Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, April 24, 2018
 
Dungeons & Dragons today

Dungeons & Dragons is over 40 years old, and I have been playing it for over 35 years. So what is the most surprising aspect of D&D today for me is how popular the game has become suddenly. A streamlined 5th edition and good use of social media, including celebrity support, has moved D&D into the main stream. People now actually watch other people play D&D on Twitch, and not just when it is Vin Diesel or Wil Wheaton. “D&D player on Twitch / YouTube” is now actually a method to become “internet famous”.

I liked 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. It is a great combination of role-playing game with a balanced tactical combat game for experienced players. But it is not a suitable game for a mass market, it is far too complicated for that. The much less balanced, much quicker, much easier 5th edition is far more suitable for mass popularity.

It also helped that the makers of Dungeons & Dragons stopped shooting themselves in the foot with their internet policy. In the early days of the internet, TSR was notorious for going after fans putting D&D-related materials on the internet. It took a change of owner in 1997 to Wizards of the Coast and then Hasbro in 1999 to get the company to realize that fans on the internet are free advertising. With a game that is hard to explain to somebody who has never played it, a Twitch / Youtube video of interesting people like Chris Perkins running a game with Acquisitions Incorporated at PAX might actually be superior advertising to anything else.

The only people somewhat unhappy by the current popularity of D&D are the makers and fans of Pathfinder. Pathfinder had shoved D&D off the throne of top pen & paper roleplaying game for several years during 4th edition, only to be left in the dust by 5th edition. Now they are planning a comeback with Pathfinder second edition, with a playtest starting in August.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018
 
Elemental Evil: Sessions 17

In the previous session the group entered the Temple of Howling Hatred, trying to stop the prophets of elemental evil from summoning their princes. This session started with a long discussion on the merits of retreating to safety, which I tried to hurry along to stop wasting time. After resting the group returned to the Temple, where I had put 8 fresh Kenku at the gate. On the first run, played as written, the Kenku were just making noises to scare the adventurers; this time they use the defense mechanism of the gate house, firing at the group through arrow slits. Although the Kenku were rather low level, that occupied the group for quite a while.

Finally they made it back to the step pyramid where they were before. Inside they found a bunch of cultists and stairs up. After killing the cultists they went up the stairs and met the prophetess of elemental evil air, Aerisi Kalinoth. Despite being a level 12 spellcaster, the prophetess was a pushover. She relied on concentration spells like Fly or Cloudkill, and that just doesn't work. The group just ignored her henchmen and broke her concentration immediately after she cast anything, making her not very effective. I find the 5th edition D&D spell system rather boring, as it really encourages you to use only instant damage spells, because anything a bit more interesting is based on concentration and has little effect. For example Cloudkill used to be a very powerful spell in previous editions, but now it affected only the first character starting his turn in the cloud, who then broke the concentration of Aerisi and dispelled the cloud before it damaged anybody else.

The bard who was with Aerisi was even weaker, also due to concentration spells, and so the only serious monster in the encounter was an invisible stalker, who had more health than the other two together, was much harder to damage, and didn't use concentration spells. Having finally killed that one as well, the group found a lot of monetary treasure and Windvane, the magical spear of Aerisi. However I had had to nerf that one on the request of the future DM of our group, in whose campaign the original wouldn't have fit. So now it was just a +2 lance that opened the magical portals to the temples of elemental evil. At that point we stopped the session.

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Sunday, April 15, 2018
 
Gardmore Abbey 5E rerun - End

I think I forgot to report one or two sessions of my Gardmore Abbey 5th edition rerun. The campaign suffered from something very typical of campaigns in my local role-playing club: Player attrition. You start with 5 players, all very enthusiastic, and then over the months real life intervenes, or enthusiasm fades, and in the end it is hard to get a quorum together.

Today we finished the campaign. The players were level 7, but they had never fought the orcs who were the main force holding the abbey. So for the grand finale I strung together two encounters: The defense of the watchtower against attacking orcs (who had brought a hill giant and dire wolf cavalry), followed by the group attacking the keep with the orc chieftain. As there were only 3 players left, these were tough fight, especially with some lucky dice rolls on my side, like the hill giant scoring a critical hit.

