Thursday, December 30, 2021

My First 6 Months with Bones of Contention

About six months ago, I announced that I was joining the Bones of Contention blog. Although this has been one of my least productive blogging years, I did manage to get a few posts in.
For my first post, I decided to review one of the first adventures put out by the prolific minimalist Nate Treme. In addition to a careful reading of the gamebook, I was able to base my review on some actual play experience with my regular Friday night game group. This one also features something that I hope I can still make a somewhat regular feature of the column, a section where I put the procedural adventure generators in the book to work and run them through their paces by generating an entire setting.
One of the interesting things about Bones as a blog is that we have multiple authors. The Cryptic Signals series of posts tries to use that to offer a series of short vignette reviews of several different game books. I went ahead and organized this one, and wrote two of the reviews, including for the Pokemon-like browser game Google released to celebrate the 2020 Summer Olympics. My review of Mausritter included another test of adventure generation procedures.
When I wrote my Ghost Star review, I mentioned that I had been hoping for a setting like William Hope Hodgson's Night Land, which led Trey from From the Sorcerer's Skull to recommend this Night Land to me. Aside from the name and the basic premise of a weird, futuristic land stuck in eternal darkness, this adventure doesn't borrow much from Hodgson, but I'm still glad I read it. 

I feel like mentioning the book in my first two columns makes it seem like I'm obsessed with Night Land, and I'm sure I'll review more science fantasy in the future, but I promise that every column won't be about how another game designer has failed to sufficiently remind me of Hodgson.

This was our most thematic Cryptic Signals so far, and to be honest, I liked that so much I hope more of them will have some sort of unifying theme. I picked my second favorite review from the book. I didn't review my favorite - yet - because I don't want to pigeonhole myself as only writing about Mausritter. I'm hopeful that we'll do another batch of reviews from Dissident Whispers though, and if we do, I'll be sure to review it then. The process of writing my three "mini reviews" so far makes me wonder if I'm constitutionally incapable of writing an actually short review, but it is good practice reining in my tendency to wordiness.

My last review of the year looks at the free, public materials for the upcoming Root roleplaying game. I backed the Kickstarter, so I have the pdfs for the full game, but I wanted to base what I wrote on the parts that people can actually play. I wished I could have included this year's Free RPG Day adventure, but I didn't pick it up in person, and the pdf still isn't publicly available. 

I'm glad there was an adventure to review though. It could be tempting to fall into a trap of just reviewing rulesets, but I think the most interesting part of this project is looking at the more actionable advice that shows up in adventures. I want to note that Root actually has a small system for procedurally generating the campaign area, but I didn't bother testing it out, precisely because the availability of pre-written villages makes the random generator to create them less important.

My final contribution to Bones for the year was to make an index of the reviews so far. For next year, I hope to use my Cryptic Signals entries to highlight some zines that I think have done something interesting, but that maybe don't rise to full review status. I also hope to try out the Folie a Deux format that Gus and WFS pioneered. I think they're another good way to use our numbers, and I have a couple already tentatively lined up. I just need to come out of my shell enough to get them written.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Bon Mots - Iceman, I Shall Avenge You!

Suppose one of the Sentinel robots kills, idk, Iceman. Punisher sees this and is like, "Iceman, I shall avenge you!"

So then Punisher goes to the guy who built the Sentinels, but before he can say anything, the guy explains how he has this really sweet laser rifle he could give to someone who killed maybe ten more mutant scum.

And Punisher's like, "That is a really sweet laser rifle! Iceman, I shall avenge you ... after I get my hands on that laser."

So then Punisher goes to the X-Mansion. He sees the other X-Men are all dressed in black, standing around a big floral wreath next to a fresh grave in their private graveyard. Some of them are crying. Some of them are swearing vengeance of their own.

These are Iceman's friends. They would die to protect him if they could, and empirically, he did die to protect them.

And so now Punisher's thinking to himself like, "Alright alright, I never swore anything about the other X-Men. I can go commit a dozen more anti-mutant hate crimes, identical to the one that killed Iceman, and not break my oath! Plus, what is vengeance anyway. Do I really need to kill the guy who built the Sentinels? I mean he's giving me a really sweet laser, so long as I align myself with him and further his goals. I don't want to kill the golden goose, you know? So maybe I get vengeance on my new best friend and ally by switching his salt and sugar dishes so he drinks salt in his coffee? Surely that will satisfy my oath to avenge the death of Iceman!"

