Monday, October 01, 2012

You May Have Heard Me On….

It seems I've been completely remiss in letting you all know that I have been on a podcast. In fact, I've been on several podcasts. No, not several different podcasts; but several episodes of Jeff Greiner's The Tome Show. I shall endeavor to be more prompt in keeping you informed in the future, but just to catch you all up, here are the episodes I'm on which have been published so far:

Tome Show Book Club: Death Mark

This is my podcasting debut. Jeff knew I'm a big Dark Sun fan, because, well, I don't really keep that a secret! So when it came time for he and Tracy Hurley to review a Dark Sun novel, he naturally thought I'd be a good fit. It could also have something to do with me mentioning being interested 30 or 40 times. On this episode I guested with Robert Adducci to discuss a book I really enjoyed.

Tome Show Book Club: D&D Comics 2

In this show I guested with Eric Paquette to discuss Nentir Vale, Eberron, and Forgotten Realms comics with Jeff & Tracy. I'm not a huge comic fan, but I do find them convenient to read on my iPad using ComiXology. I really enjoyed the Nentir Vale & Eberron comics, but not so much the Forgotten Realms. The Dark Sun comics were not covered, as none of us thought those were any good. 

Tome Show Book Club: Spinner of Lies

On this show I guested solo--just the three of us chatting about this book. I almost didn't make it, and feel that it is to date my worst outing. But with some magical editing, the episode turned out pretty good despite me feeling off. At least part of the problem is I didn't particularly enjoy the book that much. It wasn't a bad book, just not my style. Another part was car problems.

The Tome Show 200: We Play A Game!

This is my first, and so far only, non-Book Club appearance. It was also an honor for me, as it was a special episode commemorating the 200th milestone, and I was in the company of the awesome Randal Walker, the equally awesome Brian Patterson, and the also awesome Fred Hurley, along with Jeff and Tracy. Tracy runs us through a fun, quick, quasi-D&D adventure, in which much fun was had. I think it is very obvious that this is the first time I ever played a game on-line. If not, then let me tell you: this is the first time I ever played a game on-line.

In addition to those four episodes, I've also guested on an additional two Book Clubs which have yet to be released, and am on-deck for at least one more. I have had a lot of fun doing these episodes, and they've got me thinking about other projects I'd like to do. What do you think, would you like to hear more of me?

In closing, if any of you have listened to any of these, I'd very much appreciate hearing any (constructive) criticism you may have either in the comments below, or catch me on my current favorite hang-out: Twitter

Monday, January 09, 2012

A Short Interlude

Program note: D & D Next was announced today. Of course I have thoughts on it. NewbieDM tells me it is obligatory to post these thoughts. This post is not it. That post will come after the initial wave has passed, perhaps in a week or two. For now, we return to Athas...

Our group had some ideas we wanted to try out which didn't necessarily fit into the story we were telling, so we decided to take a session and run it outside the story as a sort of interlude or flashback. I've heard about this technique many times on various podcasts, and I was itching to give it a shot. This session took place a couple months ago, but I think I remember the more salient points.

I had two story ideas for the interlude, both taking place in the Green Age. One would be a mid-paragon explanation of the egg's origin. The other was a mid-epic tier adventure where the player's characters would play a hand in the destruction of Athas. The feedback I got from the players is that they wanted to go epic, thus we went epic. The entire session was framed as a series of dreams which came to one of the PCs as he guarded the egg on the groups journey to Kurn.

This time I actually was able to prepare, at least a little. I did some digging into Dark Sun canon, and found references to Rajaat conducting experiments with magic and discovers preserving/defiling magic. "Officially" this start the Time of Magic.

In a rare nod to the official 4E multiverse (I'm not a huge fan of "Feywild", "Shadowfell" and the rest of 4E's backstory for the worlds), I decided that for our Athas, the Arcane, Divine, and Primal power sources functioned pretty much as described in the 4E books before this time. Further, I decided that it was around this time that Rajaat opened the world to a more direct contact with the Elemental Chaos. This all happens roughly 8200 years before the current year in Athas.

