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Monday, December 8, 2014

Game of Thrones: Iron from Ice review


Up until recently, I used to be one of the non-believers of Game of Thrones. Not only that, in fact, I would often mock people for wasting time on it and ridicule their preference to such a degree they'd often stop mentioning said series in my company all together. Perhaps not the most mature move from my side, so I suppose Santa's skipping my place this year.

I didn't care much for the very premise of the series, mainly because I've always detested low-fantasy settings; partly due to the same reasons I avoid Sci-fi: they tend to turn way too depressive and....real. For me, escapism has always been about beating the laws of nature and do the very impossible, and when I heard how much misery could be pressed into a single episode of GoT, I frankly failed to see the appeal. Despite how many boobies they claimed to have.

I managed to avoid GoT entirely up until the end of the fourth season. That's a lot, yes. I suppose it started finding its cracks in, when I started on Breaking Bad and Walking Dead, that both flirt with the premise of sudden death and in general pull the carpet out from under your legs when you least expect it. So, when I finally decided to sit down and give GoT a slight chance (very convinced that this would be pathetic) it didn't take long till I was suddenly finding myself half into the third season, wondering where all that time had gone?


I could go on for quite a while about why I like GoT, and even more so, how that fact keeps puzzling me. It's a strange fatal attraction so many people share for these works that can mildly be summed up as narrative PTSD-experiences that shatter our minds and feelings; yet we keep up with this universe, perhaps because it joins our hatred and for such a long time manages to keep the bad guys alive. All while dangling the possible hope, that they COULD possibly be the next. (I know for sure that the death of a certain someone in season 4 likely caused me to celebrate more than I ought to...)

With such a story to tell...
And so, if you've read my other reviews, you'll know that I'm also a huge fan of Telltale; the gaming company that blessed us with great titles such as The Walking Dead and Sam and Max. When I heard they were going to launch an adaption of Game of Thrones, I was kind of suspicious about it. Mainly because, GoT never struck me as a platform for gaming in the first place. But then, on the other hand, if anyone should be able to pull off the gloom and doom of Westeros, it had to be Telltale. I fondly, and sadly, remember my first playthrough of The Walking Dead Season 1, and how insane an emotional rollercoaster that was. It was one of the few games that made dream, and certainly not in a good way; so with launch a couple of days ago, I sat down and bought the first chapter: Game of Thrones: Iron from Ice.

Where to begin? 
Reviewing Telltale games before they're fully done is kind of like reviewing a book one chapter at the time. It's kind of the cardinal trait of the company, that you'll have to wait for the next episode, which I suppose stays quite true to the original concept.

So, at the time of writing, you'll have to do with the first chapter out of six, and patiently wait for your next meal to be served. This was also the case with The Walking Dead, in which I felt it put a lot of pressure on the individual episodes, that would likely have been alleviated to some extent, had you been able to play them all into one long stretch.

Ramsay Snow. He wants some answers from you...
During this review, I will do my best to avoid any major spoilers, of course.

In the first chapter of GoT, you're introduced to House Forrester. A house loyal to the Starks, whose members seem to serve as the protagonists of the series. Chronologically, the game begins at the same time as the end of season 3 (yes, exactly at THAT ONE EPISODE!) which is also the same event that kicks the game into motion. You start out in control of the young squire Gared, who's quite early in the story flung out into a difficult decision when chaos breaks out, and from thereon you pretty much go with the story onwards.

Compared to, say, the first chapter of The Walking Dead, GoT is different in the sense that this is a strong setup for the rest of the series. You don't stick to one protagonist, but instead get to control three different during the episode, that all tell their story and involve you in their predicament. From the young squire Gared, to his sister in King's Landing and his young brother who suddenly has to take up a heavy burden of responsibility. I found this to be a good structure, that stayed true to the show's premise of constantly switching between various factions, rarely staying with the same for all too long. One could argue, however, that the time you get with all three of them seems short when they all have to be cramped into this single episode, and some of the scenes taking place in King's Landing can feel a bit stretched and tedious.


DO SOMETHING!
That, however, is a minor complaint and in magnitude dwindles drastically compared to some of the elements that annoyed the shit out of me in TwD. Building a swing or burying someone step-for-step was something that likely had a clever idea behind it, but ultimately became a huge detriment. While some of that IS in GoT also (being Telltale and all) I felt there was much less walking around, clicking on random shit most of the time. The story is heading forward and rarely leaves you hanging for that long.

In this regard, I may need to elaborate on my sense of action; being involved in decisions through talking and events. While the first chapter does have a share of action, you really are expected to sit through long conversations and make decisions from them most of the time. If this puts you off, you should at least consider yourself warned in advance. Being GoT and Telltale, you'll be forced to make decisions – most of the time on the fly as the timer is ticking. I'm not sure whether it was just me, but compared to other titles, I actually felt you had less time to chose your replies this time around?


It makes for the stressful and tense structure you either love or hate in these games; and while episode 1 didn't have any of those “OH NO FUCK YOU GAME!!!” decisions I felt in TwD, there are a couple of gems in between. 

I tried remaining true to a certain style of play...


Decisions, decisions...
If there is one thing that Telltale does really well, it's the illusion of choice. I'm not saying this as if it's a bad thing, 'cause it isn't. After all, if you had to make a game in which choice truly mattered on a massive scale, the ordeal would be massive. Even some of my favorite holy cows, Dragon Age Origins, are full of illusions of choice. You may chose side A over side B, meaning side A will help you in the final battle, but other than that, nothing. You can't change certain major events, for example; some people are doomed to die. This is something I truly loathed TwD for; for example that some of the people simply would die no matter what you did. Much of the story was simply hard-coded, and some of the choices I made early on were mentioned later but didn't really change anything.

