Monthly Archives: December 2011

Swords to Ploughshares (Part III)

I recently participated in a Halloween blog carnival called “On A Night in the Lonesome October,” where I submitted two adventures. One of them was a 2nd-level D&D adventure titled “The Village Above The Sea.” In it, 2nd-level adventurers stop off and stay in a seaside hotel in a quaint, out-of-the-way village, populated by some very strange characters. However, things are not as they originally appeared, and some of the villagers start exhibiting some extremely bizarre and frightening behavior. The plot thickens when the town drunk, a former adventurer, tells a tale of a secret cult that his group discovered in his youth, that were committing blasphemous acts with the minions of some piscoid god that they had all pledged themselves to. He was certain that he and his cohort had stomped out all traces of the creatures born of this unholy union, but stops there. Events conspire to suggest that there might once again be something unsavory lurking in the waves beyond.

After discovering an elaborate set of natural sea-tunnels carved out of the bluff underneath where the village was seated, the party discovers that the villagers above had been getting kidnapped, and terrible things done to them while they were put under a mind-spell so that they would not remember it. However, the hypnotism had side effects, and that was what originally alerted the adventuring party that not all was what it appeared in this village. After carving through half-human and half-piscoid abominations, maniacal cultists, and other horrible creatures that lurk in forsaken places underground, the party finally discovers that all of it was aimed at summoning an aboleth through a portal, which would enslave the minds of all in its presence and use them as its corrupt minions to further its dominion within this realm as well.

With the aboleth defeated, the mind-controlling effects over the villagers finally abolished, all that is left is to lead the prisoners out from the caves and back up into fresh air. Things have a way of not turning out as planned, however, and it turns out that what should have been assumed to have been the high priest was just yet another crony, and that the real instigator of all of the horrible events was the village priest, who had become corrupted in the mind while abroad, and had heard the whisperings of this beast and become insane. Furthermore, he had planted seeds of taint within the bodies of some of the villagers, which causes them to fall to the ground, die, and rise back up as horrible zombie-like minions, which then try to spread their corruption to the other villagers.

What results is a race against time to first, try to defeat the mad priest, but at the same time, try to save the villagers (who are all locked in the temple with the monsters). Ideally, it seems that the fastest way to solve this problem is to kill the priest, and hope that whatever deep corruption he is drawing upon to command these monsters will be vanquished with his defeat. Certainly it seems the most logical course of action, given that he seems to be in control, more or less, of all of the creatures who are murdering villagers.

But what if he is just under the influence of some external power himself? Wouldn’t simply killing him as the most expedient way to solve a problem be, at the end of the day, murder? Certainly most of the villagers who were spared by the act would probably be able to forgive the situation, given the circumstances, but this is a man, who for all intents and purposes was lawful good until he became corrupted. Another lawful good character might have serious reservations about murder, whether justified or not, especially if it could be possible that he could be saved. It would be terribly unclear whether he was hypnotized or under a spell, or whether he actually had become completely mad. It doesn’t make sense to just try to quick whack him over the head and carry him off, but he also doesn’t seem to be in any sort of state where anybody would possibly be able to reason with him. So what’s the alternative?

I suppose a start would be to try to quickly dispatch the monsters; the villagers who had already been slain by his dark machinations, to wipe them out as quickly as possible so that more villagers could be saved. It is clear that they are dead, and only reanimated by evil magic. The entire time, he will be launching necrotic bolts, and probably laughing maniacally, so it will be sort of hard to not want to hit back, but it would give the whole encounter a very interesting dynamic if it were impressed upon the players that knocking him off was “off limits.” Or even better would be for them to draw that conclusion on their own.

But what would happen once all of his minions were defeated and he was trapped, with 3-4 angry warriors bearing down on him? Would he relent? Would he try to escape? Would he at last try to talk his way out of it? Maybe even if he was irreversibly insane, he would even try to convince them that he had been under a spell, and that he was better now to throw them off. It is this sort of situation that creates memorable encounters for GMs and players alike, and I’m not exactly sure what I would do if this situation arose. It could even be a quest opportunity: seek out this person, this spell, this item, that can clear his mind of evil. The villagers will keep him prisoner until then. All of these options are far more interesting than just simply killing him, and it lays the foundation for many more roleplaying experiences and story points. It allows the players to dictate where the game moves next.

