Friday, 24 May 2013

Dark Sun Marauders (Season 3, Chapter 5)

These posts are from our DnD group's downtime chatter.  The current adventure is a return to the world of Dark Sun.  In the previous seasons (the first run by me, the second run by Richard), the party were involved with hunting through Kalak's pyramid, confirming if the Sorcerer-King was truly dead, and retrieving the Orb of Dust.  The group is currently readying Tyr against the invading Urik army. 
His wounds were severe, his skin blistering and peeling underneath the lengths of chain that wrapped around his body, but Kulo, was not defeated.  Sure, he had fallen before the hideous hydra, and was still fighting to regain his consciousness when Paelias delivered the fateful arrow.  That annoyed him - it would have been something to see, and something he wondered if it was by pure chance, or repeatable skill.  Time would tell, he was certain.  But for now...

Kulo, stepped across to the squirming mul, and gazed at him in contempt.  There was no mercy in his eyes, no desire for the smuggler's well-being.  Stopping about ten feet from his blistered body, Kulo, sent out his chain, which easily caught Xalos' ankle and, with a tug that probably sprained, if not dislocated, the man's ankle, Kulo, slid their captive across into the middle of the group. 

He made no effort to free the mul from his bindings - had he caught the man himself, instead of 'rescuing' him from the strange fiery cultists, he probably would be in chains, not ropes.  "Quit ya moving!" he barked roughly, "It'll only be worse for ya if ya manage to get 'em off!"

When he felt confident that the mul was going to stay still, he began his questioning.  "Now, tell us - who were them that we just fought?  Why did they git ta have the fun with your smuggler buddies out back, and we had to singe and burn in here? What were ya all doing here?"

Xalos struggles on a little more, though somewhat half-heartedly once Kulo,'s chain had wrapped itself around his leg, causing not an inconsiderable amount of wincing. Finally he lays on the ground looking up at the half-giant, "I don't really know who or what they are. Some kind of snake-men. We ran into them down here when we started digging tunnels...", he says, gritting his teeth against the pain of his ankle.

"Fine. Ya screwed up." Kulo, was happy to accept that.  His enemy being weak was natural, normal. Still, he moved in a little closer, letting his chains snake variously over the mul's flesh. They had cooled significantly since the fiery battle, but their touch was still warmer than normal, and the residual heat stirred recent memories in Xalos' burnt and blistered skin.

Leaving in close, so that the mul could smell his breath - almost a torture itself! - he hissed another question through clenched teeth. "But what were ya all doing, digging here in the first place?"

Kulo,'s twisting of the chains elicit some satisfactory gasps and winces from the stonemason, but Mul's were known for their toughness and Xalos regained a semblance of his defiant mood, "I would have thought you might have worked that out by now, you addle-brained half-giant", he said with a sneer, his lips curling to add to the insolent tone.
Xalos' response - or rather, his lack of an adequate response - did not make Kulo, happy.  "Hah, look who is dumb one, now!" he sneered, placing a large foot on the mul's shoulder.  "If'n I figured it out, why'd I ask you?"  Making sure to put a lot of his weight down on that one foot, and twist it so as to grind his shoulder into the hard floor, Kulo, looked to the others.  "Don't think he wants to be talking to us, even when we stop him from burning. Should we be putting him back, to finish burning, or start opening him up, and look for answers inside?" 

Whilst waiting for an answer, Kulo, looped some of his barbed chain through the mul's still-tied arms, and pulled it tight.  Sliding underneath Xalos' underarm, the sharp pieces of bone, obsidian, and hardened wood pierced the softer flesh, and wedged securely in.  Shifting his foot from shoulder to wrists, he applied enough weight to press Xalos' bound wrists into his gut, and ensure he could no longer move his arms.  The chain was trapped there securely, for now.

Kuoroar! moved forward from where he had been sitting, and added his own voice. "If he ain't gonna answer our questions, put him back in. We have no time for fools who don't appreciate their skins being saved!" Sure, there was no fire any more - the strange liquid had burnt off - but there were plenty of bottles left to make more!  "Look, you got two choices. You prove to be a friend by helping us and we let you go, or you prove yourself to be an enemy, and we don't leave you behind alive, on the chance you backstab us. What's it gonna be?"

Quietly enough that he could be mistaken for failing to whisper, but loudly enough that everyone heard him, Kulo, mutters under his breath, "Please pick enemy, please pick enemy, please pick enemy..."

