Archive for July, 2011

The Doomed Fortress of Minesport

And I think I’m in love…

There are a handful of times in my life when I have found a video game so compelling that I became obsessed, and the hours slip away. Dwarf Fortress is quickly becoming one of those games. After a weekend spent doing little else besides setting up my seven dwarfs in a nice set of rooms only to watch as they were slowly destroyed by thirst, hunger, goblins, enraged badgers, or even one of their own dwarfs gone berserk, four drafty bone cluttered halls are all that remain. Oh – and a fifth one is just getting started. The official motto of this game is “Losing is Fun” so I guess I am doing something right.

My latest dwarf fortress seemed to start so well. Situated near the peak of a towering range of mountains, these dwarfs were in a perfectly secluded spot, with the natural protection of a small mountain valley. They had everything they needed to survive, except for mushroom caves. This led to a lack of dwarf beer right as winter set in, which led to my first dwarf champion Thob something or other, renowned for slaughtering 7 of his fellows with a copper axe after becoming berserk with hunger and thirst. It was a nasty end to the clan of Beardyes (pronounced Beard-YES!) but beautiful to watch as Thob single handedly painted the tunnels red with the blood of his brothers.

The first foray was even more macabre. The fortress of Minesport seemed to be going so well. 42 dwarves called the place home; it had farms indoors and out, running water, and a healthy trade established with some nearby elves. I was surprised to see I had done so well. Then the goblin raiders attacked. The dwarves had nothing to defend themselves except 2 copper picks, and the devastation was remarkable. This fortress was built so that all the farming and animal handling was near the front, or out in the open, and this led to the dwarves defending their farms, kennels, and outdoor buildings almost to the last man, while the goblins never even bothered to enter the fortress proper. The mountainside was slick with blood, organs, teeth and dwarf parts by the time the dwarfs finally drove the goblins away. That was only the beginning of their downfall. The aftermath included the attempted cannibalism of a surviving dwarf child, which led to internecine warfare which, again, painted the halls red.

The second and third abandoned fortresses hinged upon miniscule details, such as a lack of barrels leading to the loss of a bountiful harvest. Starvation and madness ensues. Losing is fun.

What is this game?

I read a quote somewhere that the creator of this game said they intend to set up a world generation program down to the molecular level. The game is very detailed. And complicated. And confusing. It is these three elements, turned up to max, and then one step beyond, that makes the game so compelling.

The basic premise of Dwarf fortress is to build a dwarf civilization that can stand the test of time. There are no win conditions, only losing conditions (such as all your dwarves starving) so that, eventually all empires will crumble. Losing is fun. (The game is fun; there is no way to win; i.e. losing must be fun.)

There are two other modes of play, Adventure and Legends, that offer different experiences, that I won’t go into detail about, since I am afraid to even try them out yet. Perhaps in the future, after my latest stronghold, Stasisgem, crumbles.

In short, adventure mode is a turn based RPG like exploration mode where you control an adventurer or a party of adventurers out in the world. You can even explore your previous fortress attempts. I hope to one day recover Thob’s legendary copper axe. The other mode, Legends, is a way to explore the history of the world, from its creation up to and including any history generated through play, such as my first (anti-) hero Thob the brother butcher.

Getting Started

One of the unique things about Dwarf Fortress – and really everything is pretty unique – is the system of world generation it uses. The games creator adds a knowledge of fractals, tectonics, and natural erosion into the game to generate a world model, then adds flora and fauna. Next come 250 years of world history, in which civilizations rise, go to war, and fall. Any number of things can happen during this phase, such as a race becoming dominant, or a fearsome dragon rampaging across a continent. At the end of this process, a full rendered world is ready for abuse. This process can take a few seconds to a few hours, depending on the parameters of the world and the power of the pc. This game is surprisingly power hungry, for a game that arguably is text based. I assume there is some serious math calculation happening.

Once the world is generated – and in theory you only have to do this once, and can play a lifetime’s worth of games, it is time for the most critical choice in the game – selecting your starting area. Let’s just say that this is difficult, confusing, and more than once I ended up in a completely uninhabitable zone and had to immediately abandon. The interface is a series of three maps, each at a higher zoom level, and maneuvering a cursor around until you find an area that looks promising. There is a chart of each area, called a Biome, and by reading the data for each biome, in theory you can find a perfect spot. An incomplete understanding of this segment of the game has led me to end up on a mountain peak, in the middle of a desert or on a glacier, and once next to a huge mountain sized pile of wet unmineable mud. There are online tutorials, videos, and tips to help with this process, but many of them echo the complexity of the game itself in their explanations. In the long run, I have found accepting where it puts me as better then my own half-baked attempts at finding the perfect spot.

