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Mar 27, 2017

Painted Talisman Figurines!

I've owned Talisman for a couple of years now, and consider it one of my favorite board games. It is a bit slow, but the balance and general roleplaying atmosphere of the game have been a lot of fun to play with. One issue I had is that the figurines in the game were all a straight gray color. It was somewhat annoying to track which player was on which space on the game board. This weekend, after using them as game pieces in the D&D game the other week, I decided to finally sit down and paint the figurines. I consulted their class cards, which look like this:

And, since their models accurately reflect their pose, it was easy to copy their look in paint form, like so:

Painting all the figurines gave me quite the unexpected challenge. I didn't have a huge selection of colors, so I had to mix them together regularly. There were also some rather fine details that I had to focus pretty hard to complete, such as the thief's mustache and the priestess's necklace. Here is one held in my hand for size reference, if you're not familiar with Talisman:

In short, it was a fun new form of art that I have little experience with, and I was glad that the figurines turned out so well. After painting them with acrylic paint, I sprayed them with sealant so that they'll last longer. I'm sure they'll make Talisman a lot more fun to play, and because of the range of classes available, they'll make handy miniatures for any future D&D games I run!

Mar 19, 2017

Arena Games: My Experience Finally Being a DM!

Two weeks ago, after aspiring for two years, I finally was able to try out DMing a game of Dungeons & Dragons! I always thought I'd find a group and play as a player before actually running my own game, but the game that some coworkers run at work was too slow for me (Only two hours a week, split up between two days), and the GURPS game I play with my friends leaves much to be desired (I really hate the GURPS system, and I found myself being too picky on the DM), but luckily watching Critical Role gave me all the experience, inspiration, and motivation I needed to give it a shot.

The players were my siblings and their significant others, and my wife. None of them except maybe my brother and brother-in-law were too excited about the idea of playing a game that is largely stereotyped as a game played by pimple-faced single men rolling dice in their mom's basements, but I assured them that it was much less nerdy than they might think—it was like a board game where literally anything could happen. I also told them they could count humoring me with a game as an early birthday present, which seemed to work.

I prepared an adventure from the Warcraft Roleplaying Game Manual Lands of Conflict, called "Arena Games." This was partly because I love Warcraft so much and know the lore well, but it was also because the adventure was perfect for both a first-time DM and first-time players. It had a rather narrow storyline and enclosed physical location where I could lightly "railroad" the players so they couldn't throw too many unexpected twists into my plans, it had a simple conflict, several simple battles, some secrets, and a boss battle at the end.

I wanted to make sure every one of the players' needs were covered so that we could have the smoothest possible experience playing. Normally, players hunker down for a long campaign where they spend time creating their characters, their characters' backstories, and choices for things like feats and spells, but I knew that would bog down the session and possibly bore them instead of give them a good first impression of the game, possibly opening it up to more games in the future. So I made five character sheets, each covering a different race and class, with filled out stats, backgrounds, spells, and cantrips, for them to choose from. I also made spell cards so that no one would have to look up anything in the Player's Handbook, and even weapon and item cards that they could consult for damage and whatnot. I assured my players that, though the game would be the most complex board game they would ever play, I would do all of the complex behind-the-scenes calculations, so they wouldn't have to worry about any of it.

The day finally came, we prepared by putting the kids to bed early, snacks were prepared, and we sat down and began our session of Dungeons & Dragons together. I set the atmosphere with a premade playlist, including several tracks from World of Warcraft that fit the situations they would encounter. I began by allowing everyone to practice roleplaying with a simple request. I explained where the adventure took place—the Stranglethorn Vale jungles—and asked them how their specific character ended up in such a place, given their background. My brother, playing the high elf wizard Lynalis, said that he had heard of an ancient ruin in the jungle that he wanted to study. His girlfriend, a goblin named Bizby, had left her previous city as a hot suspect of crime and wanted to start a new life in the pirate coastal city of Booty Bay. My wife played a night elf healer named Alania, and was searching for new ways to commune with her nature goddess, Elune, in the jungles. My sister played a Wildhammer dwarf I originally had named Fargrim, but since a female had picked him, I changed him to a female named Fargrima. She related the backstory of Fargrima as a wandering hunter who had made his way to Stranglethorn in search of new trails and game. Finally, her husband played a half-orc fighter and ex-soldier named Thromak, who had been kicked out of his town for excessive brawling and had wandered south.

