Friday, May 8, 2015

Hoard of the Dragon Queen Chapter 4: On the road again

Once again, back with a timely update for the adventure path. At this moment of writing, we've actually managed to complete the entire thing, just two days ago, so I guess I have a lot of stuff to do before catching up on our next campaign; "Way of the Wicked". So let's get to it. After all, we're still in the first half of the campaign (the first book) which is for the majority a lousy piece of work, so thrill at the overwhelming praise and enthusiasm by which I scribble these words of worship!

You must gather your inspiration before venturing forth!
At the end of the previous chapter, the heroes had brought waste to the cultist tunnels and hopefully vanquished the dragon hatchery. At this time, they're able to head back to Greenest, rest up and resupply, before heading to the town of Elturel; about six days travel north.

This is optional, of course; what most adventurers would likely do, is to set out directly after the cultists, who by that time has more or less a day's head start. Sadly, the adventure spends preciously little time describing this, only stating that this could be an option and leaves the rest up to you. The more detailed road takes the heroes to Elturel along the road, in which they meet up with their old ally Leosin, the Harper Monk, and a potential new friend, Frume from the Order of the Gauntlet. Frume is presented as a likeable character; he's the good guy they can trust, as long as they want to compete against him in horseriding, arm-wrestling and drinking.

There seems to be one central point to this detour: introducing the heroes to two of the big factions that'll be important in the next book. Namely, the Harpers and the Order of the Gauntlet. As a GM, it's worth noticing that said factions' impression of the heroes start here already, and if they aren't on good behavior, it should reflect in the later chapters. In my case, the heroes had a hard time relating to a paladin who wanted to eat, drink and race and thus came through rather patronizing, which eventually lead Leosin and Frume to just send them on with their business.

I have one problem with this passage. It has too little point to justify the long travel. The heroes don't really learn anything new. In fact: they are the ones relaying to the NPC's what they've found out. It can easily feel like a stupid chore they just need to undertake, rather than following the cult in the first place.

What I did: I sent the heroes there, but I wish I didn't. You can easily introduce these factions in the second book. Instead, let the heroes follow the route they wish, along the tradeway. I let the heroes track the cult west, to Beregost, Candlekeep and north to Baldur's Gate for the second part of the adventure. If you're a fan of the old game by the same name, this should be a brilliant opportunity for you to revisit some old favorite locations. Odds are, that someone in your group has fond memories of those places too. You can simply add in clues at every town about 'strange wagons and riders' arriving in town and leaving just a few days before. Allow the heroes to feel that they are the one who came up with the plan and did the tracking.

Gotta make a move-action to a town that's right for the plot
The players make a short stop at Baldur's Gate before moving on. As an old veteran who's spend...way too many hours on the PC-game of the same name, I was severely alienated and didn't understand why Wizards don't capitalize more on this. The heroes make a short stop here, find some meh excuse to join the cultist-caravan along with other travelers (the book suggests body guards) and they're off. I really wish there'd have been more tribute to Baldur's Gate, though. Just listen to this description:
Baldur's Gate doesn't allow wagons, pack animals, horses or even dogs into the city. The streets are so narrow, steep and slick from the frequent rain that heavy wagons would be a menace.”

I suppose things really did deterioate greatly after that whole Child of Bhaal thing, huh...

Narrow streets?...
But I'm aware this is a highly subjective complaint. The heroes aren't expected to spend much time here anyway; it's mostly a pit stop.

As the plot moves on, it takes to the road, in which the heroes get to spy on the cultist carts from a distance, while at the same time getting to know the other people traveling with the caravan. Along the way, they encounter various events that make an otherwise dull section of the adventure much more interesting. And I'll have to admit...this was the first part of the book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Not all the encounters are equally interesting; some of them are mostly just hooks for later. And once again, we're introduced to a character who's supposed to bring another faction into play; the gnome Jamna Gleamsilver from the Zentharim and a red wizard of Thay. Again; there really is no point to include these unless you're very eager to shove factions down the heroes' throats. None of them serve any significant importance later on, their plots are kind of tame and there are several other great opportunities for you to get creative with your plots and make up your own caravan of unique and memorable individuals. Here's my setup:

A caravan master consisting of an old minotaur. Though his heritage frightens some folks, he knows his way up and down the coast better than most.

A group of wild hunting dwarves, their master a poacher and eccentric hunter of exotic animals; his beard stuffed with gems and he's always on the lookout for new prey. He's heard great things of the beasts in the North and wants to go there to hunt. He's a great chance for you to include a beast of your liking along the way, that he insists on stopping to hunt for. Say, a basilisk for example.

