Friday, October 24, 2014

RL #19: Transitions

Tonight marked a major transition for our campaign, with the exit of Alaric and Nora, and introduction of two new characters (played by the same players), Gaertorin (male half-elf ranger/cleric) and Carmen (female human transmuter). Also our first session back after a long hiatus due to real-life dealings, so it was great to get back into the swing of things.

We picked up in Morningsong - or, the shell of what the village once was, abandoned, weathered and aged - as the characters found it when they returned. Aginot awoke alone in a roofless and dilapidated inn; exploring the grounds, there were no inhabitants - only a few long-dead skeletons - though when drawn to the chapel gates by an unexplained ringing of the church bell, the four friends noticed that the placard outside had changed. Where once read:

"Let this chapel stand for eternity
As a reminder of the consequences of sin."

Now proclaimed:

"Let this chapel stand for eternity
As a reminder of heroes and good will among men."

Underneath the stanza was etched the coin insignia of Aginot's order. Additionally, the well behind Ellidora's cottage was still collapsed as the party had most recently left it. A sign of decades taking their toll, or something more?

With little other recourse in the village, the PCs took the day to rest and then set off along the trails, hoping to again find the river. As they waded into the depths of the forest and night began to fall, a cool breeze ushered in the sound of wind chimes in the distance. The party followed the haunting notes, arriving at a colorful gypsy wagon situated beside a blazing campfire with five individuals seated around it. Of these, three were Scarengi, Ryana, and Carloni - the same Vistani family that the party had encountered before arriving in Marais d'Tarascon. The other two, a half-elf man and a human woman, were unfamiliar, outfitted in adventurer's garb and clearly not gypsies.

Scarengi offered seats around the fire, warm stew, and bread. While kind in demeanor, the gypsies answered questions cryptically and seemed not to remember the previous visit with the party in Souragne. The two non-gypsies were quiet, but when asked, explained that they'd been scouting along a dangerous trail at night when they were ambushed by skeletal warriors, known to be minions of an evil warlord named Soth. As the skeletons began to overtake them, the trail was surrounded by a thick fog. Suddenly, the trail and skeletons were gone, leaving Carmen and Gaertorin alone in the woods amid a grove of black, dead trees, the likes of which they'd never before seen.

Soon, the pair heard wind chimes in the distance and came upon the Vistani wagon. Alaric, Aginot, Nora, and Leilana arrived shortly thereafter.

The travelers' tale seemed of little consequence to the Vistani, and notably, Scarengi and Ryana's daughter Valana was not present in the camp. Scarengi explained that Valana had been captured by Talon guards aboard a "Black Raven" (a Falkovnian prisoner carriage) along the road to Stangengrad, persecuted for her gift of "Sight." As if knowing the companions' own eagerness to locate this same road, Scarengi offered to lead them there, so long as they agreed to trail Valana and rescue her. The Talons would likely be found in Gorgi, a small town less than a day's march north. The party accepted, and all settled in for the night.

As Gaertorin and Carmen were exhausted from their travails, Alaric and Aginot stayed awake for the first watch, during which time Alaric demanded that Aginot return Ellidora's mask to him so that he could find a way to destroy it. Aginot refused, waking Leilana and entrusting the item to the druid instead. Disturbed by Alaric's uncharacteristic brashness, Aginot committed to foregoing sleep through the remaining watches, though fatigue eventually overcame him.

In the morning, Alaric and Nora were nowhere to be found, and the mask was missing from the folds of Leilana's cloak. The forest was scoured, but Leilana and Aginot uncovered no sign of their friends. Saddened but seemingly with no other option, Leilana etched a message "Farewell, Alaric and Nora" into a tree and the pair followed the Vistani to a well-beaten trail that surely hadn't been present the night before. The vardo disappeared into the morning fog, leaving Leilana, Aginot, Carmen, and Gaertorin alone.

The foursome traveled throughout the day, cresting a final hill and looking down upon a small, gated town at sunset. Warning the new companions - whose foreheads were unbranded - of the various mistreatments typically suffered by Falkovnian citizens, the party circled the valley eastward and entered Gorgi from the north, an effort to deter any suspicion that the PCs might be pursuing the Black Raven, if it was indeed here.

The gatemen barely questioned their entry, and the companions found their way to the town center, marked by the "Tally-ho Inn and Tavern" and the Black Raven coach - guarded by a pair of Talon soldiers - tethered outside its doors. The party observed the carriage, drawn by two jet-black mares and adorned with a prisoner cage easily large enough to transport a half-dozen men - but which in fact contained only a single, female form.

Gaertorin, Aginot and Leilana steered clear of the Raven and entered the tavern, while Carmen cast invisibility and approached the cage from behind. Up close, she surmised that the captive - sleeping or unconscious, but certainly not dead - was indeed Valana, based on the party's description. She noted, too, a set of iron clubs wrapped in bloody rags hanging from the carriage side, and a pair of wolf-like dogs laying attentively in the shadows. To each dog was tethered a harness, and the ends both harnesses were clutched firmly in the hands of a black-armored dwarf. Having seen enough, Carmen looped back around and made her way into the taproom, reconvening with her allies still fully invisible.

DM's Commentary

A paladin's road is never easy, and Alaric's was no exception. His need to destroy Ellidora's mask, though driven by a desire for good, turned to near-obsession in the end. When Aginot and Leiliana wouldn't surrender the mask to him, he employed the party's thief to steal it while the rest of his companions slept, and together the pair trod off into the mists. Though Alaric quickly realized his mistake, when he and Nora attempted to return to the Vistani wagon in the dead of night, all they found was an empty forest grove.

In the land of mists, fate seems ever at odds with those seeking to do good, and Alaric may have just taken his first step down a very dark path. A warrior who might have been destined to end the reign of an evil king in an oppressed land has departed his companions, lost within himself... to what end?

Out of game, Alaric and Nora's players were both new to RPGs when we started the campaign, and Nora, particularly, was rolled up with literally an hour's notice. Both players were enjoying the game but felt that they wanted to go in a different direction, now that they've had a chance to wet their feet. It's definitely a move that I support - these kinds of transitions provide interesting new story arcs, and it's important that players are playing characters they can have fun with.


Fifty XP to Aginot for yesterday's post. Gaertorin and Carmen will begin with 7,000 XP each. I typically start new characters at a total slightly below the otherwise-lowest party member. This helps reward the characters that have stuck around longest and provides incentive not to change (or die) too often.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Aginot: Can't Buy Me Love

While his companions were away righting wrongs (likely driven by Alaric's self-deluding sense-eluding idea of justice), Aginot set his mind and body towards a project of consequence--converting the heathens.  The Order of the Coin had gained much traction in the events following Lady Silva's unmasking, and several of the townsfolk had made private inquiries regarding the faith.

Aginot took this as an excellent sign, and as his comrades set about fighting beasts in dark tunnels, Aginot laid himself to the task of winning acolytes.  His first success was Jerome, a beggar.  While Jerome's motivations were suspect, at first, he had quickly become the most outspoken of the Order's acolytes.  He was granted The Coin on his first day with Aginot, and Jerome Branded his first two converts the next day, increasing the Order's strength in Morningsong threefold.

