Shifting sands, chapter 2: Toward Razal Kut

This is a synopsis / battle report of a session within a DnD 5e campaign.
Click
here for the previous entry.

With the hurt dragon creature disappearing behind the dunes in the east, leaving a strange trail of smoke behind, our heroes are uncertain how they should proceed. While they discuss this, Madred suddenly faints, the desert sun and battle apparently too much for her dwarven physique. They also spot Argil, heading east, and Kriv decides to pay her to drag Madred towards the oasis.
He and Gilda want to investigate where the dragon creature fell and what it is. Sorrow does not wish to leave her companion alone in the presence of the suspicious dwarf and elects to accompany Argil to the oasis.

Kriv & Gilda

After a few miles of march Gilda and Kriv split from the group, as the smoke trail leads them a bit further north than they suspect the oasis to be. They calculate that their water supplies will last for more than a day before they would have to abandon their quest and also make for the oasis.

On the morning of the next day, they notice that the trail has not disappeared from the sky yet. On the contrary, it has spread across the horizon like a dark veil. Unsure what to make of this, they steer clear of the darkness and some time later arrive at the place where the dragon came down.

Not only do they find the impact site, but also a large amount of tracks and imprints in the sand. They deduce that a caravan has stopped here for a while and that several people have walked to and fro between the camp and the crash site.
What they do not find, however, is any trace of the dragon creature itself, so they begin making their way towards the Camwata oasis, to reunite with their allies.

Sorrow

Meanwhile, Sorrow and Argil drag the unconscious Argil towards the oasis, making good progress, with the hawk providing orientation. Before they can reach the oasis they can see a column of smoke rising from behind the dunes. Carefully, they make their approach and as they peer over the final dune´s crest an unexpected sight welcomes them:
Of the six duneships originally with the caravan, only two remain, one of which is smashed and burnt heavily. Amidst the remnants of a battle a few stragglers are caring for the wounded and sifting through the wreckage.
The smoke of soot seems to originate from behind a large boulder next to the oasis´s lake.

Sorrow recognizes Urgond among the survivors, so Argil and her leave their cover and near the harrowed campsite. A mournful Urgond receives them and informs them of the previous day´s events.
Another caravan, Nasik´s tribe, had arrived at the oasis and were welcomed with open arms, only to begin attacking the caravan. Urgond´s clan tried to defend themselves, but are overwhelmed quickly when a figure which stayed in the background threw two fireballs into their ranks.

Sketch of Camwata oasis

The skirmish is brief and the attackers take the undamaged wagons and abduct many of the non-warrior tribespeople. Only few of the defenders survive: Urgond herself, the warrior Amakelek, Seef the mage, Ariam the scout, Agorn the cleric and Yatiri, a dragonborn youth who is barely alive. There are also a few civilians who traveled with the tribe: Lemuel, Kallista and Camille.

Agorn, a half-orc who was caring for the wounded when Sorrow arrived joins the conversation and gives his accord of the events as well. He explains that the thick clouds of smoke are the remains of the dead, burnt on a pyre to prevent attracting the desert wildlife.
Urgond adds that the attack was unprovoked and highly unusual, as the nomad tribes usually celebrate meeting another at sites such as the oasis, instead of slaughtering and robbing each other.
They also report that they saw a large wound in the chest of the attacking sorcerer.

Reunion

Come evening, Kriv and Gilda manage to find their way back to the oasis, with the aid of the smoke cloud and the tracks of Nasik´s caravan.
After the others bring them up to speed regarding the raid, they begin discussing their next actions.
It´s clear that they must somehow make it to Razal Kut somehow, seeing as it is the nearest city and their original destination. Urgond brings three options to the table:
The main trade route, which they would have taken if the attack had not occurred, going south first, past the mountain that eats men and then making a bend to the east, which would take nine days of travel.
The straight way to the east, passing the mountain´s northern flank and making directly to Razal Kut. The catch is that they would have to pass an old battlefield, which is said to be haunted.
The third option would be the safes route, also going south, but making a wide berth around the battlefield, which would take about two days more. This would take them to the edge of the great divide which separates the Cuzar desert from the low desert in the north.

After some deliberations, they elect to take the risk of crossing the battlefield, with Kriv, Agorn, Argil and Amakelek in favor, Sorrow and Gilda against. They appoint guard shifts for the night and rest.

Gilda, Urgond and Sorrow share the second night watch, and quietly converse around the low campfire. The two adventurers decide to tell Urgond of the events which transpired at the temple, the dragon creature and the Titan´s heart.
She can not tell them much about the dragon or the stone, but suggests to ask Seef – which she assures can be trusted – about the stone.

The night itself

Their conversation is cut short when Sorrow notices strange movements in the desert night. It seems as tough the night itself has come alive, shadows solidifying and encroaching upon the encampment.
Quickly, they grab their armaments and alarm the sleepers, right before the shadows are among them.
Most of the shadows quickly disperse back into nothingness as they meet the blades of the group, but Sorrow is wounded by the chilling touch of one the dark shapes.
After the last shade is dealt with, the travelers briefly consider changing their plans for the next day, but ultimately decide to go ahead with the original plan to cross the battlefield.

Journey

The next morning, the survivors pack the remains of the caravan´s supplies into the repaired dune barge and begin their journey to the east. By afternoon of the second day, they decide to make camp early, so that they would not have to travel across the battlefield by night.

In their shared night watch Gilda and Sorrow approach Seef and show her the titan´s heart, to see if she can tell them anything about it. Seef assures them that the object in itself is not magical in nature, but she discerns that it is a living thing, maybe even an actual titan´s heart.
As the stone has lost much of it´s inner light and it´s pulse has grown faint, they inquire if there might be a way to recharge it, but Seef is uncertain about this. Can a being´s heart be infused with life, separated from the body?
They also again notice that it has discharged at no one apart from Kriv, the kobolds, the sand yeti in the temple and the dragon. Everybody else is unperturbed and can even touch it without being harmed.

The night passes uneventfully, and the next day´s march takes them all the way accross the deserted killing fields. Here and there the remains of fallen soldiers and discarded, broken weaponry and armor can be seen, and Gilda even recognizes the heraldry on a shield as that of old enemies. Members of an army she fought against before she became an adventurer.

Partial map of the Cuzar desert.
Author: Harald Schroeder
Photographer: Harald Schroeder
Partial map of the Cuzar desert

Agorn and Sorrow have long nights of discussion, regarding their history and beliefs. Agorn reveals himself as a cleric with a close connection to Gruumsh, the orc god of strength and conflict. Sorrow shares some tales from her youth, which she spent in a mountain -monastery devoted to the god Dunatis – learning to channel her wild magic.

Skirmish amidst the dunes

Three more days go by without any problems, and they are confident that they will reach Razal Kut soon. Shortly before they get there however, they notice that they are being followed. Two faster dune craft are nearing from behind, armed figures and mounted armaments visible on deck.

Aiming to flank the caravan´s lone remaining vessel, the assailants come from two sides, a smaller, nimble craft to the left, manned by two grim looking men, and the larger one to the right, with five people on it, a mix of humans and half-orcs.
Soon enough, they come into engagement range and begin firing their mounted crossbows at the caravan, no questions asked.
Gilda asks Seef to slow down and stop their own boat, and Amakelek jumps ship to engage the smaller of the attacking vessels. Gilda follows suit and plans to sprint over to the right one, with the plan to board as soon as it passes her cover, a large boulder.

Battlemap with attacking skiffs
It´s not DnD if there is still room on the table.

A sleep spell from Sorrow lulls the two men on the smaller craft into a slumber and their craft swerves to the side, before gently setting down in the sands. Amakelek is on his way to cut their throats.

Gilda´s plan to board the other ship is not necessary anymore, as three of the attackers, two half-orc men and a menacing looking human woman disembark, coming towards her, demanding to be handed the stone.
The other two passengers were already dispatched by Kriv and Argil´s arrows as well as an array of magical attacks from Agorn and Sorrow.
Kriv also jumps off the caravan, coming to Gilda´s aid, while Agorn calls on the power of Gruumsh to paralyze the bandit leader.

