Friday, January 20, 2023

The Sky (what we've been up to)

 So in the course of polishing off the Shattered Labyrinths of Illith Varn, my players happened to defeat the Sky Witch Jupiter Volaris and came into possession of her flying fortress. It took, from my perspective, a long time for them to think to simply fly straight up, but when they did, I had a sky map ready. "Okay, to the north from far off you see what looks like a floating island with a tower on it, and to the south, it looks like a floating island with a dragon statue on it ..."

Thus did my players explore Tower Island (time wizards keep a parasite-man hostage up above, automatons of the gods protect an ancient secret underneath), Dragon Statue Island (20-40 rolling furry abominations swerve around lakes of lava pouring out of a dragon statue's mouth, a fire goblin just wants to eat the lava unmolested), Palace Island (a fragment of the Palace of Sublime Authority from the surface, protected by knights with seared eyeless heads who can shoot giant arrows up to a mile away), and Mountain Island (a mountaintop monastery where the wet-nurse of Voyra of the Hidden Ways still lives; at the mountain's base, a village of ancient halflings, once servants to the gods, are kidnapped and cannibalized by gigantic trolls).

On Mountain Island my imagination started to go a little crazy. They found a ravine, inside the ravine is a giant moth whose wing-scales cause skull-tumors to grow on your flesh. Also inside the ravine, they found ancient tombs. Inside the ancient tombs, they found a moonlight sword. At the bottom of the ravine, they found a door of darkness, which the moonlight sword pierced. And past the door of darkness, in a secluded cave, they found a mansion kept by servants made of knives and red cloth, who bowed and let them enter.

Here we had the DISMAL ABODE of CALAGON, THE DISMAL TWIN: a run-down, nearly abandoned mansion of a cruel and hated god, so despised by his own family that he was locked underground, never to be seen again. It is said that his love was so great, that anyone who encountered it was utterly destroyed. And no matter how many he loved, his love ever grew. Thus a torrent of sacrifices were brought before him, and still he called for more. 

A good excuse for beautiful youths locked in rooms and protected by friendly but evil individuals. As they were working for a rapist and a god, my players killed almost everyone they came across, and saved everyone else they could. Some of the once beautiful youths had been transformed into screaming slug people, etc. There was a witch. They befriended a behir. Etc etc. 

In the final chamber they confronted Calagon, a guy made of stinking skin presiding over a bed of gore, and protected by a gigantic golden insect named Vithra, who seemed really keen on keeping Calagon in his bedroom. Anyway a final battle ensued, which seemed maybe a little too easy (that's all it took to kill a god?), and they found a gate in the closet to the aforementioned Radiant Citadel, guarded by two priestesses of Vellisex, and to their dismay discovered the truth: Calagon was fine and had escaped long, long ago, and was busy hanging out with his brother in a palace in the middle of a city in the sky.

Gazing at the city from a rocky island just off-shore, where the Tower of the Divided Eye casts its light across the murky red ocean --

"Smoke rises from the city. You hear distant screams. Here and there picking their way over the rooftops you can see gigantic golden spiders, like the Half Life striders. The gigantic goblet rising over the city looks a little off somehow, its light kind of muted and patches of it are tarnished."




So now we're in a city. Encounters have included:

- One of the Beloved of Vellisex (that's what they call the giant spiders -- up close you can see they're covered in a kind of platinum gold fur, their heads are covered in goats horns, and they have hooves instead of spider-feet, and grasping claws that dangle down from their bulbous bodies which carry nets made of bone, hooked spears, and other horrible weaponry) protected by a retinue of the Golden Order (the elite knights of Vellisex the Golden) . . . the Beloved has a princeling in his net, who cries out for help

- The Golden Order declares a sudden quarantine zone, the streets are blocked, and Rot Hunters rush forward to put the diseased block to the torch

- A group of deathrot slimes look like tar patches with bones in them, actually they can climb walls and inflict death rot (you take damage each round, also if you get 10 stacks of deathrot you die)

- A drug-dealer who sold the players "fluke" which is a little worm you put in your eye and it makes you high. They got too fucked up and insulted the Golden Order and Sad Ed got thrown in jail. Luckily, he is level 25, so it wasn't too hard to break out, and received an invitation to work with the Perfumer (drugdealer), he is said to reside in the Church of War, somewhere in the Old Citadel.

The cultists of the Divided Eye had the players travel to the Church of the Claw to deliver a message (a list of goods -- candles, incense, holy water, sheep ...), and the Terminal Unguis of the Church of the Claw, a friendly fellow named Hector Brute, asked the players if they might be willing to put to the sword one of the Tarnished, a Once-Beloved of Vellisex named Ash-Drinker, who's taken up residence on the Lordsbridge. The Procession of the Convent of Beauty needs to process to meet with Vellisex in three days (one of the Claws of the Church of the Claw is a tower filled with nuns so beautiful that they can never be looked upon, therefore they process under a giant opaque tent; the other claw is filled with monks who spend all night speed-writing religious texts and all day training in violently high-speed acrobatics) and it would be best if they could cross the Lordsbridge, instead of going the Long Way Around.

So the players checked out the Lordsbridge, and I once again failed the "write a small dungeon challenge." On top of the Lordsbridge -- Ash-Drinker, a gigantic insane spider that breathes acid slime and is wielding the spiked corpse of a golden knight as a weapon, being worshipped by one of the Goldmasks (those afflicted with Deathrot sometimes choose to don the Goldmasks and thus come under the protection of the Golden Order, they are allowed to pass freely through the city), and protected by a group of grafted men shaped like dogs. Stairs down leading into the bridge, a causeway of narrow hallways with glowing trees, a Tarnished Knight, a Star Creature, a Cleric of Vellisex, a Swarm of Cast-Off Limbs, and Spite-Tooth, an Abomination of Rathor, who suggested the players seek the Exiled Church in the Lower Citadel to speak with her sister Gut-Warp, who might assist the players in their rebellion.

Luckily, an elevator down to the Lower Citadel was just a few rooms over. Down there -- piles of corpses, poison water, an endless parade of slugmen dragging themselves from the swamp . . . they went back upstairs.