I was able to use this to give us a backstory for our epic level PC's. The contact with the Elemental Chaos manifested as an affliction upon the world, with the PC's being more affected then others. It was their life-long quest to seal this rift, healing the world of the affliction. Rajaat also wanted the rift sealed, as he had discovered a way to not only gain more control over his magic by doing so, but also to cut power to some of his most powerful adversaries. He groomed the five PC's to implement his plan.

I also dug out of the Athasian timeline (one can be found at that "an unknown disaster befalls the city of Celik, which casts it into ruins" some two or three hundred years after I had decided Rajaat opened the rift. I don't know if there's a canon reason for the disaster, but I decided it would be the PC's fault.

Below Celik was a natural formation known as the Celestial Focus. Their guides to the focus were Ferger and Stev (yes, the same two brothers that the party meets nearly 8000 years later), who conveniently disappeared before the action started. Most of what followed I came up with on the spot, and am actually kind of proud of it.

The encounter took place in a huge room, divided into four quadrants with a large column in each. The center of the room was a large bowl into the ground with a platform hanging in the middle, level with the rest of the room. The group had been given a ritual to cast once in the room to activate the Focus. They only had the resources to attempt one casting of the ritual. During the casting, one PC had to stay in each quadrant, and one in the center bowl.

And of course they were attacked. Again using my On-The-Fly Reskinning Skillz(TM), I grabbed three different cratures from the monster books, making two elemental artillery (air and water), two elemental brutes (earth and fire), and a single elemental leader in the middle (a combination of each). I don't remember which three creatures I re-skinned, just that they were a few levels higher then the party. In order to keep the ritual going at least three PC's had to give up one action per round. More would help speed things up, but each PC could only contribute one action per round.

I set a number, I think it was 35 or 40 (players did not know the target number), that they had to beat by rolling a d20 each round and adding the total number of actions contributed to the pot. Though there was really no hope for them to reach it in the first few rounds, I had them roll anyway to get them in the habit and keep them guessing as to what they were rolling for. Comically, they rolled miserably for many, many rounds.

I think the combat played out well. The players (and their characters) were challenged by having to be spread out as necessitated by the ritual's requirements. For the leader, a d4 was rolled each round to determine damage type. I decided if one of the single elements was forced into the bowl, the leader and the elemental would get a healing surge, and the elemental would be forced back to its beginning square (but an elemental could not willingly enter the bowl). The players almost tested this, but ultimately decided to change their tactics.

They did try to force one elemental into another’s quadrant, but I had already determined that the boundary blocked all movement for the elementals, though they could attack upto their reach on the other side.

Eventually the heroes vanquished a few of the baddies, and finished the ritual casting, which got rid of the rest. It also brought the emergence of aspects of the Mind Lords who were hell-bent on stopping them from completing the last step, something I threw in at the last minute. The players decided to complete the ritual rather then fight the aspects (which was my intention).

The last step was for one PC to step into each of the elemental pillars, and one to stand on the middle platform. That was almost a problem as this epic-level group had very little which allowed them to travel through the air. But they managed to do this before the aspects got in their way.

On our Athas, activating the Celestial Focus is what destroyed the town above (Celik). More than that, it sealed Athas off completely from the Divine power source, as well as the other planes, and changed Arcane so that only preserving/defiling-style magic worked. The timeline notes that "Survivors [of Celik's destruction] blame the ordeal on the reckless use of psionics." This is due to the involvement of the Aspects of the Mind Lords.

It was in this session that it started to dawn on me that I should let go of canon when it got in the way of telling the story our group was creating. It is the next session which brought that realization all the way home. But that's another post...

Monday, January 02, 2012

From the Annals of My Disfunctional Memory

It has been awhile since I wrote up a post about the Dark Sun game I'm running, but it hasn't been so long since I actually ran a session. The previous post, chronicling chapter 3, was at least half written around the time it was ran. Since then, we've completed chapter 4 (at 16th level) and an interlude/flashback. Due to the fuzzy way my memory (doesn't) works, I won't have as detailed a post about the going ons of those sessions, but will try to relate what I can remember.

