Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Nature of the Lich King

The official story is that the Lich King was created by Kil'jaeden - Ner'zhul, a mortal orc, had his soul torn from his body and placed in the suit of armor (especially the Helm of Domination) that would form the original Lich King.

This implies that, powerful as the Lich King is, he's ultimately just an empowered undead mortal, and that power is ultimately derived from a demon (who is himself a former mortal.)

But there are a couple things that have never really sat well with me. In Warcraft Chronicle, there's a chart that delineates six primal forces that each have an associated type of magic. The one generally see as "good" are Light, Life, and Order, embodied by Holy, Nature, and Arcane magic respectively. The "evil" ones are Void, Death, and Chaos, embodied by Shadow, Necromancy, and Fel magic, also respectively.

In the game, however, we've tended to see Void and Chaos as the two really grand pillars of Warcraft villaindom. The Void Lords and their creations, the Old Gods, seek to corrupt the universe with Shadow, while the demons of the Burning Legion use Fel magic to try to utterly destroy the universe.

(Side note: one would think that the servants of the Void (described by Star Augur Etraeus as "avatars of non-existence") would be more into utter universal annihilation while the demonic Fel force would seek to corrupt it. But it could be we're just not seeing the long game here.)

Death as a force, however, doesn't seem to get the same kind of top billing as Void and Chaos, but perhaps that's something Blizzard will remedy in the future.

The origins of the Lich King's necromantic powers are somewhat enigmatic. We know that Fel-affiliated demons and warlocks have performed necromancy in the past - consider the original Death Knights, for example, who were created by Gul'dan. And so perhaps it wouldn't be too crazy to think that Kil'jaeden could tap into necromancy to create the Lich King.

On the other hand, seeing Ner'zhul B in Draenor showed us that using Shadow magic, one can also raise the dead, as we saw in Shadowmoon Burial Grounds.

So maybe I'm getting too hung up on that chart, but if we want to run with it, it would seem to suggest that necromancy really is its own thing, not beholden to Shadow magic or Fel magic.

Considering that the Burning Legion employs Voidwalkers (there's a whole section to the Broken Shore that's purple-void-corrupted rather than the usual green-fel-corrupted) despite the fact that such beings are theoretically the exact thing the Legion was founded to defeat (though in a Halo-like "cutting off the food supply" manner,) it wouldn't be that odd to think that Kil'jaeden dabbled in other kinds of magic.

But the explanation that I prefer, and I think that Blizzard would benefit a lot from in terms of future story potential, is that Necromancy is, in fact, totally independent, and the the Lich King, or whatever dark entity that served as the basis for the Lich King, existed long before Kil'jaeden got involved.

Now, it's also possible that some "prime representatives" of these primal magics still owe their origins to others. The Druid artifact backstory implies that the Wild Gods (aka Night Elf Ancients, Pandaren August Celestials, and Troll Loa) were originally just ordinary animals that Freya (yes, the one we fought in Ulduar) empowered and linked to the Emerald Dream. And while he was once a mortal, Kil'jaeden is now a being of nearly god-like power (the Warcraft universe is pretty strict on who gets to be called a god, though that's getting looser, with the Titans getting confirmed god status - albeit non-immortal gods) so if someone like Freya could create beings of such power, Kil'jaeden ought to be able to do so as well.

Still, I think there are elements of the Lich King that we really have not explored yet. Chronicle Vol. 2 ends right before the Third War, so we don't get anything about the Lich King.

In addition to the primal power of Death, there are a couple of other sort of related concepts in that chart of magic and planes. Moving to the elemental plane, there's two forces in addition to the four basic elements. One is Spirit, which is aligned with life, and is used by Shamans as a kind of binding agent for the four elements and is used by Monks as their primary power on which they draw (they call it Chi.) Spirit is demonstrably powerful - the Elementals on Azeroth are so chaotic because the Titan world soul requires so much of it to grow. Meanwhile, on Draenor, with no world-soul and an abundance of Spirit, the plantlife grew so powerful that it threatened to overwhelm its own resources and ironically wind up starving itself out of overgrowth, which is why Aggramar created a giant who was the ultimate ancestor to the Magnaron, Gronn, Ogron, Ogres, and Orcs.

