Sunday, April 11, 2021

Team Yankee 6mm Escalation League

My local group of Team Yankee 6mm players have formed an escalation league. That is not 100% correct, let me start over from the beginning. Several years ago my life changed pretty dramatically, but since this is my rant to you, the impersonal masses of the internet, that is all the details I am willing to give out. During this upsetting of life's apple cart, I decided that I wanted to get back into some hobbies that I had set aside for the job I no longer had, and also were more sedentary due to me getting older and my knees giving out. Namely, tabletop role-playing games and tabletop wargames. A good friend of mine as well as a coworker both introduced me to Battlefront's Flames of War and Team Yankee wargames, but the good friend let slip that TY was PERFECT for 6mm scale, to the point where even the main author of it had opined in public that he wished they could have utilized that scale instead of 15mm. And I have been trying to play TY in 6mm ever since, literally for a little over four years now. Oh, we got some games in last year before COVID came crashing down on us, but it was like a game and a half. Plus, I had multiple people express their desire in joining in, but never did anything about it. I decided it was time to be the catalyst in the mix, so after finding yet another person interested who also happened to have a smattering of 6mm models already in their possession, I declared that I was going to host an escalation league.

An escalation league, for those of you unfamiliar with the concept, is in your tabletop wargames of choice, you start with a low point total, give your players time to gather, build and paint that total's worth of miniatures, and then you go up a set increment, rinse, repeat. All while playing as many games inside the league as you can stomach. In my league, we are starting at 50 points, and increasing that by 25 every 4 weeks or so. Fifty points in TY is a good starting point - you get a good mix of units but you just can not squeeze everything into an army list. As a league implies a competition, we are also tracking overall victory points, average victory points per game played, and participation points. Those last are points awarded for showing up, bringing painted armies, bringing all your gear (tokens, smoke markers, artillery templates, etc), and bringing finished terrain. As we are currently playing at my domicile until we can get a local game store to rent us a table again (thank you, Global Pandemic! /end sarcasm), I am not cheating and counting my own participation points. Well, not so much cheating as enjoying an unfair advantage over everyone else. 

Onto my lists, and yes, I am building multiple forces because I already have a sizeable number of minis. At 50 points, I am running two lists in both the Americans and the East Germans. When I first got into 6mm TY, I had bought up a bunch of GHQ minis from the 1st edition TY army books, so I am trying to use those minis instead of going straight to the latest and greatest (ie: T80 and BMP-3 Soviets, and M1A1 and Bradley Americans). In all 4 of these lists I tried to include decent tank options (not high end and very point heavy, but also not low end and be too "horde-y"), at least some infantry in the tank heavy lists for flexibility and objective sitting, as well as some artillery and attendant observer, and some gun AA. I do not expect much in the way of fixed wing aircraft at this low of a point total, but there might be some helos, and gun AA is also pretty effective against APCs/IFVs and infantry.

For the Americans, I have built up an Army M60 Patton Armored Combat team, as even basic M1 Abrams are too point heavy and would restrict my numbers too much - a single tank HQ (4pts), 3 platoons with 2 M60s apiece (8pts per - I am experimenting with multiple minimum unit formations, see how this works for me), and a 3 M113 mech platoon (2 M47 Dragon teams, 3 M249 SAW teams) plus an extra M47 Dragon team (4pts for the platoon, 1pt for the extra team). The other formation is a M113 Mech Combat team - mandatory HQ (M113 and M16 rifle team, 1pt), a 4 M113 mech platoon (3 M47s and 4 M249s, 6pts), 2 M113 mech platoons w/extra M47s (5pts per), and a 4 tank M60 Patton tank platoon (16pts). Each of those also has 3 M106 Heavy Mortars (3pts) and 2 M901 ITVs TOW-1 (3pts) integral to the formation, and 3 M109 artillery (7pts), 2 M163 VADS (3pts), and a M113 FIST (1pt) from Divisional support.

I went with East Germans instead of USSR proper as I had a bunch of T72s and BMP-1s, and while I did not want to go straight T55 horde, I do appreciate the East Germans' lower point cost on both of those units. The first formation is the T72M Panzer Battaillon - mandatory HQ (3pts), 2 4 tank Panzer Kompanies (11pts per), a 3 tank Kompanie (7pts), and a 4 BMP-1 Mot-Schutzen Kompanie (3 RPG-7 teams and 4 MPi-KM teams, 6pts) plus an AGS-17 GL and extra BMP-1 (1pt). The other formation is the BMP-1 Mot-Schutzen Battaillon - mandatory HQ (BMP-1 and a MPi-KM rifle team, 1pt), 3 BMP-1 Kompanies w/4 BMP-1s apiece (3 RPG-7s, 4 MPi-KMs, 6pts per), plus one extra AGS-17 GL team and BMP-1 (1pt). Then, like the Americans, I have a 4 track ZSU-23-4 Shilka Flak Zug (4pts) and a 3 tube 2S1 Gvozdika (Carnation) Artillerie Batterie (6pts) integral to each formation, plus a BMP-1 OP (1pt) from Divisional support.

With the Americans, having your artillery and AA in Divisional support instead of integral to the formation means you can play them a lot further forward - if you lose them, they don't count towards formation morale. But then, with the East Germans, because they are integral to the units, they can be held back and help with formation morale. I'm not sure which play style I prefer, but it's going to be interesting to find out.

So what did all of this cost? I am not talking about the rulebooks, tokens, dice, measuring devices, etc, just the models themselves. From GHQ, which is the most expensive of the 6mm scale manufacturers, though we in the US do save on not having to pay import/export taxes and overseas shipping, the American forces were as follows:
2 packs of M60A3s
2 packs of M113A1s
1 pack of M160A1s
1 pack of M901s
1 pack of M109s
1 pack of M163 VADS
And for the infantry, 1 pack each of the Modern US Heavy Weapons, Modern US Individual Infantrymen, and to get some M72 LAW figures, 'Nam Era US Heavy Weapons.
At basically $12 per pack ($11.95 per), that's $108 for the Americans, but you are getting 3 extra M60s, 3 extra M106s, 3 extra M901s, 2 extra M109s (but the short barrel version that the Brits and West Germans use), 4 extra M163s, and a handful of extra infantry bits that I'm not going to list here. Considering just the M901s and M163s will run you $40 from Battlefront in 15mm, $108 for the whole double list force plus extras does not sound so bad.