After dispatching Ash-Drinker, they thought, hmm, what to do next? Why don't we go meet with the Perfumer in the Old Citadel? And in short order mixed up Old Citadel and Lower Citadel and found themselves back down the elevator and wandering in the Bad Part of Town: empty ruined streets of a city that was here before the city was here; distant shrieking; purple sludge swallowing up entire blocks; far away amidst the swamp of the Lower Citadel, a castle, said to be called Two-Fang Castle; and flocks of shrieking flying witches way too eager to die, which they were told are birthed anew by the Many-Mother, who resides somewhere in the ruins of the Lower Citadel...

They realized eventually they were going in the wrong direction, but, "It's okay Nate, you already drew us this nice map." And anyway, they have a quest to kill the Many-Mother, another quest to meet with Gut-Warp, and they hear that the lord of Two-Fang Castle, Malric Godson, might give them somewhere to stay.


I left out a lot of stuff about like their new lightning pterodactyl, their flesh-steed named Gorgo, the knock-off Griffith named Vladweth they rescued from Palace Island (upon learning of the sky gods: "What must it be like, to be a god?" My players are resisting meta-gaming so they haven't murdered yet), and I didn't even touch on the Windskier Mountains and the plot to resurrect Ancibin, Demon Prince of the Air. Anyway that's what we've been up to!


Thursday, January 19, 2023

THE RADIANT CITADEL OF VELLISEX THE GOLDEN

In legends it is said that far above the clouds resides the land of the Gods of the Sky, who dwell in the broken remnants of their kingdom, and keep a greedy watch over the immortal men who still worship them. Only the oldest of these undying mortals can remember the time their world was borne atop the back of the great dragon Albaraxis as it swam through the shining void, who birthed the sun and the moon every morning and devoured it every night, when the gods had not yet gone to war. 

The first of the gods, Oirothil of the Storm, seemed to suffer a curse of sons. First was Liofnir, then came Falquin, who was called the Red Death, and then Vellisex, the Golden. Then came Gagrathox, who arrived unbidden. And when Oirothil gave birth to a daughter, Voyra, she gave birth also to a son, who she called Calagon, and who even in his youth the people of her land called the Dismal Twin, for his cursed proclivities.

Then came the Shattering War. Desirous of power, Liofnir gouged out his own eyes, to better see into the heart of the storm. He discovered there the secrets of war, and as the new God of War, made war on humanity. The war that resulted between Liofnir and the rest of the gods rent the world asunder, and in his agony, Albaraxis threw the world from his back. This is why the land of the gods lies in pieces, floating atop our sky.

One piece that remains entire is the Radiant Citadel of Vellisex the Golden, the Glinting Capital, where Vellisex Himself yet resides. Only recently, word has come from within the Shining Walls that an affliction has fallen upon the Golden Order. The Great Goblet which rises over the city and holds the sacred reservoir has begun to tarnish, and its light diminishes. His Knights have begun to fall into madness, and even some of his Beloved, which once emerged many-legged and gleaming from the Pit of Demise, have taken to senseless murder and grotesque blasphemies.

And the Death Rot of Liofnir, who after his death pronounced himself God of Death, and sits now upon a Throne of Death in the remotest north, has spread from his festering eyesockets and found root in the human citizenry of the Radiant Citadel. They live in fear of the Rot, and Hunters have been appointed by the Golden Order to burn it out at the root. Quarantine, slaughter, mass execution, and blood administration have failed to stop its spread, mass hysteria rules in the lower districts, and it has spread even to the high townships of Lordsmouth and Belgraver.

And now, word has come that Vellisex has taken pity upon his brother Calagon, and sprung him from the prison in the earth the gods consigned him to before the Shattering War. They hold court together in the Citadel, and those Beloved of Vellisex which have not succumbed to the Tarnishing can be seen hunting the city streets even in the day, escorted by the Knights of the Golden Order, and seeking the finest youths for Calagon to slake his desires upon. 

Maybe through the art of grafting, some of the nobility imagine, they could be more like the gods, and escape their predations. But the children of Rathor the Leviathan, who swims in the waters of the Golden Goblet, whisper that their time has come, and in their unholy masses in the Exiled Church of the Lower Citadel, hail the End of the Gods, and the start of an Age of Abominations...

Monday, January 16, 2023

ELDEN RING

 Now here is a very interesting game and one I have a lot of complex feelings about, which I will do my best to discuss at length, and probably without coming to any conclusions, but I feel I have to get them out.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS! 

THIS GAME IS STRANGELY PACED, OVERALL

First of all, like many of Fromsoft's games, the first two-thirds is the better half. To start, you are gifted a vast and densely populated world filled with interesting NPCs and limitless possibility, and immediately provided 2-3 beautiful kingdoms to explore, with a handful of REAL FUCKING dungeons to accompany. Finally -- an open world game with REAL dungeons --  who would have thought??? Anyway --

And the open world environments that we are provided are really very nice. The landscapes are strange, beautiful, broken, concealing monsters, mini-dungeons, ruins, merchants, NPCs. It's exceedingly thoughtfully paced -- you're drawn through the broken plains of Limgrave, the Weeping Peninsula, and Liurnia of the Lakes, and everywhere you look is some new secret. It's easy to see landmarks and enemies from a distance, and you're allowed to attack them or not from whatever direction you choose.  Liurnia is my personal favorite, the framing of the Academy of Raya Lucaria rising above the waters in the distance between two tall castles and knowing that it's possible to reach all three, just chefs kiss. 

However, there is a sense in the back half of the game of a severe narrowing of scope. After completing Leyndell, a lengthy dungeon with two challenging end bosses, you're sent into the final open areas of the game, Mountaintop of the Giants and (if you're lucky) Consecrated Snowfields, which feel less like a culmination and more of an afterthought. They're much smaller than the first areas, and less dense, and fairly soon you're sent into the endgame dungeons. They're very good dungeons but I'm left with a kind of questioning of like, what happened to the open world design in the beginning, what was the result of the promise of the beginning of the game?

