Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
 
Valheim - Longevity?

Valheim on Steam is now at 3 million copies sold, with 96% of the 80,000 user reviews positive. Not bad for a $20 indie game in Early Access! Valheim has certainly set the bar higher for the survival crafting genre of games. I was chuckling at some video game journalists expressing their disappointment on the fact that there are no console releases for Valheim planned; the two guys in Sweden who made Valheim probably never even considered the possibility that somebody would want that. Not that I would recommend playing Valheim with a gamepad, I tried, and it makes some of the more fiddly aspects of the game even fiddlier.

I'm 66 hours into the game, and with using some shortcuts on metal transport I arrived at the 4th stage of the game, having killed the third boss. And this is the first time I actually notice the "early access" part of the game. For example I killed a stone golem in the Mountain biome, who dropped a crystal, material for which there is currently no use yet in the game. And I visited the Plains biome, which appears to be the last developed biome currently, and concluded that it wasn't really made for solo play, with monsters living in larger groups there.

Now I had a lot of fun with Valheim, and I would consider 66 hours of fun gameplay for $20 a rather good value for money proposition. But I don't think that I will play much longer. Last year I asked my readers what they thought was the best game about chopping wood, and Valheim most certainly comes close to the game I was looking for in that post. For example I much prefer Valheim over Animal Crossing, because Valheim has considerably more freedom, more space, and a far more involved crafting system. But while I do like the frequency and difficulty of monsters in the early biomes of Valheim, I found that the monsters get too hard for me to be enjoyable in the later biomes, even with optimal gear. I have to admit that I beat all three boss mobs with clever use of terrain and buildings, rather than fighting them toe to toe. And I didn't enjoy those fights, they were a bit of a slog. In other words, my perfect game isn't far from Valheim, but a bit closer on the peacefulness scale to Animal Crossing or My Time at Portia.

Where other people might get a lot more mileage out of Valheim than me is the aspect of building a base. I am not very creative in that domain. My buildings are functional, not grandiose. My house only has 5 x 5 "squares", because that is all I need to get my workbenches and furniture in. And although I have access to the tools that would allow me to build a stone castle, I simply wasn't very interested in building one.

I would still recommend that you try out Valheim if you haven't played it yet, or at least watch it played for a bit on Twitch or YouTube if you are on the fence. But personally I think I will move on, and then maybe come back later to see how the game has evolved by the time it is actually "released".

Monday, February 22, 2021
 
Curse of Strahd - Session 2

In the previous session the players formed their group by volunteering for a witch hunt, but the dying witch cursed them. As a result they were transported to the demi-plane of Barovia, ruled by the vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich, and the only way out is to kill the vampire.

This session starts with the players spending their first night in the village of Barovia. Gustav, Aëlis, and Bilros each eat a dream pastry before going to sleep, but Gustav resists the effect. Aëlis and Bilros fall asleep and have wonderful dreams, even getting some temporary hitpoints in the process. Gustav instead dreams of a sword, the blade of which appears to be pure sunlight, and decides to seek it out. (The sword is his hexblade patron.) Only Warryn didn't taste the dream pies, because he was very suspicious of the old lady who sold them, thinking that she is a witch.

The next morning the group sets out to accompany the daughter of the old Burgomaster of the village of Barovia, Ireena, to the town of Vallaki. Ireena was bitten once by Strahd, and wants to seek refuge at the church of St. Andral in Vallaki, further away from Castle Ravenloft. As this adventure has several opportunities to have NPCs joining the group, and I don't want to slow down combat, I decided that an NPC gives the aid action, advantage on one roll, to one random PC. But even that shortened version we ended up forgetting most rounds of combat.

Aëlis, having spent part of her childhood with the Vistani, had received a message from the Vistani to join them at their camp at Tser Pool, just outside of the village of Barovia. There the group meets the leader of that Vistani camp, Madame Eva, a fortune teller. She knows details about every member of the group, and offers to help them with a fortune telling. This is a classic part of the adventure since the first version in 1983: There is a real random element here. The location of three important artifacts, the identity of an ally, and the location of Strahd in the castle are determined by the cards, and will be different for every group playing the adventure. However, as discussed in a previous post, I did the random drawing before the session, to make sure that the locations fit with my idea of what I wanted to do in this campaign.

