Friday, February 26, 2021

Starting Over

Wonder if I've used that title for a post before. Probably more than once.

I've been cooking a lot lately by which I mean 'a lot more than usual' (and by lately I mean the last month or so). I've really tried to be attentive to what I'm preparing as far as food for my family and what they/we eat...not only to ensure proper nutrition for growing kids (and for geezers like myself that need to *ahem* slim down) but because a variety of good, solid foods, well-prepared taste better and are less detrimental to your health, energy, and longevity. 

Also, it's cheaper. Who doesn't want to save money?

Fortunately, I live in Seattle which is positively overflowing with a cornucopia of foods, reasonably priced, all year around...more than I'll probably ever have time to learn or try, let alone master. Others aren't so lucky..."food deserts" abound in this country, and in a society that's mostly forgotten how to grow/raise their own food, that leads to a variety of problems. 

Me...I'm blessed. My grocery bills are half what they were, we're wasting less food, eating better, and the only thing it costs me is time. Time, that most precious of commodities. Being mortal (as we all are), you really come to appreciate that resource, especially the less of it you have.

Today, I have a little extra (time) because it's Friday during Lent, so the food prep is ultra-simple. Thus, I have time to punch out a quick blog post. 

Tuesday's AD&D session saw the death of my players' first, main characters. Out of spells, down three party members and wounded to the point of exhaustion the survivors were forced to retreat from an elite force of hobgoblins (the leader was dressed in plate and shield). Valens, the 5th level elf fighter (with a comatose Jesse - 4th/5th level halfling - lashed to his back) broke from the rest of the group and jumped from a cave ledge 50' above the ground, using a bracelet of swimming & climbing to try to gouge handholds in the cliff face as he plunged toward the canyon floor. 

He landed on his right leg and shattered his ankle. 

[this was a bit of a rough one. The character was not attempting to climb the wall but, instead, break his fall using the magic item's ability to "give the wearer a very strong gripping and holding ability" ...much the same as a high level monk. As the climb vertical percentage given by the item - 95% - is about the same as a 7th level monk, I allowed that the character could remove 30' from from the potential falling damage (as a monk of that level can fall 30' and take no damage) with a saving throw to mitigate damage from the last 20'. He ended up being reduced to exactly 0 hit points by the fall and, given the circumstances, decided to allow him to remain conscious in exchange for a serious, debilitating injury]

The hobgoblins were not about to give up pursuit, however, as the party's raid had killed some 30+ of their number. As some members of the war party raced to fetch a rope ladder, crossbow bolts rained down upon the elf, as he struggled to cover the hundred yards or so to where the party's horses had been tethered near the entrance to the canyon. Holding his shield +1 above his head (he had tossed it out the cave mouth before tossing himself) and using trees for cover, it was a valiant effort...only a natural 20 would be enough to hit him.

Unfortunately, he fell pierced through the neck.

Something like this.
"I can't believe Valens got killed!" my son exclaimed Wednesday morning over breakfast, probably for the 10th or 15th time. "He was so beefy!" And he had been: 5th level, 40 hit points, an AC of 1 thanks to magical leather armor and an 18 dexterity, a +2 long sword, etc. My daughter's character (a fighter/thief) hadn't been nearly as fight-worthy, but she'd been plenty formidable in her own arena, and exhibited bravery, cleverness, and compassion (for both henchmen and foes alike) on plenty of occasions. 

They had, however, been nearing "retirement" anyway due to AD&D's restrictive level caps on demihumans (the halfling had already reached maximum fighter level and the elf was but one level away). One way or another their adventuring days had been drawing to a close. And - thankfully - neither child was particularly torn up about their deaths (i.e. there wasn't any crying or fussing or begging for a "do over").

And so they rolled up new characters. Trying something different, we used Method III from the DMG and ended up with some pretty solid characters; Diego even had good enough stats to be a paladin. Instead, he wanted to try a half-orc fighter/assassin and only changed his mind when he realized his starting age (per the DMG) would put his character at Middle Aged (for a half-orc)...and one year away from Old Age!

"This game sucks!" he said. "How did I end up being such a geezer?" Well, learning two different professions takes a lot of time, and orcs aren't known for their longevity...something about the 'evil, corrupting magic' leeching out the lifeforce. Ah, AD&D: so good at balancing itself!

He decided to be an elven assassin instead. His sister's new character is a half-elf cleric/ranger

[I'll note, the boy considered a half-elven assassin because they have a higher level cap (11th instead of 10th), but eventually settled on the elf race because its superior bonuses and abilities were a decent trade-off]

For multiple reasons (which I hope to describe in a future post) we have decided to reinstate alignment in the game (sorry, Alexis!). At the moment, its inclusion means little (other than the players had to choose alignments for their characters and these were limited based on their classes): the cleric/ranger is lawful good and the assassin is lawful evil. There is no restriction on rangers adventuring with evil characters (unlike the rules for paladins) and we have decided the PCs are half-siblings, there being only a 30 year age difference. sum up, we are starting the campaign over from scratch. And this time, I'm not using published adventures (at least, not to start). The bulk of our Thursday session (yesterday) was spent equipping their characters, exploring the village in which they found themselves, and locating some sort of adventure to be had. Hopefully, we'll be able to run through it in the next day or two: the local witch needs some powdered kobold horn to complete the potions of diminution she's been commissioned to brew, and she's a little too busy (and old) to go tracking after them. A small hillside lair is known to be located a couple days ride from the town...and if nothing else, sending them off on the quest (with a promise of payment) was enough to get the pair off her property for a few days....

