Tuesday 30 September 2014

Tales of Blood and Glory: The Complete Midshipman Bolitho

So here's one that was sitting on my shelf for quite a long time before I finally picked it up. Then, midway through the first chapter I decided it wasn't for me. A Golden Age of the Sail novel with a focus on historical accuracy, "The Complete Midshipman Bolitho" was much too dry for my tastes. I decided to give it a little bit longer to hook me before I put it down though. And boy did this book deliver! In short order, it pick up the pace with fast, gritty, technical naval combat at it's finest!

The Bolitho Novels are 30 or so books written by author Douglas Reeman(using the name Alexander Kent) written over the span of half a century from 1960's to present day. "The Complete Midshipman Bolitho" collects the first three of those stories(by story-chronology rather than publication date--in that sense, they are similar to the excellent Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser "Swords" collection.)

Stories of Loyalty

In addition to the great descriptions of the various naval actions Bolitho participates in, the stories have a strong moral component. In fact, all of the conflicts are described by Bolitho in moral terms. As such, pirates are reviled for their cruelty, wreckers for their betrayal of their fellow seamen, and Bolitho's rival officers for their indifference towards the men under their command.

In his book "The Righteous Mind", Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes 6 fundamental moral foundations that manifest themselves in various forms in every Human culture: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. With this model in mind, I would say that the Bolitho Novels are primarily an exploration of the trait of Loyalty. Bolitho is constantly concerned with what duty demands of him, towards his King, his Family, and his comrades in the Navy. At the same time, Bolitho's Loyalty is presented as balanced. His rival officers are oftentimes portrayed as over-valuing duty, forgetting compassion for the men under their command.

Invariably, Bolitho himself is the moral compass for the stories. This omniscience in moral quandaries together with his limitless bravery does make him a bit Mary Sue character, to my mind.

Read these stories if you want action-packed Naval Adventures from the Age of the Sail. These definitely made me want to run more Swashbucklers & Seamonsters!

Friday 19 September 2014

Crawling After the Dragon Cult

Sir Manly of the Holy Turnip: wonderfully flawed!
Well, it's been a few weeks OOC time since Sir Manly, Pam, Wae Wae, and Lego the Bastard took on the Dragon Cult in Greennest and much has changed. The party's forays in Greenest seem to have brought about a change in the Roster(as usual, PC names that I don't know will be made-up post-facto):

  • Abominous the Abjurer- a wizard joining via G+
  • Drogo Carradine- the Half-Ogre Monk stood in for Lego
  • Harry Potter- a shape-changing Druid played by one of our new players
  • Roarrawrurmph- a Gold-colored dragonborn(a dragonborn to fight the dragon cult--how ironic). He's a Paladin with actual fighting abilities--the novel things these kids think up!
  • and, of course, Battle Mage, coming to back-up Sir Manly of the Holy Turnip

This ragtag bunch of 8 adventurers decimated a group of cultists, which led them to a higher-ranking group of cultists, which led them to the cultists' secret base camp by the end of the session.

DCC & Magic

So, as I mentioned previously, this session was experimental for me in that I brought a DCC RPG character into a 5e game and also that I was playing a DCC Wizard for the first time.

Regarding the first point, we ran into exactly 0 compatibility issues during the session, which was a pleasant surprise. The two systems are similar enough it didn't really make a difference having a DCC PC in the mix, though there are potentially some cases where some thought might be required with regards to compatibility.

Regarding the second point, I'm not really sure I got a big enough sample to judge the system. Battle Mage was rolling his spell-checks exceptionally well. I think, from the 5 rolls of 1d20+3, the average roll was probably about 18, so all the spells succeeded, making him quite the powerhouse. I didn't even feel the need to use spellburn, saving it up for the real nasty baddies.

I will say that the rather complex DCC magic system does make for more interesting magic. Whenever you cast a spell, you don't know if the spell will succeed or to what degree.  For instance, Battle Mage cast two stinking clouds. The first one only effected the lead cultist, but the second one took something like 13 kobolds out of commission.

New Players

We also had two new players at the table, both in their early teens. I was impressed by how quickly they got into the spirit of things. It's nice having some young blood with a fresh perspective on things and tons of enthusiasm.