This issue, I'm afraid will continue in GoT. Giving an example would be a massive spoiler, so just allow me to say that no matter what you do throughout the episode, a certain something is bound to happen in the end. Besides from that, it's really hard to say at the moment what impact your decisions will have later on, seeing how this is the first chapter and all. As said, the FEELING is there. When I had completed the first chapter, which took me roughly two hours or so, I couldn't help the nagging notion that I'd set my entire family up for disaster, even though I thought I did so well. In that regard, I suppose the game truly hits its origin fairly well.


DUH-duh-du-du-DUH-duh-du-du-DUH-duh...
This game is made for people who're familiar with the universe. That may go beyond saying, but still; I knew absolutely nothing about The Walking Dead before starting out on Telltale's version, and it didn't matter. It got me into the universe.
As for GoT, I'm pretty sure I would've stopped half an hour in, because this game really is made for people familiar with at least the first three seasons of the show. It goes to great lengths to set the mood, including the by-now-very-famous theme-song from the start and casting the visuals and voices of the original actors quite well.

One thing the game does really well, is truly making you FEEL like part of an episode. This is both terrific and terrifying at the same time. Being greeted by Tyrion Lannister had me jumping with excitement, which was instantly replaced as I were to beg Queen Cersei for help the following moment. The writing is in this aspect really good, and the great names keep to what makes them great all throughout the series. Cersei will leave you with a dreadful feeling that you've been played just the way she planned, and a late meeting with the ever unsettling Ramsay Snow is as volatile as could be expected. You have to navigate your way through these conversations, all the time managing the balance of saying what they want to hear, and yet stand up for your family, hoping they'll just go away and provide you with what you want.

In this regard, the game is an absolute blast and I can't wait for even more of it!

  
No, wait, already?
My major complaint about the first episode is that it feels really short. With so much setup needed, of course I understand this is a premise that's hard to avoid. Yet, I couldn't help feeling a bit let down, seeing how the episode pretty much shuts off as soon as you feel it's getting started. Even compared to the first episode of TwD, everything here felt too shallow in the end and so many points were touched upon, without being fully explored.

In this regard, I suppose it's a kudos to Telltale that I'm eagerly waiting for the next episode, only I hope it will be longer.

Conclusion:

If you're a fan of the show, you might consider this for a good story. If you're a fan of Telltale, you'll pretty much get what you're used to, which is a good thing. If you're a fan of both, chances are really good that you'll like GoT. Only be prepared that it's a very fun, albeit short ride, that will leave you wanting more, being slightly annoyed at it for leaving you just as things were about to get going.

Score: 7/10

Pros:
  • Genuine authentic feeling of being in Westeros and playing your own GoT story out.
  • Original voice actors and music are both a blessing
  • Some rough decisions that will surely come back to haunt you

Cons:
  • Way too short
  • Too much setup that ends just as things are about to get going
  • So far, very limited influence on the turn of events (which is likely due to change later)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

DNJL 1 - A Ghost in the Warmachine

The blog has been rather oblivious regarding the not-so-recently initiated Danish National Journeyman League (DNJL) of Warmachine/Hordes by PrivateerPress. Partly because I'm a slow fucker, partly because work at the hospital has to a large degree kept me from participating as much as I ought to. Nonetheless, I found it worthwhile to at least drop a short post about our wonderful, Danish community, meanwhile proving "I'm a warmachine player too!!"

Those who've been tagging along at the blog are well aware that it has been some time since I last brought my dolls to the Iron Kingdom. More than a year, to be precise. I'd more or less decided to shelve the rather significant collection of boys in red, when our former organizer poked me about participating – a daunting task, considering I've been away for so long and thought I'd barely recognize anyone.

We kicked off the event a couple of weeks ago, and in case you were wondering I decided to stick to my faithful old Khador forces. Partly because it's the faction I know my way around best. Despite the obvious notion of starting out a new faction due to Journeyman, I didn't feel I had the time to read up on the Horde-rules (and I want my second faction to be a Horde army).

I'll have to say; I'm not in this for the winning. I went in really hard during the last two leagues, but this time around, working in the psychiatry simply leaves me with way too little time and energy. Also, the number of participants during this league is massive in my city (our group boasts a whopping 65 members in itself); aiming for the top tier wasn't that lucrative for me. So my aims have been tempered this time, and I've gone in mostly for a good time and painting the last minis I need.

I went for the original Khador box, initially, but soon changed my mind about it. I've been playing a lot with Sorscha (I wish *applause*) during my early game and it was my impression that during the early bbox games, she'd be really efficient at her cardinal trait: Assassinating the shit out of stuff. I did realize, however, that I'd be mostly occupied during the first couple of weeks, and one of the things I love about WM in general, is making things work together. And there are better casters for that. So, for the obvious alternative there was good ol' Butcher.

I haven't played much with Butcher. I've heard the stories. I bought the T-shirt; the guy can be a powerhouse and quite the epitome of the glass-cannon in plate. So, I thought it obvious to try out the big, bad baldie, also because he comes with Iron Flesh and that's an earlier opportunity to bring in the WG Deathstar (because crushing dreams is fun).

I had my first real games this week, as I wasn't needed that much at hospital, and what an amazing experience it was! To return to such an active and friendly environment as the Warmahorde community in my city was thrilling. Our local store, Dragonslair, offers gaming nights every Monday, which these days should basically be renamed “Warmahorde Night” due to the sheer number of players showing up. 

In my experience, the geek-community is quite the divergent assembly of minor groups, some of which differ more than others in their openness to newcomers. Luckily, most of the Warmahorde players in our community have been very talkative, friendly and understanding of someone like me returning to the fold after prolonged hiatus. I had the pleasure of watching and talking to a good handful of people that night, before setting out for my games.

