The art of magic

27 February, 2009 at 7:49 pm (game design, roleplaying)

This is most of the planning I’ve done for a game I’m about to run for a group of friends (and possibly one new person, if I can re-establish contact).

Setting

Mostly realistic medieval Europe, precise location to be determined. Player input welcome. Of course, there’s mages. Mages are defined as people who can see and travel to another world that is parallel to the medieval one and also a reflection of it. Magic is defined as going to that other world and altering it in such a way as to also affect the normal world. This is almost all there is to magic.

Examples of magic: Some person is very hostile towards you. So, one day you enter the other world with the intention to change that person’s disposition to better. In the other world that person is (this time) represented as a roomful of people, arguing amongst themselves and hence making the decisions the person does. So, you find the vocal opponent(s) of yours and drug, kill, silence, persuade, charm, or imprison them. Now the person doesn’t hate you anymore, though there is likely to be other effects. Perhaps the person can feel hatred towards nobody, or can feel nothing towards you, or just generally be maladjusted in some way. Such are the effects of magic.

Another example: Say you want to hide the location you reside in such that it will be hard to find and hard to escape from. Enter the other world with this purpose in mind and build walls and hedge mages and such around the hide-out, and people who can’t see the other world will wander aside or get lost or find they just happened to be thinking about something else when they should have kept track of the direction. Few will be able to find such a place without excessive means.

Player character creation

Players will play mages. Other ideas may be considered, but the default will be a mage. Character generation is as follows: Select up to four phases of your character’s life, with possibly selecting the same one several times. These should be on the level of lifestyle or profession. If in doubt, we’ll use Burning Wheel human lifepaths as a guide and source of inspiration; if some character is too out there the wheel that burns may also be invoked, with “too out there” defined by the most discerning player. Phase has default value of 13; if selected several times, each one adds +3. For each phase select one noteworthy or character-defining feature of the character. (Same one can, if plausible, be selected several times). The features start at 10, +2 for each time beyond the first one is selected.

Decide how the character became a mage. This is the first time the character entered the other world. Add magery 13 as a phase and relevant feature at 10. Make it evocative.

Example 1: Abelard. Was the son of a local blacksmith and practiced the trade for some time, but was then conscripted and spend many a long year as a mere footsoldier, marching from war to the next, until getting tired of the death, upon which he escaped only to sell his soldiery equipment and become a humble pilgrim so as to atone for all the killing. Once when resting under the shade of a tree he saw a bright cross shining in the distance and followed it, knowing it to be his sign. Through burning forests and plains he trod, upon burning coals, and never did he step aside from the fiery path. Finally he touched the flaming cross, waking up due to the feeling of intense pain upon his forehead; a burning cross is now there, as if branded, for all people to see.

Stats: Blacksmith 13 (strong 10), footsoldier 16 (jaded 10, weary of killing 10), pilgrim 13 (seeks redemption 10), magery 13 (the burning cross 10). Equipment: Not much of value.

Example 2: Eloise. The daughter of a wealthy noble, she quickly mastered the arts of reading and arithmetic, even though such pursuits are not typically for women to devote themselves to. As such, her affinity was a public secret among the family and their servants. She turned down many a suitor, some of whom told tales further. The clergy did not take well to her unconventional activities, so she had to appear as as interested in courting and other similar activities. By night she talked to more learned visitors and perused the few books she had access to. One night she was studying the stars as something happened; she was floating among them and they talked to her, warned her, taught her and encouraged her; finally they told her to return. Since then her eyes are literally as small stars, especially in the dark. the chance was not unnoticed and she had to leave, but her parents did offer a host of servants and men-at-arms so that she could travel without danger and establish herself at some more favourable land.

Stats: Noble lady 13 (leader 10), scholar 19 (alchemy 10, the seven liberal arts 10, astronomy 10), magery 13 (whispering stars 10). Equipment: Astronomical equipment 6 (such as star charts), wealth 6

Situation

The game starts as the mages, or some of them, are driven away from a city of some size. If not everyone is driven away, the others join them shortly. It would be good if at least one of  the mages had servants so as to make the following step smoother. (Band of outlaws, mercenaries, or servants as in example could all work.) Next, building a settlement of some sort (or traveling around in carts or whatever). All of this is likely to be played through in fairly quick way so that players get to play their characters a bit and design their settlement.