This makes it an even two on two for a moment, with Kriv and Gilda having ranged support from Argil, Ariam, Agorn and Sorrow. The two half-orcs give a fierce battle, but Gilda is proving to be very hard to kill indeed and Kriv sprays them with his acidic breath.
This bitter fight is drawn out until all three remaining assailants go down, apparently unwilling to surrender at all.

Aftermath

While Agorn takes stock of the bandit´s belongings, Kriv engages in a more gruesome activity, severing the heads of those opponents that fought hardest and fashioning a morbid necklace from their skulls.
Having noticed that the thug´s skiffs were able to hover without the aid of a magician, Sorrow and Seef take a closer look at them, but are unable to figure out how it works. They do however decide to tow the smaller one with their own vessel, either to sell it or to find someone who can make it work.

While they travel the last few miles to Razal Kut, many things are discussed. What will happen to the caravan? Will they actually bring the stone to Drazan or keep it for themselves? Can Argil be trusted? What about Madred, can she be awoken from her sudden, but ongoing coma?

Agorn, the half-orc war cleric has joined the party.

Gamemaster´s perspective

While last session I attempted to invoke an atmosphere similar to the Indiana Jones movies, this time I went for a Mad Max vibe, specifically during the skiff combat encounter.
I think it went rather well, but it could have gone a little better. There was no incentive for the skiff to keep going forward, which I should have provided, as one of the players correctly pointed out afterwards.
The fact that I did not consider this annoys me a bit, since I actually should know it. Time pressure of some sort would have been sufficient.

The combat scene had a few too many actors in it, mainly the four combat-ready NPCs present in the caravan. This is mainly a problem due to the fact that there was noexcuse for three of them to refrain from joining the battle.
This made the skirmish a bit of a slog (I had compensated for the presence of the allied NPCs by adding a few more enemies).

The battle with the shadows could have been handled better as well, I read up on the rules for vision, surprise and hiding after the session and realised that I made some mistakes here, but nothing too egregious. DnD is still a new system to me, so these errors are bound to happen.

One of the combat encounters was skipped, which I decided more or less on the spot, as time was running low and we had a hard timelimit this time. On the other had, I think this session had a reasonable duration, unlike some of my earlier ones in the Nephilim campaign. Seven hour sessions no more.

I´m very happy with the amount of engagement with the material I get from the players, so that´s not a problem. It will probably be possible to make the story a bit more personal in the next two sessions, mostly due tot the fact that I have both:

  • Hooks built into some of the player characters, which I can use to engage them into the main plot. I got these from plumbing them for information before each session.
  • Things that came about during the session which provide me with material. I will just say: skull necklace!

In fact, during the session and especially near the end, I had to make so many notes about possible background things which might enhance the story that I´m unsure if i can remember and use all of it.

Another thing that produced a little hiccup when writing the session was the fact that one of the players, Madred, had to skip the session and we had a new player, Agorn, which I had to introduce into the setting organically. I think both went rather well, and I´m already looking forward to the next session with five player characters.

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Shifting Sands, chapter 1: Prologue

This is a synopsis / battle report of a session within a DnD 5e campaign.

Caravan

Our four protagonists, Madred, a dwarven fighter from clan Ironfist, “Sorrow”, a young tiefling sorcerer with infernal heritage, Gilda, a human barbarian who has already fought in a war and Kriv, a male dragonborn ranger who has recently awoken from hibernation have received a task from the rich Merchant Lord Drazan. They are on a quest to retrieve a jewel called the Titan´s Heart from a ruined temple in the desert. To this end, he has handed them a cylindrical object, a key of sorts. 

The group begins their adventure as part of a caravan, on a journey from Monsa Kut to Razal Kut. However, they will not be with the caravan for the whole journey, on the tenth day, the caravan leader Urgond, a dragonborn, informs them that they are now as near to the temple as the caravan will go. 

Amidst the caravan folk, a few other hikers stand out: A female dwarf, armed to the teeth and occasionally communing with a tame hawk and a group of thugs, four humans and half-orcs. This group in particular evokes distrust in the group, as they take to keen an interest in them, never leaving them out of their eyes.
Madred tries to engage in conversation with her fellow dwarf, but her opposite is very brusque and rude, if not outright hostile, and does not share much about herself.

While she sets up magical wards to protect against the foul creatures of the night, Urgond asks them to reconsider their trip to the temple, because there are rumours that it is an evil place. Apparently, an effort to rebuild and re-purpose it as a trading post has already failed, the settlers who went there were never seen again.
However, the group remains firm in their decision to go there, but devises a ruse to shake off the other, suspicious travelers from their track.

They pretend to stay with the caravan until they reach the Camwata oasis, where the caravan will rest for several days, but in actuality, they sneak away in the middle of the night, with sleep magic taking care of the thug watching them.

The next day, they notice the dwarf´s hawk following and watching them from the sky. Their attempt to ambush her fails due to the presence of the hawk, so they confront her directly. There is a brief standoff and an argument whether they should kill her outright (mostly brought forth by Kriv), and the decision to take her with them, under watch, is made. She reveals herself to be Argil, a clan-less dwarf, which greatly upsets Madred, as the clan is the center of a dwarfs life.

The ruined temple

By noon of the following day, the group approaches their target. The temple is built upon a low plateau, and from their raised vantage point upon a dune, three approaches to the ruins present themselves:

A ramp which slopes up to plateau´s western flank, however, that side is occupied by a large number of kobolds who seem to be engaged in some kind of excavation; Occasionally, carts filled with rubble emerge from cavern-like entrances to the rock formation and are loaded off outside. Luckily, the kobolds do not notice the group yet.
In the middle of the structure, a rocky path can be climbed up to reach the top, and in the east, a temple-like entrance of worked stone presents itself. This last approach is the one the group agrees on.

As they enter the stone edifice they find themselves in a square chamber with entrances on each side, one of which is collapsed, completely blocked by rubble.
The floor of the chamber is covered with what seem to be pieces of plate armor, and two bodies, apparently slain by bladed weapons. It is obvious to the group that these two have been killed by a trap, their corpses lying upon on a pressure plate hidden within the stone tiles of the floor.

After a brief investigation, they decide to depart via the left-hand corridor, which soon takes a right angle and leads up a set of stairs into the remains of a long ceremonial hall. Statues and pillars line the left wall of the tunnel, but a huge section of the floor is missing, revealing a chasm below, from which a clamor of tiny voices and the clanging of metal on stone can be heard.
Sorrow takes a vigilant look over the edge, only to be greeted by the sight of hundreds of kobolds, engaged in some kind of mining operation, transporting debris out of a tunnel leading further into the depths. With her darkvision, she also observes a beast, bear-sized with large spiraling horns, jailed in an iron cage.
She quickly recedes from the fissure without being seen or heard, and the group elects to venture back, to explore the opposite corridor.

Temple map: side view
Sketch of the temple: side view (inaccurate)

On the other side, a similar ceremonial hall is found, tough this one withstood the test of time better than the left one. The floor is intact, and there are also Statues and Pillars lined up along the left wall. The right one, however, looks distinctly different. Instead of bricks and stone blocks, this one is composed of huge curved pillars, emerging from the floor and disappearing in the ceiling. Between them, the northern sky is visible. Kriv and Madred deduce that these arches are not made of stone, but rather seem to be grown of ivory or bone.

Slowly and methodically the protagonists traverse this hallway, avoiding several of the pressure plates they had seen in the entrance hall. Near the set of pillars and statue, a problem presents itself tough: A loose boulder has fallen from the ceiling and smashed right onto the last of the pressure plates. Luckily, they spot the glint of blue in the last statue, a suit of armor, complete with sword and shield.

From a distance, Kriv fires an arrow into the eye of the statue, and sure enough, it begins trudging towards them, raising it´s enormous blade. A slew of projectiles and spells brings it down, just before it can take it´s first swing at Madred. Fortunate, as she might have been pushed onto one of the pressure plates the group had averted previously.
As they sift through the broken remains of the construct, they notice that Argil used the brief skirmish to get away from them.

