Friday, September 28, 2012

Useful Accessories: The Monster Card

When I started designing my own monsters for Dungeons & Dragons, I would write them up in the standard monster block format. The Fourth Edition monster block is one of the best presentations of monster "crunch" I had seen in my history of playing Dungeons & Dragons. It gave the Dungeon Master everything mechanically necessary to run the monster in and out of combat. With the introduction of the revised stat block in Monster Manual 3, which arranged abilities by action type, it became an even easier experience.

Despite the 4E monster block being the best presentation I had seen for monster information, I still found it less than optimal. I would often "lose" powers as a Dungeon Master, forgetting that certain creatures did certain things. Granted, some of that would be alleviated if only I prepared better, but I felt that the monster block becomes less useful the more complicated the monster is. Since layout and design has become one of my things, I thought I would take a stab at it.
Because who doesn't love a bugbear! I think
I shall refer to them as hugbears!
Designing the Card

When I started, I compared the information in the monster block and compared it to what was on the character card. Some of the information was not necessary to retain, such as the extensive skill list, healing surges, or anything that is player specific. This freed up space on the front of the card. Of course, for some monsters, I began to realize that it freed up too much space. Monsters without any special quirks or traits end up with quite a bit of empty space. In contrast, monsters with lots of traits have to fit them into a tight space.
I realize that an Ogre does not have a lot going on,
but this presentation just feels vacant.
After some consideration, I realized that it would be a good idea to shrink the card from 8.5x5.5 to something more manageable. I originally hoped to go with 3x5 size because a lot of good D&D work is done on 3x5 cards. Unfortunately, it was just too small for what I wanted to do. I went to the next natural card size, 4x6, and tried to see if it worked. As it ends up, the power blocks I use on character cards are 2.5 inches wide which meant that they fit pretty well on a 6 inch card without a lot of extra fuss.
Simple layout, easy to read. So simple that
even an orc could use it!
Of course, monsters with only a few powers fit just fine. In some cases, I found myself making up new powers just to fill space on the card. For example, the Bugbear Thug seemed a bit bare as written so I threw in an encounter power that allowed him to get combat advantage against an isolated foe. Generally, monsters have two or three powers so it leaves a lot of space to marvel at whatever art I have selected.
Solo monsters have a lot going on.
Organizing the powers posed a question. This probably only came up because the first card I did was for the Iaijutsu Master. I had initially considered organizing powers by when they could be used (Katana sheathed or Katana drawn). However, after experimenting around, I decided to keep the organization akin to the monster block format. Powers were separated by what type of action they required (Standard, Move, Minor) or if they were a triggered action.

Recharge powers work well in this format. Just ask Duulgrin!
In the end, the layout proved to be pretty simple and not all that different than the layout of the typical D&D monster stat block. The one feature I really liked was the presence of check blocks for encounter powers and recharge powers. As a Dungeon Master, I often forger to properly track that. Truthfully, this is another one of those cases where I just do something badly and I have created a fancy way to compensate for it but, either way, it works out better.

Field Testing the Monster Card

My first use of the newly created monster cards was on a weekend in which I had both my Neverwinter campaign and my Waterdeep campaign, back-to-back. I created Duulgrin the Warchief and chose a few simple monsters to back him up as part of his gang. I had monster cards for each of the enemies the Neverwinter party would face. One warchief, one bugbear thug, and three orc raiders fought the player characters and I tracked it all using three laminated 4x6 cards.

From my perspective, the card was easier to reference than printed monster blocks or referencing a digital device, the methods I had used previously. I feel that as I have more, different types of monsters in battle, the monster card becomes more useful as they are easily identifiable from one another, unlike a monster block. Flipping through two or three sheets of paper can be a bit confusing at times so having it laid out in a fancy 4x6 format was nice. That being said, I would not say that the advantage of using the monster card surpassed the time, effort, and resources required in creating the card for a single battle.
Monstrous gangers ready for action!
Of course, my opinion changed the next day when the Waterdeep adventuring group ran into a group of monstrous thugs employed by the Xanathar. Using the same three monster cards, I was able to quickly throw together an encounter and I had cards at the ready. Granted, re-using material is not a new concept. What I liked was the idea of having a larger set of cards and being able to pull out particular monsters as necessary. I can imagine having a deck of some 50 to 100 cards and choosing monsters much more "on the fly" then would be possible in the current format.

Honestly, the whole deck of monsters reminds me a bit of some old DM'ing tricks I remember reading about back in the 1980s. Keeping a set of 3x5 cards with NPCs, pre-set encounters, and so forth was a tip I remember getting out of some Dungeon Masters guide or another. Some companies, like Paizo, have even tried that sort of thing with various decks of cards and things.

Monster Cards for the Future

As somebody who runs multiple Dungeons & Dragons games, I like the idea of slowly building up a deck of monster cards. Being able to quickly throw together a battle with monster tracking tools that I can continue to use and re-use is convenient. As a DM who has re-used monsters two or three times, having these kind of accessories around just makes sense.