The opposite of Spirit is something called Decay, which, unlike the harmonious Spirit, is all about force. Dark Shamanism is distinguished from classical shamanism because of its emphasis on this. While a typical Shaman beseeches the elements for aid and is something of a conduit for consensual elemental power, Dark Shamans enslave the elements to do their will. The result, as we saw with the Korkron in Mists of Pandaria, is that Dark Shamanism leads to environmental damage - polluted air and water and treacherous earth.

Finally, getting to the real semi-physical planes, we get one that is truly associated with death: the Shadowlands. While the Emerald Dream is a place of vibrant life (except where the Nightmare corrupts it, though I think we've officially destroyed almost all of the Nightmare,) the Shadowlands are an empty and cold land of death.

It has never been officially confirmed, but there is very strong evidence that in-game, if we die and go into ghost form, we're actually running around in the Shadowlands (and that the Spirit Healers are actually rogue Val'kyr who defied both Odyn and Helya for the sake of the greater good, namely returning the heroes of Azeroth to life so that we can continue protecting the world.)

If the Emerald Dream is the domain of the Wild Gods, it would stand to reason that the Shadowlands would have some sovereign. A King, if you will.

Now, perhaps that Sovereign was actually Helya - Helheim's location isn't ever really defined, and could be its own plane (we also don't know where the Halls of Valor are, exactly) and given that Helya assisted Ra-Den in creating the Elemental Planes, it's not that hard to imagine her creating Helheim from scratch.

But Helheim certainly looks like it could be a part of the Shadowlands.

Still, if we're talking about Death as being a primal force that is independent from other primal embodiments like Old Gods, Titans, and Demons, it seems to me that you could imagine there being some entity within the Shadowlands that was the embodiment of death and necromancy.

And perhaps that entity was amorphous - not in any way human-like. Perhaps Kil'jaeden poured that entity into Ner'zhul not just as a weapon, but also as a way of controlling an entity that was likely more powerful than Kil'jaeden himself.

And this actually begins to explain why "there must always be a Lich King." It wasn't really clear what the Scourge "running rampant" would look like, given that they weren't exactly friendly at the time, but maybe we really haven't seen anything yet.

Prior to the Lich King, this Death God was in the Shadowlands - incredibly dangerous but safely in its own realm. Kil'jaeden sought to use its power for the purposes of the Legion, but simply releasing it into the prime material plane would have meant undeath spreading everywhere - perhaps even to demons (and while the Legion's official mission is universal annihilation, but their actions suggest their actual goal is more a kind of universal tyranny - which requires subjects.) The Lich King thus may be a kind of de-powered Death God - something that the people serving as the Lich King may only know to varying degrees.

Kil'jaeden pulled the Death God out of the Shadowlands, putting it in a humanoid-shaped (or armor-shaped at first) vessel to ensure that it didn't escape and simply wash over everything and to ensure that its power could be used productively by the Burning Legion.

So then this opens questions as to what the longterm goals of Bolvar are. He nominated himself to be Jailor of the Damned, which seems like it would mean especially controlling the Death God within himself. But we don't know if he's been as effective at holding out against this influence as he was in the past. He's definitely not a good person anymore, but one really has to wonder what our actions as Death Knights have been doing for his goals. We recruited the Four Horsemen - who seem to serve the Lich King, rather than us Deathlords. And even Darion Mograine has been raised from the dead a second time - which means that his break from the Lich King's control after the Battle of Light's Hope may no longer be in effect! As the folks at Blizzard Watch pointed out in their latest Lore Watch podcast, when we start the expansion, Darion tells us explicitly that we're getting assistance from the Lich King, but we're not rejoining the Scourge. And yet, and yet, every action we take to empower the Ebon Blade is actually making the Scourge more powerful.