A husband, wife and son on their way north to Waterdeep. They wish to settle down, but their young son is very, very interested in the adventurers, hoping they'll let him in on how to be an adventurer, maybe even give him a weapon. Of course, his parents are against this.

A half-orc dealer in brass bowls and other cheap stuff. Smokes too much, wears a long coat and is very observant of the heroes and their potential magical items.

An old scribe from Neverwinter who's returning home. He's actually a wild mage trying to keep his talent at bay, which will likely go awry, should the entire caravan ever come under attack.

The cultists wagons; these keep to themselves most of the time.

A richly decorated and heavily guarded merchant wagon of unknown origin. It's actually from the Zentharim, and if the heroes grow curious enough, this is a chance for them to learn of the faction.

A traveling band of five gnome minstrels, called “The Merry Harpies” - they can't sing. Everyone hates them.

You can add more people if you want to, but I found this setup to be manageable and memorable without overloading the heroes with names.

You have been waylaid by enemies whose sole purpose is to make sure we can justify leveling you up at the end of the adventure and must defend yourself!
The chapter comes with 12 random events that can occur during the travel north towards Waterdeep. It's a two-month trip, after all. But hold your horses, not all of these are equally interesting. Some of them are simply a random encounters or a skill check.
I ended up using the events “Everything has a Price” in which the dealer of brass insisted on buying a magical item from the heroes (if they don't have one, he insists on the notion that they have) going so far as to searching their backpacks and spying on them.
Fungus Humongous” is great too, only I designed a whole dungeon of Myconoids. The heroes arrived in a small town almost besieged by the shrooms and the heroes had to clear the road by clearing out the dungeon of fungus. It wasn't long, but enough for them to try something else.
The Golden Stag” is beyond doubt the best thing this entire book offers. The heroes would often see the golden stag on the road, and the dwarves put out traps and started hunting it, till the heroes realized it was a cursed elven prince who sought to be restored and reunited with his love. This is such an interesting setup and you can go crazy with your creativity here. Either make a side quest in which they have to turn him back, or let him be a companion for the rest of the adventure.
No room at the inn” is great as well, it can be run just as it is. The heroes are denied room at the inn because a small band of assassins have bought them all, and pretty much laugh out everyone else. Since they're disguised as officials, the heroes need to do some research and snooping (in my case, one player searched the stables and their saddlebag, noticing they weren't officials and the horses were too mangy for the story to stick) – After all, fights in taverns are always great fun.
Roadside Hospitality” seemed okay, but I never used it. You have to work it a bit, as more experienced players will likely be on alert from the start; but for newer groups it can be very effective to have the old 'gotcha!' feeling going, by two benevolent doppelgangers stab someone in the back.
Finally, “Spider Woods” is an interesting encounter. It's ettercaps, and we always love those, but the heroes also have to make sure the things don't run off with the horses. This should feel like a bit of a surprise. I let the ettercaps drag off with some of the heroes and the heroes gave chase through the forest to get them back.

But wait, there's more!
There remaining six options aren't bad but mostly boring, and some of them rely on Jamna joining the campaign. This brings us to the final verdict of this chapter, as the heroes eventually arrive in Waterdeep where they're paid for their service and the cultists move on. In case the heroes signed up as guards for the cultists, they simply pay them off in Waterdeep and says their services are no longer needed. It should be no problem, however, for them to track them out into the swamp in the next chapter.

The main reason why I like this part of the adventure is because it really loosens up from the otherwise tight structure and starts suggesting to instead of directing the GM. You can potentially run every single encounter and have a couple of sessions with this chapter, of do as I did, and instead focus greatly on just a few of them. I sure wish there'd been more of this along the way, but alas. Enjoy it while it lasts.

For that reason, I'm not going to tell you how to run it or what to include, but merely let you know what I did with this. Following the sad tale that was the third chapter, it was very nice to see something else.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cryx pt. 9: Bile me!

The silence of late hasn't been an indication of inactivity as such; I've been plenty of busy being ill. What was supposed to be an awesome weekend of drinking with the friends turned out to be...well, just that; a lot of drinking. Only problem with drinking is it makes you stupid beyond reason, which in my case translates into not giving a damn about how cold I feel. So there you have it, I crashed the following day and have been laying low, watching series in the television without a voice for the last couple of days.

This night, I managed to recover and get some work done though (that is, if you discard watching the entire seasons of Sherlock, Better Call Saul and Game of Thrones as 'work') and finish up my Bile Thralls. I've had these guys standing around for some time, and it was nice to finally complete them.

