Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Playing With Adults

It happens that when you put a group of people together there can be friction. My Wednesday night D&D Encounters game had been having that issue for a while now. Of my 6 regular players, 3 were great, and 3 consistently rubbed each other the wrong way. I hoped that they would put aside their differences and just enjoy the game. Instead what happened was they brought their issues to the table, and it was disruptive and unpleasant in the extreme... and I sat back to let it play out. With the exception of the 17 year old, everyone in the room was an adult (legally anyway), and I wanted them to act like it. Unfortunately the behaviors escalated, and feelings were hurt. Everyone felt ignored, marginalized, and treated with disrespect.

I think my initial approach was the correct one. They are adults, and should be treated as such, not schooled like disobedient middleschoolers. I also think I could have been a more proactive force for cooperation.

It wasn't quite this bad....

Things got worse and I found myself wondering why I was bothering to run a game for people who didn't like being around each other.

I had several offline discussions with individual players, and it seemed like everyone was on the same chapter, if not the same page… but getting everyone onto the same page? It reached the point where one of the players was ready to quit the group, and I was near ready to stop running. I just didn't want to deal with it. But I also realized that it was my table, and so in some ways my responsibility, and I wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel. Would the departure of one player tip the scales and make the game better? Maybe. Did I want to lose any of my players? No.

The biggest problem, from my point of view, was that there wasn't nearly enough communication. They weren't a party, they were 6 individual players who occasionally managed to go in the same direction. They didn't respect each other, or their time at the table.

The announced departure of one player spurred the rest into action. It really was the catalyst that changed the dynamic of the room for the better, much to my surprise. I arrived last week to game to find the players had talked and decided that they'd all give it another go. We spent the first 30 minutes of our 2 hours talking it out, literally going around the table and airing our issues, sharing our thoughts, and apologizing to each other. Even me. Like I said earlier, it's my table, and I feel a level of responsibility for what happens at it.

Beyond talking it out, the players decided to nominate a party caller. This is the first time I've played in a game where a party caller has been used, and I’m actually thrilled to see how that will work out going forward. They also decided that they would make all decisions out of character first, and then role play it out afterword. Both of these choices were very effective last week, and definitely helped keep the players together as a party.

In the end, (or at least so far) my players decided to act like adults, and tonight they'll find they each have a new shiny point of inspiration to start the session off with.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Blue Rose Review Part 1 (again)

A year ago (almost exactly) I began a review of the Blue Rose RPG... and I never finished it. Look, last year sucked even more than the Blue Rose setting, and I just didn't have it in me. Last week I pulled out the book again to give it another read through and pick up my review where I left off.

Then yesterday Green Ronin announced that they were re-releasing the Blue Rose RPG using the AGE rules engine, and funding it via a kickstarter. So it seemed like a good time to repost the first part of my review. The rest of the review will continue in May after I get back from my hike.

This is going to be a multipart review, cause I just couldn't do it all in one sitting...

Blue Rose RPG in some ways is a very typical d20 clone built around a style of romantic fantasy fiction exemplified by writers such as Mercedes Lackey, Diane Duane, Tamora Pierce, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Tanya Huff, just to name a few. Their works usually have a plucky but downtrodden protagonist with an untapped magical potential, an animal/spirit/magical companion, some true friends, and usually (by the end) love. When well done, it can make for great reading, especially when you’re 14 years old. I’m personally a big fan of Lackey’s earlier books like the The Last Herald-Mage trilogy, By The Sword, and the Mage Wars trilogy, though it’s been well over a decade since I read any of them, and the last Valdemar book I read… well, it just wasn't good.

If you've ever played a d20 game, just about everything mechanically should feel pretty familiar. Apparently this was Green Ronin’s initial True20 product. What probably will feel very different from most other d20 games is the level to which the campaign setting is the star of the show. This isn’t something I've encountered very often, except in core books for licensed games like B5, Star Trek, or Star Wars. In Blue Rose, it’s not only the main focus, it steals the show.

When you have something as well written as B5, Firefly, or other finely crafted media this usually works out pretty well. You want your game to feel like the source material. That's the whole point. Plus by the time the game’s been written, there’s already a base level of knowledge about the setting that anyone who’s picking up the game probably already has.