Aginot spent much time with Jorah the first night, and while he was unsuccessful in converting the priest, Jorah did accept a token of the Order at Aginot's insistence, which he wore discreetly around his neck.  Aginot had begged access to whatever books and geneologies Jorah had access to, as Aginot was certain and sought proof that Lord Hanwey himself was a disciple of the Order.  It was this, more than anything else, that opened Jorah's heart to The Coin.  That it was, in fact, a lie was of little consequence.  The Order of the Coin seeks not truth, but rather balance.  And this first step in Jorah's conversion tipped the balance slightly in favor of the Order.

It was by pointing out Jorah's necklace that he won the conversion of Abigail on the second day.  If Jorah's views regarding the Order were somewhat exaggerated by Aginot, that as well was of little  consequence.  The result was surely worth it.  Abigail was Branded that morning and accepted The Coin in Aginot's room that night.  Thus it was with great satisfaction that Aginot fell asleep, confident of what the next day would bring.

When Aginot awoke alone in the Mists, however, the strength of his despair hit him and he could barely stand.  Abigail, who had fallen asleep beside him, was gone, as was the bed, and the inn was an empty shell of what it had once been.  Everyone that Aginot had met was gone.  With no idea what happened, and not knowing if Leilana, Alaric and Nora had also disappeared, he eventually gathered the strength to stand, and stumbled through the Mists calling for his comrades...

Sunday, May 11, 2014

RL #18: The Phantom Village

Tonight we resumed where we left off, with the party regaining its bearings in the aftermath of its battle against the kobolds. They set back out to the tunnels, following the nearest fork a short distance to a dead end, then backtracking to a crossing of two paths in an 'X' and taking a downsloping outlet marked at the top by a decades-old mine cart.

That tunnel led back in the direction of the village, and at its end, miles later, was an enormous chasm where a waterfall poured into an underground lake from one side (Alaric correctly deduced the waterfall's source to be the river cavern nearest the kobold lair). The tunnel itself opened to a 100-foot drop, ending in a rope ladder and a small iron barricade used to prevent mine carts from rolling over the ledge. Far below, smoke from a bonfire billowed up to the cavern's uppermost recesses; around it loitered a handful of man-sized humanoids.

A plan was devised to throw stones from the ledge and wait for a scout to ascend the ladder. It worked, though it took several minutes, and the orc that climbed up was assailed with arrows and fell to its doom. Thereafter, the party began its descent, covered by the readied bows of Ainsley and Rooks, and Leilana's spells.

The orcs below had taken to the shadows and fired crossbows from hiding as the companions climbed down. Kleigha was pierced in the back and plummeted to his end, soon followed by a second longswordman. Alaric, Nora, and two men-at-arms reached the bottom, and when finally the orcs charged in, bloodshed came quickly and fierce. The party's strikes proved far truer than those of their enemies, and even after a hulking ogre joined the fray, the band from Morningsong knew victory. The cavern was scoured for secrets and gold coins, and a final orc who fled from the melee was tracked down and slain. With that, the party made its way back to the cave's entrance, exiting to the moonlight.

After only a few hours of rest, they set out for home, trudging through fog as the early morning sun finally began to glow. As they closed in on the trails that led back to the village proper, the PCs inexplicably lost sight of Rooks, Ainsley, and the lone surviving longswordman. They searched and called out, but found nothing: the men seemingly had vanished into thin air.

A short time later, Alaric, Nora, and Leilana arrived back in Morningsong, and what their eyes beheld chilled them to their very core. The village was desolate and abandoned. And more than merely abandoned, it looked as if no inhabitant had graced it for years, even decades. The wells were dry, the farms barren, and the structures they remembered as homes and establishments were dilapidated and decrepit. Confusion turned to horror turned to fear.



The XP awards for the past three sessions are as follows:

  • Avoiding the dire bear - 489 XP
  • Kobolds slain - 83 XP
  • Orcs slain - 132 XP
  • Ogre slain - 180 XP
  • Gems, coins, and items recovered - 232 XP
  • Story award - 1,000 XP

In total, that's 2,116 points, though the allotment will be divided into five shares: one to each PC, one to Ainsley and Rooks, and one to all other allies. That makes 423 XP per character. Updated totals are:

  • Alaric - 7,774
  • Leilana - 7,724
  • Nora - 7,303

Leilana hereby attains 4th level. I don't have any additional commentary, though players are welcome to add/post their own. Looking forward to hopefully having Jason back next time we play!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

RL #17: Unwelcome Return

Last night we resumed in Morningsong, with the party quickly deciding to further investigate the mysterious cave by the river. Calling a meeting in the Lion's Head tavern, Alaric imparted the danger of the mission at hand, offering a chance for any unwilling man to stay behind. All pledged their allegiance to the journey, though before the group could part ways for the eve, Rooks entered from outside, accompanying an injured young man who brandished sword and bow. The wounded hunter, Ainsley, brought word of a vicious orc trio that had slain a fellow woodsman near the forest outpost. Alaric healed Ainsley, who offered his aid to the contingent as well. With heightened urgency, the band departed at middark, aiming to reach the cave shortly after sunrise.

Their ill-advised nighttime passage through the forest ushered in a veil of thick fog as they closed proximity to the river. Without warning, the din of a marching army sounded off in the distance, singing to them like a nightmare. Recognizing the omen, the PCs bade their allies to close their ears and focus on the trail ahead. One of the men-at-arms (Vedrane) fled with all speed from the group, disappearing into the mists. The remaining eight travelers began chanting a bold chorus of "Stay strong for Morningsong!" to drown out their fears. When finally they found the river, the phantom noise was gone, and the fog began to break. Rooks and Ainsley led them to a shallow crossing and they made quickly for the cave.

Outside, no activity was detected, and the party filed into the rocky passage beside the running stream. Nora traversed the precarious ledge, toting a grappling hook attached to a hundred-foot length of rope. Securing the grapple in place for the others, Leilana followed next, slipping on a wet section of rock and plummeting into the chasm below. Nora scaled the cliff to administer healing in time to save her friend, though lifting the half-elf to safety and helping the rest of the companions across consumed a great deal of valuable time. Worse, as they toiled, kobolds slung stones from a ledge across the waterfall. Bowmen picked off two, frightening away the others.

Finally, the party took to the tunnel, traveling more than two hours and passing multiple forks before encountering a lone orc backed against a heavy, iron-banded door. The orc turned tail, but when the party followed, they found themselves inside a kobold lair. A battle ensued, the PCs routing the kobolds into an expansive cavern blocked by an underground river - the same cavern they'd travailed on their venture from the well in the village, this time entering from the opposite side, mere yards from the pit trap where they'd nearly met their demise.

The kobolds proved unprepared for the assault, and the party's combatants (with the help of Leilana's dust devil) made short work of the minions, slaying them all.

