Monday, June 2, 2014

Looking Ahead: A Year of Plenty

It's been a long time since I've talked about video games on this blog which, ostensibly, started as a blog about gaming. I've talked a lot about tabletop gaming, of course, but with E3 2014 just around the corner let's get back into the digital age and discuss the upcoming releases in the next year!

As with any first year after the launch of new consoles, 2014 has been fairly devoid of truly amazing titles. When the Xbox 360 and the PS3 released, way back in '05 and '06 respectively, the only standouts at launch were games such as Resistance: Fall of Man and Condemned: Criminal Origins. There were ports of older titles that ended up being released for the new consoles as well but the titles that had been developed specifically to take advantage of the new hardware were few and far between -- and, by and large, were fairly disappointing. And, sadly, that trend didn't really change until after the first year of both consoles being available.

Come 2014 and, though people complain, things are a lot better by comparison. The launch titles offered to first adopters for both consoles were actually a fairly varied selection of big budget games: the Xbox One gave some exclusives, such as Dead Rising 3 and Ryse: Son of Rome; the PS4 had exclusive titles in Killzone: Shadow Fall and the downloadable Resogun; and both consoles had ported versions of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Need for Speed: Rivals and Battlefield 4 ready to play at launch, along with the regular lot of sports titles and a small selection of others. Compared to the previous generation, which relied on smaller ports and brand new IP to sell the new hardware, it seems apparent that Microsoft and Sony finally understand what gamers (and especially first adopters) want in a "next gen" experience.

Of course, since the launch day the offerings for both systems have dried up considerably. There are evident standouts, of course, with titles such as: Outlast (PS4); Thief (both); Titanfall (XBO); inFAMOUS: Second Son (PS4); Child of Light (both); and Trials Fusion (both). But things still seemed to be progressing slowly and there was some definite fatigue being felt by the first adopters who wanted to use their new hardware.

But fear no longer! With May nearly over and June about to begin, things are starting to look up for the gaming community. The month of flowers has brought us such gems as: the sublime Transistor, Supergiant Games' follow-up to the best game of 2011 (Bastion); Wolfenstein: The New Order, a reboot of the very first FPS that, by all accounts, is really quite excellent; and the exceptionally slick Watch_Dogs, which I have been playing to death and simply cannot get enough of. Couple that with Murdered: Soul Suspect, a game dropping this upcoming Tuesday (June 3rd), and things look to be picking up indeed!

So what does the rest of the year hold? What wonderful and exciting titles do we have to look forward to? I'm glad you asked! Despite what appears to be a fairly dry spell during the summer months (which is fairly typical for any year of gaming), the fall and winter months are chock-full of titles to get your blood pumping. Below, you'll find a quick rundown of some of the biggest titles of the year ahead, but please note: I've intentionally omitted titles that do not yet have set release dates. Read on!
  • Murdered: Soul Suspect (June 3rd)
  • Destiny (September 9)
  • Alien: Isolation (October 7)
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition (October 7)
  • Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (October 7)
  • Batman: Arkham Knight (October 14)
  • The Evil Within (October 21)
  • Evolve (October 21)
  • Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (November 4)
  • Far Cry 4 (November 18)
Over the next few weeks, I'll do my best to bring you some previews of these titles, along with any others that I come across. There's lots of excellent content coming to the new console generation and I'd like to provide a source of information for people about it all; I spend so much time explaining new games to my friends, why not spread that out a bit wider and offer a source like that to everyone?

Stay tuned for the first article, hopefully to go up sometime soon this week, which will detail what Murdered: Soul Suspect is all about -- and, depending on when the article goes up, may also include some first impressions of the game. Thanks for reading, everybody!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Return to Ravenloft: Act Four, Session Three

When last we met our intrepid heroes, deep in the heart of a volcano, they had vanquished a contingent of duergar and their dragon lord Antül, long atrophied in the luxurious confines of a pit. The party had discovered the resting place of the primal spirit of the Firewalker; freeing the spirit from its confines, the players turned to return to the surface, only to see the volcanic dragon of Antül rise again from the lava and bellow forth a roar in challenge. What will happen next?

Our Cast
Jack Vitous (Werewolf Warlord) - Played by Nick R.
Paelias, the Seer (Eladrin Wizard) - Played by Dallas
Gustav, Vistani Explorer (Human Ranger) - Played by David
All characters are Level 6.

We Now Return You To Your Scheduled Programming...

As Antül emerged from the lava, his atrophied wings now replaced with wings of magical flame, the Firewalker imparted some of its power into the heroes, restoring them to their full fighting capacity. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, however, the whole party turned and fled up the stairs they had used to descend to the level of the lava. Their exit was punctuated by another blast of flame from the dragon behind them, which then rumbled into a great quaking around them as the entire mountain seemed to tremble. Not wasting any more time, they turned and raced up the spiral staircase as quickly as they could muster.

Their ascent was interrupted, however: halfway to the top, it felt as though the entire pillar holding the fortress aloft was shaken by an impact, and the party had to quickly brace themselves in the staircase. The roaring of Antül in the cavern outside and the proximity of the impact told an easy tale to decipher: Antül was attempting to topple the fortress to stop the party from escaping.

Doubling their pace, the party made it up to the cavern with the pit where Antül had previously made his home. As they arrived, another shuddering impact shook the fortress and caused a noticeable tilt in the fortress' orientation. The exit was on the far side of the cavern but the entire room had tilted to one side, leaving a small incline to reach the door.

Rushing headlong across the room, another impact caused a larger tilt; Paelias used his magical abilities to teleport up to the ledge and turned to assist his companions. Jack, the most athletic of the bunch, rushed forward and made an epic leap to the doorway above, managing to catch on just barely and began to pull himself up. Gustav, on the other hand, took a running leap and came up short, causing him to use Jack for leverage and causing them both to fall.

Paelias noticed the concussive force was starting to tear the fortress of basalt apart as a large crack appeared in the wall behind him, so lowered the others some rope to accelerate the ascent.Gustav was able to make it up to the ledge just as another impact shook the fortress, then turned to urge Jack to hurry.

The large man first tried to hoist himself up while Paelias held the rope; Gustav had to act fast to stop the eladrin from toppling over the edge back into the cavern. Deciding Gustav might be the better candidate to brace the rope, Paelias handed the rope to him just as Jack took another pass at a jump; instead, Jack grabbed for the rope and pulled it through the hands of both of his companions, causing him to fall back down regardless.

Now at a severe deficiency of time, Jack urged his companions to leave him and allow him to find his own way up. Deciding against that, Paelias instead took Gustav's rope and froze it in place in one of the cracks behind them; the strength of the ice was plenty to hold Jack's weight and the man was able to pull himself up just as another impact shuddered through the fortress.

Rushing up the stairs, the party retraced their steps into the hallway above only to find that it had tilted almost entirely on it's side, causing them to run on what had been the wall. This also meant that the hallways running perpendicular to their exit route were now drops down into the rest of the fortress. Getting a running jump, Jack and Gustav easily cleared the first gap, only to watch Paelias fall short and fall into the pit, sliding down the incline into a set of double-doors below.

Jack lowered him the rope yet again: the eladrin was able to climb halfway out of the pit before another impact from Antül knocked them all off-balance and caused Paelias to swing out wide from the wall. Crashing down onto another door, the wizard found himself in sleeping quarters with a door on the other side of the room. Urging his companions on, the eladrin picked his way across and opened the door, revealing another hallway/pit that connected to the exit route above.

Using a magic missile to blow open a door across the hallway/pit, Paelias leaped into an office on one of the exterior walls. Inside, the exterior wall had a large chunk missing, revealing the cavern outside. The perspective had changed but Paelias found his bearings easily enough, but was instantly disturbed by the revelation that the stone bridges used to connect the fortress to the exterior of the cavern (and thereby the exits) were completely destroyed.

Heading back to the hallway/pit, Jack lowered another rope to Paelias and hoisted the eladrin up. The three companions, fully reunited, continued up to the main level of the fortress. Upon arriving, another impact from Antül dislodged large chunks of basalt above their heads and tilted the fortress so it was fully on it's side.

The hallway/pits were now straight drops down dozens of feet, posing an even more serious danger now. The party continued on their path down the hallway ahead, clearing the pits underfoot with ease, but realized the main exit was no longer viable -- for one, it would now be halfway up the exterior wall in the open courtyard; for another, with the bridges destroyed, there would be no use going to that door anyway. Deciding to follow their current heading, the party started up the staircase that would lead them to the interior parapets of the fortress, figuring it was their best bet to get on top of the fortress and get their bearings.