I explained that during their travels, they were one by one ambushed by forest trolls, who had enslaved them as gladiators in the ancient Gurubashi Arena. Owned and ordered by the cruel troll Bloodstone, they were now imprisoned along with many others and forced to fight for sport. I began by explaining their predicament and introducing them to the other NPCs in the cell with them. They soon found out that Bloodstone had sent a search party to capture a demon to fight the combatants in the arena. This was news of great alarm, as a demon would surely kill everyone in the arena. Where once there was a chance of survival in each match, now there would be certain death.

It was interesting to see how my players roleplayed. They treated the game at first like a board game, where they discussed plans and strategies with each other out of character. I encouraged them to stay more in character by pointing out that the guards could hear them conspiring and talking in different NPC accents, but throughout the
game they often forgot that their characters should be considered as real people who didn't know everything that the players themselves did.

They tried to make some rudimentary plans for escape, but soon they were called in to a fight in the arena. Now they began to really enjoy the game, now that some specific rules were given and some action was introduced to the story. They were assigned to fight six harpies, capturing one and killing the others. The fight was simple, and they enjoyed the descriptions of how the rules and dice rolls came into effect. I was also very impressed with how they fought, using their abilities to ensnare a harpy with vines and throwing a net over it, which worked perfectly. I was expecting the harpy to escape, but the double entanglement made it nearly impossible for it to succeed on an escape roll. The other harpies were dispatched, and the players triumphed.

They heard news that the demon was closer than they had thought, arriving most likely the next day. Judging by the way they were conspiring to make an escape, I was afraid they were going to try and make a run for it, despite me making it clear that the hallways were patrolled by guards they stood no chance against. Luckily, though, they didn't do anything too chancy. The next day, they were assigned to another battle against four venom spiders. This battle had some gimmicks in it that were fun for me to pull against them: for example, nearly invisible spider webs that they had to have a successful perception check to spot, which they didn't. Some of them got stuck, which made for a fun aspect for them to play against. This was when the first Natural 20 was rolled, by Bizby when she made an attack roll with a flintlock pistol. Doing so with such a weapon does 3x damage instead of 2x, and she happened to roll full damage on top of that, making it do absolute maximum damage and completely obliterate the spider. Unfortunately, I realized later that she should have had disadvantage on the attack since she was stuck in a spider web, but hearing her say "This is the most excited I've been in a long time!" made it worth it. It was fun to see the characters having a good time.

I also admired the players' use of tactics in the fight; Alania used her priestess power of charming beasts against a spider, and Lynalis used some spells to interesting effect as well. Thromak had a hard time scoring a hit with a crossbow, and even when the trolls told the players to stop (as the crowd was too focused on the demon arriving outside the stands), he still shot one of them once, finally landing a hit, and then complying with their request. Fargrima got a couple of bad hits by a venom spider, which seemed to be the first time they realized their characters weren't immortal. Luckily, as a dwarf, she was resistant to poison damage.

The trolls hurriedly escorted the players back to their cell (before which Bizby tried to roll a sleight of hand check to pocket a flintlock pistol. I thought that would have been an interesting development, but she rolled a Natural 1, so the troll noticed her and slapped her for trying to be sneaky), and then soon left the cells unattended to go help fight the demon. At last, the players had an opening in order to escape. They cleverly used Bizby's tinkering skill to fashion a lockpick out of some old lyre strings, and then successfully picked the lock. By this point, it was close to 11:45 at night, so we decided to close for the day. Happily, the players wanted to schedule another date to finish the adventure with another session. That was a good sign they were having fun—a part of me worried they would've considered four hours a session long enough. It helped that the game ended on a cliffhanger.

