Neverwinter On The XBox One

Like an awful lot of people I played the original Neverwinter games as they emerged from the series of strong Dungeons & Dragons PC games developed by Black Isle and Bioware, so the news that a new title was coming out certainly made my ears prick up. I don’t play very much on the PC any more, mostly because I don’t have the budget, time, or desk space to dedicate to a gaming rig, and mostly play on consoles these days. That’s mostly why I didn’t pick up on Neverwinter when it launched on PC as a MMORPG – that and the fact that I was still playing EVE regularly and didn’t want to stretch either my wallet or time any further.

Fast forward a bit and the free release on the XBox One reminded me that it existed so I downloaded it and rather tentatively gave it a go. I’m glad I did, and it’s not just for nostalgia’s sake.

Neverwinter is a firmly traditional fantasy game with a rich tradition in games that have been published in the setting over the years. That history can be seen everywhere, from flavour decisions in character making, building and character design and naming conventions and in the lore liberally scattered around the place. There are enough players and NPCs around to feel that the city is a living and thriving location, matched by opponents that respawn fast enough to make their faction’s threats feel credible.

Considering how steep some games make their learning curve (I’m looking at you EVE), I was pleasantly surprised at the way the narrative was employed to peel aside the layers of complexity available to you as a player without feeling restrictive. In some ways that comes from the levelling system that (appropriately) feels entirely helpful and natural here – at least to this grizzled tabletop campaigner.

I’ve played through to level fifteen so far, and this morning spent some time unpicking the complicated process of talking someone through joining for a multiplayer group session. This took a bit of perseverence and I’m not sure if that was down to the XBox Friends/Party system or the Neverwinter shards/instance implementation. I suspect a little from column A and a little from column B – or at least the interface between the two. That said, when we’d managed to get into the right shard and team up it felt very smooth and the only disruption we had came from a technical issue with the other person’s XBox rather than any network or server-side problem.

Graphically, it feels a little last generation – but not unbearably so, and the sheer amount of things going on at once and the speed and ease of doing things make these part of the charm of the game. There’s a quietly retro feel to the game that I think is entirely appropriate. We’re not talking blocky Minecraft-style graphics or horrible glitches, but don’t expect to be parkouring around the neighbourhood.

I really like it – and I think I’ll be wandering around making myself a nuisance there for a while. There’s a huge amount of material and options that I’ve only just started to look at – including the professions minigame, crafting and making sense of the daily dungeons and alternate monetary systems at play. There’s a lot here that I suspect would make more sense if I’d ever played World of Warcraft – but beyond a ten minute demo a number of years ago that’s not been on my radar either so I’m learning a lot of this wholesale.

I’ll post more (spoiler-free) as I go along – there’s quite a lot to play with, which is always fun with a free-to-play game.

Eberron Campaign Mapping

Crusader Kitty
Crusader Kitty

I’m having a gentle Saturday, and in between watching films and Lady M trying to get one hundred percent on Peggle2 (not necessarily at the same time), I’ve been finalising the maps for our Monday night Dungeons and Dragons games. The structure that the players have been exploring in search of the plot macguffin was built by ancient giants – so to reflect the scale of the previous inhabitants has meant building a series of maps on an appropriately huge size.

Maps built for medium (human)-sized inhabitants will usually be depicted with five to ten foot wide corridors in enclosed castle or dungeon environments – and I use a grid on the maps scaled at 70 pixels equalling five foot. The original builders of the temple/observatory that the adventurers are exploring averaged about eighteen foot in height, so I’m scaling to around four times the normal corridor, room and door sizes.

warforged barbarian with an axeNow, I’ve been using a mixture of published and original material, so at least I’ve not been going at this totally blind, but to present the maps through the Roll20 interface I’ve had to manually recreate and edit them on an individual basis. I could have copied and pasted them from the Acrobat documents to save time, but they would have been monochrome and limited in presentation. By recreating them I’ve had a free hand to expand the scope, content and re-usability of those resources.

But I have to admit, there have been more than a few moments where it’s felt a bit of a faff. The reward comes in the player reactions and comments as we’ve been playing over the last seven months or so. I think, from the rate we’re going through the adventure that there’s probably another month or so, at most. After that? Who knows. I know the next big adventure block that I’m adapting, but I do need to bridge from this extravaganza to that – so there’s some original content I’ll need to write.

I’m looking forward to it.