DM's Commentary

This was a pretty fun session, though admittedly, allowing Leilana to fall from the ledge nearly ruined it. A 5% chance to slip followed by a failed Dex check had her toppling fifty feet to a rocky chasm below. In the end, she took 17 points of damage (average rolls on 5d6), falling unconscious at -2 hp and dropping all the way to -5 before Nora made it to her side. These are the kinds of unlucky mishaps that I find myself most tempted to fudge in the party's favor. I had a bad experience several years ago where I allowed something similar to happen to a player, whose PC died and who ultimately decided not to play D&D anymore afterward. Despite that incident, I stayed true to the dice last night and everything still played out reasonably OK. Those are always tough calls to make, especially in the heat of the moment.

That said, I probably was a bit lenient in allowing Leilana to retain her spells and continue to operate at full capacity after being brought back to positive hp through magical healing. I didn't care to take the time to look up official rulings, and we've spent enough time playing with a party member completely debilitated in recent sessions. I think I made the right call on that too.

Of note, Alaric entrusted the black mask to Aginot prior to leaving Morningsong (Jason was good enough to agree to this via text even though he wasn't playing). Also, the party recovered coins and gems inside the kobold lair. No XP will be awarded until we reach a true resting point, but as a reminder to myself for later, here are eligible accomplishments from the past two games:

  • Avoiding the dire bear in the forest by way of entangle
  • Slaying 12 kobolds in the dungeon
  • Recovering a haul of copper coins and a handful of valuable-looking gems

Last but not least, remember for the next session that the orc who led the party into the kobold lair was nowhere to be found after the combat ended. As the PCs scoured the cavern diligently, it presumably found an escape.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

RL #16: Shadows in the Forest

Picking up after a couple months off, the PCs assembled a contingent of eight that included Rooks and four other able-bodied men and took to the forest trails outside Morningsong. Shortly after reaching the first outpost, they encountered a twelve-foot tall bear, which advanced toward them aggressively before being held fast by Leilana's entangle. Moving fast, the contingent circled around it and pressed on until it fell out of sight. From there, they reached the river-crossing, and elected to follow the stream downriver.

Toward late afternoon, one of the men-at-arms, Vedrane, spotted a fast, fleeting movement on the opposite shore. Investigating from afar but finding nothing, the party hoped (but did not truly believe) that the sighting was simply a large fox. Continuing on, the contingent arrived at a previously uncharted fork in the river as twilight began to set in. The fork led away from the opposing bank, into the open mouth of a small cave. Rooks pondered the strange formation, doubly concerned that it seemingly had sprung up from nowhere, as Morningsong's hunters travelled this route often.

Deciding to camp for the night, a fire was set ablaze and watches were arranged. In the early hours of the morning Nora caught sight of two yellow eyes peering near the cave opening, but as with the earlier phantom, a shake of her head and they were gone. Unsettled, Nora awakened Leilana and passed the remainder of the night in the druid's company.

Rooks advised that the river could likely be crossed a short way further down, so the party continued on, traversed the shallows, then doubled back. Near the cave mouth was a semi-concealed rocky passage that led behind the stream, into a cavern and along a precarious ledge that ended in a man-sized tunnel. The river fork itself poured down a fifty-foot waterfall, ending in darkness below. Wary of delving too deep underground, the contingent marched back upriver, back to the outpost, and finally back to Morningsong before nightfall.

In the village, the PCs and Rooks convened privately with Jorah, Kleigha, and Aginot. The older residents of Morningsong showed grave concern for the findings, citing similar happenings from twenty-five years ago, when hunters would return from the forest bearing tales of inexplicable new landmarks amid well-known territory. Their most serious failing, they believed, all those years past, was in neglecting to root out the evil that threatened them until it was almost too late. As such, Jorah particularly impressed the need to investigate further, and not again leave the village's fate to mere chance.

DM's Commentary

This was a tough one, starting back after some time off. It's always hard to get your head back into the game and recall all that transpired previously. The party's investigative approach, too, didn't feel all that exciting, though it did uncover some interesting new details. No XP to award right now, we just need to play again soon so that we don't feel the lag next time too.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

RL #15: Out of (and into) the Dark

Last session left the characters in a particularly bad spot. We resumed with the orc gazing down at them from the top of the ten-foot pit where they were trapped; after growling a few undecipherable orders to the surrounding kobolds, the orc left and I put the players on the clock, with one minute of real time equalling one minute of game time.

They tried a few things initially (searching the walls, attempting to scare the kobolds away with a torch, attaching a grappling hook to the underside of the raft), but didn't seem to yield any real benefit. Finally, seventeen minutes in (three minutes before the orc would return with allies to turn the pit into a cook-fire, though the players didn't know this), Alaric donned Lady Silva's black mask.

Black tendrils of smoke clasped the mask to his visage, and Alaric took the form of a hulking orc chieftain bearing a giant hatchet. Succeeding a few key ability checks, he climbed the already-secured rope and swung to the nearest ledge, pushing the raft aside just enough to fit through. Where prior to the change, the kobolds prodded at the PCs aggressively from above with their javelins, from orc-Alaric the creatures backed away, slowly and warily.

Nora was hoisted up next, and as Leilana followed her out, a half-dozen orcs came running for the corridor. Alaric slung Nora over his shoulder and burst through a line of kobolds, racing for the upriver raft while accepting hits from flying javelins. Once aboard, Alaric cut the tether and he and Leilana paddled with all speed.

The orcs reached the bank and leveled crossbows, but with the party outside the range of their infravision, the bolts sailed wide - and with the last remaining raft still covering the pit-trap, the enemies had no easy means to follow. The companions crossed the river, took to the tunnels, and fled from the well, all alive.

Back in Morninging, Alaric sought healing for Nora, and as she was revived, Leilana organized a team of villagers to collapse and seal the well. In the following days, the trio recovered from their wounds and readied a team of hunters and men-at-arms to scour the forest for additional threats.

DM's Commentary

This was a short session; we didn't have a ton of time, and while I didn't know at the beginning how things would play out, I figured that one way or another, resolution would be quick. Things ended as well as the players could possibly have hoped, and I'm not really sure if the party had another out after the mask (of note, Alaric required a save vs. spell to remove it from his face, though he made the roll easily). Alaric's Strength checks in the pit were key - while failure to climb out quickly wouldn't have caused damage, it would have cost valuable time. When finally the PCs escaped, Alaric was left with one hit point from the javelins (the players saw my actual damage rolls).

Morningsong, while thankful that the well is sealed, is more concerned than ever that orcs and kobolds are lurking barely a mile from the village, albeit underground. To those villagers that survived the battle twenty-five years prior, the fear of imminent danger is all too familiar.


Not a ton of XP to award, but the party's foray in the catacombs wasn't entirely unfruitful:

  • 12 kobolds slain - 90 XP
  • Sealing the well - 500 XP

That's 197 points each (216 for Nora). I think the award for sealing the well is justified; the party could easily have left it intact for further exploration and plundering, but by sealing it off they ensure that no monsters can use it to invade the village, even after the characters leave. XP totals are updated on the right.