But in the end the group prevailed and, having done all the quests in the abbey, returned to Lord Padraig. Having previously found out how the abbey fell through the use of the Deck of Many Things, they were able to persuade the lord to give them the last remaining cards. That assembled the deck, and allowed them to draw from it.

Ander the ranger drew just one card, but it was the Talons, which destroyed all his magical items. Ouch! Raymond the librarian barbarian drew two cards, but ended up drawing cards that gave him more draws. In the end he lost 10,000 xp, got permanently cursed, and gained a rare magical weapon. Kaze the monk drew 3 cards: The first lost him 5 points of intelligence (and he had only 10). The second gave him 50,000 xp and a rare wondrous item. And the third allowed him to erase the effect of the first card. Which meant that he was the only one who got really lucky, gaining 3 levels and some nice magic boots.

The Deck of Many Things is by itself frequently a campaign-ending item, and thus not recommended unless you don't plan to continue anyway. But with the dwindling player-base this was the good opportunity to end the campaign on a high note.

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Saturday, April 14, 2018
 
Rage of Demons: Session 4

In the previous session the players had reached the duergar city of Gracklstugh, and had started to explore the Whorlstone Tunnels. Unfortunately their companion who had told them that they could find a way to the surface had turned out to be a mad serial killer who had just wanted to get to the tunnels for his own reasons. But they continued to search the tunnels, having been asked to find out about the Grey Ghosts, a thieves guild of renegade duergar and derro.

After some exploration they found an alchemist of the Grey Ghosts and some duergar, which they captured. Having also found a shortcut back to the city, they brought the prisoners to the Keepers of the Flame. There they found out that the Keepers suspected the Grey Ghosts of having stolen a red dragon egg from Themberchaud, the dragon of the city, and were told to go back and look for it.

This time the group collected some of the mushrooms that could grow or shrink people, and used them to explore the narrower tunnels. That way they managed to sneak up on a group of enemies they hadn't really been looking for: Cultists of Demogorgon, who were doing a ritual that apparently was responsible for the curse that made the giants sprout a second head and go rampant. They killed the cultists and reversed the ritual.

Finally they found the dragon egg with the leader of the Grey Ghosts near a strange obelisk, guarded by a spectator. The Grey Ghost turned out to be annoying due to his Blink spell. But in the end they killed him and his pet spectator, and got the red dragon egg. They found that the obelisk was a teleport out of the city, so if they had wanted they could have kept the egg and raised a dragon baby. But instead they brought the egg to the dragon (and not his keepers), who promptly destroyed the egg, as he suspected his keepers to use it to replace him.

So they left the city and traveled north towards Neverlight Grove. They only had two NPC companions left, who were myconids and wanted to go home. And Blingdenstone, the deep gnome city north of Neverlight Grove, was their best hope of finding a way back to the surface.

[Note that this journal entry is somewhat abbreviated, as there was a lot of dungeon exploring and fighting going on, which I didn't want to recount in detail.]

Wednesday, April 11, 2018
 
Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms on iOS

When an alpha test comes with specific instructions not to share screen shots and videos, I read the absence of specific instructions on other forms of communication as them being allowed. So I think I can reveal that since yesterday I am in an alpha test of Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms for mobile devices, which in my case specifically is on an iPad.

I got into that alpha via a link that appeared while I was playing the game on my PC. That is a pretty safe way to select your alpha testers, as existing players will be able to concentrate on bugs or differences to the PC version. Up to now I only found one minor issue, and when I reported it I got a non-automated mail back within minutes. Nice! I'm not a huge fan of the "stress test" type of beta tests where the input of the testers isn't even wanted.

The good news is that the game on the iPad runs as smoothly as on the PC, and appears to be a straight port of the current PC version. The bad news is that the game on the iPad thus has exactly the same rules as the PC version. And those rules push people to let the game run 24/7, because you farm much more gold online than offline. That helped Codename Entertainment get their game in the "top 100 most played Steam games" category, which is somewhat misleading because you can't compare an idle game left running with a game that only does something when you are at the controls. And while letting your PC run 24/7 is still feasible (I just turn the screen off), it is a lot more difficult to do that on a tablet. You need to connect the tablet to a charger, for one thing. And while on the PC the game runs perfectly in the background while you do something else in the foreground, the mobile version only works when it is the foreground, thus prohibiting other use for your tablet.

