Tobold's Blog
Thursday, December 02, 2021
 
Social contract for board games

More than 4 decades ago, when I was at university, a group of more experienced students went once a year with the freshmen students to a chalet in Switzerland for a weekend. And I used to bring the board game Junta to these events, as the game plays best with 7 players. The only problem with that is that some people agreed to play without knowing the game, and there was no discussion about what to expect. We explained the rules of the game, but didn't talk about the social contract. Junta, like Diplomacy, is mainly a game about negotiation and betrayal. In order to play well, you need to be able to stab your friends in the back at the right moment, when they least expect it. Not being prepared for this, we had more than one case of couples breaking up after playing Junta, because one of them felt so betrayed by the other, and projected the resulting lack of trust onto real life. This is the sort of game I wouldn't play with friends anymore these days, and especially not with partners. It would need people who are very well able to separate trust in game from trust in real life, and that isn't that easy.

In pen & paper roleplaying games nowadays there is frequently a "session zero", in which the social contract of playing the game together is discussed. That avoids conflicts later, when some people in the group wanted to play one way, and others in a very different manner. It allows you to discuss what sort of behavior is acceptable, and what not. But for board games I have never heard of anybody doing something similar.

My wife and me don't like to play competitively against each other, so I mostly buy cooperative or solo board games. But even there we don't necessarily have exactly the same motivation: My wife is mostly playing for the experience of playing, while I can't always switch off my "gamer genes" and also try to play well. I like to understand complex games well enough to be able to play them competently, to understand the underlying gameplay mechanics. For example I wrote a blog post over a year ago on how to win at The 7th Continent; and sometimes I see YouTube videos of people playing the game, not understanding how it works, and then giving it bad review marks for being too hard. I find that somewhat annoying.

But then it is surprisingly hard to find good sources on board game strategy. I recently started to play the digital version of Wingspan, which is excellent, but didn't have much luck finding good advice on how to play the game better. When you search about strategy advice for Wingspan, you will find lots of discussions on which individual birds are overpowered, but as you don't necessarily find one of these overpowered birds in your starting hand, that advice isn't all that helpful. After a number of games I understand the mechanics of the game well enough to get to over 90 points, but I haven't breached the 100 point barrier yet. But then, 90 points seems to be the "competent player level" of the game, I've seen the designer play Wingspan on YouTube and get 93 points. I can see how Wingspan would be fun to play as a board game with a group of people all playing at that "competent player level". But I could also see a group of friends or random stranger sit together and them having very different level of competence and experience with this particular game, and that then not being much fun at all. Wingspan is an "engine building" game, and if one player builds a far inferior engine than the others, his turns will be much shorter, give much less resources, and feel much less fun.

It is easy to see that players will often have different levels of experience with a competitive board game, and possibly different motivations. If one player not only knows the game much better than the others, but also has a competitive motivation to crush his opponents, chances is that nobody will have much fun in the end. Cooperative games and pen & paper roleplaying games are a much safer ground. But maybe talking about the social contract before starting to play would be a good idea too.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021
 
Kickstarter vs. Gamefound

Two weeks ago, Kickstarter changed their rules on running multiple projects at once. Basically, you now need to deliver on your previous Kickstarter project before starting the next one, although companies with several successful deliveries and good standing can run up to 3 projects in parallel. That caused some consternation in the world of board game Kickstarters; there is a relatively low rate of fraudulent projects in this domain, so the necessity wasn't really felt. And a company might be waiting half a year for their game to be produced and shipped from China, so the ability to already start working on the next game was appreciated.

Now specifically for board games, there is an alternative to Kickstarter called Gamefound. Same crowdfunding platform principle, just limited in scope to these games. So people were asking why Kickstarter would want to drive creators away from their platform to Gamefound. It looks like Kickstarter was shooting themselves in the foot by helping their competition.

But that might actually have been a clever move. It creates at least the perception that Kickstarter is the higher quality platform with better customer protection. It makes Gamefound look like the dumping ground for dodgy projects not allowed on Kickstarter. A company wanting to run several projects in parallel, would want to put the project where they would be most certain of fast delivery on Kickstarter, and the not-so-fast projects on Gamefound, because that way they gain "experienced creator in good standing" points on Kickstarter.