Without tarrying any longer, they advance through the passageway at the far end of the hall, into a curving corridor. A faint breeze seems to pass them, and they begin to suspect that the name Titan´s grave could perhaps be taken literally…

They arrive at an intersection, with two more corridors similar to the one they emerged from, and on the opposite side a larger one, from which daylight can be seen. The group briefly inspects this exit, only to find that it leads to the kobold encampment they had seen earlier. Instead, they venture downwards into the center corridor, which soon leads into a circular chamber with a pillar reaching up into the darkness.

Gilda, Madred, Sorrow and Kriv take great care in exploring this room, certain that there has to be anything apart from the two entrances, the one they came from and another which leads deeper into the complex. But neither Madred´s expertise in stone masonry nor any of the other´s investigations reveal the purpose of this chamber.

Kobolds!

Abruptly, they are torn from their ruminations by screeching kobold voices from the upper entrance, and they decide to flee into the opposite tunnel, rather than risking a fight with what might be dozens of kobolds. This tunnel abruptly ends above the excavation site. The group manages to come to a stop before anyone falls below, but in the process make enough noise to alarm the digging creatures below as well.

With groups of the little critters behind and below them, quick decisions need to be made. They begin edging along the side of the chasm, without knowing what awaits them at the end of the ledge. Before all of them can cross the sill, a trio of winged kobolds flutter towards them, but a well-timed spell from Sorrow takes care of this situation. Falling asleep in mid-flight is not particularly healthy to these three and it buys the group enough time to arrive on the other side.

Still above the excavation site, they find themselves standing in front of another tunnel, leading yet deeper into the darkness.
In an effort to shake off their footslogging pursuers, Madred bashes the remains of the ledge. This leaves the chasing kobolds behind, but also the only known way out of the temple…

As they reach the lower end of this tunnel, it opens up into a rough sphere of a chamber, at the center of which stands a pedestal with the object they were sent to retrieve, the titan´s heart. Before they can admire it however, a jagged red energy arc flashes up from it, hitting Kriv square in the chest!
It does not seem to do anything to anyone else, so Gilda and Sorrow carefully examine it and quickly replace it with a boulder of similar size, in case there is some weight-based trap in place here.

It is a roughly melon-sized rock-like object with a ruby-like texture and it slowly pulses with crimson light from within. As Gilda takes hold of it, she has a brief impression of some kind of energy emanating from it, as if it is pushing straight into the ground.
As Kriv moves about the chamber he apparently gets too near to the stone again and gets struck with a scarlet energy beam again. As it only appears to be affecting him and nobody else, he takes care to stay as far from the item as he can, and heals himself.

Sketch of the temple, from above (also inaccurate)

Apart from the tunnel they came from, there are two more openings that lead away from the room. One, however quickly ends in another cave-in, which does not look like it will be easy to remove, so they take the second path, which leads them to a barricade made of wood. Through this barricade, more kobolds can be seen, workers, by the looks of it, transporting rubble and debris away from the dig site.

Escape

It appears that the heroes have reached the ground floor of this digging operation and they decide to risk breaking through the barrier and fighting their way out of the complex through these kobolds. Gilda breaks the rampart easily and they quickly make their way upwards, into the direction in which they think the exit might be. Before they get very far, a group of kobolds armed with spears assaults them, but the group makes quick work of them, especially as the stone becomes active again, blasting multiple of the creeps with vermilion lightning.

Quickly, they continue up the fissure, and after a brief walk, they see the caged beast ahead, as well as another group of kobolds. Sorrow however, spots the ledge from which she observed the beast earlier and suggests climbing up, to get back into familiar territory. Just as they begin their ascent, Kriv hears the kobolds converse in his native language, draconic. Apparently they are about to release the creature from it´s cage to attack the group. Luckily, the climb is not too hard and they aid each other to get back up to the ruined ceremonial hall.

With haste, they flee the temple before more kobolds can arrive, only taking care to not step on any trapped floor plates on their way out. They cross the square hall where they first entered the temple and run out into the scorching afternoon sun.

Just as they begin heading east towards the oasis, thinking themselves safe, a huge winged being bursts out of the top of the temple, dragon-like in aspect and shape, but with a dark shimmer, as if it was merely a shadow. As it passes over them a burst of energy erupts out of the crystal, hitting the dragon in the chest. It´s soaring flight turns into an uncontrolled gliding descent, and it vanishes behind the dunes to the east…

Gamemaster´s perspective

This was my first time DMing Dungeons & Dragons, and it was very fun. It´s been a few weeks since then, so here are some brief notes:

  • I got to utter the phrase “hundreds of kobolds!”
  • Successful test of the “tension pool” mechanic from the Angry GM, and it was as good as advertised.
  • This was the first session in which I managed to stay within a reasonable timeframe, which is good.
  • This was initially supposed to become a one-shot, but during planning I noticed that I really liked the idea of a desert campaign, so I softened up the encounters a bit (a bit too much in fact) and built the temple in a way which gives the players multiple paths in as well as out.
  • I notice that I really like building location-based adventures. Designing the temple was really fun. The two sketches above are not the final version of the dungeon, because it was too hard to put into a 2D representation. It does exist in a very detailed version in my head, which was enough to hold the session. I only showed the actual maps to the players afterwards.
  • Second session in the campaign has already been played, I´ll probably write a report on that as well.
  • Dnd 5th edition seems to be a solid system, it makes it rather easy to do ad-hoc skill checks and rulings. I like it so far.
  • The players seemed to enjoy it, so I guess mission is accomplished.

Campaign Diary: Ramas´ Journey, Part 1

Day 422

I have left the ship behind me earlier than I had planned. The sea made me uncomfortable. It is not sea sickness, but rather the waves and their sinuous movements. Despite the completely different element, they bear too much resemblance to the slowly shifting dunes of my former home.

I cannot yet bear being reminded me too much of Cuzar, so I left at the next harbor, the port city of King´s Cove.

This city, too, fills me with distaste, so I venture further inland. Maybe the forests in the north are quieter…

Day 521

Today, I decided to answer a call for a group of “adventurers”. I do not consider myself an adventurer, but I am short on coin and it might prove to be an interesting diversion.

Day 523

I arrive at the appointed time in a local tavern in “Waldruh”, a tiny village.
It´s a pleasant surprise to meet Atalla, a human druid, there.
We became acquainted a few weeks earlier, and it´s a joyous, if muted, reunion. She too came here to answer the call to adventure and we soon meet the other two that came to help: Gell, a half-orc and Glim, a gnome.

We do not have to wait for long, and a child arrives to bring us to our client´s abode.

After a brief walk we get to a mansion of sorts. The way it is built apart from the hamlet suggests either a position of rulership or a desire to be apart; I can not yet tell which it is.

Once inside, we are introduced to Ilaria, the lady of the house and a tiefling called Anathea, who is, to my understanding, a bodyguard of sorts. 
Without further ado, the nature of our task is revealed to us: Ilaria´s offspring, an infant named Tam has been abducted.
My companions take great interest in the reward, but I do not hesitate to begin questioning Ilaria, Anathea and Brokk, whose role is explained as a manservant of the house.
I frown at the idea of a person being a servant to another – it reeks of slavery – but keep my opinion to myself.

We begin by investigating the child´s room, only to find that there are no signs of a forceful entry into neither the mansion, nor the room. A piece of evidence presents itself however: A blue-white shred of fabric torn from a garment, a garment we have seen before on the personnel of the tavern!

I decide to interrogate the gnome, Brokk, about his duties and the night of the abduction. He is not particularly helpful, and I make it clear that in my culture, failure to protect the tribe´s children is punished by exile. What use is a member of the group if they can not commit to this simple, yet most crucial of tasks?
My remark earns me a round of shocked and exasperated looks.
Apparently, speaking openly is frowned upon in these parts. Still, I do not pursue this line of questioning any further; After all I am the stranger in these lands and I do not know these people´s customs very well.

My allies´s lines of questioning towards Ilaria and Anathea is regarding the motives of the abductors. Ilaria admits that she is not very fond of the inhabitants of the village… and that animosity is likely mutual. She thinks that the villager´s might have taken the child out of fear of the unknown, fear of the forest, maybe even fear of her? Apparently, she feels a greater connection to nature than her fellow humans, if the copious amount of paintings of the forest are any indication.

