Sunday, July 17, 2016

Kirtak's Camp

This post is an opportunity for the PCs to speak with their bandit captive and otherwise hold conversations and dealings in the short-term safety of the plundered camp. Players can post in-game comments to this thread and I'll reply with any NPC actions or responses, similar to a play-by-post. No pressure on anyone to partake (no experience is at stake), and I'll give adequate time for others to chime in, given that some players have more frequent web access than others.

I'll go ahead and take the post down if no comments come in leading up to the next session, but at least this way any discourse can be archived and every PC has a chance to be involved, regardless of who ends up attending the next time we play.

Please post comments below. They actually work now. :)

FR #11: Forest Banditry

The vote prior to this session set the party's direction as Luskan. After a short reprieve at the Slumbering Manticore, supplies were replenished and the company set out west along the game trails leading to Port Llast.


24 Mirtul, darkmorning

Traveling conditions were favorable over the course of three days; at the end of the first, the party divided into two rooms at the Drunken Mermaid in Port Llast, ere they departed early the next morning and pushed on into the night, camping and trudging on again into the following afternoon, their booted feet worn but happy to be journeying amid comfortable spring temperatures and underneath clear, blue skies.

During the party's first watch, in the shadows of its campfire, Arendeth cast detect magic on Rumolt as he slept. This mention is to serve as a note of that, though the dwarf has yet to relay any findings to his companions.

As the day began to wane and the party began to anticipate reaching the crossroads, they were approached by a southbound wagon driven by a middle-aged man and woman outfitted in travelers' garb. The wagon, piled high with stacks of tanned leather and hides, slowed as it drew near, and the man aboard it hailed the adventurers through a thick, graying beard, warning of highwaymen further up the road. He stated that the would-be thieves were less than formidable, and that the pair had escaped unharmed and unhindered after the lady shot an arrow through one brigand's hand as he came hither.

Thankful for the warning, the party pressed onward, and as twilight loomed, a fretful voice called out from the east, demanding gold for passage. As two bowmen advanced between the trees, Lincoln stalled them with words and Wren fleeted into the grove, hidden from sight. The companions refused to proffer payment, and the lead bandit's demeanor quickly crumbled into emotional distress as he slumped against a tree and wept.

Through tactful discourse, the PCs learned that the brigands were not highwaymen at all, but a metalsmith and his brother made to rob travelers along the road by thieves who held the smith's wife and daughter captive in the forest, and threatened to kill and defile them should the brothers not acquiesce. Hiding deeper within the grove was the smith's son, a boy of sixteen winters who cradled his right arm, its hand impaled by an arrow.

The PCs pledged their aid to the family, and agreed that the smith's son would lead the party to the encampment where the trio was to report before nightfall, while Berwyn remained near the road with the father and uncle. The men explained that the camp was being manned by a mercenary called Kirtak (a name that Lincoln recognized from his prior dealings with the bandit leader, Whisper), but that the captured wife and daughter were held elsewhere, at an unknown location in the forest.

Kirtak's camp was situated halfway up a tree-covered ridge; a burgeoning fire bellowed amid a gathering of armed thieves as Wren surveyed the scene from an adjacent hillock. Shortly, a bandit scout crested the same hill and was felled by Lincoln's bow. The adventurers fanned out, archers taking to either side while Lincoln and Arendeth marched for the camp, the dwarves in plain sight of the thieves but shielded by underbrush.

Arrows volleyed up and down the ridge; after the first three bandits fell, Kirtak and a lone remaining brigand rushed past the dwarves, heading for the hill. The party gave chase, and as the fastest PCs began to gain ground, Kirtak drew up his sword and wounded the ally that ran alongside him, delaying the bandit while Kirtak fled into the night.

While the dwarves captured and bound the injured man, Kirtak's attempts to escape were thwarted by Riwyn's magic as she and Wren continued their pursuit. At long last, and many yards removed from the rest of the party, Kirtak turned on the women and stood to battle them for his life. Blows were exchanged over gruesome rounds of swordplay, ere Wren dealt a killing strike to the mercenary, laying him low. Injured and exhausted, Wren and Riwyn rejoined their allies, and after healing magic was expended, the party gathered the father and uncle from the road and claimed the bandit camp as their own, in possession of a single captive.