The biggest problem I see with doing this is the inevitable problem of Fourth Edition scaling. After a few levels, a 4th or 5th level monster will not be particularly useful anymore. I suppose, in that regard, I have to complain about Fourth Edition power scaling. There are ways around it but it really is too bad that it's something that needs to be dealt with at all.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Character Profile: The Herald

The Herald is a character I wrote for a Dark Sun campaign I used to run. He was an essential component of my rather peculiar Dark Sun campaign arc and I thought I would present him as a potential addition to a Dark Sun campaign that wants to go a little off the rails.

In the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the world of Dark Sun exists as it does in part due to a great battle between the Primordials and the Gods. In that battle, the Gods were destroyed. The Primordials were either destroyed as well or left to do business elsewhere, leaving the world to slowly die on its own. By the time of the city-states and sorcerer-kings, the idea of gods and primordials is long since forgotten.

Things forgotten often have a way of coming back to relevance. The Herald is a peculiar link to that past, a servant of the Gods left behind for some reason unknown to the world of Athas. The Herald's peculiarity, the fact that he is a creature of another world and his motives are unclear, is what makes him both a potential ally for or against the Sorcerer-Kings and a potential threat to the world that is Dark Sun.

Appearance of the Herald

Don't mess with
this guy's orb.
Physically, the Herald is a Deva, a servant of divine powers and a creature unheard of on the desert world of Athas. When found, be it by the player characters or some other party, his appearance is both astounding and alien. Although Athasians may have seen creatures with blue to gray skin covered in strange markings or tattoos, the Herald has a certain aura about him that feels completely foreign and out of place within the harsh, desert world of Athas.

His presence tends to make most Athasians uncomfortable in part because he is a creature unknown to the world but in part because he is imbued with power, divine power, that is completely foreign to Athas. Despite being far out of time and far from his source of power, the Herald can still utilize and manipulate the divine forces imbued into him by the Gods. His utilization of this power is enough to make even the Sorcerer-Kings take notice. He is an anomaly in Athas and the players should be reminded of that.

When found, he would be wearing clothing normally associated with Deva in Dungeons & Dragons: gossamer blends of silk that support the majestic, divine appearance of Deva. Of course, how he changes his appearance as he adapts to the environment of Athas can be an important element of his character. Does he continue to clothe himself in a manner consistent with the old world he came from, or does he take on the appearance of the new world in which he awoke?

Adding the Herald to your Dark Sun Campaign

Having the Herald appear in a Dark Sun campaign is relatively easy to do. The PCs (or some other power) could find a strange cave in the desert that has within it a mysterious sarcophagus containing him. Maybe he appears after the activation of some ancient ritual from the old time, a powerful exhibition of old, divine power. It could be as simple as he simply appears, teleported through time to a specific day and place to carry out his divine mission.  Depending on the story of the campaign, it may be more appropriate to make his appearance a sort of startling twist at the end of a previous story arc, giving the players something to think about between play sessions.

How the Herald appears in Athas is much less important than why he is there. When introducing the Herald to a campaign, it is important to know what his motivations are. Here are a few possibilities as to why the Herald was left behind and what his goals for Athas may be:

Who knows what he could
be doing here...
1) The Herald was left by the Gods as a last ditch effort to prevent their demise. Perhaps he knows a way to tear the fabric of space and time and allow the Gods to escape their inevitable destruction at the hands of the Primordials. Maybe he holds the secrets to creating a new age of Gods. Whatever his purpose, the eventual conclusion of his plan could be exactly what Athas needs. Or, more sinisterly, the worst thing that could possibly happen to Athas. No matter the exact details of the plan, the Sorcerer-Kings would likely be interested in stopping the Herald's efforts as the return of the Gods would likely lead to their demise. Or, maybe they try to use the Herald to advance their own plans for divinity. How the party chooses to side in this conflict may depend on the nature of the divine plan.

2) The Herald could be a deserter from the God-War. Although a dutiful servant of the Gods, Deva still retain a modicum of independent will and sense of self-preservation. The Herald may simply be somebody who could not handle the horrors of the war and fled, adopting the moniker of "The Herald" in order to establish himself as relevant in this new world. Of course, without the power of the Gods, the Herald may no longer have the ability to be reborn anew. After countless lives serving the Gods, the Herald may know that he is on his last life. Maybe he sees the efforts of the Sorcerer-Kings as method he could use to preserve his existence. How the Herald deals with his newfound mortality could become an extended story arc, with the player characters trying to aid him (or stop him) from carrying out some sort of plan to save himself.