If I recall correctly, we were also short on time, even though this particular session was at my house for the first (and possibly last) time. This had to do with players not having leveled beforehand, which gave the rest of us time to play the Drizzt board game. Cool that one, wish I had the cash to get them all.

Continuing my tradition of not being able to properly prepare for one reason or another, I hit the table with little more than a basic grasp of what was going to go down.

A basic grasp which I quickly threw away as undoable.

In the week leading up to the session I had thought to bring the party to meet the Mind Lords before bringing them to Kurn. Upon researching the Mind Lords of the Last Sea that morning, I decided I couldn't do them the justice I wanted to do without a lot more sessions. (As a reminder, this is a mini-campaign while our primary DM is on break to focus on RealLife(TM) projects).

So instead I had them follow a comet to Kurn. The first half the chapter was the journey to Kurn, the second half what they found there and the aftermath. This works out well as one of the PC's backstory is that "the world" speaks to him, so such things become a message from the voices.

Again this is me winging it, a technique which I really do hope to improve upon as time goes on. I knew I wanted them to encounter a ruins and find an artifact from the Green Age. Conveniently, ruins are a ceramic bit a dozen on Athas, so that wasn't a problem at all. For some reason the McGuffin was the problem, but more on that later.

Upon stumbling into the ruins, they found two brothers digging around, a talkative one (Ferger) and a silent one (Stev). I'm not much of a Kevin Smith fan, but even I instantly recognized where I got that from. Somehow the party was persuaded to help with the digging.

Of course, no treasure worth having comes easy. Their efforts were interrupted by a desert aberration which I invented on the spot, quickly grabbing one of the recent monster books and reskinning a creature (I believe it was a 17th level solo dragon). I am becoming convinced this is the better route for me: make up the creatures the party is facing, then steal some other creatures stats for the crunch.

The brothers went into hiding while the heroes did their Hero Thing(TM) and dispatched the creature. Sometime during the battle I decided what the McGuffin would be: an egg. But not just any egg, the last gold dragon egg. The lore for this rolled around in the back of my mind while we resolved the combat, but I kind of regretted it almost as soon as I revealed it.

Of course, the players didn't know what it was beyond a large, petrified egg. The silent brother, Stev, turned to one of the PC's and proclaimed it was his duty to deliver the egg to the Sorcerer King Oronis. Here's the place where the players lack of extensive Dark Sun knowledge came in handy: they were confused as to why an ancient artifact should be brought to one of the despotic dictators.

That wrapped the session. The McGuffin really bothered me for some reason, but I eventually got over it. The down-side of constantly coming up with stuff on the spot is that after thinking about it I really wish I could change it. With each session I run, however, I find myself becoming just a little bit more comfortable with the off-the-cuff style, if not actually a tiny bit better each time. In future articles I may try to focus a bit more on this, and a little less on the "let me tell ya about my game" thing...

Monday, December 19, 2011


Yeah, I know, I dropped the ball on this whole "blogging" thing. Good thing I don't claim to be a professional. I have still been running the Dark Sun mini-campagin, but haven't kept you all up-to-date. The good news is I've got at least three articles in the works after this one. What follows below was half written back in September when we played the sessions in question, though I've edited and finished it now, three months later...

It is time once again to tackle the harsh world of Athas. I hadn't been able to set aside dedicated time to prepare, but I have been trying to think of some ideas. It got to the point were I looked at my 8 yo daughter in despair and said "Daddy doesn't have any ideas for his game; his friends are gonna be mad." She immediately offered up "how about a dragon?" to which I smiled and went on with the day.

Later she brought me an index card of "Idias" (her spelling is almost as bad as her fathers) with four items: Dragon, Regular Men, Monsters, and Dinosaurs (my daughter hasn't been properly introduced to Dark Sun just yet).

This actually got me thinking.