For the East Germans, I picked up:
3 packs of T72s
3 packs of BMP-1s
1 pack of ZSU-23-4 Shilkas
1 pack of 2S1 Carnations
And for infantry, 2 packs of Modern Russian Infantry and 1 pack of Modern Russian Heavy Weapons - yeah, they're not specifically East Germans, but they're close enough to them and the Soviets of the mid-80s that at this scale it's not really noticeable, and you can use them between the Soviets, East Germans, Poles, and Czechs.
Again, 9 packs at $12 per for a total of $108. But in 15mm scale you will still feel the wallet pinch of the horde army even as less-horde-ish as my East German lists are, as you will need 3 packs of Battlefront T-72s at $50 apiece just to start. 

For the future, at least for the first "escalation" of 25 points, my plans are pretty much to add more of the same, plus air units - A10s and Hueys with airborne troops for the Americans, SU-25s and Hinds for the East Germans. I will, at some point, sub in M1 Abrams for the M60 Pattons, as well as add some missile AA vehicles, but until I am ready to put in a new formation entirely, I will be staying with the vehicles and units I have now.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Lessons Learned 25

The great plague smothering the land was easing its grip, a cure had finally been developed, and our brave adventurers could once again delve the depths of dungeons that did not allow for the mandated six feet of separation. Yes, my weekly D&D 5e group is finally playing again. Mostly in person, even. We had tried, at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak here in the States, to continue our campaign over Roll20 and Discord, but they just did not work for us. I am by no means disparaging those two applications, in fact, I encourage any DM and party who is looking to game online to use them, it is that my party could not make them work. Well, one of my players who is technologically and financially challenged could not make it work (you can fix or overcome most technology-related problems by throwing more money at it), and as I was not going to run the campaign without him, we decided to do something else. That something else was letting one of the other players run a short campaign online for those who could make Roll20 and Discord work. It was entertaining but short, and per what Seth Skorkowsky said, when a player offers to DM you, their DM, you let them do it

But here we are, most of the group was already constantly in contact with the public due to our jobs anyway, the incidence rate is fairly low due to (lack of) population density in the area, and except for one player who has some health concerns and was isolating even harder than everyone else (and another who is having marital issues) who joined us online via an old cellphone and Discord video chat, we are now gaming in person once again. Except when players miss games and we have to cancel. Or they forget to check with their human resources department and their new scheduled days off are not on the days they thought they were going to be. Or when my own work schedule drastically changes the day before the game due to coworker incompetence and I have to cancel. Or one player skips sleeping for a few days to play a videogame and has to cancel. 

Which brings me to the Lesson mentioned in the title of this post - you will never find a group of your friends who all have the exact same schedule or who will not have life interrupt from time to time. I have never, NEVER, played or DM'd in any group where attendance was 100%. If you have - and games that last exactly one session do not count - then I and every other grognard out there envies you, that is the rarest of the rare. Not that I am berating my or any other players (or DMs, we are merely human too) out there, as you have to admit that as fun as it is we are still just playing a game and more important things exist in our lives. Even my employer, who pays me so I can afford my mortgage and car payment, does not get me 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year - I call in sick and take vacations and holidays just like everyone else does. The players are going to miss, the DM is not going to be prepared for every session - shit happens! 

The lesson, if you have not figured it out, is that you need a plan for players who miss. Or if you as the DM misses. Because chances are, from session to session, someone is not going to make it to the game. It will most generally not be the same player/DM (unless they are done playing and cannot quite bring themselves to admit it to the group), which is a relief and makes the infrequent absentees bearable (most of the players and DMs out there) but makes the habitual ones grind your teeth in frustration. What then, dear reader, should one do? As hinted at by my slips of vulgarity, I spent many years in the United States Army, and they have a saying you, as a DM, should take to heart - Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome. What was your first plan? Everyone's plan changes upon meeting the enemy (or getting punched in the teeth, however you prefer that saying), and you need a backup plan, as well as an alternate to the backup, and enough gumption to throw all of the above out on its ear and just plain wing it when required. Oh yeah, and enough talent to not only follow the new plan, but make it work.

What has worked for me is stubbornness - my current D&D group WILL make it to level 20 or their PCs will die trying. And I have outright replaced 2 of the starting players in the group, welcomed one of those back when he replaced his own replacement, tried out 3 other players that just did not mesh with the rest of the group, and added 3 more players that appear to be doing well. Plus did everything I could to keep the group together during a global pandemic that, admittedly, did not get to the level of "zombie apocalypse", darn the luck. One of the biggest things I have done from the beginning is that the players leave their character sheets at my place (where we hold our sessions), and if they cannot make a session, they have to "adult" up and let me know ahead of time who is playing their character. And if their PC dies while they are not present, it still counts. Scheduling is the other big hurdle, and sometimes all you can do is have everyone, including yourself as DM, list out when they are free to play a session. Once you have the list, sometimes the only option you have is what fits best into the most participants' schedules, and you have to be enough of an adult and look at your friend, even if they are your favorite player, and tell them it just is not going to work for this campaign, hopefully they will be available in the future. The game must go on, and when it cannot continue in its current form, sometimes the only option is to start fresh, keep only the players that really show they want to be there, maybe try a new campaign setting, or even a new game entirely, and try again. You never know, you could end up running your game for just one session before restarting from scratch (got a movie quote about that, more in a moment) or you could run it for the next 40 years. The movie quote, by the way, is about bands, and I cannot seem to find the scene by itself, but it is very appropriate to RPG groups. The scene comes from That Thing You Do, the one starting and directed by Tom Hanks from the '90s about a band of young gentlemen in the late '50s/early '60sand their hit rock song. Our protagonist, the drummer of the group, finds himself talking to his hero, a jazz pianist, who has been in the music industry for a very long time. The drummer complains that his band is breaking up, but they have this hit record and song, to which the wise veteran replies, "some bands I've been in, one album is too many". Well, for some of your groups out there, one game session may be one game session too many, and they immediately dissolve. Hell, I myself have tried to get groups together that dissolved before they got through character creation and Session Zero! But you will not know for sure until you have at least tried. Do not beat yourself up if it does not work, bit you have to at least try.