DM's Commentary

Another successful session for the party, which managed to plunder a hostile camp with its ranks fully intact. Though Rumolt continues to travel with and aid the PCs, the uncovering of bandit activity connected to the thieves that set upon them earlier in the campaign has at least momentarily overshadowed the matter of the scepter.

In the climactic melee between Kirtak, Riwyn, and Wren, Riwyn's casting of enlarge upon the mercenary's longsword was particularly interesting, and stirred up a bit of debate regarding the mechanics.

The Player's Handbook doesn't go into great detail on the effects of enlarging a combatant's weapon, and I needed to make some split-second rulings on how to handle it. I wanted to itemize here the decisions I made in the heat of the moment, both to explain why I ruled the way I did, and also illustrate the amount of quick-thinking that needs to happen "behind the screen" at times. It's not always easy, and pretty much always subjective.

The three on-the-fly rulings I made for enlarge were:

  1. That the weapon wouldn't receive a saving throw. Per the spell description, "Unwilling victims are entitled to a saving throw vs. spell." - but an object carried by such a person has no will to measure. This seemed straightforward, but still warranted consideration.

  2. That Kirtak needed to succeed a Strength check (which he did) to avoid dropping his sword. It stands to reason that a wielded weapon could fall from the grasp of even a seasoned fighter upon unexpectedly becoming heavier and unbalanced. If a grease spell had been cast on the sword instead, a Dexterity check would have been appropriate.

  3. That the increased size and weight of the sword would result in a -4 to attack rolls made with the weapon. Here, I was challenged in that I allowed Kirtak to retain the benefits of weapon specialization when fighting with the enlarged longsword. I can see the argument, and had considered, alternately, treating the sword as a two-handed bastard sword, and having it acquire such a sword's attack and damage properties, negating Kirtak's specialization. In the end, the -4 penalty was imposed as a means of rendering Kirtak's attacks objectively (or "strictly") worse. I don't think a longsword increased to 130% of its original size would be the equivalent of a different, albeit larger type of sword. It would instead retain the shape and overall function of a longsword, just become unwieldy.

Interesting how a single game ruling can be wrapped up in so many nuances. As we have other unanswered questions about weapon specialization as well, I might post some of this to the forum to see what others have to say.

No XP awards at this juncture, but it’s beneficial to list the items found amid the bandits:
  • Longsword, longbow, and banded mail carried/worn by Kirtak
  • Kirtak’s gold necklace and coin purse containing 33 gp (taken by Riwyn)
  • Bandit swords, short bows, sheaf arrows, and leather armor
  • Bandit coin purses totaling 29 gp and 19 sp (taken by Arendeth)
  • Miscellaneous supplies not individually described (rations, water skins, packs, lengths of rope, etc.)
I'm planning to put up a subsequent post momentarily to give the PCs an opportunity to speak with their captive between sessions.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Vote for direction

I don't want to shortchange anyone's preferences for the party's direction, but I would like a firm decision to be made soon so I can have material ready for this week. This post will serve as an official tally of the party's votes. Leave a comment here within the next day stating your character's preferred destination. The destination with the most votes will be assumed to be the direction the party travels when we reconvene. I'll only count votes posted to this thread.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

FR #10: The Burden of Their Spoils

20 Mirtul, sunrise

Toward the end of their first day traveling west from the ruins, the party was set upon from behind by a gnoll warband, which split into flanking groups and rushed in, throwing small axes from amid the trees. The adventurers stood fast, their swords and magic felling several of the dog-faced creatures before the remaining few retreated into the forest.

Injuries to the party were mounting, though not insufferable. As twilight loomed, a suitable campsite was located and watches were arranged without a fire. During the first, Arendeth praised Aranos for his bravery and the proficiency with which the budding warrior fought against the gnolls. In the early morning hours, Rumolt and Berwyn exchanged vagueries regarding their pasts and future aspirations.

