Monday, March 23, 2015

Doctor Who Research in the 1900s

© mamsy / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

I realized today, while researching the Victorian Era on my laptop at lunch, that I've been writing Doctor Who adventures since the days when research meant driving to the library to dig up books (using the card catalog system) and news articles (on microfiche). That makes me feel just a little bit like a time traveler myself.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Game Log: D&D Dragon Queen Session 5

Happy Pi Day!

We played D&D (5th ed.) for our latest game session, getting farther into Episode 3 of “Hoard of the Dragon Queen.” (See my earlier post if you want to read about our game covering the first part of Episode 3, aka Session 4. I didn’t write about the first three sessions. Hope you’ll forgive me.)

As before, the players were:

  • Dain, male dwarf barbarian, played by Christi.
  • Naeris, male drow paladin, played by Jay.
  • Copello, male human sorcerer, played by Jerrod.

It also turned out to be another special day for our game: it was Pi Day (3.14)! So according to Jay’s wishes, I bought pie. I meant to work pie into the events of the adventure, but it slipped my mind. Now I'm regretting that we missed out on enacting a kobold pie fight.

The PCs continued their exploration into a new room in the caverns they were exploring, which turned out to be the kobold barracks. Naeris led the way, intentionally not looking for traps. (This is because Naeris has, once or twice, taken wounds that would have killed him, yet lived. Naeris’s DM doesn’t believe in killing PCs unless it is dramatically significant, and Naeris has decided the reason he hasn’t died from such wounds is that he is immortal.)

So, Naeris triggered a trap. The ceiling above the following PC, Dain, collapsed, wounding Dain and knocking him down. The noise alerted the 5 kobolds and 5 winged kobolds in the area, all of whom attacked.

Filling in for the kobolds: Zombies!!!

Highlights of this combat included: winged kobolds dropping rocks on the PCs from above; Naeris wondering when the winged kobolds would run out of damned rocks to drop; Copello casting web on the non-flying kobolds; Naeris botching a spear throw and lighting the web on fire; Copello putting all the flying kobolds to sleep; and Dain bisecting a kobold who tried to flee. The party eliminated the kobolds, then rested.

Moving on, the party found a shrine room dedicated to Tiamat. Here they battled Langdedrosa Cyanwrath, the lightning-breathing half-dragon that fought (and technically killed) Naeris in the campaign’s first episode. (No blog post on that one, sorry.) Another enemy was in the room at the start of combat: a barbarian ally of Cyanwrath. Copello’s quick thinking made a major difference in how this scene went down, though: he charmed the barbarian using charm person before combat started, convincing the fellow that Copello and company were his friends. It took another turn or two to convince the barbarian to turn on Cyanwrath, but turn he did. This made the fight much easier for the PCs, and they defeated Cyanwrath. He still made them work for it, though, with his dual attacks and his lightning attack that could hit several opponents. Cyanwrath’s last action was to fatally wound the barbarian. (He was NOT pleased about his barbarian ally betraying him.)

I don't have a half-dragon mini. But I have a lizard man!

Once the fight was over, our heroes found a treasure chest. They triggered the trap protecting it (of course), survived the damage, and collected a supply of valuables, some healing potions, and a wand that is as yet unidentified.

Copello and the barbarian had a touching farewell, during which Copello asked the charmed fellow if there were any secret rooms in this joint. The barbarian said that the room to the east is a dragon hatchery, and that a concealed rope in this room leads up to a secret room. Then he coughed up blood and collapsed.

The party decided to check out the room up the rope first. Naeris led the way. The rope terminated at the underside of a rug, which Naeris threw aside. As he climbed out of the hole into a study of some sort, the room’s sole occupant (named Frulan Mondath, though I don’t think the players ever learned this) spotted him and moved to attack with her halberd.

Dain and Copello joined the fun in time to hear Mondath call for her guards. Copello immediately cast a web spell at the western doorway, immobilizing one of the six approaching guards and preventing any of them from entering.

The prone figs on the right are bodies the PCs stacked to keep enemies out!

Mondath was not at all happy that her reinforcements were cut off, and she expressed her displeasure by slamming Naeris into a wall and freezing Dain in place with a hold person spell. Copello tried to burn her with a fire bolt spell but missed, lighting the room’s large table on fire instead. Noticing that a large map and a collection of important-looking papers were lying on the table, Copello broke off from the fight to put out the fire so he could examine the documents after the fight.

