Tobold's Blog
Sunday, July 05, 2020
Game stats

These are the XVM stats of a rather mediocre player of World of Tanks: He has played a good number of battles, but his win rate is at best average (due to draws the average in World of Tanks is 49%, not 50%). The WN8 score, which is supposedly representing this player's skill is in the "orange" color category below 1,000, just one step up from the bad players "red". You wouldn't be happy seeing this player in your team.
Now this player is rather decent. It is clearly a reroll account, as nobody gets this good with just 100 battles played. The 56% win rate is rather good ("green" color), and the 1321 WN8 is decent enough at a solid "yellow" level. You'd be okay seeing this player on your team.

Of course, you guessed it, both of these stats are mine, my main account and a reroll account. As I said in a previous post, trying to optimize the Battle Pass event in World of Tanks has steered me towards the tier and type of tank I feel most comfortable with, and I have the most fun with: Tier 6 medium tanks. At this tier I find World of Tanks challenging, but not frustratingly so, and I manage sometime to have a real impact on the game. So after playing mostly at that level for some months, I noticed that my stats in term of win rate and WN8 were going up constantly, but slowly.
Of course I wondered what my actual "current" stats are, that is to say what my stats would be if they weren't bogged down with 15k battles with lower stats. So I created a new account, spent a bit of money to buy two tier 6 medium premium tanks, got two more tier 6 regular tanks from the same two nations (as then you can use the same crew), and played the 100 battles XVM requires to calculate stats. So the good news is that I am playing better than the stats of my main account would suggest. The bad news is that it is nearly impossible to improve the stats of my main account, because the stats displayed are the average of everything, not "the last X battles". If I had played those 100 battles with an average WN8 of 1321 on my main account, my WN8 would have gone up only from 857 to 860. I would need to play 7,000 battles on my main account at this level to just increase the stats to the "yellow" level of a bit over 1,000. That is more battles than I usually play in a year.

While that reroll account was useful for determining my current level of skill (in as far as you believe that stats can represent level of skill), I certainly wouldn't want to permanently switch accounts just for better stats. There are lots of players who do, but on my main account there are 190 tanks, and I have unlocked more than that on the tech tree (I just didn't keep them all). Besides the tanks, the main account also has a nice selection of good tank crews, lots of equipment, and various other goodies that one tends to accumulate over the years. Those things are more important to me than stats, I look at my stats only out of curiosity. Still, I bet that if WoT allowed players for a 50 € "fee" to reset their stats while keeping everything else, they would make millions.

Having your stats go back to the day you started is really counterproductive to the idea that your stats somehow measure your skill. It is as if a "gear score" in World of Warcraft would represent any single piece of gear your character ever wore, instead of the current set. I understand why they keep the whole set of stats, so people can look at for example how often they drove one particular tank. But the third party organizations like XVM that calculate WN8 would probably get a more accurate picture if they could just look at the stats of the last 1,000 battles of a player.


Wednesday, July 01, 2020
D&D needs evil races

In real life, I do not own a sword. As it happens, for the complex problems of the modern world a sword is not really a useful solution. I did however swing a large multitude of different swords in fantasy worlds, whether that was in stories told around a table in Dungeons & Dragons, or virtually on the screen in some video game. The reason why a sword is more useful in a virtual world than in the real one is that virtual worlds by design are simpler. There is less moral ambiguity, and a sword is a perfectly viable solution if your problem is an evil, fire-breathing dragon. The simplicity is a desired feature, simple solutions for simple problems are a feature, not a shortcoming. Our real lives are complex and confusing, and sometimes retreating into a simpler fantasy world is good for stress relief.

Since Dungeons & Dragons has moved more and more into the mainstream, it has increasingly become a target for the raging culture wars. And the latest move is that WotC has been pressured into reworking races in D&D; somehow "Black Lives Matter" is deemed to be relevant to how Dungeons & Dragons treats races like Drow or Orcs.

Now, racism *is* a real world evil, especially in the extreme form where it leads to people getting killed. Scientifically speaking, humanity doesn't even have races; "racism" is usually used to mean discrimination based on differences in looks and origin. The term "race" is more correct with regards to fantasy worlds with elves and orcs, as these are clearly more different than real world humans are between them. But somehow the use of the word "race" in Dungeons & Dragons ended up making the game a target: "This is a racist game, because it has races in it, and some of those races are described negatively!". I think that argument is nonsense.

