Monday, December 26, 2011

House Rules - Spell Slots

Over at Third Edition House Rules there was a post recently about recalling spells, and I made a comment about my own house spell slots rule.  Rather than respond in the comments section, I am posting a bit of info about my house rule here.

The idea is we turn spell casters into spontaneous casters.  This was mainly to address two issues in our game.  First - to eliminate the time spent in our game selecting spells to take.  We don't get to play often enough and I didn't want to consume any more time for player preparation when ever there was spell recharging.  Second - to have all those interesting spells that infrequently or never get chosen because unless you have very specific information, you just have to choose certain mainstay spells to be successful.  For example, if a low level wizard has to choose between Sleep and Animate Rope, just how often is the latter going to be selected?

I won't post the entire house rule, but I'll summarize bits of it.  There remain requirements for resting, a quiet environment, preparation time and high enough ability level to cast the spell.  Wizards still require a book.  

A spell slot is the capacity to cast any single spell of that level the spell caster bound during the preparation ritual.  The number of spell slots is basically the same as the number of spells a caster can memorize according to the RAW.  A spell caster always has the option to consume a higher-level spell slot with a lower-level spell.  So, for example, a Wizard prepares a spell slot and binds spells from her book in ritual preparation for consuming that slot when a spell of the appropriate level is cast.  Or simply put, one first level spell slot allows you to cast one first level spell.

We also allow more frequent replenishment than RAW, so there are some recent casting limits to prevent taking advantage of the ability to get spells more often.  Unless a spell is permanent, instantaneous or has duration of a full day or greater, spells that a wizard has cast that are still in effect impact her available spell slots. A spell slot is connected to such spells, and if replenished immediately ends or dismisses the active spell upon the completion of the spell slot replenishment ritual. A wizard can choose not to replenish one or more individual spell slots, and therefore keep those spells in effect.

So, in practice, what effect does this have on our game?  If does have the desired effect of reducing in game spell selection time, and it has had the desired effect of enabling more frequent use of what would be otherwise less popular spells.  It does give spell casters a boost in power, and we have given other classes a few house rule changes to share the love.  Using this house rule it is also wise not to make too many Wizard spells available too quickly.  As an experience DM, I find that bumping the challenge rating to address this power increase is not any more difficult than managing challenge ratings given a party's overall capability, size, kind of magic wielded, etc.

As always with house rules, your mileage may vary.  The dice never lie.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas.  I hope you can enjoy it with friends and family.  Thank you all for reading, commenting, and fellow bloggers for their interesting musings.  Best to you all.

Here is a link to an old post of mine, a small attempt at humor.  The Night Before Christmas, D&D blogger style.

And of course, a classic Christmas read - Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus.

May Santa be good to you and fill your stocking full of exquisite game goodies.

Friday, December 23, 2011

NY Times Review of Islay Single Malts

There is a nice short review of Islay Single Match Scotch Whisky brands over at the NY Times
The article makes some interesting observations and facts about the seaside Islay.  This might be useful to you if you are looking for a last minute gift for a 'peat' lover, or are a wanna be peat lover.

I have had the Lagavulin 16 and Bowmore 12 on the top ten list and enjoyed both.  Laphroaig tops the list for value, and appears twice, but I have not had those distills.  I have had the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, and wouldn't recommend it for peat noobs, but it is a must try for peat lovers.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Victorian Shadows update

We concluded my 'one-nighter' Victorian Shadows adventure after two nights, the second of which was a long night.  I must say the fact it took two nights is mostly my fault.  It had been a while since the group had played the game/characters and for the first outing a throw a mystery at them.  The mystery was full of clues as to who abducted good Dr. Talbot and why.  Lots of reasons to suspect everybody in the story, with every character having some flaws and suspicious behaviors. 

When I build a mystery adventure I use a matrix to layout who knows what.  It helps me make sure every NPC has some significant role, it helps me make sure that critical clues are available in multiple places (to avoid a critical clue going unfound), and during play it is a handy reference guide when the players are interacting with NPCs.  It was a significant aid during this adventure.

Perhaps my favorite moments involved a couple of players struggling to determine the significance of the sack of fresh potatoes hidden under the housekeepers bed.  The poor old woman was harvesting what was left of potato crops planted years ago and abandoned, and selling them on the side for a few coin.  They revealed her to Dr. Talbot's son, believing this had something to do with the disappearance of his father.  Sobbing, she confessed to stealing the potatoes and begged for forgiveness and her job.  The son sarcastically applauded the team for solving the great potato crime while his father was still missing.  The look on my players faces was priceless.  When you plant red herrings in an adventure you can only hope they turn out so well.

The entire first evening of play was role playing.  The choices the players made did not take them into any violent conflict.  Regardless of that, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves even though they left the first night quite baffled.

In the end, the party did not quite figure out the mystery but did manage to save Dr. Talbot and prevent the object of the bad guys desires, the notebook of the famous geologist Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu, from falling into their hands.  The finale involved encounters with shadow creatures including six legged wolves, a big foot like monster, and some small bipedal dog creatures and their shark mouthed, four eyed dog companions.  The party fought back with guns (the weapons include a percussion cap 44 caliber six shot revolver, a Spencer carbine, and some other small bore pistols), knives, a crossbow, and some daring and questionable use of dynamite tossed by our resident mad chemist.  So all ended well, even though Dr. Talbot has a bit of restoration work to perform on Alcott Manor.

It was a fun time, and I'll likely be running some more Victorian Shadows soon.  Only this time the adventures will be less complicated and more likely to finish in a night. (ha!) 

Turns out this is my 100th blog post.  Although I am not prolific, this has also been fun, and I thank readers for stopping by and continue to welcome your comments.

The dice never lie.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Marques de Caceres Crianza 2007

With our pot roast dinner tonight I opened a bottle of Marques de Caceres Crianza 2007.  This has long been a go to table wine for me for 'ordinary' meat and potatoes type of food.  This Spanish wine is from the famed Rioja region, which produces many fine Tempranillo blends.  The Crianza designation tells you it has been aged in oak.  The 'black' Tempranillo grape is a staple in Spain, especially the Rioja region.  For some people, a bottle like this defines Spanish wine - red Tempranillo from Rioja.  Although there are many other fine wines in Spain, I find it hard to argue with the classic status of such a wine.

I don't find the nose particularly strong in this bottle.  It is a medium bodied red, with some tannic structure and more acidity.  I taste dark cherry, a bit of mocha, and maybe some hints of spiciness.  This label has produce consistent results over the years so I am rarely concern about picking up a bottle.  There is nothing flashy here, this is a solid, reliable, tasty table wine which can stand up to a nice piece of meat.  A little more rustic and interesting than a typical Merlot.  It seems to benefit from a little breathing so pouring the first glass early is not a bad idea.  If you can't wait, drink away, but you might find the second glass more tasty.  (which is often the case even if not entirely true - go figure)

So in summary, nice reliable table wine worth buying at a price point of about $15, even better if on sale.  Sometimes the Rioja designation drives the price up a few more dollars, which is unfortunate.  Wait for the sale, you'll enjoy it more.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Time to run an alternate adventure: Victorian Shadows

We switched DM duties for the regular D&D game a few months back.  Between the summer vacation schedule conflict, lots of miscellaneous personal schedule conflict, and an apparent lack of enthusiasm for the campaign at its current place by players and DM alike, we have not been playing much.

I am not ready to take over the full time DM reigns again just now but in an effort to keep the creative juices going and the group connected I am going to run a one night, who ever shows up is good, d20 Past game.  A few years ago I developed an environment I called Victorian Shadows.  It is roughly based on the d20 Past Shadow Stalkers framework.  The time and place is the 1870s greater London.  The character level is low (currently 2nd level) using d20 modern character types with limitations of the time period.  The d20 Past is not a bad source book to help you along in a campaign like this, though I don't use it completely RAW.  There are some house rules for hit points which follow a wound/vitality point model, and a few other house rules as well but nothing earth shattering.  The campaign is very low magic, and at this time the players have almost no access to magic while the bad guys have greater access to ritualistic magic.  The good guys are part of a loose and secret alliance called the Legion of Light, and their only goal is to combat shadow which is being encouraged and used to gain power by a different secret alliance know as the New Vision Fellowship.

I have not run one of these games in a couple of years, but usually they are great fun.  There have been lots of dark London foggy nights, strange happenings tied to real historic events, players acting out Victorian era characters speech styles, and heroic low level risk taking to make the whole thing just a joy.

