Recent gaming

I got to play Polaris last weekend.  Me and two others.  I've played a couple times before, but only one-shots, and this was likely a one-shot as well - a filler game for when we couldn't get the whole Sorcerer group together.  Again, it really made me want to play a longer stint of Polaris with the same ongoing characters.  It  continues to cement itself as one of my absolute favorite games, in its design, its weight, and in its temperament.  We tended to have really short scenes in this session, often choosing to end the scene right after the first conflict and not spending much time in "free play."  I suspect if we had it in our mind that we were about to play a five to seven session game, we would not be so quick to go for the throat of the conflicts.

My character, Al' Nair, a Knight of the Order of the Stars, (as all protagonists in Polaris are), has war duties which press upon him, as hoards of demons from the Mistake fall upon the remnant of Southreach.  Meanwhile, a fellow knight, Matar, is courting his true love, Geinah.  He believes she is true to him but it is clear that is likely not the case, at least not for long.  The other protagonist knights wrestle with familial duty and pride.

We'll probably not see these characters again.  They were snowflakes, suspended briefly in the air, and now there are none who remember.

The 4E game I'm DM'ing is progressing fairly well.  I'm learning a lot, experimenting and trying different things to try to see that everyone has fun.  Most of the preparation for the game is relatively easy, but it not a simple thing creating combat encounters that are interesting.  Despite running combats that are high-standard to hard each time, I have yet to really threaten any of the PCs.  They are tough!  And yet making the combats more difficult may potentially put them in a "grind" territory where they last too long.  Not an easy balance.  Turning the DM duties back over to the reguarl DM after the next session.

I'm playing in a 4E Forgotten Realms mini-campaign that started up last night.  My character, Osaiah Dark, is a Tempest Fighter, modeled after Solomon Kane.  He's a werewolf/undead hunter.  He got to run down and cut loose some stirge-panicked horses from the wagon they were pulling, moments before it went off a cliff.  Pretty awesome.

4E: Low Prep

For my last 4E session I had thought about and prepared for what would happen if the player characters ventured further into the swamp they found themselves in.  I had also thought about what would happen if they left the swamp and traveled to the Skandik islands they'd been discussing returning to.

But on the morning of game day I recalled that they didn't have enough of the "Hopeblossom" flowers they'd been collecting and that if they elected to leave the swamp that might prove to be a problem later.  So I decided that the NPC they would soon rescue would know of two other locations where the Hopeblossoms might be found - a couple islands that were more or less on the way to the Skandik islands they were bound for.

I looked the islands up quickly in the published campaign setting and saw that one of the islands had some ruins and a lot of giant carniverous apes, and the other had something to do with pirates.  I dug out my One Bad Egg Apelord pdf and cut and paste 4 different ape statblocks into a Word document.  Then I wrote down a thousand XP worth of human stat blocks from the Monster Manual for pirates and jotted down three sentences of what was likely to happen if they landed on either of the islands.  That entire process took less than fifteen minutes and I was at least somewhat prepared if they went to either of those islands.  The human stats were things I could use straight out of the Monster Manual for any number of situations they might find themselves in.

The previous combats I'd prepped were more or less "set pieces,"  where I had either a WotC paper map or a dry erase Paizo map already prepared.  But if the party ran into either apes or pirates the combat terrain would be made on-the-fly.  They ended up going to the pirate island and got into a melee with a group of pirates on the beach.  I think they had fun, in part because they absolutely steamrolled the pirates, but the on-the-fly map I set up wasn't nearly as interesting as it could have been.  There was a huge swath of difficult terrain soft sand.  But there was no compelling reason (like some artillery baddies on the far side) for them to want/have to cross the soft sand.  There also weren't any combat goals other than "kill 'em all," which is something I prefer to stay away from with forethought.

Anyway, I'm pretty happy with how quickly I was able to throw together something in fifteen minutes the morning of game day.  And I was also able to improvise a "prevent the mutiny" skill challenge when one of the players decided to get in the face of one of the longboat's mercenary crew-members.  4E is really nice for this.

Tomorrow I'm going to see how many level-appropriate encounter stat-blocks I can put together for 4E in one hour.  I'll bet I can do ten.  And then I'm pretty much ready for wherever the characters might go.  But then I need a second stage where I make up a list of interesting features or combat goals that can be applied where appropriate.  Like a dozen of those and then I pick two or three to overlay the stat blocks as needed.

