Sunday, December 24, 2023

Movie Review: Rebel Moon (part 1)

On Friday, my older son and I watched the new Zack Snyder film on Netflix, Rebel Moon (part 1). 

For those who don't know, this started out as a pitch for a Star Wars film that Lucasfilm rejected. 

And for those of you wondering if it has curse words, not really. Other than the violence and one attempted rape scene (no nudity), it's pretty kid friendly. 

Now I'm not a huge Snyder fan, but I've enjoyed some of his works in the past. So I was curious to see what he would have done with a Star Wars film. Obviously, this film has been changed. The serial numbers have been filed off, but I also assume some things have been changed story-wise as well since it was pitched to Disney/Lucasfilm. But the curiosity was there. 

While watching, at first, Flynn kept puzzling over what era of Star Wars this would have been set in, if LF had picked it up. Was it Palpatine's Empire? The Sith Empire? Some future era? The opening narration tells us that it happens after 100 kings had ruled (or was it 1000?) but that could easily have changed from the original SW version. Were the Bloodaxe siblings originally Luke and Leia? Probably not. We never could figure it out.

Anyway, about the film itself: we were both disappointed by it. 

I don't want to spoil things, so I'll just say this: the pacing was slow and plodding, which you'd expect from a more character driven piece. But there was little to no character development, and most characters were introduced in a way that didn't give us much emotional involvement with them. The ending wasn't a surprise, and didn't really leave me thrilled to have spent two hours watching this thing. 

Snyder is known for his cool visuals, and this film was lacking in that as well. The CGI and the settings looked OK, but they used camera settings that hyper-focused certain things and left the periphery looking like vaseline was smeared over the lens. At first, I thought it was my eyes or a smudge on my glasses, but no, it was the way the movie was shot. And when there were big action/adventure set pieces, they weren't that amazing. Fairly run of the mill, really. 

I'm not sure if I'll bother with Part 2 when it comes out in a few months. 

Would I recommend it? Not really, but if you're already paying for Netflix and you've got a few hours to spare, it's not the worst thing you could watch. There are a few things you might be able to pull from it as gaming inspiration, but don't expect to be taken away to a place long, long ago in a galaxy far away.  For all of George Lucas' faults as a writer/director, the worst of his Star Wars movies are still better than this.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Thoughts on the Pre-Modern Mindset

I recently finished reading Juval Noah Harari's Sapiens. Yeah, it's a decade old by now. I'm behind the times. I may finally get around to watching Black Mirror or Star Trek: Enterprise now that I'm done with the book. 

I received the book a few years back from a friend who was leaving Korea. He dumped a bunch of books on me. This one intrigued me, since a libertarian friend of mine had sworn up and down that the book was total garbage. I was curious about what the book might have said that would make him hate it so much, especially since I'd mentally lumped it into the "Oprah-lectual" category with books like anything by Malcolm Gladwell or Thomas Friedman. The sort of book that's a best-seller because it's just smart enough to make the uneducated in a particular field feel educated about that field after reading it, but it's really actually fairly superficial. People who've read it pretend they're experts on the subject at cocktail parties. That sort of book.

Wow, I sound like such a book snob, reading that over again. Well, so be it. I'm not too particular about the fiction I read. B-class dreck, if it's entertaining, is fine with me. But I read way too much serious academic writing for work to be impressed by these pop-academic works. 

Well, Sapiens was interesting, after all. I have some quibbles. Harari seems suitably cautious with some of his pre-historic claims early in the book, but presents other claims about pre-history as dead certain. That makes me wary of his historic claims as well. But overall, it gave me not so much better insight into humanity as a whole, but some ideas that might translate to better gaming. So that's a win. 

The final third or so of the book, if you haven't read it, makes a big argument that the Scientific Revolution, Capitalism, and Imperialism are intricately linked and without all three happening in Europe around 500 years ago, the world would have just kept chugging along Medieval style until now. The reason is that people before that time, or in other areas of the world around that time and for some time after, were convinced that there was nothing new to be learned about the world. The Ancients had had it all figured out (or it had been handed to people by gods in ancient times) and so there was no need to be curious. No need to innovate. And even if people had been curious, without capitalism to fund it and imperialism to support capitalism, the science never would have caught on. 

I'm a bit dubious of that claim. But I'm not a historian, so I'll not try to argue the point. 

I will focus on that mindset Harari presents for the Pre-Modern. 

There's no need to innovate, we already do things in the best way possible. We (as a society) already know all there is worth knowing.

Obviously, that isn't true. Technology did advance over the centuries. People did learn new things. People did go out and explore beyond the horizon. Sure, the pace was slow, compared to the Renaissance through Industrial Revolution, and glacial compared to the rate of change these days. But there still were people who were curious, and who figured new things out. 

But the vast majority of people were still pretty complacent. Really, the vast majority still are today. That's why you get people at school board meetings or elected officials saying things like "I didn't have to learn all this new-fangled gobbledy-gook when I was a kid. Readin', writin', and 'rythmatic is all the kids need to learn today."

So how does this relate to D&D (and other medieval-style fantasy games)? 

First, I think it would argue against the idea of "magic as technology" seen in settings like Eberron. As post-moderns, we might like to think that trains and telephones and the like would inevitably be developed by industrious mages. But if we consider the pre-modern mindset as laid out by Harari (assuming it's true), that likely wouldn't happen. 

Most wizards and clerics would be hoarding their magical powers, leveraging the rarity of them for their own benefit. Making magi-tech that benefits all in society, or assuming that there are hundreds of low level craft-mages making society chug along, would weaken the power of the mighty wizards and patriarchs/matriarchs. 

Besides, those clerics have access to commune with the Powers that Be. Surely, if non-spell imbued religious leaders in our own history could make the real-world populace believe that all the insights of the Heavens had already been laid out in a book, clerics with actual spells and actual access to the words of the gods would foster that mindset even more strongly. 

So even more so than in our own history, a fantasy setting's populace should be pretty set with the idea that society had its peak back in some fabled Golden Age, and it's all down hill from here. There's no progress worth working for, as we're already at or past the peak. We know all the spells that are worth knowing. We have all the weapons and armor we'll ever need.

Second, it would help set the PCs as "adventurers" even further apart from society. What's over that hill? What's down in that dungeon? What's across the sea? What would happen if we overthrow the tyrannical dragon that plagues our town? Most people think it's a bad idea to even consider it. But not those pesky adventurers. And their meddling is going to bring us a whole lot of trouble down on everyone else.

It would just make things a lot more interesting, I think, if the "spirit of adventure" wasn't lauded in the society of the D&D world. 

Third, though, is the effect that those adventurers have on the society, which logically would go against the above. Following Harari's argument, it was the invention of the concept of 'capital' as a loan leveraged against the future profitability of a venture, rather than loans leveraged on established wealth, that led to the development of modern society/scientific revolution/imperialistic expansion. 

Before that became a thing, the wealth of a society was relatively static. 

Adventurers going out and bringing back the long lost wealth is going to disrupt that. 

Now sure, we've all seen the advice given to explain pricing in the various D&D editions as "boom town" pricing based on the influx of wealth from the megadungeon. And yes, some DMs do depict the disruption to society caused by the influx of wealth from adventuring. But in my experience, this is the exception not the norm. 

Adventuring brings surplus wealth to the society, and it's surplus wealth (or the expectation of future surplus wealth, according to Harari) that allows for science to develop, but also creates the need for imperial expansionism of the European imperialist tradition, rather than those of earlier empires like Alexander or Genghis Khan. 

Adventurers (and by this I mean specifically the player characters) are likely to be the impetus for all of this revolutionary change in the game world. They're going out and conquering new territory, plundering the wealth of the conquered areas, and through inventiveness and application of their resources, creating new spells and magic items, eventually becoming rulers of territories, and possibly setting up the magical industrial revolution -- or trying to, at least. 

Society as a whole, especially if it's even more fanatical about the concept of "all that the world needs to know is known and was passed down from the Golden Age/the gods," is going to be dead set about stopping this from happening. 

