Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sustainable Gaming

This blog is written from the point of view of a person who juggles his gaming life with professional and family responsibilities. So I was pleased to discover an article at Gnome Stew that contains tips for the busy person who wishes to maintain a regular gaming schedule:

Oliver J. Oviedo:  Consistent, Sustainable Gaming

Friday, September 25, 2015

Tunnels & Trolls Might Have the Most Perfect Combat System Ever

In my last post, I ranted about the uselessness of tactical combat systems. What I'm referring to are systems in which special moves, feats, and detailed movement rules feature prominently. My main gripes, in a nutshell:

  • Tactics slow down combat, making combat encounters disproportionately long.
  • Games with complicated combat rules encourage a video game mentality: Progression from one hostile encounter to another, succeeding through combat prowess, as opposed assessing situations for risk and avoiding hostility when possible.
  • The more advantages, disadvantages, and special actions in play during combat, the more the overall results resemble those you would see in a system with minimal advantages, disadvantages, and special actions. In other words, fighting skill could be represented by a single number or one hundred numbers; but one hundred numbers could theoretically be reduced to a single number anyway. In fact, the more stats, the less variation in their statistical average; the more customization of a character's combat skills, the less each individual skill matters.

D&D introduced a reasonably simple, effective combat system, and it became the template for most games that followed. In systems like this, you have an armor score representing how resistant you are to damage, a number indicating how much damage you can take before incapacitation, and a number representing bonuses to your to-hit rolls. Combat is resolved by determining an order of initiative, then having each combatant roll versus their opponent's armor score, and calculating damage if a hit is successful.

This system has worked pretty well for decades. It's logical, and allows for the player to take advantage of ways to enhance both the attack and defense ratings of their characters. Systems other than D&D have attempted to introduce novel ways of handling initiative, damage, and other aspects of combat, but usually haven't made any significant improvements on the original model. At worst, they introduce needless complexity.

Although some are just fine with it.

Enter Tunnels & Trolls. I recently picked up a copy of the deluxe edition rules, and I think this might be the best combat system I have ever seen. It is truly innovative, because it doesn't just try to hack the D&D model; it is a complete reimagining of how combat should flow in an RPG.

A Very Brief Introduction to T&T

Tunnels & Trolls is the second published RPG, released just one year after Dungeons & Dragons. Being second to the market and bearing a similarly alliterative name, you might suspect it to be a clone of D&D; but it is truly original. Some of the features of Tunnels & Trolls that differentiate it from D&D the most include the following:
  • Ability scores can be improved by spending Adventure Points, this game's version of experience points.
  • Levels are not gained through AP, but are determined by a character's highest ability score.
  • Magic is based on a point system, making low-level casters more useful.
  • There are only three character classes (and cleric is not one of them).
  • No bestiary -- GM's are encouraged to design monsters to fit each encounter.
  • "Save" rolls are similar to skill checks in Castles & Crusades, making ability scores more relevant.
  • The combat system is unlike any initiative-based combat system I have seen, and it's very elegant.
Let's take a closer look at T&T's combat system...

Combat in T&T

T&T  is very good at making ability scores (or "Prime Attributes") more central to the game. Four of the eight attributes -- Strength, Dexterity, Speed, and Luck -- contribute to a character's "adds," which are bonuses they receive in melee combat. Notice that Speed is one of the factors. This is because initiative does not exists in T&T. Both sides act simultaneously during a round (which is approximately ten seconds), so the impact of a character's speed and dexterity manifests as damage points. Remember what I said about how the more rules there are, the less they matter? In games that use initiative, a character's dexterity (which usually implies speed) will ultimately grant that character more damage done during an average round. So why not save time and forego initiative rolls altogether?

At the beginning of each round, both sides announce their intentions. Those casting magic or firing projectiles get to act first, though the results of their actions are not calculated until the end of the round. Missile attacks are not based on a "to hit" roll; they require a Dexterity check based on the target's size and distance. In some cases, no check is required. I think it's pretty clever -- and realistic -- to handle missile attacks differently than melee attacks. When firing at long-range, you usually aren't distracted by having to maneuver defensively. This makes missile weapons much more advantageous in T&T, but the advantage is balanced out with high DEX requirements for projectile weapons.