The following day was met with no additional threats from their surrounds, and as latefeast approached the party was hailed by a short, round-faced woodsman named Banion, a patroller of the hunt trails from the Slumbering Manticore. Though the PCs initially feared that the encounter may have been more than mere chance, Banion led them safely to a well-trodden path that returned them to the inn before nightfall. Amid the grounds outside, the smell of campfire smoke ushered them in, and Constable Rictus strode out to meet them.

Readily accepting of the inn's food, drink, and shelter, the party entered the taproom and began to discuss reconciliation terms with Rumolt. Rekindling the tension felt at the ruins when the topic of the scepter was breached, it became clear that neither the PCs nor Rumolt were willing to part ways with the other having possession of the artifact. Emotions peaked when Rumolt spat on the table and called Arendeth a fool at the dwarf's suggestion that Rumolt exchange his share of the scepter for the wraith's black sword and helm. Wren subsequently dismissed Rumolt from the party under implicit threats of violence before cooler heads prevailed, and all took their sleep for the night.

The PCs set watches outside their rooms, fearful of attempted thievery by Rumolt or someone else. Arendeth imparted to his companions that a fire trap spell was already cast upon his pack, protecting the scepter. Using detect magic, Riwyn discerned that Wren's longsword emitted a minor aura of evocation magic, the wraith's sword and helm a moderate aura of necromancy, and the scepter a powerful aura of an unknown nature.

In the morning, Berwyn met Rumolt in the taproom to further discuss their options. Rumolt committed to no specific course, but his impasse with the party would not be relinquished. The pair convened with the larger group upstairs, with all finally settling on an agreement that Rumolt would continue to accompany them as an equal until the matter of the scepter could be reconciled. Rumolt handed over leather-bound coin rolls owed to the remaining party members, bidding them to rest until all were returned to full strength and their next destination could be determined.

DM's Commentary

Since the moment they crossed paths, the party has been waiting for Rumolt to show his hand. The man's past is unclear, without a doubt, but is not also that of the PCs, in Rumolt's eyes? The distrust between the sides is palpable, and it's been fun to play out in-game. It's interesting to see how an encounter of random chance can be perceived as the first sign of an intricate betrayal. The party is waiting for the other boot to drop. Will it?

In addition to XP earned for the past few sessions, which is detailed below, Aranos is hereby promoted to henchman status under Arendeth. This means that Aranos is now formally a first-level character who will begin to accumulate experience, starting at zero. Hereafter, Aranos will receive a half XP share from the group, and otherwise compensated primarily by Arendeth, to whom the warrior has become devoutly and fanatically loyal. Sean will control Aranos fully, and I will only step in if egregious orders for him are issued.

XP

The following XP awards cover the last three sessions, the entirety of the time that Rumolt has traveled with the PCs.

  • Orcs, 20 - 290 XP
  • Kobolds, 3 - 22 XP
  • Wraith - 730 XP
  • Gnolls, 8 - 310 XP
  • Longsword +1 - 400 XP
  • Wizard scrolls, 6 - 1,100 XP
  • Coinage plundered - 170 XP
  • Scepter - 10,000 XP
  • Story award - 5,000 XP

This amounts to 18,022 points, which is split six ways (as Rumolt, for better or for worse, is entitled an equal share for his significant contributions to the party's efforts). That's 3,003 points per PC, plus one hundred each added for Rumolt's payment, totaling 3,103. Accounting for prime requisite bonuses, I arrive at:

  • Berwyn - 11,169
  • Arendeth - 11,653
  • Riwyn - 5,827/5,827
  • Wren - 5,297/5,827
  • Lincoln - 9,396

These are definitely substantial gains, and well deserved. Berwyn ascends to level 4, Riwyn to levels 3 and 4 in her classes, and Wren to levels 3 and 4 in hers. Lincoln is close to advancing, and Arendeth is much closer to his next milestone than he was previously. Totals are updated on the right-hand side of the blog.

Monday, May 30, 2016

FR #9: The Underground Crypt, the Wraith, and the Scepter

19 Mirtul, sunrise

In the early morning, Rumolt surveyed the grounds, solemnly regarding the blackened skeletons that hung morbidly from their pikes while Berwyn and Riwyn pored over the scrolls. When all were ready, they returned to the earthen passageway beyond the secret door. They traversed it slowly, wary of traps, and the dwarves detected a slight downward grade. The sounds heard the previous night were absent, and when Lincoln tossed a continual light-imbued pebble into a wide cavern at the tunnel's end and crossed its threshold, he was pelted with rocks thrown by small, skittering humanoids: kobolds.