 Xalos frowns at the strangely muttering half-giant, then looks up at the younger one as he joins in the threats. The spikes of Kulo,'s chain now digging in rather uncomfortably makes the Mul wriggle slightly, which in itself seems only to cause further pain, so he takes a committee decision to stay still.
The sneer on the Mul's face, slowly fades to a wry smile, "Friends? Why not, eh? What sort of help might such likely fellows such as yourself be needing?"

Sounding like the child, and not like the parent in the relationship, Kulo, whines at Xalos' decision.  "Oh, Kuloroar!, why'd you have ta give him a choice?  I wanted ta kill him..."  Sitting down gruffly - on the mul's thigh - he held his chain tightly, and sighed deeply.  "Fine then...what were ya smuggling, and who were ya working for?"

The mul, strangely, didn't take Kulo,'s word that he would not be killed, and instead, demanded to be brought to the authorities.  There, he claimed, he would talk.  With their word already given, and the promise of information at hand, the party started their trek out of the caverns, and back to the surface of the city.  There, Kulo, and Beren took Xalos back to the templars that had initially sent them on their missions, whilst the others returned home to rest.  Kulo, claimed he could do the task alone, but Beren thought Xalos had an increased chance of survival should he accompany the bloodthirsty half-giant.

The following morning, when everyone reported back to the templars, there was some further news.  Xalos had given some names, and eventually spilled on one attack scheduled for later tonight.  Other groups of smugglers and those the smugglers had smuggled into the city were even now working on placing more of the dangerous jars of liquid fire at strategic points throughout the city's defences.  When the time was right, they would be released, to cause chaos, death, and destruction, allowing the oncoming army an easier time at taking over the city. 

A small strike-force, including the exhausted Kulo, and their thri-kreen contact, Ix'it, had taken down the communications cell, but the jars had already been transported throughout the city.  One of the captured would-be saboteurs, an elf named Mutami, had agreed to not only give names and locations, but help the group take the smugglers return for some spare ceramic, and not being killed for being a traitor. 

Before they departed, the very weary Kulo, took Kuoroar! aside, and with a grin, pointed out a new adornment hanging around his neck.  A bloody ear.  "Xalos didn't want to name names, he kept trying to play us, so I gave him some incentive.  This is my trophy!"  After a moment's pause, he held out a hand, and said "Thought you'd like one, too - there' pretty rare!"  In his opened hand lay another bloody ear, a pair for the one hanging about his neck.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Another Trip to Neverwinter

It's interesting how many times games come back to Neverwinter.  Neverwinter Nights was a great step forward in DnD computer games, and I had a great deal of fun with it.  The option to play alongside others, to create your own adventures, and to play in other adventures, was a real special and rare thing for the time.  With my love of the 4th Edition of DnD, I was excited when I initially heard that there was to be a computer game based upon it.  That excitement didn't last a whole long time, however.

Cryptic's initial idea was to have five standard characters, each with race, gender and class locked, and to play from there.  And that's about where I stopped keeping up to date with the news.  It felt like going back to the Diablo 2 character choice - which, mind you, wasn't bad for D2; it just wasn't Dungeons and Dragons.  DnD is about choice, about customisation, and about creating your character how you like.  So, when the open beta went live, I decided to check it out again.  And fortunately, things had changed.

Now, you can choose gender, choose one of seven races (more coming), and take one of five classes (also with more coming).  Right there, that's a total of seventy options, a great improvement to the initial five.  Plus - it's free, so I jumped in.

First of all, I'm not a big MMO player, and I've never played an MMO via a subscription (I don't have enough time, with my other hobbies, to make it worthwhile).  I have played a lot of various RPG or ARPG games, the ones most similar to this being Diablo, Torchlight, Neverwinter Nights and even Fallout 3.  You could even draw similarities between it and Jade Empire, or Knights of the Old Republic, if you wanted to.  Like Diablo / Torchlight, it involves a lot of clicking, killing monsters, and grabbing loot.  But the camera is not fixed, leading me to feel more within the game (as in Fallout, or KotOR).  As I will explain later, the item / levelling system is much more similar to the ARPGs than the more role-playing games.  The areas seem relatively large, and nicely populated (though, there are often congestions around critical plot points, quest givers, and doors).  The setting feels "alive" more than the other games I have listed.  Streets bustle with movement, even if some of that movement is another PC hopping about the place, or someone riding a giant spider.