Danger In The Dark Write-Up

Well, I managed to get this week’s session written up today, in between taking the car in for its MOT, meeting surveyors and doing various household odds. I’ve been glad to be mostly back at home today, especially with how cold it’s been. As I was walking down the road from dropping the car off, I found I was bitterly regretting not bringing gloves and being moderately bemused by how pink my fingertips had become. It was as good an excuse as any to drop in to a coffee house to warm back up.

While I was there, I went into my usual people-watching routine. For the most part it was all business as usual – a bit quiet, but it was first thing in the morning – with one or two people at their laptops in dark corners, parents chatting after dropping their offspring at school, and then there was the conversation at the next table that I was trying not to listen in on.

A man, maybe a few years younger than me, talking to someone who may have been a debt counsellor or possibly a solicitor as a consultation. He was going through his monthly outgoings, and explaining how a mental illness that had just been diagnosed had made it very hard for him to sustain a working routine, leading to unemployment. A discussion about his medications and support network then ensued – talking about what medicines he had stopped taking, what was being changed by his GP, and so on. I promise, I really was trying not to listen, but we all know how hard it can be to do that when so many features of what you are hearing chime with your own past experiences.

After a few minutes I did the decent thing. I finished my drink, shut down my tablet and left to go see if they had finished with my car. They didn’t need me overhearing these conversations, and I didn’t need – as an act of emotional positivity – to keep listening and let my memories jar loose things that are in the past, done and dusted.

Keeping positive is a key part of my plan to stay awesome this year. Sometimes it’s easy, especially when we have amazing game sessions on a Monday where I not only see things going to plan, but have the joy and privilege of accompanying my players through an emotional and triumphant journey in the game. Other times it takes a bit more effort, and requires me to do things like remove myself from situations that really don’t need my presence.

Tomorrow, I have a slate of work to do for people, so awesomeness will ensue.

Pre-Christmas Round-Up

Decorated Christmas Tree
No Humbug here

We’re in the final run-up to Christmas now, a season that didn’t really feel totally real until last weekend, where one of my younger brothers held his annual get-together. It’s become something of a tradition over the last few years – a gathering of friends and family for food, chatter, occasional music and a walk in the woods at night to the top of Reigate hill to share drinks, admire the view and rain fiery death on those below us in the form of chinese lanterns.

This year we took Lady P along with us, where she unexpectedly found herself in the company of the LARP/Cosplay prop-makers Artyfakes, who she has recently commissioned to make a unique prop for May’s MCM London Expo. As Lady P has been a major proponent of Christmas spirit at work this year, it made for a great confluence of work and home life to kick off the season’s celebrations.

We always try to make an effort for Christmas, especially given how lean the last few years have been. It’s a great time to push the boat out and celebrate, and we love being able to give gifts to people. For me, it’s about the look of surprise and joy on people’s faces when I manage to match something a bit unusual or special to their tastes. We try to pick things up through the year. In part this is to spread the cost out, but it’s also taking advantage of seeing things through the year that might not be available nearer the date itself, especially if it’s something we’ve seen while out and about on our travels. This year, we’ve got more than a few things that we picked up when we were in Florida, so I hope that with the more traditionally sourced things we manage to put a smile on everyone’s faces. If nothing else, we’ve got plenty under the tree to give to people.

So – one more working day this week, and then both Lady M and I are on our holidays, joined next week by the Charleesi before we head off out for the great family gathering for the holiday itself.

Updates on the website this week have included the regular Dungeons and Dragons session write-up, and the start of my putting up extra material from the campaign. These will both see ongoing updates. The adventures continue to be based on a mix of published and original material. This is partly because we’re still learning our way around the rules, and partly making the most of the time available. I’d love to be creating material for the campaign out of whole cloth, but being pragmatic we’re all enjoying ourselves immensely and I’ve had one or two people say they’re also enjoying the write-ups – so I’ll keep doing them.

Eberron and Large Mocha Days

Week two of this phase of the Eberron campaign has been posted; and looking back at it, I seem to be adopting a more editorial tone there than usual – probably because it was one of those sessions where the dice played tricks and it felt like we were still finding a new equilibrium in terms of who has what role within the group.

The role filled by Koff is being largely filled by another player who has rebalanced their character a little to add some muscle to the largely mobility-based feats he had been taking. The new character is a wizard – specifically an Evoker – so there are some powerful attacking magics to hand there that look likely to change the flow of the battles to come. I may have to do some on-the-fly jury-rigging of encounters until I get the balance again. Still, it does now make the group more rounded than it was, and provides a far wider bag of tricks and skills that they can use to overcome the encounters heading their way.

