March 31, 2013

Fourthcore... Lite?!

As hopefully you were all aware, being gamers and all, yesterday was TableTop Day, an attempt at a geek holiday spurred on by Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton.  Given that it was trending as a hashtag on Twitter for 17+ hours, I'd say the gamers of the world did good.

Initially, I didn't have any gaming plans for TableTop Day, other than swinging by the FLGS and see what was going on for gaming there whilst hoping for the best, despite Saturday's seeming to be more CCG day than anything else of late, or at least the past few Saturdays that I swung by.

Instead, I wound up playing a marathon session of D&D 4e with my Wednesday gaming group, as none of them had Easter plans that required extensive travel or extensive prep for incoming relatives.  In my previous post, I noted my surprise at having fun playing a 4e game after having become rather indifferent to D&D in general, particularly as D&D isn't my go-to choice for fantasy RPGs these days.  And the GM had an Easter surprise in store for us poor sods.

Well, come early Saturday afternoon and we've gathered around the table.  The party composition had changed a bit, with this being our current line-up:

Keru, a Human Stone Fist Monk with Wilder theme (me, and yes he's got a Hadoken attack now)
Mari, a Half-Elf Sentinel Druid with Elemental Priest theme (the only unchanged character from the first session)
Alyastrianna, a Eladrin Mage Wizard with Veiled Guardian theme (newish, debuted last Wednesday's session)
Rikard, Mul (Half-Dwarf) Tempest Fighter with Gladiator theme (new)
... and a fifth player who ended up being a no-show.

The campaign takes place on Athas, about the time frame that the 4e Campaign Setting book establishes.  To start, only the druid, mage, and monk knew each other prior to this session, but the GM got us together quickly enough, mostly by having us get hired by a local explorer to serve as aides and bodyguards as he checked out a recently uncovered ruin in the Road of Kings region.  Naturally we agreed, either being curious to check things out ourselves (mage and monk) or not having anything more pressing to do (druid), while the fighter had already been commissioned as a bodyguard prior to the rest of us showing up.

Before we started play, the GM asked each of us to select a magic item, 4th level or lower, that we'd be interested in procuring.  We figured that he was tailoring the adventure rewards to our heroes, so we spent some time going through the long list of D&D magic items, and made our selections.

We had a short skirmish with a band of elf raiders, more to let everyone get a feel for their characters, both the new ones and the vets as the GM bumped us up to third level, which meant new encounter powers.  The eladrian's player was kind of upset that she didn't have a lot of charm or illusion options that did damage, but she still excelled at her role of battlefield control, with enough mind-screw going on that you'd think she was a psion.  This was my first time seeing a Tempest Fighter in play, and I must say I was impressed at how much damage he could pump up on a turn-to-turn basis.  Even though he was just using a pair of hand-axes, having the Axe Expertise feat ensured he rarely had lousy damage rolls.  And his ability to mark multiple foes each round meant that he drew a lot of attention and helped keep my monk from getting attacked that often.  Monk did what the monk's supposed to do, and booted a lot of head, and quite often using my Flurry of Blows to polish off non-minion opponents that were just on the cusp of being taken down.

Baddies dispatched, we made it to the ruins, which turned out to be a temple from the previous age (we think, nobody was quite certain on that point) that was devoted to a quartet of rather vicious and nasty gods, at least according to the murals we found outside the temple itself.  Rather than the usual combat grind of most 4e sessions, this one turned out to incorporate a number of skill challenges, given our characters a chance to find out more about what we were getting into.

I won't go into great detail about the adventure, only to say that throughout most of it, I couldn't shake the nagging suspicion that I'd seen this before.  I was pretty sure that I'd never played it, only seen it somewhere.  And then we got to the one encounter, facing a three-headed dracolisk that made the whole thing click into place... the GM was putting us through the Crucible of the Gods module.  To quote my favorite wizard private eye... hell's bells.

