Monday, November 23, 2009

Campaign Journal #8- Burning Bridges in a Town with No Bridges

Again the party found themselves beginning the adventure in town. They still had some time to kill while waiting for payment from Lord Monty and for Lela’s performance at the Goldborn residence in several days, though they suspected things may be a little dicey around Bowerstone considering the heist at the docks from the prior night. That morning Mgabwe purchased a scroll of Break Enchantment and used it to free Al’londia from her stony constraints. A bit bitter, but more anxious to stretch her legs the elf departed from the party, vowing to regroup at a later date.

Deciding it was in their best interest to figure out what was happening in town Lela, Henri, and Romulus went out on a fact finding mission to gauge the town views on what happened at the docks the night before. The extremely charming Lela set to work and learned that some were talking about the incident, but it by no means dominated the news cycle. However it was clear that Arlen Starcrush was the target of the heist since it was his package that was stolen and not much else. The party was predictably concerned about making enemies with a retired conjurer.

Glee went out to spend some party gold at Up in Arms, the weapon shop run by Percy the survivalist nut orc. After trying on many items he settled on a +1 Greatsword and a suit of +1 glamered studded leather. Like I had mentioned in a previous post

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bohnanza Revisited

Recently our gaming group has played a couple of games of Bohnanza, everyone’s favorite bean farming game. However, I’ve had to reconsider some of my thoughts on the game because two aspects of it. One, we actually have not been playing the game the correct way. Two, Bohnanza is an excellent two player game.

So, apparently we’ve been playing Bohnanza all wrong the entire time. I feel foolish about it, especially since I’m usually the one who reads the rules and figures out how games work. While playing the other night Cris pointed out that she thought we were doing a couple of things wrong. Turns out she was right. Apparently she learned something about farming this summer. Somehow I manage to totally misinterpret two pretty important rules and created a new version of the game, one that breaks from the actual game in a couple of key aspects. In a strange twist the rules that we’ve been playing with are like a Bizarro version, here’s what we’ve been doing. The first mistake was allowing a player to dig up any bean field when they had to plant and had no open spaces, rather than the actual rule of harvesting the bean field that is the largest. Pretty big difference? It is, though the other one is even more significant, I think. During the donation and auction phase of the turn a player can turn down a donation from another player, we had been playing that you must take any cards that the other player gives to you. Which was often a very destructive way to play the game, essentially because your opponent was giving you cards that you had to play. If we had only done one of these wrong I don’t think the game would have worked and we would have been left scratching our heads (and probably figured out how it actually works), but with both mistakes they sort of cancelled each other out. Here is the difference; in the correct version a player has a great deal of control over what they plant in their fields, however when forced to plant they can’t control what gets dug up. In our renegade version a player was often forced into planting cards that they did not want, however they had total control over what was harvested. In the end our game worked fine, but I do think that the actual rules are the better ones.

I’m not sure why I read the rules this way, they are pretty clear. Not having to accept donations is even printed in bold! So how did this happen? I have a theory. When we first got Bohnanza earlier this year and started playing it a bunch, we had just come out of a phase of playing a lot of Munchkin. Because of the cut-throat nature of Munchkin I think that we were in the mindset that the goal of games is to screw the other players and make their life miserable, therefore it made perfect sense that you would be sticking it to the other bean farmers by forcing wax beans into their plentiful fields of cocoa and black eyed. And considering how much we embraced this idea one thing is quite clear. We are rotten people who delight in making games harder for one another.

The more pleasant discovery involving Bohnanza is that it is a really great two player game. There are several key changes to the game from the normal version, but simple changes that are easy to adapt to. The biggest difference is that any cards left over during the auction phase do not have to be taken by the player or traded, any beans left stay on the board and the opposing player has the option of taking or discarding these beans at the beginning of their turn. The other interesting wrinkle is that the top card in the discard pile is added to the face up auction cards if they match. For example: a green bean is put face up during step three of the turn, the top card in the discard pile is also a green bean, so the discarded bean is placed on top of the other one creating a stack of two cards that can be taken by the player or traded. This creates a whole new strategy that involves selling off at key times and creating large piles on the board. I highly recommend the two player variant of Bohnanza. Twice Mike and I played last night (he won once, and we tied the other) and I suspect we will play again soon.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Campaign Journal #7- Heist at the Docks

After a couple of days of relaxing around town and gathering information, the party was clearly lusting for combat and treasure, fortune and (mis)adventure. Gathered at the house they have rented from Lord Montgomery the party weighed the options before them; a return to the Medusa mountains, investigating spies on behalf of the DuChamp family, trying to learn more about the mysterious child in their care, and slaughtering everything that crosses their path. While pondering these lofty issues there was a knock at the door. A messenger from Lord Monty said that the shady nobleman wanted to see them immediately.