While I am processing this information, it dawns on me that there is not one, but two wrongdoings at work here:
The crime of abduction, but also the crime of neglect, either on the part of the manservant, or of the bodyguard.
Still, it may not be too late to bring back the child, so the sword of accusation will remain sheathed. For now.
We we venture back to the village to question Horok, the tavern owner.

On the way back, Gell suggests to go directly to the tavern servant´s house, as we have a strong suspicion that she is the one whose clothing was torn while taking the child.
I warn him that kicking a scorpion´s nest is never a good idea.
The metaphor is lost on the others, however.
Maybe they do not know what a scorpion is; I should familiarize myself with the wildlife in these northern forest, to find more apt metaphors.

Back in the tavern, we briefly talk to Horok, to find out how many serving personnel he employs and I also ask him if he feels any animosity from the villagers, him being a half-orc. He denies it and we speak of it no further.
Apparently, the villagers´ fear of the other does not extend to half-orcs.

In the meantime, some local youths have gathered in the bar room, among them the serving girl Ella, our main suspect.
We concoct a plan to engage them in conversation, while Glim sneakily takes a peek at her coat, to see if the shred of cloth actually belongs to her or not.
However, the discussion gets heated and ends with the girl storming out into the night. The boy Grim, who also seems to know something about the matter, follows her, but I manage to corner him and begin questioning him.

The youth is clearly frightened of us and spouts some nonsense about “doing what had to be done”, similar to the impression I had of the girl Ella. I briefly lose my temper and lift him up by the scruff of his neck, pin him against the wall and demand to know what exactly is going on. He does not get much more specific than before, but he points me toward a spot at the fringes of the forest. Is this where the girl ran to?
I leave him with a warning, that it is never a good idea to start a war against the unknown, lest it fight back.
He too fails to comprehend.

We make our way towards the forest edge, to where the boy indicated. Sure enough there is a path, lightly trodden, but clearly visible, and we begin marching into the gloomy thicket. Night is falling, and as we trudge along the narrow path, surrounded by thorny undergrowth, my thoughts begin to drift a little…

The atmosphere is unsettling, menacing even. I am unsure whether there should be more animal noises from the forest or less.
Some of my companions can see in the dark, but Atalla and I can not, so we light a pair of torches to guide our way. The flames cast eerie, flickering shadows and I have the sensation of being watched. Maybe the villagers´ fear is not entirely unfounded and there is indeed something lurking in these woods?

After a time we come upon a clearing, with some manner of shrine at the center, but before we can investigate it, a trio of arrows swish past us, and I hear the screeching tongue of goblins.
I spot one of them in the clearing and start charging toward it. My allies return fire with Javelin and bow, while Atalla summons a mass of vines which entangles a second of the fiends.

Just before I can reach my foe, a third one bursts out of the scrubs to my left and slashes open my thigh. Still, I continue towards the first one, trusting in the ability of my companions to keep the second off my back. It´s only goblins after all. As my foe nocks their next arrow, I grasp it by the neck, lift it up and demand surrender, using their own foul tongue.
It shrieks something about it being too late, and someone coming. I have no idea what it means and begin restraining it, while behind me the sounds of battle fade. My associates have killed the greenskin behind me and knocked the third one unconscious.

Just as we begin to bind them with rope, we hear a child´s cry, from the direction of the shrine…

This is written from the view of Ramas, a character I play in a DnD 5th Editition campaign. Ramas is a first level Fighter.

One-Shot Report: Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost

Last Sunday, I lied to my players. I lied to them quite a lot.

We played a One-Shot session with a pre-alpha version of my own homebrew RPG system.

I lied to them about several fundamental truths regarding the scenario.

Here´s my original proposal in short form:

  1. A one-shot session, not a campaign (only partially true)
  2. Post-post apocalyptic setting (Lie)
  3. Low technology level, no science fiction (Lie)
  4. No magic-users (Lie)
  5. The game takes place on Earth (Lie) in the year 2184 (lie!)

Here´s a brief rundown of what happened, as well as a big marker for when any of the lies were revealed. Also, music, click to relax:

The setting

The year is 2184, mankind has barely survived several global wars which nuclear and chemical bombardments leveled, polluted or otherwise ruined most of the major cities and poisoned the waters for years to come.

All major networks are lost, including the satellite networks and the power grid. Traffic networks are also mostly useless, as the major cities are toxic wastelands. You can have all the roads you want, but there is no use for them if everywhere they lead is ruination.

Pockets of humanity have retreated to sparsely populated areas that are not as badly ravaged by the fallout as others.

Most animal life, especially birds and fish are wiped from the face of the earth.

The events started in a place called Settlement 16, part of a chain of settlements centered around “The Citadel”.

These settlements rely upon each other (for basic production of food and clothing) and especially on the Citadel, because it is the only source of clean water and energy.

Life is simple and uneventful, the only interesting thing happening is that about once a year, the brightest and smartest are asked to join the citadel for the Ascension programme, an initiative to push forward the restoration efforts (rediscover old technology, drive development of new technology, erect settlements in other parts of the world, etc.).

The players took the roles of 5 pre-built characters, ordinary human beings and inhabitants of settlement 16:

  • Ronald, the farmer
  • Olga, the teacher
  • Claus, the smart kid (son of the farmer and teacher)
  • Odo, the village constable
  • Rois, the village ranger
Scanned character sheet of "Olga", the teacher
Scanned character sheet of “Olga”

This is an account of the events, as clear as I can tell them, Act 2 was highly chaotic, with a 4-way party split. I think we managed it decently, but it makes it a bit hard to tell a coherent narrative.

The most important lies and GM notes are marked in the text, I will get back to them, and why you shouldn´t do that, afterwards.

Feel free to skip ahead, as the plot is very confusing to read if you weren´t there. 🙂

Act 1: Racket at the barn

The first scene sees the arrival of Citadel representative Ashur Kodama at the family´s house. His intent is obvious, Claus has been selected for induction into the Ascension programme.

Over dinner, a lively discussion takes place, with Ronald, the father arguing against this, Olga, the mother being cautious and the son himself being curious (Even if it is for the wrong reasons, his first question is if there would be girls at the Citadel)

Scene 2 takes place at the edge of the forest, where the ranger Rois patrols and discovers a group of wild bears rushing towards the village, obviously agitated by something.

She takes up pursuit, and as she leaves the forest, sees strange lights in northern sky (This is actually a space battle taking place in the planet´s orbit.)

The bears crash into the barn of the family´s farm. Rois whistles an alarm to warn the inhabitants of the house and village.

In the meantime, Odo, one of the settlement´s constables is visited by Morgan Leland, the Citadel´s chief of security.

They briefly reminisce about old times and their weapons of office, but are soon cut short by a loud noise coming from the outermost farmhouse.

Morgan signals the hovercraft and they both break into a run for the farm.

The family is also disturbed by the racket the bears are making outside on the barn and begin filtering out of the house to see what is going on.

The bears appear to be quite disoriented, breaking down one of the barn´s wooden walls, the one nearest to the farmhouse.

Olga seizes the opportunity and throws an oil lamp at them as they break through.

Three of them, as well as the wooden wall are covered with burning oil.

A brief melee occurs, in which the bears, by now panicking, are held at bay with makeshift torches, still, one of them manages to seriously injure Ronald with a swipe of it´s claw across his chest, before being eviscerated by Rois´hunting knife.

Odo and Morgan arrive a little later and lay into the animals with taser pistol and pulse rifle.

The fight is swiftly ended when the hovercraft with the rest of the Citadel security personnel arrives, taking down the last of the beasts with their pulse rifles.

However, unbeknownst to them, representative Kodama was inside the barn, and gets mowed down as well. A shot pierces his lung and he falls unconscious.

Frantic activity ensues, the fire is brought under control and the decision is made to bring Kodama and the wounded Ronald to the citadel.

Act 2: Arrival at the citadel

As our protagonists arrive at the citadel, a steel and concrete edifice dominated by two central towers, they rush to the infirmary to take care of the wounded… with the exception of Claus, who sneaks off towards a different corridor.

He slips into an elevator, riding it all the way to the top of the structure.

He surveys the area, crosses a bridge to the second tower and rides another elevator back down, to the second story platform which appears to harbor the dam for the hydroelectric power plant as well as a runway and two small aircraft.