We'll see how this turns out; those giant weasels are pretty vicious.
; )

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent for Roman Catholics, and I attended Mass this morning (with my wife and children) for the first time in nearly a year. In fact, Ash Wednesday of 2020 might have been the last time I was at Mass, though probably there were a couple Sundays before the Church shut everything down.

It felt good to be back. Yes, it was quite different from usual. Social distancing and masks. No singing, collections, or hand shakes. Ashes were sprinkled on the top of the head instead of being signed on the forehead, and partaking of the Blood was right out the window.

But still: taking the Eucharist. Saying the Our Father. Professing our faith as a a community. And kneeling in prayer together, offering our heartfelt thanks as well as supplications for better days. 

I've missed that.

I don't know the next time I'll be back in Church...the Sunday services are limited and by registration only at this point, and my family is a bit lackadaisical about getting up on weekends (today's 9am service was "open" because it's in the middle of the, I had to take my kids to school this morning anyway). Yes, I realize that writing that is an indictment of just how poor my devotion is, but I'm willing to wear it.

[the process of building one's churchy habits is, after all, a lifelong one for those of us that choose this particular road. I have time to improve]

For now, I'm just very happy that I dragged my lazy ass down to the Mass. I needed that. And it was a good way to kick off the Lenten season. 

Just wanted to make a quick note of it. Peace and love to you all.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Off the Rails

As I'm sure I've written before, the problem with not posting for a month (or more) is that the brain keeps working and the ideas/concepts keep accumulating and you end up with a bunch of random detritus you want to talk about and no good way to organize it into something manageable.


Ah, well. Guess I'll start with the title.

The AD&D game with my kids continues (sporadically) and they're doing fine and still rather enthusiastic about the game. But (of course there was going to be a but, right?) I'm"issues." It's not the system, or the complexity, or the rate of advancement, or the game "tone" that's bothering me. Nor is it the attention to detail or the depth of simulation which (despite adhering to the rather abstract AD&D rules) is (still) pretty deep. All that is well and good. 

It's just thing lacks "magic."

How to put this...hmm. An idea came into my head a few days ago; an idea that took the form of a couple questions and a couple answers. For the benefit of my readers (and my own sanity), I'll go ahead and type 'em out so they stop rumbling around my noggin:

  1. Why did Gygax end up adding so many new spells to (the original) D&D rules, beginning with the Greyhawk booklet ("supplement 1")?
  2. Why did Gygax end up adding so many new monsters to the game (see Fiend Folio and the Monster Manual 2 for plentiful examples).

I have come to believe that the answer to both these questions is: because he needed to.

After all the work I've done over the last 11+ years of writing this blog, I consider myself something of an expert on the B/X edition of D&D, and a passingly knowledgable mind when it comes to OD&D as well as other "basic" editions of the game. With regard to AD&D, however, I barely scratch "journeyman" status...yes, I can run the game just fine using the core three books, even down to running an unarmed combat with the system given in the DMG. I can parse out the initiative sequence and make use of speed factors and whatnot, I can locate drowning rules and wilderness travel rates, and have a good head for encumbrance and what constitutes "bulky" armor. I've got a handle on the basics of the game.

But I don't know everything. Not in a truly comprehensive way, not by a long shot. Not in a way that allows me to take in and digest the game as a whole and manufacture something that makes use of its various nuances. 

This became readily apparent to me when I was listening to last week's Grogtalk podcast (their "Valentine Special").  The use of two monsters from the MM2 in their playtest adenture (the "annis hag" and the "stench kow") completely threw me for a loop...despite having owned the book for decades, I had no idea that these creatures were even "a thing," and simply assumed that the monsters in Carlos Lising's game had been specifically created from whole cloth for the module. Not so; Carlos was utilizing the AD&D resources that he's become familiar with over decades of constant AD&D play. Then there was the (frankly hilarious) discussion of various hybrid creatures and PCs that took place over the last 40 minutes or so of the special (interbreeding and "love connections" being part of the Valentine theme) raised all sorts of valid questions like: Just why the hell are there half-elves in the game anyway? All issues of disparate cultures aside, the sheer magnitude of longevity difference between the species makes any sort of romantic relationship incredibly unlikely. What elf wants to marry (or dally with) a human whose lifespan isn't even a tenth of her own? What elven parent wants a child that will age and die before she's even reached middle age

Kind of crazy...once you consider it. Which I hadn't. Because I'd been too intent just running the game.

