Feb 28 2011

Fictionlet

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Brigid scowled at her folded-up newspaper. “You know what a ‘fag hag’ is, right?” she said.

“Sorry, what?” said Greg.

“A fag hag.”

Greg shifted uncomfortably. “Well, er, yes. It’s not a term I would throw about in such a reckless manner, but I am familiar with the concept. What prompted the question?”

“I was just wondering, what would the reverse of that be?”

“The reverse? A ‘gah gaf’?”

“No, I mean, what would you call a straight man who always wanted to hang around with lesbians?”

“Uh…” said Greg.

“I know, it’s a poser. How about ‘dyke dude’?”

“I am hereby recusing myself from this conversation immediately,” Greg said, scooping Ozymandias up from his lap and heading for the hall. “There’s nothing I can say here that won’t get me into big, big trouble.”

“And you call yourself a linguaphile,” called Brigid. “You should be interested in this stuff!”

“I prefer the term ‘word nerd,'” he said, and was gone.

-The Gneech

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Feb 25 2011

Encounters, Resources, Difficulty, and Uber PCs

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Feh … bad sleep for two nights in a row makes The Gneech an unhappy camper. -.- But that’s not what this post is about! This post is about my Pathfinder game.

The characters hit 12th level after last session, right in the middle of their assault on the hill giant fortress. On the one hand, this is a good thing, as they will gain extra resources (in the form of new hit points, spells, and so on), and I was a bit concerned that this scenario would use them all up ‘cos they don’t get a rest until they rescue Lord Jaarmath from the giants’ clutches.

On the other hand, this means I also have to refactor the rest of the scenario to account for the fact that I’ve now got a 12th level party instead of an 11th. I could just leave it as written and let them faceroll through it (after all, it’s the same giant fortress they were in 5 minutes ago, right?) … but I know from experience that my players generally prefer to be chewed up, and they tend to tear right through anything I throw at them anyway.

Some of that is due to the nature of traditional D&D encounter design: the idea is that instead of one or two “do-or-die” encounters, you have several different encounters that eventually use up your spells, hit points, healing, and so on. This model worked fine in the context of going down into self-restocking dungeons of rooms connected by corridors populated by wandering monsters … but it doesn’t really go quite so well in a story-building context. In a game where you’re making quick strikes into monster territory to achieve a specific goal, then getting out again, it suddenly becomes a much more effective strategy to pour everything you’ve got into every encounter, then get the heck out and rest up.

Thus was born the “15-minute workday,” which itself led to 4E’s radically altered nature of being balanced by encounter, rather than by day. That makes it much easier to build and balance cool encounters, but unfortunately, it also leads to one of 4E’s biggest problems, namely that any given encounter doesn’t really make a difference. Unless someone uses one of their daily powers or by some quirk of fate a character actually manages to die, you’re in exactly the same shape at the bottom of the dungeon as you were in the first room: fresh as a daisy and rarin’ to go.

Navigating the tricky path of making it tough enough on the party that they feel like they’ve had a fight, versus not making each encounter so hard that they use up all of their resources and retreat, is further complicated by a systemic imbalance in Pathfinder, which it inherited from 3.x: the sheer uberness of fighters.

In previous editions, fighters were something of a pointless class, because all they did was fight, and not that much better than anyone else. Yeah, they had the best one-on-one combat stats, but not by so much that it really made them stand out. Once the wizard got fireball, the fighter was pretty much relegated to the role of “speed bump.” So when the new edition came, they decided fighters needed a boost, and what a boost they got! Nowadays, against most opponents, a decently-built fighter can just tear through anything at-level, and kills things below their level simply by flexing their biceps. Other than a well-placed confusion spell, the only thing that slowed fighters down in 3.x was, quite literally, being slowed down: armor gimped their movement … at least until they found those boots of striding and springing.

Pathfinder has removed even this restriction, by giving fighters the ability to move at-speed in increasingly heavy armor as they level up (thus causing the paladin to lose their “mobility on the battlefield” edge … but that’s for another post).

Now, I’m not begrudging fighters their day in the sun; I like playing fighters myself. But the simple fact of the matter is that in the majority of encounters, I have to design it with an eye on “what to do about the fighter” first. Fighters do a ton of damage — so I have to make sure every non-mook critter in the encounter has enough hit points to not get one-punched. Fighters also have real high defenses — so I have to make sure every non-mook critter in the encounter has some way to actually hit, either from bumping their stats or doing a lot of “Aid Another.” It usually takes two on-level opponents (typically a spellcaster and their bodyguard) just to keep the fighter engaged for more than a round or two, which by itself blows away the encounter XP budget. Adding additional foes to give the rest of the party something to do means that every combat encounter is APL+1 or APL+2 at a minimum.

