Monday, June 12, 2017

FR #15: Underneath the Castle

17 Kythorn, middark

Having spent several days recovering and deliberating their course, the party was awakened late at night by castle guards headed for the basement in response to a handmaid's distress. The PCs followed, and reaching her learned that a second maid had been set upon by a dark form in a storage room where the pair had been gathering wheat. Located near the end of a seldom-used corridor, the party entered the chamber to the sight of a large, centipede-like creature feasting on a humanoid body.

They attacked, drawing its ire, and it struck back with tentacles protruding from its mouth, oozing a poisonous secretion on Wren and Riwyn which numbed their arms and legs. Aranos and Arendeth slew the creature grimly, ere the dead handmaid was identified and Wren and Riwyn carried to their barracks, where they recovered over the course of an hour.

In the wake of the night's events, a search of the basement revealed a partially-collapsed stone wall below the tower previously felled by the black dragons. The wall had been in place for generations, sealing a path to a stairwell that led to an underground catacomb. The catacomb, Mara explained, had been used to operate a mine in the years before the castle was constructed, when men vied against orcs for control of the region north of Port Llast. The last known resident of the dungeon was a wizard of centuries past; when the wizard was eventually routed from the site, the catacomb was sealed, and Brithem was built atop it.

The opening in the wall was high and narrow, but undoubtedly the means by which the carrion crawler had entered. At daybreak, the party ventured beyond the wall and descended the stairwell, emerging in a cavern that forked into deeper darkness. Taking the rightward path, they discovered stonehewn walls of construction unlike the castle proper; traversing a narrow hall, Arendeth sprung a mechanical trap and suffered an impaling blow before the rest of the party ventured through unharmed. Stone steps ascended to a deteriorated wooden door, and beyond it Wren spotted the remains of a human, long since passed.

As she investigated the room, a score of disembodied, clawed hands scuttled from the recesses around her and attacked. Raking and pummeling and grasping at her neck, Wren sliced them as she ran for the next room, seeking shelter. Her companions followed, barricading themselves in an otherwise exitless bedchamber with a dozen of the wretched things while others attempted to reopen the door from outside.

The melee that ensued turned grave when one of the claws seized Arendeth's throat and strangled him to unconsciousness. For several rounds, Riwyn and Aranos worked to sever the creature's grip as they fended back others and Wren pressed her weight against the door. By the time Riwyn had taken the last claw within the chamber, both Arendeth and Aranos were swooned.

Long minutes elapsed as Riwyn scoured the room. A casting of detect magic revealed a secret compartment in one of the chamber's walls; hidden inside she recovered a chest of coins and gems, a hand-painted portrait of a man in embroidered robes, a half-completed letter negotiating a slave trade, and a large bundle of scrolls. Her friend's strength waning, the elf maneuvered the straw bed against the door and heaved her two comatose allies atop it. The pair guarded the door intensely for many hours before Riwyn rested to memorize spells, the disembodied hands unyielding in their attempts to gain entry all the while.

Knowing that the stalemate would eventually be broken, Wren coated her fishing net in oil and fastened two of its corners to the door. She pulled the door ajar, holding the net taught, ere Riwyn set it aflame as the claws leapt in, withdrew, and cast two magic missile spells in succession. The fire, bolts, and cuts from Wren's blade finally silenced the horrific scene, a full day after it unfolded. Over the course of several hours, Wren and Riwyn carefully returned their injured companions to the stairwell and summoned the castle guards.

DM's Commentary

Crazy session, and third in our recent games where at least one PC strayed dangerously close to death. This time, the rolls trended strongly in the enemies' favor, though there were a few instances where the dice spared Arendeth from dropping below -7. It takes a long time (several days) for a character to recover from that weak a point through rest alone; losing the party's cleric was a fearful event, indeed.

Despite their adversity, the PCs succeeded in returning to the castle intact. What's less certain is where the party chooses to go from here, assuming a handful more days of rest for the fallen: back into the catacomb for continued exploration; back to the Witherwood in search of the source of disease; north to Luskan as tentatively decided earlier; or somewhere else entirely? I'll get with the group on their options before the next time we play.

Residual Effects

The fiefdom of Brithem has surely known a run of bad luck lately: dragons assaulting the castle, gnolls attacking its soldiers, and carrion crawlers invading the basement? One could definitely make the case that I'm coming up with anything I can think of to throw against the PCs while they're here. There's of course a bit of truth in that, but it's not the spin I'm going for.