Now it's possible that being part of this Bolvar-era Scourge will ultimately be good for Azeroth, even if we do things to seriously piss of the Silver Hand and the Red Dragonflight and anyone else who gets in our way.

But the Deathlord may have really screwed things up and will have a serious price to pay when he or she looks around and finds that all of his comrades are now getting conscripted into the Death God's campaign to wipe out all life on the planet.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Finally Hitting the Shore

After being away for over two months, I was finally able to do some significant work on the Broken Shore and its new content.

So far I've gotten new followers, upgraded artifacts, and the ability to research new AK levels on my Paladin, Death Knight, and Demon Hunter, who are my "top three" guys (Shaman and Rogue will go next.)

There's a lot of stuff to handle - a new dungeon (which I've run once on the tankadin) and new followers along with a much higher follower item level cap (and thus quests requiring much more.)

So far I'm finding the Broken Shore decent, though I think that while a new zone for world quests is never a terrible idea, I'd have tried to work in some of the unstructured content we had in places like the Timeless Isle.

Plotwise, I've gotten Anduin through his grieving process (not sure if the Horde has an equivalent quest chain, though I'm given to understand they don't,) but we're still definitely in a holding pattern when it comes to the raid.

I'm somewhat encouraged that I'm already maybe a quarter or even a third of the way to revered with Armies of the Legionfall, which is the only thing I need for the flying achievement (not sure if the class mount quest follows from that or if it's something they're still holding back.)

And I have not even made an attempt at the artifact challenge, as I'm given to understand that it - and particularly the tanking challenge - is very difficult and might be better attempted once I get a little of that Tomb of Sargeras stuff.

I spent some Marks of Honor on the previous PvP season's DK look, which is pretty great, but I'm thinking I might save the other twelve I have for 7.3, as the Paladin Lightbringer lookalike PvP set (Alliance blue) is directly up my alley (while I tend to go for Tier 8 Aegis as my go-to transmog, tier 6 and I guess also 20 now is what I think of as the absolute most quintessential paladin armor set. There is no doubt that you're looking at a heroic good guy in heavy armor.)

Of course, I have nine more characters to take to the Broken Shore, but as long as these three are up and active and getting their sweet sweet artifact knowledge research, I'm ok.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Linearity Versus Open World in D&D

My primary exposure to D&D prior to playing the game has been watching Penny Arcade's annual or semiannual Acquisitions Incorporated games. While these are very fun (largely due to fun characters and Chris Perkins' ever-game DM'ing,) they are generally on rails. There's very little real "dungeon crawling" and mostly involves single-sitting adventures that typically only involve one large fight rather than multiple smaller ones.

It makes things very entertaining and works to give each two-and-a-half-hour session a clear arc. But as someone who doesn't need to entertain a crowd, I've been exploring a more open-ended adventure.

I spent almost a month putting together an adventure that takes my players to a location they have never heard of (though they've encountered some of its inhabitants.) I'm going to be slightly cagey about this on the off chance that any of them follow this blog, but I'll talk a bit about structure.

The idea behind this is that there is a bordered region that's going to really be where they do their adventure - if the players attempt to leave this area, I might have them encounter extra-tough enemies or simply improvise some new settings for them to visit. But generally, I'll try to steer them back into the adventure region.

However, while they will be somewhat limited to this area for what I imagine will be many sessions, while they're in there, I'm going to try to be pretty open to what they want to do and where they want to go.

My strategy for preparing this adventure was to first come up with a general sense of the "overworld" area. This is a large region that will require days of travel and special threats that they'll deal with the entire time.

My expectation is that the players will level up at least two times (probably more) by the end of the adventure. The overworld region won't level up with them, so threats that seemed pretty scary when they first got there will, hopefully, seem like something they can overcome with ease.

