Friday, March 26, 2010

We Hardly Knew Ye: Siron Ellysanea

(One in a series about adventurers who were better off staying at home.)

Who was he? Siron Ellysanea was a 6th level Elf Ranger/ 2nd level Catlord. A skittish fellow he grew up alone on a swampy chain of islands called The Elder’s Heart. Eventually he found companionship in one of the few creatures that he could relate to, a lion named Lionel Ritchie. Siron came into the game mid-campaign as a replacement for a Halfling paladin that had perished the week before. He was actually a pretty good character with scores of 20 in both Dexterity and Strength (thanks to some Gloves from the aforementioned departed Halfling) and could move silently like nobody’s business (+20). Plus, he was the only Catlord I had ever seen in action so I was excited to see how he was going to develop. I always felt that the Catlord was one of those bizarre prestige classes that no one would ever want to play, but I clearly was wrong. Between the high strength and two weapon fighting he was a pretty solid combatant and Lionel Ritchie brought a lot to the table thanks to Natural Bond. Siron was sort of catlike in appearance, though not to the extent that that weird catwoman is, and slinked around like a feline. He had whiskers.

I think that he had the potential to be a very fun character. Keeping in the spirit of being a cat, his favored enemies were vermin and birds. His only dream in life was to get off the island that he was born on and in the group of adventurers he had just met he saw that opportunity. Seeing him in civilization would have been very amusing.

What happened? Siron was a little too good at moving silently. He decided to sneak away from the party when entering into an abandoned manor rumored to be inhabited by some sort of necromancer. His moving silently got him in with no problem, unfortunately neither his spot nor his hide were all that great. Two skills that are pretty essential to both locating and staying hidden from the type of evil assassins that lurk in the shadows of abandoned manor houses. Siron fell victim to the much maligned Death Attack ability of the class. I thought that his chances of living were pretty good. The DC was 17 and he had a +8 Fort save, but the dice were not on his side and the assassin’s blade slid into his heart, killing him instantly. Lionel Ritchie followed suit moments later. Poor Siron lasted all of an adventure and a half.

Normally I don’t feel bad when characters die, however this one got me a little bit. Mainly because it was the second character that died for this player in three sessions. But as one of the other players said afterwards, “It keeps us on our toes.”

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hall of Fame: City of Greyhawk boxed set

As a young Dungeon Master in the early 90’s I frequently ran parties through the wonderful campaign setting of Greyhawk. Sure, from time to time we found adventure in the macabre land of Ravenloft or ran through Dragonlance as it burned, but our heart really belonged to Greyhawk. Nowadays I am strictly a homebrew setting type of DM, but there is one aspect of Greyhawk that I refer to from time to time. The City of Greyhawk boxed set is probably the most useful, thorough, and cool campaign supplement that I can possibly imagine. It came out in 1989 and I still find it to be extremely relevant and, despite the fact that I have read it about a thousand times, I always find something in it that I can throw into an adventure.

For a single supplement it really contained a lot of information. Inside of the box the eager DM finds waiting for him two books, four very large maps, and an entire series of short modules. The two books are really the heart of the boxed set; Greyhawk: Gem of the Flanaess details the actual city, while Greyhawk: Folk, Feuds, and Factions is all about the inhabitants of Oerth’s primary city. As a teenager I was really just beginning to hone the craft of creating adventures for players, most of the time they were one shot style games that had little to do with the previous sessions. The characters would continue and sometimes NPC’s would resurface, but the idea of actually having the PC’s inhabit a world that lived and moved not only around the PC’s, but even in their absence, was not just a novel idea but one that may have been over the head of a thirteen year old. The Greyhawk boxed set changed all of that for me. For the first time I saw a game world that existed outside of a module, that is the citizens of Greyhawk had lives that they lived that had nothing to do with the invasion of evil giants or the secret slavers latest attempt to capture unsuspecting folks. It made them so much more real, and in turn really contributed to the world that the PC’s were looting their way through. Something clicked with me and I continue to design worlds like this to this day.

I have a confession. I thought that the maps were so cool that I had one hanging on my wall as a poster. I was 27. Kidding about the 27 part, but it was hanging in my bedroom for a long time. The four maps are phenomenal. Three of them show the city from the same point of view and scale, but each has a different spin on things. One of them (my poster) has a nice color detail of the city. The buildings are all visible and the city teems with life and action. Another map shows the city with very little details, but all of the buildings and areas are marked with a number and letter, which corresponds to an entry in the Gem of the Flanaess book. I’d gaze longingly at my poster and when a building seemed intriguing to me I would look it up and learn all about it. What’s that weird building that looks like a temple at the foot of the Grand Citadel? Oh, it’s the Lord’s Tomb. It even lists the guards that will typically be there, even some of the jokes that they make when killing time. The third map shows the same view, but reveals the underground of the city. Sewers, secret passages, crypts, and even cisterns! Wow, that is some level of detail. The fourth map places Greyhawk in context with the world around it, which is cool, but why would you ever want to leave Greyhawk?