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The start of a long road of gaming…

I can remember my first experience of Dungeons and Dragons. It was a Sunday afternoon, in June of 1991, not long after my eleventh birthday. My brother had finished his mock exams, and was sat in his bedroom, door closed, with his 3 best friends playing the Isle of Dread adventure from the Expert box. And I wanted to be in that room…

I didn’t even want to be playing D&D. I wanted to be in that room because that’s where our Sega Megadrive was, and I wanted to play Sonic the Hedgehog. I knocked, I screamed, I pleaded, and eventually I was so much of an annoyance that I was allowed in order to shut me up.

I sat there, bored out of my brain as my brother described along with his friends, how they we’re cutting through the jungle vines with their short swords, in order to find out where the hideous smell was coming from. Eventually they stumbled upon a cave opening and came face to face with a bunch of spiny two legged creatures whose skin was oily and blended into the stone of the cave.

When they broke to have a drink of coke, a rare treat in my parents household, I looked over the bright orange booklet, admiring it’s T-Rex on the cover, and then getting really confused by the mass of black text inside the book. Where was all the cool stuff about my brother having to pick his way past slimy stalagmites while spears whizzed overhead? It was only after the game was finished that my brother explained that it was all made up based on what they described.

I sat in other games, and started to offer suggestion, and that annoyed them just as much as my original pestering to join them. As such, my brother convinced my parents to get me the Basic D&D starter set: Escape from Zanzer Tem’s Dungeon, and once I got the hang of it, the Rules Cyclopedia.

The rest, as they say, is history… :)

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My Act of Wizardly Cowardice

My favourite gaming moment comes from my favourite D&D session. Session 10 of the main 4E campaign I have been in. We had started out as strangers, but by session 10 we were friends, familiar enough with the rules that we could just get on with the game and familiar enough with each other that we were much more relaxed.

Party:

  • Human wizard named Grunnarch (me)
  • Dwarven Fighter named Hal (my wife)
  • Half-elf Cleric of Melora named Jess
  • Elven Ranger named Booth

Upon entering a hamlet, the gang heard someone playing the Fiddle with far more enthusiasm than skill. As they came to the centre of the few buildings that remained, they saw a beautiful tree with eight slightly decomposing people  dancing around it. One of the dancers wore a plucked turkey on his head. The fiddler was standing near them.

Sensing no immediate threat, Jess led Hal and Grunnarch towards the tavern. Booth strode towards the dancers to see if he recognised any of them. Just as Grunnarch was walking through the door he noticed that Booth’s feet were moving in time with the music. Grunnarch pointed out to Jess and Hal that Booth was starting to feel the effects of the dreadful music and they agreed that Booth was in danger and the Fiddler needed to be killed.

A fight ensued. Booth shot people twice in the face, Hal kept getting surrounded by zombies, and Jess was revelling in turning undead. Grunnarch did his usual trick of standing at the back, pinging off spells, but unfortunately a zombie decided to go for him and he ended up toe to toe. Grunnarch kept retreating towards the tavern door and suddenly had an idea. He decided the best thing to do was to go through the tavern door, lock it behind him and come out of one of the other doors he could see, he could then blast the zombie from afar.

Grunnarch stepped through the door and put the bar down to lock it. A smug grin appeared over his face as his beautiful plan was in motion. Outside, the fighting continued. Grunnarch opened a door which he assumed would lead into a room containing another external door. The room was the main part of the tavern, with tables, chairs, a bar and zombies. Grunnarch quickly (and quietly) shut the door and stood in the corridor wondering what to do next. He was worried that he couldn’t go back out of the door he had used to come into the building as the zombie would still be there. He decided to wait for the others to come and get him.

Unbeknownst to Grunnarch, the fight outside had finished. The rest of the group healed some villagers and explored the rest of the buildings.

…Grunnarch sat on the floor waiting. A bug crawled across his arm. He killed it. I considered this an encounter.

Jess, Hal and Booth managed to find some more zombies to fight in a distant building.

…By now, Grunnarch was getting worried. He couldn’t hear anything outside, but the door was thick. He decided to set a Magic Mouth ritual in the wall opposite the entrance he’d come through, which would relay a message (which I wrote on a note and gave to the DM) for the gang when Jess was standing in the entrance.