Throughout this entire sequence, Gustav had ever been the voice of dismay. "We're totally going to die!" he would comment often, leaping over 50+ foot drops and inching through the fortress. Jack merely gritted his teeth and soldiered on, while Paelias -- old as he is -- did his best to keep up.

Antül, born again from the heart of a volcano!
Climbing up onto the side of the fortress (which was now the top) through a huge hole in the design of the fortress, the party observed Antül raging about before dive-bombing towards the party. Veering off at the last minute, the dragon instead collided with the fortress under their feet and caused a complete collapse of the basalt building. The party all deftly managed to find basalt stones to cling to (Jack very nearly simply falling to his demise) as they plummeted down through the ruin of the fortress below. Crashing through the courtyard and into what had been the Great Hall, the party fell down towards the lava below, all three of them offering prayers to their deities as they fell to what they believed would be their demise.

Instead, the basalt -- still imbued with the heat resistant magicks they had detected before -- kept them afloat as they reached the lake of lava. Managing to gather their wits, the party stood to just as Antül came swooping towards them. Letting loose a torrent of flame from his belly, the Firewalker stepped forth and diverted the fire away from the party and down into the lava itself.

That seemed to be the final spark the volcano needed; with a growing rumble, the party suddenly felt an uptick in pressure and heat and watched as the lava around them started to surge upwards. Suddenly, they realized their situation:

The volcano was erupting with them still inside.

Seeing no other recourse, the party turned to deal with Antül. The party was forced to leap from stone to stone of the crumbling fortress above them to maneuver about the battlefield. The basalt, even with the magicks on the stone, only lasted a few extra seconds before melting and joining the molten rock below; as such, the party was forced to continually navigate about the battlefield in an effort to not fall into the lava below.

While Jack ran forward to engage the dragon head-on, Gustav and Paelias maintained their distance to utilize their ranged abilities. While Gustav was relegated to using his crossbow, firing bolt after bolt at the fiery lizard, Paelias brought all of his arcane might to bear in rather ingenious ways: starting off with a Ray of Frost cast deftly into the lava at the feet of Antül, he instantly created a patch of steam that forced the dragon to start the encounter blinded as the cloud raised into his eyes.

Following that up with a Freezing Cloud, it became very evident that Antül was susceptible to damage from cold attacks. While Paelias did his best to maintain that type of damage, Jack was doing his best to keep the dragon distracted while maintaining some semblance of cohesion with the rest of the party. He traded blows with Antül, always trying to stay out of the range of the noxious fumes still emanating from the creature, and mostly served as a distraction for the dragon. One such blow, however, connected so solidly as Jack Led the Attack that the others could do nothing but feel encouraged to match the ferocity of Jack's attack and struck with even more fury.

A Balrog isn't a dragon, but I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that
this analogy was made during the session. Go Paelias!
Paelias, having another brilliant idea, targeted his Icy Rays spell towards the fiery wings keeping Antül aloft, hoping to freeze them at the source and force the dragon out of the air. One of the rays missed it's target but the other hit with solid force and instantly extinguished the fiery wing. The dragon's weight was too much to carry on a single wing, made of magical fire or not, and Antül descended until he was half-submerged in the now rushing lava. The volcanic dragon, used to this environment, seemed immune to any effect from the lava, but that blast was enough to draw his attention away from Jack and towards the others in the party.

Always moving, Gustav soon dropped his crossbow in favour of drawing his scimitars and striking out at he now swimming dragon. Having severely reduced Antül's mobility (in no small part thanks to the constant barrage of Ray of Frost spells Paelias was throwing at him), the ranger was able to deftly step in and out of range and slice at the dragon's hide, causing bleeding wounds and slicing at delicate tendons in the legs.

All the while, the lava rushed higher and higher, accelerating the party up through the remains of the fortress and closer to exit passages. The party originally thought they might be able to maneuver themselves to leap into one of these passages and make their way to the surface again but a quick consideration of the situation (this time paying close attention to the rate at which the lava was accelerating upwards) caused them to rethink their plan. Instead, they decided they would have to ride out the eruption, come what may!

When the noxious fumes Antül was emanating started to grow in radius, Paelias used his Dispel Magic ability to cause them to return to their normal disgusting range, then continued to pepper the dragon with his Ray of Frost ability. Gustav switched back and forth between his crossbow and scimitars, striking out time after time to finish off the great best. Jack, having maintained his human form for the majority of the battle (mostly in an attempt to help better the attacks of his allies) turned into his werewolf form and began to savagely attack Antül with everything they had left. They were running out of time and stamina: the top of the volcano was already cracking under the pressure but they were fast approaching it, riding the basalt ever upward.

Finally, Paelias summoned Bigby's Icy Grasp and used the hand of ice to attempt to strangle Antül. The fiery beast, on the verge of defeat, began to freeze from the neck up as the hand crushed down on it's throat; moments later, when he collided with the top of the volcano, his head shattered into millions of pieces as the ceiling burst forth into the open air above.

Searching Google for "Fighting a Dragon" is pretty awesome.
Relieved though they were that they had finally vanquished the beast, the party had no time to collect themselves: instead, each of them clung to the piece of basalt they were riding and rode the stone like sleds as they cascaded down the mountain. The three of them encountered various obstacles and debris on the way down but were able to avoid any further serious harm.

Coming to a stop somewhat near each other at the bottom of the mountain, the party regrouped and looked up to watch the eruption continue; molten rock was cascading down the mountainside and black brimstone and ash was shooting into the sky above, causing the valley to fall even darker than before. Deciding to leave, the party turned to do so -- but not before Gustav could feel the Firewalker step forward and take control of his body.

The primal spirit of fire turned and used his powers to instantly harden the lava cascading towards the party and reversed the spout of the ash cloud, stopping the eruption dead and sealing the mountain back up. Turning to regard the party once more, the spirit relinquished control of Gustav's body before speaking to all of the party:

"I have ceased the eruption and saved the valley from further disaster, but Strahd will surely know of your presence here and my newfound freedom. We must depart, and quickly, if we are to avoid his gaze."

It was evident the Firewalker had exhausted himself with that show of power but the party had no time to rest yet. They turned tail and fled back towards Gustav's cave hideout, avoiding Strahd's forces on the way. They then took some time to wash up and rest before setting off to find the next spirit.

And There You Have It!

This session was probably the best combat I've ever run and definitely ranks as one of the most enjoyable sessions I've ever had. There was very little roleplaying (besides some small inter-party stuff) but the skill challenges to get out of the toppling fortress were excellent and intense, and the actual combat while riding the volcanic eruption was exceptionally fun. Never before had any of us had a combat encounter in the heart of an erupting volcano -- it was classic medieval fantasy at it's greatest! Afterwards, all three of the guys at the table said that they enjoyed it immensely and most agreed that it was one of the best sessions we've had thus far -- to have that sort of reaction at the table definitely makes me feel good! I just hope I can maintain that result!

I had to write up some custom rules on how to have a combat amidst a volcanic eruption, including rules on how to transfer from stone to stone, that I think came across very well. I also designed rules for the finale scene where the party was riding the stones down the side of the mountain, which I feel were also pretty solid. (I can share these, if anyone would like: I have them in a Google Doc!) Admittedly, the finale was a bit rushed; after having defeated the dragon, it was already fairly late in the evening so I skipped some of the stuff. But it was originally meant to be an additional part of the encounter!

As it was originally written: Antül, near death, would survive the eruption of the volcano and would pursue the party down the mountainside. The characters would be forced to engage him at range (or somehow get close enough to strike at him) while they slid down the mountain on their stones, and then the environment would act against them on a separate turn in the initiative order (as with the environment in the volcano). But the party was able to dispatch Antül before the eruption actually happened so some of the extra stuff was cut. However, that brings me to my next point...

In stark contrast to the previous session, the party managed to rack up somewhere close to a dozen critical hits in this fight alone. I admit, it was a long combat which meant lots of dice being rolled -- and probability dictates that rolling a natural 20 would be bound to happen from time to time -- but it was absolutely amazing how much damage the party was dealing! And the ingenious attacks from everyone (especially Paelias, effectively clipping the mobility of the dragon by freezing his wing) really made this an epic and cinematic fight.

So yes: all in all, an excellent session! Next time, the party has to choose between venturing to the resting place of either the Cloudsleeper (atop a mountain) or the Deepdrinker (at the bottom of the lake). I believe the party has solved a riddle to find the Deepdrinker, so they may head there first, but we shall see next time!

As always, thanks for reading! Stay tuned for the next session report!

