Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Maps, motivations, and accounting

This post covers a hodgepodge of relatively brief topics. First, here are Wren's map of Grimmantle and an overland map section for the game.

Sword Coast map
This isn't the same map that we've used on paper, but it's easier to read since there's less clutter. I've also reduced the scope in terms of the geographical area pictured; the paper map is a bit overwhelming and denotes many locations that are very far away. Above, Brithem sits along the coast, one-quarter of the way from Luskan to Neverwinter; Port Llast sits on the same path, three-quarters of the way between cities.

It's important to note that the overland map is a metagame aid for the players - that is, the characters don't have access to the map, nor are they necessarily aware of every location it depicts. This is intended as a player resource only, to better understand the relative placement of the locations discussed in-game. It's OK to assume that the characters are aware of nearby towns and renowned cities like Waterdeep. Beyond that, players can ask me what their characters should reasonably know.

Wren's map
The "Grimmantle" map, on the other hand, is intended as an in-game resource that's physically in Wren's possession. Characters may study and form opinions on its nuances to their hearts' content. Wren has had this since the beginning of the campaign, but I didn't want to post it publicly until the other PCs were privy to its existence.

PC Motivations

Sean mentioned at the end of last session that he felt a need for the players to take some time speaking to their characters' individual motivations for adventuring, and I agree. We did an exercise in defining initial motivations before we started, but that feels extremely antiquated at this point. I do think it's important to know what each PC is in the campaign for, both to help the party set its course and also understand why the characters are together in the first place.

Let's plan to take some time at or before the start of the next session to have a brief discussion around this.

Monetary Accounting

Finally, I've created a spreadsheet that I'd like to try using to track the approximate wealth of each PC. I'll start by recording the current gold piece value of the coins and other valuables carried, and record debits and credits as accurately as I can. This should make it easier to track how treasure is split, who's in possession of what, and how much wealth the party has at its disposal at a given time. I still want players to mark their gains and expenditures individually, but I know those details can get muddy over the course of multiple sessions.

Monday, April 25, 2016

FR #7: A Brief Foray in Neverwinter

9 Mirtul, latefeast

As the daylight began to wane over Port Llast, the party made its way to the gates. Thirty-five miles north of Neverwinter, the small town of 700 was known mainly for its skilled stonecutters and excellent harbor - a small bay sheltered by a high, rocky spit, with a fine beach and inlet. The port was overlooked by cliffs upon which boulder-hurling siege engines could be spotted from the road below.

Passing the gate-guards with few questions asked, Lincoln had become notably white and feverish, having broken into a cold sweat. As such, the party secured rooms at the Drunken Mermaid, a waterside inn and tavern, at two gold pieces per night each. Lincoln took his leave, and in the taproom the remaining PCs caught rumor that an inbound caravel had recently encountered a naga while traversing the inlet. Though no one aboard the ship was injured, water nagas, usually only found upriver or in freshwater lakes, were considered dangerous enough that a five-hundred gold piece bounty was placed on the creature by the First Captain (Port Llast's highest-ranking official).

As the evening drew on, the party was approached by a cloaked man with long, dark hair. He carried a scimitar visible at his belt and wore a pair of forged bracers, though he appeared otherwise unarmored. After flipping a gold coin onto the table (which Wren quickly pocketed, before stepping away), he sat, introducing himself as "Rumolt the Wanderer."

Rumolt explained that he was looking for adventurers to accompany him into the Neverwinter Wood to enact vengeance against the orcs of the Yellow Eye, a malicious tribe that had ambushed and slain his previous companions during a recent hunting expedition. Rumolt alone escaped, trailing the orcs to their forest lair before returning to Port Llast only a handful of days ago. To further substantiate his claim, he rolled up the sleeve of his right arm, revealing a jagged, clotted gash. Rumolt sought to recover what he could of his allies, and was willing to pay handsomely for capable assistance.

After some deliberation, the party declined Rumolt's offer, opting to continue on its original path to Neverwinter while Lincoln recuperated in Port Llast. They set out the following morning, breaking at dusk amid an encampment of caravans halfway along the two-day journey between cities. As they prepared for the night, a raucous bonfire erupted across the encampment, surrounded by a dozen surly caravaners, bellowing and drinking heartily.

Seeing opportunity, Wren and Riwyn approached the men and seated themselves on either side of a particularly intoxicated specimen, and while Wren teased the caravaner with innuendo, Riwyn pickpocketed his coin purse. Though the man tried to physically detain the women when they rose to leave, Arendeth's advance curtailed any possibility of an escalation. The caravaner passed out some time later, still oblivious to the theft. The following morning, the party ended its watches early and departed at sunrise, reaching its destination before dark.

The PCs passed two days in Neverwinter, a city of more than 20,000 inhabitants (and one much richer in culture and diversity than Luskan), seeking information about Grimmantle and hoping to discern its approximate location. Arendeth procured shelter for Aranos and himself at the Sword and Shield, a Tempuran temple, while the others roved between inns (the Silver Harp, one gold piece per night), libraries, bookstores, the office of a local cartographer (Arphon, a middle-aged balding man), and the House of Knowledge, a renowned temple to Oghma. The aggregate yields of the party's research were that Grimmantle was built into the southern face of mountains, constructed partially above and partially below ground (similar to neighboring Mirabar), and would likely only be located with substantial magical aid. At the House of Knowledge, Berwyn was given the name and residence of a local diviner (Naerinth), though attempts to locate the wizard proved fruitless.

Before setting out north again, Arandeth bartered the bloodstone from Lady Deidre to various traders, finally settling on a "best price" of 800 gold pieces.

The return journey to Port Llast was uneventful. Rumolt was still present at the Drunken Mermaid when they arrived, and made a final offer of 100 gold pieces each, along with an equal share of treasure found, for the party's aid in the forest. The proposal would stand for one night only, as he otherwise meant to depart for Neverwinter at sunrise, hoping to have better luck finding help in a larger city.