However, what excitement of choice there was when I started playing quickly diminished when I started completing quests.  I understood that, being an MMO, many of the quests would be "kill five of these", or "gather seven of those".  I wondered at how they would change the action economy of 4e, especially what they would do with immediate actions, into a computing sense.  I've seen them used well in a turn-based Facebook game, but how they would work in a real-time game?  Well, sadly, that question won't be answered now.  because they didn't.

Cryptic took familiar names, and the very general idea of at-will / encounter / daily powers, and ignored everything else.  They have built up a system where a PC starts with around a thousand hit points, where AC acts as damage reduction, and where such things as "Power", "Recovery", and "Armour Penetration" are more important than our good old ability scores.  The changes were evident as I levelled up - one point every level, which could either grab me a new power, or upgrade one of my current ones.  Gain enough levels, and I could finally gain feats...which are not feats.  Don't expect interesting perks or character changing abilities here - the feats are simple, basic, +1% or +2% bonuses to a number of different abilities.

Now - don't get me wrong - these aren't particularly bad choices, nor bad design; it's just not what I was expecting, nor what I was hoping for.  I realised that a perfect electronic form of the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons was not possible, but I saw what was done with Neverwinter Nights, and I had hoped for something more than this. So as it was, I was disappointed.

When creating characters for DnD, you get a lot of choices.  Even at first level, and focusing solely on class powers, you choose two at-wills, an encounter, and a daily.   At the moment, for a rogue, there are 12 level 1 at-wills, 16 encounters, and 14 dailies, meaning if everything else about the character was the same, I could still have almost 15,000 different possibilities of power choices.  Sure, not all of them would be great, or even viable for your character, but there was still that wealth of options and possibilities that meant that any two rogues could really be different.

Sadly, that aspect is not found in Neverwinter.  The rogue gets two at-wills, and doesn't even get a third choice until level 20.  In fact, by the time you are at level twenty, you have had 20 points to split between 12 powers.  Each power can be increased with a second point (typically, for +10% damage), but that's it.  And, considering you can only have two daily, two utility, and three encounter powers active, only nine of those twelve possible powers are worth putting points into.  Not only do you not have the breadth of choice, it is most likely that every 20th level rogue is remarkably similar to each other, at least in power choice.

The lack of customisation carries throguh with 'feats', seeing as they are giving small background bonuses that are not evident in a character's performance.  Who would notice a 2% difference in at-will damage in the middle of combat?  Even the choice of gear is sadly not there.  Rogues only use daggers / short blades, and always use two of them.  There's no choice for other weapons, for bows, for an alternate weapon layout.  So again, every rogue ends up looking similar, fighting similarly, and the entire breadth of customisation found in 4e is lost.

And yet, I've put a remarkable number of hours into the game so far.  Because, despite all the issues above, it is a fun experience.  It isn't what I hoped for - an electronic form of DnD 4e - but it is a fun Action RPG.  And whilst the levelling system was not what I hoped for, it does work.  Sure, I could do with more options, with a way not to waste those early points, and for bonuses to powers that wasn't simply +10% damage (how about more charges for the throwing daggers? A longer range teleport? Something to change / boost each power other than damage?), and I would feats that worked like feats, but for the system they have given us, it works.  Crazy levels of hit points works, because with it, there can be smaller, more subtle variations in weapon damage.  With larger numbers, there can be more items falling in between the significant milestones, and thus the eternal search for better gear - even if it is only slightly better - is maintained. 

And they have the "keep going for more" aspect working well.  The mini-games of levelling your professions, the come-back-every-day-and-pray aspect of increasing your divinely gifted coins, and the various other small rewards encourage you to keep coming back, keep being involved.  I don't know yet how long they will work for, but they have brought me back enough to get past my initial "not 4e" disappointment.  They haven't convinced me to actually pay for anything, as even the cost of expanding your bag space (~$10) is quite steep.  The best mounts are about $40, and the ultimate "Hero of the North" pack is a whopping $200.  But still, people are buying them, so for now, it would seem that the high-end system is working.  And if that means I can continue to play for free, that is keeping me coming back! 