Friday, May 23, 2014

RPG Stuff: Playable Lycanthrope Race

An excellent representation of a werewolf adventurer, link included.
In the midst of planning my Return to Ravenloft campaign, I realized that there was a possibility that some of my players might end up controlling a werewolf. Whether their character contracted lycanthropy, or if they took over an NPC that was already a werewolf, there was a distinct possibility that they would need to control a lycanthrope. Which was fine by me!

The problem, of course, is that I had designed the adventure to use 4th Edition rules for D&D where there are no rules for player characters to play as lycanthropes, werewolf or otherwise. In 3rd Edition, racial templates were a very large thing -- vampires, werewolves, wilden, lichs; you couldn't flip through a Monster Manual without stumbling across at least a dozen of the templates. And, in the grand scope and often convoluted design of 3rd Edition, they were even relatively easy to implement: you would simply design your character as normal, complete with starting race and the like, and then apply the template and make any applicable changes after the fact. My longest-lived character in 3rd Edition was a half-dragon sorcerer who kicked ass absolutely all of the time, specifically because he had the innate Strength and Constitution to take and dish out a melee beating while still having an off-the-charts Charisma to dish out all the nasty spells he had learned. Not to mention fire breath, natural armour, claws and sharp teeth if his weapons were misplaced.

(Yes, Pyro was a bit of a cheat and I was certainly the culprit of using an overpowered character. But I'll defend that choice by saying my GM at the time was merciless and killed a PC practically every session, so I did what was necessary for me to have fun. Besides, Pyro wasn't even a half-dragon anymore by the time the campaign came to an end -- resurrection is a funny thing -- so I still consider my record unbesmirched. Yet I digress.)

Dem vampires, man.
4th Edition, on the other hand, has no racial templates to speak of. In fact, the only way you can play even a vampire character in 4E is by choosing that as your class -- and, if you ask me, that's a pretty piss-poor way of emulating that style of character. It's not very thematic -- who starts off as an adventurer and decides, "I want to be a Vampire"? -- and it doesn't work very well plot-wise. Vampires-as-characters are generally adventurers who have some foul event befall unto them, which means they started out as something else. How does it make sense that a character who was previously a druid would up and forget all of his wild shape abilities and start using powers that allow him to manipulate blood?

So I was left scouring the archives for ways to have a character gain the abilities of a werewolf while still maintaining a consistent and balanced class that fit within the existing conventions of an adventuring party. It was during these searches that I found Backgrounds and Themes -- these were additional add-ons that players could take at character creation to give their characters a bit of a thematic boost while also offering them some additional in-game bonuses and powers. Almost all of them were to be found in the Dragon Magazine archives, which explained why I had not been familiar with them prior to my research, but almost all of them were really excellent. They offered compelling, but not game-breaking, bonuses to characters while giving them a bit more thematic depth.

Now I've never been a stickler for balance and, as a GM, my style is much more plot-driven than rules-lawyering. That being said, I have learned to be fairly hands-on with character creation -- the first time I ran the Expedition to Castle Ravenloft campaign, the characters people brought to the table were min-maxed to the nines and were horribly unbalanced for a campaign that was supposed to be a horrific insert into a mostly regular game. So I learned from my mistakes and I now take a much more vocal role in character creation (something that I would recommend to any GM, new or old).

With that in mind, I still wanted to use the Themes and Backgrounds. Instead of allowing the players to choose their own, however, I had them give me their base characters and concepts and I chose a Theme and a Background each that would match the character. Thus, I ensured balance between the characters to ensure that every character had a little bit of a boost while instilling some of those extra thematic points in the character concept. Who cares if the party would be able to cut through enemies a bit faster, as long as everyone was having fun and had a fully fleshed out character?

But despite all my searching, I was still unable to find anything fitting for werewolves in 4E. There was a Theme attached to the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting that instilled some of that barbaric animalistic nature of werewolves but it was more thematic as a barbarian tribe than an actual wolfman, so it wasn't enough for me. I even found a homebrew 4E Werewolf class from my friend David at Points of Light that one of his players had constructed. it was a solid offering that emulated the abilities of a werewolf but ran into the same issue that the Vampire class had -- namely, that it replaced all of the actual abilities from other classes with things that only werewolves could do. It didn't match up with what I wanted but it did provide some good pointers.

I quickly became aware that what I really wanted was a Werewolf Race in 4E. A race would allow people to have innate abilities given to them from their lycanthropy but still have an actual class to perform trained abilities they had learned from experience. Of course, such a race did not exist in 4E -- so I decided I had best design one myself. So I did so. You can find my results below:



Excellent image from Sandara on DeviantArt.
Lycanthrope
Beings who, through affliction or curse, have become one with the bestial nature within us all.

Average Height: As base race.
Average Weight: As base race.

Ability Scores: +2 Dexterity, +2 Wisdom OR +2 Strength, +2 Wisdom (depending on your lycanthrope animal)
Size: Medium
Speed: 7 squares (35 feet)
Vision: Low-light

Languages: As base race.
Skill Bonuses: +2 Athletics, +2 Nature
Wild Shape: You gain the Wild Shape ability, as the Druid class (PHB2, pg. 84), with some limitations: the character must pick a single animal whose characteristics they will always adopt (wolf, bear, rat, et cetera). When transforming, the character will only be able to change to a hybrid form; the character will appear mostly humanoid but will take on the characteristics of their lycanthrope animal.
Beast Form Powers: During character creation, choose one At-Will, one Encounter and one Daily power from the Druid power list. All powers must be Level 1 and must have the Beast Form keyword attached.
At Level 3 (and at every applicable higher level), choose one Level 3 Encounter power from the Druid power list to replace the Level 1 Encounter power; the same Beast Form limitation applies.
At Level 5 (and at every applicable higher level), choose one Level 5 Daily power from the Druid power list to replace the Level 1 Daily power; the same Beast Form limitation applies.
Every time you choose a replacement power, lose the lower level power of that type.
Bloodlust: You gain the Bloodlust racial power, as below:


Origins: Lycanthropy is a magical illness or curse that can afflict almost all races in existence. As such, every lycanthrope must choose a base race that they originated as. This original race will help define the characters origins and will determine how the character appears when not in their bestial form.

The character loses all bonuses attached to their original race and instead take on the bonuses listed above. This includes Ability Score bonuses, Skill bonuses, Racial Powers, powers gained from race features, any bonuses for saving throws and defenses, and so forth. Characters are allowed to keep Armour and Weapon Proficiencies granted from their race, however.



As I've mentioned in some of my previous after-action reports, I'm aware that the Lycanthrope race is a bit unbalanced (read: really quite unbalanced) compared to the other races. After all, the Beast Form Powers feature gives the player access to an additional At-Will, Encounter and Daily power from a completely different class. I feel like the cycling of the powers stop it from becoming too unbalanced -- a consistent list of three powers to draw from is obviously favourable to an ever-increasing value -- but it is still three more powers than your typical character would have access to.

I'm also aware that the Bloodlust racial power is very powerful -- it started as a derivation of the Longtooth Shifter racial power, then became much more powerful and transitioned to a Daily power to help off-set the potency. It's obviously more powerful than other racial powers but I feel as though the upgrade to Daily, and the inability to drop out of it (inspired by Barbarian Rage), helps balance that a bit.

Really, the Lycanthrope race is an amalgam of already established mechanics in the game: most of the stats above started as a derivation of the Shifter race -- the Ability Score bonuses, for instance, as well as the Skill bonuses -- and the Beast Form powers are taken straight from the Druid class. Add some inspiration from Barbarians and some mechanics straight from the lycanthrope entry in the Monster Manual (the effect of silvered weapons, for instance), and you've got the general idea.

One thing that I did struggle with was the Origins section: I wanted to maintain the original form of the character somehow, both mechanically and thematically, but wanted to ensure as much balance as possible. I considered looking through all of the racial features and choosing one for each race that would carry over -- things like the Eladrin bonus against Charm effects, or the Halfling bonus against opportunity attacks -- in an effort to help instill that thematic quality of the original race shining through. This would also have the added effect of becoming a Lycanthrope seeming more like a template than a truly original race. But I eventually decided that feature would make the Lycanthrope race that much more unbalanced and decided to scrap it. It's probably for the best, though I'm still trying to think up ways to maintain that thematic quality for the characters. I'm always open to suggestions, if anyone out there has any!

