Adventures in Arithmetic

Or: Why D&D 3.5 is no fun.

I love my friend Russell like a brother, and I’ll gladly play any game that he wants to GM, but I’m so looking forward to him switching systems some time in the near future as he’s planning to do.  As long as we’re not in combat, the game and setting are entertaining as all get-out, but as soon as we roll init…ugh.  There’s just no part of “You rolled a 13, plus 11 for your Attack Bonus, plus 1 for the prayer, minus 5 for the Combat Expertise, minus 5 for it being your second attack is 15…you hit!” that’s exciting.  It’s possible that if we played every week, instead of about once a month for half a year, that we’d get so used to the system–or learn to take notes that pre-figure all the standard options we usually choose in battle–that it would be mercifully quick.   But it still wouldn’t be very exciting, in my opinion.  It has all the panache and tension of doing SAT practice problems.  Continue that sort of thing for a half-hour or more, and I’d honestly rather that we went system-less.

That’s not to say that my current favorite system, Savage Worlds, is without flaw in this regard.  I think that on the whole modifiers are a bit less common and tend to be applied more homogeneously (e.g. the penalty for multiple actions in a round applies to every action in the round, so at least you only have to figure it once at the beginning), and there is an actual requirement that certain kinds of maneuvers (e.g. Tricks) get a description to justify them rather than a bare announcement of the attempt, but on the flip side the die-rolling has the possibility of being more complex with the open-ended rolls and I could see it falling into a similar if shallower rut of “let’s all do some arithmetic now!”  At least in Savage Worlds, I think I see how to speed things along in combat and making the combat more dynamic and descriptive; with D&D 3e, I honestly think that the more dynamic the combat gets in terms of options for the players, terrain, facing, environmental conditions, spells, maneuvers and abilities, the worse it becomes in terms of arithmetic as the bonuses and penalties come and go and fewer things can be pre-calculated.  I don’t really see much of a way to improve that without stripping player options; stacking mods on a roll of a d20 is pretty much the essence of the system.

The bottom line is that with 3e, I end up hoping that we don’t get into any combats, so that we can continue to have a fun time.   That’s probably less than optimal for D&D.

The pit of shadows

I GMed a 3rd Hero-Cities adventure with the Sunday group last week. The cast was: Rolly, the invincible dwarven wizard (Paul); Eldor, the slacker elven sorceror (Doug); Sorin of Molosh, swordswoman supreme (Wendy); Bronwyn the priestess who is into personal growth (Josh); and the fighter formerly known as Bob (Mike). Actually, the last got several names Sunday night: Steven, the Eager as he dubs himself, and VeNKi as he was dubbed by the rest of the party (the Very Nearly Killed).

Gillet the merchant was a former adventurer who had retired after running out on the rest of his party in a panic while exploring a ruin they found in Yaga’s Forest. He had been haunted by the episode, and wished to return to the ruin to face his fears, confirm that his friends were dead, and give them a decent burial. Since he was part of the merchant caravan that the PC’s had saved from ghouls a few months back, he wanted to hire them as his escort to the ruins. There was some discussion of what kind of “escort service” he was looking for, but at the end the party accepted. He gave them 2,000 gp to prepare, and went to consult the Ellander cult records for information about the area.

A week or so later, Gillet and the PC’s started out, fully equipped with weapons, a donkey carrying their camping gear and plenty of healing scrolls. The first day was an unevenful cruise down the main road to Newton. The next morning, they crossed the Thornwall into Yaga’s forest. While watched by the usual evil crows, nothing malign occurred until a nasty vine reached down and began strangling Gillet. Steven the Eager chopped him free, but was Very Nearly Killed himself as the vine wrapped itself around his throat. Suddenly, the shrubbery in the area grew and entangled the whole party. Rolly the imperturbable was able to cast a magic missile at it even while tangled, and Bronwyn enlarged herself so that she could rip herself out of the underbrush and pull Steven loose. Sorin lit up a torch, and the tendrils receded before her fiery onslaught. A good blow from Steven and the vine shrivelled, and the shrubbery receded.

The group pulled themselves together, and proceeded quickly to Trollwatch, a safehouse maintained by the cults for spying on Trolltown, an area where a huge troll keeps a crude form of law and order for its motley inhabitants. There they were greeted by Tamar, an avatar of Isthar the sorceress, and Branach, an avatar of Enkidu. Branach’s bear companion got very interested when Eldor suggested that he might have honey to share. Over dinner, Eldor enertained the group by recounting their previous adventure, “An zen I apply a little of ze grease magical, heh? An the gnolls, zey go into ze pit on zere nez, heh heh!” Impressed, Tamar took Eldor off to a quiet spot to try an impromptu initiation ceremony, which left Eldor fatigued but feeling powerful.

