi view, they were impatient, irrational creatures who kept no vision beyond their children or their children's children, and most were impossibly selfish. But Eoan found them fascinating. He enjoyed charting their progress through history, watching them achieve great things without seeming to think about it, or understand the significance of their actions. Being young, it was only recently that he'd even met a human being, but those had been notable exceptions to the rule.

When his Call had come, the great storm-oracle Maharwen had taken him in, and through her, he'd met the four humans who had rediscovered Camwhyr's tomb, Camwhyr the Seventh King. They'd brought the Fragment from the tomb to the Cyroi people, and that was significant beyond understanding, and he had been impressed with their sense of obligation. The Fragment was, in many ways, part of a greater key to the Cyroi future, and he knew what it meant.

But in his heart, Eoan most adored the four for bringing out the poetry of Camwhyr's age. They'd recovered the Lament of Minmordhan, the death-poem of a guardian soldier whose name was lost to Duty, the paen for Camwhyr, and so many more. For Eoan, their recognition of that beauty was an inspiration to him. As he sat under the stars, lost in thoughts of his race's golden age, he remembered the four who had given his people some of their lost grace, and he prayed that when it came his time, his Duty ended, that he would be as eloquent as Camwhyr himself had been.

“Stone by stone
I built my heart into a temple to my people

Now it is the open sky
And the clouds are my memories to them”

-Death poem of Camwhyr, Virtue of the East Wind, Thunder at Dawn, Master of the Field of Haoon.

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