3) In contrast to above, the Herald may be an effort by the Gods to repair the eventual damage caused by the God-War. Maybe they knew the resulting arcane power that would appear and sent the Herald forward to rebuild the world. The Herald could be an important tool in restoring Athas to its pre-devastation status. The Preservers would be quite interested in him. Of course, it is quite possible that the Herald was meant to be brought back shortly after the God-War. How will he respond to the fact that his restoration was too late to save Athas? Is his purpose irrelevant now, or is there still a way for him to rebuild the world?

Whatever his goal, it is likely that he would not share them readily as the world he awoke to was not necessarily what he expected. The Herald would try to execute his plans while letting those he works with no the least about the eventual outcome. Building a measure of distrust in the Herald could be an important part of his involvement in the campaign. Take him at his word? Or assuming he has no good intentions for Athas? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dangerous Enemies: Duulgrin the Warchief

When one of the players in my Neverwinter home campaign said he wanted his character to be from Luskan, I did not think much of it. The Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide had a little bit about Neverwinter and the north and the Neverwinter Campaign Setting had a little bit more detail about Luskan, but I did not think much of it when a player suggested making Luskan his hometown. Of course, all of this would change when a seemingly random tweet to the author of "the book on Luskan" was followed by an email that would change the course of my campaign...

Although it had been recommended to me many months ago, I only started reading Erik Scott de Bie's Shadowbane shortly after my Neverwinter campaign set foot in Luskan. Shadowbane is a perfect read for anybody hoping to run a campaign in post-Spellplague Luskan. As I previously blogged, the five gangs of Luskan had already become a story element of my group's adventures. After earning the trust of the Dragonblood, they decided that getting the Dustclaws involved in their assault on Dead Rat territory would be a good plan. Unfortunately, this meant preparing a monster block for the head of the Dustclaws, Duulgrin the Warchief.

The Fallen Warchief

In Shadowbane, Erik Scott de Bie writes a bit about the head of the Dustclaws. He is a former orc war chief who had been cast out of his tribe. He settled in Luskan, hoping to succeed in Luskan where he had failed earlier. He is also written as one of the most violent character imaginable. One of the early chapters of Shadowbane stands as one of the most gruesome and graphically violent bits of writing I have read in a while, a bit of writing where Duulgrin headbutts somebody to death. Nonetheless, Duulgrin was a character I had to create for my adventurers.

Duulgrin the Warchief looks like another famous Orc...
I had to make sure "Headbutt" was a thing.
Although I used various different creatures as the basis for Duulgrin, he ended up representing a somewhat custom creation as I continued to tweak him as I went until he felt like the character I was going for. The most influential creature was "Hobgoblin Warchief," although I will admit that the character changed quite as I went through development.

Duulgrin's Battle Tactics

Duulgrin is the leader of the Dustclaws. He leads from the front, smashing his enemies with his own hammer and head while his gang watches. In battle, he tends to be up front with the rest of his gang, smashing his opponents and inspiring others with his depraved violence. He also tries to reposition the rest of his gang using Tactical Deployment, allowing them to put themselves in strategic positions that maximize their abilities while granting the warchief combat advantage.

If Duulgrin is facing a single foe, using Headbutt to incapacitate that foe is prudent. If surrounded, Duulgrin will take advantage of his Encounter power Wild Swing, striking at each creature adjacent to him. As a former orc warchief, Duulgrin knows when to be strategically prudent and when to throw caution to the wind. He would never allow himself to be surrounded by foes without some sort of escape plan or backup strategy.

It is important that Duulgrin have allies in battle. As several of his abilities require the presence of allies, it would be quite the shame to not include them. Whether it be a few orcs or a group of goblins, Duulgrin is the leader of the Dustclaws. When PCs face him in battle, he should have a fair number of his gang members with him to best take advantage of his abilities.

Duulgrin as Leader of the Dustclaws

Luskan is not the environment that Duulgrin was expecting when he arrived. Although he was able to make a name for himself quickly by brutalizing many of the non-human residents, he is just clever enough to realize that brute force alone is not sufficient to rule Luskan. Thus, although it may take a bit of violence to get him to see things the way the PCs want him to, he is quite capable of coming around as a potential ally.

This is why, at the end of the day, Duulgrin could be convinced to aid a group of rag tag adventurers that are building a small alliance of Luskan gangs against the Dead Rats. Anything that reduces the power of another gang while giving him a chance to fight real opponents in battle is something he is always looking for.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Dangerous Enemies: The Iaijutsu Master (Monster Card)

As I struggled to find a way to present my custom Dungeons & Dragons monster, a friend and follower of the blog suggested I do something akin to the way I do character cards. Honestly, it had been an idea I had been floating around for some time. I liked the idea of having a monster in a concise format, say a 3x5 or 4x6 card, but I never found a good way to lay it out. Keeping his advise in mind, I sat down and thought about how I could present my Iaijutsu Master in an easy-to-read format. From that, I created my first Monster Card.
Mitsurugi Yoshikage, the Iaijutsu Master.
I was surprised to find all of his abilities fit in 4x6.
I think that the Dungeons & Dragons: Encounters card has a lot of positive aspects but there were some notable deviations I made when generating a monster card. First of all, I shrunk the size down to 4x6. As a Dungeon Master, I like the idea of having monster cards, but 8.5x5.5 is just far too large to be workable. I first started with 3x5 but realized quickly that 4x6 was probably a more acceptable aspect ratio.

