Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fantasy and Historical Kindle Sales aka Cheap Reads!

I'm going to start off with some questions asking for any reader's opinions of these books that are on sale and then break out some recommendations. If you'd like to see a different format in future posts, please let me know!

The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. I read the original trilogy and thought the end was a nice twist on the whole hero of prophecy. Has anyone read the new series by Brandon? For $2.99 is it a good delve?

Ben Bova has several books in his Grand Tour series. Anyone read them and have any comments, concerns or recommendations on which are good and which to skip? I've read Ben Bova's Orion series and loved it. That was some great stuff but while Orion was a little more Science Fantasy these look to be more on the science fiction side of the genre.

Last one asking questions is The Knight by Gene Wolf. I've read some of his stuff decades ago and I've heard positives and negatives about this series. So for anyone whose read it, how does it stack up? Is it manageable?

Now for recommendations:

Both of these are by Steven Burst. Both in the same setting. I found them a little dry to be honest but thought that they were entertaining and the time lapse between the two books is nothing as these aren't short lived people. The Phoenix Guards is the first in this series and on sale while Five Hundred Years After takes up the mantle well, Five Hundred Years later! I've seen them described as fantasy based versions of the Three Musketeers.

Note only the first book in the series is on sale!

Lord of the Isles by David Drake. I've only read the first three books in between numerous things that were happening in the personal live at the time but it's on the scale and scope of other series like Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and A Game of Thrones. There were some great characters that I'm looking forward to getting back into when time and attention span allow.

Anyone know Glen Cook? Did the Black Company series. It was a fantasy series that focused on a group of mercenaries. That series was grim and gritty and had characters dying left and right including the leadership of the company itself!

I've still found some of those books my most enjoyed fantasy bits and yanked whole campaign elements into my game from them. His Instrumentalities of the Night wasn't as good to me, but still worth reading and for $2.99 you can check out the first book in the series.

If I've missed any on the list that are great, give a shout out and a link! If I've missed any that are on sale but aren't on the list, throw those in too! It's a great time to be a fantasy reader!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Family and Black Friday

Outside of my mother, my family lives outside of Chicago. Every now and again, sometimes for no reason, my mom and I visit her brother and wife in semi-nearby Teagarden. It's under a two hour drive and we usually stop at one of the various rest stops and pick up some coffee and baked goods or something of that nature.

Yesterday's trip was no different. We made it out there in great time. The traffic was minimal on the way out. We did have a slight problem in that there are new roads that make the trip a little different. At one point as we pulled off of I think it was 31, we saw a mound of ravens. As the car drew closer, that ravens scattered to the skies and under them lay a dead deer. It had seen better days.

While that might have been a grim reminder of mortality and the dangers of animal crossings and interaction with humans, it was very visually impressive. Sorry if that sounds morbid but I'd never seen something of that nature so up close before with the crows and it was striking.

The traffic was even better on the return trip although there were no macabre sights.. While there was a slight amount of snow on the way out, it was clear sailing on the way in.

It was good to visit with my uncle.

I jokingly call him the Great Bear Hunter.

Like many people his age, in this case 78, he's done a lot. He is still at this moment doing things. This includes doing charity work as well as farming.  This includes pruning trees, making his own maple syrup from trees, growing potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, and pepper in addition to a variety of fruit.

I don't know where he gets the energy. He is a boundless machine always on the move and always onto something. For example, he has bird feeders and I managed to snag a picture of a woodpecker. We have them in Chicago but it's rare that one is essentially an outstretched arm away.

His wife Barbara, doesn't tell as many good stories but she is a great cook. The food we enjoyed was simple well prepared and in huge portions. It included all of the 'standard' fare such as turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, rolls, green bean casserole, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce (home made)

 and other goods that I've probably not given a proper nod to like the deviled eggs, which I don't eat.

All in all, it was a very pleasant time. My mom enjoyed herself greatly and that makes my own life much easier.

My own contributions were even more simple. I brought over a variety pack of Red Hook. My uncle was very pleased with it. Apparently he is a fan of ales which despite knowing him my whole life, I've never realized. Here he is "This is a hell of a beer." If only everyone was so easy to please.

My mom joked that she had spent all morning on baking this cake. It's a Sam's Club Cake. While Wal-Mart and the Waltons may be terrible people in what they do to the economy and people's lives, they make a damn fine cake.
I could feel my blood crystallizing to sugar as I ate it. It also reminded me to bring my own coffee for Barb's coffee machine. I don't know what brand or type they use but it is some of the worst coffee I've ever had. I keep pouring milk into it to give it some saving grace and by the time I was done, was drinking milk instead of coffee.

When I got home last night, I saw that Microsoft was doing a fantastic giveaway of music on their X-Box Music app. To get the deals though, you had to download the Music Deal App. Which when you clicked on the music, took you back to the Music App. Every time.

You suck Microsoft. Seriously ,that's just terrible design.

But thanks for the free music. You're okay in that venue at least. Some great stuff there and some stuff that I already owned, but remastered and expanded and deluxe versions. Good stuff and the price was awesome. Some stuff I also would never buy, like numerous country albums, but my mom is a huge fan and so burned onto CD for her!

I did burn through my blank's though/ Between my mom and me, while I appreciate the cloud and keeping everything there, I like to have physical media as a backup. So I ordered some blanks from Amazon. Officemax had them cheaper but then you had to pay tax and a good chunk for shipping and handling.