All in all, I'm surprised everyone made it out. Had Alaric gone down, Nora would likely have been lost as well. The party had a brief window for escape before the orcs returned, and to their credit they made the most of it.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Adventurers in Society

Not that I want players thinking too much about new characters yet, but this section of the 2e DMG gives good insight on how the classes work in a typical medieval(ish) society. I've always liked reading stuff like this so just wanted to post it.


Fighters are by far the most common character types in normal campaigns. They must meet the least stringent class requirements and are drawn from the biggest pool of talent--soldiers of innumerable armies, mercenary companies, militias, palace guards, temple hosts, and sheriff's men. In these and other forces, the potential fighter learns his trade. He is taught how to handle weapons and care for them. He picks up some basic tactics and earns acceptance as a fighting man.

From these ranks some go on to become 1st-level fighters. Such men are often given rank in recognition of their talents. Thus, a 1st-level fighter may become a corporal or a sergeant. As the ranks become greater and more influential, the tendency is to award these to higher level fighters. However, this trend is not absolute and often breaks down at the highest levels. The captain of the company may be a 12th-level fighter, but he would still take orders from a 0-level prince!

Level is no guarantee of rank, nor is rank fixed to level. Some people don't want responsibility and all that comes with it. They would rather let other people tell them what to do. Such characters may become accomplished fighters but never advance beyond the rank of common soldier. Political maneuvering and favoritism can raise even the lowest level character to the highest positions of authority.

Since fighters tend to rise above the level of the common soldier, few armies are composed of high- or even low-level fighters. While there is little difference in ability between the typical foot soldier and a 1st-level fighter, it is just not possible to find an army of 20,000 4th-level fighters. It's rare enough to find 1,000 or so 2nd-level fighters in a single unit. Such units are elite, superbly trained and outfitted, and are normally held in reserve for special tasks. They may be the shock troops of an assault, a special bodyguard, or the reserve of an army held back for pursuit.

Adventurer fighters (whether player characters or NPCs) are those who have struck out on their own. Not every man is content to take orders or give orders, and fame seldom comes to the common foot soldier. Some men are willing to try to rise through the ranks, but it is by no means an easy or speedy process. There aren't many openings, nor is it a path where skill at arms guarantees success.

Given all this, it's not surprising that most fighters opt for the more direct method of adventuring. In the course of adventuring, though, many fighters find themselves becoming leaders and commanders, assembling men around them as they carve their own place in the world.


Paladins are rare, in part because of the statistics of dice rolling and in part because paladinhood is an exacting road for characters to follow. It is easy to err and fall from the special state of grace required. Not every character is up to these demands, but those few that are can be truly special. You will not find units with thousands, hundreds, or even tens of paladins. At best, they form small groups (such as the Twelve Peers of Charlemagne or some of the Knights of the Round Table).

Often, because of the sterling example they set, paladins lead others in battle. But, at the same time, they tend to be ill-suited to the task of ruling, which too often requires compromise of one's principles. It is common to find the paladin working in association with the clergy of his religion, but lone paladins, carrying their faith into the wilderness, also appear in the tales of bards.


Rangers tend to be loners, uncomfortable in the company of "civilized" men. They are also uncommon, again due to the demanding ability requirements of the class. These two factors make armies or companies of rangers most unlikely, only marginally less common than hordes of paladins.

Although loners, they do not mind the company of other rangers, those who understand the ways of the wilderness and the need for space. Small groups of rangers will sometimes join an army as its scouts, especially if the need is pressing. They will occasionally be found in forest villages or near untracked wildernesses. Here, guides, scouts, woodsmen, trappers, pioneers, and stalkers form the pool from which the ranger ranks are filled. Few can be found in civilized lands--rangers in cities are truly oddities.


Wizards are the most iconoclastic and self-important of all the character classes, for they are unique among all character classes. The peasant can pick up a sword and fight; a pious man can hope to serve his faith; a local wag can spin a good tale; and an unprincipled cad can rob the local merchants. But no one other than a wizard can cast magical spells. The need for highly specialized training truly sets them apart, and they know it.

When mages gather, they tend to form societies or associations, organizations for men who speak of things not understood by the common folk (much like scientists today). But wizards are too fractious and independent a lot to organize themselves into proper unions--they can barely manage to form moderately organized guilds.

Generally, their groups exist for such high-minded reasons as to "facilitate the exchange of knowledge" or "advance the state of the science of magic." Some prepare texts or papers to share with fellow mages, detailing their latest experiments and discoveries or outlining some new theory. They enjoy the recognition of their peers as much as anyone.

To outsiders, wizards seem aloof and daunting. Like craftsmen, they are most comfortable in the company of their fellows, speaking a language they all understand. The untrained, even apprentices, are intruders upon this fellowship and are apt to receive an icy and rude reception.

Wizards are an eccentric, even perverse, lot. They're likely to be found just about anywhere. Nonetheless, they have an affinity for civilization, ranging from small villages to vast cities. Only a few mages actually care to adventure since it is an extremely dangerous undertaking to which they are ill-trained and ill-suited. The vast majority spend their time experimenting in seclusion or working in the service of others, preferably well paid.

Many mages, especially those of lesser ability, turn their art to practical ends--almost every village has a fellow who can whip up a few useful spells to help with the lambing or simplify the construction of a house. In larger cities, these mages become more specialized, such that one might lend his talents to construction, another to the finding of lost things, and a third to aiding the local jewelers in their craft.

Nearly all major families, merchant princes, and nobles have a mage or two in their employ. A few attempt (generally without success) to have these wizards mass-produce magical items. The problem is that wizards are as difficult to manage as rangers or paladins. They do not care for others bossing them around or encroaching upon their perceived privileges and rights, especially since they have the magical resources to make their displeasure known. Also, they are usually kept busy finding ways to strike at their employer's rivals (or thwarting such attempts against their own lord). Foolish is the king who does not have a personal wizard, and lamentable is the ruler who trusts the wrong mage.

Not all wizards spend their time in the service of others. Some seek naught but knowledge. These scholar-mages tend to be viewed much like great university professors today--noble and distant, pursuing truth for its own sake. While not directly in the service of others, they can sometimes be commissioned to perform some duty or answer some question.

The wealthy often provide endowments for such men, not to buy their services (which aren't for sale) but to curry their favor in hopes that they will provide honor, glory, and just perhaps something useful. This situation is not unlike that of the great artists of the Renaissance who were supported by princes hoping to impress and outdo their rivals.

There are wizards who spend all their time shut away from humanity in dark, forbidding towers or gloomy, bat-infested caves. Here they may live in rooms where opulent splendor mingles with damp foulness. Perhaps the strains and demands of their art have driven them mad. Perhaps they live as they do because they see and know more than other men. Who knows? They are, after all, eccentric in the extreme.


Priest characters are not required to take up arms and set out on adventures to smite evil. No, their hierarchies require administrators, clerks, and devout workers of all types. Thus, although there may be many clergymen and women at a temple or monastery, only a few will have a character class and levels.

Not all monks at a monastery are 1st-level (or higher) clerics. Most are monks or nuns, devout men and women working to serve their faith. Non-adventuring clergy are no less devout than their adventuring brethren, nor do they receive any less respect. Thus, it is possible to have leaders within a religious hierarchy who show no signs of special clerical ability, only proper faith and piety.