So there it is! The above is what I have provided to one of the players in the current Return to Ravenloft campaign and he is absolutely loving the mechanics. He enjoys the freedom of being able to switch back and forth from human to beast form and back, and the extra powers he has been given access to have saved the party once or twice already. I am still concerned with trying to maintain balance and ensure that Jack (and by extension Nick R.) doesn't outshine the other characters in combat -- so far, that has not been too much of an issue, but it is certainly something I will need to watch as the characters increase in level.

If anyone has any suggestions for balancing the race a bit better, or options that I should consider adding/removing, please feel free to drop a comment below. The Lycanthrope race is something that I still consider a work-in-progress, especially considering it has only seen two sessions of playtesting. Thoughts? Concerns? I'd love to hear what you think!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Return to Ravenloft: Act Four, Session Two

We return to our Return to Ravenloft campaign to check in on our intrepid heroes. We find them deep in the heart of a mountain, currently fleeing a force of dark-skinned dwarves through the hallways of a basalt fortress suspended above a lake of lava. They have rushed headlong into a dark cavern in their retreat and come face-to-face with a fiery being rumbling in the dark.

Let's jump in and see what happened:

Our Cast
Jack Vitous (Werewolf Warlord) - Played by Nick R.
Paelias, the Seer (Eladrin Wizard) - Played by Dallas
Gustav, Vistani Explorer (Human Ranger) - Played by David
All characters are Level 6.

And Now!

This session began with a literal explosion as the players were forced to duck out of the way of a gout of flame shooting forth from the fiery figure. All of them were able to come out of the blast unscathed but were suddenly much more aware of their surroundings:

The cavern they had entered was vast, a circular chamber some 200 feet across (presumably the full width of the pillar holding up the fortress above), and 30 feet high. A 30-foot wide walkway hugged the wall of the cavern all the way around, dropping off into a large pit in the center of the chamber. More pressing, however, was the presence of a large fiery dragon sitting in the pit, its long slender neck arcing out of the pit as the fire burning in its gullet illuminated it from below.

The party was stunned -- none of them had seen a dragon in the flesh before, though all had heard the tales -- but were urged to action at the sound of approaching footsteps coming from behind them. Jumping forward, both Jack and Gustav took off with abandon towards the dragon, slashing at its face and connecting, but were just as quickly rebuffed as they breathed in noxious fumes of brimstone seeming to emanate from the scales of the dragon. Paelias, on the other hand, decided to keep his distance -- seeing a large number of the dark-skinned dwarves come crashing down the stairs, the wizard ran along the walkway to one side, shooting icy rays at the dragon in an effort to aid his companions.

The dragon, not appreciative of the entrance the party had made, struck out with his massive jaws and took a bite at Jack. The warlord retaliated with a second attack before backing away from the dragon and getting out of range of his mouth. Gustav likewise stepped back, removing himself from the cloud of smoke surrounding the dragon, and forced himself into conflict with some of the dwarves. Before they stepped back, however, both the ranger and the warlord were able to notice a small crack in the pit underneath the dragon, bits of light peeking through where the stone had weathered under its feet.

Paelias continued his hasty retreat around the cavern, stopping only to fire magic back towards the dwarves as they approached his companions. Jack decided to try to reason with the dragon, thinking he may be able to turn the creature against the dwarves -- but failed in his attempts, only managing to anger the beast further. Gustav, on the other hand, had better luck with his silver tongue:

"Oh great dragon, what is your name that we might honour you better?" the Vistani cried out, as both he and Jack made shows of supplication.

"Puny mortal! Who are you to interrupt my slumber? I, the great and powerful Antül!" The dragon replied with verve and anger, his cavernous voice echoing all around them, before letting loose with a gout of flame towards the ranger. Gustav was able to shield himself from the blast but was left with the definite knowledge that the great and powerful Antül had not taken kindly to being attacked in his own chambers. Luckily, the flame had engulfed one of the dwarves surrounding Gustav, and managed to injure another, so the ranger had a bit more breathing room.

Paelias dodged the bolts of flame and continued on his way around the cavern, stumbling across a panel full of levers embedded in the wall. Drawing on his knowledge of dungeoneering and dwarven architecture to help him discern their purpose, the wizard gleaned that the levers could be used to control any sort of contraption, though it would almost certainly be mechanical in nature. Deciding to try his luck, the eladrin pulled on the first lever, immediately causing a loud mechanical grinding to start echoing about the chamber. With no visible effect, however, he turned and braced himself for the dwarves hot on his heels.

Those duergar are nasty SOBs.
The conflict waged for some time; Jack darted back and forth between the dwarves and the dragon, switching in and out of his werewolf form as he attacked with his claws and sword and (sometimes literally) barked orders to his companions. Gustav held his own as he faced off against the heavily armoured soldier, slashing at the weak points of the armour with his slender scimitars. Paelias was forced to use his more defensive magicks, conjuring shields of force energy to block fiery bolts from the dwarven sorcerers. Taking one last-ditch effort, the eladrin flipped all of the levers around until he found the correct combination to activate the mechanism. Jack, the only party member close enough to the pit to notice, watched as the crack under the dragon's feet began to grow wide -- whatever Paelias had done had started a mechanism that appeared to open the pit to the lake of lava below. Even more telling, however, was that the light from beneath illuminated Antül's wings, showing they were atrophied and would not be able to carry his weight -- the dragon had obviously been locked in the cavern for too long and would fall to his demise should the pit open all the way.

Despite their prowess in battle, however, the party was starting to suffer from their wounds and grow weary. Realizing the desperation of their situation, Jack slipped into beast form, dispatched the dwarves around him and stepped forward toward the dragon. Letting loose a mighty roar, the werewolf centered his mighty attack on the dragon, dazing the magical creature and giving Jack time to slip out of the melee. Rushing headlong towards Gustav, he called out to Paelias to reinvigorate the wizard, who was in danger of falling to the blows upon him.

The dwarves were so focused on their task, they did not notice the dragon having lost his senses in the pit; instead, Antül was forced to stumble about, trying to keep his footing in the pit as the floor seemed to slide away underneath him. Instead, the dark-skinned dwarves gave chase to the companions, harrying them as they tried to reconvene as a single unit.

Jack made a beeline to Paelias while Gustav was forced to take desperate measures to finish off the heavily armoured soldier before him. Leaving the dwarf bleeding profusely, the ranger finally disengaged his enemy and took off towards his companions, forcing his enemy to hobble after in pursuit leaving a trail of blood behind him.

The three companions, finally reunited as a single unit, stood in defense of the levers, realizing now that the mechanism was the only way to speedily dispatch Antül. The dwarves threw what little might they had left at the party only to be continually rebuffed. Finally, the dragon came to his senses and called out for aid from the dwarves. One of the dwarves who had been harassing Jack this whole battle called back orders to the robed dwarves, who took off at once towards the dragon in an attempt of aid. Both Paelias and Gustav made short work of the dwarves, however, battering them with magic missiles and crossbow bolts, slaying one of the spellcasters outright and managing to knock the other into the pit and, presumably, into the lava below.

With a great roar and the scrabbling of claws on basalt, the great and powerful Antül slipped from the pit and fell out of view, dropping into the lava below. The soldier who gave orders to the spellcasters, seeing all his allies fall in battle, dropped his weapon and fell to his knees, speaking out in a tongue that none of the party recognized. Paelias, weary from battle, drew his longsword and dispatched the dwarf before turning to collect himself.

Taking a moment to breathe, the party searched the dwarf bodies for information and valuables before fully searching the cavern. Paelias sought out the source of arcane energy that drew them to the fortress and found it emanating from a point directly below them, somewhat near the base of the pillar. Finding a spiral staircase leading downward on the other side of the cavern, the party descended. The heat intensified as they went further down, so the wizard once again using his icy magicks to cool his companions.

It's not exact but it's a pretty awesome picture of a fiery temple nonetheless.
Eventually, the heat became too much for Paelias to bear and Gustav, more weathered against harsh environments, was forced to aid him down the stairs. Coming to a small stone platform, the party found themselves on the level of the lava, the heat so intense here steam was burning off of their brows. Leaving Paelias hidden in the alcove with the stairs, Jack and Gustav stepped forth onto the platform, following the directions given to them by the eladrin.

As Jack approached the point Paelias directed him to, he was thrown back by a wave of heat and left mostly senseless as he dropped in and out of consciousness. Gustav weathered the blast once again, however, and found himself standing before a being made entirely out of fire. Hearing a fiery voice searing its way through his mind, Gustav found himself communicating with the Firewalker itself.

The primal spirit thanked the ranger for coming, and offered thanks to the Greenspeaker for sending aid, then bade Gustav to destroy the rune binding it to this spot. Approaching the Firewalker, Gustav found the spirit was bound within a rune in the center of the platform -- bringing his scimitar to bear, the ranger scratched deeply into the malleable rock, disrupting the rune.