Are we ready to play yet? Not quite, there is one more pre-fortress step to get started. The expedition must be equipped. I have no understanding of the relative importance of this step, and there is a “screw-it play now!” option that gives a preconfigured expedition, but I understand it to be sub-par. During the set-up, points are available to be spent on the skills of the starting seven dwarfs, and the equipment they bring.

While I still have an incomplete knowledge of this part of the game, my gut is telling me to stock up on supplies with the points, since the dwarfs will gain on the job training later. On the other hand, I have read that the skills chosen for the starting seven dwarfs will affect starting supplies, so it might be more cost effective to choose a dwarf with say metal crafting skill, and end up with an anvil, than to start without one and have to buy it later at a higher expense. That said, when my dwarfs ran out of alcohol that first winter and went on a berserk killing spree, the anvil was a luxury that would have been better spent on beer. Ain’t it always the case.

A Note on Graphics and Design

Or the lack thereof. A year or more back I wound up downloading and trying out this game – for less than five minutes before giving up in disgust. The screen was a tiny DOS looking window with weird patterns of characters. The second time around, I have discovered the glory of the modding community, and my copy of Dwarf Fortress is more decked out with bells and whistles than a dwarf on parade. The Lazy Newb pack is a great mod for the game which packages a bunch of individual mods into one over-all package. The graphics mod I use, called Ironhand, adds just enough visually appealing sprite-style graphics to the game where I can now play without the continual horror of an ASCII screen. The mod, or perhaps the game itself, has advanced to the level where I can go full screen rather than play in the tiny window it used to have.

Stunning Graphics!

The game is not about graphics, and at a casual glance, even with the fanciest graphics, the game looks less advanced visually than an Atari 2600. The fact that I can become this obsessed about a game with such laughable graphics is a testament to just how amazing this game really is. For years I eagerly sucked at the teat of “bigger, better, faster, more graphics” but with this game, the visuals all take place in echoing chambers of my skull, and it is grand. Watching a wounded dwarf crawl along the hallway, painting the pixels red as he goes, is enough to get my imagination to fill in the rest. It is somehow freeing to release the reliance on high end graphics.

This game is the brain child of one man, Tarn Adams, with help from his brother. It is continually in development, since its first public release in 2006. It is still considered in an Alpha state, and major and minor updates are continuing. The game is free, and has a robust community of supporters, modders, and fans. They are all a little bit crazy.

Join me as I recount tales and legends of the hardy dwarfs who call the dwarf fortress Stasisgem home in a series of gameplay posts on this most addictive game.

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A well thought out adventure with great encounters

Circumstances beyond my control (also known as ‘life’) have conspired to knock me off my pedestal of stability, and hence my Wednesday Encounters sessions were beginning to suffer. Having missed 2 weeks out of the last 3, and with worries that I would be forced to cancel further games as the relentless summer melted us all into pools of ourselves, I made a hard decision yesterday. This was to be the final week of Encounters for me. After 5 seasons of Encounters played at 2 different stores, the Evil DM was hanging up his Cat O Nine tails and unbuckling his belt of shackles.

Before I go into a brief recounting of the epic finale, I want to give thanks to everyone who showed enough interest to come to the local game store on a weekday night and throw dice for a couple hours. It is my great honor to have DM’ed for every one of the players who showed up at my table, numbering in the hundreds of unique players over 70+ weeks of gaming. I met a lot of great players during my run, and had the distinct pleasure of teaching dozens of people the basics of the game, and husbanding them through their initial foray into the world of Dungeons and Dragons. At some point I may write more eloquently on the subject of spreading D and D to the masses, but for right now I will just say that this is my own personal prime directive, and the Encounter program allowed me the chance to do that on a scale heretofore unimagined.

Journey forth into adventureSpecial thanks go to that handful of players who showed up week after week, season after season, to submit themselves to my maniacal meanderings. It is to these hardcore few that I owe my run, long and fun as it was. At this point I should begin a list of names of those whose presence kept me coming back for so long, but I am notoriously bad with names, and have to choose between remembering their character names or their people names.