This can also lead to a certain amount of “why are we here”-ing from other party members. Wizards’ AoE can hurt lots of foes at once, giving them something useful to do (assuming there are lots of foes to hurt); but rangers and rogues especially find themselves playing a distant second fiddle once the combat starts. A good adventure should hopefully have something other than combat in it, of course, giving the stealthy-skillster types the opportunity to do their thing, but let’s face it: the phrase “kill monsters and take their stuff” didn’t come from nowhere. D&D is a very “fighty” game, and the occasional Disable Device check is never going to make up for being consistently outclassed in every fight.

I also have to contend with the fact that half of my party has resistance to fire. How are all those drakes and fire giants going to hurt them now? >.< They can go swimming in lava for cryin’ out loud!

-The Gneech

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Feb 21 2011

That ‘twaren’t So Scary!

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In LotRO the past week, Maedhroc has been grinding away at reputation in order to get the “World Renowned” deed. No real reason beyond bragging rights, but I’ve gotten some good practice in while I was at it. Soloing Grimbark and Ivar “hard mode,” even way above level, requires keeping a balance between outgoing damage vs. survivability … and skirmishes can be run at every level, so I got some good tanking practice running those at 65 and “tiering up” to increase the difficulty. Keeping idiot NPCs alive is always a challenge!

My two largest accomplishments, however, were not really connected with the reputation grind. First, I finally went back to Mirkwood and completed the “Death From Below” instance, inspired by Doc Holiday’s video walkthrough. I can’t remember if Maedhroc ever completed it previously, although my memory is that he did once and decided it was too hard to bother repeating. Galadhalion, I know, has never completed it. It’s considered a “challenging solo instance,” although I have to admit that going through this time it wasn’t that hard. Apparently I’ve become a better player! Or at least, I have much better gear than I used to.

The other big accomplishment was that last night, fellow Valar Guild members Gildor, Ardisian and I grouped up for 2.8.3 (“A Relic in Lumul-Nar”), the Hall of Mirrors instance. We’ve all had it sitting in our quest logs for months or years; it has a reputation of being a really hard instance, and nobody ever wants to group for it. But we were all determined to bang it out (or at least give it a try), so I looked up a strat guide, then we grouped up and went on in.

Frankly, it wasn’t that hard. First, we ran it at the default level of 60, which I’m sure was a big part of it; but also, we just followed the strat guide and worked well as a team. I’m getting to be a pretty solid tank, and for the first warg boss pull especially, I just pulled one mob and locked it down (“tank as crowd-control” as they say) while Gildor and Ard burned down the other one, being quick on the draw with corruption removal and anti-poison potions. The entire instance went like clockwork, except for one bad pull that we quickly recovered from with no deaths (“Crikey, that was a lot of bats!”), until the end.

We could have just destroyed the relic and ported out to finish the book quest, but we figured that while we were there, we would try to finish off the instance. Unfortunately, the bottom of the instance is an extremely annoying puzzle where you have to align mirrors in exactly the right sequence. That part isn’t so hard, except that monsters keep spawning next to the mirrors and resetting them. So while you’re fixing mirrors A, B, and C, the monsters are resetting mirrors D, E, and F. You could keep doing that all night, and probably would.

The answer appears to be that you have to split up so you can all turn the various mirrors more or less simultaneously, but that means two things: first, people will be soloing monsters at the mirrors (fine for some classes, impossible for others), and second, everybody has to know how each mirror has to be aligned. I had a chart from the strat guide that gave me what I needed, but Gildor and Ard didn’t and both got killed when trying to solo monsters anyway. Probably you could check your map and see if any given mirror was right, and the two of them could have done half while I soloed half but … meh. We all completed the book quest and we were content. Even if we had fought the final boss (with or without hard mode), all we would have gotten was Lothlorien Medallions … and the right to go “Nyah, nyah, nyah!” at all those people too cowed by the Hall of Mirrors to go down there, I suppose. 😉

Still, it was a fun trip and it’s always good to get a book quest taken care of. I’ve come to really love being the tank. You don’t get to see the huge damage numbers flashing overhead or cast lots of flashy spells, but with all of the monsters pounding on you and all the other party members depending on you to keep them safe, half the time you’re still the star of the show. 😉

-The Gneech

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Feb 16 2011

Fictionlet

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“Ralph Bellamy,” said Greg.

