Archive for June, 2010

Hydra PlayTesters Update: Goodbye (for now) Vincent Youngman and Thanks

So, there I was sat on the Bedford Commuter train from Brighton to, umm, Hell, via Purgatory and Tedium when my phone resonated and burbled tunefully into life. It rings so rarely (I’m more of a text person) that I’d forgotten I’d changed my traditional phone ringtone to a funky sliced MP4 Mark Ronson tune the other weekend. God I’m so frickin’ hip it hurts! And Vincent was on the end of the phone with an apologetic tone. As a DM of many years I can sense when someone is pulling out of a roleplaying gaming group in about, oooh, several nano-seconds flat. But hey, Vincent has done a stirling job as a playtester for the past 10 games or so, and he’s landed himself another activity that he’s been wanting to do for a while that just happened to clash with our game time.

So just to say thanks to Vincent for helping out with the playtesting. His character ‘The Bastard’ as he is fondly known has led the playtesting party from the first game and has been a great source of intrigue and plot development in the course of the main group sessions. As we are mid-game, I plan to take him over as an NPC and ‘stow him on ice’ so to speak. No that doesn’t mean I’m going to shove him into a deep-freeze, but I intend to place him more in the background as an NPC rather than as the lead figure he has been in the earlier games. In this way he can be available for when perhaps we change gaming days and Vincent can return to the group if he so continues to want to. Until then he can be absorbed back into the cast of thousands that the DM regularly dips into. Of course, this presumes that he survives being run as an NPC in the current ‘haunted house of the Hirinian’ that the party are currently exploring. I can’t rule out that he might succumb to some grisly death or other, but hopefully not.

Meanwhile, the second playtest group are ready to join in, and there are other possible players waiting in the wings to boost the party size up to a decent amount. Starting next week, we should have a party of 4 players, and we’ll see whom else we can accommodate from there. In terms of a good party size I’ve found in the past that once you get up to about 5 players, things start to go pear shaped for every other PC you introduce from there on in. Just too many to deal with, if the party splits at 6, then you are effectively running two whole RPG groups simultaneously in one session. 4 is a good number, enabling decent party splits and can be bolstered with judicious NPC’s for stand-ins and DM leverage. At 5 or 6 you start to lose the value in adding in NPC’s and they become a liability. In which case you lose story-telling leverage and also the cushion factor of back-up characters for PC’s to step into if they lose their primary character.


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Take a Gander at Felicity ‘Flick’ Sparrow: Character Portrait

Flick Sparrow, Hedge Witch of the Lakes of Pleeiea.

Evening all. I trust you are keeping well. The player behind Felicity ‘Flick’ Sparrow, asked me to have a crack at a character portrait for his Hedge Witch from the Lakes of Pleeiea. So here’s Flick the youthful Hedge Witch. A Hedge Witch, in case you are wondering, is the term applied to ‘witches of the hedgerow’. They are rural village types, with local knowledge, typically skilled also with animals, tracking, nature, weathercraft, foraging and similar. They are ‘wise women’, sort out in times of trouble, when there is illness in the family or when fortunes need telling. Flick is training at the college of Ulris the White, and is a companion of Amberrh of the Cold Wastes and Tillie the Marshlander.

Flick is a hardy type hailing as she does from the Lakes of Pleeiea. She knows how to set a fire, skin and cook a coney, spring a trap and those basic skills Lakelanders rely on day in, day out. Not the sorts of the things the city slicker of a Lankhmarian would be able to turn their hand to if cast out into the wildlands beyond the city of Thieves. I’ve depicted Flick complete with her arcane staff of power (note the curious symbols carved into it). She’s decked out in her all weather head wear. (Yup a pointed hat). This is an acrylic painting on watercolour board and is postcard sized.

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Some Early Player Reflections on the Hydra Experience

DM’s Pre-amble.

