Saturday, October 20, 2012

Conan: The God In The Bowl by Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord

Continuing to go through the old collection as I'm trying to organize things. Not easy as I tend to get distracted a bit too easily but nonetheless ongoing.

Conan continues his adventures in this collection of the single issues. Cary Nord does a fantastic job of illustrating the series and the colors are fantastic to view. This volume again presents stunning visuals if nothing else for any sword and sorcery campaign. Kurt provides some interesting interpretations of old stories and introduces new characters to the setting.

I'll be discussing specific spoilers below so if you'd rather not have any of that, read no further.

In terms of characters, the Bone Woman and her servant, Janissa are probably the 'big news' here. The Bone Woman was retroactively introduced in the zero volume and in many ways would be a GMNPC where the character is too powerful and can do no wrong. Thankfully her actual use is minimal here.

Janissa is... I don't want to say a poor substitution for Red Sonja, but... she's a red head warrior (and not in every illustration mind you, in some its brown hair) woman whose origin is tied into rape. More elements of the supernatural here? Yes. Similar enough to be a substitution? I'll let people more learned in the whole Conan mythos argue that one.

The thing I thought would fit with most campaigns though, is that the Bone Woman offers her services to those who seek her out. However she does make those who take her services work for her. This makes her a perfect patron for those campaigns that use an employer model. This can be anything from "Go kill this guy" to "retrieve this artifact." What do the players get out of it? Training, unique skill sets, magic items, spells, or other trinkets? Depends on the nature of the campaign.

Part of Conan's tales this volume involve a trip to Hanumar, "once a stronghold of learning and still a place of ancient power." It's necessary to go there because of the Eye of Tik-Pulonga, "Dark and tainted beyond measure." See, one of the few places that Eye can be destroyed is in Hanumar so off Conan and his new patron and allies go.

In standard campaigns, there is often little need to consider how to destroy magic items. Rather the opposite is often sough. But in looking to destroy magic items, it presents something of a different challenge not only in getting to the destination, but in keeping the item from those who would abuse its powers.

Are there items in the campaign that in the right hands would do vast harm and must be destroyed? Are there ancient powers out there that seek to use those powers for their own gain? A patron allows you to add those things in relatively simply.

For example, in older editions of AD&D, there were tables that broke spells down into their rarity. The more rare the spell, the harder to find, and the more to purchase, it cost. Having a patron allows you to sprinkle those things into the game with a ration for it.

In newer editions of the game, magic items became baked into the math that characters required to have. However, their accumulation then felt artificial since they HAD to have them. This mean you had to sprinkle them through the adventurers by 'chance' or allow magic shops on every corner. The patron is a somewhat mix of the two in that there is a source of magic but isn't one that the characters can necessarily just 'buy' things from.

There are other elements in The God In The Bowl worth reviewing but the main story itself is more about the build up of suspense. Its something that I've rarely been good at unless I'm 'on' so to speak. The building of good terror can be accomplished in a lot of ways, the peeling of the onion so to speak, but for most games these days, unless that is the genre you're playing in, such as Call of Cthulhu, which is excellent for this type of scenario, the pay off may take too long. There may be too much investigation. There may be too much questioning.

At the end of the day, Conan the God In The Bowl provides more fantastic visuals and some interesting monsters in the tales of Conan the barbarian.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Conan: THe Frost-Giant's Daughter by Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord

As I continue to go through my various graphic novels and other bits, I find myself looking at my Conan collection one more time before putting them into storage to free up room for various other projects around the apartment.

This volume, the first collection of the monthlies by Dark Horse comics, brought Conan back screaming into the comics field. While no small part of that is thanks to the writing chops of Kurt Busiek, let me be honest and say its Cary Nord's powerful artwork and the amazing coloring job they did on these first issues that brought fans of the genre flowing towards the comic.

I'll be discussing some of the specifics below so if you would avoid spoilers, read no further.

Kurt uses an old method of starting in the middle of the action. Conan comes across a woman just about to suffer some unspeakable horror from raiders when he decides to interfere. By doing this, it puts him firmly into the conflict. This is something that has happened to Usagi Yojimbo many a time. In a role playing game, if your players are even slightly motivated by stopping atrocities, this is an easy method to use.