While I enjoyed playing 3E most of the time, I absolutely dreaded the thought of running it.  4E works really well for me on this front.  A big part of my interest in and enthusiasm for small-press/indie games has to do with subject matter and play style preferences.  But I am realizing than a big part of it was (and is) the low to no-prep than many of them permit.

An Awesome 4E Moment

 A couple sessions back in our 4E game, the party cleric rushed to save a badly wounded man hanging from a tree in the swamp.  He cut him down and staunched his wounds but was then charged and grabbed by a massive crocodile.  The croc held him in his jaws, clamping down on him and dragging him inexorably towards the nearby mire.  Lacking strength or athletic skill, the cleric was unable to escape and things did not look good.  The rest of the party was otherwise engaged in combat with the goblins that had hung the man in the tree for their entertainment and coaxed the crocodile from the mire towards the helpless victim.

The party swordmage jumped down from a nearby bluff, ran up to the crocodile and used a power called Dimensional Warp, teleporting himself into the cleric's place, swapping locations with him.

I blinked a couple times slowly as the situation dawned on me.  "So...  now you're in the crocodile's mouth..."  "Yup!"

This was a much better situation for the party.  The cleric was free to heal or attack other targets without taking opportunity attacks from the croc and the swordmage, being strong and athletic, was much more likely to be able to free himself.

But the awesome was not over.

Immediately after, the croc bit down on the swordmage with his clamping jaws attack triggering the swordmage's daily Frost Backlash power.  A burst of cold energy exploded and most of the croc's teeth shattered and fell out.  It was still alive, but grievously wounded.  It was vanquished soon after and the swordmage was free.

A round later the party warlock took out a raging goblin skullcleaver that was about to coup de grace the party paladin.

The combat encounters I'd run before and since this one have been reasonably fun but this one really stood out.

Berkeley 1968

I love playing with people who like to think about and then write about their role-playing experiences.

But it's helped me to be even more slothful about doing actual play posts than I might be.  Hah!  Would that I had that as a legitimate excuse.  I've had some fun sessions lately, both as a GM and a player, and have not written about them.

In any case, Christian wrote up an actual play summary of our first Sorcerer session here.

I'll probably add any of my thoughts about the session there.  Enough to say here that I had a lot of fun, despite being pretty brain-burnt from GM'ing 4E most of the day just prior.

Colin made a sketch of my character based on an archive photo I found online.  I love it!

Brother Love

The indie group I play with is finally starting up our "Berkeley in '68" game of Sorcerer this coming Sunday. Thought I'd post my character for kicks.

I've played minority race characters in rpgs before but never in a game where race as an issue is likely to be in the foreground.  I'm a little concerned about it - I'm no Robert Downey Jr. (who is?), and even his portrayal of an actor playing a Shaft-esque black militant in Tropical Thunder struck some people the wrong way.

I took two terms of Black American History in college, have a black step-mother, and was the only white kid on my little league team growing up, but I still see this as the kind of character I should probably just stay away from.  We'll see.

Devin Love (Brother Love)

Humanity: 4
Telltale: Never blinks.
Stamina: 4 Vietnam Vet
Will: 4 Righteous Brother
Lore: 2 Apprentice
Cover: 4 Black Panther Party Revolutionary
Price: Paranoid (-1 to all actions unless character is under attack)
Kicker: Mother's just been arrested on drug charges.  Local party apparatus ready to pop.

Back of the Sheet

Johanne Love: mother, mentor, Creole clairvoyant and voodoo priestess.
North Central Levee; Fremont Weir; El Rico Levee: isolated ley lines, disturbed places of contact.

Delon Love: brother, hustler, psychedelic drug-dealer.
Huey P. Newton: co-founder and leader of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
Eldridge Cleaver: Black Panther Party minister of information

Tamira Williams: girlfriend, peace activist, community organizer
Mark Turner: FBI agent, COINTELPRO operative.
Born in New Orleans in 1943, Devin Love was raised by his mother Johanne, a Haitian-American voodoo practitioner.
One year ago in the jungles of Vietnam, he killed the master of Atum and bound him using little but his bloody rage and a trick or two he learned from Johanne. Living now in Berkeley, he is an anti-war spokesman, an activist, and a member of the Black Panther Party. Handsome and charismatic, a decorated veteran for peace, Devin is something of a minor celebrity around the campus, something that sometimes goes to his head (Hence, "Brother Love").
Devin is sometimes a helper and sometimes an instigator with respect to his brother Delon who is always in and out of trouble.
His girlfriend Tamira, active in BPP community outreach programs to feed and clothe children and fund free clinics, is a positive and stabilizing influence for Devin.
Atum and some of the more violent and racially exclusive factions of the party are starting to tear at him from the other side.
His mother moved to Berkeley recently. She knows about Atum and does not approve but is teaching Devin to better control both Atum and his anger.
Devin is certain the local party office has been infiltrated by the FBI. He may be paranoid but he may also be right.
Demon Name: Atum
Demon Type: Inconspicuous

Telltale: Slight shimmer at certain angles, faint echoes of chanting slaves.