Religious groups and powerful wizards don't want their mystique shattered. Kings and nobles don't want their authority challenged. Wealthy landowners or merchants don't want their wealth devalued. And John Q. Serf doesn't want to deal with cognitive dissonance. All levels of society are going to be against a group of upstart adventurers trying to "make the world a better place" if they do go about trying to revolutionize things. 

And if the players just go along with things the way they are, using their wealth simply to increase their own power/prestige, but not change the world, there will still be conflict over that, but it wouldn't turn the world into the magi-tech world of Eberron.

Again, this is just from my limited gaming experience, but it seems like most campaigns never really touch on the political and social implications of adventuring. And this is most likely because of the mindset of the players and DMs being post-modern. We've all grown up with stories of plucky businessmen who founded simple businesses that became multinational corporations. Explorer/conquerors like Columbus, Magellan, Cook. Inventors and scientists as kooky geniuses creating marvelous gadgets and uncovering the mysteries of the universe. That's all normal to us. 

And so, we make all that seem normal to the NPCs of our game worlds. But there's probably a lot more interesting game to be made if we stop giving post-modern world views to our NPCs, and start giving them pre-modern ones instead.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Modifying the Mass Combat System (War Machine) again

As advised after a previous post on my War Machine modifications, I took a look at how Dark Dungeons does it, as well as the advice in the Stormbringer RPG, and some thoughts from internet commenters about some other RPG systems' mass combat rules. 

As I think I mentioned before, Dark Dungeons X switches from d% to d20 rolls, so all the bonuses from War Machine are divided by 5. It also (I don't think I mentioned this) has a table look-up for basic troop quality as with War Machine, and a Troop Quality based on how much you pay for your troops. That gives you a number. I don't mind chart look-ups in general, but the original War Machine gave me a number without a clunky chart reference, and I prefer that. 

Stormbringer basically says the DM decides who wins or loses the battle, and characters involved roll to see whether or not they took damage/died, and if not whether or not they improve their skills. Too abstract for me. I want something a bit crunchier, and out of the DM's hands. I like to be surprised. Plus, we're playing a game. Taking your character's forces into battle should pose some risk. 

So I'm sticking with my basic idea, although this evening I went and streamlined a few things. This moves it a bit farther from War Machine (a good thing, if I want to publish this), and also hopefully makes things a little easier for the players to calculate. I've tried to stick to simple bonuses/penalties (+5, +10, -20, etc) for most things after the initial force calculations. 

Another change that I made this evening is that for the tactical choices (engage, overrun, surround, feint, hold, withdraw), which is pretty much as in War Machine, certain armies will get an additional bonus. Archers help with normal engagement, heavy troops (foot or mounted) with overrunning, mounted troops with surrounding, magical/spellcasting troops with feints, pikemen/halbardiers with holding, and light troops with withdrawing. 

That's something I think was lacking in the original rules. A more balanced force will get more bonuses for troop composition, but the specialized force gets a tactical bonus if you play to their strengths (but of course, the opponent may select a tactic that counters the optimal tactic...).

I'll try to play test these rules soon.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Taking Unusual Skills

In our recent Call of Cthulhu campaign, the main Keeper, Richard, took a break for a few sessions to let his friend Brady try his hand at being a game master. For Brady's game, I rolled up a jazz drummer named Theo. He's running a module that requires all the players to have mob connections, so my jazz man is way in debt for lots of booze, drugs, and women. 

In the session last week (the third session of Brady's run), our investigators have become trapped in the boarding house where the thief we're trying to track down lives. There are all sorts of weird things happening in the house. In one of the rooms, there was a young girl playing violin, and my PC and the mob hitman ended up in that room while other players investigated other rooms. The music she was playing was strange, and the hitman checked the bedroom to find the girl's parents dead with blood pouring from their ears. 

It wasn't hard to put two and two together. As the girl (ghost? demon?) started to play again, my PC decided to instruct her on the finer points of jazz rhythms. After a bit of discussion, Brady had me roll my Arts: Jazz skill, and I got a hard success (less than 50% of my chance to succeed). So Brady decided that instead of the 2 minute performance she was supposed to give -- at which time bad things would happen -- my rhythm lesson sped up her performance and since it was over in only one minute, we were able to escape the room unharmed. 

Yes, that's right. I was able to avoid catastrophe with jazz. 

Never let a min-maxer tell you you're wasting your time selecting non-optimal skills or a non-optimal background. You never know when those oddball skills/proficiencies/knowledge may come in handy!

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Planting Seeds of Adventure

Sorry I haven't been posting about the War Machine revisions I've been working on. I did check out the version in Dark Dungeons X, which was recommended to me. It's simplified many aspects (including making it opposed d20 rolls instead of d% rolls, so smaller numbers to work with overall), but has some layers of complexity that I've gotten rid of in my current version. Anyway, I've been too busy with grading assignments and other real world stuff to bother much with it this week. Probably not this coming week, either, but who knows. 

Today (my final day at the ripe young age of 49), we had a really fun session of my TS&R Jade campaign, and I think it illustrates some of the things I'm doing to enrich my campaign world and plant seeds of future adventures, including setting up potential for "end game" domain/war game/planar adventures type things in the future. 

Before I talk about today's session, readers will need a bit of background on the campaign. 

So it's an Asian goulash fantasy setting, and I've started it from a home town area with a 1 mile per hex scale (although there's a local region map at 6 miles per hex, and the PCs have ventured off the initial map once to visit the daimyo, more on that below). The home town is called Pine Bridge Town because it sits at the confluence of two small rivers into a lake, and has a large bridge across one of those rivers. Near the home town are some smaller villages, and plenty of ruins and monster lairs, including The Pits of Lao, the local "megadungeon" although it's only 3 levels deep and I don't plan to increase that. 

Early in the campaign, there was a group of martial artist bullies who came to town. They were disciples of Coiled Serpent Bao, a martial arts master warlord (BBEG type). The PCs managed to kill or capture all but the leader of this group, who fled back to Coiled Serpent Fortress (on the regional map, not that close to Pine Bridge). Because of another early adventure hook in which the constable of Pine Bridge was neglecting her duties (actually an Asian doppelganger called an aswang), the party decided to visit the daimyo, tell of defeating the ruffians, and get some support to protect the town. This succeeded, and the daimyo sent a troop of soldiers to guard things while the PCs sorted out the aswang menace (eventually). 

Meanwhile, they did make a few light forays into the Pits of Lao. They also explored some other local adventuring sites, like protecting the Holy Tree from yasha (small annoying demons), battling bandits and finding out that the local Imperial garrison doesn't care about the bandits or the bakemono menace, and visiting the local Yokai Village and making some friends there. 

Oh, another rumor that they initially started to follow up on but dropped was that the local Temple of Morning needed money, and would provide sohei to support they group if they would eliminate a lair of nasty bakemono that were causing trouble. 

Most recently (the previous three sessions) they were following up on a rumor. The nearby Nabeoka Village had a plague, but the local wu jen (magic-user) Seung had read of healing waters in the abandoned Nishino Iron Mine. They also encountered some ninja who also were seeking a plague cure (a potential seed for later) He sent the party to get the waters so he could make medicines. In the process, the party made an alliance with some bakemono (goblins), found out that koropokuru (dwarves) had set up shop in the upper levels of the mine [bakemono and koropokuru don't get along], and that various dangerous giant bugs lived below. Well, long story short, after three sessions and several slain henchmen, they recovered the waters, along with a magical spear, a spellbook, and a foreman's tally book. 

I'd originally put the tally book in just as a bit of color. But one of the players kept asking questions about it, hinting that possession of it might lead to information on who has claim on the mines, wondering if the PCs might take it over. Well, I wasn't going to let that go to waste. Over the break, I gave them a rumor that says the Nishino family served the Hasegawa family, so any deed to the mine is probably in Ghost Castle Hasegawa (long time readers may remember that name from my Chanbara playtesting--yes, I'm reusing it). The name has kept them away from that dungeon despite other rumors trying to draw them there. 

Additionally, the magic spear, I decided on the spot during the previous session, was forged by the legendary Huang the Swordsmith (a special encounter in the Pits of Lao), as was the magic blade of the koropokuru leader. More seeds. I gave the party a rumor that Master Xu, the Lotus Fist, might know more about Huang. The 18 Chambers of Lotus Fist is a location on the local map that they were curious about, but hadn't visited before.