Tuesday 16 September 2014


So, I've been wanting to try playing a DCC RPG Wizard for a while now. I don't usually play magic-using characters, but the colorful, if somewhat byzantine, magic rules from DCC hold some unique appeal to me. Of course, when am I going to have the chance? No one in my gaming group is likely to run a game of DCC any time soon.

So, in the spirit of FLAILSNAILS, I managed to convince our current DM to let me bring in a second PC, a DCC Wizard type, into his 5E game. So here he is--meet Battle Mage!

He's a hedge wizard, apparently from the Greenest area. He still lives on his parents' farm, so that he doens't have to come up with rent while he concentrates on his magical studies. He insists on everyone calling him "Battle Mage" though his Mother still calls him Terrence and his father generally tries to avoid contact with his poor excuse for a son.

Well, Battle Mage, will no doubt join the party in order to earn his name fighting the invaders to this normally peaceful land. Rugby, the family goat, has followed him on his way and refuses to go home, so he's there too.

The DCC Magic System

So, apparently someone at DCC looked at DnD magic and said "Yes, it's Vancian, but it just doesn't capture the insanity of Rhialto the Marvelous". The Mercurial Magic Rule in particular, is, quite frankly, inspired. For instance, whenever Battle Mage casts Comprehend Languages, it rains frogs, thus making a dull spell infinitely more amusing/useful.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the DCC magic system works in actual play. My only worry is the amount of material I need to bring. I wrote quite a few notes on how the DCC magic rules work, plus I have to print out Battle Mage's spells(a page each), critical hits table, patron info, the misfire/corruption tables, and the list of spellburn actions. That's a lot more reference material than I like to have to bring to the table. In any case, it's probably time for me to add a hard copy of DCC RPG to my next Amazon order...

Sunday 14 September 2014

Tales of Blood and Glory: Count Zero

Wow, just read my way through the second sprawl novel, Count Zero. Another great story-- finished it far too quickly.

Well, if Neuromancer's theme is the uncomfortably intimate relationship between Man and Technology, then Count Zero is about Man's growing insignificance in the face of Technology.

The Novel begins with three protagonists, each of whom symbolically embodies the quote from the Novel's frontleaf(an implicit Chandlerism)
"On receiving an interrupt, decrement the counter to zero" 
Each of these "Zero's" will soon find themselves caught in the very center of a battle between three colossally powerful entities:

  1. The Zaibatsus: mega-corporations with near unlimited resources and a near endless supply of indentured employees
  2. The Mega-Rich: individuals whose wealth has allowed them to extend their power nearly without limits, thus allowing them to transcend Humanity
  3. The AI's: freed from the restrictions of the Turing Police as a result of events in Neuromancer, they are literally becoming Humanity's new gods

Just another day in Barrytown...

(Spoiler Warning)

Though the Zeroes ultimately triumph, surviving the ordeal and each carving out a new life for themselves, upon deeper reflection it is incredibly dark(I guess Gardner Dozois' Recidivist wasn't as great a tonal leap as I thought). Ultimately, Humanity's rise, both as individuals and collectives, will be checked by the already superior machines and Man will be relegated to being mere "Horses" that the AI's choose to ride. Bobby and Angie seem to come to terms with this or even embrace it, Turner flees into a rural existence, and Marly is left unaware of the full nature of what has happened.

Anyway, a great read, and I'm looking forward to "Mona Lisa Overdrive"!

Thursday 4 September 2014

Combat or Roleplaying?

Doc Bargle recently wrote a great little post pointing out the tension between good tactical combat and good roleplaying. I recommend that you read it in full, but here's an excerpt:
the good Dr. instructing a new player to his group
(source Google Image Search)

I play mostly with people who have not and will not read the rules. And so I am acutely aware that combat with lots of choices equals victory to those with system mastery. I find nothing more disheartening when I read roleplaying forums that are 'epic' accounts of encounters that concentrate on the 'synergies' that the players managed to set up between their powers or other clever exploitation of the system. In the games that I run, once combat is started I want the encounter settled quickly. I want it settled quickly because I want the consequences of that combat to result in further interesting choices for the PCs. Choices about the game world, not the game system.

I definitely agree with Doc's model of tactical combat vs. roleplaying. Just look at our 4e games--when every encounter take between 45 minutes and the entire session, there just isn't any time left for roleplaying!

At the same time, I disagree with Doc's conclusion, that the roleplaying should be at the center and the combat an afterthought. DnD grew out of Chainmail, a simple wargame, and wargames are all about interesting tactical combat.