They are leaving the bar in the middle of the night and hear a scream. Being the poor part of town they would be the only ones to react. What do they do? They are travelling between towns and come across a group of merchants suffering a goblin raid. What do they do. By starting where action is, you firmly put the ball into the player's lap. They have to do something. This is something used in written adventurers as well. The first book in the adventure path by Paizo has the players in a city that comes under attack by goblins. What do they do?

This being Conan though... well, the villagers he saves are grateful but the menfolk who return as Conan's done are a little suspicious of him. After all, he is a Cimmerian. What the hell is he doing so far away from his own people? Most games downplay the differences between cultures and have universal languages. This isn't necessarily a bad thing and playing the differences up too much can lead to its own problems. Having some cultural animosity that can be overcome by actions isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The other part about this being Conan though, is best to lock up the ladies! Conan quickly works his way into one of the village lass's.... er... hearts, but of course she already has a man. Jealous is a powerful motivational tool. When looking at the motivations of those that could be enemies in the campaign and looking for the why of it, jealous is a quick villain motivation.

Another part that follows here, is Conan's lack of experience in the world. He wants to see the Hyperboreans who his grand father described as being something akin to the elves of other fantasy games but turn out to be more like Melnibonians from Michael Moorcock's Elric series. His grand father never ran into them personally but had heard about them and passed that information down. This second hand information allows the Dungeon Master to put out some feelers and if the players don't bother to gather more information then whatever befalls them next is firmly on their shoulders.

In terms of the Hyperboreans themselves though, Kurt does a good job of bringing this ultra-high fantasy race into the otherwise grim and gritty sword and sorcery world of Conan. They are a race of near immortals powering their decadent society with the souls of the dead and using individuals like Conan, whose captured thanks to betrayal, into the arena to fight for their entertainment. Others are turned into monstrous albino hulks that are used to in turn capture further people.

The interesting thing about this volume though, and perhaps its because its the first one, is that Conan doesn't actually 'win' if you look at the big picture. While in many tales his wealth is lost in order to motivate him to keep adventuring, here his big 'win' if you will, is merely his escaping the Hyperboreans.

In some campaigns, the assumption is that if the players go there, they should win through. In some cases though, it should be clear that is not a real possibility and the best they can hope to do is emerge with some new knowledge and know to never go that way again.

Kurt's early work on Conan stands the test of time although the high magic within it may not be to every one's favor and the artwork of Cary Nord is brimming with violence and power. The visuals alone should be able to provide some inspiration if the whole trip of Hyperborean fails to do so.

Conan: Born on the Battlefield

Dark Horse comics has been publishing Conan comics for a while now. Not only have they done brand new stories, as well as stories based on Howard's original material, but also reprints of Marvel Comics own Conan stories as well as the stories of Conan from the magazine via the Savage Sword reprints.

In this volume, Born on the Battlefield, labeled 0, Kurt Busiek writes of Conan's youth with illustrations by Greg Ruth. Greg does a great job of illustrating Conan in his various stages of life. I've always been one who thinks more of Conan in his 'pantherish' style rather than the hulking style that is often incorporated into some of the icongraphy associated with Conan.

This volume itself is a nice collection as, like many of the Dark Horse collections, it not only has a great introduction, this time by Ed Brubaker, but has a nice set of additional materials including various sketches by Greg at the end of it. It's a bit of an odd task as Conan is a fairly well known character but it is not the first time Conan's early years and birthing even, have come under scrutiny. I'll be talking about some of the spoilers specific to the book below so if you don't want any information ruined for you, read no further.

First off, as a Dungeon Master, I am not that interested in starting backgrounds for some games. This may sound cold or callous but in a AD&D 1st or 2nd edition game, I'm not too worried about building in too much until the survivability factor comes into its own. If you're a first level wizard with four hit points, I don't need to see six pages of how and why you came to learn sleep and magic missile.

In more... I hate to say story driven games, because I've played plenty of D&D games where it wasn't about dungeon crawling at all, but in games like Hero or GURPS, even starting characters in those games, and others like them, tend to have a little better survivability factor and more reason to have a certain set of skills and a background story can flesh that out some.

As a player, the more complex the game system is without survivability, like Rolemaster, the less likely I'm going to invest any time into making a detailed background myself. For a convention character, I might whip a few paragraphs together if he's not starting past first level.

On good old, when the question of background comes up, there are some who prefer only what is revealed during actual game play. It makes the characters more organic and real to them. I can see that point.