Melee actions on both sides take place simultaneously. Combatants choose their weapons, and roll to determine potential hit points of damage. A character's weapon determines how many dice (everything is d6) to roll, and the character's personal adds are added. Any natural sixes are tallied. Each side totals their members' rolls. The side with the highest deals damage to the other side, to be divided as the losing side wishes. Hits of damage are absorbed by armor; it is possible to be on the losing side and receive no damage if the hit total is less than the losing side's armor rating. For each natural six rolled on the losing side, one point of "spite damage" is dealt to their opposition, bypassing armor. This is a reflection of the fact that even a loser in a fight will land a few blows here and there.

Any damage done to a character is deducted from their Constitution score. There are no "hit points." If you want more hit points, spend AP to raise your Constitution. 

Monsters are handled a bit differently from statted PC's and NPC's. Their relative strength is measured with a single number, called their Monster Rating.  MR serves as both hit points and attack bonuses. When a monster attacks, they roll as many dice as their MR divided by ten, rounded down. Their attack bonus is half their MR. When they take damage, points are deducted from their MR. Special attacks or weapons can override this method. You can't get simpler than this.

In this system, it can be pretty easy for players to quickly determined if their party is outmatched. The differential between hits of damage done by each side can often be proportional to the stronger side's advantage. This is similar to real life; you can tell just by sizing up an opponent whether they are going to present a challenge. 

The Beauty of Abstraction

When designing rules for combat, one attempts to strike a balance between realism and abstraction

I have previously spoken of the Realism Gap. Let me describe it with an example: Say I am inventing an RPG, and I want combat to feel hyper-realistic. I introduce mechanics for weapon speeds based on their weight and bulkiness, injury locations and types, each with their specific effects on the body, critical hits and fumbles, fatigue, errant missiles and friendly fire, weapon and armor hit points, and so on. By introducing elements of realism, I have invited the addition of more elements. A highly critical player might review my system and ask, "If you're tracking weapon damage, then wouldn't it make sense to calculate penalties for dullness? What about the possibility of breakage?" If realistic is good, then more realistic is better, right?

Let's instead decide that even RPG's, though character-driven and freeform, are not meant to map exactly onto reality. They are games. All games are abstractions of reality, some more than others. Chess, for example, is highly abstract. There is a plot; you command armies at war. There are even characters -- bishop, knight, etc. But the details of their actions are left undetermined. Perhaps, when a bishop captures a pawn, he does so through sly political trickery, whereas a knight might capture another knight in a siege, or a duel. It's all irrelevant to how the game works. Monopoly is a bit less abstract. You are a real estate investor, and so are your opponents. You spend time inhabiting each others' property, and rack up debt in the process. When you cannot pay your debts, you are out of the game. That isn't hypothetical; it's exactly what happens in the game. But traveling in circles around the "city" in the guise of a wheelbarrow -- that's an abstraction.

Role-playing games exist on the realistic end of the scale of abstraction. For this reason, it might be easy to assume that the closer you can slide a RPG towards the hypothetical infinite realism (as in calculus, approaching zero but never reaching it), the better. But, just as traveling at speeds nearer the speed of light require increasingly ridiculous amounts of energy, the practicality of a role-playing game greatly diminishes as it moves from its "happy zone" of abstraction towards the realism singularity.

Thus, abstraction to at least some degree is necessary. Let go of the impulse to treat role-playing as a model of reality, and focus on what makes RPG's great -- storytelling, character development, heroism, adventure.

I believe Tunnels & Trolls gets it right. Its creators understand that combat should rely on characters' personal strengths, but should also be resolved in a manner that is painless for the players, quickly and smoothly, not bringing the pace of an adventure to a screeching halt, but rather adding high points of action that pass quickly in real life as in the game world.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why I Despise Miniatures

When I was about 10-12 years old, I lived a block away from an office supply store whose back room was reserved for hobby supplies. This being the early 1980's, Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia was pretty much obligatory. Between the hobby shop and the books & games shelf at a ShopKo just another block farther, I was in modules and supplements for ages. But it was the glass cabinet containing Ral Partha pewter miniatures that captured my attention the most.

Dwarf with Battleaxe, one of my first minis.

I love these minis; every few weeks my neighbor friend and I would visit the store to see what was new, and return home with one or two more. But my interest in them was as tiny works of art, not tokens for gaming. I failed to see a need for them in AD&D, which at the time did not rely on location-based tactics anywhere near as much as 3rd edition and beyond.

Fast-forward to the 2000's: After a long hiatus, I returned to gaming through the system most familiar to me: Dungeons and Dragons. And I was ecstatic about the introduction of the d20 game mechanic. For decades prior, I thought the system could benefit from a universal resolution mechanic, without having to consult endless tables. But the introduction of feats and attacks of opportunity soured my overall experience.