First of all, we need to remember that the world of Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy world, and not real. No orcs were harmed in describing orcs as evil, brutish, and stupid, because orcs don't really exist. There is no hidden analogy between some race in D&D and some real world group of people. Some people might use a Scottish accent when role-playing their dwarf character, but that doesn't mean that the characteristics used to describe dwarves in D&D is supposed to be discriminatory to real world Scots.

Second, as I said in my introduction, evil is a desirable and necessary part of Dungeons & Dragons. There is nothing that would keep you from designing a role-playing game in which each player plays a social worker fighting for social justice, but D&D is not that game. D&D players wouldn't be very interested in a game where they have to delve deep into a dungeon to resocialize orcs. D&D players are looking to solve simpler problems with virtual swords and sorcery, and that requires easily identifiable "evil" targets. Evil dragons, evil necromancers, and sometimes evil orcs.

In its current form, D&D successfully manages to push some people out of their comfort zone by offering them "racial bonuses" for playing a race other than human. That, again, is a feature: It encourages players to think how their character would feel or behave differently because of their origin. This feature is actually rather "woke", because it makes players think about different origins and their impact. Somebody who has managed to play a halfling different than he would play a human might be more open to understand differences between people in the real world. Now this feature is under attack, because it is somehow seen as "racial stereotyping". But if half-orcs aren't strong, dwarves not tough, and elves not dexterous, then even more people will play humans (already the most popular race in D&D, and not because it has the best stats.). It is a shame that WotC would make their game worse, just to appease some radicals.


Saturday, June 27, 2020
Telling a story in a dungeon

There are a number of games like Once Upon a Time, frequently family games, in which cards or dice provide random elements, and the players need to tell a story including those elements. Role-playing games normally are a more structured sort of story-telling game, but sometimes Dungeons & Dragons can play just like one of those games where you have to make up a story from random elements. That is particularly true when playing sandbox style adventures, like the mega-dungeon adventure Dungeon of the Mad Mage that I am currently playing.

Dungeon of the Mad Mage is full of different stories. Unfortunately, you have to puzzle them together yourself. That is mostly due to the way the book is structured: For example the chapter my group is currently in, level 3, has 1 page of background narrative, and 15 pages of room by room descriptions. Thus if you want to know everything about, let's say, the Legion of Azrok, you'll find only the basic information at the start of the chapter, and you need to piece together the rest by reading through all the room descriptions in which the Legion of Azrok is either present, or mentioned.

The other problem with a mega-dungeons is that players will take a lot of "left or right?" type of decisions. As most of the time they have no idea what the consequences are of going left rather than right, this ends up with them taking a more or less random path through the level. Which means that they can easily end up encountering different story elements in a different order. Some of which make more sense than others. The classic example is meeting a quest-giver only after encountering the target of the quest. Depending on the quest, they might either have already done what the quest-giver was going to ask them to do, or they might even have made it already impossible to fulfill it. "Please go and save my pet goat from the orcs!" - "Hmmmmh, maybe we shouldn't have butchered and eaten that goat we found when we killed the orcs."

The solution for the dungeon master is making things up. Sometimes you just have to move things from a corner that the players ignored back onto their path, because that is the clue or story element they need for the story to make any sense. And sometimes you just throw out the pre-written story because it has gotten too messed up, and invent a different one. Or you just add a new story, because players did something that gives you an idea for a story. It would be great if the adventure module were of more help, but if that isn't the case, you just need to be more creative!


Saturday, June 20, 2020
Last Chance to See

Given the huge number of games I have access to, the process of choosing a game to play *now* is sometimes quite complicated. Why should I play this game, rather than that one? Should I try to "finish" the games I started? Or rather try to play as many different games as possible? But now a new aspect has come into play in that decision process: Will I still have access to this game tomorrow?

That question didn't come up all that often in the past. Usually any single-player game you had access to, you had access to forever. Some multi-player games might require a subscription, but that wasn't all that many of them. So, you buy a game, and you play it when you want. Until the appearance of game services on which you don't buy games anymore, like the Xbox Game Pass for PC.

