[Off Topic] Recommendations, inter alia

[30/08/2016 21:01:07] Von: (I am currently Low on Cash and do not need to be thinking about Chaos Space Marines)
[30/08/2016 21:01:27] Von: (hell I don’t even know how to plan and manage a 40K army any more, what with all these Formations and Allies and shit)
[30/08/2016 21:01:54] Prince Charles: YOU DO NOT NEED MORE CHOAS MARINES
[30/08/2016 21:03:12] Von: YOU ARE QUITE CORRECT IN THIS
[30/08/2016 21:03:26] Prince Charles: VON
[30/08/2016 21:03:30] Prince Charles: YOU HAVE PLENTY OF SHIT
[30/08/2016 21:03:42] Prince Charles: PRIORITISE
[30/08/2016 21:03:49] Von: I KNOW RIGHT
[30/08/2016 21:03:54] Von: PRIORITIES ARE A THING
[30/08/2016 21:04:08] Von: that fucking Mammoth is sitting there waiting for me to Google ‘elephant toenails’

I don’t know where this whiff of interest in the Grimdark has come from again. Must be the Stars aligning or summat: I was in the right mood to reread the Night Lords Omnibus, replay a bit of Dawn of War II, and idly look at the Start Collecting Chaos Space Marines box and wonder if that and a bunch of Night Lords helmets off Forge World (the skull ones, not the stupid bat-wing ones) were a viable acquisition. I also binge read a few blogs.

(By the way, Jimmy, your Eldar army looked lovely, and I’m sorry for all the egotistical and derailing responses to your posts; upon rereading them now I am struck by a sense of wisdom, and a frequent “oh, I should have said this, instead of gabbling on about things I already understood”.)

This is the perfect opportunity for me to raise a glass to A Gentleman’s Ones, and to recommend – besides his excellent army logs and game reports for the Arrugginiti and Onorevoli Chapters – this post on inverting colour schemes and this one on bases and their power to unite disparate elements within a miniature or collection. As the man himself might say – glorious.

While I’m feeling recommendative (silence! it’s a perfectly cromulent word!), I should also like to draw attention to Gardens of Hecate, where work is put into that most neglected and ill-considered aspect of the wargame: terrain.

In conversation with Hawk Dave a couple of weeks ago (oh, the namedropping!) the great man happened to mention what a shame he thought it was that people didn’t spend model prices on terrain features. The reasons I detect behind this inarguable tendency are numerous. As Dave himself says, it’s not something you can actually play with. Adding something to an army feels more fulfilling.

I would add that terrain often has to be generic – it’s kept to the hills and woods level because that’ll work with damn near everything. When something like the Killzone tournament comes along, someone like Brian emerges to curate specific terrain for that specific environment – the rest of the time, what we generally want to curate is something that works with everything.

It’s an odd reversal of the trend toward the branded and proprietary that we see with miniatures and rules – and I think terrain has held out against that because, frankly, it’s something we had to do ourselves for the longest time, and so it’s taking longer for the Bought Kit to replace Termite Art as the standard practice.

I have a box of ‘scale’ hills and rivers that I should finish at some point. They’re huge. Tall enough to award elevation within WM/H, and broad enough that they aren’t dwarfed by the buildings, trees and some of the models on the table. Given that my kitchen table is a trifling 4′ x 3′, they almost dwarf the table; they imply something massive just off the edge, which is how I feel hills ought to work in the 25-32mm scale of my preferred wargames.

There’s another blog I wanted to recommend, but its name escapes me. It’s not Haute Macabre, but it’s something that feels like that: something arty and strange and a bit pretentious. The authors do a lot of kitbashing, play a lot of Mordheim, and carve out their own eloquent and erudite take on the shared universes of the Workshop. For the life of me I can’t remember what it’s called. That’s annoying.

Currently Playing… a spot of Dawn of War II and that’s honestly about it. I’m feeling a bit flighty right now. I ‘should’ be giving WoW a roll since Legion’s out now, but in honesty, I can’t be arsed. I have no intention of being sucked into the serpent’s coils again. It can wait. It can wait until it’s bloody well working properly, for one thing.

want to play some Black Crusade. It’s coming to the point where I might put up some sort of notice in the ‘Model Centre’ in town – it’s been a year, they’re still selling GW kits, it can’t be a total flash in the pan.

Currently Modelling…

A Scourge starter set for Dropzone Commander. I scored a bargain on the Facebook group immediately before taking a short break from Facebook (I realised I’d spent the best part of a day mindlessly scrolling up and down instead of doing anything worthwhile, and that I couldn’t focus for thirty seconds without popping open a new tab for the blue and white god: that’s an addiction profile if ever I saw one, and I’m not having that). There’s a set of command cards, which I’ve opened and sleeved, and a second starter force, which I’ve decided to sell rather than overloading on bread and butter at the expense of the full dining experience offered by the Scourge range.

