Wednesday, March 21, 2018

[D&D] [Review] The Red Prophet Rises

I don't really do reviews. Mostly that's because I don't really buy new gaming stuff - both because I already have a lifetime supply, and because most of the new stuff I do run across tends to not be very good (or, more charitably, doesn't line up particularly well with my tastes). Nonetheless, occasionally people will give me stuff for free, and that's what happened here: one of the authors of this module (Malrex) reached out and asked if I'd be willing to read it and share my feedback if he gave me a free copy and I said yes. I gave it a quick skim-read, and found it surprisingly not-bad, and shared my thoughts with the author. And since I've already written them down, I figured I might as well post them here as well, as a review of sorts. The first part is background and summary for the benefit of people who aren't the module's author, followed by my reactions and opinions, pretty much directly copied and pasted from what I already sent to Malrex a few days ago.

The Red Prophet Rises, co-written by Malrex and Prince of Nothing, is a 40-ish page AD&D-ish adventure for characters level 3-5, published by The Merciless Merchants and available for $5 in pdf format (or $10 in print) from Drive-Thru RPG. It's a location-based adventure centering around a canyon occupied by a particularly nasty and brutish gang of cultists and a set of caves beneath their lair, of which they're at least mostly unaware, in which assorted ancient horrors dwell. There's a special horse being held captive that can become the mount of a paladin character, which is a possible hook to draw the players into the adventure; otherwise the DM is left to his or her own devices how to use this adventure (making it truly modular). The cultists in the canyon are bad guys to the core, keeping slaves and making regular bloody sacrifices to their Bull God. This is described in a fair amount of gory detail, but it doesn't go totally over the top. The level of gore is probably about on the level of Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventures from the 80s. Which brings up possibly the oddest aspect of this adventure, that it's rather-inexplicably labeled as being for use with the "For Gold & Glory" ruleset which, from what I gather, is an OGL "retro-clone" equivalent to 2nd edition AD&D. This is an odd choice by the authors, because not only did I not notice any particularly 2E-ish elements in the adventure (the NPCs don't have "kits" or "wild magic" or flintlock pistols or any of that stuff, the only specialist wizards are illusionists, etc.) but the tone and style of the adventure is very far from what I think of as "2nd edition AD&D" style: it's dark and bloody, and it's also location-based and open-ended, with minimal backstory and no real "story" except what happens in play. I'm sure the authors had reasons of their own for labeling the book this way, but it seems to me like an odd choice that will probably limit their audience, because people who like the 2E flavor won't like this adventure, and the people who would be more likely to like it probably won't even bother looking at something labeled as crypto-2E. With some very minor changes in the statblocks, this module could just have easily have been released for OSRIC (the 1st edition retro-clone), for which I think it would be a much more natural fit.

And with those preliminaries out of the way, here's what I did (and didn't) like about this adventure based on my skim-reading (I can't claim to have read every word of every encounter, but I feel like I read enough to get a pretty good feel for it):

In general, I like it. I like the set-up with the obvious bad guy cultists on the surface and the more mysterious and weird stuff hidden underneath. That's a pretty standard D&D adventure trope (e.g. Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun) but it's one of my favorites, and the way they've handled it here doesn't just feel like a rehash of earlier work. I like that the villains seems really villainous but without dwelling so much on the gore and cruelty that it feels like they're reveling in or getting off on it. It feels like a situation that could be straight out of a Conan story, which for me is a good thing. I like that the canyon is described in an open-ended manner so there are several different ways the players can approach and deal with it, that there are several flavorful NPCs and potential rival factions, and that there's a suggested timeline of events to make the location seem "alive" (and not just have everybody sitting in their rooms waiting for somebody to come kill them) but that it's not fixed on rails: there are some implicit or potential "scenes" but none of them are fixed or mandatory. I like the way the room descriptions are written and organized, with an introductory paragraph followed by bullet-points enumerating special features and/or possible actions and conditions in a very user-friendly manner that seems like it would work very well at the table - better than when reading. The way the room descriptions include the possibility of different conditions depending on when and how the adventurers encounter them (e.g. that various NPCs and monsters may or may not be present) reminds me a bit of some of my favorite adventures like Dark Tower and Snakepipe Hollow (the latter a RuneQuest adventure).