The following week, we played again. This part of the story was a bit more unknown... I was a bit afraid that they'd skip all the action and just run out and end the game. Luckily, most of the players decided to help out the other prisoners by finding the keys and unlocking them. If they had built more of a relationship with their cellmates, they would have joined them, but they didn't really include any of them in their plans, so all of the slaves ran out without a word. There were three rooms with some hidden treasures in them, but the players only searched one of them, and then decided they had to hurry and get out of the now collapsing arena.

They met a human named Marcus who told them that there were children in the arena that he was trying to free, and they decided to help him. I had a timer set for five minutes that sent the players into a frenzy of anxiety. They really felt the urgency of the situation and tried to be as quick as possible in describing what they wanted to do. I was impressed at how they picked one child cell's lock, broke down another by kicking it down, and then using Lynalis's Ray of Frost spell to freeze a lock in order to make it break more easily (in my DM terms, this meant lowering the DC to break it, which was satisfying). By that point, they all ran out with Marcus, and the timer ran out, causing part of the roof to cave in and deal damage to those who failed a Dexterity save. The written adventure said this would cause a lot more damage and cause the entire arena to cave in, but I didn't want to punish them for taking chances, so I just made one section cave in and block off their path. The easier path for me that had been planned out was for them to just use a Strength check to move the rocks and then move up to the other side of the arena, but they instead decided to just turn tail and run through the menagerie instead. This was the first twist I hadn't been expecting, but it turned out to be a lot of fun anyway.

They entered the menagerie, where animals were held for the gladiators to fight. It was caved in and everyone except for three scavenging gnolls were dead, so they fought the gnolls and decided to take a short rest to heal up. In 5th edition, a short rest is normally at least an hour long, but I had decided beforehand to take the Critical Role way of making them 20–30 minutes long to keep things going. This still seemed like too long when a demon was attacking the arena though, so I decided to just take the variant approach of making a short rest more like a breather of 5 or so minutes for the sake of the storyline; the spellcasters really needed a mana boost and everyone could use a bit of healing, so it was a good move. Now the players were met with a conundrum: there were a bunch of huge beasts stalking around in the arena, which was their only way to get to the other side and escape. They had the good strategy to use a dead animal from the menagerie as bait in order to distract one of the giant salamander lizards, and Alania used her animal handling skill to keep a hippogryph at bay, since they were generally partial to night elves. Then they all made a run for the other side. Fargrima waited too long and took a fire breath weapon attack from the salamander, and Alania strayed too close to a menacing thunder lizard and got a lightning breath attack, but they both survived. This was my first instance of fudged numbers: normally the attacks were supposed to do 7d6 damage, but I reduced it to about 2d6 so their frail, level 2 characters wouldn't find the end of their adventure there. It was enough to scare them into being more careful, but not enough to kill them outright.

 When they made it to the other side of the arena and escaped, I made them encounter a wounded troll guard, which was originally supposed to come up to them as they went up the stairs, provided they hadn't taken the menagerie route. Bizby tried to intimidate the troll to leave them alone, but being a tiny, 3-foot goblin trying to intimidate a 7-foot troll, I made her try the skill check at disadvantage and it failed as expected. Lynalis had an idea that I hoped would come into play: using the spell "Disguise Self" to make himself appear as a troll and tell the guard to stand down. Unfortunately, he cast the spell directly in front of the guard instead of beforehand, which made the DC for a Deception check much harder and at disadvantage. Ultimately, the troll got sick of the prisoners trying to manipulate her and attacked. I should have let her take one swing as a surprise roll before initiative was rolled, but instead, Fargrima came out on top in the battle and simply blew the troll's head off with a flintlock pistol. It was a funny exchange, but I began to see that the pistols were somewhat overpowered. I kept hoping someone would roll a 1 or 2 while trying to attack with one of them so that the gun would misfire and be broken afterward, but it never happened. Luckily, I had only given them 5 musket balls to use with the guns. The manual said to give the players 20.