Aside from enemies to dispose of, I also needed a location. At the end of chapter two the characters had been banished from Tyr, but chapter three starts at least a year and several levels later. As I didn't have a lot of time to plan a bunch of NPC's, I wanted to avoid a city setting. Lately I've been playing around with a terrain generation program called TerraRay (Mac only, can be found in the Mac App Store). I've generated several scenes, including some set on Athas. This also got me thinking.

I also needed goals. I know the epic tier is going to be about the future of Athas, with the characters trying to secure a better one. I've got a few of the elements for the two chapters which comprise the epic tier already sketched out. But what about paragon tier? In order to secure the future of Athas, the PC's are going to need to know about it's past. This got me thinking some more.

A plan was actually coming together.

Dragons. There are very few actual dragons in Dark Sun, with the most infamous being the Boris, Dragon of Tyr. On Athas, dragons are 30+ level creatures which are the result of a metamorphosis (usually starting as a human) brought on by a powerful combination of arcane and Psionic power. All of the sorcerer-kings are (or were) on this path. The players need to know about the history of the sorcerer-kings. Dragon: check.

Regular Men. Easy, the PC's are regular men. Regular Men: check.

Monsters. Again, monsters are easy. They're everywhere on Athas. Monsters: check.

Dinosaurs. Interpreted as in "relics of the past" rather then the T-Rex variety that my daughter was likely thinking of. A very important part of the history of Athas was the cleansing wars. Each sorcerer-king was tasked by Rajaat to eradicate one (or more) of the races common to Athas at the time. Gallard (who became Nibenay, sorcerer-king of that city) was to wipe out the gnomes; Keltis (now Oronis, sorcerer-king of Kurn) the lizard men. The PC's will experience a part of this. Dinosaurs: check.

Mysteries of the Green Age

Location. I named one of the landscapes I rendered "Mysteries of the Green Age". The cleansing wars brought about the end of the green age, but the world is dotted by the remains of this ancient history. I decided this ruined temple would make a great setting for these plans to come together. So I opened the file in TerraRay again, put the camera directly over the scene, and created an image which I then added a grid to, and printed out as a battle mat. Location: check.

[[NOTE: Material after this point was written in December]]

So how did this all play out? Pretty good, if I do say so myself. We started the first of the two sessions out with the PC's (i.e., "regular men") having been traveling through the desert (on kanks with no names) for many months when they encountered, and assimilated into the group, a new PC (another "regular man") who believes the world literally talks to him in many different voices inside his head (okay, maybe not "regular").

From there they stumbled upon an oasis by following a set of tracks, where they met a group of lizard men, which are thought to be long extinct  (i.e., "dinosaurs").  Fortunately rather then fight the lizard men, the PC's broke bread with them and got direction on where to head. Unfortunately this is yet another example of my biggest "on-the-fly" weakness: linear a-to-b-to-c story chasing.

They were directed to Varat's Temple, the place where the last gnome was killed. As the PC's drew nearer, they kept seeing flashes of that last battle, where the last of the gnomes tried to defend the temple along with some of their lizard folk allies from the armies of Gallard & Keltis. Upon reaching the ruined temple they were faced with some monsters: the cacti in the image were all zombie cacti.

I don't remember if I reskinned the stats here, or if I used SlyFlourish's DM's encounter cheat sheet, but I do remember I made one mistake: they were all stationary. Luckily this didn't prove to be a huge problem. PCs being PCs, they killed anything that looked killable. This provided the big battle of the night.

During the battle the PCs kept getting the flashes of the ancient conflict. They also saw Athas as it was back then, before the end of Cleansing Wars when the toll of unchecked defiling started to become prevalent.

One of the players missed that first session of the chapter, but made it to the second. Instead of hand-waving his character in, I outlined how he had somehow got sucked into this past as a passive observer many months ago, and had seen the battle from beginning to end over and over. This allowed me to hand narrative control over to the player, as I told him his character had seen this battle far more often then I had. I hope to do more similar to this in the future.

The PCs were sucked into the bodies of the last standing defenders. I had each roll a d6 to determine if they were in a gnome (1-5) or lizard folk (6) body. Half of them rolled sixes, go figure. This was to be the gnome's story, as the last of the lizard folk were not killed in this battle, but it's all good. To keep things moving quickly I ruled that they had the same class abilities, but their racial powers were switched with those of the body they inhabited. This is how I got my TPK, as the odds were about 600 to one against the PCs.