A trio of the creatures chased him back into the tunnel, leaping upon the dwarf and scratching at him with tiny claws. With the help of his allies, the attackers were slain, and as the party made its way forward, more kobolds could be seen fleeting into a similar passageway to the north. A makeshift throne of rocks, sticks, and earth adorned a far wall; Arendeth collapsed it with his morning star. A southward corridor was constructed of masonry walls, and led through a set of shattered and dilapidated double doors; the party followed it to a refuse pile which emanated an eye-watering stench.

Beyond the latrine was a narrow hallway ending in an intact, oaken door. After attempts to dislodge it failed and no locking mechanism could be discerned, Berwyn uttered knock from one of the scrolls. The door fell ajar and Arendeth heaved it open, striding into a square, fifty-foot chamber with a raised platform bearing a lidless, stone sarcophagus at its center. Inside was an ancient skeleton draped in decayed robes that were once fine, and a cobweb-covered helm. The glint of gold sparked Arendeth to reach beneath the skeleton's left arm and unearth a scepter encrusted with shimmering red rubies and deep, black opals.

Scepter in hand, Arendeth set his hand upon the helm; a searing pain coursed through the dwarf's body and he fell back. As he stood before the sarcophagus, the skeleton rose, assuming an incorporeal form with a veil of translucent skin stretched tightly over its rotting bones, and hollow eye sockets boring into the dwarf with absolute darkness. The helm rested atop it, and it stabbed fluidly at Arendeth, wielding a black, serrated blade from its coffin.

The party set upon the wraith, Wren attacking with the sword recovered from the orc leader, Rumolt with an ornate dagger from his belt, and Berwyn and Riwyn assailing it with mystic energy from the remaining scrolls. After parrying a handful of strikes, Arendeth fled to the door as Wren impaled the fiend on her magical blade as it began to charge in pursuit. The wraith crumbled to dust, and the serrated sword and helm fell to the stone floor, unmoving.

Arendeth and Riwyn made further attempts to handle the dark implements, suffering damage each time. Finally, Wren bundled the sword and helm in her cloak, binding it with a length of silken rope. The party retreated to the tower, where healing magic was expended.

Rumolt again expressed his approval of the party's efficiency in combat, remarking that such a valuable item as the scepter could not possibly be partitioned evenly. When challenged that the relic wasn't plundered from his dead companions, Rumolt rebutted that the dwarf who so recklessly claimed it did nothing to help fell the creature that would otherwise have taken his life. The tension was eased with a consensus to set the matter aside for now, and the party elected to sleep again in the second floor of the tower.

During Arendeth's watch, Aranos questioned the dwarf's flight from the wraith, doubtful that leaving one's allies to so dangerous a foe was Tempus' way. As they discussed the details, noises were heard from below: the clinking of metal, the grunting of guttural voices, and, finally, footfalls upon the staircase. The duo quickly woke the others, and Arendeth poured his bag of ball bearings down the steps, causing a pair of orc invaders to fall prone, a third creature behind them bellowing to its companions outside.

The tower's ground floor was soon littered with orcs, and as party members took defensive positions with bows drawn, the creatures ignited the thatch bed, piling on deadwood from the grounds. Smoke wafted up the staircase, ere Arendeth charged down, suffering wounds from orc cudgels and burns as he kicked the burgeoning fire to cinders. Lincoln and Aranos followed down the staircase while the elf-kin climbed out a window via a previously-secured rope. Riwyn and Wren circled the tower's perimeter, engaging a trio of guards at range, bolstered by Rumolt's arrows from above. Over several grueling minutes the orcs were defeated, the party left weakened and exhausted of resources.