Another notable change I made was to change some slight details as to how monster powers were displayed (as compared to PC powers). Keeping consistent with the standard monster block format, I organized the powers by what type of action it was (Standard, Move, Minor, or Triggered Action). Once the powers were organized in that fashion, I quickly realized that there was no reason to state in every power what type of action it was. So, people familiar with looking at my character cards will see that notable deviation.

I realize that this format will not fit some of the more disastrous solo monsters from the epic tier. Furthermore, it will be surprisingly bare for minions and other creatures with only one or two attacks. However, I really do like the idea of the monster card and I hope to continue working on the design going forward.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dangerous Enemies: The Iaijutsu Master

In 1489 DR, the city of Luskan is ruled by five rival gangs. Details about these gangs can be found in Erik Scott de Bie's novel, Shadowbane. One of the gangs, the Blood of the Dragon, is made up entirely of immigrants from Kara-Tur. Essentially the Yakuza presence in Luskan, the Dragonbloods (as they are known) still hold on to the culture and practices of their homeland. One of the less common practices seen amongst these descendants of Kara-Tur is the ancient sword style of Iaijutsu.

The Art of Drawing the Sword

Iaijutsu Master by deviantArt's DrStein.
Iaijutsu is the ancient Japanese art of drawing the sword. It is a combative art in which the warrior strikes with the blade, drawing it from the sheath in the process. There is some suggestion that it is a defensive form as it is counter-attack oriented, but there is also argument that Iaijutsu is useful in combat due its potential for surprise.

I will not pretend to be an expert on Japanese culture in any way. My primary exposure to Iaijutsu was the Samurai Shodown character Tachibana Ukyo, the seemingly enigmatic samurai stricken with tuberculosis. While thinking about how a Iaijutsu master would appear as a member of the Dragonbloods, I thought a lot about Ukyo while trying to keep this character a little bit grounded to reality. To that end, I watched a lot of YouTube videos.

After scouring the Internet for information about Iaijutsu, its history, and its effectiveness, I felt comfortable putting together some sort of Dungeons & Dragons monster state block that utilized the basic concept of Iaijutsu at its core.

Mitsurugi Yoshikage, Samurai of the Blood of the Dragon

Mitsurugi Yoshikage, Iaijutsu
Master of Luskan.
The Blood of the Dragon are one of the five major gangs in Luskan. The Daimyo, Umbra, is one of the "five captains" of Luskan, although that designation means a great deal less than it did one hundred years ago. Mitsurugi Yoshikage is somewhat unique amongst the Shou living in Luskan as he is a practitioner of the ancient Kara-Tur sword art of Iaijutsu. He is a stalwart warrior and carries out his work for the Daimyo with honor, unlike some of the less reputable members of the Dragonbloods.

Mitsurugi learned the art from his master, an old samurai who came to the west prior to the Spellplague. Since the death of his master, he has become the last swordsman in Luskan, and possibly the entire Sword Coast, to practice the unique style. As he continues to fight the enemies of the Daimyo in the streets of Luskan, he has adapted his style, focusing on powerful strikes from the sheath while emphasizing mobility and defense when his blade is drawn.

To earn Mitsurugi's respect merely takes fighting bravely and honorably in battle. As a warrior serving the Daimyo, battle is his life. In defending the honor of the Dragonblood, he finds little time for anything but perfecting his fighting style. However, he does spend a great deal of time thinking about what he will do when the Daimyo finally seizes control of all of Luskan (an eventually that Mitsurugi sees as inevitable). He has considered taking up artistic forms of his people, such as poetry, but only time will tell.

Battle Tactics

Mitsurugi Yoshikage is different than most Dungeons & Dragons solo monsters. Like a few creatures that appear throughout the monstrous manuals, Mitsurugi divides his abilities across two different phases. In his case, it is divided between having his Katana drawn or sheathed. While his Katana is drawn, he has slightly higher defenses and he is able to move more easily about the battle field. While his Katana is sheathed, he has the ability to use his more powerful attacks. He can even use one of those attacks, Iaijutsu Strike, in response to being hit by an opponent. In battle, he must balance the two forms properly, utilizing one or the other as necessary to achieve maximum effect.

Generally, the optimal strategy for Mitsurugi would be to strike (using either Iaijutsu Strike or Katana, depending on which form he starts the turn in) and then use his move action to do Iaijutsu Recovery, sheathing his blade. This would allow him to remain sheathed during player turns, granting him the ability to strike with Iaijutsu Parry when the opportunity presents itself.