This is what he saw from the top of the tower:

Map of citadel
Handdrawn map of citadel

He also notices three meteor-like objects falling towards the citadel, from the direction of the strange lights in the sky.

In the infirmary, Ronald is stitched up, while Morgan get the news that the orbital platforms are under attack.

Morgan, Odo and Rois venture towards the basement, acting upon a contingency plan that Morgan was given “for emergencies”.

Olga and Ronald venture out as well, separately, sneaking away from the remaining guards, who seem to be concerned with other things (an attack, apparently) than guarding civilians.

Olga finds some classrooms with computer terminals and manages to get a map of the area as well as the information that, yes, there is research regarding space travel, but she is not authorized to view it.

Still, it confirms her suspicions that there is more to this than they were told.

(Part of the second lie is revealed. What I didnt´t reveal yet: Mankind has become a space-faring race, with colonies spread throughout multiple solar system.)

In the basement, Odo and Rois follow Morgan past the water purification plant and all kinds of machinery and computer banks. They arrive at a kind of library / museum, where Morgan instructs them to help carry an astrolabe, which can apparently help save Kodama in some fashion.

While Rois helps, Odo takes a look at some of the antiquities: An ancient sword, and a papyrus scroll, which are displayed very prominently, as if for an exhibition of some kind.

As she observes the scroll, she is befallen by a mental attack of some kind (Nephilim possession, Odo is in the process of becoming a simulacrum to Muchbirin). This is what I gave to the player:

Player handout: Possession by Muchbirin
Player handout: Possession by Muchbirin

Rois, as she touches the astrolabe, is victim to a similar fate. (Player rolls FIVE setbacks, which is an abysmal result. Her mental resistance is immediately overcome, she succumbs to the will of Agmos a Nephilim of the High Priestess Arcanum. At this point, I briefly take both of the possessed players to a separate room to explain. Rois´player agrees to play Agmos, one of the story villains.).

On the upper floors, after a bit of confusion, the rest of the group meet up.

A massive impact shakes the entire facility.

As Rois, Odo and Morgan run past an entrance, they see what has happened. A pod-like missile has crashed into the main courtyard, and a heavily armored figure is embattled with the security forces outside.

Morgan Leland rushes outside to aid her troops in organizing a defence.

Rois/Agmos is able to instantly and completely heal Kodama´s wounds (Lie #3, there is no magic, oops), and they decide that it would be prudent to get to the command center in the upper levels of the tower, to ascertain the situation.

At the urging of Claus, he and his mother Olga split from the group in order to go to the repair bay, where Claus hopes to use his knowledge (a secret I have assigned to the character before the game) to overcharge the pulse rifles, in order to overpower the unknown assailants.

This plan goes awry, when he finds out that the power packs are already overcharged. (The implication here was that the power packs given to the settlement were intentionally throttled to keep a tighter control on the villagers by severely limiting their access to electricity. I am unsure if I communicated this well enough.)

Act 3: Finale

Meanwhile, Olga and Claus are noticed by one of the armored attackers, who begins stomping towards them. They manage to beat him to the elevator, but it arrives to slowly and the massive figure with blood red eyes confronts them.

Fortunately, he is not there to kill them, on the contrary, he is surprised to find civilians within the facility, which forces him to change his plans: They must be brought out of the war zone.

During a short elevator ride, he assures them that he and his allies are here to liberate the humans, and that they have been lied to.

(Here, in my head, several scenes run together, so my account might not be entirely accurate. At some point, the PCs learn that he is the Nephilim Eresh Szat and that the citadel as well as the entire colony is an elaborate setup to create strong human simulacra for the Nephilim operating the facility. The next two lies are uncovered: We are not playing a post-apocalyptic setting at all, and this is in the same universe as the previous campaign (Eresh Szat was an anchor point for the group there.))

At this point, the main elevator of the tower becomes quite the choke point, with various characters riding it up and down. The situation comes to a head when the three hostile Nephilim, Agmos, Muchbirin and Kodama run into the rest of the group at the main elevator.

A brief firefight occurs, which Kodama evades by turning into a cloud of smoke.

Rois/Agmos is incapacitated, but Odo/Muchbirin gets away in one of the small spacecraft. She is still battling the Nephilim inside her mind, and the craft hurtles into the night sky.

The group gathers into the remaining flyer and takes off towards Eresh Szat´s ship, the Integrity. On their journey, they are bombarding him with questions, many of which are answered…

(The original plan here was to give each survivor one question, totalling three here, but I caved to my own desire to unveil more about the setting and gave each of them two. Here, the last two lies were revealed. No, you are not Earth, and no, the year is not 2184, rather it´s the 28th century.)

Dénouement

  • Kodama is alive, tough if he can evade capture from the other two Judges is uncertain
  • It is unclear wether Muchbirin has taken over Odo´s body as a simulacrum, or if Odo resists
  • The three surviving protagonists will be taken to Earth, the real Earth, to stand witness in the trial of Agmos, who will be tried for crimes against humanity.

Game Master notes

Filthy lies!

So, let´s get to the elephant in the room first. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, I do not think that it was a good idea to hide so many fundamental truths from the players. It went okay, but it might have been catastrophic.

I got the buy-in from the players for “a post-post-apocalyptic scenario”, and presented them a “sci-fi-fantasy-mystery-horror” plot.

It´s a bit like going to the movies to see No country for old men, only to find out that the movie has switched to the X-Men at some point in the middle.

Both fine movies, but usually you want to get what you ordered. (Damn, should do a food analogy, okay, it´s like going to a restaurant ordering a pizza, and right in the middle of eating it the chef runs out of the kitchen and heaps a t-bone steak, a chocolate ice cream and a pile of doritos onto your pizza.)

Generally, having mysteries within the game is fine, great even, but this was a bit too much. I think having NPCs lie is a-okay, but the lies should stay within the game, not on the meta-level above.

What went well?

Here´s a few things that I think went especially well:

The opening scene, starting with a conversation scene helped people get into character.

The opening act split-up: I did this for the second time now, having the players start in separate places and uniting them worked out rather well.

Having planned the first act rather meticulously worked out really nicely. And by “planned” I mean “having made a flowchart with the player actions I anticipate”. “Kodama gets seriously hurt” was in there. Another path that would have put a much different tone on the second act would have been: “Kodama is forced to defend himself magically, the players witness this and are captured and taken to the citadel because they know too much (with a possible hovercraft chase when they try to resist arrest)”

“Theater of the mind” combat for the second and third act, I used the maps only as a visual aid here. First act was performed with an ad hoc drawn map tough.

What went wrong?

Some thing went poorly:

My initiative / Speed system not tested. This was due to a blunder of mine (forgot to print out an important gagdet, the turn clock) and I made a snap decision to just give each player the same amount of actions, in order of their speed.

Good decision to keep the game flowing, but my turn system is untested now.

I didn´t play the Morgan Leland character to it´s full potential. Specifically, I should have played her more authoritarian, and acknowledged the fact that she and Odo were supposed to know each other a bit more.

The core resolution mechanic of my homebrew system needs severe simplification. This is probably out of scope for this blog post, I might write a separate one once I am done simplifying it. The gist of it: A combination of too many mechanical actions (picking up many different dice, rolling, partial re-rolling) and three axes of results (setback/advantage, numerical score, number of required successes) made the resolution of combat rolls too onerous.

Back to the drawing board.

Why this specific story?

Actually, I have no idea where the specific plot points came from, the thing with the citadel basically plopped into my head a few month ago.

What I intentionally built was important tough. The Nephilim RPG is one of my favourite settings, however, it has a problem: Basically, the Nephilim taking over a human simulacrum (host body) and relegating the original owner´s mind to the role of a passive observer… well, that´s not very nice, is it?

So, my solution to this was actually supposed to be explored in the old campaign. What if there was a large-scale unveiling of the existence of the Nephilim, and what if, after resolving the initial shock and horror (there would surely be pogroms and similar nasty things, maybe wars), the two races got along?

And after that follows the question that led me to this scenario: What about the Arcana that specifically would not want this? The High Priestess would certainly not be at ease when so many secrets are unveiled, and, even worse, the Tower, the Blasted Tower, would do their worst to undo this.