I’m also painting the Mammoth. Finally. The armour is done, the skin is done, and some of the metal has received its basecoat, with metallic ink to follow. It stalled slightly while I thought about how I would be painting ropes (of which there are many), nails and  tusks (which are prominent) and the howdah (which is a significant detail). I’m still not sure about the ropes. Purple is technically my spot colour and is thus far absent from the figure, but I’m worried about it detracting from the gun barrels and fists. The nails and tusks are going to look suspiciously similar to the armour, but I think I can treat it like I do the skin on the infantry, i.e. worth a layer of Actual Paint besides the lazy man’s “slap ink on everything” that deals with the rest of the model.

Currently Listening To… the Sucker Punch soundtrack. Say what you like about that film, there’s a bangin’ set of tunes on it. This one’s my favourite.

[Off Topic] Currently…

Currently PonderingEmergence vs. Determinism, although not in the usual “railroading r bad and u r bad for doin it” sense. It’s more to do with how the process of designing and ‘solving’ encounters works. Perhaps “Imagineer vs. Prepper” might be a better dichotomy.

Every so often Ben (co-host of that podcast I pretended to do for a while) pops up to ask for my perspective on a strategic or tactical choice that’s emerged in his Star Wars play-by-forum game, and I’m always flabberghasted by the amount of detail – if-this-then-that-ah-but-what-if-this that he presents in these scenarios. It’s not a PbP thing either – he’s the same in tabletop, he seems to think that he needs an elaborate map of his Brujah’s haven and a series of boltholes established all over the city.

Jaro, the DM of my intermittent Roll20 game, is the same – he’s a nice bloke but asking for exact rules on composition, cost and storage of bullets made me raise an eyebrow or two. In Jaro’s  case there’s an element of damage by a dick-move DM who once had an entire party die of exposure because nobody had said they were wearing clothes (this is a dick move because they were in mid-adventure when he dropped this bombshell). Jaro is something of an enthusiast for precision and adherence to rulebook and sourcebook, I think because he wants insulation from this sort of cockbothering behaviour, but it makes for some friction between us since I am definitely not inclined to the “gotcha” nor to the elaborate and intricate modelling of situations.

What I am about is a sketchier kind of gameplay where the fun is not in solving an elaborate situation with detailed resources and forward planning, but in making shit up as you go along. If there needs to be a chandelier for someone to swing off, there will be a chandelier (although dice must be rolled for swinging and the results of the roll are binding). If there needs to be an escape route it will be there when someone looks for it, if they look for it in a plausible place and if  they roll well on some sort of “can you find it in time” check.

This applies whether I’m playing or running the game. If I’m playing… well, the 5e game has now settled down into a predictable and well-oiled machine where I come up with a bare-bones plan which will work and leaves room to improvise, Charles overcomplicates it with needless flourishes and excessive moving parts which nevertheless impress Jaro into letting us get away with it, and we both have to bully Arianna into taking any sort of risk when executing the plan.

(Sidenote: Look, if you roll a rogue you have to accept that you’ll be sent on dangerous sneaky solo stuff, it’s the law, if you wanted to stay at the back and be safe you should have bagged the coveted Cleric/Mage slot and then I’d have been slavishly defending you and not Charles, and yes, I know you’re reading this, Ari, because you hang on my every golden word.)

I suspect this sort of thing has come to my attention because I’ve been playing a lot of single-player CRPGs lately, and those are all about picking your way through a predetermined encounter or chain of quests that trigger in a particular order. I generally suck at this since I’m used to muddling through and improvising, not having to talk to that guy to get that objective before I do this thing so I can actually get XP and phat lewtz and so on. I am getting better at it, but I still occasionally think “can I not just come out with my hands up, spin a plausible yarn about being attacked by four big lads with guns, and coming off best in the shoot-out because I’m brilliant, and then Dementate their disbelief away?”

Currently Playing: Besides occasional sessions of 5e or LotFP on the Intertrons, I am mostly playing Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines. I tried this for about five minutes back in the day (real time, strike one! FPS/action controls, strike two! likelihood of accidentally punching a hooker, breaching the Mass-Charade and getting shot in the cobblers, strike three!) but, like Planescape, I’ve reappraised it after a few years away. Buying one of those Razr game controller things (so that I didn’t wear out one half of my expensive split ergonomic keyboard, which I bought so that I didn’t wear out my ailing wrists while typing several thousand words a week for work) has helped me learn how to FPS even as it’s made my MMO-ing suffer and contributed to a drop-off in Warcraftery.