If Mitsurugi needs to move about the battlefield (whether it be due to terrain circumstances or due to the mobility of the player characters), he should remain with his sword unsheathed, using Advancing Kick to shift around enemies while kicking his intended target prone, then striking with Katana as necessary. Although a standard Katana strike does less damage than his Iaijutsu Strike, the ability to remain mobile can be far more important than the damage sacrificed.

It is important to remember that Mitsurugi's defenses are slightly higher with his Katana drawn. His ability do defend himself with his blade is represented by a +2 bonus to all of his defenses. As a peculiarity of fourth edition turn mechanics, his Iaijutsu Parry is an Immediate Interrupt and will raise his defenses to the triggering attack. Thus, he may not only get a powerful attack in but also protect himself from the attack altogether.

Defeating the Master of the Drawn Blade

When bringing a character like Mitsurugi Yoshikage into a campaign, it is important to remember that a battle to the death is not necessarily required. Mitsurugi may simply be in search of a respectably powerful opponent or he may seek out some other specific person. He will fight until it is no longer important to his mission to continue. Furthermore, if his opponents are close to defeating him, he may very well surrender. Perhaps a near defeat will impress him, causing him to aid the player characters at a later date. Perhaps bringing him to the edge of death is what is necessary to convince him of the characters' worth. Either way, a battle with a warrior like Mitsurugi should be more than just every other battle that the characters face.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Board Game Review: Last Night on Earth: Timber Peak

While attending PAX, I had the opportunity to stop by the Flying Frog Productions booth in the Expo Hall. Among there upcoming releases was the new expand-alone (stand-alone expansion) for Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game. This new title is called Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game: Timber Peak. Although it is an expansion to Last Night on Earth (LNOE) and integrates with the content from the base game and previous expansions, it is fully playable on its own. I picked up a copy and decided to take a look at this new addition to the LNOE line.

What could be better than escaping the zombie invasion
only to find yourself in a logging town in the mountains?
Inside the Box: What Horrors Await

The contents of the box feel very similar to the original. There are character cards, scenario cards, zombie and hero decks, and a grip of tokens that need punching out. The game comes with six characters and four scenario cards. Like the original, it has a center board piece and six L-shaped pieces for constructing the game board. There are plastic miniatures and a bag full of little six-sided dice. Strangely, there are only three turn reference cards instead of six, which means that players will have to share until they are comfortable enough with the turn order.

This insides of the box. Notice the absence of a CD.
One notable difference between Timber Peak and the original LNOE is the absence of a soundtrack album. I asked Jason Hill and Mary Beth Magallanes about it and I was told that since this was not a new game but only an expansion, it did not warrant a new album. I am glad that they have a legitimate sounding excuse for not putting an album in the box; although I have always liked the idea of including a soundtrack to the game, I have never been especially impressed with the content of the soundtrack albums that they do include.

Six survivors! Fourteen zombies! Total chaos!
(Actually, I left a brown zombie out of the photo...)
The game comes with twenty plastic figures: six grey heroes, seven green zombies, and seven brown zombies. The zombies are the same sculpt used in previous LNOE products while the heroes are all new sculpts, including new variants of three characters from the original LNOE. Although not apparent in the photos, the zombies figures have more forest colors (darker green and brown) than the original LNOE zombies. Overall, the figures are of the level of quality one would expect from a Flying Frog game. The sculpts are good but nothing mind-blowing. Although not especially fancy they do capture the feel of the game well enough. My only complaint, a complaint I have had with every Flying Frog game, is that the character miniatures do not have the name of the character on them; if there is any uncertainty, you have to break out the rulebook to match figures with names.

Playing the Game: How this Quiet Logging Town Fought off the Zombie Apocalypse

Timber Peak follows the same basic turn structure of the other LNOE engine games. The game starts with the zombie player taking a turn. This involves drawing zombie cards, checking to potentially spawn new zombies, moving zombies, and fighting any survivors. The zombie player also keeps track of the turn using the "Sun marker." Each scenario has its own starting position on the turn track, making some scenarios longer and some shorter. Generally, the survivors lose if the sun track ever makes it to morning. A nice difference from the original is the absence of any pre-printed scenarios on the tracker, a feature that probably made a lot of sense in the base set but quickly lost function as additional scenarios were released.

The hero phase comes after the zombie turn. Each survivor takes a turn in whatever order the players decide. A survivor's turn involves moving (or searching), exchanging items, using a ranged weapon, and fighting zombies in the space. Although it is a relatively simple turn, the different Hero cards in the game (items, weapons, and event cards) provide many opportunities for a survivor to combat zombies or take other interesting actions. Once every survivor has acted, play continues with the next zombie turn.

The bowling alley, a location where survivors found at least
three guns and a multitude of hand weapons. Makes you
wonder about the people that bowl here.
The goal of the game is determined by the scenario. The "starter scenario" is called Learn to Survive and requires the survivors to earn enough upgrade cards before time runs out or the zombies earn enough of their upgrade cards (see below). Other scenarios have different goals. Mountain of the Dead requires that the survivors defend four generator tokens on the board until morning. Thus, the scenarios provided share common themes as scenarios in the original LNOE but they are implemented in new ways using new rules mechanics.

