Friday, July 31, 2009

The Forgotten Realms in 4E: The Literature

I just finished reading Bruce R. Cordell's Plague of Spells (1385 DR - 1396 DR) and Richard Baker's Swordmage (1477 DR - 1479 DR), two of the earlier books in The Forgotten Realms pantheon to be set after the Spell Plague, which serves as the high water mark between the 3rd and 4th edition continuities of the classic shared fiction world. Other titles have covered the FR since the switchover to the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but these books opened up the first two big story arcs of the new era - The Abolethic Sovereignty and Blades of the Moonsea, respectively. In the non-literary world, I'm about to start my first 4th edition game of D&D set in the Forgotten Realms, starting a sandbox game in the Moonsea area using the 4e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting and Player's Guide to the Forgotten Realms.

So, how are the books, and how do the help define the FR in 4E? Both were good, and in different ways. Cordell's Plague of Spells, the earlier set of the two titles, does perhaps the best job of explaining the Spell Plague of any of the texts I've read so far about 4th edition. He makes the experience of the (massively magically overpowered) world coming to an end and a new less pleasant world taking over seem real. Additionally, he does a great job making the characters more three dimensional than many other genre fiction titles, making Raidon's loss of a child something that sticks with the reader, Anusha's coming of age reminiscent for many of us, and Japheth's drug addiction a little more realistic than many books of its ilk might want to address. From both a game mechanics perspective and a literary perspective the apocalyptic removal of magical power from many of the Forgotten Realms' prominent figures helps address a problem this setting had suffered
under for over a decade - if there's a world full of massively overpowered beings, why would any other heroes be needed? (I know, but who will watch the watchmen?) Taking the power players down a peg helps give the other figures (player characters in the game, new characters in the books) take shape. The thing that I think Cordell did rather well within his book was keeping a few touch points from the earlier setting to help bridge the gap between "the old world" and the new era. Amongst these were characters from his book Stardeep, about a dungeon within the realms, and also cities and gods from the older campaign. Japheth as a young monk from Candlekeep before the fall was an interesting twist. (What happens to the folks who have spent their lives cataloging magic and knowledge when the world of magic shatters? Well, some would lose their way...)

Swordmage was a different animal. Set much further after the end of the spellplague, it was less concerned with how we got here, and much more about where we are now. There are still touchpoints back to the older setting - info about gods' names that had changed, cities that had been 3rd rate to Waterdeep are now larger players, the Elven kingdom of Myth Drannor has become whole again - but there are also some wholly new elements, like embedded pieces of the planet's lost sister world Abeir. The investigative plot line of SwordMage is fairly reminiscient of many of the stories associated with the Eberron campaign and literary setting. Eberron, the campaign world created by game designer Keith Baker, is a world of pulp mystery - think Chinatown with orc thugs and protagonists that are loners who reluctantly investigate murders. Geran, the main character in Swordmage, is a child of privilege who of course leaves all of that behind to travel the world. In his travels, he becomes entangled in scandal in the Elvish land of Myth Drannor, and after wandering for a while as an adventurer comes home to Hulburg, the kingdom ruled by his elderly uncle. Yes, this is the set up for every Princess Bride-esque tale to be told with Dungeons and Dragons as the mechanics for the telling, but Richard Baker does some clever things to not just tell the story, but make the reader interested in the new campaign world that the game is set in. It's no coincidence that the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting opens with descriptions of the Moonsea area, where this novel is set, I'm sure. It also leaves enough plot hooks and introduces enough characters (NPCs in game parlance, for the uninitiated) to make for enough tales told around the game table using this novel as source material, much like many 1st edition gamers leveraged the Moonshae Isles books by Douglas Niles to start the first games based in the Forgotten Realms, more than 20 years ago. (Yes, I was one, sitting in my parents' living room after Christmas, and opening the gray box of the first FR Campaign Setting, and rolling up stats for NPCs while listening to Queen, with either the Niles books and the first R.A. Salvatore books, well dog eared by that point, within reach.)

The books are both worth reading, if you liked the FR books of years past or if you're planning on playing in or running a FR game that uses the 4th Edition setting. Cordell's book does a nice job of bridging the gap (I understand one of Salvatore's latest does a similar job), and Baker's Swordmage helps define one of the campaign areas that many players will rediscover this world through - the Moonsea. Both do the genre fiction world justice, and are better than other similar releases in other series. Most importantly, they keep a campaign world that had been stagnating a bit in recent history viable, and take it in new directions. I'll see you in the Realms.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I am the Luckiest Man in the World

So, I'm driving to work, the other morning, listening to the local rock station, and the DJ says, "After the break, we'll have something special for fans of the 1980s cartoon, G.I. Joe..." With baited breath, I pulled over and dialled in after they announced that some lucky winner would get a boxed DVD set of G.I. Joe Season 1.1, and lucky me, I was caller 7. As one of my friends said, "Tyler, what's the phrase that pays?" Well, WNNJ, you're my hero.