Bloodlines is fun, in a very oWoD kind of way – it feels like a sort of farewell tour of all the wacky shit which was due to disappear when Time of Judgement came out, and if approached in that style it’s not bad. Sadly, the game does indulge in the Major Sins of front-loading, reducing interactivity while NPCs show off in cutscenes, and including arbitrary combats which show up the limitations of my social-build Tremere, but… well, it’s oWoD.

(ETA: This is the sort of business decision which only makes sense if you’re White Wolf. You’re in the process of wrapping up your old game line and launching a whole new universe, and you make your tie-in video game a valedictory salute to the old rather than a launch platform for the new world with its new concepts, encouraging crossover and buy-in. It’s almost as bad as making a mechanistic nerdy-boy game with no particular focus while paranormal romance is ruling the roost, or taking the makers of a major motion picture based on a short story within your setting to court instead of using the buzz to republish and revamp said material. Essentially, you are spectacularly dumb and you deserve to go out of business within the decade.)

I am playing the GOG.com version with the extensive fan patch that actually makes it playable. I am also playing a Malkavian who thinks he’s a ninja (with a katana and a six dot Melee pool he is not entirely wrong about this, and shafting Sabbat thugs up the arse from Obfuscated safety has yet to get old) and a Tremere lounge singer (shagging her way through most encounters and heavily reliant on Disciplines in a scrap). I experimented, briefly, with a Ventrue dominatrix and a Nosferatu eco-terrorist hacker, but the Ventrue was a bit dull and the Nosferatu is definitely hard mode for someone not accustomed to first-person stealth-em-up. If this lot were all in the same party it’d be ‘perfect’ Classic WoD.

Incidentally, while the other V:tM game was very faithful in its adoption of Disciplines but introduced some overly granular percentile bollocks for stats and had an awful level-by-dots feeding/healing/buffing mechanic, this one keeps the elegance of the dot-based system (streamlining it with fewer dots and more defined combinations) and does good things with Disciplines. Streamlining Auspex, Presence, Obfuscate and so on as per the physical Disciplines and eliminating the action economy horrors  of Celerity (as far as I can tell, having not gotten to use it yet) is a good idea. I’ll have to try it in the tabletop game at some point. Hacking White Wolf’s excessive mechanisation = good call.

Currently Reading: The Prince (the treatise by Machiavelli, not the Netherese review/antiSocJus blogger/belch-vector, although I’m reading his blog too). Rob Kuntz was surprised that I could manage to write decent Renaissance-esque intrigue settings without having read The Prince and I’ve been meaning to make good on this for a while now. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (decently accessible social history, conveniently attuned to the needs of a modern reader who wants to understand the difference between Now and Then, possibly recommended reading for twenty-first century gamer-prats). The first four Discworld books (yes, again), although I’m currently on a reduced-fiction diet as I have bought quite a lot of non-fiction (Spinoza, Castaneda, Bowker’s biography of Orwell, the rest of Padel’s poetry essays, and a collection of excerpted Brecht) and had it sitting there for months.

Currently HobbyingI bought a job lot of cultists, demons, villains, zombies etc.  from Heresy Miniatures (they have a sale on until the end of July, buy now, beat the rush, help Andy recover from honourable Dragon-related fiscal suicide). These will be making up a Blood Bowl team/rounding out a Frostgrave warband/providing something for my Otherworld adventurers to slap around in RPGs. I was working on a new wargaming table but space seems to be at a premium these days and that one may have to go the way of the dodo. I realise that I barely wargame at all these days, which has checked my hand every time I consider giving Frostgrave or SAGA a proper poke. Insert gripe about how I am old and tired and hate learning new rules, too.

Currently Smoking: Poles.

[Off Topic] Terry Pratchett, OBE: 28 April 1948 – 12 March 2015

“Terry Pratchett’s died.”

That’s not the sort of thing you just walk into a room and say to someone. It simply isn’t cricket. That’s the sort of thing you break to someone gently, over a cup of tea, something you take your time over and think about. It’s not an everyday sort of announcement, nor an everyday sort of news.

When just a wee lad, left to my own devices in the library as often as not, I was interested King Arthur and dragons and all that malarkey, but not in what you could call fantasy as such. Not original fiction about that sort of thing, written by people who’d lived within the twentieth century. Not, until the day when my bleary little eyes alighted on this gaudy-looking paperback with a dragon on the front and some startlingly-drawn chaps in dodgy-looking armour attempting to do harm upon it. Guards! Guards! was where it started.

The first fantasy novel led to a lifelong fascination with the genre, fed into an interest in fantasy play and fantasy games, and into a fascination with writing. When I came to write my own material – prose and resources for games and, to the chagrin of a dozen hard-working pedagogues, essays – and to frame my own characters and worlds and perceptions, they were invariably formed by this body of work that I’d read upside down and inside out over the years. Before Pratchett I’d wanted to do all sorts of things when I grew up; after Pratchett I wanted to be A Writer. More than that, I wanted to be a particular kind of Writer – the kind who uses words like ’embuggerance’ and still manages to make a point.