Since I don't know who and how many will show up for an outing I have to be flexible with my adventures.  I make a core adventure but adjust it around depending on the number of characters and their classes.  Monsters are no problem - I have plenty of monster manuals, just pick something out of appropriate level and change the description to fit.  Besides, the most dangerous monsters are the NPCs in the New Vision Fellowship.

The hardest part is fighting my urge to tie all these adventures together.  I love it when plot strings tie out, and bits of information in one adventure become useful in another.  To me that makes the world seem more alive.  However, I must be careful that no information from a previous adventure is needed to solve a problem in the current adventure.  The other challenge is completing each adventure in one evening.  I have to make sure there is just enough adventure, not too much or too little, so it can be solved in one night.  At the end, you just have to be tough with the party, if they have not solved the problem by the time to go home then allow the bad things to happen to the world.  Hopefully they know the DM will do so, and keep the urgency in the play which makes it so exciting. 

I miss running a character, but I also miss playing with my friends overall - so the DM job is not so much a chore, just my second favorite job in the game after running a character. 


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Murder, The Who, digital recordings of vinyl, and how one thing leads to another

It all started on a dark and stormy night....  well, not really.  We have hosted and attended Murder Mystery events for many years now and really enjoy doing so with our close friends.  Who doesn't enjoy solving a murder amidst various characters who themselves have committed murder, mayhem, deceit, and all manner of other heinous and despicable crimes.  We get to do so in the company of friends, eating and imbibing (in the reverse order), puns flying, dressed in character costumes, and house decorated.  This time around we played "The Tragical Mystery Tour".  Part of the ambiance for any good theater is appropriate music.  So I was compiling on the iPod a varied selection of sixties music to fit the theme.  What better music to include in an evening getting ready to climb onto a (imaginary) cross country party bus than The Who's The Magic Bus.  (Yes there is other good music that comes to mind and it was included - but that is not part of this story). 

I don't have the Live At Leeds album on my iTunes, which has my favorite version of The Magic Bus.  My copy of the album is on vinyl.  At this point most folks would have just gone to the iTunes store and bought it.  Oh, no, I'll have none of that.  Had I done so, you wouldn't be reading this overly long blog post.

If you are from my generation (ha - intentional song reference) you likely still have a stack of vinyl LPs still.  In my case I still have about 150 of them, of which about one third have been replaced with CD copies.  My turntable is no longer connected to my stereo receiver in the family room; it has fallen victim to it is 'unsightly and takes up too much space' syndrome.

So in the spare bedroom I setup a table, haul out the old turn table and plug it in to the laptop for a sound level test.  Except, I cannot find my adapter cable which has two RCA style female plugs on one side and a male 3.5mm on the other.  Insert trip to my friendly local Radio Shack and return successfully.  Attach the turntable, run some Windows recording software, and there you have it: nothing.  The recording software cannot handle input from the line in jack.

Next I go out to the Interwebs to get an update to my favorite recording and editing software: Audacity.  It is open source goodness, and way more technical than I will ever be but has enough default settings and help on the web site to get me through.  Audicity is more than a competent substitute (ha - another intentional song reference) for the pitiful default recording software Microsoft provides and is easily able to select the line in port and record the music from my turntable.  Drop the needle on the LP and there you have it: a high bias recording with incredible clipping.  The turntable does not provide computer friendly output.  (sorry - if you don't know what those terms mean I'll have to explain in the comments below - this is already too long)

I figure I need a pre-amp to fix the problem.  I haul out my old receiving and set it up on the table in the spare bedroom next to the turntable.  Hook the turntable to the receiver, receiver tape out to the laptop, drop the need on the LP and there you have it: almost evenly biased input that is clipping on both sides.  The sound level input control on the software does not seem to work on the line input.  Now I am so mad I am nearly shakin' all over (ha - another gratuitous song reference).

If I cannot control the volume in on the laptop side, I must do it on the receiver side.  The head phone jack looks like a viable candidate.  I rummage through my box of old adapters and locate a male 1/4" to female 3.5mm adapter.  Connect the head phone out on the receiver to the line in on the laptop, drop the needle, adjust the volume control on the receiver and there you have it: I am able to get the recording unclipped and only slightly high bias at a low volume.  I am finally making progress.

Without going into a lot of detail on each step I will highlight the process.  First you record a side of the album.  You use the tools in Audicity one at a time to removed the bias (DC offset), remove the noise, remove the clicks, normalize (amplify), remove leading and trailing excess, and cut the side into tracks when you export them into WAV files.  Rinse, repeat.  Lastly import the WAV files into your iTunes, and burn a CD for play/archive.

Is it worth following this process as compared to buying the CD or downloading an MP3?  The answer to the question is it depends.  Some of my vinyl is not available as CDs - so if I want those selections digitally, this is the only path.  Some of my vinyl is live or otherwise poor quality recordings - these are good candidates for MP3s because you are not going to lose any fidelity.  If you have an album which was considered a studio masterpiece, (say Dark Side of the Moon) you will be disappointed in your version as compared to what you can get in buying the commercially produced CD.  On the other hand, if you have a large collection, and have the time to invest (or are basically cheap) and are not so concerned about the slightly substandard recording as compared to the commercial CD release this could be the way to go.  Once you get good at the process, it takes about a half hour to forty-five minutes of your time to follow this process above the actual play time of the vinyl.  If you have the money to simply replace them, and available time is a challenge then I suggest Amazon is your friend.

Lastly, what about the Live at Leeds album?  If you are fan of The Who it is a must have.  The recording quality is poor, but the energy and versions of the songs are just amazing.  Daltry's voice is a bit off in places, but Entwistle's bass and Townsend's guitar work is quite good even given the poor recording quality.  Some of the verbal back and forth during the singing is quite entertaining with my favorites being during The Magic Bus.  "You can buy the Magic Bus for 100 English pounds."  "No, too much!"

Thanks for reading - cheers.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Blue Moon Winter Abbey Ale

The winter offering from the Coors Blue Moon brand.

Pours out reddish/brown, or I guess coppery colored with a light tan head.  Has some aromas of spice and maybe some vanilla.  The mouth feel is very thin, which seems to be in common with the other Blue Moon products.  Flavors include dark caramel, hint of vanilla, hardly any hops taste, sweetness and maybe prunes, which fades to a dry crispness and yet leaves your tongue feeling a little thick. 

It is an odd mix of flavors which on one hand feel unbalanced, but on the other hand seem to work together in a little bit of disharmony.  I am trying to place the after taste here... and it may be the alcohol.

Overall I'll give this one a slightly recommended.  As a mass market beer it is not bad, and the additional spicy notes help it stand up to the colder weather.  I skipped the Blue Moon standard Belgian White at the market, it was just not the taste I was looking for in this suddenly cold autumn weather.  If you are expecting it to be a fine example of a Belgian beer, look elsewhere.  This is a good one to buy on sale when the choices are limited, and your goal is to sit by the fire.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Alas poor Ethan

Alas poor Ethan, I....  hardly knew you. 

At the beginning of summer we shifted DM chair occupants.  Switching back to the Cormyr game required one of our players to create a character, as he had not been in the Cormyr game when we left off.  His character build was a rogue designed for high sneak attack damage output.  He didn't really fit our party perfectly, but what the heck, when does a character truly fit a party perfectly. 

During summer, we struggle to find game time - people on vacation and all that jazz.  So here we are post summer getting things going again.  At the end of the last outing and the beginning of this one we are questioning some dead elves.  Among the cryptic bits of information, we learn the nasty elves are planning to utterly destroy the village of Tyrluk.  Since we will have none of that, off we go to save the village.

In Tyrluk there is a very large chest full of treasure which has inexplicably found its way to the center of the village without any obvious way for it to have happened.  We scratch our head for a while, cast a bunch of spells, and come up with crazy speculation ad nauseam until we finally decide, lacking any good idea - this must be bait to attract terrible monsters to come and destroy the village. 

Time passes, we consider a number of ideas to fortify the village, and then one by one we discard them since we have no clue what might be coming, from what direction, or what mode of travel.  So we wait.  Finally one of our characters spies large creatures coming down the road - giants.  When they get close enough to further identify them, our archers begin to punish them with arrows.  They look to be five hill giants and something bigger, much bigger, in their midst.  Our plan is set - bow fire to reduce their numbers, the wizard will drop repeat distance area damage spells on them to further weaken them, and our cleric (me) will stand just inside the center of town as our melee demarcation point.  A dangerous encounter, but we should be up to it. 