THIS GAME IS FUN AND THE DUNGEONS ARE GREAT

Okay but before anything else I need to say that this game is really fun. Being able to log in and do whatever you want is so nice. You don't have to suffer through any cutscenes or track any quests. It's just point yourself in a direction and explore. There is so much to do in this game that even if you backtrack you'll probably find something new. On my third playthrough I'm still finding new caves, evergaols, dungeons, and secret areas.

And it looks magnificent. I came to hate the Erdtree during my first playthrough, as a central image, I felt that the tree left something to be desired. I've come around. It's an eerie thing, it's clearly a ghost, illusion, or memory of its former self, and it is a stunning vision. The cliffs, mountaintops, oceans, stars, the fields of stars in the underground areas, the golden capital, the attention to detail in art and architecture, the magic, the weaponry and armor, the art in this game really surpasses anything else.

And playing the game is fun, the combat is fun. Fromsoft has done away with the kind of very methodically paced fighting of Dark Souls and Demon Souls. To be clear, I find that kind of combat fun. However, the direction Fromsoft has gone here, with all the different character powers, weapons, spells, skills, and miracles, with combinations of hybrid classes available, with dynamic and fast movement, jumping, countering, dashing, even flying sometimes, is really neat and empowering.

A UNIQUELY UNCANNY EXPERIENCE

But with all that, my main feeling coming away from Elden Ring is feeling kind of disturbed by it. It has a hollow center, not in a bad way really, but more as if there is a great lacuna we circle. The central events of the game and our characters' reasons for pursuing the quest are never discussed directly. What is the Elden Ring? What is the Greater Will? Who is Melina, and why does she burn? What is the Erdtree? Why are Radagon and the Elden Beast opposing our efforts to repair the Elden Ring?

In fact, most of these questions are impossible to answer, even by poring through the game text. My best guess is that the Greater Will is the creator deity of the Lands Between, and the Elden Ring is the kind of like, source code that keeps it running. Maybe. Melina is (probably) a daughter of Queen Marika, and she may in fact have burned down the Erdtree once already. The Erdtree is (probably?) but one recent sprout of a Great Tree that formed long ago when the Elden Ring was planted in the earth, and it has the power to grant rebirth to those who live under it, except that it's (probably) dead, and what we see glowing on the horizon is an illusion (I think). This is actually all more or less conjecture, and certainly when playing the game through the first time, it's next to impossible to divine, so that the events that transpire have the feeling of a dream, something happening that's important somehow to someone, though it's hard to tell how, exactly.

Add to this the game's way of building expectations and then suddenly pivoting. For instance, in Limgrave, Liurnia, and Weeping Peninsula, your target is the giant castle in the distance. When you get there, it's a dungeon with a boss at the end. You expect that probably, Caelid will do the same thing. Except when I got to the giant castle in Caelid, I was suddenly teleported to the end of it, and told to kill the giant boss with very little build up or suspense. 

This pattern kind of repeats throughout the game. After you defeat your two shardbearers, the Two Fingers tell you to trek to Leyndell. Alright, so you walk up to the front gate, but it doesn't open, in fact the gate leads to no where. Or, in Mt. Gelmir, you're told to find VOLCANO MANOR, a vast castle, but when you do, it's just a small little manor with a few rooms, and you don't have to do a dungeon to face the boss, just a handful of quests (of course there is a secret dungeon, but on my first playthrough, the experience was deeply uncanny)

And the teleporting, oh the teleporting, I came to dread the sending gates. How sometimes they would send you short distances. Or how they would send you directly to the doorstep of your goal. How the four belfry sending gates send you to the far ends of the earth, but for some reason there's very little to find there. It came to feel like a dreamlike and terrifying bending of reality, I think they literally gave me bad dreams.

Not to mention the way the story kind of dissolves over time. At first it's clear -- we are repairing the Elden Ring. But then, we are told we must burn the Erdtree. And then when we burn the Erdtree, we are sent (in a dream?) to a floating mausoleum (locked outside of time?) in order to Release Destined Death, but, for what purpose exactly? One by one, almost every NPC we meet dies. Why do we only need two shards of the Elden Ring to repair it? One gets the feeling that the true story of the game is deeply submerged. This is almost certainly true.

And then of course, the game simply ends. We repair the Elden Ring, which is for some reason a petrified person with a sigil in their chest (how on earth did the demigods get their hands on the shards of such a thing, if Marika was locked inside the erdtree as their punishment?), and that's that, with minor variations depending on if we aid certain NPCs. 

SKIMMING ACROSS A VAST WELL OF TIME

Elden Ring gives a feeling of timelessness and presence. It's clear that vast ages of time has transpired in this land, but it's very difficult to tell how long has passed since the Elden Ring was shattered. Everything feels somehow simultaneous and incredibly old. Vastly ancient ruins are juxtaposed with much newer ones. The landscape itself is undergirded with massive support beams and arches, and implausibly huge giant skeletons are exposed to the air. We ride an elevator deep underground through layers of strata into what appears to be the a hollow layer of earth, how did these ruins get down here? Who built this, how, and when? Why is there a huge waterfall in the middle of the entire ocean?

George RR Martin has said in interviews that the events prior to the game occurred some five thousand years ago -- truly, the Elden Ring was shattered five thousand years ago? I can actually see it, though. If nothing dies under the Erdtree, then the agelessness and vastly ancient presence of the landscape makes sense. The demigods we disturb have been locked away for thousands of years, save probably for Godrick the Grafted, who is descended through the generations from those same demigods. 

But in playing the game, this ancient/agelessness takes on a unique clarity, as if we're skimming over the top a great ocean of time. It's the combined weight of all the detailed visual art, strange dialogue, and mute item descriptions that make this work. It's a remarkable achievement.