For those of you not in the know (such as I was until recently), Fourthcore is a style of playing, using D&D 4e and putting the players (referred to as dungeoneers) through adventures that are on par with Tomb of Horrors in regards to potential lethality.  Crucible of the Gods was written for use with 1st level PCs, and from everything I'd heard was literally a meat grinder, with TPKs happening before parties even reached the first proper room of the temple, and there a slew of effects that boil down to "you get hit, you're dead."  Needless to say, Fourthcore adventures weren't written with the intent of being dropped into your running campaign.  These are meant to be bloody one-shots and not to be taken too seriously.  I haven't read the module, though I plan to do so in the near future, but I can only suspect the GM toned things down quite a bit as the combat encounters weren't one-sided, and we had plenty of clues to help with solving some of the various puzzles.  Being 3rd level and with character themes that granted an extra encounter power probably helped a whole lot, as we had plenty of options for increased damage in each battle.  Apparently one of the fights, against some kind of large statue dual-wielding flaming skeletal flails was supposed to be incredibly tough, but the monk and fighter nearly demolished it in a single round, with a critical hit on my Open the Gates of Battle (aka Open the Can of Whup-ass) with a mighty ki focus (extra d10 damage on critical hits) being the main culprit,taking it from healthy to bloodied, with the druid getting in a bit of tag-team beatdown between her and her pet desert wolf before the fighter executed the thing, all before it had the chance to even take it's first action.  Apparently Fourthcore modules were written with the idea that you'd be using Essentials and not the other PHB classes or supplements.

The GM did make up for this a bit by including a few extra combat encounters, including one with a seemingly never-ending tide of minions (goblin-looking thingys, not that most of our characters would know what a goblin looks like since they're a long-extinct race on Athas) that kept attacking in waves until the mage managed to decipher an ancient locking mechanism to seal them away and allow us to proceed further into the temple.

The final battle was tough enough, and I figure the actual Fourthcore version probably wipes out most parties that have been fortunate enough to make it that far.  We did succeed in claiming all four skulls, thanks in part to the Eladrin mage (who isn't a native of Athas, but rather the Feywild) enforcing caution on the rest of the party, even going so far as to slap the Mul's hand when he started to reach out to claim one of the crystal skulls we needed to "win" the temple's challenge.  That turned out to help a bunch, as we got to access the secret room with a talisman that gave us a huge edge in the final battle... once we figured out what exactly it was for (we thought it was a protective item, which nearly cost the mage her life as she got much too close to the final boss than was healthy for a squishy wizard).

So while this wasn't a proper Fourthcore adventure (the heroes all lived), it was still fun, and I'm guessing the GM added a lot to make the players use their brains, and not just by way of skill challenges, but also allowing skill checks to pick up vital clues.  The only fatality was the explorer that hired us, the son of a lesser noble from the City of Balic (oops), though it really was down more to his own ignorance than any wrong-doing on our part... not that I expect his parents to buy that.  Now I as a player don't know if the whole "fail our challenge and the world will end" bit would have actually happened, but our characters took it serious enough.

If you're interested in running a meat-grinder on par with John Goff's Night Train (Deadlands Classic) or Tomb of Horrors itself, you can download the Fourthcore adventures here:

Now bear in mind these are meant to be run as timed delves, and the odds are stacked heavily against the players unless they really bring their A-game, but it could make an interesting change of pace.

There's also Fourthcore Deathmatch, which instead of being a delve is simply a free-for-all slaughterfest pitting two groups of PCs against each other.  It's quite an amusing concept, and might make for a fun diversion from your usual campaign.  I figure Strikers would have the edge due to their focus on sheer damage output, but I could see Defenders not doing too bad given the hit points and damage output a well-made build can offer.  You can read more about it here:

It'd be the kind of thing that'd work pretty good for a Skype/Roll20 game.  Just upload the map of your choice, choose some character tokens, and let the carnage commence.

March 16, 2013

Boot to the Head! or Why I'm playing 4e D&D again

I think I mentioned in a prior post that my Wednesday group was looking at playing Dragon Age, now that the general interest in Marvel Heroic RPG had subsided.