The next morning, the group decided to go south of Trolltown, walking along the Haunthold Wall. This was a barrier created by Yaga to keep her undead minions in their place. As they walked, zombies and ghouls accumulated on the other side, craving their flesh but unable to cross the line. They spotted a group of orcs from Trolltown, led by a half-ogre, performing some ritual at the wall. They tried to duck back into the forest, but were spotted and trailed. They decided to set up an ambush in the forest, and the orcs ran into it. Eldor used his new magic gained at his recent initiation to capture the orcs in a web. The half-ogre ripped himself free, and attacked Steven, Very Nearly Killing him. But Big Bronwyn flanked the half-ogre, and Sorin rushed in from the side. Between this mighty trio and Rolly’s magic missiles, the half-ogre soon bit the dust. The orcs, captive in the web, fell to a barrage of arrows.

They proceeded more cautiously, and managed to get past the Trolltown area. Towards evening, Rolly’s toad heard a suspicious noise. “A suspicious toad is a horrible thing!” all agreed, especially when they found themselves surrounded by archers.
“Wait! I recognize them.” cried Lilamir, the druid that had answered their summons on the last adventure. The archers were senior initiates of Ellander, and they and Lilamir hosted the PC’s to a night of dancing and feasting, relatively safe in the heart of enemy territory. They parted ways the next morning, but promised to look for the PCs after completing their own mission.

A few hours later, the party found the ruins. Stones bearing the insignia of the
cauldorn and three fingered claw lay scattered on the forest floor. Rubble had been cleared revealing a pit, the bottom of which was covered in darkness, despite the sun directly overhead. Steven was lowered by a rope into the darkness, where, crawling on a stairway on his hands and knees, he recovered several reverse torches, radiating magical darkness and threw them up to the others. Of course, that plunged the whole area into darkness, and the rest of the group had to crawl on their knees to find the torches. Finally, Rolly realized that putting the torches in a bag stopped their darkness getting out.
“I put them all in my little bag of darkness!” he chortled evilly.

At the bottom of the stairway, the party found the crumpled skeletal remains of
the wizard in Gillet’s party. Bronwyn used her medical training to deduce that he had died from a broken neck. Steven conjectured that he had fallen down the steep stairway while running away in a panic, like Gillet. After looting the body, I mean, gathering remains to be given to his next of kin, the party cautiously continued on to a passageway., where there were a sword and bow. Beyond that, there was a strange swirling effect, as magical light dueled with magical darkness.

Out of the darkness came a terrible howling, sending Eldor and Sorin into panicked flight. Two ferocious hounds burst out of the shadows, one Very Nearly Killing Steven, the other biting the terrified Sorin and pinning her to the ground (ironically, preventing her from fleeing). Steven and Gillet attacked the hounds, while Rolly cast his magic missiles. Bronwyn used her Remove Fear scrolls to calm Eldor as he ran past her, and then Sorin. Once the two were calmed, the brutes were heavily outnumbered and began to take a beating, despite their eerie ability to become almost invisible in shadows. Eldor joined Rolly with more magic missiles, and did his elven victory dance as both shadow mastiffs keeled over.

To be continued next game…

From Russell

To answer Rachel, I guess the Sunday game was on hiatus for wedding-related reasons the last two weeks. I came back to visit Josh this weekend, and ran a second Hero-Cities adventure.

The group was Eldor, the slacker elf sorceror (Doug); Rolly, the indestructible dwarf wizard (Paul); Bronwyn the Dostoevsky priestess (Josh) [I think he means Tolstoy (War and Peace) — Josh]; and a new fighter who adopted the nom de guerre “Bob” (Mike). We had some important character insights this game. For example, Eldor’s bad French accent is the result of a contagious disease that Bronwyn caught during the course of the adventure, but which mutated into Spanish, probably in Rachel’s honor. Rolly speaks fluent pig Latin. Mike names all his character’s WEAPONS but not his character.

Plot summary: A recon mission sent to spy on the gnolls has gone missing in Yaga’s Forest (aka, a bad place to be after dark). Since Belaphon the naiad couldn’t locate them by scrying, their commander concluded that they were probably in one of the entrances to the Armory, which is magically protected against divination. Our quartet volunteered to be one of several groups, each sent to look at an entrance. In fact, in Bronwyn’s words:
“Ooh! Ooh! Since we’re the PC’s, we volunteer to go to the entrance where they ACTUALLY ARE!”.

Each group is given a supply of healing potions for the people they are saving, and a few other supplies, like a whispering wind scroll to summon help from the officer corps. They go together to a few miles of the Armory, then split up. A wild boar and a few healing potions later, they find that as usual Bronwyn is correct. A trail of blood and consumed healing potions leads them to the entrance to the tunnel. As they are about to reach the tunnel, they are ambushed by two gnoll trackers, but Rolly puts one to sleep and “Bob” and Bronwyn beat up the other.