The players continued through the arena, finding some better weapons in the armory and outsmarting a couple of timber wolves through a trap they made by surrounding a door. Eventually they made their way to the exit. I was afraid they would pass Bloodstone's office by, since they were pretty intent on getting out of there, but I made the room sound intriguing to the rogue, and she decided to sneak in to see what was in there. From there, I was able to entice the wizard with the description of a bookcase and the others with the details about the sounds of battle they could hear outside the window. They all entered, and when Lynalis inspected the desk, I handed his player a physical note for him to read (it was written in the Morpheus font, which I thought was a nice touch—that's the font that letters are written in on World of Warcraft), which gave them a bit of a look into the mind of Bloodstone and make him more of a target that they'd want to kill. They also unlocked a desk in which they dodged a dart trap and found a chest of 100 gold and a Dwarven stormhammer, their first magical item, which Fargrima was excited to get and wield.

Finally, the group left the front door of the arena, where they saw the demon (a felguard), a troll guard, and a furious Bloodstone who was trying to capture his prize demon alive despite a lot of damage done to it by several wannabe heroes (whose bodies now strew across the ground). I was excited to see how they'd handle this final battle. Nothing was technically stopping them from just running and escaping like most of the other combatants, but obviously that would make for an anticlimax. Luckily, they really wanted Bloodstone to suffer for imprisoning them, so they watched the battle waiting for one of the forces to beat the other so they could clean up afterward. Luckily for my plan, Bloodstone's guard entangled the demon in a net and was preparing to enslave him as well, so they sprang into action. They began to attack heroically, expecting to win just as they had all the other battles, but things went south quickly: Bloodstone cut down Thromak in one blow with his greataxe, and I decided in the moment that he would have at least one class in Barbarian so he could pose more of a challenge, so he went into a rage as well. Eventually they got Bloodstone down to a mere 7 hit points, and then Lynalis cast a sleep spell on him, which worked. He slumped to the ground. At that moment, the demon killed the troll guard, broke out of the net (I rolled a 3, but fudged it), and ran over to Fargrima, who had hit him in the head with her stormhammer. He also did enough damage to knock her unconscious in one blow, which was oddly satisfying for me. The Dungeon Master shouldn't want his players to fail, but it's also fun to give them enough of a challenge that they get seriously hurt. The others killed the demon, and then turned their attention to Bloodstone.

At first they debated torturing him or executing him in his sleep, and I personally hoped they'd show some kind of ironic revenge by locking him up like he had them, but eventually they decided to just wait for him to wake up, taunt him a bit or let him say some final words, and then kill him. What they forgot was that trolls regenerate, and after about 30 or 40 seconds in game, he had regenerated about 30 hit points. Lynalis noticed this, so they sprang into action to attack again. The first shot on him when he was asleep was an automatic critical hit, but it didn't kill him, so it allowed me some time to give him a furious monologue when he saw that his prized demon was killed. They all fought some more, and finally, after two Sacred Flame spells that did only 1 damage, Alania cast Sacred Flame again and rolled an 8. He only had 7 hits left, so I said "How do you wanna do this?" She decided to make him explode with divine energy, which was an amazing way to end the battle. I think every player managed to get a "How do you wanna do this?" finishing blow at some point, which was a nice happenstance.

Having freed themselves from the arena, the adventurers parted ways. Bizby took the chest of gold and made a run for it, Alania began to tend to the wounded (primarily Thromak and Fargrima) and nurse them back to health, and Lynalis found among the dead one of their former cellmates, Jai'nora, whom he had admired, still barely alive.

* * *

In short, it was everything I had hoped it would be, even though I did forget to use the venom spiders' web attack ability and had to fudge a few rules for balance. For a first-time game, I think it was a good learning experience for all of us. My wife, for instance, realized that she would have liked playing more of a barbarian character than a healer. I really hope we get to play again someday, even if it's just a one-shot exploring a dungeon or something similar. I did award the characters experience, and they added it to their sheets excitedly, so who knows? The adventures of Fargrima, Bizby, Thromak, Alania, and Lynalis may not be over after all.