DM's Commentary

If Arendeth feels fortunate to be alive at this point, he should. His actions in the crypt were nothing short of foolhardy, though well-played and revealing much about the dwarf's character. Against the orcs, Arendeth's actions were treacherous once more, but executed out of necessity and potentially lifesaving to the party. Had the orcs established a bonfire at the base of the tower steps, the result could have been disastrous, as only the party's elves and half-elves were lithe enough to fit through the narrow windows. Arendeth showed true bravery in this instance, nearly falling to his wounds on multiple occasions.

I'm exceedingly glad in this campaign that the players are able to see my rolls. The wraith needed only a 9 on 1d20 to hit Arendeth with the serrated blade, and had those around the table not witnessed my rolls of 1, 4, 4, and 5 on its attacks, they may not have believed them. Each hit from the wraith would have drained one full experience level from its target, a vicious attack capable of negating months of in-game achievements at a time. Furthermore, energy drain in AD&D allows no saving throw and is nearly irreversible, making powerful undead some of most fearsome enemies to behold. It's not an ability that I employ lightly, but one that's paramount to the very real danger of AD&D games.

Another point worth mentioning is how much I rely on dice rolls to make determinations about how events unfold in the game. This is highly contrary to Ravenloft, where game events often have specific triggers to ensure that the plot unfolds in a predetermined way. Triggers of this nature can be written as "Such and such happens on the second night following this event," or "Whenever the PCs go to this location, such and such will happen." The problem with these is that they wrest control away from the party; the players find themselves riding along on the adventure, rather than creating it themselves.

In any case, in this campaign I've tried to ensure that randomness helps drive the game forward, eliminating a portion of my bias. For example, after the party routed the orcs in the previous session, I decided that, eventually, the surviving monsters would attempt to return to their lair. This made sense as it was an established and defensible location, and the orcs still had nearly half of their original numbers remaining.

What I didn't want to do, however, was choose the exact timing of the orcs' return. Knowing what the PCs were doing at any given moment, I wasn't in a position to make an unbiased decision (consciously or otherwise). I ended up rolling for how many nights the orcs would spend in the wilderness (one), and the time of day they'd make their way back (the last few hours before midnight).

Similar rolls were made at Brithem to determine how and when the dragons would attack the fiefdom. The mindset I've found myself adopting is to make reasonable decisions when far enough removed from the party, but involve random chance when I have immediate insight as to what will happen to the PCs if I make the choice myself. Of course, many creatures and NPCs have predetermined agendas that make rolling dice unnecessary, but it's still an interesting element in the game that helps keep everyone, including me, guessing.

Also of note, whenever it's not obvious which opponent an entity should attack in combat, I determine that randomly as well. This session, the wraith attacked Arendeth for obvious reasons, but for the majority of the battle against the orcs, melee opponents were determined randomly before attack rolls were made. I think this definitely heightened the tension as Arendeth hovered close to zero hit points while defending the stairwell.

Last point for this section: I've taken to running PCs extra conservatively when their players are absent. When Adam had to leave early, I chose not to attack or cast spells on his behalf, and had Berwyn perform actions that seemed most likely to keep him out of harm's way. I don't want any character to die under my control; while Berwyn might have been able to use summon swarm against the orcs (assuming he had it memorized, which I didn't know), that would have put him at undue risk. This is a good thing for everyone to keep in mind when a player needs to step out.

XP

I have a running tab of XP gained over the past two sessions; right now it's over 10,000 points to be divided among the group. That said, I'm not going to award anything until the party reaches safe harbor and makes a few decisions regarding the items it recovered. Also, since these few sessions have been one continuous adventure, any PC that dies won't receive a share of the allotment.

It's worth noting that the sword carried by Wren is a longsword +1. The only scroll remaining of the six found is levitate, though points will still be awarded for all of them.

