Thursday, July 19, 2012

Carrion Crown: Ashes at Dawn pt. 3

Finally back from a very long holiday came the mighty heroes of Ustalav, now ready to continue their journey and battle against the Whispering Way. This session consisted of Edgar the human cleric of Gond, Mutt the human barbarian, Colin the halfling paladin of Lathander, Galfur the dwarven inquisitor and Kia the human sorceress. The average party level was 11.

The heroes had done a fair amount of sidequestion up till this point, including a royal ball with Countess Caliphaso in which they got to meet some of the upper crust of Caliphas, such as Count Lucinean Galdana, count of Amaans who eagerly listened to the tales of the heroes’ deeds. Present was also Dr. Trice of the local asylum and Adivion Adrissant, a wise scholar and trader in the arcane arts who gladly spoke with the heroes about their journey and upcoming challenges around town. The Countess threw in a party to remember, in which the heroes got themselves hammered and high on drugs, thus starting a long sidequest of redeeming themselves. More about this in the side-quest update post of chapter 5 later on. For the same reason, this blog entry is rather short.

Thus we go back on the main plot.

To catch a killer when much is at stake!
The heroes had long argued whether the best way to catch their target would be to trail his few tracks back to wherever he got his supplies. From the vampire Kote they had received additional stakes found in the victims, all witnessing the same craftsmanship behind them, revealed by the twisting burn-marks around the bottom. From their conclusions they had likely been part of furniture once.

They therefore decided to snoop around for some information and finally realized that this solid handiwork originated from a carpenter by the name Willum, who resided in the north-eastern part of Caliphas. They arrived at sunset and were politely greeted by the halfling-carpenter and his two sons, who quickly identified this sort of tree as very sturdy and durable. They could easily recollect selling a bunch of chairs to a certain customer within the last few weeks, a man with a crooked nose and grey eyes, who always ended up dragging them down the street and disappearing. (In the original adventure, the carpenter is placed directly opposite of the tailoring-shop, but let’s not make things TOO easy. As one of my players remarked, why would the killer buy all his stakes at the same place anyway?)

The heroes thanked Willum and departed, trailing their suspect’s footsteps as closely as possible, till they reached a street with several small shops. They ended up asking around in the local tavern, in which the inn-keeper quickly pointed out their suspect and said that he was employed at the tailor’s further down the street; “The Nobleman’s Stitch”.

Dressed for the occasion
The heroes had a short gathering outside as to whether kick in the door, guns blazing, or taking the talkative approach. They settled for something in between, keeping a very nervous finger on the trigger. A quick walk around the house revealed a small set of stairs down to a tightly locked basement and the showcase windows revealed only illuminated mannequins in the dim streetlights. It wasn’t long till the tailor would close down for the night, so they decided to make a late visit.

Inside they were greeted by four shop assistants, one of the behind the counter bidding them welcome to The Nobleman’s Stitch, asking whether he could help them with something? They spoke casually for a bit, and Galfur and Kia quickly noticed his twitching movements and strange gaze, concluding that this man was dominated. Not wanting to waste precious amounts of time, Kia unleashed hell with a dispel magic and snapped the servant out of the trance. He screamed and ran, immediately resulting in spellcasting coming from behind the counter; more precisely – from the showcase-window. They identified the sound of invisibility spells being cast, and Galfur on his turn immediately cast an invisibility purge. As the remaining three dominated workers rushed to the intruders, three vampires flew out from the window, no longer posing as mannequins. (I made a woopsie here as this fight should more than likely attract some of the other encounters nearby in the shop, so after a couple of rounds I provided all the vampires with a couple of more caster levels to even stuff out. If you’re running this as a GM, remember there are additional encounters in the side-rooms and upstairs that would likely come to their aid : ) )

Edgar hastily cast a Death Ward on Mutt who flew into rage and hurled himself at the first vampire, his halberd of undead bane drawing glowing circles as it sliced through the air. It connected with the first vampire’s chest in a gory mess and soon after Galfur’s strike landed heavily in its back.  As the two remaining vampires flew into position well above the floor they unleashed barrages of scorching rays towards the halfling paladin, severely crippling his hit points. To make matters worse, one of the dominated thralls succeeded in grappling him on the following turn, keeping the much valued smite evils out of the battle for some time. Inspired by the success of his colleague, the second shop-attendant made the same move and grappled Kia in the corner, while the third picked up an improvised weapon and started hammering on Galfur.
 Edgar blessed himself with another Death Ward, the power of Raven’s Head crackling through his incantations for every word, and to his pleasure noticed how the first vampire seemed unable to act against Mutt with its Vampiric Touch. Instead it turned to Galfur and unleashed a devious slam attack. It was to no avail however, and the vampire didn’t get far enough to evade the retaliation of steel which soon disintegrated it into a cloud of mist seeking towards its coffin. 

