Saturday, April 7, 2018

On Trying Roll20

Playing tabletop games online through formats like Roll20 has intrigued me for some time.

By and large, this is due to what I would consider my number one problem as of late with gaming in my local area: Paizo and WOTC rule the realm. If it's not Pathfinder or 5e, it seems to be a hard sell on getting new people to give it a shot. I am sure there are a lot of private/home groups that play all kinds of other games, but from a perspective of mostly dealing with public/open games, it can be hard to indulge my interest in other games.

Back in 2012, when this blog was first active, there was a local gaming convention that started up called Forge. It was an excellent experience that had a pretty broad representation all across the sphere of gaming. I got to play DCC for the very first time, join in an excellent Labyrinth Lord game, be introduced to Savage Worlds and also met SFR and learned all about Dragon Dice. Those were only some of the highlights, but it was an excellent convention. Sure, they had a ton of tables for Pathfinder and D&D but there was plenty of other stuff too. Sadly, the con wound up being a one and done. I'm not sure of all the particulars, but they weren't able to keep it going.

Jump to today and we have a yearly gaming convention called Lexicon that to date I have never been to. While I'm happy to play board or card games, my #1 interest is in RPG's and every year their offerings amount to an endless sea of Pathfinder Society and 5e Adventurer's League and maybe a table here and there for "lesser" games. The schedule for this year went up and browsing through the RPG section it seems to be almost exclusively Society (Starfinder now included) and League games. The few that don't flag under those banners are just one-shot "unofficial" games.

I'm not sure why that is. Honestly, I suppose I should be doing something about it and volunteering to run games and offer up some more obscure selections. We're only a week or two out from Lexicon 2018 so perhaps that's an idea for next year. But it is nice to sometimes get to play the games you love, instead of running them. And that's really the rub, I suppose. As hard as it seems to be to sell people on trying something else, finding another person willing to run that game is a far greater task.

To date, Dungeon Crawl Classics is still my favorite Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Until two weeks ago, I had only played DCC two times since its launch. Once, in 2012, at Forge right around when the game launched (Doom of the Savage Kings ran by Dieter Zimmerman) and then participating in a one-shot playtest by Mark Bishop for his excellent Nebin Pendlebrook's Perilous Pantry. I have run DCC extensively, but as far as getting to experience the game as a player that's it.

So all that is to say recently I had been looking a lot at Roll20 and similar services and wondering if that might be an avenue to deal with my issue. So I managed to get in on a one-shot DCC funnel with the potential to roll on into an ongoing campaign. How was it?

My experience was mixed.

The adventure itself was fine. A little original adventure involving a crashed ship surrounded by eerie mist. The story wound up being a riff on Herbert West: Re-Animator and being such a big Lovecraft fan I got a lot of enjoyment out of the parallels.The Judge even name-dropped Freeport which is a setting I love. My little band of 3 guys, generated with the excellent Purple Sorcerer tool, had rolled up surprisingly well so I would have been happy carrying on with any of them. But then, of course, there must be some bad or I wouldn't have said mixed.

I must admit I haven't run DCC in about a year. I may be a little rusty on the rules, but the Judge was allowing us a Luck Check to roll over the body on our Level 0's. I'm pretty sure that's not a thing. As a result of our band of 15 only lost four members when it was all said and done. It hardly felt like the typical funnel as a result and even the Judge lamented that he was surprised we lost so few. Maybe I should have said something early on? It was my first experience so I really didn't want to be that guy coming in all "Um, actually..." and throwing down the rule book.

But that's a minor thing, right? I'm sure someone wanting a more survival heroic tone might even use that as a house rule and that's fine. There was some disconnect between a few of us players. In one room my Dwarven Chest-maker ran into an illusory trap depicting "the most beautiful woman we had ever seen" and was forced to make a Will Save. In sheer luck, I crit the roll. It was a really cool moment and riding on that I roleplayed it up having the Dwarf grunt and state that he had still seen better.

Another player chimed in "Yeah, he's probably gay" and this was followed by jaunty laughter all around from the other players and Judge. Not only did it steal the thunder of the moment, but it rubbed me the wrong way. It's definitely not the kind of comment that would be welcome at my table. I generally don't think of myself as a prude or really militant about any agenda. I try to get along with everybody, see both sides to any issue, make my own conclusion but still respect a differing opinion. We have a great player that pops in from time to time who is gay and at that moment I thought of him. How it would be if he had been at this Roll20 game. How might that make him feel?

So it wasn't cool in my book. I commented that it wasn't really funny, but we glossed on.

The biggest issue, to my mind, was the general flow of things. I know some people play with webcams and maybe that helps with this, but we were just using headsets and frequently had a problem with people talking over top of one another. Then, both would immediately start again trying to get through what they were saying. It was a bit of a disorganized chaos. I didn't get to say or do near as much as I wanted. I tended to defer to the other person planning to state my thing next, but then someone else would chime in and I was skipped over.

I'm a bit introverted, I know that. Running games is a thing that gets me out of my shell. Knowing that, when I run a game if I notice someone is being trampled over by more outspoken players I will make it a point to give them time to shine or try to reign in other people so they can get their bit in too. Dividing up loot was a nightmare of people talking over people and not paying attention to what had been taken or what was already there to take. I tried to help by typing up a list whenever there was loot and posting that to the game chat so the Judge wouldn't have to keep repeating it. As a result, none of my guys really acquired anything other than Padded Armor that we all received as a mercy sort of thing and the gear of my Squire when he went down during the final battle.

The Judge himself was pretty heavy into the online scene, it seemed. Our game ran a bit over time and we got the ending cut to just a "you killed the guy, you were successful" because he was scheduled to play in a different game and was going to be late for it. To be so flushed with great games you're excited for must be a great experience, but I felt that ours was cheapened by just sort of fizzling things out to break the game.

Maybe the Judge could have done more to organize that chaos? I will definitely keep trying on Roll20, but I am not so sure what to think after this first experience.

I'd really like to hear some other experiences and see if I just had a bad draw or if these are typical issues to online roleplaying.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Public Play Chronicles 04: The Next Generation

I checked out our new local game shop pretty early on to see how friendly they might be.

They actually sat up shop where an old one used to be located. A place that had been pretty nice and open back when I ran stuff at the original FLGS. They struggled monetarily and wound up shutting down, which was a shame because they actually stocked RPG books a lot better than our primary place. If I had not already been ingrained in the Encounters program at the other place, I probably would have done all my gaming there.

But this new shop was the second store for an already successful one in the next town over. Their storefront was pretty small and they were smart about things focusing mostly on Magic and board games. The RPG's amounted to a small rack of 5e and Pathfinder stuff along with the blind boxed minis for each line and supplementary things like sets of dice. They'd special order things, but otherwise, that was it. Regardless, I make it a point to pick up the 5e releases there rather than going online.

I asked about any RPG stuff going on, but there wasn't much word. I got a lot of mixed messages between workers. One mentioned they have a group at the other store and might coordinate something. Another talked about testing potential GM's. Personally, I was feeling reasonably gunshy about even trying public open table games again so I just let it go and decided to wait.

Here and there veterans of the old shop cropped up and eventually one of the older guys that used to game a lot got in touch with the actual owner, who was very favorable on having an RPG presence in the store and worked out having an open meeting to discuss things. A lot of people wondered if I was going to be involved and in the end, I decided to turn up and at least hear what everyone had to say. Things were generally pretty positive and the owner was very supportive of things. Given my schedule with work I was really only free on the weekends now, but if people were keen on giving it a shot I was willing to put out for running a game to get things going.

We had a rocky start. I really wasn't able to bring back into the fold many of my old players. Among them were any number of weird grudges they held against other players and it always amounted to a scenario of "well, if they are there then I won't come" to such a way that all of them kind of just ignored the situation. Others had different schedules and couldn't swing any of the potential game times. In the end, my only old player who came back was the guy who yelled at everyone for talking over my game. But it had been a year or two now and we had the buzz of a new store so we gave it a shot.

I reasoned that something simple might be best to kick off with. I had recently received The Black Hack which I think is a great little OSR game. So with that in tow, I billed a sort of retro throwback thing running through some old TSR modules and Judges Guild stuff using Black Hack.

And it completely bombed.

We advertised the heck out of it and nobody came but the two or three of us that were organizing everything. It failed to fire another weekend and we were back to the drawing board. The consensus, everyone was excited with 5e now between how the game had developed and the rise of stuff like Critical Role.

It seemed to be a situation of 5e or bust and so, rather reluctantly, I found myself with a new table once more running through the Hoard of the Dragon Queen. For me, I was happy to be playing again but rather tired of 5e. Since its launch, it had been the majority of what I ran. Initially from the hype of a new game then later at the library by request of everybody and thus once more. I wanted to try new stuff like the Black Hack or some Apocalypse Engine games or even get back to my Fantasy first love of DCC.

But 5e took off.

We started having two alternating games of 5e going on. For a very short time, I began to run the excellent Maze of the Blue Medusa using 5e, but it floundered and fell off as only a few really dug its style and the old school lethality. Some guy came in and started a public game of 5e on Friday's. Another guy just started this month a 5e game on Monday. Another is in the work for Sunday's. I think a few other groups come in and play at the shop unrelated to our organized group. RPG's definitely flourish there for now. We've made some attempts at getting Sunday games off the ground, but thus far turnout hasn't managed to keep anything afloat. Members rotated in and out, continuity suffered but I learned to just appreciate the game I guess, and we ran on.

We just finished the final session of the campaign this month and the group had their final confrontation with Tiamat. Just shy of two years and we finished the whole campaign start to finish (along with a few original side treks of my own design in response to some story choices they made). Thinking about it, it was really the first "full campaign" I have ever concluded for D&D that actually ran through most of the range of levels/play experiences in a game. I'll definitely be writing up a bit about how it all turned out in the future.

That is not to say there have not been problems. On and off again there has been a lot of drama mostly between player personalities clashing. That's, perhaps, a story for another time. Best of all, we've finally kind of reached a place where we have a lot of regulars that at least seem to trust in my devotion towards trying to make a good experience at the game. As I did back when the game launched, I've talked everyone up into giving Dungeon Crawl Classics a shot once we wrap up the Tiamat Campaign.

I can't be more excited. DCC is my element and I feel so much more passion to throw at the game. We still do the alternating Saturday thing so everyone has a chance to play. The off-slot from my campaign has struggled a bit through a few different games. We're making a sort of new game initiative right now. So while I'll be leading on with DCC, the off-week we've got a guy running Starfinder. We already know I'm not a 3.5 guy. But like I have said, I will give any game its shot. I've also been involved in an intermittent but very story-focused and involved 5e homebrew campaign that a guy has been running as a private thing. it's been a blast and despite my 5e fatigue, the story and roleplaying have been so good it sort of transcends all that. It's definitely something I want to write up a little about to share because it's been so cool every step of the way.

So there's still a lot of frustration here and there. Nothing as extreme as there used to be. I think personalities will always clash sometimes and that is just a problem within trying to organize a club of this type. We are in a good place now where the other guy who helps organize things and I are generally on the same page about stuff. So any sorts of issues can get handled and sorted out well enough without too much trouble. Communication is key, in my mind.

Overall, there's actually a lot of good games going on both public and private. This new public playgroup hasn't managed to grow much past supporting a single table, but for as long as it lasts I think it is a good thing and we've managed to bring a few people in (or back in) to the game.