After defeating more zombies, the trio decided that they had better see what Grunnarch was up to. Jess strode up to the door that Grunnarch had disappeared through and tried to open the door. It was locked. A very brief conversation ensued about whether to break the door down, but the trio were reluctant to attract attention. They went through the other door, into the bar part of the tavern. All of the zombies that Grunnarch had seen were in exactly the same place. The gang quietly made there way to where Grunnarch had been and could see no sign of him. Jess investigated the first room and Grunnarch rushed out and in his relief gave her a big hug. The gang decided to go back outside. Jess unbarred the  door and walked out. As she stepped into the doorway, the Magic Mouth ritual sprang into action, and a mouth appeared on the wall to proclaim in Grunnarch’s voice (the DM made me read out the note I had given him when I set the ritual):

“I am hiding under the bed in the first room on the right. The door on the left leads to a room full of zombies”

Grunnarch was slightly embarrassed. Everybody else laughed.

What I love about this memory, is the DM was great. The story took place over about an hour and a half of play time and juggling all of the fights while still having the wits about him to see that Grunnarch’s plas would be frustrated by Grunnarch’s actions without being cruel about it is something I’ve not been able to live up to as a DM so far. But I will one day.

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The Weekly Assembly: The SocialMetaSteamFestMusic Edition

Welcome to the list of what links caught our interest this week. The second week brings us a preponderance of steampunk and music links. Aside from the links, we’re unveiling two changes this week. First, we’ve changed the name of the column to The Weekly Assembly since it just seemed to fit a little better, and it gives me a vision of everyone from across the Internet wandering into my high school’s auditorium and taking seats. That image shouldn’t entertain me as much as it does, but then again I’m a simple Wombat with a low threshold of humor.

Secondly, we’re trying to find other sites that collect links and release weekly missives like this one. We’re specifically looking for RPG or other gaming links. If you know of any people crazy enough to curate a list of links, let us know and we’ll add them to our MetaRoundup list.

We’d love to hear feedback on what you think we’re doing right and wrong in The Weekly Assembly. Can’t start your Friday without it? Too many links? Not enough links? Did we miss a huge story? Should we group links by game system, campaign genre, both, or neither? Should we include links to your project? Want a link to the weekly list in your inbox instead of online? Please let us know what you think in the comments and we’ll take your suggestions into consideration. Thanks in advance!

And with that, enjoy this week’s Assembly!

At Home

Articles posted here on The Gamer Assembly.

* December’s theme at The Gamer Assembly is Favorite Gaming Memories.

* It’s Ok to Stop Before 30 by Brian Liberge asks: when should you end your campaign?

* Because Sometimes, Talking It Through IS the Best Option… by Daniel O’Crowe gives us the smooth and skillful Negotiator theme for use in D&D 4e, complete with optional powers.

* Swords to Ploughshares (Part II) by Chris Jackson explores options for taking combat off the table in a situation from his earliest written D&D adventure.

* Gaming Memories: Character vs. Player Hits Home by T.W.Wombat explores the game where social contracts weren’t made and feelings got hurt.

Away

Content from people involved with The Gamer Assembly posted elsewhere across the Internet.

* Got Loot – The Festive Blogfest Come join the community to blog about loot, treasure, swag, and booty during the last week of the year! Open to all, with guest blogger space available! Only a week remains before it starts, so get those ideas flowing.

* Gmail at the Gametable by Brian Liberge, guest blogging over at Hereticwerks. How to use technology at the game table to preserve a PC’s secrets in game.

* Warhammer 40,000: Black Crusade Review by Chris Jackson, at A Susurrus In Carcosa. A review of Fantasy Flight Games’ newest addition to the Warhammer 40,000 RPG universe, Black Crusade.

* Brent P. Newhall at The RPG Doctor recorded a playtest of an experimental rules-light game he’s developing, called Hangout. This particular game session takes place in the world of Tron and the rules are explained as the playtest unfolds. Enjoy watching Part 1 and Part 2.

* Brent also wrote a post ruminating on key questions one needs to ask about magic systems with his blog post How Does Magic Work?.