It feels trite and selfish to say “well, the subject of this tribute was a huge influence on me” and then talk about oneself line after line, so allow me to scrabble for redemption and say that I’m not the only one. A generation of young readers cut their teeth on Discworld, watched Johnny and the Dead on the telly, played spot-the-author with a worn copy of Good Omens – you get the idea. Not until a former teacher from Gloucestershire wrote a Bildungsroman about a speccy kid at magical boarding school did anyone come close to Pratchett’s stature as the genre-defining figure in British young adult fantasy.

Pratchett defined fantasy and comedy and bloody good prose to the boy who would be Von and to thousands like him, but he defined activism too – at least, a particular kind of critical activism. His novels are hysterically funny, of course, but there isn’t a single Discworld that doesn’t have a steely grey eyebrow raised at something foolish or barbarous. Pratchett’s books lay the absurdity of the world bare – and absurdity isn’t just funny, it’s also dangerous and stupid and demands to be pointed out, ridiculed, understood and prevented. Look at something like Wyrd Sisters, which is a funny story about witches and the excesses of theatre, with a rather serious point about the upbringing of children and about the arts as propaganda. Look at something like Making Money – you have to sell a lot of snake oil just to get people believing in currency and exchange, never mind reinventing them and getting people to accept that this piece of paper is innately valuable – and yet ideas like used stamps being worth what it says on the front and pins being highly collectible take off without your trying.

You can’t go around saying things like “Pratchett holds a mirror up to life” because that’s simply not enough; Pratchett lays life out on the slab, slices it open with a flash of stainless razor wit, and has a good poke around inside, showing us where the cankers are, making daft remarks about sausages, laughing at words like ‘spleen’ and ‘pancreas’ – and then the blade twists again and there’s a lump of something black and rotten on the end of it. A-haaa, you say, in your finest Tom Baker tones: there it is. And he does it all without being righteous or bland or preachy, without ever telling you that you can’t say or think or do a given thing – Pratchett can call you an idiot to your face and have you laughing as he does it. What Pratchett really does… did… is excise and excite human nature. Everything else is ironmongery – but it’s brilliant, ornate, detailed, charming ironmongery, with sniggering orang-outangs peeking out of the pattern, done by someone with a name like Calumny Jones.

I would be delighted if my children and grandchildren are taught to talk about Pratchett in the same breath as Dickens, and with the same reverence for wit and whimsy and the same phrase for What It’s All About – the Condition of England. I would be even more delighted if they enjoy him as much as I have.

Rest in peace.

[OSR D&D] Actual Play Report – Social Justice Warriors vs. Castle Ravenloft, Session 3

“I’m dead, aren’t I?”

“You’ve fallen a hundred and thirty feet. You tell me.”

So, when last we left off, Anura (Hark’s Paladin) and Svinish Ingmov (Erin’s Cleric/Thief) were parked in Strahd’s dining room and had flung abuse (and a chicken leg) at the “it’s all done with mirrors” Strahd, provoking his ire and pitching all things into stormy darkness. Unbeknownst to them, the spectre of the powerful evil cleric from the Chapel was still active, and would return after five hours to deliver its deadly screech at an inopportune moment.

They pressed on, huddled in the Continual Light from Svinish’s enchanted garlic clove, and Anura found the fake organ pipe that led into the passage around the outside wall. (Incidentally, the rather uninspiring “there is a secret door here” required a certain amount of dressing up – I would have preferred this to be more detailed since, again, if I’m lazy enough to run a module I’m lazy enough to not make up my own secret door mechanisms.)

Five Strahd Zombies awaited them in the tower floor at the far end; Anura successfully Turned them into hiding long enough for the party to proceed around the corner and fight a rearguard action. The zombies were overcome in a rather cramped combat where Anura took something of a beating and Ismar was guided to step in and finish things off. The Strahd zombies’ dismembered body parts were a nice touch, and much was made of severed hands, orphaned legs and slithering viscera; this really seemed to have some impact on Erin, who made eliminating these atrocities something of a priority in Svinish’s turns.

(At this level, combats feel like they take too long, with high HP totals being thwapped to and fro. Descriptive fatigue began to set in and after the fourth or so go, the turns were boiling down to “I roll to hit, I roll damage” in an effort to get this random encounter out of the way. Part of it, as Erin noted in our after-action review, was the number of cramped corridor fights; one feels like the fights should be happening in places like Strahd’s dining room where there’s more scenery to play off. I don’t know if this is a weakness of my bad self as a DM, if I should be putting more interactables in corridors a la Diablo III where walls can be crashed down and dubious-quality floors broken in, but again, that feels like work that a module should be doing in and of itself… am I missing the point of modules entirely or something?)