With another wave of extreme heat, the Firewalker freed himself and began to dissolve into the ether -- but channeled his being towards Gustav. The fire washed over the Vistani, engulfing him almost entirely, before beginning to siphon into Gustav and melding their beings together. It was a sight similar to that of the Greenspeaker binding itself with Dmitri, the werewolf leader, and when Gustav turned back around to view his party, a brilliant fire burned in his eyes that was not there before. For his part, Gustav was still in control of his body, but there was the distinct addition of another presence inside his being, and the Firewalker spoke to Gustav from within, bidding he and his companions to leave.

Before they could collect themselves to depart, however, the party was shaken by another quake from all around them. It was very reminiscent to the quake they first experienced when entering the fortress, only this one was far more intense and was accompanied by a terrifying sight:

The second phase of Antül! It's like Final Fantasy all over again!
Off of the platform, some distance into the lake of lava, a great plume of molten rock rose up and shed itself from the figure of Antül, reinvigorated by the volcano around him and now bearing two wings made entirely of flame to keep him aloft above the lava. As rocks began to fall from high above and the lava began to bubble around them, the Firewalker reached out to reinvigorate the party and prepare them for this final battle against the volcanic dragon before them.

TO BE CONTINUED... AGAIN!

Yet another cliffhanger inside the Firewalker temple, though this one promises to be the finale. I have grand schemes for the final fight against Antül; let us hope that they play out as well in practice as they do in my head!

Despite the lengthy report above, this session was only a little over two hours long and was almost entirely combat. The session started with the party being attacked by dragonfire and the combat lasted until the last remaining duergar surrendered and was dispatched. After that, the discovery of the Firewalker and the binding of the spirit to Gustav lasted little more than fifteen minutes and it was already late at that point so I decided to throw one last cliffhanger at them so we could wrap it up all nice-like next session. Hopefully we will get some more playtime next Monday, however, as the party still has a number of temples to discover and get through in this act.

The combat was intense, though. David made a point of telling everyone that, though he has played Dungeons & Dragons for years, he has never actually fought a dragon, and he was legitimately terrified because, like his character, he didn't actually know what it could do. He had only stories to base his knowledge on, and I think Nick and Dallas were the same. That was somewhat proven by their back-and-forth tactics -- first they attacked the dragon, then they tried to reason with him -- but it turned out to be a really entertaining combat. It got dire very quickly, however, as they were pitted against a large force of dwarves as the same time. I restricted Antül's interaction in the combat to the occasional gout of flame and biting if anyone got close enough, to help even the odds a bit, but the party was still very low on health and had blown almost all of their Daily attacks by the time we were done. Luckily, Dallas discovered the mechanism for the pit that triggered the end of the fight fairly early, and the party managed to roll fairly well towards the end of the combat.

Once again, the werewolf played very well. I made some further adjustments to the werewolf template prior to the session beginning, which forced Nick to redesign some things about his character. I think it worked very well, however, and made the werewolf template a bit more thematic as opposed to just some bonuses you can get. I'll explain a bit more in a longer article, coming soon, but it's still a work-in-progress. Nevertheless, Nick is really enjoying the new dynamic it offers and it has provided some awesome gameplay moments, so I think I'll call it a win.

I wasn't sure who was going to get the blessing of the Firewalker when they finally reached it but a failed Endurance check by Paelias on the way down, and a botched Endurance check by Jack when the spirit appeared (natural 1 for the lose!) gave me an unintentional process of elimination that left Gustav (and, by extension, David) the recipient of the blessing. The Firewalker gave Gustav access to a new Daily power, something that is probably as imbalanced as some of the werewolf stuff but will (hopefully) be entertaining in a gameplay situation. I guess we shall see next session!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Return to Ravenloft: Act Four, Session One

And now here we are, back up-to-date with the Return to Ravenloft campaign. If you haven't been reading the previous updates -- and considering the length of all of them, I can't blame you -- let me break it down for you real quick:

In Act One, our original party consisted of five party members: Elarial, Murwen, Marcus, Redemption and Paelias. They all arrived in a small coastal called Holmont Cove, drawn there by the call of adventure and glory and wealth, and quickly discovered the town was being attacked by a vast horde of goblins. The adventurers discovered a conspiracy involving a warehouse full of corpses, an ancient ruin full of undead goblins and an amulet that bestows life after death. Discovering that the burgomaster and his assistant were behind the conspiracy, the party were forced into a conflict with the minions of the burgomaster. The assistant, a powerful sorceress, was defeated -- but Brother Marcus Kotar sacrificed himself to save the town from being destroyed by countless undead. Disheartened by the loss of their leader, Murwen and Elarial turned to other quests while Redemption and Paelias set off after the burgomaster to bring him to justice. The only lead they had was a letter addressed to the burgomaster from a man named "Count Strahd von Zarovich".

In Act Two, the party started as just Redemption and Paelias. A dwarven paladin named Hrothgar arrived in Holmont Cove and led them into the lost kingdom of Barovia to the northeast, far from other civilized lands, in an effort to find the burgomaster. Along the way, the party met Drodis, a man who had escaped captivity at the hands of the goblins. Upon arriving in Barovia proper, the party found a thriving village that turned out to be nothing more than an illusion. The adventurers had been dragged into a dream realm, a fact they were brought to understand by Gustav, a Vistani native to the valley of Barovia, who helped them escape the dream. Having defeated a powerful creature called the Nightmare Eater in order to escape, the party licked their wounds (and the apparent loss of Hrothgar) and decided what to do next.

In Act Three, the party consisted of mostly just Redemption, Paelias and Gustav. The three sought out Madame Eva, a soothsayer of the valley and the old leader of the Vistani, and asked for guidance. It turned out that Madame Eva had become a traitor and now worked for a vampire lord named Strahd, master of the valley. The adventurers were forced to fight Eva, managing to escape and watch as the hag was killed by Strahd himself for her lack of competence. The party were then approached by a werewolf sent as an envoy from a primal spirit known as the Greenspeaker; upon speaking with the Greenspeaker, the party discovered that Strahd had ultimate control over the valley thanks to his having bound other primal spirits to his will. In order to defeat him, they would be forced to find artifacts to use in an effort to free the primal spirits. The adventurers recovered the artifacts but were then forced to defend the Greenspeaker and his werewolf troops from a vast army of undead. The melee was successful and the werewolves were able to escape but the finale saw Redemption revealed as the same shapeshifter who impersonated the burgomaster in Holmont Cove. Redemption was replaced in the party by a powerful werewolf named Jack, one of the members of another adventuring party who had tried to vanquish Strahd once before but failed. The Greenspeaker sent the party out to free the primal spirits, Jack leading the way.

Introducing...

Which brings us to the last session we had. For posterity, here is the cast as of the current date:
Jack Vitous (Werewolf Warlord) - Played by Nick R.
Paelias, The Seer (Eladrin Wizard) - Played by Dallas
Gustav, Vistani Explorer (Human Ranger) - Played by David
All characters are Level 6 to start Act Four.

And Now!

Jack, Paelias and Gustav returned to the cave under the waterfall to rest and collect their thoughts. The reveal of Redemption's false identity was staggering to Paelias, who had known the tiefling for some decades, and especially for Gustav who realized he had never met the true Redemption.

It's not a perfect representation, but it's pretty damn awesome.
Jack explained that the Greenspeaker had imparted knowledge to the werewolf of where the other primal spirits were bound. The Firewalker, the Cloudsleeper and the Deepdrinker were all bound to places of power throughout the vast valley of Barovia but, if the group was smart and fast, they should be able to free them before Strahd could act against them.

The Firewalker was bound deep beneath a mountain to the northwest, in a fortress long abandoned by the dwarves who constructed it. The Cloudsleeper was bound high on a mountain to the east, in a great spire that once belonged to a mage who served the von Zarovich court. The Deepdrinker was bound deep under the water, at the bottom of the Tser Lake in the center of Barovia, and the only clue on how to reach it was: "Look to the heart".

Considering their options, the party decided to first seek out the Firewalker, hoping that the primal spirit of fire may be able to aid them on their quest to recover the other spirits. Gustav, knowing the valley a bit better than the others, led them to the northwest, travelling mostly cross-country to avoid conflict. The party decided to bypass the ominous Lysaga Hill, the site of many past battles and rituals, and headed further to the northwest.