Well, that turned out not to be the case, and instead the majority of the group decided to head back over to d20 Land and break out the D&D books.  Thankfully, the vote wasn't for 3rd edition or Pathfinder, as I generally abhor the 3.X versions of d20; the closest I'll come to tolerating that system is Mongoose Publishing's Babylon 5 2nd edition RPG (still needs a couple tweaks though, such as implementing Pathfinder's skill system, which is about the only thing from Pathfinder I actually like).  So, after figuring I'd never be playing 4e again after my Saturday group pretty much decided they were sick to death of d20 games (which resulted in my Saga Edition AltU game coming to an abrupt end), I found myself having to face playing D&D yet again, a game system and setting that has become less and less relevant to my gaming interests as time wore on.  The last time I played was a D&DNext playtest that left me pretty cold.

Now the main reason I didn't bail was because if I had, I could probably forget ever gaming with these folks in the future, as I'd quickly be forgotten as a potential gamer or even GM for the group.  But also, because the DM wanted to run a Dark Sun campaign.  Now I never really got into Dark Sun during its hey-day under AD&D2e, but a post-apoc fantasy setting did sound interesting.

But the question was: what do I play?  From talking with the GM and the other players, half of them were going with Essentials Characters (Half-Elf Sentinel-Druid with Elemental Priest theme and Elf Hunter-Ranger with Wastland Nomad theme)  while the other half were going pre-Essentials (Human Sorcerer-King Pact Warlock w/ Templar theme and Dragonborn Wild Battlemind w/ Gladiator theme).  To keep with 4e's notion of roles, we've got a Leader (druid), Controller (ranger), a ranged Striker (warlock), and a Defender (battlemind), so the bases are covered.  Well, when in doubt, go for the damage.  To be honest, I'm of the playstyle that best fits a Striker, so the question was what Striker-class to play?  And it was very easily answered, in the form of the PHB3's Monk class.  I only got a few chances to play a 4e Monk before, and they were all fun, so I simply rebuilt the Human Monk I'd played before to fit with the GM's character build rules.

We used the standard 22 points to buy ability scores and built our PCs as usual for 1st level, having the option of either selecting a theme or getting a free 2nd level Skill Power.  So while everyone else went with selecting a theme, I opted to go the bonus ability route, mostly as none of the themes really fit the character notion I had in mind, that of a young traveling warrior-monk that had embarked on a journey to test his skills and inner character, I opted for the Skill Power, which aside from not having to take the Skill Power feat I otherwise had to qualify for.  Easy choice for me, Agile Recovery, permitting my character to stand up from prone as a minor action (something very useful for a high-mobility Striker).  Once that was done, we leveled up our heroes to 2nd level, and here was where things got a little different.

First, we only got one magic item, and additional money equal to one-quarter the value of a 1st level magic item.  For those that don't know, the DMG suggests when building characters above 1st level, they get three magic items (one of a level no higher than their current level, one of level no higher than their current level, and one of a level at least one level less than their current level) and gold equal to the value of a magic item that's one level less than their current.  We could still pick up to a 3rd level magic item, but it was the only magic item we'd be getting, and we only got 90 extra gold (compared to the 360 that a regular character built at 2nd level would get).  Being a Monk (who really didn't need a lot of extra money), that was no problem for me, but a few players were a bit upset at this, as they had to choose between a magic weapon, magic armor, a neck slot item, or something with a cool ability.  Me, I checked with the GM and he allowed me to take Moradin's Blessing of Iron as my one magic item, which may not be super-powerful but is quite handy since it cuts down on my Monk being pushed and grants me a free attack if I get pulled close to the enemy in question, as well as some emergency DR if needed.  Kind of fitting for a Stone Fist Monk I think.

The second change, which helped offset the lack of magic items, was that we're using the Inherent Bonuses option from DMG2, giving us boosts to attack, damage, and defenses based on our level, something useful as the GM plans to keep magic items rather rare in his game, since one of the themes of Dark Sun is the heroes having to survive on their own wits.  To borrow a phrase often applied to Star Wars Saga Edition, this is a game where your character is not about your gear, but rather what your character can do.  Personally, one of the things I've always disliked about D&D was the over-reliance on magic items, so this was right up my alley.

So next was backstory, which was kind of easy as I was using a pre-existing character. I'll admit to borrowing liberally from the backstory of Mortal Kombat's Liu Kang as well as a couple elements from Legend of the Five Rings.  And so, Keru, young Brother of the Order of the Nine Thunders was ready to set forth and boot some head.