Regarding the Tao XP system that I've been talking about for awhile, as much as I like the idea, the damage tracking proved difficult this session as the game wore on. The spreadsheet I'm using is helpful, but it's too easy to forget to mark damage dealt by the PCs (as opposed to damage taken, which I have to mark against their hit point totals anyway). Experimenting with the system has provided insight to how it works and how much XP it awards (once again, Arendeth stood to gain a good deal more than any other character due to the damage he sustained), but I plan to stick with traditional XP tracking for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

FR #8: Plundering the Orc-infested Ruins

16 Mirtul, darkmorning

The party elected to accompany Rumolt into the forest; as such, the PCs quickly bolstered their equipment in Port Llast before reconvening at dawn on a trampled field at the east edge of town, where Rumolt meandered among a spattering of horse-drawn supply carts and caravaners. Terms with the adventurer were set (a hundred gold and an equal share of treasure gained to each party member upon completion of the quest, with Rumolt retaining rights to anything belonging to his former companions), and a leather-wrapped coin roll was handed to Wren upon request as a gesture of legitimacy. Ere, the cluster of travelers departed the mustering grounds in unison (as was typical during the trade season); despite the onset of rain which dampened their march, the journey was uneventful and the party arrived at the hunting lodge near sunset.

The Slumbering Manticore was a three-story, timber frame cottage with a billowing stone chimney, surrounded by semi-permanent campsites sheltering various woodsmen and suppliers (even a dog breeder). Upon entry, they were registered by the inn's proprietor, a burly, brown-skinned man named Corbulet (one gold piece per head for nightly board and meals, tendered for all by Rumolt), and proffered food and flagon by his alewife. Once seated, the party was approached by a tall, wiry young man bearing a facial scar: Rictus, constable within the surrounds. They took their rest shortly thereafter, and in the morning, the party departed the Manticore, led by Rumolt east along the game trails.

Several hours of treading in isolation through the forest brought them to depths where the beaten path dwindled, and the party set camp with no fire. During the night, the snapping of a large branch (or possibly the trunk of a small tree) echoed from the north; no clear evidence of the noise's source could be determined at sunrise.

As the party delved deeper into Neverwinter Wood, the forest became difficult to navigate. Hourly or thereabouts, Rumolt took to halting for extended periods, reaching inside his tunic and lowering his eyes in repose, presumably the effect of a previously-mentioned wound suffered during the orc ambush. Notably, after these brief stoppages, Rumolt frequently adjusted the party's direction, though never drastically. As latefeast approached, the companions arrived at a shallow stream. Rumolt indicated that the orc lair, set in a defensible valley amid abandoned ruins, was near, and followed the stream's roll to the northeast.

Smoke lingering in the air preceded the sight of a bonfire as the adventurers crested a hill; scouting ahead, Wren counted a dozen humanoid forms around it; as she signaled to the others, two of the outlines jogged up from below, raising javelins and cudgels. Wren, Riwyn, and Rumolt fanned out with bows drawn, laying the things low as the rest of the party advanced to the sightline. A second band of a half-dozen orcs charged up the hill and the archers pushed eastward as they spotted more bodies scrambling out from behind fragments of structures that littered the low dale.

Arrows cut the dense, evening air with deadly accuracy, and a brutish orc waving a longsword and directing its fellows was struck by Wren's bowshot, and felled. The creatures on the hill clashed with Arendeth, who suffered a vicious hack from a cudgel while wielding a Tempus-endowed flame blade. Simultaneously, a rat swarm conjured by Berwyn engulfed the melee, assailing ally and enemy alike. The battle ended quickly: orcs were decimated in waves, and those that managed to avoid the party's slaughter fled to the north as the party descended on the valley and began to scour the ruins.

Five charred skeletons, held together by melted tendons, stared blankly from pikes near the bonfire. Swallowing his anguish, Rumolt noted that the longsword next to the impaled orc leader had belonged to one of his former allies; he bade the party to keep it, thrusting its blade squarely into the earth as he surveyed his companions' lethal work.

Most of the ruins amounted to crumbled walls and portions of roofless buildings, with the exception of a cylindrical fieldstone tower. Its topmost reaches collapsed, it harbored three intact levels: a ground floor, adorned with a bed of leaves and thatch along with piles of mostly-consumed bones, an upstairs, and a basement. While the upper floor was empty save for a caved-in stairwell, the underground level was stocked with crude provisions and treasure: a weathered, lidless chest filled with electrum and silver, a suit of human chain mail, and a bundle of vellum sheets protruding from a leather case. Rumolt indicated that the scrolls and mail were owned by his companions, but that the chest was not. Furthermore, he imparted that the party was free to utilize the scrolls as needed, but that he would assume possession at the completion of their journey. Identifying them as wizard scrolls, Berwyn tucked them into his pack.