Khador vs. Skorne – 25 pts. Battlebox, no caster swap, Killing Field.

I didn't get to take any pictures of either of my battles; sorry about that. You'll have to settle for a short story.

I really like Skorne; they'd likely be my first pick of faction had it not been for those ridiculous elephants. (Yes! They bloody are!) - I went up against Xerxis, Bassilisk Drake, Bassilisk Krea, Cannoneer and a unit of Gatormen Posse. With Butcher against Xerxis, I imagined there would be some solid beating. I fielded pButcher, the Kodiak, the Decimator and a WG-Deathstar along with a unit of Widomakers. 

The game went rather solid for me during the first couple of turns. The objective markers I wanted to keep remained, and I closed in on a solid position, feated and moved the psychotic Mr. Clean in to mop up. I managed to decimate almost all the gators and tie up the cannoneer with the Kodiak. I thought I'd secured Mr. Clean by then, but on the following turn, Xerxis' counter feat and unexpected pushback, made the way for the cannoneer, who rushed down and ate poor Butcher.

Ah, damn. Losing to a rule I'd forgotten about is the story of my Warmachine life.

Lessons learned: Don't waste Butcher on killing gators, Xerxis is a c*nt, Mr. Clean is not as durable as his miniature leads you to believe.

I admit; playing Butcher has an appeal.

Khador vs. Cygnar – 25 pts. Battlebox, no caster swap, Killing Field.

Going up against the archenemy is always a load of fun; especially when said player is a former Khadorian who deserted to the boys in blue.
I fielded the same army, against Coleman Stryker, the Ironclad, the Lancer, the Charger, the Arcane Gunmages and Black 13. This was much more familiar terrain for me; I've been playing against Cygnar a lot back in the day.

I went first and decided to keep up the aggressive tactics, hoping for the best. In general, being aggressive has won me way more games than being defensive in Warmachine. Something like; being aggressive is fighting the way, being defensive is enduring it. Something like that; fuck me, it sounds good.

Out on the left flank, my widowmakers had a shootout versus the Black 13, who had a pet-buff from Stryker and placed themselves on a hill. The total DEF score was simply too high to even try, so I decided to leave them there and rendezvous, seeing as the objective marker disappeared from that part anyway. The B13 managed to AOE and crap five of my Winterguards, who apparently hadn't been paying enough attention to Joe's patriotic speeches and therefore failed their tough rolls.

The remaining Winterguards shot the arcane gun mages to shreds and the kodiak and decimator went into melee with the Ironclad and Charger respectively. Added up by the Butcher, who had feated that turn, I struck luck and had a streak of not rolling less than two sixes on all rolls for nearly the rest of the round. The gunmages, the iron clad and the lancer were obliterated in one turn, meaning my opponent decided to throw everything he had a butcher. Most hope came from the Charger, that sadly suffered from some really poor rolls and bare scratched the red giant.
Enter Mr. Stryker, who gunned and nuked with spells, but Butcher was still standing with 10 health at the end of turn, which spelled an end for Cygnar, seeing how Stryker was now in charge range.

(Luck or skill? Fuck it, it felt good!)

So the remaining part of the night was spent socializing, finding new opponents for next week. Most people were heavily engaged in games by this time, and I decided it had been a great night. I treated myself to some objective markers and took some pictures of other people enjoying their games. Enjoy!


It was a great night; one that reminded me truly how much I'd missed the Warmachine community and games, so there is definitely room for more challenges! Read up next week, as I'll go up against Menoth and Legion of Everblight!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hoard of the Dragon Queen Chapter 2 - It's only a model...


And we're back with more adventures from the Sword Coast and the fifth edition of the current epic saga that is dungeons sprinkled with dragons. The last time we left our heroes, they had completed the first chapter of the newly released AP; "Hoard of the Dragon Queen" – Seeing the town of Greenest in flames and raiders from an unknown, shadowy organization has kindled the flames of justice, and the heroes were hired by governor Nighthill to track down the culprits and hopefully rescue the poor half-elf monk Leosin.

At this time the party consisted of Madam Ursus the human druid of the moon; 'Twelve' the half orc barbarian, Reed the halfling fighter, Cirion the half elf sorcerer and Connor the half elf bard. The party was second level at the start of the adventure. As usual, my GM comments are in blue and there will be more than usual this time around, seeing how I had some reflections about this.

Bad adventurers, bad adventurers; what you gonna do when they succeed their survival skill check?

The first part of the adventure is mainly tracking down the cult, and there isn't very much going on here, except for some possible random encounters and two predetermined events that the heroes can interact with. The first is the sighting of a straggling group that fell behind and now made camp to eat. Second one up, is a scouting party that stayed back to make sure there were no followers, and the heroes need to circumvent this somehow. As written, the best idea is to simply skip both encounters, provided the heroes are perceptive enough.

In my case, the heroes decided to go for infiltration early on. I like this idea; it provides the players with a new angle, so I even had the master of the keep suggest this right from the start. So they simply marched up to the stragglers, consisting of some mercenaries and kobolds, and before they could reach for their weapons, they introduced themselves as new recruits who got lost on the way. With Connor's background as a former member of the cult, he was able to provide accurate details about its doings, which granted them a much needed advantage on their roll. Eventually, the mercenaries warmed up to them and one of them introduced them as members of the Black Talon company. 


