Monday, January 26, 2015

Kudos to D&D 5th edition

I wrote this post and then searched for some relevant pictures, so now I know the name of the adventure and such. At any rate, spoilers for "The Lost Mine of Phandelver", the D&D5e starter set adventure, are below.

My face to face group is currently going through the D&D 5th edition starter set. I haven't written much about it, because I'm fairly apathetic about the latest edition: strip away the nostalgia and big brand name, and it really doesn't feel that different from the D&D that I gave up during college in favor of more interesting systems like GURPS or Heavy Gear. I gather this is something of a minority opinion on the web these days, and that everyone is really excited about D&D5 because it doesn't have the problems of 3rd or 4th edition. To the extent that statement is true, it's because it has its own problems that are likely going to be just as crippling, but I don't feel invested enough to write about my concerns.

At any rate, we're playing through the starter set adventure: The Orc, Bugbear, and Bandit Show or whatever it's called. It's pretty much failed to keep my attention or spark my interest, but it's not actively bad so I can have a good time with my friends as long as they're willing to prompt me a bit about where we need to go next and why.

Actually, compared to the 4th edition adventures, and going by some comments from the DM, it's actually a fairly decent adventure. The dungeons haven't been huge, but they tend to branch and loop nicely, and there's a reasonable amount of informed decision making involved in getting through them. Aside from the completely awful skill, combat, and spell resolution systems, we have a reasonable amount of choices and game play is pretty balanced. Which is damning with faint praise, but like I said, I'm not a fan.

Seriously, spoilers below. 
The reason I'm writing this post, though, is that something happened yesterday that was actually pleasing. Our little adventuring band was infiltrating Cragmar Castle (I think? Not paying attention, see...) to rescue a dwarf or two from the evil humanoids. The evil humanoids drastically outnumbered us, and in anything resembling a straight up fight or even a
running battle against the full garrison was likely to end in our miserable deaths.  They had also captured a weakened owlbear in their pantry (or something: we couldn't interrogate anyone who knew about it). We had found the pantry, investigated its barred door, and fled, but were currently in a reasonably stout tower well away from any humanoids that were aware of us.

After some thought and giggling, we came up with a plan: clear the local larder of any food, drag some convenient dead bodies to the door to the rest of the castle, use telekinesis to unbar the door to the owlbear's room, and then hide in our redoubt while (hopefully) the owlbear killed a fair portion of the garrison and the garrison killed the owlbear. In practice, the plan got a little more complicated, with my cleric using a magic spell to try to lure the humanoids toward to the owlbear and then our bard sneaking over the roof tops to cast area effect spells on the goblin-owlbear brawl.

The important thing, and the thing I was really impressed by, was that not only did our plan mostly work, the developers had actually written that up as an option in the adventure. After the "no choices, fight every monster on unfavorable terrain, ten encounters to victory" railroad fests that were 90% of the 4th edition adventures, this little sequence was an amazing breath of fresh air. It was a hilariously fun and somewhat clever solution to two problems (wild monster we can't kill and goblin garrison we can't defeat) and the adventure writers allowed it and supported it. It was really great, and if the D&D 5th edition developers keep doing stuff like that, it might end up being a reasonably good edition.

I've heard rumors that the first adventure path for 5th edition, Tyranny of Dragons or whatever, is a complete no-fun no-choice railroad. So maybe I'm too hopeful about this one little scene in a single adventure. But it's a start, and kudos to the designers, developers, and playtesters for allowing it.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Mecha Against the Giants Session 6

My group's regular GM vacation was unavailable again this week, so we continued on with Mecha Against the Giants. Specifically, we continued the big fight against a giant fortress filled with giants.

Further Experiments in Overpenetration

I had cleverly pre-rolled all of the HT checks for poison and IQ checks for recovering from stun for all the giants, and just noted down when they would activate. That didn't simplify this battle, but it sped up play a bit.