And this past Wednesday, we played our inaugeral session, with the PCs having been taken as prisoners of a bandit chief with the intent to sell us into slavery.  Needless to say, it didn't go well, and by the end of the fight, we were free, the bandits had been decimated, and the bandit chief had quite a few footprints embedded in his head.  Oddly, Keru does not actually wear boots, though that didn't stop me from saying "Boot to the Head!" when using his Flurry of Blows power.  Both Agile Recovery and Blessing of Iron paid off, the latter as the the bandit's lieutenants had a power that let them push an enemy 2 squares away, while the bandit chief had an attack power that let him knock a foe prone.  Even managed to TKO the bandit chief's main enforcer in one action courtesy of a critical hit using Open the Gates of Battle combined with an mighty ki focus, nearly wiping out all of the enforcer's HP in one blow, and then polished him off with Flurry of Blows ("Boot to the head!")  Seriously, it got to the point the other players would declare "and a boot to the head!" as soon as I resolved my main attack each turn.  Granted, my Flurry of Blows doesn't do that much damage as I opted to split my points between Strength and Wisdom, but a few extra points of free damage is nothing to sneer at, and it could prove useful with popping minions should the opportunity present itself.  I also have to say that the Fallen Needle power from Psionic Power is damn useful against major threats, since it's high damage and inflicts a penalty to hit if they try to go after you, thus making a Striker not too reliant upon a Defender's mark ability to keep said major foe from squishing them, to say nothing of the free shift to get away should a particularly burly foe decide to get in close.

While most of the session was combat, there was some good character interaction, as the half-elf druid was not happy about the arcane-magic using warlock's presence, given how arcane magic has a nasty tendency to ruin the environment in this setting.  In her defense, the warlock at least used what's called the preserver method rather than defiling.  Keru seemed the odd man out (literally, as I once again am playing the token human in a group), but he's curious to see what paths lie ahead as he travels with this most unlikely of group of companions.  And honestly, so am I.

March 15, 2013

Disney Vacation, the wrap-up

Okay, for some reason the post I was working about my Disney trip last week ended up posting, even though I thought I had only told the site to save the draft.  So if it looks a bit cut off, that's probably why.

Well, as I alluded to in the earlier post, things went downhill on the last day of the stay.  Issue one was that mother and I were planning on trekking down to Downtown Disney for a couple hours, mostly to do some last-minute picture taking, particularly of the displays in and around the LEGO store.  Seriously, had I been six years old and walked into that place, I would have thought I'd died and gone to heaven, especially as there were tables that kids could sit and build using the famous plastic bricks.  I don't think you get to keep anything you built, but it'd still would have been fun.

Sadly, the way that Disney had set-up the bus system for the All-Star Resorts, the one we were staying at was the last stop, and the bus to Downtown Disney kept filling up at earlier resorts, meaning we waited nearly an hour for a bus to finally show up.  And when it did, it was packed to the point the driver was having people stand in the middle aisle in two rows.  I could deal with it, but the problem was that my mother, who is quite claustrophobic, couldn't, and she freaked due to three oversized lunkheads constantly bumping into her before the bus even started moving.  I made sure to give the bus driver a parting "nice going asshole" as I stepped off the bus for cramming us in like sardine cans.  When complaining about this incident, we learned that drivers were apparently not supposed to do that, but whether the driver was the one who made that call or somebody else did, I don't know and frankly don't care.

The other bus fiasco only narrowly avoided becoming a true fiasco by dint of us hopping an earlier bus to the airport as the driver was considerate enough to squeeze us onto his bus, having exactly two extra seats on the trip.  Now that bus left the hotel about a half-hour sooner than our scheduled bus, and we just made it to our gate to board the plane with 10 minutes to spare.  Granted, part of that reason was a group of teenage cheerleaders that I came to regard as the bimbo brigade.  Seriously, did nobody explain to them that when going through airport security you have to remove your shoes and you can't be carrying any metal or lotions in your pockets? I don't blame the TSA guy for sounding like he was ready to throttle some of those ditzy dimwits, given the sass he was getting from those girls.