I would be okay if the "auto progress ON" function only worked when online. But I think that while not progressing, the game should gather gold online and offline at a comparable rate. Apparently there is a change coming in some future patch, but I do think the game needs that change to be viable on a mobile platform.

Saturday, April 07, 2018
 
Elemental Evil: Sessions 16

In the previous session the group had after much hesitation entered Scarlet Moon Hall, the last of the four haunted keeps. They had killed the guards on the middle floor where they had come in and thrown the bodies down the big hole in the middle of the floor into a pile of rubbish burning there. But there were still two floors above them, and they suspected the leader of the fire cult to be on the top floor.

So they fought their way up to the next level. However that level was a trap: The floor appeared solid, but the middle was weakened and ready to break. With the druid in bear form and the cleric both standing on that part on the floor, it broke after 3 rounds of combat. That landed the druid and the cleric downstairs in the burning rubbish, where 5 magmins attacked them. Meanwhile the others had killed all the guards and progressed to the top floor. There Elizar, the keep leader, had cast a wall of fire across the room, which gave him time for an incantation to wake up the fire elemental outside the tower in the burning wicker giant. The elemental then came into the tower at the bottom, where the druid and cleric were. Between the boss and the elemental and already weakened from the fight against the guards, this was a rather tough fight. But the group won, looted the boss, and escaped the way they came before the rest of the camp arrived.

As this had been their strategy in the previous towers, kill the boss, grab his key, and escape, they never got the chance to interrogate any cultists on what all this was about. That was a bit of a problem, as they now had the 4 elemental keys to open the magical portals to the temple of elemental evil, but no clue what was in there or even why they should go there. So this time I had put a letter on the boss explaining the situation. Sometimes you just can't be subtle as a DM. The letter told them that the 4 prophets of elemental evil were in competition, each trying to be the first to summon his prince of elemental evil. For that they needed to sow elemental chaos, which gave them the energy for the summoning. According to the letter the prophetess of elemental air was ahead in that game (I made that up because the air temple is the lowest level one).

Then in another not-so-subtle move I reminded the group that they had a friendly NPC junior cultist in the air keep. So they went there and got more information about the layout of the temple of elemental evil: A square of 4 elemental temples at the first level below ground, then the fane of the eye connecting everything, and then on the lowest level the 4 elemental nodes from which the princes would be summoned. Well, they got the message and now went into the air temple, but not before the group cleric cut the friendly NPCs throat and turned her into a zombie with his animate dead spell. From the entry point there was a long tunnel leading to a big cave with an old dwarven city, with a step pyramid in the middle. That was now the Temple of Howling Hatred.

While the sorceress didn't have much opportunity to use her new fireball spell against the fire-resistant or immune fire cultists previously, she now could use that spell. So the first three rooms went: Door open, fireball, cultists mostly dead, wipe up the rest. As the third of the rooms was smaller than the other two, I used an old rule which I had in mind from previous editions, that the fireball had a fixed volume and would blow beyond his 20 feet radius sphere when cast into a too small room. That burned two of the group members. My bad, that rule doesn't exist any more in 5th edition, so I had to apologize later and say that in future that wouldn't happen any more. Oh, and lightning bolts don't bounce of wall any more either.

Reaching the pyramid they noticed a mage on a wyvern on top, who promptly attacked them. That ended up being the second ultra-hard fight of the session. The mage used a lightning bolt to good effect, then turned invisible, and then used another lightning bolt on several group members. They managed to kill both the mage and the wyvern but then retreated due to being heavily wounded and out of resources. At that point we ended the session.

We will play more sessions, but probably not until the end of the campaign book. I told my players that I would like to stop being the DM later this year, and that somebody else should take over. I had somewhat run out of enthusiasm for this campaign, and after over 6 years as DM of that group I think I deserve a break. The next DM will take some months to prepare his campaign, and he is planning to let everybody keep their characters. So I'll make a character of their level and join the group.