Finally, the biggest thanks of all need to go to the two game stores for which I DM’ed, Game Café in Independence, and The Basement Games in Zona Rosa. Without the time energy, and well, table space, of these fine establishments and the people who work in them, this project would never have even started. Everyone who plays and loves D and D owes a debt of gratitude to the small business owners who struggle to keep a point of gaming light open in a struggling market. I hope my efforts helped bring revenue to the stores who participated. I know I tried to make purchases at the stores I played at, when possible. (That permanent 34% off at Amazon is a hard discount to pass up.)

A new adventure awaits!

There remains one entity worth thanking, and that is the company piloting the flagship Dungeons and Dragons game, Wizards of the Coast. The Encounters program was ingenious. The adventures were awesome. The rewards were inspiring, and the chance to be a part of something bigger, a world community of like minded gamers was like being in a real world guild of friends and fans of the game. Wizards of the Coast created something new and valuable with the Encounters program and my fondest wish is that it continues to expand and draw in crowds while delivering epic fun for all involved.

That is my wish. My goal of bringing Dungeons and Dragons to every living soul (and thus creating a world of peace, plenty, and hacking and slashing) is not dead, only sleeping while I deal with the slings and arrows of a world disinterested in the good things in life. I will be back.

Part 2 – The Splendid End in which the party is victorious against the darkness and shadow

(There may be spoilers about the rest of the season, so be prepared if that sort of thing matters to you, o gentle reader.)

After the sadness of breaking my players hearts by telling them this was the last week for us, I gave a quick run-down of events that lead them to the manor house of Vontarin on the outskirts of town. The weird sky of the Shadowfell hung overhead as they approached the house, and they knew their quarry was inside. They merely had to get to him.

The house was large, stone and imposing. There were no windows on the first floor, and only a few narrow windows above. The only entrance was a heavy oaken door with iron fittings. Now, anyone following along for any length of time will know that the heroes of this and the last adventure have a hrd time with walls, and climbing in general, and have learned from the bruises and blood loss to climb only as a last result. This meant Merrick the halfling thief had to curb his natural desire to climb intot he upper story window and instead content himself with picking the lock. He rolled a natural one, resulting in a puff of orange dust in the thief’s face. No it wasn’t poison, the rusting tumblers collapsing into a fused mess, the lock was unpickable.

Next up the minotaur, who has opened countless doors before, tried his standard method of charging the door, but dare I say, he toorolled a natural one. This was no ordinary door! The minotaur lost his footing and hit the door wrong, bruising his shoulder and causing him to sit down for a moment to recover. The mighty door remained locked.

Kaleth mentioned that this might spell the end, and they should perhaps give up and go home. Merrick eyed the windows above, but Thorn held him back. He found a long piece of masonry to use as a battering ram and I know it is unbelieavable, but he too rolled a natural 1 on his athletics check (three in a row!) and the masonry became lodged in the door. Now they truly were thwarted by this legendary door.

As the invoker started backing away towards home, and the thief started eyeing the window ledge above, Torrin the dragonborne calmed everyone down and said he had a plan. With a huff and a puff and a prodigious blast of dragon fire, he blew the door down. Thank Bahamut he didn’t roll a 1 on that attack door! He was attacking the broad side of a barn, that is true, but I was not pulling any punches with the critical failures. He blew a dragonborne sized hole in the door, the edges still smoldering, and heard the spectral yelp of another two headed dusk beast, whose fur was singed by the fiery blast.

A battle began in the little 10 ft square foyer of the mansion as the party squeezed into the chamber to get a hit on the devil dog, who quickly expired under the attentions. And then as it burst into quickly dissipating smoke, they discovered it.

Another locked door.

The paladin could hear the soft growling of more dusk beasts on the other side, but the run of bad rolling ws (mostly) over and some one, I forget who, but probably the minotaur Jack, burst the doors asunder without further ado. So began phase two of the battle, beating on a trio of double-headed dusk beasts, while getting shot at from behind a curtain, and ensorcelled from a balcony above.

In this battle, I loosened the reins and let pretty much anything awesome or crazy happen. There was much jumping on backs, throwing of enemies, and all kinds of hijinks. It created an atmosphere of anything goes, but it was also a very difficult fight, so the balance of fun and crazy was maintained.