After traveling up the hill to his house, Lord Monty presented them with a job. Due to the illegal nature of it he withheld the details until they accepted, though he assured them it was suited to their strengths and that it would pay very generously.

Touch of Evil review

An evil force has descended upon the small town of Shadowbrook; killing the town elders, terrorizing the countryside, and unleashing hordes of minions on the roads to devour all travelers unlucky enough to enter into this sleepy little hamlet. It is up to a motley assortment of playwrights, nobles, and school teachers to save the town and defeat the monster lurking in the shadows. In A Touch of Evil players take on the roles of citizens in colonial America attempting to hunt down this greater evil and save the day. Much like it’s predecessor Last Night on Earth (the only other offering from Flying Frog Games), A Touch of Evil has multiple scenarios, characters, and a narrative story telling element that runs through the game. I’m a big fan of LNOE so I was eager to give this game a try and see what it had going for it.

The look of the game is very similar to LNOE, with actors portraying the characters and depicting the events on the various cards in the game. Personally, I like the look of it. In some ways it seems a little too slick, but I think it holds together nicely and is certainly a nice change of pace from the art in most games out there. The characters are all represented by somewhat bland grey figurines, they have a decent amount of detail to differentiate themselves from one another, but I found that we all had take a second look throughout the game to make sure that we were moving the right piece. Some of the pieces were also a little bent coming out of the box, Thomas the Courier has a strange lean to him that resembles Michael Jackson in the Moonwalker video. There are also a ton of small cardboard tiles that go along with the game. They represent minions, attribute boosts, wounds, and a million other aspects of the game. Some tiles don’t really have a function in the game; players are encouraged to create scenarios and use these extra tiles. I don’t think this open philosophy works as well in TOE as it does in LNOE since the game is essentially wed to the basis of heroes hunting down a monster, as opposed to LNOE where the goal for each game can vary greatly with both the heroes and the zombies being the protagonist in any given scenario. I don’t see how TOE can exist as anything other than the heroes going after the monster, though I suppose some custom scenarios can add a twist to this.

Another aspect of the components that really jumped out at me when I was opening the game was how small the actual game board is. Really, it’s almost tiny which I found to be silly. Then we played and noticed how many peripherals wind up surrounding the game. There are numerous stacks of cards, counters, minions, the villain sheet, the characters, and others. Taking those into account the game actually has a pretty big footprint on one’s gaming table. So clearly it was a good idea to make the board on the smaller side, otherwise it would actually be pretty gigantic.

The object of the game is to hunt down the creature to it’s lair and defeat it in combat, thus saving the town. There are four possible villains operating behind the scenes. The Spectral Horseman, Vampire, Werewolf, and Scarecrow each have different powers and minions to unleash on the heroes. It is also possible for no player to emerge victorious and for evil to triumph. The game contains a shadowtrack that starts at 20, throughout the game certain actions cause it to go down. If the shadowtrack ever goes below 1 then the game is lost as the villains hold on Shadowbrook becomes complete. Scary times. The cost of purchasing a lair card also decreases as the shadowtrack moves down, which figures into the strategy in the game.

The game itself plays pretty easy for the most part, though the end showdown with the villain seems a little bit confusing. Players go in order (beginning with the First Player, a title which moves each round) and only have a couple of choices available to them. They roll and move around the board, fight any monsters they may pass, and then encounter the space that they are in. Encountering the space can produce a myriad of results; from being attacked by a minion, finding a treasure, drawing an event card, and others. After this they can also purchase a lair card, peek at a town elder’s secret, or heal a wound. Very easy to manage. After each player has done this a Mystery card is drawn and the results applied. The Mystery card represents the villain exerting his power over the area and usually has negative consequences for everyone involved. It’s similar to the Infection deck in Pandemic or the Black cards in Shadows Over Camelot.