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Thursday, April 05, 2018
 
15 Minutes of Fame

Google Analytics sent me an automated mail telling me that this blog had 1.7k visitors last month. That is less than I used to get in a single day a decade ago. The good news for Google / Blogger is that I don't blame them for the decline, and won't be showing up at their HQ with a gun. I am pretty certain that the loss of readers can be explained by the following factors:

  • I am writing much less now, 1-2 posts per week instead of per day.
  • I am not writing about a single topic, MMORPGs, any more, but about a variety of different things, which interest different people.
  • The original MMORPG topic of my blog isn't of great interest any more.
  • Blogging, and hanging out on blogs, isn't the medium of choice any more.
So basically I had my 15 minutes of fame, with highlights like being invited to a Blizzcon with a press pass around my neck and allowed to interview a Blizzard developer. Or getting free "review copies" of games (all of them disclosed on the blog) and stuff. I even got a few hundred dollars as donations over the years.

Blogging never was more than a hobby to me, it was obvious that quitting my day job for internet fame would have been an extremely bad idea. And then I am part of a generation that still believes that they are responsible for their own success or failure. My impression of younger generations is that they more often believe that success is owed to them, and that any of their failures must be due to evil acts from others. Now combine that with the fact that a YouTuber today can be a *lot* more famous than a blogger from a decade ago, and make a lot more money; and then you get closer to understanding why somebody might take a decline of internet fame so serious that she starts shooting people.

The internet has dramatically lowered the barrier of entry to self-publication and possibly fame. But that isn't just true for you, it is true for everybody else as well. Thus fame is getting more and more fickle and short-lived. Being "internet famous" can be fun, but it appears that it can also be dangerous.

Friday, March 30, 2018
 
Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms

The last time I wrote about idle games was nearly 2 years ago. In that time the games have evolved further. And if you look at my Steam account, Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms is a game I have played for over 300 hours. Or rather, not played. Or to be even more precise, played for a few hours, but have left running on my computer for over 300 hours. It's complicated!

Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms combines the idle game genre with the RPG genre, and sprinkles a bit of an endless runner into the mix. You start out with one dwarven warrior, Bruenor (who is "famous" in the lore of D&D) on a side-scrolling screen encountering endless hordes of monsters on his way. The dwarf kills monsters, and you can help by dealing damage through clicking on monsters. Every monster drops gold. And that gold can be used to increase your click damage, or to increase the level of Bruenor, or unlock additional heroes and level those up. Once you have fulfilled certain requirements, e.g. kill 25 monsters, you can advance to the next level, where there is the next endless stream of monsters.

Because that is the point of an idle game, there isn't a whole lot to do. However the game has more strategic depth than one would think, because you need to arrange your heroes in a formation. And with levels each hero acquires special abilities which influence his neighbors in the formation. At one point you will have more heroes available than there are slots in the formation. And selecting the best heroes in the best formation is far from a trivial task. In addition there are some story elements, mostly in the form of friendly banter between the heroes. So for an idle game it is the most interesting and strategic game I know. Yeah, I know, that isn't saying much. But, anyway, I keep "playing" this.

The math behind the game is interesting in as far as it is exponential, and human brains have problems with exponential. Your stats and gold found quickly go up into million, billions, trillions, quadrillions, etc., until you switch to scientific notation in the settings because you don't even know the units any more. The one thing that remains linear is gems, with just a handful of them dropping every 5 levels at each boss. With gems you can buy chests, which contain things like helpful potions or gear for your heroes. And, because this is a free-to-play game, of course you can also buy those chests for real money. I probably spent more than I should have, but sometimes when I feel down I use buying special offers in free-to-play games as a sort of retail therapy, and this is my current game of choice for this. I don't claim that this is rational behavior. :)

One of the more interesting choices to do in this game is choosing when to stop a run and to start over. At the end of a run you get divine favor in function of the amount of gold you gathered. And that divine favor increases the amount of gold you will find on the next run. The exponential math is tuned in a way that your divine favor basically determines how far you get in a run, because at some point gold gathering and level gaining becomes very slow, while the monsters keep getting harder and harder, until you can't beat them any more. So the ideal strategy is doing a run until you hit a progress wall, and then reset to collect divine favor and start the next run. The game is organized in a way that this also over time gives you access to different stories and locations. To make this trickier you can also spend your divine favor for bonuses, but of course if you spend too much the lack of divine favor hurts you more than the bonuses help.