As explained in various posts and sessions, Brithem and its surrounds comprise an ecosystem anchored by the marshlands, the Witherwood, the fiefdom, and the road. Wetland creatures keep within the marshes and create a barrier against the forest gnolls and their ilk; the heavily-traveled road between Luskan and Port Llast deters monsters from the Neverwinter Wood; and while the jagged, perilous shoreline stymies Brithem's ability to trade by sea, equally does it protect the fiefdom from pirates.

When the pair of black dragons claimed residence in the Witherwood for reasons unknown to the party, this ecosystem was disrupted, and Brithem and its populace have been feeling the ripple effects ever since. Most recently, a sealed-off corridor beneath the castle failed under the strain of the collapsed stone tower above it.

No settlement, however large or small, can subsist indefinitely in a constant state of threat and instability. What the characters have witnessed since arriving in Brithem doesn't represent the relative peace endured in decades past; rather, the fiefdom's ecosystem is being tested, the forces within it affecting boundaries not penetrated for centuries or longer.

Will they break, or merely bend?

Initiative in Action

As talked about earlier this week, we tried individual initiative for this session using the spreadsheet I created, and while I haven't had a chance to poll the players on it yet, from my standpoint it worked fantastically. Aside from the fact that the crawling claws always seemed to go first at the worst possible times, the initiative process was quick, easy, and allowed for a better distribution of actions in combat. Barring any negative feedback from the group, I plan to keep using it for now.

On a side note, when I set up the sheet, I elected not to have Dexterity-based reaction adjustments affect PC initiative rolls on the basis that it's not mentioned in the AD&D rules and would create pressure to account similarly for enemies. After running the two encounters last night, I'm changing position on that - for one, over the course of a campaign, the players need all the help they can get, and secondly, monster physiology is often so divergent that trying to normalize Wren and an army of crawling claws in terms of initiative seems like a futile effort entirely.

What that means is that characters with high Dexterity will have reaction adjustments applied favorably to their initiative when I roll. We have too many occasions where initiative is a critical factor in determining life or death to not err on the side of the party.


A decent amount of experience gained for the foray underneath the castle; as the PCs have returned to safety, I'm free to award these now:

  • Carrion crawler - 270 XP
  • Crawling claws, 19 - 227 XP
  • Wizard scrolls, 6 - 2,300 XP
  • Coinage, gems, and artwork - 1,635 XP
  • Story award - 2,000 XP
That's 6,432 points, which divides into full shares of 1,837 XP for each PC, and a half-share of 919 XP for Aranos. Dead characters aren't eligible for experience awards, but unconscious ones definitely still are. Accounting for bonuses, here are the party's updated totals:
  • Arendeth - 15,362
  • Riwyn - 7,681/7,681
  • Wren - 6,983/7,681
  • Aranos - 1,778
No levels gained at this point, though a couple milestones draw nearer. Multi-class characters, particularly, have a slow going of things.

Scroll Contents

The contents of the wizard scrolls were conveyed to the party in-game under the assumption of multiple castings of read magic by Riwyn; to reiterate:
  • 1st-level: hold portal
  • 2nd: locate object
  • 4th: enervation
  • 5th: sending, shadow magic
  • 6th: chain lightning
Please check the spell descriptions in the Player's Handbook and review the tail end of this post for detailed rules regarding scrolls.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

AD&D initiative technology

Oy - quite a lull between posts, but as mentioned it's a busy year. Sean and I were talking about initiative in D&D this week, and the merits/detriments of different approaches. I don't think any initiative system I've seen is perfect, but I do enjoy the unpredictability of the AD&D systems that require new rolls for every round.

That said, rolling and collecting initiative every round can be burdensome, let alone accounting for combatants individually. In our game, we make a single roll for each side, adjust for casting times, and that's it. The approach works reasonably well, but can lead to polarized situations where one full side acts twice in a row. I told Sean that I'd be willing to try individual initiative per round, IF I could distill it down to a single click.

Achieving that managed to not be too difficult after all; I created a spreadsheet that calculates and sorts the data I need quickly and easily enough that I'd like to give it a go on Saturday and see how the party fairs.