Because it isn't 4e, but it is enjoyable.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Dark Sun Marauders (Season 3, Chapter 4)

These posts are from our DnD group's latest game.  The current adventure is a return to the world of Dark Sun.  In the previous seasons (the first run by me, the second run by Richard), the party were involved with hunting through Kalak's pyramid, confirming if the Sorcerer-King was truly dead, and retrieving the Orb of Dust.  The group is currently readying Tyr against the invading Urik army. 
Note to self: magic elf-thing can be useful.

We reached the end of the tracks. No pit falls, no false dead end this time. Just a large chamber behind a heavy gate. A gate reinforced, strong enough to keep us out. It took lots of effort to lift it up, and we never got it very high. Kept dropping it, so the elf-thing - e-lad-rin? - "Pay less" - used his magic to walk right through it. It tickled, I'm sure of that, but there was none of that defiling that people talk about. No pain, no destruction, just one moment, he was next to us; the next, he was standing in the middle of the room!

It was impressive, I admit, but would have been even better if he didn't end up hanging from the type, surrounded by hungry snakes! At least, with his weight on the type, the gate was easier to lift, and as Beren held it up, Kuoroar! and I slipped through. So many snakes, swarms and swarms, and the three of us left to fight them, whilst Beren played with the gate. Lifting, dropping, lifting again, like it was all some game, some strange exercise. At one point, he was even lying down under the gate, maybe working on his pectorals?

Through the snake-filled chamber, there was a series of older, more room-like rooms. The old natural caves was replaced with corridors, doors and...a whole lot of blood. We had found the smugglers, and too late to take revenge. Too late to question them. Too late to get any information, save from a single name, and a direction. Whatever the smugglers had come across, it had been violent (good!), and left very few with a majority of their limbs attached.

The room that the disarmed smuggler pointed us to was an eye-opener, indeed. For starters, it was huge - it made the zombie tunnels feel like the slave pens by comparison. Secondly, not only was it large, but it was purposeful. Some strange groove was cut into the ground; a circle connected to an arc, with robed figures standing all around.  Two were larger - larger even than my son or me! And, there was another one of them smugglers, only, this one was all tied up, strapped to the altar.

There was also a large statue at one end of the room, and a whole lot of ceramic pots at the other. But that wasn't important, because Kuoroar! and Beren had already jumped down and attacked. The mul must have been eager for blood, after failing to get involved in the last skirmish. As usual, he went in too deep, without backup. Kuoroar! started working his way around the cultists, but with each fiery death, the centre of the room intensified. Before we could stop them, two cultists poured...stuff from the pots onto the trench, and fire leaps about, burning through the cultists, and bringing on whatever foul magic was happening in the middle!

Well, we fought on, as we had to, and with Paelias' helpful magic, our weapons shone brighter, hit harder, and even aided in our healing.  We were rolling on through the battle. But then, the circle was complete, and the greatest beast I have ever seen was summoned into our presence.  If I were not alive now, I would swear that it was the dragon himself - but this beast, though scaly and spiting fire, had no wings or legs, and had four heads!!  We all cheered when Kuoroar!'s sword cut one of the heads off, and knew victory was imminent...but before we could press the advantage, another two heads had grown in its place.  This happened three times before we slew the beast, and for a while, the real threat of there being no more space in the room was more than just a little concerning!

But, I step up too fast.  I must make careful notes, or else I won't learn from the experiences.  We didn't fight well enough - the demon-lizard was spewing fire as well as blood from axe cut, sword stroke, and more than a few nicks of my trusty chains.  There were also half a quiver of arrows protruding into it, mind you.  But then Kuoroar! went down, and I couldn't get close enough to revive him.  Forgetting the protective boon Paelias had placed on my gear, I crumpled under the heat of the thing's saliva, coating my flesh.  And even through the haze, I could hear Beren collapsing in all his armour.  So - and it is hard to admit this - it was the elf-thing, the eladrin who saved the day.  He must have gotten lucky, found the main head, and pierced it's eye with a bolt, or something like that.  Whatever he did, it worked where our cuts and beheadings had failed, and the brute fell to the floor, before our unconscious bodies could become little more than charred remains.

So yes, the tinkerer did good.  He proved his worth, and I won't hold any more grudges against the like of a thin elf-relative hanging around in our battles.  We must step up our own tactics, too, or else we may not be so lucky next time.  And, one of these days, I really need to get around to learning to write, so I can remember all this stuff tomorrow...