Except our plan does not survive contact with the enemy, in fact our plan doesn't even wait for the enemy to reach the cleric before we abandon it.  I would have felt better if the enemy had undermined our plan.  The new character, Ethan, goes out to meet the giants invisibly intending to pick off a trailing wounded giant.  His point of contact is well beyond where the cleric can reach him with helpful spells, and since the cleric's attire features full plate mail, well beyond where the cleric can reach him in a couple of rounds for any help at all.  Hill giant passes by and gives an attack of opportunity; Ethan responds with serious damage.  By fortuitous circumstance Ethan gets to go next, finishing his hill giant opponent with another withering sneak attack.  All seems to be going well for us, giants are seriously diminished during their long run down the road, with Ethan taking down number three.  Wait, Ethan's turn is not over and he has more attack left so naturally he takes a five foot step and unleashed the rest of his attack on the huge giant.  Why waste an attack (what could go wrong?)  I get an uncomfortable feeling this will end badly - an unasked for divination from Torm?

The huge creature (which turns out to be a mountain troll) turns to smash the creature which hurt it, but sees nothing!  Instead it uses cunning to sniff the air around the area where it felt pain and then takes a wide swing covering a large area and connects with the rogue; punishing damage and knocked prone.  Our paladin, seeing the huge beast stop and swing behind it decides to sally forth and support our invisible companion.  Astride her unicorn mount and brandishing a lance, she courageously charges at the huge monster.  Unfortunately, the mountain troll has reach and bashes the paladin before she can even get close enough to impale the creature.  Not only is the damage punishing but she is knocked from her horse and to the ground.

Now my uncomfortable feeling, turns to real worry.  The melee is happening well forward of the planned demarcation.  There are two nearly unharmed hill giants between my cleric and the prone paladin (who is in reach of the mountain troll) and on the other side of the mountain troll is the prone rogue.  The wizard is near the cleric but is also now worried about casting spells with severely hurt characters lying prone around the troll, and the other two characters are still up on the building with their bows.  I had previously cast a few buffs but I am now realizing I should have cast more, much, much more.  With my characters slow speed, there is no way I am going to get to the mountain troll or the prone characters before something bad happens, and even if I do get there I'd have two hill giants at my back.  No, I decide, my best plan of action is to get the attention of the two hill giants on me and hope the rest of the party can kill the mountain troll, or at least save the down companions.  My cleric casts Righteous Might and below at the two hill giants pointing at them with his heavy, gauntlet covered hand, "You are mine!"

The unicorn manages to drag the paladin out of reach of the troll before the troll's next attack, but the rogue was not so fortunate.  Again using its scent ability and a lucky roll, it manages to crush the rogue to negative hit points so badly he was within a small number of hit points before death.  We did manage to regroup and finish off the giants before another character was killed.  Thanks to Ethan's invisibility (no one in our party knew he was down and dying, or even where he was), my lack of foresight in spells (I could have cast Status and did not, plus a number of other buffs), and our inability to form a combat line, we lost a character. 

After the session, the player decided this character was not a good fit for the game and he would rather not have his character brought back from the dead.  So I role played asking my god through a divination, if my god would allow my character to bring Ethan back from the land of the dead via a Raise Dead.  The answer was no - in essence you didn't really know Ethan very well, his path was not yours, and he had finally earned a reward for his unselfishness (saving the town) so leave him be and go find another more suitable to be in the company of a cleric and paladin of Torm.  So my character, who is not accustomed to losing a party member under his protection, decides to build a shrine to Torm & the dead Ethan.  Ethan, who he hardly knew.

It had been a while since I had played this character, had been a while since this team of characters had played together, the DM threw a goodly challenge at us, the new character took a big risk, and we just plain played poorly.  The result of poor play in combat: a dead character.  Ethan we hardly knew you, but you are a wake up call to the rest of the party; play better as a team or bury a character.

The dice never lie.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Creating NPCs Does Not Have To Be A Chore

A common complaint in 3rd Edition D&D is that it takes so long for a DM to stat up NPCs. If a DM approaches them like a character (which can take quite a bit to build, if you are so inclined) it can certainly take a while.  The first step is to stop thinking of them as a character.  NPCs exist to interact, and in some cases provide challenges for the PCs.  So just create what you need to fill that function.  Sure, you could organically roll all the stats, assign skill points, carefully select gear within the assigned GP limits, and consult all the description tables but.... why?  Many NPCs will only get fleeting interaction with the party, some will be slain by the party, and only a small number will go on to be long term friends, contacts or enemies of the party.  As a DM you have way too much to do to get bogged down in this minutia. 

I'll share with you one of my approaches to this handling NPC creation.

First step - don't roll stats.  Use a standard array and assign as you like.
  • Is it just a peasant quality?   11, 11, 11, 10, 10, 10
  • Is it someone exceptional?  13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8
  • Is it someone elite?   15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8 
  • Don't like one of the results?  Arbitrarily change it.
Second step - don't roll skill points.  Skill ranges for NPCs exist to provide challenge or help for the PCs.  Just put them where you need them.
  • Need a skill role on the fly? Modify a d20 roll by 1/2 their hit die + appropriate attribute score
  • Want them to greatly proficient in a skill?  Make a note in their stat block for that skill is equal to their level + 3 + appropriate attribute score
  • Want them to be an expert in a skill?  Same as above but make it +6, assumes they burned a feat

Also the 1/2 hit die plus appropriate attribute score works great as an on the fly modifier when you don't know the modifier for any monster or challenge.  Don't spend minutes looking or calculating something.

Next make a few notes about equipment you want them to have, beyond what is typical.  Assign a few personality traits and other useful information.  There are loads of random tables to be had online, or in your DM guides.  I often refer to my treasured, old 1E DM guide for random tables to help me out when I feel stuck, or just want to mix things up.

Assign hit points based on the hit dice, Con bonus & how tough you want the NPC to be.

Give them a name.   Sometimes if feels like the bane of a DMs existence is when a player, during an unimportant and routine interaction with the world wants to know, "What is the bartenders name?"  Many years ago I came across a document created by some wonderful, sharing, caring individual out there (ironically, I don't know their name) which was just a list of hundreds of names.  I printed it out, and keep it in the back of my DM notebook.  When I use a name, I cross it out.

Done.  Notice, I don't roll much (or at all) in NPC creation.  Don't get me wrong, I have lots of dice and like to roll them.  However, I am a busy guy and this is not the place where rolling really makes any difference.  The process should only take a few minutes, and with practice you can do it on the fly when an unexpected need for an NPC arises.

If the NPC survives to become a longer term piece of your campaign, just add more notes as you go along.  Make up stuff as you go along, but don't forget to add it to your stat block notes.  Players love the consistency when NPCs 'remember' something about the last time they encountered them, and are put off when one day the NPC is bald and the next time they see them they have a full head of hair.  Its the little things - if you describe something, write it down.

I acknowledge if you are playing a version of an RPG where character creation is a very simple process, then some of this is not pertinent for you.  Other parts you might find useful.  I'm always interested in hearing about your tips or tricks which improves NPC building.

The dice never lie.  (but only use 'em when you need 'em)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Role Playing: Sometimes Its The Little Moments

In our last adventure we come across some dead elves in a clearing, being munched on by some over-sized owl bears.  We dispatched the owl bears, not out of revenge or outrage, but just to get them out of our way.  These elves were nasty and are our enemies.

Disappointed that we were not the ones to find the elves first and learn information we badly need, my half orc cleric decides to burn some spells to see if we can learn something the divine way.  He casts speak with dead on the first dead elf, and gets no response as apparently the dead creature makes its save.  

There are several other elf bodies around, so the next step is to try the spell again with my last remaining spell slot of the necessary level.  Wrong.  The next step is a 30 second role play moment.

Angry, my character composes himself to let his better nature rule the moment.  His better nature fails.  Enraged, he screams and hurls the dead elf into a nearby tree. (My character has an absurdly high strength) Now he moves onto the next dead elf.

 I was just reading the write up from the last adventure (Thanks Brian!), and couldn't help but laugh at that little bit of my over acting.  It is both fun and important to role play the big scenes when the DM brings out the NPCs and the reveal moments.  However, don't forget to role play the little moments along the way which keep your character from being a card board cut out.

The dice never lie.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Scotch-a-palooza - where Barad tastes six single malts from the cellar

I usually have more than one single malt Scotch whisky bottle in the collection at a time.  Due to an amazing sale plus a visit from an old and dear friend, I find myself with six different single malts at the same time.  Combine that with an open evening at the lake house, and I make the somewhat questionable decision to have my own six scotch tasting.