XP

The last two sessions have been mostly barren of XP, though I do want to award points for the sale of the bloodstone. It's 200 XP to each participating character, bringing their totals to:
  • Berwyn - 7,756
  • Arendeth - 8,240
  • Riwyn - 4,120/4,120
  • Wren - 3,745/4,120
Wren inches ever closer to her third fighter level; unfortunately, being a multi-class PC without a prime requisite bonus makes it slow-going. She'll get there.

Party totals are updated on the right side of the blog as well. Of note, the cost of Lincoln's week-long stay in town amounts to ten gold pieces. This covers all meals and lodging, and assumes that the dwarf found more affordable accommodations after the first night.

The Mystery Roll

As we approached sunrise on the morning following Riwyn's pickpocketing of the caravaner, I rolled a d20 simultaneously with 3d6 into the dice box. A player made a declaration that the roll was not meaningful (i.e., that I was rolling for suspense and not for any mechanical purpose), to which I replied that I would reveal the reason for the roll after the session. The roll was a Constitution check to see if the caravaner would wake up early after a night of drunkenness, or if his hangover would keep him passed out until stirred by his companions. In any case, I figured he'd have a chance to notice the coin purse missing upon waking, and if he did it seemed likely that some sort of incident would transpire. (As this was very much instant decision-making on my part, I can't say for sure exactly what the man's actions would have been.)

It didn't matter in end, because the check result (19) failed against the impromptu Constitution score (9) that I rolled for him. As a random caravaner, no pre-generated ability scores were on hand, so I decided to roll them on the fly. 3d6 seems appropriate for arbitrary scores for commoners, though for leveled NPCs I'd use 4d6-drop-lowest. Pretty much any time you see a set of d6 rolled alongside a d20, this is probably what I'm doing. A solitary d20 is often an ability check or a saving throw against a known, target value, d% (two d10s) is either a thieving check or a roll against a percentage chance to see if something happens. (d6s and d20s are also fairly common when checking for random encounters.)

I don't really go out of my way to be misleading with the dice. It tends to not be necessary very often, and most of the time I'm too preoccupied with making actual rolls, looking up information, and trying to decide on NPC reactions to worry about psyching out the table.

On Thieving from Commoners

Wren and Riwyn's incident with the caravaner drew some in-character criticism from Arendeth, which I think was very fitting, given his persona. For my part, the PCs can do as they wish and I'll try to make sure that the reactions elicited are fair and unbiased. This is an area where the DM of a narrative-style game can find difficulty, especially when plot lines assume a party of noble-minded adventurers. Characters stealing from non-threatening NPCs can unravel fixed adventure paths quickly and create a sticky situation for the DM, who consequently feels pressure to step in and wave a finger at the players wreaking havoc on his story.

Fortunately, this game is not being run that way, so I can adjudicate these kinds of situations without a conflict of interest in terms of how I want the sessions to play out. I think the result of this is a much more organic environment, where any repercussions enacted on the PCs are based only on predetermined information (meaning that I won't hand-wave that the caravaner you're trying to pickpocket is actually a 10th-level wizard because I want to teach you a lesson) and untainted by any path that I'm trying to force. I don't doubt that, eventually, a thieving character's luck is likely to run out - but I won't go off the reservation trying to make it happen.

The biggest thing the players need to remain conscious of with these kinds of dealings is the overall cohesion and trust within the party. When that starts to break down, games can get derailed, characters can become ousted and players can leave the table with bad feelings. Something to keep in mind going forward, though I don't think we're anywhere close to that happening at present.

Monday, April 4, 2016

FR #6: From Brithem to Port Llast

Note: A bit of additional detail regarding Grimmantle is provided below, as I don't think I relayed Mara's findings completely during the game.

4 Mirtul

After its initial victory rush subsided, the fiefdom of Brithem began to pick up the pieces left from the destruction wrought by the dragons. The majority of the party helped where it could, transporting supply carts and fortifying the castle, while Wren sought Mara to learn more about her unattributed, weathered map. Through the tomes in her study, Mara imparted that "Grimmantle" (the name cryptically scrawled upon the parchment) was a kingdom in the eastern Crags founded by humans in 272 DR (curiously, the "Year of the Weeping Kingdom") to guard against orc attacks. The following passage was found pertaining to the year 306 DR (more curiously, the "Year of the Fanged Horde"), three decades later:

The kingdom of Grimmantle in the Mlembryn lands falls to the Thousand Fangs orc horde, which then assails Illusk and Neverwinter. The horde is eventually blunted and scattered by a mercenary army led by Grauth Mharabbath, "the Knight of Many Battles."
Armed with this information, the PCs set their eyes south to Neverwinter, in hopes that the resources of a larger city might reveal more detail still.

As they prepared to leave, they were approached by a blond-haired soldier, notably one of the ballista operators at the northeast farm. The man bowed, giving the name Aranos Dalebriar, and he humbly petitioned the party for employment. Aranos explained that he had first come to Brithem more than a decade earlier with a lone surviving family member, an older brother, who most recently was slain during the dragons' initial assault upon the castle, before the PCs arrived. Asking for nothing more than food, shelter, and the opportunity to learn (the party declined to offer a wage), an agreement was made.

The morning of their departure, Lady Deidre met the heroes inside the castle gates, gifting them a small, leather pouch containing a polished gray stone with inclusions of deep crimson: "bloodstone," she declared it, and an amount of which valued upwards of one thousand gold pieces, this far west.

Exchanging well wishes, the party took to the rolling trails leading back to the crossroads, which they reached before sunset that same day. No campsites were occupied, at present, though evidence showed that some were recent; fearing Whisper's bandits, they continued south along the High Road for an hour before sleeping, fireless and with watches kept. The next three days passed uneventfully, though Arendeth took the opportunity to converse frequently with Aranos and impress upon the warrior his values. Aranos spoke of having been raised in a small village far south of Neverwinter, many years ago; his father was a stonecutter.