One way to help dull the difficulty when they first arrive is that they'll get a couple NPC party members. Eventually, they'll be able to get three followers who will always be two levels below them. These guys will dilute the XP they earn (I don't want them getting super-powered before they escape) but also make combat encounters less likely to wipe them out.

From the Overworld, which is totally set up to cater to their current level, they'll go to various important locations, which is where most of the plot of the adventure takes place. These areas are "tuned" for higher levels, with more challenging beings that rule over them. My thought is that each of these regions will take maybe one to three sessions, and while one of them is the "final dungeon," they're designed to be relatively self-contained, so that the players can do them in any order.

My thought is that, especially with noncombat alternatives to some of the key conflicts, it won't be a problem if the players outlevel a region. The environments and characters are, I hope, enough to make easy combat still entertaining. On the other hand, I'll be curious to see if there will be situations where the players feel compelled to retreat from combat.

It's a big experiment, but I'm really excited to see how it works out, as this kind of open-world design could be a model going forward. (It also means that I probably won't have to prepare any new content for months.)

Chrono Trigger: A Benchmark in Time-Travel Video Games

Squaresoft had a golden era in the 1990s. As someone who is just starting to realize that he's not exactly "young people" anymore, I sometimes forget that there are people who are legitimately adults who don't really remember the 90s.

The SNES era saw the release of Final Fantasy VI (released as III in the US as there had only been two of the five games released here at that point. For VII they just synched up the series with Japan,) Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, and Chrono Trigger. Of these, I really played a lot more Mario RPG and Secret of Mana when I was a kid, but in college, I got the PS1 port of Chrono Trigger (played on my PS2, so it was kind of doubly removed from its original form) and I realized it's one of the greatest games of all time.

And one of the reasons that it was so good is that they managed to create a solid time-travel narrative that was not impossible to follow.

Time Travel is, hypothetically, one of the coolest subjects in fiction, but writing it is very, very hard. For one thing, because it's a totally hypothetical thing that may be not just physically impossible, but actually metaphysically impossible if fully considered, the logic surrounding it has to be worked out by the writer. And it's easy to slip up and be inconsistent.

Now, to be fair, Chrono Trigger is not always perfectly consistent - generally, the party members are immune to changes in the fabric of history, allowing them to remember other versions of events before they changed them. However, there's also a part where party member Marle disappears from existence because her ancestor was kidnapped and presumably would be killed without further intervention.

Still, as interesting as it is to talk about the logical paradoxes that can arise from being able to manipulate the events of history, one of the other really great opportunities in a time-travel narrative is to see how familiar things change.

For example, the game starts in the modern era in 1000 AD (the years are a little misleading, as 1000 seems more like 1990, and 1999 looks like some kind of futuristic civilization even though the game was made only a couple years before that in the real world.) In 1000, there is a town full of beings that look monstrous, but they're perfectly friendly. However, when traveling back to 600 AD, there is a war between the human kingdom of Guardia and the Mystics - those very same monsters that will be friendly in the present. In fact, when the game begins, the leader of the Mystics, known as Magus, looks like he's going to be the main bad guy of the story.

One also gets to play some fun games with long periods of time. One of the party members is a robot from the future, and there is a side-quest toward the end of the game in which you can have Robo (ok, the character names are not the most creative) start working on irrigating and planting trees in a desert and then quickly traveling several hundred years into the future and picking him up when the job is done.

I don't think I've seen any other games pull off time travel as well as Chrono Trigger. Time Splitters: Future Perfect did have some fun with it, but not nearly to the same degree.

Chrono Trigger had one sequel, Chrono Cross, which I never played, but it never grew into a large franchise like Final Fantasy (or Secret of Mana, which I actually think went on to have several games, even though I'm almost utterly unfamiliar with anything but that one.)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Making the Monsters Matter

As I've said before, I came to the D&D table pretty late, only a year/year and a half ago (I'm still getting used to the idea of being 30 and it's dawning on me that 31 is coming in less than a month,) but a combination of the fact that it's way easier to get people to play a game like this if you volunteer to do the hardest part and the fact that it means I get to come up with a whole new world and history really compelled me to jump into the deep end as a DM.