Instead of asking anyone to roll initiative, what my spreadsheet allows me to do is:

  1. Gather intended actions from each player, as I do today.
  2. Determine actions for each DM-controlled participant, as I do today.
  3. Type a single keystroke to get full initiative results for the round.

The sheet will include individual modifiers, and durations can be entered to calculate the "end segment" for a particular action (completion of a spell, end of a long movement, etc.). It enables me to use a more robust initiative system while streamlining the initiative process for everyone - hopefully leading to a smoother combat experience overall.

This is what the results look like after issuing a click to make the rolls and accounting for casting times:

Not many drawbacks to at least trying it out. I don't intend to show initiative results to the group regularly - not for any desire to hide them, but simply to avoid putting up a second monitor and distracting everyone with the numbers (not to mention that it could spoil any secret participants in the combat). While this does take initiative rolls out of the hands of the players and is a step away from the transparency I've been shooting for as DM, in this case I think the streamlining of initiative may be worth the exchange. Moreover, since any edit to the initiative roll column on the sheet forces a re-roll of the entire round, it would be difficult for me to "fix" anything as long as I'm willing to show the results when needed.

All for now!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

FR #14: Marshland Horrors

First post of the new year; I see the game moving along at a slower clip in 2017 due to upcoming real-life events, but let's see what we can do...

12 Kythorn

A brief deliberation set the party's direction north, through the marshland, to see what else they might uncover in the forest. The morning fog gave way to a dark, looming canopy overhead as they entered the Witherwood, a subtle rain barely permeating its thick boughs. The trees, brush, and fauna all seemed normal, and the party observed no signs of disease.

When finally they began to set a fireless camp after hours of roving through dense and uneven terrain, Merlin alerted the group to a lifeless, bloodstained gnoll slumped against the trunk of a think oak. In the dim twilight the party noted the same pockmarks and boils that infested the stag they'd encountered with Roth-grim, two days hence. They dared not draw near, ensuring that their campsite was kept at a suitable distance.

During the night, sounds of creatures traipsing through the wood prompted Wren and Riwyn to ascend into the low branches of nearby trees while Arendeth and Aranos took guarded positions on the ground, blind but for the dwarf's infravision. When the movement slowed and veered toward them, the PCs readied themselves for battle, ere a pair of dog-faced gnolls attacked, wounding Aranos before knowing their demise.

The next day, the party meandered east, then turned south, successfully avoiding more gnolls spotted by Merlin, and discovering a copse of corroded trees, likely damaged by something resembling acid. At dusk, they neared the edge of the marsh and again set their camp.

Upon waking and reentering the marsh, disaster struck: quite suddenly, as the PCs made their way through the tedious wetlands, they became aware of hulking, frog-like forms situated around them on all sides. Exchanging wary glances, the companions ran back toward the wood, but the frog-creatures pounced, driving crude metal implements at the party with severe force and outpacing their quarry effortlessly. Aranos was impaled and fell face-first into the murky ground; the remaining party members stood fast, swinging and slashing with all the deftness they could muster at the half-dozen bullywugs assailing them, but the numbers favored their enemies and Riwyn fell, then Wren, with only a single frog-man laid low in return.

In a rare instance of good fortune, Arendeth evaded the attackers long enough to cast hold person, magically paralyzing two of the remaining five. As the melee wore on, the dwarf splattered two more bullywugs amid the marsh, ere the final mobile enemy took flight. Racing against time, Arendeth cast cure light wounds on Aranos, then Riwyn, then Wren, mere moments each from breathing their last. The dwarf urged his companions to flee while slaying the first paralyzed frog-man before hold person expired. The last bullywug, free of its magical bindings but finding itself face-to-face with the dwarf whose morning star had crushed four of its allies, leapt backward and disappeared into the swamp.

Arendeth ushered his companions, feverish and barely able to move, into the forest, allowing them to rest. No creatures happened upon them for the remainder of the day or night, but in the early morning hours a larger platoon of bullywugs began milling about the location of the previous day's encounter. Arendeth led the party away, skirting the edge of the marshland but wading further into the tree cover. When no enemies followed, the dwarf was at liberty to regain spells, which he applied generously to his allies, restoring them to able statuses. Half the day already passed, they continued their trek south, arriving at the trail that led to the crossroads at nightfall.