(As written, there is very little spice in this chapter about neither the mercenaries nor the cultists. So, I decided to expand a bit on it. Luckily, someone else had already done an amazing work on this, over at HackandSlashmaster: http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com.au/2014/09/on-hoard-of-dragon-queen-episode-ii_10.html – In a nutshell; it splits the mercenaries up into two factions – the black talons and the blue boars, which of course house an unhealthy rivalry, allowing the heroes to take sides. You can flesh out both factions as you please, just to make sure they're represented properly in the camp. There is also a lot of info about the cultists, but more about that in a moment).

Going Lancelot on both of these encounters is perfectly viable too, and only the second one should pose much of a challenge for the heroes.

Of all the bandit camps in the world....

The heroes were escorted with the group to the bandit camp. (In game this takes some time, and you can potentially drop as much exposition as you feel like during that time. I used it to confirm that they were dealing with 'the crazy dragon cultists' and some of the rumors presented in the book. At this point in time, there is no harm done in the players getting the feel that the cultists are up to something big involving Tiamat).

Upon arriving at the camp, the heroes have the opportunity to enter and play it stealthily. The adventure is very specific in this regard, letting the heroes know that they could easily sneak inside due to all the confusion and all the raiders returning from the plunder. The main objective from here is pretty simple, really. The camp is roughly split into three section: the entrance with the kobolds huts; the mecernary area and the cultist area. Of other points of interest there is the tent of the leaders, a mysterious cave entrance that has a lot of attention, and a monk tied up to a pole. Sadly, the heroes are only allowed to interact with one of them.

The heroes need to get Leosin outside, which can be speed-runned pretty much by keeping a low profile, wait till nightfall, knock out a guard, free the monk and replace him with the guard and either climb or slowly make their way out. Thus completing the chapter. (Still slow, compared to the fact that you can complete chapter one in half a minute by simply stating 'we wait till it's all over'..)

...It's only a model...

As written, the bandit camp is a great setup. On paper. The heroes make charisma checks to see whether they're recognized, which makes for some really interesting, dramatic opportunities. From there, they can go explore and mingle with the cultists and the mercenaries.
The only real problem is how this camp suffers from the 'rainy theme park syndrome' – you can enter, sure, but half the rides are closed and the rest are just forgettable. There is a huge tent that houses the leaders of the cult, but as written, the players have next to zero chance of entering it. Same counts for the old cave, which is reserved for the third chapter, when the heroes have dinged to level three. Problem is, a lot of players, I imagine, will want to check these two things out, so you NEED to be prepared for this as a GM. Simply making invisible walls or bashing their heads in with the (too) strong monsters of the cave, just because the heroes didn't follow the hidden railroad is just not good enough.


Rescuing Leosin can be as easy or hard as you want it to be as GM. When the players do, it becomes more or less obvious that they simply must go back to Greenest with him (because the camp needs to clear out for the third chapter to start. Plot device, you know!). Alternatively, everyone will become too much on alert and the heroes may be spotted. I suppose this is the default explanation for “Seriously guys, go home and come back later” but it's lame.

There are some suggestions I'd like to make, that can make the cultist camp much more interesting.

First, take a look at HackandSlashmaster's blog and do what he does: http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com.au/2014/09/on-hoard-of-dragon-queen-episode-ii_10.html

  • Portray the various sub-groups of Tiamat as described in the link. How far you want to take it, is up to you. The light option is to make them all equal cultists, but flesh out the daily life a bit. Being a cultist or simply religious isn't just about evil and gloom. These people genuinely believe, so let the heroes partake in rituals, chants, prayers, gatherings, sermons, maybe even confessions or sacrifices. Just don't force too much strain on the poor paladins. Two players from my group actually ended up going through the initiation to become acolytes, meaning they for the rest of the campaign are at disadvantage resisting mind-effects from cultists, but on the other hand will have special access and results when interacting with other entities who can sense their allegiance.
  • Let the two mercenary companies be in a bitter struggle all the time. They know they can't just start slitting throats, even though the trigger fingers sure are jumpy. Allow the heroes to join up with one or the other. In my case, the heroes joined the black talons, wore uniforms and started provoking the blue boars into a fight one night. This resulted in a huge brawl, during which the heroes rescued Leosin.
  • Allow the heroes to at LEAST see the big names of the cult. I hate it when adventures do this shit and keep the bad guys in the shadows for so long; the real bad guy hasn't been revealed anyway by this time, so why not let them see the lady in purple, cyanwrath and Rezmir? Fuck it, maybe even have them bid the “new recruits welcome”if that's the approach the players take? Exposition; use it well, at the right time, and it does wonders!
  • Here's an idea: Say the heroes faked their way in as mercenaries or the like; suddenly they are approached by a dragon claw who tells them to come with him. Allow them to be uneasy as they're brought into a tent in which a familiar citizen from Greenest is tied up. He's beaten, and the claw explains they've tried getting information out of him for hours; since they know him to be a wealthy merchant yet didn't find a single coin during the raid. They want answers now, and the new recruits need to pass the rite of passage. The claw leaves them alone to sort it out; go player creativity.
  • Set up a plan for the cave. Chances are very good that your players will want to enter it, because that's how things are usually done. The camp, the top level, the cave, the lower levels. It's almost a fantasy convention, so you can't blame players for thinking such. They WILL be interested in entering and taking a look around, and what you'll do depends on your current setup. If your group consists of five players that are rested, chances are okay they'll be able to hold their own in some of the fights. Only, it just takes one raised alarm and things are pretty much over. A stealthy or talkative approach is much more viable, so consider letting them talk their way through it all, and actually explore into chapter 3. If they have the information and return to Greenest, let the governor be concerned and Leosin travel north, while asking the heroes to go back and see whether they can capture any of the leaders. In that way there is at least a hint of choice.
  • There are many ways to enter the caves or get a letter of recommendation around the camp. Such power is usually reserved for senior members, who can be persuaded in exchange for goods or perverted wishes (provided your group can handle such aspects).
  • One of the two mercenary companies has a good sport of releasing the hounds on running prisoners (not on Leosin, of course, due to strict orders) These dogs hunt down the commoners and flay them for the amusement (and foor as far kobolds go) of the crowd. Will the players intervene and be able deter further of such actions?

