Jul 23 2021

Bursty McThirsty

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Shade-Of-the-Candle runs into (or away from) danger!
During Shady’s most recent adventures in Inkblitz’s D&D game, I found her largely underperforming in combat. Some of this was my well-known dice curse, of course… +7 to hit and still couldn’t roll above a 12 even with advantage, that tracks. And some of it was that we’re in a party that’s bursty AF and generally goes nova in every battle because we rarely have more than one fight in a day. In a party that can fire off four fireballs in two rounds and not break a sweat, Shady’s 6d6 sneak attack “is also there.” Neither of these are things I can do anything about, so I’m looking for things I can do.

Besides the fact that the class is perfect thematically for Shady, I picked swashbuckler rogue for her because I was inspired by Sirfox’s Bugs Bunny antics with Nikki in my own Storm King’s Thunder campaign. A pain-in-the-ass who annoys his enemies to death as much as anything, under all that Nikki is actually a supreme duelist, who has dropped the finishing blow on many a boss fight. Not by himself generally–even with uncanny dodge he’s too squishy to one-on-one for long–but he’s still more often than not the one who lowers the boom.

All of that fits with what I pictured with Shady: she talks-talks-talks, tries to weasel and wiggle her way out of most fights to begin with, but once the fighting actually starts, her goal is to maneuver the baddie into position to just get straight-up murdered. Think Jack Sparrow dueling Barbossa to a standstill while Will and Elizabeth run around actually killing most of the pirates, that’s the kind of action Shady’s intended to engage in. It worked beautifully against the dragon Kresthianzé, but a lot of campaign has gone by since then! In most fights since then, Shady has been nearly one-punched before she got a turn, been flailing against mooks, or even better off staying out of the fight entirely and engaging in plot macguffins.

And to be fair, being the one chasing the plot macguffin while everybody else fights also tracks, think Jack Sparrow running around carrying a jar of dirt. And I don’t resent the other players getting cool moments–Leuco the tiny mouse obliterating demons with thunderballs is badass! I’d just like Shady to get some dueling action, so I need to figure out how to set that up.

In the most recent combat, she was hampered by her low Wisdom save, which left her charmed or feared for half of it; that’s not something I can mitigate any time soon other than by avoidance. After level 12 or so, Shady will have ASIs/feats coming out her ears and proficiency with Wisdom saves is on her shopping list, but before then she gets all of one ASI, three levels away from where she currently is, and that has to go to either Lucky or capping her Dexterity. (Darn you rogue 6, why couldn’t you have been an ASI instead of expertise?)

Numerically, capping her Dex has the most benefits, boosting her AC, attack rolls, and damage; on a meta level, Lucky would mitigate my dice curse and help prevent Wisdom-save-choking as long as I use it strategically. But as I say, it’s still three levels off.

One thing Nikki does that Shady doesn’t do as much, is to hide with cunning action every turn. Shady generally uses her bonus action to make an off-hand attack instead–since the first attack usually missed. ;P Hiding would give her advantage on her attack, but attacking twice is not that different mechanically (roll to-hit twice, crit chance is the same, and if the off-hand attack hits instead of the main-hand it’s 4 less points of damage) and fits Shady’s “in your face” psychology better. Hiding would make her a little more durable in the you-can’t-hit-what-you-can’t-see way, tho. Reflecting back on our recent battles, there hasn’t actually been much cover for her to hide behind, tho, so I’m not sure how viable a strategy that would be. I’ll have to look into it going forward.

Other than that? Well, Nikki has better stats than Shady (since I rather foolishly let players roll instead of going point-buy) and is higher level; he also has cloak and boots of elvenkind, giving him crazy Stealth checks. All of these things are factors, but again not ones I have much control over. Mostly I think I need to just keep looking for ways to boost Shady’s strengths and mitigate her weaknesses, without losing focus on the RP aspects that make Shady, Shady.

I’m just glad there’s no freakin’ paladins in the party. >.>

-TG

Jul 09 2021

Main Character Syndrome vs. the Ensemble in D&D

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I’m not going to mince words: I am prone to Main Character Syndrome. I am not proud of this fact.

I am not the only person in our D&D group who suffers from this affliction, but I suspect I may be the one who struggles with it the most. Shade-Of-the-Candle could be a study in it: she is a natural leader, but also prone to going off and doing her own thing without telling the rest of the group what’s up, always thinks she knows the score (and is right more often than she’s wrong), and gets very prickly when things don’t go her way. As her player, I spend a lot of time biting my tongue to prevent the game from becoming “The Shade-Of-the-Candle Show, Guest-Starring The Other Player Characters.”