* Madly Plugging Projects from T.W.Wombat, at Wombat’s Gaming Den of Iniquity. A rundown of ongoing projects, including a plug for The Weekly Assembly here at The Gamer Assembly.

* Lamentations of the Flame Princess, by Chris Jackson, at A Susurrus In Carcosa. An in-depth review of the (in)famous “weird fantasy” RPG.

* Two cents on villages and towns of medieval fantasy, at Litte Drink Shop Nerd. A Portuguese article about creating and referencing fantasy towns features a full translation of Creating Fantasy Cities: Purpose by Brian Liberge.

Notes From Abroad

All other interesting articles and cool links.

* Got an RPG question? Ask it over at StackExchange’s RPG site. You’ll get great responses. Browse the hundreds of past questions as well – it’s a rich storehouse of great RPG ideas, from specific 4e rules questions to Dresden Files spell ideas to tips on cross-gender roleplaying. Go take a look!

* According to this post on the Wizards community boards, non-DDI subscribers can now access the Virtual Table for free. A DDI subscriber needs to generate a code to grant limited but free access to the Virtual Table.

* Also at Wizards, Tracy Hurley (aka Sarah Darkmagic) gathers links about dealing with winter holidays both in-game and out in her column Joining the Party. I’m tempted to put this column in the MetaRoundup for all the community links even though it’s monthly. Let us know if you think it fits.

* This week, Duke University unveiled the Edwin and Terry Murray Collection of Role-Playing Games, one of the first collections of RPGs available at a research institution. The collection is large and seems fairly extensive, so next time you’re in Durham, NC, try to explore the collection yourself and let us all know about your experience.

* The Krampus Christmas Carnival starts next week, complete with Creative Commons art from Steven Austin. If you have a yen to write something about Krampus, Kris Kringle’s demonic avenger, put your hat into the ring now.

* The Megadungeon Origins Table from Rolang’s Creeping Doom lets us roll up the oddest of dungeon origins. I’m particular to “The dungeon is a parking garage which is a zoo containing advertising executives.” Plenty of fun tables are being posted over there lately as part of his Unsecret Santa “help me make stuff by requesting oddball things” method of filling his blog hopper.

* Harlin’s Almanac: The Open Source Bestiary is currently in development over at At The Table Games. Josh Mannon came up with the idea for a book filled with Creative Commons art depicting common fantasy races, species, monsters, and creatures. Our own T.W.Wombat has been tapped to write as one of the scholarly commentators in Harlin’s Almanac, so please watch for the impending Kickstarter announcement.

* Jonathan Jacobs of Nevermet Press has partnered with SteampunkKindle.com for a contest called Sky Admiral Jules Verne vs. Mark Twainbot – A Match of Titans. Cast your vote before Decmember 21st with some added (gentlemanly) smack talk and you’re in the running for a free Kindle copy of Stories in the Ether, Issue #1 or #2. Looks entertaining, so check it out. And speaking of Steampunk…

* Just Glue Some Gears On It (And Call It Steampunk) is a delightful ditty from Sir Reginald Pikedevant, Esquire, who calls out those poseurs gluing superfluous gears on a hunk of ’80s crap to “fetch a pretty penny on eBay”. Thanks to The Mary Sue for calling these three jocular minutes to our attention.

* The brief overview of the movement given in What Steampunk Means applies to the RPG community. Everybody comes with their own definition of what RPG means, and everyone is absolutely correct. If you follow two simple rules, you’re in good shape. First, as the pagans say, “An it harm none, do what thou wilt.” And second, as this article says, “If you’re not having fun, then you’re doing it wrong.”

* 20-Sided Rhymes gives us 20 (of course) tracks of gamer tuneage, or as the album’s subtitle says, “A Compendium of Beats both Malevolent and Benign.” You’re sure to find something to entertain you on that album. Congratulations to Hipster, Please! for getting this project released into the wild!

MetaRoundup

A roundup of roundups featuring links of interest to the tabletop RPG community.
We’re trying a new feature this week, so please let us know about other weekly roundups in the comments below!

* Game Knight Reviews comes out with News From Around the Net articles on Fridays. Last week’s roundup included over 30 links including art, music, publisher news, and product reviews. That’s a great spread of links! This week’s news tries something a little different, calling out 18 links and including a more raw list further down in “colorful grid” format. Take a look and give your opinion!