Ahem. Evening all. So imagine my surprise and delight when in my e-mail box was a missive from one of the playtesters (Richard) in the second playtest group with some reflections on his playtest experience so far? Yes, you are quite right – most definitely relieved. Here are Richard’s thoughts with zero editing, and I’ll confine my own rejoinders to a post-amble as per usual. Enjoy the clean prose from an unperturbed mind presumably not marinated in unnecessary, obsessive dictionary reading. Unlike my own. Richard plays ‘Flick’ or Felicity Sparrow, and you can read the session summaries of his character play in the Second Group Sessions 1 and 2.

Player Reflections.

At the risk of further badgering from our long suffering GM/DM/HM (HydraMaster), here’s some idling, musings and fragmentary thoughts regarding Hydra, as experienced from two sessions.

Character Creation: In any game system, it is my contention that proper character creation goes a long way to setting the scene for the game. By investing the time right at the start of a character’s life, the player has a closer bond to their avatar, a handle on how they see the character developing and, I feel, a greater survivability. Any system that glosses over this part has already failed, so Hydra feels a lot like Harnmaster or Runequest and attempts to create a rich back-story from which one can nurture the character into some semblance of authenticity. Without it, characters are just numbers on a piece of paper. I think it’s also Steve’s preference for character creation, as he likes to weave into the back-story to give each character an initial motivation, a friendly shove in the right direction. The whole, visceral feel of just rolling 3d6 specifically for each stat as you go along means you really have to think hard about how they all work together in a coherent fashion – after all, you’re going to have to play this character convincingly, and it is an RPG – the clue’s in the title. I was quite lucky in that I rolled very well except for one attribute, and even then it’s only just below average. Quite what happens when a player rolls half a dozen attributes under 7 remains to be seen. Whilst I accept that PC’s are, almost by definition, out of the ordinary, we shouldn’t preclude the ordinary from having a go at achieving greatness.

Concerns so far? At the moment, and this is just a vague sort of see-what-happens tickle at the back of the brain and that’s equipment and the encumbrance system. Still trying to get a handle on relative carry amounts and tracking it, assessing without recourse to the HM scrabbling through his (impressively) slim line resources. But that’s all I can think of at the moment.

Gameplaying: The game itself has a very free flowing feel to it. The ‘combat’ didn’t revolve around counting hexes/strike ranks/weapon speeds/did he/could he and just happened in a very fluid, organic way. As I understand from the HM, there is a bit more structure when dealing with more typical combats. Overall, it seems to hit the main concerns that Tim and I had as players when we were all discussing our perfect RPG system. I think that the hardest thing to do, as a player and occasional DM of 30 years is the letting go of certain mindsets/concepts. For example, the magic system. Of all the systems I’ve played, the best in terms of playability is Harnmaster. I had to bite my lip in the second session from asking about ‘neutral’ magic etc. My trouble is I’ve played a wizard for a long time and my hubris is that I think I have good ideas about a rationale behind magic. Ultimately though, it’s brought back some of the mystery to RPG’s by stripping away all the mechanics from the players so there’s more time for role playing, not number crunching.

DM’s Post-Amble

I have to say I am very chuffed to get such positive feedback from Richard’s experience of a couple of games (and pretty shortish one’s too) using the mashed up Hydra. Not sure about the term ‘HydraMaster’ though – sounds like I ought to have some kind of animal handling license. It would be pretty impressive to have an animal handling license for a Hydra! Anyway – I digress. Let me chuck in my rejoinders and comments upon Richard’s reflections. Regarding character creation, the only thing I can pick up on is what might happen if you were to roll up a character with half a dozen attributes under 7. Indeed it remains to be seen – but the character would be played anyway. Statistically you would be hard-pressed to roll up such an relative unfortunate – but it could happen. As a character it would be at a relative disadvantage as a result of the poor stats and harder to keep alive. Harder – not impossible. If you could keep the character alive then you would be able to boost pretty much all those characteristics – as some of the players have started doing for their character’s in the current ‘main’ game. It remains to be seen as to how successful Hydra is in enabling this to happen and how ‘badly’ rolled a character can be and still be nurtured forward into a more heroic figure.