As this is all relatively new, we will have to wait a while to see how this works out in the end. Will Kickstarter end up with the "better" projects? Will Gamefound have more problems with fraud? Or will Gamefound be forced to also introduce similar rules?

Sunday, November 28, 2021
 
Better D&D, Best D&D

There are quite a lot of discussions on various forums as well as YouTube videos on questions like "which is the best edition of D&D?", or "what RPG systems are better than D&D?". The large majority of these discussions never discuss what exactly they mean by "better" or "best", which makes the whole discussion pointless. There is a very simple argument to be made that D&D is the best RPG system, and 5th edition the best edition for it, for the simple reason that this is the system that most people are playing. So as long as finding somebody to play with is a concern, 5E D&D wins by having the best statistical probability for that. Once you have a group together, all bets are off. I've known groups that much preferred the maligned 4th edition to 5th edition; and I know a lot of groups that prefer other systems to D&D. It's a bit like asking what the best movie on Netflix is: You can find the most popular, or the one rated best by critics, but for any given viewer the "best" movie might be very different.

What makes the question of "better/best" even less useful is the fact that any RPG system is just a set of rules. You don't really experience rule sets. You experience for example a game of Dungeons & Dragons, but the quality of that only to a small part depends on the rule set; it much more depends on the players, the dungeon master, and the adventure / campaign they are playing. For a given group some systems might be a better fit than others, and some adventures might fit better with some system than others. I did play a Steampunk campaign twice, using D&D rules, but I'd understand the argument that a Steampunk rules system might have been a better fit.

Unless you think that something which is popular can't possibly be good, it is reasonable to assume that 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is a good role-playing rules system. But the current 5E version won't be around forever: A backward compatible "evolution" of the system has been announced for 2024, and it is likely that at some point in time an actual "6th edition" will come out, or that another rules system rises to the rank of most popular. So even for somebody who thinks that 5E is the "best", it is always worth looking how the system could be further improved, either by house rules or by future editions.

So where are the weak points of 5E D&D? One of them is certainly the basic ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. 5th edition uses the same stats for many different things, from chance to hit, amount of damage dealt, to ability checks and saving throws. The result of that is that some ability scores are more useful than others: Dexterity is more useful than Strength, because you can get the same hit chance and nearly same damage with Dexterity-based weapons, while Dexterity saving throws and ability checks are far more frequent than Strength checks. Intelligence is not only used by the smallest number of classes as prime stat, it is also rarely used for saving throws, and ability checks related to it are all "knowledge checks". People don't mind failing a knowledge check as much as they mind failing other checks, as usually there are no bad consequences of failing to know something, compared to failing to attempt something.

Another definitive weakness is the spells in the game: They simply aren't well balanced. In 5th edition the concentration rules make some spells inherently rather weak; an impressive-sounding 5th level Cloudkill spell ends up being less good than a 3rd level Fireball in most situations. Balance doesn't appear to have been much of a factor in the design of 5th edition overall, there are clearly classes and subclasses that are unbalanced and much better than certain others. Part of that seems to be based on the idea of balancing things based on a "standard adventuring day" with "6 to 8 medium to hard encounters" between long rests, which is something that just isn't realistic for most groups and campaigns.

While some people won't care much about balance, a lack of it can have negative effects that are hard to handle. That is especially true for less experienced people inadvertently choosing an underpowered character class and then getting frustrated. I don't think it was a accident that the biggest "problem player" incident I had during 5th edition was with the player of a warlock; you need to optimize a warlock quite a bit with specific sub-classes and choices before that class becomes something other than a spellcaster with too few spells. A player that feels that his character is inherently much weaker and less fun than everybody else's is more likely to act up.

