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 and long bows 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 just 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.