Friday, April 27, 2018

Tomb of Annihilation: Session 1

Our Heroes

Ahab: Barbarian and disgraced pirate. Seeking money for a new ship, and good people to crew it.
Amon: Grave domain cleric of Anubis. Appalled at the recent spate of undead, and determined to see it stopped.
Bruja: Lizardfolk druid/witchdoctor. A Chultan native who, along with Darkbeak, was hired to guide the foreign adventurers through the jungle.
Caden: Elven warlock with an eldritch patron. Communicates solely through telepathy. His true motives are unknown.
Darkbeak: Kenku ranger, outlander, and Chultan native. Hired alongside Bruja as a guide/bodyguard.

In Waterdeep, Ahab, Amon, and Caden have been summoned by a mysterious old woman for a purpose they don't yet understand. Arriving at the grand palatial estate, they are ushered into a somber chamber where the three mercenaries are given the biggest mission of their lives: they are to stop death itself.

The old woman, speaking from behind an obscuring veil, is dying — again. She had once been a wise and powerful sorceress, and her adventuring days brought her close to the grave on multiple occasions. Once, it brought her past it, and it was only through the grace of a local cleric that she was brought back. She retired from the work then, focusing her attention towards civilization and the continued prosperity of Waterdeep. But her body was failing; suddenly, rapidly, she could feel her very life force draining from her with each passing day.

She was not alone. All over the world, those who had undergone resurrection found themselves withering away at an unnatural rate. Councils of mankind's greatest leaders and wizards (most of them, too, suffering from what would be known as the Death Curse) were convened, and divinations of the most powerful order revealed that souls of the deceased were being drawn to a place deep within the jungles of the southern continent of Chult. That is where the three men are to go, the old woman says, to find and destroy whatever is causing the Death Curse. The trip will take two weeks by boat, and the old woman knows she will not live to see it dock. She urges our heroes to fight not for gold or glory, but to save civilization as they know it.

The men gather their things and spend a sleepless night in the local inn. Their ship departs at first light.

Upon the sea, there is little evidence of anything amiss. The voyage is smooth and bright, and even as they pull into the docks at Port Nyanzaru on the northern side of Chult they are greeted not by death and decay but by a thriving seaside metropolis bustling with people. Here, they meet their guides, Bruja and Darkbeak, whose decades of experience in the hostile Chultan wilderness make them all but indispensable. Introductions are short, for their is much work to do. The group splits up to make a preliminary sweep of the area, asking questions about the city, the people, and Chult itself. They learn that Port Nyanzaru is the only truly thriving city in the entire continent: their proximity to the sea makes them an important stop for trade routes both incoming and outgoing. To this end, Chult is ruled not by a governor or king but by a council of merchant princes, each presiding over a particular export: everything from food and liquor to boats and sellswords. Sellswords: for the time being, that was what they were. The party set to work fashioning a rudimentary advertisement for their mercenary company (Bruja turns out to be a surprisingly capable artist) and tack it to the job board in the local tavern, Summer Wine. They order drinks, toast to camaraderie, prosperity, and health, and begin to settle in when a shattering scream is heard from outside. The bar clears out, and they with it.

A gruesome sight awaits them in the market square: wrapped corpses are spilling out of a local temple, and the scream they heard was the dying gasp of the young maiden now bleeding out on the temple stairs. Port Nyanzaru guards leap into action, forming a shield wall between the feasting zombies and the citizens, but more screams can be heard from inside the building. Ahab is the first to break through the barrier, leaping forward and splitting a zombie's skull with a single heft of his mighty spear. The rest of the party follows suit, fighting their way through the undead and up the stairs. Amon elects to stay outside and tend to the wounded with his clerical magic. By his decree, there will be no more senseless death today.

Inside, more corpses are rising from the tables, in various stages of decay. It becomes immediately apparent that this temple serves as both the city's funeral home and graveyard. The remaining priestesses are huddled in a corner, futilely waving a torch at the advancing undead. But with the combined prowess of four veteran adventurers, the battle is over quickly, and with faces and weapons caked in congealed blood our heroes are finally able to catch their breath. Stepping gingerly over the splayed form of a ghoul, the head priestess approaches to thank them for their act of courage.