There’ll be trouble and complications from the larger city nearby, as well as from the other world, should the mages travel there. Also any story hooks players embed in their characters are likely to see plenty of use.

Resolution and other rulesy bits

Characters have traits as defined in character generation above. When playing and the consequences of some action are unknown and interesting, dice are rolled. Most rolls are difficulty 1. 2 is difficult, 3 extremely difficult, anything beyond that nearly impossible. Unopposed difficulty 1 roll: Take the highest relevant trait. Roll a d20. If result is at most trait value, the roll is a success. Assuming a success, higher result is better. Example: Trait 13, rolls of 1-13 are successful, 14+ failures. 13 is the best possible success. For difficulty 2 rolls the process is the same, except that second highest trait is used. For difficulty n rolls, the nth highest trait is used. In case of opposed rolls, both or all characters roll. If there is only one successful roll, all is clear. If there are several successful rolls, the highest success beats the others. If there are several failures, among them the highest result means the least severe failure.

Should some trait have value of 21 or more, the die is rolled normally and success at unopposed tasks of relevant difficulty is certain. To determine margin of success, take the rolled result and add twenty if the result is still at most skill; otherwise, don’t add twenty. Example: Skill 24, roll 10 counts as 10 because 24 < 30 = 10 + 20, while 2 counts as 22 because 22 is at most 24 and 42 = 20 + 22 > 24. Traits in excess of 20 are rare.

Partially related traits count at half value. Using one token (willpower or will tokens or something), more on which below, forces a reroll and gives a permanent +1 to some trait used (up to player, but directly applicable trait if such are being used). The +1 helps with the roll in question. The decision to reroll is made after success of the roll is known, but generally before results are narrated. Several can be used for one roll.

Bonus, as from equipment, simply counts as a trait. Poor quality or improvised equipment is 3, decent to good quality one is 6, excellent quality is 9. If characters are helping each other or doing one task, they count as one character or some as count as equipment for the acting member or possibly some other solution.

Negative traits may function in two ways (up to playtesting):  As a trait for the opposing side or as a penalty to the largest applicable trait in a given conflict. The former takes less arithmetic, the latter would make larger traits more valuable even in difficult rolls. Example of the second: Positive traits 16 and 12, negative trait 9. Now the larger positive trait would only count as  7 = 16 – 9, so 12 would be used if difficulty were 1 and 7 if difficulty were 2. In case of several negative traits this could get messy. Apply only one flaw per positive trait; if there are more flaws, then apply second flaw per trait, so on. Highest flaws to highest perks. This should not be relevant in play, really, but covering all possibilities is important.

Extended, or zoomed, conflicts: Sometimes conflicts will not be resolved by a single roll. This happening is mostly a function of pacing. Two conflicting characters first roll as normal. Loser suffers some consequences. Both sides select what they will be doing. If reasonable, the winner decides what difficulty the next roll will be at. Continue until someone gives up or is soundly defeated.

All players can give will tokens to each other as a reward for good play, however they define that. I encourage people to include dramatic, humorous and smart play. Tokens can be used to add new traits or to give rerolls as already explained. New traits require justification within the fiction. The value of a new trait is generally half of parent trait’s value, if any, or 3. Parent trait is something that justifies the new trait.

Traits can also improve or degrade due to events in the fiction. Particularly, training can improve traits. One month is sufficient for physical skills, while year is suitable for improving magery and similar traits.

The ways of magic

As established, magic is travelling to the other world. By default the character’s body will be in trance or deep sleep or as in death when this happens. Entering the other world is difficulty 1 (magery is the generally applicable skill). Entering with a certain purpose and approach, such as driving away the local band of outlaws by making the forest they reside in haunted, is difficulty 2. Having e ven more conditions may increase the difficulty further. Failure at these rolls means that entering the other world fails or, more likely, that something nasty is afoot there.

In the other realm a mage can make things be by mere willpower (and training). This is difficulty 1 for gradual changes (a forest behind the next hill), difficulty 2 for major or fast but relatively minor alterations (the world will end after the next hill, or the lilys on this field wither and die now), 3 for major changes or changes affecting sentient beings (this forest is in fire; or gone; or it grabs and entangles everything it touches; making the lowliest of pixies disappear is also difficulty 3). Affecting mages is opposed roll; aggressor rolls at base difficulty 3, defender at base difficulty 1. Failing a will roll brings consequences; a perverted manifestation is the default.