Meanwhile in reality, my off-the cuff labelling of rough days as “large mocha days” to the staff at our local Harris and Hoole has been adopted for their own use today. Apparently there was a sewage pipe break in the Tesco that the unit is based in last night, and it still hadn’t been cleared when staff turned up this morning.

By the time I arrived this afternoon on my way to pick up some food for tonight, things had returned more or less to normal and they had been given the all clear by environmental health/health and safety/powers that be – and they all looked completely frazzled around the edges. This was where I learned that the term “large mocha day” had been adopted. I feel strangely proud of that.

In other news, I’ve had to strap my wrist – some sort of RSI-type injury from writing/drawing/shelving/using computers at strange angles thing that is slowly getting better but has reintroduced me to the delights of Deep Heat. I’m hoping it will be recovered by the end of the week. Ho hum.

New Eberron Session Write-Up

I’ve got the beginning of part three of the Eberron adventures posted up this afternoon, marking the beginning of a new set of challenges for the Monday Night Crew – lots more travel, lots of new environments, and a whole new set of headaches. This week? Underwater battles.

In other news, its been a quiet week on the paid writing side of things, so I’m reworking my first chapter to bring it up to 2500 words for consideration in the This Morning competition. I’m not expecting a genre fiction piece to be popular with the judges, but what the hell, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Right, break for a bit of housework and then back to the grind…

And another Game chapter done

Monday night saw the end of what I’m calling Chapter Two of the Eberron-set Dungeons and Dragons game we’ve been playing. I’ve been using a mix of published and homebrew content again, inserting scenes and encounters to try and match the challenge set by my formidably adaptive and inventive players.

They’ve come through the trauma of losing their most potent warrior in-game to finally take down their prey, the vampire master spy Lucan, and made their way home successfully – so what next?

Eberron Motivator featuring a mage in near-modern dress
Just in case you were still expecting dungeon crawls all the time…

Well, there’s already material prepared to tie up loose ends from the first big adventure, and I’m hoping to tie that fairly seamlessly into an adaptation of some other material that I’ve had hanging around on my bookshelf for quite a few years now. I think it’s safe to say that they won’t be running out of horrible things to fight and outwit for quite some time yet.

Travelling has seemed to work quite well in the last two chapters, so I’ll carry on using vehicular mass transit as a good excuse to stage set-piece encounters. They allow me to set environmental challenges that have so far concentrated their minds in different ways. Battles on the top of moving lightning rail trains and surviving the aftermath of colliding airships have forced them to adopt innovative solutions to survive and thrive. They’ve overcome trials on land, and in the air, so we’ll see how they fare on the sea next probably.

Knowing they occasionally sneak a peek at the blog side of this site, not just the game write-ups, that last paragraph is either a spoiler or an elaborate double-bluff – as was my revealing a photograph of the cover of an adventure in my collection on Facebook this afternoon. My Evil GM side must be showing…

We’ll be taking a hiatus of a week from the game, mostly because next week it’s Lady M’s birthday – which she claims to have totally forgotten, but I’m not falling for that one in the slightest – and partly to allow the player who lost his character some time to come up with a replacement and for me to draw up a new set of digital maps to torture them all on.

Fun fun…

Last Night’s Game

So last night’s game was significant in that it was the first death of one of the characters in the current campaign. I know some people who play Dungeons and Dragons who prefer to try and fudge things for their players when then chips are down, and I’m not averse to occasionally tweaking things if things go wrong due to dumb luck.

By the same token however, our most lasting memories over the years have come from how characters have shuffled, or been pushed, off this mortal coil. I GM’d our group all the way through the classic Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, through the Slavers series and then the whole Giants and Drow epic leading to a facedown against the Queen of the Demonweb Pits. I established very early on that characters could and would die, especially if they did foolhardy things – and sometimes, yes, this might not seem fair, but I wouldn’t be actively trying to take their characters down.

Once more prompting cries of "we should have looked up"
Once more prompting cries of “we should have looked up”

We had a hell of a time, and a stable of remarkable and memorable characters whose lives and deaths – both epic and humourous – are still talked about when we reminisce about old games and evenings past.