She explains that although Chult has always had pockets of undead, the past several weeks had seen an explosion in reports across the continent. Furthermore, there seemed to be no pattern as to when and where they would appear: fresh corpses would be found walking amongst skeletons buried centuries ago, and many of the zombies that just rose within the temple had been consecrated by her herself. It was deeply troubling, but her work is an important one, and after rewarding the party with several highly-potent healing potions distilled by her order, she bids them goodbye.

By the point the crowd had dispersed, and the guards were busy heaving the twice-killed corpses onto a large bonfire. The group returns to Summer Wine, and spends some time talking over drinks. As evening begins to set, Caden notices that a large, one-armed Chultan seated at the far end of the bar is glaring at him and his companions. The one-armed man stands and approaches the party, handing them a small note which reads, "Jobal requests you." Below is an address within the city. Wordlessly, the stranger departs, and after a brief discourse on the merits of blindly trusting cryptic messages delivered by creepy people in strange lands, the party heeds their request.

They arrive at a beautiful-but-cramped estate in one of the richest areas of Port Nyanzaru. The door before them is ornately carved into an image of a fat, laughing face, and they soon see why. Entering, they find themselves in an opulent parlor, dominated by the supine form of a tremendously large man smoking a hookah. On either side of him are seated tabaxi, collared and chained. The large man beckons for the party to sit, and they do.

He introduces himself as Jobal, merchant prince of guides, guards, and mercenaries. His smile never fades as he chastises the party for not consulting with him before deciding to set up operations in Chult. He sets aside the hookah, and produces a contract and a flintlock pistol from a small box by the sofa. The contract is handed to Caden; the pistol, leveled at his head. Jobal explains that nobody, native or otherwise, does business in Chult without his permission. Darkbeak protests, but his persuasion is hindered somewhat by the kenku's natural inability to form creative thought. After a few more rounds of not-so-thinly veiled threats and bargains, Darkbeaks' Escorts is formed, with the stipulation that 50% of all profits will be delivered to the merchant prince upon completion of any successful outing. Still smiling, Jobal dismisses the party, but not before granting them their first assignment: an escort job. At dawn of the next day, they are to report to the gates to ensure that a caravan loaded with wood and other supplies returns safely to Fort Belarian, a Flaming Fist outpost on the northeast side of Chult.

Exhausted but newly employed, the party heads back to the inn and checks out their room. Their sleep is well-deserved — though not particularly long — and first light sees our heroes once again donning armor and polishing blades, preparing for their first journey into the untamed jungle.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Advertisements for Dungeons

Back in the late 1970's deconstructivist writer and architect Bernard Tschumi designed a series of advertisements for the concept of architecture. Like, not any building in particular, but the idea of buildings as art. They're pretty awesome, you can see the originals here.

Thus inspired, I decided to do the same thing with dungeons, which sometimes get a bad rap from the sort of people who prefer more narrative-driven games. But a dungeon is a wonderful storytelling tool: information can be gleaned from enemy placement, dropped items, even masonry. Locational storytelling is an important skill for good DM's to learn, and it breaks my heart that the noble dungeon has been so maligned when it alone teaches this better than almost anything else.

Click for big, but don't look too closely or my no-budget noise effects might distract from the overall message.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Player Skill, Agency, and Overwatch

I've been on an Overwatch kick lately, the latest in a long and torrid affair that began nearly two years ago when I bought it on launch day. I keep coming back to Reinhardt, one of the characters in the "tank" category who's whole shtick is that he's a future soldier who follows chivalric code and fights like a medieval knight. He's got a big hammer. It's cool.

I'm fairly certain this is what I drew in 4th grade in response to the question, "what do you want to be when you grow up?"

He's a popular character, so most matches will have one on each team, and that's when the fun begins. You see, Reinhardt has four main mechanics, and each one interacts with the others in a unique way. When two (experienced) Reinhardt players meet in the field of battle, a curious and interesting exchange takes place, one that I don't think is experienced by any other player in the game.