Here's to hopefully many more good games in the future.

And what of this blog?

I have a lot of stuff I want to talk about. Games I've played. Games I want to play. Campaign ideas. There's a lot to be said just in the Kickstarters I have backed.

We'll see what happens!

Monday, April 2, 2018

Public Play Chronicles 03: Game Club or Social Club?

I thought transitioning that core group to a home game would be excellent.

I could really dig in on the story elements and with a regular dedicated set of players, we could avoid a lot of the weird continuity issues that crop up in an open game. Somewhere buried in the last story I mentioned that we had gained some problematic players. That wound up being a thing I inherited to my home group. It was a thing on several fronts. First, clashes of personality between players. Those are the sort of things I tried my best to mediate, but in the end, people have to be willing to compromise. But nobody was. And everyone felt entitled to be there in the game. This made a sort of catch 22 situation for me.

We finished Hoard of the Dragon Queen. My home group found itself a bit divided on things. Some were eager to jump into Rise of Tiamat. Others felt fatigued a bit with so much 5e and also missed the shake-up of the weekend games getting to try out different and more diverse systems. Being diplomatic felt like the best thing to do, so we put it to a vote and decided to take a break from 5e for a mini-campaign in something else then return refreshed to take down Tiamat. Not a bad idea, I thought at the time. But that route ended up bringing a pretty swift end to my home group.

We had a lot of trouble settling on what game to play. Some wanted superheroes. Some only felt confident with a Fantasy setting. Some wanted a more anime-styled sort of tone. Others couldn't get down with anything anime at all. It was a mess. At the time I did a lot of reading on how to properly do a Session 0 and do stuff like setting player expectations. We tried a game or two and usually didn't get past a first session. Somebody would have a major hang up or the game just didn't go well as people uninterested in the game sort of subtly sabotaged things. I'm not making a judgment call on that. I don't want to think anybody had any sinister intent. If you're not into something, you're not, and that can just naturally reflect in your actions. Sometimes, even I wasn't really into what we were doing and I tried to be upfront and honest about that. It both felt and seemed unwise for a GM to commit to running a game they were not invested in. I had been down that road before with Pathfinder.

Ultimately, someone suggested that I just run something I feel super hyped about and can really get into. The premise was that if I were excited about things, I would throw my all into running the game and everybody would likely enjoy things regardless of genre preferences. Everybody was on board with that idea except for one player. She was part of the couple that always seemed to kick up a storm back at the game shop. In not so many words I got called a flake, for canceling so many games after the first session. Her argument was that they had all worked so hard and invested in making up these characters and then I was just hopping games again and again because I didn't like it.

Maybe that was true?

From my perspective, it seemed very clear whenever a game wasn't going to take off well. Why then continue that? Was it not better to try and find something that everyone enjoyed and went well?

Someone took the fair stance of asking what they thought we could do then to appease the situation, but they offered no answer. This was really my major personal issue. This couple was always eager to raise the flag over a problem they saw, but they really seemed to just want to complain or be confrontational never actually work out a solution. The point also seemed to diminish my own place in the scheme of things. It's not like I expect any acknowledgment, but each time I had put in as much if not more work on the prep to run the game as the players had towards their characters.

So with a general consensus, we pushed ahead on things. I had been quite enamored with FATE and particularly FATE Accelerated. We had run a few successful demos back at the shop and I really appreciated the focus it placed towards constructing a narrative collaboratively. In that light, I decided to use it to adapt the original anime-themed forum roleplay I had been a part of for many years. It was a setting I had done a lot to help create and thus I knew it quite well. Accelerated would capture the anime-styled action of the setting without bogging us down in a lot of mechanics. It seemed like the perfect fit.

But we didn't get past the session zero. The confrontational player came out of the gate being rude and standoffish about things. Another player was sick of their attitude and just bowed out of the game in frustration. The confrontational player kept questioning every aspect of the setting just trying to find some flaw to drill down on. When that didn't really happen and everyone else happened to be getting along just fine they resorted to insulting the setting as being poorly conceived and not making sense and, as they tended to do, rallied another person to their complaints.

I tend to be a very laid back kind of person. I'll let a lot of stuff just roll over me and laugh it off if it means things carry on smoothly. I have always been that way. I do tend to be a worrier about things, but I keep that to myself. A consequence of that is that when stuff stresses me out I usually let that bottle up a bit too much. My stress with gaming had been building for some time by this point. So I tried to laugh things off. I took a stance of hey, this clearly isn't going to be the one that works out either so back to the drawing board. Or maybe we should just keep a good thing going, forget the hiatus and hop back onto 5e since everyone was fine with that.

Instead, this confrontational player kept badgering me now adding in that I was flaking out of another game. I kept trying to laugh things off and just let myself look bad. I had failed them as a GM, I guess. Whatever. But she wasn't going to let it go for whatever reason. Having roused another person, I was getting it on two fronts and it all just became a little too much. If it were the game shop I could have easily excused myself, but we were in my home. That only really served to stress me out more. I had opened up my home, despite not being the most ideal setting to host a game, and now I had players badgering and insulting me because ultimately we weren't doing what they wanted to do.

So I apologized, said we were done for the day and asked everyone to leave. This was met with resistance from everyone getting upset that the game was cut short. In the end, I just yelled for everyone to go and stormed off. It's one of the only times I have ever really felt like I lost my cool. Nobody really knew how to take it. A handful hung back wanting to make sure "we were cool" and all that. In the end, I just let things fall off there. For me, it was too much stress after so many sessions of drama and issues. I suppose I could have asked the core of the problem to just not come anymore. Maybe I should, but at the time I opted to just let things go.

This, sadly, is all a precursor to things.

Time marched on. I was back to reading game books and posting about them online rather than playing. Everyone else found home games here or there and just went on. There was still a lot of discussion about the public playgroup surviving in some way as a whole, but we were at a loss for a location. After a while, the idea got floated about forming a gaming club out of our local public library. That seemed like a wise idea to me. By then I had finished my Masters degree in Library Science, so I knew well the potential for a public library to act as a sort of gathering point for the community it served. I did a lot of research on my end about gaming clubs in libraries as far as how they operate and how to pitch the idea.

But the idea had been floated by the husband of the couple who tended to raise a lot of trouble, the guy whose wife had gotten hostile with me during the last session of the homegroup. They had already taken the initiative on a lot of the process. I was, naturally, concerned about my relationship in things. If it was to be a thing, I wanted it to be about building a community and a resource for gamers (or potential gamers). I did not want any hard feelings or grudges going on (either involving me or between player to player). I was sold on it with the idea of a fresh start for all to build things back up. So I christened the name Tabletop Adventurers Society, a more talented member of the group whipped up some fliers and we were a go to meet up every Saturday evening.

Out of the gate, there were a lot of problems. A lot of old players had grudges with no interest in healing those wounds. Person A would never play if Person C was present. Extrapolate that by several times to make a complex web. Nobody wanted to discuss any of this stuff out, however. To each person, their mind was made up. And the one who had badgered me in the home game, the grudge was still clearly there towards me. Our first new member came in with a very focused sort of perspective on things. To him, every game was about winning over the challenges presented. He had no interest in a story and once he saw that we had quite a few with a leaning in favor of story over just running dungeons, he started making characters to snap down on such behavior in the game on the notion that he was "just playing" his character.

We were trading off weekends, I would run one weekend and somebody else another so that everyone had a chance to play. But the numbers were swelling and soon we were back to that old show of cramming 12 players into a game. So there were a lot of factors at play. A lot of personality/interests clashing. The single table was getting crowded. But I saw the crowding as a good thing, it meant things were growing. To me, I thought we could fix all these issues by simply accommodating for the growth.

As the number of active players began to creep further towards 15 and on, I began to float the idea of running two tables at each meet-up. This would help split that player base into more balanced tables where things could flow faster and there could be more time for each character to shine in a game. Furthermore, we seemed to have a divide between people wanting to really focus on telling a story and people that wanted a more beer and pretzel style run through the dungeon game. Again, if your table all had fun then you achieved a victory in my book. Either style of game is fine if it's what everybody is on board with.

But since we had that divide in interests and we had the players to support two tables (and willing GM's), to me it made sense to offer one table of each style every meet-up. Everybody could get their time to shine in-game and during the type of game they really wanted to play. And as those tables grew, hopefully, we could split off further. The public rooms for clubs at our library were rather generous. I think we could have easily grown to accommodate 4-5 tables running at once with everybody having plenty of space and enough area to avoid any interference for those focusing on their own game.

All that makes sense to me and seemed like a very pragmatic way to solve every problem the group was having. I was surprised then, to find a lot of opposition to it.

The problem-causing couple, who were on paper as running the club with me, were vehemently against it. Their argument was that I was trying to alienate people by making two tables and making one an exclusive thing so we could avoid people we didn't like when the goal I had stated was for the games to be open and build a community. In their way, they rallied people to that line of thinking.

Maybe I'm crazy, but that's just wrong to me.

Did some people get on my nerves, yeah? More than anything it seemed like a few people took issue with me, but I didn't have any grudge over that. I just wanted everyone to play a game and have a good time. To me, this was a sign of success, a chance to grow the club in a way that would surpass these growing pains of a sort. Most people tended to not turn out for a game if its style didn't fit what they wanted. Other than a handful, like this couple, who begrudgingly came to every session and just complained or tried to derail a game if it was not to their taste.

The solution was really obvious I guess. There's no need to justify the logic I had. I said then and still say it was the right direction to try and grow the club. Hey, we have these two games going on tonight. Come out and hop into whichever one you want to play. We get some weird night with a super low turnout and we can just fold in and run one of the games.

But I was out-voted in a sense and unlike the game shop, I really had no authority to back me up on anything. I only learned this after the fact, but a big chunk of what was really going on seemed to be that couple thought of the group as their social club. It was their Saturday night to get together with people, hang out and chat. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, on paper, but the reality is they didn't want any kind of change because they wanted things as it was where they could be at the center of things.

I like to hang out and chat before and after a game, but to me, this is a hobby I care very much about and want to foster and see grow. My focus was on growing the group as a gaming club to cater to varying tastes and interests. Those two ideals were very diametrically opposed. But the club situation was deteriorating. We had not had any new members in awhile and then I was contacted, via e-mail, from a prospective member interested in coming to a game but was uncertain about playing with strangers or an unfamiliar system.

I did my best to address those concerns and offer my help in accommodating them to the game, at that time 5e, which they knew only via the popular Critical Role. The next meet-up this new player came and frankly, I became disgusted with a lot of the players in our group. This new player was a young woman, college-aged like most of us were at the time, generally attractive and naturally interested in RPG's and by relation a lot of related schools of interest in geekdom. Two or three of our long-term players just... I'm not even sure how to phrase it other than disgusting.

Day one, a player started pressuring her after a game to come back to his apartment and get drunk repeatedly after she declined the first time. Every awkward sad "OH MAN A GIRL" sort of line or behavior you can think of applied. She lived one town over and had been given a ride to the game by a friend. Some hung back after the game as she waited for her ride offering her to come with them and any number of other things. As the one locking up the meeting room I was sort of already obligated to make sure everyone left safely. It was just... you see that kind of crap, stories about it online. I guess I always thought we were better?