Failing any magic rolls and then fixing it with willpower tokens has a price; namely, in addition to the usual effects, character is marked. This mark may be physical, or it may be a familiar, or a magical item. The mark remains with the character in the normal world and is easily distinguishable, especially by other mages. All characters start with one mark related to their magical path. Characters heavily marked draw the other world close, hence making it more likely that things will cross the boundary, wittingly or not.

Design notes

This game is Ars Magica with different magic and rules. The resolution system is mostly stolen from Hero Wars as designed by Robin Laws. It is mathematically equivalent to rolling a d20 and adding the trait, target number 21. I use 20-sided die because it gives sufficient granularity and somehow feels correct for these rules.

Default skill value of 13 gives roughly 2/3 chance of success on unopposed rolls. It is basically an educated guess as to a suitable value. The way difficulty is handled is basically an experiments. It might not work at all or feel terribly unintuitive for all I know. Play will show.

The way magic works is another experiment. If successful, it will make magic feel magical in a way that few rules systems have managed thus far. One of my holy rpg grails. As a bonus, there is clear distinction between the fantastic and the normal, except if someone blurs it…

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Excellent D&D blog

25 February, 2009 at 11:42 pm (roleplaying-games) (, , )

Link: http://gastogh.wordpress.com/

I should warn people that is is about 4e primarily, though he also plays Pathfinder with mister Särkijärvi. Gastogh is a long-time friend of mine. There’s quite a few kilometers between us, so we rarely get to play together, but his commantary is amongs the most insightful I have read regarding 4e particularly. Besides, he is a good writer.

The first post is about the adventures of Korvakopla and is edited copy-pastings from a forum. URL: http://gastogh.wordpress.com/2009/02/25/the-chronicles-of-korvakopla-1/

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Dragongame, sixth session

23 February, 2009 at 10:36 am (actual play, Dragongame)

Session n-1, everyone present.

Play

Planning, idling, then on to the forest near the forthcoming elven tower. Vulcanus persuades (hypnotises) a small bird to act as his spy, forming a mind link to said bird so as to see through its eyes. After some complications it arrives to the desired location. There tower is somewhat taller, some wall of stones is being built in the usual way and there are three members lizardfolk also working, under watch but not maltreated. Some elf begins chirping at the birdie and Vulcanus leaves it.

Zaphádoranon takes the shape of an elf (without clothes) and some plans are as to how it would be best to approach the elves, who are now patrolling the forest. No decision is reached and the dragons decide to wait until night-time, as a squirrel told them that the griffons sleep in certain trees at night. At evening Hafnir notes that some magical pulse is being emitted from the upcoming elven tower, and that the auras of the dragons are responding to it. Not much later there are elves running at them from the forest and griffons circling above. Arrows are fired, Isla swoops back to threaten the elves, who jump to the ground at her icy breath, after which Isla quickly flies away, but not before an arrow hits her.

The others help Isla to the mountainfolk’s lair, wherein she is cared for, including a healing ritual or two. One of the rituals requires spring water, and the lizardman previously slighted who claimed to be called Blosk offers to do this, but the offer is quickly denied. Few bite wounds later the arrow is in Isla no more. The lizardfolk prepare for war, and drums are used to communicate this further.

The next day there are griffons flying above the valley where the dragons like to fly around; one of them is ridden by an elf. The lizardfolk are preparing for war. Elves are marching and souding horns. After the dragons show themselves (by peaking from a cave entrance) the gryphon-rider approaches. Zaphádoranon’s newly developed language skills show their worth, as soon enough it is clear that the elf wants to negotiate. A neutral ground is found and the elf even dismisses some of its gryphons so that the dragons come near. The elf rambles some nonsense about the world being once whole and now shredded and that the elves want to make certain a similar catastrophe won’t happen again by taking control of other peoples. All things considered, the elf seems a little off-kilter. There is posturing by both parties and eventually an agreement is reached: That the leaders of the lizardfolk and the dragons and the local elven leaders would meet and negotiate.