The four mechanics Reinhardt has are Shield, Firestrike, Charge, and Earthshatter. Shield puts up a large barrier that blocks most incoming projectiles, but not enemy bodies or — critically — Firestrike. Firestrike is a large, slow-moving projectile that pierces barriers. Charge causes Reinhardt to rocket forward (pinning anyone he collides with for heavy damage) but a collision with another charging Reinhardt knocks both of them down and stuns them for a bit. And Earthshatter knocks all enemies in a forward cone prone, but does not pierce Shield. This is important.

So, say you're Reinhardt and you come around a corner and see another Reinhardt in front of you. Time is critical: it is quite possible that this fight could be over after a single move. Your options are:
  1. Shield: If the enemy uses Shield, nobody takes damage. If the enemy uses Firestrike or Charge, you take damage. If the enemy uses Earthshatter, you negate damage.
  2. Firestrike: If the enemy uses Shield, you get to deal damage. If they use Firestrike, you both deal damage to each other. If they use Charge or Earthshatter, you take damage.
  3. Charge: If the enemy uses Shield, you get to deal damage. If they use Firestrike, you both deal damage to each other. If they use Charge, nobody takes damage. If they use Earthshatter, you take damage.
  4. Earthshatter: If the enemy uses Shield, nobody takes damage. If the enemy uses Firestrike, you both deal damage. If the enemy uses Charge, they take damage. If the enemy uses Earthshatter, you both deal damage.
Immediately it becomes apparent that Earthshatter is the optimal offensive choice: in three out of four situations, you get to deal damage to the enemy. In this experiment, there is no situation where using Earthshatter will cause you to take more harm than you give, and even the worst case scenario (the enemy uses Shield) is a stalemate. The decision is simple: use Earthshatter immediately, every time.

HOWEVER, it's not that simple. Earthshatter is an ultimate ability, which requires time and energy to build up. Unlike Firestrike, Charge, and Shield, which have either no cool-down time or a cool-down measured in seconds, it could take minutes to build up enough energy to use Earthshatter. And once it's gone, it's gone until you build up enough energy to use it again.

This changes the situation completely. An entire offensive push can be rebuked by a carefully-timed Earthshatter, and a wasted one (blocked by a Shield or simply mistimed) can cost a team precious minutes in recovery. This is where the mind games come into play. Lets pull back the paradigm a bit to see how it plays out in-game. It's about two minutes into the game, and you know the enemy hasn't used Earthshatter yet. You've got it prepared too, but you're being cautious: your entire team is rallied behind your Shield, and a mistake here could cost you the game. What do you do? Should you Charge forward, hoping to catch them off guard and breaking their line so your team can mop up, or will that simply put you too deep and cause you to die? Should you try to bait out their Earthshatter so you can block it with your Shield, or use yours knowing that they could be baiting it out just the same? What about Firestrike? It pierces barriers, so a well-placed strike could hit multiple enemies, perhaps even killing some, but it would leave you and your entire team vulnerable.

This is the sort of conflict that give game designers nocturnal emissions. Everything is riding on you making the correct decision in this very moment, the moment that separates the ten-hour newbies from the hundred(s)-hour veterans. If you've been paying attention to the match — the characters the enemy team chose, their positions, the timing of their last big push, the way their Reinhardt player acts from the brief past exchanges you've had — you may emerge victorious. Or you may die, because in any game involving even the slightest aspect of chance it is entirely possible to make no mistakes and still lose.

When I talk to people about player skill vs. character skill in RPGs, this is what I mean: no matter how powerful or versatile a character may be, they will never have one particular item, ability, or tactic that overcomes all obstacles. RPGs are unique because, while I've never encountered this sort of conflict in any other video game I've played, in (good) D&D, it happens all the time, and in (good) D&D, the true range of possible options is nigh-infinite.

You burst down the door and come face to face with six kobolds surrounding a makeshift fire. They jump up and ready their weapons, but you notice that their initial surprise is quickly replaced by a cunning look in their eyes. The cavern behind them is dark and silent, but you could have sworn this passage was supposed to be blocked off...

... roll for initiative.