And that's the thing. Focusing on the simple nuts and bolts of the system and the game world...things like halberd formations and goblin motivations and market economics has been a "drill down" that sacrifices the forest for the trees. Resulting in a game that has been interesting and (in its way) "logical," but lacking in magic. Not magical items or wizards per se (though both these things have, to date, been rare in the game)...I'm talking about the magic of playing a fantasy game in a fantasy world. Not going gonzo and nonsensical but certainly "off the rails" more than negotiating relations between humanoid tribes and the local human garrison. Jesus, this is a game that contains the Machine of Lum the Mad for goodness sake! Shouldn't it be a bit wilder than the step-and-fetch (or seek-and-destroy) of a 5E scenario?

[wondering what I'm talking about? Check out the 5E "Essentials Kit" for examples. Here's one: take a message to a logging camp. Fight some ankhegs. Return for a reward. Go to an apothecary hermit with a message. Fight a manticore. Return for a reward. That kind of thing...]

It brings me back around to those questions above (and my presumed answers for them). Gygax didn't just add astral projection and gate to the spell list of Greyhawk just because he wanted to fatten the page count, nor did he throw owlbears and beholders into the book just for the sake of creating new intellectual property. Things like probability travel, nightmares and devils, liches and golems, artifacts and relics...these were things that were used...they weren't just added to show "what is possible" or define parameters of the game or "fill in niches" (like aquatic elves or evil dwarves). Rather, these things were practical content, used to enrich the game being played at the table. These things...just like assassins guilds and psionics and level drain and (yes, even) alignment language...these things that seem wily-nilly, half-baked, and off-the-cuff (i.e. poorly thought out) aren't just there for kitchen sink, 31 flavors, pick-and-choose your poison. They ARE the game. 

Setting limitations and toning down the weirdness is a bit of a disservice. 

That's why, I think (maybe), my recent experiences have seemed to lack "magic;" the scenarios created in UK2 The Sentinel and UK3 The Gauntlet and B2 The Keep on the Borderlands are far too reasonable; it is far too easy to assign real world analogies, motivations, and "naturalism" to them. These adventures are dealing with banditry and sieges and diaspora and treachery and colonialism...dammit, that's all just too "normal" for the campaign to feel like a D&D game. Where are the giant magic statues? Where are the subdued dragons being used as mounts? Where are the sentient blobs and oozes looking to melt your face off?

There's not enough "dungeon" in my Dungeons & Dragons game...and I'm not talking about some sort of absurd, dozen level mega-dungeon. Been watching a lot of History Channel this last year with the Search for Yamashita's Gold and the Curse of Oak Island and all that jazz: finding subterranean treasure chamber's in our real world is hard, dangerous work and it should be even more so (with suitably bumped up rewards) in a fantasy adventure game. In D&D, Howard Carter would have had to deal with actual magic curses (and probably undead monsters) before he could recover King Tut's treasure because that's the game. I haven't been giving that part of the campaign enough attention. 

I realize there are those people who, upon reading this post, will reflect that my issues relate to the pre-fabricated source material I've been using for my campaign, and that's a fair point to bring up. While the main reason for using these adventures has been a matter of convenience (my time for producing adventure material is pretty scarce) and familiarity, I suppose I could be choosing different modules...except that many end up in the same category of mundanity when scrutinized. Certainly I'd throw the Slaver series (especially A1 and A2) into the same pot, the Giant series (though giants are neat, they're still just big humanoids), and even Dwellers of the Forbidden City (not enough snake-folk to make the thing truly strange). The Special series (S1-S4) clearly fits the bill of what I'm looking for, but those adventures are all designed for higher level characters than what my players have...all the low-level stuff is uncovering cultists and rooting out bandits and fighting goblins. 

Ugh. Simply not good enough. And maybe I'M not good enough (or not familiar enough) with AD&D to design myself out of this funk that I seem to be digging for myself.

[if you think THIS post is ranty, you should have seen the one on the draft board that was never posted. This is my attempt at being "thoughtful"]

Anyhoo, that's where my head's at (with regard to gaming) at the moment. Just to be clear, I'm not of the opinion that "all hope is lost;" the campaign is still in its early stages and I think there's plenty of time/space to inject some "magic" into the thing, but it'll probably require me taking my eye and focus off the mundane aspects of the campaign/system, and instead shift to the strange(r) aspects inherent in the game. Heck, I'm even considering bringing back cosmic (capital-E) Evil...despite all the handwringing over alignment, it does provide some shape to the cosmology of the game.

[perhaps in a later post I'll talk about how that lack of "shape" ends up requiring a lot of rewriting of system when one starts needing to justify souls and spirits and raise dead with regard to different game species (like elves) that provide balance and necessary checks to the game. Pull one thread and the whole thing starts to unravel...]

Too bad there're no gnomes in the party; would really love to introduce some talking squirrels or woodchucks into the mix. What ancient secrets could they reveal!   ; )

All right, that's enough for now. We're still on mid-winter break in the JB household, and while the snow from "Snowmageddon 2021" distracted us for a couple-three days (building forts and snowmen and having snowball fights) things have warmed up enough to slush-ify most of it. As such, our gaming has moved indoors, and I'm nearly certain we'll have a chance for some more campaign crawling once the kids are up and breakfasted. Maybe. We still have a pretty solid game of Axis & Allies (& Zombies) going on from last night. More info to follow.

Later Gators.