I was very embarrassed, but in the end, this player sort of laughed it off and kept coming back. That kind of behavior seemed at stark odds with the rules we had drafted up to the club, so I got in touch with people and did my best to make it clear they needed to handle things better. In the end, it gave us all as a group a bad image to my eyes. But their behavior continued and most embarrassing of all, the husband of the problematic couple was involved in all this and facilitating it. As one of the organizers of things that just made it all the more wrong.

Things came to a head around Halloween. I usually love to celebrate that holiday and on the gaming, side tend to do some horror one-shots in honor of the holiday. This was met with dissent from the wife of the couple who disliked horror. Naturally, I floated the idea of two tables again but it went ignored. To me, this was a tradition I had done every year since I got back into gaming so I went forward regardless. Call of Cthulhu was the name of the game and I planned a 2 session run of The Trail of Tsathogghua, which I find to be an excellent little slow burn adventure. This is just my kind of Cthulhu where it's very grounded in the literary style of Lovecraft rather the more pulpy kick the door down and blaze the tommy gun into the cultists a lot in our group seemed to prefer. I made sure to preface that in advance of the game so everybody knew what they were getting into.

The first session went generally well other than some complaints from the wife of that couple. The husband had been called into work and couldn't attend. It had been the smoothest session we had run in awhile and I felt pretty hopeful about the climax next session.

Next session went the opposite. I showed up to be greeted by another of our players that took me aside to lodge a complaint. The husband of that couple along with the few who acted all creepy about our newest member had been running their mouths before I arrived. Essentially, discussing how hot that girl was and this or that unmentionable thing including a discussion on the need to keep it all so I could never find out because I would kill all their fun about things. The whole "white knight" deal, I suppose, was the intent.

That notion is a whole wormhole of problematic stuff so I won't get into it. Safe to say, the member reporting it to me had felt pretty offended and disgusted with their behavior and they were also worried that our newest member would get run off by it all. I made it a point that I'd be discussing with them after the game in private about things. It was getting disruptive and things needed to change or people needed to leave. There's really no excuse for treating people that way, especially in a public setting like that. Incidentally, the girl who was garnering so much attention didn't attend that second session. She said something had come up. I later learned those guys being problematic had been badgering her a lot over Facebook, so... who knows really what was going on. I'd probably bow out if I were in that situation.

But the game went down in catastrophe.

The husband of the couple set about trolling the game at hand doing a lot of random stuff trying to derail things. As I always try to do as a GM, I feel very confident with improvising and rolling with what players decide to do. But he was also having a lot of side conversation at the table. This had been a problem many had discussed recently and it went back, I think, to this whole divide of gaming club and social club. This couple saw it as their social event so they were fine with chatting whenever they were not doing anything in the game. Which can be fine, I think. The problem was that they would get so loud that I would raise my voice near shouting over them and players interested in the game could still not hear me. This was in a private room with no other sources of sound to interfere. Compare that to something like a crowded convention hall.

It had been discussed before. Had been another point in my argument to run two tables. But of course, had been ignored. So in one of the pivotal moments as the group was in talks with an NPC and getting some key information, this couple had dragged 3-4 others into a side conversation unrelated to the game. It was about the Greek gods turning into animals and raping people if I recall. Probably also not on the level with the guidelines we drew up since the library wanted it to be a family-friendly club, but so it goes.

We had this one player who was a bit problematic in his own right. I've always liked him. He's present, always tries to get into the story and roleplay and we generally have no problems between us. Unfortunately, not many tended to get along with him and he usually played characters that were always rude in-game. I guess most had this impression that he played such characters to project his own frustrations. He asked them if they could be a little quieter or step outside if it was important cause he couldn't hear what I was saying. I had repeated myself unsuccessfully and their side conversation only grew louder. So this guy completely lost it.

He raised his voice loudly to grab everyone's attention and then asked if they would please shut up because he wanted to actually play the game and was interested in the story, that the GM (me) had put all this work into prepping and now running the game and it was very rude to talk over top so loudly nobody knows anything but their side conversation. He then added that it was ridiculous he was having to say all this and that we were better than that. They all looked like they might come across the table at any moment.

Before I could say anything, another player completely unrelated to any of those mentioned thus far jumped up and shouted at this guy and said that he was being toxic and they refused to play if he's involved then stormed outside. We broke away from the table to take a little break considering how heated things had become. In that time, the problem couple stated that we should kick that guy out and everyone just kind of agreed and asked me to continue. Frustrated I sighed and said that was enough for the day. To a degree, my feelings were a little hurt. A lot of what that guy had said rang true and honestly I was frustrated to have to nigh-yell over side conversations to run a game. Why be there distracting everyone on doing absolutely anything other than the game, if you weren't interested in what was going on?

I tried to bring this up after the fact to people and then once more hit that brick wall divide between gaming club and social club. My feeling on the matter got dismissed because what it would mean was "excluding them from the group when it was meant to be open to everyone and they were just enjoying the game the way they wanted to enjoy it" and so on. My point was that they weren't actually playing or engaged in the game, so they may as well not came or just went off to the side and had their conversation. But they argued that would be excluding them and just... it's frustrating to roll over it again.

Bottom line, they wanted it the way they wanted it and were using every avenue possible to keep it that way. I was embarrassed by our group and generally frustrated. Moreso, I was disgusted with the husband in this couple. For a time we had been pretty close and on good terms, but this couple was older than most in the group. They could've easily been parents to me by age. And here he was being creepy at some college-aged girl and generally acting like some 13-year old focused on their entitlement to have a good time over everything.

Not content with the situation, he pushed to ban that member who had spoken out. I'm not saying what that guy did was right. He should have not had an outburst and made his point in a more constructive way. But what the husband of that couple did was worse in my book. To try and make it a clean and closed case he started posting about the situation to the public Facebook group for the club lying that the guy had cursed everyone out and shouted obscenities. This alarmed the library staff naturally.

I mean, I was right there in the moment. I couldn't keep running my game so all I had to do was listen to what everyone said. The worst the guy said was "shut up" and called them rude. So I confronted this dude in private to ask why he was lying about the situation. He leaned in full tilt and told me that in the heat of the moment I must have misremembered the situation. Hitting the limit of my frustration, I told him I was disappointed in him and that I was out as far as the club went. I reached out by e-mail to our contact at the library and without much detail just politely stated I was bowing out of things and to take me off the contact list.

Sadly, our contact was very unprofessional about things. Maybe she didn't know I had a degree in Library Science, but I definitely know how a situation like this ought to be handled. She chose to gossip around wanting to know what had happened and after getting a bunch of half-truths from the married couple now left in charge called and confronted me wanting to know what was going on. I tried to just bow out, but she continued to pressure me so I laid it all out. Told everything. The outburst from the game. The lies about it. The creeping on the new girl. Basically concluded I didn't want to be involved in something that was so negative. I wanted the group to be a positive thing to build a community for gamers and I didn't really feel like I had any ability or backing to implement that.

She said she would have to consider what I had said, but if it was what I wanted she would take me off the registry. And I did so.

I can't say much of what happened after that. Presumably, she confronted the guy now left in sole charge of things with all the allegations I had brought up. I don't know what became of that. That library club carried on though. That husband made a formal announcement that my contributions were respected and I would always be welcome back if I chose, but that the group was about being public and open and things like trying to exclude people from games just could not happen. Score a victory for being welcoming and accepting, supposedly.

To this day it is still going on. I heard the day moved to Sunday afternoons instead of Saturday evenings. I heard it's always a smaller gathering, one table affair of course. Now and again I bump into someone asking if I know about it. I don't say much. I've heard more than a few bad impressions. What can be done? It's not my thing anymore.

The one time someone really pressured me a lot about it when they learned secondhand that I had helped start it and wanted to know why I wasn't involved anymore, I just said there was a difference in opinion on how things were being run and I bowed out. But if I'm honest, it's that couple's social club. It's their weekend thing to do. It's not a gaming club in the business to teach new people or grow the hobby. And that's fine, I suppose. I just think it's a waste of the potential for the public library to be a community hub to instead indulge someone's whims.

And so once more I was left without any gaming going on. Some time passed and I sort of made peace with the situation. Now and again I got invited to a home game, but they never seemed to last long as people's schedules caused a lot of conflicts.

Then, in 2016, a new FLGS opened up in our town. And that brings us into the final and current phase of things...

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Public Play Chronicles 02: Friendly No More

As 4e moved into sharing focus with the D&D NEXT playtest for the upcoming 5th Edition, we started having a lot of issues with the public games for Encounters.

Interest was dwindling. Some wanted to try the NEXT rules, some wanted to keep with 4e. I always felt like this was a poor move on WOTC's part. 4e was done, still trying to support it through Encounters really just felt like a life support move. Worst of all, in my opinion, these new adventures (part of The Sundering mega-event) just were not up to snuff mechanically. Trying to balance rules for both 4e and NEXT left a feeling of phoning things in. We ran the first part with 4e rules and it did not play near as well as any past season. I had to devote a lot of time towards re-working the numbers on the fly to provide a challenging and interesting adventure.

We tried a few one-off playtest sessions of NEXT. In these early stages of the playtest, the majority of the regulars just did not enjoy it. For myself, I ranged mostly indifferent to dislike on NEXT. I really didn't feel like I could have a clear opinion till the game was finished and I wasn't keen on constantly shuffling the rules if we were to keep playing it as a regular thing. A lot of people were clamoring for Pathfinder. I found myself reluctant because I had read a lot of things online and knew well the "3.75" moniker it had. Never being a fan of 3.5, I didn't expect it to suit my taste very well.

But that was really the direction everyone wanted to go. I'm down to try any game once. In general, I think if the table has had a good time then I did something right. Maybe I cave in a little too easily on my own feelings to please others. That's kind of always been a thing. So for better or worse we left NEXT to do its thing and dove into Pathfinder. I snagged up the fancy hardcover for Rise of the Runelords and we hit the ground running. Attendance swelled as the Pathfinder name drew a lot of people.

And I hated it.

I hated every session of it. I tried so hard to set aside any assumptions I had, but it just did not work. The level of crunch in Pathfinder is just wholly unappealing to me. The giant skill list. The INT based focus with Skills which leave most martial characters with a paltry amount of skill points to work with. All the little nuanced situational rules that really just felt like overkill to me. Worst of all, I saw the power gamer come out of people in a way that I had never seen even with the worst aspects of 4e. We had one guy who only ever made gimmicks of particular race/class/feat combo's that did one thing game-breakingly well, but nothing else at all. He'd run that with little to no story or roleplaying till he ran up against something he couldn't push through, then want to say the character died (or even try to actively get them killed) to then look up and make some new combo he saw online that got around whatever the problem had been.

That's not fun. That's not telling an interesting story. When it comes to that, for me, I just say go play a video game. What separates a tabletop RPG from say the current Final Fantasy? To me, at least, a key element is the shared narrative that develops between everyone's input at the table. You can disagree with that and it's just fine. I don't think there really is one "right" way to play a tabletop. If everybody at the table had a good time, then you did right. That's the best way I can sum up my feelings. But I know what I enjoy personally and Pathfinder didn't cut it.

So I floundered with Pathfinder for quite awhile. We tried some other adjacent games like 13th Age, which I happened to like quite a bit but it never garnered much interest from any of my players. Ultimately, 5e was upon us. True to my word I gave it a fair chance and found it to be quite enjoyable. A lot of the things that didn't appeal to me during the NEXT playtests had been hashed out well enough. Personally, I was pleased to see more than a few 4e-isms make the jump, but of course, they were presented just different enough to avoid most of the hate on that system.

