Friday, December 23, 2016

Curse of Strand - Death House: our experience

First *spoilers* warning.   I will try not to give it all away but if you are going to be a player in Curse of Strand do not continue reading.

Death house is the optional opening adventure to Curse of Strand.  This gives DMs a place to start
characters at first level, introduce the module, let players organically grow their characters and build some party cohesion so the group is ready for the real deal to begin at third level.

I am a player in this adventure and do not have any DM insight other than observations I can easily make from my long experience as a DM as well.  Overall I thought the module set the tone appropriately though it was populated with some corny dungeon trappings here and there (mimic for example).  The entire module behaves and feels like a trap, which is I suppose the point.  Ideally you barely get out alive with the feeling the house, the world, and most importantly Strahd is against you.

Unfortunately for us near the end of the module we had a huge breakdown in player smarts.  Rather than rest up again for full power and spells we pushed on to the final encounter at less than half strength.  Next, a demonstration of the amount of damage the big bad could do was promptly ignored.  The big bad movement limit was ignored tactically and then inexplicably three of our five characters decided, one by one, they could melee combat it only to be eaten.  This left our wizard character who was down to cantrips only and my warlock character.  The wizards only damage cantrip was resisted by the big bad, so I was basically left kiting the beast with my Eldritch Blast.   By the time I had finally worn down and defeated the creature, death saving throws had long gone by unsuccessfully.

There are decades of D&D experience in this group, and it has been many years since I witnessed such a sorry string of poor decisions.   We cursed ourselves.  This is of course my opinion, and my fellow players and long time friends may not see it the same way.   As we attempted to escape the house, the seriously wounded wizard went unconscious, and only repeated castings of false life thanks to my invocation selection fiendish vigor kept me standing.   We ended the module with my warlock at single digits in hit points holding an unconscious gnome wizard.  We were as close to a total party kill I have ever been without crossing over.

So now we start the real adventure.  Unfortunately most of the goals to know and grow the party we failed.   We do have a story to tell, which is the way of D&D after all.  I will just role play my angst and distrust after Barovia's first attempt to crush me.

Next up: Sandbox vs linear story progression.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Playing Curse of Strahd on-line

Due to some real life issues, my regular game is on hiatus and my son has stepped in and is running The Curse of Strahd, the adventure from Wizards of the Coast.

Playing On-line

First off, we are playing this via Roll20 on-line.  This is the first time we have run a campaign this way.  There has been attempts kick start a game on-line before but we are just jumping in because there is no other alternative.  We have gone from face to face gaming to an on-line session without much preparation.  The group is not the regular group either.  It is a combination of parts of my regular group, parts of my son's regular group and an old friend from the other side of the country.  Nice that the unfortunate circumstances allows us to reconnect with old friends.

We are trying to balance learning the tool with playing the game.  We do not need to take advantage of everything Roll20 has to offer.  Our thinking is less is more.  We typically roll the dice in Roll20, but you don't have to - we trust people to roll the dice on the side.  We are using the built in 5E character sheets, the saving throws and initiative tracking are proved useful.  Sometimes the built in capabilities do not function as we expect - whether it is operator error or not is unimportant.  We do not want to spend time trouble shooting during game time and instead prefer to keep the game moving.

To simplify matters, we are using Skype for voice communication, with some people using the same computer for Roll20 to run Skype while others run it on a separate phone or tablet.  We may not really be simplifying matters but it got us started.  We have not been using video to conserve bandwith, computer cycles and/or screen space.  Personally, I have been using a separate tablet for Skype with ear buds.  Some folks are still trying to talk via their PC microphone, and it works poorly.  Additionally, I use a second monitor to display my character sheet and notes so I do not have to interrupt the screen map or chat window.

Though Roll20 gives a spot for handouts, we are using that minimally and the players are sharing information via Google Drive.

Overall, though we have only had a few sessions, it is working well enough and we are pleased with progress.  The relative different comfort levels people have with the technology is telling though.  It can stall the game when someone has a 'tech' problem.