The reason for my 300+ hours is something that I am not really happy about: Idle offline gives far less rewards than idle online. For example while the game is running online, you can set the levels to auto-advance. The latest patch even added "familiars", which are legal click-bots, but also only work when the game is running. Thus one is pushed towards leaving the computer on for example at night. The whole thing smacks a bit of mining bitcoins, only that the rewards of the game are less valuable than bitcoins. Offline you still gather gold and divine favor at the level you currently are, but with diminishing returns. If you are on holiday and offline for a week you don't come back with a huge amount of divine favor collected, you'd have gathered more online in a day or two. Still it is nice to get at least some rewards while offline.

Overall I like the game for the D&D Forgotten Realms theme, and the relatively large number of non-trivial decisions you need to make to advance. But it remains an idle game, and I am well aware that this won't be everybody's cup of tea.

Thursday, March 29, 2018
 
What does a DM need to know?

I recently offered a young player of D&D who was interested in becoming a Dungeon Master to give him some pointers on how to be a good DM. But while I have been a DM for nearly 4 decades now, it isn't actually all that easy to describe what makes a good DM. In some ways it is more an art than a science. And where it is a science, it is a badly documented one.

The basic role of a DM is easily described: He sets the scene, asks the players what they do, and then reacts to their answer by telling them the consequences of their actions, thus setting the next scene. Rinse, lather, repeat. What makes the description of a good DM so complicated is that different people are good DMs in very different ways. You ask a player what he specifically liked with a DM, and realize that whatever that was, it was probably something optional. For example when I ask for feedback from various players in different groups of mine, I frequently get told that they appreciate my preparation of visual playing aids: Battlemaps, 3D printed miniatures, handouts. But you can play with another good DM who doesn't use any of those! Another DM might be appreciated for his creation of fantastic worlds, but you can play great games without those as well. Some DMs are great play-actors doing accents and voices for NPCs, but you don't need that either. So what is the stuff that is actually essential?

Dungeons & Dragons, and any other pen & paper role-playing game, inherently always exists on two different levels: Horgar the barbarian swings his battleaxe and with a satisfying crunch decapitates the evil wizard. John the player of Horgar declares that he wants to attack the evil wizard and rolls a 20 on his attack. Horgar and John need each other. Without John, Horgar doesn't exist. Without Horgar, John isn't playing D&D. I believe that an awareness of those two levels, and a constant effort to keep the two levels in balance with each other, might well be the most important part of a DM's job. Concentrate too much on the story, and the players get bored because they don't get to roll dice any more. Concentrate too much on the dice, and you end up playing a board game.

Corollary to that is the need for balance between DM actions and player actions. D&D is a game of interactive story-telling. Take the interaction away, and it becomes a lot less interesting. No DM's hour-long monologue beats Netflix in entertainment value. But letting the players role-play alone without feedback on the consequences from the DM only leads to people becoming lost and confused. Players need "agency", the ability to influence the story and the outcome of situations. But that agency only makes sense in the context of there being a story and a situation to overcome. The DM needs to make sure that he tells the players enough for them to understand what is going on, so they can act, but also to leave enough room for different choices and original ideas from the players.

That gets us to another important point: The "never say no" rule. It isn't an absolute rule, because it applies only to constructive input from the players. But the idea is that as long as the player proposes something constructive, the DM should accept the proposal and try to work with it. You can still judge that the idea is very unlikely to work, and require the player to succeed in a very difficult roll. But that is still far better than letting the players propose lots of things and always saying no until by chance they come upon the one solution you previously decided was the good one. Saying yes can change the whole campaign to something you hadn't imagined, but that is the beauty of it. The goal is not to have the story proceed on predetermined rails, but to have everyone at the table contribute to the story and together create something greater than one man's story. In my Zeitgeist campaign the players were a group of policemen working for the king; but it was up to the players whether they wanted to play those policemen as the Keystone Cops or the Gestapo or something in between.