Some highlights were when Merrick threw his grappling hook up to the balcony, then rolled a natural 1 on his climb check (of course!) Causing him to fall flat on his back. When he made it up the next turn, Vontarin grabbed him by the neck and hurled him off the balcony. This time the little halfling caused a domino affect of falling bookshelves that completely covered the invoker in Encyclopedias – for 17 damage!

This was only topped by the minotaur, who also rolled a one on that slippery rope, and when he made it up to the top, , he too was thrown back down! For awhile there it seemed like no one would make it up to the second floor, especially because the mess of books created an area of difficult territory all around the stairwell, making the run up the stairs a slow, slow process.

Vontarin was cackling the whole time, daring them to continue. Suddenly the rune priest cast a spell that gave everyone in the party a big boon, but it had one slight cost – the healing surge from an ally, and of course the rune priest picked the biggest burliest fighter with the most healing surges for his target – willing or not. It was Jack the minotaur.

Wrong move.

The boy who plays the minotaur decided that was the last straw, and voiced his determination to join the forces of darkness surrounding them. Vontarin welcomed him to his side, and spoke of the wealth he would heap upon the minotaur for his aid. Now, having players turn on one another is always a risky business, and as the player of the minotaur was the sone of the player of the rune priest, I wasn’t too worried about hard feelings (though sore bottoms are another matter!) but I didn’t want the game to get out of hand. The game so far had been an improvised, inspired mess, and with this turn of events, your humble DM had a masterstroke of genius. He calmly told the minotaur that the best thing he could do would be to grab his erstwhile allies and begin hurling them up onto the balcony (thereby avoiding the whole problem of getting upstairs.

Ever creative, the minotaur took it one step further and actually through his fellow PCs at the few PCs who were already upstairs – namely his sister who was playing the vampire Connie. It was beautiful, and I thought the nirvana of gaming had been achieved. This night could not get any better. There was just one small cloud hanging over this beautiful day in the annals of adventuring.

The poor paladin, had been missing all night. Sure he broke the impasse of the legendary door –nothing to shake a stick at (though they tried that, along with bribing, bluffing, and intimidating the door) but as for combat, the only thing the paladin hit all night was that first dusk dog. He was slowed, slipping and stumbling amidst the books as he tried to make it upstairs. He even missed on his epic daily power that had only the weakest of effects on a miss. In short, he was pissed.

By this time Vontarin was reduced to minion status. He had one HP left and had retreated to the far end of the chamber. Miss after miss extended his life by a few seconds until it was the paladins turn to go. With great dismay he looked down at the map to realize there was no way he could make it to the wizard, even with a running charge, and he had no ranged attacks or weapons.

There was only one thing to do, double move, and watch as his glory slips out of his fingers. But oh no, Torrin would not go out with a whimper. He Heaved his great axe spinning through the air as an improvised thrown weapon. Everyone looked at him, and pointed out that the wizard had a realy high armour class, and that the paladin was only +1 with a ranged basic. He practically needed a critical hit to get him.

What do you know, natural 20.

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Set up –
The characters are on the outer dock after a fierce battle. What started with a mob of snake tongue cultists “gang pressing” the crowd into their cult was interrupted when Sahuagin warriors assaulted from out of the sea. They tried to sink the PCs ship, but it was saved. As they recover their breath, or in other words, the opening text:

“Recovering from battle, you try to piece together the meaning of recent events. Ling Wei moves to the helm and discovers that the wooden case in front of the wheel is smashed open, and the Black Pearl is missing. In its place is a soggy scroll with smeared ink that reads ‘I will not rest until you are destroyed – Z.Z.’ Just then, as Poppy scampers up the ratlines to her post, she spies a dark smear on the horizon out to sea. It resolves itself into a dark-sailed ship making way at full sail directly towards the docks.

The others are on the dock beside the ship, helping the injured, searching for clues (and loot) amongst the wreckage. A wounded man pulls himself out of the office door of Port Authority and shouts ‘they have taken the chest!’ before collapsing in the doorway.