So the fortune telling gives the group the following information:
  • An item related to the history of Strahd is hidden in a windmill on top of a cliff.
  • A holy symbol of great hope is hidden with a dead woman in the marsh.
  • The sword of sunlight is hidden with a faceless god, deep in the mountains.
  • The ally is an entertaining man with a monkey. This man is more than he seems.
  • Strahd is in a secret place—a vault of temptation hidden behind a woman of great beauty. The evil waits atop his tower of treasure.
Now Gustav, who is a von Zarovich, has a book in which since he arrived in Barovia, a simple map of the land has appeared. 
From that map, at least the location of the windmill is known, and it happens to be on the way from Tser Pool to Vallaki. On the way the group first has to cross a bridge guarded by gargoyle statues. To scare them, I made a battlemap, and a handout showing the gargoyles. But in fact these are harmless statues, and nothing happens on crossing the bridge. :) It's a bit of a meta-move, because when there is a battle map, players often assume that there will be combat. I was trying to break that mold a bit. The group also traversed a second gate, like the one before the village of Barovia, but nothing happened there either.

So the group arrives at the road crossing from which they can see the windmill on the cliff. They wonder whether they should go there, so Aëlis does an Augury spell with her own set of Tarot cards, and draws the Death card. Clear sign from her goddess, Shar, that this wouldn't be a good idea. And of course with such a clear sign, the group decides to go to the windmill anyway. The windmill is surrounded by chicken coops, and a smell of dream pastries comes from the place. This is clearly connected to Morgantha, the old lady selling those dream pastries in the village of Barovia. In the village the group suspected Morgantha of being a witch (hag), as she said she is buying children from parents wanting to support their dream pastry habit. I told them that the dream pastries "taste like chicken", but the coops around the windmill seem to suggest that this is actually what's in them.

Gustav knocks on the door, and there is Morgantha with two other old ladies. Morgantha offers to sell them more dream pastries, and Gustav agrees, mostly as a distraction. Meanwhile both Warryn (via his owl familiar) and Aëlis (in raven form, she is a wereraven) try to find out what is going on in the upper floors of the windmill. Warryn sees cages, like the ones he was held in by a hag in the swamp as a child. Aëlis actually sees a child in one of them. So she comes back to the group, screaming that the three old ladies are witches, and that the group should kill them. Not very subtle, so combat ensues.

It turns out that the three old ladies are a coven of night hags. Not only are night hags more powerful than the swamp hag the group killed in the first session. But also by being a complete coven, the hags have access to spells as high as 6th level, which makes a coven far more powerful than the sum of its parts. Now several of the spells the hags have, like hold person, give the target a wisdom saving throw. And half of the group consists of gnomes, who have advantage on wisdom saves against magic. In the end the hags mostly rely on casting lightning bolts and magic missiles. Gustav and Aëlis die, while the two gnomes Warryn and Bilros manage to run away, with Ireena (mostly forgotten in the fight). The hags slit the throats of Gustav and Aëlis, and throw their bodies down the cliff. Not quite a TPK, but close. And between the warning from the Augury, and book Warryn has where he could have found the information of the danger a coven of hags, I consider that this was the group's own fault. A coven of night hags is challenge rating 7 each, and the group is just level 4 at this point.

Now Warryn and Bilros, with Ireena, continue towards Vallaki. But the road leads them past the bottom of the cliff with the corpses of Gustav and Aëlis. Warryn and Bilros want to loot the corpses and bury them there, but Ireena proposes to transport them to Vallaki and bury them in hallowed ground, so they don't come back as undead. Warryn has a Tenser's Floating Disc spell, so they load the corpses onto that. About an hour later, Gustav and Aëlis come back to life. While dead, they encountered the goddess Shar, who told them that even in death they can't escape Barovia. Normally a soul in Barovia is reborn, but due to their destiny, Shar is willing to bring them back to life with a "dark gift". So Gustav's eyes melt away, and he is now blind, but has blindsight up to 60 feet. Aëlis, as priestess of Shar, gets a free pass on her first death, but wakes up in hybrid wereraven form, revealing her lycantrophy to the group. On the positive side, the players can keep their characters, even after death or TPK; on the negative side, too many "dark gifts" will slowly turn them into horrible monsters.