It's not at all related to this story,
but Punisher in Squirrel Girl is my favorite Punisher.
Punisher makes up his mind and rushes the crowd. "This will eventually lead to vengeance for Iceman!," he shouts as he opens fire on the mourners gathered at Iceman's funeral, instantly killing Professor X, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Archangel, Storm, and Banshee. Colossus was too slow to armor up and died. Shadowcat has time to become intangible, but chooses to take the bullets to shield the teenage Jubilee.

Punisher strides over to Shadowcat's body and kicks her aside. She dies watching Punisher reduce Jubilee to a smear.

Wolverine isn't dead, but his body is too full of unhealed wounds to stand. His friends, his family, everyone he ever loved lays dead around him. He weeps. "Why'd you do it Frank? First Bobby, now Scott, Jeannie, Hank, Kitty... Jubes was just a kid. Why Frank? Why?"

Punisher puts his gun to Wolverine's throat and pulls the trigger. He knows this won't kill the genetrash mutie, but at least it should shut him up for awhile. Punisher muses that maybe the really sweet laser rifle would be able to finish the job. "This is ultimately for Iceman," he says as he turns and walks away.

Punisher hops on his motorcycle and rides back to the base of the guy who built the Sentinels, deep in thought. His mind runs through a list of possible pranks and japes. Maybe he could find out the guy's least favorite color, then get him a really ugly tie? But he had to be careful. This was a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he had his oath of vengeance to consider. On the other hand, Punisher sensed there might be a lot more really sweet laser rifles where this one came from - but only if he played his cards right. He doesn't want to risk a too-hurtful joke ruining what could be a very profitable friendship.

Also not relevant here, but I love the time that
Squirrel Girl went on a date with a Sentinel robot.

He arrives back at the guy who built the Sentinels' hideout. "Come in, come in! Your X-Mansion massacre is all over the news. I've laid out a room for you. Please be my guest until the heat dies down. In fact, I'd like to hire you to keep killing X-Men. Think of yourself as my employee, and this as your first payment."

At last the guy hands Punisher the laser rifle. It was really, really sweet. Punisher brushes tears from his eyes, just to see how cool it was.

"This particular rifle comes from a Sentinel I recently had to decommission. Poor thing came back drenched in some sort of cryo-blood that froze half a dozen of its essential systems. What you hold there is a former arm-mounted rifle that..."

But Punisher is hardly listening. He strokes his fingers down the length of the laser rifle, rubs it against his cheek. It is so, so sweet. Punisher wishes Iceman could see him now. He'd understand why Punisher had to get the rifle first, before his vengeance. Iceman would've wanted him to have this rifle, Punisher thought. This thing was so sweet it was to die for.

Suddenly, Ghost Rider appears before Punisher. "I am the Spirit of Vengeance," Ghost Rider says. "Punisher, you found a dead X-Man and swore an oath to avenge him. Then you killed ten more X-Men, and aligned yourself with the first one's killer. Explain to me your vengeance!"

So now Punisher is confronted with a creepy skull-face guy who's on fire, making some blabbity-blahs at him. Is this guy a criminal? Is he a filthy mutant? Punisher wishes he'd paid more attention at the last Avengers meeting. Whatever. Punisher smiles. It's finally time to see exactly how sweet this laser rifle really is. "Vengeance?," says Punisher, "This... is for for Ice Man!"

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Actual Play - Candlewick Mysteries

Over the last 6 months or so, I've been playing on-and-off in a campaign using Candlekeep Mysteries, run by Jack Shear from Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque. I made it to more sessions than I missed, though, and it was satisfying to have (what was, for me) a long-term campaign come to a conclusion recently.
Candlekeep Mysteries by Clint Cearley
The adventures in Candlekeep aren't really intended to be run as a single, linear campaign, I don't think. I believe the idea is that they're meant to stand alone, and that you can drop them in to other ongoing campaigns to add a bit of variety. They all involve books in some way, and I think most of them have a connection to Candlekeep Library set somewhere or other in the Forgotten Realms. Jack reskinned this to be Creedhall University Library, in his Krevborna setting.

I managed to play in 13 of the 17 adventures (although I missed the back half of one of them) and had an especially good run at the end. I played a paladin - a first for me! - and generally enjoyed getting to assist the other characters with healing and my various auras, and getting to smite my enemies with the power of divine magic.

Jack kept a running series of actual play posts on his blog, and a parallel series of reviews of each adventure. You can find links to the whole of both series here, in the appropriately titled "We Played the Whole Thing". I've gone ahead and linked to the adventures I played in below:

Since Jack's already written a good narrative of each session, I'm not going to try to reconstruct all of them now. My paladin Elsabeth had a good run, becoming friends with another lady knight NPC, getting magic muscles from a magic painting and managing not to suffer any consequences for it, slaying an actual dragon, and saving the world like 2 or 3 times. But I did want to say a few words about what I thought about playing through the campaign.