Things I had forgotten about G.I. Joe since childhood:
  • The COBRA Temple looks like something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, mixed with a Stygian temple from Conan...
  • That G.I. Joe will always "return after these messages..."
  • COBRA Commander and Destro employ the same mind controlling headbands that Ming the Merciless used in the Flash Gordon serials, about 50 years earlier...
  • Destro had a Cthulhoid background...
  • Major Bludd looked way more badass than he sounded (was the voice actor an evil cartoon mouse on another show?)
  • Snake Eyes was way more badass than he looked.
  • Bullets never hit anything except for inanimate objects
  • There are not enough acronyms in the world
  • Sgt. Slaughter was not just a wrestler, he was a Joe
  • Destro controlled possessed Joes with a joystick
  • I still have a crush on The Baronness

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Wrapped up H2: Thunderspire Labyrinth - not as good as Keep on the Shadowfell...

I ran Keep on the Shadowfell for the D&D group that plays periodically at Timewarp Comics & Games, right as D&D 4E was released. The particular d&d group that was playing it there meets roughly once - sometimes twice - a month, so it took us a good 6 months to play through the whole thing. This was during the honeymoon period for me with Fourth Edition, when a lot of the new powers and class permutations seemed pretty novel and exciting. After DMing the game for a few months though, for different players, I started to feel a little differently, feeling that each combat was becoming repetitive. ("I use magic missile." "I use magic missile." "I use magic missile.") It seemed to me that despite the efforts to add new options to character classes, a weakness for some classes from1st Edition had reared its ugly head again - there are courses of action that are far more preferable for certain classes, and you'll use them over and over again, despite having other options. Magic Missile might have been the weapon of choice for a 1st level magic user in 1e because that was the most effective option, but at least by 4th level, you had a lot of other options. In 4E, after a wizard has blown their encounter power(s), they're still using magic missile a heck of a lot, even at level 8 or even higher...

So why did Keep on the Shadowfell work for me, aside from the honeymoon stage piece? Well, it was a well done module with lots of hooks for encounters and NPCs that weren't fleshed out. It was vaguely reminiscent of T1: The Village of Hommlet from early AD&D, in that the town itself was just as much the adventure as the encounters themselves - meet the town wizard, meet the innkeeper, etc. The end of the mod felt a bit like a railroaded closing to what had been a pretty promising adventure, but that's in my opinion a necessary evil of published adventures - they need to establish closure somehow, and if there are a lot of well defined plot hooks along the way, the closing sometimes can be a bit abrupt or have some urgency to it, just for architecture's sake.
My buddy Josh ran Thunderspire Labyrinth for the same group, though, and my feelings are not the same as they were for Shadowfell. Thunderspire Labyrinth had a lot of potential - the party saves slaves captured by evil Duergar - dark dwarves - in the Underdark, have to fight off a cult associate with an ancient Minotaur temple, and more. That said, this module seemed way more heavy on the encounters and factions that were pretty two-dimensional (we get it - Duergar are evil dwarves...) rather than providing an adventuring environment and NPCs that the PCs really had any interest in protecting. The concept of a town in a mountain was great, but I didn't feel like there were any strong hooks for making this place a home for the PCs - something I always look for in settings (create a place where the PCs wouldn't mind staying, and adventuring some more).

I have a lot of respect for Baker and Mearls, I just felt like after the wide-open, sandbox-y feel of Shadowfell that Thunderspire gave a lot more potential for play outside the pages of the module, whereas Thunderspire Labyrinth had some great scenes and ideas but was more of an adventure to play as a path to completing the Heroic Tier so that you could get on with the Paragon stuff.

We're going to play a sandbox game of Forgotten Realms as the next game with this group. I'll be DMing, and the party will find themselves in the Moonsea, leveraging a lot of the things I thought Baker has done well with the Swords of the Moonsea series, and giving the players an open ended world to play in.

What'd you think of H1 and H2? Is H3 worth incorporating into our game? Interestingly, I've seen lots of folks say they thought H2 was far better than H1. Discuss!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Roleplaying Games that are good to play 1 on 1?

No, not a return to my gamebook posting, from a few months back. My buddy Josh is coming over this afternoon for some gaming (and steak, but that's another blog...). We could play some runequest, I suppose, as his character is the protagonist for the RQ campaign I've been running, or we could just play a boardgame or card game, but we're in the mood for roleplaying. What games work effectively for a DM and player, in your opinion?