Traveling onwards towards Vallaki, the group then comes upon a pack of wolves attacking a merchant. They kill the wolves (4 wolves, 3 dire wolves), and save the merchant, who introduces himself as Vasili von Holtz. Vasili is from Vallaki, and proposes to travel with the group there, and guide them through the town. So this is what they do, with the intervention of Ireena and Vasili getting the group past the guards at the town gate. Vasili leads the group first to the town square, where they see posters of festivals, that Baron Vargas Vallkovich holds every week. The baron thinks that only constant happiness will keep Strahd at bay, so participation to the festivals is mandatory, and critics end up in the stockade for punishment. Vasili then leads the group to the Blue Water Inn, and leaves them, telling them where his house is, and to keep in touch.

But the group first goes to the church of St. Andral, Ireena's goal. There they meet Father Lucian Petrovich, who is willing to let Ireena stay there. However, the bones of St. Andral, which protected the church, have recently been stolen. The group participates in the questioning of a choir boy, who intimidated by Gustav's missing eyes admits having told the location of the bones to the young gravedigger Milivoj. From Milivoj they then learn that he stole the bones at the request, and for payment from, Henrik van der Voort, the local coffin maker. But as it is late, they decide to first spend the night at the Blue Water Inn.

The inn is run by the family Martikov. Aëlis, who also has the name Martikov, has a striking resemblance to the woman behind the bar, suggesting that this is really her family. Warryn finally finds the time to look into his book about dark creatures, and finds the information about night hag covens. So the group thinks they could take the hags one by one, but now they also have a lot of other options of clues to pursue, about the town of Vallaki, or the stolen bones of St. Andral. At this point we end the session.

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Saturday, February 20, 2021
 
Valheim - Following the Metal

In my previous post I mentioned that in Valheim you can't teleport ore or metal. While there are workarounds, Bhagpuss called those "exploits". So, what if you wanted to play the game without switching servers? How would you solve the problem of getting your ore to your base, where your smelter is?

The most basic solution is carrying the ore and going on foot. However, due to the limit of what you can carry and the heavy weight of ore, you can't carry very much per run. Still, it is a viable option for copper and tin, because there is always a Black Forest biome not all that far from your starting location. A somewhat improved method is building a cart and pulling it. It's even slower than running, and only viable if there aren't too many steep slopes between your mine and your base; but you can load a lot more ore on a cart than you can carry. So between carrying and using a cart, most people get through the bronze age.

Then the iron age poses a problem. The way Valheim maps are created, your starting point in the Meadows biome is always in the center, and Black Forest and Mountain biomes are around those Meadows. Swamp and Plains biomes are further out. So if your base is near your starting point, the nearest swamp is quite a long way away on foot. Carts are unpractical for long distances. Iron ore is only found in crypts in the Swamp, and to get a full set of iron weapons, tools, and armor, fully upgraded, takes several hundred iron ores. You'd go crazy trying to carrying all that.

If you are lucky, or planned well, your home base is not so far away from the ocean. With bronze age technology you can build a Karve, which is a small longship, and that one has a chest with 4 slots built in. That's 120 iron ore you can transport by sea, if there is a large swamp you can easily reach over the water.

And then there is another option: Following the metal. Somewhere half way between the center and the edge of the map, there are always islands which have Swamp, Plains, and Black Forest biomes, sometimes even with a spot of Meadows. So instead of bringing the ore from the Swamp and Plains to your base, you could bring your base to the ore, and build a new base in walking distance from the ore you need.

This is the point where I feel that the design of Valheim is somewhat ambivalent. On the one side the biomes places in concentric circles on your world map would suggest that moving base outwards is what the developers plan for you to do. On the other side, you can spend hours to build a nice house and base, so players would definitively be reluctant to give that up. The teleportation portals seem to suggest that the devs want to enable you staying in your starting base, and using portals for your outwards journeys. But the limitation on teleporting ore and metal contradicts that.

I think I might go for a compromise and build a secondary base with a smelter and forge on an outwards island. Once the metal is forged into gear, there is no more teleportation limitation.