Cleverly flying to a better strategic position, the remaining two vampires flew to the counter and unleashed two Cones of Cold on the party, making sure not to hit the valuable silk-drapes in the process. Both Edgar and Kia felt the pain from the chilling cold, but Colin was brought to the brink of death, with less than 10 hit points left. Luckily he managed to free himself from the grapple and move in on Edgar while channeling. The thralls close on their tails, Kia remained grappled and then unleashed a still fireball with selective targets, burning the vampires for a modest amount of damage. Mutt and Galfur knocked out a thrall and continued their approach, while Edgar cast a Heal spell on the paladin, allowing him to get off some well-earned holy shots.  The vampires shifted their attention to Kia now and hurled a round of scorching rays against her, knowing she’d not be likely to reach the healer in time. As Kia was severely injured by the first barrage, Mutt managed to interrupt the second casting with his reach weapon and impale the  nocturnal monster with a howl.

Not long after, the third vampire was killed by returned scorching ray along with some well-aimed arrows.
Silence then settled on the shop with spools of string and pieces of burned/frozen cloth slowly descending from through the air.

Colin went to the door and switched to the “Closed” sign.

Clothe one!
As they rummaged through the store they found some coin behind the counter and some valuable cloth on the shelves. The heroes noticed an old set of stairs going up along with some old curtains covering doorways to other parts of the house. From outside they had noticed the two-floor structure of the building and therefore knew they had a lot more to cover. From some searching they went through the dressing rooms with their mirrors and also found an old kitchen along with some small rooms with supplies. They couldn’t help but notices, however, the presence of something sinister and evil from the south of the building. The part that had been turned into an old warehouse.

As they moved closer they did indeed find a rather large hall with plenty of barrels and crates, but most interesting was the dot of total darkness above them, from which the presence of evil originated. Colin, blessed with True Sight from the cleric immediately noticed three Nabasu demons and took initiative by shooting one of them. With a shriek the bat-like infernal beings dropped to the floor and another battle swiftly ensured. The demons unleashed their death-stealing gazes, but luckily the party had been swift enough to make sure the two Death Wards were still in place. Galfur, however, suffered negative levels in this approach. The demons then barraged them with mass hold person and in the process ended up holding Kia, Galfur and Edgar, leaving Mutt and Colin to deal with the rest. To make matters worse, a handful of foul ghouls made their way up through the floor, clawing at the heroes. (To be honest, I’m pretty sure Paizo mostly put them here for the slaughter. They’re great in regards to threatening the heroes who fail their saves against hold person, but that seems to be about it)

The demons split up in a triangle from the heroes, leaving them to bash away at their ghouls and breaking free from their held state. Most of them succeeded doing so on a full-round action, but poor Galfur wasn’t so lucky. Instead the demons hovered and unleashed Enervation spells on the dwarf. Rolling double 4’s the dwarf was….

Edgar invoked the power of his deity and with Raven’s Head tore apart all the ghouls. Meanwhile, Colin had the time of his life unleashing shots from his holy bow with plenty of smite evils to go. The three demons fell quickly and the party survived with only minor injuries. Deciding not to waste anymore time, Edgar cast Raise Dead on the dwarf and got him back on his feet, ready to explore the rest of the building. Behind the second curtain they found more changing rooms and a long corridor leading to a set of stairs down into the basement.

Getting to the bottom of this!
They arrived in a large chamber, dimly lit and several doors. One of them led back out into the streets, whereas the others seemed very anonymous. They could, however, notice the faint sound of movement behind the southern one and a sense of sinister evil, so Mutte immediately kicked in the door.
There, in front of an iron grating upon which several dead vampires rested, stood a familiar face with his fellow conspirators. Radvir Giovanni looked at the heroes with an annoyed expression and snarled “You should NEVER have gotten yourself involved in this!”…

And that is a battle for the upcoming session next week.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Psychology of Deus Ex