Naeris recovered and put Mondath on the defensive. Copello taunted Dain about not being able to break out of his paralysis—which had the effect of pissing Dain off so much that he overpowered the spell! The finishing blow to Mondath came from the one-two punch of Dain slashing her with his greatsword and knocking Mondath into Copello’s cloud of daggers spell. All the daggers aimed themselves at Mondath and, in one smooth motion, stabbed her to death.

The party searched Mondath’s adjoining bed chamber, finding a purple cultist robe and a few items of more interesting treasure: a potion of fire giant strength, a potion of mind reading, and a dozen +1 arrows.

This is where we called it a night.

Post Mortem

I bought the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide just before this session, so I could use it to reward the players with a few cool magic items. The campaign itself is mostly lacking in useful treasures, and the players had hinted that they were getting tired of only finding gold and baubles. This new DMG is wonderful, and led to the PCs finding the wand, the potion of fire giant strength, potion of mind reading, and the +1 arrows.

FYI, Lex Starwalker has a great overview of the DMG on his podcast Game Master’s Journey, in episodes seven, nine, and eleven.

Another thing I did before this game was visit the office supply store. (I love that place.) I got a whiteboard of my very own (I’d been using Jay’s) and some index cards in a smaller size than I’d seen before. The cards turned out to be great for tracking initiative order and NPC wound levels.

Another bit of prep I did between sessions was to print another copy of the PDF containing the campaign's enemy stats. Then I cut out each stat block, so that during combat I could take out the ones I needed and keep them in easy view, like below. This was MUCH preferable to flipping back and forth in the printout like I'd been doing before.

Finally, during this game I experimented with rewarding player behavior with pushes, as John Wick described in Play Dirty. Whenever a player did something entertaining or smart or in character or otherwise praiseworthy, they would earn either an inspiration die or, if they already had one of those, a push token. I like the inspiration die rule in D&D, but players can't collect more than one of those at a time, and I wanted to be able to reward every single occurrence of great behavior. So in addition to inspiration, a push lets a player add +1 to any die roll. The players didn't take advantage of their pushes much, so I'm considering bumping the die roll bonus up to a +1d4 or +1d6. I'm hesitant to open up unlimited inspiration dice, but that's a possibility too.

Have you experimented with anything like this? Or have an alternate idea for how to reward player cleverness (beyond XP, of course--something immediate)? I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Game Log: “DoomOS” for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying

I ran a one-shot adventure of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Friday night, both to get more familiar with the system and to, I hope, jump-start a new game night. I've only played the game once, and hadn't run it myself till this occasion. But I've read the rule book three times—to prepare to run games that never materialized—and I find the system really unique and appealing.

Four players joined me for the game, only one of which had also played before. They were:
  • Jeff, playing Iron Man
  • Shannon, playing Spider-Woman
  • John, playing Daredevil
  • Kelly, playing Ms. Marvel

If you’re like me in thinking “One of these things is not like the other,” I’d like to mention that it impressed me how the Marvel system easily handles a group of heroes of what we’d normally think of as differing power levels; in a point-buy system, a street-level fisticuffs-based hero like Daredevil would be much less powerful than a cosmic-level hero like Ms. Marvel. But in this game, the two PCs playing those characters were able to take similar actions and it never seemed like one was less capable than the other.


The Event I ran (that’s what MHR calls adventures) was one I wrote for the occasion, called “DoomOS.” The heroes received a video distress call on their Avengers communicators. (By coincidence all the PCs were either current or former Avengers, so the players reasoned that this would be a good way to receive their mission trigger.) The call was from Willie Lumpkin, the mailman to the Fantastic Four.
“Thank God I reached you! Please help! The Fantastic Four are in trouble. The Baxter Building is under attack by…oh no!” The signal cut off.
The heroes didn't see anything amiss when they reached the Baxter Building, so they opted to enter the building via the standard lobby entrance instead of the roof (or smashing through a wall). They learned a few things from the receptionist: the Fantastic Four aren't answering their phone (a special blue one set aside specifically for calling them); only the FF can grant access to their suites (on the top 5 floors); and Willie Lumpkin was last seen heading up to visit the FF to deliver today’s mail and packages.

Iron Man tried to wirelessly hack the FF's computer system, but failed. This surprised Iron Man, because he was certain that he was smarter than Reed Richards and could easily hack his systems. Iron Man did, however, manage to gain access to the restricted elevator to the FF suites. The heroes headed upstairs.

(GM note: I figured the PCs would try to hack the computers, but didn't want them to succeed at that yet because that's what ending the adventure would depend upon. So I was happy that Jeff rolled poorly against the Doom Pool--but I wanted to reward his smart thinking, so I granted that Iron Man would still be smart enough to hack the doors. If, instead, he had rolled well, I would have ruled that he successfully hacked the door system but there was some sophisticated foreign code preventing him from gaining further access.)