Even more so than with military men, though, level is not a determiner of rank. Wisdom and its use, not the application of firepower or the number of foemen smitten, are the true pearls of the clergy. Indeed the goal of some beliefs is to demonstrate the greatest wisdom by divesting oneself of all earthly bonds--power, wealth, pride, and even level abilities--in an attempt to attain perfect harmony with everything.

In the end, adventuring priests tend to form a small nucleus of crusaders for the faith. They are the ones who demonstrate their faith by braving the dangers that threaten their beliefs, the ones who set examples through trials and hardships. From these, others may spiritually profit.


Thieves are often people who don't fit in elsewhere. Unlike other classes, nearly all thieves are adventurers, often by necessity. True, many settle permanently in a single area and live off the local population, but when your life tends to be in defiance of the local law, you have to be ready to leave at a moment's notice! Each job is an adventure involving great risks (including, possibly, death), and there are precious few opportunities to relax and let your guard down.

Thieves occasionally form guilds, especially in major cities and places with a strong sense of law and order. In many cases, they are forced to cooperate merely to survive. Influential thieves see guilds as a way to increase their own profits and grant them the image of respectability. They become dons and crimelords, directing operations without ever having to dirty their hands.

At the same time, the membership of a thieves' guild is by definition composed of liars, cheats, swindlers, and dangerously violent people. Thus, such guilds are hotbeds of deceit, treachery, and back-stabbing (literally). Only the most cunning and powerful rise to the top. Sometimes this rise is associated with level ability, but more often it is a measure of the don's judge of character and political adeptness.

Curiously, thieves who are masters of their craft tend not to advance too high in the organization. Their talents in the field are too valuable to lose, and their effort is expended on their art, not on maneuvering and toadying. There is, in fact, no rule that says the leader of the thieves' guild has to be a thief. The leader's job involves charisma, character appraisals, and politicking--the powerful crimelord could turn out to be a crafty merchant, a well-educated nobleman, or even an insidious mind flayer.


Bards are rare and, like thieves, tend to be adventurers, but for somewhat different reasons. They do occasionally violate the law and find it necessary to move on to the next town--and the next adventure--but more often they are driven by curiosity and wanderlust. Although some bards settle down in a town or city, most travel from place to place. Even "tamed" bards (as the settled ones are sometimes called) feel the urge to go out and explore, gather a few more tales, and come home with a new set of songs. After all, the entertainment business demands variety.

There are generally no bard guilds or schools, no colleges, societies, or clubs. Instead, bards sometimes band in secret societies, loose affiliations that allow them to improve their art while maintaining an aura of mystery.

Most frequently, however, bards rely on the informal hospitality of their kind. Should one bard arrive in the town of another, he can reasonably expect to stay with his fellow for a little while, provided he shares some of his lore and doesn't cut into his host's business. After a time, during which both bards learn a few of the other's tales and songs, the visitor is expected to move on. Even among bards it is possible to overstay one's welcome.

Of course, there are times when a bard decides not to leave but to set up shop and stay. If the population is big enough to support both bards, they may get along. If it isn't, there will almost certainly be bad blood between the two. Fortunately, though, one or the other can usually be counted on to get wanderlust and set out on some great, new adventure. Bards do tend to be incurable romantics, after all.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Leilana seems desperate, but she is right that we were hasty in our retreat," Alaric thinks while furiously pacing. "Because of that haste we have jeopardized our lives, and put an entire village in danger. It was not supposed to be this way. The heroes in the stories always had a solution at hand. Perhaps I am not like the great heroes. I must have been a fool to think that an orphan from a small town with no true master for training, could be like one of the great heros in the stories." The thought makes Alaric sad and angry at the same time.

When Alaric finally gets his emotions under control, he stops pacing. Not knowing what to do next, he does the only thing that makes sense to him, he prays. He kneels down with the point of his sword in the ground. He puts both hands on the hilt, and begins to pray. "How has this happened to us? How can we get out of this? I do not see a way out of this. We will not be able  to fight our way free. I do not see how any of the items I have will help to free us. Leilana has formulated a plan of escape, but I fear that the orc will not be easily overwhelmed. She also talks of using the mask to escape. That is something I do not condone. The mask is evil, and wearing will bring no good. Is it worth risking my soul for a chance to escape. However, if not wearing it causes us to die, and thus the entire town to be attacked, how can we not wear the mask. The heroes in the stories, always put the greater good ahead of their own lives. This feels difference though. I would gladly lay down my life to allow Leilana and Nora to escape back to the surface. I cannot leave this place alive if Leilana wears the mask. I cannot allow one of my dearest friends to wear the mask and stand idly by. That leaves but one option. If we cannot escape by Leilana's plan, then I must be the one to wear the mask. As the heroes always show, 'The good of the many outweigh the good of the one.' I ask that the Creator shelter Nora in His hand as we make our escape, and allow Leilana and I to do what is necessary."

Alaric stands, and begins to help Leilana with the rope. The thought of wearing the mask terrifies Alaric, but he refuses to show that fear. He thinks to himself, "I cannot allow Leilana to wear the mask because I could never bring myself to kill Leilana if she were to don it."

The pitfalls of being an adventurer...

"Maybe Lord Hanwey will save us," Leilana whispers quietly. "He wouldn't let us die here, would he?" she asks it aloud, though seeks no response. Waiting upon a ghost to save them seems rather unlikely and unfortunate.

She cradles Nora's lifeless form in her arms. Her slow, shallow breaths, the only evidence that life still flows within her veins.

"How could we have been so careless, Alaric?" Leilana asks, as her eyes roam over the stone walls of the enclosure. "We were so careful upon entering, checking each hall for traps, and at the first sign of defeat we panicked. We let fear consume us, and now..." her eyes slowly meet his, "...the village may be lost."

Desperation paired with exhaustion rolls over her spirit in waves. Her eyes search his for an answer, any answer. She knows the brave paladin would gladly sacrifice himself in order to save his friends, this town, or his village. There is courage in that, she thinks, perhaps not wisdom, but courage no less. Her eyes study his, filling with pity at the thought of the oaths he has sworn, the sacrifices he has made, the promises that will go unfulfilled. And for what reason? Because death has been brought at the hands of creatures that use rocks for weapons.

When the boat is pulled over the enclosure from above, their situation suddenly feels all the more dire.  As the darkness settles in, Leilana's senses become more acute as her half-elven heritage surfaces.
Suddenly the fear of dying, of defeat, of all of Morningsong being utterly destroyed by these pesky little rodents, is too much to bear. Fear turns to determination and she pulls herself upright. The hair upon her arms stands straight up as she turns to Alaric and declares, "This will not be our tomb. We will not surrender ourselves, nor the town."

She sets her jaw as she looks for a way out. She turns the remaining spell over in her mind, Create Water, as she studies the walls. The rocks seem jagged, but may provide enough foot holes to climb. If the creatures were to climb down, a slippery surface would hinder their descent.