Upon arriving in the mountains, Jack and Paelias took the lead, searching for signs of civilization, or at least hints they were on the right path. Paelias, reaching into the ether, detected that one mountain in particular was giving off a slight magical aura, one that read primarily as fire in nature. Jack managed to find a number of cave mouths in the side of the one of the nearby mountains but one in particular drew the attention of the party.

Upon further examination, the party discovered that the cave mouth was not natural; it was, in fact, expert craftsmanship chiseled to resemble a natural rock formation. Paelias, his father having taught him in the way of architecture and dungeoneering, was easily able to identify the craftsmanship as dwarven -- thus, the party believed they had found their entrance into the mountain.

Entering the cave, the party traveled for some distance before the cave began to slope downward. After a few hundred feet, the cave started to lose the natural qualities of a cave and gradually came to resemble a staircase leading down to the heart of the mountain. The walls were carved with intricate runes and murals, all depicting dwarves performing various tasks of repute, but none of the party were literate in the language of the dwarves and were thus unable to translate the runes. The party also found a noticeable increase in temperature the deeper they delved but pressed on unheeded.

Magma, magma everywhere!
About half of the way down the staircase, the entire staircase -- and what felt like the whole mountain -- seemed to quake under their feet. Gustav, having intricate knowledge of the valley, remembered that there were tales of a mountain in this particular range bursting forth with fire and brimstone -- relaying that to the party as a whole, the others took it in stride and decided to soldier on. A short distance later, a window carved in the side of the staircase revealed a grand sight:

A huge cavern opened up, some massive dimension of size, revealing a black fortress suspended atop a thin pillar of stone that rose out of a lake of magma. The fortress was massive but the pillar holding it aloft seemed very slender at it's base and widened as it raised up. Four slender rock bridges stretched to the fortress from the sides of the cavern, each thin and open to the elements. Gustav quipped that they must have found the place, and Jack urged them on. The party descended further, encountering even greater heat, and found themselves in a guard post of sorts. Paelias utilized some of his magic to conjure ice to cool down his companions, casting a Ray of Frost into the air above them and allowing the moisture to fall around them.

Further into the guard post, the party encountered two dark-skinned dwarves playing a game of tiles. When the party attempted to greet and reason with the dwarves, they were met with crossbow bolts and a hammer to the gut for Jack. The party retaliated, making short work of the dwarves -- even managing to stop one of the dwarves from raising the alarm, thanks in great part to Paelias' magic and the reveal of Jack's transformative abilities as a werewolf.

Through the next door, the party found themselves faced with a long run across the unsheltered stone bridge that would lead them to the black fortress. The heat across the bridge was near unbearable but, with some more help from Paelias' spells, the party was able to make it across -- though not before being spotted by a sentry at the gate. The party was forced to ram the door off it's hinges in order to enter the fortress. They quickly dispatched the sentry inside and were able to hold the alarm from being raised yet again.

Taking a moment to collect themselves, they observed their surroundings: the massive black fortress appeared to be made of some sort of glass-like stone that resembled perhaps obsidian or basalt. Stranger, however, was that the interior of the fortress was very cool -- almost to the point that the breath of our adventurers generated steam in the air. The walls were icy cold, almost painful to the touch; Paelias detected great magic coming from the walls, something that registered as fire in nature. Regardless, the party was happy to be out of the heat.

The fortress appeared to be entirely enclosed on itself; where other castles would have courtyards that are open to the sky, this one had a roof of that same basalt material. Various torches and braziers lit their surroundings, though it was far more dim inside than the light the magma offered in the cavern. Having Paelias perform a ritual to repair the broken door, Jack and Gustav kept watch and explored the courtyard.

Peering into a large set of double-doors, Jack and Gustav discovered what appeared to be a ritual taking place. A single dwarven cleric appeared to be leading a number of others in a chant of some kind, worshipping at a statue of a strange, almost formless deity. Deciding not to disturb the ritual, the party set off down a side passage and discovered a set of stairs heading down. Trying to maintain a sense of stealth, the party was able to ambush a single dwarf before descending.

On the second level, the party was forced into a larger conflict when they tried to ambush a group of four of the dwarves. While Gustav and Paelias dispatched three of the four (despite a formidable display of fire magicks at the hand of the dwarves), Jack was unable to catch up to the fourth who managed to alert a larger number of dwarves to the intruders. Barring the door behind them, the party took off and rapidly descended down to the next level, now racing against the coming threat of the evil dwarves.

Probably something like this...
The next level was dark, with no lights anywhere to illuminate the path. The exterior walls seemed to taper in, narrowing as the party descended the interior of the central pillar, and it appeared as if there were no constructed walls to define rooms on this floor. Instead, a great rumbling came from deeper within the chamber and two great fiery eyes appeared in the darkness. Jack laid a hand on Gustav's shoulder and offered a meek, "Don't be scared" before...

TO BE CONTINUED!

This session was a return to the classics for me: while almost the entirety of Act Four is a fabrication of my own making (meaning it's only barely based on the original source material and is mostly my own creations), this session in particular was a classic dungeon crawl which is something that hearkens back to some of my first days playing D&D.

The Firewalker fortress started as a pretty solid concept but actually morphed a bit as we played. For instance, I hadn't taken into account the heat of the interior of a volcano; if it was so hot outside the fortress, wouldn't the interior be as warm -- if not hotter? Stone isn't exactly the best insulator against heat; if anything, the interior of the fortress would be boiling like an oven. A quick retcon added some cool flavour and even had the party considering the ramifications out loud.

"So the magic reads as fire?"
"Yep."
"So... Is it so hot that it feels cold? But that's why it kind of hurts?"
"Wow... Maybe!"
"Interesting!"

This was also the first time that we saw our new werewolf character in action. I'll talk about the full breakdown of how I decided to design a werewolf character in D&D4E but it came across pretty well in a gameplay situation. I'm concerned that Jack may seem a bit more overpowered compared to the other characters but everyone seems to be holding their own at the moment, which is great.

Even though the werewolf has a bit more mobility and utility in a straight-up melee, Gustav is still consistently putting out more damage and Paelias has much longer range. All in all, I think a werewolf taking the class of Warlord gives us a decent Leader/Defender character with some bits of Controller thrown in there. It's a good mix of a lot of different roles, which really helps given the already reduced size of the party!

The ending of this session was also completely improvised. We were running a bit low on time and I needed to come up with a succinct way to end it while still leaving everyone satisfied so, instead of the planned (mostly normal) third level of the fortress, I presented them with a cliffhanger facing down an ominous enemy in the dark while an army approached them from behind. It gave a pretty excellent cliffhanger, I think, and will start us off with a bang next time.

So yeah, that's the first session of Act Four! I'm excited to continue playing next Monday and to keep the adventure going! I was eager to get going again because I expect Act Four to be the craziest thus far -- perhaps even more-so than the finale. But we shall see!

Stay tuned for the next session. Until then, dear readers!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Return to Ravenloft: Act Three Synopsis

It has been long delayed but here it is, the synopsis for Act Three of the Return to Ravenloft campaign. I ended up delaying this post because we had to postpone our weekly session for three consecutive weeks. We finally reconvened this past Tuesday and managed to reach the critical climax of Act Three, which also serves as one of the highest peaks in the entire story arc involving a devious secret being revealed that will change the dynamic of the party forever. Read on to discover what transpired!

The Players Return

While Act Two saw a number of players leave and become replaced with an assortment of other characters, only three remained consistent in attendance and have now formed the core party.
Redemption of Gazeroth, Retired Officer (Tiefling Warlord) - Played by Nick R.
Paelias, The Seer (Eladrin Wizard) - Played by Dallas
Gustav, Vistani Explorer (Human Ranger) - Played by David
I can't remember exactly at the moment but I believe all three characters were Level 5 to start Act Three.

The Play's the Thing

When we last left our intrepid heroes, they had just dispatched the Nightmare Eater, escaped the dream realm and had departed to a hiding place (Varikov's Cave, for those familiar with the Expedition sourcebook) that Gustav had used these many years to stay out of the sight of Strahd and the other denizens of the valley. Taking some time to collect themselves, Gustav introduced himself and gave the party a bit of history about what had transpired in the valley of Barovia over the past decades.

A small party of adventurers arrived in the valley some time ago -- they arrived as a group of five, led by a crazed cleric of Pelor, and immediately set out to destroy Strahd and free the citizenry here. Their quest led them hither and yon across Barovia but their numbers slowly dwindled as the horrors of the valley picked them off one by one. Eventually, the remaining adventurers drew Strahd out of his castle into the town of Barovia itself in an effort to defeat him for good. Unfortunately, all three of the adventurers fell in the fight -- or so Gustav believed -- and the valley once again fell into darkness.