Tarot card: 16 - The Tower
We must destroy all human knowledge of magic so that we may once again rule in the New Golden Age. We must destroy Orichalka so that we may be immune to human weapons. We must hide our natures that they may not make us targets. We must also build high refuges where magic can be kept from humanity.

What´s next?

My TODO list swells to epic proportions:

A new campaign (not a one-shot)

  • Outline the campaign (Preliminary idea: medieval, in the Nephilim universe)
  • Write a pitch for the players
  • Prepare a session zero, specifically: character creation, establishing the characters within the game world, establish the some story locations (I want to try doing this together with the players)
  • Write character classes

Update my homebrew system

  • Add damage and armor rules (Current rules are very basic/perfunctory)
  • Simplify the core resolution mechanic
  • Streamline the combat rolls a bit, specifically, I think Acrobatics (Dodge) must have some kind of diminishing returns when being attacked by multiple people
  • Update the character sheet (It worked, I specifically designed it as a one-page lookup, but it needs more shortcuts)
  • Make rules for character creation (probably some kind of point-buy system)
  • Write up some skills for a medieval campaign (Probably at least: horse-riding, melee weapon specialisations
  • Add a magic system (I have already started this for the Nephilim NPCs), I want to do justice to the cool magic system of the original game, but also improve upon it´s mechanical rigidiy and remove/rework some of the more esoteric spells

There´s a lot to do. Let´s get to it!

Game Review: Sundered

A horrifying fight for survial and sanity.

What is Sundered?

In the words of it´s creators, Thunder Lotus Games:

Sundered is a horrifying fight for survival and sanity, a hand­-drawn epic from the ​creators of ​​Jotun. [1]

Now, that does not tell you very much, so let me elaborate:

It´s a 2D platformer, with the ability-gated progression of a Metroidvania, sprinkled with some Roguelite elements. It´s main focus is fast combat, combined with exploration and a powerful atmosphere.

Also, the soundtrack is haunting and beautiful:

You take the role of Eshe, who is pulled into some kind of underground realm, where an ominous crystal (the Trapezohedron) welcomes her and offers itself to her as a weapon. After a brief tutorial you are left to explore this subterranean world and it´s (exclusively hostile) denizens.

Presentation

Image: Grasping hands in the fog.

So let´s get this out of the way first. In my opinion, the presentation of this game is absolutely top notch. The characters are hand painted and the animations are very fluid and dynamic.

I have tried to capture some of this in the GIFs attached here (while also learning how to record GIFs of gameplay.). For example this nightmare fog; I have looked at the grasping hands emerge from the gloom and dissolve again for quite some time before moving on. They grisly animals sound they emit is also very intimidating.

The soundtrack is led by eerie string instruments and evokes a melancholic atmosphere. It´s integrated into the world very well, and the sound effects are crunchy and punctuate the action quite nicely.

In addition to the handdrawn art, manipulation of palettes and different sprite sizes are used to mix up the environments and foes.

For example the cathedral looks bright, soothing and calm when first entered, but as you ascend further, sickly grey or greenish tones replace the original color scheme; suddenly it feels rotten and menacing.

Image: Grey tinted cathedral area "The Spires"

Gameplay – Movement & Traversal

I guess if I want to talk about the movement in this game I will also have to tell you a bit about the world you are moving through.

In typical Metroidvania fashion, some areas are blocked off and you can only access them once you have obtained an ability, for example the wall-run.

The starting move-set is very basic, you have a regular jump, you can bounce off of walls and you have a dash/roll to evade enemies.

As you progress through the game you unlock more abilities, which in turn allow you to access areas that were previously blocked off.

An interesting departure from the Metroidvania formula is the fact that there are no save stations / teleporters.

Instead, the game´s world is centered around the starting point, with the jungle and Valkyrie base to the south, the holy city of the Eschaton to the east, and the vast cathedral to the west.

You can return to the starting area whenever you want, and the even the most remote areas are about two minutes away from there (if you have opened the necessary shortcuts).

In the last third of the game, your moveset is extremely versatile. To me, it was one of the strongest movement systems I have experienced in a platformer in quite some time. Traversing the game world is satisfying in itself, just by chaining together double jumps, air dashes and the wonderful grappling hook.

In fact, if right now, a new game was announced with the exact same approach to traversal, flow and mobility, I would buy it blindly; just for the pure enjoyment of it.

Part of this comes from the way it is integrated into the combat.

Combat, you ask? Well, of course, as you leap and bound through ruined tunnels, sometimes, a distorted gong sounds, and swarms of enemies descend upon you.

Image: Eshe is chased by screamers and crawlers.

Gameplay – Combat

Just as with the movement, your combat options start out rather slim. You have a basic slashing attack which can be “combo-ed” into a heavy strike (think “1-2-3-4-boom”).

Fairly early in the game, tough, you receive the leaping device, which is a double jump, but with a twist.

Wait, why are we talking about movement again?

Well, as the game informs you with a loading screen hint: “Hitting an enemy resets the leaping device”. Plainly said, as long as you can land a single hit while in the air, you can remain aloft as long as you wish.

This is the key that prevents the game from becoming too centered on dodge-roll combat.

Instead of slogging through the crowds on the ground, fighting becomes this interesting airborne ballet, where you single out flying foes, flip-flopping between them with your extra jumps.

A rather unique take on platformer combat, at least I haven´t encountered this before.

GIF: Combat in the cathedral

I mentioned hordes. Here is the other departure from traditional Metroid style:

Instead of fixed enemy placement, the game lets you roam the procedurally generated rooms for a while, then the aforementioned gong announces the arrival of a horde.

Various creatures emerge from the edges of the screen, and as you fend them off, more arrive. Sometimes, there are a dozen or more enemies on the screen at once, which makes the action quite frantic, and keeps you on the edge of your seat.

On occasion, I found this a bit too crass, when you are fighting durable adversaries, these fight scenes can go on for a while.

This game has brought me to tears… and not due to the melancholic violins, the punishing difficulty or the ominous narrative, but because I didn´t blink for several minutes while being pummeled by lovecraftian monstrosities.

Regarding monstrosities, there are about a dozen a dozen bosses and mini-bosses scattered throughout the three main areas.

The three main bosses are mandatory, but can be tackled at a later point in time, in case you feel underpowered.

These encounters are quite stressful, the bosses are huge, screenfilling things, with complex attack patterns, and the blaring horns and war drums aid in unnerving you even more.

Have a look:

Image: Xea’sh’kaebt attacks Eshe with an array of ethereal fists.

Overcoming these is challenging, but not impossible, and you are granted Elder shard fragments/shards for each of them. These play into the “Resist or embrace” theme that is alluded to in the trailers.

You can use them to corrupt your seven main abilities, or decide to resist the temptation, and incinerate them, angering someone greatly…

This is one of the upgrade systems in the game; I should mention that there is also another one, dealing with passive upgrades.

After defeating enemies, you collect a crystal currency that can be spent in the main hub, on an upgrade tree.

This includes mostly minor, incremental upgrades to your damage, shield, health etc., as well as some major enhancements such as a talent that allows you to block projectiles with your attacks.

This system is functional, but ultimately, I think it is one of the weaker spots of the game. Due to the nature of these incremental bonusses, they feel like a bit of a “gear-check”, an unspoken barrier that prevents you from rushing through the game too fast, because you lack the damage and health to face the later, stronger opponents.

Themes/Story/Atmosphere – Resist or Embrace

Interestingly, the game only has a skeleton plot.

The protagonist, Eshe, is trapped in a subterranean realm and witnesses the aftermath of a clash between the Valkyries, using technology, and the religious people of the Eschaton.

On her journey, she learns about this, but must ultimately decide for herself which of the two sides is the right one.

So the plot is simple, summed up in one sentence, basically, however, the game has a rich atmosphere, the central conflict pits religion against technology and shines light on the actions of both sides.

While it is easy to say, yes, the Eschatons have allied themselves with terrible elder gods, they are the villains here, it is alluded to that the Valkyries also aren´t quite the nice and shining heroes. They´re presented as violent conquerors and destroyers, using their technology to create only weapons.