THE TRUE STORY IS OF COURSE VERY INTERESTING

Diving into the secret lore and theories about the game nearly a year later has been very interested. I think my favorite creator on this subject is Tarnished Archaeologist, his attention to detail and ability to point out the obvious and link it all together has been very clarifying. For instance, the "tears" we encounter throughout the game is literally tree sap. The perfumers likely had a role in using the erdtree sap in creating their perfume. The Forge of the Giants was likely a mobile forge, used by the colossal giants we see throughout the world. The city underground at the base of Leyndell was very likely part of Leyndell itself, before it was banished underground. Miquella was probably in his cocoon inside the goddess-womb of the Haligtree transforming into an adult when he was kidnapped by Mohg -- that's why his arm is so big, despite always being referred to as an eternal child. And so on. All stuff that's very strange and confusing on first encounter, but in true Fromsoft fashion, had some intent behind it.

And the stuff with the gods and demigods is compelling. I'm never very interested in divine or angelic imagery in my games, but killing a god is good honest fun, and the demigod characters we meet are great. Radagon is my personal favorite -- he's so stark, so unexpected, so ruthless, and he represents a core secret to the game, revealed almost entirely through his strange opening cutscene. 

OF COURSE I HAVE SOME QUIBBLES

I personally did not love the mini-dungeons. In concept, they are very cool. I like that we are encouraged to do certain minidungeons to find certain items (mines of smithing stones, catacombs for summon upgrades, etc), and I like that they are never repeated. Nevertheless, the way they are all variations on a theme, and never feature unique bosses, means there is always going to be something lacking, for me. 

I found many of the late game summons too powerful. At first, I felt that summons were a nice touch, something to distract a boss for a moment while you catch your breath and get some hits in. Then the Mimic Tear and Black Knife Tiche and all the others came along, and the game ended. I found that I no longer had to learn the late game bosses, and that the difficulty was drastically reduced in such a way that reduced my feeling of contact with the game itself. There was much less of that sense of really having to learn a boss, and more of a feeling of "this is impossible, I suppose I should use XYZ summon" and suddenly the boss was too easy. Ditto for Blood Loss and Frostbite -- taking a percentage chunk of an enemy's hitpoints is really powerful, why are we allowed to do that?

Aesthetically, overall, I prefer the griminess, darkness, and tightness of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. I love the feeling of navigating a vast interconnected labyrinth.

I wish that the late game areas were something else. It's not that I don't like snow, or that I don't like those levels, but they kind of feel like, the game designers weren't really sure what they were going for. We are climbing up and up to the top of the world to get the fire to burn the Erdtree, but there's not really a sense of coming to the center of things, it feels as if we are spiraling outward. I can see that Farum Azula represents the earliest contact of civilization with the Elden Ring, and the Haligtree represents an attempt to transcend the Erdtree, but in terms of open world areas, it just feels like it's missing something.

At the end of the game, looking at everything and trying to figure out where to go, somehow the world actually feels a little bit small.

Oh and, not to mention, the reusing of enemy assets. Listen, I know they had their hands full in making this game, but this is a thing open world games always fucking do. It's the same enemies at the end of the game as at the beginning. We get to the top of the mountain, and what do we find? Fucking t-rex dogs, caelid crows, and reskinned trolls from Limgrave. There must be some lore reason the caelid enemies are there (ok, but what is it?), but nevertheless, it is always less interesting to encounter the same enemies over and over than to meet new ones. The sheer variety of enemies in Dark Souls and Bloodborne points to the possibilities here -- we do not absolutely have to meet the same reskinned private, shield-soldier, and knight at every camp in perpetuity. 

And, finally, the ways in which a player is able to interact with the game world is very limited, just based on what kind of game it is. What it comes down to is that the player runs into enemies and hits R1/R2 until they're dead. If you want to have fun and use some items and do some summons, that's fine, but essentially the way you interact with the world is through fighting enemies. Contrast this a little bit with Breath of the Wild, where the world itself is a puzzle that you have to contend with -- the physics, the wind, the elements, climbing, and so on. There is a richness of experience in Breath of the Wild that Elden Ring can't quite muster, despite the superior writing and worldbuilding in Elden Ring.

SO I HAVE SOME COMPLEX FEELINGS ABOUT THIS GAME

There is a lot more to say about this game. It has so much stuff, so many dungeons, areas, secrets, items, characters, quests, and it's executed at such a high quality that it puts everything else simply to shame.

I still think I liked Breath of the Wild more though. 

Saturday, January 14, 2023

estus??

So I was playing elden ring for the third time and then I went and played god of war ragnarok and I noticed how annoying it was that I didn't have estus. Sure god of war has a different combat framework, but I realized that estus has a number of powerful effects on the game.

1. you can pace yourself during combat, if you have lots of estus left you can push forward aggressively and vice versa, if you're low on healing you can fall back and play defensively

2. you can choose fights based on how much healing you have left

3. you're rewarded for fighting well -- you can engage further fights from a resting spot with more healing left

4. enemies can deal huge amounts of damage, but the player can recover from near-death fairly quickly, meaning fights look very swingy, and feel very threatening.

If you're not sure how estus works, here's the basic run-down:

The player has a dedicated healing potion with a limited number of uses, which are restored when the player rests at a checkpoint. It usually takes a significant amount of time to use during combat, enough to leave a player open to an enemy's attack. It heals somewhere between one half and a complete healthbar. In some games the number of uses of the estus is static (20 for bloodborne, 5-15 for dark souls 1), in other games the number of uses starts small but increases over time, usually as the player finds special items spread throughout the game.

I love estus. It's such a simple and intuitive mechanic that has a powerful effect on the game, and empowers the players to make intelligent choices. So what what would this look like in a d&d game?

In some ways, d&d (especially fifth edition has a similar healing framework to soulslikes.  Resting completely restores your health and abilities. You have a limited number of self-healing during the day, which increases as you progress through the game. There are healing spells and items, which are generally of limited use. However, there is no dedicated self-healing mechanic, except for short rests, which results in some scenarios that feel a little boring to me --

As players have little way to self-heal in combat, they have to reserve their powers and abilities specifically for healing, and often have to hold off using more interesting powers because they have to save it for healing.