However, had we stuck to the bus that we were supposed to have taken over... we would have missed our flight.  As this bus, like the Disney Transit buses, stops at multiple hotels, and in a woefully inefficient order that ends up taking twice as long as it probably should.  According to the Disney infomercial that plays as your leaving, they'll get you to the airport in plenty of time.  Two words on that. Bull. Shit.  Frankly, about the only two things Disney did right in this regard was ensure that our luggage was checked-in and on the plane without us having to tote it around, as well as print our boarding passes.  A shame that such a nice vacation had to go downhill on the last day.  My mom was livid enough that had this sort of shenanigans happened in the first couple days, she would have canceled the stay and taken the first available flight home.  And I might very well have gone along with her.  Apparently you really do get what you pay for, and Walt Disney World is one of those vacations that if you skimp out, you're gonna pay for it.  If I do go again, I'll pay the extra coin and stay and one of their nicer resorts (such as Saratoga Springs for instance, which was within walking distance of Downtown Disney and didn't have anywhere near the bus troubles that the All-Star Resorts did).

So overall, while it wasn't an ideal vacation, due to various warts, it was a generally enjoyable one, barring the final day.  But I think I'll just try to put that behind me and focus on the good stuff, like the food at the Epcot World Showcase, the Behind the Magic tour, and the various attractions.

Hopefully some point in the near future, I'll get the chance to go through the pictures I took.  I'm pretty sure I got some good ones (aside from the various bunny pics I tweeted for my friend Natael's sake, ranging from a Thumper plush to Alice in Wonderland's White Rabbit).

March 10, 2013

A Not-Quite-So Magical Disney Vacation

Got back last night after spending a week in Florida at the "House the Mouse Built."  This wasn't my first trip, which may have been just as well, given the difficulties encountered here and there, but in particular yesterday.

Got to see a good chunk of the new Fantasyland segment of Magic Kingdom, which was pretty neat, even if there wasn't a whole lot to do.  I'd heard that Merida was officially represented as a Disney Princess at WDW, but was neat to see that she's got her own little meet'n'greet area in the park.  Didn't go on all the rides there (as most of them were kiddy rides), but there was plenty to do, and caught the Wishes fireworks show/display, which was really cool, particularly with how they used Cinderella's castle as a projection screen.  Only downside was a slight delay due to some bus issues with getting from the hotel we were staying at to Magic Kingdom, but it wasn't too horrible.

Day 2 was spent at Epcot, and that probably remains one of my favorite parks.  There was quite a bit that I wasn't able to get to during my first trip, but I corrected that and managed to hit just about everything except a couple parts of World Showcase, and I stayed a bit later after dinner to catch the IllumiNations fireworks display.

Now part of the reason for taking this trip when we did was that this past week was my mother's birthday, and she did get a bit freaked out when Cast Members (aka park staff) kept saying Happy Birthday and calling her by name, but given that she was wearing a big ol' button that said she was celebrating her birthday... yeah, go figure.  Well, the upside was that at each of the restaurants we ate at (mostly within the World Showcase), she got an extra little treat.  Monday night we ate at Coral Reef (seafood), and she got a chocolate wafer that said "happy birthday" along with her dessert.  BTW, if you do plan on going to Disney World for more than a couple days, the Dining Plan is so worth it, as it makes tracking your food bill a whole lot easier.

Day 3 was Hollywood Studios.  We got to do the Backlot Tour as well as the Lights!Camera!Action! stunt show, both of which were very cool.  Muppet*Vision 3D, Great Movie Ride and Indy Stunt Show were just as entertaining as it was the first time.  Wasn't that impressed with the Toy Story Mania, mostly as I kept getting double images from the 3D, and while the Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow was moderately entertaining, it's not a "must do" by far.  I of course did hit Star Tours, going on it about a half-dozen times, though I did get some repeated segments, which is bound to happen I guess.  The big kicker for the night was the Fantasmic evening show, and though it didn't have as many fireworks as the prior two, it was still enjoyable, with the character barges and using water sprays as video screens.