Thursday, February 18, 2021
 
Valheim - How to teleport ore and metal

Once you killed the first boss in Valheim, you get the material needed to make a pickaxe, and you can start mining copper and tin, advancing you into the bronze age. In the bronze age you will also learn how to make teleportation portals. But it turns out that in Valheim, metal and teleportation don't go together well: The ore and metal bar have the curious property of "can't be teleported", and if you step into a portal while carrying ore or metal bars, the teleportation won't work. This is done to force you to use other means of transport, for example pulling a cart from your copper mine to your home base. Which is very time consuming, and not very practical over longer distances.

As I mentioned, I played Valheim on a random world, and then created a world with a custom seed that I liked better. And in the process of "moving house" I discovered that while metal can't be teleported, it can be "transported" with no problem from one world to another by simply logging out and logging on into a different world. So now my mining activity still happens in my first world, and when my inventory is full, I simply switch worlds. In the new world, my character is standing next to chests and the smelter, so he just unloads the ore, logs out again, and logs in back into the old world with the mine.

Probably not "working as intended", because the devs went out of their way to make transporting metal difficult. But once you realize that the procedurally generated worlds are completely interchangeable, and that your character is saved separately from the world, playing on two worlds has a lot of advantages. Not just for metal transport, but also if you are on a very long exploration tour and would really like to empty your inventory, repair your gear, and the like.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021
 
Valheim - First Thoughts and how to find your perfect world

For once I am playing what all the cool kids are playing these days, which is Valheim, on Steam. It is an indie "survival" game is Early Access, which doesn't sound like much. But it spread like wildfire on Steam, because it is so very good. People tried it, liked it, streamed it on Twitch, and then everybody who saw it wanted to play as well. So now it shot up to third spot on the Steam charts, with more current players than PUBG, Rust, or Apex Legends. Not bad for a $20 indie game in Early Access!

I don't normally play many "survival" games, because they tend to be designed for you to *not* survive. Many of these games are unnecessarily harsh, and the multiplayer versions are frequently about unlimited ganking PvP. Valheim is a "survival" game only in as far as Minecraft is. You don't die of hunger, thirst, or cold. But you do want to have food and warmth and a place to rest in order to gain buffs to health and stamina, which makes doing everything much easier. And the multiplayer version is cooperative by default, players need to turn on PvP if they want to.

So in the end, Valheim plays more like an open world adventure game, with some hints of a lost branch of MMORPGs: Games like Ultima Online, A Tale in the Desert, or Everquest Landmark, which are more about exploring and settling an open world than doing endless quests. You improve your skills by practice. You craft, you hunt, you gather. Finding new materials unlocks new crafting recipes, giving you better tools, weapons, armor, and buildings. There are animals and monsters to hunt for loot, there are occasional events of monster armies trying to invade your base, and there are boss monsters that unlock the next "age" of your tech tree. For example the first boss gives you material to build your first pickaxe, which moves you from the stone age to the bronze age, by allowing you to mine copper and tin.

All this is done on a huge procedurally generated map, which is the true brilliance of Valheim. In spite of the procedural generation, the created maps tend to all work quite well, and are interesting. Maps can be different enough to lead to different strategies. For example the “islands” can be more or less connected to each other, and that affects how useful ships are. In a great design decision, your character is stored independently of the world, so you can go and visit different worlds with your character. Each map has a “seed” code, so you can create a world with a map recommended to you by someone. You can also make a new copy of the same map, which is something I did to “reset” dungeons.

I am currently playing on a nice map, which you could reproduce by using the seed “Tobold0026”. And yes, I created maps Tobold0001 to Tobold0030 to find the one I liked best. For that I used the built in cheat code to reveal the whole map after creating each world. As maybe my personal selection criteria about what constitutes a good map are different from yours, you could do the same. Probably start playing with a random map to learn how to play, and then move to a new world if you find some aspect of your current world sub-optimal. In my case the random map I started on had relatively small “Black Forest” zones on my starting island, so I moved to a new map with bigger Black Forests. Every map has different “biomes”, starting with Meadows for the stone age, then after you kill the first boss, you can find some of the bronze age resources in the Black Forest. However, you always need resources from previous biomes too, so a good world has a good mix between everything.