They marched west, toward the fiefdom, spying a mounted rider. Hiding in the woods, Arendeth cast hold person at the steed's approach, but seeing that the rider was indeed a Brithem soldier, the dwarf released his spell and the party returned to Brithem in the dead of night.

The Skin of Their Teeth

I didn't really think, after the battle at Whisper's camp, that a closer call resulting in no character deaths would be possible, yet here we are. Here's a screenshot of my damage tracking for the session, in all its glory:

The numbers don't align exactly to the combat rounds (because that's not how I track damage), but the black 1s at the bottom mark the rounds of the hold person spell, and the red 1s in the character rows mark the "death's door" damage incurred in the rounds after falling unconscious. As it was, Aranos dropped to 0 and gradually fell to -9 before being healed during the last possible round by Arendeth. Riwyn and Wren each dropped to -1 and fell to -9 and -8, respectively, before being healed. The three consecutive castings of cure light wounds by Arendeth left the dwarf with only a single round to deal with the two magically-held bullywugs, during which he executed a coup de gras to slay one.

Up to this point in the campaign, I've probably applied the recovery rules to characters restored from negative hit points a little loosely. In this particular situation, it felt critical to apply them strictly, since the party was left in such a frail and volatile state following the encounter, especially with so many dangers lurking in their surrounds. From the "death's door" rules in the 2e DMG (p. 75):
If the only action is to bind the wounds, the injured character no longer loses one hit point each round, but neither does he gain any. He remains unconscious and vulnerable to damage from further attacks.

If a
cure spell of some type is cast upon him, the character is immediately restored to 1 hit point—no more. Further cures do the character no good until he has had at least one day of rest. Until such time, he is weak and feeble, unable to fight and barely able to move. He must stop and rest often, can't cast spells (the shock of near death has wiped them from his mind), and is generally confused and feverish. He is able to move and can hold somewhat disjointed conversations, and that's it.
For the sake of consistency, I'll adjudicate this more closely in the future. In previous games I may not have erased spells from a character's mind, etc. Going forward I'll try to stick to the book.

Planning vs. Luck
"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." —Seneca, Roman philosopher
I don't want to lose sight, in all the above, of how directionless the party was in rummaging through the forest. The players all knew this, so it's not like it was any kind of secret, but I think the end of the adventure drove home how treacherous their foray really was, lacking sufficient resources or a solid plan. It's certainly possible that they'd have found something more meaningful given a little luck, and I'll also add that Merlin goes a long way toward supplementing the absence of a tracker, having the ability to survey the group's surroundings at a wide radius. Those things said, in the end, the party's success or failure in investigating the Witherwood was left more to chance than anyone probably desired.

The luck of the dice will always play a role in any D&D session; such is the nature of the fantasy world when we play. But one of the core tenets of a successful D&D party should always be to minimize the luck factor as much as possible, through proper planning and the use of resources, be they items, information, hirelings, familiars, etc.


I wouldn't typically divvy out experience at this point since no major milestone was achieved, but given the party's uncertainty about continuing its present course, I think it best to do it now.
  • Gnolls, 7 - 350 XP
  • Bullywugs, 6 - 390 XP
Shares have been divided up and added to the totals on the site.

Forging Ahead

I'll need some idea of the party's plans before the next time we play, as there was much hesitation at the notion of returning again to the Witherwood, or even venturing elsewhere to gather more resources for Brithem. Feel free to discuss your options in the comments or separately offline. In any case, I'll want to know the group's intentions about a week or so out from the next session, once it's scheduled.

Friday, December 30, 2016

FR #13: Strange Happenings Afoot

4 Kythorn

As previously determined, we reconvened in Brithem, the party having safely delivered the weaponsmith and his family following their rescue from Whisper's camp. Though bereft of their possessions and physically depleted from the events in the forest, the fiefdom offered the victims true sanctuary, and for that they were immensely grateful. Brithem, itself, was yet recovering from the destruction wrought by the dragons: a memorial had been erected outside the castle grounds to honor those who had died, and the remaining populace and soldiers were hard at work reestablishing farm production and repairing the keep. With the trade season now in full flourish, the days were long and wearisome.