That done, word is taken to the three lizardfolk tribes and even to the dragon-that-is-a-hill, though anger is the only response therefrom, even after Vulcanus sang to it of dragons and their glory.

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Three links

21 February, 2009 at 3:30 pm (roleplaying)

Rick Neal has a post about terminology, design assumptions and especially differences in them between 4e of D&D and World of Darkness. The subject is something that continuously trips me: Much of the material that people who play solely 4e or 3e of D&D (Pathfinder qualifies) have this strange focus on building possibly balanced encounters and then having players “play through” them. Maybe WoD people have the same thing going with scenes, I don’t know. For me the entire concept of game being a series of scenes or encounter to play through just feels boring, as a GM, and restrictive as a player.

Willow posted two articles on character creation. They are very comprehensive articles and full of good material. Highly recommended. The advice does not translate completely unaltered to dungeoncrawlish or run-through-my-premade-story-styled games. (Technically, that’s two links, but it doesn’t matter anyway.)

taichara has a blog committed to imaginative monsters, magical items and other stuff. The material is a hybrid of fairy tale and D&D sensibilities. Stats are provided for some not-quite-modern edition of D&D. I can’t tell the differences between them, anyway.

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Dragongame, session five

15 February, 2009 at 5:55 pm (actual play, Dragongame) (, )

Players as before. There will be two sessions played after this one, assuming nothing changes.

Play

Sleeping and eating done, the dragons go to meet the mountain-dwelling tribe. While entering the settlement proper they meet a gang of of lizardfolk who ask the dragons to follow. Dragons are loathe to cause trouble so they oblige. To trash pit they are taken and demanded to clean it. Though Zaphádoranon snorts in derision, others get to work, which is fairly easy with judicious applications of small-scale wind manipulation, fiery and icy breaths. The gang seems disappointed whereas they were snickering a moment ago. Hafnir hears something akin to chanting and goes on to investigate: A youngish group of lizardfolk notice him and for direction to the others. Once there, they kneel and ask of the sins they did to deserve their eggs being frozen, and of the actions they should take to prevent such disasters in the future. The other group is very hostile to entire idea, as is Isla (who prevents Zape from saying much). The other group is, in fact, hostile enough to ready their spears, though they do not dare attack the dragons. Isla tells the kneeling group to be happy and multiply, which the youngish lizardfolk are fairly certain to approve of, as far as cultish behaviour is concerned. The younglings leave and Zape confronts the other group, which quickly departs as they clearly had no authority to boss the dragons around as they did. Their leader is clearly demoralised by this event and the more followery types scurried away a bit earlier than their leader did.

Zar, the leader of the mountainfolk, was impatiently waiting for the dragons. It soon became clear that cleaning the trash pit was not something the dragons were supposed to be doing and the perpetrator would be duly punished. Dragons are assigned the worthy mission of finding out what the strangers to southeast are about, preferably without starting a war.

The strangers are already have a well-established city on an island, and are constructing something on the mainland, too. To find out more the Zape is to take on the form of a griffon, as some of those seem to be guarding the cities of the strangers. Griffons are larger than the hatchling dragons, so plenty of food is required. A herd of gazelles is driven into a chasm and then eaten, most by Zaphádoranon who then changes shape and eats whatever the others did not. A suitable mountain wherein some cover and a good view are possible is selected and Hafnir and Vulcanus wait there while Zape flies towards the gryphons circling the mainland settlement. Isla creeps along in forest; an activity greatly aided by her scales taking on the colours of her surroundings.

Though Zape looks like a griffon and sounds like them, he has little idea of their language, such as it is. Few attempts at communication prove unsuccessful and he flies away to ponder on the experience. Isla, meanwhile, hears the griffons but decides to go on. He encounters one of the strangers; a guard in silvery metal armour with a sword and a horn at belt and bow in hand, as though it had heard something. As elves are the strangers known. Isla waits until the guard calms down and then freezes it. Sneaking closer Isla finds that the elves are cutting down forest and constructing a tower of marble by forming a circle and chanting at it. Isla leaves. Soon enough two gryphons start circling the area, as if alerted by something. The dragons quickly leave to inform Zar of what they found out.