Besides just landscape, mobs, and resources, each biome also has special points of interest. That can be abandoned buildings, runestones with messages, or dungeons. There are also above ground burial sites, which you can dig out with a pickaxe. Somewhere in the Black Forest you can even find a trader, who buys the treasures you found in the dungeon, and sells you magic gear or fishing equipment. The whole world is filled with enough interesting features to make exploring interesting, while being large enough to avoid the problem of running out of resources. The abandoned buildings you find give you a good idea of how to build a simple house or shelter. But depending on how much time you want to put into this (including gathering the wood or stone required), you can build much larger houses. The necessity to have a fire poses a challenge, if you want to build a functional chimney. Starter tip, you can build the fire outside the house, and protect it with an overhanging roof from being extinguished by rain, which is a lot quicker than building a chimney. In addition to your house, your base will also grow to include storage areas, livestock enclosures, fields, and extra buildings like a smelter to turn ore into metal.

The overall feel of Valheim is very much like living in a world of adventure of your own making. It’s a sandbox, but game mechanics like the tech tree, and the bosses gate the content in a way that you always have an idea of what to do next. Even without quests. It somehow makes me a bit sad that MMORPGs haven’t evolved a bit more into that direction. My recommendation is to check out Valheim, it is a very good game for just $20. And for once, “Early Access” means a game that is already more polished than some “released” games, with an apparently quite active development team, and a lot of promise for the future. Recommended!

Thursday, February 11, 2021
 
Partisan delusion

One of the hopes in the last US presidential election was that after Trump was gone, America could come back to facts and the truth instead of lies and delusion. That hope was dashed, with the only visible improvement being that the lies got better and the delusions a bit less obvious. So now America is caught in a collective delusion that ex-president Trump is on trial for incitement of insurrection. While even I, from a continent away, understand enough of the political and legal system of the USA to know that this isn't true.

First of all, the legal side. Incitement to insurrection is basically one of a few exceptions to first amendment free speech rights. As the US values the first amendment very highly, the bar set to actually make speech criminal is set extremely high. In the protests of 1968 that law was repeatedly tested, and although some of the protest leaders used inciting and violent language far stronger than Trump, they were found to be within their first amendment free speech rights.

Having said that, there is a clear causal chain from Trump inviting his supporters to come to Washington an January 6, him telling them to march on the Capitol, and the events that happened once they arrived. But that is a moral and political responsibility, not a legal one.

Which gets us to the next delusion, people believing that impeachment is some sort of legal procedure. It isn't. It's a political one. That is why the outcome will be decided by a vote, not by the judgement of a judge or jury. The process has some trappings of legal procedure, like lawyers arguing guilt or innocence, but in the end they don't really matter. Trump's lawyer could be Bozo the Clown, and he would still be acquitted. The whole impeachment is just for show, it only has political consequences. They couldn't possibly "lock him up" if they all agreed to do so. It isn't even clear that the Democrats actually want to have Trump impeached, because arguably a disqualification of Trump from running for office again helps the Republicans more than the Democrats.

The one thing you can rely on is that all politicians are dishonest. Anything you hear both Democrats and Republicans say about the impeachment is a lie. At the heart of it, Democrats are forcing Republicans into a loyalty check for their deposed leader. Which is a lose-lose situation for Republicans, who can either occur the wrath of their base, or be tainted by taking on part of the moral responsibility for the January 6 Capitol riots. Which is why Republicans are trying to weasel out of that choke-hold by claiming the whole procedure is unconstitutional.

The sad outlook is that US politics continue as they were in the previous 4 years: Both sides have very different versions of reality, both of them carefully crafted lies designed to create maximum outrage against the other side. January 6 showed us what the logical consequence of that is. Sooner or later all these permanently outraged people will start shooting.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021
 
Forest of Radgost

I just backed the Forest of Radgost Kickstarter. It is a co-operative board game with low complexity rules about exploration, character progression, and story elements around Slavic mythology. Today, on the first day, the main pledges are $5 off as an "early bird" incentive. I took the "Acorn pledge", which is the version of the game with color standees, instead of unpainted miniatures. My loss that I can't paint, some of those miniatures look pretty good!