I don't think all of this will be addressed in the 2024 evolution of D&D, but I do hope that some things will be. Because if the most popular system isn't already the best system, it certainly should be. The internet, via virtual tabletops like Roll20 or by showing pen & paper role-playing sessions streamed on places like YouTube, is making the more popular systems even more popular. Availability and recognition are big factors in choosing a RPG system; few people study the rulebooks of several systems in depth to find out which one is "best".

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Thursday, November 25, 2021
 
Miniatures and board games

I don't hate miniatures. I bought several 3D printers to be able to create miniatures myself for my D&D games, before COVID made real worlds games difficult and we moved to Roll20. So I have printed many an orc, and found that a 3D-printed miniature in a single color was in many ways superior to a flat 2D color token on my gaming table. Having said that, I am starting to hate miniatures in board games. To explain why, let's have a look at an unboxing photo of Kingdom Death: Monsters.
What do you see? A lot of plastic parts that aren't assembled. That has 3 consequences: 1) Kingdom Death: Monsters costs about $400 for just the core box; 2) If you can't assemble small fiddly plastic pieces into actual miniatures, you can't play; and 3) unless you can also paint miniatures, the final result doesn't actually look much better than 3D-printed miniatures in a single color. Now different games have these 3 problems in different degrees. Some come with the miniatures already assembled. Some even come with them already painted, but of course that is then more expensive.

The overall result is that there are some board games where I would play them if they came with cardboard standees instead of miniatures. But it is the miniatures, and only the miniatures, which prevent me from buying the game. I find the settlement survival gameplay idea of Kingdom Death: Monster quite interesting (if a bit harsh), but I am sure not going to spend a fortune on something that would take me hours of unpleasant work to assemble. Of course, some people assemble and paint plastic models for fun; but it sure isn't for everybody. Even if 13 people went for the $2,500 all-in pledge at the latest Kickstarter for the game. Me, I'll be waiting for the $100 cardboard standee version, that will never come.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2021
 
COVID math

Last week I posted some "back of the envelope" math on COVID, and of course ended up being wrong. And it might be interesting to hear where I made that error, because it is of some general relevance.

Based on infection numbers among vaccinated and unvaccinated people in one region of Germany, I calculated a number of high likely a vaccine is to protect you from infection. While I still believe that a vaccine offers some protection on any given day against infection, it turns out that this might not be relevant at all if you think of the long term. Think of it: In the long term, what is your chance to get infected at least once during your lifetime by the common flu? Obviously that number is very close to 100%, because regardless of how low your infection risk is on any given day, there are a lot of days in a lifetime. If the flu virus is everywhere, aka it is "endemic", sooner or later you catch it, even if you are living in a less populated area and don't go out much.

With COVID, and the delta variant, it pretty much is the same now. COVID has become endemic. Whatever social distancing you do, you can't lock yourself into a bubble forever. So, sooner or later you *will* catch COVID, regardless of whether you are vaccinated or not. So the only relevant number for protection from the vaccine is the British study that unvaccinated people are 32 times more likely to die than vaccinated.

From the Economist's estimate of COVID's true death toll, we can estimate that the chance of an unvaccinated person to die from COVID is about 1 in 300. So the chance of a vaccinated person to die from COVID is about 1 in 10,000. In the USA that makes dying from COVID for an unvaccinated person as likely as dying from being shot, while dying from COVID for a vaccinated person is less likely than dying from sunstroke. Of course the lifetime chance of dying from COVID isn't very accurate, as we only have 2 years of data yet. The virus could still mutate to a more dangerous variant and increase the chance of death to be as likely as dying in a motor vehicle accident, 1 in 100. Or new treatments could reduce the likelihood of death.

Nothing of that changes my original message: Getting vaccinated increases your chance to survive COVID. The risk from the vaccine is significantly lower than the risk of not taking it. Big Bird is right, you should get vaccinated.

Monday, November 22, 2021
 
Board games and math problems

I am reasonably good at math, because both my natural science degree and my day job required it, so I get to practice math more than the average person. And one of the skills you pick up if you are comfortable with mathematics is to know whether something is a math problem or not.