She paces the small floor, thoughts forming quickly. "We have a rope. We have a hook."  Her voice, just above a whisper, is higher than normal, though her words come out even, set with determination, "We will need a distraction."  Her eyes catch the sight of the torches in Alaric's bag. A thought quickly arises, and she pushes it out in a rush before changing her mind, "Smoke will blind them. We will set the boat on fire, flip it over, use it for cover, pull Nora up with the rope, and run like hell." Even as she says it, she knows it seems unlikely that it would succeed.

"And if that doesn't work," she faces Alaric and quietly states, "I will put the mask on." Without hesitating she adds, "I know you don't agree." Her eyes meet his one last time, pleading for understanding, "But Alaric, we must escape and warn Morningsong." She lays a hand on his shoulder and plainly says, "I expect you to destroy the mask by whatever means possible once they have been warned." The ramifications of what she implies lies heavy in the air between them.

She takes a step back and begins preparing the rope and grappling hook. The thought of dying by Alaric's hand is actually a relief then the idea of dying by whatever lies above.

RL #14: Kobolds in the Well

Our group has decided to keep playing, without Aginot temporarily, under the pretense of the party electing to remain in Morningsong to help prepare for winter. The PCs have delayed their departure for Stangengrad until the situation in the village, under-provisioned and lacking a true leader, is more stable.

In the wake of that decision, what happened last night was far from expected. However the party comes out of it (if they do), is likely to alter the campaign forever.

We picked up a few days after the unmasking of Lady Silva; late one night, Alaric, Nora, and Leilana were awakened by an alert call from one of Ellidora's cottage guards. The guardsman was injured, bleeding heavily from a puncture wound in his side, and nearby was the body of a three-foot tall, dark-skinned creature which Jorah identified as a kobold. Kobolds were known to toil as the slaves of orcs; suddenly, the timing of Azrael's attacks against the hunters after years of apparent dormancy seemed not so disconnected and random.

It felt even less so when the PCs trailed the kobold's snowy footprints back to the dried out well behind the cottage, where Azrael had been spotted loitering suspiciously.

The friends elected to watch the cottage for the remainder of the night, and when dawn came, they descended the narrow well-shaft using a rope. At the bottom, Nora discovered a five-foot-high dug-out tunnel leading away from the village. Alaric bid the remaining guards to send word to Jorah and Aginot, and the PCs took to the passage, following it by torchlight with heads and necks bowed for nearly two hours before emerging in a taller, rocky cavern with slime-laden walls.

Leilana's timely casting of detect snares and pits revealed a hidden pit trap which the PCs averted by sidling along the slimy walls. Seemingly unharmed by the ooze, they traversed a new series of dry, forking tunnels, triggering a lone spear-rack trap from the ceiling and felling two kobolds that threw stones at them from the darkness.

The tunnels led to a massive, underground chamber bearing a two-hundred foot wide river that flowed with a powerful current. The party's torchlight couldn't reach the other side, but as they made their approach, they spotted a lone kobold drifting away from the nearest bank atop a log raft. Acting quickly, Alaric plucked the creature with an arrow, and Nora expertly grappled the raft back to shore. After careful evaluation of the current, the PCs dragged the vacated raft upriver and rode it across. On the opposite bank were two more empty rafts and a single, wide passage that led deeper into the complex. They shipped their raft downriver and made their way to the tunnel, whose entrance was adorned with a six-foot wide barrel-drum, tactfully disabled by Alaric.

Satisfied, the PCs advanced along the passage walls, taking care to not disturb the center of the floor. Stones (many stones) assailed them from the darkness, and Nora hurled her torch forward, illuminating the kobolds' lair. Dozens of the minions scrambled to evade the torchlight whilst bringing more stones and javelins to bear. The party returned fire, Nora and Alaric loosing arrow upon arrow as Leilana conjured a dust devil to attack their adversaries. More than a third of the kobolds were laid low in all, but when finally the dust devil was defeated, the horde united in a final push to drive the invading characters away.

Assailed with flying kobold weapons, the PCs fled back down the passage, utterly failing to exercise the same caution with which they entered. Leilana, in front, sprung a pit trap in the floor. She and Nora both fell, and though Alaric initially kept his balance, the trio had also triggered another spear-rack from the ceiling. The pikes swept down and struck Alaric from behind, toppling him forward into the pit atop his friends.

Nora was incapacitated by the fall, having suffered numerous lesser wounds in the battle. As Leilana worked to stabilize her, the monsters surrounded them from above, dragging one of the large rafts from the river to cover the pit opening. Minutes passed, the companions helpless and injured, kobold guards watching them hungrily. Finally, a larger creature arrived, its towering form shadowing down from above as its pig-nosed face and yellow eyes bore into them like drawn daggers.

The face and eyes of an orc.

DM's Commentary

That's where we had to stop. At this point, we'd been playing for more than four hours and it was well after midnight. The players at least deserve a chance to play this part out with clearer heads, though I think everyone's prepared for the fact that this might be the party's end. It looks really grim. The characters were bold in descending the well with no additional support from the village; ironically, the success with which they navigated the tunnels initially made escape that much harder in the end.

This game was a hard lesson in how one wrong move or moment of carelessness can undermine a whole session of solid play. I cringed when I saw the PCs running for the pit trap, especially after they smartly avoided it by staying to the walls on their way in. The decision to flee (along with three failed Dex checks) negated all the good they'd accomplished to that point. Leilana's spell selection was excellent, Nora had some really insightful plays (studying the river current and throwing the torch to illuminate their enemies and help conceal the party), and Alaric and Nora's attack rolls were efficient.

So where do they go from here? Nora is "stable" at -4 hit points. The players should read this to make sure they know exactly what that means. The kobolds made a lot of high attack rolls against her during the fray, making the added fall all too deadly. Alaric and Leilana are in reasonable shape, but Leilana is out of meaningful spells.

The idea of donning the black mask was raised. Alaric dismissed it immediately, saying there's no way he'd allow it, though I made a point to remind him that not only his friends' well-being, but possibly the entire village might be at stake. Alaric has been willing time and again to sacrifice his body for his allies, but what about his morality? This is by far the toughest dilemma he's been faced with, if the party really does want to try that route.

The players have some time to think (a lot more than their characters do). Whatever ends up happening, I doubt the party comes out of this the same. It definitely will be a turning point, for better or for worse.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mordenkainen's Disjunction


I don't have very much to add. This was my greatest D&D moment as a player, ever. For me, Rich, and Jason, the words "Mordenkainen's disjunction" will forever conjure a specific and vivid scene in our imaginations. These are the things you play the game for, even 15 years later.

As for the rules, it wasn't that 2e did anything special to support what happened in the session; the important thing was that it didn't stand in the way of it happening. When you empower the DM to make context-sensitive rulings, this is the kind of epicness that results.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

RL #13: Illusions Unmasked

(Thirteen must really be unlucky, because I had almost my entire post written when a single keystroke inexplicably wiped it out with no way to recover. This is attempt #2.)