Not so much a lesson, but some other things I wish to share. Just as we were gearing up to play in-person again, WotC released Tasha's Cauldron of Everything (TCoE). My impression of it so far is that it suffers the same issue as Xanathar's Guide to Everything (XGtE) - if it really covers "everything", why would we need any other books? But here we have TWO tomes with similar names claiming "everything"? The goofy name aside, I do like most of TCoE, and am actively using several items from it - sidekicks and group patrons. To be honest, when I started my current campaign almost 3 years ago, I also invented (or thought I had) group patrons. The wife and I several more years before starting the campaign had watched the BBC's recent reinvention of The Musketeers. When we watched it, I was struck that this certain unit in the military answered directly to their ruler, got missions and support from the government, and in return said government got to restrain them from being too excessive. The perfect thing to fight murder-hoboism, I thought. I talked about this, briefly, nearly a year ago when the Eberron campaign setting book came out, the first appearance of patrons to D&D 5e, officially. It took me a while, but recently I realized that what I had done in my own game was give my players a patron. Here I was, thinking at how clever I had been, but the folks at WotC are keeping up with all of us out here in TV Land. 

Sidekicks have also been of great use. Long before TCoE came out, my party went a little "awaken" crazy, and ended up with a badger bartender (who I ruled got a little extra juice in the awakening and also got a little anthropomorphized in the process, but as the badger is not joining the party on the adventures, I deemed it was fine for story purposes), the cleric's giant boar mount, and a dire wolf the ranger insisted on saving after the party almost killed it (did kill 13 of its packmates and its former master... how long does the "charm" portion of the awaken spell last again? 30 days? that should be fine). The party is already 11th level, so while the rules for sidekicks normally only allow creatures/NPCs up to 1/2 CR, I allowed the "big pig" and the wolf to be made sidekicks, just reduced their hit dice pool to match what would normally be given to a 1/2 CR sidekick at level 11, but left everything else alone. Yeah, these two have more special abilities than your average 1/2 CR creature, but at this level, it is not going to make much difference. For the boar, I went with the "warrior" sidekick, as our cleric is not one to shy away from melee combat and also the boar is very not-stealthy, having her own barding. For the wolf, even though it is a "large" creature (a wolf roughly the size of a horse), I decided to go just a bit sideways and went with the "expert" sidekick. Yes, the "expert" is more like a rogue, but it is also more like a ranger, with the tracking and stealth, and the pack tactics special ability of the dire wolf interlocks well with the coordinated strike feature of the "expert". The party has not had much time with their new sidekicks, but I can already tell they are looking forward to getting good use out of the pair. Check out both sidekicks and group patrons in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, I know my party is enjoying both of them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

How to Properly Do a D&D Movie/Show

They appear to be making yet another D&D movie, and I think they are going to make a hash of it. Again. Let us be honest - D&D has done well as a RPG (duh), many novelizations and comic books (but not all of them), but has been laughable at best in theaters and well, the best cartoon they did last aired in 1985. I have said in the past that WotC, instead of trying to make their own D&D movie, would be better served to buy the rights to whatever generic or even lightly branded medieval fantasy movie that is about to come out, and just change the names of places and people to fit any of the many D&D campaign settings. They could have done it with the 2018 version of Robin Hood. It did not seem to have much in common with the standard Robin Hood mythos, aside from some of the names. It also seemed to be full of magic and anachronistic technology and fashion that made no sense for a Robin Hood retelling, so it is not too big of a stretch to see that WotC could alter the script to names from one of their many campaign settings, slap some Spock rubber ears on a few of the actors to make "elves", some beards on short actors for "dwarves", and rename it to, "D&D, the Bandit's Journey", or something vaguely cool like that. It would not do any worse than the actual movie did ($100 million budget, and only $86 million worldwide gross? not a real barn burner, was it?) and if the WotC writers tightened up the plot at the same time they were changing names in the script, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the movie would have actually been successful and made money. I would say it does not appear they are doing any of that, but we know so little about what the new movie contains that I cannot really say much about it. Oh, Chris Pine is reported to be the lead actor, and I have enjoyed his work elsewhere, so it has that going for it.

What? You know I am right, if the setting is medieval fantasy, change some of the names and it is totally a D&D movie. I see that look on your face, you do not believe me, but I, ahem, Mr Matt Colville DM extraordinaire shall prove you wrong.

Yes, if you paid attention, that was Matt describing the most popular geeky movie franchise of the late '90s/early '00s, Lord of the Rings, as a D&D campaign. Also to explain the difference between different styles of D&D games. As long as the story is good, the plot vaguely makes sense, and the characters have a chance to exhibit growth, then it does not matter which exact story you tell. Yes, Tolkien's works pre-date D&D, even influence it heavily enough that the Tolkien estate sued TSR back in the day, but you have to admit that The Lord of the Rings trilogy would have worked just as well with different names for the characters and places. So it makes for a crappy D&D campaign, but still it was more entertaining to watch than The Hobbit trilogy. No, I am not going to link those two, if you have not seen either or do not know what I am talking about, stop reading this, go watch the movies, read the books, and then you can come back. You must be at least this nerdy to participate in this blog.

I would say that the folks behind the upcoming D&D movie are doing any of that, but as I do not actually know what they are doing or even planning on doing, I am not going to say that. Instead I am going to tell you what I would do if I were in charge, as if I had any chance of the folks at WotC listen to any of my advice. Better chance of winning the lottery. Which reminds me I need want to buy some lottery tickets, but no, Powerball and Mega Millions are not high enough as I type this. Anyway, this is what I would do for a D&D movie. First, I would make it a series on one of the streaming platforms. Movies are too constricted, too bland and safe, especially after the COVID (well, eventually after we will be able to go back to theaters to watch them), so I would do a series for the long term value and I would go streaming because that is where you folks, my people, my fellow nerds and geeks, where we watch our entertainment these days. Second, if we are going to go so far as to brand this thing D&D, instead of just making another generic medieval fantasy show, let us really show folks what D&D is all about - you show the players and DM playing the game and then every so often flip over to the action in the game so it is not just another live play show. Wait, what? Yes, you have two complete casts, one that is playing the story like it was an actual game of D&D, complete with jokes and table banter, and another, different cast in full costumes and CGI effects and fancy set pieces, the works, acting out the story the first cast is playing in their game. Oh, and the first cast is doing voice-over for everything the second cast is saying. 