Finally, now that Seung the Wu Jen has made medicine and the residents of Nabeoka are recovering, the 12 yangban (aristocrat) families of the town invited the PCs for a celebratory feast. But Uncle Chiu, who runs a noodle stand in Pine Bridge and always has lots of rumors and inside information, warned them that the yangban families probably just want to give them some bothersome mission or other. That was the third rumor I gave them. 

OK, lots of long set up done, but it is necessary to demonstrate how all of these seeds, interconnections, and rumors can play into each other. Sometimes I have these things planned in advance, other times I make the connections on the fly, as demonstrated above. But you can't make any connections if you don't have more of the world planned out than just enough for the next dungeon delve. 

Today's session in brief. After discussing rumors the party (level 5 vanara thief/ninja with level 1 dog hengeyokai sohei retainer; level 4 crane hengeyokai kensei with level 1 human mudang retainer; level 4 human wu jen with level 1 raccoon dog hengeyokai retainer; level 4 human blade mage with level 1 human fighter retainer; plus one man-at-arms that they more or less forgot about and dismissed after the first day) set out to the feast at Nabeoka. Arriving at night, they learned a little about the village (12 aristocrat families, other lower class families serve them, mostly rice farming going on), and the feast would be the next day. 

With plenty of time on their hands, they set out to the 18 Chambers of Lotus Fist, which was only 9 miles away. They met Master Xu, and found out that the temple was overrun by monsters. He had cleared out the main hall, but in order to train others, the 18 Chambers (training halls) would need to be cleared. The party set out to clear the Hall of the Foot (Dex related), fighting ethereal marauders in the Chamber of Balance (harder than expected fight, they lost the wu jen retainer), and quicklings in the Chamber of Reflex (hard but manageable). 

They decided not to press their luck, and headed back to Nabeoka for the feast. They found out that yes, the yangban want them to get some bakemono who have been kidnapping children (the same as the Temple of Morning rumor mentioned above), and they would like the PCs to investigate. 

The next morning, the PCs, refreshed with new spells, and having recruited a new 1st level wu jen henchman, decided to return to the Lotus Fist temple and finish the job on the Hall of the Foot. They fought two flailsnails in the final chamber to clear it out, and collected some loot. Master Xu told them that Huang the Swordsmith can be found on the third level of the Pits of Lao (they've explored about a quarter of the 1st level, but have a map bought from a thief with some vague indications of areas they haven't explored).

But on the way, they had a  random encounter with "martial artists" which presented me with a nice opportunity. I decided on the spot that if reactions were unfavorable, they were Coiled Serpent martial artists coming for some payback. If they had positive reactions, they were looking to become students of Master Xu. They ended up being Coiled Serpent lackeys. The party avoided them (they managed to surprise them), but considered returning to take them out after battling the flailsnails. 

In the end, they decided not to go after them at this time, but they had another random encounter with bakemono. They first tried to fast talk the goblins, but that didn't work and a fight broke out. After slaying the bakemono, they went through their belongings looking for evidence of kidnappings. There were none, but now they seem hooked on that. 

On the return trip to Pine Bridge, there was one more random encounter. I rolled for 2 duelists. Well, of course they were not a friendly pair, it was a stand-off! I've been waiting for this result to come up for a while now. The party stopped to watch. My 9 year old, Steven, wanted to interfere, but everyone stopped him. Then the players started taking bets. Denis (who plays the kensei and mudang) bet on the samurai, everyone else bet on the ronin. Then I gave control of the duelists to Denis and Steven. They played out the duel, and the ronin won. Everyone had a lot of fun with that encounter. 

Nate (playing the thief and sohei) commented that they shouldn't try to ally with a disgraced ronin, and I commented, maybe he just earned his honor back. Anyway, the ronin waved to the party then headed on his way. But that's another potential seed for adventure in the future. 

So after this one adventure, we have all sorts of potential for future adventures. 

  • There are bakemono kidnapping children. 
  • There are 15 more chambers of Lotus Fist to be cleared out, and potentially training with Master Xu some time in the future. 
  • There are more areas to explore in the Pits of Lao, and they have yet another rumor to follow up (there are several outstanding rumors about the Pits), one which could result in custom made magical weapons. 
  • There is the tally book, pointing to Ghost Castle Hasegawa. 
  • There are Coiled Serpent martial artists in the area, apparently looking for revenge. 
  • And there's this mysterious ronin duelist. What's up with him? I have no idea yet. But he may well return some time in the future.

Experienced old school DMs probably don't need to hear this, but if you're new to DMing, or you've just been playing the WotC way, this is how you start building up that campaign world. Make connections. Tie this to that. Think of ways to turn random encounters into adventure seeds. Give the players rumors and hooks. If they don't follow them, maybe let the laps. Or maybe, find a new way to get them interested. 

My players weren't interested in fighting bakemono with help from the local temple, if they had to split the profits. But rescuing kidnapped kids? They're all about that. 

The players have ambitions about making their place in the world (using the mine operation as funding, for example), and I've given them hooks to follow to make that happen. 

One player has his wagon currently undergoing renovations to become a battle wagon. There is a tanuki armorsmith who can make mastercraft armor, who is doing the work. Another session or two and the battle wagon will be ready. 

Another player wants to head down to the coast on the regional map to buy a junk (Chinese ship, not garbage) and maybe become a pirate captain. 

If the players can end the curse of Ghost Castle Hasegawa, the Hasegawa clan can reclaim it. Daimyo Isenoumi would like to send his army to check the growing power of renegade warlord Han Ji Shen (haven't mentioned him yet to you guys, but I've dropped rumors to the players -- another potential BBEG). Having the Hasegawa clan restored would help that effort. 

Exploring the Pits of Lao, the PCs may encounter all sorts of other encounters which can lead to further adventure (dragons, planar portals, treant gardeners, evil cultists, allies and enemies...)

Some of these things I've had in the works since I made the regional map (Warlord Han Ji Shen, Coiled Serpent Bao, a few other potential BBEG types). Some since I made the local map (The Pits of Lao, Ghost Castle Hasegawa, the 18 Chambers of Lotus Fist). Some I've thought up based on previous PC actions. Some I just make up on the fly. No matter where they come from, they can all make the world richer, and more lived-in. And they get the players into a situation where they have more goals and ambitions than they can handle at one time. And my campaign is just transitioning to the mid-level sweet spot zone. 

When we get to high levels, I plan to continue to put as many irons in the fire as possible for the players, to keep the campaign fresh.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Mass Combat: Testing and Adjusting

On Saturday, Steven and I messed around with my new mass combat rule revisions (streamlining the War Machine rules from the Companion Set). Unfortunately, his ADHD got the better of him, as watching his big brother play GTA5 was more interesting than doing a bunch of math and pretending that math was creating armies and having them fight. 

But I pressed on. We made two armies, a Cleric leading a mixed force of men and skeletons with cleric officers, and an army led by a Fire Giant consisting of orcs and hobgoblins with ogre officers. We had them fight a battle, with the clerical army winning, but taking 20% losses and being fatigued. The fire giantish forces lost 50%, were exhausted, and had to retreat. 

Creating the forces (each had a budget of 5000gp) didn't take long, and calculating their battle ratings and resolving the conflict was pretty quick as well. Steven provided some details to the battle based on a few questions from me (terrain, time of day, other conditions), and it was pretty easy to figure out the battle modifiers. Steven selected tactics for the cleric's army, I did for the fire giant army. Then we resolved it with opposed d100 rolls. 

I have a roster of troops, expanded from the Expert Set mercenary costs, to include more humanoid troop types (hobgoblins, gnolls, lizard men, gnomes), and then based on the 2E AD&D Battle System point costs, I made a roster of upkeep costs for monster troops. I added the creatures from the 2E BS book, and some more that I thought would be cool to have in armies, estimating their costs from those given. I had this done before we started, but afterwards, I was thinking that maybe the monster upkeep values were too high for most of them. The point costs for most standard troop types in 2E Battle System are higher than the Expert mercenary upkeep prices, so I decided to cut them down. Most were cut in half, some were reduced more or less, depending on how powerful the monsters might be. 