I then saw Amazon had a coupon for 30% off any book (code HOLIDAY30).  Since I'm a prime member, I had to decide if I was going to get anything. I narrowed it down between two books. One for 'fun' the other for gaming. The one for gaming is Inner Sea Gods for Pathfinder. I'm more interested in the background stuff. Some of the gods are fun and have analogs in traditional fantasy roles like Gorum for Tempus from Forgotten Realms. 

The other one I'm looking at is The Italian Wars 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe. The KINDLE book is over $25 so with the 30% off, the physical book is probably a better deal. I freely admit that this is due to watching the two different Borgia series.

I went with Inner Sea Gods. Bad gamer! Then again, I'm running some Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition using the Pathfinder setting. I wanted a different set from Forgotten Realms. If you love what Wizards of the Coast has done with the setting, great. I hate it. If I ever ran Forgotten Realms again, it'd probably be with the setting pre-4th edition.

I also saw an author note that a compendium of five books, The Nameless Dwarf, was on sale for 99 cents in kindle format. How can you beat 99 cents for five books? They would have to be almost comedically bad to not get value out of that.

I'm probably going to check out Half Priced Books later on today and hit up the Microsoft Music store again. Usually Amazon with their various deals on Black Friday, has some great sales but this year both Google and Microsoft soundly beat them in pricing. 

Anyone else pick up anything great? Anyone take advantage of any of the various sales going on for the specialty items and things gamers love that usually don't hit the mainstream? 

Regardless of what else happens, have a great day!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Thief Taker by T. F. Banks

The Thief Taker, by T. F. Banks, is the first book in the Memoirs of A Bow Street Runner. At this point, there are only two books in the series, but if the second is as good as the first, I'm down for it and any future volumes from T. F. Banks.

I've read a few books recently, many of them historical in nature, but this one is probably the best written I've read recently. Memoirs takes place starting in June 1815, in 'Regency London', before the time of Scotland Yard. It deals with murder and other elements, all of which are subtly influenced by the great war against Napoleon in the background.

The author uses a wide casts of characters surrounding Henry Morton, a 'Bower', a man of the law who works with the law but is not an actual police man. Henry is present when Halbert Glendinning is found dead and pronounced dead due to choking on his own bile, which Henry, a man of the world, knows not to be the case.

T. F. Banks does a solid job of providing a lot of background and unique language to bring the novel and its time to life. For example, when going to see a hanging, it's referred to as a 'necktie party'. The character's and their creeds stand out not only in what they do, but how they refer to and act upon one another. For example, Henry himself, due to his more law abiding nature, is often referred to as 'Sir Galahad' and is used when a well known honest Bower is needed.

While the timeline is more modern than many of the books I regularly read, it's not so far advanced that things are easy to investigate. For example, the use of, identification of, and mastery of, poison, is far more hindered, accepted, or even considered at this time. The proof to show poisoning, especially if the murdered victim appears to have suffered another fate, are great and can only be overcome with an excessive amount of evidence.

The backdrop of the war against Napoleon is also interesting in its use. The mention of the war showcasing many dead British soldiers in the field, as well as acting as an element to allow some to advance due to their own reckless skills. The pulling together of the British people as a proud nation, to embrace that patriotism and be a part of something bigger, even if the day to day struggles are difficult to overcome.

Most telling in other fields, is how the class society works itself. Much like in most societies, including Modern America, those from a certain 'class' are meant to act and behave in a certain way. Those who've managed to do better for themselves then they should, may often be looked upon with some degree of favor, but are always just on the edge of being noted for not actually belonging to those upper classes.

And those who are working with authorities? Even those who may not be of any means themselves? How could they be aught but traitors to those around them? How can man worry about looking over his shoulder daily when his fellow man is out to turn him in? And even worse if some who are doing evil, known that those who claim to be working for the law are taking bribes and kickbacks to insure that the money flows in the manner in which they want?

The Thief Taker is well written but isn't excessive in its length. Weighing in at 325 pages, it's a quick read that does its job in half the pages some authors need to just get into the prolog. If you're looking for a good murder mystery that keeps the pace, The Thief Taker is well worth your time.

For those wondering what Appendix N inspiration I may take from this volume, there are a few bits.

1. Mixed Origin: Henry Morton is a bastard child of a maid whose education was thanks to his mother being taken in by his father, sight unseen, sister, who was going to raise Henry for the church. This lead to him having an education that someone of his mother's means should not be able to afford. But Henry's eclectic mix goes a bit further than that. While Henry is described as a large man, he is able to make the best use of that with his boxing skill, one that he hones often. Despite that, Henry is also a reader of poetry, including that of such famous individuals as Lord Byron.

Having a character with a mix of elements to their nature is a good way to insure that your own characters don't fall into a flat or boring mix. It allows you to have a toe dipped into different factions for a reason.

2. Corruption: The police that Henry works with often do not like the Bowers. Turns out they have good reason as at least one group that Henry works with, is corrupt to the point of setting individuals up for murder. Having organizations that suffer from corruption can provide a nice change of pace for things. For example, the Harpers. Imagine that your party is sent to take out some Cult of the Dragon Members but are sold out by the Harpers who are actually in alliance with the Cult, sending stupid adventurers to them in order to kill them and strip them of their goods. Who is going to believe a group of random wandering adventurers that the Harpers tried to set them up to be murdered and robbed?