Next up, some thoughts on the module itself.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Show That Never Ends: farewell Greg Lake

The last of the bass guitar major influences of my youth has passed way.  Previously we lost John Entwhistle of the Who, Jack Bruce of Cream, and Chris Squire of Yes.  This week we lost Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

Some people remember the first time they heard an influential piece of music or artist, but that is not me.  For me it is more of a journey with my key memories happening somewhere along that journey.  I do not remember when I discovered Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

A digression.  My children do not really remember the time before music anywhere/everywhere.  Before Pandora, iTunes, and even before the Sony Walkman there was simply no easy way to take the music with you.  You had to go to the music.  Now we go to 1977 my freshman year at University.  I was not much of a socialite, preferring my own company during study times.  So study halls and most public places held little attraction for me.  I discovered the library had a music room/radio station.  The room was setup with couches, and each had large knobs with letters from the beginning of the alphabet, and huge educational style headphones with indestructible 1/4" jacks.  Across the room was the attendant (radio station DJ?) behind a sliding glass window and on the wall next to the window was a chart where they slide in an identifier for what was spinning on the turntable related to the letter on the alphabet.  I don't remember how many choices there were, probable about a dozen.  You could dial in what was playing, including listening to the radio station, or go up to the window and make a request.  Eventually your request was placed on a turntable, the identifier put up on the chart in an open slot.  Put headphones on, dial to you letter, get music.  This was music away from home in 1977.  End digression

On a visit to the University Music room to study (which was as often a nap) I sat on an open couch, dropped the heavy headphones on my head and started to wander through the letters for something which would fit the mood.  Looking up on the chart I saw ELP - Brain Salad Surgery.  This would be a solid four years after its release date, and I had never listened to it and knew nothing of it.  I tried it
and to borrow lyrics from Karn Evil 9, "Guaranteed to blow your head apart".  I was stunned, amazed and hooked.  For most of the rest of the year, as often as not, you could find me during a study in the library listening to Brain Salad Surgery, if it was not on a turntable, I requested it, I wonder if I wore out their copy.

To this day the music still moves me.

  • The haunting sounds of Jerusalem
  • The progress rock Toccata, based on a classical piece and which is a prime example of what ELP is all about
  • Greg Lake's warm vocals in Still...You Turn Me On
  • The oddity, Benny the Bouncer, to show case Emersons keyboard range and chops
  • And the main act, Karn Evil 9 - we all know "Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends."  

Is it perfect? No.  Benny the Bouncer does not really fit and interrupts the flow, and Karn Evil 9 3rd impression ends the album abruptly and leaves you feeling like there should have been an additional song for some closure.  I nit pick - I still love this album.

Sometime later, I discovered Greg Lake had been in an earlier band - King Crimson.  Again, I had my head blown apart.  In the Court of the Crimson King: An Observation by King Crimson was dark, brooding, whimsical and like nothing else.  Sometimes I find it hard to listen to the harsh 21st Century Schizoid Man, though it is a master piece.  I never find it hard to listen to The Court of the Crimson King.

As a budding musician in the late 70s, playing in what was really a classic rock band there was little chance we were going to play any ELP during our sets, and I don't know if we could have pulled it off anyway.  However, ELP affected my style and my thinking for good or ill.

What is it about Greg Lake which influenced me so much?  It was necessarily his prowess on the bass guitar itself.  I don't find him challenging John Entwhistle or Chris Squire for their place in lead bass playing.  I guess it was more his influence on the band's music (as I perceived it from afar), his tremendous voice, and something about his presence in the pictures and rare videos I got to see.  Bass guitar is more often about holding things together and driving things forward from underneath so the lead instruments and vocals can shine.  I felt Lake did this exceptionally well in a groundbreaking area where there was little to draw upon.

Although he played many different basses over the years, I was impressed with the Rickenbacker that he and Chris Squire used, and still have my original model 4002 stereo Rick.

Again from Karn Evil 9:
Come inside, the show's about to start
Guaranteed to blow your head apart
Rest assured you'll get your money's worth
Greatest show in Heaven, Hell or Earth
You've got to see the show, it's a dynamo
You've got to see the show, it's rock and roll, oh

Godspeed Greg Lake.  You have left quite a legacy here and they must be rejoicing that the Greatest Show has moved to Heaven.

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