On the fourth night of their journey, rain fell long into the evening, and the party was forced to scavenge for usable wood and set a fire for warmth with the aid of lamp oil and a casting of produce flame. The first watch heard skittering sounds emanating from the underbrush, though several minutes later the noises passed. The following day was dry again; late in the morning, a giant hawk attacked the party from behind, assailing Riwyn (possibly due to the presence of Merlin the owl on her person) multiple times before the bird could be driven off by volleys of arrows and a light spell directed at its eyes.

A few hours later, they crested a hill looking down upon a walled town, and arrived at the gates of Port Llast in the waning afternoon of the Ninth day of Mirtul, 1354 DR (the Year of the Bow).

On Hirelings and Henchmen

Aranos is formally a hireling (albeit an unpaid one, currently). The party's newfound prestige and the ex-soldier's situation brought the sides together, come what may. His actions will be mainly decided by the characters (within reason), and his morale and loyalty influenced heavily by the treatment he receives. This is far from a new concept in AD&D, though it's not one we've employed much in the past. I want to state clearly that Aranos is not intended as a "DMPC" and neither does he consume a share of the party's awarded experience.

Looking forward, depending on how their mutual relationship blossoms (or wilts), there may be an opportunity for Aranos to become something more. Henchmen are a resource we've dealt with even less over the years we've played, but an ally taking on such a status could prove a valuable asset, indeed.

On the Experience System

As posted earlier, I did record damage dealt and received according to the Tao-of-Dnd experience system (my spreadsheet worked quite well). This is only to serve as a proof of concept for the time being, and while I see a lot of merit in the approach, I think certain questions are likely to arise. In the case of the light spell cast by Arendeth against the hawk, that seems to fall under the paragraph quoted below:
"Finally, there are various spells that do not provide an x.p. bonus, though they affect the combatant's attack or defense. Partly this is because of the difficulties in tracking the damage done, but largely it must be understood that casting a spell is very often not a risky action for a spellcaster. This is especially true of spells that can be cast well ahead of a battle, such as bless, armor, phantom armor, barkskin or stoneskin, etc."
(I ended up having a quick email exchange with Alexis to confirm his intentions for spells like light. Casters can take solace in the fact that blinding an opponent still makes it easier to hit, which should lead to greater and easier XP for everyone in the party.)

Again, I'm only dabbling with this system for now; I'll make a formal announcement if I decide to move to it permanently.

A Final Word

I always try to be attentive to the players' interest levels and the varying degrees of distress or frustration around the table when we play. While joking and kidding around during D&D games are inevitable (I'll be the first to admit that I regularly partake), I want to make sure everyone understands that I put a good deal of work into preparing for (and recapping!) our sessions, and that players put a lot of thought and effort into creating and developing their characters, both in and out of game. I think we all need to remember that lines are easy to cross when having alcohol-supported fun, and make sure that our enjoyment never comes at the expense of others' or detracts from the game itself. I've seen some of that over the past couple sessions and kindly ask everyone to please keep these points in mind. I'll work to help set the right example as well.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

I'm prepped

About as much as I can be. Running on Saturdays is nice, as there's time to think during the day and get mentally immersed in the campaign details. Some stats, encounter tables, and fleshing out a few of the trails the party might follow will have to be enough. AD&D is very preparation-friendly to anyone comfortable with the rules.

For tonight, I do plan to track damage according to the Tao system discussed here, as an experiment. I wrote up a quick spreadsheet that help does all the math. I'm not planning to switch over to this way of doing XP yet, but I do want to see how the numbers compare to what I'd give out traditionally over the course of the next couple sessions.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Standing out


What sets D&D apart from any other game is that you, as a player, can do anything, bounded only by the parameters of the campaign world and the limits of your own imagination. RPGs have always been distinct from other games, whether board, card, video, or pen-and-paper in this way; it's the primary reason we choose to play them.

Every D&D game I've ever run or played in has been a learning experience for me as a DM, and often, it's the latter that tends to be the most eye-opening. DMing is a fantastic way to gain comfort with the mechanics and managing the logistics of a complex, fantasy RPG. But it's the rare occasions where I get to step in and be a player that I'm truly enlightened to what elements I like and dislike in a game, whether it's the style, the setting, the edition, or anything in between. Those experiences are taken back and folded into everything I do as a DM going forward.

Most recently, it was the chance to play in Jason's play-by-post that showed me the real potential of a sandbox style game. I've always liked the prospect of a player-driven campaign, but have never been great at stopping myself from weaving elaborate narrative plots with pre-staged and scripted climaxes. And once you make the effort to come up with and start running through the scenes in your head, you develop a bias toward ensuring that they materialize at the table. While some players really like being a pawn in the DM's story, what Jason's game taught me was how much I, as a player, didn't.

In the play-by-post, my character Raith's future wasn't going to get pulled out from under me or dangled along by a string. The other players and I were in control, and this was of paramount importance to my emotional investment in the setting, which soared from the moment we started and for the duration of the time we played. This is the fundamental experience I want to deliver to my players.

To this point, I've done a good amount of stringing along, and have done so openly, to give the players a chance to meld and familiarize themselves with the game world. Now that this has been accomplished, however, and the PCs have found a measure of local notoriety defending a small fiefdom, I'm dropping the tethers and allowing the campaign to unfold as the PCs see fit. The options before them are endless.

More importantly, the choices are theirs.

At the risk of tainting the notion described in the opening paragraph of this post that the players can do anything, I'm going to enumerate a handful of the possible paths before them now. This is most definitely not to persuade or to suggest that these are the only courses they might follow, but rather to give the group a taste of its freedom. The characters could...
  • delve into the Witherwood to battle gnolls and see what else they might find;
  • stay hither and fortify Brithem and its surroundings;
  • research the curious map given to Wren by an ex-shipmate;
  • go after the bandits that robbed them along the road;
  • travel to the city of Longsaddle and seek out the renowned wizard family that resides there;
  • return to Luskan and become pirates;
  • venture further north to Mirabar or Icewind Dale;
  • set out for some faraway, famous location like the great library of Candlekeep
How do I prepare for such an array of possibilities? That's better a subject left for another post - after I figure out how to do it. It's a natural thing as DM, I think, to strive to control the direction of the party. To railroad; to set short- and long-term campaign goals, rather than let the characters define these for themselves. Relinquishing that control makes the DM's job both easier and more difficult at the same time. Easier in that plots need not be preconceived nor interwoven; harder in that there's much more pressure to exhaustively detail the landscape of the campaign world and how its regions, settlements, and populations subsist and interact.