Blue Rose’s technique wasn't to draw on a single source, like the Valdemar series or the Song of the Lioness series, but to make the most generic pastiche of every romantic fantasy series ever written...

I could even forgive the generic... Looking at a lot of other RPGs out there, they’re pretty generic too. D&D for example. GURPS, by definition is generic. Rifts is kind of bat-shit insane with the kitchen sink, but still fairly generic until you really start tinkering under the hood. Drop jedi, and Star Wars becomes really generic too.

The main problem with the generic world building that Blue Rose decided to use? It’s sooooo boring. Boring is a bad descriptor though so what do I mean by it? There isn't any aspect of the setting that I would be inclined to include in my own home game. For example, the main action of the game takes place in Aldus, a noble land, ruled by the good Queen Jaellin with assistance from her advisory councils. The realm is protected by the Sovereign's Finest (police), the Sovereign's Guard (small army), the Knights of the Blue Rose (elite army), and the Spirit Dancers (arcane). The game strongly suggests that PCs be members of an established organization, and these groups are recommended. That's all fine, a bit boring but fine. Sounds a lot like Cormyr from the Forgotten Realms. It's been done.

The main threats to Aldis are Unscrupulous Merchants, Fallen Nobles, Bandits and Pirates, The Silence (mob), Shadow Cults, Shadow Dancers (corrupted arcane), The Unending Circle (cultists), Arcane Relics, Shadowgates, and Sorcery. This list is in the order it's presented in the book, and yes, Unscrupulous Merchants really are listed first. As someone with an accounting/auditing background, I can certainly see how those with financial power could threaten a nation, but does that really make for a good RPG? Bankers and Robber Barons the RPG anyone?

A note about Nobles - anyone can be a noble, as long as the ruler uses her magical Blue Rose scepter to determine that the person who wants to be noble detects as Good. Also, anyone can be the ruler. When the current king/queen dies, a magical stag picks the next one. Makes strange women lying on their backs in ponds handing out swords seem a little more normal, doesn't it?

The other thing about the setting that bugs me is the heavy handed egalitarianism of it.

"The Kingdom of the Blue Rose makes certain all children receive a basic education"

"Aldins accept marriages between two or more legal adults, regardless of the sexes involved. Many Aldins expect everyone to marry. Once they figure out the types of people their single friends are attracted to, they become thoughtful, polite, but exceedingly determined matchmakers."

"Aldis's justice system is primarily concerned with restoring the social harmony a crime disrupts, not punishing the guilty."

"Murderers and other violent criminals are usually confined while they undergo counseling. They are only released when they have subdued their violent urges."
This is an amazingly enlightened society, given that it's neighboring states are a patriarchal theocracy, an evil sorcerer lich, and various clans of (noble) barbarians. It can probably be explained, in part, due to the prevalence of  magic in the kingdom. However, it still comes off as Kevin Sorbo's Hercules level of politically correct utopianism.

One of the things that makes RPGs (and stories, movies, books, etc.) interesting is conflict. Even better when it's interesting conflict. The kingdom of the Blue Rose seems spectacularly designed to prevent any such conflict from actually happening. It feels really odd for a game based on Dungeons and Dragons.

Beyond the world building, I found Blue Rose to have a writing and organizational problem. The prose is overly verbose and details are kept hidden. As an example, there is no timeline, just 10 pages of world history that you have to read through to get even a basic understanding. While I understand that the authors want you to really get their setting, it makes it harder to just pick up the book and run a game with it.

Information isn't necessarily well organized either. For example, the arcana effects for the cursed swamp is near the beginning of the book in the setting section, rather than in the arcana chapter. Since it's a sidebar anyway, wouldn't it make more sense to have the mechanical stuff (crunch) in the chapter with the other related crunch, rather then in the fluff?

I feel a little bad criticizing the fiction writing included, since I do the same thing on a lot of my blog posts. The thing is, it isn't any better than my writing, and it should be.

Next post will focus on the races of the Blue Rose RPG and looks at how it could have been done better, using Valdemar as an example.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Great and Powerful A to Z Theme Reveal!