Stamina: 2
Will: 4
Lore: 3
Power: 4

Binding Strength: +2

Desire: Mayhem
Need: Kill and drink blood of small animals, usually birds.

Cloak (Free)
Boost: Will  (demagogic persuasion)
Special Damage: Sonics (impossibly loud shouting)
Ranged (for Sonics, 4 meters)

From ancient Egypt,Atum styles himself after an sun deity. His pedigree is considerably lower. He was bound by a Napoleonic soldier/sorcerer in 1798 and had a succession of French masters but was contacted, summoned, and bound by H
 Chi Minh in Paris in 1923. H Chi Minh ultimtately banished him in favor of a less annoying servant.  Atum took up service with a more pliable Vit Minh master who was later throttled to death by the American soldier who then bound Atum. It was from this master that Atum came to Sergeant Devin Love.

Keep on the Shadowfell - Scorched Earth

The roof the roof the roof is on fire

The roof the roof the roof is on fire
The roof the roof the roof is on fire
We don't need no water let the mother*ucker burn
Burn mother*ucker burn

- traditional Skandik war chant

Our 4E group just wrapped up a chapter of the "Sven Chronicles" and I'll be DM'ing the next chapter.  One of the players, Nate Marcel, is an artist who sometimes draws these great pictures of some of the ingame action.  I was in another D&D campaign with him years ago and he actually drew a series of comic books based on our adventures, cool artifacts that I'll always treasure.

Anyway, the characters had just about had it with all the goblins in the dungeon.  One of the player characters had died at their hands, along with a series of NPC "red shirts."  Once the party succeeded finally in slaying the villainous traitor at the dungeon's heart, they piled all the furniture, crates, and torture chamber implements into the "rat hole" pit in the dungeon's first room, doused it with oil and set it alight.

This is the party grimly returning to their longship for further adventures.  My character, Harek Bjornsson in the foreground, broods over the men that were lost on this adventure.  Nate's character, Vengarr, slings his battleax and considerable booty on his back.   The "witch-men" from the south and west, Katsu and Anu bring up the rear.

Lazy Linking

Played a fun game of In a Wicked Age last weekend.  The GM posted a few thoughts about the game at his blog here.

I played Jude, the rebel angel kid who'd been hanging around on earth in Manhattan since the early twentieth century.  I pictured him and the rest of his gang wearing a variety of pieces of anachronistic clothing, topped off by Brooklyn Dodgers caps (the session was set in Hell's Kitchen in the '70s).

Jesse's Jack Lemmonesque-devil incarnate salesman was a lot of fun.  One part sad sack and two parts SOB.  I totally pictured The Smiling Man as being played by the actor who played "The Mayor" on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but even creepier.

I've enjoyed playing IAWA and it was nice to take it for a spin using one of the Oracles that wasn't Sword-and-Sorcery inspired (Demon City Blues), but I'm about ready to try something else.

Man on Wire

I saw a great, inspirational documentary Tuesday night: Man on Wire.  It's about the French tightrope walker who crossed between the twin towers of the the WTC in 1974.  Probably the best movie I saw this year.

Late last night my last and closest grandparent died quietly.  My father having died eleven years ago, that leaves me as the last Gagan.

I feel a bit like a man on a wire today.  Not in the "all things are possible if you just believe" sense.  More in the "acutely aware of my mortality sense."  Turning 40 and undergoing surgery in the last few months is definitely a factor.

It's okay.  I just feel very present and also very humanly frail.


Alas, poor Sven! I knew him, Harek

The first session of the Wilderlands 4E campaign is in the books.  Our party consists of Tekla, a flail-wielding Fighter, Anu, a Fey pact Warlock, Katsu, an Orb Wizard and my longship captain Harek.  (I dislike the Warlord Class name)

We are outside the city of Ossary searching a dungeon beneath some ruins for a patricidal villain named Skili Nightchild.  He is holed up somewhere in there with some goblins and has a bounty on his head which we aim to collect.