After the adventurers were vanquished, Strahd launched a vengeful crusade across the valley, letting his wrath reach all the inhabitants who aided the adventurers. The Vistani, Gustav's people, were wiped from existence, with only scattered survivors such as Gustav and their leader, Madame Eva, managing to escape Strahd's wrath. When the dust settled, the valley was once again entirely under the control of Strahd, and the darkness truly settled into the corners.

After having that brief history lesson, the current part was not sure how best to continue. Now that they had truly achieved entrance into the valley, the party decided to seek out Madame Eva, the ancient leader of the Vistani, and ask for guidance. Leaving Drodis behind in the cave, the party set off to find the soothsayer.

The hag herself.
Seeking Eva out, she welcomed them into her home which resulted in a very tense exchange. Slowly, the conversation turned sour and the party realized that Madame Eva had sacrificed all of the Vistani in order to save herself. Now an agent, however unwilling, Madame Eva was merely delaying the party so Strahd and his forces could arrive to deal with them.

A melee broke out inside the cabin as Madame Eva revealed her true hag form but the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind spoke to Gustav, telling him that a great undead power was approaching. With a sudden time limit enforced, the party was able to escape just as Strahd himself appeared on the hilltop of the cabin, and Gustav prayed to the Holy Symbol to shield them from Strahd's detection.

The party watched as Strahd and Eva had a heated exchange about something before -- with a flash -- Strahd beheaded the hag with a wicked looking sword. The vampire moved with lightning speed, so fast the party nearly missed the action completely. Luckily, the Holy Symbol's shroud appeared to protect them from Strahd's gaze and the vampire lord burst into a colony of bats and took to the skies once again.

Shortly after this, as Gustav, Redemption and Paelias collected themselves, they were approached by a being that could only be a werewolf. Transforming before their eyes, the beast turned into an elf who beckoned them to quickly follow him back to his camp. Seeing no other viable alternative that wouldn't immediately spell disaster for the companions, they agreed and made great haste through the woods.

The camp they were brought to was almost exclusively inhabited by werewolves. The arrival of the party was met with great attention from the werewolves but the scout brought the companions to the rear of the camp and into a great cave. They were met by two werewolves -- two of the leaders, Dmitri and Jack -- as well as by a dryad who announced herself as Valicia. Jack seemed unimpressed with the party and stormed out of the cave as soon as they arrived.

Originally Valicia was supposed to be a crazy
water nymph and the werewolves were an evil pack
under the control of Strahd. I... re-envisioned them to fit
my story a bit better. Dryads for the win.
Valicia announced herself as the herald of the Greenspeaker, a primal spirit who appeared to be bound to a great stone pillar. The spirit spoke to the party and explained the plight of the valley in full: Strahd had bound the primal spirits of the land to his will, leaving the vampire lord with ultimate control over all aspects of the valley. The Greenspeaker had been freed by the previous adventuring party that had arrived in the valley those decades ago and had been leading the werewolves in a rebellion against the Count ever since.

It was also revealed that Jack, the unimpressed werewolf leader, was one of that original party.

The Greenspeaker told the party that, for the time being, Strahd was powerful to the point of being untouchable. The only way to truly vanquish him would be to travel to the places of power where the other primal spirits were bound and find a way to break Strahd's control. But doing so would not be easy and the party would need great artifacts on their side in order to exert their will on these places of power.

Gustav revealed that the party had already retrieved the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, to which the Greenspeaker was greatly pleased. The other artifacts -- the Sunsword and the Tome of Strahd -- were still out in the world but, to find them, they would have to speak to Jack as his old companions were the last individuals to bear the artifacts.

Jack revealed that Marvin, a powerful cleric, and wielded the Sunsword, while Usopp, a gnome illusionist, was the bearer of the Tome. Last he had seen Marvin, the cleric had fallen to his demise in the well of Barovia. Usopp, on the other hand, had turned coat and joined forces with Strahd. The gnome kept his own quarters in one of the mountain ranges nearby; Jack urged the party to find the wizard and kill him. "Don't trust anything he says; just kill the traitor and come back. If you can."

Nasty-looking suckers, aren't they.
Valicia blessed some of the items the party carried, imbuing them with the power of the Greenspeaker, and
they took off into the wilderness to find the artifacts. They delved deeply into the well inside Barovia and found the remains of a skeletal figure, crushed under a rockfall, the Sunsword still in the bony grasp. They recovered the sword and set to return to the surface but were forced to defeat a small colony of rock-like insects. Redemption was forced to use the Sunsword -- a sentient artifact that spoke to Redemption, similar to the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind -- to crush the queen under another rockfall and the group was able to escape.

Journeying into the mountains, the group eventually found the quarters of Usopp and, though they approached quietly, they were discovered by the wizard and invited into his humble abode. Inside, the party tried to negotiate with Usopp for the Tome of Strahd. The wizard was powerful -- he first conversed with the party while invisible, then was able to showcase his magical prowess by showing off magically-powered vignettes of Usopp's greatest victories. He constantly changed the layout of his home, leaving the party somewhat confused as to it's true layout.

An important note was that Usopp revealed that he and Paelias had corresponded in the past -- Paelias belonged to a council of wizards and intellects who all communicated via pen names. Usopp had been known as the Illusionist, while Paelias was known as the Seer. Usopp also revealed that he had killed the man known as the Scholar at the behest of Strahd, because the Scholar was about to draw too much attention to Barovia. Paelias was understandably furious at this knowledge and wanted nothing more to do with Usopp.

What better representation of an illusionist's home than Escher?
Through their conversations, Redemption realized that Usopp was unhappy with his current arrangement with Strahd and tried to play on that. Usopp agreed to give them the artifact they sought if the party agreed to complete a single favour for him at some point in the future. Paelias balked at that prospect and Usopp offered for the party to stay the night as his guests as they mulled it over.

The next morning, Usopp approached Paelias singularly and asked to have a word with him privately. The two wizards retired to Usopp's library where the gnome tried to reason with Paelias. Paelias was able to get Usopp reveal that the favour they required was to retrieve an item that Strahd had stolen from him; if they could return that to Usopp, the gnome would gladly help the party in order to get out of Strahd's control.

Redemption and Gustav, who had been caught in an illusion, were brought forward. Paelias explained the situation to them, they all agreed to Usopp's terms, and left the illusionist's home with a page from the Tome of Strahd -- the one important piece that would give the party the knowledge they needed to defeat the count.

That's a lot of zombies.
Returning to the werewolf camp, the party noticed smoke on the horizon. Approaching the town of Barovia, the companions noticed that a large group of figures were burning the husk of the town to the ground, razing it completely from the map. Redoubling their efforts to return to camp, they arrived just in time to hear word that a great legion of undead were being driven into the woods heading directly towards the camp.

The Greenspeaker asked for the aid of the party; without their help, the spirit feared that the undead would overwhelm the camp and may even capture the Greenspeaker itself. Redemption balked at first, wanting to seek out the other primal spirits as quickly as possible, but eventually relented and agreed to help. The party devised a plan to flank around the army of undead to strike at the generals leading from the rear. While this was going on, Jack would be leading a force from the front to delay the enemy while Valicia and the Greenspeaker -- having possessed the form of Dmitri -- retreated with the noncombatants.

The Sunsword proved to be a huge boon
fighting against the vampires.
The plan went off smoothly and the party was able to strike hard and fast into the vanguard of the generals. They brought two dozen werewolves with them and a great melee broke out; the party squared off against three very powerful vampires, all of whom proved to be quite the vicious combatants. It took every trick the party had, every power each character could muster, but they were able to dispatch the vampires at long last. (One, a crazed bearded vampire, was able to escape in a haze of mist, but the other two were dispersed into ash.)

But this victory was not without cost. A great number of werewolves fell during the battle and, worse still, Redemption had suffered a grievous wound to his hand. In a way, this wound proved to be his undoing...

When they rejoined with the Greenspeaker, all the heroes were welcomed back with open arms and congratulations -- from everyone except the Greenspeaker itself. The spirit, still in the body of Dmitri, stared daggers at Redemption and demanded: "Who are you?"

Redemption was at a loss, not sure what the spirit meant. The Greenspeaker explained that whatever shroud had once been over Redemption had since fallen and that this person was not who his party believed him to be.

It was at this point that Redemption removed his gauntlet. When he did, he found his ring finger had been severed by that grievous blow, a solid silver band wrapped around the severed digit.