Body of Pellew the head purser, which fell into the surf is missing, along with all his 250 citizenship badges.
The sahuagin are a known tribe who called themselves the Black Spines.
A hole cut in the dock below is how the chest was stolen
A fisherman Mensch saw them at the rocks northwest of town at dawn. He also saw a light in a cave entrance on the bigger rock

After the initial actions of the characters:

” A horn sounds and from shore a large regiment of soldiers marches towards the docks, with the four Merchant Lords leading them. As the town defenders approach, the lord who can only be the son of the recently slain King, Prince Tallyman, turns and waves his scepter towards the tower on the cliff-side. Fire the ‘Flambeaux!’ he shouts. A signal flare erupts from the tower and seconds later a massive ball of fire goes arcing overhead towards the ship.”

The crew of the Pyrpl Wyrm descend on the Rusty Anchor Tavern

Free Port Outer Docks

So begins the “Save yourselves, the docks, and your ship from the incoming Fire Ship!” Skill Challenge. The Flambeaux continues to fire on the ship, and when it hits (15+ on d20) the ship will burst into flame but continue on directly towards the Pyrpyl Wyrm +3.
Characters have 5 one minute turns and a last half turn before the ship strikes.

After the battle they begin talking to the four merchant lords:

Lord Greyfrost of House of Grey Veils – a dragonborn communist
Lord Crabstone of House Crabstone – a dour but loyal fellow who seeks out corruption in his brethren
Lord Tallyrand of House Tallyrand – son of the dead king, lantern jawed brute, first name Gaston
Lord Samarquoil of House Samarquoil – snakey

In the middle of negotiations time stops and the characters have a vision:

The sun looks black with a ring of light like an eclipse. Permanent eclipse is what the Shadowfell day looks like. A corpse rises and speaks in the voice of the Raven Queen. When done, it turns to shadow and sprouts raven wings then dissipates like smoke.

A guard steps forward and the light of the gods shines from his eyes and cheeks. He glances distastefully at the sailor corpse before introducing himself as an avatar of the god of civilization, Erathis. When done, the poor soldier will sit down with a sigh and shake his head, then look up and say “them tuna pies for breakfast was a baaaad idea.”

The deities talk about a coming war brewing in the three seas, Raven Queen mentions how she HATES undead (nothing personal to the vampire Rook) and Erathis breaks in that all of civilization is threatened should the cities of the three seas fall. They mention the undead war of 100 years ago and that not all enemies were destroyed in the war.

Raven Queen says – Find out who is building up an undead army in the vicinity.
Erathis says – Save Free Port by finding out which of the four Merchant Lords is least evil (heh).

Erathis knows that unless the right king is chosen, the Free port will fall into chaos and be ripe for invasion, causing a domino affect in the three seas region.

The Raven Queen knows that not all of the elements involved in the Undead War 100 years ago are defeated.

Their reward for accepting this task is to not fall afoul of a gods attention.
Each character offered a “Stone of…” as a mark of their fealty

End vision*

The vote for the new king takes place in three days and only one of the four Lords is worthy. The PCs must choose the correct king and ensure he is crowned.

The fisherman Mensch will offer to take the PC’s to the rocks to the northwest of town, known as the spines, or the PC’s can take the Pyrpyl Wyrm +3 if it is repaired.

Swirling Seas around the Spines

Encounter 1 = The Spines

Approach to the cave entrance is blocked by a series of rock outcroppings known as the Spines. Broken ships caught on the rocks creak and sway in the fast moving current.

When the PC’s come within range at the edge of the map (the souuthwest corner unless they decide otherwise) the enemy materializes. They are slain mariners, risen from the hoary depths.

3 Battle Wight (re-skinned to drowned sea captains in shell armour)
3 Wailing Banshee ghost (re-skinned to the suicide wives of sailors lost at sea)
3 Skeletal Corsairs (fishfood deck hands with a cruel chain of cutlass attacks)

See next week for the final installment, as we didnt manage to finish the adventure in one sitting, though we played for well over 5 hours (this is why I love marathon events>) Here is the map of the sea cave.

Sea Cave of the Samarquoil Cartel

*A note on the use of Deus ex Machina. Any use of gods intervening in he affairs of the PCs is a pretty strong sign of heavy handedness in most cases, and this is no exception. (Also goes against the atmosphere of freedom and all that) but in this case I wasnt too worried, since they didnt all have to accept, just a majority, and two of the characters were already adepts of the Raven Queen. Adding Erathis also increased the choice, and frankly, this band of cutthroat thieves and murderers needed some guidance in their brutal lives!

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