My cat 'Multe' provided a helping paw. I know he's considering starting Cryx.

These models are lovely, not only on the gaming table. It's such a nice surprise to unpack models that don't require any assembly at all; just stick them to the base and you're good to go. They weren't terribly complicated to paint either; I mostly went with the same scheme as I did on Nagash, with a basecoat of Ulthuan Grey, washed with Devlan Mud, highlighted with Rakarth Flesh, thin wash of Athonian Camoshade (I swear, this wash makes all flesh look nasty) and final highlight with Rakarth. Simple as that. I skipped going for NMM on the metal because I'm not good enough to make dark metal with that style, yet, and I'm still undecided on how much I like it in a Cryx army.

I'm very happy with how they turned out.

I've played with these a couple of times, in lists that didn't really support them that much. Ofc. pDenny manages to support most things, but I pressed them in because of the psychological pressure they seem to instill in most people. I mainly keep them hidden behind the lines of either raiders or Nys, and wait for the front lines to fall. Once this starts to happen, it usually means the unit is about to expire, and in the last game versus Khador, he managed to Widow a few of them down. Still, three of them made it to the front and blew up and entire Winter Guard death star and a couple of assassins. I still need work on their positioning, seeing how I managed to take a couple of raiders with me as well, but my old Skaven mentality tells me this is okay.

I've started working next on the Bane Thrall attachment, so we'll see how that goes. I want to get as much done as possible before Witcher 3 hits, now that I've also got Pillars of Eternity out of the way.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A look at my portfolio

With so many people asking, I thought I'd make a single post with some of my best paints. Will be updated on a regular basis.

Pictures with a [Sold] were done on commission or sold later.

Khador Behemoth

Khador Fenris

Khador Fenris on Mount

Khador eIrusk

Khador eIrusk

Khador eIrusk

Khador Joe

Khador Doomreavers

Khador Modded Dog

Khador Widowmaker

Khador Winterguard
Skorne Cataphract Cetrati

Skorne Molik Karn

Skorne Molik Karn

Cryx Satyxis Raider Captain

Cryx Satyxis Raiders

Cryx Warwitch Siren

Cryx Warwitch Siren

Mercenaries Aiyana and Holt

Warhammer Fantasy

Vampire Counts Nagash (completed)

Skaven Abomination

Skaven Abomination

Skaven Screaming Bell

Dark Elf Black Guard [Sold]

Dark Elf Sorceress [Sold]

Dark Elf Sorceress [Sold]

Chaos Dragon Ogres [Sold]

Vampire Counts Isabella von Carstein [Sold]

Vampire Counts Nagash (during wip)

Vampire Counts Nagash (during wip)

Skaven Rat Ogres

Skaven Rat Ogres

Vampire Counts Modded Terrorgheist [Sold]

Warhammer 40.000
Chaos Space Marines Daemon Prince [Sold]

Chaos Space Marines Daemon Prince [Sold]

Chaos Space Marines of Nurgle [Sold]

Mantic Skeleton Horde [Sold]
Halfling mini

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Cryx pt. 8: Painted Satyxis and fuck Terminus

So, game night at the local club is off due to some holiday related stuff. Something with Jesus, I think. Henceforth, I decided it was time to get on with some creative projects and represent.

I've been working for some time on my Satyxis Raiders; the little ladies have performed so well in all my games so far, so they were first in line for the brush. I completed them this night and though I admit they were painted for army-presentation, I'm satisfied with their look.

Next up is the witch and the captain, now that all the paint is out. I want to go more into detail with those two, like I did with the Siren - but likely trying to get them out faster. I'm still knee-deep into Pillars of Eternity and with Witcher 3 on the horizon I'm not really sure where I'll find all that time : /

I did the mistake, needless to say, of entering Jolly Roger Studios after posting my Satyxis, which just crushes my fragile little spirit every time. It's an amazing site that has granted me loads of inspiration and those guys are so talented painters they're out of this world. Still, I recommend giving them a look; it's always great to aspire for greatness!

Then we have Terminus and I...
Yeah, I've started assembling that huge metallic fucker.

I've tweeted a bit about my shitstorm of frustration that is Terminus. Allow me to repeat; this model is a living, fucking nightmare. Not only is he huge (likely bigger than a Bronzeback) he also comes in myriads of parts that, goes without saying, don't fit the least. It's at times like these that I want to cuddle up in a corner and cry about my Games Workshop-Ex, hoping that Jervis Johnson will come through the door, smile and provide me with a nice resin Terminus that just goes click.