Imagine you want to know what "A + B" equals to in a given situation. If you have precise information about both A and B, or a sufficient number of equations linking the two together, this is a math problem, and you can solve it. For example if you know that "A - B = 1" and "A * B = 6" you can calculate that A must be 3 and B must be 2, so A + B = 5. But if you know that there is randomness involved, for example both A and B are numbers determined by throwing a 6-sided dice, that isn't a math problem that can be solved. You can still apply some math, for example stating that A + B is "most likely" to be 7, but can't know what A + B is for sure until you throw those dice.

One old classification still being used about board games is to divide them into Eurogames and Ameritrash games. Obviously there is much wrong with that classification: Eurogames aren't necessarily made in Europe, and Ameritrash games aren't necessarily trash. But quite often the difference comes down to this: Euro style games are math problems, American style games aren't.

American style games are quite often thematic games that have a lot of randomness and narrative elements to them. If a game allows you to make a decision, and that decision determines which page to read in the storybook, or which story card to read, that isn't a math problem, unless you know the content of the whole storybook or the whole deck of story cards (which you shouldn't). And the randomness makes it so that you math skills can be used to make reasonable decisions ("If I do this, I need to roll 5 or higher on those two 6-sided dice, and that is likely to work"), but still leaves open the excitement of not knowing what will happen, and everybody at the table laughing or groaning when you end up rolling a 2 with those two dice.

Euro style games often have little or no randomness, no storybook or cards with unknown content, and little or no player interaction. Terms like "worker placement" or "tableau building" are used to describe a game in which players choose an action, and know exactly what the outcome of that action will be. You place your worker on this field, and you *will* get 2 grain. Now the trick of these games is to create math problems that most people can't solve in their heads. You place workers to get resources, use those resources to get buildings, those buildings produce other resources or new workers, and certain actions are worth a certain number of victory points. In some cases there is absolutely no randomness nor player interaction, so gameplay basically consists of people making a series of moves based on gut feeling or experience more than math, and somebody at the end has the most victory points and wins. Obviously, if in the next game you would do the exact same sequence of moves, and there is no randomness or player interaction messing up the result, your victory points will be exactly the same as before. The outcome is deterministic.

Now a computer is much better than a human regarding math problems. If you play such a deterministic Euro style game, a computer could either solve the equations and determine the best sequence of moves, or it could with some machine learning algorithm quickly learn how to optimize. A human wouldn't be able to beat a computer in such a game. While people rarely play Euro style games against computers, it does happen that people play such a game against somebody who has played the game before more often than they do. And if a machine can learn the optimum sequence of moves, so can a human. Usually a more experienced player at least knows which first move(s) in the game are better than others, even if he hasn't learned the complete sequence of best moves yet.

I don't like Euro games much. I recognize them as a math problem, and I don't like to solve math problems for fun. The deterministic nature of the game combines with factors like "Joe brought the game to the table because it is his favorite game, while the other players don't know the game yet" to the predetermined outcome of "Joe wins". Also I find that the gameplay action of "I place a worker here to gain 2 grain" isn't inherently fun because there is no discovery or luck involved. I find rolling dice or reading page 127 of the storybook / card 127 of the story deck more fun, because I don't know what the outcome will be. Thus in the narrative, American style games I prefer, every move is an experience. Winning after X moves isn't necessary, and I actually prefer co-operative games.

Having said all that, most games are not 100% in one of these categories. A classic "Euro style" game like Settlers of Catan does have dice rolls to determine resource gains and direct player interaction via the robber, so it isn't totally deterministic. Still, my preference for American style / narrative / thematic games remains: I would much rather make a move that can be described as "I move my hero next to the orc and chuck some dice to see whether I hit him" rather than "I place my worker on the farm to gain 2 grain". However, I do like a bit of resource management and options to mitigate randomness in my games. I absolutely love Sleeping Gods, which my wife and me are currently playing, in spite of every move starting with me placing a worker on a section of the ship; I like that I don't know what will happen if I choose to go to a certain location. But I also like that if for example a combat happens and I have bad luck, I could use some of my command points to mitigate that, or that by carefully managing my wounds and fatigue I can make a win in the combat more likely. I don't want my games to be math problems in which I need to calculate 3 moves ahead, but I am fine with the bit of math needed to evaluate probabilities of dice rolls.