While these rules certainly don't cover everything a DM needs to do or needs to be, I do think that they are among the most important for success. What other advice would you give a new DM to help him become a good DM?

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Monday, March 26, 2018
 
Rage of Demons: Session 4

In the previous session the group encountered Demogorgon and found out that there was a demonic incursion into the Underdark. While Demogorgon demolished Sloobludop, the village of the kuo-toa, the group fled by boat over the Darklake towards Gracklstugh, city of duergars.

With the group now at level 5 and in possession of spells like create food and water, I decided to stop playing the voyage day by day. Otherwise the 20 days of voyage from Sloobludop to Gracklstugh would have become tedious. So I fast forwarded about two weeks to the point where the group was just a day or so away from their destination. On the way the Darklake had become a lot less open, consisting now of streams through tunnels and caves. The group was making good progress, with a current flowing in their direction. However that current became stronger and stronger, until the water was flowing faster than they could row, making return impossible. And a sound from ahead suggested they were heading right towards a waterfall.

Using spells of water walking the group managed to move their boat towards the side of the stream. There they found an artificial basin separated from the waterfall by a thick stone wall. The basin led to a lock, into which they could move their boat, close the door on top, and with the help of a well-oiled wheel open the door at the bottom, 20 meters below. But while their boat was slowly descending, they heard combat noises from below. Suddenly with a big crash somebody ripped out the lower lock door, making the boat descend the last 10 meters very fast and spill out of the lock. Holding the door was a Barlgura demon, while 4 lesser ape demons [which I had to design myself, there not being any demons in the Monster Manual of CR around 2] were fighting the duergar garrison of the lock. Thanks to the ongoing water walking spell the group wasn't too much in trouble from being thrown out of their boat, and had quite a tactical advantage over the demons. So they killed the demons and rescued Horgar, the sergeant of the garrison and chief engineer of the lock. The lock being too damaged to further operate, Horgar commanded the group to bring him to Gracklstugh.

Gracklstugh turned out to be a cheerless place (think North Korea), with the dour duergar constantly working and having no interest in art or merriment. Non-duergar were only allowed in the Darklake district, but couldn't enter into the city proper, and thus also not exit the city towards the rest of the Underdark. But before tackling that problem the group went onto a shopping spree, buying masterwork weapons and armor with the treasure they had found in the previous session. [While the armor and weapon made by the duergar is described as being of superior quality, there are in fact no official rules for that. So I searched the internet and found a suggestion for masterwork weapons and armor at twice the regular price. The weapons allow you to reroll damage rolls of 1, while the armor allow you to reroll enemy max damage rolls. As a more expensive alternative I used the adamantine armor from the 5E Dungeon Masters Guide.] They also found out where there was an inn in which they could stay, and where there was a tavern, always a good way to learn more about a city.

They learned that duergar had the ability to turn invisible, and that invisible guards kept everybody honest. So on the way to the tavern they tried to look out for signs of being followed by invisible dwarves. That led them to remark invisible persons crossing their way towards a dock on which a lone duergar merchant was standing. They shouted out a warning, which turned out to be a good idea, because the invisible dwarves turned out to be assassins, trying to kill the merchant. The group intervened and saved the merchant, whose name was Werz Saltbaron. The merchant told them to go to the tavern, where he would meet them later, after dealing with the approaching guards. In the tavern Werz offered them a job, transporting a bag full of raw gemstones to a contact in Blingdenstone, city of svirfneblin. Although the group wasn't sure to be heading that way (they hoped to find a way to the surface that Buppido the derro had told them was in the Whorlstone Tunnels in Gracklstugh), they accepted the job, because they were curious about the gems. Those turned out to be empty spell gems, used by the deep gnomes in the defense of their city. They also met some orcs in the tavern, the only foreigners there that evening.