As each avatar was killed, the PCs jumped into a body of a soldier near the sorcerer-kings, and were able to observe Gallard ceremoniously execute the last gnome using a ritual which pulled in all the spirits of the recently deceased gnomes and trapping them under the spot where that middle cactus rests. As the scene faded away and the PCs returned to their own bodies, the gnomes cried out to them to be freed.

The final battle occurred as they dug up the artifact which contained the gnome spirits. I forgot exactly how I described it, but they were attacked by a reskinned dracolich (dragon, bingo). When they finally did free the gnomes, I explained how the spirits swirled around them, imbuing them with knowledge and wisdom (i.e., leveling them up from 11 to 16, along with some of their equipment), but also giving them each a visible and obvious physical gnomish trait. They also whispered "the Mind Lords" as they faded away, which was supposed to be their direction for the next chapter, but I flubbed that. (More on that in the next installment).

I believe my players had an enjoyable time. As I looked down at the index card of "idias" my daughter gave me and check each one off: dragon, regular men, monsters, and dinosaurs; I smiled. I think I may be getting the hang of running things on-the-fly, at least the basics...

Friday, September 09, 2011

Freedom? - or - How My Party of 5th-Level PC's Killed King Kalak...

Chapter Two of our Dark Sun campaign was entitled "Freedom?", and encompassed the last two sessions of our twice monthly DnD game. This was a city adventure based loosely, as the name suggests, on the original module "DS1: Freedom". Very loosely.

Actually, our game had very little to do with that of the module.

I had spent what little prep time I was able to put aside reading through the module and thinking of how the events outlined in it could fit into our game. A common criticism of novel based modules such as this is that the PC's end up taking a back seat to the heroes of the book. I agreed that the climax of this one for the PCs--leading a slave revolt while Rikus & company kill Kalak--was less then satisfying. So I formed an idea of how the PCs could do that bit (more on that later), and thought I'd use the events of the rest of the module to get them into position for that confrontation. (Lesson learned: listen to the voice in my head that keeps telling me "this will never work").

That would mean the PC's would be spending most the chapter in the slave pens. Two big problems with that: story-wise two of them were actually members of the Templerate (one with direct ties to Tithian); and the PC's didn't really want to be slaves again. Neither of these were insurmountable, and I could have easily forced the issue as the first chapter of Freedom suggests (and provides encounters for), but that felt cheap and didn't allow the for the players ingenuity. So I ended up running both sessions nearly entirely on the fly.

This is something I felt unskilled and  under qualified to do.

I introduced this chapter by having one of the Templar players read the prologue to The Verdant Passage (not aloud), as his character, Alain, was witness to Kalak discovering the amulets in his Ziggurat and Tithian's subsequent promotion.  Tithian then tasked Alain and his "pets" (aka, the rest of the party) with finding the other two amulets before the Ziggurat's completion. He suggested they start in the slave pits, my (ultra lame) way of trying to get the party to go undercover as slaves in the pits.

Yeah, right, that's gonna happen.

Having two Templars in the party, they decided to throw around their weight to get the information they needed. The prologue gave them the lead to talk to Sadira, one of Tithian's prized slaves and thus off limits for actually killing. As my mind desperately raced to figure out what to do with the game, I set them onto a Final Fantasy-style "goto A, then B, then C" style 'quest'. This I am not proud of.

The PC's were finally allowed to meet with Sadira, who gave them the name of her contact in the Veiled Alliance who gave her the amulet. On their way to tracking down this person I threw in Sub-Plot B: political intrigue. The barely conceived notion was that the Templerate was divided into several factions which had been locked in sort of a cold war, but now one faction was turning violent on Tithian's, specifically targeting Alain. This provided the combat encounters for part one of chapter two, but fell on its face and got pushed to the back in part two when I couldn't figure out a good way to tie it to what the party was doing. This I am also not proud of. (Especially after the players put up a real good climactic fight at the end of part one to capture one of the 'bad guys'.)