I suspect that many Dungeon Masters fear that players try to build too much into their background. That player's are looking for that 'gimmie'. In some aspects, its not a goal without effort. While writing may come naturally to some people and like pulling teeth for others, it still involves some effort to write it down, to provide it in context of the setting, and to present it to the Dungeon Master. Is that worth a reward? Depends on how the DM is going to run the game and what the long term intentions are.

Anyway, most of Conan's background doesn't really lend itself too well to a RPG outside of the events of his birth where his mother is fighting on a battlefield, hence the title of the volume. Events like these can fall under an 'omens' table if you will.  The old Central Casting: Heroes of Legend provided a few different types of tables to roll on for these bits. Mind you though, there are differences between where your born and what happens when your born. The battlfield for example, is merely a location. Making the birthplace an unusual local isn't a bad thing mind you, but what if it'd been in a castle during a siege? What if it happened in jail or a brothel?

Adding other details like a twin tailed comet being visible to all on that night, or all the milk turning sour or the birth of farm animals with hideous mutations? That's an omen.

For much of the material, Conan's personality traits tend to emerge, but that would be somewhat difficult to mine for much outside of modeling a character directly on them.

However, the importance of Conan's grandfather is reinforced here. I say reinforced because while this is volume 0, it is certainly not the first in the actual printed publication and Conan's grandfather has been referenced as the one who helped instill the wanderlust in Conan.

This bit of background building, of relatives who help mold the character, are useful in a few ways. It allows the player to claim to have some knowledge of X, but that knowledge of X is coming from a third party, is coming from a perspective that's some odd twenty to thirty years off, and may be embellished to provide entertainment. This can easily smooth over any differences between what the player thinks he knows and what the setting actually is.

Perhaps more importantly, Conan's grandfather dies at the end of this volume. While that may sound harsh, it does allow Conan to go wandering without too many ties left to his home country.

For gaming purposes, Brita's Vale from its initial description alone makes a worth addition to a setting, "Dark forces seep from the blood-soaked ground. The vale attracts wizards, madmen who feast on human flesh, and worse they say." Now many game settings already have such a location as the Battle of the Bones in the Forgotten Realms, but its good to have a spot where the fields of the dead are stacked high and strange things wander.

The closer one gets to such a location, the more things can be of the 'other'. In this comic for instance, Conan dreams of a panther he has slain providing him with dire omens. When he gets to the vale itself, breathing in the dust of the dead provides him with visions of how the fighting went. In the midst of that he is forced to fight for his life against a cannibal and sees a bone-witch who appeared in other comics that series wise, take place later, although again, the printing chronology make that reversed in when the reader initially saw them.

Having such a location allows the setting to have graveyards that aren't man made but yet, are visited by men. In settings that are soaked in superstition, many sword and sorcery ones for example, the Game Master can run counter to those traditions and have it be where individuals meet to discuss various business matters as normal people stay away from these 'haunted ruins'. It could also be a place where survivors of the wars come yearly to pay their respects to the dead. It could also be a place where certain items have been rumored to be lost ever since the original conflict.

One 'moral' lesson of this series though, is an old one; No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Conan, as a youth, sees strangers coming to his homeland, a wizard and her daughter. The daughter grows up even as Conan does and the two becomes lovers. While playing, the daughter falls into a field and startles a bull. Conan leaping in to save her winds up putting the strange girl in front of his fellow villagers and that in turn brings her wizard father. The two sides do not see things eye to eye and soon the civilized lands know of the value of ore and other valuables in Conan's home.

That in and of itself leads to a war where Conan takes a place among the men and the end result? The girl and her father are dead. Not at Conan's hand mind you, but the end result is still the same. The very thing Conan sought to prevent, the death of the girl, comes about in a long drawn out way that costs many their lives on both sides, because Conan tried to do the right thing. Are there events and elements in your own setting that can trigger a negative? Something that should be done for the greater good but isn't because the current cost of doing that would be too high?

The destruction of the invaders and their fort though, follows another example of one of Howard's themes that barbarism is the natural state of the world and that it will sweep away civilization.