I'm a music guy. I have played bass guitar since I was in high school and have always had a deep appreciation for music. It probably started with a lot of the catchy tunes in video games from playing them growing up. I'm also really into horror films and genre cinema as a whole, so film scores are a whole other thing as well. When I can, which can be difficult in public gaming situations, I think incorporating background music for tabletop games really brings a whole cool element to the atmosphere. That's all set up to say that I have always felt a certain music analogy to what 5e wound up being in my eyes.

If D&D were a band then what 5e happens to be as an "album" they put out is pretty obvious I think. You had the original (a big simplification given all the versions of Basic and on, but roll with it) first album which kicked everything off. Like some demo recorded in a garage, it was raw, messy, unpolished but with so much potential. And then 1e was that technical polish of a first studio album. There are those who miss the edge that first demo had, but so it goes with any band. Then you've got 2e, the sophomore slump that many bands go through. A refinement upon the previous album, but with changes that prove problematic for some fans. 3/3.5 is that come back that builds on what they had done, but with a new level of polish, that really wins everybody over. 4e, then, is that experimental album. Well and established, the band takes that left turn off the road and into the depths of the cornfield for something that is grossly alienating to established fans. Maybe some stay true just due to the name, maybe it draws in new fans that never enjoyed the previous sound, but for good or ill, it marks a big change.

Maybe that is all dumb as far as analogies go, but if you follow it this far that leaves 5e. How do you follow up something like that? A shattered fanbase? 5e is the greatest hits album. It takes the best "tracks" from every album and presents them nicely packaged together maybe with a new song or two (Advantage/Disadvantage) designed from the ground up to be a solid hit. That's how I see 5e, it takes a lot of the best parts from every edition and kind of blends them together. I can see how that in itself might be unappealing to some players. For me, it's passable. The game was lighter than 3.5, more familiar with the older games than 4e and there definitely felt like it had a push towards putting a focus on telling a story.

DCC will always be my number one pick for a Fantasy game. If I had to give a runner up it'd be some sort of OSR game. Labyrinth Lord, Adventurer Conqueror King, Crypts & Things, or maybe even just B/X or the Rules Cyclopedia. I'd give 5e a solid third place in preference. There's a lot I like in 2e and 4e for that matter, but 5e has the added bonus of being currently in print and with a lot of buzz making it easy to find interest.

I was upfront with our playgroup. I couldn't stand Pathfinder. 5e looked viable enough. For all this time we basically had two rotations going on. During the week was a very focused Organized Play sort of deal first with Encounters then with Pathfinder Society. The weekends were devoted to demo's, one-shots and short-run campaigns with a variety of systems so people could try out different games or get a chance to share with everyone a game they really enjoyed. So for that prime time spot, we really needed a more mainstream game I suppose. I took the initiative, as I often do, and bought up the core books and starter box.

We spent a bit of time with The Lost Mines of Phandelver, enough for everyone to try things out and come to their own conclusion. 5e was a success and thus we found ourselves back around to D&D and the new Adventurer's League kicking things off right away with Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Things went smashingly well. They went so well my table had once again surged into the mid-teens in attendance. If there was one thing wrong with our open playgroup, it was available people to run tables. Quite often, due to people just wanting to play (which I can respect), I found myself wrangling games for 12+ people at once.

5e brought this problem back in full force, but we had someone willing to step up and for a time we started having multiple tables going on each game night. To me, that's a good thing. I don't mind running a big table, but it exponentially splits the amount of time you have to focus in on each individual character. So things were going good and as the months rolled on everyone continued their struggle against the Cult of Dragon.

As we reached the final climax of that book everything sort of fell apart.

To take stock of things, this was the gaming activity of the shop in the RPG realm. I oversaw and coordinated with the owner a facebook group for organizing public games anyone could come to. Through that group we regularly had two tables of AL-legal Hoard of the Dragon Queen going on during the week, usually one or two tables of random tabletop RPG's every Saturday and now and again some games on Sunday. There was another private group that had been gaming 4e and later 5e at the store. The local college had a gaming club that came once a week to host games in support of the store and a local high school had a D&D Club (excellent idea, wish we had that back when I was in high school) that met there once a week as well.

That's pretty good in my book. The shop also had all its usual activities you'd expect from a FLGS including a primary focus on Magic: The Gathering. This is where I really have to talk a little more about the shop itself and its owner to make clear what happened. As business grew, they were fortunate enough to expand into an adjacent building and grow beyond being just a FLGS to also having a board game cafe of sorts. Awesome concept, in my book. I think it's important to support your local store (provided they embody that friendly part of friendly local game store) and not to knock on anyone, but I've always had this sense that RPG gamers tend to not deal as much in buying stuff at the shop.

Maybe that is just my own subjective experience, but it seemed like most players were good in for a set of dice once in a blue moon and maybe a mini for a favorite character. They could download PDF's and borrow from others anything else. That's just how it is, I guess? To me, it's a hobby I care about, so I want to put a focus there and likewise support a place that's providing a play space and a means for people to come learn or enjoy the game. So I've always tried to get my books (when possible) from a store directly. Yeah, Amazon is cheaper. Almost always guaranteed. Amazon's not also fronting me a space to meet up with people and a table to game at for blocks of 4-5 hours each week. The Owner also really wanted to grow each avenue of gaming, so he tried a lot of incentives to bring in more people to run tables. GM's earned store credit per player in attendance at a session. I was never really a fan of this, I'm happy just for the play space and the opportunity, but by consequence, I accumulated a lot of store credit. Trying to make the best of it, I tended to put it towards stuff for the RPG group when possible. Getting a module everyone wanted to play. Dice or minis when needed.

So all that's really a long way to say that having a full on cafe to order from while gaming really did a lot to pull a profit from the RPG side of things. I can only speak for the sessions I was present for, but regularly the majority of my table would order something from the cafe. So that sounds like things are going excellent. Why then did things go south?

Something about the guy who owned the place, he always wanted to go bigger. I respected that trait in him. Generally, if you had asked around most people had an unfavorable opinion of the guy. "He's too rude" most would tell you. To me, I just saw a businessman trying to be successful in a field that is really hard to manage. I've read a lot here and there about game store management across different blogs and people sharing their personal stories. Magic subsidizes most everything else, is a common thing I've seen.

But he always wanted to go bigger. We had a lot of talks in private, as he wanted to keep tabs on the different areas of gaming, and I was always glad to coordinate and do whatever to help push the RPG side of things. He'd mention being in these groups for shop owners on Facebook and talk about the numbers (attendance, profit, etc.) they pull for RPG events or this or that and how he ought to be able to do the same. That never added up to me. We're a college town, yeah, but ultimately we're a smaller place in eastern Kentucky. We're 20 minutes from one of the larger cities in the state and none of their game stores go that big on any front. You go somewhere like New York, LA, etc. any metropolitan area and of course things are going to be different.

One day things kind of came to a head. The owner spoke with me in private to discuss a situation with the RPG group. He wanted to know how I felt it would be received if he issued a mandatory table fee for playing RPG's at the shop. At the time I had a lot of respect for this guy. I've always felt like honesty was the best policy so I was straight up with him. I told him that the majority would probably balk at the idea and one way or another a lot of drama would come from it. Personally, I didn't mind. If it had been that way from the start I would have paid it. If that was how things had to be now, then so be it. It's a hobby I enjoy so I don't see it as any different from paying to go to the theater and see a film I really want to see.

I inquired what had brought this on because I thought, if anything, as of late they would have been pulling more profits from the RPG side of things thanks to the cafe. As I was told, the group I oversaw was an outlier to things. He stated that some of the other groups meeting there rarely, if ever, purchased anything even going as low as a drink now and again. That, additionally, some of these other groups were bringing in an exorbitant amount of people and were ending up taking up space in conflict with other games (Magic, in particular, of course). The shop was growing across the board and space was becoming a premium. It wasn't really anything that had personally occurred due to the players I oversaw, but if a change was made it had to go across the board.

He asked me if I thought people would take it better if, in the table fee, they got reimbursed store credit that they could then use for whatever they would have purchased anyways. My point had been that most players I knew were buying something every time they walked in for a game so technically nothing would change. But I felt like I knew my players well and told him that there would be a hang up on the principle of the matter. As easily as you could say "hey, you already would have spent this money so it doesn't make a difference" one could also say "I spent that money because I wanted to support the store, not because it was demanded to walk through the door." That's splitting hairs really, but the phrasing does cast a different light between the two.

To me, it didn't make a difference but I had been gaming with most of these people for quite a while now and felt confident in gauging their reaction. Ultimately, the owner had to do what he thought was best for his store. I offered to do whatever I could to help smooth things over. His conclusion was that if people weren't okay with this change, which was for the good of the store in his mind, then he did not want their patronage anymore. That was a pretty hard line in the sand. I've always felt that understanding and finding common ground is the best way to handle any situation, but that was how things fell.

To my prediction, people balked hard at the notion when it got announced and exactly for the reasoning I quoted above. Things spiraled out of control on Facebook. We had one member that usually never spent money because at the time he didn't have a job and usually just bummed rides to the store. I don't think it's my place or anyone's to really make a judgment on that. It was what it was. Regardless, he was a pretty beloved member of the group and his situation got brought to the forefront by several concerned members, to which the owner dismissed as "you don't pay, you don't play" and moved on. We had picked up some new members in the prior few months, two of which if I can fairly say were something of rabble-rousers. They tended to never seem content with what was going on. and were always looking to complain about things. They stirred people up even more.

Others took a different angle on things. If the money they spent to play RPG's there were a fee, then they wanted to see better service out of the store. Truth be told, the cafe side had a lot of stumbling blocks getting going. We even had a player who one night received broken glass in his meal, who really didn't make much of a deal about at the time and tried to be understanding. That came back up in light of a fee. A lot of incidents like that came up. Maybe that was a fair point to make. Maybe not.

In the end, things got pretty nasty. If I can say one thing for sure negative about the guy who owned the store, it's that he did not take criticism well at all. Any sort of criticism or negative review towards the store or his treatment of a situation was met quickly with a rude or vicious comeback. Social media is kind of a crazy thing. It may just be a generational thing, but a lot of people seem to have very bad PR skills when it comes to the online presence of a brand or company. Even as recent as last year, 1-star reviews of that cafe on Facebook were met with vitriolic dismissals from the owner trying to discredit those complaining. It seems, as of late, he or somebody wised up and removed such comments. To me, that kind of attitude only hurts the image of your place even more. There's virtue in being stern, but there should probably be balance in all things.

So it was unfortunate. Is all that can really be said.

Regrettably, I can't sit back and act like I was above it. Things got really nasty. Things got personal. As a very present force for organizing and managing the RPG activities, I got thrown into the middle of everything and said quite a few rude things in the heat of the moment which I regret. That's kind of just life I guess. You do or say dumb crap in the moment sometimes and it's only really after the fact that you can reflect with a level head and wonder what you were thinking. I always try to sit back and really analyze a situation. If we're talking D&D Alignments I'm a Neutral guy through and through. But we are only human.

In the end, almost everybody walked. The majority of my players took a stand together to boycott the store. Those clubs bailed. I think one maybe tried to hang on for a bit, but it only took a session or two before they bounced as well. RPG's were essentially dead at our only FLGS. I was around and willing to run anything, but despite being able to draw over-crowded tables there was nobody willing to now give money to this guy to play an RPG. The owner's sentiments were basically good riddance. He took all the backlash pretty personal I guess, but in the end, rationalized it as the RPG players were disruptive elements that didn't support the store. And so it goes.