“Hmm?” said Brigid.

“And for that matter, Don Ameche,” said Greg.

“Okay, so now we’ve got Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche,” said Brigid. “What about them?”

“They were great,” said Greg.

“Yeah, I suppose they were.”

“A couple of real class acts. Classics.”

“True,” said Brigid. “Very true.”

“They were great in Coming to America.”

Brigid blinked. “Not where I thought you were going with this,” she said.

“What giant talents.”

“Hold on,” said Brigid. “They were barely in Coming to America. It was just a shout-out to Trading Places. They were in Coming to America for all of fifteen seconds!”

“Yeah,” said Greg, “but what a fifteen seconds it was.”

“You just sit around thinking this shit up, don’t you?” said Brigid.

“You know what they say, there are no small parts, just small actors.”

“Your brain is a small part.”

-The Gneech

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Feb 15 2011

A Eulogy For My Father

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DeOrman Robey, Jr. in uniform, late WW2
DeOrman L. Robey, Jr.
May 29, 1925 — February 11, 2011

I once informed my father that he was a smart-ass. He responded without hesitation that it was better than being a dumb-ass. That was my dad all over: he rarely spoke more than a word or two, but they were always well-chosen when he spoke them.

My dad was a hard man to know. He grew up a sensitive boy in a setting that didn’t particularly have use for sensitivity in boys, and so he covered that up with a deadpan exterior. But he was also a naturally cheerful person, who loved people and wanted to make them happy. So he would go through his day, smiling and singing silly old songs from the Jack Benny show and enduring whatever the world threw at him, just to come home and take out his aggressions on the pots and pans in the kitchen — which, being inanimate objects, had no feelings to hurt.

At least, I think that’s the way it was. As I say, he was a hard man to know. Asking him a serious question was the quickest way to get a silly answer.

smiling_portrait_1984I mentioned endurance, and that’s important. If there was one thing my dad could do, besides making wisecracks, it was to endure. He endured going to war away from his family. He endured lackluster jobs that wrought havoc on his body because it would put food on the table. Certainly for me he endured the tedious chore of driving myself and my friends all over the place. He endured all of these things because he loved the people he was enduring them for. He could do anything, as long as he was doing it for somebody.

In the last years of his life, he found himself quite unaccustomedly in the position of being the one that other people were doing things for, and I know that had to be hard on him. He wanted to be the provider, the rock, the steady guy who takes care of everyone. Not too long ago he complained to me that Mom was spending entirely too much money on care for him. I told him, “She loves you, Dad, let her spend it on you. What else is she going to do with it?” He didn’t have an answer for that.

The other thing that happened, as his faculties began to fail him, was that the deadpan shell began to crack, showing the deep current of emotions that had always lurked underneath. Those of you who were present a few months ago for the funeral of his sister, my Aunt Iris, had occasion to witness this firsthand. She meant the world to him, and her loss was profound. But at the same time, it brought forth from my dad one of the truest, most straightforward things I ever heard him say in my entire life, and I think it would be one of the best things you could remember about him. In what I believe he meant as a good-bye to a family he knew he was not likely to see again, he said, “I love you all, damned if I don’t!”

And he did. And we love you too, dad.

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Feb 07 2011

Okay … I’m Officially Jazzed About The Hobbit Now

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It’s official — they’re going to start filming on March 21st. Peter Jackson is at the helm again, with official sign-on by Christopher Lee as Saruman, Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Andy Serkis as Gollum, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Sylvester “Seventh Doctor” McCoy as Radagast, and Elijah Wood in a Frodo cameo. No word on Elrond, as far as I know, but also rumors (unconfirmed last I heard) of Orlando Bloom returning as Legolas.

The presence of Saruman, Galadriel, etc., is part of the whole “expanding on the storyline” plan, to flesh out the story by including the White Council’s ousting of “The Necromancer” from Dol Guldur in Mirkwood, which is hinted about in The Hobbit (mainly as the “business to the south” that Gandalf keeps disappearing to through so much of the book to take care of). Legolas’ presence is presumably a side-effect of the dwarves being the prisoner of Thranduil, Legolas’ father — it wouldn’t take much stretching for him to be one of the wood-elves who have the most face-time. (Maybe Bilbo had a little more inside help than he thought there, eh?)

Release date of December 2012. Yeah, baby! It’s about time! 😉

-The Gneech

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