My drow bard Obsidian was even worse about this. In her case, I had built it in to her as a deliberate character flaw that she only really cared about herself and regarded the rest of the party as “her staff.” It was intended to be there to get some laughs at her expense, but I discovered to my mounting horror that some other members of the group readily bought into it and worse, the DM literally made her the most important person in the universe as a plot point, at which juncture I felt like both Obsidian and my own presence were doing the group more harm than good. :(

So for Plotline’s game, when I created Dusk, I deliberately crafted his personality to buoy up the other members of the party first. He is constantly talking up the other players’ abilities and interests, trying to find new devotees for the cleric, being fascinated by the artificer’s inventions, or dazzled by the other fighters’ combat prowess, etc. (He’s no slouch in the bragging-about-himself department either, mind you, but in his case it’s the buoyant “I love being awesome!” way of a himbo, and not the sneering “What have you done for me, lately?” way of Obsidian.)

I bring this up because over the past few days, I’ve been watching a series of “D&D Highlights” videos on YouTube (my favorite of which is posted at the top of this post). The videos are very silly and entertaining shenanigans, which is enough by itself, but what I have been most impressed by is the masterful way the players are supporting each others’ RP. Even the “grumpy dwarf” character is expressing that “grumpy dwarfness” in a way that can allow the other characters to shine, such as the character walking blindly into the pranks they pull on him even when the player knows exactly what it is going on. It’s terrific “yes, and” RP all around, even when it’s just pure goofiness.

Granted, these are highlight reels, so they’re showing off the best moments. But this is the kind of thing I want to see in my games, and it’s the kind of thing I want to bring to the table when I’m a player. A good D&D game is the story of the group, not of any one character. I think Dusk works towards this goal pretty well for the most part, and I think Shady can do that as well, I just need to be better about making it happen. In both cases, PEBCAK (“Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard”) applies, in that I the player have to remember to be focused on making the rest of the group shine instead of chasing after my own glory.

-The Gneech

Jun 24 2021

Shady vs. Dusk: Throwdown!

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Shade-Of-the-Candle uses diplomacy.

So as a thought exercise, I levelled up both Shade-Of-the-Candle and Stars-At-Dusk to 20 to see how they compared both in a fight, and at their respective party roles. Here’s what I came up with:

SHADY: Bard (College of Swords) 6/Rogue (Swashbuckler) 14
AC 17, hp 167 (20d8+60), Spd 30, Initiative +11
Saves: Dex +11, Int +5, Wis +6
Multiattack (2/round); Crescent Moon: +12 to hit, 1d8+6 piercing +7d6 sneak attack; Cutlass (off-hand): +11 to hit, 1d6+5 slashing; Pistols: +11 to hit, 1d10+5 piercing
Acrobatics +17, Athletics +12, Deception +9, Intimidation +9, Investigation +11, Perception +12, Persuasion +15, Sleight of Hand +11, Stealth +17
Bardic Inspiration (d8, 3/short rest), Blade Flourish, Countercharm, Cunning Action, Distraction, Elegant Maneuver, Evasion, Fancy Footwork, Fighting Style (2-handed), Lucky (3 uses), Panache, Rakish Audacity, Reliable Talent, Uncanny Dodge
Spells: Charm Person, Cure Wounds, Enemies Abound, Enthrall, Healing Word, Hold Person, Mage Hand, Sleep, Thorn Whip, Thunderwave, Vicious Mockery

DUSK: Fighter (Champion) 15/Rogue (Swashbuckler*) 5
AC 20, hp 178 (5d8+15d10+60), Spd 30, Initiative +15
Saves: Dex +11, Int +6, Wis +8
Multiattack (3/round); Compelling Argument: +12 to hit (crit 18-20), 1d8+8 piercing +3d6 sneak attack; Longbow: +11 to hit, 1d8+5 piercing
Acrobatics +11, Athletics +12, Deception +8, Intimidation +8, Investigation +6, Perception +8, Sleight of Hand +8, Stealth +17
Action Surge (1/short rest), Alert, Cunning Action, Fancy Footwork, Indomitable, Second Wind, Uncanny Dodge
*My original concept for Dusk was to take assassin, but the way he’s been played leans more towards swashbuckler.