Sadly, this was where the first big snag was hit.  We had reservations to eat dinner at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant, which is done up in the style of a 50's drive-in, showing trailers from such movies as folks eat in tables that are designed similar to 50's caddys.  Well, we show up 15 minutes early.... and wound up waiting nearly 30 minutes to be seated, during which time at least two (probably more) groups that didn't have reservations who showed up after we'd checked in for our reservation got seated.  Yeah, let that sink in.  A party of two, with a reservation, were made to wait while parties of similar size who'd just showed up got seated rather promptly.  And even after we get seated, there's issues, as we got plopped down right in the center of a bunch of screaming kids.  Tried to flag down a waiter to ask if we could be moved, and got ignored by them, and were left to sit without anyone even asking for our drink orders for close to 10 minutes.  At that point, we both said "screw this crap!" and got up and left (later went to a Guest Relations to make sure that we weren't billed a dinner service that we never got), and I made it a point to say directly to the manager that "the service here sucks!" as we all but stormed out of the place.  I sincerely hope that the wait staff got chewed out for the lack of service, but I doubt it.  Needless to say, I'm never setting foot in that place ever again, and would advise others to do likewise.  The service sucks, and the food is nothing to write home about.  So our dinner that night consisted of quick service food (rather large chili dog for me, a huge turkey drumstick for mom), but at least we got to take it with us to go watch Fantasmic, which was quite awesome as noted above.  We then opted to catch a bus over to Downtown Disney, mostly to get tickets in advance for Oz at the AMC theater, which we did (8:30 showing), but what was supposed to be "let's just check a couple shops" turned into "let's check a whole bunch of shops."  I don't begrudge my mom this, as she's a shopper; she enjoys shopping, and hasn't had the opportunity to just "go shopping" in a long while.  However, the fact that I'd been up early and that we didn't get back to our hotel until close to midnight wasn't exactly making me feel like I was at the "happiest place on Earth."

Day 4 was Animal Kingdom, which frankly we could have skipped as there really wasn't much beyond a few nature trail walks and a 'safari' tour.  Said safari tour might have been better if the driver actually stopped to let folks take pictures, but he didn't.  The only ride we went on was Dinosaur, which was neat.  However, it was while splitting up to head to different parks that we ran into the second significant issue.  You see, we'd thought that the 4-day pass package we'd bought had been for Parkhoppers, which let you jump from one park to the next (handy since we were eating at Epcot most nights).  Well, they weren't.  So we wound up, using the Parkhoppers we'd had from a charity raffle a day sooner than expected.  I went back to Magic Kingdom while mom went to check out the Garden Show at Epcot, and we each had our respective bits of fun.  Dinner that night was at the La Celliar in the Canada section, and while it's pricy (counted as two dinner meals each on the dining plan), the food was excellent, and I had what was probably one of the best best rib-eye steaks I've had in a very long time, and it was a large portion of meat as well, which made the price worth it.  And after the debacle at Sci-Fi Dine-In, having a waitress that was cheerful and prompt was wonderful.

Day 5 was "finish up the parks," which we did, finishing up Magic Kingdom and Epcot, and then dinner at Nine Dragons Restaurant.  And holy crap was the food awesome.  Best Kung Po Chicken I've had anyplace by far, plus the waiter was prompt with drink refills and checking up on how we were doing, but not to the point that it felt like he was hovering over of us.

Now Day 6 was the day I was really looking forward to, as we went on the "Behind the Magic" tour, which gives folks an overview of how the parks operate.  It really was quite amazing, and though I knew a fair piece of it already, it's still amazing at the general efficiency and care to detail given to the parks (sadly the same can't be said of all the hotels, but that's later).  And our tour guides couldn't have had more different presentation styles if they'd tried, but they were both informative and entertaining in their own ways.  I have to admit, watching the 3pm Magic Kingdom parade after seeing some of the behind-the-scenes stuff was quite different than watching it normally; still a pretty cool show, but perhaps even more impressive once you know what really goes into it.  We also got a pretty good lunch, and the head waitress was a hoot.  I believe it was the Pine Lodge Resort, and word of advice... don't ask for ketchup if you value your dignity or your hearing.