If you are subscribed to Netflix, you can read on the internet every month which films will disappear from the service. So if you want to see them, watch them now, before it is too late. An Xbox Game Pass for PC is just like Netflix, and now you can have exactly the same effect: At the end of the month, some games will leave the service, and if you want to play them without buying them, you better do it now!

So today I've been playing Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. It was one of the games I downloaded on the Xbox Game Pass for PC service when looking for games I find interesting, but then I never got around to playing it. Now I saw that the game will leave the service at the end of the month. Decision time: Either I play it now, or I decide that I don't even want to try. In this case, given that I had already downloaded the game, I decided to try it out. I can see how it is a nice game, but it turned out to be not my style. I felt it to be too deterministic, too scripted, playing more like a puzzle. And I don't like the "flow" of games in which you have to constantly quicksave and reload. Shadow Tactics bleeps at you if you haven't quicksaved for 2 minutes! So it very much plays like "quicksave" - "try to get past the next guard" - "fail/reload loop until you succeed" - "leather, rinse, repeat". There is a certain feeling of success to be had if you manage a situation on the first try, without reloading, but that requires you to patiently watch scripted patrol paths for quite a while. I know friends who would love this, but for me the flow is all wrong.

Friday, June 19, 2020
Toppling statues

The toppling of the statues of Saddam Hussein was a powerful image of the Iraq war. As regimes or culture changes, pulling down the statues that do no longer represent the values of society can be a good idea. However, in that consideration one needs to evaluate *all* the values that this statue represents, and not focus on some narrow issue.

In most first-world countries, cultural values have changed a lot over the last 50 years. Homosexuality went from being illegal to being accepted with equal or near-equal rights as heterosexual partnerships. While obviously there is still a lot to be done to improve the treatment of minorities, we have come a long way from segregation and apartheid. Religious freedom also improved in many places, to the point where in several places around 1% of the population can declare their religion to be "Jedi".

Saying the cultural values have improved implies that the standards of previous generations weren't as high, if measured by modern standards. In other words, pretty much everybody living in a previous century could be described as a "racist". Even people who for example in the mid-19th century held the progressive view of being abolitionist are probably "racist" by today's standards.

So the latest trend to deface or topple "racist" or "colonialist" statues ends up with targets that don't really deserve being pulled down: Abolitionists, peacemakers, fighters against facism, and explorers. In balance, people like Gandhi do deserve statues for their live's work, and should serve as examples for us all. If we only leave statues of people who are up to the high "woke" standards of 2020, we basically erase thousands of years of history. Those losses would be far higher than the gains of toppling statues of everyone not perfectly "woke".

Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Timing game purchases

If I wanted to buy a hammer, I wouldn't need to worry about the timing. The hardware store is unlikely to hold tool sales all that often, the price of a hammer is pretty constant over the year, and there is little risk that the hammer I buy today is outdated by tomorrow's model. Timing the purchase of games is a lot more tricky. Not only does the price change a lot over time, but also the product itself.

For example I bought Pathfinder: Kingmaker during a sale on Steam last year for €19.99. Currently the regular price is €29.99, but the release price was €39.99. Nobody knows how much the game is going to cost at the next Steam sale (rumored to start next week on June 25th). I haven't played the game yet, haven't found the time, but I recently read that on August 18 we will get the "definitive edition" of the game, which will add a feature that I would want to wait for: Actual turn-based combat. I just have to hope that I don't have to pay to update my "explorer edition" to the "definitive edition" in order to access the new feature.

In general, games get both cheaper and better over time. Like all general rules, there are lots of exceptions. Nintendo will happily sell you a Switch port of a ten year old game for a full €60. XCOM: Chimera Squad was sold for half price on release and is now more expensive. For some games you can get the early access version cheaper than the release price, and the updates are free. For other games the improvements come via DLCs, and in some cases all DLCs together are more expensive than the original game. For The Sims 4, buying all DLCs would cost over $500!

Given the fact that I already have more games than I can play, I don't rush out anymore when I hear of a new game that would interest me. Instead I put it on my Steam Wishlist, which has over 50 games on it now. Then, when there is a sale, I get a notification from Steam, and that gives me the opportunity to rethink. This week I got a notification that Pax Nova was on sale, 40% off. So I went to Steam and had another look at the game. I noticed that the Steam reviews were not very good, people were complaining that the game felt unfinished and wasn't updated anymore. So instead of buying the game, I removed it from my wishlist. You never know how a game will evolve after release, so I am happy that I didn't rush and bought that game on release. On the other hand I am happy that I bought XCOM: Chimera Squad on release, because that one was quite a good game for €10.