The pilots continued fighting the giants in the main room, using automatic weapon fire to take out multiple foes at once. They quickly realized that their guns could reliably penetrate at least one giant and still disable a second, and that with some luck, a single APDS round could kill 3+ weak giants if the giants were obliging enough to line up. So that's what they started doing: trying to see how many giants could be killed with the minimum number of bullets.

On the east side, Kevin quickly discovered that his pilot, highly specialized in melee weapons as the regimental duelist, was not skilled enough to shoot multiple foes in close quarters. He switched to melee weapons as multiple strong giants started charging him. He dodged a slam attempt, and the giant punched through the wall behind him, opening up the northeast room in the great hall complex.

At this point, the observation drones alerted the pilots that the various giants in the barracks along the exterior walls were coming out to fight. There were some cries of dismay and a change of plans: instead of holding the doors from the outside while killing all the giants in the main hall, the pilots would have to move into the main hall and use the doors as choke points against the coming waves of reinforcements. The south team moved north, Ted moved east, and Kevin found himself dodging into the armory through the hole in the wall, killing the vulnerable large giant as he went.

Kevin found himself to be in something of a bad situation, since there was a second large giant with a 24' long, 500 lb greatsword to duel, and Kevin's 80 lb katana was liable to break on a parry. This brought up a quick discussion of GURPS weapon scaling rules, but I stuck to my argument that every version of those rules is bunk, and weapon weight scaled with the cube of relative size. That had always been my mental model, and it was simple and not entirely insane. So Kevin was somewhat dismayed to be fighting someone who forced him to use his relatively low Dodge instead of his excellent Parry, and who could reliable damage his ritter through his armor, and who had enough armor that Kevin's swords couldn't penetrate for much damage. It was going to be a long duel, but Kevin did have superior mobility and could murder any of the weak giants that were coming around as reinforcements.

The other three pilots moved toward the center of the main hall, shooting giants as they went. Nate fired into a cluster of giants surrounding Adam, killing off several and bouncing a spent shell off Adam's armor after it went through a giant. Apparently, not all overpenetration is good. Ted killed off the rest of that bunch, and then killed 5 of the giants coming in from the east with 3 bullets, relieving some of the pressure on Kevin.

The situation at the end of the session. Hordes of orange giants are approaching from several directions, but also getting shot. The pilots are converging to the northeast. Most of the giants that started in the main hall are dead.
Throughout all this, the Giant Warlord had been lying on the ground, shot through the hand and leg by Kevin. He was still shouting orders, positioning the reinforcements to act as flankers, and Nate decided he'd had enough. On the last two rounds, he jumped over some tables and started kicking at the Giant Warlord. Amazingly, the Giant Warlord managed to parry those attacks, and after the second one he managed a Grabbing Parry (I didn't understand the rules on his first try, and missed the opportunity to use a Leg Grapple because I hadn't read Technical Grappling closely enough). This led to a "what happens now" question, which spawned an interesting blog post. Fortunately, the game ended there.

This was a very fun session, with lots of crazy but awesome things happening. The players had set up a good plan to defeat their enemies, but the waves of reinforcements (coincidentally focused on the east side of the map, near Kevin) forced them to change that plan and forced them to move to keep from being defeated in detail and to keep Kevin from being overwhelmed. As a GM, I find that's its hard to set up a situation where one person in the group is separated and about to be overwhelmed, but it's very exciting when everyone else needs to figure out how to break off from fighting their current foes and rescue an ally.

What Happens Next?

The giants are going to lose the next time we play: that much is pretty obvious. If the Giant Warlord had two or three uninterrupted seconds to deal with Nate, he'd smash him into the group, sit on him, and start pummeling him for damage through his back armor. But Ted or Adam are going to shoot the Giant Warlord well before that happens, and there just aren't enough giants nearby to stop that from happening. The thirty or so remaining small and normal giants may get some damage in, but the PCs are faster, better armored, better armed, and fully capable of killing them just by running them over, so those giants aren't really a threat.

Kevin will probably take another couple of hits, one way or another, which is good. He's already taken enough damage that I can justify my scenario to get them out of their mechs, but every additional point of damage makes it more plausible. That will set up the ultra tech soldiers go dungeon crawling storyline, and everyone is looking forward to that.