Amid all this, two young travelers from the south, a brother and sister who claimed themselves missionaries of Tyr, arrived in recent weeks and offered their hands to the fiefdom. The party spoke to the pair separately: the man, Lucido, the elder sibling despite having seen fewer than eighteen winters, spoke humbly of their journey north, taken under the employ of a benefactor in Leilon named Elidar Highborn; the woman, Winifred, was already acting as caretaker to the victimized family and carried herself modestly indeed. Both siblings were quite fair, drawing the eyes of the men and women around them at every turn.

So it was that the party passed time in the fiefdom healing from their injuries and honing their crafts, when late one evening a report arrived that a patrolman failed to come in, hours after he was to have returned from a quarter-perimeter ride near the marshlands. Having had their fill of downtime, the party saddled horses and rode toward a northeasterly landmark known as Claw Rock, with Merlin the owl flying out ahead and warning Riwyn of danger a short way into the marsh.

At the edge of the plain, the party tethered its horses and located the eviscerated steed of the missing soldier, though not the patrolman himself. Casting a light spell over the rocky spire a hundred yards away, the adventurers caught a glimpse of doglike silhouettes marauding about its base; wading into the wetlands to close distance, the party aimed bowshots at the creatures they could discern. A gnoll from the outcropping returned fire while another bounded through the willows, tearing into Riwyn with its claws. In the moments that followed, the gnolls acted strangely defensive, eventually succumbing to the party's swords and arrows in a small cave formed into the rocks, where a mother was protecting three gnoll pups, which Arendeth slew. On the cave floor lay the mostly-consumed body of the patroller.

The next morning, the captain of Brithem's soldiery bade the party to accompany him back to investigate further, as gnolls traversing the wetlands could indicate a greater threat in the forest beyond, as when the two black dragons had taken residence there previously. The fiefdom would be ill-prepared to deal with another such menace, so quick and proactive measures were needed. Sharing Roth-grim's concerns, the party agreed.

A day venturing beyond the wetlands and into the dense canopy of the Witherwood revealed no additional signs of gnolls, but turned up a fallen stag untouched by scavengers, its hide mottled with festering boils. Using chalk to mark the stag's location and their return trail, the company made for the keep before nightfall with more questions than answers.

DM's Commentary

Was the gnoll combat interesting for the group? It's not always easy to judge as DM. While the gnolls weren't atypical and the fight was littered with rounds of miss/miss/hit/miss, I felt like the marshy terrain, the spire, and the discovery of the gnoll pups made for a memorable encounter. Whatever the edition, combat rules can only do so much to hold a player's attention. Spells and outside-the-box thinking help too, but for me, the overarching scene and the imagery it invokes are what I tend to remember long after the details fade. A good DM should be able to make even a trivial encounter using the simplest ruleset something special to the group.

Not much commentary from me aside from that. We were back at it after a lengthy delay, and consequently spent time at the beginning of the session reviewing the party's recent dealings and discussing the state of Brithem upon their return. I still really enjoy running the fiefdom; its unique situation and placement make it both stable and volatile at the same time, and Berwyn's background contributes to it greatly.

Site Update

On a side note, I recently gave the blog a minor facelift, along with a cool visual feature if you check back often and pay attention. I wanted the look of the site to feel living and breathing, like the campaign world itself. I also disabled the site's mobile view, which I can put back if it inconveniences anyone. I prefer seeing the standard web version, and figure that everyone following the posts is probably doing so by email.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Learning new spells from captured spellbooks

It's probably useful if I outline the procedure for learning new spells from other wizards' spellbooks. We've looked, previously, at the parameters around using scrolls, which are effectively a one-time-use means for supplementing a wizard's spell slots. Spellbook writings are permanent, though the rules for copying them are similar.

  • In possession of an unfamiliar spellbook, a wizard must use read magic to decipher its contents. Read magic allows the wizard to read two pages per caster level; an individual spell consumes one page per level of the spell. (In the previous post I assumed that Riwyn was willing to expend the necessary number of castings, two, to read the full volume.)
  • Once the spellbook's writings have been deciphered, the wizard can attempt to copy any number of its spells into his or her own spellbook, using his or her own personal notations. Each spell requires a successful Chance to Learn Spell roll, with failure indicating that the spell cannot be learned at the present time. A new roll can be attempted (assuming that the wizard still has access to the spell) upon attaining a new level.
  • If the Chance to Learn Spell roll succeeds, the wizard must spend one full day of study per level of the spell copying the runes. (The degree of dedication required for this work typically can't be achieved while adventuring.)