Tactical Combat is Baloney

3rd Edtition D&D turned combat encounters into drawn-out affairs, sometimes lasting the entirety of a session. Many players seem okay with this, but I fail to see the appeal. Here are a few reasons why:
  • If you want a game dominated by tactical combat, play a minis game. Wargaming exists for players who enjoy moving tokens on a battlemat. Roleplaying games exist for players who enjoy collaborative storytelling, exploration, and problem-solving. In an RPG, combat should represent action high-points in a story, not the bulk of the adventure.
  • A tactics-heavy combat system breaches the realism gap. Ever hear of the "Uncanny Valley?" It's a principle in computer animation which states that if you get too close to lifelike realism, virtual reality becomes creepy. There is a similar threshold in gaming realism. The more flavor you try to add with special moves, skills, circumstantial bonuses and penalties, etc., the more pressure you put on a system to to completely realistic, which is impossible.
  • The more combat rules you add, the less relevant they become. Fun fact: Adjusted to scale, the Earth is smoother than a cue ball. A cue ball is engineered to be smooth, whereas the Earth possesses an immense variation in its surface. But at the end of the day, they are both smooth from a distance. A highly abstract combat system may seem to rob a player of tactical options, but a rules-heavy combat system serves the same purpose in the end: One character, on average, will be stronger than another in combat. The more details you introduce to the system, the more gratuitous they become.
Since 3rd Edition, D&D has often been played with minis, because in a highly tactical combat system you need to mark each character's position. Let's take an objective look at the pros and cons of miniatures:

Pros and Cons of Miniatures in Tabletop RPG's

First, the pros:
  • You can't run a tactics-heavy game without them. Sure, you could mark graph paper every time someone takes a 5' sidestep, but miniatures are easier for all at the table to see; and being little models of characters, they add flavor to the game.
Now the cons:
  • The Realism Gap is in effect. Tactics aside, if you're hoping to use minis to make the gaming experience more immersive, then what of the fact that they will almost never resemble your characters as you imagine them? 
  • You will never have enough. Assuming you did manage to find a mini that looks pretty much like the character you're playing, what happens when that character perishes? Do you purchase a new mini for every character you play? As a GM, what do you do when you don't have enough 1HD monsters for large encounters? Use pennies for the remainder? 
  • They make your hobby more expensive. We already shell out dozens to hundreds of dollars on rulebooks, which is enough for casual board gamers to scratch their heads at. Add the expense of miniatures, and an outsider's bemusement turns to pity. I love RPG's, but there is a limit on how much I will invest in them, especially when the return on my investment is dubious.
  • Who carries the burden? GM's, do you require that your players purchase their own minis? Or do you take on the expense?
When the only "pro" of using miniatures in a tabletop RPG is that they are required, there is something wrong.

Two Solutions

Because minis are helpful in managing combat encounters in highly tactical games, the first solution to the miniatures problem is to simply avoid playing highly tactical games. If you enjoy playing with minis, consider channeling that interest into a miniatures skirmish game. Skirmishwargaming.com may be a good place to learn more. The Old School Renaissance has brought a slew of rules-light RPG's. I personally favor Labyrinth Lord and Tunnels and Trolls. Other popular games worth checking out are Dungeon World, Swords & Wizardry, and Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Lest you think I'm completely averse to post-3.0 D&D, I have enjoyed playing in campaigns using 3rd Edition and Pathfinder rules. But when I run said games, I prefer to craft flat tokens representing the PC's. Something like this:
The triangle at the edge of the circle indicates heading. 26 of these, and you have enough tokens to represent any character. If two characters' names begin with the same initial, I only need to create a copy of the token using different colors. You could use a silhouette of a weapon instead of an initial. Less immersive than likenesses of characters? I say no less immersive than minis that do not look like the PCs anyway. As for monsters, the process is easier: Google the name of the monster, and use whatever image you prefer in the images results. You can print the token on heavy stock paper for live games, or screen cap it, crop a perfect square around it, and shrink it to your preferred size for online games.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Surprise! There is no surprise.

Back before the poker craze of the mid-2000's, when most players were terrible (and few games were legal), I steadily earned some extra cash playing low-limit hold'em at the nearest riverboat. Movies and television convey the impression that poker is a game of bluffing; but in weak games, against players who are always trying to spot a bluff, usually the best strategy was to play in a completely straightforward manner. If you have a weak hand, get out. If you have a winning hand, play it strong.