It’s not just that the boxed set contained so much information, for what is quantity without quality? But the information contained within was top notch. The NPC’s in particular were all well thought out and they all made sense. They were not just one dimensional foils for the PC’s or overly generous benefactors anxious to part with magic items. They had agendas! They had lives! They did things. One of my favorites was the detailed descriptions of Mordenkainen and the Circle of Eight. A group of nine powerful wizards, I had been using their spells for years without knowing a thing about them (for the most part, I had picked up some info here and there). Now I knew everything about them, including their relationships with one another and why they created the types of spells that they did. It was a revelation to my inquisitive mind. I had no idea that Otto was obese. Shocking. I also appreciated how several of the NPC’s were presented at several stages of their career, making it easy to drop them into any campaign. One of my favorites was Varmai Zendeihei, a young lawful good warrior working to benefit the folks of Greyhawk. Over time she discovers a paired of cursed bracers created by Vecna and slowly transforms over time into an evil, trusted agent of Iuz. The book contains stats for her various incarnations and levels of power over different points in time.

The adventure cards that came with the book were also excellent and great for a night of adventuring, usually on the outskirts of the city. Inside the box are 23 of these adventures. They were short (all the info was on both sides of a single piece of paper) and usually quirky and compelling. They range from simple (watching over a shop while the keeper is out of town on business) to deadly (retrieving a broken staff from the crypt of a lich). My personal favorite was Vote for the Goat, in which the party is hired to provide protection for a goat that is running for political office. Great stuff all around.

Of all the TSR products of my youth, the City of Greyhawk boxed set may be my favorite. Certainly the one with the most impact. It just seemed so limitless to me in it’s scope and ambition, and what was capable with a game of D&D. Do they still make things like this today? I have no idea. I hope so. I was at the bookstore the other day and noticed the obscene amount of 4th edition material that is out there, perhaps there is another City of Greyhawk out there somewhere. I would think not though. Flipping through the Greyhawk boxed set one thing that jumps out is the lack of numbers. It is not entry after entry of feats, spells, magic items, and prestige classes. It is about enhancing a game through NPC’s and a rich world to explore, rather than by elevating the power level and providing the PC’s with endless opportunities to specialize their characters.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bang: The Bullet!

As if the sexual innuendo of Bang isn’t obvious enough, I present to you the extremely phallic packaging of The Bullet. Bang: The Bullet is a collection of the original game as well as of all the expansions; Dodge City, High Noon, and a Fistful of Cards. That’s pretty great in itself but the best part of it is that the game comes in a silver bullet. All of the cards fit neatly inside of it and it travels well, as a party type game like Bang should. It was also rather cheap (about $25 for everything), making it a great excuse to indulge in something so ridiculous.

Honestly, the packaging might be overkill if you are judging it on efficiency. Bang is really just a deck of cards, so it can be kept in a much smaller container, but the bullet really lends something to the game. I’m not sure that I’ve introduced anyone to the game that was not immediately impressed by the packaging. “Wow, this game comes in a bullet? It must be a blast!” Okay, so one actually says that, but close to it. The bullet is about a foot in length and is made of some sort of thin metal (Tin? Aluminum?), a seam splits it along the side to reveal the cards that are kept within. All of the cards, about three decks worth, easily fit into slanted little pockets that keep the cards in place. Even if you toss the bullet around the cards will stay in place. It’s fairly well made, and more importantly does what it is supposed to do.

Another nice aspect of the bullet is that it also comes with a small plastic Sheriff’s badge, to be worn by the player who is the Sheriff. Obviously. Bang is one of those games that really benefits when players embrace the role that they are playing, and having an actual badge for the Sheriff is pretty awesome. Besides, no one wants to be the Sheriff since they always get killed so the badge makes it a slightly less bitter pill to swallow.

I do have some complaints about it. For starters when I received it in the mail there was a slight dent in the bullet. Bummer. I don’t mind wear and tear on my games, I just like to be the cause of it. I also don’t know if I should blame the shipper or Da Vinci Games, so I won’t hold that against the game too much. My other complaint has to do with this strange little metal disk that was attached to the bottom of the game. I assume that it is supposed to help the game stand upright, for display purposes perhaps. Not sure. However, it was so poorly attached that Katie managed to break it off before we had played a single game of Bang! Once it was off it was impossible to get back on.

It’s nice to see a company put some thought into the packaging of the game. Not just the looks from the outside, but also the functionality of the inside. There are some very good games out there that have a mess inside of them every time the box is opened, Last Night on Earth and Pandemic come to mind. With Bang: The Bullet the near perfect marriage of form and function has been achieved. Well done.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ticket to Ride review

The premise of Ticket to Ride is certainly an excellent, exciting one. A group of friends make a wager about who can visit the most cities in the United States by train over the course of seven days. They were inspired by Around the World in 80 Days. In actuality the game has very little to do with this premise, it’s really just about laying down tracks of trains all over the board. But it’s a great game. Seriously. Three to five players can get mixed up in it. Like most of the games from Days of Wonder it is easy to grasp the basic rules, but continues to grow in strategy with multiple plays.