Note that a wizard isn't able to memorize spells directly from a foreign spellbook, only from the wizard's own spellbook.

Feel free to post any questions or clarifications as comments.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Jhakine's spellbook

I did, in my previous post, wholly forget to make note of the Calishite wizard's plundered spellbook, which Riwyn is presumed to have in her possession and to have perused with a casting of read magic.

The volume is small, lightweight, and leather-bound, intended for use while traveling and ill-suited for large-scale research. A handful of weathered parchment sheets remain unmarked, though most of its pages are inscribed with the following spells:

  • First level - detect magic, magic missile, read magic, sleep, shocking grasp
  • Second levelblur, ESP
No additional XP award for obtaining this, though Lincoln is surely glad that it no longer resides in the hands of an enemy.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Picking back up, and XP for recent sessions

Before we move on to the next session, I'd like to solidify the point from which we'll pick back up. Various offline discussions led to this conclusion, which I wrote in an email earlier today:

The party's most recent agreed-upon direction was Brithem, in order to get the victimized family to safety. We can pick up from the fiefdom the next time we play. It's not too long or treacherous a journey to skip over the details.

With all of this, the one plot point I will enforce from the get-go (to Wren's dismay, I'm sure) is Rumolt's departure north (toward Luskan) with the scepter from the crossroads. This was always his intended path, and nothing short of sword or spell was going to keep him with the party beyond this point. He's been a dagger in the party's gut for some time now, and it's time for the group to find some internal cohesion without him. The world is dynamic and fluid, so it's certainly possible that he crosses your path again. Sara can write a romantic sendoff post if she feels so inclined.

Given the above, I'll go ahead and award XP for the most recent adventures:
  • Kirtak's banded mail (magical) - 500 XP
  • Misc bandit gear plundered - 200 XP
  • Kirtak - 110 XP
  • Bandits, 10 - 300 XP
  • Jhakine - 350 XP
  • Story award (saving the victimized family) - 4,500 XP
The total of 5,960 XP is split into full shares of 1,324 XP for each PC and a half-share of 662 XP for Aranos. Though Rumolt was a key contributor in the party's dealings, I've omitted him from the dispersement due to the uncertainty around his motives and the fact that he's gone his separate way. New party totals should be:
  • Arendeth - 13,110
  • Riwyn - 6,555/6,555
  • Wren - 5,959/6,555
  • Lincoln - 10,852
  • Aranos - 662
Lincoln and Arendeth have each attained 5th level; we can assume adequate time passed in Brithem for their advancement.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

FR #12: Cliffside Ambush

(Edit: Post title updated to better reflect the session content.)

26 Mirtul, middark

Following the interrogation of the bandit, the party weighed its options, lacking an obvious trail to the smith's wife and daughter. Finally, hitherto silent, Rumolt imparted that he possessed the means to locate Whisper's hideaway, and would do so in exchange for the jeweled scepter and an amicable parting of ways upon returning to the road. As he had no desire to risk the dangers of the forest alone, Rumolt furthermore offered to aid the party in an assault and rescue attempt against the bandits, after the camp was found. The PCs deliberated the arrangement at length, but ultimately agreed.

At dawn, Lincoln handed the captured highwayman a roll of fifty gold coins in exchange for his departure and a promise to live an honorable life upon returning to Luskan, or wherever he might go. The bandit consented eagerly, addressing the dwarf with many a "Yes, sir" and bow as he scattered into the trees to the west.

When all were ready, the party followed Rumolt's lead, the father, son, and uncle trailing closely behind. As they journeyed eastward through the forest, Arendeth inquired how Rumolt would locate the encampment, and Rumolt revealed from his tunic a compass rose made of cast iron, hanging by a thin chain around his neck. The compass, he explained, had come into his possession several years prior, and over time he had learned to utilize its magic, which enabled the wearer to know the direction of specific places or persons through intense mental focus - clearly the same method employed to find the orc ruins, days earlier.

Shortly after highsun, the company arrived at a fifty-foot ridge descending a two-hundred-foot wide canyon, at the bottom of which flowed a river that provided a ford. The opposite side of the canyon sloped gradually upward to a plateau ceilinged by a rocky overhang which began a near hundred-foot climb to the continuation of the forest. A winding trail led upward from the left side of the plateau: the only discernible path up for anyone lacking the ability to scale walls.