3. Ambush: When the party is on the move in a city, and reliant on transportation coming from a third party, say a wagon, and that wagon leads them into an ambush? Priceless!

4. Love: Part of the story involves murder and that murder is initiated by jealousy. There are many types of love in the world but when that love is bright with such unrestrained fury that there can be no others in the loved one's life? Things can get messy.

5. Suffer the Children: As in the Templar Mysteries, the children of 1800 London are not treated kindly. Things that should outrage any normal person are often seen as part of the normal establishment. Having characters witness such horrors should be a powerful motivator for them to do better for their homes and to be better people themselves.

The Thief Taker has a lot of bits that can easily provide many a night's inspiration ranging from the different names and aspects of the characters, to showing how an arc that doesn't involve the characters directly, in this case the war against Napoleon, can directly effect those characters as the nation and city must wait for baited breath of what shall happen next.

Death By Dragon: Week Five of Kingmarker with Lost Mine of Phandelver

I've made mention before that my campaign started off as a combination of elements from Lost Mine of Phandelver and the Paizo Kingmarker Adventure Path.

As a quick note, Lost Mine of Phandelver to me, is the best 'official' adventure Wizards of the Coast has put out yet and if you haven't picked up the starter set yet, Amazon has it for $11.99.

I'm still digesting the kingdom rules from the hardcover Ultimate Campaign, so didn't want to run Rivers Run Red just yet. While there are elements that don't rely on the player's having the kingdom in play, I wanted to give the players as much Kingdom awesome as I could and well, wasn't ready. Thankfully the group is cool about that and I mentioned that they should follow up on their missing Dwarf co-Pathfinder member. It costs them!

Instead of using Phandalin as presented, I swapped it out with the River Kingdoms city of Pitax.I felt this worked out well in several ways. First, it's a fairly decent sized city. Important when the players are looking for spells and other mundane items that might take a while to find out their current outpost. Second, I don't know if it's a deliberate attempt or not, but Pitax feels very much like Rome in that it's almost a 'renaissance' city with lots of families doing various corrupt things and having a pleasant facade to hide behind. After watching the series Borgia, I was ready to role play some of that out.

It also didn't hurt that the players will eventually have different things to come to Pitax for in the future if we follow through with the entire Kingmarker series.

In Pitax, the players learned a bit about the city, about River Kingdoms in general, about some of the families here, and sought out information on their dwarf friend whose been held prisoner since oh, week one of the game I want to say?

They learned the whereabouts of a druid who knew the local region well and sought him out. During that bit, they encountered some twig blights. These are little evil halfling treants basically and the party made quick work of them. Why WoTC wants to keep using them as I don't think they've ever been popular since their introduction in Sunless Citadel in 3e era, I can't imagine.

There were also some unique zombies, ash zombies, that had a little extra ability, a nice example of a mini-template.

But the druid? He had the information that the party wanted, but needed a certain young green dragon gone. One of the players had a bit of background in his campaign that I used to include the dragon, Venomfang, in as his main antagonists.

Now the dragon's in a tower. The tower is so many feet wide and so many feet deep. It's basically a cooking oven for the dragon's poisonous breath.

Remember that elf monk I've mentioned in the past? That I painted up a Stonehaven miniature for?

Missed his first save. Took 42 points of damage in first round of combat. Erdan Nailo, who put clan above self, an elf that could hold a grudge? Dead.

The party made some good efforts at killing the creature. The druid casting some resistance from poison on himself, the halfling rogue having an innate resistance to poison. The dragonborn leaping upon the creature's back, which I gave him advantage for as long as he stayed on.

But then, at the player's roll, as few things are as entertaining as making the players roll their own potential doom, the dragon's breath weapon recharged. Another blast and Damaia, a tiefling warlock, who the player hadn't updated to 4th level from 2nd yet, went down, as did Naronel, an elf wizard. The elf player screwed that up and I allowed it, because he mentioned that he wanted to leave the tower, but then didn't actually do so. Who was I to allow him to not stay for the barbeque?  At that point, the dragon had taken over half his hit points in damage, which the text calls for a retreat.

If I had been running things to kill, oh yeah, it would've been an easy TPK but that's no fun. Especially as the dragon was taunting Kontos, the dragonborn who had him written into his background, pissing the other players off who felt that the dragonborn knew more about their foe than he let on.

So the dragon shakes off the dragonborn fighter, who fails his Athletics roll and takes 4d6 falling damage, and the party claims the loot!

At this point I'm giving the new characters 1,000 gold pieces, no access to magic items, and half experience points of the lowest level character. How do other people handle introducing new characters?

The group voted on the experience rules, so I don't feel bad about them, but as the Dungeon Master's Guide isn't out, still a little 'weirded' out by allowing magic items. I might just rule that those killed by dragon breath had all their items destroyed and that their new character can start off with similiar items.

Next week we're taking a break. I'm still reading Ultimate Campaign from Paizo to get the Kingdom building rules in place. Some interesting stuff there. Too bad for the group that they just lost three positions! Take that stupid adventurers!

One of my players is going to do a paladin and wants to use the rules for assimar that are available from the Dungeon Master's Guide preview which I said okay. It's not like the rules are going to make THAT big a difference and the book will be out soon enough. Another is making a wild mage with a charlatan background.

That charlatan background bit is particularly funny to our group because one of the other players, in our last campaign, Warhammer Thousand Thrones, was an Imperial Wizard, who our hedge wizard initially labeled as a charlatan and it stuck with that character till his death.