As for the last several years I am participating in the April A to Z challenge. Extra challenging this year, since I'm going to be away from the internet for most of it. Luckily for you, I've already written most of the posts, and will wrap up the rest before I go offline.

But what are my posts going to be about? Well, I took Michael Curtis' Dungeon Alphabet, rolled on each of the charts, wrote a bit about each, and made a matching map.

I hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hitting The Trail

Last summer I made a 5 day 90+ mile backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland, going from the PA line down to Haper’s Ferry and back, and I wrote about it here.

Well, I’m hitting the trail again. In a couple of weeks, I’ll once again start at the PA MD line, but this time I’ll be heading north through Pennsylvania. I’m taking 14 days to cover 230 or so miles, for an average pace of about 16 miles/day, which is actually slightly less than I was covering last time.

I’m still in the process of sorting out what I’m going to bring with me. I know my pack is going to be heavier. More food for one thing. But the basic list will be the same. One thing I have to consider is the weather. Since I’ll be going in April, it’s going to be cooler. I probably won’t have to deal with snow or ice, but it’ll still probably get down to 40 or so at night, and can get pretty warm during the day. Keeping that in mind I picked up a couple of things that I didn't have last time.

First up is a new hat. My usual headgear is a Orioles baseball cap which was once black, and is now a brownish grey. To replace it, I ordered a 4 Panel Large Bill Flap Hat. It might be a bit overkill, and certainly looks pretty dorky, but if I end up getting a lot of sun and/or rain, I think I’ll appreciate having it.

I also picked up some new convertible pants that have removable legs. I only wore shorts last time, but I figure there’s a good chance I might want actual pants at some point on the trip.

About food… That’s harder to figure out. I’ll be bringing plenty of GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts), oatmeal, instant coffee… I’m not sure what I want to do about hot dinner type foods, or if I even want to bother. Some pasta with olive oil and seasoning might be a good option? We'll see.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Saying Nope to Yet Another Adventure! 5e WNW

Session 9 of the weird new world campaign was played on Friday 2/20

The party consisted of the following:
Verdt, 1/2 Elf Wizard 3 (John)
Nessendra, Wood Elf Cleric 3 (Erindale)
Kethra, Human Fighter 3 (Nikki)
Bach, Dragonborn Warlock 3 (Erik)
Riia, Human Ranger 3 (Hanna)
Guy Noir, ½ Elf Rogue 2 (Nadia)
Anya Bowen, Tiefling Ranger 2 [Allison (Absent)]

Now that the giant skeletons are out of the way, the party members have the leisure to actually look around the Temple. Bach peers under the propped open door to check for Blightfang’s presence, of which he finds none. Kethra acquires herself a nice thigh bone from one of the massive skeletons for her use as a handy club. Meanwhile, Guy notices two tracks trailing behind the center statue, and entices one of the others to push it open with the assurance that all is trap-free. The statue glides smoothly across it’s tracks, revealing a dark stairway leading downward beneath it. The scent of stagnant water and damp dirt are the only things to greet them. Grabbing a large rock, Nessendra imbues it with light and tosses it in. It’s trip down the stone steps are unhindered, and they hear it hit dirt eventually, but all are still reserved about going down.

All but Bach, that is! After realizing that there is somewhere dark and fearful in the vicinity, he charges down, Verdt sending dancing lights chasing after him. The rest of the party follows a bit more cautiously, and getting to the end, they come to a long hallway going off into yet more darkness. Walking along, Guy notices strange square gold pieces sporadically littering the ground. Money laying around so free and accessible? He decides to pocket them whenever they appear; Kethra, unbeknownst to him, making a mental note each time. They come to a door off the side, but still wondering what lay ahead, Bach kicks the glowing rock which flies to the end of the hall where there lies a second stairway down. They decide to go into the side room first. Bach kicks it, and manages to break a toe. However, it does seem to loosen the door. Lifting the door with ease, Kethra props it open with her bone club. Inside, there are bejeweled carvings of the same creatures they fought upstairs along the walls, as well as a stone sarcophagus in the center of the room. Guy is the first to venture in, making his way straight to the jeweled eyes of the creatures, and begins prying them from the walls with his dagger. Nessendra, not wanting to be around such sacrilege, walks off to investigate the second stairway. The group searches the stone sarcophagus and finds some non magical items bearing the mark of an evil god.