A few minutes of surveying the plateau from tree cover revealed bandit activity afoot, but no immediate signs of the captives. Unwilling to risk descending the canyon, the party made its way downriver a considerable distance after Merlin the owl scouted the terrain. A short time later, the party located a reasonable crossing and easier ascent to the opposite cliff. Once atop it, they formulated a plan while waiting for nightfall.

Wren approached the plateau area from the ridge above it at twilight, spotting a burgeoning fire underneath its overhang, which was surrounded by a cluster of highwaymen. Honoring their promise, Arendeth drew forth the magic scepter and handed it to Rumolt, who tucked it away securely in his pack. Together, the company moved in, thieves repelling down the ledge while Arendeth, Aranos, and Rumolt took to the trail.

As the latter group neared, arrows volleyed to and from the plateau, and Aranos was felled by magical sleep. Rumolt continued to fire while Arendeth closed and Wren, Lincoln, and Riwyn dropped in from above. Jhakine, the Calishite mage, could be seen spellcasting behind the bandits, and as Lincoln was pummeled by magic missiles, a flickering form thrust a blade into Wren from behind, laying her low in a single, deadly strike. The figure disappeared from sight again as a bloodbath ensued; the battle saw Lincoln fall to his injuries before Arendeth crushed the Calishite mage's neck with his morning star and the remaining bandits were slain.

As Wren's body clung to the last vestiges of life, Rumolt rushed forward, removing a potion flask from his belt and emptying its contents down her throat. Lincoln, unconscious but breathing, was revived, and a search of the cavern revealed the smith's wife and daughter - alive, though greatly battered and incoherent - and a dark tunnel leading from its depths.

DM's Commentary


1. a set of circumstances in which one finds oneself; a state of affairs.

I understand that Rumolt has been a point of frustration to the party for a handful of sessions now. In this campaign, my method has been to introduce places, and people within those places with their own histories, motives, and agendas, come what may. I'm not executing to an intricate grand design; I'm creating situations that intersect the party's path, and allowing the plots to weave themselves. In this way, the characters have a large degree of control over their own destinies.

It's always been five against one. Rumolt has always been a burden that the party, for all intents and purposes, has commanded the power to rid itself of. The question has always been the terms under which the sides would part ways, and the concern felt by the PCs in allowing a man with unclear motivations to knowingly leave the company in possession of a powerful magic item. But I've never tried to hold anyone's feet to the fire. If any of the group members feel that way, I'd want to explore the reasons why.

Have the events with Rumolt been fulfilling, or dispiriting? Enjoyable, or woeful? My hope, at least, is that they've been entertaining, and memorable.

I can't rightly end this section without a mention of how close Wren tarried to character death during the melee. At 18 hit points, Whisper rolled a critical hit for max damage on the attack roll for backstabbing, reducing Wren to -6. Three rounds elapsed with no healing or attempts to stabilize, taking her to -9. As the "death's door" points tick off at the end of each combat round, Rumolt fed her his potion during the last possible moments before she'd have descended to -10 and died. That's crazy close. I'm really glad I make my rolls publicly.

What's Next?

I don't consider the party to be at a suitable "safe point" for awarding XP, amid the Neverwinter Wood with Whisper still at large. The victimized family, while alive and intact, is in need of safe harbor. In the previous recap I made note of items for which XP would be awarded; we now have pending story awards as well, given the impactful achievements made by the party with respect to the campaign world.

In the interest of attaining safe harbor and setting a firm direction for the next session, I encourage the players to post comments to this thread to help determine the party's next course of action. Depending on what's decided, I may be able to advance the game forward. This blog is here for you; feel free to use it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

I Really Don't Want to Know (DM Transparency in D&D)

Quick story: Last night I played in a session of Sean's 5th Edition D&D game, which he documents here. During the game, our group encountered a wraith, which with some powerful dice rolls struck my character to unconsciousness from nearly full hit points in a single attack. In fact, my character was one failed save away from being effectively slain.

This wasn't my least favorite part of the session. It actually didn't bother me at all. I was happy with the decisions I'd made for Nefresil to that point, both from tactical and role-playing standpoints. Untimely things happen in D&D. When making choices, it's important to weigh the odds and understand the impacts of randomness and dice. As a player, you control what you can control and learn to live with the results. If that means your character dies a hero, so be it.