Ones that spring to mind for me are:
  • Call of Cthulhu - most of Lovecraft's stories were about sole individuals, not parties
  • Kobolds Ate my Baby - Beer and pretzels roleplaying at its best, and the adventures of a rogue kobold are always good for a few laughs
  • OD&D - the original red box still plays well one on one - heck, I've got a bunch of Expert level mods from the 80s that were intended for just one player and one dm
  • Eberron D&D 3.5 (waiting to try out 4e Eberron) - the film noir aspects of this D&D setting lent themselves well to lone detective games (heck, I lifted a ton of plot hooks for my eberron games from everything from Chinatown to classic pulp serials - Flash Gordon worked VERY well for the fragmented nations of Eberron...)
  • I'd say Magic: The Gathering, but thanks to Jim at Timewarp Comics, I sold my collection of cards years ago - thanks, man! you helped me kick the habit!
Any ideas? Want to share some stories of one-on-one games you've played?

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Nerd Oscars

Don't forget to vote! Ballots end on August 1. Green Ronin, Swords and Wizardry, Forgotten Realms - lots of good stuff in here, as always! Check it out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

James Mishler's take on the Gaming Industry

The blogosphere (or at least the nerdier parts of it) is abuzz about a post by former editor of Comics and Games Retailer James Mishler about his take on the health of the gaming industry. In short, he's not too keen on the long term sustainability of widespread tabletop gaming publishing. Check out the article here, and the myriad comments on that page, as well as James Maliszewski's Grognardia blog. Oh, more over here at enworld, too.

My take, as I've shared in a few of these forums is this - Wizards of the Coast and before them TSR have likely always treated the core books as a loss leader, or in layman's terms as the Gillette "Give away the razor, sell the blades" model. The money for larger companies is in selling the adventures, accessories, splat books, and other upsells over time. It's tougher to do that on a smaller model.

All that said, I think online publishing, p.o.d. and other approaches can give some opportunity to the smaller independents. Mishler touches on a lot of this. (and his "Begun the PDF Price Wars have..." passage is brilliant.)


Friday, July 10, 2009

Dragon Warriors RPG

In my latest case of "Must Go! Must Buy!" syndrome, I'm picking up the Dragon Warriors RPG, based on the quick start booklet they provided for Free RPG Day, this year. (If you didn't grab it, you can download it here.) My curiosity was piqued based on the freebie, and I've been doing more reading about the game. Interestingly enough, according to old pal Wikipedia, Dragon Warriors was originally released in the 80s in 6 novel sized paperbacks - a very different format compared to the doormat hardbacks and boxed sets that ruled the day then, in the gaming world. The newer Mongoose Publishing releases collect these older materials, and repackage them in more traditional hardback format.

So, what's appealing about the game? It has the old school feel of RuneQuest or Palladium Fantasy, with a more distinctively European bent. Think Brothers Grimm. Think Feudalism. Think Norsemen at the Gates. This isn't the high fantasy of The Forgotten Realms or any of the settings or influences that shaped American RPGs through the 90s (much as I love those games, too). A f'rinstance - the description of The Ogre from the mini-bestiary in the Free RPG Day sample partially reads:

The ogre may be old, but that does not mean it is stupid, and it has fought humans before. It will stay below the bridge, using the stonework as a shield, and making occasional grabs for members of the party from alternate sides of the bridge. When it is completely under the bridge, it cannot be seen or targeted by anyone on the bridge or the road. if it coems under repeated missile or spell-fire and can't work out where its attacker is, it will run away, down the ravine and out of sight.

So, we've been given not a simple set of flavor text or an ecology of this creature, we've been given full scenery, motivations, and characterization. Very impressive stuff.

Along the lines of my previous post about my issues with 4th Edition D&D, my same feelings about rules influencing roleplaying apply here. The rules - at least as sampled in the freebie booklet - seem to suggest a game built around archetypes more akin to Conan, Siegfried, and Lankhmar's denizens than World of Warcraft. [In defense of the great minds behind 4e, Mike Mearls has a good post here about where the inspiration behind the 4e class archetypes came from. Hopefully, more players will explore these inspirations, as they are great - I think the rules at the end of the day just became to WoW-y for a table top game.] The richness and depth of the multi-page description of just the Barbarian class is impressive, and hopefully in the right hands of players will lend itself readily towards the kind of game that I think Dragon Warriors has the potential to be.

Anybody have any experiences playing the game? Any feedback? Anything to expect?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hackmaster Basic - Quickstart Rules!

Huzzah! Kenzer has posted a free PDF of the quick start rules to the latest Hackmaster, Hackmaster: Basic. Click here to go to the Kenzer Hackmaster site, or just deep link here for the quick start rules. I'm glad to see, especially with this year's Free RPG Day stuff in mind, so many companies putting out nice, slim "try before you buy" quick start docs. Well done, Kenzer!