The current campaign had, until last night, not claimed any player characters. There were a number of factors to this. Firstly, this is the first game I’ve GM’d using third edition rules, and scaling encounters to the outsized party I’m refereeing for has been a bit of a learning curve. Secondly I’m intentionally going for a more swashbuckling and heroic theme, with the characters being truly above average in a wild and expansive world.

As a result, there have been large set piece encounters where the players have been able to throw themselves in with almost foolhardy abandon and win through to the other side. The current endgame unfolding however has turned into a very different beast. It is still epic, it is still larger than life, but the big bad that they have been chasing over the last fourteen weeks finally turned and brought the fight to them.

Suddenly they have not been in charge of the pace of encounters, and the ziggurat within which they are all fighting is full of dark corners, air shafts and tight stairwells. More importantly they haven’t had a chance to regroup and re-order their arsenals of weapons and spells to best effect, and this has allowed the villain to start taking them apart.

Unlike most of the villains they’ve encountered so far, this vampire was a spy and rogue in life, and so he favours hit and run tactics. He has significantly weakened the spell users and priests in the party, and this week succeeded in causing the death of their most potent fighter. How? You’ll need to read the write-up

 

Hospitals and Runarounds

Another busy week – this week’s game has been written up, with lots of tentacle-on-thief action and surprisingly soggy vampires to boot. We’re getting closer to the final conflict with the vampire and his blade, and I suspect it will either end up as a battle royale or a rather swift bit of lateral thinking will rip the floor out from under the planned set pieces. Not to worry, I’ve plenty more material and surprises for the group – Roll20 has totally transformed our Monday evenings, so I suspect there would be riots if I downed tools so soon.

This week has also seen the start in earnest of my daughter’s looking at places to study her A and AS levels, so I’ve found myself wandering around schools and sixth form colleges – or whatever they’re calling themselves now – finding it all bringing back memories of when I worked IT tech support at West Thames College back in the late nineties. The same smells and slightly faded paintwork, the long corridors of hard-wearing carpet and bare-bones laboratories and classrooms that don’t do justice to the teaching expertise that can shine there.

I suppose I could wax lyrical about where all the time has gone since my little girl was a bundle in my arms, but I’d rather be proud of the self assured and formidable young lady who stood with me and her mother in classrooms and positively glowed as new learning options unfolded in front of her. I loved how she looked at the course requirements for each of the options she was interested in, and found it all reinforcing how she can basically turn her hand to anything she wants because of all her hard work, aptitude and attitude. A proud daddy? Of course I am.

We also found out this week that Lady M’s labyrinthitis could be treated with the Epley maneuver as we sought a private referral to get to the root of her ongoing balance issues. So far there’s a marked improvement, though she has to try and sleep sitting up for the next week or so to help her inner ear settle down. Fingers crossed she’ll be back to normal soon.

Meanwhile, the black dog is biting a bit this week so I’m keeping a quiet eye on that, but then it’s that time of year so only to be expected. Ho hum, onward and upward.

 

Game Write-Ups

I’m a bit behind, it’s just been a busy couple of weeks with work and general chaos – so I’ve only just got round to writing up last week’s game. I’ll aim to get this week’s one done this weekend.

In the meantime – well, Destiny. I’ve been playing both solo and with a widening circle of friends, and have even set up an XBox Clan called PessimistChic today to give us a shot at some of the clan-based achievements. Give us a shout if you’re passing – we’re mostly casual and enjoy working out what fits where.

Impressions of Destiny? Well it’s very, very pretty – I think Venus is the most astounding location so far, simply for the lush palette and vistas that open up around every corner. How does it play? Very like Halo – and for me this is a huge bonus. Is it the best story in the world? No, it’s sort of there but I’m not gripped, I’m just in a hurry to get to the next sprawling level or to get out there and explore the massive patrol areas.

It definitely isn’t an MMO, and it doesn’t easily allow for general chatter, making it rather lonely if you’re playing solo or casually… but if you have formed a party with friends and a wider fireteam, well then the game transforms. I’ve been doing missions and strikes and a bit of Crucible PvP with friends and playing socially like that has been great fun. I suppose the advantage has been that we haven’t been exposed to so much of the casual idiocy and profanity so common in online games  – at least no more than we manage among ourselves. Paradoxically then, it feels more social to me as a game, because I’m playing with friends I generally already know or who I’ve made contact with over time.

So – Destiny – gets a big thumbs up from me – I’ll write some more specific odds and ends shortly, going into different areas of play.