Awesome Gaming and the Risk of Inaction

There's a theory of gaming that says all victories should be hard fought, with the PCs out of resources and only winning after a clever plan, audacity, and luck. This game isn't like that: it's an escapist game, where the PCs outmatch their foes at every turn and are rarely in real danger.

Though they aren't in real danger, they are in potential danger. What I'm looking for is stories that start with "If you hadn't..." If Nate and Ted hadn't shot up the giants around Adam, Adam might have been defeated. If Kevin hadn't ducked away from the onrushing giant hordes and if Ted hadn't shot the nearest five, Nate and Kevin both would have been in a bad shape. And so on. The PCs are aware of oncoming peril, but thanks to their awesome skills and abilities, they can nip it in the bud. If they don't act, though, things will go very bad fro them.

The combination of easily overcome but very real threats makes for a fun and exciting game. And gaming, in the end, should be fun.

Want to Join?

I set up this game for myself plus five gamers, and for various reasons, it's being played with myself and three other people. There's space for another player or two, if this game sounds fun and exciting.

We play irregularly on Wednesday nights (Central Time) for about 4 hours. You need a working Skype voice connection and the free MapTools software to play. Email me at if you're interested.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Giant Robot Wrestling

Thursday is GURPS Day! When I remember to write something, at least.

Last night was session 6 of the Mecha Against the Giants game. In session 5, the PCs attack a fortress full of giants, and at one point the leader of the giants got shot in his left hand and left leg, dropping him to the floor and mostly out of the fight. His weapons were a repeater crossbow and a two-handed sword, and he couldn't use either of them. He still could give orders, and after a while Nate's character got tired of it and went to boot the giant in the head. The giant made a one-handed wrestling grabbing parry, and that's when things got complicated. Fortunately, that's also when the session ended, so I had some time for research.

Doug to the Rescue!

Doug Cole wrote Technical Grappling (TG) and comments on this blog, so I pinged him about some questions I had. Namely:
  • Grabbing Parries are at 1/2 ST. Is this because they're always one-handed, or is that an additional penalty and a true one-handed grappling parry is at 1/4 ST?
  • How do being one-handed, highly trained in wrestling, flat on your back, and twice the size of your opponent all interact in TG?
  • Assuming I'm a one-handed SM+4 ST160 Wrestling at DX+4 giant lying on my back with a weak grip on the leg of an SM+2 ST85 mech that is trying to kick my face in, what are my best options for defeating this guy?
Doug was kind enough to take a half hour out of his evening to answer my questions, and then excited enough to write about it at some length. Thanks again!

Doing the Math Myself

As helpful as Doug's write-up is, I need to through this step by step and work it out for myself. I don't quite "get" TG yet, and the only way to learn is by doing.

Our Contestants

Giant Warlord: SM+4, ST 160, TrST 208, DX 12, Wrestling-18, Combat Reflexes, Enhanced Parry (All) +1, Weight 25,000 lbs, BL 5120. Wearing plate armor for effective DR 60. Currently crippled in the left hand and left leg and flat on his back, with stability from his torso, right leg, and left arm.

Lt. Renault in an Artillery Ritter: SM+2, ST 85, TrST 102, DX 13, Wrestling-15, Weight 12,000 lbs, BL 1445. DR 100 (DR 40 to the rear). Currently standing adjacent to the Giant Warlord with plans to render him unconscious for further questioning, with stability coming from both his feet.

How we got here

On his turn 11, Lt. Renault kicks the Giant Warlord in the face and connects. The Giant Warlord parries at -6 (-3 for prone, -2 for a grabbing parry, -1 for a grabbing parry on a leg) and succeeds. He immediately acquires a grapple with one hand, and rolls 9d for CP (one handed grabs are at ST/2 or 80, and thrust damage for ST 80 is 9d). With an average of 32 CP, he'll give a -1 DX penalty and a -16 ST penalty to Lt. Renault's leg, and a -1 DX penalty and a -8 ST penalty everyone where on Lt. Renault from referred control. Lt. Renault also unstable since he has only one ungrappled foot.