On the minus side, though, it feels really overwritten to me - like they've taken a situation worth about 20 pages and filled 40 pages with it. The setup feels to me like something that should be a pretty minor adventure - that should fill one or two sessions of play - but the authors have gotten carried away and added too much to it. The adventure details 43 locations, every one of which is described sufficient detail to make it at least potentially a significant and unique encounter. This seems overdone to me: since there are so many rooms and every one of them is something new and different and active there's no real "downtime" - no rising and falling action, but rather it seems like it's "all climax." It feels to me like the authors have crammed too much into the package - that they had so many good ideas and wanted to include all of them - and I think the adventure would've worked just as well (and would probably also be easier to run) if it had about half as many encounters, or at least if there had been more "mundane" stuff mixed in as palate-cleansers to help pace the big moments.

The treasure in the adventure is the same way: all (or almost all) of the treasure is unique magic items with individual names and paragraph-long descriptions of their various functions, most including both benefits and drawbacks for their users. To me this felt like too much, not necessarily the quantity of items as the number of moving parts per item, especially in combination, and especially if the adventure is played as part of a campaign where the players will keep these items and accumulate more on top of them. I know it's conventional wisdom nowadays that generic and from-the-book magic items - +x weapons, etc. - are boring and should be avoided, but in play these things work, because the players get the benefit of them without having to actively think about them, to remember and track all of the moving pieces. Standard magic items are the background against which the unique and colorful items stand out, but when everything is unique and colorful it becomes a burden and frustration, too much to deal with.

Now I get that the authors are in kind of an odd and difficult spot because this is something that they're asking people to pay money for, so they feel the need to give the audience their money's worth in terms of density of fresh and unique stuff that feels like something most readers couldn't have just come up with on their own, and I accept that that's a legitimate concern and that they've maybe handled it in the way they felt was best (make everything special!), but I don't think that necessarily makes for the best adventure to actually sit down and play at the table with a group of friends. If I were to run this in an actual game (and the fact that I'm even thinking in that way means that they've mostly succeeded) I feel like I'd probably end up cutting about half of it out.

Of course I might use something that I cut out of this somewhere else (it's not that I think the encounters are bad, just that there are too many of them; e.g. there are two full pages devoted to a hidden alchemy lab that feel completely excessive to me in this context, but I could totally see this room being inserted into another dungeon where it would fit just fine), and other DMs who feel the same way as I do might choose to cut other encounters than I would (kind of like how everybody agrees that the Beatles' White Album would've been better as a single album but no two fans will ever agree on exactly which songs should have been included on that hypothetical album). Plus we know  that most people who buy this (or any other module) aren't going to actually run it - they're going to dream about it and hopefully draw some inspiration from it and maybe strip-mine some material out of it. So, in that regard, this grousing should be taken with a grain of salt and the authors probably know what they were doing better than my armchair second-guessing gives them credit for. Being in a position that an adventure has too much interesting stuff that you need to trim some of it out to make it manageable to is certainly preferable to the all-too-common alternative of boring adventures that offer nothing that hasn't already been seen a thousand times before or incomplete adventures that the reader/would-be DM has to effectively co-write to turn into something decent and usable.

Friday, March 2, 2018

[D&D] Focused Energy Activation Techniques

Characters who have received special training may concentrate and focus their personal energy (ki or qi) and then release it in a sudden burst to achieve a superhuman or spell-like effect. Each such activation technique must be learned separately, and a character may only learn as many different techniques as their wisdom score divided by 3 (rounding down).

Activating a minor technique costs one Joss Factor per use. Characters of 5th level or higher may activate moderate techniques at a cost of two JF per use. Major techniques may only be activated by characters of 11th level or higher and cost three JF per use.