Anyone looking to me as some Scotch tasting expert should immediately wipe that gnotion from their head.  I am a hack who happens to enjoy single malt Scotch.  My nose and palate have been known to vary greatly from day to day, and I'm heavily influenced by food, mood and even the music playing in the back ground.  With that out of the way, the Ipod on shuffle, here we go.

I tasted them in an order determined by me, tasting what I expected was the mildest flavors first and working my way up to the stronger whisky later.  I only related the tastes and smells I can clearly identify, all six of these fine drinks has a large number of subtle smells and tastes which are usually just beyond my ability to name.

Dalwhinnie 15 year.  Color: this was the palest of the six, with a very light gold or straw color.  Nose: Some kind of fragrant plant, I think it was heather.  I also detected faint pears.  Taste: Pepper, hint of smoke, some spice and herbs.

Glenfiddich 12 year. Color: very pale amber, this was darker than the Dalwhinnie & Scapa.  Nose: All I could pick out was faint honey.  Taste: There were a number of things going on here but all I could pick out was lightly buttered, slightly burnt toast.  It was not bad as I make it sound.

Scapa 16 year.  Color: very pale amber, only slightly darker than the Dalwhinnie.  Nose: It was very subtle, I got some apricot, some kind of spice I couldn't name and maybe white pepper.  Taste: Buttery with some hints of cocoa and caramel.

Balvenie Doublewood 12 year.  Color: Rich amber, only the Lagavulin was darker.  Nose: Fruity, sweet with a hint of vanilla.  Taste: Notes of spiciness, sweet, smoky and butter.

Lagavulin 16 year.  (I accidentally grabbed this as #5 - I had meant this to be #6) Color: Deep amber almost caramel, darkest of the six.  Nose: Strong peat and smoke with vanilla.  Taste: Strong peaty smoke, sea, dry wood, faint toffee with a spicy finish.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask.  Color: Amber, darker than the Glenfiddich, lighter than the Balvenie.  Nose: Smoky peat and sea smells.  Taste: Very smoky, fleeting buttery fudge and spices.

This tasting was much more work than I anticipated (... it seemed like a good idea at the time...).  The nosing was much harder than I expected with six glasses of Scotch on the table.  The color comparison required me to get some white background because I placed the glasses on a honey maple table.  I almost mixed up the glasses multiple times because I didn't mark them, simply put them in front of the bottles.  The concentration of attempting to discern the tastes of that many different drinks back to back was not as fun as I had hoped.  And lastly, even though I expected it to happen, palate fatigue made it harder to taste the Whisky.  I don't think I'll be doing six at a time again.  I much rather enjoy them one at a time.

So which one was my favorite?  Well, that is not an easy one to answer.  However, I won't completely pull a cowardly retreat and make some qualitative comments.

The Glenfiddich was my least favorite.  I tend to like my whisky with more character, and this whisky was a bit on the bland side and might be hard to differentiate from a blend.  A good whisky for someone new to single malt.  In general the 'Glens' tend to be my least favorite whisky.

Dalwhinnie is a nice whisky, and I would definitely recommend it for someone just getting into Scotch to compare to a blend.

Scapa is a very nice whisky but I would only recommend it for someone with a discerning palate as the tastes are very subtle.

Balvenie Doublewood has long been one of my favorite Scotch whiskys.  I feel it has some very rich and varied tastes for a 12 year whisky, and provides a lot of value for the money.  Not as strong a taste as the next two, but definitely on the top of my recommendations

Laphroaig Quarter Cask is higher in alcohol content than the others, had more wood contact, and definitely has character.  If you like your whisky heavy on the peat and smoke and have not tried this little gem, you are missing out.  If you like blended Scotch whisky, you won't like this.

Lagavulin is much like the Laphroaig, but more refined.  Still smoky and peaty, but I think there are more subtle tastes involved.  Perhaps it is not surprising as this is aged longer than the Laphroaig.  Also like the Laphroaig, if you prefer blends you might want to avoid this.  If you are a blend fan and want to see what is all the interest in these hearty whiskys, I'd recommend this one over the Laphroiag.

That is it for now, all this typing has made me thirsty.  Since I am already a little bit palate fatigued I think I'll go back to the Lagavulin.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers

I have long been a Refreshments fan.  Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy is one of my favorite albums and while Bottle & Fresh Horses is not as good, it is still solid and a fun listen.  Many people only know of them as the band which played the King of the Hill theme song.  The leader of the Refreshments, Roger Clyne, along with another member of the band (the drummer I think) went on to start a new band after the Refreshments called Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers. 

We went to see RCPM on September 22 at the Showcase Live next to Gillette stadium.  RCPM does not appear to get out east very often or for long, so we did the 1 1/2 drive down from our neck of the woods to see them for the first time. 

The band plays solid rock and roll with a Tex/Mex flavor.  The music is lively, the lyrics are often witty and self depreciating, and the execution is tight though none of the musicians are virtuosos.  Roger does have a strong voice, but often he falls back on hoarse yelling rather than singing which is not a criticism so much as just a description.  The yelling seems to fit, as sort of a punctuation to the tale being told; after all it is rock and roll.

The venue was fine.  The show was not sold out, though I am not sure what that would have looked like anyway since it was a general admission show.  It was an upscale club and we spent plenty of pesos on food and drink (and more drink).

I am not familiar with much of the band's new material since becoming RCPM.  However, they sounded like the Refreshments to me, so the style has not changed much - which for me is a good thing.  Some bands sound very different live vs. on their recordings, not so with these guys as the sound at the show was very similar to the sound on the albums - again good for me.  They played about five songs off the Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy album, capturing most of my favorites, and played one or two off of Bottle & Fresh Horses.  I certainly would have been happy if they had played the whole Fizzy album, but I was happy with what they did do.  They have a new album released this past spring, so they featured a number of songs off that album - but not overwhelmingly so.

Overall, I was pleased with the show.  The band holds up very well live, and Roger is an excellent front man.  There were no surprises, good or bad, apparently with these guys once you know them you get what you expect.  Lots of tequila flowed, both on and off stage, and we all rejoiced every time Roger tossed back a shot and flung the glass backwards over the amps. 

I'll cut to the chase - good show, fun time, cool band.  Go buy the Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy album.  Enjoy it with several shots of good tequila.  Remember what Roger says, "Well, I got the pistol, so I get the Pesos.  Yeah and that seems fair."


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Keeping the adventure alive

A little over two weeks ago a dear old friend & gaming partner came for a week plus visit.  They say you can never go home again, but I tell you when true old friends get together some things work like you were never apart.  As with all good celebrations there was food and drink, retelling of old stories, and catching up of new stories.  The adventures included, riding out Hurricane Irene, a camp out in the White Mountain National Forest and hike up the venerable Mt. Chocorua

We did manage to get in a dungeon crawl during the visit.  Our friend presided as DM, with some old characters from 1E days updated for our 3.5E game, plus some new characters for those who joined us who were not part of the group back in 'the day'.  I think it was as interesting for my wife and son to see my famed old wizard in action as it was fun for me to play him.  The play included an Orc & Worg outdoor encounter, a sneaky Orc shaman abush, a dangerous rope bridge (which did give way after a questionable decision to bolt across it), and an interesting trap involving alchemists fire.  (public service note: candle stubs pushed into the exit holes for alchemists fire in fact due little to contain the conflagration). A great time was had by all.

Some miscellaneous observations.  Although there are a great number of things which are different from our 1E house ruled game to our 3.5E house ruled game - the feel of our game with the old gang was not that different.  As always we didn't make it as far in the adventure as the DM expected (in our group this is true regardless of who DMs - so no slight against those behind the screen).  The NPC in the game which was ostensibly our guide was well played by the DM - she was there to handle the unanswered, unexpected questions and to keep the game moving if necessary but as soon as combat/danger arrived she disappeared to leave the party to fend for themselves as it should be.

So once again we find ourselves discussing how to continue the adventure using technology.  I'm interested in folks experience with tools that allow a group to gather in one location and have one or more individuals in remote locations play and DM.  It was far too long since the last outing of the old team and we have pledged to keep the adventure alive; much like we keep the friendship alive.

The dice never lie

Monday, August 29, 2011

The diamond planet

Great adventure ideas don't always come from our imaginations, sometimes they show up in the news.

Hard to top this.  Great material for a sci-fi, spelljammer, or planar travel campaign.  I'll have to file this away for future reference.  Diamond planet, just saying it almost makes me giggle with excitement.  Heh.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Buffalo Trace Bourbon

As previously noted in the treasure haul, I scored some Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.  I am pleased to say this blended bourbon has character which is typically only seen in single malts.