So that's the first phase of things, but to keep everything grouped together well I figure I should talk about that game shop up to how things are today.

Unfortunately, the owner and I had a falling out in the wake of things. That's not too surprising I guess. I still had a lot of respect for him all things considered. Pretty much anywhere you went or anyone you talked to regarding RPG stuff, if that guy came up people could only rant and talk pretty nasty about him. Despite it all, I always took up for him and kind of just had the stance of "Hey, he's a guy trying to run a business just looking to do what he thinks he needs to keep it going" on things.

A year or two later, we kind of reconciled and he was interested in getting RPG's back in the store again. I offered to give it a shot but made it pretty clear that his FLGS had more of a not-so-friendly local game store reputation if you asked around RPG regulars in town. He was confident that the usual influx of college students would make it a non-issue. Except every new college student joined the campus gaming club. The same campus gaming club that had already had a falling out with the shop.

But I gave it my all, he wanted a really unique experience that would justify the admission fee. I whipped up what I thought was a pretty cool setting designed exactly for the in-store format pulling some of the coolest ideas from things I really found compelling like Vornheim to draft up a sort of hub city to play in with the PC's gaining ownership of a ran down shop and the idea of Living Dungeons from 13th Age as a means of a persistent, but ever-changing source of adventure and stock for said storefront. It was weird, different from the standard Forgotten Realms of organized play but compelling and mysterious.

It was truly an experience you could only get coming to that place to play at my table. It was also an experience that nobody would have. The first day came and we had 1 player turn out for it. The stigma against the store was as strong as it had ever been. He thanked me for trying, refunded that one guy and I apologized for whatever that was worth. I gave it my all to sell it to the old players, but not a one would give this guy's shop another chance.

We went through that a few times more. Nothing ever fired off. About a year or two ago, I thought that I had not heard from him for some time. Looked it up and found at some point he had unfriended me on Facebook without a word. I'm not really one to care a lot about Facebook, I generally try to stay out of drama as much as I can. To me, Facebook is a thing to keep tabs on companies I like or to discuss RPG's, movies, etc. or organize games. So I'm not sure what caused it. If he was just done with fooling on RPG's and thus had no use to be in contact with me. If he found that when a new competing FLGS opened and RPG's took off there, I ultimately got involved (a story I'll definitely get to) came as some sort of slight to him. Who knows. I don't know and I guess really it doesn't matter in the end.

As for now? That place still exists, but it is no longer a gaming store. I obviously never kept tabs, but somewhere along the way (there were equal levels of store-based drama in the Magic circles which caused a hemorrhage of players on that front, so I've heard) they had to close down the gaming side and carry on as just a board game cafe. For a time they brought in having alcohol which raised a lot of image questions, but that focus shifted after it didn't take off. And that was always a problem I felt they had. The shop would bandwagon on an idea or a new game, then quickly drop it after a short time if it didn't pull the same numbers as Magic. Which, if I can make a not-so-wild guess, no game is going to pull numbers like Magic. First board games were free to play if you bought something. Then there became a fee to play their "premium" games. Unsurprisingly, that rough transition sparked a new wave of complaints.

Pretty regularly they seem to get a lot of negative reviews online and they usually touch on the same sort of stuff that came up back in the day. But they're still open and keeping afloat. Not on the backs of gamers, to be certain, that stigma is as strong as ever. I tend to just keep quiet when I hear the topic come up. It's a topic best left forgotten to time, but I felt like writing it all up once to sort of lay it all to rest in my mind.

So that ended my first phase in trying to really build some sort of open gaming community for RPG's.

Who is to blame? It's hard to say. I think the fault lies on all sides of the battle line. Back at that time, the only other game shop had already closed up so there was really nowhere to congregate for public games outside of being in the campus gaming club. Our group was pretty big with a lot of players that couldn't host their own private games, so it left a lot of people displaced. 

For my core table that had come so far in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, I opened up my home despite not really having the best accommodations to seat such a large group so we could hopefully carry on. In the meantime, a lot of us began looking for some sort of alternative.

And thus the next phase of things...

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Public Play Chronicles 01: Introduction

A lot can happen in six years when it comes to tabletop roleplaying games.

The one general constant is that I am still running public open play games. I think having such a thing available is very important. I never got a chance to go into much of my own gaming history on the blog, so this seems as good a time as any.

Back in 2012, I had been completely out of things with regards to RPG's for quite some time. It had been a beloved hobby in high school that tapered off in college as people moved away and it became harder to find players or games to get involved with. Eventually, I tapered off with everything except for keeping up with White Wolf's (at the time) New World of Darkness (again, at the time). I've always had a fondness for White Wolf as a game company and if nothing else their books, to me, has always had a presentation that makes them enjoyable just to read and experience if nothing else.

My one outlet for any sort of roleplaying at this time had been in free-form based forum roleplaying. This is maybe more comparable to collaborative writing since there are no real rules to govern things like conflicts or to determine the random outcome of things. However, the storytelling aspect of tabletop roleplaying games was always one of the biggest appeals to me so there was some overlap there. By chance, one of the guys I chatted with the most through this community had just started being involved with D&D Encounters for 4e in his area. Once he learned of my own gaming history, he pushed hard for me to give 4e a shot.

I was reluctant for a lot of reasons. I had never been fond of 3e/3.5 (perhaps a story for another time) and that dislike had moved me far away from D&D as a whole. My last few in-person experiences during college had been pretty bad. Combative personalities, people blowing off games without notice, etc. and so forth. To a degree, I was skeptical that meeting up with random people at a game store would be a viable thing. But to his credit, he kept on me about it and then eventually took the initiative to do the research and discover a local game shop was signed up for the Encounters program. So I went, it was fun and I dove back into the world of D&D.

4e gets a lot of crap online. Just as much in its time as now, I'd wager. Truthfully, I prefer games that are story-focused and lighter mechanically. One might argue that 4e is the antithesis of such ideals, but to be honest I found it more favorable than 3.5 ever was. Say what you will, but the actual core combat of 4e was a very well put together miniature wargame. Everything else was some simple rules that mostly got out of the way. In the games I played in and ran, we never had much problem roleplaying as much as we wanted. Some of it, likely, came down to the presentation. Skill Challenges were an often harped on thing, but I think they could have been presented a lot better. Going rigidly by the book, it might seem quite railroad-y to offer what skills can be rolled and just track successes.

To me, I always saw them as cool montage moments. I'd set up the narrative of what was going on then ask how each character was trying to contribute to the situation. If they were creative enough to come up with using a skill the module didn't account for, as long as it made narrative sense I let it apply. At the time I had not yet made the jump to the wonderful world of the OSR, but that mentality of rulings over rules could play just as well in a modern game. It is what it is, I suppose. If I have learned nothing at all getting back into the hobby over the last six years, it's that in the end the system doesn't matter. Whether you like a game, love it, despise it with all the passion you can muster, with the right group of players you can have a fun time and those things kind of fall into the background.

So I enjoyed 4e. I'd even play it again if there was a group that had the desire to play it. After a while, I started wondering what other games were out there. I've always juggled interest in and appreciated a wide variety of games because I think each one can give you new perspectives on how to tell or experience a story. I had always kept up with White Wolf and then more recently Onyx Path. My initial searching about led me, by random chance, to Labyrinth Lord. I got really enamored with this game. With the Advanced Edition Companion, it pretty much played like my earliest games of D&D which we played with a weird gathering of books (2e DMG, 1e PHB, and the Fiend Folio) while also ignoring rules here and there that didn't make sense or seemed too complicated. Or, if nothing else, how I remembered those games feeling.

This led to discovering the OSR movement and by some lucky timing the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. DCC got me excited about fantasy roleplaying in a way no other game has ever done to this date. It was just everything. Initially, the striking art. The focus on Appendix N literature appealed to the English Literature degree in me. Mechanically, it hewed to the lighter side of things (referencing a table is not mechanical weight in my book). Magic was something that was very powerful, but also dark and dangerous. The funnel was both a fun and comical idea that really did a great job setting the tone. Finally, by nature of the funnel and the focus on the random, I always felt like the game pushes on this idea of emergent gameplay.

DCC isn't a game where you show up at Level 1 already with a small novella of backstory about all the great things your character has done and is destined to do. You're a nobody tending the field when things begin. You'd be Joe NPC in any normal D&D campaign. But through your actions, and a little bit of luck, that Level 0 nobody becomes something great. And, to me, it's in that transition as you pass on beyond Level 0 that something really special happens. I have regrettably ran DCC far more than playing it, but speaking for my few times as a player I have always felt much more attached and proud of the accomplishments of not only my character but the party as a whole. Much more so than I ever have about one of my perfectly composed Pathfinder of 5e characters. Just like the literature it tries to draw from, normal people from humble beginnings rise to become heroes truly worthy of legend. For my tastes, that is just awesome.

DCC is definitely my one true love when it comes to the Fantasy genre. I've found a lot of things I enjoy since then, but they never manage to surpass it. But, of course, there are other genres and other games. Recently, I've been really enamored with the Cypher System and that's definitely something I want to talk about down the road.

In the end, all of this was a rather long story to say that I think public open gaming is important because it provides an opportunity to experience the hobby. Whether that's new interested potential gamers or lapsed players looking to get back into things, open gaming facilitates growing the hobby. Had I not gone to that D&D Encounters Game Day, I'm not sure I would have refound my love of roleplaying. Home/Private games have their own benefits (and challenges) just the same. I guess I could say that ultimately I feel like it's a goal of mine to make sure there is some easy avenue for people to get into and grow the hobby, so if I can facilitate that then all the better.

But as I said, a lot can happen in six years.

That idea of sharing the hobby through public gaming has carried me through a lot of stuff; not all of it very positive. Tracking forward from the height of 4e and running D&D Encounters while starting to introduce DCC to people, I can sort of break down my gaming into three distinct phases.

It all starts, regrettably, with a rather unfortunate situation...

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Blank of Six Years

It has been a long time.

My last post was in a long-ago November of 2012. In that regard, I think I've failed as far as what I hoped to do in keeping up with it.

Between finals for my classes in grad school and mounting frustrations with the most recent season of D&D Encounters at the time, I had to start slimming down my focus to what was really important. For good or ill, the increased length of each Encounter session for the season caused the summaries to be at least double, if not more, the usual amount of writing involved to recap everything to the degree I found acceptable.

This mixed with our run of rather regular attendance shattering apart into insanity made it very difficult to piece together any form of a coherent ongoing story. Ultimately, that time was better spent on my classes and as I rolled into my final semester of grad school in the Spring, staring down my Exit Portfolio, I simply lost touch with working on any content for here.

So much has changed for me in the RPG hobby and I imagine a good part of my postings in the near future will be devoted to chronicling all the lost time. Obviously, I tapered off with writing up Play Reports on the games I had been running. It seemed that with each passing season of Encounters it became harder and harder to tell even the vaguest semblance of a story with the frequent dropping in and out of players. At best, I mostly would have been writing what was already available in the module, so in that respect, it seemed a pointless effort without the color added by character actions.

I'm not sure if, going forward, how much I will write play reports; I suppose that rests upon catching that spark of inspiration. However, I do want to continue this blog for musing/original content on all the various RPG's I take an interest in along with the hobby in general; if nothing else. Thus, my personal goal is to at least post something once a week; every two weeks at worst.