Let me explain this a bit further - the first episode starts out in media res, our action cast in their medieval fantasy finery battling some level monsters (goblins or kobolds, whatever you would normally encounter at level 1 or 2), but the voices do not seem to match up with the characters, and maybe even one or more of the characters is being voiced by the opposite gender. The characters defeat the whatevers and a new voice suddenly starts describing what appears before the characters, and then a whip cut over to a bunch of geeks (the voices we heard coming out of the fantasy hero mouths just a moment ago) gathered around a table, playing D&D. The new voice from the voice over is the, duh, DM. Of course, someone tells a joke at the dramatic moment, which is the reason for the whip cut, the table breaks up laughing and now the audience is pulled into the fun. We watch the players for a bit, the DM calms everyone down, and we flip back to the live action group acting out the new scene. This way you have both halves of what you want from a D&D movie - the medieval fantasy schlock with cool fight scenes and special effects, the story and character development you have always wanted from one of these but never really got, and you also get to see what playing the game with your friends is like.

I just realized that what I described was Harmonquest, Dan Harmon's animated, D&D-as-therapy show that is hilarious and popular with "the youths". For the most part my idea is very similar, but there are some key differences. The biggest is that the cast stays the same, and this will not be played out in front of a live studio audience, sitcom style. Other differences lie in that my D&D show will be scripted, live action for the adventure scenes, and while still containing humor (you have to have a good laugh around the table to have a good D&D game) it will be a much more serious tone overall. 

Now for casting - I think WotC needs to cast big name voice actors like John DiMaggio and Kari Wahlgren who are known for doing voice acting but not known for doing live performance acting. Like the cast of Critical Role before they did Critical Role. Why not just cast them? Because you want to use the good ideas from that show, but not merely recreate it (and they are already doing a Critical Role cartoon that hot Kickstarted for millions of dollars). So you get voice actors who are recognizable by their voices but not their faces, and they are your DM and players of the show. For the "action" cast, you hire all those stunt women and men, like ZoĆ« Bell, who rarely act as themselves but are in great shape and can do all the fight choreography. I like this setup because you still have the names that the very interested fans will recognize, and since this will be a series on streaming, the production team can save themselves some money, as the name draw just is not necessary. Though I did recently see the new Jumanji movies, and it was kind of neat to hear the action cast (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, etc) mimic the real world cast (the kids, Danny DeVito, etc). But then you have to pay for double the cast, as they found out between the 2 newest Jumanji movies - you have to have recognizable names and voices to mimic with your "action" cast, otherwise it just does not land as well as you hoped it would. 

Which brings us, of course, to the story, and the biggest question all of the previous D&D-based movies have SPECTACULARLY failed on - what exactly is the story of D&D? The answer, of course, is that there is not one singular story for D&D, there never has been, and there never will be. I am not the only one who believes this to be true, and Jerry Holkins is as big a D&D nerd as you can find, so that article is not about how much he hates D&D. Well, that is all then, guess we are done. What? No? Fine. As you well know, everyone thinks of something different when they hear the term Dungeons & Dragons, usually their favorite gaming party during their most epic of adventure arcs or campaigns. And yes, I intended to emphasize that the party is more important than the plot of the campaign, because admit it, in your memories, your friends (ie: the party) ARE more important. Which is why I want to have a cast specifically made to show the DM and the party so we can tell that story and relate to the non-fans how special the relationship around a TTRPG usually is for those involved. Also why I want to script the whole show, as you can often get good table chemistry from any bunch of nerds playing D&D, but from non-players who are voicing lines for the "action" cast, well, it is far easier to feed them the lines so they sound like they are veteran players, have great table chemistry, and easier to match lip flaps with the "action" cast if you are not improvising all your lines at the same time. Then what story do I give to the "action" cast? More accurately, which classic D&D campaign would I have the party play and the action cast act out? Because that is what you need for the action cast - a classic D&D campaign that is recognizable to the fans but still gives a little of everything found in the game to those who do not know (combat, exploration, negotiation, stealth, high adventure, the works). There are plenty to choose from - Against the Giants, Keep on the Borderlands, The Spider Queen - and even plenty that were created for or from novels - any of the Drizz't books or the entirety of the sprawling Dragonlance novels spring immediately to mind. However, the one I have in mind is not as popular in the current player zeitgeist, but I think that would enhance it for the show - the grognards who remember it would be stoked to see it, the younger players would enjoy learning about it from the show, and it has plenty of dungeon crawling and political intrigue. I am talking about the original adventure path, The Shackled City

First, a little explanation of what an adventure path is and where they originated from. Near the end of the 3.5 edition of D&D, WotC got a little tired of doing their Dragon and Dungeon magazines (actually, I think it was more towards the end of 3rd edition and the transition to 3.5, but the timing is not important) and one of their biggest users of the Open Gaming License (OGL), Paizo Publishing, offered to take over those magazines for WotC. And they did a fantastic job with them, handling them like champs for many years. Eventually WotC took the magazines back from Paizo (and then killed the magazines, of course) right around the time they released 4th edition. Paizo, having already made plenty of their own products for 3rd/3.5 decided to double their bet and tweaked what they already had published to make their own medieval fantasy RPG, Pathfinder. Which is similar enough to 3rd/3.5 that most players consider Pathfinder (at least 1st edition Pathfinder, but that's a different story) to be D&D version 3.75. Before all of that, though, while they were still doing Dungeon magazine, they came up with the idea of the adventure path - it is not a small series of adventures, but a large one, set to tell a longer story and let your players take their characters from level 1 all the way up to 20. Paizo got so good at adventure paths that they became the main selling point (at least in my mind) of Pathfinder. And Shackled City was the first one. 

There are some caveats. The biggest is that Shackled City appears to be not the greatest, story-wise, as it is far more focused on the dungeon crawling and the lore surrounding the plot is not shared well with the players. I have never played it, so I cannot give you my opinion of it, but I do not see this as a huge problem. Even though it was written by the Paizo folks, the campaign still belongs to WotC as their intellectual property, so they can use whatever bits of it they want and change the rest to tell a more interesting story. In fact, as WotC has already transformed many classic adventures to the new(ish) 5e rules, they could improve the adventure path and release it alongside the show. That is called "synergy", right there. You should also remember that the main draw of this D&D series is not the action scenes, but the interaction of the party members, so whatever adventure they are following is really the sideshow next to the main attraction.