To make things even more complicated, I never had access to so many triple-A games for free than this year. After some reluctance I finally made an account on the Epic Game Store, and they are giving out free games every week, some of the games that I might have bought. I also still have a subscription for the Xbox Game Pass for PC, giving me free access to quite a lot of good games. I just noticed they added No Man's Sky, which I bought (during a Steam sale) and played in 2017. Now this is a game that improved a lot over time, so playing it for free in 2020 would probably have been a better option. But then, you never know which games you will be able to play for free, and you don't want to completely miss out on some games because you waited forever.

Of course all this depends on how strong your urge is to play a game at the earliest possible moment, and how much money you have to spend on games. On the PC, you can get quite a lot of stuff for free or cheap, if you are willing to wait. Somehow I understand the Nintendo pricing policy, because it makes me want to buy Switch games on release, knowing that discounts in the future are unlikely. On the PC, timing is everything.

Friday, June 12, 2020
I'm glad I got out of the "influencer" business

You are probably very aware that blogging isn't what the cool kids are doing these days. And that my particular blog is way past its prime, with a lot less regular updates, and a lot less readers. Even I these days spend more time as a content consumer on Twitch and YouTube than on blogs. But fundamentally blogging a decade ago and creating YouTube content today has a lot of similarities. I could say that at the time I was an "influencer", long before that word was even invented, and probably at a much smaller scale. But when I watch some of the things that go on at these new social media platforms, I am happy that I got out of the "influencer" business.

Admittedly, the increase in scale has had some positive consequences for today's influencers. Especially in monetary terms. Some of the people I follow on these platforms do that as a full-time job. And while I question the wisdom of that to some extent, e.g. due to the fact that Twitch doesn't have a pension plan, I do admit that it must be nice to make a living by talking about the stuff you love.

But the downside of the increased scale is an increased entanglement with the brands you inevitably end up representing or promoting. Me, I never was big enough to cause Blizzard any trouble. I once got "press" access to a Blizzard convention, but in general I wasn't on the radar of Blizzard marketing, and it didn't matter what I wrote about them on my blog. If you are a YouTuber with a million subscribers, marketing departments look at you differently, and not all of that attention is positive. The current controversy on YouTube is about exactly such a case, a YouTuber with a million subscribers, who got dropped from the Nintendo Brand Ambassador program, presumably because Nintendo thought that he wasn't a good fit with their brand. They probably imagine their customers to be younger and more innocent.

When this year I was using YouTube to research Roll20, I came upon a bunch of older videos with a similar problem on a smaller scale. Roll20 had pissed off a lot of YouTubers with successful channels about role-playing, because it had told them that they didn't want the people promoting their brand to be white heterosexual males. One can see the "woke" attitude that would lead to such a decision, but Dungeons & Dragons isn't exactly a hobby for which the audience is a great example of gender equality. Sure, we are way past the "girls don't play D&D" meme. But I am member of a role-playing club, there is no discrimination against female membership, but white heterosexual males clearly make up the large majority of the membership. It wouldn't be unreasonable to accept that demographics of the influencers match the demographics of the audience, instead of trying to enforce some arbitrary diversity criteria. Being discriminated against because of the color of your skin is bad, regardless of what exactly that color is.

Fundamentally the problem is that influencers often just "happen". Somebody decides to talk about a game or game company, his channel takes off, and suddenly he is "internet famous". But of course the game company didn't choose the person. They might offer him freebies or add him to some sort of marketing program, but they don't really control him. So there is a risk that an influencer is seen as representing a brand, and then somehow goes off the rails. Google "pewdiepie on a bridge" for an example, which probably caused the marketing team of PUBG to have a collective heart attack, even if he wasn't particularly attached to just that brand. You end up with brands trying to keep their influencers at arm's length, because they are seen as a risk as much as they are seen as an asset.