When a lair card has been purchased a player may travel to the location named on the card and fight the villain, with victory in this combat winning the game. The villains are very tough and help is usually required in the battle, help which takes the form of the town elders. A group of six mysterious citizens, the elders come to the aid of the hero in the climactic showdown. Before the fight begins the hero has the option of taking up to two of these people to assist in his fight, but there is a twist. At the start of the game each elder is randomly given a secret card. Some of the secrets have no effect, some have a positive affect, and others are negative and take the form of the elder secretly plotting with the villain. Because of this it is essential that the player investigate the elders before enlisting their aid, it’s a nasty surprise to find out that your ally Lord Holbrook is actually in cahoots with the evil Scarecrow. Once an elder has been revealed as evil he stays with the villain for the rest of the game. I think. This is one of the areas where the game is not all that clear on what happens. My biggest complaint with the showdown is that in both of the games that we played the same thing happened. One of the players challenged the villain and damaged it, but eventually came up short. Right after this the next player challenged it and was able to defeat it because the villain did not have a chance to heal it’s wounds. It doesn’t seem all that heroic to sneak up on the vampire and take him out because someone else brought him to death’s door.

The general theme of the game is that the players are investigating the mystery and ultimately trying to track the villain down to his lair and slay it. Feeding into this players collect investigation points for most things that they do. Battle a minion and kill it? Get some investigation points to reflect what you learned from it. Encounter a creepy scene in the Abandoned Keep? Investigation points represent clues left at the spot. Investigation points are essentially the currency of the game and can be used to purchase items, learn secrets, and hunt down the monster.

The heroes in the game are an interesting mix of colonial types. We’ve got a soldier, some nobles, an investigator, even a playwright. The characters in the game all have a special ability or two, and a score in four attributes; Spirit, Cunning, Combat, and Honor. These stats are frequently used to determine the success of an investigation using a target number system. Example: when encountering a ghost in the Olde Woods a player is required to make a 5+ Spirit check, with each result garnering an investigation point. Say you have a Spirit of 3, you would then roll 3 dice and each result of 5 or higher counts as a success and gets you a point. Areas of the board focus on certain skills, so it makes sense to hang around the Windmill if Cunning is a strongpoint for your character.

Combat is also an integral part of the game, with the heroes frequently finding themselves waylaid by Barghest Hounds and Ghost Soldiers. One of the aspects of combat that I do like is that all the rolls are resolved simultaneously, so even if you kill the Feral Kin in one round it still has a chance to inflict some wounds on you. One of the odder aspects of combat, and one that I don’t like as much, is that you can’t really get killed. If a character fills up all their wound markers they are merely moved back to Town Hall, with no long term loss. Due to the sequence of the turn though it may result in the loss of a turn for the character if they are defeated turning the Mystery phase, rather than during their turn.

I’m a fan of games that are able to weave together good mechanics with a plot that works well with the game elements, and this is something that TOE does really well. I like the way that the Mystery cards show the power and influence of the villain in a sneaky way. Like any good mastermind they deal from the shadows and operate in back channels. They assassinate elders, send out henchmen, and corrupt the townsfolk. There is nothing groundbreaking about the way that the game runs, I feel like I’ve seen a variation of just about all the rules in one game or another. But that should not take away from the fun of the game, which is in ample supply.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Campaign Journal #6- Men About Town

For the first time since the initial adventure in the campaign the party is back in town, having arrived at Bowerstone early in the morning after traveling through the night. Because of real world obligations Al’londia, Mgabwe, and Henri would not be with us, leaving the party of Glee, Romulus, and Lela alone to get into all sorts of trouble. The entire adventure was spent in the town; making contacts, setting up future work engagements, buying and selling, and nearly blinding half of the town’s residents.

Lela had her scheduled debut performance at the Bandit Mask the evening that they arrived. After getting some rest she headed over to the place and found that she was the opening act for someone named Vinegar Bend, a lute player who seemed to have a following in the region. Prior to the performance Lela had purchased a new pearl buttoned fancy outfit from the Silver Needle, a high end clothing shop in town. Originally hesitant to spend the money (450gp), she returned and bought the outfit after attempted bullying of the shopkeeper on the part of Romulus. It did nothing to lower the price. Back at the tavern the crowd seemed lively and Lela launched into her distinctive brand of storytelling whistling, recounting the recent saga of the medusas without words.