What Happens Next

The most likely thing to happen next is one of the other two PCs in line of sight fire a 25mm APEX round in the Giant Warlord's arm for 16d pi++ injury after armor with a 2d cr ex followup, blowing it off and rendering the rest of this discussion irrelevant. However, that's boring so I'm going to assume that they miss or something.

On Giant Warlord's turn 12, he can spend CP for double effect for a Force Posture Change. He gets +2 to DX and +30% to TrST for being bigger, in a contest of Wrestling or (scaled) TrST. Taking someone to the mat is a roll at -4 (or at -6 to end up on top, which would be really useful here as Doug points out). The Warlord's effective TrST is (160+48+48)/2 or 128, while Lt. Renault is at 96 (base 102, and 8 referred CP on each of the torso, neck, and head, summed and divided by 4 for 6 CP) and no DX penalty to resist a force posture change. So it's a contest of Wrestling-20 or (scaled) TrST 16 versus Wrestling-15 or (scaled) TrST-12. With the -6 penalty for the takedown, the Giant Warlord is rolling at a slight penalty, with a +1 bonus for every 8 CP spent. He also gets a +4 for his grappling weight modifier (BL 5120 versus 12,000 lbs of mecha and probably 8,000 in carried weight). If he burns 26 CP, he's still got a weak grip on Lt. Renault's leg and a decisive bonus on the quick contest, so Lt. Renault ends up face down on the ground with the Giant Warlord lying face down on top of him.

A nearby weak giant will probably run over to join the fun, but won't move far enough to have an effective attack.

On Lt. Renault's turn 12, he'll be in bad shape. The nominal leg grapple is no big deal, but as Doug points out, he's at -11 (penalty slightly offset by his Wrestling skill) on any break free or change posture attempts because there's 12 tons of giant lying on top of him. All of his weapons are forward pointing, and his weak rear armor is exposed. I'm not sure what he should do next, really. Probably take a Wait action to roll over and shoot someone as soon as the Giant Warlord is unconscious. Knowing Nate, he'll attempt to use the backpack mounted 160mm mortar at point blank range, which I'll allow because it's awesome, hilarious, and liable to do as much damage to Lt. Renault's mech as it does the giant.

On the other PCs' turn 13, they'll be in excellent position to take out the Giant Warlord with their guns. It's vaguely possible that the Giant Warlord might get missed by two attacks, but iterative probability means that by the 3rd or 4th attack, an attack is going to connect. And with roughly 1/6th his HP remaining, it won't matter how strong or weak the attack is, as long as it connects. Lt. Renault might have to spend a couple of turns crawling out from under the giant's corpse, but this threat is sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What Does This Mean?

You can be the best wrestler in the world, but it doesn't help that much in a gunfight. Which is fine. Threats that seem dangerous but that can be quickly overcome are an important part of awesome gaming.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mecha Against the Giants 5

Thanks to scheduling difficulties, my group had back to back weekly sessions of Mecha Against the Giants. There's a possibility of three sessions in a row, but the regular GM may be back for some random Dungeon Fantasy stuff instead.

Interrogations, Plans, Poison Gas

We ended last session with the defeat of the giants guarding Isentor Bridge. This session started with the pilots interrogating the giants, and finding out very little that they didn't know before: the giants aren't very bright, and they don't conduct a census, so the various giants are completely unsure of how many giants or even giant tribes have invaded. The pilots did manage to learn that the giants are more established farther to the east, and that there are some working forges producing advanced plate harness that the captured giants would sometimes trade with. They also learned that in a few days, there would be a big feast and strategy session at the local giant chieftain's fortress.

They did some math and figured it would take them less than two days to return to their base at Muken and travel from there to the probable location of the giant fortress, and that they were also a little low on fuel. So they headed back to restock and restore. They improvised some heavier shields by riveting multiple giant shields together (I am officially dubious about this but it hasn't come up so far) and Nate decided he wanted to home brew some poison gas shells for his mech's artillery mortar.