I had the chance to involve almost all of these, and with Hackand Slash's post, you should have plenty to flesh out your own awesome Cultist Summer Camp!

What happened here?
The heroes arrived at camp and hooked up with the Black Talons, who were brutish and spat in their direction at first, at least until they started bullying back and cracking some skulls. The leader, Mershan, took heart to the heroes and explained a lot about what had gone on. They noticed Leosin on the post, and also the cave.

Two of them joined up with the cult and drank from the cup of blood (yes, some things you just can't avoid) and took up the cultist mantle, allowing them to enter the cave.

After a quick spelunking in the caverns, they sadly managed to trigger a trapped stairway and were kicked out by the other cultist for being such noobs. So they waited till nightfall, provoked a fight with the Blue Boars and rescued Leosin from the camp. 


There wasn't much time to talk, in fact they more or less just kicked him out of the place and told him to go home. Thus they waited till dawn and I decided to simply let the rumor go that the camp was moving out and going west, allowing the heroes to volunteer for staying back to 'guard the caves' (at this time, they were so frustrated about not getting to enter that they instantly took it). So the camp departed and the heroes prepared for the dark descent.

The general opinion...
The second chapter is really short and you can make it as exciting or plain as you wish, which I ultimately think is a perk for the GM. I know some people have bashed this part of the adventure quite hard, and yes; as written there is not much to go on at all. If you're a busy GM and just want to pick something up that's interesting right off the bat, you're going to get disappointed with this. The good news is that all of the above options are easy to integrate, but I still recommend you read both the third and the second chapter in one go, seeing as they're so closely related.



And with that being said, we're moving on to the third chapter, in which the heroes finally get to see what's in those awesome caves! Stay tuned!


Painting Nagash

Not going to waste time, posting any unnecessary crap about why this is late and why there haven't been any updates for ages. I think the recent painting-pictures explain why. Also, updates, yay!

Painting Nagash was a blast. This entire miniature was pretty much the whole reason, why I decided to start up a vampire counts army again (after selling my old models, deciding I was done and through with WFB, but fuck it; a man's gotta have a hobby, right? Or 15. Fuck me if I know, I had fun).

I know that had I only been a good and proper nerd, I would've made notes along the way, how I did it, what colors I used, etc. so people actually had the chance to ask me about specific things. The truth, however, is much simpler and a bit of a letdown. Thing is; I didn't, because I didn't come up with this idea. I realized that Games Workshop released four videos on youtube, in which you're specifically taught how to paint Nagash. And even though I usually prefer making up stuff as I go along, people who know me are also aware that I'm a classic guy at heart, when it comes to painting. I don't feel a need to reinvent the wheel, so since the official look was very, very pretty, I decided you couldn't go wrong with that, so there I went and copied it.

The videos in question can be found here:


I won't lie; it took quite a while to paint Nagash. Three weekends or so, I'd reckon, time mostly spent at night. In fact, I think I managed to watch an entire season of Game of Thrones from start to finish; just go give you some expectations if you're going to do it thoroughly.

The guide is quite simple, but I recommend watching it all at least once to get an idea of the paints you need. Most of them are (surprise, surprise) from the new range of GW paints, so if you're like me and stock up on the old range, chances are you will miss quite a few colors.

A thing I'd like to add, however, compared to Duncan's suggestions. While he does glue on the small books to the spirits first; I STRONGLY recommend NOT to. Why? Because while they do make it easier for the spirits and doesn't require you to take care of running glue when you put them on; they are a royal pain in the ass to paint once assembled. In the end, I took the easy way out and just painted the surfaces immediately visible on the mini, but on closer inspection you'll notice they're mostly brown and shaded on the backs, simply because painting through the spirits and robes is so annoying. Instead, paint the tomes first, then glue them on gently, being careful with the amount of glue you use, and your life will be all the better. Trust me on this.

With that being said; here you have him. The big Mr. N himself. Enjoy.







Friday, October 10, 2014

Hoard of the Dragon Queen Chapter 1 - A Ko-Bold move!

Hoard of the Dragon Queen – Chapter one: Greenest in Flames

So, we're at it again. Heading down that old, adventurous road that we've come to love so much. But this time it's different; we're off on our very first public campaign to D&D 5th. Edition, namely “The Hoard of the Dragon Queen”.

Besides being the first of its kind, the structure of this campaign is also a bit new, especially if you're used to the Paizo approach. Instead of throwing the usual six books at you, what you get is a compact narrative of eight small chapters that work intertwined to tell a larger story; sort of what you did with Shackled City back in the day. (Let's just hope the story is slightly original and interesting this time around, though).

My group picked up this book right after finishing The Lost Mine of Phandelver, even though we technically have half of Wrath of the Righteous to go. I'm really the one to blame for this, seeing that 5th edition is a ton more fun that Pathfinder in its current state.
So you know the drill; we go over the chapters one by one, GM comments in blue and all that shit. Have fun and hope to get inspired!

Some preparation...