Jeff kicked off the Iron Man/Mr. Fantastic rivalry.

On entering the FF's reception area on the first of the Fantastic Four's levels (the 31st floor), the heroes were attacked by the building's security system, in the form of electrified floors. Only Daredevil was hurt, and from then on all the PCs with flight took care to hover, and all the PCs without flight (Daredevil) stood on furniture or hung from a swingline.

Ms. Marvel set out to search the residential area for signs of life, but was attacked by a stun blaster that dropped down from the ceiling in the hallway. She and the rest of the team destroyed it, and Daredevil used his sonar sense to find two more defensive systems, which the group also destroyed.

Figuring it would be smarter to turn off all the defenses at once instead of fighting them in every room, Daredevil used his sonar sense again to locate the FF's computer center. Once he got a fix on its location (the 33rd floor) and relayed this to the team, Iron Man blasted a hole in the ceiling and proceeded to the 32nd floor, finding himself in the gym. He figured Reed would forgive the damage, and it wasn't too bad--the floor was smashed up, but the massive barbells and hydraulic presses that the Thing uses to keep in shape were undamaged.

The color printout is the Baxter Building.

Ms. Marvel continued Spider-Woman's search, locating the Human Torch unconscious on the floor beside his desk. Resisting an attack by gas emitters in the room, Ms. Marvel brought Johnny back to the rest of the group. (I had decided in advance that two of the FF would be on level 31, and that I'd let the players decide which FF members were there as they found them. They picked the Human Torch here, and the Thing later.)

Spider-Woman flew up next and physically smashed through to the target floor, level 33. She made her way through the chemistry lab and past the medical center to the computer complex. There, she found a bank of security monitors that showed where the rest of the FF were: Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman were trapped in a glass chamber in the biology lab (level 33), and the Thing and Willie Lumpkin were snoozing on the floor of the kitchen beside an upended tray of cookies (level 31).

Oh, and she also noticed a large robot looming over her.

(GM note: At this point I realized I’d forgotten that I’d planned on the heroes finding Willie unconscious in the reception area where they first entered the FF suites, so I put him in the kitchen with the Thing instead.)

(Additional GM note: after the heroes discovered the Human Torch and the Thing, I opened them up as playable characters. We thought of a few ways to play this: (a) a player could trade in her current hero and start playing as one of the FF; (b) a player could take on the role of a FF member in addition to his current character; or (c) we could place the FF characters in a pool, and then each turn one player could take an action for one of the FF who hadn't acted yet in lieu of taking their other character’s action. By this point, I think all the players had settled into their roles and were happy with who they were playing, so nobody controlled Johnny or Ben. I was fine with that, and just wanted to provide it as an option in case any of the players were hard-core FF fans and really wanted to try those roles.)

Spider-Woman saw that the robot was built from a haphazard-looking collection of parts: computer monitors formed the head, roughly-joined computer cases served as arms, and random pieces of doors and other metal odds-and-ends made up the legs. A symbol glowed on each of the two computer monitors that served as giant eyes--an iconized version of Doctor Doom's mask.

Spider-Woman decided the makeshift Doombot could wait, and concentrated first on shutting down the building’s security system. She was successful, and turned to fight the robot.

(GM note: At this point Spider-Woman also learned that the FF’s computer system, which the players decided normally called itself “FourOS”, was now branding itself as “DoomOS.” She also learned that the system was transmitting a tremendous amount of data to an IP address in Latveria, the country Doctor Doom rules. But I forgot those details at the time she was accessing the computer, so had to slip them in later! I did this by simply telling the players I’d made that mistake, and caught them up on the info they should have had.)

Downstairs, the Human Torch woke up. Ms. Marvel and Daredevil asked him what he remembered. Johnny said he was uploading photos of himself to Facebook, and recalls hearing the doorbell, then loud footsteps that must have been the Thing going to answer the door, then the same footsteps heading back toward the kitchen. Ms. Marvel and Daredevil filled him in on the current situation. Johnny asked Ms. Marvel to help him find his teammates. She agreed, and Daredevil left them to crawl through the ducts to the lab level.

Back in the computer complex, Spider-Woman blasted the Doombot. Wait, that's not true--her Venom Blast does less damage than her Superhuman Strength, so she punched the bot instead. When it tried to punch back, she tore off its arm. The Doombot didn't last long after that. While Spider-Woman was cleaning its clock, Iron Man achieved a spectacular feat of hacking and shut down the Internet data feed that was sending FF data to Latveria.