D&DSM

Ravenloft is the sadomasochism of D&D. In Ravenloft, the DM teases, torments, and defiles the party not only to cause anguish but ultimately for the players' enjoyment. Ravenloft is a ticket that grants the DM free reign to wrest control from the characters at all times; to tear them away to new domains at the crack of a whip; to lead them along by a carrot that remains ever out of reach. Ravenloft is a diabolical, deceitful, and magnificent campaign setting. But it's also an excuse, and a crutch.

They didn't even need to tie him up...
That's the main reason in the end that I elected to stay away from Ravenloft, as much as its allure still calls to me at times. I wanted to give the players something they could truly make their own, without the mists always encroaching and threatening to intervene. There's a far greater challenge and much more to experience this time around.

Let's have at it.

Friday, March 18, 2016

XP: The ends justify what makes you stronger

I've always taken an "ends justify the means" approach to awarding experience in D&D. It doesn't matter if the frost giant whittled the PCs to within an inch of their lives, or if the mage sneezed and a boulder fell and crushed its head before combat ever began. The result arrived at was the same; who am I to judge the party's methods?

It can get a little silly, when you think about it. In the case where the mage sneezed, the fighter might literally have been standing around doing nothing and reaped a sizable XP award for it. Or maybe he was about to do something stupid, like leave his weapons and armor behind and try to tickle the giant's ear with a feather. It doesn't matter. The ends justify the means. The party defeated the giant, so the characters gain and split evenly the XP for doing so.

I don't think it's fair, as DM, to cast judgment on these situations. They're too subjective. The party's tactics might have put them in position to beat the giant with nary a sword drawn to begin with. In this case, the party could be considered more successful than that which beat the giant while suffering grievous wounds over the course of many rounds - does the battered party deserve more XP, or less? (I guess it depends what you think experience should represent, in your game. More on this later.)

It's important, when issuing XP for a defeated enemy, to consider whether the party members were actually at risk (or at least, whether they believed themselves to be at risk). But that also can extend beyond the actual confrontation to the events leading up to it. If the PCs slew a band of orcs by firing arrows from atop a cliff that made them nearly impossible to hit, I'd still award the party full XP so long as the situation could have reasonably unfolded differently. For example, if the party had chosen to take the mountain pass instead of the low road, that decision led to the advantage of higher ground, and consequently the ease of their victory. The same course might have made an encounter with a wyvern that much more treacherous.

That is to say, even though the party in this example was not at immediate risk while firing upon the orcs, they were still at general risk in their surroundings, and gained experience from decision-making that led to a successful end result. This is definitely not a combat-centric way of looking at XP.

A key aspect of this approach is that it suggests XP not be awarded for unsuccessful endeavors by the PCs, regardless of good tactics or how much bad luck might have contributed to their failure. Should the party that battled the giant ferociously for many rounds before fleeing really be awarded nothing? It's a hard question to answer, but my game allows for just that, since the party, despite its efforts, wasn't able to figure out a way to best its foe.

For better or for worse, the ends justify the means.

"Story" Awards

This is where my subjectivity does come into play. I commonly issue "story awards" when in-game milestones are achieved, though this is a bit of a misnomer. It implies that the party is running through a narrative, and that the group has ventured far enough down a specific path to complete some premeditated story arc that I'd conceived. That's not really what I mean to represent.

"Story awards" in my campaign would be better named "adventuring awards" or "execution awards"; they serve to reward the party for impacting the game world in a meaningful (and intentional) way. The two recent sessions involving black dragons from the Witherwood are a good example. In session #4, when the first dragon was slain, I issued a massive bonus award of 4,000 XP. I called this a "story award," but what it represents is the impact the PCs had on the fiefdom of Brithem. The party, through its actions during the session, turned a situation in which the entire castle and its farms could potentially have been lost, into one where only a single Brithem soldier was killed before the dragons were turned away. The 4,000 XP story award was a measure of the characters' impact on Brithem and its inhabitants.

Conversely, in session #5, the party struggled to find an answer when the second dragon returned and began assaulting the outlying farms. Though the PCs ultimately prevailed and saved the bulk of the fiefdom, their presence was less impactful overall, since many lives and resources were lost. I subjectively decided that this session warranted a much smaller group award of 1,000 XP. (Another reason for this is that I didn't feel the characters would have "learned" as much from this second encounter as they would have from the first. The actual planning and combat was more of a known territory to them at this point.)

It's also noteworthy that the reason these awards exist in my game at all is that the campaign is generally not combat-and-treasure-focused enough to give out XP strictly "by the book" and expect the party to advance at a reasonable rate. Given the infrequency with which we play, it still requires many months of real time for low-level PCs to gain a level. The "story awards" help supplement both the nature and real-life pacing of the campaign. For me, this system works well, even though it leaves a large amount of the party's advancement up to my discretion.

What Doesn't Kill You...

The reason for writing all the above, is that I recently read Alexis Smolensk's alternate XP system, which rewards party members for dealing, taking, and witnessing damage when involved in combat, regardless of the encounter outcome. The justification for this is that all of these represent learning experiences for the characters. I personally find this a fascinating approach to XP, and think it makes a great deal of logical sense.

For my campaign, I'm not sure our sessions are combat-heavy enough on a consistent basis to effectively apply Alexis' system (although the multiplier could always be raised to help compensate). It also comes saddled with additional in-game bookkeeping (on my part) and questions where it pertains to certain types of spells. But I love that it incentivizes players to take risks and work together, and provides a good framework for accelerating the advancement of lower-level characters that enter the party due to a new player or the death of a previous character. I somewhat dislike that it fails to award tactics that lead to a greater degree of success by the party, though that could be supplemented by the story awards described above. It's something to think about trying as the game goes on.