They stayed the night in the only inn available to foreigners. The next morning their companion Buppido had disappeared. And there was some commotion, as one of the orcs they had met the previous night had been killed in a ritual fashion, just like Shuushar had in the previous session. A speak with dead spell confirmed their suspicion that Buppido was in fact a serial killer. They really wanted to follow him into the Whorlstone Tunnels, the place he had mentioned as a possible exit to the surface world. But that was in a different district, where non-duergar weren't allowed.

They learned that to enter the rest of the city they needed badges from either the guard or the Keepers of the Flame, guardians to the local red dragon who kept the city's forges going. So Surina the dragonborn sorceress used alter self to assume the form of a duergar sergeant, took Nyx as a spider on her shoulder, and headed through the gate towards the main city and the dragon cave. Nearly there she saw a procession heading her way: The somewhat overweight adult dragon with his Keepers moving from forge to forge to boost them with a breath of magical fire. The dragon could easily detect the dragonborn in spite of her disguise and addressed her in draconic. He invited her and her friends to come to his cave later that day, and instructed his keepers to give her the necessary badges, golden coins with the head of the dragon on it. So Surina returned to the group, and they all went to visit a dragon. They even thought of bringing gold as tribute, which was welcome in spite of the fact that the dragon was sitting on a huge pile of treasure. The dragon sent his keepers away, and told the group that he needed agents of his own, as he suspected that the Keepers of the Flame were keeping information from him. He told the group to report to the Keepers for an assignment he knew they had, but then report everything they found out to him first. The Keepers in fact were psionics and had discovered a "disturbance in the force" from the demonic incursion. However they believed that the disturbance had to do with their enemies, the Gray Ghosts, the local thieves guild. They asked the group to watch the bazaar the next day for a derro named Droki, with a tentacled hat, and follow him to find out what the Gray Ghosts were up to.

On the way back to the Darklake district, the group came upon a commotion on a plaza: One of the stone giants, who normally lived peacefully with the duergar, had sprouted a second head and gone on a rampage. He punted a duergar with his club, but lost grip of the club, so that both the now rather dead dwarf and the giant's weapon crashed into a wall next to the group. The double-headed giant in his confusion blamed the group, and attacked, now fortunately with his bare hands. The fight was tough, but the group subdued him, opting to use non-lethal damage. For that they were thanked by an arriving other Stone Giant, who asked them to accompany him and the unconscious giant to the giants' gave. There they learned that the giant had been "communing with the stone" at a religious altar in the cavern when suddenly he had sprouted that second head and gone mad. An examination of the site revealed no malicious influence, and an examination of the giant suggested that there was some sort of curse involved. They managed to heal the giant with a remove curse spell, and as a reward received a crystal that worked like a wand with some divination spells.

The next day they spread out through the bazaar and watched out for Droki. Merchants could tell them that Droki was a frequent visitor, and that he worked as a courier, always bringing messages and parcels from one person to another. The derro turned up, and with the stuffed tentacles attached to his flamboyant hat was easily recognizable. Droki was very much in a hurry, so they could follow him easily without being detected. Droki left the Darklake district, went into the West Cleft district, which was a derro slum, and from there disappeared into a crack in the cavern wall from which phosphorescent fumes emerged: The Whorlstone Tunnels.

In the tunnels the group came upon a crossroads. To their left they could see Droki eating a mushroom, shrinking to a tiny size, and disappearing through a tiny tunnel. [Droki is behaving somewhat like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.] But from the right they heard Buppido chanting, and they decided to go after him first. Buppido was in the process of arranging skeletons like he had arranged his other victims. They could attack him with surprise, but not before he had animated 6 skeletons. That turned out to be a rather easy fight at this level. They captured Buppido, who turned out to be completely deluded, believing himself to be an avatar of a god on a holy mission. As the group isn't exactly knights in shiny armor either, they decided to just cut his throat. While searching through his cave they disturbed the remains of a gnome, who rose up as a (friendly) ghost. The ghost asked them to return his hand to him, recognizable by an obsidian ring. Through the foul magic of the cave the hand had animated and crawled off some months ago, and he needed his remains to be complete to find eternal rest.