Learning from the Past: What Woodinvale and the Carnival Taught Them

Timber Peak adapts a lot of lessons learned from LNOE expansions Growing Hunger, Survival of The Fittest, and even the related product Invasion from Outer Space: The Martian Game. Some of these lessons are small, like clearer text on game cards. A notable example of the progression is the starter scenario Learn to Survive, an enhancement over the original Die Zombies, Die! or the IFOS scenario Invasion. In the original LNOE scenario, which requires the survivors to kill fifteen zombies while the zombie player tries to kill survivors, the zombie player is readily tempted to hide his zombies and wait for time to run out as killing survivors is generally hard work. Learn to Survive allows a zombie player to win by wounding survivors (gaining experience points) while making it more difficult for a single, heavily armed survivor to end the game on her own as purchasing upgrades becomes more difficult the more a single character has. Overall, the scenario design feels a lot more experienced and sophisticated than it had back in the early days of LNOE.

Timber Peak includes fires, an element from IFOS. Fires are a danger that can potentially spread after each zombie turn. This can create dangerous situations for the survivors as the zombie deck contains several cards that start fires. On the other hand, the survivors can choose to start fires with a fire item, creating the potential tactic of throwing zombies into the blazing inferno. Either way, it was nice to see a worthwhile component of IFOS make its way into LNOE.
Some abilities mimic the
abilities of survivors.

The biggest addition to Timber Peak is the experience system. First introduced in the web-exclusive Advanced Abilities expansion, the experience system provides a method by which the survivors slowly improve as the game goes on. Every time a wound is inflicted by a survivor, that survivor gets an experience point. Survivors can trade in experience points to draw an upgrade card at a cost that increases for every upgrade a character has already. Upgrade cards come in three separate decks with different focuses: melee combat, ranged attacks, and other abilities. Upgrades grant various abilities such as the ability to win melee fights on ties, increase the range of a gun, or draw extra Hero cards when searching. It ends up being a neat system that makes it feel like the survivors really are getting better at what they do. Owners of the Advanced Abilities will be able to use those cards as character specific upgrades that otherwise blend seamlessly with the system.

The different upgrade decks. Notice that the hero upgrades
have additional "Boost" abilities that cost experience.
Every upgrade card in Timber Peak has a "Boost" ability at the bottom. These let the player further upgrade the ability, making it more powerful or more useful. Of course, boosting an upgrade costs a certain number of experience points so players will have to decide whether enhancing an existing ability is more important going for a new upgrade.

Zombies get experience as well. However, unlike the original Advanced Abilities expansion, the zombie upgrade deck is mostly filled with one-shot cards that have an immediate, negative effect for the survivors instead of a powerful, long-term effect. When I spoke to Jason C. Hill, he seemed to suggest that the original zombie upgrade cards would be somewhat overpowering if used in conjunction with the new upgrades and experience system. Perhaps those cards will be easily implemented using the "dot system" of difficulty.

Vacationing in Timber Peak: Wise Decision or Foolish Mistake?

For players looking to play out a terrible zombie movie as a board game, Timber Peak is an excellent choice. The game mechanics are simple but the different cards add a lot of interesting variety. I had a lot of fun playing Timber Peak, but like most Flying Frog games, you really have to be willing to get into the "bad horror movie" mood to really appreciate the game. The images on the cards adequately invoke the theme and the scenarios are challenging (for both sides) while providing the right narrative for the game. At no point in playing Timber Peak did I feel like it was not a fun yet very silly experience. For somebody who has never played LNOE, this is a good choice.

The survivors defend power generators from zombie attack.
The new features definitely add positive value to the LNOE experience. I would imagine it difficult to play LNOE without the Timber Peak elements. Is it enough to sway somebody who did not like LNOE to play it now? Probably not, as the game is still, at its core, Last Night on Earth. The new elements make an all around better game experience but somebody who dislikes the base game is not likely going to be swayed by a few novel features. I think what Timber Peak does is provide a new, better entry point for people looking to play LNOE. Comically, I would recommend Timber Peak as the new entry point and the original LNOE as a big-box content expansion.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mysterious Artifacts: The Blackstaff Core

When I started running two semi-interlocked Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, I thought it would be best to set one in Neverwinter and one in Waterdeep. That way, they could share story elements and villainous characters while still staying separate enough that I do not have to worry about too much peculiar overlap. Eventually, one of those groups would come upon an artifact that was interesting enough to warrant sharing with the public at large. The artifact is something I like to call the "Blackstaff Core."

