Aug 14 2017

In Which I Need to Start Getting Somewhere

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So recently, at Barnes & Noble, my attention was drawn to a hardback on the “fantasy new releases” table, featuring what was described as “flintlock fantasy with airships, a touch of humor, and an engaging female hero.”

I nearly burned the place down. ¬.¬

After the writing, revising, submitting, re-revising, submitting again, and so forth that Sky Pirates of Calypsitania has gone through, to see this thing sitting there made me want to scream at the top of my lungs, “THIS SHOULD BE MY BOOK!”

So. Yeah. I was upset. Deep breaths. Let’s work this thing out.

On the positive side, clearly someone must think there’s a market for the kind of books I want to write. I mean, there it is. But I have to connect to it.

And to be clear, I’m pretty sure that the author of that book worked just as long and just as hard on it as I did on mine. My own personal green-eyed-monster popping out notwithstanding, I wish them success.

That doesn’t alter the fact that I had this extreme, intensely emotional reaction to seeing “my book with someone else’s name on it” right there on the very table where I have been trying to get my book for years now. What I have to do, is direct that energy in a positive direction.

If this is the team that put the book on the table, I reasoned, then it could serve me well to hook up with that team. A little research turned up the agent of not-my-book. I went back and rewrote the opening, again, to address feedback the book had received on the previous round, getting thumbs-ups from my beta readers, and sent it to that agent. Given that this particular agent has a strict “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” policy, however, the response could easily range from an excited followup any day, to chirping crickets until forever.

I don’t intend to wait. As far as I’ve been able to make out, the main thing that makes a writing career succeed (besides lightning in a bottle) is sheer volume. The most popular and well-paid writers I know get that way by writing a lot of books. And as much as I love Sky Pirates of Calypsitania, it is only the one.

What this boils down to is, I need to work on another book. I’ll keep shopping Sky Pirates around as long as it takes, but I can’t leave my career on hold waiting for any one project to move.

I have been trying to write a more “mainstream” fantasy, and I got maybe a third of it done as part of last year’s NaNoWriMo, but I keep running into a fundamental paradox: in trying to adhere to more standard tropes in order to make the book “sellable,” I feel like I’m just aping other people’s work, which in turn makes for a book that I’m not sure I would read, myself.

Of course, it’s just the first draft of said book, and so there’s an argument that I should just finish the thing, with “rip out all the Tolkien” being one of the goals of the second draft. But if I know all the Tolkien needs to come out anyway, then leaving it in there for the first draft feels like creating work I don’t need to do.

So perhaps I should just leave that one in the drafts folder and start a whole new project that’s more like what I want to write.

But I need to do something. I need to get somewhere.

-The Gneech

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Aug 09 2017

Mercy Me

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Draaaaaag.

Me, in the summertime.

It’s weird how I go through these phases. Like, I haven’t played a game of Overwatch in months. I have signed on once or twice to update the app, but I haven’t actually played any.

It’s a side-effect of energy level. Since the heat wave around AnthroCon, I have spent most of my time pretty much as pictured above. What productivity and energy I’ve had has focused on my writing, because that mostly uses my brain and my fingertips. When I log into a game, it’s Lords of the Rings Online, for the same reason. (And also because LotRO finally got to Mordor, and there are lots of rumblings about the state of the game and the company that runs it. There’s a non-zero chance LotRO may not be around forever, and I want to get the most out of it while I still can.)

I still like Overwatch and at some point I’m sure I’ll get excited about it again. I’m a little surprised the Summer Games event hasn’t lit that spark, considering how much I loved Lucioball the first time around. But right now I’m just not feelin’ it.

But one thing this has definitely taught me: I am not cut out to be YouTuber/streamer. Not in the way the industry exists right now, anyway. I can’t (and don’t really want to) knock myself out trying to grind out 10+ minutes of content to post as-close-to-daily-as-possible. As a general rule I dive deep into projects and come up for air weeks or months later, producing something big when I’m finished (e.g., that D&D map, or a novel).

This has always been the biggest challenge of doing a comic, fighting with having to keep feeding the beast when there are other things I want to do instead. The only reason the comic actually keeps going is because a) I love it, and b) there are too few good furry comics as it is.