* Roving Band of Misfits publishes their Weekly Roundup column every Sunday. This week’s Lair Assault Edition includes a plug for Gamer Assembly and the Got Loot Blogfest. Many thanks for the exposure!

Thanks for reading!

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Gaming Memories: Character vs. Player Hits Home

I’ve walked through my gaming memories before. I wrote a whole series of articles called Wombat’s Path chock full of some of the things I’ve experienced in 30 years of gaming, and more recently I wrote a little something about GMing for the first time. Most of the memories that stick with me are instances that have taught me something, either about myself or about RPGs in general.

I’d like to focus on a game from late high school and explore that memory, if you’ll indulge me. I mentioned the results of this particular game briefly in Wombat’s Path I: The Early Years, but not with any detail. See if you can find the reference.

I don’t remember the season or if we were juniors or seniors in high school. I’m pretty sure there were five of us that night in Kev’s basement. That basement was our gaming sanctum. The walls were studs and insulation framed with cinder blocks, but that let us tack the Greyhawk map up full-size. The concrete floor stayed tolerable only from the carpet remnants piled on it. We found a table and a few serviceable chairs and lived in that half of the basement making our own worlds a few nights a week.

This particular time, Kev GMed something D&Dish, a quick mercenary job for a local noble who’d gotten bitten and started losing control of himself every full moon. It was a new game, and we had rolled up characters who hadn’t worked together before, thrown together for the promise of an easy retrieval and easy money. How hard could it be to get wolvesbane from the woods?

We defeated the pack of werewolves without contracting lycanthropy, and we had the wolvesbane in hand. Adventure over, right? We found a shrine with a hybrid wolf/woman statue. She had a valuable gem in either hand. We had been warned to not touch anything except the wolvesbane, but Matt’s character had to grab the gems over the objections of the rest of the party. And what does a werewolf spirit curse you with if you were to, say, steal a couple of sacred gems from one of her shrines? That’s right – lycanthropy.

So Matt’s character wants to use the wolvesbane, that same wolvesbane that we were hired to retrieve to fix himself, and the rest of us refused. There was handwaving, drama, and debate. It resolved, but not without some hurt feelings. Matt didn’t understand why his friends weren’t helping him, and the rest of us wondered why our characters would help a stranger who had gone off the rails and done something stupid after we were warned explicitly not to do it. The rest of us had a solid separation between player and character. Matt’s dividing line seemed a little more nebulous.

We all got over it – we were friends after all. But this experience brought home to me the need for a social contract. Everyone around the game table needs to have the same expectations about the game, even on something as basic as deciding as a player vs. deciding in character. I didn’t even know what a social contract was at that point, but I tried to communicate what my games were about from then on.

It also brings into focus something more general. Everyone has their own history and expectations. Everyone has a mental map with an opinion about what good gaming is. And here’s the thing about opinions – every single one of those opinions is absolutely correct until modified by experience. So do yourself a favor and take some time to hash through what the game means to everyone at the table. Don’t do the group a disservice by sweeping things under the rug and saying, “That’s just how D&D works.” You’re partially right – that’s how your D&D works. But when it comes to a head and someone feels betrayed because their expectations aren’t being met, you’ll kick yourself and wonder why it’s so hard to find good people to game with.

What gaming memory brought a lesson home for you?

And I’d like to end with an awesome song by Mikey Mason entitled “Best Game Ever” which illustrates this point, or rather what happens when you don’t set a social contract about what’s OK and not OK in the game. It had me laughing my fool head off. It’s bleeping censored so it’s theoretically work safe. Half-elf half-orcish Monk/Illusionist, indeed.

Thanks for reading!

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Swords to Ploughshares (Part II)

The first D&D adventure I ever wrote was a reasonably short one, where the adventurers (level 1, obviously) are hired for a relatively simple task of clearing out a swamp of dangerous frogs, which have been terrorizing the halfling inhabitants of a small farming village. However, the twist was that the frogs had been stirred up by an ancient, buried secret that lay deep within a cursed subterranean temple, which once was home to a cult who worshipped Pelor. What are Pelor worshippers doing underground? This was a sect that believed that life and death was a cycle, much like light and dark, and had embraced a contemplative lifestyle where they meditated on the mysteries of life and light whilst shrouded in darkness.