I also added notes on HD and any special bonuses the troop types would qualify for, such as flying, spellcasting, or special abilities.

Of course, what we did yesterday was just one battle, with no maneuvering, no costs over time to worry about, etc. So I was thinking that we should create a map with various forces, let him create a larger army (maybe 20,000gp) with the new, reduced monster upkeep values, and have him try to fight his way across it. But I didn't have time to do that today. 

What I did have time to do was look over the "Fall of the Black Eagle Barony" scenario at the back of the Companion Set's DM book. It's the tutorial to help players get used to the War Machine rules. What I did have time to do today was figure out the by the book Mentzer War Machine values for each force, and then figure them by my rules. There are a few places where the information doesn't match perfectly (I have changed some factors), but overall, the values are relatively similar across the two systems. Some forces did better in War Machine, some did better in my system, but the values aren't crazily different for any except the "Men of Kelven" force. I may plug the values into SPSS at work tomorrow and see if they're statistically similar or not. 

For anyone curious, the various forces and their values in War Machine and my system are: 

Black Eagle Guard 165:154

Men of Kelven 33:59

Ducal Guard 109:109 (surprised by that one!)

Western Elves 106:123

Eastern Elves 109:118

Thyatian Mercenaries 151:143

The above use the full War Machine rules, the forces below use the "quick BR" system in Mentzer. For the forces below, information on their training times or the presence of mounted troops would increase all their scores in my system.

Gnomes 52:60

Orcs 51:49 (assuming at least half have ranged weapons, no percentage is given, otherwise 39)

Bugbears 54:50 (assuming some have pole arms, something I often arm these creatures with, otherwise 40)

Goblins East 29:27 (assuming a fair number of wolf riders, not listed, otherwise 17)

Goblins Northeast 29:27 (again assuming wolf riders, otherwise 17)

Lycanthropes 75:83

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Rules for Mass Combat: Fiddling Around

This week, I've been fiddling around with Frank Mentzer's War Machine rules from the BECMI Companion Set. I've always liked these rules. They can handle huge wars or small skirmishes with just a few calculations, a pair of die rolls, and some table look-ups. The only problem is that those calculations can be a bit clunky at times. 

For those that don't know, the War Machine has you first calculate a Basic Force Rating (BFR), depending on the leader's level and mental ability scores, the level/HD of the troops and their officers, and a few other things. This score determines the Troop Class (Poor through Elite). 

Once the BFR and Troop Class are determined, there are more calculations to get the Battle Rating based on things like training, arms and equipment, and force composition (how many archers, what percent of spellcasters, etc.). These bonuses are based on a percentage of the BFR, so different for each force. This produces the Battle Rating (BR).

Oh, and then when the army finally takes the field and meets the enemy, the BR of both forces gets modified by various factors of the encounter (relative force size, high ground, favorable/unfavorable terrain, defensive positions), and there are options to add on battle tactics with a 6x6 table reminiscent of the Chainmail Jousting table. 

Once the BR has been modified for each side due to the battle conditions, each side rolls a d100 and adds it to the modified BR. The higher total wins, and the difference in totals is referenced on a chart to show how many casualties each side takes, whether or not the forces are fatigued by the battle, and whether the loser has to retreat and whether the victor is allowed to hold the field or advance. 

Sounds complicated, but when we used to use it as kids, it worked really well for us. Most of the calculations get made when the force is created, with updates for training or for purchasing better equipment, or hiring a different cohort of troops (adding more cavalry, for example). And once a battle happened, it was kind of fun to go through the list of factors to see what we could add or subtract from our forces. Then then die roll! Sweet victory, or agonizing defeat all in one roll. It was pretty exciting. But it can be a bit time consuming.

So I've been looking to streamline the process. I've got a first draft of a simplified version of the rules, but they're not actually all that simplified looking over them again. Basically, I take out the Troop Class and separating BFR and BR. Just calculate a BR from the factors I've kept to consider. The factors that make BR based on a fraction of the BFR have just flat values now. Most of the things to consider in a battle I've kept the same (or nearly so, I did change around a few numbers, and incorporated many of the optional rules that we used to use). 

Now, the Companion Set does include a "quick BR" formula, which ignores a lot and is a lot faster to calculate. We would usually have full long-form BRs for our Name Level PCs' armies, but when a rampaging horde of orcs and trolls showed up, we'd use the quick BR to get their values (which often gave us a big advantage, as the quick BR ignores a lot of things that might give bonuses). 

This weekend, I plan to run a few war games with the boys to try out my current first draft. If it goes well, great! If it's a bit clunky still, I may modify it to be more like the Quick BR alternate system, as it is very fast and no fuss, no muss. I think that if all armies are made with the same system, it will be more fair.

The one thing I still need to set up before the weekend games would be "mercenary prices" for various monsters. I've included the mercenary tables from the Expert Set in TS&R, but that just covers humans, dwarves, elves, orcs, and goblins (plus halflings in my version). There are no prices for having ogres, manticores, ghouls, dragons, or giants in your forces, although the War Machine has rules to handle armies containing creatures like these. I never had a set price guide determined when we were kids, as the DM (usually but not always me) could just create opponent armies from scratch, and our PCs mostly stuck to standard mercenaries (and the occasional subdued dragon) in their forces. 

I think it's time to open up my Chainmail PDF and compare point costs for troop types with point costs for fantasy supplement creatures and get some ideas.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Why People Are Upset with the MCU (And how that relates to high level gaming)

In 2008, the same year we moved to Korea and my first son was born, Iron Man debuted in theaters, and The Hulk (Ed Norton...remember that?) not long after. And the MCU was born. This led to an eventually more and more interconnected series of films based on the Marvel comics, culminating in Avengers Infinity War in 2018 and Endgame in 2019. 

Right before Covid19. 

And since Endgame, we've not only had covid delaying projects, we had the release of Disney+ streaming with more MCU content in the forms of limited series and one shot special presentations along with the movies. And in this post-Endgame MCU, lots of fans have been underwhelmed. I've been enjoying most of it, but it's hard to follow something as cathartic as Endgame. Say what you will about the quality of the movie itself as a film, as a culmination of 11 years of interconnected storytelling, it was a satisfying way to wrap up that story arch. 

And then Marvel had to keep putting out more content. 

I think they've been making the right moves. They've diversified the types of content they're putting out, both as types of media properties, and with regard to the types of stories they're telling and the characters they're bringing in to the MCU. We've got intense character-driven drama (WandaVision), typical action adventure fare (Shang-Chi, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Black Widow, Hawkeye), horror-tinged superheroics (Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Werewolf by Night), comic action (Loki, Ms. Marvel), 4th wall breaking comedy (She-Hulk: Attorney at Law), along with continuing some of the previous popular franchises (Guardians of the Galaxy [done well], Thor: Love and Thunder [not done very well]), and even working in previous Marvel movie properties (Spider-Man No Way Home, The Marvels) within the MCU's new Multiverse phase. 

None of these projects really come close to the feeling of culmination that Endgame brought the long-time fans, although GotG3 and Spider-Man No Way Home come close. And that's upset a lot of fans. And then there are the chuds who think every project with a female or POC lead is pandering to the "Woke Mob" or some garbage. But they'd be upset no matter what Marvel does, since outrage leads to social media engagement. Let's ignore them and focus on the fans who are just feeling a bit let down because the drama isn't cranked up to 11 on these projects. 

How does this relate to high level D&D? Isn't it obvious? 

Look at Marvel Comics. I don't know any comic fans that try to follow every single book Marvel (or DC or Image or whichever comics company you follow) puts out. Not every book suits everyone's tastes, and it's okay to follow those you like and not those you don't. 

The current state of the MCU is pretty much the same. Before Infinity War/Endgame, everyone was pretty much on the same page. You had to watch the movies. All of them. The TV shows were optional (I still haven't seen Agent Carter, The Inhumans, Cloak and Dagger...I did watch Agents of SHIELD and all the Daredevil Netflix related shows). Now, though, not every movie is for the entire audience. Not every show or special is for the entire audience. It's OK to pick and choose. There is variety. 

Your campaign should be similar to the comics or the current MCU. There should be all sorts of things going on in your campaign. Different types of things. Sometimes, every player will be interested in something going on. Sometimes, some players will and others won't. Sometimes, no one will be interested. And that's all good. 