Elsewhere on the same floor, Daredevil located Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman. The chamber holding them turned out to be Reed’s experimental power nullifier. (It was, obviously, functional.) Unfortunately for Daredevil, the chamber blocked all sounds, so he couldn't hear the captives tell him which of the many nearby buttons would open the nullifier. But Sue had an idea—she tugged up the hem of her pant leg enough to show her green socks, and pointed to them. Daredevil got it, and pushed the green button, releasing the couple. (And now you know, True Believers, that the Invisible Woman wears green socks.)

Probably these.

Back downstairs, Ms. Marvel and the Human Torch found the Thing and Willie Lumpkin in the kitchen. Since the security systems that had knocked them out were now disabled, the Thing was already waking up. The heroes helped Willie recover, and the mailman told them his tale: he brought up the mail, and right after the Thing let him in and headed to the kitchen to grab some cookies to share with Willie, one of the parcels flew open and spewed hundreds of tiny metal doohickeys that skedaddled every which way. That's the last thing he remembered.

Leaving the Torch with Willie, Ms. Marvel followed the Thing as he headed for action, jumping up through the hole in the ceiling leading to the gym. Before our heroine made it through the hole, she saw the Thing punched into the far wall by a second Doombot. Landing in the gym, Ms. Marvel faced off with a Doombot with dumbbells for arms and hydraulic presses for legs.

“Kneel before Doom!” the cobbled-together Doombot said.

Ms. Marvel declined, deciding instead to blast the bot. Her first shot dealt serious damage. The rest of the heroes joined her soon after, and made quick work of the bot. At about that time, Iron Man shut down the DoomOS system and stopped the stream of stolen Fantastic Four data that Doctor Doom was stealing from his Latveria base.

(GM note: I had other ideas for Doombots made of different components—such as the Fantasticar—and figured I’d decide during play how many to throw at the PCs. Fighting the security systems took us longer than I’d estimated, so to keep the game from running too long I stopped at two Doombots.)

Reed Richards thanked the heroes for rescuing him and his family, purging the invading operating system, and thwarting Doctor Doom. Iron Man offered to help Reed get the computer systems back in order, using his obviously superior Stark technology. Before Reed could respond, Sue put her hand over his mouth and said they all appreciate his help.

System Impressions

This was the biggest my Doom Pool got for this session.

Before running this game, I had my doubts about the Doom Pool mechanic. The Doom Pool is a special pool of dice set aside for the GM. (The GM is called the Watcher, but I'll stick with GM here.) One use of the pool is to resist the PCs' actions when there isn't a specific NPC to target (such as when they want to break down a wall). Another is to add dice to a villain’s dice pool. The Doom Pool can grow whenever a player rolls a one and the GM chooses to claim the "opportunity" by buying it with a Plot Point.

I had assumed I would not take frequent advantage of the players’ bad rolls to increase the Doom Pool, because I don’t like to make things TOO hard for my players. Also, I am accustomed to cheating mercilessly behind my GM screen, adding or subtracting dice or just making up whatever result is dramatically appropriate at the time.

With this game, though, it feels more natural to roll everything out in the open. Maybe part of it is that we were all learning the system together, and wanted to demonstrate how the opposition put together their dice pools. At any rate, I quickly became addicted to seizing the players’ bad rolls and maximizing my Doom Pool. Another motivation for me is that a story typically starts out at a 2d6 Doom Pool, and the heroes were succeeding too often early in the game when they were rolling 4 or 5 dice vs a Doom Pool of only 2.

Also, the strategy of how best to improve the Doom Pool turned out to be fun. When cashing in on a player’s bad roll, the GM can either add a d6 OR increase the smallest die by one size (existing d6 becomes a d8, for example). Choices! Better yet, if the player rolls TWO ones, the GM can add a d6 AND step it up to a d8 without extra cost! This became my goal in life.

I was happy that Plot Points flowed like water during this game. Too often in games with a point-reward system (Bennies, Hero Points, Power Points) players are hesitant to spend them, or the GM forgets to award them often enough (I can be guilty of both). But in this game—perhaps due to my “buying” every possible Doom Pool upgrade by giving players Plot Points—the players spent them well. My favorite Plot Point award was to Shannon, for inventing Spider-Woman’s theme song.

Notable Quotes

“I bet it’s Dr. Doom.” - Shannon, immediately after Willie called the PCs for help in the first scene.

“Are you playing ‘Can’t Touch the Floor’?” - Shannon to John, after John spent a third turn explaining in detail how his Daredevil was carefully avoiding touching the electrified ground.