It has a pleasant bronze/gold color, and shows well in its old style bottle.  I had mine neat - no ice or water.  I have to say there was complexity in the aroma as well as the palate.  The aromas included vanilla, molasses and some spice.  The tastes included brown sugar, spice, leather, and sort of smokiness.  It certainly had the alcohol burn of a 90 proof whiskey, but it was not overwhelming or unpleasant.  It is easy to drink, and a quality bourbon especially considering its price point. Recommended.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Al Stewart show

Last weekend we went to an Al Stewart show at one of our local venues, the Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry NH.  Let me say we really like this venue.  It is in a barn like structure, holds around 200 people or so, and no one is more than about 60 feet from the stage.  They host artists on their way up, or those mature acts past their prime of filling huge halls.  The focus is on folk, blues, rock, and here and there some related music like Celtic bands.

Al was joined on stage by Dave Nachmanoff, who appears to be Al's sideman or protege.  Dave opened the show solo, and opened the second set solo.  The two played acoustic guitars, with Dave providing the lead and special effects. It was an enjoyable show, and besides the little trouble the two gentlemen had keeping their guitars in tune due to the heat and humidity, there were no problems.  I was only disappointed that they didn't play more of my favorite Al Stewart tunes, but what they did play was done very well.  We worried the lack of orchestration would leave us unsatisfied with the music (as many of Al's recorded ballads feature liberal amounts of piano, horns, stringed instruments, etc), but the two pulled it off quite well. 

Among my favorites were Lord Grenville, a superb version of On The Border, and of course the signature Year Of The Cat.  Dave's guitar work was just excellent on a number of songs and really brought the feel of the original recordings to the live venue.  Dave obviously idolizes Al, and the two gave us quite a bit of good natured banter between songs.  Al also told a number of interesting antidotes about where the songs came from or his earlier life and how he came to be where he is now; these were almost always prompted by Dave so there is another pitch for what he brings to the show. 

At the heart of it, Al Stewart is a folk musician.  Listening to his recorded catalog one may forget that, with all the orchestration and big hit ballads.  Many of the songs played that evening were old folk tunes he had written and played in his youth, and he likes to haul them out during his shows.  There is apparently no fixed set list, Al decides what he wants to play and Dave has to figure out what it is and jump in.  It was quite humorous at times.   Al was lively enough for a guy (by my rough calculations) pushing 66 years young.

I like that Al writes songs about quite a variety of topics, and is not stuck in the rut many song writers are stuck writing about lost love.  More importantly I like how Al paints pictures in my head.  His words may not resonate for everyone, but for me his ability to create a striking image in just a few carefully crafted sentences is magical.  For example, take these lines from Year Of The Cat:

"She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running, Like a watercolor in the rain"

"She doesn't give you time for questions, As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow 'till your sense of which direction, Completely disappears
By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls, There's a hidden door she leads you to"

And then there is On The Border:

"The wind whips up the waves so loud, The ghost moon sails among the clouds, Turns the rifles into silver on the border"

Oh, and in Road To Moscow we get lines like these:

"Two broken Tigers on fire in the night, flicker their souls to the wind"

"And the evening sighs and the steely Russian skies go on forever"

I find he is a good role model for cleverly turning a sentence. Painting your picture in just a few sentences is powerful and it keeps the attention of your audience. I try where I can to remember this lesson whether I am writing in my work, or creatively for stories, or as a GM in my games.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Wild Horse Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008

The pinot noir grape is a very fussy fellow.  Done well it has an amazing range of subtle tastes and is quite enjoyable with many food types or by itself.  Done poorly, it comes across as expensive grape juice.  Based on my experience, any pinot noir done well and had for less than $20 a bottle is a gem.

In that criteria, the 2008 Wild Horse Pinot Noir I had is a gem.  It is a Central Coast wine and exhibits a mild amount of the trademark pinot noir earthiness.  It is light bodied, as you would expect from a pinot noir, well balanced, and had hints of vanilla (probably from the oak aging).  The primary flavor here is a light berry, for me it came across as fresh strawberry - though your taste buds may find that slightly different.  My guess is this vintage would have benefited of a few more years laying down (which we never do - drink 'em if you got 'em).  At our local state liquor store the list price was $20, but we scored it on sale for $14.

Casually recommended @ $20, highly recommend for the price on sale.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I took the Gygax quiz and all I got was this html code

Barad T Gnome took the Hardest Gary Gygax Quiz in the World and got 50%!

You are a Gary Gygax Swashbuckler. You are cunning in the ways of Gary Gygax. You've probably been to Gen Con once or twice, and if I searched your house, I bet I'd find a Gary Gygax autograph, a humorous D&D-related T-shirt, and/or a stack of Dragon magazines.

Paladin Code: You completed this quiz without using Google.

Embarrassing really.  I got an easy one wrong cause I typed without thinking.  The really hard ones I had no idea cause I never read Gygax novels.  Cross my heart I did it without Google.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Breaking The Barrier Of Death

D&D has a number of troublesome higher level spells.  Troublesome because they significantly alter how civilization would function if it were available, and therefore forces a game master to think hard about the implications to their world (or ignore it at their peril). In that definition, the various spells which can bring the dead back to life qualify as troublesome. 

Some game masters completely remove the spells.  I don't like that solution for a number of reasons, one of which is it removes a power from the clerics that is part of the D&D flavor.  Some game masters let it run rampant and are not troubled by the impact on the flavor of the game.  If it were that readily available, you would never have a ruler, rich noble, or otherwise wealthy and powerful individual die from anything other than old age.  This could be the source of a number of problems in game, especially if you desire a rich and interesting setting of cultures and civilization.

How would the returned to life individual feel if they had been removed from their benevolent eternal reward?  How might they be different if their reward was not so benevolent?  What about the death experience, would they behave differently in attempt to avoid or not in the future?  Would they be angry at those who returned them to life?

What about the legal issues?  If a ruler is slain, when does the next in line take command?  Would there be laws controlling succession or a waiting period?  What if they do not give up willingly?  Laws aside, would those in succession now work to make sure their predecessor does not return?  Imagine the politics of churches and clerics regarding whether they follow the laws, or get caught up in political intrigue.  This problem might go down the line to any member of nobility with a title passed on by inheritance.  Would the laws be different for nobility than for normal folks?  It could be a negative aspect of becoming a noble.

What about the common folks?  If you are killed and returned what happens to your inheritable belongings?  Are you legally still the same person if you come back?  Perhaps you only still own that which was buried with you, doesn't that have interesting game implications?  Would wealthy parents and their children all want the same laws on the books in this regard?  This doesn't even touch upon the related subject of magic enhanced longevity, which could be more than frowned upon for a number of reasons.

What about execution?  Would there be laws against returning someone who was executed?

What about social stigmas?  Would those returned be seen as normal folks, or would they be regarded as abominations, or akin to the undead?  Or is it possible those returned would be viewed as some sort of divine messenger or avatar, both awed and avoided all the same?

There is much to consider, and a plethora of fuel for creating interesting cultures and traditions around returning from the dead.  For me, I want to keep 'Breaking The Barrier Of Death' something rare and special.  Typically in my game, any wealthy or powerful individual who was slain and returned would usually attempt to keep that a secret.  Additionally, there are some criteria to meet to even be eligible to return.  Rather than just explain it as part of the setting rules, I had the characters learn it from interacting with the world.  They found this letter, from a well known and respected cleric, sent to a cleric about to be ready to learn about raising the dead:

Dear Youtharn

As you do, many young acolytes question me about using our sacred granted powers to bring back those who have left this world through death.  First let me remind you that the gods grant us only a limited time on this world, and when our bodies are spent we are meant to go on to whatever rewards we have earned in this life.  You may have heard of stories regarding powerful magics that prevent aging and therefore extend life.  Be wary of such attempts to circumvent the god's plans for us; it can only lead to corruption and ruin.

There are powerful spells that senior clerics are granted by the gods that can breach the barrier of death.  All of these spells are subject to two core canons.  First, the spirit of the deceased must be willing to return.  No power we understand here or in the realms of the gods can force a spirit to come back to this world against their will.  Second, the barrier of death is breached only by the combined power of the cleric on this world and the boon of a god or goddess to hold open a portal to the realm of the dead.  It is no small feat for mortal and immortal to breach the curtain.  The natural order of life and death is not easily put aside.  It is rare and unusual for the gods to spend whatever power it requires to hold open the curtain between life and death that allows the mortal cleric to call back the dead.  We have come to believe that a god or goddess will only spend their powers to part the curtain of death for those with an unfulfilled destiny here on the mortal world that furthers that immortals greater purpose.