The last player hasn't decided what she's making yet. Hopefully all of her goods and abilities are fully up to date this time!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Borgia: Triumph and Oblivion

The non-Showtime version of the Italian familia, Borgia, has just hit Netflix with a Netflix Original season three, Triumph and Oblivion. For those confused that there are two cable series with similiar names, this article does a good job of breaking down some of the differences.

While there were a lot of liberties taken with historical means and events, and some things not followed up on from previous seasons as I'd hoped, overall it was a very satisfying season and brought a nice close to a strong series.

I'll be hitting some specific spoilers below that relate to how my brain looks at a series like this and associates it with the various role playing games I run or play in.

1. Alliances: The man who would be Cesar, Cesare Borgia, loses his power towards the end of the series. In so doing, he finds himself at the mercy of others and it rapidly goes to show that without having his own power base, he must ally himself wherever the winds blow. But such waters are filled with...

2. Treachery: When you are approached by multiple nobles and rulers who wish to make use of your unique abilities, how do you trust any of them to do right by you once you've performed whatever deed they wanted in the first place?

3. Secrets: During his imprisonment, one of Cesare's fellows is a priest. Turns out that priest was a former Jew who gave up the faith to save his life. Cesare noting the pain and terror that the man knew, is able to convince the now priest to help Cesare escape, even though it costs the Jew his life. Secrets have a powerful role in Italy and it's the wise characters who fetter them out.

4. Shifting Sands: While the series doesn't try to go strictly by historical records or events, there are two parts that dovetail nicely into other material I've read. One of those is that Cesare didn't' have any plan for if he was near death at the same time his own father died. By not being in power or in command at full strength, this allows others to take a larger role in the world to come. In helping to elect a Pope that was a former enemy, Cesare makes what is probably his last 'big' mistake in that it's all downhill for the former Prince at that time. Being able to navigate among the many powers, even in a smaller country comprising of City States like Rome was surrounded by at the time, as opposed to the 'countries' of Spain and France, without the right backing, it's easy for even the mightiest to fall.

5. Disease: One of the interesting bits about the series, is it doesn't shy away from disease as a cause of death. The 'bad winds' that hit Rome thanks to its proximity to water and the insects that tend to love such an environment, were the end of the Pope and almost the end of Cesare himself. When looking at the role disease plays in a campaign, in any setting, is it a seasonal thing? Is it localized to a specific country? Look at 'The French Disease', brought home to France from the New World. Look around in today's environment and the fear of Ebola. The fear that diseases cause can be greater than the disease itself. Keep those elements, both historical and current, in mind when deciding how much power disease has.

6. The Dead Speak! One of the things I was curious about, was what would they do when the Pope died? Instead, Cesare, when facing doubt or failure, imagines himself seeing his father and the conversations they would have were his father still alive. It works well in this instance as they don't have the opportunity to overdue it.

7. Turn the Page: One of the things they did quite a bit differently, is how Cesare's story ends. Historically, it doesn't turn out well. Killed in an almost random brawl against some knights and stripped bear as they didn't know who he was, but here, Cesera leaves everything behind and instead heads to those newly discovered 'Americas' to start life anew. It's an interesting twist on things and I say 'Turn the Page' because I know even in completely fictitious campaign settings like Star Wars and Forgotten Realms, you may get some 'scholars' who are bound and determined to have a setting adhere to canon as close as possible. When it suits your campaign and your game and everyone else is having a good time? Let canon die.

8. Your Think Your Family is Bad: The only character of the Borgia family to not be cast as a monstrous creature, is the Pope's daughter, Lucrezia Borgia. She is instead, on her third marriage, striving to bring the light of God into her new family's ways. Turns out that the Boriga's weren't the only family filled with back stabbers, filled with murders, filled with those who would commit any one of the seven dead sins. And that follows in the footsteps of the Pope that came after the Borgia pope!

9. Complex Characters: One of the things I enjoyed about 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons was the simplification of alignment leaving the 'extreme' ends almost to the supernatural entities. People are complex. We're not ants with the ability to only perform one function. While some of the deeds done by these individuals are truly monstrous, they also helped fund and expand the Renaissance itself. Some of the greatests artists still admired five hundred years later, came to prominence at this time. Find something that is 'normal' about the bad guys. Do they feed the hungry because they grew up poor? Do they have a fondness for children because they grew up without parents? Do they enjoy a certain type of music and fund a college of bards to play that music? Giving bad guys something that the players can relate to doesn't void the vile things such characters may commit, but it does make them more rounded and less super villainy.

Borgia: Triumph and Oblivion isn't perfect but it's a fun ride to a series that I feared would not have the opportunity to have it's swan song.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Crediton Killings by Michael Jecks

While going through Half-Price books a while ago, I came across several volumes in the Knights Templar Mystery series. The one I did not however, was the Crediton Killings. Bad news as I'd just finished volume three and was eager to start the next one.

Amazon to the rescue. For whatever reason, it's 99 cents right now in Kindle format. So for less then the price of a cup of coffee, I was entertained for a few hours.

Michael Jecks characters, Simon and Sir Baldwin, are becoming old friends. Much like watching an enjoyable series coming back for another season, reading another novel in the Knights Templar series is an nice diversion. 