Zar is busy, so especially Hafnir investigates scrolls present in the common room of the mountainfolk leader. There’s info on local flora and fauna and rumours about wild elves to the north but little factual information, other than that they were territorial (the lore is more than two hundred years old and may not be exactly reliable anymore). More interesting, the treasure hoard of Thunan is somewhere nearby as is a magical divination tool that looks like a stone tablet and a tower that is very rarely visible. The exact locations of all are unknown. Some ritual scrolls are also there, including one for attracting animals by using a large amount of their food and one for summoning winds by blowing a special feather to air.

Zar and the the lizardman who made the dragons clean the trash emerg from Zar’s chambers. One is clearly hostile to the dragons, though does not have the guts to do anything then and there (or is too smart to do so). Information is shared, Zar tells that a few of their people who watched the intruders have disappeared and informs that he has a scroll that might be helpful in communicating with the gryphons, but nothing immediate comes out of it.

Dragons eat (trying the animal attraction ritual, which works as assumed) and those who did not sleep in the scroll chamber do so now. Some further plotting as to how approach the elves is done.

Notes

Two sessions to go, which is a bit less than I expected or that would be ideal, but such is life. The climax is likely to be either awakening a dragon, should the players figure out a way to do it (I don’t know how they might succeed, but there’s four of them and one of me, so they have a distinct edge at figuring out solutions to problems), or as is more likely resolving the elven issue in some way.

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LinkedIn

13 February, 2009 at 11:12 pm (meta) (, )

I’m on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/tommibrander .

It is not very interesting place for an undergraduate student with barely any relevant work experience. Oh well.

If some reader happens to be using the service and we have had a discussion longer than few comments sometimes, I’d be glad to have that reader as a connection. (Chat discussions count.) There is also an rpg bloggers group and a couple of other groups for roleplayers.

Should some inquisitive reader be unfamiliar with LinkedIn, the main point of the site is to act as a networking tool. People can search for people with desired profession, experience or training, and possibly get introduced by a connection, which adds credibility to the introduction. And wasting one’s time is harder there than it is on Facebook and the like.

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Dragongame, session four

9 February, 2009 at 6:47 pm (actual play, Dragongame) (, )

The dragons wait for the night the rulers of lizardfolk gather to pronounce judgement. A flight of gryphons heads southeast, flying over the valley. Nothing else of importance is done.

The gathering happens on the altar island, known for a large square-shaped slab of black stone dominating it. All three clans of lizardfolk take one side of the square, the dragons taking the last side. The plainsdwellers keep their word, having sworn obedience. The mountainfolk demand that the dragons give one day in three to serving them, for the rest of the dragons’ lives. They agree. There are other issues discussed, including poison from upriver and some strange folk building crystal towers not far.

The dragons have two days before servitude. They decide to spend the time dealing with the incident of poisonous water, hopefully to aid the lizardfolk so as to appease them. A swamp and therein a putrid pool of water with only rotting moss surrounding it is found. Some gentle attempts at waking something living therein follow and five snake heads emerge. Their necks have radius in the ballbark of ten centimeters, though one is much smaller. They like their living in the swamp, came from among the mountains since there was no food there, and are quite poisonous. They agree to move if provided plenty of meat in their destination.

Vulcanus goes scouting for more swamplands, Isla starts freezing some nearby smaller ponds, Zaphádoranon hunts, Hafnir summons clouds to rain snow upon the area. Vulcanus does find swamplands, though fairly far away, and there is some mysterious slightly pulsing and slowly growing mass of whitish meat there. In his flight Vulcanus also sees a mountain that is as if cut by knife, surrounded by a perpetual storm, but explores no further. Meanwhile the others convince the snakes that winter is coming; the hydra, as it reveals itself to be, rises out from its pond to consult Thunan or Thunadrankhor or Thunatriink or whatever. It ponderously walks with short, tubby legs, moving towards the mountains. It gone, the others meticulously do more freezing (and hunting).

Vulcanus returns, as does the hydra. Isla and Hafnir have frozen the swamp fairly badly so that persuading the hydra to relocate is not difficult (it told Thunan was asleep, so no help there with regards to the winter). Isla informs lizardfolk of the hydra on the move and begs Zar of mountainfolk some extra time, to be paid with extra service as soon as possible. Hafnir remains to feast after the laborious weather altering while the others escort the hydra, which is a fairly capable swimmer, though awfully lazy and nastily poisonous. One can follow it by spotting dead fish rising to the surface. Hafnir notes that there is an island with fancy buildings and that a griffon or two patrol above it. One has strangely powerful and inappropriate aura. Then Hafnir seeks the others.