If you're playing a high level game, as I've mentioned before, not every player needs to be involved in every game session. Each player should be able to follow their own interests. Maybe a subset of PCs will be interested in a common thing, and they can game together. Sometimes, everyone gets together to forward some common goal. But the campaign should cease to be built around the idea of all the players getting together each week or fortnight to game as a unit. 

If you've built your game up to basically focus on this small group of heroes and their antics, and then you suddenly try to diversify the campaign now that you're at high levels and the typical dungeon raid is losing it's appeal, you're going to run into some of the bumpiness that the MCU fandom has been going through the past three years or so. But you can get through it, if you stick with it. If you're not at that climax moment of the campaign yet, start diversifying it now (ideas for adventure/challenge diversity in that link). 

Trust me, if you do start diversifying the campaign now, then after the PCs have finally toppled Drol Krad the Dark Lord, they will still have many irons in the fire for them to pursue after the campaign's "endgame" and they can start the real endgame of the campaign: Domains. Political Intrigue. Leadership. Quests. Personal Ambitions. Planar Exploration. Epic Challenges. Building Legacies.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Necessary Build-Up: Running High Level 5E

So you're a 5E DM, and you've been suffering many of the problems that that edition suffers at high level? Are combats a hit point slog? Do they take too long? Are players spending more time designing alternate PCs because they're bored with the ones they have? Is it too hard to balance combat encounters or design challenging adventures because of oodles of hit points and so many spells/powers? 

What to do?

Well, sit back and let me try to share some advice. It may not all be good advice, and some of it will definitely not be easy, but don't give up hope!

If you're a 5E (or probably any other more recent edition) D&D DM who isn't yet at the high level of your campaign but want to keep it going at that level, this will be much easier for you. 

The trick to building a long-lasting campaign that can handle high level play is to build up complexity into your game world as you go. Don't just focus on the "story" of this group of heroes. Also don't assume they're by default heroes, but that's a post for another day. You need to world build.

It's fairly easy to grab a map you like off the internet, or even to make your own. You could also use a published adventure setting like Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk or Golarion. Now, you need to start filling in ideas about what is, could, or will be going on in those towns and kingdoms and monster-infested waters when the PCs aren't there. 

No, you don't need to keep track of everything. You don't need to play out the whole world. Take a breath. It's OK. We're gonna get through this. 

You do need to have ideas about who's in charge of what, and what the cultures are like in at least a general sense, and what wars might be brewing, and where powerful monsters lair, and where to find mysterious artifacts. And on the smaller scale, who are the power players in the local area? What are their beefs? How can they help or hinder the PCs? 

If you have a fleshed out game world, even if it's not completely fleshed out yet, and especially if it's sometimes inconsistent (the real world is after all!), you can leverage those elements to provide challenges for your players besides yet another quest to yet another dungeon to slay yet another set of 3-4 balanced encounters of monsters/traps, then a boss fight. 

Here's the trick though, and why it's easier if you're not yet at high level. You don't need all of this to start. You build it up little by little, and layer complexity and detail onto the game world as you play. 

I mentioned in the comments of my last post that I haven't actually run a high level game since I was in high school. And mostly that is because of two things: living the expat life where gamers to play with come and go often, and my own gamer ADHD due to having too many game systems or campaign styles that I'd like to run. With my current game, I'm committed to running it as long as I can, and getting it up into the high levels. I think I'll go into detail in a future post (or posts) on what I remember doing back in high school (lots of PCs were in the level 20s/attack ranks, a few made it into the 30s), as well as what I'm doing now to lay the foundations of long term play in my current campaign (highest PC currently is 4th level).

 For now, though, I'll say this. Pay attention to the game world. Have recurring NPCs and villains. Have at least some idea of the region's politics, even if it's all background and never effects play at low levels. Work on multiple factions/power centers/sides that the PCs may join or oppose (or even ignore), rather than focusing a grand narrative around defeating some Voldemort style baddie. Take notes on what the PCs have been doing, and how it may affect these powers that be. Every now and then, throw in agents of those powers. Have them notice what is happening with the PCs. When they get enough fame and fortune (upper mid levels is a good place for this), have them start getting recruitment offers or else people sent to actively oppose the PCs' efforts. Have townspeople recognize them when they introduce themselves by name, or even have them known by their appearance. If the PCs are antagonizing some power center, have wanted posters or bounty hunters show up. If the PCs are aiding a power source, have offers of aid arrive occasionally. 

Build up some detail in your game world over time. It doesn't have to be fully fleshed out yet. But it should be reactive to what the PCs are doing. Don't just have "town" be like in a video game, where every NPC has one line of dialogue, and the town simply exists as a place to buy/sell, heal, and rest up. Make the setting a character. Build it up as you go. Keep taking notes. Use those notes to make the game world richer in future sessions. 

If you build it up enough, by the time the PCs are high level, the offers of guild memberships, knighthoods, offers to be kept on retainer as a court wizard, etc. will help give them goals and make the players want to invest in the setting as well. And once they're invested, there will be more to do at high level than rinse-and-repeat dungeon raids and hit point slog combats.

Friday, November 17, 2023

What to do at High Level

Recently, I've been focused on the high level game. Expect that to continue for a while, as it's an area I've not blogged about extensively. And judging by the numbers of views for some of these posts, it's a topic people are interested in reading about. 

My last post was a reaction to the YouTube channel The DM's Lair. The video was listing 10 things that make high level (5E) D&D hard to run as a DM. I responded with my thoughts on those points, as they were things that can easily be avoided with a few old school style game ideas, or are things that are just unavoidable in general with RPGs played with high powered characters. 

Today, I'd like to post a very incomplete list of things that your character might get up to at high levels that could alleviate many of those headaches for the DM. And these ideas are system neutral (although some editions have better rules to support these sorts of things in play than others). Feel free to list more ideas down in the comments.

The main thing to keep in mind as a player of a high level PC in D&D is that YOU need to set goals for your character. Discuss them with the DM, so the DM can prepare content that allows you to attempt these things (remember, you're not guaranteed success, but you should at least be able to try). This in and of itself should solve a lot of the problems mentioned in the video. If you set goals for your PC, then dungeons and monsters are simply obstacles on the path to that goal, and it's not necessary to worry about "bypassing" an encounter or five with spells, magic items, or abilities. 

Things that High Level* PCs Can Do Besides Kill Monsters & Take Their Stuff:

1. Build a Stronghold. A castle, a tower, dungeon, a temple, a hideout... Somewhere to keep your stuff protected, and from where you can start to influence the world around you. 

2. Lead a band of men. An army, a mercenary company, a barbarian horde, a retinue of woodland beings, a guild of assassins and thieves, a brotherhood of knights militant/warrior monks...

3. Research and create new spells. Fill the gaps in your magical repertoire. Surprise rival mages in duels. 

4. Create magic items. Never did find that one item you wanted? Make it yourself. Or commission it if you're not a spellcaster. 

5. Get knighted, receive a barony, or acquire some other title of nobility. 

6. Get elected mayor, senator, or guild master. 

7. Command a pirate ship or merchant vessel. 

8. Build a fleet of pirate ships or merchant vessels. 

9. Start a martial arts dojo, weapon academy, or school of combat.

10. Intimidate all the monsters in a dungeon into your service and rule with an iron fist.

11. Become the leader of your demi-human clan. 

12. Build an army and conquer some land.

13. Compete in tournaments against knights and nobles. 

14. Go on a quest for a fabled magic item or artifact.

15. Seek out and destroy an evil magic item or artifact.

16. Explore the realm at the bottom of the sea. 

17. Seek out a gate to another plane of existence. Explore, trade, or conquer what's beyond it.

18. Claim, purchase, or conquer a private island.

19. Found a town. Is it a trade town, farming town, pirate haven? Up to you!

20. Construct your own dungeon under your stronghold. 

21. Subdue a dragon. It's your new mount or guard dog now!

22. Circumnavigate the globe; or if your campaign world is a flat earth, sail over the edge!

23. Found a dynasty. 

24. Overthrow the corrupt ruler of the kingdom and take the throne.

25. Seek out the secrets of how to live forever, or to become a lich. 

26. Take on an apprentice or successor (sidekick) and teach them all you know. 

27. Become a legendary craftsperson or artist. 

28. Fund caravans or trading vessels. 

29. Negotiate a peace treaty between warring kingdoms. Enforce the peace if necessary. 

30. Lead a crusade against a horde of monsters or an evil overlord.

31. Start a cult. Maybe summon a demon or Great Old One for fun.

32. Construct (or conquer) a floating cloud castle. 

33. Retire to a small cabin in the woods, or a cave in the mountains, or a hovel in the slums. Become the local boogeyman, wise man/woman, or the crazy cat lady (except with blink dogs or something). Keep coming out of retirement for "one last job."