As for Richard’s concerns about the encumbrance system – I share them. Encumbrance has been dialled back in Hydra to be minimally intrusive. We don’t want the past situation of multiple sets of armour profiles and tedious recalculations of combinations of carried stuff. Carry is not just about weight it also contains the notion of carryability – as in somethings are difficult to handle and not just an encumbrance because of their weight. Hydra is not so concerned about movement unless it’s something that needs to be compared against in a chase or a race – so combat is not so affected by encumbrance. Having said all that – you can’t just go ahead and monty haul your character with absolutely everything you can purchase/steal/acquire and carry infinity smerducks back to your base once a game is over. I’m hoping it achieves the right balance but time will tell as the game goes on. So far it’s not played much of a role because no one is burdening their character’s too much.

As for magic – well it’s a very different system I have hijacked for Hydra and as of yet we have only scraped the surface of it. There are more layers and complexities to it then have so far been explored by spell-users in the games so far. So far no one is, I think, even at Spell Level 1, let alone any of the more advanced levels required to progress further into the mysteries of magic use. All of that to come and until it happens I’m not sure myself how well it will stack up against the elegance of Harn Master’s magic system. This will be a collective learning experience! Right – got some bangers and mash to finish off – see you all later. Comments to the usual place. Thanks Richard for taking the time to chuck some comments our way and feel free to write more!

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Trouble at T’Marsh – Second Playtest Group Session 2.

Tillie, Flick and Amberrh are in the almost featureless wetlands of the Great Salt Marsh. They’ve located the “Charnel Cave” and have established that there is a Salt Marsh Leopard in the area from what seemed to be a sizeable paw print. Stood on top of the rocky crag where the twisted tree thrusts into the mist filled sky Amberrh mutters more invectives about how wretched this situation is. She is filled with loathing for the Marsh and is decided, no matter what the consequence, that she won’t stay a moment longer. Amberrh is resolved to return to Lankhmar as soon as possible. Brooding deeply she is almost startled by Tillie’s hand grabbing her shoulder. She points to the huge padding beast below some 50 yards away or so stalking something neither can see. Flick meanwhile is investigating the tree and hunkered down can see nothing, until she sights that the barbarian princess is hefting her bastard sword and making her way to the edge of the outcrop.

Flick focussses upon the symbols of the spell and feels the conjoining of minds as the last words are uttered. Being a beast it is unable to resist, and Flick acts out what she desires the beast to do. As Flick turns and walks away from the cavern entrance so the giant cat pads towards Tillie and Amberrh. As it sees both Amberrh and Tillie though, the creature immediately vanishes from sight. They are forced to sweep their weapons around low on the ground to locate the recumbent cat as Flick lies in the mud wielding the influence over the cat – forcing it to be still.

Eventually they bump into the invisible creature. It growls and rattles it’s throat at the them but allows them to remove several claws from its paws which they do gingerly and with difficulty seeing as they cannot exactly make out what it is that they are doing. Flick starts to feel the edges of the spell collapsing and calls warning. Amberrh and Tillie sprint back to the cave as Flick wields another spell, this time casting mobility upon the pair to speed their retreat. It becomes apparent though as they recover their breaths that the cat is no longer interested in sticking around. It is deadly quiet in the marsh and no counter attack is forthcoming. It is however becoming dark and cold, and the prospect of a night out in the marsh sinks into the bones of all of them.