Doppelgangers are nasty bastards.
The tiefling was grabbed by werewolves as his party looked on. Gustav and Paelias were at a loss but, when the Greenspeaker dispelled the magic and the figure of Redemption revealed himself to be a shapeshifter, they were aghast.

The doppelganger revealed himself to have been the same figure that had impersonated the burgomaster from Holmont Cove, a fact that only Paelias paid any attention to, but that Strahd had ordered him to replace Redemption in the party when the tiefling was trapped in the dream realm of the Nightmare Eater. The real Redemption had been stolen and locked away in a place the party would never be able to retrieve him. He then began to go on about how Strahd would kill them all and that it was already too late to stop him.

Catching the doppelganger monologuing, the Greenspeaker ordered Jack to execute the doppelganger before he could dishearten the party any further. The vengeful man followed the order gladly, retrieving the Sunsword and running the doppelganger through. Afterwards, the Greenspeaker ordered Jack to lead Gustav and Paelias to find the places of power and unbind the primal spirits. Jack agreed reluctantly and the remnants of the party took off into the wilderness to find the other spirits.

Hindsight Is 20/20

A lot happened during this act, though most of it can be boiled down to one word: exposition. David (as Gustav) was able to inform the other guys of the history of the valley between the previous campaign and now. Meeting with Madame Eva gave some insight into how Strahd operates even with his own minions. Meeting the Greenspeaker gave the party some direction as to how best to continue. Retrieving the artifacts and actually talking with Usopp, instead of trying to wipe him off the map, gave further insight into Strahd's plans, his history and even a bit on how to properly defeat him.

This was all punctuated by intense battles, of course. The melee with Madame Eva was fairly scary for the guys; they were in close quarters, something most of them weren't comfortable with, and the hag proved to be more than a match for them. They were able to escape just in time before Strahd arrived and were able to watch his handiwork. It was a good visual impact scene, I think, and the guys left the table after that a bit blown away -- especially David. Madame Eva is always a really important part of the Ravenloft adventures and to see her dealt with so finally was a bit of a shock, I think.

The battle in the well was mostly improvised but proved to be pretty excellent and very intense. It was even tighter quarters than the cabin (they did most of their fighting in a 5-foot wide tunnel with enemies on both sides) and they only barely escaped with their hides intact. Still, it was a good fight and a good introduction to some of the greater power the Sunsword can bring to bear.

The big battle in the forest was also nasty but in a different way. Each of the characters ended up facing a single vampire lord, each of them having to think tactically and use the environment and their abilities to the best advantage possible. This was also the first fight they had after getting their latest Daily powers, so the guys were excited to try those out -- to mostly great effect! Redemption nearly died outright but was able to pull it out just enough to stay alive, though he did suffer that nasty wound.

Which brings us to the twist, which overshadowed everything else in the entire act: the reveal that Redemption, the tiefling warlord and de facto leader of the group, had been replaced with a shapeshifter for the entirety of Act Three. It was only the severing of Redemption's finger, and the protective ring thereupon, that revealed his presence to the Greenspeaker.

I intentionally kept this a secret from everyone -- including the player who controlled Redemption -- and it came across to great effect. During the debriefing with the Greenspeaker, I verbally attacked Redemption, demanding he reveal who he was. Meanwhile, Nick (the player behind Redemption) kept looking back and forth between me and the other players, looking for an explanation. When I asked for his character sheet, he handed it over with great confusion (and much disbelief from the other players). "Did I just die?" he asked, staring at the sheet in my hand.

After a few moments of explanation, I told Nick to take control of Jack and kill the doppelganger. He picked up the Sunsword and ran him through and I think it was then that he understood. You see, Jack was Nick's character from the original Ravenloft campaign I had run; I had originally wanted him to control Jack from the beginning of this revisit but realized that it wouldn't mesh with the rest of the campaign. This reveal, however, worked very well: not only was everyone surprised with a huge twist in the story but it created heightened tension; just when the party was celebrating a huge victory over the forces of Strahd, they were brought low again as they discovered one of their party members was actually an agent of evil.

I'm sure some people will disapprove of my methods -- making such a huge decision on behalf of a player and effectively eliminating one of his characters is a big no-no from every lesson I've learned about being a GM. But Nick is the most seasoned roleplayer I know -- he's been at it even longer than me! -- and I was ultimately giving him control of one of his own characters. He was surprised at first but rolled with the punches incredibly well, trusting that I had a reason for weaving the story that way.

Ultimately, the players loved the twist. I got high-fives from Dallas for an "amazing story, dude", and both David and Nick really enjoyed the big reveal as well. If my players enjoyed it that much, I think I did something right! That being said, I'd love to hear any comments you have on the topic. It was a pretty controversial move so it's definitely something worth discussing. Just drop a comment below and I'd love to talk it out with you.

With this synopsis we are almost caught up with the current game! Stay tuned for the next article which will be the first session of Act Four, where the stakes get raised even higher and the adventures get even more epic. As a teaser of what comes next, I give you two words: "dungeon crawl".

See you next time!

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Channel Update

Hey everyone. There's no video today -- I had some technical difficulties on this end with new footage, unfortunately -- so instead I offer you a quick review of the channel thus far, and a little update of what else is coming in the future.

In Review

To start let's take a quick look back at the channel thus far. I originally claimed the channel name back in of June 2011 -- yeah, that long ago -- but it took me until March of this year to actually upload any videos. It was a long and arduous process (mostly of laziness) to get it done but I'm glad that I finally committed to the task because it's been really fun thus far and I hope that people have been enjoying it!

It's been almost two full months since the channel started -- next Friday will be that anniversary -- and so far we've uploaded:

Bringing us to a total of 24 videos in total. So far the most popular video has been my first episode of Sir, You Are Being Hunted, with Episode 2 and 3 following closely behind. We are sitting at 340 total views over all the videos and have actually reached 10 subscribers! Double digits, whoo!

I hope that the people who have been watching are enjoying the content thus far. It's been a blast to record and edit all of my videos and I really appreciate every single view on the channel. It was nice to see a few comments from other YouTubers -- some really nice folks have stopped by to watch stuff on the channel, like Morgan from TheDynamicGamer87, and the guy behind the channel ProphetsAwaken -- and the support from all of my friends has been really great! 

Also, a big shout-out to my good friend David and his channel Midnight Marinara, which takes scary stories and converts them to radio plays -- he's been a really big help with insight about the YouTube scene and I'm glad that he's been there with advice on different stuff. I had the honour of being in two of his episodes ("Daycare" as the mysterious stranger, and "The Russian Sleep Experiment" as Subject C; I'm two for two as bad guys!) and I hope I'm able to take part in more in the future! Recording audio for an old school radio play is an interesting and demanding process, to be sure, but it's hella entertaining. I'd definitely recommend checking out the rest of the material on Midnight Marinara -- David has very high standards for quality and the voice actors he gets are all excellent. Each episode is better than the last so get on board now and help him out!

But enough about the now! Let's look to... THE FUTURE!

Tomorrow and Beyond

In incredibly exciting news, the PS4 has finally received the firmware update that removes HDCP from the output signals. This means that video capture is now possible and, in preparation of this, I have ordered an Elgato HD Capture Device in order to get some PS4 content on the channel! I'm hoping that the device will arrive this afternoon so I will be able to record some content over the weekend.

There's quite a number of exciting games already on the PS4 that I would like to record, with even more coming in the near future! The horror game Daylight was released this past week, so I am planning on recording that for the channel. If I can figure out how to properly capture video with my new webcam, I might even throw in some facecam footage.

Further in the future, the game Transistor is going to be released shortly and I hope to record that as well. Watch_Dogs is out at the end of May as well, and Destiny comes in September, so there's plenty of awesomeness to be recorded on PS4 in the coming months. 

More presently, though, I have an idea for a very special series that I can hopefully make work for next week! So keep an eye on the channel and I'll be sure to post any updates here on the blog.

If there is any particular content that anyone would like to see from Loading Checkpoint, just drop me a comment or something and I'll definitely take it into consideration.

So Much Appreciation!

I want to reiterate my appreciation for all of the support I've received for the channel. It's been a great process so far and I'm excited for what the future holds. Thanks again to everyone who has watched the videos, or even those who are just supporting me from afar -- all of the support, every little bit of it, means so much to me and it really helps encourage me to continue making more content!

I started a Facebook page and a Google+ page for Loading Checkpoint, if you would be interested in following me. I update them with both YouTube videos and the blog posts here, including my RPG stuff (more of which will be coming next week), so you should take a gander over there sometime!

Thanks one last time and we'll see you again very soon! Cheers!