Now, my RPG experience has been primarily through video games (this blog started as a pure World of Warcraft blog, and I'd say that's still its main focus) and one thing that video games have to contend with is that everything needs to be pre-programmed. As well-written as the characters in Mass Effect are (can't speak to Andromeda, which I have not played,) your interactions ultimately wind up being multiple-choice, and the game's not going to let you do anything the developers didn't anticipate.

My impulse in my campaign has been to push combat encounters with little fanfare - my general sense has been that if I send a monster at my party, there's going to be a fight. But I think that is a bit of a habit from video games.

Just because, for example, a goblin in D&D is chaotic evil, doesn't mean that it is necessarily going to kill everything it looks at.

So even though this is May, I'm going to make a kind of new year's resolution to open things up and encourage my party to deal with monsters in either non-combat ways, or at least more strategic ways.

I think one of the keys is allowing players to encounter monsters in contexts that don't necessitate immediate combat.

One idea (and I'm banking on the assumption that none of the players read this blog) is that I have a subregion of an area within my setting's equivalent of the Shadowfell (think more like the Dark World from Zelda: A Link to the Past) where there is a coven of Night Hags who control a town that used to belong to their mother, from whom they usurped the town.

My initial impulse would be to give the players a simple "kill their mother to get their help or kill them" choice, but I think the resolution here is to try to let the party surprise me. Anything from a Yojimbo-style playing-both-sides-against-each-other thing to providing family counseling to heal the rift between these evil fiends.

Only one of my players has played the game prior to this campaign, so I think I'll need to actively encourage them to try alternative approaches - not that going in guns-a-blazing isn't an option. I suppose that I could encourage this by A: having monsters that are not immediately hostile and B: sending them up against monsters that can wipe the floor with them, requiring them to try some other tack.

Monday, May 8, 2017

What I Learned Rolling Five D&D Characters in a Row

Because I'm bored and far away from my D&D party, I've been entertaining myself by watching Web DM (a Youtube channel with lots of in-depth tips for players and DMs,) as well as the Acquisitions Incorporated spin-off The C Team (which has gotten really good in the past few episodes,) planning an elaborate adventure for my party for when I get back to LA, and today, coming up with several potential player characters (that I'd want to play, though I suppose if we have some players who want to pop in I could let them take these for a spin.)

When you're new to D&D, as I was when I first started DM'ing, there's a hell of a lot of information to take in (thankfully the Monster Manual is almost pure reference.) So while I've got a pretty solid understanding of how to run combat, build dungeons (sort of... I never have anything as elaborate as what you find in the published adventures, focusing more on outdoor stuff,) and do general RP/character interactions and such, I mostly rely on the honesty of my players to get the details about their capabilities right.

Rolling a bunch of characters has really given me a much better sense of what these classes can do. So I'll go character-by-character and say what I learned about the classes. All these guys are at level three, which I figure is a relatively standard place for most campaigns to start (I started my guys at level one, but given that only one of us had played the game before, it wasn't a terrible idea.)

Generally speaking, I think that the traits, ideal, bond, and flaw things are all stuff that one might be tempted to skip over when creating a character, but they're actually really good to help you get a feel for how to role-play. If you take the time to figure these things out - even if you are just copying them down from the suggested characteristics in the book - you'll start to get a real sense of the character, which will inspire you to come up with more ideas to lend the character specificity.

Alfred Nightfire - Human Warlock, Great Old One, Tome Pact, Noble, Chaotic Neutral

Alfred's the character I came up with a long time ago, and he's actually shown up in my campaign as a temporary party member when we only had three people in the group other than myself. I re-rolled him today as an exercise.