The board is a map of the United States with cities listed all over it. There are routes that connect cities to one another, in most cases these routes are colored but in some instances they are a devoid of color shade of grey. Each player keeps a hand of train cards, essentially colored trains that match the colors on the board. In order to connect a route the player must put down the appropriate number of the correctly colored cards. For example the route running from San Francisco to Los Angeles requires either three yellow or three purple cards. If a player puts down either of those they can then place their trains along that route. (Note: there is no correlation between the color of a player’s trains and the color of a route.) The grey routes can be claimed by any colored cards, as long as they match.

The board is very nice, if somewhat bland. It does what it is supposed to do. It’s high quality and seems durable and also doubles as the scorekeeper with the ring of numbers moving along the edge of the board. My only real complaint is that Philadelphia is once again left off of a game board. Just like with Pandemic it suffers from being squeezed in between New York and Washington DC. Duluth? Really? No Philadelphia, but Duluth? The train pieces are very generic little plastic things. They do the job and not a thing else. I can live with them.

The object of the game is to accumulate the most points by constructing railroad routes all around the country and also by fulfilling the routes listed on the destination tickets that each player receives. The longer the route the more they are worth, not just in total but also on a per train ratio. A route of two trains is worth two points, so each train is worth a single point. A six train route (the largest) is worth 15 points, meaning each train is worth two a half points. Players only have a finite number of trains to use over the course of the game, everyone starts with 45, so one of the keys to victory is maximizing the value of each train with longer routes. Over the length of the game it catches up to the player who has built a series of short routes, they are just not going to have enough points at the end. Sometimes it’s necessary to get the shorter routes for the sake of a destination ticket, but too many of them will drag down your score.

The destination tickets are a tricky bunch, but sort of the key to Ticket to Ride. At the beginning of the game each player is dealt three of the tickets, they have to keep two but may keep all three if they are feeling daring. On each card are listed two cities, for example New York and Miami. There is also a number on each card which is the point bonus at the end of the game if those two cities have been connected by a route. However, if those cities have not been connected then the same amount of points is deducted from the end of game total. Some of the routes are relatively simple and only worth a few points, such as New Orleans to Chicago. Other longer routes are worth much more, Miami to Seattle being a good example. Over the course of the game a player can also choose, as an action, to get more destination tickets. They take three cards but must keep one, though they can keep up to three if they want to. So why are they so tricky? Well, if you choose to keep a card you are sort of locked into pursuing that route for the game. If it is a high point route and you don’t get it, your future as a railroad baron is not looking so hot. In the beginning it is tough to decide what to keep and what to ditch, the temptation to keep all three is always there but it’s tough to complete depending on what they are. I would not recommend trying to complete more than one 20+ point destination. Once a card is chosen you can not get rid of it, and all cards are kept hidden until the end of the game.

Gameplay is pretty straightforward, it was one of those games that I felt I understood after having read the rules through once and not even played it. Also nice is that there is very little interpretation that goes into the game. I’m not sure that a single question has come up in the half dozen times that we have played it that was not answered immediately with a quick look to the rule book. Ticket to Ride also plays pretty quickly, a usual game clocks in at around an hour making it a great weeknight game. One problem is that on each player’s turn they are really only doing one thing, so most of the time a turn comes and goes very quickly and all that has happened is that you have picked up a couple of new cards to go into your hand. At first this was odd to me, but after some time I just realized that it is the nature of the game and have embraced the fast paced style of gallivanting across the country on trains.

At first the game seems to naturally lend itself to playing defense against the other players, blocking a route that they are taking makes perfect sense. Or does it? With only 45 trains to use for building routes the trains are actually a rather limited commodity, and oftentimes it is tough to get the right color to build the path that you want. To go out of your way to mess up another player may be as damaging to you as it is to them. It is sort of a pyrrhic victory that no one comes away happy from. It is also not in the best interest of a player to break up their trains from one another. There is a ten point bonus to the player who has the most connected trains at the end of the game, a ten point bonus that often means the difference between winning and losing.

One gripe I do have with the game is the size of the cards.  The train cards wind up being shuffled several times over the course of the game and they are very small.  The result is that they frequently get shuffled poorly since they are hard to hold.  The second and third time around in the deck usually produces runs on colors that were discarded together.  Since they were discarded together and poorly shuffled they usually pop back up in the same order.  Oh look, five white trains in a row.  What an odd thing to happen.  It takes the randomness out of it and somewhat cheapens the experience.  The cards should be larger. 

I don’t have any kids, but if I did I think I would play Ticket to Ride with them. I suppose that there is something beneficial about learning geography and looking at a map, but really it’s just because it would be an excuse to play this game more. It’s fun, you can pour a ton of strategy into it if you would, and you can also play by the seat of your pants and see where it takes you.