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Adversarial modules in D&D

Dungeons & Dragons is a cooperative game. That is not only true for the players, but includes the Dungeon Master, who just like the players should strive to move the story forward, even if he controls the monsters and villains. The DM is not the enemy of the players! However, this design philosophy took some time to be established. In the earlier days of D&D, some people did play the game differently, and there was an idea floating around that D&D could be played competitively, with the DM's job being to provide a great challenge to the players. Usually those competitive games happened at conventions, so for the first Origins convention in 1975 Gary Gygax wrote a "tournament play" module called Tomb of Horrors, "ready for those fans [players] who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game".

45 years later, competitive D&D clearly isn't what players want, despite the occasional attempts to revive it. The fundamental reason for that is that a player vs. DM game is clearly unwinnable if the DM is bound only by his imagination. A DM can modify stats of monsters until they are unbeatable, or can use an unlimited number of them. Even worse, a DM can present traps, where the imperfect information the players have makes it highly unlikely for the players to figure out. In the early 80's we had books like Grimtooth's Traps for D&D, with the traps specifically designed to counteract the typical actions players employ to overcome traps. But as traps could employ "magic" to function, it is impossible for players to foresee what could happen, and the only way to find out how the trap works is often to trigger it. There are whole RPG systems, like Paranoia, built around the "fun" of player characters dying all the time due to impossible odds or stabbing each other in the back, but Dungeons & Dragons isn't really that sort of game.

Unfortunately, history has a tendency to repeat itself, and even bad ideas of the past can come back due to nostalgia for "old school" ways of playing. And so the Tomb of Horrors got reincarnated as the final chapter of the 5E module Tomb of Annihilation. I am currently a player in that campaign, and although the DM isn't all that adversarial, the module clearly is. I am on my 3rd character in the campaign, and nobody from the starting group of adventurers is still alive. My last character died because simply examining the fresco of a maze teleported me inside the maze, while summoning a bunch of monsters attacking the other players. The maze being "magic", standard methods to escape the maze didn't work, and in fact we were told the maze didn't have a conventional exit. The only thing to do was to "explore" by doing random d100 rolls. Guess what, I rolled badly, and encountered a minotaur. I had some spells that could incapacitate a monster, but the minotaur always rolled very high, and then cleaved me with his axe. And then of course I rolled badly for my death saving throws. All that while my group was unable to join me and help. The encounter before that was a permanently invisible and flying beholder, that couldn't be reached by any melee attacks, and not be targeted by any spells or ranged attacks. Having been there, I could feel the adversarial design philosophy of the 80's, but I wasn't feeling nostalgic, more like nauseous. This is the sort of content that should have remained in the archives.

This is really a pity, because I quite liked the first chapters of the Tomb of Annihilation module. The "hex crawl" exploration of the junge of Chult is quite well done. It feels dangerous, but not unfair. Also the lost city of Omu is a nice adventure. It is only when you enter the final dungeon that suddenly the game design is jerked 40 years into the past, and you are presented with several levels worth of dungeon full of mostly unfair traps, no exit, and not much sense of story progress other than "we need to reach the lowest level and kill the end boss". Note to self: If I ever run the Tomb of Annihilation module, I will rewrite the final dungeon to make it less unfair, less deadly, and shorter.

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Sunday, February 07, 2021
 
What you see on the internet isn't regular D&D

To understand Dungeons & Dragons, or other pen & paper roleplaying games, you need to think of it as being played on two levels in parallel: There is the story level, where you tell how Thrug the barbarian chopped off the head of the orc warchief, and there is the game level, where Michael rolled a natural 20 for the attack roll of his character Thrug, followed by a large damage roll for that critical hit. Good D&D has some balance between those two levels, it's neither all rolling dice, nor all storytelling. But of course different groups will enjoy different levels of balance between the two.

If you were to gather a group of your friends and start to play D&D with them, where do you think that balance would be? Unless you and your friends happen to be actors, or your other hobby is improv theater, chances are that most people are more comfortable with chucking dice than with acting. The roleplaying you will see will be sporadic, often based on fantasy stereotypes, and frequently the decisions taken are clearly based on the personality of the player more than on the personality of the character he is playing. That is normal. Pretending to be somebody else for several hours, and keeping a different personality up, possibly with voice acting and everything, is very, very difficult. Unless you do that sort of stuff for a living.