I’m sure that when the Overwatch bug bites again, I’ll be streaming and posting and all that jazz just as I’ve been, but purely for the fun of it. I’m not going to chase viewers or subscriptions. There’s a fair chance I won’t hit master level with Mercy because I’m not competing enough, and eh, that’s okay. It’s an artificial goal designed to give me a destination anyway, not something I had a driving passion for in and of itself. I’m still going to do my best. 🙂

But only when it’s fun. ;P

-The Gneech

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Aug 08 2017

In Which Some 5E Stuff Needs Remixing

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Pictured: Probably not challenging enough.

Pictured: Probably not challenging enough.

In terms of round-by-round, 5E is great. It doesn’t have the grind-grind-grind problem of 3.x/PF, nor the “everybody is a sorcerer” problem of 4E (which, I’m told, also gets ridiculously grindy in short order).

But structurally, in terms of encounter building and monster design (and how that ties in with rest and advancement), I feel like it still has problems.

The Resource Management Game Nobody Plays

The “15-minute workday” is still a thing in 5E. The game is balanced around the notion that every two encounters (or so) the characters will take a short rest, and that after their sixth encounter of the day they’ll take a long rest.

In order for that to work, most of the individual encounters need to not be that tough. The party uses a big spell in one, the fighter loses some hit points in the next, and so on, but they can soldier on through. Because no one encounter is likely to wreck the party, they can keep on going until they’re out of Adventure Fuel (i.e., hit points and spells), and then recharge with a long rest.

The problem there is that, narrative wise, this can get real boring. If the stakes are that low for almost every encounter, and you have limited game time, there is a strong desire to “skip to the encounter that actually matters.”

So there is a strong inclination to beef up individual encounters, so that each one feels more significant. Instead of six rooms with six orcs each, the party finds three rooms with twelve orcs each. (Of course, in a well-built dungeon, there’ll be more variety than that. But you get the idea.)

But! When confronted with tougher encounters, players inevitably go nuclear on them– the wizard opens every fight with a fireball, the fighter uses their action surges, etc.– and it makes perfect sense for them to do so. The players don’t know how tough the encounter is or isn’t, or what the GM might have up their sleeve. Better to blast the hell out of everything and be reasonably sure you got it all, than to get one-punched by something without ever getting a spell off.

And what do players do after they’ve gone nuclear? They want a long rest to recharge! If that means backing out of the entire dungeon and coming back the next day to take it one room at a time? That’s what they’ll do.

Fighters get the shaft in a situation like this– their strength relative to magic-users is they can keep fighting all day without expending resources. But if the wizard gets recharged every time, the endurance of martial classes is irrelevant. (This is why everyone was a sorcerer in 4E.) Action surges and stuff like that make fighters a little more bursty to compensate, and of course 5E rogues are OP no matter how you slice it, so it’s not as bad as it was in 3.x/PF, but it’s still a thing.

The NERF™ Monster Manual

My campaign currently has a very large party. Six PCs, plus 1-3 NPCs of varying power levels depending on the scenario. This utterly breaks the action economy as it is, but even moreso once Bounded Accuracy comes into play.

Far from making it so that “even goblins can stay viable threats,” with a party this size B.A. makes it so that “even dragons are never a viable threat.” ;P In my last session, the 5th level party went into a fight with three wights and six zombies, and didn’t break a sweat. They were a little annoyed at the way the zombies kept standing back up again… but it wasn’t scary, so much as a nuisance.

Dammit, I want wights to be scary. -.-

When you have an edition in which levels 1-2 are pretty much intended to be skipped, but 60% of the monsters are CR 3 or lower, you end up with things like this. When you then combine NERF™ monsters with beefed up encounters, you suddenly have 5th level parties facing beholders. Combat then becomes very, very swingy, a game of rocket tag in which the only roll that matters is “initiative.”

Not great for “heroic fantasy” style gameplay. Also not great when the players have six chances to roll higher initiative than the monsters. ;P (Savage Worlds, a game that deliberately has rocket tag combat, also makes you check initiative fresh at the beginning of each round to at least add a little more uncertainty to this.)

Encounter Inflation and XP

The other danger of beefed up encounters, using the default assumptions of XP and level advancement, is that characters get beefed up XP, which in turn makes them advance faster, and the whole thing just explodes geometrically.

This can be avoided by decoupling XP from monster CR (or at least minimizing it), which a lot of my favorite RPGs of the past did by default. The HERO System for instance gave a pretty flat “3 XP per session, +/- 1-2 points for dull/easy or awesome/tough sessions.” You could (and our group often did) go through whole sessions without anyone so much as throwing a punch– and as long as everyone had a good time, you didn’t feel like you’d been shafted in the XP department for it.