If I'd been thinking a bit more clearly, I would have just said no, because the gas ground the game to a halt twice: when it was proposed, there was a flurry of looking up things in rulebooks and arguing, and when it was used, there was a huge flurry of dice rolls and making notes. This was one of the times when having access to a huge GURPS library was something of a difficulty, since I knew that somewhere in a book I owned there was a listing of realistic, low technology poisons. I just couldn't remember which section of which book. Nate eventually found the reference (somewhere in Low-Tech) and after some discussion, decided to weaponize lime. That entailed a separate discussion of how poison damage should scale with size, which never was entirely settled to anyone's satisfaction. I really should write a post about that sometime.

Eventually things resolved enough that we could move in play, and so we moved to the next scene: the big, wooden fortress of a giant chieftain.

Big Wooden Fortress

I described the fortress as under construction: currently made entirely of timber as a temporary fortification, but being reinforced with masonry and concrete as the giants had time. There were three gates, and two watchtowers, each guarded by a couple of giants with crossbows as well as a guy on overwatch in the watchtower. Finding all this out was mostly handwaved, since the mechs explicitly have access to reconnaissance drones.

The players debated strategy for a bit: approach quietly with their camouflaged vehicles, or snipe the guard towers from a distance? GURPS detailed rules came in handy here, since there's a convenient table for how loud gunfire is and how likely people are to hear it in High-Tech (and I know where that table is, having pondered this question during prep). After a while, everyone decided to just sneak up, murder the guards in hand to hand, and then evaluate the situation some more.

Which they proceeded to do.  Kevin's character pushed up a gate slightly, then stabbed the giant that came to investigate and throwing his sword at that giant's partner. Ted's sniper used a javelin to take out the overwatch in the guard tower. In a bit of hilarity, Nate reflexively used hand gestures to co-ordinate the attack, only to be brought down by Kevin pointing out, "we have radios."

They proceeded to move to the other two gates and basically repeated this process, each time saying "surely, the giants won't fall for this trick again." The giants made some poor rolls to detect an ambush, though. In one case, a wary guard moved back to cover the other giant investigated the door, but the pilots had two guys inside the fortress as well as a guy outside, and the wary giant moved himself into "throw a javelin into the skull range" without realizing it. The giant in the other watchtower was sniped from the first watchtower, and since the giants in the main hall didn't know what gunfire even was, they failed their roll to "hear" it.

With the external patrols dead, the pilots moved to deal with the main hall. They didn't know what was inside it exactly, except for a lot of giants. It also had three doors, and they put a mech on each of the side doors and the last two on the main doors. The plan was pretty simple: use the gas mortar shell to disrupt and disable as many giants as possible, and then shoot any giants making for the doors.

Nate opened the main doors, and saw a long hallway to a main chamber filled with giants: four or so massive giants, a half dozen or more large giants, and twenty or thirty of the smaller sizes. The gas shell caught them all by surprise, but the giant chieftain had Combat Reflexes and a lucky roll to resist the gas, and ordered his troops out. Most of the giants were to charge down to the main doors and attack the intruders, but the large and massive giants were to go through the side doors and flank the intruders from outside the building. The pilots braced for the attack.

I'm simplifying what was really a huge number of die rolls: stun checks for forty or fifty giants, recovery checks, checks to avoid breathing poison gas, and so on. Things really slowed down for a few minutes here.

We only played through a few rounds of the combat, but things were already going poorly for the giants. The two massive giants closest to the main door charged down the hall toward it, but were gunned down by automatic weapons fire. The massive giant on the west side caught some 25mm rounds to the vitals and died instantly. On the east side, the giant warlord was smart enough to cover the door with his crossbow as it was opened, but not fast enough to win the contest of Waits against the ritter pilot with an autocannon. (Even though the rules for Cascading Waits are clearly listed in Martial Arts and I knew that, I spent a minute searching for them in a sidebar instead of the main text). Kevin walked fire between a couple of giants, and while he didn't kill the warlord, he did cripple a hand and a foot, more or less taking it out of the fight. The warlord's last crossbow shot barely missed, but barely is good enough.