Also in the basement level, Rumolt discovered a moveable brick that opened a secret passageway into a low-ceilinged catacomb. Lincoln and others traversed it two hundred feet, at which point chittering sounds could be heard from beyond. They aborted the effort, doubling back and resealing the secret door. The party decided to take refuge in the tower's second floor; watches were set.

During the night, Merlin the owl reported to Riwyn that several orcs were rummaging in the forest a half-mile north - presumably those that had fled the lair earlier in the evening. Later, a hulking ogre wandered into the ruins, chewing on the body of a lifeless orc. Not having exposed a light source in the tower, the party kept silent, and after several turns the ogre departed the grounds.

The next session will begin at dawn on Mirtul the Nineteenth. Berwyn has already expended a casting of read magic to discern the contents of the scrolls, which were provided to him in private.

DM's Commentary

Rumolt has drawn much suspicion ever since he first approached the party in Port Llast. That the players haven't reached a consensus on him is probably a sign that I'm running him well. I wrote this in a previous post during the Ravenloft campaign. I think it holds true even more in this campaign, where the absolute nature of good vs. evil is mostly secondary to personal goals, ambitions, and the need to survive and thrive in the game world:

Not every person or creature you meet in the game will be cookie-cutter good or evil. Sometimes bad things result from good intentions, and vice versa. Sometimes what's good in one person's eyes is malevolent in the eyes of another. Sometimes motivations are conflicting and blurred. Subjectivity is a remarkable thing.
I'm not going to award XP now, seeing that we're mid-adventure, but it's safe to say, assuming her survival, that Wren should gain a fighter level when I do. The orc battle was lucrative enough regardless of the system used; interestingly, by the Tao system, Arendeth gained the most of any party member from the battle. Arendeth was the only PC to sustain damage and the only PC not to deal damage himself, and the Tao system advocates that this accounts for the greater learning and advancement among the participants. It makes a lot of sense, but I'm still not ready to adopt the rules. The spreadsheet I've devised to track the details has worked well for me so far, but I still like the idea of dividing XP evenly. It removes any kind of bias from the distribution and ultimately is easier to keep track of. We'll see.

Scrolls

It's probably a good idea here to write a few notes about scrolls. Wizard scrolls are created primarily for quick casting; they serve to supplement a wizard's available spell slots beyond what he or she has memorized.
  • When a spell on a scroll is cast, it is permanently expended. Spells on scrolls are one-time use.
  • In order to copy a spell on a scroll into a wizard's permanent spellbook, the spell must be cast; thus the scroll is expended.
  • Attempting to cast a spell from a scroll imposes a chance of failure if the spell is of a higher level than the wizard can normally cast. The failure chance is 5% per caster level difference.
  • In the event that failure occurs, there is a subsequent chance that the spell could backfire in a way that negatively affects the wizard or his/her allies. (This chance is small.)
  • Any wizard desiring to know the contents of or cast a spell from a scroll must first cast read magic to read the scroll. (While Riwyn knows that Berwyn handed her a scroll with magic missile which he previously read, Riwyn cannot actually use the scroll without casting read magic herself.)
  • Read magic enables a wizard to read two scroll pages per caster level. In this session, Berwyn, as a 3rd-level wizard, was able to read six pages, the exact amount he needed to read all six scrolls.
  • Specialist wizards cannot cast spells from scrolls that are from prohibited schools (please let me know if anyone finds a contrary ruling on this).
There was a bit of tension at the table when Berwyn pocketed the scrolls and kept his findings to himself. If this is a problem for the other players (or characters), the best first step is to address it in-game. As DM, I expect a reasonable level of trust within the party and require that PCs not subvert their companions. That said, Berwyn's conduct strikes me as leaving a sour taste in the other players' mouths as opposed to warranting adjudication from the DM. That's not to say that this kind of non-teamwork couldn't inhibit the party's success in the current adventure and beyond, but for now I'm leaving it in the PCs' hands.