I think Warlocks have fantastic storytelling potential, as you kind of have a Bond automatically. Mechanically, they are a bit limited in that they rely a lot on their spell casting, but have a tiny number of spell slots. Thankfully, you can get those slots back on a short rest, but you'll have to ask your party to break for lunch about as often as the Hobbits do. The eldritch invocations focus a lot on the Eldritch Blast cantrip, which certainly seems like the ideal cantrip, but it'd be nice to make it non-mandatory. I love the idea of playing an escaped mental patient with a direct line to some sort of eldritch abomination, though, so he's still top of my list to play if I get someone else to DM.

Zarlak Azoral - Blue Dragonborn Fighter, Eldritch Knight, Sage, Lawful Neutral

I don't know why, but for some reason I've always been a little repelled by the "straight fighter" classes in RPGs. It always seems to me that if you're going to play in a world with magic, you're kind of nuts not to play a class that has magic.

The Eldritch Knight archetype solves this big time, and it also realizes a class archetype I could have sworn was a real thing, but can never find in actual RPGs: the Battlemage. An Eldritch Knight is pretty much exactly what you need for a Battlemage. I feel like Eldritch is too firmly associated with Lovecraftian horror in my mind, but this is totally a Battlemage, and I imagine it's a lot of fun to play.

Kex Kariko - Wood Elf Monk, Way of Shadow, Acolyte, Chaotic Good

I've also never been drawn that much to martial arts classes in the past. I don't know why. Maybe it's my subconscious occident-centrism tendencies or a draw toward heavy armor and heavy weapons, but for some reason it doesn't usually click with me. Reading through the Monk entry in the player's handbook, however, is doing a lot to change my mind.

If you go Way of Shadow, you get a straight-up ninja, with the ability to cast stealth-enhancing spells to go with your martial arts moves. And actually, on top of that, there's some really cool flavor to Monks in general, what with the ability to catch arrows and thrown weapons and toss them back at your enemies, as well as the ability to, very early on, smack your target with up to three attacks. Monks get a lot of toys.

Jadro Coppledart - Lightfoot Halfling Rogue, Arcane Trickster, Enforcer (custom background,) Lawful Good

First off: there's really no good "cop" background. The Soldier background is too focused on army camaraderie and the Spy variant of Criminal doesn't really change how the benefits work for the background. So what I suggest is something I partially cribbed from suggestions online: Give Insight and Investigation proficiencies, one extra language, proficiency with thieves' tools, a badge of office, a crowbar, common clothes, and a coin purse of seized assets worth 15gp. This works, pretty decently I think, for a detective character (Investigation to search for clues, Insight for questioning witnesses and suspects.)

Rogues I actually have some experience with, as one of the members of my party is a Rogue. That sneak attack damage can really make them hit for huge amounts, and it's not terribly hard to get the bonus if there's melee characters in your party.

Palthan Arbrecht - Human Wizard, School of Necromancy, Charlatan, Neutral Evil

There's also a Wizard in my party, and I have to say that as a class, it's really defined by the spells you choose. Most of the class features just focus on getting more spells, recovering spells slots, and making it quicker and cheaper to add spells to your spell book.

At least at early levels, your school doesn't change the way the class plays a whole lot. However, because you can effectively know unlimited spells, it means that it's very easy to customize your capabilities. The only downside is that you're really going to have to either invest in a set of spell cards or print out a list of all the details of your spells (or just flip through the Player's Handbook constantly.)

Also, as a character note, I'm really happy with the idea of a snake-oil-selling necromancer, complete with his false identity he uses on the road, Doctor Lukvard von Toffel.

Other Characters:

I imagine I might do a bit more of this. I rolled a Barbarian, Druid, and Bard to serve as allied NPCs in the upcoming adventure. I'd like to start looking into alternative races, backgrounds, and class features that have popped up in other books. (Actually, the Barbarian I rolled was a Goliath.) Still got room for a Cleric, Ranger, Paladin, and Sorcerer.