Monday, June 01, 2020
My Time at Portia

I mentioned some weeks ago that Animal Crossing left me unsatisfied, and I was looking for a better game of the same genre. I already mentioned My Time at Portia there, but I played it on the Switch in an early version, which had some loading time issues; I also found the controls not very satisfying. So when My Time at Portia went on sale on Steam for €12, I bought the PC version. And found it to be much better than the old Switch version (which probably got updated since, but I didn't try that again). And the controls with keyboard and mouse are great. Not only that, they are also largely identical with the controls of Borderlands 3, which is the other game I am currently playing. That helps!

My Time at Portia is a life simulation game, like Animal Crossing, only much, much better. The 3D mining / digging part of the game is brilliant in itself. And My Time at Portia has a lot of features that Animal Crossing doesn't, like earning xp, leveling up, a skill tree, and a far more extensive crafting system. You can even date and marry! Furthermore there is a better story, lots of side-quests, far more characters to interact with, and a larger and more interesting world. Much more game for a fraction of the price of Animal Crossing!

While "post-apocalyptic" isn't my favorite genre, My Time at Portia is post-post-apocalyptic. Colorful and sunny instead of a grim wasteland, but with the ruins of a previous civilization which bombed itself into bunkers for a long time. Now it is years after people have emerged back into the sun, but they lost a lot of knowledge about technology. So there is an interesting conflict between those who dig for relics and try to re-develop technology, and a church which preaches that technology leads to the next apocalypse. Quite interesting setup, and much friendlier than "zombie apocalypse" games (man, I hate those!).

Sunday, May 31, 2020
Death and Intelligence in Dungeons & Dragons

The rules for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons make it relatively unlikely that a character dies in regular combat, as long as there is some healing power in the group. My group in the Dungeon of the Mad Mage has two Aasimar, a race that comes with a once-per-day healing hands ability. Minor healing, but enough to revive a fallen comrade. One of them is also a paladin, with lay on hands and potential access to healing spells. And there is a druid as well, who likes to play the healbot of the group (I gave him a staff of healing, so that he doesn't use all his spell slots for healing only). Theoretically I could make death in combat more likely by having my monsters coup de grace fallen players, but I always considered that a bit mean and unfair. As a result there have been several fights in which several characters went down, and were revived again. That suits my playstyle just fine, it enforces the idea that combat is dangerous, without actually having somebody losing his character.

Actual death in this Dungeon of the Mad Mage campaign happened only once yet. On level 1 there is this evil magical heart magic item. If you attune to it, you die. I have no compunction about letting a character die like this, if he was aware that the heart was evil, radiates necromantic magic, and the player insists on trying to attune without casting identify. That *is* kind of asking for it. And I let the temple of Lathander in Waterdeep cast Raise Dead on credit, they only had to pay half of the 1,250 gold fee in advance, so the player didn't have to roll a new character.

Now I am debating with myself about using one common feature on the first few levels of the Dungeon of the Mad Mage: Intellect Devourers. Xanathar is using those frequently to control members of his thieves guild. So the group might come across a group of members of Xanathar's Guild, and a few of them carry an intellect devourer in their head. They can't be detected, and when the host creature dies, the intellect devourer teleports out, hiding somewhere using stealth. The intellect devourer then can mentally attack a player, which incapacitates that player. And the next round the intellect devourer can consume that characters brain, teleport into his head, and take over. That is pretty deadly. The rarely used spell Protection from Evil and Good protects somebody, but not knowing that the spell is unlikely to be used. And the eaten brain can only be restored by a wish.

Apart from the general question of how frequent I want character death to be in my campaign, this specific case touches on another issue: Intelligence, as a character stat, not a player characteristic. Not all stats are equally useful in Dungeons & Dragons, and Intelligence is probably the least useful one. Nobody minds if I tell them that the chance of them walking on a tightrope depends on their Dexterity stat; but they would complain if the player had a bright idea and I judged that their character was too stupid to have that idea. Thus player intelligence "overwrites" character Intelligence. The stat is only used for a knowledge skill checks and saving throws, and there are only a few Intelligence saving throws in the game. This makes it a typical dump stat. None of my player characters has an Intelligence above 10. And I kind of dislike that. I tried already to make knowledge checks more useful, but of course with their low Intelligence stat, the players didn't bite.