I really enjoyed gaming with everyone on Saturday and hope all the players had fun as well. It was great to finally have the full group together!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Player character information in Port Llast

Since a good deal of information was conveyed today over email in response to player questions, I wanted to consolidate my replies here such that they can be reviewed easily leading up to this week's session.

Rumolt and the Orcs of the Yellow Eye

As to Rumolt, he seems little known in Port Llast, but a few individuals are able to corroborate his story based on secondhand hearsay (no one seems to know him well personally - Port Llast clearly isn't his home). At the eastern edge of town, a series of game trails leads to a lodge (a day or so away) that serves as a base camp of sorts for local hunters and woodsmen. Presumably, any venture deep into Neverwinter Wood would travel there first. This information is given based on Lincoln's layover in Port Llast during the last session, and presumably shared with the rest of the group.

I'm not sure there's enough available evidence in Port Llast to definitively say that Rumolt is or is not being completely truthful. He doesn't seem to be known in town (again, not a local resident), having arrived about a tenday ago (shortly before the PCs) bearing wounds/scars and claiming that his band from Neverwinter had been decimated by orcs in the forest. He, Rumolt, was the sole escapee (I think this is mostly what raised the other players' suspicions, but I'm not certain) and claims to have trailed the orcs back to their lair prior to retreating to Port Llast, the nearest attainable safe harbor. Rumolt professes to seek both vengeance against the Yellow Eye tribe and reclamation of what he can of his fallen comrades (equipment, bodies...).

It's clear that the man has money, tossing gold around liberally and offering a large sum for aid (and likely knowing that acquiring truly capable help will demand serious payment). He stated his band to be game seekers, though when questioned further he elaborated that his experience went beyond hunting mere animals. If he's not in actuality a competent adventurer of some kind, he does a good job masquerading as one.

As to the orcs, Lincoln doesn't really learn anything. The forest is massive and littered with tribes of malicious denizens (remember that Wolford, at the beginning of the campaign and in the same forest, though several dozen miles away and in a different direction, was having problems with goblin tribes encroaching on the mining village). That Rumolt has knowledge of the "Orcs of the Yellow Eye" puts him in a higher circle, information-wise, than the commoners of Port Llast. Whether this knowledge is rooted in his experience with his former companions and/or other sources is unclear.

The Inlet and the Water Naga

As to the naga, there's not been an additional sighting during the time the party was away. Meaning, no one else has claimed the reward, but neither is the creature known to still be in the vicinity. It's a crapshoot, basically. (These kinds of things are decided by dice rolls, FYI, with me determining the chances based on my knowledge of the campaign world.)

Wren knows that water nagas, while not typically aggressive or malevolent, are creatures to be feared. Their bites are poisonous and they often have the ability to manifest wizard-like powers, making them a serious threat to seafaring vessels if provoked or for some reason intent on forcing an encounter. In real-world terms, the situation is similar to having a dangerous shark in frequently-traveled waters. The creature isn't necessarily out for blood, but its presence is considered a danger, thus the offered bounty. The fact that the inlet would be an atypical environment (water nagas are usually found in freshwater lakes and streams) could also result in it being agitated or behaving unpredictably.

Despite knowing the above, Wren has no firsthand experience with water nagas, given that her adventuring time has been spent at sea, where such creatures wouldn't be found.

The inlet connects Port Llast to the Sea of Swords. Investigating it, presumably, would involve securing a ship or boat of some kind, through purchase/rental/theft/etc. or petitioning a captain willing to help out for a share of the bounty (or some such). At that point, as mentioned earlier, it's a bit of a crapshoot. The creature was spotted... a tenday ago, or thereabouts? Is it still around? If so, would the party be able to find, let alone combat it? I'm not trying to deter this course, per se, but I think it's right of me to say that it may or may not prove lucrative, depending on rolls made, rolls yet to be made, and the party's choices.

Setting out with Rumolt would involve heading east, away from Port Llast and the inlet... so there's not really a way of "killing two birds with one stone" here. Presumably the efforts would need to be carried out in succession - though Rumolt has stated his intention to return to Neverwinter at dawn if he doesn't secure help in Port Llast before then.

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.