For some reason, I think I've seen this before
The map at the end of play. Blue dots are the PCs, orange circles are active giants, and most of the rest is dead giants, especially near the gates.
The pilots' big problems in the next few turns are going to be dealing with the last few large giants from the main hall without getting overwhelmed by waves of reinforcements coming from the outside barracks that they never cleared. I expect it will be a lot of fun.

What Next?

I'm really hoping that one of the mechs will be badly damaged in this fight, because I want to get the PCs out of the mechs for a dungeon-crawl. I have a back up railway to make that happen if necessary, but it will be more organic if there's a badly damaged vehicle in need of repairs.

After that, I've got plans for a quick, less than one session episode, maybe some "political" stuff, and a grand finale that I'll need to flesh out as it gets closer. I'm not preparing too far in advance because I don't really need to and I have other things to do with my time. But this game has been a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to continuing with it.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Mecha Against the Giants 4

My gaming group has been playing GURPS Fantasy for a while, and then had a hiatus around Christmas (this was a bad year to schedule a game on Wednesday nights!) The regular GM is on a much deserved vacation, so it we went back to a session of Mecha Against the Giants.

Technical Difficulties Solved

For once, everyone was pretty much on time and didn't have any technical difficulties. There was a bit of weirdness since one player was waiting for a pizza and wouldn't hear the door if he had his new noise cancelling headphones on, but we solved that by using text chat for twenty minutes or so. After his pizza arrived, we moved on to voice chat.

Vanquishing Giants

We finished up the second half of Isentor Bridge. It was pretty straightforward: the players had mostly figured out that small and normal giants weren't a threat, and focused on the big giants.

The small giants have a problem that they're slower and weaker than the mechs, and that the mechs can trivially kill them by slamming into them. The small giants want to surround a mech and smash it from behind, but it's trivial for a mech to move around or through any attempt to be surrounded, or shoot multiple giants at point blank range if absolutely necessary. The giants can't even safely slam the mechs, because the damage disparity is too great: the giants are knocked unconscious and the mechs rarely take damage. Which is fine, because this means the players feel awesome as they smash their puny foes.

The big giants are more of a threat, but so far they've been outnumbered by the mechs and easily killed. Soon, the set pieces are going to feature many strong and massive giants, and things will be much more difficult for the mech pilots.

Actual tactics for this fight were pretty straightforward: two pilots finished off the last of the wounded giants in the south, while the other two pilots charged up the center and ran over anything that got in their way.

There were a couple of notable moments, as usual:
  • One of the large giants managed to grab one of the mechs, which caused a quick discussion about how Technical Grappling works when dealing with ST75 SM+2 combatants. I'd planned to have Douglas Cole on hand to answer those questions, but that didn't work out. We muddled through. 
  • A large giant made an all-out great axe attack on a mech, missing narrowly. The pilot responded by head-butting the giant with a telegraphed all-out attack. Fortunately, the giant had already been badly wounded by an anti-tank rocket, and the headbut was enough to knock him out.
  • The gunslinger wanted to shoot a medium sized giant that was standing behind two small giants. There was a bit of bitching and moaning about cover penalties before I pointed out that, per Campaigns p 408, he could just shoot through the giants at a minor penalty. The pilot had plenty of APDS ammo, and gave it a try. End result: two excessively dead small giants, and one dead medium giant with an APDS shell dippling his back armor. I predict that there will be more shooting of clustered giants, just because it's hilarious.
  • The relatively unskilled but lucky lieutenant drove through a couple of giants, bouncing over their bodies at high speeds and almost going off the road and into the grass. All this meant multiple control rolls at some penalties, and the player rolled an 11 or less on three dice about 4 times in a row. The odds of that happening aren't especially high, but what the heck, the lieutenant really is lucky.

Continuing On

I think the GURPS GM is unavailable again this Wednesday, so I'll probably be running this again. I've got most of the next chapter prepared, and what's going to happen is probably obvious based on the campaign theme, but I'll keep everyone in suspense.