Oftentimes, a group of players requires at least one of them to be the healer. Sometimes, being the healer can feel a little boring. (see: holding off on using interesting powers) Furthermore, if the healer doesn't show up that day, combat suddenly feels much more threatening and taxing. A difficult combat that might be easy to recover from with the healer around becomes fatal, or too dangerous to consider engaging. A group of two fighters need to tip-toe around doable fights, simply because healing afterwards is too risky.

When they want to self-heal, they have to bandage up over the course of an hour. This is fine, but the players don't usually have a full awareness of how dangerous it might be to take an hour to rest, and it feels like a confusing or vague gamble. The upside is it gives me opportunities to attack them, but it gives them a little less control over combat pacing.

Another difference from estus is that the d&d self-healing mechanic is generally limited to one full heal per day, maximum, whereas estus gives the players the ability to heal from near-death to almost full many times, depending on their max hitpoints, the power of their estus, and the number of flasks they have.

One advantage though is that d&d is a team game ... players have to cooperate to survive, they can't simply rely on their own abilities. Maybe I shouldn't underestimate this.

But so, what would estus look like?

1. We would remove healing via hit-dice entirely. 

2. Each player has an ability that self-heals for a significant portion of their hitpoints, at least half. Maybe it varies by class.

Maybe it makes sense for it to just be a roll of your hitdice. A level 1 fighter rolls a simple d10, a level 1 wizard rolls a simple d4.

 The amount that it heals increases as your level up, but also so do the number of uses. Maybe at level 1 you get 3 uses, and it increases every other level, so you end with thirteen uses or something at level 20.

3. Using estus takes a significant amount of time. An entire action might be prohibitive? Or it might be appropriate. It means you wouldn't want to do it unless you were safe, and you would have to give up helping a team-mate. 

It might make sense to let players have a free estus heal if they take an hour to bandage up. That way there's still an advantage to resting, but if they get caught in a fight, they still have their estus to fall back on.

4. Taking a long rest would restore your estus as well as all your hit-points. There's probably justification in some games to do partial hitpoints on a long rest, depending on their circumstances, like if they're really sleeping in the rough. In my homebrew rules, players restore 1/4 hitpoints and 1/2 their hit-dice if they sleep in the rough. I'm not sure where I could fall on this. I might bump it up to 1/2 hitpoints and all estus.

5. We would need to fictionally justify the estus somehow. fromsoft always does a remarkable job tying the estus system into the world. in elden ring, the flask is filled with the divine sap that pours from the erdtree. in sekiro, the gourd is filled with the healing waters that ashina kingdom is special for. In dark souls, the estus itself is fire from the bonfires, which is how it is refilled when you rest. In designing this system, I might want to go that route, since the phrase "second wind" or "healing potion" is dry and overdone. We would also need to somehow justify the idea that players can't feed each other their estus.

6. enemies would need to be a little more threatening. especially at high levels, enemies would need to be capable or dealing much higher amounts of damage, since every player would be able to quickly recover. At level 24-25, enemies are beginning to rarely be able to dish out enough damage in one round to one-shot a character from full health. This feels pretty fair, since my players have lots of high level mitigation and full heals, but it's still really scary. I've found that low level enemies (at least in fifth edition) are actually pretty threatening, and I've had plenty of character deaths in the homebrewed low level games I've run for friends -- as a result, I might not want to adjust low level enemies.

7. healing spells and abilities I would probably leave as is. 

8. the DM could award players bonus uses to their estus during a session. for instance, whoever gets the killing blow on a certain enemy. or for clearing a tough enemy group. or a god's blessing, etc. 

9. also this opens up for items giving you bonuses to estus healing, or negatively impacting it. An item that increases total hitpoints but nerfs your estus, or an item that buffs your estus but takes up an inventory slot you might prefer to use otherwise. 

10. a DM who doesn't like XP might prefer to award more estus shards as rewards for doing big quests, exploration, or other milestones. I like how in fromsoft games they are generally rewards for exploration, though in elden ring, bosses and quests rarely give them as well. I think it is simpler and more reliable to just increase them over time as you level up in d&d, but it could be helpful to have those amounts as a goal-marker to compare your players to, and then if they are lagging behind, hide an estus shard in easier-to-find places.

So what is the estus??

1. prayer to the gods

2. flask made from the player's own blood

3. liquid starlight 

4. natural resolve and combat training (this actually makes a lot of intuitive sense)

5. troll-eye juice

6. cursed gift of a wizard

7. ancient technology (??)

8. a self regenerating nano-salve

9. secret rite of royal blood

10. flask that collects dreams?? (regenerates while you sleep)

questions, thoughts?? what do you think??

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Saturday, January 8, 2022

here's some epic level monsters and powers i've used

How to challenge high level characters, piloted by players I've been playing with for a decade who know me and my tactics intimately? By level 20, they were handily taking down monsters with 500+ hitpoints and extravagant amounts of armor class and damage potential. In the Temple of Demogorgon, I put in a hechatonchieres which was meant to be too scary for them to fight. They focused fire and took it down without a casualty.

At the same time I've been playing a lot of Slay the Spire this year. The game has a lot of great monster mechanics that play with your powers in really interesting ways, and makes even normal combats scary enough to kill you under the right circumstances. So many good powers which really fuck with your tactics and interact in so many interesting ways with your cards and powers, allowing an infinity of tactics, and an infinity of ways to fuck up. So I made a list of similar powers of my own. Most of these did not allow saving throws or other soft mitigation, and instead became hard boundaries that players were forced to navigate.

1. Gain Strength each round -- damage increases linearly at the start of each monster turn. Even a weak monster can quickly become a serious threat.