Born on the Battlefield is an interesting take on Conan's early years. It makes him a little "too" much in my opinion as he's always killed various animals, experienced the supernatural and taken part in a war, well before leaving the homeland, but at least its not so far out there that future adventures he has are reduced to repetition or lesser actions. If you're interested in seeing how Kurt Busiek, known his his initial tenure on the story, The Frost Giant's Daughter, back in 2005, this is a good volume to pick up.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Traitors of the Earth: Usagi Yojimbo 26 by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo, a long running series about a ronin rabit, continues in volume 26, Traitors of the Earth.  Below I'll be discussing the spoilers of the book and my thoughts on it so if you wish to avoid such spoilers, read no further.

This volume starts off with Usagi as a youth getting a lesson from his mentor. Turns out a farmer was skipping stones into a Kami's pool in anger because he dropped his axe. The kami offers him a silver axe, a gold axe, and his normal axe. When the wood cutter denies ownership of the treasures, the kami gives him the golden axe. Usagi assumes this is a reward for the axecutter's honesty, but his mentor informs him that it was a death sentence. See, with a gold axe, you can't cut the trees down and the guy freezes to death. If you can incorporate rewards that may not be all they seem, as Stan did with that tale, you can make your players question more about their treasures.

After that we get to meet Kitsune and her apprentice, Kiyoko as they are moving through the city, doing their regulard thieving ways. This isn't the first time Kistune picks up an odd item that has significance as she gets a netsuke of a skull. Turns out this one controls an ancient undead army. If there is a character that continuously steals from various NPCs, it can lead to whole adventure arcs as they steal something they were not meant to. In many ways, its a perfect player driven adventure seed.

The only trick is not to over use such an abuse. Its like playing out how many times the characters get caught doing it and that turns into a big deal. Later in this volume Kiyoko is noticed stealing and has to endure a few chases but those things won't haunt her later down the road. Failure should be an opportunity to open further ventures as opposed to bringing it to a dead stop. What's more entertaining, the thief getting caught right there and then or busing out the dice and using some chase methodology?

Indeed, it is this very chase that leads to a different adventure. While she is hiding from the police, she hears a plot to assassinate a merchant. Using the players own initatives to provide them with adventure seeds can provide them more interaction with the world and provide them more opportunities to experience adventure seeds they may not normally.

Stan has woven mystic and supernatural elements into his tales before and when he does that, he often brings in Sasuke, a demon queller who has worked with Usagi many times in the past. He is able to do so again as Sasuke's ghost mentor sends him towards the action. When you have players who can't always make it, having reasons for them to be part of the group is important. In this case, we have random chance for Kitsune, but the ghost mentor allows a much firmer reasoning for characters to met.

It may get old after a while but if the characters aren't meeting each other that often, it allows that guiding force to be mysterious and to let the players know that this is the in meta reason while the in game reason itself may still be mysterious. The repetition of Sasuke having another mission immediately after showcases how to get rid of such characters as well. Instead of sticking around and hanging out when the player himself can't, that player's character can be given another mission right away.

The last of the tales this volume goes back to the earliest parts of the rabbit ronin's tale. He has an opportunity to battle against Lord Hikiji, the one who slew his lord and set him on his ronin path. These long term seeds are sprinkled throughout the series and Usagi has still yet to come across the man who gave him the crescent scar again but he has fought Hikiji's allies and spoiled many of that lord's plans time and time again. Having a long term goal, one either embodied by this unreachable nemesis or one that's a personal self goal, such as Usagi's training on the open road, can also provide the Game Master with various opportunities.

The trick in such a situation, especially one in a long running game, is not overplaying your hand. If Hikiji was to start sending assassins after Usagi in every issue, it would only be a matter of time before Usagi would have to go for a final confrontation. Because of Lord Hikiji's standing and status though, that's not something Usagi would do unless his very life depended on it.

Usagi Yojimbo continues to blend traditional elements of Japanese history with mythology and nods to modern events. If you want a different take on undead samurai, Traitors of the Earth is for you.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Barrowmaze II and Rappan Athuk have arrived

So Barrowmaze II, which I also got Barrowmaze the original, and Rpapan Athuk were both at my door today.

Dudes from Frog God, please see if you can use the guys who did the Barrowmaze dice. They look nice and apparently didn't hold up the project.

Your special die is essentially a d6 with the Necromancer Games logo. Theirs is a little more colorful with a few icons.

The shipping packages were both the same type but apparently someone told the USPS dude to go hog wild on the Rappan Athuk boxed set.

The shinny one under it? Yeah, Barrowmaze. Ugh.