The hydra is satisfied with its new swamp and has forgotten about the meat, though Zape does deliver some, at which the hydra is grateful and the oldest hydra head tells the dragons to wake Thunan up. They first eat and are about to enter the home of the mountainfolk and meet the cult of Isla, of which more can be told in the next session report.

Notes

Slaying the hydra would have been trivial, given it can do little to airborne dragons with breath weapons. Maybe the hydra had some tie to Thunandriaikhor? The dragons are up to three days of servitude for the mountainfolk and there will be consequences to the frozen eggs. Isla has leadership, which gives means that there will be folk worshipping her. Some may be just a bit hostile, though. We’ll see.

The blob of meat and the stormy mountain are just random detail, which have a point and purpose of a sort, should they be investigated by the player characters. Or they can just be ignored. Either way is fine. Sandboxy.

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Dragongame, session three

2 February, 2009 at 6:00 pm (actual play, Dragongame) (, , )

Players: As before. No absences thus far.

Game started in the the island where a particular tribe of lizardfolk lives. Vulcanus meets a blind shaman and gets instructions for building an amulet that provides protection for birds and their kin and then carries on them (feathers from birds of three species; once done, the heartblood of a bird). The others interact a bit more with the island lizardfolk. It is discovered that Hafnir forgets his hostility as easily as becomes sulky. (Hafnir’s idea of building a large bird cage for capturing the aforementioned birds was soundly crushed.)

Isla goes scouting and discovers what might be a sleeping, or dead, dragon. Further research confirms this. First attempts of waking it are unsuccessful and attract the attention of a largish bird of prey. Once Isla reports of these incidents others decide to awake and dig out the dragon, though Zaphádoranon complains, as his desire to conquer liberate the cave-dwelling lizardfolk is strong.

Once everyone is near the dragon, the size of a hill and buried under one, with trees growing on it, it becomes clear that it indeed is a dragon. It has a powerful aura that is somehow turned inwards. Digging ensues and within few hours a scale is revealed. It is dark greenish brown in colour. The dragon is evidently capable of rudimentary communication via feelings, but even Vulcanus’ formidable roar does little to awaken it. Three griffons, one clearly larger, do circle the area for some time while the dragons hide under trees (luxury of being small).

Some hunting, and an oath of loyalty from plains-dwelling lizard-tribe commence. That out of the way, the Plan takes place.

The four dragons get close to the relevant mountain. Zaphádoranon changes shape, adopting that of a lizardman, and pretends to be a king from far away. This is aided by the three dragons being his servants, and one his mount (Isla has that honour). Audience with the ruler of the mountain folk is demanded and granted. The creature is large, fat, ugly, scaleless with uneven body hair, roughly humanoid in shape, and lives in the egg chamber of the mountain folk. The entreé of the dragons is suitably impressive. Zap is as arrogant as the monsters, so things quickly devolve to the creature grabbing a huge stone club and trying to smash Zap (and Isla) with it, with little success. It then threatens to smash the eggs unless the dragons and their lizardman leader behave. Isla responds with an icy breath, Zape by changing shape, Hafnir by wimpering in a corner and Vulcanus by roaring for aid.

A frozen monstrous despot. Many frozen eggs. The monster falls on the eggs. Lots of smashed eggs and shells thereof. Few almost born lizard-things, dead and shattered.

Zaphádoranon tries to figure out a way out of the mess. The others want to surrender, as is soon done. The dragons make a blood oath to come to the meeting of the lizardfolk leaders to be judged. They depart, though many do mutter angrily.

Notes and commentary

This is exactly why I love letting the dice fall where they may. I would not have forced this on player characters. The game took a distinctly dark turn, completely out of blue. This is why gaming is good.

There arenon-trivial analogies to certain countries liberating others, for various reasons.

The endgame is among my best roleplaying moments. I am happy. No matter what happens, I am happy with this game.

My concerns with Zap’s players were unfounded; he is doing well enough, as are all the others.

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