The first thing that immediately jumps out is that Dusk is a much deadlier fighter than Shady. Yes, if she can get the drop on Dusk and land a big sneak attack up front, that’ll surely hurt. But with that Alert feat, Dusk is almost guaranteed to be going first, and even if his individual attacks hurt less, he’s going to be doing more and occasionally hitting just as hard as Shady does with that increased crit range. Dusk is also more durable, thanks to his shield. To get in a third attack, Shady has to give up her cunning action, although with both of them being swashbucklers, there’s going to be a lot of hit-and-fade going on that makes cunning action superfluous. Also, Shady has to use Blade Flourish to bump her AC or damage output, and she only has 3 uses of that in any given fight.

On the other hand, Shady has a lot more flexibility and potentially fight-ending abilities, particularly Charm Person and Hold Person. Dusk’s high Wis save and Indomitable strengthen him against that, but Shady’s Lucky feat could then come along and say “Nope!” Heck, if Shady can get Dusk below 40 hp and drop a third level Sleep spell on him, that’s all she wrote.

In terms of the party, Shady is definitely a better leader and a lot more useful in social or exploration situations, while Dusk is more purely a striker. And the truth of the matter is neither one is likely to be interested in fighting the other one to the death. Dusk would probably be hitting on Shady the whole time, while Shady would be focused on whatever achieving goal Dusk stood in the way of and be looking for a way around him. But if they had to fight for some reason, I’d call their chances about even, maybe favoring Dusk just a bit but not much.

Which honestly? Seems about right. Shady is Jack Sparrow, while Dusk is Inigo Montoya.

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Mar 17 2021

Shady and Androgyny

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Shade-Of-the-Candle, Like a BOSS

It’s no secret that my preference is for leading ladies in my work. From Tiffany Tiger to Verity Anjo, there are reasons both practical and philosophical that nine times out of ten I will pick a gal to be my hero. And while Shade-Of-the-Candle is a character who grew organically in my mind rather than being deliberately created, the same is true for her. But of all the female leads I’ve created, Shady is probably the least “feminine.” Physically, she’s a skinny beanpole, “all elbows and knees,” and while lithe and flexible as any other cat (and, let’s face it, clad in a leather corset and thigh boots), she’s not Superhero Sexy like Catwoman or Black Widow. Depending on her age and circumstances, Shady ranges from a scraggly alleycat to a scrappy tomboy to a Georgian duelist in a longcoat and feathered tricorn hat. In terms of her personality, she is snarky, aggressive, goal-oriented, and covers pain or vulnerability with bluster or bravado… all of which are pretty typically “masculine” (or at least boyish) traits.

Which led me to thinking about the role womanhood plays in the makeup of her character. I know some male writers whose women come off pretty much as “men with boobs,” and I have always worked to avoid that. But as I examined it, I found that I couldn’t really picture a male Shade-Of-the-Candle, and have it be the same character. The closest analogue I could come up with was Disney’s take on Aladdin—he’s got the imposter syndrome, the very cavalier ideas about property, the swashbuckling physicality, and so on. Aside from the fur and tail, a male version of Shady would probably hit a lot of the same beats.

But at the same time, there’s an external-vs.-internal difference between Aladdin and Shady. Aladdin is “unworthy” because he’s poor, because society says he’s unworthy—the words may sting, but he never actually believes them. He just has to get past it, like an obstacle. Shady, on the other hand, has internalized it. When Maraldo and the pawnshop owner and however-many-other people told her over the course of her life that she was nothing and nobody, on some level she believed it. Even with her own ship and crew and having slain a dragon and more, the fight that Shady can’t win is inside her own head.

That’s not an inherently “male/female” dynamic—lots of women know they’re more than society says they are, and lots of men never get over toxic voices from their childhood. But in our culture at least there is a “masculine/feminine” dichotomy that it does play into. (“Male/female” and “masculine/feminine,” while closely related, are not actually the same.) And I think it’s a dynamic that would express very differently in a male Shady who’d grown up under the same circumstances. I suspect male Shady would have ended up a lot meaner, certainly more wrathful, and run with a more cutthroat crowd. He’d also be a lot less clever, more inclined to intimidation or violence than charm or wit. Would he have even Shady’s sketchy version of a conscience? Hard to say. Shady’s feminine aspects inclined her to identify more with Velas’s kindness than Maraldo’s brutality (and I notice that she has diametrically opposed father figures but no mother to look to); I think in a lot of ways it’s the push-pull between her aggressive and “masculine” traits and that quiet-but-persistent “feminine” side that make her compelling, to me.