Flimsy, I know. In order to even access the temple, the players had to either break down the door (which was heavy oak), or else defile graves in order to dig up two keys. Either prospect was not very appealing. With break DCs what they were in the PHB1 days, a level 1 character would almost have better luck shooting the door with arrows until it felt apart than running at it and trying to knock its hinges off. I suppose I’d have allowed a Thievery check to simply remove the pins from the hinges and a Strength check to lift the door clean off and set it aside, but I never really had a chance to test what players would, ultimately, come up with.

The deeper, darker secret was that the cult’s purpose had been abruptly altered when they discovered a portal to the Shadowdark deep within the recesses of the cave, through which dread Things were trying to emerge. In order to protect the world from these creatures, they constructed a very elaborate seal, craft from solid silver and solid gold, and took shifts uttering incantations over the seal to keep the bonds strong. This worked great for a while, until the members of the sect became old, feeble, and died. For some reason they never thought of recruiting, apparently, or sending for help from a more mainstream Pelorean temple. I just made up that word, Pelorean. Maybe they feared persecution? I never thought that part through.

Alas, stranger tides did turn and the last surviving member of the sect, in a desperate bid to try to keep the seal over the portal secure, went through the blackest, darkest ritual to become a wight, under the misdirected notion that becoming undead would enable him to maintain his holy mission for the rest of time. As things like this happen, as time went on, he became more and more corrupt as his soul slipped further and further away, and rather than shedding holy light down upon the portal, he was feeding it with necrotic evil. The wildlife in the swamp outside the halfling village becoming crazed and perturbed was only the first hint that something far more evil was afoot, and thanks to the quick thinking of the adventurers, they’d come up with some way to destroy the wight, and secure the seal.

The wight was a scaled-back deathlock wight (mostly so he was easier for level 1 or 2 characters to hit), but all conversation options ultimately led to him attacking. He also had a neat raise minion undead power I stuck in there to make it a bit more interesting. The way I had the adventure end was after he was defeated, the last bit of power escaped from him and flung the portal open, which caused evil energy to pour out, which inadvertently causes the cave to collapse around the portal, sealing the evil in.

However, wouldn’t it have been even more interesting if there was a way to, ultimately, reason with the wight? At least misdirect him long enough for a thief or some other character to slip by, unnoticed, to at least pull something over on him? If I was a player in this adventure, I’d have been very interested in the documents that the sect left behind (discoverable earlier in the adventure), plus all of the untold knowledge kept safely by the wight in his secret study (he had constructed a dormitory directly adjacent to a small room containing the portal and surrounded himself with all of the things he felt he needed to pass the eons), and would really have liked to have engaged him, if nothing else, in a philosophical debate, which may, eventually, have reminded him of his earlier days when he was still human, alive, and passionate.

Perhaps he could have been convinced, at last, that his mission had become corrupted, and that he was no longer performing the duty which he had sworn to uphold, and in fact was acting, inadvertently, against his own express desires. He certainly couldn’t return to the world above, he was a wight, a thing of evil, he would not be accepted. He couldn’t remain where he was, his corruption was feeding the tear between worlds and making it stronger, his very presence acted to draw more evil things to the threshold. It would be very easy to make the player chacters pity the wight, instead of hate him, and make them want to try to come to an alternative outcome from killing him, at least killing him in cold blood. Even if he attacked, they could attempt, if they sympathized with him enough, to merely subdue him, and try to bring him to sense later.

Heck, if, as a player, I liked him enough, I’d probably even try to come up with some way to cover him up in a cloak, smuggle him out of the city under cloak of night, and secret him away to some temple of Pelor somewhere else in the world, try to explain the sad situation to the priests there, and let the wight live out the rest of his life in penance there. Not only would that have been a very unexpected and novel solution for the problem, but it also would set up the opportunity to have a very powerful (albeit unusual) NPC contact for other adventure seeds. I think that, while alignment can be really useful a lot of the time, at other times it can get in the way of role-playing. If there is an outcome to a situation that is more interesting as a player, but which contradicts alignment, I’d be very tempted to ignore alignment for the moment and just see how the situation played out. Those sorts of moments are often much more memorable than simply smashing the bad guy and calling it a day, and their effects can last for a much longer period of time.

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