So in a way the Intellect Devourer, whose ability to kill a character depends very much on that characters Intelligence stat, would suit my purposes. At the very least it would make the players realize that having an Intelligence of 8 isn't anodyne. And if character death ensues, there are a bunch of good options on how to continue: The player could make a new character of the same level and xp, or I could offer them a cut-rate Reincarnation spell, which would most probably change the character's race. They could even continue playing their character with the Intellect Devourer controlling them, which would only kick in when they deal with Xanathar's Guild. There is a lesson I learned from playing Wildermyth: Messing with a character in unexpected ways is good for role-playing, even if it isn't initially welcome.


Saturday, May 30, 2020
Making a mega-dungeon more memorable

My next Roll20 session of Dungeon of the Mad Mage is on Monday, and I am preparing level 2 of the dungeon. The general difficulty of having a memorable session in a mega-dungeon is breaking up the monotony of "open door, kill monster, loot treasure". That is made difficult by the design philosophy of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, and the adventure module that very much follows this design: Lots of small encounters rather than a few large ones. In my opinion that was a bit of a design overreaction against 4th edition D&D, which made for great epic encounters. By trying to be "not 4E", 5E overdid encounter design towards an endless slog of boring fights.

As a DM preparing a level in a published dungeon, and not wanting to completely rewrite everything, I can do two things: I can make a few of the better encounters epic, by making them harder. And I can make some of the minor encounters less of a slog, by offering non-combat options more visibly. There are a bunch of "factions" on each level of the dungeon; the murderhobo way of dealing with these factions by simply killing them all is actually the least interesting option.

There are very many different styles of running Dungeons & Dragons as the Dungeon Master. And different DMs have different talents. While I am unable to do voice acting like Matt Mercer, and my narrative description of places and events is hobbled by me playing in French, which is only my third language, my strong point is staging epic fights. It takes a bit of preparation, you can't just start reading the Monster Manual when the group is already facing the monsters. But by using clever tactics for your monsters, using terrain, and preparing a surprise or two, any sufficiently hard fight can be made epic and memorable. You want your players to feel that they are in danger, and be proud of themselves for overcoming this challenge.

Preparation is also the key to the second part of the plan, pushing non-combat options for the factions in the dungeon. There are some elements you can use for that in the Dungeon of the Mad Mage book. Each faction is described in a paragraph at the start of each level chapter in the book. Usually the rooms that a faction occupies are all having the same number, and then are labeled with letters for each individual room. The necessary preparation is to read all the entries, e.g. 1a to 1f plus the faction description at the start of the chapter, to work out what should happen when the group approaches. Given that these factions are usually comprised of "monsters", e.g. goblins, wererats, or drow, you need to be prepared for two questions: Why do the monsters not attack the group on sight? And why should the group not attack the monsters on sight? For example in one spot the den of Xanathar's guild is guarded by two bugbears. The bugbears don't attack on sight, because they don't know whether the group belongs to the guild or not, so they first ask for a pass phrase. And as the players found that pass phrase in a previous encounter on a dead bugbear, they might well remember that, and give the right answer. And then they probably feel clever for having done so, which encourages them to not directly murder the bugbears.

The overall idea is to create a flow in the game that isn't always the same. There are easy fights, epic fights, puzzles, and role-playing encounters. Of course you need some cooperation of the players for that. In the last session they encountered a harpsichord made out of bones, and the idea was that they would play a tune on it to open a secret compartment with a treasure. That ended up with the paladin taking his maul to the harpsichord and destroying the treasure in the process.


Tuesday, May 26, 2020
NPC adventurers in Dungeons & Dragons

Near the end of the first level of the Dungeons of the Mad Mage, my group picked up a new travel companion: A revenant, member of an evil adventuring party, who had been killed by his fellow adventurers and his corpse thrown into a pit. He revived as an undead bent on finding and killing his previous group. So far, so good, interesting enough story.

Now I am preparing level two, where his this evil adventuring party can be found. But in the WotC published adventures, NPC adventurers don't get their own character sheet. Instead they use standard NPC descriptions from the Monster Manual: The dwarven rogue is a "scout" (CR 1/2), the human priest is a "priest" (CR 2), and the human warrior is a champion (CR 9). That doesn't work for me at all! How would a group with such disparity in power ever have come together? And in a fight this really would just be a fight against the champion with two insignificant minions beside him.