2. Gain an extra attack each round -- very similar to the above, though it interacts differently with player abilities.

3. Gain an extra attack for each action taken by an enemy in its vicinity on the preceding round -- players who shrug and hope for the best quickly pay the price

4. Deal additional damage as the target's hitpoints decrease

5. When it deals damage, it is attached to you and moves with you. If you detach from the monster by any means, take additional damage

6. When an attacker deals damage to the monster, the attacker takes retribution damage 

7. For every two points of damage dealt the target, each ally takes 1 psychic damage -- a really rough deterrent that interacts in interesting ways with persistent hazards

8. When the monster deals damage, an equal amount is dealt to the character with the lowest hitpoints -- a very rude power

9. Every time a magic item is used near the creature, it gains hitpoints

10. When the monster deals damage, the target loses a spell slot of a random level

11. When the monster deals damage, it dispels a magical effect on the target

12. Every time a spell is cast near the creature, another spell slot of a lower level must be expended

13. Whenever an attacker misses the target by a certain amount, it can counter-attack for free 

14. When an attacker kills a monster, that attacker's next source of damage is reduced to 0

15. At half health, the monster splits into two monsters of equal health

16. The monster ignores the first instance of damage dealt to it each round

17. AOE effect causes targets to deal half damage and move at half speed

18. Immune to all magic and magical weaponry

19. Turn incorporeal and teleport long distances for free

20. High regeneration

Some examples of stat-blocks for monsters they've killed:

GUARDIAN APE

Giant white ape 30 feet tall, stained with blood down his mouth and chest, with bones littering the ground around him. He's sleeping peacefully and makes perception checks at disadvantage until woken. 

HP 600, AC 24, Move 90, and an additional 90 as a bonus action. He can jump, bound, and leap the full 90 feet.

Magic absorption: Any spell cast in the ape's presence causes the caster to lose another spell-slot of a lower level of the target's choice.

Berserk: The ape attacks with advantage, and all attacks against it are made with advantage. At the end of his turn he gains a +4 bonus to damage with all attacks. This stacks and lasts for ten minutes.

When reduced to 300 HP, divine light rains from the sky. First story ceilings collapse, buildings are ruined.  All magic effects on the ape are dispelled. All enemies have one magic effect removed from them. Also, all enemies must make a Con save DC 24 or take 6d6 radiant damage. Furthermore, the guardian ape is surrounded with divine light, which persists until the end of the player's NEXT turn. For every 2 points of damage dealt it, every ally of that character within 300' takes 1 psychic damage, even if they are out of line of effect. After this effect ceases, the rain will repeat at the beginning of every other turn.

ATTACKS:

3 punches +16 for 7d8+16 damage. This can punch through walls and buildings.

Grab, bite, and throw +16 for 21d8+54 damage and get tossed up to 100' in a direction of the ape's choosing (off a cliff)

2 CRIMSON SCORPIONS 

They are the size of mack trucks and sing an anarchic, disharmonious, wordless duet.

HP 300, AC 26, Move 40

Each time a scorpion is dealt damage, its attacker takes 2d8 psychic damage

It makes Strength based checks at +20

Attacks:

Claw/Claw/Tail +16 : 4d12+10 and grab/4d12+10 and grab/2d8+10 and Con DC 23 or 10d10 poison damage and forget 1d4 prepared spells, chosen at random

Spray bubbling green poison in a 90' cone (Recharge 5/6): Dex DC 23 or 14d8 poison damage and have all magical effects on you dispelled, on success take half damage and no dispel

KATANA-WIELDING MONKEYS

There are 3d20 of them.

HP 45, AC 17, Move 60

2 attacks +12 for 1d8+6 damage

They may use an action to pray for strength, gaining a stacking +4 damage bonus that lasts for ten minutes. 

SER YHARNAM THE RED

A knight in armor made of tempered cardinal feathers, wielding a greatsword made of bluejay and blackbird wings, and wielding a greatshield emblazoned with a mouse and seven stars. His longbow has a bright red bowstring.

HP 300 AC 26, or 30 when using his shield

Undead and no longer sentient, but implacable and fights intelligently

All saves vs magic are made with +18

Every time a magic item is used within 300' of him, he heals 100 hitpoints (no maximum)

If an attacker misses him by 5 or more, he may immediately counter-attack. He can do this any number of times per round, but he can't counter melee attacks with his bow, or long-ranged attacks with his sword.

Attacks 4 times per round with greatsword or longbow: +15 2d8+10

When he hits a target with his longbow, they must make an Int DC 23 saving throw or lose a random spell slot

FLAGELLANT MONKS

Dead monks hanging from the walls and ceilings, they carry whips with broken stone shards tied to them, their robes hang in tatters, the skin on their backs is hanging off them in bloody strips and the congealed blood which runs out their backs is sticking to the walls and ceilings like a slime and sending down tendrils to puppet their heads and hands like sick marionettes.

5 of them

HP 120 AC 21

Move 30, can walk on walls and ceilings

Undead

When reduced to 60 or fewer hitpoints, they fall from the blood slime that holds them, and are no longer able to walk on walls and ceilings. The blood slime becomes an independent monster with as many hitpoints as the flagellant monk was reduced to. i.e. If an attack reduces a monk to 61 or above to 60 hitpoints, a 60 hp blood slime spawns. If an attack reduces a monk from 61 or above to 1 hitpoint, a 1 hp blood slime spawns.

Flagellant whip +16, 3d8+10 and take +5 damage from subsequent attacks from flagellant whips 

or spit congealed blood up to 60': All in a 15' radius must make a Dex save DC 24 or be slowed as the spell, and may continue to save at the end of each turn. Monks and blood slimes are immune to this.

BLOOD SLIME

HP = whatever hitpoints the flagellant monk was reduced to. AC 21

Move 30, can walk on walls and ceilings

When a blood slime is killed, it explodes congealed blood every, slowing targets in a 15' radius just like the blood spit above. Monks and blood slimes are immune to this.

Bludgeon +10, 8d8+15 damage 


Thursday, January 6, 2022

what have we been up to? (2021 round-up)

 Well that's a very big question!