The most recent Unearthed Arcana column has an interesting take on this, proposing a “100 XP per level” model in which exploration, interaction, and combat all have 1-4 tiers of difficulty, and any given encounter would give (10 x tier) XP.

I think this is a neat idea, although the first thing I notice is that it flattens XP progression back out. 5E is famously designed so that you fast-forward through levels 1-2, slow down for 3-10, and then pick up a little from 11+. The XP for monsters might still need work tho– it basically boils down to “5 XP per normal monster, 2 XP per minion, 15 XP for something way out of your league.” In the case of my party vs. the not-terribly-scary wights, that would have been 22 base XP, halved for having more than 6 characters, or 11 XP. Was that encounter really worth 1/10 of a level?

The tiers for treasure and interactions are also sorta arbitrary. Tier 4 exploration (worth 40 XP) is the discovery/wresting from monsters a “location of cosmic importance,” for instance. If a campaign starts doing the whole plane-hopping thing later, you’ll be discovering cosmic locations all the time, won’t you?

But the key thing is, with this system, combat is no longer the benchmark for character growth. Like the original “1 GP = 1 XP” model, characters who like to talk, sneak, or otherwise do things besides fight all the things have an alternate progression track, and that makes for a more varied and potentially-interesting game.

So What Does It All Mean?

Based on all this, I think I would prefer:

  • Beef up monsters a bit. When 1st level lasts a while, a CR 3 monster (like a wight) is scary longer. When the game starts at 3rd level and goes up from there, a CR 3 monster becomes the new baseline. By that reckoning, a lowly goblin should be at least CR 1, while a wight should be something like CR 5. Almost everything in the Monster Manual needs at least +10 hit points and +2 to their attack rolls. 😛
  • Tweak rests. This post is hella long already, so I will have to save the “rest” issues for another day. Something that will allow for tougher individual encounters, without screwing over the fighter types and/or creating 15 minute workdays is a big challenge.
  • Non-Combat XP is Best XP. A tier-based system in which each encounter (whether it is a puzzle, a roleplaying moment, a fight, a treasure looted, whatever) gains about the same XP makes for a much more interesting game. Is talking to the shop-owner as much of a learning experience as fighting for your life? Well… maybe not. But if it’s a great moment in the game, it should be more rewarding than just tossing a fireball at 2d6 orcs.

What do you think, players?

-The Gneech

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Aug 01 2017

Take the ‘A’ Train Down to Mordor

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Friggin' orcs, man.
Friggin’ orcs, man.

Storm King’s Thunder involves a lot of overland travel. I mean, a lot of overland travel. One reason I created a ginormous continental map for the campaign was to keep track of all the tromping all over everywhere that the adventure calls for (and to have an everywhere to tromp over).

The question then becomes, how best to handle these long hikes in-game. There are a few possibilities:

Travel By Montage

This is the mode I practiced for many years, and it’s not a bad one per se. Essentially I just decide what happens between point A and point B and tell the players. If it’s interesting enough, the journey pauses and a session or two is spent dealing with the narrative pitstop, then off they go again.

There are some downsides to this. First of all, because they’re glossed over, long journeys feel cheap. Telling the players “You leave Argent, ride a boat for six weeks and now you’re in Zan-Xadar, what do you want to do?” makes it seem like Argent and Zan-Xadar might as well be right next to each other. The world “feels” smaller because there is no real marker of time or distance.

(See also the Fellowship of the Ring movie, when Gandalf leaves Bag End, travels by montage to Gondor, then travels by montage back to Bag End, all in the course of three minutes. Did that trip take a day? A year? No context.)

Second, it takes away from the organic nature of the world and puts me back in the place of being the one who decides what the characters do on their trip, both of which are against the spirit of My Gamemastering Credo.

Overland Travel: The Mini-Game

The One Ring RPG (or its 5E variant, Adventures in Middle-earth) has a whole subset of rules for overland travel, because let’s face it, “walking” is the primary activity of any character in a book by Tolkien.

Brief summary: using the player map, the group picks a destination and a planned route and each character is assigned a task (Guide, Scout, Hunter, or Lookout). The GM then determines the overall “peril rating” of the journey based on their own map, which will then be used as a modifier for the rest of the trip. The Guide makes an “embarkation roll” which determines the general mood of the trip, which has results ranging from “The Wearisome Toil of Many Leagues” to “Paths Both Swift and True.” The higher the peril rating of the journey, the more likely it is to be a rough slog.