In order to prepare for my Curse of Strahd campaign, I followed the advice to watch the first season of Dice, Camera, Action on YouTube. The DM of that, Chris Perkins, is also the lead designer of Curse of Strahd, so I had a certain expectation of watching something which is "how it is supposed to be played". But after watching a few episodes, I came to a blasphemous realization: This isn't the D&D that will be played on my table. It isn't even Dungeons & Dragons "rules as written", Chris apparently isn't actually all that firm with the intricacies of 5E rules (That's what WotC has Jeremy Crawford for). I could see several instances where he deviated from the rules, or where he changed something in the module, like replacing the type of hag in Old Bonegrinder. (Which leads to the question, if the lead designer would prefer a different monster in a location, why didn't that monster make it to the print version?)

But the even bigger difference was the players. Everybody who ever watched Dice, Camera, Action will remember Evelyn the paladin, because her player, Anna Prosser, is such an excellent actor. Evelyn is "always on", complete with fake southern accent, and over the top fake personality. Strix the sorceress is also very memorable for her roleplaying. Paultin, the constantly drunk bard, is clearly more interested in playing that role than in doing tactically useful actions in the game. The only player that remotely resembles a regular D&D player is Diath the rogue.

Having selected both the DM and the players for their acting skill, and having them play "theater of the mind" style, without a tactical map or tokens, Wizard of the Coast produced a very watchable and entertaining series of play-throughs on Twitch and YouTube. This and other series, like Critical Role, certainly succeeded to make Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition more popular and mainstream. But of course that creates a risk that people try the game for themselves and find that what they experience around the table is a far way from the streamed version.

Ultimately, even for my campaign preparation, watching less professional YouTube channels playing Curse of Strahd on Roll20 is more useful than the idealized version produced for the show of it. Real players can not only not act like professional actors, they are also less likely to enjoy a game that is so heavily balanced towards acting, and where there is no combat for several sessions. It is a good idea, as a DM, to provide opportunities for roleplaying in a campaign. But if your players don't bite, or the roleplaying ends up like so often in endless banter not related to the story, one also needs to know how to nudge the game forward, both in the story and the game aspects.

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Friday, February 05, 2021
 
Fortunes of Ravenloft thoughts

In Curse of Strahd, as in previous incarnations of the adventure, there is a scene where fortune teller Madam Eva is doing a Tarokka (Tarot) card reading for the adventurers. This is not just fluff, but the cards actually determine 5 things: The location of 3 artifacts which would be extremely helpful to beat Strahd, the identity of an ally who could help the group, and the location of Strahd in Castle Ravenloft. Played as written, the DM actually shuffles a deck (sold separately or part of the Curse of Strahd Revamped set, but you can also use regular playing cards), and determines these 5 things openly, in front of the players, during this card reading scene.

The idea behind this Fortunes of Ravenloft scene is that it makes different Curse of Strahd campaigns actually different to some extent, in case a player is playing the same adventure again (why would he?) or has gotten information from somebody who already played it. In general I do like a certain degree of randomness, e.g. dice rolls, to be able to affect the outcome of an adventure, in order to make it more interesting not only for the players, but also for the DM.

However, for the Fortunes of Ravenloft I would strongly advise to not do the random determination of those 5 story elements in front of the players. First of all, it is a good idea to already determine the locations before the players arrive at this event, because some locations or allies might be in the village of Barovia, which is before the group reaches the fortune teller. And second, not all locations and allies are equally suited for the campaign. For example the random ally could turn out to be no one, a dead guy that would need to be raised to be able to help, a mad girl who thinks she is a cat and would need to be cured before she can help, a simpleton, a child, or the archmage Mordenkainen. Depending on your style and your group, you might really not want to use some of these options. Likewise the locations, if randomly determined, could vary from finding the powerful artifacts very early in the game, to them all being somewhere in Castle Ravenloft, thus making exploration of the lands of Barovia less useful.

My recommendation would be to do a Fortunes of Ravenloft card reading in advance for yourself, and then considering the consequences of the random results you got. If there is anything in there that you as the DM dislike and find not suitable for the campaign you want to play, draw another card, until you get a result you like. In Roll20 I have already done this, and distributed the cards I drew on the Tarokka Reading Board page included in the adventure, face down. For the card reading I can just flip the cards and it still looks like a real fortune telling. If you play Curse of Strahd at a real table, you can use some trickery: Put the 5 chosen cards in the right order aside behind your DM screen, let your players shuffle the rest of the Tarokka deck, take the deck back behind the screen and secretly add the 5 cards on top, then proceed openly with the fortune telling. If you absolutely prefer to never "cheat" as DM, you can do that too, but you'll have to live with results that might not be all that interesting or counter to your plans for the campaign.