An Augury can be cast asking a particular god if they will support the opening of the curtain of death.  A answer of weal indicates an immortal's willingness to support your attempt.  A Divination can be cast to determine if the mortal spirit is willing to return.  Neither of these spells is required to be cast to have the Raise Dead, Resurrection, or True Resurrection spell be successful.  However the prudent cleric will determine in advance whether or not it is possible for their attempt to breach the barrier of death before casting these spells as the material required for the spells is consumed regardless of success or failure.

Even though their spells are sometimes alien to us, we are certain that the druids of the woods have the same limitations to breaching the curtain of death. 

I pray you fortune in your studies and in carrying forth Eukko's will.  Yours in his grace,


I find this works much better for me.  It allows me to have some control over who comes back without completely removing the power from the players and the clerics.

The dice never lie.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva 2004

Had a couple of treasure halls in the last month, this Chianti came from one of the earlier ones. We enjoyed it with some semi-spicy marinara sauce over pasta shells with some grated Romano cheese.  (I find it useful to know how the wine was paired, it makes a big difference)

On the high side of medium bodied, this ruby/garnet colored Chianti was quite lovely.  It was nicely balanced, had enough tannins for a little structure, was dry, and had dark fruit that lasted on the palate.  It was certainly ready to drink, but had enough tannins to lay down for a bit (though we never really do that - drink 'em if you got 'em).  This Chianti probably could have stood up to a bit of steak with no problems.  Highly recommended.


Monday, July 11, 2011

What Do You Do When The Rules Interfer With Your Story Line?

There is an interesting discussion going on at ENworld regarding the cliche dying scene.  Here.  It is a good discussion, with some well reasoned opinions on both sides.

I find myself on the side of follow the rules.  The DM might just be trying to build an interesting fantasy scene, with drama and pathos, and not thinking too closely about the rules.  The players, ever alert to challenges & to combat evil, immediately try to intervene.

DM: You find a man on the floor.  He is a bloody mess, and appears to be almost dead.  He motions you to come closer with a great effort while his life blood oozes readily to the floor.  As you approach, he starts to speak in a faint, almost inaudible voice-
Player (interrupting): I cast a cure spell on him.
DM (surprised): Er... Um... no, he is too far gone for that.  He does manage to whisper in his dying breath, "Beware the bearer of the Ruby Cup....."
Player: Wait... He was still alive and could speak but my spell didn't work?
DM: Um... Yes.  Well, No.  You just think you were too late.
Player: That is awfully suspicious.  I cast detect magic.  Do I sense any residual magics here preventing my cure from working?  Then I cast detect evil.  Lastly I check the corpse to make sure it is real.  You know, not an illusion or something else.  This is really strange.  Next I -
DM (interrupting): No, really, you just were too late.
Player: That makes no sense.  If he could speak, then why couldn't I save him.
DM: Listen, don't make such a big deal of it.  It was just a death scene to give you information.  Lets move on.
Player: Oh.  Ok, I guess.

I'll quote ENworld poster Nagol, "To the DM, it’s just a bloody death scene. For the players it is a situation where their expectations for in-game effect do not match with observed effect. As far as the players are concerned this could be a CLUE."

Its not like I have never painted myself into a corner and had to come up with feeble, "just because", excuses in game.  However, I find them unsatisfactory.  The verisimilitude is broken if you have to move between the dramatic scenes where the rules don't function, and the scenes where players can use their skills, abilities and clever ideas to achieve an outcome.  Sure, you can agree that when the DM is wearing the moose antlers you just enjoy the dramatic scene, and when he is not, you get to play.  I am sure that works fine for lots of folks, and at times I may put on the moose antlers myself, but overall I try to let the players play.  Even if that means they mess up my dramatic scene.  That just means I should have planned it better.

There are rule ways to handle some of these kinds of issues.  And in this case when I say rules, I mean more like how the world functions rules.  Next time I'll write about coming back from the land of the dead.

The dice never lie

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Big Treasure Haul At Local Liquor Store

Apparently they are relocating the store; everything was 25% off. Scored some Scapa and Lagavulin single malt scotch, Buffalo Trace bourbon, Presidential port, and almost two cases of wine. Future blog reviews coming down the road when I crack them open. Huzzah!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Demons and Wizards

A friend of mine and fellow gamer recently went to a Uriah Heep show.  He sent me the set list, and it triggered loads of memories.  The list included 'Easy Livin', 'Rainbow Demon, and 'The Wizard'.

What is not to love about the Demons and Wizards album?  This was Uriah Heep's 4th album, released and went gold in 1972.  Great artwork by Roger Dean on the cover followed by solid rockin' with loads of fantasy lyrics.

Easy Livin', arguably the Uriah Heep's most well known song in the U.S., is a catchy, hook laden pop-rock song.  Even though it is a bit shallow, I still like it after all these years.

The Wizard is a soulful and altruistic ballad worthy of bard entertaining a noble audience.  The tale of a chance meeting with a wizard to a thousand kings, wearing his cloak of gold, flashing his eyes of fire, and living far off in a mountain somewhere. 

Rainbow Demon is an ominous tune, almost dirge like in places, with lots of imagery.  Electric guitars, organ, & drums all pounding out a classic rock archetype ripe for planting seeds of adventures in the heads of scheming game masters.

And in this game master that seed found fertile soil.  Probably some ten years after the albums release I took those fledgling ideas and turned them into a campaign.  The bad guys were going to summon a demon to lead an army to crush the good people of the island and subjugate them forever under tyranny and general foulness.  The named demon, know colloquially to the evil summoner's as the Rainbow Demon, was foretold in a prophesy by a long deceased mad hermit.  The party had some evidence which gave a certain credence to the hermit's pronouncements and thus the campaign began.  They had to search out a number magical items which if the somewhat ambiguous prophecy was to be believed, could be used in a proper sequence to defeat the demon.  These items included the Mace of Khanhazbee, the Ring of Azraq, the Wand of Belatan, the Dagger of Glass, and the Gnomon of the Fates.  The prophesy also indicated who needed to wield the items, again in somewhat cryptic language - The Dagger of Glass thrown by half a man, The Ring of Azraq worn by one from under land.

This was only a few years into our gaming experience, and was easily the most ambitious campaign I had yet devised and optimistically hoped to execute.  Unbeknownst to the players, the language was both cryptic and ambiguous to allow some versatility in execution.  The demon was designed to be a foe the players could not hope to defeat without special help.  And yet, I had to leave some room for error.  They failed in their quest to gain the last item - the Gnomon of Fates for example.  The prophecy stated the timing of fighting the demon was known by no man; later they determine it was a translation problem and set out to find the Gnomon.  Without this last item, they found another solution in the high priestess casting divination to determine the correct time.  The ring absorbed a limited amount of fire damage and ideally was to be worn by a dwarven fighter who had the best saves against the demons flaming whip.  The dagger of glass would temporarily turn whoever was struck by it into living glass, and susceptible to being shattered by a burgeoning instrument of great power which is where the mace came in.   The wand was a mass teleport device which allowed the party to get past the army of ogres, orcs and goblins and right to the demon at their full strength.

In the end, even though the halfling with his high dexterity missed the demon with his first throw and had to recover and throw again, even though cleric didn't hit on his first attack, even though the dwarf was nearly out of hit points after using up the ring and with him gone the party would have quickly succumbed to the demon, the demon's worldly form was shattered sending her back to the pits and saving the island from unspeakable torment.  After all, the dice never lie.

It all starts from a little seed.  The more colorful and imaginative the seed the better.  And today is only yesterday's tomorrow.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The drone of swarming stirges may be the last thing you hear

I like the idea of those nasty blood sucking creatures called stirges, but always felt there should have been a different implementation of them.  Cristian over at Destination Unknown posted his Gurps take on stirges, which triggered sharing one of my takes on the beasts.

Green Winged Swamp Stirge

Green Winged Swamp Stirges are smaller than their larger cousins, being only 8” long on average and weighing approximately ¼ of a pound.. These stirge’s coloration is grey green wings and back with a dirty yellow underside. The proboscis is pink at the tip, fading to gray at its base.