It's been some time since we last had the opportunity to look at some psychology of gaming. For good reason, I assume, because in a sense it strongly resembles taking work back home for me. Nonetheless, I've decided to quit the excuses and head back to an old favorite of mine; emotions and games.
Why discuss emotions in computer games?
In a psychological viewpoint we attach ourselves to things that have meaning to us. It already reminds of us the old saying by Storm P; that psychology is what we all know in a language none of us understand. It seems like a very basic statement that things we can relate to are also the ones that stay with us, perhaps for the rest of our lives.
Nonetheless, I still read gaming-articles regarding the eternal question as to how to create a classic. A game that will be remembered as an evergreen; something that settles deep inside the mind of the player and captivates them for hours upon hours. And then beckons for them to buy the (often horribly executed) sequel.
Deep down, I believe most games appeal to various aspects and desires in us all, first and foremost. After all, why would we spend time with it? We're all people of different taste and preferences in so many aspects of life, be it visual style, food, sex, partners and even decoration; which just as well explains the discrepancy between various players in regards of preferred games.
And yet there are some games that just manage to stand out and appeal to the masses; games that cross the usual border of interest and drag in people who'd otherwise not be deep into this specific genre. And for those who are, it's an involving experience that speaks directly to the core of our mind and evoke strong emotions that simply won't allow us to forget about it for a very long time.
In this series of essays I've tried to put together some of my best examples of games that had such an emotional appeal and try to determine what psychological tangents they're playing that make them so damn special. We begin the series with a personal favorite of mine -
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
2011 has, far from incorrectly, been labeled one of the greatest gaming years as it blessed us with several great titles such as Skyrim, Arkham City and of course the inevitable Deus Ex: Human Revolutions.
I've never been into sci-fi myself, but the fact that DE dragged me in bears to show the excellence of how this game doesn't make that far of distance between its world and the one of ours. While plenty of other sci-fi settings seem so distant, DE appeals stronger to us in a psychological sense, as it potentially didn't have to be extremely far set into the future. There aren't really any aliens or sophisticated Mass Effect space-travels which psychologically makes it easier to get involved in the setting.
A cardinal trait of this game is how it at the same time manages to evoke feelings of fear, disgust and yet fascination about the future we as humans are about to reach, some day. And how machines and technology were originally meant to fit into our evolution as species. These are topics that are being discussed heavily this day today, along with the eternal moral notion we stick to; that Man should never be allowed to play God. Yet, so many of us are confronted with our internal, conflicting dualism every day, as we are all too often reminded of our mortality, be it war-victims on the news or a relative dying to an illness. Mankind has psychologically sought to cheat death for centuries, almost to the degree that one could wonder; wouldn't quite a lot of us welcome the opportunity to stay just a few more years in business, after all?

I clearly remember a story being told to me back in school; it made such an impact on me but sadly not enough to remember its title. It involved a woman whose husband was inflicted with a deadly disease spreading through his body, meaning the doctors had to amputate various parts and replace them with new, but working, tissue and parts. As it progressed, arms, legs, torso and finally head was replaced. In the end the woman sat crying loudly at the bed, her husband trying to calm her down like he always did. And yet, not like he always did. The million dollar question, of course, is; when does a person stop being that person? How much can we replace before he is lost? Even if the personality traits and cognitive capacities stored in the brain can be transferred in an intact state to a new body; hell, let's just say an exact replica body of mostly artificial material, when does a person stop being that person?
This story and question haunts me to this very day still, and can occasionally give me the chills.
In Deus Ex, Adam Jensen (our protagonist) is portrayed as a psychological platform in which you as the player can take off into this ethical debate. Jensen portrays the torment that would likely follow in having ones identity majorly altered, and yet the game never becomes entirely skewered in its sympathies. Instead it plays on our common notion of justice and the old gimmick of justice from beyond the grave, as Jensen is brought back to life to settle the scores, albeit through the means so many of us either fear or loathe. This is one harsh mix of emotions, one that is strangely appealing and very likely to creep down under your skin.
In this regard, DE tends to resemble the more concrete notions presented by some people, that if they were involved in a car accident and could come back to a normal life though augmentation-technology, they likely would. After all, it's not entirely unheard of today, albeit the technology is crude in comparison. On the other hand, however, I've heard some tell me that living with their partner or family in the same way would be much harder for them to accept or deal with. Hypocritical? Maybe. Split decision? Likely. Grey area? Pretty sure.
DE talks directly to our modern psychological task, especially of the western world, in which we constantly need to define and work out our life and how it fits into the world. On the same time, the world is growing so fast that we don't just need to decide what it means to be us, but what it means to be human. And yet we're having struggles even deciding for the very basic rules, and whether it's time or not for us to attempt to seize control over evolution.
This is a question that pertains to us all, as humans, and yet the process seems to resemble the theory of social loafing to some degree; the majority of us expect that there are 'top people out there to deal with this'.
But in the world of DE, in which augmentation technology is legalized to a liberal market, it's suddenly a personal decision that more or less forces you to at least have an opinion. And even then, what happens once it becomes more or less the norm? Are you suddenly the branch of evolution that is about to wither?
This game raises so many questions once you start thinking about it, which is likely the reason it spurred so many discussions and debates on the forums I frequented the months after its release. It fascinates you, in horror, of what mankind has become and what it's perhaps dangerously close at becoming. It's such an awesome force with so much existential meaning that our minds can't elude it. As it concerns some of the most basic premises of our existence, so shall we all have to form an opinion and relation to it, and Deus Ex is a brilliant introduction to this consideration.