They decide to spend the night in the cavern. They collect firewood from the twisted tree and have a fire set up in the entrance-way.  As the light of the fire springs up so sparkly shapes of the night-sky present themselves daubed upon the cavern wall. Some of them are curiously aligned and Flick endeavours to capture the images with quill and ink. They skirt around the tunnels just to make sure there is nothing untoward or dangerous to interrupt their night’s stay. There seem to be some small signs of passage – perhaps from ogres or similar it is difficult to decipher. Flick uses her skills of spirit sense and determines there are spirits deep within the caves. They light their fire and set a watch. They get as much sleep as they are able and make the most of eggs, bacon and local mushrooms in the morning. Flick, Amberrh and Tillie discuss whether they should further investigate the caverns and although they are intrigued by it are determined to head back to Lankhmar at best pace. The barbarian princess is relieved to be heading back to civilization and curses the muddy dank swampland.

Eventually though, the unlikely trio are headed back to the city stopping first at the crossroads tavern. They stay overnight and rest up. But not before they have learned more about Amberrh’s misfortunes at the hands of Jimmy Fourfingers and the militia and why she is holding out at the edges of the Salt Marsh. Flick  agrees to help the pint-pot princess unpick the plot against her. Amberrh and Flick help with a timely diversion so Tillie can liberate some expensive bottles of booze to help line his pockets for life in the city. United by their experiences in the marshland and a desire to make their collected fortunes they are soon rattling along the Great Salt Marsh way in the returning wagon.


A useful point made was that the DM should roll some of the PC skill rolls such as listen and spot-hidden when it is useful for the player not to know immediately from the dice roll whether their skill attempt has been a success or failure. Asking a player to ‘make a spot-hid’ roll, but the roll fails, cues the player into knowning that there is ‘something out there’ that they should have spotted. The DM making the rolls in the background and alerting players when the rolls have been successful, or if distorted and misleading is better then being falsely aware of potential events by making their own rolls.

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Main Hydra Campaign Session 10 – What Became of the Hirinian Jeweller?

Preamble and What To Do With Your PC’s In Between Scenarios.

Adjust The Speed Of Game Time & Explore What PC’s ‘Do’ Between Adventures.

We had a bit of extra time at the beginning of our last session because I managed to pitch up early to the RPG club for once in my life. We used the opportunity to work out what the characters had been up to flush from their success working for Lord Pilsbury and eliminating the terrorist Grungh threat. (See Sessions 1-9 in the Campaign Session Journal). Here we did the old DM’s trick of accelerating gametime to quickly zip through the intervening time between sessions. I just did a quick roll on 3d3 for how many months had passed and described the changing of the seasons accordingly. (We’ve are now in month of the Lion which is the Lankhmarian equivalent of July). It also enabled me to continue trialling the Hydra rules on training up attributes and skills that the player can do at the cost of time and money.

Get Them To Spend Their Hard-Earned Smerducks On Character Development.

In this way the player characters can spend their hard earned adventuring money not just on pretty baubles, but also on self-development – purchasing new spells, new skills and working on making themselves heroic. Just in time to become skint enough to take on another foolhardy adventure! During this time you can have NPC’s they know (like Burli or Fillestro  in our campaign) sidle up with new bits of info, plot-hooks and developments on the remainder of plot- elements from previous games. In this case there is still the matter of the Jade Statue of the Gods of Trouble. Burli advised Iswann to keep it hidden, and if he wanted to try and claim the ‘reward’ on offer then he was best served getting some other sucker to try and collect it. It being common knowledge that the Temple was on the warpath to get their statuette back –rumours of assassins, mercenaries and the like being approached to get it returned. This scenario follows on and picks up from one of the events that wasn’t followed up in the previous scenario. In this way you get a sense of congruity and meaningfulness about the off-shoots of events and sub-plots that you scatter in amongst your main games.

Portray The Development Of The PC As They Strive Towards Heroism/Notoriety.