Sadly, such fancies are beyond me, so I'm stuck with this scrapyard of a model. So far, he's been pinned more than a voodoo-doll and I've spent more Gorilla Gel Glue than I want to remember. My index finger is numb and blistered from drilling and the progress is so slow. Even then, I really doubt he'll be a breeze to transport like other PP models. The parts stick but they aren't solid like with Molik Karn. I'm fairly certain Molik would survive a crash from the table with just a shattered base. Terminus, not so much...

So far, I'm at the wings-section; needless to say this is the ├╝ber-bitch part. Just to fuck up matters more, my drill shattered so I had to make do with an old one. I made a support drilling in front of the wing to keep it in place with wire, but even with that and the already existing support of the model, it wasn't enough to keep the wing in place for the glue to dry. Luckily, I had some creative help from my girlfriend, likely saving me several hours of idle wait, holding those shitty pieces together.

I'm not sure whether this will hold, or if he snaps as soon as I try moving him. Time will tell. Alternatively, I'll get some plastic wings from a deamon prince and use instead. I really love your products, PP, but this one is a dropped ball for sure.

There is no way anyone could possibly assemble this model with just ordinary super glue and the mere patience of a mortal.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Hoard of the Dragon Queen Chapter 3 - ZzzzzZ

I've fallen way, way, waaay behind on this adventure log. In fact, at this moment of writing, we're well into half of the second book, yet I just stopped updating this stuff after the first two chapters of the first book. Why? I'll tell you. With a few exceptions towards the end, the first half of this adventure part stinks. 

It simply became such a huge lackluster that I couldn't be assed updating it anymore; for a while seriously contemplating starting out on a Paizo AP and improvise from there.

Yet, I feel I owe it to this blog and the sake of memory to complete what we started; at least so I can get started writing about the pure awesomeness that is the second book. But keep in mind that this stuff was played almost a year ago; meaning I'll have to stick to a review-format rather than a journal. Which is likely okay, anyway.

So, let's go on with chapter 3: Dragon Hatchery!

“There and back again”

As I spoke about in the last chapter, the adventure has a really strange sense of railroading in its early steps, somehow making me wonder whether the authors ever tried GM'ing that much before? In particular, I refer to the heroes arriving at the bandit camp, disguised, in chapter 2 and snooping around for the captured monk Leosin. This is all well and good, but there's an abundance of invisible walls the players really have no chance to guess are there. For example, there's a tent in which the leaders assemble and a cave mouth that's also forbidden. The fluffy explanation is “no trespassers!” - the technical explanation is “You must be THIS high of a level in order to enter”.

So what the heroes are supposed to do in the end of chapter 2, is to rescue Leosin, go back to Greenest , deliver him, which is where chapter three begins.

It starts out with Leosin sending you back to the camp to investigate the caves.

Yes. You read that right.

Those caves you were by all means interested in, that piqued your curiosity; the lesson we all know that great stuff happens in places you're not allowed to go? And after countless attempts, and likely a few deaths or bruises; you realized was not going to happen?

NOW you can. Yes, on your way.

If you're running the adventure as written, there's little way around this. You can allow the heroes to enter prematurely and likely have their ass handed to them, especially if someone manages to raise the alarm.

Ironically, the adventure doesn't include information about one of the most obvious paths: the heroes staying with the cultists, undercover, and following them as they set off? Instead, they're forced to babysit the monk back, so the setup for the rest of the road can be arranged. Again, I can't shake the feeling that this is written for people entirely new to this genre.

What I did: My heroes decided to simply kick Leosin on his way, which he of course wasn't pleased with, but he crawled his way back home. They remained behind, and to me there are two options for you as a GM if this happens.

A) The heroes are ordered to remain back at the hatchery, guarding it along with the denizens of the dungeon. They may scoop up some information about the heading of the cult and all its treasure, which is still just “North. Hail Tiamat!” - I went with this approach, and though it's still railroading, it's not a direct slap in the face with “NO! SHAME ON YOU AND YOUR SILLY IDEAS!”

B) Let the heroes travel along and skip directly to chapter 4. Fuck it, I regret not taking this route somehow, and just awarding them the full XP needed to progress and skip the stupid dungeon. Let the entire next chapter start on the road and let some other people join up with the cultists along the way. You can always introduce Frulam and the dragon guy later, if you want to. They don't get to meet Leosin and Frume, but what little roleplaying these provide is negligible anyway.

“The originality of this place has been fouled...”
But let's stay at this, as written, since this is a review after all.

The heroes return to the camp, only to realize it's been deserted. On the good side, the cave-expansion has finally arrived, and besides from a little roleplay they can do with the passing rangers or ransacking the remains of the camp, there's very little to do besides from entering.