As a postscript to where I was when I abandoned posting here, I did manage to wrap up my final semester and obtained a Masters in Library Science; which is an achievement I'm pretty proud of. Of course, being an RPG blog what's more important to anyone stumbling by is likely the actual RPG-related stuff. So I figure there is no better way to jump-start things here again than to talk about what I've been up to for the last few years in the realm of RPG's.

The next few entries I post will all fall along that line giving a sweeping recap of where my interests have been, what games I have played/ran, so on and so forth.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

D&D Encounters: War of Everlasting Darkness Session 01+02

So I'm combining our first two weeks together because I devoted what time I had to session write-ups to powering through all those Mecha episodes. I have a lot to say about this season so this part might be a bit long winded. As far as overall, things are going well. We now have two full tables and just this week starting Session 02, we got in another new player. Excellent times for our Encounters program.

I have a lot of issues with this season and the "testing" D&D NEXT mechanics or whatever. I was hopeful going in. I'm always willing to try anything once when it comes to an RPG. However, maybe this is a little early to say it, but two sessions in and I already feel like this is a bad move. First, I should preface this by saying that reaction-wise most of our players found the changes awkward, but were hopeful. However, one of our vets (who had seen through both previous seasons in the Rise of the Underdark Trilogy) bowed out this season after learning about the new changes. There was really nothing I could do about it. It made me a little sad that this decision turned away one of our long time players.

So this is my problem. I have nothing against added focus on roleplaying and exploration; I do love DCC to death. However, the way they went about implementing this with 4e just does not work in my opinion. Fights are a joke in this season so far. They're already made easier, I think, to account for having multiple battles. However, these gridless supporting minion brawls do little to expend resources, only last a round or two tops and are more of a small speed bump to the party if anything. Then, there's still usually one "major" battle of the session. However, players go in every week after an extended rest with (by the rules) an action point and all their daily powers refreshed. You know you'll get them back next week. There's zero incentive not to blow them on the hardest battle and tear through it quickly.

To me, the tactical nature of 4e's combat is one of its strongest points. Even the powers are built around this. We had some stumbling points in Session's 2 minion orc battle as I tried to describe the nature of the battle and people kept wondering about the ranges on their powers. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but I think WOTC dropped a major ball with this decision. In any case,  I suppose we'll see how it goes in the later sessions which, admittedly, look a bit more interesting than this intro material. We've got a lot of information to cover so let's dig right in:

Background:
Deep in the darkness of the Demonweb Pits, Lolth has been spinning a web of deceit, treachery and ambition. Her goal is to seize control of arcane magic, a domain that has lain vacant since the death of Mystra a hundred years ago.

To facilitate this grab for power, Lolth has sent the prophet Danifae Yauntyrr to all cities of the drow. Danifae is a fallen priestess, a scoundrel, a seductress and-if history is any guide-an avatar of Lolth. Whispering to the leaders of all the great drow houses, Danifae has spurred them to gather ancient knowledge and relics to aid Lolth's ascent.

The drow have scoured the world for the physical remnants of dead or sleeping primordials, sought out the remains of great wizards, gathered artifacts once sacred to Mystra and fought for control of magical locations on the world's surface. As the dark elves have gathered arcane energy and channeled it to Lolth, her strength has grown.

Lolth's web has extended to cover most of the world, forming a Demon Weave to replace the sundered Weave that Mystra maintained. This new matrix of arcane magic grants the priests and wizards who serve Lolth access to newfound abilities and their task is now to use them.

Across the surface world, Lolth's servitors draw on the Demon Weave to create shrouds of darkness that they call the Darkening. Under this pall of shadow, the drow can move and fight with darkness on their side during what would normally be daylight hours. With this newfound advantage, they hope to help complete Lolth's ascendancy to her new role as Goddess of Magic.

Heroes:
1) Decanis: An Eladrin Psion traveling as an envoy for his kingdom. Amid the great threat from Lolth, Decanis holds the unique opinion and hope that the drow might one day return among the other fey as allies.

2) Terios: A Minotaur Warden with a severe hate towards drow. When Terios was but a young child, his entire family was killed by a squad of drow acting above ground. Left for dead, Terios was rescued by Teph and has since stood by her side as an ally. A creature of action more than thought, Terios has a reputation for getting his companions into trouble.

3) Teph: A clever Pixie Thief. She rescued Terios from death after drow exterminated his family when he was a child. She once botched a robbery and found herself imprisoned in a jar for 3 days until Terios was able to find and rescue her. Also known for being a skilled negotiator.

4) Makaria: A Tiefling Elementalist wandering the realms. She speaks little and is known for her short temper. However, her skill at commanding flames in unrivaled making her an excellent ally to have in battle. Has an infamous reputation for burning down forests from stray spells cast in combat.

5) Dox-Alna: A Changeling Warlord cast into the realms to bring about great change. Having served most of her life among the Order she is devoted to, Dox-Alna was recently issued an important mission. This task was simple in design, yet grand in concept: go forth into the realms and bring a stop to Lolth's bid for power.

6) Darren: A Half-Elf Swordmage who is well know or his laid back attitude and relaxed demeanor. He travels with a pet cat that he keeps close by at all times.

7) Belgos: A Drow Hunter who has lived most of his life above ground having forsaken the ways of Lolth. Concerned with the recent push by the drow of the Underdark, he has begun travelling looking for a way to stop their ambitions.

Locations:
-Luruar: Also commonly known as the Silver Marches. A region in Faerûn that is a confederation of cities in the north, under the leadership of Alustriel Silverhand, former ruler of Silverymoon. It consists of Silverymoon, Citadel Adbar, Deadsnows, Jalanthar, Quaervarr, Citadel Felbarr, Everlund, Mithral Hall, and Sundabar, and its goal is to protect the North against the growing horde of orcs in the mountains. It shares borders with the kingdom of Many-Arrows, a coalition of various orc tribes who currently have a peace argreement with the Silver Marches.

-Glimmerwood: A vast forest in Luruar to the east of Mithral Hall. Home to several settlements and ruins, it is a well known location among adventurers. Several orc tribes make their home around this region.

-Quaervarr: A small woodland village just within the southwest tip of the Glimmerwood. A popular gathering point for adventurers hoping to explore the vast forest. Home to the famous inn the Whistling Stag and located not far from the ruins of Methegrist.

-Winter Edge: A hamlet in the Silver Marches. Winter Edge settled east side of River Surbrin, opposite of Mithral Hall. The hamlet has been gaining importance since Obould Many-Arrows besieged Mithral Hall and then Mithral Hall by aid of Citadel Felbarr succeeded to open east gate. Mithral Hall provide to trade other Silver Marches cities via Winter Edge . High Lady of Silverymoon Alustriel Silverhand promised to Bruenor Battlehamer ,King of Mithral Hall, help and trade via Winter Edge. People of Winter Edge earn a living with trade and farming. Only humans live there but many times elves from north,specially Moonwood, or Silvermoon visit Winter Edge.

-Dark Arrow Keep: King Obould XVII reigns the Kingdom of Many-Arrows from the central chamber in this trapped fortress, known for its slit-covered and confounding corridors, blind alleys, and brutal punishments in the Pit, an arena used by the King to judge his chieftains.

-Mithral Hall: Mithral Hall is a dwarven stronghold beneath Fourthpeak Mountain in the Spine of the World. It was one of the best known dwarven strongholds in Faerûn. Originally a mithral mine belonging to Clan Battlehammer, this underground town became a safe haven for various dwarf families and even some persons of other races. Mithral Hall has a long history of tragedy and triumph, and was the making and breaking of countless individuals.

NPCs/Organizations:
-Mystra: The Mother of all Magic, was the greater deity who guided the magic that enveloped Toril prior to the Time of Troubles. Mystra tended to the Weave constantly, making possible all the miracles and mysteries wrought by magic and users of magic. She was believed, as was her predecessor Mystryl, to be the embodiment of the Weave and of magic itself. Mystra's symbol was a ring of seven stars surrounding a rising red mist, spiraling to the heavens, though her older and more often seen symbol was a simple seven-pointed star. During the Time of Troubles, Mystra was killed by the deity Helm for defying the god and trying to climb the Celestial Stairway to the heavens.

-Lolth: The Queen of Spiders or Queen of the Demonweb Pits, is the goddess of the drow, a chaotic evil deity who revels in chaos. She patterns her life and the lives of her worshipers on a regimen of chaotic acts and the veneration of spiders. The way that new-born spider broods tear each other apart to survive especially appeals to her. She promotes this by encouraging her worshipers to kill their rivals, thus ensuring that they are the strongest of the 'brood'. Her love of chaos often makes her appear mad but the wise see her as a calculating individual who is always several steps ahead of those who believe that they can anticipate her. She is cruel and domineering, forcing her will upon her followers and her enemies, a will which instructs the strong to crush the weak in the most torturous way imaginable. Since the Spellplague, Lolth has set her sights on replacing Mystra as the master of arcane power.

-Danifae Yauntyrr: A stunningly beautiful drow cleric who eventually would became the Yor'thae or Chosen of Lolth, a part of Lolth herself. She was born in the city of Eryndlyn, where she studied magic with the house wizard before becoming a priestess of Lolth. Naturally beautiful, Danifae soon found she could use her looks to her advantage, and was willing to seduce both men and women to get what she wanted in life. She has recently appeared among all great drow civilization on behalf of Lolth to spread the plan to form the Demon Weave.

-King Obould XVII: King Obould XVII is the seventeenth king in a line of unbroken Oboulds, ruling over the kindom of Many-Arrows. Obould XVII reunited the tribes in 1460 DR after a series of civil wars split the kingdom. Know for his sharp wit, Obould keeps a tense peace brokered between the various orc tribes under his dominion and Luruar.

Session 01: Nightfall in Methegrist (Year 1 - Spring)
-Near the end of spring, five adventurers found their travels bringing them to Quaervarr; a pleasant logging village just inside the vast Glimmerwood. At the gate of the walled palisade that surrounded the village, a pair of militia guards leaning on spears asked each one a few cursory questions about their business before pointing them to a luxurious inn known as the Whistling Stag.

-Half hunting lodge and half sumptuous mansion, the Whistling Stag offered heated baths, down pillows, warm blankets and lovely views of the verdant forest outside. All this was complemented by bearskin carpets, stag heads on the wall and a lush tapestry depicting elves on a boar hunt.

-The common room was busy with at least a dozen locals crowding around the bar. The conversation centered on a ghostly apparition that had been passing through the village ever night recently. The villagers seemed spooked, but an older patron with silvered hair and the look of a former adventurer about him was trying to reassure everyone.

-With only a single table left open, these five adventurers were forced to be seated together and it was thus there that Decanis, Terios & Teph, Makaria and Dox-Alna met and traded stories. The group couldn't help but find the ghostly tale intriguing and eventually inquired about what went on. The man leading the conversation introduced himself as Rennick; a retired ranger who had spent his life adventuring in the Glimmerwood. Despite the crowd's disposition, Rennick seemed cheerful and his very presence seemed to lighten the other citizens' mood a bit.

-Teph inquired about the situation and after some instigation from the bar patrons, Rennick agreed to weave the tale: Five days ago, on a dark and stormy night, just at the end of the celebration of Highharvestide, a pair of villagers saw a ghostly figure heading through the village as they left the holiday feast being held in the Whistling Stag. The phantom was a tall, thin human male in armor, walking through the village in a northeasterly direction.