The Blackstaff Core

Khelben Arunsun was the Lord Mage of Waterdeep from some time long, long ago until his death in 1374 DR. The Forgotten Realms novel Blackstaff Tower discusses the current Blackstaff of Waterdeep (as of 1479 DR), Vajra Safahr, and her experiences dealing with the ghosts of Blackstaff Tower. It has been proffered that Khelben (and, potentially, other prior Blackstaffs) remain as spirits in the tower and provide counsel for the current Blackstaff. When I read this, I thought that this description feels a bit like the portraits of old Headmasters of Hogwarts that reside in the Headmaster's Office. It obviously works in the magical world of Harry Potter but I did not think that a bunch of talking portraits would be appropriate for a place like Waterdeep. Then again, maybe it could.

One issue I had with everything I read about the old Blackstaffs advising the current wizard was that it implies that, in some way or another, the spirits of previous Blackstaffs had been bound to the tower. Granted, it may only be in a minor way, but it seems that a noted legend like Khelben Arunsun is not one to be bound, even to his very residence that he called home for far too many years to count. I imagine that his eternal spirit would be doing whatever it is he feels appropriate instead of worrying about what the current Blackstaff does. As it seemed inappropriate to bind the spirits of old Blackstaffs to the tower, I thought it would seem a bit better if it were more like an imprint of the old Blackstaffs, something more along the line of those old portraits than the actual souls of long dead wizards of the Forgotten Realms. After some research, I discovered the use of the term "template of spirit" in reference  to the collective knowledge and intellect of the dying Blackstaff being added to the tower. This seemed to match up with my notion of a psychic imprint.

What about Bob?
From there, I was heavily inspired by The Dresden Files' peculiar character of Bob. In fact, I was inspired by both the original character featured in the novels and the completely different version presented in the television series. The idea of a magical artifact bound with a creature of immense power that a wizard kept around to aid with magical incantations was interesting, but so was the idea of a powerful wizard magically cursed and bound into his skull. From this combination of ideas, I thought of the idea of the Blackstaff Core, a strange artifact, perhaps a crystal structure housing a powerful intellignece, similar to Bob's skull that housed a wealth of information about Waterdeep, the Blackstaffs, and the Forgotten Realms in general that also had the distinct personality of Khelben Arunsun and, to a lesser extent, all of the former Blackstaffs of Waterdeep. This became an important (although damaged) artifact that my Waterdeep adventurers discovered when they explored the Blackstaff Tower.

History of the Blackstaff Core

Khelben Arusnun rejects your reality and
substitutes his own, better version.
Khelben Arunsun is considered one of the most powerful archmages of the Forgotten Realms, only clearly bested by Elminster Aumar. Arunsun Tower (later renamed Blackstaff Tower) was his residence in Waterdeep for centuries. Legends say that he (and, later, whoever the appointed Blackstaff may be) could sense intruders in the tower. Other tales tell of significant wards and traps in the tower that protect it from scrying and intrusion. Magical gateways and portals can be found throughout the tower, allowing the resident of the tower access to many different places around Waterdeep (and, potentially elsewhere throughout Faerûn).

Of course, any good wizard would have some sort of security system for his home or tower. Any good security system requires a significant amount of attention and intelligent guidance. As it ends up, Khelben is a very powerful wizard but he has far more important things to do than worry about security details at the tower. One might think that his apprentice would be a reasonable choice for maintaining security and magical integrity, but Khelben does not seem the type to entrust a fledgling with the power to manipulate and protect his home. He is powerful enough, however, to create (or potentially capture) an entity capable of properly maintaining the safety and security of his tower. The Blackstaff Core is the result of this magical creation. In its most basic form, it is a crystalline structure of great power that houses a magical entity (of unknown origin) capable of maintaining the magical systems of the Blackstaff Tower while maintaining a wealth of knowledge regarding Faerûn, its various cultures, and important persons.

Created sometime early in Khelben's career, the exact date of creation of the Blackstaff Core is uncertain. It has changed significantly throughout the years as Khelben and then later Blackstaffs added to the magical structure of the artifact. Originally constructed to serve as a rudimentary intelligence to protect the tower, Khelben routinely augmented the magical structure to include new functions and capabilities as he found some need that the core could easily accomplish. Over time, this augmentation has included the ability to manipulate the magical defenses of the tower, conduct research both in the tower and within certain areas of Waterdeep, store vast amounts of information collected by the Blackstaff, and manifest a phantasmal avatar with which to communicate with both the Blackstaff and intruders.

The Power of the Blackstaff Core

The full extent of the power given to the core by Khelben Arunsun is unclear. It would appear to have sufficient agency to maintain the magical energies and defenses throughout the Blackstaff Tower. However, as it has remained in the Blackstaff Tower since its initial creation, very few people have ever seen it much less see it . Furthermore, since the artifact's primary purpose was maintaing the tower, it rarely had need to extend its influence outside of the confines of the Blackstaff Tower.
When I say "crystalline artifact," imagine
something stolen from this fancy place.
Once removed from the tower, it is uncertain what the core is capable of performing. When the Waterdeep Adventurer's Guild found the core and removed it from Blackstaff Tower, they found it barely able to do anything other than repeat the same message: "The Blackstaff has been captured." They were able to ascertain that some sort of important control crystal had been taken from the device, a component potentially capable of increasing the power, capabilities, or other features of the core.