In order to activate a technique the character must either give an emphatic shout (kiai or equivalent) simultaneously with performing the action that activates the technique or must concentrate for 1-3 full rounds before performing the action that activates the technique. Most techniques can be activated by either means, though some will obviously require one method or the other.

Generally speaking a technique cannot be activated multiple times in order to stack its effects, but multiple techniques can be in effect at the same time, and those with durations may be re-activated in order to extend the duration (with each activation requiring that additional JF be spent, naturally).

The ease or difficulty with which characters may locate masters capable of training them in the various techniques, how long the training takes to complete, and the payment in goods or services that the masters will demand in exchange for the training, are all entirely at the discretion of the DM according to the feel desired for his or her individual campaign, though it is recommended in any case that only NPCs be capable of providing training in these techniques.

In the WORLD OF GREYHAWK setting, these techniques are generally only known and taught in the areas of and surrounding the Celestial Empire of Suhfang, far to the west of the Flanaess. The techniques are jealously guarded secrets by the sects who have mastered them, and certainly any outlander barbarian (and note that in Suhfang all outlanders are considered to be barbarians) who traveled to those lands would face great difficulty convincing any master or school of his or her worthiness to be taken on as a pupil and initiated into the mysteries of even a minor technique. Within that realm, individuals who show promise are typically inducted into an organized school or sect as children, based on their family’s caste and status. Each such school retains the knowledge of up to three techniques (one each minor, moderate, and major) that are passed on to the pupils as they reach the appropriate stage in their training.  For example, the legendarily secretive assassin’s guild known as the Hidden Army, in addition to training its members in the mundane skills of the assassin and acrobat classes, is rumored to also teach its most promising initiates the secret energy activation techniques of regulated breathing and water walking, and perhaps even to possess knowledge of the ultimate secret technique of phase shifting

Seeking out knowledge of additional, or different, techniques requires either ingratiating into a rival sect by deception or trickery (which, if discovered, causes both grievous loss of honor to the character’s family and likely expulsion from the character’s own sect) or seeking out a hidden or remote individual master. After locating such a master, a formidable quest in itself, the prospective pupil must convince the master of their worthiness to be taken into service. This likely involves fulfilling a series of difficult tasks or quests as dictated by the master. Once the master has agreed to take on a pupil, several game months of time are required for each technique during which the pupil may perform no other activity than exercise, training, and meditation. At the end of each month of training the character has a cumulative 25% chance of mastering the technique, up to a maximum of 90%. Should the character ever roll a 00 on this check then that character will never be able to master this technique from this master. 

Minor Techniques:

  • Blind Fighting: Upon activating this technique, the character suffers no penalties for operating in darkness, or from blindness, for a duration of one turn.
  • Danger Sense: By means of this technique the character’s senses are heightened for one turn, doubling the character’s normal chance of hearing noise and spotting traps, and halving their chance to be surprised.
  • Graceful Step: By means of this technique the character exhibits perfect balance, including the ability to balance on something as narrow as a tightrope or as light as a single tree-branch, and also gains a +25% bonus to move silently checks (or a +1 bonus to achieve surprise, for non-thieves) for a duration of one turn.
  • Hare’s Speed:  Activating this technique doubles the character’s normal movement rate for a duration of one turn.
  • Power Surge: Activation of this technique allows the character to focus a surge of additional energy into a single action, which can take the form of one extra attack, or maximum damage on a single attack, or an increase in the power of a single spell as if it were cast by a character three levels higher than the character.
  • Protective Aura: Activation of this technique raises an invisible aura around the character which grants a +2 bonus to the character’s armor class, +2 bonus to all saving throws, and +20 additional psionic defense points (if relevant) for a duration of one turn.
  • Quick-draw: Activation of this technique gives the character a sudden burst of speed, giving a +3 bonus to initiative for one round. Note that this applies to any action for that round – including, for instance, initiating spell casting - and not just to drawing a weapon.
  • Regulated Breathing: By means of this technique the character is able to regulate their breathing to allow either holding his or her breath entirely for a one turn + one round per level (thus allowing the character to operate underwater or resist the effects of gasses), or to slow down breathing, heart rate, and body temperature so as to feign death (as the monk ability) for a duration of one turn per level of the character.