One of the interesting things that Michael Jecks brings to the forefront of the reader, is how important food is. I've mentioned the themes of famine before, but Michael felt it so important he did a little video over it on Youtube.

I notice that much like the Dresden Files series, that time tends to pass between the novels. As these novels are now numbering past ten, I think maybe twenty in total, I'll be curious to see if that trend continues. It's a good trend though, both in Dresden and here, because otherwise the main characters would be running from place to place and murder to murder. 

In this novel, a street beggar has no one looking after him. A potential care taker doesn't want the child around because of the extra costs of feeding the child. While there are still problems with hunger today, even in America, where numbers range from one in five children suffering 'food securities', it's a real problem.

In addition, there are mercenaries involved in the novel. The mercenaries have numerous leadership issues and motivations run the gambit of who could be committing murders in the town of Crediton.

The author does a solid job of laying down the groundwork for how Simon and Sir Baldwin go about their business of trying to find the murderer and it flows smoothly.

In terms of gaming, it's brought to mind several different things.

Motivations: What was it Ultron said in the trailer for the Avengers? You're all covered in strings or something? People are bound to one another in many ways. Here, the mercenary captain is suspected of murdering three women for different reasons ranging from rage, shame, and even pettiness. All three were 'known' to the captain and his motivations different for each as his own personality is revealed to the reader layer by layer.

Having said that though, there are other characters, like Wat, a fellow mercenary who wouldn't mind being captain, have their own motivations that cause their own appearance of innocence or guilt shine to the forefront.

Having characters that the player's interact with on a regular basis, have their own cache of secrets and motivations is a good way to give the player's an inside look as to how their minds work. Filling in the details of how the character's get along ahead of time and seeing how a husband may be perhaps too doting on a wife, or a child may be looking sickly and frail in one scene and not seen again.... these things lend continuity to the game.

Mind you, in standard dungeon crawls, it might not be necessarily to know the inn keeper's name and what he does when food or ale or running low, but if the player's are involved in small towns and are frequent guests, they may make conversation to find out rumours about locals, either people or local legends. Use those elements to your advantage and lay the groundwork for future sessions there.

The Crediton Killings brings mercenaries and murder to the forefront of the historical novel and does so in an entertaining and quick read.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Kingmaker: An End To The Stag King

The fourth session of Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition finds a heavy focus on finishing off the first book, Stolen Land. This is the first part of the Kingmaker Adventure Path by Paizo. I've done very little actual conversion work, mainly flipping some hit points to a higher total and cutting way back on the experience points that the villains are worth.

For the most part, it's worked out and the players are relatively happy so that's the good news.

There will be some specific spoilers for this volume so if you'd rather not hear those, read no further but know that this adventure took four sessions to finish. There were numerous random encounters thanks to the chart included with the adventure.

Outside of the adventure proper, it includes several new monsters. Two of them, the elk and thylacine, a strange dog-rat animal, were great for background and flavor of the region but others were not encountered yet.

There are also details on the country of Brevoy, a kingdom to the north of the Stolen Lands and some fiction by James L. Sutter. I've read the whole section of fiction that follows the adventurers of Ollix Kaddar through all six volumes and their entertaining but not a lot of depth to them. Good stuff to give you some flavor for the River Kingdoms and to show how chaotic a region it is.

In terms of the group, all six players were in presence tonight. In order to try and get the Inspiration in use, I borrowed the idea of Initiative Cards that I'd seen the Game Mechanics use in the past. I had players fill out index cards with name, armor class, hit points, perception, trait, ideal, bond, and flaw with the hope that having it right in front of me would provide some reminders to give up the goods on those. Worked a little better as two players earned some inspiration but it actually happened at the tail end outside of combat.

Players in presence today:

Erdan: A monk elf. I remembered to bring the Stonehaven miniature this time. Huzzah!

Damai: A tielfling warlock.

Amun Ramas: Druid from the Egypt style portion of the setting.

Gerak: His halfling manservant (rogue)

Naronel: Elf wizard.

Kontos: Dragonborn fighter.

The players wanted to finish off one of the side quests, that of finding the taztzlwyrms. It was an interesting bit as I actually converted those over earlier. Many more hit dice and changing the poison con damage to 10 points damage on a failed constitution save. On the way to find them though, they did have a random encounter of six bandits that were no match for the group, despite the fact I threw in a bandit leader.

Afterwards they made their plans to snake into the Stag Lords fortress. In one of their earlier encounters, they discovered the secret password to get into the fortress as well as captured the special delivery of alcohol that the stag lord is fond of.

They had some good planning and it paid off. One of the lieutenants, Auchs, was quickly befriended by the halfling who played with the brute and earned his trust. Another lieutenant, Donovan, who I took to calling 'Bowie' because his miniature and illustration seems very 'glam' despite you know, being a bandit in a place where you have your own pots, was caught in a distraction that involved freeing 'beaky', an enraged owlbear.

There weren't necessarily any do or die moments for the party in the encounter as their careful preperation paid off. The Stag Lord, noted as an alcoholic in the book, was completely out as the players waited to see if the camp broke out in celebration at the bringing in of the good liquor and goods.

For the adventure, I bought numerous bandits. Some of these were from the Reaper line, some from Games Workshop (Empire Freebooters), and a few I had from various years of playing. I bought Donovan and the Stag Lord. Ugh on both of them. There are so many tiny little details and bits that it's maddening. I did Donovan up super quick with a few different shades of brown to try and match the illustration and a few washes and layers. That may sound like a lot but by keeping the colors to one tone it went much faster than it otherwise would have.