My party consists of five players and me as the GM. We play every Wednesday from 19:00 till around midnight, meaning we're usually quite speedy at things. This time around, the party consists of Madam Ursus the human druid (who lives right outside the starting town of Greenest), the half-orc barbarian “12” (who had his tribe butchered by a dragon and now makes a living as a travelling gladiator), the halfling fighter Lee (who pretty much just woke up on the road outside of Greenest and doesn't remember a single thing about himself, excepts his name and that he's good with weapons), the half-elf bard Connor (who used to be working with the cult and has a double identity there; currently living with Madam Ursus), and Cirion the human dragon-sorcerer (a truly gifted scholar living in the Greenest keep; an expert on dragon lore).


The entire adventure is set on the Sword Coast and generally pits the heroes against the notorious Cult of the Dragon. One thing that really shines, in my opinion, is how the adventure stays true to the cardinal importance of backgrounds, and offers a small spectrum of new backgrounds and various affiliations with the cult and the NPC's that actually makes it plausible that they're there in the first place. Some of these are really interesting, even though I kind of miss a more elaborate column in which the general structure and organization of the Cult is described. This is mostly something you have to pick up as you go along.

(Mind you, even though this adventure is written for four players; even with five in my group they had a really hard time catching up with the challenges of the first chapter. As per se; the initial chapter is always hard as fuck, so I doubt there is no need for you to adjust any of it, even though your group outnumbers it.)

As the heroes progress along the sinister plot, they soon realize things are much more dire than they appear, and that it's once again time to go out and save the world. It's classy, it's stylish, it's D&D as we love it. So let's dig right in.

Also, if you've followed my blog before, you know I love changing shit. I'll make sure to mark those properly, hoping to inspire some other GM's.

Now, hold those horses!

There is one huge change I recommend right off the bat. The adventure is, like its predecessor, pretty much right on and into action from the very second it gets off its chair. The heroes arrive at Greenest, for various reasons, and see it in flames, under attack by raiders and a blue dragon. I found this to be a tad bit aggressive, especially if your group is into immersion play and want to get to know their comrades in arms before bashing cultist-skulls.

Yes, it's a rip-off. I don't care. It works.
So, what I did was taking the Neverwinter Nights 2 approach, and let the heroes arrive during the harvest festival. I know this is an aged mechanic, but it works so well; just look at the town of Sandpoint in Rise of the Runelords. While the heroes may be eager to search for cultists and the like, allow them to hear some rumors and ask around while enjoying themselves. Set up some competitions for them, in which they can try out the new rules in 5th. Here's what I used.

  • Ring the bell or lift the weights at the smith (STR, athletics)
  • Guess the name of Gobbles the Turkey at the butcher (INT, investigation)
  • Pick-a-package-from-the-box (WIS, perception – get a trinket from the trinket table in PhB)
  • Perform on the open stage at the 'Grassy Gnoll' inn (CHA, perform)
  • Dunk the “ogre”; a guy dressed as an ogre, hit the bell with five balls to dunk him into the water. (DEX, ranged attack, AC 9)
  • Rope pulling in groups (STR, group challenge)
  • Present the most impressive livestock to the judges (Here I made a simple quest, where the nearby farmer, Greenberry, had used illegal potions to augment his animals, which sadly made them intelligent and then kill him. The heroes go there to slay the animals, and can take the huge pig and win the competition. It's also great for you to try and build an encounter for yourself, just make sure to include one giant animal of some kind.)
  • If the heroes manage to win every single competition, I grant them an Inspiration point. (I prefer to use these for impressive deeds and very clever ideas, since my players don't need motivation to roleplay).
  • For more ideas for a festival, see my earlier blog post:

Let the heroes have fun and get to meet some of the characters they will interact with later. The most important ones would be:

Governor Nighthill
The governor will greet them early on and tell them to make themselves home. He is a good man with a weary look, who tends to get very chatty and perhaps a bit amorous towards female heroes, once the wine starts flowing. Don't make him obnoxious, rather let him be an appealing character, seeing how he's the main quest giver for the first couple of chapters.

Escobert the Red
The Master of the Keep; mainly keeps to himself and his drinks, but is a great chance for the heroes to socialize; perhaps try out those drinking games and a CON, athletics check? He's one of the only persons around who is genuinely worried about the recent cult activity on the Coast. He may even mention the secret tunnel to the heroes, if he's had one too many drinks.

Leosin Erlanthar
The half-elf monk is not one to indulge in such festivities, but he is occasionally seen mingling a bit with some of this friends from the church of Chauntea. He is sober, serious and very interested in talking about the rumors of cultist activities; one almost has the feeling that his interest is more than academic? Leosin won't be important till chapter 2, but it's good to let the heroes get to know him as a good guy.

When the day is done, allow the heroes to rest at the inn after much celebration, and then fire away with Chapter One as written. (There is an additional benefit to this; as written, it's actually possible for the heroes to set a world record in reaching level 2 in a public adventure. All they have to do, is sit down and watch the world burn; the raiders will leave and they will ding level 2, if you're going for milestone leveling. If they're already in town, they're much more inclined to do something.)

Our town is under attack!
The heroes were resting well in their beds, when a savage roar and a chorus of yelling voices from the outside broke the silent veil of night. Soon after, fires illuminated the night and windows were shattered while people ran in panic into the streets. Above it all, the occasional thunder dragon-wings echoed.

Quickly getting into their gear, the heroes opened the windows and saw several raiders in black and blue battered armor, pillaging and plundering left and right. People were cut down where they stood by impish little kobolds and strange dog-like reptilians stalked the streets. (As written, these are just mercenaries, but with inspiration from Hackslashmaster, I've fleshed them out to be sellswords from the Black Talon and Blue Boar http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.dk/2014/09/on-hoard-of-dragon-queen-episode-ii_10.html – His guide is really great, if you want to detail your generic cultists and raiders a bit.)