In addition to maintaining the Blackstaff Tower, Khelben created the Core to serve as a library of knowledge and insight into the world of Faerûn. To that end, it is an enormous database of facts and data administrated by the intelligence of the Core. From important ritual magic to interesting details about the mating habits of griffons, the Blackstaff Core is possibly the most comprehensive single collection of knowledge in the Sword Coast, if not all of Faerûn. A group of adventurers that is able to take possession of the Blackstaff Core would have a potentially enormous wealth of knowledge available to them.

"Phenomenal Cosmic Powers!
Itty bitty living space."
With additional power crystals, the core may be capable of great magics. However, no matter how much power it is given, it is still bound. In this regard, I think of Arcadian from Ultima VII: The Forge of Virtue. The crystalline structure of the core acts as a sort of prison for whatever entity Khelben first trapped or created, limiting its ability to exert its power beyond those strict restrictions imposed by Khelben when he created the artifact. Thus, although the core may contain some sort of terrifying demon or devil as its host intelligence, it cannot do anything other than those things Khelben intended. Thus, this prevents the core from doing anything world crushing as to unbalance the world.

The Personality of the Blackstaff Core

After centuries of interacting and even conversing with the Blackstaff Core, Khelben's personality began to imprint on the intelligence at the heart of the artifact. As later Blackstaffs observed, the core would routinely argue and orate in a manner that very closely reflected Khelben's own style and diction. It very quickly took on the appearance of Khelben, although later Blackstaffs would suggest that this was done intentionally (as a matter of vanity on Khelben's part). The fourth Blackstaff enhanced the capabilities of the artifact further, giving the core psychic imprints of the previous Blackstaff while establishing the tradition that all future Blackstaffs would contribute an imprint to device. Because of this, the Blackstaff Core carries functional duplicates of the memory and personality of every Blackstaff, although its primary "personality" is that of Khelben Arunsun.

At its most basic form, the Blackstaff Core will appear as an apparition that looks like a middle-aged version of the venerable wizard. Although it is capable of manifesting as any of the prior Blackstaffs, it generally only does so when the memory imprints of prior Blackstaffs have something to contribute that differs from that of the primary personality. Vajra Safahr observed early in her career that the primary personality was quite fond of arguing with (and then summarily dismissing) the other personalities, although she found the contrary opinions quite useful in her work. To that end, it is not clear how distinct the different personalities are from one another.

Introducing the Blackstaff Core to a Campaign

The Blackstaff Core can serve any number of purposes within in a Waterdeep or even a Sword Coast based Forgotten Realms campaign. Recovering the core itself could be a major quest, whether it be recovery from some noted villain at the behest of the Blackstaff or recovery from the Blackstaff Tower due to the disappearance of the Blackstaff. If damaged, the party could be sent on any number of exotic quests to find and recover components of the Blackstaff Core, endeavoring to bring it back to full functionality. This could be a convenient way to tie the party's adventure to the current Blackstaff, whether it be in service to her or instead as a prelude to her eventual rescue.

"Mr. Smith! I need you!"
If a party manages to get its hands on the Blackstaff Core and keep it as their own, the core could serve as a power artifact for the party's lair or headquarters. Having a wealth of knowledge at their disposal could be very useful, as could the ability to protect their headquarters from potential attack. Perhaps other components could be added to increase the core's power, allowing it to do even more to aid the PCs in their quest. In that capacity, the Blackstaff Core could become akin to the Sarah Jane Adventures' Mr. Smith, an intelligent supercomputer that provides occasional insights into the current adventure.

Of course, it is just as easy to turn the Blackstaff Core into a potential villain. Perhaps, once removed from Blackstaff Tower, the core begins to assert its original personality and goals. Maybe the creature that Khelben originally captured was quite malevolent. Being freed from the binding of the Blackstaff Tower, the creature begins to use the PCs to promote its own nefarious goals. Imagine a group of adventurers, working with this new artifact that they recovered to bring about some noble goal. As they near completion, they realize that the noble goal promoted by the core is actually quite diabolical, putting the lives of countless innocents at risk. Unfortunately for the PCs, they were the ones that helped engineer and bring about this master plan.

No matter how the Blackstaff Core is implemented into the campaign, it can add both an interesting, if not peculiar, character to the story while also giving the party something important to work towards. The core must be repaired while its peculiar personality dealt with. Perhaps that personality will end up becoming a villain that the party must deal with. On the other hand, it may very well become the greatest ally they have. There are so many different ways that an artifact like the Blackstaff Core can become part of a Waterdeep based campaign that are both interesting and relevant.