Most of the exposition is provided by an unreliable narrator, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but I think it´s an interesting viewpoint anyway.

The game oozes atmosphere everywhere, with little flavor texts on in the upgrade tree, and even an invented language. I just love the way the narrator pronounces the word “unbelievers” in the voiceover: “heresh!”.

As I mentioned before, the presentation here is worthy of high praise.

Image: Eshe ensnared by corruption

Critique / Negatives

As always, not everything is perfect, and there are a few things that could be improved, tough none of them is critical.

The first thing I must mention is the second large game area, the Holy City Of The Eschaton. While the starting area and the final area are very beautiful and have a large variety of enemies, the second area feels underdeveloped.

It consists mostly of samey corridors, and the enemies are rather basic. This could have benefitted from another design pass, with a bit more variation in the art department, and maybe one or two new enemy types.

I suspect this area was designed first (It was heavily featured in the original kickstarter pitch video and the announcement trailer.)

Something that amplifies this is the fact that the horde-style combat prevents the developers from designing encounters, as a traditional level designer (in the role of a dungeon master or director) would. Instead, the horde mode takes command. A little more curation on these combat scenes might have spiced this area up a bit.

The other two major game areas have enough diversity in terrain, and some special features (heavy wind, moving elevators) that mix up the encounters enough, so this is only a problem for maybe a quarter of the game.

While I mostly like the various skills and abilities the game equips you with, some of them feel a bit obsolete and underpowered.

The strength amplifier is too much of a “lock and key” mechanism – it allows you to break certain otherwise impassable barriers – and it´s utility in combat is rather limited (because you have to stand on the ground to use it).

The other one that immediately comes to mind is the cannon. It can also only be fired while standing, and its beam erupts in a straight horizontal line. With these limitations, and the fact that many of the passive powerups serve to increase it´s damage, you would think that it is powerful, but even in the late game, it does not really cut it.

A way to improve it would be allowing the player to shoot in different angles. A possible idea would be firing while airborne, tough it would require careful balancing of the recoil (preventing large sequence skips via quasi “rocket jumping”).

They could have made it worse, a smartbomb-effect would have undermined the sense of being overwhelmed by hordes, which I suspect the developer were aiming for.

One thing I am a bit torn on, is the way information is carried to the player.

On one hand, I really like that there is no “hand-holding”, the game expects you to figure out how to use your abilities yourself.

On the other hand, some of the concepts are not intuitive and should be shown. The major culprit on this is the double jump reset I mentioned above. It is an absolutely fantastic game mechanic, but if you don´t realize it´s there (after all, why press the jump button a third time?), combat becomes unnecessarily hard and frustrating.

A criticism that I have heard levelled against the game is that the boss fights are very confusing. The reason for this is that the camera zooms out very far, and Eshe becomes a tiny speck on the screen. Sometimes you lose track of where you are amidst a multitude of foes.

Personally, I only found this to be a problem on the boss “Dominion”, but I can understand if it detracts from your enjoyment.

Verdict

Overall, I am quite impressed with the game. It held my attention for three playthroughs (I wanted to see all the endings), and it compelled me to write a review, which not all games do. So it is for me, but is it for you?

I´d say if you like platformers, especially Metroidvania-style ones, you should at least take a look. Sundered is a fresh take on the genre, and instead of going full retro like some other have done, it adds some procedural elements to the mix.

The game is carried by rock-solid combat, strong atmosphere, beautiful visuals, and in case you missed it, a wonderful soundtrack.

Here is the launch trailer, which is surprisingly accurate (Yes, the game looks that good.):

The major thing that might push you away is the excessively long horde combat sections, if you do not like prolonged challenging combat, this might spoil the game for you.

I, for one, am looking for to a DLC that Thunder Lotus Games has teased, as well as their next full game.

Embrace the madness.

Footnotes

[1] Jotun had a free weekend on Steam at some point, and I played it for a few hours. I did not like it very much, it felt slow and plodding.

Game Review: 20XX

This is the Mega Man game that we have been waiting for.

20XX

In the year 20XX, a bad Mega Man clone called Mighty Number 9 was created. It was made to satisfy the craving for oldschool 2D platforming of Megaa Man fans. It failed on all accounts, with poor mechanics, weak controls, obnoxious cutscenes and uninspired level design. However, Batterystaple Games stepped in to counter Mighty No. 9 with their own take on the genre, 20XX.
— Not the intro for Mega Man 2

20XX header logo

So, 20XX, I have waited about two years for this game to come out of Early Access [1].
Was it worth it?

Yes! This is the Mega Man game that we have been waiting for. It has all the things that we want from such a game, as well as some spicy additions that are new to the formula.

What is it?

20XX is a 2D platformer that takes heavy inspiration from the Mega Man series, especially Mega Man X, and then spices it up with Roguelike elements.

On the Mega Man side of things, it has all of the staples that you would expect, dashing, wall-jumping, and charging your weapon. There are now two characters to play as, Nina, with the “arm-cannon”, as well as Ace, who uses short range melee weapons instead.

The roguelike heritage of the game manifests itself in semi-procedural level generation (Rogue Knight), random upgrades, item drops and shops (Binding Of Isaac), and a very light meta-progression, akin to Crypt Of the Necrodancer.

Interestingly, the original Mega Man arrangement still stands: Your fight 8 bosses in a non-sequential order, and you can obtain their weapons after defeating them. The order can not be chosen freely, but after each boss you can choose one of 3 levels, until you have beaten all 8 of them, at which point you progress to the two final stages.

20XX Gameplay - Platforming

Gameplay / Impressions

So far, I have put about 25 hours into the game. It is very well suited for medium sized gaming sessions (30 to 60 minutes).

Each level lasts about 3 to 5 minutes, which to me is a good size for a Jump&Run game. (This was one of the mistakes of Might No. 9, the levels felt very long, without having much actual content.)

The things that stand out most are the absolutely amazing soundtrack and the super crisp controls. Simply put, this play like a real Mega Man game, the right “gamefeel” is there, and in some aspects it is even better than the originals.

The available upgrades feel significant and make traversing the levels very enjoyable. Upgrades to jump height, running speed, and even things like air-dashes and double jumps are available, which makes hunting for upgrades feel worthwhile.

It also makes for some hard choices in the in-game shops. Do you take the cannon upgrade or the one that reduces your health but makes you faster?
Meaningful choices in games, good times. 🙂

The developers also managed to inject some longevity into the genre, most of which comes from the roguelike elements. The level generation keeps things fresh, and in case it becomes too easy, there are many modifiers that can be switched on to make the game harder, e.g. more enemies, longer levels, more damage from environmental hazards etc.

Did I mention the soundtrack? I guess I did, but let me do so again. The chiptune soundtrack by cityfires has passed my personal threshold of “Would I listen to this at work?”.
The tunes are driving the gameplay forward with simple but sweet melodies, just as they did in the 80s and 90s Mega Man games.

20XX Gameplay - coop

Critique / Negatives

Not all is perfect, I have some gripes with the game as well.

First are the special weapons that you receive from the bosses. Many of them feel superfluous, as they do not add anything except for an easy way to finish off the boss who has them as their weakness.
Also, their special functions could be explained a little better. I only learned that the Icicle cannon can freeze wall-mounted hazards by watching another player do it in co-op. An (optional) tutorial with a 10-second animation would work wonders here.

As it stands I usually only pick up and use two out of the 8 weapons, the rest seem useless. (But the basic weapons are powerful and fun to use, so this is not too bad.)

Secondly, there is very crass difficulty spike after defeating the 8 Robot Masters bosses. The ninth level is a series of bottomless pits with moving platforms, lasers and many enemies above it. Many of the jumps are very tricky, and having lots of enemies flying around only makes it harder.

The level feels a bit like a “gear-check”, as it is made exceptionally easier by having one or more of several upgrades (e.g. the double jump or hover boots, the anti-knockback body armor or many speed/jump enhancements.)

I think having such a level in the game is fine as it separates amateurs like me from the hardcore players, but I think it would have been prudent to move this to one of the “expert” modifiers that are optional, instead of having it in the standard level rotation. (I personally think the level is harder than level 10 and both of the final boss fights.)