The party ascended the staircase on the bottom right corner of the dining room and found themselves on the ramparts, breaking into Strahd’s cloakroom when they found the window thereto and making a big damn deal out of setting light to his cloaks and evening dress (presumably because they found him to be an insufferable poseur). When they proceeded through to Strahd’s boudoir they found Gertrude, snapped her out of her fairytale illusions with Svinish’s claim that “you think you’re the first? Eighteen other girls, babe, eighteen other girls” making her decide that she didn’t want to be in Bluebeard, and demanded that she lead them to the study, i.e. the room next door, i.e. the room where Strahd himself was lurking, invisible and aloft, alerted by the crashing of windows, the smell of smoke from his dressing room, and the noise of Svinish being oratorical.

This wasn’t the easiest thing for me to administer, since Strahd had Svinish Charmed and his stated objective was to capture Ireena, who was being kept safe in the middle of the party. In the end I had him drop onto the top of them as they entered the room proper, and abuse the surprise round and his superior vampire speed to yank her into the ‘Miss Havisham’ dining room next door, Hold Portal on the door and leave them giving chase the long way round, finding the steel door leading to the back stairs up to the next level Held by the time they got there.

Restraining Ismar for as long as they could, the players ransacked Strahd’s study and eventually found their way into the false treasury behind the fireplace. Svinish opened the chest and with a hiss of gas, the unfortunate and increasingly ineffective NPC Cleric Donavich passed out for the next four hours. The party left Gertrude to keep an eye on him and returned to the steel door (now un-Held).

The corridor beyond held another corridor fight with the two wraiths, and this is where I began to regret my “I’ll give you some extra levels since you’re only two characters” choice at the start of play. At the very least I should have stayed within the upper end of the module’s original threshold – two level sevens with a magic item each would have had a much less awkward/boring/player-frustrating fight here, with their Turns strong enough to pin the wraiths in their alcoves and the fight itself amounting to an exercise in punching fog, since there was so little to do in a cross-shaped otherwise-empty corridor. Ismar, who was in the lead and still only fourth level, lost all his levels in a single blow and perished, while Svinish lost a level in Thief from a hit during the first round before he had Shillelagh up and cast.

There followed some discussion over what to do with Ismar’s body, since nobody wanted him coming back as a vengeful undead wossname (good job too since Strahd had that Animate Dead burning a hole in his spell list), and eventually they shut him in the chest in the fake treasury, spending some time staring at the dead guy and the torches, certain that there was something they should be doing but not twigging what it needed to be. In the end they took both the torches and proceeded up the stairs beyond the steel door, where they encountered…

… Leif, the Count’s Accountant! Deploying all the oily charm and Charisma at their disposal, they convinced Leif to show them into the King’s Chamber, wherein were kept the Sunsword and the Holy Symbol of Ravenloft both. Anura’s cursed +1 sword of genericness fused with the Sunsword to create, well, a sword of Strahd-murdering, and Svinish claimed the Holy Symbol. (If the players hadn’t both been kinda pissed at D&D combat I’d have had a random encounter here for them to test out their new toys and pose them a major challenge, but that wraith fight seemed to have left a bad taste in their mouths. Perhaps that evil cleric spectre should have showed up again…)

There then followed some… confused… exploration. My notes on this part are a bit scanty, but I recall a lot of trawling through corridors, finding the deep deep shaft through which the ‘elevator’ trap operates, and Erin trying to climb down it, botching the roll and technically sending Svinish to his doom.

Here follows a lengthy discussion of good DMing practice ‘twixt myself and Erin, in which I explain that this sort of “you did something dumb and now you reroll and start over” play is meant to be part of the game’s charm. Erin was not convinced, or perhaps not entirely clear on why this was a good thing – it wasn’t a death that served any particular dramatic or narrative purpose, and she’d done the stupid thing because she had no idea what else to do with this room, no dungeoneering experience to draw on. Now, building up that experience through repeated character deaths is again, part of the game, and I wonder if we shouldn’t have started out as lowbies and learned those lessons instead of engaging with this module that has a kind of narrative shape to it. At least one of the authors was implicated in Dragonlance, allegedly the true birth of story-gaming, and it’s true that Ravenloft feels at times like something that’s not meant to work as a deathtrap dungeon in the old school sense. You’re meant to get through it and uncover Strahd and once you’re in there it feels a bit contrived to just… have a new PC turn up out of nowhere. I know that’s how old school works, but Ravenloft is so concerned with Strahd and his motivations and its own attempts to be rooted in a literary genre that it fosters a different set of expectations and creates a clash between narrative and the pure game.