34. Build a spy network. Sell your information to the highest bidder, or work at the behest of your land-holding companion. 

35. Build a flying ship, dirigible, space ship (spelljammer or otherwise), underwater boat, etc.

36. Seek out the mystic secrets that would allow you to transform yourself permanently into a dragon.

37. Capture monsters for a circus, menagerie, or zoo (or a wizard's research). 

38. Travel the land dueling every high level member of your class you can find to see if you're the best.

39. Set up a magic item shop (especially fun if the DM doesn't normally allow them). 

40. Learn how to time travel, and explore other eras instead of other lands.

41. Fund an insurrection to topple the monarchy and replace it with a democracy.

42. Seek out the hand of a prince or princess to marry.

43. Convince the greatest poet or bard in the land to immortalize you in verse. 

44. Seek to become an Immortal or god. 

45. Heal the blight, lift the curse, or otherwise remedy a problem troubling the land.

46. Become a necromancer, with a horde of undead subjects at your command.

47. Seek out the best armorers and weapon-smiths to equip your army with only the finest arms.

48. Teach students to become members of your class. 

49. Close a planar gate or dimensional portal to stop a threat from coming through.

50. Die, then adventure in the underworld! Or challenge Death to a game to get resurrected.

*or potentially Mid Level, and conceivably in some instances Low Level PCs!

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Why you're doing high level adventures wrong

 I just watched this video on high level 5E play from The DM's Lair

Now, as you all know, I do play 5E as a player, but will not run it as a DM. But if I were to run it as a DM, I think a lot of the "problems" mentioned in this video wouldn't actually be a problem, because they often are not problems in high level old school D&D. This doesn't mean these things don't happen, it means that these things happening doesn't become a problem. 

 And yes, I will probably be referencing my recent thoughts on high level play from other recent posts like this and this.  Maybe this one too.

Luke's video linked above can really be summed up with one comment. Why is high level 5E hard to run/play? Because you're still trying to run/play high level D&D the same as a low level game. 

But that's not much of a blog post. So let's go through Luke's 10 points and I'll address them one by one.

1. It's hard to create balanced encounters/adventures.

I agree with this statement, and I never even actually got to run high level 5E (I quit while I was ahead and switched to TS&R). I could see where the rules were headed. 

Partly, this has to do with the structure of 5E. The easy short rest/long rest recovery rules make it so that it's hard to wear down PCs over time. It's pretty easy to be at or near top level form for most encounters if the DM allows for frequent resting. Now, sometimes this could also be the case in old school D&D. Wilderness adventures take place over game days, and there might not be encounters every single day. This allows spellcasters, at least, to nearly always have a full compliment of spells when they have an encounter. Even non-spellcasters will likely be able to rely on a fair amount of hit point recovery between encounters, if the party's clerics are using excess spells at the end of the day to heal, or the group decides to take a rest day, prepare only healing spells, and use them up before moving on. 

But running through a group of balanced encounters during a short dungeon shouldn't be the primary type of adventure that high level PCs take on. You don't often see Superman taking on the sorts of street level thugs that Daredevil fights in the comics. And you rarely see Daredevil going up against weird cosmic threats the way Superman often does. 

High level games, whether old or new school, shouldn't be focused on the dungeon delve or the monster combat as the primary challenge of the game. Different sorts of challenges need to be involved. That way, it doesn't really matter if the monsters in the PCs' way are too easy, or too tough. If they're too easy, then focus on the other problems that can't be solved by swinging a sword or casting fireball. If they're too tough, then players need to get ingenious with their spells/abilities/items, and come up with a way around the encounter besides a hit point slog combat (I'll be mentioning hit point slogs a lot in this post, so I'll abbreviate it HPS from now on). 

2. High level spells and abilities ruin the fun.

This is assuming, as I've often mentioned in the past, that WotC seems to think the fun part of D&D is the HPS. The claim (this was also part of Luke's discussion of point 1) is that high level spells can make encounters or even whole adventures a cake walk. Save or die spells (I don't think 5E has any of these anymore) in old school games often did this. And the same powerful spells like wish or time stop, disintegrate, teleport, etc. can render many challenges very easy. 

Have you even been in a situation where you cast a finger of death or some other save or die spell on a powerful monster like a dragon, and it works? Let me tell you from experience, it feels awesome! And not just the first time, either! Of course, in old school D&D, the monsters' saves get much better, so these spells didn't work all the time. But when they did, it was always something to cheer about. 

Luke argues that this sort of encounter hijacking ruins the fun, but just wait until we get to his point about length of combat/high hit points later on... 

If the focus of the game is not on continual missions to a dungeon of the week, scaled to your level, but instead on developing the campaign world, the characters' place in it, and how they want to affect that world, this won't be a problem. That monster was a roadblock. Did it slow them down? Great. Did it not? Doesn't matter, there are other challenges in the game besides monsters.

This isn't "allowing players to win without playing the game." It's playing the game smartly. And does it invalidate DM prep work? I guess it would if you've got some storyline you're planning to run like a readers' theater, or you've got what Justin Alexander calls My Precious Encounter syndrome. But if you're running a world, not a storyline, it's not breaking or invalidating anything. 

Finally, on this point, should the DM use these powerful spells (or powerful monster abilities) on the PCs? Sure, why not? It's part of the game. It retains the risk of the game at high levels. If the monsters/NPCs are just there to be knocked over by the PCs, how is that fun? I get the occasional power trip encounter that allows high level PCs to just tear through some monsters. It helps make you feel like you are a powerful character. But if that's every encounter (3-4 "balanced" encounters and a boss style play), that's gotta get old. There's no challenge. 

And again, even if the combats are threats, a game of endless "enter the dungeon, fight the monsters, take their stuff" should not be how high level games are run.

3. High level play is easy for players, hard for DMs.

When is the game ever not hard for the DM? And if you're throwing more than just combat encounters at the players, you will find plenty of ways to challenge them. And I'm not just talking about kaiju style monsters like the Tarrasque. Although those are great! The thing is, though, you shouldn't be beating the Tarrasque by the HPS method, or even the Save or Die spell method. Go read the Labors of Hercules or some Superman comics and come up with some ideas besides "beat the monster" for a challenge. 

4. Not enough published content for high levels.

If you've run a campaign from level 1 up to level whatever, and you still don't know how to make your own content, or run the world, and need WotC (or TSR, or Paizo, or some other company) to spoon feed you content, the problem is not with the game itself. You need to learn how to run a campaign world. 

Again, stop thinking of D&D as just "Hey, here's the dungeon for the next few sessions! Once you beat it, you'll go to a higher level dungeon!" and think of it as a world. There are politics, natural disasters, resource management, and all sorts of other challenges in the world besides monster slaying. And that's not even getting into the planar adventuring stuff. 

If you can't make your own content, maybe you should stick to the low level stuff until you feel confident enough to make the game your own. 

But don't blame that on a lack of high level adventures. There are plenty out there, if you convert older edition or 3rd party stuff, IF you still need that crutch after years of DMing. 

5. Low chances of death take the fun out of combat.

If the monsters don't have a chance of killing the PCs, yeah, that's gonna make combats less fun. But again, why are we focusing on the HPS? There are plenty of ways for PCs to die. And yes, there are lots of high level spells that reverse death. That doesn't remove the sting of dying from the game, though. Or at least, it didn't in older editions, where there were limits and drawbacks to raising the dead. But even in BX/BECMI, with lower penalties/drawbacks for raising the dead than AD&D had, it still sucks to lose a character, even if it's only temporarily.