Learning vs. Success

The fundamental difference between these two systems is that the traditional views experience as a measure of achievement, while Alexis' views it as a measure of learning. Alexis' system also encourages the players to take more risks, where the traditional rewards tactics that avoid excessive risk. I worry that Alexis' system creates a dynamic where the players are faced with conflicting goals: take the bloodier path and gain more XP, or employ superior tactics and ensure everyone comes out alive. It definitely isn't a system I'd move to without significant buy-in from the group.

A final and important point of note is that neither Alexis' nor traditional systems award XP to characters that get put to sleep and robbed in the middle of the night...

Sunday, February 28, 2016

FR #5: The Black Wyrm's Revenge, and Fall

Life is short; game together.

29 Tarsakh, midmorning

The day following the discovery of the fallen dragon in the hills, a solitary dwarf lumbered in from the east, making his way to the castle gates. He introduced himself as Lincoln, a wayward locksmith escaped from a band of highwaymen operating near the crossroads. Hired on for his vocation, Lincoln fled the group when he learned the true nature of their activity, and was now hiding.

The PCs rightly assumed the thieves to be the same group that robbed them several days ago, though Lincoln wasn't party to the incident. The dwarf revealed what he knew about the band, mainly that they numbered less than two dozen; that they recently had captured a hill giant after plundering its cave in the forest; and that they were led by a rogue called Whisper and a Calishite wizard named Jhakine.

The party spent the better part of two days debating its course, having agreed to allow Lincoln to accompany them on whatever path they chose; the locksmith was discernibly good-natured, and his skillset admirable. In convening with Deidre, the Lady of Brithem expressed a desire to cede control of the fiefdom in the coming years to someone more capable of seeing to its needs. If not for the return of Berwyn with his allies, the castle and its outlands would likely already be forfeit.

In the early morning hours, two nights following the dwarf's arrival, a horn-call sounded from the north. Soldiers and PCs took to the towers, readying themselves for battle, but no enemy arrived. Some time later, Riwyn's owl and the two dwarves set out from the castle to investigate, learning that the northernmost of Brithem's farms had been decimated; there were no survivors. The ensuing hours were laden with debate on how to react. The day that would otherwise be recognized as the spring holiday of Greengrass instead was consumed by frustration and despair.

A battle horn sounded again the following night, this time from the northwest. Its low droning echoed a handful of times over several minutes, but the soldiers that rode out to meet its calls were too late: a second farm and its inhabitants had been destroyed by the surviving dragon.

The constituents of Brithem's remaining farms were bade to sleep within the castle walls until the menace could be dealt with.

2 Mirtul

Two days after the loss of the second farm, the party committed to a plan that depended on correctly guessing the next location to be attacked. The PCs staged themselves, four soldiers, and one of the castle's two remaining ballistae behind cover and hidden under piles of straw at the fiefdom's northeasternmost farm, now closest to the Witherwood. Merlin was instructed to keep watch at the border of the marshlands, and at fulldark the owl alerted Riwyn to an approaching threat. Soon after, the PCs spotted the winged, black form speeding toward them amid the darkness.

Their assault came quickly and without warning. The first ballista arrow missed its mark, but the second struck home. Two castings of magical light blinded the enemy once more, and volleys of bowshots hurtled across the sky.

This was the dragon's worst nightmare. Pilfering the outlying farms had proven fruitful and effortless following the death of the wyrm's mate. Vengeful and arrogant in its lust to destroy, it underestimated its adversaries' ability to execute such an ambush. In an instant, its mind was returned to the failed assault against the castle. It felt its eyes blinded, felt the impalement of the ballista missile in its breast, the piercing sting of arrows throughout its hide. There was no possibility for escape, this time. There could be only death...
The dragon attempted to spew its breath weapon at the half-concealed siege, but the acid mostly sprayed out the side of its maw. Its neck reeled back, ere an arrow from Riwyn's bow cut its throat. The beast fell from flight and plummeted to the ground, meeting Wren's blade when it arrived.

DM's Commentary

And so it was ended. The PCs struggled to find a course early, losing two of the fiefdom's farms in the process, but once a plan was determined, its timing proved to be perfect. Initiative rolls again were key, with the party winning every round. I've no dismay for their success; good fortune will always be an impermanent thing, so best to relish in it while it persists. Lincoln's player was a surprise guest for this session, though if Jason can make the scheduling work for any future games, his attendance will surely be welcomed!

XP

A decent bit of XP earned for this adventure:
  • Black dragon - 756 XP
  • Story award - 1,000 XP
The story award here is more tempered, since a number of lives were lost before the party managed to prevail. That's 439 XP each, before bonuses. New totals (Berwyn was not present for this game):
  • Arendeth - 8,020
  • Riwyn - 4,010/4,010
  • Wren - 3,645/4,010
  • Lincoln - 5,983
I elected to start Lincoln at 5,500 XP, the minimum necessary for his starting level plus incorporating the 10% prime requisite bonus. No new levels gained at this time.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

FR #4: Boldly Fly the Doomed

This session was awesome for a number of reasons. First off, the party achieved a pretty major victory and I finally have a chance to award some much-deserved XP. More than that though, it's hard to play D&D with someone you don't have any kind of personal connection with. And it's hard to have any kind of personal connection with someone you've never met in person. With one player living in Oregon and the rest of us in Ohio, to get everyone together in person to meet and accomplish something big in-game isn't an opportunity that comes around often. We had it happen once with Jason in the three years we played Ravenloft. I'm truly thankful that the scheduling worked out, no one came down with the flu, and everyone was able to help make it happen. The personal interaction the players got to have will surely pay dividends down the road.

But enough of my emotional pandering; on to the recap!

20 Tarsakh, midday

The air in Brithem was somber, to say the least. The fiefdom had lost more than half its soldiery and a number of innocents, and the looming threat of the dragons' return was imminent. Beacons burned from the castle towers each night the party spent readying its inhabitants for a coming attack, casting enough light into the blackness to give castlegoers a fighting chance to see their deadly, flying adversaries before they arrived.