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Friday, November 19, 2021
 
Patreon - How much is content worth?

I would like to thank my patrons on Patreon for making the content of this blog possible! Oh, wait, I don't actually have a Patreon. I only have a "buy Tobold a coffee" donation button, which got used exactly twice over the last 3 years. So, thanks to both of you! The sad fact is that in the greater scheme of things my content is worthless, from a monetary perspective.

Now I do follow a number of channels on YouTube, and that line about patrons making the content of the channel possible is one that gets repeated a lot. What nobody says is that there isn't really a good reason to support somebody on Patreon for this sort of content, because you can be pretty sure that the content will get made anyway. Yeah, sorry to the two guys who donated to my blog, but their donation didn't make any difference on my content creation. And because there is no good reason to do it, only a tiny percentage of people do it. For example the Spiffing Brit has a YouTube channel with 2.66 million subscribers. And on his Patreon there are 1,111 patrons, which is just 0.04% of his subscribers. Smaller channels have higher engagement, but the number of patrons rarely passes 1% of the subscribers.

Besides "making the content of this channel possible" probably being a lie, why don't people support content creators more on Patreon? Probably because if you put that in competition with other sources of entertainment, it looks like a bad deal. Why give a guy who makes a handful of videos per week $3 or $5 per month, if you could get a basic Netflix subscription for $9 a month? Even more importantly, it is a lot harder to freeload Netflix than it is to freeload a YouTube channel, because on YouTube freeloading is the default option. It is reasonable to think that by watching that advertisement at the start, you paid "enough" for the content on offer.

I am staying away from Patreon because I am increasingly wary of subscriptions. I already have a Netflix subscription, an Amazon Prime subscription, and a XBox Game Pass for PC subscription running. I have over 100 YouTube channel "subscriptions" (which are free), so even if I just took the smallest (usually $1 per month) membership level on Patreon for all of them, I'd end up with paying over $1,000 a year just for watching YouTube. I'd be better off if I paid the $12 per month YouTube Premium, and even that appears too expensive for me. So I think I'll just sit through the ads, thank you very much.

Historically, "patrons of the arts" are rich people. But most of the 1,111 patrons of the Spiffing Brit, which provide him with an income from Patreon of €5,246 per month, probably earn less than that per month themselves. It's not that I would begrudge smaller channels a few hundred dollars per month of Patreon income, but if a content creator becomes popular enough, it ends up being the poor financing the rich. While I appreciate donations myself, I don't ask for them, because I have a well-paying upper middle-class day job, and I would feel bad if somebody would give me money that they need more than I do. I create content because it fulfills a need of mine to write down my thoughts in a public space. I am highly sceptical of the idea of somebody making a living from content creation, from being an "influencer". It's a slippery slope going from somebody recommending stuff he really likes to recommending stuff that pays well.

Thursday, November 18, 2021
 
Triage

Europe is in the grip of the "4th wave" of Corona infections, basically caused by the combination of the delta variant plus colder weather being stronger than the "herd immunity" from vaccination. While there is a lot of misinformation on the internet about the vaccine, the 4th wave does provide us with rather accurate statistical information, because the numbers are so large. The two key results are that if you are vaccinated, you have an about 30 times lower chance to get infected with the corona virus than if you were unvaccinated; and once you catch the virus, if you are vaccinated you are 30 times less likely to die than if you are unvaccinated. Which means that if you count the whole chain from getting infected to dying, a currently not infected vaccinated person is a thousand times less likely to die from Covid than a currently not infected unvaccinated person.