In a matter of about a half hour of real time we’d figured out Iswann’s focus of activities for the next 3 months, taking the party from spring into summer. Vincent did all his experience checks from the last scenario and I described any noticeable improvement in skills qualitatively as a result. He then paid for Iswann to do some weapon and strength (attribute) training. Whilst the attribute has increased numerically it hadn’t shifted a descriptive category or influenced any derived attributes. However I like to indicate progress with skill increases by indicating qualitatively how close the character is to the next category level. So for instance having had his Cliff Toad Whip made Iswann spent most of his three months in training at his family home using the new weapon. He started off as ‘Poor’ (the opening category description for using a Whip) and we checked out whether his dexterity was good enough to use such a tricksy bit of kit – which it was. He then splashed out his hard earnings on a weekly training programme to push the percentile underneath up, and with the two and a half-months he had available to train and with the money that he had to spend he was able to push it up to ‘Fair’.

Appraisal Of Skill Use And Chance of Success.

In Hydra there is a systematic way of describing the probabilities attached to these skill levels, and at a ‘Fair ‘level of ability the individual is described as being able to hit the mark about half of the time provided it’s not too far or more difficult to hit. This gives the player an idea of their ability without knowing the actual amount. The DM provides ‘appraisal’ descriptions depending on the degree of success of an appraisal roll the player makes with their given ability that enables them to have some idea of how likely they are to be successful in using their skill in a given situation. Naturally the DM applies situation modifiers and adjusts the accuracy of their appraisal according to the degree of success of their appraisal roll.

Iswann found himself a bit out of pocket after all this and is now a bit in debt to the family because of his largesse. I role-played this out a bit by having a ‘family meeting’ and his mother giving the family a lecture on fiscal responsibility and the need to fill the family coffers this coming season. I made the matriarch of the house give him lots of eye contact throughout this little interlude. Of course unfortunately George’s character Glenda died in the last session so all we could do was finish off a few bits with his new character Moolsh – just tying up a few loose ends. We have yet to establish how Antiva spent his downtime as Jordan was tied up at the beginning of the session but we will do so retrospectively.

“I’m not a Dwarf, I’m Hirinian you Lofty Delicate Types.” Gray’am AxeSplitter of Xanth.

By the month of the Lion the company as is was sat in the cracked head reminiscing over their lost compatriot. This time George took on the role of Moolsh the thief-spy compatriot of his previous character Glendawynn. Sat in the head having a few jars they are joined by Burli who taps the Bastard for a drink. Burli is desperate to get some decent cash together so that he can pay off various members of the militia to help out his girl-friend the feisty self-styled barbarian princess Amberrh who is ‘laying low’ in the outer reaches of the Great Salt Marsh. (See the Second Playtest Group Sessions for more of Amberrh’s predicament). She has had so many run-ins with the local constabulary for ‘misunderstandings’ (mainly assault) and also with unlicensed thieves intent on stealing her family heirloom from her (hence the assaults) that she has had to go into hiding. Burli is trying to sort out the mess with the constabulary. And that costs! Burli has heard that Pilsbury has a job for Iswann and his friends and he wants ‘in’ on the escapade. Unable to lay hands on Antiva for the moment, who is absorbed in telling Riffkin’s fortune in the bar, they head off the same evening for the Flour magnate’s mansion on the West Side of the Park District.

Batting off the usual offers from street vendors and prostitutes that comes with being men about town late at night Moolsh, Iswann and Burli arrive relatively unmolested at the impressive mansion house of Pilsbury. They chat with the somewhat bizarre late-night gardener Titchmarsh, whom some say uses arcane abilities to foster the impressive topiary. They sit in the waiting room until Pilsbury makes his entrance with his newly acquired Ogre bodyguards. Moolsh isn’t impressed by his choice of companions but they are a fearsome pair. Ogre guards are the ‘must have’ of the would-be elite this season he notices. Pilsbury is rubbing his hands in contemplation of mayhem and profit as he smiles at the trio.