Once all this is worked out, you turn to actual encounters along the way. There is a generic table of journey events, but the GM is encouraged to customize it for specific regions or a particular campaign. This part is a fairly standard random encounter table, but built around themes instead of specific events: “Agents of the Enemy” or “The Wonders of Middle-earth” or “A Fine Spot to Camp”, etc. Combat and skill checks within the encounters are often modified by the Embarkation Result or the Peril Rating, and so forth.

Finally, assuming the party survives the encounters, they get to their destination and roll on the “Arrival Table” to see what kind of shape they’re in at the end, ranging from “Weary to the Bones” to “Inspired and Filled with Hope.”

Essentially, the whole journey becomes “a dungeon,” with characters only able to take short rests after each encounter, with something like “A Fine Spot to Camp” providing a rare long rest opportunity. It’s a neat system, somewhere between the Hex Crawls of old-school yore and the Travel By Montage method. But it is… crunchy. A long journey with a lot of encounters will certainly take several sessions, and you’ll have to keep track of the Peril Rating, Embarkation Result, and rest resources along the way. It’s probably not that much more overhead than a dungeon map is, but for some reason, it feels like a lot of work. It might just be a matter of what you’re used to.

What I Have Done So Far

When the campaign transitioned from Keep On the Borderlands to Storm King’s Thunder, that was definite Travel By Montage moment, because the whole nature of the game shifted (and I didn’t have a map ready for travel then anyway). But now that the game is up and running, I have largely been treating Orbis Leonis as a giant hexcrawl.

In order to not have to rigorously define every bloody hex on the map, I make liberal use of random encounter tables, with a core assumption of one random encounter check every four hours during actual game play, and one check per day between sessions, unless the players are somewhere that is already a keyed encounter.

This doesn’t mean there’s going to be a fight every four hours! “Encounters” in this context aren’t necessarily wandering monsters: my tables are also full of things like random terrain bits (“a wooded bog,” “an ancient burial mound,” “an orphaned castle wall of old”), changes in the weather, or other travelers on the road (which get re-rolled when the characters are in the wild, obviously). There are also “no encounter” slots, which is typically what goes into a slot after that encounter has happened once and becomes the norm when I keep rolling an 8 over and over again. XD

Although I was once very sneery about them, I’ve come to love random encounter tables because they make the world feel alive– there’s stuff going on in it and if the players ask for Survival checks to see what sort of things they might run into, I can look at the random encounter table and tell them. I sometimes go as far as to put a whole five-room dungeon on the table, but that’s usually more work than it’s worth because that will naturally be the roll that never comes up.

They’re also great for making places feel different from each other. Argent is mostly wooded hills and has things like cleric-eating owlbears running around in it. Hestelland is a grassy plain and so it has herds of wild horses and packs of worgs. The Silver Spires Mountains are lousy with harpies, gargoyles, giant spiders, and the kobold minions of Cagarax the Red. Add to this the overlay of giants, with their frequency based on where the various giant holdings are, and you get a nicely-varied, very organic-feeling world.

I’m thinking of adding some of the elements of The One Ring‘s Journeys system to my game, without going quite so crunchy– maybe adding “Journey Mood” items to the encounter table for instance, something like “This leg of the journey has been plagued with bad luck. You got mired in a bog, losing an hour, and [random character] slipped on a rock and turned their ankle. Make a Dexterity saving throw to avoid having your movement halved for the next 24 hours.”

Giant Eagles, Pls

Eventually, Storm King’s Thunder has some story items built in to enable characters to travel faster. I’m not going to enumerate them here (because spoilers), but the latter parts of the campaign do require a lot of going from one end of the map to the other, possibly multiple times, and having to play all of those trips out, whether Hex Crawl or Journey Mini-Game style, would get real old after a while. Sorta like the teleporting chain from the original Against the Giants series back in the day, these are plot devices mostly and relatively limited in applicability, so they don’t break the rest of the campaign by making long journeys trivial forever.

The main challenge with these is deciding when to introduce them, and figuring out just how limited they actually are– because once they’re in place, we’re back to Traveling By Montage as a plot element. And after putting so much work into building a large, well-populated world, I don’t want to apply the fast-forward button just yet.

-The Gneech

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