What isn't said is that this statistical result is valid only as long as not all ICU beds are full, and all respirators are taken, which is a situation towards we are heading. At some point the health system is overloaded, and doctors will have to practice triage, which is deciding who lives and who dies based on a set of ethical criteria. And triage is bad news for the unvaccinated. One of the main principles of triage is that if you have two people needing treatment, but you can treat only one of them, you should treat the person more likely to survive the treatment. As the vaccine significantly increases your chance to survive, with everything else being equal, a doctor will always choose to give the respirator to the vaccinated person rather than the unvaccinated person, because the vaccinated person is more likely to be actually saved by it.

For obvious reasons the power that be are trying to not offend the part of the population that is hesitant to get vaccinated, and they are trying to nudge them towards vaccinations rather than talking harsh truths to them. But that harsh truth is that if you don't want to get vaccinated, you are a thousand times more likely to die from COVID now, and if the overall situation worsens on the current trajectory, you might be left to die in triage. The whole "get vaccinated for the good of the community" talk isn't wrong, but it isn't the main reason why you should get vaccinated. You should get vaccinated out of pure self-preservation, because the minor risk of secondary effects from the vaccine is negligible compared to the major improvement of your life expectancy if you take it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021
 
Price stickiness

My gas and electricity company just informed me that my regular payments for next year have been increased to 250% of what they were this year. The laws of supply and demand, and increasing prices when demand outstrips supply, seem to be alive and well in that domain.

However, if you are currently shopping for Christmas presents, you might have a very different experience. There are a bunch of possible presents, especially consumer electronics, which nominally haven't increased in price, but you simply can't get them. Prime example is the Playstation 5, which was released about a year ago, and for which demand still largely outstrips supply. The prices that scalpers ask for it on platforms like eBay reflect that, but the official MSRP hasn't changed at all. Apple just sold me an iPad from their webstore, but their expected delivery date is dangerously close to Christmas, leaving me at risk of visiting family empty-handed. Some used cars are now more expensive than new ones, because the new version still has an old official price, but simply isn't available.

The economic term for this is price stickiness: Although manufacturers could obviously raise prices to bring demand more into line with supply, they don't, for various reasons. Mostly because they aren't sure the increased demand will last, and don't want to scare off potential future customers. That is somewhere are market failure, with people who would be willing to pay more still unable to receive the goods they want, or scalpers profiting from the situation. You can give your kid the cash and tell him to queue for a PS5 himself, but that is likely to result in a frustrating holiday experience for him, which is probably not what you were going for.

The big question is how much of the current economic situation is temporary. The most probable answer is: Not all of it. And prices can be sticky both ways: Some people who are currently increasing prices due to low supply will not completely reverse those increases when the supply problems are solved. And with everything else becoming more expensive, the supply problems of the PS5 might be solved by parents not able to afford a PS5 for their kid anymore by next Christmas, even at the current price.

Monday, November 15, 2021
 
Not much spillover

Skyrim was one of the best-selling video games in history, selling 30 million copies. Obviously the makers of the Skyrim board game had hoped that there would be a spillover, with fans of the video game wanting to buy the board game. But nearly two weeks after the crowdfunding campaign started, they only got 4,578 backers. That isn't bad for a board game crowdfunding campaign, getting the game already over $1 million; but I would guess that the company that runs the campaign had hoped for much more. The trailer got 20k views on the channel of the company, and 250k views on the IGN channel, but apparently people aren't biting.

My personal impression is that the crowdfunding campaign would have done much better if Modiphius had bothered to produce a physical prototype of the game, and sent that to the top 10 or so board game channels on YouTube. Even if these channels have fewer subscribers, I noticed that board games physically played on these channels tend to do rather well on the various crowdfunding platforms. I am currently playing the excellent board game Sleeping Gods, which sent out a lot of prototypes at the time of their Kickstarter, and ended up with 12k backers. With the Skyrim board game only being shown virtually, on Tabletop Simulator, it looks a lot less appealing to fans of board games. And it doesn't persuade the fans of the video game to make the switch to the table either.

Physical prototypes not only look a lot better than Tabletop Simulator or similar virtual versions; the prototype also makes the game appear to be "more real", and thus less of a risk to back. If you made it to the prototype production, your game looks like it is ready to produce, and not like a "good idea", which might or might not be realized. For the possible backer, seeing a prototype played on YouTube removes a lot of doubt one might be having about a crowdfunding campaign.