They were in Hell for a long time, in the Temple of Demogorgon. They went all through it and completed a long puzzle in the depths of the temple that let them speak with the Archbishop Gorgrudoch. They killed him for the Crown of Golden Death and rode the Golden Throne in the Nave of Hethradiah down to the Secret Cathedral of Demogorgon and fought the Archbishop Aggreal (there are two archbishops, just like Demogorgon has two heads. Demogorgon keeps his identity secret, his name is forbidden -- Sad Ed the Bard made the mistake once of uttering his name inside his temple, and He responded by striking Sad Ed blind and deaf and summoning a swarm of nalfeshnee to tear them apart. Each nalfeshnee is able to summon another nalfeshnee. This led to a very long, chaotic battle as my players realized that the nalfeshnee chain of summons could be infinitely long, and to this day they refer to Demogorgon as "The Sinister Scorpion" to protect themselves from his ire), and after reaching for the Skoros Orb in the black vault behind the statue of Demogorgon, discovered that the corrupt demonic flesh of the colossus the temple was carved into had grown around the orb and created a Skoros Orb Beholder. So then they fought a deranged and gigantic beholder which shot swords at them and froze them in ice blocks and made them love it and oriented their gravity away from it and manifested demons and shot disintegration lasers and sprayed blue slime and gamma rays. Then after they killed it they threw the corpse of the Archbishop Aggreal into the pit where the skeletons of all the past archbishops were kept, and departed hell with the Hell Soul of the Skoros Orb.

Then they tracked their nemeses, the Deadboyz, to a little town in the Goblin Wastes called Belroun. The Deadboyz had the remaining piece of the Skoros Orb. This was a dusty western town with tumbleweeds and a brothel and a saloon and a witch and a ghost seller and an old church to Nito I mean Otin the Gravelord, underneath the church was catacombs where was interred all the dead who fell in Belroun's rebellion against the monarchy of Orostranthy. This resulted in a long skeleton-themed dungeon crawl that was semi-procedural, well at least semi-random, where they fought eye-bats and bone golems and fought a gigantic skeleton in a pit of green slime as well as an enchanted suit of armor, which they killed by disintegrating the stairs under it and causing it to topple into the slime, and also at the same time coincidentally revealing the entrance into the Deadboyz' secret hideout. (This was actually a coincidence, they did actually on accident and completely coincidentally target with disintegrate the exact square in the entire dungeon that hid the entrance to the Deadboyz' hideout).

So then there was a long stand-off and slow battle with Blank the Wizard and Axen Great the Thief. My favorite part was, after the dust had settled and Blank had been killed and then reincarnated himself in the body of the soulless child he kept tied to his belt at all times and teleported away to safety somewhere, and Axen Great was trapped in a force cage, and the players had dispatched the time-eating fire elemental that gained an additional attack each round for every action used in its vicinity, the players decided to investigate the obviously trap-filled hallway packed with furniture just outside the room where they did battle. I don't remember why they did this, they knew it was definitely trapped. But each end of this hallway had a combination tumbler lock, so they figured something fucked up would happen if they forced the lock, and decided to carefully pick it instead. They were correct, but unfortunately for them the secret was that the locks were decoys and the door had a secret password that had to be spoken aloud ("There's a great treasure around the corner"), so even picking them caused both doors to close and lock and fire to spray from the ceiling, igniting the furniture that was packed with gunpowder, thereby causing the hallway to explode and collapse. Dirtface the Barbarian did some quick thinking and took shelter in his extradimensional pocket dimension, and we had to figure out on the fly whether force from outside could affect the pocket dimension after the door was closed. Anyway he survived, and they looted the third piece of the Skoros Orb from Blank's room, where it was protected by a death rune that constantly radiates 100 damage that ticks twice per round. I think they used an antimagic field.

Then they got nervous about combining the three pieces of the Skoros Orb, because in the course of their adventure they figured out that it got its mighty power by summoning the ancient SKYCANCER and trapping it in the orb and concentrating its power into a single point. The problem being that the Skycancer's influence seems to corrupt the orb's mightiest power, a single Wish granted to the holder. So they went to some libraries and looked up old pictures and accounts of it, learning that in the old days it was a horrible demon the size of a storm that flapped around and ate entire cities at once. They talked to the Purple Dragon Terrifex, who once battled the Skycancer in the freezing skies over the arctic Kraal, and did not win. And then they spoke to the time-stopped wizard Yote, who helped create the Skoros Orb 2000 years past, and tricked him into giving them the Rite of Purification, which was meant to force the Skycancer out of the orb and purify its use. "Would that, like, would the Skycancer then be like, free and stuff?" "Yeah!" said Yote. They set him on fire and put him back in his stasis.

Satisfied that the orb wouldn't immediately kill them after recombining it, they proceeded to the Seat of the Skoros Orb, a pearlescent structure of coralescent magic in the depths of the Shattered Labyrinths of Illith Varn, and there placed the three orb pieces, which combined into the true Skoros Orb (Corrupted), which nevertheless has a ton of mighty powers. Among them, the ability to conjure magical fogs, maintain concentration on spells even if the caster falls unconscious, decrease the casting time of all spells to a single bonus action, not to mention the nine unique spells of the Skoros Orb, and a +3 bonus to attacks and difficulty checks... Jaime the Wizard immediately went mad with power and has not let hold of it since.

But they found themselves locked in the depths of the labyrinths, unable to teleport out until the orb witnessed the sky a final time. So once again they made the long trek up, through the Temple of Aameul, through the flooded swamps of the Demon of Song, and into the scorched ex-headquarters of the wizard Malagon of the Cruelest Eye, and there found themselves ambushed by Malagon himself, and his two compatriots, Kaviel the Strange and Ser Senedar the White, once the three generals of the dead Illith Varn, and they demanded the party hand over the Skoros Orb. Sad Ed the Bard made a good effort to break their morale but failed his final Charisma check, and the party was forced to do battle with all three generals at once in the heart of Malagon's headquarters. So this was awesome. Malagon was creating disintegration webs and Kaviel was wielding his massive uchigatana and casting Fire 3 and Thunder 3 and Senedar, an aged warrior wielding a white katana, was carving everyone up. But ultimately, the team was able to mind control Kaviel into eviscerating Malagon, and killed Senedar where he kneeled, and victorious, made their way to the surface, where they found their camp under attack by The Sky Witch Queen Jupiter Volaris, atop her mount, the Green Dragon Corvenon, Son of Valathex.