Thursday night, after three arduous sessions, the party finally brought closure to the dealings in Morningsong. Upon their return from the forest, word of Dowding's demise spread like wildfire. A gathering ensued, and Lady Silva was quick to implicate the PCs, claiming Alaric's red talon mark a baleful omen. Jorah and members of the travelling party dismissed the notion and tempered the governess, though it was evident that fear of a desolate winter had begun to set in amongst the villagers.

Of note, as the gathering dispersed, the PCs caught hearsay that Silva had fallen ill and bedridden the previous day. Apparently the Lady suffered from some chronic ailment whose onset was sporadic and usually short-lived. (If the party's suspicions of Silva weren't heightened already, they most surely were now.)

In much need of rest, the PCs slept until early the next morning. At sunup, they located Rooks, one of the hunters who accompanied them previously, and enlisted him as a guide. Together, they delved back into the forest, reaching the first outpost at midday under a veil of light snowfall. Deciding to remain for the night, the PCs dispatched Rooks to the village, bidding him to return on the morrow with any able bodies willing to join.

A fire was built hours before dusk to battle the wintry winds, and when night fell, Alaric and Leiliana kept watch while Aginot and Nora slept. Shortly thereafter, Leilana became aware of (and rebuked) an attempt to infiltrate her mind. The party was wakened, and Alaric, on a hunch, pinpointed the location of an invisible presence using detect evil.

Leilana cast faerie fire to magically outline their foe, and Alaric and Nora advanced. In the ensuing rounds, Leilana cast entangle, and after a series of thwarted attempts to control and poison the PCs, the foe became caught in the twisting branches. At long last, both armed with magical longswords, Alaric and Nora ran the creature through. As it convulsed and died, its invisibility subsided, revealing the visage of the mute, Azrael, before transforming into the body of an imp.

The companions waited out the night until Rooks returned with a small contingent at midday, then they all returned to Morningsong, where Lady Silva was nearly comatose in her cottage. When Alaric's attempt to detect evil was met by chaotic visions of a swirling black mist, Leilana used detect magic to reveal a powerful illusion aura upon the woman's face. Pledging his trust in the PCs, Jorah presented Aginot a clerical scroll inscribed with dispel magic.

Aginot uttered the incantation, and a thin, black mask peeled away from Silva's visage. As it did, her features transformed to those of another - Lord Hanwey's (supposedly) long-dead daughter, Ellidora.

She awakened.

DM's Commentary

In the little she was able to offer in terms of explanation, Ellidora revealed that, in the waning days before Azrael's control over her became absolute, she imparted the details of her condition unto her older sister. Subsequently, Angelina's "attack" on Ellidora, regarded as an act of jealousy by the village, was actually an attempt to exorcise the imp from her sister's mind. But when Azrael used his powers to feign the younger sister's death, Angelina's grim fate was sealed. Ellidora succumbed fully, and later would don the guise of Lady Silva (a purely fictional persona) by way of the magical mask.

Overall, this was s very successful session for the group. Alaric had some outstanding revelations, particularly in identifying the common thread between the men-at-arms' behavior in the forest and the conflict between Hanwey's daughters. Equipping Nora with one of the party's enchanted longswords was key as well. In addition, a few critical dice rolls landed in the party's favor - notably, the random chance to detect evil in Azrael's direction (25%), Leilana's racial resistance to charm (30%), and the two final attack rolls against the imp.

Protection from evil was paramount in the combat with Azrael. While the effect is generally useful against most malevolent enemies, it really shines against otherworldly creatures like an imp, preventing physical contact with the protected individual. Without protection from evil, it's likely that one or more characters would have perished.

Despite all the good, one thing the party needs to sort out going forward is Leilana's use of entangle. The lack of coordination between the caster and her allies when it comes to this spell is a ticking time bomb, surely to kill at least one PC before long. Entangle is an extremely powerful spell in woodland environments, but one that needs to be wielded tactfully and with the utmost care.


Really glad to finally be able to award some well earned XP. The spoils:

  • Saving the Morningsong men from Azrael's mind control - 700 XP
  • Defeating Azrael - 1,200 XP
  • Freeing Ellidora from her imprisonment - 1,000 XP
  • Recovering the black mask - 3,000 XP
That's 1,475 XP each, and Aginot has attained 4th level. Nora, as a newcomer to the party, is starting at 5,000 XP, though her 10% bonus for high Dexterity should catch her up with the others in due time. Updated totals are below, and also posted on the right.
  • Alaric - 7,054
  • Leilana - 7,054
  • Aginot -7,004
  • Nora - 6,622

A Reprieve

With real life events soon coming to the forefront for one of our players, it may be a while before we play again. I hope not too long - the campaign's going strong, and everyone seems to be having a lot of fun. We're at a decent stopping point now, with the party readying to strike out for Stangengrad before the early-season snows make many roads and trails impassable.

Winter is coming.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Players: What you need to know to play

It's really fun having players new to the game in our campaign, though (continuing the sentiment of my previous post) it holds me responsible for ensuring that everyone has a basic understanding of certain things about AD&D in order to play. The following is a relatively short list of things I'm classifying as "need to know":

Your ability scores (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha). The six abilities represent how physically and mentally talented your character is. Many of the game's mechanics take ability scores into consideration, and scores of 15 and higher typically yield significant advantages.

Your THAC0 (To-Hit-Armor-Class 0). This is the number you need to roll on a twenty-sided die (d20) to hit an opponent of armor class 0. The higher the opponent's AC, the easier they are to hit. For example, if your THAC0 is 18 and your opponent is AC 5, you only need to roll a 13 (18 - 5 = 13). Other bonuses or penalties can also apply to your roll (for example, when using a magical longsword +1 or attacking an invisible opponent). THAC0 decreases over time as a character gains levels, based on class.

Your armor class (AC). Armor class represents how difficult you are to hit. The main things that influence AC are quickness (Dexterity score) and the type of armor worn. The base AC for anyone is 10 and gets lower the better protected they are.

Your hit points (hp). Hit points measure how much damage you can sustain before being knocked unconscious or killed (this happens when reduced to 0 hp or lower, see here for details).

How many attacks you can make in a round. Low-level characters only make one attack normally, however bows (short bows and longbows only, NOT crossbows) can fire two arrows every round (rate of fire/ROF = 2). This makes bows ideal when attacking at range, though they can't be used right next to an enemy and suffer a -4 penalty (as all missile weapons do) when fired into a melee.

How much damage your weapons inflict. The weapons on your record sheet have numbers like 1d6 or 2d4 next to them. These are the number and type of dice you roll for damage when you hit with an attack.

Ability checks. Often, I'll ask you to make a check against one of your abilities, which means you want to roll equal to or lower than the value of that score on your record sheet using a d20. This is a simple way to determine success/failure for arbitrary feats like jumping onto a moving horse (Dex) or finding a marble in a pile of weapons (Wis).

Any special things your character can do. You shouldn't feel like you need to memorize a rulebook to play D&D, but you always should read the full description for your character's race and class in the Player's Handbook. This will tell you what extra things your character can do, like cast spells, backstab, and turn undead.