Cirion tried shouting out to the dragon in draconic, making it turn its head and blast the inn from afar. Half the party made it out in time, but the other half had to suffer through a collapsed ceiling and broken walls. Just as they got into the streets, the enemy was upon them. Two raiders and three kobolds stormed them, with sadistic glee.
Kobolds. They WILL fuck you up.
(There are a lot of fights to be had in Greenest, but stealth is rewarded. If the heroes just head out, chances are they'll be overwhelmed quickly, as you roll a lot for wandering monsters. Also; they don't get any long rests. Once they head down that road, the plot pretty much solves itself and they skip out on a lot of stuff. So the biggest challenge is beyond doubt the resource management.

Also, a lot of the challenge at low level is still the burst damage. If your heroes seem to make it a little too well, consider letting your monster dual wield weapons, which seems deadly at lower levels.)

The heroes smashed in the head of the raiders, but poor Lee was struck down by the ganging Kobolds (pack tactics is a crazy good ability now). They had time to get him back to his feet and decided to head for the keep and have a low profile. On the way they managed to encounter a few villagers, who were about to be killed, and take them along.

(I allowed my players to declare whether they wanted to stealth or search for prisoners as they went along. The more villagers they took with them, the higher the chance they would be detected by wandering monsters, and they had to defend said villagers in battle. This again allowed the heroes to have a say in how the odds were scaled. In the end, they gathered up a group of around 10 and led them off to the keep.)

What the hell is going on down there?

The heroes arrived at the keep, which had its gates shut shortly after. Nighthill was furious and demanded an explanation. The militia was holding its ground, but it was clear that the raiders just wanted for them to sit tight and wait for it to be over with. Not something the governor would accept. He instructed the heroes to take the secret way out of the keep and out into town, and find out more about this attack. Apparently, the enemy was about to put the torch to the old mill west of town; which would be catastrophic, seeing how much food would go to waste.
The heroes prepared themselves with a few supplies and set out through the old tunnel. On their way they encountered two rat swarms, who happily devoured them and once again instilled the good ol' notion of fear of swarms. (While swarms aren't as devastating as they used to be in Pathfinder, they're still extremely annoying to a low level party with little to no access to magic attacks.)

They arrived at the end of the tunnel and noticed a party of raiders scouting right outside, near the small brook. (By the way, one thing that annoyed me immensely, is the fact that the chapter comes with a great map of Greenest; only there is no legend to it. You can pretty much work out much of it by your own, and I imagine this is also why there is so very little description of the actual town; you need to find out by your own. But still, it wouldn't have hurt with a few directions.)
Using illusion magic, Cirion managed to lure off the raiders with a voice calling from the distance, allowing the heroes to slip by unnoticed and approach the mill from the stream.

Sneaking closer, they realized that there were indeed flames around it, but they weren't meant to burn it down. Rather, a couple of kobolds kept it lit and a guard drake lay in ambush on the roof, alarming the heroes well in advance. Though they didn't get the surprise round on the draconic imps, they managed to avoid the drop from the raiders that were waiting for them inside the mill, and the fight took place on the outside. 
(At this point the party is likely still going strong on resources; that's okay. It's a perfect opportunity for them to capture a raider.)

They dragged on them into the mill and started questioning him, learning that he was a hired sword by the Cult of the Dragon-something. A proud member of the Black Talon, he had no loyalty to his employer, but could only reveal that they were hired to plunder the town and bring it all back to the camp to the south. He also mentioned a dragon-lady and some nasty bitch in purple. Satisfied with this, the heroes cut his throat and threw the lot into the river (yup...)

Approved!
Dragon!
They made their way just back to the keep and reported to Nighthill, who was deeply troubled by the news. There was no rest for the wicked, however, as the alarm was raised soon after. The dragon was attacking the keep, and all hands were needed at the parapet.

Making their way up there along with a good handful of men, the heroes spread out and faced the huge, flying monstrosity. It roared with thunder, lightning crackling from its throat, and blasted a score of soldiers, sending them screaming off the wall.

While the troops stood vigilant against it, the heroes held back and attacked with ranged weapons with a feeble attempt of driving it off. Eventually, Lee scored a critical hit with his crossbow, piercing the beast's eye and sending it howling to the skies, cursing in ancient tongues.
(This encounter is kind of weird; it's mostly a dps race in which the heroes are safe. I was kind of wondering how they were supposed to even overcome its frightful presence seeing as it's so high? Still, it's not much damage the dragon needs, but it seemed kind of odd to them that it just left after one critical hit.)

Smoke rises from the temple of Chauntea...

The battle with the dragon was fierce indeed, and at this stage, the heroes were starting to feel the effect of the depleted resources. And to make matters worse, a shout from the parapets warned them that something was going on down at the temple of Chauntea - it looked like the raiders were trying to bash in the doors. Judging from the amount of people in the keep, several more were bound to have sought refugee in the sanctuary. If the the raiders broke through, it would be a carnage!

As they watched, Lee looked down and noticed a stern woman in purple gowns staring back up at him. He had a strange feeling that they'd met before... 

 With a sigh of displeasure, the heroes gathered up their gear once more, but confronted Governor Nighthill that they were in a banged up shape and needed some supplies. Though Nighthill had been saving such supplies for later, he gave up some potions of healing and a first aid kit to the cause (The heroes have the chance to win the potions later on, anyway, so that's a possibility if you want to be nice on them. The governor wants them to succeed, after all).

So off they went to the hero-cave and set out for the temple.

Once they arrived, they noticed the overwhelming amount of raiders and beasts. A group led by a Dragonclaw was battering on the front door, while a huge patrol made slow circuits around the building, trying to keep everyone away. And then, at the back, a puny group of kobolds had lit a fire and was trying to smash in the backdoor with frustrated growling. 