The party set plans into place over a number of days, ordering the assembly of additional ballistae, setting up fire sources amid the courtyards and stationing soldier cots near the bases of the northeast and northwest towers, both equipped with lookouts and mounted siege weapons at their tops. Farms were provided with battle horns and instructed to keep watch throughout each night. Clothiers helped build and stage mannequins around non-functioning weaponry in hopes of drawing the attention of unwise attackers. Berwyn spent time in the castle library and was granted select access to Mara's available spells and spell-scrolls.

Finally, one night several days into the party's stay, after all preparations were solidly in place, a horn-call echoed from the north after middark. Soldiers rushed to the towers and the PCs to positions along the north wall, ere two black silhouettes were spotted against the moonlit clouds, closing on the castle at an incredible rate. One started to descend upon a cluster of mannequins until the other issued a piercing screech, calling it back. They sped forward, and ballistae fired from atop the two front towers, one missile striking the westernmost dragon, causing it to dip briefly in flight.

The statistics employed for the ballistae (adapted from the 1e DMG, p. 108) are detailed below.

Brithem Ballistae
Manned by...Load time (rounds)THAC0Damage (S-M)Damage (L)Max range
4 soldiers (trained)1162d63d6320 ft
2 soldiers (trained)3182d63d6320 ft
4 laborers (untrained)3202d63d6320 ft
2 laborers (untrained)5202d63d6320 ft

Thus, with four trained soldiers (i.e., any 1st-level or higher character or NPC), a ballista could be fired every other round with each operator effectively improving the weapon THAC0 by one. With only two such operators, or four 0-level operators, the ballista could fire every four rounds at best, and untrained operators would provide no benefit to hit. One good idea the players had was for soldiers to fire a ballista, then shift sideways to attack with preloaded crossbows while laborers worked to reload the siege. I really liked the thinking here, even though the opportunity to execute it never arose.
The dragons closed to the towers and reared back, readying their breath weapons while arrows and spells were slung from the castle wall. Multiple castings of light from Berwyn and Arendeth blinded both enemies, whose acid breath blasted the tops of the towers, annihilating the ballistae there. One soldier was smothered to ruin, but the rest scrambled to the two remaining ballistae in the courtyard.

By the time they arrived, the dragons had already turned tail for the Witherwood, badly damaged by missiles and magic. Even as they abandoned their attack, Arendeth used heat metal on the ballista arrow still lodged into the breast of the dragon that had weathered the first hit. Cheers resounded from the castle wall as the dragons disappeared into the night.

Yet better news came the next morning, when a farmhand from the north brought word that one dragon had been seen falling to the pastures from flight during its retreat. The party set out to investigate, finding the fallen creature with a charred, gaping hole where the arrow wound had been. Upon ensuring it was dead, Wren severed the head from its body, and scales were removed from its hide to be packed away or donned as ornaments.

DM's Commentary

If one of my characters was going to die, I'd want it to be fighting a dragon. This was about as prepared as I've ever been going into a session for one or more characters to meet their ends, knowing full well that a single hit from the acid breath of an uninjured dragon was likely to do the deed, to any PC. In the end, the party was well-prepared and had a few key rolls land in its favor. In order of importance, I'd put the first round initiative rolls (which had the PCs and the majority of their allies attacking before the dragons could breathe, once within range) at the top, followed by the ballista hit from the west tower and the dragons' failed saves against light. A very honorable mention to the efficiency with which the soldiers were able to assemble functioning ballistae, raising the castle's attack power from one ballista to four in only a few days. The flip-side is that two were destroyed by the dragons, and the lack of remaining parts means that any additional ballistae now require 3d6 days each to be built, regardless of the number of individuals put to the task.

Undoubtedly, the characters won the day; driving away both dragons (even killing one, thanks to Arendeth's masterful use of heat metal) while losing only a single soldier and pair of siege weapons is an accomplishment beyond what I believed would be possible. Again, the rolls were critical, but the good planning on the part of the players was paramount. The encounter was night-and-day compared to the doom wrought by the dragons' first assault on Brithem before the PCs arrived, and the story award issued for the session certainly reflects this result. The dragons were ill-prepared for the onslaught that met them on their return trip to the castle.

When we started this campaign, I made a big deal about the choice of setting, and in particular the decision between established and homebrew. Ultimately, I made a decision I felt would help me deliver the richest and most enjoyable game possible. That said, it isn't always easy. The benefit of a published world is that it provides a framework to work within; the downside is that the DM feels bound to its canon, and needs to tread carefully when incorporating new elements. Brithem is my own creation; it was conceived and developed when Adam started telling me about the background for Berwyn. It also fits within the world; based on the Realms novels and supplements I've read, there's precedent for settlements like this along the Sword Coast. Brithem's proximity to Luskan makes the geography of its coastline important, as the fiefdom couldn't otherwise subsist given the pirating that abounds in the area.

The point is, where an established setting makes it easier to tell the players what's where and why, it puts an added burden on the DM when it comes to incorporating the custom elements that it encourages me to add. I can't simply toss things in pell-mell. Doing so can trigger a butterfly effect that makes my control over the setting unravel. On the plus side, this holds me to a higher standard of world-crafting and makes me think long and hard about what I'm doing at every step. It isn't a bad thing to be pushed to up my game.

XP

XP awards for the first four sessions are as follows. For the Wolford expedition (seven-way split):
  • Owlbear - 425 XP
  • Lizard men, 26 (includes those driven off) - 1,040 XP
  • Grey oozes, 3 - 357 XP
  • Story award (PCs only) - 1,600 XP
This amounts to 660 XP each. For the events in Brithem:
  • Black dragon - 764 XP
  • Getting put to sleep and robbed along the road - 0 XP
  • Story award - 4,000 XP (!)
This amounts to 1,191 XP each, for a total of 1,851 XP per character (2,036 for those who qualify for the 10% bonus). The new party totals are:
  • Berwyn - 7,536
  • Arendeth - 7,536
  • Riwyn - 3,768/3,768
  • Wren - 3,425/3,768
Arendeth hereby attains level 4, and is presumed to spend downtime training while in Brithem.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Advice in Dungeoneering

This kind of stuff is brilliant, and exactly why it's worth contributing to The Tao of D&D. The perspective outlined in the linked post is oft-overlooked by players in campaigns I've been a part of, whether from a desire for the PCs to act as solitary heroes or due to a general detachment from real-world thinking while playing (the players are playing in a game, after all). The sort of player mentality Alexis describes is why games like AD&D encourage the DM to run with minimal bias for the characters' choice of actions or the overall power level of the party. Leveraging resources and adventuring strategy in this way is one of the funnest aspects of the game, in my opinion, but one that's regrettably been lost to the ages as D&D as a product line has evolved.