The subtle joy of obscure polearms
Even when Gary and Dave discovered the joys of roleplaying, combat continued to be a major part of the game. Heck, the whole reason I got sucked into DnD to begin with was that I just couldn't put down the equipment list for Pool of Radiance--I just had to keep re-reading it and figure out what these strangely named weapons were(it was only a decade later that I figured out what the heck a Bec-De-Corbin was) and try them all out to see what worked best.

Bottom line, I enjoy the Roleplaying and I enjoy the Tactical Combat, and I want both in my game, dammit!

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Help! My Encounters are Too Easy

So here's a common question DM's face: "Encounters in the game I'm running are too easy and it's making for a dull game, combat-wise. What can I do?"

I've had this problem in at least two of the games I DMed and I've also heard 4 other DM's struggling with the issue at various times(I remember Nathan collecting suggestions for dealing with this problem in his Somewhere North campaign, but I can't find that post...). So, let's look at some possible solutions:

Give Me MOAR!

I ran into this problem at some point when I DMed my first game. My solution was simple:

  1. Develop a feeling for what the party can handle
  2. Adjust any encounters that seem too easy with more/tougher opponents

And it basically worked, though step 1 took some time for me to really get a feel for.

This also worked fairly well for one member of our group when he was running WFRP and our party was just steamrolling whatever he threw at us. His solution was simple yet effective: start throwing in some extra Chaos Warriors. (My solution was to throw in some poison and laser beams!)


The problem with just scaling-up the baddies mechanically is that, at higher levels, combat becomes this long battle of attrition, where each side tries to wear the other down first(also happened to us in WFRP 1e with heavily-armored adversaries).  So, you're back to dull combats, but of a different kind.

I remember reading this great blog post(which of course I can't find now) where the guy described a long-running campaign he played in. There were many nasty monsters, but the worse were...Kobolds!

No, the DM didn't use 10HD kobolds. Instead, the kobolds played smart and used tactics. They would ambush the party in a narrow corridor filled with arrow slits in the ceiling. They would lay nasty traps and then attack when the party triggered them. They would cut-off the magic user from the rest of the party and then pepper him with arrows. He described how, going back out of the dungeon, the party would take a huge detour to avoid the Kobold-infested areas. (UPDATE: thanks, Jay Rutley, for pointing me to Tucker's Kobolds from Dragon 127, pg. 3)

So it's not just monster mechanics that matter, but monster tactics. I once wrote a post on better monster tactics while dealing with too-easy combat in WFRP, so read that, if you want...

The Difficulty Roll

So we have mechanics and tactics, but there's another level--the psychological level. Until now, the DM has been trying to guess the perfect difficulty for a combat, but it's an imprecise process. Sometimes the players end up with too easy a fight, and sometimes it's too difficult. What I've found, is that I tend to try and err on the side of caution. No one wants to be the DM who accidentally TPKed the party because he overestimated them.

So instead, what I generally do when rolling-up a random encounter, is have a relative difficulty roll on 1d6:

  • 1-2 an Easy Encounter- the party shouldn't have too much trouble wiping the floor with these guys.
  • 3-4 an Evenly Matched Encounter- it's a toss-up who's going to win this one. The players better bring their best.
  • 5-6 a Difficult Encounter- the party had better flee or come-up with some really out-of-the-box trick if they want to come out of this one alive
This takes a lot of the pressure off of me as the DM to find a perfectly matched encounter for the party. For one, I only am trying to do that about 1/3 of the time and secondly, the players learn very quickly from the hard battles to choose their fights wisely. I think there's also better DM/Player communication since I've already determined ahead of time how sure I am that they will be able to handle the fight (very sure, somewhat sure, not at all sure). As such, I describe it differently and we end up with better DM/Player communication.

This approach worked quite well for me during our Polish Resistance campaign, where, after the first PC deaths(it was almost a TPK), the party was happy to skip encounters that sounded high-risk, unless the rewards were just too tempting.

On the Other Hand

On the other hand, one could argue against this whole approach. Aren't randomness and player choice the king and queen of DnD? I reject out of hand the idea that every combat should be perfectly balanced for the PC's. That takes away all the game's dynamism and much of the onus for players to think creatively. At the same time, lull periods of dull combat occur and my intention with this post is to, hopefully, give my fellow DMs tools to deal with this eventuality.