Today, I was thinking about building RPG adventures, and all the ways I could avoid the stereotypical, "find the artifact," "save the maiden," and "kill the boss" story lines. Some twists might include:
  • The boss isn't who you expected -- perhaps a puppet of someone the PC's once thought was friendly.
  • In recovering an artifact, the PC's have accidentally hastened a villain's evil plan.
  • The damsel in distress was killed long before the PC's arrived; and her captor, anticipating their arrival, has laid a trap.
Sometimes, it is important to keep things fresh and avoid the same old tropes. This might especially be true with groups comprised of veteran players. But for every plot that you feel needs twisting, there are twists that themselves are old news.

Here's the thing: I got into D&D when I was ten years old because I wanted to delve through winding tunnels, face deadly traps, and eventually rescue the princess. That's the initial appeal -- living vicariously through your pen-and-paper heroes. I didn't care to be misdirected or surprised; I craved the moment when my party would open that last door to find the big boss, laughing his evil laugh and daring us to vanquish him.

Throughout the 90's and 2000's, movies were all about the twist ending. TV shows would capture viewers by dropping enticing bombshells during the final moments of every episode -- particularly season finales. Now it seems that in telling a story, surprise is mandatory.

But not so. I was very disappointed at the ending of Saw, because the final twist ending seemed entirely unnecessary. We already were given a satisfying build and climax; it could have ended a few minutes early and been much better for it. Remember The Forgotten? It begins as what seems like a psychological thriller, but unfortunately shifts gears near the end, when suddenly it's about aliens. Let the Right One In, on the other hand, told a straightforward story with no shockers or surprise revelations, and it did not suffer in quality as a result. This is because there is more to a story than "the big reveal." There is pacing, mood, tension, and character development. Why do so many horror movies play well with audiences? Because in a horror film, a character suspects danger, deliberately walks right into it, and finds exactly what they feared they would.

Next time you build an adventure, try sticking with a completely predictable story, with no twists. You don't need a gimmick to keep players engaged. Instead, consider these devices:
  • Create a mood. If your adventure takes place in a crypt, make it spooky. Describe the gnarled, dead tree branches outside, and how the wind chills their bones. Don't just tell them they see the corpse of a previous adventurer laying near the open sarcophagus; tell them how it reeks so badly it puts a lump in their throats, and how the skin pulses with maggots. In the case of horror, the mood is fear. When it works, players will be on their guard. In another case, the mood might be heroism; the players will feel gung-ho. In another case, the mood might be suspicion; the players will lack trust of others. When the objective of the adventure is attained, the mood breaks, and all tension with it.
  • Make them hate the bad guy. I mean, really really hate him. What is it about Joffrey Baratheon that had fans sending hate mail to the actor who portrayed him? We have grown so accustomed to the sympathetic villain -- Once Upon a Time's Rumplestiltskin, Batman's The Joker, and so on, that we overlook the entertainment value of a purely unredeemable bad guy, the sort of character who never fails to impress you with how low they sink to achieve their ends (or maybe even for no purpose but sheer sadism) -- the characters you do not suddenly feel bad for when they are humbled or punished, because you know they still haven't learned a thing. These characters inspire fear and respect, because there is no way they survived as they are without power. They earn PCs' contempt by demonstrating a lack for respect of life, taking advantage of the poor and young, and placing others in danger to protect themselves. And the closer your party gets to a confrontation on the foe's home turf, the more adrenalin-soaked the final encounter.
  • Use the theme of an adventure to spook the party. If the final objective is to kill a vampire, have bats periodically rustle the air overhead. Place "decoy" sarcophagi in the crypt near the vampire's hidden coffin. Let them hear a wolf howl outside the window. In their early encounters, pit the characters against foes who might be the final boss at first glance: a pale-faced human familiar, a shadow, or a giant raven. "Things that go bump in the night" are a time-honored way of creating the impression that the villain can always be around the next corner.
In all the above cases, there need not be twist endings or surprise revelations. A simple plot in which PC's have a clear objective and there are no surprises on the way can still be interesting, as long as the journey is entertaining. For some modern gaming groups, the lack of a twist might itself be the twist. And if everyone has fun, who cares? As the GM, you're not there to impress people with your scheming; you're there to ensure the game runs smoothly, fairly, and in a manner that doesn't generally suck for anyone involved.