I’ll blankly admit that this has all reflected in my very approach of the game. Some days I throw myself eagerly at it, others I know it really does things to me and makes me think and wonder about subjects I’d rather not consider this day. I believe that is something worth truly noticing in a game such as this. In addition, the various issues Deus Ex encounters in regards to gameplay, such as disappointing bossfights and few glitches seem relatively minor compared to the bigger artwork it portrays. It certainly has primed me for reading and watching more of the same genre, and that is some psychological strength to be found in a game.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Terror... Terror... Terrorgheist.

So the time finally came in which I got around finishing the Terrorgheist for the Vampire Counts. It took a wholesome weekend, pretty much working around five-six hours a day and a certain amount of forced dedication. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship to the big bad evil monsters as, on one hand, they’re impressive with tons of details and should by law be the centerpiece of your army. On the other hand, they have tons of details and are by law the centerpieces of your army, so no slacking!

I included the fucker in my first game of Counts and he worked wonders, literally blasting a regiment of trolls back into the Stone Age (double 6’es on the dice, baby!) and I’m itching to throw him against knights next.

And now he’s actually looking pretty while doing so!

I suppose I should make the disclaimer that this is not the official Terrorgheist assembly. Actually, it’s a hybrid zombie-dragon used as a gheist, modded to resemble a Frost Wyrm. Confusing, I know.
As usual I’m terrible at making painting guides for this, barely taking pictures along the way. So I’ll try and do my best for a make-do guide how I painted him.

Step 1:
Assemble main body with the legs. Leave wings and the two headpieces separate.
I made some eyes in the otherwise empty sockets with greenstuff.
The horns I cut from the kit and glued on reversed. It’s quite easy.
Undercoat black.
Drybrush all flesh with Regal Blue, then Codex Grey followed by Fortress Grey. This counts for the skin on the wings too and the hanging pieces of flesh from the back.
Wash with black.

Carefully highlight the edges with Fortress Grey. If it becomes too bright, wash and repeat. The legs have very little blue on them in general. You can use blue wash on the wings as well for good effect.

Step 2:
Paint everything bone with Khemri Brown, then layer with Khemri Brown+Bleached Bone (1:1) then layer with thin Bleached bone. It works wonders, really, and it’s what I used all down its spine and on the skull. If you want a really white highlight, use Skull White to finish. I did that on the skull.
Paint claws in the same way, only use Scorched Brown.
The blue marks symbolizes the frost effect and the fact that blue is the overall color-theme for my Vampire army. It starts out as Enchanted Blue, gradually build up in small stripes mixed with more and more Ice Blue. This is also how I did the eyes. You can apply blue in whatever ‘holes’ you find in the flesh. If you’re skilled you can make some great glow effects, I imagine (I’m not that skilled : D )

Step 3:
The rocks. Paint them black. Then base with Adaptus Battlegrey. Drybrush with Codex Grey, then Fortress Grey. Finish with Dheneb Stone drybrush if you want a really light stone (I didn’t).
Apply moss if you wish. Paint the skulls the same way as the bones.
I added some frost effect by making some icicles from Woodland Scenics’ product called something as original as ‘C1212’. It’s really easy to work with, like a thick glue that starts out white and can be molded into shape. After 24 hours it becomes clear and rubbery, beyond doubt the best product I’ve found for this purpose.

And then it’s pure base work from there on.

And so we move on towards our next challenge; the necromancers and the incorporeals. Look forward to the next update, and hope you’re all having a great summer!