The post was also exceptionally well-timed, since one of the things I'm most looking forward to in this weekend's game is seeing how the players elect to manage and interact with the resources at their disposal as they prepare the fiefdom of Brithem for a potential second assault from a pair of black dragons residing in the area. More than just "Charge in, roll initiative, make my attack rolls/use my spells, and hope everything works out," the party has before them a chance to show their stuff on a much grander stage - and with many more lives at stake than merely their own. How this next session unfolds will surely have consequences for a long time to come.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Worthy Cause

I've expressed to most people I game with that they should read The Tao of D&D, and particularly the author's books How to Run and The Dungeon's Front Door. Alexis Smolensk's insight into the world of D&D and the art of DMing is nothing short of amazing.

Earlier this week, Alexis posted a crowdfunded proposal to help him complete the novel that he's working on presently, even going so far as to reach out to some of his blog commenters with a personal message. I don't doubt at all the quality of the rewards he's offering for donations, and am happily planning to contribute; I encourage others who see and appreciate the value of his work to do the same.

Good luck, Alexis!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Brithem concept drawing

The fiefdom of Brithem is a thousand-acre estate comprised of an expansive castle and a handful of outlying farms. The below drawing is to serve as abstract concept only, illustrating the stylistic architecture and relative size of the primary structure.

(Attribution)

The castle itself is home to nearly a hundred individuals, from soldiers and nobility to servants, laborers, cooks, footmen, and specialized craftsmen such as an armorer and weaponsmith. The surrounding farmlands reap protection from the castle and provide sustenance to its Lady and her constituents. Brithem's banner is a black eagle with red talons, emblazoned on the breastplates and shields of its soldiery.

Heraldic crest of Brithem

FR #3: Brithem

"The castle is in grave danger. Bring whatever aid you can muster, but come quickly. The need is urgent; do not delay."

Three months between games isn't a cadence I like to keep, but after scheduling conflicts, holidays, and seasonal illnesses, that's what we ended up with. Hopefully now that we're back into the swing of things we can start playing more regularly. Berwyn's player will likely only be semi-regular at best from now on (again, due to scheduling), but I'm keeping his character in the loop for the time being. We'll see how it plays out.

Due to the long delay, we advanced past the events in Wolford. In the aftermath of the party's foray with the lizard men, Wolford's miners returned to the newly explored caverns and sealed off the waterlogged passages responsible for the reptilian intrusion. The mining operation restored, Armandras withdrew his expedition from the village - much to the chagrin of Lady Sophia, as Wolford's soldiers continued to uncover signs of goblin activity in the area, threatening their livelihood. Still, Armandras' help came at a steep financial cost, and Lady Sophia's further negotiations with the merchant proved fruitless.

Eyrior, the warrior, accepted his payment from Armandras and elected to pledge fealty to Wolford and remain; Segrim, Pevrel, and the PCs accompanied the merchant back to Luskan. Along the way, Berwyn received a distressing magical message from his homeland: the fiefdom was in great peril and his help urgently requested, along with that of any other trusted companions he could gather. Consequently, Berwyn and the PCs took their allotment of a dozen platinum coins each from Armandras and departed Luskan's gates on the very eve they returned.

18 Tarsakh, evening

They traveled hard into the night, covering a quarter of the distance south before setting camp. Riwyn's owl familiar Merlin circled the moonlit sky as they slept; when they awoke, they pressed on, hiding off the road when a wagon of raucous dwarves passed them in the late afternoon, and arriving at a crossroads shortly after middark. The crossroads bore signs of recent caravan passage, and was adorned with piked skulls of various goblinkin, long since picked clean.

Again the party camped, but were wakened abruptly when Riwyn sensed that Merlin had been injured. The owl returned to her with a bloody wing, and as the PCs paced the grounds, Arendeth and Berwyn suddenly fell unconscious. A robed spellcaster with exotic skin was spotted to the east, and a handful of bow-wielding highwaymen advanced in and out of tree cover, demanding gold. Wren and Riwyn withdrew from the campsite, but when the robbers aimed their arrows at the sleep-induced party members, pouches of coin were tossed willingly onto the road. The highwaymen took the offerings and fled back into the night before Arendeth and Berwyn were forcibly awakened.

Distraught and not caring to remain, the party followed the westward trail toward Brithem, a hilltop castle overlooking the Sea of Swords, protected from seafaring pirates by a barrier of jagged rocks. The fiefdom was bordered to the north by marshland yielding to a deep forest called the Witherwood, and surrounded by a handful of outlying farms. Upon their arrival, the PCs met the dowager, Lady Deidre (Berwyn's mother); her wizardess protector and advisor, Mara; and the quartermaster of Brithem's soldiery, Roth-grim. On the captain's breastplate was emblazoned a black eagle crest with red talons.

Several nights earlier, Brithem was assaulted by a pair of acid-spewing black dragons that had recently taken residence in the Witherwood, evidenced by a corroded and collapsed tower on the castle's eastern wall. The fiefdom was taken by surprise, losing half of its trained warriors along with a number of servants and laborers. Return attacks were futile; the dragons withdrew only after expending their breath weapons. In the battle's wake, Lady Deidre bade Mara to make contact with Berwyn as soon as she was able. The dragons have since been sighted circling above the Witherwood at night, and gnolls typically confined to the forest have begun wandering the marshland, likely driven southward by the dragons' presence. Their motives not yet fully known, it seems only a matter of time before the dragons attack again.