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Monday, February 01, 2021
 
D&D spellcasting is badly balanced

Game balance, in general, for me means having lots of different options which are more or less equally efficient. Experience shows that if one option is much stronger than anything else, people stop using the weaker ones, which is nearly as bad as if there were no other options. Unfortunately in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, the game balance between spells is pretty bad. At level 5 players get access to very strong 3rd level spells like Fireball or Lightning Bolt, which deal a big amount of damage to potentially several enemies in an instant. And lots of the spells you get at higher level are simply weaker than that.

For example I am preparing some NPC enemies for my campaign which have the Lightning Bolt spell, which in its most basic format deals 8d6 (average of 28) damage, or half that on targets that succeed their saving throw. By moving before casting the NPC should be able to hit more than one player with that. Let's say the NPC hits two players, one of which succeeds the saving throw, so each spell cast deals an average of 42 damage.

The same NPC also has access to 4th level spells like Phantasmal Killer. That can be cast on only a single player, who at the time of the casting makes a wisdom saving throw. If the player succeeds the saving throw, absolutely nothing happens. If the player fails, the initial effect is minor, the player becomes frightened. At the end of each of his turns, the player then makes another saving throw. Succeed, and the spell ends, fail and the player takes 4d10 damage (average of 22). In other words, the player would need to fail 3 saving throws before Phantasmal Killer deals as much damage as the Lightning Bolt. Furthermore Phantasmal Killer is a concentration spell, so the players have two full rounds to deal damage to the NPC and make him lose concentration. It is pretty difficult to set up a situation where that NPC would want to cast Phantasmal Killer, and unless I as the DM have a strong story reason to choose that spell, I'll probably never do so.

In the rules as written of 5th edition, a spellcasting NPC or monster always has the same set of spells. That can be pretty annoying if the given set of spells has a lot of barely useful ones. Of course the DM can always change the spell lists, but that requires additional preparation work. If the spells were balanced, the DM could choose the spell to cast by what makes sense for the story. If the NPC in the story has some history of illusion magic, that Phantasmal Killer spell makes more story sense than the Lightning Bolt. But 5E combat tends to last not so many rounds, and players usually know how to concentrate fire on spellcasting enemies. So your typical NPC doesn't have all that many rounds to get spells off; do you really want him to cast something that is likely to do nothing?

In the end, both players and NPC are likely to cast the more efficient spells, and not waste their time with spells that are too likely to completely fail. Sadly that means that over time you see the same spells cast on both sides over and over, while other spells are just a waste of space in the Player's Handbook.

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Saturday, January 30, 2021
 
Do board games need miniatures?

On February 10th, I will probably back Forest of Radgost on Kickstarter. I like cooperative story-telling games, and this one appears to be a bit lighter than the rather complicated games I recently bought. Now I do own Kickstarter games that work perfectly fine with standees as monsters, for example Gloomhaven. And I have other Kickstarter games which are either fully or in part miniatures instead of standees. But Forest of Radgost is the first time where I really need to choose between the two options. The game with standees costs $64, and the game with miniatures costs $99. Is it worth $35 to have miniatures instead of standees?

Right now I am trending towards no, I don't need the miniatures. Part of that answer is due to my utter lack of talent with a paint brush: In spite of years of playing with miniatures, and even 3D printing miniatures, I never even managed the basics of painting miniatures. I have a set of dungeon tiles on which the water is painted blue, and that stretched to the limits of my painting abilities. Which means that if I buy a game with unpainted miniatures, they will remain unpainted and grey. So standees, while being one dimension poorer, are richer in color.

Having said that, for tabletop D&D I prefer 3D printed monsters, mono-color, over tokens or standees. And the injection molded miniatures that come with board games are of bette quality than the D&D monsters I can print myself with a FDM printer. So I do see the other side of the argument as well. What do you think? Would you pay extra for miniatures, or don't they matter that much for a board game?

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