Moderate Techniques:

  • Boar's Resilience: By means of this activation the character’s will is so strongly focused that he or she will remain conscious and continue fighting or other activity even after being reduced to a negative hit point total of up to the character’s constitution score (i.e. a character with a 14 constitution may remain active with up to -14 hit points) for up to one turn. At the end of that turn, if the character has not been restored to a positive hit point total, or should the total negative hit point total exceed the character’s constitution score, then he or she will fall unconscious and begin bleeding out per the standard procedure (q.v. DMG p. 82) if the negative total is up to -9, or die immediately should the total equal or exceed -10.
  • Fear-inducing Shout: When this technique is activated by means of a mighty shout, all enemies within 30' radius of the shouting character must make a successful saving throw vs. spells or flee for 1-4 rounds as if affected by a fear wand.
  • Mighty Leaping: Activating this technique allows the character to make one leap for every four levels the character has attained of up to 50' each – forward, backward, or vertical. Each leap takes but a single segment to perform, and the character may use this technique to leap into melee, which is treated as a charge attack, or out of melee, in which case the opponent does not get a parting shot (unless he or she is also capable of leaping and chooses to pursue).
  • Missile Deflection: When this technique is activated the character’s reflexes are sharpened to such a degree that he or she is able to dodge or deflect any missile attack upon a successful saving throw vs. petrification, or may attempt to catch missiles, with a chance of success equal to the character’s dexterity score x3 as a percentage (i.e. 45% for a character with a 15 dexterity) for thrown missiles, or the character’s dexterity score as a percentage for missiles launched by device (i.e. bow, crossbow, or sling). The activation persists for one round per level of the character.
  • Pinpoint Strike: By activating this technique, the character may make a single attack with pinpoint accuracy, so as to ignore an opponent’s armor completely or otherwise to target a precise location. By means of this technique, a character could, for example, snatch out an unwary opponent's eyeball.
  • Resist Elements: Activation of this technique allows the character to function as if under the effect of a resist fire and resist cold spell for a duration of one turn per level of the character, and as if under the effect of the endure cold/endure heat spell for a duration of one hour per level.
  • Water Walking: This technique allows the character to walk upon water at his or her full normal movement rate for a duration of one turn + one round per level.
  • Weapon-breaking Strike: By means of this technique, a single successful hit does not inflict any damage on the opponent but instead requires that individual to succeed in a saving throw vs. petrification or his or her weapon breaks and shatters. Magic weapons add their “plus” value to the saving throw and any weapon of +4 or higher is unbreakable except by a weapon of equal or greater power (i.e. a +5 sword can only be broken by another +5 or better weapon).

Major Techniques:

  • Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique: By means of this technique, the character makes a single open-handed attack with the same effect as the monk’s quivering palm ability.
  • Indomitable Will: When this technique is activated the character’s force of will is strengthened so as to render the character totally immune to all mind-affecting spells and effects, and to all manner of psionic attack, for a duration of one round per level of the character.
  • Levitation: Activation of this technique allows the character to levitate, as per the magic-user spell, simply by willing it so, with a duration of one turn per level of the character. As with all energy activation techniques, this ability is not considered to be magical in nature and is thus not subject to dispel magic, magic resistance, or anti-magic effects.
  • Paralyzing Shout: The force of this great shout causes all enemies within 30' radius of the shouting character to make a saving throw vs. spells or paralyzed and held immobile in place, unable to attack, move, or even speak, for 1-6 rounds.
  • Phase Shift: When this technique is activated, the character becomes ethereal (cf. oil of etherealness) for a duration of one round for every four levels of the character.
  • Whirlwind Attack: When this technique is activated, the character is allowed to make a full round’s worth of melee attacks upon each opponent within a 10' radius of the character.