Moving on, they venture down the next stairway, arriving in a large room with a long scum covered pool of water. Skulls bobb up as they get closer, but only seem to want to watch them. The party also hears something like a rhythmic chanting far off through a doorway on the opposite wall. Thoroughly creeped out, the party decides it would be best to leave now, before terrible things happen. Just as they all turn to leave, though, Guy is overwhelmed by curiosity and dashes towards the doorway, peering through. More stairs down. Telling the others that he’s just going to have a peek, he sneaks his way down quite a ways until he find himself on a black sand beach looking out on a dark lake, a lit pyramid far off in the distance. The others, hearing no screams of pain, make their way down the stairs to said beach. The chanting has become loud and reverberating down here. There are definitely some super baritones in the group. They also notice a boat floating a little ways off, and a large stone to their right with a glyph carved into it. Verdt tries to read the symbol, but only manages to get a bit nauseous. Bach, trying his hand at it, has an altogether different reaction. A thought drifts into his mind, and he suddenly desires nothing more than to rip the heart from his nearest companion and take it to the temple for sacrifice. The others hear him begin to chant in rhythm with the ones off in the distance. Turning, they see his eyes have turned black and menacing as he evokes his energy blade.

Riia thinks quick, binding him with her vine spell, and Guy conks him on the head with the pommel of his rapier. Luckily, that was all it took to bring him round. Making sure Bach is really back to normal, Riia unbinds him and covers up the glyph. Their nerve wavering, they switch their attention back to the boat. Guy uses his mage hand to tie a rope to it, and while Kethra pulls it taut, he climbs his way over to it. The boat is empty except for a burning candle. He jumps in. Runes along its sides light up, and it lurches suddenly as it begins to glide out towards the pyramid. Barely holding in a fearful squeal, Guy jumps out and splashes back to shore. They look on as the boat slowly drifts to a stop.
Looking at each other and nodding, they decide that’s enough creepy stuff for one day. It’s time to go. They speed walk out of there lickady-split, rolling the statue back into place, wedging a stone in the rails, and removing the stone block from the front door to close it after they’re back outside. They then set off for town again, getting as far away as possible before setting up camp for the night. They do the regular watch times with two people each two hour period. During the third watch, Kethra hears something moving in the distance and yells a warning. A few of the party members awaken. Nessendra, Verdt, and Guy, alert and listening for anything else. Three ghouls come into view, and Kethra shouts out a war cry as they run towards each other. The three awakened members join in; shooting magic and stabbing with swords. The sounds of fighting finally wake Riia and Bach. Bach, having dozed off on watch, jolts awake with a loud snort, shakes off the sleep and gets in there, shooting an agonizing blast so powerful the targeted ghoul explodes! Riia, still half asleep, sort of fumbles around for her swords, her feet getting tangled up in her blankets. And Anya, that lazy girl, acts as if she’s not even there! The party kills the remaining ghouls off quickly; Riia, running out and at the ready just as the others are cleaning themselves up.

They decide to set off again since it’s nearly morning, confidence bubbling over from their easy win. Guy, a little more affected by the lack of sleep than the others, sneaks a nap on Kethra’s pack; her wondering why it had gotten slightly heavier than she remembered. Marching along, a rustling in the branches above make them look up. A giant spider is leaping down at them! It falls directly on Verdt, stabbing him with it’s poisonous pincers. Verdt is down. The remaining party members attack with full force! Even Nessendra brandishes her weapon, knowing it would be unwise to help Verdt while a giant spider remains on top of him. Even so, she is the second to get hit and downed! Their healer incapacitated, the others fight more feverously and finally kill the overgrown arachnid.

Whew! What’s next for our heroes? Another feel-good romp with some wildlife? When is that next full moon, anyways? Will they actually ever finish a planned quest? We’ll find out next time on~ Weird! New! World~~~!!!

Guest post by Nadia aka Guy Noir