For the sake of getting through the module I allowed a backsie, which I still feel was in some way the Wrong decision, a compromise of my integrity – but then I’d fudged around Hark’s arbitrary ‘whoops you rolled less than 5% and now you fall through the drawbridge to your death’ death at the beginning too, which I suppose outs me as a storygamer Swine who has no business feeling guilty about ‘proper DM practice’ in the first place. I think the difference here is that a player did something dumb and I have, in the past, stated that ignorance and carelessness are the things that will get characters killed, so it does feel like a betrayal of my principles. I felt, though, that Erin hadn’t engaged with those principles, that we didn’t have the sort of good faith and common understanding that that was how the game worked, and that putting her out of action with this rather self-contained module incomplete would effectively put her out of the game, and leave the implied Gothic novel narrative of Ravenloft with a poor sense of closure. I wonder if that couldn’t be avoided with having each player control more than one character, so that there can be casualties along the way without a player being left out – but the ladies expressed that they definitely didn’t want to do that, so it wasn’t an option.

This is rapidly turning into gamer angst of the sort that I’m trying to get over and give up and avoid. Let’s just admit that I’m a storygamer and that the reason for Orks is Orks and that all this “but was that Right?” is MUKKIN ABAHT and move on.

At some point during the confused ramble through corridors, with player frustration mounting due to Ravenloft’s no-real-castle-is-like-this internal structure, the party elected to go down the set of stairs through which Strahd had escaped. Hark expressed no desire whatsoever to pass through the guardroom full of mould – “stuff’s going to jump out at us, probably skeletons, we’ll all get poisoned, let’s not” (at least one of us has a sense of old-school dungeon savvy). Instead, the party went on and startled Cyrus. By this stage both players were sick of Ravenloft’s interior bullshit and I was sick of the schizoid module and the further disconnect between the players’ expectations and the provided material and so I did what I always do when I try to run anything By The Book and skipped to something dramatic. Cyrus was startled and fled up the servants’ staircase and ladder into the spires, the party followed, and there was a final confrontation at the top of the 230-foot shaft.

Strahd was there, attempting to put his ‘fluence in Ireena, who had her back to the drop. When she saw the players arrive, she took a dive into the shaft. (Note: for reasons of Making This Thing Interesting I’d made Ireena a Bard rather than a Fighter, which was a mistake and something I’d not do again. She cast Feather Fall on herself as she fell. Now, in another time and place I would have killed Ireena off and let the whole thing stand as a Pyrrhic victory, a no score draw as it were. Doing so would have underlined the futility of Strahd and his curse – no matter what he does his ‘bride’ always ends up plunging to her doom. I sort of regret not doing that but I think it would have been a wasted effort since the ladies were both sick to death of the module and of Strahd by that stage and we all wanted proper closure.)

This ended up as a weirdly bathetic climax, and yet with traces of the epic about it. Anura managed to lose the Sunsword on her first attack, a natural 1 sending it spiralling down the shaft. (I have no idea if that’s actually in the rules but we were already mishmashing OSRIC and 2e and fuck knows what else, and I’ve always had the ‘lowest natural roll is a fumble, highest natural roll is a cric’ house rule in play and I don’t intend to stop now. Von fails at Refereeing yet again.) Hark lost two levels to Strahd’s return attack, but Svinish’s Turn Undead triggered the Holy Symbol‘s sunlight power and pinned him in place long enough for a Call Lightning to mostly fry him and the Shillelagh to batter off his head while Anura rammed the stake-dagger from the first session into his heart, mercifully sparing us the obligation to do another session of catacomb crawling to find his tomb. Another lightning bolt took the roof off the Spires as the party descended to find Ireena alive and well, lowering the drawbridge to admit the mob of peasants roused in the second session. Sergei manifests, is reunited with ‘Ireena’, Ravenloft is reclaimed for the followers of the Raven Goddess and her last surviving cleric, and all is once again well.

Now. Despite this being a mixed bag of a long session which left my DM chops on questionable territory, neither of the ladies hate either my DMing or the game of D&D – they just want some better material next time. Erin even has an interest in taking over the throne once we’ve done a few one-shots to give her an idea of what other rules systems and other, less schizoid games are like (see above point about Ravenloft kind of pulling against itself a lot of the time). The irony of it all is that what Erin is interested in is the kind of political, discursive domain-level play which a) forms the Original Game’s ‘endgame’ and b) is my default setting as a World of Darkness GM, and following the clearance of Castle Ravenloft I can see how that form of play could easily unfold.