There you have it folks, my grandiose, self-indulgent plan for how I would do a D&D movie/streaming series. Now to wait for the royalty checks to come pouring in. Any second now.

One last thing before you go, if you are fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic), as well as a fan of Red Letter Media, you should check out RLM's commentary track for the original D&D movie. It is really more of a director's commentary style of track rather than the classic MST3K style, but still very fun.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Lessons Learned 24

The following happened months, MONTHS I say, ago. In the before times, and then global pandemic hit and we have not played in my campaign since. Maybe after the first of the year we will see the first of several vaccines come out, and we will finish this thing up. Excuse me if I have forgotten anything, or the details have become muddled, but I have been busy in the interim.

The party got to dabble in the sandbox, and then I railroaded them right into the giants' lair. After their last adventure, a side quest where I let them choose which path to take, I once again used their affiliation with the government to go where I wanted them to go. For those of you not following all of that, in my desire to fight "murderhobo-ism" I tied the party to a paramilitary organization at the very beginning of this campaign, which makes them be responsible to their local government and which also lets me guide the group from time to time. This adventure is the classic Against the Giants, originally published all the way back in 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but lovingly updated to 5e by Wizards of the Coast and published in Tales from the Yawning Portal. Unlike the two other arcs of this campaign, which I stole whole-cloth from 3rd edition and had to modify to 5th as we played (usually before each session, but sometimes as we were playing them out), this arc has already been translated for me, by professionals! 

There is, however, still much preparation that I have had to do for this arc, and the party is not past the first of three parts of the adventure. I highly encourage you to read Fiddleback's (of GM Word of the Week fame) review, I guess you would call it, of this particular module, Fiddleback vs Against the Giants. If you are planning on running this series of adventures, heed the man's warning and prepare your butt off. I will let you read what Master Fiddleback wrote for yourself, but I do want to relay some of the things I had to do to get the first third of this arc running smooth. 

One moment while I digress on my use of the word "master" just now. I did not use it, as has become anathema to the liberal left snowflakes, in the manner of "master and slave". Yes, slavery was (still is) abhorrent, and GitHub was right in discontinuing the term "master" as it was traditional to call the orginating code "master", and the subsequent code "slaves". However, not every use of the word master is about slavery. My use of the word master just now refers to a master craftsman (craftsperson, fine, PC bullshit, grumble grumble), as in apprentice, journeyman, master. Good on GitHub for dropping it, but not every other usage of the word should be abandoned, unless it directly reflects back to slavery. My buck fifty on the matter.

The first thing I realized in setting up this adventure is the broad scope of monsters and NPCs in this one fort. The original creators (quite possibly Master Gygax himself) did not want you to get bored by running into the same monster over and over, so there are numerous different monsters and NPCs. There was no way I could keep track of them all trying to flip between the pages of the Monster Manual, so I wrote all of their stats onto 3x5 note cards. I am not kidding, there is like 30 separate monster types and NPCs in just the first third of the adventure. Now, you do not have to hand write them onto note cards, you could compile them onto a couple of pages and print them out. However you do it, do something and do not try to reference the books mid-session, as you will slow everything down as you flip back and forth betwixt all the different baddies.

Speaking of monsters, the adventure gives you the positions of all of the said monsters inside this two level fort at one specific time. Making sure your party reaches the fort at that time is easy, but after that, the players could decide to do something other than kick open the doors and commence to rolling for initiative. My party scouted the fort from the shadows, and then withdrew to discuss options, then snuck back in the next night to assassinate the head giant, after most of the giants went to bed. Totally throws the whole lot of baddies into a spin and suddenly what is in the book is no longer correct. Time passes, the monsters and NPCs, if you want this to be realistic, move to different parts of the fort and go about their different routines doing different things at different parts of the day in different areas of the fort. No, the adventure does not tell you what these routines are or where any of the baddies are at any other time of day, you have to decide as the DM what these routines are and where the monsters are at throughout the day. You will want to do this before your players and their characters arrive at the fort, as you will be too busy directing the scene to figure all of this out on the fly. For my session prep, I charted out where everyone was at and what they were doing at various parts of the day - in the deep of night after the feast, during the morning, then the afternoon, and finally early evening just before the feast. You do not have to go that detailed, or you may decide to go even further, whatever works for you. I did make the decision that until the party did something to interrupt it, the feast described in the adventure module would reoccur every evening at roughly the same time, just so I would not have to reinvent that particular wheel. 

Beyond all of that, the adventure is, and has been since the first edition, very vague on many of the particulars - how do the PCs get the job? where are these giants' strongholds exactly? how does the party travel to these locations? how do some of the non-automatically evil giants react to the party? what will drive off each band of giants, also known as what is their breaking point? For most of these questions, like how does the party travel to the hill giant fort, I have let the players figure it out. For these kinds of questions, as long as the party has not made an obvious bad decision, they will automatically succeed, but they still feel powerful and their actions and decisions have an effect on the world. For the other questions, you as the DM have to figure this stuff out ahead of time. Or during play. Like I had no idea my party would go straight to assassinating the hill giant chief, but they did and they managed to pull it off. Did this drive away the other giants? No, I decided on the spot, but it did create a bit of a power vacuum, and as a result there is some infighting that the PCs could take advantage of. Some folks will see this lack of concrete information on every aspect or possibility as a failing by the adventure's author, but I think you cannot possibly cover down on EVERY eventuality in the scenario, you as an author can only do so much on any product, and there has to be a point where you say "enough is enough", end it and publish it. Take it as a challenge to improve your DM'ing skills, and try not to whine about it too much.