Too Many Demiplanes - If I had one critique of Candlekeep Mysteries, it would be that too many of the adventures have the same set-up where a magic book transports you to another dimension, and specifically a mini-dimension created by the book's author. (And way too many of those involved a rather tedious guessing game to figure out how to open the portal!) I mean, I get it, it's already metaphorically like every book has a secret world inside it, and like reading transports you there. It's a pretty good metaphor to make literal. But there are too many of them. And I also get that Candlekeep isn't meant to be played straight through. But there are still too many of them. 

D&D is set in a magic-filled world, Forgotten Realms especially so - you don't need to travel to some wizard's pocket dimension just to set the adventure in a magical environment. The need is even less if the environment turns out to not be very magical anyway. It sometimes seemed like the only purpose the conceit of the demiplane served was to handwave travel time or to put up a wall around the playable area that the player character couldn't travel beyond. But if so, I would argue that's the wrong approach. Metafictional concerns like that don't need rules workarounds, they just need the GM and the players to agree on what kind of game they're running.

Complex Backstories, Linear Adventures - If I had a second critique about Candlekeep, it would be that the backstories that set up the adventures are often complex to the point of unintelligibility. The example that stands out in my mind is "The Book of the Raven". The PCs get a book delivered to them by some mysterious ravens. The book leads them to an old abandoned house with ravens flying overhead. The house is haunted, with some whole drama playing out among the ghosts as they continue to fail to resolve their unfinished business from life. Also it turns out the ravens are secretly human cultists who can magically transform into ravens. They were compelled to deliver the book to you by a different cult, who worship some kind of demon lord, and who then pull you into, wait for it, a pocket dimension, where a couple of demons try to kill you. There is, as far as I can tell, no connection between the ravens and the ghosts, the ghosts and the demons, or the demons and the ravens.

And while the backstories of Candlekeep can be convoluted, many of the adventures themselves are pretty linear. You arrive at the entrance to the adventure site, perhaps by being teleported there by the book, and then follow a straight-line path going from one encounter to the next until you reach the conclusion. That's certainly not true of all them, but more than you'd hope for in what's meant to be a flagship product. The worst offenders combine both - a terribly complicated backstory leading to a terribly simplified conveyor belt of encounters.

Options and Opportunities - That said, some of the adventures did provide some good chances for the players to make meaningful choices. While trapped in a grotesque fairy tale, we met some wolves and managed to befriend befriend them and enlist their help in fighting some terrible hunters by borrowing a page from Aesop. We met a dragon who might have killed us, but we offered to catalog his library, and he ended up offering us safe passage through his section of the dungeon. In a desert hideout, we met a giant worm, realized we'd followed the wrong clues and were in the wrong place, and left without needing to fight it. (Though sadly we did lose our camel to the worm's ferocious hunger!) Even the dragon Elsabeth fought and killed was avoidable - although this was another case of misunderstood clues, and having set it free from its ancient trap, we didn't feel good about just letting it seek unlimited vengeance on the world that had entombed it.

Because we played this campaign as an "adventure path", we didn't take advantage of any of the opportunities to follow up on details that could give rise to new side adventures. If I recall, replacing the missing books in "Mazworth's Worthy Digressions" could have occupied several more sessions of questing, if the book thieves hadn't turned out to have spare copies on hand in the back room. And the university tower that turns into a rocket ship absolutely cries out for a follow-up adventure where you get to use the damn thing and go into space. Jack repurposed the last adventure in the book and set it on one of Krevborna's moons, but if we'd just let it blast off with us inside, instead of preventing the space cultists from launching it, I don't know if there would have been any advice in the book about where it should take us. But that's not just an obvious follow-up, it's a necessary one - if you write an adventure where it's possible for the characters to steal a rocket ship, you'd better also make up a planet they can fly it to!

Better Boss Fights - Boss monster types in 5e get special "lair actions" and "legendary actions" that basically let them react by doing something every time they're attacked. I was really impressed with how well this worked out in practice. I recognize that the ideal military strategy to use against a big monster is to come at it with overwhelming numbers and the element of surprise, win the initiative, and kill the damn thing before it ever gets to strike a single blow. But while that's probably the ideal strategy, it's not necessarily the ideal gameplaying experience. With these special actions, the monster gets to alternate with the players; we get to see the monster doing cool, scary, monstrous things; our numerical advantage is somewhat balanced by the extra attacks; and the fight ends up feeling much more epic and narratively appropriate than it otherwise would. These are a 5e innovation I can absolutely get behind!