With Barovia freed from Count Strahd’s curse and the upper Spires of Ravenloft destroyed, the old monastery can be rededicated and serve as the centre of the PCs’ domain. There’s the small matter of the catacombs themselves left to be cleared, possibly by a group of lowbies so that some proper dungeoneering can be learned. Strahd’s banshee apprentice/lover Patrina could well make an appearance there. Helga, the other named vampire in the module, wasn’t encountered and would be interesting to deploy. There’s a lot that I could do to redeem the experience of Ravenloft, but I think we’re all a bit sick of it and want to move on, find or build something that’s more in tune with itself and with the expectations of these players.

For my part, I feel vaguely unsatisfied, but I’m determined not to brood over it. Posting and writing these reports has served as reflection, but it’s left me with no clear resolution. Rather than sit here being all autistic-persistent and fretting over the same dilemmas I’m turning the conclusion over to you, dear readers. What lessons do you think I should learn from this?

[OSR D&D] Actual Play Report – Social Justice Warriors vs. Castle Ravenloft, Sessions 1 & 2

This is the most female-run D&D ever. We’ve made sure the gypsies were packed off safely, grief-counselled a working-class mother and, for the record, I still think we should fuck off and wait for the army.

In line with my new philosophy of actually playing games and following through on promises and generally being less of a bone-idle turd-burglar, I’ve been running some D&D for Hark and Erin like I promised I’d do two years ago. In fairness we did start but it didn’t really work too well at the time: for this go around I was encouraged not to think too much and just pick something and run it in a finite number of sessions so it could be tried, completed, and a decision made. With that in mind I decided not to invest loads of time and energy in something that might keel over and die, and say to myself “self, you handsome dog, this is exactly the right time to run a module.” Since I’d been reading a lot of Anne Radcliffe at the time I was feeling a bit capital-G Gothic and that meant there was only one choice.

Not that it’s actually anything like Radcliffe. I can read, you know.

Obviously I’ve been buggering around with it, because that’s the way of me, but I’m trying to stick closer the book than is my usual wont. I’ve built two ninth-level PCs, who are sliiiightly too powerful according to the module itself, but that should compensate for the finite number of characters (they didn’t want to control multiple PCs each, you see). To alleviate the numbers issue further I’ve made it clear that recruiting henchpersons from the village of Barovia is par for the course and will be none-too-subtly indicating that both Ismar and Ireena should be going with them. Other than that it’s basically core rules out of OSRIC (a searchable PDF being infinitely preferable to the dodgy scans and retypes of AD&D that are doing the rounds).

Cast:

Anura Toadarov, a Paladin of the Church of St. Thoggua (this is what happens when you let Hark pick her own Paladin mounts), played by Hark. Notable features: +1 Cursed Bastard Sword which doesn’t seem to go away.

Svinnish Ingmov, a Cleric/Thief of same Church, played by Erin. Notable features: CG alignment, a distinct lack of sneaking skills and AC2 Bracers of Protection.S

Continue reading “[OSR D&D] Actual Play Report – Social Justice Warriors vs. Castle Ravenloft, Sessions 1 & 2”

[Off Topic] Outside The Wall

Technically, I do have something game-ish to write about. Quite a few things, actually. There’s some thoughts on my first game with the Retribution infantry, there’s the Mines of Moria table Hark and I are working on, there’s a Gaming Curriculum post for the first time in quite some time. Any and all of these things could have been written, but for once I feel like shivering my way past the prime directive of GAME OVER – this is Von’s blog about games, not Von’s blog about whatever happens to cross his mind on a Wednesday or Sunday morning – and saying a few quick words about something real.

Being me, of course, I can’t come right out and say it, so I’m going to talk about Pink Floyd instead. The Wall is one of my favourite albums and possibly my favourite film. Pompous, relentless and cruel, tragic and cuttingly cynical, it builds up a gifted, fragile central character, shows the slow process by which, as Larkin said, ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’, and in the fucking-up of you ensure that you are good for fucking up your friends, your colleagues and your lovers in turn. It pities the poor suffering rock star and savagely undermines him at the same turn; he’s fucked-up and complicit in his own fucking-up, withdrawing behind a metaphorical Wall built out of every bad thing that’s ever happened to him and cemented with his vindictive fantasies of revenge and self-punishment. And it ends with this faint, sad shadow of a song, only a minute or two long:

All alone, or in twos,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down
Outside the Wall.
Some walk hand in hand
Some gather together in bands
The bleeding hearts, and the artistes,
Make their stand.
And when they’ve given you their all
Some stagger, and fall
After all, it’s not easy
Banging your head against some mad bugger’s Wall.
— 
Pink Floyd, ‘Outside the Wall’

I am painfully aware that this is what it’s like being friends with me sometimes. A lot of the time, actually.