Hit Dice: 9d8
Initiative: +8
Speed: 10ft crawling/30ft flying
AC: 22 (+8 size, +4 dex), touch 22, flat footed 18
Attack: Swarm 2d6
Space/Reach: 10'/0'
Special Attacks: Distraction DC 13
Special Qualities: Low light vision, immune to weapon damage, swarm traits
Saves: Fort +7, Ref +7, Will +4
Abilities: Str 1; Dex 18, Con 10, Int 1, Wis 12, Cha 6
Skills: Hide +20, Spot +4, Listen +4
Feats: Improved initiative
CR: 5

One individual of these creatures poses little danger, however they are rarely found alone. These creatures travel in large swarms which are quite deadly to living creatures. Like their larger cousins, these diminutive stirges feed on blood.

Each swarm of the Green Winged Swamp Stirges numbers approximately 5000 of these creatures. During most of the day, the attach themselves to the underside of leaves, branches, grasses and the like waiting to surprise passing creatures. Shortly after sunset they go out in search of prey for an hour or two. When in flight, they make a low pitched droning noise, created by the beating of thousands of wings. This is a terrifying sound to those who know what is to shortly follow. It is not unusual for there to be more than a single swarm seeking prey together or hiding side by side in the swamp. A swarm of these creatures will happily feed on a creature until it is completely drained of blood.

Each swarm fills a 10' cube. Diminutive swarms are immune to weapon damage. Swarms take +50% damage from area attacks & spells. A swarm does automatic damage to any creature whose space they occupy at the end of their move.

A lit torch swung as an improvised weapon deals 1d3 points of fire damage per hit. A weapon with a special ability such as flaming or frost deals its full energy damage with each hit, even if the weapon’s normal damage can’t affect the swarm. A lit lantern can be used as a thrown weapon, dealing 1d4 points of fire damage to all creatures in squares adjacent to where it breaks.

Distraction (Ex): Any living creature that begins its turn with a stirge swarm in its space must succeed on a DC 13 Fortitude save or be nauseated for 1 round.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

To Cast or Crush?

Our next session is tomorrow.  We have just defeated some extra tough bug bears apparently arranged by some very naughty elves.  We are pretty much decided to heap vengeance upon these miscreants as long as we can locate them.  Which is not exactly a sure thing when tracking elves in the deep forest.

As we contemplate our next actions, I try to think how my character will contribute to the vengeance.  He is a rather dim witted but very wise cleric of Torm.  He also happens to be a half-orc with a 20 strength sporting some serious armor, shield and a nasty hand-and-a-half sword.  It is not the roll play elements which I am considering, I am quite comfortable with that.  Neither is it whether I am willing to be a supportive player or not; as a cleric I always look to make sure my party members are in good stead before leaping in myself.  What has me thinking is about the change from low level characters to higher level characters.

At the earliest levels, we are accustomed to worry about every combat because a few wayward rolls can easily put you in trouble.  As the characters progress, the additional hit points and other improvements make the characters quite durable.  We should easily be able to throw ourselves into most problems, and still be able to survive a mistake or two, or even arrange a hasty retreat if we are not managing to win the day.  No I am talking about stinginess with spells.  At the lower levels the spell cast must hoard her spells.  If she expects to have three, four or even five encounters before she has an opportunity to restore spell capacity she must carefully weigh each encounter wondering, is it now, or do hold these until later?  Wait too long and the encounter turns against the party.  Use them all too early and leave yourself vulnerable later.  Spell casters practice this carefully if they, and their companions, are to survive and thrive.

A funny thing happens as you move up in levels, you get lots of spells.  The ratio of spells available to each encounter changes drastically.  Instead of wondering if you should cast a spell this round, you are more likely wondering which spell to cast this round.

My cleric is 9th level.  With spells per level, ability bonuses, and domain spells included, he can cast about 25 spells before a restore.  Now in practice, if you have consumed all your most powerful spells and have only a few low level stragglers, you probably don't wait until you have no spells left to restore.  However, if a typical combat encounter lasts 6-10 rounds, that still means he can easily use four or more spells in each of four encounters and still have a few for between combats for knowledge, curing or pre combat buffs.  This is vastly different thinking than in the early stages of character development.

Now, additionally for the cleric of Torm, there is the challenge of cast or crush.  He is a decent combatant with a weapon, and especially so if he applies some of the individual combat buffs upon himself.  From a role playing perspective, he likes to crush.  Tactically, he has reached the point where it is much more important that he cast spells, and then step in and fight.  Lastly, because he is a outfitted with heavy armor, battlefield position is difficult to maintain due to his slow speed.

It is not really all that much of a conundrum, it is more of a rhetorical question.  I know what I need to do.  I need to become a spendthrift with my spells, make decisions quickly, make no mistakes in battle field position, and then near the end of the combat use my weapon to slay the enemies of Torm with ruthless efficiency.  It is just remembering that I am no longer a low level character hoarding the precious few spells, and breaking the previously life saving habit for a new one.

The dice never lie.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Legend of Shamus McGinty's Gold

In response to my post about our Western Game a fellow blogger (you can find one of his blogs here) recommended, and then generously mailed me the hard cover version of I. J. Parnham's The Legend of Shamus McGinty's Gold. (Thanks again Chris)

I used the opportunity of a business trip to have time to read it. It is a short read as well as an easy page turner. I have not read much of the western fiction genre. Most of my experience would be from non-fiction and from Hollywood movies. Therefore I cannot compare this to other fiction writers works. I can say it was a pleasant read; you don't have to work hard to follow the story line. It is not a story in the style of the great western movie, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

It is a quaint little story with interesting characters, clever twists and turns, and an underlying moral which doesn't spoil a good tale. It is family friendly, so just about any age could read it. It has a few action sequences involving guns, but does not glorify or gorify them. The story does move along and was finished in no time.
I wouldn't call this a classic, but I don't hesitate to recommend it as pleasant summer reading. This would be a great Western RPG adventure if someone could turn it into one... it is the kind of adventure I wished I had written... but I digress.

I think the book will pass around the house this summer, so I might add comments from the other readers.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Long Trail Blackbeary Wheat

Although this is available year round, the Long Trail Blackbeary Wheat is really a summer beer.  I find the entire Long Trail line to be on the dry side - which is fine for me because I favor crisp dry beers - and this brew is no exception being very dry even with the blackberry flavoring.

When you pour it out, there is not much head, and whatever is there does not last long. It is very pale in color, so there is not much to look upon.  Given it is summer, most often I drink this right out of the bottle.  There is some blackberry aroma which is pleasant.  The is no doubt this is a wheat beer, that comes through quite clearly.  The blackberry taste is not overpowering, but is does have a seltzer like after taste in the finish which some people might not like.  Clean & fizzy, a thirst quencher and somewhat of a palate cleaner.  I like it in the summer as the first beer on a very hot day, or an in between beer when changing from one style to another.

This is not an award winner, but if you like a fruit beer that has only a touch of the berry flavor and is very dry, you might enjoy these.


Monday, June 6, 2011

Players must worry about failure

Christian over at Destination Unknown prompted this post.  He writes an interesting blog over there, I recommend you check it out.

He asks, what is the point of combat.  He talks about his transition of opinion regarding combat and how his monsters & NPCs will now do everything in their power to kill the PCs.  In a broader view, I maintain that players must worry about failure in the adventure or the adventure is no longer fun.  If the tension created by the possibility of failure is gone, where is the excitement?

Failure is not limited to combat, and the consequences of failure are not limited to death.  I maintain that players fear other types of failures more than death.  The loss of prestige, the loss of treasured magic items, capture, or the loss of face by a notable villain usually generate more emotion than simple death.

Al over at Beyond The Black Gate says that character deaths are fun, and one of the notable differences between new and old school FRPGs is whether characters are disposable or not.  He makes a interesting point about this difference.  I see that both can be fun, and have had fun both ways.  However, the game I want to play regularly does not involve disposable characters.  Even when 1st Edition was our primary game vehicle, we didn't favor disposable characters.

So the dichotomy is this - I want to the players to fear for the safety & success of their characters yet I don't want a revolving door of new characters.  I want to the players to be attached to their characters, but not so much they will not take risks.  The game is only really fun when the tension of failure is palpable, when death, loss or embarrassing failure is perceived to be a real possibility.  The players only achieve satisfaction if they feel they overcame the challenges and were not saved by the DM every time they were about to fail.