That some enemies require special or magical weapons to be damaged. When you swing your run-of-the-mill sword at a ghost and it passes right through, you don't deal any actual damage. That's because ghosts (along with many other creatures, particularly magical ones) require special or magical weapons (or spells) to hit. For example, that simple dagger you're holding won't do a thing to that werewolf if it's not coated in silver. Also, the DM won't tell you when this is the case for an opponent you're facing - you typically have to figure it out through trial and error.

That some enemies are perfectly capable of wiping out the entire party. Never assume, just because you're up against something, that you're likely to come out victorious. Part of what keeps the game "real" is the idea that sometimes the characters are simply outmatched. When this happens, find another way to deal with the situation or, if all else fails, RUN! It's usually fairly obvious when the party doesn't stand a fighting chance, though the characters ultimately need to decide for themselves.

That some enemies can kill a character with a single attack. Last session, Dowding died from poison after only being hit once. That wasn't because his hit points were reduced to 0, but because the specific attack forced him to roll a "saving throw" (a last-ditch effort to avoid a horrible fate, which he failed), or die. It's not always easy to predict when these kinds of attacks are coming, but you should definitely be aware that they can happen.

That sometimes good vs. evil is not absolute. 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.

That you can try [pretty much] anything you can think of. Don't ever feel restricted by the numbers and abilities on your character sheet. If you can imagine it, you can try it in the game. That doesn't mean everything you try, however, will work. I'll typically use a combination of attack rolls, ability checks, and common sense to figure out if your attempt succeeds.

That I'm not out to kill your character. It's pretty easy to come to the conclusion that my job as DM is to make the bad guys kill everyone in the party. Nothing could be further from the truth. My primary responsibilities are to adjudicate the game fairly, preserve the realism of the campaign world, and (most importantly) help make sure that everyone has a great time playing. I actually feel terrible when a character dies. That said, it isn't fair and takes away from the challenge of the game if I start fudging decisions or dice rolls to keep it from happening.

Trust me, if I wanted your characters dead, they would be. ;)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The importance of finding another way (and AD&D combat math)

(This ended up being a lot longer than I intended, but once I started writing I just kinda went with it. Hope the party finds it helpful.)

This last session, I saw so many 2s, 3s, and 4s rolled by the players in combat, I swear I wanted to throw up in my shirt. And it wasn't just attack rolls. DM rolls a 2 for initiative? Players roll a 1. Players roll 5? DM rolls 6. Players roll 6? DM rolls 6. (All of those actually happened.)

So many unlucky rolls, how could the PCs possibly prevail?

That's what I was asking myself afterward, particularly when Jason mentioned a "dice bowl" idea where players can remove a d20 from a bowl of dice to re-roll an attack or save, then the party gets XP after the session for any dice still unused. It's a neat gimmick, a little game within the game that helps solve the fundamental "problem" of a party bogged down by terrible luck.

I'm always a little hesitant to make changes like this to my games. Partly because it feels like cheating, but also because it's hard to remove them without causing disappointment.

So, I took a step back and started thinking more deeply about what I was trying to solve, and specifically the combat math from Monday night's game. Let's take Alaric, the party's undisputed best fighter (actual rolls notwithstanding).

Alaric is a 3rd-level paladin that hits a well-armored (or very small/dexterous) opponent of AC 3 on a 14 or better with his longsword +1. (The math is THAC0 18 - AC 3 = 15 needed to hit, with +1 to his roll from the sword.) That's a 35% chance, an expected hit rate of about once every three rounds.

That's not super great to begin with, but passable enough to justify a swing, especially considering that the player doesn't know the opponent's actual AC during combat. But what about when the opponent is invisible? That's another -4 to hit (see here), which plummets his hit chance down to 15%, less than once every SIX rounds, on average.

Six rounds? The PCs are likely dead before then - and that's the party's best fighter.  I'm pretty sure the other three characters each need to roll a 20 in that situation.

That brings me back to the dice bowl idea, which subverts the "natural" AD&D combat mechanics in favor of the party. Now, if your hit chance is already around 40% or better, or if trying to survive some kind of save-or-die effect, the dice bowl is pretty helpful. But at 5-15% to hit an invisible enemy, a single mulligan roll doesn't improve the success chance all that much. Taking last session's rolls as examples, even if those 2s, 3s and 4s were all 12s, 13s and 14s, almost every one of them still would have missed. And that's a testament to the fact that, last session, luck wasn't really the problem. Knowingly or not (and I think mostly not), the PCs made very statistically poor choices.

The truth is, when you're up against an invisible enemy who's darting around and stabbing people in the back with poison, you're best off finding another way to address the issue. Attack rolls are normally well and good (not to mention a core element of the game), but in this situation the attack roll shouldn't have been plan A. Spells, chalk, rope, blankets, practically ANYTHING should be tried before swinging a longsword for a 1-in-6 chance to hit. Shooting 3s from half-court isn't winning basketball.

And that's where D&D really shines, because RPGs are all about thinking outside the box to find another solution. For me, it's probably my favorite part of the game, the biggest reason I still DM and play. It's about stepping into your character's shoes and asking, "My life is literally on the line here, what do I try to do?" AD&D is awesome at accommodating that mindset.

The flip-side to this is that players can sometimes drift so far in the direction of "outside the box" that they forget the box even exists. This happens when you see a party trying to take down a warband of orcs by tying all their daggers together as some kind of ridiculous lasso-tripwire. This approach to combat tends to not be very lucrative either. You want to find the right balance between being creative and pragmatic.

So, having gone through all that, I think the first thing I can do to help with the "bad luck" problem is to show some typical hit percentages for our party:

Roll needed to hit...
PC/weaponLightly armored
opponent (AC 8)
Moderately armored
opponent (AC 5)
Heavily armored
opponent (AC 2)
Alaric (longsword +1)9 (60%)12 (45%)15 (30%)
Aginot (staff)12 (45%)15 (30%)18 (15%)
Leilana (spear)12 (45%)15 (30%)18 (15%)
Nora (short sword)11 (50%)14 (35%)17 (20%)

Look at those numbers closely, because there's only one in the whole grid that's higher than 50%. It's noteworthy that Nora has a +2 Dex bonus when firing her bow, making those chances 10% better (bows also can fire two arrows every round). Opponent invisibility effectively reduces any hit chance by at least 20%, so that's something to keep in mind as well. Incremental advantages like being on higher ground can impact the rolls, too.

The point is, before blindly choosing to bust out sword or mace, try to think a couple rounds ahead to how events might play out if the dice fall like the numbers suggest they should. If that result looks a little grim for the PCs, you may want to reevaluate your options to see if there's another approach worth trying.

In closing, my games have never been strongly focused on mechanics, and I don't want players to feel like they have to memorize the rule books to play. A side effect of this, though, is that I probably need to do more to ensure that players are comfortable enough with basic combat math to have a feel for when it makes sense to attack as opposed to looking for other ways to win.

Sometimes it definitely makes sense to swing the sword. Sometimes it's the only option you really have. But often, success or failure is ultimately determined before any rolls are made at all.