In addition I finally painted up my Pathfinder Bones Goblins that I had from the Kickstarter as well as some Kobolds. I also wound up buying some prepainted Pathfinder miniatures to try and get some mites as well as buying some Reaper mites. All in all I think I've painted over twenty miniatures for this adventure alone. Many of which will never see use again.

Who knows, maybe one day 3-D printers will allow you to print and recycle the material into another figure. That day however, was not involved in the last few weeks.

I did manage to find my old Savage Worlds blank Game Master screen. I've seen the one that Gale Force 9 has come out with and it is very nice looking and very sturdy. However is it massively reliant on you running the two official hardcover adventurers as opposed to being a general all purpose Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition screen.

So if you know of any landscape rules for 5th edition that would make for good reference, pass 'em on down!

We touched on what the players can do next in Rivers Run Red. They've decided to build the kingdom and have started the process of filling out positions, making kingdom alignment decisions, etc... I then checked out Pathfinder's Ultimate Campaign which has an updated version of that system so I might just swap into that system since we haven't delved too much into it yet.

I also have Adventurer Conqueror King but never dove too deep into those rules, instead getting it more as a nod to fond memories of OSR play.

If anyone's done any extensive kingdom building in the game with any of those rules, please leave a comment and let me know how it went for you.

I suspect that the next few adventurers will go well as the players enjoy a lot of the roaming around and exploring but a few are very intrigued by the whole king ruling process. On one hand I'm a little curious to see how it all plays out but on the other, well, four weeks of game play that's almost uninterrupted (except for the Halloween break) is a good run for us as almost all of us are working more than full time and a few have a lot of personal responsibilities. If we stopped playing sometime soon in the future it wouldn't surprise me.

For me as the Game Master, 5th edition leaves me a little cold. Again, I'm so used to the horde of material for 3.5, 4th, and Pathfinder, that I keep wondering, "why am I running this again?" but the players asked me to and I've agreed and it's not bad to GM. The numbers are generally much lower than they were in 3rd and 4th so the match is much easier. The hit points are higher for a lot of the monsters and the game doesn't care that the monsters don't follow the rules that the player's do. That was a strength of 4th edition too.

Hopefully everyone else's gaming is going well!

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Moorland Hanging by Michael Jecks

Book Three in the Knights Templar Mystery series, A Moorland Hanging, written by Michael Jecks, brings the reader  back to medieval times with Simon Puttock and Sir Baldwin Furnshill as they investigate a murder on the moors.

Michael Jecks is able to bring the reader into a situation that has two solid factions, the landowning nobles and the tin miners. Each with their own goals and motivations and each a thorn in the other's side, but forced to deal with one another as both serve the king.

Jecks does a solid job of providing information on the importance of the tin mining. The need the king had of vast wealth allows the tin miners many rights that superseded even those of the noble landowners This puts the landowners in a weak position when the tin miners come around and threaten to claim various parts of the land in order to find tin.

And yet at the same time, much like in Japan and their own falling caste of Samurai, the nobles here are arrogant and militant. They have a great deal of power thanks to their own ability to fight and while wars may not necessarily wage without end in the moors, there are always wars where some type of glory may be won.

The mystery itself has some parts that are stronger than others. This could be a deliberate choice. One of the big 'reveals' should be obvious to anyone who's paying attention, but I'll admit to having the completely wrong idea on the killer until nearly the end as vital pieces of information are brought into visibility.

A Moorland Hanging follows the strength of The Merchant's Partner and is a solid mystery novel for those looking for some background on how things might have been in this far away time.

Below I'll be hitting spoilers specific to the novel and discussing how I'll try to keep it in mind when running my ongoing Dungeons and Dragons campaign using the King Maker adventure path by Paizo.

1. Outsiders: While the tin miners have been present for years, there are those who've dwelt on the moor for much longer, generations. To those old inhabitants, the tin miners are a blight on the land. To those who've been here not as long as the old inhabitants, any new inhabitants, like those seeking to make a new life for himself, are another brand of outsider.

2. Isolation: There are old beliefs on the Moors. When you're cut for from civilization and don't travel, the old beliefs have no reason to die out. They've encountered no resistance. This is still true today. In areas that aren't major hubs or on water ways, the people do as they've always done, believe as they've always believed. This can be jarring for people who visit as first off, they're automatically labeled outsiders, and now their outsiders that don't share the same beliefs.

This isolation can take other forms too though. THere are several instances in the novel where the characters feel isolated and cut off from civilization. That they've entered another time and place and that they are gone from the standard realms of men.

3. Bandits: In all the novels thus far, the fall of knight hood as a way of earning a living is reflected on again and again. Those seeking to earn their way may have to travel afar to places such as Italy. Again there are parallels with the Samurai who become ronin, masterless men. The other bit though, that dovetails nicely into the River Kingdoms, is that people may come from other parts of the world to 'get away' from their past. Without an easy way to quickly check the background and history of someone new to the area, wolves may assume the guise of sheep.

4. Protected Interest: While the moors are isolated, the value of the tin miners is obvious to the king. Because of that, they have numerous rights. While this isn't necessarily anything like that in the River Kingdoms, the River Kingdoms does have it's own laws, it's own Six River Freedoms as they are known. Bring in reasons that the players can't just run roughshod over everything and everyone.