Now, this is a dungeon. You've likely figured this out by now. I usually pride myself in being very, very forgiving about unrealistic layouts and designs of dungeons, mind you, but even this one blew me kind of away. It's not that it's bad per se (see Shackled City, for great candidates in that regard) – it's just boring. And apparently, its' very dangerous business being a cultist of the dragon around here. 

The adventure manages to justify some of the lethal elements, such as the cultists knowing the right path through a garden of dangerous fungi, but others are just hard to believe. Such as the only road into the food-storage is through a huge cavern full of bats and a swarm of hungry stirges. Apparently, whenever the cultist wish to fetch more food, they need to succeed on a DC10 Dex check? Also, the “door” inside is trapped, and several places on the floor as well by Kobold design. I can accept that strongholds and lairs are guarded and dangerous, but you have to believe someone could live here. 

And this is stretching it a lot.

"I enter the cavern and make a Perception check!"
On top of that, there's no original element to this dungeon. This gets progressively better as the adventure path moves on, I must add, but holy damn; they set the bar low. Most of the rooms are simple encounters, and while they're challenging for a party at that level, they're far from memorable.

The main antagonist is the cultist, Frulam Mondath and perhaps her right hand; the half-dragon, Langdedrosa (again reminding us that the writers used a bag of Scrabble when making names for this adventure path). I'm strongly empathizing “PERHAPS” here.

You remember Langdedrosa? The big, blue half-dragon that appeared at the end of chapter one and actually made for the first memorable villain? And likely the one who splattered some party member, seeing how he's several power levels above him or her?
It's not, however, entirely impossible that some player managed to roll 'that roll' against him and perhaps even splattered the scaly abomination across the streets of Greenest. Highly unlikely, but not impossible. Good for you.

 Only, the adventure doesn't want it to be that way. In fact it writes, that if Langdedrosa is slain, another half-dragon takes his place in the dungeon. But wait, the madness doesn't end there. In fact, no matter whether the heroes disguise themselves or run in, guns blazing, he attacks when he spots them. Talk about no room for improvisation, no feeling of accomplishment, no rewards for thinking outside the box.

 What I did:
If the heroes manage to kill him off, Landedrosa is gone. Period.

You can greatly speed up the dungeon by simply leaving out the boring encounters. If you want to make it more interesting, throw in a troll or an ogre-cook, like I did, who stayed behind in the meat chamber. Allow the heroes to interact with the cultist and Frulam if they remain undercover, but stress that the eggs will hatch within a month or so, after which they will have further instructions.

You can present them with the information that 'everyone is going north to the usual meeting place' – even players should be wise enough not to pry further for information than that.

Allow the heroes to witness the dragon hatchery and the eggs; maybe one of the eggs has gone into early hatching and the heroes have the chance to acquire their own black dragon whelpling? Think of the possibilities of that.

“Now, isn't this a surprise?”
My heroes stormed through the dungeon without much issue. Once they'd smashed the heads of the leaders, they found documents on her table, describing how the cultists journey north to an unknown destination. A note describes some place called Nerytar, however, and while the adventure doesn't say much about making knowledge checks for that name.

What I did:
Allow the heroes to make knowledge checks about that name; history is obvious.
If they succeed on a DC 10, they know it's the name of a long abandoned castle out in the swampy areas north of Waterdeep.
If they succeed on a DC 15 or higher, you can pretty much tell them about how the castle was originally built by a half-elf wizard, on the edge of the Mere of Dead Men. He later abandoned it, though, and a group of stargazers moved on. This group hasn't been heard from in several years, and to this day, people assume the castle is empty.
If they suceed on a DC 20 or higher, you can pretty much relate as much of the story as you wish from page 45 in the adventure. The heroes won't arrive at the castle till much later, though, so they may want to take notes.

This ends the chapter, again with some railroading, since the heroes are now supposed to go back to Greenest and talk to Leosin, who will then send them on to another town to meet with his paladin friend. Yet, what if the players decide to make haste and set after the cult? Wouldn't this seem wise? What if they want to track them; after all – such a huge group can't be that hard to follow?

I suggest you allow this to happen, if you want. The meeting in the beginning of the next chapter has next to zero significance for the heroes and the story; instead let the players track down the cultist caravan, infiltrate it or simply join up in whatever ways they can think of, and move on with Chapter 4: On the Road.

Summing up:
Chapter three is likely the worst chapter in the entire adventure path. It's boring, unoriginal, uninspiring and unrewarding towards creative thinking. Move on with it and hurry on to chapter four, which is at least a bit more creative.