-TG

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Mar 14 2021

Shady, Rogue or Bard? Time To Choose

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Shade-Of-the-Candle Takes It Easy... But Takes It
Yes, Shady, choosing is very hard in this case.

WARNING: Lots of rules rambling ahead. Read only if you are a big ol’ D&D nerd.

So last night Shady hit 6th level after a fun session fighting against the most cheerful demonic bounty hunter ever. So now I have to actually choose, Rogue or Bard? Neither option is great immediately—6th level rogue gets her expertise in Investigation and Persuasion, but nothing else changes. 1st level bard gets her a new skill, a new proficiency, a small handful of spells, and three uses of bardic inspiration per long rest.

So neither choice is about what happens at level 6; they’re really about what happens at levels 7, 8, and 9.

If Shady sticks with rogue, at 7th she’ll get evasion and more sneak attack, at 8th she’ll hit 20 Dex, and at 9th she’ll get that awesome Panache ability and still more sneak attack. If she jumps over to bard, at 7th she’ll get Jack of All Trades (double-bumping her Initiative on top of her swashbuckler boost), at 8th she’ll get Blade Flourish (which is a game-changer ability) and Two-Weapon Fighting*, and at 9th she’ll finally catch up with that 20 Dex.

The problem is, I want all of this stuff for Shady! Panache especially is something that suits her perfectly, that whole “piss off the baddie so they chase only you—but also can’t actually GET to you” annoyance/avoidance tanking strategy goes all the way back to her fight with Kresthianze the black dragon. Having a mechanical backup for what she’s been doing purely through RP would be very nice.

On the other hand, in play, Shady’s biggest weak spot is totally her AC. The pattern with her, from the mimic that one-punched her at 2nd level, to the fight in the warehouse, to fighting Gornstard the Wailer last night, has over and over been:

1) Combat starts
2) Shady gets almost one-punched before she even gets a turn
3) She spends the rest of the fight either out or reeling from the first hit

To a certain extent, this is the rules working as intended. Rogues are glass cannons, and even swashbucklers—who are intended to get in melee and stay there—are expected to jump in and out, hide, and generally be evasive more than durable. Fortunately, Uncanny Dodge is a big mitigator here—when I remember to actually USE it—but the fact remains that Shady’s paltry 16 AC is her big ol’ Achilles Heel.

But short of magic items (and man, she is looking for that Cloak Piratey Longcoat of Protection), the only ways for her to boost her AC are 1) maxing Dex, or 2) Blade Flourish—either of which she can get at 8th level, it’s just a matter of which.

20 Dex will set her AC to 17 whenever she gets attacked, before she gets a turn or after, all the time. Blade Flourish, using the Defense option, potentially adds +1d6 to her AC (typically putting it around 19), but only after she’s made an attack, and only up to three times per long rest. It also boosts her already-crazy speed and bumps her damage on the initial attack roll.

The biggest thing is that going the bard route gives Shady the 20 Dex at 9th level—which means that in terms of AC, she gets both of the boosts by going the bard route, at the expense of a bit of sneak attack, evasion (which has not been a factor so far since we don’t have a lot of fireballs flying around, but might become one if more dragons start showing up), and, of course, panache.

I dunno; I keep going around and around and not being able to land. All of this is solved by 15th level, in which she has all the bard and all the rogue she wants and everything after that is gravy… but what are the chances of any campaign getting there? Generally not considered good. That’s what makes this a tough choice—whichever direction she chooses is likely to be the only choice she gets.

-TG

*Theoretically it would also open breastplate + shield, but even if the breastplate looked like a leather battle corset, the Dex cap would make it a net wash, and I just cannot see Shady carrying a shield. Dusk does, because he’s a fighter-flavored-with-rogue, but Shady is not a gird-her-loins type.

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Mar 05 2021

My Weirdly-Specific Skyrim Modding Wish

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The Akorithi Twins sell from a cluttered market.
The Akorithi Twins sell their wares from a market with two flying pennants and walls embedded in other walls. Just an ordinary day in modded Skyrim?

I, am a goofus.

I had Skyrim running, patched and modded all to heck, but running. It was fine. Everything was fine. But something kept annoying me.

Solitude is too damn small.