Not really a lesson learned, but a funny story in and of itself - my party has a fascination with the Awaken spell. At the beginning of the previous arc of the campaign, the party traveled to the ranger's tavern (we used Pathfinder's Ultimate Campaign book for some downtime options, and the ranger built a tavern, the druid built a sacred grove and herbal shop, and the paladin, as the party's leader, oversaw the construction of their guild's chapterhouse) and one of the party joked they were going into the ranger's personal bedroom and stealing his badger. "How do you know he has a badger," I asked, "and that he keeps it in his bedroom?" "He's a ranger," came the reply, "don't they all have a badger in their bedrooms?" So I rolled Luck (I just use percentile dice and kind of guesstimate what the likelihood of anything happening is, and just roll with it), and rolled very, very high. So the party finds a badger in the ranger's bedroom... which they then proceeded to die pink, shave all it's fur off except for a mohawk, put a bikini on (another roll, this badger is female), and then the druid gets the bright idea they should Awaken the poor thing. Which they did, and then gifted a spare Headband of Intellect no one in the party was using (obviously). Said badger, now wearing a very nicely tailored suit, runs the ranger's tavern while the ranger is off on adventures with the party. Also the badger was given a lot of marijuana (the druid and ranger were the biggest pot dealers in this particular corner of the empire, and after they made friends with the myconids at the end of the last campaign arc, are also now the biggest 'shroom dealers) which helped soothe the badger down after the whole "shaved and dyed pink" thing. 

But it does not stop there. The party's newest member is a dwarven cleric who came with his own giant boar to ride around on. What did the party do after the dwarf got to trusting the rest of the party? They Awakened his boar. Then the ranger, whose family has a fascination with wolves and werewolves, managed to make a dire wolf his loyal pet after nearly killing it, definitely killing its former master, and bringing said wolf back from the brink of death. Which the party then Awakened. But no extra Headbands of Intellect for what I have been playing as the party's new peanut gallery. Think Waldorf and Statler from The Muppet Show, except they each weigh half a ton, are the size of a horse, only have an INT of 6, and could maul you at their leisure. I am dreading what they will Awaken next, but also fascinated at the same time, like a train wreck you just cannot tear your eyes away from.

That is all for this post. Sorry for the delay, but the COVID has kept me and the family busy. My group is still playing online when we can get manage to get together, but it has not been as regular as any of us would like. Hope you and yours are doing well and surviving the pandemic.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Lessons Learned 23

The party had several rumors presented to them as side quests between the last arc and the new, upcoming arc of the campaign. They chose the adventure into the Underdark, fearing they would face Illithids (Mindflayers) or the Drow, but still went in. They found Troglodytes, being chased by Quaggoth, who had been sent by Kuo Toa that were worshipping an Aboleth. Oh, and there was a Purple Worm, too, but the party was not supposed to fight that one, it was just a goad to get them moving.

I think I have talked about all of this before in previous posts, but wanted to ponder on it more. As well as talk on into the next arc of the campaign. I had built the last side quest from pieces chosen from the Monster Manual, but with no real plans other than the quaggoth were chasing the troglodytes at the behest of the kuo toa, who's were praying to and serving an aboleth, and incidentally, said aboleth was using the kuo toa's odd ability to create their own gods through belief to strengthen its own power. The purple worm was added later when it became obvious they party needed a goad to drive them out of their comfort zone (cautious approach that was taking way too long). I really did not expect the party to fight the worm, only run from it, and I could move it around at a whim to guide them away or towards other things. But then they tracked it down and used a polymorph spell on it that the worm failed to react in time and failed its save against, and suddenly the party is using it against their enemies.

It was brilliant! Utterly stupid but brilliant nonetheless. If the worm had acted before the spell was cast or it had made its save, the two party members involved in the tracking and spell casting part of the plan (the other three party members were well away from them) would surely have died. The three remaining party members would have had to continue on without the other two (no resurrections or the like in the party at the time) and utterly failed against the kuo toa and an upgraded aboleth. Or they could have tried to locate at least a little of their friends' bodies and gone back to the surface (by teleportation circle, if they remembered they had it, a long walk if they did not) to get them resurrected and then try again. The second option was also pretty much doomed to fail, because the kuo toa and aboleth would have been even more prepared for the party, and would not be playing nice. That is, if the purple worm did not simply TPK the lot of them in the first place. 

With luck, however, they managed to pull it off. The lesson here is, as the DM, I got to write the beginning of this "story" (there are rumblings in the deep and the party needs to take care of it), the ending (the party succeeds if they kill or drive off the aboleth, or simply convince the aboleth to leave by getting the kuo toa to stop worshipping/serving it), and who was involved. Beyond that, setup was even easier as I decided to come up with maps on the fly, and since we were using Roll20 due to COVID-19 and a statewide isolate in place order, I was not terribly familiar with that program, so improvisation was the way to go. Yes, the party would have faced a much tougher threat if they had avoided the worm - the kuo toa want to capture you, usually to make you into their slaves, but in this case to give the party to the aboleth and let it mind dominate everyone into servitude - but going after the worm was much more precipitously dangerous as opposed to being merely dangerous for a longer period of time. 

Therein lies this post's lesson - even as unscripted as you make your adventures, your party can still surprise you. And that's kind of the point of playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, the players face problem X, but this group may choose solution A, that group will waffle between solutions B and C, and yet another group will surprise you with solution Purple Ostrich. I have been having a lot of fun playing pre-generated adventures, The Shattered Gates of Slaughtergarde and Red Hand of Doom from 3e/3.5, and after the adventure I talked about above we have already had 3 sessions in the updated Against the Giants found inside Tales from the Yawning Portal collection of adventures, as I did not have to do much in the way of session prep. Yes, there was some prep work, especially transforming the 3e adventures into 5e-friendly fares, but very little deep investment of time. But as little as I had to do for the purchased adventures, for this little sidequest, I did amazingly little as well.

I had originally heard of the idea of using an adventure generator from the Web DM folks, as one of them was using basically a random table to make the games for his Spelljammer campaign. These side quests were very much like that, but I kept them as simple as possible - pick a monster or combination of monsters that sounded interesting, figure out a location that made sense to encounter them (or even made them more interesting), and then add that combo of monster and place into my game world. Shadows are terribly interesting if you pair them with a necromancer who has turned their generation of new shadows from the bodies of slain foes from hours into mere rounds, especially if they are also encountered in a subterranean realm where no sunlight can normally reach. A skull lord is a much higher level of challenge than my party was, but what if it could only exist on the Prime Material for a few rounds before being recalled? There were other ideas - some tied into a character's background (sometimes you just cannot avoid that one player who wants to write so much outside-of-the-game fiction that some of it will eventually worm its way into your game), others tied into other character's in between campaign downtime activities, but nothing screamingly unexpected and world-changing in terms of D&D adventures. Sometimes you throw curveballs at your players, and other times you give them the #2 combo they've always ordered from their local fast food restaurant - it may not surprise them, but what they get they will enjoy.