I did, however, get the players the information that when the Ziggurat was finished, Kalak would use it to transform into a Dragon, and that the amulets were what the Veiled Alliance were counting on to stop him. The three amulets were needed, but now there were only two as Kalak destroyed the one which had already been located.

A Plan B was needed, giving the party direction for part two. I'm kind of proud of that.

When part two started, I only had two things in mind: Tembo & Kalak. No extended rest in-between. The first half was role-play heavy as the PC's tracked down a new contact in the Veiled Allience (the first one met a merciful demise) to get plan B. I think I did a much better job of letting the players tell the story here, stumbling a little with each new NPC I had to invent. (Lesson learned: spend more prep time on NPCs, less on nearly everything else).

It seemed to go well, even with the sub-plot being side-lined. I actually had a vague idea of what to do there, but it was dependent on at least one of the players who didn't make part one showing up. That didn't happen, so the PvP intrigue was tossed aside. However, I was very happy with the role-playing, and gave everyone the benefit of a milestone before the encounters started.

The players learned that Kalak could be stopped if they destroyed the focus located in his incubation chamber. I decided what that was about two seconds after an NPC gave them that information. This could not be done until after Kalak started his metamorphosis, a detail I don't think I articulated well, but we got past that.

The action started with the PCs in Tithian's observation box when (spoiler alert) Rikus threw the Heartwood Spear into Kalak, prematurely triggering the metomorphosis. The heroes of the book were then tied down fighting the king's guard, so the PC's needed to proceed to the incubation chamber to destroy the focus. If we had more time, I would have turned this into a skill challenge, but we were running short and I wanted to wrap up the chapter, so I hand-waved them to where they needed to be: face-to-face with Kalak's pet Tembo. Other then being a huge instead of a large (and thus having more hit points), I ran this creature straight out of the Dark Sun Creature Catalog. Its purpose in life was to soften the PC's up, which it did well. Of course the party took a short rest, but that ended when Kalak's transformation started draining healing surges from everyone.

Being a Sorcerer-King, Kalak was a 21 to 24 level threat. He was attempting to transform into a Dragon like Borys, the Dragon of Tyr, a 33 level creature. So how am I going to give a 5th level party a chance to kill him? The Heartwood Spear which Rikus threw earlier. I made the power of the spear pull Kalak down to a 7th level solo (in retrospect, I could've gone with a 9th level), and then I reskinned a red dragon from Monster Vault (though with a lot more hit points). This drained the spear of its power.

Also present was the focus, which was comprised of four obsidian globes: two glowing red and two glowing green. Each set got their own initiative. The globes attacked everyone in the room (as well as everyone in the arena, though the effects were much stronger in the incubation chamber). I made the red ones a Psionic blast, attacking Will and doing d12 damage each. The green ones were an energy suck, attacking Fortitude and eating one healing surge each (doing 1/2 HS value if none left--this ended up making the red ones much less impressive).

In the end, despite my not-so-secret desire to kill at least a couple PC's, I ended up only killing the druid's animal companion, but there was a lot of blood on the field and I don't think many healing surges were left. Tithian, Rikus & company showed up after the killing blow was delivered, allowing Tithian to claim Kalak's crown. He then gave Alain instructions to kill the other PC's and join him in court (making Alain an NPC, something I had discussed ahead of time with the player) before leaving with his comrades. Alain mis-interpreted the instructions as escorting the party out of Tyr, banishing them into the desert.

That's not exactly how we called it at the table, but it is how it played out in my head.

Going forward, I can tell Real Life is going to demand that I run games on-the-fly most the time, so I'm going to need to learn my lessons and use what little prep time I have more wisely. Chapter three has the PC's at 11th level, but I currently only have the last two epic encounters in mind. I've got just over a week to come up with at least a vague plan of how to get from here to there, and maybe prep an NPC or two.

Thus chapter two ended on a high-note, and looking around the table it looked like all the players enjoyed it. And that I am proud of.