I will use Roll20's Charactermancer to re-create those three adventurers as level 7 characters, using the same rules that players would use to create such characters. And I will put them all together in one room, because splitting them up as written somewhat kills the climatic moment where the revenant meets his old fellows. And I must say that this is where 4th edition was somewhat superior to 5th edition: You rarely met exactly the same monster twice in 4E, because that edition made frequent use of monster stat modifications, and always strived to create the perfect monster stat block for each encounter. 5E is far more standardized, and prefers to use monsters as written in the Monster Manual, even if then the challenge rating isn't all that appropriate to the encounter.


Monday, May 25, 2020
Dungeon of the Mad Mage - The Gameshow

On the narrative side Dungeon of the Mad Mage, like all mega-dungeons, has a problem: Why would anyone go through all the effort of building a 23-level dungeon with a thousand rooms, and keep restocking it after adventurers killed some of the denizens? So I am following a suggestion from the Dungeon of the Mad Mage Companion, and am running the whole thing as a derange gameshow. A bit like Borderlands 3 setting up the archvillains as social media influencers, the concept gives the main villain more opportunity for exposure. So Halaster Blackcloak is not waiting silently at the bottom level of the mega-dungeon, but appears at various occasions as the gameshow host, making snarky comments on the performance of the group. That gives great motivation to go and kill him, and provides opportunity to give the players some information they wouldn't otherwise have had.

I went and took images from an old TV show called Knightmare to create an encounter (room 27 on level 1) where the group sees a "wall of rectangular crystal balls" showing a younger Halaster commenting on previous "contestants".

Already when they entered the dungeon for the first time, I had Roll20 set up to play a gameshow theme music. At the start of session 2, Halaster appeared as a voice from the off with comments on the "previous episode", session 1. He invited the spectators to watch and find out whether somebody from the group would attune to the evil magic heart they had found at the end of the first episode. When the group got stuck with a puzzle on the gate in level 2 and wanted to walk away, he mocked them and gave a hint that told them that they could solve it without having to search for a key elsewhere.

Of course the gameshow concept is a deliberate anachronism and many aspect very much meta gaming. But in this context this works very well: The players understand the motivation of Halaster from their experience with the real world, while to their characters Halaster appears to be incomprehensible and completely mad. I didn't have to change much in the actual dungeon, just add some minor fluff like the manticore on level 1 asking a quiz question (again using Roll20 sounds to add a ticking clock and buzzer) and attacking after them giving a wrong answer. Which is obviously more interesting than a room with a manticore that just attacks on sight.

In a way, I, as the DM, am Halaster. Our motivations coincide to some agree. While Halaster is pushing the group towards bad decisions with his comments, I as the DM push the group to actually make those decisions instead of endlessly postponing them. With a thousand rooms in the dungeon, the players constantly come across things that *don't* mean anything, which teaches them to just ignore all sorts of stuff. That has the danger of them ignoring the actually interesting stuff as well, so "Halaster" steps in to make sure they don't.

This certainly worked in session 2, a 7-hour session we played yesterday. After Halaster asking whether a player would attune to the evil magic heart that they had detected a strong necromantic aura, one player actually did. And instantly died, so they had to leave the dungeon and get him resurrected. After Halaster encouraged them to solve the riddle that would open the gate in level 2, they did, and without resting or further preparation went through the gate. That landed them in level 4, designed for characters 2 levels higher than they are currently, and right into a fight with a group of drow. Instead of fleeing, they wanted to kill those drow, which nearly led to a total party kill. In the end a drow mage fled to call reinforcements, and the group fled before those arrived.

I don't really want to kill off my whole group. But Dungeons & Dragons is a better game if the players at least think that they could die any time. The 5E death save system makes it actually rather unlikely for a character to die, and there is always the possibility of resurrection. So it was good to establish in the story with the evil magic heart that if players act in a way that blatantly ignores obvious warning signs, instant death is part of the game. And the story with the gate showed them that the dungeon gets a lot more dangerous further down, and they don't win every fight easily like on level 1 (which is designed for level 5 characters, while the group is level 6).

The session also established an important principle for mega-dungeons: Choose the dungeon level wisely, as a function of your strength. In the first session they were proceeding through level 1 in a completionist fashion, as if they wanted to explore every single room of every level of the dungeon. That isn't necessarily a good idea in a mega-dungeon. It just takes too damn long, and if the level is too easy, it isn't really interesting, nor rewarding enough. Now they skipped part of level 1, and started level 2, which is where we will continue in the next session.



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