There you go, bunch of ideas, some funny stories, hope everyone enjoyed the ride.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Good Story, Bad Game

The party, newcomers to the adventuring life, had answered the summons by the village, and had trekked into the dark caverns to clear out the bloodthirsty goblins residing therein. Triumphant but still battered, the party returned to the village to find the local lord had finally deigned to show up with his retainers. The party didn't care, they had taken the job from the village overseer, and the overseer was who the party was expecting payment from, not this lordling that couldn't be bothered to take care of his villeins properly. 

Yet the lord had other ideas. Embarrassed that he had been proven to be lacking in attending to his sworn duties, he had gathered all of his warriors and rushed to the village to find the adventurers had already performed the necessary extermination. Now here they were about to receive gold that should be going to him in the form of taxes, as this was his land, after all. This was a feudalistic society, not some anarcho-syndicalist commune. The lord ordered his retinue to seize the gold and any other treasure the party had gotten from the goblins. The adventurers protested, but they were very much outnumbered, and not high enough level to matter, so they handed over the villagers' gold and the mere pittance of coins they had gotten from the goblins. Oh, and the +1 dagger the rogue had found on the body of the head goblin. 

"This is fantastic!" thought the lord. "My men didn't have to fight anything, the goblins are gone, and I still got my taxes. Plus this beautiful dagger! Isn't the next town over complaining about orcs?" And so the lord, laughing up his sleeve, mentioned the orc problem of the next village over in passing to the adventurers. He would wait a few days, and then follow them with his war host, see if he could arrive in time to repeat the act.

All of the above is an idea I had recently on something to inflict on my D&D party, I have not actually done that to them yet. Having been a medieval recreator and studied our actual history, I could see some feudalistic lordling doing that to a party of D&D adventurers. Let the adventurers take care of your monster problems, that's less wear and tear on the folks that you have to buy healing potions for, but adventurers aren't covered by your health insurance, now are they? And isn't there some quote about teaching a man to fish so you can beat him up to take his fish everyday?

So why not make your game more "realistic" and do this too them? As the title of this article suggests, the above makes for a great bit of fiction, and while we DMs are "telling a collaborative story with the help our players", that doesn't mean this story makes for a fun or interesting game. By having the lord be more powerful than the party and basically telling them to hand over their hard won booty or die, you have stolen their agency and killed any desire in them to adventure further. That is, unless your ultimate goal was to have the party deal with this lord, this is not a good dose of realism to inflict on your party. Which would make an interesting game - how is the party dealing with little Lord Fontleroy? Outright killing him? Political assassination by going to his Baron/Count/Duke/the Queen? Peasant revolt? What are they doing afterwards, taking the lord's place themselves or giving it to a peasant or one of the lord's old retainers? - but only one time and only if the party themselves are interested in playing along with it.

Just a quick idea I had. Sorry for the long hiatus, been very busy since the beginning of the 'Rona, as my business turns out to be critical, and also my job as well. Looking to finish up several other drafts I have had bubbling on the back burner for a while, and will be posting them soonish.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Punisher as a Guide to Running Cyberpunk Campaigns

As Cyberpunk Red is due to come out in full later this year - yes, I realize that the Jumpstart Kit is already out, I have it, and it is by far not a complete enough product to get more than a taste for the new ruleset, much less a continuing campaign - more than likely in conjunction with CD Projekt Red's release of the much vaunted videogame Cyberpunk 2077, I have been pondering running some 'punk. Why do I think they are waiting for the release of CP2077 for the release of Red? R. Talsorian Games has not kept any secrets that they are working with CDPR on CP2077 and then I notice this in the copyright section of the Red Jumpstart Kit rulebook:

Click to embiggen
Yep, that is CDPR's copyright next to RTG's. So, yes, I am pretty sure that RTG will release the full version of Red when CDPR releases CP2077 to us salivating masses (mid-November is the latest revealed release date, as I am typing this). I really like what I have seen so far in the Red rules and world setting, and would really like to run my group through the CP2020 Firestorm campaign (the 4th Corporate War) so the world setting info does not spoil the surprise for them, and then straight into Red with a continuing campaign based on their characters' (at least those that survive Firestorm) from the previous adventure. Wrinkle in that plan is my current group is fully focused on reaching level 20 in our current 5e D&D campaign, to then maybe go on to an Eberron campaign (why? airships!), and even if we skip Eberron to go into my grandiose Cyberpunk dreams, that is still going to take a few years just to get them through the final two arcs of the campaign and to 20th level. Oh well, maybe they will suffer a TPK before then and decide that maybe 5e can be put aside for a while.

Related to that, I was perusing one of the firearms related groups on the Book of Face, and was reminded of a firearm from an issue of Punisher Armory from all the way back in the 1990s. First, a little history - back before 1994, there was no internet. This thing I am posting this blog onto? Yeah, the World Wide Web, did not exist before these comics came out. Yes, you had local BBS's over dial-up modems and ARPANET was being experimented with, but the internet as we know it was not a thing. If you wanted information on anything, much less firearms, you had to find it in the library in the form of a book or a magazine. Being a young man with an overabundance of testosterone and having watched too many 1980s era action/adventure movies starring the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, I had an interest in the military in general (yes, one of the reasons why I did eventually join and serve in the United States Army National Guard) and guns in specific. Do you think my parents would let me purchase firearms related magazines? No, not a chance, but they would let me buy comic books (which they did not approve of either, but I had a lot of friends who were already loaning me their copies, so it was an avenue that was already well trodden) and that is where the aforementioned Armory comes in. No Forgotten Weapons, no C&Rsenal, no Firearm Blog, just a bunch of newsprint stock colored comic books. This series was all about the titular character's guns and gear and training and living spaces and with just a few exceptions was as realistic as if Frank Castle was a real person in our world, and it had a ton of info on everything from Saturday-night-special crap up to multi-barreled cannons. I have no idea where this series came from as I cannot find much on the history of it other than what I linked above, but apparently someone at Marvel, most likely Eliot R. Brown, was a serious firearms enthusiast and knew what he was talking about.