DM's Commentary

Not sure how the players all felt since everyone was tired by the end, but I really enjoyed running this session. The PCs were fairly duped by the highwaymen after their caster rolled the maximum possible affected hit dice on his sleep spell. I didn't know how that encounter might play out, especially if the characters decided to give chase into the woods. In the end though, the party's collective desire to reach Brithem took precedence, and they reluctantly acquiesced to "let sleeping dragons lie."

Despite that in-game hurdle, the process of arriving at Brithem, learning of the threat to the fiefdom, and beginning to plan how to combat it was thoroughly enjoyable. The party has at its disposal the following:

  • Two dozen able-bodied farmers and farm hands
  • Two dozen castle servants and laborers
  • Ten surviving trained soldiers (including Roth-grim)
  • Lady Deidre (limited to giving orders and organizing forces)
  • Mara (the extent of her magical abilities still unknown)
  • One functioning ballista; an additional ballista can be made operational by Brithem's soldiery for every 1d6 days that elapse
  • (An additional two dozen or so children and elderly cannot provide any measurable assistance)
I'm interested to see how the players make use of these resources, and to what end. This isn't the kind of scenario I've commonly run or played in my history with D&D, so it really strikes me as fascinating. Maybe Adam will make an appearance next time to take control of Berwyn again; we'll see!


XP (or lack thereof)

I know I haven't handed out XP in the campaign yet. Some awards are definitely in order, I just want to get to a better stopping point first. Next session might get us to decent place... assuming everyone survives.

What's the missile range and damage for ballistae in AD&D, anyway?


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

#MtgForLife

I make it a point not to post non-D&D related content to this blog, but today I'm making an exception. This is a really cool thing to have been a part of. I only caught it on the tail end of the campaign, but managed to sell a NM Revised Tropical Island to make a $100 contribution to the MtgForLife Indiegogo campaign, the proceeds from which will be donated to Doctors Without Borders. It's pretty awesome to see people around the world come together and use their love for a hobby to help make a positive difference in the world. $12,692 was raised in all!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Magical rat swarms are NOT movable...

So after we played last time, Sean pointed out that the swarm conjured by summon swarm is not movable. The second-to-last line in the spell description is "The swarm is stationary once conjured."

Oops. I don't think it would have made that great a difference, given the logistics of the tunnel opening. But FYI for next time...

Sunday, November 1, 2015

FR #2: Delving the Mines

10 Tarsakh, highsun

We picked up in the mines, with the party moving enough large rubble for individuals to crawl into the area sealed off by the miners. The cavern was dimly lit by natural light from above, which shone onto a stagnant pool of murky water. Arendeth led, followed by Pevrel, who was assaulted by javelins from either side after he stepped beyond the entryway. Dodging, the gnome darted back to safety as more party members squeezed through the opening. The PCs advanced, engaging four reptilian humanoids skulking along the cavern walls and slaying them handily. No possessions were found on the bodies; the lizard men fought with crude weapons and carried nothing else.

The catacomb had many offshoots, and the party explored them tactfully, using Berwyn's cat familiar to trace the smell of carrion through the tunnels. The sides of some passageways were shimmering and slick, as though wet, and as Arendeth tapped at the stonework, gelatinous tentacles emerged from the wall and struck him, wrapping him in their horrific grasp. The party acted quickly, severing the tendrils, but Arendeth fell comatose, revived only after imbibing a healing potion from his pack; moreover, the dwarf's armor was corroded from the ooze and useless. With Arendeth too weak to continue, the party retuned to Wolford, arriving shortly before dusk.

In the village, the PCs recounted the day's events to Armandras and Lady Sophia. Arendeth was bade to rest, and the following day, the others took to the nearby forest trails, searching for signs of goblin activity and discovering the remains of a cookfire less than a mile south. Later that night, Wren, Riwyn, and Berwyn visited Swordfall's lone outpost, questioning the guard there and sending Merlin the owl in search of threats. Satisfied that the forest was safe, the party slept.

On the second morning following their return, the party again made the trek to the mines. Delving deeper, they destroyed two more grey oozes before locating a pile of small, humanoid bodies eaten away by rats, and a low, waterlogged passageway that could only be traversed by wading. They braved it, emerging in a narrow, winding tunnel where they were assaulted by and slew a trio of lizard men... but as they skirmished, over a dozen more of the reptilian creatures flooded in from a deep pool in the cavern beyond.

Though the narrowness of the tunnel stymied the party's ability to attack, so too did it limit their enemies, and a combination of spells and sound tactics drove the lizard men off after nearly half were killed (most at the claws and teeth of a rat swarm summoned by Berwyn). Amid the melee, Eryior was laid low and subsequently healed by Pevrel's clerical magic. Having won the day but exhausted of resources, the party again retreated through the foothills, arriving back at Wolford after nightfall.

DM's Commentary

I feel like this session frustrated the players to some extent, despite the success they found. The final battle with the lizard men was well executed by the PCs, but in a way that limited their individual effectiveness. The narrow tunnel barely allowed for two to attack at a time, and as such, spells (especially Berwyn's grease and summon swarm) became paramount. Of course, their position did equally much to ensure their safety, substantially reducing the lizard men's advantage of numbers. Could they have eventually overwhelmed the party, rushing in single file? Given enough time and bodies, yes, but the virtually unlimited duration of summon swarm, in the end, proved too great a barrier for the creatures to continue to press through as their ranks diminished.

I don't like to run NPCs that serve as buffer or cannon fodder for the party. Though the other expedition members assuredly are not that, it does feel like it at times, especially with Eyrior, who in filling a combat function not championed by the core group along with some timely rolls has taken center stage more often than I ever presumed. That said, from a big picture standpoint, the combined party's success to this point certainly justifies Armandras' employment decisions. The Wolford expedition is what it is, and the PCs are free to do with it as they choose.

A final note, I considered but decided against awarding XP at this time. While numerous enemies have been defeated, the seven-way split won't make the totals overly impressive. I'd rather wait another session or two when major story awards have been yielded as well.