5. Visibility: This is one I've always had a problem with. There are numerous mentions that thanks to the even level of the ground and the lack of forests or hills, that people can spot each other for miles around. This can add a bit of suspense if the players know they are being hunted and can see the opposing party rushing and wearing them down. However, given the extreme range of some spells and missile weapons, this could easily backfire!

6. Depth: One of the things that's enjoyable about the series, is that many of the characters have aspects to their past that they would rather not come up. If anyone's seen the movie Snowpiercer, will know what I'm talking about. Having each major NPC have such a secret, have such a past, is something that can put the characters in a completely different frame of mind when they see that person again.

A Moorland Hanging brings the isolation to life and is a solid piece that should be able to inspire many a role playing session.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Kingmaker: Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Week Three

There was no game on Halloween. It's one of my girlfriend's favorite times of the year so I stayed home and watched horrible horror movies. There are worse ways to spend one's night.

This week one of my regulars, the youngest of our group, who plays a dragon born fighter, had a new assignment at work and was unable to make it.

On the other hand, one of my other amigos, a peer in age if not a lot of personal preferences, showed up for the first time.

I started him off at half experience. It's something that I allowed the group to decide on in terms of "Hey, if someone misses a session what do you want to do about xp?"

There was some back and forth about giving them no experience points and giving them the full quantity. I myself didn't vote as I just wanted to hear what the players wanted to do. Mind you, those that miss are already missing out on gold and magic items which I may have to tweak depending on how heavy that effects the game down the road.

This week we had the following:

Naronel: A elf wizard. He's already summoned a familiar, a hawk I believe? I made him name it as it refused to obey any of his commands until he addressed it by it's name. The player was not amused but everyone else at the table was.

Gerak: A Halfling rogue.

Amun: Human druid.

Eran: Elf Monk. I forgot his miniature from Stonehaven miniatures. As I've mentioned before, Stonehaven makes like one of the two elf monk miniatures out there and I forgot it. Ugh.

Damaia: Tielfling Warlock. She has missed one session and with the player running the elf wizard missing two session, and now one player missing this session, I now have an Excel Spreadsheet tracking the different experience point totals of the players. Sigh. One of the drawbacks to not just giving everyone the same experience points.

The players were deciding what they were going to do next. While I did throws parts of the starter set adventure, The Mines into this game, they've been pretty happy to stick with the King Maker saga despite not actually being under charter. They're pretty happy to "take the money and run" for all the numerous side quests and missions that this adventure offers them.

This week, it was find out why the kobolds are acting up. Good deal as I have a ton of Reaper Miniature's Bones kobolds already painted up. Some of them brown, some of them red. The players spoke with the purple shaman kobold leader and agreed to bring back the statue of their people if the kobolds would cease their violent activities.

Turns out the kobolds are at war with mites, more small low level enemies but of a fey nature. Because 5th edition doesn't have stats for the mites, I took used the kobold stat block as a template and tinkered with it. For example, I gave them damage resistance to weapons unless those weapons were cold iron or magic.

Add in that I noted how small the mite lair was and gave any Medium sized creature disadvantage for any melee combat. Made the fights last a little longer and made them a bit more challenging.

Knowing that sooner or later the players would probably fight the mites, I had bought two packs of metal mites that Reaper miniatures makes as well as some blister packs of the prepainted plastic ones for Pathfinder from the Shattered Star set. I managed to get more than a base coat down on the metal ones but I'm probably going to wind up popping them off their bases. They come with medium sized bases and are smaller then most of the halflings that Reaper makes.

This is why I actually like the prepainted plastic ones. They are larger and have a little more detail to them. But in a standard 'brick' of eight packs, I had no duplicates and only had one prepainted mite and one prepainted mite riding a giant spider. It wasn't a giant tick like the guy in the adventure rides, as seen here from Paizo's, but I'll take it.In some instances I needed like twelve mites.

It did make me hate the organization of the Monster Manual thought.

In practice, it makes sense I suppose to have animals and giant insects in one section of the book. Those monsters wouldn't be encountered that often.

I tell you thought, in my three weeks, because it's low level, the players have fought wolves, bears, giant spiders, giant centipedes and who knows what else that's from that section. I think it would have been better off just being in the main body of the work.

Anyway, after the players fought the mites and returned the statue, because the players dealt with the 'shaman', whose actually a reincarnated gnome sorcerer who hates life, the kobold sorcerer demanded the death of the players. The kobold cheiftan turned on the sorcerer and many kobolds were fighting the players.

Cantrips in the new edition are nice and deadly. It's a good way to give the old 'fire and forget' characters some staying power in the game. Of course those nifty tricks now become less and less useful as the players gain in power and ability but start off nice and powerful.

I fudged around with the xp values for some of the encounters as Pathfinder, especially at low levels, uses a much higher experience point base for many of the enemies than Dungeons and Dragons does. Despite that, all of the players are now third level.

Like many, I'm one of those Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition players and Dungeon Masters that is eagerly awaiting the release of the Dungeon Master's Guide. I'm hoping that it can bring a lot to the table because having to guess what magic items do for example? Not a good feeling. From previews and the current free version though, it's annoying that there are no prices for magic items already.