Dragon Magazine #10: Dark, Black, and Oriental?

Building Realistic Dungeons

Dragon issue 10 continues with an article by Richard Gilbert titled, "Let There Be a Method to Your Madness," which discusses logical dungeon design. Here are a couple of key statements from the article:
"To the peoples of your world, digging a dungeon out of solid rock is a tremendous task, one not to be undertaken lightly."
I have often thought this. If you're going to place a handful of kobolds into a finely carved network of tunnels, those tunnels better have been there long before they settled in, otherwise there should be hundreds of kobolds living there, with leaders, wives, shamans, children, etc. Your first question to ask is, "Who built this place, and how and why?" Gilbert reinforces this: "You, as the designer, must think like the builders when you design a dungeon...".
"Before you do anything with a dungeon, you should have specified where it will be located, what the surface area looks like, and what, in capsule form, its history is."
There are GM"s that don't do this? This is a no-brainer. Have in mind the origin of the structure, and a tasty description of the approach for your players.

Gilbert continues by leading us through the creation of a sample dungeon, remembering of course to include a paragraph on "love nests." Overall, his approach is recommendable: Imagine the original purpose of the structure, its history, and how it came into its current state.

One point at which I diverge is on the use of trap and maze rooms. In a quasi-medieval economy, who can afford to dedicate an entire section of their stronghold to frustrating intruders? Plus, I can't imagine wanting to live in a place where my own ability to move around is hindered by a giant puzzle. Here's my guideline when it comes to these matters:
If a temple, keep, or some other structure that guards valuable treasure contains life-threatening traps, the inhabitants of that structure must have had an easy way to bypass them.
Failure to provide a means for regular inhabitants to go to the bathroom or visit the kitchen to make a sandwich without threat of being sliced in half by a giant axe-headed pendulum is what I call the Tomb Raider Effect: the problem of a dungeon that is built only to kill visitors, but not shelter tenants.

Building Realistic Character Bodies?

If there's one thing I can say about First Edition AD&D, it's that its creators (and house-rulers) were obsessive about having a table for damn near everything. P.M. Crabaugh lives up to the statement with his contribution, "Weights & Measures, Physical Appearance and Why Males are Stronger than Females; in D&D." Here, he takes vital statistics, the part of character creation where we spend the least amount of time and effort, and combines it with encumbrance, the part of character creation which we loath dealing with the most. Riveting!

In a nutshell, Crabaugh provides tables for the generation of height and weight, based on species and gender. Tables like this are useful if you insist on randomizing the process. Personally, I don't see how picking your own stats could break the game. No GM has asked how tall my character was, or how heavy. Nor has hair and eye color come into play beyond the first introductions in session one of a campaign. You want a randomized system? Here, I'll make one up right now: Google average height and weight for your gender. Flip a coin: heads, you add, tails you subtract. Add or subtract 1d8 inches from height, 1d20 pounds from weight. 

Crabaugh makes all this data somewhat relevant by applying hit die and CON bonuses based on body mass, and then gets into carrying capacity. I know we can be tempted to make our games more realistic, since RPG's are, after all, simulations of reality; but such meticulous attention given to demographic and encumbrance stats seems unnecessary for anyone but the most annoyingly detail-oriented rules nerd.

Crabaugh closes the article with, you guessed it, more tables; although they do call attention to things I haven't thought much about, and might try to more often: voice pitch, handedness, "habitual expression," and complexion, which he unfortunately limits to (default-white?), dark, black, and oriental.

Gaining a New Experience Level

Tom Holsinger writes,
"Existing rules for D&D/EPT are very unclear concerning the mechanics of how a character gains the new abilities, hit points and whatnot upon reaching a new experience level. “At the end of an adventure” is about all they say."
 Okay, I'm with you so far. RP'ing level advancement is something we could do more of.
"What is needed is some sort of definite ritual that characters may undergo at any time once their total experience points qualify them for a higher experience level."
Well, "needed" is a strong word. Not a bad suggestion for some characters at some levels, though.

Holsinger then presents an elaborate ritual for gaining the favor of the gods, which grants the PC's their new level bonuses. As I said, handling level advancement in-game is an appealing idea. But here are two major problems I find in Holsinger's approach:

First, it requires gratuitous effort. By the rule of, erm, the rules, if a character has gained enough experience to level up, he has already earned the new bonuses. Spell casters should still observe whatever rules exist on purchasing or copying spells; but things like hit points and attack bonuses are automatic. Why subject the player to a session dedicated to activities that will only result in something that's already guaranteed?