-Each night since, the phantom has appeared again. The second night, Grainge (a teen of the village) saw the spirit enter the village by stepping through the palisade on the southwest side of Quaervarr, and a few other people saw it making its way through the village. The night before, Faella (an elder in the village) saw it leave the village by moving through the palisade on the northeast side.

-Ever eager for a change at treasure, Teph questioned whether there was any sort of reward for dealing with the ghost. Rennick seemed convinced the spirit posed no threat to the village, but added that such an adventure could always lead to something unknown or marvelous. After some discussion, the five adventurers agreed to form a party to uncover the mystery of this apparition. Going for the most direct approach, Terios suggested they simply wait for the ghost to appear and then track its movements.

-Agreed to this plan, the party gathered at the palisade on the southwest side of Quaervarr and began waiting for nightfall. As the sun sank below the horizon, the forest all around came to life with the sound of birdsong. Then the sun was gone, and silence fell among the trees. Almost at once, the ghostly apparition appeared, radiating a faint chill. The figure was a tall, gaunt human male with sunken eyes, striding slowly forward with his gaze fixed ahead. Makaria and Decanis made some cursory checks using their knowledge of the arcane and were able to quickly confirm that the apparition was in fact and spirit; and not some sort of illusion or other trickery.

-Moving carefully, with Terios leading the group, the party followed the ghost through the village and towards the palisade on the northeast side of town. There, the continued following the spirit as it moved past Quaervarr and into the open forests of Glimmerwood. It wasn't long before gruff voices raised in anger were heard nearby; with one softer woven in. However, it was too hard to make out the words. Noting that the apparition held a slow gait, the party opted to veer off path and investigate the sound.

-Keeping themselves hidden among the thick forest, the party happened upon two orcs talking to a lithe figure swathed in black. The orcs wear the symbols of two different tribes. One has fangs painted in bright red hanging from its clothing and armor. The other wears dangling loops of what looks like intestines draped over one shoulder and under the other arm.

-Recalling the studies from her Order, Dox-Alna recognized the first orc's regalia as indicating membership in the Red Fangs tribe of the western Rauvin Mountains. The second was a member of the Ripped Guts tribe that lairs in the northern slopes of the Nether Mountains. However, most odd to her, was the fact that these two tribes are well known enemies.

-The party listened in on their conversation as the two orcs seemed to argue about dividing up new lands about to be conquered after the Darkening. The shrouded figure acted as an intermediary eventually getting the two orcs back onto the same page. Eventually, the two orcs began to debate their strength and agitated the figure shouted, "Enough, you imbeciles. I don't have time for this nonsense. The Spider Queen awaits my service. Just make sure you take the village of Winter Edge after the Darkening begins."

-Realizing the mention of the Spider Queen suggested this hidden figure was a drow, Terios flew into a frenzy charging from hiding just as this unknown figure seemed to vanish into the darkness. However, both orcs immediately flew into action diving the party into combat. However, numbers favored the party and working together they quickly overwhelmed and defeated both Orcs. Searching the area, no sign could be found of the mysterious drow. With no other leads, the party returned to keep tracking the spirit.

-After a few more minutes of travel, the party exited into a small clearing. Scattered remnants of ancient flagstones and masonry marked the location of the ruins, though the full extent of the former fortress was hidden beneath the undergrowth. Up ahead, four people moved as if searching for something in the moonlight. A dwarf in chainmail was tapping around a pile of rubble and listening for a response. An elf wearning thick leather crouches down to the flagstones at the base of a tall tree; a look of intense concentration hung on her face. Two human males armed with stout clubs looked on, frowning.

-Ignoring these people, the phantom continued its march until it stood beside the dwarf, who backed away startled. The ghostly knight pantomined lifting a trap door and then began to sink down into the ground at the dwarf's feet. All four adventurers seem visibly shaken and frightened by the spirit. However, this soon faded as they noticed our heroes.

-The dwarf waved his crossbow in their general direction and spoke aloud, "We got here first, so you best be on your way." After some discussion, the party came to learn this dwarf was named Karrik and he was the leader of this small band of tomb robbers. The elf, Lisstra, spoke poor Common but Karrik assured that her skill as a hunter was expert. The two men, Dran and Garn, rounded out the party as needed muscle. Karrik claimed stake to the ruins of Methegrist.

-Initially the party appealed to Karrik suggesting their sole interest was in the spirit itself; desiring to learn why it could not pass on. However, with rumors of vast treasures in the ruins, Karrik refused to back down. Taking charge, Teph began tense negotiations with the dwarf trying to bargain a deal where the two parties might act in concert together. Karrik drove a hard deal and initially wanted 3/4 of any treasure found. After some fast-talking on Teph's part, Karrik settled for 68% of all the treasure gathered. A fact Teph readily agreed to, silently knowing that this did not include treasure Karrik wasn't aware they had acquired.

-Exploring the area where the ghost had vanished, Decanis discovered a trap door; much like the spirit had mirrored. With a powerful heave, Terios opened the way revealing a ladder that descended into darkness. As they entered the dungeon room below clouds of dust billowed out around their feet. Beneath the dust, they could make out the shape and pattern of a large, tattered rug. Examining the rug closer, Makaria discerned the image of knights holding round vials of water that gave off a bright silvery light.

-Thinking for a moment, Dox-Alna recalled having read about Methegrist at her Order.Centuries ago, Methegrist was home to a small group of paladins know as the Moonwatchers. Dedicated to Helm, the paladins were the self-appointed protectors of the Moonlands. However, they were destroyed when a devil infiltrated their ranks and turned them against one another.

-Exploring the ruins of Methegrist proved dangerous for the party. Karrik cautiously let our heroes take the lead. Charging ahead into an open hall, Terios was injured as a spear trap shot up from the floor and stabbed into him. Later, in a large open chamber, Teph found herself entranced by a nearby fountain pooled with mirror-like water. Gazing into the water, she began to see her reflection on the surface of the pool, as clear as any mirror. A moment later, however, this image fades and an image of the past began to appear. Teph saw one of her failed robberies. After botching the attempt to steal and being caught, she was sealed away in a jar for three days until Terios managed to finally find and free her.

-Little did the pixie know she was being tested. Reflecting on the event, Teph felt no remorse only thinking it was unfortunate that her thievery had failed. The enchantment on the pool of water then cursed Teph for her negative thoughts and lack of repentance. Teph began to feel weakened and study by Makaria revealed that only time could lift the effect.

-Meanwhile, Terios had wandered off to a side chamber and discovered a powerful relic. Just before finding it, he had noticed the spirit again. Striding into the room, the armored phantom kneeled on the floor between two large fonts filled with radiant water. He held his sword upright in front of him, cluctching the pommel in front of his bowed head as he spoke, "Give me peace," as if in prayer. Dox-Alna identified it as the Tears of Helm. A vial of water blessed by Helm which could be used as a source to shed forth bright magical light. Not only this, the water itself also functioned as a potion of healing that would slowly refill itself over time. Relic in hand, Terios led the group into the next chamber.

-Within a hellish red light flickered around the room, coming from a brazier in an alcove to one side. The light danced along the glowing lines of a strange symbol engraved in the floor. Decanis identified this symbol as an infernal one, used to call forth devils or grant them power. Just then, the party heard a voice forcing Karrik to cry in fear. Booming within the room it cackled and spoke, "Why have you come, you pretty, pretty souls?"

-Nervous about the situation, the party answered honestly stating that they had been trailing the phantom. This prompted a high-pitched maniacal laugh from near the brazier. The voice then spoke louder, "If you would give rest to Sir Weepy, then answer this question creepy: I dance in hellfire gaily, and delight in torture daily. My sting will break your mind; you'll leave yourself behind. My face you cannot see, but can you identify me?"

-Using her own knowledge of infernal creatures, Makaria easily identified the answer: an imp. The correct response prompted another cackle before the voice continued its puzzle, "Now tell me my given name, and I'll return whence I came. First is a number whose letters count true to its name's amount. Then you can subtract a letter, but adding six would be better, to get the second part. Then comes the sound of the start of start, and finally, with a blast, sound out the last of last."

-Initially, the party seemed stalled by this riddle. Karrik and his party were complete stumped. Working together, Dox-Alna began to lead the party through the riddle line by line. Ultimately, she presented their answer: Fortenesti. With a flash of light the imp revealed itself and reassured the party that a devil would never break a pact they had made. True to its word, the imp cackled a final time and then vanished into thin air.

-Just then, the phantom began to walk slowly through the area, becoming more and more transparent as he moved. He nodded at the party and gave a faint confident smile before vanishing into thin air. However, then the earth gave a mighty shudder as an unearthly chill filled the air. The floor beneath the engraved symbol cracked open and was swallowed into shadow. An instant later, the ceiling above the symbol also cracked open, creating a shaft leading up to the surface.

-As the rumbling grew louder and areas of the ruins began to cave in, Karrik led the party in retreating to the surface. As the last party member reached the top of the ladder, the earth gave another shudder. Where the ground tore open in the chamber below, a dark filament shot into the air, as if a huge spider were spinning a web caught up in the wind. More strands followed it as a shadow fell over everyone present.

-Streams of inky blackness, darker than even the night sky around them, coalesced and weaved together. The light of the moon became utterly shrouded and the distant stars winked out one by one as the web of darkness grew ever tighter. As far as the party could see, the sky was blocked out by this powerful magical event.

Session 02: Envoy to Many-Arrows (Year 1 - Spring)
-Knowing that orcs are planning to destroy the village of Winter Edge, a few miles from the western edge of the Glimmerwood, the party decided to make the farming town their destination. Stopping back in Quaervarr to rest for the night, the party was in for several shocks come the morning. First, that day had never come. The mysterious black web darkening the sky seemed to have cast the land in eternal night. The difference between night and day was now much like the difference of light between a night with a full moon and new moon.

-In the Whistling Stag, the party met Belgos (a drow sympathetic against Lolth's aims) and Darren (a half-elf Swordmage that took interest in the party's story and wished to help Winter Edge). With a new party formed, the group set out making haste towards Winter Edge. Moving clear past the shadowy woods still proved to not bring any more light. The darkness that spawned from within the earth had now stretched far beyond its point of origin.

-By racing through the forest, the party managed to arrive in Winter Edge ahead of the orcs. However, they could hear the horns of their advance patrol during the journey. The warriors of at least two orc tribes are bearing down on the village. Along their path to the village square, only torchlight pierced the gloom. The tiny village was abuzz with panic. Its residents stood in the street, staring at the sky in fear and confusion. Crying children clutched at their parents' hands, while the adults spoke to one another in fearful tones.

-Reaching the center of the village, a stooped human female holding a thick, gnarled staff stepped up to the party and spoke. Her voice was loud and strong despite her many years as she questioned what foul magic was afoot and what part the party played in it. Dox-Alna was quick to relay what information they knew and, more importantly, the party warned of the orc attack. The woman introduced herself as Goodwife Winnstrom (Goody Winn as everyone in the village called her); the closest thing Winter Edge has ever known to a mayor.