Fochlucan Lyrist prestige class

When I first read about the Fochlucan Lyrist I thought it was about the most powerful prestige class I had seen. I mean really, it has a ton of stuff going for it. But then I looked into it some more and thought that it was actually one of the worst because of the requirements to get into it. Now? I’m not so sure what to think about it. For starters, what is this class? It appears to be some sort of nature bard that is skilled in the social arts. A lot of times I like to look at a class and try to find an example of it from history, literature, film, or whatever. The best comparable I could come up with for the Fochlucan Lyrist is Tom Bombadil. Diplomat, warrior, and all around nature expert. Seems like a pretty good fit, so that is kind of what I have in mind when picturing this class. Bombadil was quite the enigma, so how does this play out as a D&D character. Let’s take a look.

The vitals for the class are the best in all of D&D, I’m pretty certain of this. Two good saves (Will and Reflex), full Base Attack, 6+ skill points a level, and a d6 Hit Die. The Hit Die is really the only non awesome part of that. But it gets better. It also has full advancement of both arcane and divine magic, and advances Bardic Music and Bardic Knowledge. Wow, that is a ton of features for one class. It excels in every aspect of character development and, as a ten level prestige class, there is plenty to go around. The only ability it gets (aside from the above) is Unbound at 1st level, which allows them to look past the druids non metal armor taboo, letting them where light metal armor with no spell failure. So what’s the downside?

The requirements for the Lyrist are very demanding, but they are actually a good set of skills to have. There are just a lot of them. Unlike some other classes that essentially have some requirements that are a throwaway to just get into the class, all of the prerequisites for the Lyrist are worthwhile, just very spread out and require multiple sources. To enter into the esteemed Fochlucan College a character must be able to cast 1st level arcane and divine spells, have bardic knowledge, evasion, a neutral alignment (but not LN), seven ranks of Decipher Script (that may be the only clunker), Diplomacy, Gather Information, Knowledge (Nature), and Sleight of Hand, 13 ranks of Perform (Stringed), and speak Druidic. That is a ton of stuff and, while individually all good, they don’t happen to synergize all that well as far as source is concerned. So what are we looking at here? At least one level of bard and druid, plus two levels of rogue for evasion (though I suppose you could also take nine levels of ranger, though that seems weird). However, since the Perform needs 13 ranks a character can’t get into the class until their 11th level, so that leaves six levels to play around with. This character is sort of rooted in a well rounded concept, so I think that spreading it around may be the best option. My favorite would be Rogue 3/Bard 4/Druid 3 before entering. In the end that would wind up with a +17 Base Attack, 5th level Bard spells, 7th level Druid spells, and a ton of skill points. That’s a nice character who probably has a trick for all situations, though it lacks a real niche that lets it dominate situations.

The other big issue with the Lyrist is what to do with your attributes? Charisma and Wisdom probably get the two highest for the spell casting and the skill bonuses, though I see why someone would want to emphasize Dexterity as well. This character seems like they should be brilliant because of all their abilities, so Intelligence seems like it should be high as well. But from a mechanical standpoint it is not nearly as important because of all the skill points it has to play with. As with all characters Con would be great to have, especially due to the poor hit die. Strength would probably wind up on the bottom, though some buff spells are readily available to the Lyrist. If your DM lets you trade out the Druid’s companion it’s probably a good option, since it’s not going to get real powerful. If you’re stuck with it Natural Bond is probably a good feat. Anything that can capitalize on a high Wis or Cha is also a good choice.

Ultimately I think that this class is really fun because it has so many options, there are very few things that it can’t do. However, in a high powered game it will be probably be outclassed by the full casters and the hardcore melee builds. The smaller the party the more useful this class is though, since it can fill so many roles. The Lyrist makes a good healer, scout, party face, support combatant, and buffer of allies. In a heavy role play game it will frequently find itself as a focal point. It also seems to not be a great choice for a game that begins at low levels because of how spread out the abilities are and how long it takes to qualify for the class. Not sure how fun it is to have all of your skills be spread out and casting 2nd level spells when your allies are casting 5th. As an NPC or a villain it also has real issues, so much of it’s strengths are related to depth and having a ton of options, things that don’t necessarily add up to a great challenge for the PC’s. I like this class for a couple of reasons and feel that it brings a bunch to the table. I also think that the requirements for entry do a good job of balancing the power of the class; it can’t get to 9th level casting, suffers in Base Attack a bit, and has hit points on the low end.