Other features

Some features that have been cropping up in many Roguelikes are also present:

  • Daily and weekly runs with a fixed random seed (everybody plays the same generated run).
  • Leaderboards for these runs
  • Boss rush mode
  • Online Co-op mode (I only tested this briefly)

Verdict

This game is more fun than both Mighty No. 9 as well as the Mega Man Legacy Collection. I say, if you enjoy this type of Run&Gun games and have no problems with “random” levels, go for it, it´s a great game!

Footnotes:

[1] Early access: I personally don´t like it. I do not drive unfinished cars, I do not eat half cooked food, so I certainly won´t bother with unfinished games.

 

All images taken from 20XX press kit at http://batterystaplegames.com/press/

Nephilim – Chapter 5: Acquistion

(Disclaimer: This is a synopsis / battle report of a session within our Nephilim RPG campaign. It serves to give some context to the fiction I post, as well as simply practicing writing.)

Chapter 5: Acquistion

Synopsis

Last time we saw our heroes, they have secured an Earth Plexus in a cave/sewer network beneath Berlin. Having secured the Earth Plexus, our protagonists are presented with an unexpected situation by Skaro.

She has obtained information about two manuscripts that might contain more modern writings about Golems (not the clay prototyp developed in 17th century Prague), but they are part of a private collection that is being auctioned off.

Two sets of two invitations are granted to the group, and they will have to get creative in order to get the fifth person into the venue.

Skaro has also provided funds, 400.000€, and an additional 25.000€ in cash.

Arrival at the venue

The auction is held at a private mansion, and the group arrives fairly early.
Finistur summons her kabbalistic sword and armor and deposits them in the group´s jeep, “just in case”. With a bit of magical assistance from Gealach, Sil’Faron, in his identity of Bernd Schiffer, manages to dupe the doormen that the 17 year old Kek is actually his son. The bouncers are quite dazzled by the charismatic display, and let them all in.

Sha Naqba Imuru and Sil’Faron have received bidder numbers for the auction, while the others are only present as their aquaintances.

Once inside, our protagonists survey the list of items that will be auctioned off.

  • The two manuscripts by R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz they came for
  • Three paintings of archangels (Jophiel, Raphael and Gabriel)
  • Three french books
  • A horrendous looking sculpture of a melting person

Photo of the auction programme and list of items
Photo of the auction programme and list of items

Lounging & Socialising

Before the auctions are starting, the group socialisies with the other attendees, finding four other Nephilim among them. This makes for a total of nine Nephilim present, a staggering number, considering how far apart they are usually. An illustrious gathering indeed.
They approach all of them, to find out where they stand regarding the acquisition of the manuscripts.

Surprisingly, Joris, who is known to the group as Tanja, is present. She wants to spy out the humans, to find out which ones belong to secret societies. She´s also here under a fake identity, Anna Michalska.

Finistur meets the englishwoman Caitlin Sanders, a Fire Nephilim incarnated into an elderly woman. She is interested int he sculpture and the painting of the Archangel Raphael, and also wants the other items to go into Nephilim hands, as opposed to the grubby fingers of mundane humans. She claims to be willing to destroy the merchandise otherwise.

Gealach has a brief chat with a dark-haired woman named Francesca, a Moon Nephilim.
She appears to be a direct competitor for the two Schwaller manuscripts.

Kek, and later Gealach, engage in a Poker game in the mansion´s Gentleman´s Club, with a young man called Eduard Miller. He savagely cheats at the game, using concealed magic to embarass a player to leave the game during a large pot. Afterwards, Kek approaches him to find out about the auction. Mr. Miller first claims to only be here “for the people”, but later admits that his patrons are interested in one of the french books, Der Kampf ums Dasein am Himmel, which contains only “beginner level” arcane knowledge.

There are also a number of notable “regular” humans among the crowd of about 50 people present, some of them obviously not interested in the occult. Sil’Faron manages to talk a pompous man named Marco Probst, who obviously has no appreciation for literature, into believing that the Schwaller manuscripts are not originals.

A few guests seem to have suddenly become quite sick, requiring an ambulance. A coincidence? Too much sparkling wine? Spoiled hors d’oeuvre? Unlikely.

Auction round one

The first round of auctions starts, and the group silently observes the proceedings, without any interest for the french books. Two of these go to Eduard Miller and his associates, the third to an unremarkable collector.

They make a bid for one of the Angel paintings, but it goes to Mrs. Sanders, as does the disgusting sculpture. She seems pleased, and so does Mr. Probst, who buys the two remaining paintings.

Kek notices a man and a woman who appear to be more interested in the guests than the auction themselves, taking pictures of the high bidders. He shadows them for the remainder of the evening.

Sil’Faron is approached by the woman named Francesca, who offers a bounteous 100.000€ simply for him not bidding on the manuscripts, but he declines, knowing how important these books are for the group.

Before the manuscripts are auctioned off, there is a dinner break, and Gealach manages to confuse Mr. Probst with her alchemical arts. He is now more interested in indulging in the sumptuous buffet than the auction.

blog_auction_map
A map of the auction venue, the mansion of Katrin Frueh

Auction round two

This is the main event, the Schwaller manuscripts are up. Quite a number of bidders is missing from the room, due to mysterious illness and sudden hunger flashes.

As soon as the first manuscript, The Temple Of Man, is presented, Gealach creates a visual illusion of water damage upon the book, which scares several more bidders off.

Sil’Faron gets the high bid, with 105.000€, which leaves the group with 325.000€, and the hope that they can pay in cash or leverage some Sil’Faron´s private savings.

Having conserved so much cash, they win the bid war for the second manuscript, The Temple In Man, as well, with Francesca being the only serious contender.

She stomps off angrily, and the two frenchmen seems to follow her to the parking lot. Kek notices this, and he and Finistur decide to take a shortcut over the terrace, while Sil’Faron and Sha Naqba Imuru retrieve their acquisitions.

Trouble at the parking lot

Francesca speeds off in her sports car, completely oblivious of the fact that she is being followed by the two strangers.

Kek holds them up at their automobile, demanding to know why they took so many photographs, but the situation rapidly devolves into violence, as one of them draws a gun.
Kek drags the driver from the car, throws him against the next vehicle, and goes to cover.

The second stranger seizes the opportunity and tries to escape with the car, but she did not take into account the presence of Finistur, who has retrieved her kabbalistic blade from her Jeep. The entire left backside of the Peugot is sliced apart, including the axle. This car will not drive anywhere anytime soon.

The suspects are quickly knocked out and stuffed into the jeep´s trunk. Tanja arrives, and after a quick surveying of the situation, returns to the house to get the rest of group.

Four things are in possession of our heroes now. The two manuscripts, which hopefully contain enough knowledge to construct a working Golem, as well as two unconscious people, whom Kek suspects to be Templar operatives…

Gamemaster´s Perspective

This was an interesting session to prepare. I had four goals in mind when I did this:

  • Advance the main plot, by bringing more of the Golem related knowledge in reach of the players
  • Have only one event in a session, not multiple
  • Provide a setting where the non-violent characters can show their strenghts
  • Introduce some actual human NPCs, instead of too many Nephilim

Preparation was interesting insofar as I wanted an interesting set of bidders present, as well as the opportunity for the players to screw themselves up by being greedy. I intentionally did not make up a bidding strategy or similar things, only a list of “high-profile” bidders that would compete for the four important items of the auction.

The players showed remarkable restraint in their bidding, which allowed them to have enough money left for both manuscripts. For me personally, this meant that there was a foregone conclusion: I knew that none of the NPCs could beat the player´s on the final auction, which took out a bit of tension for me, but the players assured me that they didn´t notice. 🙂

On the flip-side, some NPCs have powerful artifacts in their hands now as well, which might become relevant at a later time. The disgusting statue is actually a focus for a very powerful Fire spell.

What I did not like was the fact that I had to juggle too many NPCs, and thus could not flesh out their characters too much. I´ll have to work on that.

Between this session and the one before, I also had solo sessions with two of the players, which advanced several side-plots that were opened up during the beginning of the campaign. I will not discuss them here, as there is too much character knowledge in these, that I want to separate from player knowledge 🙂