-Winnstrom, already aware of the impending orc attack, explained to the party the panic the city was in. Their farming village was mostly defenseless and thus she was preparing for an evacuation. Working together, Dox-Alna and Darren managed to work the crowd and calm them enough to listen to Winnstrom's wisdom. Quickly, the citizens began to form caravans to exit out of the south of the city. Amid this chaos two things occurred. Meanwhile, Terios led the others in constructing barricades to defend the city from damage.

-First, Winnstrom introduced the party to Rhupp, a young half-orc woodcutter. Winnstrom explained that Rhupp's mother was an orc named Muhrella who was rescued years ago after being attacked by wild animals and left for dead in Moonwood. Winnstrom nursed her back to  health and Muhrella became a part of the community. She took a human forester named Uvaan, who many villagers were sure had a trace of orc blood in him as well, for her husabnd. Rhupp's mother died a few years ago, but she had taught Rhupp how to speak Giant and much about orc culture. His mother also told him that she had belonged to the Broken Arrow tribe, meaning that she and Rhupp were related to the king of the orc nation of Many-Arrows. Winnstrom suggested that he might be of aid to the party in dealing with the orcs.

-Second, As the caravans began to pull out a young half-elf girl rushed up to Darren. Nervously, she gave him a parting gift in thanks to helping their village; a carved wooden doll the size of a human fist and attached to a tether. The child explained that Ithel (the doll) could bring good luck to the party. An odd gnome named Garl visited the village a few weeks ago and said funny words over the doll, telling the girl that it would keep the dark away and make her brave. Examining the doll, Decanis discerned that it was actually a powerful artifact of arcane power. Much like the Tears of Helm, this doll could also shed forth bright light. Teph found this situation suspicious, particular Garl's words, musing that perhaps he might been aware of the situation far more than the average person.

-As the last of the villagers fleed on the road out of Winter Edge, five orcs wielding handaxes broke out of the forest into the unnatural darkness, howling in triumph and staring hungrily at the escaped villagers. One shouted out in Giant while Rhupp quickly translated, "We got here before stupid Ripped Guts! Red Fangs drink blood and take everything!" The crashing in the forest indicated a larger force might arrive at any moment.

-Making a stand in the center of town, the party acted as a final shield to allow the final villagers to escape ahead of the orcs. Though the band of five proved brutal in strength, they were easily dispatched by the party. However, not before rather severely injuring Terios and Darren. With more powerful orcs on the way, Rhupp suggested the party retreat. Though they were strong, he urged, they could never overcome such superior numbers. Instead, Rhupp suggested that they travel north to the place where the orc king lived. There, they might learn why these attacks are taking place after years of peace. Though dangerous, Rhupp as a descendant of Obould's tribe would at least easily allow for an audience.

-Dox-Alna seemed hesitant about the plan. However, with no better plans of action available and time short the party opted to follow Rhupp's guidance. Although darkness covered the sky all around them as they traveled, the route to Dark Arrow Keep was easy to follow. Rhupp knew that if they followed the River Surbrin north into the Spine of the World Mountains, heading toward the source of one of its tributaries, then they would not be far from the center of the orc nation of Many Arrows. Decanis recalled reading in his studies that the orcs of Many-Arrows have signed treaties with the civilized lands of the North. However, individual orc tribes, sometimes tire of the peace, and are known to ignore the orders of their king and attack anyway.

-Along the way, the party saw signs that orc war bands had spread outward from the Spine of the World and begun attacking civilized areas. A group of human hunters who obviously ran afoul of orcs had been butchered and left ont he trail. One of the hunters still clutched his bow in one hand and a broken arrow in the other. Upon seeing this bloody sight, Rhupp paled and muttered under his breath, "Even a broken arrow..." Noticing this had been part to a quote that Rhupp had references several times in their travel, Dox-Alna questioned its meaning. Rhupp explained that they are part of a Broken Arrow tribal saying his mother taught him: "Even a broken arrow is deadly in the right hands."

-Where the River Surbin roared out of the Spine of the World on its southward course, the foothills seem insignificant compared to the forbidding, snow-covered peaks that back them. Taking no more than a few steps into the river canyon, the party was halted when a guttural cry interrupted their progress. On all sides of  the party, dozens of orcs emerged from hiding. More than a hundred arrows are nocked and aimed towards the group. Rhupp stepped forward, throwing off his cloak, and took on a proud demeanor. He called out something in giant that no one in the party could follow. A silence of four heartbeats followed. Then more than a dozen arrows sprouted from Rhupp's chest; the look of pride given no time to drain from his face before he hit the ground. An angry voice shouted out in giant, but to no avail for the party. A different mocking voice laughed and began to snort.

-As more laughter rose, a short orc with bristling white hair stepped out and began shouting in common to the party. He introduced himself as Urphaer, a trusted lieutenant of Obould and leader of the sentries who guard the pass into the land of Many-Arrows. He urged the party to lay down their arms and accept their fate as prisoners of King Obould. He also reassured them that no harm would come unless they resisted. The party promptly dropped their weapons, but felt sad for Rhupp's fate. They inquired with Urphaer if Dox-Alna could treat his wounds. This prompted the old orc to state that he wasn't pleased with how things had went down. However, recently he had been having a hard time keeping his men under control since the call of war was sounded in the region. Rhupp would be a prisoner all the same, so mercy was granted.

-Ushered into the mountain, the party was led into a large chamber hewn from the mountainside that held Dark Arrow Keep. Long stone tables filled half the hall and the pelts and stuffed heads of wild beasts decorated the walls and floors. Weapons of all shapes and sizes occupied places of reverence in display along the edges of the room. Dozens of orcs and half-orcs either sat at the tables or milled about, many of them hissing, whistling or laughing as the party was brought forth.

-A muscular, heavily armored orc sat in a carved stone chair before the group; glaring with a menacing air. His eyes shined with an intelligence beyond what they had seen in other orcs while he took stock of the party. "I was told you were coming to attack us, but I think your threat might have been exaggerated." The orc's gravelley voice belied the wit behind it as jeers filled the room. "What business do you have with Obould, the King of Many-Arrows?" he asked directly.

-Dox-Alna was swift to bring forth the attack on Winter Edge and the violation of the treaty Many-Arrows held with the North. However, Olbould stated that orcs sometimes do what orcs do best and that the rest of the world should get used to it. This response inspired a great deal of cheering among the crowd. However, the party noticed a subtext to Obould's actions. It was more than clear that the king was worried and angered about these attacks. However, he seemed to be choosing his words carefully to play for a crowd that favored war.

-Noticing this, Dox-Alna suggested moving the conversation elsewhere but this prompted anger among the crowd. The debate continued and ultimately Rhupp stepped forth to speak on the party's behalf. Obould was moved by his tale and this earned the king's respect. He listened to the party's story of what the drow had done and how they were inciting orc tribes to act in concert with them. King Obould's harsh countenance seemed to soften as he nodded thoughtfully on these words. However, this discussion sparked the leader of the Death Horn tribe to speak up stating that the dark elves had promised to help darken the sky and did so. Now, the orcs should join them and take back all that is theirs.

-The party argued back citing multiple accounts of the drow treachery, making it clear that the orcs would be little more than pawns in their game. This prompted another tribe leader to speak up this time agreeing with the party arguing that it would be madness to break the peace that King Obould had brokered. He went on to state it would be an insult to risk everything they had worked for.

-The adventurers continued the debate building off the support from this leader. However, their momentum was soon halted by an old one-eyed orc wearing animal skins and carrying a feather-decorated spear. This shaman shouted that the drow's power had been made evident. However, these adventurers were unknown. If they couldn't stand against the drow then it would be foolish to side with them. Thus, the shaman suggested that the party prove themselves in the Pit. This forced a flurry of cheers and with little chance to protest, the party was forced to consent or face dire consequences.

-The party was quickly ushered among the crowd into another room as they crowded around a large open pit. King Obould summoned forth Ehnk, the shaman who had been speaking. He was the leader of the Crooked Path tribe and pragmatic to a fault. Ehnk thus explained the rules to the party. They would select their champion and, like their mighty orc warriors, that person would descend into the Pit to face a dangerous beast. If they emerged alive then their power would be proven and they would earn the respect of the tribe. Dox-Alna nervously questioned the consequences for failure, but Ehnk assured her that she would rather not know.

-Furthermore, the champion could have no assistance. Anyone that interfered would face punishment. The fate of the party would ride on their champion. After much discussion, it was decided that Terios would descend into the Pit as their champion. Below, Terios came face to face with a young guard drake that had been tamed by Ehnk. Using a variety of clicks and whistles, Ehnk commanded the drake to attack. The battle was rough. Although the drake's teeth were razor sharp and tore into Terios, the brawling minotaur fought on beating back the beast blow-by-blow.

-Amid the cheers of the crowd, some of the party tried to subtly assist their champion as well. Reaching out with his mind, Decanis launched mental attacks upon the drake. Dox-Alna attempted to help direct Terios in his maneuvers, but the orcs took note of this and a pair raucously tossed her into the pit and then descended below to do battle; forcing more cheers from the crowd.

-Worried for their companion, Teph flew below and quickly slayed one orc forcing the crowd to laugh at his weakness. About this time, with a mighty punch, Terios managed to fell the guard drake. All about the crowd of orcs they began to shout for Dox-Alna to finish off the remaining orc; the party's might had been proven and the Warlord gave the crowd their desire.

-With Terios' victory, Ehnk took this as a sign that their god, Gruumsh, wished the orcs to sit out of the drow war. This prompted more shouting and arguing among the orcs. Many stormed out of the hall despite King Obould's calls for them to halt. However, as the crowd died down, Obould made it clear to the party that he was pleased with the outcome and apologized for his earlier ruse. The tribes of Many-Arrows valued tradition and at all times King Obould knew he must play to that. For their victory, Obould suggested the party to stay the night and partake in a feast held in their honor.

-After a lavish meal, the party retired to the quarters that King Obould had provided; which were quite comfortable by orc standards. However, as they began to rest, the door to their chamber opened suddenly and an orc wearing a cloak and hood slipped inside without so much as a knock. She introduced herself as Gribbla; one of Obould's close servants. She explained that the king had no love for the drow, but several tribes were now beyond his control and breaking away. Some of these traitors had hatched a plot to kill the adventurers while they rested at night.

-Through her, Obould desired to deliver a message to the party: Mithral Hall, home to the dwarves, was a target of the drow and orcs. The king suggested that the party make their way their and let the dwarves know that orcs who shake spear and sunder shields beside the drow break with the throne of Many-Arrows; rest assured Mighty Obould shall bleed all traitorous tribes.

-Gribbla went on to explain that King Obould could not just let the party walk out the front given the current state of affairs. He had thus arranged for her to relay these messages, deliver several cloaks to conceal their identity and suggest an exit path through the lower levels of Dark Arrow Keep. Following Gribbla's instructions, the party was easily able to reach the lowest level of the Keep undisturbed. However, guards patrolled these halls. Though few in number, they would still pose a threat.

-Focusing, Dox-Alna transformed herself into the appearance of an orc. While the rest of the party kept their hoods up to mask their face, Dox-Alna led the party through the area bluffing her way past the squads acting as if they were relieving one of the watch groups at the lower foothills. This ruse was easily bought and the party had no trouble escaping beyond the rest of the orcs and into the open road.

-Dark Arrow Keep loomed behind them. Their next mission would take them to Mithral Hall, ancient stronghold of the dwarves. With many orcs joining the drow assault on the surface wold and the terrible darkness that seemed to extend everywhere, this conflict was growing larger than anyone could have imagined.