I don’t mean to take refuge in this sort of thing, but it is something that you may or may not know about me; I am not well in the head. In 2008, shortly before I started all this noise and nonsense you’re reading now, I was diagnosed with cyclothymia, which – for those not in the know – is the Diet Coke of bipolar illnesses (it’s not as bad for you as the others but it’ll still rot your teeth in the end). I don’t so much ‘suffer from’ as ‘live with’ the condition, arcing gently back and forth between a ‘keep going forward, don’t get killed’ state of quiet depression, and bouts of ‘I could conquer the world and sex up a million nuns in my head without even needing to get out of bed, now FUCK OFF I’M NOT MAKING THE TEA’ manic energy.

I do know, however, that it’s not easy to live with me, or play games with me for that matter. I am volatile, moody, insecure and prone to throwing time and money at things in a hypomanic fit only to regret it a week later when I’ve coasted back to the state of two-drinks-and-an-hour’s-sleep-under-par self-detesting misery that passes for ‘normal’ around here. The condition is best treated by avoiding intoxicants and sleeping regularly and thinking positively; things which are not exactly compatible with a community of night owls engaged in a practice where luck or ineptitude can result in an experience turning negative oh so quickly.

And yet people do put up with me. People are kind enough to tolerate my constant “yes but why do you want me around when I’m rubbish at everything” prattling, and to ride out the periods when I want to do ALL THE THINGS and invariably overcommit. The thing is, I think, that I don’t behave that differently to anyone else; cyclothymia is classified as a ‘mild’ mental illness (perhaps to the detriment of those so afflicted) and most of the time I can just, well, live with it, get on with the day and not seem any different to other folks. I feel the same feelings as you, respond to the same things as you; I just feel them a little more intensely, respond to them in ways that are a little less logical.

I don’t always remember to thank people, but. Well. Thank you all. Thank you for giving me something to do with myself, something toward which I can direct that surplus energy or drag myself when I can’t be bothered to do anything. Thank you for helping me roll with the punches and encouraging me not to be at the mercy of my misfiring neurons and just give up or bully on through experiences. Thank you for helping me get past the poor choices, which I’m slightly more prone to making than you might be. Thank you for not mentioning the apparent hypocrisies inherent in the mood swings, and for being patient with me when I over- or under-react to things.

Every so often, I pass by a gap in the Wall, and I can see outside. It’s good to know you’re out there. I’m sure you’re not really waiting for me; I’m sure you’re just getting on with your lives; but I do appreciate it when you stop, and reach inside to take my hand for a while.

[GM Advice] Habitat and Habits of the Pripyat Beast

Dr. Shiny gave me a buzz the other day and said:

Can I have some GM advice? I recently ran a Call of Cthulhu game set in Pripyat (with two Pripyat Beasts wandering around). The problem is, with such a large play area, there are too many places to run away and hide, and only so many times the creatures can randomly stumble over the player without it becoming ridiculous after a while. It was a really good game (and I really want to use Pripyat again), but how would you go about plausibly upping the risk of an encounter?

First things first: here’s what he’s on about. Under the cut, ’cause it’s a bit Body Horror.

Continue reading “[GM Advice] Habitat and Habits of the Pripyat Beast”

[Pathfinder] Actual Play: We Be Goblins!

Given the continued intermittence of availability among the Star Wars d20 group, I offered to run through one of the modules I’d picked up for Free RPG Day.  The four players who were available were offered the choice between an improvised Backswords and Bucklers session (hope springs eternal!) or the three modules from my last RPG post.  One vote for DCC, with general agreement that it was an interesting idea but maybe not one to go for today, and four for Pathfinder-based Goblin shenanigans.  Goblins it was then.  What follows is partly a play report and partly my initial musings on Pathfinder now that I’ve played/run it for the first time.

Continue reading “[Pathfinder] Actual Play: We Be Goblins!”

[Off Topic] A Tribute To Hark

It cannot have escaped your notice that I seldom blog about my real life – in fact, I only mention it when it interrupts the blogging process in some way.  There are a variety of reasons for this that go beyond the normal desire to keep spheres of operation separate, chief of which are ‘working in an industry which might have adverse reactions to me saying ‘shitweasel’ on the Internet too often’ and ‘frankly my life is actually quite boring’.

However, this does mean that, on occasion, I don’t give credit where credit is due.  Since today is devoted to uncharacteristic displays of affection, therefore, I give you Hark.

There are not enough words for ‘talented, clever, patient, generous, hilariously funny and drop-dead gorgeous’ in any language, on this world or any other, to quite depict the regard in which I hold this woman.  There certainly isn’t one that can express quite how fortunate it is that we met, nor how constantly amazed I am that we’ve been together for as long as we have and not ended up killing ourselves and several hundred other people like some arts-and-crafts Bonnie and Clyde.

Continue reading “[Off Topic] A Tribute To Hark”