Looking up things like Boots of Elvenkind? The magic items in the free download are anemic enough to not have one of those traditional magic items that stretches back to 1st edition. Ugh. Not a big deal yet as the player's haven't had the chance to use them, but they will next week so I'm sure I'll have thought of something by then.
So three weeks in and we're still messing around with a few things.
1. The five foot step: We've all played a lot of 3rd and 4th edition so we can looking that one up.
2. Rogue flanking.
3. Surprise and Advantage in the attack!
Overall the game runs fairly well but feels very limited by the amount of material out for it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as a consumer, but I'm 'itchy' in that I'm used to the support 3.5, 4th edition, and Pathfinder offer. With no Dungeon magazine and no Dragon magazine, the game feels very 'tight' or 'restricted'. But I know I can 'convert' stuff if I have to, but I have no desire to do that with things like the races which seem to have these weird subrace types and other bits. Heck, there's no Dungeon Master's Guide out yet so how would you even convert magic item with little to compare them to.

Oh well, the Kingmaker adventure path has given us three sessions so far from just the first adventure and I think we'll squeeze two more out of it before it's done the way the player's tend to plan so we'll see how it goes from there.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Merchants Partner by Michael Jecks

Michael Jecks, website here, does a series of medieval murder mysteries that feature one of the knights Templar. I'd finally gotten around to reading the first in the series, The Last Templar, and to be honest, wasn't that impressed.

It wasn't bad mind you, it just didn't jump up and say, Appendix N me bitch!" as some books are wont to do.

The second book in the series, The Merchant's Partner, read much better. Mind you, I can't tell you if that's because I was in a different frame of mind when I read it or if it's just better written or if it has a better cast of characters and plot. Regardless of the reasons, it resonated with me more.

The characters are continuing to know each other. The cast is growing. The background is coming more into focus. The murder mysteries themselves are involving more people in more direct fashions that provide the reader with more things to become involved with.

The intricacies of the historical period are more in play. Events that happened long ago still echo in the current time line. Things that people think are secret and hidden are in fact, known.

If you're looking for a taste of murder in a dark era, The Merchant's Partner is a solid book and convinced me to move onto the third book.

Below I'll be hitting some specifics and spoilers of the books so if you care not about such things, read on, otherwise read no further.

Now there are some similarities in the books. For one, life is tough in these dark times. When the crops fail, people die of starvation. I'm no fan of starvation rules that micro-manage the amount of effort it takes to keep track of characters in games like Dungeons and Dragons, but having such information be a known thing, having the characters know that people are dying of starvation, can be a campaign bit in and of itself.

Some settings, like Warhammer, have gods like Nurgle, a god of disease and rot. Other enemies, like Skaven, can sabotage the fields. Protecting your food source can be a vital part of any campaign or a brief adventurer's mission. In some famous movies, like, oh, Seven Samurai, the bandits are coming for the food! They need someone to stop them.

Another point of interest, was banditry. While I'm running the Kingmarker series from Paizo for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition now, the setting their in, the Stolen Kingdoms, is rifle with bandits. History, or at least this part of it, is also heavy with such issues.

When knights have no wars to fight in, they face the threat of starvation. Turning to banditry is one way to avoid such a fate. In many ways, this echoes what happened in Japan when the era of the Samurai was coming to an end and samurai found themselves as ronin. When you have a sword and you're good with it, continuing to use it, even against those they once fought for.

Another theme hitting the book again, and most murder mysteries, is red herrings and coincidence. Strangers appear and then things happen. Surely the arrival of these new characters is directly tied into these horrible happenings?

In some cases, it's directly true. In others, it's that the characters have some reason to be there and may have information tied to the happenings going on, but aren't directly responsible. In most forms of media, there is limited time to introduce slice of life bits to readers and viewers. In role playing games though, that's not necessarily true.

You can introduce individuals and characters that may not be seen or met again for many sessions. One of the nice things about having all six volumes of King Marker ahead of time, as opposed to the monthly fix, is that you can read the whole thing and set up different elements of the campaign ahead of time so that when players finally do get to see the whole thing at it's apex, they can go, "Man, I never would have thought three months ago this guy would be here!"

A third element that hits again this time around, is the search for motivation. One of my friends likes to quote the old movie All The President's Men, "Follow the money." While that's not always true, especially in a campaign setting where religious fever may provide real magical augmentation and the ability to summon demons and devils to enact your will, for the majority of people, money, power, and of course sex, are all common motivations and having a motivation that the players can find and work into the campaign, is a useful tool to have as a Game Master.

One part that the 'Templar Mysteries' really diverge from role playing games standard though, is that the investigative parts don't necessarily mean that there will be combat of a appropriate nature. There may be no grand melee in the capital of the city while the gods watch. Rather in these books, much like courtroom drama in bygone eras, the 'gotcha' is the reveal, the breakdown of the how and why, the final questioning of the murderers.

Be aware of those elements when you're working them into your campaign. Even in games like Call of Cthulhu where the focus is on investigation, there are often times where if the players get it, they may still have to blow up a mine shaft or perform some action that pits them against the mythos directly. In Dungeons and Dragons, while I can easily imagine a scenario where a paladin pulls a mask off of a noble and we discover that it's a drow, I can also see that scenario where the wizard casts dispel magic, the drow is revealed, and then the big fight happens. Not all elements work with all games.

When looking to get some inspiration for your campaigns, don't be afraid to look at 'historical' books as well as the standard fantasy fare. The writing might be different enough to force you to evaluate what you're doing in your campaign and more importantly, why you're doing it that way. If nothing else, you'll come away with a few genre appropriate names in most cases.