But even if the high hit points and good saving throws and easy resurrection takes some of the risk out of combats, there are still risks. And again, if the only time we're engaging in risks is when fighting monsters, the game has more problems than PCs that are hard to kill. 

Also, it's been often noted -- and claimed by fans as one reason they prefer new school games -- that there is a reduced risk of death at ALL levels in 5E (and 4E before it). And yet, combat is supposed to be the only fun part of the game. Someone square that circle for me, please? 

6. Combats are a slog.

Ah, here we are. The HPS point. 

And if we want to get around the 4 hour long HPS? Let the PCs use save-or-die magic to end it quickly. That's not a bad thing! 

7. Characters get more complex.

This is true in any edition, but 5E characters start out a good deal more complex than PCs in old school D&D. So yeah, it's gonna happen, and I can see why it's worse in 5E (one of the reasons I quit running that edition). 

I don't think there's any way to mitigate this aspect of high level play. High level PCs in any edition have more to keep track of. Abilities, spells, magic items, henchmen/hirelings/followers, domains, etc. 

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts linked above, it's OK to slow down the pace of the high level game. It doesn't need to be constant cliffhangers and races against time. It's not an episode of 24. 

Also, again, if combats are not all HPS, then we don't need to worry so much about players taking their time to plan out their actions. If those actions will lead to swift resolution of the encounter rather than the HPS, you're saving time in the long run.

8. Math gets too complex.

Um, too complex? I understand that you don't need to be a math nerd to have fun playing D&D, but he's complaining that you need to add up too many d6s for high level spell damage or backstabs. 

I have sympathy for people for whom math is not a strong suit, but Luke claims sometimes it takes 2 minutes to total up all the damage dice. I don't have a lot of sympathy for that. Here's some advice. If it takes you that long to total the dice, don't add them one by one. Group them into pairs or sets of three that total 10 each set. Makes the math much easier, and faster. There, no more 2 minutes wasted on basic 3rd grade level math problems. 

Now if you're playing Pathfinder 2E (from what I've heard), or Rolemaster or Palladium or something, the math does sometimes get a bit complicated. But D&D 5E doesn't have hard math, really. 

9. Players get bored with their characters. 

I can understand this. Ever since 3E came out, and even before that with games like various Palladium offerings with tons of options and customization for characters, or skill defined systems like CoC, all the options available can make you curious about how they work in play. Or if you could craft a character in this way, or model a PC off of a favorite fictional character, and so on. Character building in these games can and often is fun (though time consuming). 

As a DM, you get to scratch that itch by running lots of NPC. But not so much as a player, especially if you're in a game like 5E in which character death is hard to come by (see point 5 above). 

At the same time, if your player is getting bored with the character they are currently playing, it's probably because you're only giving them one type of challenge (another monster fight), and they've already figured out how to best manage that challenge with that character. They want a new character to have some variety in the game. They're tired of being the front-line warrior and want to try the skirmisher. Or the heavy damage dealer. Or the spell-slinger. They crave variety in their PCs because there's no variety in the challenges set forth in the game. 

Play high level games properly, with more immersion in the game world, problems besides the dungeon/monster of the week, and multiple threads going at the same time, and suddenly they don't want to just switch characters. If they have ties to the game world (not necessarily domain play, but that helps), there is an incentive to stick with this established character, rather than keep switching PCs every month or two. 

10. The story arch is completed. 

Hmm, not much to say about this one. If you've set your game up as a limited campaign, with a "story" to follow -- even if it's an open-ended one with no railroad -- and now it's complete, I completely understand not wanting to continue it. 

The trick for continued high level play, as I've mentioned above, is to have a living campaign world that revolves around more than just one quest or BBEG. There should be a plethora of potential BBEGs and artifacts to quest for, lands to conquer, far away lands/continents/planets/planes of existence to explore, human drama, political rivalries, and so on in the game if you want to keep it going. 

This is one of the reasons I dropped my West Marches campaign. It was a one-trick pony of a game, and as the PCs started to get up into the lower mid-level range (4 to 7), I was seeing that there just wasn't a lot of opportunity for growth and expansion in the game, without completely abandoning the West Marches premise. I could have done that, but started a new game instead, with a setting rich in potential for dungeon delving, getting involved in political rivalries, growth, and eventual settlement/conquest by the PCs, if that's what they choose. I think it will be a much longer lasting campaign. 

So if you don't want your campaign to end, don't hinge the entire premise on one story line.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Reviews: Loki Season 2, The Marvels

This week, we had both the season 2 finale (possibly series finale?) of Loki on Disney+, and the premier of the newest MCU film, The Marvels. This is a spoiler-free review of both. 

Obligatory "Curse" Word Notice for Parents: The Marvels has a few mild swears. Loki as well. Nothing much to worry about. 

Loki Season 2

I really like how this show played out in the second season. I really enjoyed the first season, as well. 

In season 2, we see Loki and companions finding out about what the TVA really is, and is not, and it had a few surprising twists along the way. There were great comedic performances from Tom Hiddleston, Sophia Di Martino, Owen Wilson, Key Huy Quan, and the rest of the cast, and some bits of good emotional/dramatic acting as well. 

I may have mentioned this in my Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania review, but I'm bummed that Jonathan Majors may be out as Kang, because he is (despite being an accused abuser) very talented and does a great job as Kang/He Who Remains/Victor Timely. But if Marvel/Disney need to replace him with another actor, or find a way to switch to another villain like Dr. Doom, I can handle it. 

Dealing with characters who are "outside" of time, where time is a constant flat circle to those outside its frame of reference, is difficult, and there were definitely times when I thought, wait a minute... But the show made sense in general, and the emotional through-line was satisfying. 

The Marvels

The family just saw this yesterday. My older son and I enjoyed it. It's not a top tier MCU film, but it's solid and entertaining, in our opinions. My younger son proclaimed it "mid" and my wife (who wasn't all that impressed by the Ms. Marvel show, but who did enjoy the first Captain Marvel movie) didn't like it that much. 

While overall, it's a fun movie, and the plot is interesting, there is a bit of unevenness in the acting. Iman Velani is hamming it up, and really makes the film, as Kamala Khan. Kamala's family, just like in the D+ show, are also really fun to watch. Brie Larson, who in general I find to be a good actress, seemed to be phoning it in, though. Every emotion was muted. In scenes where Carol Danvers had some emotional struggle, she wasn't overly upset, wasn't overly happy, wasn't overly embarrassed... She was a bit too Zen. 

And I think the editing of the movie, while it did cut the fat and make it speed by, rendered some other parts a bit off-putting. Sam Jackson's Nick Fury is a big part of the movie...except it feels like he's hardly in the movie. He does stuff. People do stuff around him. But it never really quite feels like he's fully part of the story for some reason. There was a big focus on developing the character in Captain Marvel, and maybe they thought with the release coming so soon after Secret Invasion that they didn't need to play up the Nick Fury side of things, but he could have been replaced with generic S.A.B.E.R. Agent and it wouldn't have changed anything. The nameless (Asgardian?) S.A.B.E.R. agent that Yusuf tries to talk into investing for retirement could have filled the role. 

On the plus side, Zawe Ashton's villain Dar-Ben had a plausible beef with Captain Marvel, and a sinister and crafty plan that made sense and would put her in the "hero" role for the Kree. And that role didn't need a ton of backstory to make it plausible and understandable, either. 

Oh, and of course there is a fun final scene, and a mid-credit scene that tease future projects and provide a LOT of fan service. 


My recommendation? If you haven't seen Loki, watch it. It's fun, funny, and charming. It's the best MCU thing that has been on Disney+. 

The Marvels is good, but not amazing. If you're feeling super-hero fatigue, I won't blame you if you skip it. The stuff with Kamala Khan and her family may make it worth the price of admission if you enjoyed their show. Otherwise, it's a fairly by-the-numbers comic book hero movie.

Friday, November 3, 2023

This is the Way

 For Halloween this year, my boys and I decided to make Mandalorian armor for our costumes. After looking at some of the high quality cosplay suits some people make (see the Mando Mercs cosplay group!), we decided to just go cheap and make everything out of cardboard. 