Another boss battle. This is basically the boss rush section of the megadungeon, okay? Anyone they didn't deal with earlier comes back to steal the Skoros Orb from them. So they go rushing into camp and the Sky Witch is conjuring lightning from the sky and Corvenon is breathing gas that's transporting them into the world of dreams and the Sky Witch is putting curses on them and camp is a mess and their allies are hiding in tents and the woods and stuff, and the knight Vlawyn the Ket is pinned to the ground by a wind spell, and there's a mighty storm and pouring rain that's keeping them from moving at full speed, and the Sky Witch casts a spell that makes Malachai the Dwarf shoot straight up into the sky at a rate of 400' a round, but the team has a good idea, and Sad Ed gets up next to the Sky Witch and uses his magic crimson ring that causes him to switch places with the wearer of its twin crimson ring, luckily worn by Malachai the Dwarf, who then decapitates the Sky Witch and slaughters Corvenon. The storm ends, the dust settles, they bring their dead compatriots back to the life, and the party realizes that the Sky Witch left behind her Flying Fortress.

"Just a quick look around to make sure it's safe. We cleared pretty much everything the first time through, but I think we missed a couple rooms"

They go inside and immediately fight a Titanite Demon in the room they missed. They find the World Map in the witch's bedroom, with a mic that connects straight the Saliflax the Fire Elemental who drives the fortress. They discover that the fortress can't land, as it's been cleaved from the earth until the end of time, and if ever it does touch land, it will never be able to fly again. They break the news to Saliflax that they killed his boss, which he's sad about, but he gets over it quick because he's a Fire Elemental and they work through their feelings faster. And then they come across a gigantic painting in the ballroom of a stone building on top of a snowy mountain. They never got the chance to fuck with it before, since previously this room was the site of a masquerade put on by wind spirits, who had all been killed by another, more evil, more powerful spirit the players accidentally/on purpose released. Anyway Dirtface the Barbarian, who's played as much Dark Souls as me, gets excited and goes up to it. It's like thirty feet tall.

"Does it draw me in?"

"No... SMH"

"Is there anything on its frame or like underneath it?"

"No? There's nothing there"

"Hmm... I touch the picture"

"Oh, it tries to draw you in"

Very excited, the whole team gets drawn into... THE PAINTED MONASTERY OF ST LLOYD THE MONSTER.

Cue, a mixture of Aramis, Ariandel, Senpou Temple, and Sunken Valley. A frozen monastery on a mountain-top guarded by katana wielding monkeys and two crimson scorpions singing an anarchic, unharmonious song. In the depths of the monastery, the former monks, corrupted into dragon-like abominations by the blood they had injected into themselves, which they had harvested from St Lloyd himself, now locked away in the monastery's inner sanctum. Mosquito men, mimics, alligator men, undead monks controlled puppet-like by the blood they had shed in self flagellation. A sane and uncorrupted monk, who murdered his abominable brothers, and locked himself in a cell in penitence. A thirty foot guardian ape protected by divine radiance. A long-bearded monkey master and his family of golden monkeys. A corrupting disease settling into the bodies of all who dwelt here. A headless, rotten undead dragon, sitting on a snow-covered bridge. Talk of the original monastery, a Monastery of the Black Wind, where this painting was made to hold the abominable Saint Lloyd, who is said to have come across a wounded Divine Being in the wastes, and mingled its blood with his own, thus becoming Sainted. They were told that Saint Lloyd guards the only way out of the painting.

Me: "You could also cast Gate or Plane Shift to leave any time you want."

Them: "That's Okay"

Proceeds to teleport the undead dragon off its bridge and cast Meteor Swarm on it from afar as it flails helplessly in the snow 600' below until it dies.

They're level 23. We're having fun!

Monday, August 16, 2021

should the game world act the way the players want it to?

 Consider a pretty common scenario: players meet a monster and want to manipulate it into doing something. They have a spell or ability and are trying to use it in an unusual or counterintuitive way to achieve a result the DM does not expect. When does it do what the player wants it to?

A few things I keep in mind for this decision:

1. It's fun and rewarding for player to have agency and get a result they want

2. Players make sense of things differently than the DM might make sense of things

3. DM's job is also to create an appropriately challenging experience. Denying a result will make an experience that feels more challenging, whether fairly or not

4. A world that works consistently and in a way that matches our reality will reward lateral and creative thinking, thus creating a more engaging game

5. In fantasy, there are physics that have no analogue to real life, and cannot be modeled through common sense.

6. In real life, sometimes the world behaves in ways that don't make sense to us, because we don't see the whole picture. This is true in video games as well -- we hope that our new spell or gun will work in some way, or that physics will interact together in a particular way, but in fact they do not. 

7. Sometimes the player simply has a bad idea

8. Sometimes, the DM might have an unconscious or difficult to articulate reason for why something shouldn't work the way a player wants. In my experience I've sometimes found that reasons might lie in barely perceived interactions with other game mechanics. Sometimes there are other reasons.

9. The DM might want to provide a certain aesthetic experience that resists something working the way the player wants it to. 

10. When the DM doesn't allow the world to act in the way the player wants, the player may feel as though the world is intractable or unresponsive, or that the DM is being hard-headed or stubborn instead of reasonable, particular if the reason doesn't make sense to the player

11. A world that feels intractable to the player is probably the worst possible outcome. The greatest strength of role playing games is complete freedom of imagination, so a break-down in that aspect is really undesirable. As game narrows in tractability, it becomes less and less engaging, until player will disengage and do the next most interesting thing to them, or if nothing is available, find a way to cope with the situation. 

12. A tool that can be used here is the relationship between player and DM. If DM can communicate that they realize that the outcome may be disappointing, or any other variation of what is going on for them in the moment which maintains the emotional connection, this can really ameliorate some of the bad outcomes. 

With that in mind, I tend away from automatic "yes" and maybe hew a little too close to automatic "no." It's been helpful for me to experiment with playing games that are really built around collaboration and lateral problem solving, like White Hack. In 5e D&D, players are so powerful that I tend toward no. I wonder if this could be improved on my part?? On the other hand, see point 8 above.

Makes me wanna play more White Hack.