The heroes considered this for a short while and waited till the patrol had passed; stormed in and had the jump on the kobolds before they could raise the alarm. Connor knocked on the door and managed to persuade the guy on the other side of their sincerity, so they were let in and found the temple in chaos. The high priestess almost cried out what sight for sore eyes they were, and that they needed to get people out before the front door collapsed.

(If you want to put more pressure on this situation and play with a battle grid, let the group at the front door hammer away and roll a dice for the HP of the door, while slowly moving the group of raiders outside; watching the miniatures move closer to the backdoor and the now lost group of kobolds will surely stress the urgency of forming a quick plan!)

People were panicked in there; the very notion of running out of the temple was just as terrifying as staying, so the heroes had to do some persuasion (really, of course people would usually try and make a run for it, but at least try and make the heroes work for it, I say). They insured the townsfolk that no harm would come to them, if only they would get off their ass and move NOW! There were some lucky rolls, and in a small huddle, the group left the church. On their way out, however, the high priestess asked the heroes if they'd seen Leosin, the half-elf monk? The last time she saw him, he left the church during the raid, in order to get help. But from the window, she noticed he was captured and put up surprisingly little resistance, which wondered her?

(This is more of a red herring or interesting thought for the heroes, which bodes of what is to come in the next chapter!)

This is one of those passages that can turn out really well or really bad. If the heroes are dim they may even try and go Lancelot on the church, which will end badly. It doesn't take many failed stealth checks either, and just one of the kobolds needs to survive the drop and run and call for help. In that case, the best the heroes can hope for is to flee and watch the massacre of the church. Then again, it's also one of those situations that leave a lot of room for improvement, and a smooth talking player may have some clever way of making it inside.


Cyaaaaaanwrath is ready!

They returned to the keep with the villagers, and the heroes settled down a well deserved hour to rest. They were well on to dream land from exhaustion, when a roar flew through the night. A hoarse voice called out the surviving villagers of Greenest, proclaiming the raid had come to an end, and that they could finish this off without any problems, if only the town would send out its best fighter!

Joining the assembly on the parapet, the heroes noticed a towering half-dragon in the midst of a huge group of raiders. Next to him were a battered woman with two children, who one of the guards immediately recognized as his sister and nieces. About to burst through the gates in a daring rescue, the heroes restrained him and decided to talk to the half-dragon. The blue giant introduced himself as Cyanwrath, and that he would only face their best fighter. After some thinking, they decided to send out Twelve the barbarian.

Cyanwrath was pleased to see this, and the battle immediately broke out. In the first round of combat, the half-dragon attacked twice and had some...good luck. In fact, he rolled two natural twenties.


With a small whimper, Twelve went down for the count, almost died, but Cyanwrath dealt nonlethal damage and instead knocked out the barbarian with the pommel of his sword, laughing fiendishly as he cut off the half-orcs ear as trophy. Hailed by a chorus of cheer and laughter, the raiders departed and left the heroes who quickly attended the hostages and brought their comrade inside for rest.
They barely had the time to sit down and breathe, before the outside world and its commotion evaporated as they drifted slowly into sleep...and their second level!

Conclusion:

I've spent some time reading up on the general opinions of this adventure, and I'm kind of surprised how much hate it has received from the fans. Some of it is more or less warranted, so I'll try and keep it to the point.
I like it how they've remained true to the fact that the first couple of levels are about earning your wings. This chapter is brutal and challenging, truly putting a strain on the heroes' resources. There are plenty of encounters, they seem relevant and the adventure doesn't really waste much time getting people involved; likely because this is supposed to be easily picked off and fired away at the gaming club. I can understand that.

I'm very annoyed by the fact, however, that there is so very little introduction to Greenest; neither is any information conveyed to you as the GM. Improvising is always fun, but there is almost nothing to go on here. In addition, the random encounters aren't that creative at all; most of them are simply a handful of monsters thrown at the heroes without any context. Wouldn't it be fun to include some interesting scenarios for the heroes to encounter them in? Say, watching a gang of kobolds robbing an alchemist and some of them were high on some kind of drug, making for some very interesting combats? How about an old safe in the middle of the road, with four dead raiders mysteriously around it? There are several opportunities here and they seem missed most of the time.

The missions are okay, especially the mill and the temple rescue. The dragon attack is an interesting thing, but it just seems odd it takes one critical hit for it to flee – still, I can live with that.
What truly grinds my gears, is the introduction of Cyanwrath around the end; he's a CR 4 as far as I remember, put up against a single level 1 character, which is basically an invitation for carnage. It's very likely he will outright kill someone, which pretty much smells like “Oh, look at this awesome evil protagonist we've made!”. Speaking as a former player, in which such a villain was introduced (Yes, looking at you, Xanesha, Rise of the Runelords...) isn't that much fun, unless your players have built for that kind of shit. Just like the level 90 who challenges your new level 11 rogue in Goldshire to a duel – what's the point? Is it for the small egos? Why the fuck would it be fun for anyone to have their character killed off by something they have next to no chance of defeating? And just to add insult to injury; the adventure even states that if the heroes, despite all odds, down the monstrosity, he' simply replaced by another of his kin later.
But no. No he fucking isn't. That's pure bad writing, Wizards. Sorry.

I suggest including him, because he has potential to become an important villain (ironically, he's killed off rather early in the adventure...) but let him knock out the player instead and allow them to hold a grudge.

Chapter one is pretty generic across the board and mainly a way for you to get into the story, which isn't that special overall. I wasn't impressed by it, but we had fun; so let's move ahead in the next chapter and see how it goes, once the heroes set out to infiltrate the raider's camp.