We started out in August, by watching some tutorial videos and downloading some templates for the helmets. We started with a test printing on regular paper:

Next, we printed the templates again and made the shells out of paperboard.

A bit of papier-mache added stability to the base helmets, and covered up the seams.


In September, we finally got around to the painting stage.

We had to order in some shading film for the visors, and it was a bit hard to work with, but we managed. Here's me trying on my helmet. I redid the cheek panels in green later, as my wife thought it looked too clownish in red. And Stevie, my younger boy, ended up repainting his whole helmet from "watermelondelorian" to "Cincinnati Bengalorian" a few days before the events (pictures below).

Once we finished the helmets (other than a few touch-ups here and there), we moved on to the gauntlets. For these, the templates were all for Boba Fett gauntlets, but we all decided to customize our own weapon load-outs on them. 

My right gauntlet, with whistling birds, flame thrower, and cable projector. 

The cable projector (the odd-shaped green thing) ended up being a bit uncomfortable. 

Here's Steven's left gauntlet, with blaster/laser, and energy shield generator. I had an energy shield generator on my left gauntlet, too. The blue disks  on the next picture are cut from a plastic file case. We used magnets to attach the "shields" to the gauntlets, but in the end the magnets weren't strong enough and they would fall off too easily.

Here's Steven's right gauntlet, also with whistling birds, flame thrower, and a holdout blaster on the bottom.

My left had the personal shield generator (discussed above), as well as a rocket launcher. I added a rocket later.

I forgot to get pictures of Flynn's gauntlets during the crafting process. He went fairly simply, with a flamethrower on the right, and a retractable vibroknife on the left. 

At the end of September, and into early October, we started working on the armor. Also, you can see that Steven didn't paint his gauntlets until after we'd started in on the armor.


We ordered some cotton cloth and made vests to hold the armor plates, as well as capes for the boys.


No one noticed my cheeky addition to my armor.

I made myself an EE-3 blaster carbine out of cardboard. Flynn and I also crafted a sniper rifle for him, based off of the one used by Crosshair in The Bad Batch. For Steven, he just wanted us to paint one of his water guns black, so we did. We also bought an extendable pole from the dollar store, painted it silver, and made a bescar spear for Flynn.

In the end, it worked out pretty well. Flynn and I wore our costumes out to my buddy's bar on Saturday the 28th, and had some fun. And on Sunday the 29th, there was a trunk-or-treat for the kids, which was also a lot of fun. 

With local band Goths on the Beach. (The choking pose was her idea.)

Monday, October 30, 2023

Tricks of Successful Domain Level Play

Justin Alexander at the Alexandrian blog has had a similar line of thought to myself in reaction to the news that WotC is planning to drop some domain-level play rules for 5E (or One D&D, or whatever). 

And it seems from the comments of Justin's blog that a lot of people don't really conceive of how to run that stage of the game. Justin himself seems to get it, but the focus of his post isn't on how to manage that tier of play, so he doesn't really get into it. 

I haven't run a domain level game for a long time, but I still remember the things my friends and I did that made it work for us. Even as kids, with little real experience or expertise about politics or war or project management, we were able to understand the rules and make them work for us. 

So first of all, my advice to anyone wanting to run a domain level game, or transition their normal game to domain level play when the PCs get more powerful, would be to get the Mentzer Companion Set, or a game like Adventurer Conquerer King that goes into actual rules and systems for this sort of thing. I'm not that familiar with ACKS, but I am with Mentzer's Companion rules (with some extra useful bits in the Masters Set, also most of it is compiled in the Rules Cyclopedia). 

Or, pick up Chanbara. I've got a version of domain management rules in there! 

I'm sure there are other games with rules for setting up domains and managing them. Find one you like. It doesn't really matter which one. Or make up your own. It's just useful to have some solid rules for determining the size of a barony, its population, resources, etc. And then rules for how well you're managing it over time. This is one of the areas where I find BECMI superior to AD&D, as AD&D seems to default to just giving you some passive income and the DM figures out the rest on their own. 

Next, several commenters over at the Alexandrian seemed mystified about how to have the party remain a party at high level. 

Here's the trick. They mostly don't. 

Sometimes, there's a quest or a threat that requires them to band together. That's a typical session or adventure, only scaled to high level PCs. But they're rare at this level. That doesn't mean you have to slow down the schedule of actual sessions of play. It just means that more time passes between quests or adventures. You are keeping STRICT TIME RECORDS aren't you? This is exactly the sort of thing those time records are for. How long will it take the Lord to train up the new recruits? How long will the Wizard be out of the action crafting a new staff of power? What resources does the thieves' guild have on hand to assist the Master Thief? 

Most of the time, the DM will be meeting with players separately to manage domains, or else devoting a segment of each session to domain upkeep and management with each player before getting to the adventures. Sometimes, an entire game session may just be this domain management. That's OK. Handle the management this session, then have some epic quest or killer dungeon to tackle the next. 

In fact, these days, with easy shared internet resources like a wiki or Discord server, it should be pretty easy to manage each player's domain online between meetup sessions, saving the weekly get-together for more action packed adventuring.

Also, again, read the Companion Set rules carefully (hopefully other rules systems will suggest the same). The PCs don't all have to set up independent strongholds. High level Fighters can become lords with their own castles, but one could be the "landholder" while the others are "wandering" and become the Knights in service to the Baron, and the Paladins and Avengers could serve the Baron and/or the party's Patriarch (if alignments match). Each of these wandering Fighters may have an estate (small castle/tower/outpost) that supports the main landholder Fighter's castle. The Patriarch's stronghold could be part of the Baron's castle, or another satellite stronghold within the barony. Maybe the walled town within the barony is ruled over by one of these other PCs already mentioned, or by the Master Thief of the party. Or the Thieves' Guild may be based in the main barony castle's dungeons. And the Wizard may set up a tower within the barony, or may be the baron's Magist with a tower in the main castle to do their research from. 

This way, the players are all invested in the fate of that one barony, and are working together to grow it into a County or Duchy (with the other PCs as barons, earls, knights, etc. under the "leader" PC), maybe eventually a kingdom or even empire. 

And of course, if the players each want to have their own independent fiefdoms, that's fine, too. It will just involve more solo or small group play to manage each one of these areas, as mentioned above. And when a threat arises in one of the domains, like a dragon awakening from centuries of slumber or a necromancer's undead army invasion, it's only natural that the ruler of that particular domain calls in their old friends to help manage it.

Finally, as DM, you need to shift your focus for running the game. There needs to be less of an emphasis on dungeon crawling for the sake of dungeon crawling -- although that will still happen, because in my experience, the income from taxes won't cover expenses, and PCs will want to supplement their domain's treasury from their adventuring earnings. 

There needs to be a focus on the politics of the land. Dealing with the despot king, or land-grabs by hostile neighboring rulers. Monsters or humanoid hordes invading. Peasant revolts. Diplomacy. Finding NPC specialists to hire (the Companion Set again has a great list of retainers needed by a fief, including salaries they typically require, in addition to those in the Expert Set). Dealing with natural and unnatural disasters (which the Companion Set suggests how to deal with, although this isn't as fleshed out as it could be).

But it's not all defensive actions. Players will most likely want to use their own armies (again, the mercenary costs aren't just there for a way to drain funds from PCs) to expand their territory. The Companion Set has the War Machine mass combat rules, but AD&D's Battlesystem or Chainmail can also be used, or some other set of mass combat rules. 

My friends and I had a great time with all of this stuff. It didn't supplant more typical adventures. We still had plenty of those. But as I mentioned above, there was more down time between adventures, and we found ways to mix in the domain management with the adventures for that tier of play. And we also would often roll up new, low level characters to get some dungeoneering or hex-ploration gaming in.

Also, remember, the Domain Game can be the end game, but it doesn't have to be. Again, the Companion Set suggests ways for PCs to continue to be murderhobos wandering adventurers at high level. It's just that instead of focusing on Dungeons of the Week or hex crawl exploration, you're more likely to be enticing the players into epic quests for artifacts or planar exploration, or whatever. But that's a topic for another post. 

If you want to play the Domain Game, it can be really fun and rewarding, but both the players and the DM need to shift their conception of what the game is for it to work.