Of course the other possibility for a lack of backers is that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – The Adventure Game doesn't appear to be a "great" game, from what I can gather when seeing it played on Tabletop Simulator. I backed the base version because it looks okay and fun enough to try, but I doubt it will be as good as some of the other games I already own. Which is one reason I wasn't really interested in the $300 Deluxe version of the game. I'm hedging my bets on this one.

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Friday, November 12, 2021
 
Solasta half price

I own Solasta: Crown of the Magister on Steam because I crowdfunded the game. I played the game during the beta, and just got the DLC that added more classes to it, so I will play it again as soon as I find the time. While the game certainly isn't perfect, it is the closest PC version of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition rules that you can find. So I can only recommend you pick it up at the current Steam sale for half price.
Wednesday, November 10, 2021
 
Curse of Strahd - Session 9, 10, and 11

Over the last months we continued our Curse of Strahd campaign in several shorter sessions. Since the last session reported, the group crossed Tsolenka Pass and reached Amber Temple. They cleared Amber Temple, which is the second-biggest dungeon in the module, and just started with the biggest and final one: Castle Ravenloft. In the process the group leveled up to level 9. Apart from a fun encounter with a forgetful Lich, Tsolenka Pass and the Amber Temple feel a bit like filler material to get the group to the level required for Castle Ravenloft, and get them some magic items. Most of the sessions were filled with combat. Which brings me to the discussion of a spell I am growing to hate as a DM: Polymorph.

On paper, Polymorph looks like a fun spell. You can either polymorph a willing ally into whatever beast is useful for the situation, or you can polymorph an enemy into a harmless animal, reminiscent of the World of Warcraft spell turning enemies into sheep. However, the latter version is far inferior to the former, because of the saving throw involved. And because Polymorph is a 4th level spell, which you don't get before level 7, the spell ends up being nearly exclusive used to turn allies into a Giant Ape at level 7, and into a Tyrannosaurus Rex at level 8. With two characters in the group having access to the spell, we ended up with several combat sessions with two players polymorphed into Tyrannosaurus Rexes.

A Tyrannosaurus Rex with challenge rating 8 has a lot more hit points and hits a lot harder than your typical level 8 character. And the spell lasts for an hour, unless concentration is broken. But the T-Rex has a high constitution score, and between feats and artificer infusions (Mind Sharpener) it is easy enough to never lose concentration. So I have now two dinosaurs constantly stomping through my gothic horror campaign, like in a "Godzilla vs. Dracula" Japanese B-movie. That is fun once or twice, but gets old really quick, and somehow ruins the atmosphere the module is going for.

Fortunately in Castle Ravenloft the staircases are a lot smaller, you can't squeeze a T-Rex up or down a medieval spiral staircase. But for future campaigns, I am going to introduce a house rule that you can't polymorph somebody into the form of a beast that you have never seen (which is the same rule already applying to the druid's Wild Shape). So as long as there are no encounters with Giant Apes and T-Rexes, the players won't be able to use those forms. I also think that my players were abusing the Mind Sharpener Artificer infusion: As it is an item, it shouldn't be usable by a polymorphed character.

Story-wise, the main event in the Amber Temple was Gustav acquiring the Sunsword, the last of the three artifacts foretold to them by Madame Eva for being useful against Strahd. They also learned where Strahd's powers came from: Dark Gifts from the remnants of evil gods, imprisoned in amber blocks in the temple. The group picked up some dark gifts, each coming with a disadvantage, like skeletal wings that allow you to fly. But by this time they were all okay with being evil and looking like monsters.

When they got into Castle Ravenloft, they did get a reminder of the disadvantages of being evil. In the chapel they found a holy artifact, which does 16d10 on an evil creature voluntarily touching it (no, you can't slingshot that into Strahd as a weapon). Having some indication that while Strahd is somewhere upstairs in the castle, it would be best to first disperse the earth in his grave, the group headed downstairs into the crypt, where we will continue next time.

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