Our party had a fifth member named Sven.  Given the template of a campaign based around a traveling longship with an "away team," I arrived at the concept of having a "red shield" join us.  For ease of tracking and to build up an ongoing narrative of unlucky crewmates, Sven and future "red shields" have only one hit point (the Human Lackey minion from the Monster Manual).  These guys are going to be hard to keep around.  Over time I expect the crew members to arrive at the conclusion that serving under Harek is bad luck and that he is perhaps even cursed.  Could be interesting.

Sven didn't make it.  I was hoping he might survive a few sessions, developing a personality and a back story to give his passing more impact, but it was not to be; he stood in a bad spot and was attacked three or four times by goblin minions.  The last one connected.  His name provides the title to a record of what may be a long "Sven List."  The ship is a half-day away and we will not return until we find Skili so Harek will either try to find a safe place for his body or build a small cairn for him and wish him a swift journey to Valhalla.

Sven did help us save one of the PC's lives before he went.  He tied a rope to a pillar to allow Harek to descend safely into the pit Anu had fallen into (Katsu having just put the rat swarm in the bottom of the pit to sleep).  We will definitely have to learn our own capabilities as well as those of our teammates.  Anu desperately cast a spell at the rats in the hopes of getting lucky and taking them out.  Their opportunity attack took him down and he was bleeding out.  But he had earlier cursed a goblin that was almost dead.  It dropped to Tekla's flail before the round was over.  Had he been conscious, he could have used his Fey step power to simply teleport out of the pit to safety.  But none of us knew that to be able to remind him.  I expect a few such gaffes here in the early going.  No harm done so far.  Sven might disagree.


Fighters kick butt.  They especially kick but with a Tactical Warlord around that has the Commander's Strike At-Will Power.  Tekla was mowing through goblins like tall grass.  My Warlord is fun to play so far.  I have a giant copper d20 I hand over to Maizie (Tekla) for my Commander's Strike power.  It's fun to narrate how Harek is shield-slamming or distracting the goblins to give Tekla an opening for further mayhem.

It might be hard in a dungeon to line things up for our wizard to pull off his area of effect attacks.  It will take some practice and some delayed and readied actions for him to get a chance at taking out a couple minions at once.  Tekla got a lot of mileage out of her Cleave attack; Katsu wasn't yet able cast Thunderwave without hitting one of us as well.

It's neat to not have to worry about casting/shooting past friendlies.  That simple change makes a big difference for ranged attackers.

Diagonal movement always costing 1 feels is wonky but really opens up the battlefield and makes it easier to surround (or be surrounded by) opponents.

Runs of bad luck are scary and missing with Daily Powers could get a bit frustrating.  (This was my fourth and fifth 4E skirmish, and I haven't landed a Daily Power yet).  Our DM was hitting and rolling max or close to max damage pretty consistently and we were missing quite a bit.  I think both of these encounters were supposed to be "warm ups" in terms of how difficult they were supposed to me, but they were both pretty hairy.  Excitingly so.

Looking forward to the next session on Saturday.  Overall, 4E is a lot of fun so far.

Winedark's Daughter

Winedark's Daughter is nearly 30 meters long. Each tree used in the construction of her keel and hull strakes was felled by Brand Hareksson's axe, whereupon it was soaked for sixty days in the semi-salt waters at Hroeven Fjord. The ribs were bent and shaped by Brand, Harek and a dozen Hroeven kinsmen from single young trunks of trees grown in the Grove of the One Tree on Croy. After one year of drying, she was sealed and then blessed by Hjalmr, a Skandik highpriest of Thor.

Her sail, of rough wool, has traditional Skandik red and white stripes, red for the color of the Winedark Sea, white for the color of the One Tree. The sail is adorned by the two opposed green seahorses of Clan Hroeven.

The proud dragon figurehead at her bow was covered with gilt, most of which has flaked away in recent years. The purpose of the figurehead is to ward off the terrible sea monsters reported to inhabit the waters near Brezal Isle.

Though she can sail with as many as 70 men, Winedark's Daughter is current crewed and provisioned for long journeys. There are forty crewmen, not counting Harek, Brand, and the other party members. Near the coastline or on rivers, thirty-two of the forty man her sixteen oars, each seated atop their sea chests. She could be crewed by as few as twenty (with sixteen rowers), but it would be slow going. Fully crewed as she is, and with a good wind, she can travel at better than 8 knots (9.3 miles/hour). Of the forty crew, twenty are Clan Hroeven huskarls, ten are Skandik from other clans, and ten are Tharbrian mercenaries, some from Warwik. In poor weather or bad circumstance, some of these mercenaries refer to their boat as "Winedark's Whore, or "The Devil's Whore," usually out of earshot of her captain Harek.