When characters are low level, every encounter should be difficult.  They are at the bottom of the food chain and consequently they need to behave accordingly.  As they progress, logic dictates that more and more encounters should not be a challenge to them.  If as first level characters they are attacked by a raiding party of Orcs, it should be a tremendous challenge to survive let alone defeat them.  Once they attain higher levels that same raiding party should be a cake walk - the characters hardly breaking a sweat as they deal with the Orcs.  At higher levels the characters should be seeking more difficult challenges as motivated by their character goals.

As Christian points out, the verisimilitude is broken if the players understand there is a pattern or formula that allows the characters to easily defeat the opponents in every encounter.  It needs to be more random, and encounters need to be plausible.  As he says, why would 5 goblins attack 5 equipped adventurers?  Unless they were out of their mind rabid, they wouldn't.  So that is part of the challenge, creating plausible encounters where the 'monsters' believe they will succeed in their attack on the characters and can do everything in their power to do so.  Anything less is unsatisfying to the players.  Victory is hollow if there was no real threat.

The real challenge for the DM is to create those balanced encounters - balanced in the way the characters feel like it is plausible for the world in which they are playing, and threatening enough to make them fear for the characters they have come to love.

The dice never lie.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Picking up where I left off four years ago

We had our first session switching places, me as the player and our alternate DM behind the screen.  Hard to believe it was four years ago I last played this character.  I spent plenty of time updating and refreshing my memory on my character sheet.  I read old adventure logs.  I reacquainted myself with my character back story and motivation.  I even wrote a little color update on what my character was doing since the last adventure and what upcoming decisions troubled him.  Interesting when you are determining how best to handle introspection when your character has a 6 intelligence.

All that preparation and I still felt my roll playing was sluggish.  I guess it takes a little bit to get back in the swing of things.  Probably has to do with my being heavily invested in this character, and wanting to do it just right.  The group has big expectations of him too.  I am definitely over thinking it, and need to let is just flow more.

Session after session as a DM I handle NPCs with little or no problem, taking their shallow descriptions and making them seem plausible and differentiated from other NPCs.  All this with little or no preparation.  I also usually have no trouble role playing characters in a one shot scenario.  Yes, I am definitely trying too hard to be in my character.  Next session I will let it be more spontaneous.

The DM did a good job, and it was a good session overall my sluggish role playing not withstanding.  We faced a number of seriously leveled up Owl Bears and were able to tactically pull together well and dispatch them even though we had not used these characters together in a long time.  Funny, though, how we just take this D&D iconic monster weirdness in stride. 

My character recently added the Keen ability to his hand-and-a-half sword (bastard sword by the book in D&D).  Wouldn't you know that I didn't role a single critical threat all night, even though statistically I should have at least gotten one threat.  Disappointing when you have a new toy and you don't get to see it in action.  I did roll four consecutive 13s on a 20 sided though just to make things weird.

Although we really like playing 3.5 with our house rules, the characters are 9th level and we are seeing the beginning signs of unpleasant complication.  Tracking spell durations, and all the attack/defense math with all the spells and special abilities.  I'm still looking for ways to simplify the tracking/math without changing the feel too much.  I have an attack matrix for my cleric that allows me to more quickly calculation his attack & damage bonuses depending on which spells have been cast.  I still find that too slow.  I have been thinking that some quick reference spell cards might be better - make a template with the stats in same place on each one, and then just add up the numbers of the cards in your hand when your turn comes.  More thinking is in order.

There is also some conflict in the party - between the characters, not the players.  One of the party members was duped into working for some bad guys, and my cleric of Torm is on the fence whether this party member is a traitor (in which case my cleric will give him a quick painful death), or a true friend that just needs to redeem himself.  My player knows the truth, but my character does not.  I'm trying to make the play interesting without making it unfun for the other player.  It certainly makes the Elf fighter/rogue a little nervous with the half-orc cleric of Torm glaring at him on a regular basis.  We'll see how it goes. 

Anyway, it is fun to be back on the front side of the screen making the world to right again.

The dice never lie.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Time to switch sides of the DM screen

In our gaming group we have a main regular game, and here and there we run alternates when we do not have a quorum for the main game.  So for the past four years I have been in the main game DM seat.  I enjoy both sides of the screen, but it has been quite a while since I was consistently on the other side and I am quite looking forward to being back among the adventuring masses.

I like to think being a DM improves my playing, and being a player improves my DMing.  Though we are 'playing' the same game, and doing it all together, it is quite a different experience behind the screen.  On the DM side I don't seek to win, but rather to put on a interesting, challenging and entertaining experience.  There is a new thread on ENWorld where the OP as an aside raises again the (g)notion the DM loses when the players win.  Balderdash!  I did not post in response because everything I wanted to say sounded like thread crapping and the OP is welcome to his opinion.

Now back on the player side, I am released - I can strive to win.  Of course, I will do it within the confines of the character I have created and have consideration for my fellow players.  Instead of focusing of all the game elements, I will focus on what my character wants.  Instead of creating multiple paths for the players to follow, my character will select a path.  Instead of wondering what the players will do to my carefully crafted adventure, my character will be doing unspeakable things to the DM's carefully crafted adventure.  Instead of calculating XP, I will be planning character responses to things I imagine the DM will throw at us.  Yes, my character will kill things and take their stuff.  Oh, and given he is a good cleric, he will save various and sundry good leaning beings and tithe heavily to the church.

All the while my characters fame and wealth grows, a small but growing itch will start again to get back on the other side of the screen.  Hopefully for quite a while that itch can be soothed by running the alternate adventure nights, because I have much killing and taking to catch up on.

The dice never lie.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Western Game Shoot Out

We couldn't get a quorum for our regular D&D game, so instead my son ran a one shot (pun intended) western using Sidewinder Recoiled with a few mods.  The outing was based on the movie, "The Quick and the Dead".  We rolled up characters (being a d20 game it always takes longer than we expect - so many fun choices) and off we went.  We had no idea in advance what the adventure was, so our characters were not optimized for the adventure.

Like any good western there was a bar room brawl, gun fights in the street, and the big shoot out finale which included a bad guy getting shot dead and falling off the roof.  Two of the characters entered the gun fight contest, because, what the heck, it was the adventure.  Surprisingly, my character, the River City Kid, made it all the way to the final round to go up against the mayor (who looked strangely like Gene Hackman).  The mayor changes the rules 15 minutes before the duel (which would indicate certain death for the Kid), and my character decides not to follow his rules any more and all hell breaks loose.  Fortunately for the Kid, the other characters come to his aid, risking their lives for cinematic glory.  A number of memorable moments by all characters, many of the perfect western classic type lines.  In the final scene the dead mayor's Peacemaker is slammed on the bar by the Kid who says to the saloon keeper, "I believe you have my two thousand dollars."  Great fun overall.

I don't hesitate to recommend Sidewinder Recoiled as a fine d20 western implementation.  It is really easy to run if you already know d20, and has some nice elements to make it western specific.

The only thing we didn't do was head them off at the pass.  Maybe next time.  The dice never lie.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Laphroaig quarter cask

Low on single malt Scotch Whisky stock in my cabinet, I dutifully headed out to the local state liquor establishment to select a bottle to replenish the inventory.  All the usual suspects are there (Glen this and that) but I want something more unique and less typical.  I spy a bottle labeled quarter cask which piques my interest.  I read the fine print, which raises the eyebrows more than once, and then proceed to the checkout.  A bottle of this golden elixir is now mine.

Laphroaig quarter cask is allegedly a throw back to a few centuries ago.  This local whisky might have been transported via mule over cattle paths to avoid paying duties.  (Check out the link above from the distiller, it is quite interesting)  Oh, and according to Wikipedia it is pronounced lə-FROYG.

Before you open the bottle, you learn it is an Islay malt, 48% abv, with a golden amber color.  Pop the cork and you are greeted with a most unusual nose.  It certainly is peaty, but a muted soft peat, and perhaps a hint of the sea in the smell and then smoke.  There is something else in the smell that I have been struggling to identify, almost an aromatic rubber like smell but not quite rubber.  Looking for inspiration, I went to some reviews and one called it band aids.  That is exactly it, there is a smell that is like a freshly opened metal box of band aids!  You might think this is an unpleasant mix, but it is not.

Due to the high alcohol content, I decided to add some water.  Normally, I take my Scotch neat.  It was very smooth.  There were tastes of sweet peat, smoke, a hint of citrus and some other tastes hovering just out of my reach.  Alas, I think I added too much water.  Even considering that it had a very long finish.  

This is a very nice Scotch, one that will take more of my time to explore.  I will take the next glass neat, and report on the findings.  Even with my over watered faux pas, it was quite pleasant.  I recommend you try it if for nothing more than the singular experience.
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