I mean, the cities in Skyrim have always been little more than a single neighborhood with delusions of grandeur. If you put ALL the Skyrim cities into one place, you’d have something roughly the size of the Village of Bree in Lord of the Rings Online, yes? Skyrim’s cities are stupidly small. I’m used to that.

But not Solitude. I can’t accept it. Solitude is the New York of Skyrim (or possibly the London would be a more apt comparison). It’s supposed to be a major seaport and one the biggest cities in the world, it has no business being one street smaller than some single historical castles. I live near a shopping mall that is literally bigger than Solitude. And since Solitude is where Shady will end up spending most of her time in my “ultimate wishlist playthrough” (long story), I decided to go ahead and mod it up right.

For a long time I ran with Great Cities: Solitude, which definitely beefs up the docks area, but lacks personality. Mostly it adds empty fronts and a few NPCs wandering around. This time I decided I wanted something that felt more alive for all of the cities generally, so I landed on the JK’s Skyrim + Dawn of Skyrim combo (with some additional mods for other towns), with Solitude Expansion to add some life to the docks. That helped, but it still wasn’t quite there, maybe 65-70%.

And then, I looked at Enhanced Solitude. This is a mod that basically takes a baker’s dozen of the modder’s favorite Solitude mods by disparate authors, rearranges them into something like a cohesive whole, and also adds a whole new neighborhood as well as expanding and redecorating the existing ones. In short, if you want Solitude to feel alive, Enhanced Solitude is the one you actually want.

Why don't more mods put advertisements in town?
Have you ever been to a city that DIDN’T have signs promoting shops? But I’ve never seen it in a fantasy RPG before. This one detail sold me on Enhanced Solitude.

(The same author has a docks mod intended to go with it, which includes elements of Solitude Expansion, and it’s nice but buggy and, well, the author is not exactly helpful about it.)

Unfortunately, Enhanced Solitude is not compatible with the JK/Dawn combo. Like, at all. As shown in the top image, combining them adds duplicate NPCs, artifacts all over the place, it’s a mess. Of course, this is only really a problem in the overlapping parts of the city (i.e., the market)—the new areas added by Enhanced Solitude are fine. The author provides a “patch” that essentially tears out the JK/Dawn stuff by the roots… but that also breaks Dawn of Skyrim’s changes to other cities (“Hmm, why are half the textures in Whiterun broken all of a sudden?”).

I don’t want that. I want the mods to play nice together. I could go through and manually delete offending items and clone NPCs in the game via console commands, but that could lead to instability and would be instantly negated if I ever ran an update. No, the only “right” way to merge these mods and have it stick, would be to create a patch. And so began my descent into modding tools. If I could just “suppress” or hide/undo the parts of Enhanced Solitude that conflicted with JK/Dawn, I’d have the best of both worlds! And what’s more, I could upload the patch to Nexus and let all the other people who want the best of both worlds to share in my handiwork.

A week later, I’ve dug into SSEedit, Creation Kit, even looked at editing models in Nifscope. I’ve watched tutorial videos on YouTube until my head spun… and at the end of the day nothing to show for it but a file called “Enhanced JK’s Dawn of Solitude” that… doesn’t actually do anything. It’s not that I couldn’t figure this out eventually if I was willing to keep banging my head against it, but the real question is… why am I doing this?

The western district of Solitude, that isn't there for 95% of players.
Is one more neighborhood for my digital catgirl to mostly never go to, really worth staying up until the wee hours night after night for?

It’s a nice little neighborhood, it’s got a bath-house and a bookstore… but will my experience of playing Shade-Of-the-Candle really be that much better for it? I can delete the extra actors and random junk around town with the “disable” command and have a mostly-working town that just has a few bottlenecks of idle markers where they don’t belong. I could have done that three days ago and been actually playing the game. Why am I fighting with this? Or for that matter, I had my 65-70% without Enhanced Solitude at all, why not be content with that. I have art commissions, writing, job hunting to do… all of which are infinitely more important than making a fictional town that’s not even mine seem just a little less fictional.

Hyperfocus? Perfectionism? Pure mule-headedness? I dunno. Maybe part of me thought getting into modding might lead to some kind of creative outlet that wasn’t as frustrated as my writing and art have been of late, but that hope is forlorn I suspect.

But all that said, if there’s anyone out there who IS experienced at modding and knows what they’re doing, who’d like to walk me through the process of making these changes I want, please let me know! ‘cos I think I’ve hit a wall with my current understanding and have no idea what to do next.

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