My least favorite part of the session was picking through treasure after the combat and being told, without the aid of any spell, that we had found a short sword +1 and a wand of lightning bolts with seven charges remaining.

(I should pause here briefly as I realize I've used the words "least favorite" two times now, and I don't want to give the impression that I don't enjoy playing in this game or that Sean isn't doing a good job as DM. Sean is extremely new to DMing and running from a module, so all this discussion is intended to be instructional and expressive of the way I like to play D&D, nothing more.)

This brings us to the topic of transparency. Not to engage in edition wars per se, but citing the 2e PH description for the spell identify:

The item never reveals its exact attack or damage bonuses, although the fact that it has few or many bonuses can be determined. If it has charges, only a general indication of the number of charges remaining is learned: powerful (81%-100% of the total possible charges), strong (61%-80%), moderate (41%-60%), weak (6%-40%), or faint (five charges or less). The faint result takes precedence, so a fully charged ring of three wishes always appears to be only faintly charged.
Note, specifically, how the AD&D version of the spell stops short of providing the caster with concrete mechanical information about the item. D&D characters don't understand game mechanics, they understand the nature of magical items in abstract terms. Leaving the mechanical details shrouded keeps the players more interested, and less certain. It helps create tension.

Tension, in D&D, is everything.

To Sean's credit, in his game, the short sword came with a tale behind it that our characters were familiar with from lore. The blade was visibly identifiable as one of a pair that was previously wielded by a renowned historical NPC. The two weapons were never known to have been separated, so the fact that we found this one here, in isolation, was exceptional. Whether this flavor was added by Sean or part of the module he's running, it provides an interesting hook that we could potentially become involved with later on. This is good stuff.

Setting that aside, however, we have an issue of transparency. How do our characters know that the short sword is endowed with a +1 bonus? How do we know that the wand casts lightning bolt? How do we know that it has seven charges remaining? Short of casting a spell that yields specifically this information, our characters shouldn't know these things. Being told the mechanical details outright, in addition to breaking believability in the fantasy world, has deprived us, as players, of discovering the properties on our own. Imagine our characters experiencing the horror of unexpectedly running out of wand charges at exactly the wrong time! Because this information was handed to us freely, this can never happen. We need never plan for it. This in turn makes the game less interesting for us overall and reduces our immersion level.

Similarly, as DM, there's a fine line between telling the players what their characters observe and dictating the conclusions that the characters derive from what they observe. It's OK to tell the players "The orc shifts uneasily as you step into the room," but the DM shouldn't go so far as, "You know that the orc will attack you if you advance any further." We do? How could the PCs possibly know this without trying? Players need to be allowed to draw their own conclusions about the information provided to them, and being overly transparent as DM waters down the game for players who want to feel immersed. They're being shortcut through the nuances, which often end up being the most fun and rewarding elements of role-playing and decision-making.

In the end, I don't want the DM to let me in on the truth. I want to uncover the truth for myself by interacting with the fantasy world. Don't tell me things that my character should not rightly know.

It's important to note that the kind of transparency I'm describing here is different from the kind that the DM employs to show that he's playing by the rules and to instill trust around the table. When every DM die roll is hidden behind a screen, it's too easy for the players to feel (rightly or not) that they're being lied to when unlikely things happen. Transparency with dice rolls to remove doubt that the game is being adjudicated fairly is different from transparency with information. The DM at all times needs to be exceedingly delicate with exactly which details are presented to the PCs. Information and spoilers cannot be retracted.

Now, at some point, spell or no spell, a player needs to know, mechanically, that his or her character is wielding a short sword +1. The intent of this post is not to say that a player should never be privy to this information at all, simply that it should not be handed over without in-game justification. I'm generally not going to silently add a +1 modifier to a player's attack rolls for months on end; it's reasonable to assume that, over a short duration of using a magic weapon, the PC will get the gist of it enough that the bonus can be conveyed and written down on the character's record sheet. We just don't want to deprive the player of learning the nature of the weapon on his own.

It's a poorly-kept secret of DMs that we sorely want, at times, to tell the players everything, to let them in on every minute detail that we've been plotting and preparing over the course of a campaign. But a good DM need always remember that the time for revealing this kind of information is after its in-game relevancy has unequivocally passed.

And not a moment sooner.

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.


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.


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.


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!