He reminds them of the fracas surrounding the loss of the Jeweller’s son at the same time his businesses were being attacked by Spune’s Terror Troops. A Hirinian Dwarf went missing all of the sudden named Darak. Several months down the line and he’s still missing. Nobody knows what’s happened to him but he has a significant stake in the Hirinian Family’s Jeweller’s business and there are taxes to be paid. Pilsbury is a ‘silent partner’ in this business and has a vested interested in what happens in terms of the ownership of the business, If he is dead, killed by the terrorists as some allege, then this needs verifying. There should be a will or similar, and if there is then Pilsbury wants that document so he can broker the transition of power. It may turn out that he could contest the will and get a controlling stake in the business and expand out of Flour and Bread into the profitable Jewel Market. Iswann and his band have proven themselves able to get results where the city Watch and Constabulory can not. Pilsbury offers them whatever support they need – he’ll pay for additional brute-force if needed, and the company can keep all the bounty and treasure they find on site. By all accounts Dashak was pretty mean with his money and loaded as a result. All he is interested in is either proof of the Hirinian’s death, and or/his will, or the Hirinian alive so that he can resolve his estate and financial affairs.

The party consider whom else would be useful to bring along and when Antiva arrives and they clue him in on the situation – to explore the possibly deceased Dwarf’s mansion and resolve the mystery of his disappearance. He immediately suggests they hire a Hirinian he met a couple of evenings ago in the Head, the first he’s ever seen. Going by the name of Gray’am Axesplitter he is an ex-pit fighter from Xanth and is working as a stevedore at the south docks on a small ship called the Silver Unicorn. The Party locate the Silver Unicorn thanks to the somewhat potty Harbourmaster and the bushy bearded Hirinian takes little persuading when he learns that it is a fellow countryman whose plight it is they are investigating. The prospect of reward and repair of his arms and armour is also a consideration. The stout fellow soon corrects Iswann however over the use of the term ‘Dwarf’. Most frowned upon – damn lanky impertinence!

They head into the north-east quarter of town where the Dwarf Artificer has his residence. It’s close to Ulris’s School near Death Alley. It stands alone in the centre of a walled-off garden. The garden has gone to pot and the mansion is locked up tight but with signs of ongoing neglect to the general décor. The double-doors are bound, banded and locked. Antiva and Moolsh climb their way up onto the roof as the Hirinian Axesplitter tackles the door with Glenda’s lock-picks. He gains entry just as Antiva and Moolsh scramble onto the roof.

Never Split the Party!

Gray’am, Iswann and Burli survey the entrance hall of the mansion. It’s deeply carpeted, no furniture. Smashed stain glass lying on the floor. Several doors lead off and stairs lead up to the second storey with an overhanging balcony. As they get lanterns prepared (it’s all sealed up inside and gloomy) and go to check out the respective doors they hear the sounds of chains rattling and low moaning from deep within the house, up above. It swiftly subsides however and Iswann worries that there may be zombies in the house. They can hear nothing beyond their own more anxious breathing and they make their way, Gray’am taking the lead down a small narrow corridor. Once again the Dwarf makes relatively light work of the door courtesy of the borrowed picks and they are in a much larger chamber, about equal in size to the front entrance with some light coming in from the window overlooking the garden.

The floors a bare and look in one corner to be rotten with woodworm. Iswann pokes about at the floor with his sword to see how bad it is and before he knows it the floor is collapsing before him. Scurrying out of the darkness two giant centipedes – a good 2’ high (they come up to Gray’am’s waist and over 10’ long attempt to bind themselves around the adventurer’s legs. Their scales deter Iswann’s frenzied dagger blows and their jaws are able to find nooks and crannies even in the Hirinian’s scale armour. Both Iswann and Gray’am fight off the sluggish effects of the centipede’s natural poison as Burli tries wrestling the outsize creatures off his companions. His grappling skills enable him to eventually hurl one of the centipedes into the corridor behind them and Gray’am slams the door shut with a well-timed axe swing. He is struggling with the poison of the the second giant centipede wrapped around him and the group as a whole rain blows upon the biting, twisting giant insect. Eventually their joint efforts batter it to death and Gray’am collapses sick with poison and bites upon the floor…

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