They find the tunnel, which is marked with the sign of the Hikitami cult in mud fingerprints. Since one of the MIA’s was in that cult, they decide to use the scroll to report success. But it will take up to half an hour for an officer to reach them, so they go inside the tunnel. “Bob” (very luckily) finds a trip-wire, and the group avoids it. A few hundred yards later, he finds a pit-trap, but not so luckily, he finds it by falling inside. A few healing potions later, the group is on the other side,and has reset the trap just in time to hear “Snap! Aaarggh!!!” from back down the corridor. Another group of gnolls has entered the tunnels, and got caught in the arrow trap the PC’s avoided.

Two gnolls appear in view down the corridor. They rush towards the party, just in time for Eldor to summon magical grease, on which they slide right into the pit trap, landing on their heads. But it’s not over. The boss gnoll is behind the cannon-fodder. “Bob” valiantly if not too cleverly jumps over the pit, sliding on the grease [Actually Eldor cancelled the spell — Josh] towards the boss. He takes on the boss in single combat, but gets some magic missile support from the magicians. The boss decides to flee, but is shot full of arrows by Eldor and Bronwyn as he turns to leave.

A few healing potions and a net trap later, they find the missing party. They use up the last of their healing magic getting that group conscious — Rapsel the Hikitami cultist was the only one functional. She had found, disabled and then reset the tunnel traps to ward off the gnolls that had been following their group. The druid officer Lilamir arrived, in the form of an owl, and escorted them back to the rendezvous, where they were congratulated and rewarded for their success.

Guest GM report

I was guest GM at both last Friday and Sunday’s games. Both games are set
in my fantasy world where adventuring types are organized into hero-cults,
dedicated to deeds worthy of the founding hero (and drawing power from the
said hero). The Friday group consists of Bell the very good-looking paladin (Josh),
Erabod the elven wizard and cook (Mike), Duramir the dwarven warrior (Walter),
Ostiel the uninhibited ranger who speaks many animal languages (Mac), and
Haha al-Ish, a part-Jannii priestess of Rai-Nocturne (sun god, night goddess) (Beth).
They were looking for a worg that was spying on Rurik the Smith and his forge,
but never found it. I blame the drive down. After Philadelphia traffic, I must have
been subconsciously avoiding further confrontations.. I didn’t even know how to
react when Erabod asked an elderly hobbit druidess if he could look at her melons.
Was this an innuendo or did he have a devious plan to lure the worg
with canteloupe?

Anyway, i was about to burn my GM screen when I ran the Sunday game. This
was a blast, even if I didn’t get most of the in-jokes. The group was
Bronwyn, the priestess of Belic-Serene (war and peace, with a heavy
emphasis on WAR) (Josh), Soren of Molosh, a mighty and clever warrior
woman (Wendy), Eldor, an adolescent (very adolescent) elven sorceror
(Doug), and Rally the indestructible dwarven wizard (Paul).

The group encountered ghouls who had followed a path cut through
what is normally a defensive hedge on the border of the Haunted
Lands. After dispatching them, they followed the same path that
the ghouls had been following. They found a group of
merchants who had been robbed by bandits, then attacked
by ghouls, and was currently in sorry state. After bringing
them to safety, and a night of carousing, they hurried on their
way to their original destination, the town of Lillibridge.

In Lillibridge, they were suprised to meet the very same merchant
that they had rescued! The “merchant” acted in a suspicious
manner, and they eventually realized that he was actually a
disguised bandit, who had come to town to fence the stolen
merchandise. After failing to lure the group to his room, the
bandit snuck up behind Rally as he was interogating the bandit’s
assitant Corwin in the stable. The bandit hit Rally by suprise,
(twice!), but didn’t dent his thick skull. Once Eldor and Soren
ran to his aid, they quickly captured the bandit, just as
Bronwyn ran up with a group of guards to capture his accomplice.

Russell sez

Buried in a comment that nobody but me will read, so I’ve copied here:

It looks like I’ll be running a few Sunday D&D games while I’m on the East Coast. Sunday night players might want to browse the game web-page at http://www-cse.ucsd.edu/users/russell/DND to get a sense of the world and to start designing characters. I tend to make a lot of world information available, so much that it intimidates some. Most of the information is just for my own benefit, although there’s nothing most PC’s wouldn’t know. So don’t be put off by the bulk, and just skim the parts you need for your character or that you find interesting.

The Body Count Rises

The Joe Dimaggio of Fallen Heroes kept his streak alive last night — just in the nick of time it seems. The mighty Monkasho (sp?), Scott’s character, was unceremoniously squashed, sprayed and flushed last night, bringing his campaign to character death ratio back to perfect alignment. Some said it could not be done, particularly since Scott had just leveled up (making his character the toughest in the party), but Scott, always the resourceful gamer, proved us all wrong. Now, just like all great champions, Scott is going out on top. 🙂

Rachel and Scott will be deeply missed.