This brings me to the aforementioned reminder of this series. Someone had posted up what looked like a home-made pistol that fired full powered rifle rounds in the .308 Winchester/7.62 NATO range of power. Yes, from a hand-held, no stock, short barreled pistol. Anyway, that reminded of one of the pistols found in the Punisher Armory series, which after a little digging, I found to be issue #7, on page 5, a Philippine home-made, 4-chambered revolver that fired 5.56 NATO rounds. Here is the page in question:

Again, clicky to embiggen
That revolver has fascinated me since I first saw it in the early '90s. I had no idea what it was then, as I had no real experience with firearms (BB rifles and .22LR rifles at Boy Scout camp do not convey much beyond the fundamentals), but even now, after serving in the military and shooting competitions at a local level, that revolver still breaks my brain. Science knows that beast has to be a wrist-breaker, and with only 4 rounds it is not very long to empty, yet the firearm still fascinates me - someone with access to a decent machine shop and the knowledge to use them, plus an overabundance of 5.56 NATO cartridges, built this from scratch. Not only that, but they built enough of them that the group that used them became known for this firearm, yet they built few enough of them that you really could not call it a serialized production run. Why, for the love of Athena Promachos, would anyone build it, though? One word: necessity. Fascinating.

This mini-series of The Punisher as a whole always fascinated me - here is Frank Castle as real as he can get, no one else in the Marvel universe, no mutants, no super-heroes, someone who is fighting organized and unorganized criminals and corrupt law enforcement practically on his own, with only the skills he learned in a nasty war and the material he can steal from those he "punishes". Oh, and he has Micro as well, his techie assistant, who is the most polar opposite when it comes to physical characteristics, but he is the one you want to go to when you need something technical like computers, electronics, vehicles, or firearms sorted out. The pair have to do everything themselves, cannot go to law enforcement (too corrupt) or the government (also corrupt but also too uninterested in such "small matters"), and everyone else is in the criminals' pockets or thinks the Punisher is crazy and has gone too far. They are practically alone in their quest.

Is it just me, or are Punisher and Micro edgerunners? I could use this as a campaign setting - the party are up against some powerful organization that has wronged them personally, and when the party fought back, they pissed off everyone - other powerful and semi-powerful organizations, the locals, the gangs, the corps, the civvies, other edgerunners, local and regional law enforcement, everyone - and now the group is on their own. Even their usual Fixer will only do business with them on a very limited basis and everything is more expensive, automatically. All they can count on is their own skills and whatever material they can steal or plunder from the corpses of their targets. Obviously (or maybe not), the rockerboy/girl, the nomad, the media, and the fixer all got much harder to play. Who listens to a rockergirl that has betrayed her fans (she was set up, of course, but the fans don't know that) so many times? Or a media who constantly lies about such and such corp (said corp moved the evidence into LEO and slandered the media)? Or the nomad who killed fellow packmates (again, setup job)? Those characters would have to reduce their special abilities to almost nothing (temporarily or permanently, that is up to you, the Ref), and either be allowed to build up other special abilities, or work through the handicap as a challenge. Basically the team is on their own, can not ask for help from anyone outside the group, and is facing an organization that normally is very dangerous, but because now everyone else believes the team is less than scum, they are facing a huge uphill battle.

Of course, this is how I would want someone to run a CP2020/Red game for me so I can live out my Punisher fantasies, I am not sure how much other players out there would enjoy it. I would totally enjoy going after my own intel, spying on the bad guys and figuring out what their organization's structure is and who rests in the key positions. I would totally enjoy having to dig through all the gear my team would get off of the bad guys and trying to figure out how much ammo we have for which of the guns we also got, plus what other goodies we come up with: tech scanners, medical supplies, vehicles, even what illegal drugs we gathered and could sell off to fund our adventure (or use recreationally... no one is as straight-laced as Frank Castle in the grim dark of the dystopic future, everyone needs a break from time to time). I would totally enjoy mapping out each of our safe houses, showing hidden closets full of hardware, fast escape routes, illicit workshops to tinker with all the hardware, training rooms to test hardware and hone skills, and garages full of modified vehicles. After typing all of the above, I am just not sure how fun any of that would be for a normal group of CP2020/Red gamers. Also, I am very aware that your normal game of CP2020/Red is probably one of the most deadly out there, so putting your group into this situation just cranks up the difficulty to a quite possibly unmanageable level.

Oh well, it was fun to think about and peruse the old Armory issues. And maybe some of my ramblings may spark some creativity from you folks. It is interesting, as a modern firearms enthusiast, to see what was considered to be what the operators of the late '80s/early '90s considered high (and low) tech. Single stack, 7 round 1911s in .45 caliber (favorites of Frank Castle and practically every shooter in the late '80s/early '90s) are poo-poo'd these days, if not in favor of the "wondernine" high capacity polymer 9mm pistols like the Glocks and the Smith & Wesson M&Ps, at least for the more modern "2011" double-stacked magazine 1911s, most in .45 but some in 10mm or 9mm or .40S&W. Glass optics and laser sights mounted "above the slide" on semi-auto pistols, where today our semi-autos come with an accessory rail under the barrel and the "slide ride" optics are rugged enough to withstand repeated recoil impulses. Remote control drones the size of sub-compact cars, streaming VHS-quality video from cameras the size of a toaster-oven. A GPS unit the size of a briefcase with the antenna and everything, and all it can do is tell you your longitude and latitude, so count in the other briefcase full of survey maps and a protractor. Every once in a while, Mr Brown and his cohorts let a little bit of sci-fi slip through and believed the advertising script from some of these manufacturers that promised a lot more than they could deliver, but it was usually on something that I could totally see existing in the grim dark dystopic future, like an automated construction bot that builds multi-story training areas unsupervised. Or this "dalek" protection robot, that even our modern military is still trying to come up with that will only kill the bad guys and not the good guys (hint: even the US DoD in the actual year 2020 has not made this happen yet).

I do not think this jaunt down memory lane has been a complete waste. Yes, I do not think I will ever crank up the difficulty on a CP2020/Red game to "Punisher" level, but I think I can incorporate parts of it into my next game. Maybe the party's Fixer isn't that good or the local leftist party is threatening stricter gun control laws, whatever the reason, the team cannot seem to get any gear beyond the cheapest of the cheap, and ammo is scarce too. Maybe the Nomad's pack is heading out of the region for a while and the Nomad cannot ask for any help. Not all of the things I mentioned before, but just one of them, crank the difficulty up just a smidge. I definitely need to go back through all the Armory issues, see if there is anything else I can use. I will try and post it up here if I do run into anything.