So overall, I would do another Indiegogo for the guy who did Barrowmaze. The material arrived on time. The price was reasonable. The goods were neat. Unless Frog God really kicks up its game with its next Kickstarters, I will only buy their product on the shelf or from Paizo when I want the PDF/Print combo and discount and discounted shipping.

I've gone over the reasons why before but a brief recap.

1. Selling it at Gen Con. Now mind you, selling it at Gen Con in and of itself isn't bad. But when miniature companies like Blackwater Gultch and RPG companies like the guys who did Shadows of Esteren, where you could pick up a book with a customized picture in it...

2. Delayed Shipping.  This isn't too bad to be honest. August to October is only two months. Some people were like, "But you get the PDFs and other freebies!" to which I could point out many people who backed it going, "Like the PDFs but waiting for the hardcopies." Mind you, the real pisser for me, is that as a Paizo subscriber, if I ordered from Paizo, I'd get the PDF. I'd also get a discount. I'd also get a better shipping price. Not some of the freebies like the dice, which caused another delay but I'd get the book and PDFs.

3. Shipping Charges. Many of the projects I've backed had no shipping charges. I fully understand that's not always possible. Charging people for shipping well before you have the product to ship out? Simply put, not cool. Not cool at all. If you don't have the package, you dont' send a shipping invoice. Period. End of story. Mind you, I can see the reason why they did it. How are they going to know that they're going to be boned by the dice people? If it had been me? I'd have made the dice people ship out those dice specifically to the customers but that may not have been possible. If they had held off on the shipping charges, are they going to scramble at the last minute waiting for everyone to pay when even now they're waiting on people to pay?

4. The damn thing was damaged. Not huge damage. Not something I'm going to cry about or ask for a refund, but the front corners were crinkled on the top and bottom. Ugh.

'Outside' observation though is that whenever you bring up some disatisfaction someone else will pipe up that they love the company. I'm not saying burn Frog God Games to the ground or anything like that. It could just be the nature of the Internet that some of these posts sound 'angry' or something. But really, s0ome of the time when you mention dissatisfaction with X, Y, or Z and so many people jump in to 'defend' the company, I have to say, applause to you. Fans like you are a great resource for the company to rely on and its great that such fans enable the companies to keep pumping out material.

Both books will go on the bookshelf. The Frog God one will go next to the other two mammoth tomes I have from them while I may put the Barrowmaze ones by the reprinted 'preimum' copies of the AD&D 1st edition stuff.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Harsh Lessons of DMing: Level Balance

My friend Tom Wright is running several of my friends and I through the Shackled City using Pathfinder as the rule engine. He's got some rules and notes and is fairly consistent in the way he runs. It's one of his greatest strengths.

However, he had a vision about how the game was going to work this time. He was going to incorporate various ends and odd bits of our characters backgrounds into the game. To accomplish this and still run the campaign, he decided to use the slow advancement table.

One of the great things about roleplaying games is the ability to modify things so that they work the way you want. However, if you are going to do that in a manner that keeps the pace with a prewritten adventure, you need to verify that your doing the right thing.

At the end of the first adventure, we were too low level to handle the big bad who wiped out a few members of the party and the rest of us managed to retreat. How did that happen? No side quests. When the xp goal was changed without bringing in additional xp, the end result has to be characters that are lower level.

After that, he decided he was going to use the medium or normal level of advancement. He's very good about listening to player feedback in terms of it not being 'his' game but 'our' game. But he also decided that new characters would start a level lower than the standard characters. Does anyone see any potential problems here?

So when we got to the big bad in the next adventure... yeah, essentially another TPK.

Take the time to read through the adventurers. Take the time to review the character sheets. Review not only their abilities that are level based, but also their choice of 'fiddy' bits like feats and spells. Make sure that if there are encounters coming up that rely on magic items or silver items or something of that nature, that if the party doesn't already own them, they can own them. Make some routes of escape.

Mind you, in a freestyle campaign where you let the first level party know, "Over here are rumored to be dragons and giants" and they go there anyway, well, I'm old school enough to say kill away. But if you're running an adventure and it says, "Party should be level X when they reach area Y" and they get blitzed by the baddies? Well, was party level X? Did party have level X equipment?

In some games, its easier to tell when players are min-maxed then others. Try to keep onto of it and don't wait till the last minute to find out that the party didn't have a wand of cure light wounds and that the party didn't have a method of deciphering that ancient script. DMing can be a great thing but it also often requires some homework. Do that homework!