The tunnels were a twisted maze [I used a tablet computer with paint program to show it: Map goes on the lower layer, while the upper layer starts out completely black. While the group explores the dungeon, I erase the black where they go, revealing the map below. Works much better than drawing a map for more complicated dungeons.] which the group followed somewhat at random. They either didn't think of or didn't want to use the size-changing mushrooms, which forced them to use different tunnels than Droki had. But they did come upon traces of him sometimes.

In one cave they came upon a group of myconid behaving strangely (according to their NPC companion Stool). All but one of the myconids were dancing ecstatically to a silent tune. And Sarith the drow, their only other remaining companion, rushed past the group and joined the dance. They were unable to get him to stop dancing. The non-dancing myconid sprout turned out to be a friend of Stool, called Rumpadump. He told them that they had been on a scouting patrol from Neverlight Grove, but had started to behave strangely when arriving in this cave full of mushrooms. The leader of the myconids stopped dancing and asked them whether they would accept "the Lady's gift". Arkoy and Fenn accepted, and were treated with spores that allowed them to once a day travel from one large mushroom by teleport to another one, like a tree stride spell. The spores also made them feel very friendly towards all plant creatures, and they concluded that Sarith had been infected by the same spores before they had met him (he had always been a friend to Stool). The group left without Sarith, but with Stool and Rumpadump.

Next they came upon a forest of mushrooms, which the druid was able to communicate with to find the way Droki had passed. Then they came into a large cave with a flat hill in the middle, from which voices could be heard. It turned out that through some acoustic phenomenon these were voices from Gracklstugh. By trying to listen to a single conversation among many they could gain information about the city, but a failed save provoked psychic damage from the multitude of voice, so they only learned that the guards knew Droki and suspected him of being a courier for the Gray Ghosts.

Finally they came upon a gate made of iron bars. After making some noise a derro appeared behind the gate, who didn't want to open the door for them. So the group picked the lock, while the derro ran back into the dark. Entering the cave they were attacked by two derro and their three cave bears. As by then it had gotten late, we finished the session after that fight.

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Saturday, March 24, 2018
 
Magic the Gathering Arena

I've been in the Magic the Gathering Arena beta for quite a while, but only this week the NDA dropped. So now I can finally express how incredibly disappointed I am with this game. In Magic Duels they had a great game which was mobile and playable for all different sorts of players, including casual and new players. And they stopped supporting that to make Magic Arena, which is solely tailored for the needs of a very small hardcore crowd.

Magic the Gathering is 25 years old this year. So over the years there have been quite a lot of digital editions of the game. And every time, after a few years Wizards of the Coast stopped support of the current platform and launched a new platform. Which means that every time any cards you had bought became useless, and you needed to start your collection all over again. One needs to be very hardcore under those conditions to invest heavily into Magic Arena. But with Magic being the original pay to win game, the people who do invest heavily have a huge advantage over those who don't.

Because Magic Arena only features a single player vs. player mode, constructed, this mode is dominated by those hardcore players. You simply can't start up Magic Arena and play a fun, casual game. There are neither casual PvP modes like two-headed giant, nor are there any modes to play against an AI of various difficulty levels for practice or just plain fun. There aren't even less cutthroat competitive events, like limited mode leagues. There is only hardcore constructed, where anybody who isn't hardcore and who hasn't spent much on cards is just simply crushed. There doesn't even appear to be some sort of matchmaking algorithm to even try to get people a more equal opponent.

That means that the flow of play of Magic Arena for a new player looks like this: He starts his first game, gets crushed, then gets crushed again and again, until he either uninstalls the game, or pulls out his wallet to be able to play with the big boys. My guess is that very few people will opt for the latter. It is as if the developers had carefully studied exactly what made Hearthstone such a big success and then decided to do exactly the opposite. Magic the Gathering simply isn't such a mass market game any more that you can run a digital platform only for the hardcore.

I really don't understand why Wizards of the Coast had to stop supporting Magic Duels, they could have kept that one going for the casual and mobile players. There is no overlap in the target audience of Magic Duels and Magic Arena. And now I am really sad that there isn't any digital Magic game for me any more.

Friday, March 23, 2018
 
For Rugus


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