Second, and more importantly, it's very meta. How does the PC know it's time to "level up?" After about the 7th or 8th iteration, wouldn't the routine seem suspiciously redundant? How does it affect society in the game setting? Knowing how often PC's and NPC's alike will be visiting "leveling" shrines, would local townspeople dress them up and turn them into tourist attractions? Might they start charging fees for access and booking months in advance?

I think a well-designed rules system already lays out the process for leveling up. Usually, it's automatic bonuses, except for new spells, which have to be learned or copied, often for a fee. Thieves' skills might involve some process. I prefer to keep it simple. I assume that most players, after leveling up a character, are too eager to get back into the fray to go on some mini-quest (with guaranteed success) to earn what they already earned.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Dragon Magazine #10: Random Monsters, Treasure XP, and...Orgies?

The Dragon issue #10 is one of the most useful and interesting ones I have encountered so far in the series. Because of the amount of content in the issue, this review is going to be a two-parter. I'll take the articles in order:

D&D Option: Orgies, Inc.

This article addresses the problem of PC's having accumulated too much loot. This may have been a concern in games where XP is awarded for treasure. The author, John Pickens, proposes a novel solution: award XP not for money earned, but for money spent.

I suppose this might be helpful if a DM truly wishes to encourage players to siphon off money, but I don't see "too much wealth" as a problem. If they have trouble carrying it, provide a bank or let them take it home and lock it up. If you don't like how quickly they're leveling up because of the size of the hoards they recover, then scale the treasure hoards down.

Pickens gives us five expenditure types that would qualify for XP awards: sacrifices, philanthropy, research, clan hoards, and yes, orgies. I was instantly reminded of the anti-D&D propaganda during the Satanic Panic of the 80's, in which claims were made that characters were rewarded for brutality, rape, and an assortment of other vile deeds. At the time, I thought such claims were baseless. But this article only serves to fan the flames. There's even a 1/3 page, full-color illustration of a goblin orgy! Even if a DM wishes to implement this system of XP rewards, the fifth option is purely gratuitous.

Designing for Unique Wilderness Encounters

Yet another random terrain generator. I don't see much value in tools like this. A DM with any amount of imagination should be able to create a logically consistent terrain map on the fly. But in case you don't wish to spend the mental effort, this system seems decent.

Random Monsters

Now here is an interesting concept. The article isn't about random encounters, but random monsters, as in monsters whose features are unique and randomly generated. The idea is reasonable at first glance; player knowledge can render many encounters mundane if you only stick to "normal" monsters. Why not throw them for a loop from time to time?

But I personally won't be using this system. While I believe a new creature can be useful when it fits the theme of the adventure, arbitrary use of a new creature seems illogical. I assume the monsters featured in whatever guide your system uses represent the gamut of your world's ecosystem. Anything new or unique should have a cause -- a mutation, an enchantment, etc.

Next time, I'll complete the overview of Dragon #10 with a look at dungeon design, encumbrance, and level advancement. In the meantime, you can find Dragon #10 on Ebay or purchase a collection of back issues on disk at Amazon.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Gumshoes s01e03, "Unchained" part 3

The first story arc in our fantasy detective campaign continues. Here's the summary of last night's session:
Day 2 of the Investigation.
Raenion returned to the group after being introduced to pickpocket turned informant, "Slide" Wells. 
Chief Goodchild introduced the team to a newly promoted detective named Walder James, then led a briefing and strategy session. They planned to visit the East Egaria Arcane Society, and pass a description of the victim and beast to Slide.
At the EEAS, the party met with Forwin Helbrand, a middle-aged man who holds a position of some authority there. Forwin recognized the sketch of the deceased as a former colleague, Emil Thornton, who left the society due to professional differences, likely pertaining to his penchant for animal mutation.
The team found Emil's address at the City Registrar and entered his home, only to find the usual amenities of a lone tenant, until Franky discovered a hidden passage to a cellar under the fireplace tool rack. Beneath, they located an office containing invoices, and beyond, a small menagerie of foul but mostly harmless beasts, including a (hardly) talking two foot-long salamander, a bird with a reptilian tail that breathes fire, and a cat.
The next session should be interesting. As events unfolded in the game, I realized there are some holes in my story. I need to tighten up a few details, and perhaps re-write the timeline to make it more climactic; and I have a week.